Thursday, February 28, 2013

Back to the Beginning…Almost

Jeremiah 4:9-10, 19-28
The prophet Jeremiah offers a horrifying vision of what God might do in response to the ongoing faithlessness of the people. “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 4:23-27). Notice the various elements of creation that are mentioned. The earth is “void” and the heavens have “no light.” There is no human presence and even the birds have vanished. There are no plants for “the fruitful land was a desert.” In so many ways this is a mirror image of the creation story of Genesis 1, for here is a virtual undoing of the acts of God at the beginning of time. All that is left is a barren, empty, deserted wasteland, very like the void over which the spirit of God passed before saying, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).

Yet even in the midst of this vision, this threat of total destruction, there is hope, for God has not forgotten the various covenants, the promises made to Noah, and Abraham, and through Moses: “I will not make a full end,” says the Lord to Jeremiah. Indeed, there is a reminder of God’s grace even in the face of human stubbornness and disregard for the divine will. The utter bleakness of Jeremiah’s vision does not overcome the hope that God holds out, that within a restored creation the kingdom will come in its fullness. In the story of Pandora’s box, the girl, Pandora, releases all that is dreadful and evil into the world. But along with the woe there is also the last thing out of the box which is hope. Here, in Jeremiah, we find a veriation of that story rooted in God’s relationship with God’s people, a story that contains both the judgment of a just God, and the grace of a merciful Redeemer.

God’s anger burns hot, but God will not bring an end to creation, says Jeremiah. Indeed, with the arrival of Jesus Christ and his ministry some centuries later, God reaffirmed the divine commitment to humanity. In the end as in the beginning, we are blessed by the care of a loving God.

Prayer: God of all creation, look beyond the darkness of the world and lift up your light on the goodness that you have established here, that all may know your love and repent of their sins. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Answer the Question

John 5:1-18
I remember a scene from the TV show The West Wing that went something like this:

Man: Do you have a watch?

Woman: It’s 2:30.

Man: I didn’t ask you what time it was, I only asked if you had a watch. You should only answer the question that is asked, nothing more.

The story told in John’s gospel today contains a similar exchange in which the answer given does not match the question asked. “When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me’” (John 5:6-7). Jesus asked a man if he wished to be healed. Instead of saying yes or no, the man became defensive, offering excuses as to why he was still sick after 38 years. In other words, the man by the pool did not answer Jesus’ question.

Two things come to mind here. First of all, are we answering the questions that Jesus is actually asking us, or are we answering other, less important questions? When Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” are we stammering on about the terrible weather last Sunday morning, or the unexpected expenses we’ve encountered lately, or how difficult it is to find even a few moments of peace and quiet during the week? When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” do we mention how much we’ve enjoyed the recent Bible study, or how the women’s luncheon was so lovely, or how the grass at the church needs cutting but that we assume someone else will take care of it? The answer to “Do you love me?” should be a resounding “Yes.” And the answer to “Who do you say that I am?” is “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” So why have we put ourselves into the position of having to dodge these questions when Jesus asks them? Why do we get so defensive?

But that also leads me to wonder how often our society makes those in need feel as though they must make excuses for themselves. How often do we somehow blame the hungry for their condition, or hold the homeless accountable for living on the streets? How often do we assume those who are poor must have done something (or not done something) that lead to their plight? Do we automatically conclude that those who are sick must have brought it on themselves? Jesus offers no judgment in healing the man by the pool and only calls on him to live a life of righteousness after the fact. Are we not capable of the same mindset, or have our suspicions and our attitudes led us to the place where we cannot see a need without assigning blame to the one who suffers?

I offer those two thoughts today mainly because I am acutely aware of my own failings in this regard. I recognize how often I respond to Jesus’ questions with unrelated answers, and I know I make assumptions and act on stereotypes in relation to those in need. During this season of Lent, perhaps – with God’s help – I can do something about it. Maybe – with God’s help – you can, too.

