|Daily Devotionals and Weekly Virtual Church Services|
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.
H A P P Y 2 0 2 1
Having many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink;
but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that your joy may be made full.
2 John 12
We share the hope of the writer in the verse above. And we can also understand the impatience that is implicit. The author admits there are many things he wishes to communicate. And yet, this is one of the shortest of all the New Testament writings. He seemingly does not wish to take time to write it all down, when he expects he will be able to communicate in person soon enough. And then there’s this: Writing is sufficient for some things, but not for all. Face-to-face interaction is almost always preferable. There are some things that simply must be shared in person. Like joy. In this brief work, the author uses the word truth, time and time again. Truth is foundational to their relationship and central to what they share as brothers and sisters in Christ. Truth had been defined and discussed among them. In the forefront was Jesus Himself, who claimed to be the embodiment of truth. To follow in the path of truth was a shared commitment, and it had been firmly established in the community. Now, in his present work, the author’s central focus is love. Love, too, can be defined, written about, and encouraged. But in the final salutation, joy is on the author’s mind. And joy is something that must be experienced face to face… When I first began serving in my present congregation, every person was new and every face was fresh. It took some time to recognize people, remember who was who, and combine each name with each face. Now I can look back at photos taken a decade ago from behind the gathered congregation, and I can tell who’s who simply by looking at the back of people’s heads. In these days when we mask ourselves in one another’s presence and take caution not to come within that six-foot circle, what I miss – behind the mask – is joy. If I look carefully enough, I can see evidence of a smile in the squint of the eyes and in the crinkles on the skin of the upper cheekbones. But the full-face expression of joy is missing. Unlike us, the biblical authors did not have phones or the Internet, by which they might hear audible expressions of joy or by which they might view others in virtual Zoom boxes or on Skype screens. Even if they could, they’d agree with us that while these advances in technology have afforded us greater experience and better communication, there’s nothing that can replace face-to-face interaction – looking someone in the eye, shaking hands, or receiving the comfort of an arm around your shoulder. Many of us can rightly be grateful for the ability to work remotely from the comfort of our homes. There’s talk about the possibility of it continuing, even after the end of the pandemic. But it will not be done without sacrifice. For we humans were made for personal contact, for sharing space, for interacting with one another in the real world. And while we can be grateful for the gift of technology and appreciate it as a wonderful tool, we must also take care that it not become a hinderance to human connection. That which can serve as a bridge that unites us can also serve as a wall that divides us. In- person, confidential conversation can be sacrificed, if we attempt to replace it with online virtual sharing, when with one mistaken touch of a button that which was meant to be personal becomes public. Jesus told His followers He had come to give them fullness of joy. There is perhaps nothing more encouraging, nothing more heartening, nothing more exhilarating than the shared joy that happens when we come together to partake in common humanity and to rejoice in the goodness of God. Our confident hope will surely be realized - it’s only a matter of time. We pray it will not be long.
Good and gracious God, grant us wisdom to keep our wits about us, as we persevere in these final days of this pandemic. We grieve the loss of the precious lives that have been lost. But let us become lax in our judgment, that, having made it this far, we are now in the clear. Help us to remain vigilant and to be considerate of the wellbeing of others. Thank You for the joy that You bring to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, and fill us with the hope of sharing in the fullness of that joy, when the day comes that we will be able to gather as one body, united in fellowship, harmonious in voice, offering to You our highest praise.
Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
And thus may the LORD God of hosts be with you,
Just as you have said!
Holy faith had turned into manageable religion and it was odious in the sight of God. The people continued to carry on and go through the motions – attending religious festivals, offering religious sacrifice, speaking the right words at the right times. But they had learned the art of self-righteous justification, and this undermined all that was positive, tarnished every good deed, and dishonored the Name of the One they pretended to follow. The poor could read right through it. For they were the ones who suffered. They did not reject the handouts of the rich – they needed them in order to survive. But they knew that those in charge were loath to make any significant change that would make any real or lasting difference. The status quo was working just fine for them; there was no impetus to change. In fact, there were many reasons to keep things just as they were. Even though to do so was inequitable, unfair, and contrary to the sacred intentions of their holy God. Still, somehow, those in charge found a way to justify it all, going so far as to sanctify their actions, deem the holy, pleasing and acceptable to the God who had commanded outright and otherwise. Who would speak up against these things? The poor had no voice. If they dared cry out the meagre flow of subsistence they did receive would subside. Those who did have words that might be listened to hesitated to speak them, lest they lose their positions and find themselves begging with the rest of them. The system was corrupt. It served some and denied others. And so, for those who were on the inside: it was all or nothing. And the wall between the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots, rose higher – and it was reinforced by the day, as time marched on. A word needed to be spoken, but who would dare to speak it? Even if words were shared, what would make them listen? How would the message get through? Leaders were quick to see the shortcomings of other nations, but when they looked in the mirror, they were blind. They could not see – they refused to see – the very same sins, equally prevalent in their own nation, and which they themselves perpetuated. Death was coming to the nation – and it would happen on the inside before any outside force came in to mop up the mess and plant their own flag in the name of their own god. But until that day, there was still opportunity; there was still the possibility of change. And so: the prophet would speak. The prophet must speak. In the name of the LORD and in the name of all that was holy. A future was still possible – a future for all people. It was in their power to make things right. Knowledge did not fail them. God had given them all that was needed to order a working community where peace and harmony might be enjoyed by every one of its members. But they could not continue to insist God was on their side when they were playing by their own set of rules. The prophet would be faithful to speak the words and communicate the vision God had given him. He could see the end of the nation as clearly as he could see the sinful practices taking place within it – all in the name of God. And those two days, then and now, were coming closer together. The word would be spoken. But would the people listen? The outcome was not inevitable. But they were foolish to think they could continue on without consequence. Life was still possible. But they would have to do it God’s way…
Holy and righteous God, Your ways of justice are uncompromising. You are the Creator of all, and You exclude no one from Your loving care. You’ve granted us great privilege to live in a nation of plenty. Will we dare to ask You to forgive us when we show little consideration for those outside our own circle? Bring us to our senses and give us understanding hearts, that we might see with Your eyes and hear with Your ears the prayers of those whose cry to You. Give us courage to work for the good of all people, that we might order our ways in accordance with Your justice and grace, for the honor of Your holy Name.
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us;
and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
1 John 3:16
When I was sixteen, I graduated. I had had paper routes from my early teen years, but now that I was old enough to drive and get a real job, I did just that. I left behind the newspapers and the dark, cold, early mornings and followed in my father’s footsteps, gaining employment in a neighborhood grocery store. I would remain in that employ for the remainder of my high school days and into my college years. My first position was that of a box-boy – a bagger. I’d place purchased items safely (light on top of heavy) in brown bags stamped with the store brand, and then carefully set them in the grocery cart, never forgetting to politely ask customers if they’d like help out to their car. I learned how to interact with adults and how to engage with customers of different dispositions, moods and temperaments. There were even a few moments that etched themselves into my long-term memory, lessons that have lasted a lifetime. One of them concerned what I remember to be a grandfather and his grandchild. I cannot remember the exact situation. I cannot recall what either one of them looked like or the specific conversation that happened between them. What I do remember is the tender tone the grandfather had taken with the little one he obviously adored. Not that the child was particularly adorable. It was the heart of the adoring grandparent that caught my attention. And the impression it made on me at the time has stuck with me through the years. I had an epiphany in that moment, for I remember being moved to silently pray to God: Lord, I want to love like that! And I don’t want to have to wait till I’m old to do it. Teach me how to be patient and kind and tender and caring. Touch and transform my heart, that I might engage with others in similar fashion, that my actions would not be dependent on the stimuli I receive from them, but that I would be moved by the love that You have placed in my heart. I thank God for that man (who surely had no idea that I’d been watching him or that his interaction with his precious little one could make such a lifelong impact on the one bagging his groceries). And I thank God for opening my eyes to see it… The apostle John gives us the best picture of love he’s come to know: Christ on the cross of Calvary. Not just a death, but a sacrifice. More than a willingness to accept undeserved suffering and torturous punishment. A determination to do so for the very ones who were committing the crime. Behold the Lamb of God upon His throne for all the world to see! And yet there are many who pass by unheeding, and Jesus remains unnoticed. The only begotten Son of God is reckoned as ordinary and common and irrelevant. But there are those who will experience the Moment. They will put their perpetual motion on pause and lift up their eyes to observe. And then the realization comes: Because of me and for me. It was my sin that put Him there, and He was determined to offer His life in sacrifice for my own. It’s when that Moment happens – once or repeatedly – that I know there is only one faithful response: I must do likewise. Having received such a great love, I’m moved and compelled to emulate it by laying down my life for others. Not because they’re necessarily adorable. But because One so adoringly counted me worthy of such indescribable sacrifice and love.
Good and gracious God, I thank You for the sacred moments of blessing You’ve given to me in my life. I thank You for those who, intentionally or unknowingly, have exemplified the purity of Your sacrificial love and wondrous grace. As powerful as they are, I know that they are but hints of the holy act You Yourself have accomplished on that Jerusalem cross. May Your life laid down have its full effect on me, that I might follow in Your steps of loving service, bring Your blessing to others, and offer them yet another illustration of Your amazing grace. And so, I pray: Be glorified in me and through me on this new and holy day.
Do not fear, O land, rejoice and be glad,
For the LORD has done great things.
How powerful is a timely word! The prophet Joel does his work during a locust plague that has devastated the land. Things had never been worse – at least in recent memory of the people. They could not recall a time in their own history or in the days of their parents when things had been so bad. Their crops were destroyed. Their herds and cattle wandered about aimlessly, looking for something on which to stave off their hunger, to survive another day. Streams and rivers dried up. Utter devastation filled the land. And with it, the spirit of the people languished. Their hope was all but gone. It is into this situation that the prophet speaks. The LORD has done great things. Great not necessarily in the sense of good. But big, strong and powerful things. Memorable things. Like the plague itself. But here’s the thing: The claim made is that the ultimate end of the devastation was not annihilation. It was that the people, once stripped of all that had threatened to lure them away from the Bestower of life, once deprived of all that had overtaken their heart’s desire, they would come to know where their true hope was found. If the hand of God was recognized in the plague that had come upon them, it was only so that, in the end, good would come of it. God could be trusted – even and especially when the world seemed to be unraveling and all they had come to know was falling apart. The confident confession was that God was still in control. The natural disaster was not a sign that there was no God or that the future was uncertain. God would use it to bring good out of bad and finally to bless His people. Now, while they were living through these dry and dusty days, it was important that they not miss that truth. Holding on to the sure and certain goodness of God despite evidence to the contrary is not merely wishful thinking or foolish faith. It will bear itself out, when all is said and done. The prophet also envisions for the people that which is not yet but that which will surely be. He sees the renewal of the land, the coming rains, the replenishment of the earth. He rolls back the pall that covers the despairing nation and casts a vision of hope and renewal. Death will not have the final word, because the LORD is still on the throne. The promise of a new day is sure. The prophet sees it and there’s no reason to postpone. The rejoicing can now begin. For the good news, finally, is that God is still faithfully present in their midst. God had not abandoned His people, and God would certainly not leave them. To speak a word of hope now while we are still in the throes of pandemic is not to speak an empty word. For the hope we have is not dependent on the circumstances that surround us. It’s centered in the One who is over and above and under and behind all things – and faithfully present in the midst of them. So do not fear. Now is not the time to wonder when God will arrive to bring an end to our crisis. Now is the time to recognize the always-and-ever presence of God in the midst of these events. If there’s any repentance that needs to be done, it’s in our hearts. If there’s any return from abandonment, it’s our feet that need to do the walking and circling back. If you feel lost in the midst of our present destruction, your finding is closer than you might think. You need wait no longer. Let the rejoicing begin!
