|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.
Because of your raging against Me, and because your arrogance has come up to My ears,
therefore I will put My hook in your nose, and My bridle in your lips,
and I will turn you back by the way which you came.
2 Kings 19:28
Sometimes we get too big for our britches. Our lips can go on flapping long after they’ve finished speaking anything of substance, and our tongue can continue making great boasts long after our last victory, taking much more credit for things than we deserve. When we assume the mind of God and claim to have the power of God, things get ugly. Sennacherib was the king of Assyria, and the words above – words of the LORD delivered by the prophet Isaiah – were spoken against him. The Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and now they were seeking to add to their expansive empire by taking control over the southern kingdom of Judah, as well. Their victory had gone to Sennacherib’s head, and he thought he was invincible. No one and no thing could strand in his way. Nor any god. But he was mistaken. For the LORD had said: Enough. No further. Your end has come. And your victories are a thing of the past. Your raging and your arrogance will be your downfall. Your pride will go before your fall. And your wake-up call will be unpleasant; it will mark the end of your self- aggrandizement. You will see yourself for who you really are, and your people will see it, too. Humiliation is coming. These prophetic words gave great hope to the people of Judah. They were filled with fear at what many of them thought was surely coming: The end of their king, the end of their kingdom, the end of life as they knew it. But God would grant them a reprieve. Their own ruler, Hezekiah, would turn his heart to the LORD, and he would urge his people to do the same. God would give them yet another opportunity to order a good and healthy community, where every life was valued and where people were treated with the dignity that was theirs by virtue of being created in the image of God. These words can also infuse us with hope: God is able to raise up kings and depose them, and God will provide for the good of His people. Those who’ve been called to lead ought never to forget they’re to serve the people under their charge. And they ought always to remember they answer to a higher power. Neglecting either of these two duties will result in the end of their assignment, either by those below them or by the One above. Know this: You are irreplaceable. There is only one you, and no one but you can do the things you do the way you do them. But know this, too: You are not indispensable: You can be removed from the position you occupy, and someone else can be appointed to it. And the world will go on turning. There’s something terribly humbling and yet greatly hopeful in this realization. For in the end, there is one LORD over all, who is all-loving and all-powerful, trustworthy and true, merciful and compassionate, gracious and good. When anyone of us loses sight of who we are and who God is, and we arrogantly attempt to wrest God’s rule from His hands and take the control for ourselves, we will, in the end, be exposed as pretenders. And our foolish pride will be our downfall. May the LORD preserve us from our own undoing. And may God grant us respected leaders who will be both respectful of the people they serve and who will honor the positions to which they have been entrusted.
Almighty and sovereign Lord, we give You thanks for the laws You have ordained, to protect and preserve us from harm and to promote the peace and welfare of all. We give You thanks for our nation, and we pray that in our great diversity You would unite is in the things that matter most: justice, equity and kindness. We pray for all those who occupy positions of power, that they may do so with humility and grace. May they bring honor to the positions they occupy by the way they execute their duties, and may all that is done be done for the good of Your people and for the glory of Your name.
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you,
not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9
With all the benefits of our technological advances, we’ve not only changed the way we do things, we’ve also adjusted our expectations. And we’ve become an impatient and urgent people. We demand rapid response to our actions, insisting on prompt attention to our requests and next day delivery. Who wants to take the time to place a phone call and face the prospect of waiting for those time-wasting rings, when you could simply text and communicate your intentions immediately? And woe to the one who does not respond to that text message, post haste. Or to the person who seeks to venture anywhere without phone in pocket or purse, so as to become unreachable. Because we expect immediate consideration given to our overtures, we become frustrated when they’re not forthcoming, and we begin to question the capability, character and concern of the non-responsive party. How does this affect the way we view God and His promises? Even those in the first century fully expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes. What shall we say now, when two millennia have passed - and that Day has still not yet come? The audience addressed by the author of the words above was facing great hardship. They were suffering for their faith in Christ, and they were anticipating that the Lord would soon reappear to set things straight, right all wrongs, and rescue them from their predicament. What was taking Him so long? The apostle seeks to put it all in perspective, and he takes what we might call the long view of things. Whatever may be said about time, the intentions of the Lord ought not to be questioned. The apostle insists that Jesus is trustworthy and true. He will be faithful to the promises He has given. If there is delay, there must be good reason for it. Ours is not to question why the Lord doesn’t act on our timetable. Instead, we must concern ourselves with what is in our power to do - and how we’re doing - in the meantime. We may well want this crisis to be over already, and we’re impatient for a vaccine and a cure. After all, with all that we humans have been able to achieve, how is it that a virus can crop up to throw a wrench in our modern machine and bring us all to a standstill? How can it be that with all our advances, we cannot fix it immediately? Has it not made a mockery of our modern sense of immediacy and control? But perhaps it’s just this that should cause us to sit up and consider our ways. Maybe it’s high time for us to re-evaluate how much trust we’ve put in our own abilities and how little trust we’ve placed in God. Repentance (change of heart, change of mind) is almost never easy. It’s something against which we are stubbornly resistant. But we dare not miss the lesson to be learned in these days. It is not God’s desire for any to perish. Wisdom would have us consider well our unrealistic and unrighteous sense of Godlike control that has us insisting on having our own ways, right now. We’re not yet too far gone. But we’ll need to learn to loosen our death grip on the devices we trust to determine our destiny. We’ll need to learn to cede our control. Perhaps a pandemic was the only way that could happen. At the very least, it gives us an opportunity... to consider our ways.
Almighty God, thank You for the gift of this new day. As I experience the peaceful and slow brightening of the morning sky, I’m reminded that You choose not to rush things. You have made time, and You bid us to order the days You apportion to us wisely. Open my eyes to recognize Your faithful presence, transform my stubborn and selfish heart to seek Your ways, and grant me wisdom to learn to trust You more in these days and to grow in my confidence that You have all things in Your capable and loving hands.
And he said, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts;
For the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars
And killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek
my life, to take it away."
1 Kings 19:10
As Moses is nearly synonymous with the Law of God, so Elijah is God's quintessential prophet. Although he has no book of the Bible that bears his name, and although he is not numbered among the major or minor prophets, he rises above them all. In the Book of Malachi, the promise is given that Elijah will come again to precede the Messiah and to prepare his way. The New Testament writers declare that John the Baptist fulfilled that hope, for he had come in the spirit and power of Elijah. The words Elijah speaks in the verse above come soon after what was perhaps the prophet's greatest victory. At the top of Mt. Carmel there had been an impressive contest between Elijah and the prophets or Baal. Each prepared an altar with a sacrifice upon it. It was to be lit only by the God who answered from heaven with fire. The prophets of Baal cried out to their god to no avail. But when Elijah's prays, the LORD God answers from heaven, leaving no doubt about the identity of the true God of heaven and earth. King Ahab was ruling in the land of Israel at the time, and he favored Baal above the LORD. So after this magnificent display on Mt. Carmel, which had showed the power of Baal to be empty except in the minds of the misled, Elijah runs for his life. His greatest high is soon followed by what is perhaps his most dismal low, and he prays that God would take his life. Instead, God preserves him, sustains him, and leads him to another mountain, where God has a tête-à-tête with the pitiful prophet. What are you doing here? God had asked him. Elijah answers in the words recorded in the verse above. He defends his innocence and makes mention of the unfairness of his persecution. He declares that he is the only one left. One isolated soul. In response to his sob story God reveals His great power and His faithful presence. And after God's terrific exhibition for an audience of one, God questions the prophet once more. Again, Elijah replies, word for word, with the answer he had previously given. As if God's presence and power had meant nothing and made no difference at all. Still, God roused the prophet from his despair and gave him a new assignment. Elijah's purpose was not yet complete; there was more work to be done. And God assured the great prophet that, in fact, he was not the only one left. There were thousands of others who had not been duped by the inept and empty gods of the land, and the demonstration on Carmel had in no way fallen flat. It had been effective to revive the faith of the people, and there was hope for the future of the land. The prophet had become so down and depressed, all he could see was himself. What are we to make of this? The spirit of dejection can descend even after the greatest achievement. It can inhabit even the most successful - those who, from the outside, appear so very gifted, they would never suffer self-doubt. God opens the eyes of the prophet, to help him see with proper and healthy perspective. Even so, God is with you today. Although you may feel isolated, you are not alone. Although you may feel powerless, the almighty One is present with you and for you. Let God open your eyes to witness the beauty around you. Let God expand your awareness of the blessed community surrounding you. Let God open your mind to envision your employment in the Lord's service, awaiting the investment of your time and energy. God continues to carry out His good purposes in and for the world He so loves. And God calls you today to take your place and to do your part.
Almighty and sovereign God, with all the depressing and distressing things happening in our world today, save us from succumbing to the temptation to despair. Increase our vision, that we might see more clearly the vision You have for Your people. Thank You for gifting us with the ability to make a positive impact in Your world. Give us insight and grant us wisdom, to discern how we might go about fulfilling Your purposes in our lives today. May all that we do be done for Your glory and for the good of Your people.
... an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away,
reserved in heaven for you.
1 Peter 1:4
It's not easy to keep one's head up, over and above the rising waters, when you've expended effort in doing so, day after day, with no end in sight. Spirits can flag, souls can become dejected, and a word of encouragement is needed to infuse those who are suffering with the energy and the impetus to persevere for just one more day. The apostle writes to believers who are scattered. Distanced. Prevented from coming together and enjoying the blessing and strength of a gathered community. Peter addresses them as aliens in a foreign land. More in the sense of sojourners, temporary residents on this earth, as opposed to those who were living outside a country they called their own. Peter's intention is to instill in the hearts of the scattered community a vision and longing for Home, to give them strength to carry on in this life. He writes of a new Promised Land, an inheritance prepared and preserved for them by God in His rich mercy and grace. He plants in their hearts the hope of heaven. With their eyes fixed out this certainly that will be theirs because of the victory of Christ in His resurrection from the dead, they will more easily endure their temporary suffering. Years ago, when my grandmother was yet a sojourner on this earth, I well remember how she, a widow living alone, longed for the companionship of others. A solitary creature she was not. It was painful for her to be alone. And so, when I came to see her, before the end of each visit she would want to know when I was coming next. Telling her next week would bring her no comfort. Assuring her that it would not be long brought her no consolation. She wanted to hear from me a day and a time. She wanted to make a date. She wanted to have a reservation. Giving her that gift, giving her my word, brought her the peace and hope she needed in those in-between days, until I would fulfill my promise and we would have time together again. Having a reservation reassures us that our plans will not be thwarted; it gives us something to look forward to, with confidence and hope. The apostle knew this well, and he shared this vision with the scattered saints of God. How true it is that the longer we live on this earth the faster we experience the years going by. So too, the challenges we face in this life, difficult as they may be, will also pass; but the inheritance of heaven will never to be taken away: it will be permanent. Our days on earth are temporary; our time in heaven will be eternal. Living with the confident hope of heaven, you dare not become distracted from the tasks at hand or check out of this world. As long as God has given you the gift of today, God would have you make the best of it and make a positive difference in the world for the good of His people. Your waiting inheritance will not be canceled. It will be there for you when you leave this earth and you experience your heavenly promotion. In the meantime, may these promises sustain you in the present difficulties, and encourage you to keep on keeping on.