Prayer: Lord of healing and restoration, help us to answer your questions with honesty and clarity and to meet the needs of our world without judgment or qualification. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

No Exchange Policy

Jeremiah 2:1-13, 29-32
Romans 1:16-25
Portions of two of today’s readings intersect to offer a word of warning for those whose attention is not on God and the divine will. “Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,” we read in Jeremiah, “send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD…” (Jeremiah 2:10-12). In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes the same point clear, saying, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!” (Romans 1:25). In each case, the issue is one of idolatry, the placing of anything – any aspect of life, any activity, any idea or concept – between ourselves and God. The people of Israel had “changed gods,” according to the prophet, had chosen to serve “the creature rather than the Creator,” in the words of Paul. As a result, the heavens should be “appalled… shocked… (and) utterly desolate,” according to Jeremiah.

While it is easy to place such comments in the past tense and therefore to see them as historic failings, we ourselves must continually be aware of our own focus, that in which we place our ultimate allegiance. The problem, even within the Christian community, is that we find the idolatries of others to be so much worse than those we carry. We easily remove the speck from the eye of fellow believers while the log remains firmly lodged in our own. Why is that? Why is it that people of faith have so much trouble finding common cause on this issue? If nothing else, we Christians should be able to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our day to day lives and God’s help in our effort to cast aside whatever it is that blocks our view of God’s will. We all fall short of God’s intentions. We all have “changed gods” at some point in our lives. We all have been bedazzled by the creature and lost sight of the Creator, if only for a season or for a moment. We all stand in humble need of God’s forgiveness and grace, and it seems to me that prayers of confession should replace words of accusation and acrimony on all levels.

Then, perhaps, once we have recognized our common plight as sinners in need of redemption, we can pray for one another, humbly and honestly seeking what is best even for those with whom we disagree strongly, for God’s glory is certainly not served in our willful disregard for the hurts and needs of others any more than by our inability to remain focused on the one by whose grace we all live.

Prayer: Lord of light and life, we confess that we have not always followed you and your will for our lives. Forgive us when we allow anything to distract our attention from your glory, and restore us in our faithful obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Are We Paying Attention?

Jeremiah 1:11-19
“The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see a branch of an almond tree.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it’ (Jeremiah 1:11-12). At first glance, the most important part of this text may seem to be the pun between the word for almond tree and the word for watching which are very similar in Hebrew. But today what strikes me most is the question that the Lord addresses to Jeremiah. “What do you see?” the prophet is asked. What a profound thing for God to say to anyone. What do you see? How do you perceive your surroundings? What is it that attracts your attention? What gives you pause or causes you to wonder? What do you see? This word from the Lord is an invitation to be engaged by creation and to embrace all that God is doing there.

Indeed, this is a question we should ponder far more often than we do, because it can lead us to some significant realizations. What do you see in your day to day life that indicates God’s presence in the world? What do you see in your friends or loved-ones that speaks of community and fellowship? What do you see in a stranger that reminds you of Jesus? What do you see in world affairs that lets you know that grace abounds? What do you see in your neighborhood that confirms the need for God’s love in ways that only you can provide it?

Recently a church member and I were discussing signs of grace that seem to pop up in our lives in unexpected ways. We eventually agreed that God is always at work –– grace is always in evidence –– but that eyes of faith are the ones best trained to see it. Jeremiah was able to “see” God’s work through as common an item as an almond tree. But we, too, have opportunities to perceive the work of God if only we will look around, open our eyes wide, and take in the grace-filled view. So what do you see, and how does it aid your journey of faith?

Prayer: Lord, give us eyes with which to see you and your work all around us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Care Instructions

Deuteronomy 10:12-22
Our Old Testament reading for today offers a good example of the tension between God’s sovereignty over all creation on the one hand and the divine concern for individuals in need on the other. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords,” we read, “the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). To live in relationship with God, then, is to live out the meaning of that tension, God’s sovereign “above-ness” that in no way limits God’s nearness. For example, when we worship God, we should hold these two aspects of God’s activity side by side. Our praise should be heartfelt and joyous, our hymns and prayers sung and spoken with the reverence that is appropriate for the Creator of all there is. But this same praise and worship is dishonest at best and meaningless at worst if it does not lead us to show care and compassion for those around us, if it does not direct our attention to a world full of need and pain. Our day to day lives as well must be guided by the recognition that our majestic God is also an imminent God. Though we might wish to move spiritually from one “mountaintop experience” to another, blinded to the world by the radiance of God’s presence, we walk a false path of discipleship if we do not also enter that world, eyes wide open to the poverty and the injustice that clamors for our attention, and which calls us to deeds of self-sacrifice on behalf of the lost and lonely.

