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For January 3, 2021

 

JEREMIAH 31:7-14

THE BACKGROUND

The Old Testament lesson appointed for this day is again related to the time of the Babylonian exile.  One might begin to wonder how this is relevant to life in 2021. After studying this passage, I have come to realize that it is very relevant.  Let’s see if you agree.

When Babylon conquered Israel and Judah, they carted off many of the inhabitants as prisoners, captives, refugees.  The Jews were forced to settle in a foreign land, expected them to assimilate into society, and give up hope of ever returning home.  Others fled Israel, and were scattered across the entire region.  After 60 years in exile, there was a glimmer of hope.

THE DETAIL

  • God tells the people to sing praises, because He is going to save them.  He has decided “to be a father to Israel”. (v.9) He is going to gather the scattered flock, and bring them home.  You’re going home!  Things are going to return to normal.  Ephraim and Jacob are nicknames that God uses for his people.  They remind them of their long history with Him.
  • Verses 12 – 14 speak of the joy and celebration they will experience.  There will be singing, dancing, and rejoicing. Good times are on the way!  God comes to the rescue.

THE TAKEAWAY

This past year has been one for the books!  Who would have ever thought that we would be socially distancing for over 9 months?  We are not allowed to do most of the things we love to do.  We are very much like those people in exile so long ago. But there is a glimmer of hope!  God has allowed a vaccine to be developed in record time.  People are being vaccinated.  Soon, we will be able to hug and kiss our loved ones.  We’ll be able to travel, go to restaurants, concerts, and gatherings. Just like those returning from exile, there will be singing, dancing, and rejoicing.  In some ways, it will never be the same.  There will be sorrow, grief, and loss.  But it will be a time for rebuilding. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

What part do you believe God has played in this pandemic? He most certainly was with the suffering, both the afflicted and the affected families.  I’m sure He has been a source of strength for essential workers. Might he have had a hand in the extremely rapid development of the vaccine? 

 

EPHESIANS 1:3-14

THE BACKGROUND

These are the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.  Immediately following the greeting, Paul’s letters often contain a condensed God-lesson for us.  This letter is no exception.  Three themes are intermixed in this passage.  We’ll discuss each separately.

PREDESTINATION

Verse 4 begins with the words “Just as he chose us…”, and verse 5 with “He destined us for adoption…” Verse 11 also states “…having been destined…”  All these verses make it sound like God up in heaven, “…before the foundation of the world…” chose some of us to be on the inside, and the rest to be the losers. This subject is called “predestination”, and divides many churches.  I believe that God predestined all of us to be his children.  But he also gave us a free will; many chose to turn away from him.  So, for me, the real choosing is ours to make; God wants us all.

ADOPTION

Verses 5 and 11 speak of adoption and inheritance.  This is a favorite theme of Paul’s.  He uses it to explain how we are God’s very children, adopted by him when we accepted Jesus as our savior.  Before this, we were living in sin and darkness.  Now that we walk in faith, God has adopted us.  We are heirs to the promise of life eternal in heaven with our brother Jesus.  No matter how difficult life here may become, we know that our true home, our true family is waiting for us in heaven.

REDEMPTION

Verses 7 & 14 speak of redemption.  This is a word I’d like to explore and explain.  When I shop at CVS drugstore, they always print me out a receipt.  Now, I keep my receipts.    My “accountant” (my wife) likes to see these, so I fold them neatly, and put them in my wallet.  But that CVS receipt is a monster—it is two or three feet long!  There is no way it is going into my wallet.  I don’t like these receipts, and can’t wait to throw them in the trash.  But wait! Somewhere below the transaction summary lurks a couple of coupons.  Sometimes, there’s even a “$5 off on your next purchase” coupon.  Now, this long ribbon of paper is still a worthless piece of trash, unless I do something.  If I take the coupon back to the store, and follow the details of the offer, it is now worth something.  If I redeem the coupon, it has value.  Because of our sinful nature, we are worthless trash, just like that CVS receipt. But Jesus’ death on the cross has redeemed us.  We are no longer worthless trash, but adopted children of God!



JOHN 1:1-18

THE BACKGROUND

These opening verses of the Gospel of John are rich, almost poetic.  They describe and define Jesus like none other.  John calls Jesus “the light” and “the word”.  He doesn’t use his actual name until verse 17; he only calls him the light and the word.

