Herod or Amos

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

I’ve made no secret of my disgust over the current state of politics in the United States of America. A casual browse through social media will tell you all you need to know about that. I also haven’t tried to hide my growing distaste for the way Christians across the country are responding to the situation we find ourselves in. (A situation we made for ourselves, if we’re choosing to be honest today). Clearly we (very much in the general sense of the term) have chosen to prioritize fleeting political power over preaching the Gospel. What other conclusion can be made when pastors waste their breath defending sexual predators and some who should know far better compare the President to Jesus? Worse yet and outrageously, we have the gall to act surprised and upset when someone calls us on our blatant, transparent hunger for power and disregard for the morality we claim to live by.

We love to cluck our tongues and shake our heads when reading the Gospels. Those Sadducees, we think. All they wanted was money. And, oh, those Pharisees. They just wanted to control people. Jesus was so right to put them all in their places.

We shouldn’t be so smug.

And we’d do well to read the book of Amos.

The LORD roars from Zion,
And utters His voice from Jerusalem;
The pastures of the shepherds mourn,
And the top of Carmel withers.

– Amos 1:2 (NKJV)

Let that chill your bones for a second. The Lord roars. He’s not happy. He’s not smiling. He’s not cute. He’s not something you can hold to the side.

The dominant message of the book of Amos is the proclamation of judgment upon Israel by Yahweh their God because of their oppression of the poor. The book of Amos accuses them of “sell[ing] the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6); of crushing the needy (4:1); of abusing the legal processes held in the town gate for the improper acquisition of large estates (5:10-11); and of indulging in merrymaking, all the while taking no responsibility while the community was breaking apart (6:1-7). …

Amos criticizes his hearers’ confidence that the sanctuaries and their sacrificial cult would gain them Yahweh’s approval. Amos uses the very language of the cult itself, but with satirical tone, to poke fun at his hearers’ reliance upon the sanctuaries, to show that Yahweh desires justice and righteousness more than sacrifice, and to proclaim the end of the cultic centers (see 4:4-5; 5:4-7, 21-24).

Asbury Bible Commentary, emphasis mine

Look at us, all fat and happy. Sitting up in our clean little church buildings, quite content with ourselves. Raising our voices neither in praise nor repentance, but in clamor, railing against the “liberals” or “conservatives” (whoever they are and whatever those terms mean) and how they are “destroying this country” and “we need to take it back.” We shake our fists to the rallying cry of “what about…?!” We turn blind eyes to sin and excuse failings of character because that politician might just give us whatever it is that we want in this moment.

…they sell the righteous for silver,
And the poor for a pair of sandals.
They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor,
And pervert the way of the humble.
A man and his father go in to the same girl,
To defile My holy name.
They lie down by every altar on clothes taken in pledge,
And drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god.

– Amos 2:6b-8 (NKJV)

We like to think that we’re so much better than the people we read about in the Bible.

We’re exactly the same.

With few exceptions, the prophets were sent to the people of God. To the people who knew better. Their messages, from the mouth of God Himself, were meant to slap them across the face. To shake them out of their self-indulgent stupor. To cause them to look up instead of down. To grab them by the hair so hard that they couldn’t help but notice the pain.

This is a side of God that we like to ignore. We like to focus on His gentleness and love. So we fail to realize that the hair-grabbing and face-slapping are acts of love. He is broken-hearted. He is justly angry. He wants His people to wake up, to get over themselves, to move beyond this whiny, annoying, petulant phase.

Because they have work to do. Because they are so much more.

Ancient Israel was meant to shine the light of God out into the dark world, just as the church is meant to do today. Just as they did, we have forgotten our purpose. We are so focused on achieving societal dominance through laws and slogans and slick marketing that we fail to tell people about Jesus. We fail in the one mission we have.

For behold,
He who forms mountains,
And creates the wind,
Who declares to man what his thought is,
And makes the morning darkness,
Who treads the high places of the earth—
The LORD God of hosts is His name.