The story of creation tells us in vivid terms that when God brought human life into existence it was as a reflection of the divine image. And the incarnation of Jesus Christ – the word of God made flesh – reveals the willingness of God to enter into human society as one of us and to live as the poorest among us, the most oppressed of our world, live. If, then, we are to give ourselves fully to God and to truly glorify God’s name, we must be willing to follow the divine imperative, recognizing God’s Lordship over all, but humbling ourselves in service to those in need. This is what it means to be the people of God.

Prayer: God of majesty and might, lead us not only to acts of praise and worship, but also to deeds of kindness and concern, that we may fully reflect your love to the world and may rightly serve you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Of Darkness and Light (and Of Shadows, Too)

John 3:16-21
According to the gospel of John from which we have read this morning, the world is divided into two types of people, those who do evil and therefore shun God’s light in Jesus Christ for fear of being revealed, and those who do what is true and therefore accept the light and what it makes clear. John puts it this way, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:20-21). John seems to suggest that the world is made up of clearly defined areas with sharp lines of contrast in between. You either do what is wrong or you do what is true and right; you either sin against God, or you don’t. And depending on your actions you either cower in the blackness of anonymity or you stand confidently in the sunshine of righteousness. I wish I thought it was that clear in real life. It’s not that I want to do what it evil, or that I don’t do what is true, it’s just that all too often I get muddled up somewhere between the two and the results are not what they should be. I love the light, I just can’t always seem to get there. Is there no place for me? Is there no grey area, no area of shadow or shade, maybe not completely in the light, but certainly not completely in the dark either?

Actually, I think that taken as a whole the gospel of John has quite a bit to say about living in those grey areas between sin and righteousness. “Indeed,” says John, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (v. 17). It is true that the light of God in Jesus Christ is a source of judgment as well as grace, but Jesus has been sent, first and foremost, to offer salvation to the world, which I take as a word of hope for those of us standing in the space between light and dark. Jesus is our hope. Jesus is the means by which we strive to leave our sinful ways behind and step into the glow of the coming reign of God. The light of God will defeat the darkness of the world. And by grace, we will find ourselves bathed in the glow of the righteousness of God.

Prayer: God of light, help us as we strive to step out of the darkness and to embrace your will for our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

All Day, Every Day

Hebrews 3:12-19
Ask someone if it is Wednesday (for example), and they may answer, “yes, all day.” It’s just one of those things that people say sometimes. Ask the writer of Hebrews if we should encourage one another to live righteously at any given time and the answer might be a verse from our epistle reading for today: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Deuteronomy 3:13). Based on this verse it would appear that exhortation is a full time job for the Christian community. And frankly, it ought to be.

The typical work week for many is five days or about 40 hours (though for others the requirements are a good deal more). The “exhortation week,” as we might call it, is much shorter: one day. Only that one day is whatever we happen to call “today.” Is the writer of Hebrews trying to make a joke of the matter? I doubt it; the subject is far too serious for that. Instead, I think that the importance of the message is being underscored, highlighted, emphasized, lifted up in a manner similar to what I have just done by stringing a number of verbs together to help make my point. Our concern for one another should be an ongoing and constant aspect of life. Faithful obedience to God’s will is the bedrock of the faith and, so long as it is in our power, we must hold each other accountable and nudge each other along the path of true discipleship. It really does take a village to raise a child as the African proverb says, but within the community of faith that work is not done when the child reaches adulthood. The need for guidance remains, and one mark of our regard for each other should be that we take the time to offer such guidance whenever it is needed.

