February 9, 2018 God is Not Silent- Psalm 50:1-6, James 2:12-14

new jerusalem

The Mighty One, God, the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to where it sets. 

From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages. He summons the heavens above, and the earth, that he may judge his people:

“Gather to me this consecrated people, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”

And the heavens proclaim his righteousness, for he is a God of justice. Psalm 50:1-6 (NIV)

God will not be silent. Why do we think He is silent at times?  Do we lose sight of Him in the darkness of all the evil that threatens to prevail in this world?  Does His voice get drowned out in the vapid soundbites and machinery of modern life?

Judgment is always a squirmy topic, especially if we examine our hearts fully and truthfully. Even though we fall short and fail regularly, God’s judgment is always in our favor. For Jesus’ sake He has mercy on us and forgives us and redeems us. That isn’t to say that His judgment is always fair.  In the name of fairness we are all law-breakers and have earned the penalty of eternal death.

Our hearts cry out when we see the injustice of this world. Things happen that should not be allowed to happen- war, famine, death, decay, sorrow, loss- the list is long.  It’s easy to get angry and become disillusioned and wonder where God is in all of it.

Jesus came to earth as the one perfect sacrifice for all, but He also came to show us how to live, and to empower us to be His instruments here on earth.

If we aren’t hearing God, is it because our voices are silent? Do we affirm the goodness of God with our speech and conduct?

If we aren’t seeing God, is it because we aren’t reflecting Him in our actions?

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:12-14 (NIV)

Jesus is the New Covenant. We as Jesus followers are the consecrated people He lives in and through. There is a popular “new age” saying out there that states one should “Be the change you want to see.” We should strive to follow Jesus’ example. We should want to live in a way that makes God known in the world.

Mercy and judgment may seem to be mutually exclusive. However, by God’s mercy in Christ we are not judged according to what we have earned, but we are given grace instead.

Are we merciful and gracious to others? Are we becoming the change we want to see?

God is speaking. Are we listening?

December 26, 2017- He Brings a Sword- Matthew 10:34, 37-39, Acts 7:57-60, Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:16-18

Jesus sword

 

(Jesus said:) “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:34, 37-39 (NIV)

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.  But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:57-60 (NIV)

Ironically, the Prince of Peace did not come to live among us to bring us flowers and kittens and warm fuzzies, as much as we may have wish He did. He brought a sword. He meant business.

Sometimes being a Jesus follower can seem to be a bit of a buzz kill. We just celebrated the wonder of Christmas and the awe of being in the presence of the Babe in the manger. However, Jesus came here among us not only to redeem us from sin, but also to reveal the truth and to show us how God meant for us to live.  He came here not only to heal the sick and comfort the broken hearted, but also to upset the money changers’ tables, and to challenge the hypocrisy and corruption of the status quo. For those in power, Jesus was a threat to their power, and so were Jesus’ followers. Ultimately, for Jesus to redeem us from our sins, He had to sacrifice Himself and die.

We as Jesus’ followers share in His suffering and sacrifice as well. He has a mission and a purpose for each of us that He has determined in advance for us to accomplish. Our missions in this life will sometimes be joyful and sometimes heart wrenching and tragic.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:10 (NRSV)

This is part of the good news of God-with-us, as difficult as it can be at times. God has created us to be where we are needed, to be the instruments through which His kingdom is built and maintained and grown. The young man named Saul from the Acts 7 passage, who stood by watching as Stephen the martyr gave his life defending his faith in Jesus, was to become the apostle Paul.  Saul thought he was doing God a favor by getting rid of Jesus followers- only to be set straight on the Damascus road, redeemed by divine intervention, and made into one of the most influential Jesus followers of all. God has ways of naming, claiming and redeeming His own, not to mention, at times, a very catty sense of humor.  As the prophet Jonah found out, if God asks you to do something- it was what He made you for, and you will end up doing it.  It’s far more pleasant to do God’s work the easy way and not have to find out about the hard way, but we humans are stubborn.

