Day 31   “How the Story Ends”

I agree with Adam when he writes that the book of Revelation is one of the most misused books of the Bible.   There were great debates in the early church about whether the book should be included in the New Testament canon of sacred writings.  It was last book of the Bible to be accepted some 350 years after the death of Christ.  Even church leaders and reformers since then like Martin Luther had very strong doubts about the significance of the book for the Christian faith.

The book itself has never played a very strong role in Methodist theology and history.  The last time that Revelation seemed to draw some interest among United Methodists came as we approached the new millennium.   There was an increase in end of the world predictions at the time and a growing fear among Americans caused by what was referred to as the y-2 hysteria.  A problem was detected in the coding of computerized systems that some thought would cause major havoc to our way of life, which did not occur. 

The book of Revelation is meant to be understood symbolically.  The problem occurs when people try to understand the book literally and draw conclusions that the book contains secret codes that directly apply to us today.  Countless end of the world predictions based upon literal approach to Revelation has come up empty.   For main-liners such as United Methodists we tend to put our trust in the good news of the Gospel when it comes to how we should prepare for the end times.  Here is what our Lord Jesus said about the coming of the son of man in his glory, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[f] for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:32).

The value of the book is the comfort and book that it provides those who are struggling in their faith, especially those who are under oppression or facing persecution.  This was indeed the purpose of John (not the Gospel writer), an exiled Bishop who had a vision from God and wrote it down in this book.  He is addressing the seven churches in Rome in the 2nd century who are under the threat of the Roman Empire that John symbolically refers as the Beast.   He writes to reassure them to keep persevering in their faith and have hope in the Lord.  John doesn’t paint any Pollyanna picture of what is to come.   He says that life will become ever more difficult under the reign of Rome; people will be martyred for their faith.   But in the end the goodness of love of God will win out.  They will be saved by the blood of the Lamb.

At the end of Revelation, John provides several wonderful images of what is going to happen in the end,  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s  dwelling is her with humankind.  He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more.  There will be no more mourning, crying or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.  (Revelation 21:1-4)

Like book ends, these words and the words that follow in Revelation 22, make a fitting close to the Bible.   Heaven has been described here on other places in the Bible as a wedding feast where he will eat and dance and celebrate.  We need to remember, especially during this very trying time with the pandemic we are currently facing that no matter how distressful and fearful life might be become for us, we already have already taken a glimpse and end of the story and we know that God wins!

In the meantime, let us live by these precious words from a prayer by Desmond Tutu, the South African church leader, who fought against the evils of apartheid.

“Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.  Victory is ours through him who loved us.”  

 

  

Day 1- Psalm 23  “I Will Fear No Evil”

Psalm 23 has given countless Christians great comfort through the centuries.  There have been very few funeral services that I have officiated where the 23rd Psalm was not read.  The words of the Psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me” provide us such comfort and reassurance of the Lord’s presence.  This Psalm offers us so much more than just comfort in the wake of death. Just consider the opening words to the Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside the still waters.”  

I remember the time when our group of newly ordained elders and Bishop Lawson saw our first live shepherd while traveling through Israel.  He was leading his flock down a dusty and rocky road. I did not notice any plush green pastures or flowing streams in the area. I am sure that the Psalmist was not just fantasizing about pastures and water.   In order for the sheep to reach the green pasture and still waters, they had to be willing to follow the shepherd through some dry, rough and rocky terrain. The same holds true for us spiritually as well. People can become fearful of life and living as well as fearing death.  Unless we are willing to trust the Lord to lead us, guide us and protect us we will always find ourselves simply on a dry and lifeless road. “He restores my soul. He paths me on the path of righteousness (right living) for his name’s sake.” Let us turn to the Lord for help and strength this Lenten season and we will come to find that new life that he offers to us on Easter. 

 

Day 2—Exposed– 

One thing always to keep in mind when reading Bible stories is that they are not just about something that took place in history long, long ago.  This is certainly true of the story of Adam and Eve. Their story is meant to explain how humans became disobedient and fell from innocence before God.  Their story is really about the human condition and how easily we can fall from grace under the lure and enticement of temptation. Adam and Eve crossed the line by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.   For whatever reason, things seem more desirable when we’re not supposed to have them. In the story, Adam and Eve find themselves exposed and they attempt to hide from God. This leads nowhere because now they’re filled with fear and guilt.  They not living. They’re in hiding.

Their story reminds me of something that happened to me while working at Falk Foundry in Milwaukee during my college years.   The first two summers I worked there, business was booming and I could not work fast enough to get those sand core molds over to the storage area where they would eventually be filled with hot molten metal.  My supervisor had been very good to me and the department while I worked there. By the third summer, production orders had slowed way down. I’m surprised they even hired me back for another summer. I spent half my time sweeping floors.  One day while we were hanging around the floor, one of my co-workers had convinced to sort of play hooky and take a walk to the other side of the plant. He said that if they needed us we would hear our name over the intercom. Something just did not feel right about this but we took off.  It so happened that we didn’t hear our names called and the supervisor was looking for us because he had a job for us to do. I was exposed. He was not happy and sent us home early to think about what we had done. I made some excuse to my parents of why I came home early, but I could hardly look them in the eye over the weekend.  I was filled with guilt. The supervisor had every right to fire me on the spot. I was counting on this money to help pay for my college tuition. I felt so bad that I had let down a supervisor who had been so good to me. I dreaded going to his office on Monday. I’m sure I was shaking in my boots. But I simply told him that I was sorry for what I had done and nothing like this would every happen again.  He accepted my apology and our relationship continued as if nothing had ever happened. I have to admit that as difficult as it was to confess, confession was good for my soul. I felt great relief compared to the guilt that I was carrying within me.

I figure that if I can feel such relief by being forgiven by another human being, the how much more relief and healing will I receive when I confess my sins to God.   Actually, we cannot hide anything from God. When we try to hide, we’re actually hiding from our true selves, created in the image of God. Take it from me, confession is a healing balm in our relationship with God.  The God who holds us accountable and calls out to us, “Where are you?” is the same God of mercy will bring us back home into communion with His Spirit.

 

Day 3-   “The Ark”

I chuckle to myself every time I read an article that’s entitled the search for the lost ark.   Well, all I have to say is good luck. The Noah story is part of a collection of pre-history stories.  These stories are not meant to be understood literally. They are meant to explain the origin of things like the origin of disobedience (Adam and Eve), origin of murder (Cain and Abel), the origin of different languages (The Tower of Babel).   

In the story of Noah, God is about to wipe out creation that God sees as wicked and evil until he spots one person, Noah, whom he considers upright and blameless.  God calls Noah to build an ark (small ship) that will eventually keep he and his family and pairs of animals of every kind safe from the terrifying floods that God is about to unleash.  I have to confess that I really struggle with the idea that a merciful God would destroy the whole earth and that Noah is the only one who is not evil or wicked. At least, later in the story we read how God initiated a covenant with creation, promising never to destroy the earth again by floods.

The ark has become a metaphor for the church with Jesus as our pilot.  One of our United Methodist hymns describes how we look to Christ to guide and protect us as his followers:  “Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea; unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treacherous shoal.  Chart and compass came from thee; Jesus, Savior pilot me.” We are saved by the waters of baptism and brought into the body of Christ as his church.   Christ has helped the church through many dangerous and uncharted waters through the centuries. A ship as a metaphor for the church on the water suggests to me that we are never meant to stand in place.  We are on a pilgrim journey together towards the kingdom of God.  

Adam mentions in his writing on the ark that it was most likely an amateurish, imperfect piece of work.  We as the church are imperfect instruments and vessels of God. And yet, when we look back at our life as the church, we can witness to those times when  fellow church members supported us and prayed for us and helped us through some really rough waters. God always promises that we are never alone, that God is with us.  But it’s even more reassuring when we come to know that other spiritual friends and pilgrims are walking by our side during both the most joyous and the most difficult times in our lives.   Even in our imperfect state, we give God thanks for His patience with us and enabling us, by his grace, to become the people we were created to be.

 

Day 4- Leaving Home—Abraham Story

I can imagine Abraham and Sarah living a rather comfortable life in the city of Haran where Abraham’s father Terah had brought them to settle down years earlier.  Haran was a good place to live. It was a thriving city that was located on a major trade route. As the story unfolds in the beginning of the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abraham is 75 years old.  It’s fair to say that Abraham and Sarah were in their settled years.  It would have remained this way, but Abraham received a call from God.  We don’t know if it was something Abraham heard audibly or sensed in his heart.  But the Lord wanted Abraham to take his family and go to a land that God would show him and promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation.   Abraham lived in a polytheistic culture where people worshiped and paid homage to multiple gods. The God who spoke to Abraham is referred to as El Shaddai, not one of many gods, but the Lord God Almighty.   Abraham did not get a chance to see any pictures of this land before he set out. He had to trust what the Lord was telling him to do. And he said, “yes” and took his family and the possessions that they had accumulated while in Haran and set out for the land of Canaan.   How would you feel if you got a sense that the Lord has called you to leave your home and all your familiar surroundings to go and make your home in a foreign place. I remember hearing some members state their reluctance to want to listen to the Lord in fear that the Lord may call them out to be a missionary somewhere in the rain forest and they were just not cut out for this kind of work.  For Abraham, God had made good on his promise to give Abraham and Sarah an heir, even though we are told that Sarah was well beyond her childbearing years. God did bless Abraham and Sarah but they also had to face many trials and difficulties along the way which required them to continue to trust in the Lord’s guidance and protection. The “yes” that Abraham gave to the Lord is a risky move. He had no certainties other than a promise from God. 

