Yet, even now

Joel 1:1-3:21

Joel’s word from the Lord opens with a dire warning. I had to look up the context of the book and I learned that it was written after a massive natural disaster: locusts that consumed everything (insightforliving.org). Joel starts by telling the people to remember this disaster, and to prepare for even worse. The nation of Judah (southern part of Israel) was persistent in idolatry and disobedience to the Law. Joel used the natural disaster as a call to repentance before God’s wrath was fully unleashed. “For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11.) Destruction will be swift and violent and utterly complete as God unleashes His righteous judgment on the nations. The worst natural disaster will not compare to the day of the Lord. “Yet even now” chapter 2 verse 12 begins. God always offers a path of restoration and reconciliation. He calls His people to return to Himself. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (2:13). In that time, if the people repented and returned, God would stay His hand.

Then Joel jumps to the future, to a time when God will display His power and fully restore His people and His kingdom. Part of that restoration came during Pentecost, when the Spirit of the Lord appeared as tongues of fire (Acts 2). In Jesus, there is hope for all of humanity, for “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” ( Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13). Part of the prophecy is yet to come: the final and ultimate judgment of evil on this earth. In that day, the Lord will roar from Zion and heavens and earth will quake, but He will be a refuge for His people (Joel 3:16; Revelation 6:1 -7:17). So what is the word of Joel to people in the 21st century? The same as it was in 834 BCE: Wake up! If you think things are bad now, just wait. The people of Judah were devastated by the disaster of the locusts; we may feel devastated by the politics and divisions and injustices around us, seeing no hope for a future.


And yet, even now, God offers a lifeline: For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

And there is a lifeline for believers, too: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

When we look around and feel despair because the world around us is falling apart (because in many ways it is), we know we have a refuge. If we are part of the problem, we have an invitation to run to the Father who loves us so much. In Him we find sanctuary and shelter from the battles of the ages. We know we can abide in Him!

One last thing

Galatians 6

Paul is adamant that the Galatians get his point: what you do doesn’t save you, only Jesus. However, salvation is not an excuse to be useless; there is still good work that needs to be done. The work isn’t the issue, but our reason for doing the work matters.

If we participate in church traditions or work to make the world better with the idea that our good deeds will outweigh our sins, we are mistaken. If it were possible for us to redeem ourselves, the cross means nothing! The only thing that reconciles us to the Creator is becoming a new creation in Christ.

Good work cannot save us. Good work is the response to God for His grace and mercy We should never tire of doing good (v 9). We are supposed to live out our lifes pursuing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly, not for our benefit, but for God’s glory.

Paul felt so strongly about the difference between working for salvation and working from salvation that he took the pen from the scribe and wrote it himself. That would be the equivalent of moving from texting to a phone call. It’s a move that says, “Pay attention. This is important. “

Do good for God’s glory.
Work from salvation, not for it.
Do justly.
Love mercy.
Walk humbly.
Keep in step.

Galatians

For the next few days I will ponder the book of Galatians.

Paul opens this letter with his credentials. As a scholar, I understand the importance of leading with my resume. If people are going to pay attention to my scholarship, I have to demonstrate my expertise early. That demonstration is also tailored to the audience. For me, especially right now as I look for work closer to home, it’s a matter of tailoring my cover letters to the job postings at universities. (I love my work and colleagues at UNLV, but it’s a long commute from Atlanta.) For Paul, it was a matter of reminding the Galatians that his authority was not based on his scholarship or birthright, but through Jesus Christ Himself.


Once Paul identifies his credentials, he opens with the gospel: the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us (1:4). Paul grounds what is to come in the foundation of the gospel. Paul is not about to lay down his opinion, but the plain truth. The age is evil, Jesus delivers us from it, and God gets the glory. Grace and peace are only available through the truth.

Paul was astonished (v 8) at how quickly the Galatians adopted a distorted and cheapened gospel. He may have been astonished, but Jesus explained in Matthew 13 that there would be people who turned away from Him and those who would be confused by other teachings. It still happens. There are still people who want to use christianity (lower case intentional) for their own glory and prestige. The prosperity doctrine teachers are the most obvious in this age. They teach a false gospel the Jesus wants everyone to be healthy and wealthy (but never wise). That may sound good, but it’s not Biblical. Jesus was clear that believers would suffer and struggle and live in dark times. He said he would send the Holy Spirit as a guide and comforter, but never did he say that life would be comfortable (John 14:25-31). 

While the prosperity doctrine is fairly easy to recognize, I think that there are two more dangerous false teachings that find their ways into mainline and evangelical churches. I call them the gospels of extremes. On one side are the legalists who focus almost exclusively on laws, commandments, and admonitions found throughout the Bible. On the other end are the liberalists who teach only mercy and grace without dealing with the consequences of sin. Both extremes misrepresent the true gospel: all have sinned (Romans 3), sin leads to death (Romans 2), redemption is through Christ alone (Romans 3, 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1), and eternal reconciliation with God is established in Jesus (Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 2, 2 Corinthians 5). Focusing on the laws of the Bible diminishes the work of mercy and love. Focusing on the grace of God diminishes His holiness, righteousness, and justice. The gospel is both mercy and justice, perfectly integrated in the person of Jesus. The gospel is neither a feel-good story nor a condemnation of people.


