Thursday, September 30, 2010

It’s All About What You Know

Hosea 4:1-10
Acts 21:27-36
Luke 6:1-11
A recent Pew Foundation survey showed that Americans are not as knowledgeable about religion, even Christianity, as might be expected.
(see As it turns out, knowledge may be more important than we realize, at least based on our readings today. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me,” says God through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 4:6). In the book of Acts Paul is surrounded by a mob intent on killing him. When Roman troops arrive to break up the riot they are not able to discover what is happening. “Some in the crowd shouted one thing (against Paul), some another; and as (the Roman Tribunal) could not learn the facts because of the uproar he ordered (Paul) to be brought into the barracks” (Acts 21:34). Jesus, too, is confronted by a need for knowledge. Over and over again he is challenged over his or his disciples’ actions on the Sabbath. But Jesus continues to redefine what God intends the Sabbath to be.

Not preparing or informing ourselves can lead to a number of negative consequences. Spiritual alienation from God and one another is just one example of where we may end up if we don’t take the time to learn and appreciate what God is saying to us. As a minister, I feel a special sense of urgency in this matter. To a certain extent it is my responsibility to make sure people have the knowledge they need to function best as Christians. When I fail to convey the message adequately then things begin to break down. The challenge, of course, is to strive to know God better, in study, prayer, worship, contemplation, conversation, and a spirit of openness and trust in what God is saying. And it isn’t just about knowing the answers to the questions. As any high school algebra teacher can tell you, it is really all about applying what you know to the circumstances of life. The Pharisees knew the laws pertaining to the Sabbath, they just didn’t understand what it all meant. That’s why Jesus had to redefine it for them.

In the modern era of religion, with technology and information so readily available, it is more important than ever to make sure that we are learning, and that we are applying what we learn to the glory of God. We’ve simply got to take the time.

Prayer: O God, forgive us when we will not learn, when we allow knowledge to pass us by, and when we refuse to share what we do know. Help us to become better prepared for life in your terms, O Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Real Dr. Love

Hosea 3:1-5
Luke 5:27-39
With apologies to the rock band Kiss, I think our readings from Hosea and Luke teach us something about love that the band’s song (and current Dr. Pepper commercial jingle) “Calling Dr. Love” can’t even begin to touch. In Luke Jesus calls a tax collector named Levi to become a disciple (Luke 5:27-28). Levi then holds a banquet in Jesus’ honor to which other tax collectors and “sinners” were invited (v. 31). When the Pharisees raise concern over the type of people with whom Jesus associates Jesus replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (v. 32). Jesus is not excluding the Pharisees from his circle, they are essentially excluding themselves by failing to recognize the love of God in Jesus’ actions. And what about Hosea? At God’s direction he had already married the prostitute Gomer. Now he must buy her back, out of adultery and prostitution, and with love and discipline demonstrate his devotion to her. This, of course, is symbolic of God’s love and devotion for a wayward people, Israel, who have gone after idols and other gods and who now, with judgment based in love, will be “bought back” by God.

Of course, Kiss is not the only group or individual to misrepresent love. We see it movies and on TV all the time. Romantic love seems to equate exclusively with sex. Love for our enemies, for those in need, even for our neighbor seems like a quaint notion reserved for “religious types.” But Jesus, and Hosea before him, makes very clear that love for others should be neither quaint nor drenched in hedonism. God’s love is the kind of love that seeks out tax collectors and sinners and says “Follow me. Leave your sinfulness behind and I will show you a better way of life, one worth sharing with others, one with purpose and meaning, one that safeguards dignity and values the other as a child of God.”

While most people of faith have little trouble dismissing songs like “Dr. Love” as indicative of nothing but sex, we still must guard against going too far in the other direction such as limiting those with whom we associate, as if God’s love is only for the pure of heart and the blameless. In such circumstances we forget that we, too, are prone to sin and in need God’s healing love. Thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ we find a physician whose love overwhelms us all.

Prayer: Lord, help us to accept your healing love and to share it with others so that the circle of faith may grow and your light be shared with all people. Amen.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

God's Choice

Hosea 2:16-23
Acts 21:1-14
Luke 5:12-26
The words of the leper in Luke 5 are an example of sincere faith. “Lord,” he says to Jesus, “if you choose, you can make me clean” (Luke 5:12). Jesus does choose to make the man clean just as he chooses to forgive the sins of the paralytic later in the chapter, and then to heal this man as well. “Lord, if you choose…” In Acts the same sentiment is expressed, though in slightly different words. The apostle Paul is determined to go to Jerusalem and face whatever may happen there, even over the objections of his friends. “Since he would not be persuaded,” says Acts, “we remained silent except to say, ‘The Lord’s will be done’” (Acts 21:14). Lord, if you choose… The Lord’s will be done… in each case there is a willingness to allow God to work as God sees fit, because God can!

The prophet Hosea looks at a nation full of idolatry and far removed from its own God. And yet this same prophet can affirm God’s intention to “make for (Israel) a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground…” (Hosea 2:18). War will cease and all people will live in peace and safety. How can this happen among such faithless and fickle people? Lord, if you choose… The Lord’s will be done… The prophet knows that God will because God can!