Almighty and ever-living God, You are faithful, through and through. In the midst of these challenging and difficult days, fix our eyes upon You. Help us to recognize Your faithful presence in the midst of the evil that surrounds us. Quiet the anxiety that fills our soul, and disperse the fear that holds us in its grip. Grant us the confidence of Your certain accompaniment, and in that way still the storm that rages within. Teach us how to rejoice in the certainty of Your goodness and grace, rather than place our hopes in the capricious events that rise and fall around us like waves on a squally sea. In Your compassionate mercy, envelop us in Your heavenly embrace, that we might bear witness to Your unfailing goodness and grace.
And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure
you may be able to call these things to mind.
2 Peter 1:15
I will never leave you. I will always be with you. As mere mortals, these are promises none us can make to others, no matter how steadfast our will or sincere our intention. For things happen beyond us that are outside our control. Like death – which will come to us all. The apostle Peter knew it was coming to him. He knew his days were numbered. This is his second and last letter to an unnamed Christian community. His last hurrah. Perhaps he had intentions of writing again, but he knew the odds of him doing so were shrinking with each passing day. He expresses no fear or regret about what awaits him. Only concern that his ministry will be no more and that he will no longer have the opportunity to impart to others what he has come to cherish so much in his own life. And so, these last words will be important words. Carefully chosen. Words he hopes will be remembered, called to mind when the need arises, and continue to echo in the hearts and minds of his readers long after he’s physically gone, lingering in their souls like songs that embed themselves in the psyche like good viruses that refuse to leave. It’s been said that when a person dies a library burns down. The knowledge and insight a person acquires, their unique perspective – gone from our midst forever. Someone might rejoin: We now have Google to provide answers to any question we might have. But we know that a person is comprised of more than facts and figures, that our value is greater than being a treasure trove of information. What are the things you’ve come to value most in life? What, for you, are the most important guiding principles for living? Perhaps you’ve been present at a children’s birthday celebration where the festivities included the breaking of a piñata or Pin the Tail on the Donkey. A participant is blindfolded, spun around and pointed in the right direction by an adult overseeing the operation. Although the guidance given does not determine the outcome, it can guide the groper in the right direction and increase the likelihood of success. In the same way, I cannot live my son’s life for him, but I can give him words to live by that, if heeded, will steer him clear of trouble and train him in the ways of the One who beckons all, “Follow Me.” There are some I know for whom the aphorisms, adages and axioms of a deceased loved one still live on. Words are remembered, for they were so oft-repeated that they carved out ruts in the recesses of receptive minds. The inflection of the voice that uttered them can still be heard. And the legacy lives on. More important that any treasured keepsake you choose to pass on are the words that convey what is on your heart and in your soul. There are some things that bear repeating. You don’t have to defend them as the most important things ever. That they are important to you is what matters. May you be diligent to impress them upon those who will follow in your steps. This will be your living legacy. No more precious heirloom could be passed down, for you will be sharing the sacred blessings you have counted as the greatest treasures you yourself have received.
Good and gracious God, thank You for opening my eyes to see that which is holy and beautiful and true. Help me to cherish and treasure these things and to share my vision with others. Grant me wisdom to know which things bear repeating, as well as those things about which I should simply be silent. Impress upon me the most important insights I’ve come to discover, and help me be diligent in passing them on to those who are most important to me in my life. I honor You by recognizing the value of the unique life You’ve created in me. Help me to humbly and confidently share with others the best of what You’ve revealed to me, that I might impart blessing to those who follow in my steps. May my words and actions always serve to bear witness to Your goodness and grace, that others will see You in me and come to know the fullness of Your steadfast love, mercy and compassion. For the honor of Your holy Name.
When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea,
"Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry, and have children of harlotry;
For the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the LORD".
It was an exciting time, but it was a scary time – when my classmates and I were about to learn of our synodical assignments, doled out during the last year of our seminary schooling in frosty Minnesota. We had submitted our preferences for geographical setting, and while we were told that our personal selections would certainly be considered, the first priority and highest criterion in the holy draft was the need of the Church. And so, we pastors-in-waiting should accept our assignations as the will of God. I’m a California kid, and I longed to serve back home. However, I knew my chances were slim-to-none that I’d be assigned back there. Besides, I had prayed to God and pledged my willingness to go wherever God would send me – and I knew God had a sense of humor. Still, this was my life, and I didn’t really relish the thought of ministry in rural North Dakota (where multitudes of parishes stood open and where many-a-pastor began his or her service). But it could be worse. Take Hosea, for instance. I do wonder exactly how Hosea came to the conclusion that this was the call of God. I don’t expect he was working with an advisory committee that helped him to recognize the promptings of the Spirit or to discern the whispers of God. God somehow had to make it especially clear that was His will and intention for Hosea’s life, for it would have been next to impossible for Hosea to be obedient if this call were anything less than divine mandate. Take to yourself a wife of harlotry. What?! Are You kidding? As the story unfolds, it appears that Gomer, the wife of Hosea, was unfaithful to him in their marriage. Of the three children she bears, the first was fathered by Hosea, while the other two likely came as the result of outside trysts, if they did not come from Gomer’s decision to leave her husband and to sell herself outright in prostitution. The unfaithfulness of Gomer is unmistakable. The question is how Hosea would deal with it. The instruction of God is certain: Receive her back. Raise her children – all three of them – as your own. Act with faithfulness. For as you do so, you will be a living sermon illustration to show My people how it is between us. For Israel had been unfaithful. They had turned their backs on the LORD and gone after other gods who were no gods at all. They had prostituted themselves out, sold their souls to the devil, grieved the heart of God. But God would show Himself faithful, time and time again. God’s love was unfailing and eternal, and it would not be thwarted or quenched by the faithlessness of His people. There’s no evidence that Hosea cried foul or unfair. No evidence that he held Gomer’s sin over her head or lived to spite her. He acted with faithfulness, compassion and forgiveness. And Hosea’s actions not only influenced the heart of Gomer and her future decisions. His commitment did more than provide a stable home for her children and grace them with the gift of acceptance and love. By Hosea’s obedience, all Israel would see the faithfulness of God lived out in their midst. Hosea told his story in a way that did not exalt his righteous behavior, but showcased the faithfulness of God to a faithless people, loved with an eternal love that would never say die. If God has gone to such extremes for you, how far will you go for Him? How far will you go for others? Faithfulness and forgiveness are always a sacrifice. But they’re powerful and effective. And they can change the world.
Good and gracious God, as You continue to open our eyes in this season of Epiphany, we come to learn more about Your faithful heart for us, Your people. We’ve seen Your forgiveness in action. We’ve observed Your compassionate mercy. And when it finally hits us and we receive it personally, our lives are forever changed. As recipients of Your faithfulness, forgiveness and compassion, help us to respond as did Hosea, living before You and with others in ways that are consistent with Your never-ending love and sacrificial service. May our lives evidence Your steadfast love and grace, and shine Your light for all to see.
Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word,
that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.
1 Peter 2:2
Do you remember the joy and anxiety that filled your being at the beginning of new employment? All surrounding the position you would fill, the people you would meet, the tasks that would occupy your time? It was all fresh, and it would take some time for you to learn the ropes and grow accustomed to your new setting. Perhaps you went through a period of onboarding, when you listened to people talk about the history of your company and the culture of your employer. You learned about the general expectations and the specific duties that were required of you. You sat down with people in the know. They gave you the inside scoop – helpful information about some of the people you’d be working for or with – to prevent you from making any unnecessary gaffes. You went through this orientation process to get situated and settled, so that you could offer your own contributions to the best of your ability and be a productive member of the team of which you were now a part. This period of hand-holding would give way to letting you walk on your own, and any supervision and management would be done from a distance. But to learn and develop your skills, you needed to continue to be nourished, fed and guided… The apostle Peter was an overseer of the Church of God. The people he addresses in this epistle were connected to congregations scattered throughout what is today the country of Turkey. Peter could not personally be present with each of them, to guide them in the ways of God. They’d have to learn to grow on their own. And in this verse, he gives them a beautiful picture of how God nourishes their faith. We’ve all seen a babe at its mother’s breast – at first hungry, ravenous and unsettled, but soon satisfied, content and at peace. The mother’s milk in those early days is nothing less than life itself. And in it, the infant has all it needs to develop and grow. In a similar way, we receive nourishment from the Word of God – that reminds us who we are and whose we are (God’s beloved children). As we grow into the knowledge and security of that relationship, our faith grows in the One who speaks to us His Word. And as we’re daily reminded of God’s love and grace, we come to trust in it and to depend upon it, and it inspires and encourages us to turn toward others with the same love and grace which we have first received from God. Like the nurturing relationship of an infant and its mother, the relationship we share with God is primary, central, and comes before any instructions or commands are given. Even before the Big Ten are given to Moses at Sinai, God assures him and his people: I am the LORD your God. God reminds them of this principal relationship that will be essential for their well-being and well-doing and that will affect all of their future relationships. In a nurturing mother is displayed a beautiful illustration of the goodness, grace and provision of God. As God’s children, this dependence is not something we will ever outgrow. As we look around our world today, we see a lot of crybabies. As any parent knows, there are usually only a few things that can cause this state. The infant needs to sleep, eat, or be changed. Indeed, there’s a pervasive weariness in our world today, and many long for rest and recovery: Be good to yourself and to others. There are also many diapers that need changing (but that’s a subject for another day). There’s also a great hunger in our world for the pure milk of God’s Word. So go to the Source, for it is there that you will find refreshment for your soul. And come back again tomorrow and the day after that. For in this way, you will work out the salvation God has so richly brought about for you in Jesus Christ, your blessed Redeemer.
Good and gracious God, loving Creator of us all, may we never outgrow the joy that comes from the gift of being and from the knowledge that our primary relationship is with You. Help us learn to listen to Your voice above all other voices, for when You whisper Your words of love and grace, they nourish our souls. You faithfully bless us with all that we need to live as Your children. In the strength that You provide, help us to fully invest ourselves in our labors of love in Your Kingdom’s work, to benefit all Your people.
... in order that they might request compassion from the God of heaven concerning this mystery,
so that Daniel and his friends might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.
It’s one thing to practice prayer, to incorporate it into your life, and to engage in it on a regular basis. It’s quite another to pray like your very life depends upon it. Daniel and his friends were living in a foreign land under a foreign king. They’d been selected from among their fellow captives as those who showed aptitude. And they underwent a three-year preparation process, after which they were interviewed by the king and entered into his personal service. But the king had episodes of madness, and he made unreasonable requests. Like the one the prompted Daniel and his friends to pray with all that was in them. The king had a dream that left him greatly disturbed. He didn’t understand its significance, and yet he was convinced that it was critical for him to understand its hidden meaning. And it’s then that he shows his lunacy: He requests of all his wise men to make known to him not only the interpretation of the dream but also the dream itself. And if his enlightened and shrewd counselors could not answer him this, it was off with their heads! He had, of course, given them an impossible task. For no mere mortal could convey to him this information. Daniel caught wind that the king, in his maniacal fury, had ordered the destruction of all the wise men in his kingdom. Daniel and his friends would be among them. The first thing Daniel does is go to his friends and ask that they join him in a time of prayer more fervent than they had ever engaged in before. What did their prayer look like? Of what was it composed? It was with humble hearts that they entered heaven’s throne room. All the training and education they’d received had not prepared them for the challenge that lay before them. They were at a complete loss, they hadn’t a clue, and they came before God entirely empty-handed. But they were also completely open and fully receptive to all that God would impart to them. Attentive to any word that God would share. Theirs was an earnest and honest plea; it was heartfelt and full. It was a passionate prayer. Where did their confidence lie? It rested in God alone. They had come to know that what was completely impossible for them was entirely possible with God. They were confident of God’s knowledge and sovereignty. And they were convinced that God was good. Only one question remained: What would God do? They could not presume to answer this question. And ultimately, neither can we. When Jesus teaches His followers to pray, He does so by example and by words of instruction. One of the petitions He includes is Thy will be done. These words would be upon His own lips in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He envisioned what the next hours would hold for Him. Even Jesus does not pray with presumption when it comes to the will of His Father, and neither should we. Daniel and his friends model for us the a godly way to pray: with a humble heart, with a passionate plea, and with complete confidence in the knowledge, power and goodness of God. Even so, let us lay our own requests before the nail-scarred feet of our Lord. For He has walked our human path of suffering, and He can empathize with the challenges that confront us. God is merciful, compassionate and abounding in steadfast love. It’s with that confidence that we can pray on this Lord’s Day: Thy will be done.