I believe that the words “leaving home” doesn’t necessarily mean that God wants everyone to physically leave their homes and move elsewhere.    The words “leaving home” can also mean that God wants us to leave our comfort zones so God can work out his will through us. Oftentimes when we feel that nudge to go forward with something, we are naturally a bit fearful because we don’t know exactly how things will work out.  This is the very definition of trust. We can read the scriptures, we can pray on it, we can ask advice from others, but sometimes we just need to take that risk for God. There’s no promise that your “yes” to God will be followed by a bed of ease. Most likely you will face some difficult challenges.  But this is the way of discipleship. We dare to take that way, because we know that as difficult as the path may be, it is the only one that will lead to true freedom and life in Christ.

 

 

Day 5 – Wrestling with God—Jacob

Jacob had come to the end of the road.  His life had been filled with deception and conniving.   He had tricked his older famished brother Esau for a bowl of porridge.  Then towards the end of Isaac’s life, Jacob deceived his brother Esau a second time.  Esau is described in the story as being a hairy man whereas Jacob’s skin was smooth. With the help of his mother, Jacob disguised himself to appear to be Esau by putting on some bear skins.  Isaac who was nearly blind wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. So Jacob received the father’s blessing that was reserved for Esau. Esau was so incensed that he vowed to kill his brother and Jacob believed him. He and his family went on the run like fugitives.   One night, after Jacob sent his family across the stream, he was all alone and nowhere to hide. We’re told that Jacob wrestled with a man until daybreak. What actually took place here? We might speculate that Jacob was simply dreaming. But you don’t usually end up from a dream with a hip socket out of joint and a definite limp to your step.   

Jacob had struggled all night long.  He refused to let go of the man until he blessed him.  We know from the scriptures that God is the one who grants blessings.  The story seems to suggest that Jacob was wrestling with God. When Jacob began this wrestling match he was filled with guilt, fear and remorse over what he had done to his brother.  Have you known people who deceived and betrayed others and now have face up to what they had done? When a person is forced to face up to something, they end up struggling and wrestling with themselves.   They’re wrestling with the fact that they don’t like the person they have become versus they they know they should be.    

The one thing that is evident is that Jacob is a changed person after this encounter with God and himself.  He is ready to face his brother. He is going to fall on his brother’s mercy, but he really has no idea how his brother is going to react when they finally reunite.  But fortunately for Jacob’s sake, Esau has also had some time to work things out and so he accepted his brother and forgave him for what he had done.  

I have had some times in my life when I was wrestling with various challenges and problems.  I am sure that I prayed to God to take away all the problems. But this isn’t how God operates.  We need to face what we fear and God will bring us through. And don’t be surprised when this happens that you will indeed be changed in some way to become more of your true self.  

 

Day 6—From Prisoner to Prime Ministry (Joseph)

The story of Joseph is a marvelous piece of storytelling.  Adam does a very fine job of summarizing the story, but I would encourage the story for yourself starting in the 37 chapter and continuing from chapter 39-50.   It really contains all the ingredients of the human drama of sin and redemption and forgiveness.   You know that the story is not going to go well when you learn  Jacob favored Joseph, who was the second youngest, over the rest of his 11 siblings. An obvious sign of Jacob’s favoritism is that he gave Joseph a long beautiful robe that he made just for him.  I can hardly blame the brothers for being resentful. I realize that parents may have their favorites; children of which they have a special bond.  No wonder siblings have difficulty getting along as they reach adulthood when they were all struggling for mom and dad’s affection   Joseph did not help his relationship with his brothers by sharing with them his dream that someday they would all be bowing to him. In this story we read about jealousy, envy, betrayals, false witness fear, the possibility of revenge, forgiveness, reconciliation all wrapped in Joseph’s life

Along the way, Joseph was falsely accused of a crime and ended up in prison.  Adam shares a really power illustration in Living Unafraid of how a man named Darryl had spent years in prison, convicted of a crime he did not commit.  Key evidence that would have shown his innocence was withheld.   He was eventually found innocent and released years later. This same man by the grace of God ended up on staff as a congregational care pastor at the Church of the Resurrection where Adam serves as the lead pastor.   He had to work through a lot of anger and feelings of bitterness, and resentment while in prison against a system that had unjustly convicted him.  But over time with the help of Jesus his feeling of bitterness gave way to that of mercy and compassion and hope. When things finally were made right and he was exonerated and released he was a different person.   

What I really find fascinating about the Joseph story is that God’s name is barely mentioned throughout these chapters.  We hear the author tell us that the Lord was with Joseph while he was in prison.  And then towards the end of the story after Joseph had forgiven his brothers and reunited with them he told them, “Even though you intended harm to me by selling me into slavery, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a people a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Genesis 50:20)

 All the things that Joseph faced and had to endure reminds me of the truth of Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”   

Joseph’s story is our story in the sense that we go about our daily lives experiencing good things but also facing trials and perhaps even betrayal or opposition.  So often we are unmindful of where God is and how God is involved in our daily affairs.  Whether we realize it or not, God is at work behind the scenes as well as in us.  God did not will that his brothers sell him into slavery and pretend that he was dead or that Potiphar’s wife accuse him of rape. God worked through all these circumstances in his sovereignty so that Joseph may achieve God’s will and purpose for His people.    

God is involved in our lives and in our history as well.   It is true that often we can have a better perspective of how God is at work when we look back at the past. At the time, we’re going through the trials, life may look like the back of a tapestry of a beautiful landscape.  All you see are just loose threads. But when we look back at the events of our lives it’s like turning the tapestry around and you get to see the beautiful landscape that the Lord has made of your life when you have learned to trust him.  May this be so for you and me.

 

Day 7—Please Send Someone Else– Moses

Have you ever had an occasion where you were called to do something in which you felt ill prepared?  I have felt ill prepared on a number of occasions. I have heard parishioners say, “I really don’t feel qualified to assume that role or responsibility”.  I’m sure that we would prefer those tasks we believe that we can handle. More often than not, we hear a call to do something outside our daily routine that frightens us.   “God, would you send somebody else? Moses had plenty of excuses as to why he didn’t feel qualified to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. He thought he could avoid the call by telling God that he did not speak very well.  So, God calls Aaron to accompany Moses to be his spokesman

I remember saying to myself at the beginning of my second year of seminary, “What am I  doing here? Did I really hear your call, O God, to enter the ordained ministry?” I observed other seminarians who had majored in religion in college and others who came from a missionary family.  Here I am, a business major and the first in my family to attend seminary making excuses as to why I should not be here. By God’s grace, I got through the year and things got better. But I still had tasks and responsibilities since then in which I felt I was less than qualified to carry out.   Life always poses challenges where we are tempted to say, “Please Lord, send somebody else.”

There is an old classic line that goes, “God does not call the qualified, but God qualifies those whom God calls.”  One of the ways that God qualifies is His promise to be with us always to help us face the challenges at hand. Think about it this way; if you really thought you were qualified for a particular task, would you actually give much thought to turn towards  God daily for help? The next time you feel the Spirit nudging you to do a task and you feel like making some excuse or just running away reflect upon the words in Psalm 121, “I look to the hills, from where does my help come. My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”    The God we trust is not only to be found by looking up into the hills, but also is the One we know residing deep within our hearts.

 

Day 8- Be Strong and Courageous (Joshua)

All I remember about Joshua growing up is the Sunday School song we would sing on occasion, “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came a-tumbling down”

In the passage that Adam focuses on in Joshua 1:5-9, God is preparing Joshua to take the Hebrews across the Jordan river to claim the land that God had promised to his ancestor Abraham.  Joshua was one of the spies that Moses sent to observe the land of Canaan to see how strong and fortified the cities, so they could determine if they could successfully enter the land and settle there. This story is recorded in the 13th and 14 chapters of the book of Numbers. The other spies were frightened by what they saw saying that compared to the Canaanites, they must have looked by mere grasshoppers.  Only Caleb and Joshua believed that they go forward into the promised land of milk and honey. Joshua said, “If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into the land and give it to us.”   Unfortunately, the other spies won the argument and the people remained camp out outside of Canaan.

Now, we fast forward to the time after Moses has died and God is turning to Joshua to be the one to lead the people across the Jordan river.   God makes Joshua a promise, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.”

I like Adam’s definition of the word courage.  “Courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to do the right thing despite our fears.”  Joshua was not some superman who was immune to fear. But he was not going to allow the fear to keep him from acting. Joshua was getting prepared for battle with the Canaanites.  I believe that God’s promise here to be “strong and courageous” is not just reserved for those going to physical battles. Joshua and we are instructed to obey God’s commands and to know that God’s presence is with us wherever we go.   We have also witnessed in our history strong and courageous leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who led people into battle by the way non-violent resistance. Jesus warned us that there will be times when our actions for God will result in being opposed and even persecuted.   The thought of persecution and being intimidated by others lead to great fear. But fear need not paralyze us for we know that “courage is our willingness to do the right thing, despite our fears.”

 

Day 9–   “Two Are Better Than One”  (Ruth and Naomi)

The short book of Ruth contains one of the more quoted  verses in the Bible in Chapter 1: 16, “Do not press me to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.   Ruth is one of my favorite books. Her story is not immune to tragedy, but Ruth is really more about how two women came together and formed such an intimate bond of spiritual love, friendship and fidelity.  The other reason that I really connect with this story is that women are often overlooked in the scriptures. Here they take center stage and are given a voice that helped to shape Israel’s history.  

These women working together really confirmed the point made by the preacher Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9) 

Women had very limited options for financial security since they could not by law inherit any land or properties.  Their only access to an inheritance was through their husband or through their sons and in Naomi’s case all three had died leaving her without any means of security for the future.  Her only option was to return back to her homeland and fall back on the mercy of any kinsmen there. She certainly didn’t have much to offer her daughter-in –laws. Naomi deeply loved them.  Like a mother who is willing to give up her child for adoption so that the child could have a better life, Naomi felt it best for them to go their separate ways. Ruth and Naomi still had time to find and marry Moabite husbands.   

