|Pastor Derek's Daily Bread||ILC YouTube Livestream|
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But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed,
who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
He was wrong. He was purportedly the wisest man who had ever lived – and he was wrong. Or, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, he was having a very bad day when he uttered these words to his scribe, who recorded them for our reading displeasure. That’ll teach you to take care what you say! For others might well hear your words and latch on to them. Or your words, once spoken, might become imbedded in another’s psyche to fester there forever. Or someone will come after you and use your words against you and judge you a fool. These words above are attributed to one called the Preacher, identified as King Solomon, and it’s evident after reading his work that the motto of his congregation was Misery Loves Company. Who could bear to listen to more than one of his nihilistic sermons? Time for some context, lest you jump to judgment and think I’m being too harsh. To whom is the Preacher comparing in this verse when he judges as victor the one who has never existed? The one who is living and the one who is dead. In other words: It’s bad to be dead, but to be living is no better. Best of all it never to have been born at all. Unfortunately, It’s a Wonderful Life came later, and no one could sit Solomon down and force him to watch it. For George Bailey makes the same statement and learns how very misguided he was in doing so. In all fairness, we should hear the Preacher out: He’s looked upon the evil of this world, and he’d seen enough of it – not only in others, but also in himself – to break his heart and to cause him to question, as others do today, whether it’s wise to bring another life into this world. Perhaps there are places on earth where poverty and oppression are so severe that a thoughtful, compassionate and caring person will decide not to subject an innocent life to its turmoil and pain. Still, there’s so much good in the world. And even in the deepest pain, one can find comfort in another human being. To hold such a negative view of existence is to be blind to the abundant blessings of God that surround us each and every day. It is also the utmost ingratitude. An offense against God who made us. For, in effect, it tells God that creation – particularly the creation of humans – was a bad idea. You may point out that Scripture itself bears witness to God experiencing the pain that Solomon may have been feeling. In the antediluvian days, God saw that all His people could think about was only evil, continually. But even the decision to end it all with a flood was tempered by the preservation of some and the promise never to do so again. God’s verdict then was this: Life is good and worth living. Which makes the Preacher’s verdict wrong. There’s something truly freeing in recognizing this. For as much as Scripture is a treasured and holy Book, we can disagree with it. God’s Word is living and active, but the Book is neither magical nor inviolable. It is inspired by a Holy God but written with human hands, and we do well to recognize the influence of both. Shame on the Preacher! God has called us to announce Good News! God loves this world and every creature in it. Surely sin and brokenness breaks the heart of God and culminates in Calvary’s cross. But God lives – and death will not have the last word. The Final Word belongs to God – and it is, and will be, a word of life! This is the message worth proclaiming, Preacher! God is good and faithful and true. Now and forever. And so, with hearts filled with gratitude, let us labor for God’s good purposes and commit all of our living days to passing on God’s blessings of love and joy, redemption and life. The message of Easter is all about God overcoming evil with good! Life conquers death! There is great meaning and purpose and reason in that kind of living.
Good and gracious God, open my eyes fully today to the many blessings that surround me, May I clearly see within them Your faithful care and abiding presence. Let me not be discouraged by the naysayers that encompass me. May I not be embroiled in disputes with those who live in darkness and so can see nothing but darkness. Instead, may I shine the light You’ve given me to reflect Your glory. Empower me with Your Spirit and lead me in the path of life, for the good of all Your people and the honor of Your name.
And it happened that as He was reclining at the table in the house,
behold many tax-gatherers and sinners
came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples.
Jesus had an undeniable magnetic appeal. And repulsion, as the case may be. It does us well to take note of what happens to which people and to consider why. At this point in time, Jesus is early into His earthly ministry. He has just added what might well have been His twelfth disciple, to complete His cohort. This was Matthew, a tax-gatherer. He was a man of many enemies, but he had his cronies, too. And when Jesus bids him to put down his tax tables and to pick up after Him, Matthew is not the only one who is surprised. Not long before, after Jesus had given the great Sermon on the Mount, a leper approached Him. He was an outcast, feared because of his dreaded disease. But he had faith in Jesus. He believed that this Man had divine authority and could heal him. But would He? I know you can do it, but are you willing? And Jesus shows that He is – and He does: He cleanses the man from his affliction. Others, too, are recipients of His compassionate mercy: A suffering Roman servant and a fevered woman; demon-possessed tomb-dwellers who pleaded with Him to go away and blind men who pester Him and will not take no for an answer; a silent, bleeding woman and a paralytic who utters no request. These are people on the margins of life; they are people living on the outskirts. They do not walk around in fancy clothes, and they do not pretend to be religious or to live righteous lives. They do not claim to be deserving of God’s favor. In fact, having been rejected by almost everyone else, they may well have felt rejected by God Himself. But Jesus heals them all. And in so doing He gives them vision to see with greater clarity God’s disposition toward them. There was room for them at God’s table. And when word got out, they were drawn to Jesus with a force we might well call faith. He was undeniably a Holy Man. Would He indeed welcome the likes of me? Not a chance! the religious leaders protest. What Jesus was doing should not be done! And in the end, they do the unspeakable: They attribute His authority to the realm of the demonic. So repelled are they by His prodigal grace, they charge Him with performing His works by the power of the devil… So then: Who’s side are you on? And what might that have to say about the way you look upon those who’ve been cast out and thrown away, marginalized and dismissed? What might it mean for the actions you’ve taken in the past and for your future intentions? It has been said that the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. It’s time for us to be reminded that there is only One true Hero in God’s Story – and He’s the One headed to a cross. Ultimately those who were repelled by Him would have their way and dismiss Him for good. And He would take it all – their scorn, their abuse, their rejection. And ours. He would take it all upon Himself – all the suffering and sin – and He would incorporate it is His own body. Putting it to death, He would rise again in victory. And by His goodness, He would overcome evil once and for all. Matthew the tax- gatherer will become Matthew the disciple. And Matthew the disciple will become Matthew the evangelist. And here he bids us to envision Jesus, reclining in the house, and invites us to behold… those whom He welcomes to the table. We well know there is no other option, if we are to follow Him. We must go and do likewise. And, in the end, this is good news for us all. For what are we, but beloved beggars showing others where we have found food: Here, at the table of our Master and Lord.
God of love and grace, in Your compassionate mercy You empowered Your Son to heal and to restore. You welcomed what our world deemed the least of these, and You redefined them as precious and treasured in Your sight. Having become undeserving recipients of Your prodigal grace, may our hearts be so transformed by Your lovingkindness that we might extend it freely to others. Tear down our churches and build Your own, for the honor and glory of Your name and for the blessing of all Your people.
When you walk about, they will guide you;
When you sleep, they will watch over you;
And when you awake, they will talk to you.
It’s the voice inside your head. Perhaps it’s the encouraging words of a teacher who believed in you when you did not believe in yourself. Or the words of a grandparent, who gained perspective through the years and was able to speak into your life words that brought healing and hope. Some call is conscience. Others attribute it to the Holy Spirit of God. Here the writer refers to the instruction of parents – mom and dad. Whether your parents have passed on or are living still, I wonder if you can still hear their voices in your head? I expect so. I know I can. Their instruction, oft repeated to the point of exasperation, haunted our young lives unmercifully. And then, gradually and graciously, they return to us in our older years. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves passing on some of the same words to our own children – and receiving from them the same irritated response. One might be critical and cynical and call it brainwashing. But surely parents, having their children’s best interests in mind, want to teach them right from wrong and set them on a path that is good and true. To guard them from those who would lure them away into dangerous territory and unhealthy practices – not for their benefit, but only to serve their own selfish purposes. Having learned from our own experiences and having progressed further down the road of life, we gain certain convictions – and we want to pass on the best of them to those who come after us. And so, we speak. Over and over again we do. We impress what we’ve counted as wisdom onto the minds of the young. We do our best. And, we know firsthand that our words will stick – because the words of others have stuck to us. They won’t always be attended to, of course, but we can be sure they will be there. Your voice will accompany them in their waking and walking hours. It may well enter into their dreams. Not only the content of your words, but also the tone in which you spoke them. And because we’re all imperfect creatures, even with the best of intentions, we often flail about, fumble and fall. We must therefore take great care, for we know that our words will linger and outlast our own years. By all means: Speak into the lives of others and do not cease from imparting the truth in love. But also take care with the words that you choose and the manner by which you communicate them. And with respect to the receiving end: Those voices in your head can be instructive for good, but they can also do damage – and require years of therapy… You will do well to filter them through the truth of God’s Word, to measure them according to God’s standard. The Voice you must hear above all other voices is the Voice of God – and its greatest revelation has come to us in a Person. The confession of Scripture is that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. As we listen to the words of Jesus and observe His actions, the nature of God is revealed to us, and God’s words of life are communicated. This, then, informs both what we seek to convey to the next generation and how we filter the voices in our heads. Is there a greater responsibility you’ve been given than to pour out the best of what you’ve gained into the next generation? God has blessed you to be a blessing. So then, that which you treasure and cherish: Pass it on to others. Share the love, spread the joy, and speak the words that will impart life – today and in the years to come.
Almighty God, You speak to the people You love – and Your Word is truth. Thank You for those who’ve come before us who’ve taken pains to communicate Your Word. Open our ears to listen to Your voice above all others. Open our eyes to observe the actions of Your incarnate presence in Jesus, Your only begotten Son. Inspire us by Your Spirit and impel us forward, that we might share Your good news. Teach us always to speak Your truth in love, for the honor of Your name and the welfare of Your people.
And He came, and He took it out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.
In John’s revelation he sees a door standing open in heaven – and he’s given a vision of the things to come. After witnessing a wonderful display of the worship of God, he sees in God’s right hand a book with seven seals – and then the search begins: Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals? No one can be found to do it. No one but One. John is told that the One called the Lion of Judah had overcome and was able to do what no one else could do. Next the reader (and indeed, John himself) expects the Lion to step forth, roaring with mighty power. But instead, John sees a Lamb. And not just any lamb. This Lamb appears to have been slain, but is living still. We do not doubt that those who read John’s words are quick to identify the One who is both Lion and Lamb as Jesus, for in this vision we see a perfect portrayal of what occurs during this week we call Holy. On this day, Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem with shouts of acclamation. The crowds cry their hosannas, echoing the words of the psalmist, to welcome the coming conquering king. Save us, Lord! Come to our rescue! Deliver us from our oppressors! All their hopes were wrapped up in this One who was making His way into the Holy City. And indeed, Jesus would fulfill them, but not in the way they had envisioned them coming to fruition. Jesus would not take up arms to throw off the Roman rule. Instead, He would open wide His arms and offer himself as the sinless Lamb: He would overcome by sacrifice. Although slain, He would live again, and thereby conquer forever the power of sin and death. Jesus is both Lion and Lamb. As the Lion who is with you and for you, Jesus is strong enough to handle any who harass you. There is no enemy so great that His power cannot put to rest. No adversary so daunting that His protective presence will be unable to vanquish with one mighty roar. You are safe and secure in the One who both shelters and shields you. So too is Jesus the tender Lamb of God – gentle, humble and meek. Approachable, welcoming. This is Jesus who rides into Jerusalem on a colt. He comes not to declare war but to make peace. As the suffering servant of God, He carries out the work His Father had set before Him, and He willingly lays down His life in perfect sacrifice for all the beloved of God. We see these events – of both Lion and Lamb – play out during this Holy Week. You do well to familiarize yourself with this Story, for as you do so, it may well dawn on you that this Story is also your own. For His sacrifice was for you. And His victory will be your own. In His righteousness you will be clothed, because of the glorious grace of God. Listen attentively. Watch with eager anticipation. Sit on the edge of your seat with bated breath. Experience the marvelous wonder of God in the greatest (and truest) Story ever told. This is a Holy Week indeed – a week set apart from all other weeks. For in these actions, we see the work of heaven on earth, the divine will carried out on our worldly stage. The pure love and amazing grace of God, poured out for broken sinners. For you and me. The powerful Lion of Judah is able and determined, and nothing and no one will be able to harm those He guards. Nor can anyone stand in the way, as the Lamb of God presses on to complete the sacrifice sufficient for the salvation of all the people of God. To the Lion of Judah and to the Lamb, both Savior and King, be all honor, glory and praise, now and forever.
