Preview of readings for Thanksgiving, 2015

Joel 2:21-27

Thanksgiving is a great time to step back and ask ourselves from whence our blessings flow and to where our lives are going.  The answer to both questions ought to be the same source: God himself.  Joel says “Do not fear” not because all was well in his world but because of who God is.  All is not well in our world either but God is the same today as he was in Joel’s day.  God has never failed to bless his people.  Think about this.  In this is great cause for Thanksgiving even as our country is mired in debt and unsure of it’s place in an increasingly dangerous world.

Psalm 126

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”  God is all about great reversals.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.”  This is why the most important consideration for any of us is our relationship with him.  If we get this right blessings will surely flow beyond what we could ask or imagine.

Matthew 6:25-33

This passage speaks for itself.  “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Heather and I tested this literally when we went to Siberia as missionaries 20 years ago.   These words of Jesus were validated in our lives over and over and over.  What’s worrying you today?  What if you simply gave that to God and moved forward into his mercy, grace and generosity?

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Prayer is the most powerful tool in the Christian’s arsenal.  If we as Christians want to have a redemptive impact on our country we need to stop complaining about the lack of Merry Christmas on our Starbucks cups and start to pray consistently for our leaders.  We need to pray for President Obama, for our Senators and Congressman, for our governors, for our local leaders.  It’s so easy to disdain them.  Mark Twain said, “Suppose I was an idiot and a Congressman, but I repeat myself.”  Yet if we don’t pray for our leaders, we are even greater idiots.  And on the flip side, if we will commit to praying, we take hold of the lever of power that can move the affairs of nations.

Your Turn

What are you most thankful for?  What is your greatest present concern for your country (whether America or another)?  How do these readings lead you to respond to this concern?

Happy Thanksgiving to my readers in the U.S. and around the world.  I am profoundly grateful for you today.

Soul check


Psalm 25:1-10
For Sunday, November 29, 2015
Year C, First Sunday of Advent

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (v. 1).  This act is the essence of a transformed life.  How often is it that I forget or fail in this?  So many other things clamor for my soul’s attention, whether it be the football game, a worry at work, or rank selfishness.  What better way to start Advent than to take a Soul Check based on Psalm 25?

The soul check described here involves two steps.  The first step in a soul check is to understand God’s way (vv. 8-10):

  • he is good and upright (v. 8)
  • he leads the humble in his way (v. 9)
  • his way is steadfast love and faithfulness (v. 10)

To be humble means I recognize that I can’t figure things out on my own and that I open my life to the Lord’s guidance to correct my faults and move one step closer toward living well for his glory.

The word translated “steadfast love” is ‘hesed’.  This is one of the great words of the Old Testament and refers to God’s overwhelming kindness, concern, and generosity to us.  For example, ‘hesed’ is the central theme in the Book of Ruth as we read of Boaz’s ‘hesed’ for Ruth as a reflection of God’s ‘hesed’ for his people including us.

The second step in a soul check is to pursue God’s way (vv. 1-7):

  • Express trust (v. 2)
  • Ask for deliverance from shame (v. 3)
  • Ask to be taught his paths (v. 4)
  • Ask to be lead in truth (v. 5)
  • Ask him to remember his mercy (v. 6)
    • not remembering past sins
    • but remembering your steadfast love

Do you ever struggle to know how best to pray.  If so here is a great list.  How about we try it for this next week and then compare notes here in the comments?

As the hymn says how prone I am to wander.  Thank you Father for this soul check to start Advent.  To you I lift up my soul.  Be glorified in me.  Amen.

Preview for Sunday, November 29, 2015

What a momentous week.  We move from Pentecost of Year B to Advent of Year C.  The lectionary has years A,B, and C so as to take us through the entire Bible every three years.  It also contains an annual cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Season after Pentecost.  By following these triennial and annual rhythms we enjoy Christian culture even as we create more of it.  In a world trying to press us into it’s secular mold this is both crucial and transformative.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
This passage looks forward to a time when a righteous Branch will spring up from the line of David to execute justice and righteousness in the land.  This began to be fulfilled with Jesus’ first coming.  The fulfillment will be complete when Jesus comes again.  

Psalm 25:1-10
What does it really mean to walk with God?  How do we deal with the guilt we feel for past transgressions?  How do we grow spiritually?  Here there are some answers.

Luke 21:25-36
When will the end of the world come?  Will we be able to anticipate it?  What will be the signs?

1 Thes. 3:9-13
When we invest ourselves in the lives of others and in God’s mission a profound love for and bond with our fellow brothers and sisters develops.  Here is also some great guidance on how to intercede powerfully for others.   Prayer is the primary lever of ministry.

