Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Individual Impact


2 Samuel 3:6-21
With all the maneuvering and positioning going on regarding who would be the king of Israel and who would support whom, it was touching to read verses 14 and 15 and see that individual men and women were being effected. “Then David sent messengers to Saul’s son Ishbaal, saying ‘Give me my wife Michal, to whom I became engaged….’ Ishbaal sent and took her from her husband Paltiel the son of Laish. But her husband went with her, weeping as he walked behind her all the way to Bahurim…” The image of a weeping husband, powerless to do anything is haunting to me. It would appear that David was in within his rights to reclaim his wife, but the circumstances by which he did so were devastating to someone else. Incidentally, this won’t be the last time that David takes a woman away from her husband, so perhaps this is also a bit of foreshadowing.

Acts 16:6-15
It would be easy to focus on the regions and cities being mentioned in this passage, with Paul and his associates moving around as if on a chess board. But here again, individual lives are being touched in real ways. In this case it is Lydia, who according to verse 14, was “a worshipper of God.” The story of the Bible may deal with big themes and big images, but eventually it all has to come down to “street level” and how individuals are affected by the gospel of Jesus Christ. In our efforts to proclaim the gospel we should remember that it is the individuals with whom we come in contact that are really important.

Mark 6:30-46
Keeping with the theme of individual lives, I noted verse 46 in this reading: “After saying farewell to them, (Jesus) went up on the mountain to pray.” Jesus has just fed a crowd of 5,000 plus, but he needs “Jesus time”, so he goes off by himself to pray. Private prayer was an important part of Jesus’ ministry and should be an important part of our lives of faith. We can not live fully as Christians in isolation, but it is essential that we take time as individuals to converse with God and to seek God’s word for our living. Jesus knew that and sought opportunities for it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Providence and Hope


Psalm 57
This Psalm is attributed to David during the time that he was hiding from Saul—stories that we’ve been reading recently in 1 Samuel. The verse that struck me today is the latter portion of verse 1, “…in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by.” I like the hope and optimism here, the recognition that the storms of life can be devastating, but that even the worst of them will eventually pass by and in the mean time God’s graciousness and mercy are like the protective wings of an eagle spread over her young providing shelter and the promise of a new day made bright with God’s love whether in this life or the next. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

2 Samuel 2:1-11
In keeping with the theme of David’s reliance upon God, verse 1 says, “After this David inquired of the Lord…” After all that David had been through and all that he had faced, he still relied on God for guidance, even in the matter of where to go now that Saul was dead. David literally asked God the question, “Shall I go up to any of the cities of Judah?” And God answered him. I know that all too often I fail to listen for God’s voice in my life. But I know, through hindsight, that God has been watching over me and leading me to opportunities and situations that met God’s will for my life. Personally, I need to spend more time inquiring of the Lord, and then responding with confidence and trust.

Acts 15:36-16:5
There were two things that stood out for me about this passage today. The first was the disagreement over who should accompany Paul and Barnabas on their next trip. This was a thoroughly worldly situation, just like the conflicts that so often plague the church today. Ultimately Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways, but out of these events came the second item to catch my eye, the introduction of Timothy into the scriptural account. God was able to use even conflict and tension to move the church ahead. In terms of Psalm 57, the destroying storm passed by and hope and optimism reappeared unbruised in the person of a young disciple.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Building on the Past


1 Samuel 31:1-13
I did my readings today with our son, William, who was most impressed with portions of verses 12 and 13: “They came to Jabesh and burned (the bodies of Saul and his sons) there. Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.” It was the seven days of fasting that caught William’s attention, I think. Say what you will about Saul, he was the king of Israel, and much of the negative image we have of him probably comes from later editors who wanted to make David look better by comparison. (The Oxford Annotated Bible makes the point that David himself never seems to have denigrated Saul. It also makes the point that Saul died trying his best to defend Israel from her enemies; a noble end.) So fasting for seven days is very appropriate for a man who, despite his faults and regardless of his short comings, served God and God’s people in a difficult role and at a difficult time. May we all strive to serve God as best we can, and may we all honor the efforts of others who seek to do so.

