Is it Okay to be Mad at God?

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During the recent Good Friday service at my church the pastors and a few others, including myself, reflected on the seven final sayings (or words) of Jesus. I had the opportunity to share on, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” I was, honestly, a little excited as Good Friday is always one of my favorite services and this is one of my favorite verses. There’s so much think about in these few words. Having only five minutes, I had to keep it pretty succinct. Here’s the manuscript of what I shared. I hope you are blessed by it.


At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
Mark 15:33-34

“Is it okay to be mad at God?”

This was a question asked by my wife Kourtney on our way to San Francisco shortly after discovering we had lost our second child to a miscarriage during the second trimester. Being the seminary trained husband that I am, I felt some pressure in answering the question.

On one hand you have God who is sovereign and in our relationship with Him we are often told that we should accept whatever challenges are thrown our way because God is ultimately in control and working for our good. Like in the hymn It Is Well when we sing, “whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well with my soul.”

But, on the other hand, the scriptures are full of people wrestling (literally and figuratively) with God. Adam blames God for creating Eve, Jonah gets upset when God kills a plant giving him shade, Job and his friends debate the ultimate goodness and justice of God. Here on Good Friday we have Jesus, who only hours before was wrestling with God in prayer, pleading, “if it is possible, let this cup pass over me.” And now he cries out in anguish quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Psalm 22 goes on to say, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock at me…” The Psalm continues bouncing between cries of anguish and remembering God’s promises.

“Is it okay to be mad at God?”

It can be tempting to look at people who stoically trust in God regardless of what happens in their life and see them as the epitome of faithfulness. Anytime we get upset with God, doubt or question his goodness or cry out can be seen as a weakness in our faith. Yet, over and over in the Bible, we hear from people who cry out and demand God show up and live up to his promises. Job demands that God give an answer for his troubles. The Psalmists are constantly pleading with God to remember his loving-kindness, mercy and promises to previous generations. The prophet Habakkuk is bewildered by the evil in the world and wants God to answer for it. And few would doubt Jesus’ faith as he cries out to God on the cross.

“Is it okay to be mad at God?”

Yes, I told Kourtney. It is. It is in those moments, in our anger, anguish and sadness, when we cry out to God, I feel, we are expressing the deepest faith in God. We go before the throne demanding an answer for our pain. Demanding to know what God is up to. Like the blind and the lepers crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” we don’t give up until we have an answer. The important part is that we are not turning away from God, denying that he exists or has any involvement in this life.

We are running towards him, vulnerable, bearing our soul and emotions, hoping he hears us.

Towards the end of Psalm 22 it says, “For He did not scorn, He did not spurn the plea of the lowly; He did not hide His face from him; when he cried out to Him, He listened.” God has not turned his back, God listens. God will hear us. Through whatever emotional, physical or otherwise upsetting excruciating pain you are going through right now…through the excruciating pain of Good Friday, Jesus demonstrates God can take whatever we throw at him.

Scream at God, demand he answer your questions, nail God to the cross, he will still hear you.

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Prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent

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Lord, as we light another candle around the Advent wreath, we continue to pray for your light to shine in this season of darkness.

We pray that our fear would be pushed back as your light scatters the darkness.

Remind us of your strength so that we would not fear our affliction.

And in your strength, may we empower our afflicted brothers.

Remind us of your salvation so that we would not fear our brokenness.

And in your salvation, we may save our broken sisters.

Remind us of your comfort so that we would not fear our distress.

And in your comfort, may we comfort our neighbor in distress.

So that the shadow of fear may continually be scattered by your strength, your salvation and your comfort and the world would witness the arrival of your light through Jesus.

Amen.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light,
The hopes and fears of all the years,
Are met in thee tonight.

Missing the Path (Advent Lectio Luke 1:69-78)

Lamp of Wisdom

Lamp of Wisdom, Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire, Britian.

On December 2nd, our TV’s and social media feeds were flooded with the news of the shooting in San Bernardino. A day in which two people chose violence over peace. The week before, a man killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic. It was just another day in which somebody chose violence over peace. A religious leader stood up and declared that people should arm and prepare themselves for violence.

People regularly choose violence over peace.

It seems to be the way the world works. Violence is normal, expected and sometimes deemed rational.

Last Sunday was the Second Sunday of Advent. For many, the candle that was lit symbolized Peace. As this candle was lit, many read the words of Zechariah prophesying over his son John.

“Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.
Luke 1:69-78 (CEB)

The Jews in Zechariah’s time were well acquainted with violence as well. Rome was well-practiced in exercising peace through violence. The much promoted Pax Romana was maintained by Roman authorities quashing any hint of an uprising or disturbance. As the Roman occupation of Judea wore on and the Jews grew increasingly unsettled by their presence, more and more Legions showed up the help keep the peace. Crucifixions were regular and the threat of violence generally kept things from boiling over. For the Jews, Rome was the enemy. Many devout Jews hated the Romans, their occupation and their polytheistic, emperor worshiping ways. The Jews dreamed for a day that, like Zechariah says, “we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live.” Many hoped for a Messiah that would come, like King David, and slay the Goliath of Rome. The Messiah would raise up a holy army, cleanse Jerusalem and Israel of the unclean, Gentile Romans in order to restore and sanctify right worship of God at the Temple and in the land.

The Messiah would battle unjust, pagan violence with justified holy violence.

It’s the same story repeated again and again. Violence for violence so that some pale shadow of peace might come.

The problem is, when violence is the norm we are in danger of missing the true peace and salvation that God sends through Jesus. We look for salvation, rescue and redemption to come through violent and dramatic means. We have, for the most of human history, believed that violence is the means for peace. So, when an alternative shows up and tries to direct us down a different path for peace we are often unable to recognize it. Or, the worst of cases, we will flat-out deny the path revealed to us.

“Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.

The “path of peace” revealed in Jesus is not through dramatic strength or violence against the oppressors. It lead’s people away from darkness and the shadow of death. The “path of peace” is shown in a scandalous birth witnessed initially only by animals. Then, those who testified to this birth were typically untrustworthy shepherds and pagan astrologers from the East. This is the signpost of God’s path for peace and many missed in then, and I think we continue to miss it now. Spending too much time looking for our own vision of peace we miss out, “on this day what would bring you peace” (Luke 19:42, NIV) and continue our march towards darkness and the overwhelming shadow of death.

We light candles during Advent, not floodlights. We have to take care that we do not miss the faint light of peace that flickers when the flashing of bombs and smoking of guns dance across our screens and in our minds.

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

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Lord, as we light the second candle of Advent, for many this may be the hardest candle to light.

We pray for your light to shine, we hope for your kingdom come.

But we are reminded that there is still much pain and suffering in the world.

While two candles are lit, there are those that remain unlit and extinguished.

Open our eyes to the moments when we can catch a glimpse of your light.

Of the faintly flickering candle.

Open our ears to hear the cries of pain in the world.

To the dark corners of our neighborhoods.

Open our hearts to carry your light wherever we go.

To those who sit in darkness, may we shine your light.

By your mercy God, Amen.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine.

Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine.

Just Wait (Advent Lectio – Jeremiah 33:14-16)

Reading by Eduard von Grutzner, 1889.

This past Sunday began the season of Advent as many of us, whether in a church service or at home, lit the first candle of Advent. This is a very important time in the Church as we start a new year in the Christian calendar and begin to turn our hearts and eyes towards Christmas in expectation of the arrival of Jesus, the light of the world. With that in mind, I begin my annual walk through the Sunday readings of Advent. If your unfamiliar with the hows and whys of Advent, I encourage you to go back and read this introduction I wrote last year. I’m going to kick things off this year with the Old Testament reading from Sunday.

“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 (CEB)

The prophet Jeremiah is speaking these words to the nation of Israel as they sit in exile in Babylon. Having experienced the conquering of their nation, the destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple, the Jews have to come to grips with what it means to be a people absent from their home. They have suffered utter defeat at the hands of a pagan, Gentile nation and they have begun to question whether the god they worship, YHWH, is good and if he is able (or willing) to keep the many promises he has made to them. Were they still YHWH’s chosen people, was their land still the Promised Land, would the line of their king David indeed “endure forever” (2 Samuel 7:16)?

This is the context Jeremiah speaks these words into.

“I will fulfill my gracious promise…”

“I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line…”

“Judah will be saved…”

“Jerusalem will live in safety…”

To the people of Israel sitting in exile, this must have been exciting words to hear. God would indeed fulfill his promise, David’s line would continue and their land would be restored and safe. They were not forgotten in this foreign, pagan land. God was still good even though the land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins. But, like many of us, I imagine they began to wonder, “What’s the next step? What must we do?”

This seems typical of our human nature. We want to know the next step. What’s our “action items” or when can we get this party started? What does the blueprint look like so we can start planning? When should we save the date? We like to live in the future, planning ahead and figuring out where we need to go and what we need to do to get there. This is what ultimately seemed to trip up the Pharisees. They believed in following so closely to God’s law so that they might be considered righteous and holy when God finally showed up with the Messiah. But, I think this verse is asking for something else.

Wait.

If you read the verse closely, God is doing all the acting.

“I will fulfill…I will raise up…”

Judah is not responsible to save, instead it will be saved by God.

Jerusalem will not create peace and safety itself, God will secure its peace and safety.

We are not responsible for our own righteousness, instead we will be identified as, “The Lord Is Our Righteousness”.