As a pastor, I ask congregants to tell me when they become aware of pastoral concerns even if they assume I already know. I would rather be told twenty times about the same matter than to find out too late that there was someone who needed my help. Exhortation works the same way. I don’t necessarily like having my faults or my failures pointed out to me, but I would really hate being left on my own to deal with my sinfulness without anyone taking the time to show their love and support. The Lord set aside one day out of seven of rest and charged us to use it. But even on that sabbath day we are called to offer encouragement and guidance to one another so that all may live in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. So, being a Christian is a full time job and being part of the community of faith allows for no down time. It is just that important.

Prayer: God of love, help us to care for one another and to encourage one other to live in faithful obedience to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Here’s Hoping

Hebrews 3:1-11
There are things I hope for that are, in the grand scheme of life, of little lasting importance. For example, I hope the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA championship this year. As a fan, I would be very proud of that accomplishment and it would give me a certain amount of confidence, I suppose, among other basketball fans. Besides, the Spurs are a model of consistency, led by an outstanding coach and a core group of players who understand the importance of teamwork. So I hope they win the championship. But even if they do, in a matter of months it would mean very little as my life moves on and challenges arise; challenges like providing for my family, or caring for those in need, or participating fully as a citizen of my country. Those are issues that cannot be resolved or dealt with simply because a particular team wins a title. And yet, even these aspects of my life, these challenges, do not approach the level of meaning expressed by the writer of Hebrews. In our epistle reading for today we read, “Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope” (Hebrews 3:6). True hope, true Christian hope, leads to a kind of confidence, a sort of pride that stands over and above the day to day aspects of our lives –– even the important ones –– because it is focused on eternity and not merely on the here and now. Indeed, to live with the sort of hope that the writer of Hebrews is talking about is to live with no fear of what challenges may confront us, but with a sense of peace and resolve that transcends even the most trying of circumstances because we know –– we know –– that something better, something more complete, something more profound awaits us.

As one whose faith is placed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, I have the opportunity each and every day to face life with all the energy, all the strength that I can muster, embracing life and all of its ups and downs. Even even if I fall well short of the goals or aspirations that my faith holds out to me, even if I am subjected to ridicule or hardship because of what I believe, I am blessed with the knowledge, the certain hope, that in Jesus Christ God has claimed me and will continue to love and guide me no matter what. And when I allow that to really sink in, when I let that enter into my consciousness in a meaningful way, I realize that I really do have nothing to fear. The confidence I feel is not in my own abilities, the pride I have is not based on anything I have done; it is all based on the fact that in Jesus Christ I am a part of God’s house and as such blessed beyond measure.

I will be rooting for the San Antonio Spurs to win the NBA title in 2013. But regardless of whether or not they do, I will be striving to live my life with the pride and confidence that comes from knowing God is at work in and through me and that something far greater than I could ever imagine awaits me. That is the nature of Christian hope.

Prayer: Almighty God, may we each live out the hope with which we have been blessed, and may we demonstrate our confidence and pride in you to those around us, this day and always. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What a Long, Strange Trip

Deuteronomy 8:1-20
“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

Two thoughts cross my mind when I read and reflect on those words from our Old Testament reading this morning. The first is the song “Truckin” by the classic rock group The Grateful Dead, which includes this refrain: “Sometimes the lights all shinin’ on me; Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.” There are indeed times in my life when I have looked back and marveled at what a long, strange trip I’ve been on, the ups and the downs, the challenges and the accomplishments, the doubts overcome and the assumptions proved wrong, the questions answered and those that remain unanswered, the times of light and the hours of darkness. In a number of ways my life (at age 52) has been a long, strange trip, and I’m sure the people of Israel, standing on the cusp of the promised land, poised to enter and, with God’s help, to subdue it, were given cause to think in similar terms. But according to Deuteronomy God had been at work throughout, guiding and sustaining the people and testing to see their intentions. Wherever they had gone, God had been with them, and that fact had made the journey possible. Wherever we’ve gone, wherever our long, strange trips have taken us, God has been with us, too, leading us and making our journey possible.

