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For April 23, 2023

 

ACTS 2:14a, 36-41

THE BACKGROUND

During the season after Easter Sunday and before Pentecost, the first readings are not taken from the Old Testament; they come from the book of Acts.  We read about the work of the Holy Spirit, helping the apostles to form the early church.  The scene for today’s passage takes place on that Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled the room with her presence, causing the apostles to prophesy in foreign languages before a large crowd.  Last week and this week’s readings comprise Peter’s explanation to the crowd of what was happening.  No longer do we see the denying Peter.  We now hear the sermon of a spirit-filled Peter, boldly proclaiming the Good News to the crowd, many of whom played an active role in crucifying Jesus.  If you have the time, I suggest that you read his entire sermon and the results, beginning with verse 14, and going to verse 41.

THE DETAIL

  • Today’s passage begins with Peter pointing the finger directly at the Israelites present, saying that they were the ones who crucified the Messiah.  This is the second time he has pointed the accusing finger, the first being in verse 23.  Peter is no longer fearful, but filled with the Holy Spirit.  He now has the power, courage, and wisdom to preach the gospel. (v.36)
  • He must have been a persuasive speaker, because the crowd did not get angry, but asked what they should do.  (v. 37)
  • Peter is quick with the answer—repent, and be baptized.  If you do, you, too, will receive the Holy Spirit!  (v. 38)
  • This next verse is a sweet one for me.  Peter tells them that the promise is not just for them, but for everyone; even those who are far away (like us).  (v. 39)
  • He did some more preaching, for which we don’t have many details.  But the end result was astounding.  With the Holy Spirit’s help, over three thousand people did what Peter told them—they repented, were baptized, and received the Holy Spirit. (vv. 40-41)

THE TAKEAWAY

Not too long ago, Peter was a coward.  Fearing for his life, he denied Jesus three times.  Now, with the help of the Holy Spirit, he speaks the Good News with bold conviction. 

We, too, have the Holy Spirit to help us.  We should not be like the fearful, timid Peter, but stand up and boldly share the Good News knowing that the Holy Spirit is by our side.

 

1 PETER 1:17-23

THE BACKGROUND

For the next several weeks, we will work our way through 1 Peter for the second lesson.  It may help a little to understand some of the background for this letter. 

It is believed that the apostle Peter wrote this letter from Rome.  He was originally based in Jerusalem, but at some unknown time moved to Rome to be the head of the church there.  He was martyred in Rome, probably under the reign of Nero in 64-68AD. 

Peter wrote this letter to the churches of Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey.  This letter was intended to be circulated throughout those churches, and used as instruction.  It is believed that most of the believers in Asia Minor were Gentile Christians, rather than like the Jewish Christians we read about in the first reading.

THE DETAIL

  • This verse starts with the word “if” in this translation.  Many others use the word “since”, which I like better.  Since we as Christians invoke (call) on the name of the Lord, we should live in fear (awesome respect) for the power of God.  (v. 17)
  • Peter reminds us that we were ransomed—bought with the blood of Christ on the cross.  From what were we ransomed?  According to this verse, we were ransomed from our former “futile ways”.  To me, this means that because of Jesus, I should step away from my former, self-serving life and actions, and live as a Child of the Light.  (vv. 18-19)
  • It was God’s plan to do this from the very beginning—to ransom us through the gift of his Son.  (v. 20)
  • Now, the focus turns from what God has done for us.  Now, we read about what we should do in response.  Verse 21 is the transition from God’s action to what our reactions should be.  What our response should be is the focus of the remainder of Peter’s letter.
  • Our souls have been purified—not by what we have done but by God’s ransoming us through Jesus. Because of this, we must have mutual love for each other from the heart.  We are reminded that we are born anew, and live our lives through the enduring word of God.  (vv. 22-23)

THE TAKEAWAY

We often talk about loving God, but rarely about fearing Him.  It may seem odd to have both feelings about the same being.  But while we certainly love Him for all that He does for us, we must also be aware of His awesome power.  It is much like the love and fear that we once had for our parents.  Mine were both loving parents, yet I also feared their power.  Both feelings were justifiable, at least in my childhood!

We are about to receive some detailed advice from Peter on how to live our lives.  But first, he lays the foundation.  He reminds us that what saves us is God’s gracious and loving act. We are ransomed.  We are His.  Number one on our list of instructions it to love one another from the heart.

 

LUKE 24:13-35

THE BACKGROUND

It is still that first Easter Sunday.  Two disciples have decided to leave Jerusalem, and go to the town of Emmaus. Emmaus was a seven mile walk downhill from Jerusalem, much like walking down to Tryon from Saluda.  (They did not take the Interstate.)