What problems do we see in our world? What circumstances seem beyond hope? What difficulties lie in our path? Is there nothing that can be done about the violence that erupts so often? Is there nothing that can be done about human divisiveness and isolation? Is there no healing to be found for the ill? Is there no hope to be offered to the lonely? There is: Lord, if you choose… The Lord’s will be done… We, like the prophet, like the man with leprosy, like the friends of the paralytic, like Paul’s companions, may lay claim to the good news that God will because God can address our needs with mercy and grace! It may not be exactly what we want. It may not be exactly the way we saw things happening in our own mind, but the truth is that faith in God is never misplaced. God’s choice is to stand in relationship with God’s people, to hold us accountable, but also to meet our needs in ways that only God can know. God chooses. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Almighty God, may we be guided to trust in you and your love for us, that all the days of our lives may be lived in faithfulness. When we falter, Lord, give us the courage to move ahead. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fighting Spiritual ADD

Hosea 2:2-15
Acts 20:17-38
Luke 5:1-11
What a contrast we find between the Old Testament reading from Hosea, and the two New Testament readings from Luke and Acts! In the words of the prophet God laments that Israel has played the whore with idols and other gods. As a result, “She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them” (Hosea 2:7). But in Luke’s account Simon Peter, James, and John are called to fish for people as followers of Jesus. And “when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). And finally, in telling his friends from Ephesus goodbye, Paul affirms that he did not “count (his) life of any value” as long as he could finish the ministry given to him by the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:24).

The actions of Paul and the disciples do not indicate that all of God’s people have given up their idolatry, nor will these individuals themselves escape from their own sins entirely. But the invitation that Jesus offers, the one accepted by fishermen and Pharisee alike, is to be transformed from worldly concerns to those of the coming reign of God. Wherever their emphasis may have been placed, whether worshipping idols, running a successful business, or persecuting the church, Jesus called these men—and thus all people––to refocus on what is really important, and to give up everything else.

This is not an easy call to accept. We all know this because we all have our idols and our lives are distracted by many things, a sort of spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder. The good news is that God has no such ailment. God’s gaze remains firmly fixed on us, on our lives, on our needs, on our feeble efforts. The call to discipleship isn’t really about giving up. It’s about waking up, and seeing the good news all around us. In Jesus we are freed to live life the way it was intended. And while we will struggle mightily with that call, God remains steadfast in faithful mercy towards us.

Prayer: O God, help us to focus our lives on you and your will so that we will not be distracted by the idols that are so common in our world. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Clash of Cultures

Esther 8:1-8, 15-17
Acts 19:21-41
Luke 4:31-37
The continuing story in the book of Esther shows how the queen’s actions helped to save her people from destruction. In a clash of wills between Esther and Haman, she was more than up to the challenge. But this is not the only clash we read about today. Our reading from Luke this morning tells the story of Jesus healing a man who is possessed. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” shouts the demon. “Have you come to destroy us?” (Luke 4:34). Indeed he has, and Jesus proceeds to send the demon away from the man. The crowd that witnessed these events was amazed. Clearly Jesus was up to the challenge of healing and casting out the powers of evil.

The Esther and Luke accounts are insightful, but it is in Acts that today’s scriptures “quit preaching and go to meddling.” The silversmiths of Ephesus and all the artisans who made their living from the temple to the Greek goddess Artemis were distressed by the words and actions of Paul and his followers. They could tell that if everyone became Christian and gave up idol worship there would be no more business for them. And this is where the clash of ideals really hits home in our case because in our world today there are any number of situations where the Christian faith calls us away from our chosen lifestyles, from our business practices, from our interests and proclivities. It may be as simple as a desire to play golf on Sunday mornings, or as complicated as earning a paycheck from a corporation that uses questionable business practices. If everyone was a Christian, or rather, if everyone looked at life from a Christian perspective and lived by Christian teachings a wide range of human activities would have to be reexamined. The choices we make politically, the products we buy at the store, the programs we watch on TV, the way our society embraces sports, the love of money and success, the unbridled lust and desire that guide so many of us, all of these and so many more demand our attention. If what Paul says is true, if what the Bible says is true, then there are a number of changes that really need to take place in our lives and in our world. The clash of cultures is very telling. Jesus’ lordship means nothing if it is not total. The question is, whose side are we on, and what are we willing to do about it?

Prayer: Lord, help us to let go of our idols and to focus our lives on you so that we may live in faithful obedience. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Finding the Spirit

Note: The readings in today's blog are actually those intended for yesterday, September 21, 2010. I apologize for getting a day ahead of myself.

