Saturday, December 31, 2005

James 4:13-17, 5:7-11

In these verses of James's letter to anxious Christians, he reminds us that life is short, that nothing about tomorrow is guaranteed, and that we should focus on doing God's will. He encourages Christians, especially those who are suffering, to be patient, to persevere, and to trust God.

In the middle of his messages, James says (v.15), "Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.'" And (v.17), "Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin." What exactly does God wish for us to live and do? What is the right thing to do?

Last fall, I started watching a television show called Three Wishes. The premise is simple. Sponsored by Home Depot and Ameriquest Mortgage, singer Amy Grant and three companions set up a tent in a small town and ask the townspeople to individually share their deepest wishes with them. Three wishes, usually to allievate someone's suffering, are then selected and granted.

As you listen to the stories of how the unexpected happened (car accidents, cancer, blindness, etc.) you know that these individuals experienced deep anguish, shed uncontrollable tears, and suffered in ways most of us will never suffer. Yet, always in these cases, the wish for relief, the wish for a miracle, was made by someone other than the afflicted person.

For every individual who has had a wish granted (a prayer answered) by Three Wishes, countless others must continue to wait. That's where we can enter the picture and be available to God to help with His timing and His hand. We can do the right thing, as did the individuals who gave up their own wishes for someone else. There are many right things we can do to help those in distress. But the easiest right thing, the best right thing we can do is to pray that they may have patience, perseverance, and trust in God, and to pray that God may show us how we can best help.

Dear God, may we encourage each other to be patient, to persevere, and to always trust in You, and may we never ever fail to pray. Amen.

Martha Olson

Friday, December 30, 2005

3 John 1-15

The dominant message throughout John’s letters to the early Church is to show our love through Christ to others. It’s pretty basic. Nothing fancy. John particularly gives kudos to Gaius for showing love to strangers.

I cannot imagine how difficult life must have been for those early Christians, particularly compared to our 21st century lives in which we have all of the creature comforts one can imagine pretty much at our finger tips. Even with all that our culture is not known for its love of strangers. It must have been very hard to take care of oneself, let along worry about others. So it must have been a very big deal to be kind to strangers.

This brings my mind back to the Christmas season that we are in. I know that during Christmas, I try extra hard to be friendly and loving to everyone. It’s just something I think about during Christmas. I guess it’s because I’m reminded through the music, the stories and the readings of the season about the true gift of Christmas being God’s love for us by bringing Jesus into our world. But, why do I think that’s the only time of year that I should make kindness and love a priority?

One of the Christmas movies I like is “A Christmas Carol”. (My favorite version is the Muppet one.) One of the lessons that Ebenezer Scrooge learns during his visits by the ghosts is to keep Christmas in his heart all year. So, my prayer for Christmas is that I will work on being like the reconstituted Ebenezer Scrooge and carry Christmas and love for others in my heart the whole year through.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

2 John 1-13

If you read the 13 verses for today, you will have read one of the entire books of the Bible. This passage constitutes the entirety of 2 John.

It is written to the “chosen lady and her children,” which most would interpret as a reference to the church. In fact, Eugene Peterson translates these words in the message as “my dear congregation.”

Notice verse 3. Instead of the standard greeting, the blessings available in Christ are stated as an accomplished fact. Years of walking faithfully with God had brought to John a surety in the promises of Jesus. Perseverance has its benefits.

Verse 4 has good news and bad news. The good news: some are walking with the Lord. The bad news: apparently some, even in the church, are not. There seems to be division in the followers of Jesus already.

For John, the solution is simple: Love one another. He is not talking about any old love; he is talking about love that is defined by keeping Christ’s commandments (vs 6). We are not free to define love as wish, often choosing the path of least resistance?

As we end one year and start another, we would do well the think about the status of love in our lives. Is love our highest priority? Have we grown in love? Are there significant obstacles that keep us from love?

And perhaps most importantly: what in this New Year will we do differently, in order that we might better love as Christ first loved us?.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Isaiah 54:1-13

This poem is a beautiful one that describes salvation and the future glories of Israel. It tells the story of a redeemer that will come to Zion.

Of course this redeemer is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Holy One of Israel. He is the Mediator of the covenant made with the Old Testament church. However, Jesus is more than the God of Israel; He is the God of the whole earth. His coming has enabled sin to be cleansed for everyone.

The God we serve is holy and cannot tolerate sin. He is a loving God in the same way a father loves his children. Sin separates us from God and brings us pain and suffering. As many of us have had the opportunity to spend time with family and friends during the Christmas season, we know the joy of seeing loved ones that have been separated from us for a lengthy period of time. It is quite a rush of joy when we see these people – when they return to us (or we return to them). In the same way, God experiences joy when we confess our sin, repent, and return to God. God longs for us to return to Him and no matter how far away we are from Him always provides a path in which to return.

God is always there for us. He is always there to hear our prayer. No matter what we have done, His love for us is so deep that He will always take us back if we truly repent. Just as God took Israel back, He will take you and me back. What a wonderful and loving God we serve.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Isaiah 44:1-8

Lord, bless me with understanding and clarity. Open me to your message and love.

Whew! Rush rush rush. Dear Reader, I am writing this on the Wednesday 3 days before Christmas. The Good Lord spoke to me a few moments ago and said “Dickie – stop what your doing, sit down and think about me a for a moment, read the passage for Dec. 27 and write”. Yes Lord, I am doing it.

I may be writing in the heat of pre Christmas excitement and expectations but you will read this 2 days after the blessed event. Hopefully you and I will not have lost that wonderful feeling of expectations and joy. Having participated in the Christmas music concert at St. Mathews on Sunday evening, I came away with that special Christmas “spirit” that I hope to have every Christmas only to be disappointed at times. The excitement that comes with knowing that you are about to receive a gift of great value. No disappointment this year. I am just as excited as my grandchildren. Of course they help create the excitement.

