Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2

Happy New Year’s Eve!!! I wish you all a very happy and prosperous 2009.

Today’s reading certainly can help in this regard. If we can remember the message that Paul is giving the Corinthians it will be an enabler to a wonderful New Year.

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (verse 21). What a wonderful verse indeed. Christ bore the consequences of, or punishment for, our sins. God made Jesus, who was completely innocent and perfect, identify himself with sin so he could take it away. Let us never forget what Jesus did for us.

In life, rarely will anyone claim perfection. Sin is a part of life, so much so that many people simply expect to encounter dishonesty, self-centeredness, and greed in other people. If they don’t, they are surprised. That is why many people in Jesus’ day expressed surprise at Jesus’ life. Jesus never knew what it meant to sin: He always followed God’s ways. Yet Jesus bore the consequences of believers’ sin for their sakes. Since Jesus, who was perfect and innocent, took on the penalty of sin, death itself, Jesus can make those who believe in him right with God. His perfect righteousness can cover our corrupt and imperfect lives. When people trust in Christ, they make an exchange—their sin for his righteousness. Believers’ sin was placed on Jesus at his crucifixion. His righteousness is given to believers at their conversion.

“Be reconciled to God.” (verse 20). Accept God’s free gift. Paul did not announce this message halfheartedly. He implored—even urged and pleaded—everyone who would listen to him to accept God’s free gift of salvation.

I submit, remembering what Jesus did for you and heeding Paul’s call to reconcile with God will make 2009 one of the best years of your life.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Revelation 1:9-20

The Book of Revelation is full of powerful images – most of them we don’t understand. On the other hand, one of the simplest visions to comprehend is this image of John having a vision of risen Christ and falling down before him. Jesus says to him “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” Jesus has risen and has conquered death. Whatever else might be in the book of Revelation – whatever visions or prophesies or images we might not understand, we can understand this – Jesus is Risen and he’s in charge of everything. That’s the bottom line.

In this season of Christmas we are thinking a lot about how God came into the world, born of a virgin – he came to be with us because he loved us. His love for us is His motivation – the same must also be true at the last judgment – his love for us – that is everlasting , and while we will stand before Jesus on the last day to receive our judgment – we can hear those same words John heard – “do not be afraid” because just as He loved us to come to us, so He will love us when He judges us.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Acts 6:1-7

On of my favorite Christmas ornaments is 17 years old now. It is made from the plastic lid of a disposable fast food type cup. The lid has red glitter spread on it. That’s the ornament. It is strung with green yarn, and a helpful children’s librarian wrote my 2 year old daughter’s name on the back. Each year one of my favorite traditions is seeing that plastic lid on our Christmas tree. Tradition is a kind of legacy.

One verse of today’s reading stood out to me. In verse 4, the leaders of the church said, we want to provide for widows, but we need to devote ourselves to prayer and to the Word. Today I often subconsciously view prayer as a “sideline” or tangential activity, but prayer is definitely part of the foundation of the early church. In Acts chapter 1, after the Ascension, the disciples “joined together constantly in prayer” (1:14). Here is this passage, after men were chosen to serve the widows, the apostles prayed for the men. Fervent prayer was not uncommon.

How did the apostles who formed the church know the importance of prayer? By learning from Jesus. In Luke 18:1 ff Jesus tells the story of the widow and the judge. His goal in telling the story, Luke says, was to “show them that they should always pray, and not give up.” So Luke understood.

Many people need our prayer, especially at this time of year. Our church needs our prayers. Prayer is one of our best traditions.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

1 John 4:7-16

Today’s reading from 1 John speaks of God dwelling with his people and having “moved into the neighborhood” as The Message puts it.

The reading from 1 John also makes it clear what God did through Jesus when he got to the neighborhood: he loved us. And because God has taken the initiative to love us so deeply and at such great cost, so too we ought to take the initiative to love each other.

I am not sure when Christianity began to emphasize believing the right thing over doing the right thing, but the real test of the depth of our connection to God is not whether we can quote chapter or verse of the Bible, but how deeply we love one another.

So here is the question. Have we entered into our neighborhood?

How deeply do we know not just our families, but the people around us in our communities, our workplaces, our schools, our churches? Do we know their hopes, their dreams, and their aspirations? Do we know their hurts, their fears, their heartaches, their sorrows? Do we know the gifts that will genuinely bring their hearts joy and delight? Do we know what is capturing their interest, where they are feeling good about themselves, and where they are struggling?

If the answer to all the above is “Yes!,” God bless you and keep on doing what you are doing. You are putting your faith into practice. But, if you are like me and might not be able to answer all the above questions as well as you’d like … well, why not spend a little extra time this Christmas with your family, your friend, your neighbor.

“Move into the neighborhood” and enter into their lives in a deeper way than you have before. That is the way to love others like Christ loved (and loves!) us, and live out the true Spirit of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Revelation 22:12-17

Today is Christmas Eve. If you are like me, Christmas Eve brings images of excitement – excitement to see what Santa Claus will bring on Christmas day. I submit this excitement is fine and normal, but I also submit that Christmas Eve brings another meaning as it is the last day of Advent.

As we know, Advent comes from Latin roots, meaning “coming.” Christians of earlier generations spoke of “the advent of our Lord” and of “His second advent.” The former refers to Christmas day when Jesus wrapped himself in flesh and was born of a virgin almost two thousand years ago. The latter is related to today’s reading. It is a call to us all to be ready to meet Jesus – ready for judgment.

In today’s reading Jesus says, "Behold, I am coming soon!” (verse 12). Advent reminds us that we must be ready to meet Jesus, and if we are not ready to get ready. We do not know the hour we will meet Jesus, but we all know that we will eventually meet him. If we are ready, Jesus promises a great reward, “My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (verse 12).

The book of Revelation shows what will happen when Jesus returns again – His second advent. Judgment will be final and evil will be destroyed!! The season of Advent reminds us that this will occur and it invites us to be ready to meet Jesus. One day it will be too late, as the book of Revelation clearly shows, but the invitation is still open today. Let’s all remember the reason we celebrate Christmas. It is great to give gifts to family and friends, but remember the gift Jesus has given us.

May God bless you this Christmas season.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Revelation 20:1-10

Whatever you make of the specifics of this passage, the main message is clear. Though we suffer now, and though our present world is subject to great evil, one day all things will be set right.

In just three days we will celebrate Christmas. We will celebrate the birth of Jesus, the one who came to end the rule of Satan and put the powers of evil to flight. There is hope for the world and hope for us as well.

There are lots of people in the world who have lost their hope. There are lots of people who have placed their hope in that which does not save, and they have been or will be bitterly disappointed.

May we not be among them. May we be the most positive and joyful people on the face of this earth, resolutely resisting discouragement and complaint. May we remember where our hope lies, be deeply and profoundly encouraged by it, and share that hope freely with every one we meet.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Jude 17-25

Whether we are in 'the last time' now, or whether that is an age yet to come, no one knows, and it doesn't matter. Our mission is the apostolic mission. We live, as they lived, in a world where lines are continually being drawn, literally or figuratively. Here is a news flash: the lines that divide us in so many ways weren't erased after election day. Sure, we've accepted democracy's verdicts(for the most part) but I still see signs on lawns, the bumper stickers haven't been torn off cars driven by the winning side, and (in the extreme cases) people are going to court to contest election results. The president-elect has done what he said he would do--reach across the aisle--and selected a conservative evangelical to deliver the inaugural invocation. And guess what? People are angry!

Jude wants those of us who are the beloved in the Holy Spirit to reach out, too, even while remaining mindful of the line beyond which lie (in several senses) the fleshly materialist scoffers. He cites three types of people that we must be mindful of:

1. The waverers. These folks are walking in Christ, but they have a tendency to stray over the line. Have mercy on them.

2. The one-foot-in-the-fires. They have crossed the line, but are still reachable. Snatch them from the flames.

3. The almost-beyond-the-pale. They are out there, way way out there. But not utterly without hope. Even now we are to have fearful mercy on them--but ensure they leave their filthy rags behind when they cross back over.

As for the One who is able to keep us from falling--yes, he is able, and more than able, if we do our part--all glory, majesty, power, and authority, in our Saviour, Christ the Lord. Amen.

Friday, December 19, 2008

2 Peter 2:17-22

Today’s reading starts with these verses: “These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm…” Peter’s point in today’s reading, as it is throughout much of his epistles, is the necessity that we live our life through Jesus Christ, and once we take that step, we cannot go back to our sinning ways.

I have certainly felt like a waterless spring and a mist driven by a storm lately. My job is taking up a great deal of my time and energy, much more so that the typical 8 to 5 routine. Plus, I have all the holiday issues weighing on me – shopping, cards, visitors, etc. etc. etc. I can’t remember a time when I have felt so far away from Christ at the very time when He should be the focus of my life.

I am reconciled to the fact that, as a human being with free will, I am a sinner and will always be a sinner. My weakness at this very time is an indication of that. By allowing myself to become self-absorbed, I have opened a door to the evil that is always there, trying to keep Christ from my life. I don’t open this door willingly, nor do I want to feel overwhelmed and overloaded. But, the point is that I allow it to happen. According to Peter, “people are slaves to whatever masters them”.

