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For August 22, 2021

JOSHUA 24:1-2, 14-18

THE BACKGROUND

Upon the death of Moses, leadership of the people of Israel was handed over to Joshua.  In the years to come, he would lead Israel to claim the Promised Land from the Canaanites, as well as serving as their prophet. 

In chapter eight, the people of Israel gather at Shechem, to proclaim their allegiance to Yahweh. Today’s reading occurs at the end of Joshua’s life.  He calls upon all the people of Israel to recommit themselves to the covenant they had made years ago at this place. 

THE DETAIL

  • The first two verses tell us that Joshua called this meeting of all the people of Israel. 
  • In the verses omitted from this reading (vv. 3-13), Joshua recounts the history of Israel, reminding them of everything that God has done for them.
  • Verse 14 starts with “Now therefore…”.  It is Joshua’s way of saying “Look.  Because God did all this for you, you need to:
    1. Serve him in sincerity
    2. Put away all those other [false] gods”
  • Verse 15 is Joshua’s stake in the ground.  He says that now is the time to decide who they will serve.  He’s gonna chose Yahweh.
  • The happy ending is the last paragraph.  The people all vow to put away the Canaanite gods and serve the Lord.

THE TAKEAWAY

It is a good thing for all of us to do; to review God’s blessings, and resolve to serve Him better. Many churches provide opportunities for their members to recommit their lives to the Lord.  Some do this during the altar call, and others through a more formal rededication liturgy.  We can also do this individually.  Whichever way you chose, consider doing this. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

I know many Christians who put God first in their lives.  But, I also know people, both Christian and non-believers, who have allowed other things to become their main focus.  There are those who are obsessed with managing their finances.  Some love shopping to the point that they overload their homes with seldom-used goods.  Others allow sports or other activities to totally occupy their thoughts and minds.  For many, it seems, there is no room left for God. Joshua calls us all to step back and review our priorities.  Where does God appear in our list of priorities?  How do we show this in our actions?


 

 

EPHESIANS 5:10-20

THE BACKGROUND

We have been studying the book of Ephesians since July 11th.  Today’s reading is the last passage we will read from this book.  Paul wants to close his letter with some sage advice on how to live one’s life as a Christian.  He leaves his readers with a clever analogy in order to make this point memorable.

THE DETAIL

  • Paul is going to tell us how to be strong.  He reminds us that God is our source of power; we need to tap into this power. (v. 10)
  • Paul tells us that the strength we need is like a suit of armor.  He lists the parts of armor that a Roman soldier would wear.  Then, for each piece of armor, he lists the Christian’s equivalent.  I will list the Christian armor below.  (v. 11)
  • But first, he describes the enemy.  They aren’t opposing warriors, as a Roman soldier would face, they are “the wiles of the devil”, “cosmic powers of darkness” and “spiritual forces of evil”. (v. 12)  Let’s discuss these in The Takeaway.
  • Our armor consists of:
    • Truth and righteousness (v. 14)
    • Proclaiming the gospel of peace (v. 15)
    • Faith (v. 16)
    • The word of God (v. 17)
  • Above all, we must pray for each other, including our spiritual leaders.  (vv. 18-20)

THE TAKEAWAY

So, what exactly are “the wiles of the devil”, “cosmic powers of darkness” and “spiritual forces of evil”? I believe that the force of evil is very real and present in our daily lives.  The devil is too cunning to appear in red, with a forked tail and horns. I believe that evil presents itself in those around us, and in very subtle and surprising ways.  I have seen evil actions in friends, relatives, & acquaintances.  I’ve seen it in business, politics, and even in religious authorities.  All of these have used God and the bible to win over our confidence.  As a Christian, it is my responsibility to use the life-actions and words of Jesus as a benchmark, to test the words and actions of those around me.  If I see a few “red flags” pop up, on goes my armor! 

When I think of arming myself for battle, I think of using

  • A bulletproof vest
  • A helmet
  • A machine gun
  • A 9mm handgun

Paul’s list looks nothing like this!  Maybe that’s the point.  As Christians, our response requires us to set aside our natural human inclinations, and respond in a Christ-like way.  What would that be?  Review Jesus’ response to violence and hostility.  Review Paul’s list of “armor” above.  This is how God expects his children to respond.  (I never said it would be easy!)


 

JOHN 6:56-69

THE BACKGROUND

For the past few weeks, we have been studying the sixth chapter of John; we have been exploring the meaning of the gift of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.  A few times, there has been an overlap of verses from the week before.  Today’s reading begins with the last three verses of last week.  This helps us to remember where we left off.  This week, we will focus on the reactions of those who heard these words. 

As with the second reading, this will be last week for this subject.  Next week, we return to studying the gospel of Mark.

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus tells us that we must “eat his flesh and drink his blood”.  If we do, we will abide in him, and will live forever.  We are also given the location of this discourse, Capernaum.  This is a lakeside village, not far from his hometown of Nazareth.  (vv. 56-59)
  • His disciples have a hard time swallowing this teaching.  “Who can accept it” is sort of like “What am I supposed to do with this information?”  John wrote this many years later, so his readers were familiar with the Lord’s Supper. But Jesus’ disciples didn’t know about the Eucharist.  This might have sounded a little cannibalistic to them.  For sure, it was weird and unsettling.  Please note that “disciples” means all of Jesus’ followers; Jesus’ apostles are called “the twelve” here. (v. 60)
  • Jesus then challenged them to think outside “the flesh”, and think in terms of spiritual matters. No, Jesus is not talking about them consuming a chunk of his arm or leg.  He’s talking about a spiritual meal—consuming his teaching, his presence,  and his life.  (vv. 61-63)
  • Jesus is aware that many cannot stomach this lesson.  He knows that many will fall away, including the apostle who will betray him.  It is all part of his Father’s master plan. (vv. 64-65)
  • Many leave. Jesus turns to the apostles, and asks if they will also leave him.  (vv. 66-67)
  • Peter speaks for the twelve (or at least eleven of them).  “We’re staying.  You have the words of eternal life.”  (v. 68)
  • Peter says “We have come to believe…”, which indicates that it has taken them time to come to this conclusion. (v. 69)
  • Verses 70 & 71 are not included in today’s reading.  It mentions that Judas Iscariot will be the one of the twelve to betray Jesus.