Acts 19:1-10
Luke 4:1-13
There is no formal Doctrine of the Trinity to be found in scripture. Even Paul makes no real effort (that we know of) to define how God can be three persons and yet One. But our readings today from Luke and Acts attest to the importance of taking the entire witness of scripture into account, especially when it comes to the work of God. Luke tells us that Jesus, though the Son of God, is nonetheless guided by the Holy Spirit. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…” (Luke 4:1). In Acts, “(Paul) said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’” (Acts 19:2). As Luke and Acts are believed to have been written by the same person, we can see that the writer has a very strong sense of God’s work through the Spirit. It is a form of guidance for Jesus as well as a sense of purpose. The Spirit is also a conveyor of gifts to those who would follow God in Christ. One does not know God fully until one knows of the Holy Spirit, and one is enabled to endure when one trusts in the same Spirit.

I know that in my own life it is very easy to focus on God in fairly narrow terms. I lose track of the full majesty that God demonstrates when I think only in terms of God the Creator, or of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. There are so many ways that God has chosen to be known by people and none of them is more appropriate than any of the others. In this way our relationship with God resembles a balance diet. Without drawing on all three aspects of God’s person we may suffer a spiritual deficiency, or be too limited in our perception of the glory of God and therefore not able to respond to God’s claim on our lives as fully as we should.

One way to challenge our limitedness is to intentionally address God in a variety of ways over the course of a day or week. If we only ever pray to God as ”Father” or “Lord” or “Savior” we may be missing out on many other ways that grace is manifest in our lives. We may be missing out on a balanced spiritual diet.

Prayer: O, God, great Three-in-One, bless our lives with better vision, that we may see you at work in the world more clearly and that we may be able to follow you more steadfastly. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Prevailing Mightily

Note: The readings on today's blog are actually the readings for tomorrow, September 23, 2010. I apologize for getting ahead of myself.

Acts 19:11-20
Luke 4:14-30
Today’s readings from Acts and Luke stand as brackets on either side of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Before his passion Jesus teaches with “gracious words in Nazareth (Luke 4:22). Not only does he lay claim to the prophecy of Isaiah as his own ministry, but he goes so far as to proclaim that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). This is the speech of one with authority and with power. Later, when the crowd has become enraged and would throw him off of a cliff, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and when on his way” (v. 30). Here, too, Jesus displays his God-given authority. After his resurrection and ascension, even after Pentecost and the birth of the church, Jesus is still one with authority and power. According to Acts in Ephesus “the word of Lord grew mightily and prevailed” (Acts 19:20). Paul may be an instrument of this work, but Jesus is the one who grants the actual healing. The events of Holy Week and Easter have in no way diminished Jesus’ ability to change lives and to make the truth of God’s reign known.

But the stories from Acts are so old. Much of what we read there seems implausible to modern readers, if not impossible. Can Jesus Christ really make a difference today? Is the ministry as defined by Isaiah still in effect? Or have the power and authority of Jesus weakened until they no longer really exist? I understand questions like these. And I don’t blame the people who ask them. But I also believe that the grace of God in Jesus Christ is an active presence in the world today and that it appears in a multitude of ways. Imperfect people like us, and even the imperfect communities of faith to which we belong, demonstrate the work of God through Jesus Christ in extraordinary ways. The challenge is to keep our eyes on what God is doing in and through the world, and not to get bogged down by the disappointments and the failures. This is easy to say, I know. But the challenge of discipleship is to believe that Jesus Christ is at work even now and to seek ways to be involved in that work never giving up hope in the one who died to set all people free from sin and death. Whether it be in Luke’s gospel or from the pages of Acts, the Jesus we encounter in scripture is the same Jesus who is loose in the world today and in whom we find hope and healing. Jesus is prevailing mightily in our world and will continue to do so.

Prayer: Lord, when our confidence fades and our hope seems lost, remind us that your power and might are still present to us and help us to live into your coming reign. Amen.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Always More to Learn

Acts 18:12-28
Luke 3:15-22
I admire Apollos. Here is a man “well-versed in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24), with a “burning enthusiasm” who teaches “accurately the things concerning Jesus” (v. 25). “But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately” (v. 26). Apollos, for his part, was willing to listen and apparently eager to learn. There is always more to learn, always more to the story, always another way that the good news can touch us and heal us and guide us. John the Baptist also offers a “more accurate” message, this to the people who flock to hear him. Not only do they need to repent—live as wheat and not as chaff (Luke 3:17)—but they also must recognize that John is not the one they are seeking. “I baptize with water;” he tells them, “but one who is more powerful that I is coming…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (v. 16).

One of the things that constantly surprises me is the fact that on Sundays such as Easter and Pentecost, with a limited number of texts to draw from––texts that that have been read on those days for centuries—there is always a fresh word, a new application, a more accurate way to hear what God is saying. Is the word changing? No, not really. But we are. Our lives are in a constant state of flux yet the word of God remains relevant to our needs. There are only four Easter accounts in scripture, and only one passage that really depicts Pentecost, yet we return to them again and again for meaning and hope and encouragement, all of which we find.

This is one reason why the people of God must remain attentive to God’s word. To quit wrestling with the scriptures is to assume that God has said everything God intends to say which is simply not true. The Holy Spirit still pulses through the pages of the Bible offering up new truths for our day and beyond. Apollos knows he has more to learn. John shows the people that they have more learning to do. So do you and I. There is always more to learn, but it takes time and it takes a willing spirit.

