Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Capital Punishment


Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34
In reading verses 30 and 31 I was led to wonder how these words compare to our modern criminal justice system. “If anyone kills another, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is subject to the death penalty; a murderer must be put to death.” One of the most persistent controversies surrounding capital punishment is that it is not meted out in a fair or even-handed manner. It is commonly assumed that those with more resources are able to avoid the death sentence more often while those with fewer resources are not. And of course there have been wrongful or questionable executions over the years. The verses from Numbers allow for—insist on—a death sentence in the case of murder, but set a high standard of evidence in such cases, and do not allow for an alternative to death. As forensic science moves ahead one would hope that the instance of wrongful executions would disappear. But I wonder if we are doing enough as a society to provide for evenhandedness in such cases. And while these verses from the Old Testament support the use of a death penalty, what are we to infer from the gospel and the words of Jesus? (Incidentally, I find http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment to be a very helpful overview of the issue of capital punishment from various religious and cultural perspectives.)

Romans 8:31-39
And just like that, Paul moves the entire question of capital punishment out of the way and reminds us that nothing at all can separate us from God’s love. Does that include murder? I believe so. Years ago when Debbie and I lived in Scotland we were made aware of a man found guilty of murdering his mother, who served time in prison for the crime, and, after his release, became a minister in the Church of Scotland. Who better to understand the love of God than one who has done so much wrong and yet been led back to the light of God’s grace and truth? I wonder what he would have said about the passage from Numbers. I wonder also how fresh the word of God appeared to his parishioners in light of his past. As the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace” testify, “I once was lost but now am found/ was blind but now I see.” What God is able to do with a life is beyond our ability to comprehend. Ultimately we belong to God no matter what, and we need to value that in every way possible.

Matthew 23:13-26
In light of the other two readings I find Jesus’ words in verse 23 to be enlightening. There he condemns the religious leaders of the day for paying more attention to the minor aspects of the law and overlooking God’s desire for “justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others,” Jesus says. Do we spend too much time on the minor details while willfully ignoring God’s command to love one another and to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with…God”? That’s the real danger, I’m afraid.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Dressing for the Reign of God


Matthew 22:1-14
Matthew’s account of this parable is full of details that Luke omits making Matthew’s version more violent and, it would seem, less inclusive. But give Matthew credit for being emphatic, for here Jesus warns his listeners, both the crowd in Jerusalem and the religious leaders, to be ready; the hour is close at hand when those who are not prepared will not find a place in the reign of God. The most difficult verse for me comes near the end of the passage. One of those brought in to replace the original invitees is discovered to be unsuitably dressed. “Why are you not wearing your wedding cloak?” the king thunders. But the man is speechless, thinking no doubt how he has been nearly carried into the banquet hall by the king’s servants who never once mentioned there was a dress code. But the implication is that this guest should have known better, should have realized that every guest to a wedding banquet must be wearing the appropriate attire. This is where the message of the parable comes closest to our lives. Be prepared, Jesus is saying, be properly dressed for life in the reign of God. Be dressed in your righteousness and your love for God. Taken together with the familiar words of Matthew chapter 25 (“When did we see you hungry and not feed you?”) we may understand the proper dress to be that of sheep as compared to goats. So while I really prefer the Luke telling of this parable––with a wider net cast for “new guests” and with no one killed or tossed into the outer darkness––Matthew serves to underscore the point that God wants us ready, whoever we are, and wants us working for the reign of God here and now.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Making the Right Choice


Proverbs 7:1-27
How many movies or books have used the sort of literary device we find in this chapter: two women and the man who must choose between them? On the one hand we have “Wisdom” which here is personified as a sister or intimate friend, terms of loving endearment. In her company a young man will be saved from the dangers of seduction and adultery. On the other hand we have the seductress, a literal woman, married but playing the part of a prostitute (and doing a pretty good job of it, according to the passage). Once she sets her sights on the young man he, as so many before him, is doomed. In the company of this woman the young man will find himself “going down to the chamber of death” (verse 27b). This is really a compelling passage that highlights the tension we all face; knowing what we should do but doing something else. Paul addresses this reality in Romans 7:15 where he writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” For the writer of Proverbs the answer is clear: if the young man had only trusted sisterly Wisdom then he would have been saved from the snares of the evil woman. I say, if only it were that easy. Over and over again we sin, and yet God remains faithful to us, and the story is allowed to continue, too often repeating the same refrain.

1 John 5:13-21
In this passage from 1 John the person of sisterly “Wisdom” has been replaced by Jesus. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true…” (verse 20a). The struggle with sin continues, but in Jesus we find God’s fullest expression of mercy and love, the one who confronts our sinfulness and defeats it for us so that we may rise above it and live as God’s people. Still we fall short of God’s intentions, but in Jesus Christ we find forgiveness and, more importantly, hope for the future.

Matthew 11:25-30
And here in Matthew we find words that offer hope. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (verse 28). The “heavy burdens” we carry are our sins and the “rest” we receive in Jesus Christ is forgiveness. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to start over again and to live as forgiven people!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Work as a Blessing and a Curse


Proverbs 6:1-19
One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of the ant and the grasshopper (you may be more familiar with the Walt Disney cartoon version of this tale). In the story the grasshopper literally fiddles away the summer while the industrious ant stores up food for the winter. When the weather turns cold the grasshopper has nothing to fall back on, but the ant is well-supplied and able to survive. Proverbs 6:6-11 tells a similar story, though in this case the contrast is between the ant and a lazybones who sleeps when he should be at work. “You are never more than one step from poverty,” the proverb seems to indicate. Much has been made over the centuries of the “Protestant work ethic,” or the great value that some place on hard work and determination. But there is a point at which even work can become a problem for the Christian. When we place too much importance on work it can become an idol, something that stands between ourselves and God’s will in our lives. The story of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21 comes to mind. After a bumper harvest this man builds bigger barns and prepares for a life of ease. But that very night he died. “So it is,” Jesus said, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” There has to be a balance between our hard work and our willingness to do God’s will in our lives. I believe this is ultimately what the writer of Proverbs would want us to hear.

If you are feeling nostalgic you may watch the Disney version of Aesop's fable below.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Love and Wisdom


Proverbs 4:1-27
The fact that our daughter is about to graduate from high school makes this reading especially meaningful for me today. Soon she will enter college and be faced with challenges and choices that will determine a great deal about her life. For nearly 18 years her mother and I have had the privilege of offering her what wisdom we could and what council we thought best. But the greatest source of hope I have for her is that she has been raised in the church where she has been exposed to greater wisdom than her mother or I could have offered alone. She has heard us preach, yes, but she has had others to teach her Sunday school classes, and others to sponsor the youth group, and others who have visited with her at pot lucks and church gatherings. It is the collective wisdom of that community, blessed by the Holy Spirit and centered on God in Jesus Christ, that I believe will serve her best. Her life will not be perfect, but she knows that God loves her and she knows there are people of faith who genuinely care for her. This is how she will “keep straight the path of (her) feet” (v.26a).

