How does change happen in people?

[God our Savior] saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7)

I’ve been thinking a lot about how change happens in people, how they–how I–can become a better person. This passage explains a most important piece of this: God is active in changing us. First, God makes the change possible by justifying us.  Then, the work of renewal begins, through baptism (the water of rebirth) and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit continues to work in us throughout our lives so we might be worthy of becoming heirs.

Note that both God and Jesus Christ are credited as “our Savior,” which I find interesting.

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The Majestic Glory

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (2 Peter 1:16-17)

This argument is a simple one: it’s no myth, our story about Jesus, for we saw it with our own eyes. This argument is somewhat damaged, I think, since “most scholars” think Peter did not write 2 Peter, and it was written too late than to have been written by an eyewitness (see, for example, the Wikipedia article on 2 Peter). Still, even given its late date and pseudonymity, its argument is based on the eyewitness accounts of the early followers.

Note how the author is filled with awe at the greatness of what he has witnessed: Jesus is Lord, Jesus is Christ, Jesus has received honor and glory from God the Father, that last was conveyed by the Majestic Glory. “The Majestic Glory” seems to connect the baptism of Jesus to the “Shekhinah Glory” of the Old Testament–the visible presence of God that surrounded the tent of meeting.

Sabbath rest

So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9-10)

Heaven is infinite.

Job looked at his trouble and the infinitely powerful God and was left in terror. Pascal looked at the human heart, and saw an infinite abyss that only God could fill. The infinite God saw the human condition and acted, sending Jesus for our sake and our salvation. We know in part. But here’s the thing: listen. Heaven is a reality, and the true land to which we sojourn. And our time there is: infinite. Here’s a simple, mathematical fact: a line that trends upwards for an infinite amount of time will reach infinity. I have been a Christian for about 35 years, and the progress I see is discouragingly small: a little less anger, a little less depression, a little more joy, a little more love. But 35 years is literally nothing compared to infinity of time. As Wesley put it: “But O the bliss to which I tend eternally shall last.”

And here’s an important part of this: how I feel about it doesn’t really matter. Whether I feel the hope we sang about isn’t as important as the fact of it: our life, “concealed in Christ” and filed with “his glorious presence” will extend to infinite Sabbath rest, infinite joy, infinite goodness.

From The Child of Grace at the Infinite Café, sermon preached at the Church of the Sojourners, October 15, 2006.

White socks and sandals

Jesus: And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God. (Luke 12:8)

Sometimes I think God should think of us as we think of our children when they’ve done something especially heinous or stupid–you know, like go out driving drunk or skipping school to play poker–when we want to say, those children? I really don’t think I know who they are. Or God should be like us when we’re teen-agers whose parents have done something incredibly lame or stupid–you know, like not being cool about the whole drinking thing, or wearing white socks and sandals–when we want to say, those people? I’ve never seen them before in my life.

Instead, God does this incredibly gracious thing: all we need to do is to acknowledge Jesus publicly, and Jesus shouts out our name for all heaven to hear.

Just for the record, my children have never (to my knowledge) driven drunk or skipped school to play poker. On the other hand, I have worn white socks with sandals. And for the record, too: I acknowledge Jesus as my teacher, my leader and the one who graciously saves me.

Potrero House on the rock

I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. (Luke 6:47)

And what is that?

He is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built.

Adobe house on Potrero Hill

When I go out to California, I usually stay with the Church of the Sojourners, and I spent several months at their house on Potrero Avenue. One day I asked Mike Creeger about plans in case of earthquakes: in particular, did he think the house would remain standing if there were an earthquake? Had it been reinforced in any way? Well, said Mike, in his laconic way: we do have some reinforcing timbers at the foundation. But, you know, the house survived the 1906 earthquake. The house is built on Potrero Hill, a massive rocky outcropping. The picture above shows an adobe house that survived the earthquake (from PotreroHillSF).

I, of course, immediately thought of this verse. The house is probably also relatively protected against floods.

The image is so striking it’s easy to miss what Jesus’s point is: one’s life is far better off when one follows Jesus’s teaching. Life is hard, full of disasters at times, and we need beliefs and a way of life that will bring us through.

I am Dorothy, the small and meek

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath. (Zephaniah 2:3)

Or, in King James’s English: Seek ye the LORD, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger.

I’m interested in the parallel phrase and words here.

The meek (or humble) are to seek humility. Those who act righteously are to seek righteousness.  The meek and those who act righteously are the same group of people; they are to seek both righteousness and humility. The “meek” are almost always referred to as the “poor” in other Old Testament passages where a parallelism exists, at least in the English Bible (see search results).

It may be (in the context of the whole chapter) that these humble, righteous people are those outside Israel–that is, Canaan, Ashdod, Ekron, Moab, Assyria, etc., which makes it all the more interesting: the chapter is largely a chapter declaring an impending doom on these nations, and it makes most sense that the warning is going out to the humble of these people, not to Israel.

Today’s title comes from The Wizard of Oz–it’s how Dorothy describes herself to the Great and Terrible Oz.  And I came across this blog post that picks up on a similar theme.

Oh, for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free;
A heart that’s sprinkled with His blood,
So freely shed for me.
Oh, for a heart submissive, meek,
Where only Christ is heard to speak,
Where Jesus reigns alone.

Oh, for an humble, contrite heart,
Believing, true, and clean,
Which neither life nor death can part
From Him that dwells within.
A heart in ev’ry thought renewed,
And full of love divine;
Perfect, and right, and pure, and good,
A copy, Lord, of Thine.  (words to Praise God).

Widows, orphans, aliens

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

Widows, orphans, and aliens in the New Testament:

Jesus preaches the gospel to those who are on the margins, and uses this as a sign of his messiahship (Pericope 89). Jesus gets upset when widows are used as the object of thought experiments (Pericope 260) and not mercy (Pericope 263). He commends the poor widow as more generous than the rich (Pericope 265); heals a widow’s son (Pericope 88); and uses a widow’s story to teach the value of persistence (Pericope 229) and presaging the spread of the gospel beyond Israel (Pericope 43). He promises not to leave his disciples orphaned, but to send the Holy Spirit (Pericope 293).

Widows presented challenges to the early church: the first recorded “split” in the church occurs when some widows are neglected, but this leads to the institution of the diaconate (Acts 6).  Paul recommends that widows remain unmarried (1 Cor 7), and 1 Timothy lays out specific rules for including people on the widows roll (1 Tim 5).

Ephesians/Colossians reminds us that we are “no longer aliens” (Eph 2:12, 19; 4:18; Col 1:21). And James (clearly influenced by passages such as today’s verse and the teaching of Jesus) defines “pure religion” based on treatment of those who are left out (James 1:27):

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.