Weekly Reflections

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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?

For July 4, 2021

 

EZEKIEL 2:1-5

THE BACKGROUND

Ezekiel got stuck with a lousy job.  Sure, he was God’s spokesperson to Israel.  But the timing was not the best.  He was a prophet at the time of the first deportation of Israelites to Babylon. In fact, he was one of those deported. Actually, he’d be a good candidate for an episode on that TV program about the dirtiest jobs.  But God drafted him into service, and serve he did. 

Chapter One of Ezekiel starts out with a bang.  Ezekiel is already in exile, when he sees visions of God.  The rest of the chapter is his description of what he saw.  Our reading begins with God speaking to Ezekiel.

THE DETAIL

  • God calls Ezekiel “mortal”.  He tells him to stand up, because He’s got something to tell him.  Ezekiel must have been a little shaky (what do you think?!?), because a spirit helps him to his feet.  (vv. 1-2)
  • God gives Ezekiel an assignment.  He’s sending him to the people of Israel.  God’s description of these people is not kind.  He uses words like “impudent” and “stubborn” to describe them. (vv. 3-4a)
  • When a prophet speaks for God, he (or she) always started with the phrase “Thus says the Lord God…”  This is a verbal signal to the listener that the prophet is no longer speaking for himself, but is relaying a message directly from God.  God tells Ezekiel that when he prophesies to Israel for God, they may or may not listen.  But at least they will have been told, and they will know that a prophet has been among them.  (vv. 4b-5)

THE TAKEAWAY

Ezekiel had a difficult task. Often, his prophesies fell on deaf ears. But that did not deter him.  He had a job to do.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How often are we rebellious, stubborn and impudent; not willing to obey the Lord’s command.  For example, how well are we doing to love everyone, including our enemies?  How good are we doing at sharing our abundance?  Remember, Jesus said that if you have two coats, give one away.  (I have more than two coats in the closet, by the way.)  We regularly push back from God’s commands.  This is not good, is it?  We need to continually re-examine our lives and actions, to see how we measure up to God’s expectations.  By His grace we know that we are forgiven these sins.  But we also need to work to do better.


 

 

2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10

THE BACKGROUND

As we have seen, these past few weeks, Paul was being sharply criticized by many in the church in Corinth. Other preachers came in, were more eloquent in preaching, and even boasted about their superiority over Paul. We know that this bothered him greatly, because he keeps coming back to it in this letter.  Here, he zeroes in on the boasting of his adversaries.

THE DETAIL

  • The opening verse reminds me of my childhood.  My mother would say “SOMEBODY” forgot to… (make their bed, pick up after themselves, etc.)  I always knew who that somebody was.  Here, Paul talks about “somebody”.  He’s obviously speaking about himself.  It only takes a few verses to discover this.  In any case, this “somebody” was taken up into the third heaven*, and stood before God.  Things were said, but were not repeatable.(vv. 1-4)
  • Paul says that he could brag about that, but that would be foolish.  It was a gift from God, and not to be shared with others. He subtly calls those other braggarts fools, when he says this.  (vv. 5-7a)
  • Plus, to keep from “getting the big head”, as Minnesotans might say, he was given some sort of affliction.  We’re not sure what this “thorn in the flesh” was.  Many have made guesses, but Paul never tells us.  But the point is that while he’d like to be elated about the privilege of seeing the throne of God, he was also humbled.  (v. 7b)
  • In verses 8-9a, he begged for the thorn to be removed.  God’s answer is key.  He said:
    • “My grace is sufficient for you…”
    • …power is made perfect in weakness.”
  • So, Paul decides to take the low road, and brag about his weakness.  Take that, you braggarts!  (vv. 9b-10)


THE TAKEAWAY

It is easy for us to be swept away by a grand worship production and a powerful preacher dressed in an expensive suit.  But what is it that we truly need, but good preaching, plain and simple.  The grace of God is all we need to hear about. About how he loved us so much that He sent His son to die for us.  There is power in this simple message.  It is our task to examine ourselves (2 Cor 13:5) and what we are being taught. Sure, it is what we would like to hear; but does it ring true to Jesus’ teachings?

