Sunday, December 30, 2007

God's Glory in Creation


Morning Prayer:
O God open my heart that I may receive your word into my life this day. Help me to read your word now, to be aware of its meaning in the lives of saints down through the centuries. But more importantly throughout this day, give me insight and wisdom, understanding and action that your word may come alive for me as well as others that I come in contact with. Help me to hear it again and again as good news, the gospel light and hope, the promise of your presence in the world. Amen.

Psalm 150:
When I hear or read the words of Psalm 150 I am reminded that all of our activity from early morning to late at night for God is praise; not just humans but all of creation. The gift of creating a holy band to wholly praise our creator in one accord would be such a unique undertaking, but to hear the harmony of such an orchestra of praise instead of fighting would be heaven.

I Kings 17:17-24
When I read the passage from I Kings this morning, two things fascinated me, one is the mother’s panic and the other is prophet’s calm. She may not be yelling at Elijah, but she is desperate and she is hurt and she does blame him for her son’s death. In the midst of the accusations the prophet calmly asks for the son and takes him to the upper chamber where he prays. It is difficult to tell whether his calm takes on the panic of the boy’s mother or he is simply praying and getting God’s attention. But nevertheless, the widow’s concerns are being voiced in heaven and more importantly they are heard in heaven.

3 John 1-13
The apostles write to the churches as a parent would write children. They are eager to hear form them, they are eager for a word from them, they are eager to hear how they are doing, to hear how they are learning and growing in God’s grace. These apostles have started something and they like to hear and see the fruits of their labor.

John 4:46-54
The story of the royal official’s son being healed is a great story of faith. It is once again a story to any who grew up in the faith, who think we know all about what is going on, to have the opportunity to be surprised by faith. The Royal official seeks Jesus out because his son is ill. He doesn’t expect Jesus to come to him, but simply to give the order and his son will be made well. Jesus said to the man, “Go, your son will live” and the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him. What might it be like for you and me if we sought Jesus out, asked God directly, listened for God’s response, and then did as God directed. There are two parts of this story that are very important that we cannot short circuit. Listening for God’s response and doing as God directed. Sometimes we ask God to do for us and then we stop—we stop praying, we don’t listen, we don’t even do anything. God expects us to keep praying, worshiping. We have to listen. Anytime we have a conversation with someone if we do all the talking there is not much of a relationship is there? And then we must respond to God’s direction. The man’s faith is remarkable, but it is the same faith that is a gift from God to you and me as well. Let’s use that gift.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lives in the Balance


1 Samuel 2:1b-10
This text contains what is called the Song of Hannah. A portion of verse 3 says that “by (God) actions are weighed.” The verses that follow go on to show how God reverses the fortunes of the weak and poor, the hungry and needy, with images—pairs and opposites––that show the balances or scales of justice being adjusted in favor of those in need. “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (verses 4-7). Shirley Guthrie, in his book Christian Doctrine, says that while human justice is often personified by a woman wearing a blindfold, to indicate that justice is blind, there is no such blindness in the case of God. The Song of Hannah rejoices that God is deliberately on the side of the poor and distressed. Actions have been weighed and those who have tended only to their own needs, who have benefited at the expense of others, have seen their lives corrected.

Titus 2:1-10
Luke 1:26-38
While I personally take issue with the words of Titus calling on young women to be submissive to their husbands and for slaves to be submissive to their masters, I take Mary’s words in Luke 1:38 to provide some understanding. “Then Mary said, ‘Here ma I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.’” For me the point is humility before God. Indeed, if the community of faith and each individual in it would “walk humbly” with God (Micah 6)––as Mary is prepared to do––then there would be no need for submission and certainly no place for slavery. The community would become what God intends it to be, mutually beneficial, guided by love, respect, and regard one for another. The balances and scales would be level, and all would live in peace.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

God's Glee


Psalm 50
Zephaniah 3:14-20
A portion of verses 17 and 18 in Zephaniah 3 says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” What a contrast there is between this image of God and the one of whom Psalm 50 says, “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me” (verse 8). When the people celebrate it is without real meaning, without real joy. They are simply going through the motions, eager to return to their “normal lives.” By this God is disappointed. But when God celebrates there is joy and exultation, love and compassion. If only our worship of God could contain the same love, joy, and exultation with which God approaches us! How remarkable it is that the Creator of the universe can be imagined to nearly dance with glee!

Titus 1:1-16
Verse 16 speaks to the conflict between what we say and what we do: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions.” This is very much in line with what Zephaniah was warning the people about. It isn’t what you say, the fact that you go through the motions of worship. What God wants are lives filled with faithfulness, with obedience which reaches beyond the worship experience and into the daily life of the believer. In other words, we should “practice what we preach.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

The House of the Lord

Psalms 122
Verse 1 is something that I seem to remember from my childhood; perhaps as a memory verse in Sunday school. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” There is no greater joy for the Psalmist than to enter into the presence of God, to join with the community of God’s people in the act of worship and praise.

Zechariah 1:7-17
Verse 16 is a comforting word to the people of God. After years of hardship and the destruction of the temple God speaks of restoration. “Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.” The house of God, the temple, will stand again as a sign of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.

Revelation 3:7-13
The members of the church in Philadelphia are commended for their “patient endurance” (verse 20) in the face of opposition. The writer of Revelation then encourages them with these words, “If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it.” Eternal joy is characterized as becoming a fixture in the presence of God. There are other uses of this sort of metaphor in scripture. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16. 1 Peter 2:5 says, “…like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house….” The community of faith, then, is the dwelling place of God in the new reality. Just as God appeared to Ezekiel by the River Chebar in Babylon, God now appears to us, dwells with us, in the places where we are.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

God Without Limits


Amos 9:1-10
Verse 7 asks an interesting question. “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” On the one hand, the Oxford Annotated Bible says that this verse indicates that “Israel has no claim to special privilege in the moral realm, for the Lord will destroy every sinful kingdom.” On the other hand, however, does this verse not also show that the divine hand is involved in all the affairs of humanity, not just those of a select people? The God of Israel is not a tribal god, not a totem or good luck charm. God is mighty and everlasting and God’s power transcends national boarders and cultural barriers. God had a role to play in the lives of the Philistines and Arameans. God certainly has a role to play in our world and our lives as well.

Revelation 2:8-17
In the same way that God is Sovereign over all the nations, God is also Sovereign over all of the churches. John records “a word” for the churches in both Smyrna and Pergamum. No one congregation is more dear to God than any other, and no congregation is without God’s provident care, nor God’s judgment as well. I would suggest that the same is true of denominations today. God’s care and judgment are over all forms of the church, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox.

Matthew 23:13-26
Most of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day likely felt that they lived in a special relationship with God. The words of Jesus in verse 13 would have greatly offended them. “But woe to you, scribes and hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” Those whose faith leads them to believe that they know best what God is doing, or that they have a better relationship with God should take note. God may be doing something very different.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Living as God's People


Revelation 1:17-2:7 and Amos 8:1-14 and Matthew 23:1-12
In the revelation of John there is a message for the seven churches, today’s passage is for the church in Ephesus. In those messages, in those proclamations to the church in Ephesus we hear God speaking to us. It is not enough to rely on the past. It is not enough to say who we were as individuals or as a church in the past. Faith is a constant, active, demonstration of our relationship with God. It is always challenging us on. John reminds the church and consequently us of the love they had when they first believed and the works they accomplished when they first believed. In Amos God challenged the people to live out their trust and faith in God, which included how they treated others. “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…Surely I will never forget any of their deeds…I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation…” Maybe these are words we don’t want to hear as we sing our Christmas carols or attend Christmas parties, but it is the message that God challenges us with this Advent season and all year, put your faith into practice. The child that you come seeking was poor and his family had no place to be. How we treat the least in society says the most about us. We in the church are called to serve not to be served. Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant.”


Amos 8:1-14
I have a question that arises from the reasons for which God declares that “the end has come upon my people Israel” (verse 2). In verses 4 and 6 Amos speaks to those who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…buying the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals….” My question is won’t these same needy, poor people be swept away in the end that God has promised? Won’t they suffer along with the ones God intends to punish? This is causing me some discomfort, I’ll admit. All I can assume is that the plight of the poor and needy will be no worse in the circumstances that God is bringing to bear, or that perhaps they will actually improve. One issue perhaps is whether God is speaking of an ultimate end in which all life will be set right, or an end to Israel in which the nation will cease to exist and the people will be carried into exile. The fact that God also promises a famine of the divine word (verse 11) doesn’t clear things up any for me. Since I believe that God is always on the side of the poor and oppressed and that God takes pity on the least and lost, I will assume that God’s action against Israel as promised to the prophet Amos will in no way make their lives worse and may in fact improve their situation. But I’m still uncomfortable about all of this. (I’d invite anyone who happens to read this today to offer their own opinions on the matter. How will the condition of the needy and poor be any different in “the end” that God is bringing on Israel?)

