Monthly Archives: December 2020

Like Anna. I Wanna be Like Anna!

Sights set much too low!


“She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” – Luke 2:37



The focus of the reading in the Gospel this morning really is on the Messiah, Jesus.

This is the main thing Luke is writing about of course: here, and beyond in this book as well….

At the same time, in my own view, if we, in a biblical text, come across things that seem unusual to us – that “stop us in our tracks” a bit…

I think it’s worth taking the time to pause and reflect.

And I think that that is what happens here with Anna. For perhaps, what was not so unusual at all and so was readily understood by Luke and his original audience, is no longer readily understood by us.

What am I referring to?

I am not primarily talking about how this Anna is referred to as a prophetess – even as this is interesting too, because I have not met any people recently referring to themselves or others in such a way…

But I am primarily talking about how Anna’s regular pattern of behavior might seem odd to quite a few of us in many ways….

Again, of her, we read… “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”

Who in the world is this woman?

And why does she do what she does?

Perchance, one might respond:

“[Maybe the] key is that she was a widow. Where else would she go? What else would she do? Who does so much work in congregations but widows?”

To be sure, this makes some sense.

And yet, at the same time, why does Luke tell us that she never leaves the temple but worships night and day, fasting and praying?

Truthfully, how many pastors today would encourage elderly parishoners who have time on their hands to do those kinds of things instead of other more “useful” and “practical” actions? (maybe you have heard it, but I’ve never heard it!).

Why not, so long as their basic needs are being met, encourage people like Anna to serve their neighbors in practical ways? Do programs to help the poor and needy in the neighborhood and things like this? Maybe join the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League and do work promoting overseas missions?

Quite honestly, I think many of us hear about Anna and what she does what she is in fact clearly commended for and we don’t know what in the world to do with her…

Is she perhaps confused about God’s will, and trying to be saved by her piety? Earning her way into God’s good graces?

Anna, why do you pray and fast so much? Don’t you know that with this Christ child you are meeting today, the message is “rest”!

Don’t you know that God doesn’t need your good works but your neighbor does?

Really, why would Luke, being guided by the Holy Spirit, focus on lifting up and giving honor to a life characterized by these particular habits and behaviors?


Before talking more about Anna and the specific things she is commended for here, let’s talk about this:

What else do we learn about prayer and fasting in the book of Luke?

Of fasting, we must admit, not much else.

In fact, in the book of Luke people specifically come to Jesus asking why His disciples, unlike the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, do not fast.

Jesus’ response indicates that there are indeed times for fasting, but there are times for feasting as well, when, for example, the bridegroom – that is Him – is with the wedding guests.

So… while Jesus is with His disciples, they will not fast, which is identified as a sign of sorrow and repentance, but they will rejoice and feast!

Overall though, outside the book of Luke, Scripture does help fill us in on the significance of fasting in the Christian life.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples not to fast to impress others: “When you fast,” He says, don’t make it obvious to others you are fasting – and then your “Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…”

We might also think here about how the Apostle Paul speaks about how, he, like a good athlete trying to win a race, “discipline[es] [his] body and keep[s] it under control” (I Cor. 9:27), or even how in I Corinthians 7[i] he urges the Christians there to be “those [people] who use the things of the world [while not being] engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”

Paul’s statements here perhaps help us get why Martin Luther said fasting is also training for the body, “fine outward training.”

Here, the idea is that our body can remind our soul that our first hunger should always be for God and His word even as fasting also teaches us to deny ourselves even essential things like food for a while.

So one commentator says that “Anna,” for example, “represents the physically and spiritually hungry whom God promises to fill with good things (1:53)” (Garland, 137).

And fasting, of course, also has the added benefit of making it possible for you to share more of God’s earthly necessities and blessings with others as well….

Finally, perhaps one of the more important things about fasting to remember these days is this:

If Christian persecution arises, it will help you to be better prepared, giving you confidence that you can indeed go without even essential things for a limited amount of time.

Your faith, mind, and body will all be more likely to agree with one another that, with the Lord, you’ll be able to handle whatever may come.[ii]


Now, what of prayer?

First of all, we learn some very interesting things about prayer in the book of Luke.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is, to be sure, a man of prayer. Even a “prayer warrior,” a term I heard from evangelical Christian friends in college.

We see that, interestingly, he often went to deserted places (4:42). Luke 5:15 and 16 says this, in fact:

“…the news about [Jesus] spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

So, we see here, at times, many, many people wanted to hear Jesus and be healed.

…and yet, He did not run towards them, but away from them: In fact, it was at times like this, we are told, that He went into the wilderness, or “lonely places” and prayed (see Luke 9:18 also).

And shortly after that passage in Luke 5:16, we are told that the day before Jesus calls His disciples He went to the mountain to pray, “and continued all night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12).

In chapter 11, He teaches His disciples, at their request, how to pray with the Lord’s Prayer. And as He gives them this great prayer, He also encourages persistence in praying for needs by means of illustrations.

Jesus says that we know that when we ask our friends for favors – particularly when it is to help us provide hospitality to unexpected guests from out of town – that our friends, even if they don’t want to, will nevertheless help us, and even at times that are “inopportune and bothersome” (like at midnight).

God is saying that because of our shamelessness in asking Him for help, we will get what we need. 

Likewise, fathers give their children the things that they need when they ask for good gifts. Your Heavenly Father will do the same…

And in Luke 18, in case we didn’t get the point, we hear about a widow, who merely because of her abject persistence and stubbornness, is able to get an unjust judge to give her justice versus her adversary.

The message is that if justice can be attained from an unjust judge by persistence, how much more will God give His people deliverance?

More specifically, that parable ends with Jesus saying:

“Will [God] keep putting [His chosen ones] off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”[iii]


Also, when the book of Luke gives examples of people calling out to God besides Jesus, it is also illustrative.

There is the well-known story of the blind beggar in Jericho who cries out to Jesus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And how about the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? Here, standing before God, the Pharisee has the nerve to exalt himself and his deeds (like his fasting twice a week!)… while the Tax Collector beats his breast and says “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Luke says the tax collector “went home justified before God…”

And right in the beginning of Luke, we see people praying in ways that almost seem like they have been given lines from a musical

…and their own prayers remind us about where the real focus should always be, namely, our good Lord who dies for our sins and leads us in prayer (Luke 11)

…that we might watch with Him (Luke 22:39-46),

…that we too might anticipate His coming … And that we might have the strength needed to endure the last days leading up to His glorious reappearing… (Luke 21:36).

And so Mary says:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant…”

Zechariah notes that the Messiah will:

“…rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

And of course, the old man Simeon:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss[d] your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

In short, “I can die in peace now Lord…”

Presumably, when all of these great examples of faith pray, such words actually pour forth spontaneously from them… as naturally as can be….

