Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho

Matthew 21:23-32
Jesus told a parable about two brothers. When asked by his father to work in the field the first brother said no, but later relented and went. The second brother agreed to the task but changed his mind and did not go. “Which of the brothers did the will of the father?” Jesus asked. “The first one,” his listeners answered (Matthew 21:28-31). In contemporary terms the point of the story seems to be “better late than never.”

What if the second brother changes his mind yet again? What if, after thinking about what he has done, he realizes he was wrong and finally goes to the field to work? Will he not have done the father’s will then? In telling the parable Jesus is giving his listeners the opportunity to finally get it right. And more to the point, in relating the story to us as readers, Matthew’s gospel is giving us a chance to amend our own behavior. There are consequences to our actions or inaction, but Jesus parable is a call for repentance just as John the Baptist called for repentance before him.

As we wind our way through Advent we will have many chances to accept or decline the will of God. But in the anticipation and hopefulness associated with this season of the church year we will also have many chances to recognize our failures and to repent of them. Look around. In the shelters and on the street corners, in troubled homes and among the lonely and distressed there is still work to be done. Now, as much as ever, our hands and hearts are needed in the field. Now is the time to say, “I go, sir,” and to mean it and to do it.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to live out your claim on our lives, that we may serve your will in all we do, now and always. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Only Word That Really Matters

Amos 3:1-11 2
2 Peter 1:12-21
The Season of Advent receives its texture and its meaning from the word of God. God has made promises to us that we know will be kept, so even as we wait with hope and expectation we must prepare ourselves for what God is about to do. Two of our readings for today touch on the role that God’s word plays in our lives.

“The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8)

“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).

When God speaks through the Holy Spirit men and woman of faith are compelled to share that message with others. Amos in particular resisted the title of prophet; he was a farmer who had heard the voice of God. What else could he do but speak God’s truth? The writer of 2 Peter affirms that God alone is the source of prophecy. We are not called to speculate blindly about the future, but to embrace God’s will and live toward it. On any given day many voices will clamor for our attention: advertisements, political rhetoric, gossip, the crass and clashing sounds of our culture. Only God’s word, however, can set the tone for the days that lie ahead, for only God’s word contains the truth.

Prayer: Lord, allow us to hear your word and to be moved by it in all that we do, throughout the Season of Advent and into the days ahead. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Support Your Faith

2 Peter 1:1-11
It reads like something that Paul might have written, but we find it in 2 Peter. “For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8). Faith needs support. Even though it is given to us by God faith is most effective when we strive to live with goodness and knowledge and self-control, etc., all of which rests on the foundation of love.

In this way I suppose faith is similar to life. Life first comes to us as a gift but over time it needs support. Life requires that we be fed, taught, encouraged, enabled, and loved. Initially others do these things for us, but most of us eventually must take responsibility ourselves for sustaining life if we are to reach our fullest potential. Faith has potential, too. It may languish, or it may flourish. 2 Peter calls those who neglect their faith “nearsighted and blind” (v. 9), an interesting combination of terms that seems to heighten the danger. But those who “confirm (their) call and election” (v. 10) will not stumble spiritually the way those who are spiritually blind or nearsighted are apt to do.

Faith needs support. Those who nurture their faith will find their walk with God to be more fulfilling.

Prayer: Lord, help us to grow in faith even as we progress in life, that we may be fully alive to you in all we do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Amos 1:1-5, 1:13-2:8
Luke 21:5-19
The word of God is of utmost importance for people of faith. But when is the word of God not the word of God? Our reading from the prophet Amos for today uses the phrase “says the Lord” no less than eight times. Amos wants us to fully understand that the words of woe which he is sharing do in fact originate with God. According to our gospel reading for today, however, Jesus offered a word of warning to his followers. “Beware that you are not led astray;” he said, “for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them" (Luke 21:8). So there is a difference – a profound difference – between what God says and what others would have us to believe that God has said. How do we know which is which?

I know of no clear and easy answer to that question. The church itself is made up of faithful believers, those who seek earnestly to discern God’s message, but who can not always agree on the true meaning of scripture. What seems perfectly clear to me may strike you as completely false, even though we both affirm our faith in God with sincerity. What can we do? We can trust God. We can continually wrestle with God’s word, question it, challenge it, see what we can make of it, and count on God to speak to us through that struggle. We can trust one another and accept each other as ones who struggle toward a common purpose. Standing on the threshold of our shared belief we can seek to serve the God who created us and who continues to bless us.

Advent begins this Sunday. There is no better time to renew our commitment to this effort, to open ourselves to the voice of God.

Prayer: Lord of all, bless our willingness to hear your word and guide us all the days of our lives. In the name of your Word made flesh. Amen.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pure Speech

Zephaniah 3:1-13
[Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. To my American readers I wish you all a joyous holiday. To those of you in the nearly 80 other countries who have visited this blog, my most heartfelt wishes for joy and peace, today and all days.]

