Friday, May 29, 2009

Hebrews 8:1-13

In today's passage, Paul is trying to convince the Jews of his day that they are allowed to put the old laws away and look to the new covenant made by God through Jesus Christ. The old covenant was a promise that the Jews would be the chosen people of God and they would live in the promised land. The new covenant is so much better - I will give you eternal life and forgiveness. This covenant is available to everyone who believes.

These verses go farther in explaining this new covenant. Paul explains that God no longer wants to issue laws for mankind (who are sinners by nature) to follow. That did not work the first time. Instead, God wants a relationship with each and everyone of us. "No longer will a man teach his neighbor or a man his brother saying 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest."

Paul's point is that this relationship is so much better than the temple hierarchy required by the old laws. He says that the gifts and ministry that Jesus brings is far superior to anything an earthly priest could offer. Even the sanctuary that Moses built (the tent-shrine and the ark of the covenant described in Exodus) was based on his humanly glimpses of God on the mountain and couldn't hold a candle to the heavenly tabernacle awaiting us all.

My favorite verse from this passage comes from The Message and talks about how God describes this new covenant: "This time, I'm writing the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts. I'll be their God and they'll be my people." This is the very essence of God's message to us - always being with us and in our hearts.

I hope today's reading brings you the light of God's promise in your heart.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hebrews 7: 18-28

The book of Hebrews is a book about Jesus. It’s a book that wants us both to understand and appreciate the magnitude of the work God has done for us in Christ. Through careful argument built upon an in depth look at how God has acted on humanity’s behalf down through the ages, it seeks to convince us of the greatness of Christ and so that we might be fully devoted to him.

This passage is a good example of such an argument. It is part of an ongoing and exceptionally thorough analysis of priesthood, what it is and what it does and why it is important.

To understand the significance of the priesthood we have to start with God, and with a God who loves people so much He never wants to lose touch with them. He never wants to be disconnected from them, to be separated from them by a broken relationship.

Unfortunately, we all find ourselves separated from God. Such separation is painful for us. But it is important to remember it is also painful for God, and so He made a way for our relationship with him to be restored, healed, and made whole once again.

In the Old Testament, this way was through the ministry of the priesthood. Priests stood between people and God for the purpose of reconciling wayward people to the God who longs for their return.

Still, there were problems. Priests died, for instance. Their ministry was only a temporary one. Priests were (and still are) also subject to weakness that caused them to behave in ways counter to the character of the God they were called to represent.

So God, longing for His people, stepped in and offered a better way—the perfect and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, our connection with God is completely assured; he is the guarantee of our relationship to Him; he is our best hope for the reality of the life we long for.

Today people around us may not be tempted to put their trust in ancient priests, but they still trust in things that are temporary, impotent to deliver upon their promise, and imperfect. Even good, upstanding, devout Christians find themselves tempted to put their hope in something other than Christ, and so falter in their devotion to him.

Don’t do it, Hebrews say. Don’t shrink back. Stand firm. Only Christ is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

So-- where is our hope? What exactly are we hoping for, right here, right now? To know Christ better? To serve him more faithfully? Anything else, argues Hebrews, is settling for second best.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hebrews 7:1-17

Humor me just for a second. In your mind, silently, list some of the important people from the Old Testament.

Thank you for doing that. How many of you had Melchizedek on your list? I may be way off base but I would bet very few of us had him on our lists. I know I did not have him on mine. Who is Melchizedek?

Melchizedek appears once in Genesis 14 and is referred to in Psalm 110 and that is it. This is hardly top billing is it? However, as today's reading corroborates, Melchizedek is paramount to an important truth: the priesthood of Jesus Christ is superior to that of Aaron because the order of Melchizedek is superior to the order of Levi.