And that leads to my second thought this morning. A minister friend of mine once spoke of his sense of call as best seen in hindsight. As he had moved from church to church in his career, it was when he took the time to reflect on events and opportunities in his life that he could most clearly recognize the hand of God at work. I’ve experienced the same reality. I’ve found myself wondering why I was in a particular situation as a minister and only after the fact, only when I’ve taken the time to ponder events and opportunities, have I recognized the real reasons that I had been there. As the book of Deuteronomy points out, the people of God finally had reached a place in their history where they could look back, reflect, and fully recognize their journey in terms of God’s actions.

Perhaps as we journey through the season of Lent each of us will be given the chance to look back, to reflect, to consider where, by God’s grace, we’ve been and how God has led us and cared for us. Perhaps we will find time to ponder the journey ahead and behind and note that, no matter how long or how strange, our trip has never been without God’s encouragement. Granted, some trips are longer and stranger than others, but the one God of Israel lies at the heart of them all.

Prayer: Lord God, make your presence known to us that we may remember we do not journey alone, but always in your presence. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Someone, Somewhere

Hebrews 2:1-10
I am always amused by this particular passage in our reading from Hebrews today. “Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?’” (Hebrews 2:5-6). Frankly it sounds like something I would say, especially if I was feeling too lazy to confirm that as a quote from Psalm 8:4. Recently in a sermon I mistakenly referred to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” as “The Road Less Traveled.” I was sure I had the right title, so sure that I didn’t take the 30 seconds necessary to verify it on Google. Fortunately, the English teachers in my congregation were gentle in their comments.

The writer of Hebrews did not have the luxury of Google, of course, and may not have been sure of the exact source. But no matter! The verse quoted is apt and to the point, which I think helps to highlight an important aspect of scripture’s power. Scripture does not gain its authority from our mastery of it. This is God’s word; it comes to us with its authority already in tact, its relevance already assured. This is why we wrestle with and allow ourselves to be engaged by passages like those from Hebrews and the book of Psalms, because it is there that we find God’s word for us and for the world. A too-easy comfort with such verses, to me, indicates an unwillingness to be fully impacted by what God is saying. Scripture is hard work, it is long study, it is on-going conversations, it is prayer and reflection, it is honest disagreement and an open examination of preconceived notions. It stands up to and rewards our toughest questions with resilience and strength.

The writer of Hebrews had a message for God’s people. So did the psalmist. But the power of their words comes from God’s Spirit working in and through them. A breezy familiarity with scripture keeps us from appreciating the wondrous power at work there. To me it is far more important to honestly wrestle with words of scripture than to pass by them quickly or with blasé familiarity.

Prayer: Lord, give us ears to hear your word even as we wrestle with its meaning for our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Between Faithfulness and Forgetfulness

Deuteronomy 6:1-15
Throughout the history of God’s people there has been a prevailing trend: when times are tough, we turn to God and seek the divine favor; when times are good, however, it is very easy for us to forget God’s presence or that we ever needed God in the first place. The writer of Deuteronomy warned against just such a turn of events. “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors,” we read, “to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you…take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:10a, 12).

“Take care that you do not forget the Lord.” These are telling words that go straight to the heart of contemporary life. It is so easy in our consumer-driven culture, in this age of the self-made individual, to take credit for who we are and for the blessings we’ve received as if we have done it all by ourselves. Not only does this put us at odds with the divine will, but it also tears at the very fabric of the community of faith. One of the realities that binds us together as Christians is the recognition of our profound need for God and for one another. To forget God, then, is also to forget those around us, their needs and aspirations, their challenges and sorrows. A call to remember the Lord at all times, then is also a call to remember one another. And not just to remember each other, but to continue to care for and show compassion to others as well.