You are probably wondering what this has to do with Isaiah 44. Well, there is a connection. God speaks directly to his prophet Isaiah and tells him the future. God has chosen Isaiah, his family and his descendants. He also promises to bless his offspring. If this is not enough, he confirms that he is the only true God and therefore has the full and ultimate authority to chose. Can you imagine a gift of more value than that? I cannot. Imagine the excitement that Isaiah must have felt knowing that God had chosen him and his family. He is given a whole new life for himself, his loved ones and all his descendants.

On Sunday morning we will Celebrate (you have celebrated) the most wonderful of all gifts. The gift of love in the form of a little Baby born many years ago in a far distant land far removed from the reality of Sterling VA in 2005. But what a wonderful gift. God in his grace has chosen us all individually and given us immortality through his son Jesus. In his Grace he has given us this gift without us earning it. No wonder I am so excited.

May God bless you in 2006 and may you keep this sense of excitement as you receive his blessings throughout the year.

John Dickie

Monday, December 26, 2005

Acts 7:59-8:8

Yesterday we celebrated the birth of Jesus, savior and lord. Today we commemorate the death of Stephen, deacon and martyr. The juxtaposition of these two days in the church year may seem strange: one day, the glory of Christmas; the next day, the horror of martyrdom.

I suspect this jars us particularly because of the sentimentalism that mists through much of our Christmas celebration. In many ways, the songs, colors, images, words, and rituals of our modern Christmas pan across the realities of the birth of Jesus with a soft Рvery soft Рfocus. We light the scene in our cr̬ches and in our hearts Рa new-born baby with his mother and father, angels, shepherds, animals, and even adoring strangers Рwith a very warm glow.

There is good reason for this – at least to an extent. As the angels heralded, Jesus’ birth is God’s good news of great joy for all people. In a world grinding in darkness for these long ages, we have such need of good news, such need of the truth, beauty, and goodness Jesus lives into our existence. Wonder, joy, and festivity are sublimely proper responses!

At the same time, marking the martyrdom of Stephen the day after marking Christmas reminds us of the keen realities of Jesus’ coming into the world. Some of them are just the mundane, so to speak, realities of being born. Birth is labor. Birth promises joy, but it can mean anxiety and trauma. How much more all of these things for Mary and Joseph, going through all of this in a stable, at the margins of society!

And more, while the birth of Jesus is good news of new life, it is new life through death. We all are born and eventually will die, but Jesus was born to die. Through Advent and the Christmas season we celebrate the one who was born for Good Friday. Judgment and death are integral to the Christmas season because they are integral to the birth and life of Jesus. We see this in terrible realities collected around Christmas. Not all embrace the good news of Jesus’ birth – hence, the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem by order of Herod, and later the martyrdom of Stephen.

Let us, to be sure, rejoice at the birth of Jesus. Let us mark it with wonder, joy, and festivity! But let us also remember the hard realities Jesus bore, the hard realities his faithful followers may also bear, on the way from Bethlehem to Calvary to Heaven!

Gregory Strong

Sunday, December 25, 2005

I John 4:7-16

Today’s reading contains several oft-quoted passages:
"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God" ; and "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. "

These passages highlight the centrality of love and its importance in our walk of faith. It also brings to mind some of the other messages of love: “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Feelings of love are all around us at Christmas and as I read today’s passage, I thought about my work Christmas party. Every year we have a party and it has all the ingredients of a great celebration: good people, good fun, and great food! There are even decorations and gifts. Everyone that attends is festive and full of cheer. I always enjoy celebrating with my co-workers and most people leave that party feeling that they’ve celebrated Christmas and in a sense we really have. Christmas is about giving, sharing, and celebrating with one another.

As wonderful, as my work party is though; there is a critical ingredient that it lacks – Jesus. My company doesn’t deem it politically correct to encourage a strictly Christian celebration in the work place. Now, that is not to say that religious expression is prohibited or even discouraged, only that our Christmas party does not recognize Jesus – the very reason there is a Christmas celebration. It’s a shame that we can have such a wonderful party but miss the critical ingredient.

Now back to today’s reading.
Love is key; but sometimes I think we can focus on the actions of love: loving one another, loving our neighbor as ourselves, following the Golden Rule; and miss the key ingredient.

Verse 10, defines love for us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. " Then verse 15 goes on to identify the critical ingredient to our walk of faith: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.”

There are many wonderful people, leading very productive and loving lives but they are missing that critical ingredient. Perhaps, that is you? On this Christmas day, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus – don’t miss the chance to make that confession. Abide in God today.

Alan Davenport

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Galatians 3:23 - 4:7 (Finding Our True Inheritance)

A Dream of Christmas Treasure Lost—and Won

Quench, quench the lighted trees, and let the heavens’ glow
Alone illuminate us, congregating in the snow;
In muffled tones debating if and where a treasure lies,
And whether ancient mysteries, when raised to modern eyes
By moderns can be apprehended.

March, march in measured stride, and trace a trail unseen
From ragged map to ragged ridge, descend a deep ravine
And halt. Re-shoot the bearings, mountain peak and morning star,
Re-check the calculations that have guided us this far
Then go no farther.

Brush, brush the callous snow and blackened leaves away,
Unearth the broken idols, gilded ornaments of clay;
Push through the pagan rubble, thick with ash and dust and chalk,
Don’t stop until your shovel tips go clank on solid rock—
On smooth, carved rock.

Wrench, wrench the capstone clear, we’re anxious to behold
A king’s inheritance, perhaps a regal crown of gold…
But all our torch disclosed, and all that met our grasping hands—
A cattle trough, a shepherd’s crook, and threadbare linen bands
Of cloth, of swaddling cloth.