So, it’s time for me to pick myself up and remember what it’s all about, because it certainly is not all about me. If I’m sending Christmas cards out of obligation and not out of the love of the season, then I shouldn’t be sending cards. If I’m shopping just to pick up any old thing that I can find fast, than I’m certainly not celebrating the reason for the season. That door to evil is just getting wider and wider.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

2 Peter 2:10-16

In this section, Peter continues to address the issue of false teachers, and to warn the faithful people of God about them. As is clear from the Old Testament example used (Balaam), this was a problem that had been around for a long time. It is a problem that continues today, but perhaps in a way different than we first might think.

Interestingly, there seems to be two telling behavioral manifestations of the false teacher’s willfulness—sexual sin (eyes full of adultery) and greed. Just think of how many teachers in our own day have used their position in the church to gratify these “basic instincts”. For them, the gospel is merely a way to get what they want.

It is perhaps worth asking—is the Gospel any different for us?

Many people see in the Gospel a way to live like they are blessed by God while others suffer terribly. In other words, they think God actually approves of their selfishness and greed while their brothers and sisters literally die of hunger or thirst.

Others see in the Gospel a reinforcement of their rigid categories of who is in and who is out that in reality only affirms their prejudices.

Still others see the Gospel as approving an agenda that looks very much like the agenda of the world around us, where everybody is in with no regard for the seriousness or severity of sin.

It’s always easier to be negative than positive, to criticize and condemn others rather than change ourselves, to leave rather than come to grips with the hard work love requires if one were to chose to stay, to forsake the straight road and walk our own path instead.

But that is not the Gospel. The Gospel is meant to deliver us from ourselves. It is meant to reform—re form—us as it frees us from our various corruptions. It is meant to create a new world, not soothe those comfortable in the ways of the old one.

Knowing our basic desires—towards anger, judgmentalism, self righteousness, self centeredness and so on—how is God in Christ Jesus delivering us from them? Or is it possible that we, like the false teachers, are self deceived, following our own paths and thinking it is God who is doing the leading?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

2 Peter 2: 1-11

In these verses, Lot is described as “a righteous man.” Does that surprise you?

You will remember (and this passage reminds us) that Lot lived in Sodom. When angels came to warn Lot of its destruction, he invited the angels to stay the night with his family. Do you remember what happened next?

A mob of men gather and demand that Lot give him the angels (who appeared as men) for their pleasure. In Genesis 19:8, we read Lot’s reply:

"Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them."

Hmmm… A father offering his virgin daughters for rape and violent abuse? Doesn’t sound like much of a righteous man to me…

After Sodom falls, Lot and his daughters take refuge in an isolated cave. There are no other men around, so the daughters get Lot drunk, sleep with him, and bear children accordingly. So we can add drunkenness and incest to Lot’s character.

Good thing Peter told us Lot was a righteous. If he hadn’t, we might be excused for concluding otherwise.

I meet so many people—so many Christians—who are so quick to judge. But apparently, things are not always as they appear. Evidently such judgments may not be quite as simple as some would like them to be.

God spares Lot from judgment. That is something of a surprise. Could it be that we will be just as surprised by the people by the people with whom he chooses to share his grace and love?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2 Peter 1:12-21

Peter was clear that he knew he would die soon. As such he begins to reflect on his life, all that he had seen and heard, being with Jesus on the mountaintop of transfiguration, hearing the audible voice of God and needs to impart wisdom so that those who remain behind will be encouraged. Peter encourages the church, and US, to be “a light shining in a dark place” and that the interpretation of scripture is something for which we should rely on God and not take it upon ourselves.

There is so much Peter tries to communicate to the church in this letter, but this passage highlights 2 of Peter’s more important points. First – we are to be the light in a dark place. We are to shine the light of God in all we do for all to see. When we get up in the middle of the night for whatever reason and start moving around the house, the one single nightlight illuminates huge rooms enough for us to fine our way without bumping a toe. We don’t have to be a big light, or a beautiful lamp that shines or even a particularly smart light – just a light, any light that reflects the love of God can accomplish huge illumination for a dark world to find its way. When it is dark, really dark, we are drawn to the simplest of lights and are grateful to have them.

The same is true when we are the light for the world – keep the message simple. People don’t need complicated theologies, they just need the love of God.

Monday, December 15, 2008

2 Peter 1:1-11

Imagine you are an athlete who wants to improve your performance. To do so will like involve some type of training to improve strength and or endurance. Clearly, for this to be effective, you body will need to possess some muscles to start with. Equally clearly, these muscles are a gift from God. We didn’t do anything to acquire them in the first place.

Training will likely involve exercise, probably a combination of resistance training (weights or machines) and endurance training (running, jumping rope, elliptical trainers, etc). It will also require that the training is supplemented with the necessary fuel for maximum energy and recuperation. The athlete’s diet will need to ensure that they are receiving the necessary vitamins, minerals, high quality carbs, protein, and so on.

This combination of taking what we have already been given, training it, and supporting that training with the proper nutrition will enhance the athlete’s strength, ability, and performance.
Peter recommends much the same thing for our spiritual life. We have all been given the gift of faith; it’s a free gift God gives out of the goodness of his grace, and not something we work for.

But as it turns out, there is plenty we can do to take the faith we’ve been given, and “support it” so we are not “ineffective and unfruitful in our knowledge of Lord Jesus Christ.”

Our “spiritual training”, however, does not consist of doing bench press, bicep curls, running a few miles, and taking a good multi vitamin. No, it consists of goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual* affection, and love. One gets the sense that each of these is the building block for the other; we start with goodness, and end with love. In other words, to love as Christ asks us to love requires us the qualities listed before it.

It is also interesting that the highest qualities on this list are mutual affection and love. That’s the point of it all. These are the qualities that insure our faith is not in vain; the others are only stepping stone towards a higher goal.

The point is clear: the path of those faithfully following Jesus, whether in a marriage or a family or a friendship or a church, is NOT the path of deeper and deeper division. It is the path of strong and enduring love.

Would that the church remembered that.

Would that we did too…

Friday, December 12, 2008

II Thessalonians 2:13-3:5

These days our mailbox often contains Christmas letters. In writing my own letter I think back on my year, on the blessings and tough times.

As I read today’s passage I think how this can be construed as a review of Paul’s year, of his blessings and the things he yearns for.

Paul thanks God for the fact of salvation. He encourages the believers to stand firm. He prays that God would comfort their hearts. A lot of people, in these times, could use God’s comfort. I know a lot of people who will be reading my Christmas letter went through hard times this year and I pray that God comforts them.

Paul’s yearning, the thing he asks for prayer for, is that God’s word would spread and be glorified. He doesn’t ask for anything for himself, he wants God to be glorified. He prays for protection from evil. But as soon as Paul mentions that, he adds that God is faithful to strengthen we believers.

What a benediction Paul prays on his friends. During this Advent season let us pray that we would likewise bless others.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

2 Thessalonians 2: 1-12

Sometimes reading the Bible is pretty confusing. This passage might be a case in point. There is all kinds of widely divergent material written about these verses. Frankly, without further study I’m not sure what to make of the details in these verses myself.

Even so, certain things seem pretty clear:

1. Some people are afraid the day of Jesus’ second coming has already come and gone, and they are quite upset they missed it.

2. Paul assures them this is not the case. There are forces that are at work against God, and since this is still the case, we can be sure Jesus has not yet returned and set things right.

3. The forces that work against God attempt to deceive people so that they will not hold to the truth taught us by Jesus Christ.

So: where does that leave us?

Well, I think we can probably safely assume that we haven’t missed out on Jesus’ second coming either.

It also seems to me that though there will be no ambiguity when Jesus actually does come—that will be a decisive event—there is a good deal of ambiguity about the specifics of what will happen before then. We would probably do well, therefore, to be wary of those who claim to have all the answers (and sometimes even the timelines!) about these things. We certainly should not allow them to steal our peace our cause us to become anxious.

Finally, I think these verses underscore how important it is we walk closely with Jesus, study his word, and submit to his authority. Lawlessness—the desire to do what we please when we please how we please—is alive and well on planet Earth. At least, it’s alive in me. And it can be quite deceptive, making things that are wrong look right.

Our salvation is in Christ alone, and that is something we must never forget.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

2 Thessalonians 1: 1-12

Today we begin the book of 2 Thessalonians. It's one of Paul's letters written to a church of new believers. And believe it or not, though there are lots of things that are going right in this church, there are also a few problems.

Sometimes we look at the early church like everything was perfect and every Christian had it all together. This book, like the rest of the New Testament, readily disabuses us of this notion. Who else would we expect to find in a church but people with problems and failings, who are as wrong about some things as they are right about others, who sometimes fall woefully short of the example set for us in Jesus?

In short, who else would we expect to find in our local churches but PEOPLE JUST LIKE US.