 

* THIRD HEAVEN

In Hebrew, the word “heaven” was always plural (“heavens”).  There are various numbers given throughout scripture.  But here, Paul is using the 3-heaven descriptor.  What might these three heavens be?  One explanation is:

First Heaven       From earth to the upper limits of the atmosphere.

Second Heaven  From the atmosphere to the outer limits of all the stars.

Third Heaven     Beyond the stars.  God’s home.  Paradise.
 

MARK 6:1-13

THE BACKGROUND

This passage follows last week’s reading.  Jesus was on the west side of the Sea of Galillee.  He has now gone to his home town of Nazareth, some 30 miles to the west. (on foot)

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus did what he often did, and preached in the synagogue in his home town.  He must have done well, because they were astounded.  But it backfired.  They played the “hometown boy card” on him.  He was just a carpenter—where’d he get all this fancy preaching from?  They point out that his family was present.  (But there is no mention of Joseph.)  This could only increase the level of tension in the room.  (vv. 1-3)
  • Jesus reminds them that prophets always have it tough in their home towns and with their family. (v. 4)
  • Interestingly, Jesus finds it difficult to perform miracles there.  This makes sense, because his healing requires that the person have faith.  There was little of that to be found in Nazareth.  (vv. 5-6)
  • In the second paragraph, we learn that Jesus is on the road again.  You can’t blame him, given the poor reception at home.  (v. 6b)
  • He sends out the apostles in groups of two, to spread the Word.  The instruction he gives them tells me that he wants them to be poor but honest.  They must rely on the hospitality of others. They are not to shop around for finer accommodations, but stay put in the first place that offers them a room.  (vv. 7-10)
  • The apostles’ task was to preach and heal.  They were not to concern themselves with the results.  That would be the Holy Spirit’s work.  (v. 11)
  • Their simple methods bore fruit, and many were healed.  Many repented. (vv. 12-13)

THE TAKEAWAY

Jesus led a dual life. He was both the son of Mary & Joseph and the son of God.  He was both a carpenter and a divine messenger.  In today’s reading, we see these two worlds collide.  It is time for Jesus to either toe the line as a Nazarene carpenter, or get on with his divine mission.  His choice is made clear in the second half of today’s reading.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

We have all had moments in our lives where our faith has been tested.  A decision must be made to bow to outside pressures, or remain true to our convictions.  Let us put our faith and trust in God to help us make good choices, to the glory of His name.

 

For June 27, 2021

LAMENTATIONS 3:22-33

THE BACKGROUND

Imagine that a foreign, godless nation had invaded your homeland, destroyed your homes and churches, and executed the leadership.  This is what happened to Judah in 587 B.C.  Babylon overran Jerusalem, destroying the temple and city, and executing everyone in the Davidic royal line.  Many were hauled off to become captives living in Babylon.  Can you imagine the feelings of devastation?  “God Yahweh was supposed to protect us from this! Where is he???”  The book of Lamentations was written from this despair. Most of the book is a downer.  But chapter 3 offers a glimmer of faith and hope. Part of this chapter is today’s reading.

