|Daily Devotionals and Weekly Virtual Church Services|
For the safety of all in our ILC community and beyond, we have decided to forego all gatherings until further notice. In the meantime, we will provide Daily Devotionals and Weekly Virtual Church Services through this webpage. We encourage the congregation to use the posted devotionals to "virtually join together" in prayer, daily, at 9:00am.
... and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law,
but that which is through faith in Christ,
the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.
Today is Reformation Day. On this date, October 31, in the year 1517, Martin Luther, a young Roman Catholic priest, went to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, and there nailed his 95 Theses. It was the spark that lit the fire of the Reformation. It was a time of moving forward by looking back. It was a time to reconsider roots, reexamine established foundations, recheck moorings to see if the Church was still tied (or not) to the words and ways of Jesus. Luther loved the Church – before the 31 st of October and after. But his spirit could not endure the abuses that were happening within it. What was at stake? What moved him to do what he did? It was nothing less than the central tenets of the faith upon which the Christian Church had stood since its inception: the gospel of God centered in Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. What Luther had discovered, buried under the rites, ceremonies and traditions of the church and obscured by its current campaigns, was the righteousness of God and the freedom it brings to believers. The righteousness of God is not only about who God is (sinless, holy and pure); it’s about what God does (God justifies sinners solely out of compassionate mercy). Which is to say that our sin problem is not corrected by our own efforts (a futile and Sisyphean task), but by God Himself, in and through His Son, Jesus the Christ. What real difference does this make? Is this not merely intra-Church squabbling, unworthy of any time and attention of those in the secular world? Luther was convinced otherwise. This had everything to do with the character of God and the importance of communicating that character to every person. For God is no taskmaster. God is loving and merciful, gracious and compassionate. In Jesus, God comes not to judge, but to save. And the power of that good news (gospel) message sets us free from the fear that we will never match up to God’s standards, that we will tragically fall short of what God has required. For many secretly hold on to the hope that our good works will, somehow, overbalance the bad, so that we will squeak by and squeeze through the pearly gates of heaven. That, in some way, we can outsmart God and enter into the heavenly kingdom with God’s back turned; and then, undiscovered, find a way to blend in with those who really belong there. If it sounds like foolishness, that’s exactly what it is. But that’s the kind of thing that happens when our minds are motivated by fear. The gospel message is that God Himself has paid the price for our sin; that God Himself has saved us in Christ; that we have been set free by His sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. It is with His righteousness that we are clothed and not our own. The gospel sets us free to do the kinds of things God would have us do – serving our neighbors in love and ministering to their needs. Our faith is fixed on Jesus and the work of God done in Him and through Him. Our faith in the goodness of God rejoices in deep gratitude and responds to our salvation by committing itself in dedicated discipleship to carry out God’s will, on earth as it is in heaven. In this short verse, found at the beginning of the last race to the finish in one of the apostle’s final writings, Paul summarizes this gospel message. All legalistic advances he had made before coming to know Christ, all credit he might have claimed for himself – all was set aside. For Paul knew that it paled in comparison to the work Christ had accomplished on Calvary. He placed all bets on Jesus and trusted completely in God. That same conviction was in the heart of the young Martin Luther, and he held to it firmly until his last breath. Countless Christians who’ve come after him, Lutheran or not, have recognized the power of his convictions, expressed gratitude for his persistent tenacity, and held firmly to the same Truth upon which he stood. As the great hymnwriter put it: My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. No merit of my own I claim, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. Amen.
Good and gracious God, we give You thanks this day for Your servant, Martin Luther: for his deep convictions and dogged determination to see them through to the end. We give You thanks for Your apostle, Saul of Tarsus: for his tireless work in communicating the purity of Your gospel, far and wide. But most of all we give You thanks for what You have done in Your Son Jesus on the cross of Calvary. For the righteousness You have displayed and the salvation You have won, freely extended to all who will receive it. Thank You for opening our eyes to Your saving and justifying work and for opening our hearts to faith. All praise in heaven and earth be to You alone, for the honor and glory of Your holy name.
And sanctify My Sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you,
that you may know that I am the LORD your God.
I will admit two things at the outset: First, as far back as I can remember, I have always been intrigued by numbers. If you’re a regular reader of this devotion, perhaps you’ve already come to know that about me. Second, this being a most unusual year that will surely go down in infamy, I followed the numbers to see what I would find in the twentieth verse of the twentieth chapter from the prophet Ezekiel. And while I maintain that I’m not one to be superstitious and would strongly counsel against the practice of closing one’s eyes, offering up a quick prayer for divine direction, and then opening the Good Book to discover the words that jump out from the page and what meaning they might mean for us today, I think it is worth considering both what these ancient words meant for the people in Ezekiel’s day and how they might apply to our own. The prophet speaks and writes during the days of the dissolution of the Kingdom of Judah. David’s dynasty, which had endured for four centuries, was expected to last forever. But then a foreign nation had invaded, seized power, and all that was normal about their lives had been upended. The words of LORD, spoken through the prophet, come in the middle of a recounting of what God had told their ancestors years before, immediately following their rescue from Egypt. The counsel of God might be summarized as such: Order your lives in such a way so as to remember that I am your God and that you are My people and so that you will never forget how I’ve rescued you from your bondage. Integral to that remembering was the keeping of the Sabbath Day, of setting the Day aside, keeping it holy, special, inviolably sacred. Not simply to keep a rule mandated by the One who reigned over them as their true King. Rather, it was for their own good: so that they’d remember their most foundational relationship, between themselves and their Creator, the One and Only, who had declared, I am your God, and you are My people. If they were to maintain the practice of setting aside one day each week to lift their eyes heavenward and to consider God’s faithfulness, they would be moved to gratitude and they would remember their foundational relationship, initiated by God. And, they would continue to consider how God had instructed them to live as His people. How might these words apply to us today? We would be wrong merely to advocate rigid religious rules, for doing so would mischaracterize God as One who commands Do this or else! However, we mustn’t miss the correlation between habitual practice and maintaining memory. If something is integral to our well- being, we must take pains not to forget it and to order our lives in such a way that we will remember. Thus, we have pillboxes to organize our medications, calendars to remember important dates, phone alarms to remind us of today’s not-to-be-missed appointments. And we have Sabbaths to remind us of our relationship with God. The spiritual discipline of Scripture reading, meditation and memorization, prayer, fasting and worship: These regular devotions assist us in remembering our Creator, and they keep us from losing our way. It’s my conviction that this is indeed an important word for us to take to heart in this year of 2020, lest our pride get the best of us and we be deluded into thinking we need no one but ourselves. Holy moments help us learn to trust in God.
Good and gracious God, in Your compassionate mercy, You consistently come to the aid of Your people. Time and time again, You save us from our enemies, both internal and external, and You prove Your faithfulness. Impress upon us the importance of setting aside regular time to consider Your redemptive work on our behalf and to contemplate how we’re living our lives in response to what You’ve first done for us. Center our relationship in You, and help us to carry out Your beneficent intentions, that Your will might be done, on earth as it is in heaven, for Your glory and for the good of all Your people.
I do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers.
You have made a greater impact on others than you know. In countless ways you've touched others' lives by your words and in your actions. Even something as simple as a smile may well have given the gift to another that kept them moving forward throughout the day and lingered in their thoughts for years to come. I know, because it's happened to me. In these words of Paul to the beloved church in Ephesus, he makes it known that they have influenced his life, stirred his heart, and changed his world. Is this claiming too much? I don't think so. For these people were not mere tools, use by the apostle to establish himself and to build his resume. They were not individuals whose lives were equal to numbers, which could be summed up as evidence of his ministerial success in growing the church. Far from it. Paul cherished each one of them and spent time in prayer considering their needs and going before God's throne of grace on their behalf. Are you aware of someone who holds you in their thoughts? Do you know someone who prays for you on a regular basis? If so, you've been blessed with rich relationship and loving community. What a gift to know that you've made such an impression on someone that they are moved to gratitude because of you and they make mention of you to God in their prayers. What could be more inspiring to continue your course of compassionately caring for others? These words also invite us to consider how we align with the apostle in expressing our gratitude to and for others, for the mark they've made on our own lives. Doing so can serve to create within us deep humility, for we recognize the influence of many in having made us who we are today. And when you take the next step and express your appreciation to another, you give them a gift that will warm their heart and remind them that they matter in this life - for they've made a difference in your own. Paul's unceasing thanks for his audience bears witness to the lasting impact they've made on his life. Most of us have heard countless speeches made by politicians who cite the stories of others, and we're suspicious about their inclusion. We do not have to be overly skeptical to wonder if they're not incorporated into the speech solely to boost the speaker's likeability factor. Contrariwise, how does it feel when someone you admire credits you with influencing their life positively and does so as a genuine expression of gratitude? Every word, every action, done with care and consideration for another person, has the potential for this kind of impact. Never doubt it. May it move you to press on in your commitment to continue your course. And when someone has made a meaningful impression upon you, don't hesitate to acknowledge their influence or to follow through with your intention to express your thanks. It might very well make a world of difference, to remind them that they matter and to spur them on to continue to share the best within them for the good of those within their influence. Whom will you pray for today? For whom will you give thanks? Don't forget to let them know. Prayer
Good and gracious God, thank You for the blessing You've given me in those who've influenced my life and the person I am today. Thank You for the rich and caring community that surrounds me. May I never take others for granted, but instead be quick to acknowledge and to communicate my appreciation. Open my eyes and increase my awareness of the blessing I have been given in those who remember me before You in prayer. May this realization serve to create within me a deeper humility and gratitude, and may it encourage me to continue to serve others, even as You lived Your life among us, not to be served, but to serve, and to give Your life in loving sacrifice for the world. May all honor and praise be Yours alone.
Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands.
In those early, awkward and painful adolescent years, buffeted by waves of exhilarating highs and agonizing lows, many become intrigued by the mystery of the opposite sex. Perhaps there were moments that occurred for you that made such an impact that they set you off in a direction that changed the course of your life from that point forward. Or things happened that, to this day, affect how you think about yourself and others. What I have in mind is not quite so significant, but perhaps no less stirring. Was there a time when that special someone took your hand in theirs, held your palm up, and then wrote upon it, in ink? It could have been a smiley face or a heart. It might have been a phone number. But there it was: a mark on your flesh, a continuing reminder of the person and the act, assuring the author and you that he or she would be on your mind on a rather regular basis for the foreseeable future. We can't be sure that the prophet Isaiah ever experienced the adolescent thrill just described, but during his call and commission, his self-described unclean lips were touched by a burning coal, and I expect that that mark, too, stayed with him for some time. And so, when he addresses the concerns of the people, who felt that perhaps the LORD had forsaken and forgotten them, he uses powerful imagery to remind them of the faithfulness of God. You think God has forgotten you? Not a chance! Perish the thought! God has inscribed your name with indelible ink on the palms of His hands and in the center of His heart. You are on God's mind, now and always; you need never doubt it or think otherwise… But we all know how hard this life can get. We experience unpleasant surprise and heartbreaking loss. And no matter how strong our faith, it oftentimes doesn't take much for something to happen that causes doubts we thought we had banished forever to rise up and tower over us. It's then that we need to remember these words of assurance, that we might hold onto them in the midst of our crisis. And, as God is wont to do: Words become action, promises become incarnate. For we see the image lifted high on the cross of Calvary, in the One who experienced the excruciating emotion of feeling forsaken, and in whose hands the nails that pierced Him and held them to the cross were reminders of you. How so? In the profound mystery of God's grand rescue, those nails were both by us and for us. Which is to say that it was your sin and mine that forced His hand, and it was for us that He willingly offered Himself in sacrifice for our sins. You are inscribed on the palms of His hands. And after His resurrection, Jesus, spoke to the one who doubted, “Put your finger here and see My hands… and do not doubt, but believe.” This salvation event, this crucifixion and resurrection, is at the very heart of the identity of God. And it is when you recognize it and receive it - as done for you - that the course of your life will be forever changed.