We are blessed in many ways by a God who loves us, watches over us, and, when need be, judges and corrects us. If we forget this, we lose an essential aspect of who we are.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to remember you at all times and to live our lives in accordance with your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Busy Work On The Mountain Top

Mark 9:2-13
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus as recounted in Mark’s gospel gives us quit a bit to ponder. There is the lofty yet lonely location in which the events take place and the isolation of the characters involved who are eventually even shrouded by clouds. The setting of this event seems very intentional and important. There are also the various voices that speak in the passage, actually or by inference. Jesus, God, Peter, Moses, and Elijah are each quoted to the reader or are seen by others to be speaking. Words obviously play a major role in this story which is appropriate as Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. But today I’m struck by this section of the text: “And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:4-6). All that Peter could think about at the appearance of Moses and Elijah was a building project of sorts, essentially busy work.

Peter’s fear is understandable, but there was really no reason for the three disciples to build tents or booths for Jesus and the other. In fact, Peter’s offer reminds me of the old cliché of sending someone to boil water just as a women goes into labor. It’s the sort of thing you send someone to do so that they will be out of the way. But Peter’s offer also raises an interesting question for us to consider. Are there times when our involvement in the life and work of the church amounts to no more than “busy work,” meaningless actions carried out for no real purpose? How often do we offer to build booths when we should pay attention to what is going on, to events we’ve been blessed to witness, opportunities we’ve been given to see the word of God unfolding in our midst? Are there times when we would rather tend to the day to day stuff of organization or institution when what we should be doing is touching lives by sharing ourselves? I know how easy it is to let myself get lost behind a pile of work. I also know how easy it is to miss out on real opportunities to minister.

Peter was frightened, and there is much to frighten us today as well. Peter wanted to do something – anything – rather than absorb what he was seeing. Finally the voice of God called him and the others back to the need to listen and to be involved in what Jesus was saying and doing. Day to day the voice of God calls us as well. Our response must be to stop with the busy work, and to get busy doing the real work of the coming reign.

Prayer: Lord God, guide us in our living that we may set aside that which would distract us from your will. Help us instead to serve you and to respond to your call in all we do. In Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pop Quiz

Mark 8:27-9:1
“[Jesus] asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah’” (Mark 8:29). It’s funny how the question, “who do you say that Jesus is?” has the power to set a believer’s teeth to chattering and palms to sweating faster than just about any other. And yet, everyone who professes faith in Jesus Christ should be ready to offer an answer. As a minister, the temptation I face is one of over-answering the question. If I find myself engaged in a conversation about faith – on an airplane for instance – I sometimes have to fight the urge to share stories about the early church fathers, or an explanation of the doctrine of the incarnation, or the differences between Presbyterianism, congregationalism, and the episcopacy as forms of church polity, as if any of that is truly key to knowing Jesus Christ. What answers like that do is to miss the point badly because they point off into the distance somewhere in some abstract way. What is needed is an answer that speaks in personal terms.

Over the years I’ve considered a number of ways to express who Jesus is to me without getting abstract, and the one that I’ve tended to use most often is this: Jesus Christ is the one who helps me make sense of my life. What I mean by that is that in his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ demonstrated a complete trust in God and a devotion to God’s will that allowed him to live with a deep and abiding compassion for all. When I face times of challenge or crisis, when I am confronted by issues that I don’t understand or can’t explain, when the darkness seems to overwhelm the light, I am comforted by the fact that Jesus was willing to die for the sake of the world—me included. Jesus trusted in God, and that trust inspires me, it lifts me, it comforts me, and yes, it gives my life shape and meaning. Who do I say that Jesus is? I say that he is my Lord and Savior and I invite others to consider what it might mean for them to say the same.

Prayer: Lord God, we thank you for the love you have shown to the world in the person of Jesus Christ your Son in whom we see your grace poured out and in whose name we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Walking Trees Are Just One Example?

Mark 8:11-26
There is one of those verses in our reading from Mark today that always catches my attention. I find it fascinating, perhaps, for no other reason than it is so honest. According to Mark’s account, Jesus had just put saliva on the eyes of a blind man in order to heal him. “Can you see anything?” Jesus asked him. “And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking’” (Mark 8:24). Finally, Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes and the man’s sight was restored.

