I am calling this the Psalm of “no matter what.” As I read it this morning, all I could think was that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39). In this psalm, David lists all the ways God is with us no matter what.
Verses 2-3 No matter what, God knows exactly what is happening to and around us. V.4 No matter what, we have access to the temple of God. V.5 No matter what, God will protect us. V.6 No matter what, we can choose joy. Vv. 7-10 No matter what, God will not abandon us. V 11. No matter what, He will teach us V. 12 No matter what, God is GOOD. V. 13 No matter what, we can be strong in the waiting.
Wow! Of whom shall we we afraid indeed? (Psalm 27:1; Romans 8:31)
“Hope does not put us to shame.” (ESV) What does that mean? Why should hope be shameful?
I pondered this notion until I realized that it happens all the time. Social media posts about prayer become targets for ridicule. Hopeful people are sometimes treated like they don’t know or don’t care about human suffering. Sharing good news gets contradicted by “but what about.”
The hope here is not a blithe Pollyanna response to life and its hardships. It does not ignore the realities of suffering. It does not belittle fear. It understands that people can be cruel, bigoted, and unjust. However, this hope DOES allow us to recognize God at work.
This hope allows believers to act in love in spite of the evil around us. Hope encourages us to reach out to those who suffer with compassion. Hope lets us come alongside others and walk with them through the challenges of living in this world.
In short, hope produced by character through enduring suffering with joy opens the way for God to work in us and through us for His glory. How? He works in and through because we are grounded in His love instead of our fear. God’s love pours into our hearts and we act out of His love.
Rejoice in suffering. Now that sounds fun. Don’t we have enough to deal with right now with pandemic and racism and Zoom fatigue and hurricanes and wildfires? And we have to be joyful about it?
In a word, yes. We don’t need to be happy about suffering, but we can choose joy over anger, bitterness, and dwelling in misery. Suffering has a role to play in our lives. The most important thing suffering can do is drive us to the Father (James 1:2-5). That alone should be a sufficient reason to choose joy in the middle of the mayhem.
Paul added that suffering produces endurance. As a runner, I get that. I suffer through long runs on hot and humid days so that I get a stronger and faster and able to go a little farther than ever before. Look at how much we have learned the last six months. We have not gathered together at church or small groups, but we have learned to stay connected in other ways. I look forward to attending services as much as anyone, but I also see the value of having to be intentional in community. When social club church is shut down, deep and powerful ministry can be unleashed.
Suffering isolation teaches us how much we need each other. We can endure almost anything together, but when we must fully rely on the Father we witness His faitfulness in new and exciting ways. That should motivate us to choose joy.
In choosing joy, we need to come alongside those who struggle in the hard time. We can use technology to send a quick message. We can make a phone call. We can mail a letter. We can order groceries or flowers or any number of things online and ship them to the people we know who need a hug. In enduring hardship with joy, we have an opportunity to be the light in the darkness that Jesus calls us to be.
We have peace with God because Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebrews 5:9.) What does this mean? It means we have ACCESS to grace and JOY in hope no matter what our circumstances may be.
We stand on a foundation of salvation because Jesus did the work on our behalf (Titus 3:5.) Our faith means we have unfettered access to the very throne of the Creator in both good times and hard times (Hebrews 4:16.)
We are justified, not by what we do, but by faith in the grace of God (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8-9.) Hard times happen to everyone. Sometimes, like with a pandemic or natural disasters, the hard times are shared by communities. Other times, the struggle is an individual one where suffering seems magnified because the world keeps moving forward. Isolation increases suffering.
In faith, however, we have hope because we can be assured that God is with us. That hope gives us the freedom to rejoice, even in the worst of times. Grace to faith to hope to joy: this is the progression of the believers’ mindset in all times. In good times and hard times, God is with us.
We are justified by faith; Jesus did the work. What a beautiful reminder that we can rest in knowing our salvation is already worked out for us. In this ever changing world we can have peace with God, not by our own doing, but because Jesus did.
Today is Labor Day. It is a good day to remember Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.”(ESV). The Voice paraphrase says, ” Be still, be calm, see, and understand I am the True God.” The Passion translation interprets the Hebrew as, ” Surrender your anxiety! Be silent and stop striving and you will see that I am God.” The Message hits the point home, ” Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.”