Almighty God, we give You thanks and praise for the words and images of hope You've granted to us through Your prophet Isaiah and through all the servants of Your Word down through the generations. May we never doubt Your good intentions for us. Continue to remind us of Your good promises and instill in us confident hope that You accompany us through this life and will one day welcome us Home into our eternal dwelling - in that place where there will be no more mourning or crying or pain. Until then, empower us to encourage one another and to serve all people according to Your good and perfect will. Be glorified in us and through us this day. And may Your Name always be hallowed in our midst.
But you know that it was because of a bodily illness
that I preached the gospel to you the first time...
It's usually the case that those who plan are the ones who get things done. For without a plan or an organized purpose, we're apt to wander aimlessly. Those who will accomplish much are those who will learn to adjust to the circumstances at hand; they will not be impeded by the roadblocks that inevitably arise. As it has been said: They will learn to make lemonade out of lemons. There are some who thrive when the opportunity presents itself to go with Plan B, for it sets them free to pursue and display their innovative genius. The apostle Paul, author of this letter to the churches scattered about the region of Galatia (modern day Turkey), was a man of determination. Few would question he was a person who planned. And he was a consummate innovator. Whatever he found confronting him as a hindrance, he somehow found a way to get around it. In some cases, he even turned the impediment itself into a tool he used to achieve his intended purpose. With respect to his ministry to the churches in Galatia, the evangelist here reminds his readers of the bodily illness with which he was afflicted during their first meeting. Paul certainly would have much preferred to have been well-rested and in full health when he first delivered the good news of Jesus, the Savior of the world. We do not doubt Paul's disappointment when he felt the first waves of the undiagnosed disease falling upon him, for sickness never strikes us at an opportune time. At least initially. For in Paul's case, he was able to use it to his advantage, to emphasize the message he had come to share. For the gospel (the good news) which the evangelist (a bearer of a good message) had come to impart had nothing to do with him, but everything to do with the One he had come to proclaim. When it comes to the ways of the world, the presenter and the presentation are almost as important as that which is being presented. All eyes are on the one who is smartly dressed, with clear complexion and perfect hair. All ears are open to the smooth and strong voice of the practiced orator. All attention is focused on the one who's learned to entertain us with words that capture our imaginations. But for Paul, it was the polar opposite. He came into their midst as one afflicted. And while others might have been embarrassed or shamed, Paul recognized it as the perfect stage upon which he could present his precious gospel. If the medium is the message, in Paul's case the truth that was communicated was that the power was not in the presenter, but in the message itself - and the center of that message was a Person. I can bear witness to many a one confined to a hospital bed who used that venue as an opportunity to minister to those who tended them. From their supine position they shined their light so that those who cared for them felt privileged to do so. Where might the blessings be in this season of COVID-19? Might we view this time as an opportunity to learn humility and patience and to grow in our tenderness and compassion toward others? In the face of sickness and death, might we learn to increase the value we place on each human life? Might we learn to more quickly lift our eyes heavenward in prayer, grow in our spiritual sensitivity to God's presence, and learn to trust that God is not only with us, but for us? While we await a vaccine and pray for a cure, might we reconcile ourselves to this virus and turn it to our advantage, so that we will emerge from this crisis better and not bitter? Will we let it get the best of us and let it have the final word? Or, in the face of it, will we declare with certainty that the Final Word belongs to God - and that it will be a word of life? The opportunity stands before us. The choice is ours.
Sovereign Lord, nothing in heaven or on earth will be able to hinder Your perfect plan for Your people. You have a way of working all things together for our good - and for that we give You praise. We're grateful that You've spoken Your Word in the incarnation of Your Son and that, when all is said and done, the Final Word will be Yours alone. We rejoice in the promise that nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from Your love, shown to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Let nothing hinder us from sharing Your love - and ours - with others. May Your Name alone be praised, and may all glory alone be Yours.
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him.
Jeremiah was called by God at a young age to serve as the LORD's prophet to nations. He initially resisted God's call, citing his young age and his inexperience as reasons not to take upon himself this divine assignment. But, of course, there's no saying no to God. God knew what He was doing when He called this son of Hilkiah, of priestly descent. And although few in Jeremiah's day would have deemed his service successful, none would have doubted his faithfulness. He had a long career, counseled many kings, and wrote more than any other biblical prophet. In addition to the work that bears his name, he has another inclusion in the Holy Writ: The Book of Lamentations. Appropriately titled, this five- chaptered writing - reminiscent of the five books of Moses - consists of a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of their enemies. In these actions, Jeremiah saw the hand of God at work - surprisingly on the side of the invaders and against His chosen people. But this point must not be missed: the judgment was not final. God was using a foreign nation as a tool to bring His people to their senses. The destruction was, in the end, for their own good. At least that was what Jeremiah saw and how he, as a prophet of the LORD, interpreted what he and his people were experiencing. The now-aged prophet carefully crafted his work as a perfect acrostic, seven times making the run from A to Z (in Hebrew, from Aleph to Tav) - once in each chapter and a trinity of times in chapter three. And right in the middle of that third chapter, in the heart of his lament, he pens a wonderful word of hope. The LORD is good… It is a confession untarnished by the horrific things that have happened to the people and to their land. For God's character is immutable. God is perfect in integrity, whole through and through. God is therefore completely and wholly trustworthy, faithful and true. What is to be our human response? To look to God, to seek Him, to wait upon Him. It brings to mind one of the methods we've employed in training our yellow lab, Carter. In the presence of food, our almost 100-pound lug can perk up quickly and be most attentive. Pavlov's dog has nothing on our Carter's salivation. When he sees or smells that one of us has food, his focus immediately becomes fixed upon us. The command to sit will be given - and quickly Carter goes down, attentive as ever. The next word - Stay - is spoken, as the mouth- watering morsel is placed on the ground between us - and we step back. Now with equal distance between us and the food, one final command is given: Wait! What happens then? This creature's greatest urge is to eat, but Carter has learned to adjust his priorities so that food is no longer ultimate. He fixes his eyes upon us. And he waits. In the back of his animal brain, he knows the food is there on the ground. But he doesn't avert his eyes. And I'm convinced that during that time, relationship and trust are growing between us. He comes to know us better, as well as our intentions on his behalf, and he's learned that our ultimate purpose for him is not to test him or to torture him, but to bring him benefit. And perhaps that's one of the things God wanted for His people - that they would learn to fix their eyes upon Him and to fix their hearts upon carrying out His will by keeping the commandments He had given them. That they might come to a deeper understanding of His character - that He is merciful, compassionate, and abounding in steadfast love. And that they might learn a deeper trust - that no matter what happens in this life, God is good, all the time, and God is always at work to bless His beloved children. Then, in the days of Jerusalem's devastation. And now, in this year of 2020.
Almighty God, help us, Your people, to grow in our knowledge of You. Open our eyes to Your will and to Your ways. For the more we come to know You, the deeper our trust will be. Bless us with the assurance of Your presence and the conviction of Your good intentions on our behalf. Motivate us to communicate these truths in the words we speak and the actions we take. Make us more attentive to Your call and fix our eyes upon You. As we do so, our faith will grow. All glory and praise be Yours, now and forever.
But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus.
2 Corinthians 7:6
This life is not easy. Perhaps it's laughable even to read those words at this particular point in time - for most of us are experiencing this year of 2020 as anything but easy. But we're not alone in our struggles. For it seems that the difficulty of life has always been the case. There have always been challenges. There are victories and celebrations, to be sure; but for each of us life has its share of disappointment, loss and heartache. The apostle's conviction is that God cares for us. God does not stand aloof in our times of difficulty and sorrow; God engages with us. And it is in our most vulnerable times that we can experience our greatest spiritual growth. Our tender hearts, touched by the compassionate mercy of God, can blossom and bloom in faith and trust. For if we can come to know that God is with us in the hardest of times, we can more easily recognize God's presence in all of life. But how does this happen? How does God do it? How does God bring us comfort us in our time of need? Surely the promises of His Word can provide for us a measure of solace and peace. The Bible is a record of the inspiration of God's people, and it is a treasure trove for us in our lives of faith. To become familiar with the troubles of others and how they came to be comforted by God's presence and compassionate care can bring us encouragement when we ourselves go through our own troubles. And to read of the confident confessions and heartfelt convictions of Christ-followers who have come before us can strengthen our own faith when our trust is languishing and our spirits have become depressed. Then there are those times that God words through human agency, as He did for Paul in the arrival of Titus. Paul recognized in his dear friend the very presence of God and through Titus, Paul experienced God's compassionate care. Although words are powerful, sometimes the physical presence of a dear friend brings us peace that words alone cannot convey. I expect you can think of times when you had an accident, suffered a loss or sank into depression - and the difference it made to you to have someone by your side. You knew that you were not alone at that point in time, and the simple presence of a caring friend, there with you to put an arm around you at a time when you thought you could not go on, profoundly influenced you for good. God surely cares for us through others. God's Spirit inspires the Christian community and calls it into action. What joy to know that you can be an agent of God for good in these days. Draw your strength from God and the power of His Word, and pray that God will open your eyes to the needs of others in your circle of influence. I expect you will not have to look far to find one in crisis. Jesus will work in you and through you to bring God's comfort to others. Thank God for the Tituses in your life, and for the privilege of being a Titus to others.
Good and gracious God, You faithfully and compassionately care for Your people, and You often do so through others You send into our lives. Thank You for Your steadfast comfort. Draw our hearts to You and strengthen us for the service to which You call us. Open our eyes to the needs of others and infuse us with insight, energy and wisdom, that we might speak words that will comfort those who are down and depressed. In these days, You are teaching us the power of physical presence. Help us to do what we can today, working within our limitations, to show up in others' lives, letting them know You love them and that they are not alone. In all things, in our words and by our actions, may You alone be praised.
Thus says the LORD,
"Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might,
let not a rich man boast of his riches..."