THE DETAIL

  • As they walked along, they discussed that incredible day, and all that had happened.  Jesus approaches, and eavesdrops, but they do not recognize him.  Jesus says “Whatcha talking about?”  They stop dead in their tracks.  One of them, Cleopas, says (in my translation) “Where have you been—under a rock? Haven’t you heard about all the things that have gone on in Jerusalem?”  Jesus plays dumb, and says “What things?”  (vv. 13-19a)
  • They give him a Readers’ Digest version of the past three days, at least the way they understood it.  But they are still confused about the empty grave, and are still trying to process it all. (vv. 19b-24)
  • Jesus seems to say “Oh you silly boys!”, and proceeds to explain why it all happened this way. (vv. 25-27)
  • As they reach Emmaus, they still don’t realize it is Jesus.  They invite him to dinner, which he does.  (vv. 28-29)
  • As he broke the bread, their eyes were opened!  Then, Poof! Jesus was gone.  (vv. 30-31)
  • They told each other about how their hearts were burning as they walked the road with Jesus explaining everything to them.  (v. 32)
  • That very hour, they hoofed it back up the mountain to share this remarkable thing with their Christian brothers. (vv. 33-35)

THE TAKEAWAY

During this Easter season, the Good News of God’s saving act should also burn within our hearts.  Let us rekindle this flame by studying Holy Scripture.

For March 26, 2023

EZEKIEL 37:1-14

THE BACKGROUND

This Sunday is the Sunday before Palm Sunday.  We will end our Lenten journey talking about the resurrection.  The prophet Ezekiel wrote this message during the Babylonian exile. The spirit of the People of God was broken.  All hope for a future nation was lost.  It appeared to them that they would fade away into Babylonian life, never to return. This message of Ezekiel offers them hope.  It also offers us hope, when our future seems bleak.

THE DETAIL

  • The Lord transports Ezekiel to a desert valley.  A war had been fought there, and the remains of the fallen were all around.  There was nothing left but dry bones.  (vv. 1-2)
  • The Lord asks Ezekiel if these bones can live.  The prophet is wise, and redirects the question back to the Lord.  The Lord answers by commanding the prophet to prophesy to the bones, telling them that the Lord will bring them back to life. (vv. 3-6)
  • Flesh came upon the bones, but there was no “breath” in them.  (The word in Hebrew for “breath” also means “spirit”.)  The breath-spirit is blown into them, and they live.  (vv. 7-10)
  • The Lord then announces to Ezekiel that this vision has been a metaphor for the house of Israel. Israel believes that they are washed up and dried out.  But the Lord has other plans.  He “will place his spirit within” them, and they shall live.  (vv. 11-14a)
  • Best news of all is that He will place them on their own soil!  (v. 14b) 

THE TAKEAWAY

Like Israel in exile, we may also feel like those dry bones—hopelessly lost and forgotten.  God promises to breathe new life into us—breathe his spirit into us, renewing our spirit.

 

ROMANS 8:6-11

THE BACKGROUND

The first part of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is devoted to making the point that everybody is a sinner, and we cannot save ourselves.  Our only hope of salvation is a free gift, obtained by our belief in Jesus as God’s Son.  Now, Paul talks about our new lives in the spirit, contrasting it with our old, former lives “in the flesh”. 

THE DETAIL

  • We have a choice to live “in the Spirit” or “in the flesh”.  This is a life or death choice; it is one or the other.  If we do not focus on living our lives in the Spirit, we are turning our backs on God.  There is no way to please Him.  (vv. 6-8)
  • Paul lifts the reader up now—“but you are not like that, you are in the Spirit”. God dwells in us.  Oh, by the way, all those others who are not in the spirit do not belong to him. (v. 9)
  • While verse 9 emphatically states that we do live in the Spirit, Paul now uses the word “if” several times.  I suggest reading these passages twice, once as-is, and second time substituting “since” for the word if.  You’ll feel the full impact of the words.  “If/since” we are now in the Spirit, our old bodies are dead because of sin.  But because we are raised with Christ into life in the Spirit, we experience a sort of rebirth or resurrection.  (vv. 10-11)

THE TAKEAWAY

We live in the flesh when we serve our own selfish interests. Life in the Spirit involves self-giving, rather than self-serving.  We should die to our old selfish ways, and daily strive to live our lives in the Spirit, giving of ourselves to others.  In this passage, Paul lifts Jesus us as our superhero of self-giving. We need to strive to keep Jesus in our hearts, rather than our self-serving desires.


JOHN 11:1-45

THE BACKGROUND

This is the story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  It can be considered one of the high points of the gospel of John.  It also marks a turning point in the gospel narrative, shifting from the stories of Jesus’ signs or miracles to Jesus discussing God’s glory.  In today’s passage we have both.  We also get a glimpse of Jesus’ tender side.  He loved this family, perhaps more than any other.  That is also clear in this reading.  But the real question for you and me is what God wants us to understand about Jesus through this story.  This is a long story.  Let’s get started.