Almighty God, no vision is too great to display the truth of Your goodness and glory. You have revealed Your mighty strength in weakness, and in Your tender care and compassion You win us over. Your Holy Spirit continues to quicken hearts to faith, creating new life in souls that are dead, turning hearts back to You in repentance, strengthening us to be about Your work here and now. May Your good and perfect will be done in our midst, even as it is done in heaven. Open our eyes to see in the acts of this Holy Week all that You have done for us. And accomplish Your holy purposes, in us and through us, for Your glory.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer.
They found her in the hospital chapel. She is a double board-certified physician – one of the best in the country. And now her brother is facing a dangerous and delicate surgery with little chance of survival. It is the last place they look in their search, because, it was said, she doesn’t pray. But there she is – in the second row of that holy place, bent over, hands folded, leaning on the back of the pew in front of her. And when one of her colleagues makes her way forward to sit by her side, she confesses, I don’t know how to pray. And so, simply, she shows her. Prayer takes faith. Scripture itself makes that declaration: The one who comes to God must believe that He exists. And yet, how can you be sure? How can you know that God hears, that God cares, that God has the power to act upon your appeal? In this psalm, the one who prays likewise struggles. He speaks of God’s rebuke and chastening, and he fears that God will hurt him. He pleads for God to return. He inquires: How long? And, interspersed in these heart- wrenching questions and unfounded fears, He prays for healing, rescue and salvation. A few verses later he comes to resolution. He has confidence in his audience. Somehow his anxiety is dispelled, and he comes to realize that his fears are more a reflection of his own guilt and shame than they are of the character of God. And his questions – they, too, fall away in the presence of the One who is faithful and caring, the One who is Himself able and abundant provision. How does the psalmist arrive at this assurance? How does he move from despair to hope? From nagging doubt to decided declaration? It may well be that this was not his first prayer. He therefore had a history with God. A catalog of memories. A record of God Moments, to which he could look and remind himself how God had faithfully come to his rescue, time and time again. And so, if God was able to do so then, God could be trusted and relied upon to do it again. Or perhaps he simply pressed on in his prayer, passing through those moments of doubt, and he was blessed with that peace that passes all understanding. He came to the confident realization that God had heard his prayer and that no matter what came to pass, all would be well – because God was right there with him. Or perhaps his positive declaration was made because others had taught him this truth. His parents had passed it on to him – a living faith in a loving God. They had assured him that although they may well be occasions when it would not feel like it, God was always there to hear his prayers. God was immutable, unchanged by time. God was not fickle, fluctuating like weather patterns. God was dependable. Did spiritual mentors assure him that his words did not need to be perfect to be heard? That even moans and groans were correctly interpreted by the One who knew him even better than he knew himself? Whatever the case, we can adequately summarize his words in this verse in one word: Amen. When you to come to the end of your prayer, you can lay your burdens down before the One who has promised to give you rest. And you can leave your place of prayer with relief and confidence, with renewed strength and courage. For whatever confronts you today, as large as it looms, God is bigger still. As long as it lasts, you will survive it. Because God is greater, and He has promised always to be with you – in this, now, and in every come-what-may.
And so, gracious and glorious God: We come before You in faith and in doubt – trusting that You are present and attentive and willing to listen, in whatever condition we come to You. Transform our perception of prayer, that our understanding would be informed by Your character and not misconstrued by our own fears. Your sacrifice overcomes our sin. Your grace overcomes our guilt. Your tender care assuages all doubts and allows us to relax in Your ministration. Our souls find their rest in You alone. Draw us to Yourself, and may our amens be filled with the assurance that You hear and accept our prayer.
Watch yourselves, that you might not lose what we have accomplished,
but that you may receive a full reward.
2 John 8
Stories abound of those who had the finish line in sight, lost their focus, and ended up falling short of their goal. Espying the winner’s tape, instead of mustering up the last bit of strength left within them and finishing strong, they allow themselves to experience relief too soon. They ease up, give in, and coast – and they end up losing it all. In effect, they finish before the end – and in doing so they foolishly throw away all they worked so hard to attain. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that most accidents happen close to home. Perhaps that’s simply stating the obvious, since that’s where most of our activity takes place: If something’s going to go amiss, it’s more likely to occur there than any place else. But it might also mean that we pay closer attention in places that are unfamiliar to us. We’re on high alert in foreign territory. And when we cross back into that which is better known, we let down our guard. And therein lies the danger. And so, John counsels: See it through to the end. Don’t put in jeopardy all that you’ve earned. That long and involved project was all but complete – and then someone goes and says something to insult the buyer, and away he walks. The car salesman is cautioned not to celebrate until the wheels have left the lot and the back bumper crosses the curb. Don’t delight until the deal is done. Or, as one of our leaders said recently regarding the pandemic: Don’t spike the ball on the five-yard-line. We all need these reminders, because we’re all prone to giving up too early, to stopping too soon… We now find ourselves at what we hope are the final days of this pandemic. Indeed, there may be a few more months to go, but having already endured it for thirteen months, we ought not to become too antsy. Indeed, we’re impatient for the end, and we’re more than ready to move on. But wisdom implores us to stay the course, press on, and sprint through the final tape to receive the full reward. Don’t let down your guard. You’ve come this far to lose all that you’ve gained. There’s one other word in our verse for today that may have caught your eye: It’s that small word we. It represents the communal aspect, not only important in John’s day, but also in ours. One person’s actions may well jeopardize the outcome of many. It does us well to consider the sacrifices others have made on our behalf, and we do well to grow in our appreciation and to express our gratitude. We’ve not gotten here all by ourselves. We indeed stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us, and we do well to emulate their actions of service and sacrifice. Have you been fully vaccinated? Do you think it is needless to wear a mask? Don’t be too quick to dispose of it. Consider the influence you have on others if you continue to wear it. Be on your best behavior – until this is over for all of us. We’re making progress and our victory is in sight. But we’re not there yet. Watch yourself – not just for you, but for others. Maintain your vigilance. The rejoicing and celebration will come – and it will indeed be wonderful. We moderns are not the best at delaying our gratification, but let’s not open our presents before the appointed day. Don’t even think about it, lest you be tempted to lift just a corner of the wrapping – and ruin the surprise by seeing too much. Hang in there. You’re free to smile behind your mask, and one day in the not-too- distant future, you’ll be free to share it with us all. Don’t rob yourself and others from the full reward of victory. Keep the faith. God will continue to keep you in His good care.
Lord God of time and eternity, Scripture bears witness that for You one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. You are patient and longsuffering, but we find it difficult to persevere and endure. Continue to strengthen us for the journey, and help us to hold fast our faith to the end. Draw our attention to You, that we might maintain our focus and finish well. Continue to transform our hearts, that we might serve You and love Your people for the honor and glory of Your blessed and holy Name.
For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend;
lest he forsake the fear of the Almighty.
The suffering of Job is renown. Even those who do not know his story know his condition. Job was a man who had lost everything save the breath left in him. Waves of despair washed over him, leaving him wishing that even his breath would be taken away. Or that he had never been born. If you think of your own personal worst day, Job had experienced it too. Whatever difficulty you’ve had – or have now – Job would be able to relate. How does one handle suffering, especially when it comes out of nowhere? When it appears unannounced on your doorstep, barges in without invitation, sets up camp and refuses to leave? When it wrests from your hands the reins of your life, so recently in your own firm grasp? How does one handle suffering when the question why cannot be answered? Job’s so-called friends tried to get at his problem from every possible angle. They sought to overturn every stone to uncover the truth, to determine the reason for his suffering, to discover its cause. Even if finding out why wouldn’t help solve the problem, at least it would allow them to affix blame and afford them some sense of control. But no sensible explanation could be found. No rational reason identified for Job’s misfortune. And so his friends circled back to their a priori conviction: Bad things just don’t happen to good people. Until they do. And then what? What happens when your world turns upside down, when foundations crumble, when you watch helplessly as the steering will of your life spins out of control in front of you, while your hands are immobile, paralyzed, useless to take any action? It’s then that two things are needed: the presence of a partner and the assurance of God. Job’s friends had started out well. They came to him when the calamity first occurred and simply sat with him. Some call this the ministry of presence – and it is no small thing. We humans need the proximity of others, someone to be with us, someone to hold our hand. When we’re on the other side of the hospital bed, it’s easy to feel helpless and to wish you could do more – to fix it and make things better. But simply being there is important. More than important. Your presence is critical. It is strength imparted, and it can serve to hold despair at bay. In this case the preposition with is most important. One of the most harrowing horrors of this pandemic is not being able to be with our loved ones who suffer. We can be grateful for technology that allows us to be present virtually and for caregivers who are able to be present when we cannot. Beyond the gift of human with-ness is the confidence of God’s abiding care. Scripture assures of that God will never abandon or forsake us. Never. God is with you and for you. Always. What you’re going through right now might not make any sense. And the truth is: things might not get better. Death will one day claim us all. But death is not the end of God and it is not the end of you either. If you look only within the confines of this life, you may be quick to deem it unfair. But surely God is present not only within our earthly lives here and now: God is also present outside them. God is not limited by our earthly days, and because of God’s mercy and grace, neither are we. God certainly has power to perform wonders and to bring healing. But your faith must not reside in divine miracles coming to you; your faith must find its home only in God. Whether you live or you die, you belong to the Lord and you are in God’s good hands. And nothing – not even death – can take that away.
Good, gracious and loving God, I thank you for family and friends that show me kindness and compassion when I am in need. In their company, I’m assured of Your abiding presence. In their loving concern, I’m assured of Your compassionate care. Grant me a grand vision that is bigger that the confines of this life, and instill in me the confident hope that because of Your awesome power and Your abundant grace, this mortal life will give way to immortality, and this temporal existence will yield to Your eternity.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
1 John 1:8
I serve as the pastor of a Lutheran church. It was the faith into which I was born, and it was the tradition in which I came to faith. Which is to say that it was not of my own choosing. I’ve always maintained that this is where God has seen fit to place me, and this is where I will stay, unless I hear God calling me elsewhere. The Christian choir is composed of many voices, and it’s good for us to hear them all. As I’ve learned to listen to the Lutheran voice, there are many things I’ve come to appreciate about it. One of them is its confessional aspect. We’re certainly not alone in this respect, but it is one of the prominent features of our faith. We hold in high regard both the confession of faith and the confession of sins. Before the pandemic, if you attended any of our morning services, you would have likely heard both of them. I’m mindful that one of the things that was culled from our order of service in these pandemic days (when technological logistics and other considerations necessitated a shorter service offering) was the confession of sins. And I wonder how much it has been missed. The counterpart of confession is the declaration of forgiveness. God bestows His forgiveness upon us in grace, and this is a reminder the people of God need to hear regularly. It’s a word of healing and restoration. But confession itself is also important. It helps us recognize the truth about ourselves, acknowledge our own limitations, and reminds us of our dependency on God. Furthermore, confession is not only important in regaining personal wholeness, it’s also integral to relational health. Think of a recent argument or altercation you’ve had. Surely forefront in your mind is something someone said or did to offend you. What you might have overlooked is your own contribution to the problem. This is not to say that we are always, in some measure, at fault in any and every dispute. There are times when evil is inflicted upon the innocent through no fault of their own. But in most cases, it takes two to tango. Good counselors will find a way to bring each person to ask themselves what they’ve brought to the table with respect to the relational turmoil. How has each party contributed to the problem at hand? In our hurt and in our anger, we’re quick to lash out, more than ready to blame the other as the sole (or primary) cause of the conflict. Even if it’s true that the other is more responsible, personal confession can still go a long way to ease the stress and prime the pump for the other to confess their own contributions to the discord. How can you find it within yourself to take the first step in admitting your role in the conflict? Especially when you feel a rebellious spirit welling up inside, moving you to insist that you will never be the first to apologize? Perhaps you can’t. But there’s still something you can do. You can consider the relationship that is deeper and more foundational – your relationship with God. It’s there that you’re sure to find mercy and grace poured out for you – an unworthy but beloved recipient. And it is there that you’ll find the motivation – which is not internal but comes from the outside – to address your present conflict with humility and to recognize your own part in the dispute. If reconciliation is the desire of both parties, confession is the place to begin. Holding on to selfish pride, maintaining your innocence, insistent on blame and punishment – these are not helpful actions to take when you’re in relationship. You will find, in the end, you’re only hurting yourself. Let God’s action on your behalf inform your decisions. Humbly confess your own sins, and God will open a new path forward.