The word would not have had to be spoken had it not been taking place. There was a lot of boasting going on in the days of Jeremiah's Judah. Undoubtedly, this has always been the case. It was not just in the young prophet's day nor solely in our own. Since the dawn of the human race, hubris has been part of our make-up. Those fortunate enough to go through adolescence without acne may take pride in their complexion and think themselves better than those plagued with pimples. Those who find that they can move faster, jump higher, or run farther than others may take credit for their coordination and count their athleticism as a sure sign that they're worth more and deserve more than the klutzy and the incompetent. Those gifted with a bright mind might look with disdain upon those who are slow to catch on, frustrated that others cannot keep up, while at the same time smugly satisfied that they don't. And those born into wealthy families can grow into seeing themselves not only privileged, but rightfully and inherently so. They can come to believe the reason for their status is simple: they've come from good stock, and they've been favored by the evolutionary process. And so, they're conceitedly content in their own societal standing. While they may be unaware of their snobbery, it's easily seen by others. But alas! How suddenly these states of special status can slip away. Legs break, stock markets crash, accidents happen, and it can all be gone in a flash. What we were convinced was completely in our control, what we had confidently claimed as part of our identity and personhood is now shown to be erroneous. And often it's the one who boasts who's more surprised than anyone else, while the rest of us are sobered by the moment of the fall. The truth is: Much of what we experience in this life is not due to our own credit. Or at least not solely so. But pride has as voracious appetite. It does not sip and taste - it gulps. Foolish and vain, it's quick to conclude it deserves all the accolades for all the accomplishments made. Its impulse is to boast. To magnify its own achievements and to minimize the contributions of others. But this is a deceptive path that ultimately leads to disappointment. Proper perspective teaches us to know our rightful place and to have this attitude: Humility toward self, gratitude toward others and praise before God. Anything else is out-of-kilter and will necessitate, at some point in time, a correction. We may lament or we may rejoice in our current status in life. The best we can do is to embrace it and make the best of what has been entrusted to us at this moment in time. When we do so that others might benefit and that God might be glorified, we'll discover rich reward indeed. And we'll be doing our part to make this world a better place.
Almighty God, I give You thanks for what You've given to me today and where I am at this point in my life. Thank You for Your past faithfulness, Your promised presence, and Your grace which You continue to pour out so lavishly upon me. Help me to grow in gratitude before You and to hold loosely all that is entrusted to my care, knowing that ultimately everything belongs to You. Curb my foolish pride and keep my spirit from boasting. Humble my heart and increase my gratitude for the contribution others have made in my life. In all things and in every way, may all glory, honor and praise be given to You alone, forever.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful.
1 Corinthians 13:4
As all truth is God's truth, so all true love comes from God. Scripture bears witness that the impetus for human love is the love that God has bestowed upon us. The Christian life (any life, really) is always lived in response to what God has first done for us. And to the extent that we do not love, we show how far we have fallen. In the Book of Genesis, we read that the distinguishing feature of humankind is that we've been created in the image of God. The confession is that God created in love and out of love and formed us to be like Him in loving each other. The words in the verse above, penned by the apostle Paul, are regularly read at weddings. Certainly appropriate in that setting, they give us an example of perfect love, to which we might compare all other emotions and actions to which we ascribe the same name. Whether the words I love you are easy to say or almost impossible to utter, how does the love you profess match up to real love - that which is perfect, pristine and holy? How does it compare to the love of God? Many would recognize in the apostle's words true inspiration and affirm that he's hit on something heavenly in the description of what may well be called the chief and defining characteristic of God. Love, Paul writes, is patient and kind. In other words, love does not press, prod or push others into making a decision before they're ready. Love assures the beloved to take your time, and does not coerce others into doing something that, in the end, is not really in their own best interests, but in yours. Love does not back others up against a wall or walk them into a corner. Love doesn't intimidate. It allows freedom and space and time. Love waits. As to kindness, love refuses to use power, whether in words or in actions, to belittle or to demean. Love will not bring others down to raise itself up. Kindness recognizes the power one has to influence others for good or for bad. Love recognizes another's inherent dignity, respects the image of God he bears, and keeps in mind that no matter how he strong he appears to be on the outside, everyone is fighting his own secret and silent battles, and most are weary of constantly reinforcing the walls they've constructed to protect their souls. Love thus interacts with others in kindness. And a person who loves with the love of God reveals a healthy ego - one that finds its worth in being loved and cherished by God Himself. Love does not need to feed itself. An unhealthy ego shows its deprivation in envying the health it sees in others. Those who constantly seek affirmation and go about it by trying to demonstrate they're better than you or by flaunting their own actions in self-congratulatory praise - these cannot love, for it's their own unhealthy ego that is on the throne. In the end, love is profoundly other-centered. It does not have itself in mind at all. True love focuses solely and fully on the beloved. Losing oneself in seeking the benefit of the other, love guides us into the fulness of our being and aligns us with the One who created us. To know that love is at the very center of the character of God inspires in us trust and works to create faith in our hearts. For there's no deeper consolation our hearts may receive than to know that God is profoundly on our side and that God is firmly committed to working all things together for our good.
Good and gracious God, You continue to open the eyes of Your people to recognize Your amazing grace and Your loving intentions. You are profoundly for us, and You demonstrate that truth in Your promises and by Your performance. May this good news grant me the security for which my spirit strives. May my soul rest peacefully in You alone. And may I righty appraise Your love on my behalf, that I might never put myself at the center of the universe but rightly recognize that You are my raison d'être. May I offer my worship and praise to You alone by serving others with the holy love with which You've first loved me.
Learn to do good. Seek justice. Reprove the ruthless. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.
It was at the end of seventh grade when I first heard the song Pomp and Circumstance. And boy, did I get to know it well. I was in the junior high school band, and as everyone knows who's ever been part of a band, each song learned is played time and time again until all those who participate get it right. But there was no greater repetition in my recollection than that which was done for P & C. For when graduation day arrived and the soon-to-be high schoolers were lined up and ready to process, the band, having completed its tuning, began to play. Over and over again the tune was intoned. It felt like it would never end. Just when it had reached another conclusion, we'd start up again for another run through, since the students were still marching. It felt like we were caught in the groove of an old LP that refused to advance but annoyingly replicated the same measures over and over again. What a relief when the final graduand with the last name that began with Z finally made her way to her chair and the band concluded. Pomp and circumstance has been defined as an ostentatious display of ceremonial grandeur. There are some religious groups that have learned to do this well. It was evidently was the case for ancient Judah at the Jerusalem temple. And the great prophet Isaiah had much to share with the people, taking sixty-six chapters to speak his piece. But he wasted no time in letting the people know what the Lord had laid on his heart. The cherished ceremonies had lost their significance. The traditions, once representative of their identity and their commitments, had become empty. And, according to the prophet, God was disgusted with it all. The entire sacrificial system was attacked and called into question. For the people were merely going through the motions, as if rehearsing for a production that would never be presented. They were full of talk but devoid of action. Enough! The band director strikes his baton on the music stand and halts the whole group to chastise them for their inattention. If you're going to play it, then mean it! Promises made with no intention of keeping them are worse than empty words. They're deceptive lies. Hypocrisy is repugnant. One takes credit for an accomplishment but produces nothing. Diploma covers with no certificate enclosed. God had tired of their show. And the prophet calls them out, reproves them, and reminds them of God's will and God's ways. It's not complicated. It's not rocket science. It's taking seriously the things they already knew to be true but had let slide. The prophet reminds them of the basics. That which has been called true religion: Come to the defense of those who are powerless and are easy pickings for people to use and abuse. Stand up against those who use power in ways contrary to compassionate mercy. Do all that you can to ensure people are given a fair shake, especially if they have no friends in high places and no money to influence decisions. Until the people came to their senses, wised up and changed their ways, God would just as soon cancel the gathering the people so cavalierly called a service. For in truth, they were serving no one but themselves. Their fine china place settings and posh presentation were pretentious. For that which they were serving up was more suited to paper plates. The message of the prophet is worthy of our attention and consideration. We dare not dismiss it or return it to sender as someone else's mail. It's good to be reminded of the standard and to see how we match up to it. For when it comes to justice, equity and compassionate mercy, God doesn't mess around. And neither should we.
God of justice, God of mercy: Never let the blessings You've so richly poured out upon us give us reason to feel privileged above others or to settle into complacency. Never allow us to take pride in the grace we've received. Rather, may our recognition of Your grace move us to take action for the good of others, especially for those who find themselves in situations where it is impossible to act on their own behalf. Give us strength to stand up against the powers of evil and the courage to speak the truth in love.
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Even with the best of intentions, human righteousness is not enough. For try as we might, we will always overestimate our own efforts and always overlook the contributions of others. Consider the righteous roommate. He cooks his own meals, cleans up after himself and does his own laundry. But if you happen to leave one spoon on the counter or one dish in the sink, it will still be there after he's done doing his duty. And the gum wrapper on the floor? Not his. So he will not bend over to pick it up. And, of course, there are imperfections of which he is blithely unaware. Things are not always put back where they belong and lights are regularly left burning after he leaves the room. And because his commitment is to do his part and not one whit more, these imperfections of your dutiful roommate grate on you and get under your skin. And you end up playing his game, according to the rules he has set. But you're even more bothered when you do so. For when you refuse to put away his left-out item or to turn off the light he's left on, you are the one who suffers. You don't consider calling him out on it. After all, you don't want to be petty. And if you raise the issue, he'll only get defensive and insist that he left the item out on purpose because he knew you were going to use it soon after; and he left the light on because you were still up, and he was actually being considerate to leave it on for you. The righteous roommate can be the utmost annoyance. And sometimes we get the idea that God is just like him. God makes the rules and expects us to do our part. A truly righteous neat freak, He cannot abide the mess of our sin, so He turns away to let us wallow in it. We imagine God's self-talk: How else are they going to learn, if I continue stepping in to rescue them? What shall we say about these things? Only this: the intentions of a roommate who does his part (and nothing more) is dis-grace-ful. You do not feel the love. There's no real interaction, no real understanding and no real love. In the end, you receive little benefit. On the other hand, the commitment of God is perfect love in action, always looking out for our best interests. And when it comes to God's righteousness, God does not turn up His nose at our mess or turn His back on us poor sinners. His righteousness shows itself in righting our wrongs and putting things back the way they should be. God takes it upon Himself to restore and to redeem - simply out of God's amazing love and grace. The heart of God is revealed to us in the Incarnate One, who washed the feet of His betrayer and prayed for sinners at the foot of His cross. God's self-sacrifice on our behalf is transformative. Once it touches your heart, you can never again do just your part. Redeemed by the amazing grace poured out for you, your only worthy response is a life of loving service poured out to all neighbors in need. It's no longer about keeping track and keeping score. It's about seeing the need before you and stepping in to do what you can. And just maybe your actions will help your self-righteous roommate see the light. And you will bear witness to a life transformation you never expected to see.
Almighty God, in Your amazing grace You came to earth to save us poor sinners and to transform our hearts to carry out Your mission of love and grace. Open our eyes to the love which You've poured out on our behalf. For when we appraise it correctly and receive it fully, there's nothing we can do but to respond in kind. May our words and actions today be consistent with the actions You've taken on our behalf, that our lives might be a worthy response to what You have first done for us. Help us to shine the light You've shown us, that others might see our good works and give honor and glory to Your name alone.
You are altogether beautiful, my darling,
And there is no blemish in you.