Revelation 1:17-2:7
On the other hand, the Revelation passage offers comfort to the people of God in the words that John hears. Portions of 1:17-18 read, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever…” God continues to care for the people throughout history. God continues to judge and to offer correction. In other words God keeps the conversation going and in doing so shows mercy and compassion. Christ has been raised to eternal glory, and though we may face hardship because of our faith (as the Ephesians have; see 2:1-3) God continues to watch over us and to be active in our midst.

Matthew 23:1-12
Gandhi is quoted as saying he would have been a Christian if he had ever known one. Had he known the Pharisees of whom Jesus is speaking it wouldn’t have helped. “(B)ut do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” All of us who strive to live lives of faith should keep this admonition in mind and make sure that we practice what we teach.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Being at Odds

Jim and Debbie:

Amos 7:10-17
Revelation 1:9-16
These passages both demonstrate how dangerous the word of God can be. Amos 7:10 tells us how Amazia, the priest in the temple of Bethel—the royal sanctuary for Israel after the division from Judah—took issue with the proclamation of Amos. “Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.’” Revelation 1:9 describes the situation that John found himself in. “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” These men are in trouble with the powers that be because of their devotion to God’s word. Those, then, who expect faithful obedience to God to lead to ease and comfort are likely mistaken. Often faithfulness will put us at odds with the world or with our society. Then we may have to choose where to place our hope and our confidence. Do we choose the path of least resistance in this life, the way that leads to easy acceptance from the world? Or do we remain faithful to God’s will even when it leads us to speak against the powers of the world? Amos and John obviously choose to serve God with as much faithfulness as they could muster, and it got them in trouble. One should never take the word of God lightly.

Psalm 146
Verses 3 and 4 echoes the choices that people of faith are called to make. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is not help. When their breath departs they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Faith leads us to make our decisions based on God’s will, not on the basis of earthly powers, for in the end, only God’s will remains and all the power and might of the earth will be cast away.

Matthew 22:34-46
Of course Jesus was no stranger to controversy. Far from being gentle, meek, and mild, Jesus was forceful and aggressive in asserting the truth of God’s word, especially when it stood in conflict with the perceptions and assumptions of the religious community.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Conversations With God


Amos 7:1-9
In the cathedral in Coventry, England there are many beautiful sculptures and works of art. To me one of the more memorable sculptures depicts a city, above which hangs a large plumb line. The work is based on Amos 7:7-8 which reads, “This is what (God) showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.’” These are words of judgment, of course. God has found human activity to be mired in sin and compared to God’s will to be woefully askew. But grace abounds because God, though angry with the people, is willing to keep a conversation going, to keep talking to the prophet and to the people. God has not gotten so angry as to simply go away, but remains in contact with us. The divine plumb line is the standard that God sets for us to live by, one that would result in grace-filled lives if we would just abide by it. In the mean time God remains involved with us.

Revelation 1:1-8
Another conversation takes place through the words of Revelation, or, to be more precise, many conversations, some of which involve us as participants. Verse 3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the word of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it….” The first conversation will be between God and the writer of Revelation. But there will be countless others to follow: between those who read the book and the Holy Spirit who gives meaning to the words; those who undertake to preach from the book and those to whom they preach; those who share the good news as found in Revelation with those who have not received the word of God; and so forth. Blessings abound through the word of God.

Matthew 22:23-33
A third conversation takes place in our reading from Matthew when a group of Sadducees come to Jesus and challenge him with a question. Jesus responds with such power and clarity that “when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching” (verse 33). Sadly, given a chance to talk to Jesus, to learn from the Messiah, these Sadducees wanted to try to trap him or to show that he was wrong. Even if they were not convinced he was the Messiah they could see that he taught with authority. Why waste the opportunity? Why not have a serious conversation and learn as much as possible? What about us? Do we have serious conversations with God when we pray? when we read scripture? when we worship? Or do we waste our opportunities? And most importantly, when we converse with God are we paying attention? God is speaking to us, are we listening?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Justice and Righteousness


Amos 5:18-27
Among the most familiar words of the prophet Amos are those found in verses 21 and 24. “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” A right relationship with God can not be purchased or finagled for; it grows, it develops, it flourishes when we do God’s will and care for those around us. Put another way, God wants us to do what is right, and when we do, we become vessels of praise for God. Rolling waters and ever-flowing streams are apt images in this case, because water is necessary for growth and development. Life indeed flourishes when there is ample moisture, and the good life that God intends flourishes when justice and righteousness are present in abundance.

Jude 17-25
Jude points to growth and life, too, in verse 20: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith…” When faith enables us to be built up, to take shape as God’s people, as God intends us, then there is growth, not only for us but for those around us. I don’t imagine that this exhortation is addressed to a collection of individuals, but rather to a community of believers who are challenged to build (and be built) together in a cooperative, connectional faith. What does this faith look like? The words from Amos would be a good start. Justice and righteousness rolling and ever-flowing can build a positive community and promote life. And when we concentrate on the power of justice and righteousness we are made more alive to God as well as to each other.

Matthew 22:15-22
I think this experience from the ministry of Jesus also ties in nicely to the passage from Amos. The Pharisees and Herodians who try to trap Jesus are focused on the practice of a shallow piety, the sort of actions that compare to empty festivals or meaningless assemblies. Jesus calls God’s people to a higher level. Set your heart on God, he is saying, and show love and respect for one another. Give to God what belongs to God: your heart, soul, mind, and strength. The rest will take care of itself.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Making Choices


Amos 5:1-17
Verse 15 lays out a choice for the people of God: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” Elsewhere Amos has encourages the people to “seek (God) and live” (v. 4) and “seek good and not evil, that you may live.” (v. 14) Life is full of choices, and those choices have consequences for us and for others. The People of God are no different. The choice God offers is one of right relationship based on goodness and justice. To live this way as individuals and as a community is to provide the environment though which God’s grace and mercy may abound, though which we may become partners in God’s activity to God’s glory.

Jude 1-16
Jude also talks about choices that are made and about those who choose poorly. Verse 16 lays out some of the attributes of those who stand in opposition to God’s will. “These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” To live in such a way is to cause harm to the community of faith and to invite the judgment of God. We all make mistakes. We all make poor choices from time to time. Perhaps we will grumble, or look for our own advantage in a situation. Maybe we will too easily find fault with others or will refuse to see the good all around us. This is the nature of sin. But God invites us to strive toward good choices, to aspire to more godly living, that we and those around us may be blessed.

Matthew 22:1-14
Jesus, too, presents a parable about choice. I believe that is the issue with the wedding guest described in verses 11 and 12. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who as not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.” The man who is not dressed appropriately has not lived his life in such a way as to be prepared for God’s coming. Instead of being clothed in acts of goodness and mercy, he has chosen sinful disregard to God’s will. As such he has no defense when he is challenged by the king. He has not strived to participate in God’s work, not aspired to be a party to the graciousness that God offers. He is not in step with the coming kingdom or the wedding feast. What choices do we make? How are we living our lives? Are we dressed appropriately for God’s kingdom?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Glory Be to God!

Amos 4:6-13
Verse 13 says, “For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!” This is a doxology, a description of the glory of God as displayed in some of God’s mighty acts. That it comes at the end of a very harsh assessment of Israel’s relationship with God serves to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the people. God’s will is the standard by which humanity is measured. Yet in the face of waywardness and injustice, God remains a source of light and life, the voice of truth, the God of hosts.

2 Peter 3:11-18
I am personally challenged by the words of verses 14 and 15. “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by (God) at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” The same God to whom Amos offers glory is the God of our salvation, which is born of divine patience with our misdeeds. The challenge for me is to constantly strive to be at peace, which I take to mean in right relationship with God and with my neighbors. I know I will not be found “without spot or blemish” in this regard, but with God’s help I am to aspire to goodness. Even when I am angry or frustrated or disheartened or tired or ready to chunk it all, God calls for my best efforts to God’s glory, and that is certainly not easy for me to do. But with God’s help I will try again, and though I fail a thousand times, I will try a thousand and one.

