Archive for May, 2012

Joseph was only seven years old when he was sold into slavery.  His master, Ibrihim, treated him with contempt simply because he was a Christian.  For ten years, Joseph endured Ibrihim’s torture, mocking criticism, and abuse.  One day, a local church was singing hymns.  Remembering them from his youth, Joseph went to the church to attend the service.  While he was there, the camels he was supposed to be watching escaped.  Ibrihim flew into a rage and promised Joseph that he too would be crucified.

Ibrihim beat Joseph upon the head until he was too weak to move.  Then, the cruel master drove nine inch nails through Joseph’s hands and knees to boards.  After that, he poured acid on Joseph’s legs, leaving them severely scarred.  For seven days, Joseph lay in the hot Sudan sun.  He managed to survive because Ibrihim’s son brought food and water, eventually taking him to the hospital.  Ibrihim did not see value in Joseph as a slave any longer because he was crippled from the experience.  A Christian group bought Joseph out of slavery and returned him home.  Today, he still lives with intense pain and scarring from the violence done to his body.

We can scarcely imagine enduring such an ordeal.  Granted, many of us have experienced difficulties or disappointments.  Few of us, however, could ever say that we have experienced slavery… much less physical torture.  Our sense of indignation is rightly triggered.  This young boy had done nothing.  He did not deserve such harsh treatment.  Can you imagine such torture happening to one of your children?

Such evil that Ibrihim embodies, taking advantage of defenseless and innocent persons, calls for being held accountable!  He deserves to be nailed to boards, drug out into the desert, and left to die!  What he did is not merely wrong… it’s sickening!  We hear Joseph’s plight and think that justice must be served and Ibrihim must be made to pay!

The southern kingdom of Judah during Micah’s day were living like a group of Ibrihims.  Micah paints a morbid picture: “Should you not know justice? – you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron” (Micah 3:1b-3).  This description of behavior sounds like something out of “Silence of the Lambs.”  Were they practicing cannibalism?  No, not quite… but not much better!

The fortunate, the rich, and the powerful were living off and taking advantage of the poor and the weak of society.  The lowly of the community could not protect themselves from these ravenous wolves.  They were forced out of their homes.  Justice had been perverted through bribery.  And, worst of all, priests merely preached what everyone wanted to hear… “Prosperity Gospel!”  The voice of religion was merely a megaphone for propping up a way of life that was totally opposed to God’s way of life.

Remember, God had brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt.  Providing miraculous signs and wonders, God led the people across the Sea, baptizing them as a new people.  Not only this, but God gave them the commandments for preserving life within the community.  They were to live as a reflection of God’s character and nature in the world.  The covenant that was established in Deuteronomy reminded the people that they had indeed been redeemed by God and were called to live in the Land of Promise on God’s terms.  Simply put: “Don’t be like Egypt!”

Israel was intended to live justly in the world, not as vicious overlords.  They were not to be like other nations that warred against one another, that perverted justice, or that lived in defiant disobedience to God’s design for Creation.  It was a high and lofty calling, one that needed to be taken seriously.  Living outside of God’s boundaries given in the Law invited calamity and destruction.  Nations would rise up against God’s people as a result of the curse of disobedience.  The nations would be God’s rod of discipline for their wickedness.

The northern kingdom of Israel had actually already been destroyed by the Assyrians.  The prophet Amos had warned Israel, yet they did not listen.  The wave of destruction fell upon them, sweeping them away in its wake.  Micah warns Judah that what has befallen Israel can also happen to them.  Unlike the prosperity preachers’ message, Judah is not beyond the judgment of God for their wickedness.  And, it seems like the writing is on the wall.

We almost feel ourselves cheering God on to bring calamity upon these no-good-so-and-so’s.  We pump our fists in approval.  We love it when the villains get their due.  In the movie, Taken, a young, teenage girl is kidnapped.  The movie shows us the hunt of Bryan Mills for his daughter.  Unbeknownst to the criminals, they have seriously messed with the wrong person.  Bryan is an ex-CIA agent, who was one of the most deadly agents they had ever trained.  Bryan uses all of his skills to track down the kidnappers and utterly tears them apart without mercy.  In the end, he finds his daughter and takes her home.