Almighty and eternal God, thank You for the blessing of this life. Your goodness never ends, for You are faithful to provide all that we need in this life and in the life to come. Grant us the confidence to believe that You will never cease to bestow the gift of life. Bless us with the assurance that life in You never ends and that in Your grace You will call us to Yourself. Thank You for the reservations You have made in heaven for Your people. May that real hope sustain us and infuse us with the fortitude we need, to bear through these days and to invest our energies for the good of Your people and for the glory of Your name.
Then David the king went in and sat before the LORD, and he said,
"Who am I, O LORD GOD, and what is my house, that Thou hast brought me this far?"
2 Samuel 7:18
How does one arrive at a humble heart? Or, for that matter, a hard and stubborn one? In the Book of Exodus, we read the difficult words, The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh. The description leaves us scratching our heads. We want to cry foul and unfair, and yet we're afraid to do so in the presence of the Holy One. But there are other descriptions of what happens to Pharaoh, like these: Pharaoh hardened his heart. And Pharaoh's heart was hardened. In these three evaluations of what is perhaps the same phenomenon, two different actors are claimed. (In the third case, written in the passive voice, the one who does the hardening is not identified.) Perhaps they are all alike trying to get at the same thing and to describe what's going on in the heart of this stubborn and insistent Egyptian ruler. And perhaps the way we narrate the story is influenced by the way we understand God and how we perceive the human psyche. So, too, when we listen in on the prayer of David, we marvel at his example of humility, and we wonder how his heart came to be this way. Is it sufficient merely to say that David had a humble heart? Or might we claim more? Shall we say that David humbled himself before God? Or does that give David too much credit? Might we claim that God gave David a humble heart, or humbled David's heart? Does it even matter how we tell David's story? I think it does. Profoundly so. For it speaks volumes about the way we understand God and how we bear witness to God's work in our lives. Exploring the context of these words, we learn that David had intended to construct a sacred house, a holy temple, to honor the God of Israel and to give the people a place in which they could gather as a community and meet with their God. There they would receive God's instruction, and there they would respond to it by giving their offerings and making their sacrifices. But God denies David's proposition. He will not be the one to build the temple. It was not yet the right time, and David would not be the man to do it. But then there's more. For God turns the tables on him. The LORD tells David that it will be God who will do the building. God promises to build David a house. And what God promises is more than an earthly palace. God promises David a legacy, a dynasty. That his sons and their sons would follow David's service and rule, after he himself was finished. It's when David hears these words that he's moved to speak as he does in the above verse. It's after God makes this magnificent promise that David stands amazed at how his life has unfolded. His eyes are opened to see with greater perspective and deeper understanding how richly God has blessed him. God had taken him, the last son of his father, from a rather insignificant family and had raised him up to the position of king over all Israel. And now God promises him that his kingdom will extend even beyond his own lifetime. Confronted with this grace, David's heart is humbled. He recognizes anew the wondrous blessing of God. And he knows he cannot rightly take credit for, well, anything. For in the presence of this good and great God, all personal boasting evaporates. And what shall we say about David at this moment? This much: His heart was in the right place. For as we enter into the presence of the Lord and see God in proper perspective, our hearts, too, cannot be otherwise than gloriously humble. To God be the glory!
Good, gracious and glorious God: When I come into Your presence, I'm overwhelmed with Your mercy and compassion. You've faithfully brought me through the night, and You've awakened me to this new day. May I humbly live out these hours, filled with gratitude for who You are and for what You have done. And may I live boldly and courageously, passionately offering the very best that is in me for Your work in the world, that Your kingdom may come, on earth as it is in heaven, for the honor of Your name.
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises.
"We are all in the same boat." How many times have you heard that in the last seven months? Some nod their heads in agreement, while the rest of the audience hears this blanket statement as naïve and callous and shakes their heads in exasperation: "You just don't get it." Certainly, we who live under the same grand ol' flag are together and alike in several aspects of our experiences this year. But the effects these matters have had upon this one nation of ours vary significantly, and in this way we are different. Some cruise through this crisis almost without care, cheerful as ever. While others experience suffering so significant it can hardly be described. Depression, addiction, and suicide are skyrocketing. Economic hardship has become economic disaster for many. Some rejoice in the additional time they're able to spend with loves ones, as they shelter in place together. Others are separated from those they cherish, and spend their days in dreaded isolation, experiencing unspeakable loneliness. Some diagnosed with the dreaded disease suffer flulike symptoms and are over it in a week's time - a mere blip on the health screen of their lives. Others who've contracted it are completely asymptomatic and experience no ill effects whatsoever. Some who've been plagued with the pandemic who will endure the ravages of the virus long after it has left; more than 200,000 have lost their lives to it; and the vast majority have bypassed it altogether. Those who suffer have salt rubbed into their wounds by those who are convinced it's all a political scheme, unreal, made up, and who maintain that our nation has given unnecessary and inordinate attention to this virus. The suffering of the afflicted is downplayed, even as this kind of response serves to increase it. Our experiences are not the same. James counsels his own varied audience. "Is anyone among you suffering?" he asks. And many in the community resonate with the question and their ears perk up for the next words that will come. "Let him pray." Now before you're tempted join the atheistic masses in scoffing at the answer James gives, consider his words. Prayer is not a last resort. It's not a weak and wishful longing, silly superstition, on the level of buying a lottery ticket when your chances are two million-to-one, hoping against hope that you just might get lucky. Prayer calls upon the One who has all the power in the universe. Prayer can instill in the one who prays the confidence of connection to this almighty power, that no matter what comes by way of their suffering, that connection will not be cut. The one who prays can in this way experience victory even in the midst of suffering and can indeed overcome - in being defined not by the disease but by their relationship with the One to whom they pray. If you're suffering in these days, may this serve as your impetus to look heavenward, to grow in your faith and knowledge of God. For as you pray, you will come to realize that God is bigger than you had heretofore perceived. You will recognize more poignantly that you are smaller and that you are not the center of the world. Grasping that truth will make it all the more astounding and magnificent that you have not been overlooked. Indeed, you are cherished and treasured by the almighty, merciful and compassionate God.
Gracious God, I experience many ups and downs in these days. There are times when I'm filled with cheer and I sing for joy. May the songs that I sing be sung in Your name and in praise to You. Then there are days filled with suffering, pain and loneliness. May they move me to lift my eyes to You, where I will find the consolation of Your comfort, the assurance that You claim me as Your own, and the certainty that You will never let me go. When I experience joy, may I reach out to encourage others with the gladness You have given me. And when I experience hardship, may I draw strength from the holy community You have provided. In all things, may You alone be glorified and honored, now and forever.
Then the LORD came and stood and called as at other times, "Samuel! Samuel!"
And Samuel said, "Speak, for Thy servant is listening."
1 Samuel 3:10
It is not always easy to hear the voice of God. Sometimes God speaks in whispers that force us to strain our ears to hear. Sometimes the voice of God is strong and clear, but because our hearts are stubborn and resist redirection, we stop up our ears, lest we hear, be convicted and have our plans frustrated. Other times we're simply clueless, unaware of the presence of God that continually surrounds us. Samuel was just a boy, being raised by the aged priest, Eli. Eli had a long career of serving the LORD, but he had ceased to listen to God's direction and has lost much of his spiritual sensitivity. He had neglected to correct the misdeeds of his priestly sons, and his heart had become complacent. The word of the LORD was rare in his day; visions were infrequent. And so, when God attempts to get through to the boy Samuel, he mistakenly runs to Eli, thinking Eli was the one calling him. It takes Eli three times to finally understand what is happening. The LORD was speaking to the boy. Was Eli's own heart touched by this occurrence? Did he not rejoice that God was still present and active and had not forgotten His people? Was he not grateful to realize that God had chosen to speak to Samuel and what that would mean for his future vocation? Did not his heart reawaken to the familiarity of God's action, as he thought back to his own experience as a young man? And did he not grieve that he had closed himself off to God's guidance and left off hearing God's voice for so many years? But Eli does not begrudge Samuel the experience, and he advises him well. "If you hear the Voice again," he tells the boy, "this is how you should respond: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" Perhaps too often in our own prayer times we feel compelled to fill the silence with our words. Our minds are prone to wander, we're impatient to be finished, and we want to get on with the things that really matter. It is difficult in our distractable world to be still in the presence of God presence and to wait for God to speak. We may not expect an audible voice, but as we focus our thoughts on the Lord, God will surely guide us in our thinking. In this back-and-forth, speaking-and-listening prayer time, one cannot leave the experience with a heart unchanged. For God will surely move you to certain action. You might call upon one of those whose names you've just lifted to God in prayer to share a word of encouragement. You might be reminded of something you had meant to do but have put off for too long - and then go do it. You might reorder and reprioritize your day, to get to the most important tasks that God brings to your mind. There's no better way to approach God in prayer than to come before the Lord with a spirit of openness and a heart that is willing to serve. This verse also contains a precious reminder: Samuel's mother Hannah had been barren and had poured out her heart before the Lord, pleading for a child. God answered her prayer positively; and when the boy is born, she names him Samuel, which means: God has heard. Indeed, God is always the One who initiates, and God acts in grace. In response, we gladly come before the One who hears, and we promise to do our very best to listen and to obey.
Good and gracious God, I thank You that You hear my cry when I come to You in prayer. Even before there is a word on my tongue, You know what I will say, and You're able to interpret my meager attempts to communicate what is within me. You listen, and in Your presence I am fully known. What a wonderful gift You give! Teach me to listen well to Your good word; transform me, that I might become more spiritually sensitive to Your leading and to the needs of Your people. And embolden me to be obedient to the direction You provide, for the honor of Your name and for the good of Your people.
Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace,
that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.
