If you have traveled in a country where they speak a different language, you know how welcome it is to come across someone speaking your own language. Even if you have learned another language pretty well, everything always comes across better in your native language. It's not surprising, here in Acts, that visitors to Jerusalem were not only amazed to hear their own languages being spoken but ready to hear and accept the message that was spoken.
Like many other things that Jesus said, this one was probably not well understood by the people who heard it at the time. His disciples remembered his words, however, and later - probably after Pentecost - they suddenly realized what he had been talking about.
If you know the beginning of Acts, the end of Luke seems kind of like a "sneak preview" of the next book. Things don't end here, Luke is telling us. Keep on reading, because it gets even better.
It's also possible that Luke begins Acts by repeating what he told at the end of Luke because we need to hear it again. We start wondering, can I really be sure Jesus rose again, so Luke reminds us of "many convincing proofs." We want to charge ahead with doing something for God, and need to remember about waiting, and about receiving the Spirit's power. Or we want to dwell too much on how and when Jesus will come again, and need to be reminded to stop staring up into the sky, and see what God is doing here on earth.
Those who believe Scripture know that we are made by God in His image. Those who do not believe in God sometimes accuse religious people of having created God in their own image.
In this passage, Paul tells the Athenians that God has made us, and that He made us able to find and worship Him. They - and we - are mistaken if we try to make God into something human-sized that we can feel comfortable with and control.
1 Peter 3:13-22
One of the perennial questions of humankind is how to deal with suffering, particularly when it is not deserved (though one common "answer" is to see it as deserved in one way or another). Peter encourages believers to respond to suffering by looking to Christ, who went through suffering for our sake.
1 Peter 2:1-10
We generally like to think of ourselves as special. But the things we often think make us special are not important in God's eyes. If we try to hold onto those things, we are likely to turn away from God. But if we accept His judgment - and His mercy - we can know ourselves special not because of anything about ourselves but because He chose us.
When it comes to finding the way to God, people tend to look for a list of things to believe, or rules to follow, or deeds to perform. But Jesus explains that the way is a person, that he is himself the Way.
Sometimes we really long for a fresh start. Things are really messed up - often because of our own mistakes or bad choices - and we want to be able to set all that aside and start fresh. This passage gives us hope, because God gives us that fresh start, cleansing us and giving us the desire and the Spirit's power to live according to His will.
Sometimes people have been attracted to the special powers and signs that Jesus promised to his followers. But if they seek these for their own sake, to be able to impress people, they miss completely what Jesus intended. He gave his followers what they needed to spread the gospel, not so that they would be known but that Jesus would be known.
Sometimes our lives feel very different from those of people in the Bible, and not just because they lived so long ago. How many of us have the kind of experiences that make us exclaim, "The Lord's right hand has done mighty things!" But all of us enjoy the joy of Christ's victory over sin and death, looking forward by faith to our own resurrection.
There are times that we readily believe something because it is what we want to be true. But there are other times when we would like very much for something to be true, but it seems just too impossible. We know there are times when we or others have believed something that turned out to be false, and we don't want this to be one of those times, so we just say no, it can't be true.
In people, there is often a significant gap between intention and achievement, whether due to lack of effort or lack of ability. But God always accomplishes exactly what He intends, even when it seems impossible or unthinkable to us.
The women were prepared for a difficult task, taking care of the corpse of someone they had loved. They were prepared for the difficulty of finding someone to move the stone, and dealing as best as they could with their grief. But they were very much not prepared for an angel or an empty tomb.
Often after a crucifixion, the body was left on the cross, and eventually consumed by carrion-eaters. So even after death, the awful shame of crucifixion continued, reminding people what lay in store for anyone who went up against the Roman Empire. The relatives had the right to ask for the bodies for burial, but often they were too ashamed to be associated with someone who had thus brought dishonor on the family.
In Israel, religious laws required that bodies by buried before sundown, even the bodies of criminals, otherwise the land would be defiled. The Romans generally allowed conquered people to follow their own religious laws, so unless the people were in revolt against Roman rule, this custom also would have been allowed, as long as there was someone willing to claim the body.
Like many psalms of lament, Psalm 22 begins with an expression of deep suffering and ends with praise to God, even a sense of victory. The passage for this Sunday does not include that ending, but even within these verses there are expressions of trust in God and reminders of His faithfulness in the past.
In a city crowded with visitors celebrating the Passover, many people were no doubt unaware of the crucifixion taking place outside the city. But no one could have failed to notice the unnatural darkness that began at noon and lasted for three hours, or wondered at its significance.