Good and gracious God, in Your compassionate mercy You acted our behalf to restore us to relationship with You. You forgive us when we know not what we do. Your kindness leads us to true repentance. Continue to draw us close to You and open our minds to understand more deeply that the relationship into which You’ve called us is entirely dependent upon Your grace. Because it is, we can be supremely confident, and we can boldly move forward to act with that same grace toward others. Thank you!
For if you remain silent at this time,
relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place
and you and your father’s house will perish.
And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?
These words of Mordecai bring the people’s precarious situation into sharp relief. They are spoken to Esther, his cousin, raised under his guardianship, who now serves as the Queen of Babylon. Mordecai sees with clarity and speaks with certainty of what is about to take place. In so doing he acts prophetically, speaking the truth and imploring God’s people to do what the moment requires. But the details of the definite future Mordecai sees have yet to be determined. Will Esther remain silent, or will she risk everything and rise to the occasion? This much is true: Genocide had been planned. The law had been written and the edict had been dispersed through the land. The annihilation of the Jews had been decided; the land would soon be cleansed of these treasonous foreigners. But Mordecai is just as confident that rescue is sure to come. What remains yet unseen is where it would come from and when it would happen. The silent testimony of Mordecai is a deep faith in the abiding lovingkindness and sovereignty of God. The LORD had been faithful to save His people in the past and He would surely do so again – this was Mordecai’s confident hope. But was this the moment? Was Esther God’s agent at this time and place? Was she God’s Moses through whom God would provide a way through this present crisis? The Pharaoh was none too eager to listen to Moses’ plea; would the King listen to hers? Esther was free to take action or to sit still, to speak up or to remain silent. Whichever way she chose, whatever decision she made, God’s will would not be thwarted. God would make it happen. This particular situation opens our eyes to two great truths we discover time and again in Scripture, not opposite but apposite, not contradictory but complementary: the sovereignty of God and the freedom of humans to choose. God cares for His people, and He is faithful to provide. But we are the instruments God chooses to get the job done. You might not be able to see the Big Picture of how God is moving and where the future is heading. You may be uncertain about your meaning and the purpose of your life. These existential questions are often lifelong, and can often only be determined by looking back to the tapestry God has weaved from both your failures and your accomplishments. God is at work to bring all things together for His good purposes – in your life and in the world as a whole. But this does not mean you’re to sit around and do nothing when God has given you feet and backbone to take a stand. It doesn’t mean you’re to remain silent when God has given you a voice to speak the truth and to defend those in danger. What is before you today and what is in your power, is to say no to evil and to say yes to good. To turn away from selfishness and to invest yourself in addressing the needs of others. When you make this your practice and when you apply yourself to these daily habits, then, when the sacred moment arises, you’ll be ready for it. God only knows how He is preparing you today for how He will use you tomorrow. What matters is what you do today and whether you’ll prove to be faithful to the challenges that will rise up before you. Every decision matters. Rejoice in the life God has given you and exult in the opportunities God has placed before you! Always work for good, for you are a useful instrument in the hands of God, who is shaping His glorious future even now.
Holy God, faithful and true, You sovereignly work to being about Your good and perfect will. You glory in bringing rescue to those in need and delight to see Your children working together in harmony. Grant us sure confidence of Your provision and care. Grant us courage to rise up to meet the challenges of this day. Make us Your willing instruments, to carry out Your purposes, for the welfare of Your people and the glory of Your name. Help us to be faithful in the small things, that we might be ready for Your big plans.
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales
when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
2 Peter 1:16
The Story did not spring up out of nowhere. To say the impact made on the first followers of the itinerant rabbi named Jesus was remarkable could be nothing less than an understatement. How could they have possibly known what it would mean for them when Jesus called them to be His disciples by uttering those three simple words, Come, follow Me. Jesus fully knew the import of what His calling entailed, and the summons He had given was not made lightly. Jesus was completely committed to His Father’s cause, and He would carry out His earthy mission to a tee. This would mean service and sacrifice – the giving up of His life. He knew that those He had called to follow would journey down this same path. He also knew that in so doing, they would discover what true life was all about. And they would pass it on to still others. Simon Peter – to whom this epistle is ascribed – was one of those chosen few, one of the Twelve. Once an ordinary fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus had told him his aquatic skills and seafaring training would be used to work with people on land. Having become adept at bringing fish out of the sea, Jesus would teach him skills to bring people out of the sea of sin and land them safely on the shores of eternity. How could he possibly have known what saying yes to Jesus’ call would mean? He and the others were in for quite a ride. Soon this motley crew would become a cohesive cohort, and strong bonds would be formed between them. Indeed, there would be some jockeying for position, and one in their midst would commit a most heinous betrayal, but Jesus would see to it that the connections made – not only with Him but as a group – would far surpass anything they had left behind. Peter was blessed to be one of three to accompany Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. The mountain is not specifically identified by any of the evangelists. Two of them describe it as high, while the other designates it as the mountain. It will gain its notoriety by what happens upon it – what Peter was granted to behold. For there on the mountain Peter’s eyes are opened to see Jesus in all of His heavenly glory. Moses and Elijah had had their mountaintop experiences; Jesus would now have His. But this one was different. For this time Moses and Elijah depart from the scene and Jesus is left alone. And the heavenly voice had spoken: Listen to Him! After the event had concluded and they were descending from the mountain heights, Jesus had warned them to tell no one what they had seen until He had risen from the dead. But now this highly classified information was free to be published for all the world to read and to hear, and Peter was only too glad to share it. How blessed he was to have been an eyewitness of the majesty of our Lord! It was just one of the many things that would move him to follow in the steps of his Master. It was not only the identity of Jesus that mattered, it was what He had taught. About life. About His Father’s will. About the Kingdom of God. Jesus had instructed Peter and his fellow-followers that life would be found in the daily giving over of themselves, presenting themselves to God for His service, willingly carrying out His good will and divine intentions by tending to the needs of others. Jesus taught about a God who loves. And to do the work of God means sacrifice. But is also means abundance and eternity – for all who answer His Come, follow Me.
Great and mighty God, You have revealed Your glory in the incarnation of Your Son and in His self-giving on Calvary. This is Your grand and glorious humiliation. While many will mock You, You are determined to delight in Your sacrifice, which will prove to be the salvation of sinners. While we have not been given the gift of being eyewitnesses, we have been blessed to experience firsthand this wonderful, awesome and glorious salvation. Empower us, we pray, to participate in Your divine redemptive work. May Your holy purposes be accomplished in us and through us today, to the honor of Your holy and blessed Name.
We have a new PTZ camera, mounted permanently in the back of the church. We are very enthusiastic using this new device for our "church without walls" ministry, but please be patient while we fine tune audio and video settings for our weekly recordings.
And I consulted with myself,
and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them,
"You are exacting usury, each from his brother!"
Therefore, I held a great assembly against them.
Nehemiah has been given the responsibility of governing the returned exiles in the land of Judah. The walls of Jerusalem, which had once served as a defense against enemies and allowed the people who lived within them to exist with some measure of peace, had lain in disrepair. Nehemiah set out to lead the rebuilding efforts, and, in doing so, ran into all manner of resistance. He endured teasing and taunting; he found it necessary to combat the words of discouragement that had sought to demoralize his work force. Outright threat of battle from the opposition resulted in half of his people armed with spears, shields and bows, while the other half worked on the wall. Slanderous lies were perpetuated against him. Political factions proved to be treacherous waters difficult to navigate, requiring full-time vigilance and constant attention, lest they be battered by the winds of naysayers or broken up by obstacles in close proximity. It was surprising anything at all got done. In addition to outside opposition, there was also internal strife. Prior to the verse above Nehemiah had listened to several reports made by those he governed, making it clear that injustice was taking place between brothers – between Jewish exiles and the established Jewish leaders. Those in power were taking advantage of those who had none. The people made their case before Nehemiah – their hopeless situation under the current regime. They could see no way out of it; they couldn’t improve their own situation. Nehemiah was a strong and determined leader, and he cared about the people whose well-being had been entrusted to him. After listening to the reports, he spent some time alone to think it through: He consulted with himself. And when the path forward became clear, he rose up to speak against the injustice. Truth was on his side. He made his case respectfully and with conviction, and he achieved his desired results. He effected promises from leaders and had them put them in writing in the presence of witnesses. Other actions were taken – visible evidence of the promises made. It all resulted in promises kept. Injustice had been corrected. For now. But other challenges would rise up – as there always are. For evil does not sleep. Those who are in power fight to keep it, and too often the oppression of the powerless results. It behooves those in leadership positions, those who’ve been gifted with the power of the pen, those whose voices will be heard, to take care to consult with themselves, even as Nehemiah did. Not only to consider the cases brought before them, but to be mindful of their own behavior and motivation. Moses admonishes Joshua to meditate on the law of God night and day, that he might not lose his way but be careful to do according to all that was written in it. The apostle Paul counsels young Timothy to pay close attention to himself and to his teaching. No one is immune from the temptation to act in self- interest to the detriment of others. Yesterday’s victories do not make you immune from future temptations to abuse the power given to you. To continue to walk in integrity requires constant vigilance, ongoing humility, and eyes fixed on the One who alone is good. May God grant wisdom, strength and humility to all leaders, that they might use the power entrusted to them only for the good of those they govern, advocate on behalf of the voiceless, and act on behalf of the oppressed.
Good and gracious God, You’ve created all people, and You’ve blessed them with the gift of community. Help us live together in such a way that every voice may be heard and that all would have access to life’s basic necessities. Empower those who able to do more than their fair share, that they might have some to share with those in need. Keep us from being blindsided by our own selfishness. Instead, give us a clear vision of who You are. For when we see You in all Your goodness and glory, we cannot but humbly serve You by serving Your people. Work Your will in us and through us, to the honor of Your holy Name.
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.
1 Peter 4:8
Those who first read these words did so from a place of suffering. They had fallen under hard times. The affliction of suffering can come from a variety of causes: loss of a loved one, food deprivation, poverty, disease. For us today, the pandemic is the cause of widespread suffering and in many different measures. Some might not even call it suffering – for they’ve found a way to thrive in the midst of it. For others, their suffering is unspeakable – and darn near unbearable. In Peter’s day, the reason for suffering was the persecution they endured because of their faith in Christ. For the most part, the people were handling it in admirable fashion. They had held their heads above the waters; they had not panicked. They had kept their wits about themselves, managed their circumstances, and maintained a healthy and positive perspective. Although it was tougher for some than for others, they knew they were all in it together. Confident of the faithful love of God, they were fervent in their love for one another. Peter commends them for their care, and he encourages them to press on. For self-talk can only get us so far. We’re all prone to tiredness and exhaustion. One of the results of the present pandemic is what has been called brain fog. It’s been identified as one of the many after-effects of having contracted the virus, but it also seems to have found its way into the general population – into the lives of those who have not been afflicted with the disease but have simply lived through its milieu. For it’s not been easy for most of us. Ordinary life brings enough stress of its own. But this past year, on top of it all, a heaping scoop of suffering has been apportioned to many. Those who already had it tougher than most are the ones the virus has affected more severely. All of these things can push us to our limits – and they keep on pushing. The pressure builds, the heat increases, and tempers rise. Sins multiply. What’s bad becomes worse. And our eyes are opened to the reality that we are in a most precarious situation. Still, all is not lost. There is yet hope. There is always hope. Where is strength to be found – to carry on and to overcome the challenges before us? How is it that the people in Peter’s day could keep on keeping on and maintain their fervency of love for one another? Peter assures them that they are all in the hands of a sovereign God. He reminds them of the faithful love of Jesus – and our Lord’s own endurance in times of suffering. The spiritual energy they need will come from God Himself. That which will sustain them and propel them forward will be divine energy, Holy Spirit power. It’s with this assurance that Peter cheers them on. Indeed, God is bringing good out of evil – you can be sure of it. Some have seen it all along; others will need some time to discern it more clearly. God is worthy of our trust. God will continue to bless us with all we need to move forward in these days and to press on in our love for one another. Part of the blessing is coming to realize: When you do just that – when you continue in your devotion of love and service of others – God is working in you and through you to carry out His will. You are His instrument of love and peace. Love does not pretend that sin does not exist; neither is love turned away by it. Love listens to the voice of the Author of love and obediently goes forth to overcome sin. Love binds up the broken-hearted and sustains those who are weary. Love lifts up their eyes to the One who will never let them down. So press on, beloved of God. Keep fervent in your love for one another, for you have a faithful God who is fervent in His love for you.