Almighty God, great and glorious, we give You thanks that nothing escapes Your notice. Your knowledge is unfathomable, Your power is unlimited, and with You all things are possible. Grant us the sure and certain confidence that we are forever safe in Your compassionate and eternal care. No matter how great our suffering – even if our lives are snuffed out – the flame of our existence continues to abide in Your presence. Draw our hearts to You, that we might fully offer ourselves to You in dedicated and unbounded service, for the honor and glory of Your Name and for the benefit and blessing of all Your people.
So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!
Speech may be incendiary. We've seen it in our recent history. Words are powerful, and they can spark the spirit of a mob, set off a chain-reaction, and unleash all the powers of hell. Again: we've seen it. And even more than that, we know it personally. We cannot deny our acquaintance with this evil, for who among us has not lost it - and let go from our mouths words we know we should never have released and given voice to, words we've uttered that wish we could retrieve. We're wise to learn when to keep our thoughts in draft mode and not be too quick to publish them. For once the words leave us, they go out to do their work - for good or for ill. What a wonderful and powerful tool - this gift of communication. But in the name of free speech, some have taken it as a license to unleash whatever thoughts that have entered their head. As if every thought is worthy of being shared, broadcast, or is helpful to those who will hear. As if there's no need to filter, no reason to exercise judgment or to employ discernment. Wisdom has been relieved of her duty as warden, and she is made to stand by powerlessly, as words that have rightfully been imprisoned are liberated, set free to once again carry out their destructive work, and, in the end, unveil the imbeciles who have released them. For there is only One whose speech is safe to be truly free. As for the rest of us, we show ourselves the fool if we assume all of our would-be words merit voice or print. This is merely a sign, a symptom of the trouble that lies deeper within. For the words you speak do not come from nowhere. They arise from the desires that develop in your heart, the thoughts that emerge from our mind, the winds that blow from your spirit. Some mindlessly parrot what they've heard or open within themselves windows internal and external, as if for good cross-ventilation, and convey themselves as conduits, sacrifice themselves as surrogates, and allow any information that comes into them to pass right through to others. And like an LP with a scratch on it, we who listen hear the same thing, over and over. Truly, those who point in judgment at the other side to accuse them of brainwashing, do so with robotic fingers. It's time for us all to sit in silence. To allow the flames of evil to be extinguished. To consider well that which is stirring with us. To listen deeply to the One who is the essence of wisdom and who freely distributes it to all who ask. And then to consider what words we might speak that will be helpful, healthy and healing. Words that will build up, not tear down; embolden, not intimidate; invigorate, not demoralize; unite, not divide. In your tongue, God has given you a wonderful gift and a powerful tool. But like all power tools, it's important how they're used once they're plugged in. Employ good safety measures - for your own sake and for others'. God grant you wisdom, to guide you when to articulate and when to bite your tongue. That the words you speak will serve God's good purposes for all.
Good and gracious God, thank You for giving me the marvelous gift of speech, that I might convey to others the thoughts and feelings within me. Grant me the wisdom to know when to speak and when to refrain from sharing. May my speech always be with filled with grace, that I might always speak the truth in love. Above all, transform my heart, mind and spirit, that the words I utter will be words that are godly, pure and holy, that Your work might be accomplished in me and through me, for the honor and glory of Your sacred Name. Use me this day to impart Your words of healing and hope for all of Your people.
As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day,
so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance.
Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.
And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking.
So ends the description of scene and setting in the striking vision of Ezekiel, prophet and priest, by the river Chebar, when the hand of the LORD had come upon him. Ezekiel would serve as the mouthpiece of the LORD, and he would speak only what the LORD put in his mouth. His audience was the nation of Israel, now exiled after their enemies had come into their land, conquered their capital, dethroned their king, and carted them off into that which was foreign and unfamiliar. The prophet is warned that the people would prove to be a tough crowd: Over and over again, he's told they are rebellious, stubborn and obstinate. The prophet should not expect a receptive response. What's critical is that Ezekiel should not shy away from his given task, but that he be faithful to bear witness. It's made clear in the opening chapters of the book that God cares deeply for His people and that God's final intent and ultimate purpose are to bestow life. God does not abandon or give up on His people. The calling, preparing and sending of the prophet is but one indication. As Ezekiel beholds this otherworldly vision, he describes the One seated on the throne as One who radiates glory, and he likens what he beholds to the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on rainy day. This image takes us back to Noah and the promise God made to him, that He would be faithfully present with His people and that He would not ultimately come in judgment. God is declared to be pro-life in the most general and pervasive sense. Even when God does come in judgment, the ultimate purpose is to bring about repentance and its serendipitous outcome: Joy, refreshment and life. Gospel prevails. For God is thoroughly and ultimately good, and God bestows good upon His creation. Even when the response God receives is stubborn refusal to listen and outright rebellion, God continues to faithfully work to bring about good for His people. And if we're to be about the work of God, so should we. Do you recognize evil in the world? Does it appear to be gaining ground? Don't let your heart become discouraged by it. God is on the side of good, and good will ultimately triumph. God will overcome evil with good, and God calls you and me to do the same... The response of the prophet is given in the final words: the great vision of glory is too much for him, and in the presence of the Mighty One, Ezekiel falls on his face - a posture of humility and complete submission. He is now fully attentive and ready to receive instruction. He's ready to take his place and to do his part in the work of God - whatever that may be. It would not be an easy road. He'd receive little affirmation and be shown even less gratitude. But the favor of God rested upon him. And the word he would speak, though it was filled with lamentation, mourning and woe, would finally result in that which was sweet as honey. Like a rainbow on a rainy day, the message was a glorious one, filled with great hope and true promise. It was Gospel message after all, because that's what comes from the throne of our great and glorious God. We may well rejoice in being bearers of it.
Great and glorious God, mighty storms brew in our lives. Some roll in from the outside, and some are due to our own making. But Your desire is always to bring us through them and into a new and glorious day. We rejoice before You in Your goodness and grace, and we exult in Your call to be about Your Kingdom's work. Open our eyes to see the radiance of Your glory, and open our ears that they may be filled with your Gospel message. Inspire us with Your Spirit, and empower us to speak Your message of good news. May we faithfully persevere in doing so, even in the face of opposition and refusal, looking to You alone for affirmation and commendation. To You alone be all honor and glory and praise. Now and forever.
He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature,
And upholds all things by the word of His power.
When He had made purification of sins,
He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high...
The claim is a great one and the confession is mighty. If the New Testament's central character is Jesus, it is especially true in this letter to the Hebrews. And it's surprising, for that reason alone, that the name of Jesus appears only infrequently throughout this epistle of thirteen chapters. In this season of Epiphany, when we're especially mindful of revelations of Jesus, the writer here attests that Jesus is nothing less than the glory of God radiated from heaven to earth, incarnate and encapsulated. The three apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration had beheld Jesus in a glimpse of heavenly glory. They saw for a time that which had been hidden from their view, but nonetheless present in His day-to-day earthly ministry. The writer to the Hebrews moreover declares that Jesus portrays the exact representation of the nature of God. Which is to say that when we witness the life of Jesus - when we listen to His words and observe His behavior - we behold the character of God Himself, lived out in our midst. One of the things that stands out for this unidentified author is that Jesus is the One who has purified God's people from sin: it is in Jesus that we receive our redemption... Yesterday our nation looked on with collective held breath as a new President and Vice President were inaugurated. The ceremony was much more than medals pinned on the winners of a contest. It was a rite of recognition and a celebration of a charge. The oath of office was taken, and in this sacred vow, words were spoken and promises made. For the ones who hold these offices are to be representative of our national identity. They're to be living models of that which constitutes us as a people and as a nation. They are, in a sense, to radiate and represent the principles by which our nation was founded. They're to govern according to it and exemplify it in their words, attitudes and actions. With the constitution as their foundation, they're to apply its principles to address our current challenges, and be informed by it as they engage any new issues that will arise. When we look to these leaders, we hope to see the identity of America radiated by their presence. And we expect to find in their actions a consistent representation of the identity of our nation. Certainly, this is a weighty oath, and we pray that they will live up to it to the best of their abilities and faithfully carry out what we have entrusted to them in the offices which they now occupy and be true to the principles which define them... Jesus is the One and Only who was born into the office of the Son of God. As such, His calling was to reflect and to radiate the glory of God and to re-present God's character in the span of His lifetime on earth. The Christian confession is that He does just that - and flawlessly. Furthermore, we who bear the name of Christ have been called to do likewise, as we follow in His steps. That the Spirit of Christ might reign in our lives and be revealed in our words and in our actions. And that others would not look upon us, but that they would see Christ in us, and behold the radiance of the glory of God and the representation of His nature. In this way the light of God will shine brightly in this world of darkness, the works of God will be revealed, and the sacred will of God will be done, for the glory of God and for the good of all God's people.
Great and mighty God, we give You thanks that You have made Yourself known to us in and through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. We thank You for the example You've given to us in His words and by His actions, a faithful representation of Your will for us as Your people. Fix our eyes upon Jesus, that we might always live with the light of His life shining upon our way. And we pray that we might be faithful followers of the path He has forged and continue to walk in His ways of loving service, to the praise of Your glorious grace and for the good of all Your people. May Your holy will be done in us and through is this day.
We lift up our heart and hands
Toward God in heaven.
Everything had been stripped away. Almost. The holy city of Jerusalem, the political and religious center of the nation, had been ransacked, ruined and razed. All that the people had come to know and to love was gone in a flash. And although there had been sure signs that these events were coming, they never really thought they would actually happen. But the day did come, and as much as they wanted to, they could not recover. They could not rewind the clock and return to the former days. They could only move forward - and move forward they must. What would the prophet be moved to say in the midst of such a display? What must the people to do now, in the face of their deplorable situation? This: We lift up our heart and hands toward God in heaven. Three things are important to see in these prophetic words. First, that little but critical word we. Although the prophet could have taken sides and blamed one party or another for what had taken place, he refuses to do so. If the people are going to get through this ordeal, they must get through it together. And so, he admits complicity. He identifies with the sins of the people, and he does not dig in his heels to take a holier-than-thou attitude, which would only continue to cultivate seeds of dissention, increase internal divide, and fan the flames of blame. Certainly, there were some more responsible than others for their collective downfall, but it would do no good to point these things out or to pour their energies into performing a national autopsy. At least at this point. Now was the time for joint repentance, so they could prepare to move forward together, as one people. Secondly, Jeremiah leads the people in offering their attitudes and their actions to God for God's good will and purposes. Of course, the prophet cannot force these things upon the people. He can only lead by example and rally the troops. But he insists that personal preferences must be subjected to God's purposes, if the results will be for the good of all people. Individual choice - personal freedoms - must be dedicated and submitted before the Lord of heaven, so that in its place all attitudes and actions might reflect the will and ways of God. For finally, it is in God that we will find our ultimate hope for the future. Indeed, today we might well expect good things from new leaders and a new administration, and we should do everything in our power to be supportive of anything that does not go against conscience. We should pray for our leaders, that God would grant them wisdom to make sound decisions that are in the best interests of all people and strength to carry out that which is just and equitable in the face of any and all opposition. But our ultimate hope must be found in God alone. It is to God that we lift our hearts and our hands. We cannot know what the future will bring. But the ultimate end will be a good one, because God will have the final word. Let us be united in lifting our hearts and our hands to God this day. We confess that they are unholy and unclean. Who but God can cleanse what we have defiled? We can have confident hope that God will surely do so and will use our hearts and hands to carry out that which is well-pleasing in His sight. May God grant that we will live into a new day, in which God will bless our nation with peace, tranquility and justice for all.