Song of Solomon 4:7
The Bible is a treasury. It includes historical reporting and genealogy, poetry, prophecy and parable. There are songs of lament and songs of praise, prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of imprecation. And ensconced in the center of the Good Book, right there in the very heart of the Scriptures (if yours includes both Old and New Testaments) is a piece called the Song of Solomon (otherwise known as the Song of Songs). In it you can find the source of at least one children's Sunday School song. (I can still remember the tune from my childhood years.) And there are other verses that, if read aloud in church, would make both lector and listener blush. At face value, it's a love song, sung by both bride and bridegroom - and bedroom talk is not off-limits. But, not surprisingly I suppose, the Song has been allegorized as God's love for the people of Israel - or God's love for the Church. Many of us are more comfortable interpreting it this way, which perhaps says more about us than it does about the writing itself. For when it comes to religion, righteousness and Sunday morning worship, it feels much more appropriate to speak of spirit and soul than it does to speak of body. However, God created every part of us, every aspect of our being. God doesn't avert His eyes in embarrassment when He looks upon us; this is how He formed His beloved creation. I'm convinced that God does not have the same hang-ups that plague too many of us regarding our bodily appearance - especially when we're standing before a full-length mirror in our birthday suit. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what might it do to you and your self-image if you were to hear the words of the verse above spoken to you by God when you are thus exposed? This much can be said: In God's eyes you are beautiful, cherished and treasured - just as much as when your parents first gazed upon you in your real birth-day suit. And, of course, much more so. God created you in beauty, and God takes it upon Himself to restore and to redeem. Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow, the LORD says through His prophet. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, declares the apostle Paul. These words that bear witness to the heart of God and to His indescribable love for you - part of His beloved creation. And now, stepping outside the allegory for just a moment, hear these words in purely human terms. How do they strike you? There is in them, I'm afraid, both blessing and curse. For to hear the words is to delight in them, but… how it is possible that someone could actually see you that way, when you know better than anyone the blemishes that exist and only increase with time. When you were young, and it seemed attainable, you strived to live up to the ideal, covering your blemishes with make-up or wearing clothes that accentuated your best features and hid what you didn't want to be seen. How you wanted those words to be true. How you longed to have someone see you in that light at all times, without being forced into a lifetime of living up to it. And then there's this: True beauty is not just skin deep. There are those whose inward beauty is so effusive that their entire being is enlivened, and they grow into the fulness of their beauty. Words matter. We live into that which is spoken into our lives. Let your words be complimentary. To ascribe beauty can create it. And when all is said and done: At the very least, good king Solomon has left us with sufficient material for a fun and most interesting date night.
Good and gracious God, You have created Your people as body and mind, spirit and soul. Upon the completion of Your creation, You declared that it was all very good. Although every one of us has faltered and fallen, although each of us is marred, broken and full of blemishes, You delight in redeeming us. Help us to see ourselves and to view each other through Your eyes. Grant us Your divine perspective. For as we get a glimpse of Your goodness and grace, we will grow in gratitude. And we will joyfully look forward to the day when You will resurrect us in heavenly glory and grace, and we shall be as You are eternally.
And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying,
"Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?"
It's hard to say whether or not the apostles should have known better. They had grown up hearing the hopes of their parents and grandparents - that one day God would make good on His promises and restore the Davidic dynasty. It had been almost six centuries since the last of David's sons had sat on the throne in Jerusalem. The Babylonians had invaded, torn down the temple, laid Jerusalem low, and reduced its walls to rubble. The foreigners had entered and hauled off the high and mighty into exile, leaving a governor to oversee the remnants left in the land. And then, more than half a millennium later and seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus appeared, and many were referring to Him as the Son of David. The promised King. The Messiah. The Christ of God. Those ancient expectations rose up mighty and strong, like the majestic mountain range in the north called Hermon, towering at more than 9,000 feet in elevation, which they could see in the distance from their ancestral Galilean homes. They wondered if this was the time that Jesus was going to fulfill those ancient promises. Crucified and risen, perhaps the time had finally come that Jesus would establish His earthly rule, throw off the Roman overlords and return to the people of God their independent nation status. As old habits die hard, so do generational hopes and dreams. Indeed, Jesus was the promised Son of David, but the fulfillment of God's promises would go well beyond what the apostles had envisioned. Jesus would be no earthly king. For His was no earthly kingdom. His crown was of thorns, and His throne was a cross. His followers habitually hiked the hills of Galilee, from where they could enjoy views that allowed them to see for miles. But it was nothing like what they could have seen had they ascended the peaks of Mt. Hermon. God has given us eternal longings for our heavenly Home, but too often our focus is fixed on establishing earthly footholds or (now) contemplating human settlements on neighboring planets. We may pretend to desire only to live in safe neighborhoods and to be at peace with the world. But the determination is strong to acquire and to maintain wealth and power greater than all other nations, to ensure that we will end up on top, untouchable and unassailable by any and all foreign powers. We're tempted to take matters into our own hands, create a utopian existence, bring heaven down to earth - and have it all on our own terms. But this height of presumption - this attempt to be our own gods - is a poor substitute for what God has prepared for us: that which eye has not seen and ear has not heard. Although Jesus did not fulfill the apostles' expectations, by the time their course on earth was complete, they would universally bear witness that He had exceeded them. The succinct answer to the question above that they had posed to Jesus was No. But in its place, the apostles would be blessed with power from on high, by which they would bear God's message of redemption and grace to all God's beloved and through which they would transform the world. It's a vision they never could have imagined. But such is what happens when the people of God set their sights on His promises.
Good and gracious God, Your plans for Your people far exceed what we would hope to accomplish on our own terms. Replace our short-sightedness with Your heavenly vision. Help us to hold fast to Your sure and certain promises and to sacrifice our poor substitutes for them. Assist us in abandoning our idols, that we might serve only You alone. And empower us to boldly bear witness to Your love and grace, that Your eternal kingdom might continue to increase, to the honor and glory of Your holy name.
There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good.
This also I have seen, that it is from the hand of God.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is on an existential journey. He's searching for meaning in life, for purpose, and for something of lasting value. He comes up empty in the fulfillment he seeks in the pursuit of pleasure and possessions, in the quest for something novel, and in accumulating things that already exist. None of it lasts; all is fleeting. There's much angst and little optimism in his writing, and it's not a place to turn to when you want a quick pick-me-up. But this one nugget of truth is worth our contemplation: seeking satisfaction in the small stuff; being content with everyday life. To count our blessings and to relish in having easy access to the bare necessities of life. When we can find satisfaction and contentment in these, we can invest our lives in laboring so that others might also enjoy the simplicity of having their basic needs met. And as we do so, we find unexpected joy: Our purpose in life begins to be discovered, as we find our satisfaction in our service. Jesus teaches us that life is about serving others rather than serving ourselves. That we gain our lives by offering them up in an effort to bring benefit to others. Perhaps one of the mistakes we make is overlooking the blessings right in front of us. We're too quick to lose interest, too soon to conclude that we've exhausted the goodness of the people and possessions already in front of us. For the majority of us in the first world, our opportunities are vast; our choices innumerable. The Internet has opened our eyes to endless possibilities. We cannot possibly have it all or do it all. Yet we frantically try to have and to do just that, foolishly thinking that this is the stuff of which life consists. And we say: Bring it on! We want as much of it as possible! But alas: We end up skimming the surface and never really discovering the richness of the depths. We accumulate more, and we appreciate less. When will we learn? The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is identified as King Solomon, a man renown for his great wisdom. He leaves home (so to speak) to scour the earth for the stuff that really matters, only to return home to find it right in front of him. The meaning of life is present before you today. God has blessed you with this never-to-be-repeated day. Slow down. Savor it. Share it with others. Simplify your task list. Resist the impulse to rush. Take time to prepare and to enjoy a good meal. Give thanks to the One who has graciously provided such bounty. And consider how you might pass on the blessings you've received to others. The hand of God has been extended to you today to bestow rich mercy and great lovingkindness. Receive it with humble gratitude. And know that God has granted it all because of His great love for you, His dear creation.
Good and gracious God, increase our awareness of the rich mercy You pour out upon us each and every day. You've blessed us with great bounty, but too often we turn away from it in search of something more. Teach us contentment. Help us learn to simplify. Open our eyes anew to the example of Your Son, who lived the life of a servant all the way to the cross, where He offered His life in sacrifice for us all. Work repentance in our hearts, that we might be transformed from complaining about what we don't have to expressing gratitude for what You have so abundantly provided. And show us how to serve and to share, that others, too, might enjoy the basic necessities of life. To You alone be honor, praise and glory.
No man has seen God at any time;
the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.
It happens at every book club meeting and in every literature class: a work is read and discussed. And it isn't long before someone opines about the author's intention - what she was thinking when she wrote what she did. Her objectives and purpose. The meaning of the metaphors she chose and why she selected them and not others. I've sometimes wondered, especially when the interpretations seem far out and the interpreters express themselves with such conviction and certainty: Was this really the author's intention? Is this really what she meant when she wrote what she did? Was the streetlight that shined reliably upon the apartment's staired entryway indeed symbolic of the ongoing presence of the died-too-young and gone-too-soon lover of the protagonist? I secretly imagine the author being present in the room and responding thus to such assertions: "Huh... I never thought of that... I never made that connection. Thank you for that insightful observation and for letting me know what I really meant by what I wrote!" We humans are good at projecting - attributing to others what we see in ourselves or assuming that others think just like we do. And when it comes to God, one aspect of this is called anthropomorphism - a big word that simply means we're apt to attribute to God human characteristics, such as God having ears to hear and eyes to see. Most theologians will declare that God is spirit and, as such, does not have flesh and bones as we humans have. But how else can we describe God, other than by using words and images that convey concepts we can understand? We're convinced that God cares compassionately - so we say God has a heart. We're persuaded that God is all-knowing - so we say that God has a mind. And so on. But, of course, we soon come to the end of our convictions and our ability to defend them. Is there part of us that's afraid that if God actually showed up in our coffee klatch, the question would be put to the group: Now why would you think that about Me? The point is, we're limited in what we can know about God, beyond our existential philosophizing and precarious projections. Unless, that is, God chooses to become accessible. Unless God - in the words of the prophet - decides to rend the heavens and come down. This is the very claim of the early Christian witnesses: God has explained Himself and made Himself known in the incarnation. The divine Word that existed before everything else became flesh and dwelt among us. The eternal Son of God became temporal in Jesus of Nazareth. The eternal spirit donned flesh and blood, would be born and would die. And in doing so, Jesus revealed the heart and character of God. The faint impressions we had initially were now seen in sharper relief. Jesus made known what we never could have discovered by our own efforts. As the revelation of God, the corrections He brought were so significant they shamed the religious leaders. He showed them their hypocrisy, how they had coopted religion to suit themselves - to gain and maintain power over the people of God. But in the end, the incarnate God did not come to judge the world but to save it. As the Lamb of God, the sacrifice to redeem humanity from the error of their ways would be made by God Himself. And we would behold the fulness of God as grace upon grace. The Word became flesh, revealing and redemptive, then and now. The Author, who has come straight from the bosom of the Father, has arrived on earth to set the Story straight. It's time we listen.
Almighty and eternal God, You took upon Yourself our human flesh and came to dwell in our midst. You've revealed to us how we can live as we were designed to live: to serve You by loving others. Help up to follow Your example of compassionate care and humble service. Teach us to speak the truth in love. And continue to grant us wisdom, that we might faithfully bear witness to the light You've brought into the darkness of this world. Help us live lives consistent with Yours, leaving a legacy of grace upon grace.
Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course.