Hush, hush the clamor! Close the cover! Tell no story
Of fortunes to be gained! Forget your fifteen minutes’ glory!
Tell only of a love that is not locked in cipher code,
A gift not wrapped in riddles, a baby born to bear a crushing load—
Our load, on the road that leads from the manger to—the cross.

Matthew L. Brown
Christmas Eve 2005

Friday, December 23, 2005

Gal. 3: 15-22

This passage is about the Law. When read in the paraphrase The Message it becomes clear how God in His love for us made a way for us to be with Him (which we celebrate during Advent). Paul explains that God made a promise to Abraham that He would send a Savior. Then, the law came. Paul explains that the presence of the Law does not negate God’s promise. The law, rather, is like a flashlight or a light which one uses to illuminate a dark room only to see that it’s a mess in there.

Paul says the Law shows us how futile it is to devise a system whereby by our own efforts we achieve a godly life (v. 21). He explains how only faith in Christ saves, not faith in anything else we cling to. If we could keep rules and thereby achieve what God wants, it would have happened by now, Paul says. Makes sense to me. I can see Paul’s point by reading the headlines in the daily paper. I can also see Paul’s point when I look at my life. I do fine about as long as I’m sitting in my chair with my Bible. Me trying to live real life in a godly manner is another matter. I can’t do it by a system of trying to obey rules.

The part of this passage which comforts me, then, is when Paul discusses faith. God kept His promise and I thank Him, as I celebrate Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Galatians 3:1-14

One of the interesting things about this passage is its insistence that our personal experience conform to the teaching of Scripture.

It begins with six questions (verses 1-4) designed to cause the Galatians to reflect on their personal experience with Christ. Paul is reminding them that they need to trust Jesus, not the Law. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “… only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God.”

Then, in verses 6-15, Paul uses six Old Testament quotes to show that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and not through observing the works of the law. The point is that we don’t judge Scripture by our experience, but that we must test our experience against the word of God.

It’s quite a simple principle, really, but it has such huge ramifications. For instance, if I’m married, I never have to wonder if God is leading me into an intimate relationship with someone else. Scripture, in a number of places including the 10 Commandments, makes that very clear: He is not.

We never have to worry about whether we are supposed to cheat, even if it seems like the ends justify the means, or if everybody else is doing it. As Christ followers, our lives are meant to be marked by the kind of integrity that only comes when people unreservedly embrace truth. We never have to give that a second thought.

We never have to deliberate with ourselves about whether or not God wants us to forgive somebody else. The clear teaching of Scripture is that no one is perfect (save Jesus), and that we better forgive others if we expect to be forgiven ourselves.

The list goes on and on, but I trust you get my point. Of course, the assumption here is that we know Scripture well enough to conform our lives to it. Paul, in the Jewish culture of his day, could safely make that assumption.

But I wonder…even within the church…can we?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Titus 2:11 - 3:8

Titus 2:11-12 is a favorite passage of mine. "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age,"

This passage tells us that the power to live our lives as Christians comes from the Holy Spirit. It is quite a relief to me that I do not have to muster this power on my own. All any of us have to do is invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, through prayer, and ask Him to help us live a good and Christian life. If we do this through daily prayer, I assure you this prayer will be answered. You will look at life in a different way, have different priorities, and a different level of joy. I have lived on both sides and there is no comparison between living a life outside of God's will and living one in it.

It is not enough to renounce sin and evil desires, we must also live actively for God. As the above passage indicates, we must say no to ungodly activities and we must also say yes to active service for Christ. We are called to get involved in activities that advance the Kingdom of God here on earth. We must use the gifts and talents God has given each of us to do His work during our very short life on this planet.

Titus 2:11-12 reminds me of a quote by the 19th century pastor Adoniram Gordon, "It is the great work of nature to transmute sunlight into life. So it is the great end of Christian living to transmute the light of truth into the fruits of holy living."

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Titus 2:1-10

Lord, bless me with understanding and clarity. Open me to your message and love.

How do you like being lectured to? I have always had some trouble with this. On first reading today’s passage from Titus is a lecture. Maybe I am sensitive because it speaks directly to me. You cannot dodge or intellectualize ( is this a word?) the message. Titus is clear with his instructions.

He speaks to us old folks and reminds us of the responsibility we have to lead by example and to be responsible for teaching and leading. He starts by telling us to teach “sound doctrine”. We cannot make it up or interpret based on our own view of things. The “sound doctrine” must reflect what Jesus taught.

Titus tells us how to behave. I have often in my working career had to deal with the problem that arises when a person’s perception of themselves differs from the perception others have of us. Many difficult work performance reviews are made difficult by this issue. I have learned that who we really are is how others see us. More importantly, who we really are is defined by how God sees us. He is the ultimate judge. “Good intentions alone do not a good person make”.

We teach when others see our behavior, even when we are not conscious of it. We all live in a very busy demanding and stressful environment. How we react to the difficult and stressful situations often is the real test of our true self and is how God judges us. This time of year as we rush to do all the things expected of us, how easy it is to ignore the difficult problems or the difficult people. In this season of Advent, I pray that God will give me the grace and the maturity of character to be his witness on earth and to teach his message of love and compassion according to the example give by his son Jesus. I also pray that God’s message is being taught by me on a daily basis by my own behavior to those around me.

John Dickie

Monday, December 19, 2005

Titus 1:1-16

On one of his later journeys, Paul – along with Titus, a trusted, younger believer in Jesus – apparently visited Crete, one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean. Through the preaching and teaching of Paul and Titus, some in Crete became believers in Jesus. After a time Paul departed Crete, yet he left Titus to assist local believers in organizing their community or church, in order to grow in faithful knowledge and life. Paul’s letter provided spiritual and practical guidance for Titus and the Christian community in Crete.

