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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


1 Kings 17:1-24
Verse 24 says, “So the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’” Elijah had just healed the son of the widow of Zarephath so the widow was saying, in effect, that Elijah’s actions (and God’s actions through him) let her know that he was who he claimed to be. Now, I don’t anticipate ever having the ability to perform miracles the way that Elijah did, but I know that my actions and the choices that I make say a lot about whether I believe or not, and tell others a lot about me and my faith. It reminds me of the song “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love”.

We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand…
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

What are our actions saying about our faith? Are we helping others to know and to believe the good news of the gospel?

Philippians 2:1-11
I’ve got almost all of this section underlined in my Bible, but verse 4 spoke to me today, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” I’m reminded of the strategy that English soldiers used at the battle of Culloden to defeat Bonnie Prince Charlie’s highland Scots. Because of the way that the Scots held their shields and swords when they attacked it was necessary for each English soldier ignore the Scot who attacked him directly and instead to defend the man to his right. In other words, each soldier had to be responsible for another, and to trust that another would be responsible for him. The English strategy worked, by the way, and the Scots were decimated at Culloden. Fortunately most of us will never find ourselves in a pitched battle on the Scottish moor, but we all face challenges in our living. Part of being a community is caring for each other, standing with one another in those struggles, and trusting others to care for us.

Matthew 2:1-12
Verse 10 says, “When (the magi) saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” The idea of being overwhelmed with joy struck me this morning. I think it’s a great image: the foreign travelers and their entourage expressing great happiness to the confusion and bewilderment of Mary and Joseph, but to the amusement of the young child who giggles throughout the visit. The magi did not really understand, but they were showing happiness at finding God’s word alive and at work in the world. Do we? Or have we forgotten what great joy comes from knowing God through Jesus Christ? Have we become so accustomed to our religious practices that we hardly pay any attention?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Joy and Expectation


Philippians 1:1-11
Verses 3-5 caught my attention this morning. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” What a wonderful sense of community is contained in these verses! To know that someone is praying for me “with joy” would be a wonderful gift, and would give me encouragement for the struggles I face every day. But I also need to be praying with joy for others, for the congregation I serve, for the prayer group I participate in, for the family that raised me in the faith and the friends I have gained over the years. But especially, on this my 19th anniversary, I pray with joy for my wife and children. Indeed, thanks be to God for each and every one of them. Amen.

Mark 15:40-47
Verse 43 says, “…Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” I like the term “waiting expectantly” because it demonstrates more attention being paid on the part of the one who waits, and more urgency in the waiting. It puts Joseph in the company of the wise bridesmaids who kept their lamps full of oil in Jesus’ parable. I hope that I am waiting expectantly for the kingdom, but I know there are times when I falter in my expectation, when I become distracted by other events in my life, other circumstances that are far less important, but which seem to gain my attention anyway. God’s people should all be “waiting expectantly,” lamps full of oil, bags packed for the journey, ready to welcome the kingdom of God in its fullness.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Teachers and Leaders Beware


There is an interesting theme running through the readings today dealing with those who are in positions of leadership because of their supposed knowledge or wisdom.

James 3:1-12
Maybe it’s because I do a good bit of teaching in my role as co-pastor or because Southern Presbyterian ministers were once called teaching elders, but verse 1 really makes me nervous. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” I understand the implications. Those who presume to share wisdom with others, especially when it deals with the faith, must guard against errant words or actions. The same applies for parents because we are so often in a teaching mode. The adage, practice what you preach, comes to mind, but this is not easy, even if it is worth pursuing, worth the effort. Ultimately, I think we are called to take what we say and do, especially as it affects others, very seriously and strive for the highest level of accountability in our lives.

1 Kings 9:24-10:13
According to verse 10:1, “When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon (fame due to the name of the Lord), she came to test him with hard questions.” Solomon had taken his role as leader seriously and had asked God for the wisdom necessary to carry it out effectively. He was not a teacher in the purest sense of that word, but as king he was in a position to share wisdom with others and to have an impact on many lives. That he was wise is attested to over and over again, as is the fact that God continued to hold him accountable for his actions. God-given wisdom, then, is to be prized and not wasted and to be used to the glory of the one who gave it (“fame due to the name of the Lord”).