Matthew 21:33-46
At first glance the words of verse 41 seem a little out of kilter. The wicked tenants have just killed the son and heir of the vineyard. What will the vineyard owner do when he comes? “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time?’” My question is, if his son has just been killed, is the owner of the vineyard really worried about whether the next tenants will give him produce or not? But remember that the vineyard owner represents God and, as verse 43 reminds us, the fruit of the vineyard is really “the fruits of the kingdom.” God is worried about the produce of the vineyard, because it represents a right relationship with God. Those who produce the fruits of the kingdom will care for one another and for the stranger in their midst. They will provide for the widow and orphan, will care for the last and least. They will strive to be found at peace, as 2 Peter encourages us to be, and will give praise to God with lives of righteousness as Amos calls for.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

What's Your Motivation?


Amos 3:12-4:5
There is a lot of sarcasm in the words of Amos found in verses 4 and 5. “Come to Bethel—and transgress to Gilgal––,” he writes, “and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; bring a thank offering of leavened bread, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel! says the Lord God.” Clearly it is not enough to go through the motions, to give offerings or make sacrifices if one’s heart is not in the act. What God seeks, according to Amos, is righteousness and justice not meaningless ritual. The question is what motivates our actions toward God? Do we give freely and generously because we are grateful to God, because we acknowledge God’s grace in our lives? Or do we try to “hedge our bets,” so God will get off our backs and leave us alone? Do we try to separate our giving from our living? Amos tells us that God is not interested in empty gestures. God wants our whole-hearted devotion and our full attention.

2 Peter 3:1-10
The author of 2 Peter also wants his readers to examine their motivation. Portions of verses 1 and 2 say, “…I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles.” Are our intentions sincere? Do they resonate with the will of God as spoken by prophets and apostles? Do they reflect God’s love? Or are we simply going through the motions in order to buy ourselves some time, or to avoid unpleasant circumstances? It is important that we consider what motivates us even as we seek to live lives of faithful obedience.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

God's Word at Work


Amos 3:1-11
Beginning in verse 3 there is a series of illustrative questions culminating in verse 8, which combines the imagery of the preceding verses: “The lion has roared, who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” The bottom line is that when God calls someone to act as a prophet, they simply can not resist, any more than one might resist fear caused by the roaring of a wild animal. There is no point blaming the prophets, then, for the words they speak. They are only doing what God has compelled Them to do, only saying what God has revealed to them. To borrow a famous line from the movie “The Godfather”, it’s as if God has “made them an offer they can’t refuse.”

2 Peter 1:12-21
2 Peter offers a similar perspective on prophecy. Verses 20 and 21 read, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” God is behind all revelation, God is in the word spoken by God’s prophets. Speaking that word is not an act that originates with the person, but rather is in response to God’s action. I think Peter would recognize this as an ongoing phenomenon and not reserved to the prophets of the past. When we prophesy, that is when we speak God’s word for the world with authority, it is in response to God’s activity. In 2 Corinthians Paul says, “What we proclaim is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” In other words it’s not about us. But as the writer of 2 Peter reminds us, speaking the word doesn’t begin with us either.

Matthew 21:12-22
According to Matthew, the religious leaders of Jerusalem objected to what the children were saying about Jesus, calling him the Son of David. Jesus’ reply was to quote Psalm 8. “Jesus said to them, ‘Yes, have you never read, “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself ?”’” Again, God’s word must be proclaimed, God’s praise must be uttered. God is at work making that word alive in our midst, whether it is on the lips of prophets or of children.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Amazing Grace


Amos 2:6 –16
Oddly, the connection I made to this passage comes from verse 16, “and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, says the Lord.” What came to mind was the scene of Jesus’ arrest as told by Mark where, “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” Indeed, those who had said they would stand by Jesus to the very end ran away in his hour of greatest need. I do not assume that Jesus’ arrest is what Amos was specifically pointing to, but I do believe that in the face of God’s actions human bravado and human power melt away leaving us naked before God, exposed in our weakness and our sinfulness and in desperate need of God’s grace to cover our multitude of sins.

2 Peter 1:1-11
Speaking of having our sins covered, verse 3 offers great comfort. It says, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” Through the knowledge of the “glory and goodness” of Jesus Christ we are “covered” with everything we need to live a godly life, to be in community with God and one another. While the actions of God can lay us bare in our sinfulness, God’s grace offers us hope and peace. As John Newton wrote in the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

Matthew 21:1-11
It is fitting, then, to consider verse 10 from the gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in a turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” Again, the actions of God reveal the ignorance of humanity. But more importantly, God’s grace abounds in the opportunity to answer the question, “Who is this?” To know Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, even in his death, is to know God’s richest blessing of grace for all people and to find comfort and solace in our living.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Glimpses of Grace


Micah 7:11-20
Verse 18 is a glimpse into the grace and mercy of God in relation to God’s people. “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency.” There is wonder in these words, surprise and joy at a discovery of great value. Who is a God like our God?! No one. Where is such a God to be found? Nowhere. And though we fail to live up to God’s intentions for us as God’s people, God continues to show us mercy—not without judgment—but ultimately with love for us. Wow!

1 Peter 4:7-19
This entire section is thoughtful and deserves careful attention. But I have settled on verse 8 as most meaningful for me today: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” A community based on God’s love is a community strengthened to withstand whatever may happen. Disagreements will come, misunderstandings will arise, feelings will be hurt, there will be times of tension and doubt, but if the foundation for all relationships is the love we find in God, then community and its many, many blessings can be maintained. For love will lead to forgiveness, and to second chances, and to reconciliation, and to hope.

Matthew 20:29-34
Matthew’s version of this story includes two blind men, neither of whom is named. The key to this passage may actually lie in the preceding verse 28, which frames the confession of the two men: “…just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Those around Jesus, who can see him and know what he is doing, can not understand what this means. But those who can not see, but who live in faith, can see and understand! These two men accept the fact that Jesus is the Son of David, and therefore the Messiah. They recognize his authority to have mercy on them. And they put their hope in him and his willingness to act on behalf of God, which is ultimately Jesus’ motivation.

Friday, November 30, 2007

God's Glory vs. Human Sin


Psalm 84
Ever since I wrote the play “Sanctuary” based on this Psalm I have counted it among my favorites. It speaks in rich and varied metaphors about the salvation that God offers, all centered around the “sanctuary” that God offers. The fact that God’s grace is poured out, even in the face of human sin, is a theme that echoes throughout the other readings for today.

Isaiah 24:14-23
This passage deals honestly with the dichotomy between the glory of God––so potent that it practically bursts forth into creation and elicits songs of praise that ring out across the sky––and the evil and sinfulness of humanity that seem to flow unabated. Verse 16 captures this tension I think: “From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One. But I say, I pine away, I pine away. Woe is me! For the treacherous deal treacherously, the treacherous deal very treacherously.” God remains sovereign, however, and neither the host of heaven nor the sun and the moon will not be immune to God’s judgment when the time arrives.

1 Peter 3:13-4:6
The way God chose to deal with the dichotomy between God’s glory and the sinfulness of humanity was through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, “…Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” In other words, God acted to close the gap (or bridge the chasm) between God’s self and humanity, God’s sovereignty made manifest in the humiliating death that Jesus suffered, but God’s glory revealed in the light of Easter morning.

Matthew 20:17-28
Jesus foretells his suffering in the gospel reading. Verse 18 says, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death….” The fact that the religious community is counted among those who will condemn Jesus underscores the depth of human depravity that Jesus will ultimately address with his death. Still, God acts out of grace and mercy to save the lost and to offer hope to those who are languishing.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Will of God


Zephaniah 3:1-13
Verse 9 is fascinating: “At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one voice.” This is fascinating because according to Genesis it was God who confused human speech in the first place to keep them from building the tower of Babel. Now God is promising to grant a pure form of speech to the peoples so that they may praise and worship God. With a unity of purpose that is focused on God and God’s will, there is no reason to separate peoples one from another. Incidentally, the first Pentecost (Acts 2) comes to mind when I think of this passage and the idea of a pure form of speech. The apostles went into the world speaking in every known language and calling all to repent and believe in God. It was not a common language they spoke, but a pure one in that it pointed to God.

1 Peter 2:11-25
I focused on verse 24 this morning: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” This paraphrase of portions of Isaiah 53 helps to set the ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection, into the context of salvation history and makes its relevance to the community of faith very clear. Our sins died with Jesus on the cross. We are free. We may now concentrate on living to God and God’s will.

