Real Faith Listens and Obeys (James 1:19-27)

I’ll often say “we” when I’m talking about the University of Michigan football team, but the fact of the matter is there is really no sense in which I should consider myself “we.” I’m a poser. An imposter. Sure I watch the games…but that’s really the extent of it. I didn’t graduate from U of M. I certainly was never part of the football program. I’ve even lived closer to East Lansing (Michigan State University) than to Ann Arbor for my entire life. The shameful fact of the matter is I’m a poser Michigan fan, riding the coattails of the greatest college football program in history. 🙂

You know, there are a lot of poser Christians too. Poser Christians say they’re Christians, go to church, attend Bible studies, know a lot about the Bible, but fail to live like Jesus. I don’t want to be a poser Christian. I don’t want you to be a poser Christian. I don’t want Muskegon and the world to encounter poser Christians. I want us to be the true people of God, being transformed by Jesus to be like Jesus, living cross-shaped lives for the glory of God and the good of others.

That’s why we’re studying the New Testament book of James, likely the same James who grew up as Jesus’ little brother in Mary and Joseph’s home. Just think of the shadow that would have been cast over James and Jesus’ family growing up! Imagine the neighborhood gossip, the family tension, the sibling rivalry, the messy, everyday stuff all families, especially blended families, have to work through.

But there was Jesus–growing up right in the middle of it–full of grace and truth. And there was James too, with a front row view of his big brother, God-in-the-flesh working through the mess of real, everyday life. James, while initially skeptical of Jesus, later became a follower and worshipper of his big brother. Wow. What an impact Jesus must have had on his little brother.

And what an impact James’ letter had on the churches he wrote to–enough of an impact for them to pass on the letter for 2,000 years! In his letter, James emphasizes how real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

If you’re going to church but aren’t being changed, something’s off. If you’re going to church but aren’t helping others be changed, something’s off. This is abundantly clear in James’ letter, where the inescapably relational nature of following Jesus jumps off the pages. James calls fellow church members “the brothers (and sisters)” fourteen times and writes the entire letter in the second-person plural…“y’all.” James gives life-changing wisdom to a life-changing family. This is community spiritual formation.

Community spiritual formation is one of our core vehicles as a church. Core vehicles are those things we do that are key to accomplishing the vision to become a church for the community. Core vehicles are the most important things we do as a church: worship gatherings, hospitality initiatives, missional partnerships, and community spiritual formation

 

Community spiritual formation is richly described in a paragraph from our member covenant: “I will be devoted to love for the Body, partnering with other members to be discipled and to disciple one another. I will regularly pray for and with others. I will pursue peace and unity with others by speaking encouraging, uplifting words and shunning gossip and divisive speech.”

Community spiritual formation is when we gather in smaller groups in order to help each other become more like Jesus in real life. We do this at every age–kids ministry, youth ministry, adult LIFEgroups. I am praying that, through James’ letter to the churches in our series “Real Faith for Real People,” that these relationships would be so honest, so loving, and so life-changing that a guest would be like, “Whoa, God is up to something here!” Because following Jesus together should change our life.

This is James’ point in the second half of chapter 1:

James 1:19-27 NIV

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

I think what James is wanting people to listen to is when Christians are sharing God’s Word with one another. In verse 18, James references the word of truth that gives us new birth. In verse 21, he challenges us to humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. In verse 22, he calls us to not just listen to the word but to obey it! I think James has in mind here biblically-informed, Spirit-filled words Christians say to another. Could be a sermon. Could be a LIFEgroup discussion. Could be a one-on-one conversation. It’s community spiritual formation!

I’ve often caught myself skipping over things I don’t agree. I’ve fast forwarded through my podcast when they interview someone I don’t really agree with. I’ve skipped over books and unsubscribed from blogs I don’t agree with. Instead of being quick to listen, I’ve angrily made a judgment and asserted my own opinion. What’s worse is when I do this in actual relationships. Someone rebukes me and I immediately defend myself, my opinion, my actions, my intentions.

I need to learn the lesson Jesus’ little brother is teaching here: The holy pause. Keep my words and anger in check and listen to the word so that God might produce His righteousness in me. I wonder how often James saw his big brother Jesus do the holy pause, listening before reacting. Food for thought.

What do you do with Bible teaching and discussion you don’t like? Do you only listen to sermons and teachers and Christians you easily agree with? Do you only read authors and books who say what you want to hear? If you don’t like Bible teaching, it could be that it’s wrong. Perhaps you have studied and really are convicted that the teaching is false and to be rejected. But…do you really believe you’re right 100% of the time? Do you really believe that you’re so well-studied and so spiritually sanctified that you’ll agree with every sermon you hear?

Or could it be that “the moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent” is prevalent not just in the world but in us? What if there are Scriptures and books and sermons and spiritual conversations that God wants to use to confront us? What if I need to hear the teaching I don’t want to hear so that God can keep saving me from my sin?

Real faith listens to the God who saves.

James is talking to people who are already Christians so the salvation James refers to is not salvation from the penalty of sin–death–but salvation from the power of sin in your daily life. The more I study the Bible the more convinced I am that God is not only interested in saving people from hell. Obviously, that’s a big deal, but the God of the Bible is not fixated on that alone. God’s purpose is not only to save His people from death…but to save them from sin itself! God saves us from death by forgiving us of our sin through Jesus’ death on the cross (the theological word for this is “justification”). God saves us from sin by transforming us from the inside-out through the work of the Spirit and the Word in everyday life (the theological word for this is “progressive sanctification”). God has purposed to purify and grow people who reflect His character in the here and now. This second kind of salvation is NOT optional, though many “Christians” seem to think it is. The second kind of faith is, as we will see throughout James, the fruit of REAL FAITH. God is doing this work now through His word and through Christians speaking His word to one another…if we would only do what it says…

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James uses this fantastic comparison between looking into a mirror and forgetting what you look like and looking into God’s Word and doing what it says. A real mirror can show you how to fix wayward hair, that something in your nose, or food in your teeth. How silly would it be to look into a mirror, see something in your nose, but walk away and not take care of it! God’s Word is like a mirror–it reflects where we’ve gone wrong but it also reflects how we can be made right. It reflects a broken image but also a renewed image.

Merely listening to the word is dangerous, it’s self-deception. How so? Because…

Real faith obeys the God who blesses.

I’ve heard it said that many Christians are about 4,000 Bible verses overweight. So much knowledge about God and the Bible and living the Christian life but it has not translated into righteous living. People say they are Christians but live like atheists. They’re practical atheists. Atheists believe that God doesn’t exist, but practical atheists live like God doesn’t exist. They don’t trust God’s promises that, if we lose our life, we’ll find it. So we try to save our lives. But God is good and ready to bless those who do what He says.

James gives us three practical examples of what he’s talking about…

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

First, James highlights controlling our tongues. Words are a big deal. I know they seem fleeting, like you can just say whatever you want, and they’ll drift off on the wind, and no one will care. But every bit of gossip, every twisted “truth,” every hurtful insult, every careless promise, every thoughtless social media post impacts the hearts of those who hear it. The key isn’t to be silent but to use words for good. We can’t help but use words. We’re human beings! So we must take control of them and use them to help not hurt. James envisions the tongue as a bucking bronco; you’ve got to wrestle that thing into submission. Use it to bless and not curse…James will go deeper into this topic in chapter 3, so we’ll save it for then.

Jesus, of course, was the master of bridling His tongue. Every word that came out of Jesus’ mouth spread God’s love and truth. Jesus never gossiped, never insulted, never over-promised, never twisted the truth. Jesus always told the whole truth, always encouraged those who needed encouragement, always rebuked those who needed rebuking, always came through on his promises. I bet that made quite the impression on James.

Second, James highlights caring for the most needy. Widows and orphans were some of the most needy persons in the churches James was writing to. I mean, imagine being a widow. I was talking to a church member the other day whose grandpa recently died. His grandma is just lost now. They had been together for 66 years–since they were teenagers! The loneliness is unbearable. But frankly, in James’ day, the loneliness was only one piece of it. Poverty is what made widows so vulnerable. Today, many if not most widows are provided for through insurance, savings, and welfare programs. But in the ancient world, these safety nets were unheard of. A widow’s only hope for survival was her adult children…or her church family. Similarly, an orphan’s only hope was usually to beg or to sell yourself into slavery.

Jesus’ whole ministry was aimed at the needy. He intentionally lived among the poor and generously spent Himself on meeting needs He could meet. Always. I bet that made quite the impression on James.

Caring for the needy can be particularly overwhelming. There is so much brokenness in the world. It’s plastered all over the news and the internet. Thankfully, Jesus’ global  church is really, really big. Together, we CAN serve in virtually every corner of the world; we each just have to start somewhere. Start in your community. What needs do we see next door or in class or at work? Begin here. Then, think about what we can do together as a church. As a church, the elder team has identified what we see as some of the key needs in Muskegon and the world as well as missional partners who can help us make an impact. In other words, we are trying to help narrow things down for us. For example, Phil and Alana Carmichael, for example, serve at the Pines–a care center for children, whose families have been affected by AIDS and by poverty in South Africa.