Representing the Kingdom of Heaven

Nikolai Ge,

Nikolai Ge, “What is Truth?”, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia, 1890.

John 18:33-38
For Sunday, November 22, 2015
Reign of Christ (Proper 29)

fr-lgflagToday’s post is dedicated to the citizens of Paris.  Thank you for all you are and give to the world.  We grieve tearfully for the terror inflicted on you yet we insist to you that hope remains.  Life is meant to be so much more than just tending your own garden in an act of despair.  Let God enter the garden and the beauty that is already yours will be transformed and used for his glory.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate asks Jesus.  This is what as known as a close-ended question in which the idea is to elicit a simple “Yes” or “No” response.  Prosecutors like to use these because it let’s them control a line of questioning.

Yet Jesus won’t play along.  He responds, “Did you come up with that on your own or have people been talking to you?”  When being questioned it’s a good idea to get behind the immediate question to the motive driving the question.

Pilate responds, “Am I a Jew?”  He is saying: “Look, I don’t get into the vagaries of Jewish politics.”  Then he asks Jesus, “What did you do?”  The implication is that whatever it was, it must have been bad, because the Jews didn’t like the Romans, yet here they are handing over one of their own to these very Romans.  It reminds me of the time some Russian pastors tried to hand me over to Russia’s federal security service (but that’s a story for another time).

Jesus responds in a way that answers Pilate’s first question (Are you King of the Jews?) as well as his second one (What did you do?): “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place.

“Aha!” says Pilate, “So you are a king.”  Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Jesus point was that whether or not he was a king was actually secondary.  What was primary was his mission which was to testify to the truth.  “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  This is the key phrase in the entire passage.  Here’s a way to preach this:

“Representing the Kingdom of Heaven”
3 aspects of our identity as Christians of the kingdom

  • we are a kingdom not from here, but for here (v. 36)
  • we belong to the truth (v. 37a)
  • we listen to Jesus voice (v. 37b)

For the sake of brevity, please unpack these for yourselves.  But regarding the first point, oh to be a church that can speak to this culture rather than just mimicking it in some sad parody.  Regarding the second, what power there is in having our feet firmly grounded in the bedrock of truth when the culture around us so evidently has both feet planted firmly in mid-air.  Regarding the last point, doesn’t this sum up what authentic Christians do?  We hear Jesus voice and then actually listen to it!  Remarkable.  Radical.  Profound.

Jesus is speaking to us.  He’s speaking to us about our identity.  He’s speaking to us about our calling.  We are representatives of the kingdom of heaven called to redeem the world to its Creator.  There is no person or place that I would rather be.  How about you?

Preview of readings for Sunday, November 15, 2015

My normal posting rhythm is to read and pray through the passages for the given week and then post a key concluding reflection.  I want to keep doing this but also want to start posting a preview.   I’m doing this as an encouragement for my family to read Scripture together.  They’ve told me it’s been hard to get into the lectionary because they don’t have enough orientation.  So this is my attempt to be the intrepid tour guide.  Yet I thought I’d post the previews here in case others want to join in with us.

(Regarding the schedule, I’m always one week ahead of the calendar because I want to post my concluding reflections the Sunday prior, so that they are available for the week leading up to the actual Sunday).

1 Samuel 1 & 2
This is the story Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel.  Hannah wasn’t able to conceive for a long time.  That’s painful enough.  But on top of that her husband’s other wife Peninnah would  deride her for it.  What a dysfunctional family!  (The way things are going culturally we may be heading back toward polygamy so it’s nice to know the Bible already has that covered.  The story of Hannah is one of grief turned to joy and providence unfolding into legacy, for Samuel would lead to Saul, Saul to David, David to Jesus, and Jesus to us.

Mark 13
This is a story about Jesus’s core disciples (Peter, James, and John, with Andrew the fourth man) marveling at the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus predicts its destruction.  The disciples have the same reaction we all would:  “Ooh, when’s that going to happen?”  Jesus response is curious.  He could have simply said, “Within your lifetimes” and he would have been quite correct.  Yet instead he warns them not to be led astray.  Why is this?  In short, because there is much more in play than the mere destruction of some buildings, albeit some marvelously grand ones.

Hebrews 10
Ah, Hebrews again.  Oh how I love this book.  I believe it was written by the great Jewish orator and apologist Apollos as an Apologia to Jewish Christians not to abandon their new-found faith, as well as to Jews to see the fulfillment of God’s promised Messiah in Jesus.  In this chapter he’s explaining the significance of the sacrifice Jesus made, his ongoing ministry as our high priest, and the impact all of this has on both our relationship with God and with each other.  Can you imagine the excitement a Jew would have hearing that the place their priest could only enter once a year, the Holy of Holies, was now a place that God was inviting themselves into on a daily basis?  Wow, wow, wow!!!

