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For September 24, 2023

JONAH 3:10-4:11

BACKGROUND

This passage is the conclusion of a famous Old Testament story—Jonah and the Whale.  At least that’s what we called it in Sunday school class.  This and last week’s story about Joseph are fun and interesting.  But what’s the God Lesson in this tale? 

By this point in the story, the whale is long gone, and Jonah has completed his task.  What follows is a curious story about a prophet with a bad attitude and a God with unfailing love and patience.  But first, let me give you a rundown of the whole story.  You may find this story in the first two chapters of Jonah. It is a fun story, and I encourage you to read it for yourself.  But look for the God Lesson.

The setting for the story is post-exilic Jerusalem.  The Israelites have endured their 60 years in exile, and have returned to the Promised Land for a fresh start.  The prophet Jonah has been commanded by the Lord to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, to preach a word of repentance.  Nineveh was not a Jewish city; they worshiped pagan gods.  So, this was dirty work, and Jonah did not want to do it.  Jonah does head out on a journey, but not to Nineveh.  He heads for Spain on a boat.  Spain is in the opposite direction!  A storm kicks up, and everyone fears for their lives. They draw straws, and Jonah is thrown overboard to lighten the load.  It doesn’t stop there, it gets even better.  A “big fish” (no mention of a whale) swallows Jonah whole, and drops him on shore—right where he needs to be, to walk begin his walk to Nineveh!  So, Jonah begrudgingly resigns himself the task, and goes to Nineveh.  When he gets there, he doesn’t even go to the city center—he stops short, says a one-sentence prophecy, and leaves.  The king hears of the prophecy, and everybody repents—even cattle!  Our story is about what happens after this pitiful but effective prophesy.  This is where today’s passage begins.  It is not about Nineveh, but about Jonah’s reaction to Nineveh’s repentance, and about Jonah’s attitude.

DETAILS

  • First of all, God saw that they were repentant, and did not destroy them, He forgave them. (verse 10)
  • Jonah’s reaction might surprise you.  He was angry and upset!  He prays to God, telling him that’s why he headed for Spain; he knew that God would forgive them.  He says “… you don’t like to punish anyone, not even foreigners.” (Italics added for emphasis.  Jonah has had it; he’s fed up.  He just wants to die.
  • The story takes a few twists and turns in verses 5-9, with a shelter and a vine.
  • God summarizes the situation, and tells Jonah why he spared the city.  (vv. 10-11)

TAKEAWAY

In the time after they returned from exile in Babylon, God’s people in Judah were highly focused on being good and righteous.  They carried this to extremes, by doing things such as forbidding Jews from marrying non-Jewish people.  They ignored the directive given to Abraham to be a light to the nations.  The prophet Isaiah reminded them of this order, but they chose to focus only on being good and holy.  They didn’t want to ever go back in exile.  They thought that by keeping all the laws, they would avoid God’s wrath.

In our story, Jonah represents the self-centered attitude of the people of that time.  God calls him, and Israel, to a higher calling; to be a light to all nations.  Jonah/Israel doesn’t want any part of it.  They just want to keep their own backyard clean, and nothing more.  God’s response to this stubbornness is steadfast love. He grows Jonah some shade, at least for a little while.  His words in verse 11 show his love for all people, not just the Jews. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

It is not enough for us Christians to “keep our noses clean”.  God has expectations for us.  For some, it is spreading the Gospel.  For others, it is caring for others, teaching, giving, loving one another. 

What is God calling you to do?  Are you simply keeping your own backyard clean, like Jonah, or are you acting on this call?  Either way, God is there beside you, to help you along.
 

PHILIPPIANS 1:21-30

BACKGROUND

Paul is in prison.  We’re not sure exactly where or exactly why.  But we do know that he is there because of his preaching the Gospel. This is a letter to his beloved church in Caesarea Philippi.   

 

DETAILS

  • He starts right off with something astonishing.  He says that he has a choice to live or die, and he is considering his options!  Interestingly, he would prefer to die, to be with Jesus.  A friend of mine at White Oak would tell often tell me that her nightly prayer was to die, and go to heaven to be with Jesus and her husband. God finally answered that prayer. But Paul is young and healthy.  I think he’s just weary of the trouble he runs into, trying to spread this wonderful Good News.  But Paul chooses life, “…to help you grow and be happy in your faith.”  It is because of his mission that he chooses to press on.  (vv. 21-26)
  • The second paragraph is an invitation for the Philippians to join him in the struggle to share the good news.
  • Verses 28-9 are words of encouragement—“be brave”.  He knows that they may suffer for sharing the good news. After all, he’s in prison for it. 

 

TAKEAWAY

Paul was dedicated to his mission to spread the good news, regardless of cost.  In the end, it would cost him his life.  Most of us are fortunate in that we don’t have to risk our lives to share the Gospel message. What’s holding us back?  God is calling us to share the Good News, and love those around us.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

I’m thinking of the words to the song “This Little Light of Mine”.  Let’s sing it like we mean it, and show it in our actions!

 

MATTHEW 20:1-16

BACKGROUND

Jesus is teaching his disciples about how it works with God, about how God’s way is not like our way.  He uses a parable to make his point.  They are surprised at the ending.

DETAILS

The parable starts out easy enough.  The landowner needs some work done in his vineyard.  He hires workers at the usual pay.  They start working that morning.  As the day goes on, he hires more and more workers. At the end of the day, everybody gets a full day’s wages!  It doesn’t seem fair to the workers.  The landowner basically says that what he pays is up to him.  Be happy with your wages. 

TAKEAWAY

Jesus does not interpret this parable, other than stating that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last”.  Over the centuries, several understandings have arisen for the meaning of this parable.  I will offer mine.