Churches are full of imperfect people. They all have problems. They all have issues. That's the way it's always been. Until Jesus comes again, that's the way it will always be.

What is really needed today is people who, like the Apostle Paul, will not use this as an excuse to distance themselves from the church in general or local churches in particular, but will commit themselves all the more deeply to one another and by God's grace, forge ahead. That, I think, is what the kind of love Jesus commends to his followers (who he prays will be one) is all about.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

1 Thessalonians 5: 12-28

Revenge is tempting. When we are hurt by someone in a way that is the cut you to the core type of hurt, it seems that the natural response is to give them a taste of their own medicine – get them back, or at the very least, hope they get something like what they gave.

Today, Paul gives the Thessalonians words to live by. He encourages them to take care of those in need – the sick the weak, and the faint of heart. He then says not to repay evil for evil – not to take revenge. But, not only that we are to give thanks in ALL circumstances. All circumstances?? That’s hard. Life is so full of difficulties and challenges that it is almost impossible to give thanks in those circumstances – and yet that is what we are called to do. I don’t think we have to give thanks FOR the circumstances. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen but is with us in the midst of those bad things – and that is something to be thankful for - God’s presence, God’s guidance and God’s help and strength to show us how to best deal with those tough times in life. By giving thanks to God even though things aren’t going how we’d like, even though we’ve been hurt and really do want revenge, we will have our hearts changed and encouraged so that no matter what we face we continue to grow closer and closer to the living God.

Monday, December 08, 2008

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

It seems to that one of the most neglected beliefs in the church these days in the doctrine of the Second Coming of Jesus. Oh, I know there are some churches that are focused on Biblical prophecy, linking passages in the Bible to current events, and expecting that the end of the world is imminent. And I know there is a whole bestselling book series written about Jesus’ return. But what I mean is I don’t see many of us who call ourselves Christians living like the end is near.

Think about it. If we really thought Jesus might return at any time, and that nothing was more important than being ready, would we live differently? I would.

First, I’d be a lot less attached to worldly things. Now the truth is, I do live pretty simply, and I do so because of my commitment to Jesus. But even so, materialism and consumerism are still far more present in my life than I’d care to admit.

Second, I’d be a lot more careful with my time. Yes, I do give a lot of my time to service related activities. But even so, I still waste a lot of my time on trivial things that don’t matter one bit in light of eternity.

Third, I’d be a whole lot more willing to make sacrifices—little sacrifices and BIG sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel. What wouldn’t I be willing to sacrifice now if I believed eternity was going to begin any moment now?

I think part of the reason the early church lived so radically and changed the world so dramatically is that they took the belief in the imminent second coming of Jesus so seriously. And I think part of the reason the church today doesn’t look much different than the rest of the world is that we don’t…

Saturday, December 06, 2008

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

"Rapture" in the sense of living persons being instantly and supernaturally taken up to be joined with the returning Christ, seems to have passed its popular "Left Behind" vogue. I can't remember the last time I saw a bumper sticker that said, "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned." There seemed, and still seems, to be an air of superiority about those who, when the going gets tough, think they will celestially get out of Dodge and thus be spared the worst days of the great tribulation.
If we're going to take Paul seriously, we're going to have to return to the beginning and wrestle again with what this really meant and means. Other than taking flight in the literal sense. N.T. Wright calls this a glorious metaphor--not a literal transformation, but a spritual one.
Shall we have hope? By all means! Even as those who lived and later died in Christ had and still have hope.Will Christ come again? Aye, we hold fast to that which we say in the Creed and in the Eucharist: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. If we are his, then we will indeed be part of that return, whether we be "quick" or have fallen asleep by that day.
So let us gently but firmly decline to debate the pre-, mid-, post- or pan-tribulation controversies. Wherever we walk, drive, bike, boat, or fly, let us trust that God will guide us, but not leave our pilot-less vehicle to crash and burn on some future occasion when we are snatched up. Let us instead be so caught up in the love of God that other souls are drawn to the light, and find the one true source of that Light.

Friday, December 05, 2008

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

As usual when I prepare to write the devotional, I look up the passage in a variety of different bibles. For this passage, I really felt drawn to the interpretation contained in “The Message” Bible by Eugene Peterson. One line in particular stands out to me – “…please God, not in a dogged religious plod, but in a living, spirited dance.”

Reading this version, a number of images jump into my head. When I think of dogged religious plod, I see someone who is slumped over, totally fatigued, with no energy. As a parent, if I saw one of my kids looking like that, I would be very concerned. I would take him to the doctor and want to get to the bottom of what is making him like this, thinking that it must be physical and not necessarily emotional or spiritual. Whatever it is, I would want to fix it. Get some medicine or whatever it would take to get my child back to good health.

I imagine when God sees us this way He would react very much the same, although since he knows our heart, he can tell the difference between physical fatigue and spiritual depletion. The difference is that he does not judge us. Just as Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is a gentle and loving reminder of how to live a life through Christ, God is always present, with gentle loving nudges and prods.

My image of a living, spirited dance is so full of energy and light. I see the most beautiful ballet dancer, filled with grace beyond explanation. I want to be that dancer. I want to be filled with the light and grace of God, and I know that He wants me to have that life as well. The only barricades to living life in a spirited dance are those that we put up – both consciously and unconsciously. I think Paul is reminding us all to be aware of those barricades and to tear them down by living the life God wants us to live.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

1 Thessalonians 3:1-13

Today’s reading begins by acknowledging both the reality of suffering and the potential problem such suffering poses to faith. When life gets hard, it gets easy to feel like God has left us or our faith has failed us.

Lots of people start out well in their Christian life. But somewhere along the line they lose their focus, drive, inspiration… Paul is afraid that this has happened to the Thessalonians, and that therefore his labor there will have been “in vain”.

This raises a couple questions for me. Who are we laboring for? That is, who are the people in our lives for whom we are devoting time and energy to introduce them to our Lord Jesus Christ, and then to help them grow in their relationship with him? It could be a Sunday school class, for instance, or maybe a youth group. It could be people we’ve studied the Bible with, or that we’ve served on a mission trip or service project.

If we can’t think of specific people we are laboring for, I suggest we need to start there. We are not living the Gospel if our life does not include such service and the relationships that grow out of it.

My second question is that if we can clearly think of people for whom we labor, how are we following up on them? Are we checking in with them to see how they are doing? When trouble comes for them, as it surely will, how are we encouraging them and helping them through it?

Faith is a long term commitment, even in—especially in—the face of adversity. May we offer one another the love and support we need to not simply continue in the faith, but to grow ever stronger in it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

1 Thessalonians 2:13-20

1 Thessalonians is one of my favorite letters that Paul wrote. In fact I had the privilege of leading a Bible study on this letter. In my comments today, I will expand on a couple of verses at the end of today's reading.

In verse 18 Paul writes, "For we wanted to come to you ... but Satan stopped us." I like this verse because I believe Satan is real and that Spiritual warfare is real. As Christians we should attempt to understand God's will for each of us through prayer and meditation. Satan does not want God's will to be accomplished so he will devise all sorts of schemes to distract us from our communication with God. When there does not seem to be time for prayer in our busy lives, this can be Satan adding too many things to our plate. It is our job, our duty, to overcome Satan's distractions and make sure we do find the time to pray. Now in Paul's case I am sure Satan did not keep Paul from understanding God's will, but Satan evidently kept Paul from returning to visit the Thessalonians.

The other verse I want to touch on is verse 20, "Indeed, you (the Thessalonians) are our glory and joy." The ultimate reward is not money, prestige, or fame, but bringing new people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. No matter what ministry God is calling you to be a part of, your highest reward and greatest joy should be those who come to believe in Christ and are growing in Him. Remember, God's highest priority is people. The heavens are His, the stars, moon, and sun were made by Him, and the mountains and oceans are His handiwork - but people are His pride and treasure. If people are God's pride and treasure shouldn't they be ours too?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-12

First, a little background – the church at Thessalonica, which Paul founded, was probably the only church (at least among the New Testament letters) which was not in internal conflict. They didn’t really fight over theology or the gospel – they were a church that suffered persecution from the outside world they didn’t fight among themselves. Thus, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is very gentle, kind and supportive as seen in today’s reading. As Paul says “But we were gentle* among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”

It is in this context that Paul encourages the Thessalonians to be strong in their faith and steadfast in their own proclamation of the Gospel in the world around them. He reminds them that we proclaim the Good news of God in Christ, not seeking our own reward, but providing only glory to God.

Just as Paul cared so much for those to which he was writing and encouraging, as we approach others with the Gospel and as we live lives that are reflective of the Gospel, so we too must treat people gently. No one likes confrontational, aggressive faith that ignores the individual in the name of religion – Jesus wasn’t that way and neither was St. Paul. Our approach to others must always be one of respect for the other’s dignity and must reflect the love of God at all times. Our witness must not seek glory for glory’s sake, but must bring glory to God. The only way that is done is through gentleness, kindness and reflection of the unsurpassed love of God for each and every one of us.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Romans 15: 7-13

One of my favorite possessions is broken, but I still love it. It represents so much to me; loyalty and friendship, and the bonds between coworkers who have to spend hours in each others company and help each other make the burden of work lighter.

