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For January 7, 2024

THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

GENESIS 1:1-5

THE BACKGROUND

I have said many times that when I read the Old Testament, I try to discover the God Lesson.  This is especially the case, when I read the creation accounts.  Yes, there are two of them, and they do not “line up”, as far as the sequence of events.  (The first is in Genesis 1:1-2:3.  The second is in Genesis 2:4-25.)  This really tells me to not focus on the scientific details, but rather to try to discover what God wants to tell me about Himself and my relationship with Him. 

THE DETAIL

Today’s reading is from the first creation account, and describes the first day.

  • The first thing to notice is what God started with—what was there in the beginning?  Verse 2 tells us that it was water.  In the beginning, our world, was only water.  Also, the Hebrews were land-dwellers.  Farmers.  To them, a large body of water like the Mediterranean Sea was a horrific, chaotic place, full of sea-monsters.  (The sea monsters were called Leviathan.)  So, according to this account, in the beginning, there was chaos. 
  • Verse 2 also tells us that “a wind from God” swept over the waters.  The Hebrew word that was translated “wind” here is “ruah”.  Ruah can mean “wind”, “spirit”, and “breath (of life)”.  Ruah is what God gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden. 
  • Now, in verse 3, God takes action.  God cuts through the chaos, and calmly creates our world using only His word.  Other ancient creation stories include gods fighting in wars.  Theirs is story of blood and gore, and chaos abounds.  Our God, by contrast, calmly creates order from the chaos.  And it was good.

THE TAKEAWAY

The Gospel lesson for today is Jesus baptism.  It is fitting to have an Old Testament lesson that begins with water.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

In the first chapter of the gospel of John, we learn that Jesus was present at the beginning of creation.  Do you think there might be a connection between God creating light on the first day, and Jesus being the “light of the world”?  Also, since God’s ruah swept over the waters, this tells me that the Holy Trinity was there right from the beginning—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  What do you think?

 

ACTS 19:1-7

THE BACKGROUND

This is a great baptism story, written by Luke, but about Paul’s work.  Paul, Timothy, and Silas are on a missionary journey.  They are spreading the Good News, baptizing, and bringing people into life in The Way.  (The Way is what the early Christian church is called in the book of Acts.) 

A new disciple, named Apollos, appears in the verses just before our text.  He is a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt.  He has been a disciple of John the Baptist, and is a gifted evangelist. Paul’s team fills him in on the Good News of Jesus.  He is baptized in Jesus’ name, and sent on to Corinth to continue the work that Paul’s team had begun.

In today’s passage, Paus discovers another group of believers who are much the same as Apollos.  They have been baptized by John the Baptist, but do not know about Jesus.

THE DETAIL

  • With Apollos continuing God’s work in Greece, Paul and his disciples can focus on the church in Ephesus, which is in modern day Turkey.  They discover some disciples of The Way.  (vv. 1-2)
  • Verse 3 says that they were baptized “into John’s baptism”.  In other words, they were followers of John the Baptist, and had not yet heard of Jesus. Apollos’ story is similar to this one. It’s worth reading, in Acts 18:24-28.
  • Paul explains the difference between John and Jesus. These disciples recognize that Jesus is the fulfillment of John’s preaching, and are baptized in His name. (vv. 4-5)
  • After their baptism and Paul’s laying his hands on them, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and begin speaking in tongues and prophesying.*  (vv. 6-7)

THE TAKEAWAY

  • Speaking in tongues and prophesying were the results of baptism and laying on of hands.  This was the proof back then that the Holy Spirit dwelt in the hearts of the new believers.  Today in most churches, these gifts of the spirit no longer appear.  The Holy Spirit is most certainly present, but in a less dramatic way. 
  • All Christians today are baptized, either at infancy or at the age of conscience.  Whichever time it is done, and however it is done (immersion or sprinkling), the Holy Spirit enters the life of the baptized, and dwells within them. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

From this story, and from Apollos’ story just before it, we learn that John the Baptist also had a following, even after his execution. The word needed to get out to these people, that the prophecy of John the Baptist  had been fulfilled.  How many people around us today are longing to hear this Good News?  Can we be like Paul, and share this good news with them?

*Prophesy not only means predicting the future.  It means to speak like a prophet, or to be God's spokesperson.  This includes correcting, teaching, and praising. 
 

MARK 1:4-11

THE BACKGROUND

The Gospel of Mark begins with the story of John the baptizer (or Baptist, if you prefer).  The verses preceding our passage quote the prophecy of Isaiah, which tells of “a voice crying in the wilderness” to prepare the way of the Lord. John is a Nazarite—someone who was “set apart” from society, and had dedicated their life to serving God. There are many Nazarites in the Old Testament, but John is one from birth.  This was exceptional.

THE DETAIL

  • In the first paragraph, we see John going about the Lord’s work.  He urges people to confront their shortcomings before God, their sin.  He urges them to pledge to change, and to start over on a new and right path.  We call this whole process “repentance”.  It takes all of it to being repentant.  (Just being sorry doesn’t count.)
  • In verses 7 & 8, he makes it very clear where he stands.  He is the one preparing the way.  Back then, untying someone’s sandals was the task of a low-ranking slave.  John is telling everyone that compared to the one who was coming, John is the lowest of the lowly.
  • The second paragraph tells us that Jesus comes to be baptized by John.  At his baptism, the Holy Spirit comes, and God the Father speaks.