Matthew 20:1-16
Verse 15 says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Thought it is the owner of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable who is speaking, the words belong to God. God, as Creator of the universe and as Sovereign Lord, is free to do as God wills. In this case, Jesus asserts God’s right to bring salvation to whomsoever God chooses, whether they have lived a righteous life as long as some others or not. Incidentally, there are some real similarities between this passage in Matthew and Luke’s account of the parable of the Prodigal Son where the father reminds the older brother that he (the brother) has enjoyed the benefits of his relationship with the father all along and should not begrudge his father’s joy at the return of the wayward son.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A New People


1 Peter 2:1-10
This passage is one of the most meaningful in all of the New Testament to me, and it has been for many years. I find great hope and confidence here, beautiful images of what it means to be a Christian and to be called by God. If I had to single out one verse, however, it would be verse 10: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” At one of the youth conferences I attended as a high school student the keynote speaker quoted this passage as a source of strength and confidence for Christians. It made an impression on me then and has stuck with me to this day. No matter where we have been in our lives, no matter how far from God’s will we may have strayed, God still calls us back, still claims us, still has mercy on us and as a result we are blessed to be called the people of God. What great news!

Matthew 19:23-30
Verse 30 sums up the new ordering of things in the coming reign of God and ties in well with the reading from 1 Peter: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Those who have ultimate faith in themselves and who believe they can provide for themselves to the exclusion of God will find that they are farthest from the truth, while those who put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, losing themselves in their devotion to Jesus, will find that they are nearest to the truth. They will recognize that it is not they, but God who has brought them back from sin and waywardness and claimed them to be God’s people.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Working With God


Nahum 1:1-13
Verse 9 asks, “Why do you plot against the Lord? He will make an end; no adversary will rise up twice.” This reminds me of the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” But the truth is that the sovereign God puts an end to human sin and evil, puts an end to oppression, puts an end to corruption, on God’s terms and in God’s time. Nahum can confidently say words to the effect of, “Don’t bother ignoring the will of God. You may think you are getting away with something, but you’re not.”

1 Peter 1:13-25
In years past I underlined verse 13 in my Bible: “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.” Hoping in God through Jesus Christ is a gift given by God. But once we have that gift, once we have the faith to believe and live according to God’s will, we are called to do so. And that requires discipline and hard work. It requires study. It requires participation in the community of faith.

Matthew 19:13-22
Verses 13 through 15 offer Matthew’s take on a familiar story. “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.” I find the last few words to be the most interesting. After blessing the children Jesus moved on, continued in his ministry in other places. Jesus could have been very comfortable blessing children and healing the sick for the rest of his natural life. But it was essential that he keep moving, even though (or especially because) he was moving on toward Jerusalem and the crucifixion. Jesus had great affection for the least members of society, and he knew that the best thing he could do for them, for the women, children, lepers, and so forth, was to obey the will of God.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Plowshares, Divorce, and Jesus


Joel 3:1-2, 9-17
Verse 10 is completely opposite from passages found in Isaiah and Micah: “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.” At first glance this may seem bothersome, as though it were a repudiation of peace on the part of God. But this call to arms is addressed to the nations who have oppressed God’s people and who must now face the day of the Lord and God’s judgment. God will restore God’s people and then peace and security will prevail.

1 Peter 1:1-12
In verse 8 we read, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” I like the idea of not seeing Jesus, and yet loving and believing in him nonetheless. In fact, this notion binds us together with the very earliest Christians who had not known Jesus. None of us have known him in his earthly ministry, but we love him and worship him and follow him because God has called us into this relationship and given us the power to believe. We stand in a line that stretches back to the very beginning of the church and includes generation after generation of people who have never seen Jesus but who have found an “indescribable joy” in him anyway.

Matthew 19:1-12
I found parts of verses 5 and 6 to be familiar and helpful. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Nehemiah, on his return to Jerusalem, compelled Jewish men to send away their foreign-born wives and children. (This was a reaction to the worship practices and other traditions that these foreign women had introduced into the community, causing syncretism where Nehemiah and others sought purity.) Jesus, I believe, would have taken a different approach. According to Jesus the covenantal relationship between a woman and a man is sacred and very, very important, reflecting the relationship we have with God. Jesus is not saying divorce can never be an option, but he is saying that we should take marriage very, very seriously as a blessing from God. And he would oppose divorce when it is imposed on a woman who is then left with no support or livelihood.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Perfect City


Ezra 10:1-17
Revelation 21:9-21
Revelation 21:15-16 say, “The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measure the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal.” According to the footnotes in the Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), “the city is represented as being a cube, symbol of perfection…” Now I would find life in a gigantic cube (made of gold and jewels, no less) to be less than perfect, but that’s not really the point. The city’s perfection comes not in its appearance, but in what it represents. Whatever the city looks like, whatever shape it takes, in its nature it is what God intends life to be. The perfection comes in its ordering toward God. This is why the reading from Revelation stands in such contrast to that from Ezra where the returning exiles are compelled to divorce their foreign-born wives in order to no longer offend God. Frankly this notion offends me. The thought that God would desire broken families, fatherless children, women and children unable to support themselves over mixed marriages, or that by simply ridding the land of foreign-born women would somehow make it more acceptable to God is utterly absurd. It is shameful that these events ever took place. To me the contrast couldn’t be more stark. Perfection will not come with good city planning or tight marriage restrictions, will not be derived from precious stones used as paving. Perfection will come when all of life is focused on God and on what God desires from us and for us. And it will have nothing to do with geometrically shaped metropolitan areas or divorces compelled by religious statute.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Authority of Christ


Revelation 21:1-8
Verse 5 includes words spoken by Christ to John on Patmos, “See, I am making all things new.” To me this echoes what we read in John’s gospel about the role of the Word of God in creation. “In the beginning was the Word…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being….” Just as Christ was present and active in the original creation, the role will be reprised, if you will, in making all things new in the second creation.

Matthew 17:14-21
Verse 18 reads, “And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly.” Just as Christ is active in bringing a new creation into being, Jesus, in his earthy ministry, demonstrates has power and authority over creation. Jesus was able to heal illnesses, to cast out demons, to calm seas, and to feed thousands. As we approach Christ the King Sunday it is helpful to reflect on what Christ’s kingship means for us and for the world. It is no earthly reign, but one of authority over the very stuff of creation and the elements that make it up. It is authority over every aspect of our lives. It is authority to make all things new.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What's in a Name?


Revelation 19:11-16
Matthew 16:13-20
Two of our passages today focus so on the identity of Jesus, and not just his identity, but the various names by which he is known, whether correctly or incorrectly, during both his earthly ministry and in the coming kingdom. In the passage from Revelation the rider on the white horse—understood to be the Christ leading the host of heaven to battle—is called Faithful and True, the Word of God, and King of kings and Lord of lords. These are all appropriate understandings of who the Christ is in his glory as reveled to John on Patmos. They describe the Son of God in relation to God, God’s people, and the world in general. But lest we believe we can fully define the Christ in all his glory, we also learn that he has “a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.” In other words he can not be fully known; his glory transcends our ability to comprehend. In the Matthew passage the identity of Jesus is dealt with as well in terms that are both accurate and inaccurate. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, and Peter calls him the Messiah—meaning Christ or anointed one, but others call him John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, and one of the prophets. These latter names come out of false assumptions or expectations and fail to grasp the real ministry of Jesus. One question to consider in light of these readings is how do we understand Jesus, the Christ? By what names do we call him and what do they say about our expectations or assumptions? Do we believe that we can fully grasp who Jesus is?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Understanding the Word


Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3, 5-18
The writer of Nehemiah lists the names of those, “who helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood.” (verses 7 and 8) According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, “Since the book was in Hebrew, it was interpreted to the people in the more familiar Aramaic.” This is why education is so important, especially to a life of faith. The word of God does not necessarily come ready to understand, easy to grasp, simple in its meaning. And at those times the word of God deserves our attention and our best efforts at comprehension. This process may include those who have the training and the ability to teach or interpret. It may involve the wider community assisting its members. But individual believers should never miss the opportunity to wrestle with scripture for themselves and to seek to find what it says to their lives and what God is calling them to do.

Revelation 18:21-24
Human history provides us with numerous examples of great cities and marvelous cultures that have risen at one time or another only to be washed away in the flow of time. What seems permanent to human beings is all too often transient and temporary. As I understand it, Mound City, Arkansas was poised to become the prominent city on the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans until the river changed course and left Mound City literally “high and dry.” Instead, Memphis became the bustling river port and Mound City became no more than a wide spot in the road. The very greatest of human achievements are prone to disappear, but the work of God stands forever. Perhaps this is why Psalm 146 says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (verses 3 and 4) Cities, too, can disappear. But the work and word of God remains.