Good, gracious and loving God, in Your faithfulness You continue to watch over us and hold us in Your loving care. Sustain us with the strength that we need. Reassure us of Your unfailing love. Bless us with a sound mind, a peaceful spirit, and a heart that beats according to Your divine rhythm. Accomplish Your purposes in us and through us to carry out Your will, on earth as it is in heaven, for Your glory alone.
They approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ households, and said to then,
"Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him
since the days of Esarhadddon, king of Assyria, who brought us up here."
It can happen with something as simple as a jigsaw puzzle. If I’ve ever purchased one of those ginormous, time-consuming, colorful cardboard conundrums, I do not remember doing so. Others may accuse me of masochism, but I won’t endeavor to self-inflict that kind of inhumane punishment. But others have bought them for me. It’ll be fun, they said (as they sinisterly snicker aside). And so, on a cold and damp day-off, with nothing better to do, I determine to give it a go. I take a minute to examine in detail the bright and beckoning cover. Then I quickly begin to second-guess my judgment to embark on such an imposing project. But I double down on my determination, try to conjure up my non-existent photographic memory, and slice open the tightly sealed box. I can actually hear the now mostly grey pieces mocking me, taunting me, happily showing me their backsides while I come to the certain realization that this joke’s on me. This will not be a fun day. What I have waiting is nothing less than hours of stress scattered in the box in front of me. Am I a fool to trust implicitly that each of the 1500 pieces belongs in this particular box? Not only that, I also accept without question that none of their friends is missing and that eventually, if I stay the course, they will all be right where they belong, everyone in its place – one big, interlocking happy family. But there’s more to this puzzling picture. For there’s also a strange magnetic force that occurs when I begin to place the pieces on the card table in front of me. Others make their way into the room and feel free to pull up a chair and participate in the project. They peer into the box and seek pieces with straight edges. (Sure, pick the easy ones!) Visiting family members, on their way to another room, also stop to sort through the box and willingly add their own two cents. People walking by in the neighborhood sense the excitement, and they, too, want in on the fun. Passing traffic pulls to the side of the road. Everyone wants a piece of the action. Meanwhile, I’m not so sure. No, that’s not true. I am sure. Very sure. This is my enterprise, and I want to be the one to complete it – every piece of it! – by myself. I don’t take to others horning in on my project, and I’m privately put-off by their helpfulness. But I try to hold it together, put on my best face, and thank them for their assistance (even when they find the exact piece I’ve been searching for, even after they exult over placing the very last piece in its position)… In the verse above, the exiles who’ve returned to the land of their ancestors set out to rebuild the broken-down temple. And when they begin to do so, there are others, foreigners, who want to strap on their work belts and assist in the construction. But their help is not wanted, and they’re summarily dismissed. Suspected of ulterior motives. Sabotage. Accused as enemies. They look different, sound different, and they themselves admit this temple will be dedicated to Israel’s God. Our God, not theirs. They don’t belong here. They should go home. Worship their own gods in their own country. Leave us to do this work by ourselves. Alone. And so they’re shooed away as unwelcome interlopers. And it results in significant delay – in completing the project, in forging international relationships, in communicating the true character of God, Creator of all nations… In the end, it’s a whole lot more fun when we’re working together. Along the way conversations happen, we learn about each other, and strange and welcome bonds form, as we engage together and work side by side toward a common goal. We make friends, not enemies. It’s what God would have us do.
God of all nations, You have created us in love. Red, yellow, black and white. You have blessed us with a land in which to live, with abundant resources to enjoy. Help us listen to each other, learn from each other, and live together in mutual respect. Help us learn to say ours instead of mine, to be inclusive instead of exclusive, and to recognize that this land ultimately belongs to You. Hold before us the truth that each one of us has been created in Your image and that all are cherished and treasured by you. Teach us to rejoice in our own particularities, as well as in the unique traits of others. Bind us together in the common bond of Your Holy Spirit, and help us work together to foster an atmosphere of peace and harmony.
Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
Apart from love, there is perhaps no greater quality in the life of a follower of our Lord than that of humility. True humility is different from false pride – that great pretender – adept at masking its own convictions of superiority while presenting itself as a party interested or even impressed by what others (inferior and lowly though they are) have to offer. All the while, it is but an act, made with ulterior motives, to prove to itself once again – and with no little internal scoffing – that it is above all others and reigns supreme. Humility may well accompany an honest assessment of one’s giftedness, achievement, learning and progress. But humility reminds us that as far as we’ve come and as much progress as we think we’ve made, we do not know it all, and there’s still a long, long way to go. Humility maintains perspective. It keeps us from playing the fool. It warns us that while we may be the biggest fish in this particular pond, in the great lake of life, we may well pale in comparison to others and find ourselves quickly swallowed whole if we’re not careful. I feel strong – until I make my way into the gym and find others who far exceed me and could easily pound me into pulp. I feel smart – until I turn on Jeopardy and witness the wonder of brains that grasp much more than my own and process much more quickly. I may feel holy and righteous until I recognize (in horror) that God is right here in the room with me. How silly and foolish we are to ever think of ourselves as more important than others. How shameful to exalt ourselves as those who are better and more valuable than anyone else. It takes just one look from the One who created us all to put us in our place. When we’re in the presence of the Lord (which is always, whether we realize it or not), there’s no other way to view ourselves, no other way to act, than with utmost humility. Jesus was described as a man of great humility. While on earth, He never exalted himself over others. Arguably the greatest man who ever lived, He was never arrogant. Never a boaster or a braggart. He expressed interest in others and was quick to encourage, show compassion, and point others to the goodness of God. He lived as One not to be served but to serve, and He offered himself as a living sacrifice. He who self-identified as the Good Shepherd presented Himself as the sacrificial Lamb of God. He counseled followers never to lord it over others. If they had ever thought about ruling with an iron fist, they were sorely mistaken. For this was not His way. Those who count His name as precious and take his title (Christ) upon themselves cannot consider following in any way other than in deepest humility. To see each day as a gift of grace, each person as precious, each step as sacred. No patting ourselves on the back in self-congratulation. No exulting in our progress, or flaunting it in front of others. Rather, our eyes are fixed on the One who has gone before us, and we seek to emulate His actions of compassionate mercy. We find our exaltation in our service, our glory in our giving, our commendation in our sacrifice. There’s no greater turn-off to those seeking truth than to come into the presence of the self-righteous. The Spirit of Christ does not reside there. Arrogant pride is the product of the pretender and is odious in the sight of God. But the one who is humble in heart will see great and wondrous things and find blessing above all others. There is no other way to walk with Jesus than to walk humbly. And there is no great joy that can be found.
Holy God, faithful and true, in Jesus You have shown us compassion, mercy and grace. He led the way in humble service and forged a path to loving sacrifice. Where He led is where we must follow. Continue to teach us His ways. May the totality of our being – heart & soul, bond, mind and spirit – be completely caught up in You. Draw us into deeper devotion and strengthen us to be about the tasks You’ve set before us this day. May we faithfully bear witness to You both in our words and in our deeds, that others might see You in all Your glory. Accomplish Your will in and through us, for the honor of Your holy name.
But will God indeed dwell with mankind on the earth?
Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee;
How much less this house which I have built.
2 Chronicles 6:18
Wise King Solomon had just completed a magnificent building project that would go down in history as one of the greatest of all time. Its glory was renown. And although it would later be destroyed by a foreign army and its rebuilding efforts would pale by comparison, there are still remnants of his original project. We cannot overlook the practical political purpose of its construction. It was hoped that, much like choosing Jerusalem to be the capital, the temple would serve to unify the people living in the land and solidify the establishment of Solomon’s kingdom. But its central purpose was to serve as a memorial for the Name of God, a sacred earthly entity that would unite the people in faith and to be a prominent reminder that the LORD was their Savior, Provider and Redeemer. Solomon knew God was bigger than the structure he had built for Him. While God’s Name might be attached to the temple – which is to say, God’s reputation, character, all that God stood for – Solomon knew that the essence of God could not be contained. More than this, he understood the great and mighty truth that was its corollary: The people could not claim God to be their own. Indeed, it was the reverse that was true: God claimed Israel to be His own. Solomon was wise enough to understand that God could not be limited and would not be limited. Although the people could rejoice that God had chosen them to be a holy people, God had not done so to the exclusion of others. Confessing that God was one and there was no other did not mean they could claim ownership of God – as if they could cart God around like their personal luck-charm, plop Him in the ring like some mighty gladiator and pit Him against all other wannabe gods. Such would be a false and foolish claim – and Solomon knew better. Indeed, God had promised their ancestor Abraham that he would become the father of many nations. Consistent with this, Solomon includes in his prayer of dedication an appeal for foreigners who would come to the temple he had built – that God might hear their prayer, too. Whenever we come before the Almighty, it is always with a deep sense of humility. We recognize it is only because of God’s goodness and grace that we dare to open our mouths and deign to speak. While we might well have confidence to come into God’s presence, we are never to do so presumptuously. This is what is meant by the fear of the Lord – which Scripture tells us is the beginning of wisdom. Of this you can be sure: Whatever your conception of God, God is yet greater. We cannot help but to be anthropomorphic – and describe God in our own terms. And yet, if we are to have conversation about God and gain any ground in our theology, words are necessary. Alongside them, we may express the magnificence of God with art, music or architecture – even as Solomon does in the construction of the temple. But all representation is admittedly inadequate, for God is always greater than we make Him out to be. For even as Solomon was sure that God was too great to dwell with mankind on earth, God would find a way to manage even that. And people are still talking about it today and still trying to make sense of it: How that Eternal One entered human time. How the Spirit took on flesh. How the limitless Divine limited Himself to exist within a human body. How the Creator became begotten. How the One immortal by nature subjected Himself to mortality. God found a way. The Word became flesh, and we beheld His glory – full of grace and truth. And still we confess: Heaven and highest heaven cannot contain Thee.
Almighty and ever-living God, You alone are God, and there is no other. You have created us in Your love, and in Your love You sustain us. By Your grace You claim us as Your own. And so we pray that we might learn to live humbly in recognition of Your abiding presence and submit our will to Your own, that all that we say and do might serve to bring about Your glorious Kingdom on earth. May Your purposes be done in our midst, as they are perfectly carried out in heaven, to the honor of Your holy and blessed Name.
