|Pastor Derek's Daily Bread||ILC YouTube Livestream|
We encourage the congregation to use the posted devotionals to "virtually join together" in prayer, daily, at 9:00am.
... with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition,
if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.
2 Timothy 2:25
Paul shares some final words with Timothy, one of those who will carry on his ministry after Paul’s course on earth is completed – and the apostle knows that his final lap is right around the corner. Paul and Timothy share a life mission – they have both been called and commissioned by God, through the church, to be bearers of God’s good news of salvation in Jesus the Messiah. This is the truth of which Paul speaks. Even as the apostle encountered much opposition to message he had proclaimed, for a variety of reasons, he knows that after he is gone, Timothy will encounter some of the same challenges. And the counsel he shares here can be instructive and helpful to any of us, when we are faced with our own opposition. Read again the verse above, with this question in mind: Which words rise up as most important? In addressing the objections Timothy is sure to face, Paul imparts insight to Timothy – not only how to influence someone’s mind, but how to change their heart. He shows Timothy not only how to win an argument, but, more importantly, how to gain a friend. Am I reading too much into this? Well, what about those key words? Which words do you think Paul stressed when he first spoke them? Which words would he have emphasized and underlined? Which would you highlight in this passage, that you might not miss them the next time you read them? Two words jump out at me. And now let’s see if yours match mine. The first is gentleness. If someone tries to convince you of something, my guess is it is not often that words spoken in anger or with force will do the trick. They might well get your attention, but more often than not, yelled truths will result in barriers built even stronger, walls erected even higher, and the heels dug in even more deeply. Force often creates resistance from the other side. Anger cause others to run for cover and to cower in fear and will accomplish little in helping you win an argument or influence another to join your team. Gentleness, however, puts your listener at ease. After all, if truth is on your side, you already have an advantage. To help others see it, you need to come alongside them to see with their perspective before you point them in the direction where they can see it for themselves. Or, you have to beckon them to your side, so that they can see the matter from your perspective. Unless you are gentle, few will allow you to come alongside them, and few will be willing to cross over to you. The opposition that exists is there for a reason, and if you’re intent on removing it, it behooves you to understand why it’s there in the first place. Gentleness opens the door for your opponent to share the reasons why, the reasons only they can reveal. And gentleness will help you listen, understand and make any adjustments needed in your delivery, to help them see things from your point of view. The second word that rises up is God. For, in the end, your gentleness can help you be a patient listener, a skillful teacher, and a persuasive presenter of your case. But only God can transform the human heart. And when the heart is changed, the mind can follow. Knowing these things can keep you humble and prayerful, as you engage with those in opposition. And you may well discover that as you relate to another person in such fashion, you’ll not only come to know that person better, you will also come to see the truth more clearly that you have ever seen it before.
Good and gracious God, thank You for the truth You have revealed to us in Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Open our eyes to the fullness of the good news of Your gospel message. Transform our hearts, that we might cherish the salvation You have won for us and love the people for whom You left heaven, became incarnate, and sacrificed all. Bless us with gentle, tender and compassionate hearts, that, in everything, we will be motived by Your love. Work in us and through us that which is well pleasing in Your sight.
Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder!
Because I am doing something in your days – You would not believe it if you were told.
The prophet cries out in lament on behalf of the people. For God had appeared to be silent and stationary. Was God aware of what was going on? Did God observe the wickedness in the world, running rampant? If so, why did God allow it to continue? These are the poignant ponderings of the prophet. And even as he gives voice to the concerns of his people, he also makes confident confession: God does, in fact, hear. God does, indeed, see. And God is certainly at work… That which God is bringing about, we can hardly fathom. Like a well-crafted novel, God is weaving history (His Story) toward its final purpose. Which is neither to say that human beings have nothing to do with it nor that God controls our every move. For God has certainly given us much freedom to call our own shots. God has given us a long rope. But God has also set boundaries; our power is not limitless. In and through each and every one of our human decisions, both good and bad, God is working to bring about His good purposes on our behalf. And in God’s sovereignty – what we might call holy orchestration – God will finally bring matters to glorious conclusion. We can have this confidence because of God’s goodness and grace: God will have His way in the end, and we can rejoice in that truth. Because in the final analysis, God is for us, not against us. So then, is it possible to see God’s work in the world, as it is happening? God assures the prophet that it is so. Even though we, with our human limitations, cannot envision the full beauty of what God has in mind, we can see God’s hand at work in the world. While some will declare the absence of God in the midst of terrific tragedy, we see evidence of God’s presence and goodness in that which rises up in the midst of catastrophe and in response to it. Although we might not understand why bad things happen to good people, we see the goodness of God when the community surrounds one who encounters times of trouble. I will not soon forget the lament of a community that was inundated by floodwaters, so great that they surrounded the church sanctuary where I preached and prevented access to it. But neither will I forget the almost palpable presence of God in the midst of the people, as we worked side by side for days on end, filling sandbags and constructing barriers to preserve the homes of people in need. Joy was intermingled with sorrow, and in the end, joy won the victory. The psalmist admits with all honesty that weeping may well last for the night. But he also declares with confident hope: Rejoicing will come in the morning. The night of our global pandemic has certainly not been brief. But morning will come and rejoicing will follow. Those who have ears to hear will recognize the voice of God softly whispering words of assurance throughout the hours of this night. And those who have eyes to see will recognize God’s hands at work through family members, friends and strangers. For indeed, the work of God is carried out in and through us. And as our church denomination has stated with confident conviction: It is God’s work done through our hands. And yet, God’s truth is even greater. For God works outside our experiences – apart from our decisions and beyond our community. God’s kingdom extends well beyond the territory we recognize and call our own. And one day we will be blessed to hear the whole story – with wonder, astonishment and hearts filled with praise.
Sovereign Lord of all creation, we rejoice that You are our God and that You have claimed us as Your own. Guide us in ordering our days and our deeds according to Your revealed will. Work in us, so that we might align ourselves with Your purposes and be useful instruments to accomplish all that You would have us do. We praise You for Your grace, and we exult that You desire only good for all of Your people. Open our hearts, that we might passionately care for all of Your children with Your own lovingkindness. And even as You exclude no one from Your compassionate care, let us welcome and receive all in Your name.
First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings,
be made on behalf of everyone...
1 Timothy 2:1
Conflict is inherently challenging – even more so when it must be dealt with from a distance. The seasoned apostle writes to a capable but green pastor to counsel him about how to manage difficulties that had arisen in a young congregation of believers. It appears that they are, in the midst of the Ephesian church, many would-be chiefs that had ventured off-course and had others following after them. It was a dangerous situation, as faulty navigation elsewhere had led to the shipwreck of faith in the community. But at this point, all was not yet lost. In fact, the apostle reminds Timothy of his (Paul’s) own journey – how God had rescued him, the chief of sinners, from the error of his ways. Paul doesn’t wait for things to get worse. He takes the initiative and addresses the conflict while it is still manageable. And here we find his initial advice: Prayer. This is not a when-all-other-attempts-have-already-been- made-and-there’s-nothing-left-to-lose action. It’s the apostle’s first instruction, and in these words we discover why. Paul counsels Timothy to bring the people together to pray – at the outset and throughout the process of dealing with the conflict. The four words Paul uses all relate to prayer, and in them we find insightful nuance. Entreaties (requests) relate to the attitude of the one who prays. It speaks of humility, and it recognizes that prayer consists of sinful and broken humans coming before a holy and righteous God. Humility is not only important in one’s prayer-posture, it’s a crucial aspect of one’s attitude when interacting in community. Prayers might be seen as a general term. That prayers are made on behalf of everyone helps us see that praying serves to increase connection, build the team, foster good fellowship, and create unity within the body of believers. Petitions (or intercessions) remind us that prayers made serve as a mediating influence. The one who prays pinch hits for a member of the same team. This aspect of prayer increases understanding and empathy. Finally, thanksgiving (or gratitude) helps the one praying focus on the good things in others – which is most helpful in times of conflict, when their irritating and annoying qualities can come to the fore. As the apostle breaks it down for Timothy, it’s easier for us to see that this kind of prayer prepares the congregation as a whole to deal with the conflict that has arisen. By committing to this process, the community is strengthened and unified. They’re reminded of the blessings God has given them in each other, as they express gratitude for the diversity in their midst. And they become unified in their intentions for the congregation as a whole. One final facet that reflects the power of prayer is seen in the original Greek word for first: Proton. In general chemistry you likely learned that a proton is a subatomic particle with a positive charge. Even so, our prayers for one another (and for ourselves) are submitted before God with a positive attitude. Our prayers serve to give us a proper perspective of ourselves, to build community, and to center our attention on what is most important (preserving us from making too much of peripheral matters and being distracted by them). But more than anything else, the One to whom we pray is able to accomplish immeasurably more than we ask or think. Prayer, then, should never be a last resort. As you come to recognize the Lord’s presence in your life, you will learn to live in prayer, and you will find in it a power that will keep you afloat in the midst of any storm.
Good and gracious God, You are always present for Your people and You are always listening to their requests. Continue to draw us together in one holy community, that our fellowship might increase and that Your will might be done in our midst. Keep us centered on what is most important and let us not be distracted by peripheral issues. Teach us to live lives of humility, gratitude, empathy and thanksgiving. And always fix our eyes upon You, that our spirits might overflow with abundant joy and positivity.
And He will judge between many peoples and render decisions for mighty, distant nations.
Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war.
The prophet envisions the end times, when the will of God will be fully realized on earth. And the prophet’s words were considered, contemplated and debated. When would these things take place? How would they be accomplished? And while we too question how these things will come to fruition and what our role will be in bringing them to reality, there are strong convictions proclaimed that serve as guiding principles. The prophet declares that God Himself will judge between nations. Not only will Israel’s actions be weighed before the Almighty: Every nation will be held accountable to the Creator of all. The prophetic proclamation serves as a comfort to those who experience injustice and oppression and a warning to those who wield power only for selfish gain, with no concern for those they trample in the process. In the end, God will right every wrong… When children fight, parents may well hold back from stepping in too quickly, thereby encouraging them to work things out for themselves. There may be bumps and bruises, but often the sacrifice is worth the learning that comes out of it. But this is not always the case. Sometimes the conflict doesn’t resolve – it only escalates. And it’s then that Mom or Dad steps in to put a stop to it. A lecture is given and tempers begin to simmer. And in the end, both sides take their ease, as they’re reminded that while battles are allowed, destruction is forbidden. And not only will the conflict be ended. Justice will be meted out. And when both parties trust in the one giving the verdict, they will accommodate themselves to the price they need to pay. It is then that they can begin to hammer away – not at their opponent, but at their weapons of destruction… Micah knows justice must come first for peace to be realized. And notice, too, what the transformed implements will be used for: cultivating crops. The nations’ efforts will be turned from purposes of destruction to labors of production and provision. The food to be enjoyed will not only be sufficient: It will be abundant. The harvest will be more than enough for those who reap it: They will have all that is needed – and then some. And in this way, those who are unable to provide for themselves will also have sufficiency. When the purposes of God are realized and peace reigns between nations, when there is more than enough for everyone and when all look to God as their provider, defender and judge, then nations will no longer need to train for war. For it is in the LORD that they will find their security… Centuries have passed since the prophet spoke these words and inscribed them for our edification. And the vision of God’s justice and peace is not yet fully realized. But the purposes of God have been made clear, and it has been left to us to work toward their full realization: To recognize we’re all connected in this global society – and to leave no one behind; to apply our efforts in working toward true justice – instead of seeking regulations that work best for one particular group (namely, our own); to realize that peace will come, as true justice is realized; to invest ourselves in labors of production, not destruction; and to join our efforts in meeting the basic needs of all God’s people. As we present ourselves to God to accomplish these purposes, we will live into the vision of the prophet and carry out the purposes of the Almighty, who cherishes each of His children and will leave no one behind.