A Christian life might began by simply crying out to God in desperation for salvation, but it doesn’t end there…


So now then, let’s finally talk a little bit more about Anna.

The text is stressing her great age, her interesting life, and her devotion to God….[iv]

It seems that if she married at age 14 – a real possibility in those days – she would have been as old as the intertestamental character Judith, 105 years old (Jdt. 16:23) – from the Apocrypha – who also “did not remarry after her husband’s death and is presented as a figure of honour for this reason (Jdt. 8:4-8; 16:22f; cf. 1 Cor. 7:7f; I Tim. 5:5, 19)” (Marshall, 123-124)[v]

And what is the significance of her being a prophetess? Almost certainly in this context it has to do with the fact that she possesses divine insight into things others don’t have, based in part on her knowledge of the Scriptures, and in part on a unique spiritual gift.[vi]

What about her never departing from the Temple? Some suggest that Anna lived in the Temple, and was actually a caretaker there. That may or may not have been true… We just don’t know.

She also might have simply lived nearby the Temple, and made a point of it to be present whenever the prayers were offered, which, in her time, was three times  day: in the morning, in the afternoon (the “ninth hour” [Acts 3:1] or 3 o-clock our time), and at evening.

The language of “never departed” might then be hyperbolic in a sense, but one thing is for sure: Anna was a very pious and prayerful woman… and one whose life demands our respect…

And, interestingly, we see that Anna also fulfills the words that the Apostle Paul says about widows in I Timothy, chapter 5. She is one who “puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help….”[vii]

That advice, of course, is not only good for widows, but for all of us.

And we all have people that we look up to and want to be like — that we want to model and imitate. Anna is such a person!

Now, when I was young, one such person many wanted to be like was the basketball player, Michael Jordan.

I can still remember the popular Gatorade commercial:

“Like Mike… I like to be like Mike… I wanna be like Mike…”

There is nothing wrong with being a gifted basketball player to be sure. And I identified with the popular comment someone made about the commercial which you can find at You Tube. This person said: “And just for a minute, while listening to this song everything in the world seems right. So glad I grew up in 90s…”

But all that said, a person like Anna ought to catch our eye all the more…


So preacher, you might be asking, “How are you doing with this?”

Well, truth be told, my evaluation of my own prayer life is that I have a long way to go. A very long way.

I am often distracted from prayer, even as I recognize its importance in the Christian life. Instead of praying, you’ll find me arguing with people on social media, listening to podcasts or articles I’ve turned into audio files, or telling myself I’m too busy with work or other essential tasks to carve out time to simply pray.

When I pray, it’s often on the run, and I’ve taken much solace in the idea I heard some years ago from, of all people, a Christian rock group: the words “help” and “thanks” are some of the best prayers. If prayer is “breath,” as they say, that’s the way to breathe: “help…thanks…help… thanks..”

And yet, in spite of myself, it’s indeed my charge to urge on you not just the message that God forgives you in Jesus Christ – which He does daily! – but the whole counsel of God.

A few weeks ago, in our Epistle reading, we heard he Apostle Paul urge us to “pray continually” or “without ceasing”. Maybe you remember that, though, at the time, I didn’t preach on it.

I think now, however, is a great time to reflect on that. Just how should we look at this passage? This command to pray?

I think the key thing is this: if we are Christians, we will find that sometimes prayer comes very naturally and is indeed very simple. Hence in our Epistle reading this morning we hear that because we have received adoption to sonship, “God sent the Spirit of His Son into our heart, the Spirit who calls out ‘Abba, Father.’” Paul expands on this in Romans 8:

“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[f] And by him we cry, “Abba,[g] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children….

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

So Paul says that the Spirit leads us to prayer, and that sometimes, our prayers are not even really words, but just groans. A longing for our full redemption in Christ.

And all this can also remind us of another passage from I Thessalonians:

“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”

Again, the Spirit works prayer in us, leading us to cry out to Him.

And yet, at the same time, this doesn’t prevent the Apostle Paul from also urging us and encouraging us: “[You all…] pray continually”!

He’s telling us this is going to involve some effort on our part – Spirit-led though to be sure…[viii]

Let’s look at the wider context of that I Thessalonians 5 passage again too. Paul says:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.[ix]

And so here, we see that Paul’s command to “pray continually” is nestled between two key ideas: We are also those who he urges to be full of joy, or rejoicing, always, and those he urges to give thanks always… this being God’s will for us in Christ Jesus!

God wants us to be powerful in prayer, and these are the keys![x]


So, should such a passage like this condemn us or encourage us?

Well, it does both, doesn’t it?

On the one hand, how can we not be judged by the words “pray without ceasing”?

Insofar as I am a sinner – and we all still are – I have not feared, loved, and trusted in God above all things. I have not called upon God’s Name “in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks”, as Martin Luther says in his explanation of the second commandment “you shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God”.

No, I have not put off the “old man” and put on the new man when it comes to these things, but have instead often fed and nurtured that “old Adam”….

And yet, what does Luther remind us in his explanation of the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who are in heaven”? He says:

“With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father…”

And this, I think gives us the context that we really need to understand what is going on here…

I think this is the real kind of teaching we need to understand in order to pull through and continue to urge ourselves on to pray even when the feeling isn’t there, when we feel distant from God, like we aren’t getting through… when, perhaps in the midst of real suffering… the desire to pray just isn’t there…

Get behind me Satan!

We can all understand the truth that Luther is bringing to us!


 [Questioning] Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you?

Correct me if I am wrong, but the phrase “pray continually” also tells me, in part, that God actually enjoys hearing from me. Constantly.

I get the impression He is even eager to hear from me – all the time. I am just not an annoyance to Him, like I might be with others.

To say the least, as much as I would like to say the opposite, I am not like that with my own kids.

And if God has told us to ask Him for a castle, for example – if our Father has commanded us to pray and pray like this… and He has – why should we not take Him up on it?

Isaiah 57:15 says:

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

Truly, God is here with us now!

And so we say “Thank you Lord.”

And “See if there is any offensive way in [us], and lead [us] in the way everlasting.” Shine your searchlight on our lives…

And Lord, we thank you that you forgive us all of our sins through the gift of your Son Jesus Christ.

And still we say: we are so needy God! And so are all of our neighbors! Hear us, and let us be ever satisfied in You…

And, if some don’t feel like they can pray… always discouraged because perhaps they have been tragically deprived of the care of a loving father… they can at least start by remembering how wonderful it is sometimes to just have a pleasant conversation with a good friend who they admire and respect!

In a sense, prayer is indeed simply talking with God. And you can talk to Him in just the same way you can talk to a friend you love and respect…

There’s a lot more to say about this topic. There is a lot more to learn about this topic. And yet, right now, I’m telling you this:

Like Anna. I want to be like Anna.

How about you?