  • In the verses preceding this parable, Jesus and his disciples have a discussion about how to get to heaven.  Jesus tells them that it is impossible (Matthew 19:26b).  Peter complains, saying that they have sacrificed a lot to follow Him.  At the end of Jesus’ answer, he also says his “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” saying.  For this reason, I believe that the two stories are connected.
  • Matthew tells us that this parable is about the kingdom of heaven.  We have already heard some kingdom parables, such as the lost sheep and the lost coin.  In these, we discover the importance that God places on those on the fringe of society—the lost, the outcast, the forgotten.
  • We know that God forgives, and welcomes repentant sinners into the kingdom of heaven.  We know that even a death row criminal is saved, if he or she accepts Jesus as their savior.  This is what is at the heart of this parable.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

It is easy for us lifetime Christians to be resentful when someone who has led a wild and evil life, and comes to Jesus in their old age. That is not fair!  Where’s the justice? 

Let us be more like God, and less like Jonah.  Let’s rejoice in the recovery of the lost. 

For September 17, 2023

GENESIS 50:15-21

BACKGROUND

The story of Joseph and his coat of many colors is a long and fascinating one.  Actually, that’s what we call the story, when teaching it to Sunday school children.  But the coat has little to do with the story or the God Lesson for the story.  I’ll give you a brief summary of the high points, but I encourage you to read the whole story.  It’s full of twists and turns.  You’ll find it in Genesis, running from chapter 37 and going to chapter 50.  You can skip chapters 38 and 49, which have little to do with the story.

Jacob (nicknamed “Israel” by God) has 12 sons, but Joseph is the clear favorite. Jacob makes Joseph a beautiful, colorful robe.  Joseph’s eleven brothers are green with envy.  To make matters worse, Joseph has dreams which predict that his brothers will bow down to him.  (Gen 37:5-11) His brothers can’t stand it, and sell him off to a caravan headed to Egypt.  They tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Things go well for Joseph in Egypt. He rises to the number two spot in Egypt, right behind Pharaoh.  There is a famine, and his brothers come begging for food.  Jacob dies, and Joseph buries him in Canaan, their home.  That’s where our reading begins.

DETAILS

  • In verses 15-17, Joseph’s brothers show concern for their safety.  While their father was alive, they had some security.  With the father gone, Joseph could now seek revenge. So, their plea in verse 17 is hiding behind their father’s coat tails. 
  • In 17b, Joseph cries, revealing his true emotion. 
  • Verse 18 is the fulfillment of Joseph’s childhood dream, found in Genesis 37:5-11.
  • Verse 20 is the whole reason for this long story, and the God Lesson for us.  “God made a very bad thing turn out for the best.”

TAKEAWAY

Because Joseph was a man of faith, he saw God’s hand, active in the world around him.  Joseph understood that God used the bad actions of his brothers to prepare a place for them to survive the 7 year famine that was ravaging the middle east. As a result, God saves Jacob’s sons as a remnant of Israel.  These 12 would become the 12 tribes of Israel, delineated in chapter 40.  So, amidst all the nasty stuff going on in this story, God’s grace shines through.  He preserves his people.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Bad things happen to everyone, whether they are bad or good.  The difference for people of faith is that they know that God can work good from the bad.  Non-believers just don’t get that.  Think back on your life at some of the unpleasant experiences that you have gone through.  How has God worked good from them for you and your family?

 

ROMANS 14:1-12

BACKGROUND

Two things are important to know, before digging into this reading.

  1. The church in Rome was a mixture of Gentile Christians and Jews who recognized Jesus to be the messiah.  At times, this caused tension and conflict.
  2. Most of the meat consumed by the people in Rome and the middle east was a byproduct of the practice of sacrificing animals to pagan gods. Even though Christians were free from the condemnation of eating this food, many Jews just couldn’t do it.  The Gentile Christians appear to be OK with it. But the problem was that the meat eaters were giving the meat-abstainers a hard time.

DETAILS

  • Paul starts out by labelling those who refrain from eating sacrificed meat as “weak in faith”. This is a bit harsh, to be sure. But I think he did this to appeal to the Gentiles.  “You’re strong, they’re weak.  Cut them some slack.”  (vv. 1-3)
  • In verse 4, he gives them a subtle reminder of Jesus’ words in Mark 10:42-45. 

“42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

In other words, we are all servants of the Lord and one another.  We should not judge one another.

  • Part of the Jewish religious practices included observing festivals, new moons, etc. (Did you know that the reason Easter changes from year to year is because it is tied to the lunar cycle?)  The Gentiles could care less about all these festivals and lunar hocus-pocus.  Sounds like they were making life difficult for the Jewish Christians who observed them. Paul says that if it gives glory to God, then it is good.  Don’t judge them!  (vv. 5-6)
  • Then, Paul steps back, and reminds them of the big picture.  It’s not about us.  It’s all about living for the Lord!  Quit your nit-picking, and start living for the Lord! (vv. 7-9)
  • To conclude, Paul reminds them of the ultimate judgement. He suggests that they should quit judging one another, because that’s God’s job.  And we’re all going to be judged in the end.  (vv. 10-12)

TAKEAWAY

Jesus made it clear that we are not to judge one another, but leave that task to God.  We do well to remember that there are different ways of serving, but the same Lord is served.  Our religious practices and even some of our beliefs may vary.  But the important thing is that God is glorified in all of it.  Rather than focus on our differences, we need to concentrate on all the good we have in common.  When we do this, we truly do become the Body of Christ.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

We all love to find fault with other people!  I think it makes us feel better about ourselves, doesn’t it?  But it is very destructive, when you think about it.  It’s just our nature, I guess.  How can we work to build the Body of Christ, rather than pick at it?

