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Daily Devotionals and Weekly Virtual Church Services

Special Immanuel Lutheran Church Page During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Daily Bread

For the safety of all in our ILC community and beyond, we have decided to forego all gatherings until further notice. In the meantime, we will provide Daily Devotionals and Weekly Virtual Church Services through this webpage. We encourage the congregation to use the posted devotionals to "virtually join together" in prayer, daily, at 9:00am.

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Thursday, December 31 Devotional

Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!
Luke 2:14

If it took just one angel to announce it to the shepherds, it required a multitude to proclaim it to the world. The birth of Christ not only changed our calendars, it was a revelation that transformed our understanding of God. In our technological age we rejoice at the devices at our disposal today, conveniences that did not exist for our parents to enjoy. We can text, email and call from almost anywhere in the world to almost anywhere in the world. We’ve been given the gift of accessibility, not only when it comes to people but also when it comes to knowledge. Most of us carry with us in our pockets or purses smart phones which, with a few keystrokes, get us wherever we’d like to go and tell us whatever we’d like to know. During this pandemic, we’re especially grateful for tools like Skype, FaceTime & Zoom, which allow us to interact face-to-face with our family members and business associates. Still, we know it does not replace person-to-person engagement. Even so, the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth revolutionized our understanding of God. The inscrutable and unseen came up- close-and-personal. Heaven stooped down and came to earth, in living color. It is this surprising stooping, this divine humiliation, this willing submission – what theologians call kenosis (self-emptying) – that gives cause for the angels to proclaim highest glory to God. We see glimpses of this act in the earthly realm: when celebrities sign autographs, athletes give interviews, bestselling authors do signings and take the time to dedicate each book personally. We see it when a president visits troops overseas, comes to the bedsides of the injured, or attends the funerals of the fallen. In these acts we see glory. Were God to remain seated on His heavenly throne, set apart in His holiness, untouchable, unreachable – it may have been awe-inspiring and moved us to deepest reverence. But for God to take upon Himself our human flesh that He might truly be known: This is glory! God has deigned to come down and make Himself accessible. And the angelic choir declares the summary of His birth, the synopsis of the incarnational message: Peace. For not only was Jesus born to make peace and to be the divine Mediator between God and humankind. Not only is He the Redeemer who heals all that is broken and makes all that is wrong, right. It goes much deeper than this. For God’s action reveals God’s identity, God’s character, God’s essence. Indeed, Jesus not only makes peace, He declares that we have it. For the truth is: Jesus does not change God’s mind. Jesus reveals the mind of God to people for whom it was impossible to understand – apart from God coming to earth in Person to reveal it. Jesus is born not to tame God, to soothe God’s anger, or to calm God down. Jesus is born to show us the gentler side of God that our human sin and guilt have blinded us from seeing. Indeed, one angelic voice was not sufficient to sing this heavenly chorus. The fullness of the heavenly choir was needed. All praise be to God: kind, compassionate and merciful, who willingly descends from heaven to earth to make known His divine intentions on our behalf. And now, having beheld the glory of God and having learned of God’s peace, we leave the manger: Transfixed. Transformed. Wholly changed. And we are decided and determined to demonstrate His glory and extend His peace for all the world to see.

Prayer
Almighty God, magnificent mystery revealed in Christ our Lord: We praise You for Your glory displayed. We rejoice that You have made Yourself accessible – that You have showed us Your heart and displayed for us Your divine intention. Knowing that we have perfect peace with You puts our souls at rest and enables us to live in peace with one another. You have showed us how to live to reflect Your glory. Now grant us the confidence and courage to follow in Your steps of humility, kindness and compassion, that all might come to know the fullness of Your goodness and grace, for the honor of Your holy Name.
Amen


Wednesday, December 30 Devotional

For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Luke 2:11

In this verse we find the sum total of the gospel message. In it, there are no ifs, ands or buts. It is Good News, pure and simple, whole and entire. The gospel is first proclaimed to outcast shepherds abiding in the fields on the outskirts of life. No kingly or priestly garb do they wear: their robes are purely practical, utilitarian. For these are not prominent people. They are ordinary and everyday – some remembered, some forgotten, all precious in the sight of God. The gospel message shared by the heavenly messenger is both timely and eternal, personal and universal. It is a message for today and for all time, for all the people and for the shepherds out in the dark and in the cold. The words for today and for you bring the message home. They personalize and practicalize the gospel. The shepherds had heard the words, and there was no mistaking them: this good news had been intended for them, too. Today... for you! When I was a child, Santa would come to visit, when we gathered on Christmas Eve at the home of my great- grandfather. Clad in red and white suit, girded with black belt, white beard and bulging sack slung over his shoulder. And when he opened his bag and began calling out names, how amazed I was when my name, too, was intoned. Not only had Santa come, he had come for me! Sometimes a miracle occurs in the speaking and hearing of the gospel message: faith is created. For it's when you recognize that this gospel is not just out there for others in a different place in time – but that these are words for you, right here and now – it's then that the words take on the power that can change your life. What has God done? What has God brought about in Bethlehem, in the city of David? God has broken into the world to bring about its salvation. God does this for all creation out of His goodness and grace, as an expression of His character. The gospel is a declaration of who God is and what God does: He comes to save. And who is this Savior? He is the Christ. The Messiah. The King. The Promised One from the line of David. God had taken young David from shepherding his sheep and had raised him up to shepherd God's people. And now David's descendant is born, this One would show Himself to be the Good Shepherd, who would preserve, protect and rescue God's people. He would be no earthly king, and He would wear no earthly crown (save the crown of thorns thrust upon Him in mockery). But this Savior would be the King of kings and Lord of lords, before whom every power would be challenged. The gospel speaks of divine initiative and divine accomplishment. God will complete what He's come to do and finish what He started. Silently, salvation comes to earth, with unmatched majesty. The wonder of God, wrapped up in swaddling clothes. The gospel is proclaimed to the shepherds in the fields: God is born among you. God has drawn close. Today. For you. And as once it came to shepherds, so now it comes to you. What you will do with the gospel message? How will you respond to it? Perhaps the bigger and better question is: What will it do to you?

Prayer
God of grace and glory, You are the Author of Life. You hold all of creation in Your loving hands. In Your majesty and mercy, You came to earth to rescue Your people and redeem Your broken creation. May Your gospel message have its full effect upon all those who hear it proclaimed. Forgive us when we relegate Your Good News to some, while we exclude it from others. Keep us from qualifying Your salvation or from adding requirements to it. For this error serves only to detract from Your grace and conditionalize Your love. Help us to proclaim Your wondrous gospel in its simplicity and purity. For as we speak its truth, it will go forth to powerfully work faith in many-a heart and bring glory to Your holy and blessed Name.
Amen


Tuesday, December 29 Devotional

And in the same region there were shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night.
Luke 2:8

There are many things I missed this Christmas. Gathering with extended family, to celebrate together and to exchange gifts (especially missed was seeing the excited expressions of joy and wonder in the faces of my nieces and nephew, when they open presents with their names attached). I missed simply being in their presence, doing nothing in particular, just experiencing together life, as it unfolds. I missed worshiping with our congregational members and friends, joining together in unified song, conjuring up memories of Christmases past and creating new ones. In particular, I missed those who would be in attendance only because it was a festive service – being CEO Christians (Christmas, Easter & Other), it was one of the few times I'd see them during the year. I'm mindful of the dear soul who regularly tells me to be extra vigilant: for now that she was inside the church, the sanctuary walls just might collapse. Of course, she said this in jest. Still, I wonder if there wasn't a bit of sincerity underlying her comment. If not in her, certainly in others. Making light of the latent guilt they feel for coming so infrequently. I fear that more than a few feel unworthy to come into the presence of God and accompany the gathered saints. The shepherds might well have understood. For theirs was not a white- or even a blue-collar job: it was a no-collar one. They were looked upon with suspicion in the temple courts – if they indeed found a way to make their way into them. They were more comfortable out on the fields; it's where they felt at home and at peace. Where they belonged. And where they would not be looked upon in judgment by the self-righteous. Perhaps the shepherds voiced the words I've heard more than once: nature is my sanctuary; outdoors is where I worship God. And I don't need to go inside a church building on a Sunday morning to do so. While this explanation holds some truth, I wonder if it's spoken more as an excuse than it is a revelation of their devotion. And then there's the Sunday/Monday dichotomy. Faith compartmentalized. For many, Sunday morning worship is distinct from the workday week. Sunday devotion and Monday duties are worlds apart. As we consider the shepherds, we find that although others may have relegated them to a profane place in the outer darkness, away from all that is sacred, they would soon discover the presence of God coming to them – and they'd get a front row seat. If they were sinners, they were welcomed sinners by the Savior who'd been born. The presence of God was not bound by temple gates – the fields themselves constituted holy ground. The angel of God would speak to them in the midst of their duties, in the middle of their workaday world. In the words soon to be spoken, they'd be reminded that the great King David had once been a shepherd – and had addressed the Lord as his Shepherd. Their personhood and their profession would be affirmed by the only One who mattered. Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself: God comes to you in the midst of your mundane and menial. God is present in your ordinary. You're welcomed and beloved in God's sight: God meets you in the temple courts at the hour of prayer and out in the fields when you clock-in Monday morning. And the walls will not cave in.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, You came to be our Good Shepherd, to protect and to preserve the sheep in Your fold and to seek and to save the lost. All are precious in Your sight. Continue to draw our gaze upon You, for as we see You clearly, Your holiness will humble our prideful hearts. Transform our eyes, that we might not look upon others in judgment, but with compassion. Convert our hearts, that they might turn away from harsh criticism and reprimand, and instead be filled with kindness and mercy. As we have so richly received from the fulness of Your grace, may we faithfully extend it to others. For Your glory alone.
Amen


Monday, December 28 Devotional

And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7

This part of the Story is widely known. To believers, it is both familiar and beloved. It is vivid. No quotation marks here, for the narration is sufficient. We don't need to listen to this scene, we simply need to behold it. To pause, to observe, to contemplate, to take it all in. She, him and them: they can all remain nameless. For there's no mistaking the characters; we can readily supply their names. Much has been made about the inn in this verse. Although we read nothing more about it than what we find here, many a Christmas program follows the soon-to-be parents through the streets of Bethlehem, as they anxiously look for a place to stay. We listen in on the conversation between the carpenter and the innkeeper in the front of the No Vacancy sign. We hear him pleading for a place – it doesn't have to be fancy – just some space for his beloved, who is great with child. No room here are the inevitable words, and so he moves on. Others have remarked that the word for inn can also mean guestroom – an addition to the meager abodes of the day, a space set apart from the main room. If this is correct, that space had already been occupied, and the traveling couple was relegated, instead, to the main room, which consisted of feeding troughs for the animals, brought inside for the evening. Whichever the case, the Holy Child did not enter the world holding a first-class ticket. How about a manger? And God said, “That'd be just fine.” And so, He is born in a humble setting, nothing fancy. And this humble beginning would be consistent with the life He would live and the death He would die. This is how the incarnate God chooses to live in our midst. We suppose that, theoretically, things might have been different. The child might have been born to parents wealthy and powerful, in majestic Jerusalem, not lowly Bethlehem. But this was not to be. And why not? What does this tell us about God? For God certainly acts according to character. To what lengths does God go, to communicate divine love and grace? What risks does God take for the sake of His beloved? God risks all to give everything. And what about us? How do we respond to God's all and everything? What space do we provide – in our hearts and in our lives? How great is the gap between what we do and what should be done? If we've been created in the image of God, should we not act in a manner consistent with our Creator? The answer is clear. The divine grace poured out on our behalf can only have one worthy response, if we allow God's overture to have its full effect upon us. Our lives are to mirror God's own, as we offer ourselves in sacrificial service to others, with grace poured out. God had no guarantees that His offering would be received. God risked No Vacancy signs set out in the hearts of those who claimed they were already filled to the full and had no space for one more thing. We, too, have no guarantees that our most sincere gifts and heartful offerings will be accepted. But we're called, like God, to risk it all. For there will be some who will open the door and welcome God's grace, freely given. Their eyes will behold holy sacrifice and divine truth. They will discover the beauty of God, and they'll know that this, finally, is something they can believe in. The amazing and wondrous grace of God... poured out for us poor sinners.