Confidence in the presence of God? Confidence in the prayers we pour out before the Divine? These are some of the blessings that are ours because of our good, gracious and merciful God. That the writer uses the word therefore gives us an indication that this is the climax to the case he has built for his argument. And indeed, the inspired author raises up the living Word of God, the Word speaks into the deepest part of being, revealing to us the state of our spirit and soul. In light of God's Word, we are moved to examine our conscience, scan our mind, and to identify any sinful virus that would have its way with us and lead us away from love of God and neighbor. The author next reminds us that God knows us intimately and sees all. We cannot hide in the presence of the Omniscient Almighty. But we are not alone. For Jesus, having experienced the human life and having endured every temptation of our existence, faithfully serves as our high priest. He's the One who enters for us beyond the veil and into the Holy of Holies, to make atonement for our sins. Indeed, He has not only covered our sins with His compassion; He has taken them away altogether. He is our faithful Advocate, and He does not leave us alone as we come into the presence of God. Because all these things are true, the author can declare the wondrous good news that begins with the word therefore. We're empowered to enter into the presence of God with boldness and courage. Not because of what is in us, but because of what is in God. For the One seated on the throne and the Advocate standing beside you are united in spirit and purpose. And what marvelous revelation that the sitting place is not deemed the seat of judgment but the throne of grace. What does God grant to us in our time of need? What do we discover when we come before this Omniscient Almighty and pour out our hearts in confession and supplication? Mercy and grace. Forgiveness, life, and salvation. The assurance that we are not alone. When is salvation appreciated most? Is it not when you are at the brink of disaster and can find no other way out? When is a friend most valued? Is it not when you are lonelier that you ever thought you would be and find yourself one step away from despair? Perhaps in these days when we're experiencing the full extent of our challenge, we will come to cherish more than ever the salvation won for us by Jesus. Perhaps at this time we will discover in the depths of our isolation the treasure of knowing that our Savior is with us (and, indeed, has never left us), and that He'll be faithful to accompany us for the entirety of this journey. Although summer has gone and fall has arrived, this morning's sun seems to be shining stronger than ever. The sky appears brighter, permeated with intensity. I'd like to hope that these are indications of a turning point, that things will improve from this point on. But my hope rests solely on the One who's promised to walk with me through all that is to come and faithfully guide me to a glorious destination; and who, in the meantime, continues to lovingly pour out His mercy and grace.
Merciful and Gracious God, because of who You are, I praise you. Because of what You've done, I thank You. My heart overflows with gratitude for Your good promises and Your faithfulness to fulfill them. Continue to inspire confidence in me to come before You readily in time of need, knowing that in You I have One who listens and is able to provide more than abundantly for all that I require. Help me to comfort and encourage others this day with the comfort and encouragement I have received from You.
And to Obed was born Jesse, and to Jesse, David.
And all the while I thought men couldn't have babies! But here it is in black and white - right in the Good Book: to Obed was born Jesse, and to Jesse, David. Of course, I'm kidding. But as it has been said, it's sometimes easy to miss the forest for the trees. Or better: Does a fish feel wet? We grow up in midst of a culture; we're surrounded by it, and we're indeed part of it. Because of this, we're sometimes unaware that patriarchy is the order of the day. At least it was in the days of Ruth. Of course, men didn't give birth. But they were given the credit. They were judged the (more) important sex, and history was recorded from their perspective. Beyond this lay of the landscape, let us dig a little deeper into the Garden of God, for when we do, we will find in this brief and prosaic verse something much more profound: the ripple effect of our decisions. You've probably thought about this before: What if my parents had never met? Well then, there would have been no me. Neither would there have been my children, and so forth. One thing leads to another - and life, as we come to know it, unfolds. And here it is that we see free will and God's sovereignty working together, hand in hand. For surely we do make decisions, and some of them are important. Choosing a marriage partner, for instance. Or whether to have children or not. But even this is not always within our power. Sometimes standing in the way is infertility, miscarriage, or the difficulties of adoption. Some things are within our control, but many things just happen. And we're left to observe, respond, and to readjust our plans and expectations. Of course, Ruth could not possibly have known that she and her second husband would end up being the great-grandparents of the greatest king Israel ever had. And she certainly did not live to see it come to fruition. And yet the reason for her existence and the integral part she played in God's Story were greater than she ever could have imagined. And here's the thing: so is yours. Your life touches more lives than you know. You've influenced many more people than you think you have. The truth is: today, more people are thinking of you, praying for you, grateful for you than you would believe - if, in fact, it could all be laid out before you. Which, of course, is impossible. The decisions you make today are important, and even this brief mediation should be enough to make you think twice about judging any one of them as purely individualistic. Your actions are not completed in a vacuum. Because you're part of a community and because you live in relationship with others, what you do today (and every day) matters. Many in our generation have taken a great interest in discovering their ancestry. They're filled with wonder at where they've come from and what that might mean about themselves. But even more profound is what is yet to come, and how your life today will affect the future outcome of the world. How interesting it will be when we get to the Other Side, where we will finally see how God's Story unfolds and how our lives played a part in it. Until then, may you see every person, every interaction, and every moment for what it is: holy and sacred.
Almighty and sovereign Lord, You have created all things and You continue to sustain Your creation. You work all things out for the good of Your people and for the glory of Your Name. Your Plan unfolds before us all, and we marvel at the unique place each one of us has in it. Open our eyes to the sacredness of our existence, and help us to see Your fingerprints in the world today. Thank You for this precious life. Guide us in our steps, that we may faithfully serve You and accomplish Your desired purposes, this day and every day.
But without your consent I did not want to do anything,
that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will.
None of us likes to be coerced into giving. We're protective enough with our money already, and when we sense that someone's reaching for our pockets, we hold on all the tighter. We don't appreciate it when someone turns on the heat, and at our first recognition of the intentions of the solicitor, we stop listening and are ready (when we can get a word in edgewise) to respond to the pressure with our predetermined default: No thanks. Or worse. If we can recognize the signs in advance (e.g., "Unknown Caller"), we don't even pick up the phone. So when we found ourselves on the others side - when it's our turn to ask - it makes some of us more than a little uncomfortable. In fact, our own discomfort can prove greater than any concern we have for putting others in a place where it's hard for them to say no. Many of us would just rather do it ourselves than to navigate these waters. The apostle doesn't shy away from engaging in these matters. And we can learn a lot from the way he goes about them. At the bottom of it all is his trust in the relationship he shares with Philemon - the one to whom he is making his request. He begins this short epistle by addressing him as a beloved brother and fellow worker. He mentions common friends in the community. He expresses his personal thanks, and he commends Philemon for some of the good deeds he has already done. Paul expresses his individual appreciation and the joy Philemon has brought to him by engaging in these helpful works. In no way is Paul laying it on thick; if this were the case Philemon would have been immediately turned off by the pretense. Rather, Paul is being completely honest, thoughtful and considerate. He then goes on to address the situation, the need, the reason for his request, and the desired outcome. He envisions what the final results would look like and what it would mean for all concerned. And then: He makes the ask. He does it with grace, but he is forthright. He's bold about his request and he's confident in making it. Not because he has built such a good case or because he is so persuasive (although both these things could rightly be said). He's hopeful and expectant that Philemon will say yes because he's assured of his integrity. And he gives Philemon the opportunity to walk into a future that is consistent with his past. Do you have a worthy, God-glorifying enterprise before you, for which you the need the assistance of others? Are you aware of others who could help you get it done? The apostle outlines a positive way to address it and to engage the involvement of others. People are never objects or props for you to use to get your way. But if you acknowledge their dignity, affirm their gifts, recognize the good they've done, and show them how they might partner with you in the project you have taken on, you can accomplish your goals and give reason for many to join you in the celebration.
Loving God, faithful and true: Thank You for the plans You have placed before me. When I recognize that they are bigger than I can accomplish alone, open my eyes to the people around me who are able to partner with me to get the job done. Give me the courage to involve others in opportunities that will serve Your people well, gratify those who engage with me in a worthy job well done, and bring glory to Your name. Thank You for the joy that You give us, when we carry out Your will and walk in Your ways.
That the leaders led in Israel
That the people volunteered,
Bless the LORD!
So begins the song of Deborah and Barak. Deborah was woman endowed with wisdom. She was the spiritual and military leader in Israel; Barak, the commander of her army. They had just led the Israelites in victorious battle against their Canaanite oppressors, who had made life miserable for the people for two decades. After their successful defeat of their enemies, they lead the people in celebratory song. And it begins by rejoicing over the rally of the people. All had come together. All had done their parts. Those who were leaders led, and all others willingly offered what they had to give. Hardship often brings people together to work for the common good. And when the challenge is met and overcome, the community can emerge stronger for having participated together and can rightfully rejoice in their joint success. Few would argue that in our day that we are not experiencing a medley of menacing threats to our well-being. We're experiencing both national and global crises. We're faced with health concerns, economic unease, racial distress, cataclysmic climate change, political unrest - and the list goes on. These are daunting challenges, to be sure. But when leaders lead and the people volunteer it's amazing what can be accomplished. What joy is shared by the community when all hands are on deck, when all join together to contribute their resources to tackle an otherwise intimidating task. When wise decisions are made, good direction given, and a coordinated effort is given, it's amazing what can be done. Is it true that 20% of the people do 80% of the work? If so, it is lamentable, to be sure. But it also evidences great potential. For just think of what could be done if the other 80% were somehow motivated to throw in their lot in the relief efforts! There's so much more that can be accomplished with what we already have. God has given us all that we need to meet the challenges before us and to get the job done. We have the intelligence we need; we have the resources required. Working together, combining our efforts, fighting for a common cause - this will be our victory. Individual self-interest will result in the ruin of us all. But our consideration of others, our love of neighbors, the extension of our circle of influence - this will be our victory. May God continue to raise up leaders whose ambition is to serve and to rally the people for good. And may God inspire us all to work together, to invest the best of what is in us for the benefit of all. If this happens, we will one day join our voices in a song of victory over the challenges we have overcome.
Good and gracious God, You have blessed us with all that we need to fully enjoy the life You've given us. Help us to wisely use our resources. Inspire us to work together for the common good. Motivate us to be proactive and positive, contributors not complainers, investing our efforts to be part of the solution, rather than using our energies to lament the problems before us or to cast blame. Thank You for the gift of community. Empower us to accomplish Your good purposes for the sake of all Your people.