THE DETAIL

  • The first sentence is a beautiful expression of faith, on the part of the writer.  It is also a beautiful expression of God’s love and faithfulness.  “Steadfast love” is “chesed” in Hebrew.  It is one of those words that is a treasured description of God’s love for his people.  Chesed is the undying love that God continues to show his people in the Old Testament despite their repeated failure to live up to His expectations.  It is this same love that we see manifested in Jesus’ suffering on the cross for our sins.  This is chesed, God’s steadfast love for us.  This love is “new every morning”.  How poetic and true!  God’s faithfulness in us, in spite of us, is truly great.  I’m thinking of the hymn of that name as I write this. (vv. 22-23)
  • The word “portion” for me seems to apply more to food than God.  (That might tell you something about me.)  In this context, it signifies the writer’s commitment to God, in spite of his situation.  He places his hope in Yahweh, even though his world is falling apart.  (v. 24)
  • Next, comes the pill that is hard to swallow.  In spite of all that has happened, and the hopelessness that lies ahead, we are to wait. God will fix this.  I’m sure that there were a lot of skeptics, when this was read to them.  (vv. 25-26)
  • The writer even goes so far as to call this a learning experience for the youth in their group. He seems to say “Take it like a man! God will save you in the end.” (vv. 27-31)
  • And here’s the clincher.  “Although he causes grief… he does to willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” This sounds a little like last week’s study of the book of Job.  God allows things to happen, but does not cause them.  That’s a tricky walk, isn’t it?  But there in between these two statements is God’s chesed, his steadfast love.  (v. 33)

THE TAKEAWAY

The entire Old Testament is one huge story of:

  1. God’s expectations of us.
  2. Our failure to meet these expectations.
  3. God’s mercy and forgiveness, in spite of our failures—God’s chesed

If we do nothing else, we need to remind ourselves of this steadfast love for us.  Remember how God sent his son to die on the cross for us. Let us try to be as faithful to Him as He is to us.


 

 

2 CORINTHIANS 8:7-15

THE BACKGROUND

As we have seen the past few weeks, Paul and his worship team are receiving some sharp criticism from some of the members of the church in Corinth.  Other preachers have come in and put Paul down in order to elevate themselves.  Paul has been defending his ministry.  But Paul has an additional objective.  He is appealing to all the churches to send money to the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem.  He has just received a large donation from the relatively poor church in Macedonia. (2Cor. 8:1-6)  Now, he is appealing to the wealthy church in Corinth. He does this delicately, rather than forcefully, given his precarious situation.

THE DETAIL

  • Many students of Paul’s writings, including myself, detect a little sarcasm or irony in this first sentence.  From Paul’s first letter to this church, and what we have just learned about the criticism he received, I’m not totally convinced that Paul genuinely felt that they excelled in all these things.  All things, that is, except his love for them.  This he truly felt.  They were an unruly child, but he still loved them.  (v. 7)
  • Now, he delicately reminds them of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us all.  That though Jesus was financially poor, he made the Corinthians spiritually rich.  (vv. 8-9)
  • Verses 10-11 say it so nicely.  I would have blurted out “You guys—finish what you started!”
  • Verse 12 is a nice perspective on giving.  The gift is acceptable according to what you have.  If you don’t have it, you aren’t expected to give it.  They have it, as we read in verse 14, where Paul calls it “your present abundance”.  Paul is only calling for “balance”.  “Look”, he seems to say, “the Macedonians gave a lot, and they don’t have much abundance. You guys, on the other hand, have a lot, and aren’t stepping up.”  (vv. 12-15)

THE TAKEAWAY

It is good for us to periodically step back and examine our giving.  Who are more like—the Corinthians or the Macedonians?


 

MARK 5:21-43

THE BACKGROUND

In today’s reading, Mark serves us a sandwich!  This is what theologians call it—a Markan Sandwich.  By this it is meant that we have a story within a story.  In the middle of one story, Mark hits the pause button, and tells us another story.  After that, he hits “resume”, and goes back to the original story.  More on that later.  But for now, let’s look at this sandwich.

