January 17, 2018- Changing God’s Mind?- Jonah 3:1-10, Ephesians 2:8-11

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Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.  Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.  Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 3:1-10 (NIV)

The story of Jonah – whether we take the entire story as literal fact or as an allegory intended to teach us about our purpose, and about God’s grace- is a hopeful story for us. It has a lesson for us about how God views our enemies, too.

Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. The first time God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah got sidetracked and decided to go the opposite way (Jonah 1-2) which didn’t end well for Jonah.  Jonah ended up in Nineveh the second time God asked him.  Sometimes God has to ask us a few times before we get the hint that we need to go where He leads us, even if we don’t particularly want to go there.  Jonah didn’t think the Ninevites deserved saving, but God had other plans for them.

Some people have brought up the question of whether or not God changes His mind. Given that we know three basic qualities of God- that He is omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (everywhere at the same time in all times and places), and omniscient (all knowing), it would be safe to say it is unlikely- though not impossible- that God changes His mind.

Sometimes, like wayward children, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the place where our heavenly Father intends for us to be.

Perhaps prayer and supplication and spiritual disciplines- especially the disciplines of confession and repentance, serve to bring us closer to God’s mind and heart?  After all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.”

Perhaps the message here is that God finds a way to get to his people, and to accomplish His purpose through them?

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-11 (NIV)

The apostle Paul teaches us that our life and our purpose are gifts of God. We are made by God for God.  So are the people that we don’t like so much. God wants our attitude to align with His attitude-which isn’t always such an easy prayer to pray.

How does this particular epiphany influence our attitude regarding the people around us, and our own place and purpose in God’s world?

January 16, 2018- Jesus Loves His Children- Luke 18:15-17, 1 Peter 5:7, Matthew 11:29-30

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People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:15-17

Innocence and trust are not valuable commodities in today’s culture. Being vulnerable is dangerous- because in this world, unguarded vulnerability will be rewarded with exploitation and broken trust.

Almost daily we hear of children being neglected and abused by the very people they should be able to trust.  Children themselves can be very cruel to other children, causing their bullied peers to close off and shut down. The world can be an unsafe place for a trusting soul or a tender, innocent one. We learn- far too early- to go on defense so we can avoid being hurt.

As children become adults we become jaded and cynical. We get rougher around the edges and thicker skinned in response to all the disappointments and stresses and heartaches we necessarily endure.

Some days we wake up and discover that the color and the wonder is gone from our lives. We don’t get excited about it being time for cartoons, or ecstatic that the weather is right to go out and run through the sprinkler. We get to the point where we are more worried about how crazy we would appear to the neighbors should we decide to run through the sprinkler. We stop seeing the beauty in the fire of the sunset, and we don’t stop to marvel at the majesty of a rainbow.  We’re more worried about the next mortgage payment or that the car is due for an oil change.  In the busyness of life we miss the real meaning of life- we miss celebrations, joy, wonder and delight.

Jesus wants us to respond in wonder and delight to His kingdom. He wants us to be open to wonder, and vulnerable to grace.  He wants us to be excited about flowers blooming and to revel in the smell of puppy breath.  He wants us to sing as though no one is listening, and dance like no one is watching.

Most importantly He calls us to love as though our hearts have never been broken.

Children haven’t learned to put conditions upon love- conditions like, “if you love me back,” or “if you stay thin,” or “if you don’t get sick.” Children love without motive or guile.  That’s the way Jesus wants us to love Him and to love one another- that all-encompassing, innocent child-like love that is a “just because” love.

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)

Surrendering our cynicism is a choice- it is one of those burdens we carry to which Jesus responds, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30 (NIV)

We are supposed to be responsible people. We can’t ignore the mortgage or vehicle maintenance or all those mundane tasks.  It is necessary to do things that aren’t always rewarding or fun or joyful.

However, we also can’t get to a place where our worry and busyness steal our joy.  We have to make the choice for joy.  We have to be open and vulnerable to the call of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus invites us to love, to dance, to sing and to open our hearts and minds and ears and eyes.

Are we willing to join Him?

January 11, 2018 Comfort and God’s Promise- Psalm 119:49-50, Matthew 6:34

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Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope. My comfort in my suffering is this:

Your promise preserves my life.  Psalm 119:49-50 (NIV)

Yesterday was one of those anniversaries that bring a great deal of sadness for me and my family. Every family has anniversaries like those. We remember the days when our worlds fell apart in the chaos and pain of tragic and unexpected loss. Everyone has those days that mark the points where life fell apart and from those points forward life is no longer the same.  We are reminded that life on this earth is not permanent and we are not guaranteed anything.