In particular, Paul urged them to hold fast to truth – to the truth of God’s saving, life-transforming grace and power in Jesus. Apparently, some in or around the Christian community in Crete had begun to speculate about other quasi-religious ideas and practices, and they tried to tack those onto the good news that Paul had received from Jesus and had passed on to them. In response, Paul encouraged the Christians in Crete to ground themselves in “sound doctrine,” in the trustworthy message about Jesus they had been taught.

It is in this context that we understand the richness of Paul’s reference to knowledge as he began his letter. He described himself as “a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.” Paul had received this very knowledge from Jesus. It had changed his life from opposition to Jesus to devotion to Jesus. In turn, Paul gave his life to pass this knowledge on to others, including those in Crete, because he knew in the very core of his being that this knowledge gives true and right life.

True knowledge that leads to godliness, to life characterized by the very qualities of God in his goodness and love! This is the truth that God lives and gives in Jesus. It is not a set of mere, abstract notions, opinions, options, or preferences about religious or spiritual things. This is reality, the very stuff of life, because it comes from the true God, creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the universe. God’s truth in Jesus changes lives – Paul’s, Titus’s, people in Crete, yours, mine, and countless others through time and space. This is knowledge worthy of our passionate pursuit and devotion. For this truth came down from heaven in passionate, devoted pursuit of us!

Gregory Strong

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Revelation 12:1-10

Today’s reading tells of a great battle in heaven. Satan, the accuser, and his cohorts were thrown down. There was no place for them in heaven. The reading concludes with the statement, “… who accuses them day and night before our God.”

Do you ever hear the accuser? I know I do. It seems that sometimes I can actually hear him talking to God: “Did you just see how your boy Alan yelled at his kids? What kind of man would do that? And you call him one of your own?”
His words make me feel worthless.

It’s not just his voice, though. It seems like there is an accusatory attitude that entices me. I find myself wanting to be an accuser. I want to point out faults rather than praise accomplishments; I want to ridicule rather than encourage. When I see the consequences of my accusations, again I feel worthless.

The biggest way that I see the accuser at work is in the fear with which he tries to overwhelm me. As I succumb to his enticements, I find myself dwelling on possibilities and imaginings; always some foreboding future with unpleasant circumstances or bad consequences. The fear can become almost palpable and in many ways paralyzing.

Praise God, there is another voice besides the accuser’s.
Just as Michael and his angels won the heavenly battle against Satan, we know that Jesus has won the final battle. Hebrews tells us that he is our advocate with the Father in heaven, continually interceding on our behalf.

Sometimes it might be difficult, but I need to listen for and hear the voice of my Champion, Jesus, speaking day and night before our God; words of thanksgiving, praise, and encouragement for me.

Listen – you can your hear Him speaking for you too.

Alan Davenport

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Revelation 6:1-17

In today's reading, the Lamb opens six of the seven seals. From the first four spring the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, testing the faith of the faithful by bearing calamities on earth: first, false prophets, then killers with sword, famine, and plague. Disturbing as these images are, it is the sixth seal that reveals even more frightening and horrific images, dark images of destruction and ruin, distress and anguish.

It is revealing to note that it was the Lamb who opened the seals. And while the last line of this chapter affirms that no one can stand up to the wrath of God, "...for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" it also points to the one ray of hope alluded to earlier by the opening of the fifth seal: the Lamb gives white robes to the martyrs waiting under the altar and tells them to rest a little longer. We know from the fifth seal that the martyrs will stand.

Another thing I noticed is that this reading deals with extremes. At one end are the martyrs who have died "...for the word of God and the testimony they had given..." At the other extreme are the evil-doers who cannot hide, even in caves and mountains, from the wrath of God. Between the martyrs and the evil-doers, between the faithful and the wicked, there is a wide range. Where do you fall within this range? What will save you? What will save me? Is it Faith? Works? Prayer? Will we persevere in the face of false prophets, war, violence, plagues, and injustice?

If we remain faithful followers of Christ, if we continue to pray and remain motivated by love, if we repent of our sins and ask forgiveness, maybe we, too, can earn the protection of white robes lovingly placed on our shoulders. Perhaps then we will be prepared to stand with the martyrs and be shielded from the wrath of the Lamb who was slain for our sins.

"Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us." Amen.

Martha Olson

Friday, December 16, 2005

Revelation 5:6-14

Right now I feel like the epitome of the ragged holiday shopper/card writer/present wrapper/cookie baker/yada/yada/yada. It is now 3:00 in the afternoon and I was supposed to have posted this devotional by 5:00 a.m. this morning! Yikes!

So what can we who are madly racing about during the holidays get out of today’s passage? Well, after reading this a few times, and reading yesterday’s devotional and passage, I am seeing more and more the futility of the mad holiday race. When you read these passages, as yesterday’s writer points out, the spectacle is almost more than can be imagined. But then, in order to be worthy of the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world as we know it, it would have to be a super-sized event. With each generation, it becomes harder and harder to excite folks. Remember a few (?) years ago, when “Lost in Space” seemed like the end-all of high-tech T.V.? Those images would not stand a candle against today’s special effects and electronic wizardry. And yet, these passages that are thousands of years old, still conjure up awesome images, more than our 21st century minds can take in.

If that is what the end looks like, and I have every reason to believe it will, than what is even more breathtaking to me is the image of a little baby, wrapped in rags and lying in a dirty manger. Just as vivid as the scene in these passages from Revelations is the dark city of Bethlehem, lit only by the brightness of the star in the East. The young, confused, frightened, hungry, cold couple looking at this little baby who will turn the world on its ears, is a stark contrast to the enormous, awesome scenes in these passages. This comparison and contrast makes these two ends of the spectre even more astounding, tremendous and humbling.