[i] This is interesting to compare with what Paul says in I Cor. 7 about the marital duties husbands and wives have towards one another:

“….since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

A few observations: first, it is clear that Paul does expect fallen human beings in marriages to take his advice. Why “advice”? Well, we note the differences in this passage: here Paul explicitly says that what he says here is a concession and not a command per se. Furthermore, note that later on in I Cor. 7, he goes on to say: “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”

Luther handles the passage this way:

“Christians should treasure that eternal blessing which is theirs in the faith, despising this life so that they do not sink too deeply into it either with love and desire or suffering and boredom, but should rather behave like guests on earth, using everything for a short time because of need and not for pleasure. This would mean having a wife as though I did not have one, when in my heart I would rather remain unmarried but in order to avoid sin have found it necessary to have one. But he who seeks not necessity but also desire, he does not have a wife but is himself possessed by a wife. A Christian should hold to this principle also in all other things. He should only serve necessity and not be a slave to his lust and nurture his old Adam.”

[ii] Interestingly, the commentator Green writes: “Fasting constitutes a form of protest, an assertion that all is not well.”

In a way, this makes sense, because we live in a fallen world. He writes of Anna in particular:

“…in this eschatologically charged narrative environment… [her fasting] is an expression of her hope, a form of prayer entreating God to set things right…”

(Green, 151)

One wonders if even in an un-fallen world though there might be a role for fasting, going along with things like discipline, effort, satisfaction in a job well done, etc.

[iii] The greater immediate context:

18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

[iv] There are so many interesting tidbits about here as well. Here are a few of the very helpful things I learned about her, thanks to the older (and excellent) collected commentaries on

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers:

“She is named, as if it were a well-known fact, as having been the wife of Phanuel, and she is not of the tribe of Judah, but of Aser. That tribe, then, though belonging to the Ten that had been carried into exile by Shalmaneser (2Kings 17:6), had not been altogether lost. Some, at least, of its members survived and cherished the genealogies of their descent, as one family of the neighbouring tribe of Naphthali are said to have done at Nineveh (Tobit 1:2). In that family also we find the name of Anna (Tobit 1:9).”

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary:

“…of the tribe of Aser—one of the ten tribes, of whom many were not carried captive, and not a few reunited themselves to Judah after the return from Babylon. The distinction of tribes, though practically destroyed by the captivity, was well enough known up to their final dispersion (Ro 11:1; Heb 7:14); nor is it now entirely lost.”

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers:

“A widow of about fourscore and four years.—The better MSS. read, “up to the point of fourscore and four years,” pointing to the fact that this was the duration of her widowhood. Assuming her to have been married at fifteen, this places her actual age at 106. She had lived through the whole century that preceded the birth of Christ, from the death of John Hyrcanus, and had witnessed, therefore, the conquest of Judæa by Pompeius, and the rise of the Herodian house.”

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible:

“Night and day – Continually – that is, at the usual times of public worship and in private. When it is said that she departed not from the temple, it is meant that she was “constant” and “regular” in all the public services at the temple, or was never absent from those services. God blesses those who wait at his temple gates.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible:

“In Exodus 38:8 we read of women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: both the Targums of Onkelos and Ben Uzziel render it, “who came to pray”; and the Septuagint version, “that fasted”: Anna did both.”

Meyer’s NT Commentary:

“νύκτα κ. ἡμέρ.] Thus also at Acts 26:7; Mark 4:28; 1 Timothy 5:5. Elsewhere the order is inverted. Instances of both arrangements may be seen in Bornemann, Schol. p. 27; Lobeck, Paralip. p. 62 f., and from the Latin: Heindorf on Horat. Sat. i. 1. 77. In this place νύκτα, is prefixed in order, as in Acts, l.c., and 1 Timothy 5:5, to make the fervency of the pious temple-service the more prominent. The case is otherwise, where it is simply a question of definition of time, at Esther 4:15.”

Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges:

“…departed not] She was present (that is) at all the stated hours of prayer; unless we suppose that her position as a Prophetess had secured her the right of living in one of the Temple chambers, and perhaps of doing some work for it like trimming the lamps (as is the Rabbinic notion about Deborah, derived from the word Lapidoth ‘splendours’).

fastings] The Law of Moses had only appointed one yearly fast, on the Great Day of Atonement. But the Pharisees had adopted the practice of ‘fasting twice in the week,’ viz. on Monday and Thursday, when Moses is supposed to have ascended, and descended from, Sinai (see on Luke 18:12), and had otherwise multiplied and extended the simple original injunction (v. 33).

prayers] Rather, supplications (a more special word).”

Pulpit Commentary:

“Verse 37. – Which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. Probably, in virtue of her reputation as a prophetess, some small chamber in the temple was assigned to her. This seems to have been the case with Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22). It has also been suggested that she lovingly performed some work in or about the sacred building. Farrar suggests such as trimming the lamps (as is the rabbinic notion about Deborah), derived from the word lapidoth, splendor. Such sacred functions were regarded among all nations as a high honor. The great city of Ephesus boasted her name of νεωκόρος, temple-sweeper, as her proudest title to honor.”

From other commentaries:

“There is no place where God hath had a name, but, however it be corrupted and debauched, hath a number that keep close to God. God in Ahab’s time had seven thousand in Israel; and in this most corrupt time there was a Simeon and an Anna, and also others, who had a true notion and expectation of the Messiah; and these the Holy Ghost taketh more notice of than of all the Jewish doctors, all the scribes and Pharisees, whose names are enrolled, while what these persons said and did shall remain for a memorial of them wherever the gospel shall be preached to the end of the world.”

[v] As the commentator Green puts it: “…she exemplifies the ascetic ideal of marrying once and devoting oneself entirely to God in widowhood” (Gospel of Luke, Green, 151)

[vi] More notes on this:

(36)” One Anna, a prophetess.—The fact is in many ways remarkable. We find a woman recognised as a prophetess at a time when no man is recognised as a prophet. She bears the name of the mother of the founder of the School of the Prophets, identical with that which the legends of Apocryphal Gospels assign to the mother of the Virgin.” Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers

[vii] A bit more of the context there: “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

[viii] Doesn’t God give us everything we need in Christ? Doesn’t God give to us His grace freely, and gifts of grace freely? Why then, are we talking about things that might seem to involve some effort, that might seem to include building up habits, that we might, somedays, just not feel like doing?

If these things are spiritually real after all – if we are to be fully authentic in our Christian spirituality – shouldn’t all of these things just come naturally to us? Spontaneously?

I remember telling a friend that I wanted to get to the point where sharing my faith would be more natural for me. He replied by saying, “there is nothing natural about sharing your faith… you’ll never get there.”

I do indeed still think that sharing our faith should be something that is pretty natural for us. If we have known the love of God in Jesus Christ, which eagerly forgives us all our sins and adopts us into the Kingdom of God, this is going to be something that affects us and that we can talk about to some degree, however haltingly.