THE TAKEAWAY

Because of our sinful nature, none of us are worthy enough to untie Jesus’ sandals.  Yet, through our baptism, we become the adopted children of God. Jesus is our brother! 

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Jesus lived his life without sinning.  Yet, he came to be baptized.  He did not need to repent; yet, he came to John, and entered the River Jordan.  Why?  I believe this was Jesus’ way of telling us that baptism, such as the one that John was doing in the Jordan, is a good thing. That repentance and baptism is part of living a life as a follower of Jesus.  It is a way of receiving the Holy Spirit—a means of grace.

 

 

For December 31, 2023

ISAIAH 61:10-62:3

THE BACKGROUND

This part of the book of Isaiah was written about God’s people, who were returning home from exile.  God has saved them from what could have been the end of their culture. These are also very fitting words of praise to God who saves from a different fate.  He gives us the gift of his Son, who saves us and adopts us as heirs of the kingdom.

THE DETAIL

  • Verse 10 starts right off with praise for God’s saving actions.  They are likened to clothing—garments of salvation.  Party or wedding clothing!  You can feel the joy and celebration.
  • Israel was experiencing a new beginning.  There was great hope, like the hope you have when planting a tree.  That hope was that Israel would grow and be a shining example of God’s greatness. Their vindication, or come-uppance, would show the world how great they and their God are.  After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the church spread rapidly to “all the nations” (v. 11)
  • When I read the words of 62:1, I think of the pop tune by Cat Stevens.  The song begins “I can’t keep it in, can’t keep it in.  I’ve gotta let it out!”  This is the Christmas joy we should all have, knowing the wonderful free gift that our Savior brings to us.

THE TAKEAWAY

With Jesus’ birth on Christmas, we get a wonderful gift. Immanuel—God lives with us.  He comes to heal, to teach, and to save. Let’s go tell it on the mountain!
 

GALATIANS 4:4-7

THE BACKGROUND

Sometimes, the apostle Paul is very wordy, and other times he is ultra-concise.  Here, in the span of three verses, we get a view of the beautiful, intimate relationship that we can have with our Lord.

THE DETAIL

  • God had to wait until the right time before he sent his son.  At the time that Jesus came, Greek was the universal language, much like English is today. This allowed free communication throughout the Roman Empire.  The relative peace that Roman occupation provided, along with the roads they built, helped people like Paul to quickly travel and spread the news.  This, to me, is what Paul meant by the “fullness of time”. Then, and only then, did God put is saving action into place.  He sent his Son, born of Mary, born a devout Jew (“under the law”), all with one purpose in mind—so that we could be redeemed, and be adopted as God’s very children. (vv. 4-5)
  • Because we are his beloved children, he sends the Holy Spirit to help us call him our Father.  The word “Abba” is the Hebrew (Aramaic, actually) word for Father, but in the familiar form.  It is what a child would call their father—“Dada” or “Daddy”!  It does sound like something a baby would say, doesn’t it?  The point here is that we don’t just get to call God “Father”, but we get to use the intimate, loving term of Daddy. We are members of His family.  (v. 6)
  • Verse 7 might seem a little odd, since Paul is talking about slavery.  At that time, about a third of the population was slaves.  It was commonplace, and not considered morally wrong.  Paul often uses it as an illustrative example, to show our prior relationship with God.  In his letter to the Romans, he says that in our former lives, we were slaves to sin.  Now, as believers in Jesus, we are children of God.  In Roman times, when a Roman citizen died, the children were his heirs, and the slaves got nothing.   Paul uses this to show us that now that we are the adopted children of God, we inherit eternal life.  I know it doesn’t say all that here, you’ll find it in Romans and some of Paul’s other writings.  We studied those passages a few months ago.

 

THE TAKEAWAY

Before Jesus left his throne, and came to walk with us, we were merely Gentiles in the darkness.  Now, we are God’s very children, able to call him “Daddy”!

 


LUKE 2:22-40

THE BACKGROUND

I am amazed that the amount of travelling that Joseph and Mary undertook.  It would be one thing if they had a nice little motorhome.  Instead, they did it all on foot.  Old paintings show Mary riding on a donkey, but none is mentioned in the Bible.  They travelled on foot from their home village of Nazareth, to go to Bethlehem.  I looked it up.  It is an 84 mile journey.  Can you imagine walking that distance?  It’s like walking from Tryon to Charlotte!  That had to take at least three or four days, maybe more with a wife ready to deliver a baby. 

Now, they are off to Jerusalem!  The Jewish law requires that Jesus be circumcised eight days after his birth.  Since they were in the neighborhood, they did this in Jerusalem—it was on the way back from Bethlehem, only 8 miles up the road.  After that, they still had 78 miles to go, before they were back home in Nazareth.  Later, they would make the long journey to Egypt, but we’ll save that for another day.

