September 11 is a strange time for Americans. It’s a day where we lump together a bunch of emotions and attitudes into one big kettle: loss, grief, sorrow, anger, self-righteousness, racism, vengeance, patriotism…and that just to name a few.
It was an event that shook America to its core. It’s one of those events where everyone remembers where he was and what he was doing when it happened. It was an event that forever altered reality.
On the anniversary of that day I want to reflect on some issues.
First: This is a time to remember those we lost. Nearly 3000 people died. The ripple effects of those lives is huge. It is appropriate to think of those people, to mourn our loss at their untimely passing. I was once asked if it was selfish to grieve over the loss of a loved one. I wouldn’t call it selfish – I would call it human. We build bonds and attachments with people. It is normal to feel pain at having people taken away. But yes, grief focuses on personal loss and not on the final destination of the other.
Second: This is a time to turn to God. In the midst of that tragedy God provided comfort that no one else could. The psalmist writes:
God is our shelter and our strength. When troubles seem near, God is nearer, and He’s ready to help. So why run and hide? No fear, no pacing, no biting fingernails.
When the earth spins out of control, we are sure and fearless. When mountains crumble and waters run wild, we are sure and fearless. Even in the heavy winds and huge waves, or as the mountains shake, we are sure and fearless.
Trouble is on the horizon for the outside nations, not long until kingdoms will fall; God’s voice thunders and the earth shakes. You know the Eternal, the Commander of heavenly armies, surrounds us and protects us; the True God of Jacob is our shelter, close to His heart.
(Psalm 46:1-3, 6-7)
The earth definitely changed on 9/11. And this song, written thousands of years ago, is still as appropriate today as it ever was. We who believe have a reason for peace – even in the middle of chaos. We who believe have a Power greater than any other power on which we can depend. When the world is falling down around us we turn to Him and find hope. We find comfort. We find peace.
Third: This is NOT a time to embrace hatred and racism. Over the last 15 years I’ve seen many Americans speak and behave as though 9/11 gives us freedom to hate, belittle, or discriminate against people of Middle Eastern descent. Let it not be so. It is wrong direct our anger towards Middle Eastern people. Over the years since 9/11 I’ve heard many derogatory comments about Arabs. Racism in any form is NEVER okay. It really doesn’t matter what you feel the other ethnic group has done – no group is so monolithic that you can fault all for the actions of a few. Would you lump Arab Christians into your hatred? It’s just stupid. Let’s fault the bad guys and not lump others in simply because of their ethnic group. It’s poor logic. It’s the logic that looks at the Charles Manson “family” and hypothesize that all white people are cult-following murderers. So let’s drop the racist element from 9/11, huh? No more “Kill ‘em all and let God sort it out” attitudes.
Fourth: As difficult as it might be, for our own sake we need to practice forgiveness. We forgive others because we are people who have been forgiven. Jesus himself taught us to pray:
“And forgive us our debts, as also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)
Forgiveness does not seek vengeance. We do need to seek justice for wrongs. One of the roles of government is to hold people accountable for wrong doing. But as individuals we can let go of the idea of vengeance and move forward in forgiveness. Because let’s be honest…a lot of our mentality (not just from politicians and military leaders but from civilians as well) regarding the “war on terror” has been about vengeance, not simply justice. It’s not our place to avenge.
If you haven’t heard by now Nidal Hasan, the Soldier who murdered 13 people and injured dozens others in a mass shooting back in 2009, was finally convicted – found guilty of premeditated murder. You can read about it here. I wanted to take a few minutes to respond because I believe how Christians respond is important.
It will be very easy to let our response focus on the murderer’s religion. He is a Muslim. His shooting spree seemed (at least in part) to be motivated by a reaction to American involvement in Muslim nations overseas. Prosecutors claim Hasan believed he had a jihad duty to kill as many Soldiers as possible. He also yelled, “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great in Arabic) before opening fire on innocents. Yes, there seems to be a strong connection to his Islamic faith.
I know that there will be many individuals (and conservative talking heads) who will want to point out that Islam is not compatible with the West and will always be opposed to Democracy. I’ve heard the arguments that Islam will never truly be peaceful towards Christianity. It is easy to lump all Muslims into a single category. It’s almost a natural reaction because we’ve been at war in Muslim nations for so long. Americans been attacked at home and abroad by Muslims. And I will be totally honest here – I also believe that in the big picture Islam will never be at peace with Christianity.
