November 21, 2017 – The Tree of Life – Genesis 2:9, Isaiah 11:1, Proverbs 11:30, Matthew 7:16-17, Revelation 22:1-5

tree of life

 

Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2:9 (NRSV)

The Tree of Life is a metaphor which appears throughout Scripture. In creation God puts the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden as well as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  It is interesting that in the narrative of the Fall, God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden, to where they no longer have access to the presence of either tree as a result of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

It has been said that pride is the mother of all sins, and in the story of the Fall, we learn that in our wanting to be God, we distance ourselves from Him.

The Tree of Life is a central image not only in the Creation and the Fall, but in the redemption of creation.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Isaiah 11:1 (NRSV)

The prophet Isaiah foretold the birth and life of Jesus 700 or so years before He was born here on earth. A descendent of King David (Jesse was King David’s father) would appear- as a new Tree of Life- but not in the way that his contemporaries expected.  The new Tree of Life is Jesus, and He came to give Himself to save us. He defeated death by pouring out His life out from the arms of a dead tree that was fashioned to bring about death.

jesus-on-the-cross

The redemption of creation is, as we are well aware, an ongoing work in progress. We as Jesus followers are invited- and were created to- bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.  We get to participate in God’s great work of redemption, restoration and renewal.

The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but violence takes lives away. Proverbs 11:30 (NRSV)

(Jesus said): You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. Matthew 7:16-17 (NRSV)

This world and this life is not the end, but a beginning, an introduction for us into Life as God intended for us and created us to live.

new jerusalem

 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:1-5 (NRSV)

Are we getting in on God’s plan for us to be trees of life that bring forth good fruit, and to be light-givers?

November 17, 2017- Signs and Wonders, Beautiful Feet, and Loving Jesus- Acts 2:43-47, Isaiah 52:7, Romans 10:15

angelsky

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  Acts 2:43-47 (NRSV)

The early believers were convinced that Jesus would return in their lifetimes, so they lived accordingly.

Some have used this passage as a Christian argument for collectivism as a form of government (the somewhat contradictory phrase “Christian socialism” comes to mind,) however, the key to making this first century community work was that sharing and living in common were voluntary. The response to the Good News was one that came from grateful and loving hearts, not one of forced compliance to a set of rules. There were no mandatory levies or quotas, as the people provided for themselves and for others as there were needs. They were governed by the principle of loving God and bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.  There was no tax man going around making sure that everyone gave his or her fair share (and more,) and no one claimed more than he or she needed.

Their community was based upon living in response to the love and grace of God.

Today it seems as if we have lost sight that God is still with us. Does the way we “do life”- and how we welcome others into our community- reflect God’s love and grace and mercy toward us?

It has been said that integrity is living one’s life the same whether we are under direct scrutiny of others or not.   Are we the same people in the dark that we claim to be in the light of day?

By the grace of God we are called to live our lives in such a way that others want to come join us- because we share the joy we have in Christ.

And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (reference to Isaiah 52:7) Romans 10:15 (NRSV)

Do we have “beautiful feet?” Do we bring good news? Do we show others that following Jesus makes a difference?

November 16, 2017- Get On Board!- Zephaniah 1:12-16, Revelation 3:14-20

great god

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, ‘The Lord will do nothing, either good or bad.’ Their wealth will be plundered, their houses demolished. Though they build houses, they will not live in them; though they plant vineyards, they will not drink the wine.”

The great day of the Lord is near- near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. Zephaniah 1:12-16 (NIV)

Old Testament prophets were sort of a buzz kill in their day. It seems everyone is minding their own business, doing their own thing, and maintaining the status quo, and then one of these guys shows up.  Someone like an Isaiah or Jeremiah- or in the case of today’s verses, one of the minor prophets, Zephaniah- shows up and sounds a warning.  Before the days of the printing press or telecommunication, God spoke to His people through the prophets. The prophets sounded the warning so that people might get it that things aren’t going according to God’s plan, and that God is making a way to change the pattern.  When the prophets show up, the message is usually something like this:

Hey, people, wake up! God wants you to know that he’s not pleased with the status quo.  God is a merciful God, but sometimes He needs to shake it up and get you on board with His program- for your own good.  It’s time to examine ourselves and get on board with God’s plan, before it’s too late.

It’s easy to confuse being a Jesus follower with being someone nice. But Christian and nice are not always synonyms. Sometimes the most Christ-like thing to do doesn’t seem nice at all.  Did Jesus look nice when He toppled the moneylenders’ tables in the synagogue? We want to visualize Jesus as the gentle Shepherd, almost as a milquetoast, and not as the Lion of Judah depicted in Revelation 5. Jesus is both the Good Shepherd and Almighty God, and sometimes we forget that His judgment is as real as His mercy.