THE DETAIL

  • In the first paragraph, John lets us know that Jesus (“the Word”) was with God right from the very beginning; from the beginning of the creation of our world in Genesis 1.  Jesus is just as responsible for the creation of our world as God the Father.  John begins this paragraph by calling Jesus “the Word”, but by the end of it he has already switched to calling Jesus “the light”. We’ll come back to verse 5 in the takeaway.  So, in Genesis 1:3, where God says “Let there be light”, Jesus was there when He separated light from darkness.
  • The second paragraph takes an abrupt turn, as we are introduced to John the Baptist. Now, in the other three gospels, we have much more detail than we get from John.  John is very focused on telling us about Jesus’ story, so we only get the God Lesson story about John the Baptist.  John the Baptist was not “the light”, but came to testify to “the light”. John the gospel writer makes it clear that this is all about Jesus.
  • The third paragraph explains that even though he created this world and everything in it, some of his creation rejected him.  Those who received him, however, became children of God. (There’s that adoption thing again.)
  • The fourth paragraph wraps it up beautifully.  ”The Word became flesh…” tells me that Jesus left his heavenly home, became human for a time, and walked this earth just like you and me.  He walked in our shoes.  Verses 16 & 17 speak of God’s grace.  That word “grace” is one of those words that is used a lot, but rarely explained.  Finally, about 10 years ago, I got a great definition of it—grace is God’s love, freely given.  So, when you read verse 17, you see that in Old Testament times, the people of God had to earn God’s grace through obedience to the law of Moses.  But through Jesus Christ, God’s love-grace is poured out freely and abundantly to all.  Jesus came, and dwelt among us.  By studying Jesus teachings and life-example, we get a glimpse of God the Father. (v. 18)

THE TAKEAWAY

  • All too often, we Christians are so focused on the Jesus the Savior that we do not give Jesus the Teacher the attention He deserves.  An important part of his earthly mission was to teach.  His words clarify our understanding of how God would like us to live our lives.  Many bibles draw attention to Jesus’ words, by printing them in red. His Word and teaching was also his purpose.  Revelation 1:16 presents an image of Jesus with a two-edged sword coming from his mouth. His words can cut like a knife, and they can also save.
  • When my son was a teen, we did a wilderness trek together.  We were in the wilderness for 6 days, living out of a canoe and several backpacks.  One thing that impressed me during this experience was the darkness.  Once the sun went down, it was DARK!  At home, when evening came, I was used to flicking a light switch to get on with the rest of my day.  In the wilderness, I only had a candle lantern or a puny flashlight—the darkness took control our activities.  Now, when I read verse 5 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”, I am keenly aware of the power that darkness can have over my life.  It helps me understand the power of light over darkness, and why we would call Jesus the Light of the World.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Sometimes, when someone gives us a new perspective on a situation, we might say “That shines a whole new light on the subject.”  When we say this, we mean that our understanding of the situation is now different.  How might our lives be different, if Jesus had not come to be the light of the world?

 

THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD

ISAIAH 9:2-7

THE BACKGROUND

Originally, this was intended to be a coronation song for a not fully-grown king.  It was a royal hymn of praise to him and hope for the future of God’s people.  This was written hundreds of years before the birth of our Savior. 

Early Christians were quick to recognize the prophetic nature of this passage, seeing how well it fit their understanding of Jesus, the Messiah.  The people of Isaiah’s day did not, of course, say “this is about Jesus”!  Is it possible that God provided Israel, through Isaiah, with a meaningful prophecy for that time, and at the same time provided Christians with a prophecy to point to the birth of our Savior?  Each will have their own answer to that question. For the purpose of this reflection, we will explore the traditional Christian understanding.

THE DETAIL

  • Verse 2 speaks of a people who have walked in darkness, but now, with the birth of the Messiah, have seen a great light.  This, to me, refers to us Gentiles.  Most Christians today are not Hebrews, so we are Gentiles.  Before Jesus, God’s saving grace was reserved for the Jews.  With Jesus’ birth, we now become heirs of the kingdom.
  • Verses 3-5 indicate a shift from war and plunder to a time of peace.  This is part of the future kingdom.  We have a taste of this peace, but the fullness of this peace is yet to come.  I’ll discuss this in detail in the Takeaway. 
  • Verses 6 & 7 are the gem of this passage, and need no explanation.  I can hear Handel’s “Messiah” in my head as I write this.