It is a comfort to know that doubt is part of faith. It is a comfort to know that God is big enough to handle our questions, our anger, our fear, and yes, even our doubts.

Those of us who are parents will remember when our children were toddlers, and they would rage against the boundaries- tantrums at bedtime, tantrums at bath time, tantrums when it’s time to get dressed. Toddlers are usually all about maintaining the status quo, with one curious exception- nobody looks forward to change more than a baby with a dirty diaper.

We get too comfortable in this world at times, but we shouldn’t be looking over our shoulder for bad things to happen. Jesus warns us about the worry wart attitude.

(Jesus said) :Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:34 (NIV)

So what do we do when our world crashes down around us? We can become cynical and angry.  We can wallow about in doubt. We can try to run away.  The prophet Elijah feared for his life, freaked out, and ran away when Jezebel threatened to kill him (1 Kings 19:1-18.)

Yet God stayed with Elijah. God sent His angel to give Elijah food, comfort and rest. God spoke to Elijah- when the storm died down.

Our difficult anniversary days can be hard to face, especially when we relive pain or sorrow or loss- or a combination of all three. God is with us when we freak out, when we run, when we scream in anger, and when the storm is raging on, even though we may not feel His presence then.  And when the storm is over He speaks to us with comfort and solace and peace.

God’s promise preserves our lives, no matter what this world may throw at us.

January 5, 2018 Epiphany- God Runs the Show- Micah 5:2, Matthew 2:1-4, 7-12, Luke 3:16

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“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2 (NIV)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born…

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. Matthew 2:1-4, 7-12 (NIV)

Few things drive people to drastic action more than threats to their authority and power. Herod, as we learn later in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2:13-18), had no desire to come and worship the King of Kings.  Herod attempted to eliminate who he perceived as a threat to his reign while He was still vulnerable and easily dispensed with.

How do we deal with perceived threats to our authority or to our egos? It’s human nature to get defensive.  Nobody wants to be upstaged by the new talent at work or one upped by someone younger or less experienced than we are.  Nobody wants their power taken away.  We all naturally defend what we believe to be ours.  Some of us go even further and just take anything we can take by force.

The struggle over authority is as old as time. Pride, the serpent’s temptation in the Garden, convinces us that we are worthy of a position that God never intended for us. Humans will do incredibly inhumane acts in the pursuit of power.

Did Herod realize that his authority wasn’t really his authority at all, but only what God allowed him to have?

One of the most liberating and refreshing epiphanies we can have (the word epiphany means “to shine light on, to reveal”) is to discover for ourselves that God is in control. God decides who plays what role at what time.  It is God who determines the course of His world.  We may not understand how and why- and we might not agree with who He works through and when He does things, but God is the director of this dance.

Herod’s will was for Jesus to die an infant, before He could teach and preach and heal and live as an example for this world. Instead, God made a way to preserve the infant Jesus and keep Him safe until Herod was no more. (Matthew 2:19-23)

The Magi had the right attitude toward the pursuit of wisdom and power and strength. Theirs was one of humility and wonder. They truly did want to worship and adore this great King.

John the Baptist had the right attitude toward the authority and power of Jesus.

“John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Luke 3:16 (NIV)

 

January 4, 2018- The Nazirite Vow and Dedication to God- Numbers 6:1-8, Galatians 5:16-25

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The Lord said to Moses,  “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins.

 “‘During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long.

 “‘Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head.  Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the Lord. Numbers 6:1-8 (NIV)

There are three important people in the Bible who we know observed the Nazirite vow. All three of these people were set aside (consecrated, if you will) before their births.  All three of these men were born to women who had experienced barrenness and the heartbreak and shame of infertility. All three of these men had high profile and game-changing missions for God in their lifetimes.

Samson was the first of these notable men to appear in Scripture (Judges 13:4-5). He became one of the Judges of Israel.  We know Samson primarily from the story of Samson and Delilah, but he was central in defeating the Israelites’ enemy, the Philistines.

Samuel was dedicated to the service of the temple when he was only four years old, and was also set aside as a Nazirite before he was born. (1 Samuel 1:11)  Samuel was the priest who anointed the first and second kings of Israel (Saul and David.)

John the Baptist was also a Nazirite from before his birth. (Luke 1:15) John was the voice in the wilderness paving the way for Jesus. John was also the one who would also baptize Jesus.