On the one hand, he was perhaps a bit right. Some effort in doing such things will always be involved…

In Luke 8:15 we read: 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

He gives us a noble and good heart of faith, and then also gives us the power to use it…. Key here also is what is said just three verses later:

“…take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seem to have will be taken from him.”

[ix] Robert I Estienne was the French classics scholar and printer Who divided the Bible up into verses in the late 16th century, and I like what he did here, making that short statement into three whole verses:

I Thessalonians 5:16 is “Rejoice always”.

Verse 17 is “Pray continually” (or “without ceasing”).

And verse 18, is “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

[x] And note that in this passage from Matthew 17 we see that prayer and fasting is connected with spiritual power:

14And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, 15“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is [c]an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

17Then Jesus answered and said, “O [d]faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” 18And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.

19Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”

20So Jesus said to them, “Because of your [e]unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. 21[f]However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”

And in Luke 4, when Jesus begins his ministry, people are astonished by Jesus’ teaching because “His word was with authority”. And in the midst of this teaching, that conviction grows stronger, for instance, when a man who has “a spirt if of an unclean” demon confronts Jesus even in the synagogue as he is preaching.

And what does Jesus do? He confronts the demon in the man, rebuking it “Be quiet and come out of him!”. Then we read that the people are even more impressed than before, saying “with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.” (see 4:31-37)

Again, how much does the issue of prayer and fasting, I wonder, has much to do with the topic of spiritual warfare? (and regarding this, we don’t want to see a demon behind every bush, but we also do not want to laugh such things off…)

Just because the devil isn’t so overt here in America what with possessions and the like, it doesn’t mean that he is not hard at work among us, undermining God’s truth.

We should struggle and fight to excel in the battle here. That said: some get nervous when we talk this way…

“Who is the greatest?” We know we are not supposed to jostle for position in the Kingdom of God.

And yet, we are human beings, and it will happen.

And evidently, too, this is not an entirely bad thing either! After all, Jesus does say, for example, about John the Baptist, “among those born to women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)

All of us are pretty familiar with what earthly authority and power looks like, and how it works… What of this kind of authority and power though? And where does it come from? (must read Harold Ristau’s book here again…).

Is it not more likely that those who exercise such authority and power have lives that are somewhat similar to Anna’s, those characterized by prayer and fasting? Certainly, this is likely the case…

This, I believe, is a firmly Scriptural way of looking at and addressing these matters. Some though, find all of this talk very hard to understand…


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Posted by on December 27, 2020 in Uncategorized


Disarmed by Holy Innocence


“….on earth peace, good will toward men.” – Luke 2:14, KJV


In our reading from Isaiah we just heard:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.

This is no doubt an amazing Christmas text, prophesying the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ…

But look at what comes right before it!:

You have shattered the yoke of their burden,

the bar across their shoulders,

and the rod of their oppressor.

5For every trampling boot of battle

and every garment rolled in blood

will be burned as fuel for the fire.

Now, what is that all about?

Well, Christmas is actually nothing unless it is about the real peace that comes to us in the midst of real conflict on earth…

Even though we may have known a time of relative peace for a good many years, the overriding theme of human history is one of sin and conflict.

Men at war with one another. One scholar described it like this:

As it is in my own life history, so it is in world history, as a part. We should speak more cautiously and soberly in the plural, of world histories: namely, the histories of great social groups or movements; the histories of alliances, nations, and blocs; histories which stand apart and never merge into a world history in the singular. These world histories are nothing but the histories of the seeking, enforcing, denying, or lacking of mutual recognition. They are the histories of vindications and the assigning of guilt. They are one long story of the battle for mutual recognition, a life and death battle. In this regard, then, we can indeed speak of a world history in the singular (Bayer, Justification and Sanctification, p. 4)

And so, in part because of the search for recognition and status (things like pleasures too, right?), oppression occurs. And that, in part, is why Isaiah writes as he does.

At the same time, it is not like life is best described as perpetual misery and suffering.

Even as its true that men war with one another, the Apostle Paul tells us that God also grants all people in this life – not only Christians – a real measure of joy (see Acts 14).

And not only this, but Christians themselves also begin to gain glimmers of hope and peace that passes all understanding, even as they too, sadly, have fought one another on opposite sides in wars…

And, so yes – back to that, to the fact of conflict.

Why, ultimately, are things like this?

It is because mankind, the crown of God’s creation, is at war with God.

This is one of the most important things we can know.

The Bible calls mankind rebels, God’s enemies even…

And so, what does He do?

Does He go to total war against man?


I’ll tell you what He does instead in the form of a little story I once heard.

It begins like this:

“Once upon a time in a large forest there lived a very furry bunny. He had one lop ear, a tiny black nose, and unusually shiny eyes. His name was Barrington.

Barrington was not really a very handsome bunny. He was brown and speckled and his ears didn’t stand up right. But he could hop, and he was, as I have said, very furry….”

As we read on in this story, we discover that Barringon liked winter in some ways, but not others.

He was, we learn, the only bunny in the forest, and therefore couldn’t gather together with family for Christmas like the other animals could….

He consoled himself by “Hop, Hop, Hippity-hop[ping]” in the forest and thinking to himself “Bunnies…can hop. And they are very warm, too, because of how furry they are.”

When it got dark, Barrington decided to go home and came across a squirrel family in the trees and a beaver family by the river, both of which seemed to be having a wonderful time. He asked if he could partake in their celebrations, but they both said no to him.

First, he was told that he was a bunny, not a squirrel, and that bunnies could not climb trees, which is where their house was. Next, he was told that he was a bunny, not a beaver, and that bunnies could not swim, and their house was in the river.

He wished them both a Merry Christmas but went away very sad, consoling himself again that he could hop and was very furry and warm. Nevertheless, he began to grow very sad, and begin to cry, thinking “Bunnies… aren’t any good to anyone. What good is it to be furry and to be able to hop if you don’t have any family on Christmas Eve?”

Suddenly, however, Barrington realizes that a great silver wolf is watching him. He isn’t afraid, but we hear that “The wolf was large and strong and his eyes flashed fire. He was the most beautiful animal Barrington had ever seen.”

After being silent for a while, the wolf “slowly and deliberately” speaks, asking Barrington why he is sitting in the snow. Barrington tells the wolf that bunnies aren’t any good to anyone and the wolf says that they in fact are, because they can hop and are very warm.

“It is very good indeed,” the wolf says…, “because it is a gift that bunnies are given, a free gift with no strings attached. And every gift that is given to anyone is given for a reason. Someday you will see why it is good to hop and to be warm and furry.”

At first Barringon doubts, but the wolf convinces him that all the animals of the forest are his family. And so, thought Barrington, “All of the animals in the forest are my family… It’s good to be a bunny. Bunnies can hop. That’s a gift.” And then he said it again. “A gift. A free gift.”