We get caught up in the action and the thrill of the bad guys getting what they have coming to them.  There is a sense of satisfaction that what was wrong has been righted and the world is somehow better for it.  We marvel at the hero’s tenacity, ingenuity, and determination.  But, even better… the bad guys get their due.  Justice, we say, is “served.”

Do we not expect God to do the same to the Ibrihims of life?  Isn’t it our hope that those creating such evil might finally get what’s coming to them?  I mean, let’s be honest.  Child molesters will get their due in prison… and good riddance!  Murderers will receive their reward with the poke of a needle injecting poison into their veins.  Some have even celebrated a known terrorist leaders’ “anniversary in hell.”  We are quite adamant about “justice” being served!

Yet, Micah proclaims, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession?  He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency” (Micah 7:18).  If we expected God to step onto the scene with six-shooters, a poncho, and a cigar hanging from the side of the mouth like Clint Eastwood, we will be sadly and sorely disappointed.  Instead, God acts entirely opposite to what we might expect… to what we have been encourage and told to expect.

There is no God that is like YHWH!  The gods of this world deal in retribution and spite.  They confirm the myth of “redemptive violence.”  Yet, YHWH is set apart from the gods of this world because he does not “retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing forgiveness.”  What kind of God is this YHWH?  God is the only One that “pardons our iniquity and passes over our transgressions.”  This is a God of true power!

Not only does God “pass over” or “pardon” our sin.  God does not simply turn a blind eye to our plight, to our brokenness!  God utterly crushes our iniquity.  It is destroyed, cast into the sea, done away with!  God conquers and destroys “all our sin.”  The words of Leviticus ring in our ears, “Be holy as I am holy.”  God does not leave us in our broken, sinful state.  Instead, God breaks the power of sin’s hold upon us!  God is compassionate!

Micah’s speech then shifts.  He stops talking about God and begins to speak to God!  “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.  You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old” (Micah 7:19b-20).  Micah reminds God of who God is: Covenant-Maker and Covenant-Keeper.  Micah is confident in God’s fidelity to the Covenant and to God’s people!

One of the biggest reasons people list as to why they do not want to follow the God described within the Scriptures is due to the idea of judgment.  Sometimes God appears too violent, angry, and harsh.  Martin Luther was angry at God for this very reason!  Plenty atheists claim that God does not exist, then fume against this God that appears to be overly zealous and ready to punish.  Perhaps the problem does not lie with God but with people that are all too ready to exclaim, “Turn or burn!”  To many people, it seems that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different than the God revealed in Jesus.

How is a God that judges so harshly really a compassionate and forgiving God?  We discover in this passage that God’s judgment is not simply for judgment’s sake.  Quite the opposite, in fact, for God loves to give mercy to His people!  Judgment is always for the sake of calling God’s people back into covenant-fidelity with Him!  Judgment is the means by which God might get our attention and change our direction.

As a child, I used to absolutely hate getting into trouble.  Occasionally, if I was particularly disobedient, my mother would say the words that every child dreads to hear: “Wait ‘til you father gets home.”  It was said in such calm and resolute assurance; one’s stomach began to turn inside-out and the hairs stood up on the back of the neck.  Judgment day was coming.  At the time, I could only see the unpleasant reality of that future discipline.  My foresight was limited by the predicament I had created.  I’m sure I deserved some type of punishment… but perhaps my mom had gotten carried away, her judgment clouded.  To be sure, I never was overjoyed at receiving my parents’ discipline… but I sure learned quickly what to do and what not to do.  It turns out that their discipline was for my good!

In hindsight, no pun intended, it is easier to see and understand what my parents were doing.  They weren’t thrilled to hand out punishment to their children.  They didn’t get a kick out of disciplining us.  Yet, they did discipline us so that we might grow in wisdom and understanding, so that we might learn to live in healthy ways.  Parents intuitively understand that discipline is not to cause pain, but to direct their children in the way they should go!

How much more pure and perfect is God’s discipline than that of our parents?  God uses discipline and judgment to direct us in the way we should go.  His discipline points us back to the way of living in covenant with Him and with others!  Thus, we find that God’s discipline may be painful, but in it we find life!  Micah reminds God, and us, that God’s judgment is always intended to fulfill God’s covenant promise to God’s people!

God’s judgment and discipline does not mean that God has abandoned us.  In fact, it means quite the opposite!  God is not interested in us continuously moving toward our own destruction.  Instead, like the loving parent, God steps into our lives and disciplines us to set things back right, to call us to obedience, and to re-establish God’s covenant with us!  Praise God for such steadfast love and loyalty!