There is a widespread tendency, when seeing that people we don't know are suffering in some way, to jump to the conclusion that they have done something to bring that on themselves, either by acting foolishly or by actual wrongdoing. Psychologists attribue this to a desire to see the world as a just place where suffering is deserved rather than random. In Isaiah 53, people who saw the suffering of this man assumed God was punishing him for his own sins. But this prophecy makes it clear that he is suffering, rather, for the sins of everyone else.
To most of the people watching Jesus die, it seemed obvious that his claim to be Messiah was disproved simply by him being on the cross. If he had real power, he would come down off the cross. What good was a dead Messiah? Even today, many people find it hard to believe that Jesus' execution by the Romans was God's plan for saving the world.
The people might have welcomed Jesus as "King of the Jews" if he had fulfilled their dreams of driving out the Romans. But they had no use for a "king" who refused to fight for their independence, instead letting himself be captured, tortured, and executed.
The Roman soldiers probably despised the Jews they had to try to keep in line, just as much as the Jews hated the Romans for their oppression. Having one of these hated Jews in their power, especially one who appeared so weak that he didn't even try to defend himself, gave them a chance for some cruel entertainment. They never imagined that the one they mocked as king really was in fact the King of kings.
Accused of a serious crime, a defendant will usually protest his innocence quite vehemently - whether he is in fact innocent or guilty. Sometimes a guilty person will remain silent, knowing that anything he says may only make things worse. And once in a while, an innocent person will claim to be guilty, in order to protect someone else. But it is very unusual for an innocent person to say nothing, just letting justice - or injustice - take its course.
People have imagined what it would have been like to be Barabbas, expecting to be put to death for his role in the uprising, then to be let go, while an innocent man goes to his death. Barabbas may not have cared at all who Jesus was, just being glad to have escaped punishment. Spiritually, we are like Barabbas, having an innocent man go to the cross in our place.
It's easy to imagine doing heroic things, risking one's life for a noble cause. But when circumstances suddenly force a choice, with relative safety on one side, and likely suffering and death on the other, our imagined heroism is likely to prove to be no more than that, a thing of the imagination and not reality. Most of our choices in life are not of the life-or-death variety, but they all reveal something about the reality of who we choose to be, rather than who we would like to imagine ourselves to be.
This passage is known as the third of four "Servant Songs" in Isaiah. The identity of the servant is not made clear, but what is clear is the servant's faithfulness to God, despite humiliation and suffering. In the servant we see one who is teachable and who teaches others, and who trusts God to help him and to vindicate him.
One wonders at the motivations of those who participated in the miscarriage of justice that was the trial and execution of Jesus. Were they jealous at Jesus' popularity? Did they feel he took some of their traditions too lightly, and was teaching others the same? Were there some who had no problems with Jesus themselves, but thought it important to support their leaders, who opposed him? Did some go along with the rest just because they were afraid to take a stand? Much evil is sometimes done by those who think they are doing right, and by others who do nothing to stop them.
The image of God on a fiery throne may not seem like a comforting one to us. But to people who have long lived under oppressive regimes, the idea of an all-powerful and righteous judge who will bring an end to the rule of tyrants would indeed be welcome. They would eagerly look forward to the time when this "one like a son of man" would be given this sovereign power, to reign justly forever.
Trials are supposed to be about finding out the truth so that justice can be done. But too often, they have been used by people in power to give the appearance of legality to an outcome favorable to those people - and unfavorable to any who oppose them. It is clear in this passage that the religious leaders are not looking for the truth but for a way to have Jesus put to death. Ironically, it is when Jesus tells them a truth they do not want to hear that they feel they have found the evidence they were looking for.
For two thousand years, theologians have argued about the meaning of this passage. Was Paul describing his experience as an unbeliever, prior to coming to faith in Christ? His experience as an immature believer right after coming to faith? Or his ongoing struggles as a follower of Jesus Christ? Or was he not talking about his own experiences at all, but personalizing the general experience of humankind?
We may not be sure exactly what Paul had in mind, but we can certainly identify with the frustration of wanting to do what is right, intending to do what is right, but failing to carry it out.
It appears that the disciples, despite all that Jesus had told them about what was to happen to him, still did not really expect anything terrible to happen that night. Most of us have probably experienced sleepless nights when something bad might happen the next day, and it's hard to believe that the disciples, no matter how tired they were after a long day and a good meal, would have fallen asleep so easily if they had anticipated even a small part of what was to come.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
The verses describing what the psalmist had been saved from are omitted in this reading, but it is clear how grateful he is to God for saving him. Over and over he affirms his determination to fulfill his vows to the Lord, to praise the Lord, and to serve Him gladly all his life.