Our faith in Jesus may make us unpopular or controversial. We may upset the status quo.  We may cause conflict and strife even within our own families, for standing for what is right.  Even today in some places, standing for Jesus can lead to persecution- including starvation, imprisonment and even execution.

It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.  But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:16-18 (NRSV)

We are all called in some way to give of ourselves for the sake of the kingdom of God- some in living lives of generosity and sacrifice, and some even to give their lives, like the martyr Stephen.

The wonder of the manger and the tender heart of Mary are part of the same story of our redemption as Jesus’ sorrow of the garden, His bitter crucifixion, and His miraculous resurrection. As we look into that makeshift cradle, we are also looking at the cross- and we are drawn into the story we were created to participate in.

 

October 10, 2017- The Passover Lamb, Given for Us, Exodus 12:1-13

passover lamb

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. Exodus 12:1-13 (NRSV)

 On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”  He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. Matthew 26:17-19 (NRSV)

 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)

 The Last Supper takes place as Jesus and His disciples are celebrating the Passover. There are many parallels between the Passover and Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament of the Altar, so it was fitting that Jesus instituted this Sacrament as part of the fulfillment of the covenant between God and man.

A lamb without blemish is to be sacrificed. Not a defective lamb that would have been culled anyway, but a perfect lamb is to be offered.  Jesus was the only acceptable sacrifice for God, because He was sinless and without blemish.

When Jesus speaks of His Blood being poured out as the new covenant, it is His Blood poured out for us that takes away our sin- we are no longer subject to the penalty for our sin. We are passed over, just as the Israelites were passed over by the Angel of Death when they put the lamb’s blood on the door frames of their homes.

For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. Exodus 12:23 (NRSV)

The beauty of the Sacrament (as it is the fulfillment of the Passover celebration) is that Jesus invites us to the table often. Not just once a year, but as the needs of the people dictate.  In some churches Communion is celebrated monthly, or even at every service. He knows that we need His healing and sustenance on a regular basis, even as we pray, “Give us our daily bread.”

And we have, in the first place, the clear text in the very words of Christ: Do this in remembrance of Me. These are bidding and commanding words by which all who would be Christians are enjoined to partake of this Sacrament. Therefore, whoever would be a disciple of Christ, with whom He here speaks, must also consider and observe this, not from compulsion, as being forced by men, but in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to please Him. However, if you say: But the words are added, As oft as ye do it; there He compels no one, but leaves it to our free choice, answer: That is true, yet it is not written that we should never do so. Yea, just because He speaks the words, As oft as ye do it, it is nevertheless implied that we should do it often; and it is added for the reason that He wishes to have the Sacrament free, not limited to special times, like the Passover of the Jews, which they were obliged to eat only once a year, and that just upon the fourteenth day of the first full moon in the evening, and which they must not vary a day. As if He would say by these words: I institute a Passover or Supper for you which you shall enjoy not only once a year, just upon this evening, but often, when and where you will, according to every one’s opportunity and necessity, bound to no place or appointed time… from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Martin Luther’s Large Catechism

 

 

 

 

August 28, 2017 – Ebenezer, The Lord, Our Help – Judges 21:25, 1 Samuel 7:3-13

God's own Heart

In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. – Judges 21:25 (NRSV)

Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.”  So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord only.

Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.”  So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.

When the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it they were afraid of the Philistines. The people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.”  So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord; Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.  1 Samuel 7:3-13 (NRSV)

 

Today’s reading takes us back to the end of the time of the Judges. At that time, even though God had put judges in place to govern the people, they responded to the judges’ instructions and warnings by getting their freak on with foreign gods, and by doing whatever they felt like. There was no king, and people did what they wanted to (Judges 21:25.)

We can take a cue from the Fall (Genesis 3) that when human beings decide to just do whatever they feel like (especially when it comes to things God specifically has forbidden) that it is going to turn out bad.  It did turn out bad for Israel in the time of the Judges.

Samuel was in a special position. He was the last of the Old Testament Judges, and the one who would anoint the first two kings of Israel- Saul (who made a mess of it) and David, the unlikely shepherd boy who became the first great king of Israel.