I do not believe, however, that we can demonize all individuals because of the actions of others. I do not want to lumped together with “Christians” from Westboro Baptist Church. Hasan is Muslim, yes, but he acted alone. The tendency will be to look sideways at all Muslims (indeed, all brown-skinned foreigners) as if any of them, at any moment, might open fire. But let’s not jump to that extreme. Before you know it we’ll be creating internment camps for anyone who is “other than.”
Let’s remember that sick individuals do sick things all the time without greater ties to worldwide movements. When a white teenager opens fire on a movie theater we don’t go around acting suspiciously of all white teens (well, maybe some people do, but in general I think not!). Jump off the bandwagon and turn off Fair and Balanced news outlets and use common sense. Messed up people do messed up things. Don’t fly off the handle – Hasan admitted to the shooting and was found guilty. He will pay – possibly with his life.
From a biblical point of view we need to consider the words of the Apostle Paul:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. (Romans 12:14,17a)
Nidal Hasan committed atrocious acts of evil against dozens of people. There is no excuse. There is no justification. But God calls the faithful to live a different way – without seeking to do damage to the offender, God calls us to bless and to avoid vengeance. We are to pursue forgiveness, in spite of what people do to us. It’s hard to even talk about, much less to live out. Like the Matthew West song says:
It’s the hardest thing to give away, it’s the last thing on your mind today – it always goes to those who don’t deserve – – -forgiveness
There will be hours of talk radio and news reports filled with stories, speculation, and judgments against Nidal Hasan. He will get what is coming to him. Even if you think his earthly punishment is not severe enough we can rest knowing that all of us will one day stand before the Creator of the Universe and give an account for our behavior here on earth. Hasan will. I will. You will, too.
So let’s not focus on hatred and fear and loathing of this sick and evil man. Let’s turn those emotions over to God. If you have to direct your focus anywhere, grieve and mourn with the families that are suffering loss because of this man’s actions. Love on the survivors.
Love can be wonderful thing. Except when we love the wrong people ~ when we love forbidden people. Ooh, taboo love. Forbidden romance. It’s so exciting! Well, not always exciting. For the couple it can sometimes be downright dangerous.
Sometimes parents frown on their children becoming romantically involved with people from a lower social class. I want to tell you a story today of forbidden love, of two opposed families. It’s like the story of Romeo and Juliet…but from the Bible. What, you didn’t think Shakespeare made up that story by himself, did you? It’s a timeless tale. Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Boy woos girl. Girl is swept off her feet. Girl’s family disapproves of boy. Girl’s family massacres boy’s family…. You know – the usual.
Of course, that’s the story that ever father of a girl likes to hear! Keep away from my daughter. When I first met my father-in-law he pulled me aside and told me, “I sleep with a knife above my head and a gun under the bed.”
The story is from the Old Testament. Dinah is the daughter of Jacob. Her mother is Leah. Leah wasn’t Jacob’s favorite wife, so Dinah probably wasn’t his favorite child. But she is part of Jacob’s household. Jacob’s household has been doing a lot of traveling lately. They’ve been in hiding from Esau because Jacob thought Esau was gonna kill him. But wouldn’t you know it, Jacob and Esau reconnect and there’s forgiveness and restoration. And now the family is ready to settle down in Canaan, the land of promise. After making camp Dinah decides to go out to visit with the women of the area. And then, as she’s walking along in the midst of the crowd, she’s seen by the prince. And the prince’s heart skips a beat. It like something right out of a musical.
Prince Shechem sees Dinah and before you know it, they become intimate. Shechem has received a lot of bad press in the past. Many people have accused him of raping Dinah. In fact, many English Bibles title this chapter, THE RAPE OF DINAH. But the subheadings and titles are not part of the original Bible, there were added in hundreds of years later to assist us in reading. There is nothing inspired about the titles or subheadings.
This is how the story goes: Shechem saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and humiliated her. The taking does not mean by force. It is symbolic language, and it is the same expression used to describe taking a husband or taking a wife. It is the same expression used later on in this story when Shechem and his father are trying to convince the Israelites to be part of the community and take wives for themselves. There is nothing violent necessarily implied. Understanding Hebrew and ancient near eastern culture puts it in a different perspective.
Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman was not perceived in romantic or spiritual terms, but in terms of its keeping the family and bloodline alive. The idea of sex being dirty or casual is out of the question. The importance of the individual lies in the continuation of the group, which depends on proper sexual intercourse—that is, proper use of sexual power. That sexual power is used to prevent intrusions that pollute the family that represent loss of strength. Keep it in the family. Keep the tribe strong. If you step outside what is socially permitted then you bring shame, dishonor, and humiliation upon the whole group.
By romantically linking with an outsider, Dinah was diluting the family bloodline and opening them up to weakness. This is her shame, her humiliation. It’s a similar situation as that found in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, where a man finds and takes an unbonded or unattached young woman and lies with her. There is no cry for help from the woman and no violence on the part of the man. There is voluntary sexual intercourse between two unbonded people, but with no prospect of bonding and obligation. This, too, does not qualify as rape. In fact, the man has touched the heart of the woman, as Shechem does to Dinah.
But there is no request for future bonding, and therefore, he has humiliated her. To erase the shame and establish bonding, the man is obligated to give the father of the young woman fifty pieces of silver as a bride gift, to marry her and never divorce her. Despite the fact that there is no rape, the sexual intercourse between these two people is shameful and we see that same expression about humiliation as we see in Dinah’s story. She has not represented the family the right way. This story doesn’t talk about a rape – it talks about two people who fall in love, but the girl’s family sees the union as dishonorable. This is about honor, pride, and family shame.
The storyteller tells us more about the romance:
Shechem’s soul cleaved unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl, and spoke to the heart of the girl. And Shechem spoke unto his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl as my wife.”
All of the expressions in this verse are terms of affection. They are terms of courtship and marriage. Where else do we find that expression, “to cleave” in the Old Testament? Genesis 2:24 says, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and CLEAVE to his wife.” Cleave means to be bonded to. And the last expression— “to speak to the heart of” — indicates both Shechem’s action and Dinah’s positive response. This isn’t about the violence of rape. This is about forbidden love and family pride. And Shechem wants to follow through and do things honorably, so he and his father go to Jacob to negotiate the bride price, the dowry, for Dinah. This is actually keeping in line with the law later given in Deuteronomy.
And Shechem and his father ask for the hand of Dinah and, with the marriage, a unification of the two tribes. When kings or princes take wives, it can be for political alliance and economic cooperation as well as mutual attraction and love, so it is a public affair. Hamor, Shechem’s father, puts his emphasis on ‘uniting’, which is spoken of in terms of mutual marriages that will create a bonding between the two groups, to the advantage of both parties. It’s very much like the arranged marriages in the Middle Ages between England, France, Germany, and Spain. King such-and-such gives his daughter to the son of king such-and-such and there is an alliance and general friendliness between the people groups. Shechem wants Dinah; his father is trying to make it a win-win for everyone. “Come, let’s let our children marry! Then we will be united as allies, you can give us your women to marry, you can take ours to marry, trade will increase, and all will benefit.” As for the bride price, the dowry, Shechem is willing to pay dearly, for he loves Dinah with every fiber of his being.
But Dinah’s brothers won’t stand for it. In their eyes, they have been wronged by this outsider. Their honor and pride have been damaged, and nothing would allow them to get over the dishonor. Their sense of injury is of injury to themselves, not Dinah. They don’t care about her as much as they do about themselves and the standing of their family. So they agree to let Dinah marry IF, and ONLY IF, all of the males of the tribe agree to be circumcised. Anything less would be a disgrace.
I would think that right there would be enough to make Shechem say, “I love the girl, but maybe I should look for someone new.” But he’s so taken with Dinah that he agrees. Not only does he agree, but he goes and sells the notion to all of the men in their tribe. This guy should be salesman of the year! And three days later, while the men are still in pain, Dinah’s brothers go into town and kill every male and capture every woman and child AND make off with the livestock. And they got Dinah from Shechem’s house and brought her back home. It’s an even more tragic ending than Shakespeare could come up with for the Montagues and Capulets. Deceit, fraud, murder, thievery…where does it end?