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
Priests present offerings and sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. Set aside for these specific duties, they are deemed holy – and they serve as mediators between the people they represent and their God. Although their service is sacred and their positions are hallowed, they themselves are no better than the people they serve. For they, too, are sinners. As such, the appeal they make before God is not only for others but for themselves. For they, too, need to be made clean – and this cleansing can only be completed by God. The high priest was selected among the others for the most sacred of duties – perhaps the most important of which occurred on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For on this day, the high priest alone entered from the Holy Place (where every priest could serve) beyond the veil and into the Holy of Holies, where the ark of the covenant was located, with the mercy seat above it and the wings of the cherubim spread over it in divine protection. On his own behalf and on behalf of his people, the high priest made supplication for sins, and the atonement (covering) of sins would transpire. The writer to the Hebrews recognizes Jesus as the High Priest of God, who serves as our adequate representative before Him. Being human, Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses and can fully understand them. But there’s more. For this High Priest makes His appeal as One who is sinless. His offering and sacrifice are fully for others – fully for us – they are in no way presented on His own account. Moreover, Jesus serves as mediator not only as our representative before God, but also as God’s representative before us. In His priestly role, He speaks to God on our behalf, and in His prophetic role He speaks for God to us. In these actions we see Jesus as true God and true man, with two natures united in one. Christ’s role as our perfect high priest was carried out on Calvary’s cross, and it was there that our sacrifice for sin was made complete. Our offerings and sacrifices are now made in no way to appease God; they are given in recognition of the cleansing that God had brought to us solely by His grace. Although we go through the motions of remembrance – and it is good that we do so – our cleaning is not accomplished by our own actions. We do not assist God in this divine work; we are entirely recipients of His merciful grace. And this is why we can be confident of our cleansing – for God is trustworthy and true. Although we may doubt our own faith, we never need doubt the goodness of God on our behalf. For He assures us that His grace more than compensates for our sin. As the incarnation of God, Jesus demonstrates the redemption of God more than He appeases God or changes God’s mind. In our Lord we find One who has walked the path we walk and One who intimately understands the challenges we face. We’ve all given in the lure of temptation; we’ve all fallen prey to the power of sin. He never did. He persevered and overcame. And His understanding and power can assist us as we face our own struggles. Not only can we take comfort in knowing we have One who’s gone through what we’re going through now. We can rest assured that in Jesus we have One who will never leave our side. He is present with us to strengthen us as we persevere in dedicated commitment, to lay down our lives in humble emulation of our Savior and to serve our God and our neighbors in all the days left to us.
Almighty God, in an astounding act of grace You took upon Yourself our human flesh and became one of us and one with us. We rejoice in the assurance that You intimately know the challenges we face, for You have faced them Yourself. You are our faithful and merciful redeemer. You have blessed us with this day, and with it You have given us a fresh start and the promise that we are not alone. Although we will stumble and fall, You will raise us up again in Your compassionate mercy. Strengthen us for service, that we might honor Your name in all that we do, as a fitting and faithful response to Your goodness and grace.
And these were the sons of Etam: Jezreel, Ishma, and Idbash;
and the name of their sister was Hazzelelponi.
1 Chronicles 4:3
Bo-ring. Pronounce the word with a long drawn-out “o,” and you’ll know what I mean. The Chronicler lists names – familiar names, strange names, unpronounceable names – for nine straight chapters. It’s like suffering through a stranger’s travel photos or sorting through old black-and-whites of generations past, with no notations, no dates, and no one sitting at your side to tell you about them. There are, of course, names behind the photos and stories behind the names. Each life lived is important in its own right, and each life also touches other lives and influences them. As I write this, there have been 534,946 people who have died in our country as a result of the present pandemic. I admit to having become numb to the numbers. Like everyone else, I’m impatient to move forward. I look in the rearview mirror to see an entire year of life gone, forever branded with the alphanumeric COVID-19. Days of quarantine and restriction. Days that are irretrievable. And I don’t want to sacrifice any more of them. I want to move on. But I also need to stop and consider: More than 1,000 people are dying each day in our country. And while we’re making good progress, and while we may say we have the pandemic well in hand, we have but a loose grip on it. Things remain tenuous. Risk remains. And no matter how much we want things to be different, just wishing they were doesn’t change the fact that it’s not yet over. There’s still a clear and present danger – we’re not yet out of the woods. We must move forward with humility, gratitude and grace. For the 534,946 people who have died are not just numbers, and they’re not just names. They are precious lives gone from us. You and I have the opportunity to move on, to live another day. They do not. As a fellow human being in community with others, as one who shares the blessing of life on this Planet, it behooves me to listen respectfully to those who are able and willing to tell their stories of loved ones lost. If someone knows about the sons of Etam, I want to hear all about them – and their multisyllabic sister Hazzelelponi. (Surely, she had a nickname? And what was it about her – what had she done – that resulted in her inclusion in a genealogy largely reserved for fathers and brothers?) May the Lord save us from minimizing the value of others, falsely appraising their lives, granting them so little worth we see only names or numbers, voters or taxpayers, unfeeling cogs in an industrial machine. May God teach us respect for each human life, to hold each other in high regard – as those who bear upon themselves the image of our Creator. As long as there is breath left in you, shine your light, Jezreel! For when you do, others may get a glimpse of the glory of God! Let your voice be heard, Ishma, for God has given you unique tenor and tone, and God’s people need to hear it! Idbash, we expect you were rarely first in line and were a follower for most of your days. Your perspective is important, and those out front will be blessed to learn of your observations. And Hazzelelponi? Some have said you were the mother of Samson. If so, we guess you would have many stories to tell us of the unique challenges presented to you in raising an unruly renegade. Each live is precious. Every life is sacred. All are treasured and cherished by the creative majesty of our loving heavenly Father, who abundantly provides and safely preserves each of His own for all eternity.
Holy God, faithful and true, we bow before You in humble gratitude and with great thanksgiving. We are richly blessed and uniquely privileged to take our place on the stage of planet earth. We rejoice in our individuality and exult in the honor bestowed upon us as bearers of Your image. May we live faithfully and honorably, to bring glory to Your blessed and holy Name. Teach us to be attentive listeners to all with whom we share this space. And may we correctly assess the value of every person, be respectful in all of our interactions, and invest ourselves in those things that make for unity, harmony and peace.
But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
Over the course of my career, I have written many letters of recommendation. I have also received them from others – some written on my own behalf, others penned for those applying to positions for hire. But in no case has there ever been attached to such a letter a signed blank check with an accompanying note that read, “The first year’s salary is on me.” I would have remembered it. And while that’s not exactly what we find here in Paul’s appeal to Philemon, it’s close. The aged apostle vouched for a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul is returning to his master with a note in hand advocating for his kind acceptance. Three parties are involved, and it can be profitable to step into the shoes of each. But let us here consider Paul, the appealer. He has come to know the heart of Onesimus. He has seen faith born in him, and he has seen it flourish. He has great hope for his future, and he envisions all that God might accomplish in him. He describes him earlier in the epistle as his child whom he had begotten in his imprisonment. In saying this, Paul referred to his spiritual birth – what Jesus had called being born again or born from above. Paul had witnessed this miracle of faith in the life of this man, and he could testify to the transformation that had occurred. Onesimus had become his beloved brother in Christ. Paul knew he needed an advocate – someone to mediate on his behalf – and it is in this role that he initiates proceedings with this letter. He lays it all on the line. He commends Philemon for his own faith and expresses gratitude for their shared relationship. But he also respectfully admits that he does not know everything. He’s not yet heard Philemon’s side of the story. And so, if there had been wrongs committed or debts that were owed, Paul does not expect Philemon to write them off as losses. Instead, Paul himself agrees to compensate – thus, his signed blank check. One could not ask for a more perfect advocate. And yet, we get one – both you and I. In Jesus. For what Paul does here for Onesimus is what Jesus does for us on the cross of Calvary in His own appeal to the Father. He willingly offers Himself in sacrifice for our sins. He pays our debt before God. He asks that any wrongs committed be charged to His account. He incurs the cost – not only of a first year’s salary, but of an eternity in the presence of God. The truth runs more deeply, for we come to learn that God the Father is Himself working in and through the sacrifice of His Son. One is not pitted against the other; they work together to attain the same goal. It is a divine and determined rescue. How often we have run away from the One who loves us. How many times we have taken advantage of His blessings and bailed – sprinting away to squander them in prodigal fashion, wasting them on our own sinful and selfish endeavors. But God does not give up on us. In His grace, God tracks us down until we come face to face with someone like Paul, who tells us the Story of a God who loves us, a God who suffers, a God who sacrifices. Paul knows, for he too has been a recipient of such compassionate mercy. He’s just one beggar showing another where he’s found food. One on whose behalf Another has made His appeal. It is because of this that he’s willing to follow suit and to step in as a mediator on behalf of his beloved brother. This is how things work in the great kingdom of God. And all parties involved rejoice in the glorious reconciliation.
Gracious heavenly Father, we rejoice in Your goodness and the grace which is so clearly shown to us in the appearing of Your beloved Son, whom You sent into the world not to condemn but to save. Grant us sure and certain confidence that our eternal security is assured in Him, that in the outstretched arms of our crucified Savior we find Your gracious acceptance. We humbly bow before Your compassionate mercy, and we pray that Your advocacy and action on our behalf will have their full effect, that we might vouch for those in need and be agents of Your reconciliation. To You alone be all honor, glory and praise.
So he prepared a great feast for them;
and when they had eaten and drunk he sent them away, and they went to their master.
And the marauding bands of Arameans did not come again into the land of Israel.
2 Kings 6:23
If there is more than one person in the room, given enough time together there will be disagreement. And if there’s more than one nation within the same land, there will eventually be conflict. When arguments get heated and quarrels catch fire, matters can quickly move from bad to worse and soon get out of hand. Any previous progress made can promptly go up in flames. The history of the relationship between Israel and Aram (modern day Syria) had been mixed. Their relations had run hot and cold. Then, as well as now, many factors determined whether the nations were friends or enemies at any given point in time. What were the peculiarities of the kings who ruled? What relationships had been forged by those who had ruled before them? Had they experienced a plentiful harvest that year, or was it a year of drought? Sometimes it was as simple (and stupid) as an environment of ennui: boredom made them antsy for battle. And so it was, in a time of conflict between nations, that the King of Israel found himself in a position of advantage over his enemy. He was in the place of power, and he realized he could easily put an end to the opposition before him. The battle was in the bag. Sure and certain victory was his. Surprisingly, he sought divine counsel, and he inquired of the prophet Elisha. The instruction given was not at all what he expected. And had the advice been shared and discussed with his military advisors, they surely would have been dismissed it out of hand. Elisha had counseled the king: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. He advised the king not to kill his enemies, but to care for them. And, surprisingly, the king complies. He prepares a feast for the opposing army and sends them on their way. He repays evil with good. And then the real miracle takes place: the war ends. We’re not told what his response meant to those whose lives were spared. Nor are we told how the heart of the King of Aram was affected, if at all. Indeed, even the next verse goes on to tell us that the result was not long-lasting. And yet it is a common theme throughout the Holy Word: God cares about truth and justice and right and wrong. Rules are given by a righteous God for the good of God’s people. But God also shows compassion and forgiveness when His people do wrong. Grace is at the very heart of God’s character. Over and over again, God gives His people second chances. This is nothing less than dispensing to the people exactly what they do not deserve, with the prospect that this will effect real and lasting change. It was probably too much for the King of Israel to expect that one act of undeserved kindness would forever change international relations. To effect any real and lasting change, to find any true success in forging a new path forward, his action could not be an isolated incident. It would have to become a regular practice. Because God truly cares for His creation, He continues to engage with them in loving grace. And over and over again, God calls His people to go and do likewise: to turn the other cheek, to bless those that persecute them, to love their enemies, and to overcome evil with good. If any real progress is to be made, there’s no other way. But we must believe in God and trust in God’s ways – and never give up – if we really want to see success and change our world. We have a long history that shows us clearly what happens when we take matters into our own hands and do otherwise.
Good and gracious God, we are a sinful and selfish lot. Again and again, we rise up before You as rebellious and cranky children. Although You do not withhold discipline from us and You often allow us to experience the consequences of our own decisions, You repeatedly come to our rescue and engage with us in loving grace. Help us to be ever mindful of Your compassionate mercy and teach us Your ways, that we might not repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good. May Your good and gracious will be done in us and through us this day, to the honor of Your holy name and for the welfare of Your beloved people.
Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good,
in order that they may provide for daily necessities and not live unproductive lives.