While the spiritual discipline of the Nazirite vow could prove to be a process that would draw one closer to God, the important aspect of the vow was obedience.

It is good at times to forgo certain things for a time to dedicate more time and effort to prayer and meditation, much as people in liturgical traditions- including Lutherans- do when we observe the season of Lent. The Nazirite vow was in most cases supposed to be a temporary observance.  These three men were notable exceptions in that they were set up by God for this observance from before their births, and for them the vow was intended to be permanent.

The bad thing about obedience is that human beings are not able to be 100% obedient, nor are we capable of perfectly observing the law.  Jesus came to be the fulfillment of the law for us, so that we are free to live by His grace.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Galatians 5:16-25 (NIV)

The difference between the Old Testament Nazirite vow and the freedom we have in Christ is that instead of rules that say no (such as no alcohol, no shaving, no grape products, no dancing, no short skirts, no, no, no…) we have rules that say YES. In Christ, our rules say YES to joy, to peace, to kindness, to patience, to goodness, and self-control.

Because Jesus came to live with us, we have the freedom to say YES to God-life, abundant and good life. Jesus has set us aside for those good things, both here in the world of not-yet, and in the world to come.

January 3, 2018- In the Beginning, God…Genesis 1:1-5, John 1:1-5

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In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. Genesis 1:1-5 (NIV)

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:1-5 (NIV)

The beginning of Genesis and the beginning of the Gospel of John are eerily similar in that both writers are pointing out the same core truths:

God was God before the beginning.

God created heaven and earth.

God created light and separated it from dark.

God created life.

These truths may sound simplistic to those of us who were raised in a religious tradition, but what about people who have questions about the existence of God?

We as orthodox (small o) Christians (which include Lutheran Christians and most other Protestants, as well as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox,) believe three basic foundational truths about the nature of God:

God is omnipotent- (all powerful)

God is omnipresent- (fully everywhere at all places and all times, all the time)

God is omniscient- (all knowing)

Given these three truths about God, we can imagine Him planning and working the coming together of the cosmos, and the formation of the galaxies and stars and planets. None of what we see in the heavens- or here on earth- came to be by random chance.  There is nothing we can see, touch, experience or imagine that is outside of God’s understanding or authority.

When we put the rubber to the road, what do these foundational truths about God mean for us in our everyday life and in the struggles we have now?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

God is with us. He has been with us since before the beginning.  He is with us now.  He will be with us forever, when this world is no more.

As we continue the celebration of Jesus’ incarnation and birth we can take comfort and marvel in the fact that even before the beginning, God is, and for always, God is with us.

January 2, 2018 – The Pursuit of Wisdom- Proverbs 9:9-12, Matthew 6:33, Job 28:24-28

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Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life.  If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it. Proverbs 9:9-12 (NRSV)

The phrase “fear of the Lord” is sort of an awkward translation into English.  When we use the word “fear,” it has a few different connotations.  “Fear of the Lord” correctly translated is fear defined as a reverent respect and awe. Jesus uses the parallel of a healthy father and son relationship, one of respect, dependency and love.

The story of the Fall, and of human nature and sin, is one of humanity getting too big for its britches in a figurative way. When we blindly trust in our own knowledge or ability and fail to acknowledge God, we are being unwise.  We are given many examples in Scripture of what not to do – the temptation in the Garden (Genesis 3 ) , the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), and the lawlessness that prevailed in the days of the Judges (Judges 21:25) all tell us of the consequences of separating ourselves from God and not having a respect or reverence for Him.

All of the above are also examples of trusting in human logic instead of going to the Source of wisdom. We all do it, too. The good news is there is a better way, and God is patient with us, like a wise father guiding his children.

Solomon was said to be the wisest man who ever lived. God offered him any gift that he would want, and he asked for wisdom (1 Kings 3:3-14). God not only granted him wisdom, but also prosperity and long life.  When our first passion is seeking God and His kingdom, His plan for our life comes to life.

(Jesus said): But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:33 (NRSV)

If we choose to find wisdom today, we still need to ask God and look to Him to find it. We will still find wisdom and the King of Kings present in the most unlikely and humble places- from the manger in Bethlehem to the needy, the lonely, the misunderstood, and the forgotten who are everywhere in the world today. We find wisdom when we seek God in the pages of Scripture. God reveals His wisdom to us in our times of meditation and prayer.

For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight, and apportioned out the waters by measure; when he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt; then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out.  And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” Job 28:24-28 (NRSV)