 

MATTHEW 18:21-35

BACKGROUND

This passage directly follows last week’s reading.  Since the subject is about forgiveness, Peter has a question.

DETAILS

  • I’m with Peter. Forgiving someone seven times for one transgression seems like enough.  Jesus’ mathematical answer doesn’t mean that we can quit when we hit #490 (seventy times seven).  Jesus is saying that we must keep on forgiving.  (vv. 21-22)
  • Then, Jesus tells them a long and peculiar parable.  The details are downright disturbing.  They involve slavery, a HUGE debt (10,000 talents is about $3.5 trillion dollars!), selling off families, and torture.  I’ll summarize it below, in the Takeaway.  (vv. 23-34)
  • In the last verse, Jesus gives us the moral of the story.  He says that if we don’t forgive one another, “our heavenly Father will also do to every one of you.”  (v. 35)

TAKEAWAY

A wise preacher once told me that parables are intended to be simple stories with only one lesson.  All too often, we get hung up in the details of the story*, and miss the God Lesson.  Here, Jesus is telling us that God knows all our sins; our sin-debt is huge. God has forgiven us by having His only son die on the cross for our sins.  We must show this same loving forgiveness to those around us, forgiving them without limit.


 

 

For September 10, 2023

 

EZEKIEL 33:7-11

BACKGROUND

Ezekiel and Jeremiah were both prophets in Judah before, during and after the Babylonian captivity.  The difference was that Ezekiel went with the first wave of deported Israelites; he was part of those exiled.  Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem; we don’t know why. This first wave of deportees included the king and his court.  The Babylonian king placed a puppet king in charge of Jerusalem and Judah, King Zedekiah. Zedekiah surrounded himself with false prophets.  Jeremiah’s assignment was to speak for God, which meant contradicting all those false prophets.  Ezekiel, being among those in exile, did the few priestly things that he was allowed to do, mainly providing spiritual guidance for the other deportees. Everybody thought exile wouldn’t last long… everybody except Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  God made it clear to them that it was going to be a long time before they returned home.  These prophets had the difficult task of sharing this word with the people of Israel. Since the people did not want to hear this bad news, Jeremiah and Ezekiel lived hard lives. By the way, when God speaks to Ezekiel, he calls him “mortal”. 

 

DETAILS

  • Today’s reading occurs about ¾ of the way through the book of Ezekiel.  If you look at the call of Ezekiel, in 3:16-21, it reads exactly like chapter 33, verses 7-9.  I believe that God is reminding the prophet of his call.  I also believe that He is reminding Ezekiel that his job is to say the word, and that he’s not responsible for the people’s actions.  In other words, God is telling Ezekiel to just say it and walk away.  If they don’t listen, that’s OK; you’ve done your job.
  • Verse 10 is interesting.  The deported people of Israel state that they are so weighed down by their sins and transgressions that they despair of having any hope.  When conquering nations take people into exile, the typical thing is for them to blend into their new surroundings, and never return to their homeland.  No hope. 
  • God’s grace shines through in verse 11.  He doesn’t want anybody do die.  He wants repentance and a relationship.  He gives them hope.

TAKEAWAY

It is difficult to share the truth or the Good News with someone, only to have them reject it.  We can take comfort in these words from God through Ezekiel.  Our job is to say the words.  The Holy Spirit’s job begins at this point. 

 

ROMANS 13:8-14

BACKGROUND

Paul is still talking about the Law of Moses vs. the Life in the Spirit. Now, he joins them together, and issues a call to action.

DETAILS

  • The first three verses of this passage reiterate that which we already knew—we must love one another.  Paul mirrors Jesus’ words (Mt. 22:34-40), when he says that all the laws are summed up in this one word of love.  If we all have perfect love, we will be kind and loving to one another. There will be no need for any rules or laws.  But we are not all Christians, and none of us are perfect.  So, I guess we need rules after all.
  • Verse 11 tells us that Paul and the believers thought that Jesus would return very soon.  There was no time to lollygag around.  Furthermore, they felt that their salvation would be complete upon his return and the judgement to follow.  2,000 years later, we understand things a little differently.  God the Father and Son appear to have more patience than we originally thought.  Perhaps they are waiting for us to do a better job at spreading the Good News. During this in-between time, we live “in the Spirit”, living honorable lives as delineated in verse 13.
  • Paul summarizes it neatly in verse 14, urging us to “put on Christ”, or to clothe ourselves in Him.

TAKEAWAY 

  • Let us all strive to earnestly love one another.  Some say that rules were meant to be broken.  I say, that if the Law of Love indicates that you should break a rule, then have at it!
  • I have always maintained that it really doesn’t matter if Jesus comes to me first, or if I go to Him first.  The main thing is that we love Him and each other, so that we all live this Spirit Life He intended for us to live.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How do you envision “putting on Christ”?  Is Jesus like a fine robe that you clothe yourself with? Or is it like a hat that changes your outlook on life?  Or is it “putting on the armor of Christ”?

 

MATTHEW 18:15-22

BACKGROUND

The eighteenth chapter of Matthew begins with the disciples asking Jesus a question:  “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  After he answers that question (see below), he goes on to talk about our relationships with one another.  He tells them how to handle conflict in a God-like way.  Then he talks about forgiveness.