Ruth would have nothing to do with Naomi’s plan.  She was willing to give up her family and all that she knew that was familiar to her, even worshiping a different God in order to be with Naomi and help care for her in old age.  Whatever Naomi was about to face, Ruth sought to face it with her. But this friendship was not a one-way track. After reaching her home with Ruth, Naomi had ordered the young men not to bother her  (Ruth 2:9). Apparently Ruth was an attractive young woman. Naomi didn’t want the men to sexually harass her daughter in-law. It’s so sad that women have never been able to escape the role of being viewed as sexual objects for male gratification. 

The words of Ecclesiastes really speak truth in the relationship between Ruth and Naomi; “two is better than one… if either should fall, one can pick up the other.”

Do you know any Naomi’s out there who seem to be isolated and in need of someone to walk beside them?  Could you be that friend or do you know of others who could fill that role? I realize that people have a lot of pride and sometimes will push others away to try to deal with life alone.   But it pays to stay in contact with those who really could use a hand of support and someone with whom to talk. 

Perhaps, you may be at a point where you need others to walk beside you.  Life changes for all of us. I personally prefer to be the one who is reaching out to others. I know that I too, need to allow more people to offer their help when the situation calls for it.   It’s more than just general help we need; we also need that bond of companionship that reminds us that we are loved and meant to love.

 

Day 10   “The Giants in Your Life”—(David and Goliath)

For me, the story of David and Goliath is less of a military campaign and more a story of David’s personal battle with the giant in his life by the name of Goliath.  The way that Goliath is described is more along the lines of a folk tale than a true historical event. You have this giant that stands above all men. All of Israel including Saul the king are shaking in their boots.  And you have this teenager named David who just hasn’t got the message of how dangerous this foe can be.

He is willing to take on this force because he realizes that this battle is not between he and Goliath.  The battle is between the force of evil that disdains God and God’s heavenly forces.   David witnesses to this fact. “You come after me with sword and spear, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of heavenly forces.” The use of one smooth stone reveals that the power to take out evil doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the Lord.

Like David, we all probably have at least one giant in our life that of which we are frightened.   Giants are those perceived threats that cause us to concede defeat before the battle has even begun.  The thought about going against these giants often can deflate us. As Adam mentioned, we usually tend to exaggerate a bit when trying to describe our giants like the description of Goliath as standing over nine feet tall.   For some, just hearing the word “cancer” sounds like a death sentence. Recovering addicts are always facing the giant that tempts them to relapse.    

One of the things that aid us in overcoming those things we perceive as giants is to refuse to sit idle and do nothing.   We need to act. We are called to pray to the Lord and this is important. But we cannot just sit around passively and expect God to magically take away whatever threatens us.  Recovering addicts, if they take their sobriety seriously, will join a recovery group like AA and have a coach or spiritual friend they can call when the going gets tough. Things that frighten us can emotionally paralyze and cripple us if we remain idle.  Our human tendency is fight or flight. But there is a middle way. It’s a difficult path, but it is about facing our giants with the resources and strength that God gives to us.   

The Lord of the heavenly forces is with us.  We need not be defeated or overcome by our fears.   As David found out, the solution may be as simple as a slingshot and one smooth stone. 

 

Day 11- “Whom Shall I Be Afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

The Psalms is referred to as the Jewish prayer book.  It seems fitting that this book lies near the center of the Holy Scriptures.   The Psalms had become in many ways our prayer as Christians as well.   

What I have come to appreciate about the Psalms as the honesty of the writers.  They are not at all hesitant to share the whole array of human emotions from anger, to grief, to joy, to complaint and lament.  Some Christians hold the mistaken notion that faith is to never express any doubts or complaints to the Lord, because the Lord knows what is best.   In this view, someone who questions the Lord is showing their lack of faith. The Psalmists apparently did not buy into this kind of thinking. They would write laments such as, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”   These are the exact words that Jesus had quoted while he was being crucified upon the cross.    

What I have found to be true in the Psalms is that even though a particular Psalm may begin with a lament or complaint against the Lord, as you move towards the end of the Psalm the writer’s lament would give rise to words of praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done in the past.  Psalm 22 which begins with the plea of why have you abandoned me ends with the Psalmist vowing to the tell the congregation of all the good things that God has done in the past.   

When you take a deep look at the Psalms you will find a message of great hope and joy such as the theme verse above, “The Lord is my light and my salvation —whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?” This is not to say that we will never have to deal with any fears in our lives. I believe most people who have to speak in public do so with some trepidation.  We don’t have to pretend that the fear is not present. At the same time, we need not allow the fear to paralyze or freeze us in place. We need not fear not because we are such positive thinkers but because the Lord is our light and our salvation and because the Lord is the stronghold of our lives. 

Adam offers a very good suggestion that has been time tested through the centuries.  He says that it is helpful to take a verse or two like Psalm 27:1-2 and just sit with it and meditate over it.  The Psalm’s message soon begins to penetrate our heart and provides us a sea of calm in the midst of life’s changes.  As I write this, we are in the midst of the corona virus outbreak. These verses above and others can truly help to serve as an anchor when everything else seems to be giving sway.  

 

Day 12–  Missing Out  (Solomon)

Solomon was not known to be a great warrior like his father David.  What Solomon became known for was his wisdom and ability to discern good from evil.   We witness this gift for wisdom when we read 1 Kings 3:9 where Solomon asks God, 

“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”  This sounds like a sincere prayer. Solomon is not asking for personal glory and riches, but for the gifts to make wise decisions for God. God has granted him his request. As opposed to kings in other lands, a king of Israel was to know and to govern with the knowledge that God is the true king of the people. 

So, what happened to this wise king that led him to accumulate masses of gold, 1400 chariots, 1200 horses, and over 1000 wives and concubines?  Adam identifies Solomon’s action as the fear of missing out (FOMO). For me this fear of missing out relates to a spirit of discontentment. People often accumulate things and power because they are not spiritually content with what God has provided.   They’re searching for meaning because they haven’t found that meaning and purpose living as God’s children and God’s servants. Whether they realize or not, they are substituting things for God and their pursuit leads to emptiness. It was Saint Augustine who said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

Some members are surprised when I tell them that Jesus talks about money no fewer than 35 times in the Gospels.    I believe Jesus did so, because money is a spiritual matter. Billy Graham once said, “Show me your checkbook and I can tell you a lot about your spiritual life.”    Jesus said, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” (Luke 12:15—from the translation The Message).   The things we own can soon own us and we end up worshiping things instead of God.  

The prescription for FOMO is seeking to live a life of spiritual contentment in the Lord.  We need to take a gratitude pill every day. Part of the discontentment and the fear of missing out lies in the inability to be grateful for what we have and for life itself.   Paul writes, “I am content whether I am full or hungry; whether I have too much or too little. I have the power to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me” (Philippians 4:12b-13).

Adams closing prayer is a wonderful reminder to us of what spiritual contentment is all about, “Lord, help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity”. Amen.

 

Day 13–  Prepared to Die (Elijah)

Elijah is one of the most revered prophets of the Hebrews scriptures.  According to scripture, Elijah never died, but was taken up in a chariot by a whirlwind into heaven.  Every year at the Jewish Seder meal, worshipers look forward to the return of Elijah who symbolizes the coming of the New Jerusalem.  

In our story this morning, however, Elijah is depicted in less than a favorable light.  He is a fugitive on the run from Jezebel who has threatened to kill him. He reaches a point where he is just tired and weary of running.  He is filled with despair and finally cries out to the Lord, “Take my life. It’s not worth living anymore.”

I wanted to address two different types of despair that Adam alludes to in his commentary.  The first type of despair or depression is that which leads people to either attempt suicide or complete suicide.   This is the type of despair you can’t pray away. What I have learned in my years of pastoral ministry is that people do not need external circumstances to cause them to take their own lives.  People have completed suicide because of a job loss, financial crisis, broken relationship, loss of a loved one for instance, But I have also known circumstances where it appeared everything looked to be well on the outside, but the person was obviously fighting an inner darkness they could not shed.   If the completion of suicide was directly relating to circumstances where we have felt we can’t go on, I believe we have millions of more deaths. People don’t seek to take their own life because life is going badly for them. In my first parish, there were four teenagers who completed suicide within a two-year period.   Death by suicide is one of the five leading causes of death for teenagers today. I would suggest strongly if someone suspects that another might be contemplating ending their life that they call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. The volunteers at the hotline can provide helpful information to those who are seeking to assist another person as well as providing a lifeline for those at the brink of despair. 

The despair that Elijah was feeling was understandable considering that his life was being threatened.   Stress factors such as personal threats can wear down the strongest of persons. I suspect that if Elijah had his way, God would take care of the threat by sending death upon King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  But this is not how the story enfolds. He is visited by a messenger in tree as he sits by a tree. The message is for him to eat something. He needs strength for the journey ahead. If we could have our way, we would like God to remove whatever it is we are fearful of facing.  But life doesn’t often work out that way. I remember back when I was facing some tough times in my ministry or personally. God did not simply intervene to take it all away. God, however, did give me what I needed to face my fears and to recommit my life to serving Him. The Apostle Paul’s words in Romans has rung true for many Christians, “for suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3b-5)

For Elijah, he hung in there and remained on a mountain where he prayed for forty days and night (the number forty simply mean’s a long time in the Bible).  In that time, Elijah heard and felt God’s voice echoing through him like a soft whisper. “Go, I have more for you to do.” When Elijah got back he was able to meet and mentor a young man named Elisha whom God had chosen to lead His people.  Elijah got to pass the mantle to Elisha. He would have missed this and so much if he had chosen to end it all.