Prayer
Almighty God, in Your wondrous love for Your broken creation, You risked it all and did not hesitate to do so. In Your amazing grace, You did not demand a welcome. You opened Yourself up to rejection. Those who have eyes to see and to recognize the gift You bring continue to tell Your Story. They come to know Your heart and to discover Your greatest desire: to have all Your children home for Christmas. As we bear witness to Your great Gospel Story, hope is dawning within us that in Your divine sovereignty, You will find a way to accomplish Your holy purposes. To that end, may we prove to be Your faithful servants.
Amen


Sunday, December 27 Virtual Church Service ("A Four-Course Meal")


Sunday, December 28 Devotional

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David.
Luke 2:4

These are the kinds of details we wish others would leave out of their annual Christmas card letters. The minutiae. The stuff of interest only to those who've lived through the events. Or so it may appear until we pause for a moment to listen to what Luke tells us and learn a little bit about the background that was common knowledge to all of his first century readers. We begin with Joseph, both law-abiding and faithful. We mustn't forget what he had been called to do, and we mustn't minimize his contribution. He had been asked to believe the unbelievable. The story told to him by Mary and affirmed by a dream he could not deny was divine. He persevered, he stayed the course – and this is no small thing under any circumstances, let alone in the unique situation into which Joseph had found himself. Moreover, Joseph was a responsible citizen: he had learned of the decree of Caesar and he followed through with his part. He faithfully carried out that which was required of him – both earthly and divine. He put aside the things he might rather do. He didn't assert his own desires. He took the high road. He manned up. Luke tells us that Joseph was from Nazareth of Galilee – which is the northern reaches of Palestine. Why is this important? The kingdom of Israel had been established about a thousand years prior and lasted only one century before civil war broke out and divided their land in two. History would prove to be on the side of the south. There Jerusalem was still the capital, and there the dynasty of David had held the throne for more than four hundred years – long after their brothers in the north had been swallowed upon by foreign powers. And why does that matter? Because Joseph is from the family of David and the kings who ruled in the south – and he's now living in the north. Certainly, the wound of division had healed. But undeniable scars remained. When Nazareth was intoned by southerners, it was not spoken without a bit of a snarl; it was voiced with more than a hint of mockery and denigration. And why David? Why was Joseph's lineage traced back that far – and no farther? Why not go back one more generation – to David's father, Jesse? Or back farther yet? Because David had been king. The great king. The first of a great dynasty. Joseph is of royal blood – and although the dynasty had appeared to come to an end, the people believed God would make good on His promise and that the Messiah – the new king – would come to rule from David's line. These are words pregnant with hope. Any why Bethlehem? Jerusalem was also called the city of David – why does Luke switch labels? The One born to Mary would also be attributed to David's line. He, too, would be royal. He would be the promised King. But he wouldn't rule with an iron fist, Jerusalem-style. He'd be better suited to Bethlehem, the birthplace of David. The small town from which no one but the prophets could imagine any good thing arising. But it had happened in David, the most unlikely of Jesse's sons. And it would happen again – in Jesus. And so, Joseph makes the weeklong journey to the land of his ancestors. He does what he must do. And in these tasks both menial and mundane, Joseph proves to be trustworthy and true. And as he follows through with righteous obedience, God accomplishes something truly extraordinary.

Prayer
Almighty God, in Your sovereignty You skillfully bring all things together. You inspire and orchestrate without denying us our freedom to choose. You work Your will in us and through us without turning us into mindless puppets. Through our ordinary obedience and daily decisions, You are able to bring about extraordinary things. Somehow, You get it done. Open our eyes and open our hearts, that we might be Your willing servants. May we be Your useful instruments in our everyday lives, that You might carry out Your divine purposes in us and through us. My we help more than we hinder, and may we discover the wonderful and glorious blessing of knowing we're part of Your eternal plan. Be glorified in us today.
Amen


Saturday, December 26 Devotional

Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.
Luke 2:1

Among the many names and titles ascribed to Jesus is the Second Adam. As Adam was the first of all those who would become the fallen and sinful race, Jesus, the Second Adam, would be the Redeemer, the first of a restored humanity. While Adam got it wrong; Christ did it right. While Adam succumbed to temptation; Jesus told the accuser: Begone! And while Adam was born into a world devoid of earthly rule and enjoyed a tabula rasa, Jesus was born at a time when power was pervasive and Caesar ruled the land. As Luke begins his account of the birth of Christ, in the scene before us we see a nascent battle budding between powers earthly and divine. Caesar could speak his word, issue his decree, and it would set the people a-scampering, to carry out his intentions. But the power born in Bethlehem, although it would come silently and invisibly, would prove to be a power above and beyond the greatest dreams of those who ruled in the kingdom of Rome. Caesar could force the people to register and make them comply, by applying pressure from the outside. But Jesus would capture the spirit and soul of the people, and this would prove to be unstoppable. We live in a world where earthly and heavenly powers coexist, and they are sometimes at odds with each other. But it is not a zero-sum game. One does not always have to lose for the other to win. Jesus would later allow rendering unto Caesar those things that were his. But it is to God that all of creation belongs, along with every last one of His treasured and precious people. While the residents of Judea felt the pressure of the foreign rule of Rome, there was now a different foreign power that entered into their midst - a heavenly one. This power would sometimes be challenged by earthly rule and sometimes be welcomed by it. But it could not be overcome, because it was the very power of God. While the prophet implored God to tear open the heavens and come down, God does not blast His way down to earth with flamboyant force. Still, His appearing is no less compelling. With humble and unpretentious entry, the extraordinary arises out of the common, and heaven comes to earth. Born is He who promises to make all things new. And in His birth, we see God's divine purposes at work, for He will raise up those who are downtrodden, disarm the powers that coerce, mend that which had been broken, and overcome evil with God. The Innocent and Sinless One, the Final Adam, would usher in a new age. The people who would be counted in the census: they were God's people before they belonged to Caesar. And while Augustus could claim all earthly power and rule with mighty force, heaven's presence had come down to earth when the Only Begotten had been born. Caesar would make his mark and be remembered. But it was the One born in the far reaches up his empire who would prove to change the world forever.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, help me not be deceived by the earthly powers that make great and magnificent promises. Let me not be distracted or have my attention diverted by those things that appeal to my selfish interests and in the end will only leave me empty and craving for more. Fix my eyes solely upon You. Draw my heart to You alone. Redeem and transform me, that I might be wholly yours and with singular devotion seek to carry our Your divine intentions. May I be Your instrument of service this day and use the power You give me only according to Your holy will, that my words and actions might serve to extend Your holy and righteous rule, and all might come to know the fullness of Your glorious goodness and grace.
Amen


Friday, December 25 Devotional

And the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people..."
Luke 2:10

It's a different kind of Christmas this year. Our celebrations are smaller. There are not as many presents under the tree and fewer people around the table. Our minds are restless and unsettled - filled not with visions of dancing sugarplums but with images of masked people everywhere, anxiously questioning the future. Our hearts are heavy, filled with concern for those whose health is compromised. And we grieve those missing from our midst, those who must stay home and stay away. Maybe you're that one: the one who went nowhere. And you feel cut off, isolated, alone. Removed from all that's important to you. To be sure, it's a different kind of Christmas. And it's into our very real and broken world that the heavenly message comes. The angel is heaven's ambassador, and this time it's a good word he has to share. Indeed, not just a good word, but the best word ever. Do not be afraid is the salutation he speaks. It's not a wasted or unnecessary greeting. The words would not have been uttered if the audience that listened was not in a fearful state. Was their fear caused by the angelic appearance itself? A reaction to a God who is unsafe and cannot be trusted? Was it due to guilt in those who heard, that God had surprised them, caught them off guard, at a bad time, and they feared the present punishment that was their due? Or was their fear of a more general and pervasive sort: a fear of the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life? The anxiety that comes from too many bad things happening and the expectation that there could be more to follow. What was the cause of the shepherds' fear? What are the reasons for yours? In the end, it matters not, for the answer is the same: Do not fear. For what I am about to tell you is so big and so powerful that your fears will fade away and disperse. Behold! Listen now! Pay attention! Hear this: I bring you good news... I bring you gospel... from the throne of Almighty God. And this good news will be the source of great joy for all people. A Savior is coming. A Savior is born... This is what cannot and must not be missed in any and all of our Christmas celebrations. For what takes places is thoroughly good news - no ifs ands or buts. It's good news that comes not because of our deserving. Not because you've been a good boy or good girl this year. It's good news that comes just because. Just because that's who God is and that's what God does. When you draw close to the cradle and behold the work of God, you'll discover gospel truth that will bless you with joy to disperse your fears. And having received it, you become a bearer of it. A sharer of the message. To whom is this word addressed? To all people. This word you receive from heaven's throne room is like a letter addressed to Resident. But this is no junk mail. It's good news of great joy given to all the people of the world. We simply cannot leave the manger scene without an intention to share the good news of God. We dare not relegate it a select few. For God purposes to give this gift to everyone without exclusion. Jesus comes to be the Savior of the world. Whoever you are, wherever you are: Do not fear. Your Savior, your Redeemer, your faithful God is born for you this day, right in the middle of your wearisome world.

Prayer
Almighty and gracious God, in Your great love for us You came to earth and became incarnate in Jesus Christ our Lord. Your Word speaks louder that any word we can utter and is more powerful than any remonstrance or rejoinder we might make. Your Word is a Word of life and goodness and grace. You've come to be our Savior - and so You are. Help us to receive Your gospel message and to share it freely with all. For it is the Word we need to hear this day and every day. It is the Word that dispels our fears, gives us irrepressible joy and instills in us a hope that is certain, because it is founded and fixed in You. Before You we bow in humble adoration, and to You we give our highest praise, this day and every day.
Amen


Thursday, December 24 Virtual Christmas Eve Celebration ("The Weary World Rejoices")

Immanuel Lutheran Church of Saratoga organizes safe, socially distanced, masked outdoor services for Christmas Eve and you can still sign up for these. But for everyone who wants or needs to celebrate Christmas Eve from home, a virtual church service will go live on Christmas Eve at 6pm at our YouTube channel.


Thursday, December 24 Devotional

For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.
Ephesians 2:14

It's hard to get along. With others. With God. We humans have a strange and sinister bent. Having been created in love, to love God and to love one another, we draw the line as to how far we will go in each direction. Instead of faithfully heeding divine intention, purpose and command, we take it under advisement, set our own rules, and become a law unto ourselves. We insist on doing it our own way. On becoming our own gods. And what happens then? What happens when our turn aside from our created purpose? What happens when the object of our service is not God and others, but ourselves? The whole system breaks down and comes to a grinding halt. It's our way or the highway. And we relegate God to the sidelines. We demote the One Who Is from the Person above all Persons to an impotent puppet we command to sit in the corner, stay still and keep quiet. Almighty God becomes for us merely a god, an idea we honor only insofar as it coincides with our own. And we limit which others will be the recipients of our love. You want in? Align with my truth and reciprocate. Or else. Too often, left to our own devices, we make a mess of things - because we ourselves have become a mess. The protective gear goes on, and barriers go up... In Paul's day, the great divide that existed was between Jew and Gentile, those included in God's covenant and those who were excluded. The first Christians were Jews. Gentiles (non-Jews) stepped onto the stage a bit later in the story. And I'm sorry to say that these eternal outsiders were not immediately welcomed by all with open arms. The walls were strong and near impenetrable. The barriers were built high and strong. The divisions were deep. But hear the good news the apostle proclaims: Christ is the One who brings peace. Isaiah prophesies that God's Messiah would be called the Prince of Peace, and his hope was now realized in Jesus. The incarnation fulfills the prophetic vision. Jesus does the work of demolition and breaks down the walls that divide: between Jew and Gentile, between black and white, right and left, pro and con. Jesus is the peace of God from heaven to earth come down. He's born among us as the lowest of the low, that none might be beneath His raising. And on His cross He is lifted above all others, that lifting our eyes to Him, we might discover His power to lift us above the barriers that divide us. The bonds that tether us to ourselves and to our own devices are broken, and this One born to offer Himself in living and dying sacrifice becomes our redemption. In our anxiety and fear we wrap ourselves in body armor and take up our weapons of defense before God and before each other. But God beckons you to come close this Christmas to behold the gift of heaven. To open your eyes to see the extent of God's great love. As you come near the cradle that holds the Christ Child, your hands will relax and your weapons of war will fall to the ground. No longer needed is your armor of defense, for you're shielded in the safety of One who is pure peace. As you approach the manger, the manacles of sin that have bound you for too long drop off. You're set free. Don't avert your eyes. As you gaze upon the Swaddled One, your faith will grow: This heavenly gift of grace - this love, forgiveness, life and peace - has your name on it.