The prophet Zephaniah offers these words today.

"At that time I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call on the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord" (Zephaniah 3:9).

Not only will the confusion of Babel be overturned but vulgarities caused by hate, lust, racism, scorn and other human inclinations will be removed from our conversations. How wonderful to communicate with one another and with God in language that is uncorrupted. How blessed we will be to share the good news of the Word of God in words given to us by God.

Prayer: Gracious God, bless our speech with purity and our actions with kindness, all the days of our lives. In the name of Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What’s the Connection?

Matthew 19:23-30
There is an exchange between Jesus and his disciples in our reading from Matthew today that seems somehow out of sync. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” (Matthew 19:23-25). For some reason the disciples hear Jesus’ warning about the rich entering heaven and apply it to all people. Why would the disciples make such a connection? Why would they take Jesus’ words about the rich to apply to rich and poor, young and old, male and female alike?

Perhaps the disciples assume that Jesus is talking about wealthy people who are righteous, who actually strive for the kingdom of God. With resources to share and with opportunities to give such people could do much that was good. But if even they could not enter the kingdom, what hope would there be for the poor who have little to offer? In a song called “I’m Not Down” The Clash, a band from the 70’s and 80’s, ask a somewhat similar question:

If it's true that a rich man leads a sad life
That's what they say, from day to day
Then what do the poor do with their lives?
On Judgment Day, with nothing to say?

But here is the bottom line. Jesus has offered a warning about the dangers of wealth and the challenges of serving God and mammon. The truth is that even those who have little but who aspire to wealth can be as hindered in their lives of faith as those who possess riches and do not use them to God’s glory. Put another way, we all have those things we value, that we hold as precious. If we are not careful these items may come between us and God’s will for our lives. The disciples’ amazement is not without cause and perhaps helps us to remain focused on what is really important in our lives.

Prayer: Lord, help us to serve you with all we have and to put aside our regard for wealth and possessions. For it is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Extending the Gospel

]1 Peter 1:13-25
“‘All flesh is like grass,’” we read this morning from 1 Peter, “’and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ 
That word is the good news that was announced to you” (1 Peter 1:24-25). Using a quote from Isaiah 40:8 the writer of 1 Peter essentially claims the prophet’s words as a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ, extending the gospel back into the history of Israel. From a Christian perspective this is very appropriate. As the gospel of John reminds us, “In the beginning was the word…” (John 1:1). Now 1 Peter is using Isaiah to demonstrate the eternal nature of what has always been.

We are approaching the season of Advent, a time when our attention is drawn to the coming of Christ, both as a baby born in Bethlehem and with the dawning of God’s reign. Our culture would like to distract us with lights and sounds and consumer goods, but that same culture, like the grass of the field, will wither and fade. God’s word, God’s will, God’s way continue forever, from the beginning to the end, as the alpha and the omega. 1 Peter helps us remember that there is but one word, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Anything else is destined to fade.

Prayer: Lord God, your good news is everlasting and eternal. Help us to live according to your word and to but our confidence in your alone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2011


1 Peter 1:1-12
Justification by grace through faith is one of the hallmarks of the Reformation and one of Martin Luther’s great contributions to Protestant theology. There is nothing we can do to secure our own salvation, Luther assures us. We are completely dependent on God’s grace and on the faith which itself is a gift from God. The author of 1 Peter helps to make this point. “Although you have not seen [Christ], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). We are receiving the outcome of our faith. We are being overwhelmed by salvation through God’s grace. When we recognize what God is doing in our lives there is no other possible response but rejoicing “with an indescribable and glorious joy…."

Of course we are not always joyous. We spend much of our time lost in a sort of spiritual malaise where God seems to be the furthest thing from our minds. Is this God’s doing as well? No! This is what we might call “sinful forgetfulness,” what happens when we allow our worldly concerns to creep into our consciousness and to overwhelm our senses. The best antidote to this condition is to regularly exercise our faith with Bible study, corporate worship, prayer, and care for others. When we flex our muscles and keep ourselves focused on God we are less likely to forget or to fall into what John Bunyan calls the “slough of despond (swamp of despair).”

Today (and all days) remind yourself of God’s grace in your life, of the faith that has been given to you, of the joy that comes from knowing Jesus Christ. Remember and be glad “with an indescribable and glorious joy.”

Prayer: Lord, open our eyes to your love and grace and to the faith that you have given us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

When Is Enough Enough?

Matthew 18:10-20
What in Matthew’s gospel may sound like a lost cause may not be all that final. Jesus is discussing conflict within the church when he says, “If the member refuses to listen to (two or three members), tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). The key terms here are church, Gentile, and tax collector, and they deserve some careful attention.

