Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who Will Lead Us Through the Wilderness?

Acts 8:26-40
If you ever doubted the importance of teaching and education to the life of the church then our reading from Acts for today should convince you. It is the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian by Philip. As the African rides along in his chariot he reads aloud from the Hebrew scriptures. “So Philip ran up to it (the chariot) and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him” (Acts 8:30-31).

“How can I (understand), unless someone guides me?” Often the words of scripture can appear like a trackless region with no clear direction. The fact that Philip met the Ethiopian on a wilderness road may be symbolic of this fact. Left to his own effort the Ethiopian might never have found the truth contained in the Bible, or upon encountering it not understand it. But when given proper guidance by Philip he grasped the meaning of God’s word. Eventually he way his through the complexities to the good news of Jesus Christ. The same is true in our day as well. This is not to say that Bible study is easy. It is difficult work. Nor is there ever an end to the process. Even those who teach need continual refreshing, need to remain connected to the source, as it were.

If you are a teacher or study leader in your community of faith, thank you. The work you do is essential in preparing others to step up and accept the challenge in years to come. In this way the word of God goes from generation to generation and never lies fallow. In this way men and women, young and old, are made more aware of who they are and whose they are.

Prayer: Lord, uphold those who teach and who guide the study of your word. May they know the joy of leading others to better understanding and to lives enriched . In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Forging a New Community

Luke 23:1-12
The portion of Jesus’ passion contained in Luke 23:6-12 is unique to this gospel. One line from that story is particularly interesting. “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (Luke 23:12). It would appear that in their contempt for Jesus these two men found a reason for friendship, for a new community of sorts.

This got me to thinking about the various communities in which I am engaged. One is the neighborhood in which I live, of course. But there are other ways of identifying me, some of which serve group with others. I tend to support a political party which puts me in one sort of community. I am a minister which gives me another. I am of a particular race, gender, socio-economic standing, and age all of which give me communities with which to relate. The schools I have attended give me communities. And I am on Facebook and write this blog, each of which create electronic networks for me. It would be virtually impossible for me to live without connections, without some sort of community. Pilate and Herod found a basis for friendship in their shared disdain for Jesus. I do not knowingly associate with anyone so avowed anti-Christian. But there are groups, communities, if you will, whose purposes are contrary to the call to discipleship and faith. And while I do not advocate isolation or separatism, I do believe we need to carefully examine our habits and our relationships to see what they say about us, about our faith, about our devotion to God.

The church, the body of Christ at work in the world, can be both the most fulfilling and the most frustrating of all communities. Within the context of faith men and woman are trained, encouraged, sent forth, and asked to share from their resources in support of the church’s work. But no group of people is perfect, and when the church demonstrates its fallibility it can be very disheartening. Still, the church is the best sort of community with which to participate because it is the only one truly established by God to do God’s will.

So let’s enjoy our relationships and celebrate the imperfect community we have found in Jesus Christ. Let’s be united in our efforts to serve, not in our desire to ridicule or tear apart.

Prayer: Lord, bring us together in your love and help us to find community in your fellowship. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Learning Who We Really Are

Acts 8:1b-13
Sometimes even the most faithful of believers can struggle with how he or she fits into the life of the community. Rare are the individuals who can come to see themselves in a new light and willingly, graciously accept that new understanding. Perhaps Simon the magician can give us the needed perspective.

When a great persecution erupted against the church in Jerusalem Philip, one of the newly ordained deacons from Acts 6, made his way to Samaria. There Philip shared the good news and did many signs for the people. As Acts tells us, “…When they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon (the magician) himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place” (Acts 8:12-13). Keep in mind that up until this time Simon had been considered a great man in Samaria, someone with tremendous gifts. But when the truth of the gospel was revealed to him he set aside his status and became one of the believers, amazed by what Philip was doing, and listening to Philip’s teachings.

