Devotions

by author Dr. Rev. David Cooney 

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Psalm 84:1-2


This psalm has new meaning in this day of closed churches. Clergy and lay leaders have been working hard to provide worship and study opportunities online. We can see pictures on our screens and hear music on our speakers. We can watch sermons and enter chat rooms to join discussions. These opportunities are great blessings in this time of social isolation. Still, it is not the same.
 

I admit that it is nice not to have to get dressed up and drive to church, hoping to be on time. It is a different experience of eating breakfast or sipping coffee during a sermon. It is also possible to worship with different churches on the same morning. ‘Pajama Church,’ as some have called it, does have some advantages.
 

Ah, but my soul longs to walk into the sanctuary – the courts of the Lord. Is that not true for you? I want to hear others singing the hymns with me. I want to see the smiles and nods of other worshippers. I want to be near the preacher. I want to hear the invitation to come to the table and be able to answer. I want to take in the smell of the hymnals and bulletins.
 

Psalm 84 is referencing the temple. Those who lived in Jerusalem were able to visit the temple regularly. Most, however, made only an annual pilgrimage, if that. Entering the courts of this most holy place was a rare and special experience, dreamed about for months. How special was it to visit the temple? The psalmist wrote, “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” There is just something wonderful about being present in a holy place.
 

‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ - this old axiom is usually applied to love. It is apt for this situation as well. Being away from the sanctuary has resulted in a new appreciation. Churches should remain closed until it is safe to open. The well-being of the congregation is of paramount importance. Until the time is right, we can wear pajamas and sip coffee and sing along with the hymns in our kitchens. What a joy it will be, however, when the doors of the courts of the Lord swing open. My soul longs, indeed faint, for that day.
 

Prayer: Dear God, I was glad when they said unto me, “Let us go into the house of the Lord.” We wait now to hear that invitation, O Lord. Until that time, hold us together. Keep your praise on our lips. Give us a voice to pray. Wherever we gather, even online, you are there. Bring us to the day when we can gather in your house. In the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.

Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble. Psalm 41:1


Concern for the poor, weak, and vulnerable is a Christian concern. Jesus spent his time with the downcast and outcast and made it clear that care for the disadvantaged is a Christian obligation. This psalm reminds us that care for the poor is not strictly a Christian concern. It was and is a central tenet in Judaism and is part of every major religion.
 

Because this concern is embedded in the religion of people throughout time and place, it is fair to say that caring for those in need is part of being human. This impulse is made evident in countless ways. For all the discord we are experiencing now, there are still thousands of daily stories of neighbors helping neighbors, people volunteering in shelters and soup kitchens and outreach centers, and people generously responding to crises. Nearly every church has some form of outreach. This is replicated in countries around the world.
 

This does not mean that all that can be done has been done. Far too many in the world are hungry, including children in even the most prosperous nations. Access to health care, safe housing, and education varies in every state and county and is nonexistent in some parts of the world. There is tremendous economic disparity between men and women, Caucasians and people of color, first world and third world, and owners and workers.
 

These are massive issues and not easily solvable. There is a clue to solutions though in this one verse in the psalm. “Happy are those who consider the poor.” The decision of how we use our resources should include consideration of the poor. Church budgets should show consideration of the poor. Government budgets and policies should indicate consideration of the poor. Our actions and our prayers should demonstrate consideration of the poor. When the poor are considered, their plight is not overlooked or ignored.
 

Jesus showed special consideration for the poor in all that he said and did. As disciples, we want to follow his lead.
 

Prayer: Compassionate God, you will the best for all of your children. You care for the sick and weak and poor. Give us caring hearts and considerate minds. Make the welfare of your children our concern, just as our welfare is your concern. Bless all in need today. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Psalm 8:3-4


Nature naturally humbles all who pay attention. Encouraged by ego, we tend to put ourselves in the center of our universes. We are quickly removed from that position, however, when we stand high on a mountain peak and survey the vastness below, descend into the unending depths of the Grand Canyon, watch the sunrise or set over an ocean that has no horizon, stand in a country field at night gazing at the galaxies above, or hunker down as thunder, lightning, wind, and rain display awesome power. These kinds of experiences make us feel both small and insignificant.
 

The psalmist was similarly awed on a star-filled night. The overwhelming feeling of being negligible in the grand scheme of creation brought to mind the question: Why should God pay any attention to people? We amount to one speck of sand in an entire desert. Why should God be mindful of us?
 

The psalmist’s pondering was strictly rhetorical because the obvious answer was that God should not be mindful of us. Yet, and this is what truly amazed the poet, God is not only mindful of us but has made us only a little lower than God and crowned us with glory and honor. Indeed, the psalmist said that people have been given dominion over creation.
 

Sadly, this concept of having dominion has been interpreted as permission to do to creation whatever we want. Our exploitation of the earth has made us the enemies of creation, not the caretakers. Could it be that intense storms, hurricanes and tornadoes, floods, and fires are creation’s ways of telling us that we do not have as much dominion as we think? Surely it is a natural protest at the least.
 

The psalmist’s point was not that creation is ours to exploit. The point was that, in the grand scheme of things, we are essentially nothing but that God has made us something. We do have significant power, but only because God has given it to us. God cares about us that much! The next time we are awed by nature, we would do well to pause and marvel that God even notices us and be flabbergasted that God has seen fit to crown us with honor and glory. We would also do well to care as much about creation as God cares about us.
Prayer: O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! We marvel at your creation, O Lord, and are humbled by the vastness and intricacies of all your works. Thank you for noticing us and loving us. Thank you for lifting us up. Make us not rulers, but stewards, of your earth. In the name of the Incarnate One, Amen.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Psalm 13:1


This is a psalm for the long-suffering. We understand that God’s answer to our prayers may not be microwave fast, but we do not want the answer to be crockpot slow. It is not simply a matter of needing to be patient. “Be patient,” is cruel counsel to someone being devastated by illness, economic calamity, or unbearable heartache. Wanting a word from God sooner than later is understandable. The psalmist is not the only person who has stared at heaven asking when an answer will come if indeed one will come at all.
 

There are no simple explanations for why God’s face seems hidden from us for long periods of time, and certainly no explanations satisfactory to the one waiting. It can be said that sometimes it is not that God is hiding, but that we do not recognize God’s presence. Sometimes the answer we seek is not the one we receive, so we disregard it. Sometimes the answer is no, so we do not accept it. Sometimes the answer has to be delayed because the solution needs to unfold over time. Trying to figure out which explanation may apply to us, however, is not useful. We cannot know and it only adds to the frustration.
 

Ultimately it is not patience that we need, but perseverance and trust. God is in this with us for the long haul, which is to say eternity. A thousand years is but a day for God. Whatever struggles we have now will pale in comparison to what God has in store. The day is coming when there will be no more pain, suffering, heartache, or death. Once that day comes, it will stay forever. In the meantime, we may experience hardship and have to persevere. We do so knowing that, however long it takes, God will rescue us.
 

The psalmist questioned God’s slowness to act. Yet, a few verses later wrote, “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” Our hearts, too, will rejoice in God’s salvation.
 

Prayer: God of mercy, show your face to us. Do not allow us to bear pain one day longer than necessary. Give us faith even when we cannot feel your presence and hope even when all seems lost. Bring quickly the day when all suffering will be past. In the name of our Redeemer, Amen.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Psalm 139:1-3


 

It is difficult to get a medical diagnosis without first having tests. These tests include scans of many varieties. A scan might be as simple as an X-ray, or it may be as sophisticated as an MRI, CAT, or PET scan. Each works a little differently but toward the same end – to take a look inside of us. What is completely hidden from view is exposed by these scans.
 

In this sense, we might call God the Divine Scan. The psalmist said, “O Lord, you have searched me. . . .” This means that God has carefully looked at us, top to bottom, inside and out. Nothing remains hidden. Nothing has been left uncovered. As a result, God knows us completely.
 

That may give us an eerie feeling. Even those we love the most and are closest to do not know absolutely everything about us. We may have revealed most of ourselves, but there are always some hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, or secrets we hold back. At times we add some ‘spin’ to what we reveal. God, though, sees past our ‘spin’ and sees all that we have kept hidden. That can be unsettling when we think that God is not only the giver-of-life but also our judge.
 

On the other hand, far from being eerie and unsettling, God’s knowledge of us can and should be comforting and freeing. There is nothing more exhausting in relationships than having to pretend to be something we are not. There is no pretense in our relationship with God. The Lord has searched us and knows us, so there is no reason to pretend and no use in pretending. There is nothing we can hide even if we wanted to. This frees us to be exactly who we are.
 

When we come to God in prayer and worship, we do not have to try to keep our story straight. We just have to say, “Here we are.” When we do that, we are able to hear God say, “I am glad you are here. I love you.” That is when we finally understand that God does not love us because of whom we pretend to be, or because of whom we want to be, or because we have somehow done just enough to be worthy of God’s love. No! God loves us for who we are, and God knows who we are better than we know ourselves.
 

It is a relief when medical scans reveal nothing seriously wrong. It is the biggest relief and joy of all when the Divine Scan tells us that we have been examined closely and, no matter what was found, we are loved anyway.
 

Prayer: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen (Psalm 139:23-24)

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. Psalm 4:1


We tend to have two responses to those in a difficult situation, neither of which is particularly helpful. One response is to ignore the person. We do not ignore them because we do not care. We ignore them because we do not know what to say.

We are uncomfortable entering into their distress so we stay away. We might rationalize our inattention by saying that we do not want to bother them during their difficult time, or we do not want to seem nosy, or we are sure they already have enough on their minds, but the fact is we are not prepared to get involved and so stay away. Perhaps you have stayed away when someone was struggling or wondered where all of your ‘friends’ were when you were struggling.
 

The other response is just the opposite of the first. We crowd and say too much. We so want to make it better for the person that we bombard them with solutions and platitudes and advice. Often, those in distress are not ready to hear all that we have to say. People need time to process and to come to grips with new realities. Wounds to the spirit cannot be covered with a band-aid. Grief cannot be rushed. Hurt cannot be brushed off. Often, the best we can do is be present, listen, and keep our mouths shut. That is the middle point between ignoring and crowding.
 

This is what makes this verse in Psalm 4 so interesting: “You gave me room when I was in distress.” The psalmist is praying, asking God for help, and expressly wants a response. But he also appreciatively acknowledges that God had given him some room during his struggles. One commentator wrote that this could be translated as “You gave me some space when I was in trouble.” What an intriguing thought that God gives us some space. We usually want God to bring us immediate relief, to make everything immediately all right. God knows, though, that we need time to process and come to grips with new realities. We need time to think and adjust, time to gain perspective. Like parents who want to rush in to help their child overcome every obstacle, God may well be itching to rush in to help, but knows that we need some space. That room, that space, can be a place of great learning and growth.
 

If you have ever said or felt like saying, “Leave me alone. I’m not ready to feel better yet,” then you can appreciate this psalm. God gives us room in our distress.
 

Prayer: God of compassion, you do hear our prayers and give answer. You do stand ready to help. You also give us the room we need, even in our distress. Help us to learn and to grow in the space you provide. Never be far from us. So comfort us that we can lie down and sleep in peace trusting that you make us lie down in safety. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. Psalm 1:3


In this verse, the psalmist is speaking about people who “delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law meditate day and night.” These are the people who are like “trees planted by streams of water.” The imagery is soothing. One can picture a stream meandering through woodlands. The surrounding trees are full with leaves and flowers, since they are never thirsty. Their roots are deep in the earth and also tapped into a constant source of water. Flowing water and lush trees symbolize a vibrant life.
 

What makes the image soothing, though, is the portrayal of constancy and permanence. The trees are anchored and stand unmoved for decades. They tower above the ground for they continually grow, nourished by the living water.
 

Our lives can feel anything but anchored and unmoved. Life is more like an ever-changing whirl. We no sooner master our phones or tablets when an update changes how they work. We figure out tax forms just in time for the rules to change. We go shopping for clothes and then the fashions change. More seriously, the sudden death of a spouse or child changes everything; your employer tells you that you are no longer needed; the doctor says you have a tumor; an aging parent needs far more of your time; the stock market goes up then down, or a pandemic closes your business and changes how you shop, and cancels your plans, and keeps you away from family and friends. We often feel more like flotsam being hurled down a raging river than we do a tree planted by streams of water.
 

The psalmist is not saying that we can somehow avoid disruption. The psalmist is saying that concentrating on God and God’s ways is what holds us steady when the storms of life are raging. Scripture teaches that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. God is constant. The trees in the psalm are healthy and prospering because they are rooted in life-giving water. We also flourish when we are rooted in God’s word. It is not a promise that we will have no challenges. Trees get buffeted by the wind and barraged by floodwaters. It is the promise that we can be steadfast whatever life delivers.
 

Do not bounce around from trend to trend, tweet to tweet, post to post, or opinion to opinion. Instead, delight in the law of the Lord and on that law meditate day and night. Sink your roots into the living water and be refreshed.
 

Prayer: God of the ages, you are unmoving and unchanging. Your ways are the ways that keep us steady. You are the firm ground that grips our roots and the water that nourishes us. Don’t let us be blown about by the winds of life, but make us like trees planted by streams of water. Keep us always focused on you. In the name of our unwavering Savior, Amen.

I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church. 3 John 1:9


The apostles founded churches, but they did not stay to lead them. Their calling was to travel from place to place seeking new converts and starting new churches. Consequently, once a congregation was established and leaders were developed, the apostles moved on. They would stay in touch with the churches through letters and with messages conveyed by friends passing through. They would visit themselves when able. Mostly, though, the apostles depended on the local leaders they had developed to represent them.
 

One such local leader, named Diotrephes, had gotten out of control. He refused to acknowledge the apostles’ authority and refused to provide hospitality to the traveling missionaries, who aided the apostles in the spread of the gospel and depended on the hospitality and financial support of the churches. Apparently, Diotrephes went so far as to expel from the church any who did provide hospitality to these missionaries.
 

This was a threat to the larger mission and John could not stand for it. His third letter was a personal letter to Gaius, who probably was not involved in the church being led by Diotrephes, and who evidently had some wealth. John asked Gaius to provide support for the missionaries with the promise that he would go and personally confront Diotrephes.
 

It is both disturbing and comforting to read about this leadership squabble. Comforting . . . in that it shows this kind of thing has gone on from the beginning and is not new to us, and the church has survived it for two thousand years. Disturbing . . . in that it shows that ego and power struggles infiltrate the church just as they infiltrate every other organization. Instead of modeling the ways of Christ, so-called leaders jockey for position and power and control, completely ignoring a seminal teaching of Jesus that we are called to be foot-washers, not foot-washees. The time and energy spent on these power feuds hurt the gospel and failed to demonstrate the reign of God.
 

We should be thankful for servant leaders who do model the ways of Christ. We should also be thankful for the Gaiuses of this world, who just keep doing what is right and keep things moving forward. They are the backbone of the church.
 

Prayer: Powerful God, your Son surrendered divine authority and humbled himself for our salvation. He made himself a servant instead of a king. Inspire us to reach for a basin and towel instead of a crown. Remind us that all power and glory belong to you. Direct us to seek righteousness, not titles. Make us humble servants of each other. In the name of the obedient Christ, Amen.

Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead, I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 2 John 12
 

Three letters of John are included in scripture. The latter two are quite short and conclude in the same way. John tells the readers that he has much to say, but prefers to say it in person. His desire to speak face-to-face, rather than write, surely was not just because paper and ink were expensive, or that writing was tedious. Some things are better said in person.
 

Communication is far simpler today than when John was writing. He had to scrawl on parchment, and his letters had to be hand-delivered by the next person going that way. That could take days, weeks, or even months. Today, using the phones in our pockets, we can email, text, or tweet our message and have it instantly delivered. We can even use the phone to call (imagine!) and speak with someone. FaceTime type apps make conversations almost face-to-face. These technological advancements are extremely convenient, useful, and helpful. It is simply amazing that we can press a few buttons and speak with someone practically anywhere in the world.
 

It does not change the fact, however, that some things are better said in person. Nothing replaces eye contact, body language, voice tone, and the intimacy of being in someone’s presence. An email exchange is simply not the same as a face-to-face conversation. John had some things about the faith that he wanted to share. He also had some difficult conversations ahead of him. Some people (he called them deceivers) were teaching falsely about Christ and believers were listening to them. In one case, as we shall see in tomorrow’s devotion, a leader in the church was causing dissension. These were not matters to be handled by writing.
 

Technology has given us the ability to communicate quickly and efficiently. It has also given us the excuse to avoid difficult conversations. Rather than meet in person to work through challenges and issues, we rely on messaging. John, in today’s context, would probably email, “Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not email or text; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face-to-face.” After all, some things are better said in person.
Prayer: Parent God, enable us to see you in the faces of your children. Empower us to hear you in the sounds of nature and the voices of your prophets. Let us feel your presence in our hearts. Come to us and abide in us. In the name of the Incarnate One, Amen.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:9-11


Let’s be honest. Some people are hard to love. Their words and actions and attitudes are off-putting, even offensive. You try to be nice, but they rebuff you and refuse to be nice in return. After a while, it is common to ask why we should love them, for they have certainly done nothing to earn or deserve love.


John answers our question, and it is a simple answer. We are to love others because God loves us. John would turn our question back on us. Why should God love us? We dwell in sin and darkness. We have done nothing to earn or deserve God’s love. So, why should God bother with us? Yet, God sent his only Son to die so we can live. God loved us that much! The reality is that love given only when it is earned or deserved is not really love. Love neither keeps score nor sets requirements. Love that is genuine is love that is given despite being underserved. Is this not what makes God’s love for us so amazing? It is while we were yet sinners that Jesus died for us, not after we got our acts together that Christ died for us.
 