Good and gracious God, we thank You for the prophets You’ve raised up to remind us of Your holy purposes. Transform our hearts and minds, that we may properly assess ourselves and be impartial in our judgment of others. Teach us the truth of Your ways – that justice comes before peace. And help us invest ourselves in positive and productive labors, that the basic needs of all Your people might be met. Thank You for the daily bread that You provide. Help us be to be faithful in distributing Your abundance.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us
and by His grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope...
2 Thessalonians 2:16
You have experienced the goodness and faithfulness of God. That you are reading these words now lets me know that God has preserved you through the night and blessed you with a brand-new day. The gospel we have received and with which we have been entrusted is inherently good news – and that, in itself, is something to celebrate. That alone gives us good reason to rejoice. The apostle means to encourage believers in the opening words of this benediction. God – the Father of all creation, and Jesus – the gracious Savior, promised Messiah and faithful Redeemer, work together in all things. Never in conflict, always in unity, their willful intention and effective work are always for the good of all of God’s beloved. Although these words were written to a Christian community almost two millennia ago, you can nonetheless claim them as your own, for their truth is eternal and is bound neither by time nor geography. And in these words, you will find the presence and power of God to fully equip you for all that you will encounter in the sacred moments called today. God embraces you with these words and empowers you to be God’s effective servant, through which your Lord will carry out His good purposes. In these words, you’re reminded of the all-encompassing care of God – past, future and present – and it does you well to consider each aspect. God has loved you. The Scripture is unchanging in its witness, as it testifies to the marvelous initiative of God on our behalf. Never do we get the idea that God was sick and tired of running the universe, so He created us to do some of His dirty work. Rather, the consistent confession is that God created us in love and blessed us with life to enjoy. And when humanity messed up, God came to our rescue. Yesterday, our faith community gathered to be reminded of the words of Jesus, and we heard Him assure His followers that He would lay down His life for them. We heard the witness that we know love first and foremost not in our own affections toward God but in His faithful action taken toward us – which showed itself in sacrifice and self-giving. God has loved you. It is into this truth that you have been born. God’s love has preceded you. The apostle goes on to say that by His grace God has given us eternal comfort. Which is to say that your destination is secure and your residence is permanent. Elsewhere, he assures us that our citizenship is in heaven. Even as you’ve entered into this world which had been fully prepared for your living, so also Jesus tells you that in His Father’s house there are many dwelling places and He promises to prepare a place there for you. What, then, is the result? The faithful love that precedes you and the future comfort that awaits you gives you good hope, right now, in which to live this day. You can rest assured: In God’s faithfulness, His already- demonstrated love in Christ will continue to abide with you. And His eternal comfort will not be removed. As you contemplate these words today, you experience God’s loving embrace. God now sends you on your way to positively impact the lives around you. And you will surely do just that. How could you do anything less, having been so richly graced by your faithful God?
Good and gracious God, Your love has gone before me to welcome me into the world. You are my faithful Savior, and You’ve promised me eternal comfort in Your presence forever. You’ve blessed me with good hope to sustain me. May these precious reminders resonate in my being and positively influence every interaction I have this day. Work in me Your sacred intentions and use me as Your holy vessel to carry out Your desired purposes. May Your name be glorified in me and through me for the good of all Your people, that many others will come to know through me Your faithful love, eternal comfort and good hope.
And he prayed to the LORD and said,
"Please, LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish,
For I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God,
slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity."
We may be quick to place the prophets in a category by themselves. We may see them as holy and pure, the select few who’ve come to fullness of faith in the LORD God Almighty. Perceiving them as such, we can make them out to be larger than life. But prophets are people, too. And with Jonah, perhaps more than any of the other prophets, we go behind the scenes to get an inside look at what makes the prophet tick – or at least this particular (and peculiar) prophet. And what we find not only tells us a lot about what is in his heart. We also gain insight into the heart of God. The errand given Jonah was not complicated. God intended to address the wickedness of the great city of Nineveh, and God chooses Jonah to be His mouthpiece. We watch with wonder as Jonah wordlessly turns his back both on the assignment given him and on the One who issues it. He sets off in the opposite direction and openly admits, to himself and to others, that he’s bound and determined to dismiss his duties. He unabashedly disregards the LORD who had sent him. Along with the prophet, we eventually learn that he has no real choice in the matter, and that while he can forestall the proceedings, he’s unable to prevent the inevitable. And when he finally consigns himself to complete the task, he watches it unfold just the way he feared it would. The prayer above is prayed in anger. The first word the prophet speaks – please – is filled with emotion and is replete with rebellious attitude. It has the tone of the exasperated. God had reneged on the judgment Jonah declared upon the wicked nation. We might think Jonah’s consternation came from God betraying him, contradicting his prophecy, hanging him out to dry. But this was not what perturbed him. Rather, the prophet was angry because the judgment he proclaimed did not come to pass – and he very much wanted to witness its occurrence. He would have paid dearly for a front row seat to watch the wrath of God poured out. For the nation of the Ninevites was his enemy. Their wickedness was real, and as harsh as any judgment would be that might come upon them, it would not, in the eyes of the prophet, be severe enough. In this verse we find not only the key to understanding why Jonah turns his back in the first place, we listen in on the witness of a prophet who knows well God’s character but still struggles to understand it. Jonah knows God is gracious, compassionate and abounding in steadfast love. But when God acts this way toward the wicked who deserve otherwise, it irks him beyond words. So he speaks his mind and stomps off to the edge of the city to pout. He watches with arms crossed. And he hopes that just perhaps God will change His mind. But we know that it is the prophet’s mind – and ours – that needs to be changed. After all, the prophet had been given a second chance – but he is perturbed when the same grace is given to others. The prophet experiences salvation when he is in deep trouble – but he begrudges the same rescue when it is given to his enemy. We can identify with the prophet and understand his indignation. But we also recognize that we join him in the need to have our hearts transformed. We, too, need our will and our mindset to be conformed to the holy will of God, who desires that none of His people perish but for all to come to repentance. The grace of God can soften stubborn hearts, be they enemies or prophets. And as long as the compassion of God makes us uncomfortable, there’s still more work to be done before we arrive at the fullness of our faith.
Good and gracious God, we’re humbled by Your kindness and we exult in Your amazing grace. And yet we admit there are times we’re not at all pleased when You extend it to others. We would much rather see Your judgment come upon them. Continue to transform our hearts until they align fully with Your own, that Your grace might have its full effect upon us and we might be useful vessels through which You can carry out Your good and perfect purpose. All honor and glory be yours, now and forever.
And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for everyone else,
just as we also do for you.
1 Thessalonians 3:12
If I showed you a photo of a man seated alone on the floor of a small, rectangular room and asked you how fast he was moving, you would, without hesitation, tell me he was stationary, not moving at all. But what would you say if I then showed you a second photo, taken at the same moment but a bit further back, to reveal that the room in which the man was seated was, in fact, a tractor trailer, speeding down an interstate highway? In the first scene, you were shown only a portion of reality. In the second, you saw the bigger picture. So also in life, you may well have the illusion of sitting still, even whiling reading this; but, in fact, you’re speeding through space at a rate you would find hard to wrap your mind around if you were told. Life is never static; things are always moving and changing. The law of entropy tells us that we move from an ordered state to a disordered one, and unless we put energy into the system, unless we’re aware of the maintenance need that’s required to keep it all going, things will eventually break down and grind to a halt. That goes for your relationships, as well. You’re not the same person you were yesterday, due to the experiences and interactions you have had with others in the past twenty-four hours. Those with whom you relate have also changed. In order to move forward, you’re compelled to invest yourself for good, lest you drift away and lose what you have gained. The apostle Paul had already commended believers for their faith, hope and love. Now he speaks a comforting benediction upon them. There are three relational directions he addresses: First, their love for one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ. They’re doing well, he tells them. They’ve fostered a loving and caring faith community. But the apostle spurs them on to further intentionality in their actions of word and deed. He would have them redouble their efforts, increase their energy, and apply themselves even more deliberately in their love for each other. Secondly, he encourages them to think of those outside their community. Not to be insulated or closed off to those who are not yet part of their fellowship. Their love is not to be limited to believers only. They are to live their lives steeped in grace, consistent with the way Jesus had demonstrated in His loving sacrifice for them. Thirdly, Paul reminds them of his own love for them, his own commitment to increase in his care and consideration for their best interests. They’re not alone in this venture. Paul and his companions are united with them, even if they are at a distance. Underlying all of these relationships is the resurrected Lord Himself, who is at work in their hearts and in their community, inspiring and empowering them to carry out His plan and His purposes… Today is a new day. And even as your body recharged as you slept, so now you have an opportunity to intentionally recharge your commitment and renew your devotion to all those God has brought and will bring into your life. The Lord will supply you with all that you need to do so. When you feel you’re running on empty or can’t keep up, turn your eyes heavenward, and God will supply you to overflowing with love. God’s love can never be contained; it spills over in abundance. You can be count on the Lord to provide all that you need, no matter where you are in life or in whatever circumstances you find yourself. So then: Be generous in your loving today. God will carry out His work in you and through you – for the glory of His name and for the good of all His people.
Good and gracious God, You faithfully supply at that I need this day, and You fill me to overflowing with Your love and mercy. When I feel weak, help me to recognize You’re right here with me, with Your strength to sustain me. Inspire and encourage me to be intentional in my interactions with those You will bring into my life today. May my words and actions reflect Your presence, and may I bring honor to Your holy and blessed name. Work Your will and Your ways in me and through me for the good of all Your people.
For the day of the LORD draws near on all the nations.
As you have done, it will be done to you.
Your dealings will return on your own head.
Even before we’re mature enough for self-examination or engaging in coherent thought, we seem to have an innate sense of justice. From an early age, we know all about unfair and mean and offense taken against us. And when we’re prodded and poked, we’re prone to hit back harder. We’re more sensitive to the hurts we receive than to the harm we inflict upon others – and therein lies the problem of justice. When disagreements arise between parties about who’s getting the short end of the stick, mediators and judges are called in. Determinations are made about how matters will be decided. But what if those determinations themselves are rigged? What if what’s been set up favors one group over another? What, then? When there’s a perception that the system itself is prejudiced, there’s no trust in the verdicts that come out of it. And if no sensitivity is shown to inequity and no adjustments are made, those who are oppressed (or those who feel oppressed) will eventually rise up, enraged, in an effort to scrap it all. They’ll take matters into their own hands and attempt to recreate a system that’s fair, that there may be fairness for them – and justice for all. Obadiah is the prophet who speaks out against the nation of Edom, whose ancestor was Esau. Esau’s brother, Jacob, was the father of the Israelites. Enmity existed between the two brothers, and centuries later hostilities continued to persist. When the time comes that the Israelites are conquered by their enemies, the Edomites ally themselves with the victors. They gloat over their own gain and poke their finger in the chest of their estranged brother. Certain that Israel is on its way out, Edom throws in its lot against them. They’re confident they themselves are in the clear, safe and protected by those with whom they’ve allied themselves. But there is no honor among thieves. And Edom was foolish to think they would escape danger, that they were preserved from betrayal, treachery and the duplicity of the merciless. They would find their trust in their allies to be misplaced, and their own folly would rise up to mock them and slap them silly. Their injustice would return to them like a boomerang and catch them unawares. Sometimes justice seems to be long in coming. Worse still, we may get the sense that it will never come. The world is unfair, we say, and if we wait for justice to win the day, we’ll find ourselves waiting forever. The prophet declares the rule of the LORD who is righteous. God will tolerate no injustice, and one day all accounts will be settled. Those who console themselves with false assurance that they’re getting away with something – that God cannot see, or, if God can, there is nothing He can do about it – speak only with empty arrogance and act only with foolish pride. They cannot and will not outsmart God. Their day is coming. As is ours. That God is merciful doesn’t mean God makes light of injustice or that God will abide it at all. We deceive ourselves if we think God will show us special favor if we act in ways contrary to His purposes and plan. While we can well rejoice that God will sort all things out in the end, this truth should sober us up, bring us to our senses, and work in us what the Scriptures call the fear of the LORD. For in the end, God will have His way – and it will be good and honorable, true and just. In the meantime, God would not have us throw up our hands and wait it out. Rather, God calls us to align ourselves today with the righteous ways He’s set before us, to do everything we can to promote truth and justice for all.