This is where Jacob steps up to his sons and says, “What have you done?!? Your behavior has made me a stench to the people of this land!” And their only response is, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?” But it is their words, their point of view, not the actions of Shechem, turn their sister into a prostitute. What they really mean is that their honor cannot be bought—which means that no restitution to Dinah herself is satisfactory. The injury is an injury to them and they seek revenge. By saying that Dinah has become like a harlot, the sons of Jacob show that they do not regard Dinah as having been raped. Instead, they are pointing to the fact that she has become a marginal figure by engaging in sexual activity outside her society and without the possibility of bonding, since the sons are unwilling to give their sister to an uncircumcised outsider. For them the relationship threatens the unity of the tribe. It is to this threat that the sons react.
Ironically, if there is a rape in this story, it is Simeon and Levi who ‘rape’ the Shechemites. It is their behavior that is violent and hostile, carried out for the purpose of exploitation. It creates the illusion of dominance, control and superiority, in order to silence their feelings of vulnerability and inferiority. What could have been a beautiful relationship, a loving relationship, is destroyed by honor and shame. It is destroyed by pride and lack of grace and forgiveness.
This story speaks so strongly across the years because the message remains true. What is good, what is lovely, is destroyed by pride. Destroyed by misplaced honor. Destroyed by placing personal agendas above other people. This happens today all the time. Think about the last time you were really offended. Think about who it was that offended you, and what they did that offended you. Know that being in relationships with people and organizations means that every once in a while you might get offended by something. It’s inevitable. Most of the time the offense is not intentional. Did Shechem mean to offend Dinah’s brothers? Heck no! He simply fell in love with a pretty girl. The question is this: How will you respond when that offense comes?
We could be like Dinah’s brothers. Nothing will assuage our anger! We can’t be calmed down! We’ve been wronged! That just isn’t right! Or we can look to see how Jesus handled offense.
Luke 17:3-4 ~ “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4″And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Or how about Matthew 18:21-22 ~ 21
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
Turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give up your coat. Jesus’ method of dealing with offense brings forgiveness and restoration. Dinah’s brother’s method of dealing with offense brings slaughter, bloodshed, and hurt. I think we can all agree that it’s easier said than done, forgiving and letting go of an offense. But too often we see people in the church dealing with offense in the wrong way. What? I can’t believe I’m being treated this way! This just isn’t right! I’ve been wronged! And we go on a destructive rampage. This isn’t the Christian method. It’s being Dinah’s brothers. Think again to some grievances you have with people or groups. Are you willing to turn the cheek, walk the mile, forgive another 70 times?
Are you a good buddy? Do you consider yourself to be a friendly person? What’s the difference between acquaintance and friend? Do you have a close friend? Do you have a friend that is so close that the friend is, in some regards, closer and dearer to you than family? Now, how far would you go for a friend?.
Would you go out of your way and drop what you’re doing in order to help out a friend? When our oldest child was born, we had several friends who went out of their way to help us out. I was at the hospital with my wife while friends went to pick up my mother-in-law at the airport. That night, I stayed at the hospital with my wife and the baby. We gave my wife’s car keys to her mom who was going to sleep at our place.
After her mom had been gone for about 15-20 minutes I realized that her key ring didn’t have our apartment key on it. Mom couldn’t get in! One of my closest friends and his wife lived around the corner of the hospital and he was kind enough to drive me home so we could let Mom in the door and then drive me back to the hospital. There is something humbling about asking and receiving help from friends. But I have found that many times friends don’t mind helping out if you genuinely need it!
Would you be willing to destroy someone else’s property in order to help out a friend? How far would you go, and where do you draw the line? One time Jesus was back home from his travels, probably to rest before getting back to work. But people had heard that he’s back in town and they swarmed Jesus’ house. And some guys bring a crippled friend and, in an effort to get to Jesus break through the roof and lower their crippled friend right down in front of Jesus.
Now we’ve got 5 major players here: Jesus, the crowds, the crippled man, the crippled man’s friends, and the teachers of the law (who were there probably to evaluate and assess who Jesus was and what he was doing and saying. Listen to the story and specifically think about the story from the teachers of the law’s point of view.
Several days later Jesus returned to Capernaum, and it was reported that he was at home. So many crowds had gathered that there wasn’t any room left for them, even in front of the door. Jesus was speaking the word to them when some people came and brought him a paralyzed man being carried by four men. Since they couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof over the place where he was. They dug through it and let down the cot on which the paralyzed man was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some scribes were sitting there, arguing among themselves, “Why does this man talk this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
At once, Jesus knew in his spirit what they were saying to themselves. He said to them, “Why are you arguing about such things among yourselves? Which is easier: to say to the paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your cot, and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then he said to the paralyzed man, “I say to you, get up, pick up your cot, and go home!” So the man got up, immediately picked up his cot, and went out before all of them. As a result, all of the people were amazed and began to glorify God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
It would be great if we could really get inside the heads of the people in this story. Can you imagine being able to ask them questions about what they experienced that day?
