A Time for True Repentance

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which prepares us for Easter. Let’s focus on a traditional Ash Wednesday Scripture, Isaiah 58:1-12, considering it in sections. (I’m using the New Living Translation today.) Throughout, Isaiah is speaking directly for the Lord.

“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
    Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!"

God wanted his people to recognize and be aware of their sins, calling upon his prophets to look to the Law and declare where the Israelites had strayed. There is no doubt God wants us to continue to recognize where we deviate from God’s will, first and foremost using the Bible as our guide.

   "Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
    and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
    that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
    pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
    and you don’t even notice it!’"

Religion, the system of living built around the worship of God, is a good and wonderful thing. But like any gift from God, religion can be abused. People can become so caught up in form that they forget function. The function of religion is to draw us into a closer relationship with God and better understand how God would have us relate to each other. This was true in Isaiah’s day, and it’s just as true now.

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
    “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
    will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
    by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
    like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
    and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
    Do you really think this will please the Lord?

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
    lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
    and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
    and do not hide from relatives who need your help."

God expects us to treat each other equitably, to use the resources we have to lift each other up! We who are free spiritually, economically and in other ways should live so that others may be free, too. The season of Lent is a wonderful time to look around and find the places where we can make a difference.

“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
    and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
    and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
    ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
    Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
    and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
    and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    giving you water when you are dry
    and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
    Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
    and a restorer of homes."

Yes, there are benefits to living a life with God—properly repenting of our sins, trusting Jesus Christ as our savior and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to holy actions we would not have considered before. Repentance opens the door to salvation and salvation gives us hope.

God is simply asking that we share that hope with others!

Lord, may this season of Lent be a proper time of reflection, repentance and renewal, and may what happens in us change the lives of others. Amen.

Psalm 23: Eternal Feast

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Our devotionals for Wednesday, Thursday and today are all from the 23rd Psalm, “A Psalm of David,” considered in small meditative bites.

Verse 5
You prepare a feast for me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
    My cup overflows with blessings.

Remember a couple of days ago, when we meditated on contentment? The shepherd who cares for our needs will also fulfill our holy wants. There is great reward in following him!

It does not matter if the world sneers at the shepherd’s flock. The worldly people, even their leaders, will have to watch in envy as the sheep receive far more than the world could ever offer.

The humble, the poor in spirit, the ones counted as irrelevant—these people will prove to be the ultimate insiders. The contentment of the sheep will turn to deep satisfaction and even irrepressible joy.

The one to whom all honor and glory must be given will honor us as his own. We hear it in the language of feasting and anointing, the latter a practice we have largely lost. The point is, there will be a public celebration of those who stood with the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and we likely will be shocked at who are and are not among the honored.

And if God wants to pour oil over our heads, rejoice! Feasting and anointing are just the first of many eternal blessings to follow.

Verse 6
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
    all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord

Now and forever. All that we’ve been promised as we’ve heard the 23rd Psalm these past few days lasts for now and forever.

In the “now,” we may not always feel we’re experiencing in full what is promised. We have to remember that the journey for the sheep can be a long one.

The world is a broken place. That’s why the shepherd needs his rod and staff. There are spiritual battles to be fought and rescues to be launched.

But we do have God’s goodness and unfailing love trailing us like a couple of sheepdogs, encouraging and guiding us. That’s enough for now.

And as astonishing as it is, we know where we are headed! Who ever heard of stinky sheep being allowed in the grand mansion of the master? The God we worship thinks it’s a good idea, though. He is determined to make us more than the wandering sinners we are.

The shepherd king gathers us, disciplines us and cleans us up, making us fit to be in the presence of royalty, forever.

Thank you, Lord, thank you. Thank you for the Great Shepherd who makes these promises possible. Thank you for what we do not deserve. Amen.

The Precious Present

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

James 4:13-16

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil.

The human mind is a remarkable time traveler. Our bodies are always in the present, but our minds easily jump into the future or the past. In fact, it is very difficult to keep our minds perfectly in the present.

That’s not necessarily a problem. Our minds just work that way. Remembrances of the past and visions of the future help us make critical decisions.

If you’ve read all of James’ letter, though, you know that he has a theme regarding how our thoughts and words can reveal our failure to keep God central in our lives. Today’s Scripture reading focuses on the flippant ways we sometimes talk about the future.

Again, a little context helps. James wrote his letter at a time when the rich were very busy planning to get richer while the poor were getting poorer. 

Much like Jesus, James was not being critical of wealth per se. Both warned, however, of the incredible distraction the pursuit of wealth can become when there’s kingdom work to be done.

James took particular note of the merchants of his day, who ran from city to city planning ventures years in advance, with no acknowledgment of their own mortality or need to align with God. Along these same lines, Jesus had told a parable found in Luke 12:13-21, a story aimed more at wealthy, overly comfortable landowners.

There’s a simple, very true cliché that Jesus or James could have used: “You can’t take it with you.” And if you can’t take it with you, why would anyone who believes in God pursue wealth without considering God? As one Christian commentary notes, such a short-sighted attitude is the “sin of arrogant presumption.”

James helps us maintain the right attitude as we plan for the future by giving us a simple phrase to keep in mind: If the Lord wants, followed by whatever we need to say about the future. In the South, we might precede such statements with, “Lord willin’.”

While we naturally talk about the future, the spiritually attuned are deliberate about focusing on the precious present, the holy now. We can go to Scripture now to seek God’s truth. We can pray now, staying with God until we hear from God.

Having dwelled with God in the moment, we then are better equipped to look to the future, letting God’s greater plan shape any visions we may have.

Lord, may we walk with you moment by moment, staying on the path that leads us to eternity with you. Amen.

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