It is said the sign of a good marriage is when both think the other got the better deal. This is because it signals a surprising joy on the part of both that the other actually loves him or her that much. It is that humble, “Wow, he/she knows me and still loves me anyway.” It is that attribute of ‘loving anyway’ that makes love genuine. God loves us ‘anyway.’ John says to do the same with others.
 

Indeed, John makes clear that God sets the tone in all respects. God loves us, so we should love others. God forgives us, so we should forgive others. God treats us with grace, so we should be gracious with others.
 

Yes, some people can be hard to love. Of course, we may be hard to love too. Undoubtedly, we still want others to love us anyway. We certainly want God to love us anyway - so we should just follow Christ’s lead and love anyway. No surprise there.
 

Prayer: God of Love, it was while we were yet sinners that your Son died for us. You did not wait for us to love you or for us to deserve your love before you gave us your only Son. Thank you for your amazing grace. Give us hearts as big as yours. Help us to love as you love. We ask in the name of the One who loves us unconditionally, Amen.

Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. 2 Peter 1:12-15
 

I told my children the same life lessons over and over again as they were growing up. I still try to slip these nuggets in, even though they are well into adulthood. My repetitiveness has not been prompted by a fear that they have failed to grasp the teaching or because they have ignored the guidance. No, I come off as a broken record because we all need to constantly be reminded of the foundational principles on which we stand as believers. I want my voice reciting these principles to echo in my children’s heads long after I am gone.
 

Peter had the same desire for his congregations. He may have heard complaints about saying the same things over and over because in this passage he defended his repetitiveness. He said that he planned to keep on going over the same things, even though the people already knew them because it was right to keep refreshing their memories. In fact, he felt a sense of urgency to remind them because his death was imminent, and he wanted them to be able to hear his voice after he was gone.
 

Lest we get tired of hearing the same sermons or teachings over and over, we should remember that there are many other voices constantly beating their same drums. Indeed, we are daily bombarded with messages telling us things like we are unworthy of God’s love, we should only look out for number one, other people are less valuable than we are, or that it is fine to lie and cheat to get ahead. Messages of hate and prejudice and vengeance and greed are regularly pounded into our ears. The din of these other voices can confuse us and cause us to forget the truth we know.
 

This is why it is important to remind each other of what is true: we love because God loves us; we show grace because God is gracious with us; we are to be holy because God is holy. By his blood, Christ has saved us from the power of sin. As a forgiven and reconciled people, we are called into a new life that models the life of our Lord. It is imperative that we keep telling each other these basic truths over and over and over again so that we never forget them.
 

Peter intended to do just that for as long as he had breath. He wanted to so instill the truth in the followers that they would never forget. My children sometimes roll their eyes at my repetitiveness. Those early believers may have rolled their eyes at Peter. It did not stop him. Rolling eyes should not stop us.
 

Prayer: God of Truth, so many voices try to drown out your voice. They speak against you and distort the truth. Instruct your apostles and prophets and preachers to tell us the good news of Christ over and over. Open our ears to listen. Always refresh our memories. In Christ’s name, we pray, Amen.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. I Peter 2:9-10
 

When an inquiring person says, “Tell me about yourself,” I wonder how many first respond, “I am a Christian.” How many say that they are part of a ‘royal priesthood’ or a ‘holy nation’? Few probably do. This is partly because we do not speak in that way today. To say that we belong to a royal priesthood would only cause others to stare, wondering what we are talking about. The other reason we may not answer that way, though, is because we have not fully claimed our identity.
 

Peter was making a strong claim in this letter. From his perspective, once people came into a relationship with Jesus, everything changed. It was not that they now subscribed to a new religion. It was that they were now new creations – completely made over in the image of Christ. Belief also meant a spiritual bonding with other believers and a share in the mission. They were saved people belonging to God, so they were to live like it. They were to be holy because God was holy. They were to be like priests, mediating the grace of God. They were to be God’s representatives in the world. Christ brought you from darkness to light, Peter was saying, so proclaim Christ’s mighty acts.
 

The movie Miracle, the story of the 1980 U.S.A. hockey team, includes a scene in which coach Herb Brooks kept asks each player whom they play for. Each answer with the name of their college or university. Brooks makes them skate laps and then asks again. Finally, one player answered that he plays for the United States. That was the answer for which the coach was waiting. They were not a collection of players representing different schools. They were a team, with each player representing one country. In a similar way, Peter was telling the early Christians that they no longer ‘played’ for a particular town, or family, or synagogue. They were now one body and all ‘played’ for Jesus.
 

This has not changed. Our baptism means that first and foremost we are followers and representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ. How we act, and speak, and live derive from that identity. Our citizenship is in a holy nation. Good citizenship requires loyalty to Christ. Before telling others about ourselves by saying where we live, or where we work, or who our relatives are, or to what groups we belong, we might start by saying we are children of God, redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ. That answer might raise a few eyebrows, but it is the truest thing we can say.
 

Prayer: Redeeming God, because of your mercy, we belong to you. Because of your grace, we are your people. Inspire us to live as your people, holy and faithful. May our very lives reflect your goodness and love. Make us good citizens of your holy nation. We pray in the name of our Savior, Amen.

If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships; though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. James 3:3-5


Everyone, at one time or another, has said something they wished they could have taken back. Often in anger, sometimes just carelessly, we say things that are mean, or hurtful, or spiteful. Our words are impactful. It is not unusual to remember, years later, something said to us that was hurtful. Personal and community relationships falter because of ill-spoken words. The old adage that “sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me” is just not true.
 

James considered damaging speech so dangerous for the Christian community that he devoted a complete chapter of his five-chapter letter to it. Do not underestimate the power of the tongue, he warned. It is a small member of the body, but just as a spark can ignite a forest fire, a rudder can steer a large ship, and a bit can direct a horse, so can the tongue “boast of great exploits.” Earlier in his letter James advised us to be, “quick to listen and slow to speak.” Consider this old nursery rhyme: “A wise old owl lived in an oak. The more he saw the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?” Because the tongue is so powerful, it is not too much to say that careful speech is a Christian duty.
 

Of course, not all speech is negative. Indeed, if words were only harmful, it would behoove us to be mute. Words can tear down, but words can also build up. Words of praise, hope, comfort, and encouragement are as refreshing as a healing salve. It is amazing how a compliment can put a spring in our step. A single word of encouragement can give us the courage to act. A word of hope can lessen our fears. Words full of laughter can make us smile. We absolutely should not be mute. We just want to be sure to speak words that strengthen relationships and not words that destroy relationships.
 

Our best words are reserved for God – words of praise, thanksgiving, and witness. We need a tongue to “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” In fact, as Charles Wesley said, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.” There is power in your tongue. Use it well.
 

Prayer: O God, who spoke creation into existence, you sent your Word to dwell among us. Your Word made flesh was a word of love and grace and redemption. Give us wisdom when choosing our words, that they may be words of healing and peace. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? James 2:1


James had noticed something that he considered disturbing. Assemblies of believers were more welcoming and hospitable toward newcomers who were obviously well-to-do than they were to those obviously poor. He thought that if distinctions were going to be made, it should actually be the reverse, with the poor getting more attention. Mostly though, he thought no distinctions should be made at all. James did not want the church to embrace the same judgments and hierarchies common in society. He reminded the believers that the “royal law” was to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Showing partiality for any reason violated that law.


Literature related to church hospitality consistently points out this exact concern today. Pastors and greeters and worshippers welcome new people unevenly. Families may get a lot of attention while single persons are ignored. A professional person may be shown deference while a laborer is handed a bulletin with nary a word. Color, age, gender, or appearance can influence the welcome. These distinctions are usually subtly made and are often not intentional. The distinctions are made, nevertheless. Church visitors sense almost immediately if they are genuinely welcome or not.
 

Clearly this is not new, since James spoke of it two thousand years ago, and it was a concern of Paul’s as well. It also is not restricted to church. New residents to a neighborhood may be instantly embraced, be looked upon with suspicion, or be mostly ignored. Why the different reception? Judgments are made. Welcome can be experienced differently in service clubs, social clubs, workplaces, and volunteer groups.
 

James is warning us to be alert to this reality. The law is to love our neighbor, not love the neighbor we want to love. In his letter James wonders, if we show favoritism, do we really believe in Jesus? We all gravitate to some more than others. We have to resist this natural gravitational pull, however. This is especially true in the community of faith. Anyone who loves the Lord is a brother or sister – no distinctions. That, thankfully, includes each of us.
 

Prayer: God of all, you have made each of us in unique and special ways. You love each of us for who we are. Open our hearts to love in the same way. Give us eyes to see specialness, not difference. Help us to value each of your children in the same way. Include all of us in your family. We ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

In Caesarea, there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. Acts 10:1-2
 

Luke gives the impression that Cornelius was a good man. He was generous and God-fearing. He was the kind of man most congregations would be pleased to have as a member. Cornelius could not be part of the Christian community, however, for the simple reason that he was a Gentile. All of the disciples were Jews, and the Christian movement was assumed to be a Jewish-only affair. It was not that Jews and Gentiles were not mortal enemies. They interacted at times, primarily in business. Gentiles were even allowed in the outer region of the Temple. Still, the disciples had all grown up being taught that Gentiles were ‘unclean.’ One might know Gentiles, and conduct business with Gentiles, maybe even work with Gentiles, but you did not eat with Gentiles, or go into their homes, or send your children on play dates with their children. Thus, the Jewish-Christians in Caesarea may well have admired, even liked, Cornelius, but they would never have invited him to church.
 

So it is that when Peter had a vision of God directing him to eat food that was not kosher and then received a God-given directive to visit Cornelius, he was very uncomfortable. In fact, the first thing he said to Cornelius’s gathered household was, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) He was saying that he was there because God made him come. As it turned out, the Holy Spirit came upon all gathered there and Peter baptized Cornelius and the entire household.
 

This was an ‘aha moment’ for Peter. He said what he would never have said before that moment. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34) From then on Peter was open to Gentiles being part of the body of Christ. He was one of the few. Peter was criticized in Jerusalem for going to the home of a Gentile and eating with a Gentile. Later, when Paul and Barnabas welcomed Gentiles in the church at Antioch, they were challenged. A very intense meeting of all of the church leaders in Jerusalem followed so that they could debate the issue of Gentile inclusion. Peter’s testimony about his visit to the house of Cornelius helped to sway the decision to allow Gentiles to be included.
 

Peter changed his mind when he met Cornelius and experienced the Holy Spirit being poured out on Gentiles. As is most often the case, relationship and personal experience made the difference. We have to wonder if he would have ever changed the opinion with which he grew up without that experience. We have to wonder how many opinions would change today if people of diverse backgrounds would go into each other’s houses and watch the Holy Spirit work. Maybe everyone could finally say, “We truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
 

Prayer: God of the stranger, sometimes we have to meet Cornelius face-to-face before we can see him differently. Sometimes we need to witness your love being given to a stranger before a stranger becomes a friend. Send us where we do not want to go so we can see as you see. In the name of the One who died for all, Amen.

When [Saul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. Acts 9:26-27


The name Barnabas means ‘son of encouragement.’ This apostle was aptly named. Actually, his birth name was Joseph. The other apostles gave him the name Barnabas. It is clear from this name change that they experienced him as an encourager. Barnabas is one who gave all of his assets to the community and, apparently, worked to keep the spirits of the others high. He was not the pack leader - he was the den mother.


In today’s lesson, Barnabas was the one who introduced Paul to the disciples in Jerusalem and vouched for him. The disciples were understandably wary, given the fact that the last time they saw Paul he was trying to arrest them and have them executed. Barnabas smoothed the way. Later, he worked with Paul in the church at Antioch and accompanied him on missionary journeys. Paul was forceful and direct; Barnabas had a softer side. They made a good pair. On one missionary journey, John Mark quit and went home. When it was time for another missionary trip, Paul refused to let John Mark join them. He had quit before. That was that. Barnabas pleaded with Paul to allow John Mark a second chance. Once again he was playing the role of the encourager. Paul refused. So, Paul took Silas and went one way, and Barnabas took John Mark and went another.


Peter, John, and Paul are the headliners in the Book of Acts. They were the leaders who set the tone for the community and advanced the mission. Every community needs such leaders. Every community also needs a Barnabas, preferably more than one. The encouragers are the ones sensitive to what others are thinking or feeling. They stand prepared to offer a kind word or a word of hope, or assure the faltering that things will be all right. The Peters and Pauls give orders. The Barnabases give hugs. If the Peters and Pauls leave a wake, the Barnabases calm the waters. The Peters and Pauls give folks a needed push. The Barnabases hold their hands.
 

Paul almost singlehandedly spread the gospel throughout the Gentile world, founding church after church. His letters ultimately filled much of the New Testament. His greatness in the development of the Christian Church is undeniable. Before he was great, though, he was persona non grata in the Church. It was Barnabas, the son of encouragement, who smoothed the way. He vouched for Paul and told the believers to accept him. Even the greatest need a little encouragement. Barnabas provided so much encouragement for Paul and so many others that they gave him his name. That makes him pretty great, too.
 

Prayer: Hospitable God, we thank you for those in our lives who encourage us. When we are troubled, they comfort us. When we are discouraged, they give a word of hope. When we are unsure, they reassure us. Thank you for them, and help us to be a Barnabas for others. In Christ’s name, Amen.

The Lord said to [Ananias], “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul.” Acts 9:11


This was not the instruction from the Lord that Ananias was expecting or wanting. He knew who Saul was. Just in case God did not, Ananias filled him in. Saul had done much evil to the saints in Jerusalem and now had authority from the chief priests to arrest any believers. This was a man Ananias wanted to hide from, not go meet. God was insistent, though, so Ananias went as directed.


It is a hard thing to offer aid and comfort and hope to those who have caused harm to you or those you love. When God instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach repentance, Jonah headed in the opposite direction. Why? It is because the Ninevites had caused great harm to Israel and Jonah hated them. He feared that, if he preached repentance, the Ninevites would actually repent and God would forgive them. Jonah did not want them forgiven - he wanted them destroyed. In many places in scripture, we read prayers for the destruction of enemies, not restoration. When Jesus instructed his disciples to pray for their enemies, they may have secretly thought that was ridiculous.


Now God was sending Ananias to Saul, the leading persecutor of Christians. Most would have thought that, if Saul was blinded on the road to Damascus, it was a good thing. Let him stay blind; he deserved it. Not Ananias. God told him Saul had been chosen for a special mission. So, Ananias went to help.
 

It is hard but incumbent on Christians to see people for what they can be, not for what they have been. The past does not have to be the future. Someone may be disreputable now, but God is not finished with them. Christian history is rife with saints who were at one time, nasty people. It is astounding how many Christian giants had shadowy pasts. Saul is a prime example.
 

Do all of the Sauls of this world change from being persecutors to being evangelists and missionaries? They do not, of course. Not every sinner is a saint waiting to happen. People do change, though, sometimes dramatically. Our job is to first repent, confess our own sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Secondly, we are to pray for those causing harm, asking that their hearts can be changed. Finally, when God tells us to go and meet those who have caused harm, go. Who knows? That person may be waiting hopefully for us to come.
 

Prayer: O God who changes hearts, change our hearts to be forgiving and accepting hearts. Help us to see the potential in each other. Give us the grace to pray for our enemies and the grace to forgive. May we trust in your converting power. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” Acts 8:18-19


The apostles were great preachers who powerfully proclaimed the gospel in ways that led people to believe in Jesus. Still, a large part of their appeal resulted from the many signs and wonders they performed, such as miraculous healings and dramatic exorcisms. These wonders backed up their words and inspired people to join their movement.
 

One such person was Simon, a magician in Samaria. We are not told what ‘magic tricks’ he did, but we are told he had amazed people with his magic and it was said of him that he had the power of God. When Philip came to town, though, he performed greater wonders, impressing even Simon. Simon chose to be baptized and followed Philip everywhere. Converting a sorcerer like Simon to the faith was a real evangelistic coup. Was he converted though? When Peter and John came to town and imparted the Holy Spirit on the new believers by laying their hands on them, Simon’s eyes opened wide. It was an even better ‘trick’ than anything Philip had done. Simon offered to pay Peter and John for a share of that power.
 

This was the clue that Simon had not become a follower to be a disciple of Christ – he joined in so he could be a more impressive magician. The more ‘power’ he had, the more money he could make. Peter called him on it, saying, “You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God.” (Acts 8:21)
 

The easy lesson here is that there are charlatans who exploit religion for their own gain. They know how to put on a show and manipulate people saying all the ‘right’ words and doing their ‘magic’ all for their profit. We should be wary of them.
 

The harder lesson is that we need to constantly scrutinize our own motives for following Christ. Are we trying to please someone in the family? Is it good business to be Christian and go to the ‘right’ church? Do we think we will get a better deal from God, in this life and the next? Are we trying to earn God’s forgiveness and redemption? Why do we profess belief in Christ?
 

The one reason - motive - to follow is because we believe Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and by his grace, we are saved from the power of sin and death. That is motive enough.
 

Prayer: God of grace, we ask nothing of you except your love and grace. That is sufficient for all our needs. Let us follow you with open eyes and hearts, seeking nothing but your glory and the privilege to be called your children. In Christ’s holy name we pray, Amen.

Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. Acts 8:4-5


The persecution of Christians, led by Saul and others, could have been a disaster for the new believers. At a minimum, it was a crisis. Instead of being a tight-knit community supporting each other, believers were now scattered far and wide. There was potential for the community to weaken and the movement to fall apart.
 