Prayer
Almighty God, in Your amazing grace You've taken the initiative to break down the barriers we've erected that divide us. Nothing will keep You from those You so dearly love. Open our eyes to the peace that You have given in Your Son, our Lord incarnate. Open our hearts to receive Him fully and make us obedient to follow in His ways of loving service. Draw us close, that we might find in You the peace and security that enable us to remove the heavy burdens of our protective armor. And bless our weary and broken world with the peace that only You can give - and have given - in Jesus the Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem.
Amen


Wednesday, December 23 Devotional

... the sons of the other Elam, 1,254...
Ezra 2:31

I'm a plodder. But I'm a finisher. When I start a book, I read till the end, without skipping a page. The same with movies, not wanting to miss anything. Sometimes I'm rewarded with outtakes, mistakes and monkey business - the real stuff of life - that didn't make the final cut but merited what producers thought might provoke a few laughs and offer tidbits of interest, moving the people to leave the experience with a smile on their faces and warm fuzzies in their hearts. But sometimes it's just the credits - which, admittedly, seem to go on forever. Every last person is recognized. Which is, I guess, exactly the point. Because every last person matters. No matter how minor the role, if the person behind that unrecognized name had not been involved, the production would have been less, had it happened at all. The reality is: Most people don't hang around to read the credits or to listen to the entire sending song tacked on to the end of the movie. I marvel to the point of laughing out loud at watching some older movies when the credits spin so fast and so small it's impossible to see anything - like the disclaimers at the end of advertisements for pharmaceutical products or car commercials. But I'm also saddened by it. Because it reinforces the consumer mentality that it's the product that matters and not the people that produce it... Buried deep in the Bible in the unobtrusive Book of Ezra is a genealogical list of those who returned from exile in Babylon. They came to rebuild not only the temple in Jerusalem but the lives which had been whisked away from them in their captivity. And in this genealogical list we find a man named Elam - along with 1,254 people in his party. What catches my eye is not his name or the number of his people. It's his designation as the other Elam. As if he did not exist in his own right, but only in relationship to someone else, i.e., the Elam who came before him. (The people of West Virginia know what I'm talking about: Their neighbor to the east has no such designation. At least the Carolinas and Dakotas share equally in their names.) Although you might not be one who relishes the spotlight, you still want to be known for who you are and be appreciated for the unique difference you make in this life. And you do. For although there are people like you, there's no one just like you. There's only one unique you. And you matter in this world and to the people whose lives touch your own. No one interacts with them the way you do. No one brings to the table the singular makeup of you... except you. You have a unique constitution, an individuality all your own. You are a party of one. I know there are some who hardly need to hear this message. But there are others - many others, I think - who too often wonder if they have anything special to add to the conversation of life. Many others who too often wonder if they really matter. But you do. God has created you as a one- of-a-kind, cherished treasure. God delights in you. You're more than just a name: You're a masterpiece of the Almighty. You have a distinct voice. You have fingerprints that are uniquely our own. And when you take a moment to pause this Christmas and to look into the eyes of the One born and laid in the manger, I pray that you will recognize Him as the only begotten Son of God, come to earth as your promised Savior. But I also pray that you will see those eyes looking back at you, affirming your own special self, and recognizing you as one of His very own. So, Merry Christmas - from the one and only other Elam.

Prayer
Almighty God, in Your marvelous imagination You've created rich diversity. You are the great Innovator, and as You continue to create You reveal more of Yourself to us. Help us to recognize the personal relationship we have with You by virtue of our own unique creation. Help us come to know You more and more each day. For the more we do, the more we'll delight that we're fully known and fully loved. I rejoice before You, Lord of heaven and earth, Savior divine. Use me as You will to accomplish the singular tasks You've laid at my feet. Strengthen me for service and let me shine my light for Your glory alone.
Amen


Tuesday, December 22 Devotional

A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Galatians 2:16

Here the apostle hammers home his message. He makes his point - and then he makes it again and again. Three times he as much as says the same thing. (As I just tried to do - did you catch it?) And indeed, it bears repeating, for this gets to the heart of Paul's reason for writing to the congregations of believers that had been scattered across a region called Galatia (part of modern-day Turkey). Paul was no stranger to these churches. It was, in fact, through his preaching that they had come to faith in Jesus. But Paul learned that a wave of teaching had broken in and washed over the people like a great tsunami, and that it threatened to demolish, destroy and carry away all that had been constructed. The matter was so urgent that Paul wasted no time in addressing it: He immediately gets to the point - and it cuts to the quick. So, what's the matter? The matter is justification - the word that crops up three times in this verse... When I begin typing away on my keyboard, I see on the computer screen before me the left edges of my composition all crisp and clean, perfectly lined up. The right-hand side is not. It's rough and jagged. To correct it and to make it smooth, I have to click on an icon that makes my document fully justified... One of the deep, existential questions that issues from the core of our being is how we can get right with our Creator. How we will answer the One to whom we are accountable. How we will justify the actions of our lives and explain our stewardship. How we can make sure our papers are in order when we're called before the throne of Almighty God. It's a fearsome thing, because: we know we are guilty. We know we have sinned, erred, rebelled - made a mess of things. The gospel Paul preached was simply this: Jesus came to be our justifier. He came to wash us clean. It is in His righteousness that we are clothed. As such, He has done it all. There's nothing more that we can add to it. In fact, when we attempt to do so, we make it clear that we haven't yet heard, understood and received the message - that we just don't get it. This is not to say that the Christian life is nothing more than expressing thanks and praise to God for what He has done. The works we do are indeed critical in the kingdom of God. But they do not save us. We offer ourselves wholly to God's purposes in response to the work that has been accomplished on our behalf on the cross at Calvary. Our faith is not in who we are or what we do. Our faith resides in whose we are and what has been done for us. And with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, our trust in His love and faith in the gift of His sacrifice on our behalf begins to increase. We are not saved by our good works. But we have been saved for them. Indeed, as we make our way to the manger again in a few days, we do well to bend our knees and bow our hearts in contrite humility and reverent worship. But we then arise from before the holy Child and set out to honor Him by sharing His love and shining His light and inviting all to come and see Him whose birth the angels sing. All glory and praise be to Jesus, our precious and holy redeemer.

Prayer
Almighty and gracious God, draw my vision to gaze upon the gift You have given to me in Your Son. May my eyes not be lifted from His manger until I come to full understanding of what You have done for me. O dear and beautiful Savior, divine vulnerability, gracious gift of heaven come down! You have come to be the Savior of the world - and so You are. Help me to acknowledge this truth sublime, that Your salvation might have its full effect in me. And give me proper words to publish these glad tidings, that all might hear the Good News of the salvation has been born on earth to be born in us, this day and forevermore.
Amen


Monday, December 21 Devotional

Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people; for who can rule this great people of Thine?
2 Chronicles 1:10

According to the chronicler, Solomon began his rule in honorable fashion - with humility, intention, and a sober sense of stewardship. What is your greatest need? What is your heartfelt cry before God? God wants to hear from you - even as God wanted to hear from Solomon. The surprise is: God already knows what's in your heart. But God also knows it's good for you to identify it, to speak of it (bringing it to life), and to offer it up in to Him in fervent prayer. Solomon was honest and transparent before God: Wisdom and knowledge were what he needed to do the job that lay before him. God gave him both. Knowledge is what Jeopardy! champions have when they're able, like supercomputers, to access, process and quickly recall information about the who, what and where of the past. (If there's any wisdom displayed, it's in the wagers that are made for Final Jeopardy and what to do when a Daily Double is uncovered.) Wisdom is more about the how and why questions - and when to do or not to do what each situation in life requires. Knowledge is doing your research - gaining facts and figures; wisdom is knowing what to do with them once you've got them. Solomon knew they went hand-in-hand and that he needed them both. In his prayer to God, he also made known his intentions: He would go out and come in before the people. As the going out precedes the coming in, the king gives us insight into his heart - he intends to initiate and to be active. He was a go-getter; he would not be a king who would sit on his throne and beckon others to come to him. He would be out there, in and among the people. In the same manner, Jesus sends His disciples (and us) out into the world to share the Good News. As the Church is more about the people than the building, the Church is to go out to be active in the world before it invites others to come in to the delegated gathering place. Finally, Solomon recognized that the people of the kingdom were not only his people, they were God's people. The throne he occupied was only for a time, and he should not consider it his alone. His calling was not to carry out his own will but to accomplish the purposes of God for the good of the people he served. His reign was a stewardship entrusted to him by the people and by God. Would that we all looked upon our own callings in similar fashion and continually asked: How might I serve God in my current position? How might I bring benefit to God's people today? The greater the task, the deeper the need to seek divine assistance. God's people are implored to pray for those in positions of authority and power, that they might be given wisdom to govern wisely. Our obligation to pray is not dependent upon the person who occupies the office. While we recognize there's always more to the story than what we can see from our limited perspectives (we don't know what we don't know), what happens when we're convinced a person is off-track and in error? We're duty-bound to pray all the more fervently. After all, Christ bid us to pray even for our enemies. Solomon asked that God would give him all he needed to carry out the job he was given to do. And the people of the kingdom would be wise to offer the same prayer on behalf of the one who reigned over them. For they were bound together as one. More than that: God's intention was not only for their national success. Blessed to be a blessing, they were to shine their light into the furthest reaches of God's world. Theirs, and ours, is a global mission on God's behalf.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, it's good for us to recognize that You call us to ventures greater than what we bring to them. There's always room for growth, and we're always dependent upon You for the resources we need to do the job. And so, we pray for knowledge and wisdom, for ourselves and for those who've been entrusted with the stewardship to govern Your people. Help us pray fervently for our leaders and offer our full support, insofar as they are intentional to be conduits of blessing for the people You so dearly love. May Your will be done in us and through us, for Your glory and for the good of all Your people.
Amen


Sunday, December 20 Virtual Church Service ("A Mother's Example")

Our legendary organist, Elisabeth Pintar, is starring in the 14th Annual Christmas Concert, which will premiere today. Make sure to watch her performance!