Jesus, it seems to me that you simply wanted some peace and quiet at home. Maybe put your feet up, munch on some fish and chips…. How did it feel to have so many people pressing around you invading your personal space? How did you feel when these yahoos ripped apart your roof so you would see their friend?
Teacher of the law, why were you there? What did you expect to find? Why were you so offended at Jesus’ comments about forgiving sin?
I’d have to ask the friends of the crippled man, “What were thinking when you carried your friend over to Jesus’ house?” Do you think it was fair to be cutting in line when so many people wanted to see Jesus that day?
To the crowd, “What was it like being there on that day?”
I’d ask the crippled, well, formerly crippled, man, “Did you have any idea what your friends were planning that day? How does it feel to have such good friends that they would go to any lengths to get you in front of Jesus?
I guess it really comes down to this; with whom are you going to choose to identify? Clearly, we can be Jesus. Many of us have had an encounter with Jesus already. That means we are left with 3 characters with whom we could identify. You can be 1) the spectators, 2) the judging legalist, or 3) the friend who stops at nothing to take his friend to meet Jesus.
Don’t be the spectators. They’re just coming to see the show. They don’t really care about what is happening. Don’t be the judging legalist. He’s never understood what Jesus was up to. I love the line where Jesus says, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Get up and walk?”
Which is easier? What happens if you say, “Your sins are forgiven” but you’re wrong? Who notices? What happens if you say, “Get up and walk,” but you’re wrong? Who notices? It’s MUCH easier to SAY your sins are forgiven. But Jesus doesn’t hide behind anything. He says, “So that you know that I have authority to talk about the forgiveness of sins, watch this – Get up, pick up your mat, and go home!” And the teachers of the law are left with egg on their faces.
We don’t want to be mere spectators. We don’t want to be the teachers of the law. We want to be the friends. How far would you go to take your friends to meet Jesus? Would you carry them? Would you break through buildings? We all know hurting and crippled people who need Him. How far are you willing to go to bring your friends to Jesus?
Think about a time when you were away from home for an extended period. You don’t have your own bed. You don’t have your own food. You don’t have your own bathroom. You don’t have all of the things that make up what you know as “home.” After a while you really being to long for home. I experienced this a little while back when I was activated with the Army. Three months living in Army housing, not being able to kiss my wife and play with my kids, not being with all of the comfort that comes with being home is a hard thing to do. But there is nothing like the feeling of returning home, of coming back to where you belong! The Bible talks about returning to where we belong.
In the book of Joel, the prophet addresses Israel in the midst of crisis. A horrible plague of locusts is devastating the land and Joel attributes the locusts to a spiritual cause. His message to Israel is that it is time to return to God. It is time to come home to where we belong.
12 Even now—this is the LORD’s declaration—turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. 13 Tear your hearts, not just your clothes, and return to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and He relents from sending disaster. 14 Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him, so you can offer grain and wine to the LORD your God. 15 Blow the horn in Zion! Announce a sacred fast; proclaim an assembly. 16 Gather the people; sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even those nursing at the breast. Let the groom leave his bedroom, and the bride her honeymoon chamber. 17 Let the priests, the LORD’s ministers, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say: “Have pity on Your people, LORD, and do not make Your inheritance a disgrace, an object of scorn among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:12-17)
I believe God is pointing us towards home today. I believe that, no matter who we are or where we are, God wants us to move back home. He wants us to come back to where we belong. And Joel gives us three directives that reach out to us wherever we are. First, Joel tells us that It’s Never Too Late to Come Home. Look again at verse 12: “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning….” English translations miss the force of the Hebrew in the opening phrase “even now.” It is a strong adversative, a big “but” that cancels out and makes conditional the chaos of the Day of the Lord that the prophet just talked about. The locusts have ravaged Israel. The end is coming and is even in sight because Israel strayed from God’s path. But….even now…. “Come home,” is God’s cry. What none could have hoped or believed possible, God still invites you to the hope of salvation. God is signaling the possibility of a reversal of our sinful fortunes.