Matthew 16:1-12
The words of verse 12 tie in nicely with today’s passage from Nehemiah. “Then (the disciples) understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (verse 12) While much effort must be made it one is to understand God’s word, care must also be made to allow the word of God to speak for itself and not to be unduly filtered or misinterpreted. The Pharisees and Sadducees were prone to leading people away from God’s truth. Jesus warned his disciples to be aware of such teachings. The film “Life of Brian” is a comedy produced by the members of Monty Python which includes an irreverent look at the church and the sins to which organized religion has been prone. In the film there is a scene depicting the sermon on the mount. An actor portraying Jesus says, with no humor or silliness, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of heaven.” But out on the fringe of the crowd, far from where Jesus is speaking, one person turns to another and asks, “Did he say ‘blessed are the cheese makers?’” A lively debate breaks out as to why or why not cheese makers should be blessed. Finally one may suggests, “I think by ‘cheese makers’ he means all those who handle dairy products.’” Beware of trusting the opinions, the interpretations, the explanations of others without giving also giving serious thought to the subject yourself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Clearing the Barriers


Nehemiah 9:26-38
In reflecting on the history of God’s people Ezra concludes, “Here we are, slaves to this day—slaves in the land that your gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.” Because of their waywardness, the people of God found themselves bound in slavery again, just as they had been in Egypt so many generations before. Our idols, of course, have power over us, just as the kings of Assyria had over the people of Israel in the days of Nehemiah and Ezra. Anything that we allow to guide or direct our living, anything that we set our minds on besides God and God’s will for our lives, becomes an idol in that it stands between us and God.

Revelation 18:9-20
The theme of separation from God is continued in the reading from Revelation. The many luxuries that are noted in verses 11-13, luxuries that Babylon enjoyed and that contributed to her dissipation and sinfulness, make for quite a list. “And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, find linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariot, slaves—and human lives.” Pursuit of such luxuries was the focus of life in Babylon, and it was by these items that the Babylonians chosen to separate themselves from righteousness and from God. In Romans 8, however, Paul reminds us that nothing can separate us from God’s love for us. And Paul provides a list of his own: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39) So, while we are quick to set idols between ourselves and our Creator, quick to be distracted from our attention to God’s will, God remains faithful and steadfast in divine love for us.

Matthew 15:21-29
So what does it look like when the barriers come down and God’s love flows freely? Matthew shows us. The Canaanite woman who sought Jesus’ healing for her daughter showed faith in Jesus and his mercy. As a result, Jesus healed the daughter. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (verse 29)

Monday, November 12, 2007


Nehemiah 9:1-25
In the midst of Ezra’s wonderful retelling of the history of God’s people (vv. 6-25) comes these comforting words: “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (v. 17c) These or very similar words are used often during worship to assure us of God’s forgiveness. Indeed, the history that Ezra relates is one of God’s ongoing forgiveness of the people, for their many transgressions.

Revelation 18:1-8
Because of its message of forgiveness the Nehemiah passage is a good one to hold next to the words from Revelation. In condemning “Babylon”, the writer of Revelation writes, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” (v. 4b-5) When I read about sins “heaped high as heaven” I thought of the Tower of Babel, a sinful effort by the nations to make a name for themselves, in other words to reach to the heavens and challenge the sovereignty of God. Our sins do have a tendency to pile up, and most often they are the result of us having placed something between ourselves and God, no matter what it is. In the Reformed tradition, of which the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a part, we recognize the sin of idolatry—this allowing of anything to diminish our devotion to God––as one of the most significant causes of human iniquity. And like Revelation suggests, we needn’t pile up literal stones to form our towers or idols. When we allow our sinful acts to accumulate, we challenge the sovereignty of God all the same. And yet, as we read in Nehemiah, God is "abounding in steadfast love." Thanks be to God.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

New Beginnings


Ezra 7:1-26
Portions of verses 5 and 6 are interesting to me: “…son of the chief priest Aaron—this Ezra went up from Babylonia.” Ezra is a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. And the fact that he is a scribe devoted to the law of Moses and that he is engaged in reestablishing Jerusalem and the worship of God there (in part because the hand of the Lord was on the king to let Ezra go) seems to cast Ezra in the role of a “new Moses”. The people of God are being led through a new Exodus, out of bondage in Babylonia, home to the promised land, in part by a man who is related to Moses and devoted to Moses’s teachings.

Revelation 14:1-13
Verse 12 seems to sum up a lot of what Revelation is saying: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” As disturbing as the visions contained in Revelation are, they all seem to point to the need for faithful endurance by God’s people, and to the promise of joy and peace in the life to come. “Hang on,” it is saying, “remain true to who you are and what you believe.” In troubled times this is an important message for the church and for individual Christians. God knows that there is suffering. But God promises a new beginning for those who are steadfast in the faith.

Matthew 14:1-12
After John the Baptist’s beheading , “His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.” (Verse 12) I don’t always remember the proximity of John and Jesus’ ministries, the fact that, not only were they living at the same time, but that they were aware of and communicative with one another. Certainly John’s disciples felt that Jesus was worthy of hearing the news of John’s death from them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Understanding God's Intentions


Nehemiah 13:4-22
Verses 17 and 18 set up an interesting dichotomy with Jesus’ teachings about the Sabbath. Nehemiah writes, “Then I remonstrated with the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day? Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.’” Centuries later Jesus would argue with the Pharisees about the intent of the sabbath and about what was appropriate to do on that day. At first glance we might assume that Nehemiah and Jesus were on opposite sides of the discussion. But in fact, each was arguing for a respectful understanding of God’s will. If the point of the sabbath had been lost in rules and regulations then it no longer reflected God’s original intentions. But if the day was used as a source of blessing, if it was given over to reflecting on the glory of God and God’s good intentions for humanity, then it would not be as important what was actually being done. It really hinges on intent.

Revelation 12:1-12
I was touched by the words in verse 11 that say, “for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” The people to whom this refers have chosen to do the will of God, even if it leads to death. This, too, resonates with words of Jesus who said that those who try to keep their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will keep it. This is faithful obedience to God through Christ, the willingness to do God’s will even if, in worldly terms, it seems like “losing.”

Matthew 13:53-58
One of the problems that Jesus encountered in his home town was the attitude of the people there. They looked at him and saw his earthly connections, his human attributes. “’Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this/’” (vs. 55-56) This was all true, But it completely ignored the divine Sonship of Jesus the Messiah. How do we understand Jesus?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bearing Burdens


Nehemiah 4:1-23
What does it mean to be a burden bearer for God today? I’m sure there are as many different definitions for this term as there are people and denominations. But when I read that word it struck me—“the burden bearers are getting tired . . .” But the burden bearers didn’t tire they just shifted their loads and managed a little more responsibility. It seems to me that is often what happens in the church. Do people get worn out? Yes, when we rely on our own strength rather than the power of God to strengthen. Do the burdens get heavy? Yes when we do not remember God. Do our own strengths fail? Yes, but God is great and awesome! What does it mean to be a burden bearer today? It means, in a world that trusts in itself and in worldly riches, that we trust in God’s provident care in good times and in bad, in times of want and in times of plenty, no matter what, God’s grace is sufficient.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Hope for the Future


Zechariah 1:7-17
I found verses 12 and 13 to be comforting. “Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?’ Then the Lord replied with gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.” As is often the case in scripture—in the Psalms especially, and in conversations between Abraham and God, Moses and God, and Job and God—we see that God is willing to listen and to respond to questions and even complaints. There is no earnest question we can not raise to God. Out of our most heartfelt anguish we may call on God, question God’s motives, call ourselves to God’s attention, wonder at what God is doing. And in graciousness God responds. We will not always know what God is doing, but we can trust God to be conversant with God’s people.

Revelation 1:4-20
I found the words in verses 5b-6 to be very similar to one of my favorite passages elsewhere. “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priest serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” This is a lot like 1 Peter 2:9 which says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” I love the passage in 1 Peter because the first time I remember hearing it, it gave me a real sense of belonging, of purpose, of hope. The words in Revelation echo the same sentiments and give me the same sense of hope. Taken with the words from Zechariah, I find comfort and optimism as I look to the future, both mine and the world’s.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Open Doors, Open Hearts


Ezra 1:1-11
The latter part of verse 1 makes an important claim: “…the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom…” The truth is that God is at work within the actions of nations and peoples beyond those with whom God has a covenant relationship. Indeed, God works in and through all of human affairs to bring about the divine will.