We have heard the story of the Last Supper so many times, probably heard sermons about it, and possibly even studied different theological interpretations of Jesus' words about his body and his blood. We can only guess what might have been going through the disciples' minds, hearing it for the first time. But however much or little they understood, they were committed to following Jesus - though the events of that night would show they had overestimated their ability to stick to that commitment no matter what.
It's hard enough to face opposition from those who want to bring about our downfall. But it's even harder when that opposition includes ridicule and humiliation. We can face trials if we can see ourselves as the hero of our own story. But it's hard to file like a hero in the face of jeering and mocking. No wonder this psalmist's cries to God for help are so full of urgency.
The reaction of the disciples to Jesus telling them that one of them would betray him may surprise us. Rather than being indignant that he would think them capable of such betrayal, they are saddened, evidently suspecting that they are in fact capable of it. It's hard to believe that any except Judas actually considered offering help to those scheming to kill Jesus. Perhaps they had in mind the sort of thing that Peter ended up doing, denying Jesus to save themselves from arrest and probably execution. They were saddened, knowing themselves capable of that kind of faithlessness, and knowing that if Jesus said one of them would do that, he no doubt was correct.
We've all been taught not to be wasteful. But there's plenty of disagreement about what is wasteful and what isn't. It all comes down to what we consider more valuable. In this passage, some people considered the woman's use of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus wasteful, because the money could have been spent on helping poor people to get the food they needed to live on. Obviously, they didn't see much value in Jesus being anointed with expensive perfume. What they had trouble seeing, but the woman apparently did see, was how valuable Jesus was himself.
We don't know why God chose Abraham to bless and to make into a great nation. We don't know what Abraham thought of the extraordinary things God told him and asked him to do, or what kind of questions he asked himself as he thought about this life-changing decision. But we know that he did trust God and followed His leading, across hundreds of miles and into a land and people far from home.
Just as people in Abraham's hometown probably thought he was crazy to follow God the way he did, people who knew Joseph may have thought he was a fool to take Mary as his wife when she was already pregnant. If he had told them that God told him in a dream that Mary's son had been conceived by the Holy Spirit, they might have thought he really was losing his mind. But like Abraham, Joseph believed what God had said and trusted in God to keep His extraordinary promises.
Having new growth appear on an apparently dead stump is perhaps not all that noteworthy, as it simply shows that there is still life in the roots. What is more remarkable, that we see in this passage in Isaiah, is the coming of a ruler who is truly righteous. Some of the kings descended from David had been pretty good, but all were subject to the weaknesses and failings common to humankind. This new ruler rising from the stump of Jesse will reign in peace and righteousness such as people have only dreamed of.
One impression we may get from reading stories in the Bible may be that people seemed remarkably slow to recognize when God was at work in their midst. But we have the benefit of hindsight, having read the end of the story. And most of us find it much easier to see God at work in the stories in the Bible than in our own lives. Yet God is at work among us, and one indication of His presence is that we do learn to see with the eyes of faith and recognize His presence.
We never like waiting. But at least if we know how long we will be waiting, it helps. We can count down the minutes, the days, the months, the years. But when we don't know how long it will be, the waiting is harder. We hope for the waiting to be over soon, then we are disappointed when it takes much longer. Sometimes we begin to wonder if whatever it is we're waiting for will come at all.
Isaiah asked God how long it would be, and the answer was not the kind we like to hear. First there would be terrible destruction. It would even seem as though the destruction were the end of all hopes and there was nothing left to wait for, but at the end there still remains a glimmer of hope.
Most of us know the story of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus, and even many unfamiliar with the New Testament have some idea what a “Damascus Road” conversion refers to. But many people are less familiar with Ananias, whom God sends to visit Saul three days later. God's command to Ananias, to go to see a man known for persecuting Christians, must have been difficult to accept. But Ananias shows his trust in God by his obedience.
At one time or another, most if not all of us have felt that we were "in the depths," whether from physical ailments or broken relationships or overwhelming responsibilities, or simply the confusion of trying to understand our place in the world. We don't know what depths the psalmist experienced, but we can guess that he previously experienced both those depths and the mercy of God bringing him out of them, because now he expresses faith and hope in God, and encourages us also to wait in patient hope for God to deliver.
Paul speaks of that same patient hope, not only for individuals undergoing suffering, but the entire creation. And the deliverance he speaks of is not merely the end of a time of suffering, but the end of all suffering. The glory of this future is one that inspires not only patience but "eager expectation."