1 John 4:7-21
I’ve got most of this passage underlined in my study Bible for various reasons. But just today I have underlined verse 21: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” And what a challenge this is! I can honestly say that I have hated very few people in my life, and mostly when I was a child. Now that I’m an adult I can rationalize my antipathy toward others without calling it hate. But if I am to love God, truly love God, I’ve got to recognize the imperative to love my sisters and brothers, no matter how difficult that may be. And by love I believe the writer of this passage would mean to have genuine concern and compassion for. This means that it is my responsibility to love even the people who cut me off in traffic, or who vote for “the other guy,” or who, regardless of their motivation, cause me pain. Clearly this is tough work. But then, who ever said the way of the cross is easy?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Creation and Boldness Before God


Proverbs 3:11-20
Verse 19 says, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding (God) established the heavens.” In the continuing debate between those who accept the theory of evolution as fact and those who reject evolution for creationism this verse seems uniquely qualified to support either argument. Which is why, more and more, I find myself saying, “Who cares?” Who cares how God created the universe, established the order of things, made human beings in God’s own image? For me it is far more important to acknowledge the superiority of God’s wisdom to my own, and to praise God for the magnificence of the created order. In Psalm 8 the psalmist expresses awe at all that God has done, and marvels that God would even be mindful of humanity. But God is mindful of us, and by the same wisdom with which God “founded the earth” we were created in God’s image to act as stewards of creation. There are some arguments that just aren’t worth having, and the one about how God brought the universe into being is one of them as far as I’m concerned. It’s enough just to marvel at the vastness, the wonder, the majesty, the power and to thank God for our own lives.

1 John 3:18-4:6
I was struck by 1 John 3:21 which says, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God…” I’m not sure where to go with this verse, because it seems to me that my heart is constantly condemning me; for things I have failed to do, for things I should not have done, for words that have left my mouth. I regret many things from my life, and even wince at some of my memories. How can I ever show boldness before God? I don’t think I can, at least not alone. But because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on my behalf my sins are forgiven and I am able to go on living, even with my regrets and misgivings. I’ve got to think this is the only way I am emboldened before God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 15, 2008



Ezekiel 37:21b-28
1 John 2:18-29
The words that really caught my attention in the Ezekiel passage were those in the last part of verse 22: “Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.” This brings to my mind the words of Psalm 133, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Unity is something to be desired, to be worked for, to be prayed for, to be cherished, but not at any price. The congregation to which the First Letter of John is written has obviously experienced division, but in this case the ones who have left the community represent deception and lies, a faith which the readers of First John cannot accept as true. For this reason there can be no unity. But assuming that we all strive for the common good, that we seek justice and righteousness, what stands in the way of unity in our neighborhoods, our country, our world? It’s a question that perplexes us. Too often we see peoples united in evil, bound together in hatred or war. Too seldom do we see peoples united in love and compassion. Or if we see a shared, common purpose, as in the world’s response to tragedy, it seems to last only so long, and soon we are back to a state of disunity. Ezekiel promises that the people of Israel will someday be reunited into one nation. We should pray that such unity and harmony would come to us as well, that we might find common cause in our own nation, our own day and age. But clearly, if we do find such unity it will be a gift from God and something to be prized.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Encourage One Another


Leviticus 16:1-19, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
I think 1 Thessalonians 4:18 offers a very nice summation to all three of these passages, as difficult as they may seem. “Therefore,” writes Paul, “encourage one another with these words.” Whether it is the way that Aaron was to offer sacrifices to God, the manner by which the resurrection is to take place, or the attitude one is to take in one’s prayer life, all of these passages should be understood as encouraging God’s people in their faithful living. If one reads these passages and comes away feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, he or she has missed the point. Yes, Aaron had to go through a number of steps as outlined in Leviticus 16, most of which arise from the sins of the people. But the point is that God welcomes Aaron into the divine presence, and remains committed to the relationship with the people of Israel. Yes, there are believers who have died before the return of Jesus. But this does not nullify the truth of the resurrection or of the coming kingdom which will be a glorious experience. Yes, there are those who make prayer a spectacle and who are considered respected members of the community. But God is not fooled by false piety and is attentive to the prayer of the humble. Be encouraged, Paul might say in each case, and know that God continues to be at work. Do what is right, do what God calls you to do, and let God take care of the rest, for God is truly working out the divine purpose.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hardness of Heart and Mind


Exodus 7:25-8:19
Previously in Exodus 4:21 we were told that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not respond to Moses. Here in 8:15, though, we read that “…when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his (own) heart….” And later in 8:19 we are told that, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened…” reminding us, I think, that Pharaoh had previously made a decision to disregard God’s work and God’s word. So while God certainly has the power to hardened hearts and to guide human affairs, sinfulness is such that we are also quite capable of hardening our own hearts and turning our backs against God’s will. The ambivalence concerning who hardened Pharaoh’s heart is a good reminder of the importance of remaining alert to God’s word in our own lives. Comedian Flip Wilson used to play a character named Geraldine who’s catch phrase was “the devil made me do it!” But while God can effect the human will, to blame the devil for our own misdeeds is to ignore our own fault in the matter. However we look at it, Pharaoh was most guilty in his actions because he was acting out of a desire to control events which placed him in opposition to God’s will.

2 Corinthians 3:7-18
There is an interesting connection to the Exodus passage in 2 Corinthians. “But their minds were hardened,” writes Paul in verse 14. I take this to mean that the people themselves had hardened their minds, had decided to ignore God’s activity, the new thing God was doing in Jesus Christ. For Paul growth in the faith can only come when the veil, the stubbornness, the obstinacy is removed as it is in Jesus Christ. This may be one effort to explain why some people express faith in God though Jesus while other people, given the same information and the same opportunity, choose not to express that faith.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Firstborns and the Role of the Mind in Faith


Exodus 4:10-31
I don’t think I had ever really noticed the fact that God had determined to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son even before Moses left for Egypt. But there it is in verses 22-23, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’” This certainly puts the killing of the firstborns into a context by tying it to Israel whom God claims as a firstborn. But Israel (Jacob) wasn’t the firstborn of his generation. Esau was the firstborn and Jacob, the supplanter, was born second. Jacob only becomes the firstborn in a manner of speaking by way of the birthright he finagled from his brother and the blessing he duped Isaac into to giving him. Later of course he wrestled with God by the ford of the Jabbok and gained a blessing and a new name (and a limp). So Israel (and specifically the descendants of Israel now living in Egypt) is the firstborn of God only in a figurative sense, the way the nation of Israel will later be referred to a the bride of God, or perhaps by way of the covenant to which Jacob has become a party. But either way, because of this relationship between God and the people of Israel, one that is as dear to God as that between a parent and a firstborn child, God will kill the firstborn of Pharaoh. And Moses knows this before he even leaves Midian.