We should be gentle and compassionate with each other and those around us, but gentleness and compassion are not the same as enabling others’ destructive behavior, or looking the other way at things we know are sinful and evil. This is hard because we are all sinners and hypocrites.  We must be discerning, and should always examine ourselves first before taking on the sins and faults of others.

Zephaniah was talking about those of us who get complacent and satisfied with ourselves. We certainly believe in a gracious and merciful God, but we also need to understand that He has a purpose for us and that He expects our lives to honor Him. He does not expect us to sit around bragging about how great we are.  How we treat others is a big part of trusting Jesus and relying on Him- are we really being loving (not necessarily nice) to those around us?

The prophets’ messages of judgment are not meant to scare us but to keep us aware and focused on who we belong to and who He created us to be.

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.  Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. Revelation 3:14-20 (NIV)

Are we as Jesus followers aware of our deep need for Jesus? The Laodicean church was called out because they were rather meh about God, and not aware of their need for Jesus.  They thought they were self-reliant, but in truth they were not.  We as a community of Jesus followers are nothing unless Jesus is the center of all we are and all we do.

Before we as Jesus followers can effectively reach out to the broader community, we need to reach out to Jesus constantly in prayers and petitions, we need to invite Him in, so He will bring us to repentance (which is simply for us to want to turn toward Him,) and ask for Him to shine His light on us so that He may make us more like Him.

Do we derive our identity and our being from Jesus? That is probably the biggest question we should ask when we encounter the doomy and gloomy messages from the prophets.

A wise Pastor once said: “Love God, and do what you want.” If we truly love God then it stands that we will want what He wants: for His Kingdom to be made as real here on earth as it is in heaven.  It is a process and a journey that has both failures and triumphs.  The good news is that Jesus is with us through it all.

November 13, 2017 – The Threefold Cord, and Strength in Numbers- Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, Matthew 18:20

StrongerTogether

 

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?  And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NRSV)  

 (Jesus said) : “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20 (NRSV)

Welcoming others carries an element of being willing to help carry another’s load- and to forgive others’ faults. That’s not always easy, and sometimes we resist that call to help because we are already so bogged down by our own baggage and burdens. We also resist forgiveness because we feel as if we are “punishing” someone by holding a grudge.  The mentality is, “So and so did _____, so he or she ‘deserves it’.”  Sadly, the fact is that there is nothing heavier to carry than a grudge, and the reality is forgiving others significantly lightens our own load.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes has a good point in the value of standing together with others. We are stronger together.  A threefold cord is referring to a braid or braided rope- when multiple strands are woven together their strength is multiplied.  The Ecclesiastes reference can also be taken as a foreshadowing of the revelation of the Trinity- God as Three in One.

There is strength in numbers.

It is easy for us as Americans to get patriotism and theology confused. While there is nothing essentially wrong with being a patriotic American, one’s patriotism should not conflict with or be confused with our primary identity as followers of Jesus.  Being a good American isn’t necessarily the same as being a good Christian and vice versa.

As Americans we prize individualism and independence. To a degree both individualism and independence are positive traits, but when a healthy self-reliance turns into a know-it-all attitude, or independence turns to isolation, we make ourselves vulnerable. When predators hunt, they pick off the ones who are isolated from the herd. Those who have no connection to the rest of the community are more vulnerable to evil, to error, and to despair.  Solitude at times for meditation, study and prayer, can be restorative for many of us, but even the most introverted among us still need to connect with the greater community and have dialogue with others.

In some American churches the idea persists that following Jesus is just a “me-n-Jesus” sort of thing rather than a community endeavor. However, God’s plan that humans were meant to be in relationship with each other and to be active participants in the world begins clear back in the creation accounts in Genesis. (See Genesis 2:18-25 )

Relationships with others are not easy, as we learn in Scripture. The first murder didn’t take long- from the creation account of Genesis 2, to Cain murdering Abel in Genesis 4.  Jesus warned us of wars and rumors of wars in Matthew 24 which we see and hear evidence of every day.

Throughout the history of the church (meaning Christian churches in general) there has been much infighting, prejudice, injustices, hypocrisy and other un-Christlike behavior. No one tradition has been immune to the fact that Jesus followers are both saints and sinners at the same time.  Forgiveness is one of the major precepts that Jesus taught, and forgiveness is necessary first and foremost in the church.  We are forgiven, so it follows that we are called to forgive, and to see others through Jesus’ eyes.

The church is not a genealogical society, (because there is only one race: human,) and it is not a museum. The church is a living body, prone to mistakes and prone to weakness, but it is strengthened when its members stand together- keeping Christ at the center of all- even through disagreements and mistakes. God looks at the motive of our hearts more intently than He checks to see if our theology and doctrine is 100% correct.  Blindly following a tradition without questioning its purpose or validity, or going off to follow One Guy In Charge, even if it is one’s self (or any person who isn’t Jesus) was never God’s plan.