DETAILS

  • In case you looked up Matthew 18:1-14, I will explain that in this bullet point.  The disciples asked Jesus a question about pecking order in the kingdom of Heaven.  Remember from last week that God’s priorities often seem to be the opposite of ours?  Here, Jesus gives them another God Answer.  Jesus says that they must change and become humble, like children; those disciples will rise to the top.  I’ll bet they weren’t expecting that answer!
  • Jesus then goes into detail on how to handle a conflict between believers. I guess he knows us well enough to realize there will be conflict! To summarize, he tells them that whatever they agree to will be “ratified” in heaven.  He has given us the authority that truly belongs only to the king.  He says that what we decide (“bind”) here on earth will be OK’d by our king in heaven. 
  • Verse 20 will be mentioned in “Food for Thought”.
  • Verses 21 & 22 are not part of the text to be read on Sunday, but they are relevant.  Peter asks about the limitations on forgiveness.  What he receives is yet another God Answer.

TAKEAWAY

  • This process for handling conflict has been used by churches throughout the centuries.  It is a good process that has the good foundation of the love and grace of God.
  • It is good to know that we have heavenly approval for our actions in these situations.
  • It is most important that in the end, we forgive all those involved “seventy times seven”.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

  • In this aggressive, dog-eat-dog world, only the strong survive. Jesus tells us that in God’s kingdom, the most revered are those who have a child-like humility.  We must live in this world, but behave like Children of God. How can we do that?
  • Jesus said that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.  He could have said “If you believe in me, I am with you”, but he talks instead about a gathering of two or more.  In our modern world, we place the highest emphasis on individuality.  We often talk about our personal relationship with our Lord. Here, Jesus is encouraging us to come together as a community of believers.

For September 3, 2023

JEREMIAH 15:15-21

THE BACKGROUND

Jeremiah had a tough job.  He was called to be God’s spokesperson at a time when Judah was desperate need of reform.  The king and his court prophets thought they knew God’s word.  They also knew that God’s house (the temple) was in Jerusalem. They thought that God protected them because of this.  Their minds were made up; they did not want to hear opposing views.  Jeremiah was the only one with the courage to stand up and point out the error of their ways. Jeremiah 7 contains one of his famous prophetic speeches.  He came right to the point, saying “you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, go after other gods that you have not known…” (7:9).   He could have been executed for these proclamations.  Our passage is a dialogue between Jeremiah and God.  Jeremiah is discouraged, beaten down.

THE DETAILS

  • The first half of the reading is Jeremiah’s lament; his formal complaint to the Lord.  His request is clearly stated in the first verse—he wants God to even the score with his enemies.  The lament starts out with a beautiful reminder to God of how much Jeremiah loved being a prophet.  He “ate” the word of God, and loved the taste.  But it takes a sharp turn in verse 17. He can’t even celebrate the religious festivals with other believers.  Nobody wants to listen to him or have him around.  He is an outcast.   (vv. 15-17)
  • In verse he says that his “wound is incurable”. I take that to mean that he is sensitive to the injustice around him.  He can’t seem to fix the injustice, any more than he can make himself less sensitive to it.  He is condemned to fail, but cannot give up on fighting for the cause.  He’s between a rock and a hard place.  (v. 18)
  • God’s answers Jeremiah.  Sure, there will be fighting, but in the end, you will prevail. He does not say that he will “bring down retribution on his persecutors”, as Jeremiah requested in verse 15.  But God does promise to deliver Jeremiah.  In effect, God says “keep doing what you’re doing.  They may not listen, but I’ll protect you.”  (vv. 19-21)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

Sometimes loving the Lord comes with a cost.  We can take comfort in knowing that God “has our back”.  It is also good to know that we can complain to our Lord, knowing that he will listen and understand. 

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Some things never change.  Good people are supporting lame causes and lamer politicians.  It seems as though they can’t see beyond the ends of their noses. When you point this out to them, you are confronted with frustration, anger, and name-calling.  People today are no more receptive to hearing other views than they were in Jeremiah’s day.

As disciples of Christ, we are to be His presence in the world around us.  How do we share his good news, when people are so galvanized in their opinions?
 

ROMANS 12:9-21

THE BACKGROUND

The apostle Paul has spent many chapters explaining that our salvation does not come through adherence to the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.  He has made it clear that “…now we are discharged from the law…, but [are] in the new life of the Spirit.” (Romans 7:6)  And “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2)  Today’s reading gives us some great examples of what this “life of the Spirit” should look like.  We live this life as a “thank you” to God for all He has done for us.

 

THE DETAILS

  • God, through Paul, presents us with a wonderful list of His expectations.  I believe this is what God expects of those of us who strive to have “new life in the Spirit”. 
  • Here’s a list of God’s expectations of us, so we can check them all off each day.    (Good luck!)
    • Be genuine
    • Hate what is evil
    • Hold fast to what is good
    • Love one another
    • Outdo one another in showing honor
    • Do not lag in zeal
    • Be ardent in spirit
    • Persevere in prayer
    • Serve the Lord
    • Rejoice in hope
    • Be patient in suffering
    • Extend hospitality to strangers
    • Bless those who persecute you
    • Do not curse those who persecute you
    • Rejoice with those who rejoice
    • Weep with those who weep
    • Live in harmony with one another
    • Do not be haughty
    • Associate with the lowly
    • Do not claim to be wiser than you are
    • Do not repay anyone evil for evil
    • Take thought for what is noble
    • Live peaceable with all
    • Never avenge yourselves
    • If your enemies are hungry or thirsty, feed them
    • Do not be overcome by evil

THE TAKEAWAY

Panera Bread restaurant has a large menu full of delicious items.  To help people decide, they offer a “You Pick Two” option.  You can pick a half a sandwich and a bowl of soup, a small salad and a half a sandwich, or a small salad and a bowl of soup. I suggest that we have a “You Pick Three” from this list.  Choose one easy, one medium, and one hard “expectation”.  Then, work diligently to do them well.  If you succeed, pick three more! 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

There is a problem with the “You Pick Three” approach suggested above.  We Christians like to pick and choose which of Jesus’ commands we follow, and ignore the harder ones; we treat them like a buffet line.  If I am not mistaken, Jesus never suggests that can choose a few, and ignore the rest.  To be a disciple of Christ, we should do the entire list! 