Sometimes we feel that we have strayed too far from God to ever return to Him. How could he let us back in the Kingdom? “Don’t you know what I’ve done? Don’t you see the chaos and damage in my life?” But, like His call to Israel, God beckons us to return. If we allow God to change us then we can escape the final judgment. If we allow God to change us then we can see the reversal of the devastation of sin in our lives. It is never to late to come home.
Second, Joel tells us that Returning to God Requires More Than an Outward Show – it Takes an Inward Change. Look again at verse 13: “And rend your heart and not your garments, Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in loving kindness and relenting of evil.” Let there be the inward sorrow of heart, and not the mere outward manifestation of it by “rending the garment” When God led Israel through the conquest of Canaan, Israel lost a battle at Ai because of the greed and sin of Achan. Joshua did not know why they lost the battle and so showed an outward sign of humility and sorrow before God.
Sometimes, though, we go through outward shows of humility and repentance but we do not let that condition become a condition of our hearts! God doesn’t want an empty show, but a sincere turning of our hearts and lives. Turning towards God must be more than skin deep. I would venture to guess that all of us, at one time or another, have expressed sorrow but didn’t really mean it. If the heart is centered on God, faith and obedience will follow, for what comes out of the heart determines the whole manner of life. This is what Jesus talks about in the Gospel of Mark.
Where is your heart today?
The description of God in this verse (gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, etc.) is an ancient creed, showing up 8 times in the OT (also in Exodus, Numbers, Nehemiah, 2 Psalms, Jonah, and Nahum). Loving kindness is a translation of the Hebrew hesed – it has more the idea of action based on relationship. It is God’s action towards man because of the covenant relationship. If these are the characteristics of God, we should strive to make these our characteristics too! God has the right to punish, yet he offers grace, compassion, etc.
Joel’s final comment to us is that, when we come back to God, we need to Go Big or Go Home!. Look again at verse 15-17 ~ “Blow a trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and the nursing infants, Let the bridegroom come out of his room And the bride out of her bridal chamber….” Joel calls for a big deal in the return of Israel. Blow the horn. Announce. Gather the people. Weep before the Lord. These are strong words regarding gathering an entire nation together to mourn, weep, and repent! Israel needs to go big in its return.
To be sanctified is to be set apart for the purposes of God. The assembly isn’t only to relieve the people of the suffering under the plague, but to bring about God’s purposes for them. This isn’t about an insecure God protecting a shaky reputation. The sole purpose of Israel’s life (and ours) is to glorify God. When our lives are preserved and transformed, God’s power and mercy are magnified before the world.
It is never too late to come home. Returning to God requires more than an outward show – it takes an inward change. Finally, go big or go home. This is God’s call to Israel through the prophet Joel. This is God’s call to us in the midst of our own lives! In Luke 15, Jesus tells people a story about a lost son who finds his way home. And the son’s father, upon seeing the son walking home, rushes out to greet the boy and welcome him back. Our heavenly Father is no less excited and waiting expectantly for us to turn our backs to the world and begin walking home! Examine you life. How much chaos is there? Where have the locusts of sin and self left you barren and suffering? How has the spiritual drought left you thirsty and hungry for something more, for something real? God is waiting for you to come home. The entire point of the cross is so that you and I can be reconciled to God! Embrace the cross. Chris Tomlin writes in his song “Come Home Running,”
So come home running, His arms are open wide, His name is Jesus – He understands, He is the answer you are looking for, so come home running just as you are.
Now more than ever it seems that forgiveness is an area in which we all need improvement. Sometimes people do things to us intentionally to hurt or wound us. Other times the offense is not intended but damages nonetheless. When we are hurt our response is often to hold on to the grievance. It fuels our anger and animosity towards others. We often forget that we have the same ability and inclination to wound others. It’s easier to forgive our own sin and failure than to forgive others who wound us. This was part of the point of Jesus telling us to “remove the plank from our own eyes before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s eye.” We live in a “BUT THEY…” culture. Jesus says, “Forgive,” and we respond, “BUT THEY…!” We prefer the hurt over the healing and the forgiveness. We demand justice before we will even entertain the thought of forgiveness.