Psalm 80:1-7; 14-19
There are people who think God cannot be real since there is so much suffering in the world. The writer of this psalm, however, recognizes God as the sovereign ruler who can save His people, although currently they are experiencing great suffering. We can only guess at the circumstances that produced this psalm of lament, and how much God's people actually recognized their own responsibility for their dire situation. But the outlook of the psalmist is clearly hopeful, knowing that God can and trusting that God will again bless His people and deliver them from their enemies.
For people facing upheaval of everything in life as they have known it, Jesus offers both hope and a warning. There is hope because he will return to set things right, and even before this happens, people may know that it is coming so they will take hope. Yet there is also a warning because the timing cannot be predicted, and it is unwise either to abandon one's responsibilities in anticipation of immediate divine intervention, or to live as though no divine intervention is to be expected at all.
We probably all know about Daniel in the lion's den, but Daniel's prophecies in the latter part of his book are far less familiar to us. They are filled with symbolism, and while some prophecy enthusiasts enjoy trying to map his prophecies to world events, others of us prefer Scripture passages that are more straightforward.
This passage in Daniel does not provide markers of when these things will take place. But it does make clear that after a time of great suffering, vindication and victory will come to God's people, and judgment to those who have opposed Him.
Like Daniel, Jesus speaks of a time of great suffering, but he goes into a lot more detail of the terrible things that will happen - not to alarm people, but to warn them. He warns against deception by people claiming to speak for God who do not, and he warns against giving in or giving up. He barely hints at the final victory that Daniel spoke of, but it is clear that throughout the time of suffering, God remains present and powerful and a protector of His people.
2 Corinthians 9:6-11
A farmer who only planted a few seeds in a large field would rightly be considered foolish, as he would get a very small harvest. Paul suggests that Christians are being just as foolish if they are not generous. When we give generously, God gives us more - not so that we can keep it for ourselves, but so that we can be even more generous.
This passage has traditionally been understood as Jesus commending the poor widow for being so generous that she gave all she had. Some contemporary interpretations, however, see Jesus' concern as having been less with what the widow gave, and more with men such as the scribes whom he had just condemned for “devouring widows' houses” and thus leaving a widow such as this with nothing but the tiny bit of money which she then donated.
We are generally not so exuberant in our praise of God as the psalmist. When we focus on it, we can find much to be thankful for, but for many of us, it does not seem to come so easily to our lips. Yes, we see God at work in the world, but we also see the hungry who have not yet been fed, the prisoners not yet set free, and many who would like to be lifted up but are still bowed down.
The psalmist lived in a world of just as much suffering as our world today, and he had clearly seen enough human leaders who could or would not deliver on their promises that he cautions against putting our trust in them. Even the best ones die without having fixed the world's problems. Yet from what he has seen of God's work in the world - work done primarily though other people who love and serve Him - that he has great confidence in God and urges us not only to trust in Him but also to praise Him wholeheartedly.
Previously in this chapter, the teachers of the Jewish law had been trying to trap Jesus with their questions. He had answered so skillfully that no one was willing to try any more questions on him. Now Jesus asks a question that they have no answer for. He goes on to show not only that their understanding and teaching of Scripture is faulty, but that their character is the big problem. They care more about status and recognition than about God or the people they are supposed to be an example for.
People are very good at forgetting things, sometimes even very important things. Today's passage includes the commandment that Jesus said was the greatest commandment of all. It also includes instructions that will help us not to forget these important things. We are to teach them to our children, and in so doing, we will learn better ourselves. We are to talk about them as we go through our daily lives, which will help us to see how loving God relates to our daily activities. And if we all do this, in the event that we do forget sometimes, someone else is likely to be there to remind us of what matters most.
Interpreters of this passage differ as to whether the scribe was sincere in his question to Jesus, or only seeking to trap him, as with questions asked previously. Regardless of the scribe's motivation, Jesus' answer challenges us and our priorities. Most of us would say that loving God is most important, and we know that God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But the way we spend our time and our money, and how we react when things don't go according to plan, reveal what we really care about most.
People ask questions for lots of reasons besides wanting to get information. Sometimes it is to find out how much people know, or to get them to realize what they don't know so they will want to learn more. But other times, as in today's passage, people ask questions not to increase understanding but to trick someone, to embarrass or to manipulate. Those who questioned Jesus thought they had found the perfect trap, but instead they were the ones who ended up looking foolish.
Having refused to give a direct answer when asked about his authority (at the end of the previous chapter), Jesus now proceeds to give an indirect but nevertheless very clear answer. For us, knowing what is in store for Jesus over the next few days, it is even easier to understand than it would have been for the crowds then. But the leaders understood quite well that he spoke the parable against them.