That is not what happened, however. In a very real way, the crisis actually aided the mission. Remember, at the time of his ascension, Christ commanded his followers to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. The key verb in the command was go. They were not instructed to stay in Jerusalem and build a megachurch. They were to take the gospel throughout the world. Philip and others used their forced exit from Jerusalem to do just that. They started preaching and healing in the regions surrounding their new homes. In today’s reading, Philip went to the city of Samaria. Later in the chapter, he would go to Gaza. There he converted and baptized an Ethiopian court official who, most likely, gave witness to his newfound faith in Ethiopia.
 

It is not fair to say that, in retrospect, the persecution was a blessing. It created many hardships for the Christian community and completely disrupted the lives of many believers. Persecution surely was not a blessing in their minds. It did extend the reach of the apostles, however, and enabled more people to hear the good news of Jesus. Would they eventually have left Jerusalem to carry the message outward, if they had not been pushed? The answer lies somewhere between probably, maybe, and we don’t know. What we do know is that they used the opportunity forced upon them for the benefit of the gospel.
 

The words crisis and opportunity are written with the same character in Chinese. Hardships, challenges, and setbacks come to all of us. They can be painful, disrupting, even devastating. They should not be minimized. Hurt to one’s life should never be dismissed as nothing. Yet, have we all not had at least one experience when a major setback later did prove to be a blessing in disguise? In a time of hardship, it is always possible to ask how the crisis might be used to serve the Lord. Philip found a way. The Christ-given mission of evangelism benefitted because of it.
 

Prayer: God of purpose, when our way is blocked, show us a new way. When our plans fail, give us new plans. When we are crushed by life, lift the weight, and stand us up in a new place. Share with us the victory won by your Son. In his name we pray, Amen.

And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:1


The council was not content just executing Stephen. The rage they felt as they threw stones at his defenseless body became focused on the entire Christian community. The Church, which had enjoyed the goodwill of the people up to this point, now faced severe persecution.


One of the leaders of the persecution was a young man who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen and who approved of the killing. His name was Saul. He was soon one of the men most feared by Christians. Saul had a dramatic conversion experience when Jesus blinded him on the road to Damascus. When his sight was restored, his name changed to Paul, and he became a devout Christian and ultimately the preeminent evangelist of the Church and the writer of much of the New Testament.


He was an extraordinarily changed man, but not as much as we might think. Yes, his opinion of Jesus was completely changed, from nonbeliever to devoted disciple, but this is what did not change - he kept the same single-mindedness of purpose. This single-mindedness made him an exceptional persecutor and exceptional evangelist. He remained determined - first determined to track down believers as a persecutor, and then determined to make disciples and start new churches as an evangelist. He remained committed – first going anywhere to find hiding Christians, and then going anywhere to tell the good news of Christ. He was always an excellent debater. He could tell you why Christians were wrong and later tell you why Christians were right. He was resolute in his beliefs – first being convinced that the Jesus movement was ruining Judaism, and then being convinced that Jesus was saving Israel and the world.


The odd truth is that the attributes so often used for evil are the same attributes that can serve the good. Jesus needed a focused, determined, courageous, capable, committed believer to take the gospel to the Gentile nations. Jesus needed a man just like Saul, only with a different heart. Jesus did not want to change Saul - he only wanted to change his heart and mind. It makes one wonder if the people the Lord needs today are the very people we would least expect.
 

Prayer: God of Wisdom, the abilities you give your children can be used or abused. They can be used for the good or used to cause harm. Give us hearts that cause us to use your gifts for your purpose and desire. Blind us when we are not seeing correctly and give us new sight. Stop us when we are traveling in the wrong direction and set us on the right path. In all things, let us glorify you. In the name of the Lord Jesus, Amen.

Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. Acts 6:11-12


A group of men, all belonging to the synagogue of the Freedmen (Hellenistic Jews who had once been slaves, now freed) disputed with Stephen. They did not like his theology and argued with him, with the intent of setting him straight. Instead, Stephen rebuked them. As Luke put it, “They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” (Acts 6:10) Unable to discredit Stephen in debate, the Freedmen had others lie about what Stephen was teaching, and soon the young apostle found himself before the council.


Stephen used the opportunity to give a long dissertation on the Israelite’s history, beginning with Abraham. He included in his speech the times the people rejected Moses and the prophets and concluded his speech by telling the council members that they were no better. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (Acts 7:51) Stephen’s boldness and accusations enraged the listeners, and they dragged him outside of town and stoned him to death. This made Stephen the first Christian martyr. He would not, of course, be the last.


It can be argued that Stephen was foolish, careless with his life. He did not have to debate the Freedmen. They were not interested in honest debate. They were only interested in backing him into a corner, hoping to discredit him,and thus the Christian movement. Instead of taking the bait, he could have just walked away. When brought before the council, he could have answered their questions far less provocatively. He needn’t have called them stiff-necked or betrayers and murderers of the Righteous One. Had he been quieter and more respectful, the worst that would have happened was probably a beating. Instead, Stephen never backed down and even went on the offensive. This led to his death.
 

Was that foolishness? Foolishness is in the eye of the beholder. Surely there are times to just walk away and times to just be quiet. Not everything is worth suffering or even dying for. Some things are, though. Stephen believed that speaking the truth and standing up for Jesus was worth dying for. Few have his courage, but equally few can disagree with his stand. Jesus called on his disciples to follow him – all the way to the cross. What does that mean to you? Are you, like Stephen, willing to suffer or die for the sake of Jesus? Most will never have to, but the question stands.
 

Prayer: Righteous God, we thank you for the courage and the witness of those who lift Jesus up despite the peril it brings upon them. We thank you for those who willingly go to prison or to the grave for the sake of the gospel. Make us equally resolute and courageous that we may never deny our Lord. In the name of the One who died for us, Amen.

And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Acts 5:12b-13
 

The apostles made it a habit of preaching in Solomon’s Portico, a colonnade on the eastern side of the Temple’s Outer Court. There they performed “many signs and wonders.” Crowds gathered to hear them and to see the signs and to be healed. Indeed, people came from the towns around Jerusalem for healing and inspiration. Luke tells us that great numbers of believers were added to the Lord.
 

Tucked quietly in this exciting report of missionary success is the sentence, “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” This begs the question: If they held them in such high esteem, why did they dare not join them?
 

One obvious answer is that they feared the authorities. The apostles were on Temple grounds violating Temple rules. It would only be a matter of time before the authorities cracked down on them, and maybe on those supporting them. This was not an unreasonable fear. The priests did, in fact, have the apostles arrested.
 

They may also have feared the opinions of their neighbors. Admiring some of what the apostles were doing was one thing. Buying into their message was another. The social cost of becoming a follower of this movement would be huge. Unwilling to pay that cost, they dared not join them.
 

Maybe they were reluctant to join because it was all too strange for them, or they just were not convinced by the message, or they thought it would require changes in their lives that they were not willing to make. Obviously they considered the apostles to be good people doing good things. After all, they held them in high esteem. They were not dismissing them as crackpots or trouble makers. Nevertheless, they dared not join them.
 

It is this ‘dared not’ piece that holds my attention. If Luke had written that they chose not to join them, I would think that they were just not convinced and would give it no more thought. To say that they ‘dared not’ suggests that they feared something. It means that they may have wanted to join them, but were afraid to join them. Something was holding them back.


What that something was ultimately does not matter. We can never know, and undoubtedly the answer would be different with each person even if we did know. What matters is identifying what makes us ‘dare not’ join the apostles in Solomon’s Portico; in other words, join with Christians in a public place. Is there something we fear?


Prayer: God of wonders, so often we see signs and miracles but do not stop to acknowledge them or to give witness to them. We are impressed, but not moved. Do not allow us to fear so that we dare not witness and dare not join other disciples in proclaiming the Word. Give us the courage to be public believers. In the name of the Healer, Amen.

“. . . if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case, you may even be found fighting against God.” Acts 5:38b-39


The religious leaders were beside themselves. They continued to arrest the apostles and to order them not to speak, and the apostles continued to speak anyway. The apostles were unmoved. “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” they told the leaders. The leaders became so enraged at one point that Luke tells us they wanted to kill the apostles. Luke was not using a figure of speech. We know what they did with Jesus.


This was when Gamaliel, a highly respected council member, spoke up. He reminded the others of previous times when charismatic leaders garnered large followings but, in each case, the movements were short-lived and quickly died out when the leaders died. There was no reason to fret over the apostles, Gamaliel counseled. Their movement would also quickly die. . . UNLESS! Unless Gamaliel went on, the movement was of God, in which case the religious leaders would not be able to stop it.


It was wise advice and probably saved the apostles' lives at that moment. Gamaliel’s counsel brings two thoughts to mind. One is that just the fact the Church still exists today is the surest proof the Church is of God. Given the constant attacks on the Church from the outside, and the head-scratching amount of foolhardiness within the Church itself, not just now but over the centuries, the Church should have collapsed long ago. Instead, there is ongoing reform and God continually raises up apostles and disciples and prophets and priests and the Church carries on. Those who love the Church the most are the first to say, “It is only by the grace of God that we are here.”


More importantly, Gamaliel’s counsel is a reminder that God’s plans cannot be thwarted. The religious leaders could have ignored his advice and executed the apostles that day. That would have been a tragedy. It would not have stopped the spread of the gospel, however. God would have found other witnesses. Every story of the advancement of God’s reign includes accounts of setbacks. A key leader dies at an inopportune time; necessary funding for a project is lost; natural disasters, pandemics, wars, depressions interrupt missionary progress. Undertakings get delayed, sometimes for a generation or more. Undertakings get delayed, but not stopped. God patiently works around the roadblocks humans put up. When people are especially stubborn, God is water on the rock. The Grand Canyon was not carved out in a day, but carved out it was.


Have faith in the enduring power of God. “If it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” Gamaliel got it right.
 

Prayer: O God, our hope of ages past, our hope for years to come, you will not be defeated. Even when your son was sent to the grave, you restored his life. Help us to be faithful to your will and to trust in your ways, even when it seems that all is lost. Hasten the day when your reign will be fully realized on earth. In the name of the Eternal One, Amen.

And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Acts 5:12b-13
 

The apostles made it a habit of preaching in Solomon’s Portico, a colonnade on the eastern side of the Temple’s Outer Court. There they performed “many signs and wonders.” Crowds gathered to hear them and to see the signs and to be healed. Indeed, people came from the towns around Jerusalem for healing and inspiration. Luke tells us that great numbers of believers were added to the Lord.
 

Tucked quietly in this exciting report of missionary success is the sentence, “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” This begs the question: If they held them in such high esteem, why did they dare not join them?
 

One obvious answer is that they feared the authorities. The apostles were on Temple grounds violating Temple rules. It would only be a matter of time before the authorities cracked down on them, and maybe on those supporting them. This was not an unreasonable fear. The priests did, in fact, have the apostles arrested.
 

They may also have feared the opinions of their neighbors. Admiring some of what the apostles were doing was one thing. Buying into their message was another. The social cost of becoming a follower of this movement would be huge. Unwilling to pay that cost, they dared not join them.
 

Maybe they were reluctant to join because it was all too strange for them, or they just were not convinced by the message, or they thought it would require changes in their lives that they were not willing to make. Obviously they considered the apostles to be good people doing good things. After all, they held them in high esteem. They were not dismissing them as crackpots or trouble makers. Nevertheless, they dared not join them.
 

It is this ‘dared not’ piece that holds my attention. If Luke had written that they chose not to join them, I would think that they were just not convinced and would give it no more thought. To say that they ‘dared not’ suggests that they feared something. It means that they may have wanted to join them, but were afraid to join them. Something was holding them back.


What that something was ultimately does not matter. We can never know, and undoubtedly the answer would be different with each person even if we did know. What matters is identifying what makes us ‘dare not’ join the apostles in Solomon’s Portico; in other words, join with Christians in a public place. Is there something we fear?


Prayer: God of wonders, so often we see signs and miracles but do not stop to acknowledge them or to give witness to them. We are impressed, but not moved. Do not allow us to fear so that we dare not witness and dare not join other disciples in proclaiming the Word. Give us the courage to be public believers. In the name of the Healer, Amen.

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 5:1-2
 

All in the earliest community of believers were turning their assets over to the apostles so that they could be distributed for the welfare of all in the community. Ananias and Sapphira chose not to do that. When they sold some property, they turned over only part of the profit and secretly held some back for themselves. In a startling twist to the story, we read that when Peter confronted them about this deceit, they both immediately dropped dead.
 

Over the years I often joked that this passage is the best stewardship text in scripture. All the pastor has to do is read the passage and then say, “This is what happens when you do not give.” The fact is, though, this passage really has nothing to do with money or giving. It is about truth-telling.
 

Peter told Ananias that the land had been his and that, after selling it, the proceeds were at his disposal to use however he wanted. The problem was not that he held back some of the proceeds. The problem was that he lied about it. He pretended that he was giving all that he had made. Ananias and Sapphira did something far more damaging to the early church than disturb the economic system - they breached the circle of trust.
 

This first community of believers was very fragile. For one thing, they had little in common except for a common belief in Jesus as the risen Lord and Savior. Diversity is a wonderful, but also tenuous, condition. Mostly though, being followers of The Way put them at odds with the rest of society. Many were ostracized from their families. Others were at odds with neighbors and co-workers. The government looked askance at them and the Jewish religious leaders loathed them. This means that for all intents and purposes, they only had each other. They had to depend on each other, and support each other, and stand with each other. If the community was going to be able to survive, the members had to be able to trust each other. Ananias and Sapphira broke that trust.


Trust is an essential component of any healthy organization, be it a family, church, business, neighborhood, or even country. When trust is lost, relationships suffer, and when relationships suffer, the life of the organization is at risk. The sudden death of Ananias and Sapphira was a shocking development in the story. We might expect that they would simply lose their membership in the community. Is it not true, however, that in a very real way, lying leads to death? It is something to consider whenever we set out to deceive.


Prayer: God of truth, we can always depend on your word. You are the way and the truth and the life. Help us to be truth-tellers and trust-builders. Make our word our bond. Teach us to be people others can trust. In the name of your True Word, Amen.

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:34-35
 

The earliest church was communal in the fullest extent of that term. Everyone turned their assets over to the apostles who, in turn, paid the bills for all in the community. How much this actually happened and how long it went on are two unknowns. This is possible when a community is small enough, and early on there were only about one hundred twenty believers. After Pentecost though, the number grew by about two thousand, and after the healing of the lame man, another five thousand. It is hard to imagine that they were all selling their land and houses. Where would they all live? This week we will also see a breakdown in the system when one couple held back resources and, later in the week, when we learn that Gentile widows were given less than Hebrew widows in the food distribution. We discover in Paul’s letters that the ‘eating together’ part of communal living was not going well. We have to assume that communal sharing was not quite as ideal as Luke lets on.
 

Still, the point being made is worth our serious reflection. While the communal system had flaws and became impractical as the church greatly expanded numerically and geographically, the idea that no one in the community had need should catch our attention. Clearly believers felt connected to each other and took seriously the welfare of each other. This was important. There were no government safety nets. The societal expectation was that families would care for family members. However, many new believers became outcasts in their families upon becoming Christian. Remember, Jesus had given warning that families would be divided. The community of believers became the family of the ostracized. So, community members shared with each other, allowing the basic human needs of all to be met.
 

In a time when ‘church shopping’ is the norm, looking for the church that meets our needs, it is intriguing to read about early Christians joining a community with the commitment to meet each others’ needs. They were not looking for the best youth group, or the best Sunday School, or the best choir, or the best preacher. They were looking for other believers with whom they could meet the challenges of life. The congregation was composed of the brothers and sisters who would stand with them facing the vagaries of life and with whom they could march into heaven. Hopefully we can say the same about our faith communities. How powerful it would be if it could be written about every church: “There was not a needy person among them.”


Prayer: Generous God, you hold nothing back from us. You even gave your Son for our redemption. Give us equally generous hearts and spirits as we join with fellow believers in faith communities. Let it be said of us that all care for all. In the name of the One who gave his life, Amen.

So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:18-20


The religious leaders had a dilemma. Peter and John had given the ability to walk to a man born lame. Everyone had seen it. The leaders could not deny it or say that it had not happened. At the same time, they could not let Peter and John heal other people or keep talking about Jesus. So, they ordered the two apostles to cease and desist. There was to be no more talk about Jesus. The leaders, comfortable in their power, assumed Peter and John would obey them and stop preaching.
 

They were wrong. The bold apostles told the leaders that there was no way they were going to stop talking about Jesus. This very pattern was repeated by all of the apostles for the rest of their lives. They spoke passionately about Jesus. The authorities arrested them or beat them or chased them out of town. As soon as they were able, the apostles would begin again speaking about Jesus. Again they would be arrested or beaten or chased out of town. So it went, until one by one they were martyred. No matter the resistance, they refused to be silenced.
 

This account and the many more like it remind us that there are believers in many parts of the world who risk imprisonment or even death when they speak boldly about Jesus. Priests under dictatorships in Central and South America, missionaries in some Islamic countries, citizens in China, appreciate the boldness of Peter and John because it is the same boldness they exhibit when they publicly speak about Jesus. We fear that family members, or neighbors, or co-workers will look askance at us if we speak too much about our Lord; they have to fear death.
 

Say a prayer today for those in harm’s way because of their faith. Pray for their safety. Give thanks for their courage. Admire their witness. Then, ask yourself, how bold are you willing to be for Jesus? Will you speak, even when others tell you not to?
 

Prayer: God of the oppressed, earthly powers continue to fight against you and to silence those who proclaim your name. Give courage to your children and protect them. Raise up witnesses to your grace and glory and to the holy name of your son, Jesus. Give us voice also, O Lord, and forever let your praise be on our lips. In the name of the Risen One, Amen.

