That Judgment Thing 12 – Of Thorns and Grace

Saint Paul at his Writing Desk - Rembrandt
Saint Paul at his Writing Desk – Rembrandt

“I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Cor. 12: 8, 9)

According to Freud, the driving principles of mankind are in two words, pain and pleasure. And religion means prohibition.

But I say our single most important need is to be right. And our single most powerful drive is justice. Justice will trump anything. And true religion means liberty. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God said.

But too much of the church preaches Freudian principles looking for silver linings and praying for things to go well or get better, rather than “Your will be done.”

“Your will…”  seems so fatalistic. And thorns aren’t from God – they’re bad, right?

Listening this morning to the reaction of another mass shooting, a pastor prayed for protection by the blood of Christ. The “blood of Christ” I’ve heard used has always been to placate an angry god, not give life to the dead. So the church continually needs to assure herself of God’s mercy.

They say the man with the gun was “deranged” Sure he was! He was looking for satisfaction of the flesh like the rest of us. Do we (the church) not have anything else to offer?

Pleasure is a fleeting thing. And thorns are only bad when God’s grace isn’t sufficient.

In the above quote from 2 Corinthians, a tormented Paul wasn’t talking to himself. And while he might not have heard a voice, the words rang as clear as a bell as he rested in the arms of his Lord.

Been there. So may anyone.

That Judgment Thing 11 – What Is Sin?

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned”  (Rom. 5: 12)

If the legalists had it all wrong and Jesus was explaining things, the definition of sin is, “unbelief” in him (John 16: 8-11).

Plugging the word into place into Rom. 5: 12 reads then, “Therefore, just as unbelief entered the world through one man, and death through unbelief, and in this way death came to all people, because all have not believed.”

It takes the mysticism out of the word, “sin,” and changes the discussion.

Then, what was the sin (unbelief) in the garden? Was it the disobedience? Or was it eating the fruit?

It takes belief to disobey.

But it takes unbelief to weigh whether something is good or evil (judge). And we just won’t leave that fruit alone.

A Tale of Two Trees VIII – The Trail Between

After he drove the man out, he (God) placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”  Gen. 3: 23, 24

I started watching a Netflix original suspense series. I forget the title, but it opens to a modern Roman orgy of writhing naked bodies (not what I expected). I backed out of it, but the shock value made me think, Jesus came into a polarized society of acceptable fleshly indulgences like this (Roman culture) vs his own custom-designed, orderly and proper Jews.

It was the Roman-type society that produced the wickedness which resulted in the flood (Gen. 8)—and God wasn’t going to let that happen again (Gen. 9: 11). But Jesus didn’t come to the immoral. Counter-intuitively, he came to the moral ones—and proceeded to chastise the most righteous among them (Matt. 5:20) despite their noble intentions.

But Jesus aim wasn’t just for the Jews, it was especially for the immoral Roman-types. “For God so loved the world…”

I love deliberate misdirection.

People like to short-circuit the Gospel, jumping right to “love one another.”  But the Gospel is more like John 3: 16. And you have to literally follow Jesus to understand where he’s going.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  John 3:16 

That Judgment Thing 10 – Justice or Mercy?

“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord… Isaiah 1: 18

To abandon the noble fight of justice in favor of mercy is like stepping off a cliff—and a matter of faith, not judgment.

But wasn’t that the point of the crucifixion?

Then if that’s God’s final offer, it’s ours to agree with him or argue with him.


That Judgment Thing 8 – Salvation Isn’t the Salvation. It’s the Grace.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Eph. 2: 8, 9


Matt. 10: 16 is my favorite description of grace to date.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.Matt. 10: 16

As practiced by Jesus, grace grants justice, but doesn’t demand it. So grace pays its taxes and follows the necessary laws. And while grace readily points out hypocrisy in the practice of the law, it doesn’t accuse or condemn according to it.

So just scratching the surface, the pictures in the above verse speak volumes with the wolves and sheep, but especially with the serpents and the doves regarding grace. All predator and prey to begin with, what does the imagery represent?

“Sheep among wolves.” Jesus is talking to his disciples. Notice he didn’t mention the shepherd. Hmmm…

“Shrewd as serpents” speaks of the devil. Being in the world (the marketplace of judgment), grace knows how it works. As shrewdly as the devil himself.

“Innocent as doves” speaks of the Spirit of God. Not being of the world, while grace might fall prey to the consequences of the marketplace, it reaches out with mercy and stays aloof.

And mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2: 13)

That Judgment Thing 8 – Of Fear, Shame and a Spreadsheet Sum

"Adam and Eve" - Hans Heyerdahl (1857-1915)
“Adam and Eve” – Hans Heyerdahl (1857-1915)
“I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” Genesis 3: 10

When God asked a fearful Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” Adam thought to be shameful what God had already called good.