I have known people who at times because of physical ailments or other challenges want God to just take them home.  I realize this time comes for all of us when we will return back to God. I have also witnessed people who wanted to give up years earlier now experiencing the joys of grandchildren or great-grandchildren and other joys.  The thing to remember is that God will always give us the sustenance and strength we need (the daily bread we pray) to continue on the road of life towards God’s glorious kingdom. Life is never easy, but there is peace and joy to be found as we continue to trust in the Lord’s promise to be with us always even to the end of time.

 

Day 14   “For I Am Your God” (Isaiah 43:2-3)

One of the Biblical based principles that we learned in homiletics class is that preaching is about “afflicting the comfortable” and “comforting the afflicted”.  This principle is clearly demonstrated in the book of Isaiah. In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, the prophet is condemning the leadership for their injustice against their people, especially the vulnerable and poor as read in Isaiah 10: You are doomed! You make unjust laws that oppress my people. That is how you keep the poor from having their rights and from getting justice. That is how you take the property that belongs to widows and orphans. What will you do when God punishes you? What will you do when he brings disaster on you from a distant country?

The tone of judgement in Isaiah suddenly turns to a voice of mercy and comfort when we reach chapter 40.  It is believed that these later chapters beginning with chapter 40 were written at a later time when the Jewish people found themselves conquered and defeated by the Babylonian Empire.  A number of Jews, especially the skilled laborers, were then exiled to Babylon. Today’s passage in Isaiah 43 is addressed to these exiles along with God’s promise that He would bring them back to their homeland.    

The exiles had thought that God had permanently abandoned them because they had come to believe that God would never allow an enemy to destroy Jerusalem, especially the Holy Temple of God.  Their feeling of abandonment are met with these words, “I who formed you, O Israel, do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.” I can imagine the people saying, “God still remembers us”.

There are more comforting words from God through the prophet: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you: when through the waters they won’t sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire you won’t be scorched and the flame will not burn you” (Isaiah 43:2). Adam rightly points out that God did not tell us, “If you pass through the waters but WHEN you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

We as a nation and a world are passing through these waters right now with the onslaught of a virus with no vaccination or cure.  I just read a chilling article in Italy where people who have died and are buried in silence because the streets are bare by government decree.  Our world has suddenly been turned upside down. We are not exiles living in a foreign land, but many will soon feel like exiles and aliens quarantined in their own homes, for who knows how long.   We are traveling through uncharted waters. 

Even the comfort we find in gathering together in the peace of God’s sanctuary is now gone.  We have to figure out ways in which we can still worship and connect together in God’s love and still keep our social distance.  This will not be easy. But God is with us through it all. We’re reminded in this time of social distancing that we are the body of Christ and the vulnerable need us more than ever.  Perhaps in this time ahead , we can think of creative ways we can help and respond to our senior population who are clearly the more vulnerable ones in this pandemic. Grocery shopping for seniors and offering others help where we can are signs of being connected in Jesus Christ.   

The promise of God, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you” is our hope as well.   We need to take the virus seriously, but we need not panic. Our lives are firmly in the hands of the One who loves us so completely and so fully.  The words above from Isaiah are words of peace and we can be assured as Christians that the peace that Christ offers to us can help to take away all our fears.  Make this passage from John 14:25-27 from the Revised Standard Version serve for us as our daily mantra:

“These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid”.

 

Day 15  “I Know the Plans I Have For You”  (Jeremiah)

Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the more frequently quoted verses in the Hebrew scriptures, “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.”

This message from the Lord certainly sounds uplifting and hopeful to those who Jews who were in exile.   But I am not so sure the plans that God had in mind for these exiles is what they had in mind.   These Jewish exiles found themselves in a foreign land with a people who worshiped other gods.  A number of them were transported to Babylon on the first invasion by the Babylonians in 597 B.C.  It was their expectation and hope that God would rescue them very soon.   Not only did God not rescue them and bring them home, God had the Babylonians to conquer Jerusalem and destroy the sacred temple just ten years later.    God had a plan for them but wasn’t going to happen according to their time table.   It would be seventy years before God would bring the exiles home.

It could not have been easy for a number of those who were transplanted to Babylon.  This lament of the exiles can be heard in one of the Psalms, “By the rivers of Babyon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs,… “Sing one of your song of Zion!”  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land (Psalm 137:1-4)?   The author and his community are not happy campers by any means.

So what is the plan of God for His people who want to come home?   Listen to Jeremiah 29:5, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

 You will notice that God’s instruction is not for them to separate themselves from the Babylonians but to seek their welfare because by doing so they will find their own sense of welfare and well-being.   What is foreign to the Jews is not foreign to God who is the God of all creation including the Babylonians.   It concerns me today that we have this growing spread of xenophobia (fear of foreigners).  The corona virus has certainly not helped this situation, especially for those who are already biased. 

It’s fair to say that a number of people around us have had plans or dreams that have not been fulfilled. I am reminded of the phrase, “Bloom where you are planted.”   Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that we would not have chosen for ourselves.   But each and every day we need to seek the Lord’s guidance and trust the Lord.   God will lead us to life.  God does have a plan for us that will lead to peace and to ultimate hope.  When we do reach out in our less than ideal situations and seek the welfare of others, we will indeed find our own sense of well-being and life, true life in the Lord.

 

Day 16—The Steadfast Love of the Lord (Lamentations)

The short book of Lamentations is a difficult book to read.  These five short chapters are filled with deep sorrow and lamenting.   Although an author’s name is not given, scholars believe that Jeremiah is the author since he had lived years before and after the destruction of Jerusalem.  According to Biblical accounts, the people had not responded to Jeremiah’s plea for them to repent and turn towards the Living God.   They instead organized an armed resistance which was met by the Babylonian army invading Jerusalem a second time in 586 B.C., but this time completing destroying the city, killing thousands of Jews, burning the Holy Temple to the ground and then taking more exiles include the author to Babylon.  Adam’s description of what happened to the king is a stark description of the utter cruelty and horror of this invasion.  The king had to watch his two sons being killed before his own eyes were gouged out.  From now on, the last sight forever etched in his memory would be their deaths.  From a description like this, how could one ever write a light-hearted, upbeat account of what took place.  

It’s difficult for congregations in the U.S. to identify with such a bleak description of lost hope and crushed dreams as described in Lamentations.  That is until 9/11.   In seeing the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground on live T.V. coverage, which we learned afterwards had killed over 3,000 people, we were able to get a glimpse of what the author of Lamentations had witnessed in Jerusalem.   Theimpact of 9/11 was similar in nature to other events like the J.F.K assassination in which many Americans years afterward remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the tragic news.

The author is lamenting of all that has taken place.  He writes that all the things he had hoped for in the Lord are suddenly obliterated and gone.  It would be a mighty bleak picture if the author ended here.  But he goes on.  There is a difference between lamentation and cynicism.   Both lamenting and cynicism sound rather negative and downbeat.  Those who are cynical will look at the harsh things that take place in life and conclude there is nothing anyone can do it.  It reminds me of the Psalmist who is lamenting to God that others are mocking him by saying, “Where is your God now?”

Lamenting carries with it a ray of hope.   The author of Lamentations writes, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22-23).    The words we read is that our whole world may seem to be crumbling before me, but I will still trust in the Lord whose love and mercy never comes to an end.  God’s love is steadfast; it does not waver because of life’s circumstances.  This love can never be defeated as Paul reminds us, “Nothing in all creation, not even death can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:31).

If we truly believe that Paul’s words bear truth, then we can be assured that God will bring us through every storm of life that we face; the present corona virus, times of grief over the loss someone dear to us and any other circumstance that may come our way.  God does not gloat over our misery.  God identifies with our suffering.  This is why we have cross as the symbol of our faith and not a bed of ease.   God came to us in Jesus to show us the way to life through suffering and death.

When we come to those moments when life seems unbearable and we wonder where God may be hiding we can turn to the One who knows us so completely and who says to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Day 17  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego

The dramatic story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego escape from the fiery furnace recorded in the book of Daniel leads to some obvious questions in today’s scientific age.  How could these men escape a furnace that was turned up seven times hotter than normal? I recall watching a program on the History channel that had focused on the science of thermodynamics to explain how these men could be in that furnace without burning up.   Questions that center on the “how” of things demand some type of logical and often empirical explanation.

Biblical storytellers were not primarily interested in explaining how things came to be.  The Big Bang theory attempts to scientifically explain how the universe first began. The author of Genesis simply writes, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  For me, the story of these three servants of the king are more interested in focusing on the “why” and “who” questions.

Why would these three men, who were servants of the king’s palace refuse to worship the king?    They may have worked for the king. Being servants of the king put food on their table. But they were not going to compromise their integrity and their faith in God to worship a ordinary human who thought he was God.  The Ten Commandments are quite clear about this matter; “You shall have no other gods before me.” According to the story, King Nebuchadnezzar had erected an image of gold that was ninety feet tall and 9 feet wide. An image of the king was most likely placed somewhere on this humongous image.  Those passing the image were ordered to bow to show their homage to the king. This is a line that these servants would not cross. They worshiped One God alone.

Just because people today may not have a golden calf in their living room doesn’t mean they are not tempted to worship another god.   The golden idol for many today represents the god of money. Many will sell others down the river so they can pay homage to mammon which promises them ultimate joy and satisfaction.   What’s the harm for someone to get their fair share if they make some compromises in their set of values and what they know is right.

People are asked throughout their lives to make some choices that they know in their heart is not right.  I worked in the finance business before entering the ordained ministry. I can remember when I was asked to do things that seemed deceiving to me so we could increase our profitability.  The urge to comply was even stronger when your bonus was directly dependent upon the net profit of your office. Some people have lost their jobs because they would not cross the line and do something they believed opposed what is right and how God would want them to live.  I believe many of us have made some compromises in life of our values of which we were not happy about. The compromise these servants were ordered to make is much larger than our occasional missteps that happen because we are not perfect. They were asked to give up their faith in the Lord.   They were asked to give up their sense of integrity. Once you have sold your integrity, what else do you have to fall back when the going gets tough.