THE DETAIL

  • It begins with a little refresher as to who this “certain man” Lazarus was, as well as his sisters.  There was a pre-existing relationship between them and Jesus.  Now, Lazarus is ill.  They send word to Jesus-the-healer, identifying Lazarus as “he whom you love”. Yes, they were close friends indeed. (vv. 1-3)
  • Jesus sort of shrugs off the call to come and heal his friend, stating that God had bigger plans. This must have seemed quite confusing to those around him! (vv. 4-5) 
  • Surprisingly, Jesus dilly-dallies two days before heading to Lazarus’ aid!  Finally, he tells his disciples they’re going.  A discussion ensues.  They know that going there is dangerous for Jesus.  But Jesus has a mission, and nothing will deter him. (vv. 6-10)
  • He confuses is disciples by saying that Lazarus has “fallen asleep”.  He clarifies this, which confuses Thomas into saying something rather silly.  (vv. 11-16)
  • By the time they got there, Lazarus has already been dead four days.  A large crowd had gathered, even some from Jerusalem. Martha, hearing that Jesus was on his way, came to greet him while he was still far off.  (This was a customary practice of the day.)  Mary stayed at home, which you may recall was her custom. (vv. 17-20)
  • Martha tells Jesus that if he had been there while her brother was still alive, that he might have been able to do something.  I sense that she was not very happy with the situation.  They talk about Lazarus rising again.  Martha expresses her belief in resurrection on the last day. But Jesus has something different in mind.  (vv. 21-24)
  • Next, we have the key verses of this passage.  Jesus makes one of the “I am” statements that appear throughout John’s gospel*, and this is a biggie.  He is the resurrection and the life.  Those of us who believe in him will never die. (vv. 25-26a)
  • Then, Jesus asks her if she believes what he just said.  (v. 26b)
  • Now, it is her turn to make a profound statement.  She says yes, and furthermore calls him the Messiah that they’ve been waiting for. (v. 27)
  • Now, she and Mary trade places.  Mary also expresses frustration in Jesus’ not being there to heal her brother.  (vv. 28-32)
  • Seeing Mary weep causes Jesus to weep.  There is no doubt that he loves this family!  Even though he knows what he is about to do, it must have broken his heart to put them through all this agony.  (v. 33)
  • The scene shifts quickly to the site of the tomb.  Many are there.  Many share Mary and Martha’s frustration and confusion.  He orders the stone to be rolled back, in spite of the stench. Jesus prays aloud, not so much to ask his Father for assistance, but to demonstrate to the crowd where Jesus’ power originates, and that they might believe.  (vv. 34-42)
  • You know the rest. He shouts to Lazarus to come out of the tomb, which he does.  Orders are given to care for the living Lazarus.  (vv. 43-44)
  • The passage concludes with an important note.  Many of “the Jews” (I suspect that these were of the school of “doubting Jews”) were moved to believe in Jesus.

THE TAKEAWAY

According to John, he wrote his gospel so that the reader might come to believe in Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.  (John 20:31) In this story, a woman (not a man!) proclaims Jesus as just that.  On these last days of our Lenten journey, it is fitting that we remind ourselves that Jesus truly is the resurrection and the life.  He is God’s Son, our brother and savior.

*FURTHER READING

The “I am” statements in the gospel of John:

  1. Bread of Life (6:35, 48, 51)
  2. Light of the World (8:12, 9:5)
  3. Door of the Sheep (10:7, 9)
  4. Good shepherd (10:11, 14)
  5. Resurrection and the Life (11:25)
  6. Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6)
  7. True Vine (15:1)

For March 19, 2023

1 SAMUEL 16:1-13

THE BACKGROUND

Today’s story is about the selection of David as Israel’s king.  As we join the story, Saul is the king of Israel.  But Saul has fallen from favor with God.  Usually, kings are kings for life.  But God doesn’t care about that.  He has plans for Samuel, his prophet.

THE DETAIL

  • Apparently Samuel doesn’t like Saul any more than God does.  But God is not going to take Saul’s disobedience sitting down. He tells Samuel to prepare some oil for the anointing of a new king.  God is basically telling Samuel to perform an act of treason!  (v. 1)
  • Samuel knows that if Saul finds out about this mission, Samuel will be executed. But God has a sneaky plan cooked up. Samuel is going to pretend that he’s going to Jesse’s house merely to perform a sacrifice.  (vv. 2-3)
  • Samuel did what he was told.  The elders meet Samuel on the road.  They were worried what it meant that God’s number one man was coming to their town. He invited them along.  They did indeed perform a sacrifice, after everyone did some ritual cleansing first (sanctifying).  (vv. 4-5)
  • Spotting Jesse’s eldest son, Samuel thought he must be the one.  God says “no”.  Samuel was basing his opinion on appearance.  God has a different selection criterion in mind.  He knows what’s in their heart, and that’s what is important to God.  (vv. 6-7)
  • Next, we have the short “interview process” for the kingship.  All but one of Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel, and all are rejected.  “Are there any more?” he asks.  “Oh, just the youngest, and he’s out in the field with the sheep.” David is summoned from the fields and anointed on the spot, right in front of all his rejected brothers.  (vv. 8-13)

THE TAKEAWAY

The key verse comes in verse 7.  “…the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Many will focus on the last part of this quote, and that is a good thing.  God does indeed look beyond outward appearances, and into our hearts.  But more important for understanding today’s lesson is that God “sees” differently that we humans “see”.  In addition to seeing, I suggest that God also thinks differently than we do.  Take, for example, the beatitudes that Jesus spoke on the Sermon on the Mount.  The very human attributes that mortals think are shameful are the ones that Jesus calls “blessed”.  We will talk more about sight and blindness in the gospel lesson for today.

 

EPHESIANS 5:8-14

THE BACKGROUND

In recent weeks, we have been studying about the tension that existed in the early church between Gentile believers and Jewish Christians.  Many scholars believe that this letter was written after that conflict had passed. Now, the writer can focus on building the faith and actions of the church without worrying about petty cultural differences.