We all need the reminder that it is by grace we are saved and by faith we are justified. We don’t have to earn our way into God’s love; He loved us first.
For many of us COVID19 quarantines are beginning to lift. More people are out and about, some businesses are reopening, and churches are making plans to start modified gatherings for worship. For some people the reopening of society is a relief; for others it represents a new kind of uncertainty. The cultural narrative changes almost every day: wear a mask or not, dine in at a restaurant or not, return to school classrooms or not. When the experts are divided, the opinions of non-experts become battlegrounds for argument, mud-slinging, sweeping generalizations, insults, and fear-mongering. The cultural narrative also infects the Church.
We are human. We fail to consider the impact of our words. We lose patience when we feel like we are not being heard or understood. We lash out in frustration with those who disagree with us. Real life can be aggravating. It’s real enough under normal circumstances, but aggravation seems to be elevated when our communication is limited to social media, text, and the occasional video chat meeting.
When we find ourselves consistently feeling annoyed with other people, it may be time to refocus our attention. The psalmist in this section is in the middle of an affliction, insulted by the indolent, and indignant about the evil he sees. He doesn’t wallow in self-pity or frustration. Instead, he turns to the unchanging promises of God. The Word gives him life and hope, and comfort.
Hope and blessing (joy) are inextricably woven with focusing on the Word of the Father in hard times, uncertain times, and in pleasant times. No circumstance changes God. No wickedness or folly of humankind changes God. God’s unshakable promise gives life when we sing His statutes and keep His precepts. When our focus is right we are able to be kind in our words to each other. We can avoid being part of the uncertainty that induces chaos. We can keep our mouths shut when we should and we can avoid feeling insulted by others. Our source of validation is Jesus. We can be confident that He is the same no matter what is happening on earth. His Word is enough.
There is a clear and distinct connection between God’s love and God’s law; they co-exist. Our testimony as believers is rooted in how we both reconcile and live out both love and law. It’s recursive: the law shows us our utter helplessness to be holy, His love provided our salvation, and our appropriate response is to meditate and speak on the law while proclaiming His love through actions. It should be no surprise that James wrote that faith without works is dead (James 2:17).
We study the Word so that we may have answers to our questions and for those who question us (regardless of their motives). Keeping the law is worked out by our lived experiences and our words (2 Timothy 2:15, 4:2; James 1:22). The more we study the law, the more we understand the depth of God’s love for us, and the quicker we are to see His hand at work in whatever situation we find ourselves. We are able to speak the truth in love when we begin by lifting our hands to God’s commandments and meditating on His statutes.
I wrote in the margin of my Bible, “Love led to salvation. Law leads to answers. Both should be proclaimed without hesitation or shame. It is Lord in whom we live and breathe and have our being (Acts 17:28). It is the Lord Christ whom we serve (Colossians 3:23). His law is perfect (Psalm 19:7) and His love never fails (1 Corinthians 13: 1-13).
I am a pragmatic philosopher at heart. While it’s interesting to consider all the possibilities of all possible worlds in time and space, at the end of the day, I want what is useful. So did James. As the brother of Jesus he was skeptical until after the resurrection. I mean, having a big brother who was the long promised Messiah makes little sense to the pragmatist who expected Messiah to be a political force. But, skeptical pragmatists follow evidence, and James became one of the leaders in Jerusalem’s early church.
This epistle was written somewhere around the time of the Jerusalem Council of 50 AD (CE). By this time in history, the first Herod Agrippa (the one who imprisoned Peter in Acts 12) was dead, and the province of Judah was increasingly under Roman control. (Romans destroyed the Temple in 70, and both Jewish and Christian people were dispersed.) It was not an easy time to be a Jesus follower. The church was under attack by the Roman authorities and Jewish leaders. To make it worse, the church was also divided from within, between those who blended the Old Covenant with the New, and those Gentiles who only followed the New Covenant. You can read the whole debate in Acts 15.
The context for this letter (as with everything) is important. The believers who were James’ audience were feeling pressure from all sides: religious, cultural, economic, and political. They were fearful and discouraged, and not sure what to make of the chaos. When James opened with “Count it all joy,” he recognized their level of disquiet and gave them a different perspective.