The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom;
to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
2 Timothy 4:18
Last words. Final words. Words attached to your name that will linger in the memories of others when they think of you and your last shared encounters. When the opportunity arises for you to share what you expect to be your last words, you will sort through all that you've learned and experienced in this life to arrive at what's most important. You may also consider those with whom you will share them, and the needs of that person or group. And through the words passed on, you will intend to convey that which has become prominent in your heart, that which is most meaningful to you, that which you hope will be honored and treasured by those who receive them. Your wish will be that your learnings, effort and work will be received, assessed as valuable, and built upon by others. That the legacy you leave will continue. The words above are some of the last attributed to the apostle Paul. At the very least, they're some of the last words written in this letter to Timothy, a young pastor who is just commencing his ministry. And what a fine example the apostle gives - not only for Timothy, but for all of us. Paul expresses confidence in the protection and safekeeping of God. He knows little of the details of heaven. What he's learned of heaven has come in visions, glimpses and impressions, as well as in the few descriptions given by the One who said He had come down from heaven and was returning there. But what Paul knows with much confidence is the character of the One who sits on the throne, and the apostle can depart this earth trusting that his Redeemer - the One who had met him on that Damascus road and turned his life around - would be ever faithful to grant him final deliverance from any evil carried out against him and would take care of all the details concerning what was coming next. The oft- quoted maxim applies here: I don't know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future. What will heaven be like? Think of the best food you've ever eaten: this life is but an appetizer, a taste of heaven's banquet. Think of the most beautiful things your eyes have gazed upon: they are but earthly glimpses of heavenly glory. Think of those occasions when you wanted so strongly for time to stand still - so that you could enjoy those moments forever with those sharing them with you: these are mere hints of eternity in the presence of God. You can live with confidence that you are safe in God's good care this day. You can have the apostle's assurance that God will faithfully tend to you in the transition between this life and eternity. And when you close your eyes for the last time, you can be sure that the Lord will be faithful to awaken you to a new day in His heavenly kingdom, where all mourning, crying and pain will have vanished. For in the presence of the Almighty there is joy and peace and eternal shalom. Until that day, may this hope sustain you and encourage you, to boldly invest the remainder of your time employed in God's service for the blessing of all God's children.
Almighty God, in Your goodness and grace You have brought me into this life. Your faithful lovingkindness sustains me. Embolden me to entrust the remainder of my earthly days to Your tender care. Empower me to invest my energies toward productive work, that in me and through me Your will might be done, on earth as it is in heaven. And grant me the certain confidence that will dispel any and every fear of what is to come, knowing that You live eternally and that in You my forever will be eternally blessed.
Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.
Joshua is one of the true heroes of the Bible. He had a long and varied career. He knew how to play second fiddle, faithfully carrying out his duties without coveting the position of his superior. And when it came time to take over for Moses and to step into his role as leader of the people, Joshua proved himself proficient in that post, as well. Indeed, the transition from second-in-command to chief- decision-maker was not an easy one; to be successful he needed the support of his people - and his God. And in the opening chapter of the book that bears his name, Joshua is affirmed by both parties - and he's encouraged to go about his duties boldly. He's urged to have confidence that God has his back - and this is no small thing. With this sure and certain promise of God, there was no way to lose. At least that's how it appears at the outset. But there was a bit more to it. For Joshua was no mere figurehead. He could not remain passive and watch God do it all the work for him. The faithfulness of God does not ensure his success. For although it was the case at the Red Sea that God told Moses to stand back and watch what God would do, this was certainly the exception. Most often our involvement and obedience are absolutely necessary. God calls us to be fully invested, active participants in this life: We're an integral component in the solutions to our own prayers. So, too, in the life of Joshua: It was impressed upon him to learn well the commandments of the LORD and to meditate on them night and day. He was implored to be obedient to the direction and guidance of God. Apart from the LORD, Joshua's predecessor Moses would go down in the history of God's people as the central character in all of Scripture. How interesting, then, that he is called the servant of God no less than ten times in the book of Joshua - five times in the opening chapter alone. If Joshua is to be successful, he must never forget that that is also his position with respect to the LORD. There's no better way to go about your life than with the confidence that God is with you and will never fail you nor forsake you. But its complement cannot be neglected: to fix your eyes on the ways of LORD and always to remember that you are God's servant. In Jesus' parable of the talents, those who do well with what they've been entrusted receive this commendation from their master: Well done, thou good and faithful servant. What higher praise could be given? What greater acclaim could be received? At the end of his long career, Joshua, too, is given this honorable title: the servant of the LORD. They are words that attest to a successful life. And also, for us: We could hope for nothing more. May the words of the LORD spoken to Joshua encourage you today, to know that you do not walk through these days alone. God is with you and for you. Ever faithful. Ever true. Abiding with you in all provision and with all security. Press on in this confidence. Be bold and courageous. Commit your ways to the LORD and let nothing distract you from your service to God. And your life will be a work of beauty and source of blessing for all.
Faithful God, thank You for Your promise that You are with me in this life and that You will never fail me nor forsake me. Confident of Your presence, I'm emboldened to face the challenges that enter my life and not be paralyzed by them. Your abiding presence impels me to move forward, and I discover that with Your power I can overcome any obstacle that otherwise would have stopped me in my tracks. Fix my eyes upon You and capture my heart completely, that I might provide honorable service in Your sight.
... for kings and all who are in authority,
in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.
1 Timothy 2:2
The critical, judgmental spirit is alive and well in most of us. Jesus warns us against it, in the Sermon on the Mount. The venom that quickly rises up within against authority us adds toxicity to the environment when we strike, and the expression of rage, more often than not, turns self-destructive. The bitter and biting spirit can consume us if we are not careful. When those in positions of authority act in ways that are unjust, how is it that you respond? When things are said or done that get under your skin, what do you do? Turn off the TV and tune out? If so, you're not alone. I've heard from many in these days who can bear no more bad news. They've had more than enough input. They're full to overflowing. And for their own health and sanity, they've temporarily checked out. But perhaps you're still connected - and you continue to listen and follow the words and ways of authority figures. And yet, in your estimation, things are getting no better: they're continuing to decline in a downward spiral. Is your response to curse (out loud or internally) at the television and to get all riled up? As much as you've heard others say every generation has had its trouble, still you secretly wonder if things have ever been worse. If the world isn't unraveling. If it isn't in an inescapable tailspin. If the end is near. And you may feel powerless, that many important matters are out of your hands and there's nothing you can do about them. No contribution you can make. But God would have us take a higher and more productive path. The apostle addresses the young pastor Timothy in his ministry with a congregation of believers. One of the items at the top of his agenda is prayer - and this is the context for the words above. Paul knows as well as any that the abuse of power is commonplace. But the response he calls for is one of prayer. To humble come before God, who knows all hearts, and pray that God would motivate and transform, convict and guide. To pray that any and all attempts at selfish abuse of power would be frustrated and that those in authority would act with empathy and wisdom. To pray that all decisions made might align with the will of God, that the final outcome would be the blessing of all people to the exclusion of none. Committing oneself to prayer can dispel one's sense of powerlessness. And it can guard us against the critical, judgmental spirit that merely adds more fuel to the fire and serves only to increase the breakdown of the community. You can take action by praying for God's will to be done. Praying for transformation. Making phone calls, writing letters, investing yourself in positive ways, that we all might lead tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity. Channel your energy with positive effort toward that which is good for all people. Jesus has called us to do that which we despise: to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This was His chosen course. And that is where we must go and what we must do, if we would follow in His steps.
Almighty God, help us never forget that You have granted Your people access to You in prayer. Never let us doubt that all things are possible with You. You have promised to hear us when we call upon You in prayer. And so we ask that Your will would be done. Raise up leaders who will be persons of integrity and who will serve all those under their charge. And for our present leaders: We pray that You would strengthen their resolve in all efforts that align with Your ways, frustrate every evil plan, work repentance in every heart that uses power for selfish purpose, and work all things together for the good of all Your people. May Your Church faithfully shine Your light of grace and testify to Your goodness and love.
For the LORD your God has blessed you in all that you have done;
He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness.
These forty years the LORD your God has been with you;
you have not lacked a thing.
It was almost over. What had felt like an interminable time of trial and tribulation in the desert wasteland was finally reaching its end. Their journey from Egypt was nearing its completion, and the Promised Land lay open before them. Scripture bears witness that of all the adults who had left Egypt only Joshua and Caleb would cross through the Jordan and into their new home. Everyone else had only childhood memories of the enslavement in Egypt. But the stories they were told were more than vivid. The accounts their parents had impressed upon them were so compelling that the events were not only remembered; they became an integral and indelible part of their own identity. The experiences of the Hebrews in Egypt were so pronounced they defined them as a people: They had been enslaved, and they had been set free. They had come to know redemption. And what followed - the forty years in the wilderness - was equally defining. Perhaps, like me, you can recall camping or backpacking trips in your youth when you left the conveniences of home behind and were able to take nothing with you to entertain, save a book or two. Distractions were limited, and you had few diversions to preoccupy you or vie for your attention. All that was left was nature, those who accompanied you, and that still, small voice of God. So it is in the wilderness. Options are limited, and only that which is vital remains. Read carefully the words of Moses in the verse above. Twice he bears witness to the people that the LORD is their God. He declares relationship. The people belong to the One who created the heavens and the earth. They belong to the One who had made Himself known at the burning bush and who had revealed to Moses His redemptive plan. They belong to the One who powerfully rescued their parents - and many of them, too, when they were too young to remember it. They belong to the One who had been present with them in their own times of hardship, who faithfully provided for them in all their needs, and who graciously blessed their efforts, making all of their work productive. Although they had none of the conveniences of home, Moses could tell them in truth that they lacked for nothing. They had all that was needed. For the audience listening then, these were celebratory words, for they looked back on what God had brought them through. Moreover, they were words of promise - for the One who had proved faithful in the past could be trusted with the future. For us today, those who find ourselves yet in the midst of our wilderness, these can be words of encouragement. For we are not unlike the Children of Israel. We, too, murmur and complain, whine and wail, in the midst of our own despicable desert. While we may hope to reach the end of these tribulations and enter our own Promised Land much sooner than 2060, let us rejoice, even now, at the faithful presence of the LORD our God and for His gracious provision. And let us never forget the redemption He accomplished for us on Calvary's cross, freeing us from our bondage to sin and opening a Way to our eternal Promised Land, where the gates of heaven stand open for all who will call upon Him.
LORD God Almighty, in Your wondrous grace You are ever-present and always faithful. Open our eyes in the midst of these days to recognize Your work in our world and to glimpse how You are bringing all things together for Your good purposes. In these days of confinement, may we not spend our time lamenting those things that are off-limits. Rather, let us give thanks that the distractions that hinder us from focusing on You have been curtailed. And let us heartily rejoice in that which shall never be taken away from us: Your love for us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him,
being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed.