1 Corinthians 14:1-19
Those of us who are Presbyterian and who put great stock in an intellectual approach to the faith should take interest in Paul’s words in verse 15. “What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” There are a number of ways to apply this verse, but today I’m led to consider it a call to worship God with all of who I am. It’s not enough to go through the motions, to participate in worship physically while my mind is on something else. I need to give everything I am to God, body and mind, and use everything that God gives me to the glory of God, day in and day out. As the ad campaign for the United Negro College Fund says, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” We “waste” the intellect that God has given us when we try to separate it from our lives of discipleship, whether in worship or wherever we happen to be.

Mark 9:30-41
Interestingly, no mention is made by Mark as to whether the child that Jesus places in the midst of the disciples was the firstborn of his or her family (verses 36-37). And yet this unnamed child served as an example of discipleship anyway, just the way that Jacob (Israel) served as God’s firstborn in the Exodus passage.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Leaving a Mark


Exodus 2:23-3:15
Yesterday we learned something about the name Moses. Today we learn something about God’s identity. The Hebrew word that God uses as a name can be translated a number of ways: I Am Who I Am, I Am What I AM, I Will Be What I Will Be; perhaps more literally He Causes To Be. According to the Oxford Annotated Study Bible this name has less to with God’s eternal being as the fact that God is present in historic affairs. In other words, God is. And in this divine being God takes certain actions and facilitates certain events. Another way of thinking about this might be to say that God leaves a mark, a sign of presence in the world. The bush through which God spoke did not burn, but lives are changed whenever God appears, and those lives become a sign of God’s presence and effort. As we see further on in Exodus, Moses has a number of objections to accepting the task to which God calls him, but a real, present God over comes them all, and eventually Moses will return to Egypt to lead the people to the promised land.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
These are perhaps Paul’s most familiar words. Verses 4-7 sum things up nicely: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious of boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In other words, love also “leaves a mark”, a sign of its presence in changed lives and opened hearts. Like God, love is visible in certain actions and in the facilitation of certain events. This may be why Paul considers love to be the greatest of the gifts.

Mark 9:14-29
My heart has always gone out to the father in this story, especially when he says, “I believe; help my unbelief” (verse 24)! But it was not until I had children that I really understood the depth of these words. Because of his love for his child this father is willing to face his own lack of faith, his own doubts and fears, and to ask in effect, that Jesus heal him as well as his son. So here we see an even where God and love both “leave a mark” in very real terms. God’s healing power (and love) in Jesus and the love of the father for the son.

Friday, March 7, 2008

At the Intersection With God


Exodus 2:1-22
Verse 10 says, “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’” The name Moses seems to be an interesting combination of Egyptian and Hebrew words. According to the Oxford Annotated Study Bible, “Moses” actually comes from an Egyptian word meaning “to beget a child.” It also may be connected to the name of an Egyptian deity named Thut-mose. But Moses is also very close to the Hebrew very meaning to draw out, close enough that it becomes a pun of sorts. All of this is significant because, like his name, Moses himself stands at an important intersection between Egyptian and Hebrew cultures, similar to the role that Joseph was called on to play, and just as much a sign of God’s providential care for the children of Israel. Moses, then like Joseph, presents a sort of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis triad through which God brings about a new understanding of who God is and what God expects of us. Ultimately, of course, the most important intersection through which God acts is the one where the Word of God becomes incarnate and enters the world.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Unity Among God's People


Exodus 1:6-22
Reading the account contained in Exodus one understands why minority groups and marginalized people have found comfort in what it says. Verse 12 reads, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” All of us would like to see ourselves in the role of the children of Israel in this passage, but what oppresses most of us is our own sinfulness, our own poor choices. We fit well into our culture and move easily within our society. On the other hand, who are the ones who suffer neglect in our own communities? Who are the lonely and hungry? Who are the outcasts. It is impossible for most of us to read the Exodus account as oppressed people in those terms. But there are those for whom this account provides hope and it is they whom we should seek to help and to support, lest we become more like the Egyptians.

1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Paul’s words to the church in Corinth appeal for unity among all God’s people. In verse 13 we find, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Clearly, if all of us were to live as common members of the body of Christ the risk of oppression and marginalization would be significantly reduced. Unfortunately we are all too quick to find ways to divide and separate ourselves one from another. Paul reminds us that though we are different in some ways, we share a common purpose according to the will of God, and that common purpose should be more than enough to bind us together in harmony and love.

Mark 8:27-9:1
8:35 offers one of those paradoxes for which the Christian faith is well known. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” If we live for today, if we strive for what we can accumulate for ourselves in worldly goods, then we’ve missed the point. Comfort in this life is not a priority for the gospel. In fact, if we must choose between comfort now and the hope and expectation of the coming kingdom, Jesus strongly urges us to choose the kingdom. This is a unifying element to the faith as well. If we allow our distinctions to divide us in this life we are choosing the present as our focus. But if we seek unity and a common bond, then we are setting our coarse for the coming kingdom and the will of God.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Random Thoughts


Genesis 50:15-26
Verse 20 sums up the entire Joseph story. He tells his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” Joseph’s brothers were intent on ridding themselves of a nuisance, but through their actions God worked to preserve them. When they sold Joseph into slavery they were actually securing their own future. We can not really know what God is up to at any given time, but we can trust that God is working out the divine purpose, through our actions—and often despite them. Our challenge is to discover God’s will for our lives and to seek to serve God instead of working against God. This takes prayer and an openness to what God may be saying to us.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
In verses 4-6 Paul uses a Trinitarian formula to describe the unity found in the diversity of the church. “Now there are varieties of gifts,” he writes, “but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” Even if we do not serve God in the same way that someone else does we are still united with that person in the fact that it is God who has given us each our gift for service. Just as God is united––three in one––so are we, our various skills, talents, and insights given to us as a means of supporting the church and each other.

Mark 8:11-26
The story in verses 22-26 is fascinating in that it shows Jesus “fine tuning” a healing, laying his hands on a blind man a second time to give the man his sight.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

We Belong to God


Genesis 49:29-50:14
49:31 is a part of Jacob’s instructions to his sons to bury him in Canaan in a particular field. “There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah…” In death as in life Jacob understands himself to be a part of the tradition, a part of the family of God’s people. To be buried among them accentuates that sense of belonging. In life and death we, too, belong to God, belong to the family of faith, the tradition that has gone before and which continues on.

