The devil, who in his great malice is envious of all the good he sees in the soul, knowing of her prosperity, now employs all his ability and engages all his crafts to disturb this good, even if only a slight part of it. It is worth more to him to hinder a small fraction of this soul’s rich and glorious delight than to make many others fall into numerous serious sins, for these others have little or nothing to lose; but this soul has very much to lose because of all her precious gain. The loss of a little pure gold is worse than the loss of many other base metals. (John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” Commentary on Stanza 16)
If you find yourself stewing about how sincere Christians (maybe you) are being hammered by circumstances, toxic thoughts, confusion and other torments, while people who could care less about God’s Word and kingdom seem to skip happily along (Psalm 73), John of the Cross says that the devil doesn’t waste any of his ammo on those who are on the wide, easy path to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). He concentrates his fire on those he envies, those who are beloved of God and on the narrow path that leads to eternal life, the path that the devil lost and can never regain.
Hang in there. Help, comfort and encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you (Romans 16:20).
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)
Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it? And why, since you stole it from me, do you leave it so, and fail to carry off what you have stolen? (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 9)
I happened to read both of these verses last night. Yes, there’s an immediate superficial similarity in the pained poetry of lost love and the Psalm of abandonment. But I think this goes deeper.
John of the Cross uses poetry, heavily influenced by and even sampled from The Song of Songs, to describe the soul’s longing for its (her, in John’s imagery) true love, which is God. And in his own commentary on this stanza of his poem, he uses the language of death, which intersects with Psalm 22 at the cross.
Commenting on Stanza 9, John writes,
Her [the soul’s] complaint is not that he [God] wounded her – for the more a loving soul is wounded the more its love is repaid – but that in sorely wounding her heart, he did not heal her by slaying her completely. The wounds of love are so sweet and delightful that if they do not cause death they cannot satisfy. Yet they are so delightful that she would want them to wound her sorely until they slay her completely. Consequently she says: “Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” This is equivalent to saying: Why, since you wounded this heart until it has become sorely wounded, do you not heal it by wholly slaying it with love? Since you cause the sore wound in the sickness of love, may you cause health in the death of love. As a result the heart, wounded with the sorrow of your absence, will be healed with the delight and glory of your sweet presence.
If this is an accurate observation of the soul devoted to God, then the one perfectly devoted soul, Christ’s, offers more than a cry of generic human pain or humiliation from the cross. It is a cry for completion or perfection – that Christ’s painful zeal for God’s will can give way to the death of love that renews the delight and glory of Father and Son in the unity of the Spirit, no longer hindered or obscured by the earthbound body that Jesus accepted to save us.
In this sense, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? moves closer to It is finished (John 19:30) and Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46). It is the cry of the lover for the beloved that is finally answered with the delight and glory of the beloved’s sweet presence.
So it is that Jesus, after crying out the Psalm, endures but a few more moments of useless ministrations from the crowd (this is similar to Stanzas 2 and 6 of the Canticle, which express the futility of intercessors and messengers when unity with God is the soul’s desire), and is slain completely by the wounds of divine love.
The passage says rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands – to take the skills that made their predatory behavior effective and put them to a better use.
It’s not enough to suppress the bad (that would be goody-two-shoes). We must embrace what is good. As Paul wrote,
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
Paul says that praiseworthy practices are, in a broad sense, prayerful, because when we undertake them the God of peace will be with you.
On the spiritual plane, I think this helps make sense of Jesus’ strange words in Matthew 12:43-45,
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none.Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order.Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.
It isn’t sufficient to boot out the evil. That leaves a vacant space that needs filling. If not filled with good, it is vulnerable to a greater evil taking up residence. (It is worth noting that Jesus said this in the course of disputes with religious authorities who rejected him and tried to reassert legalism as the way of salvation. The devil is shrewd enough to lure our good deeds into dead works that assume our own and/or our group’s merits take the place of Christ’s work on the cross).
III. Which leads to the depth of the verse about thieves: it is a call to receive the life of Christ as our own.
Sure, stop stealing. Yes, do honest work. But that stops with our own frail flesh if we end there. Go beyond, it says: so as to have something to share with the needy.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name… (Philippians 2:4-9)
Since Paul wrote this verse about thieves to the church in big, busy Ephesus, and placed it in a batch of instructions for church members, we can assume that known thieves were starting to hear the Gospel and worship there.
The verse is hopeful testimony that Christ can welcome and transform any person, and that a… uh… diversity of characters in the congregation means that something right is going on.
We might fault some “conservative” churches for being content to teach socially acceptable behavior and preach legalism.
Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5)
The Transfiguration is a glorious vision given to uncomprehending followers of Jesus. It is planted with them before their incompetence goes on full display during his passion, when they run away from him and, in Peter’s case, deny knowing him.
Peter will comprehend it in hindsight and use it to encourage other Christians as they struggle in weakness, facing persecution and probably wavering under doubt and despair, feeling anything but competent to proclaim faith,
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
As Paul wrote in the passage cited at the top of this piece, the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. God’s people, held up to strict codes of conduct, are quite often incompetent. In the Old Testament lesson for the Eve of Pentecost, the Prophet Elijah
was afraid… fled for his life… asked that he might die
But God assists Elijah, first with angelic help and then in a still small voice or low whisper which is, as Paul asserts, the Spirit giving life.
Our incompetence to represent God is all too often felt and ingloriously exposed. But even in that reality we who carry the name of Christ carry also the glory that he revealed on the mountain top.
It will be revealed in us, not because we are competent to show it, but because the life-giving Spirit of God is transfiguring us all along.
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”
What used to be was what used to be, but Jesus isn’t bound by it. And he’s going ahead of us, expecting to meet us and make known his new reality.
There were also allusions to resurrection in the Psalms I offered this morning.
My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore. (16:9-11)
I am dying, not actively but in the general sense that all of us are mortal. But there is hope because of God’s promises and those promises include life, joy and pleasure beyond anything I can experience or imagine.
In contemplating these scriptures and others, I found a bit of peace and joy (always fleeting in my life, whether by nature or nurture I can’t say). I noticed that God is active with us, even in the death-like inactivity of sleep,
I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night. (Psalm 16:7)
But at my vindication I shall see your face; when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness. (17:16)
God is working to guide, enlighten, comfort and transform us when we are “dead” to his efforts. We sleep, are distracted or even flat out rebellious, but God is faithfully caring for us. And making us new, ready to meet him face to face, as the angel said in the message to the women at Jesus’ empty tomb.
I am mired in personal problems at present, symptoms and debris from decades of choices made and avoided, whether from nature or nurture I don’t know and, increasingly, don’t care. But the morning lessons warmed my heart and eased my mind. And I carry on today in the knowledge that the one who rose from the tomb is out ahead of me, sending messages that lead me toward him, not only in a distant future but in the here and now.
There are little resurrections to be had, from bits of what I’ve been to bits of what I’m becoming – to what he’s creating and recreating even when I’m not aware.
I find that shame is a powerful force that grows when I try to answer every accusation and criticism. It feeds on my efforts to counter unfair judgments, sweeping condemnations, litanies of past failures and all kinds of other negative stuff the world, the flesh and the devil launch.
But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (Matthew 27:12-14)
I pulled over on a scenic overlook of the Missouri River and busted a summary of my upcoming sermon for you:
I Corinthians 6:11 is important as well,
And this [participants in a depressing list of vices] is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Not, “You cleaned up your act” but you were washed.
Not, “You became holy people” but you were sanctified.
Not, “You proved your goodness” but you were justified.
It is done for, to and through us in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.