THE DETAIL

  • We are reminded that we are all children of the light.  We used to live our lives in darkness, before we believed in Jesus.  But now, we are “children of the light”.  The good things we do (the “fruit”) should reflect the fact that we are children of the light.  This fruit is everything that is good, right, and true.  (vv. 8-9)
  • Things that are not good, right, and true should not only be avoided; they should be exposed!  Secrecy is shameful.  Unfruitful works should be brought to the light of day.  Exposed.  (vv. 10-13)
  • This section ends with the words of encouragement that doing this will cause the light of Christ to shine on them.  (v. 14)

THE TAKEAWAY

All too often we are told to keep our mouth shut, when we see something happening that is not right.  This passage tells us that we need to rethink our inaction, and do the right thing. 

 

JOHN 9:1-41

THE BACKGROUND

In my bible, this very long story is entitled “A Man Born Blind Receives Sight”.  If I could, I would change the title to “The Story of the Blind Pharisees”.  By the time you’re done reading these reflections, I hope that you will agree with me.  But first, I need to make something clear.  I’ve said this before, but it is critical to understand who the Jews and the Pharisees were before we start.

The Jews—this term is often used in the New Testament to refer to a group of religious people where opposed to Jesus and his teachings.  We must not forget that Jesus’ human family was Jewish.  When they took Jesus to the temple for naming, for example, they were following the tenets of the Jewish faith.  All of Jesus’ apostles and disciples were Jewish.  The fact is that while some Jews hated Jesus, many more Jews loved their Jewish brother (Jesus).

Pharisees-- There were several Jewish sects during this time.  These sects intended to live their lives in a more devout, God-pleasing way than your average Jewish person.  Pharisees were one of these strict and conservative sects.  They did their very best to obey all of God’s commandments, not just the ten. But all 613 of God’s laws.  They studied and discussed Holy Scripture constantly. They had everything figured out—they had all the answers about God, because they knew the bible (the Old Testament) inside and out.  When Jesus came along, he didn’t fit into their image of the Messiah. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s break this story down into some big chunks.

THE DETAIL

  • The first paragraph sets the stage.  A man born blind comes to Jesus for healing.  The disciples ask a strange (to us) question.  They want to know who sinned for this man to be born blind! First, it was thought that all sickness came upon people because of sin.  Second, the Old Testament states that some sins are punishable to the offspring of the sinner, for several generations.  Jesus says that it is not applicable in this case, but that the man is here so Jesus can do what he’s about to do.  And then he heals the man with some spit-mud (!) (vv. 1-7 )
  • Now the confusion begins.  People are so used to seeing this man blind, they think he must be someone else! Besides that, Jesus has disappeared from the scene.  He will return later.  (vv. 8-12)
  • When you are healed from a profound disease, you are supposed to go to the temple to be examined.  This is what the crowd does.  There, the confusion gets even worse.  Some are hung up about Jesus healing on the Sabbath.  Others want to deny that it happened at all.  There was denial and confusion all over the place.  The parents are even brought in.  It gets so comical that the formerly blind man asks the Pharisees in verse 17 if they want to be Jesus’ disciples!  This is not winning him any awards with this crowd. Finally, in verse 34, they call him a sinner (not pure and holy like them), yell at him for having the nerve to teach them, and throw him out.  (vv. 13-34)
  • Jesus reappears, and has a discussion with the man he had healed.  The man states that he believes in Jesus, and worships him.  (vv. 35-38)
  • Here is the key verse, and the whole reason for the healing in the first place. Jesus healed the man to tell people to open their eyes to see who Jesus really was.  Furthermore, Jesus claims that many who think they see are actually blind.  (v. 39)
  • Some Pharisees hear this and say “Who do you think you’re talking about—surely not us?”  [my translation]  Jesus answers with a little word play/banter to say yes, I’m talking about you. (vv. 40-41)

THE TAKEAWAY

We want to have answers for everything.  The last thing we want to hear from our pastor is “I don’t know” or “It is a mystery”.  We scour Holy Scripture for answers, and figure out answers to life’s questions. Because we have found the answer in the bible, we know that the answer is the right one.  When the chips are down, we stick to our guns, knowing that we have found the answer in God’s Word.

This is exactly what the Pharisees had done! They had everything so figured out, that they did not recognize God when he was staring them in the face!  Instead of sending them a Messiah that met their expectations, God sent the Messiah to be the son of a Nazarene carpenter, born in a barn.  God’s Messiah did not lead a political revolution.  God’s Messiah led a spiritual revolution.  Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ thinking, and they did not like it.  God sent them a curve ball, and they struck out. 

I wonder what surprises God has in store for us. As I go through life studying scripture, I plan to keep my eyes open.  I will remember that God sees things differently than I.  We should all keep our eyes open, and be prepared for a couple of God-surprises along the way.

FOR MARCH 12, 2023

EXODUS 17:1-7

THE BACKGROUND

This is part of the story of Moses leading the people through the desert to the Promised Land.  If you’ve ever been to a desert, you know that it is not only dry but barren.  There is nothing to eat or drink.  It is hot. It is easy to die in the desert. That’s what God’s People are faced with in today’s reading.

THE DETAIL

  • The Israelites are traveling in stages across the desert.  The finally reach an encampment.  Maybe it is an oasis, but there is no water.  (v. 1)
  • They are not happy. They are thirsty.  They go to their leader, and complain.  Moses says “why me?  I’m not the one to complain to, but God.  Do you want to complain to God?”  (v. 2)
  • But they still complain to Moses.  (v. 3)
  • Moses prays to God, and God answers with some specific instructions.  Moses follows the instructions, and water springs forth out of the rock!  (vv. 4-6)
  • Moses is so relieved that he names this place “quarreled” and “tested”.