I respect Simon for what he did because I know how challenging it can be. Simon let go of his old life and accepted a new reality for himself. Once we’ve lived with certain expectations it is very difficult to see ourselves differently, especially if we sense we have lost status or esteem. In fact, it is even difficult for the community as a whole to reconsider its place in the world, to let go of old ideas about prestige and accept a new role that God holds out. Simon, then, is a compelling figure for us to consider, a man who let go of who he was and embraced the gospel as good news. It would serve us well to follow in Simon’s footsteps, as individuals and as a community, always striving to accept the new thing that God is doing, even if it means letting go of who we once were.

Prayer: Gracious God, give us the strength to trust you and to live out the calling you have given us, that your gospel might bear good fruit in the world. Amen.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dying Gracefully

Note: My original spelling for the title of this entry, "Dieing Gracefully", proved to be problematic, so I have changed it to a more acceptable spelling.

Acts 7:44-8:1a
Stephen, recently ordained a deacon by the early church, had gotten himself into trouble. But when he was brought before the authorities he chose not to defend himself so much as to offer his witness about the good news of Jesus Christ. In doing so Stephen became one of the earliest of martyrs for the faith. Yet as he died Stephen refused to condemn his killers. “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died” (Luke 7:59-60).

Two things come to my mind today regarding this passage. First of all there is the fact that the Greek root of the work martyr is also the root for the English word witness. To witness to one’s faith, to affirm that which one believes, is to be willing to die for it. Stephen clearly was willing to die for the glory of God and at the end his prayer was not “help, save me!” but “receive my spirit.” On top of that Stephen was willing to face his death with no animosity against those who killed him nor against those who lacked the courage to stand with him. At least I think that’s how we can read this passage—if they weren’t for Stephen they were essential against him, and he was willing to forgive them all, even the believers who remained silent.

The truth is, even when it is safe for me to offer my testimony to the Lordship of Jesus I am not always willing to do so, and I certainly have never faced the possibility of death for what I believe. On top of that, I hold grudges for things far, far lest significant that what Stephen faced. But here is the good news for me and anyone else who falters in faith. Stephen’s witness to Jesus and his prayer of forgiveness echo though time in the pages of scripture until they touch our lives as well. “Forgive them,” Stephen asks God, and he is talking about you and me. “Forgive them when they do not give their all for you.” What a gracious gift to offer at one's death, one for which we should be very thankful.

Prayer: Lord, forgive us when we lack the courage to serve you faithfully and steadfastly, and help us to forgive others who have wronged us that your love may be visible in the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, June 24, 2011

When Is a Sword Not a Sword?

Luke 22:31-38
(I’d like to wish my daughter, Lindsay James Freeman, a happy and blessed 21st birthday. May she always recognize the love and grace of God’s presence in her life.)

I’ll admit to a great deal of consternation about a section of the Luke passage for today. “(Jesus) said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one’” (Luke 22:36). The comments about the purse and the bag are one thing, but for Jesus to talk about the disciples arming themselves has long troubled me. I am indebted, therefore, to the footnotes of the Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV). The suggestion there—and a good one, I think—is that Jesus was telling his followers to use their resources for living in a time filled with hostility. Jesus is not speaking of an offensive weapon, but of a commitment to remain faithful to Jesus’ teachings. That the disciples misunderstood the comments should not surprise us, they have been doing that from the very beginning.

The question we need to ponder, no matter where we live, is what does the sword represent for us today? Some Christians are despised or persecuted for their faith. For them a renewed commitment to the faith and a willingness to take up “spiritual arms” is essential. But for many of us it is almost too easy to be a Christian. In fact, for many of us there is no threat at all. For us the sword becomes a confusing image of violence. I want us to rethink the sword in Jesus’ words. I want us to arm ourselves for living a life of commitment, not against hostility, but in the face of apathy and disregard. For us the sword is the willingness to study scripture, to pray, to participate in worship, to give to those in need, to look ahead with confidence to the fullness of God’s reign. If we will “steel” ourselves for the long haul, if we will focus our lives on the meaning of Jesus Christ for the world, I believe we will find ourselves enlivened by the faith and full of joy and hope. The sword for us is a life of faith for which we should be willing to sacrifice everything.