The third Christian practice James talks about is avoiding worldliness like the plague. The churches James wrote to were constantly tempted and pressured to adopt Greco-Roman ways of thinking and living. The pursuit of wealth and honor were among the highest pursuits and sex and nationalism were also in the mix. Jesus wasn’t out for wealth or honor or sex or the Jewish nation or the Roman empire. He was out to love God and love others. I bet that made quite the impression on James.

Consider all the ways we can be polluted by the world:

  • Materialism calls us to prioritize temporary comforts over eternal joy.
  • Consumerism calls us to spend ourselves, no matter the cost to us or others, on those temporary comforts.
  • Humanism is the idea that human beings have what it takes to make the world a better place without the love and truth of God.
  • Ethnocentrism is the belief that my ethnicity is somehow more important than others.
  • Nationalism is the belief that my country is better and more deserving than others.
  • Hypersexualization is the movement that makes every about sex, sexual identity, sexual “freedom” as defined by creatures and not the Creator.
  • Modernism is the idea that science and reason are the best sources of authority–not the Creator.
  • Postmodernism is the idea that each individual is the best source of authority–not the Creator.

Think about James’ three hallmarks of true religion–controlling our tongues, caring for the most needy, and avoiding worldliness like the plague. These three practices along amount to a really compelling life. Imagine the blessing this kind of person is to their family, work, school, church, and neighborhood. Imagine the testimony that a whole church full of these kind of people would have! Let us LISTEN AND DO!

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Based on the September 15, 2019 message “Real Faith Listens and Obeys (James 1:19-27).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.

Big Idea: Real faith listens to and obeys God.

  1. Read James 1:19-21. Can you think of a time when you didn’t want to listen to biblical truth? How did you respond? What could it have looked like if you had responded more according to these verses? If James is writing to a bunch of Christians who already “saved” in one sense, what kind of salvation might accepting the word bring?
  2. Read James 1:22-25. Why does James consider “hearing without doing” self-deception? Where does the tendency to “hear without doing” come from?? Why must we make “doing” a priority?
  3. Read James 1:26-27. What three practices, according to James, are hallmark examples of true religion? In what ways are the three practices relevant for us today? Which one is most important for you to embrace right now and how can you better live it out in daily life?
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Real Faith for Real Life (James 1:1-18)

Jesus grew up in a blended family. The Bible teaches that Jesus was born to Mary after God miraculously caused her to conceive and give birth to Jesus before she was ever married or even had sex. Oh the scandal that must have been in their family and community. You can read all about it in the opaening chapters of Matthew and Luke. Eventually, Mary and her husband Joseph had other kids, the oldest of which was a boy named James. This is likely the same James who wrote a letter that has been included in New Testament!

Just think of the shadow that would have been cast over Jesus’ and James’ blended family growing up! It’s not hard to imagine the gossip in the neighborhood, the tensions in the home, the confusion and jealousy, the old wounds, the messy, everyday stuff all families, especially blended families, have to work through.

But there was Jesus–growing up right in the middle of it–full of grace and truth. And there was James too, with a front row view of God-in-the-flesh working through the mess of real, everyday life.

James, while initially skeptical of Jesus, later became a follower and worshipper of his big brother and likely went on to write one of the books in the New Testament. In fact, in the opening verse of James, he identifies himself like this:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1 NIV)

Wow. A servant to big brother Jesus…who is the Lord, the King…and the Christ, the Messiah, God’s Chosen One. What an impact Jesus must have had on his little brother.

James wrote this letter to the people of God (twelve tribes is a reference to Israel, the Old Testament people of God). He’s writing to churches–communities of God’s people popping up throughout the 1st century Roman Empire. This letter has a powerful impact on these churches because James teaches how…

Real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

If you’re going to church but aren’t being changed, something’s off. If you’re going to church but aren’t helping others change, something’s off. This is abundantly clear in James, where the inescapably relational nature of following Jesus jumps off the pages. James, in his brief letter to the church, calls fellow church members “the brothers (and sisters)” 14 times and writes the entire letter in the second-person plural…“y’all.” James gives life-changing wisdom to a life-changing family. This is community spiritual formation.

At Calvary, community spiritual formation is one of our core vehicles as a church. Core vehicles are those things we do that are key to accomplishing the vision to become a church for the community. Core vehicles are the most important things we do as a church: worship gatherings, hospitality initiatives, missional partnerships, community spiritual formation. Community spiritual formation is described nicely in a paragraph from our member covenant: “I will be devoted to love for the Body, partnering with other members to be discipled and to disciple one another. I will regularly pray for and with others. I will pursue peace and unity with others by speaking encouraging, uplifting words and shunning gossip and divisive speech.”

 

Community spiritual formation is when we gather in smaller groups in order to help each other become more like Jesus in real life. We do this at every age–kids ministry, youth ministry, men’s and women’s ministry, and LIFEgroups, and we pray that these relationships would be so honest, so loving, and so life-changing that a guest would be like, “Whoa, God is up to something here!” We pray that God would shape us as such through James’ letter to the churches in our series “Real Faith for Real People.” Following Jesus together should change our life.

Real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

Let’s look at James’ opening teaching to see how this rings true even in the messiness of life.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (1:2-4)

If suffering were random and pointless, there would be no possibility of joy. But because, for God’s people, suffering always has a point, there can be hope and joy even when we face a trial. God is not excited about our suffering but He does use it for our good because real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

Sometimes we look at our suffering hoping that it has an impact on someone else’s life, and that’s great. But James’ point here is that suffering can have an impact on MY life; it shapes my character and builds my endurance because real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

If I really believe that God can redeem my suffering, make it useful in my personal growth, then I can have joy even in the hardest times. Coming up short when it’s time to pay rent is a huge trial, but it can also be a moment for growth…to work harder, to budget better, to get help, and to trust God with the results. Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend can be like a punch to the gut, but it’s also a chance to take stock of your own soul, to learn from the relationship, and to grow in order to be a blessing to a future partner. God wants to use every trial to grow your soul.

One of the awesome things about being in a LIFEgroup is that as the years go by you can support each other in trials AND watch how God grows each other in those trials.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (1:5-8)

Real faith enables teachability in confusion. Have you ever known you should have asked for help and then failed to do it? One of the most memorable pieces of advice Pastor Bill, our pastor emeritus, gave me in the year leading up to his retirement was something like, “If you don’t know, ask for advice. If you think you know, ask for advice.” Proverbs 20:18 says, “Plans are established by seeking advice; so if you wage war, obtain guidance.”

God gives wisdom generously and without discrimination. He wants to give it! So how does God give wisdom? He doesn’t just download from the cloud into your brain. No, He gives it to us in the Bible. The Bible is God’s trustworthy message for all people and has everything you need to live wisely in this world. So read it. Study it. Study it with other people who study it. And apply it!

Have you ever asked for wisdom only to not like what you hear and totally ignore it? That’s asking with doubt. One of the best pieces of advice I ever ignored was “don’t get a credit card, don’t spend money you don’t have.” I figured I had the self-control…but I didn’t. What’s really at the bottom of that is that I want what I want and am not content with what my good God has given me, but real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

To ask with faith is to ask trusting God’s greatness and His goodness and to do what He says. I should have cut up or locked up those credit cards and trusted that God would give me exactly what is best for me.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. (1:9-11)

The idea of taking pride in humiliation just sounds crazy at first, but hear James out. The Gospel is a two-sided coin, it’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that I am so sinful that God Himself had to die for me; the good news is that I am so loved that He was glad to do it. The bad news is that I am far more sinful than I ever realized; the good news is that I am far more loved than I ever dreamed.

These two truths wash over people differently, especially depending on your social status. The Gospel elevates those who are low in social status yet humbles the rich and the powerful. A poor person doesn’t have much to lose in this world so the bad news doesn’t hit them as hard as it hits the rich. Instead, the good news fills the poor person with hope and confidence.

The rich person gets knocked off their high horse when they hear the bad news. The good news is still good to them, but the bad news “humiliates” them. If it wasn’t for God’s grace, they’d be nothing more than a wildflower: here today, gone tomorrow. Do you see how real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

Real faith centers both the poor and the rich. Believing in a good God grounds the identities of the rich and the poor in their spiritual status–not in their worldly status.

James comes back to his original idea…persevering through trials…

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (1:12)

God doesn’t just use trials to grow us (see verse 2-4); God also rewards us at the end. James doesn’t go into detail on exactly how or when that reward comes. He might be referring to when we finally meet Jesus face-to-face when we die or when He returns. Regardless of the timing and nature of the reward, if I’m trusting in a good God, it’ll be worth it in the end!

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (1:13-15)

Every trial comes with a temptation. Your trial might be an unhappy marriage, so you’re tempted to get your affection elsewhere or even get a divorce. Your trial might be an illness, so you’re tempted to give up and get bitter. The trials are ruled over by God in order to grow us, but those temptations come from our own evil desires. God wants us to pass the test, but our evil desire wants us to give in to temptation. It is our own evil hearts that hijack the trials God means to grow us and turn them into temptations which lead to sin and death.