Almighty, gracious and glorious God, we lift our hearts and our hands before You this day. We cannot feign innocence before You. We can only confess that we have been unfaithful and that we have pursued our own personal paths to glory. Cleanse us, we pray, for Thine own sake. Purify our intentions and empower us to perform that which is well pleasing in Your sight and beneficial for all Your people. Endow our leaders with wisdom and grace, and strengthen them for service. Lift our eyes, that we might find our hope in You and may our hearts trust fully in Your faithful and eternal promises of life and salvation.
If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.
Letters of recommendation. I've received them, and I've written them. Perhaps you have, too. There are three parties involved: the writer, the reader and the subject. The writer's purpose is to offer perspective on the subject. There's often longevity of relationship between these two parties, and the writer can attest to the subject's consistent character over time. The writer is careful to highlight the best qualities of the subject, those things which have been recognized, appreciated and valued, as well as add further definition to the character of the subject. If the letter is sincere and honest, points raised will often affirm what's already been learned about the subject, add richness to an evolving assessment, and even raise new points that were missed in the written application or in the first interview. The writer may also address some of the reasons why the reader would want to accept the subject as a new hire, a student in a program, or as the recipient of an award. If there's a previous relationship between the writer and reader, the recommendation is more powerful still. For if there's a level of trust that already exists, the recommendation holds weight before one word is written or read. These are all matters of importance to the reader, and a letter of recommendation can be helpful in forming a judgment to decide whether to accept or deny, to call it good or to continue one's search. If I'm the subject who is requesting a letter of recommendation, I want to choose someone who knows me well and will speak well of me, presenting me in the best possible light. I will also recognize that the reputation and credentials of the one I choose to be my writer will spill over onto me, for better or for worse... Paul's letter to Philemon is a letter of recommendation of sorts about a man named Onesimus. In this case, a previous relationship existed between Philemon and Onesimus - as master and servant, respectively. For an undisclosed reason (except for the obvious), Onesimus had run away. What Philemon didn't know is what took place in the aftermath: Onesimus had come into contact with Paul (in his imprisonment) and through that relationship Onesimus had come to faith in Christ. Onesimus was now a changed man. And Paul had convinced him to return to Philemon. What this would now mean for the future of their relationship was yet to be determined. But all parties expected it would now be different. Onesimus would no longer be merely a servant; he was now a brother. Paul is confident of the relationship he shares with Philemon and expresses utmost confidence in him and how he will handle things from this point forward. Paul has given all he can give to Onesimus, and now he puts his own reputation on the line. In this final appeal, we see displayed in the apostle the heart of Christ. For He who lived a sinless life was willing that our lives be judged not by what we've done but by what He Himself has accomplished. To His Father the Son has said, Accept them as you would Me. How blessed Onesimus was to have one such as Paul. How blessed you are to have one such as Christ. Having received His gift of grace, how can you do anything less than live consistently with it?
Good and gracious God, our relationship with You is not dependent on our own merits but upon Your good character. Although we are often faithless, You remain faithful - that therein lies our confident hope. Open our eyes more and more to Your wondrous grace, that it might have its full effect upon us, that we might interact with others in ways consistent to that which we have first received from You. Thank You for the blessed partnership we share with brothers and sisters in Christ. Empower us to work together for Your good purposes, that we might be a blessing to all people and extend Your glorious Kingdom.
"Do not be afraid of them, For I am with you to deliver you," declares the LORD.
The prophet was young and inexperienced. And he was about to be thrust into an arena that others had occupied and made their home for years. God had tasked him with speaking a word of rebuke that would rouse them from their comfortable complacency, challenge them to examine their practices and call them to account for their errant ways. He could well expect resistance and rebuttal. And the repercussions of his words and actions were all but certain. His words would be like clashing cymbals that would resound and reverberate through valleys of injustice, echo across chasms between the rich and the poor, between the privileged and the excluded, and they would find their way into the deepest dens of iniquity. Indeed, there were good reasons to be afraid, but Jeremiah was told to steel his will, focus his attention, and not allow his emotions go there. In the end, it was about the known and the unknown. Jeremiah had been born into a priestly family. He had come to know the LORD and His ways. He knew well God's power and grace. And in this foundational conversation he has with God, the LORD assures him that He will not leave him alone. God Himself will accompany him. And it is for this reason only that Jeremiah is told not to fear. As others would later confess: One plus God equals a majority. It matters not the identity of them. They could represent a group of powerful people or a list of daunting challenges. They could identity as natural disasters (that feel quite unnatural), pandemics, uprisings, disturbances or threats: Do not fear them, declares the LORD. Them is sufficiently general for us to hear the words spoken to Jeremiah as words spoken to us, too, and to fill in the blank with those things that give us pause, cause us concern, or rise up before us as formidable and frightening opponents. Do not fear them, says the LORD. Why? Because I am with you. You are not alone in this struggle. Not only is the Lord of the universe present at your side, He is strong to deliver. Undeniably, there are sufficient stimuli present to cause you anxiety, raise an alarm and threaten to overwhelm you to the point of pushing the panic button. But in the midst of it all, God speaks to you His calming word of assurance: Do not be afraid of them. I am with you to deliver you. They are words you would do well to welcome into the deepest part of your being. To repeat them like a mantra until your anxiety dissipates and your confidence increases. You are not alone. The LORD is with you to deliver. Do not be afraid. The LORD had spoken similar words to Joshua, when he first assumed his leadership. God then spoke them to Jeremiah. And now God speaks them to you. The young prophet was tasked to do the LORD's bidding. As you determine to do the same, to commit yourself to walk in the ways of God, with your words and by your actions, you may well hear these words spoken directly to you. You may never know the full extent of the power behind the forces that threaten you. But you can know there's no greater power than can be found in the One who accompanies you and has promised to be your deliverer. Take heart this day. You are in God's good and gracious hands. And they are strong to save.
Great God of compassion and mercy, our adversaries are many and it's easy to feel overwhelmed by them. But grant us true perspective. Help us to see that You are more powerful that anything that threatens us. Grant us the assurance that You are faithful to accompany us and that we do not walk through these days alone. Fill us with the hope that You are our strong deliverer, our dependable Savior, and that we are safe and secure in Your good care. Embolden us to bravery, that we might move forward with confidence to carry out the tasks You've placed before us. And infuse us with courage, that we might apply ourselves fully to work for justice, equity and peace, for all in this land and in the world. For Your glory alone.
For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people.
One of my favorite things to do with my children when they were younger was to read to them. I think they enjoyed it, too. Seated on my lap with their heads on my chest it was part of our nightly ritual, our prepare-for-sleep practice. They each had their preferred, go-to books, of which they never seemed to tire. The Where's Waldo series was one of them. Not exactly a storybook, it was nonetheless engaging. The distinctive features of Waldo were unmistakable. His red-and-white-striped Christmas cap and long- sleeved shirt, his googly glasses, his blue jeans and hooked cane - they were consistent throughout. However, when he was positioned in the midst of other bodies similarly clad, he blended right in. He was hidden in plain view. And here's the thing: When it was new and fresh and we set out to look for him in a novel setting, it sometimes took us quite some time to find him. We'd search every inch of the page, often many times over, until finally finding him. And, of course, once seen, we would wonder how we had ever missed him. And the next time we opened the book, we could find him almost immediately - there was no hiding now! We're now in the church season called Epiphany. It's a season of revelation, unveiling and shining forth; a season of light shining in the midst of darkness and of seeing things we've not seen before (or seeing them again, as if for the first time). The word translated revealed in the verse above (alternately translated appeared) is the word epiphany in Greek. The grace of God, always and ever present, has come out of hiding. Some confess to having trouble seeing grace in the Old Testament. All they see is law. They might even insist that grace is a New Testament thing. Their point is well-taken. With the appearing of Jesus, God's grace comes into full view. We gain new insights about the nature of God - about who God is and what God has been up to since the beginning. The grace of God has always been there, although it may have been harder to recognize, BC. Still, it was hidden in plain view. In Jesus, God's grace lives among us. It jumps off the page. As if Waldo himself might be discovered in the room with us, peering around the corner or comfortably seated in the chair beside us. While it would have given yours truly quiet a start, I daresay my children would have taken it in stride, welcomed it as a matter of course, as if his incarnation were nothing unnatural at all. The truth is: God has always been in the saving business. He clothes Adam and Eve after they fall into sin. He sets a mark on Cain after he slays his brother, preserving him from retributive justice. He rescues Israel from their bondage to the Egyptians - and on and on it goes. Grace has indeed been present all along, because grace is at the heart and center of the essence of God. In Jesus we see the grace of God enfleshed. We hear it in His words; we observe it in His actions. And we see it on the cross, as He pleads to His Father on behalf of all of us: Forgive them. No one is excluded from this gracious salvation of God. That's what grace is all about - it has nothing to do with our deserving. But it has everything to do with our Creator's character and the love that fills His heart for the people He calls His own. I never tire of hearing that old, old story. I suppose I'm just a child at heart. Just ask my kids.
Good and gracious God, You are ever-present and ever-faithful. And yet there are many times I find it difficult to recognize Your presence. Sensitize my spirit to Your closeness. Daily encourage me with the reality that You abide by my side. When I feel alone, comfort me with the assurance that You will never abandon or forsake me. Thank You for You call upon my life and for involving me in Your work of grace. You've commissioned me as Your representative to make Your loving presence known and to be about Your redemptive and saving work. As You empower me for service, may I be faithful to carry out Your good will, that Your purposes might be accomplished in me and through me, this day and every day.
Alas, sinful nation,
People weighed down with iniquity,
Offspring of evildoers,
Sons who act corruptly!
They have abandoned the LORD,
They have despised the Holy One of Israel,
They have turned away from Him.
Something needed to be said. Indeed, there would be scoffing and derision and protest. Still, a word needed to be spoken. Something powerful had been stirred up in the heart of God's prophet, and he could not hold back from giving voice to the passions rousing within him. What his eyes could see was converted into speech, and his vision was thus cast before the nation. It was a word of judgment, to be sure. But it was also a word of lament, emanating from a heart that grieved. His deep sorrow was reflective of the heart of God, which was filled with great pain. What did the prophet see? To what did God open his eyes? The sinfulness of his nation. This wasn't just one error made or even a series of unfortunate mistakes. It had become habitual. Perhaps it began in a rather innocent fashion. Mishaps had first been overlooked. Then, they had been given a welcome home. Soon, they had infected the whole lot - and the nation was sin-full, through and through. They had lost their way. The result? The nation and life itself had become burdensome. The people were weighed down. All joy had vanished. Neither those who governed nor those who were governed were happy. It was all a mess. How did they get there? It had perpetuated. One iniquitous generation had given birth to another. Corrupt parents had begotten degenerate children. Surely there would be pushback against the prophet's words. Those who were guilty and for whom the shoe had found its perfect fit would nonetheless dismiss the diatribe to protect themselves, avoid embarrassment and shame, and divert attention elsewhere - as quickly as possible. Those who were innocent of the charges and yet agreed with the point would also cry unfair and counter-accuse the prophet of painting with a brush far too wide. Don't you dare include us with the others! But Isaiah would not parse his words. Let them land where and how they will. It was not his part to interpret, only to faithfully speak what God had put in his mouth. Let the word do its work in the conscience of the community. Let the word pierce their stubborn and prideful hearts and have its intended and purposeful effect. It may seem that there is no good news in these words, but we must look beneath the surface. And when we do, we see the prophet speaking to a nation in relationship with the LORD who created them. Indeed, the prophet pounds his pulpit thrice, declaring that the people have abandoned, despised and turned away from the LORD. However, God is still present. And the prophet had prefaced these words by declaring that the LORD had reared His sons - which is to declare the nation of Israel, as a whole, to be the people of God. They were God's children, each and every one. God claimed them as His own. If God didn't care, He never would have sent His prophet. Indeed, God had not left the scene. And the word the prophet speaks is a painful appeal to the people to sit up, take notice, come to their senses and welcome the ways of God. They had been weighed down for far too long, and it was God's desire to unburden them. But would they be willing? Would the word they heard be effective in their midst? Will it be so in ours?