On the way past the beavers’ house, he leaves a stick at their door, with a note: “A free gift. No strings attached. Signed, a member of your family.” Going along, he thinks “It is a good thing that I can hop… because the snow is very deep.” He also digs up some dead leaves and grass to make the squirrels’ nest warmer and leaves them the same kind of note: “A gift. A free gift. From a member of your family.”

It was late though, and a blizzard was beginning. He gets lost, the wind howls furiously, and the cold sets in… Realizing that he might freeze if he does not get home quickly, he then hears a small “Squeak, squeak”. It’s a baby field mouse, lost in the snow…

I’ll directly quote from the short story now:

“I’m lost,” sobbed the little fellow. “I’ll never find my way home, and I know I’m going to freeze.”

“You won’t freeze,” said Barrington. “I’m a bunny and bunnies are very furry and warm. You stay right where you are and I’ll cover you up.”

Barrington lay on top of the little mouse and hugged him tight. The tiny fellow felt himself surrounded by warm fur. He cried for awhile but soon, snug and warm, he fell asleep.

Barrington had only two thoughts that long, cold night. First he thought, “It’s good to be a bunny. Bunnies are very furry and warm.” And then, when he felt the heart of the tiny mouse beating regularly, he thought, “All the animals in the forest are my family.”

Next morning, the field mice found their little boy, asleep in the snow, warm and snug beneath the furry carcass of a dead bunny. Their relief and excitement was so great that they didn’t even think to question where the bunny had come from.

And as for the beavers and the squirrels, they still wonder which member of their family left the little gift for them that Christmas Eve.

After the field mice had left, Barrington’s frozen body simply lay in the snow. There was no sound except that of the howling wind. And no one anywhere in the forest noticed the great silver wolf who came to stand beside that brown, lop-eared carcass.

But the wolf did come.

And he stood there.

Without moving or saying a word.

All Christmas Day.

Until it was night.

And then he disappeared into the forest.


I just told you an abbreviated version of the already short story “Barrington Bunny” found in Martin Bell’s book The Way of the Wolf.

The story, which I heard read to me at a camp retreat with my church youth group in the late 1980s, became quite well known in some Christian circles, memorable as it is.

Still, I confess that it’s easy for me to be cynical about stories like this…

Like a lot of those Disney films about animals acting like people, in some ways it seems designed to just manipulate your emotions.

And, you know, the Bible reading from Isaiah doesn’t seem to totally jive with it either… with its mentions of warriors’ boots, battles, and blood.

Also, even as the story is designed to get us to think about Jesus Christ, we might wonder how closely Barrington’s sorrows and trials match up with those of our Lord and Savior… (and Jesus was a bit stronger to be sure!)

And yet, and yet… many of us will no doubt find the message of personal sacrifice and love in this story very compelling.

Such a story disarms us. What could be more disarming, less threatening, than a soft, cuddly, loving bunny?

In like fashion, the Gospel of Jesus Christ utterly disarms us.

What could be more disarming, less threatening, than a simple, humble infant?

You know what I am talking about right? Even from just an earthly perspective, people will find themselves taken off guard by how a baby can melt a hard heart.

We are told that the eternal, the immortal, the Almighty God who made heaven and earth and whose name is hallowed – that means, is set apart from all created things – how he Himself “takes on human flesh” and becomes one of us, in the form of an infant.[i]

And we are disarmed!

It is man’s fallen nature to be terrified of God – strenuously suppressing this though we may.

It is God’s nature, though, to disarm us.

He does not desire to hide his tender mercies from you….

Yes, don’t get me wrong:

God is indeed a warrior!

He is the One who fights His battle against those who oppose Him and His people. He will come again in judgment!

but look how He came on the scene… and comes to us now

…as this not only humble and simple but pure and innocent baby who will grow into the pure and innocent Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.


In any earthly conflict, deceiving your enemy is a critical element.

And some people in the early church thought that the Father and Son defeated the devil by deception.

The idea was like the worm on a fishhook, with Jesus being the worm. When the devil bit and swallowed him, that is, sending him to the tomb of his belly, he got more than he bargained for.

Tricked into eating God Himself, his belly could not hold Jesus, and He burst forth on the third day, leaving a slain devil, death, and sin in His wake.

It is no doubt a helpful picture to think about. At the same time, I don’t think that Jesus deceived anyone.

The innocent baby Jesus grew into the innocent Lamb of God who simply lived in accordance with God’s law, who lived by love and who by doing so made everything right.

…whose perfect life and innocent death for the forgiveness of sins now becomes ours.

Through faith in Him we stand holy and righteous before God!

Satan may have misinterpreted what all of this meant – and tragically so for him. This, however, is not because God deceived him but because evil always must destroy itself, deceive itself. For there is no life, light, and love in it….

So again, in many ways, the story of Barrington is really a great picture of how God disarms us, His enemies, with His pure and innocent gift.

Yes, man is at war with God, but this is one of the other most important things we can know.

In a world racked by fear, those of other religions have attempted to appease their god though sacrifice and deeds, but the Bible tells us that it is only through Jesus Christ that man can know the grace of God which overcomes sin, death, and the devil, and  to know true love….

And so, as the Apostle John simply says we love because He first loved us….The world doesn’t know the kind of love that does this.

But we do know such love, and so we can begin to know peace.

We can begin to know trust… and live for Him, like the Apostle Paul describes in our Epistle reading for this morning…[ii]

And then, even as Christians might end up fighting with one another, things happen that remind us of what can, and should

…and will, bring us together.


One more quick story, this time from history.

In the Christmas of 1914, there was a day and a half truce of sorts between some soldiers in the trenches fighting in World War 1. What happened is that one side began to hear the other side singing Christmas hymns. And saw them setting up Christmas trees on their parapets, the walls protecting their trenches. Soon, both sides sang, and then one shouted “Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot”…. And so, for the next 1.5 days, the men offered one another drinks and cigarettes, spoke with one another, and even kicked a soccer ball around.

In the midst of a brutal, total war, the presence of the Prince of Peace had brought a bit of a respite. The world was amazed. Even as these men picked up fighting again, as was their duty to their nations, afterwards.

And so as we come out of the Christmas season and face once again all the challenges that lie before us in the world, know that we are some of the most blessed men and women on earth.

For we are among the “all people” who have not only been offered salvation, but given this great, great, gift.

Know that we have the message that gives peace not as the world gives, the tender and gentle and humble and simple love of our God, who, for us, took on human flesh, becoming man, specifically in order to die for our sins and bring us to God.

And hence we sing of this great love in a hymn like “What child is this?”

Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary.

On earth peace, and good will toward men!





[i] One wonders what was going through the angel’s mind when he appeared and made his announcement to the shepherds?:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Joy to the world!