1 Corinthians 11:2-34
It’s a minor point in this passage, but when Paul wants to end his discussion about veils and hair he says, “we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (verse 16b). In other words Paul is appealing to practice and custom within the other congregations and thereby reminding the Corinthians that they are part of a larger whole. There is an accountability among all the churches, one to another, and there is a shared responsibility, too. Paul was active in collecting money among the Gentile Christian communities to help support the church in Jerusalem, an act that recognizes the connection that exists within the church universal. Just as death does not separate us from God or the family of God, neither does geography or location.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Unity and Healing


1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1
10:24 is a consistent theme for Paul as it was for Jesus: “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” When we concentrate on serving one another and not on seeing to ourselves the entire community it built up. When we see only to our own needs the entire community is pulled apart. At the battle of Culloden the English soldiers were instructed not to defend themselves directly, but to defend the ones standing next to them. This was the only way to counteract the ferocious assault of the Scottish Highlanders who had learned to push aside a bayonet with their small shields before dispensing with the soldier. When the English troops began to defend one another this attack was offset and the English won the battle. Paul is encouraging his readers to put others first so that the community of faith may flourish and God’s name be glorified.

Mark 7:24-37
What always strikes me about readings such as this one is the fact that Jesus has no set way of healing in the gospels. In the case of the deaf and mute man Jesus touches him and even spits on his tongue. But in the case of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, Jesus does not even see the girl but heals her from a distance. There are other methods related throughout the gospels by which Jesus brings health and wholeness to individuals. He sometimes uses mud as a salve. On other occasions simply touching the hem of his robe brings healing. Jesus’ ability to heal is not found in the method of the healing. This is not some sort of parlor trick he has developed, nor does he dispense herbs. Jesus’ power is an authentic expression of God’s love for people. Jesus has the ability to heal because God has given Jesus the authority to heal however that healing takes place.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

We Are Not Our Own


Genesis 42:29-38 and
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
It is helpful to consider Paul’s words in portions of verses 19 and 20: “you are not your own…for you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” Elsewhere Paul writes, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8). As Christians we no longer belong to ourselves but are part of God’s household, almost literally as servants who have been purchased by the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. And not only that, but as a household or family, we also belong to one another as together we make up the body of Christ at work in the world. So we no longer live according to our own desires or needs, we no longer place ourselves at the center, but we live first for God and God’s will, and secondly for the community of faith. Interestingly, Joseph did not realize it, but that is exactly what he had been doing. He had been living for the wider community, not for himself. He could not trace the events of his own life at the time they were happening, but eventually when he looked back on his journey he recognized that it all was according to God’s will. Even Jacob, who had previously wrestled with God, did not recognize the events unfolding as a part of God’s providence. But he, too, would come to see the hand of God at work.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sovereignty, Seekers, and Seeds


Genesis 42:18-28
At the end of verse 28 we read the question that Joseph’s brothers asked to one another when they discovered that their money had been returned to them along with the grain they had purchased: “What is this that God has done to us?” They recognized the role that God played in their lives, how the hand of God was at work day to day, even in simple acts or small details. The God of all creation is not so big as to refrain from involvement in that creation. The brothers were bothered by the prospect they faced, mainly because of the guilt they bore over what they had done to Joseph. Perhaps this is why they felt the hand of God to be heavy on them. But their question can also be one of comfort for God’s people, for no matter what happens, God is at work in the world and in the lives of God’s people.

1 Corinthians 5:9-6:11
6:11 reflects on the change that some of the members of the church in Corinth have undergone in their lives, from sinful and immoral lives to lives of faith: “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” They were liberated from their past lifestyles, cut free from the weight of their sins, and set on a new path in discipleship. We, too, share that joyful reality in our baptisms. We, too, are a part of the household of God and therefore we, too, should seek lives of modesty and morality, reflective of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Mark 4:1-20
I can’t help but think that the members of the church at Corinth to whom Paul was addressing his concerns were like the seeds sown among the thorns: “these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Paul, of course, was trying to encourage the Corinthians to make better choices in their living. Jesus, too, was calling his disciples to understand the difficulties that they would face and the temptations to which they and others would be exposed so that they would know the importance in making those same good choices.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Memories, Yeast, and Satan


Genesis 42:1-17
Verse 9 says, “Joseph also remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them.” As his brothers bowed before him, Joseph was able to trace the providence of God back to the beginning and see that God’s word to him had been true. The dreams he had once shared with his family had, in God’s time and in God’s was, come to fruition. It had been a difficult process, but it had reached a point of clarity. Poet Maya Angelou has a book entitled “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now.” I wonder if that isn’t how Joseph felt. I also wonder why it is so difficult for us to be patient and allow God to work out the divine purpose in our lives, even when we know that it is unfolding. At least that is something I have to work at.

1 Corinthians 5:1-8
Paul uses a powerful metaphor in verse 8. “Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Jesus, of course, uses the same metaphor in warning the disciples about the “yeast of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:6). A little yeast goes a long way, and allowing evil to remain a part of the community would do much damage. So the church in Corinth is encouraged to cleanse itself of those practices and those individuals who may cause the entire congregation to lose focus on the gospel.

Mark 3:19b-35
Jesus words in verse 24 are referring to Satan. “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” If Jesus is casting out demons, how can he be possessed as some claim? But the words are a reminder to members of the church as well to seek unity and to work together.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Random Thoughts


Genesis 41:46-57
Verse 51 tells about the name that Joseph gave to his first son. “Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.’” Manasseh is from a word meaning “making to forget.” But obviously Joseph hasn’t literally forgotten his hardships in Egypt, nor the land and people from which he came. He isn’t talking about amnesia. (What a funny name for a child that would be!) But the new thing that God has done in Joseph’s life is so wonderful as to remove the pain of the past and to replace it with a hope-filled future. As long as Joseph was trapped in his anger or sadness over things that had gone before he would have been incapable of living into the future that God was holding out to him. We hold on to our anger and our hurt over past events at the risk of losing the opportunity to embrace what God is doing in our present and our future.

1 Corinthians 4:8-21
In verse 21 Paul writes, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness.” This sounds a lot like Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that American foreign policy should be to “walk softly and carry a big stick.” Paul is asking what sort of relationship the Corinthians would like to have with him, and whether they will continue in their arrogance or will defer to his authority and to the work of the Spirit. As a pastor I don’t think Paul’s question would be appropriate for me to ask a congregation. But I understand the responsibility that church leaders have to encourage Christians to seek unity and to serve one another, not in arrogance but in the Spirit of Christ. Sometimes this requires sternness, and sometimes it does not.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Success in God's Terms


Genesis 39:1-23
Verse 2 says, “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man…” As the story unfolds Joseph’s success will ultimately be in God’s terms and it will lead to life for his brothers and father. How many of us define success in terms of what God is doing in our lives? I know I have a hard time not worrying about where my career is headed or how I’m doing financially. And yet, ultimately, it is in God’s terms that true success is found, and this success often takes shape around the relationships we have with others and how we are able to enrich other lives and be enriched by others in turn. That is the nature of the community of faith. In his song “Within You, Without You” George Harrison sings, “When you’ve looked beyond yourself, you may find peace of mind is waiting there.” In terms of success I think he is absolutely right. What God gives us is to be shared. Success in God’s terms takes many shapes, but it generally involves our ability to relate to others and to share of ourselves.