The other question that often gets overlooked when people are marveling over how these servants survived is the “who” question.  Who is the fourth figure that Nebuchadnezzar had seen in the furnace walking around unharmed with those men; a figure he describes looking like a “son of the gods”?    As Adam had mentioned in his explanation that the figure in the furnace is a prefiguring of Jesus Christ. We recall Jesus words to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “And lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.”   This is the good news for us. When we find ourselves in some really tough situations; even in fiery furnaces we can know that Christ is with us, keeping us ultimately safe. There is no where we can go or find ourselves where Christ will not travel with us when we place our trust in Him.   In all things, even in the threat of evil, God works for good, with those who love him, who are called according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:2).   

“Choose this day whom you will serve…… as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

 

Day 18  “For Such a Time as This”  (Esther 4:12-14)

The book of Esther is unique in that it is one of only two books of the Bible that makes no reference about God.   God’s name might be absent in the book, but God is clearly at work in the background.

The story takes place in the land of Persia about around 479 B.C. some sixty years after Persia had defeated the Babylonians and claimed the land.  After Persia defeated the Babylonians, the Persian king gave the Jews the freedom to return back to their homeland.  But there were Jews that had decided to remain in Persia.  This included a young attractive woman named Esther who had been raised by her uncle Mordecai.   They were living in the city of Suza where the king had his palace.

There comes the time when King Xerxes decided to search for a new queen. So all of the eligible virgins were brought before the king so he could look them over and choose his favorite.  The king was attracted to the beautiful Esther and she became his new queen.   What was unbeknownst to the king was that she was Jewish.  And her uncle Mordecai made her pledge to keep this a secret.

Eventually the story takes a dramatic turn.  One of the king assistant’s named Haman, with the King’s approval, issued an edict that all people who passed him were ordered to bow.  Since Mordecai was a Jew, he refused to pay homage to Haman because Mordecai believed and followed the one true God.  Those who are enamored with power, like Haman, do not like to be slighted.  Haman gets permission from the king to have all the Jews in the Persian empire killed.  What the king doesn’t know is that by signing this edict he was about to sign a death sentence that included his queen.

Queen Esther has the opportunity to act but she is deeply afraid.  She is aware of a law that said that any one who approaches the king without first being called by him shall be killed.  She had not seen the king is quite some time.  Mordecai confronted her to convince her that she had the opportunity to end this genocide against her own people.   He tells her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”  These words suggest to us that perhaps an invisible hand was guiding these events leading to this moment.  Could it be the hand of God?   The providence of God is a mystery to us.   We don’t have to believe that God is controlling all things to believe that God is indeed involved in history. 

It might appear that Xerxes chose Esther because she was stunningly attractive, but who knows, perhaps, God had put it upon Xerxes to choose her so God could use Esther for His good purposes. Esther decided to drum up the courage and risk everything to intervene for her people.   As it turned out King Xerxes granted her request and her people were saved from destruction.  

Few of may ever face a situation as quite like Esther, but we have a certain level of influence in our lives.  Who knows when we might face a situation where we are required to take a stance so that justice may be done.  The thought of what may happen as a result of our actions may be very frightening, but as in the words of Mordecai, “who knows, we may have come into this sphere of influence for times such as these.”  

Day 19  “God is Honoring You” (Mary)

The story of the angel’s Gabriel visit to Mary reveals that God often works in insignificant places and through insignificant people to carry out His purposes.  Mary is not from a noble family. She is a young teenage peasant girl. She lives in an obscure village called Nazareth. We know that Nazareth did not have a very good reputation leading those like Nathaniel to say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth”?    

The fact that Jesus was born to a young peasant girl is one of the reasons I so find the prosperity Gospel so distasteful.    The basic theology behind the prosperity Gospel popular among Protestant Christians is that it is God’s will to bless financially bless them and grant them physical well-being.   The reality of our world is that there are millions upon millions of poor who will never be blessed with financial treasures. Many of them would be happy just to have access to clean water rather than risking dysentery and yet many of them have a great faith and love for the Lord. 

As Adam points out in his commentary, when the Angel Gabriel told Mary that God is honoring her, this doesn’t mean this honor or favor is not going to come without hardship or pain.   The belief that God is going to naturally bless you with financial treasures because of your commitment to bless and serve God sounds rather self-serving to me.   

Mary might have been favored by God to give birth to the promised one, but this does not spare her from having to face very difficult times such  as having to face the community by giving birth to a son out of wedlock, giving birth to her son in a stable because there was no room for her at the inn, and having to see your son being painfully crucified on the cross.

I believe that John Wesley comes much closer to the truth than prosperity Gospel advocates with his Covenant Prayer for Methodists.  This prayer was often used as part of Wesley’s Covenant Service that was observed to enable Methodists to recommit themselves as servants of Christ.   Here is a modern version of the prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full, let me be empty,

let me have all things, let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

This Covenant prayer clearly is not about seeking to get God to do what we want.  It is a prayer that places ourselves before the mercy of God willing to serve wherever God may place us.   As Christians, we know that our faith may even cause us to be rejected or even persecuted by others. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ (for doing the right thing for God) sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

If we take a good look at our lives, we can attest to the fact that the blessings in our lives did not come without its risks and sacrifices.   I wouldn’t trade my life for anything, but I also know that the pastoral ministry can at times be very trying and spiritual agonizing.

We hear those marvelous words from Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant.  Let it be with me just as you said”. It’s my prayer that you and I will find the courage in Christ to respond to God’s call despite the cost.   We can be assured that whatever comes our way, the blessings we receive will far outnumber anything that we have to endure. 

 

Day 20– Wrestling with the Devil  

The origin of evil has confounded humanity for centuries.  Some believe that evil is personified as an evil looking figure in orange tights holding a pitchfork.  I’ve haven’t found this image of evil very convincing, but I do take evil seriously. Those who believe that evil is just misplaced goodness need to watch some films and do some reading on the Holocaust.  You will soon come away realizing that systemic evil is indeed a demonic force to be reckoned with.   

In Matthew chapter 4, we read the story of Jesus wrestling with Satan in the wilderness.   What Jesus was struggling with was not any particular sin like gossip but sins that would prevent him from carrying out God’s greater purposes for the world.  If he succumbs to the temptation to turn stones into bread, he becomes a miracle worker who can no longer identify with the weaknesses and limitations of being fully human.  If he compromises by worshiping the kingdom of possessions and power in this world, he can not lead the spiritual revolution to bring forth God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  If he throws himself off the pinnacle of the temple expecting God to make an exception and catch him in a safety net, then he is no longer subject to having to trust in God like those around him.  

We face a similar struggle in our life of discipleship.  Sometimes the idea of giving up things for Lent have been trivialized.   It might save you a few calories by not eating sweets, but does this really prevent you from loving your neighbor.   What we’re called to fast from are things such as hatred, gossip, a failure to act justly. We often associate evil with murder and other violent acts but Satan doesn’t have to entice us in this way to tempt us not to do God’s work.   Satan can even do his dirty work through our friends and even family members. A case in point is the story of Jesus’ encounter with Peter, one of his most beloved disciples, recorded in Mark chapter 8. After Jesus had told his disciples that he would be rejected and killed and rise again, Peter took him off to the side and rebuked him.   Jesus doesn’t simply tell him that he’s badly mistaken. Jesus responds to Peter, while looking intently at his disciples, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on divine things but on human things (Mark 8:33-34).

Adam raises an important point in his commentary that can be very easily missed when you read the story.  Jesus hears Satan whisper to him, “if you are the Son of God turn these stones into bread. If you are the Son of Man, throw your down from the Temple.”   Jesus had heard the voice at his baptism, “you are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Now in the wilderness, Satan attempts to sow doubt in Jesus’ mind about himself; about his own identity and his mission.   I find it fascinating that Satan even quotes scripture in an attempt to get Jesus to turn away from God. This just goes to show that just being able to quote scripture is not enough. We need to know how we can interpret scripture in accordance with God’s will and purposes.  

We have been given gifts as Christ’s disciples to work for God’s kingdom.  Evil seeks to convince us that the task before us to “love and serve one another” is too overwhelming for us to even try.   This is truer right now that we are facing one of the biggest challenges of our lives in trying to overcome, as a global village, the onslaught of the corona virus.  It will be so easy for us to be convinced that we simply need to pull the masts in on our boats and ride out the storm by ourselves. Evil always seeks to divide and separate.  Christ seeks to unite us in his love.  

The good news is that evil is no match for the grace of God.  When the disciples came back from their mission they told Jesus, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!   He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:17-18). 

Let’s never imagine evil as having this tug of war contest with God.  Evil is no match for the grace of God in Jesus Christ. When we can set our sights on following God’s way, even though it is a difficult path, we can trust that God will lesson our fears and strengthen us to withstand any evil force that would keep us from working for the kingdom of God. 

 

Day 21   The Lord’s Prayer

The prayer we commonly refer to as “Our Lord’s Prayer” has played a significant role in both the devotional and liturgical life of Christians since Biblical times.  The prayer was originally meant to be a model for private prayer as read in Matthew chapter 6, “But whenever you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Jesus, a few verses later, instructs his disciples to pray what we commonly refer to as the Lord’s prayer.  

There’s no doubt that the Lord’s prayer is an important part of our prayer life, but when you think of this prayer, do you think of it as a “revolutionary prayer”?  Probably not. As Adam mentioned in his commentary this really was a revolutionary prayer for Christians in the early church. 