If you’ve not seen them up close and in-person, you’ve surely seen them in news reports. You’ve seen them do their work in airports and at border crossings. Perhaps you’ve seen them do their duty in other venues, as well. Their expertise is needed in dangerous situations. They’re well-trained to employ their greatest gift (smelling) to preserve the innocent and to protect the vulnerable. Of course, I’m referring to dogs trained to sniff out drugs – or bombs. Here’s what I’ve noticed – and perhaps you’ve observed it, too. When they exit the transport vehicle and their paws hit the ground, they’re ready and eager to get to it. Their ears perk up. They know their purpose, and they can hardly be restrained from getting to work. They’re energetic and prepared. They’ve been trained to focus their attention on the task at hand. They’re devoted solely to the assignment before them, and they can be trusted to get the job done. They are not distracted by other stimuli. You won’t see them chasing their tails or sniffing at their sidekicks. You won’t see these canines dejected or bored with life. … Paul writes to the young pastor, Titus. The apostle had seen abilities in him that would serve well in the work of an overseer in God’s Church. Titus had been trained by the seasoned evangelist, and he was prepared by Paul to carry out the tasks left to him on the island of Crete. Throughout this encouraging epistle Paul refers to the purpose of those who make up the congregation of believers. They’d come to know the salvation carried out for them on the cross of Calvary – and they rejoiced in it. They knew they were sinners who had been redeemed by God’s grace, and they exulted in the realization. Now it was time to get to work. Now it was time to devote themselves to living in a way to appropriately respond to the rescue they had received… Jesus was productive. He devoted Himself to service. He exhibited love for the multitudes, and He compassionately cared for each individual. He was determined to be about His Father’s business. He did not shy away from suffering or turn His back when danger loomed. He was not preoccupied with Himself; He was always concerned about others. And He invited any and all to follow Him. He welcomed everyone to participate in His Father’s kingdom work. But make no mistake: It was work He had called them to do. Hard work. Self-denying, take-up-your-cross work. The purpose was not to make a name for themselves but to lift high the name of God. Not to ensure their place in heaven, but in response to the news that God had already reserved a place for them in it. God’s broken world was in great need, and there was no lack of work to be done. The harvest would be plentiful indeed – if those who accepted the call to work would devote themselves to the task at hand. A true follower of Christ can never be bored. For Jesus never simply gives us what we need. He provides for us in abundance. It’s too much to hold, too great to contain. If you will sit at His feet and listen, you will be compelled to share what He gives you, because His blessings will overflow. And He continues to make His appeal to each human heart. Learn from Him to be a devoted follower, zealous for good deeds. For sin does not sleep. Evil continues to be sown. Our world can’t endure much more of it or wait much longer. Devote yourself to the things that matter most. And one day your Master will declare to you, “Well done!”
Almighty God, faithful, loving and true: In Your grace You’ve saved us from lives of sin and You have shown us a better way to live. Fix our eyes upon Jesus and teach us His ways of loving service. Increase our zeal, that we might bring positive change to the world which you so love, for the honor of Your holy name. Make clear to us what You would have us do, to meet the pressing needs around us. Help us to be positive, supportive and encouraging. And show us how to shine our light, that all might see Your glory in us.
Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance;
they were eating and drinking and rejoicing.
1 Kings 4:20
The author penned these words with purpose. They were the capstone of the promises made more than a thousand years prior – promises made by God to their ancestor, Abraham. All the people remembered the LORD had called the patriarch to leave his home and his country, his people and his gods, to go to a place the LORD would show him. God had promised him not only a new land, but many descendants to inhabit it – as many as the stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore. God had also promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to all nations. Through Isaac his son and Jacob his grandson these same promises were repeated. And four generations later, by the end of the book of Genesis, the descendants of Abraham had grown to seventy-five persons. The promise had a long way to go to reach its fulfillment. Still ahead was Egyptian bondage, wilderness wandering, land conquering, territorial division and tribal settling. All the while, the people continued to multiply and the nation to organize. And here in this passage, it appears that the day had finally arrived. The promises of God had come to fruition – at least some of them. The Promised People had reached their numbered fullness. The Promised Land had been acquired and settled. The people enjoyed peace all around and a wise king to rule them. All that was left to fulfill their calling as a nation was to be a conduit through which God would bring blessing to all the world. The task before them was clear: Keep your eyes on God, rejoice in God’s provision, and carry out God’s commandments. The alternative was nationalism: build a nation for yourselves, ensure your independence, increase your power – so that no other nation will ever again have the upper hand and oppress you. By the direction of God, Moses had warned them not to put their trust in armies or alliances, but to look to God alone for their protection. Wise King Solomon proved foolish in neglecting that counsel, and he passionately pursued military power. He was now on top of the world, and he wanted to stay there. His people were so close to having it all. But it would elude their grasp. For it would not be long after Solomon built the temple and established his kingdom that it all began to crumble. The mighty king and his subjects would lose their focus. Decline would soon come, and the mighty nation would be no more. These things would not come about by invading armies; they would happen instead by division from within. They had pushed the LORD to the side, and the kingdom had taken God’s place. The party would soon be over. God would send prophets to call the people back to their charter as a nation. To order their ways around God’s intentions. To remember their purpose as God’s people. God had blessed them to be a blessing. They would find their lives by giving them away in service to others. But another millennium would pass until, in the fullness of time, a Savior would be born. This new King would arise to show God’s people the sure path to life. It would not come about through earthly power or control. It would be seen in servanthood and sacrifice. Fullness of joy would be bestowed upon all who followed in His steps of loving service and allowed God’s blessing to flow through them to reach every person in every nation. No one is exempt from this great blessing of God. It is gospel goodness over which all might rejoice.
Lord God, You alone are the Author of life. You have called us into being and sustain us with Your blessing. May we never doubt Your faithful provision. As our eyes are fixed on You, our anxieties give way to the confident conviction that we are in Your capable hands. Help us to share generously with those in need. Empower us to joyfully labor in carrying out Your loving purposes, that all might enjoy Your heavenly benediction. May our words and actions be consistent with Your will, and may Your kingdom come.
The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.
2 Timothy 4:22
Parting words. Final statements. Last speeches. Legacies left. I’m fascinated with these things, for there’s always a story that stands behind them. Sometimes it’s the story of one’s life as a whole. Sometimes it’s a defining moment within it. Sometimes the words are spoken solely with the other in mind – as if the speaker has sifted through a lifetime of learning and selected from a vast store of knowledge what is considered to be just what the listener needs to hear – not only in that moment, but for the remainder of the moments in their lifetime. There is some debate about the authorship of this epistle. Some attribute it to the apostle himself and claim that this was his swan song, his final words dictated to a scribe who penned it in his name. Others attribute the letter to one of his devoted followers, who wrote in the spirit of the apostle. But perhaps more important than deciphering the answer to the question of authorship is to wonder about its meaning – not only for its original recipient, but for us. Did Timothy, a young pastor, struggle with anxiety and self-doubt? Elsewhere we read of counsel given to drink a bit of wine to settle his stomach. We also recall the apostle’s confession that God has not given us a spirit of timidity. Was this the author’s way of infusing an anxious soul with confidence, his means of encouraging him to keep his chin up? Were these words of solace given to comfort him at the impending loss of his mentor, to remind him that God was still with him and would never leave him forsaken? Do these words – the Lord is with you – quicken your own anxious spirit with the hope that you do not walk through these days alone? The time of his death was approaching and the apostle would soon take his leave from Timothy’s life, but the Lord would always be with him – and He will always with you. Then there are those very last words: Grace be with you. Few had come to know the value of those words more than the apostle. He had considered himself to be the least of the apostles, the chief of sinners, unworthy and underserving of the honor of serving in God’s Church. Paul was convinced that his own salvation had come by grace alone. Solely because of the mercy of his good and gracious God. When from the cross Jesus declared they know not what they do, Paul knew he was certainly one of them. And what was Jesus’ earthly appeal to His heavenly Father in His own last words? Forgive them. Yes, the apostle well knew the rich grace of God, for he was one of its humble and grateful recipients. And alongside it, Paul was a devoted and disciplined worker. None labored harder than he. Sacrifice and suffering were the price he paid for the work God had called him to do. And he had summoned Timothy to follow in his steps. Still, no matter how hard he worked or how much he suffered, his efforts did not compare to the grace he had received. He could never out-give or out-bless God. And no matter how many times he messed up or how severely, his sin was no match for God’s overwhelming grace. In his successes and in his failures, Timothy needed to hear this powerful and defining word. In the end, by sharing this final sermon, Paul bears witness to a God faithful, loving and true, One who can be trusted, and One in whom is found everlasting joy, sure salvation, and perfect peace.
Faithful God, loving and true, in Your grace You have created us and in Your grace we stand. Our confident hope rests in You alone, for the promises You speak are certain and sure. Help us to diligently go about our work today, with the assurance of Your empowering presence. When we stumble and fall, we count on You to lift us up. When we achieve good success, keep us humble. May we never be deceived into thinking we can save our own souls. Teach us well that it is in fully depending on You that we will find our perfect freedom and the certainty of our heavenly hope. Blessed be Your glorious and holy Name!
Previously, when Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel out and in.
And the LORD said to you, "You will shepherd My people Israel, and you will be a ruler over Israel."
2 Samuel 5:2
Saul was the first king chosen to rule over a united Israel. But even after a forty-year reign, that unity was unstable, fragile and precarious. And although Saul was a deeply flawed character whose practices were far from perfect, he had his ardent supporters. Indeed, there were those who labored after his death to establish a dynasty, and they set one of his sons on the throne to rule. It’s not surprising, then, when David, a man from a non-Sauline tribe, becomes king over Judah (a large section of the land), that the people of Israel are slow to give him their loyalty. It takes them seven-and-a-half years to do so. But the time had come and they were ready to fall into line. Before their would-be king, they offer praise and commendation: Even when Saul sat on the throne, you, David, were the true leader of the nation. They recognize David as the one upon whom God’s favor was resting. And when the leaders of Israel profess their allegiance to the king, they use language that rings a bell in our collective memory. We’re familiar with many of the psalms of David, most notably the 23 rd . The psalm begins with the marvelous confession, The LORD is my shepherd. And therein we discover David’s secret to success. As the leaders had declared: David would shepherd God’s people. And he would do well at it – as long as he remembered the LORD was his shepherd. And yes, he would rule over the people as king. And he would thrive in that position – to the extent that he remembered it was the LORD who was King over him. He would be blessed with a loyal following among the people of Israel – as long as he didn’t lose sight of the fact that they were first and foremost the children of God. David’s success would come as he understood the truth that he was a middle man and, as such, he answered to a Higher Power. This understanding was not only critical for his own success; it’s equally true for each one of us and ours. For we’ve all seen the ugly other side. When a leader is plagued with megalomania and rules with an iron fist. When there’s no one to answer to but yourself, you begin to operate under the false assumption that you’re above the law. You can be quick to give yourself permission to take liberties. Issue your own indulgences. Grant your own pardons. Power is addictive, and delusions of grandeur can get into your head and lodge there like cancerous tumors. David, too, would have his downfall. It came when he lost sight of his stewardship and forgot it was God’s name alone on the deed of this people and that it was God alone who held title to both land and kingdom. In whatever you do, take care that you never lose sight of your accountability before God. Consider your time: How are you using it for God’s purposes? Ponder your talents: How are you developing them for God’s glory? Take stock of your treasure: How are you using it to serve God’s people? What are you doing to ensure that you will leave a lasting legacy that will advance the kingdom of God? Think of your children: How are you raising them, as those who are members not only of your family but also the family of God? As long as David kept these matters in mind, he would serve as a successful king. And to the extent that we also do so with all that the LORD has entrusted to us, we will lead lives worthy of the people of God.
Holy God, almighty and eternal, as we more forward in our lives, may we never fail to recognize Your faithful and abiding presence. As we grow and develop, may we never forget it is You who empowers us to do so. Teach us how to do well with the stewardship You have entrusted to us. May we always remember that You are the owner of all that You have made and that every person with whom we interact is claimed by You as Your beloved. Open our eyes, that we might see the sacredness of each human being, crafted by Your hands and made in Your image. Thank You for being our Good Shepherd, that we might shepherd Your people with Your loving care. May we do so for the honor of Your blessed Name.