The object is laying in pieces on my nightstand, ready to be re-glued yet again. It’s a glass pelican.

In one of my moves, I was leaving a Florida town (hence the pelican). Two coworkers took me out to lunch and presented me with the pelican. I had gone through a lot that year and what they offered meant so much to me; love and support, now symbolized many years later by the little statue.

Paul, the writer of Romans can’t get enough of reminding us of the many blessings bestowed on us by Christ. “Welcome each other” Paul says, just as Christ has welcomed you.” Yesterday we had a day to reflect on our blessings. This Advent season, I hope to do as Paul says and, in remembering how Christ welcomed me, welcome others and bless them. We had a little start yesterday, as many families from St. Matthew’s made and served a Thanksgiving meal to needy families. It was a good time of gathering together.

We have all been needy or vulnerable at some point in our lives, like I was on that day when my coworkers blessed me with a pelican. May we remember and follow Christ’s example and welcome the vulnerable in many kinds of gestures.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ephesians 1:15-23

Obviously, today is Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving clearly implies that there are both things to be thankful for and someone to be thankful to. Eat all the turkey and pumpkin pie that you want, watch football or parades all day long, visit with family and friends—but if we don’t take time to stop and say “thanks”, we haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving.

So who do we thank? Well, Paul is quite clear about that. He thanks God. And that is where we need to start as well, giving thanks to God for his goodness and love. Will you make time today, not just to say a quick prayer before eating, but to sit quietly and express your thankfulness to God? Or maybe you’ll want to make saying thanks to God a part of your Thanksgiving meal, going around the table and having everyone tell at least one thing for which they are thankful.

And what are we thankful for? Paul is thankful for people. That’s a good place to start. Who in your life are you thankful for? How will you tell them?

He is also thankful for the faith and love of these people—for the way they act to bring about good in the world. Maybe that’s something else we can be thankful for—goodness. Are you looking for goodness in the world and the people around you? It is there, and it too is something well worth being thankful for.

I am sure there are many other things we can think of for which are thankful. Let us not be selfish and silent. Let us give hearty expression to our thanks, and use this Thanksgiving day not just as a onetime occurrence, but as a pattern for how the whole of our lives should be lived.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ephesians 1:3-14

Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians with the following statement, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." (v. 3) This opening intrigues me. Has God really given us "every spiritual blessing"? I do not know about you, but I do not always feel that I am particularly blessed. What are these spiritual blessings to which Paul is speaking? To make sure we do not misunderstand what Paul means, he spells out the three spiritual blessings in the subsequent verses. As there are three spiritual blessings it makes sense that one comes from each of the Trinity.

The first spiritual blessing is being seen by God as "holy and blameless". We are seen this way because we believe in Jesus and accept Him as our savior. Of course we are not without sin, but we are seen by God as holy and blameless because of what Jesus did for us.

The second spiritual blessing is given to us through Jesus Christ. In Christ we are redeemed, forgiven, enlightened, and enriched. Redemption means we are freed from sin. Hand-in-hand with redemption is forgiveness - forgiveness of our sins. Enlightenment comes from the knowledge we have that at the end Christ will be the ruler of all. Enrichment signifies the eternal life we will inherit.

The third spiritual blessing is being made spiritually secure. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit indicating we are His and under His protection. To be marked in this way indicates authority, authenticity, and security.

Three spiritual blessings that sometimes are easy to forget in this hectic world in which we live. But these blessings are so important. When life gets us down, think about these blessings and realize how great it is.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

1 Corinthians 3:10-23

The people of the church of Corinth were arguing. The church there was founded by Paul but due to it’s seaport bringing in people from all over the world and being in the center of Mediterranean life, there were all kinds of various influences and several leaders were raised up in the church and were in competition with local Greek mythological religions. Thus in this passage Paul addresses the people of the church and refocuses them on their true foundation – not teachings by the various leaders, not what the world around them would tell them is important, but their faith founded upon Jesus Christ out savior.

Like the Corinthians, we so often need to be refocused on what’s important. Are we following leaders – religious or political? Are we focused on what the world around us is telling us is important and what we should believe or is our faith firmly on our true foundation, Jesus Christ?? Where are our priorities and who is our foundation – and do our lives reflect that??

As we approach Thanksgiving, let us all take the time this week to really give thanks for what matters, family, friends and the grace we have been given through faith in Jesus our Savior – our one, true foundation.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Galatians 6:1-10

Sometimes people claim the Bible is full of contradictions. If you asked them to show you one, most of the time they aren’t able to do so. But if they could, maybe they’d use this passage. Bear one another’s burdens, it says. But then it goes on to say, For all must carry their own loads. Huh?

Actually, like most alleged Biblical contradictions, when we give this a little be of thought, it resolves itself rather nicely.

When we are commanded to bear one another’s burdens, the idea is that we would support one another in our life in faith. Specifically, the burden referred to here seems to be the burden of our temptations. At least part of the point seems to be that we all have temptations—whether it’s the temptation to gossip and negativity, or envy and discontent, or selfishness and greed. And if we are ever going to get beyond these things and live the life to which God calls us, it is going to take the love, prayers, and encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It does not happen alone.

At the same time, however, we have to take responsibility for our faith. In the end, we have to say that the problems we are facing in our spiritual lives are not caused by anyone other than ourselves (and if we are honest in pursuing our spiritual lives on a level that goes beyond the superficial, we will face problems in doing so). Ultimately, therefore, we are the only ones who can solve them.

That doesn’t mean we don’t ask for help. We do, and that is part of what it means to take responsibility for doing life differently. It doesn’t mean we don’t need God’s power; we surely do, but we must come to the place where we realize that and so take the responsibility to ask for it and avail ourselves of it.

I need to take responsibility for my own stuff, and not blame others for it. But when I do that—when I admit my sin, my desire to change, and my commitment to work through the problems such sinfulness in the past has already created—boy do I ever need help. I absolutely need you to help me bear my burdens. I won’t make it through without you.

Bear one another’s burdens, Paul says. It is so desperately important that we do so. Are you bearing someone's burdens? Get specific. Whose burdens are you bearing right now? How are you bearing them? If you can’t answer those questions, what are you going to do about it—today?

All must carry their own load. It is, in fact, the only way ahead. Will you do it? Is there something you’ve been blaming someone else for, that you want to see as their problem when it is in fact your own? Will you admit it, confess it, and ask for help? Again, be specific. Who will you ask help? When? Where?

These are not verses to be approached intellectually simply as a problem to be solved. They are to be lived, in your life and in mine. Please, dear God—may it be so.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

James 5:13-20

Picture it: faithful people gathered, laying hands on one who is hurting, lifting that person up in prayer. This is the church, the local community of believers, as it ought to be, and if we agree with God, what it truly becomes in practice. Those who suffer in body, mind, or soul, are ministered to, and they experience healing. Those who have cause to rejoice sing it from the wellsprings of their exultation, and inspire those whose spirits drag. Those who are mired in the guilt and shame of sin unburden their load on those who receive them without condemnation, and they are reunited with them. Those who have wandered for years in a dry desert find their oasis, the place of cooling, relieving, growth-yielding rain.

May we be patient when we wait for the Lord, but impatient when we see people that God has called us to love.
May we persevere as Elijah did, with the constant expectation of the coming Anointed One.
May we become the congregation that James encourages us to become.

Friday, November 21, 2008

James 5:7-12

The first thing I think of when I read today’s verses are the first two words – “Be patient”. I don’t know about you, but patience is in short supply in my house. And from what I see on the highways around Northern Virginia, it’s in short supply in a lot of places.

Patience is one of James’ themes throughout this epistle. One of my favorite passages from James is “Be slow to anger”. His point is a good one – in today’s vernacular, if you stop and count to ten, chances are you will rethink your reaction.

I truly believe that the majority of people would like to practice patience. After all, who deliberately wants to start the day cursing at traffic? But the fact of the matter is that it is plain hard to be “slow to anger”. It is hard to remember to count to 10. But imagine what a great place this would be if everyone did just that. Imagine going grocery shopping at Wegman’s on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving where there are a kajillion people in the aisles and everyone has a smile on their face and are not only civil, but outright nice to each other.

The tension in the air these days is palpable. The news of doom and gloom is everywhere. Everyone is on edge. Our personal rope that each of us holds on to before we blow is shorter and shorter. Yet we are still called to be patient. Patient with ourselves, patient with each other and patient on the Lord. All of us can do our part. We can practice throughout this holiday season. Don’t be the one at Wegman’s who snaps. Instead be the one who plans to take more time and can therefore take the time to be patient and kind. I guarantee that when you leave the store, you will have made your day – and the Lord’s too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

James 4:13-5:6

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not come. We have only today. Let us begin.” Those words are attributed to Mother Theresa, but they might also have been spoken by James.

Rich people tend to be pretty confident about tomorrow. Their riches are a way to get things done, make people notice, create a safety net that protects them from the things that trouble so many people in the world today. They are pretty sure they'll do what they want when they want how they want and nobody is going to stop them.