Why is this? Well let's remember that the letter of Hebrews was written to the Jewish nation, and at the time it was written the Jewish nation was accustomed to the priesthood of the tribe of Levi. Remember, from Exodus, that the tribe of Levi was chosen by God to serve in the tabernacle and Aaron was the first high priest. The priests from the tribe of Levi had been serving for many centuries when Hebrews was written, but now Paul is proclaiming in his letter, and backing-up his proclamation with evidence (which is listed in today's reading), that their priesthood has ended and replaced by the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

In today's reading, once again, Paul makes the argument that in Jesus, God has provided struggling sinners better access to him than the Old Testament believers ever had. Instead of going through a priest to access God, Jesus Christ is a priest who gives us constant access to God. Instead of animal sacrifices to remove past sin, Jesus Christ has freed us from all our sins, past, present, and future. Instead of a system that was insufficient to save us, Jesus is a Savior that has guaranteed our salvation. What an awesome God!!!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Got (>) Milk?

I’ve been a parent since 1982 and I have one teenager still at home. I've seen the pattern repeat, more or less the same: They nurse at their mother’s breast, they wean, they learn to eat vegetables, they end up teaching us about eating healthy/organic/vegan (true example: my daughter gave me the book, "The World's 150 Healthiest Foods"). They start out crawling, they learn to walk, ride a bike, drive a car. They begin in diapers, they toilet train. They go to preschool, kindergarten, primary, secondary, college, graduate schools—hopefully moved on and out of the house as self-supporting adults. But what if they don’t?
Just as there is a natural maturing process for how we deal with food as well as with many other parts of life, so there is a progression in the Faith. We begin with mother’s milk, but we certainly don’t end there. We are intended for maturity. If I were to go no farther, I might be viewed as a two-hundred pound oaf still trying to squeeze into a high chair. The image is incongruous—intentionally so. The message is—GROW UP ALREADY.
God wants to be like the empty-nesters we (eventually) will be, not the parent who is still doing the thirty-something’s laundry. Still involved in our lives, still loving us unconditionally, but also watching us stepping out faithfully in fulfillment of a loving parent’s hopes and dreams.
Milk may do a body good--but it can't stop there.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Heb. 4:15-5:6

Isn’t it wonderful to meet someone who knows EXACTLY what you are thinking or feeling? Maybe they know the places you loved as a child. Maybe they too worry about an aging parent and it feels so comforting to share fellowship, either in the church parish hall or even long distance over the phone.

As in Wednesday’s reading, this passage deals with prayer. Here the author of Hebrews is saying, when we kneel in prayer we can know that Christ knows EXACTLY how we are feeling, whether the heaviness of discouragement or the relief that we are safe. We can approach God with the confidence that He knows how we feel. We can find mercy.

Next the passage mentions our human leaders. The best leaders “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, “ since these human leaders know their own weaknesses. All week this passage has run through my mind; “deal gently. Deal gently.” All of us at some time find ourselves in the place of leadership in that others depend on us. Deal gently. Leaders know to deal gently since they are reminded of their own failings, and in remembering they are to have mercy for others.

What struck me, then, was the gift of mercy. We receive it from Christ since He can identify with our temptations. We give mercy to others, since we know our own failings. Today may we thank God for His mercy to us, and pass it on to those who need us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

James 5:13-18

This passage in the Bible, although short, is extremely insightful to me regarding the power of prayer. It helps me to reflect on this passage often as I sometimes forget how powerful and wonderful prayer is.

The passage begins by reminding us to pray in times of trouble and in times of happiness. All of us experience both of these times during our lives. When we are in trouble we sometimes might think God is uncaring or unable to help so we might pray less. This passage reminds us that God is just the opposite and we should pray for His help. When we are in a time of happiness we might get complacent and pray to God less often. Again the passage today reminds us that we should pray just as often to God and thank Him for the happiness we feel and the things that make us feel happy. I certainly have had these feelings in my life; this passage helps me to remember to pray as I hope it helps to remind you to pray too.

The passage continues by telling us that when we are sick we should ask the people of the church to pray for us. The verse reminds us that as members of a church we are not alone - we are all members of the body of Christ. As such we should be able to count on others to offer prayers for us, especially when we are sick or suffering. I know I can find it embarrassing to ask someone else to pray for me. I guess I am embarrassed to admit that I am suffering. If you have that feeling too, we need to get over it and ask fellow Christians to pray for us. The faith of the person praying for us is very powerful indeed.