Prayer: Lord, help us to remain focused on you throughout our lives. Grant us the insight and the wisdom to perceive your word at work in our midst. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

God Up Close

1 Samuel 8:1-22
Samuel was right in the middle of a controversy. On the one hand his sons were not up to the task of judging the people of Israel and the people were insisting that Samuel appoint a king for them. On the other hand the request for a king meant a rejection of God’s sovereignty over the people, God’s Kingship. That said, I find this verse very interesting: “When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord” (1 Samuel 8:21). Did God really not know what the people had said? Did God really need it repeated by Samuel?

This reminds me of an incident early in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and are hiding from God. “But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?…Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’” (Genesis 3:9, 11). Was God really having to ask? Did God not know what had been going on in the garden?

Passages like those from 1 Samuel and Genesis (and others that present the same image) indicate what the people believe about God and that is that there is an intimacy between God and humanity. God is very much a part of the conversation. Whether or not God knows everything there is to know is far less important than the fact that God is there to listen, to find out, to ask questions and receive answers. God is available like a true friend would be. Samuel did not have to deal with the people alone or with some theory about how God wanted things. Samuel knew what God was doing because God was willing to tell Samuel and was in conversation with him about it, talking, listening, being involved. Samuel repeated everything the people had said to a concerned and active God.

Prayer: Lord, be near to us in our living, guiding us according to your will, and never turning away from us. Amen.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Place at the Table

Luke 22:14-23
“When the hour came, (Jesus) took his place at the table, and the apostles with him” (Luke 22:14). This is how Luke begins his account of the Last Supper. When it was time for the celebration Jesus and the disciples gathered in the upper room. It was natural, of course, for Jesus to have a “place at the table,” after all he was the leader of the group, and as Luke helps us to understand, he was (and is) the Messiah, the Son of God. What may seem troubling is a verse that comes later in the passage, where Jesus says, “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table” (v. 21). Not only did Jesus have a place at the table, but so did Judas!

What does this mean? We may not betray Jesus the same way that Judas did, but all of us are willing to cast our lot with the world when it suits us. Ultimately our choices lead us to betray Jesus in our own ways, turning our backs on God’s will for our lives and treating each other with greed and self-interest. Yet, even sinful folks like you and me are welcome in the presence of Jesus. There is a place for us at the table as well. The meal that Jesus offers, then, is one of hope. In worship, gathered around the table, we find our identity as forgiven people. In confessing our sins we know we will receive pardon, and in the Lord’s Supper (or Communion, or Eucharist) we are given a share in the work of the body of Christ now, and a foretaste of that which is to come. This is one reason why I consider the communion table, the font, and the pulpit to be the “watchposts” of my own faith tradition, Presbyterianism, for it here that we actively await the fulfillment of God’s plan in history (Habakkuk 2:1).

Luke helps us to see that it is a big table to which we are invited. Jesus knows our sins. Nonetheless, he invites us to come and to take our place with him, with one another.

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, forgive us our sins and help us to live as your people, gathered around the table of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

So What's With the Jar of Water?

Luke 21:37-22:13
Sometimes it’s the little things that catch your attention in a scripture passage. For example, the following verse from Luke recounts a discussion concerning the preparation for the Passover meal. “‘Listen,’ (Jesus) said to them, ‘when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters…’” (Luke 22:10). So what’s the big deal about the jar of water? It must be worth noting or Luke would not have included it in the passage. Well, according to some commentators a man carrying a water jar would be doing “woman’s work” and therefore would be easy to spot in a crowd. So perhaps there were some prior arrangements involved on the part of Jesus, and an attempt to hide the place of the feast from Jesus’ enemies, which would explain all the secretive activity.