Rich people in some way generally need to cut themselves off from their humanity. How else can we explain the willingness of the rich to enjoy luxury while other humans die from lack? They do not see these inequities as a manifestation of their selfishness, but as their right and privilege based either on their station in life or on their hard work.

James will have none of this. Riches for him create an illusion that will be dispelled on the day of judgment. What for a brief time seemed like a source of pleasure will now become “evidence against them”, “eating their flesh like fire.”

Boy, I’m glad I’m not rich. Stick it to them, James!

Because if I were rich… if I happened to be living in the top 5% (and most likely, top 1%) of the wealthiest people who ever lived… if I happened to have a home with more space than I need, multiple cars, enough food to be overweight, gadgets and conveniences most the world doesn’t even dream of…

Wow, would this be scary. This would shake me to my very core. If I took this at all seriously, I’d have to change the way I live.

Yeah, I’m so glad I’m not rich. Aren’t you?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

James 3:13-4:12

I love the book of James. I love the fact that it is forthright - direct to the point and does not hold anything back. Whenever I read it, it helps me refocus on the way I should act and the way I want to live.

In today's reading I would to focus on two passages. The first passage are the verses in chapter 13. These verses tell us about false wisdom and true wisdom. The result of false wisdom is found in verse 16, "For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice." False wisdom promotes self-assertion and independence. It destroys a spirit of mutual concern.

True wisdom is free from self-interest and strife. It leads to peace and goodness. It results in being "... peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy ..." True wisdom avoids petty quarreling. It promotes peace and righteousness. It does not escalate a conflict, pass on gossip, or fan the fire of discord.

I like to think of myself as a wise person, but after reading these verses I wonder if I'm as wise as I think I am. How about you?

The second passage is found at the end of today's reading - verses 11 and 12 of chapter 4. These two verses remind us that we are not to judge others or to speak bad of them. These verses call out the following question. Do we build people up with our words or do we tear others down? Are we constructive or destructive?

The verses of James clearly tell us that we should use our words to express love and concern for others. It is our human nature to be critical. However, James calls us to resist this urge and to consciously use positive words.

Human pride leads to criticism of others. In other words, by cutting someone else down we automatically elevate ourselves. This may be true in our human world, but it is certainly not true in the heavenly world.

Join me in trying to live a life that follows James' teachings. It will not be easy, and we will not be able to carry it out flawlessly, but let's commit to trying. If we are only partially successful, what a better world this would be.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

James 3: 1-12

You may be familiar with the statement “A mature Christian is one who would not hesitate to sell his talking parrot to the town gossip”. Today’s reading is really an admonishment for all of us to be aware of what we say, how we say it and to whom. If we are aware of ourselves and are genuinely in love and charity with our neighbors and not just superficially it is easy to not gossip or to not disparage others. When we have strife in our lives, it isn’t so easy. But we need to remember that words are powerful.

As James points out with the same tongue we praise God and “curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” Words can praise God, make friendships, show love and caring and at the same time words are also powerful to end relationships, hurt others and even go so far as to curse God our Redeemer. Remember, God spoke the world into existence – he created all things by saying such things in Genesis as “God said let there be light, and there was light” God spoke and things happened, the world was created. We learn in the Gospel of John that Jesus is the Logos or Word of God – this is how He participated in creation – in some way he was those same words that God spoke and created all that is. By God giving us intellect and conversation, He has given us a powerful tool that can also create or destroy. Therefore we must be aware of what we say, how and to whom we say them.

Monday, November 17, 2008

James 2:14-26

What is a Christian? Am I one?

Do you ever find yourself asking these questions? I do.

Clearly, faith is more than just cognitive assent or intellectual acquiescence. Faith involves the whole persons. It involves our emotions in the form of trust. It involves our will in the form choice. It involves our bodies in the form of action.

For these reasons, faith cannot but help shape our life. If faith is present, there must be “hard copy” or concrete evidence that exists. Where is that evidence in our lives?

Another way of asking this might be is, “How is the church different from the world?” Or more specifically, “How is my life different from the life of the many, many good people who live exemplary lives but make no claim to faith?”

It can be a hard question to answer. But until we do… are we really following Jesus?

Friday, November 14, 2008

James 1:16-27

Our family shed some tears this week as we buried a small pet. He was, in fact very small; a praying mantis who lived in an aquarium in the guestroom. We had gotten attached to him as we do to all the little creatures who are part of our lives (part of the wonder of having a garden is the parade of creatures we get to observe) and we felt bad as his lifespan ended. We buried him in the garden as the leaves fell and I reflected how life, like nature, can be full of changes. We can count on things or people sometimes for years but change is part of life.

One of the phrases in today’s reading has run through my mind for as long as I have pondered life; God does not change (v. 17). Everything else changes but God does not. God does not change himself. He does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19). He does not change in how He loves everyone. The psalmist notes how nature may change but God will not (Ps. 102:27). I have always found comfort in these words in James 1- God doesn’t change.

James then gives some very practical advice on how to life our faith . Verse 19 says be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Again James says in verse 26; control your tongue. If you consider yourself religious, take care of the physical needs of others such as the poor (widows and orphans) in their distress (v. 27). I can remember times when I was in distress and how others were a comfort to me. I know God would want us all to remember those who are in many kinds of distress and to have compassion on them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

James 1:1-15

Ahhh, the book of James! Now here is a book that is practical and easy to understand. The hard part is to put in practice the clear truths it teaches.

James is a book that has often been seen as promoting “works" instead of “faith”. But in these opening verses James gives us the context in which we are to read the rest of the book, and that context is the importance of faith.

We are encouraged to have faith in God’s ability to work even in the midst of our most difficult times; to have faith that God really will give us the wisdom we need for living through these times; to have faith that any sacrifices we make in this life are well worth the cost; and to have faith that it is better to resist temptation than give into it.

In each of these situations, our faith is the vehicle by which we are able to continue to confidently hope for the best, even when what life actually brings us is trials and tribulations. It’s what keeps us connected to God so that we are willing to pay the price necessary to live the kind of Christian life described in the verses to come. And let us make no mistake: there is a price to be paid in living the kind of life that follows in Jesus’ footsteps.

Take verse 12-15 for instance. Desire is, of course, desirable. But sometimes our desires are inappropriate, destructive, or hurtful. To say “no” to our desires is to say no to what we want, and that is painful. Is it really worth it?Faith answers, “Yes, it is.”

For example, I often desire to use my credit card. The problem is, my credit card makes spending too easy. I buy things I don’t really need, and then come to the end of the month and the bill takes more of my income than it should. So at least until the end of the year (we started in October), my wife and I have decided to say “no” to our credit cards for everything but gas (yes, we do realize that this includes what are typically known as the “shopping days” before Christmas).

Saying “no” to our credit cards is sometimes painful. There are things I want, like books or fishing tackle or maybe some additional bulbs for a fall planting in the garden. But although saying “no” in the moment is painful, by faith we believe in the long run it will bring far greater rewards than a moment’s simple passing pleasure .

James tells us it is that way with all our “sinful” desires. It may well mean choosing pain instead of pleasure now. But faith answers resolutely, “It will be worth it in the end”.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Revelation 19:11-21

Today's reading tells us of the second coming of Christ. In the Nicene Creed a sentence right before the last paragraph says, "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." Today's reading describes the first part of that sentence - coming again in glory as a judge.

As we examine today's reading I want to point out a couple of things that I find of interest.

When Jesus first came to the earth, some 2,000 years ago, he came as a sacrificial lamb. Jesus' first coming brought forgiveness. As today's reading tells us, in the second coming of Jesus we will see him as a conqueror and as a king. His second coming will bring judgment to those left on the earth after the rapture. This judgment will be final and result in the total destruction of evil (the beast, the false prophet, and all of those that worship the beast).

The second item I want to discuss may not be as obvious as the first. The second item I find interesting is the four names used for Christ in today's reading.

The name Jesus Christ is not used in today's reading, but I think it is clear that the rider of the white horse is Jesus. This rider is identified as "Faithful and True." I think this refers to Jesus as the faithful and true witness to God's glory.

The second name is unknown to us, known only to him. I think this implies that no name can do Jesus justice. Just like heaven will have a peace beyond our understanding, Jesus is greater than any human description can devise.

The third name is the "Word of God." What strikes me about this name is the use of "Word." In his Gospel, John called Jesus "the Word". Jesus speaks God's words, acts according to the word of God, and is the word of God.

The fourth name is actually two titles listed together, "King of kings and Lord of lords." This properly allows the reader to know the true position of Jesus in the hierarchy of man.

Yes, Jesus did die, Jesus was resurrected, and Jesus will come again. From today's reading it will be a glorious return that triumphs over evil.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Revelation 18: 15-24

For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!

Such is the twice repeated refrain of today’s passage. It is one that we can perhaps appreciate now more than ever. Watching historic drops in the stock market occur and trillions of dollars of wealth disappear in mere moments, this verse becomes an eerie description not just of the fall of an ancient empire, but of the events of our day.