God of truth and justice, we thank You that You show no partiality and that, although You love each one of us more than we will ever come to know this side of heaven, You are no respecter of persons. You do not give us a pass on justice. Instead, You call us to attend to Your righteous ways in matters both big and small. Let us not be deluded into thinking we will escape Your judgment. Instead, keep us on Your straight and narrow path. Strengthen our will, that we might pursue Your ways of peace and justice on earth, until we arrive in the place You’ve prepared for us, where we will enjoy Your peace and justice forever.
Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings,
always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers,
that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God.
Years ago, when life was less complicated, I was one of those who put together an annual end-of-year recap of the major events that had occurred in our immediate family, to be sent to friends and extended family members along with our Christmas greetings. Each child was asked to make a small contribution, either writing a few sentences themselves or making mention of the most important things that had happened to them over the course of the past year. And then, when the letter was all but complete, they took pen in hand and signed their own names at the bottom. Their input was welcomed. It enlivened the letter and was an integral component of the blessing we sought to impart to others. In like manner, the apostle makes room in his epistle for Epraphras – who was, as we read here, a member of the Colossian community. From a distance, this man, who was beloved not only to Paul but perhaps even more so to the Colossians, desired to be included and to send his own greetings. Epaphras was first and foremost a bondslave of Jesus – which is to say he answered first and last to his Lord, Jesus Christ. He had sensed the call of God to leave the community that was so dear to him and to participate in the itinerant ministry of Paul. We might imagine Epaphras, upon learning of the apostle’s intention to write to his hometown folk, insistently reminding Paul to include a greeting from him. The apostle is more than willing to do so and adds words of his own besides, bearing witness to the community of Epaphras’ love and devotion. How many times had Paul heard him pray for his friends back home? How often had he mentioned them in his personal petitions? He had regularly and heartfully lifted them up before God, that they might be steadfast in faith and grow in their assurance of God’s will. Even as he had previously encouraged them in person, now, from a distance, he offers prayers to God on their behalf. And although Epaphras could not be present with the people he loved, he participated with them in a spiritual fellowship not limited by geography or time zone. Their common connection was God, the Father of them all. And it was the Spirit of God that held them in holy and blessed communion. In our own day, we enjoy a global society. We’re afforded ease of travel. And the gift of the Internet, that allows us to connect with each other instantly, has proved to be a wonderful blessing. We’re able to unite with the family of faith far and wide, and our eyes have been opened to the marvelous vision of the communion of saints. The Internet has also given us insight into the power prayer has to connect and unite us. It’s showed us what a gift we’ve been given in prayer – to call upon the One who hears us and draws us together in close and blessed fellowship. Because God is the One to whom we pray, our prayers have the power to influence others for good. Of course, nothing can replace physical proximity. There is no substitute for in-person, face-to-face sharing. Although the virtual world is real and it can be meaningful, it still leaves us wanting. But our prayers will one day give way to the full realization of the fellowship we share in the presence of our faithful God, when time and distance will no longer separate. That will be a glorious day, a time of unprecedented joy, when God’s family will all be under one roof, and where we will abide in peace and love, together forever.
Good and gracious God, we thank You for the wonderful connection we share as brothers and sisters in Christ. We know that neither time nor distance can separate the joyful fellowship we share. And yet we long for physical proximity. Open our eyes and our hearts to the wonderful blessing of prayer, a means for us to connect us to You, a bond that binds us to one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor and exact a tribute of grain from them,
though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, yet you will not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine.
The prophets had piercing eyes. They were not distracted by gloss and glitter. They ascertained the hidden intentions in the hearts of men and uncovered their solemn and sacred secrets. Those wise enough to recognize they had been found out, feared the power of the prophet’s words and attempted with savvy and finesse to woo them to their side. But the prophets couldn’t be bought, and they wouldn’t play along. God had not only given them righteous indignation against the sins being committed, God had shown them the end of all things – where the behavior of the people was sure to lead. The protests of those in power – that the prophets were making too much of things – were made in vain. Sure, the rent is high and the taxes we impose serve to pad our own pockets. But where would the poor be without us? Homeless, jobless, starving and stealing! The real truth is: We who are in power are doing the poor a service! After all, if the poor had more, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. They’d only mismanage and squander any additional pay for their efforts. Far better for us to take charge of their affairs than to leave them to their own devices. So what if we rule with a hand that is heavy and firm? But the prophets weren’t buying it. They saw right through the pretenses of the powerful. And the arrogant insistence of the ruling class – that they were doing nothing wrong – was a stench in their nostrils. Amos was the first of the fiery prophets, and he had warned the people of what was coming. It was clear to him that the people were more hard-hearted than the Pharaoh of Egypt – for even when the severest of plagues had come upon them, they sloughed them off. They perceived the misfortunes that had come their way as just a part of life – they couldn’t detect God’s hand of judgment in them. But their sins were worse than Sodom, and their outcome would be commensurate with their crimes. Although the rich felt secure behind their gated estates and luxuriated in their abundance, their enjoyment of it would be short-lived. Their sins would be exposed, and soon they’d be stripped of all that surrounded them. Their religious ceremonies were all for show, and their offerings were odious in the sight of God. God was not about to accept even their grandest displays or their sincerest sacrifices – if they continued to scoff at His commands and disregard His decrees to care for the poor and not oppress them. If they wouldn’t love their neighbor, they couldn’t expect any outward religious devotion to be accepted by God. God would not have one without the other, because He had inextricably tied them together. While those in power enjoyed the ride and thought it would last forever, Amos saw clearly the breakdown in the community and that the end of all things was at hand. The word of the Lord, spoken by the prophet, was finally for the good of all God’s people. They would disregard it only to their detriment. God will always take the side of the powerless and oppressed. It’s something the rich and powerful must always remember, lest they find themselves fighting against God and be stunned at the sudden overturning of their fortunes. God’s will and ways will not be dismissed without consequence. God is the one who calls the shots, and they’re always for the good of all His people.
Almighty God, glorious ruler of heaven and earth, preserve me from delusions of grandeur. Save me from foolishly thinking I can attain any real security apart from You. Your truth challenges those in power and brings hope to the downtrodden. Teach us to use power only for good and to make every decision with our neighbor in mind. Remind us that You created us to be one community and blessed us with rich diversity. Help us so to live together that we are mutually supportive of each other, that our actions might be done according to Your Word and be pleasing in Your sight, for the honor of Your holy name.
For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him,
and not on him only but also on me, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.
His name was Epaphroditus. His is not a household name, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, you’re not alone. Even faithful Sunday morning attendees and dedicated students of Scripture might not recognize it, and few would be familiar with his story. But he was an important man, both to the fellowship of believers in Philippi and also to the apostle Paul. He was loved by all, and he was a gift to all who knew him. He was their faithful messenger and servant. He was reliable, trusted and treasured, both by those who sent him out and by those who welcomed him home. And when Epaphroditus took ill and the news of his sickness spread, deep concern rested on the spirit of the community. They were moved to pray on his behalf, with anxious and troubled hearts. We question neither the apostle Paul nor the Philippian church with respect to their confidence in Christ or in His ability to heal. Neither do we doubt their faith in the compassionate heart of our Lord or His goodwill toward all who call upon His name. Most of all, we do not question their conviction that when their earthly lives were finished, they fully expected to enter into heavenly glory – not by their own merits, but through the righteousness of Christ. Paul speaks of our citizenship in heaven – which is to say that we are sojourners on this earth, temporary residents, and that heaven is our Home. Moreover, we do not doubt that the community of believers fully accepted Paul’s words that the experience of heaven far exceeds the best of our days here on this Planet. And yet, all of these things, as important as they are, do not remove the sorrow we feel when a loved one dies. We may confidently believe that having taken leave of this earth, our loved ones gain something far better than what they have left behind. We may be blessed with the certain hope of heavenly reunion. And yet, we experience real loss when a loved one dies and real grief in our hearts. For although the claim of our Easter Hope is that death will not have the final word, we still feel its earthly finality and the irreparable rift it causes between us. In the case of Epaphroditus, God blessed him with recovery and with an additional measure of days. He continued to bring the blessings of God wherever he went and to impart joy to all who received him. To grieve the death of a loved one doesn’t mean that you’re weak in faith. It means that you’re strong in love. Your sorrow is a sign that the loss you have experienced is real. You cherished shared moments with your loved one, and now they are no longer with you. You need not pretend you’re not hurting. There should be no shame in your tears. You have the promise of Scripture that the Lord is near to you who are brokenhearted. Indeed, God faithfully abides with you, while you grieve. And when you’ve cried all of your tears and you’ve emptied yourself of all your emotion, God will bless you with the quiet but certain hope of what is to come. It is then that sorrow and joy will kiss, and you will take comfort in knowing that you’re embraced in the mercy of your compassionate God. And while you still have time: Cherish the moments. Be heart-full in your interactions. Allow yourself to feel, and do not be afraid of losing. For those who die in the care of the Lord will never be lost. Not one of God’s precious children will perish. May this heavenly perspective give you comfort in your sorrow and hope while you await the consummation of all things.
Good and gracious God, You bless Your people with life and all that is needed to sustain it. You mercifully restore Your people to health. And when our days are completed on this earth, You assure us of an eternity in Your presence, the fulfillment of our joy, the wonderful blessing of heavenly reunion. Grant us a vision of Your great power and might. And when we experience earthly loss, bless us with the comfort of Your companionship. Encourage us with the confident hope that those who die in You will live forever in Your abiding care, where You will welcome all of Your children in Your compassionate mercy and grace.
Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly;
Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God,
And cry out to the LORD.