Back to our story of Joseph and Ibrihim.  Joseph still has to deal with the suffering that his crucifixion causes him each day.  Physical pain is still present.  Yet, Joseph says that he has been able to forgive Ibrihim!  It is hard for me to fathom such an action.  Joseph has not taken matters into his own hands, but left them to God.  How is it possible for him to do such a thing?  Quite simply… it is because that is what God has done from the beginning!  God has always been quick to forgive, abounding in steadfast love.  This is what Joseph has discovered… and as he serves God, he knows that he is called to forgive others in the same extravagant way!

We see the perfect demonstration of this in Christ Jesus!  We were the ones like Ibrihim nailing the innocent One to some boards – the Cross.  We pierced the hands and feet of Christ with nails.  It was our sinfulness and rebellion that placed Jesus there on that Tree.  We have all shaken our fist at God, slamming the crown of thorns down upon his brow and mocking him.  We have all neglected justice for the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden.  In doing so, we have been the people yelling, “Crucify him!”  My friends, if we are honest with ourselves, we know ourselves to be little different than Ibrihim.

Yet, in the midst of our brokenness God speaks a word of hope and salvation!  God’s judgment does not have to be the final word.  Even as Joseph forgave his tormentor, Christ has forgiven us all the more!  Christ conquered sin and death through his death and resurrection.  He breathed his last words saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!”  Such Love was given to us in that moment… and in this very moment it is available to us again.  Christ offers us his forgiveness for the ways we have lived like Ibrihim.  He will cast them to the depths of the sea, if we will let him.

He is faithful and loyal to his covenant!  We have been given this new covenant in Christ’s body and blood.  It is a gift that we can freely and joyously receive from a gracious God that has pardoned our iniquity and passed over our transgressions.  God will have compassion on us, treading our iniquity under foot and tossing them to the depths of the sea.  In receiving this gift of salvation, God is simply calling us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8b).

This justice looks like caring for the poor.  It means standing up for the weak and helpless, for the orphan and the widow among us.  And, if we should find ourselves as the victim of injustice, we too must learn to forgive even as Christ has forgiven us.  May justice and mercy be the fragrance of our sacrifice lived before God.

May this be the prayer of our heart as we receive the gift of salvation that God freely offers each of us!  “And now He takes me to His heart a son.  He asks me not to fill a servant’s place.  The “Far-off country” wand’rings all are done.  Wide open are His arms of grace.  Such Love, such wondrous Love… that God should Love a sinner such as I.”  Let us sing praise to God for this wonderful gift of salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord!

There is tremendous power in our words.  With a gentle whisper we can calm a whimpering child.  In a flash of fury, we can shred the dignity of our enemies… if we would say they had any to begin with.  Words have a way of attaching themselves to people: smart, athletic, attractive, whore.  The childhood mantra: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” ring quite hollow in reality.  We know how powerful words can really be.

Words may not leave outward scars like a stone might.  But, we all have experienced the bitter sting of careless or cruel words.  Think back to how others have made a positive or negative impact with their words in your life.  How we use language shapes the world we live in.  If this is true then God really may be concerned with how we use our language.  Words have a lasting impact.  We should choose our words carefully, with eternity in mind.

World War II had not been long in action.  Leading the attack against Nazi Germany was England.  Germany turned its forces against the leader of the Allies by bombing its cities.  In the midst of such a terrible crisis, Winston Churchill made a tremendous speech that rallied the country to not give up, to muster its resolve.  Not just this, Churchill’s speech inspired England to continue to take the fight against Germany despite the devastating consequences.  We recall his famous words: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  England rallied to that call.  There is a tremendous power in words.

The power of the spoken word finds its origin in God.  After all, God spoke Creation into being with but a Word.  In shaping God’s people into a particular community, God spoke to them the Ten Words, which we call the Ten Commandments.  And, finally, God sent Jesus, the Word made flesh to communicate God’s love to a dying world.  Although we cannot create something from nothing with our words, our words no doubt have a tremendous impact on our world.