But the Bible doesn’t place any limitations or restrictions on forgiveness. There’s no tally we keep and, once we reach a certain point, refuse to extend forgiveness any more. Forgiveness is an attitude – something that can be extended even before the offender asks. It can be extended even if the offender NEVER asks. Jesus asked God to forgive his murderers, not because they deserved it, but because forgiveness is part of God’s character.
Real forgiveness, then, is what we ought to seek. Real forgiveness lets go of the right to get even or pursue justice and instead extends compassion and love. Real forgiveness is not deserved or earned – it is a gift from the one who is hurt to the one who does the hurting. The Apostle Paul writes: Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:19). We can forgive and leave payment up to God. He frees us to love. Forgiveness fosters love. Refusing forgiveness fosters hate.
But we don’t forgive because it’s the nice thing to do. We forgive because it is God’s nature to forgive. As we seek to be faithful followers of Christ, we need to be letting his nature become our nature. Paul writes again, “Accept one another and forgive one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive” (Colossians 3:13). And again, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God forgave you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:32). Our forgiveness wasn’t earned. In fact, the Bible tells us that God showed us his love in that Christ died for us while we were sinners. We were broken and messed up and he chose to extend love and forgiveness.
It doesn’t end there. Extending or withholding forgiveness can affect our relationship with God. Jesus says, “If you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing.” Tough words to live by, but I didn’t make them up. God calls us to live in forgiveness and reconciliation if we want to have a healthy and vibrant relationship with Him.
Ultimately, forgiveness brings freedom. It allows us to have healthy lives. It opens the door to reconciliation and makes for richer relationships. Our world is being torn apart by hate, hurt, and an unwillingness to forgive. As Christians we can set the example for the way God calls us to live – we can extend love and forgiveness, even when people don’t deserve it. It’s the only way forward.
How about you? Do you have any experience being forgiven by someone else even when you didn’t deserve it?
Humans are funny creatures. We have a unique ability to hear selectively. It really comes down to our circumstances in life. Grace vs. Justice. Forgiveness vs. Consequences. Often it feels like these are binary opposites – completely unable to mesh one with the other. We especially see these concepts in opposition when it comes to relationships and personal conflict. And our selective hearing comes into play.
If we are the person who has wronged or hurt another person our selective hearing turns to the Bible and hears GRACE and FORGIVENESS! We cling to these words as life-giving words. We may have sinned against God and against another person, but there is hope and newness is Jesus Christ: we can know grace and forgiveness.
If we are the person who has been hurt or wronged by another person our selective hearing turns to the Bible and hears JUSTICE and CONSEQUENCES! We cling to these words as sustaining words in our misery, knowing that God will repay others for the wrongs they have done to us and he will eventually vindicate us. We can know justice and see others face consequences for their actions.
But in our selective hearing we miss the major elements of what the Bible actually would say to us: that there is grace AND justice, and we may simultaneously experience forgiveness AND consequences. The offender will find grace and forgiveness through Jesus, while still suffering the consequences for past behavior.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” In the scene, three escaped felons come across a church’s baptism service at a river. One felon gets caught up in the moment and rushes in to get dunked. He comes out proclaiming that no man has anything on him now for the preacher “done warshed away my sins.” The other felons end up having to tell him that, though he might be right with God, the state is still going to hold him accountable. That’s us, isn’t it?!? When we get right we God we expect (or hope?) that the person we wronged will welcome us with open arms.
We forget that we will still have to own up to the damage done by our actions.
On the flipside, when we are wronged and the offender repents, we often have a hard time accepting the fact that Jesus has cleansed that person and given him a new start. “Jesus might forgive, but I’m not ready yet!” That’s too often our attitude. The funny thing is, Jesus never put a limitation on forgiveness. How often should we forgive? 70×7 is what Jesus tells the Apostle Peter. And, hard as it may be, God calls us to be people of forgiveness just as he is a God of forgiveness.
It’s a difficult dance these binary pairs dance – the movement between grace and justice, forgiveness and consequences. When it comes to personal conflict each side needs to be willing to put down his word and pick up the other’s word for a while. Put it on and wear it for a bit. If you have been wronged, remember that Jesus has forgiven the offender. If you have done the hurting, remember that forgiveness does not mean avoiding the consequences of our behavior.
Wherever you fall, dance the dance. Repent. Forgive. Show grace. Accept consequences. And in the end we will find that relationships only really move beyond conflict when each side is willing to dance.