A great catastrophe had come out of nowhere to consume the land and the livelihood of the people. No one and no thing had escaped its devouring. The rich and the poor were likewise afflicted. The animals, adept at finding food in the least likely of places, were at a loss to come upon any – and they wandered about aimlessly. The land languished before man and beast. The plague had wreaked havoc on their daily work and on their religious sacrifice. Both leaders and followers were hit. It was a widespread community event – and it was utter devastation. Sound familiar? While we have our present pandemic, in the days of Joel, it was a locust plague – the likes of which people had not seen in their lifetimes, nor could they recall any stories in their vast trove of family lore to match it. There had never been anything to compare to it. More than front page news, it would rise in the ranks to become a remembered historical event, forever marked, so that generations to come would hear of it and be appalled. They would listen with rapt attention and be rendered speechless, reduced in their reactions to oohs and aahs. What to make of this? Some would see in it the hand of God – and they would attribute the event to God’s judgment that had come upon them. Others, hesitant to assign to God this terrible and destructive act, took one step back and said God did not cause it but would certainly use what had happened to teach them a lesson. Others would look upon it as a portent – a warning of things to come. All three of these voices can be detected in the declarations of the prophet. But what we find here, early on in the aftermath of the unmatched locust plague, is a summons to gather the people – all the people – and to unite them in their response. The prophet makes his appeal to gather everyone to the LORD’s temple and there to join together as one community to lift up their collective voice to the LORD their God. If there were those who still resisted the ways of God with stubborn heart and independent spirit, now was the time for them to learn humility. Where do people turn in a time of calamity? Joel was confident and certain in his counsel. As it was clear that the plague had affected them all and the event was already bringing people together as one, Joel would use that momentum and channel it for good purpose. While some might be moved to blame God for what had happened and others would see God as a punishing parent, Joel advocated instead for a humble community spirit before the Creator of them all. He would rally the people and direct them to fix their attention on the LORD who had the power to rescue and the will to save. The prophet was convinced that at the very core and center of the character of God was grace and compassion, love and truth. That no matter how bad things looked at the time, this would not be the end of the story: There was more to come. Because God is good, the people could expect that even in the awful matter that had come upon them and almost destroyed them, God would surely bring about positive outcome. The prophet points the people in the right direction, for it is in the LORD that their hope would be found. As for them, so for us. In the end, we’re in a good place when we’re in the hands of God. And so, with humble hearts, we turn our eyes heavenward and together make our collective appeal, that God would have mercy on us and rescue us – from both the devastation that comes upon us from no fault of our own, as well as from the destruction of our own making. We look to our God, who is loving and compassionate and strong to save.
Good, gracious and loving God, in the face of danger and destruction, turn our hearts toward You. May we not be quick to blame You or others for our hardships. Instead, may our first response be to examine ourselves and our attitudes in Your sight. Unite us as one people. Grant us confidence that You are faithful and that You will withhold nothing good from those You claim as Your own. Teach us how to live together in peace and tranquility. And work in us humble hearts that are willing to serve You in whatever way You would have us do, for the honor of Your name and for the welfare of all Your beloved children.
... and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge,
that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God...
In these words, we discover a wonderful treasure… It is the apostle’s great joy to write to the beloved church in Ephesus. He had spent much time in their community, and he had enjoyed great fellowship with other believers in the church he established. He rejoiced to see them grow in their faith in Christ and in the works they carried out – for the good of their neighbor and for the glory of their God. As a faithful spiritual mentor, he endeavored to do all in his power to ensure that they had right and proper perspective in regard to their faith and works, and he takes great pains to present this discourse before them in this short letter. It is instructive to us to recognize that he spends the first three chapters addressing what Christ has done before he spends the next three chapters exploring what believers might do because of it. This the proper order of all things divine, and it cannot be learned too well. Paul himself had excelled in his own religious tradition. He had, if you will, climbed the ranks of the religious ladder, so zealous was he for the teachings which had been entrusted to his ancestors and to him. But when Jesus met him on that Damascus road, everything changed, and he saw life with an entirely new perspective. For it had been made clear to Paul that salvation was not his own doing. Rather, salvation was something that had been accomplished for him – and for us all – in Christ Jesus the Lord. When Jesus said from the cross It is finished! He meant it. The work had been finalized. The atoning sacrifice had been made. The rescue had been completed. This was the Good News – the Gospel message – that was at the heart of what Paul had been commissioned to preach. Indeed, God’s Church is called and sent to carry out good works in Christ’s name for the sake of the people God loves. But why do we do so? What is our motivating purpose? What is our end goal? Paul directs the attention of listeners onto Christ Jesus alone – and on the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge. And he would have them linger there. And so, I ask you today: Do you know how much Jesus loves you? I can answer for you: No, you don’t. For His love for you far exceeds all that you’ve come to realize and all that you can come to imagine. If you knew the great the love of Christ for you, it would change everything: You would be filled with the fullness of God. Imagine how it would affect you, if you meditated on the words, Christ loves me more than I know… until you believed them. How would that truth change the perspective you have regarding the experiences that come your way? Would it not touch your heart and soul to such an extent that everything you thought and did would be influenced by it? Any good works you do would never be done to earn the love of Christ, because you would have come to know He loves you already – more than you can imagine. Any work you do can only be done out of gratitude, in response to the One who has loved you with such a great love that you will never reach the end of it. The love of Christ for you today surpasses any knowledge you will gain of it in this life. It’s a truth you can plant deep within your heart and soul. And if you do, the whole world will be amazed to watch it grow. For it will show itself in your attitude, your enthusiasm and in all that you do. And it is then that others will begin to ask why. And it is then that you will have your opportunity to bear witness to the amazing love you have come to know. And you can tell them what has made such a difference in your life.
What amazing love You have displayed for us, O God, in Jesus Christ our Lord! True religion begins and ends with that truth: Your love for us and for the world. All that we ever do is in response to Your perfect love for us. Open our eyes to Your great love for us. And may it be the motivating force for how we interact with others. Help us learn to love them the way You have loved and continue to love us. Remind us each and every day that You claim us as Your own and love us with a love the fullness of which we will only come to know when we will see You face to face in the heavenly Home You have prepared for us.
Therefore the land mourns, and everyone who lives in it languishes
Along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky;
And also the fish of the sea disappear.
Earth Day rolls around next week. One day in the year we set aside to remind ourselves of the importance of showing some consideration to our Planet. We’ve come a long way in understanding the effect we humans have on the those with whom we share this space. We’ve come to realize our connection to nature. Our mutual dependence. That what we do – that everything we do – matters. Our eyes are in the front of our head and by nature we look forward. And we’re prone to take little notice of the wake we leave behind us. Scouts are taught always to leave a campground cleaner than they found it. This is a good rule to live by in all of life. And as our population increases, it becomes more important than ever to adhere to it. We are, after all, only visiting this Planet. We’re sojourners here, not permanent residents. So it behooves us all to be good houseguests and not to ruin it for others. Scripture bears witness that God gave us this earth to use. God sustains the earth with sun and rain and fertility. God provides. For our part, we’ve been entrusted with caring for the gift God has given. In the early chapters of Genesis, man was placed in the Garden of Paradise to cultivate and keep it. God has not removed that responsibility from us. You may well feel powerless: The part you play in God’s Grand Adventure is a small one. You may feel like throwing up your hands in despair, defeated in the face of such a momentous and overwhelming task. There are those who say we’ve gone too far, that we’ve reached the point beyond recovery, that we’ve forever ruined our earthly home. But no matter how dire the prognostications, we dare not give up. And there is something you can do today: You can recognize the truth of your connection to everyone else and every thing else on this Planet in which you live. The prophet speaks of this truth in the verse for today. The land mourns. And the beasts, the birds and the fish – those creatures which are above, on, and under the earth – languish. Along with other people – who live beyond the borders of what the Israelites called home, as well as those who had not yet been born. Hosea reminds his listeners of the truth that their actions affect everyone and everything else. Carry out your daily activities with that in mind. Raise awareness in the presence of your children and grandchildren. And as much as possible, learn to leave behind nothing but footprints. Simplify. Consume less. Reuse and recycle. Conserve and preserve. Be respectful of this Planet and the One who has graced you with taking your place on it. There are also some surprises. In our scientific age we’re trained to examine the nature of things and to discover how they operate. We’re taught to observe the relationship between things and to discern cause and effect. You might be wondering, then, what comes before the therefore of this verse. What’s the cause of the picture the prophet paints? He declares an absence of faithfulness, kindness and knowledge of God in the land. And the manifestation of these generalities is found the following particulars: Swearing, deception, murder, stealing, adultery, violence and bloodshed. That’s what comes before the therefore. And while you might disagree with the prophet and dismiss his contention that there’s connection between these behaviors and the destruction of our Planet, it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider the integrity of the created order. Compartmentalization is a poor excuse for disregarding everything outside yourself. Every decision matters. Every action taken makes a difference – not only in your own life and in the space you occupy, but to everyone and everything with whom you share this Planet. It’s the only home we’ve got. The prophet proclaims: All creation groans! We can do better. Commit yourself this day to do what you can to be kind to this earth. It’s an essential part of your response to your loving and faithful Creator.
Almighty God, You have created all things and declare them to be good. Open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us. Help us to recognize Your loving hand in all that we see. Remind us of Your faithful provision and Your abiding and sustaining presence. And help us to faithfully steward the resources You have entrusted to our care. Teach us to live respectfully in Your presence and to honor You in all that we do. And remind us that belonging to You means that we are connected to everything else that You have made and that You hold us responsible for living consistently in light of the truth You have revealed to us.
Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are children of Abraham.
What is faith and what does it do? How does faith demonstrate its essence and substance? And how shall we describe it? Perhaps more than anything else: Faith, although it is a noun, should be seen as a verb. For faith is first and foremost not an object, nor is it something to be acquired, owned or even held dear. Neither is faith something static, or something to be obtained and then guarded inviolable as your most prized possession. Rather, faith is living and active and latches onto the promise – and beyond it, to the promiser. Faith is something you’re caught up into, and it never ceases to pay attention to the one whose character inspires it. If we must speak of faith’s home, we must say that it resides not as much within our own hearts as it does in the one in whom we trust. So it is in our human relationships. And so it is in our relationship with God. You may have faith in someone who proves over time to be reliable, dependable and trustworthy. If the one in whom you place your trust betrays you and loses integrity, you lose faith in that person, and it is not at all easy to rebuild it. For if you are wise, no matter how much you want your relationship to be restored, your spirit will not quickly regain its rest; your faith will not easily be repaired. Moreover, once the seed of doubt has been planted in your relationship, that seed may grow into mistrust down the road for a multitude of reasons. Suspicions may arise within you as you perceive changes in mood, recognize different tones of voice, observe erratic patterns of behavior, or are struck with silence. Even though the one in whom you’ve heretofore placed your confident trust be honorable, honest and true, because of previous betrayal, your assumptions can erode any faith that attempts to grow and will instead feed the seed of doubt. Faith is fragile. But your relationship with God is altogether different – at least in this respect. For God is perfectly righteous, holy and true. God is completely trustworthy, through and through. God is not fickle, unstable, and there are no vagaries in God’s character. God will never let you down. Any appearances to the contrary must come only from false assumptions, misinterpretations, or improper projections of your imperfect human relationships on the utter dependability of God’s character. As long as you have your eyes fixed on God, your faith can do nothing but grow. But how do you envision God? How can God be known? Scripture bears witness that God become incarnate. God appeared in the flesh and took up residence in person of Jesus. Listen to His words and you will hear the voice of God. Observe His actions and you will see divine deeds displayed. The apostle Paul makes the claim that with respect to the human-divine relationship, it has always been the case that we live in a right relationship when we have our eyes fixed on God and our ears attentive to His promises. When God first called Abraham, his affections lay elsewhere. In recounting the history of Israel, Joshua tells us that Abraham and his ancestors served other gods. But when the LORD called his name, Abraham recognized the voice of the one true God. And when God spoke His promises, Abraham latched on - as a nursing infant to its mother’s breast. And therein lay Abraham’s righteousness. It is in this promise-faith relationship that we see an example of proper order in divine-human interaction. And, as the apostle writes: Those who do likewise – those who trust in the promises of God who is faithful – those are true children of Abraham.
Almighty God, holy and true: You speak Your Word, and wherever it lands life grows. Help us listen well to Your voice and carefully observe Your actions. Thank You for clearly demonstrating both, in Jesus Christ, Your Son. Our hearts are filled with gratitude that You have called us by name, even as You called our ancestor, Abraham. Help us so to follow in faith that our lives might evidence faith in loving actions that address the needs of our neighbors. Your love knows no bounds, and we rejoice that You’ve commissioned us to be Your conduits of love for others. Accomplish Your will in us, we pray, for Your glory alone.