 

THE DETAIL

  • So, in obedience to Leviticus 12:1-8, they bring the baby Jesus to the temple.  (vv. 22-23)
  • They bring the prescribed offering of four birds.  This tells us that Mary and Joseph are poor.  They do not bring the regular offering prescribed in Leviticus 12:6, but the provisional one in verse 8, for those who cannot afford a lamb.
  • Here’s where the story gets fascinating.  An old man approaches, and takes Jesus in his arms! He says those words that many of us know as the Song of Simeon (or the Nunc Dimittus).  (vv. 25-32)
  • You can imagine how the parents felt!  The bible tells us they were “amazed”.  They were probably feeling a lot of other emotions, as well.  Then, Simeon turns to Mary and makes a prophetic proclamation.  We believe the “sword piercing Mary’s soul” might have something to do with watching her son suffer and die on the cross.  (vv. 33-35) 
  • If that wasn’t enough, an elderly prophetess approaches them as well.  She praises Jesus, and talks about the redemption of Jerusalem. (vv.36-38)
  • After an exciting day in the temple, they return to Nazareth, where Jesus will grow “strong, filled with wisdom…”  (vv. 39-40)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

Simeon waited most of his life for the chance to see the Messiah.  Now that he has seen and held this precious child, he is at peace.  In his song, Simeon essentially says “Lord, I’ve seen him! You can take me now.”  We have “seen” Jesus through the stories given us in the Gospels.  We can be at peace, knowing that our eyes have seen God’s salvation.

 

For December 24, 2023

THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD

ISAIAH 9:2-7

THE BACKGROUND

Originally, this was intended to be a coronation song for a king.  It was a royal hymn of praise to him and a hope for the future of God’s people. This was written 700 years before Jesus’ birth.  It is doubtful that the people of Isaiah’s time would cherish and preserve this for that length of time unless it made sense to them.

Early Christians were quick to recognize 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

  • The passage begins by speaking of a people who have walked in darkness, but have now seen a great light.  To me, this refers to us Gentiles.  Most Christians today are not Hebrews; we are Gentiles.  Before Jesus came, God’s saving grace was reserved for the Jews.  With Jesus’ birth, we now become heirs of the kingdom.  (v. 2)
  • Next, there is a shift from war to peace.  Who makes this happen?  Isaiah makes it clear that it is the Lord’s doing, not mankind. The Israelites were sorely outnumbered in the battle of Midian, but they won the battle.  (Judges 6-7)  God was given all the credit of winning that battle.  (vv. 3-5)
  • The passage ends with famous lines.  These have been incorporated into Handel’s Messiah. I can also see the coronation hymn of Isaiah’s time shining through as well.  (vv. 6-7)

THE TAKEAWAY

God has chosen to send his very son to earth, to live a life like ours, and to rescue us all from sin and death.  It is God’s saving grace alone that does this!
 

TITUS 2:11-14

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.  Within this brief letter are some interesting points for us to consider.

THE DETAIL

  • The first verse of this passage is the key verse, and the reason for its selection on Christmas Eve.  God’s free gift of grace has appeared to mankind, when He sent His son to earth for our salvation.  (v. 11)
  • Jesus has taught us, by words and example, how to live a godly life.  This should be our response to what God has already done for us.  (v. 12)
  • The “blessed hope” that we wait for is Jesus return.  When he does, he will purify and redeem us his people.  (vv. 13-14)

THE TAKEAWAY

I am thankful that God has redeemed us all through the life, death, and resurrection of His only son Jesus.

 

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 the detail; you all know these words very well.  Instead, let’s focus on what the birth of our savior means for us.

THE TAKEAWAY

  • Sometimes, we call the birth of Jesus “The Incarnation”. What does this word mean?  In Latin, “carne” means flesh or meat.  It follows that the work “incarnation” means in the flesh.  For us believers, the word reminds us that God decided to take on skin and bones and dwell among us.  He came 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 that of a lowly carpenter?  Why not a priest of the house of Levi—wouldn’t that be more appropriate?  Why was he born in a stable?  Shouldn’t he have been born in a palace, or in Jerusalem, and not in a barn in little Bethlehem?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT 

Why did dirty shepherds2 come to worship him, and not somebody more appropriate?  Why did the Magi bring gifts, and not the high-ranking clergy of Joseph and Mary’s faith?  Everything God does has a reason or a purpose.  What might those reasons be?

Footnotes

  1. Names are different in different languages.  Take, for example, the name James.  That’s how we say it in English.  But in German it is Jacob.  In French it is Jacques.  The name “Jesus” is the Greek form for the Hebrew name Yeshua.  In English, this is translated as Joshua.  But for some reason, we use the Greek form Jesus.
  2. Being a shepherd was one of the lowest jobs you could have.  It was a dirty job, too.  Shepherds were so dirty, that by Jewish law it would take them several days of ritual cleansing to enter the temple for worship.  Yet, in Luke 2, they come before God’s presence just as they are.

For December 17, 2023

ISAIAH 61:1-4, 8-11

THE BACKGROUND

This is a dialogue between the people of Israel in exile (through the prophet Isaiah) and God.  It comes at a time when they are returning home from captivity in Babylon. Their homes and the temple will be in shambles, and will need to be rebuilt.  There will be a lot of hard work ahead of them.  This passage offers words of encouragement for them, as well as for us.