And this is the baby who of course will grow into that 12 year old boy who causes the teachers in the Temple to marvel! Who will grow into the simple carpenter from Nazareth baptized by John the Baptist. Who will begin His world-changing ministry by choosing disciples not from among the elites but from the common man….

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Or as the King James version puts it“….on earth peace, good will toward men.”

[ii]11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.


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Posted by on December 26, 2020 in Uncategorized


There is No True Justice Apart from God’s Vengeance


“He has sent me to… proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”

– Isaiah 61:2



In our text from Isaiah today, in the midst of great words of hope, there is this jarring line that might have stood out to you a bit…

God’s messenger is sent, in part,

“to proclaim…. the day of vengeance of our God.”

Mind you, Isaiah is mouthing the words of God’s Messiah here, the one who, just eight chapters earlier was also revealed to be the suffering servant! Chapter 53:

“He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression[a] and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.”

Reading this again the other morning, it occurred to me that the people causing the oppression and affliction here might well be thinking:

“Serves this ‘Messiah’ right! Serves his followers right! They are made weaker by this, and we are growing stronger, and that is good… it is right for us to have our way with them…. And to exact some measure of retribution for the troubles they have caused us…”


Now, when I was young, I remember often hearing in sermons (I’m guessing it was my dad, because he was my pastor) that man is oppressed and man is an oppressor.

Man is afflicted and man is an afflicter!

The idea that we might in any sense be responsible for the oppression or affliction of another person or group is something that doesn’t sit well with any of us, I think.

We really don’t want to think of ourselves this way. So perhaps we might be inclined to close our eyes to some things.

And we might, for example, laugh at the person who wants to know about all of the people involved that made their iced latte – or their iPhone – possible (you know, the slave labor and the like).

Nevertheless, when God’s prophets says things like…

“…justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.…truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter..” (Is. 59:9, 14)

Or, “[My people] sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals…” (Amos 2:6)

…perhaps we ought to pause for a minute or two…

And do passages like this mean, as people say:

The chickens will come home to roost?

The piper must be paid?

We will reap what we sow?


One also might think that those who really have been oppressed – let’s say because of their religion or their nationality or even their skin color – might be even more tempted to think along lines of retribution:

“For years we bore a heavy yoke and were shown little compassion or affection…. For years we endured your chains, your disdain and contempt, your feelings of superiority, your disregard for our family ties when you broke them up for your convenience, selling them to the highest bidder….”

So why shouldn’t such men and women look for some measure of vengeance?

Many of these who suffered such things also confessed faith in Christ. Why shouldn’t they be like the saints that the Apostle John mentions in Revelation 6, who cry out to God for vengeance?

We read there:

9When [the Lamb] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, e were killed just as they had been.”

Remember these ones crying out to the One Isaiah says:

“….put[s] on the garments of vengeance
    and wrap[s] himself in zeal as in a cloak….”(Is. 59:17)

And so in the book of Malachai, we hear about the day of judgement “in its fulfillment when the ‘arrogant and all evildoers’ burn like stubble in a fire, while God’s people dance over the ashes of their enemies….” (quote from a pastor’s sermon on Weedon’s blog).


Then why not indeed?

Why should all those who are oppressed and afflicted today not say:

“We, too, in many ways, are like these saints….”

This brings to mind something else that I read this past week… I heard about the death of a great thinker, who, frankly, I knew little about.

George Mason University economist and syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams died this past week, and I read a few articles about this man’s character and depth of thought.

The more or less universal consensus seems to be that Williams was quite a wonderful person.

And he also seems to have had quite a sense of humor. On his web site, one can find a PDF file of a printable certificate which reads the following:

Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon Granted to All Persons of European Descent

Whereas, Europeans kept my forebears in bondage some three centuries toiling without pay,

Whereas, Europeans ignored the human rights pledges of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution,

Whereas, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments meant little more than empty words,

Therefore, Americans of European ancestry are guilty of great crimes against my ancestors and their progeny.

But, in the recognition Europeans themselves have been victims of various and sundry human rights violations to wit: the Norman Conquest, the Irish Potato Famine, Decline of the Hapsburg Dynasty, Napoleonic and Czarist adventurism, and gratuitous insults and speculations about the intelligence of Europeans of Polish descent,

I, Walter E. Williams, do declare full and general amnesty and pardon to all persons of European ancestry, for both their own grievances, and those of their forebears, against my people.

Therefore, from this day forward Americans of European ancestry can stand straight and proud knowing they are without guilt and thus obliged not to act like damn fools in their relationships with Americans of African ancestry.

Walter E. Williams, Gracious and Generous Grantor[i]

Now we might laugh, but of course the certificate also addresses and makes a number of very serious points. I also take note that Dr. Williams was evidently known to have been a devout Christian man.[ii]

So should we expect those who have been wronged in great ways…treated with disdain and afflicted, to cry out for vengeance?

Or, alternatively, should we just expect all persons having the background of Dr. Williams to say the kinds of words he does?

What should Christians think?


I can’t say that all people, even all Christians, should be gracious in just the way Dr. Williams seems determined to be gracious.

I will say however, that even as someone whose ancestors only came to the American north and Midwest from Germany and Finland in the 1860s (so on the one hand, his statement doesn’t seem particularly relevant to my own ancestors or myself)…

I am nevertheless happy to hear him say what he says, given that today the very issue of having lighter-toned skin seems to be an increasingly important factor for many.[iii]

William’s words do, in that regard, communicate real hope when it comes to such issues.

He makes us think that maybe, just maybe, there can be some real hope for the future…

He makes us think that perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel – at least for believers – where things will not end in retribution and bloodshed between people at odds.

…I know the issue of hope is on many people’s minds these days… in the midst of the chaos and the many problems we increasingly see in more and more quarters, where is our hope?

This past week, I came across some excellent words on that topic well worth sharing:

Advent is a season of hope. But “watch yourselves,” for the world would draw you away from the hope we have in God’s word. Right now, especially, the world and its evil prince would lure you into many vain hopes. Hope in a man sitting in the White House promising benefits he cannot or may not deliver. Hope in a vaccine that may or may not cure this pandemic. Hope in a “new normal” that is anything but normal, but warped and perverse. Hope in a false unity based not on concord among people, but on fear of exclusion and persecution. That’s on top of all the usual hollow dreams of money, gifts, and gadgets all decorated in glitter and lights this time of year. “Watch yourselves,” do not let your hearts be weighed down with the cares of this life.

Our true hope is in none of these things. Certainly, God may use any or all of them to execute His will in this world; and for those who fear Him, He will work all things for your good, come health or virus, unity or conflict, prosperity or poverty, life or death. But our sure hope is always in His word. In His promises. In the proclamation of true joy and gladness in His Son. It is a gladness without end for you who “live in harmony in Jesus Christ,” even if the world should be set ablaze. In fact, Jesus tells us, “when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”[iv]


Good words!