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus has just spent some time on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  I believe this is Gentile territory, but don’t hold me to that. But after performing some miracles and teaching, Jesus heads back home to the west side of the lake.  He is greeted by a crowd.  A man comes forward, stating that his daughter is near death. He has faith in Jesus’ healing powers, and asks Jesus to come and heal her.  (vv. 21-24)
  • Along the way, Mark hits the “pause” button to this story.  We learn of a woman who has been suffering with a condition for twelve years. This condition, according to Leviticus 15:25-27 makes her “unclean”.  Anything she sits on or even touches is unclean.  Furthermore, if anyone else touches these unclean things, they are also unclean!  Do you think she might also be suffering from social exclusion?  (v. 25)
  • Verse 26 describes her frustration.  She has gone from doctor to doctor, and nobody could help her.  (Haven’t we been there as well?)  The funny thing here is that in Luke’s telling of this story, Luke 8:43, he doesn’t mention anything about how instead of getting better, the doctor’s only made her worse.  (Luke was a doctor.)
  • In a combination of faith, hope, and desperation, she approaches Jesus.  Her only hope is to touch his garment.  She is convinced that this will do the trick, and it does! (vv. 27-29)
  • Next comes something odd and interesting.  Jesus senses that “power had gone forth from him”.  What was this power?  The woman comes forward, and confesses that she touched him.  Remember, she was “unclean”, and was forbidden to touch anyone. Jesus doesn’t care about that.  He recognizes pure faith when he sees it. She is made well because of her faith. (vv. 30-24)
  • Now, hit the “resume” button, and we will return to our regularly scheduled program.  Jesus isn’t finished talking to the healed woman when someone approaches and says that the daughter is dead.  Don’t take up Jesus’ time with this matter.  Jesus has other plans, however.  The key verse here is “Do not fear, only believe.”  (vv. 35-36)
  • Jesus shed most of the entourage, and only enters the house with a select few.  They are mourning the loss of their daughter. They think it ridiculous that Jesus would tell them that she is only sleeping.  He calls to the child, and she rises from her bed.  (vv. 37- 42a)
  • Everyone was amazed. The girl was dead, and now she lives! Interestingly, Jesus tells them to keep a lid on this.  Do you think they did?  I doubt it. Word must have spread like wildfire, given the crowd and commotion that was described earlier.  Finally, Jesus attends to practical matters, and tells them to feed the girl.  (vv. 42b- 43)

THE TAKEAWAY

In both stories of this “sandwich”, the lesson is the same.  We are urged to have faith in Jesus.  In the face of hopeless suffering and death, we should have faith in Jesus. He will save us.  Sometimes we are healed.  But our main confidence is that through his life, death, and resurrection, we no longer fear death.  He has saved us—“Do not fear, but believe.” 

 

If you are still hungry for more Markan Sandwiches, here are four more: 

3:19b-21 (22-30) 31-35; 6:6b-13 (14-29) 30; 11:12-14 (15-19) 20-25; and 14:53 (54) 55-65.  Looks like Mark enjoyed writing these!

For June 20, 2021

JOB 38:1-11

THE BACKGROUND

An old friend of mine had a saying that is appropriate to the book of Job.  He would say that we needed to “zoom out to 30,000 feet”, to get a clear perspective on a certain situation.  If you have ever flown in an airplane, you know that the perspective from that altitude makes you think about things differently. 

With the book of Job, we need to zoom out to 30,000 feet, and look at the big picture.  In the beginning of the book, God is bragging to the devil about the faithfulness of Job.  The devil says something like “Sure he’s faithful, he’s rich, and everything is going well for him!”  So they decide to make bad things happen to him, to test his faithfulness.  That was the first two chapters. 

Chapter 2 ends with three of Job’s friends coming to sit with him to “console” him.  They do so for seven days and nights.  They take turns telling Job what might be wrong with him, and why this happened to him.  Their discussion takes up 36 chapters!  By the way: we know that it was nothing that Job did or didn’t do, because we have already read the first two chapters.  So these three friends didn’t know what they were talking about—they were full of baloney.

Finally, after a week of this, God speaks up.  God’s answer is today’s reading. 