Next time I race out to buy those stocking stuffers, or to mail the card I forgot to mail yesterday, or do any of the other hundred things that need to be done, I hope that I will pause and allow those images to come into my mind again and allow my breath to be taken by the contrasting images of these two scenes.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Revelation 4:9-5:5

The book of Revelation describes worship that is dramatic and engaging. It’s hard to imagine being bored watching what today’s reading so vividly describes.

There are interesting sights, like the “living creatures” (read their description in verses 6-8). I just saw King Kong, and the creatures in it were riveting. But these creatures sound even more riveting still.

There are interesting actions, involving more than one posture and position. So, for instance, people “fall down”. They throw things—namely their crowns, at the feet of God’s throne. A food fight isn’t exactly a similar image—its more like the antithesis of what is pictured here—but people don’t sit in a food fight unengaged. The throwing speaks of active participation.

There are interesting sounds. The living animals apparently have some sort of voice (is their worship spoken with the authority of a roar; does it resonate with bellow of an ox; does it pierce like the cry of an eagle?). The elders sing and chant.

I’m not suggesting that we need to take the images here at face value; as a literal description of what we’ll see in heaven. But I do want us to feel the grand drama of what is taking place, which culminates in the next scene.

There is a scroll—most likely a symbol of the will of God for his creation—but no one can open it. No one can effect God’s will and restore what is broken, heal what is damaged, redeem what is fallen. All is despair.

But wait—there is one after all, the Lion who can rip through the scroll to open it. In other words, he has the power to do so. And what is that power? Well, it’s something of a surprise—but that must wait for tomorrow’s reading!

For now, let me just ask us all—how is our worship going these days? Are we deeply involved in it? Do we appreciate the great drama of what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will yet do? Do we begin to appreciate the magnitude of the forces at work? Do we catch something of the privilege we are given to behold all this?

And not just to behold it, but to participate in it. Too often we approach worship tired, disinterested, without focus or expectation.. I hope today’s reading will give us all a renewed realization of how our worship can be—should be—so much more than it often is.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Revelation 4:1-8

This passage of Revelation brings to my mind the kid's game called king of the hill. Do you know this game? It is an outside game and involves one of the kids being on top of a hill and the other kids trying to push / pull him off. When someone is able to push / pull the "king" off his hill (off his throne) another person would immediately run up on the hill and take his place. This new person would now be the king and the others would have to challenge him for the right to be the king of the hill and sit on the throne.

This passage of Revelation describes the ultimate, eternal king of the hill. However, unlike the kid's game, God has a throne that can never fail. His throne will never be abdicated or taken by force. God created his throne, the place in which it is located, and its attendants and guardians to bring Him praise and worship forever.

This passage of Revelation opens the throne room of heaven to us. John describes to us the worship of God Almighty by those in the throne room. We hear and heed the call to acknowledge His power, dominion, and right to unleash the judgments later described in Revelation. It is very reassuring to me to know we have a heavenly father of this nature.

Our lives are full of change. As we go through this life we change physically and mentally - many of us make dramatic changes in our adult life. The world around us moves very quickly and it is easy to get caught in the hustle and bustle. Sometimes it seems everything in our lives is always dynamic. It helps me, and I hope it helps you, to take a step back when I feel overwhelmed and remember this passage of Revelation. To remember that God is constant, will never fail, and will obtain ultimate victory.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Revelation 3:14-22

Lord, bless me with understanding and clarity. Open me to your message and love.

This week John sounds similar to Paul in some of his letters. This passage describes God instructing John to write a specific letter to a specific church with God’s own words. God has found the church in question as “lukewarm”. The church is neither hot nor cold. I interpret this as a passive church lacking in passion. John’s message is that this is not acceptable to God.

This passage is a clear challenge to our passion for God. Do we have passion or are we lukewarm concerning our Faith? Are we sitting on the fence? Are we waiting for God to come to us? These are difficult questions and very close to home.

Jesus our Lord has made available to us the riches and wonders of this world and the next. Without his love we are –“wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked”. However, living a spirit filled life in Jesus provides all the riches we desire. This rich life is free; and is there for the asking. However, we must ask for it. We cannot be passive and wait. We must act and seek out God. Our own internal personal good intentions are not sufficient. Our actions illustrate our passion. Do others around me see God in me through my actions? Do they see my passion?

Only they can answer.

John Dickie

Monday, December 12, 2005

Revelation 3:7-13

At times we may find it difficult to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. Challenges to our faith can stem from things within us, such as fears, memories, and unholy desires. They can stem also from things around us, such as opinions of friends or family, cultural values that tempt, and other beliefs or philosophies. From within and without, we may experience stresses that threaten to degrade, damage, or even imperil our life in Jesus.

Late in the first century A.D., in the Roman province of Asia (now western Turkey), the Christian community in Philadelphia must have experienced similar challenges and stresses. Like the other six churches addressed in the Revelation to John, this church existed in a significant city in that province. Many realities of life in Philadelphia – for example, economics, politics, diverse religious beliefs and practices, and public opinion – undoubtedly tempted individuals and the community to neglect, compromise, or even repudiate their belief in and commitment to Jesus. Indeed, in today’s passage, we find the church in Philadelphia characterized as having little strength.

How tender, then, the encouragement conveyed in this letter to the Christians in Philadelphia! This encouragement grounded in two realities. One reality consists of God’s sovereignty. Despite forces to the contrary – and Revelation vividly pictured considerable forces contrary to God! – God is forging history toward his end. And that end, as seen in the last pages of Revelation, is glorious beyond our imagining! The other reality consists of God’s love in Jesus. In Jesus, God supremely gave of himself to love the world. This God was committed to the Philadelphian Christians. In Jesus, God continues to commit himself in love.

How encouraged the Philadelphian Christians must have been by the reminder of God’s sovereignty and love! Despite having little strength, they remained steadfast in belief and commitment. Indeed, they were commended for keeping God’s word and standing for Jesus against pressures to compromise or deny their faith.