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. Acts 4:1-3
 

It is disconcerting to read that Peter and John were arrested for no other reason other than that they were teaching something those in power did not want to be taught. It is all the more disconcerting that the ones who arrested them were the religious leaders. It is disconcerting, but should not be surprising. In many places in the world today, those teaching ‘non-sanctioned’ beliefs are arrested, tortured, and killed. Sometimes it is the powerful religious leaders doing the silencing. What happened to Peter and John is actually normative in history. The religious freedom we experience is more the exception, not the norm. We should be extremely grateful we have it, and never abuse it.
 

More broadly, this passage illustrates the human penchant to silence those we do not want to hear. Luke tells us in this passage that the religious leaders were “annoyed” by the teaching of Peter and John. What do we do when we are annoyed by the message of others? Teenagers sometimes go to their rooms, slam the door, and text all of their friends about how horrible their parents are. Neighbors might put up fences and stop communicating with each other. Consumers of the news will only watch broadcasts or read papers that support their views and ignore the rest. Co-workers might ridicule or gossip about those who annoy them. Congregations often seek a new pastor.
 

What we do not do is put those who annoy us in jail, although it is perhaps only because we do not have the power to do so. Is the intent any different, however? It is all about silencing those we do not want to hear.
 

The sad part of this story is that the religious leaders did not want to hear the good news of Christ Jesus, so they did not. Peter and John were sharing something wonderful, but the leaders had closed their ears and so missed it. This is the position we put ourselves in when we close our ears or close others’ mouths. We risk missing something we need to hear; maybe even missing something we want to hear. Who knows? The one who annoys us the most may be the very one who has a life-changing message to offer. The priests and the Sadducees were not open to that possibility. It was their loss.
 

Prayer: God of the prophets, we never know who your messengers might be. Give us open ears and open hearts to listen for your truth and the wisdom to discern your truth when we do hear it. Help us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.

“Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. . . .” Acts 3:19-20


After Peter healed the man born lame, a crowd gathered. Peter used it as an opportunity to preach. He told the people that the healing was made possible by Jesus, the one they had handed over to be crucified. He made clear their responsibility in the death of Christ. He did not speak bitterly though, just factually. Peter then set the stage for reconciliation. “I know that you acted in ignorance,” he said. With that, he encouraged them to repent.
 

Interestingly, he did not tell them to repent and accept their punishment. Instead, he urged them to repent so that their sins could be forgiven, wiped out, and, “so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
 

So often we think of repentance as our mea culpa, followed by the requisite forty lashes so that we can get on with our lives. Peter offers a completely different perspective. Repentance brings not forty lashes, but times of refreshing. When our electronics get overloaded and our smartphones get confused, they need to be refreshed. Then they operate smoothly and cleanly, as they were created to do. Repentance is our refresh button. To change the metaphor, it is pulling the laundry of our lives out of the washer and dryer, now free from stains and wrinkles, and smelling clean and, well, fresh.
 

Is there anyone of us who doesn’t crave a time of refreshing? Maybe our lives have become tangled in knots because we have acted in ignorance, as Peter suggested. Maybe our lives have become stained because we acted knowingly, ignoring God’s teaching. Maybe quietly and slowly and imperceptibly our lives just became burdened and out of sorts. The how and why do not matter. Just repent. Turn to God. Let God wipe out your sins. Make it possible for the times of refreshing to come. The times of refreshing … oh my, that sounds nice.
 

Prayer: Laundry worker God, clean our laundry. Wash us thoroughly and refresh us. Remove all stains and make us spotless before you. We turn to you, O God, trusting in your grace. We pray in the name of our Savior, Amen.

Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Acts 3:6


A man born lame, and forced to beg for his subsistence, hoped that Peter and John would give him some money on their way into the temple. Instead, Peter gave him his legs. Literally, for the first time in his entire life, the man was able to walk. The man wanted money but certainly was far happier to receive healing. It was an astonishing healing and afforded Peter an excellent opportunity to preach to the crowd that gathered around to see the lame man leaping in the air. It also irritated the religious leaders who subsequently arrested Peter and John. It became a pattern that would be repeated often.
 

I am taken by Peter’s words: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you.” Peter, in the name of Jesus, was able to give the man the ability to walk. That is a gift very few are able to match. Most, however, have something to give. We too often think that, if we do not have money to give, we have nothing to offer. If we back up in the story, we discover that everyday people carried the lame man to the gate of the temple so that he could ask for alms. These people were not in a position to pay his expenses, but they gave their time and effort to physically put him in a location where he could raise some money. They did this day in and day out. Someone else may have gotten him dressed. Another may have fixed his meals. Yet another may have cared for him when he was ill. We do not know, of course, but surely he had needs beyond getting to the temple gate. These needs were being met.
 

When we have no silver or gold, what do we have to give? Right now those who sew are making masks for health care workers and others. Some are donating and delivering meals to hospitals and fire stations. The young are shopping for the elderly. There are many, many more illustrations. When our neighbors are struggling, for whatever reasons, we might be able to offer transportation, help with yard work, technology, meal preparation, child care, and more. It all matters.
 

Peter truly did not have any money but he had something valuable to give. Our wallets may be empty, too, but surely there is something we have to offer. “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you.” What do we have to give?
 

Prayer: Giver of all good gifts, you have given the most precious gift of all, your own Son. Give to us the ability to recognize a need and to know what we have to offer. Make us generous in giving what we have to give. Help us to be good neighbors. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was added to the eleven apostles. Acts 1:26
 

Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, no longer was part of the fellowship of the disciples. Not only was he an outcast, a despised traitor; he was dead. Matthew reported that he was remorseful and took his own life. Luke tells us that he died in a fall. Regardless of the details, he was gone.


Peter wanted someone to assume Judas’ place as one of the twelve. He made clear that the person chosen had to be someone who had been with them from the very beginning. There were about one hundred twenty followers from which to choose. Two were nominated and lots were cast. The lot fell on Matthias and he became the twelfth apostle.
 

Matthias’ selection tells us that he was a person of great faith and faithfulness and highly respected by the other believers. He was clearly an important leader. Yet, his name is never mentioned in scripture again. We read about his election, and nothing else.


The point is not that he failed as an apostle. We have no reason to suspect anything other than that he served well and faithfully. So faithfully that he most likely was martyred, as were the other apostles. No, the point is that it is possible to serve well with no fanfare. Indeed, it is likely.


The voices of ‘religious leaders’ are often quoted. Being a religious leader usually means being one who pastors a mega-church, or has a television or media presence, or has powerful friends. What is often overlooked is the fact that there are thousands of ‘religious leaders’ caring for congregations and mission fields worldwide, both clergy and laity. We know their names only if we were or are in their care. They have no notoriety. They get no press. The powers-that-be do not consult them. Yet, they faithfully and tirelessly serve Christ in their respective ways. There are far more Matthiases then Peters.
 

Think today about the unknown ‘apostles’ you have met in the course of your life and give a word of thanks for them.
 

Prayer: O God, many are called to lead your people in the ways of Christ. Some volunteer, some are chosen by lot. We thank you for them and for the work that they do. Bless them that they may bless us. In the name of Jesus our Shepherd, Amen.

Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
 

These verses conclude the gospel of Matthew, and what a conclusion it is. Moments before ascending to heaven, Jesus spoke what has come to be known as the Great Commission – “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” It is one of the verses kept in the cornerstone of every church. It is the foundation on which every act of evangelism rests. Anyone who has spent any time in church has heard it, maybe even memorized it.


The goal is to continually convert nonbelievers into believers until everyone, everywhere, is a baptized believer. A closer look at Jesus’ words, though, reveals that increasing the number of believers is only part of the goal. Making disciples by baptizing in the name of the Trinity is part one. Teaching disciples to obey everything that Jesus commanded is part two.
 

This second part is no small thing. It means that we are not only to believe that Jesus is Lord, but we are also to obey Jesus as Lord. Most do well with the believing part and not so well with the obeying part. We are fine acknowledging that Jesus lives, and that Jesus loves us, and that Jesus saves us, and that Jesus accepts us as we are. We are not as quick to acknowledge that our loving, gracious Savior actually expects us to obey him. Jesus had a lot to say about how we are to use our money and our time, how we are to treat others, including enemies, and how we are to be servants instead of masters. Following Christ’s ways is the tangible expression of calling Christ Lord.
 

Think of it this way. If we are not willing to live as Jesus has commanded us to live, then what does it really mean to say we believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior? Jesus said to go and make disciples by baptizing AND by teaching obedience. He did not say to do one or the other.
 

It is good and right to tell the good news of Christ Jesus every chance we get. We want to invite people into a life-giving relationship with Jesus. In the service of full disclosure, however, we also want to be clear that believing includes following. To make that witness authentic, it helps if we not only talk the talk, but walk the walk ourselves.
 

Prayer: Beautiful Savior, you are the way and the truth and the life. Help us to follow that way, and to know the truth, and to live the life. Enable our faithful obedience to be a shining light to others so that more and more become your disciples. Amen.

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Acts 1:9-10


This is Luke’s account of Christ’s ascension. It happened on the Mount of Olives, a short distance east of Jerusalem. The ascension marked the end of resurrection appearances. Jesus would no longer be giving any additional teaching or in-person support. Traditionally, the ascension occurred forty days following Easter. The Day of Pentecost follows Easter by fifty days. Thus, in just ten more days the disciples would receive the Holy Spirit, the helper Jesus had promised them, and they would begin their evangelistic work.


We know the next part of the story. The disciples did not. To be more accurate, they did and did not know. Before ascending, Jesus told them that they should stay in Jerusalem because they were about to receive power from the Holy Spirit. After that, they would be Christ’s witnesses from Judea to the entire world. So, they technically knew what was coming next. It is not clear that they heard and grasped what he told them, however. We have reason to believe that they did not because, instead of returning to Jerusalem to wait for the Spirit, they stood in place staring at the sky. You can almost hear their hearts asking, “Where are you going?” You can almost hear their hearts shouting, “Don’t leave.” Jesus had died and was gone. Then he rose from the dead and was back. Now he was gone again. It was all very confusing and unsettling.


This was when two men in white robes asked them the blunt and jarring question, “Why do you stand looking up at heaven?” The question was, of course, rhetorical. When a supervisor finds employees huddled about the water cooler and asks why they are just standing around, it is not really a question. It is a statement meaning ‘get back to work.’ In the same way, the men in white robes were not expecting an answer. Jesus was gone. They had their marching orders. The disciples were being encouraged to get on with it.
 

There is a time for sky-gazing and a time to get on with it. Sometimes we have to catch our breaths, take stock of what has happened, and contemplate what is next. Sometimes we need a moment to stare at the sky and wonder where Jesus has gone. The time comes, however, to get on with it. The Lord has work for us to do. Too often we delay doing that work because we are busy sky-gazing. We want to think about it more. We want to pray about it more. We want to consider all of the angles more. We want to do everything except what the Lord has called us to do.
 

Jesus was clear. Stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit, and then get to witnessing. The Lord did not say anything about sky-gazing. Are you standing around looking up toward heaven? It may be time to move on.
 

Prayer: God on High, tell us what you would have us to do and set our hands and feet to doing it. Take our eyes off of the sky, and put them onto the work you would have us do. Do not allow us to delay. In the name of the ascended Christ, we pray, Amen.

Simon Peter said to (the other disciples), “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” John 21:3


The disciples had experienced the crucifixion and the resurrection. They had seen the risen Christ and knew he was alive. What they did not know was what was to happen next. It was not like things were just going to resume the way they were before the crucifixion. Jesus appeared to them, yes, but he also disappeared just as quickly. They had no clue if he would appear again or when. What were they to do?
 

Peter decided. He would go fishing. It was a decision that made perfect sense. The last days, years to be honest, had been a whirlwind. So much had happened, most of which he could not grasp. He knew how to fish, though. He knew how to read the water, and to steer the boat, and to handle the nets. It would be good to engage in the familiar. It would be good to be part of something, well, normal. “I am going fishing,” Peter announced, and the others scrambled to join him.
 

Jesus put a stop to the fishing trip. The Lord hightailed it to the beach and called them off the boat. Three times Jesus asked Peter if Peter loved him. Three times Peter answered yes. Three times Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.”
 

Many say that this threefold asking was intended to match the three times Peter had denied Jesus on the night of the arrest. This may be one of the meanings. After all, the gospel of John has more layers than the largest onion. However, it may also be as simple as the acknowledgment that the familiar was a major threat to Peter’s apostleship. He was walking in the land of the unknown, the unpredictable, the unfamiliar. This was a frightening place to be. The temptation to go back to the land of the known, the predictable, the familiar was strong. Peter had no idea how to be an apostle, but he knew how to fish. The security of the familiar was threatening to keep him from the life to which Christ had called him. “Don’t fish. Feed my sheep,” Jesus was saying.
 

In turbulent times, it is often a good idea to reach for the routine, to grasp for normalcy. It can bring some order to the chaos and calm our disturbed spirits. Turbulence often comes, however, when we are leaving where we are in order to go to where we need to be. If we fall back to the familiar then, we never get to where we need to be. This was not the time for Peter to go fishing. If you are experiencing some turbulence because of some necessary changes, it may not be a good time for you to go fishing, either.
 

Prayer: Constant God of constant change, you call us to new ways of being and doing and we want to answer that call. But it is frightening, so we fall back to what we know. Keep our feet moving forward. Help us to face the unknown, confident that you will bring us to where we need to be. Do not let us be disciples that put our hand to the plough and then look back. Make us strong. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. John 20:30


There may be no other verse in scripture more disappointing than this one. John is telling us that Jesus did many things that John was not sharing in his gospel. He said the same thing at the end of his gospel. There were simply too many things done by Jesus to record. John had neither the time nor the space.
 

It is easy to understand, but hard not to feel cheated. Is it possible to have too many stories about Jesus? Would anyone of us not be willing to read another two or three chapters or even two or three more books telling us about the teaching, signs, and miracles of our Lord?
 

That is not the point for John. Apparently he was more about quality than quantity. He believed he had told enough that “we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) He was right, although it is still disappointing not to have even more.
 

The gospels were not intended to be full biographies or complete histories. They were intended to give witness to the teaching of the Lord, offer testimony about the signs and wonders performed, and proclaim the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. “What else do we need to know?” the gospel writers would surely ask us.
 

It is a fair question. You have read the various accounts. You have heard the stories of Jesus the gospel writers chose to tell. Have the accounts they have shared led you to faith? Are you, because of the gospels, able to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the source of life? If your answer is yes, then they accomplished what they set out to do. Anything else they added would have simply been icing on the cake. Ah, but call me greedy. The cake is fine, but I still would not mind a little more icing.
 

Prayer: Magnificent God, we never tire of hearing about your Son. We inhale every story and savor the taste and aroma. Thank you for the gospel writers and for the gifts they have given. May their words give us faith. In the name of the Messiah, Amen.

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” John 20:18


Whenever the need for evangelism is discussed in the church, most become uncomfortable. All agree that it is important. After all, telling the good news is a primary responsibility of all followers of Christ. Most are content to leave that responsibility up to the preacher and maybe a few eager, gregarious souls. The rest do not want to intrude on the privacy of others, or are not quite sure what to say, or do not want to come off as being pushy.
 

Our scripture verse today references one of the greatest examples of powerful and effective evangelism ever. Mary Magdalene was the evangelist, although she no doubt did not think of herself in that way just then. Her remarkably brief message conveyed what every sermon, every crusade, every witness should convey. It is the testimony:

I have seen the Lord.
 

When speaking with someone unfamiliar with Jesus, the need is not to explain the Bible, or to quote famous theologians, or to teach creeds. The need is to speak profoundly of an encounter with Jesus, which can be stated as simply as, “I have seen the Lord.” If you feel you need more words, you could always round it off by saying, “And you can, too.”
 

I once heard a clergyperson say that when he is in a social situation and is asked what he does, he answers, “I raise the dead to life.” He went on to add that this either ends the conversation in a hurry or invites a deeper conversation than workplace talk. “I have seen the Lord,” can have the same effect. Some will walk away for a host of reasons. Those who are looking for Jesus, even those who do not know it, will want to hear more though. This is something that every believer can say with passion and excitement. Is this not at the heart of why we are Christian? We are disciples because we have seen the Lord. Our experiences of seeing differ. Some may have had glimpses while others have looked face to face. We have seen Jesus in different ways and different times and different places, but we all have seen Jesus.
 

Mary may qualify as the first evangelist. She has given us the model with her model witness: “I have seen the Lord. “ Just say that. The Holy Spirit will give you whatever other words you may need.
 

Prayer: God of our hearts, we want to tell others about your grace and glory but are afraid words will fail us. Give us the words. Help us to express the joy of being in a relationship with you. Make our excitement evident. Instill in us the passion of Mary. In the name of the One who gives us life, Amen.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24-25


First Thomas listened when the women returning from the tomb hysterically said that Jesus was alive. Now he listened as the men said that they had seen the Lord. Thomas could not stand it. Everyone had lost their grip on reality. Thomas stood his ground. He needed empirical evidence before he would believe Jesus was alive. Not just any apparition would do. He wanted to see the nail holes and put his finger into them. He wanted to see his side which had been pierced by the spear, and touch the wound with his hand. Only then would he believe.
 

Poor Thomas. This one moment of incredulity forever earned him the nickname Doubting Thomas. It is not fair. As we have seen, all of the followers doubted at some level, even after seeing Jesus. Thomas was now the only one who had not seen the resurrected Christ, so his doubt was perhaps more pronounced, but he was not alone in his doubt.
 