First of all, we know that Jesus is really talking past the disciples to us because the church is a post-resurrection reality, birthed at Pentecost. How then are we to deal with the likes of Gentiles and tax collectors? Jesus can’t mean that we give up on them entirely. The mission of the church, as given by Jesus later in Matthew’s gospel, is to go and “make disciples of all nations (i.e. Gentiles)” (28:19). And Jesus himself has already expressed his concern for tax collectors in particular by calling a tax collector named Matthew to become a disciple. When Jesus’ choice of dinner companions (“sinners and tax collectors”) was questioned he answered, “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners” (9:1-9).

When Jesus says that those who refuse to listen to the church should be treated as Gentiles and tax collectors he is not giving up on them, but singling them out for a renewed effort at reconciliation. So I would suggest that Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 are not a warning to those who disagree with the church, but a reminder to the church – as the body of Christ at work in the world – “to call not the righteous, but sinners,” and “to go and make disciples of all nations.” In other words enough is never enough.

Prayer: Lord, open our hearts to those who need the good news, and grant us the patience to live you word into reality. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

For the Healing Of the Nations

Revelation 21:22-22:5
With all of the light and glory and crystal and gold mentioned by the writer, it would easy to overlook one significant detail from our New Testament reading today. On the banks of the river of the water of life grows the tree of life, “…and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2c). For some reason those leaves strike me as the most wonderful idea in the entire scene. Finally, in the new Jerusalem, in God’s new creation, there will be a source of healing for peoples of the world. What might that mean?

The tree of life may remind us of the Garden of Eden and the early chapters of Genesis where life was good and complete and filled with grace. Humanity was unable to live according to God’s will, however, and was expelled. Jeremiah 8:22 speaks of a healing ointment, the balm of Gilead, and physicians who were skilled in using it. Yet even with it the wellbeing of God’s people could not be restored fully. Jesus was a great healer but not everyone was willing to accept him or his message about the coming reign of God. But in the New Jerusalem there will be healing that humanity cannot nullify, ignore, or turn away from, healing for entire nations, restoration for the world.

For me that healing is more precious than all the streets of gold, all the crystal waters, all the light, for in that healing we become what God intended us to be. And in the coming reign we will discover, once and for all, just how marvelous God’s will is.

Prayer: Lord, heal us of our disbelief, our ignorance, our willfulness, indeed our very sinfulness, and fill of with the hope of your coming. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What If...?

Matthew 17:22-27
Matthew tells a quirky story about Peter catching a fish and taking a coin from its mouth. This is what Jesus told him to do. The coin was intended for paying the temple tax for both Jesus and Peter. But the story ends before Peter actually pays the tax. In fact, the story ends before Peter even goes fishing. Normally we think of this account as one of Jesus’ miracles. But what if…? What if Jesus was being intentionally ironic? What if Jesus’ instructions to Peter were intended as a joke of sorts. “If you think we should pay the tax, Peter, go take a coin from a fish’s mouth and use that.”

Since Matthew never tells us that Peter caught the fish or paid the tax maybe we should consider the context more carefully. Peter tells the authorities that Jesus pays the tax, but according to Matthew, “(Jesus said,) ’What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free’” (Matthew 17:25-26). If Jesus is the Son of God (and he is!) he has no need to pay the tax. Peter, who has still not managed to put all of the pieces together, does not understand what it means to say that Jesus is the Messiah. So Jesus says, with tongue firmly in cheek, “go catch a fish, Peter.”

Either way, miracle or not, the truth of this passage is that Jesus is the Son of God, and for us as God’s people the temple tax has been replaced by a call for faithful obedience. If we understand we will give our full attention to Jesus. If we don’t, we may find ourselves “gone fishing.”

Prayer: Lord, help us to live to your glory with hearts attuned to you will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Does It Take?

Matthew 17:14-21
Our gospel reading for today tells a story of healing and faith. “When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you’” (Matthew 17:14-21) On the one hand Jesus’ words to his disciples sound like a stinging rebuke: “If you only had the faith of a mustard seed!” On the other hand, Jesus’ words offer insight into all that is possible.

We live in a world of pain and suffering, of anger and disunity, of oppression and injustice. What are we to do about such things? In faith, even in our little faith, we trust God to be at work healing, comforting, restoring, reconciling. By ourselves we cannot do all that is needed, but by God’s grace we have a role to play. Even when we seem to fail we may find ourselves as witnesses to great things.

“If you only had the faith of a mustard seed!” Yet even if we don’t Jesus remains the source of our hope and the reason for our faith, as frail as it may be.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live in faith, but do not leave us in our times of doubt or fear. Work through us to accomplish your will. With faith in Jesus we pray. Amen.