Sunday, December 20 Devotional

... who comforts us in all our afflictions so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
2 Corinthians 1:4

I was in high school the first time it happened. A hot summer day, I was out on the tennis court, rallying with my best friend and doubles partner. I began to feel a little light-headed and then had trouble seeing the ball clearly. Something just seemed off. So we took a break and went to the bench at the side of the court to refresh ourselves. Those were the days of metal tennis cans, and it was our practice to use them as makeshift water containers, filling them with cool water from the drinking fountain at the top of the stairs. As I drank from the can, I wondered what was going on in my head. And then, when I looked at the lettering on side of the can, I was shocked to see the words begin to disappear. In the upper part of my vision field there was what looked like a spinning kaleidoscope. In those days I was a bit anxious by nature and not infrequently accused of being a hypochondriac. But this was different. This was real. This was something I had not experienced before. And in what felt like interminable minutes that it continued, my mind was racing. What did this mean? Did I have a tumor? Was I going to die? I became so frightened of these possibilities that I retreated inwardly and shared the experience with no one. I hoped it was a one-time occurrence, a fluke, caused by something I had eaten. But a few months later it happened again. And like some sinister spirit, the condition would periodically swoop in out of nowhere, spooking me and giving rise to a sneaking suspicion that something was really wrong. And then came a wonderful serendipity: Great comfort entered into my secret anxiety in the form of my grandmother. I cannot remember what moved me to share my fears, but when I did her response to me was given with a nonchalance that calmed me almost immediately. I've experienced that, she told me. I call it half-blindness. She went on to offer her own diagnosis (symptoms of a migraine) and her own solution (find a quiet, dark place and drink some 7-Up to settle your stomach). This advice, although strange, was helpful. But what brought me comfort was the fact that she shared the experience I feared was mine alone. She understood. This comfort of shared experience is realized and appreciated by many who've been diagnosed with diseases they can hardly pronounce, when they're introduced to a community of people who are on the same path. By those who've experienced the loss of a spouse, child or friend. By those in 12-Step programs everywhere. To have someone come alongside you to reassure you that they, too, have experienced what you're going through and that you're not alone - this can bring solace that can soothe your soul... The greatest comfort of all comes from God Himself. It's the comfort of God's salvation and the confidence of God's faithful and abiding presence in the midst of our suffering. In this verse Paul serves as a middleman, one who mediates the comfort of God. This is the role my grandmother played for me. She passed on to me what she herself had received. I know personally the importance of this kind of comfort. And what joy it is to be able to bring it to others, to share God's good news of love, forgiveness and grace, and to see the care and concern in the face of another dissipate and be transformed into courage, conviction and hope. We cannot give what we do not possess. But as we grow in our understanding of the great grace of God, we will be able to pass on the blessing to others, and impart to them heavenly comfort which can put their soul at rest.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, on this Lord's Day I'm reminded that You are not only the Author of life, You are the Victor over sin and death. Thank You for the blessed hope that is mine in You. May I come to know the fullness of Your grace on my behalf, that I might be able with full integrity to pass on to others the richness of the blessing I've received. Thank You for the heavenly comfort You've given to me in Christ. May I bear faithful witness to it and serve as Your mediator of comfort in the lives of those who are lonely, burdened and afraid. Work Your will in me and through me today, to the honor of Your holy Name.
Amen


Saturday, December 19 Devotional

And Cush became the father of Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one in the earth.
1 Chronicles 1:10

Not long ago I was visiting with a man after the death of his wife of almost fifty years. I had not come to know his wife, a woman I will call Noelle, so any personal information to be shared at her funeral service would be gained by listening to the one with whom she had spent most of her life. And so, I asked: How would you describe her? What was she like? Among the many things he told me was this: From the beginning Noelle saw in him potential. She believed in him. She was always his supporter. And what a tremendous gift this was that she had given him. It was clear to me that her faith in him spurred him on to accomplish more things than he otherwise would have done. And I left our meeting with the reminder of how important it is to take the time not only observe the people around me but to strive to really see the good in them. To recognize their potential, and then to point it out, affirm it, and encourage it to full expression... Nimrod is included in a long list of names - almost a full nine chapters worth. And he's the first person to merit commentary by the chronicler. He began to be a mighty one, it's written of him. And these words make me wonder if Nimrod followed through. If he was successful. If he finished what he started. The writer of Genesis tells us that he did. I wonder, then, if he had someone who believed in him - a wife, a mother, a friend. I wonder if he had someone like Noelle in his life. For, of course, there are many who do not follow Nimrod's path. They begin in similar fashion; but, for some reason, they don't follow through. Maybe they don't truly believe they have what it takes to do it. Maybe they become discouraged when they come across hurdles that look like unmanageable barriers, or bends in the road that appear from a distance to be dead-ends. Maybe they're distracted by too many things. Or maybe they find the beginnings filled with excitement and promises of what could be but the work required to get there tiresome, unpleasant and boring. And so, they languish, throw in the towel, give up. Looking back on their lives, they see many projects begun but too many unfinished. Starts and stutters and stops. What does it take to press on to the point of completion? Or, to borrow words from another mighty man in the earth: to continue fighting the good fight and to finish the course? Nimrod had potential, but he also had perseverance to bring it to completion. Somehow, he found the fortitude to keep on keeping on and to make the very best of what he had been given. And he left nothing on the table. Undoubtedly, he was rewarded by looking upon the fruits of his labors... There are perhaps many things that come to mind as you consider this subject today. One of them is one we're all facing together: the virus that has turned our 2020 upside down. Many are doing mighty works in the course of this pandemic. The end may not yet be in sight, but we have nine months of battle behind us. Now is not the time to relax our efforts, to throw caution to wind, to give up. Now's the time to redouble our efforts, to believe in our full potential, and to encourage each other with all that is in us to continue pressing on with the full confidence that we will cross the finish line together. It will be worth all the efforts expended and every sacrifice made. Every Nimrod needs his Noelle. God has given us all that we need. Let's lock arms, do our parts, and finish well.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, thank You for the gifts You've given me and for the potential You've placed within me to accomplish matters of importance. I now pray that You would grant me strength to persevere. Thank You for those who have encouraged me in my life and motivated me to press on. Help me to recognize the gifts in others and to spur them on, to hone their skills and to employ what You have given them to greatest effect. We know what's required of us in this pandemic. Help us to stay the course and see it through to blessed conclusion, that we might not squander the blessings You have given us.
Amen


Friday, December 18 Devotional

Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother...
1 Corinthians 1:1

After the first few songs, or perhaps midway through the concert, the leader of the band often takes a moment to introduce the other members of the troupe. Their names might not even be known by those in attendance. In fact, once shared, they may quickly be forgotten - even before the people take their leave, to head home with buzzing and deafened ears. And it's not all that surprising, because the others on stage are not the face of the band. And so, they're deemed unimportant, insignificant, and replaceable. But the leader of the band knows otherwise. Each member is up there on stage for a reason, and without their contributions the product given to the people would not live up to anyone's expectations. The overall performance of the band would suffer, and the experience of the audience would be diminished... Paul doesn't wait to shine the spotlight on his brother, Sosthenes. He calls him out in the opening verse. His name might be unfamiliar to you, but he was well known to the people in Corinth. He had been the leader of one of the synagogues in that city, and he had come to believe the good news of the gospel Paul had preached. After coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Sosthenes was evidently of great support to Paul. Indeed, when his name is first mentioned in Scripture it's during a scene in which he is afflicted by his adversaries, beaten in front of the Roman authorities with impunity. The persecution he suffered didn't stop Sosthenes from pursuing the calling he had received - to be a witness for Christ. And so, he accompanies Paul is his itinerant ministry, offering his voice as one of the backup vocals in the band. His unique responsibilities are unknown to us. But his importance to Paul is clear. When Paul sets out to address this letter to the members of a dear church he had founded, a congregation that was now floundering, it was important for him to have someone at his side. Along with Paul, Sosthenes also knew the people in the audience, and he could guide Paul as he addressed matters of critical importance for the well-being of the community in his hometown. In addition, Paul's mention of Sosthenes in this opening verse sets the stage for all that follows, as it provides an atmosphere of familiarity - for Sosthenes was one of their own. Even more than that, he's deemed our brother. He's the man in between, the union between Paul and the community of Corinth, even as Jesus served as the mediator between God and humankind. While we might read the opening verse of this epistle and pass over the reference to this obscure man, and while we might even think these are superfluous words that could be excised without loss, we must realize that the acknowledgement was an important addition for both Paul and the Christian Church in Corinth. The epistle would have been less without him. You might not be the leader of the band, but your role is no less important. You voice is needed in God's choir. Your hands provide valuable service for the Lord's work in this world God so loves. Your care and concern for others mean more than you know. And although you might not have your fifteen minutes of fame here on earth, you can be sure that your name is well known to your loving heavenly Father, who watches over you this day with great delight.

Prayer
Almighty God, thank You for the wonderful privilege of occupying space on this stage called Planet Earth. Thank You for including me as part of Your plan. Help me to sing in tune to the melody You've written for me today. Strengthen my hands, that I might be of service in those areas where I can be useful. Transform my heart, that I might serve You fully by compassionately caring for others. And help me to recognize, appreciate and affirm those who are tempted to doubt the value of their own contributions to Your heavenly purposes. May I be an encourager of Your people today, to the honor of Your holy Name.
Amen


Thursday, December 17 Devotional

Now Moab rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahab.
2 Kings 1:1

Those who are wise recognize the importance of transitions. The acquired knowledge and learning gained over the course of one's service can propel the person who enters into and fills your position - if you're willing to share what you've come to understand (and the one who succeeds you is open to receiving it). Orientation, sometimes called organizational socialization, is an important part of the onboarding process. To pass on the legacy of that which has been learned and to bring a new team member up to speed, is to give a gift not only to the new hire but also to the team or institution that will carry on after you've taken your leave. The wheel need not be recreated. That which has already been unearthed need not be rediscovered. The new recruit can continue where you left off rather than start over from the beginning. One acquires no little tribal knowledge over the course of time, simply by being present and observant and part of the community. If this is not passed on, the new person who steps in is at a disadvantage and must start afresh. And if you're the one who steps onto the scene for the first time, you're wise to get a lay of the land before setting out on your predetermined course. The moment of transitional transfer of power is a critical time in the life of any organization. If energy is neither created nor destroyed but is only transferred from one form to another, perhaps the same could also be said about the transfer of power. If it's not fully passed on, the power will either disperse or leave a vacuum that will be filled by someone else. When Ahab the king of Israel died, other nations were watching. Those who had served as vassals (weaker nations required to pay homage to Israel - or else) saw their chance to throw off their overlords, tear up their treaties, and rise up against foreign rulers in their time of vulnerability. Moab was such a nation, and their rebellious uprising necessitated action on the part of Israel's new administration. Part of finishing well, whether it be in offices occupied at heads of state or in more lowly positions of civilian life, is to ensure to the best of your ability a seamless transition. As this is true in the public sphere, it is just as important in our private lives. How are you planning to take your leave, and what will this mean for those who follow after you? What kind of legacy will you leave and what will others say about it? The important things you've gained in life - those which have become most important to you - have you determined how you will faithfully pass them on to those who will carry on after your departure? Have you thoughtfully considered what you will do to ensure a smooth transition, to prevent family infighting and rebellion after you are gone? You've expended great effort in coming to this point in your life. Planning well for the legacy you will leave is an important part of completing your life's work. Do it well, and it will benefit many. Neglect to do so, it will likely leave a mess. You've been given the gift of today to get your affairs in order. You owe it to yourself and to those who follow, to do so. Then your soul will rest in peace.

Prayer
Thank You, dear Lord, for the energy You've given to me to accomplish the work You've set before me. Help me to do my very best for You, to serve You fully in the days You've allotted to me. And when my time is done, help me to finish well. May I faithfully pass on the very best of what You've given me, that I might leave a lasting legacy of blessing in my wake. And may I gladly rejoice to see the work to which I've dedicated my life carried on by those who will follow in my steps, for the honor of Your holy name.
Amen


Wednesday, December 16 Devotional

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...
Romans 1:1

Who are you? What is your purpose in life? Could you answer those questions in a meaningful way - and would your words accurately describe the truth? Do you have an elevator speech to describe your identity and purpose in life? To know these things and be fully convinced of them will invigorate and empower you; they'll help you develop your fullest potential and accomplish your greatest good. Paul knew who he was and what he was all about - and he makes it known in the opening words of his epistle to the Church of God in Rome. Paul was a changed man. He had been transformed - metamorphosized - by Jesus Himself. Born Saul of Tarsus, he would forever be known as Paul the apostle. Unlike many other characters in the Bible known by two names, there's no specific renaming ceremony laid out in Scripture for Saul - which is rather surprising. For Paul's life did not just unfold. It was rather as if Paul, like his Lord, had died and rose again. A feared persecutor of the Church had become one of its most ardent adherents and one of its greatest advocates. His life was not a trajectory that could have been predicted. There was an undeniable, unmistakable event - something that had happened from the outside - that turned him inside out, upside down and sent him packing in the opposite direction. Who could explain it? Who would believe it? Jesus turned him around, worked repentance in his heart, and the man of Tarsus fully embraced the new life that had been wrought: Paul. Not only did this new appellation remind him of his identity, it communicated his salvation story and purpose in one word. This was Paul's firm conviction: his identity was wrapped up in relationship. (God declares as much at the outset of the covenant He initiates at Sinai: Before giving the Ten Commandments, God avows, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”) Paul is the bond-servant of Jesus and he willingly submits to his Lord. His life is a stewardship entrusted to him. He is a wholly devoted, sold-out, fanatic for Christ - with all the passion that accompanies it and yet with full stability and soundness of mind. Paul's identity and purpose were wrapped up in Jesus; he could not see himself apart from this relationship into which he had been called. His life's mission? He was an apostle, one sent out by Jesus Himself through the auspices of the Church. He was not a man standing still; he was on the move. He could not restrain his voice; he felt compelled to speak - and speak he did. He served as a witness to the fulfillment of God's promises, brought about in Jesus the Messiah, the very Son of God. Paul could not be content simply to incorporate into his own life the good news of the salvation Jesus had accomplished in His life, death and resurrection. Paul had to share it - and he would do so to the ends of the earth. It was for this purpose he was called, and he would devote the remainder of his days to accomplish it. He was a man on a mission - and he knew it. Who are you? What's your purpose in life? The same God who worked wonders in a man named Paul is equally present and powerful for you, today. Nothing will be impossible when you remember you are God's child, called to serve and to bear witness to the One who has saved you from the ravages of sin. He has redeemed you for this very purpose: to fully embrace the remainder of Your days and to carry out His will.