Jesus appeared again and met Thomas’ requirements. He showed the unbelieving disciple his hands and side. Thomas immediately hopped on the believing wagon. “My Lord and my God!” he said.
 

Thomas’ doubt is not what concerned Jesus, however. It was the demand for empirical evidence. Jesus, of course, was able to produce that evidence for Thomas. He was preparing to ascend to heaven though, after which others would not be able to have the kind of proof Thomas wanted. If belief required touching Christ’s hands and side, who else would ever believe? “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus said.
 

This begs the question: What do we require for belief? Do we need to hear the witness of someone we trust completely? Do we need to experience a miracle? Do we require some kind of spiritual encounter? Is the testimony of scripture enough? If you do believe, who or what was it that convinced you? If you still doubt, what would it take to change your doubt into belief?
 

Doubt is not necessarily bad. It can force us to ask good questions and help protect us from foolishness. Doubt can, however, also keep us from ever believing, especially if we have requirements that cannot be met. Thomas was fortunate. He was able to see what he needed to see. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
 

Prayer: True God, we all like evidence to support the truth that we believe. The empirical eases our doubt. So much about you we have to accept on faith, and it is hard. Reveal yourself to us in ways that let us know that you are alive and that you are with us. Speak to us in words we understand. In the name of your Son, Amen.

When he [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
John 20:22

 

Jesus had equipped his disciples to be able to carry on the mission of spreading the good news of the coming reign of God after he was gone. He did so by teaching them on a daily basis. Indeed, much of Jesus’ teaching we have in the gospels was first shared specifically with the twelve. He also let them ‘practice,’ by sending them out in pairs ahead of him. Now, before his ascension, one thing remained. They needed to be empowered by the Holy Spirit.
 

We normally talk about the Spirit being given on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in the book of Acts. In that account the Spirit came in dramatic fashion, looking like tongues of fire and sounding like the rush of wind. This happened fifty days after Easter, following Christ’s ascension.
 

In the gospel of John, the Spirit was given during a resurrection appearance and much more subtly. Jesus breathed on them. One account does not preclude the other.
 

The Spirit had a different agenda in Acts and John. In Acts, the Spirit pushed the disciples out of their locked room into the marketplace to preach and made it possible for them to do so by translating the message into all of the languages represented in the square that day. In John, the Spirit gave the disciples authority. It was the authority to forgive sins, which is to say to do the work of Jesus. It was a commissioning as much as an empowering.
 

The Spirit continues with the same two agendas today. The Holy Spirit gives permission for believers to act, authorizing them to proclaim the good news and the forgiveness of sins. Believers are also pushed out of the doors of their locked rooms to actually be about proclaiming, and given the words to speak. This is essential. Believe as we might, we simply are not capable of carrying forth the mission without the support of the Holy Spirit. We need not wait until the Day of Pentecost to ask for the Spirit to come. That can be a prayer every day.


Prayer: Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
Edwin Hatch

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. Luke 24:36-37


The disciples were having a hard time believing and accepting that Christ had risen from the dead. This is not surprising. I wonder if there is ever a point when something far out of the realm of normal experience feels real. If there is such a point, the disciples were slow getting to it. By this point of the story, according to Luke, the resurrected Christ had appeared to the women who went to the tomb, the two men in Emmaus, and Simon. (It is not told how or where Jesus appeared to Simon, only that it happened [Luke 24:34]). Now the believers were gathered together sharing their experiences and finally believing that Jesus was, indeed, alive. The news was out and accepted.
 

Then Jesus appeared to the group. Surely they were thrilled, glad that now all of them had a chance to see Jesus. That is not the reaction that is reported, however. Instead, Luke tells us that they were startled, terrified, and sure they were seeing a ghost. Jesus had them touch him, and he showed them his hands and feet, and he ate something in their presence - all to prove to them that he was not a ghost. They believed, at some level. The women’s witness no longer seemed to them an idle tale. The truth of the resurrection was confirmed by Cleopas and his friend, and by Simon. They believed, but yet, it did not seem possible or real. I wonder if there is ever a point when something far out of the realm of normal experience feels real.
 

One of the intriguing pieces of all of the resurrection appearances recorded in the gospels is how Christ’s followers vascilated between belief and doubt, confidence, and uncertainty. This is not because of uncontrolled ambivalence, what we might call being wishy-washy. This is how it is when we are face to face with the mysterious and miraculous. As with the disciples, there are times we have complete faith in God, and feel God’s presence, and are convinced God is acting. There are other times though, when our faith is not quite so steady. In the extreme, we may even wonder if there is a God at all.
 

The believers were excited by the news that Jesus was alive. He suddenly appeared. They were startled, terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost. That sounds about right.
 

Prayer: God of wonders, we believe. Help our unbelief. You are real to us; you are a ghost. Sometimes we can touch you; other times we cannot even see you. Keep us close even as we waver. Give us faith even as we doubt. This we ask in the name of the resurrected Lord, Amen.

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Luke 24:35


That first Easter Sunday, Cleopas and a friend were making the seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The risen Lord joined them on the road, but they did not recognize him. They told the apparent stranger how Jesus had been crucified and how terrible it was. Jesus, in turn, quoted scripture to them and tried to explain why it was that Jesus had to die. When they arrived in Emmaus it was late, so they invited the stranger to eat with them and stay the night.
 

During the meal, Jesus broke the bread and, in that act, they recognized the Lord. Before they could speak, he vanished. Yesterday we considered how Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus when he called her name. Today we see how these two recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
 

Sometimes we experience Christ in a personal way, such as the calling of our names. Sometimes we see the Lord in ritual. When believers gather and break bread together, Jesus has promised to be present. Theologians have debated, sometimes bitterly, about how Jesus is present in the breaking of the bread, but this is a debate that can be both profound and silly. Ultimately, it is a mystery and no one really knows ‘how,’ but somehow in the breaking of the bread (and we can add the taking of the cup), the risen Lord becomes visible.
 

Ritual is not simply habit. Ritual is not simply tradition. Ritual encompasses the collective acts of the gathered believers and makes real the mysterious. This is especially true with the sacraments which Christ himself initiated. Jesus wanted us to have ways to remember him, ways to know him, ways to see him, ways to experience him. One of these ways is to gather to break the bread and take the cup. When we do so, we remember him and also proclaim that he is alive. Breaking bread is one way to see the Lord. It was for the two in Emmaus. Indeed, they jumped up from the table and ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others that they had seen the Lord, and shared how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
 

Prayer: God of sacrifice, the broken body of Christ makes us whole. The shed blood of Christ gives us life. In the breaking of the bread, we see Jesus. Gather us together, O Lord, and reveal yourself to us at the table. Open our eyes to recognize you. We pray in the name of the Lamb, Amen.

When she [Mary Magdalene] had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:14-16

 

It is futile to debate about who loves someone more. It is safe to say, however, that while it is possible that others loved Jesus as much as Mary Magdalene, no one loved him more. Every gospel writer lists her as one of the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning. John places her there alone. It was Mary who discovered the stone rolled away and Mary who raced to get Peter and John. It was Mary who stayed at the tomb after Peter and John inspected it and returned home. It was Mary who heard the testimony of the angels that Jesus had been raised. It was Mary who then met the resurrected Lord.

 

Interestingly, this woman so devoted to Jesus did not recognize him. She mistook him for the gardener. Maybe the resurrected Christ did not look like the earthly Christ. More likely, she had no expectation of seeing him, so did not recognize him when she did. Have you ever encountered an acquaintance ‘out of context’ and nearly walked right past? We often miss what we do not expect to see. Mary was looking for a body, not the living Lord.

 

Jesus became known to her when he spoke her name. Jesus said “Mary,” and instantly she knew he was the Teacher. Names are personal and intimate and have meaning. In biblical theology, to know someone’s name was to know the person. In his parables, Jesus often talked about how a shepherd knows the name of each sheep and how the sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice when he calls.

 

Thus, when Jesus called Mary by her name, it signaled that he knew her and had a personal relationship with her. That would hardly be true of the gardener. When Jesus called her name, it was as if the shepherd was calling the name of one of his sheep and the sheep recognized the shepherd’s voice.

 

God knows each of our names. The Lord does not call us indiscriminately, but personally. Don’t listen only for the voice of God. Listen for the Lord calling your name. When you hear it, you will know who is calling.

 

Prayer: Oh Name on High, you know us inside and out. You know our thoughts, our hopes, and our fears. You know us by name. Call us by name that we can recognize you. Call us by name so that we know we are yours. Call us by name and we will answer. In the name of the Risen One we pray, Amen.

So they [Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Matthew 28:8-9

 

First, it was discovered that the tomb in which Jesus had been laid was empty. This was followed by the testimony of ‘men in dazzling white robes’ that Jesus had risen from the dead. Finally, one by one, and group by group, Jesus began to appear to the believers. They heard he was alive, now they were seeing him. They responded with joy, fear, wonder, doubt, amazement, and confusion. Often they had all of these responses at the same time. Should we have expected anything differently? Is this not exactly how you would respond if the Messiah whose death you witnessed was suddenly standing in front of you?

 

Put yourself in their places today: Mary Magdalene, the other women, the men on the road to Emmaus, the eleven disciples, Thomas, Peter. Imagine the moment each saw, for the first time, the risen Christ. What were they thinking? What were they feeling? What questions had to be running through their minds?

 

Can you think of a time in your life when you first ‘saw the risen Christ?’ It may not have been a conversion experience, what we sometimes call a born-again experience. It may have been at church camp, or at a funeral, or in a Sunday morning service, or by the beach, or on a mountaintop. Perhaps you had been a believer for a long time, but at that moment the risen Christ was before you more clearly and more powerfully than ever before.

 

The risen Christ appears unexpectedly at any time and at any place. Keep your eyes open. You never know when the one you think is the gardener, or the stranger walking with you on the road, turns out to be Jesus himself.

 

Prayer: Living God, we have heard the news that the tomb is empty. We have heard others say that they have seen the Lord. Give us that experience. Make Jesus visible to us, that we may take hold of his feet and worship. Amen.

Now on that same day, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. Luke 24:13
 

The obvious is an impediment to believing the miraculous. It was for Cleopas and an unnamed friend. These two men were followers of Jesus, part of an inner circle much larger than the twelve. Like most of Christ’s disciples, they did not travel with him wherever he went, and did not participate in the gatherings reserved for the twelve, such as the Last Supper, or the private teaching on the hillside of the Mt. of Olives. They were believers, however, and knew and consorted with other believers close to the Lord. They lived a mere seven miles from Jerusalem, in Emmaus. Still, they did not go home after Jesus was crucified. They stayed and mourned with the group, gathering with the rest for mutual comfort.
 

Now it was Sunday and time to go home. The crucifixion was soul-crushing. It would take a long time to get over it, if they ever would. Whether they were over it or not though, it was time to move on. Jesus was dead. It hurt. It was a shame. It was unbelievable in away. Still, facts are facts, and the fact was Jesus was dead. Never mind that Jesus told them he would rise. Never mind that the women had come running from the tomb early that morning saying he was alive. They had watched him die and saw him buried. It was over, that was obvious. They no doubt thought that everyone should just accept the reality of the situation and move on. It is hard to fault them for feeling that way. The obvious is an impediment to believing the miraculous.
 

For Western-minded, science-loving, reasonable-thinking people, this is especially true. Most of us pride ourselves on our rational orientation that makes it easy to recognize and accept the obvious. We act accordingly. This is not a bad thing. Indeed, it could be argued that we would benefit from a larger dose of reasonableness. The problem comes when the miraculous trumps the obvious, such as when someone who was dead now is not. The two on the road to Emmaus simply could not wrap their heads around the idea that what was obviously over was actually not. If they could, they would not have been on that road.
 

There are times when faith requires challenging the obvious, knowing that what is obvious to us is not necessarily obvious to God. The Lord does not have to follow our logic. This is not to advocate suspending thinking. It is just a warning to not head to Emmaus too quickly, too quickly to count out God.
 

Prayer: God of the unsuspected, keep our eyes always open to the possibility of a miracle. Remind us that nothing is finished until you say it is finished. Make clear that you work in mysterious ways and that your ways are not our ways. Give us less faith in the obvious and more faith in you. We pray in the name of the risen Christ. Amen.

While they [the women] were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. Matthew 28:11


The religious leaders had posted guards at the tomb. It was not out of respect. They posted guards because they feared Jesus’ disciples would steal the body and perpetuate the hoax that Jesus had been raised from the dead. They had heard Jesus predict his resurrection and wanted to put the kibosh on any antics. It is one of the ironies . . . the disciples feared that Jesus would not rise, while the religious leaders feared that he would.
 

Of course, he did. The guards went to report what happened. They had to be terrified. The punishment for losing a prisoner was death. Who would believe that the ‘prisoner’ rose from the dead, knocking them momentarily unconscious with an earthquake? The ones who should have been most afraid, however, were the religious leaders. They had orchestrated the execution of Jesus, convinced he was a fraud. Jesus being raised from the dead proved just the opposite. They had been wrong and had killed the chosen one of God. Surely they would fall prostrate before the Lord and beg for mercy.
 

Ah, but they did not plead for mercy or repent in any way. Instead, they arranged for a cover-up. They paid the guards to report that disciples had stolen the body, with the promise to make it right with the governor so that there would be no consequences for them. The guards agreed.
 

Imagine! Even after experiencing the greatest miracle ever, the religious leaders and the guards still chose not to believe. God knew the truth. They could not hide this from God, but they did not fear the Lord. It was more important to the religious leaders to maintain their standing in the community, and more important to the guards to receive a bribe, than to confess that all that Jesus had said was true and they had made a terrible mistake.
 

Has there ever been a time when you thought it was so important to stick to your position, so important to ‘be right’ that you ignored truth? Have you tried to cover-up rather than repent? We may fool others, but we do not fool God.

We are fools if we think we do.
 

Prayer: God of righteousness, we make mistakes and we sin. Do not allow us to pretend that we do not. Call us to repentance and forgive our foolishness. Give us hearts that honor truth, and keep us from ignoring your truth for our benefit. In the name of the coming judge, Amen.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. John 20:11


As discussed yesterday, Peter and John ran to the tomb, looked in, and went home. Mary Magdalene, who had alerted the two disciples about the empty tomb, did not. She remained, crying. It was bad enough that Jesus had been crucified. Now his body had been taken. She did not know what to make of it or what she could do about it. She just knew that the tomb was where she needed to be.


Because Mary lingered, she saw what the two disciples missed. First she saw two angels, who asked why she was weeping. Angels can be blunt. In Luke, they asked the dazed, sad, frightened women why they were seeking the living among the dead. Didn’t they remember that Jesus had said he would rise? Ouch. They could just have easily have said, “Good news! Jesus rose as promised.” Here Mary is distraught and completely beside herself and they ask her why she is weeping. Shouldn’t that have been obvious? Mary did not act offended though. She explained why she was weeping.
 

Then she saw Jesus, who she at first mistook as the gardener. We will consider their exchange next week when we reflect on resurrection appearances. For now, just consider that this makes her the first to see the risen Lord. She was first, not because she was more special or more important than any of the others. She was first because she not only went to the tomb, but also lingered there. She was not anxious to get home, not eager to move on, not wanting to get back to ‘normal.’ She stayed at the place of sorrow, the tomb of the one she loved, embracing the raw emotion. Because she stayed, she saw angels and the risen Christ.
 

Sometimes it is lingering at an uncomfortable place that allows us to meet Jesus. For Mary, home would have been more comfortable than the tomb. She could have wept privately. She would not have had to stare at a grave. Jesus though, met her outside the tomb, not at home. This is the very place Jesus often meets us - that is, if we are willing to linger.
 

Prayer: Loving God, you come and meet us in our most challenging times and places. When we least expect to see you, you are there. When we stand weeping outside the tombs of our lives, come to us. Speak words of comfort and hope. In the name of the compassionate Christ we pray, Amen.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. John 20:1-3


In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the empty tomb and she immediately reported it to Peter and John. These two lead disciples then ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John, the gospel writer, tells us that John, the disciple, saw and believed. Peter also saw, but no mention is made of what he thought or believed. Both then went home.
 

The news from Mary inspired them to run to the tomb. What did they expect to see? What did they think they would find? We have no way of knowing, of course, but maybe they remembered that Jesus had said he would rise and they were hoping beyond hope that it was true. Maybe they thought they would see the risen Lord himself.
 

Whatever motivated them to run to the tomb did not motivate them to stay. This seems a bit odd. If they thought the body had been taken, surely they would have spent some time looking around and asking around, to try to discover where it had been taken. If they believed Jesus had been raised from the dead, why not hang around to see if he might appear? They did neither. They just went home. John does not even hint that the two of them discussed it together, hypothesizing about what happened. They just went home.


Sometimes we experience a miracle and do not know what to make of it or what to do with it. Shepherds were led to the manger by a chorus of angels. They saw the newborn Messiah; then they went back to their fields. The wise men traveled a great distance over a long period of time to pay homage to a newborn king. They saw the Lord, gave their gifts, and went home. Some who were healed by Jesus responded by following; most received their healing and went home. Peter and John looked in the empty tomb and then went home. Something had happened but they did not know exactly what. Apparently they were ready or wanting to get on with life and would perhaps later make sense of it all. How do you make sense of a miracle? How do you respond to a miracle? What miracles have you experienced in your life? Did they change your thinking, your faith, your way of living, or did you just go home?


Prayer: God of miracles, you touch our lives in amazing ways. Our eyes open wider and our hearts beat faster and we sing your praise; then we go home and continue with life. Keep the thrill of the miraculous always in our spirits, inspiring all of our thoughts and actions. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. Luke 24:10

 

The gospel of Mark ends with the women running from the tomb and telling no one what they had seen. In Luke, the women do go and report to the apostles about what they had discovered. In Mark, perhaps one reason the women kept their experience to themselves was because they thought no one would believe them. If that was the case, they were right. Here, in Luke, they burst into the gathering of the apostles, undoubtedly excited and talking hastily over each other.