But it wasn’t that he and his wife should have thought their nakedness to be good. It’s that they should know all things through God.
“Who told you…?”


That Excel spreadsheet “sum” isn’t a number. It’s an equation.

That Judgment Thing 7 – Sorry, Little Drummer Boy.

“So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock…” Gen. 4: 1-8

Although Cain and Abel offered, there’s nothing to say that God had requested. Then judging by what God required by the law of Moses, the best of Abel’s flock would have been received, killed and burnt, with the remains given away or discarded. No blue ribbons. No compensation. No applause. But in the story, God did little and said nothing. He only looked at Abel’s offering while ignoring Cain’s entirely.

Are these really two different responses with the same intent? If so, Abel must have understood as did Isaiah, “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Is. 64:6)  This then, would be the “better sacrifice” noted in Hebrews 11:4—and righteousness indeed is never earned. But even a glance is better than to be ignored when someone’s looking for recognition. This would not go over well with Cain.

In an age of winning and ranking and self-esteem, it’s humbling to know there is nothing to offer, only to receive.

Sorry little drummer boy, this isn’t about you.

24/7 – Starting with a Seed

"The Sower" Van Gogh
“The Sower” Van Gogh

“A farmer went out to sow his seed...” Matt. 13: 1-9

Whether I come to Christ with the innocence of a child (Mark 10:14), the boldness of a Canaanite woman (Matt. 15), the tears of a repentant (Luke 7: 36-50) or the curiosity of a theologian (John 3), he meets me where I am and will be sure to both support and challenge (Matt. 16: 13-23). Then I either continue or turn away. (Luke 18: 18-23; John 6: 56 – 66).

Faith isn’t a belief system, it’s a relationship. And it’s not just an introduction, it’s a long walk.

That Judgment Thing 6 – Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Matt 9:13

Doing a word search, “anger” and “wrath” of God don’t occur in the Bible until the time of Moses and the Law. They are not in the account of the fall. Sodom was destroyed because her wickedness was “grievous” (Gen. 18:20). The flood came about because of God’s “regret” (Gen. 6:6). And my favorite Cain— who, had he been under the law would have been executed—received mercy from God. Personally (Gen. 4: 15).

Grief, regret and mercy are acts of love, sorrow and loss, not anger. We assume because Adam and Eve were “afraid” (Gen. 3:10), and Abraham apprehensive (Gen. 18: 30) in his bargaining with God over Sodom, that God is predisposed to anger regarding mankind. Not so. If anything, he’s predisposed to compassion.

But apparently, we’re predisposed to judgment.

God’s anger would be revealed with the introduction of the Law. But even then it was misunderstood. And it took his Son to clarify.

Seems by nature, we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. But if we should open our eyes, we’ll see that it already has.  And it was to our benefit.

Jesus made the above Matt. 9 statement to the “teachers of the law.” But he referenced a passage from Hosea that finishes off the thought:

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6

Ours isn’t to fear God. It’s to know him.

A Tale of Two Trees VII – Perspectives

“The Three Crosses” – Rembrandt

Jesus captured people’s attention with often curious words of love and deeds of compassion. “Love your enemies,” he once said to an incredulous crowd (Matt. 5:43-48). Hopeful words reminiscent of (a reluctant) Jonah preaching a message of salvation to his enemies, the Ninevites.

Jesus also said some disconcerting words equally at odds with conventional thinking. “Anyone who comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother… and children… he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Reminiscent of Abraham who, at the command of God, took his only begotten son Isaac up a mountain to be sacrificed.

But God held no ill will toward Isaac just as he held no ill will toward Nineveh. There was a ram nearby “caught in a thicket by its horns” when Isaac asked, “…where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:1-19) Was the ram intended imagery of a captured man generations later? A man pierced with a tangle of thorns on his head (John 19:2)—the “Lamb of God” (John 1:36).

Jonah certainly was an intended picture, and final preview of the same (Matt. 12:38-40). Jonah preached to the “wicked and adulterous generation” of his day: the hundred-twenty thousand of Nineveh, who in truth, could not “tell their right hand from their left…” (Jonah 4: 10-11).

So after being ridiculed and whipped, Jesus, that captured man with curious words of love and deeds of compassion was crucified. And though he had preached a message of salvation, people turned on him with mockery, dubbing him “king” with a crown woven from the thickets. But he looked at them and said, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

And while Jesus had already warned, “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah…” (Matt. 12:41), he who was someone greater than Jonah, would not condemn them.

And all this time we’ve been looking at him with pity.