The Book of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon, who's gone down in the history of the kings of Israel as the wisest king of them all. When he first took over after his father David had died, he admitted before God to being ill-equipped to the task. So he prayed that God would grant him wisdom to govern God's people rightly, that he might lead them in the way which they should go. God was the source of Solomon's wisdom, and in his day, people came from all over the land to seek his insight and to learn more of his discernment. Today, there is much concern and conversation about the highest court in our land, as we're in the process of filling the vacancy left by RBG. And, sadly, politics is playing a central role. What can the wisdom of Solomon teach us in this situation? First of all, no political party has a corner on the truth. Admittedly, some would say there's no such thing as truth, that we govern and are governed only by agreed upon social conventions. But if that is so, then it's always about politics and platforms and making sure the words we say and the actions we take will not offend those in our own party and of our own persuasion. In making our decisions, our eyes must be lifted higher to the truth which stands above and beyond all polity and policy and promises made to certain segments within our population. All judgments - from every-day decisions in our homes and places of business to the highest courts of our land - ought to be generally grounded in the wisdom God has granted us in His Word (which is instructive in showing us how we are to live humbly before God and in caring community with one another) and particularly in the Constitution (our charter and course of action) of the nation in which we abide. Secondly, Solomon was renowned as being not only a wise man but a learned one; he acquired both breadth and depth of knowledge. Knowledge is important, of course, but it's different than wisdom. Wisdom knows what to do with the knowledge gained, ever as a cook knows what to do with the ingredients gathered for a meal. Even so, it behooves us to learn not only the letter of the law, but to acquire the wisdom that teaches us to look deeper into the law's intent. Words can never fully convey the perfect meaning of intention in always-new and ever-evolving situations. Wisdom discerns the spirit of the law, and it is instrumental in informing those who would create news laws, that they might be consistent with the body of law that has preceded it. Thirdly, judgments are to be made with a blind eye: the rich are not to favored over the poor, one race or gender is not to be esteemed above others. Consideration should be given to all in the community, as each person has equal dignity and worth under God. Finally, we must realize that the decisions we make are made in stewardship. Which is to say that, in the end, we are not the final judges but that we are accountable to the One who is. There must always be within us a healthy measure of humility. Even after doing the very best we can to gain knowledge and to determine intention, we finally look to God in prayer and continue to seek the wisdom which God is always faithful to impart. God has richly blessed us as a nation. May we faithfully engage with all people in accordance with righteousness, justice and equity, that we might display God's perfect wisdom on earth for the service of all God's people.
Holy God, omniscient and almighty, lift our eyes heavenward, that we might look to You and discern Your ways. You have promised to impart wisdom to all who seek it. Continue to guide us as Your people. Help us to be considerate of the convictions of others, but may we always and above all seek to speak the truth in love. Inspire Your people to follow in the steps of Your Son, who exemplified kindness, compassion, mercy and grace and who followed in Your ways of truth, even to the point of laying down His life. Help us to love with His love, that we might shine the light You've given us in such a way that all might see and give You glory. May all honor and praise be given to You alone, both now and forever.
And coming in, he said to her, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you."
These are the words of God's messenger Gabriel spoken to a humble peasant girl named Mary. It would be a great understatement to describe Mary's reaction to this salutation as one of surprise. For who was she? What had she accomplished? Nothing special. She was young, humble, ordinary. No one had thought about voting for her inclusion in the high school yearbook as the One Most Likely to Succeed. How could she know that her name would forever be remembered or that she would be revered in generations to come by countless multitudes as the one chosen to bear the holy Son of God? Although Mary was unquestionably unique in having had this experience, in a very real sense Mary was like the rest of us: Unexceptional, but extraordinary. After having their first child, when the time comes to consider adding another life into the family, many parents share a common concern: Will we have enough love in our hearts for another? And if we add another child to our family, will it take away from the love we already have for this precious one in our midst? Those parents who move forward in increasing their family size will discover that their love is not parceled up; it is enhanced. Many of us, convinced that we are ordinary and run-of-the-mill, would find it just as surprising as it was for Mary to hear the words spoken to us: “Hail, favored one!” If God has His favorites, we would never presume to be one of them. And yet each of God's children is favored in His eyes. Each is special, unique, extraordinary. In the 139 th psalm David marvels at how intimately God knows him - the thoughts of his mind before he forms words to express them, his rising and retiring and all that happens in between. God knows it all. Even as parents rejoice in each distinct feature of their newborn and exult in their tiniest advances, so much more does God delight in the details of His children and take interest in their ways. Perhaps Mary could think of nothing spectacular she had done to attract the attention of God, but maybe that's the point. God looked upon her with favor and mercy because of what was in the heart of God. God delighted in her ordinary. God loved her and chose her to serve in this special role. She was asked to be no one other than herself - only who God had created her to be. Hear these words spoken to you by God today: Favored one! You are so designated not because of anything special you have done but simply because of who you are and Whose you are. And there's more. The angelic messenger told Mary: The Lord is with you. She wasn't on her own, and she wouldn't be alone, as she moved forward in her life to take on what God had asked of her. Assured of God's presence, she would answer the call of God upon her life and accept her singular commission. So, too, the Lord is with you today. You are not alone. In these challenging days that continue to isolate and separate you from loved ones, God has not abandoned you but is ever present. As you awaken to the reality of your VIP status in God's kingdom and to God's presence at your side, you'll be encouraged and empowered to live into the fullness of your unique creation. God needs you to be you. No one can serve as your substitute. The community of which you are a part is counting on you to take your place at the table, to enhance the quality of life for all of God's people. Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you today!
Almighty and merciful God, what a wonder it is to trust that You have created us, know us and love us. What a joy it is to know that You discern our thoughts and understand our ways. How humbled we are to consider the blessing You've given us in Your accompanying and faithful presence. Help us to live into the fullness of who You've created us to be. Open our eyes to the way that we should go today, and help us to do our best to honor Your name and be conduits of Your blessing, always and only for Your glory.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep,
For Thou alone, O LORD, dost make me to dwell in safety.
Even before I was taught the words of the beloved Lord's Prayer, someone - my mother or one of my grandmothers, I suppose - taught me another prayer. A bedtime prayer. I wonder if you learned it, too. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. So it begins. The words opened my young mind to consider my Creator, the One who faithfully watched over me while I slumbered, blissfully unaware of all that was happening on the outside (the world that kept turning after I had turned in) and all that was occurring on the inside (my heart and lungs - humbly, silently, reliably going about their business, drawing no attention to themselves, yet ever present to serve and to sustain my being). I wasn't sure what my soul was, but I sensed that it was the part of me that was unassailable by mere mortals and could be preserved by the Lord my God. This prayer that came early in my life served to create trust in my child's heart. But there was more. For it went on to say, If I should die before I wake... What? Die? There's a chance that that would happen to me while I was snoozing unaware? Why introduce that thought in my young brain? How is that supposed to soothe and lull me into sweet repose? It's no wonder the prayer has gone out of vogue. For the pacifying thoughts the prayer first conjured up in me had now introduced the reality most of us spend our lives trying to deny and to avoid: our own death. And I expect most parents want to avoid having that conversation with their children for as long as possible, feeling more than a bit inadequate to the task of explaining its mystery. But it's a funny thing: Even when I considered the worst possible thing that could happen me, the words assured me that I was still safe. For the Lord, ever watchful, was there to safeguard my soul. Of course, I couldn't have put it in those words at such an early age, but the prayer did assure me that I was in God's tender loving care and that I could relax and rest easy. It is with such thoughts that the psalmist concludes this fourth psalm. Because of his confidence in God, he can both lie down and sleep in peace. To lie down is to submit, to be in a position of vulnerability. You lay down your arms - literally and figuratively. Perhaps without being fully aware of all its ramifications, it's the recognition that life will go on even after the point that you've done all you will do for the day and will add no more to the preservation of yourself or of anyone else. You're entrusting the cares of the world to your Creator (who is, of course, perfectly capable to handle matters without your assistance). The psalmist is also able to sleep in peace - I suppose for many of the same reasons I learned in the earliest years of my life. God is the One who watches over him and his world, and God is the One who can be trusted. Throughout the Good Book, God's people are advised not to put their trust in walls and fortifications; they're not to look for their safety in alliances, armies or armaments. They're to put their trust in God. This doesn't imply that we're not to do what we can to protect ourselves from evil. But in the end, we finally entrust ourselves to God, who faithfully delivers us from evil external and within, and who, even in death, will awaken us once again to eternal life in His presence. The LORD is your safe space. God has created you in love and will sustain and preserve your life, this day and forevermore.
Good and gracious God, I thank You for the gift of life and for the treasure of this day. Thank You for the magnificent beauty that surrounds me. Thank You for the opportunities You place before me to be useful to others. Create in me a heart the seeks to serve You by serving Your people. And after I've given my best efforts to the work that lies before me today, grant me peaceful rest, assuring me that You faithfully watch over Your world and lovingly watch over my soul, preserving me in Your presence forevermore.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness
preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark the evangelist did not believe in introductions. He knew he had a story to tell, and he wastes no time in getting started. He jumps right in - immediately (one of Mark's favorite words). His gospel account is like a high-speed roller coaster with the acceleration of a Tesla. No background information is given about John. Mark cuts in on John's work in the middle of the action, as we, the readers, are whisked down to the waters of the Jordan to witness John's work of water and word. From other sources we know that John came from a priestly family. It's likely that he grew up in and around the Jerusalem temple and learned well all the ins-and-outs, all the goings-on concerning the religious rites and the politics that surrounded them. It's no great assumptive leap to expect this his parents, along with his community, fully expected John to follow in the priestly footsteps of his family, don the sacred vestments, and enter into temple service. But John eschewed the priestly robes and exchanged them for prophetic attire. He was more suited to a simple garment of camel's hair cinched with a leather belt than he was with ephods, turbans and tunics. He would not feast on the priestly portions of people's sacrifices; locusts - the food of prophets - would suffice. His ministry would not be one of maintaining temple ceremonies and improving upon them when necessary. His work would be one of complete reformation. And while he would leave it to Jesus to overturn the tables in the temple courts, make no mistake about it: John was a revolutionary. There's a difference (so I've been told) between cleaning and sanitizing. Wiping down and scrubbing. John's interest and conviction concerned the latter. There could be no easy fix for what was taking place in the Holy City of Jerusalem or in the hearts of the people. Total transformation was needed. The religious apparatus didn't need a tune-up; it required a complete overhaul. And so John's message called people to repent - to a complete change of heart and mind. A clearing away of the clutter. This was necessary if the people were to hear the message of the One who was coming after John, the One whose way John was preparing. As a hygienist steps aside after completing her deep cleaning for the dentist to step in, so John would do for Jesus. And by the fourteenth verse of the first chapter, John's work is finished, his cry is complete. He's fulfilled the role for which he had been called, the mission on which he had been sent. The four-hundred-year gap from Malachi's prophecy of God's messenger who was to come in the spirit and power of Elijah had been bridged. That which had been anticipated was now fulfilled. We learn nothing about parental approval or pride, as Zechariah and Elizabeth, John's parents are never mentioned again after his birth. Since they were aged when John was born, perhaps they did not live to see the day of John's work in wilderness. But the prophecy of Zechariah - that their son would go before the Lord to prepare His way and guide God's people into the way of peace - this prophecy, too, is fulfilled. John answered God's call on his life, and he carried out God's purposes. He did not boast about his baptismal practice; instead, he pointed to the One who would come after him. In this John leaves us a good example; for we, too, do well to point others to the Lamb of God, who comes to take away the sin of the world.
Good and gracious God, You fulfilled Your promises spoken through the prophets of old by sending Your servant John to prepare the way for Your Son. Help us to take John's message to heart and to clear away the clutter that hinders us from hearing Your Word. Grant to Your people the humility and wisdom to step out of the spotlight, to make way for You to take center stage. When others look to us, may they see only Your goodness and grace. For to You alone belong all honor, glory and praise, now and forever.
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped.