The metaphor James uses for giving into temptation is straight out of a horror movie. Our evil desires seduce us, and we get it pregnant a baby. The pregnancy holds all sorts of promise and we’re so excited about it, but what is born? Sin! Some grotesque demon-child, and that little baby grows up to have another baby–a “grandchild” named death–a serial killer who hunts us down.

So our evil desires are ultimately what we have to blame for temptation—not God…

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (1:16-18)

God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good. It is God’s very nature to be and do and give good. It is as constant as the sun, moon, and stars He created. Did the sun rise this morning? God is good. Did the moon stay on track? God is good. Did the same stars appear last night? God is good. Never forget the goodness of the God you believe in.

James picks one of the greatest gifts God has given: the new birth. Evil desire had given birth to sin whose baby death hunts us down, but thanks to God, we can be born into His brand new world, growing up and maturing and bearing fruit as we put His goodness in display.

If you aren’t part of God’s family, if you’re not a Christian, be born into God’s new family today through the word of truth. Jesus died to offer you forgiveness from sin and a whole new life. Pray, “God, have mercy on me. I’m a sinner and need Jesus to die in my place for my sins. I surrender my whole life to you. Please begin making me new!”

If you sincerely prayed that prayer today, let someone know so they can be helping you grow your understanding of the goodness of God because real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

If you have already surrendered your life to Jesus, remember and help others remember that real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Big Idea: Real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

  1. What’s one of the most difficult situations you’ve ever been in?
  2. Read James 1:1-18 and take note of each time James mentions or implies the goodness of God.
  3. According to James, how does God’s goodness help us to persevere in hard times in each of these mentions?
  4. Which lesson is most important for you in your life right now and how can you better lean into our good, good God?

How good it is when God’s people live together in unity! (Psalms 133 & 134)

Do you like the end of summer? Probably depends on whether you like what comes next. The school year. Football! Autumn…and then winter. One of the certain things about this life is that every season must end so a new one can begin. For every single one of us, life itself will come to an end. How you feel about that probably depends on whether you look forward to what comes next.

This summer, we have studied the Songs of Ascent. The Songs of Ascent are a “playlist” of 15 psalms (Psalms 120-134) that ancient Israelites sang during their pilgrimage to worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem, three times a year (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). The journey was difficult and dangerous, and it became a metaphor for life in this broken world, which is difficult and dangerous. The songs of ascent put faithful language in the mouths of pilgrims for every season of life–whether good or bad. We’ve seen songs of trust for times of fear, songs of lament for times of heartbreak, songs of praise for times of joy, songs about wisdom, repentance, physical family, spiritual family, and even one that anticipates Jesus. And now we come to the end.

The goal of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem Temple was an encounter with the living God–where God’s love and truth breaks into our reality. At Calvary, our vision is to become an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of the Muskegon area–“a church for the community.”

We want to help people all across Muskegon love God like He deserves and love their neighbors like themselves, but in order to be that tool in God’s hand, we need spiritual and cultural renewal ourselves. It begins with us! And what does that renewal look like? The songs of ascent give us language for that journey.

The end of our journey together will be epic, and we get a taste now through God’s lavish blessing on His people.

Here’s Psalm 133:

A song of ascents. Of David.

How good and pleasant it is

   when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,

   running down on the beard,

running down on Aaron’s beard,

   down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon

   were falling on Mount Zion.

For there the Lord bestows his blessing,

   even life forevermore. (Psalm 133 NIV)

It’s beautiful when God’s people live together in unity, but it’s tragic and ugly when they don’t. The background for verse 1 is a couple stories from Genesis where people who loved each other had to part ways because there wasn’t enough stuff to go around. One is the story of Abraham and Lot (Genesis 13). The other is the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 36). Abraham and Lot and later Jacob and Esau decided NOT to live together in unity because there wasn’t enough water and pasture land to go around.

Relationships are at their best when there is abundance. For example, marriages are at their best when there is plenty of time and money to go around. But introduce a financial crisis or a busy season of life and even strong marriages can crumble. The assertion of Psalm 133 is that God provides a superabundance–not necessarily a superabundance of money or time but a superabundance of love–that enables relationships to flourish.

What’s the deal with verse 3? Mount Hermon is a mountain just north of Israel in modern-day Syria. Its snow-capped peaks are visible from the Sea of Galilee and other parts of Israel. The snow melt would create streams that make the surrounding area look more like the Swiss Alps than the Middle Eastern deserts nearby. Mount Zion is the dusty, rocky hill that Jerusalem sat on. On Mount Zion, water is scarce and green vegetation is sparse.

The idea here is “What if the waters of Mount Hermon suddenly fell on Mount Zion? What if all those life-giving streams and that green plant life showed up in our dry, dusty city? Wouldn’t that be amazing?” It’s like we’ll be saying in a few months, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be if Florida’s climate dropped on West Michigan?” This is another gift from above for the blessing of humanity…just like good relationships.

One theologian says, “True unity, like all good gifts, is from above: bestowed rather than contrived, a blessing far more than an achievement.” Think of it like this, in the terms of our church vision statement:

Spiritual renewal leads to cultural renewal.

Cultural renewal feeds spiritual renewal.

When God renews me and when God renews you, when we soak our souls in His love for us in Jesus Christ, when we lose our egos in the amazing grace of forgiveness from sin at the cross, we can live out of God’s lavish blessing. We no longer have to compete for or earn the love of others. Instead, God fills our love tank so that it overflows into others…cultural renewal.

This summer, Emily, my wife, led a LIFEgroup that went through a book called Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely by author Lysa Terkeurst, and she told me about her favorite part: Lysa shared a story about a time she went to a gathering with a bunch of people who were strangers to her but apparently they all knew each other. They were all deep in conversation and she felt “alone in a crowded room.” She didn’t want to interrupt conversation but she wanted to look busy, pulled out her phone, went into her head, and started to get a little bitter. Lysa said she wished she would have prepared herself with the following thought: “I bring the fullness of God into this room with me. Therefore, I am on assignment to bring His acceptance and love into this room.” Even on their worst days, Christians can walk into a room–at work, at home, at church–as a giver. The idea is to be so full of and grounded in Christ’s love that you don’t wait for others to bless you but instead go first in blessing others. If you’re empty, you wait to be noticed. But if you’re full of Christ, you go out of your way to greet others.  If you’re empty, you wait for others to help or compliment you. If you’re full of Christ, you eagerly help and encourage others.

Here’s the thing: When this rich spiritual unity exists, the LORD renews more people more deeply! People not only hear the Gospel but they see cross-shaped people living out the Gospel, and that cultural renewal fans the flames of spiritual renewal.

We are in a season of abundance at Calvary. God’s blessings are clear, at least to me personally. We have been blessed by God by this amazing building and ministry location. We were able to get an elevator installed! We have many new members. Members are joining LIFEgroups, building deeper relationships with one another. Members excited about serving in ministries. Our giving this year has far exceeded expectations, and we have been able to keep spending under budget. Opportunities to share the Gospel hear in Muskegon and around the world abound so that we can get in on the action, get a piece of the joy of God’s work. All of these things are blessings from God.

But what happens when things get tough? When a recession hits. When tragedy strikes. When we struggle to make budget. When politics hit a boiling point. When people have competing ideas of what our church should be up to. What will we do? It’s my hope that we will turn to Jesus and to His love at the cross in those moments, that we will let His love fill us and guide us.

A song of ascents.

Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD

   who minister by night in the house of the LORD.

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary

   and praise the LORD.

May the LORD bless you from Zion,

   he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

Verses 1-2 seem to be the words of the pilgrims, now gathered in the temple courts, speaking to the priests and the Levites who work in the temple. Verse 3 seems to be the priests reply. “Praise” in verses 1-2 is the same word as “bless” in verse 3. So it really reads something like:

The people to the priests: “Bless the LORD, bless the LORD.”

The priests to the people: “No, may the LORD bless you!”

We cannot out-bless God! God receives our blessings like a parent receives birthday cards from their 2-year-old. When my kids give me a handmade card, I love it. But let’s be honest–it doesn’t even come close to equaling the blessing I bring to them (shelter, protection, food, clothing, etc.). Don’t get me wrong: God loves when we bless Him, but let’s be honest: The value of God’s blessing on me far far far outweighs the value of my blessing on God. We could go for days talking about how God out-blesses us, but I want to get right to the bottom line: Jesus.

Jesus is the greatest blessing we each need. He gave His life on the cross so that those who believe might be forgiven of sin. Is that a blessing you’ve received? Have you trusted Jesus and begun your journey with Him so that you might end it with Him? Say to God, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Embrace His forgiveness! Run free from your sin! Be baptized as a symbol of your new life in Christ! And offer your whole life and agenda and attitudes and behaviors back to Him as a blessing.

The end of our journey together will be epic, and we get a taste now through God’s lavish blessing on His people.

