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

Jonah11_main

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?

December 21, 2017 – The Word Was God, The Word Is God, God is With Us…John 1:1-14

in the beginning2

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.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-14 (NIV)

John’s Gospel is the most mystical and cryptic of the four Gospels. The writer of John does not focus on the human genealogy of Jesus, but on His spiritual heritage.

Through Him all things were made.

Think about that one for a second. Ponder on it for awhile.

One of the most difficult concepts for non-Christians (and to a degree, for Jesus followers as well) to grasp is that of God as Three-in-One, or the Trinity. One God- the Father, Son and Holy Spirit- Who is One, but also Three, distinct Persons is not an easy concept to take hold of and run with.

Jesus in the manger as a helpless newborn is at the same time God, Creator of the universe, Who is beyond our concepts of time and space. He was before time and space, and He will be when both time and space have passed away.  Even so, He cared enough for us, His weak and fallible creatures to become one of us.

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

 Even better He invites us and takes us in – if only we believe Him- to become children of God.

Children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

 Rejoice, rejoice, oh Israel, to you shall come Emmanuel!

 

November 29, 2017- Rejoice Always- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, Psalm 16

rejoice kids

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (NRSV)

Rejoice always. That’s not an easy instruction, even coming from the apostle Paul who had plenty to not rejoice about.

It’s easy to rejoice when things are going our way, but not so much when things turn dark. It’s hard to sing through pain. It’s hard to smile through suffering. It’s hard to reach out for what is good and right when so much is going wrong.  Yet Jesus invites us: rejoice always. What we see isn’t the whole picture. We are called to have faith in the unseen, and to believe even when the evidence we see doesn’t always support our faith.

One of the most depressing aspects of the late fall/early winter is that many of us don’t see daylight much if at all, several days a week. If one works in a place without windows and comes to work in the dark and leaves in the dark, at times it’s almost hard to believe that the sun exists.

choosejoy

In hard times we don’t always see the evidence that God is with us- like the winter sun that we seldom see from October until March. Yet God is with us, in all things, even in suffering, illness, grief, and adversity.

 

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.  I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.  The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore. – Psalm 16 (NRSV)

November 22, 2017- Forgive, Be Thankful and Praise God- Colossians 3:12-17, 2 Samuel 6:14-15

forgivenesspower

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV)

One of the most important “wilderness lessons” I had to learn the hard way is that the heaviest thing to carry is a grudge.

Jesus doesn’t command us to forgive as a cruel joke. We may at times be quite justified in our anger, but holding on to anger does nothing to right the wrongs that have been done against us.  Holding onto our anger does nothing other than poison and paralyze us, while those who have wronged us go on about their merry way, blissfully unaware that we are hanging onto vitriol that is intended for them. Forgiveness allows us to surrender our anger and hurt and frustration to the One Who does have the power to make wrong things right again.  Forgiveness allows our healing and opens our hearts to the love and restoration- and peace- that only God can bring.

thankfulness

Thankfulness is a close cousin to forgiveness. If we forgive others we also give up the “right” to be jealous of what others have. Rather than look at Susie-so-and-so and envy the fact that she is thinner or prettier or has a better car, why not thank God for the many blessings He has given us?  When we think about the simple gifts such as friends and family, the ability to breathe, the beauty that surrounds us, it is easy to be thankful. It is amazing what God can do through us when we have an “attitude of  gratitude,” rather than a heart that covets the things it doesn’t have.

dance1

Praise is a natural by-product of thankfulness. It is said that King David danced before God in praise, and had no inhibitions about it.

David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.  So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 2 Samuel 6:14-15 (NRSV)

Admittedly, from a cultural viewpoint, Midwestern Americans of European descent are not normally prone to breaking out in dancing. Dancing is not forbidden in the Lutheran tradition, and it is a common form of worship in African congregations.  In some Puritan traditions dancing is frowned upon as being “too provocative” and/or drawing attention to the physical body.  However, we should have the freedom and the openness to praise God in our own way- with singing, instrumental music of all kinds, visual art, poetry and prose, and dancing, should the Spirit so lead us- no matter what other people might think about it.