No matter the time in our life, or the particular circumstances, whether we feel strong in faith or weak, may we too be encouraged to steadfast belief and commitment by the reminder of God’s sovereignty and love. May we grow in keeping God’s word and standing for Jesus against realities within us and around us that could degrade, damage, or imperil our life in Jesus. For God, in power and love, has glory in store for the world!

Gregory Strong

Sunday, December 11, 2005

2 Thessalonians 2:1-3,13-17

How do we know the truth?

My kids tell me about things they see on the Internet - it has to be true if it's on the Internet, right? Did you hear what <name of your favorite talking head> said - if they said it, it has to be true, right? Did you read that article in the Washington Post - reporters never mislead, right? Okay, knowing the truth isn't a straight-forward task. It definitely wasn't for the Thessalonians (aka the T's).

The T's had been hood-winked. They had bought into some false teaching about the return of Christ. Some claimed to have special revelation to know the exact time of Christ's return. Others, because of their belief in His imminent return, neglected their daily responsibilities - expecting others to care for them.

How did the T's get sidetracked from the truth or as Paul described them, "shaken in mind or alarmed"? Several possibilities can be cleaned from the reading: they were emotionally moved by a message, situation, or thought; they listened to some bad teaching and accepted it as truth; or they read or heard what they thought was a letter from someone they trusted (Paul) that gave them bad direction.

Thankfully, Paul gave the T's some very practical advice, "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us". The word translated "tradition" refers to the divine apostolic teaching previously given to the T's. Paul is gently telling them to remember what he's told them. Don't be swayed: not by eloquent teachers, not by emotional ploys, and not by rumors or second hand information. Can you relate to the T's? I know I can!

The Thursday devotion for this week had some keen insight into Truth. The devotion resonates with the message Paul is giving - that we can know the truth. The closer we draw to the incarnate Truth, Jesus, and the Truth as revealed in His word, the less likely we will be to become like the T's: "shaken in mind or alarmed".

Alan Davenport

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Revelation 3:1-6

I was the sentry of Sardis.
Sardis, snug and smug and impregnable fortress, capital of Lydia,
Full of ladies and gentlemen strutting their finery in the markets,
Spending their coins with hardly a care. Who could touch them?
Let the invader try to find a route up the cliffs--he cannot!
I was on the wall, joking and skylarking with my mates,
And my helmet, knocked, bounced, tumbled, down and gone--
"there's a week's wages thrown" my buddy said--but no!
There it is--I see it!--I'll just go fetch it. Off I go,
Down the path that only the sentries know,
Not to be used in daylight but who's watching?
Who really cares? Just don't tell the sergeant (wink).
There it is, a little dinged but still serviceable.
Back on post, ready for inspection.
Ready for a drop of the grape after I get off this drudge.

The raid came after dark, right up the path
I took to grab my cover. Some spy or other
Saw me, must have guessed the trail was there,
Took the night watch by surprise, spears flew
And the enemy was there within our gates.
I woke to find a knife drawn at my throat,
Bound, chained, and thrown in this cell.

Farewell to all your finery, Sardis, your gold
And your laissez-faire. Someone is coming
With seven stars in his right hand.
If ever there is a next time for me
I will watch, and be ready, and keep my tunic spotless white
And my helmet on.


Friday, December 09, 2005

II Thess. 2:13-3:5

Friends in Christ

How wonderful it is to look closely and see the goodness of God. Sometimes God gives us the chance to look at nature closely when we take a walk or sit by the window, and be filled with His peace. This week God gave me the chance to see His goodness by looking closely at His Word.

This passage starts “But we ought always to thank God for you…” (2:13). The first time I read that I skipped right over these familiar words of Paul’s. He does that; thanks God for his brothers and sisters in Christ. However I then read the passage in the paraphrase version The Message, and that verse starts, …”we’ve got our hands full continually thanking God for you, our good friends.”

I love it! We are used to the idea of having our hands full. Our days are full of having our hands full; work, preparing food, doing laundry, cleaning. But to think that we have been given so many blessings from God, especially in the form of friends in God, that we have our hands full thanking Him for these friends.

I then began to think back over the years, to all my friends in God. I see that each one was chosen specifically by God to be a gift to me. Now I really have my hands full. I think of my parents who brought me to God, to the elderly lady who was my Sunday School teacher, to my youth ministers and pastors, to the Christians I met on mission trips who opened my eyes to see God anew. I think of you. I pray for a wonderful Christmas for you who have caused me to have my hands full.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Revelation 2:8-17

As Richard noted yesterday, and as you, dear reader, have no doubt noticed since Monday, we have returned to the book of Revelation. This section, however, is far more straightforward and easily understood than the later chapters. There is very little debate about what John is talking about here: he is telling us what Christ thinks of His church.

In the section designated for today, we see two basic characteristics of the church that is faithful to Christ’s call. First, in our fallen world that is often less than perfect, the faithful church is one that is willing to suffer. And second, in a world where people so often find themselves mistaken and in pursuit of illusions, the faithful church is one that does not stray from the Truth.

There is so much that could be said about both these things—so much that needs to be said. As the Gospel has increasingly become equated with self actualization; as it is seen as a guarantee of the basic rights and privileges humanity; as it becomes one more way of achieving our personal best, the church has become less and less familiar with suffering.

That is not only our loss, but the world’s loss around us. Too often, I think, we fail to remake the world, serving instead only to perpetuate it—and thinking we do so with God’s blessing. So perhaps one question we could, and maybe should, ask ourselves is,“Where, quite literally, am I suffering for the Gospel?” (And do I need add that we need to be clear in answering this question to distinguish suffering for the Gospel’s sake and suffering for our own sake?)