When I was young and naïve, I opened the sacred, zippered, King James-translated Bible my grandmother had given me, and I happened upon the Book of Job. Not surprisingly, my initial interpretation was to pronounce the word with the same sound the doctors told me to make after opening my mouth and sticking out my tongue, suppressed to more easily check for a sore throat. I thought Job was a writing in which one could learn the specific vocation God had prepared for each one of His people, or perhaps the qualifications needed for each particular profession. I didn't know then that there were others who looked at the Holy Book in a similar way - ascribing to it a special aura, viewing it as magical, as if one could make a wish, close one's eyes, open up its pages and point - and there the answer to every question would be revealed. Now I know that this is a fool's game. Being young and naïve is forgivable; being old and stupid is not. And yet I've come to appreciate the Good Book as a sacred treasure, for in it I find a collection of experiences, testimonies and expressions of those who've come before me, those who've considered their lives in light of God and have delved into the complexities of their existence. Those who've confessed their limitations, admitted their faults, and explored what can be known about God, as well as what must be left untouched and undiscovered as holy mystery. There's perhaps no greater work of soul-searching, no deeper introspection, than in the book that bears the name of the man from the land of Uz. He's introduced as a man who is blameless and upright. The reader immediately knows that this is a man who can be trusted, so we're on his side from the beginning. And straightaway we learn that Job is the quintessential example of the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? For this one-of-a-kind model student, this dedicated servant of God, loses everything: possessions, servants and family. And that's just the beginning, for there will be more loss to come. The question of why continues to be wrestled with throughout the writing and is explored from every angle imaginable. And yet contrary to what most of us want from the Bible - a final and decisive word for all of our questions - the answer is not discovered. The question remains a mystery. And not surprisingly, since the Good Book does not disclose the Answer to this all-important Question, there are those who willingly line up to provide it. Then and now. Opportunists. Prideful Know-It-Alls. Silly sages. They show up in the aftermath of Job's tragedy, more than willing to offer their pathetic attempts at providing insight. Professing to be wise, they show themselves to be fools. The gift of Job is not that the Answer to the Great Question is given; it's how to respond in the face of the question being left open. Job laments his loss. He doesn't steel his soul in silent stoicism. He's not emotionless. He tears his robe and shaves his heard, and in so doing expresses his indescribable grief and inconsolable heartache. What is his attitude before God? He falls to the ground in humble worship. The mystery of Job's response is almost as great as why this has happened to him. Whatever else can be said: Job is in the right place (face-down and humble), and he has the right attitude (reverent and trusting). In this book that bears his name, Job does not reveal our life's vocation, but he shows us how to live it.
Almighty and sovereign God, You existed before time began, and You will be Lord for all eternity. Thank You for the precious gift of life that You've given in grace. Help me to treasure the days You've allotted to me and to rejoice in each one of them. May I grow in gratitude for the good gifts You have bestowed, but may my greatest delight always be in You alone. Continue to strengthen my faith in Your sure and certain promises, and cause my soul to find its perfect rest in You. All praise be to You, now and forever.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem...
The identity of the magi is shrouded in mystery, and questions concerning their ancestry, avocation and number are the makings of theories and the forming of traditions. What we learn from Scripture is that these wise men had come from the east to worship the newborn King, whose star they had first seen in their homeland. I wonder how long it took them to make their journey; it was certainly no easy afternoon stroll. And I wonder about the effort they expended to make what would become a trip of a lifetime - and what it says about their assessment of the event they were so intent to experience firsthand. The impression this journey made on them in their lives was significant. How could it not be? In our own day, there are many noteworthy events that occur each day, but there are some that will stick with us forever, largely due to the amount of time they've impacted our lives and the labors we've undertaken to adjust to them. We've now been sheltering in place for a full seven months. Some of us have already forgotten who won the Super Bowl this year (hint: it was not the 49ers…), but most of us will never forget COVID-19 - a new and surprising alphanumeric descriptor that has become a new entry in our working vocabulary in this infamous year of 2020. For the magi, any hardship they endured on their lengthy trek faded away when the star reappeared and led them to the Christ Child. They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. Their blissful jubilance is expressed in triplicate. The time given, the sacrifices made, the risks taken - they had no regrets about any of it when they finally came into the presence of the holy infant, the incarnation of God. The experience of the magi provides an example for us in our everyday lives. The effort we put into a project creates meaning in the experience. It's the difference between planting a garden and enjoying its harvest and consuming food purchased at the grocery store. It's the difference between purchasing a Hallmark card for a loved one and taking the time, using your own words, to express your thoughts and feelings to someone special. Thoughts do count, but when thoughts are wrapped up in an intentional and meaningful undertaking, the act of devotion will not soon be forgotten by either recipient or donor. I wonder about the connection between the labor pains a mother experiences while giving birth and the indescribable bond that takes place between mother and child. This is something I'll never come to know personally. But I do know that the effort I expend on a worthwhile project is something I will never regret. Prayer
Almighty God, thank You for the gift of this day. Help me to relish it and not to rush it. Teach me the art of taking my time in all that I do. Show me how to devote my full attention to the project at hand and not to become distracted by taking on too many things. Grant me the wisdom to discern when multitasking is not helpful, and that there's more to life that completing my ever-increasing task list. Help me rest in You today and to devote my efforts toward the things that matter most. Teach me that expending my efforts in worthwhile pursuits will increase their meaning and intensify my memory. Give me a fresh glimpse of Your glory today, that I might bow down before You again and anew, with matchless devotion.
But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command delivered by the eunuchs.
Then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him.
The Book of Esther is famous for having the distinct peculiarity of being the only inclusion in the canon of Holy Scripture that in its entirety does not bear the name of God. It is thus left to the readers to draw their own conclusions about how God is at work (or not) in the events recorded, and whether or not God is pleased with what takes place. The opening chapter - the climax of which is reached in the verse above - is a vivid illustration. Was Queen Vashti a heroine? Or was she simply an insubordinate that needed to be remonstrated for her defiance against her husband, the most powerful person in the vast realm of Persia? The setting in which this scene takes place adds texture and nuance for those who would interpret the actions taken and render judgment upon them. King Xerxes is presented as a prominent figure, ruling over 127 provinces, from India to Ethiopia. He makes an elaborate display of his power and prestige, his glory and might, as he showcases the wares of his kingdom for six months, that any of his subjects who would venture to make the journey might gaze upon the splendor and majesty of their mighty ruler. How would it be possible for anyone to experience this display and not declare before the great king: Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory! And this was a king who wanted to hear just that. At the conclusion of six months of extravagant exhibition, there was a full week of partying - an elaborate banquet in which the food was plentiful and the fine wine never ceased flowing. King Xerxes hosted the main event, while Queen Vashti played hostess at a similar banquet for the women of the land. The king had his fill of wine, and his heart was merry. It seems all had played out to perfection. And so, to top it off, the king, in his inebriated and boisterous state, tells his servants to call in Queen Vashti, the prize of his possessions. Why? He wants to display her beauty. To put her on a pedestal. To flaunt the fact that she is the fairest of them all. But why? Does he do so to honor her, to praise her, to let her shine in all her glory? Does he do so as an expression of thanks for the one he loves? Or does he deign to use her as his plaything, to display her beauty merely to boost his own ego? It's up to us, the readers, to decide. But the queen refuses to come at the king's command. And the king reacts with anger and rage at her ignominious behavior. In His wrath he calls in his trusted advisors and solicits their input. As they counsel, so the king declares: Her act of insubordination, her dishonorable deed, cannot and will not be tolerated. For the queen's actions, if left unchecked and unpunished, would set a precedent for all other women in the land, and her example would empower them to be equally insubordinate to their own husbands. Every man must be the master of his own house! And so, the queen is deposed. And life moves on. But the king does not so easily forget. He remembers Vashti. Although unspoken, we sense his regret, as he gathers a harem of women around him in an attempt to make him forget what a fool he has been. Vashti's refusal sets the stage for Esther's rising. And Esther will be instrumental in the salvation of her people. Two powerful women. One famous, while the other - apart from Esther chapter one - fades from history. But both are examples of women who bravely stand up to injustice, as they refuse to cower in the face of abusive and pathetic power.
Good and gracious God, You display Your power chiefly in showing mercy. You show Your strength most prominently in Your tender compassion and in the gentle care You extend to those who are weak and hurting. Inspire all who are in positions of authority to use their power for good. Grant courage to the powerless to stand up for what is right. Continue to embolden us to be brave in our vulnerability, and continue to strengthen us to sacrifice for the greater good of Your people. May Your will be done in us and through us this day; for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, now and forever.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
If this life is not nice, neat and orderly, there are yet set boundaries, and a plan and a purpose to it all. The Book of Revelation holds great interest for many. Some are afraid of it, for numerous interpreters have latched on to some of the signs and symbols and have sensationalized the work as a whole. In so doing, they've blown it all out of proportion. Perhaps due in no small part to these wild interpretations, the word apocalypse (the Greek word from which we derive the title of this last book of the Bible) has taken on a connotation of terror and fright and all you-know-what breaking loose. But in truth, there is great hope contained in this last work of Holy Scripture, and that hope is centered in the Lord God Himself. The words above are spoken in a vision by Jesus to the apostle John on the island of Patmos. John was told to write them down. The original purpose of the writing was to encourage persecuted believers in the late first century to hold fast to their faith in the Lord Jesus. The pervasive sense of the visions was to strengthen and sustain the resolve of the beleaguered community, that they might not lose their hope, but that they might maintain and increase their trust in God, who had all things in His hands and would bring all things to good conclusion. The message in the quoted words above conveys the truth that God is finally in charge, has matters under control, and that their precious lives are in His faithful care. Three times this truth is communicated: Alpha-Omega, First-Last, Beginning-End. God has been there since the beginning of time, and God will faithfully be present forever. Nothing can or will change that truth. In God all things hold together. Like bookends that contain a disorderly mess (this sinful, broken life), this word of assurance is spoken in both the first and last chapters of the Book. These are words of assurance, words to encourage those who endure great hardship: No matter how bad things are and no matter how bad things get, God is the Lord above all, and nothing in all of creation will be able to thwart God's plan and purpose for the people He so dearly loves. What's the worst they can do to you? Take away your life? God has an answer for that, too. For the Final Word belongs to God - and it will be a word of life, a word of victory. I will reiterate: taken as a whole, the Revelation is a message of great hope for those going through toil and hardship, persecution and pain. For the word disclosed to the people is centered on the great I AM, the One who met Moses at the burning bush, the One who declared then and who declares now that He existed before all time, always is, and forever will be the Lord of all creation, the Lord of all that is - seen and unseen. It is in this One the people in John's day could place their trust, and it is in this One we can find our hope. Indeed, there are several sources of anxiety that weigh heavy on our hearts and minds in these days. But let us not lose our perspective. Let us not get distracted by the noise that would drown out our Lord's strong and measured voice. For He gently assures us that, in the end, everything is going to turn out all right. For He is our great God and Savior. And He will bring His good plan to perfect conclusion.
Almighty and sovereign God, You've created all things in heaven and on earth, and You hold all things in Your strong and capable hands. Give us insight to see with proper perspective. Grant us certain hope that is centered on You. Still our anxious souls with the assurance that You are faithfully present with us, and You will bring all things to glorious conclusion. You are our good and gracious God, and in You we will overcome. We praise You for the victory You have won, and we thank You that Your victory is ours, granted to us through the merits of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And it came about when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations surrounding us saw it,
they lost their confidence; for they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.