 

MATTHEW 16:21-28

THE BACKGROUND

Last week’s lesson were the verses immediately preceding this.  Jesus renames Simon, calling him Peter.  The Rock.  In today’s reading, thinks take a bad turn.

THE DETAILS

  • Now that Simon Peter has declared Jesus the Messiah, Jesus lays it all out before them.  He tells them how he must suffer, die, and be raised on the third day.  (v. 21)
  • The expectation amongst the Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) was that the Messiah would be a warrior-king, who would liberate them from the tyranny of the Romans.  He would restore the old kingdom of David.  Naturally, then, Peter rebukes Jesus saying “don’t talk like that”!  (v. 22)
  • But Jesus knows the big picture.  He knows the Master Plan.  He puts Peter in his place (behind him), and even calls him Satan! (v. 23a)
  • Here is the key sentence, in my opinion. “…you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  More on that later.  (v. 23b)
  • Jesus challenges us to consider our priorities. Clearly, he wants us to “take up our cross, and follow him”.  The cross was a shameful means of execution.  Perhaps Jesus wants us to realize that following him means not only being willing to die for him, but to suffer humiliation as well.  (vv. 24-27)
  • If you find verse 28 to be confusing and troubling, you are in good company.  Jesus says that he would return before all of his followers had died.  Yet here it is, some 2,000 years later.  Biblical scholars have discussed and debated this verse for eons.  I remember what Jesus said later in Matthew 24:36.  He said “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  So, he admits that he did not know when this would happen.  Was he just being a little optimistic?  Who knows?  (V.28)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

We have the benefit of being able to read and analyze the words of Jesus.  The poor disciples had to soak it up live-time.  As they journeyed on foot from village to village, I’m sure there was a lot of talk going on amongst the disciples. Sometimes, quite often in fact, they got it wrong, and reacted poorly.  We know the end of the Gospel story.  We also know that we need to be willing to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. 

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Verse 23 is worth some serious consideration.  All too often, we are confronted with the fact that God’s way is very different than our way.  If you are wondering what I mean, just look at the Sermon on the Mount.  Who are blessed—the rich, the healthy, the strong? No, God’s blessings fall on quite the opposite.  God’s values are the opposite of ours.  Shouldn’t we set our mind on divine thoughts, rather than our own?

 

What does it mean to you, for you to “take up your cross, and follow Jesus”?  Are you ready and willing to take that step?

For August 27, 2023

REFLECTIONS ON THE READINGS

FOR SUNDAY, AUGUST 27, 2023

 

ISAIAH 51:1-6

BACKGROUND

The people of God are returning from Babylonian captivity, only to find their homes ruined and their temple destroyed.  God, through Isaiah, gives them a pep talk and hope for the future.

DETIAILS

  • God calls to mind their long and thorny history.  They are “hewn from the same rock” as Abraham and Sarah.  Today, we might say “cut from the same mold”.  He reminds them of their long relationship with Him, and how he has delivered them and cared for them countless times.  He will comfort them (“Zion”).  (v. 3)
  • God shares his vision for their future.  He wants them to be a light to the whole world (“the peoples”).  (vv. 4-5)
  • Then, is an interesting twist.  It is both alarming and comforting.  But it helps us to put things into perspective—God’s perspective.  (v. 6)

TAKEAWAY

Most of us are not born Jewish, so we are not blood relatives of Abraham and Sarah.  We are “the peoples” referred to in verse 5.  Romans 8:14 states that “…all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”.  We are adopted children, then, because of our faith in Jesus Christ.  This vision, therefore, applies to us as well.

The double call to listen/take heed in verse 4 should get our attention.  God has a vision, and He wants us to listen.  Note that when Isaiah says “people”, he is referring to God’s chosen people.  But when he says “peoples” (plural), he is talking about the rest of the world. God’s chosen, wanted to return to the Promised Land, and simply work on not sinning, but in being good. God’s vision for them is altogether different.  He wants them to go out and teach others about our God.  Show the world justice!  Be a light to the nations!  I don’t think this is what they thought they were signing up for.

Verse 6 is a stark reminder that everything in this life is temporary. The only thing we can count on is God and the salvation that comes through faith and trust in Him.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The saying goes that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Verse 6 clearly states that the only thing we can rely on is God, and the salvation and the adoption that comes through faith in his Son.

As Disciples of Christ, we are to “be Jesus” to those around us.  We are expected to continue His work by teaching, acting justly, and letting the light of Jesus shine through us.  How are you doing?  Is your light shining?


ROMANS 12:1-8

BACKGROUND

This reading from Romans starts with the word “therefore”.  That tells me that Paul is concluding a logical discussion.  It makes we want to look back, and find out what he’s talking about.  In this case, he is talking about a) how we have died with Jesus through our baptism (Romans 6:5-11) and b) how God now dwells in us, since we are “in the Spirit” (Romans 8:9-11).

DETAILS

  • Therefore, because of “a” and “b” above, we should present ourselves, body and soul, to God.  We’re not expected to be like an Old Testament blood sacrifice, but as a dedication to serving Him.  We don’t do this to earn “brownie points” of grace with God, but do it out of loving gratitude for what God has first done for us.  (v. 1)
  • Over the centuries, verse 2 has come to be interpreted as encouragement for some sort of spiritual isolationism.  I see this verse differently.  Let’s break it down into four parts:
    1. Do not be conformed of this world
    2. Be transformed by the renewing of your minds
    3. So that you may discern what is the will of God
    4. What is good and acceptable and perfect.