THE DETAILS

This passage can be broken into three parts; 1) the prophet speaks, 2) God answers, and 3) the prophet and people speak again.

  • In verse one, the prophet says something like “boy, have I got good news for you!” 
  • In the last part of verse one through four, he gives the details.  Proclaiming liberty to the captives, comfort to those who mourn, etc. 
  • He gets to the heart of things in verse 4.  “Oh!  By the way! You’ve gotta build up some ancient ruins and repair ruined cities.”  They were all built with large, heavy stones, so there would be a lot of heavy lifting. They will definitely need to be “oaks of righteousness” for all the stone work that lies ahead.
  • God speaks in verses 8 & 9.  He says that because he loves justice, he will faithfully give them their “recompense”.  So, what is that?  I looked it up.  Recompense means a payback or compensation for their trouble.  So, what does it mean for God to do something “faithfully”?  It means that we can trust God to be dependable. We can be sure that He will compensate them for their trouble.    The compensation doesn’t come in the form of a stimulus check.  Better than that, they will become famous.  Their reputation will be known far and wide.
  • The remaining verses read a lot like psalm or praise-prayer.  They have reason to pray-sing this prayer, because God has delivered them, is bringing them home again, and promises them fame.

THE TAKEAWAY

Many of our Old Testament readings come from the time surrounding their Babylonian captivity.  This was a profound time in the history of Israel.  Israel would never be the same again.  A few years ago, we suffered through a prolonged pandemic.  Our lives have not been the same since.  We will still have COVID outbreaks that cause isolation and hardship, but fortunately not as devastating as those early years.  Back then, we waited, and hoped for relief.

This is Advent!  Waiting and hoping for our salvation is the main theme for this season. During the pandemic, we were waiting to be released from our captivity, so we could live life again.  We also wait for our Savior, who comes to us on Christmas Day.  He will release us from our captivity to sin and death.  Praise be to God!

1 THESSALONIANS 5:16-24

THE BACKGROUND

These are the closing lines of Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica.  When you close a long letter to a dear friend, you want to leave them with something special—a special pearl of wisdom or piece of advice.  This is what Paul says to them.

THE DETAILS

  • The first paragraph gives us a bunch of “do’s” and “don'ts”. 
    • Verses 16-18 tell us to continuously rejoice, pray, and give thanks, because this is the will of God.  I’d like to raise my hand right now, and ask “do we get a lunch break?”  I’m sure we are not to take this literally, but rather that this should be one of our primary focuses in life.  Even so, that’s a lot of praying, thanking, and rejoicing. I’m gonna work on that!
    • Verses 19 through 22 are just as difficult. They speak for themselves.  In “Food for Thought”, I will share a story.
    • The last paragraph is a blessing from Paul to this church.  It is right for us to “hitch a ride” on this blessing as well.  Paul asks that God will sanctify us—make us holy.  Our entire being—spirit, body, and soul—will be kept sound and blameless!  (I don’t know about you, but I could use a little help in that department.)  And this is how we should be until Jesus comes again. 
    • The last sentence talks about that “faithful God” again.  We can depend on Him to do this for us.

THE TAKEAWAY

During my days as an employee of a large corporation, we would set goals and objectives for the upcoming year.  We were required to include one “stretch goal”—a goal that was impossible to achieve, but would be great to strive for.  I believe that is what Paul is asking of the church and us—that rejoicing, praying and giving thanks without end be our stretch goal. We know that we cannot realistically achieve this, but a lot of good will come from trying.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Verse 19 states that we should not “quench the Spirit”. It brought to mind an experience I had about 45 years ago.  I attended a worship service in the loft of a barn.  It was a Pentecostal service.  There were folding chairs, electric guitars, a drum set, and hay, of course.  They started singing a song which was basically the first two verses of today’s psalm, Psalm 126.  They sang it over and over.  The Holy Spirit showed up, and affected the congregants in a variety of ways. I was in shock and awe, but there she was—the Holy Spirit.  Alive and well, and not “quenched” in the slightest amount.

Over the years, my spiritual life has been guided by about a half dozen pastors.  Each in his or her own way has contributed greatly to my spiritual growth.  Some took great pains to ensure that there was order to the worship service and to all the inner workings of the church. Others let the Spirit loose, at least with regard to church administration. 

We sometimes place demands on our churches and our faith relationship that can “quench the Spirit”.  This is not a good thing. 

How might we cut the Holy Spirit loose into our lives? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
 

JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28

THE BACKGROUND

The Gospels were written by individual disciples, in various places, for various groups.  Most early churches read from only one Gospel.  It wasn’t until later, that they were all gathered up to form the beginning of the New Testament.  If today’s reading sounds familiar, it is because last week we read Mark’s account. This week, we get John’s version. 