Acts 15:12-21
As is so often the case, events in this passage are guided in part by an understanding of the Old Testament. In verses 16 and 17, James quotes from Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah in establishing a protocol for receiving Gentiles into the church. This is a clear indication of how the early church saw itself as living in faithful obedience to God’s will.

Mark 5:21-43
These two related stories appear in all three synoptic gospels and show Jesus’ regard for the lowest and least important members of society, women, children, and those who are ritually unclean. In return, many found faith in Jesus. Verse 34 says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Not only does Jesus express a close connection to the woman with the flow of blood (calling her daughter) but he acknowledges that her faith had led her to take the unprecedented step of coming in contact with him while she was unclean. There is a kinship here, a coming together of two figures who are not readily accepted by the culture at large and who will (or would have) found a less than hospitable welcome among the most powerful of their day. Jesus, despite being the word make flesh, is clearly one of the people.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Finding God's Grace


1 Samuel 28:3-20
Saul’s experience with the medium of Endor sounds like a scene out of a Shakespeare play. God’s rejection of Saul is now complete and according to a later editor, it is because of Saul’s failure to destroy the Amalekites as God had ordered. David will now become the king of Israel and Saul and his sons will fall to the Philistines. Personally I don’t put a lot of stock in the details of this story, the medium’s ability to contact Samuel, for example. It is enough to know that Saul now recognizes the situation, understands what is going on and why, and that it is too late to do anything about it. How that realization came to Saul is not as important as the fact that it did.

Acts 15:1-11
Here verse 11 says, “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they (the Gentiles) will.” This is a nice, compact statement on the nature of salvation which, according to the writer of Acts (by way of Paul speaking) comes from the grace of God in Jesus Christ no matter who we happen to be. This is also the beginning of the transformation of Christianity from a Jewish sect to a religion in its own right.

Mark 5:1-20
Verse 11 really jumped out at me today. “Then they (the Gerasenes) began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.” Wow! Can you imagine inviting Jesus to leave? Now, in their defense, the Gerasenes were frightened by the things that Jesus had done, and he did help to destroy 2,000 swine. But still, can you imagine having Jesus in your very midst and sending him away? Actually, I suspect that we invite Jesus to leave our neighborhoods far more often than we realize. It happens every time we resist the work of the Holy Spirit because we don’t understand it or like where it is taking us. It happens every time we try to compartmentalize our lives, with work and family and politics on one side and religion on the other (as if God were not a vital part of it all). It happens when we turn our backs on those in need and when we refuse to be reconciled with others and when we fail to live generous, caring lives. These are all times when we essentially beg Jesus to leave our neighborhood. Just imagine what would happen if we lived our lives as those who invite Jesus into our neighborhoods and into our lives on a daily basis?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bound Up in God


Today’s readings weave an interesting picture of what it means to be God’s people in the midst of a violent world where difficult situations arise and where people get hurt, even because of their faith.

1 Samuel 25:23-44
A part of verse 29 says, “the life of my lord (meaning David) shall be bound up in the bundle of the living under the care of the Lord your God.” According to the Oxford Annotated Study Bible this refers to “a precious package of those for whom the Lord cares.” I like the thought of being bound up in a bundle under God’s watchful protection. It makes me think of warmth and security, like an infant lovingly wrapped and constantly cared for. How blessed to be in a bundle to which God gives the divine attention. How blessed to be a precious package of God’s.

Acts 14:19-28
On the other hand, verse 22 of the Acts reading paints a much different picture of what it means to be one of God’s people. Paul runs afoul of the crowds in Lystra and they stone him and leave him for dead. But he survives and travels back to Antioch. “There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we much enter the kingdom of God.’” So much for being bundled up! But that’s the point. God cares for us as a precious package, but our calling is not to remain “under wraps” like a light under a basket, but out in the world doing God’s will where stones get thrown and evil lurks. God’s care remains; we are still precious to God. But we could not live in a bundle our entire lives, any more than could a child.