Of course, using the power of language in positive ways is always easier when things are going well and people are on your side.  It is not difficult to love those who love you and to speak words graciously to them.  But we know that life is not always pleasant and filled with pleasant people.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said to his disciples, “They have hated me, they will hate you”?  Proverbs is no more naïve than Jesus.  It recognizes that conflict, affliction, disagreement, and persecution are likely possibilities in this life.  Not only is it possible, it’s probable.

One need only think momentarily upon the various ways this is true within our world.  Political parties draw battle lines along party platforms, condemning one another for being “un-patriotic.”  Nation contends against nation, threatening violent means to achieve their own goals.  Families are ripped apart in divorce.  We argue about “correct beliefs and doctrine.”  Contention and discord seem to be a normal part of life… even within the Church walls.

The typical mode of conversation in these moments of contention involves one party demonizing the other.  Slander is the typical means by which opposition can be discredited and silenced.  If that doesn’t succeed, violence may even be used to quiet the other side.  Violence is not always physical retribution… throwing a stone or a stick.  It quite often is woven into the very fabric of our conversation.

Our natural reaction is to retaliate… fight fire with fire.  We either want to defend ourselves or something we consider to be of utmost importance or truth.  But we find that slinging mud at one another leaves everyone covered in muck.  A harsh word in such moments of conflict and confrontation is like whacking a beehive with a stick to take care of the problem.  One soon finds out that the problem has only just begun.  “A harsh word stirs up anger.”

As one modern day prophet chimed: “If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.”  The Way of Wisdom, in contrast, offers us a different course.  In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount we hear him say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the meek… blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness…   Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”  Jesus calls us not to retaliate, not to use words as weapons.  Rather, God desires our words to bring about unity, not discord.  A gentle word can turn away wrath.

In theory, it sounds easy enough.  But, in practice it always seems a bit harder.  Speaking a gentle word when I want to lash out in rage; speaking a gentle word when all I feel is the attack of my foe; speaking a gentle word when I am trying to live in a loving way and yet it is not returned.  Speaking a gentle word is not always the easy path.  But when such a word is spoken, it’s like a healing ointment for a wound, a salve that gives sight to the blind.  Gentleness spoken in the midst of harsh words can be a salve for us all, healing broken relationships.

Proverbs is not merely concerned with the tone or volume of our voice.  It does not only desire for us to speak gently.  No.  Rather, it calls for wise discourse.  Foolishness, it claims, leads to folly… and folly certainly leads to destruction.  This wise discourse goes beyond the need for knowledge.  Knowing the Scriptures is important, but it’s only part of the equation!  We are called to be discerning people.

Every year thousands of people obtain degrees in higher education.  They study hard, memorize, complete projects, write, and read.  It really has become a rite of passage for many.  However, none of us would claim that obtaining a diploma ensures that one is wise.  Wisdom is not the lack of knowledge.  But, it is the understanding on how best to use such information.

Many of us have the basic information required to operate a car or truck.  It is common knowledge that requires little technical savvy.  However, the way in which we use that information can yield wildly different results.  Driving recklessly would quickly be labeled as foolishness and folly.  Driving within the boundaries of the law would be considered wise use of the knowledge.  The difference between the two drivers is not the information they have… it is how they use it!

The Church is tremendously concerned with preserving Truth.  After all, we have been called and commissioned to preach the Gospel to all nations.  We have the “right information. “ We have all the data that is necessary for salvation that we are called to communicate to the world.  However, information alone is not enough.  We are also called to speak the Truth with wisdom.  Remember, Proverbs tells us that the “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom.

We are definitely called to speak Truth to a hurting world, but it’s always in harmony with God’s character and nature… which is Love!  Thus, we speak in moments of contention with gentleness and the “tongue of the wise makes knowledge good.”

Growing up I always hated taking certain medicines.  The taste of those particular medicines would make me cringe.  I almost preferred being sick to taking that sickening medicine.  I wasn’t sure that the cure was any better than the ailment.  But somehow the promise of something sweet added to the medicine would not only make it bearable… it could even be enjoyable.  Mary Poppins was right: “A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down.”  Wisdom in our words makes receiving truth like taking a “spoon full of sugar.”  Truth is not always easy to receive, even though it will benefit us.  But, the Truth spoken in gentleness and with wisdom can go a long way in allowing us and others to receive it gladly.

It is essential that the Church re-discovers the art of charitable, Christian discourse.  This is true for discussions that happen within the Body and in dialogue with the world.  John Wesley reminds us: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, but in all things charity.”