Nehemiah was a Jew who had served as cupbearer to the king of Persia. When he heard of the plight of his people in the land of his ancestors, he was grieved of heart and prayed to God on their behalf. The people were in great distress, for the walls of Jerusalem had been broken down and its gates burned with fire. As often happens in prayer, God moved Nehemiah's heart to action, and he requested permission of the king to venture to the Judean province to offer assistance. Through much effort and no little opposition, Nehemiah leads the people in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. The extraordinary work is accomplished in just fifty-two days. The people had come together, each contributing their own efforts to rebuild and repair the section of the wall that stood outside their personal dwelling. As has been said, “Many hands make light work.” One can well imagine what this achievement did for the morale of the people who lived there and how it strengthened their sense of community. The bond created by a team working together to successfully complete an important project is a strong one. More than that, they recognized that something greater was at work: They perceived that God Himself had been their help. This is not to say that God took trowel in hand and personally participated in the brick and mortar work to complete His own allocated section. How, then, was God involved? How could Nehemiah claim that God had assisted them in the work? And how might we make the same claim in our own lives, with respect to our own challenges? God is at work behind the scenes, in and through the human spirit. As Nehemiah and the people turned to God in prayer and opened themselves to God's influence, God strengthened their spirits, encouraged their hearts, impassioned their souls, and energized them as a community. God's Spirit fostered an atmosphere where the various gifts and abilities of each person were recognized, valued, appreciated, and welcomed in the work that lay before them. God inspired unity among their diverse gifts and granted wisdom in the decisions that needed to be made. Many requests from persons in authority were made along the way, and often before making them, the would-be requester would first make request of God - to soften the heart of the one who would answer and to grant successful negotiations. In all of these ways and others, the people bore witness to the presence and work of God among them, and together they could confess that the work had been accomplished with the help of God. Jesus taught His disciples to let their light shine in such a way that others would see and give glory to God. Even so, Nehemiah attests that when those who looked upon their work from the outside - both neighbors and enemies - and saw the marvelous work they had accomplished, they knew something truly extraordinary had occurred. They recognized their accomplishment as a God-thing, and they knew they would not be successful in rising up against a people who had the backing of a God so strong. If the face of true power, they lost their confidence. Nehemiah credits God for the successful completion of the Jerusalem wall. I wonder how often God assists in other ways in a plethora of different projects - and gets no credit at all. Might God be more intricately involved in our lives today than we realize? What difference would it make if your eyes were opened to God's influence? How would your attitude change if you were to perceive God's faithful presence and power in the challenges you face today? Turn to God in prayer. Open your heart. And God will open your eyes to the miraculous work He is doing even now in your midst.
Wonder-working God, open our eyes today to Your faithful presence in our lives. Encourage our hearts to trust that You will never fail us nor forsake us. Draw Your people together by the power of Your Spirit to accomplish Your good work in the world. Thank You for being our defender against those who would dissuade us from carrying out Your good purposes. And grant us good success, as we seek to accomplish Your will on earth as it is in heaven. To You alone be the glory, both now and forevermore.
To the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord,
be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
These are the final words of Jude, the penultimate writing in the Good Book. Jude writes a brief note of encouragement to believers, to hold fast to the faith they have been taught and not to be swayed by false teachers who sought personal advantage by coopting God's grace and turning it into license. Evidently there were some who had infiltrated their community and were spreading their own spin on the gospel, seeking to gain a following by attempting to persuade others God that had given them freedom to do as they pleased. Jude takes the initiative by addressing this aberration and exposing their errant and dangerous counsel before things get out of hand. And so it seems that there have always been those who are more interested in editorializing than they are about the telling the truth. They've fallen under the spell of their own voice, and as long as they have an audience, they're encouraged in their self-deceptive and deceiving ways, even coming to believe that their concocted and twisted accounts are truth itself, simply because they've come out of their own mouths. After attending to the matter at hand, Jude wraps up his writing with a wonderful doxology, giving praise to the one and only God and ascribing to God the wonderful work of salvation. This is who God is, because this is what God does: He saves His people, and He has done so through Jesus, the promised Messiah, the crucified and risen Lord. And then Jude assigns to God four attributes that attest to God's praiseworthiness. Glory - God's high honor and great renown, merited by the works He has accomplished. In this case: the salvation God has won for us on the cross of Calvary and bestowed upon us by grace. Majesty - God's respectable stateliness; God's dignified and royal bearing. Dominion - both the domain over which God rules and that God is the One who rules over it. It's the recognition that God is in charge, that God is the One seated on the heavenly throne. And finally: Authority - God alone is the One who creates; God alone is the One who authors the cosmic story. Having creating us in His image, God has endowed us with certain creative abilities and has given us a certain measure of authority in the earthy realm. In closing, Jude acknowledges that God's rule has no terminus. God has always been, is now, and will be forever, and God will never abdicate His throne. Jude ends his writing with this final good news. It is a fitting conclusion, for he gives his listeners a most worthy thought on which their minds might dwell and a word of confidence in which their hearts might rest secure. No matter what others might say, no matter what others might do, God's character is immutable. It is in this God we can trust, with our lives and with our future. For no one and nothing will be ever able to add or to subtract anything from the good and gracious work of God or to prevail over God's firm and final Word.
Holy God, You are the One and only Creator and the loving Ruler over all. Thank You for Your glorious work of salvation You have accomplished for us, for the rescue and redemption You have won for Your people. Open my eyes to Your majesty, that my heart might be satisfied in praising You alone. My spirit rejoices before You - that You are my God and will ever be in faithfulness. Continue to sustain me by Your Spirit, and grant to me the peace that comes from knowing that no one will ever wrest control from Your hands, but that You will rule heaven and earth for all eternity. Empower me today to be about Your redemptive and restorative work, for the blessing of Your people and for the honor of Your name.
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it,
and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.
Ezra had followed in the line of the great men of God in his dedication and devotion to the Holy Scriptures. Moses was the first to encourage the people of Israel to be diligent to keep the commandments of God and to teach them to their children. He urged them to center their lives on the ways of God. Joshua, his successor, was counseled to meditate on God's law, day and night, to prepare himself to lead the people of God and to ensure both his success and theirs. David, too, had rejoiced over the law of God, precious and pure, and he sang the law's praises throughout the psalter. And in this description of Ezra, we go behind the scenes to the life of a priest who was instrumental in restoring the spiritual life of the community, recently returned from many years of exile in Babylon. This would be a fresh start for the people of Israel, having come back to the land of their ancestors, and it would be filled with new possibilities and fresh opportunities to do things right. Ezra was intent on helping them order their ways according to the law of their God. It has been said that many a champion is made in silence, out of public eye, in the seclusion of early morning hours. Olympic athletes, rising before the sun, faithfully practice the discipline that defers its payment. Endless hours are spent in the gym, track, rink or pool, while others rest abed. Their sacrifices and their tenacity propel them toward their goal: developing and honing their skills to their fullest extent. The return on their efforts are predictable, for these are the makings of success. Ezra had committed himself not only to spend the time necessary but to do so with full intention of heart: To study and to understand the will and ways of God. He would not be satisfied with acquiring head knowledge; he went beyond becoming a learned man. He sought to employ God's commandments in his life to their fullest extent. He was content not only to know them, but to do them. He sought to practice what he preached and thus to be a person of integrity. For finally, the end goal of his focused attention was not to fulfill any personal passion or to satisfy any secret desire. His was no selfish endeavor. The blessings he would reap in his studies would extend beyond himself to the people of his community. Like medical students, who diligently press on in their studies, reminding themselves that the purpose of their learning is not to secure a lucrative position in a prestigious practice, but to use the knowledge gained and the wisdom acquired to better assist future patients in their pursuit of health. Ezra sets an example for anyone of us who endeavors to lead an honorable, productive and useful life. If this is your ambition, press on! Your diligence and dedication will reap rich reward. And if you're just getting started, the first step is to carve out the necessary time, which usually means sacrificing some of the time you've allocated toward other activities. Whether your intentional devotion before God happens first thing in the morning, before you retire for the evening, or in some sacred space in between, make a regular practice of listening intently to the Word of God. Be steadfast in your pursuit of making the Holy Scriptures your own. Your soul will be refreshed, and God will work in those private moments to bring blessing to others in your life of service.
God and gracious God, You've made known to us Your will and Your ways in Your holy and precious Word. Thank You for the treasure You've given us in the witness of the generations that have gone before us. Help us to order our days according to Your good intentions, that we might learn to walk in Your ways and help others to do the same, always for the benefit of Your people and for the honor and glory of Your name. May Your blessed kingdom come, in us and through us, on earth as it is in heaven.
But I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face.
Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.
3 John 14
It would make for a good Jeopardy! question: The number of books in the Bible that bear the name John. Here in his 3rd epistle, the apostle jots a brief note of encouragement to the faith community. He uses fewer words than my average Daily Bread post. But I'm glad this concise communiqué was included in the canon of Scripture and not crumpled up and canned. For his words strengthen and cheer the faith community, both then and now. Certainly part of the reason for his economy of words is what he notes in the first part of this verse: He hopes to see them soon. His letter is one form of engagement, but it can by no means replace face to face fellowship. How well we have come to know that truth in these days! Our physical distancing has become grievous and torturesome to many, especially to those who are single, widowed or living alone. Each of us longs for human touch and connection. In our day, we're indeed grateful for Zoom, Skype, WebEx, Facetime and other technologies that allow us to bridge the gap of physical space, as they not only provide us with the gift of speaking to one another but seeing one another, as well. Still, nothing can replace physical presence. We are, in a very real sense, experiencing a living death. But the apostle is hopeful that the joy and exhilaration in-person fellowship can bring will soon be experienced - and by bringing it up he gives his readers something to look forward to. In the meantime, he extends three things. First: Peace. He knows it's not easy to bear through separation. In these meantime days we're prone to anxiety; we've become all too familiar with the uneasiness that comes from being too long in this uncomfortable space called interim. We yearn to leave this no-man's land and return to that which is familiar. We're not asking for the moon. We're not demanding a party. Proximity and presence will suffice. We just want to be with those we love. Until that happens, we pray that God will replace our anxiety with the gift of His peace. Even the simple speaking of the word can serve to assuage anxiety in the human heart and open the door for peace to enter. Secondly, the apostle reminds them of the gift of community. He sends greetings from his community to theirs and asks them to greet others on his behalf. Even though distance separates them, the gift of friendship and connection is no small thing. They may be alone, but they're not friendless of forsaken. They may be detached, but they've not been deserted. Finally, he bids them to greet others in the community by name. In saying this, he acknowledges the value of each and every person. Although we're in it together, each of us has our own individual experiences. And the way each person handles these days is different. It is critical that we listen to one another and honor the individuality of each unique soul. Everyone is grateful to be recognized and to receive special attention. Therefore, when you reach out others in these difficult days, do your best to make them feel in those moments you share with them they're the most important person in the world. In other words: be fully present. Devote to them your complete attention. Interact with them with an understanding of who they are: unique and treasured children of God. Like the apostle, we hope to come to the end of these days shortly. Until then, let us be grateful for community, live in peace, and know that God cherishes us as His beloved. And if the question ever arises on Jeopardy! the answer is: What is four?
Good and gracious God, in these days of distance and division, draw us close to Yourself and to each other. Thank You for the gift of blessed community. Grant us the peace we so long for, the peace that only You can give. And give us a glimpse of Your great love for us. For as we come to trust in Your love, we will begin to recognize the inherent worth of all Your people and see in them Your image reflected.