Good and gracious God, Lord of the nations, ruler of each and every soul: We give You thanks that You always desire good for Your people. You are ever faithful, and for that reason we are never without hope. It's never too late to change; we're never too far gone. We pray that You would grant us the courage to face the truth about ourselves and our nation and let Your word have its desired effect. Work in us true repentance, quicken our hearts to revival, and empower us to perform Your holy work, for the good of Your people and the glory of Your name. May Your holy will be done in us and through us this day.
You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
2 Timothy 2:1
Grace. I daresay it's come to be my favorite word. For me, it's risen to the top of all other words that excel in goodness and righteousness and truth... The aged apostle is nearing the end of his ministry. He's poured out his life as a faithful servant of the gospel that was entrusted to him by the Lord Jesus Christ. It is now his joy to pass on the mantle of his ministry and to leave behind his cherished legacy. Paul now imparts the most important things he's come to learn in the years of his own service to a young pastor with most of his career in front of him. And grace is at the heart and center of it all. We would not be surprised to learn that Paul was a bit of a taskmaster. He was a man of discipline and determination, undeniably a Type A person who set goals and would let nothing hinder or impede him until they were attained. He demanded a lot of himself, and he expected much from others. But there was something more the apostle had learned. Something deeper and more pervasive. And it was this: He had found his Sabbath rest in Jesus. While he would later say in this same letter that he had fought the good fight and finished the course, he's come to know at the core of his being that the ultimate victory (over sin and death) had been won by Jesus and that salvation belongs to Jesus alone. Although Paul could well expect to hear from his Lord those life-affirming words, “Well done,” he knew his welcome into the pearly gates would not be due to his own work or achievement. Paul had come to trust in the goodness of God - demonstrated in Jesus, the Incarnate One. In a word, Paul had discovered grace. Undeserved love, as my pastor had defined it for me and my fellow confirmands in our adolescent years. Grace is God's “I love you just because” love, that emanates from the essence of God's character. The grace of God was present before you took your first breath. And it's there even before you confess your sin, as you repent, and when you die. God doesn't hold back His grace until you say the magic words to release it. Grace is an inherent quality of God Himself. More than anything else, Paul wanted Timothy to learn that truth and to experience it in its fullness. For having come to know the power of grace, Paul knew it would shape the young pastor's ministry. Grace would not only motivate his actions, it would temper his speech, set his tone, and serve as a magnetic force that would draw others to him and through him to the source of grace - Jesus Himself. One can sense the apostle's delight, as he envisions the legacy of his ministry carrying on through Timothy, whom he affectionately calls his son. We can sense the parental spirit working within him, wanting his protégé to be easier on himself than he had been in his own ministry. Be good to yourself, Timothy, and be good to others. This is the grace of God you learned in Jesus. Initiate love and service. Be observant and helpful. Don't wait to be asked before stepping up to act. For as you do so, you will foster an atmosphere of grace, a place where others will be welcomed and will experience the warm hospitality of God. Having received the divine embrace of grace, you've now been sent to share it with others. As you faithfully commit yourself to doing so, you will be a conduit of God's blessing, and you'll help make this world a better place.
O God of amazing and wondrous love, when we're blessed with the insight of Your grace, our souls do find their perfect peace in You. Help us to rest in that sacred space of grace until, certain of Your faithful and never-ending love, we move out, as bearers of Your grace, to freely share it with others. Teach us not only to be dependable and response-able people, but empower us to take the initiative. Inspire us to take the lead in creating the mood and setting the stage, that we might confidently serve as Your agents of grace in the world. It is Your grace that transforms our troubled hearts, Your grace that heals our broken lives, Your grace that gives us the peace we so long for - in our nation and in our world. Thank You.
Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes
Which have come up from their washing,
All of which bear twins,
And not one among them has lost her young.
Song of Solomon 4:2
There is no end to the expression of true delight. There is no limit to the creativity that seeks to communicate what stirs the soul. In the Song of Solomon, we have descriptions of deep affection between a bride and her groom. We find longing and desire, frantic searching and joyful discovery. Some of the comparisons and analogies make us smile, laugh and wonder. But such is love: it moves us to wax poetic and venture out into uncommon ground. Overtaken with the extraordinary, we're not satisfied with regular words or routine activity. We eschew the mundane. Upon our serendipitous discovery, we take pains to point out the particulars. We focus on the unique qualities in our beloved that have caught our attention and captured our heart. And we find words inadequate to the task of conveying the craving of our soul. It's no surprise that this lovesick poem has been allegorized by rabbis, preachers and teachers alike, in an attempt to turn our thoughts heavenward. For even greater than the delight we find in one we might hope to make our life partner is the joy to be found in our relationship with God. Indeed, God rejoices over His creation more than Adam over his Eve, and it does us well to meditate on the words of Holy Scripture which declare God's faithful love, mercy, grace and compassion for us whom He calls His beloved. For indeed, God is the great Initiator, and our love for God is always a responsive love to the One who has first loved us. We may recite words cherished by generations past, to speak to God in prayer. There is none greater than the prayer Jesus Himself taught us to pray. But we must never think that we are limited by those words. As we come to know the God who loves us, as we learn of His faithfulness and love, our expressions of appreciation will become more personal, unique and creative. Surely God is pleased in our attempts to convey our gratitude and thanksgiving for all that He has done. Even as we treasure our children's honest efforts to produce immature creations of art, we can be confident that God delights in our heartful offerings of praise. But we mustn't think it ends there. For even parents, as pleased as they are with the expressions of love from their children, may well tell them that if they really want to show they care, they'll take pains to get along with their siblings. So, too, God is not satisfied merely to receive expressions of thanks and praise from us. When our worship ends, our service begins - for these two are inextricably connected. Even as a lover is intent of backing up words with actions consistent to them, so our words of worship cannot help but work themselves out in our labors of love. We may not compliment God on His pearly whites, but we can be sure that God's smiles upon us when we put forth our best efforts to care for those in need. For we are His hands, commissioned to bring healing. We are His feet, sent forth to share the good news. We are His voice, to utter words of encouragement and grace. We're to act with the heart of God Himself, to work together to carry out His purposes in the world, that all of God's beloved creation might receive His great blessings and live together in peace and harmony.
Loving and gracious heavenly Father, words alone are insufficient to describe Your great love for Your creation. So You combined words with action and became incarnate in our midst - flesh and blood we could feel and touch, bread and wine we could handle and taste. We praise You with words tried and true, as well as with expressions living and new. May our work in the world be a worthy and faithful expression of our holy and sacred confession that You alone are deserving of all honor and glory and praise.
But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
1 Timothy 1:5
Why do you do what you do? Whether you invest your time and energies in your vocation or avocation, your family or friends, an organization or club, interests public or personal, what are your underlying purposes for doing so? What are the primary reasons you're committed to participating and involving yourself in these endeavors? It's always important to keep your goals firmly in mind to keep yourself on track, but it's critical that you remember them when the pressure is on and life gets tough - when you're tempted to throw in the towel and walk away. For if there's one thing you can count on in this life, it's change. It is then imperative that there be regular monitoring, routine evaluation, and frequent reminders of your central purposes. Paul was a seasoned missionary, a tenured teacher, who writes to a young pastor, Timothy. He reminds Timothy of the core tenets of the faith and the heart of the ministry and mission in which they are involved. That which motivates them and the goal of their labors are one and the same: Love from a pure heart. Character and integrity are the sine qua non in the work of Christ. Those who teach must do so with an honest conscience, from a position of deep faith, and with a heart filled with love. Together, these aspects also make up the central goal of their teaching and should be apparent in every peripheral matter, as well. Paul reminds Timothy of these things, so that he will be grounded in what is most important, not get distracted with lesser things, and never lose sight of the goal that is before him. Difficult days are inevitable for us all. Crabby customers, lazy coworkers, an unreasonable and unrelenting boss (who wants it done yesterday); children who whine, parents who lecture, a housemate hunkered down in his ways; an inept administration, red tape, waiting on hold forever: These things can try your patience and bring you to the brink of your breaking point. There are days when you just don't feel like getting out of bed in the morning. And they might be occurring more frequently than they have for some time. It's then that you need to remember why you've chosen to do what you do and not to let the frustrations on the fringe distract you from your primary work or discourage you from pressing on. Keep your central purpose in mind. The specific things Paul points out: Purity, goodness, sincerity. These are qualities important in whatever you do, in the sanctity of the church or out in the secular public square. They're valuable in your present employment, and they're transferable to any other endeavor you choose to invest yourself. When you cultivate your heart, conscience and faith - these are admirable qualities that will be recognized by all those whose lives you touch. And with the underlying, overlaying and pervasive love, that motivates you to do what you do, how you do it, and what you seek to infuse in those with whom and for whom you labor: This is nothing less than God's work, done in you and through you.
Almighty and merciful God, always keep before me the central purposes of my life: to listen and to learn, to observe and to obey, to follow in the loving steps of service laid out for me in my Lord, Jesus Christ. May Your love always be the motivating factor in all that I do. And may it always be the goal I seek to instill in others. Firmly fix my eyes upon You and strengthen me for Your service in the world, that I might carry out Your good and gracious purposes for the benefit and blessing of all Your beloved children. May Your perfect will be done this day, in me and through me, for the honor and glory of Your holy Name.
I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes takes a Big Step Back to survey the world around him in search of the meaning of life. He asks the existential questions: Why am I here, and why do anything? And in his great wisdom he comes to realize the vastness of what he does not know and that the answers to the truly important questions of life - those things that really matter - are undiscoverable. He's convinced that, in the end, no progress can be made, and he's frustrated by his human limitations. He has a restless soul. And he is certainly not alone. His contribution to Holy Scripture is not the most positive and uplifting material that can be found in the biblical canon. But his quest is an important one, and the conclusions he comes to are not without their value and edification. The verse above is one is among them. To rejoice and to do good in your lifetime - it doesn't get any better than this. For indeed, that attitude and aim are worth the investment of your time and energy, as you expend the sacred treasure called your life. I'm blessed to have in my circle of influence a woman who's got the attitude down pat. She's learned to genuinely rejoice over life. She's acquired the knack of seeing the positive components in each day and in every situation. Her life has not been rosy; she's experienced significant loss - both bodily and relationally. Yet she awakens each day with a heart filled with joy, because she's convinced God has awakened her to it. And I can tell you this: She's someone I want to be around. And it's a safe bet to say that I'm just one of many in her life who would say the same thing. For she infuses life. The blessings she's discovered flow through her to all who come into her presence. She lives out the words: Today is the day the Lord has made - I will rejoice and be glad in it. I don't know exactly how she does it. She doesn't have her head in the sand: She's well aware of her surroundings and the activities taking place in our world. But she doesn't dwell on them. She doesn't let her limitations frustrate her or negatively impact her attitude. She simply puts her trust in God - and this is her cause for rejoicing. Beyond the attitude is the aim: Doing good in one's lifetime. The Preacher knows the task is a great one and there are no guarantees that his personal investment will get the job done. But the work itself is worth doing. He knows that his accomplishments will be able to be enjoyed only temporarily and that his successes may well evaporate tomorrow. But the effort he expends is worth it all, when it is applied to all things good. In the end, this is our lot in life. We're connected to a larger community, and we've been created to do our part for the greater good and to find satisfaction in our contributions. If your attitude is one of rejoicing, you'll learn to count your blessings, and you'll grow in gratitude. Whatever good you seek to contribute to the world today, present it as an offering to God. You can be confident that God will bless your efforts and you'll be a conduit of the life God has given and continues to give each day. In the end, this life is but an appetizer of the feast God has prepared for you. Relish each moment. Savor every bite. Do it one day after another, and yours will be a life worth living.