One of a Christian's most powerful resources is communion with God through prayer. Thus please remember to pray often for your own needs and the needs of others.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

James 1:16-27

Verse 19 and 20 of today's reading strikes me... "You must understand this, my beloved:* let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. " This verse speaks to me because so often I find myself jumping to conclusions... assuming what another is doing or assuming why. This destructive behavior is something so many of us in the DC area are guilty of. We are highly organized, highly productive people who have mastered the art of multi-tasking. When others do things that are disappointing to us, it's easy to jump to a conclusion as to why that person acted in that way. We seldom take the time to listen and understand.

Listening is the biggest part of this. I noticed on a recent vacation that throughout the resort area where we were staying there was always music playing or videos or something that was playing on the airways. There wasn't any time for silence. In a world where so many aspects of our lives are filled with stimuli of some sort, it's difficult to take the time to listen and understand one another - it's easier to just assume we know what's going on and why and allow ourselves to get angry rather than to really take the time to understand the other.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Romans 14:13-23

It always amazes me how relevant the Bible is even though its stories take place so long ago. Today’s reading especially hits home to me, particularly the version in The Message Bible.

A little history here may help. This is Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the early days of the new church, Paul had to convince the new Christians that were Jewish and the new Christians that were not Jewish to get along. Using Jesus’ teachings of love for all, he had to erase centuries of in-bred teachings that these two groups were never to commune together. One of the areas where these two groups differed dramatically is in what they ate. The Jews had many rules and laws over what they ate and when they ate it. The non-Jews thought this was down right weird.

The words used by Paul are just as true today. “Forget about deciding what’s right for each other.” I find myself so often being the judge for others. I don’t mean to. But, time and time again, I’m with a group of folks and the talk turns to how others are behaving, or what was wrong with someone else’s kids, or did I see or hear what happened to so-and-so. I innocently go with the flow of the conversation. But it’s not so innocent, is it?

As Paul explains to the Romans, Jesus says that “everything as it is in itself is holy.” We are the ones who contaminate it by how we treat it or talk about it. Wow. It’s hard for me to realize that I could have such a damaging effect on something or someone. But, if you have ever been the object of someone else’s “contamination”, you know the hurt that it can bring. And even if just one comment in itself isn’t damaging, when you look at all those comments over time they have the effect of constant running water over stones.

Paul is full of instructions on what positive behaviors we need to incorporate into our lives – “Your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ.” “Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others.” “God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of what you put in your stomach. It’s what God does with your life as he sets it right, puts it together, and completes it with joy.”

So, I hope you will join me in reading and thinking about Paul’s words. Then, let’s all do our best to incorporate these lessons into our own daily lives.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Romans 14: 1-12

You gotta love the first line of today’s reading: Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. It is so wonderfully honest, acknowledging that we often have hidden agendas for what we do. You mean that somebody might welcome somebody into a group, not for the sake of treating them with dignity as a fellow human being, but so that we can argue with them and convince them we are right? Yep, apparently so.

Welcome, of course, is meant to be an act of love. But the suggestion here is that it can be turned into an act of violence; of manipulating a person into a place where we can “have at them.” And what is true of welcome can be equally true of other acts of love.

Prayer, for instance, can be used as a tool to spread gossip, or to subtly try and correct the people we are praying with, or to force people into our way of seeing things.

Bible study can become an exercise in self righteousness or pride or the deception that we are doing God’s will when we are doing no such thing. We might simply be considering the intellectual meaning of some words much like we’d study anything else rather than letting those words seep into our very bones and change our lives.

You mean people do that kind of thing? At church? Well, I know at least I do. Perhaps you do too.

These verses call for a humility that is so sadly lacking in the world and even in the church. We all stand before God. We will answer to Him. We all have business of our own we need to take care of without worrying about how bad somebody else is.