Psalm 134 marks the end of the pilgrimage and the start of the festival, so it is, in a sense, saying, “Let’s get this party started!” There were three big festivals in ancient Israel: Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. These were the biggest parties you’ve ever seen, all celebrating God and His redemption of His people. These festivals doubled as worship gatherings and family reunions. I imagine they were a little glimpse of the new heavens and earth. When God finally puts everything to right, once and for all saves His people from sin and death, and resurrects His people to live in everlasting peace together. That day is coming. Are you looking forward to it? If so, how has the LORD blessed you on your journey?

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Big Idea: The end of our journey together will be epic, and we get a taste now through God’s lavish blessing on His people. Spiritual renewal leads to cultural renewal. Cultural renewal feeds spiritual renewal.

  1. Read Psalm 133. What does this psalm teach us about about spiritual and cultural renewal? How has God ALREADY blessed us? What attitudes or practices should each member of Calvary adopt in order to invite and share the Lord’s blessing?
  2. Read Psalm 134. Verses 1-2 call on His people to “bless” the LORD (some translations use “praise” instead of “bless”), but verse 3 calls on the LORD to “bless” His people. How does humans blessing God differ from God blessing humans? How should this dynamic shape our thinking and living?
  3. How has the LORD blessed you on your journey through life?

LORD, Remember David and All His Self-Denial (Psalm 132)

Right now, my kids are obsessed with superheroes. They’ve got hero posters in their rooms, hero toys to play with, hero costumes for halloween. I’m pretty sure my 3-year old actually starting to channel the Hulk in his daily life, which is something we’re getting really concerned about.

It’s not just kids who are obsessed with heroes though. I saw this summer alone some $2 billion were spent on movies, half of which went to Disney movies, who, of course, is the whiz of mass-produced, imaginary heroes. That’s crazy.

We as a people are always on the lookout for heroes, people who can save us from our greatest perceived threats. That hero could be a man or a woman who will save you from loneliness or a politician who will save you from your fears or an employer who will save you from going broke.

This summer, we are studying the Songs of Ascent. The Songs of Ascent are a “playlist” of 15 psalms (Psalms 120-134) that ancient Israelites sang during their pilgrimage to worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem, three times a year (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). The journey was difficult and dangerous, and it became a metaphor for life in this broken world, which is difficult and dangerous. The songs of ascent put faithful language in the mouths of pilgrims for every season of life–whether good or bad. We’ve seen trust for times of fear, songs of lament for times of heartbreak, songs of praise for times of joy. Songs about wisdom, repentance, physical family, spiritual family. Today, we’ll see the one that anticipates Jesus.

The goal of the pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple was an encounter with the living God–where God’s love and truth breaks into our reality. The Temple (God’s house) was physical space for Israel to worship God and for God to shape Israel (aka spiritual + cultural renewal). At Calvary, our vision is to become an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of the Muskegon area–“a church for the community.”

We want to see people stirred up all across Muskegon to love God like He deserves and love their neighbors like themselves. But in order to be that tool in God’s hand, we need spiritual and cultural renewal ourselves. It begins with us! And what does that renewal look like? The songs of ascent give us language for that journey.

The question is…how is any of this possible? How can a holy God work in and through an unholy people? Where do we get off thinking that, at the end of our journey, when we encounter God, that He’ll want to have anything to do with us?

On our journey together, our encounter with God is totally dependent on someone else’s work.

Do we really think we can get to know God through our own abilities, our own reason, our own willpower? Do we really think God is impressed with our achievements, our goodness, our integrity? Nope.  For ancient Israel, their encounter with God depended on King David, one of Israel’s greatest heroes. For Christians today, our encounter with God depends on another Hero named Jesus. That’s what Psalm 132 is about. It’s about how…

David and God’s commitment to one another created physical space for Israel to worship God and for God to shape Israel (aka spiritual + cultural renewal).

The first half of the psalm describes David’s commitment to God to establish the Temple. The second half of the psalm describes God’s commitment to David to establish the Temple.

A song of ascents.

Lord, remember David

   and all his self-denial.

He swore an oath to the LORD,

   he made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob:

“I will not enter my house

   or go to my bed,

I will allow no sleep to my eyes

   or slumber to my eyelids,

till I find a place for the LORD,

   a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Psalm 132:1-5 NIV)

Note that Israel calls God to remember, even praising David for his self-denial. Not his dashing good looks. Not his military genius. Not his winsome charisma. This psalm praises its hero for his self-denial! Self-denial is not exactly our favorite character quality. It hurts! If I want to be healthy, I have to deny myself double bacon cheeseburgers. If I want to have healthy relationships, I have to deny myself distractions and obstacles (like phones!) to the people around me. If I want to have sexual intimacy with my spouse (or a future spouse, if single), I must deny myself pornography. If I want to have financial peace, I must deny myself days off work and frivolous spending. Most of us get the payoff of self-denial, but few of us actual think it’s worth it.

David’s self-denial is evident in the fact that He desired to give God a “home” at all costs and with all haste. According to this psalm, David vowed not to go home or even sleep until he gets a house. This whole process took David years, so the vow is a metaphor. But the point remains. David exhausted himself to get God a house so that God would dwell among His people.

How did David deny himself to get God a house?

It’s essential to understand the history behind Psalm 132, which we just happened to read in our church-wide Bible reading plan earlier this month in 1 Chronicles. This is a great reason to personally engage the Bible every day. The Bible refers to other stories in the Bible, and unless you are reading it broadly, you will miss out on gold! Here are three ways David denied himself…

#1 David and his army risked their lives to capture Jerusalem (1 Chr 11:4-9).

When Israel first conquered the Promised Land, Jerusalem was one of the cities left unconquered. So, when David became king, one of the first things he did was to capture Jerusalem. Jerusalem was significant to the Israelites because it was the mountain where God had commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac yet provided a substitute–a ram–to die in Isaac’s place (Gen 22:2; 2 Chr 3:1). David and his army had a hard time taking Jerusalem because it was well-fortified but one of David’s commanders found a secret way in and took the city.

#2 David prioritized bringing the ark to Jerusalem (1 Chr 13; 15-16).

The ark of the covenant was a golden box approx 4½’ x 2½’ x 2½’ that was used to symbolize God’s presence. Many ancients carried their “idols” and “gods” around on a litter or “ark.” God wanted His people to be reassured by His presence but not to worship anything of their making, so God had them build this ark and carry it around without an idol/image. Israel carried the ark with them wherever they went, even into battle. Sadly, it had been abandoned by the previous king Saul and Israel for 20 years (1 Samuel 7:1-2). This dishonored the LORD by removing a key symbol of His leadership from Israel’s midst. It was King David who stepped up and called Israel to search for the ark, which you could call the ORIGINAL Raiders of the Lost Ark. Psalm 132 recalls the search…

We heard it in Ephrathah,

   we came upon it in the fields of Jaar:

“Let us go to his dwelling place,

   let us worship at his footstool, saying,

‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place,

   you and the ark of your might.

May your priests be clothed with your righteousness;

   may your faithful people sing for joy.’

For the sake of your servant David,

   do not reject your anointed one.’” (132:6-10)

The “it” of verse 6 is the ark of the covenant. The search began in Ephrathah (another name for Bethlehem, David’s hometown, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem), and the ark itself was discovered in the fields of Jaar (also Kiriath-jearim), about 12 miles west of Jerusalem. When they found the ark, they carried it to an honored place in Jerusalem. This psalm, then, recounts a pilgrim scene. In the middle of the pilgrim psalms. This is the first-ever pilgrimage to worship the LORD in Jerusalem and is part of the inspiration for these regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

#3 David financed the construction of the Temple (1 Chr 21:18-22:19).

David bought the site of the future temple. He took “great pains” (1 Chr 22:14; same Hebrew root word as self-denial in Ps 132:1) to gather tons of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone. More than that, he hired contractors and construction workers and artists and commanded all Israel to get behind this project. Eventually, David’s son Solomon would build the Temple, and Israel would have a majestic place to worship God and hear His law.

David and God’s commitment to one another created physical space for Israel to worship God and for God to shape Israel (aka spiritual + cultural renewal).

Verses 1-10 demonstrate David’s commitment to God, but verse 11-18 demonstrate God’s commitment to David to build this space…

The LORD swore an oath to David,

   a sure oath he will not revoke:

“One of your own descendants

   I will place on your throne.

If your sons keep my covenant

   and the statutes I teach them,

then their sons will sit

   on your throne for ever and ever.” (132:11-12)

In 1 Chronicles 17, right after bringing the ark to Jerusalem, David asked God if he could build a “house” (that is, temple). God refused and instead promised to build David a “house” (that is, a dynasty). The heart of this promise or covenant is here in verses 11-12. God promised to always put one of David’s descendants on the throne and that that descendant would stay their as long as they obeyed God.

God’s promise to David and David’s descendants was irrevocable…it would never go away…but it was conditional for each generation. This month in our church-wide Bible reading plan, we’ve been reading about these descendants in 1-2 Chronicles: Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah. Some were better than others, but, because they all ultimately disobey God, God takes the throne away. Israel’s heroes were failures. They needed, longed for a better King.

For the LORD has chosen Zion,

   he has desired it for his dwelling, saying,

“This is my resting place for ever and ever;

   here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.