THE DETAILS

  • Verses 6-8 are a sort of introduction to John the Baptist.  Keep in mind that in the first five verses of John’s Gospel, he refers to Jesus as “the word” and “the light”.  So, when you see “the light” here, John is talking about Jesus.  The gospel writer makes it clear that John the Baptist is not “the light”, but is a forerunner, testifying to the light.
  • While the basic story is the same as last week’s passage from Mark 1, this story gives us a peek at the tension that will develop between both John & Jesus and the established religious authorities. In verse 19 we learn that “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to…” find out what was going on out there near Bethany.  In verse 24, we learn that they had been sent from the Pharisees.  More questions ensue.  This is the beginning of a conflict that will end in Jesus’ crucifixion. 
  • John the Baptist does his best to disarm the situation.  “Hey, I’m only baptizing with water.”  But then he adds “but the one coming after me…”.  He’s telling everyone, even those who hold the power positions in the big offices “It’s not about me.  I’m just the forerunner; the herald.  And then he says in verse 27 “You have no idea what’s headed your way!”  [My personal paraphrase.]

THE TAKEAWAY

John comes to help us prepare for the Messiah.  He urges us to repent.  That word “repent” is an odd old word to me.  It conjures up images of some weirdo carrying a sign that says “repent”.   The word repent, then, has become almost a joke to many.  But this is no joke.  We all fall short.  We all need to reexamine our lives.  Jesus is coming this Christmas, and we are not ready.  Let’s cleanse our hearts, and make them ready for the Savior!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had it all figured out.  They had answers for every question.  Then, along come John the Baptist and Jesus, who upset the apple cart.  It makes me wonder about our churches, especially when we claim to have all the answers.  I have a pretty good feeling that we are in for quite a few surprises, when Jesus returns.

 

For December 10, 2023

ISIAH 40:1-11

THE BACKGROUND

These words were written at the end of Babylonian captivity.  It is sort of God’s pep talk to His people, to prepare them for the long journey home.  The passage speaks of redemption and hope for the future.  It also contains a verse which is quoted in today’s gospel lesson.

THE DETAIL

I’ve broken this passage into five sections.  The Takeaway appears in each section:

  1. The first section proclaims to God’s people that they have been punished long enough; their “penalty is paid”.  They were sent to Babylon as a punishment, and now it’s time to go home.  (vv. 1-2) The penalty for our sins has been paid by Jesus’ dying on the cross. 
  2. The next verses are a proclamation, which is cried out by “a voice”.  Prepare a highway!  Cut it straight through the desert wilderness! (vv. 3-5) We also need to clear a path for Jesus to enter our hearts this Christmas.  Let’s tidy up!
  3. A new voice then cries out a reminder of our human frailty. We are as frail as grass, but God’s word lasts forever. (vv. 6-8)  As I grow older, these words take on richer meaning.  God’s Word is the only thing of lasting value. 
  4. Then comes our call to action.  Big things are about to happen, so we need to get to a high place, so people can hear us, and proclaim to the people that they should not fear, because the Lord is near!  (v. 9) We need to share the Good News!
  5. This passage concludes with a sweet promise of care and comfort.  The Lord will come to us, gather us in his arms, and gently lead us.  (vv. 10-11)  We should not fear the Lord’s coming.  We should look forward to it, knowing that we will be loved and cared for.
     

2 PETER 3:8-15a

THE BACKGROUND

The letters of Peter were written to the churches to provide them with encouragement in the face of persecution.  Today’s reading has an apocalyptic flavor, like those found in Revelation and Daniel. This literary form was often used to strengthen the resolve of those whose faith is being tested.  This style of writing provides a “big picture” view of history.  It shows that God is in control, no matter how badly things may appear at the present time. 

THE DETAIL

  • The first paragraph makes two interlocking points.  The first is that there is a big difference between our concept of time and “God Time”.  We want results in a day and a half; our creator’s concept of time is much broader. We’re waiting for Jesus’ return any moment, and God is being patient.  The reason for his patience is that he wants more people to love him. (Hint: It’s our job to get more people to love God.)  This reminds me of the love he has for humankind; he doesn’t want to lose any of us, so he waits.  (vv. 8-10)
  • The second paragraph asks a question that we should ask ourselves—“What sort of people should we be, while we wait?”  We are told that while we wait, we should lead lives of godliness and holiness. (vv. 11-13)
  • In case you didn’t get the point, the answer is repeated.  We should strive to be ”at peace”, and to be “without spot or blemish”.  I’m not sure which is harder to do, be at peace or be perfect!  But Peter does say to “strive to be”, rather than that we “must be”.  This reminds me of something my pastor told me long ago. He said that the word “salvation” means “God’s salvaging operation”.  In other words, our salvation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process; we are continually falling into sin.  We need to be continually “salvaged” by God’s grace and mercy.  (vv. 14-15)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

Apocalyptic writings all seem to differ in the details.  Apocalyptic writers are less concerned with accuracy.  They’re trying their best to describe a cataclysmic, indescribable event. In this passage, Peter uses the words “melting” and “dissolving” to describe the event.   We moderns want accurate details.  The differences between descriptions might be troubling for us. While details differ, the point is always the same—the end will bring indescribable chaos, but the faithful will have nothing to fear.  Because of our faith, we are protected from harm.  God is our refuge and strength.

So, while we wait for Jesus to return, we’re not going to be afraid.  Instead, we’re going to work on being perfect and at being at peace.  I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of work to do!  Thanks be to God, that he is patient, forgiving, and continually saving me from self destruction.