May we be willing to trade in our hidden agendas, which secretly serve our insecurities, for God’s agenda. As is befitting those who truly belong to the Lord, may our love for one another be honest, humble and forthright.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Romans 13:1-14

The middle of today's reading really spoke to me. I am not sure why this particular passage spoke to me, it is a common theme repeated in the Bible; perhaps it is Paul’s use of a debt analogy. The passage I am referring to is verses 8 and 9, "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not covet, and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: Love your neighbor as yourself."

There is a certain paradox in Paul's words. In order to get out of debt to the law, we have to get into debt to love. To me this is extremely liberating. Instead of being in debt to something to which we can never fully comply (perfectly keeping all of the laws of the Old Testament), we are free to focus on what we can do (love our neighbor as ourselves).

Why is loving others called a debt by Paul? Simple, we are permanently in debt to Christ for the love he poured out on us and the freedom he bought for us. The way Jesus asks us to repay this debt is to love others the way we love ourselves.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is a simple way to say take care of others with the same natural motivation that we care for ourselves. Each of us tries not to let ourselves go hungry. We each try to clothe ourselves. We try to make sure there is a roof over our head. We try to make sure we are not cheated or injured. This is the way we love ourselves and thus this is the way we are called to love our neighbor.

Finally Paul points out that with each day the time for our judgment is that much closer. What will be the final balance of our debt when that time comes?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Romans 12:1-21

I've always loved this passage. It reminds me of a friend of mine who died of lung cancer 3 1/2 years ago. She was a great lady from St. Louis. She was the kind of woman with a big heart and an even bigger personality. This passage was really her Mantra in life - to love everyone, to appreciate everyone's gifts and to try to be a friend to everyone. She also was very astute in recognizing when her attempts at kindness were either not received or being returned with anger and bitterness. She never let that swayed her. She held fast and was kind anyway.

While for some of us, kindness in the face of adversity isn't easy, for my friend, Nancy, it was. Not because she was a holier than thou kind of woman, she was anything but. It was easy for her to be kind and extend love to everyone because she really focused on the end of this passage - the last three verses say "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Nancy understood that the best revenge is really kindness and extending love to those who are the most difficult. She found satisfaction in heaping burning coals on their heads and leaving vengence to God. She trusted that God would handle everything, so we didn't have to - it was much better than getting all jetted up and angry at the injustices we sometimes face. Trust God to handle it, Nancy always said - after all God is God and He can handle it much better than we can.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

More 3:16 Resonances...

I suspect that Paul didn't have an electric guitar (a Fender Stratocaster, to be specific) in mind when he wrote these lines. But he knew, nonetheless, that music is among many other things a teaching medium. Those of us who were young in the 1970's learned in the school of classic rock (and what a rich vein of work that spans) and toward the end of the 70's there were Christian artists who could go toe to toe with their more secular instrumentalist brethren. Those artists were the forerunners of our 9:15 band (for which, thanks be to God!). First and foremost, the music expresses the heart of our worship, which at its purest and best is all about Jesus. That's what happens when the Word of Christ takes root in us and stays: we cast off all the junk, release all the worries, care about others beyond ourselves. And the psalms set to music, the hymns and spiritual songs, at their best, wrap themselves around that Word and teach and train us. These are the songs that we want to get stuck in our heads, and carry with us through the rest of Sunday and on through the week.

In Christ alone my hope is found. He is my light, my strength, my song.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Colossians 3:1-11

When my daughters were little we owned our share of frilly dresses and shiny shoes. I enjoyed seeing them dressed up, but when they would resist I admit that I sympathized with them. I don’t enjoy stiff clothing either. I still don’t. I wear a uniform to work (styled like pajamas, so much so that when I leave the house I have to double check that I have daytime wear on). When I get home I trade that for an even more comfortable uniform; often sweat pants, faded jeans or soft sweaters. My favorite clothing memory is of $5.98 Levi’s jeans, not formal wear.