Mark 15:1-11
What can happen when we allow ourselves to be distracted from God’s will can be seen in verse 1. “As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” The folks who should have most welcomed the arrival of the Messiah, who should have sat at his feet and learned all he had to teach them, instead presumed to judge him because he did not meet their expectations. They had allowed their positions to sway their judgment and had not reflected on what God might have been doing in their midst. How often do we make the same mistake? How often do we assume we know that God is up to without really paying attention? Solomon recognized his reliance on God. The writer of James expressed the importance of living a life of accountability. Mark shows how easy it is to fail. All in all there is a lot for us to consider and to pray about.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Catching Up and Arguing With James

First, here’s a little catching up from yesterday, September 3.


Psalm 62
Psalm 62 reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that God is God. There are poor people and there are rich people, but they are the same before God. The Psalmist warns and promises that God is God and God will repay. But the Psalmist also promises that with God is steadfast love. God is our refuge. Do we really know that or do we rely on other means and other things?

II Chronicles 6:32-7:7
This is an amazing prayer that Samuel prayed. Were all our prayers filled with such faith! It’s almost as if Samuel is saying, “your will be done” and expects it to be that way. This dedication service is beautiful. After Samuel’s prayer, the offering for the house that he built for the Lord comes pouring in, beginning with his offering.

And now on with today, September 4.


I’ll be honest from the outset. I don’t care much for the book of James (even if it shares my name). There are some very thoughtful and challenging verses in the book, true. But then you come to a verse like 2:24 and I lose all patience with it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

James 2:14-26
I underlined verse 24 because it really bothers me. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Frankly, no, I don’t see. In fact, this verse appears to me to be a slippery slope akin to “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Now, if you squint a little you might get the impression that James is saying faith leads to works, or that the faithful will also, by grace, be led to do works. But to say that justification comes by way of works in any form or fashion flies in the face of the good news of the gospel. Debbie speculates that perhaps James uses the term “justified” the way we might understand “sanctified.” In fact, Debbie and I have spent 15 minutes discussing this whole concept this morning and we disagree sharply on James’s intent. I’ve also referred to Frances Taylor Gench’s commentary on Hebrews and James and see that she, too, finds no significant problem with James on this point. I’m not convinced, so I’ll leave it with these two points, 1) a sincere and Christ-centered faith will produce good fruit (like the works of the sheep in Matthew 25), but 2) there is nothing at all that we can do to earn our salvation (nor to lose our salvation for that matter), and if that is what James means by “justified” then I’m having none of it.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Focusing on God


I Kings 8:22-30 (31-40)
In the readings from the Old Testament this week, Solomon may have appeared to be the focus. But Solomon hasn’t really been the focus––God and God’s relationship to the people has been the focus. Solomon was given the chance to ask God for anything and he asked for wisdom as he ruled the people. He was given this and more. As he dedicated the temple he prayed for God’s presence to always be there, but kew that even heaven could not contain God. He prayed that the people’s actions might always be focused on God’s word and God’s will in their lives. I wonder what it would be like for churches today to focus wholly and faithfully on God’s word and will and to trust God to supply all that we need. When we offer prayers of supplication this is what we are asking—that God will supply the healing, the strength, the resources, and the faith no matter what happens.
O God, you are great and we trust in your provident care, give your church wisdom to hear your word and live it; give your church vision to see the kingdom of God in our midst and to live into your kingdom; give your church faith in you so as to remove mountains and not to make them. In your goodness forgive us when we fail and give us more faith, give us patience as we deal with one another, and give us your presence in our actions and our lives so that others may come to know and believe in you. In the name of the Trinity of love we pray. Amen.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Psalm 122


Psalm 122
When I was a child, I remember spending hours at the church. I would hear the first line of this psalm and know the words to be true, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” As I have re-read and heard this psalm I’ve realized that there is so much more to the joy of going to the house of the Lord. This psalm talks of peace; it talks of the tireless effort for peace. When you pray for something daily, then you will find the rest of your body joins in the process. When something is brought to mind and kept at the forefront of your mind then you move to working for that thing or person. The challenge in this psalm as we pray it is to work for peace and the good of God’s house. As Christians the kingdom of God is ours not only to pray for, but to work for. “Peace be within your walls”; that prayer doesn’t just speak of Jerusalem, for us, but it speaks of relationships—friends and enemies; it speaks of daily life, those we encounter and those we avoid; it speaks of justice for all who struggle and are lost. When I was a child, I remember hearing these words and being glad to go into God’s house; as an adult I hear these words and know that God’s house is bigger than just one place, and that peace for God’s house requires not only my prayers but my activity as well. It is as Isaac Watts penned in a hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”* I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

*When I Survey the Wondrous Cross".