THE DETAIL

  • God gets their attention by speaking out of a whirlwind.  (v. 1)
  • God tells Job that his friends don’t know what they are talking about.  (“…darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”) (v. 2)
  • God tells Job to prepare for a little question and answer session with God.  (v. 3)
  • In the whole next paragraph, God describes the work he did, creating the world.  The description here (“shut the sea with doors”, “set bars and doors”, “sunk the bases [for the firmament]” made sense to people of Job’s time. This is how they thought the world was formed.  The main point is what God says in verses 4 & 5.  The key phrases are “tell me if you have understanding” and “surely you know!” God is telling Job “If you’re so smart, then you know who it was who created the earth and everything in it!”  God is making fun of the so-called wisdom of Job and his friends.  (vv. 4-11)
  • Actually, God’s questions for Job comprise the rest of chapter 38 and all the way to 42!  They are, of course, unanswerable questions. Only God knows the answer to these questions, and this is the point. 
  • In chapter 42, Job humbly answers God.  Then God criticizes Jobs friends, and tells them what they must do.  There is also a happy ending for Job—his fortunes are restored.

THE TAKEAWAY

OK, the reading was eleven verses, and I explained the whole book!  But that’s what must be done to understand some things.  The point of Job’s story is simple.  Bad stuff happens to good people.  Some try to find explanations.  Maybe it was God’s will.  Maybe God is testing you.  Maybe you did something bad, and God is punishing you.  God says that it’s all baloney!  Only God holds the answer.  We should stop looking for the reason.  Instead, we should be like Job, who was faithful to God throughout the whole ordeal. Have faith and trust in God, and let “life” happen.  God will sort it out, because He loves us.  God’s got our back!
 

2 CORINTHIANS 6:1-13

THE BACKGROUND

The church in Corinth was a real bag of worms, right from the beginning.  There is conflict and bad behavior throughout the story.   Corinth is also where Paul met Priscilla and Aquila. They were refugees from Rome and fellow tent makers.  They accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and assisted Paul in his work.  Acts 18:1-17 gives the beginning of the story of the founding of the church in Corinth.

But we’re talking about Paul’s second letter to Corinth.  Paul had left in a huff, after he confronted a church member about that member’s sinful ways (2 Cor. 13:2).  This caused a stir.  Other preachers stepped in to fill the void that Paul created.  They were more eloquent in speech than Paul.  They also were not ashamed to put Paul down and elevate themselves.  Paul sarcastically calls these preachers “super-apostles”.  This is the situation under which this letter was written. Paul is very descriptive about his difficulites in this portion of the letter.  Let’s take a closer look.

THE DETAIL

  • Paul begins this section of this letter by saying that he doesn’t want them to lose sight of the grace of God.  If so, Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s work would have been in vain.  (v. 1)
  • Paul quotes Isaiah here (Is. 49:8), but he applies it to the time between Jesus’ first and second coming. “Grasp salvation now, before Jesus returns.”  (v. 2)
  • Beginning with verse 3, Paul defends his team’s ministry work in Corinth.  They had been the subject of sharp criticism from the “super-apostles” and others in the church.  (See the footnote on the next page for a list of some of the things they were saying about Paul and his team.  Paul then says that his message provided no obstacles to faith, no stumbling blocks.  He says that they must “commend themselves” about this.  I had to look this up and think about it.  To commend someone means to praise or present someone as being worthy of regard, kindness, etc.” In other words, Paul says that they must “brag on themselves”.  I guess that was true, because it seems that nobody in Corinth was going to stick up for them. Paul says as much in 2 Cor. 12:11b. (v. 4a)
  • From verse 4b through 10, we get a glimpse of some of the hardships that Paul, Timothy, and Silas have endured for the sake of spreading the Good News.
  • He lays all of this before the people of Corinth.  Their hearts are wide open, and they look for love in return.  What a heartbreak!  (vv. 11-13)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

Why did Paul do it? Would you or I have had this level of determination and strength?  One key to Paul’s motivation with this difficult church can be found in Acts 18:9-10. “One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you… for there are many in this city who are my people.” 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How often do we shy away from spreading the Good News, for one reason or another?  Why do we do this?  Would Paul have been so shy in these circumstances? 