Prayer
Almighty God, in Your grace You have made us Your own. You have called us to be Your people and to accomplish Your purposes. Help us to recognize that our identity is centered in You and in the relationship You have declared with us. Never let us forget who we are or whose we are and that those two things are inextricably intertwined. Use us as You will, always for Your glory and the good of Your people. May Your purposes and intentions be fully accomplished in our lives today, for the sake of Your holy Name.
Amen


Tuesday, December 15 Devotional

Now King David was old, advanced in age; and they covered him with clothes, but he could not keep warm.
1 Kings 1:1

I've never been one to wear sweaters. I vividly recall the Christmas mornings of my childhood, opening the pile of gifts under the tree. The presents were mostly the work of my mom, who went all out and full throttle to provide us with joy matched only by the Whos down in Whoville. If we did not get everything we wanted, she was still somehow able to exceed our greatest expectations. One of the last boxes I'd open was not from her but from my godmother. And every year, it was the same: another itchy sweater. I don't mean to come across as ungrateful. My godmother is one of the most loving, caring people I know. And I did my best - really, I did - to give them a try. But they itched my neck and made me uncomfortably hot. And so, they were relegated to my closet's top shelf. Still today, it's there that they reside - the few sweaters that have survived. However, in the last few years, I find myself wearing sweatshirts more often than ever before. And why is that? Because it's happening. It's happening to us all. This age thing. I'm... getting... older... Surprise! My body isn't what it used to be. Aches and pains are familiar, not foreign; common, not rare. And my body is less able to regulate its own temperature. Just some of the signs of time ticking away. I've now reached the age of my father's retirement and (almost) the age of my grandfather's death. I'm now faced with things that had once been relegated to a far-off time. They have so suddenly arrived on my doorstep, like some package delivered with a smile by the driver in the Amazon truck. Not an itchy sweater, this time. But an older, achier, colder me. Enough of the tiresome lament. But still, I find it interesting that this is where the book of 1 Kings begins. The author doesn't gloss over it. Its placement in the opening verse takes us by surprise. We cannot avoid it. If we choose to read it at all, there it is, in the very first words. The great King David has become old. Advanced in age. And the day of his death is approaching. He's no longer adding up his days; he's counting them down. Most of us do our best to deny this change and do almost anything to avoid it. Diet and exercise, make-up, nip-and-tuck, wigs and hair-growth ointments - they're just a few of the many remedies profiteers are ready and willing to sell you. The sale itself is easy; the competition, severe. Our anxiety is understandable. We grieve the loss of youth; we fear the end of life. But as long as we're caught up in trying to turn back time or to turn away from the inevitable future, we're not living in in the present. In fact, we're not living life at all. We're avoiding it. And so, right here, right now, wherever you are in life: Embrace it. God has granted you the gift of life and the gift of this day. Don't be afraid to look into the mirror and notice the changes you find there. Rejoice in them. For when you're able to settle your soul and welcome the fullness of this day and your presence in it, you'll discover that you're not alone. God is right there with you. Cherishing you. Treasuring you. Delighting in the unique creation of you, His child. So as you don your sweater and toss an extra blanket on the bed, wrap yourself in the love of God who once came to earth in swaddling clothes, to assure you of His faithful love that accompanies you in all of your earthly days and in your life to come.

Prayer
Almighty God, You know the extent of the days that are allotted to me. I don't know how far my earthly timeline will reach, but I do know that You have blessed me with the gift of this day. Thank You. Open my eyes to Your faithful presence. Help me to fully embrace who I am and where I am in this life, that I might be able to fully offer my whole self to Your service and to those we accompany me in these days. As I look into the mirror of my life today and fully welcome what I find, You will lovingly bless me with peace.
Amen


Monday, December 14 Devotional

The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach...
Acts 1:1

Word for word, Luke is the greatest contributor to the New Testament corpus. The gospel account that bears his name is followed up with a second work: The Book of Acts. As with any sequel, some the content bears similarities to what came before. There new developments that grow out of pre-existent material and new occurrences that rise up fresh and brand new. Luke dedicates his second work consistently with his first: to a person known as Theophilus, whose name means lover of God or beloved of God. It might have also been the case that Theophilus was Luke's benefactor, the one who commissioned these compositions. We're not surprised that Luke refers to Jesus in the opening verse of this second work. Jesus was, after all, the main character of his gospel. But it's noteworthy that Luke maintains: Jesus will continue to be the main character in what comes next - even after his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to heaven. The Person of Jesus will serve as the active force in God's ongoing work in the midst of His people. One word that stands out in this opening verse is began. By using this phrasing Luke communicates to his readers that what's to come will also be the work of Jesus. The question, then, is: How does it happen? The ongoing ministry of Jesus occurs in and through His apostles. The work of the Lord comes about in and through the Church - which the apostle Paul will deem the body of Christ. Jesus had earlier told His disciples that He would build His Church. And He does so through us. As the Book of Acts unfolds and the undeniable power of God is at work to create marvels and wonders among the people, the apostles will maintain that these things happened not by their own power or authority. Time and time again, they will attribute as the source of the ongoing miracles the name and power of Jesus. The apostles were merely instruments of God, stewards of their Lord and Savior Jesus. Although not present physically, Jesus was continuing His work and expanding His ministry, through the hands of those He had chosen. Martin Luther was passionate on this point. It was not the priest who had the power, in and of himself. The power was found in the God's Word, working in and through the priest. God's Word was the source of all grace, forgiveness and salvation. This power does not arise from the Church; its source is God Himself. Jesus was not simply a man who lived and died to be written about as an historical figure. Jesus continues to live and to work in the midst of His people. The presence of Jesus abides with us - and we recognize and declare that it is so when we gather in His name. Jesus is alive and well; thus, we have a living Church. What greater privilege could be given than to be used by God to accomplish His work? What greater joy could be experienced than to have the power of Jesus working in and through you, to carry out His ministry for the benefit of God's people? As you offer yourself to God's service today, Jesus will continue to build His Church. His kingdom will come, and His purposes will be accomplished: Here on earth, as it is in heaven.

Prayer
Almighty and everlasting God, we thank You for the work that You've accomplished in our midst. We thank You for sending Your Son to be our Savior from sin and our model of the godly life. We rejoice at the ongoing presence and ministry of Jesus in our midst. Open our eyes to recognize and welcome the work You seek to accomplish through us. Grant us passionate hearts to eagerly seek Your ways. And empower us to perform Your work to the best of our abilities, to the honor and praise of Your holy name.
Amen


Sunday, December 13 Virtual Church Service ("What Song Will You Sing?")


Sunday, December 13 Devotional

And David sent messengers to the men of Jabesh-Gilead, and said to them, "May you be blessed of the LORD because you have shown this kindness to Saul your lord, and have buried him."
2 Samuel 2:5

There's always a backstory. There's the upfront and obvious, and then there are the ulterior motives. Perhaps most of the actions we take are ambiguous, and many of them are fraught with mixed motives. What can we say? How are we to judge? Maybe it's impossible to do so, and the best we can do is to talk about matters, discuss the good and the bad, and determine how we should live our lives moving forward. Then there's hero worship. We all have our favorites, and we're passionately protective of them. We may even insist that they can do no wrong. Or, if we allow that they can, we paint the best picture possible for any questionable actions taken. When our conception of their character is confronted with its opposite, we can be quick to dismiss it as uncharacteristic and false. We might even accuse those who report it as having it out for the one we so admire. And if an inconvenient truth is brought to light, we're tempted to justify it on their behalf, allowing for things we would never tolerate in anyone else. David is a case in point. More than a few have built David up to be the great king would could do no wrong. A man after God's own heart. The quintessential Israelite, the true patriot. David had taken a stand regarding his predecessor, King Saul: No matter what Saul did - even his multiple attempts to put David to death - David would not lift up his hand against him nor allow others to do so: because Saul was the LORD's anointed. And when David himself stepped in to assume the kingship, he would expect the same respect to be given to him; he would insist that he be given the same discretion in his own royal decisions. For many, David is untouchable; he is a true biblical hero. Any who call into question his reputation are suspect. But it must be said: David was a man. He was a sinner. His actions were fueled by impure motives and self-interest. At least some of the time. And when we can admit these truths and our eyes are opened to the humanity in our heroes, we can then see in clearer light the one true Hero of the Bible: The LORD Himself. What can be said about the verse above? King Saul had just died in battle on Mt. Gilboa. Contrary reports surrounded his death. Was it suicide? Mercy killing? Whatever the case, Saul was no longer on the throne, and almost immediately David assumes the kingship of the southern section of the land called Judah. The northern part of the kingdom was no so quick to respond. Those in positions of power propped up a son of Saul as a puppet king and hindered David from taking charge over all the land. David gets word that the men of Jabesh-Gilead, northerners, had done homage to Saul by rescuing his body (that had been put on gross display by the enemy army) and giving his bones a proper burial. These were powerful men, important leaders, and supporters of Saul's administration. And David knew it. Why does David so quickly reach out to these men after Saul's death? Was it simply to commend them for a good service done to the LORD's anointed? Or did he take this action to open doors to extend his own political power, to sway the north to come over to his side? David will not bad-mouth King Saul, no matter what he might have thought about him personally. David knew Saul had his adherents, those who would forever be supporters of the first king who had ruled the land for four decades. Perhaps David was being sincere. Maybe he was compromising. Either way, he proved himself able to work with those on the other side of the aisle. And perhaps this is a commendable quality, if you're able to maintain your character without selling your soul.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, in this crazy, mixed-up world, we pray that You would guide us into Your truth. Help us to truly humble ourselves before You and to follow in Your ways. Open our ears to Your words and help us to learn from Your actions. Teach us the art of commendable compromise, but keep us from sacrificing our integrity. May all that we do today be pleasing in Your sight, that we might accomplish Your good purposes, on earth as it is in heaven. To You be all honor, glory and praise, now and forever.
Amen


Saturday, December 12 Devotional

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14

The miracle of the incarnation: God come to earth. The fullness of divinity, wrapped in skin. In Jesus we behold the face of God, and in Him we come to know God's great intention: to make Himself known. The evangelist confesses in the opening verses of his gospel that the Word existed at the beginning of time - that the Word was, and is, God Himself. And now, the Great Mystery is made manifest. No one had ever looked upon the essence of God; no one had ever seen God face to face. Moses was granted a glimpse of the back of God, as He passed by. But no one had ever looked upon God's fullness. After all, how could a mere mortal take it all in? How could that which had been created adequately describe the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen? All that had previously been given were glimpses of God, hints of God's holy presence. Even visions of the Almighty were enough to cause mortals to fall on their faces like dead men. Just ask Isaiah. In the first commandment given from Sinai, God had declared that there was no other - that God was One and Only and had no rivals. The people were told not to craft any image, as if in an attempt to define the undefinable, to explain the inexplicable, to represent the One who is over and above and beyond the very best of any human depiction. It's impossible to capture God or to put God in a box. The miracle of insight, the discovery of God, does not and cannot happen on our end. It must occur from God's side. God must take the initiative. The Christmas confession is that this is exactly what God does. The miracle of the incarnation is this: the divine infused our humanity, invaded our habitation, became One of us in the midst of us. But that is not all. For just as miraculous is that God had decided to do so. Or perhaps it would be better to say: there was no decision to be made; this had always been God's intention. This is the essence, the nature, the character of God. God is the One who reveals, the One who makes Himself known. God is the One who wants to be understood. But more than this, God wants His creation to understand. The incarnation is the fulfilment of God's intention, the culmination of God's character, the revelation of God's resolve to open our eyes fully to God's unique being and to His wonderful purposes on our behalf. When humankind beholds the Begotten and glimpses the Glory, the extraordinary is seen in the ordinary. As if God, the Master Craftsman, takes a piece of furniture that's been painted over and over again, strips it down, exposes the grain of the wood, and brings out its inherent essence: God causes it to shimmer and shine with unprecedented luster. Jesus was as we are all deigned to be: truly human, sinless and pure. There is glory in His humanity - this One begotten of God. Law had been revealed on the majestic mountain of Sinai. Now, in the little, outskirts town of Bethlehem, grace and truth are evidenced in all their fullness. God, the great Initiator, acts in love on behalf of all creation. Grace and truth are personified. No longer concepts to be defined and bandied about, they are now realities to behold. God has chosen to abide with us in the most profound way possible. And when we draw near, we discover God's perfect love that casts out all fear. As we gaze upon the Babe of Bethlehem, grace and truth begin to grow in us, and they guide us to live into the fullness of the humanity for which we have been designed.