Prayer: Lord, give us hearts and minds set upon your word that we may continue to grow in our knowledge and appreciation of your love and that we may live lives of faithful discipleship. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Sea of Changes

Esther 4:4-17
Each of our readings today contains a significant and noteworthy transformation, what Shakespeare calls a “sea change” (The Tempest, I. ii. 403). In Esther a pliant, child-like niece is transformed into a Queen and the deliverer of her people. When her uncle Mordecai tells her that she may have “come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14) Esther begins to issue instructions and to formulate a plan. This verse comes as close as any in the book to revealing the presence of God. In fact, we may assume that God has begun to work through Esther at this point to bring about God’s will in the midst of God’s people.

Acts 18:1-11
Another sea change takes place with Paul’s words, “From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6). Paul had been rebuffed by the majority of Jews in Corinth (v. 6). So Paul sets his sights elsewhere. Not only does this mark a change in Paul’s ministry, but also a change for the Christian movement in general. Not long before Peter had still claimed the role of missionary to the Gentiles (15:6-7), but from now on it is Paul who will take on this role. Indeed, through the rest of the book Paul moves even more to the front and center as the gospel continues to spread.

Luke 1:1-4, 3:1-14
John the Baptist’s call to repentance plays a key role in the early story of Jesus’ ministry which is, of course, the greatest sea change of all. Interestingly John’s message is not one of impractical asceticism, but of real repentance, real “turning around.” If someone is in need share from your abundance. If you are a tax collector collect only what you are due. If you are a soldier be satisfied with your wages and do not extort others. These challenges are reasonable and yet they mark a profound change in the lives of those who accept them.

What does all of this change mean to us? It means that we can expect God to move us in unexpected directions, to challenge our comfortable notions, to draw more from us than we knew we had to give. Esther might never have known how decisive and determined she could be until she was challenged by Mordecai. Paul and the early church both found new definition and a new audience that might never have been fully reached without Paul’s realization. And John the Baptist’s audience might never have known the practicality of social justice had he not come to prepare the way of the Lord. How will God challenge you and me today? And how will we respond?

Prayer: Help us to discover in ourselves the resources we need to serve you and others in an ever-changing world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, September 17, 2010

All In An Uproar

Esther 1:1-4, 10-19
Acts 17:1-15
John 12: 36b-43
Our three passages today offer stories of conflict or disagreement. A queen refuses a request from her king and is about to be removed. The earliest Christians can’t proclaim the gospel without severe opposition forming, no matter where they go. And even Jesus is met with tepid response or outright unbelief which, according to John, is to fulfill the words of Isaiah. So what’s going on and why the uproar? Isn’t the Bible supposed to be good news?

The Bible is good news. But the world isn’t always a settled, peaceful place. In fact, there always seems to be some source of turmoil somewhere. Illness, wars, disputes, broken homes, crime, economic woes, and worse are constants in our lives and it’s been that way throughout human history. So part of the relevance of scripture is that it, too, contains upheaval and unrest. The Bible isn’t just about still waters and places of rest. It is also about human frailties, about the effects of sin, about the horrors of war, about these and so many other problems that confront us. And while it may not seem so at first, if we pay attention we will see that God’s word is just as meaningful (and maybe more so) in the face of opposition and unrest as it is during times of calm. When I find myself facing turmoil in my life or in the lives of those I love, I can turn to scripture and be reminded that God never gets lost in the shuffle, that grace remains potent and that there is no shortage of love on God’s part.

So, if God is so powerful and grace-filled why is there unrest in the first place, why wars and death, why disagreement and divorce? That all comes from the human side of the equation, from our freewill and our poor choices. There are consequences to what we do or don’t do. And yet, through it all, God refuses to give up on us. A new queen, Esther, will rise to protect her people. Paul and Silas and Timothy move on to new cities and find people who are receptive to their message. Jesus is faithfully obedient, even unto death, that we might be saved from sins. No, God is powerful and grace-filled. So while life presents us with plenty of reasons to be angry, God remains even more steadfast in offering us hope.

Prayer: Lord, help us to see the goodness that comes from knowing you and to trust you during times of unrest in our world and in our homes. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mining for Wisdom

Job 28:1-28
John 12:27-36a
“But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” asks Job (Job 28:12). That’s a question I suspect we all ask from time to time. In fact, I think I must ask it several times a day. Where can wisdom be found? Where is understanding? Why do things seem so mixed up in our world and why does no one seem to have the tools necessary to deal with it all? In his collection entitled Chicago Poems Carl Sandburg included the work “Happiness.”

I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them…

And as recently as the late 70’s singer Elvis Costello asked, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” He was speaking for a generation of people who had become very disillusioned.