We need to be careful not to overanalyze scripture, of course, but apart from “woman’s work” the jar of water should also remind us of baptism and of the water of life of which Jesus speaks. It is reminiscent of the waters of chaos before creation and the flood that destroyed humanity—save for Noah and his family. Water also figures prominently in the Exodus account during which God divided both the Red Sea and the River Jordan and caused water to gush from the rock. Water is essential for survival and for cleanliness, and it provides a focal point for community life. That a man is seen doing the work of a woman is typical of Luke, the most inclusive of the four gospels. That the followers of Jesus should be told to follow man with a jar of water is very appropriate. That this jar leads to the Passover feast is also appropriate.

Signs and marks of God’s grace are all around us if we will simply open our eyes to see. A life lived in Christ is one filled with symbolism and meaning. Indeed, virtually anything can, in the right circumstances, act as a reminder of God’s presence and the love of Jesus Christ. If we overlook the “little” things in favor of only seeing the “big” things who knows what we will miss, what measures of grace will slide by us undetected. Best to pay attention to what God is up to. Best to watch for the water jars as well as the rainbows.

Prayer: God of life and light, help us to see with eyes of faith so that we may understand what you are about in our lives and can go about your work in response to your call. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tracing the Path

Acts 5:12-26
As the story of the early church unfolds in the book of Acts we find many factors at work. Some of these factors, like the power of the Holy Spirit and the faithfulness of the apostles, help to move the good news of Jesus Christ outward, further into the world. Other factors, however, were intended to slow or to stifle the gospel. One of the more powerful human emotions is on display in our reading from Acts for today. “Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him…, being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles and put then in the public prison” (Acts 5:17-18). Jealously over the popularity of Peter and the other apostles had infected the religious elite. As a result they chose to take action against the followers of Jesus.

It didn’t work of course. The church continued to grow and to develop until it spread throughout the world. The trajectory of the gospel established in Acts can be traced for centuries afterwards and though the flight has not always been smooth and even, the gospel continues to confront women and men to this day, challenging them to live a life centered on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. As it turns out, of course, jealously has also continued to be a factor in human life. Nor is the church immune to such sinful attitudes. Anger, bitterness, pettiness, dissent, division, all continue to bedevil people of faith. But as we learn from the book of Acts the Holy Spirit is not defeated. There is no prison, physical or emotional, that can contain the gospel or extinguish its light. The good news of Jesus Christ is as vibrant today as it was in the weeks after Pentecost. People of faith still find themselves released from the bonds of doubt and given words to speak. Again, the trajectory of the church established in Acts shows us that even when we fall short or are confronted by obstacles the good news will be shared, and no human emotion can quell it.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to trust the power of your Spirit and to follow your word into the world, serving others and sharing the gospel. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, June 17, 2011

When God Walks In

1 Samuel 3:1-21
I’m impressed by Samuel’s courage. According to tradition he would have been about 12 years old when the events recounted in 1 Samuel 3 took place. We also know that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7). Then we are told this: “Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’” (v. 10a). Think about others who have been in the presence of God, like Adam and Eve who were so frightened that they hid themselves as God walked in the garden, like Ezekiel who passed out at the sight of God by the Chebar canal in Babylon, like Peter, James, and John who only heard the voice of God during the transfiguration but who were terrified. But when the Lord stood in the temple and called his name, Samuel was able to listen to God without shaking (at least as far as we know) and that impresses me.

I have never had an experience like the one described by 1 Samuel. I have never felt that God was so close as to be standing nearby. If that were to happen I believe I would be terrified. Not because I fear God so much as I know, not only my unworthiness, but also the glory of God. The two do not mix well and I’d be afraid of causing some sort of explosion, like matter and anti-matter colliding. But Samuel was willing for God to stand near, was willing to listen to what God said, and I believe that takes courage. No wonder Samuel grew to become a great prophet, one whose words would never “fall to the ground.” The relationship between God and Samuel was one of trust and openness, of child-like curiosity in the face of God’s majesty and splendor.

I know God is with me, and that God works in and through my life. But I am not able to think about God standing nearby without becoming a bit edgy. Perhaps this is a sign that I need to be more open with God.

Prayer: God of majesty and might, you have called us to be your people and have spoken your word to us. Help us to hear it and to live accordingly, with trust and openness. Amen.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Then What Happened?