Samuel starts out by reminding the people of what they should already know, and where their first priority belongs. False gods are exactly that- false. They can’t do anything for us other than separate us from the One True God.  This is important for us to remember too even though our idols aren’t golden calves or fertility gods.  Anything that we set up as first priority in our lives- the thing we turn our hearts toward- becomes our god.  In today’s society we tend to worship at the altar of ourselves, and that never ends well.

Samuel also intercedes on behalf of the people. Sometimes we can’t face our challenges alone.  Sometimes we are threatened and afraid, like the Israelites were terrified of the Philistines. We derive strength and courage in the prayers and support of other believers.  Samuel, as the leader of the people, also offers a sacrifice, which is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that Jesus has made for us.  We don’t go around sacrificing lambs today because in Christ there is no more blood sacrifice, but there is still an element of sacrifice when we intercede for others.  We give of ourselves and we make ourselves vulnerable when we genuinely act on behalf of others.  When we come together in God’s strength we often find the impossible becomes possible.

Intercessory prayer- praying for and with others- connects us to God in a powerful way. Not only does God hear our prayers, but we respond to God and others when we pray for and with others.

It’s also important for us to remind each other of our place in God’s story and of our heritage. The word “Ebenezer(not to be confused with Ebenezer Scrooge from the classic story A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) means, “The Lord, Our Help.”

The memorial stone that Samuel set up was not meant to become an idol, but to remind people when they saw the stone that our help- our very existence and being- comes from the Lord. When we view sacred art or the beauty in nature we are reminded of God and how He is in, with and through His creation.

We can always look to our Ebenezer, God, Our Help, and set our hearts on Him.

May 25, 2017- The Blessings of Surrender- Genesis 22:15-19

obedience 4

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. Genesis 22:15-19 (NRSV)

Do we truly seek God’s will and are we open to the work of the Holy Spirit? Even as we ask this question, in the back of our minds we should understand that we are not the Lone Ranger.  God provides the Lamb.  He equips us to fulfill the missions He gives us, spiritually, emotionally, physically and materially. He sends us people to walk with us and to be part of our purpose as well.  He works the impossible with the ordinary, and He can make everything out of nothing.

obedience 2

God does ask of us both obedience and surrender, even when we fail miserably at it. Do we have a willingness to do what God asks of us, even when it is difficult or painful, or it involves the sacrifice of something priceless and irreplaceable to us?

There are rewards inherent to obeying God and being willing to surrender to Him, even if we don’t see it immediately, or the world makes it look like no good deed goes unpunished.

Jesus taught us to store up our rewards in Heaven- to live for what really matters- instead of chasing what’s temporary. Abraham didn’t live on this earth to see his legacy fulfilled, but his obedience was rewarded.  He would not keep back any of his gifts from God, including his precious only son.

It’s a countercultural message to go against the tide of instant gratification and the “me, me, me” mentality.

Sometimes we have to sacrifice in great ways and we don’t necessarily see results. Sometimes we are called to keep working on a difficult relationship, or to walk with a person in crisis instead of following pop culture and leaving the scene as soon as the skies turn dark.  Society doesn’t necessarily reward doing the right thing, especially when the right thing is hard or costly and it doesn’t bring forth an appreciable immediate benefit.

There is blessing in obeying God. We might not see it right away, but God notices.  God cares.  God provides.

obedience 1

 

May 23, 2017- God Provides the Lamb- Genesis 22:6-14

abraham_and_isaac

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.  Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.  But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”   And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided .” Genesis 22:6-14 (NRSV)

Scripture doesn’t really tell us if Isaac was pretty freaked out at this point.  I don’t think it’s very easy for a parent to imagine setting one’s child on fire, on purpose, either.  Isaac’s reaction isn’t that important to the point of the story,  although it was probably very important to Isaac at the time.   God provided the sacrifice.  Think of the phrase Lamb of God and you get the drift.

God was testing Abraham’s ability to trust Him and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his gifts to God’s will and purpose, which is important.  More importantly, God was also showing Abraham that God is the One Who ultimately provides the sacrifice that covers us and redeems us.