This is why the first several verses from the Job reading today seem so appropriate to me. The struggle to find wisdom and understanding in our lives can be very much like mining for precious metals or gems. Sometimes we must go to out of the way places, or wrestle with difficult ideas, or strain our eyes (or the eyes of our minds) to see what is not readily apparent. But like miners, if we will continue to work and to struggle and to exert the energy we begin to find ourselves enriched by the results, and sometimes in very unexpected ways. The object, of course, is to be come faithfully obedient to God’s will. “While you have the light,” says Jesus, “believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” (John 12:36a). Keep working with scripture, mining the rich veins of spiritual gold and watching for precious gyms of insight. Continue to tread the familiar ground of “old favorites”: Psalms 23 and 121, Micah 6:6-8, John 3:16. But be willing to search in the places that are unfamiliar to you as well, for “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Ultimately Job offers the answers to the questions. “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). But to do these things, to learn to fear (or respect) God and to learn how not to do evil are both worth the effort.

Prayer: O God, give us minds to comprehend the depth of your word that it may guide us all our days and help and comfort us throughout our lives. Amen.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Teachable Moments

Acts 16:16-24
John 12:20-26
My son taught me a valuable lesson once when he was about 5. We were driving along when we saw a beautiful rainbow perched above our town. Being the dad that I am I began to explain to my son how sunshine passing through rain causes the light to refract and to display the various colors that it contains. My son grew serious.

“No, Daddy,” he said. “The rainbow didn’t come until the rain had stopped.” He was talking, of course, about the Noah account from Genesis 9, a lesson that he had studied in Sunday School. And while from a strictly scientific viewpoint he was wrong, in terms of faith he was exactly right. It was a teachable moment in which I was the student.

I thought about that conversation with my son when I read our passage from John. Some Greeks have come with the desire to meet Jesus. Jesus instead takes the opportunity to teach his disciples about the cost of discipleship and the events that are about to take place in Jerusalem (John 12:23-24). The whole world seems to be catching on, figuring out that Jesus is up to something special. But Jesus wants to make sure that the disciples at least get the correct message so that when his death and resurrection take place they can look back on his teaching and understand.

In the Acts passage for today Paul gets tired of being “called out” by a slave girl with a spirit of divination. So he drives the spirit out of her. At first this seems like a strange thing to do. At least she knows what she is talking about. She knows that Paul, Silas and the others “are slaves of the Most High God” (Acts 16:17). Is it really so bad to have her saying this? But Paul sees a teachable moment, “and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out of her that very hour” (v. 18). Now the words of the slave girl have been amplified by the actions of Paul, and any who had witnessed this will have a clearer understanding of the forces at work.

Teachable moments can pop up at any time. A 5-year-old boy may set you straight on rainbows and faith, or a Bible story may make things a little clearer for you. Pay attention. These moments are important, and they just may contain the answers to prayer.

Prayer: Lord, help us to learn from the teachable moments that overtake us. Pour out your Spirit upon us and open our hearts and minds to your truth. Amen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The World Turned Upside Down

John 12:9-19
As an American I grew up believing that when British troops surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia they marched out to the tune “The World Turned Upside Down.” I’ve since learned that this story, like so many others, was too good, or perhaps too appropriate, to be true. No one knows what, if any, tune was played that day as the defeated soldiers put down their arms. John’s gospel, however, presents us with another moment in time when the song “The World Turned Upside Down” would have been almost too appropriate. Indeed, one can almost hear it in the background as one Pharisee turns to another and says, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him” (John 12:19). The “him” in this case is Jesus, of course, and the event to which the Pharisees refer is Palm Sunday.

At the moment the Pharisees needn’t worry. What on Sunday looks like a groundswell of popular support for Jesus will dissipate by Friday of that same week. But the sentiment is apt. What Jesus presents is so radical and stunning that it is difficult for many to accept as God-given. And yet it is God-given. Jesus is the Son of God and in his ministry, as in his entry into Jerusalem, we find a new understanding or retelling of God’s will. Everything God has done has led up to this moment, but the folks who should appreciate it the most are looking in a different direction. They are as surprised as anyone to see that “the world has gone after (Jesus).”

The Pharisees’ misunderstanding remains a danger for us today. Just when we think we know what God is doing and maybe even why, just when we have proof text-ed our way to a sense of righteousness or maybe complacency, we are likely to be shaken by a startling new understanding. How could we have missed it? we might ask one another. And suddenly we might hear the faint whisper of “The World Turned Upside Down” coming from somewhere in the distance. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to expect the unexpected, to allow for the unallowable. Otherwise we will find ourselves telling God what to do, and not the other way around. Things change, sometimes radically, sometimes slowly, but in any case God continues to challenge us and to surprise us. A baby in a manger, a Son on a tree, an empty tomb, the Spirit run amok…what’s next? Whatever it is we’ll probably feel a little dizzy. That’s what happens when the world turns over.

Prayer: Lord, help us to welcome the new things you do and to live in expectation and hope of your coming reign. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tension and Transition

Job 40:1-24
Acts 15:36-16:1
John 11:53-12:8
There are arguments and disagreements sprinkled throughout all of our passages today. They begin with Job whose complaints against God elicit a pointed response. “Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” God asks (Job 40:8). I believe we may safely assume this to be a rhetorical question. In the reading from Acts Paul and Barnabas have a falling out over the presence of Mark. “The disagreement became so sharp,” Acts tell us, “that they parted company…” (Acts 15:39). Finally in the gospel of John, not only are the chief priests and Pharisees plotting to kill Jesus (John 11:57), but when Mary anoints Jesus with a costly perfume Judas strongly objects (12:11). Then Jesus reacts just as strongly against Judas’s words (v. 7). Whew. So much conflict in so few verses.