I will bless her with abundant provisions;

   her poor I will satisfy with food.

I will clothe her priests with salvation,

   and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.

Here I will make a horn grow for David

   and set up a lamp for my anointed one.

I will clothe his enemies with shame,

   but his head will be adorned with a radiant crown.” (132:13-18)

The psalm closes by celebrating God’s promise to David and longing for a King who would once and for all establish space for spiritual and cultural renewal. This hero would be the anointed one (English), the messiah (Hebrew), the Christ (Greek), specially chosen by God and specially qualified to finish what God had started in David. Remember how…

David and God’s commitment to one another created physical space for Israel to worship God and for God to shape Israel (aka spiritual + cultural renewal).

David’s line failed until Jesus came, and in the New Testament, Jesus becomes the new David, the new hero!

Jesus and God’s commitment to one another creates SPIRITUAL space for the church to worship God and for God to shape the church (aka spiritual + cultural renewal).

Jesus accomplishes all David did and so much more through His own self-denial!!! How did Jesus deny Himself? He became a human being. He lived and ministered among the poor and vulnerable people of the world. He poured Himself out, even to the point of death on a cross for the glory of God and the forgiveness of sin. Therefore, God raised Him from the dead and exalted Him to be King of kings who rules over His spiritual temple, the Church. The Church is the spiritual space where God comes to earth, and we owe all this to Jesus.

So what?

Trust Jesus.

We rely totally on Jesus. We never forget Him. Neither does God. Jesus is our Hero forever. We have no hope or comfort or joy in life or death without Jesus and all He has done for us in His life, death, and resurrection.

Be happy.

In verses 9 and 16, the psalm describes how the people in the temple “sing for joy.” Having Jesus as our hero, knowing the One full of infinite grace, truth, and hope, gives us an inexhaustible source of joy for even the worst seasons of heartbreak and fear.

Do good.

In verse 9 and 16, the psalm also describes how the priests will be clothed with righteousness and salvation. The people of God who live and serve in the spiritual space Jesus creates have a calling to do what is right for the glory of God and the good of others. We lay our lives down as neighbors, as co-workers, as students, as spouses, as parents, as grandparents, as church members, as citizens, in cross-shaped service to our cross-shaped hero. In Mark 8:34, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

LORD, remember Jesus and all His self-denial…

 

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Big Idea: On our journey together, our encounter with God is totally dependent on someone else’s work. David’s and God’s commitment to one another created physical space for Israel to worship God and for God to shape Israel (aka spiritual + cultural renewal). Jesus’ and God’s commitment to one another creates SPIRITUAL space for the church to worship God and for God to shape the church (aka spiritual + cultural renewal).

  1. Read Psalm 132:1-10. In what ways did David deny himself in order to get God a house (see 1 Chronicles 11, 13, 15-16, 21-22 for the background)? In verses 8-9, what is the hopeful effect of the Temple? In verse 10, what is the heart of the psalmist’s request to God?
  2. Read Psalm 132:11-18. What does God do for David in response to David’s passion to build a house for God?
  3. How does David foreshadow Jesus in this psalm? How does Jesus show His commitment to God and how does God show His commitment to Jesus? What effect does this have on us? What is one practical thing you need to do as a result of this study?

They Have Greatly Oppressed Me from My Youth (Psalm 129)

I had a chance to be at Supper House last month. Supper House is a local missional partner who provides dinner every weeknight to anyone looking for a meal in Muskegon Heights. I ate dinner with a woman named Renae who graciously shared part of her story with me. Renae raised her kids as a single mom in the Muskegon Heights projects. It was really hard, she said. Resources were tight. Temptations lurked around every corner. Her kids were close to dropping out a few times. But they made it. They survived. And she gave God all the credit for getting them through. She took her kids to church every Sunday and built her house on the LORD. Now she owns her own home and both of her adult children are working jobs, making a living for themselves and their families. To this day, her twenty-something son, whenever they are facing a crisis, says to her, “Oh Mama, let’s pray!” How awesome is this. Renae had some painful memories of living in the “hood” but she uses those scars to preach about how “God is good even in the hood.”

Psalm 129 acts as a fight song for victims who don’t want to stay victims. I don’t know that Renae knows Psalm 129, but I couldn’t help but think of her as I’ve meditated on this psalm.

This summer, we are studying the Songs of Ascent. The Songs of Ascent are a “playlist” of 15 psalms (Psalms 120-134) that that ancient Israelites sang during their pilgrimage to worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem, three times a year (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). The journey was difficult and dangerous, and it became a metaphor for life in this broken world, which is difficult and dangerous. The songs of ascent put faithful language in the mouths of pilgrims for every season of life–whether good or bad. There are songs of trust for times of fear, songs of lament for times of heartbreak, songs of praise for times of joy. Songs about wisdom, repentance, physical family, spiritual family, and even one that anticipates Jesus. The goal of the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem was an encounter with the living God–where God’s love and truth breaks into our reality. At Calvary, Our vision is to become an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of the Muskegon area–“a church for the community.”

We want to see people stirred up all across Muskegon to love God like He deserves and love their neighbors like themselves. But in order to be that tool in God’s hand, we need spiritual and cultural renewal ourselves. It begins with us! And what does that renewal look like? The songs of ascent give us language for that journey.

Here’s Psalm 129…

A song of ascents.

“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth,”

   let Israel say;

“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,

   but they have not gained the victory over me.

Plowmen have plowed my back

   and made their furrows long.

But the LORD is righteous;

   he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.” (129:1-4 NIV)

One theologian notes, “While most nations look back on what they have achieved, Israel here reflects on what they have survived.” (Derek Kidner) Since Israel’s “youth,” their earliest days as a nation, Israel experienced oppression and persecution. They had been brutally exploited as slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. Even after God brought them into the Promised Land, they still faced regular invasions and occupations from the surrounding nations. Israel had often been the victim, but this psalm celebrates how they had become survivors.

Union soldier Gordon etching

This is an etching of a Civil War soldier named Gordon. His full name is lost to history. Gordon ran away from slavery in 1863 and joined the Union army.

Gordon right after 1863 escape.jpg

When he first showed up at a Union camp, he was wearing rags because he had been on the run for quite some time. During his medical examination, Union doctors discovered horrific scarring on his back from a severe flogging he had endured at the hands of one of his overseers.

Gordon aka Whipped Peter.jpg

You may have seen this heart-breaking photograph before. The picture was reprinted in newspapers across the North during the Civil War as evidence of barbaric cruelty toward slaves in South.

I wanted to show you this horrific picture for two reasons. First of all, do you see how the plowman plowed his back and made their furrows long. The deep gashes from his flogging have scarred over, but this is an actual picture of what verse 3 is describing. What happened to this man as an individual happened to Israel as a community. This man and ancient Israel suffered trauma so terrible that very few if any of us could relate to. We should thank God that we have never had to suffer like this! But we should also be heartbroken that so many people have AND resolved to look out for those who experience severe trauma like this!

But the second reason I wanted to show you this is that this man is a survivor. His scars became a testimony in the North against brutality in the South. These scars helped to rally people to the Northern cause and to the abolition of slavery. These scars made a difference. Instead of growing bitter or ashamed, Gordon allowed his scars to change the world.

Israel had scars too, and they weren’t bitter or ashamed either. Rather, they celebrated what God had done. This psalm was about Israel’s refusal to stay the victim. This psalm is about was about how Israel had become a survivor..by the grace of God. Egypt? At the bottom of the Red Sea. The wilderness? Behind them. The Canaanites? Defeated. Invading nations? Repelled. Exile in Babylon? Ended. This psalm reflects on our scars and moves us to worship God!

On our journey together, scars aren’t just reminders of pain; they are monuments to the Savior.

Remember Renae from Supper House, who raised her family in the projects. She had scars, but she let those scars preach. They were an opportunity to tell others about Jesus. Remember also the Apostle Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, who was victimized but not destroyed all so that he can share Christ all the more with others!

What, by God’s grace, have you survived? Oppression and injustice? Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse? Addiction? The consequences of a sinful decision? Sin? Death of a loved one? Are your scars reminding you AND OTHERS of your Savior?

In verse 5, the song turns from a celebration of what God had done to a curse on their enemies…

May all who hate Zion

   be turned back in shame.

May they be like grass on the roof,

   which withers before it can grow;

a reaper cannot fill his hands with it,

   nor one who gathers fill his arms.

May those who pass by not say to them,

   “The blessing of the LORD be on you;

   we bless you in the name of the LORD.” (129:4-8)

The kind of language here is what theologians call an imprecatory psalm or a “curse” psalm. An imprecatory psalm is a prayer where the psalmist cries out to God to destroy his oppressors. The language here can be quite brutal sometimes. The end of Psalm 137, for example, contains some shocking and harsh language. The language of Psalm 129 is not so bad, but it is still a curse.