1 Corinthians 2:14-3:15
Similarly Paul offers these words to the church in Corinth: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (v. 3:7). Success in God’s terms is the work of God. Even when we “succeed” we must give God the glory for it is God who is active. We each have our role to play, we each have gifts to share, but God it is the one who brings our actions to fruition.

Mark 2:1-12
According to Mark, when some scribes heard Jesus forgive the sins of a paralyzed man they had serious qualms. “Why does this fellow speak in this way?” they wondered. “It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins by God alone?” (v. 7). And of course that’s the point. God was forgiving the sins of the paralyzed man. But the scribes, the ones who should have known best, did not recognize God’s work when it was right in front of them. We must also beware not to make assumptions about what God “would” or “wouldn’t” do, or we may find ourselves missing the point. Success in God’s terms takes many forms and really does not depend on our approval. God is working out a purpose that will likely surprise us in many ways. The scribes also should have been delighted to see the paralyzed man healed, they should have rejoiced that one who had suffered so was now free from this horrible condition. But they could not let go of their assumptions even long enough to see the grace at work in another life. Again, what God gives us is to be shared, and success in God’s terms often involves our ability to relate to others in the light of God’s grace.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Listening to God


1 Corinthians 2:1-13
In verse 13 Paul writes, “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” God builds a community through the work of the Holy Spirit, a community with its own language, its own ethic, its own way of understanding life. This community is guided by the Spirit, not by human standards or human precepts. Ultimately, only those who are “spiritual,” who have received God’s Spirit, are capable of understanding the implications of this new community and the gifts that God has given to it through the Spirit.

Mark 1: 29-45
Verse 35 always stands out when I read this passage. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus recognized his need to pray and to reflect in private. He needed the chance to hear God’s voice in his life. He needed to be able to separate himself from the cares of the world so that he could better know God’s will. And then he got back to work. If the Son of God needed time to pray and reflect in his life, what does that say about us? It says we must take the time to listen for God’s word as well, so that we may be guided in our living.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Boasting in God


Psalms 34
Verse 2a says, “My soul makes its boast in the Lord…” One of the dangers of our self-reliant, individualistic society is that too often we put our confidence in our own efforts. We celebrate the accomplishments of athletes, too, and self-made men and women. But the psalmist puts his confidence in God and goes so far as to “boast in the Lord.” I admit that I have rolled my eyes a time or two when an athlete has been interviewed after a game and has thanked God or Jesus Christ for his accomplishments. But that may be as close to boasting in the Lord as some people come, and perhaps we all should pay attention and follow suit.

Genesis 37:12-24
As Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him they say, “and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Had Joseph’s dreams been of his own design, had he put on airs based on his own conceit, then this would likely have been the end of things for Joseph. But the dreams were not Joseph’s own, they were God’s gift to him and, in a manner of speaking, his “boast (was) in the Lord.” As grim a situation as it was, it was in the hands of God and the brothers ultimately could not end the dream.

1 Corinthians 1:20-31
Paul also calls his readers to trust in the power of God over and against human power. God choose the weak and the foolish and the despised through which to work in the world in order to shame that which the world considers strong, wise, and reputable, “so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (v. 29), adding, “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (v. 31).

Mark 1:14-28
Verse 28 says of Jesus, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” This fame, of course, is based on his power to heal and to teach with authority. The fact that Jesus was the Son of God remained hidden to most of the people, even when the demons shouted it aloud. But earlier in the passage Jesus had called Peter, Andrew, James, and John away from their professions, away from relying on their ability to provide for themselves, with the worlds, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (v. 17). Discipleship, trust in God’s work in Jesus, is to be their new occupation. They will be challenged to make their boast in God and what God is doing in their midst, not because of Jesus’ ability to heal, but because he is the Son of God.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Looking Beyond


Habakkuk 3:1-18
Verses 17 and 18 are powerful: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” No matter how bad it gets, no matter how difficult life becomes, the prophet will always rejoice in the Lord and what it means to be one of God’s people because it is from God, and no other source, that salvation will ultimately come. What a gift the prophet has been given, to be able to look beyond even the worst of conditions to see the glory that is coming.

Philippians 3:12-21
Paul, too, looks beyond the here and now to that which is to come. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20). Paul knows that whatever challenges lie ahead, the struggle is well worth the results. So he will continue to push ahead no matter what and calls his readers to do the same.

John 17:1-8
John’s gospel is also looking ahead. In verse 3 Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The focus to our living, then, is to be on God as known in Jesus Christ with the understanding that this will lead to life beyond death. No matter what we face in this life, our focus must be on God because it is in God through Jesus that we will receive our salvation.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Active Righteousness


Amos 5:6-15
Verse 11 is typical in its indictment of the unrighteous. “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.” The judgment of God is sure and certain. Those who have denied basic dignity to others and have taken advantage of their plight will, in turn, find themselves overthrown and oppressed. Those who have put all their effort in caring for themselves and who have shown no regard for others will be punished.

Hebrews 12:1-14
Hebrews offers an alternative to the evil decried by Amos: “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (verse 14). Righteousness is not simply the absence of evil. It is an active pursuit of that which is good and it requires one to seek it out and to engage in it. We are not simply to avoid what is bad, but to do what is good. We are not simply to keep from hurting the poor, but we are to seek them out and offer help and support. “Lord, when was it that we saw you…?” ask the sheep in Matthew 25? “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” answers the King. Pursuing peace and holiness, then, is a believers calling.

Luke 18:9-14
One’s attitude before God is also important. The “punch line” to this familiar story in Luke really sums up all three readings for the day: “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The kingdom of God, then, is built “upside down” in human terms with the meek and lowly lifted up and the proud and arrogant brought low. It is a theme that Luke uses elsewhere, for example in Mary’s words in Luke 1:52, “(God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly….” To stand with God is to stand with the poor and oppressed and to work to meet their needs rather than taking advantage of their plight or even ignoring it and hoping it goes away.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Changed by God's Presence


Genesis 16:15-17:14
Genesis 17:5 says “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” (According to the Oxford Annotated Bible Abram can be translated as “exalted ancestor” and Abraham as “ancestor of a multitude.”) Abram/Abraham is not the only person to experience a change in identity in the presence of God. Sarai will become Sarah in her old age, Jacob becomes Israel after his wrestling match at the ford of the Jabbok, Simon will become Peter when he becomes a disciple, and Saul will be known as Paul after his conversion on the way to Damascus. To encounter God in such a profound way as each of these people did really demanded a new understanding of who they were, of their every day identity. They could not leave that experience in the same way they entered it, because they simply were not the same people. How do we reflect the change that God has made in our lives? We don’t normally change our names, but do we change our habits, our practices, our perspectives? Isn’t it something we should think about?