We are living in uncertain times. It makes sense that we feel uncomfortable, uncertain, or unable to process the chaos that COVID19 is causing. James reminds us that we can choose joy. Joy is not a reaction to circumstances, but a response in circumstances. Trials in many forms are not optional; they are part of living in this world. Choosing joy in the middle of chaos lets us see the sovereignty of God so that our faith will grow. We become steadfast in faith, rooted in hope, and abounding in love.
At the church I attend here in Las Vegas we are working through a study of what it means to be a Jesus follower. This morning’s reading included then section of Matthew where Jesus walked on water. I went back a few verses for context and I think someone who reads this may find comfort.
Matthew relates how Jesus taught crowds and crowds of people. 5000 men did not include the women and children there who listened to His teaching and received healing. I’ve heard estimates of up to 20,000 individuals gathered there by the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Tiberius). No matter the number, it was a lot of people in close proximity. In this particular case, evening came and the people grew hungry but didn’t want to miss Jesus. Instead of letting them go, Jesus told the disciples to feed them. And they did. Five loaves of bread and two fish become enough to feed everyone to satisfaction with 12 baskets left over.
Immediately after, Jesus told the disciples to take the boat across the lake while he dismissed the crowds. There’s no word about how long that took, but when then people dispersed, Jesus went to the mountain alone to pray. Jesus took the time he needed to isolate himself for time with the Father.
In the meantime, a storm broke out over the lake. It’s a big lake, and pop up storms are common. Many of the disciples were familiar with the sea and its storms, but evidently, this one was exceptionally strong. As the men are rowing with all their might to maintain control of the boat, they looked up. There was Jesus, walking on the water.
WALKING ON THE WATER IN THE STORM.
The disciples couldn’t believe what they saw, but Jesus called out to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid. “
It is I. Do not be afraid.
Maybe this current pandemic feels like the most terrifying storm you have ever seen. You feel like you are in the middle of it, rowing with all your might just so you won’t capsize.
You are not alone. “Take heart,” Jesus said. “Do not be afraid.” Whether it’s feeding a crowd or walking on a raging sea, Jesus is with us. Trust. Breathe. Pray. Love. Help one another. He’s got this.
So, one might think Jonah would get excited when the whole city of Nineveh repented of their violence and false religions. But no. Jonah was ticked off. Why? Because he decided the God was too gracious, too merciful, too patient, and too loving. He certainly didn’t think so when he was surrounded by digestive juices! But this was Jonah’s problem- and often ours.
We tend to think that God loves us for our sakes. We are good, so God loves us. Evil people aren’t worthy of God’s love and mercy. Jonah was so mad he said he would be better off dead (again.) We may not go that far, but do we (I absolutely include myself) truly rejoice when God works in a mighty way for someone else? Someone that we don’t think deserves it? It’s one of the dangers of check-box Christianity: we think that because we perform X, we are more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than someone who doesn’t.
That’s not God’s view. God’s ways are so much higher than ours that we can’t possibly understand His work (Isaiah 55:8-9). Jesus told Peter to focus on his own work and not be in John’s business (John 21:22). As believers, our responsibility is to work out (not for) our salvation and do the work he laid out for us individually (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:12-13).
God gave Jonah the object lesson of a plant. When Jonah huffed and puffed his way out of the city, certain that their repentance would be short-lived, God made a plant grow up overnight to give Jonah shade. The plant pleased Jonah, and he sat back to watch the destruction of his enemies. But God then cause the plant to die off and blow away on hot desert winds, which again made Jonah want to die. God then pointed out that Jonah was more interested in the plant than the people of Nineveh. And then we hear no more of Jonah. There isn’t an explanation of what happened to him, but he doesn’t show up anymore as a prophet.
I have to wonder. If his attitude was that the people of Nineveh did nor deserve God’s mercy even AFTER all that God did for him, how could he continue to speak for the Lord? Or maybe he did get himself together and become part of Nineveh’s culture, showing them how to worship God. Could be either. Or neither. Eventually Nineveh is destroyed for good, so their repentance didn’t endure, but God extended every opportunity. He still does.
For those who are believers, the question remains, are we motivated to do the work God appointed for us to do out of love for the Father or out of duty to some invisible check list? Our attitudes do not keep God from working, but they do prevent us from enjoying His work. I don’t know about you, but I would rather be part of God’s work cheerfully and experience the joy that comes in walking with Jesus.