THE TAKEAWAY

There are several reactions to Jesus’ difficult lesson.  Some left him at this point, while others recommitted their lives to following him. One remained silent, and betrayed him later. 

Jesus’ teachings are fairly simple, but they are not easy.  If you’re in doubt, just take a second look at today’s second reading. If you need more, read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  These teachings often run the opposite direction from modern human wisdom.  Many see these teachings as foolish & irrelevant, and reject them.  Others claim Jesus, but live their lives according to few of his teachings.  There are some who do their best to embrace all of them, knowing they will stumble along the way.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Where do you fall on this spectrum?  Jesus calls us to be his disciples in this time and place.  We all have a part to play.  We will all stumble and fall.  But we know that we are forgiven.  We must run the good race, knowing that the Holy Spirit is there to guide us.

For August 15, 2021

 

PROVERBS 9:1-6

THE BACKGROUND

The book of Proverbs is a book of wisdom which was attributed to King Solomon.  The beginning verses of this book tell us the purpose of the book. These sayings were written for teaching “the simple, “to gain instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity…”  (Proverbs 1:3)  The word “simple” in this case means those who are not yet wise.

In the Old Testament times, wisdom was highly valued.  In the Proverbs, Wisdom becomes personified; Wisdom is a woman.  Let’s call her Lady Wisdom.  Proverbs 8:22 tells us that Wisdom was there even before God created the earth.  Perhaps wisdom is a facet of the personality of the Holy Spirit, and this is an Old Testament way of describing her.  In any case, Lady Wisdom teaches us how to be spiritually wise. 

Today’s reading is the first part of chapter nine.  In the latter part of this chapter, verses 13-18, Lady Wisdom’s actions are contrasted with her alter ego, Lady Folly.  If you have time, I encourage you to read those as well.

THE DETAIL

  • Lady Wisdom has built a house, set a table, and prepared a feast.  (vv. 1-2)
  • She sends out her servants to invite us simple people to a feast.  We will feast on her wine and bread.  This is the connection to today’s gospel lesson.  (vv. 3-5)
  • Finally, she entreats us to not to live our lives immaturely, but to walk with insight or mature wisdom.

THE TAKEAWAY

The Holy Spirit is alive and well, working within us each day.  Let us pray for and work to increase our spiritual wisdom.  Let’s come to her banquet, and eat and drink.

 

EPHESIANS 5:15-20

THE BACKGROUND

These are part of Paul’s concluding instructions to the church in Ephesus.  They are similar to last week’s verses.  We learn more ways to become better Christians.

THE DETAIL

  • Verse 15 encourages us to be wise.  I guess we need to read more Proverbs, then!
  • We need to make good use of our time, because “the days are evil”.  This hit me odd at first.  But wasting precious time is sort of evil, isn’t it?  Our life on earth is a gift.  We should make good use of this precious gift of time.  (v. 16)
  • We should not do foolish things, such as getting drunk.  This does not mean that drinking wine is forbidden.  After all, Jesus drank wine at the last supper.  It was the common beverage of the time.  What is meant here is overindulgence. Overindulgence in anything is not good; it is foolish behavior.  (vv. 17-18a)
  • Instead, we should be filled with the Spirit, sing spiritual songs, and give thanks to God. (vv. 18b-20)

THE TAKEAWAY 

Here’s that wisdom thing again!  I guess we should “live our lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called…” (Ephesians 4:1) In this passage, God is calling us to be wise Christians, and be mindful of our actions. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

We Christians are not perfect.  Many non-Christians observe us doing unwise or ungodly things, and draw conclusions about the Christian life.  As ambassadors for Jesus, we need to be mindful of this, and strive to show the love of Christ in our actions.  (Easier said than done!)
 

JOHN 6:51-58

THE BACKGROUND

Jesus has been puzzling some Jews who followed him across the Sea of Galilee.  He has been calling himself bread from heaven.  This confused them, and they complained.  In today’s reading, Jesus concludes this discourse. He also adds another log to the fire. They have a hard time swallowing all this bread talk.  In fact, even some of Jesus’ disciples find this teaching confusing or difficult. Let’s see what he says.