How great are His signs, and how mighty are His wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and His dominion is from generation to generation.
The words themselves might not be so surprising. They’re simply words of praise, ascribing to God wonderful power and might, declaring the extent of God’s rule – both its location (which knows no bounds), and its longevity (with is timeless). We might well expect these words to come from the lips of a prophet or a priest – but they do not. We might well expect them to come from a devout Jew, raised from infancy to know the God of his ancestors. But neither is this the background of the speaker. In fact, the one who utters these words is none other that the great conquering king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. These words of praise are spoken by one who himself had been the recipient of the praises of men, one who had basked in the bath of earthly glory. But the king had also experienced a great humbling. And his own experiences had put him in a place from which he could recognize the One of mightier majesty and greater glory. As much as Nebuchadnezzar had attained in his own life, as high as he had risen in his rule, as vast and powerful a kingdom as he was able to lead, he saw with unique perspective that all of it paled in comparison to the eternal dominion of God. Imagine the power of the king’s witness! What an audience he had! Certainly, few others could speak from his perspective – or with his authority. In fact, we may confidently confess that his testimony of God’s kingdom, power and might, was unique. But so is yours… You might not have the ears of a nation listening to you. You might not have the rapt attention that the rich and powerful command before they open their mouths. But you’re in a position to speak with unique perspective. No one has experienced what you’ve experienced in the way that you’ve experienced it. And when you recognize God’s hand at work in your life, you have your own story to tell. Who God is and what God has done matters most. His is the Most Important Story to tell. But God’s work intersects with the humans God has made, and God has given us a voice to give an account of those interactions. While your story and mine are not as great as the Story of God, we dare not downplay the significance of telling them. For those who have not yet come to recognize the hand of God at work in their own lives, those who have not yet personally come to know God’s love and compassion, are particularly interested in practical matters. And while they may well attempt to refute any proofs you try to give of the existence of God or of the works of God in the world, they cannot so easily dismiss your life experiences and what they’ve meant to you. As you tell your own story, you might well bring home to others the One who feels absent. You might well bring down to earth the One who seems distant, far above the heavens. You might well make visible the invisible One and make known the One who is inscrutable. Indeed, you may not command the respect of a king or have a king’s audience, but there are people in your life who will listen to you more than they’ll listen to anyone else. Never underestimate the power of telling your story. Because there are those who love you, what you tell them matters. Don’t shy away from speaking God’s honest truth. Learn to tell God’s Story the best you can. And confidently share your own. You cannot create faith in others – that is the work of God. But God works through your words to bring about His mighty wonders.
Lord God Almighty, You speak Your powerful word and it goes forth to perform Your purposes. Inspire us to tell Your Story and to give You all honor and praise. Open our eyes to Your activity in the world and how it intersects with our lives. And then teach us how to humbly and confidently tell our stories, to bear witness to Your work in us. May we bear witness to the transformation You have brought about in our lives, that others might better recognize Your power and glory, and Your mercy and compassion.
Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!
2 Corinthians 9:15
For three chapters the apostle addresses an important project he was working on in his itinerant ministry. He was mindful of the deep financial needs of the saints in Jerusalem, the followers of the Way in the place where it all began. Having been sent out to spread the gospel far and wide, Paul proclaimed the Word, and many accepted it and came to faith in Christ. What could serve to bring together the scattered Church of Christ? What could serve to solidify their common bond? What would move them to consider the unsurpassed value of the gospel they had received? What would unite non-Jewish believers in Christ with the first-to-believe Jewish followers of Jesus? When the plan began to unfold, a fire was lit in the apostle’s soul. He passionately made his case before every congregation – clearly presently the existing need and how they could participate with others to meet it. And they, too, became passionate about the project; they literally begged the apostle to be a part of it. Their donations, too, were surprising. For they gave not from their superfluity; they sacrificed from what was essential. Paul took care to ensure that the purpose of the project – in his own heart and in the hearts of all who would contribute – was to honor God and to supply what was lacking in the other parts of the Body of Christ. He sought to ensure that the project be done in an honorable fashion before others, taking every precaution that all would be above-board and that those who collected the offerings were reliable, trustworthy and accountable. But here’s the thing: The joint effort, the deep sacrifice, the abundant outpouring – it was all done in response to what God had first done for them. Their eyes were not as much on what they were giving to others as they were fixed on what had first been given to them. Indeed, they rejoiced in the sacrifice they had made. But even more, they exulted in the sacrifice that had been made for them. Our human lives are at best lived in response to what God has first done for us. For when we come to know the gift of God, no sacrifice on our end can match it. One can never outgive God! We may wonder about what the apostle had in mind regarding the particular gift of which he speaks. But after all possibilities are considered, it can be nothing other than this: God’s gift of the fullness of Himself in the incarnation of His Son, who gave Himself in life and in death for those He called beloved. When hearts and minds are focused on that indescribable gift, all sacrifices made in response to it are perfected. When our eyes are fixed on God’s gracious gift, our responsive sacrifice, whether it be small or large, is always great. So how did it turn out? How was the gift received? Besides addressing earthly needs, was Paul’s vision of increased unity in the far-flung church realized? Did Jewish believers find a deepened kinship with their predominantly Gentile benefactors? Were those in Jerusalem moved to praise God, after receiving the answer to their prayers from the farthest reaches of the faith community? We have to wait to hear how the story ends, for it’s not revealed to us in Scripture. And perhaps that’s just as well. Because the joy of a gift given should not depend on the way it is received. Especially if it’s ultimately given to God, in response to the greatest gift first given to us. And in the end, wherever you are and in whatever circumstance you’re in, you can say with the apostle and with the entire diverse-yet-unified Church of God: Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!
Good and gracious God, in Your great love for sinful and broken humanity, You gave far more deeply than our deserving – indeed, far beyond our imagination. You did for us what we never could have done for ourselves. Our hearts are humbled before You in light of the salvation You’ve accomplished for us in Christ, crucified and raised. As we contemplate Your indescribable gift, may our lives be lived as an acceptable response to the rescue we’ve received, for the honor of Your name and the welfare of Your people.
Then those of you who escape
will remember Me among the nations to which they will be carried captive,
how I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me,
and by their eyes, which played the harlot after their idols;
and they will loathe themselves in their own sight
for the evils which they have committed, for all their abominations.
One is hard-pressed to find a word of joy or to hear a word of hope in the opening chapters of the prophet Ezekiel. One searches for light but finds nothing but darkness. Neither is the prophet immune from hardship. The LORD will have him suffer the indignity of eating meager amounts of bread cooked over cow dung, and drinking measured portions of water, all while lying on his side in view of the public eye – for more than a year. The prophet thus served as a living symbol of the things that were about to come upon the nations of Israel and Judah. Not only did he speak the word of the LORD, he embodied his message. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And it would be an understatement to say the nation was in a desperate situation. Ezekiel’s people are described as lawbreakers. They had scoffed at the commandments of God and eschewed His ways. And as if that were not bad enough, they didn’t even live up to the standards of the lawless nations surrounding them. They should have excelled. They should have been the eminent example to all other nations. God had given them His Law, and Moses had told them that by putting into practice God’s statutes and ordering their lives around God’s Word, they would serve as a light to the nations – who would surely observe their actions and be moved by the wise and wonderful ways of their God. Instead, the people had neglected God’s Law, and the light had gone out from Israel. There was only darkness left. The people had turned their backs on the instructions of God and had preferred their own ways. They refused to submit to the LORD, but instead stiffened their necks and insisted on doing things according to their own will. They dabbled in other religions and dedicated themselves to idols of gods who were no gods at all but merely the creations of man. Although they had been created in the image of God, they opted to create their own gods and to bow down before them. It was a religion of their own making. And the further they drifted from the regulations of God, the worse matters became. Far from being a leading nation by which others would come to know the LORD, they had become the lowest of the low, an object of ridicule and derision. And things were going to get much worse. It appears the only way God could win them back was to give them up to their own devices. They wanted to do life without Him? Well, then, He would give them what they wanted – and they would find out for themselves. Paradoxically, it would be in that place of utter failure and dejection that they would discover their hope. Even as the prodigal son would come to his senses, so the people would sober up and realize what they had done. They would loathe themselves for the evils they had committed. And their collective conscience would be piqued into the shock of realization of what they had done to the One who created them. God admits to being hurt by His people, when they turned their eyes to worthless idols, when they hardened their hearts against Him. God was grieved; God’s heart ached. And when the people came to realize what they had done, their hearts would grieve and ache, as well. This is the beginning of repentance – and it doesn’t feel good at all. But it is in that painful place that the beginning of hope is to be found. It is where the awful realization of what you have done is met by the One who runs to meet you with open arms. For although we must admit that we forget God, time and time again, the truth of the matter is that God always remembers us. And God will do whatever it takes to win us back. Even if it means suffering the indignity of rejection. Even if it means suffering the ignominy and pain of death.
Almighty God, You have created us in Your image, and You have blessed us beyond measure. Yet we are often unsatisfied with our station in life and grasp after the power that is Yours alone. Teach us again the truth that under Your faithful care we never lack for any good thing. Bring us to our senses before we go too far astray and our hearts become insensitive and cold. In Your compassion, draw us close to Yourself, that we might honor You in truth, shine Your light for all to see, and enjoy Your good graces forever.
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?
Run in such a way that you may win.
1 Corinthians 9:24
From what I understand, the Olympic games have been around for almost three millennia. Which means they’d already been around for a thousand years when the apostle was engaged in his ministry and wrote these words. His Greek audience was certainly well aware of the analogy he sets before them, as are we. But what exactly is the race Paul refers to in this verse? He’s already made it absolutely clear that salvation is God’s doing. (Indeed, if this were salvation’s race, there would be only one Finisher – the One who declared as much from the cross – and we would all be found lying face down in the dust, utter failures, unable to complete the course.) What, then, does Paul mean by it? He’s addressing life itself – specifically yours. There are many ways to go wrong. A thoughtless, foolish decision today can leave you beset with burdens you will find hard to carry for years to come. Contrariwise, small, well- planned decisions now can pave the way for amazing accomplishments down the road. Each of us has different challenges. And each of us has different abilities to meet them. What’s important it to know yourself – and what you can handle. In his own life, Paul writes of buffeting his body, of making it his slave. Was he some sort of masochist? We needn’t come to that conclusion. But the apostle knew himself well enough to recognize that if he gave himself and inch, he would want a mile. He therefore denied himself – to prevent the struggle he knew would come if he were to dabble in things that were dangerous for him. He knew his weaknesses. And he was wise enough to protect himself in those areas in which he knew he was vulnerable. At this point in his life, he was running strong. He writes about winning the race. By the time he gets to the end of his life, he would use much the same analogy but merely speak of finishing the course. We all have our race to run, and each of our courses is different. Yours might be a marathon; mine might be a mile. There’s little sense (and potentially much damage) in comparing ourselves with one other. What’s important is to know yourself and to properly assess your status. So then: How are you at this point? Are you running well? Or is your check engine light on? Are you a lean, mean, fighting machine? Or have you been neglecting the maintenance necessary to keep you on the road? Have you been eating well, getting your rest, and exercising regularly? It all seems like a lot, I know. Maybe even overwhelming. Perhaps your running days are over – and this analogy no longer works for you. You have little energy left and just as little ambition. Begin with some simple stretching. And as you take action, you will more fully inhabit the body God has given you – the temple of God in which you live. For as long as you have breath left in you, you have purpose. Be good to yourself. Don’t push too hard. But make the decision today to take action. The Lord is with you, and He’s on your side. If you have fallen, He will pick you up and set you back on your feet again. Just move forward. God has awakened you to this day. Hear His voice of encouragement, and hold fast to His promises. You can do this. Sometimes taking that first step is the hardest part. But once you are determined to do so, once you lace up your shoes and set out, you’ll be surprised at what you can do. Make up your mind to do it right and to do it well – and then give it your best shot. God is waiting at the finish line with your crown of glory, and He will commend you with the words, “Well done!”