Good and gracious God, the events or our world swirl around us like a whirlwind, and it's easy to get caught up and swept away in them. Help us not to lose sight of Your presence and to keep our sanity in the midst of the storm. Fix our attention on Your faithfulness, that we might praise You in all things and rejoice in this day to which You've awakened us. Strengthen and empower us to apply ourselves to work for Your good purposes, that our restless souls might find their rest in You. And may all our contributions serve as building blocks for Your kingdom, that Your will might be accomplished on earth as it is in heaven, for the good of Your people and for the glory of Your name. To You alone be all honor and praise.
But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.
2 Thessalonians 3:3
Do I have to have to believe in the devil to be a Christian? The question was put to me some years ago by someone who had a deep and abiding faith in God. She found it easy to believe in God and in Jesus as God's incarnation on earth, but she could not come around to believing in Satan as a personal entity. And of course, she's not alone. Just yesterday in our confirmation class I raised the question about what it means to believe in someone or something. I suggested that there are (at least) two different aspects of belief. First, there's belief in the existence of something, as in: Do you believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? The second is to be align yourself with the teachings, work and practice represented by an individual or ideology. In this sense, one might profess a belief in chivalry, communism, or Christ. When a confession of faith is made, it can represent either or both of these facets of belief. Thus, one might have trouble believing in evil personified, but one might still recognize its power and presence in the world. I need not search for examples to convince you of the existence of evil as a force at work in these days. If there are displays of arrogance, selfish pride, hatred, meanness, plotting of harm, destruction, vehement spewing of invective, vilification and demonization of outsiders, xenophobia, an annihilating spirit - these are all indicators of the evil that stands behind them or that provides the basis for its foundation. Many will attest to an almost palpable presence - different from those who display these evil attitudes and actions. They have experienced the manifestation of the evil spirit that takes over a mob and moves it toward, into and beyond actions of their own planning and intention. This kind of evil cannot be located; it is pervasive. Sometimes it does its work stealthily, secretly, slithering along in snakelike fashion. Other times, it rises up, unashamed to come of out hiding, daring doubters and cynics alike to maintain their disbelief, defying any who would challenge its power. One may not profess belief in the personification of evil, but it's simply foolish (and dangerous) to deny the existence of evil and its power. For indeed, it's an active force that takes no time off. In the end, it will not win the war; but there will be many casualties. We dare not shy away from rising up against it. But there's even more that can be done: We must not tire from teaching that which is good and right and true. Love will triumph over hate, and good will win out in the end. But we cannot stand by idly on the sidelines. The apostle knows evil well. In his work of promoting the good news of the gospel message, he's met with no little resistance. His confident declaration: God is faithful. God is trustworthy. Paul not only makes this profession; he's lived its truth. He's learned firsthand God's faithfulness. And with this personal knowledge, he encourages with strong conviction those engaged in the battle against evil. God will strengthen you to carry on the good work you do for the cause of Christ. God will protect you from evil's wicked schemes. You can put your trust in Lord who leads your way and has your back and will preserve you safe for all eternity. God has called you to an active faith. God has called you to engage in loving service to all people and to work tirelessly for His good purposes. You may have this confident, sure and certain hope, for it is grounded in the One whose ultimate victory is assured.
Lord Jesus Christ, before whom every knee will one day bow, You taught Your disciples to pray that they would be delivered from evil. And so we pray that You would strengthen us in our own faith and trust in You - for You have done battle against all the evil forces at work in our world. In Your resurrection, You proved victorious over death, and You will reappear at the end of days as Victor once again. May we not be lured into laziness or fade back into passivity. Strengthen us to resist evil and to invest ourselves for Your good and gracious purposes. By Your strong Spirit, create unity in Your people, bind us together in love, and empower us to work for the good of all Your people and for the glory of Your holy name.
But the wicked will be cut off from the land,
And the treacherous will be uprooted from it.
In these words of the wise King Solomon, we find both caution and hope. In the Book of Proverbs, we find collections of sayings, teachings and counsel, all meant to assist the young and naïve in acquiring knowledge and truth, that they might learn the path of righteousness and hold to it, thereby attaining a full, rich and meaningful life. There's much repetition found these speeches, but then that's just how the truth is ingrained in us, isn't it? You likely remember the words and sayings of your parents, spoken time and time again, with the result that their words of wisdom now echo in your mind and resonate in your soul. Perhaps you're even repeating them to your own children. In this final verse of the second chapter, we learn of the final fate of the wicked: they will be cut off from the land. Solomon is not specific about how this will come to be. It's something that may happen to them or by them. They might well be outsmarted. And when they're tracked down and found out, there will be a price to pay. Undoubtedly, the consequences will be sobering, for it's unlikely they've sat down to think it all through: what it would mean if they were caught. They've never really considered the possibility; they've not tallied up the potential cost of their actions; they've not correctly adjudged the repercussions. And if they're not outsmarted, they might fall victim to self-sabotage. Find themselves ensnared in the trap they've set for others. Caught by surprise by some oversight in their failsafe plan. Or they might make a mistake. And before they know it, harsh reality hits and the game is up. They've become their own worst enemy. And they will be cut off, removed. Opportunities will be lost, freedoms will be taken away, life will be ruined. And as for the treacherous - those who are unfaithful, deceptive and betray those in their trust: they, too, will reap the same fate. They may protest unfair treatment, claim others have misjudged them, insist it's all a big misunderstanding, or seek to turn the tables and accuse others of falsely assessing their motives. As the realization dawns upon them that they could lose everything, they might well hold on with all that's in them and go down screaming. But they too will be uprooted. Torn away from all earthly grounding. This is the end result of the wicked and the treacherous... These are not just impersonal or impractical words. The father warns his son that if he does not take care, this, too, may be his lot. Does the young man bristle at the implied accusation? Scoff at the possibility? Come on, dad, that won't happen to me! Who do you think I am? I know better than that! As if there's no road that reaches that destination from where he's at. But the truth is: there is. And young lives filled with hope and possibility can go wrong in an instant if care is not taken. Decisions made today have consequences, and before you know it, that place you never thought you'd arrive at is right where you are... We might read the words again and find in them great hope. For we cannot live in safety when the wicked and the treacherous are prowling about. We can sleep more soundly, knowing they've been cut off, uprooted, put away. But let's not go there. Let's not let that happen. Take care. Be prudent. Listen to the wisdom and abide by the instruction of those who've learned life's lessons and grace you with their teaching. It will surely save you - and save us all - a world of trouble.
Almighty God, You've set before us Your good and perfect way. You've blessed us with generations who've gone before us, those who've acquired wisdom and share it with us who follow after. Grant us humble hearts to listen well and to learn all that You've set before us. May we daily direct our attention to Your words and apply our hearts to Your wisdom. Guard us from all evil, and keep us from the wily ways of the those who tempt us. Keep our steps on Your good and righteous path, for our own good and for the benefit of all others in our community. May we devote ourselves to promoting Your holy ways and never take part in evil schemes. In our words and in our actions, may we always revere Your holy name.
O righteous God, who searches minds and hearts,
bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure.
Except in the most unusual of cases, we humans have an innate sense of right and wrong. We may disagree about the specifics and argue about our interpretations, but we do so in light of a Standard outside and above us. We appeal to a higher Truth, and we attempt to sort out what we now see in front of us in view of that eternal Light. It is to God that the psalmist ascribes Light and Truth and Righteousness. The LORD is the Standard by which all activity is judged and will be judged. This is the psalmist's firm conviction. Beyond that, he declares that God does not stand aloof or unaware. God knows the intent of every human heart - the real story behind the words we choose to describe our motives and to defend our actions. And somehow, in the inner-workings of the unfathomable divine, God is able to right what has gone wrong and work all things together according to His good will and His holy purposes, for the sake of His beloved children. But there's a problem - there's something wrong. And this is what stands behind the psalmist's words. This is the reason for his prayer. The problem is not a small one, and it has no easy solutions. Unrighteousness and injustice are gaining ground. The wicked are engaging in violence, and the righteous are living in fear. God's ways are being thwarted and upended. If this were not the case, the prayer would not need to be made. But hope remains. That the psalmist prays at all gives us reason to conclude that he's not reached the point of despair. The final word is yet to be spoken. The concluding act is yet to be taken. There's still time to make things right. And the underlying confidence in this prayer is that the purposes of God will assuredly and finally prevail. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What more can be said? The confidence that insists that God's ways will win out in no way invites you to take your seat in the audience or to stand by on the sidelines. God enlists your service. And until the day comes when all people can rest secure and violence is no more, God calls you to the work and sets you to the task. You've been commissioned to participate in the purposes of God. A word of caution at the outset. Before you get too high and mighty, before you succumb to the temptation of self-righteousness, stop and consider: Is it your intention to align yourself with the ways of God? Or are you assuming God has already chosen sides and has picked you? Truth compels you to recognize that the former is the only real option. And this means: That which needs change, transformation and correction - is not just out there. The problem is not just with the bad guys beyond you. The God to whom the psalmist appeals searches the minds and hearts of all people - including yours. And mine. We cannot exempt ourselves from the transformational work we're asking God to carry out. God calls us to this work, and it begins in our own hearts and minds. It's only after we've become open to God's work of reparation inside us and realize we'll never rise above our own need of salvation that we can move forward in humility, to invest ourselves in the work of justice and security for all.
God of justice and mercy, You continue to work for the good of all Your people. You who search all minds and hearts: Begin Your search in me. Bring an end to violence, put down all selfish pride, and thwart the ways of the unjust. Raise up those who've been abused, crushed and discarded. Help me to faithfully and humbly offer myself to Your service. Show me that my security is found only in You. And grant me the confidence of knowing Your purposes will be accomplished, on earth as they are in heaven. Righteous One, in Your grace, continue to bestow Your righteousness upon me for the sake of Your holy name.
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.