– Amos 4:13 (NKJV)

Let that chill your bones for a second. How is it that we can possibly be so small-minded as to believe that God, who spoke all there is into existence, won’t notice that we’ve gotten so far off course as to be in another country entirely?

In two weeks we celebrate Christmas. We pause and again reflect on the miracle of God Come to Earth. In our reflections, let us consider this commentary on Matthew 2:

The contrast between Herod and Jesus centers upon the question of kingship. Matthew introduces the theme of kingship at the outset of the chapter: The wise men ask Herod where the king of the Jews has been born (2:2), Jesus is indirectly identified as a ruler (v. 6), and Matthew repeatedly refers to Herod as the king (vv. 1, 39). Matthew thus directs our attention to two types of king and two types of kingdom: the kingship of Herod versus the kingship of Jesus.

The kingship of Herod is presented in harsh terms. His tyrannical rule is characterized by an all-consuming desire to preserve his own status and power. Herod will stop at nothing, including the murder of innocent children, to realize his self-serving goals.

The nature of Jesus’ kingship, on the other hand, is defined by the word from Micah quoted in 2:6: He will be “the shepherd of my people Israel.” He is the gentle and loving Ruler of his people, who, like a shepherd, saves his people from destruction. Specifically, Jesus reigns as King over his people by dying for them (27:11, 29, 37), thereby saving them from their sins (1:21; cf. 20:28). The contrast with Herod could not be more pronounced: Jesus gives his life for the sake of others; Herod takes the lives of others for his own sake.

This tension between the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Jesus points to the conflict between the kingdom of this world (i.e., the desire for power and self-rule on the part of evil persons everywhere) and the kingdom of God. The passage challenges readers to reflect upon the character of their own lives in order to determine whether the spirit and attitude of Herod (an attitude of militant self-rule) is present to any degree in their hearts. Those readers who see a bit of Herod in themselves will soon encounter a word of challenge and hope: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2; 4:17).

We get to choose: Herod or Amos? The kingdom of this world or the Kingdom of God?

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Photo Credit: Pawan Sharma
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Five Minute Friday: Only

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

The day was bright and clear, yet three layers were required for a mid-morning walk around the neighborhood. There were no birds or squirrels about. The one dog that crossed my path didn’t look particularly happy to be out for a jaunt with its owner. I imagine the ice-cold pavement wouldn’t feel good on even the most calloused of paws.

Kate says: only.

Go.

Only seven more days until Star Wars: the Last Jedi hits theaters.

Not that anyone in my house is counting.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. … For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

– Proverbs 14:12; Galatians 5:13 (NKJV)

We like to think the proverb applies to non-Christians. If that were true, Paul wouldn’t have written that sentences in his letter. Salvation doesn’t equal an immediate abundance of wisdom. We’re still human. We still get caught up on our own wants and ways.

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers uses the phrase “enlightened common sense” when examining 1 Thessalonians 5:21. These three words are broadly applicable to our lives. We must use the common sense that God gave us, enlightened and reshaped by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to determine whether an on-the-surface right action really is right. Does it make sense? Is this the way we should go?

All too often we rush into things that seem good – the way that seems right to us – only to find that the goodness wasn’t so good after all. Instead of seeking His will and doing it, we assume that what we already want must be His will. To be fair, sometimes it is. Usually, it isn’t.

We must practice the pause. When an idea, thought, plan or vision pops into our heads, it’s best to stop. Examine. Think it through. Lay it out before God. Rushing and pushing and forcing will only cause heartache and trouble. We must learn to use the liberty we have in Christ – our freedom from sin, our freedom to serve – in ways that please Him. To please Him, we must seek Him. That means getting still and being quiet.

If the idea, thought, plan or vision is part of the work He has for us to do, He’ll confirm that. If there is no confirmation, then let it go. Just let it go.

Stop.

Now for something completely different.

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Photo Credit: Jens Lelie

Tenderhearted

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

For the first time that I can remember, someone described me as being tender. Sensitive, even. This person seemed to think that these are good, positive character traits.

I do not like this.

