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.