Prayer
God of Grace and Truth, we can only marvel at the meaning of Your incarnation. We rejoice that You have drawn near to us and that You invite us to draw near to You. As we gaze upon the wonder of Your love made manifest, help us to incorporate the fullness of Your love into the deepest part of our being. For it is then that we will be able to faithfully live out our lives as You have designed us to live them. It is then that we will be able to fulfill our created purpose: to love You and to love each other. But for now, open our eyes in this Advent season to the fullness of Your grace. There, may our souls rest contentedly.
Amen


Friday, December 11 Devotional

Now the boy Samuel was growing in stature and in favor both with the LORD and with men.
1 Samuel 2:26

The birth of Samuel was an answer to prayer. For years, Hannah, dearly loved by her husband Elkanah, was unable to bear children. In those days being barren was looked upon as a disgrace. One who found herself in that condition was subject to being belittled and ridiculed, for her empty womb was evidence that she had been dismissed and forgotten by God. Hannah had humbly prayed to the LORD for a child, and God granted her the miracle of conception, countering the claims of those who falsely interpreted and wrongly characterized the intentions and actions of God. Hannah's prayer had been heard by God, and the name she would give to her son - Samuel, God hears - would forever remind her that this was so. Humble and with a heart full of praise, Hannah rejoices before the LORD, and she dedicates her son to the LORD's service. And it's in the house of the LORD that Samuel would spend his boyhood years. The commentary of Samuel's childhood is made not only about him; a very similar description is given in the New Testament about the boy Jesus. Indeed, it provides a framework for the upbringing of any child - as well as for our ongoing human development. Samuel not only grows outwardly; he also increases in character. His outward growth is evidenced by his mother bringing him new clothes each year when she comes to visit. And his inward development is seen when people throughout the land universally affirm that he is a prophet of the LORD. Samuel grows both inwardly and outwardly; physical and spiritually. He develops his character by daily seeking the will of God for his life. Moreover, Samuel is also described as growing in favor in the sight of God and in the estimation of God's people. This, too, is a model for each one of us - and in that order. Character has been defined as what we do when no one is looking. And, of course: God is always looking. As we grow into the fullness of our personhood, we're sensitive to God's abiding presence, and we commit ourselves to listening to God's Word and to learning God's ways. We endeavor to order our lives in such a way that our words and actions are pleasing before the LORD. And, almost always, when we do so, it will also be recognized by God's people. For as you learn the ways of the LORD and follow in the path He has ordained, others will see God's light shining in you. They'll recognize the ways of God displayed in you, and you'll grow in their favor - at least before those who matter most. There will always be others who are threatened by faithful living. They'll respond with accusations of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. (Indeed, those are easy ditches to drive into if you take your eyes off the Lord who leads you and focus instead on the progress you've made. It's hard to continue moving in the right direction if you're overly concerned with looking in the rearview mirror.) Every driver knows that to properly steer a car, necessary adjustments must be made, even when cruising along on a perfectly straight roadway. Even so, we awaken to each new day to listen once more to the LORD who lovingly leads us, and we determine afresh to faithfully follow in the path that He has modeled and placed before us.

Prayer
Almighty God, faithful and true, no matter how far along this journey we find ourselves, we will forever be Your children. Help us to remember that we will never outgrow our need to listen to Your instruction. Help us to fix our eyes firmly on the path You have placed before us. Help us to minimize the distractions that are so prevalent, that we might attend to Your voice alone. Thank You for the blessed incarnation of Your Son, for revealing to us in living color a perfectly lived human life. Help us to see Your light clearly and to reflect it well, that others might see Your works displayed in us and give glory to You alone.
Amen


Thursday, December 10 Devotional

And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God."
Luke 1:30

The angelic visitations reported in the first chapters of Luke are met with identical response: fear and trembling. That's what happens when the presence of God draws near. We creatures cannot help but be overwhelmed by the majesty and power of the Almighty. But in each case the holy messenger is quick to assure the attentive audience: Do not be afraid. Mary well knew her own position. She was not of noble birth. Nor did she come from a wealthy family. How could it be that God had chosen her? That God had looked upon her with favor? It would take some time for this revelation to be fully realized. Mary would come to know the truth of her favored status before God as the Child grew within her womb. For growing along with the Holy Child was her love for Him. And when the blessed day came that she was delivered of Him and offered Him to the world, He was indeed most favored in her sight. Even as He drew His first earthly breath, her love for Him was whole, pure, perfect. And it was then that she knew what it meant that she herself has been called favored by God. While Mary is alone in having been blessed to be the mother of our Lord, we share with her in having favored status before God. And we are equally amazed at the designation. So it has been from the beginning of time: God has looked upon the work of His hands and declared that it was all very good. God was delighted in His handiwork. Even so, God rejoices over you this day. Not because of what you've done or not done - although your actions surely matter and bring God pleasure or displeasure. Your favored status before God has more to do with what is in God than what is in you. For it's in the nature of God to cherish and treasure His own. It's God's default, so-to-speak. God is the One who loves. It's the very essence and character of God, and it's in this God that we rejoice. It's in this God that we celebrate the gift of being, the gift of belonging, the gift of being perfectly loved. Indeed, these heavenly words of favor spoken to Mary are as much about God as they are about her. Can you imagine God's delight to see His plan about to unfold? That which had been envisioned in ages past was now coming to fruition. Mary, God's beloved, would have a unique and special place in that plan. As you contemplate the beauty and wonder of the incarnation in this advent season and how God chooses to bring it to pass, you might well wonder what God desires to birth in and through you. What is it that God wants to bring to pass in your life? Do not be afraid, for you, too, have found favor with God. And God delights in you and what God will bring about in your life and the difference you will make in God's world. Consider the joy in a child's heart, when she comes home to show her parents what she had made in art class earlier in the day - this is the joy you can have, bringing your day's work before the Lord. That the child's work is less than a masterpiece does not lessen the delight in her parents' heart. Even so, the work you bring before God is neither perfect nor precise, but it doesn't diminish God's joy in you or about you. May you come to know more fully today your favored status in the eyes of God. And may you serve as God's holy messenger to others, to remind them that they are treasured so much more than they know.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, You've created us in love and for love, because You are the essence of love itself. Open our eyes more than more each day to the Your great love for us, which has showed itself in sacrifice. May we ever rejoice that You've demonstrated this great love in the incarnation of Jesus our Lord. In His words and by His actions, He revealed to us Your amazing grace, and He proved Your love in laying down His life, that we might have life everlasting - right here and now and forever in eternity. May this gospel message have its full effect in us, that we might offer ourselves as living sacrifices before You, that all that we say and do would be well-pleasing in Your sight, to the honor of Your holy and blessed name.
Amen


Wednesday, December 9 Devotional

Then the sons of Judah fought against Jerusalem and captured it and struck it with the edge of the sword and set the city on fire.
Judges 1:8

The Bible is a treasure. In it we find the witness of those who've wrestled with the riddles and vicissitudes of life and have testified to the faithfulness, goodness and compassion of God. Salvation stories are recounted and attributed to the Creator. And the Law, which organized and ordered the people of God, reminded them of God's lovingkindness and mercy and the onus placed upon them as the people of God - to love God in return and to live together in loving, caring community. And then there's the fighting, the killing and the plundering. Those verses (like the one above) that bring us to a standstill; we come upon them as putrid and as odious as a dead skunk. Those who are ignorant of the surrounding story are apt not only to dismiss it outright, but along with it the entirety of the book in which it's contained. And who could blame them? Those who cherish Holy Scripture come upon these words and know they cannot and should not be glossed over. (I could not help but notice the lack of any punctuation within the verse, as if to hurry me on to the end.) These are troubling words indeed. And If they're not, that's more troublesome yet. To borrow the words of a later biblical writer: What then shall we say to these things? If we remove the specificity of the actors and focus on the actions, we can answer rather quickly. To capture, strike with sword, and set on fire - these are not good things, no matter who's behind the actions. Who can rejoice at such destruction? Only the ones who are doing the capturing, striking and burning. But what happens when we are the ones captured, struck and burned - what then? What shall we say from that perspective? And how shall we respond if those who do those things to us claim they do so by the hand of God? It is troubling, indeed. Because the words are contained in the Holy Book, there will be those who, without pause, will come to their defense and deem them good: The sons of Judah were the chosen people of God and those living in Jerusalem at the time were not. It's as simple as that. Well, no. It's not. Just because you might believe (rightly) that you are the beloved of God does not give your carte blanche right and privilege to do whatever is in your mind to do. What, then, can we say about these things? First, just because it's in the Holy Book doesn't make it right. There's much evil displayed in Scripture - which is, actually, one of the remarkable things about it. Evil deeds are not covered up. And when people attempt to do so, it's not long before they're exposed and dealt with. When difficult questions arise, it's not wrong to leave them there for awhile and come back to them another day. Not to sweep them under the rug, but to withhold judgment upon them now and see how they look when you're further down the road. It's good to take a step back in an attempt to gain a more helpful perspective. What do you know for sure? What can you state with conviction? How does these things match up with the Golden Rule? With loving your neighbor? Followers of Christ might ask, “What would Jesus say about this? What did He teach? And how do troubling passages like this stand up to the words and ways He has revealed? Scripture bears witness to people wrestling with God to gain a better understanding of their experiences. Lament is lifted heavenward. Sin confessed. Confusion admitted. And prayer made - that God would open eyes and grant us divine epiphany, that we might see God for who He really is and that we might consistently bear witness, in our words and in our actions, to what is holy and true helpful to all of God's beloved children.