Good and gracious God, thank You for being patient with me. Open my eyes that I might properly assess my life’s status. Help me to set appropriate goals. And motivate me to take the first step toward achieving them. Teach me perseverance. You assure me that as I press on, I will accomplish more than I ever thought possible, for You are faithfully at my side, and I can do all things when it is You who strengthens me.
The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned into mourning.
There’s good reason for lament. And there’s good reason that it’s included in Holy Scripture. We all experience both good and bad in this life. We produce them both, and we experience both at the hands of others. And we reap the consequences. There are times when bad things – really bad things – happen to those we would say deserve them. And there are times we would say they fall upon the innocent through no fault of their own. The Scriptures give voice to each and every one of these situations. In other words: They speak the truth. You may well have encountered surprises in your life – and not of the good kind. You’ve observed others going through them, and you paid different levels of attention when they were presented. But it all changed when the unimaginable happened to you. The accident. The addiction. The loss of a job. A relationship. Your health. Even something as predictable as old age and the challenges that come with it. You thought these events happened to other people – only other people – and now one of them has come upon you – and you’ve taken your turn. When the unexpected happens to you, what then? They can often have the affect of leaving you feeling very much alone, desolate, forsaken. Until that precious moment when you discover someone going through the very same thing. What power there is in that discovery! It’s much more than misery loves company. Having someone who understands what you’re going through gives you permission to express yourself, to be honest, to speak the truth about your situation. At first there may be some hesitation in admitting it – because saying it makes it more real, and that is frightening. But to name it and to own it can have surprising results: Fear may be dispelled. And when you have a caring community that understands you, surrounds and supports you, you are blessed with a gift – and then some. For they can also help you believe there’s One even greater – right there, with and for you. And that no matter how bad things look, God is on your side. And that means: There is hope. The lament before us in Scripture gives you permission to be honest about your most frightening experience, and it gives you words to speak when the trauma has left you stunned, unable to think or to come up with words on your own. No matter what your predicament and no matter how you got into it, you have a safe place in the throne room of the Almighty. What you’re experiencing may overwhelm you, but it will not overwhelm the Savior who stands at your side. And because you have a great God, you can also have this confident hope: As bad as it is today and no matter how poor the prospects, this is not the final verdict. For if Easter tells you anything, it tells you that God has the power to restore your joy and to give you the feet to dance again. And when death finally comes, God can and will overturn that, too. God doesn’t promise you a quick fix for whatever surprising situation has come upon you today. But this is a hope that can sustain you. And as you wait for it with confidence, you can have the assurance that God hears your lament and is right where you are. Do not fear, says your God. I am with you and I’m strong to save. I will not leave you in your darkest moments. And that assurance will prove to be even more powerful than the experience that has overtaken you. The prophet learned this truth and knew it was worth writing.
Good and gracious God, You are faithful to the people You’ve created in love. You do not forsake me in my time of need. You will not abandon me or leave me to walk through the valley of the shadow of death alone. My sin doesn’t scare You off. Instead, You come to my rescue, and in Your mercy You redeem me. Reassure me of Your presence when I experience life’s unwelcome surprises. Surround me with those who listen and with those who can really understand. Encourage me with the hope that no matter how great my present difficulty, in You I will find the ultimate victory. Into Your hands I entrust myself and the rest of my days. Bring about Your good work, in me and through me, for the glory of Your name.
But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
Hope lives in the not now, but hope insists on calling it the not yet. Hope does not negate present realities or deny existential struggles. Hope is aware of them and experiences them fully. But hope maintains that the challenges of this life will finally give way to God’s higher purposes and that, in the end, God will have His way. And it is there – in the heart and will of God – that hope finds its fuel for survival. If God were not real, this attitude would merely be built upon foolish and fantastical dreaming – a wishing upon the stars. But true hope is birthed by God and heaven sent, to reside in the human heart until the not now is transformed into the fullness of God’s good intentions. The apostle writes these words smack dab in the middle of suffering. He acknowledges the difficulties of this life and the brokenness of the world, but he contends that in the power and goodness of God, these things will not have the final say. It is God who will speak the Final Word, and Paul insists that it will be a word of healing, redemption and life. How can he be sure? Because he’s seen what God has done in and through Jesus, and he’s personally experienced God’s transformation. Paul maintains confidence in what God will do, because he’s experienced what God has done. But hope – like faith – needs to be fed. The difficulties of life – the challenges of these days – can confront and erode the apostle’s three greats: faith, hope and love. To keep them alive, we must be intentional about nourishing and nurturing them. We turn our thoughts to God each day, that our hearts and souls might be enriched by His declarations of love and His promises of what will come. We present ourselves to God in prayer, and we open God’s Book to read words that impart life. Into the banquet hall we bring the hope God has given us, and we allow that hope to feast on the delicacies of God’s Word. And we do not always dine alone. Others are present with us, and the fellowship we share at the table of our Lord also encourages our hope. As we are intentional about these practices, we cultivate the hope within us, that it might continue to live, grow and thrive… to infuse our whole being – heart, mind, body and soul – with the strength we need to live out these days. More than that, our eager expectation of things to come can infuse us with joy in the here and now. In this way, we borrow future blessings to get us through these days, assured that there will be an abundance of blessing when we reach our final destination. With eyes fixed on heaven we can have our feet firmly planted on earth. And in the days that remain for us, we can intentionally make the best of them. Relying upon God who has proved to be faithful, we positively pour ourselves into all that this day requires. And we do so with the confidence that God will continue to sustain our hope and that God’s good intentions will be accomplished in us and through us this day. And that one day, when we close our eyes at last, God will surely open our eyes once again, to awaken us to His marvelous glory and grace, where, in His presence, we will forever enjoy every heavenly blessing.
Lord God Almighty, You are the Creator of all that is – seen and unseen. We thank You for Your Spirit that abides in our midst and empowers us with all that we need to carry out Your will. Thank You for the gift of hope You have planted within us and for Your wonderful promises that nourish and sustain us. In that sure and confident hope, move us to take the hands of others and accompany them in their difficulties. Help us to share the hope that is within us, that our care might save them from despair and lead them to Your loving grace. For You are our faithful Savior who sacrificed everything for us all, that we might one day live in Your presence forever. All glory and praise be Yours alone, this day and forevermore.
Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
And look now, and take note. And seek in her open squares,
If you can find a man, if there is one who does justice, who seeks truth,
Then I will pardon her.
Early on in the history of their people, their father Abraham had entered into rather famous negotiations with the LORD. God had made it known to their ancestor that the outcry of Sodom had become great, the stench of sin so noxious, that it risen to the heavens. Only unrighteousness and injustice could be found within the city, and the time of judgment had come. It is then that Abraham made his appeal to God on the basis of God’s character, and he stepped up to intercede for the inhabitants of Sodom. It was a personal matter for Abraham; he had relatives who made their home in Sodom. God would surely not bring punishment on the undeserving! Far be it from God to sweep away the righteous along with the wicked! And so Abraham makes a great confession: God is righteous and just and fair, and God must act accordingly. And then the negotiations begin: What if there are fifty righteous found within the city? Surely their lives will not mean nothing to You! Surely You will preserve the land for the sake of the fifty! And God agrees. Abraham then takes another step and presses his case further: What if the fifty are lacking five? And again, God accepts the offer. And so it goes, until an agreement is reached that the city would be preserved for the presence of ten righteous people within it. But alas! They could not be found, and the city is destroyed… The inhabitants of Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah were well aware of this account. And perhaps their quintessential example of a wicked city was none other than Sodom – in which not even ten righteous people were present. This provides an important context for the message Jeremiah relates to the people: If you can find just one who does justice, just one who seeks after truth, I will pardon the great city of Jerusalem – for the sake of that one. The pronouncement of deserved judgment is striking: Sound the trumpet! Sodom has been knocked off its pedestal representing evil incarnate – and Jerusalem has taken her place! No wonder the people despised the prophets! This was not a word they wanted to hear. But Jeremiah was convinced it was a word God had put in his mouth – and it was therefore the word that must be spoken. How do we hear this word today? One can say this much: God cares about justice and righteousness – in the days of Sodom, in the days of Jeremiah, and in our day, as well. In the verses surrounding this one, specific concerns are raised up: No one pleads for the cause of orphans. No one defends the rights of the poor. The powerless are pressed down, and the rich are shrewd in finding ways to maintain and increase their own wealth and power. And God grieves. And God will not have His people treated this way. How does this message hit home for us? Perhaps it moves you to be that man. To be that woman. To stand up for what’s right, no matter what your friends or neighbors do. Be that preserving influence. Commit yourself to doing whatever it takes to be the last one standing – even if all others fall away. Not out of some self-righteous, heroic desire to be remembered. But simply from out of a firm commitment to be faithful before your God. Your actions of truth, justice and righteousness will not only save your own life. They’ll preserve the lives of many around you. When God searches to and fro for just one who is faithful, will His eyes stop to rest on you and declare: Wait! Stop! Hold everything! Here’s one!
Holy God, You are a God of justice, righteousness and truth. You care about every aspect of Your creation and every precious person You have made. Open our eyes to realize the important stewardship You have entrusted to us – to tend to Your earth and to care for each person who inhabits it. Help us to learn well Your will and Your ways and to commit our lives to carrying out Your purposes with all that is in us. Remind us that one day we will all answer to You for our words and deeds. Therefore, strengthen us for service, and guide us in Your ways, for the good of Your people and for the honor of Your blessed name.
And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice,
"Lord, do not hold this sin against them!"
And having said this, he fell asleep.
It happens often to me. I wonder if you experience it, too: Whatever song is playing in my car when I arrive at my destination and shut off the engine – that is the song that often stays with me in the hours to come. Over and over again I hear the music and lyrics replaying in my mind. Last words spoken can have the same powerful effect. They can linger; and in some cases, they may last a lifetime. The words above are the last words of Stephen, an early Christian martyr. After giving a lengthy defense of his faith in Christ, he is stoned to death by those who are convinced he had committed the punishable-by-death sin of blasphemy (profaning the name of God). One of the witnesses was a man by the name of Saul. It’s the first time he’s mentioned in Scripture, and we’re told he was in hearty agreement with the execution. Saul was certain that Jesus and those who followed Him were destroying the faith he and his people held dear, and he had committed himself to doing all that he could to see it eradicated. As far as he was concerned, that which he had taken place was only the beginning of what should be carried out against all followers of Jesus the Nazarene. However, the words of Stephen were like an earworm imbedded deep inside his brain. And they irked him. For what would move a man to forgive the very ones who put him to death? Perhaps Saul had also heard that Jesus Himself had spoken similar words before breathing His last at Golgotha. These men had not cursed those who put them to death. Instead, they had blessed them. They had prayed for the very ones who had persecuted them. And Saul could not get it out of his head. Nor could the others. Those who had picked up rocks and took turns hurling them at the hapless victim. The weight of his words was heavier than the stones they had cast. And as much as they tried to silence them, the words embedded themselves within their very souls and tormented them with a truth they could not suppress. How many hearts were touched by these last Spirit-inspired words? It had been said of the strongman Samson that he killed more in his death than he had slain in his life. And now perhaps just the opposite had occurred with Stephen. We can only surmise. But that his words had a profound impact on those who were there to hear them, as well as on those who would later hear or read the account – this cannot be denied. The final words of Stephen made up an appeal imparted in grace. Even more than that, in and through the words of Stephen, we’re given insight into the heart of God who inspired them. As for Stephen himself, we’re told that he fell asleep. Of course, this expression is a euphemism for death – and what a beautiful description it is. For every time you close your eyes in sleep and surrender your consciousness, you experience a kind of death. And when you regain consciousness, you experience a mini-resurrection. Stephen died with a living faith in Jesus and with hope for an eternity beyond the grave. We who have been transformed by the forgiveness of which Stephen spoke and enveloped by that same faith can have the very same hope – that the One who overcame death on Easter Sunday will awaken us, too, to a new day in His presence. In that place, there will be fullness of joy and peace and love – forever.