Luke 20:41-21:4
Luke tells us the following story: “(Jesus) looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (Luke 21:1-4). Have you ever wondered what happened to the widow after she gave all her money to the temple treasury? I have. But Luke does not enlighten us on the what Paul Harvey might have called “the rest of the story.” We can only deal what is before us. Jesus, who knew that two copper coins were all that she had, promises no miracle for the woman. He simply commends her generosity as far greater than that of the wealthy. They had plenty to give, she did not. They had plenty left over, she didn’t.

So maybe that’s it. Maybe there really is no more to the story. The woman walks off into the crowd never suspecting that she has become the subject of one of Jesus’ teachings as recoded in scripture. And as much as we’d like to tack a happy ending on the story there isn’t one. (“The woman had gone no more than five paces from the temple before she found a priceless gem lying in the road. Rejoicing, she gave thanks to God and went on her way with her new wealth.” Sorry, but you won’t find that part of the story anywhere.)

There is a future aspect to faith. The hope we have in Jesus Christ points us to the fulfillment of promises in a time to come. But there is also a very real sense of the here-and-now. To live for the future means to make decisions day to day and to trust God to guide us as we do. It isn’t easy, but no one ever said it would be. Some days, in fact, we are called to give up our copper coins and walk away without knowing what happens next, only that God delights in our generosity.

Prayer: Lord, help us live today according to your will and to trust in your promises for the future. Amen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No More Questions

Luke 20:27-40
Trick questions were never a problem for Jesus. He could see right through them and always had an answer that exposed the trap. Challenges about taxes, neighbors, the essence of the law, Jesus answered them all with clarity and deep insight. Then came the day when, according to Luke, Jesus silenced the trick questions, the challenges, the efforts to catch him in a heresy once and for all. Some Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, made up one of those silly hypothetical situations that is almost embarrassing to think about. If seven brothers all marry the same women, one at a time, to which one does she belong in the resurrection?

Never mind the answer that Jesus gave. To me, the real point of the story comes at the end. “Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him another question” (Luke 20:39-40). At that point the religious elite realized that Jesus could not be outwitted. No matter what they may think about Jesus and his preaching, they had to acknowledge that he knew what he was talking about.

Over the years I have heard a lot of skepticism expressed about God and the truth of religion in general. I’m guessing you have too. If God can do anything, can God create a rock so big that even God can’t pick it up? That’s one of the silly ones. On the serious side are questions about the nature of evil and why a loving God would ever let horrible things happen to good people. The truth is I don’t know. Sometimes all I can do is step back and realize that God, like Jesus, can’t be tricked or manipulated, but can be trusted. Oh, I have questions, too, and I believe that God hears them. But there are days and seasons when it is best for me to simply sit in silence and let God be God. Skepticism has its place in life. But so does faith. And if for whatever reason you do not believe God to be real, I would encourage you to set aside your resistance for just a bit, and wait and see what happens. It may be that God really does have an answer for you. It may be that God is really at work in your life whether you perceive it or not.

Prayer: Lord, be with those who wrestle with doubt this day, helping them to find you and to know you as you know them. Amen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lent to the Lord

1 Samuel 1:21-2:11
The following poem, entitled “Lent to the Lord”, was inspired by the story of Hannah bringing her son Samuel to the temple in Shilo and leaving him there to serve with Eli the priest (1 Samuel 1:24-28).

What must be said, mother to child,
that explains the promise,
that confirms the intent,
that eases separation,
that masks deep emotion?

Lent to the Lord, you are, given to God.
Lent to the Lord, you are, child of my womb.

And what will the child say in light of his fear,
on the steps of the temple,
on the cusp of the holy,
that shows his ascent,
that marks understanding?

Lent to the Lord, I am, given to God.
Lent to the Lord, I am, no longer your child.

And what will the Lord say,
through the prophet, God’s voice,
that will open the door,
that will honor the moment,
that will bless and will consecrate?

Lent to the Lord, you are, given to me.
Lent to the Lord, you are, child of my heart.