Of course, we sense the danger of charitable discourse is that Truth is compromised.  And, should we still despair that the Truth may be overcome by this world.  Should we fear that the Church will fail and falter in its sacred duty.  Perhaps we feel that we have not spoken the truth firmly enough and others have trampled it under foot.  Perhaps our opponents seem to have the louder voice and may sway the popular opinion in ways that we understand to be destructive.  We must keep this promise in mind: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”

There is no wickedness that escapes God’s notice.  God sees the plans of both the wicked and the good.  Let us be reminded, encouraged, and emboldened by the hope we find in God.  Truth’s endurance is not dependent upon us.  Truth does not find its bedrock in us.  There is a faithful God, whose justice will make right the evil and wickedness that assail us.  We will be preserved in the Way of Wisdom.  God is faithful to sustain us and God’s plan and purpose, even in spite of weak, fragile vessels such as we are.

The apostle Paul tells us, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”  And so we say, “Thanks be to God!”

Proverbs tells us that “a gentle tongue is a tree of life.”  But, as we mentioned before, God is the firm foundation of Truth, not our words.  If life is found in our words, it is because God has used them to bring life.  If life is found in our words, it is because they reflect the Word made flesh… God’s gentle and wise speech to us!

Jesus, the very Word and Wisdom of God, came to reveal the Truth to the world.  He came to save the world and not condemn it!  Yet, that Truth was not always embraced.  In fact, we know that many people rejected God’s Wisdom.  They scorned Christ and turned him over to be crucified by the authorities.  Yet, “darkness did not overcome” the Word made flesh!

Christ arose on the third day.  The Word and Wisdom of God prevailed and triumphed over evil and death.  God’s Truth cannot be conquered, killed, or silenced.  God’s gentle and wise speech, though we scorned and mocked it, brought us life when we received it!  When we have received salvation through the Word and Wisdom of God, our hearts cannot help but overflow with the words of praise, gratitude, and testimony for what God has done and is doing… God is making all things new!

Our lives transformed by God’s Truth also transforms our words… they are like a tree of life to those we have conversation with.  Our words become the milk and honey of God’s speech to those around us.  Let us not be those who “break the spirit” but may the words of our mouth glorify God and bring life to a dying world!

One November evening I found myself in the darkest place I could imagine.  I had never felt anything so heavy and burdensome.  The heaviness of a broken spirit weighed on me like nothing I had ever experienced before.  It felt like I was suffocating.  All I wanted to do… all I could think to do was lie down on my bed and die.  It wouldn’t take any effort.  I would merely lie down, close my eyes, and breathe my last.  Hope was an empty word and life had no meaning.  Death was the only option left, I assumed.

Collecting years of dust by my bedside, conveniently hidden beneath piles of things was my Bible.  I couldn’t even recall the last time I had cracked it open.  The pages were still crisp, smooth.  Something compelled me to grab it and let it fall open on my pillow.  The Book parted like the Red Sea to Romans, the seventh chapter.  There I read God’s gentle and wise Word to me: “O, what a wretched man I am!  Who can rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord!”  I broke.  For the first time in a long time I realized how far I had fallen and how much God still cared.

That’s only half of the story.  God led me to the Nazarene Church through the Nazarene Student Center only two weeks later.  God’s Word was ministered to me through God’s people who loved me and spoke the Truth gently and wisely to
me.  It was a tree of life for me!  There is still a world filled with “wretched” people living foolishly.  We have all been there!  But thanks be to God that God does not leave us there!  God’s Word working through us can make a real difference in the lives of those around us!

Let us place our trust in God’s faithfulness to preserve Truth, to never let it fail.  Let us rest in blessed assurance that God is the foundation, which cannot be shaken, of our faith.  May we draw upon knowledge with prayer for God’s Wisdom to instruct us how to live and speak in all wisdom and gentleness.  This is the call for us to lay down our very lives, take up our cross, and follow Christ!  May we use our words in ways that glorify the Word and Wisdom of God, who is Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior!

Let us commit to go “Deeper, Deeper” in the “love of Jesus… and higher in the school of wisdom, More of grace to know.  Take me deeper still, Till my life is wholly lost in Jesus and His perfect will.”  Let us sing, trusting in God together and go speaking the Truth in gentleness and in wisdom.