Inheriting the good life

Sergey Brin, a rich young man who co-founded Google

Sergey Brin, a rich young man who co-founded Google

Mark 10:17-31
For Sunday, October 11, 2015
Year B, Proper 23

A  rich young man, who by virtue of being rich at a young age may well have been the 1st century equivalent of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, comes to Jesus and asks, “Good Mentor, what must I do to inherit the good life?”  The interaction which follows gives us three profound insights into the question of inheriting the good life.

Impossible to self-qualify …

The first insight into inheriting the good life is that it’s impossible to self-qualify.  Jesus’ initial response to the rich young man’s question is to respond with a question.  “Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.”  Sergey isn’t expecting this.  It unsettles him.  This is good because now his soul is open to real influence.  When we come prayerfully to the Scriptures, and put their authority over us versus under us, this is what happens.

Now that Jesus has the man’s full attention, he says, “Look, you know the answer to your own question.  You need to keep the commandments.”   The man responds, “Yes, of course, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth.”  And now comes a piercing blow: “You lack one thing.  Go, sell everything you have, and give your money to the poor.”  The man’s face falls, and he goes away crushed, for his wealth is the very foundation of his present identity.

Now, as for us, is the point that we too should sell everything we own?  No, not unless God directly asks us to.  The point is that it’s impossible to self-qualify for inheriting the good life.  None of us are so good at keeping the commandments that we’re up to God’s perfect standard of righteousness.  There will always be something each of us lacks.

… but qualification granted

The second insight into inheriting the good life is that while it’s impossible to self-qualify for it, it is possible to be granted qualification.  Jesus’ disciples were stunned and dismayed at the interaction they had just witnessed.  “So then who can be saved?”  Jesus says this:  “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God.”  If we want to inherit the good life, we are going to need God to qualify us for it.  He offers this qualification to each of us if we will only believe that Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins.

The guaranteed bonus

The third and final insight is this: there is a guaranteed 100-fold bonus involved for those who who choose to follow Christ.  I can tell you from personal experience that this is true.  When Heather and I went to Siberia as missionaries 22 years ago we left everything: our home, our extended families, and our jobs.  We went over there with 10 big black duffle bags.  (That was 9 bags too many as we were later to learn).  Yet what a return we received on our investment.  We literally received 100-fold in terms of God providing housing, Russian friends and family, and the profoundly significant work of restoring people be to hope and flourishing life.

So, do we want to inherit the good life?   We can’t qualify ourselves, but God can qualify us, and when he does, it comes with a 100-fold blessing for the sake of His name.  This is the business our God does best.

Your thoughts?

  • What in this did you find particularly encouraging?  Challenging?
  • Where in your own life have you seen God deliver on his 100-fold bonus in response to a decision to follow him?

What marriage is supposed to be

Mark 10:2-16
For Sunday, October 4, 2015
Year B, Proper 22

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2).

When is divorce okay?  That was the question on everyone’s mind then as it still is today.  Jesus’ response is that it’s the wrong question.  The question we should be asking is “What is marriage supposed to be?”  In this passage Jesus gives us three answers to this question.

Jesus’ first answer is that marriage is supposed to be a reflection of the image of God (v. 6).  “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’ (v. 6)“.  God designed us so that when a man and woman come together physically, relationally, and spiritually, they reflect the image of God in a way that an individual person can’t.  Just as God manifests himself as Father, Son, and Spirit, so does the image of God manifest itself as male and female together.

Jesus’ second answer is that marriage is supposed to be an experience of profound intimacy (vv. 7-8).   “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”   My wife Heather and I have been married for 27 years now.  Our relationship is far from perfect and we work hard at it, but I truly do love her more every day.  The joy of knowing and being known is something God wants for each of us.

Jesus third answer is that marriage is supposed to be a permanent bond (v. 9). Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (vv. 7-9).  Yes, there is an exception for sexual immorality (albeit not mentioned in this passage) but this is not to be the rule.

What our culture says marriage is supposed to be is of course quite different.  From the culture’s perspective marriage is merely two (and soon maybe more?) loving people having the ability to share property and medical benefits for as long as is mutually agreeable.

As Christians our calling is to show our culture that marriage is meant to be much more than that.  The best lever we have is nothing less than our own marriages.  Let’s therefore make our own marriages a priority, so that we can enjoy the flourishing that good marriages bring while at the same time being a powerful witness to the world regarding what marriage is supposed to be.