MARK 1:1-8

THE BACKGROUND

With Mark, we get no shepherds, no manger scene, no Mary and Joseph stories.  We get right down to the business of Jesus’ ministry, beginning with the story of John the Baptist.

THE DETAIL

  • Mark begins his gospel with a paraphrase of Isaiah 40:3.  Immediately after quoting Isaiah, Mark tells us about John the baptizer (or Baptist, if you prefer).  Mark is saying that John is the guy that Isaiah was talking about!  (vv. 1-2)
  • He tells us of how John did his work in “the wilderness”.  I always think of a mountainous forest.  That is not the case here.  His wilderness was more like a desert, but with a river running through it. John proclaimed a baptism of repentance and forgiveness.  (v. 4)
  • John is definitely a unique person, both in dress and diet.  But the people were drawn to him and his message, so he must have been quite charismatic.  But despite his weirdness, they came repentant, and were baptized.  (vv. 5-6)
  • John was clear on his vocation—he was just the forerunner, the messenger.  That the one coming after him was far more important. His job was to personify Isaiah 40:3 by preparing the way for the Messiah.  (vv. 7-8) 

THE TAKEAWAY

What do you do, when your expecting a special house guest?  Around our house, there is quite a lot of cleaning, menu planning, shopping, etc. Jesus is coming on Christmas day. We must prepare ourselves for his arrival.  How do we do this?  We use the season of Advent for self-examination, repentance, and renewal; we cleanse our hearts. 

Jesus is coming!  He brings the Holy Spirit!  Get ready! 

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The opening lines from today’s first reading brought to mind a sweet old Advent hymn.  These words were written nearly 400 years ago, somewhere in in the mid-1600’s.  These words still ring true today just as they did then. 

Comfort, comfort, O my people,

Speak of peace, now says our God;

Comfort those who sit in darkness,

Mourning ’neath their sorrows’ load.

Speak unto Jerusalem

Of the peace that waits for them;

Tell of all the sins I cover,

And that warfare now is over.

 

Hark, the voice of one who’s crying

In the desert far and near,

Bidding all to full repentance

Since the kingdom is now here.

O that warning cry obey!

Now prepare for God a way;

Let the valleys rise to meet him

And the hills bow down to greet him.

 

O make straight what long was crooked,

Make the rougher places plain;

Let your hearts be true and humble,

As befits his holy reign.

For the glory of the Lord

Now o’er earth is shed abroad;

And all flesh shall see the token

That his word is never broken.

 

For December 3, 2023

INTRODUCTION

December 3rd is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. It also marks the beginning of the church year.  If you are not familiar with this season, I’ve provided an explanation in the following paragraphs.  If you are familiar with this season, feel free to jump to the next page.

The season of Advent in the church year begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.  This year, it begins on November 29, 2020. 

The word “advent” means “coming”.  The season of Advent observes three “comings” of the Messiah: 

  1. The historic event, which took place in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.
  2. His coming to us this Christmas in 2023. 
  3. His return to earth, sometime in the future, when he will reign as our king.

Especially in the first weeks of Advent, we review the bible passages referring to his return.  The emphasis shifts in latter weeks to the first two.

What we do during Advent is prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child on Christmas Day.  We do this by self-examination; reflecting on the ways that we have not lived up to our end of our relationship with God. We resolve to make a fresh start. We often do daily family devotions, and sometimes light candles on an Advent wreath.  This is my favorite season of the church year.  Join me as we wait, watch, and prepare for Jesus to come into our hearts on Christmas Day. He is certainly already in our hearts; but by reliving the moment and this season, we rekindle our faith. 


ISAIAH 64:1-9

THE BACKGROUND

At this point in Israel’s story, they have returned from captivity in Babylon.  They are working to rebuild their country and their lives.  From the content of this passage, they are feeling discouraged and abandoned by God.  This passage is a lament, or a prayerful expression of sorrow.

THE DETAIL

  • The passage begins with Israel’s plea-payer to God. They feel alone.  They are begging God to make Himself known, like He did in olden times.  (vv. 1-5a)
  • The give God their confession.  They admit that they have sinned, and even their righteous deeds are like a “filthy cloth”.  (vv. 5b-7)
  • They appeal to God to rekindle their relationship, and make Himself known to them again.  (vv. 8-9)

THE TAKEAWAY

We all experience ups and downs in our spiritual lives.  This passage speaks well to those down times.  But there is hope and yearning in this passage as well.  Sometimes even our good deeds feel like a filthy cloth. Why?  Has our sin and guilt dragged us down or distracted us?  Let’s start by confessing our sins to our Lord. We can take comfort and refreshment in the knowledge that we are forgiven.  Let’s clean those dirty rags!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Have you ever felt like God has “hidden his face from you”? (v. 7b)  How can we lift ourselves up from these lows, and renew our relationship with Him? Prayer and reading scripture are a good start, along with confession and forgiveness.  Observing the season of Advent provides us an opportunity to do just that.  Best of all is service.  By serving others, we are putting our faith into action.  Doing God’s work renews our relationship with God.
 