THE TAKEAWAY

Oftentimes, God allows us to work ourselves into a predicament.  It’s OK to complain, even to complain to God.  Just have faith in God to answer your prayers.

 

ROMANS 5:1-11

THE BACKGROUND

In the past several second readings, we have been studying Romans 3-4.  We have learned that our salvation does not come by doing good things. We cannot earn our way into heaven. But the good news from these chapters is that our salvation is a free gift, bestowed on us from God.  All we need to do to get this gift is to believe that Jesus is God’s son, the Messiah.  Chapter 5 is Paul’s conclusion to this whole discourse.

THE DETAIL

  • Because we are saved by our faith, we have peace with God.  (v. 1)
  • We now have access to God’s grace—to His love.  This is what we can brag about to others.  (v. 2)
  • Here’s where it gets interesting.  We can also brag about the suffering that may come with our faith in Jesus.  This is because our suffering eventually ends up in the hope that the Holy Spirit pours out on us.  (vv. 3-5)
  • Jesus died on the cross for us while we were still sinful beings.  He knew what we are like, because he was human and lived among us. Yet, he still died for us to prove God’s love for us.  (vv. 6-8)
  • Since Jesus shed his blood for us, he has saved us from God’s wrath.  That’s where we would have found ourselves, based purely on our sinful nature.  (v. 9)
  • So, through Jesus’ death on the cross, we have been reconciled with God.  So if we’re going to brag about anything that has to do with our faith-walk, it has to be that we brag about what God has done for us, not what we have done for God.  (vv. 10-11)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

“Reconciliation” is a big word.  This is how I understand it.  When I get a statement from my bank about my checking account balance, it is always cause for concern.  Their balance NEVER matches mine!  There are always those checks that haven’t been cashed by someone.  There might also be a recent deposit that happened after the mailed the statement.  But there are other reasons.  Sometimes I have made a subtraction error, or written down the check amount incorrectly. There is always a difference between their statement and mine.  I need to reconcile my account. 

Our relationship with God can be boiled down into two parts:  His expectations and our actions.  We will always fall short of God’s expectations, because of our sinful nature.  There is always a shortfall; always a gap.  Jesus’ death on the cross reconciles our “account” with God.  God not only forgives our sins, but He forgets them!  Thank you, Jesus!

 

JOHN 4: 5-42

THE BACKGROUND

This is a very long story! But it is the familiar story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well.  To understand this story to it’s fullest, we need to understand some important facts.

SAMARITANS      lived in the area north of Galilee.  Jews shunned the Samaritans.  They avoided them like the plague.  In fact, to get from Judea to Galilee as Jesus was doing, most Jews would take the longer route.  They didn’t want to be anywhere near the Samaritans.

WOMEN were not equal to men by a long shot.  In fact, a good Jewish man should avoid talking to strange women, especially when alone.

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus finds himself outside a Samaritan city, by Jacob’s well.  He is hot, tired, and thirsty.  His disciples went into the city to buy some food, so he was alone when a Samaritan woman appears.  He “asks” her to draw him some water from the well.  (vv. 4-8)
  • The woman basically asks Jesus “What’s wrong with you?  I’m a Samaritan woman, and you’re a Jewish man!”  (v. 9)
  • Jesus is no longer thirsty for water, but for a spiritual discussion!  (v. 10)
  • She doesn’t get it at first.  She says that how’s he going to get this “living” water—he doesn’t even have a bucket! (v. 11)
  • Jesus is, of course, speaking of spiritual matters, just as he was last week with Nicodemus. (vv. 12-15)
  • Jesus changes the subject.  He asks her to get her husband, knowing the type of person she really is.  She is shocked that he knows her life story, even though they have never met.  She realizes that she is a holy man.  (vv. 16-19)
  • Now, SHE changes the subject!  She has a question.  Jews worship on the hill in Jerusalem, but the Samaritans worship God on “this” mountain (Mt. Gerizim).  Which is correct?  Jesus says that soon, neither place will matter.  What will matter is worshiping God in spirit and truth.  (vv. 20-24)
  • She goes further, mentioning the promised Messiah.  (The Samaritans’ expectations of the Messiah were different than what the Jews expected.)  Jesus told her that he was the Messiah (of the Jews and the Samaritans).  (vv. 25-26)
  • At this point in the narrative, there are two threads.  One in the interaction with the disciples, who have returned with food. The other is the woman’s reaction, and the reaction of the townsfolk. 

THE DISCIPLES

  • They want to know why Jesus was speaking to a woman.  (Let alone a Samaritan woman.)  But they don’t have the courage to ask him.  (v. 27)
  • They want him to eat, but he is high on the Holy Spirit [my assumption].  He says that his food is to do the Father’s will.  (vv. 30-34)
  • He goes on to tell them that it is time to harvest [souls].  (vv. 35-38)

THE WOMAN’S TESTIMONY AND ITS RESULTS

  • Many Samaritans come to Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.  They beg him to stay and teach them.  They proclaim that he is “truly the Savior of the world”.  (vv. 39-42)

 TAKEAWAY

In the verse right before today’s gospel reading it states that “Jesus had to go through Samaria”.  We know that most Jews chose a longer route to get to Galilee, just to avoid Samaria.  But Jesus had to go.  He wanted to proclaim the good news to everyone; proclaim it to even the despised Samaritans and to a disreputable Samaritan woman. The good news for us is that Jesus came for the whole world, even people like you and me. 