The Lord’s prayer demonstrates to us that there is really no such thing as private prayer.  When we are alone praying we begin by saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be name.  People of faith would much prefer speaking in terms of “My Father because “Our Father then includes all those people I would rather not include in my circle if I had a choice.   God’s sunshine and grace shines upon the evil as well as the good. People have always been tempted to think that God is on our side as a country versus other lands. But when this happens, God becomes a national God and even an idol, versus the God of all creation.

Another revolutionary petition is heard in the words, “Give us this day our daily bread”.   This prayer is speaking more than about what I need to be sustained.   I believe that God provided enough for all people to be sustained and to be able to work for God’s kingdom.  We have to figure how we can be more just and equitable in distributing those things with which God has so graciously provided.  If I have been given more than my share of daily bread then I need to be able to share that bread with those who need it, not out of pity, because I am a steward of all that God has provided.   This sense of “our” is going to become ever more crucial in the months ahead as we stand together to overcome this corona virus that has not even reached its peak at the time of this writing.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors is another revolutionary concept.  This petition reminds us that our relationship to God is more than just a vertical one.  When we fail to forgive others, even our enemies, we are in fact putting up a wall of separation between us and the fulness of God’s love.  We are less than what we could in Christ when we fail to forgive.   

I really like Adam’s understanding of the petition to Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.   According to scripture, Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted and tested by Satan. Punctuation is often a judgement call when trying to translate the scriptures from the original Greek or Hebrew into English or any other language.  It’s helpful for us to place a comma after the word us; “Lead us, (pause) not into temptation but deliver us from evil.   God does not deliberately tempt us to do evil, but God may certainly allow us to be tested in our own wilderness.  We pray to God that God will in fact deliver us from succumbing to those temptations that would steer us away from God’s saving grace and healing light.

Finally, I save what I want to focus on what I believe is the most revolutionary petition in the prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.    Under the rule of the Roman Empire, praying this petition could very well get you killed. To make the Kingdom of God your primary commitment, you are relegating the Emperor, who wanted his subjects to view him as a god, to second place which is not going to be accepted without dire consequences.   We may not find ourselves under the thumb of the Roman Empire, but there is plenty of what I call empire thinking around us. Our ultimate allegiance in life is not to our country, it is not to the glory of the marketplace (as important as this especially in this time of crisis), but to the spiritual Kingdom of God that does very much affect the way in which we live each day.  

When we pray this prayer not in a perfunctory or obligatory way, but in an engaging way, this prayer, as Adam reminds us, will in fact shape and guide our lives towards becoming more Christlike.  We will, in fact, come to realize that this is one of the revolutionary prayers that we can pray.

 

Day 22  (The Storms at Sea)

I remember the day when our group of new ordained elders and Bishop Lawson took a short boat trip across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum.   Even at its widest diameter (around 8 miles from east to west), one can get across the water by boat in less than an hour. We started off on our trip experiencing a beautiful, glorious sunny day.  Within minutes the winds began to shift and pick up and before we knew rain started to drop. I can imagine the disciples being at sea either fishing or traveling across and getting caught up in a sudden storm.  A short trip across in the one of these storms may feel like forever when you are being flung around the boat. 

The Gospels contain several stories of the disciples facing a storm at sea.  Adam chose the scripture in Matthew chapter 14 where Jesus is walking towards them on the sea while the disciples are being battered by the waves in their boat.  When they see Jesus, they think they are seeing a ghost and are filled with fear. Jesus says those reassuring words, “Take heart, it is I; do not afraid.” Then the story shifts to Peter where he asks Jesus to command him to come to him across the water.  And everything was going well as Peter came towards Jesus. But as soon as he noticed the strong winds, he became frightened and began to sink. Jesus saved him. When he got into boat the winds ceased. The disciples were filled with awe and worshiped him saying, “Truly you are the son of God.”

For me, this story become much more powerful if we understand the story metaphorically rather than literally.  What truth and meaning does this story bring to us. This is more than just a story about what happened to the disciples and to Peter.  It is a story about how Christ comes to us and helps through the storms of life.

I find Jesus’ words, “Take heart, it is I; do not afraid particularly comforting in the onslaught of the corona virus that has become a pandemic.  Joyce Fehrman told me over the phone, “Pastor Dave, I have never in my 95 years ever experienced anything like this”. She is absolutely right. This pandemic is an unprecedented event in our lifetime. Our lives have suddenly have been turned upside down by the virus that is invisible to the naked eye.  I have to admit that I have been feel a bit disoriented and shell shocked these days. It’s similar to what we experience after losing a loved one. I find it so reassuring to be able to hear Christ whisper in my heart, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

Peter was doing great as long as his eyes were fixed on Jesus.  But as soon as he allowed the external circumstances to overcome him, he began to sink in life’s alarms.   

The lesson to be gleaned from these stories of the “storms at sea” is that our faith in Jesus does not render us immune from the storms and adversities of life.  

We face various trials in life.  Right now, we are facing what we might call the “perfect storm” in our efforts to overcome the spread of the corona virus.  We may be finding ourselves in self quarantine and unable to have physical contact, we can still reach out to one another with the love of Christ.  

One of the symptoms of depression is a lack of energy and motivation.  Research has shown that when people who are depressed reach out to others in need, they end up feeling somewhat better about themselves.  It’s not that their illness suddenly disappears when they reach out, but they are in a much better position to deal with personal adversity when they stay connected to others.  As long as we are standing together and reaching to one another with the love of Christ in spite of our present circumstances, we will come to experience Christ’s peace that passes all understanding.    

I leave you with this prayer for the day the book Celtic Prayers from Iona (community in Scotland).

This day and this night, may I know O God

The deep peace of the running wave

The deep peace of the flowing air

The deep peace of the quiet earth

The deep peace of the shining stars

The deep peace of the Son of Peace.   Amen.

 

Day 23      “Facing Opposition”

I heard a quote some years ago that has served as me well in the pastoral ministry, “Why is it that wherever the Apostle Paul went there was a riot and wherever I go they just serve tea?”

I think that I remembered that quote because many pastors by their very nature tend to be people pleasers of which I am no exception.  What I learned through the years is that to be a leader and to be a faithful follower of Jesus is to be subject to criticism. Criticism when valid and when shared in the right spirit can help to make us better leaders and better people.   Oftentimes the criticism is not valid but it stings nonetheless. I truly wish seminary, in addition to providing me the theological and Biblical grounding and knowledge that I needed, would have better prepared me to handle criticism and dealing with difficult people. 

Why should any of us feel that we should not be subject to criticism? We do not have to look any further then the Bible to discover those who experienced opposition starting with our Lord Jesus.  The people of Nazareth were so proud to have their hometown boy stand up and read from the scroll of Isaiah as they worshiped together in the synagogue. Everything was going so well, until Jesus said a few things that really ruffled their feathers and their admiration soon turned to rage.  They wanted to throw him off the edge of the cliff. This doesn’t sound like the image of one who has been referred to as meek and mild.  

Jesus was very popular among the masses as he went about healing people and eating with those whom the leadership had shunned.  He was often severely criticized by the Jewish leaders because his ministry and preaching on the Kingdom of God did not match up well with their traditional understanding and ways of doing things.  Others were just jealous of him because Jesus was popular among the people and they weren’t.  

We do have some scripture passages in which Jesus’ own disciples criticized Jesus or wanted to turn away from him for something he said or did. 

The Apostle Paul faced this same kind of opposition in ministry to the Gentiles.  The Jewish leaders often criticized him for being an advocate of the Gentiles. He had to defend his ministry and  himself from personal attacks. 

In a number of Psalms the psalmist, often cited as David, is lamenting these personal attacks from his enemies.   Even the one who is considered the greatest king Israel ever was not immune to opposition and attack. 

Adam’s quote, “No one has ever completed anything worth doing by giving up in the face of opposition.” has stood the test of time.  This may sound humorous, but I believe it contains more than a kernel of truth. If church leaders and their pastor had given up every time criticism had come their way, new churches or church additions would never have been built.  If you want to deal with a hot issue, try reaching a consensus over building issues which can often turn into attacking the messenger instead of finding fault with the building plan. 

When we’re speaking about leadership in the church, it is a good thing to listen to those with opposing views, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up what you believe is best because not everybody will be happy.   The masses never progress or move forward on their own. Church communities as well as any groups need leaders to lead them. Opposition will always be present in the background waiting to arise. In the end, it is our responsibility to be faithful to the Lord, always seeking to do God’s will and not simply trying to appease others.

Personal criticism and even betrayal may hurt and sting, but we know that our Jesus Christ our Lord faced far worse, even giving up his life so that we might find the path that leads to life. 

 

Day 24  “When Jesus Was Afraid”

One of the most meaningful experiences during my tour of the Holy Land was visiting the Garden of Gethsemane.   The Garden was filled with olive trees. We were told that some of these trees could very well be thousands of years old.  It gave me a chill to think that I could have walked past one of those trees that perhaps Jesus had leaned against. Bishop Lawson presided over communion with us newly ordained elders in the Garden.  We experienced such a peaceful and intimate sacrament together.   

The Garden of Gethsemane according to the Gospel accounts was not a very pleasant place for Jesus.  Towards the end of his life, Jesus entered the Garden with some of his disciples to pray. He knew that his life was on the line.   The Gospel writer Mark provides this account, “Jesus was greatly distressed and troubled. He said, “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death”.  Jesus is afraid.

Some Christians have a great deal of difficulty believing that Jesus could be afraid of anything.  We have often been taught that fear is evidence of a lack of faith. Fear is more than just an emotion.  Fear is a basic defense mechanism of humans alerting us to potential threats or a cause for action. We cannot stop the feeling of fear anymore than we can stop our hands from shaking on the steering wheel after nearly missing hitting a deer.   If Jesus was fully human as is testified in the scriptures than he faced times when he was afraid. 