John 5:30-47
In verse 36 Jesus offers an explanation of the signs that he has been doing in John’s gospel. “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” Jesus is doing the work of God in the world and the work that Jesus does not only authenticates his identity as the Son of God, but allows others to perceive God in a new way. Again, there is an experience with God by which individuals are changed and after which they were unable to remain who they were. Many refused to accept the fact that Jesus was who his works demonstrated him to be. They sought to remain tied to their old identities and misunderstood who Jesus was. We need to be sure we are not so bound to the past that we do not allow God to work in our lives, to change us and to move us to where we need to be.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tending to the Least and Lost


Genesis 16:1-14
The words of the angel of the Lord to Hagar, Sarai’s slave girl, in verse 11 are quite similar to those of the angel Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:31. The words in Genesis are: “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael (God hears), for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” The words in Luke are: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus,” soon after which Mary magnifies the name of God for looking “with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” God’s attention is always on the least and lowest of humanity. God cares for and looks after those who are oppressed. No woman in servitude is too insignificant, no young girl is outside of God’s knowledge. We, too, should be attentive to the needs of the poor and the oppressed, for this is God’s work.

Hebrews 9:15-28
Hebrews puts the death of Jesus within the context of the old covenant. “…(A)nd without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Jesus, then, plays the role of the scapegoat in taking away the sins of the world, once and for all. Freed from sin, we are now freed to live to God’s glory and to praise and serve God with all our being. For no longer must we tend to the requirements of the law, but now we tend to the well being of one another, just as Jesus tends to us.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Something Completely New


Hebrews 8:1-13
Verse 13 says, “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ (God) has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” That’s interesting to me in part because I have trouble thinking anything that God establishes, any covenant to which God is party, could become “obsolete.” God’s word is steadfast and enduring. God’s presence is eternal. Can God’s covenant with the people of Israel really grow “obsolete?” But the writer of Hebrews, in quoting Jeremiah, wants us to see that in Jesus Christ God has done such a radically new thing that the old ways of thinking are no longer pertinent. Instead of the law God has offered grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and this action is so profound that it completely reorders the relationship between God and God’s people.

John 4:43-54
In verse 54 John writes, “Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.” The first sign, of course, was turning the water into wine at Cana, a symbolic act that represented the inauguration of a new era that is coming into the world. Now Jesus has healed the son of a royal official, also a “sign,” and therefore symbolic of God’s concern for all people. But by restoring the life of a child Jesus has demonstrated his authority over human life, the way the water-turned-to-wine demonstrated his authority in the coming kingdom. God is truly at work in Jesus, and God is truly doing a new and powerful thing. As in the reading from Hebrews we see that the old ways of understanding the relationship with God are no longer pertinent for here, in Jesus, is something radically new and wonderful.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

God's Proximity


Genesis 11:1-9
I love the image of God presented in verse 5: “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.” The inquisitive nature of God and God’s willingness to get close to humanity seem more important to the writers of this material than God’s omnipotence and sovereignty. In other words, it is less important to say that God knew what humanity was up to than to say that God was curious and attentive to what humanity was up to. I think we can get too wrapped up in God’s transcendence over humanity that we overlook God’s willing proximity to humanity. Similar images of God can be found in Genesis 3:8 where God enjoys a walk in the Garden of Eden (and even calls out to Adam and Even, “Where are you?”), and in Genesis 18 where God shares a meal with Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (and engages in a form of haggling with Abraham who argues on behalf of any righteous citizens of Sodom in v. 22ff). It is important to remember that God has not chosen to remain apart from humanity, but draws near to us and engages with us with divine interest.

John 4:1-15
Jesus, too, shares proximity with everyday folks, even a Samaritan woman, who would have been considered well beneath the attention of a Jewish man at that time. But Jesus engaged her in conversation. Her question in verse 12, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well…?” is humorous when we know who Jesus is—that he is certainly greater than Jacob. But it again forces us to realize God’s transcendent sovereignty is not always the point. Sometimes God willingly humbles the divine self, even appearing to be less significant than a particular human in order to communicate with us. Eventually Jesus will die a humiliating death, thus making absolutely clear the lengths to which God will go to bring salvation to God’s people.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Troubling Passages


Genesis 9:18-29
The story of Noah’s nakedness and the curse of Canaan is troubling to me, mostly because it stands in contrast to what God has done for Noah and his family. When God set the rainbow in the clouds as a reminder of the divine covenant with creation never again to destroy it with a flood it was a great blessing to Noah. But even in the face of this graciousness Noah finds it necessary to curse Canaan as a slave and the father of slaves. Now let me admit right here that there is obviously a lot going on in this story as subtext, a lot of things we don’t easily understand, but in simple terms how often do we take what God intends as a blessing and turn it around? How often do we accept the goodness of God, the grace of God on the one hand, and treat others with contempt or scorn on the other? Since God has blessed us we should find ways to be a blessing to others.

Hebrews 6:1-12
This is also a troubling passage, one that would seem to set a limit on God’s grace. Beginning at verse 4 we read, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened…and then have fallen away…” This is likened to crucifying Jesus again and compared to a field that receives abundant rain and cultivation yet produces only “thorns and thistles” (v.8). My problem is that God’s grace is inexhaustible, which is a good thing because I also recognize my need to repent repeatedly of my sins, to confess that I have not lived as I should and that I have not been the person God has intended me to be. And I believe that God forgives those sins and allows me to move forward in grace. Is there anything I can do to escape God’s forgiveness? I don’t believe so. Do I face consequences for my actions? Yes, but God’s grace continues to flow. So I take issue with this passage if it is intended to show a limit after which God is incapable or unwilling to forgive.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Maturing in the Covenant


Genesis 9:1-17
The covenant that God makes—and marks with the sign of the rainbow—is between God and all creation. This point is made over and over in this passage: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you…” (v. 9-10a). “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (v. 11). “I make (a covenant) between me and you and every living creature that is with you” (v. 12). “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh” (v. 15). Clearly God’s concern is for the world, for all of creation, and not just for humanity. But this works for human good, because without the entirety of creation our own lives would be impossible. Since we are made in God’s image, we should endeavor to share in God’s care for creation as good stewards of what God has made and with which God has made a divine pact. Humanity plays a unique role in creation, but we are not alone in receiving God’s care and concern. Nor are we to use our position as an excuse to defile what God has given us, to let our greed run rampant until there is nothing left.