1 Thessalonians 2:7
What a beautiful image Paul brings to mind with these words. Could there be a more vivid or appropriate picture of tender loving care than that of a mother nursing her child? Could there be a more soothing image of safety and comfort than that of a babe at its mother's breast? We've now entered the church season called Epiphany, that time between Christmas and Lent. It's a season of light and a time wherein we search for images that illuminate the identity of God and God's work in the world. When times were different and travel was unrestricted, I several times served as tour leader for groups venturing overseas. One of my favorite things to do was to encourage people as they started their day to keep their eyes open, to be aware of their surroundings, and to be especially attentive to God sightings. For if it is true that God abides in our midst, where do we see Him in action? In what events to we recognize God's fingerprints? In what ways do we perceive demonstrations of God's movements in the world? When we recognize God's presence among us and share our observations with others, faith can be enriched come alive in both speaker and listener. Of course, these God sightings do not provide hard and fast evidence to prove the presence of God. But when we venture out into the world and seek to see through eyes of faith, our experiences can be transformed, as God's heavenly light breaks in upon our darkened world. The apostle speaks as a spiritual parent to a fellowship of believers who had come to faith under his tutelage. He can hardly contain his joy at the transformations he has seen in the lives of these people he's come to love so dearly. Elsewhere, Paul had deemed himself and his fellow workers as ambassadors for Christ. And here, with these words, he not only describes his own ministry in their midst, he also provides an example of the spirit at work in the life of our Lord. We recognize true lordship, when we see Jesus bowing down in humble service to wash the feet of His followers. We recognize true strength, when we observe Jesus interacting with others with gentleness, compassion and mercy. Jesus doesn't go about His ministry ordering others around. He doesn't prove to be a king who rules with iron fist. He pounds no pulpit and dons no ornate dress. He eschews titles. He refuses to wrest power or to wield it for personal gain, and He does not allow His followers to lord their authority and will over others. He is humble of heart and gentle of spirit. Following suit, the mighty evangelist would call himself the least of the apostles and the chief of sinners. And he would bear witness to the presence of God and to the character of his Lord, in the tender care of a mother who gently nursing her child. Indeed, this is the way of God. Where do you see evidence of God's presence in the world today? Pretenders who presume to speak for God will be exposed for who they are. But God's presence and glorious work are unmistakable. May God's will be accomplished - in us and through us, in matters great and small. And may all of God's children be nourished and blessed.
Holy God, consistent with Your character, You display Your mighty power in weakness. We're bombarded with so many dazzling images in our visual world, it's sometimes difficult to recognize Your unpretentious presence. Give us eyes to see. In the cacophonous din of the shouts that surround us, it's easy to miss hearing Your still, small voice. Give us ears to hear. Help us to be more spiritually attuned, that we might recognize Your abiding presence in our midst. Brightly shine Your light upon Your activity in our world today. And may we prove to be faithful witnesses to all that we have heard and seen, and earnestly testify to Your good and gracious activity. May Your humble and gentle Spirit powerfully work within us today, that we might compassionately minister to all of Your children, for the honor of Your holy name.
May that day be darkness;
Let not God above care for it;
Let the blackness of the day terrify it.
There are hardly sufficient words to describe what we saw take place yesterday. Utter disrespect is an understatement. Blatant disregard for public property. Heartless desecration of the sacred. A violation of holy ground. The actions taken were appalling, disturbing, surreal. The incidents have both shocked and stunned, and they've left us deeply saddened, angry and outraged. Who would have thought the events of 2020 could be outdone? But then it happened - and the trump card has been played. We can only hope that that the newness of the year is not the beginning of the end. We can only hope that yesterday's events were the capstone of a season that is now over, and that a new day is dawning. But it's easy to lose perspective in the midst of the storm... When we're introduced to Job, we're told he is a good and righteous man. He's richly blessed with family and possessions. But events take place outside his control, and he loses everything. His world disintegrates; even his body betrays him. Covered from head to foot in boils and sores, he tries to maintain his composure. But it is all too much. Not only does he despair of his life, he curses the day of his birth. He grieves that he's ever been born. Wishes the day of his nativity were blackened out or erased from the calendar completely. He wishes that day - and he - might never have happened. But, of course, what has occurred cannot be undone. We cannot turn back time. We must move forward. And we will. For death, darkness and destruction will never have the last word. The final word belongs to God - and it is a word of life. On the one hand it is most ironic that yesterday's events took place on the Day of Epiphany - a day of brilliance, revelation and light. A day when the grace of God is uncovered, and the manifestation of God's glory is revealed for all to see. One might say that yesterday's actions desecrated the Holy Day. But to make this declaration is to give evil too much power. And to frame yesterday's events in such a way does not properly convey reality or show us the truth. Job may have wanted to blot out the day of his birth. And we may want to forget yesterday ever happened or chalk it up as utterly godless. It seems that in Job's distress and in ours, to speak of any light at all only lessens the darkness of what we've experienced. But Job cannot keep God from caring, even as he cannot stop the sun from shining. Job would live to see a better day - and so will we. Evil will not be victorious. Good will rise up. Darkness will give way to light. If these are the darkest of days of our nation, it can only be that we will find in them the Light that will shine more brightly than ever. For today is a new day, and God is present in it. Let God's light shine and warm your saddened soul. And reflect the light of the resurrected Christ in all that you do. Your neighbors are longing to see it. And the nation and the world are watching.
Good and gracious God, in the darkness of our winter we long for the glory of Your marvelous light. In Your compassionate mercy, save us from the temptation to despair. Lift our eyes to look to You, and show us that You are ever faithful. Refresh our spirits. Strengthen us for service, that we might endure these difficult days and bring blessing to all those whose lives we touch. O Lord, You are the hope and desire of the nations. In this season of Epiphany, show us the light of Your glory, manifest Your holy presence, and bring about the redemption of our world for the good of Your people and the honor of Your Name.
And lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them,
until it came and stood over where the Child was.
It had been a long, long journey. They had discussed, debated, and decided: They would to follow the star that had convinced them the King had been born. Most would sense in this celestial display nothing at all. But they knew. Their eyes had been opened to see that this star was no ordinary star. It was a sign. A message from the heavens. A portent revealing that something extraordinary had taken place: A King had been born. No strange suzerain, he; no feudal overlord, no appointed puppet-king with pretended power. This One born was not just any king, and not just another king. He was the king - the Promised One. And so, they had packed their bags, mounted their camels and set off - Westward Ho! They had traipsed miles to find Him, traversed hills and valleys, and their travels had brought them to Jerusalem. But now what? Where from here? The star had led them this far, to this general area - but what about the particulars? How would they find their way? Their questions were troubling to Herod and to all who heard their inquiry. After all, there already was a king in the land. And if their news was true, what were the ramifications? An upsetting change of power? A revolution? Old Herod would certainly not stand for it. The wheels in his head began to turn, and his maniacal machinations began to churn out all kinds of plans. He didn't care if this so-called king had come from heaven itself. He would depose him before he got close to any earthly throne. He would tolerate no rivals. And so, he secreted away the magi, made them feel special, convinced them he'd let them into his inner circle, and sent them on their way... The Jewish priests had determined Bethlehem was the place. Could it be? This insignificant village outside the majestic city? But again: The star appeared, and the magi turned away from Jerusalem and never looked back. There was no mistaking it: it was the very same star, the very same leading. And it would take then to the doorstep of the One they had been seeking. Before Him they would offer their kingly gifts, and before Him they would bow down. And from His presence they would depart, to return to their own place; they would play no part in Herod's evil schemes. But would they ever fully know who this King would prove to be? Would they ever fully learn how this King would decide to rule? Would they ever come to realize that their presence, too, was a sign from heaven, a divine epiphany? The One they found in Bethlehem would indeed turn the world upside down. But His would prove to be a quiet revolution - a revolution of the heart. For He would not rule with iron first, but with humility and love. He would speak a gentle word that would soothe the seeking soul. He would live as the Servant of servants, and none would be beneath Him. He would demand nothing from His followers, but those who chose to follow would give everything to do so. Those who have eyes to see the heavenly light are led to the Child born to be King. Then and now. All praise be the God of all creation, whose incarnation among us has brought heaven to earth. Those who are near and those who are far, all ye sinners and all ye righteous: Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
Good and gracious God, on this Day of Epiphany we rejoice at the revelation You have given to us in Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Thank You for opening our eyes to see Your quiet and gentle appearing. And thank You for the witness that others have made. For unless it had been pointed out for us, we might well have passed it by. Continue to grant us visionary minds, perceptive spirits and obedient hearts, to follow in the path You've laid before us in Your Son, the humble King, born to serve and to save. All glory, honor and praise be to You alone, the only God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - this day and for all eternity.
Esther did not make known her people or her kindred,
for Mordecai had instructed her that she should not make them known.
Wisdom is a good steward of time. It's not only a good strategist, it's also a master of knowing when the moment of denouement will have greatest effect. God is present behind the scenes in the Book of Esther. Inconspicuous. Although God is not mentioned even once in all of its ten chapters, God abides with His people then just as much as any other moment in time. And perhaps the Book of Esther is especially applicable to our lives for that reason alone: God's anonymity. For God is often present in our midst - in disguise... Ahasuerus was a king of power and might, a ruler over a vast domain that extended from India to Ethiopia. He had wise men and counselors who advised him, and he's portrayed as one who often takes the counsel given him. This was not always a good thing, for there were plenty of sycophantic yes-men in in the bunch who were more interested in what was expedient than what was best for the kingdom in the long run. Mordecai was Esther's older cousin, and he became her guardian after her parents had died. He was an insignificant servant in the kingdom, a nobody. He would be insubordinate to the King and become the nemesis of the King's right-hand man - the evil and wicked Haman - before whom he will refuse to bow down. But Mordecai is a man of principle and a man of quiet wisdom. And he understands the times. He advises the young and beautiful Esther, now the new queen, to hold her cards close to her chest - not to make known that she's Mordecai's cousin or even that she's a Jewess. The time will come for these revelations, but not now. And so the tension builds - for Esther, as well as for the readers of her story. Will Esther be outed? Will her heritage and connections be the source of her downfall? Or will her secrets, once revealed, serve her well and be the source of the salvation for her people? For now, she will guard her secrets with all vigilance, and she will bide her time. There is, however, no little sadness that Esther lives in a world in which she cannot be open and honest about herself; she must remain hidden and mask her true identity. Even so, she will not be overcome. She'll persevere in her desperate situation and use it to her own advantage and for the victory of her people. For in the end, the true identity of Esther is known not only to Mordecai and to us, the readers. She's also known the by One who matters most, the One ever present, if not listed on the cast of characters... On this fifth of January, we're perched on the cusp. For today is the 12 th day of Christmas. Tomorrow is the Day of Epiphany, and with it begins a season of light and revelation. Like Esther, the magi are still on their journey; they've not yet arrived. But soon, their adventure will come to glorious conclusion, and they will reach their final destination. In this not-quite-there period of time in which we're living, may God grant us the strength we need to persevere. Although we have not yet arrived, the culmination of our efforts is soon coming. The dreaded virus will be defeated, our masks will be removed, and we will be seen for who we are. May it also be that the sources of fear and anxiety that cause many to cower and hide will also be overcome, that all might be able to come into the open and live into the fullness of the beauty that is theirs by virtue of their unique creation by God.
Almighty and Sovereign God, all times and seasons are in Your hands. As we await the conclusion of these difficult days, help us to take solace in Your abiding presence. Grant us hearts that persevere and spirits that are steadfast. Stoke our hopes with the confidence that You are working out Your good purposes in these days. And help us, in the meantime, to be kind, compassionate, gentle and helpful to each other, as You give us the ability to do so. O dear and gracious Provider, grant us, this day, our daily bread.
And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.