"I don't believe in organized religion." I've heard those words spoken by many in my lifetime. In addition, countless others have opted for spirituality over religion. Old-time religion is dismissed out of hand as old-school and passé, incompatible with science and the modern world. Too many of those who claim to be adherents of the faith of their fathers are judged hypocrites. In the words of the apostle, stated above: professing faith with their lips, they deny God by their deeds. It must be admitted that the accusers and critics do not make baseless claims. In fact, the charges they launch are but echoes of Paul's words to Titus, the pastor of a Christian congregation in Crete. Paul writes this short, two-page letter, to address several problems that had arisen in the community. Hypocrisy was at the top of his list. Over and over again in this brief epistle Paul urges believers to live lives worthy of the gospel they had received. His theology is sound: he stresses salvation by grace, not by works. God rescued His sinful people purely out of kindness and compassion. Those rescued did nothing - and, indeed, could do nothing - to save themselves. But the lives of the saved are to be dedicated to the service of God, in appropriate and fitting response to God's redemptive initiative. Those who want what Christ has wrought and yet desire to continue in their selfish and sinful ways, or remain passively complacent after their rescue, have it all wrong. They cannot have their cake and eat it, too. They cannot claim salvation from sin and continue to live in it. The apostle's words are reminders to the young pastor, for he certainly knows the truth of which Paul speaks. And he's encouraged to continue in his service to the community of faith, to impress upon the people of his congregation the importance of faithful living in the light of the gospel. Sin will never be eradicated in the Christian community, this side of heaven. Still, those in the fellowship are called to live lives of repentance - to recognize their sin, to despise it, and to turn from it, turning toward Jesus. Duplicitous deeds fool no one. God is well aware of empty words and prideful pretense. Those looking in from the outside are likewise discerning. They're surprisingly intuitive, more spiritually sensitive than we give them credit for. They can recognize the hypocrisy; they can spot the incongruity in those who claim to be followers of Christ and yet live as they choose. Ironically, their judgments do not discredit religion, but rather affirm it. For they recognize the truth that stands behind the inconsistencies. If they did not, they couldn't rightly judge what they recognize as contrary. Inside and outside the church, the truth is affirmed. Good deeds matter. Caring for one's neighbor, watching out for others, selfless sacrifice, goodness, kindness and mercy - these things are important, and they make a difference. The better we come to know the words and ways of our Lord, the more apparent it becomes that His claim upon our lives is absolute. Jesus gave His life - the best of what was in Him - for the world God so loves. And He calls all who would follow in His steps to do the same. Christianity is not a badge of honor handed out by Jesus for good behavior. Christianity receives God's saving grace and answers God's call to behave in such a way that addresses the real needs of God's people and brings blessing to all.
God of amazing grace, in Your kindness and love for Your people, You sent Your Son to save us from our sins and brokenness and to show us a better way. Thank You for Your open-armed, nail-scarred welcome. By the power of Your Spirit, create in me passionate and zealous response, appropriate to the grace I have received, that I might live in such a way as to bring honor to Your name and blessing to Your people.
... who will go out and come in before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in,
that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep which have no shepherd.
Moses was nearing the end of his service. He had thought that day had come forty years earlier, but then he met the LORD at the burning bush and discovered the great adventure of his life was yet in front of him. But now it was clear: He could see the writing on the wall. And he's concerned about his successor. He seeks a seamless transition, and he knows that the character of the one who will follow him is of utmost importance. He prays to God to raise up someone who will faithfully lead His people. Moses wants to go to his grave in peace, to be certain there is someone in place to carry on his work. In the words above, we find a leader's job description... Something changed in me during my teenage years. I went from being a person who was quiet and passive, tentative and afraid, to someone who was driven and determined, ambitious and industrious. It was at this time that my mom introduced me to a new word that she would use to counsel me, time and time again: Balance. Initially, I thought it was a bad word - a word of compromise, a copout, the adversary that would keep me from doing my best. I later came to learn the wisdom of her guidance. There is work, and there is rest. God has built that into healthy living by giving us the Sabbath. We see this wisdom played out in leaders and the work that they do. There is to be balance in what they do separately and in what they do in community. Moses prays that the one who would take up his mantle would, in his separate work, both go out and come in. In going out, the leader would take the initiative, open his eyes to all possibilities, explore all options, and make wise decisions. In coming in, he would never forget that he belonged to the people - that he was their representative. His work was not solitary or singular; all that he would do was to be done for the people he served. There was also balance in the benefit this leader would bring to the people: he would lead them out and bring them in. As a shepherd leads the sheep out to pasture where they can find food, so the leader is to provide for the people. And as a shepherd brings the sheep in, where they will be safe and at rest, so the leader protects and preserves the people he serves. Balance is of utmost importance in good leaders, in their work alone and with others, in their provision and in their preservation. Moses learned the importance of leadership. He knew that without it, people languish. He prays that God will give the people a good and faithful shepherd who would lead them well. God answers his prayer soon, by identifying Moses' protégé, Joshua, who would be the one to lead God's people into the Promised Land. God also answers Moses' prayer later, by sending His people Jeshua, Jesus, who would identify Himself as the Good Shepherd. In His day Jesus lamented the lack of leadership; He grieved that the people were like sheep without a shepherd. Has God called you to be a leader? Faithfully carry out your calling, seeking the balance Moses outlines above. Has God called you to be part of a community? Pray that God will raise up new leaders, and pray for those you have. Encourage them toward good, hold them accountable, and give them as much support as you're able to do. It's not an easy work, for Jesus Himself told us outright: The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. All who are called to leadership by Him have been recruited to do the same.
Good and gracious God, thank You for raising up leaders to guide Your people. Inspire them to faithfully carry out their duties. Guide them into a healthy balance of ventures both separate and communal, foreign and domestic, to provide for and to preserve Your people. Impress upon those who are led to offer their support and encouragement to those who lead. And thank You for Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who led Your people with compassionate mercy and who offered Himself in sacrifice for His sheep.
Therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God
for your perseverance and faith
in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.
2 Thessalonians 1:4
As a minister of the gospel, I've been blessed in my life with many people who've served as examples of encouragement in matters of faith. I've seen countless people deal with loss of health and loss of life, and the way many have handled their trials and tribulations has truly been inspirational. Their steadfast faith has encouraged me, for while I would not welcome the hardships that have come their way nor wish them on anyone, their courage and grace have given me hope that if these difficulties ever became my own, I'd be able to bear through them with my faith intact. Not only that, others have borne witness that it was their faith itself, their trust in God, that gave them the strength to keep their heads about themselves and to keep pressing onward. Since my high school days, I've made a practice of committing Scripture to memory, and this verse is one of them. Not only have these words lived with me and in me for years, I remember the time when I first read them, meditated on them, and decided it was worth the effort to etch them in my mind. The impetus for doing so was witnessing a dear husband and wife in a congregation I was serving into whose lives great tribulation had come. Illness had struck out of nowhere, and within twenty-four hours the man was all but paralyzed, and the life of this cherished couple would be forever changed. I had already been impressed by this pair, well into their retirement years, and I had been moved by the quiet kindness and deep love they exhibited toward one another. They were a couple. They had grown in their love over the years, and they were inseparable in spirit. And the surprising sickness that had invaded their life together in no way put an end to their romance; it only increased it. They had vowed their commitments at the altar to be faithful in sickness and in health. They had been successful with the latter; now the former was before them. And to watch the wife's care and commitment, day after day, faithfully by her husband's side as he went through the worst of his illness and began the slow and painful road to recovery meant more to me than I can describe. And these words of the apostle to the church of God in Thessalonica came alive again: I did speak proudly of this couple in the midst of the faith community. As the church joined our hearts to pray and to encourage them, we were humbled by their commitment to each other and by their perseverance and faith. They had never expected their lives would take such a turn, but they adjusted, changed their tack, and carried on, together. What a blessing it was (and is) to me, to have witnessed this example in these living saints of God. And it leaves me to wonder: Will those watching us now, as we make our way through this present crisis, be encouraged in their faith? Will they grow in their trust in God, as they watch us draw strength from His Word? Will they be moved to awe and wonder at the life perspective we exhibit, as we press on with hope and patiently endure these challenges, knowing that they will in no way compare to the glory to come? The Lord is faithful and we can count on His abiding presence in these days. Fix your hope in God. He will grant you all that you need, this day and in all the days to come. As you press on in faith, you can be sure that others will be encouraged by the example of your words and your actions, for they will witness you humbly living your faith out loud.
Good and gracious God, thank You for Your faithfulness, especially in times or hardship and trial, when I need You more than ever. Thank You for the grace You bestow and for granting me all that I need each day. Help me to persevere with confidence, knowing that I can overcome these present trials because of Your abiding presence. As I've been encouraged by the faith of the saints who've gone before me, may my life be a witness to others of Your faithfulness, goodness and grace. To You alone be all glory.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you,
and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt;
I am the LORD your God.
All of us need food to eat, air to breathe, and space to move about. Everyone needs a place to lay his head at night, sheltered from the elements. These are the basic necessities of life. And we can all agree: they are fundamental human rights, for they sustain our very existence. But after these essentials, things get complicated. Who gets the best portions, the most fertile land, the nicest homes with the best views? We are, by and large, a nation of immigrants. How far back can you trace your ancestry? Chances are, your forebears came from overseas. (As did mine. My grandfather, to whom I owe my last name, was born in Sweden on this day early in the last century.) Some came looking for adventure, others in search of the bare necessities outlined above. They came first as strangers. Then, after finding a space and setting up camp, they staked their claim. After so many days of staying in that one place, they finally designated it as home. They put down roots, and they grew into the land until they became one with it. It then became theirs: a land where they belonged - and where others did not. They became convinced of their ownership. What was once a humble and tentative privilege became a firm and unchallenged right. If any did question their claim to that space, they would defend their property and their land to the full extent of their power. They began to forget the rudimentary principles of their existence. It mattered not that their lives had been given to them as gifts of grace - that they did not create themselves - or that where and to whom they had been born was not of their own choosing. It mattered not that they themselves were once strangers or that all that enabled them to redefine themselves as residents was a mixture of time and work expended in the place they now called their home. They had lost sight of the deeper truth that the land belonged to the One who alone created all things, and that it was simply foolish pride to claim any right of ownership. In the above passage Moses reminds the people that it is God calls the shots. God has called them into relationship in which He was their God and they were His people. Moses reminds them that themselves once lived in a land where others deemed them aliens and strangers, those who did not belong. And because they did not belong, they became in the eyes of those who did less than human. It was then all the easier to use them as objects instead of treating them like persons. They knew this was wrong - and they were never to forget it. Remembering would ensure that they would not treat any stranger in their midst in the same manner. You shall love him as yourself. The stranger, the alien, the newcomer. You shall treat them with the dignity they deserve, as full persons, created by the same God, endowed with the same fundamental rights to sustain the existence given to them, even as it was given to you. Land rights. Property rights. They're established by the community currently residing in the space in question. But the ownership belongs to the Creator alone, to whom we are all, finally, held accountable.