The feeling of fear usually causes two different reactions in us.  We are either geared towards fighting the threat or running away from it.   Jesus prayed to God, “If it is possible, take this cup from me. Not my will, but your will be done.”  The cup he is referring to is the cup of suffering and death. When your life is at stake, it’s a rather easy decision to preserve yourself by either running away or fighting the danger.  Jesus did not choose either option. He faced his opposition.

God did not lift the cup from him not because God took any pleasure in having Jesus be tortured and crucified on a cross.  I don’t buy into that theory that says that Jesus had to die to satisfy God’s wrath or sense of justice. It is always God’s will and desire to redeem and save us.  God took Jesus’ willingness to suffer and die and used it to bring forth his redeeming love for us. By raising Jesus from death to life, God has shown the world through all eternity that love redeems and restores.  Love always wins. It reminds me of a verse of that great passion hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”


Suffering is not something most of us readily accept or desire.  We’re prone to run or fight when facing some threat. I remember the last days of Martin Luther King Jr. life.  He had accomplished much in his civil rights work helping to bring about the signing of the Civil Rights act in 1964.   He could have retreated into the background and lived a long life with his wife, children and grandchildren. But his work was not done.  He made a speech about a month before he was assassinated where he said that he was not afraid of dying. As we look back, we can see how God used his death to bring redemption and reconciliation across the racial barrier through King’s teachings of love and non-violence.  

There are times in our lives when we face situations where we know the right thing is not to flee or acquiesce to those opposing us.  We can yield our will to God’s will and trust that God will bring forth good things from our commitment to endure what lies ahead.

 

Day 25 “When Courage Fails Us”

The Apostle Peter has become the poster child for those times when “courage fails us.”   On one level, it seems a bit unfair because after Peter had made his confession, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you”, both the Gospel of Matthew and Mark accounts say that all the other disciples at the table said the same thing. Peter wasn’t speaking alone.  Peter wasn’t the only one who deserted Jesus. All the disciples fled and deserted Jesus in his darkest hour.

We read in the Gospels that Peter had shown a great deal of courage in the last day of Jesus’ life.  He is the one who drew his sword and cut of the ear of the soldier’s slave. It may not have been the smartest thing for Peter to do because Jesus had told him to put his sword away.  But considering the number of soldiers who had come to that Garden, Peter’s act was an act of bravery and courage in his commitment to protect his Master and Friend, the one who he had confessed to be the Messiah.    Peter had the courage to follow behind and stand outside in the courtyard of the High Priest while Jesus was being interrogated inside. You may be prompted to raise the question, “Where are the other disciples”?

There came a point where Peter did break down.  How easy it to be willing to die for our Lord? One of my least favorite hymns in the Bible is “Are Ye Able?”  The hymn is really based on a misinterpretation of the passage in Mark 10:35 where James and John make a request that they get to sit on each side of Jesus in his glory. Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink.”    Jesus is referring to the cup of suffering and death. “Oh, yes”, they said without hesitation. James and John later deserted Jesus just like the others. The hymn lyrics in the first verse reads, “Yea, the sturdy dreamers answered, “to the death we follow thee.”  The hymn would be less bothersome to me if it wasn’t sung in a marching tune like “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Are we so willing and able to give our lives for Jesus as if our courage with never fail us?

Few of us in this country probably will ever be confronted with the possibility of being filled for our faith in Christ like in other lands.  I have to confess that I denied Christ for far less than death through my years of ministry. There are been times when I failed to stand up people for fear of what others may say.   We remember those words in Matthew that can cut right through our hearts every bit as deeply as what Peter was feeling in that courtyard, “What you have done or have failed to do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done or have not done to me.”  Do you recall times when you have denied knowing Christ?

The good news is that we do not believe in a perfectionist God who demands that we are morally perfect ourselves or suffer His wrath. We believe in a Compassionate, Merciful and Loving God who seeks for us to live by His grace and forgiveness and not pretend that we are better or more faithful than we are.   

Our Christian character is often built and strengthened not by our successes but by those times when God had come to us in our weakness and in our times when courage has failed us.   We know this to be true because when we read the Gospel, we come to know Christ did not write Peter off because of his denial of him. Christ appeared to Peter and the others after his resurrection.  He forgave and restored Peter and even used Peter of all person to build his church; his fellowship across the whole wide earth.   

John’s account of the encounter between Jesus and Peter is one of the most powerful and memorable scriptures of the Bible marked by Jesus’ question to Peter, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-20).  I figure that if Christ was willing to do what he did for Peter, just think of what our Lord is willing to do for us as long as we are willing to always turn and place our trust in his gracious and life transforming love.

 

Day 26- “The Last Seven Words of Jesus”

One of the great contributions that John makes in his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ is his focus upon helping us to reflect upon who Jesus is for us.  John’s purpose is clear. He writes in chapter 20, “I have written these things so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).    Only John’s Gospel includes what has become known as “The Seven Last Words of Jesus”.  

What I find so powerful in these words is what Jesus is willing to offer to us even in his dying upon a cross.   My focus if I am dying and in a lot of pain is probably not upon a deep concern for the world. But here is what Jesus offers to us to show us how we can truly live life and embrace life “unafraid”.

Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Even to the end, Jesus shows us the importance of forgiveness, especially towards those who have hurt or betrayed us.   We may have every right to be bitter over the things that have been done to us, but when we forgive and release our bitterness to God; we are set free.

Jesus says to the criminal hanging next to him, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”.  We see Jesus’ true nature when he turns to one who freely admits that he should be condemned and offers the words of above.  Could there be any source of guilt or unworthiness that Christ cannot forgive in anyone’s life?

Jesus says to the beloved disciple, “Here is your mother.”  As Adam mentioned, it is truly remarkable how Jesus in his immense pain could be concerned for his mother’s well-being.  What does it say to us in our relationships, especially with our loved ones?

Jesus says, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  These words coming from the lips of Jesus has greatly troubled Christians over the years.   How could Jesus ever utter these words if he had an intimate relationship with God? Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, the Psalms was the Jewish prayer book.   Even in his excruciating state, Jesus still prayed which is in itself an act of trust. We can still pray to God, especially in those situations when we for whatever reason feel abandoned and alone. 

Jesus says, “I thirst.”  We are reminded of that wonderful story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman where Jesus says, If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10)    Thirst can point our physical need for water, but thirst can also suggest something deeper; our thirst for God. 

Jesus says “it is finished”.  One on hand these words can almost suggest a tone of resignation or even defeat.  From those who heard Jesus say this from the cross might very well have thought, “Yes, it is finished and Rome won”.    But thankfully years ago I came upon a commentary that said that the words “it is finished” really means “it is completed”.   Jesus is saying with faith, “My work and my ministry is completed.” Christ’s saving work was finished on the cross. We see God’s ultimate love for us in the sacrifice of Jesus.   The hymn writes of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” conveys this Divine love in this way, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  

The last word of Jesus, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”   Adam mentions these words were taught by Jewish mothers to their children to pray before they went to sleep.  We have a similar prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I learned that prayer when I was only five years old.  Sometime after that I thought, “what a scary prayer to teach our children”. I am certainly not going to teach my children that prayer. Looking at these words again, I have had a change of heart. Now I lay me down to sleep really is a prayer of trust and faith in God.  We are placing our lives in the very hands of God before we drift off to sleep. We can give God thanks and praise when we wake up the next morning for yet another new day; another opportunity to grow in trust and love for our Lord and for our neighbor.

 

Day 27   Easter

The description of the disciples huddled together in a locked room is a scene which is difficult for us with which to identify.  On Easter Sunday, the church chancels’ throughout the world are typically filled with fresh flowers, bright colored banners and other décor.  The worship service is filled with choral anthems and congregations’ singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today and other joyous hymns that witness to our belief that “Jesus lives”!  Pastors’ and worship teams work very hard to make this service upbeat and inspiring.  

Easter is not a one-day event.   An old Avery and Marsh song declares this truth when we sing, “Every morning is Easter morning from now on”.   We are Easter people. We serve a risen Jesus from now on. Our belief that Jesus lives offers us some peace and hope not just on Easter Sunday but throughout our lives.  The disciples were filled with fear because their hope in Jesus was dashed. They were drawn to this Jesus because he was offering something that gave them a new sense of purpose and hope for the future.  He preached about the coming of the Kingdom of God. Now they recalled just a couple of days earlier witnessing his painful crucifixion upon the cross. All their hopes were buried with Jesus. All that he had taught them seemed rather meaningless now.  Now, they lived in fear that the Romans would find them and crucify them as well. That fear suddenly gave way to joy when they realized that Jesus was alive. They knew in that moment that God had vindicated Jesus. Everything he had taught them, everything he stood for bears truth.  Death could no longer silence him. Their hope was reborn.

As Adam pointed out in his Easter devotion, the closest we can come to empathizing with those “fear filled disciples” is at a funeral service.   Our service in our United Methodist hymnal is entitled “A Service of Death and Resurrection.” This title reveals that the service is not primarily about memorializing the person but witnessing to our faith in our risen Lord.  The opening words set the tone for the whole service, “Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though we die, yet shall they live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”.   

This Easter Sunday is going to be different for Christians throughout the world.  This will be the first time in my life that I will not be celebrating Easter with a community of faith in a church sanctuary.  Churches will do their best to lead worship online and connect with their people. We are in a sense huddled together for the most part behind closed doors in self-quarantine because of the COVID-19 outbreak that still hasn’t reached its peak in our land and other lands as well.   We are self-quarantined to protect the lives of others. But our present situation can easily turn into fear; into a retreat from living the kind of life God seeks for us.