When we talk to others we must remain grounded in the gospel
in all of its fullness and mystery. Before we speak of any spiritual thing, we ought to pray, May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Then, we can speak as servants of Christ and God will be glorified.

Let justice roll

January 21, 2020

There are some days when I don’t have a solid plan for my Bible study. Having just finished Habakkuk, today was one of those days. Perhaps it was the recollection Dr. ML King’s work during yesterday’s holiday, but my eyes landed on Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” And I found my lesson there.

Whenever a passage begins with “but” I go back to see the what behind it. In this case, God declared that He was not the least bit interested in rote traditions or cultural religion. In fact, He said He hated, despised, and would not look at them. He would not listen to the music, nor would He accept the offerings that came out of routine.

So I started thinking. (A dangerous pastime, I know.) What does cultural religion look like today? Why do we go to church? Is it to get out of the house? Social time (churchified as “fellowship”)? Securing a position or reputation? Because it makes us look good or feel good? To check off some imaginary box?


God is not impressed with our church attendance, our offerings, our preferred musical styles, our mission trips, or our outreaches. He wants our hearts to be connected to His will. It is so easy to fall into the habit of church and forget the mission.

Habakkuk was able to choose joy because he knew God. When we stop pursuing God, church becomes a cultural habit. Unless we actively pursue God, we will not be able to choose joy in difficult days. We will always pursue something, and if not the Lord, then what? Satisfaction? Security? Self-worth? If we go to church pursuing these things, we will not find peace or rest. We will become increasingly discontent, which leads to increasing self-centeredness.


Pursuing God means knowing His character (something we should be learning at church) and focusing on His kingdom, which manifests by the ways in which we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8). When we love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength we can truly love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). THEN we can work for His Name to promote justice until it rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Solitary

He stands at the window, looking as far in the distance as his aging eyes can see. The roads twists away to his left, toward a trade route that branches out in all the directions of the wind. As always, the road is empty in this early morning hour, just before the sun breaks the horizon behind him and long shadows begin to darken the road as he looks on. He bows his head and whispers, “blessed is he who is the true judge” before turning away from the view of the empty road and beginning the work of the day.

The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) may be one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. It has been represented in art, film, stage, music, television, and literature. Some scholars have argued that Rambrant’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” may be the greatest painting of all time (Gregory, 2019; Welton, 2018), not just because it is a technical masterpiece, but also because it evokes feelings of grace and forgiveness like few other paintings do. The story is consistently listed in “top ten” parables on both sacred and secular websites. It is a story about a father, his two sons, and the consequences of repentance and forgiveness.

As literature, the younger son is the most fleshed out of the characters, which is why we know the story as The Prodigal Son. He is young, reckless, demanding, and spoiled, but he learns that his life choices lead to disaster, and he humbly returns home, willing to be a slave to his father. The elder son is also rounded out enough to be recognizable as the person who dutifully checks all the boxes of expectation. His flaw is in his assumption that checking all the boxes is enough to earn his father’s love. When the prodigal returns home, this elder brother is aghast at how the father receives the younger. He is indignant, and even envious of the father’s lavish forgiveness.

The father is humanized in his response to the sons: rejoicing at the return of the younger, and reasoning against the anger of the elder. There is no doubt that he loves both sons and wants his family to be unified.

What is missing from the story is the father’s life between the prodigal’s leaving and his return. The younger son’s exploits are described by Jesus as reckless living and extravagance until the money ran out, the friends disappeared, and the only job for which the son was qualified was maintaining pens of pigs. The elder son tells his own story, reminding his father that he had worked hard the whole time the younger was gone and that he had foregone even the smallest entertainment in order to ensure all the work was done. The father, however, has no such explication of his activities, thoughts, or worries during the time his younger son was absent.

When I was rereading the story, one verse jumped out at me: ” 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” I’ve read and heard this parable dozens of times, but when thinking about how the Church can respond to parents, I stopped at the phrase, “while he was still a long way off.” The only way the father could have seen the son from a distance was if he had been watching for him.

Watching and waiting. Like so many people whose children have wandered away from the principles their parents instilled in them, this father continued to watch the road for his son’s return long after everyone else had given him up for dead. There’s no indication exactly how long the son had been gone, but it was multiple years (verse 29). Still, the father watched for his son’s return, ever hopeful that his prayers would be answered.

This is the challenge for parents who live with children who leave the faith. They cling to the promises that God will redeem those who placed their trust in Him, and that those whom they had trained in the path of God’s will will ultimately return to it. As the year pass, the prayers for restoration get lonelier. It becomes harder and harder to share with other believers the grief of a child who is absent in spirit because there is no quick answer or visible return-on-investment for the prayer of reconciliation. Over time, the friends who prayed fervently when the child first left the faith family stop talking about the subject, partly because they run out of platitudes and they don’t know what to say or do. Other times parents are judged for the wandering of the children; they must have done something wrong for the child to walk away from the faith. The solitary father in the parable watched and waited for years. There is no mention of a wife, friend, or even another child to share the pain of watching an empty road. Likewise, parents of modern prodigals face a lonely vigil as the years pass without a joyful reconciliation. The question for our time is this: how can the community of believers come alongside the lonely without judgement, pity, or unsolicited advice?