Many have wondered if I have emotions. There have been jokes throughout the years about how I must be a robot. I must be some kind of frost princess. And now, someone perceives me in an entirely different way. Those few sentences have acted like a needle, the bearer of which reached in and popped my protective bubble. All of these…feelings…threaten to spill out.

It’s awful.

Anger, I can do. Righteous or otherwise. Anxious and depressed, obviously. But to put words to those emotions, to say, “So-and-so hurt my, ugh, feelings”? To say, “Please stop doing _________, I don’t like it”?

Yikes.

Vulnerability. No, thank you.

I’ll take stoicism for $500, Alex.

Those of us who have been around church for any length of time have heard one of the most famous verses having to do with the heart:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?

– Jeremiah 17:9 (NKJV)

From this, we gather that we cannot “follow our hearts” as is so often encouraged in movies. We learn

There is nothing so false and deceitful as the heart of man; deceitful in its apprehensions of things, in the hopes and promises which it nourishes, in the assurances that it gives us . . . The constant yearning of the heart is to gratify its propensities to pride, ambition, evil desire, and corruption of all kinds.

Asbury Bible Commentary

I know that my heart (or, in our modern understanding, my mind) plays tricks on me. There’s a reason I take medication every night. I am a living, breathing example of a human’s inability to jump on, without question, every line of thought and every train of feeling. I have to critically examine those thoughts and feelings. We all do.

The heart, which the ancients understood to be the decision-making center, is not to be blindly trusted. This is not a false statement, but as is so often the case, we take the truth and run with it until we wind up in Legalism Land. Never let them see you cry. Put a brave face on. If you’re sad, you’re sinning. 

We have read something into the text that isn’t there.

Consider these verses, so often glossed over:

 Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the LORD; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.

Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart.

– Jeremiah 24:7; Jeremiah 29:13; Matthew 22:37; 2 Corinthians 4:1 (NKJV)

Feelings should not, and really cannot, be divorced from faith, or any other part of our lives.

The lights twinkle on the Christmas tree, casting a soft glow throughout the room. Candles flicker next to the Willow Tree figurines. Mary and Joseph, shielding the newborn Savior. She looks as though she pats His back in order to soothe Him. He wraps his arms around them both.

Who was ever more vulnerable than Jesus? The King of Glory, knowing exactly what was going to happen, wrapped Himself in frail flesh. He had no delusions of a quiet life. Never had a moment when He believed He’d die in His bed, at a good old age. Who better than He ever showed us how to connect with and express our emotions in healthy ways? He cried as a baby. Cried when His friend died. Cried when the people wouldn’t listen. Flipped some tables and yelled, too.

Feelings are God-given. No, we can’t obey them. I can’t slap my husband just because he makes me angry. But we shouldn’t ignore them. We shouldn’t buy into the notion that the only acceptable feeling a Christian may experience is happiness. If my husband makes me angry, I need to open my mouth and tell him why. Tell him what’s bothering me, what hurts me. (Without swearing, which, let’s be real, is a struggle).

We don’t want to be hurt. I don’t want to be hurt. We think that putting on the mask, bearing the abuse, never speaking up, will somehow make it better. Somehow make us impervious to damage. The act doesn’t work. The feelings remain. They grow. They intensify. Then, one day, if you’re anything like me, you find yourself throwing a glass across the kitchen, sobbing for reasons that you can’t begin to identify.

I am tenderhearted. A large part of me recoils in typing that. I may not reveal this tenderness in conventional or easily-understood ways, but nonetheless, it’s true. I can’t read books or watch movies that involve animal death. My heart burns over the idiotic choices so-called Christian leaders make these days. I panic in crowds. Behind this tough outer shell lies a gooey center.

Perhaps this is who you are, too, dear reader. Perhaps you’ve worked very hard so nobody but the Lord ever sees your tears. If so, be brave with me. I suspect there may be new experiences of strength and grace found in taking down the wall and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.

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Photo Credit: Jamez Picard

Five Minute Friday: Excuse

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Most of the time, I eat healthy.

