At our wedding, we read Ps. 103 and ever since it’s been one of my favorite Psalms.

“Praise the Lord!” comes first and last.
We begin by calling ourselves, all of ourselves, to worship.
We end by calling all in heaven and all on earth to worship.

And why worship?  Because God…
forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, and satisfies us.
works righteousness, makes his ways and deeds known.
is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love
doesn’t accuse, harbor His anger, treat us or repay us as we deserve.
instead removes our sins, has compassion, and remembers our frailty.
most of all, loves us.

Why is it so hard to remember all of these things?  Why do we so quickly decide that God is not just, doesn’t love us, and sometimes is even working against us?  Probably because we are so focused on ourselves that we forget that life is about focusing on Him instead.

You see, whenever things are bad, we need to remember one of my favorite phrases:  “God’s got this!”  If I were the type to get a tattoo, that’s what I would have it say:  “God’s got this!”  Because if we can remember this, that God has every situation in His hands and is watching out for my best interest, then I can stop spending all of my time watching out for myself.  And the time I usually spend watching out for myself I can spend watching out for others.

And it all begins with the call of this Psalm: “Don’t forget all His benefits…”  If I can do that, then loving, serving, and caring for others becomes natural.

Bless the Lord, you His people who read this.  Bless the Lord, O my soul.

As a child, I spent my summers at camp.  Not like ordinary kids who go to camp for a week, though.  My dad, a school teacher by trade, had his summers off so for four years we spent every day from Memorial Day through Labor Day at Portage Lake Covenant Bible Camp where my dad managed the camp.  We would make the 6 hour ride up through Michigan (always stopping in Cadillac to see the gas station that had a real bear in a cage on display) and get there days before anyone else.  We would open up and air out the cabins, clean up the grounds, and prepare for the arrival of first the staff and then the weekly campers.

Every morning and every evening for 3 months each year, I got to sit in (and often participate in) chapel where we learned the old camp songs and heard speaker after speaker tell us about God’s love through puppets, memory work, games, illustrations, and bible teaching.  It was here that my love for God and His Word was watered as it took root, and it was here that I learned to memorize scripture through song.

One of my favorites was a song simply called, “Psalm 100”, and with that song in my repertoire, I had a Psalm of praise memorized for the rest of my life.  Not surprisingly, we never sang any songs about Psalm 102, however.  “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” is a much more enjoyable lyric than, “my bones burn like glowing embers.”  Yet God saw fit to put these two opposite cries of the human heart next to each other in the list of Psalms.

This is one of the reasons I tell anyone who asks me about an emotion they are feeling to go read the Psalms.  In this blessed and simple book of poetry and verse, you can find most every emotion known to humankind, and you can find it not just as an expression of your heart but as a prayer lifted to our God who cares about every emotion you feel.

Paul’s list of names that IS Rom. chapter 16 seems to be on par with the more famous Heb. 11, another list of faithfulness.  But while Heb. 11 is a list of familiar characters (from Abraham and David to the apostles themselves), this is a list of names virtually unknown to the modern church.  Besides Phoebe, Pricilla and Aquilla, these are anonymous saints.

Take a look at our anonymous list here.  Names of Greeks and Jews, people named after Roman emperors and Greek gods, good Jewish names like Mary and deeply non-Jewish names like Hermes populate this list.  This is the church of the New Testament, diverse and faithful.

At my last church, we celebrated an anniversary and our tagline for the year was, “Not just for Swedes anymore.”  Some laugh, some grumble, and some take pride in the -son, -quist, – berg, and -strom names in our church and throughout the Covenant, but at 33% ethnic and growing, we as a denomination are also becoming more diverse and faithful.

I like the idea of “anonymous saints”.  Isn’t this the Gospel’s call, to put others above yourself, to serve without comment or pride, to be an anonymous saint?  And this too is counter-cultural in a Facebook world where everyone wants to be seen, heard, and famous.  It is the mega-church pastors who speak at conferences (take the Global Leadership Summit for example, and you’ll find only the big names, though there are even more effective leaders in smaller businesses and churches.)

So today, can you value diversity and faithfulness among God’s people?  Can you hold your tongue when the chance arises to put out your name?  Can you consciously work to be an Anonymous Saint?

For the last decade the world has been caught up in Avengers fever.  With the premier of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel created not just a fun movie, or a new way of doing movies, but changed the entire industry and our culture along with it.  We had seldom heard of the concept of a “movie universe” at the time, but today the initials MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) are everywhere, and this spawned other universes, like the DCEU, and even a MonsterVerse where both Godzilla and King Kong, stars of their own original movies, will fight each other.

Yet with an explosion of Universes, Marvel still rules the day, from television to movies to comic books.  And their core is the gathering of heroes called the Avengers.