One thing this passages helps to demonstrate is the particularity of Jesus’ ministry, especially his acts of healing. The detail and complexity of this account remind us that the people Jesus ministered with and for were real people with real needs. This sort of detail – the dialogue between Jesus and the blind man, the failed first attempt at a complete healing, the fact that to the man in need people looked like trees walking to and fro – it all serves to remind us that no two people that Jesus met were alike. Just as they suffered from different conditions, they also had different personalities and different habits. There were men and women, young and old, rich and poor, Jew, Samaritan, and Syrophoenician, Pharisee and sinner, priest and tax collector, some were blind, some lepers, some deaf, some possessed. Some were shy or withdrawn when meeting the Lord, and others bellowed across the road at him. Everyone was different.

Nor was Jesus’ response to these people the same. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Jesus is reported to have healed folks in a variety of ways and under a number of different circumstances. Sometimes he touched the person in need of healing and sometimes that person touched Jesus; sometimes Jesus was nearby the one in need and sometimes Jesus never actually saw that person; sometimes Jesus accomplished the healing with mud, sometimes saliva, and sometimes with only the spoken word. In this case, of course, Jesus used two methods of healing to allow a blind man to see again, but that’s because the first method didn’t get the job done.

As Mark’s gospel makes abundantly clear, Jesus is willing to meet us as individuals right where we are and to meet our needs in the ways they need to be met, not in a one-size-fits-all sort manner, but displaying God’s love and affection for all of us, which is just what you would expect from a God who created each of us and knows us extremely well. The challenge, then, is for us to begin to see one another and our needs the way God sees them, as applying to particular individuals in particular types of need. We must never look for instant fixes or one-size-fits-all solutions to fling among cutout people. Instead we must see the world as a rich tapestry made up of different types of men and women all striving in their own way toward an abundant life. When we do this, when we see beyond the stereotypes to the things that make us who we are – as different as our fingerprints – then and only then can real ministry take place. Only then can we do the work of God in the world.

Prayer: Almighty God, teach us to know one another as individuals and to cherish one another as ones created in your image. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Who’s Making All That Noise?

Isaiah 52:1-12
It isn’t always easy to perceive the work of God in our midst. God’s grace, God’s love, God’s mercy all take interesting forms and can come at us from surprising directions. But one thing of which we can be sure is that God does remain active transforming lives and restoring creation. This is, after all, the message that lies at the very heart of the gospel. In Jesus Christ, God was – and is – reconciling the world to God’s self. The prophet Isaiah looked forward to a time when the message of God’s salvation would ring loudly and clearly throughout the land. “Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see 
the return of the Lord to Zion” (Isaiah 52:8). To me the most obvious modern version of these particular sentinels is the church, and it seems appropriate that the people of God, called to be the body of Christ at work in the world, should lift their voices with exultation in order to proclaim God’s presence so that all the world may know and rejoice.

The key, I believe, is Isaiah’s call to “sing for joy.” Normally this would be a funny thing for sentinels to do. It brings to mind images of the knights of Camelot performing their wacky dance number in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But true joy has that affect, it causes us to dance and sing and become giddy with delight until others begin to wonder why and perhaps even to join in. The church, then, is a sentinel called to scan the horizon, not in dread of what may be coming, nor in gleeful anticipation of God’s fiery condemnation of “everyone else,” but with expectation and hope, knowing that God comes with power and might – yes – but also with love and justice. And when we see signs of God’s activity, when we glimpse grace unfolding in our midst “in plain sight,” we most certainly should “lift up (our) voices, (and) together sing for joy” in response.

Worshipping with a local congregation, serving in the wider community, offering prayers, reflecting on scripture, accepting others as God’s creatures as we strive to find common cause, giving generously of our time and talents: these are all appropriate ways to “sing for joy,” to make known that the Lord is near and that the kingdom of God has dawned. As the people of God let us rejoice at what the Lord is doing and let the good news be shared.

Prayer: Lord God, give us voices to praise you and the willingness to serve you in all we do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.