And, since we are his disciples, it is also our job to join in the “harvest”, to bring many to share in God’s loving grace and free forgiveness. 

FOR MARCH 5, 2023

 

GENESIS 12:1-4a

THE BACKGROUND

Today’s short reading provides some of the background for the second lesson from Romans.  “Genesis” means “The Beginning”.  It is the story of the beginning not only of the creation of our world, but the creation of our relationship with God.  Last week, we learned that God created mankind as a basically good being, but one prone to break the rules.  Between that story and today’s selection, we witness a long list of sinful behavior, including the story of Cain and Able, the Tower of Babel, etc.  Things get so bad, that God chooses one holy family (Noah), wipes out everyone else, and starts afresh.  But the first thing Noah does on exiting the ark is to get drunk and get naked!  Humans are a hopeless case.  In this section of the story, God takes a new approach.  God chooses one man, and his barren wife.  He will work with just these two.

THE DETAIL

  • God tells Abram to leave his father and the family settlement in Haran.  He does not give Abram any details as to where or when. (v. 1)
  • But God does make a huge promise.  In verses two and three, God promises to:
    • Make of him a great nation
    • Bless him
    • Make his name great
    • Give him the authority to curse and bless others
    • Make him so famous that the whole world will be blessed because of him.
  • Amazingly, Abram did what the Lord commanded.  He left friends and family, and went on down the road.  Oh.  By the way. He was 75 when this took place. (v. 4a)

THE TAKEAWAY

Before you get too amazed about Abram’s advanced age, it is good to know that his father was 70 when Abram was born.  His father also lived to the ripe old age of 250.  So, Abram was approaching his “biblical middle-aged” years, I guess. 

Still, Abram trusted in the Lord, and left home.  He trusted that the Lord would make good on His promises.  Not the least of these promises is that God would provide him with an heir through his barren wife Sarai.  (How’s that gonna happen?)

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Would we be so ready to drop everything, and follow God based on a promise?  In a way, we do.  But we’ll get to that later.


ROMANS 4:1-5. 13-17

THE BACKGROUND

In previous weeks, we have been reading Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.  He said that because they were spiritual infants, he spoke to them in simple terms.  He kept everything simple.  If you’re like me, you might have wondered how complicated it could get.  (Be careful, because sometimes you get exactly what you ask for!)  With today’s reading, we get that answer.  Today’s reading is a complex theological thought.  I will not attempt to explain all of the details, but will focus on the key points that Paul is making here for us.  First, it is good to understand two of Paul’s theological buzz words.

  1. Justification is a word we studied last week.  It is the idea of how we “become right” with God; it is how we make up for our sinning.
  2. Righteousness is another word used here.  I was taught that biblically speaking, this word means “right actions”.  Another word we might use is “work” or “works”. 

In the preceding chapter, Paul has been talking about how we sinful beings might become justified, or “right with God”, as we like to say.

THE DETAIL

  • Paul uses the story of Abraham (who is Abram at the point in the story of Genesis 12) to consider our justification with God.  He asks the reader to consider how Abraham was justified in God’s sight, to receive God’s promises.  (v. 1)
  • Paul tells us that Abraham didn’t earn God’s favor by doing something good.  Abraham’s justification came purely through having the faith to accept God’s promises made to him.  (vv. 2-4)
  • Verse 5 is a little complicated.  Let me explain who is who, according to my understanding.
    • “…one who without works…” is Abraham and us.  We are “without works” worthy enough to get the job done.
    • “…him who justifies…”  is God
    • “…the ungodly…”  is Abraham and us
  • Verse 5 therefore states that God is the one who makes us right with Him, because we can do nothing worthy enough to make ourselves right with God, other than to have faith. (v. 5)
  • So, for Abraham and for us, the promises are made true through our right act of faith in God, not in earning Godly brownie points.   (v. 13)
  • Paul now talks about adhering to religious rules; every church has them.  In the Roman church, the Christian Jews were keeping kosher. Each of our churches today has hundreds of rules, some written, and others unwritten.  Paul claims, rightly so, that all of these rules will not get us into heaven.  Only faith can do that.  (vv. 14-17)

THE TAKEAWAY

Rules provide structure and order.  They are a good thing.  That’s not in question here.  But what is in question is our salvation—what “justifies” us in God’s eyes?  This reading makes it clear that it is not by being good, but by being faithful.  By trusting in God’s promise, brought to us by His son Jesus, we are called to be His children, and heirs to the promise!

 

JOHN 3:1-17

THE BACKGROUND

This is the story of the nighttime meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus.  It should be noted that while the New Testament gives Pharisees a bad rap, they were also the most devout sect of the day.  Nicodemus is a Pharisee, so he is a devout man.  He comes to Jesus at night, perhaps to avoid the controversy.  After all, Jesus was a controversial and challenging person.  But Nicodemus is compelled to meet with Jesus, and make up his own mind.