Hebrews 5:7-14
Verse 14 is interesting: “But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” Since when is it so difficult to tell right from wrong, good from evil? Do we really need practice telling the good guys from the bad guys? The truth is, yes, we do. Small children are driven by their instincts, by curiosity and desire and so they take what isn’t theirs and do things that are potentially harmful. Only with age and experience do they begin to learn what is appropriate behavior. Moral living is similar. As we grow and develop we learn that some actions can cause harm to others, or can damage our relationships. Even so-called “victimless crimes” can leave pain and damage in their wake. Some people never seem to learn. Others never seem to learn how to control their actions. Spiritually speaking, the full meaning of God’s word and God’s activity in Jesus Christ is difficult to understand and to absorb, and it is best left for those who have matured in the faith and their ability to discern.

John 3:16-21
This passage relates well to the other two. Verse 16 reminds us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” Just as the covenant at the time of Noah was with all creation, so the gift of the Son is for all humankind. But those who have not reached a suitable level of maturity and whose deeds are evil, do not come to the light, do not accept Jesus Christ and his love (v. 19).

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Working and Worshiping as Holy Partners


Genesis 4:17-26
Verse 26b says, “At that time (the time of Adam and Eve’s grandson Enosh) people began to invoke the name of the Lord.” In this case the Hebrew word used for Lord is Yahweh. But as the Oxford Annotated Bible points out this reference to the worship of the Lord (Yahweh) dating from Enosh’s time is “in contrast to other traditions which claim that the sacred name was introduced in Moses’ time (Exodus 3:13-15; 6:2-3).” So when did “Yahweh” first appear in the vocabulary of humanity? Was it at the time of Moses when God spoke through the burning bush? Or was it much earlier in the history of God’s people, in a distant and only dimly remembered time? But more importantly, does it really matter? Is it really all that crucial when the name for God first came to human lips? Probably not, because whether we could name God or not, God was there, God was a part of human life even if humanity was completely oblivious. And God remains steadfast to this day, whether we remember to worship God, whether we take the time to pray, whether or not we seek out God’s will or not. God is a crucial part of life and it doesn’t matter if we know that or not.

Hebrews 3:1-11
A phrase in verse 1 really jumped out at me: “holy partners in a heavenly calling.” That so well sums up the reality of the church as a collection of people bound within a partnership established by God, each responding to God’s claim on their lives. If we truly recognize ourselves as holy partners we will seek greater unity in our actions, and when we look on our calling and that of others as “heavenly” perhaps we will find ways to work together toward a common purpose and will set aside actions and activities that are of no common good.

John 1:43-51
I find Nathanael’s question in verse 46 to be interesting; “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Of course Jesus came out of Nazareth, so the answer is yes. But how often do we, like Nathanael, write someone off because of our preconceived notions, our prejudices, our assumptions? Can anything good come out of the other side of the tracks? Can anything good come out of that sort of person? Can anything good come out of someone of this or that race, or nationality, or gender? If Jesus is involved, if God is at work in our midst, the answer is yes, it can. And if we will live with open hearts and minds we may find ourselves to be “holy partners in a heavenly calling” with someone of whom we might never have expected it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

God in the Garden


Genesis 3:1-24
There is something very poignant about the first part of verse 8: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…” This was a moment of crisis for Adam and Eve. They had broken faith with God and done something they had been expressly forbidden to do. They also recognized their nakedness now. As a result they hid themselves away from God. But here comes God on an evening stroll, enjoying the beauty, the gentleness, the coolness of the garden. How contented God sounds, and therefore how bitterly disappointed God must have become when the guilt of Adam and Eve was revealed. It seems to me that God is destined for continual disappointment in us, but what patience God has to put up with our sinfulness and our habit of spoiling God’s evening strolls with some crisis or other in our own lives. God of the evening cool and the noonday heat, the leafy bough and the sun-washed beach, forgive us when we fail you and keep patience with us so that we can try again by your grace. Amen.

Hebrews 2:1-10
John 1:19-28
Both the writer of Hebrews and of John make use of Old Testament passages in our readings today. The writer of Hebrews cites Psalm 8, but uses the Greek-language Septuagint instead of the original language which accounts for a difference between Hebrews 2:7––“for a little while lower than the angels”––and Psalm 8:5––“a little lower than God (or angels).” In the gospel reading, John the Baptist points to Isaiah to authenticate his ministry. Here, too, there is a slight difference. In Isaiah 40:3 the Hebrew reading would normally be “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…’” A voice of unknown location is asking that a road or highway be made to run through the wilderness. But in the Greek of John’s gospel the quote reads, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”… (John 1:23). In this case a voice located in the wilderness asks that a road or highway be made to run in an unspecified place.

These two passages of scripture seem to have put us in a bit of a bind by not quite quoting other scripture correctly, by “fudging” a little at the edges. But scripture is a dynamic, living word through which the Holy Spirit is constantly at work, bringing light to texts in a new way and helping succeeding generations find relevance in new and exciting ways in the word of God. John and the writer of Hebrews found use for Isaiah and the Psalms which were centuries old by the time they used them. We can find relevance in scripture, too, if we will keep our ears and hearts open and allow the Holy Spirit to work around the edges.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Creative Power of God


Genesis 2:4-25
Verse 7 says, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” It was not until God “inspired” his new creature that the man came to life. The same was true on Pentecost, when God shaped and formed the disciples into something new, breathed the Holy Spirit into their midst, and called the church to life. God continues to breathe into God’s people, leading them to create things of beauty, acts of worship, communities of hope and caring, forms of outreach, all types of hospitality. God’s creative and “inspiring” breath is at work constantly changing the ordinary stuff of our world into something new.

Hebrews 1:1-14
Verses 1 and 2 refer to another way that God creates. “Long ago God spoke to out ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” God’s word, as shared by prophet or Son, has the power to address the ills of society and to hold persons responsible, the power to create or draw out righteousness and justice. Jesus Christ was the ultimate expression of God’s Word, and in Jesus Christ a new creation has sprung into being, a new relationship with God. So God creates thorough breath and through word.

John 1:1-18
And then John beautifully ties it all together. This section of John is called the prologue to the gospel and it offers us a cosmic view of creation and the presence of the Word. Verses 1-5 show the interrelatedness of God’s creative power or “inspiration” and that Word with which God creates. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Limits or No Limits?


Colossians 1:15-23
Beginning at verse 16 Colossians sounds very much like the prologue to John’s gospel (John 1:1 and following). “…(F)or in(Christ Jesus) all things in heave and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” Of course John says it this way: “(The Word) was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Since Colossians was most likely written first, it makes me wonder if it in any way influenced the writing of the gospel. At any rate, they both show a cosmic or universal understanding of who Jesus Christ is. He is not limited in relevance to one small region, or one group of people, or even one time in history. His importance, his meaning spills over in to all time and every place because he lies at the heart of all creation. Nor is he limited in his relationship with God, but rather works with God in the creative, redemptive, and sustaining work that God does.