 

The apostles, though, were unmoved. They considered it all an ‘idle tale.’ It is tempting to chalk up their disbelief to chauvinism. It was an emotional time for everyone. The men were trying to hold it together and face reality. Then the women arrived in hysterical fashion ranting about men in dazzling clothes and Jesus being alive. You can almost see the men looking at each other and rolling their eyes.

 

Chauvinism aside, though, it is hard to understand why they would be so incredulous about this incredible news. After all, Jesus himself had told them more than once that this was exactly what would happen. He would be executed but on the third day rise, Jesus had plainly said. Maybe they did not believe the women, but Jesus’ words alone should have caused them to camp out at the tomb waiting. They did not camp out. They did not set up lawn chairs. They did not go with the women at first light to see if what Jesus had said was true. They sat around figuring out how to put their lives back together. Then, when the women gave an eyewitness report showing Jesus’ promise to be true, they still did not believe.

 

It can be hard to believe the promises of the Lord. It can be hard to accept the testimonies of those who have had an experience that defies good sense. Something incredible is by definition hard to believe, if not impossible. Asking good questions is always a good idea. Dismissing something outright as an idle tale, because it goes against what we believe to be possible though, threatens our faith. God does not always use our playbook. Thus, we should expect the unexpected and be open to the impossible being possible. Sometimes hysterical women going on about Jesus being alive know what they are talking about.

 

Prayer: Mysterious God, you do what we think cannot be done and act in ways that make no sense to us. Forgive us for thinking that we are wiser than you. Forgive us for limiting you to our understanding. Open our eyes to the mysteries of faith and our ears to the testimonies of others. We pray in the name of the risen One. Amen

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark 16:8

 

The gospel of Mark has three endings. It is believed that the original ending is the verse quoted above. The women at the tomb were told by the man in a white robe to tell Peter and the others that Jesus had been raised and to go to Galilee to meet him there. Instead, the women just ran off in terror and said nothing to anyone. This was an unsatisfactory ending to many, so another was added in which they did tell others, and then an even longer ending - that included resurrection appearances, teaching, and the ascension - was added.

 

There is something about the first, abrupt ending I like. It is raw and real. The women acted as though they had seen a ghost which, in a real way, they had. When people experience something stunning or nerve-racking, and consequently act stupefied, we often call them shell-shocked. Well, the women were wonder-shocked. Something so full of wonder (wonder full, wonderful) as someone rising from the dead brings pause to the tongues of everyone.

 

This is what it is like to come face to face with the holy. When Isaiah saw God in the temple he fell on his face crying, “ woe is me.” When Peter experienced the miraculous catch of fish at Jesus’ command, he told Jesus to go away because he (Peter) was a sinful man. When Jesus healed the demoniacs in the country of the Gadarenes, the villagers begged him to leave. This is the profound meaning of the unpopular phrase fear of the Lord. It is not that we are to be afraid of the loving God. It is that the vast difference between the truly holy and us rightly causes us to tremble. When we are wonder-shocked by God’s greatness and power, we shake in our boots.

 

When the women experienced the empty tomb, they did not run immediately to the disciples busting to tell them the news. They ran and huddled and stared at each other wide-eyed, with knees knocking. When have you had an experience so profound that your tongue slowed down and your heart sped up? When have you been wonder-shocked? If you have had such an experience, you understand this first ending of Mark.

 

Prayer: God Almighty, now and again we come face to face with your holiness and your power. Amazement, awe, wonder, and terror all fill our souls. We cannot speak. We fall on our knees, faces to the floor. We even ask you to leave us. Do not leave, O Lord. We need you. Do keep within us the sense of tongue-stopping awe. In the name of the Holy One, Amen.

Lenten Devotions

by author Dr. Rev. David Cooney 

​   The pandemic that has embraced us all prevents us from gathering together during this Lenten season for worship, prayer, study, and mission.  There are multiple ways, however, that we can stay connected and share in the Lenten journey.  One way is through common devotion.  We are providing a devotion each day for the remainder of Lent.  The texts all come from the gospel of Luke beginning with the 51st verse of chapter 10 through chapter 19, covering the time from when Jesus left Galilee to when he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.  While only a verse or two is quoted in each devotion, you may want to read the verses that precede and follow.  A brief prayer is provided, but adding your own prayers will deepen the experience.

April 12, 2020

Easter Sunday As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” Mark 16:5-6

 

Happy Easter!

 

This is the most joyous day of the Christian year. Christmas is merry, of course, but would have little meaning, if not for Easter. This is the day Jesus was raised from the dead, giving meaning and vindication to his birth, ministry, and passion. This is the day we learn of God’s ultimate plan – to save us from the power of sin and death through the passion, death, and resurrection of God’s Son. Today we have the definitive proof that God loves us, despite ourselves. Today we discover that death does not have the final word. God has the final word, and God’s word is life. Hallelujah!

 

The women went to the tomb to properly prepare Christ’s body for burial. They fully expected the body to be there. Instead, they encountered a man in a white robe who informed them that Jesus was, in fact, not there. He had been raised.

 

Go no further in scripture today. Just meditate on the angel’s announcement. It is an announcement that cannot be fully absorbed in an instant. Just hear it. Jesus, dead and buried, has been raised. The implications of this news will gradually get fleshed out in resurrection appearances, and ascension narratives, and the experiences of the apostles. For now though, just reflect on your initial reaction when you hear this announcement. What is your first thought? What do you first feel? Christ is alive! What does that mean for you?

 

In the devotions for this coming week, we will consider the reactions of various groups and individuals when they first hear the news. Be prepared to compare your reaction to theirs. It is Easter Sunday. Christ is risen! Now what?

 

Prayer: God of the living and the dead, our ears tingle with the news of this day. Jesus died. He was buried. Many witnessed this. Now we are told that he is alive. Can it be? Is it true? Fill us today with faith in the truth that Christ is alive and, because he lives, we can live also. Hallelujah! Amen.

April 11, 2020

On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. Luke 23:56b


Jesus died on Friday. Joseph of Arimathea had gained permission to claim the body and he laid Jesus in an unused, rock-hewn tomb. Women, who had come with Jesus from Galilee, followed so they could see where Joseph put Jesus. The women then returned to where they were staying and prepared
spices and ointments. Joseph, a member of the council, but one who opposed the actions taken, was kind to bury Jesus. He risked his reputation in doing so. (Christ’s followers would have been too afraid to claim the body and they would not have had access to a tomb even if they did.) Joseph did everyone a favor burying Jesus well.


Joseph buried Jesus well but, in the women’s eyes, not right. Proper burial was women’s work. A man would not caringly rub the body with spices and ointments and skillfully wrap the body in burial cloths. A man would just throw the cloths over the body and seal the tomb with a stone. Besides, even if Joseph was willing to be more thorough, there was no time. The sun was setting and the Sabbath beginning. Proper burial, by men or women, would have to wait until after the Sabbath. So it is that the women went home to prepare and to wait.


Unlike all who know the complete story, the women were not waiting for a cheery Easter morning. They were waiting to perform their final loving act and say their final goodbyes. Oh, how their spirits soared when they first met Jesus. They recognized the divine in him. They believed he was the Messiah - believed it so completely that they followed him all the way to Jerusalem. On Friday they watched him die and their hope died with him. Now they had the unimaginable task of imagining a world without Jesus. On Sunday they would properly bury him, say goodbye, and go home, back to life as they had left it. They waited to do those things – nothing else.


They waited the way that we wait when we are sure that God is dead. When hope has left us, and our prayers seem unanswered, and God is nowhere to be seen, we wait for the inevitable conclusion. We pack our things and wait to say our final goodbyes to whomever or whatever is gone. To think that there may yet be an Easter morning is premature. Indeed, we may resent those who even suggest it. Sometimes we just have to wait, to be in the tomb, essentially lifeless. Saturday comes after Friday and before Sunday. We cannot bypass it. We should not bypass it. There is something needed in the solitude and sorrow and despair of waiting – something we can only know in retrospect.
 

The women waited and we wait with them. It is not yet time to celebrate. It is a time to imagine a world without Jesus.
 

Prayer: Parent of the Crucified Savior, be with me in this time of waiting, even though I do not know of your presence. All is dark. All seems lost. The Messiah is in a grave. Teach me in this time of waiting. Lay the foundation for my trust in you. Strengthen me in the darkest of times so I may come to the day when I see your light. Amen.

April 10, 2020

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Luke 23: 44-45


Jesus’ death was preceded by darkness. This seems fitting. The light of God was being put out. It is only right that the light of the sun also should not shine. No one should have been surprised. Jesus brought the light of God into the world and people chose darkness instead. The dimming of the sun verified this choice.


Something else happened at the moment of death, something we rarely think of. The curtain of the temple was torn in two. This curtain, substantial in size and thickness, separated the rest of the temple from the holy of holies. This is where the Ark of the Covenant resided. It was a place into which only the High Priest could enter, and then only on the Day of Atonement. On that day the priest would intercede on behalf of the people asking for the forgiveness of sins.
Now the curtain was torn completely in two. There was no longer a barrier between God and the people, a border only the High Priest could cross. By his death, Jesus, the true High Priest, had atoned for our sins once and for all. No longer separated because of our brokenness, we are at one with God

(at-one-ment – atonement).


We call this day Good Friday not because there is anything good about Jesus being brutally executed on a cross, but because in his remarkable sacrificial demonstration of humility, mercy, and grace Jesus rejected our rejection and made possible our reconciliation with God. Somehow in this most terrible of moments, Jesus enacted the most positive good. Crucifixion was the human attempt to brick in the holy of holies, to build an impenetrable wall. Jesus scattered our bricks and tore the curtain instead. We cannot kill love. We cannot be rid of God. Thank God.


Meditate today on these two events: the sun doing dark, and the curtain tearing in two. Let the darkness illustrate our penchant to choose darkness over light and to separate ourselves from God. Let the tearing of the curtain make clear that God will have none of it. Far from God leaving, Jesus has brought us together. This is the worst of days and the best of days. Why else would the cross be the most iconic Christian symbol? Pray today for God’s mercy. You can, because the curtain has been torn in two.


Prayer: Ultimate Love, in our very worst moment, you made reconciliation possible. At the height of our brutality, you offered grace. In response to our rejection, you opened your arms. Forgive us for all of the ways we crucify you, O Lord. Have mercy on us, your people. Remember us, when you come into your kingdom. Amen.

April 9, 2020

“. . . say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ Luke 22:11


I am always curious about the unnamed helpers in Jesus’ ministry. He was often provided with food and lodging and financial assistance, usually without it being mentioned and with the providers being unnamed. They were, however, necessary and important participants.
 

We saw this just before Jesus entered Jerusalem. He sent disciples to a nearby village to get a colt. As they were untying it, the owners understandably asked them what they were doing. “The Lord has need of it,” was their only response. They were given the colt, no further questions asked. Obviously, when the disciples referred to the Lord the owners knew who they meant. They were unidentified supporters. We see this again on the night of the Last Supper. Someone provided an upstairs room already furnished so that Jesus and the twelve could celebrate the Passover meal.
 

These are small things – lending a colt, providing a room. Small things make a difference, though. The colt allowed Jesus to fulfill prophecy and experience a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. An upper room allowed Jesus to spend some private and intense time with the twelve literally hours before his arrest. It was in that room that Jesus demonstrated the importance of humility and service by washing the feet of the disciples. It was in that room that Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion. It was in that room that Jesus told that one would betray him and in that room Jesus prepared Peter for the coming moment when Peter would deny him. It was in that room that Jesus gave final instructions and teaching to those who would soon continue the mission in his name. Just providing a room was not such a small thing, after all.
 

It is customary on Holy Thursday to wonder, as did the disciples, if we are the ones who will betray him. That is not the most important question. It is not even a question. We all betray and deny Christ in our own ways. We should just acknowledge that and repent. The more important question to ask is – how can we serve him? Do we have a colt to lend, or a room to provide, or a gift to offer, or a talent that can be used?
 

Your answer might seem insignificant to you, too small to mention. That is not true. The small things make a difference. Put together, they are huge. The Last Supper does not happen without someone first providing a room. Tonight Jesus prepares to offer his life for you. What do you have to offer Jesus?
 

Prayer: Holy God, on the night of the Passover, the blood of an innocent lamb saved your people Israel from death. On this night, the blood of the Lamb of God, your Son, will save your people from death. He came for the salvation of all. He continues in our lives to save us yet. Let me be a part of the salvation story. Show me my part, however large or small. Enable me to serve in whatever way you need me. In the name of the Lamb, Amen.

April 8, 2020

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.” Luke 19:41


Sorrow and helplessness mingle when those we love are on a course of destruction and nothing we say or do seems to cause them to change direction. Perhaps you have experienced this as a parent or a spouse or a close friend. If so, you know the level of grief this brings.
 

This is how Jesus felt about Jerusalem. The city, the site of the temple and nestled against Mt. Zion, represented the religious heart of Israel, the spiritual capital of his people. Jerusalem was heading for destruction, literally and spiritually. Jesus desperately wanted to save it; in essence, save Israel. He knew though that he would be rejected, crucified in what amounted to the town dump, and set aside like so much garbage. This rejection made him cry.
 

After Christ was warned that Herod was out to kill him, and he prepared to leave Galilee for Jerusalem, he began the journey with a lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)
 

He speaks the lament in today’s reading following the ‘Palm Sunday Parade.’ As he descended down the Mt. of Olives and across the Kidron Valley, supporters waved palms and shouted praise. Surely this was a high moment for him, at least a momentary vindication of his mission. As he neared the gate of the walled city, however, he stopped and wept. Jesus predicted the total destruction of the city, something that happened in 70 CE, and ended his lament saying all of this would happen . . . “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:44)
 

This lament is haunting. Is it possible that God could visit and we would not know it? It is easy to shake our heads in disbelief when it comes to the leaders and powers that be in Jerusalem that week. Jesus was there in the flesh. Stories abounded about the miracles he had performed in Galilee. People gathered around him in the temple court to listen to every word he spoke. He demonstrated remarkable wisdom and performed more eye-popping miracles. How dull did they have to be not to recognize a visitation from God? It is easy to smirk at their blindness.
 

The fact is, though, that they saw what they wanted to see. They were not interested in seeing anyone, not even God, who would threaten their political, economic, and social power. They were not interested in sharing the stage with anyone else, much less vacating the stage for another. Consequently, they did not see the divine in Jesus. They saw an intruder, an imposter, a charlatan, a hoax of a holy man.
 

We, too, see what we want to see, so we are equally vulnerable to self-deception. Tomorrow is Holy Thursday, followed by Good Friday. As we prepare to commemorate these profound days, we should first pause and recount who has shown up at our gates. Is it possible that we did not recognize the time of visitation from God? Is it possible that Jesus is lamenting over us?
 

Prayer: God of deep love, how often you must weep when I do not listen to you and sow the seeds of my own destruction. Again and again, you strive to pull me back onto your paths of peace. Open my eyes to recognize you, dear God. Open my ears to hear your voice and to know it is you speaking.

Save me. In the name of the Messiah, Amen.
 

April 7, 2020

He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him because he was going to pass that way. Luke 19:3-4

 

This is part of the well known story of Zacchaeus in Jericho. This wealthy chief tax collector wanted to “see who Jesus was.” Hmmm. We might ask, why? He most likely was not a religious man. After all, tax collectors were not community-minded and were known to be unscrupulous. Remember, tax collectors were Israelites who collected the heavy taxes imposed by the Roman occupiers. They were paid by adding their own normally excessive fees to the taxes. In other words, they were both aiding and abetting the enemy and gouging their neighbors. No wonder tax collectors were hated by the people. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector and we are told, not surprisingly, that he was rich. We know how he got his wealth. Why would such a man want so desperately to see Jesus that he would humiliate himself by climbing a tree in front of all the people who would like nothing better than to mock him?

 

The answer has to be that he was not happy with his life. He had ‘played the game’ and made a mint, but he was not sleeping well at night. He knew his gains were ill-gotten. No one liked him or respected him; maybe even his own family thought little of him. He was ready for a change. He needed a change.

 

Jesus gave him that opportunity. Jesus, known for welcoming the sinner and extending grace to the outcast, was coming through town. Zaccheaus just had to see him. What he expected to happen we do not know. Surely he did not anticipate that Jesus would call to him and have lunch with him. Maybe he thought that just seeing him would be enough to make a difference in his life.

 

It did. He made the effort to see Jesus. Jesus, in turn, saw him. Grace was extended. Zaccheaus repented. Jesus proclaimed,

“Today salvation has come to this house.”

 

If you are at all unsettled with your life, maybe it is time to climb a tree. How many times does Jesus have to pass by before you go to see who he is? We can grow distant from God, estranged even, for many reasons. Normally we slowly drift, almost unnoticeably, until one day we do notice that we are far from our starting point. What this account tells us is that we are not so far that a return is not possible. Jesus is prepared to call us down from the tree and to re-set our lives. It is never out of the question and never too late. Indeed, we learn in this passage that we are never too old to climb a tree. Make an effort to see Jesus, knowing that Jesus will see you, too.

 

Prayer: God of grace, even when I am hidden in a crowd you notice me and call to me. You do not look away, disgusted with me. Instead, you beckon me to come be with you. Help me to accept your grace and mercy. Give me the conviction to adjust my life to your life. Come to my home today. In the name of the transformative Christ, Amen.