One of the things these verses drive home is how insecure all the things of this world are. To look to any them—even to the most powerful nation the world has ever known—for security is ultimately to have a false hope. It is the very nature of this world, and of the things of this world, to pass away. No human being, and no human invention or institution can keep that from occurring.

In years past, if people had extra money many would just reinvest it with the expectation they would reap greater returns and enhance their financial security (which many people most directly relate with their personal security as well). Right now, that doesn’t look like a particularly attractive option. Wouldn’t it be far better to invest in something more secure?

That something is, of course, the Kingdom of God. It is the work of God in this world.

And it is not just money, of course. It is time. It is energy. It is our skills and our best thoughts. Will we invest these things in a world that doesn’t last, in pursuing a security that can be gone in the blink of an eye and is so is not secure at all?

Or will we invest in something lasting, something eternal, something that even all the forces of hell cannot stand against. Will you… will I… invest ourselves, all that we are, all that we have, in serving God and doing his will here on earth even as it is done in heaven?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Revelation 18:1-14

Babylon. What a city it must have been! Its walls towered as high as 300 feet, and were wide enough at the top for two carriages to pass side-by-side. And within the city was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a "not-to-be-missed-marvel", the Hanging Gardens of King Nebuchadnezzar, built, it was said, for his queen. Perhaps better termed the "overhanging" gardens, for their lofty-reaching branches and vines. No one really has a precise idea of what they looked like, for they were long gone, as the city was, by the time of Christ. Nonetheless, many have imagined the garden towers reaching to heaven, and spilling over with lushness, suffused with ingenious irrigated moistness in the midst of the desert, a cross between greenhouse and penthouse. And yet for all their splendors and beauty, beyond them and with a notoriety that lingered long after them, was a corrupt-- and then a fallen-- kingdom. The ziggurats of Babylon arched high, but the sins of Babylon were piled higher.

The Israelites were conquered and were carried off as slaves to Babylon in the 6th century before the time of Jesus. "By the rivers of Babylon", says Psalm 137, "we lay down and wept when we remembered Zion." How could they sing the Lord's song in a strange and an alien land? Yet the exiled people remembered the home where they worshipped the one true God, they sang, they wrote the words that became Scripture.

Within two generations after the Exile the Babylonians had themselves fallen to the Persians. But the memory of that captivity in Babylon persisted down to John's day. John himself was an exile on the island of Patmos, on account of his preaching the Gospel, and now spending his days far from his roots in Jerusalem. In John's vision, Babylon, though physically in ruins 700 years after its fabulous peak, would in some (allegoric?) form rise again with its riches and its dominance of the world.

Would it rise again as the expression of a 21st century dictator who fancied himself as Nebuchadnezzar II? Saddam Hussein developed plans to restore Babylon to a new glory, to suit his own empire-forming agenda. Presumably Saddam's dream will never be realized, but the hold that wondrous Babylon has exerted and will continue to exert on human imagination means that dreams of human-built temples and mega-cities remain to be pursued again by egos yet unborn. The Fertile Crescent in which Babylon rose was the cradle of human-kind's first civilization. We as humans naturally seek out our roots. We will inevitably seek them in Babylon again. But if our constructed towers, like Babel, are built only through physical striving and with worldly wealth, they will fall again, and fall hard, and remain as relics of a lost city.

Global crises of this Third Millennia have brought humankind to another hinge-point of history. We are not today who we were 8 years, or 8 months, or 8 weeks, or even 8 days ago. Where we shall go from here is in God's hands, if we will trust Him and not false gods. Else our descent to ruin shall be our legacy for those who follow us.

Probable Hanging Gardens Site today

Lord, help us to know that you alone are the source of richness in life.
May we long for the fruit that flowers in your gardens alone.
May we see the splendor that is reached only by walking through your gates.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Revelation 17:1-18

I am re-reading a book I have really enjoyed – “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat” – by John Ortberg. One of the points he makes in the book is how Jesus is the Lord of the Gift. He gives each of us special gifts to be used to further His Kingdom. The book talks about Jesus’ parable of the wealthy lord who gave three of his servants incredible amounts of money to invest while the lord was away. Two of the servants did as he told them and, when he finally returned, the lord had made a great profit, which he shared with the two servants who did as they were told. The third servant buried his money and only returned what he had been given. This angered the lord and the servant was harshly dealt with.

The servant who buried the money played it safe. Fear caused him to bury the gift. John Ortberg calls this the “Tragedy of the Unopened Gift”. The Bible is full of stories of people who risked so much and used their God-given gifts and were rewarded abundantly - Abraham, Noah, Moses, Ruth, Jacob, Mary (Jesus’ mother), Mary (Martha’s sister) and on and on.

In today’s reading, we are told the continuing story of what some call the Rapture. I believe today’s reading exposes several gifts from God to us. First, we have the gift of the Book of Revelation. He is giving us ample warning in great detail so that we will have time to get on the right side of this battle. Second, he gives us the gift of choice. We can choose to be on the right side, with Jesus. Third, he gives us our special gift to use while we are here on earth. By opening this gift and using it, we are moving to the right side of the battle.

But, in living in fear, and not opening the gift that God has given you, you are choosing to be on the wrong side of the battle described in today’s reading. And that side goes directly to Hell.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Revelation 16: 12-21

Today’s passage continues a section in the book of Revelation that speaks of judgment.

As we’ve come to expect, the images we find there—things like the drying up of water, the plague of frogs, peals of lightning and thunder coupled with the shaking of the very foundations of the earth, and the coming of massive hail—all call up numerous stories from the Old Testaments. And the stories in turn call to mind God’s decisive action on behalf of His people. God would have His people be free, and so stands against all that would keep them from such freedom.

In the midst of all this, we hear a voice, and it is speaking directly to us: “See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, the voice says, “not going about naked and exposed to shame.” We recognize the voice, of course. It is the voice of Jesus.

God would have his people be free. He does stand against all that would keep us in bondage. His judgments against such powers are fierce. But what if we give up our freedom ourselves? What if we “fall asleep”, losing consciousness of what God is doing in the world and what He wishes to do through us? What then?

Blessed is the one who stays awake. Blessed is the person who is well aware that he or she is free to say “NO!” to the powers of this world, and deliberately, intentionally, follows Jesus.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Revelation 16:1-11

In today’s reading we begin the bowl judgments. You might ask what are the bowl judgments? Didn’t we discuss judgments earlier in Revelation? What were those judgments? All good questions.

The bowl judgments are God’s final and complete judgments on the earth. The earlier judgments in Revelation are called the trumpet judgments. To me, there are three main distinctions between the bowl judgments and the trumpet judgments.

(1) The bowl judgments are complete and final. The trumpet judgments only affected a part of the earth and heavens.
(2) Because of (1), the trumpet judgments still give unbelievers the opportunity to repent. The bowl judgments do not – that is what is meant by a final judgment.
(3) The trumpet judgments indirectly affects mankind. All of the bowl judgments directly affect mankind.

In today’s reading we know the people receiving these bowl judgments know they are coming from God. We know this because in the reading mankind curses God for sending these judgments upon the earth. Now this is very important as I think this is the key, or at least one key, message in today’s reading.

I know each of us has met people that have a very hard heart towards Christianity and perhaps religion in general. Some of these people may even be hostile towards the subject. When the trumpet judgments come, and God’s power is revealed, I am amazed that all people do not repent. I mean what other proof does one need? However, from the reading today we know some will refuse to repent – some will have such a hardened heart that they will not repent. The message is, if you, or I, find ourselves ignoring God on a particular issue, we should turn back to Him now before our heart becomes too hard to repent. If we ignore God for an extended period of time, today’s reading tells us that at some point a human heart will become unable to receive His word and then it will be too late to turn back to Him.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Revelation 14:14 - 15:8

This passage of Revelation calls to mind 2 images. The first is the parable of the Wheat and the Tares which is told in Matthew 13:24 – 30. Where the farmer has weeds and wheat but has to let them grow together because he cannot differentiate between them until harvest time. At the time of harvest he reaps the good and the bad is thrown into the fire. This sounds very much like the judgment story told in Revelation. The second image that I’m reminded of is when we read about the wine press in the vineyard, Jesus called himself the true vine in John 15: 1-8. This really shows that Revelation is the culmination of the judgment that Jesus told us would come and it would come just as He said. The question is, where do we fit? Are we the wheat? Or a weed? Do we live our lives faithfully as members of the kingdom even though all around us we are pulled in other directions by the weeds? Do we succumb to the pressures of living in the world or do we stay strong in the face of temptation? Are we the grapes that have ripened on the vine that IS Jesus Christ? Or not? When Jesus comes to reap what he has sown and comes with the sickle, where will we be? Our hope is in Christ as our vine and as the farmer who cares for us and loves us and cultivates us and helps us grow. We just need to stay focused on him, and not be suffocated by the weeds growing all around us.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Revelation 14: 1-13

While some of the details of these verses are perhaps a bit puzzling, the overall message is not. Today’s passage compares and contrasts two very different groups of people: those who worship the lamb, and those who worship the beast.