John 7:37-52
Exodus 17:1-7
This reading from John deals with expectations that limit our ability to understand who Jesus really is. Members of the crowd who heard Jesus speak were led to wonder if he was not the Messiah. “But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?’” (Verse 41). Here was God, doing marvelous things for God’s people, but many of them, including the Pharisees, were convinced they could account for God’s actions, that they could essentially limit the work of one who, in fact, had been at work since the beginning of creation. How do our expectations and assumptions limit our ability to understand God’s marvelous works in our midst? It’s something worth considering. After all, in the wilderness the people used thirst to challenge the work of God who had already led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and safely out of the grasp of Pharaoh. What more evidence did they need? And still they grumbled and complained as limited their own ability to see what God was up to. God’s own people! Still, God remains faithful and in limitless grace and love comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Remembering the Word


Deuteronomy 8:1-3
Verse 2 challenges God’s people to “Remember the long way that the Lord our God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” It is easier to remember all the happy stories from scripture than to remember the tough lessons. We would like to focus on the birth of Jesus and his resurrection but aren’t always as keen on Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. We enjoy thinking about the exodus from bondage in Egypt but like to forget the trials and tribulations the people went through and the frustrations that Moses dealt with along the way. The writer of Deuteronomy wants the people to remember everything, even that God had led them through the wilderness for 40 years as a way to humble them. This is important. It is part of the story, part of our story, and we need to know and to reflect on the implications that come with being the people of God.

Colossians 1:1-14
Paul wants his readers to remember as well. In verses 5b-6 Paul reminds the Colossians of how, “You have heard of this hope (laid up for you in heaven) before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.” Remember the good news, Paul is saying. Remember the reason you came to faith in the first place. That good news, of Jesus Christ, is doing great things in your midst and around the world.

John 6:30-33, 48-51
The reading from John really ties the other two reading together nicely. In verses 49 and 50 Jesus says, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” Jesus is building on the memories, the stories that the community of faith carries with it and is recasting them in the light of the gospel, the new thing that God is doing. The struggles and frustrations that the people faced in the wilderness included God’s gift of manna. Now, in the person of Jesus, the bread of life has come into their midst. Struggles continue, but by grace God also continues to offer resources and hope to the people so that they—and we—may rise above the challenges and give glory to God.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Past and Future


Joshua 3:14-4:7
A portion of verses 6 and 7 reads, “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord.” The faith to which we are called is deliberately generational, always looking ahead and behind. One day in the future children will ask about the past, one day in the future an act in the past will provide an opportunity for growth and learning. In the life of the church we remember the ministry of Jesus as we await the coming kingdom of God in its fullness. At no time is the faith simply about “here and now” but it always carries with it an awareness of the past and future. One day in the future children will ask about the past.

Ephesians 5:1-20
Verses 8 and 9 say, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Here, too, the past and the future are held together, but here there is tension where the two meet. What we were, what we have been, is gone, and in Jesus Christ we are free to move into the future as something new. Darkness is past, our future lies in the light and the fruit of the light. Like the people of Israel, we have crossed the Jordan leaving the wilderness behind and embracing the fruitful bounty of a new land, flowing with possibility and hope. One day in the future children may well ask about this past as well, and we can say to them that in Jesus Christ we are a new creation.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

God and Words


1 Kings 19:9-18
We might expect the presence of God to be found only in the cataclysmic events, the big and powerful experiences. But Elijah recognized God in sheer silence (vv. 12-13). The truth is that we simply can not make assumptions about what God is up to. Faithful obedience requires us to understand that God will do what God does and that it will often be different that what we might expect. On the other hand, Elijah knew right away that God was in the silence, which leads me to believe that if we pay attention we, too, can and will recognize God’s presence.

Ephesians 4:17-32
I appreciate the exhortation in verse 29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up…” As children we learned the adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” The truth, of course, is closer to the words sung by the band INXS, “Words are like weapons, sharper than knives…” Words can hurt, can do all sorts of harm. Yelling “fire!” in a crowded movie theater is so dangerous that it is not considered protected speech by the courts. Former Beatle George Harrison once saw a sign in front of a church that read “Gossip: the Devil’s Radio” and because of his experiences as a public figure who had suffered at the hands of gossip he wrote a song about it called “The Devil’s Radio.” Words can do all sorts of damage. Paul exhorts his readers to say nothing harmful, but to use only words that are useful in building up, creating, strengthening the community of faith. It is helpful, too, to remember that according to Genesis and John it was by the divine Word that God created all that is, and that according to the gospels Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. We honor that Word when our own words are used to create and to build up, not to destroy or tear down.

John 6:15-27
In verse 20 when Jesus identifies himself to the startled disciples his words in Greek are “I am; do not be afraid.” Of course when Moses asks God by what name the people of Israel should know the divine presence God answers, “I am.” Knowing that God exists, that “God is,” should come as a great comfort to us all. Elijah was bolstered in his work as a prophet knowing that “God was,” and the disciples were offered comfort by the fact that “Jesus was.” God is present to us as well, often in very surprising ways. Our challenge is to live as God’s people, using our words to build up community and walking in the way of the Lord.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Providing for the Journey


1 Kings 19:1-9
To me verse 7 sheds light on the nature of God’s providence. “The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched (Elijah), and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’” Faith is a journey. Our relationship with God is likewise a journey moving us from one place to another, onwards toward the coming kingdom. God provides for that journey just as God watches over the journey and joins us in the journey. Sitting still is not an option because it is simply not a reality. Elijah was running for his life, but he did not really understand what God was doing. The journey became one of discovery for the prophet and he was provided for in that effort by God.

Ephesians 4:1-16
Among a lot of wonderful verses in this passage I find verse 15 to be apt today, especially when considering the journey of faith. “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up on every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” As the Oxford Annotated Bible points out, speaking here is used to mean both saying and doing. In other words we are to speak and act truly and in love as we “grow up in every way.” And our growing in faith is the journey that we are on. So not only does God provide nourishment for the trip, but through Paul God provides direction as well. In truth and love we are to journey toward Christ.

John 6:1-14
And here again we find a story of God providing for the journey. Verse 2 says, “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” For whatever reason, people were attracted to Jesus and journeyed with him, in this case to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And there Jesus showed his concern for the crowd by feeding them, all 5,000 or more, with only five loaves and two fish. The journey did not end here, of course. Jesus still had to travel on to his passion, and the crowd would have to decide whether or not to make that trip with him—a decision we are still challenged to make. But in the mean time God was providing for the journey, often in surprising ways. May God continue to do so!