What can Christ offer to us during those times when we are feeling disconnected and disoriented.   Christ offers to us his peace. Just before he left his disciples he told them, “Peace, I leave with you ; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus’ first words to his disciples in that locked room were, “Peace be with you”.  After they were filled with joy in knowing that their Lord is alive, Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”

Christ is the prince of peace.  The world doesn’t have the means to offer us any real or lasting consolation.  We do need to be careful and vigilant in our daily living with our present situation.   But at the same time, we cannot allow the news to fill us with paralyzing fear. Christ offers us an inner calm in the midst of the storms brewing all around us.  Christ gives to us a peace so that we can remain non-anxious and know that whatever happens, “Neither death nor life, nor things present, nor thing to come, nor the present COVID-19, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ”.  The reality is that people can end up dying long before they ever take their last breath. May we open our hearts anew to the gifts that Christ would bring to us in our need that we may continue to grow in God’s love and in love and service to our neighbor.

 

Day 28  “This Little Light of Mine” 

The title of Adam’s devotion based on the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel reminds me of a children’s story that I have told a time or two.  It’s about a church that was built way up high in the mountains of Switzerland. The villagers had built it with great care. The unusual feature of this church is that it had no lights.  You couldn’t switch on the light switch like we are accustomed to doing

When worship was about to begin, the church bell would ring and the people below would make their way up the mountain.   For other villagers looking from around the mountainside, the dark church would light up as soon as the worshipers entered it.  You see, the people had to bring the light with them, so they brought lanterns. When these villagers arrived at the church they would like their lanterns and hang them around the church on pegs set in the walls, so that the light would spread all around.  If only a few people came the light would be quite dim, because there would be only a few lanterns. But when lots of people came, there would be plenty of light. After worship the villagers would take their lanterns home. Those who watched from a distance saw a stream of light pour out of the church and over the mountainside.  For many, it was a sign that all was well. God’s light was with them and in them. The only time the little church lit up was when the people were there. That’s when it became a church. That’s when the light shone most brightly.

I remember one of the songs we sang in Sunday school:

This little light of mine.  I’m going to let it shine.

Let it shine.  Let it shine. Let it shine.

It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I could fully appreciate that Jesus wasn’t referring to any candle or lantern that we are holding.  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine so others may see your good works and give praise to your Father in heaven.”   The source of that light we are to show to the world comes from God. We’re like the light of the moon that reflects the sun’s rays. With the present pandemic that we are facing, I have been seeing a number of Facebook messages that say, “The fact we can not worship in the church building means that it was never about the building”.   This concept is not new. Pastors have been preaching this message for years. But perhaps it takes something like this devastating virus to force us to be the church in a different way.

Jesus told his disciples before he left them, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). The word “make” sounds more like something Matthew would say rather than Jesus. For me, I cannot make or force anyone to become a follower of Jesus.  The best I can do is to try to reflect Christ’s light so that others can see Christ’s love and goodness through me. It is the Spirit that does the making and the shaping of our lives to become more like Christ.

Our United Methodist Church mission is “to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  I always believed that the word “be” should be added to this mission statement. “to be disciples and make disciples…..”.    Discipleship is a life -long commitment. We are all on a faith journey to grow in love and understanding of Christ in our lives. 

Adam gave an illustration of someone who had been addicted to drugs and because of the witness and love of others in Christ turned her life around.  She was moved to start a home to help the very women who are suffering from what she once was held in bondage. People like her are such an inspiration because you know that their change came about because of God’s marvelous grace.   But those who were light to her pointed her to our great Physician. I remember a person like that who was on staff at our Northcott Neighborhood House in Milwaukee that serves one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee.  She had lived a hard life. She found Christ’s light through the director of Northcott. Through Northcott’s help she turned her life around and became one of the staff members whose responsibility included welcoming groups and individuals to Northcott.  You could see in her eyes the joy she had found in the Lord.

Adam’s closing prayer bears repeating:   “Lord, send me on your mission today. Help me to walk in your light, to shine your light, and to share your light with others, that the darkness in our world might be pushed back.  Use me today to do whatever you need me to do. In Jesus’ name. Amen”.

 

Day 29    “Pentecost”

The book of Acts is about the book of the Holy Spirit.   In the Becoming Disciples Bible Study series that I taught in the past, the theme of the book of Act was power and specifically the power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of the Apostles and the early church.   We read stories of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, none can match the story set in Acts chapter 2. We celebrate the Day of Pentecost because of what those early believers experienced while gathered for worship on the feast of Pentecost.  Pentecost was a Jewish festival which celebrated both the spring harvest and God’s gift of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While they were praying together they were filled with the Holy Spirit that came upon like a rush of a mighty or violent wind.  This description suggests the Spirit on this occasion wasn’t a gentle breeze but a powerful force in their lives that they could not ignore. In addition to that they envisioned divided tongues as of fire coming down upon them. The vision of fire again suggests great energy and power.  Those Galileans were given the ability by the Spirit to speak a language that those gathered from other lands that day could understand in their own native tongue. This gift suggests that the one of the purposes of the Holy Spirit is to bring unity among God’s people. No one can fully comprehend what took place on that day of Pentecost.  Their experience transformed their lives. No longer would they need to hide and be afraid. The Holy Spirit filled them and gave them the power to be shining and bold witnesses for Christ not only in Jerusalem and expanding ever outward to the all the world. What the Pentecost story says to me is that we can do nothing without the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. 

At the same time, I have rarely experienced the Holy Spirit in such a dramatic way as those gathered on the day of Pentecost.   I have heard this line that has helped me to gain a greater understanding of the meaning of Pentecost. If Christmas can be understood as “God with us”, Easter as “God for us”, then Pentecost can be better understood as “God in us”.     The Holy Spirit is God’s spirit at work in us and living in us. I sense this personal touch of the Holy Spirit when I read Romans 8:15-16, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness[n] with our spirit that we are children of God.”

 My experience of the Holy Spirit is similar to that of what Adam writes about in his devotional piece on Pentecost.  I have come to become more aware of the Holy Spirit through what I would call gentle whispers and nudges. The Holy Spirit is also described in scripture as Holy Comforter, Advocate, Counselor; the One who reminds us of all that Christ has taught us; the One who enables us to live in the love of Christ.   I believe the Spirit is nudging and opening our eyes to God’s will all the time if we would dare to stay mindful of the Spirit’s presence. Sometimes you might just get a nudge or maybe even a push that you just can’t ignore.  

I had such an experience in my last parish.  It was a young man who had approached me before worship who needed some financial help to get back his home in Marquette, Michigan.   He told me his story. I heard my share of stories from those who just wanted to get some money for their drug habit or who knows what.   We talked for a while in my office. I prayed with him and then invited him to worship, which he gladly accepted. He had come into church wearing a backpack. I was mulling over whether I should approach the congregation to make a donation to help him.  I happen to glance at the bulletin cover Sunday’s worship. The picture on the cover was that of a young man wearing a backpack and kneeling before a cross. Was this a funny coincidence or was this a sign from the Spirit? We decided to help him to get back home and prayed with him before he left us.   

Why I believe so much in engaging in a time of morning devotions, is that it gives me an opportunity to pray to God to help me to be more mindful of His presence.  Every morning I can dare sing those marvelous words, “Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me; melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.”  May it be so for you.  

 

Day 30   “In Every Situation”

After the event of Pentecost, we read stories throughout the book of Acts of how the Holy Spirit had empowered the Apostles to speak boldly in the name of Jesus Christ.   They did not back down when the government and religious authorities told them to remain silent.

The Apostle Paul gives us a summary of what he has had to endure in light of being a follower of Jesus Christ:  “I’ve been beaten more times than I can count. I’ve faced death many times…… I faced these dangers with hard work and heavy labor, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, and in the cold without clothes. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).  As Adam said his commentary on this passage, “if anyone had a reason to give up it was Paul.”

Why was he willing to endure all of this?   Paul tells us in Philippians that he would gladly give up all of his privileges and suffer because of the joy of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord.  He knew that Christ held the key to true life. Paul tells in his writings that Jesus is not only our Savior, but he is also our Lord. Do you ever wonder why Christians were such a threat to both the religious and government authorities throughout history?  If Jesus was just about sharing love and spreading love, what is so threatening about that? Why were the Christians in Thessalonica, where Paul helped to establish a church, under the threat of persecution? 

The answer to that is when you declare Jesus the Lord of your life you are declaring that the Caesars of this world are in second place.  You are saying that the government, the market and Wall Street and anything else must fall into line. Those on top have always depended upon the oppression or slavery of others so they can remain on top.   I have come to believe that Jesus is always a political threat to those who are opposed to the kingdom of God. Jesus sought to bring usher in a whole new world. This is always a threat to those in power who like to operate according to worldly standards. We may not have to endure what Paul did, but if we take our discipleship seriously, there will be times when we will have to face opposition especially when we seek God’s justice in the world.

Paul gives us a way to face our worries and our troubles.  He doesn’t write these words from some ivory tower; he pens these words to the believers in Philippi while sitting in a prison cell. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7)

We can endure trials and tribulations when we realize that our lives truly are blessed in knowing Christ and his love.  We can endure trials and difficulties when we realize that hardships are not a sign that God is against us, but that they can be a sign that we are indeed following the way of Christ’s sacrificial love.  We are Christ’s servants who are called to share in his suffering. We can bring before God whatever is on our hearts because God listens to us. This is an astounding claim that the God who oversees the entire cosmos loves each and every one of us so much that God is willing and able to hear our cries. We can endure every situation because of the promise that we will come to know the peace of God that passes all understanding; a peace that will be shelter for us in the storms of life.

These words of Paul are especially significant during this time of the corona virus that is sweeping across the globe and changing everything around us.   Let us hang onto that promise of Christ’s peace guiding and guarding us through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.