He has his father's eyes... and his mother's smile. Adults will make such claims, as they marvel and croon over a newborn, amazed as the hints of likeness they see in this new life before them. I never understood it when I was younger. Even after it was explained to me that the words were not to be taken literally, it was still hard for me to see the similarities. I had untrained eyes. Now, the resemblance is more easily recognized, as I've learned to be more perceptive. (And yet I wonder: Where did he get those dimples?) Before the birth of Jesus, there were only hints of God's likeness, mere whiffs of His presence. Moses was allowed to see the back of God as He passed by. Daniel was given visions. Joseph, dreams. But the image of God? It was simply impossible for mere humans to capture. It's no coincidence that when God gave the Law to Moses on Sinai, God made it clear, early on, that the people were not to produce any image of God, in an attempt to portray His likeness. They were forbidden to fashion any reproduction of what they might imagine to be a proper representation. For how could they possibly get it right? How could they ever capture the One who is always in motion? How could they correctly convey energy and power and light? They couldn't come close. For it's impossible to accurately illustrate the essence of God. Any attempt to do so proves, instead, to be an aberration, as it either falls far short of its goal or misrepresents some aspect of God. It cannot fail to give the wrong impression; it will always communicate the wrong idea. Any portrayal serves not to enlighten; it only blinds a person who looks upon it from seeing the truth about who God truly is. We're taught as young children not to look directly into the sun. We dare not look into the purity of its light. It's simply too much for us. It must remain mystery. Similar things can be said about the limits of philosophy. We mortals seek wisdom, but how much can truly be known? We have but glimpses of what is true, hints of what is heavenly. We can only dig down so deep before we come out the other side, altogether missing the central Truth that was our aim. In the end, we can only get so far in our imagination and discovery of God. If God is to be known, it has to come from the Other Side. It is God who must reveal, else He will remain mystery. It is the claim of the evangelists and the apostles that this is exactly what happens in Jesus. For in Jesus, we see more than His father's eyes and His mother's smile. We see the very image of God Himself. When we gaze upon the Child in the manger, we look into the face of God. In our quest for truth, Jesus declares that He embodies truth. In our search for heaven, Jesus tells us that He is the Way to get there. In our anxious endeavor to preserve our existence; Jesus tells us that He is Life itself - and He assures us that we will find the fullness of our lives in Him. Listen to His words. Watch His actions. For in them you'll see God at work. Some things the ancients got right: God is merciful, compassionate and abounding in steadfast love. Other claims fell short. But seeing through the lens of Jesus, we see God up- close and personal. God shows us Himself... when we look into the eyes of His Son.
Eternal God, You are the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last. You are the Source and Origin of all that exists. We give You thanks for revealing the fullness of Yourself in Jesus, Your Son. We tremble before Your awesome power but cozy up to Your divine vulnerability. We rejoice at Your incarnation among us, Your willingness to make Yourself known. And we exult that we, too, bear Your likeness. We, too, have Your imprint upon us, for You have created us in Your image. As we look upon Jesus and learn from Him, help us to live into the fullness of who You've created us to be, that we might accurately reflect Your light in our lives, that the glory others see in us will be Yours alone. To the honor of Your precious Name.
And they said to me, "The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great
distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire."
How do you react when you learn that someone you care for is in trouble? Is your heart stirred with emotion? Do compassion and empathy rise up from within? Does your mind race to think about how you might be of assistance, how you might ease their burden, how you might rescue them from their predicament? What do these initial impulses - and the reasonings that follow - tell us about our makeup? And might they have anything to do with being created in the image of God? Nehemiah was a Hebrew living in Susa, the capital of the Persian empire (modern day Iran). It's likely he was born there, in exile, for he lived more than a hundred years after his ancestors back home had been defeated by the Babylonians and had their temple destroyed by fire. He was serving in the high court of the king when he was visited by some men from Judah, some of his own people, one of whom he calls his brother. And it's during their conversation, when he inquires about the state of things in Judah, that he learns the bad news. Nehemiah was a successful man. His served in an honorable position. We can expect he was living in comfort and peace and was financially secure. Relatively speaking, he was a rich man. But when this news is shared with him, he is deeply moved. His response: He weeps and mourns for days; he fasts and prays to the God of heaven. He could not remain untouched by the report of his people. Even though he had never lived in Judah, it had been the home of his ancestors for almost a thousand years. And in his prayer, he is moved to make a plan. He puts into action his impulse to do something about it. You might say he feels called by God to do so. We can understand his compassion, his mercy. We're not surprised that Nehemiah's heart went out to these people. And we're moved to respect and count him an honorable man when we learn that he takes action and does what he can to make things better. And in his actions, we see a snapshot of the heart of God. We're still in the season of Christmas, the time we celebrate in earnest the incarnation of God in Jesus, the Savior-King born in Bethlehem. We might deem this event God's rescue mission. For God looks upon His beloved people who are in great distress, He sees the world He loves broken and burned, and God is moved to action. God comes to save, to rescue, to redeem. And might we claim that this event was more than God's reaction to our human condition? Might we dare to claim that in this event we see the very nature of God - God's very essence - that God is the One who rescues, that the incarnation of God is not only what God does, but who God is? And when we learn of others in need, when we're moved with that same compassion, when we dare to get off our duff and do something about it, are we not living into the trueness of our own essence? Are we not displaying the image of God? Indeed, this is what the people of God do - if they're faithful to the One who created them. As beloved children of God, part of our purpose in living, our raison d'etre, is to help each other. To do so is nothing less than godly work. And to turn our backs on those in need is utter disgrace. What needs will be brought to your attention today? Will you allow your heart to be moved with compassion? Will you dare to lift them to God in prayer? If you do, God will show you how you might be involved in the answer to your own prayer. And when you obediently take action, you will let the light of God within you... shine!
Almighty and wondrous God, in Your compassionate mercy You came to earth in Jesus Christ our Lord and accomplished our redemption. In our creation, You've imprinted Your image upon us: We pray that we might faithfully live in accordance with it. May we respond to the needs of those around us in such a way as to reflect Your good will and intentions for Your people - and in this way bring glory to Your name. As Your beloved people, may we live as those who love. As children of Your compassion, may we compassionately care for others. As recipients of Your rescue, may we invest ourselves in the work of justice and serve as Your ministers of reconciliation and peace. For the honor of Your holy Name.
But one thing I do: Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead.
I began to learn the lesson on the tennis courts at Monte Vista High School, my alma mater. Like any sport, in tennis there are unique rules of the game. And within those rules there are infinite possibilities: Where to stand when receiving serve, how to hold your racquet, when and whether to come to the net (or to stay back at the baseline), where to hit the ball and how hard you want to strike it. These are some of the mechanics of the game. But then there's the mental aspect, which is no less important - and herein lies my lesson. It's inevitable that errors are made - especially when I'm the one on the court. I might hit the ball too hard and go long. I might try to place it too close to the line and hit out. I might not lob the ball high enough and end up giving my opponent an easy overhead winner. Or I might take my eyes off the ball and mishit (careful how you pronounce that word, or you'll end up verbalizing a word that was too often on my lips on those high school tennis courts). So, what happened when I made an error? I had to learn to let it go. And I had to learn not to let it get to me. Not to let it get under my skin. Not to let it stay with me on into the next point. Or else... Because if I didn't let it go, I'd find (and discover too late) that I was on the path of self-destruction. And when that happens, a competitor knows instinctively that the win is all but in the bag. Dwelling on past mistakes does not serve you well. If you want to move forward, if you want to bring your best game, you've got to learn to let go of past mistakes. My father told me many times in life (he still does): Be good to yourself. These are words not meant to feed my selfish nature. For I know that if I beat myself up and let my past mistakes cling to me like a sweaty T-shirt, I'm not just hurting myself, I'm hurting others. Just ask my doubles partner. None of us lives a solitary life. Our lives affect all those lives that touch our own. In these words of the apostle, he in no way implies that the past doesn't matter. He well knows that it's good to remember and to learn from what has transpired - from the good and the bad. It would be foolish to carry on mindlessly and needlessly repeat past mistakes: You would prove to make no progress at all. There's indeed a time for self-examination - and my doubles partner and I could remember and discuss every last point of a match just played. We had lived it. But we both knew that if we were going to bring our very best to the game and play to our full potential, we needed to focus. And that meant being fully present in the moment and not letting past mistakes distract us. Holy Scripture tells us that in God's great mercy, He separates our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. What a wonderful portrayal of forgiveness. If God has so forgiven you, you're allowed (and compelled) to forgive yourself. The apostle writes these words as he nears the end of his life. I find that to be both hopeful and inspiring. He's not done growing. He's looking forward to what's to come - in this life and in the next. 2020 is now behind us. Let's keep our eyes on the road ahead. Don't be tempted to look into the rear-view mirror. For in His forgiveness, God has done us a surprising favor: He's removed it.
Good and gracious God, thank You for the glorious gift of this day and for Your faithful presence in it. I rejoice at the blessings You continue to bring in the simple stuff of life. Help me learn well the fruitful lessons of the past. But deliver me from the painful memories of past mistakes and from those accusations that threaten to distract me from focusing my attention on all You've prepared for me to accomplish. Keep me from carrying the errors of yesterday into today, when doing so only damages how I handle present opportunities. Thank You for Your merciful forgiveness. Instill in me a deep confidence in Your grace, that I might live with the certainly that You will for me only that which is good. May that embolden me to be good to myself, that I, in turn, might bring blessing to others. For the honor of Your Name.
And the One sitting on the throne said, "Behold, I am making everything new!"
And the world breathes a collective sigh of relief: 2020 has come to a close. Who is not happy to see it go? It was a year that showed itself as magnetic for all things difficult and wearisome. And, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, we gladly show it to the door and bid it good riddance. And yet... before we toss it into the lake of fire (which interestingly appears in the 20 th chapter of Revelation), we do well to take a few moments to reflect on the good things that arose out of the bad: To acknowledge the efforts of health care workers, who tirelessly labored to tend to the sick and to the dying. Police officers, who stayed the course and determined to do what was right - even while others abused their power and tarnished their reputation. Those who remained committed to speaking the truth - even in the midst of a morass of deception, deflection and lies. Those who quietly did their part, masking and distancing, doing their best to faithfully follow the directives given by those who did not shy away from making decisions for the good of our nation and the world - even if they were difficult and unpopular, even when they yielded bitter complaints, false accusations and dangerous threats. And it would be a great shame if we missed what is perhaps the biggest lesson of them all: the faithful presence of God in the midst of the darkness, difficulty and death. For God has been with us. Truly, God is the Source of all the good that has arisen out of a most difficult year. And God will continue to abide with us, as together we move forward into the new. As we dispose of last year's calendar and hang a new one on the wall, we do so with great hope. We hope 2021 will be better. That we will be better. And do better. We resolve to do our level best - for our own good and for the good of others - and we want to cut the ties to everything associated with the past year and never look back. There's something profoundly good about this. Indeed, it touches on some of our deepest yearnings and innermost needs: to shed our old skin, to be forgiven, to be revived, and to step into the untarnished new. One of my daughters awakened this morning to a fresh blanket of snow. Her world is all crisp and clean; and the air she breathes invigorates her. It will inspire all to joyfulness and play - for this is the spirit that accompanies that which is truly new. These deepest yearnings of our human soul are finally met by the One seated on the heavenly throne. For in this 21 st chapter of the Revelation, the apostle hears words of great hope. The Creator continues to create. The One who is merciful, compassionate and abounding in steadfast love, continues to forgive, to refresh, and to revive. For our part, we well know how far our own attempts will take us. How long our resolutions will last. We know that the extent of our personal power to change is limited. It doesn't mean we give up - no, not ever! But we're foolish to think the ultimate answer lies within ourselves. Indeed, it is God who makes all things new. Not only on some indeterminate day in an undiscovered dimension. God brings it about right here and now, in us and in the world. Lift your eyes to the One who is ever faithful. For it is in God alone that your hope will rest secure.
Good and gracious God, we rejoice at the beginning of this new year. We're grateful for Your faithful presence in the difficult days we experienced in yesteryear. And we look forward to all that You will bring about for us in the days to come. Open our eyes to recognize Your abiding presence. And may Your promises inspire us and fill us with hope. Strengthen us in our resolutions to live into the fullness of who You've created us to be, that we might steward our lives well in every way, and that we might be conduits of the bountiful blessings You intend to bring about for Your world this year. Our Lord: have mercy.
Continue to December 2020