THE DETAIL

  • Today’s beginning verse is actually the climax of a long discussion that Jesus has been having with some followers.  Not only does Jesus say that he is the living bread, but that we must eat of his flesh. Since we believers know the rest of the story, we know that he is talking about holy communion.  John wrote these words many years after they were spoken, so the initial readers would also have understood this.  But imagine being amongst those sitting around Jesus when he spoke these words.  (v. 52)
  • Quite frankly, verse 53 sounds like something I would have said!
  • Now look what Jesus does.  He says that we must not only eat his flesh, but drink his blood!  If I didn’t already know about what he said in that upper room at the Last Supper, I’d find these words very difficult.  (v. 53a)
  • This is interesting. In the second half of verse 53, he says that if we don’t do these things, we have no life in us.  Those are harsh words.  Fortunately, he goes on to explain. 
  • In verses 54-57, Jesus explains that by receiving his presence in the body and blood of holy communion, we:
    • Have eternal life (v. 54b)
    • Will be raised up on the last day (v. 54c)
    • Will have a deep fellowship in him (v. 56)
  • When we eat his body and drink his blood, the life that flowed from the Father to the Son also flows to us.  (v. 57)
  • Jesus concludes this discourse by stating that this bread is different than the manna that given to the Jews of the Exodus.  With this food, we will live forever!  (v. 58)

THE TAKEAWAY

To me, these words of Jesus underscore the importance of the rite of Holy Communion.  Some churches, like the one I go to, include this meal as part of every Sunday’s worship.  We believe that it is important for to recall and relive these words every week.  They are an important way to come into a deep fellowship with Jesus.  They are part of how we receive eternal life, and are raised on the last day.  (vv. 54-56)  They are a means of receiving grace from God.

EPILOGUE

In the verses following today’s passage, we learn that many didn’t understand, and turned away from following Jesus.  It is here that Peter says his famous words “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  (John 6: 68)  Let us feast on his words and receive him through the gift of Holy Communion. 

 

For August 8, 2021

1 KINGS 19:4-8

THE BACKGROUND

Ahab was the king of Judah, back in the late 800’s B.C.  He was not a good king, in the eyes of God.  He surrounded himself with yes-men that he called prophets, yet he ignored the prophesies of the true prophets.  He married a Canaanite princess named Jezebel.  Together, they built temples and shrines to the false gods of the Baal cult.  Ahab and Jezebel encouraged the people of God to forsake Him, and worship these false gods. The good prophet Elijah lived during this time.  There were many confrontations between Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel.  It all came to a head in 1 Kings 18:20-40.  There was a showdown-contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah.  It’s a great story, and I encourage you to read it.  But I’m going to spoil the ending.  Elijah wins, and has all those priests slain on the spot.  When Jezebel hears of this, she vows to take Elijah’s life. (1 Kings 19:1-3)

THE DETAIL

  • Elijah fled the city, and went out into the desert wilderness.  He was exhausted.  He just wanted to die, and be done with all of this.  (vv. 3-4)
  • This was not to be. God called a meeting, at his place on Mount Horeb (Mt. Sinai).   This place was not around the corner.  Elijah was at Mt. Carmel, on the northern end of Judah.  Mount Horeb is a nearly 400 mile, 40-day walk.  (Elijah’s car must have been in the shop.)  An angel woke him, and told him to eat a meal that has been prepared for him.  He did, and he fell back asleep.  (vv. 5-6)
  • This happened again! Elijah is woken, and fed again. Why?  This was his last (and only) meal before going on this journey.  He needed all of it.  He finished his second meal, and went to Mount Horeb. (vv. 8-9)

THE TAKEAWAY

Elijah was spent and discouraged.  He just wanted to die.  Yet, God had plans for him.  God gave him strength, arranged for a one-on-one meeting with him.  He sent him out to finish the task of being God’s prophet in a troubled time.  Sometimes we might feel like Elijah, ready to “check out” of life and go home.  Yet, here we are.  God is not done with us. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

What might God have planned for you to do for him? 


EPHESIANS 4:25-52

THE BACKGROUND

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians follows a logical sequence.  He first explains what God has done for us, through the gift of His son Jesus. Then, he explains how, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, God has adopted us as his children.  Now, last week and with this reading, we learn how we are to properly respond to what God as first done for us.

THE DETAIL

  • Paul makes a great list of dos and don’ts for us Christians.  Traits of the Good Christian, contrasting them with bad traits.
Verse(s) Good Traits Bad Traits
25 speak truth to our neighbors put away all falsehood
26-27 OK to be angry, but only for a day. Don't sin by being angry for long
28 Do honest labor Thieves, give up stealing
29 Say only constructive things Let no evil talk come out of your mouths
31-32 be kind to one another put away all bitterness
31-32 be tenderhearted put away all wrath and anger
31-32 forgive one another put away all wrangling and slander
31-32   put away all malice
  • In summation, he tells us to be like God.  Our best example of this, of course is Jesus.  So, be like Jesus! (v. 1)
  • Finally, we should live in love [for one another], just as Christ loved all of us. (v. 2)

THE TAKEAWAY

Nowhere in this passage does Paul say that our salvation depends upon how good we are.  No.  Our salvation comes purely by believing in Jesus as our savior.  Doing these good things should be our loving and grateful response for the love that God has shown us through his son Jesus.

 

JOHN 6:35, 41-51

THE BACKGROUND

Today’s gospel passage is a continuation of last week’s discourse.  It is a long discussion.  We will study this chapter for two more weeks.  Jesus is still talking to the people who followed him across the Sea of Galilee; the people who want signs from Jesus, but don’t know why.  Jesus makes his point by calling himself bread.  But now, he turns up the heat.  Next week, he will get even more intense.