And it’s particularly interesting (to me, at least!) that the comparison concludes with this line: “…for their deeds will follow them.”

It seems to me Christians use the word “worship” in two different ways. When we talk about Christians worshiping God, we think of something people do in church, singing songs and generally proclaiming God’s praise. But when we talk about people worshipping, say, money, it seems to me we mean something very different.

We are not saying that the person who worships money sings songs to dollar bills. He doesn’t kneel before his money and say, “Money you are so great! You are worthy, money, worthy of glory and honor and power!” He doesn’t have a special altar set up to his money or a separate time of day that he devotes strictly to telling money how great it is.

No, what we are saying is that the person who worship money orients his everyday life to money’s service.

And though it seems to me that worship in the traditional sense of the word is important, it also seems to me that unless we orient the whole of our lives towards God’s service (if we do not “follow the lamb wherever he goes”), then we are guilty of a double standard.

Because the truth is this: If we are not orienting our lives towards God’s service, then we are not really worshipping God at all.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Revelation 13: 1-10

In this continuation of yesterday’s Scripture, the dragon who had waged war against believers now gives his power to a beast. Verse 3 says that the whole world was astonished at the beast and followed the beast, as well as worshipping the dragon.

I wonder why we as humans want to worship something, be it the right or wrong thing. And , we tend to worship as a group; in this case the whole world worships what holds power and authority. Humans follow the crowd. I just read a book that really made me think that I tend to go along with the norms of society, even though the earth is not my permanent home.

Eventually, the beast blasphemed God and made war against the saints. What a reminder that this world is just our temporary home. For me that’s what I am reminded of as I read this sad passage; the earth will go through hard times but remember, it is not our real home. The writer of Revelation reminds us, we will be in the minority, but to patiently endure and to have faith.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Revelation 12: 7-17

Whatever you make of these verses, this much is clear: evil is real. Because evil is real, a fierce battle between good and evil is also very real. And finally: we find ourselves in the midst of it.

Evil is depicted in these verses as a great dragon. In the first verses of chapter 12, the dragon tries to kill a newborn baby—and fails! (many scholars see the Christmas story told from a cosmic perspective, a view I find quite compelling).

Undeterred, the dragon fights on. It pursues the woman who has just given birth; worn out, weak, and weary, she seems unable to fight or even protect herself. And yet…she bests the dragon too!

What’s this? A fierce dragon on the magnitude of Godzilla can’t beat a newborn infant or a woman weakened and worn out by child birth? Could it be the dragon is not as powerful, not as fierce, not as dominant as he first seemed?

The child is safe. The woman is safe. What will it try next?

We don’t have to wait long. The dragon, angrier than ever, now wages war with the “rest of the woman’s children”, who turn out to be the faithful people of God, who turn out to be you and me. This is the war in which we find ourselves, which characterizes so much of our life in this world.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it gets discouraging. Sometimes it looks like evil is so powerful, so prevalent, so pervasive… how will we ever defeat it?

And yet…

Not that I want to give the ending away, but here is the big question: Is there any reason to think the dragon will be any more successful in his campaign against us than it has been with the woman or the child?

The point: Take heart. Trust God. In the fight against the dragon and his forces—a battle that sometimes fiercely waged and extracts a great price—persevere.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Revelation 12:1-6

Today's reading is just six verses. I think this is the shortest reading I have had during my time writing Wednesday devotions. However, these six verses amplify the reality of spiritual warfare to me.

Let me begin by offering my thoughts on the symbolism in these verses. First, who or what is the woman symbolizing? Some say it is the Virgin Mary - which seems obvious on a first reading. However, I am in the camp of another school of thought which describes the woman as the faithful people of God. The twelve stars on her head represent the twelve tribes of Israel - the human Jesus was born in, and out of, Israel.

Second, the red, seven headed, ten horned dragon symbolizes Satan. The dragon's tail knocking one-third of the stars from the sky symbolizes the angles that fell with Satan and became his demons. Remember when Satan was expelled from Heaven he took his followers, one-third of the angles, with him.

Third, the baby symbolizes Jesus Christ who, after his time on earth, was taken to Heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

Now let's get the message of these verses. When Jesus was born in the small town of Bethlehem, it was not big, global news. Sure three wise men came because they knew Jesus was the Messiah, but that was about it. However, today's reading tells us that this relative non-event on earthly terms had, and has, tremendous spiritual significance. From the time of Jesus' birth, Satan has been trying to destroy him because he knew the ultimate outcome if Jesus succeeded is his defeat. A few examples include, Satan influencing King Herod to attempt to kill the infant Jesus. Satan tempting Jesus with immediate riches and power. Satan doing everything he could to convince Jesus not to be the sacrificial lamb for all the sins of mankind.

None of Satan's tricks worked and Jesus successfully completed his mission as a human being. And as a result, as today's verses tell us, the child was "snatched up to God and to his throne" before he could be devoured by the dragon.

These verses are just the opening act in the story that unfolds through Revelation 14:20. I cannot wait to see how it turns out. It opens great for our side!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Revelation 11:14-19

The book of Revelation is filled with exciting images, fearful predictions of the punishment of those who are not faithful, and ultimately a wonderful picture of what eternal life with God will be like. In this passage, God’s reign is established on earth. It is no longer something that is going to happen sometime way out in the future, it is established now. In verse 15 we read “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” And in verse 19 we read that the temple of God was opened and the Ark of the Covenant seen. This is the same Ark that was in King Solomon’s temple, that the Israelites carried around with them when they went to war. This is the Ark that carried the presence of God on earth. No one dared opened it – you may remember this from the Indiana Jones movie – or terrible things happened.

What’s interesting to me is that we are only finished with the second “woe” – there are still many more “woes” to come for those who are not faithful to God. This isn’t even the half way point and yet the kingdom of God is established in the midst of these woes on earth. I find that to be comforting. I never find it helpful to attempt to analyze Revelation to try to predict the end of time and Jesus’ return. I’m afraid I might find myself standing on a mountaintop somewhere shouting “I’m Ready!”. So I just live in the present. And while I don’t analyze the goings on around the world and I don’t know if anything we are seeing is a “woe” as described in Revelation, I do know that there are a lot of things that are woe-full happening – wars, injustice, people starving, children abused… all horrible, woe-full things. It is a comfort to me to think of the Kingdom of God being established in the midst of that and that the presence of God might be able to be seen. The end of time will happen at some point, now I’m hopeful that we can find the kingdom of God all around us, if we just stay faithful and look for it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Revelation 9:13-21

I don't spend a lot of time on the apocalyptic stories in the Bible. I am much more concerned about what I will do this day to further the kingdom on earth. In fact, my attitude has been more of not worrying about what happens and instead living the life I am meant to live during my brief time on earth.

But, maybe I'm missing a big part of the story. God does not waste a lesson learned. Every action, every story, every seed planted in the Bible has a specific reason for existing, and all of it is meant to make His purpose known to us, or if not known, at least give us direction toward that end. So, how much of Revelation am I meant to understand and how can I use these verses, including today's reading, in my everyday life?

As pointed out by the other devotional writers of this week, repentance is a big part of Revelations. Certainly this book, more than perhaps any other, paints a compelling picture of why we should repent. If we don't or can't repent for repentance sake, then surely we will if we are faced with the demons painted in this book. Every chapter is full of gruesome explanations of horrible things that happen for those who fail to repent. So one of the most important lessons of this Book is to repent.

But the Book of Revelation is also a book of hope. There is no question about what happens to the faithful - they reach their ultimate home with God. Revelation further establishes God's power over everything evil and His absolute ability to protect and shield his believers from those things. He promises that there will be no more darkness for those believers - only the perpetual light of God.

Now that is something worth striving for.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Revelation 9:1-12

As we continue our reading of the book of Revelation today, let me remind you again that this is apocalyptic literature where numbers and symbols and dramatic events all have a larger meaning. You will remember we also said that the rest of the Bible gives us the means to decipher the “code” and understand what John is saying. In addition to these two principles, we also we need to remember the context in which John was writing (more on that in a moment).

Today’s verses are part of the graphic depiction of God’s response to the prayers of his saints that was pictured for us in chapter 8: 1-5. As we have already noted, the trumpet plagues which continue here recall the Exodus plagues. Those plagues were not for the purpose of punishment, but penitence. They were not designed simply to make Pharaoh suffer, but to change his mind.

A locust army also recalls the first two chapters of Joel. Interestingly enough, those chapters sound a call to repentance as well.

When these verses were written, the church was being persecuted by Rome much like their ancestors were persecuted in Egypt. The meaning of these verses, therefore, is clear: God once again calls for the people of the earth to repent.

But when they don’t—when they square off with God, in bold opposition to Him (notice the locusts only attack those who do not bear the seal of God upon their foreheads), the result is terrible (with the word “terror” very much in focus). The day will come where the people of the earth who are hostile to God and his purposes will face the consequences of their actions even as Pharaoh did before them.

What is the message for us?