Prayer
Almighty God, help us to be cautious and prudent, lest in our arrogance and pride we claim too much. Too often we claim to have Your backing, only in an attempt to stubbornly move forward with impunity toward our own selfish ends. In doing so, we take Your name in vain and tarnish Your reputation. We confess that we've sought to use You, to have You serve us, rather than humbling serving You. Even so, grant us courage to boldly confess Your goodness and salvation, and help us to live our lives in faithful response to Your lovingkindness, mercy and compassion. Teach us how to live usefully, as Your beloved people.
Amen


Tueday, December 8 Devotional

And he rose and immediately took up the pallet and went out in the sight of all; so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."
Mark 2:12

There are unavoidable consequences when you come into close proximity to Jesus. Four faithful and faith-filled men brought their paralyzed friend to the healer from Nazareth. When they got to where Jesus was, they couldn't see beyond the others who had filled the house to overflowing. This was their first surprise. But they were not dissuaded. They were, in fact, more than determined. For nothing could stop them from doing what they had come to do. Nothing could keep them from bringing their friend to this One they'd heard about - this One who had worked miracles for so many others. For they were convinced that Jesus could do something for their friend, too. So, somehow, they make their way onto the roof, with their friend in tow, and literally unroof the roof above where Jesus is sitting, lowering the man down in front of Him. Nobody expected this, either - especially the homeowner! Then comes another surprise. It's noteworthy that throughout the entirety of this event, neither the man nor his four friends speaks a word. Their actions are all that are needed for Jesus to properly assess the situation and to know what to do next. And what He does surprises them all. The four friends did not expect it. Neither did the others who had filled the house that day, whether they were early devotees hanging on every word spoken by this itinerant Galilean rabbi or whether they were standing on the edge of the crowd, skeptical and suspect, critical and questioning. To a person, they were amazed at what Jesus does next. For they expected Jesus to heal him. The man's need was obvious - words were not necessary. But Jesus' initial action is, surprisingly, to speak a word of forgiveness. And now we're given insight into what's really going on. Our eyes are opened to the unseen, unmet and deepest need present that day. For when Jesus speaks the words, two things are set in motion. First, the scribes, the custodians and teachers of the law, begin to reason in their hearts: Jesus, a mere man, has claimed too much. To declare forgiveness was to put Himself in the place of God - and they begin to accuse Him of blasphemy, of stepping into a place where He did not belong, of claiming authority that belonged to God alone. Second, healing begins to take place within the paralytic. He alone knows the truth behind the word Jesus had spoken. He alone knows of the sin he had secreted away for so many years that has kept him bound and quiet and all but dead inside. And when he hears the word of forgiveness spoken by Jesus, the spirit within him revives - and his heart is washed over with refreshment. Finally, Jesus declares the words that reveal to all in outward display what had already taken place inwardly: Rise, take up your pallet and go home. And the still unnamed man does so. Immediately. As soon as the words are spoken, like a light switch, they go forth to perform their work. All that is left in this wondrous and marvelous scene, filled to overflowing with surprise, is for Mark to tell us that those present were stunned, moved to praise God, and declared that what had happened was indeed something good and something new. They'd never seen anything like it. We can only wonder at the story this now able- bodied man would tell when he got home. For he was now a man transformed. It's one of the unavoidable consequences of coming into proximity with Jesus, who takes away the sin of the world.

Prayer
Almighty God, You have created my innermost being, and You know everything about me. Before there's a word on my tongue, You know what is in my heart and the burdens I carry. Thank You for Your mercy and grace. Thank You for the gift of forgiveness that quickens my spirit, refreshes my souls and allows me to walk through this life unhobbled and unhindered. May Your wondrous grace have its full effect, that I might bear witness to Your love and compassionately carry to You in prayer those who cannot yet find their way to You. Use me as Your will, always for Your glory and for the good of Your people, for the honor of Your holy and precious name.
Amen


Monday, December 7 Devotional

“Then Joshua said to the people, "Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you."
Joshua 3:5

It's not often that one great leader follows another. But that's exactly what takes place with Moses and Joshua. Few would dispute that Moses stands out as one of the leading characters in the Hebrew scriptures. Many would give him top billing, apart from the LORD Himself. And when the work of Moses is finished, the baton is passed to someone truly worthy of following in his footsteps. Joshua's first major responsibility is to lead the nation from one side of the Jordan to the other - and this is no small thing. For Joshua lives at a most propitious time: God is about to bring to completion the ancient promises given to their ancestor, Abraham. The Promised Land had loomed large in the hopes and expectations of God's people - like some far-off dream. And now, it was all soon to be realized. God's promises were coming to fruition. We find in this short verse several indications of Joshua's fitness for leadership. First of all, he exhibits great faith in the future. Joshua's firm conviction is transparent. His words exude confidence and create assurance and courage in the people. Secondly, Joshua instills in them an expectation that something truly wonderful is about to take place. It's easy to see the hope and excitement welling up within the community about what will come about the following day. It's an apt word for us all in this advent season, as we await great things to come. Thirdly, Joshua rallies to people to participate. He invites them to individually prepare for all that will take place. Their consecration might be accomplished in a variety of ways. The people are reminded of their connection to the LORD: they're not only children of Israel - they're children of God. And as they rejoice in their belonging, they take time to fully dedicate themselves to the LORD's service. They're the LORD's people, and they're the LORD's people together. All that they have, all that they are, is dedicated to the LORD's service. To consecrate themselves is to see to it that in every way they know how they're all in, set apart for God's purposes. Finally, Joshua's leaves no doubt about the One who's running the show. It is the LORD Himself who will work wonders in their midst. What's about to take place will be accomplished by nothing less than the hand of God, and it will be marvelous in their eyes. They could expect that when the sun rises and with it the dawning of a new day, it would be a day to remember forever. For God would do His work among them. Surely, the people remembered and rehearsed what had transpired for their ancestors and how the LORD worked in their lives. They even saw themselves connected to those historical events - because they were all one people. But now they'd experience it for themselves, firsthand, up-close-and-personal. These were truly exciting times! May these words cause us to pause and to consider our own hopes and expectations for tomorrow, and upon what our confidence is based. The LORD is alive and well and continues to be at work in our midst. Consecrate yourself, therefore, even now. For today the LORD will do a wondrous work among us!

Prayer
Sovereign and Loving Lord, You are faithful and true. You hold the whole world in Your hands, and You continue to work Your good purposes in us and through us. Thank You for faithful leaders who guide us in Your ways. Continue to grant them wisdom and insight, humility and strength, as they endeavor to lead Your people. Help us to dedicate ourselves to Your service, this day and every day. Fill us with hope and expectation of the good things You're bringing about even now. Make the spirit within us sensitive to Your Spirit, and open our eyes to recognize Your work in the world today. In all things, be glorified in us.
Amen


Sunday, December 6 Virtual Church Service ("Necessary Preliminaries")


Sunday, December 6 Devotional

But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit."
Matthew 1:20

Talk about unsettling times. One can hardly imagine the thoughts racing through Joseph's mind when his betrothed, Mary, was found to be with child. Joseph knew with certainly that the child was not his own - so what were the other options? He had never felt so betrayed. How could he possibly believe the story Mary had told him? And even if it were true (but how could it possibly be so?), he wasn't at all convinced this was something he wanted to get himself into. It wasn't exactly how he had envisioned his life playing out. And so, he was decided: he would do the honorable thing. He wouldn't punish Mary or make it worse than it was. He would simply swallow his pride, find a way to cut the ties to his beloved, and move on with his life. And they would go their separate ways. (Can we even imagine the impact of this divine decision and the disruption in had caused in their lives?) But, of course, it could never be that easy. There were certain to be complications. And then came the dream - a dream like no other dream he had ever had. His namesake had had them, too, he was told, in Egypt. This was decidedly more than a dream: it was heavenly communication, divine guidance. And it was enough to convince Joseph to believe that it was true. Faith the size of a mustard seed was conceived in his own heart, and he began to envision a new life before him. It would certainly be a different life than what he had expected he would live, a different life that what he had envisioned for their future together. But it would be a life. He would faithfully walk by her side, and together they would experience and live into all that God had ordained for them. After the decision had been made, he had to smile, as he rehearsed the dream and later shared it with his betrothed. Of course, he had known his own lineage. He could trace his ancestry way back to David, the greatest king Israel had ever known. Joseph was born into this royal line. He had been told these things since childhood. He laughed at the irony of it all. For as a blue-collar carpenter, he was anything but kingly. He was well content to work with his hands, to craft and create, and he expected nothing more. He had no illusions that his heritage would ever be anything more than past history, a façade with no future, backing or substance. And yet, in his dream, the angel had reminded him of his royal ancestry, addressing him as the son of David. In days to come, this special couple, like any other earthly parents, would marvel at the daily progressions of this Child that had been entrusted to their care. Their days were filled with wonder, as they continued to discover new things about this Holy One. Did Joseph live long enough to recognize the angelic salutation was not without reason? Were his eyes opened to the fulfillment his son would bring to God's ancient promises, to redeem His people and send them a Savior? Would Joseph gain enough insight, would faith sufficiently grow within his heart, to recognize that in Jesus God had blessed the people with their long-awaited king? Each day gave him another glimpse that it might be true. And so, he waited. And he anticipated the full unveiling, the final advent, of this One he was proud to call his son.

Prayer
God of grace and wonder, You are the Master of surprise. Your amazing creativity is marvelous to behold. Awaken my senses, that I might be ever watchful for Your divinely disruptive presence and be attuned to Your guidance in my life. Help me to be ever attentive to Your holy Word. Make me keenly aware and vigilant in attending to my ways, that I might allow nothing to dull my senses to Your Spirit's gentle whispers. Open my heart to the possibilities You place before me, that Your good purposes for me might be fully accomplished in my life, for the good of Your people and the honor of Your holy Name.
Amen


Saturday, December 5 Devotional

In the wilderness you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as a man carries his son, in all the way which you have walked, until you came to this place.
Deuteronomy 1:31

Holy contemplation. Precious reminiscence. It's good to look back and remember the noteworthy experiences you've had. There are many ways, of course, to tell your story. Many ways to frame all that has occurred. Many ways to bear witness to all that has transpired. Even the most diligent recorder cannot capture everything. But there are certainly those precious moments that stand out above the others - from the photos, recordings and memories - and it's good to bring them to mind, to rehearse them and to pass them on to others. The Book of Deuteronomy is such a rehearsal. As Moses looks back on the experiences he's shared with the Children of Israel, he speaks to the next generation - those who grew up in the wilderness and who had known nothing else. As he tells the story, he cannot help but interrupt himself to address the people directly. And in the course of communicating to those in front of him, he cannot help but slide back into the past to rehearse the story that has brought them where they are today, the experiences that have helped shape who they are as the people of God. These are important reminders they will influence them as they begin a new life in the land promised by God to their ancestor, Abraham. Deuteronomy is an ongoing flashback-fast-forward experience. Notice how Moses describes God's interaction with His people in this verse. He tells them: God carried you, just as a man carries his son. Had Moses mentioned a mother carrying her daughter, one might envision a swaddled babe, carried close to her mother's breast. But as Moses describes it, we might envision God carrying His people piggyback or on wide shoulders. I'm taken back to memories of my own childhood, when my father carried me that way. Or to my sons' and daughters' childhood, when I did so for them. Not only does Moses remind the people of God's faithful care in their times of greatest need, bringing them through their most challenging days, he paints a very intimate picture of God and His people. We can also find in these words the inspiration for the well-known Footprints poem, in which, during the most difficult times, there's only one set of footprints showing in the sand - those of the Lord Himself. We're experiencing some of our own wilderness in these pandemic days. We're conscious of our stripped-down status. We endure unwanted separation. We live in an in-between, not-yet environment. And in the course of it all, God has been - and is - faithfully present. God does not forsake His people or leave us to find our own way and eke out our own existence. In their times of greatest need, God carries us. Moses relates these words to the new generation not only to remind them of God's faithfulness in the past, but to instill within them the confidence that no matter what happens on the other side of the Jordan, they will not be alone. The Promised Land will not be heaven on earth. Even in that good land, they will have their challenges. And when life gets rough, reminders of God's goodness to their ancestors will help them to recognize God's abiding presence in their midst. And that insight may well prove to be the difference between holding fast to hope and falling headlong into despair. Are you experiencing wilderness moments? You're not alone. Your loving Creator is present with you even now in the midst of these days. His shoulders are strong to save, and He carries you. He will faithfully sustain you, and He will safely bring you into a brand-new day.