But consider this. Job is on the path to a greater understanding of God’s relationship with humanity at this time of conflict. And after Paul and Barnabas parts ways in Acts Paul and Silas encounter Timothy who becomes a integral part of Paul’s ministry. And in John Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem and his impending passion. Sometimes tension and conflict are the catalysts that cause growth. Sometimes transition comes with pain. Sometimes finding the new thing in God’s plan means a sharp break with the old thing that has gone before. Sometimes is takes a lot to kill our faulty assumptions. Sometimes we must experience the wilderness before we may arrive at the promise.

I would never suggest that all change requires pain, or that conflict is always an indications of God’s work. I do want to suggest that there are those times when we have got to let go of what makes us comfortable (or what we think makes us comfortable) in order to find that place where God intends us to be. And whatever the case, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8, God is fully capable of working through any circumstances—indeed nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:28, 39). So we should trust in God as we move along, always looking for the next sign of grace that will remind us of God’s abiding presence.

Prayer: Thanks be to the God of hope, who, even in the midst of the most trying of times, is at work to bring about the divine will. Lord, help us to live with patience and openness to those times of transition that we may also be open to those around you and may offer help and comfort to others as they pass through their own wildernesses.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Unbind Him and Let Him Go"

Acts 15:12-21
John 11:30-44
In the readings for today from Acts and from John we find Jesus and James making similar statements though in much different situations. In Acts, James concludes the discussion in Jerusalem about how to include gentile Christians—those who have not converted from Judaism—into the church. He cites some very specific prohibitions, based in large part on their universality. Furthermore, he says, for centuries these words have been read aloud on the Sabbath in every city, meaning that it is not unreasonable that even gentiles would have heard them and recognized their value (Acts 15:21). In doing this, James frees gentiles Christians from other proscriptions of the law, like circumcision. Unbound now, in a way, these believers are free to live as full participants in the life of the community.

When Lazarus responds to Jesus call to come out of the tomb he is still dressed as a corpse for burial, that is, with hands and feet bound and his face covered with a sheet. “Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus says to the bystanders (John 11:44). And in doing so Jesus frees Lazarus from the snare of death—for a while—and sets him free to live as God intends him to live.

How do these words apply to you and me? First of all, like the gentile believers and Lazarus, too, we have been freed from the bonds that have clung tightly to us, so tightly that we can hardly move nor see where we are going. And secondly, in light of our salvation we are now free to live as new beings—like the new Christians that the gentiles became, and with the newness of life that Lazarus had before him. In the film “V For Vendetta” much is made of the fact that once one has stepped close to death there is no longer a need to fear it. I would suggest that for Lazarus, at least, once one has stepped so closely to new life there is no need to fear life or death any longer. In Jesus Christ we, like Lazarus and the gentile converts before us, have been unbound and set free.

Prayer: Lord, many things weigh us down and cause us to stumble. Help us to let go of all that binds us, and help us to become the people you have created us to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Change in Perspective

Job 29:1, 31:1-23
Acts 15:1-11
John 11:17-29
There is a fascinating change in perspective that we can trace through our readings for today. It begins with Job who offers an extensive list of all the sins he has not committed and his willingness to suffer certain calamities if he has. Job is making a further case for his righteousness before God. Has he not been above reproach? If he has somehow failed may he suffer the consequences. But things change by the time we reach our reading from Acts. There the understanding of salvation has been completely redefined. In his comments before the gathering of believers in Jerusalem Peter reminds his listeners that they themselves were unable to bear the yoke of the law. Why should they expect gentile converts to bear that same yoke? “We (Jewish Christians) will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he says, “just as they (gentile Christians) will” (Acts 15:11).

The point is driven home by Jesus’ very familiar—and comforting—words to Martha in John’s gospel. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Jesus, then, is the change in perspective, the new way of seeing things that allows us to live in the light of grace. We are still expected to live in faithful obedience, but now we are guided by the love of God in Jesus Christ, the one who was willing to die for our sins that we might be saved from them. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: O God, help us to live in faithfulness to you that we may share the light of truth and grace to the world. Amen.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Conversation Continues

Job 29:1, 30:1-2, 16-31
Acts 14:19-28
John 11:1-16
Job is suffering greatly, and after a lengthy description of his condition he says, profoundly, “my lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep” (Job 30:31). But Job is still speaking, not only to his companions, but also to God. The lines of communication are buzzing with anger and pain, but they are still buzzing, and that means there is still the opportunity for grace and hope. Paul and Barnabas, too, have had a rough time. In fact, Paul has been left for dead after a stoning. But upon being revived he is able to offer encouragement to those who follow the way as disciples, saying, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Here, too, the conversation continues, in this case the gospel message being offered despite the setbacks, offered to believers and the world at large as well. And how many times might Jesus himself have given up? How many times might he have said, “forget it. These people are never going to catch on. Why bother?” But instead of giving up Jesus continues to plug away, even when his life is in danger, even when those around him are having a terribly difficult time understanding it? In each case, be it between God and humanity, among believers, or between Jesus and his disciples.