Parts 1 & 2 are the “what” and 3 & 4 the “why”.  God  does not want us to isolate ourselves from “this world”.  He wants us to refocus our minds, and concentrate on discerning the will of God, especially to seek out “what is good and acceptable and perfect”. So, it sounds like it is more like a treasure hunt than a game of hide and seek.

  • I’m thinking of a Minnesotan phrase I learned from Garrison Keillor.  People in Minnesota say that “he got the big head” when someone thinks too highly of themselves.   Paul is telling us Christians not to “get the big head”, but work together as a seamless team.  (v. 3) 
  • When we work together, we are Christ’s body.  And since we all have spiritual gifts, they work together to do the work of God.  I’ve seen this happen, and it is a beautiful thing.  Have you? (vv. 4-8)

TAKEAWAY

After thinking about verse 2 in this way, God seems more interested in my interacting with the world, rather than protecting myself from it.

Our bodies and our being should be offered to the Body of Christ as a loving sacrifice, freely giving of our time and spiritual gifts to serve the Lord. By pooling our spiritual gifts, we can work together to do God’s work in this time and place.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How often do you attempt to “discern the will of God”?  Maybe we should try to do more of this.

What spiritual gifts have you been blessed with?  How are you using them to build the Body of Christ?

 

MATTHEW 16:13-20

BACKGROUND

Jesus’ ministry is in full swing.  He’s teaching, preaching, and healing.  He’s causing quite a commotion.  Jesus now asks his disciples a provocative question—“Who am I?”

If you were in my class a few weeks ago, we were talking about Peter’s “real” name.  I mistakenly said that it was Cephas.  Today’s gospel lesson will fix that mistake.  (Nobody’s perfect!)

DETAILS

  • Most of the disciples answer Jesus’ question literally, telling him what other people think he is.  Everyone expected Elijah to return before the Messiah’s coming.  Jeremiah 31 refers to a new covenant.  Maybe some thought Jesus was a new Jeremiah.  Jesus’ ministry was similar to John the Baptist’s, in that it focused on spiritual growth more than it did temple worship. Regardless, there was definitely a lot of confusion about who Jesus really was.  (vv. 13-14) 
  • Simon Peter makes a bold move.  He tells Jesus who he thinks Jesus is—“The Messiah and Son of the living God”.  Jesus is thrilled with his answer.  (vv. 15-16) 
  • Simon was the name given this disciple at birth.  When Simon proclaims Jesus the Messiah, Jesus gives him the name “Peter”. Peter is the English version of the Greek name “Petros”.  (The Gospels were written in Greek.)  In Greek, the word “petra” means “rock”, so we have a little play on words.  The gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus didn’t speak Greek, he spoke Aramaic.  Jesus said the word—Kepha (or Cephas), which means rock.  That’s why sometimes Simon Peter is referred to as Cephas.  I like to think that Jesus is calling Simon “Rocky”.  (But don’t tell anybody I said that.)  (v. 17)
  • Jesus proclaims that “on this rock I will build my church”.  In fact, Peter eventually goes to Rome, where he heads the Christian church until his martyrdom.  Many consider the first pope of the Christian church.  One thing is certain—this church would grow and grow. Peter truly was the rock on which the Christian church has been built.  (v. 18)
  • The next verse is often taken to be the authorization for clergy to hear confession and give absolution of sins.  To me, this is more of a statement that what we Christians do on earth is blessed in heaven. (v. 19)
  • Now, Jesus tells his disciples “now don’t tell anybody”.  If this seems weird to you, read on past today’s reading. Immediately, Jesus starts to teach them how he must suffer and die.  They don’t take that very well.  In fact, Peter himself rebukes Jesus for this teaching!  They have a lot to learn, so it was right for Jesus to tell them to keep a lid on it.  (v. 20)

TAKEAWAY

Verse 17 states that Peter did not come to this conclusion on his own, but had some help. Jesus says “…flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  Paul tells us that no one can say that Jesus is Lord, except with the help of the Holy Spirit.  So, our very faith is a gift from God!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Today, many people have many ideas about who Jesus was. 

Who do you say that he is?

For August 20, 2023

 

ISAIAH 56:1-8

BACKGROUND

The Israelites have returned from Babylonian captivity.  They are rebuilding the temple, their homes, and their lives. They have learned their lesson well, that they were disobedient to God, and were sent into captivity.  Now, many want to focus on being really, really good, so that doesn’t happen again.  They were intent on keeping all the laws of Moses.  This eventually led to them isolating themselves from the rest of the world.  God sends Isaiah this message, to remind them that he has bigger plans for them.

DETAILS

Note: The text assigned for Sunday omits verses 2-5.  I’ve included these for our study, because they support the overall lesson.

  • It starts out easy enough.  “Be good, maintain justice, keep the Sabbath.” They already knew this stuff.  But he’s just getting started.  (vv. 1-2)
  • Through Isaiah, God tells his people that if foreigners have decided to follow Him, they are welcome to worship in the temple. The Jews just wanted to focus on themselves and their own behavior.  God is forcing them to think beyond themselves, and think about others-- let other people in!  (v. 3)
  • Then, God says that even eunuchs who love the Lord are welcome.  Deuteronomy 23:1-8 make it crystal clear that eunuchs could not even enter the temple, let alone worship.  So, this message through Isaiah is something new; a change in policy.  How do you think the conservative Israelites might have felt about letting the eunuchs into the temple?  (vv. 4-5)
  • The last part of this passage is key—God wants his house to be a house of prayer for “all peoples”.  Everybody is welcome.  The promise is that anyone who loves the Lord is accepted by God.  (vv. 6-7)
  • And just in case they didn’t get the point, He says “remember that you were outcasts, and I gathered you in.  Now, I’m going to gather others!” (v. 8)

TAKEAWAY

Foreigners (non-Jews) are allowed to have a relationship with God. This is good news for me, since I am not Jewish.  I can take comfort in knowing that if I have “joined myself to the Lord”, then I am also welcomed.  My gifts and sacrifices are lovingly accepted by my Lord.