THE DETAIL

  • Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and begins the discussion with a statement that indicates that his mind is open to Jesus’ teachings.  Nicodemus is making it clear that he is not an adversary.  (vv. 1-2)
  • At this point, Jesus does something that he did all the time.  He cuts through the chit-chat, and gets right to the point—nobody will see the kingdom of God unless they are “born from above”.  [Hit the Pause button.  The gospels were originally written in Greek. The Greek word used here for “from above” can also mean “again”.  Our translation uses one, you may be used to seeing the other.  They are both legitimate translations.  Hit the Resume button.]  It is clear from Nicodemus’ response that he understands Jesus to mean “again”, at least in part.  (vv. 3-4)
  • Jesus now makes it clear that he is talking about spiritual rebirth, not physical.  (vv. 5-6)
  • Next, they enter into a long discussion.  Nicodemus doesn’t get it, and Jesus tells him that he should get it.  He needs to get it. (vv. 7-12)
  •  Jesus goes on to say that nobody can actually “get it”, unless they’ve already been to heaven, namely the Son of Man.  Jesus implies that this is he, but he does not say this outright, as it would be blasphemy.  (v. 13)
  • Jesus concludes with some life or death statements.  He starts by recalling the story about Moses in the wilderness. When God’s People were on their wilderness journey, they were confronted by poisonous snakes.  Moses was instructed to lift up his staff, to ward off the snakes and make their bites harmless.  Jesus says that he, to, must be lifted onto a staff to save God’s People. This is Jesus’ mission, and he knows it. He came to save.  (vv. 14-17)

THE TAKEAWAY

Paul tells us that when we are baptized, our old life of sinfulness dies, and we are born anew. Jesus tells us the same thing here. We must die to our old ways, and live in the Kingdom.  By having faith in Jesus and his live-saving mission, we become God’s children.  We are born anew—from above.

The decision to follow Jesus is truly a life or death decision.  Have we truly “died to sin”, and follow Jesus’ teachings?  We will, of course, always stumble and fall.  We are, after all, human.  But since we are God’s children, we can put our trust in God’s promises. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, our sins are forgiven.  Thanks be to God!

 

 

FOR FEBRUARY 26, 2023

The First Sunday in Lent

My father always told me that there is a time and a place for everything. The season of Lent is observed in many churches. It is a time that is set aside to reflect on our sinful nature: how we have fallen short of God’s of us. Just as Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness, we will pursue this study for 40 days (not including Sundays). Some will also fast, to sharpen their spiritual focus, and draw nearer to God. Let’s begin our Lenten journey.

 

GENESIS 2:15-17, 3:1-7

THE BACKGROUND

We join Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden for the famous event— The Fall. Most preachers and teachers will pick this story apart in fine detail, like eating fried chicken off the bone. And they will pick those bones clean. I prefer to stand back and look at the big picture, and ask the question: “What does God want me to learn from this story?”

THE DETAIL

  • So, God puts Adam in the Garden of Eden with only one rule— don’t eat the fruit of this one tree. (vv. 15-17)
  • Time passes. Enter, the beautiful Eve. The “serpent” starts messing with her mind, filling her with notions of wisdom. He convinces her to eat the fruit. (vv. 1-5)
  • She eats the fruit, and gives some to Adam. The serpent was right! Their eyes were opened, and they realized their nakedness. They went to the mall and bought some clothes. (vv. 6-7)

THE TAKEAWAY

Sorry about the mall comment. Sometimes my sense of humor steps in.

You know the rest of the story. But this is enough of the story for the God Lesson for today. In Genesis 1 we learn that God made us, “and it was good”. This is one of the God Lessons for Genesis 1. We are God’s creation, and we are good.  But here in Genesis 2, we read about a big exception.  We see human frailty in action. For me, the God Lesson here is this: If we were given paradise and only one rule, we would break that rule. Do you doubt me? What is your first thought, when you see a sign that reads “Wet Paint”? If you’re a normal human being, you wonder how old the sign is, and if the paint is still wet. Am I right??? God created us good, but we’re not perfect. Martin Luther used to say that we are all sinners and saints, both at the same time. We are created good (Genesis 1) and we are also drawn to do the very thing that we should not do (Genesis 2). Without God’s help, we are a hopeless mess. Welcome to the season of Lent!

 

ROMANS 5:12-19

THE BACKGROUND

Paul wrote this letter to the Christian church in Rome. That church consisted of an odd mix of both Christian Gentiles and Christian Jews. The first three chapters paint a broad-brushed perspective of various types of people, pointing out how they have fallen short of God’s expectations (sinned). In chapter 2, Paul turns on his audience, and says “and what about you…?” Do you think you are any better, he goes on to say. He drives the point home in 3:23– “…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

THE DETAIL

  • Paul reminds the reader of Adam’s fall, which was today’s first lesson. (v. 12)
  • Paul explains that even though the law didn’t come until Moses, the fall of mankind was already in place. (vv. 13-14)
  • Paul now contrasts “the free gift” (of salvation through Christ) with “the trespass” (The Fall). The sin of one man (Adam) caused death. But the sins of many are justified* through the free gift offered by one man (Jesus).
  • The next three verses repeat one another, but in different words. I believe Paul does this to make things clear and drive an important point home.  He’s saying that Adam gave us death, but faith in Jesus gives us life! (vv. 17-19)

THE TAKEAWAY

During Lent, it is very important for us to reflect on our sinfulness.  But we should never forget that Jesus is our lifeline.