So Jotham became mighty because he ordered his ways before the LORD his God.
2 Chronicles 27:6
What makes a person famous? It's often a combination of moments that arise and what that person brings to the table. Remember Rudolph, of red-nose reindeer fame? If that foggy night had never arrived, he and his name never would have gone down in history. At least in the reindeer world. Moses had his burning bush. David has his ranting Goliath. Solomon found himself inheriting the great throne of his revered father and quickly realized he was in way over his head. He prayed to God for wisdom, and forever thereafter his name would be synonymous with it. In the days of Josiah, the long-neglected Book of the Law was discovered, and the young king stepped up to lead a reform. When the mettle in a person meets the moment that arises, a kind of magic can happen. And a person's name can take on their reputation, and they will be remembered for generations to come. For most of us, however, such moments never arise, and such magic never happens. Enter Jotham. Who remembers his story? He was one of the kings of Judah, of David's line, appearing right smack dab in the middle of the House of David's dynastic rule. He reigns for sixteen years, but in all those years, although there are some achievements, there's nothing major to report. And in the generations to come, most of those who would scour baby books to name their soon-to-be bundle of joy would skip right over poor Jotham. That special ring to his name was missing. And his kingship was - like his life - seemingly rather ordinary. Kind of like the rest of us. But Jotham went about his work quietly, consistently and faithfully. And there's something to be said about that. The chronicler tells us that he ordered his ways before the LORD his God. Day in and day out, Jotham kept the LORD front and center; he did his best to follow in the ways prescribed by God. He was not scattered in his thoughts or disheveled in his manner. His heart was sound and his mind was sane. He humbled his spirit before the LORD, and he organized his life around God's will and God's ways. He's given the moniker mighty - which is not a bad word at all by which to be remembered. And he's commemorated as a good king - which is noteworthy in itself, since only eight of the twenty kings that ruled in Jerusalem were memorialized as such. And there's more: this rather indistinct and ordinary king will be remembered by the evangelist Matthew as one of the ancestors of Jesus. Jotham may never have had that special moment arise in his life that would make him famous like his ancestors. But he was reliable and steady, and he did a fine job. In the end, he would not go down as one of the famous kings of Judah. He probably knew that would be the case, for those moments that provide opportunity to make one famous never arose in his reign. But I doubt he had many regrets. For this one thing he did do: he lived into his name. Jotham: The LORD is perfect. And one could do no better than to order your ways before One such as that.
Almighty God, help me to order my days before You. As I seek You each day and look upon Your perfection and might, You transform me in Your image. Open my eyes to the opportunities You place before me today to carry out Your holy purposes. Thank You for those ordinary men and women who faithfully and consistently go about their work each day. Help me learn from their steadfast example. Teach me that a good life is made up of good days strung together. And when those special moments in life emerge, grant me wisdom to make the most of them, for the good of Your people and for the honor of Your name.
I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth,
just as we have received commandment to do from the Father.
2 John 4
There is a marked difference between bearing witness to the truth and telling stories to justify our actions and to guide someone toward a logical but errant and misleading conclusion. In our information age a quick Google search can reap an almost infinite variety of results. We're living at a time of easy access to powerful technological tools. These tools are neither good nor evil in and of themselves, but they allow both to take root and to gain greater influence than they ever have before. Fact-checkers have arisen, whose job is to investigate carefully the claims of the cunning and to call out the crafty. Many bypass the essential step of carefully evaluating assertions of truth, and they're swindled and scammed by the stories spun, coming to believe a depiction of reality that is nowhere close to what is really true. The words of Pilate spoken to Jesus continue to reverberate down through the centuries: “What is truth?” Theologians have maintained that all truth is God's truth. And Scripture bears witness that truth has become incarnate in a Person, the only begotten Son of God. As the living Truth, Jesus shows us in His words and by His actions, the truth of God in the darkness of this world. And those who seek to follow in His steps are, of necessity, to walk in His truth. But what exactly does that mean? What are its ramifications? As much as it is in our power to do so, we're to choose our words carefully and to communicate truth in every aspect of our lives. Of course, it's not always as simple as it seems. For every fact does not bear equal weight. Suppose you have a friend who has proved to be very generous. You're aware that he has made large charitable donations, and he has always shown himself to be kind and compassionate to those in need. But then the two of you have a falling out. And in an ensuing conversation with another acquaintance, the subject arises of the open spot on the board on which the two of you serve. Your acquaintance mentions the name of your ex-friend as a possibility to fill that slot. You respond by mentioning a time when you witnessed him not leaving a tip on the table after a business lunch you shared. You're personally convinced that this happening was in all likelihood an anomaly, that he simply forgot to do so on that one particular occasion. But you bring it up - as a matter of fact - to make him look bad. You state it with nonchalance, but you know you've done so out of spite, that you've not painted an accurate picture, that you've denigrated the man's reputation and his chances of serving on the board - on which he might well have been a wonderful asset. Have you told the truth? You brought up a factual occurrence, but it's not an accurate portrayal of the man's character. It is our heavenly Father's intention that we use our words to bear witness to the truth in all matters. The power of words and the evidence of our actions can be used for good or for ill. God has called us (indeed, commanded us) to walk in the truth. In our age of commonplace accusations of fake news, many wonder whether truth can ever be known. It behooves us to faithfully speak and to live out the truth - consistently, courageously and with the best of intentions.
Almighty God, You sent Your Son into the world as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Open our ears to listen well to His words. Open our eyes to learn well of His ways. And empower us to follow His example and to bear witness to the truth in every way and at all times. Let love always be our motivating factor, that we might speak our words of truth with the purpose of building others up and not tearing then down, that we might wield the power of the word with care and consideration. May our words and our actions be pleasing in Your sight, and may they always serve Your people well and bring glory to Your name.
And of the sons of Issachar,
men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do,
their chiefs were two hundred; and all their kinsmen were at their command.
1 Chronicles 12:32
Someone unacquainted with Holy Scripture who opened the Good Book willy-nilly and happened upon Chronicles might get the wrong idea. Seeing lists of names presented in genealogy might be an immediate turnoff, and the Book as a whole might be quickly dismissed as just more of the same. There are, however, few family accounts in the Holy Writ; they serve, if you will, as a mere seasoning in the delightful servings of God's nutritious Word. To declare that the Bible is just a bunch of names is like a person who bites into a peppercorn and thereafter swears off salami as way too spicy. Still, the genealogies are present. And perhaps they can remind us, since each name represents a human life, that each person is indispensable to God as an irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind and beloved creation. Issachar was one of the sons of Jacob who may well have gotten lost in the shuffle of a large and diverse family. He was the fifth son of Leah (out of six) and the ninth son of Jacob (out of twelve). The tribe of Issachar was allotted a small portion of land in the midst of Israel, just southwest of what is today called the Sea of Galilee. in this indiscriminate family we find great praise. For they stood out as having leaders who understood the times - those who were wise in determining the next steps the nation should take as they ventured forth in the world. They were people of vision and insight. There are those who are book smart; and then there are those who know what to do with the knowledge they've gained. They are those who can observe well their surroundings and gather all the facts; and then there are those who can determine the best way to go about being and doing in that particular setting. There are those who have amassed an extensive vocabulary; and then there are those who are wise in putting words together. There are those who know how to speak powerful words; and then there are those who know when to speak them and when to say nothing. It's a rare gift to truly understand the times. There are few who are able to read the writing on the wall, when the vast majority see only a bare and empty façade. The prophets had been given such insight; they were able to perceive what others could not. And they faithfully declared the word of redress that needed to be heard, as well as the result of what would come if no corrective action were taken. These sorts of advisors will always be invaluable. There're the kinds of counselors that open our eyes to our blind spots and show us the clear path forward. It's as if we're making our way through the maze of life, and they're somehow able to rise above it all and see from their higher vantage point the easiest way out. They have acquired savoir faire. From this obscure tribe came great blessing for the community of Israel; this kind of insight and discernment will always be needed. Good leaders identify men and women like these and surround themselves with as many of them as possible. Let us pray that God will bless us with wise and visionary leaders, who will be able to guide us through our present crises and usher us into a new and better day.
Wise, wondrous, omniscient God, thank You for the gift of good leaders. Help us to invest our energies to do all that we can to assist those who guide us in Your ways of wisdom. Inspire us to advance Your goodness in the world, and continue to grant Your people insight, to address the problems that lay before us. In all things, direct us by Your Spirit and show us the way You would have us go, that we might faithfully accomplish Your will, serve those in need, and bring blessing to all, to the honor of Your holy name.
For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.
1 John 3:11
No surprise: the Christian faith finds its center in Christ Jesus our Lord. For the heart of Jesus was, and is, love. When He was asked about the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus echoed what other rabbis had had said through the generations: Love the Lord your God. And in same the same breath He included another: Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus thus tied together the love of God and love of neighbor. He then gave another commandment to His disciples, a new commandment, but on the same theme: Love one another, just as I have loved you. The Scripture bears witness that Jesus is the incarnation of God. C.S. Lewis once described Jesus as God with skin on. As such, Jesus reveals to us the central characteristic and heart of God: Love. Love which is sacrificial, extravagant, and other-centered. This is the identity of God, and, because we've been created in God's image, this is how God has designed us. We've been created in love and for love. As the apostle John writes to the fellowship of believers, he reminds them of this central truth: This is what it means to be the people of God. Love, care, compassion and concern should be at the very center of the workings of the Christian community - for Christ, who is at the center of the community, is present in its midst. Then, like a stone that has been cast into a still body of water, the ripple effect of love is to undulate out into and beyond the community and out into the world. This is how it has been since the beginning of the human story, and Jesus reminds His followers of these eternal truths. We might well wonder why these words needed to be written at all and why the reminders needed to be given. But therein lies the human problem. For that which is broken inside of us - our sinful selves - inhibits and limits the progress of love. Instead of extending love outward, we bend love inward; we turn it back in on ourselves, to the exclusion of all others. The daily challenge of each and every one of us is to recognize the tendency to serve ourselves at the expense of others, and then to reorient ourselves to God's original intention for our lives. We need these simple reminders. We need to be held in check. The law of entropy applies to our heart, soul and mind: We will naturally move from an ordered state to a disordered state, if we do not intentionally apply energy to the system. What we should do is not always so easily done, and it is impossible without God. But with God, all things are possible. We pray that God will daily cleanse our hearts from all self- centeredness and sin and fill our hearts anew with His love. And as our empty love tanks are filled with God's love and grace, and we can get on with business of being about God's work in the world. You can be assured that God's love for you is greater than you will ever come to know this side of heaven. How can you respond to such a love, other than by allowing it to work in you and through you, to serve as a conduit for God to accomplish His purposes on earth, for the glory of His name and for the good of His people? As the songwriter crooned: What the world needs now is love, sweet love. So it is, so it has always been, and so it will ever be. Let's get out there and bring positive influence to all around us.
God of grace and glory, thank You for the love which You have revealed to the world in and through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Thank You for the example You've given us, of true love and sacrifice. Of tenderness and grace. Of compassion and mercy. Of justice and provision, for those who are weak, burdened or mistreated. Impart to Your people the fulness of Your Spirit, and empower us all with the abundance of Your love, that we might faithfully serve You in this generation by carrying out Your will and working Your ways, always for the benefit of Your people and for the glory of Your name.
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