THE DETAIL

  • Verse 35 is repeated from last week’s passage, to remind us what Jesus is talking about—that he is the Bread of Life.  They must have looked confused, because he keeps developing this thought.
  • The Jews* find it hard to swallow this “bread from heaven” concept.  They know Jesus family.  He is from Nazareth, and did not come down from heaven, or so they thought. These people have seen Jesus. They have witnessed his miracles, and listened to his teaching.  Yet, they do not believe.  Seeing is not always believing.  (vv. 41-2)
  • Now, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter.  He tells them that if they don’t recognize him for who he actually is, then God the Father has not chosen them to believe.  They are on the outside looking in.  (vv. 43-46)
  • Verse 47 is the cherry on top of the whipped cream of this bible passage.  No explanation is need, but we will come back to it in The Takeaway. 
  • Now, after this profound belief statement, Jesus circles back to the Bread of Life theme. By believing in him, consuming him and his teachings, we will live forever.  (vv. 48-51)

THE TAKEAWAY

I must admit that if someone told me that they were bread, and I had to eat that bread to live, I might be a little argumentative.  It is interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t get angry or rebuke these people. Instead, he teaches them.  Since they are blinded to whom Jesus truly is, they do not see and believe.  By contrast, we have not seen, and yet we believe. 

In verse 47, Jesus makes a key statement:  whoever believes has eternal life.  No conditions are placed on the gift of eternal life, other than belief.  That list of traits for the “good Christian” that Paul wrote are not requirements for entry into the Kingdom.  We don’t have to do or be anything other than believe in Jesus.  By believing, we receive this Free Gift.  Because of this free gift, we should want to “live lives worthy of our calling”.  (Ephesians 4:1)

 

* “The Jews” is a label that us used often in the New Testament; it should be explained.  We need to keep in mind that the apostles and the disciples of Jesus were all Jews.  Jesus was born into a Jewish family, and was raised according to Jewish custom.  Jesus was a Jew.  Most of those who he taught were Jews; so, most of the first Christians were Jews.  It was only later on, beginning with the work of Paul that we Gentiles were brought into the flock.  The New Testament was written many decades after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The term “the Jews” actually is intended to mean the Jewish religious authorities.  In modern lingo, we would call this “the church”.  But the word “church” refers to Christian organizations, not Jewish. What they really meant by saying “the Jews” were the Pharisees, Sadducees, the Essenes, the Sanhedrin, etc.—all those religious organizations who did not believe, but who rejected Jesus and his teachings.

For August 1, 2021

EXODUS 16:2-4, 9-15

THE BACKGROUND

The people of God have escaped slavery in Egypt, and are on their wilderness journey.  They have been gone exactly one month.  As you may recall, their instructions were to depart in haste.  They did not take a lot with them, since they were in a hurry.  After a month in the desert, you can imagine that their food supply might be wearing thin. 

THE DETAIL

  • The whole congregation is hungry, and they are complaining.  They recall the “good old days” back in Egypt.  At least they had bread and meat to eat.  It seemed that this God of theirs has dragged them out in the desert-wilderness to starve them to death.  (vv. 2-3)  Note: In modern day Iraq, things are so chaotic that some are looking back on the “good old days” of Saddam Hussein.  Current distress can sometimes distort your memory, I guess.
  • The Lord is quick to answer.  He will feed them, but in his own way.  The will get only enough for the day.  That way, they will be tested, and will also rely on Him for daily sustenance.  (v. 4)
  • The whole congregation is gathered, and the Lord speaks from within a cloud.  (They are not allowed to see Him, lest they perish.) God says that He has heard their complaining, and will feed them.  Eating meat “at twilight” would remind them of their Passover meal a month earlier. God will provide meat in the evening and manna-bread in the morning.  (vv. 9-12)
  • Sure enough, a swarm of quails covers the camp that evening.  And in the morning, they get a strange substance called “manna”.  Some theologians believe that the word “manna” is Aramaic for “what is this?”  (v. 15) 

THE TAKEAWAY

God rescued his people from Egypt.  He was not going to let them perish in the desert.  They were His chosen people,  He loved them.  They complained, and He cared for them.

We are God’s chosen people here today.  He loves us, and cares for us.  It is OK to complain to God about your situation.  Being our loving Father, he will answer our prayers, even if our prayers are complaints.
 

EPHESIANS 4:1-16

THE BACKGROUND

We have been studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians for three weeks now.  This is our fourth lesson from that book.  In the first two lessons, God (through Paul) explains what He did through his son, and how all of us are now his adopted children.  Last week, Paul prayed for our faith and spiritual walk to be strengthened, and our understanding of Jesus’ gift be fully comprehended. 

THE DETAIL

  • This first verse is the key to the whole passage.  We are going to talk about how to live our lives worthy of the calling that we received, when we were called to love and serve Jesus.  The first weeks were about God’s love and our faith.  This week, it’s all about our actions. (v. 1)
  • These are the attributes that God values most in us believers:  humility, gentleness, patience,  and bearing one another’s burdens.  And finally, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit…”  These are the personality traits that God values most. I don’t know about you, but I have some work to do!  (vv. 2-3)
  • In verse 3, we are told to maintain unity.  In the verses following, the word “one” appears six times.  We are being told to set aside our differences, and focus on our oneness, our unity.  (vv. 4-6)
  • God’s grace is given (for free) to each and every one of us believers.  In this passage, Jesus gives out the gifts, rather than the Holy Spirit.  (minor detail!)  The important thing is that each of us receives a gift of some sort.  Later on, we’ll see what to do with it.  ( v. 7)
  • Paul quotes Psalm 68:18a.  He changes it slightly, to prove his point.  (v. 8)
  • Paul then inserts a parenthetical comment about Jesus descending the “the lower parts of the earth” as well as ascending to the heavens.  I believe the statement in the Apostles’ Creed about Jesus descending into Hell comes in part from these verses.  (vv. 9-10)
  • After this, we resume our discussion about Jesus’ handing out of spiritual gifts.  We all get different gifts, but they are all for the same purpose—“for the building up of the body of Christ.”  We’re to keep at it “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God…”  I don’t know about you, but I think that there’s a lot of work left to be done.  (vv. 11-13)
  • In the meantime, we need to keep our wits about us, and not be tricked into false teachings. Instead, we must be mature (and humble, and gentle, and patient, etc. ).   We must keep working to build up this body of Christ until “…the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament… promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”  (vv. 14-16)