The curse is that the enemies of God’s people (aka Zion) would be like withered grass not even worth harvesting. Israelite rooftops consisted of a few wooden beams covered with thatching and mud. Seeds would inevitably find their way to the rooftops and plants would grow. The little grass that would grow would wither and die during the hot and dry season (much like my lawn). A few sprouts of dead grass were nothing worth harvesting, not even a handful to cut with a sickle, let alone enough to bundle up and carry off. The greeting exchanged in verse 8 is the customary end-of-harvest greeting. Boaz offered a similar greeting with harvesters after a fruitful crop (Ruth 2:4). The psalmist is praying that this end-of-harvest blessing be withheld from the enemies of God’s people.

The difficulty with these imprecatory psalms is that Jesus taught us to pray for those who persecute us, to bless those who curse us–not to curse those who curse us. Jesus’ Himself prayed that God would forgive those who crucified Him. This is the heights of enemy-love. But praying imprecatory psalms doesn’t exactly fit with loving your enemies. This psalmist literally says about his enemies, “May no one, not even God, bless them.”

What gives? Why are imprecatory psalms in the Bible? The psalms are the words God’s people are to pray and sing in order to encounter God’s reality. Does God really want you and I to pray these imprecatory psalms? I want you to be ready to encounter these psalms and even to talk to people about them who have questions. I don’t want you to be caught off guard when you’re doing our church-wide Bible reading plan and stumble upon, “God, break the teeth of the wicked!” I don’t want you to be caught off guard when a friend asks you why the Bible contains such violent language. I don’t have all the answers, but here are four considerations…

4 Purposes for Imprecatory Psalms

#1 Imprecatory psalms ease the desire for revenge by trusting God’s justice (Romans 12:19).

Paul says, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.” The imprecatory psalms call on God to do justice, and throw water on the fire of our desire for revenge. I am asking God to take care of it so that I don’t and won’t have to. This is true of all imprecatory psalms. They are not commitments to get revenge ourselves but lean heavily on God’s character, on His justice toward evil and His mercy on the humble. Praying imprecatory psalms is perhaps one key step toward learning to refrain from vengeance by trusting in God.

#2 Imprecatory psalms acknowledge the horror of evil (Romans 12:15).

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.” The Scriptures command each of us to feel each other’s pain so deeply that we grieve too! The Scriptures then must also grieve with us! The Bible is not all sunshine and rainbows. Imprecatory psalms and lament psalms are one way God weeps with us as we walk through this broken, gritty, messy, sinful world. This should not only be an encouragement to us but should drive us toward empathy and care for those who are oppressed.

#3 Imprecatory psalms are for true enemies: Satan, sin, death (Ephesians 6:10-12).

Ephesians 6:10-12 emphasizes that our true enemies are not human. They are supernatural, evil powers. Can those powers use human agents? Yes! The evil powers influence people and societies toward idolatry and injustice. Though we are complicit in some way, we are victims too of the lure of these evil powers. Imprecatory psalms are not for the driver who cuts you off in traffic. They’re not for the cashier who says “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” They’re not even for the person who votes differently from you or comes from another country. These psalms should really be reserved for Satan and his agents, the addictive and destructive power of Sin, and the “last enemy” Death.

#4 Imprecatory psalms expose evil in our own hearts (Romans 3:9-20).

What terrifies me most about about the imprecatory psalms is that, according to Paul in Romans 3:9-20, we are not on the good side of those psalms. When I read the psalms, I tend to picture myself  the good person, the righteous person, whose singing the psalm. Not Paul. Paul had a profoundly humbling encounter with Jesus one day, while he was on his way to persecute Jesus’ followers. Jesus rebuked him and called him to turn his life around and follow Him. Paul had to come to grips with the fact that, even though he thought he was right, he wasn’t right. Even though he thought he was a good guy, he was one of the bad guys. So do we.

In Romans 3, Paul quotes a series of Old Testament Scriptures, mainly imprecatory psalms and applies them to you and me and every single human being that’s ever existed. That means that before we start praying imprecatory psalms about our enemies, perhaps we need to stop and consider that someone somewhere could very well be praying imprecatory psalms about us. We have all been complicit in Satan’s schemes, whether we know it or not, and we all deserve the wrath of God that the imprecatory psalms pray for. Wow. This is why we need Jesus die in our place, suffering God’s wrath for our sin, and granting those who believe the gift of rightness with God, which brings us back to our big idea…

On our journey together, scars aren’t just reminders of pain; they are monuments to the Savior.

Our Savior himself has scars to mark how He saved us. He willingly gave himself over to oppression, to flogging and crucifixion. Psalm 129 is about how Israel as a nation unwillingly experienced injustice from others yet ultimately experienced victory from God. But the story of Jesus is a about a man who not only shared in humanity’s suffering but willingly endured it and not only experienced victory from God but shared it with us.

This is why Romans 8:37-39 says, “In all these things we are…” What? Victims? No. Survivors? No, not just survivors. Conquerors? No, not even just conquerors. We are “more-than-conquerors” through Christ who loved us!

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Big Idea: On our journey together, scars aren’t just reminders of pain; they are monuments to the Savior.

  1. Read Psalm 129:1-4. Based on what you know about Israel’s story in the Bible, what kind of suffering had Israel faced, especially in their “youth” (early years as a nation)? Which aspect of God’s character does Israel credit for their victory? Why would that aspect of God’s character be important to highlight in this psalm?
  2. Read Psalm 129:5-8. What purpose might a “curse” psalm like this serve in the Bible? How should Christians use this?
  3. What kinds of oppression have you experienced (think personally, socially, and spiritually)? How can God deliver you from it through Christ (perhaps He already has)? How can you use those scars as a testimony to tell others about God?

Unless the LORD Builds the House… (Psalm 127)

I need to work on my parenting. I was reading an article on NPR this week called “Parents, Sometimes You’re The Problem When It Comes To Tech Use”. The author warns against the overuse of screens and technology in the home and calls parents to step up and lead in this area. And it hit me right where it hurts.

For example, one word of wisdom, obvious as it may be, was “put your phone away whenever possible when you’re with your kids.” The article said that “parents of young children pick up their phones an average of almost 70 times a day.” I bet I blow that statistic out of the water. Do you have any idea how often my lovely wife holds me accountable and says “put your phone away”? If I had a nickel…

Another punch to the gut: “stop using the phone as a pacifier — for you or your kid.” The article described the all-too-familiar scenario when either my kid or myself are having a meltdown and immediately turn to the screen. That’s one expensive pacifier! They gave some little tips like…

  • Keep it out of sight and out of mind, especially during the more stressful routines in your home.
  • Turn off notifications, so you decide when to check the phone.
  • Wait for moments your kids are truly engaged and happy doing something else.
  • If you do need to use the phone, narrate what you are doing to your children.

Again, these are pretty obvious I suppose, but I need to be jolted from my unhealthy routines. And I bet many of us, parent or not, need to be jolted from everyday yet unhealthy habits like this too. Because even more than listening to the good advice of an NPR columnist, we need to hear the good news of fearing and following God in my everyday life! That’s what today’s biblical text is going to do; it celebrates how great this mundane life can be like under the rule of God, even while living in this broken world.

This summer, we are studying the Songs of Ascent. The Songs of Ascent are a “playlist” of 15 psalms (Psalms 120-134) that that ancient Israelites sang during their pilgrimage to worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem, three times a year (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). The journey was difficult and dangerous, and it became a metaphor for life in this broken world, which is difficult and dangerous. The songs of ascent put faithful language in the mouths of pilgrims for every season of life–whether good or bad. There are songs of trust for times of fear, songs of lament for times of heartbreak, songs of praise for times of joy. Songs about wisdom, repentance, physical family, spiritual family, and even one that anticipates Jesus. The goal of the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem was an encounter with the living God–where God’s love and truth breaks into our reality.

At Calvary, our vision is to become an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of the Muskegon area–“a church for the community.” We want to see people stirred up all across Muskegon to love God like He deserves and love their neighbors like themselves. But in order to be that tool in God’s hand, we need spiritual and cultural renewal ourselves. It begins with us! And what does that renewal look like? The songs of ascent give us language for that journey.

So, here’s Psalm 127:

A song of ascents. Of Solomon.

Unless the LORD builds the house,

   the builders labor in vain.

Unless the LORD watches over the city,

   the guards stand watch in vain.

In vain you rise early

   and stay up late,

toiling for food to eat—

   for he grants sleep to those he loves. (Psalm 127:1-2 NIV)

Quick note: “House” in verse 1 refers not to a physical house but to a home, a family, as we’ll see very clearly in verses 3-5, where the focus turns to one’s children.

The psalm opens by celebrating how fearing and following God imbues even our mundane, everyday routine with meaning. Stated positively, verse 1 could read “If the LORD builds the house, the builders labor meaningfully. If the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch meaningfully.”

We can respond to the meaninglessness of life in two unwise ways: self-medication and self-effort. Self-medication is when you numb the meaningless of your life with even more meaningless things in order to escape the pain of life. In our day and age, that might be movies, music, video games, porn, alcohol, drugs, sports, etc. All those things that might be fun for a fleeting moment, but none of them can create a meaningful life.