How are we doing? Are we allowing the conversation between God and the world to continue. Are we playing our part, even in difficult times or situations? Or are we allowing the conversation to die, drowned out by bad news or lost among apathetic expressions like, “what difference does it make, anyway?” The difference is this, that there are vital and important words to be spoken and a life-changing God who remains at work. To let even our part of the conversation die is to turn out backs on the work of the coming reign of God. To let it die is to deny its power to change men and women and to build new foundations in the world. How could we do that? Instead we should take the words of Job and Paul as our own words. To speak out of love, but honestly and frankly, with God and neighbor is a great way to repair connections and to break down dividing walls. And we must continue to trust in Jesus as with compassion he tends to us, despite our hardheadedness.

Prayer: Lord, we confess that we find it too easy to give up and to become silent instead of living boldly as your witnesses. Give us words to speak and the courage with which to use them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

God v. "gods"

Acts 14:1-18
John 10:31-42
The irony that arises between these two passages is that while Jesus is challenged over his comments concerning the Son of God, the crowds in Lystra are all too eager to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas believing them to be gods come to earth. In John, Jesus lays claim to his identity. In Acts, Paul and Barnabas are barely able to restrain the crowds from committing idolatry.

The point here may be that God is forever having to correct human perspective, having to refocus our attention from what we want or hope or believe to be true to what is in fact truthful. Jesus is not committing blasphemy as is alleged, and he is able to point to scripture and his God-empowered work to demonstrate who he is. Likewise, Paul and Barnabas are not claiming to be gods, they are simply doing the work of God in the name of Jesus Christ. In each case the audience is in danger of missing the point.

Of course we know who Jesus is, and we know that Paul and Barnabas are not gods. But before we become too confident in our righteousness we should remember the many other examples of poor perspective and lost focus that creep into our lives. Prejudice often springs from the belief that one social class or race or nationality is greater than another. Laws or practices based on such ideas may lead us away from God’s will instead of leading us toward it. Nor is idolatry limited to worshiping statues of gold or silver. Anything that we allow to stand between ourselves and our relationship with God is an idol, and there are any number of such things in our lives. Our view of natural resources may be guided by the assumption that the world is ours to use as we please while in fact “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). How easily our vision can become poorly focused!

The good news is that God continues to work in the lives of men and women and within communities and congregations to refocus and reprioritize our living. The call to discipleship might be understood as a call for a spiritual eye exam with the word of God and the life of God’s people as the corrective lenses. There are still ample opportunities for us to see clearly and to live justly. But we’ll have to set our sights on the one God and not “the gods” who can seem so attractive.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live according to your will and not our own. And help us to see things according to your word and not according to the world. Amen.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Speaking of Jesus

Job 32:1-10, 19-33:1, 19-28
Acts 13:44-52
John 10:19-30
There is an interesting thread running through the passages today. In each case words or speech play an important role, only the character or tone of the speech changes according to the setting. In Acts, “…both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly…” (Acts 13:46), while according to one commentator Job’s companion Elihu is “bombastic and prolix” in his remarks (Oxford Annotated Study Bible, Job 32:1-33:7 n.).

These descriptions remind me of a song by the band the Police:

Poets, priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for your submission
And no one's jamming their transmission

Indeed, words are a very powerful weapon for a gifted speaker. Human history is full of examples of words that have inspired both noble actions and despicable ones. Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death” speech played an important role in America independence. But Adolph Hitler proved equally effective in rousing hatred and violence with his well-crafted hate speech. Whether bold or bombastic and prolix these are all human words.

This is why one subtle comment by Jesus is so telling. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Being called a sheep is usually not a compliment. In human terms sheep are considered timid, apt to be frightened easily, and prone to a mob mentality. For Jesus, however, the term sheep is one of endearment: those who follow him with trust and loyalty are the sheep to which he is referring. Instead of being led by human words and worldly expressions, Jesus’ sheep are attracted only to his voice and to his way. Our calling, then, even when we hear the likes of Paul, or Barnabas, or our favorite contemporary preacher, is to listen behind the words, as it were, for the voice of Jesus calling us into a right relationship with God.

Prayer: Lord, help us to hear your word in the midst of all the other voices that call to us. And may we be lead as your sheep to follow you in faithful obedience. Amen.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Job 19:1-7, 14-27
John 9:18-41
I want to be careful and not oversimplify the connection between these two passages. The fact is that that they each contain some difficult ideas. But they also contain some similar themes that seem to resonate. Job offers a great affirmation of trust in his ultimate vindication. “I know that my Redeemer lives,” he says, “and that at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). Unfortunately this section of the passage is difficult to translate with any certainty, so among other things we do not know exactly who it is that Job considers his “Redeemer.” And what’s more, the word translated as “Redeemer” (Hebrew: goel) may be better understood as “Vindicator” (Oxford Annotated Study Bible, Job 19:25-27 n). No matter, whether the Redeemer/Vindicator is human, of the heavenly court, or even God, Job anticipates victory for his cause. Eventually he will stand in God’s presence and will receive justice. Coming as this does in the midst of Job’s torment, it is truly a startling comment. Job knows that there is justice to be had and that no matter how loathsome his condition he has recourse.