God of compassionate mercy and loving grace, in and through Your Son You have taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus forgave the undeserving and offered His life in sacrifice for sinners. What amazing love! What transformational grace! May His words and actions resound in our souls forever, that they might have their full effect upon us. You are the Lord of life! You are the Savior of sinners! You’ve conquered the power of death and promise us everlasting life in Your presence. Hold us fast in faith and grant us the certain hope that our future is secure in You forever.
And one called out to another and said,
"Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts,
The whole earth is full of His glory."
Listen up, heavens and earth! The LORD speaks! We may be tempted to call the first five chapters that make up the work of Isaiah introductory, but we would be mistaken to do so. For the prophet wastes no time with introductions. In the second verse of the first chapter, Isaiah calls the people to attention and implores them to take heed. Only after setting out his general themes does he describe his call and commission. The timeframe is critical. It is the year of King Uzziah’s death. And why is that important? Uzziah had ruled Judah longer than any other king. He’s credited with fifty-two years of reign, and he was remembered as one of the few good kings of the southern kingdom. After losing such a prominent leader, there was a hole in the heart of the nation. These were precarious days of transition and instability. The nation’s attention was on high alert. And it is at this critical time that the prophet is sent to speak God’s word to the nation. Isaiah’s own prophetic career spanned the reigns of four kings, and he would never forget the vision that had started it all. He saw the LORD seated on a throne in the temple, surrounded by seraphim. These angelic creatures are the ones that call out in the words of the verse above. They are the ones that declare the holiness of God and the glory of God that fills the earth. That God is declared thrice holy conveys the certainty that God is set apart from all others. This confession is made time and time again in Scripture: The LORD is the one uncreated being and the source of all that exists. Any other gods are gods in name only. They receive only false attributions of power and glory that rightly belong to the LORD alone. The LORD is not merely the chief God among gods. He is the only God there is. That the whole earth is filled with His glory bears witness to the truth that everything that exists does so by the will and purpose of God. All creation bears the mark of God’s fingerprints. Humans are distinct in having been made in God’s image, but every created thing has upon it the divine imprimatur. The apostle Paul later writes that God’s invisible attributes, eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen in all that God has made. We see extraordinary beauty. We behold power manifested. Our eyes are filled with wonders and the variety of life – and in it all we see the glory of God displayed in all its magnificence. We may well be amazed by the majesty we behold and the intricacies of each created thing. But we would be mistaken to ascribe praise to anything or anyone other than the Author of it all. All praise properly belongs to the Creator and to the Creator alone. God has richly blessed us with senses to perceive, with the capability of taking in the wonders of the world that surrounds us. We are necessarily responsive to what our eyes have seen, our ears have heard, and our tongues have tasted. As we behold the beauty of God’s creation, we’re moved to praise. As those who’ve experienced the glory of the LORD, we gather each week to worship as a richly blessed people. We exult with joy before the One who is responsible for it all. We give attention to the word God will speak to us. And then, we join the prophet in offering ourselves to the LORD’s service in complete devotion of heart and determination of will: Here we are; send us!
LORD God of heaven and earth, You alone are holy. You alone are deserving of all our thanks and praise. Heighten our senses and increase our perception of Your glory that fills all heaven and earth. As we experience Your creation, we cannot help but be moved to rejoice. In response to Your goodness and grace, help us to offer ourselves to You in willing service, that we might be Your useful instruments to accomplish all that You desire, always for the good of Your people and for the glory of Your name.
But Jesus said to him, "Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you."
There’s often more than one way to get a job done. And yet there will be those who will insist it must be done a certain way: The right way. In other words, their way… Jesus had performed numerous miracles. He had cured many afflicted with various diseases. He had cast out unclean spirits from those who were oppressed. He had given sight to the blind and the ability to walk to those who had never taken a step. He had even raised the dead. And now Jesus employed His disciples in the same work and granted them authority to participate in the labors of God’s kingdom. As they were so engaged, they discovered others who were doing some of the same things. And they reported to Jesus with pride that they had stopped them in their tracks. But Jesus would not have it. He does not reinforce His disciples’ action; instead, He rebukes it… What can we learn from the stand Jesus takes? Is Jesus teaching us to be more collaborative and less competitive, when it comes to working for God’s good purposes? Would He have us concentrate more on the needs to be met, the good to be done, than who it will be that gets the credit for the actions taken? In the community in which I am employed, there are several religious organizations. On a regular basis we sit down at the same table together to discuss our work and the needs of our neighborhoods. To be sure, we hold different religious views, and we have different ways of expressing our faith. We pray using different words, and we participate in our own sacred rituals. Our faith traditions are organized differently. There are customs in our own faith communities that are important to us but are unfamiliar or of no consequence to others. And yet we agree on some matters that we all deem good and profitable for the community. We join forces to meet the needs that are common to us all. And in the words of Jesus, I find affirmation and approval for our work. Jesus reminds me that the work does not require a Lutheran label – or even the Christian label – for it to be pleasing to God. We need to think twice before insisting that God cannot inspire or support those outside our own faith traditions. This doesn’t mean we should minimize our particular way of seeing and knowing God or that we should hold our convictions less tightly. We need not shy away from bearing witness to the faith that is in us. But Jesus would have us do so respectfully. Moreover, we ought to listen and to learn from others, that we might better understand where they’re coming from and become better acquainted with the traditions that have shaped them. We humbly recognize that our goal is to seek and to serve the One who is, finally, divine mystery. Where there is universal need, Jesus would have us find common ground. He would have us join hands and work together to address the needs of God’s people. Our way forward is to look together at the needs that exist and then tap into our common convictions to get the job done. We might be working on different sides of the sanctuary, on in different parts of God’s kingdom. But Jesus would encourage us to do so with the understanding that we’re building a temple for the glory of God not for the glory of man. We may be quick to presume how God is working (or not working) in different parts of His kingdom. But when we engage with others and join forces for good, we can have a better and truer understanding. And if we’re unable to do so, the least we can do is to see the good others are doing and rejoice in their work before God.
Good and gracious God, Jesus told His followers that the harvest was plentiful but the workers were few. Empower us by Your Spirit to engage wholeheartedly in the work You’ve called us to do in our particular part of Your kingdom. May we not seek to hinder the work being done by those who build with different tools or employ different techniques in their labors. Show us ways to helpfully collaborate, and keep us from fruitless competition. Teach us that You are pleased and glorified when the children You have made work together for Your good and holy purposes. Help us be so engaged for the honor of Your name.
You are a garden spring, a well of fresh water, and streams flowing from Lebanon.
Song of Solomon, 4:15
Not long ago I went hiking on a trail that has become one of my favorites. There are several bridges along the route, and they’ve become my mile markers. When I mindlessly meander and get into my zone, they alert me as to how far I have gone – and how far I need to go, to get back to where I started. But, of course, this benefit is only ancillary and not their primary or intended purpose. They were all built to bridge streams, to ease the journey of the traveler, to assist me in getting from here to there in a safe manner. In this season of Spring, you might expect that the streams would be flowing freely, but all of them – as far as being visible to the eye – are bone dry. One sees only rocky bottoms and banks, with nary a trickle. This does not bode well for the creatures that live in the area nor for the humans who’ve chosen the location as their abode, having weighed the beauty of mountaintop views against their tolerance for fire danger… In the song that Solomon sings for his bride, he likens her to a garden spring, to a well of fresh water, and to streams that flow from Lebanon. In his eyes, she is life itself – vibrant, fresh, overflowing and renewing. More than that: She enlivens him, invigorates him, and her very presence brings him refreshment and joy. If you are blessed in your life with people like that, you know what a blessing it is. Simply being in their proximity lifts your spirits. Their positivity encourages you and keeps you going. They are like a dependable spring, to which you know you can go for a pick-me-up. And perhaps you provide that kind of blessing to others? They come to you regularly for refreshment, to pump water from your well. And you’re usually happy to give it (although there are times you feel they suck all the life out of you and leave you dry). You might sometimes feel like a rocky streambed. All used up and nothing left to give. Not only do you feel parched, but the reminder that others are depending upon you only increases your anxiety. You’re afraid that when they come to you next time, you’ll have nothing for them, and you’ll let them down. May I remind you that when you entered this world life was given to you. You did not give birth to yourself. And the Creator and Giver of life will continue to sustain you. God is the ever-flowing stream that will never run dry. And it’s only when you go there, to drink deeply in the presence of God, that you can be assured that your own stream will continue to flow. Those streambeds in the mountain ravines are dependent on the rains that fall from the heavens. They cannot take credit for their own dependability or provision. Even so, we cannot (and dare not) think too highly of ourselves as stream-providers – or feel too anxious and worry that we have nothing left to give. God is the source that will never run dry. For the good of everyone involved, we must not become too dependent on others or take too much responsibility for them. We’re all merely conduits of the blessing of God. Go to God directly. Pour out your heart in prayer. Read and meditate on His Word. Seek the Lord for your renewal. And your refreshing stream will flow once again. Your spirit will be enlivened, and you will be blessed to overflowing, so that you can continue to be a source of life to those who have not yet learned to go further upstream.
O Lord, You are faithful and true. You are the Source of all life as well as its Sustainer. Teach me to look to You daily, for you are my source of strength. May I learn to drink deeply of the refreshing waters that You provide, that the spirit within might be renewed each day. I know I cannot do this on my own – nor do You expect me to do so. Grant me grace sufficient for this day, and assure me that after I have spent a day serving in Your presence and I’m all used up, You will be there for me tomorrow, to provide all that I need. To You all alone be all praise and glory. And may Your name be exalted, on earth as it is in heaven.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Jesus said to her, "Mary!"
She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (which means, Teacher).