THE TAKEAWAY

This passage speaks about a diverse group of people with diverse talents and gifts having unity of mission and spirit.  I have learned over the years that diversity is a good thing.  Diversity brings fresh ideas to the table.  Imagine going to a potluck dinner, only to find that everyone else also brought a macaroni and cheese casserole!  A good potluck requires diversity.  Life is no different.  Let’s not lose sight of the goal, which is to build up the body of Christ, and do it in a way that includes everybody.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

We are taught to look out for Number One, grab life by the horns, seize the day, etc. in order to be successful.  God tells us to be humble, gentle, patient, and help one another with their troubles. Can we live our lives following both philosophies?  Which direction is best?

There is an ad slogan that the US Army uses—an “Army of One”.  Personally, I think it is a ridiculous slogan.  One person is not an army.    An army is only effective as a large, cohesive, working unit.  While it is important to claim Jesus as our personal savior, it is equally important to recognize that we are not an “army of one”. We need to become part of the body of Christ, in order to become fully effective.  We need to knit ourselves together with other believers in order to become a walking, talking, loving body of Christ in this time and place.

 

JOHN 6:24-35

THE BACKGROUND

This passage follows last week’s reading.  Jesus fed the large crowd, the disciples got into a boat, and Jesus walked out to join them. People have been swarming around them. Maybe they will finally get a break. 

THE DETAIL

  • Fat chance! Once the people realize that Jesus had left, they hop into boats and track him down! (v. 24)
  •  A strange discussion ensues between Jesus and these people.  I get the feeling that they do not know what they really want from Jesus.  The discussion focuses around “signs”, as John calls them.  Miracles. (vv. 25-29)
  • Still talking about “signs”, they ask for another, similar to Moses and the manna in the wilderness.  I don’t understand why they asked this, because he just fed them with two loaves of barley.  So, they talk about “bread” from heaven, which gives life to the world.  They want this bread.  (vv. 30-34)
  • Jesus delivers his famous line-- “am the bread of life.”  If we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty.    (v. 35)

THE TAKEAWAY

The people who followed Jesus and his disciples across the lake were thirsty for something.  It is clear to me that they didn’t know what they were thirsty for.  But Jesus knew. 

In years past, small roadside diners would display a sign that only said “EAT”.  People driving by knew that inside they would find inside; they could find food and drink to satisfy their needs.  The people in today’s reading were looking for refreshment, and asked Jesus for a sign. In verse 29, Jesus tells him that he is the sign. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT 

Jesus calls himself bread.  People don’t usually call themselves bread.  Jesus calls himself bread twice in the gospels; once in today’s reading, and also the night before his crucifixion.  What does “Bread of Life” mean to you?  How do we get this bread?  (Hint: Read verse 29.)

 

For July 25, 2021

2 KINGS 4:42-44

THE BACKGROUND

The prophets Elijah and Elisha were prophets for the people of Israel.  They lived during a time when the Israelites were tempted to worship the Canaanite god Baal instead of the Hebrew god Yahweh.  This bible passage is one of the miracle stories of Elisha.  At this point in the narrative, there is a famine in the land.

THE DETAIL

  • A man brings his “first fruits” thank offering to Elisha.  Normally, this should be presented to a priest and not a prophet. Why he did this is unclear.  Perhaps Hebrew priests were scarce in this region. Also, the text says that he is from Baal-shalishah.  The region of Shalishah is in Ephraim, just north of Jerusalem.  Prefixing the name Baal to it might indicate that there was a worship center for Baal in this area.  The fact that this unnamed man brought an offering to Elisha indicates that there may still be a few devout Israelites remaining in that area. Elisha orders the man to distribute the offering to his retinue of 100 followers.  (v. 42)
  • The man protests—there is not enough to feed 100 people.  Elisha repeats the order, adding that the Lord says there will even be some left over.  (v. 43)
  • The man does as he is told, and sure enough—there is some left over, just as the Lord said.

THE TAKEAWAY

The miracles of Elijah and Elisha were given to demonstrate the superiority of Yahweh over the false god Baal.   In today’s gospel reading, Jesus feeds a large crowd with a few loaves and fish, presented to him by a boy.  This miracle signals to those around him that Jesus is also a man of God, just like these two great prophets.
 

EPHESIANS 3:14-21

THE BACKGROUND

Paul is at it again! Today’s reading contains some rich and beautiful expressions.  But they are all crammed into a small space, making them difficult to understand. It’s like that can of condensed soup I talked about earlier.  This time, I’ll try to pick the meat out from the vegetables.  I am going to skip past the “vegetables”, which are also good, to focus on the real meat of his message.  I’ll list the yummy veggies at the end.