1 Corinthians 16:1-9
Paul recognizes the hand of God as well. Verse 9 says, “…for a wide door for effective work has opened to me….” God is involved in the ebb and flow of human events, through those who recognize God’s sovereignty and those who do not. As the hymn says, “God is working his purpose out,” and kings are just as must a part of God’s work as apostles. Doors are opened, spirits moved, lives changed by the presence of God.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

God Is Our Hope


Lamentations 2:8-15
Verse 13 offers an interesting point. “What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter Jerusalem? To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter Zion? For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?” The part that struck me is the question, “Who can heal you?” The answer, of course, is God. God can heal Jerusalem. But it is God who has caused ruin to befall the city. In fact, the destruction of the city is attributed directly to God: “The Lord determined to lay in ruins the wall of daughter Zion;… he did not withhold his hand from destroying…” (verse 6). So the question that verse 13 asks is really, “Now that God has enacted divine judgment upon Jerusalem, who is there who can rebuild the city?” Indeed, what hope Jerusalem has comes from God. So even as “rampart and wall lament”, God remains the only hope.

As I reflect on this passage I am mindful of the vast devastation in southern California caused by wildfires. Perhaps the destruction there, the burned houses and charred forests, the grieving families, give us some idea of what Jerusalem went through. Who can rebuild the homes and lives of southern California? Who can heal the devastation? God can, and God will.

1 Corinthians 15:51-58
Verse 58 says, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immoveable, always excelling the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” This is an eloquent call to discipleship. Our work in the Lord is never in vain, our effort to do God’s will is never wasted. We are called out into the world where fires rage and where violence is so prevalent, and we may doubt our ability to effect meaningful change, but Paul reminds us that our work in the Lord is never pointless. Even our simplest acts of faithful obedience (or of “steadfast, immoveable” living) can be blessed by God to produce much good fruit.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Faithful Living


Lamentations 1:1-12
I preached from this passage not too long ago and in that sermon I mentioned how profound the sorrow must be if “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals…” (verse 6a) It reminds me a bit of New Orleans in the months after Katrina when few tourists were willing to travel there. It also reminds me of the plight of the great cities of Europe during World War II, as devastated as they were by the war and the oppression of the Nazis. In Jerusalem’s case, of course, the circumstances are a direct result of unfaithfulness to God. Now, says the writer of Lamentations, the sorrow is so deep that even the paths that people once traveled grieve. The meaning is pretty clear: faithfulness to God leads to joy; unfaithfulness leads to sorrow.

Matthew 11:25-30
Jesus helps us to understand just what faithful obedience can mean. In verses 28-30 he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Faithlessness leads to sorrow and pain, to weariness and “heavy burdens”, but trust and faith in Jesus leads to rest and joy for our souls.

Faithful Living


Lamentations 1:1-12
I preached from this passage not too long ago and in that sermon I mentioned how profound the sorrow must be if “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals…” (verse 6a) It reminds me a bit of New Orleans in the months after Katrina when few tourists were willing to travel there. It also reminds me of the plight of the great cities of Europe during World War II, as devastated as they were by the war and the oppression of the Nazis. In Jerusalem’s case, of course, the circumstances are a direct result of unfaithfulness to God. Now, says the writer of Lamentations, the sorrow is so deep that even the paths that people once traveled grieve. The meaning is pretty clear: faithfulness to God leads to joy; unfaithfulness leads to sorrow.

Matthew 11:25-30
Jesus helps us to understand just what faithful obedience can mean. In verses 28-30 he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Faithlessness leads to sorrow and pain, to weariness and “heavy burdens”, but trust and faith in Jesus leads to rest and joy for our souls.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hope and Faith


Jeremiah 37:3-21
In verse 19 Jeremiah asks the king of Judah a question that cuts to the heart of the matter: “Where are your prophets ho prophesied to you, saying ‘the king of Babylon will not come against you and against this land?’” This is a theological way of saying “I told you so.” The truth of God’s word becomes apparent in time. As God’s people, called as we are to faithful obedience, one of our greatest challenges is to live with expectant hope, with patience and confidence that God is working out the divine will. Many will claim to speak for the Lord but will say only what others want to hear. God’s true word is good news inasmuch as it is from God whose will is done and whose reign is near at hand, but what it calls us to do, the standards by which it calls us to live, will likely lead us places we would not have gone of our own volition. The king of Judah had trusted in prophets who told him what he wanted to hear. But when push came to shove those prophets were nowhere to be seen. The prophet who had spoken the true word of God was still there, still speaking, still faithful to his call.

I Corinthians 14:13-25
I like the imagery in verse 20. “Brothers and sisters,” writes Paul, “do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.” I have a pretty clear picture of what “infants in evil” would be like: innocent for one thing. The news is full of all sorts of trouble that people get into, all sorts of awful things that people do to one another. In our own lives we are challenged to live in innocence before God when it comes to the ways of evil, but with maturity in our thinking, our reasoning, our ability to understand what God is doing in our world. It is far more challenging to trust God and to contemplate God’s activity in the world than it is to accept the ways of evil, but it is worth the effort.

Matthew 10:24-33
Verse 29 is powerful: “Do not fear those who kill the body by cannot kill the soul…” We know these words best, perhaps, from Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The point is that while the world may be able to kill those who trust in God, it cannot break the relationship between God and the faithful believer, and as Luther points out, that relationship is far more important than life itself.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Faith and the Reign of God


1 Corinthians 13
It’s a minor point in a very beautiful passage, but a part of verse 2 caught my eye this morning. “…(A)nd if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” This sounds a lot like Matthew 21:21-22, “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you so what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will do done.’’” So my question is, did Paul know this to have been a saying of Jesus’, or was it perhaps a common saying in those days? It seems too coincidental to have been an accident. I’ve already checked a book of Pauline parallels, that is similar passages in Paul’s letters, and it would appear that this is the only place we know of where Paul uses this expression. But the gospels were not written until after Paul’s letters. So I’m stuck with a question that I will seek answers for from some other sources.

Matthew 10:5-15
Here, in verse 7, Jesus tells his followers, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” That’s the gospel in a nutshell, that the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, the age of the Lord’s favor has drawn close to God’s people in the person of Jesus Christ. Good news indeed! God is in our midst with the power to heal, teach, call, and encourage.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Scripture is a Living Word


Psalm 104
As I read this psalm this morning I was reminded the scripture is a living word. I have read Psalm 104 any number of times, but today I read again, afresh about God’s manifold works; I read anew how the stork, coney, wild goats, and leviathan live to give God praise; I read afresh how God created the sun to rise and set at appointed times. I read how the earth works together in a rhythm and in harmony to God’s glory. All of this reminded me that scripture is a living word, giving us the opportunity to meet God afresh each and every day.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

God's Love vs. Idols


2 Kings 23:4-25
Reading this passage one can begin to grasp just how far the kings of Judah had turned from God’s will. The list of reforms that King Josiah undertook is amazing, with all the idols he had burned and all the high places he had defiled. No wonder God was angry! But the really amazing thing to me is what we read in verse 22. “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, even during all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.” So while the worship if foreign gods had steadily gained a foothold among the people of Israel and Judah, the celebration of Passover, in many ways the defining event of their history, had ceased. Amazing.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Paul also wants his readers to turn their backs on idols and focus instead on worshiping God. Paul is talking about spiritual gifts. So when, in verse 2, he writes, “You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols…”, he is talking about those who reached a highly emotional state in their pagan worship. This does not prove anything, he says. It is easy to become emotional. But it is only by the Holy Spirit that one can say Jesus is Lord.

Matthew 9:18-26
Matthew does not put as much detail into recounting these stories as Luke does. But the point is made. In healing a little girl and a woman with a flow of blood, Jesus demonstrated God’s concern for the lowest members of society, and even those who were considered ritually unclean (as the woman would have been because of her bleeding).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Judgment and Grace

2 Kings 22:14-23:3
When King Josiah inquired of the Lord through the prophetess Huldah he was told that Judah would be punished according to its sins, just as the book of Deuteronomy described. But because Josiah was faithful and had set his heart on worshiping and following God according to the law, he would not live to see the disaster that God would bring against Jerusalem. In this way Josiah strikes me as a counterpoint to Moses who, because of his actions, was not allowed to enter the promised land but only allowed to glimpse it from a nearby mountain. Moses did not live to see Israel established in its new home. Josiah would not live to see its final downfall, all based on God’s judgment.

