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!