Prayer: Lord, may we, too, acknowledge your place in our lives, that we are your children, and may we serve you always. Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hannah Has Her Say

1 Samuel 1:1-20
The story of Hannah praying in the temple at Shilo (1 Samuel 1:9-18) inspired me to write the following poem entitled “Hannah Has Her Say.”

With care she folds her words between cracks in the holy silence
the hush imposed on sacred space.
She weighs each syllable to test

what God will tolerate.
Not above a whisper she speaks
but to God’s ear a righteous shout.

And in that moment her heart is impregnated by hope.
She is not drunk as one supposes;
she only knows as she is known.

I have always appreciated the poignancy in Hannah’s actions and the response she received from the priest Eli. When all was said and done Hannah left the temple with renewed hope, knowing God’s peace just as the priest had pronounced it, realizing somewhere deep inside that God was indeed aware of her.

Prayer: God of hope, help us to live in the peace that comes from knowing that you are aware of us and that you care for and love us. Amen.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Whose Side Is He On?

Luke 10:38-42
Can you imagine the nerve it would take to ask Jesus, “Lord, do you not care…” (Luke 10:40)? But according to Luke those are Martha’s exact words. Martha’s sister, Mary, has left her with all the housework. “Lord, do you not care…?” She’s being manipulative and rude to Jesus, and not at all the good hostess. “Lord, do you not care…?” Before we get too indignant of Martha, however, we should think about all the times that we use exactly the same words. “Lord, do you not care” that things are not going our way, that our team is losing, that we don’t have the latest fashions or the most expensive car, that we live in a less-than-perfect-neighborhood, that our kids need braces, that we aren’t getting promoted fast enough? Why can’t you do things our way, Jesus? “Lord, do you not care…?”

Of course Jesus cares! He cared enough to die for our sins. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus embraces every human whim, every sinful desire as appropriate. If Martha had stopped for a moment and assessed the situation properly she might have understood. According to Luke, Jesus was teaching, sharing God’s word and God’s truth with all who would listen. The real question that the text poses is: Martha do YOU not care? Will you not let go of all the things that crowd your mind and instead listen to what Jesus has to say? Will you not seek God’s direction in your life instead of telling God where you should go? Will you not set your ego aside long enough to see that you are part of a larger family, a community of faith that offers hope and love to its members?

Yes, Martha, Jesus does care, more than you know. And that is something all of us need to hear and to believe.

Prayer: Lord, help us to set aside the minor things that worry us and focus instead on the grace and truth that you offer. In Jesus name. Amen.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

God's Guardrail

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 19-32
If we believe that the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful, wrath-filled God meting out condemnation and offering no love or compassion, then we should pay closer attention to passages like this one from Ezekiel. Yes, God has expectations of the people, but no, God does not delight in smiting or otherwise dispensing with them when they fail. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?… For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live” (Ezekiel 18:23, 32). These verses, set side by side, are reminiscent of the cliché, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” Only in the case of God it is far from cliché. Judgment, punishment of the wicked; these are not the things God wishes for.

Then why would God threaten death to the wicked? Mostly, I think, because it is true. Evil is, in and of itself, a kind of death, a willing separation from God. When we choose to go against God’s will we have stepped away from the life that is possible, the joyful life of hope and promise. “You will die,” is as much a threat from God as it is a warning which God offers the people, like a guardrail on a dangerous stretch of road. Ultimately God is the one willing to die for our transgressions, allowing us to move beyond the limitations of sin and death and to embrace life as an eternal reality. God does not kill for sport or out of spite. Indeed, the God of whom we read in both the Old and New Testaments yearns for us to know life abundantly. Anything less is a tragedy to God.