Mark 4:35-41
Then comes the verse that ties it all together. With all the stones that are being cast and all the evil that lurks out therein the world, Jesus still asks his disciples (in verse 40) “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Jesus might have said, “don’t you realize that you are “bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the Lord your God”? Don’t you know that you are precious to the God who created you? In other words, whatever happens, God is with us and cares for us, and wants the best for us. We will suffer hardship and face struggles. But by God’s grace we also grow in faith and spiritual maturity so that we are better able to face times of trial. And in the end God claims us and brings us home. Frankly, I think that’s a pretty good deal.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Catching Up


I apologize about missing yesterday’s posting. I flat ran out of time. But let’s see if I can get caught up today.

Yesterday’s readings had a lot to say about God’s choices, especially when it comes to choosing people.

1 Samuel 24:1-22
This passage contains a wonderfully earthy story about Saul needing to go to the bathroom; a good example of how scripture takes it’s shape from everyday life. But the verse I focused on was 20, “Now I know (says Saul to David) that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.” As it was God who chose and anointed the kings of Israel, this is essentially a proclamation by Saul that David is God’s chosen one for the future. Admitting such would have been a real blow to Saul, who presumably would have desired to see his own son on the throne. But he can no longer deny the obvious role that God is playing. David will some day be king, chosen by God, and Saul knows it.

Acts 13:44-52
I found verse 48 to be fascinating. “When the Gentiles heard this, they were gland and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” Obviously the hand of God is at work in the lives of those who are “destined for eternal life” and it is they who are called to be Christians. God clearly had a choice in the matter, but the interesting question is whether or not the Gentiles had a choice if they were “destined.” I think they did, just as I think we do today. We have the choice of whether to believe and whether to act on that belief. But this verse makes it clear that God plays the greater role in the process of salvation, and while this passage does not prove that there are any who are not called or elected for salvation, it does remind us that the Christian faith is a precious thing that should not be wasted. If we have been called to believe, why would we dilly-dally? Why wouldn’t we take every opportunity to participate in the community of faith and to explore what it means to be God’s people?

Mark 4:1-20
Here I chose verse 11: “And (Jesus) said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but to those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgotten.’’” Again, God is at work choosing a community, just the way that God chose Abraham and Sarah out of all humanity, and how God continued to favor the Hebrew people over all the other nations. Here God in Jesus has chosen followers to whom the truth is to be more plainly revealed. Why? We usually make the point that those we are called, or elect, are set aside for service as well as salvation, to be a blessing to the world. And I think that has a lot to with it here. The disciples have been set aside as particular followers of Jesus to do particular things. I don’t believe that this necessarily excludes anyone from the possibility of salvation because I believe that God can call anyone that God wishes. But at particular times in history God has chosen to work through particular people to achieve God’s will. And God is working though us now. How are we doing as God’s people?

Now, on to the readings for today:

Acts 14:1-18
I think verse 3 is interesting: “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be dong through them.” First of all I don’t often think of God as “testifying” as it says here. But clearly God was adding punch to the witness offered by the apostles. Think of it as an ancient Powerpoint presentation provided by God to demonstrate what the apostles were talking about. But second, it makes perfect sense to understand God as a full partner in the work of evangelism. The apostles were not out there on their own. God was with them in a very real way. God is with us, too, as we go about the very necessary work of evangelizing the world today. And God is adding testimony, too, though not necessarily in the same manner as in our reading. But God does move hearts and minds, and does provide grace in significant ways which those who are paying attention can see and rejoice in.