Prayer
Holy, loving and merciful God, thank You for Your faithful and tender care. As we continue to walk through the wilderness of these days, not knowing how long we must endure them, open our eyes to Your abiding presence in our midst. Help us to remember our past salvation, and encourage us to trust in Your unchanging goodness. Thank You for carrying us when we can walk no further, and when we are refreshed once more, help us to extend Your mercy by bearing one another's burdens, that Your good purposes might be accomplished, on earth as it is in heaven. All glory and praise be Yours, now and forever.
Amen


Friday, December 4 Devotional

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.
Revelation 2:7

The revelation John received from Jesus on the island of Patmos was both timely and specific. As much as this work mighty be considered prophecy, its substance is one of forthtelling more than it is foretelling. And it speaks to an audience right then and there before it addresses a more general population in the distant future. John makes it known at the very beginning of the work that these things must shortly take place, that the time is near, and he directs his opening words to seven specific churches. If we must dissect it, the message was for them more than it is for us. Still, there are lessons we can learn from these words, and the Lord continues to speak through them to God's Church today. As we eavesdrop on the message given to them then, we can listen with an ear to hear how God is guiding us now. The encouragement given to each of the seven churches specified in the opening three chapters is both uniform and distinct. As each church has its specific context and as no two communities are the same, there is unique counsel given for each of their situations. But they're all alike urged to persevere, that they all alike might overcome. They were all living in enemy territory; they were all suffering persecution. One of the major themes that runs through the Apocalypse (the title of this work in Greek), is standing firm, holding fast, keeping the faith in the midst of difficult days. There would be no point in driving the point home if there was no danger of throwing in the towel. But the pressure was real, and the people were becoming weary... We, too, know this weariness in the midst of our own challenging times. The temptation comes to the most vigilant mask-wearers among us: to throw caution to the wind, to strip off our face coverings, and to bridge the damned physical distance, that we might hug and kiss parents or children from who we have be separated for far too long. We, too, need encouragement to stay this dreaded course and to focus on the promised end result: preservation of health, protection of those we love. We, too, need perseverance to prevail over the pandemic that has already claimed too many lives. Hang in there, one day at a time, and you'll get there - we'll get there, together. The promise of Jesus becomes timeless and universal as this verse closes out. For everyone knows the account of Adam and Eve in the garden of paradise. Everyone knows about the two special trees in the midst of Eden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil... and the tree of life. After our first parents (representations of us all) partook of the forbidden fruit, the tree of life became the tree that was off limits, guarded by the angels of God, lest our sinful forebears eat from that tree, too, and live forever in their broken state. But now we see in the revelation that access to the tree of life is opened up once again - to those who overcome. More than a requirement, it is a promise that emboldens them and us to bear through present difficulties. When we're convinced that the outcome is worth it, and when we keep our eyes fixed on the prize, we can endure almost anything. Do not give up. You've come this far; don't let your guard down now. God will grant you strength sufficient for this day. Look to Him for the power you find lacking in yourself, and He'll faithfully grant you what you need. No matter how bad things get, no matter how intense the suffering: persevere. The victory is yours in the One who's overcome. For not even death will be able to take away the eternal promises made by the One who is, who was, and who is to come - the One who is the Lord of Life and loving Savior of us all.

Prayer
Good and gracious Lord, have mercy upon Your faithful people. Our lives have been transformed by this pandemic, and we've suffered the loss of many things. Although we've grown weary, give us the power to persevere and to face these matters head on. Grant us the strength to sacrifice temporarily, that we might win this war and reap the rich rewards that will surely be ours in You. Grant us the fortitude to endure, that we might faithfully overcome and partake of the tree of life in Paradise with You.
Amen


Thursday, December 3 Devotional

So they will put My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
Numbers 6:27

Do you know the origin of your name? Some are named after one of their ancestors. Others are named after a treasured friend or someone who had a positive impact on one of their parents. Still others are named after a biblical character, remembered for their faith, courage or other positive characteristic. I've rejoiced to see how some have lived into the fullness their names: A woman named Gloria, whose life was a testimony to giving glory to God. A man named Immanuel, who is intent on helping others discover the abiding presence of God. I'm reminded of the distinct privilege I've had to baptize many into the Christian faith, and in the process marking their foreheads with baptismal water, making the sign of the cross, declaring that they are beloved children of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The LORD instructs Aaron, the older brother of Moses, to declare God's blessing upon the people. It's perhaps the most well-known blessing in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this rite, the name of God is invoked upon them. God claims the people as His very own. It's a declaration of relationship, of belonging, even as the LORD had stated at the very beginning of the covenant made at Sinai: I am the LORD your God. Aaron, the chief priest, had the unique privilege of participating in this relationship-building work of God. At God's command, by declaring the name of God upon the people, he reminded them of their connection to the divine and that they belonged to God's family. The chief intention of God is to bring blessing to the people. As recipients of that blessing and as those who have come to know the character of the One who blesses, we're able to share the good news of God's abundant blessing for all. We rejoice in the goodness of God - and we invite all to share with us in the celebration. I'm told that the most important word in the English language is, for each person, their own name. This can certainly be generalized across all languages and even to some animals. (However, just yesterday I witnessed an owner berating her intentionally unleashed dog, using its name repeatedly to command it back to herself. I grieved at the shaming and found it unsurprising that the dog was resistant to return to one who did not appear intent on blessing.) And when we hear our names spoken respectfully, positively, used to beckon our presence - we respond with joy that we are recognized, valued, desired. What would it be like, then, to look upon all others as the beloved of God? Not only to acknowledge the uniqueness of each person, but to affirm and declare the relationship greater than any other in this life? You are the beloved of God. God rejoices to put His name upon you. And God is pleased to bless you. Your part, now, is to live into the fullness of your name - as one of God's own. Having been created in the image of God, you are to be just as intentional at bringing blessing to others. The words of the benediction, spoken at the end of many worship gatherings, are not words of human creation. They're spoken at the intention of God Himself, and God stands behind the words declared. We can rightly rejoice this day, during this advent season, as we await the incarnation of God's rich promises and the fulfillment of God's intention to grant us all that is good. For God will certainly bring them to pass.

Prayer
Almighty God, since the origin of our being You have rejoiced over Your people. Having created us in Your own image, You take pleasure in placing Your name upon us and You delight in inscribing our names on the palms of Your hands. Grant us the certainty of these truths, and may we find equal delight in bestowing Your blessing upon others. Even as You have shown Yourself to be extravagant in Your grace, help us to confidently remind all people of Your salvation and of Your promises of redemption and restoration that will surely come to pass in Your good time. All praise and glory be Yours through Your people today.
Amen


Wednesday, December 2 Devotional

May mercy and peace and love be multiplied to you.
Jude 2

Jude had his reasons for writing and a particular context in which he shared these words. He made it clear that his original intentions had changed. Although he wanted to write a letter that would encourage the Christian congregation in their faith and touch on the beauty of the salvation God had accomplished, he had become aware of a danger that had crept into the community and which he felt compelled to address. For there were some in their midst who had turned liberty into license. They claimed that since God had saved them out of pure and divine grace, they had now been set free to go and do as they please. This God-as-genie-in-the-bottle theology was nothing less than a reversal of the roles of the Creator and the created. They had cast aside Jesus as Lord and Master and taught what Bonhoeffer would later label cheap grace. This was tough stuff, dangerous teaching, and Jude would not shy away from attending to what needed to be done. God's grace is indeed foundational - and Jude would not abandon it. He unabashedly chooses to begin with this wonderful blessing. The gospel is, after all, good news. Even though Jude had his own specific audience and addressed a unique situation, these are words appropriate for any context, are they not? For when are we not in need of mercy, peace and love? Mercy is a gift we ourselves so desperately need and all others ache, deep down, to receive, as well. I'm reminded often: Everyone is fighting their own personal battles. And they're often secreted away and shared with no one. We are all broken. It's important then, in whatever context, and with whomever you might be engaging, and no matter how self-assured they may appear, to interact with mercy - and with her sisters: compassion, kindness and grace. Peace begins right at home, in our own hearts. Forgiveness is its bosom buddy. Peace comes first when we recognize and receive the forgiveness freely extended to us by our gracious God, who will let nothing come between Him and His beloved children. Having received this welcome home from God, we have peace in our hearts and may then extend it to others. How great is our need to have peace in our homes, and in our communities, nation and world. The peace that Jesus brings, of a different caliber than what the world can conjure. And love - that self-sacrificing, other-centered, just-because love - that, too, first comes to us from God. When we hear God's words of promise and see divine love poured out in nail-scarred, arms-extended, all-embracing reception, our hearts can be transformed to go and do likewise. Another translation puts these words of Jude as such: mercy, peace and love - be yours in abundance. What a wonderful blessing, indeed! And it's yours today, in overflowing abundance, to bestow upon every life you touch. A welcoming, grace-filled, life-giving word: from God, through you, to the world.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, thank You for the abundance of mercy, peace and love You have so richly poured out upon Your people. Never were they so evident as when Your Son embodied them on earth in His interactions with others and displayed their fullness on the cross of Calvary. Help us fully receive this blessing in our lives, that it might completely transform us into those who faithfully respond to the grace we have received, that we might dedicate our lives to Your service and extend Your blessing to everyone. For all glory, majesty, dominion and authority are yours alone - before all time, now, and forever.
Amen


Tuesday, December 1 Devotional

Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt, so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
Leviticus 2:13

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time - and it continues to be so, year after year. I cannot pinpoint who it was that initially impressed upon me the importance of the Holy Book. Perhaps what first convinced me of its cherished status was the white zippered cover that wrapped the smallish King James Version my grandmother had given me in my childhood. In truth, I cannot remember a time that I did not know this was a Book above all others. And when I was old enough to read it for myself, having received a copy of a more amenable translation than the Shakespearian language of the KJV, I set out with firm commitment to consume it, cover to cover. I was convinced that this endeavor would result in nothing less than the discovery of insights into divine mysteries, even into the character of God Himself. And so I started where one should start: at the beginning. How many times I got stuck and could progress no further! I was one of the Egyptians trying to get through the Red Sea: I found myself mired in the mud, unable to extricate myself. Right there, in the middle of the Exodus, my journey perished. But undaunted, several months later and with renewed confidence in myself and my abilities, I gave it another go - starting again at the beginning. It was easier this time, for I was covering material that was familiar, not foreign, and I made it through the entirety of Exodus. But then Leviticus confronted me, dry and dusty in the wilderness of Sinai, filled with its offerings, sacrifices and ceremonial laws. It challenged my youthful, naïve ambition and loomed like high hurdles before me. One has to be a disciplined plodder to make it through. But rich rewards await those who do, not only in what comes later, at the conclusion of the Story, but even in the midst of what seems to be dull and dreary. Perhaps not unlike our experience this year. For as we continue to move through these days, we trust that there are better things to come and that this difficult journey will surely get easier. And we may even discover right here, in the midst of these days, an oasis in the desert. It's important to remember that Leviticus comes after Exodus - and not vice versa. Why? Because the regulations regarding offering and sacrifice come after the rescue of the people by their loving, saving God. The people are invited to respond to the redemption they've received by expressing their gratitude and praise. One of the prescribed offerings, mentioned above, is the grain offering. Cooked in oil, always unleavened, it was to be seasoned, always, with salt. A memorial portion is offered up to God as a fragrant and soothing aroma, for it seems that God also takes pleasure in those smells that pique our senses and cause us to breathe deeply and with relish, in the expectation of what it is to come. An advent enticement of sorts, before the arrival of that which has been promised. The remainder of the offering is given to the priests, the servants of God, His embodied representatives. I'm reminded of others words written in the Holy Book: to let my speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt. And of the One who taught that we are beloved masterpieces of God, the salt of the earth. Although not a substantial part of the sacrifice, salt is nonetheless essential, integral to the covenant God had made, a proper response to the Creator and Redeemer of us all. For it is not only the things that we do, but the way that we do them, that is important. Kindness matters. As do humility, gentleness and grace. Tact, patience and consideration. Compassionate understanding. A positive demeanor, an encouraging presence. These things work together to make the world a better place and present a fragrant aroma, well-matched to the grace bestowed upon us. Fitting expressions of gratitude. Worthy responses to the One who first loved us.

Prayer
Almighty God, You are the great Initiator. You are the almighty First Cause, the Source of all that has being. When we fall down, in Your mercy You raise us up again. You rescue us from our enemies, even when we prove to be the worst of them all. Thank You for saving us from ourselves. Thank You for Your compassionate mercy, even and especially when we know not what we do. Open our eyes to properly assess Your faithful and strong salvation, that we might appropriately respond to Your grace, as we live our lives seasoned with salt, fragrant offerings before You, toward the fulfillment of Your holy will.
Amen


Continue to November



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