Prayer: Help us, O God, to live in the light of truth and righteousness, that we may know life the way you intend it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Longing to See

Luke 10:17-24
Earlier today I was reflecting with a friend about all the activities we had been involved with because of our children. I shared that during one of my son’s soccer seasons I attended every game except one—and I only missed half of it—but that was the half in which my son scored. How I long to have seen that goal! Yet even that fatherly desire does not compare with the longing that Jesus describes to his followers in our reading from Luke this morning. “Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it’” (Luke 10:23-24). Earlier in Luke Jesus announces the year of the Lord’s favor and the inauguration of the coming reign (Luke 4). Now Jesus reaffirms the significance of his ministry as the fulfillment of God’s promises. For centuries men and women of faith had waited to see what God would do. Now God was doing it, and the disciples were blessed to be witnesses.

Centuries later we might wish for the opportunity to see the work of Jesus, to walk the roads of Palestine with him, to sit at his feet and hear his words. But we can’t. That is not the role we are to play. Like those who lived before Jesus and longed earnestly to see the salvation of God’s people, we, too, must live in faith, accepting the word of God and trusting God’s promises. Our longing to be witnesses, though, should not detract from our faithful obedience to God’s will in our lives, for by grace we have work to do, lives to touch, news to share. Yes, the disciples were blessed to see what they saw, but we are also blessed to be called God’s people and to trust in the grace of God to lead us where we need to go.

Prayer: Gracious God, may our lives, blessed as they are, be a source of blessing for others to the glory of your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Drop Anchor

Hebrews 6:13-20
Years ago my wife and I served for a year on the staff of a Church of Scotland congregation in East Kilbride, Scotland. It was as formative a year as I can imagine. One of the smaller blessings I received that year was an introduction to the hymn “Will Your Anchor Hold?” Though familiar to many, it was one that I had not been exposed to at that point.

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?
When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain,
Will your anchor drift or firm remain?

We have an anchor that keeps the soul
Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
Fastened to the Rock which cannot move,
Grounded firm and deep in the Savior's love.

I can only assume that this hymn is based in part on our reading from Hebrews for today. “We have this hope,” it says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” (Hebrews 6:19).

I don’t know much about seafaring, but I do know how vital an anchor can be, especially in stormy, turbulent waters. And the analogy to life is simple. Day to day we encounter storms and turbulence as well. Where we choose to make our stand can make the difference in whether we survive or find ourselves wrecked. The writer of Hebrews points to a hope that is trustworthy in such circumstances, a way to ride out the rough times. The hope is set on the promises of God which cannot prove false and which allow us to wait patiently for the day of fulfillment. We have this anchor available to us, this source of patience. It is our faith and hope in God who can not prove false and who wishes us to live as called people.

Prayer: God, when our hope is set on you we do not flounder. Help us to remain anchored to you and your will, that in even the roughest of life’s passages we may remain true in our convictions. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On Being a Human Bobble-head

Luke 9:51-62
According to Luke, “When the days drew near for (Jesus) to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). This is a pretty clear indication that knowing what lay ahead of him Jesus was nonetheless determined to meet it head on. “Setting his face” is a poetic way of saying that Jesus oriented his entire life, everything he did or said, toward that which God was calling him to do. He would turn neither to the left nor the right, but like the arrow of a compass would remain true to one direction.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t claim to be locked onto to anything, and certainly not the direction God wills for me. I try. Really. I just can’t always manage it. Instead I end up setting my face on whatever appeals to me at that moment, or according to my emotions or my whims. I end up more like an oscillating fan or the spinner in a game of Chutes and Ladders. It’s an ongoing struggle, but I rejoice that Jesus Christ has traveled the right path for all of us, and that in his determination, his faithfulness and devotion to God, he has provided us with a sure and certain hope.

My face my act like a bobble-head doll, but in Jesus I find stability and resolution. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, guide us in the right direction and forgive us when we stray. In Jesus name. Amen.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Getting Very Specific

Ezekiel 1:28-3:3
The introduction to the book of Ezekiel makes it clear that God was speaking to the prophet at a particular time in human history about a particular people in particular circumstances. Scholars go so far as to place the call of Ezekiel on July 31, 593 B.C. on the banks of the Chebar Canal in Babylon. That’s getting pretty specific, which is why it might be tempting for contemporary believers to overlook such passages as this: “…Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me…” (Ezekiel 2:3). Yes, but while God may have been addressing specifics that don’t directly apply to you and me, the issues are universal enough to fit any age and any location.