Reading today’s Psalm, we see that God is the original Avenger.  Not a role we often think God takes in the world.  In fact, we usually pair God with forgiveness and grace, not vengeance, yet the bible tells us again and again that our God is a God of vengeance against the evil in this world.  In fact, the call of this Psalm is for God to avenge His people against the proud and wicked.

With any of these kinds of traits of God, we get very uncomfortable.  We don’t want God to hold people accountable, to pay back evil, or to penalize us for not following the rules.  We want a God who gives suggestions, not commandments, and who will be happy with as little as we are usually willing to give Him.  Until, that is, someone wrongs us.  Then we suddenly want a God of vengeance who punishes those rule-breakers.

For better or worse, God is not bound by what we think He’s like, or our opinion of His rules.  God is God, and He will take vengeance against those He chooses to.  We just have to be careful that this category doesn’t include us.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” – Rom. 15:7

‘Nuff said.

Well, not really.  “Acceptance” is too much of a buzzword in our culture today to let that pass without thought.  It’s socially acceptable to “accept” anyone and everyone, so we in the church, we who are called to be counter cultural, begin looking for the limits of this acceptance.  We try to redefine acceptance.  We try to explain away acceptance.  Why?  Because we want to be faithful to God’s word, to help people come into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and to avoid the sin of allowing sinfulness to go unaddressed.

So where are the limits?  Looking back at Paul’s teaching in Romans 15, the limits seem to be… none.  “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.”  Don’t bear with the weak to please yourself, but rather to please them, to build them up.  We begin relationships by building “the other” up, by pleasing them, by bearing with their weakness.  This, he says in v.5, takes endurance and encouragement.

Now being judgy, condemning the behavior or choices of another, doesn’t take any endurance or encouragement – we’re happy to do that for it’s own sake.  And it surely wasn’t Christ’s attitude toward us.  So let’s quit the judging, the condemnation, and the correction and spend more time accepting others.  If I read my bible correctly, I can trust God to judge, to convict, and to bring repentance and reconciliation and don’t have to do it for Him.

Paul makes a pretty startling claim in Rom. 14:23 – “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” – and the implications are vast and terrifying.

When we think or teach or talk about sin, we usually frame it in terms of things we can and can’t do.  We each make lists of things that are sinful and not only avoid those but also work hard to be sure others avoid them as well.  We also make lists of things that are faithful and try to do these things but also work hard to be sure others do them as well.  Our lists can go something like this:

Sinful:  lying, swearing, killing, hating, not being nice, not going to church, not going to our church, nudity, gossiping about me, not believing in the same things I do…
Faithful:  telling the truth, working hard, praying, going to church (as long as it’s one of which I approve), helping those who aren’t as rich or powerful as I am, checking in with sick or hurting friends, going to church activities…

And the lists go on and on, filled with God things and personal preferences which mix and intermingle dangerously.  We judge people based on our lists and live according to them, trying to avoid everything on the Sinful list while doing everything on the Faithful list.  The logical outcome of this train of thought, which we never get to, is that if we could just succeed in this, try hard enough, be good enough, then we could be righteous based on our lists.  Paul calls these “The Law” and teaches us differently.

Paul says that this list is (1) not the way to righteousness, that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ, (2) different for everyone (and the Pharisees claim, “heresy!”) according to Rom. 14:14, and (3) incomplete when it comes to righteousness, for the “Sinful” list includes everything (yes, everything) that is not on the “Faithful” list.

So can we stop living by our lists and spending our effort trying to root out our “sins” (as if we could achieve that) and instead spend our effort building our relationship with God who has forgiven our “sinfulness” and just wants us to love and live with Him?

Given the current political polarization and polemic, Paul’s teaching to submit to governing authorities is an interesting one to ponder.  It stands in stark contrast to John’s teaching about governing authorities in the book of Revelation, where they are to be endured and hidden from.  Many commentators explain this difference as a difference in position of these two inspired authors of equal books.  For Paul, a Roman citizen who lives under authorities (the Romans) who brought peace, roads, and relative equality, submission was a good option and one supported by our view of God’s power and control of this world.  If it was happening, then it must be God’s will, so governors had to be God’s instruments.  For John, a Bishop in exile by the governing authorities and overseer of 7 churches facing government persecution even to the point of death, submission didn’t make any sense.  John’s answer was to endure and demonize (literally in some aspects).  This is supported by our view of free will and the prevalence of sin in the world.

But what about us?  Is the current governmental system and party in power to be submitted to or endured and demonized?  Do we follow Paul’s teaching or John’s?  Both absolutely denounce violence against a leader as should any Christian, but there is a difference in the two views.  Following Paul means obeying the laws and policies, welcoming the leadership as God’s tools put in place by God, whether for judgement or betterment.  Following John means surviving by any peaceful means necessary, and following rules that obey God’s law but not others.

Given the undermining of truth, human rights, and righteousness of this and most previous administrations, we all have to make a choice.  What part will you play in politics, and in what way?  Do you submit or endure?  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, and that means a lot of prayer, wisdom, and discernment.