1 CORINTHIANS 1:3-9

THE BACKGROUND

This is the introductory portion of one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth.   This church was both abundantly blessed not only with spiritual gifts but also with internal problems.  Yet, Paul starts out his letter with love and praise. 

THE DETAIL

  • Here is the main theme of this passage, the theme of thanksgiving.  How appropriate for this holiday week!  But Paul is not talking about a harvest thanksgiving.  His thankfulness is for the church in Corinth, and all that they have been blessed with.  (vv. 3-4)
  • These blessings include speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts. (vv. 5-7a)
  • The “revealing of” and “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” are references to Jesus’ second coming.  The church back then was waiting patiently for his return, as we do today.  (vv. 7b-8)
  • Finally, are reminded that we are called by God into fellowship with His Son Jesus.  (v. 9)

THE TAKEAWAY

The church is Corinth was a mess!  If you were to read the whole letter, you would discover that this church was full of petty rivalries and disputes.  But in spite of this, they were blessed with an abundance of spiritual gifts.  Paul praises their faith and energy, and is thankful for their work.

We, too, are blessed with gifts.  Yet, since we are sinful beings, we and our churches end up doing unchristian-like things.  Thanks be to God, that he loves, forgives, and blesses us in spite of our “warts”!

 

MARK 13:24-37

THE BACKGROUND

One of the themes of Advent is waiting and watching for Jesus’ second coming.  If today’s gospel lesson sounds familiar, it is because Mark and Matthew both record this discourse of Jesus.  Early this month, we studied Matthew 24 & 25, which contains many of these words. Today, we will focus on the areas not previously covered in our studies.

Mark 13 has often been called “The Little Apocalypse”. Apocalyptic writing is a style of writing which includes wild visions and scenes from the end of time.  Other apocalyptic writings occur in our bible, including Revelation, the second half of Daniel, and some of Ezekiel.  Today’s reading begins with verse 24.  To best understand today’s reading, I suggest that you start by reading all of Mark 13. 

THE DETAIL

  • By the time we get to the beginning of our passage, Jesus is speaking of the end times; of his return.  This is the form of a prophet poem.  Jesus is basically saying that when the end comes, everything will be turned upside down.  The sun won’t shine, and neither will the moon.  The universe, with all its stars, will come crashing down.  No wonder there will be suffering!  (vv. 24-25)
  • Jesus gives us hope and good news from this chaos. When Jesus descends, he will send forth his angels to gather up “the elect”; those who love and serve him. So, we can take comfort in knowing that if we are present for the chaos in verses 24 & 25, we will be protected from all this by our Lord.  (vv. 26-27)
  • Jesus teaches us the parable of the fig tree. These are key verses for some who study the end times.  I will discuss this in detail under the Takeaway.  (vv. 28-31)
  • Verses 32-37 have been discussed at length in studies we did a few weeks ago, from Matthew’s version instead of Mark’s.  A quick summary is found below.

THE TAKEAWAY

Verses 28 & 29 are Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. To some Christians, this is a key passage for predicting the end times.  To them, the fig tree represents Israel.  The sprouting of leaves on the dormant tree is said to be the restoration of Israel as a nation in 1948.  When Jesus says “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”, they say that once Israel has been restored as a nation, the end time will occur within one generation—40 years.  Since 75 years have now passed since 1948, it is time to revise this claim. The key to understanding this “prediction” is to go straight to verse 32.  Jesus admits that he really doesn’t know when he will return; that is up to his Father is heaven.  In other words, this information is none of our business.  What is our business is preparedness.  Jesus tells us to keep awake.  That’s our part in this whole process.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The big question here is how do we prepare, and keep awake?  We can’t possibly stay awake 24/7.  I will quote Barbara Rossing, a Lutheran theologian, seminary professor, and expert on this subject.  She says it better than I:

“We do not know when Jesus is returning again.  That is why we must live our lives at every moment as Jesus taught us.  The message to Matthew’s [and Mark’s] readers was the same as the message today:  Whatever traumas befall us, we are to be urgent in loving our neighbor, urgent in caring for the world that God created, urgent in feeding the hungry and visiting prisoners, urgent in living faithfully as Christ commanded us to live.” 

Barbara R. Rossing, “The Rapture Exposed”, (Basic Books, 2004), page 181.

November 26, 2023

TIME TO CONFESS

I made a big mistake.  The reflection titled "For November 19, 2023" are the readings scheduled for November 26th.  The reflections below were read today, November 19th.  Please accept my apologies, if there was any confusion.

NOTE BEFORE WE BEGIN

This is the third and final study on the “Day of the Lord”, or the “end times”.  I hope that you have come to understand this subject a little better.  Perhaps we can all look forward to that day with hope and expectation, rather than fear and dread.

This week, I will rearrange the order of the passages, and close with the epistle reading.

 

ZEPHANIAH 1:7, 12-18

THE BACKGROUND

The message preached by Zephaniah, and the complacency of God’s people sound very similar to last week’s reading from Amos.  The surprising thing is that they lived about 125 years apart!  So, it seems that history has a way of repeating itself.  And things are no different today.