 

FOOTNOTE

Here are a few of the things that were being said about Paul and his team.  All of these are found in 2 Corinthians, although more can be found elsewhere.

  • They said “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”  (10:10)
  • They said that Paul does not love them.  (11:11)
  • They said that Paul is inferior to the “super-apostles”.  (12:11b)
  • Paul said “Let it be assumed that I did not burden you.  Nevertheless (you say) since I was crafty, I took you in by deceit.”  (12:16)
  • Paul said “…you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me.”  (13:3)


 

MARK 4:35-41

THE BACKGROUND

Last week, Jesus taught two parables about sowing seed.  The second was the parable of the mustard seed.  Today’s Gospel reading begins with the verse immediately following these parables. 

THE DETAIL

  • So, Jesus had been teaching near his home town.  They were on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, probably in Capernaum.  That was the home town of many of the apostles.  Jesus suggests that they do some night sailing, and go across the lake.  (v. 36)
  • So, they headed out, leaving the crowd behind.  Other boats tagged along.  During the night, a storm came up.  The waves were breaking over the front of the boat, and the boat was taking on water. (v. 37)
  • Jesus was sleeping in the back of the boat, and unaware of the situation.  The apostles woke him, evidently fearful for their lives. (v. 28)
  • You know the rest. Jesus wakes up, calms the sea, and rebukes the disciples.  (vv. 39-40)
  • Now, comes the punch line— The disciples say “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  (v. 41)

THE TAKEAWAY

I called verse 41 the punch line because it is a recurring question that is asked throughout the Gospels—“Who is this man Jesus?” Mark, and the other Gospel writers want to challenge the reader.  They want the reader to decide.  They want the reader to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, our Lord.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Why did Jesus perform these miracles?  Was he just trying to keep the boat from sinking?  Was he just showing off?  No, I don’t think so.   I believe that the miracles were an integral part of his ministry.  They alert the observer to the fact that this is no ordinary person.  This person is very special.

Who do you say that Jesus was—the son of a Galilean carpenter, or more?

For June 13, 2021

EZEKIEL 17:22-24

THE BACKGROUND

Ezekiel  was a prophet to Judah during the time when the people of Judah were deported to Babylon.  2 Kings 24 gives the details of the defeat of Judah, the deportation and the plunder.  When a country was defeated in Old Testament times, not only did it mean that your army was weak, but that your god was also weaker than the victorious army’s.  This prophecy of Ezekiel reassures God’s people in spite of their defeat.

THE DETAIL

  • The passage is written in the form of an allegory.   The lofty cedar represents the Davidic line of the kings of Judah.  In 2 Samuel 7:13-16, Nathan tells David that his line would last forever.  With the defeat of Judah, it was feared that the Davidic line would come to an end.
  • God himself with “take a cutting” from this “lofty cedar”, and cause it to grow and flourish. (vv. 22-23)
  • More importantly, all the “trees” of the field will know that Yahweh is Lord.  In other words, other kingdoms will realize that the god of Judah is the one and only God. (v. 24a)
  • God summarizes by stating that he is in control.  He makes nations flourish or wither.  He has the power to do this.  (v. 24b)

THE TAKEAWAY

Even in today’s world, with constant power struggles between China, Russia, North Korea, and the USA, it is difficult to comprehend that God is in control.  But this is exactly what He tells us through Ezekiel.  The proof of the pudding is that Judah survives 60 years of exile, and is allowed to return home as promised. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

In this prophecy, we hear that God’s kingdom grows like a large tree, providing shelter and comfort for “every kind of bird”.  God’s kingdom has indeed spread worldwide, through the work of his son Jesus.  As his children, we not only work for the growth of his kingdom, we find shelter and comfort within its branches.
 

2 CORINTHIANS 5:6-10, 14-17

THE BACKGROUND

Paul is under attach for his preaching to the people of Corinth.  In today’s and next week’s lesson, we get to hear his side of why he does what he does.