April 6, 2020

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?

Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Luke 17:17

 

Quarantine is a word we have known and now have come to know personally. Having to stay isolated because of a contagious illness is a practice at least as old as the time of Jesus. Leprosy was the culprit then. Little was known about this skin disease. Many recovered, but others did not, and for still others it was fatal. Consequently, those with leprosy were sequestered in colonies outside of town. There they were to remain self-quarantined until they improved, if they improved.

 

Imagine, then, the relief and joy of ten isolated lepers when Jesus heard their cries for mercy and healed them. Not only was their disease cured, they could now return to their families and villages and work. In every respect, their lives were restored. It was a ‘fall on your knees and praise God’ moment. Yet, only one bothered to even say thank you. The rest just went on their merry way.

 

Two thoughts are brought to mind. The first is how often we fail to offer God thanks. We are quick to ask for help when in trouble. We are sure to grumble when the help we want does not come when we want or in a way we want. Yet, we are lax in our thanksgiving despite God’s regular presence and care. So many choose not to worship, and I understand some of their reasons; too often worship is not a compelling experience. I do tire, however, of hearing people say they don’t go because they do not get anything out of it. The primary reason to worship is to intentionally praise and thank God. In other words, God gets something out of it. If we get something out of it also, that is only icing on the cake. We scoff at the lepers who just walked away following a miraculous healing. We better check our own habits before scoffing at them.

 

The second thought, and the one Luke is actually making, is that the one who did return to thank Jesus was a Samaritan. This is significant because God’s chosen people of Israel hated Samaritans. They considered Samaritans to be unclean and uncouth and ungodly. This means that the nine people who we all would expect to thank Jesus did not, and the one who we would figure would not thank Jesus did.

 

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. All along his route outcasts and sinners and those estranged from God welcomed him, and listened to him, and came to believe in him. In Jerusalem, where the most religious people lived, he would be rejected and crucified. Once again, those we would expect to reject Jesus welcomed him, and those we would expect to embrace Jesus rejected him.

 

Our ‘pedigree’ does not matter. Our reception of Christ does. Are we praise-filled followers constantly giving thanks, or do we take Christ for granted, accept our healing, and walk away?

 

Prayer: Giver of life and all good things, accept my praise and thanksgiving. You do so much for me, Lord, that there are not enough words to express my gratitude. All praise and honor and glory be unto you. Amen.

April 5, 2020

He [Abraham] said to him [rich man], “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16:31

 

Today’s verse is the conclusion to Jesus’ story about a rich man and Lazarus. In the story, the rich man lived lavishly in every respect, while Lazarus sat outside the man’s gate covered with sores and literally starving to death. Both died. Lazarus was carried by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man found his new home in Hades. From Hades, the rich man implored Abraham to send Lazarus with water to comfort him. He was told that was not possible. He then asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his house to warn his five brothers so they would not also end up in Hades. Abraham told the rich man that his brothers would not be convinced, even if someone rose from the dead.

 

From Abraham’s perspective, Moses and the prophets had already given ample testimony about God’s thoughts related to righteous living, including care and compassion for others. To be unresponsive to the desperate needs of someone literally at one’s doorstep, especially when there was the ability to help in significant ways, was not simply carelessness; it was hard-heartedness and a callous disregard for others. It was not a matter of not knowing better; it was a matter of choosing to disregard the desires of God. In other words, what else did they need to know?

 

We have Moses, the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus. What else do we need to know? If we are being unresponsive to the needs of others, what else would it take to motivate us? Do we need to hear a more inspirational sermon or maybe the voice of God itself? Do we need to experience a lifechanging miracle? Do we need to have a near-death experience that puts the ‘fear’ of God in us? We cannot make a difference in every situation and cannot help in every circumstance. The world is too big and the problems too numerous for that. Sometimes, though, the one we can help is just outside our gate. Here Jesus is bluntly telling us that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse.’ We already have been told the right thing to do.

 

This story ending also proves to be prophetic. The raising from the dead of the real Lazarus (see John 11), and the resurrection of Christ himself, did not change the minds of many. Many chose to pretend that neither happened or they just ignored the truth. Many still chose to carry on with their lives unchanged. It seems Abraham was right about people not being convinced even if someone was to rise from the dead. Take heed. Don’t wait for more information or another witness. God sent his own Son to show us the way. That is all we need.

 

Prayer: Compassionate God, open my eyes to the needs of my neighbors and give me the heart to respond to those needs. Inspire me to be merciful as you are merciful, and to love as you love. I pray in the name of your Son, Amen.

April 4, 2020

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:1

 

This verse serves as the context for three parables told by Jesus, all with the same message. We call these the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (or parable of the prodigal son). In each parable, something special is first lost, and then found, with a party following to celebrate.

 

In the parable of the lost sheep, a shepherd leaves ninety-nine of his sheep to go looking for one that is lost. If sheep were more like humans, and if they could talk, they would probably have grumbled about the shepherd leaving them unprotected in order to go after one lost sheep, which was probably always wandering off and deserved to be lost. From the shepherds’ perspective, it was not that he cared about the ninety-nine less, but that all of the sheep were precious and he was not going to lose one without trying to save it.

 

In the parable of the lost coin, a woman tears the house apart looking for the coin. It was only one out of ten, but every coin was valuable to her, so finding the one was worth it.

 

The third parable is a bit different. Here, a son disrespects his father, takes his inheritance early, then goes off and squanders it in careless living. Eventually, he crawls home hoping to get a job. He and his brother, who was angry that his brother left him with all of the chores, agreed that the prodigal should not be welcome back into the family given his terrible behavior. The father, though, loved his son despite his behavior and was thrilled to have him home and welcome him back into the family.

 

Look again at the context of Jesus’ stories. The self-righteous Pharisees were grumbling that Jesus welcomed sinners into his circle. Jesus did not argue about whether or not they deserved to be ‘lost.’ He was not interested in blame. His point in the parables was that, like the shepherd who valued every sheep, and the woman who valued every coin, and the father who loved both the steadfast and the prodigal son, so God loved every person. It did not matter that they had been lost. It mattered that they had been found. Jesus was not interested in the lost having to ‘earn’ their way back. He was thrilled to have them back. He believed the Pharisees should be thrilled too.

 

The moral here is not that we should be open to welcoming the lost, especially considering that we are all lost and found over and over again. The moral is that God loves us deeply and is always prepared to search for us and to welcome us into a relationship no matter what we have been up to. A prodigal returned is cause for a party.

 

If you are somehow estranged from God right now - lost to God, if you will - do not stay away because you do not think you will be welcome or do not deserve to be part of God’s family. Know that God’s heartaches because you are missing. Come home and let God embrace you. We all get lost. Staying lost is a choice. Make a better choice and come home.

 

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, I know I have sinned against you and hurt you. I know I have wandered from your paths to pursue my own ways. I know I have turned my back on you while you have called me. Forgive me. Accept me. Welcome me back into your presence. Thank you, Lord, for your unending love. In the name of the one who died to cleanse me, Amen.

April 3, 2020

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:11

 

Perhaps even more important than choosing a menu for an official State dinner is the job of preparing a seating chart. Deciding who sits where and next to whom is a diplomatic nightmare. Place at the table signifies importance and getting the seating chart wrong is a diplomatic faux pas.

 

This was true for all formal dinner parties in Jesus’ time. People sat according to social rank or hierarchy. The difference was, no one assigned seats. Each guest had to pick a place at the table. This meant making a judgment about how important you were in relation to others there.

You can imagine how awkward that might get.

Jesus referenced this social custom to teach about humility. Using the occasion of a wedding banquet, he advised not sitting too close to the head table. Someone more distinguished might have been invited and the host would have to ask you to move. You would then have to take the ‘walk of shame’ as you moved to a less prestigious seat. On the other hand, if you sat at a place of low station, the host would call you forward to a seat of greater dignity. You would then take the ‘walk of honor’ as you moved up. He ends the parable with the verse quoted above.

 

It is a teaching that can also be found in Proverbs and the advice friends give to friends. “Don’t toot your own horn.” “Don’t sing your own song.”

“Don’t think too highly of yourself.” It is better to let others praise you or honor you.

 

Much is said and written about self-esteem these days and appropriately so. It is important for each of us to know that we are children of God and we each have value and worth. We each also have gifts and graces. Refusing to believe anyone who tells us that we are worthless or, in any way that we are less than others, is necessary for emotional health.

 

At the same time, believing that we are better or more valuable than others is equally as problematic as believing that we do not count. When we decide that we belong in the best seat, we are also deciding that others do not. When we assume the seat of honor, our assumption is also that others do not belong in it. This is the kind of pride Jesus witnessed the Pharisees and Sadducees and Priests exhibiting. They strutted around like they were all that and they moved automatically to the most prestigious seats. It never occurred to them someone else might be more distinguished. This did not please the Lord.

 

Jesus just shook his head. Better to get called up than to be sent down, he told them. Indeed. Better yet, at God’s table, every seat is a seat of honor.

So, sit wherever you would like.

 

Prayer: Creator God, let me recognize your light in me and also see your light in others. You love all of your children, dear God, including me. Each person is specially made. Give me eyes to see that specialness. Invite me to your table, Lord, at the banquet you prepare, where all of the seats are the same. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

April 2, 2020

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Luke 13:31

 

Our best-laid plans seldom work out exactly according to our time schedule. Something, or someone, extraneous to us causes us to move more quickly than we want, or causes a delay. We have to move because we have sold our house, but the settlement on our new home has been delayed, so the timing becomes problematic. We are offered a wonderful job opportunity in a different city, but our child is a senior in high school and we want to stay put until graduation, so we may miss out on the job. We need to see a doctor, but not before a required test, and the test has a long waiting period, so we just have to wait. Seldom do our plans work on our schedules.

 

This was true even for Jesus. He was planning on going to Jerusalem. As we read in a previous devotion, he had already set his face to go to Jerusalem. He still had some things in Galilee to tend to first though. He was not quite ready. Then some Pharisees warned him that he better get out of town because Herod was out to kill him. Whether these were Pharisees genuinely friendly toward Jesus giving him an honest heads up, or they were not fans and were using this as a way to move him along, we do not know. Either way, Jesus took the warning seriously. We know because he responded in an angry way saying, essentially, that he still had things to do; but then he agreed that he better get going because God’s plan was for him to die in Jerusalem, not Galilee. Herod had the power to carry out the threat. He had, after all, beheaded John the Baptist. So, Jesus adjusted his time schedule and left before he wanted.

Sometimes when our schedules get upended we need to take a deep breath and keep the bigger picture in sight. Jesus was irritated, but getting to Jerusalem was more important than making a point with Herod. Jesus knew that and so moved past his frustration.

 

It is possible that getting hurried may actually prevent us from dragging our feet, or getting delayed might give us time to make better decisions. When our plans get recalibrated, rather than seeing it as a disruption, we should look for the opportunity. Jesus was planning to go to Jerusalem, but is it possible he needed a little push? He could always find something else that needed to be done before leaving and he knew that leaving was the beginning of the end. No one would blame him for not starting right out. Herod unwittingly gave him a shove.

 

Is your life somehow out of order right now? Are brakes being put on your plans, or are you being forced to move too quickly? It is disconcerting, but it may be for a good reason. Keep the larger goal in sight and adjust accordingly. Later you may see it as a blessing.

 

Prayer: O God, so often my life does not unfold as I desire. My plans are forever changed by others. Show me your plan and remind me that your plan will happen in your time, which is the right time. Give me patience and wisdom. Guide me not just where, but when, you want. In Christ’s name, Amen.

April 1, 2020

“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” Luke 13:18

Jesus did not come to make the world a better place. He came to make it a whole new place. He did not talk about how a different form of government, or a different economic system, or a different social order would improve the world. He talked about the coming reign of God. In this new reality, there would be no governments, or economic systems, or social orders. God would be present at the center, surrounded by all of God’s children, and there would only be peace and beauty and abundance. When Jesus invited people to follow him, he was not inviting them to join a political movement. He was inviting them to follow him into this new age, into the coming reign of God.

 

This was a challenge, because it was difficult to invite people to something they had not seen or experienced and to something they knew nothing about. Jesus tried to show them and to tell them about God’s reign. He healed people to show that in God’s reign there is no illness. He raised people from the dead to show that in God’s reign there is no death. He fed people with a few loaves of bread to show that in God’s reign there is enough for all. Many of his miracles were simply demonstrations of what he was trying to explain.

 

He also tried to explain this new age with parables and similes. Often times you will read a parable that begins with Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is like. . . .” If you continue reading from the verse quoted above, you will see that in this teaching he compares it to a mustard seed and to yeast. The point is the same in both comparisons. In each case, something small, almost imperceptible becomes surprisingly significant. The tiny mustard seed grows into a substantial plant. The tiniest pinch of yeast leavens significant amounts of flour.

When Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was at hand, many scoffed. Where were the signs? A miracle here or there hardly meant that the entire world was changing. Jesus responded by saying that it may not look like much at the moment, that it may hardly be noticeable, but that did not mean that nothing was going to happen. The immense can begin with the tiny.

 

As we wait for the full consummation of the reign of God it can be easy to become discouraged. Reading the news on any given day can make us feel as if God’s reign is a pipe dream. To keep hope alive, we have to learn to appreciate the glimpses we do get. The first followers of Jesus saw the power and control of Rome first hand. They also saw demons and the sea and the wind obey the commands of Jesus; a glimpse for them of what was to come. Many of his followers were quite poor and a meal a day was no certainty. They saw Jesus feed the multitudes; a glimpse for them of what was to come. Some had been sick or disabled for years with no hope of a cure. When Jesus came into their lives they saw again and walked again and stood up straight again and felt well again; a glimpse of what was to come.

There are glimpses of God’s coming reign all around us. We see them when we develop eyes of faith. These glimpses give us confidence and assurance. The day is coming when God will make heaven and earth the same. It may not look too much like that now, but remember the mustard seed and yeast.

 

Prayer: Mysterious God, it can be hard to see your hand at work in our world. It can be hard to believe the promise that your reign is near at hand. Yet, Lord, the risen Christ has given proof of your power and intention. Help me to see and to believe. In the name of the Miracle Worker, Amen.

March 31, 2020

“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Luke 13:8

 

This is how the parable of the unfruitful fig tree ends. The owner of a vineyard was inspecting the trees and came across one that for three years had borne no fruit. He wanted it cut down and replaced with another tree that would produce. The gardener, though, asked for more time for the tree. He promised to give it some extra loving care, loosening the soil to let in more water and adding extra fertilizer. The gardener believed there was still hope for the tree and wanted to give it every opportunity to produce figs. There was a time limit, however. If after another year the tree was still barren,

the gardener agreed to cut it down.

 

Jesus told this parable immediately after warning people that they better repent because they did not know when a tower might fall on them as one had already done on others. The parable emphasizes the same message: there is not unlimited time to respond to God. In the case of the tower, we never know how much time we have. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. In the case of the fruitless fruit tree, God’s patience can have a limit. The tree had been given ample time to produce and was being given extra time and extra care to make that possible. At some point, the tree had to respond or not. The parable connects to Christ’s hearers because Jesus was preparing to go to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. For three years he had been inviting people into discipleship, giving them the opportunity to be part of the reign of God. They were running out of time to accept that invitation.

 

We can be equally slow in sending back our R.S.V.P., equally slow in producing the fruit God has created us to produce. Too often our response is that we will get back to God about it, or we will do what God wants when we get around to it. Jesus injects some urgency into that response, making it clear that, ultimately, the amount of time we have to produce fruit is not up to us.

 

Is God waiting on you, wondering when you will produce the fruit he desires from you? Do you know what that fruit is? Pray about what hopes and dreams God has for you and about your response. Ask God and listen carefully. This is not something to do when you get around to it. Jesus makes it clear that the time is now.

 

Prayer: God of the vineyard, do not let me be barren of the fruit you desire from me. Allow my roots to drink deeply from the waters of your Spirit. Nourish me and cause me to bud and bloom. May the fruit of my life be pleasing to you. In the name of the Holy Gardener, Amen.

March 30, 2020

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Luke 13:2

Generally speaking, we hate randomness. The idea that things can happen to or for anybody for no particular reason makes us uneasy. We like reasons. They make it possible to explain events and consequences, and that is comforting. Being careful, working hard, following good advice, eating and exercising properly, being careful with money, obeying the ten commandments are the kind of actions that should lead to good consequences. Conversely, if something bad happens it is often because someone was not careful, or did not work hard, or did not take care of themselves, and so forth. Cause and effect put us in control. Do the right things, get the right results. Randomness, however, robs us of control. We can do everything ‘right’ and still be at the wrong place at the wrong time. That is discomforting.

A prominent theology in Jesus’ day, and one that has never completely gone away, was that, if something terrible happened to someone, that person had done something at some time to deserve it. (Listen to the ‘friends’ of Job). Thus, when Pilate slaughtered some Gentiles, most assumed that the ones who died had sinned. Similarly, when a tower collapsed and killed eighteen people, others shook their heads and wondered what they had done.

 

Jesus did not accept that theology. Of course, there are times when our actions do lead to undesirable consequences. We make the bed we lie in. There is also, as much as we may hate it, randomness. We are experiencing a painful example right now. Those who get infected with the coronavirus are no better or worse than those who do not. Those mildly infected are no better or worse than those who die from it. Business owners who go under are no better or worse than business owners who make it through. Those who keep their jobs and those who lose theirs, those who experience terrible disruption and those who experience only inconvenience, those who find toilet paper and those who don’t – none are better or worse.