Sometimes, I get very anxious and eat an unspecified number of Cheez Its.

Ah, humanness.

No wonder that an element of Spirit Fruit is self-control. We just can’t muster that stuff up on our own. Oh, we might do well for awhile. But the urge to run wild is always there, simmering just beneath the surface.

Kate says: excuse.

Go.

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse…

– Romans 1:20 (NKJV)

Some Bible verses make us deeply uncomfortable. This has to be one of them. Even though we who believe know, down in the core of ourselves, that God alone can save us and set us free, and even though we want everyone we love to possess that same knowing, the idea that those who turn away from God are without excuse is…striking, to say the least.

Anapológētos: without defense or excuse; that which cannot be defended; inexcusable.

I really don’t have any desire to look at people who don’t believe and say, “Your position is indefensible. At the end of the day, no matter what you come up with, the plain fact, the unavoidable truth, is that God is real and His made His presence known in every sunset, in the first snow of the year, in the scent of hibiscus blooms.”

…because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

– 1:21 (NKJV)

Paul bluntly tells his readers that those who shun God have to actively suppress the truth within themselves. It is a choice. They already have ginṓskō (to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel) but instead of diving deeper into wisdom, they become mataióō (to make empty, vain, foolish) and asýnetos (unintelligent, without understanding, stupid).

Professing to be wise, they became fools…

– 1:22 (NKJV)

Paul’s really good at twisting the knife, isn’t he?

We all know that things often get worse before they get better. So it is with reading the Bible. We can’t get to the good stuff – how God loves us, how we’re made with care, how we have a unique mission – until we look at the bad stuff. We have to acknowledge just how willfully stupid we and the world systems around us are.

Which means acknowledging that anyone who says “there is no God” is willfully stupid.

Ugh.

I don’t want to approach anyone from that standpoint. I doubt you do, either. We’d all like to believe in the basic goodness of humanity, no matter how many Sunday School lessons we’ve heard about our utter wretchedness. We’d really, really like universalism to be true. But we don’t have a leg to stand on with that. Scripture just doesn’t give us permission to sugarcoat, water down, or beat around any bushes. We have to speak plainly. We have to speak boldly.

We have to because we don’t want anyone to walk around in darkness. We don’t want them to make the wrong choice. We don’t want them to think they have lots of good reasons and excuses.

We want them up in the lifeboat, next to us.

So why is this so hard? Why is it so incredibly difficult, for me at least, to open up and say the words? Why do we care more about people liking us and not offending anyone than doing all that we can to help them to bend their knees and cry out to Jesus?

Why do we – I – so often let fear rule the day?

Is God really our – my – God? Have we – I – exchanged

…the glory of the incorruptible God (for an) image made like corruptible man…

– 1:23 (NKJV)

Stop.

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Addendum, 11/20/17: We FMF people are not really supposed to go back and edit these things. However, I do feel the need to say that “stupid” wasn’t the best choice of words, nor does it precisely convey what I was attempting to wrestle with in this post. Honestly, I can’t find the right word. That happens sometimes. I know what I want to get across to you, but I can’t quite express it.

The inescapable fact is that the passage I pondered here does make the claim that those who shun God do so out of a willful suppression of the truth. I realize that some (or even many) find this deeply and personally offensive. This is “line in the sand” sort of talk. If I am going to stake my life on the claims of Scripture, then I have to figure out how this uncomfortable passage fits into my worldview.

And it is uncomfortable. I know you can’t see me or hear my tone of voice (if I were speaking this aloud) but I genuinely do want everyone I know in the boat next to me. I truly do get frustrated and upset when people I love choose to keep their backs turned – not because I want to prove that I’m right or feel superior, but because I want them to have what’s best. I believe that best is Jesus.

In our world, relativism and pluralism are the norms. To make exclusive truth claims is to immediately set yourself against the tide. It’s to put a mark on your back. Well, I can’t not make exclusive truth claims and remain faithful to Christ. Yet I also do not wish to be deliberately or obtusely offensive. So, please, forgive me for not finding the right words in this moment.