The first few verses of this psalm might leave us feeling that it's talking about some impossibly perfect class of people. Blameless? Do no wrong? Fully obey all God's precepts? But then the psalmist switches to the first person and we find that he's like us, wanting to be steadfast in obedience but not always measuring up. If we follow his example of deep desire to faithfully obey God, we will also learn the blessedness of following Him.
In our society it is often considered rude to answer a question with another question, perhaps seen as evidence of agressiveness, maybe trying to cover up for ignorance or embarrassment. But it was a traditional element of Jewish scholarly discussion, one very frequently used by Jesus. He did address the topic of the question, that of authority, but cleverly avoided giving one of the expected responses, which would only be used to accuse him of wrongdoing.
In the midst of messages of hope to the exiles of Israel, Isaiah proclaims God's promise to extend His blessing to other peoples also. There will be a day when both eunuchs and foreigners will worship alongside Jews in God's house of prayer.
Imagine that you are a pilgrim from far away, in Jerusalem for the Passover, and you are waiting in line at the Temple to change your money and buy an animal to sacrifice, and along comes a man who begins to overturn tables and puts a halt to the buying and selling. Are you upset at the disruption? Curious who this might be, who dares to oppose the powerful priesthood? The priests are going to be angry - what will this mean for you and your family?
While many of us in North America, especially in regions too cold for fig trees, have never seen a fig tree nor eaten a raw fig, it was very familiar to the Jews in Bible times. In the Old Testament, the fig tree was often used as a symbol of the nation of Israel, and destruction of a fig tree as a sign of judgment.
Mark 11:12-14, 20-26
This passage has been cited by some people as evidence that Jesus was not perfect, taking out his anger on a fig tree that did not have fruit when he wanted it. But Jesus was not angry at the fruitless fig tree, but rather at the nation of Israel, which did not bear spiritual fruit. This message of judgment, however, is joined with a promise of spiritual power for those who by faith are his followers.
We tend to either think too much of ourselves, that we are worth more attention and recognition than we really are, or try to counterbalance that tendency by thinking we have little or no value. Psalm 8 provide the correct perspective, that we are are indeed a very small part of God's vast and wondrous creation, yet God cares for us and gives us an important role to play and caring for the rest of creation.
We don't know how large the group with Jesus was as they arrived at Jerusalem. But we have probably all seen how any group acting with purpose tends to attract attention, and usually picks up people along the way, whether out of curiosity, enthusiasm, or just the desire to be part of whatever is happening. We can imagine how the group around Jesus increased as people heard the cries of "Hosanna" and joined the growing procession.
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
A hasty reading of this psalm might suggest that once people turn to God, all their problems are over. But David's statement that the righteous person may have many troubles suggests rather that as God delivers him from each one, more follow later - and God again delivers him. God delivers us from troubles and fears, not so that we can have an easier life, but so that we continue to trust and praise Him for His goodness.
The passage right before this one has one striking similarity to this one. Someone comes to Jesus to ask for something, and Jesus asks, "What do you want me to do for you?" But where James and John asked for positions of power and status, and Jesus had to reply that he could not grant their request, the man in this passage makes a much better request, which Jesus gladly grants. Bartimaeus simply wants to see, and once Jesus heals him, he displays his spiritual discernment as well by choosing to follow Jesus as he heads toward Jerusalem.
In ancient Israel - like everywhere in the world back then - people used the movements of the sun, moon, and stars to measure the passing of time. Today we rely primarily on clocks and calendars. But even we notice the sun rising later and setting earlier than it did a couple of months ago, and we know the days will continue to get shorter as the weather gets colder.
People today clamor for something new - the latest technology, new clothes, new movies and other entertainment - but eventually they recognize it is usually no more satisfying than whatever it replaced. People try new ways to fix the problems of society, but generation after generation, the same problems persist. A great deal has changed since the time when Ecclesiastes was written, but in many significant ways, the joys and challenges of human life are much the same as they have always been.
People without much knowledge of the Bible who hear this passage from Isaiah 53, without knowing where in the Bible it is found, tend to assume it comes from the New Testament, as the parallels between this passage, and the New Testament accounts of Jesus' suffering and death for the sins of all people, are so clear.
Mark 9:30-32; 10:32-45
We are not good at being realistic about our own capacity to faithfully follow Christ. Sometimes we are overly confident, like these disciples, that we can meet all the challenges of discipleship. Other times, mindful of past failures, we are convinced we will be overwhelmed by the trials that face us.
Our problem is usually that our focus is too much on ourselves rather than on Christ. If we learn to have the heart and mind of a servant, as he teaches in this passage, we will not only serve with humility, but by by thinking more about Christ and the needs of others than about ourselves, we will come to serve more faithfully even in times of great difficulty.