And then Truth. The very word, capitalized and absolute, demanding nothing so much as our humble and complete submission to it, causes a great many people in our day to be most uncomfortable. For some the mere mention of this word and its implications is enough for them to want to break out the “barf bag”.

And again I think we have to be very careful. One of the predominant reasons Truth creates this response, I think, is that the church has been far too quick to divorce Truth from love. What we see as Truth, even in Scripture, has too often just been the reflection of our own psyches. But be that as it may, the fundamental claim of Jesus Christ is that Truth exists, and the he is Truth incarnate.

Which brings us to other questions. Am I diligently seeking after that Truth, even if it takes me to uncomfortable places? Am I willing to admit that my truth may not be the Truth, and that my truth needs reforming? Am I willing to submit my life to the Truth as made known in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, even when such submission does, in fact, bring suffering?

Whatever our denomination; whatever our political or theological leanings, whatever our place in the church, these are not easy questions. But they are questions that must be honestly asked—and answered—if we are to be the Church that Christ calls us to be.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Revelation 1:17 - 2:7

Oh boy, here we go with the book of Revelation again. When we wrote devotions about Revelation earlier this year I thought we would be through with this part of the Bible for a while. But God, in His wisdom, has brought us back to this book for a look at additional messages.

This reading begins the letters to the seven churches. In this reading Jesus through John writes to the church in Ephesus. Christ commends this church for (1) hard work, (2) persevering, (3) resisting sin, (4) critically examining the claims of false apostles, and (5) enduring hardships without becoming weary.

Every church should have these characteristics. But Jesus says doing all of these things is not enough or not the highest priority. Love must remain the core of any church. The motivation for any action, be it hard work, perseverance, resisting sin, or defending the faith must be love.

The mission of Saint Matthew's is to know and share God's love. This reading reminds me of our mission. We are doing much at Saint Matthew's these days - pizza and game nights, community outings to musicals, ESL, Link, mission trips, great worship services with terrific music, WATCH (Wednesdays AT CHurch), bible studies, parish retreats, Bible reading marathon, an energized youth group, and much more - however, we must never forget that none of these activities account for anything if we lose our ability to love. Without love we will just be going through the motions.

This theme is so important it is repeated again and again in the New Testament. Jesus himself said the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and spirit and the second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (the Jesus Creed).

Work for God must be motivated by love for God or it will not last.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Revelation 1:9-16

Lord, bless me with understanding and clarity. Open me to your message and love.

Hello faithful reader. May the Lord bless your day. To help, he has provided this short chapter from Revelation 1. John indicates how he came to receive his “revelation”. He was on the island of Patmos in the Lord’s service. God spoke directly to him and told him to write down what he saw and to send it to the 7 churches. Upon hearing the instruction he turns to the source of God’s voice and sees the vision of the risen Christ in Glory.

This passage is so direct and to the point. The language is not hidden in mystery. This is not magic. It is real. What he saw was real to him. God revealed himself to John and gave him a very direct instruction. How did John get into such a position that enabled this to happen. What can we learn from this?

I first see John as someone whose life was committed to God. Fully committed, not just a Sunday or sometime commitment but total. With this commitment came the spiritual presence of God. John entered another world, the spiritual world and witnessed the glory of Christ on his throne. He uses the colors white and gold to appeal to our understanding of holiness and power. The 7 lamp stands and 7 stars indicating Christ’s lordship over the 7 churches that were to receive this revelation from John “the witness”. God is reassuring the 7 churches that they are not alone and that he holds them in his hand to protect and nurture them.

In order for me to relate to this at a personal level I try to image how I could put myself into an emotional position where I would be open to God’s direct communication with me. The word “ecstasy” jumps to mind. Not the drug - but the total joy of knowing that God is real and working in me. John must have been in “ecstasy” when he heard God’s voice and saw what he saw. I do believe that this vision is available for all of us if we accept our spiritual reality and enter into it. When I pray, I enter the other world. I just need to do more of it and be more open for what God has to say. I do believe. Now I must listen.

John Dickie

Monday, December 05, 2005

Revelation 1:1-8

Beginnings and endings. Transitions. No matter what our situation in life, we daily, weekly, and yearly endure countless beginnings and endings, countless transitions. Some are minor; some are major. Some are sad or painful; some are joyous or hopeful. In all, nothing seems to last. For those of younger years, life appears to be characterized far more by beginnings than endings; for those of older years, life appears to be characterized far more by endings than beginnings. Yet for all, between our first beginning and our last ending, transition seems the very stuff of life, until we finally die.

Deep, deep, deep in the flesh and blood of our existence, of all our beginnings and endings, God – the One who is, who was, and who is to come – came to us in Jesus. He came to us in Jesus to endure and to redeem all that “is, was, and is to come” in our life – all our transitions, and most especially our first beginning and last ending. God is the Alpha and the Omega. He is the Beginning without ending. He is the Ending without beginning. He rules over the world’s beginning and ending, over our beginning and ending. In God, all our beginnings and endings find ever-creating, ever-sustaining, and ever-redeeming goodness and love, without variation, without change, without transition. Where the transitions of life are decidedly mixed for us, where fragility and impermanence wear upon us, God is – good, loving, faithful, sovereign. In Jesus, God takes upon himself what we break down, and what breaks us down. In Jesus, God perfects what otherwise would ruin and defeat us.

John broadcast this good news in what we call the Book of Revelation. It is a strange, challenging, and unsettling document, filled with fantastical images, cataclysmic events, and dire warnings. Yet it is also a comforting document, for the thematic substrate throughout is this stupendous news of God’s good, faithful, and sovereign love for us in Jesus, both in and beyond this world.

May we – gladly receiving this good news – begin, journey, and end this Advent with God’s advent to us in Jesus. His humble birth is the true beginning of God’s ending of our story; and God’s end to our story spells the Alpha and Omega of his enduring love, which is our new beginning, world without end.