THE DETAIL

  • This passage begins with “for this reason”.  Paul is writing the Ephesians from prison.  He does not want them to be discouraged because of his suffering for them. For this reason, he bows his knees in prayer.  (v. 14)
    1. Paul prays that their (and our) inner being be strengthened (v. 16)
    2. He prays that Christ may dwell in their (and our) hearts.  (v. 17)
    3. Finally, he prays that we may receive the power to comprehend the enormity of the love of Christ.  (v. 18)
  • Verses 20 and 21 are a doxology, or statement of praise.
  • As promised, here are the “vegetables”:
    1. Every family in heaven and on earth take their name from God the Father (v. 15)
    2. We are being rooted and grounded in love, through faith in Jesus Christ. (v. 17)
    3. The love of Christ surpasses all knowledge.  (v. 19)
    4. Jesus’ love fills us with all the fullness of God. (v. 19)
    5. God’s power is at work within us.  (v. 20a)
    6. God’s power is able to accomplish far more than we can imagine. (v. 20b)

THE TAKEAWAY

In spite of our suffering for our faith in Jesus, we must continue to pray for inner strength, the ability to comprehend God’s gift of love in Jesus, and that Jesus dwell in our hearts forever.
 

JOHN 6:1-21

THE BACKGROUND

Today’s gospel lesson is the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.  In John’s version, he simply calls it a large crowd.  As we discussed many times before, Jesus performed miracles to demonstrate that he was no ordinary person.  In addition, those who knew their bible would make the connection to the miracle story of Elisha.  This would challenge his followers to wonder who Jesus really was.

THE DETAIL

  • We all know this story well, so I won’t drag us through the story verse by verse.  Here’s my Readers’ Digest version.  A large crowd is following Jesus, mainly because he is healing people.  Keep in mind that the field of medicine back then was very crude and ineffective. Having somebody who could actually cure people was unheard of.  They are hungry.  A boy brings a little food, which Jesus has distributed amongst the crowd.  It is enough to feed everybody, with plenty left over!  (vv. 1-13)
  • The crowd is astonished at this miracle.  They realize that Jesus is a prophet.  They want to do something.  They want to “take him by force to make him king”.  (vv. 14-15a)
  • Jesus had to go. This is not what he came to do; to become a political king like David.  He manages to slip away to a hilltop or mountain.  (v. 15b)
  • What follows is John’s version of Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm.  (vv. 16-20)                                               


THE TAKEAWAY

God sent Jesus to earth for a twofold mission.  Jesus was sent, of course, to die on the cross for our sins.  But he was also sent to us to teach.  To “write the law within our hearts”.  People followed Jesus not for the teaching, but for the healing. When he fed them miraculously, they wanted to make him a king.

We are no better than they were.  We claim the cross for our salvation, but turn our backs on his teachings.  In our own way, we want to “take him by force, and make him king”!  Think I’m all wet?  How are we doing about obeying these teachings/commandments of Jesus:

  • Love your neighbor.
  • Love your enemies.
  • If you have extra things, don’t hoard, but give them away.
  • Care for the lost “sheep”.
  • Feed Jesus’ “lambs”.
  • Turn the other cheek.
  • Forgive one another.

As long as we hoard our stuff; allow people around us to go hungry (one in five go hungry); continue to hate Muslims, Asians, Mexicans, etc.; we are no better than the people that Jesus ran away from.  We are the same.

For July 18, 2021

 

JEREMIAH 23:1-6

THE BACKGROUND

A hundred years have passed, since Amos wrote his prophetic words; the passage we studied last week.  Since then, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Babylonians. As you will see in today’s lesson, the people of Judah did not learn from Israel’s mistakes.  Now, it’s their turn to pay the price. 

THE DETAIL

  • Our passage begins with “woe to the shepherds…”  This is not a reference to those in the wool industry.  The word “shepherd” is used by Jeremiah and Ezekiel (see especially Ezekiel 34) to refer to the leaders of Judah.  We are talking about the religious and political leaders of Judah.  God accuses them of scattering His “sheep”, his precious children.  A quick glance to the previous chapter of Jeremiah paints the picture.  The “shepherds” were only concerned with personal gain and their own comfort. There was no compassion or concern for those on the fringe—the foreigner, the widow, or the orphan.  (v. 1)
  • God says that since they have not attended to his flock, He will attend to the shepherds.  It sounds like God is going to judge and punish them. In the end, they too are shipped off to Babylon.  (v. 2)
  • God says the He Himself will gather the scattered flock.  I believe this to be a promise of their return to Judah after exile.  The phrase “be fruitful and multiply” links his promise to the concluding verses of the creation account in Genesis 1.  When they return, it will be like the Garden of Eden all over again!  (v. 3)
  • The remainder of the passage is a promise to raise up a new, competent leader for His flock.  This messianic promise, for Christians, has come to mean Jesus.  One of the symbols we use during Advent refers to the coming Jesus as the “Branch of Jesse”.  (vv. 5-6)

THE TAKEAWAY

Even today, people continue to feather their own nest, hoard their possessions, and ignore those in need.  God made it clear many, many times that we should be attentive to the less fortunate around us.  We deserve exile just as much as Israel and Judah did.  Fortunately, the Messiah has come, and established the Kingdom of God, at least in part.  We, collectively, are the Kingdom.  We are to do his will, and care for the less fortunate around us.  We do not always succeed in this mission.  Sometimes, we behave exactly like Israel and Judah. Thanks be to God that because the Messiah died on the cross, when we hoard and ignore those in need we are forgiven.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The prophecies of Amos, Jeremiah, and the other prophets focus on neglecting the alien, the widow, and the orphan. Consider modernizing this list to include:

  • The homeless
  • The single parent
  • The underemployed
  • The illegal alien
  • Hungry children
     

EPHESIANS 2:11-22

THE BACKGROUND

The early churches were an odd mix of converted Jews and formerly pagan Greeks and Romans.  There must have been plenty of clashing of cultural customs and practices.  But as brothers and sisters in Christ, they were expected to get along.  Paul is writing here to the Gentiles.