Mark 4:21-34
Verses 24-25 contain Mark’s version of familiar teachings contained in the other two synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke). “And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’” The overall meaning seems to be that those who strive for the reign of God and who put themselves fully into the effort will benefit greatly, while those who do little or nothing to meet God’s will can expect to receive less than nothing from their effort.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Interconnectedness of Scritpure


Psalm 51:
It’s funny how a line or phrase can jump out at you from time to time from even familiar passages of scripture. I take that as a sign of the Holy Spirit at work through the text. I’ve read Psalm 51 any number of times, but today verse 6 caught my eye: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” I’ve heard it said that character is what you do when no one is looking, which I think is similar to what this verse is saying. There are any number of reasons for doing the things we do, and even our most noble actions can be tainted by sinful intentions. God desires that we be motivated by truth, God’s truth. Like the psalmist we should constantly pray for God’s wisdom to permeate our very being and seep into our innermost parts so that what we do will be guided by genuine love for God and a desire to do God’s will. Daily reading of scripture is one important way we can be influenced and guided by God’s will and allow for the “seeping” to happen.

1 Samuel 21:1-15
Acts 13:13-25
The interconnectedness of scripture really stands out today in a couple of ways. In 1 Samuel 21: 3-6 we read of the encounter between David and Ahimelech the priest that Jesus referred to in our gospel reading yesterday (Mark 2:23 and following). Jesus clearly knew the scriptures and how to apply them to daily life in the light of the coming reign of God. In Acts, Paul calls on a knowledge of scripture as well when speaking to members of a synagogue. In portions of Acts 13:20-22 Paul refers to events in the reading we’ve been doing recently from 1 Samuel. Jesus and Paul knew the scriptures, but we should, too, so that, like them, we can learn to apply them to our lives and come to fully appreciate the way it all “hangs together.”

Mark 3:7-19a
I’ve seen the film of Charles Limburg’s landing in Paris after his flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, and I’ve always been impressed by the massive crowd on hand to celebrate his accomplishment, a crowd that threatened to crush Limburg. I don’t think I’ve ever thought to apply the same phenomenon to Jesus’ experience with the crowds. Mark says, in verse 9, that Jesus asked for a boat to be ready “so that (the crowd) would not crush him.” Unfortunately, of course, many of those who pressed in on Jesus were not willing to go the distance with him and when later events threatened to engulf Jesus, these people would lose courage and flee. Even those whom Mark names as apostles would betray and deny Jesus in later days.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

God's Presence


Each of the readings today has something to say about living in the light of God’s presence.

1 Samuel 20:24-42
David and Jonathan have sworn an oath to each other saying “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.” (verse 42) God was being called to act as a witness as well as a mediator between David and Jonathan and their respective descendants, guaranteeing the promises that the two men had made to each other. David and Jonathan assume God to be a “third person” in the arrangement, and a very real presence with the power to affect human relationships and to safeguard people.

Acts 13:1-12
I’m not sure how effective a form of evangelism Paul was using when he turned the false prophet blind in verse 11, but it got the point across. In fact, Paul is not the one who causes the blindness. The Lord does so at Paul’s request. Paul acts as though God was a member of the group that had come to Paphos. And in a very real way God was a member of the group, and was present in what Paul was doing.

Mark 2:23-3:6
My favorite verse in this passage is 27, “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.” God’s will at the time of establishing the sabbath was to provide rest and recuperation for the people. At the time of the industrial revolution Scotland required all public parks and museums to be closed and all public transportation to stop running on Sunday. The problem was that for the vast majority of people, the working poor of the cities for example, there was no other time to enjoy the parks and museums because that was the only day off they were ever likely to have. In that case the sabbath restrictions defeated the original purpose that God had in establishing the day of rest. Perhaps our society has gone too far the other way. Perhaps we pay too little attention to our need for rest and relaxation to the point that we don’t ever slow down. God knows we need to give ourselves a break and in a very gracious way established a law to that effect. But the point was never to punish people or lessen their opportunities.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Word Advances


1 Samuel 20:1-23
The story of David, Saul, and Jonathan reads almost like a soap opera or a graphic novel. Saul’s actions have become increasingly erratic until Jonathan is put in a position to choose between his father or his good friend David. Clearly, even personal relationships are vehicles through which God may work, and the relationship between David and Jonathan is a good example. The two men have covenanted together and they are both determined to honor that covenant, regardless of where it takes them. They also recognize that God is at work in their midst.