One is certainly the power and importance of prayer. Are we praying for the world? For the church? For the people around us?

But second, I think, is this graphic picture of a life lived at odds with God and his ways. It is not a pretty picture.

Is God speaking to us about areas of our life where we need to repent? If so, we would do well to listen, to bring our life into line with His life so that we bear the seal of God upon our forehead (an image of life lived in harmony with God’s ways; our thoughts in harmony with His thoughts). It is infinitely preferable to the sting of locusts!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Revelation 8:1-13

To me, Revelation is a hard book to fully understand. Let me try to summarize today’s reading.

When the seventh seal on God’s judgment scroll is finally broken, the final time of the Tribulation unfolds. The first four plagues are introduced by angels blowing trumpets. These first four plagues will destroy one third of the earth, sea, rivers, and heavenly bodies.

Okay this sounds pretty bad. Have you ever heard on the news, or on some other media, a reporter describing the effect of a natural disaster – a flood, tornado, hurricane, or earthquake? Often times the report might say the devastation is on “biblical proportions”. Now I have no doubt that these disasters are terrible and create a lot of human suffering, but if these disasters are of biblical proportion, how do you think the media will report the plagues described in today’s reading? I do not think that when these plagues attack our world there will be any doubt that they are of biblical proportions.

When we move into the time of the Great Tribulation, this will signal the transition from the long period of human history into a time of judgment. In today's reading we see the first four plagues devastate nature. This is a warning to mankind to repent of his sins. So when these plagues strike why doesn't mankind repent? I know I would. It has always been a mystery to me how stubborn some can be. Remember the plagues that struck Egypt in the days of Moses? Why did it take ten of them before Pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go?

The good news to this story is that the Tribulation will end with salvation and victory for the people of God. Hallelujah!!!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Revelation 7:9-17

Wow. This is one of the passages in the New Testament that is the foundation of our Christian hope. With so much that seems to continue to go wrong in the world today, the economy, the stock market, people losing jobs, losing their homes, people continuing to die from preventable diseases, it would be easy to forget the One upon whom our hope is founded and what our hope looks like. It’s also easy to think that our hope really lies with our next President who we will be electing in a couple of weeks. But our hope is not founded on John McCain or Barack Obama. Our hope is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and the hope He has promised us not only for the future, but also now in our every day lives.

So, what is our hope? Our hope is that in spite of what is happening in the world around us, we know that we are loved and cherished by God and our evidence is that He sent his Son into the world for us -so that we might be saved. Our hope is that through all the struggles of this world, through all the disappointments, through all the tears, there is unspeakable joy to be found through our relationship with Christ. Our hope is in the knowing that one day we will stand before the throne of God, with all of the faithful all together, without strife, without discord where all tears will be wiped from our eyes and all sorrows dispelled and we will together praise our God. Our challenge is for us to live into that hope today – to know that we can do that in our lives now, and we don’t have to wait until we are gone from this world to stand before God and praise Him. We can do that each day in our homes, and each week in worship at St. Matthews. Join me in praising God for the hope we have found in Christ Jesus.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Revelation 7:1-8

There is an old saying about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. That’s sort of what I feel like here.

We’ve been writing about the book of Acts since July (!). Now the book of Acts is a great book, and I’ve thoroughly it. But it does present something of a challenge when writing about it devotionally. You have to think about the stories and discern the principles behind them and how those principles still apply today. That’s not quite as straight forward as, say, the pastoral advice of Paul, which (for the most part) is relatively simple to relate to today.

All this is to say that as much as I’ve enjoyed the book of Acts, I’ve been ready to do something a little different—ready, if you will, for something a little easier to write about…

Well, this week I got my wish. Or, at least the first half of my wish. We are starting a new book. Revelation!

But as to getting something a little easier to write about… well, I’m not so sure that is the case. Does the Bible get any weirder than this?

Actually, this isn’t that weird. If you understand something about the type of literature this is (yep, I’m talking about that again!) this text is actually pretty straightforward. The book of Revelation (singular, not plural!) is called “apocalyptic” literature; that is, it’s rich in imagery and numbers and grand cosmic events that make a sort of coded language with which to speak about what God is doing. The key to understanding these symbolic references is to have read enough of the Bible to catch the allusions to other passages in Scripture (like the locust plague here that recalls one of the 10 plagues of Egypt) that will unlock the code for us.

Take today’s passage, for instance. It speaks of the 144, 000 who were “sealed”. Are we to infer from that that only 144,00 people will be saved, and not a single person more or a single person less? That when we reach 144,000, a “no vacancy” sign will be posted on the doors of heaven and no one else will be allowed in?

That hardly makes sense, does it?

But if we realize that in keeping with the type of literature we are reading the number 12 is actually symbolic (as opposed to literal), the meaning becomes quite clear.

We’ve seen the number 12 over and over again in the Bible, haven’t we? And it is always associated with God’s ability to carry out his redemptive purposes for mankind. 144,000 is 12 squared, a way of dramatically emphasizing the meaning of this number. 144,000, therefore, refers to God’s perfect ability to save. Nothing will prevent him from accomplishing his purposes, and we can therefore trust him completely.

For the people first reading these words, that was a great comfort. The power of Rome seemed to threaten the power of God as Christians were persecuted and brutally killed. This passage reassured them that God would indeed win the day, and that they could count on Him.

Sometimes I get discouraged about my salvation. Can God really save me? I have so many faults and failings, so many struggles in which I fall short of what I know God asks of me. But the hope of my salvation does not rest in me; it rests in God. Like Christians before me, I take great comfort in that.

And you can too.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Acts 28:1-16

Today’s reading takes up the amazing story of the shipwrecked travelers. Paul is being taken to Rome. God had given Paul a message and once again Paul had delivered the message; that not one hair on anyone’s head would be lost. (Acts 27:34). As God promised, the company all arrived safely on the island of Malta (soggy and terrified, but they got there).

When first reading this story it seems like a wild adventure story, and it is; storms, shipwreck, prisoners swimming to shore in the rain after the guards deciding not to kill them to prevent their escape, meeting the natives of the island. It sounds like a big budget adventure movie.

As I consider it, however, also amazing is Paul’s relationship with God. Paul gets bitten by a poisonous snake but God allows him to live. Paul heals the father of the chief official of the island. Paul heals all the rest of the sick people on the island. Paul is filled with the power of God and is used by God as healer and prophet. All these things that are public gifts are the result of Paul’s private relationship with God. I like thinking about this. I wonder what Paul said when he talked to the Lord. From our reading together these months in the book of Acts, we know Paul said “thank you” a lot. We know that Paul said that all the good things in his life, all his accomplishments, were nothing compared to knowing Christ. Paul wanted to be used by God so much that late in life he said his life had been “poured out like a drink offering “ to God. Do we pour out our lives?

In the later afternoon today I sat outside for a minute. I noticed that as birds landed on my porch to get peanuts the late afternoon sun caught their feathers and the birds shown briefly like different colored jewels. To me looking at Paul’s relationship with God is like looking at a jewel.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Acts 27:27-44

Within days of going away to college, I joined with a group of guys I had only just met to steal a very large moose head mounted in the student lounge. That is a simple historical fact. But what is perhaps even more interesting is the story behind it (which I conveniently don’t have the space to tell.)

Similarly, the book of Acts takes historical facts and places them in the context of one of the most compelling stories ever told, replete with engaging drama that keeps us on the edge of our seats, reading eagerly on to see what happens next…

As the story continues in today’s passage, it is dark at night with everyone adrift on the ocean when they realize they are nearing land. The possibility is very real that they will strike rocks and all will be lost. Realizing the immediate danger, the sailors seek to desert the ship, leaving Paul and the prisoners to perish. It doesn’t look good…

Paul, however, is able to persuade the men to stay on board, and to actually encourage them so they are ready to meet the demands of landing the ship in the day ahead. Day breaks and they spy land, not familiar land, but good land, land with the calm waters of a bay and the sure landing of a beach. Things are looking up…

We root for our heroes to make it shore… but no, they hit a hidden reef and the ship catches there. The waves pound the ship, and it begins to break up. Paul is in big trouble now!

It gets worse. The guards, wishing to do their duty and ensure that no prisoners escape, plan to kill them all—Paul included. Is this the end?

No. The centurion intervenes. Once again Paul seems to cheat death. People jump over board and begin swimming to shore. Those who can’t swim grab planks splintered off from the sinking ship…

And today, at least, everybody lives! The assurance God gave Paul that all will be well (my paraphrase) for that day, at least, turns out to be well founded. Everybody lives!

We, of course, do not simply see fate at work here. We see the hand of God.

And I, at least, am encouraged. Life takes lots of twists and turns, some good and some seemingly not. Some are expected and some catch us totally unaware. Sometimes it looks like we’ve come to the end only to find a new way ahead.

But in all these things, God is near at hand, accomplishing His plans and purposes which are unable to be thwarted by whatever adversity arises. That, friends, is very good news, rooted in a story that is part of a much larger story that is still going on today. And very much like the story we read here, it too has a happy end!