THE DETAIL

  • Paul reminds his readers that they were once aliens to the Lord God Yahweh; they were on the outside, looking in, with no hope of salvation.  (vv. 11-12)
  • But now, because of Jesus’ blood, we Gentiles (that’s also you and me) are “brought near”.  We now belong.  (v. 13)
  • He says that Jesus has brought down the dividing wall that separated Jews and Gentiles.  The wall that Paul is referring to is the Law of Moses.  In verse 15a, he says that Jesus has abolished the law—they no longer apply.  We now live in Christ, without the wall, in peace; there is no more hostility, only peace. We all have the same access to the Father.  (vv. 14-18)
  • So now, we Gentiles are no longer aliens, but citizens.  Together, all Christians become God’s temple. Together, be become God’s dwelling place.  (vv. 19-22)

THE TAKEAWAY

I think that if Paul were writing this today, this letter would be addressed to the many denominations that exist in the world today. He would be telling us that we are all citizens in God’s kingdom purely because of the blood of his son.  We should respect each other’s differences, and get along.  In doing so, we become God’s holy temple. 


 

 

MARK 6:30-34, 53-56

THE BACKGROUND

Two weeks ago, we read about Jesus sending out the twelve, two-by-two.  Last week, we read about Herod Antipas receiving word of the miracles that were performed by these apostles, and how he thought it was John the Baptist brought back to life.  Verses 30-34 describe the return of the twelve, as well as some other interesting facts.

In today’s selection, many verses are missing. Several stories are told in between the first and second parts.  There is a good reason for this.  Verses 53-56 share a common thread with 30-34, which we will discuss.  But I encourage you to read the omitted verses, too, after completing this study.

THE DETAIL

  • When the apostles returned from their mission, they told Jesus all about it. He must have seen the exhaustion in their faces, because he tells them they must get away to a deserted place.  (vv. 30-31)
  • So, they hopped into a boat, and headed off to a deserted place.  Or so they thought.  The Sea of Galilee is a relatively small lake, surrounded by hills. It’s easy for people on shore to see which way they’re headed.  The people simply got up on a high hill, saw which way they were headed, and got their first!  If you were in the boat, and the wind was not favorable, the best you could do in a boat back then was row.  (The outboard motor would be invented many centuries in the future.)  When they got ashore, they were greeted by swarms of people. At this point, I would be tired and irritable.  I’ll be that many of the apostles felt that way, too.  But look at verse 34.  When Jesus went ashore and saw the crowd, “he had great compassion on them”.  He loved them.  He recognized that they were “sheep without a shepherd”.  (Remember our passage from Jeremiah?)  He taught them.  (vv. 32-34)
  • As I said before, our bible selection skips many good stories.  They did this to focus on the rising fame of Jesus and his work. 
  • In the second portion of today’s gospel lesson, they’re crossing the lake again. By the time they land, Jesus is immediately recognized.  The commotion starts up again.  There is no rest for Jesus and his disciples.  People are brought to be healed, and Jesus heals them.  Even touching the fringe of his cloak does the trick!  (vv. 53-56)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

Fame is a tricky thing.  We all know paparazzi stories.  Princess Diana’s death is one example.  Rock stars and movie stars seek fame, but they usually get much more than they bargained for.  Rock musicians David Bowie and John Lennon wrote a song entitled “Fame”.  Here are a few of the lines:

Fame—makes a man take things over

Fame—puts you where things are hollow

Fame—what you get is no tomorrow

Fame—what you need, you have to borrow

Well, at least it sounds good to music.  But you get the idea.  Fame can wear you down, and steal your soul, if you let it.  But then, there’s Jesus.  He sees past all the surface stuff, and has compassion for those in need around him.  He is our good shepherd.  He cares for us, his sheep.  As Jesus’ disciples in this time and place, we are called to be like Jesus.  We are called to be good shepherds, and care for those in need.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Where do you go to refresh your spiritual life?  Jesus preferred the wilderness, or a deserted place. A friend of mine finds solace on the open ocean.  Everyone needs this special place, and needs to use it.  Even Jesus did it. It is a good thing.

For July 11, 2021

AMOS 7:1-15

THE BACKGROUND

The prophet Amos lived in the middle 700’s.  He did not belong to the guild of prophets; he was a shepherd and a “trimmer of sycamore trees”.  But God called him to be a prophet nonetheless.  Although he was from a small town in Judah, God called him to prophecy against the northern kingdom of Israel. 

During this time, Israel was experiencing a period of prosperity.  Business ventures expanded all the way out to the Mediterranean.  The rich got richer, the poorer got poorer.  While they were diligent in keeping the letter of the Law and observing the religious festivals with elaborate ritual, they ignored the spirit of the Law, the law of love.  In Amos 5:11 God says (through Amos) “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”

In our passage, there is a two against one battle—the religious organization of Israel, represented by the priest Amaziah; the government, represented by King Jeroboam; and God, represented by Amos. I wonder who will win? 