Tragedy happens and, no matter our best efforts, sometimes there is nothing we can do about it. Jesus delivers this unpopular message. What we can do, Christ points out, is to repent of our sins and live in relationship with God. Then, we are right with God no matter what the day brings. Believing that nothing terrible can happen to us because we are in control is foolishness. Putting our lives into the hands of God is wise. Do what you can to limit your exposure to tragedy, certainly. The most important thing to do, though, is to be right with God. Don’t wait for tomorrow assuming you are safe.

 

Prayer: God of Power, I know that I do not control all things. I am not my own shield or protector. You are the one who holds my soul for eternity. Forgive my sin, O God, put a right spirit within me, and keep me ever close to you. In the name of the true Savior, Amen

March 29, 2020

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body,

what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” Luke 12:22

 

This teaching by Jesus falls into the ‘easier said than done’ category. In fact, is there any advice given more infuriating than “don’t worry?” Worry is not like a spigot that we can just turn off. Besides, worry can function in a helpful way. Just as we generally try not to be afraid, the fact is that fear can keep us from doing careless, even stupid things. For instance, I stopped going up rickety ladders to clean out gutters in precarious places only when I started to fear falling. In the same way, worry can motivate us to act in appropriate ways. We do not want to panic because of the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, if worry about spreading or getting the virus causes us to wash our hands more frequently, practice social distancing, and wipe down surfaces, that is a good thing. Those ignoring the pleas of health and government officials need to worry a bit more. Worry can be a good thing.

 

So is what Jesus telling us wrong? It is not. Notice that this teaching immediately follows the parable of the man who built larger barns in order to store more and more. He unnecessarily worried about an imagined shortage in his future. He believed that he had to secure all of his needs and put no trust in God. This worry not only kept him in a constant state of anxiety, but also prevented him from being generous. After all, one option to building bigger and bigger barns would have been to share with those who had nothing. Thinking that his future could be secured only by his own efforts also kept him from experiencing a genuinely trusting relationship with God. Thus, his worry skewed his relationships with God and neighbor. Where did that worry get him? The very night he finally thought that he had enough, he died.

 

What Jesus specifically means in this teaching, then, is that we should not worry so much about the material. When we worry that we do not, and will not, have enough, then our focus in life becomes accumulating more. We never experience the peace that comes from being satisfied with what we have. We live in a constant state of tension, which takes a huge toll on our health. We begin competing with our neighbors, instead of working with them. We discount God’s providence and limit God’s ability to bless us. In all of these ways, worry is not a good thing.

 

All of us worry some. Worry can even be helpful, so long as it moves us to positive action and not to paralyzing hand-wringing. Mostly, though, worry is debilitating and hurts us, God, and neighbor. So, to the best of your ability, follow the words of Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Always remember, God is with you. Be filled with that truth, not worry.

 

Prayer: O Lord, so much seems out of my control and I cannot help but worry. Bring peace to my spirit. Remind me that you are always with me and that the future is in your hands. Give me confidence and help me to live in faith. Amen.

March 28, 2020

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15

 

               This teaching about greed which is followed by the parable about the man who built bigger barns to store more and more and then suddenly died has an interesting antecedent.  Jesus gives this teaching after someone asked him to intercede in a family dispute over an inheritance.  One man wants Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him.  Jesus refused to get involved in that squabble, but used the occasion to teach about greed.

               What makes this interesting is that the man was not necessarily being greedy.  It was quite possible that his brother was unfairly withholding his portion of an inheritance.  That would make it an issue of justice, not greed.  Jesus, though, did not care.  He essentially told them to work it out between themselves and to guard against greed.  What was his point?

               Jesus was not concerned about whether or not the man deserved a portion of the inheritance.  From his perspective, the man was putting financial gain over the relationship.  His desire to get his ‘share’ of the money would most likely result in a fractured relationship with his brother.

               It happens.  Over years of pastoral experience, more times than I want to count, I have seen previously close families torn apart over money.  Indeed, in my experience, money is the biggest divider of families by far.  Fights about who got what, or who got more, or how what was gotten was used, or who deserved what have irreparably torn families apart.  The same happens between business partners, friends, and neighbors.  Perhaps you, too, have witnessed these disputes.  Perhaps you have been part of one or more.  Winning these ‘fights’ is most often a case of winning the battle and losing the war.

              

The desire for more is a slippery slope.  Accumulating more at the expense of others is never God-pleasing.  Accumulating more just for the sake of having more is never God-pleasing.  Accumulating more so we can assure our own needs rather than depending on God is never God-pleasing.  Damaging relationships for the sake of having more is never God-pleasing.  Greed comes in many shapes and sizes and in many disguises.  This is why Jesus said, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”  Jesus was consistent in saying that we should put God over money and people over money.  He concludes the parable by teaching that it is better to be rich toward God than to store up treasures for ourselves.

               Is money standing between you and another?  Pray about how you might change that.

 

Prayer:  Giver of all that we have, never allow me to value possessions more than I value you or others.  Give me my daily bread and let me be content. 

Help me to be generous and not selfish.  Give to me open hands and not clenched fists.  In the name of the one who gave away even his life, Amen.

March 27, 2020

“But woe to you Pharisees!”  Luke 11:42

 

               We are familiar with beatitudes, blessings spoken by Jesus.  We sometimes forget that Jesus also spoke woes.  In most cases, Jesus directed those woes to the Pharisees.  Pharisees were lay people who committed themselves to following every letter of the Levitical law.  This was a challenge.  First, they had to know the law, and then they had to discipline themselves to live by it. 

Consequently, they were respected and admired for their knowledge and dedication.

               Jesus was not an admirer.  It actually was a mutual dislike; the Pharisees found it impossible to take Jesus seriously as a holy man because, from their point of view, he was very lax when it came to the law.  Jesus was unimpressed by the Pharisees because they mastered all of the technicality of the law and none of the spirit.  Jesus and the Pharisees constantly sparred over this.

               In this section of Luke, the Pharisees are upset with Jesus because he did not ritualistically wash his hands before dinner.  Jesus is upset with the Pharisees because they were focused on how to properly wash hands all the while ignoring the bigger concerns of justice and love.  “For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.” (11:42b). In general, the Pharisees’ dedication to the law was not for the honor of God, but to make themselves superior to the ‘sinners’ beneath them.  Jesus considered this hypocritical and it infuriated him.

               How often do we confuse the rules of religion with the heart of faith?  We know the proper order of worship, the liturgies for each season, the proper format of the Eucharist, and the appropriate components of prayer.  We know what it takes to look and sound religious.  We may even be generous with our time and giving.  None of this matters, though, if we are not humble before the Lord or if we are neglectful of those around us who hurt.  Jesus is saying here, for instance, that tithing is unimpressive if we neglect justice and the love of God.

               Law is one thing.  Love is another.  God’s law is intended to help us to love.  When it is instead used to divide or, to elevate one above another, it becomes simply rule-keeping, not law-abiding.  The Pharisees knew how to wash their hands.  They did not know how to love their neighbor.  Jesus tells us they missed the point.  It does not help to wash the outside if the inside is not washed also. Are you motivated by rules or love? 

Jesus hopes the answer is love.

 

Prayer:  Dear God, do not allow me to be lost in the petty.  Show me what is truly important and in harmony with your will.  Let love be my guide, knowing that when I love, I am fulfilling the law.  In all things make me an instrument of your love.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

March 26, 2020

                                              “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing.”  Luke 10:41

 

     Poor Martha.  Jesus and his entourage showed up at her house with little notice.  The sacred duty of hospitality required that she provide them with refreshments and, of course, she wanted to please the Lord.  She busied herself in the kitchen while the men relaxed and talked.  Well, it was not all men.  Martha’s sister, Mary, was sitting at the feet of Jesus taking in every word.  Martha could have really used her help, but her sister did nothing to assist her.

          

     Martha was furious.  As she diced vegetables her anger heated and finally boiled over.  She stormed into the room, pointed our Mary’s laziness to Jesus, and asked him to tell her to get in the kitchen and help.  Jesus did not.  In fact, he gently scolded Martha and praised Mary.  Why?  Because more than Jesus needed snacks, Mary and Martha needed the word of the Lord.  In other words, Mary should not be in the kitchen with Martha.  Martha should be in the room with Mary.

            

     Sit with this image for some moments.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, was in the living room, and Martha was in the kitchen.  Was she being a good hostess?  Yes.  Was she caring for her guests?  Yes.  That, though, is not the point.  Jesus was in the house and she was missing the visit.  That is the point.  It should cause us to wonder how often we may have missed Jesus because we were focused on something else.

             

     Here is a riddle.  When is doing the right thing the wrong thing?  One way to answer is to think about times when you were doing something important, maybe even something you considered necessary, and consequently missed seeing a spectacular sunset, or short-changed precious time with your child, or gave little attention to your spouse, or apologized to friends that you were just too busy to get together.  No time for daily prayer and devotion?  Maybe Jesus is in the next room and you are in the kitchen.  Martha was certain that she was right and her sister was wrong.  Jesus did not agree.

              

     What are you doing that is more important than being with Jesus?  If your answer is anything other than “nothing,” think again.  Do not let the most important moments of life pass you by because you are distracted by the less important.  Jesus would rather have you at his feet than in the kitchen.

 

Prayer:  Sweet Jesus, keep my eyes on you.  Do not let me look to the left or right.  Help me to keep you always in sight.  When I become distracted, touch my shoulder.  When I become preoccupied, call to me.  There is need of only one thing, Lord, and that is you.  Keep me close.  Amen.

March 25, 2020

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Luke 10:29

 

There is always a loophole.  No matter the law, or rule, or directive, there is always some technicality that makes skirting the law possible.  This is what the lawyer who set out to test Jesus was counting on.  The lawyer wanted Jesus to tell him what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus put the question back to him by asking him to quote what was written in the law.  The man gave the standard answer:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus agreed and told the lawyer to do that.  That should have ended the conversation.  It did not.  In the lawyer’s mind, the law was vague.  It said he was to love his neighbor as himself without defining neighbors.  That could mean anyone, and he was not wanting or willing to love just anyone.  He wanted clarity or, more to the point, permission to love only the ones he wanted to love.  So, he asked a follow-up question:  “And who is my neighbor?”  Christ then told the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the parable, the character who clearly acted as the neighbor was the very one the inquisitive lawyer did not want to love.

I suspect the man was sorry he asked Jesus.  The answer was not at all the one he wanted.  That is what happens when you start looking for loopholes.  When we start to put too fine a point on the commands of God they cease to be God’s commands and start to be our preferences.  Loophole-looking is simply an attempt to twist God’s ways to our ways.  How many times do we say or think: we know what Jesus said about giving, or we know what Jesus said about not striking back, or we know what Jesus said about forgiving but. . . . then we explain that Jesus did not mean it for our circumstance or we interpret the teaching so narrowly that it no longer applies to our situation.  That is disrespectful to God and of no help to us.  God’s laws are for our benefit.  Christ’s teachings are for our happiness.  We only hurt ourselves when we look for loopholes.

 

Little angered Jesus more than when the Pharisees would demonstrate their grasp of the minutest points of the law all the while being oblivious to the suffering of the people around them.  Stop parsing words, he would tell them.  Love God, love neighbor, period.  There are no loopholes.  It really is as simple as that.

 

Prayer:  Lord, let your word be a lamp unto my feet, a light that I do not darken.  Show me the wisdom of your ways and inspire me to abide by those ways. 

Keep my love for you and your neighbor strong. Amen.

March 24, 2020

                                              “Do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:20

 

     Jesus had sent seventy evangelists ahead of him to prepare the cities for his coming.  Their mission was a great success.  When they reported back to him they were flushed with excitement and incredulous about all that had happened.  “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us,” they gushed.  Jesus was pleased as well and celebrated with them.  He cautioned them, however.  Their joy should not come from the fact that they put a beat-down on demons, as awesome as that was.  Their joy should come from knowing that they were part of God’s eternal kingdom.

              

     This should be the same source of joy for each of us.  Many things make us happy, and rightfully so.  Many things make us proud, and rightfully so.  Many things cause us to dance an extra step or to clap our hands and laugh, or to leap a bit into the air, and rightfully so. Nothing, though, should give us more joy than knowing that our names are written in heaven.

              

     What makes this joy supreme is that it cannot be taken from us.  Everything else in life is temporal.  Our loved ones can be lost to death.  Our health can change in an instant.  Our finances can collapse.  Everything can be lost to us, except our place in heaven.  When we have given ourselves to Jesus and serve as his disciples, our names are etched in heaven.  Nothing on this earth can erase that etching.  No power on earth can take that away.

              

     Jesus’ followers were having a good day and had every right to be excited.  We should always be excited and celebrate every good day we have.  Mostly, though, we want to anchor our joy and excitement in the permanent and unshakable.  No matter whether today is a good day or a challenging day for you, you still belong to the Lord, and your eternal future still belongs to God.  For that, you can give a word of thanks and rejoice.

 

     Prayer:  You hold my life, O God, and I am grateful.  Nothing in this world can pull me from your grip.  Help me always to rejoice, in good times and bad, knowing that you have written my name in heaven. Amen.

March 23, 2020

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62

 

Jesus is walking along a road, we are not told from where or to where, and as he walks he invites two people to follow.  Both say yes, but. . . one wants to bury his father first; the other wants to first say goodbye to his family.  Both ‘excuses’ make perfect sense and we might think that Jesus would say,

“Of course.”  Jesus does not.  He brushes off their requests as unacceptable.

 

Does this seem harsh to you?  Consider two things.  First, the reasons given were not as simple as they sound.  The one who wanted to bury his father was not in the midst of planning a funeral.  His father was still alive.  What he was really saying was that he would follow Jesus after his father died, whenever that might be.  That could be years.  He was putting devotion for his father ahead of devotion for Jesus.  The other wanted to first say goodbye to his family, but once he went home to give them a hug, would he really leave?  Jesus obviously did not think so.  In this respect, when they said ‘yes’ what they meant was ‘no.’

Secondly, the invitation to follow was given at a time of urgency.  Jesus was preparing to go to Jerusalem.  His days were numbered and short.  There was no time for these two to think about whether they were in or out, or to fulfill other obligations first.  Jesus did not say, “If you would like to come along, we’d love to have you join us. ”He said, “Follow me.”  When God calls, it is not acceptable to answer, “Sure, when I get around to it.”

              

Are you actively following now or just planning to follow when the time is more convenient?  Is your response to God  “yes, but. . ?”  Spend some time in self-reflection and prayer around these questions.  If you are putting off following, what is holding you back?  In light of putting God first, very legitimate reasons are ultimately just excuses.

Discipleship is rarely easy or convenient.  Jesus always made this clear to any that would follow.  He also made it clear that any pain or sacrifice was well worth it.   He reminded all that what we experience in this life is nothing compared to what we will experience in the life to come – eternal life with Jesus in the kingdom of God.  When Jesus calls, don’t hesitate or wait for a better offer.  Just grab your things and go.

 

Prayer:  Gracious One, I have so many obligations and responsibilities.  It is hard to just say yes to your call.  Remind me that wherever it is that you want me is where I should be and that you will care for the rest.  Give me a willing spirit and help me to be a faithful follower.  In the name of your Son, Amen.

March 22, 2020

                                                            When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  Luke 9:51

 

      Jesus had been in the northern region of Galilee for roughly three years.  He certainly experienced some challenges and conflict there but, for the most part, these were good years.  He was very popular with the people.  He drew crowds whenever he spoke.  People lined up to be healed by him.  Even some Romans and religious leaders admired him and believed in his power.  He could have had a very successful ministry and died an old man in Galilee.

              

     That, however, was not the plan.  The plan called for him to take his message to Jerusalem in Judah.  Many would love him there also.  The difference was that Jerusalem hosted the most powerful religious and political leaders.  It was also the site of the Temple from which the powerful priesthood operated.  The Romans, community leaders, priests, scribes and Pharisees in Jerusalem would not be open to Jesus.  Indeed, he would be considered a major threat to their power and way of life.  To go to Jerusalem, then, was to invite conflict and almost certain death.  Jerusalem represented the religious heart of Israel, though, and Jesus could not avoid it.  The time had come to head there.

             

     In our text, we read that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.  This does not mean that he headed south immediately.  In fact, he remained in Galilee for a while longer.  His mind was made up, though.  His teaching became more intense.  It was less invitational and more about saying it was time to make a decision – to follow him or not.  He began to tell his disciples that things were about to get difficult so they would have to be truly committed.  When warned that Herod might kill him, Jesus could not wait any longer and started south.

             

     There are times in our lives when we have to set our faces to go to Jerusalem.  Our reasons will differ.  Though we may be doing well in our work, we know we are not doing what we are called to do and it is time to make a job change.  There may be an opportunity or need for us to move to a different place, geographically or spiritually.  It might be time to finally confront an addiction or to change our ways and habits.  No change from the comfortable or familiar happens, however, until we first set our face to go in a new direction.

              

     Where are you being called to go?  What is next in your life?  What plan does God have for you?  Maybe now is the time for you to set your face to go to Jerusalem.

 

Prayer:  Lord, wherever it is that you are calling me to go, give me the courage to follow.  Do not let me cling to the comfortable and familiar, but rather push me to where you would have me be, doing what you would have me do.  Show me the way and lead me, O God.  Amen.

ADDRESS

Mayo United Methodist Church

1005 Old Turkey Point Rd.
Edgewater, MD 21037

Office Visiting Hours:  Mon – Thurs. 9:00 AM - 2:00 PM

-----------

Phone: 410-798-6110 || Fax: 410-798-6474

Office Phone Hours: Mon – Thurs. 10:00 AM -1:00 PM

mayoumcmd@gmail.com

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • Amazon Social Icon
  • Vimeo Social Icon

© 2023 by HARMONY. Proudly created with Wix.com