THE DETAIL

  • In verses 6-9, Paul talks about being “at home” and “away”.  He is talking about his physical versus his spiritual being.  Since he is living, he is “at home in the body”.  Paul would, apparently, much rather be finished with the body, and be spiritually in God’s presence (“away”).  But since he is here, he has a job to do—preach the Gospel. 
  • We are now reminded that Jesus will indeed sit on his judgement seat, and judge each one of us. We will be held accountable.  This should encourage all of us to be good disciples!  (v. 10)
  • But accountability is not the main motivational factor, it is Jesus’ love that drives us onward. After all, he died for us, and was raised for us!  (vv. 14-15)
  • Since we have all died with Jesus in our baptism, and are reborn, we are new creations.  We must look at everyone and everything through this perspective.  (vv. 16-17) 

THE TAKEAWAY

It is sometimes difficult to look at everyone through the eyes of Jesus, but that is indeed what we are to do.  We must love everyone, sharing the good news of Jesus with everyone.
 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

What do you think about appearing before Jesus’ judgement seat?  What do you think will happen?  In my working days, I would receive an annual performance review from my manager.  We would sit down, and review the goals I had set, and the corporation’s expectations of my performance to them.  Sometimes I achieved my goals, sometimes I fell short.  I like to think that my appearance before Jesus will be a bit like this review.  Jesus has expectations for all of us.  Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we do not.  In the end, we will lay all our failures at His feet, knowing that we are forgiven by His blood.
 

MARK 4:26-34

THE BACKROUND

This reading follows last week’s.  Jesus tells two parables about God’s kingdom.  Let me say something about this “Kingdom of God” subject.  The people of Jesus’ day were yearning for the Messiah to come, roust out the Romans, and re-establish Judah, just like the old Kingdom of David days. When Jesus starts a parable with “the kingdom of God is like…” all would have been eagerly waiting for him to give the details of the battle plan.  I’m sure there was a lot of head scratching after he taught them these parables.

THE DETAIL

  • The first parable is about someone who plants seed, and waits for it to grow.  An important phrase in this paragraph is “…he does not know how…” it grows.  He knows that the seeds will grow; he just doesn’t know how that happens.  But once the grain is ripe, he harvests his crop.  (vv. 26-29)
  • The second parable is similar, but has a different point.  A small seed is sown, and grows into a very large bush.  Just like our passage from Ezekiel, many birds find shelter in its branches.  (vv. 30-32)
  • Then we learn that he always taught the crowds in parables, but explained them all to his disciples in private.  (vv.33-34)

THE TAKEAWAY

This isn’t exactly a lesson in politics and revolution, is it?  Do you think his listeners were a little confused? 

So, what exactly is the kingdom of God?  One thing for sure, it is definitely not a country with borders, a ruler, and an army.  I believe that Jesus is telling us the same thing that Ezekiel told us.  That it is God’s desire for everyone, regardless of nationality or race, to be one great community of believers.  It is a community that finds shelter and comfort within the kingdom.  Sometimes this comfort comes directly from God.  Other times it comes from the community around us.  But we find shelter and grow within this community.

For June 6, 2021

GENESIS 3:8-15

THE BACKGROUND

This is part of the familiar old story of the Fall of Mankind. The scene is in the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve have everything they could possibly want, including a loving intimate relationship with God their creator. Everything is perfect.  There is only one rule in the entire, perfect world—stay away from one tree, and don’t eat the fruit!  They eat the fruit. 