THE DETAIL

  • In a vision, Amos sees God standing by a wall with a plumb line in His hand. We all know that when you want to build a wall that is straight and true, you use a plumb bob and string. God says that he is setting his plumb line against his people Israel, to see how straight and true they were.  He knew that they would not measure up, because in verse 8b He says I will never again pass them by…”  In other words, he’s not going to overlook their crooked ways any longer.  (vv. 7-8)
  • The name “Isaac” is used here to describe the people of the northern kingdom of Israel.  Canaanites worshipped on high places.  God is going to destroy these as well as the other Jewish sanctuaries.  Furthermore, King Jeroboam’s whole house will be wiped out. (v. 9)
  • Amaziah sends word to the King that Amos is stirring up trouble.  (vv. 10-11)
  • Amaziah then tells Amos to go back home, and spread your bad news there, not here. (vv. 12-13)
  • Amos’ reply is humble, but to the point.  He tells Amaziah that he didn’t want to be a prophet; he’s a herdsman and tree-trimmer.  But God gave him this lousy job, and he’s gonna do it!  (My paraphrase.)  (vv. 14-15)
  • Verses 16-17 are not part of today’s reading, but they are very interesting. Amos goes on to say that some nasty things will happen to Amaziah and his family. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Throughout the book of Amos, God is angry with both church and state.  He has expectations for both, but neither are interested in doing God’s will.  They are only interested in their own success. Things are no different today.  We are very skilled at creating lavish worship productions.  Yet, many of our churches are surrounded by homeless or hungry people.  In my home county, one child in five is hungry.  Our governments are more interested in the success of business than the health of the underprivileged.  I wonder what Amos would say to us today.
 

EPHESIANS 1:3-14

THE BACKGROUND

We all know that when you open a can of soup, you’re supposed to dilute it with a can of water or milk.  If you don’t, it’s just too rich—too intense.  Sometimes, reading Paul’s letters are like eating undiluted condensed soup. 

Today’s reading is taken from the first lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.  It presents us with a concise expression of the Christian faith.  In the detail below, I’ll try to separate these points, without diluting the “soup” too much.

THE DETAIL

  • 3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…   After the greeting in verses 1 & 2 (not shown), comes the blessing.  This letter follows the typical form of a Pauline letter.  We have indeed received every spiritual blessing from God.  The Holy Spirit blesses each of us with spiritual gifts.  When we combine our gifts, we become the Body of Christ.  We are his presence in the world around us.
  • 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  This sentence hints strongly of predestination.  Some like to think of predestination in terms of “He chose me and not you”.  I prefer to think that God predestined all of us to live in a loving relationship with him, but some of us chose not to do so.  We’ll come back to the second phrase here, the part about being perfect and blameless.
  • 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will… It is God’s will that we all become His adopted children.  We become this through believing in Jesus as the Christ, the chosen One of God.
  • 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  The main purpose of all of this choosing and adopting is so that we may sing God praises for His free gift of love (grace), bestowed on all of us who believe in Jesus the Beloved.
  • 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. As I write this, I am in Michigan, away from my home in North Carolina.  Back home, when you emptied a beverage container, you threw the bottle or can away.  It was worthless.  But here in Michigan, you return them to the store for money—you redeem them.  By Jesus’ blood on the cross, our worthless lives are redeemed—they have value.  All of this is because of the generous love (“lavish grace”) that God the Father has for us.
  • With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ… In Old Testament times, God made his will known through the Law of Moses.  Finally, He sent his only son to make His will clearly known.  Jesus did this in his parables, his sermons (like the Sermon on the Mount), and in his teachings to the disciples.
  • 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  Our redemption and learning God’s will is part of His master plan.
  • 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  Paul and his team were one of the first to receive the inheritance of the kingdom. 
  • 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;  Since we have heard “the word of truth”, and believe in Jesus, we too are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.  Hurray!
  • 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.  The Holy Spirit has been promised to all believers.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are redeemed as People of God, and are able now to sing praises of his glory.

THE TAKEAWAY

Each one of these points is a pearl of great value. Which is your favorite?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Verse 9 states that we are ”holy and blameless before him”.  I don’t know about you, but I am not often “holy and blameless”.  What makes us so in God’s eyes?  (Hint:  the answer is in verse 7)


MARK 6:14-29

THE BACKGROUND

Today’s gospel lesson is the story of the execution of John the baptizer.  It is important to know that John had a following, including disciples, just like Jesus.  This following continued long after his death.  One mention of it occurs in Acts 18:24-19:7.  Also, devout Jews were looking for Elijah to return from heaven, to usher in the new kingdom.  This belief is based upon the fact that Elijah did not die, but was taken up to heaven. Plus, Elijah is mentioned in Malachi 4:5-6 as returning for this purpose. 

Today’s reading follows last week’s reading. Jesus sent out the twelve, who performed many miracles in Jesus’ name.

THE DETAIL

  • Word of these miracles finds their way to Herod.  Since he di not have CNN or Fox News to give him the complete story, everybody around him ws guessing as to what it all meant.  Herod was carrying the guilt of his beheading of John the baptizer.  His conclusion was that Jesus was John reincarnated.  (vv. 14-17)
  • Now, we get a flashback.  We get the story of John and Herod, and how John came to be beheaded by him. Apparently, John had been preaching against Herod’s marrying his brother’s wife.  This was a clear violation of Jewish Law.  Herod got angry, and had him arrested.  But he also recognized John as a holy man.  He could not bring himself to do anything more than arrest him.  (vv. 17-20)
  • Then, there is the infamous birthday party for Herod.  The room was filled with important people of the court and leaders of the community.  Herod’s daughter performed a provocative dance that overwhelmed the crowd and Herod. Herod offered her anything that she asked for.  She called for the head of John the Baptist on a platter-- at once!  Herod had no choice but to grant her this wish.  The public embarrassment would have been too great to do otherwise.  (vv. 21-29)

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Verse 20 tells us that Herod was “perplexed” regarding John.  John spoke the truth in condemning Herod for his actions.  Herod knew this, and was intrigued, but took no action.  How often do we hear words in a sermon that should call us to action, yet we do nothing?  Then, we go back next week, and hear more of the same.  Maybe we’re a little like Herod in this regard.  What can we do about this?

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