In today’s reading Paul describes our life in terms of clothing. Good quality clothing feels good. The labels of my favorite brands denotes softness and comfort. Paul says to us here that we have a new uniform befitting our new life in Christ. As the Message puts it, the basic garment of our new uniform is love. I experience comfort when I wear certain clothes. Likewise when I put on the uniform of love others experience comfort because it is God’s image that I am putting on. Like we shed unsuitable garments Paul calls us to shed things like evil desires and greed. (Greed for example comes in many forms of selfish behavior).

Verse 2 tells us to set our hearts on what God wants. What is my heart set on today? May I see my day through God’s eyes and so bring comfort to those around me.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Colossians 1:24-2:7

One verse speaks loudly to me in today's reading.

"We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ." (1:28)

Christ's message if for everyone. Everywhere Paul and the other apostles went they brought the Good News to all who would listen. When Paul and his colleagues proclaimed the Gospel, their message had two parts. They warned that without Christ people are doomed to eternal separation from God (the admonishment). And, salvation is available through faith in Christ (the teaching)

Per the Great Commission, we are all called to spread the Word. Today's reading tells us we should tell others about Christ as Christ works in us. We should warn and teach others in a loving manner.

Do you know someone that needs to hear the Gospel message? What is preventing you from sharing it with that person? One of my favorite stories regarding this point is: if your friend was dying of cancer and you knew the cure, wouldn't you tell him/her? I submit that we would. Then if a friend of yours is setting themselves up for eternal separation from God (far worse than dying of cancer) and, of course, you know the cure (the Gospel message), why do you not tell him/her? I encourage us all to tell others so they may have a chance to find Christ. I know it is sometimes scary, but what do we have to be afraid of knowing that the Holy Spirit will be with us?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Colossians 1:15-23

Today's reading is really a devotional in and of itself. It gives us all a reminder of just exactly who God is. In our everyday lives, in our everyday minds, we might not take the time to recognize who God is.... sure, God is God, but who is that? We have the perfect revelation of God in Jesus, but we also tend to focus on Jesus the person - what he did on earth, what did he teach, whom did he heal or touch? How did he transform the world? We focus on Jesus, because that's the most we know of God. But every now and then we are reminded of who Jesus is -his Godliness.

Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, reminds them of who Jesus is. Take a moment to reflect on this passage:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or
rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to
present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

This is Jesus, God, whom we serve. Are you His servant? How will you serve Him today?

Friday, May 01, 2009

1 John 1-13

In reading today’s passage, I had to remind myself that John was the nice one. He was noted as being kind and most loved by Jesus. But, verses 10 and 11 make you wonder about that characterization. Even in the interpretation of these verses in “The Message” I found myself getting uncomfortable at what appeared to be a call to treat non-believers in what appeared to me to be an un-Christian way.

In reading various commentaries and studies about the 2nd letter of John, and about these verses particularly, I found other views which enabled me to retain my image of a loving John and squared with what I thought our commission of “loving our neighbor” really means.

Specifically, I was reading from commentaries written by American theologian Albert Barnes (1788-1870). He explains verse 9 (“Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God;”) as meaning that someone who has no knowledge of God. I have always thought of God being everywhere, and to me that includes places where He may not yet be welcomed. However, there are many people who have no knowledge of God, either because no one has told them about God or because they have chosen not to know God - and perhaps everywhere in between.

Barnes goes on to explain that John’s instruction to the “elect lady” (and what is widely meant to include all new Christians) in this letter was to guard their souls, which were so new in their belief and, therefore, vulnerable to evil attacks. John instructs them not to receive those who do not have God into their homes and don’t welcome anyone who does not bring the teachings of Christ. Barnes’ interpretation of John’s instructions is not to take any actions which would encourage the non-Christians’ lack of faith. Instead, be consistent and faithful in your own walk.

I’m not sure there is actually much difference between John’s audience of new Christians and the audience of today. Christianity is shrinking. There are many evil influences. Therefore, John’s instructions are just as relevant today – guard your soul, be consistent and faithful.