But self-effort is what’s addressed in verse 2. You work yourself to death only to literally die in the end. When faced with meaninglessness, some of us just work harder. We work harder at our career, work harder at our marriage, work harder at our parenting, work harder at our grand-parenting, work harder at our relationships, work harder at our politics, etc. But without God as Creator, Savior, and King, you will only work yourself to death until the day you die.

But those who let the LORD do the building get precious, precious sleep. This is the point of verse 2. Don’t get me wrong; the Scriptures celebrate hard work. These people work hard, but they are not working hard to find meaning. They work hard because they have already found meaning in a life following King Jesus. They can enjoy a day off, they don’t let the pressures and anxieties of life steal their joy and their kindness because they know God will provide ENOUGH. Maybe not as much as the guy down the street with all the toys, but he doesn’t sleep and can’t really enjoy them anyways!

[ASIDE: Generally speaking, this is how it works, and this is how God wants it to work. Human beings should be able to make a living for their families without exhausting themselves to the point where they can’t even sleep. Of course, in a broken world world, we know that oppression and natural disasters often prevents this. But the fact remains: this is God’s gift to His people.]

Here’s the big idea…

Hard work cannot replace humble faith, even at home.

Think of humble faith like following a blueprint. When the construction workers were building the elevator, they needed a blueprint and they had to stick to it! Nothing but the blueprint met regulations and worked with the elevator, no matter how much confidence I had in my own ideas and effort… But that blueprint wasn’t going to build the elevator. No matter how hard we just stared at it, nothing would have happened. It took a master blueprint and hard work to get the job done. You could be the best mom, best dad, best citizen in the world, but unless you’re trusting God most, it’s all a waste. No family can experience full joy and whole life without Jesus in the home. We must do our part and work hard. But ultimately all things must be done by and for Jesus.

We must follow God’s blueprint in our homes! What is that blueprint? This psalm doesn’t really flesh it out here; it’s goal is to send us searching for the blueprint! But this is what we do as a church family each week. As a Christ-centered, truth-oriented, life-changing church, we are constantly looking to the Scriptures to grasp and follow God’s agenda for our lives.

What blueprint do you and we use to build our lives, our families, our communities? Which god is building your home? Which god is building your community?

The psalm closes by talking about the fruit of a house built by the Lord…

Children are a heritage from the LORD,

   offspring a reward from him.

Like arrows in the hands of a warrior

   are children born in one’s youth.

Blessed is the man

   whose quiver is full of them.

They will not be put to shame

   when they contend with their opponents in court. (127:3-5)

Your children are a blessing from God. They aren’t “yours” really. You are responsible for them but not as an owner…as a manager…even though you do so much work for them. Work goes into getting children, right? That can be some of the most fun kind of work that exists (at least for the man)! And it is also work raising children! That is some of the least fun work that exists! We had a sick kiddo this week, and let me tell you, I thought I was done cleaning up some of those kinds of messes. But all the work that goes into getting and raising children does not make them “ours.” Ultimately, they are God’s. And that impacts how we raise them. We are not raising them for ourselves…we are raising them for God.

But that doesn’t mean that our children aren’t a great benefit to us! The psalm says children are like an arrow. Your kids are, in a sense, an extension of you, an extension of God! They will make an impact in this world somehow, someway. Their impact will be for Jesus, if you prepare and equip them for it. One theologian commented on this passage: “It is not untypical of God’s gifts that first they are liabilities, or at least responsibilities, before they become obvious assets. The greater their promise, the more likely that these sons will be a handful before they are a quiverful.” (Derek Kidner)

Your kids can even become your allies. The psalmist envisions a day where his children are wise enough and credible enough in the community to defend him in a lawsuit. Wow! That’s a very specific situation, but the idea can apply to all sorts of contexts. As your children grow to become mature adults, they will almost become your peers! Imagine that: asking advice from the person you once potty-trained. Train them now so they can encourage and challenge you as they get older.

One of the things I love about the whole climate change debate is that it gets us to think about the future. Hang with me here for a second. The key question being by many is “What kind of world are you leaving for your children?” This is a great question. It gets us to think less of ourselves and more about others, especially today’s children and unborn generations to come. But Psalm 127 turns the question around. Instead of “what kind of world are you leaving your children?” it asks…

What kind of children are you leaving for the world?

Are you raising your kids to be brave and good and just and kind? Are you raising your kids to be epic contributors to society? In fact, I don’t even like the verbiage of “raising” kids. You RAISE bunnies or steer for 4H. But disciples of Jesus DISCIPLE their children.

Emily and I disciple the three kids God has entrusted to in two ways: we show and tell. We try to show Christ always through our attitudes and behaviors, and when we fall short, we try to show repentance! Always be showing either Christ or repentance to others in your life. But we don’t only show, we also tell. We’ve been teaching the Bible to our kids ever since they were babies. We loved reading the Jesus Storybook Bible, which tells famous Bible stories in beautiful ways. It even makes me tear up. We write the kids ministry memory verses on cards along with some reflection questions and discuss them over breakfast or dinner. Now that a couple of them are older they can really engage with the Bible, so I read them a chapter before bed, talk about how the chapter connects to Jesus, and let them ask questions. We’re in the Psalms right now, and it has been amazing discussing their questions and connecting the readings to Christ.

At Calvary, this is why we invest heavily in our children’s and youth ministry at Calvary. Some very rough math shows that we staff and program at $500 per child/teen per year compared to $300 per adult per year. That’s intentional. Of course, the elevator also was a huge investment in our children and youth. And next week, we’ll begin our 13 Days recruiting campaign for kids ministry. Keep your eyes open for ways you might be able to serve. So we as a church family invest heavily in children and adolescents, but we’re not even the ones who are primarily responsible for them. Parents are. Parents are the ones that God will hold accountable for how they raised their children to love and follow Jesus.

God is good. Today is a new day. We can ask God to forgive us in all the ways we fall short and ask for His help as we raise our children in Christ. Whether you have a family or are single, you can begin the journey out of self-medication and self-effort and into the restful work God has planned for you. I realize that this is a process that takes longer for some than others. There may be habits that have been ingrained in your for years that will not be easily untangled. But that is what we are here for as a grace-filled, life-changing church family. We are here to help each joyfully follow the LORD’s blueprint…because unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Big Idea: Hard work cannot replace humble faith, even at home.

  1. Read Psalm 127:1-2. Practically speaking, how can we balance the need for God as Architect of our lives but still work hard at our lives? What is one way you can work toward receiving the restful confidence God gives to those who humbly follow His plan?
  2. Read Psalm 127:3-5. In what sense are children a gift from God? If children are ultimately a gift from God, whose blueprint should we use in raising them? What kind of children should we be leaving for the world? What kind of work goes into raising those kind of children?
  3. How might this psalm apply to those who are single or do not have children?

When the LORD Restored the Fortunes of Zion (Psalm 126)

Psalm 126 starts off really lovely, doesn’t it? “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed!” God made Israel’s dreams come true! Laughing and singing and joy! But then, do you see the turn in verse 4? The psalm pleads with God, “Restore our fortunes, LORD, like streams in the Negev” (a desert). Weeping and working and waiting.

So this is a psalm that’s ultimately about suffering, specifically suffering well. Do you want to know how to suffer well? Not only how to get through it but how to grow and bear fruit in the process, how to have your suffering actually count for something? Psalm 126 is for you.

This summer, we are studying the Songs of Ascent. The Songs of Ascent are a “playlist” of 15 psalms (Psalms 120-134) that that ancient Israelites sang during their pilgrimage to worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem, three times a year (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). The journey was difficult and dangerous, and it became a metaphor for life in this broken world, which is difficult and dangerous. The songs of ascent put faithful language in the mouths of pilgrims for every season of life–whether good or bad. There are songs of trust for times of fear, songs of lament for times of heartbreak, songs of praise for times of joy. Songs about wisdom, repentance, physical family, spiritual family, and even one that anticipates Jesus. The goal of the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem was an encounter with the living God–where God’s love and truth breaks into our reality. At Calvary, our vision is to become an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of the Muskegon area–“a church for the community.”

We want to see people stirred up all across Muskegon to love God like He deserves and love their neighbors like themselves. But in order to be that tool in God’s hand, we need spiritual and cultural renewal ourselves. It begins with us! And what does that renewal look like? The songs of ascent give us language for that journey.

Now for Psalm 126…fruitful suffering under God’s rule while living in this broken world…

A song of ascents.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,

   we were like those who dreamed.

Our mouths were filled with laughter,

   our tongues with songs of joy.

Then it was said among the nations,

   “The LORD has done great things for them.”

The LORD has done great things for us,

   and we are filled with joy. (Psalm 126:1-3 NIV)

Let’s take care to not overly personalize the misfortune and restoration of “Zion”. Zion is a euphemism for the Temple, where God met with all of His people. The Temple is where God’s goodness and justice was invading the broken world. If Zion falls, the world falls; if Zion thrives, the world thrives. So the joy expressed here is not just personal but also communal and even cosmic, a celebration that God has saved all of His people and will save the entire world. It’s not just about personal loss such as the death of a loved one, but it’s also about the seeming loss of God’s presence and work in the world…a spiritual dry spell, a season of doubt, a loss of Christian relationships, a dysfunctional church, a compromised mission.