THE TAKEAWAY

  • When discussing the “kingdom of God” parables, theologians often use the word “eschatology”.  It’s a fancy word that means the partial completion of things—the “already, but not quite.” This was best explained to me by a pastor of mine.  We were having a bible study, and this word came up.  He pointed to a pregnant woman sitting at the table.  “Is Jenn’s baby here, or not?”  The baby, was, indeed “there, but not quite really “there”. That would happen in the months to come. The kingdom of God is like that baby. We have the kingdom here on earth now, but not fully.  We have the rich peace mentioned in verses 5 and 7a, but not fully.  When Jesus returns, we will experience the full kingdom. 
  • I am so thankful that God has seen fit to come to earth and reveal himself to us Gentiles!  Thanks be to God for his steadfast love of all of us! 

 

TITUS 3:4-7

THE BACKGROUND

Titus was a trusted member of Paul’s inner circle of followers.  He is mentioned several times in Paul’s letters.  This letter was written to Titus, who had been put in charge of straightening out the church on the island of Crete.  This is a very short letter.  In my little bible, it takes up only two pages.  Today’s passage is part of the concluding paragraphs of the letter. The Revised Common Lectionary begins with verse 4.  I suggest beginning with verse 1, to get a full understanding of what Paul is saying.

THE DETAIL

  • In verses 1-3, Paul tells Titus to remind the Cretan Christians to be obedient, kind, and gentle.  Then, he reminds Titus that we all are human and rebellious, before Jesus came and changed our lives.
  • Verses 4-7 are the verses appointed for Christmas Day.  This is a beautiful passage, and I am surprised that I have not memorized it.  They are a beautiful summary of the saving grace of our Lord.  Let’s take a closer look: 
  • God decided, out of loving kindness and goodness, to appear to us in the form of his Son.  (v. 4)
  • He did this to save us. (v. 5a)
  • He did this because of his own mercy, not because we deserved it.  (v. 5b) If you’re in doubt about this, please refer to verse 3—they’re talking about US!
  • He saved us through our baptism and the rich blessings we receive continually from the Holy Spirit. (v. 5c)
  • This Holy Spirit abundantly blesses us all of this through the gift of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate this Christmas.  (v. 6)
  • Verse 7 states that we have been “justified by his grace”.  This means that our sins are forgiven, by the free and abundant grace of our Lord, through the death of his Son on the cross.  We do not earn this by our own doing (see verse 5a), but by the abundant, loving grace of God. (v. 7a)
  • Finally, because we have been justified, or forgiven of our sins, we may now become heirs to the hope of eternal life! (v.7b)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

At first, it seems a little odd to talk about all of this on the day of Jesus’ birth.  But on second glance, it is perfectly fitting and proper.  This is what this little baby came to do.  He came to wash away our sins, and make us heirs!
 

LUKE 2:1-20

THE BACKGROUND

Luke the Evangelist provides us with the beautiful account of Jesus’ birth.  I don’t need to expound on them in detail, you know these words well.  Instead, let me share a few reflections on the birth of our Savior.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

  • Sometimes, we call the birth of Jesus the Incarnation.  What does that word mean?  In Latin, “carne” means flesh or meat.  It follows that the word “incarnation” means in the flesh.  For us believers, the word “incarnation” reminds us that God has decided to take on flesh, and dwell among us.  To teach us, love us, heal us, and die for us.
  • The angel Gabriel told Mary to name the baby Jesus.  Well, sort of.  “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Yeshua”(1), which means “the Lord saves”.  Even his name points to his divine purpose!
  • Couldn’t Jesus have been born to a better family than a carpenter’s family? I’m thinking a priest of the house of Levi would be more appropriate.  Why a lowly carpenter?  Why was he born in a stable?  Shouldn’t he have been born in Jerusalem, and not the little town of Bethlehem?  Why did dirty shepherds(2) come to worship him, and not somebody more appropriate?  Why did the Magi bring gifts, and not the high-ranking clergy of the Jewish faith?  Everything God does has a reason or a purpose.  What might those reasons be in this case?
  • Perhaps the answer to these questions lie in the teachings and life-example of Jesus.
    • He made God's priorities and values crystal clear in his sermons on the mount and plain.  God's values appear to be the opposite of most humans.
    • Jesus criticized the religious leaders of the day as well as the wealthy.  Instead, he socialized with the down-trodden and despised; with the unclean, sinners, and foreigners. 
  • He came from heaven to effect change.  How has he changed you and me?

 

 

Footnotes

1. Names are different in different languages.  Take, for example, the name James.  That’s how we say it in English.  In French it is Jacques.  In German, it is Jacob.  Jesus is the Greek name for our Savior.  In Hebrew it is Yeshua.  In English, it is actually Joshua.  But we have stuck with calling him Jesus.

2. Shepherds were so dirty, that by Jewish law it would take them days of ritual cleansing to enter the temple.

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