 

MATTHEW 4:1-11

THE BACKGROUND

This is the famous story of Jesus temptation by the devil. Here, again, I believe is best to stand back and look for the God Lesson for me, rather than to pick apart the story in infinite detail.

 

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus has been fasting in the desert for nearly six weeks, and is very hungry. (vv. 1-2)
  • In three very different ways, Jesus is tempted to abuse his divine power. One is to feed his hunger, one is to prove his divinity, and one is to use his divine power to gain political power. In each case, Jesus triumphs over the temptation by recalling his Father’s words. He remains focused on his divine mission to remain a humble servant to his Father, and do what he was sent to do. (vv. 3-11)

THE TAKEAWAY

I take great comfort in this story. It tells me that Jesus was human. He was tempted to do things that he knew he shouldn’t. I’ll even bet that during his 30+ years on this earth he was tempted more times than just this once. But with this story, I see that he remains dedicated to the task that lies ahead. He is going to walk in our shoes, heal us, teach us and love us enough to die on the cross for us.

 

*This word is best understood like this: If you kill a person in self-defense, you have still killed someone, haven‘t you? But in a court of law, the judge would claim your actions “justified”. You were acting in self-defense. You are set free. Paul is saying that Jesus’ death on the cross has “justified” all our sinful acts. We are forgiven. We are set free.

FOR FEBRUARY 19,2023

EXODUS 24:12-18

THE BACKGROUND

All the readings for this Sunday point to the gospel reading, which is the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain.

THE DETAIL

  • God tells Moses to come up Mt. Sinai. He has some instructions to give the people through him. (v. 12)
  • Moses makes preparations for the trip, delegating authority to others who will remain in camp. (vv. 13-14)
  • God was present on the mountain. The writer uses metaphors to try to describe it. He calls it God’s “glory”, whatever a glory is. He describes this glory as a cloud and like a fire. It must have been an incredible sight to see. (vv. 15-17)
  • So, Moses went up there and waited. He had a personal meeting with God that kept him there nearly six weeks. (v. 18)

THE TAKEAWAY

In biblical times, if you wanted to meet God, you went to a high place. All the Canaanite temples were on hilltops or mountaintops. The temple in Jerusalem is also on a hilltop. Moses’ encounter with God flows with this pattern.

Where do you go to find God?

 

2 Peter 1:16-21

THE BACKGROUND

This letter was written in response to growing doubt regarding Jesus’ return. In the third and final chapter of this letter, Peter finally reveals the reason for the letter. But first, he lays the foundation. He gives them the reason they should remain vigilant. He recalls the scene of Jesus’ transfiguration.

THE DETAIL

  • He tells them that he didn’t make this stuff up. He saw this event with his own eyes. Then he gives them a Readers’ Digest version of the story. We’ll dig into the event a little deeper in the gospel lesson below. (vv. 16-18)
  • Peter says that it should therefore be very clear to all that this is a true prophecy. Plus, true prophecy comes only through the Holy Spirit. (vv. 19-21)

THE TAKEAWAY

It will be summarized with the gospel lesson below.

 

MATTHEW 17:1-9

THE BACKGROUND

In recent weeks, we have been studying excerpts from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5, 6, & 7). This Sunday we fast forward eleven chapters to wrap up the Epiphany season with the story of the transfiguration of our Lord. Three of the four gospels include this event in their narratives. Just prior to this story in Matthew, Jesus foretells his death, Peter rebukes him, and Jesus says “Get behind me Satan”.

Also of note, Matthew’s gospel was written about 40 or 50 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. There could also have been some doubts surrounding the second coming cropping up in Matthew’s audience as well.

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus takes Peter and the “Sons of Thunder”, James and John, up a high mountain. (v. 1)
  • Here’s where it gets strange and a little confusing. Jesus is “transfigured” before them. Transfigure means to improve the appearance of something or someone, often spiritually. A metaphor is used— “his face shone like the sun”. People use metaphors to try and describe indescribable things. And his clothes were super white, like in a laundry soap commercial (or even more!). The writer of the commentary I recently read says that the apostles were given a glimpse of Jesus in his resurrected glory (and clothes). He’s a retired seminary professor, so I respect his opinion. (v. 2)
  • Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear. Two famous people from the Old Testament. They are talking to Jesus. (v. 3)
  • Peter babbles something stupid about making tents, so they could all hang out together. (v. 4)
  • God speaks, telling them to listen to His son. This scares the apostles, and they fall to the ground. Jesus tells them to get up and not be afraid. (vv. 5-7)
  • Just like that, it was over. Jesus tells them to keep this to themselves until he’s raised from the dead. (vv. 8-9)

THE TAKEAWAY

Both Peter and Matthew use this story to strengthen the faith of those waiting for the second coming of Jesus. We are shown Jesus in his heavenly form. God calls his other two “heavy-hitters” to talk to Jesus and to demonstrate Jesus’s authority to the three apostle witnesses. The way is going to be difficult for Jesus and for the apostles. God provides this scene to give them the vision and strength to carry out their mission.

This scene should also help us to firm up our confidence in Jesus’ promised return. Note that at the time of this transformation event, about 1,300 years had passed since the time of Moses. 2 Peter 3:8 states the God, a day is like a thousand years and vice versa. Our task as Children of God is to be Jesus’ presence to those around us. Jesus is most certainly coming! We just don’t know when.

 

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