It is easy for us to simply “keep our own backyard clean”, and not get involved with other people’s troubles.  God tells us that we need to get involved.  We need to do more than “be good”.  We need to help the people who live on the margins of society, even if they aren’t exactly like us.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

In our churches, all too often people are shunned, if they aren’t exactly like us.  Maybe they’re having marital problems, mental problems, or they speak, act, or dress differently than us.  What sort of message would Isaiah have for us, if he were around today? 

 

ROMANS 11:1-2a, 29-32

BACKGROUND

Paul has been struggling with the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as their Messiah.  He has been agonizing over this since chapter 9:1. This will be the final installment on that subject. 

DETAILS

  • For starters, he hits the nail on the head. Has God rejected the Jews?  Heck no! (v. 1)
  • Paul states that God has not rejected His people (even though they rejected Jesus).  (v. 2a)
  • God’s promises are forever.  They can’t be taken away, if His people misbehave. (This is good news for me, when I misbehave!  (v. 29)
  • The next verses are a little confusing, so let me try to explain.  He uses the word “disobedient” to describe their rejection of Jesus.  In effect, Paul is saying that because the Jews rejected Jesus, it sort of opens the door for us Gentiles.  Now that we Gentiles have received mercy, it is the Jews’ turn to receive God’s mercy.  Once, we were on the outside looking in, but now the roles are reversed.  (vv. 30-31)
  • The picture of God imprisoning us all is not a very attractive one to me.  If I may, I’d like to rephrase it like this: “Since he has given us a free will, and we know we’re going to stumble, he is waiting patiently to be merciful to all of us.” (v. 32)

TAKEAWAY

Over the centuries and even today, there are many Christians who hate the Jews for rejecting Christ.  We fail to remember these chapters from Romans, and all the irrevocable promises that God has made to them.  God still loves the Jews.  How can we not do the same?

 

MATTHEW 15:10-28

BACKGROUND

This passage is actually two separate stories.  The first is a lesson—Jesus is teaching the crowd.  The second takes place in a different location, and has a different lesson. Some churches will omit the first story, but we’ll look at both.

DETAILS

In the first story, the teaching, he says something very radical and controversial.  Jesus states that it doesn’t matter what you eat or drink. In effect, he has just nullified centuries of eating Kosher.  The disciples point this out to Jesus in verse 12, saying that “the Pharisees didn’t like it when you said…”  Jesus doesn’t care, of course.  Jesus’ point is clear—it is what we say or do that defiles us, or makes us unclean.  God doesn’t care what you eat or drink, as long as you behave in a loving and godly manner.  The Pharisees didn’t like this, because they were trying very, very hard to be good.  In the process, however, they weren’t acting in a loving way to their neighbor.

The second story is complicated.  A pastor friend of mine has a hard time with Jesus’ words, and so do I.  I will try to explain them as best I can.  A Canaanite woman (NOT a Jew) approaches Jesus, and asks for him, SHOUTS for him to cast out a demon from her daughter.  The disciples want to get rid of her because she was shouting.  Jesus’ answer is astonishing and troubling—basically, He says he only came for Jews, and not Gentiles!  Then, he insults her by calling her a dog.  NOTE: In Jesus’ day, dogs were not highly regarded.  Calling someone a dog would be a serious insult.  So this is a racial slur.  This is not my Jesus!  Why would he say this?  My belief is that Jesus was “messing with” the disciples, saying something about her that they might say or be thinking.  I believe that he was leading them along, before he shows them that true faith knows no boundaries.  The woman has unswerving faith in Jesus, he recognizes this faith, and Jesus heals her daughter.

TAKEAWAY

Rules are a good thing. They provide structure for our lives, and give us simple guidelines for daily living.  But sometimes, rules need to come second to human compassion. Jesus teaches us that the #1 rule is to love God and our neighbor.  Everything else hangs on this one rule. 

According the passage from Romans, and according to Jesus’ reaction to the loud woman, faith breaks down all barriers.  Rules are secondary.  Faith is number one.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

I don’t know about you, but Jesus’ words about “what comes out of a person” ring true for me. I do the most harm with my words. Sometimes I say things I shouldn’t, and those words can’t be taken back.  Sometimes, being a follower of Jesus requires showing kindness when we really want to do something else.  That’s what Jesus did in this story.

For August 13, 2023

 

1 KINGS 19:9-18

THE BACKGROUND

Ahab was the king of the northern kingdom of the Jews that was called Israel.  (The southern kingdom was called Judah.)  King Ahab married a Phoenician woman named Jezebel. She did not worship the God of the Jews Yahweh; she worshiped the Canaanite god Baal.  Elijah was the head prophet of the Jews, and the main spokesman for Yahweh.  Chapters 17 and 18 are full of the confrontations between the prophets of the Baal cult and Elijah.  It’s a wild story, and I encourage you to read it.  In the end, Elijah wins; Jezebel is outraged, and sets out to exterminate Elijah.  Elijah flees to the holiest of mountains, Mt. Sinai.  He calls a conference.  He needs a “God moment”, and he’s going to get one.