The apostle Paul (who wrote the letter to the Colossians quoted in the verses above) was no stranger to hardship, deprivation and even experienced prison time because he kept on preaching and teaching about Jesus. Yet he forgave those who tormented him, thanked God for his blessings, and praised God constantly.

How can we forgive those who have wronged us, thank God for all He has done for us, and praise God when no one is around and even when everyone else is watching?

September 21, 2017- Love Builds a Fence?- Exodus 20:12-15

love commandments

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

 You shall not commit adultery.

 You shall not steal.

Exodus 20:12-15 (NRSV)

The first three of the Ten Commandments focus on our relationship with God. The remaining seven have to do with our life in our families and our community.

Commandments Four through Seven have to do with our actions toward others as well as our heart toward others. There is an old saying that “good fences make good neighbors.”  This is why God gives us boundaries regarding our relations with others.  The Commandments give us healthy boundaries for living in community.

Honoring our parents means that even though they may be flawed, we must at the very least acknowledge that they have given us birth and life. We are also commanded to respect their authority and the values that they have passed down to us. The Fourth Commandment is one of the few that carry a promise- God promises that we will retain our inheritance that He has given us if we honor our parents and respect those in authority as it is God Who has put them in authority over us.  Should we rebel against authority and violate the law, we open ourselves up to the consequences that disobeying civil law can bring.

In Luther’s Large Catechism he expands upon honoring and obeying the temporal authorities in his explanation of the Fourth Commandment:

“The same also is to be said of obedience to civil government, which (as we have said) is all embraced in the estate of fatherhood and extends farthest of all relations. For here the father is not one of a single family, but of as many people as he has tenants, citizens, or subjects. For through them, as through our parents, God gives to us food, house and home, protection and security. Therefore since they bear such name and title with all honor as their highest dignity, it is our duty to honor them and to esteem them great as the dearest treasure and the most precious jewel upon earth.” – Luther’s Large Catechism (on the Fourth Commandment)

The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Commandments (Luther’s explanations of them in the Large Catechism can be found here) have to do with boundaries in our relationships with individuals.

The Fifth Commandment tells us to refrain from murder (the premeditated and purposeful taking of a human life) but it also means we are called to lift up those around us by offering help when we can. As Jesus followers we are called to be life-bringers and to shine His light in the world.  Our words and actions should help bring life to the world rather than death and despair to others.

In matters of sexuality, which are addressed in the Sixth Commandment, we are commanded to keep our expressions of sexuality within the marriage bond. As evidenced in society and in the tabloids (as well as in our own personal lives) we see what becomes of people and of families when this boundary is broken.  God puts a boundary around His good gifts of sexual expression- not because they are “dirty” or “wrong” or “bad,” but so this physical and spiritual connection is reserved for a husband and wife in a lifelong commitment to each other.

When that bond is broken, the fallout reaches far and wide- there is financial and emotional hardship for children who must grow up without the benefit of a father (or mother,) possible transmission of horrible (sometimes even fatal) diseases, unplanned pregnancies, lost friendships, and public scandals.  While God assures us that there is nothing that can separate us from His love in Christ, (see Romans 8:38-39) the spiritual and emotional consequences of adultery are deep and lasting and difficult to overcome. God gives us this command for fidelity in marriage (and abstinence outside of marriage) for our own protection, because He knows how devastating overstepping this boundary can be for ourselves and our families and communities. He loves us and He wants to spare us this pain.

The Seventh Commandment appears to be as straightforward as can be, but there is a deeper message in this Commandment also. God tells us: “Don’t steal.” But how do we steal from others?  Obviously violating civil laws against robbery constitute stealing, when we take tangible objects or property that belongs to others, but we steal in other ways too.  We steal when we commit fraud against others, such as failing to give someone an honest wage for honest work- or when we accept wages for work we do not do.  We steal when we fail to help someone when it is in our power to do so.  We steal when we treat other people harshly without cause- we steal their peace and joy.

We know that there is both Law and Gospel throughout the Commandments, and all through Scripture. The Commandments are given to us because God loves us. God gives us boundaries for our own- and for others’- protection.  In these Commandments God gives us the gift of respect for authority so that there is order in society, the ability to have and share life, the gift of intimacy and fidelity, and the confidence that we may retain what belongs to us.