John’s account deals with the aftermath of Jesus healing a man of his blindness. Because the healing occurred on a Sabbath the religious leaders were upset. And though his parents are unwilling to get involved in the matter, the healed man himself is adamant. He might as well have quoted Job to the religious leaders: “I know that my Redeemer/Vindicator lives.” When pushed to defend his answer the healed man answers, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:33). Coming in the midst of his conflict with the authorities this, too, is quite an affirmation. Not only has Jesus healed this man, but he has given the man the courage to state his convictions with clarity and poise. Later when they meet again the healed man makes his affirmation more precise, “Lord, I believe.” “And he worshipped him,” John adds (v.37).

We have a million choices to make every day, a million different things clamoring for our attention, our loyalty, our affirmation. Job and the man healed of his blindness each offer examples of people who made difficult choices at trying times, who followed their hearts and not the cajoling of others. We have a lot to learn from these men about courage and conviction.

Prayer: Lord, it is not always easy to affirm our faith. But by your grace we are your people. Bless us even when we are fickle, and guide us when we are lost. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How Blind Are We?

Job 16:16-22, 17:1, 13-16
Acts 13:1-12
John 9:1-17
Sight plays an important role in each of our readings today. Job speaks of laying his couch in the darkness of Sheol where The Pit will be his father and the worm his mother or sister (Job 17:13-15). In John, Jesus heals a man of blindness but does so on the Sabbath (John 7:13=15). And Acts tells the story of Paul causing a blindness to fall on a false prophet named Bar-Jesus who is seeking to block the spread of the gospel (Acts 13:11-12), whereupon the Roman Proconsul becomes a believer. Different circumstances, different conditions of sight.

Often, of course, scripture uses sight as a metaphor for faith or righteousness. Job wishes to enter oblivion and be removed from his constant torment. Paul is dramatizing Bar-Jesus’ refusal to “see” the truth. In John Jesus heals a man, but in doing so points to the “blindness” of the religious leaders of the day who are more concerned about strict adherence to the law than mercy and compassion. It’s all a little confusing isn’t it?

The fact is, even those of us who are blessed with sight have “blind spots,” issues or concerns or perspectives that can blur or obscure our vision of the truth as God presents it. Imagine being on the top of the Empire State Building (I have and it nearly scared me to death). Suppose, though, that instead of seeing the entirety of Manhattan and parts of News Jersey you could only see as through a narrow silt: a few streets; some birds; or maybe a fraction of the water surrounding the island. If we’re not careful we may find ourselves approaching life the same way, seeing or accepting only a fraction of all that God has given us or only a bit of what God is doing in our world. The challenge for us is to recognize out lack of vision, however it may manifest itself, and to turn the whole thing over to God for healing. Only when our vision has been corrected spiritually can we move forward, “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

Prayer: Oh Lord, open out eyes, that your grace may become visible all around us and we are able to discern your will and follow your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ. In whose name we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Says Who?

Acts 12:18-25
Herod is a king. But when he appears in public to address the people of Tyre and Sidon they flatter him with the words, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” (Acts 12:22) As a result Herod is struck down with a deadly illness—a fact attested to by other sources (Oxford Annotated Study Bible, John 12:20-23n). In human terms, of course, Herod would probably would have done just fine as a god. His whereabouts are readily known, he has the power to kill (as with the prison guards [v. 19]) and to sustain (as with the food for the people of Tyre and Sidon [v. 20]), but most of all he is susceptible to flattery, which can come in very handy if you need to manipulate your deity. But these are not the factors that define God. Indeed it is impossible for us to define God, especially in human terms. Try as we might, God is beyond our ability to set limits or to draw up images. And, as in the case with Herod, the minute we think we have a picture of God (or of a god) we have committed a form of idolatry. Who says that Herod is a god? The people do. But before we condemn them for their shortsightedness we had best make sure we aren’t committing idolatry ourselves.

John 8:47-59
“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Jesus is speaking to a group whom John refers to as “the Jews” (vv. 52, 57). And thought they are about to stone Jesus for blasphemy he leaves them and goes on his way. Unlike Herod, of course, Jesus does not fit the model of gods in human terms, so when he claims the sacred name of God (I am) for himself he causes great consternation. Jesus is God, but he gives glory to the Father and takes none for himself. He knows where all of this will lead him, but he does it anyway—again, not very “god-like”. Who says Jesus is God? The Father does, and so do we who would be Jesus’ disciples. But we must constantly struggle to embrace Jesus’ message of self-sacrifice and faithful obedience, even if the world says we’ve picked a lousy “god”.

Prayer: Almighty God, help us to live in obedience to you and your Son and to resist the claim worthless idols on our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.