THE DETAIL

  • For the first time in their lives, they feel shame and guilt, and hide from God. (v. 8)
  • God, knowing full well what has happened, engages in a little question and answer with Adam.  (vv. 9-11)
  • Then, the blame game begins.  Adam blames Eve.  Eve blames the serpent.  (vv. 12-13)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

As I’ve said before, with these Old Testament stories, I’m always looking for the God Lesson.  All too often, we get so wrapped up in the detail that we miss that lesson.  I believe that this story teaches us the truth about our basic human nature.  If you or I were given a perfect life, without a care in the world, but had to obey only one rule, we would break that rule. Don’t believe me?  When you see a sign that says “Do not touch.  Wet Paint”.  What is your first inclination?  You probably wonder if that paint is still wet.  You want to touch it.  It is our nature!  But it is also in God’s nature to be loving and compassionate.  Sure, he gets angry in verses 14 & 15, but in the end, He makes clothes for them.  (v. 21, not part of today’s selection)


 

2 CORINTHIANS 4:13-5:1

THE BACKGROUND

In the verses ahead of today’s passage, Paul talks about the sufferings that the believers in Corinth, as well as Paul himself, are enduring.  In the previous verses 8 & 9 we find words like afflicted, perplexed, and persecuted.  The overall message is positive, but this was their reality.

THE DETAIL

  • Paul begins by quoting from Psalm 116.  (The words don’t match exactly, because he is quoting from a Greek translation common at the time.)  But the writer of Psalm 116 kept his faith through a time of severe illness.  Paul lifts up this example to his readers, who are suffering for their faith.  Paul simply says that we can’t NOT speak about Jesus, because we really believe this stuff!  And best of all, we know that whatever happens to us, we will be raised with him. (vv. 13-14)
  • If Paul were Southern, verse 15 would read “Yes, everything is for y’all’s sake…” In the original text, Paul’s “your” is plural.  He is talking about the whole church, and not just one person.  All of our talking is so that the church will grow, and more and more will glorify God. 
  • So, the point is there to encourage us to keep talking.  We should keep talking about Jesus, even though we might suffer “momentary affliction”.  We keep our focus on the horizon (the eternal) and not on today’s troubles.  (vv. 16-18)
  • I love this cute illustration.  Paul calls our bodies ”earthly tents”.  We all know how temporary and frail a tent is.  We also know how solid and permanent a well-built house is.  Keep your focus on the house, and not the tent!

 

THE TAKEAWAY

We all will experience troubled times in our life. And, as we get older, our old “tent” seems more and more frail.  Let us refocus our attention on sharing the Good News to those around us, and not worry about our silly old tent.  Someday, we’re gonna get a real nice house!

 


MARK 3:20-35

THE BACKGROUND

Even though Mark’s gospel is only 16 chapters long, this passage is very early in the story.  Already, Jesus has been baptized an tempted.  He has healed people, taught people, and called disciples.  He is drawing more and more attention.

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus is drawing a crowd, and his family decides to “restrain him”.  (As if they could restrain him!)  The family reappears at the end of today’s lesson. (vv. 20-21)
  • Religious authorities from Jerusalem intercept him, and start calling him names. They claim that he is from the devil. Beelzebul (or Baal-zebub) is a foreign, false god.  Jesus employs some crafty logic to show the folly of their accusations.  (vv. 23-27)
  • Jesus then tells them that all sins are forgivable, except blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.  This they had indeed done, when they called the Holy Spirit “unclean”.  (vv. 28-30)
  • Jesus’’ biological family renters in verse 31.  It is clear that they are here to perform an intervention.  They want Jesus to tone it down, or cease altogether. Jesus must have been aware of this, because he does a peculiar thing.  He sort of half-disowns them!  Instead, he makes a foundational statement—“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister.”  This statement reinforces what we learned last week.  We, Jesus disciples in this time and place, are the adopted children of God, and Jesus is our brother!

 

THE TAKEAWAY

At first, I found it shocking that Jesus would turn his back on his own family.  But consider this.  Jesus’ #1 mission was to preach, teach, heal, and die for us.  Anything that stood in the way of that was going to suffer the consequences.  The scribes from Jerusalem were just another example of the resistance he experienced. But in this case, his own family was standing in the way of his mission. 

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

God has a purpose for each one of us.  Our task is to determine what that is, and do it. Nothing should stand in our way, not even our dearest relatives.  Do we have this level of conviction?

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