The psalm remembers the MANY times God had restored the fortunes of His people. He delivered them from Egypt. He made His covenant with them and gave them the Law. He brought them safely through the wilderness and gave them the Promised Land. He gave them peace in the land and allowed His Temple to be built. When Israel was exiled because of their sin, God graciously brought them back after 70 years. All that to say, God had often restored the fortunes of Zion. That’s why the psalm expresses such joy, even in the midst of suffering…

On our journey together, fruitful suffering includes…

 

  • OVERWHELMING JOY

 

Even though the singers long for God’s restoration in verse 4 (“restore our fortunes”), they are joyful in verse 3 because they recognize what God has done in the past and are joyful. Past salvation brings present joy. In fact, living under God’s rule is living in a world where dreams come true. Not any dream…but those who are dreaming with God about the restoration of the world. God doesn’t want you to chase your dream; He wants you to dream His dreams and then chase that.

Following Jesus is full of “pinch me” moments. The more we learn from Jesus, act like family, and serve you neighbors, the more we catch ourselves saying, “this is too good to be true.” But it is true. Christ is precisely where goodness and truth meet. We see people get baptized to signify that they’ve repented of sin and are following Jesus, that they have been saved from death and will live forever with God and His people! We hear testimonies of lives changed, of slavery to sin broken, of relationships restored, of great acts of self-sacrificial love that remind us of Jesus Himself. Among all the things the LORD has done for us, can you believe He gave His beloved Son so that whoever believes in Him won’t die but will have eternal life? Can you believe the love He lavishes on us so that those of us who were once rebels might be called His children?

The LORD’s restoration triggers contagious joy. Uncontrollable laughter and celebratory singing. Have you ever experienced a fit of uncontrollable laughter? Happens to me every once in a while, and my wife has this adorable/annoying habit of recording me when I lose control of my laugh muscles. Sometimes I wonder if JOY is Christianity’s best-kept secret. Christians get motivated and excited about so many things, but then church is like…meh. Brothers and sisters, church is the blood-bought family of God, indwelt by God’s spirit and led by Jesus on a mission to push back the darkness, making disciples and watching God save and transform lives! Church isn’t meh; church is epic. If we could get back to Christ—the source of joy, imagine what God could do. That brings to the overflow of joy: external focus…

On our journey together, fruitful suffering includes…

 

  • overwhelming joy

  • EXTERNAL FOCUS

 

Joy gives way to testimony. Notice that the singers’ joy is not something they keep to themselves. It’s expressed, it’s verbalized. Israel’s laughter and singing impact the world around them to the extent that the NATIONS even recognize Yahweh: “The LORD has done great things for Israel!” Every nation had their own god or gods. So it’s stunning that the nations would recognize ISRAEL’S God. We’ve talked about how Zion’s dream was restoration, but this is God’s dream: reaching the nations through His chosen people.

Here is the kind of external focus that overwhelming joy can lead you to: This past week, our missional partners, John (Wendy) Patton, were telling me about the church they belong to in Iquitos, Peru, which is right on the Amazon River in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest (John preaches every other week, and Wendy helps lead the kids ministry). Iquitos is a large city of almost half a million people, but it accessible only by airplane or on the river. Anyways, their pastor, Pastor Hugo and Margarin, his wife, have an enormous passion for spreading the gospel along the Amazon River. Pastor Hugo is so dedicated to this mission work that he once sold his shoes in order to pay for passage to get a little further down the river, to spread the gospel to the next village. How epic is that. If we are truly overwhelmed with joy by what God has done for us, people will know. Your family will notice, your friends will notice, your classmates and neighbors and co-workers will notice.

Restore our fortunes, LORD,

   like streams in the Negev.

Those who sow with tears

   will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

   carrying seed to sow,

will return with songs of joy,

   carrying sheaves with them. (126:4-6)

Now the psalm turn back to the present situation. Having recalled the joy of restoration by the LORD, they beg for the LORD to restore them once again. The kind of restoration they are asking for is “like streams in the Negev.” The Negev is a desert on the southern border of Israel, and only once in a great while are there ever streams there. You see, the Negev does not have rivers that flow all year long like we do like the Muskegon River or the Grand River. Instead, they have temporary rivers–called wadis. Here is the the “River” or Wadi Zin in the Negev Desert (0:14-2:14, 2x speed). These rivers only form when it rains up in the mountains. The Negev rarely sees rain itself, but if it rains up in the mountains of Israel, the water will run through the valleys and come out these dry riverbeds. You could have blue skies in the Negev, but if it’s raining miles away, these rivers will come down out of the mountains and make the Negev spring to life. Vegetation will grow up out of nowhere. Huge flocks of birds and herds of gazelle will move into the neighborhood. Human life now even has a chance in the Negev, but only while the river lasts. That’s the kind of miraculous deliverance the psalm is praying for. Rivers in the desert!

First, notice that the psalm recognizes Zion is a desert…which brings us to the fourth element of fruitful suffering…

On our journey together, fruitful suffering includes…

 

  • overwhelming joy

  • external focus

  • BRUTAL HONESTY

 

Fruitful sufferers don’t sugarcoat painful moments. They aren’t afraid to say, “This hurts!” This psalm admits that Zion is a desert and it needs a miracle. There are going to be a lot of tears before things get better. We cannot rush ourselves through the emotional impact of suffering. Our suffering, whatever it is, has meaning. It’s meant to drive us to desperate dependence on God. The death of a loved one. Oppression and injustice. The breakdown of a relationship. The horror of cancer. Co-parenting with a difficult ex-spouse. Inescapable addiction. Neverending depression or anxiety. There is no denying it. These things are awful. There’s no keeping it secret before God, and there is no sense keeping it secret from the people of God. God wants to hear that we’ve begun to be concerned about the things He’s concerned about.

BUT this brutal honesty does not sit on its hands and sour into cynicism, friends. It presses into God and transforms into hope…active hope!

On our journey together, fruitful suffering includes…

 

  • overwhelming joy

  • external focus

  • brutal honesty

  • ACTIVE HOPE

 

The psalm continues the agricultural metaphor in verses 5 and 6. Notice how verse 6 repeats and expands the metaphor of 5. This is different than calling for miraculous streams in the desert. This is envisioning the hard work of sowing before the joy of the harvest. So which is it…is restoration God’s work or our work? The answer is “yes.” It’s both. The kind of hope God calls us to begs our participation. There is a sort of work we must do in order to engage His restoration. If you want a harvest, you have to plant crops. If you want a baby, you have to go through labor. If you want a paycheck, you have to go to work. If you want a win, you have to practice. No pain, no gain.

St. Augustine, an ancient Christian theologian, reflected on his own spiritual journey and said,

The fear of departure from a place or an experience or a life disposition is displaced, perhaps to our surprise, by the joy of our arrival at a new experience in God. (Confessions, by St. Augustine)

The fruitful sufferer gets up and moves out of their old ways, painful as it is, and embraces the brand new kind of joy that is following Jesus. Goodbye old desires, old habits, old comforts, old friends. Hello new desires, new habits, new comforts, new friends. And, as Augustine says, we might even be surprised at all the joy we find in the freedom and family of God. Take reading the Bible every day or being part of a LIFEgroup…you might be surprised at the joy of developing those habits.

Are you a fruitful sufferer or a dry and dusty one? Has the “misfortune” of life stalled you out, stopped your progress? I’m reminded of Jesus Himself, “who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross.” Chasing the joy at the end of the journey. The joy you can taste even now because of what God has done in the past for you. He’s gotten you this far. Don’t you think He’ll finish it?

In the New Testament, Paul talks about the journey that the church in Philippi was on. Paul had planted the Philippian church and writes a letter to them years later.

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:4-6)

Paul remembered how God had begun the work in the Philippians lives and even how they had generously supported Paul during his mission. Paul goes on to say that God is not done yet! He’ll finish the work He’s started!

God has provided for Calvary in BIG ways so that we might be a cross-shaped church for the community. Let’s celebrate what He’s done from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to bringing together all you lovely people to gifting us our building to placing us in the heart of the Fruitport community with a vision to be a church for the community. He has “restored our fortunes” in many ways. But oh how we still beg for God to restore our fortunes. We long to see our community and beyond spiritually and culturally renewed, and we long to be equipped for such a task, even though it calls for fruitful suffering. “God, you’ve brought us this far, carry us the rest of the way. Finish what You’ve started.”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Big Idea: On our journey together, fruitful suffering includes overwhelming joy, external focus, brutal honesty, and active hope.

  1. Read Psalm 126:1-3. How do you think the nations found out about the great things the LORD had done for them. In what ways have you experienced joy at God’s restoration? Describe someone who has joyfulled shared what Christ has done for you in the past. Describe a time you joyfully shared what Christ has done for you with others.
  2. Read Psalm 126:4-6. How would the psalmist describe the present state of Zion (see verse 4)? Do you find it hard to be fully honest with God and others about the internal and external struggles you’re facing? Why/why not? What are some ways you can work with God while you pray for restoration? What broken things can you start praying for God to restore today?