Acts 12:18-25
No matter what else was going on at the time, no matter what Herod did or said, verse 24 says, “…the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” Humans tend to repeat mistakes, to seek familiar ground, to do the same things over and over again. But no matter what was happening at the time, “the word of God continued to advance…” God was doing a new thing, opening hearts in a new way, and as a result “new adherents” were being added to the church constantly. There is a lesson here for the modern church, to stop treading over the same ground and instead to advance with the word of God as a guide. What would that look like? It would look like something new and different, something we may not expect, something fresh and exhilarating. And it would be a step forward, and not “business as usual.” This is something we need to think about as individual Christians, and as a community as a whole.

Mark 2:13-22
There are several verses in this passage that have been used to characterize renewal in the life of the church. There is a group called “Friends of the Groom” who develop dramatic worship resources. One group of Presbyterians have referred to themselves as the “New Wineskins” group. I have always found meaning in what Jesus says in verse 17: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” We all need God’s help in one way or another, we are all sinners in need of God’s redemptive grace. Jesus has come to offer that help and that grace to whomever will take it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hope and Confidence in God


Psalm 42
This psalm has the most wonderful refrain in verses 5 and 11 (and Psalm 43:5—Psalms 42 and 43 are actually a single unit that has been divided.) “Why are you cast down, O my soul. and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” I love the hope and the certainty of these words. Yes, hard times come. Yes, we become frustrated and discouraged. Yes, there are days when our souls may become “disquieted.” But our hope remains in God and we will again praise God for God’s grace and mercy in our lives. Psalm 121 offers the same hope and confidence in different words: “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, why made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved….” The writers of the Psalms were “real people” facing real problems, real challenges. And the Psalms reflect that realism, but they always come back to hope and confidence in the God who had blessed God’s people in so many ways, and these same Psalms invite us, time after time, to share in the hope and confidence as well.

Acts 12:1-17
The Story of Peter’s release from prison is an example of how the early church understood the power that hope and confidence in God could produce. “While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.” (Verse 5) The church should always be at prayer for those in need, but in times of crisis the community of faith should approach God with renewed fervor. In fact, one of the greatest gifts a congregation can offer the wider community is to be at prayer for its needs.

Mark 2:1-12
Along with prayer, the church must also be active in the world, helping to meet needs, just like the friends of the paralytic. The hope and confidence of the friends led them to take extraordinary measures. Are we willing to trust God enough to take such measures ourselves?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Serving God

After a hiatus for vacation, we are back. Thanks for your patience.


1 Samuel 18:5-30
Verse 12 may seem a little harsh. “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul.” But the understanding behind these words is that the monarchy of Israel belonged to God and God was more than a backroom mover and shaker. God was actually out front, dealing with the king as God saw fit and according to the divine will. God has anointed Saul to be king, and God could (and did) choose another to replace him. So God’s actions may seem harsh, but they are in accord with God’s will.

Acts 11:19-30
Verse 24 says that Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” In other words, Barnabas had been equipped by God to do what God needed him to do, which in this case was to rejoice with and to exhort the converts in Antioch. How is God equipping each of us to do God’s will? Not all of us are good at exhorting, but we all have gifts and skills that can and should be shared with the community of faith.

Mark 1:29-45
Here’s an almost humorous example of using our gifts and skills in service to God. Verse 31 tells that after Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, “the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” At first it may seem silly that the woman who has been sick and in bed must now get up and serve others. But hospitality is a high calling, and the opportunity to serve Jesus by serving other should not be taken lightly. Simon’s mother-in-law was restored in health so that she could fulfill her role. May we all be so blessed.