Good and gracious God, I give You thanks for the great privilege of being born in this land and residing in this country. In my gratitude for this gift of grace, let me not succumb to the temptations of selfish pride or exclusive entitlement. Never let me forget that this land belongs to You or that all that I claim as my own has been entrusted to me by You and is to be held in responsible stewardship. Help me to show hospitality to the stranger and to extend the same grace I first received from You, and to recognize that we are brothers and sisters, all alike created by You, fellow sojourners on this good land. May the way I humbly interact with all others this day bring You honor and give You glory that alone is Your due.
But we, brethren, having been bereft of you for a short while - in person, not in spirit -
were all the more eager with great desire to see your face.
1 Thessalonians 2:17
Those who have served in the military know personally the sacrifice of separation from their loved ones. Training and deployment will take them places where they must necessarily take leave from their families, with great hope but with no firm assurance that they will again be reunited. High school graduates who've been accepted at out-of-state schools not only experience the exciting adventure and great thrill of being apart from their parents and out on their own; they also know the sharp and surprising pain of separation. And now many of us have experienced it for ourselves. This pandemic has prevented us from gathering in community and from seeing our loved ones; it's left many of us to linger in loneliness and painfully pine for an end to these days, so we can be reunited with those who are precious to us. When I read the words of Paul in the above verse, written to a beloved congregation of believers who share common faith Messiah Jesus, the words short while grab me. For this does not feel like a brief respite; it feels more like a long, drawn-out saga, leaving us to wonder when, if ever, we will reach the end of it. We hope against hope that when all of this does end, we'll be able to get back to the lives we've loved - for we want to carry on and love them still. Paul writes these words filled with hope and expectation. Although he does not know exactly when reunion will happen, he trusts that it will not be much longer. In the meantime, his eagerness and desire for real face-to-face fellowship increases. And we know exactly what he means. The time will surely come when we'll look back on these days from the other side; perhaps we'll even refer to them - in hindsight, and having the whole picture in view - as a short while, instead of a long slog. What matters is our longed-for connection, and we confidently maintain that we will appreciate it more than ever before and never, ever, take it for granted. In the meantime - in this in-between time when we regret the necessity of physical distancing - we rejoice that our spiritual connection remains. We've all heard those romantic stories of lives once separated by war or other hardship. The bond between loved one grew stronger, as letters of were written, received and replied to. The reminders of promises made kept hope alive that promises would be kept and that one more day apart only meant one day closer to reunion. The increased longing for reconnection is evidence of our love for one another. And it is good to express it, to communicate it, and to share in our anticipated reconciliation. In the meantime, as we long for that place and time when we shall rejoice in our re-connections, we steadfastly carry on with what can be done here and now and make the best of these days, that we and others might one day look back upon them when they are but a distant memory with pride at how we handled them: as God would have us do.
Holy God, You are ever-present and always-faithful. I can trust You to give me the strength I need to stay the course on the path You've placed before me. Help me to be ever-vigilant in these days, to make wise decisions that preserve my health and protect the welfare of others. Let me not to be deceived by the voice of the ancient foe who would tempt me to believe that all danger has passed and that I can now come out of hiding - lest I be caught unaware and be devoured by the dispassionate killer that feasts upon the unsuspecting and ill-prepared. Teach me patience in these days and increase my confidence that all will be made well again in Your good time. Until then, may Your good and gracious will be done, in me and through me, always for Your glory and for the good of all Your people.
And the LORD said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people...
and have given heed to their cry... for I am aware of their sufferings.
Born in poverty, raised in privilege, Moses had a most unique upbringing. Few would question that he did not take full advantage of the benefits of growing up in the palace of the king. He had the best education, the finest food, and the pampering of the powerful and the elite. But when the day came that his eyes were opened to the suffering that surrounded him in his insolated enclave, and he realized that greater than the cultural divide between the Hebrews and the Egyptians was their common humanity, he could not carry on without taking action against the injustice with which he was confronted. He took matters into his own hands, and he was judged traitorous by those in power. He had been unable to right the wrongs that rose up before him, and he fled for his life to find refuge in the desert. And it was there that God had showed him a different and better way. Moses' self-made plans were burned up in the bush, as he heard the Holy One make known the divine intention: It was not only Moses who had seen; God had seen it, too. It was not only Moses who had heard their cries; God had listened to every prayer and plea. The LORD was fully apprised of the situation. And it would be in the very depth of their despair that God would perform His most redemptive work. God would take action to set His people free. And so it is: time and time again, the people of God bear witness to God's activity to rescue and to redeem. God has not created and then gone remote, like some dispassionate, deadbeat dad. God is our loving heavenly Father who sees all, hears all, feels with compassion and mercy, and acts with power to save. Enslaved to their overlords, it took some convincing for many of them to believe that God was with them and was on their side. How many years had gone by without relief? How many beatings did they endure? It didn't feel like God was present; it didn't appear that God was aware of what was going on. Not at all. And if He was, why then did He allow it to continue? Why did He stand by and do nothing? God corrected these false assumptions and fiery accusations at the burning bush. And Moses and Aaron, after persistent pleadings and powerful plagues, would convince the people that it was so... In our present circumstances, let us not doubt that God is fully apprised of our situation. Neither let us doubt that God is present or that He is not strong to save. God has not lost His hearing, and His eyesight has not grown dim. His heart is just as passionate for us as it was for His people in their Egyptian bondage. In the following verse God will tell Moses, "I have come down to deliver them." And indeed, God would proceed to do just that. So take heart, dearly loved people of God: Our Deliverer is coming.
Almighty, Abiding and Merciful God, give us eyes to see Your faithful, redemptive work in our world today. Grant us insight in recognize Your power, to sense Your presence, and to more fully realize Your compassionate heart that overflows with grace for the people You claim as Your own. Make us sensitive to the needs of others and empower us to act in ways that are helpful and productive, that we might wisely carry out the work You've prepared for us to do. May Your good and gracious will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit,
rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.
Sounds like the apostle Paul was himself experiencing a bit of physical distancing from those he loved. But of course, that's the implication of most letters: They would not be written if the author could be present in the flesh, seeing the intended recipient eye-to-eye, face-to-face, tête-à-tête. Which is always much preferred. I'm more grateful than ever for our modern-day advances in technology that allow us to communicate with each other instantaneously regardless of distance. We're blessed to see each other on our phones or computer screens. We can receive notes of reassurance of another's thoughtful presence by text or tweet. But as good as it's got, nothing can ever replace personal presence. And while the other means of communication can sustain us for a time, after awhile it can feel like we're being teased, tried and tested beyond the breaking point. We've heard the accounts of many in our own crisis who've been unable to be present with their loved ones while they endure sickness, present with them only through a still-separating glass windows or a Zoom square... This morning I awakened to a sunless day. Above and around me is a grayish-orange sky that is slow to shed any light at all and is forcing cars to drive with headlights on an hour after sunrise. It's eerie, strange, ominous and surreal. And yet it seems somehow fitting and consistent with everything else we've been experiencing. Taken together, 2020 has been an adventure of sorts: a year to remember. But it's certainly not the one we would have chosen, had we had our pick. We pine for the days of clear blue skies; for safe, mask-less, human interaction; for peace in the public square. We want to be finished with this chapter and begin a new one. But although we're participants in this drama, we're not the sole authors of our story and we cannot simply write our way out of it. We're left with the feeling of powerless passivity that makes us impatient for change. Perhaps that's one reason among many for our national unrest. But taking our lead from the apostle's words of counsel, there are yet some things we can do in these unwelcome days: We can take courage and draw inspiration from the spiritual connection we share with others in the faith community. Although we may be physically isolated, we are not alone. We're all in this together, for each other, and no one and nothing can take that away from us. We can do our best to be fully present in this day, and to press on, with good discipline, moment by moment. We will surely transition out of these days. In the meantime, we resolve to steadfastly stay the course. To use this these days as opportunities to grow in our faith in Christ. We will open up the Good Book and we'll be reminded of His words and His ways. We'll be assured of His faithful and abiding presence. And we will find in Him a sure source of stability that will help us safely navigate the waters of this storm. You can trust Him; for He is trustworthy and true. Draw from Him your strength. For there are others who are depending upon you. They need your support and your thoughtful prayers. One more day. You can do it. Your God is faithful; and He has promised never to leave you or forsake you.
Almighty and Sovereign Lord, we entrust ourselves into Your faithful care this day. We know that You are much bigger than all that we're experiencing. In these lonely days of isolation, grace us with the assurance of Your presence. Inspire us to reach out to others for assistance when we find ourselves in need. Reassure us of Your gracious gift of supportive community. Hold us in Your safe embrace. Help us to find our sure confidence in You. And keep us firm and steadfast in faith. Father, give us this day our daily bread.
And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here;
for God sent me before you to preserve life.
Tim Rice helped to tell his story and Donny Osmond brought him to life in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Music has a way of incorporating a narrative in the mind's memory unlike anything else. Consider how lyrics suddenly come to mind when you hear a song for the first time after not hearing it for decades; and, to your great delight, you discover the words are still there within you and, surprisingly, you can still joyfully sing along. Joseph was the annoying pipsqueak of a little brother who happened also to be the favorite of his father. This irritated his older ten brothers to no end; and, in fact, brought out the very worst in them. Joseph was lucky to survive his adolescence, for his brothers had come dangerously close to fratricide. Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery, and he would go down to Egypt-land, while his brothers took the cash, bloodied his coveted and despised coat, brought it to good ol' dad, and then allowed him to believe that his precious son had been torn to shreds by wild beasts, while completing an errand on which he himself had sent him. Although there is redemption in this tragedy, not all can be salvaged. Father Israel's life is forever changed, and there's good indication that his demeanor is not at all what it used to be. This great loss in his life sullied all of his future experiences if it did not spoil them altogether. And the ten older brothers, home to see it all, carried with them different degrees of guilt. So when (*spoiler alert*) the never-expected family reunion takes place twenty years later, what we have before us is a fractured family. Joseph has gone from slave to second- in-command, while his brothers have been shaped by the sin they've committed and the regret and self- loathing that've come as a result of it. Joseph has the power in this scene. He not only has the political puissance to change their lives (for better or for worse); more importantly, he has the ability to attend to their psychic burdens, their soulful afflictions, their heavy heartaches. And he can do so just by speaking a word. This word has not come to him easily. He's endured agonizing times of trial - wrongfully accused, unjustly punished, forsaken by men, and (so he felt) forgotten by God. But then things changed. His eyes were opened to see God was at work behind the scenes, ever faithful, even and especially in those moments when he had felt that God had rejected and abandoned him forever. Somehow, in God's marvelous and wondrous ways, He was able to orchestrate the sins and foibles of His people to miraculously bring about something beautiful. Joseph saw God's great redemption at work. He experienced God's grace, firsthand. And because he had come to learn of God's great sovereignty, he could declare it to his undeserving brothers. He uses power for good and graciously extends to his siblings the forgiveness that imparts life. And he bears testimony: God's work has not been thwarted by their sinful ways; in fact, God has been able to perform redemption in spite of them and even because of them. This word gives them the grace to forgive themselves. To refuse to forgive myself is to disavow God's greater power to make all things good. But to know that God is able to make something good out of the messes I've made and that I've not ruined things beyond repair gives me grace not only to accept God's forgiveness. It endows me with the power to forgive myself. It's the key that unlocks my own self-shackling and sets me free to live as God would have me live.