And our passage from Isaiah this morning, which describes the Kingdom that God’s promised Messiah is bringing, is exactly the kind of passage that offers us the hope that pastor talks about![v]

But again, look at what is embedded within our passage for this morning….


What does the notion of vengeance have to do with hope?

Should this vengeance, this judgment, also give us some hope?….

Today, many talk about the hope found in social justice. To be too brief, social justice is understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.” (United Nations)[vi]

Some politicians also talk about this in terms of equity and equality. Talking about equality suggests that everyone should get the same amount. This can’t happen, however, by giving people equal help because some people start with a greater disadvantage than others do.

And so this is where “equity” or “equitable treatment” comes into play. “Equitable treatment” means doing things so that we will all end up in the same place….

And what does the Bible say? First of all, even as God desires fairness and speaks, though His Apostle, of not wanting the rich to have too much nor the poor to have too little, it never talks about ensuring or securing this kind of equality.

And not only this, but an honest reading of the Bible will inoculate us vs. all utopian ideals, even ones that don’t make the same mistakes that today’s “social justice warriors” do.

Here is a key question though:

If some visions of social justice are things that we should at least have some interest in (and some are), why not also social vengeance as well?

Now, some might think that that is an unfair and loaded question.

After all, justice is a popular word these days… Not so much vengeance or revenge (at least, it’s not so popular out in the open….).

Still, this matter is worth exploring.


With justice more classically understood in the Western world, dependent as it has been on Greek and Roman ideals, we have the idea of a fair and proper scale…

Lady Justice is blind, and makes the good and right and impartial determination of innocence or guilt…

And there is an exacting of either blessing or punishment.

This is not so much the case in our pictures of vengeance, or revenge.

For revenge, we associate this not so much with lady justice, blindfolded and determining things impartially and properly, but with feeling and emotion instead.

Revenge, whether taken on one’s own behalf or on behalf of others, is not so impartial, and not done through a mediator like a judge…

It’s personal… even social…, and first and foremost, we might think of the notion of, the desire for, “payback”…

And also tied up with our impressions of revenge is the desire to cause someone to suffer for what they have done to another…

Interestingly, the prophet Jeremiah says of his “friends”:

“All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying, ‘Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him.’”

In the book of Leviticus, the Lord talks about both justice and revenge in chapter 19:

15“ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly….

18“ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.[vii]

Here, we see that when God speaks about revenge, He addresses the feelings that come with it, and immediately pivots us to “love our neighbors as ourselves…”

We desperately need it. The real problem is not vengeance itself, but that our intimations of vengeance are deeply wrong.

And our God shows us this particularly when He takes on human flesh as Jesus Christ.

What was His vengeance like?

No, for God – even as Jesus Christ, the God-Man—there is not a whole lot of light between justice and revenge.

The difference is in us. Our emotionally volatile “impartiality”. God, alone, knows a pure impartiality…

Clearly, the difference between him and us is that his anger – though white hot for the moment before quickly succumbing to compassion[viii] – is never wrong, while ours often is.

Hence, the Apostle Paul urges us, for example, says “In your anger do not sin” and “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…”

So, how does God do vengeance? Perhaps the tone that we can detect in Psalm 99 can help us here:

Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel was among those who called on his name;
they called on the Lord
and he answered them.
He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud;
they kept his statutes and the decrees he gave them.

Lord our God,
you answered them;
you were to Israel a forgiving God,
though you punished their misdeeds.[a]
Exalt the Lord our God
and worship at his holy mountain,
for the Lord our God is holy.

The “though you punished their misdeeds” is more accurately translated “though you took vengeance on their deeds”….

In other words, for God, revenge is simply the negative side of justice: giving people their “just desserts” in response to their sinful desires, thoughts, words and deeds.

When good parents punish their children, they might say something like “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” and, as unbelievable as that might sometimes seem to children, Isaiah essentially says the same thing of God, “In all their affliction he was afflicted.” (Is. 63:9).

And when it has to do with His own children, revenge, or the exacting of punishment, is one thing, while it is another thing for those who oppose His children.

For He is also their Avenger, which means that they will receive vengeance, that is, receive justice.

And yes, that finally means hell for their enemies.


Two things we see in the Scripture about this topic that are true:

The Lord is gracious and merciful to those who sin against Him. And the Lord also brings punishment for the wicked and blessings for the faithful…. Isaiah writes:

17 no weapon forged against you will prevail,
    and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
and this is their vindication from me,”
declares the Lord. (Is 54:17)

So you see, the judgment of the nations will not only be Israel’s relief from their enemies but also their vindication.

The saints begging for that under the throne of God in the book of Revelation will be satisfied.

For though God’s servants be afflicted and broken in this world – though they be racked by suffering – they will have glory and favor in the next!

The Lord is indeed impartial, but He is impartial in an important sense.

Impartial in line with the cause of Zion, that is, Zion’s cause (Is. 34:8).

So just how is the Lord impartial?

The Lord is impartial because Zion’s cause, or purpose—namely to fear, love, and trust their God and to proclaim the glories of His goodness and steadfast love—is to be the purpose of all men.

You can pray the Psalms against your enemies. “The imprecatory Psalms” they are called…

But always remember how the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine… I will repay”.

Even as He also wants your enemies to be His — that is His own dear faith-filled children! — as well…

So trust him to work it out!

To quote Abraham, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).


So what in the end, will win?

Who will be those who are victorious?

Why, those who trust in the Lord and His promised Messiah, and hence those who seek true justice, or vengeance, true righteousness… true reconciliation….

As Jesus says, wisdom will be vindicated by its children.

The world that we face each day indeed will be unjust.

This, however, is why He not only urges us to love our enemies, but does so Himself, dying even for us great sinners.

This is evidently why, when Jesus launches his ministry in Luke 4 by reading parts of our passage from Isaiah today in the synagogue, He stops right before He gets to the vengeance, and then has the nerve to say that He is fulfilling Isaiah 61 in their hearing that very day!

He then goes on to talk about not how God took vengeance on the “nations,” the “Gentiles,” that is, non-Jews, in the O.T., but how He was reaching out to them in love even in the days of Elijah and Elisha!

And yet, it seems that the vengeance part is just what those around Him wanted to hear about.

“God, please take care of those imperialists! Please judge the Romans, won’t you? Take our enemies, take Babylon, down!”

And so, while Jesus goes on to talk about God’s showing mercy to non-Jews in the Old Testament, the people from his own town try to throw Him off the cliff!

Well, it’s like Mary was told, isn’t it?:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”


It is not just Rome who is fallen, but the world. People in all places everywhere.

And so we must see, from that story in the book of Luke and elsewhere, that the Lord does not ultimately want us to be a people fixated on attaining justice, or vengeance, for ourselves and the communities we call our own — but those who are full of pity and mercy for lost souls.