Do you remember the advertisement that began with the question, “How do you spell relief?” The inquiry was followed up by the spelling out of the antacid they were selling: R-O-L-A-I-D-S. Their campaign was effective. At least as far as causing me to remember the product’s name. But I cannot say I ever purchased it... Mary had been the first to get to the tomb that first Easter morning. She sees that the stone had been rolled away and immediately races to tell the disciples that something was amiss. She assumes that they (whoever they are) had taken the body of Jesus away from the tomb to who- knows-where. She’s frenzied – and the disciples along with her. A footrace to the tomb ensues. There’s some investigation, a profession of belief in something greater that would explain the missing body. And the disciples – disturbed and discombobulated – return to their homes. To do what, we might wonder? We can expect they were in shock, and, wherever they were, anxiously paced about with nervous energy. Their brains were buzzing in an attempt to sort it all out and make sense of what they had just experienced. And this was only beginning. For as much as Jesus had already impacted their lives, what had just occurred would transform them in ways they could hardly imagine. The evangelist does not follow the disciples at this point. For what happens next in the garden at the tomb captures his attention, and he must relate it to his readers… Mary had lingered there at the tomb. And her persistence pays off. Not only is she the first to get to the tomb, she’s the first to see the resurrected Jesus. And her relief comes to her in one word: Mary. It’s when Jesus says her name that she recognizes him... My guess is there are several people in your life, both those who are living as well as those who have already died, whose voices you can conjure up in your mind when you think of them saying your name. Nothing calls you to attention more that when someone calls your name. It reaches not only your ears, but your identity. It calls to your innermost self, that which you define as you… But have you, like Mary, heard Jesus call your name? On this Easter we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. We speak the words, He is risen – and the faithful respond: He is risen, indeed! The statements are spoken the perfect tense. It signifies a past and completed action that continues to stand and have present and ongoing significance. Which is to say in this particular case: Jesus has risen, and He is also in a risen state. In other words: He lives! When this reality first dawned on me, when I first realized that Jesus was not simply an historical figure I could read about in a dusty old Bible, but that He was living – and that He knew my name – my life was completely transformed. The Bible became for me a living book, through which the living God was speaking into my life… Certainly, Mary was known by Jesus on that first Easter day. But just as certainly are you known to Him on this one. And when Jesus calls your name, it is a complete knowing. Even more: It is a perfect loving. He is the Lord who rules in power, but He is also the loving and compassionate Savior. Mary responds by called him Rabboni. John calls Him the Lamb of God. Thomas, who will express his doubts, will make the great confession, My Lord and my God! All bear witness to the fact that He lives. And it is when that truth of Easter hits home that the real celebration begins...
O God, You are our loving Creator. You have breathed into us the gift of life, and You continue to sustain us each and every day. Your servant David once confessed that because You were his Shepherd, he was not in want of any good thing. And Your promised Messiah, the Son of David, by His sacrificial death on the cross and by His resurrection to new life, fulfilled the hope of His ancestor, that he would dwell in the house of the Lord forever. We rejoice on this resurrection day that You have overcome death with life. That Your forgiveness is more powerful than our sin. And that because of Your abundant and overflowing grace, we, too, will one day rejoice in Your presence forever, in that place You have prepared for us. That where You are, there we may be also. All praise and glory be to You alone, this day and forever.
And when the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him,
saw the way He breathed His last, he said,
"Truly this man was the Son of God!"
We wonder what it was that moved the centurion to make such a strong declaration. What it was about the way Jesus died, the way He breathed His last. Jesus had cried out in the words of Psalm 22, a heart- felt psalm, mixed with equal parts deep anguish and confident hope. As Jesus intones the opening words in Aramaic, Eloi, Eloi, some mistakenly interpret them to think that He’s calling on Elijah. These were the days of Passover, and within them Elijah played a prominent role. The prophets had said Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps it was happening right in front of them. Perhaps Jesus was beckoning Elijah to return to earth in the chariot of fire by which he had departed. And what might that mean? That this man, rejected and crucified, might be the Messiah? They rushed to fill a sponge with wine, with which to whet His lips – to facilitate further speech, if He was moved to utter it. Perhaps this would revive Him, keep Him alive long enough to see this present development play out. Just in case they had gotten it wrong. For indeed, even in the most certain and dismissive mind among them, there was an inkling of doubt. Even the most skeptical harbored thoughts of the possibility that just maybe He was who He said He was – and that Pilate had been right: There was no guilt in Him. And this was an innocent Man. But then, just like that, He was gone. Sure, the crucifixion had gone on for hours. It had been long, lingering and torturous, almost as horrible to watch as it was to experience. But when the final moment came, it seemed to have come all of a sudden. As a surprise. As it always does. And then the Roman centurion, who had taken it all in, makes his confession. Pilate had asked, What is truth?, and now he declares it: This man was the Son of God! We hear that word was, and it stings – just as it must have stung back then. It was over and done. There was no going back to fix it. There was nothing they could do to make it better. It was irretrievable. Was… We know the pain of that word – every one of us who have experienced loss. The inconsolable sadness. The powerlessness we feel when we come alongside to console the bereaved. We want to help, but we realize there’s nothing we can do to bring the person back. Nothing to do to make things better. And that’s not the worst of it. For this heinous deed - the rejection of God’s own Son – neither could this be undone. They were responsible. And so are we. Oh, we’re quick to deny it, insistent on placing blame on others. We reject outright the possibility that we could be equally responsible. We vehemently object in protest: Don’t even try to pin this on me! I had nothing to do with it! But the reality of our own sin and brokenness, the reality of our own need of salvation – and our foolish refusal of the One who’s come to save us – this betrays us. And we are implicated. And until we recognize our own rejection of God’s Son, until we admit our own betrayals, denials and doubts – we cannot fully understand the depth of God’s love, mercy and grace. For it is there – at the point of our refusals and rejections – that God meets us. And it’s there that God declares His faithful lovingkindness in the grace of forgiveness. It’s only when we come to see the worst in ourselves that our eyes are opened to the best in God. It’s only then that we can finally see that God’s grace is deeper and greater than our sin. That truth was making its way into the heart of a Roman centurion that first Good Friday. May it make its way into our hearts today.
Almighty God, we hear the story of the death of Your Son, and alongside it we hear the centurion’s confession. On this Holy Saturday we grieve, we wail, and we wait. Each of us knows the sting of the death. Each of us has experienced loss that seems surreal. We try to wrap our minds around it, but we are numb and inconsolable. Help us to trust in Your goodness, even in the midst of these silent moments. And inspire within us a hope that persists, even in the face of death. For You are faithful, good, holy and true.
When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby,
He said to His mother, "Woman, behold your son!"
From the cross seven last sayings of Jesus are recorded in Scripture. Three are spoken as He lifts His eyes heavenward toward His Father. One is spoken to the side, as He turns His face to the thief crucified with him and assures Him of a grace greater than his sin. Two are spoken by way of announcement (I thirst… It is finished!). Only one is spoken with downcast face, as somehow, with all the emotion of a dying Son for His mother, He maintains His composure and provides for her in the time of her unspeakable loss. I marvel at the exclamation point at the end of this declaration. Perhaps Jesus spoke loudly so that His intent would not be misunderstood. Or perhaps this was one way He could keep His emotions in check. It is a tender moment, and we’re moved by the compassionate expression of Jesus for those He loves. Even from the cross, Jesus would not let this be all about Him. Even concerned about others, He will, until He takes His last breath, carry to completion His role as the Suffering Servant of God. On the cross, He is suspended between Father and mother, between heaven and earth, between life and death. And He will fully accomplish one before He will attend to the other. We may be surprised at the rather formal address of Mary as woman. This is the same way Jesus addresses her on the occasion of His first miracle, at the wedding in Cana, where He had turned water into wine. Far from being offensive, Jesus attributes to Mary her role as representative woman, the life-bearer and life-giver. As woman, she had spent herself in nurturing and caring, in loving and in sacrifice. Even as Eve was the mother of all the living, so Mary was the mother of Him who was not only human, but divine. We also hear in this address, an unmistakable detachment. For as much as Jesus belonged to her as her son, the even greater truth was that He belonged to His Father – and to all humankind. How Mary must have grieved when He first left home to begin His ministry. And how she must have grieved now, to see Him leave earth altogether. Who can know the extent of her grief at the foot of the cross, as she beholds her son in His suffering – about to take His last breath? It is then, in His compassion, that Jesus bids her behold another son. He will neither abandon her nor forsake her. In this final action, He will provide. To this new son she may now cling. But her son who was also the Son of God – this son she must release. With hands and feet nailed and fastened to the cross, Jesus still has power. And He uses it to create a new relationship and to assign responsibility. In the limits of His humanity, Jesus would succumb to death. His sacrifice for sin necessitated it. But His death was not just His own. For when there a relationship of love, one never dies alone. As much as Jesus cared for His mother that day, as much as He provided for her, He could not keep her from dying, too. A sword would not only pierce His own side, it would pierce His mother’s soul, too. As well as ours. For in faith, our lives, too, are intertwined with the life – and death – of Jesus. All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death, the apostle Paul would later write. His death was our death. But that is not the end. There is another chapter yet to be written. And it will be the very best chapter of them all.
God of grace and glory, we stand at the foot of Your cross, astonished and amazed. At the power of evil that rises up to kill the Innocent. At our own contribution and complicity in Your death. At Your willingness to take it all. At Your heart, broken by human sin. At Your compassion and grace – that meets our sin and overcomes it. At Your merciful acceptance of sinners. We marvel that the sin of our rejection is at the very same time Your willing sacrifice on our behalf. Even as Your Son provided for His mother and His beloved disciple, so You also faithfully provide for us. Before Your cross we take our place and humbly bow.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another,
even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
Today is Maundy Thursday. It is the last day Jesus will spend interacting with His disciples before He makes His way to the cross. It is His last hurrah. And theirs. Much of what we remember transpires in the Upper Room – where Jesus shares the Last Supper, washes the feet of His followers, and gives them a new command. When He was earlier asked which was the greatest commandment in the Law, He had publicly reiterated that which was central to the Jewish tradition. Quoting from the Shema (from the Hebrew imperative hear) Jesus said that to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind and strength was the greatest commandment God had given. But He did not step there. For alongside it He quoted from Leviticus the command to love your neighbor as yourself. As if to say that neither one of them could stand alone. One loves God by loving one’s neighbor. And now, on this last night with His followers, He issues a new command: To love each other as He had loved them. This is remarkable for several reasons. First, Jesus had just taken the part of the lowest servant by washing their feet. Exemplifying great humility, He had demonstrated that nothing was beneath Him. He also showed that that no work, offered in love, is demeaning. If they were truly to follow Him and serve as His disciples, if they were to be Christian not only in name but in truth, this is what they too must do. If they were intent on gaining power, or lording it over others, or ruling with and iron hand, they would not find that in Jesus. If they insisted on making a name for themselves or amassing earthly riches, they would not find Jesus supporting that either. Instead, Jesus was willing to be the lowest, the least and the last. In doing so, He would exclude no one, and He would leave no one behind. This is the kind of love they, too, were to exhibit; this is the spirit with which they were to serve. Another wonder in this command is the place of Jesus in it and the authority with which He speaks. Jesus presents Himself as the perfect human example to emulate. But He also identifies Himself as the perfect representative of God. We must not pass over this too quickly. In the same vein, He initiates a new covenant and claims that His blood is central to it. God is the One who makes covenants with His people! Who does Jesus think He is? And now the import of His words begins to show itself. Now we can gain some understanding and insight into why others would accuse Him of overstepping His bounds and claiming too much. For indeed, these were not the words of an ordinary man. Or, if there were, He must surely be stopped. But His actions will bear Him out. And in them we see the unmistakable hand of God. We recognize truth when we see it. It resonates and vibrates throughout our being. We behold the work of God as we witness humble service, compassionate mercy, sacrificial love. And these are the ways of Jesus. It is in and through His words and actions that we receive the corrective lenses through which to see God more clearly. In Jesus we come to understand the purpose and plan of God, as we see it carried out in His living and in His loving. And we see the kingdom of God unfold. Do you claim Jesus as your Lord? Perhaps it is better to ask: Are you listening to His words? Observing His actions? Submitting Your will to His own? After all, Jesus does not just lay down a law. He lays down His life. And this is the way of God.
Gracious God, on this Holy Thursday, we remember Your love demonstrated in the humble service of Your Son. We marvel at His compassionate care. Like His first followers, we’re taken aback as He approaches us to kneel down to wash our feet. Teach us to be recipients of Your love poured out, that we might be Your agents of love and grace and thereby extend Your kingdom and bless our world for good. Work Your holy will in us and through us, that we might effectively serve others to the honor of Your name.
Continue to March 2021