How can we truly welcome others to our own church as well as to the greater community of Jesus followers? God calls us to relationship, but as we learn from Scripture and from life, relationships are hard work. In relationships we will feel pain. Relationships can get messy and complicated. We will be offended. We will offend. Yet by the grace of God, we are forgiven, and likewise called to forgive as Jesus forgives us.

November 6, 2017- Simple Faith in a Greater God- 1 John 4:4-5 (NRSV) Joshua 1:9 (NRSV)

god wins

Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.  They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 1 John 4:4-5 (NRSV)

 Thankfully, God is so often the champion of the underdog. We see evil in so many places and in so many experiences in this world that it’s easy to get discouraged.  Terrorism, random violence, not so random violence, drug addiction, poverty, natural disaster and disease are regular features in the news.

We wonder why. We ask God why these things go on in the world and why they don’t stop.  We wonder if evil really will win out.

So how can we believe in a greater God when we are so powerless in a world filled with heartbreak and evil and sin?

If this life in this temporary world was the only and final reality, then perhaps there would be cause for despair.

But we have a greater hope, not just for the end of days (or the end of our own personal days) but for now and always.

I hereby command you: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 (NRSV)

 How can we keep on going on when we are afraid, depleted, discouraged, in pain, or just plain overwhelmed? How do we keep our faith and sanity when we see and experience the insanity that is so pervasive in our world?

God is with us. Have courage.

November 3, 2017- Fear the Lord, He IS our Refuge, Psalm 34:1-9, Romans 8:37-39

fear-of-god-best

 

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want. Psalm 34:1-9 (NRSV)

 

On first glance, there is a paradox in the teaching of this Psalm. At one time we are being instructed to seek the Lord, and He delivered me from all my fears. Then we are told to fear the Lord.

We can be losing a bit of the meaning of this Psalm in the translation. The word that is translated as “fear” in English (as in “fear the Lord”) can be taken to mean the state of having a reverent respect and awe of the Lord.  If we read the Psalm in this way, that fears are those things that we dread, (such as a fear of pain or fear of poverty) and that the fear of the Lord is not that we dread the Lord, but that we hold Him in awe and respect, it takes on a powerful meaning.

fear and awe

In much of Scripture (and all throughout the Psalms) God underscores that He is our refuge.  The tiny little word is means everything here.  God provides our food, our shelter, our clothing, even the air we breathe, but He is our refuge.  Our safe place, our shelter, is not just provided by God.  He is our safe place and our shelter.

If someone or something is going to destroy us, it has to get through God first. Think about that for a moment.

Of course our thoughts go to physical death or injury or illness- and those things can and do strike our bodies, but there is life beyond our bodies and beyond this world.

In this confidence, even knowing that there are powers that can cause us pain and/or take our mortal lives in this world, God is our refuge. We can stand knowing that we are in Him, that He is all around us, in us and through us.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:37-39 (NRSV)

November 2, 2017 – White Robes, Apocalypse, and God Wins- Revelation 7:13-17, Mark 13:32-37

white robes

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:13-17 (NRSV)

Revelation is one of the books of the Bible that some people find confusing and intimidating. Apocalyptic (meaning “of the end times”) literature uses extreme imagery and symbolism to get the message across. Its purpose as written to its original audience (Romans living in the province of Asia in the late first century), however, is one of encouragement. The people to whom Revelation was addressed were living in a time when believers were routinely persecuted and killed for following Jesus. The perspective of Revelation is one that states that today might be really terrible, and there might be even more really terrible stuff happening in the near future, but the end of the terrible stuff is near, and the end turns out good for those who persevere. The graphic imagery that can be found in Revelation makes for some good pop fiction (remember the Left Behind novels?) and cheesy end of the world movies, but the message of Revelation has a much deeper purpose and meaning for those who follow Jesus.

As for the people robed in white, they are the ones who have gone before us in heaven. They are living in what is for us, the “not yet.”  We can take hope that no matter how bad things get here on earth, that the bad things going on here and now aren’t the final reality for us.  God’s plan for humanity and for the universe He created is one of redemption and restoration.

The caution that should be taken from apocalyptic literature is that the imagery used isn’t always meant to be literal. The imagery is supposed to make sure that the truth of the story sticks in one’s mind. When Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb of God” throughout Scripture, it is not meant that He is a sheep, but that He is the one perfect sacrifice made for all of us for all time.

There is a temptation in having the knowledge that “today is not forever” to give up on making things better where we are. That is not the intent behind the message of Revelation.  We aren’t supposed to give up on the here and now.  While the End of Days (or the end of our own personal days) can occur at any moment, only God knows the hour and the time.

(Jesus said): “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:32-37 (NRSV)

So the take away here is that we should be ready for any contingency, knowing that we know the end of the story: God wins. In this assurance we are free to embrace the ongoing work of bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. We have the knowledge that the best is still to come.