Good and gracious God, You've made Your way clear to us in the commandments You have given and in Your Son who lived them out. In Your love You protect us from harm and provide for us all that is good. Your gracious forgiveness shows us You would not have us carry the burden of our guilt. Still, You do want us to learn from our mistakes. May my understanding of Your ability to redeem unleash the stranglehold I have on my own guilty conscience. And may the revelation of Your great sovereignty help me to learn to forgive myself, that I might better serve You with the rest of the days You have allotted to me.
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit,
but with humility of mind let each of your regard one another as more important than himself.
Can you imagine a community that functioned like this? A fellowship in which the consideration of others was widespread and promulgated? When those that comprise a community are followers of Jesus and of His ways, that is exactly what happens. No one is so full of himself that the needs of others are neglected. Each person has dignity as a child of God and is recognized and valued as such by others. A slice of heaven on earth. Ah, if it were only so easy. For the very fact that the apostle writes these words to a beloved congregation of Christ-followers is testimony that these things are not (always) taking place. I once saw a bumper sticker that stated, Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven. While I read it as a statement of humility, others took it as an excuse for hypocritical behavior. The truth is: sin and the brokenness that accompanies it have invaded all of life - every person and every community. The sacred writings are consistent in stating that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. That there is none that is righteous - no, not one. We have all been afflicted. Each one of us walks the steps of our first parents, who listened to the voice of the deceiver and who chose their own way instead of trusting in the word of their Creator. You may know that at any given time there are germs from the outside of you that enter and invade your body. Besides this, there are unhealthy, rogue cells within you. You've been designed with an immune system to combat these selfish entities - for they are of no help to you but are, in fact, a hindrance to the well-being of your body as a whole. And they must be stopped, or else. Most of the time you're completely unaware of these battles raging on inside you. If asked how you're doing, you might well reply: I'm fine. I'm healthy. And while you might be correct in this self-assessment, this does not mean that you are pure or without blemish. It means that these contrary components within you are being held in check and are not, for the moment, getting the upper hand. Even so in a healthy human community. We will never - this side of heaven - be able to interact with one another in complete purity and holiness. Human perfection is not possible, nor is it the goal. The apostle argued that self-righteousness is rubbish. True righteousness comes from the outside of you, from Christ, whose presence dispels foolish, self-centered ambition. God would have you not fix your eyes upon yourself, but upon Jesus. And when you do this, you both lose and find yourself in your service to God and others. Humility is the hallmark of Christian virtues. Stamped upon you by the Spirit of God. It begins in the mind, fills the heart, and shows itself in loving service of neighbor. It happens when you're focused on the One who came not to be served, but to serve. And when you join with others of like mind, with the intention of seeing Jesus and following in His ways, God's Spirit creates a community where all are welcomed and cherished, and the where the holy kingdom of God is revealed.
Good, gracious and glorious God, in Your love for Your people You sent Your only Son to earth to live the perfect human life and to bring salvation to all. You did not turn away from our sin and brokenness. Rather, in Your grace and by Your power You came to cleanse and redeem us in Jesus. Never was a man more humble than He. Help us to have His mind, to navigate life with His attitude, so that we might respond to Your rescue by dedicating ourselves in loving service to our neighbor. Always for Your glory alone.
Thus has the LORD of hosts said,
"Dispense true justice, and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother;
and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor;
and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another."
Those annoying reminders. They beep, buzz and vibrate. They're sometimes composed of a measure of musical flourish, to ease the interruption. They're the timers, the alarms - silently monitoring the moments between when they were set and when they're scheduled to go off. But these aggravating intrusions into my regularly scheduled programming are my friends, for I myself have employed them to alert me when the moment arrives, so that I might take action on something I do not want to forget. Like waking up for church. Or picking my child up from practice. Or getting to that appointment I've been waiting for, for months, and dare not miss. These reminders are admittedly bothersome, as they disrupt my present activities, but I welcome the imposition, for without them I might well miss a meaningful moment and would live to regret it. The biblical prophets, I think, are too often misconstrued, misrepresented and misunderstood. Too often they're viewed as warning about that which will take place on some distant day. And because the time of which they speak is so far off, their message appears disjointed from reality and can too easily be dismissed. Some may categorize the prophets as visionary seers, those who speak in symbols and act in mysterious ways. Out-of-touch oddities with questionable sanity. Because of whom one would quickly cross over to the other side of the street - simply to avoid any close proximity. These descriptions are not completely without merit, but they mischaracterize these dedicated diviners and minimize their work. For without fail, these eccentric messengers of God are truth-tellers, speaking words that need to be heard in the here-and- now. Their message is revelatory only indirectly. Which is to say that if those who hear their message do not hearken to it, if they do not come to their senses and change how they're living, they will reap the consequences. The prophets have been gifted to see clearly what others cannot see, or from which, in stubborn denial, they avert their eyes: the future that will unfold before them. The prophets do not, in the end, bring a lot of new information. They simply speak reminders to the people of what they've so conveniently (for them) forgotten. The prophets speak as loudly as necessary and use whatever means at their disposal to get the attention of those who've turned their backs on God's covenant. You are My people. I have rescued you from your bondage, says the Almighty. Now this is how I want you to live as My beloved children in healthful and holy community. Justice, kindness, compassion - these are not new ideas. Oppressing those who are powerless and have no means of defending themselves - this is not how God would have His people behave. The prophets take the people back to the law of God. They remind them of what God has said to them and of what God expects from them. They show them how far they have fallen. And they warn the people of what will happen if they persist in their stubborn and rebellious ways. While the people might mock and dismiss their visions as self-conjured, made-up mirage, it's their own confidence of control that is illusory. And so, the prophets will beep, buzz and vibrate. They will lie on their sides for months (Ezekiel) and walk naked and barefoot through town (Isaiah). They will give their children surprising names (Hosea) and eat scrolls (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel). They will get the attention of the people. For the reminders they were give are not just needed; they are critical for the survival of God's people. Do you hear any alarms going off today? You need not wonder about their message. God has placed it in plain sight for all to see.
Good and gracious God, You have given us Your holy Word to guide us through this life. Your commandments preserve that which is good and protect us from that which is evil. You sent Your prophets to remind us of the error of our ways. Open our ears, to hear their message. Open our eyes, to see those who are in need around us. Open our hearts - transform them in Your mercy and fill them with Your compassion - that we might interact with others with Your love and kindness, to the honor of Your holy name.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
You are a work of art. Even more than that, you are a creation of God. Molded and shaped by the One who brought forth the heavens and the earth by the power of His Word. Before reading on, it may do you well to take more than a moment to pause and reflect upon this awesome reality. They are right there, on the inside and on the outside of you: the fingerprints of God. Can that truth do anything less than move you to marvel and prompt you to praise? Your very existence means that you are in relationship to the One who both designed and fashioned you. No matter what it feels like, you are not alone in this big world. You are not unnoticed; neither are you unappreciated. God exults over you, His masterpiece. This also means that everyone you come into contact with this day - those people you treasure, as well as those strangers you walk by without acknowledgment - they, too, are divine and wondrous works of God. How, then, ought to treat yourself - body, mind and spirit - and how, then, ought to interact with others? Looking upon the glories of the nighttime sky, David asked in this context, "What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him?" It is true: we are but specks in the vast multiverse of existence. How much more magnificent then, that God has taken pains with the details. Having been created in the image and likeness of God, you have been crafted to create. You are the good work of God, and you have been called to carry on the practice by investing your efforts in accomplishing God's purposes on earth - serving others and caring for God's creation. The apostle includes another important thought, worthy of our consideration: God has a unique task list for you. A work order for you to fulfill. Take a look around you. Consider the needs that are out there. How is it that you can be of assistance? What has God written on your chore chart today? Whom is God bringing to your mind? What is God placing on your heart? For what will you pray on their behalf? And how will your prayers move you to action? One of the ways prayer works is that God will guide your thoughts and motivate your spirit to do something - and thus you will find that you are often an integral part of the answers to your own prayers. (Rather like sharing a good idea in a group meeting only to find that the one in charge commends you for it and then asks what you will do to make it happen.) To consider that God has prepared you for this day and that the matters that come before you are part of His heavenly design gives you lenses through which to see the world as a grand and glorious adventure. You are a magnificent marvel of God, integral to the work the Almighty wishes to accomplish this day on this Planet. Exult in your involvement and give it all you've got, dear and blessed servant. In so doing you will live out the salvation accomplished for you in Christ Jesus the Lord.
Almighty and Glorious God, what grace You have given in granting us the gift of life. May we make good use of all that You've given us, developing well the skills with which You have endowed us and employing them in ways that are of good service to You. May we not only be recipients of Your abundant blessings, but faithful conduits through which those blessings can flow into the lives of others. Open my eyes to the work which You have prepared for me this day. Empower me with all that I need to faithfully complete it. And may I bring honor and praise to You in all that I do and extend the good work of Your kingdom.
As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt,
My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!