September 20, 2017- Keep the Sabbath Holy- Exodus 20:8:11, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Mark 2:27-28

the-sabbath

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Exodus 20:8-11 (NRSV)

Why is the concept of Sabbath- which almost seems foreign to us today in our 24/7/365 world- so essential to God that He commands it? Why is Sabbath still as important for 21st century Jesus followers as it was for ancient Jews?

Part of that answer can come from the natural cycles of the world that God created such as- day and night and the seasons of the year. As the Teacher of Ecclesiastes – who was most likely King Solomon- teaches us:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NRSV)

God built in cycles for activity and rest and he built a rhythm into nature. Spring is for planting, new beginnings and birth.  Summer brings growth and coming to fruition.  Autumn brings the harvest and preparation for the deprivation and dormancy of winter.  Winter brings a sort of mini-death, a rest period in which the world recharges and prepares for the planting and growth of spring.  There is a time to work and a time to rest that is built into even day and night. We are called to work and do the good things God created us for, but we are also called to rest and to just be sometimes.  That is what Sabbath is for.

Sabbath gives us that recharging and rest time we need to disconnect from the world, from work, from the temporal cares of the moment and focus on simply being in the presence of God. The consequence of non-stop engagement and endless work is burnout.  God knows we need to connect with Him to be renewed and to have Him restore our strength.  Observing the Sabbath is not so much about “doing something for God,” but it is part of His provision to take care of us.  Jesus had to remind the Pharisees that God made the Sabbath command not for people to have to observe a laundry list of man-made restrictions, but so that people would see the need to take time out to simply be in the presence of God.

Then He (Jesus) said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27-28 (NRSV)

How do we make a conscious effort to observe the Sabbath, even knowing that some people must work on Sundays?

Take an alternate day- one who must work Sundays can take a day not scheduled for work to observe the Sabbath.   Those who have Sundays off should make weekly worship in a church with other Jesus followers a priority, along with receiving Communion when it is offered.  Even those who must work Sundays can find ways to connect with the Jesus community- through audio or video sermons and through study and discussion groups online, or with groups who worship or meet together on days other than Sunday.

Take Sabbath moments every day. Observe a time of prayer, meditation and conversation with the Lord for a set amount of time every day.  Such a simple practice can easily become a part of our spiritual disciplines and part of the cycles and rhythms of our lives.

Sabbath is God’s gift of rest and recharging for us. It is part of the rhythm of life that He created. We need to work, but we also need to rest and reconnect with Him.

 

 

September 15, 2017- Praise God of All Compassion- Psalm 103:1-13

jesus-mercy-compassion

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits-who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.  He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. Psalm 103:1-13 (NRSV)

The Psalms (today’s reading from Psalm 103 is one of many Psalms attributed to King David) are a ready source of instruction on the nature of God, which is a great comfort for us at times when we are struggling with faith and with life in general. In those times when we cannot find the words with which to pray, one can turn to the Psalms and we will find that the various Psalmists have written the very words we need to pray and meditate upon. God has given us great gifts of prayers and praise through the pens of the Psalmists!

We learn in the very beginning of Scripture (Genesis 1) that God created the earth and all of creation to be good. God’s will is that creation is good.  In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”  When we thank God for the goodness of creation we create an atmosphere in which we want to work toward the goodness and restoration that He created us for.

In today’s Psalm we have several points of meaningful prayer right in front of us.

First we are reminded to bless the Lord- to remember who we are talking to when we pray.  God is holy. He commands our reverent awe (which is the meaning of “fear of the Lord.”)

Then we are reminded of all the kindness we have received from God, and to thank Him for it.

We are also reminded that God doesn’t give us what we deserve, but He always gives us what we need to make us good and whole. He separates us from our sins as far away as we can possibly be separated from them. He gives us strength and healing.

God has compassion. He has compassion for us when we are distraught, when we are at the end of ourselves, and when we can’t find the words to pray.

God also has given us a purpose and a place in His story. We all have different roles and we have been put in different places to fulfill them, but compassion is a universal expression of love that we can all display.

How can we reflect the compassion of our compassionate and forgiving God today?