1 Corinthians 11:23-34
In verses 23-26 Paul relates to his readers in Corinth the words of Jesus during the last supper and how they guide the practice of communion. In verse 26 Paul writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” According to the Oxford Annotated Study Bible “the celebration (of communion) is a sermon on ‘Christ crucified.’” In other words our actions in the practice of communion help to elucidate the crucifixion and its meaning for the world. This reminds me of an adage that is used in playwriting circles. When you want to convey information in a play, “show me, don’t tell me.” The act of communion is inherently dramatic, and one of its purposes is to “show us” the truth of the crucifixion in ways that we could not be told.

Matthew 9:9-17
In verse 13c Jesus says, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” This really has to do with perception, I think. Because of their mindset and attitudes the Pharisees were not in sync with God’s will, yet they believed themselves to be righteous, and in a very narrow interpretation they were—at least according to the details of the law. The ones that Jesus called sinners knew that they were not righteous, and in many cases had given up trying. This self-understanding made them receptive to the good news that Jesus had to share, while the attitude of the Pharisees kept them from seeing who Jesus was and what he had to offer.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Building a Godly Community


2 Kings 22:1-13
Verse 8 says, “The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.’” As the Oxford Annotated Study Bible says, most scholars believe the book Hilkiah is talking about (a scroll really) is an early form of Deuteronomy unearthed during renovation of the temple in Jerusalem. What a profound moment for God’s people, what a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with God’s will. For King Josiah, the discovery of the book of the law was like a lost traveler discovering a road sign with directions to his destination. One of the blessings we enjoy as Christians is the fact that we have scripture to read and to reflect on regularly. We have a map for our journey and don’t have to grope for directions. The shame is we don’t always take advantage of it.

1 Corinthians 11:2-22
In verses 11 and 12 Paul writes, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, but all things come from God.” Whatever else Paul may have said or not said about the role of women in the church and in the home, this fact remains central to his thought: in God there is a relationship between man and woman of mutual need and accountability. They depend on each other and find their fullness in each other, not only as couples or families, but as a community as a whole. We are all interrelated in God and our relationships stand under God. We are to treat one another with respect and to cherish each other as gifts from God. Jesus, of course, says that the one who wishes to be great must be the slave of all, and the Christian ethic teaches us to put the needs of others first. Taken as a whole, these ideas create the foundation for a loving, caring, blessed community in which no one is subject to anyone else, but all are subject together to God. What a great place that would be!

Matthew 9:1-8
Jesus first action in the case of the paralyzed man is to forgive his sins; in other words to heal his relationship with God. Only after he has done that does Jesus heal his physical condition. God continues to offer healing in our relationships with God and with each other. Like the book of the law in 2 Kings, or Paul’s words about the relationship between the sexes in 1 Corinthians, Jesus’ actions offer guidance to us for living in a godly community, with regard for God and one another, and with our lives focused on God’s will.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Idol Worship


2 Kings 21:1-18
This chapter tells of the evil done by King Manasseh of Judah, who, among other things, seems to have even practiced child sacrifice (verse 6 says, “He made his son pass through fire”). God’s response by way of the prophets includes this from verse 12b: “I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such evil that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” When I hear something that disturbs me or disgusts me I shudder, but I think “ear tingling” is basically the same thing. In other words, Jerusalem was to suffer such destruction that it would startle any who heard of it. Considering the sorts of things that happened to cities in that time, the sieges and sackings that took place, the way civilian populations were treated, God’s words convey a significant amount of horror. But the apostasy of Manasseh was so great, and the disregard for God was so profound that God was almost compelled to respond in this way. Clearly the people of Judah, beginning with the king, made bad choices and turned their backs on God. God’s response was to warn them of coming judgment which would arrive with the capture of Jerusalem and the exile. God would get the people’s attention eventually.

1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1
As is so often the case, we find a connection between the Old Testament reading and the one from the epistles. In verses 21 and 22 Paul writes, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” The situation in Corinth had to do with eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul says that if a Christian is offered food by a non-Christian, the Christian should not ask about where it came from. But if the Christian finds that the meat has been offered to an idol, he or she should not eat it out of consideration for the host and concern for those of a weaker conscience. But whatever the case, it would be impossible to willingly participate in the act of sacrifice to idols and to participate in the worship of God. Idol worship was one of the things that got Judah in trouble at the time of Manasseh. Paul was warning against it in his day. I wonder how we’re doing on this score today? Are we “provoking the Lord to jealousy” with our actions? Or are we focused only on God and God’s work in our world? This should be a question that we consider every day of our lives, and every time we make a decision.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Knowledge and Love


1 Corinthians 8:1-13
In verses 1b-3 Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” This is a good reminder that God calls us, first and foremost, to trust God and to live in faithful obedience. Jesus said that the whole law hinges on loving God with every part of our lives and loving our neighbors as ourselves. In his song Mind Games, John Lennon sings, “Love is the answer, and you know that for sure.” I don’t believe that Lennon was inspired by the words of 1 Corinthians, but the sentiment is apt. Love, God’s love, is the answer to living in right relationship with God and with one another. Trusting our own knowledge can only lead to pride, arrogance, and ultimately to a false sense of security. Love is the answer.

Matthew 7:13-21
Jesus tells his followers, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?…Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (v. 15-16, 20) Jesus reminds us that the ends do not justify the means. In fact, the fruit we produce will be a good indication of where our hearts lie, where our treasure is, whether we are guided by love for God and neighbor, or by our own desires or knowledge.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

God's Goodness


Psalm 65
This is one of my favorite psalms because it presents such a beautiful picture. When I read it I see the images the psalmist paints with words. The psalmist speaks of the sunrise and sunset and I can see them:

“Those who live at earth's farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.”

The sunrise and sunsets are exquisitely painted each morning and each night and this causes praise. Once when observing a beautiful sunset and all its colors, our son William, age 4 or 5, responded by saying, “Yea God. God is wearing tie-dye.” God blesses the earth with goodness and joy. It compels all the peoples to praise if they will only look up and see God’s grace.

“You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.”

God’s goodness is all around us, overflowing.


2 Kings 6:1-23
The end of this reading struck me this morning. Verses 21-23 say, “When the king of Israel saw (the Arameans) he said to Elisha, ‘Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?’ He answered, ‘No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.’ S he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” Elisha takes a potentially violent situation, one in which the king of Israel is all too eager to kill, and turns it into a peaceful celebration. By the time the Arameans leave Samaria they have been treated so well that they never again commit raids there. When we hear how bloodthirsty and violent the God of the Old Testament is, we should remember this passage, because here we see the prophet of the Lord using his authority to defuse a situation instead of letting it escalate.

1 Corinthians 5:9-6:11
In verses 9-10 Paul writes, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons—not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.” What a bleak assessment of the world! But Paul’s point is valid. Christians are not to hide themselves away, but to live in the world, so long as they are not transformed by it. Our place is here in the midst of society, demonstrating another way of life, one full of justice and righteousness and humility and reconciliation.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Living God's Way


We like to think that God is with us when we are struggling with our health or with life and death; but God is also with us in times of joy, when we say, “Thank you, God.” But perhaps the most important time God is with us is when we are struggling with issues of right and wrong. God’s presence doesn’t suddenly disappear because we put God off or out of our mind. God is present challenging us in doing right. In all of the passages for today we are reminded of God’s sovereignty no matter what we are doing, living faithfully or struggling with the sin. God’s call is for us to live God’s way and it leads to life.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Naaman, Paul, and Jesus


2 Kings 5:1-19
This was the passage on which I wrote one of my very first sermons in seminary. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since. Today I underlined verses 11-12a, “But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me (the prophet) would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the wasters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’” Eventually Naaman washes in the Jordan and is healed, just as the prophet said he would be, but it took some convincing to get him to do it. How often do we allow our expectations or our assumptions to govern the way we respond to God? How often do we miss out on experiences of grace because they don’t meet our criteria? It’s worth thinking about.

1 Corinthians 4:8-21
Paul writes, “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ.” I’m sure he was speaking from his own experience., from the hardships he had faced and the difficulties with which he had dealt. And it is interesting that he says, “as though sentenced to death” as, according to tradition, a number of the apostles, Paul included, were executed for their faith. But it shows both the dedication of Paul to the work God had given him, and the lengths to which he was prepared to do to fulfill his calling. Nor was it about authority or power for Paul. It was about servanthood and self-sacrifice, about the willingness to seem foolish to the world in order to serve God.