Sustained and faithful promises inspire confident hope and peace of mind in the midst of difficult days. Especially when those promises are made by God. Haggai was a clarion prophet of motivation and encouragement. Like a cheerleader standing between those in the game and those watching from the stands, Haggai's words and actions compel those sitting on sore behinds to rise up and get involved! In this case, it was to complete the work that was integral to their lives of faith: rebuilding the temple. The people had put this important building project on the back burner for far too long. And in its place, they'd become preoccupied by investing their time and energy into constructing their own homes. Their priorities were all wrong. They had turned their eyes away from God and onto themselves, and instead of applying their efforts for God's eternal purposes, they had concentrated on making permanent homes out of temporary shelters. Besides, they were facing strong opposition from others in the land - outsiders, who perhaps understood the importance of a completed temple more than those who had returned from exile. In the end, it was so much easier to just let things be. The result: the temple project lay unfinished and unfurnished for years - bare foundations and nothing more. An Introduction alone, without any Chapter One to follow. Weeds on site grew faster than the project progressed. And then God sent Haggai to light a fire under His procrastinating people. The prophet is given a mere thirty-eight verses to do his work in the "book" that bears his name, so he gets right to it. He calls the people to account and urges them to look in the mirror: Consider your ways! And then the prophet speaks mighty words of wisdom into this holy wake-up call. He reminds the people of what God had done in the past and why that was significant for their present lives. As far as the people may have drifted from their faith, as much as they had forgotten about their history as a people, none of them was unaware of what God had done for their ancestors by rescuing them from their bondage to Egypt. That was THE great event in their shared history; it was what had defined them as a people. They had been saved by the Creator of heaven and earth, the One who had revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush as the LORD. And having brought that essential and foundational event to the fore, Haggai then tells them this life-changing and task-altering truth: The LORD who was faithfully abiding with your ancestors in their post-Exodus wilderness wandering is indeed just as faithfully abiding with you today. Not only is God watching you. Not only is God aware of what's going on - as well as what is not going on and has come to a standstill - God is present to protect you from the dangers you're facing and to provide you with all that you need to complete the work before you. The LORD has never abandoned His people, and He will certainly not forsake you now... Even as these words spoken by God's prophetic messenger motivated the people to rise up and emboldened them with courage to complete the task at hand, may these mighty promises of God serve to do the same in our lives today during our present crisis. God is faithfully abiding in our midst. He will never forsake us. We can live with the certainty and conviction that we have not been left alone to languish, but that God will empower us to persevere in these days and to emerge from them stronger - and more faith-filled - than ever before. Is there some re-ordering that needs to take place in your life? Have you become so distracted with side projects that you've neglected more foundational work? Don't be afraid: God is present with you today, and He will assist you in the important work He's placed before you. So get up, get to it, and get going!
Loving and longsuffering God, thank You for so faithfully abiding in the midst of Your too-often faithless people. Bring us to our senses, that we might see clearly the foundational things in life we neglect as well as the frivolous and foolish matters we allow to occupy our time and dominate our lives. Assist us in the necessary reordering that must be done, if we're to experience the abundant life You've come to so graciously give us. Teach us the truth that we will find our greatest satisfaction in our service to You.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love...
Although you many not remember the source, I'd be surprised if you were not familiar with the model of a man who has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Freud deemed it the id and the superego. One voice urges us to race to the front of the line, pushing aside any and all who impede our progress, while the other admonishes us to have consideration for others. Good and evil. Civilized and uncouth. The apostle Paul speaks of this as deeds of the flesh and works of the Spirit. The sinful nature inside each of us puts us at the center of everything. That which wants to be first and only, others be damned. That which seeks to get what we can while we can, however we can get it and no matter how adversely it affects anyone else. Survival of the fittest; skillful, sinister scheming, with the intention of voting everyone else off the island. Other people exist only a means to serve me and help me get where I want to go and give me what I want when I get there. And, because I want others to think me great when I arrive, all these things must be accomplished in secret, that my hypocrisy might not be discovered and the game be up. Paul well knew this voice inside his head and lamented what he called the body of this death. In a conversation Jesus had with a Jewish leader named Nicodemus, Jesus spoke of a freshness that comes from heaven. A vital force He Himself brought to earth. "That which is born of flesh is flesh," He said, "but that which born of Spirit is spirit." Martin Luther testified that the Spirit of God works to create faith, and the apostle tells us that no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit of God comes upon God's people, evidence of the Spirit's presence is made manifest. The fruit the Spirit bears in a person's life is made visible and plain. The first manifestation of the Spirit's presence Paul mentions is love. Many have borne witness that the chief and defining characteristic of God is love. The two great commandments center on it: love God and love neighbor. The new commandment Jesus gives His disciples is to love each other as He had loved them. And, He said, all would see this as the defining mark of their discipleship. The world would recognize they were Christians - followers of the Christ - when they witnessed their love for one another. When the Holy Spirit of God touches a human life, powerful things happen. But love rises above them all. It's what Paul deems the greatest of these. It's the legacy Jesus left us and the life He's called us to live out. Indeed, if the people of God are truly led by the Spirit of God, the unmistakable evidence left in its wake will be love. More than a feeling, this love is sacrificial, self-giving, compassionate, and seeks no return on investment. Having experienced the love of God poured out in Christ Jesus our Lord, we're compelled to go and do likewise. When the Spirit is allowed to have free reign, this is what it looks like. It's not about trying harder. In fact, it's just the opposite. It's a dying to self and allowing the power of God's Spirit to rush in to renew and refresh, resurrect and redeem, that we might live to glorify God and to serve His people. Jesus told us that the secret of finding true and abundant life is in laying it down in loving sacrifice for others. As we do so, we will bear witness to the One who first loved us. Our world is aching for it. Perhaps now more than ever. So blow, Spirit, blow!
Almighty God, in Your grace You sent Your Spirit upon Your people to empower them to be about Your good work in the world and to carry on the legacy of Your Son. May I be open to Your Spirit's work in and through my life today, that I might accomplish the purposes You bring before me today. May the fruit of Your Spirit be evident in my life, that others might see the unmistakable mark of Your presence and be blessed with the life that You have come to give. To the honor and glory of Your holy name.
The LORD your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.
There is always hope. Because God is good, and because God cares for His people, there's always good reason to hope that things can get better. This is a word we need to hear, especially when we've made a mess of things or painted ourselves into a corner. Zephaniah is not well known, but he was one of the fieriest prophets of all those God has chosen to speak His message. While many of the prophets proclaimed coming destruction to specific groups of people or nations, Zephaniah let loose on the whole earth. In his day, things had become so bad and so corrupt, the world was ripe for cosmic judgement - on the order of a Noahic flood. In his passion, the prophet spoke hyperbolically - a reliable tactic to get the attention of his listening audience. And when he did, the message was not as easy one to hear. God was not pleased with the behavior of His people. They had lost sight of their charter as a nation - to shine God's light so that all the surrounding nations might see and be drawn to God to receive blessing. They had been consumed by the culture of the people in whose midst they were living, and they had given in to outside influence by those who had no knowledge of God, but who worshiped gods who were no gods at all. The prophet pens only fifty-three verses, and the vast majority are composed of judgment, punishment, anger and wrath. The people are soon to reap what they've been sowing over the years. There's evidence that the people took the prophet's words to heart, for there was significant reform under King Josiah. But any changes made were merely temporary. They'd fallen too far; their nation was beyond recovery. And although they were facing the prospect of the dissolution and destruction, the prophet could not help but speak to them a word of grace: God would not abandon them, even now. God was in their midst; and, if need be, God would "go down with the ship." The people would learn that they could not dispense with God's ways and find success apart from them. God's rules were not given to boast of His position or to flout His power. Rather, in His lovingkindness, God has set forth His commandments to show the people how to live in productive, healthy community. To disregard these words of life and truth could end no other way than the breakdown of their community and the unraveling of their nation. The prophet bears witness to a God of power and victory. Things were bad. Still, if the people would sit up and take heed, if they would seriously renounce their evil ways, if they would heartfully repent and turn back to God, their recovery was not only possible, it was assured. But both God and His prophet knew better. And in a mighty word of grace, Zephaniah gives the people a vision of God rejoicing over them as a father rejoices over his newborn child. God exults with joyful celebration over His beloved. He is both strong and tender. Even when they've lost their way, even when they've turned aside. In His amazing and wondrous grace, God cherishes His people, no matter what. It's a word we need to hear this day - and every day.
Almighty God, Lord of the nations: I give You thanks for the revelation of Your will in Your holy Word. Through Your holy instruction You've given Your people clear guidance of how to live in loving community. And in Your incarnation, Your living Word in our midst has revealed not only Your will but Your heart. Fix my eyes on Jesus this day, that I might learn more of Your kindness, mercy and grace. I'm humbled that You rejoice over me. May this marvelous truth fill my heart with thanksgiving and inspire me to extend Your loving grace to all those You bring into my circle of influence this day. To you be all honor, glory and praise.
For momentary, light affliction is producing for us
an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.
2 Corinthians 4:17
In his attempt to be encouraging, positive and supportive, the apostle edges ever closer to being insensitive to the difficulties of others. It's one thing to assume a burden for yourself; it's quite another to impose it on someone else. What's light and bearable to one might just break another's back. I've learned this lesson by personal experience. I've never been what I would call a bossy boss, but I cannot say that in my steadfast and dogged determination I've not pushed others harder than I should have or left them exasperated. I justify my actions, of course, insisting that I do what I do only to bring out the best in them. But if that's the case, why do some look upon me as a taskmaster? Hmm... It's imperative that a leader consider the abilities of those who wish to follow, lest he outpace them and find that they've left off trying to keep up - and he is walking alone. Paul's sole intention is for the benefit and encouragement of his readers. And the comparison he makes can hardly be questioned. Although those experiencing sincere hardship might not ever deem their burdens light, nor, having endured trouble for some time, might they ever describe it as momentary, when Paul sets their experiences alongside heavenly glory, it's almost impossible to disagree with him. As the apostle puts their present hardship in view of eternity, suddenly its magnitude decreases in size. Standing all of six feet, I often think of myself as tall - and feel tall - until I'm in the presence of a giant who towers six inches or more above me. So what can be said of our current circumstances? Momentary and light might well be the last words we would use to describe them. And yet seeing our present distress from a heavenly perspective can surprisingly lighten our load and infuse us with the strength we need to handle these days. I well remember how torturous my studies felt in junior high. How could I know they would only get tougher in high school and then again at the university? The rigors of college calculus can make a student long for the simpler days of algebra. The apostle might have put it this way: the pain is worth the gain. What's coming - our heavenly glory - far outweighs any burdens we might endure here on earth. And with eyes fixed and focused on heavenly things, we can receive the impetus we need to keep going one more day. We might even learn to welcome the weight, knowing that God will surely use it to make us stronger. And when it all becomes too much, our gracious Savior will not lord it over us, but will surely bear our burdens on our behalf. Grace sufficient for the day. It will be enough. And the certain promise of heavenly glory - it will infuse us with the second wind we need for the next segment of this journey.
Ever-faithful, loving God: How can I express my gratitude for Your abiding presence? Knowing I do not journey alone through the difficulties of this life, but that You are faithfully walking by my side, gives me the strength and courage I need to continue my course on earth with confidence. With visions of heaven on the horizon and Your certain promises to sustain me, You grace me with spring in my step. Empower me to be a gentle, considerate, and steadfast encourager of others, even as I firmly fix my eyes on You and proceed along this path with perseverance. Ever grateful for Your loving leadership, I submit myself before You this day. May Your heavenly purposes be accomplished in me and through me for the honor of Your holy name.
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