Gregory Strong

Sunday, December 04, 2005

2 Thessalonians 1:5-12

The Thessalonians were looking for Christ’s return and expecting it to occur very soon. Paul wrote to give them some practical direction in how they should live in view of this anticipation. We’ll see that in the readings for chapter’s 2 & 3. Today’s reading focuses on the greeting of the letter, where I was struck by Paul’s prayer beginning in verse 11,

“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul’s prayer presupposes that the Thessalonians were purposing to perform good deeds and were planning works of faith. Paul prays that God would, by his power, see those purposes and plans fulfilled.

Truly, the Advent season we are now observing is also a time of waiting for the coming of Christ. In that way, we are very much like the Thessalonians. As we anticipate celebrating the birth of Jesus, perhaps we can appropriate Paul’s prayer and see it fulfilled in our lives as well. In order to do that, we must, like the Thessalonians, resolve to perform good deeds and plan for works of faith. Take a few moments and reflect on how God would like to use you this Advent season. Consider the many opportunities in our family, church, and community. What would you resolve or plan? Where, with God’s power, could you make a difference?

The fulfillment of Paul’s prayer in our lives during this Advent season would be a wonderful Christmas gift – “… our Lord Jesus would be glorified in [us], and [us] in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ”.

Alan Davenport

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Jude 17-25

In this letter, Jude warns Christians everywhere about ungodly false teachers, similar to the warnings in 2 Peter. While the first two-thirds of his letter is devoted to a lengthy description of such teachers, their sinful ways, and the judgment that awaits them, the last part is a very straightforward guide on what you (we) can do to "keep yourselves in the love of God."

In verses 20 and 21, Jude effectively says, You! Focus on your walk with God:

" yourselves up on your most holy faith;
pray in the Holy Spirit;
keep yourselves in the love of God;
look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life..."

I think Jude would empathize with any of us for the times we've veered off course in our walk with God. He would understand how it could have happened, but he'd also hold you and me responsible for correcting our course. For Jude, the answer is simple: you, prayer, and God.

If I get winded going up the stairs, one day of exercise isn't going to fix it for me. Only by exercising regularly will I be able to climb those steps without getting winded. Only by exercising regularly will I be able to climb the million-plus narrow and steep steps when the blasted escalator at the Rosslyn metro station chooses not to work! Just as I have to build myself up physically (and I have a ways to go) for the unexpected as well as for daily activities, so must I build myself up spiritually.

One of the things I remember from last year's retreat is the message that we should begin each day by centering ourselves in Christ, that we should take a few minutes each morning to be with Christ in prayer. It doesn't mean you have to kneel down. It doesn't mean you need to use a prayer book. In your own way, just talk to God. Quietly listen. And thank Him.

After encouraging us to help others who have been deceived by false teachers, Jude ends with a prayer of praise to God, "who is able to keep you from falling." And he closes with a doxology: " the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever...."

A beautiful prayer of praise we would do well to pray every day. "....Amen."

Martha Olson

Friday, December 02, 2005

Acts 1:1-9

This is, obviously, the first chapter of the book of Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament. So far in the New Testament, the writers have told the story of Jesus on earth. Those chapters were full of stories of Jesus’ miracles on earth and, of course, the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. But in Acts, we hear the stories of mere men. You’ll remember in the Gospels we hear fairly briefly the backgrounds of each of the apostles. These were everyday men, all of them sinners, from all walks of life in that time period. Some rich, some poor. Some pious, some not so pious.

Imagine, if you will, if a modern day prophet were to walk up to you, during your regular work day and tell you that you should drop everything you are doing - your work, family, everything – and follow him around, and by doing so, you are offered everlasting life. Would you actually stop what you are doing and follow that person? It was not so different for the apostles, friends. They were just like you and me. Except, they did leave their lives, suffered greatly for doing so, all for the promise of life in the heavenly kingdom.

Now, think of this – here is this group of what were once just regular guys. They have spent about three years following Jesus and seeing the miracles, hearing His message. Jesus has been crucified and has risen. The apostles are in hiding and are scared that they will suffer the same horrible death. The risen Lord comes upon them, on several occasions over the course of 40 days. Then, just before he ascends into heaven for good, He gives them the great Commission: “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Sumaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

But, Jesus did not expect them to go about this job based upon their mortal capabilities. He promises them in verse 8 that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. With this power, they then go on to establish the church, just as Jesus has commissioned them to do.

I pray that all of us will strive to be more like the Apostles in our walk with Christ.

Vicki Nelson

Thursday, December 01, 2005

2 Peter 3:11-18

While there will be considerable debate about the meaning of the first couple verses of this passage—is it a literal description of God destroying the earth (nuclear apocalypse?) or apocalyptic language with its characteristic extremity referring to a radical transformation from one state to another (which would be my preferred view)—there will be little debate about what comes after it: the moral repercussions of living life in light of Christ’s expected return.

Eugene Peterson captures this dynamic nicely in the way The Message translates verse 11: Since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life? Before Stephen Covey ever made the principle popular in his Seven Habits of the Highly Effective Person, Peter is telling us we are to begin with the End in mind.

Commenting on these verses, William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible Series helps us understand why this is so important. If there is nothing to come at the end of our lives, then we may as well live only for the pleasure of the moment and all become hedonists. If there is nothing to live for, then how we live doesn’t matter. We become indifferent, apathetic, bored. And if the world is going nowhere, then we have nowhere to go, which is just another way of saying we are lost. The result of viewing life that way is despair.

Fortunately, this passage teaches us that life is not like that; that we are those who have something to look forward to; and that something is worth pursuing with everything we can give it.

Or perhaps I should say that we have Someone who is worth pursuing with everything we can give Him, and that those who chose to view life this way are called...Christians.