So, for example, for those who have withheld fair wages from their workers….

For those who have rolled over everyone en route to attaining the status they think will bring them security….

For those who, acting worse than pagans, do not care for their own flesh and blood, perhaps even putting to death their offspring…

For those who treated their employees or servants with disdain and abuse….

For those living for sex, drugs, and violence…

For those who thought peoples should be grateful to them as they colonized and harvested the goods of their world…

For those who finally, in the end, do not begin to fear, love, and trust in God… or who even fall away from Him….

All this is why the Apostle Paul gives us this advice:

…the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will (II Timothy 2: 24-26)

And who, finally, will win in the end? The One who attaches himself to — attach yourself to! — Isaiah’s suffering servant:

“After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life[d] and be satisfied[e];
by his knowledge[f] my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,[g]
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,[h]
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors…”

You see? Because He did this, “I will give him a portion among the great…and he will divide the spoils with the strong…”

You know, it might look like that Lamb of God loses everything.

But in the end, wonder of wonders, by His great act of righteousness which pays the debts of the world and brings life to the many, He gains the whole world.

When He is weak, He really is strong.

And He gains for Himself a people who love Him, and who will enjoy the overflowing fruits of His goodness forever and ever, world without end.



[i] PDF.


[iii] This satirical article speaks to the sentiment:


[v] More good stuff from another pastor preaching from the book of Isaiah (chapter 35):

“He has redeemed me” is so powerful to rescue you from all that, and to keep you safe in God’s arms. So it’s a great thing for you to be called “the redeemed.” We hear it at the end of Isaiah 35: “The redeemed of the LORD shall walk there,” is speak-ing of you. This is a promise, a beautiful Gospel promise spoken to you.

We have to back up, though, and survey the landscape. In Isaiah 35, the prophet pictures it for us as a desert, a wilderness, a wasteland. He goes on to further picture it as a dry, waterless, parched ground, a harsh landscape. It’s the place of deprivation and death.

There are many such descriptions in the prophets. Normally I’ve had to work to reveal how this is the world we live in. But as 2020 goes out, I don’t have to work to show you the bleakness of our landscape, how this is a wilderness. You see and feel it all the time, don’t you, especially all the things you have to say you can’t count on…”

Our Old Testament passage from Isaiah this morning is meant to give us great hope!

61 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

The first thing to realize here is that first and foremost, these words are meant by Isaiah and a spiritual and/or metaphorical sense.

Throughout the book of Isaiah, certain physical realities – such being poor, blind, and a prisoner (see Revelation 3:17: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”) – are meant to stand in for spiritual truths (this is not to say that the people of Israel were not in a wilderness of sorts, not like after the days of the Exodus, wandering in the real wilderness. They were may have well been physically poor and thirsty as well (see 41:11-18, particularly v. 17))

In like fashion, there is no doubt that as Isaiah prophesied, the people of Israel really would be plundered, looted and even faced physical imprisonment from the Babylonians (Is. 42:22,24 ; see also 51:14, 19) – this being punishment from God. Nevertheless, when Isaiah elsewhere speaks the famous words about “those who sitting in darkness who have seen a great light,” echoed also in the Gospel of Matthew, he is not talking about the literal blind and literal prisoners so much as talking about spiritual realities….).

He is, after all, zeroing in on people whose sins have separated them from God (Is. 59:2) …as darkness covers the earth (Is. 60:2).

Therefore, even though Isaiah is constantly talking about the blind and the deaf, He also quotes the Lord commanding believers like him, for example, to “lead out those who have eyes but are blind (In fact, Israel itself is called the blind and deaf servant (Is. 42:18-19 ; see also 42:15,16), but we are told that the Lord’s coming Messiah, the Suffering servant, will be a “light for the nations” (Is. 42:6) and “open the eyes that are blind.”), who have ears but are deaf.” (see 43:1-9, particularly v. 8)

[Again, none of that is to say that those who really are healed from physical blindness and deafness do not make a great illustration of this spiritual truth, just like none of this is to say that the Lord is indifferent to the plight of those who are blind and deaf. We know for a fact that is not the truth.

That, however, is really not the focus. The endgame. The Lord has come to save us not just from temporary problems on earth, but the problem of earth itself ; the problem of Adam that wearies Him with sin.

For we have fallen, and without His aid, cannot get up. Fallen man, what we also call the “old Adam,” is sick not only externally, but internally: to the core.  

And in like fashion, man is not only poor externally, but internally…. spiritually poor.

We might not only feel physical hunger and thirst – and note that He satisfies His people like He did when they wandered in the desert — but we are to sense our spiritual hunger and thirst… to pant for the living God, as the Psalmist says…. (Isaiah 41:17-18 ; 43:20)

This is what Isaiah is on about….]

And the Messiah will “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is 42:7 ; see also Is. 49:8-13, esp. vv. 9 and 10, the latter which is quoted in Rv. 7:16-17 as a picture of heaven.)

Even as God has allowed Israel to endure punishment on earth, through their earthly foes, He also promises to redeem them again, and tells them not to fear:

12“I, even I, am he who comforts you.

Who are you that you fear mere mortals,

human beings who are but grass,

13that you forget the Lord your Maker,

who stretches out the heavens

and who lays the foundations of the earth,

that you live in constant terror every day

because of the wrath of the oppressor,

who is bent on destruction?

For where is the wrath of the oppressor?

(It goes on in chapter 51:

“…. 21Therefore hear this, you afflicted one,

made drunk, but not with wine.

22This is what your Sovereign Lord says,

your God, who defends his people:

“See, I have taken out of your hand

the cup that made you stagger;

from that cup, the goblet of my wrath,

you will never drink again.

23I will put it into the hands of your tormentors,

who said to you,

‘Fall prostrate that we may walk on you.’

And you made your back like the ground,

like a street to be walked on.”)

The reasoning seems to be “How can we fear men and their oppression, when our God is so great?”

This is part and parcel of the hope that belongs to God’s people…

[vi] In a Mar 24, 2016 article, the San Diego Foundation offered the following definitions:

  • “Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.”
    United Nations
  • “Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social workers aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need.”
    National Association of Social Workers
  • “Social justice encompasses economic justice. Social justice is the virtue which guides us in creating those organized human interactions we call institutions. In turn, social institutions, when justly organized, provide us with access to what is good for the person, both individually and in our associations with others. Social justice also imposes on each of us a personal responsibility to work with others to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development.”
    Center for Economic and Social Justice

The Oxford English Dictionary tries to sum it up more succinctly:

“…justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.”

As in: “individuality gives way to the struggle for social justice”

[vii] More context: 15“ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

16“ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.

“ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.

17“ ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

18“ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

[viii] “For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord your Redeemer. – Isaiah 54:7-8 (see also, e.g., 60:10)

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Posted by on December 13, 2020 in Uncategorized