Understanding ourselves to be the people of God is to accept God’s judgment on our lives and to admit that we, like the people of Israel in 593 B.C., are in open rebellion against our Creator. We are sinners who have fallen far short of God’s will. We have neglected our neighbors, we have lived for ourselves, etc., etc. In the midst of all this sin one might expect God to turn away and allow us to sink into our own depravity. But God has chosen to remain steadfast, loving, and merciful. This, too, applies to any age and any nation where people of faith are locked in the struggle with sin. The specificity of Ezekiel means that this is no legend. These events did not happen “once upon a time.” God is real. God does real things in the midst of real lives, as real an anything we will ever face. And while that means we are being judged by God, it also means that we are being loved by the same God, which is really good news.

Prayer: Thanks be to you, O God, for remaining at work in our world and in our lives, reclaiming us from the grasp of our own sins and leading us to lives of grace and peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Worship and Doubt in Galilee

Matthew 28:16-20
It seems like an odd remark to make under the circumstances. “When (the eleven disciples) saw (Jesus),” Matthew says, “they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Some doubted? Really? How does a comment like that fit into such a pivotal passage in Matthew’s story, so close to the great commission, right at the very end of the book? Isn’t it a little late to be dealing with doubt? Maybe, but keep in mind that this is the first time that anyone except the women have seen the resurrected Jesus in Matthew’s account. The eleven did not share the experience at the empty tomb, they have only had the word of two women to go on. They was bound to be some skepticism. But of greater significance to me is the phrase that comes just before Matthew mentions doubt: “When they saw him, they worshiped him….” So there was praise that day in Galilee as well, mixed in with the feelings of uncertainty.

Now for a bold confession on my part: There are many days when, despite my best efforts at faith, I find myself doubting, questioning, wondering, being skeptical. I can’t help it. Doubt creeps in and infects my worship and praise of God in Jesus Christ. Maybe you have the same experience that I do. If so here is something I find helpful. Even in my greatest times of doubt and hesitation I find that worship and praise of God in Jesus Christ helps me to move ahead, to live beyond my doubt until my faith is renewed as it always is. Doubt my infect our worship, but worship sets back our doubt when we allow it to. And when that happens we stand with the man who cried, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) and with generations of Christians ever since who have struggled just the way we struggle. Doubt is not unusual even in the most faithful. But the great tragedy comes when we allow doubt to cut us off from the worshiping community. It doesn’t have to. Doubt is an honest reaction to events or information that sometimes overwhelm us. Worship, though, is the exercise regimen that keeps our hearts and minds attuned to what God is doing and prepared to do our part when we can.

Prayer: Lord, may our worship and praise continue, even in those times of greatest doubt, so that our lives may remain centered on you and your work. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Are Any Cheerful?

James 5:13-18
James puts it this way: “Are any [among you] cheerful? They should sing songs of praise” (James 5:13). I’ll admit that it’s not always easy, but one of the greatest gifts we can offer to the world is a cheerful disposition. Not a false, “smarmy” happiness, but a genuine sense of joy. If we can convey that message, if we can project that image, then we can lift the spirits of others and cure many ills.

But James is really telling us more than “be of good cheer.” He is also telling us to direct our joy toward God with songs of praise. It is not enough to be content. We should offer thanks for our contentedness. It is not enough to be well. We should offer thanks for our wellbeing. It is not enough to be in a good mood. We should offer thanks to God who is the ultimate source of our joy. Realizing where our joy originates helps us also to recognize that it is God “from whom all blessings flow,” that God alone can give us the peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

Offering praise to God in times of joy can also keep us focused on the world and those in need, those who could use our cheerfulness and our encouragement as they go about their lives. I won’t pretend that I am always happy, but I will tell you that when I am, and when I accept that happiness as a gift from God, I am able to do so much more for others.

Prayer: Lord, grant us cheerfulness that we may praise you all the days of our lives. Amen.