THE DETAIL

  • God asks Elijah why he came.  Elijah gives God the little speech he has prepared. He makes it sound like he’s the only faithful one left.  (vv. 9-10)
  • God has compassion on Elijah.  He says “Go outside, and I’ll give you a glimpse of me.” Wild things happen, but no God. Finally, God is present in a “gentle breeze” (in this translation, rather than “a still small voice” of the King James).  Elijah covers his face, because it is believed that if a sinful person saw the holiness of God, they would be struck dead.  FYI, a mantle was a special garment—a cloak, which signifies that Elijah is a prophet.  (vv. 11-13a)
  • Now it gets weird.  God again, asks Elijah why he’s there, and Elijah gives God the exact same answer!  I sense arrogance or irritation in his words.   What do you think?  (vv. 13b-14)   
  • This time, God shows compassion on Elijah, and gives Elijah detailed instructions.  Not only is he to appoint two kings who are faithful to Yahweh, but God appoints Elisha to relieve Elisha of his duties.  Looks like there is going to be a “house cleaning”, with lots of people being killed.  That’s the way it was back then!  (vv. 15-17)
  • Then comes the key verse.  There are also 7,000 faithful, who have refused to worship Baal.  They will be spared.  They will become a remnant of Israel.  So, surprise, surprise, Elijah wasn’t the only faithful one left after all.  (v. 18)
     

THE TAKEAWAY

When I read these stories from the Old Testament, I always find myself scratching my head, wondering what the God Lesson is for me in all of this.  Two things are clear to me, after studying this story.

  1. I know that God wants you and me to have a relationship with Him.  If that weren’t so, the Bible wouldn’t be so thick!  But I also know that God is jealous (Exodus 20:5), and doesn’t like competition.  This story tells me that He has no room for “other gods” working into our relationship with Him— God hits the reset button.  Just like the Noah’s arc story, and Babylonian captivity,.  He gives his people a fresh start with new leadership.
  2. In spite of all the bloodshed, I see God’s steadfast love at work.  He shows Elijah compassion on Mt. Sinai, by giving him the direction he so desperately needs, and by naming a successor.  He also reassures Elijah that he is not alone.  There are many other faithful servants besides him.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

  • In our relationships with others, we expect faithfulness.  It seems like the most unforgivable sin in relationships is unfaithfulness.  Are God’s expectations any different?  I doubt it. 
  • Oftentimes, it seems like everyone is out to get us. Nobody is on our side, and we’re the last one standing.  Maybe this is a good time to call a conference; to have a talk with God. 

 

ROMANS 10:5-15

THE BACKGROUND

Paul is still wrestling with the problem of why his fellow Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah.  But during the process, he addresses a bigger question.  He makes us consider the source of true righteousness.  More importantly, it asks (and answers) the question—“What saves us?”  “How do we get right with God?”

One word is used frequently here and elsewhere.  “Righteousness” needs definition for this passage to make sense.  Let me break it down.  “Righteousness” means:

  • doing the right thing
  • doing the right actions
  • ”doing good” or “being good”

THE DETAILS

  • Verse 5 and 6a contrast the difference between righteousness that comes through obedience to the Law of Moses (v5) and the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus as the Son of God (v6a). 
  • For the time being, skip 6b starting with “Do not say…” down to verse 9.  Here we find the answer to the question.  Faith in Jesus is the one and only “right action” that saves our souls.  Actually, Paul has already stated this in verse 4:  “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”  This is game-changing good news!
  • Now, let me explain verses 6b-8.  They were weird to me when I first read them.  Paul was an Old Testament scholar.  (The New Testament hadn’t been written yet!)  I believe he was patterning these verses after Deuteronomy 30:11-14.  In fact, Romans 10:8 is a direct quote of Deuteronomy 30:14.  If I were to paraphrase these verses, I would write “You can search high, you can search low.  But in the end, the answer is right there in front of you—faith in Jesus.”
  • He concludes this thought with a call to action. The only way that other people are going to know about Jesus is if we share the good news
     

THE TAKEAWAY

If I am required to flawlessly keep all the 613 Laws of Moses, in order to save my soul, then I am doomed.  But thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross, all my shortcomings & all my sins are forgiven. Now, my #1 act of righteousness is having faith in him as my savior.  What comes next?  I must put my faith into action by sharing the Good News with those around me, and loving my neighbors.

 

MATTHEW 14:22-33

THE BACKGROUND

Jesus is making his way around the Sea of Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing. 

THE DETAILS

  • This time, he actually does get a little quiet time.  He gets some time alone to pray.  For some odd reason, he sends the boat containing the apostles on ahead.  After he’s done praying, he simply walks out to the boat!  (vv. 22-26)
  • Peter is the courageous one.  He asks if he can do that!  Jesus says “sure!”  Peter’s mind gets the better of him, he begins to doubt, and he starts to sink. Jesus lifts him up.  The apostles are astonished, and declare Jesus to be the Son of God.  (vv. 27-33)

THE TAKEAWAY

  • Clearly, Jesus has planned to do this, but why? It’s not like we have ever seen someone walk on water, except in the movies.  The purpose of these miracles is to point to Jesus’ divine nature.  He was no ordinary person.  I believe he did this miracle to strengthen the conviction of his disciples, and enhance their relationship. It worked, because of their proclamation in the last verse.
  • I especially love the part about how Peter’s doubts got the better of him.  Jesus declared Peter “the rock”.  Actually, that’s what “peter” means—the rock.  Yet, “the rock” has doubts, and almost drowns.  But Jesus, ever caring, simply helps him into the boat.  In my moments of doubt, I find reassurance in Jesus’ love and patience for my human weakness, my moments of doubt.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How much faith do we need to get right with God?  Jesus even gives us the size—as small as a mustard seed.  That’s all that is needed!

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