THE DETAIL

  • Zephaniah announces that the day of the Lord is at hand, and he’s set to act.   (v. 7)
  • The people are so complacent, that they think God doesn’t care, and won’t do anything, if they disobey Him.  The phrase “complacency on their dregs” is a confusing phrase.  Maybe it means this:  When grapes are pressed to make wine, you have the fermenting juice on the top, with the dregs (the solid grape matter) down in the bottom of the vat.  If you don’t stir up the dregs, they will thicken, and destroy the wine.  Zephaniah is telling these spiritually lazy people that God is about to stir things up! (v. 12)
  • When you build a new house, and plant a garden, you have probably made plans to enjoy yourself in your new surroundings for a few years.  Zephaniah tells the people to not get too comfy; God is going to clean house.  (v. 13)
  • And clean house he does in the final paragraph. The first part of this, verses 14-16, sound like a war.  But the last verses sound more global; like an epidemic or global disaster.  (vv. 14-18)

THE TAKEAWAY

Complacency is the reason God is upset with His people.  They are complacent in spiritual matters.  Laziness is another word for complacency.  They are spiritually lazy to the point of being arrogant with God. But let’s examine our own selves. What about our spiritual laziness?  Or are we living up to God’s expectations?

 

MATTHEW 25:14-30

THE BACKGROUND

Jesus is wrapping up his teaching, and is about to be betrayed, tried, and crucified.  He concludes his teaching with some lessons about the day of judgement.

THE DETAIL

Jesus teaches us a new lesson using a parable.  Remember to look for only one God Lesson in this parable, and not get hung up on the detail.

  • The story goes that a rich man was going on a journey, and entrusts three of his servants with his bank account.  He gives the servants five, two, and one talents respectively.  Now, a talent is a lot of money—15 years’ wages.  So, in today’s wages, at $50,000 per year times 15 years, a talent is worth $750,000 in today’s wages.  Yep, a lot of money. 
  • Well, the guys who got the most money, invested it, and doubled their money.  This pleased the owner.  But the guy who was given the least, went and buried the cash.  When the owner returned, he said “here’s your money back”. The owner was not happy.  He threw that servant out “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  (There is a lot of teeth-gnashing in the gospel of Matthew.) 

THE TAKEAWAY

So, what’s the God Lesson for us?  Why did Jesus teach this parable?

God entrusts each of us with spiritual gifts.  Every one of us has been blessed with spiritual abilities of one sort or another.  God expects us to use these gifts to build up his kingdom; to grow the Body of Christ.  Some of us are spiritually lazy, and do not use the gifts He has given us.  We disappoint God with our lack of action.  Let’s do our best to recognize our gifts, and put them to good use.

 

1 THESSALONIANS 5:1-11

THE BACKGROUND

Paul is wrapping up his letter to the church in Thessalonica by giving them words of encouragement regarding the “day of the Lord”, or Jesus’ return.

THE DETAIL

  • Paul starts out by saying “I don’t need to tell you any of this, but…”, and then he goes on to tell them anyway.  (v. 1)
  • He uses two analogies, to illustrate the unpredictability of when Jesus will return  (vv. 2-3):
    • It will be like a “thief in the night”.  I’m surprised that he uses the word “thief” to describe Jesus.  But just as how you never know when someone will break into your house, you never know when Jesus will return.
    • It will be like a woman going into labor. (Here’s one we can all understand!) Unless your labor was induced, or you were scheduled for a C-section, you never know when that baby is coming. 
  • Next is the heart and soul of this passage. We are ”all children of the light”. Yes, you and me!  Since we are in Christ, we live in Jesus, the light of the world, not in darkness.  (vv. 4-5)
  • Then, we are encouraged to keep awake (or vigilant), and eagerly await his return.  (vv. 6-7)
  • Now, we put on armor.  But this is not ordinary armor.  This is the armor of faith, hope, and love.  These are unusual weapons.  (v. 8)
  • More words of encouragement— “God has destined us not for wrath, but for salvation”.  Paul is telling us not to worry, that God has our back.  (v. 0_
  • We can be so confident in this, that even if we do fall asleep, we know that we will still live with him!  (v. 10)
  • Since we know that God will save us, we can use our energy to encourage & build up one another.  (v. 11)

THE TAKEAWAY

So, then, we should not be fearful for what lies ahead, as long as we are in Christ Jesus.  Our job is to remain faithful, and encourage & build one another up in faith.  In love, faith, and hope, we await his coming.                   

In church, we sometimes sing a sweet old Lutheran hymn— “Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness”.  I’m sure that it is not familiar to most of you.  It’s an old German hymn that was written around the year 1650, nearly 400 years ago.  One thing I like about singing these old hymns is that they connect me with Christians of all space and time.  I would like to share two of the verses here, because they are appropriate to Jesus’ return. 

Hasten as a bride to meet him,

Eagerly and gladly greet him.

There he stands already knocking;

Quickly, now, your gate unlocking,

Open wide the fast-closed portal,

Saying to the Lord immortal:

“Come and leave your loved one never;

Dwell within my heart forever.”

 

Jesus, source of lasting pleasure,

Truest friend, and dearest treasure,

Peace beyond all understanding,

Joy into all life expanding;

Humbly now, I bow before you,

Love incarnate, I adore you;

Worthily let me receive you,

And, so favored, never leave you.

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