Romans 12 is a laundry list of do’s and don’t’s, just what atheists think the whole bible is.  But it is also an amazing compilation of some of our most beloved and useful verses.

“Don’t conform but be transformed by God.
Be humble.
Use the gift you’ve been given.
Hate evil; cling to good.
Be devoted to God’s family.
Be zealous in your faith.
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Share with Christians in need.
Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
Live in harmony with each other.
Don’t be proud.
Associate with those in low positions.
Don’t be conceited.
Don’t repay evil for evil.
Do what is right.
Live at peace with everyone.
Don’t take revenge.
Care for your enemies.
Overcome evil with good.”

This list differentiates between how we are to interact with fellow believers and how we are to interact with the world.  But in both, there is a common theme: Be Like Jesus.

And in regards to that, Paul begins this section with the amazing call to offer yourself as a living sacrifice.  Sacrifices in the context of Paul’s world were killed before they were sacrificed.  Lambs (or oxen or pigeons or…) were taken to the priest at the temple who then expertly slaughtered the animal, cutting it’s throat.  It was then offered as a dead sacrifice.

So what would it mean, what does Paul specifically mean, to offer ourselves as living sacrifices?  First, we offer ourselves.  Rather than offering a lamb or a bull or a pigeon, rather than offering money or a hostage, we offer ourselves – this is between us and God.  Second, it is we who do the offering.  We don’t give ourselves over to someone else to offer us – this is between us and God.  Third, we don’t offer ourselves once we’re dead but right here and right now in the midst of our busy, productive, sinful, painful, boring, exciting lives.  We offer ourselves as living sacrifices, and in so doing give God the greatest gift we possibly can – relationship, obedience, Christ-likeness.

“If my people would only listen to me, if Israel would only follow my ways, how quickly I would subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!  Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him and their punishment would last forever, but you would be fed with finest wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”  – Ps. 81:13-16

Why don’t we listen to God?  And I don’t mean ‘listen’ as in “use our audio receivers to detect sounds coming from God”.  I regularly get people ashamed or worried about the fact that they have never heard an audible sound they knew came from God.  This concern usually means they have surrounded themselves with people who have exaggerated hearing an audible voice – this phenomenon is extremely rare though not unheard of.

No, I mean ‘listen’ the way I say it to my kids, because that is the way God means it here: “Why won’t you just listen to me?”  Given the promises of God for we who listen, and the promises of God for those who won’t, I have to ask why in the world we wouldn’t listen?  It seems an easy thing to do when the reward is the defeat of all our enemies.  Unless…

What if we don’t have any enemies?  When we live in the lap of luxury, we don’t need our enemies defeated, so where’s the profit?

What if we don’t really believe this passage, or the Bible, or God?  What if we’ve listened again and again and yet still find ourselves defeated?

What if we believe ourselves self-sufficient?  What if we can defeat our own enemies, thank you very much?

Our obedience is directly related to our willingness to let go of our own (or our family’s) comfort, to our faith and trust in God’s word, and to our pride.  Any of these or a hundred other things can keep us from obeying – listening to – God.  Which is it for you?

At our last house, as with every house we’ve owned, we needed a lot of landscaping work done.  The previous owners had brought in a professional to design their landscaping, and this person had done a fantastic job.  However, the owners for whatever reason had then never tended it, leaving it to grow wild.  When we arrived on the scene, we had to pull out all the overgrown and dying shrubbery, flowers, and even uproot a small tree.

In it’s place, we bought a tree of our own.  The space was small and close to the house, so we wanted a smaller tree.  The neighbors had two huge weeping willows in their back yard and we loved them, so we decided to find a small (8 foot tall) weeping willow.  Finding out there is no such thing, we bought the next best thing – a willow bush grafted on to the trunk of a different but compatible tree.  It created a small weeping willow, and we were content.

From this experience, I learned about grafting new branches to old trees.  I learned that the graft doesn’t always take, but when it does it is often seamless.  I learned that this new creation may well send out branches of the trunk variety in the midst of the grafted-in branches.  And I learned that you can create brand new things with these grafts.

Paul says that Gentiles (that’s you and me) are “grafted branches” on the tree of Christian faith.  The trunk is Judaism, that faith through which God worked in the world for millennia.  But the branches of this tree have been broken off through their unfaithfulness, namely their refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah and to accept righteousness as a free gift rather than an earned reward.  In the place of these branches are new branches, Gentile followers of Christ.  In grafting us in, God made a seamless graft, one that created a brand new thing, but one where the old characteristics of the old trunk can easily turn up in the new grafted branches.

Most notably, we can quickly turn to legalism just as the Jews did.  And just like the Jews, a righteousness that is a reward for obedience is not a free gift as God intends.  So as newly grafted branches, Christians with a Jewish heritage, we must be extra careful to keep the free gift of God’s grace free.