Matthew 5:21-26
Verses 23 and 24 struck me this morning. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Notice that Jesus says “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you…”, not “if you have something against your brother or sister”. In order to follow this admonition we have to pay close attention to our relationships, to what we say and do, to what others may be feeling. Otherwise we may be unaware of a situation that needs addressing. And it’s not about what others do to us; that’s for them to worry about. Our concern is to be about what we may have done that caused harm or hurt to them. Jesus may as well have said, “pay attention to how you act and what you say and make sure you don’t cause harm without doing your best to cure it.”

Thursday, September 20, 2007

God's Sovereign Presence


1 Kings 22:29-45
Verse 34 says, “But a certain man drew his bow and unknowingly struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate; so he said to the driver of his chariot, ‘Turn around, and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded’” How often do significant events hinge on the “accidental” and unforeseen? And yet, God is always present in some way and in this case had said through the prophet Micaiah that Israel would meet with disaster. Does God play a direct role in all events? I’d have to say no. God does not necessarily cause disasters to befall people. Sometimes our own sinful actions lead us to catastrophe. Sometimes it is the elements of nature that bring about events. Sometimes it is the choices of others that cause us harm. But God is sovereign over all history and over all creation. God enters into human activity as God sees fit and according to God’s will. And God offers strength and comfort at all times because God loves God’s people and cares for us earnestly.

1 Corinthians 2:14-3:15
Here’s another example of God’s presence in the affairs of humanity. Verse 6 says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” We have a role to play in God’s plan. God has called us to use our skills and talents to serve others. Sharing the good news of the gospel is just one example, whether it is in forming new communities of faith as Paul did, or offering support once they are established as Apollos seems to have done. But ultimately it is the will of God that brings about “growth”. God is at work in human history, but we are called to be at work, too.

Matthew 5:1-10
In the Beatitudes, according to the Oxford Annotated NRSV, Jesus proclaims, “God’s favor toward those who aspire to live under (God’s) rule.” Again, God is present and active in our world, but God calls us to be active as well and to play a part in the dawning of God’s reign. Those who aspire are blessed. Note that it is those who “aspire,” not those who succeed. We are called to live faithful lives of obedience as best we can. Even when we fail God’s grace abounds, another sign of God’s presence.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hearing the Word of God


1 Kings 22:1-28
Verse 14 says, “But Micaiah said, ‘As the Lord lives, whatever the Lord says to me, that I will speak.’” This is the call of a prophet, of course, to hear and to interpret the word of God for the people of God. But it is not limited to telling what will happen in the future. God may very well have a word about the present or the past. God may hold out a possible future, but may change the divine will according to human actions. God may also call or challenge certain people to undertake certain actions which they may or may not do. The goal in preaching should be to listen for the word of God in a particular text and to share it as faithfully as possible without interjecting one’s personal opinions into the process. By the way, this is a very difficult task and one that requires a lot of patience and practice. As a preacher, however, I don’t ever want to be the point of the message or of the service. That position at the heart of things is reserved to God and God alone, the one we worship. To place ourselves there instead is to create an idol.

1 Corinthian 2:1-13
In verse 12 Paul writes, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” This is pretty much in keeping with what the writer of 1 Kings was saying about prophesying. As God’s people we must learn to hear and to trust the Spirit of God and not the spirit of the world. In this way only can we be sure that we are hearing what God wants us to hear and doing what God wants us to do.

Matthew 4:18-25
The power of God’s word is demonstrated by the fact that when Jesus “called” Simon and Andrew and then James and John, they left what they were doing “immediately” (verses 20 and 22). There was no time for dilly-dallying or mulling over the possible implications of what God was doing. Nor was there much consideration as to what the actions of the four fishermen would mean to their families and friends. They heard the word of God as expressed by Jesus––not the spirit of the world, by the way, but the Spirit of God––and they acted “immediately.” This, too, is in keeping with the account contained in 1 Kings. When God calls faithful people hear and respond.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Humility Before God


Each of the readings today have something to say about humility before God, or about God choosing weakness over power.

1 Kings 21:17-29
After Elijah prophesied against King Ahab for his iniquities, the king went into mourning, fasting and wearing sackcloth. God took note of Ahab’s actions and said to Elijah, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house” (verse 29). Ahab’s repentance caught the attention of God who relented from the punishment God had announced.

1 Corinthians 1:20-31
In verses 27-29 Paul says, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” Again, humility and weakness are the attributes and attitudes that God favors among God’s people. God does not value the things that we believe are wise, strong, or significant. God seeks for trust, contrition, and servanthood. As Psalm 147:10-11 says,

(God’s) delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.

What makes sense to us, what makes us feel safe and secure may be completely opposite to what God seeks from our lives.

Matthew 4:12-17
Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1-2 in attesting to the actions of Jesus in the early part of his ministry. “(T)he people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” The Messiah was not promised to those with wealth, power, or standing in their community. The Messiah came for those who were oppressed, who were overwhelmed, who sought help to escape from their sins, who knew they were in need. The humble, the downcast, these are the people whom God favors with the Son, not the proud and haughty. As the prophet Habakkuk wrote, “Look at the proud! There spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). This is our calling, to live not for power or prestige or glory, but to live in humble service, one to another and all to God.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Of Kingdoms and Fields


1 Kings 21:1-16
Matthew 4:1-11
There is an interesting connection between these two passages. In the 1 Kings text, Ahab covets a field that belongs to Naboth. When Naboth will not sell it to Ahab, Ahab’s wife Jezebel conspires to take it through despicable means, rationalizing her actions by the fact that Ahab is king of Israel. In the Matthew text Satan tempts Jesus with possession of the kingdoms of the world (v. 8-10) if Jesus will but worship Satan. While Ahab is all too ready to take possession of the field after Jezebel’s actions, Jesus resists Satan’s offer and remains true to God’s will. And that would seem to be the key to these two passages: the will of God, versus the human will. All too often we succumb to rationalization and sin, while God calls us to a different way of living, one full of grace and humility. May each of us have the strength to choose God’s will in our lives over any other voice that tempts us.

1 Corinthians 1:1-19
In keeping with the theme of God’s will, Paul invites his readers in Corinth to recognize the fellowship into which they have been called by God, a relationship with one another in the Lord Jesus Christ. In verse 9 he writes, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul, then, would also have us choose God’s will and the community that it creates over the ways of the world or the sinfulness of our nature. Paul also reminds us that God is steadfast in loving us and caring for us.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Shining Stars and God's Presence


Philippians 2:12-30
Verses 14 and 15 struck me this morning. “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” I especially like the idea of the children of God shining “like stars in the world.” We use the word star to mean someone of notoriety. such as an actor or actress, a singer or performer, or an athlete. These individuals are said to shine in the world. But Paul calls on the children of God to shine in other ways, through what I’ve always heard described as “clean living.” Those whom the world calls stars shine for their fame and talent. But the children of God are called to shine through goodness and truth, humility and graciousness. And clearly, such actions do stand out by comparison to much of what goes on in the world.

The idea of shining “like stars in the world” also reminded me of the song “Instant Karma” by John Lennon. Lennon isn’t claiming the distinction for Christians alone, but he says that when we are caught up in goodness and in the needs of others: “We all shine on, like moon and the stars and the sun/ Yes, we all shine on, everyone…”

“Why are we here?” the song asks. “Surely not to live in pain and fear,” is the answer. Lennon is right, and when the children of God “shine like stars in the world” there is less pain and fear for all of us to deal with.

Matthew 2:13-23
What a heart-rending story Matthew tells of Herod, enraged by the thought of another king being born, has all the two-year-old children of Bethlehem murdered. The quote from Jeremiah is poignant. “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v.18). The footnotes of the Oxford Annotated Study Bible are helpful in giving some explanation to this verse. “Ramah, north of Jerusalem, was the scene of national grief (Jeremiah 40:1) inflicted by an enemy.” The footnotes also remind us that Rachel, wife of Jacob, died in childbirth and was buried near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:16-20). But I think of all those parents throughout history who have experienced the death of a child for whatever reason, whether through illness, or natural disaster, or murder, or drug or alcohol abuse. We say that parents are not intended to bury their children, that it’s not the “natural order of things.” That Jesus was born into just such a world and that his birth was accompanied, or marred, by this time of grief reminds us that God is with us at just such times, offering grace and peace to all who mourn. Jesus’ presence does not make all things good instantly, but Jesus is a source of strength and comfort at all times.