She must be well attested for her good works,
as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet,
helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.
1 Timothy 5:10
Around the world today many will focus their attention on women, young and old. Many will commit themselves to invest their energies to lift up those who’ve been cast down, to defend those who’ve been abused, to support those whose voices have not been heard, and to celebrate women everywhere around God’s green globe. Since the beginning of the human race, sin has shown itself as the strong have taken advantage of the weak and as the haves have lorded it over those who have not. The powerful have used their power to preserve it; and they continue to guard it jealously. Too many women have suffered the consequences of male domination; too many have experienced the ravages of sin, solely because of their gender. These matters have surely grieved the heart of God, who is the Father of the fatherless and the Defender of the widow. It must be admitted that the Church has not always served the purposes of God in this respect, and it behooves us all to observe and to emulate the loving ways of our Lord. As the Church grew and evolved, its members came to quickly recognize the importance of caring for the needy. They understood that when they loved and cared for others, they were loving and caring for the Lord Himself. They knew the way to express their love for the God whom they could not see was to love their neighbor whom they could. It seems there was a sort of welfare system set up to assist those who could not provide for themselves. Widows fell into this category. In his instructions to the young pastor, Timothy, the apostle urges him to ensure that any family members who might be of assistance to widows should do just that. And it soon became the responsibility of the Church to provide for those who had no family support. Still, such provision was not given carte blanche. And in this verse, we get a glimpse into the standards of the day. The requirements listed are those necessary for a widow to be placed on a list of service, and in them we see the values of the community at the time. While these areas in no way limit the extent of women’s abilities, perhaps we can see in the activities listed areas in which women particularly excel. Good works bookend the short list, and they encapsulate everything that brings assistance to others. As much as I’ve appreciated my father’s provision and guidance in my own life, and as much as I value my own contribution as father in the lives of my children, there’s simply no replacement for a mother’s role. The nurture, love and compassionate care a mother brings is only part of the important bond she shares with her children and that gives grounding to their lives. Hospitality shown to family, friends and strangers; humble service provided to those within the community; tender loving care given to those who are afflicted: Jesus dignified all of these works by His own example. And a woman’s touch in these acts of service complements His leadership. When God’s Kingdom comes, the proud will be debased and the humble raised up. Those who’ve been lightly esteemed will be given greater honor. And God’s good favor will be displayed for all to see. Until that day, we do well to embrace God’s vision and live into that reality, to honor and celebrate those who have gone unrecognized and undervalued by far too many. These matters are most worthy of our consideration if we’re to more fully perceive the image of God and if we’re to come to a greater understanding of our imaginative God, who has created us both male and female.
Good and gracious God, help us all to recognize the gift You have given in the women of the world. May we grow in gratitude for the gifts of grace You’ve bestowed upon us in them. May we affirm their dignity, recognize their contributions, honor their service, and adhere to their guidance, as they lead us in Your loving ways. Where there is injustice, help us to use our power to correct, that Your world might be a safe place for all of Your children and that Your eternal purposes might be made known, here and now.
When Eli heard the noise of the outcry, he said,
"What does the noise of this commotion mean?"
Then the man came hurriedly and told Eli.
1 Samuel 4:14
Eli was an aged priest and a central figure in the Israelite community for many years. And the day Eli heard this noise would be his last day on earth, for the news he was about to hear about it would take the wind of life right out of his sails and the spirit right out of his body. The nation of Israel had gone into battle. And now a messenger had come from the front lines, bearing news of the outcome. Eli’s two sons had both gone out into war. And the ark of the covenant had accompanied them. Aged Eli had cataracted eyes, but he could still hear the commotion in the camp. What could it possibly mean? The old man was perceptive enough to anticipate what he was about to hear. We often have a sixth sense about these things. Still, the word needed to be spoken. Definition must be given to the sound of the outcry if sense is to be made from the confusion. The narrator intends to stop us short, to increase our anticipation, right alongside Eli. For only eight verses earlier the enemy was asking the very same question. They had heard an uproar in the camp of Israel, a sound so great it was described as earth- shaking. The noise of both events was unmistakable but indefinite. Those familiar with the description of the apostolic Pentecost will remember the events of that day described as a noise of a violent and rushing wind. In each case, a defining word needed to be spoken, testimony given, if others were to make sense out of the raw emotion displayed. Absent explanation, the moments would remain shrouded in mystery, leaving them to wonder over the white noise… When emotions are violent within us, we cannot contain them, and others can easily discern the look of horror on our face and observe our body’s trembling. Other times we can hold in check the flow of our feelings, so that few can detect their movement within us. Perceived or not, the only way one can know with certainty the meaning behind the moment is to listen to the story behind it. The Philistines learned that the noise in the Israelite camp was due to the presence of God in their midst. This was the God who had rescued them from their Egyptian overlords with powerful signs and wonders – and the Philistines were moved to fear. Eli would be told the noise he heard was the response to the captured ark of God, the defeat of the army, and the death of his sons – and it took his life-breath away. The noise of Pentecost was attributed to the pouring forth of God’s Spirit, fulfilling the prophecy of the prophet Joel. Stories are told to give definition to outsiders of what would otherwise be ambiguous emotional expression. In our relations with others, then, let us not assume, but inquire. Let us learn to listen well to the stories that are told, that we might come to better understand those who tell them. Otherwise, it will be nothing but noise that we hear. Peter, who preaches at Pentecost, would later urge others: Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is within you. How then will you tell the story of the pandemic? How will you bear witness to the activity of God in these days? In the world and in your life? Learn to tell your story in a way that helps others to hear it. Then the sounds they hear will not be noise, but rather a beautiful melody of God’s gospel of grace. Truth that brings order out of confusion. Love that casts out fear and ushers in peace. Power that overcomes death and imparts new life. This is the content of the wonderful gospel story we’ve been entrusted to tell. May we be faithful in doing so.
Almighty God, You are the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. You are the Source of all things and in You all things hold together. We humbly bow before You on this new day of Your creation, rejoicing at the meaning and order You bring to our lives. Help us to recognize Your fingerprints and see clearly Your good and gracious work in the world. Inspire us to confidently bear witness to Your redemption, restoration and renewal. And instruct us as to how we might better tell our stories, with clarity and sincerity, that others might see in us Your loving will and holy intention.
For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life,
doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies.
2 Thessalonians 3:11
If you belong to a gym and make use of your membership, you’ll likely notice them as soon as you enter the building and swipe your card for access: The treadmills. They’re lined up right there in front of the windows – and for good reason. They’re situated as they are for those who walk, jog or run on them, to occupy their thoughts with other things besides the weariness they feel and the voice that shouts at them to stop. It also helps to keep their mind from focusing on the indisputable fact that they’re going nowhere. Lots of movement, but no progress. Now I really don’t mean to denigrate health clubs, diss those who are members, or dismiss anything that will help you exercise your body. I only mean to use it an example for something far greater: your life as a whole. For sometimes there’s indeed busyness taking place, but there’s no business getting done. Activity’s happening, but nothing of substance is being accomplished. No progress is being made. Energy is expended, but you’re getting nowhere fast… The apostle had heard that there were some in the midst of the congregation in Thessalonica who were out and about yet unproductive. No one could accuse them of inactivity, but their exertion was getting them nowhere, and their action was unhelpful to the community as a whole. In other words: they weren’t being productive members of society. Theirs was a treadmill existence… The availability in our day is greater than ever for things to do. There are endless possibilities presented about how you may spend your time. In fact, you may well discover there are so many good things to do you don’t quite know where to begin. You start this, that and the other – but never bring any of them to completion. Unfinished projects surround you, your mind becomes scattered, and you wonder why you feel so overwhelmed with it all. You’ve lost your focus. You’re living an undisciplined life. And it’s time to get a grip. To regain control of your unmanaged existence. Or at least some semblance of it. Call it a second chance. It might well be high time to downsize, simplify and prioritize. In may seem counterintuitive when nothing seems to be getting done, but the answer may be found in stopping before you start. And so, before launching into life today, take a moment to center yourself. Breathe. Now: What are the three most important things you need to do today? Things that are good for you and useful for others. Which of the three should be at the top of your list? (If any one of the them is too much to be accomplished in your day, break it down into smaller chunks – and choose one of them.) Write them down. And now: focus. Keep those three items in front of you. Other things will surely jump out in front of you with urgent insistence. You may attend to them, or you may tell them to wait for another day. Don’t let them deter you from your course. Then, in addition to your three tasks, try this: Give something away and throw something out. It’s part of simplifying your life. If you will carry out this counsel, you’re well on your way to a more disciplined and productive life. Doing so will give a gift to yourself, a blessing to others and an offering to God. Moreover, it will help you recall the reference to the verse above: You’re giving yourself a second chance – with only three tasks before you, one thing to give away and one thing to toss. 2 Thessalonians 3:11. It’s a good reminder, for a more satisfying life.
God of time and eternity, thank You for the precious gift of this day and all the possibilities within it. Help me to recognize Your presence in each moment. Grant me the wisdom to determine the most important things to accomplish. Strengthen me with the power I need to carry them to completion. Teach me how to sort and to simplify. And infuse me with joy, as I go about my day and seek to bring blessing to others. May my actions be worthy of the time invested, beneficial to my well-being and pleasurable to You.
So she departed and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers;
and she happened to come to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz,
who was of the family of Elimelech.
Nature or nurture? Free will or determinism? Since we humans first mused over the question of purpose and meaning, we’ve bandied about these questions. Indeed, some will dismiss them outright, deeming any answers unknowable and irrelevant. Why waste one’s time with them? What’s important is not the how and the why, but what we do with what we’ve got. Others will insist that considerations of what for will strongly influence what now. In the particular case before us, Ruth, a foreigner, sets out to glean (collect grain left behind in the fields after the reapers have done their work). The law allowed Ruth to do this as a way to provide for herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi, to whom she had pledged her devotion. The narrator tells us that Ruth happened to come to a certain field. Another translation puts it: she found herself in the field (as if she had awakened from a dream). A literal rendering from the Hebrew would tell us her chance chanced upon, which makes it almost intentionally ambiguous. So how is it, exactly that Ruth ends up in this particular field? That’s up to you, the reader, to decide. Unbeknownst to Ruth, this field is a special one. Its owner is a rich relative of her deceased husband. He is a good man, and he’s in a position to do well for Ruth and for her mother-in-law. Naomi will soon play the role of matchmaker. She will do everything in her power to arrange a marriage between the two. But as objectively as the story is told, we have a distinct suspicion that there’s more going on behind the scenes. The arrangement seems more than an earthly one. And indeed, some are moved to attribute what takes place to the work of God. They’re moved to bear witness to seeing God’s fingerprints all over the place. Others will rebut: God’s fingerprints? Show me. Unless you can dust, lift, and display them, you have no proof. Nope: it was just a chance occurrence. Still others will shake their heads at the senseless debaters, enjoy the beauty of the story, smile, and happily proceed on their way. Soon enough, Boaz will bless Ruth with the words, “May the LORD reward your work…” but we’re not told if Boaz realized he was instrumental in how God would bring that blessing about… As for us, we might look back at our own history (and pre-history) and ask those what if questions: What if our parents never would have bumped into each other? Or their parents? The chances it could have been otherwise seem to far outweigh everything coming together as it did. But, of course, that things turned out the way they did can now be declared a certainty. And we’re left to marvel at what we call the miracle of our existence. You’ve awakened to this new day. May you find great joy in it. For you’ve been graced to take your place and to play your part. I, for one, will rejoice in the One whose fingerprints I see all around me. I will give thanks to the LORD, and I will declare that He is good.
Almighty God, You sovereignly work Your will behind the scenes. You bring good out of bad and You continue to bless Your people with life. Open our eyes to recognize Your faithful presence. Overwhelm us with Your grace, until our hearts overflow in gratitude for the gift of life You’ve given us. Empower us to do all that we can to provide for those in need, and in this way bring You all honor, glory and praise.
Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11
Just remember to tell the people good news. There’s enough bad news in the world already. Those words were spoken to me by my centenarian great-grandfather after I first told him I’d felt the call to ministry and decided to enroll in the seminary. His counsel to me was nothing less than a reminder never to depart from the gospel message – the good news of God’s love for the world. Indeed, it should be at the heart and center of all that we endeavor to do and to say, as representatives of the Lord we serve. Paul, an apostle chosen by God to bear God’s message far and wide, was a consummate encourager. In the words we read above, we see Paul doing exactly what he counsels. Throughout his brief epistle, Paul recognizes and raises up the good that is already taking place within the community – and then he encourages the people to excel in it all the more. And so he does with encouragement itself. We all know the world can be a challenging place. There’s no little pushing and pulling, grabbing and guarding, strife and contention. As people jockey for position, it’s not always just to get to the goal as soon as possible – it’s to get there ahead of others. And in the race to the finish, your weakness is welcome news to your opponents; your stumbling, something over which they can rejoice. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and it’s not uncommon after battling it out in the public sphere to return home beaten up, bloodied and bruised. The Christian community was not (and is not) immune from these sinful and selfish practices. Of course, this is not the way of Jesus – the One the Paul’s readers sought to follow, the One who was indeed abiding in their midst. But notice how Paul addresses the matter. He doesn’t express disappointment – that, by now, they should have been doing much better than they were. He recognizes the encouragement already present in its nascent form and spurs them on in a positive direction, that they might bring it to full maturity. If you’re anything like me, you know you’re not perfect. You know that, although you’ve made progress toward becoming your best self, you’re not there yet. There’s still room for improvement, still more work to be done. And when someone points out how far you’ve yet to go or questions why you haven’t gotten there yet, it can take the wind right out of your sails. You don’t want to hear it, and you may well avoid any future interactions with that person. After all, they shrivel your spirit. But if someone recognizes the ground you’ve already covered and the progress you’ve already made, it encourages your spirit and stokes your passion, and you’re moved to press on to pursue your goals. A true encourager not only tells you you can do it; he recognizes you’re already doing it and tells you you’re well on your way to being a shining star. Although Jesus challenged His followers to devote themselves to God’s ways, He never counseled competition. Rather, He reminded them not to judge each other – but to be cognizant of the beams in their own eyes before pointing out the splinters in the eyes of others. If you want to foster progress in the people around you, look for evidence of the good that’s already there. Acknowledge it, affirm it and express your personal delight. Doing so will impel the discouraged to press on. It will impart enthusiasm to those languishing in spirit. As you engage in mutual encouragement with whatever team of which you are a part, you and those who partner with you will get farther than you ever could have done otherwise.
Thank You, gracious Lord, for the faithful support You’ve given me in kind and generous encouragers. Thank You for those who’ve recognized progress I’ve made and whose words of support have spurred me on to greater things. May the encouragement I’ve received inspire me to bless others with confidence, to valiantly face the hindrances and hurdles they encounter. Help me to serve as a positive influence in my interactions with others, to love and care for them as You have loved and cared for me. And may I always remember to share Your good news of grace, that it may impart to others life and faith and hope.
He said to Him, "O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel?
Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house."
Over and over again we see it played out in the Holy Book: God works in and through the weakest and unlikeliest of characters. Think of Joseph, a son born late in life, sold into slavery. Moses, with his speech impediment. Later, we’ll see it in Jeremiah, who was just a junior when God called him. We’ll see it in David, the young and ruddy shepherd boy. And in Amos, a herdsman and grower of sycamore figs. Still later, we’ll witness it in a young and poor peasant girl named Mary, and in a violent persecutor named Saul. These characters are as surprised as we are – that they were chosen by God to do the impossible in the most hopeless of situations. This time, the words of wonder belong to Gideon. He’s not being humble or modest in speaking them. He’s being brutally honest. His vision for his own life and career extended no further than his tomorrow, and he expected it to be much like his today. He knew the family he had come from and the place he occupied within it. He did not lament his place in life. Nor the limitations they placed upon him. He was realistic about matters, and he made the best of what he had been given. Perhaps he had never seen himself as much of a leader? Or, if he had, it was in a much smaller venue that that of delivering a nation from their oppressors. He scoffed at the suggestion! He laughed at the proposal that he would participate in any way. God’s messenger had greeted him with the address, O valiant warrior! But Gideon was certain he had the wrong man. And what else had the angel told him? The LORD is with you! That, in the end, is what would make the difference. For Gideon. For all the other unlikely characters whose names will become familiar. And for us. For as Holy Scripture unfolds before us, the more we come to see that every character within it is sinful and broken. There are no exceptions. And we find that there’s only one true Hero – the LORD Himself. God can work through the improbable and the ordinary to bring about the impossible. And God does. Time and time again… Gideon’s question can bring us great comfort. For we, too, recognize the limitations that keep our ambitions in check. We, too, are aware of the glass ceilings others construct that restrict our growth and development and limit our success to that which can be managed by those in power. And while God does empower you to bring about the best from the raw materials He has given you, when God calls your name and deigns to work through you to get His job done, the end result will be something wondrous indeed. Those through whom God has accomplished the greatest deeds are those who have remained humble through it all. Because they know better than anyone it could not have been done without the power of God working through them. For our part, today, let us commit ourselves to doing all that is in our own power to develop the gifts God has given us and to hone the skills with which God has endowed us. Let us be encouraged by the great and awesome power of God. And let us hold fast in faith to the One who is able to bring about extraordinary wonders though the most surprising characters and accomplish His great purposes of deliverance and salvation. He’s done it before. He’ll do it again. Take heart and be encouraged, humble servant of God: The LORD is with you!
Almighty God, merciful and compassionate, You’re able to work Your good and gracious will in and through Your weary and woeful people. May we never underestimate Your power, overestimate our abilities, or doubt Your ability to accomplish Your purposes in us. Use us as You will to carry out Your work this day, to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim freedom to the oppressed. Empower us to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and care for all in need, that they might feel Your touch through our hands and hear Your voice speaking through our words of grace.
... so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects,
bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
When my faith first came alive, I couldn’t get enough of it. My parents had taken me to church, Sunday school and confirmation classes (what my Catholic friends called catechism). I trust I was taught all about God and Jesus, but it was as if the sun never quite broke through the clouds for me to see its light or to feel its warmth. But sometime later, in my high school years, faith was kindled within me. The wind of God’s Spirit had dispersed those clouds, and I could see what I’d been unable to recognize throughout all the years of prior instruction: God wasn’t a subject to be studied or an idea imprisoned in the pages of a dry and dusty Book – holy though it may be. God was living and active. He was my Creator, and He knew my name. Like a child that, whether suddenly or gradually, finally realizes what it means to be a beloved member of a family, I had finally come to understand the relationship God had initiated with me long before my awareness of it. And this faith that had been kindled within me: it quickly caught fire. For if it was true that God was real, I wanted to know more about Him – all about Him. If He really cared about my life – the thoughts in my head, the words on my tongue, the actions of my life – then I wanted to think and say and do what was good and right and true. I wanted to live in a way that was pleasing to Him, to do the very best with the life He had given me. I no longer wanted to live for myself; I wanted to live for Him. I was experiencing what Scripture calls my first love: A hunger for God that can hardly be sated. A thirst for the divine that cannot be slaked. And those ancient words of Holy Scripture – words which up to that point meant little to me – now quickened my spirit and spoke right into my soul. The Word of God nourished, refreshed and enriched me. This wonderful and mysterious God was coming alive to me. And I longed to increase in my knowledge of God. I wanted to discover it all and to leave no stone unturned. And as I began to listen to Jesus, observe His deeds of compassion and behold His works of mercy, I came to understand grace. It has since become my favorite word. For I came to understand that even more important than what I do is what my Lord has first done for me. Like an expectant parent, whose love grows strong long before her child takes its first breath, so God rejoiced over me long before I was aware of His existence. God loves me because God is God and God is good. And that means this: I can trust Him. I can trust Him to be good to me, to care for me, and to love me – even when I am most unworthy of His love. It means the assurance of my salvation is not based upon any decision I make or the appropriateness of my confession. My confidence comes from the character of God, who is faithful when I am faithless, steadfast when I waver, and reliable when I am rebellious. God seeks me out when I’m so lost that I could hardly hope to find my way back home, raises me up when I fall, forgives me when I know not what I do. This is the God I have discovered, and each time the clouds disperse and the light of my Lord breaks through, I am spurred on by the epiphanies. My first love returns. And again: I find I cannot get enough of it. Will I ever fully live into a life worthy of the love of this great and awesome God? It’s an impossibility, I’m sure. But God’s love is based not on my worthiness. And that truth spurs me on to do all that I can.
Gracious Heavenly Father, when I consider Your loving mercy poured out on my behalf, I’m filled with wonder. You are the great Initiator. In Your loving grace You called me into being. You knew me and treasured me long before I had any awareness of You. How can I worthily respond to such grace, except by treating others the way You first treated me? May my actions be consistent with Your compassion. May others see You working in me, that an awareness of Your grace might dawn upon them, faith might be kindled into flame, and they might come to know You more deeply and glorify Your holy Name.
And the captain of the LORD’s host said to Joshua,
"Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy."
And Joshua did so.
The lot in which our house is set touches on four adjacent properties. The perimeter is marked by a fence line which encloses the space we call home. It’s been on my mind lately because some of the fence is coming down and needs to be replaced. The fence is important for several reasons, including safety, privacy and ownership. After all, if there were no clear line of demarcation, who would know whose was whose? I’ve lived at this site for almost two decades, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. I’ve worked the ground and planted gardens, cut down trees and planted new ones. I’ve installed sprinkling systems, laid brick walkways and constructed wooden railings. I’ve invested time and sweat and money. And you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I regularly refer to it as mine. But the bank will remind me that their name, too, is on the title, and that while I may be holding the mortgage, they’re holding the deed… Joshua has just led the people of God across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. All is new and fresh and exciting. There would be battles to be fought, boundaries to be made, homes to inhabit and cities to settle. But before Joshua and the people go too far toward taking up resistance and putting down roots, Joshua has a striking encounter. Seemingly out of nowhere he sees a man standing with sword drawn. Friend or enemy? Joshua does not know, and the man is not bent on binaries. Instead, he identifies himself as the one sent by the LORD of heaven and earth. And he speaks a solemn reminder to Joshua that is here recorded for all generations to come. Joshua’s mentor Moses had been told by the Lord God at the unconsumable burning bush that the land on which he was standing was holy. The truth is repeated to Joshua: This is sacred space, hallowed ground, holy land. In other words: It belongs to God. As much as the Canaanites could claim it as their own and as much as the Israelites would insist that God had given it to them, in the end, the Owner was none other than the LORD God of heaven and earth. Indeed, it is Holy Land, God’s turf – this sacred space in which we reside. Joshua may claim his sandals and his feet, but the place where he was standing belonged to God. It was a truth Joshua and the people would do well to always keep before them… As much as we can celebrate and sing about this land being both my land and your land, in the end it is God who holds the deed. Now and always. What does this mean? It means we are not its owners, but its stewards. We have been given responsibility to care for this planet and to treat all of creation with the holy reverence it deserves as that which belongs to the Creator. It is both selfish and sinful to abuse the land, to have no other consideration than economic gain for our own generation. It is imperative that we leave this land better than we found it, preserving what has been entrusted to us in this time for those who will inhabit the land after us. We are pilgrims passing through to our heavenly abode, temporary sojourners destined for eternity. Meanwhile, we have been called to be caretakers of this majestic land which is our Father’s world. And now, I had better get out there to repair that fence.
Good and gracious God, You’ve entrusted to us this land which we call our own. May we never forget its true ownership. As we care for Your world, grant us a respectful reverence to recognize all that we touch is holy, because it has come from You and bears Your fingerprints. May we honor You in our stewardship and continue to pursue ways to live together in peace and harmony, sharing this sacred space, united as those who owe our very existence to You. Thank You for the wonder and beauty of Your creation. May Your presence be unmistakable in our midst today, that we may respond with praises before You.
Continue to February 2021