God’s Son, given as a sacrifice to save us.  Given from God’s heart of anguish and at His great pain so that we are spared the penalty of sin and death that we have earned.

This is a great foreshadowing of the sacrifice to come.

We are powerless to save ourselves, We don’t have the means even if we would be willing to sacrifice that which is most precious to us.  God does test us and God does desire that we are willing to give of ourselves, but it is only in and through Him that our gifts can be made active and useful.

God can and does work wonders with willing hearts.  He makes a way even when the way seems impossible.  He has provided the Lamb.

May 22, 2017 – Surrender? Genesis 22:1-2, Psalm 139:8-12

Abraham_and_Isaac

“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he (Abraham) replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”- Genesis 22:1-2 (NRSV)

This is one of those passages in Scripture that should make people squirmy. It sounds like just the opposite of what God would ask of us.  God saying to Abraham, “Take your only son –the one you prayed for and hoped to have for so many years- and sacrifice him as a burnt offering,” just doesn’t make sense.

That is more than just a little strange coming from God. That sounds completely crazy.  What if God asked me to hand over my only son as a burnt offering?  I think it would be reasonable, at least today, to seek psychiatric help at that point.

Is this the same God Who would later hand down the commandment, “Thou shalt not murder?”

Where is God going with this?

The first thing God was trying to accomplish with His request was to test Abraham’s trust in Him. How far was Abraham willing to go to be obedient to God?  It’s easy to sing praise to God and say He’s great when times are good and we get what we want, but sooner or later the times of testing come.  Are we willing to do what God asks of us even when it seems too heartbreaking, too hard, too hopeless, too much to endure?  Are we willing to have the same kind of obedience that Abraham had, trusting that God will provide- even to the same point as Abraham when he was asked to give his greatest gift back to God?

The good news in this is even when it seems God is asking way too much of us, He provides what we need to do His will and be obedient to Him. God wasn’t going to let Abraham go through with the killing, but the fact that Abraham was prepared to do what God told him to do even to such an extreme as killing his own beloved son makes us wonder.  Could we do the same thing in Abraham’s place?  Do we have that kind of trust in God’s provision?

There is a saying that is popular with some in the Christian community- “If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.” That sounds simplistic and even cruel if we think of people who have lost loved ones in tragic circumstances, or when we have to endure painful losses, illnesses or other dire suffering. This saying could be taken to imply that God enjoys our suffering or that He is imposing suffering upon us at his whim or caprice. However, even in its simplicity, and with what may seem to be callousness, this saying is true. God does go with us no matter where or in what circumstance, but it might not be the best consolation for someone who is in the fresh, raw pain of grief or loss. Theologians and scholars have debated the purpose of suffering and death and evil for countless centuries.  Nobody really has a straight answer.  It’s one of those “trust God” issues, at least in this fallen world, for now.

It’s easy to take a dualistic approach and say that God is nothing but good and that evil and/or Satan are the anti-God, but in truth, God is the author of ALL things. Evil could very well be defined as creation rebelling against God, and creation’s rebellion against God is woven into all creation.  The theological concept of original sin (or, the total depravity of man, to borrow a petal from John Calvin’s TULIP,) is explained in the allegorical narrative of the Fall in Genesis 3. It could be said that the root of all sin and evil is pride, when we think we know better than God, or worse, we have the hubris to put ourselves in His place.  Sometimes being obedient to God is counterintuitive and doesn’t make sense at all to us, and it may never make sense to us, because we aren’t God.  We can’t see everything. There is where trust- and surrender- to God enter in.

If we take God on His word and trust that He is omnipotent (all powerful,) omniscient (all knowing,) and omnipresent (in all places, at all times, all the time,) then we have to trust that He is in control even when He asks the impossible from us, and even when the impossible and unbearable happen to us.  We have to know that He has already entered into our circumstances even before we can acknowledge Him, and even if we refuse to acknowledge Him.

“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.”- Psalm 139:8-12 (NRSV)

God provides even when we can’t possibly see how. What are we willing to surrender to Him?  Are we willing to trust in His provision?