God going to fulfill his promises and he is also going to take the responsibility to raise up the one who will help bring about the fulfillment of these promises. It is not the responsibility of Israel to bring about the fulfillment or to raise up or even be involved in the choosing of this “righteous branch” who will bring about the promised salvation and safety.

God’s got this thing under control.

The Lord Is Our Righteousness”

Wait and watch just like Abraham who, “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

This is the underlying theme of Advent. Waiting and expectation are central during this time in the Church calendar. It’s tough for us in our fast-moving, on-demand, culture to sit, wait and patiently light candles. Can’t we just light them all on one day and be done with this thing?

No.

To quote the great and wise Yoda:

All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing. Hmph!

We can get so wrapped up in the future and what we need to do to get there that we rarely look around and see where God may have already been paving a path. We shouldn’t light the first candle of Advent just so we can get to the second. We should light the first candle and take a moment to enjoy the time spent with that first candle. Recognizing who we are with, where we are and what God is trying to speak into that moment. During this season of waiting and expecting, we should remember that we are not the ones responsible for our own righteousness. We are not the ones doing the saving.

We are a people waiting for a good and gracious God to fulfill his promises at just the right time.

Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent

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Almighty God,as your kingdom dawns,

turn us from the darkness of sin to the light of holiness,

that we may be ready to meet you

in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

A New Table is Set (Reflection on Psalm 23)

The Dinner Table by Henri Matisse, 1897.

 

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—they protect me.
You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.
Psalm 23 (CEB)

Psalm 23 could be one of the most recognized verses in the whole of Scripture. Definitely up there with the ranks of John 3:16. The issue with these familiar verses is that they can become overly sentimentalized and domesticated. Or, in other words, they stop shaking us up. While I’m okay with the Bible being used to help and give comfort in times of need, I am much more of a fan when it forces us to see the world in a new way. I find myself to be much more inspired by its words when it challenges my perceptions and pushes me to try and see the world from God’s perspective not my own, limited and admittedly selfish perspective. With that said, one line in this Psalm today shined through in a way that I had not considered before.

You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.

Whenever I heard this verse talked or preached about, I felt like it was always taught with a twinge of gloating. Like, “Look at this beautiful table God sets in spite of being surrounded by enemies.” Or, even as a triumphal table set in front of defeated enemies. Those images just did not jive for me as I read it this time through. I started to think about various tables elsewhere in the Bible to see if I could let the Bible lead me to an image. What tables set with food are important in the Bible? Especially those that happened to be set near some enemies. It did not take long before my mind began imaging the Passover tables of the Israelites set in Egypt. On the eve of their deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites eat a humble meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The blood of the lamb was painted on their doorposts to mark houses that the Lord would “pass over”.

I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Exodus 12:12-13 (CEB)

The Passover table was one set in the midst of enemies. It was not a table of gloating or victory, but it was probably set with a bit of fear and humility. It was a table set to signify the freedom from slavery God was about to lead his chosen people into. Even today, Passover celebrations are typically marked by solemn reflection on the memory of the first Passover. There are no fireworks like July 4th. There are no rousing nationalistic hymns or songs. Just the foundational phrase…

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.

From thinking about the Passover meal, I also began thinking about Jesus with his disciples at the Lord’s Supper. This was the last meal he was to eat with them and by all accounts, it was most likely the Passover meal. Here, there is definitely a table set in the presence of enemies. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were outside conspiring how they might kill Jesus. The Roman authorities were warily watching all the Passover celebrations, expecting an uprising. And, right there in the room with Jesus, is his betrayer. This is a table truly set in the presence of enemies. However, this is not a triumphal table for boasting. Instead, it’s the table where Jesus proclaims.

“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you.”
Luke 22:19-20 (CEB)

It’s at this table where Jesus points to the sacrifice he is about to make. It is at this table where the salvation of the cosmos is brought into focus and opened up to all. The bread and wine are offered to all around the table.

Betrayers, deniers, boasters, sinners and deserters one and all.

The Passover table Jesus sets in the presence of his enemies is one of sacrifice, not glory. The table is one of community not division. The table is set for all regardless of who they are, what they have done, where they are from and where they are going. At the first Passover, one did not necessarily have to be Jewish to be “passed over.” They just had to be around a table, in a house signified by the blood of the lamb.

In this Psalm today, “You set a table for me right in front of my enemies,” does not have to mean God sets us a table to gloat over our enemies. Maybe it means that God has set us a table so that we might invite our enemies to sit with us. Maybe the table is set not for exclusion but for inclusion? At God’s table, there is always an open chair which we might invite someone to join. Jesus demonstrates that the table is set and offered to enemies just as much as to friends.

The broken bread and common cup are shared with all who are willing to take a seat.

This podcast/sermon by Jonathan Martin definitely helped inspire my blog post today. I recommend you take some time to listen to it.
Everyone is Welcome at the Table