Many people think they'd be happy if they were allowed to do as they please. But as many other people know from painful experience, doing as we please sooner or later leads to a great deal of unhappiness.
In this passage in Romans, Paul speaks of God's judgment on those who refuse to recognize God's rightful place in their lives. God lets them go their own way, into more and more sin.
Numerous times Scripture speaks of walking in the light. But here, Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus that they are light. Their behavior is to reflect their identity, and it will also have the effect of shining a light on what other people do that belongs to darkness, that had perhaps been hidden but is now shown for the evil that it is.
Many people claim not to see any evidence of the existence of God. Yet Paul asserts that everyone at some level has some awareness of God, but that many choose to suppress this knowledge rather than submit their lives to Him.
Since earliest times people have looked up at the sky and recognized some divine power at work. The wordless testimony of the heavens does not tell us much about God's characters, so that some people have imagined gods of the sun and moon and thunder and lightning. But the power and splendor of it all convinced people that a power far greater than their own was at work.
When people think about the power of God, they often think of creation - mighty mountains, vast galaxies, awe-inspiring waterfalls. Sometimes people think of God's power displayed in judgment, such as the plagues in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. In this passage in Romans, Paul calls our attention to the power of God to bring salvation to His people. God takes people who had been against Him and would be subject to His judgment, and transforms us into people of righteousness and faith.
Abraham is rich, and well-respected - especially after his military victory in the previous chapter. But no matter how much he has, something is missing because he doesn't have a son to leave it to after he is gone. God has promised to make him a great nation, but so far there is no sign of this happening.
In this chapter, God repeats the promise and makes it even clearer, that Abraham will have a son of his own. Abraham still has nothing but God's word for it, but that is enough for him. And this willingness to take God at His word is the great example of faith for all generations.
Sometimes God works very directly in a person's life, without another person being involved as far as we can tell (though prayer may well play a significant part in it). But much of the time, God uses other people. We learn about God and about the life of faith through other people who both show and tell us what it means to know God. We are loved by other people and come to see that God is loving us through them. In this passage in Romans, Paul is eager to be involved in this kind of ministry, both giving and receiving spiritual benefits during his hoped-for visit to the church in Rome.
Hebrews was written to people facing persecution for their faith in Christ. Some of them were tempted to give up on their faith, and even if they weren't ready to abandon it altogether, they stopped meeting together with other believers. But that meant they were no longer getting the encouragement they needed to be faithful. Our faith grows from seeing God work in other people's lives, and we only see that if we're with them.
Some Christians think of having a call from God as something that is only for leaders in the church. But in this passage, while Paul does mention - one time - his own call as an apostle, he refers three times to God's call to everyone. He says we are called to obedience, to belong to Jesus Christ, and to be holy people.
Gospel is a word that is used to mean a variety of things, depending on who is using it. Different groups that claim the name of Christ have different ideas about what is the core message of Christ. Some people use it for any religious message, whether it's about Christ or not, and sometimes it is used to mean something people are convinced is true, even if it has nothing to do with religion at all. But Paul makes it clear here that there is only one true gospel, and those who claim to preach any other have no part in God's kingdom.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Most of us have parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden, sometimes even from those closest to us. Occasionally we may find out something very surprising about someone we thought we knew well. God is never taken by surprise by these things, because nothing is hidden to Him. It may make us uncomfortable that He knows all our secrets. But for those who have accepted the good news of forgiveness and new life through Jesus Christ, it is a comfort to know that God knows the worst things about us - and loves us still.
There are preachers who try to make the idea of being a follower of Christ so appealing that people will decide they want to be Christians without knowing much about it, only to realize afterward that the Christian life is far more full of difficulties and hard decisions than they had expected. Jesus very clearly told those who would follow him that it would require sacrifice. Following him had to come before any other commitment, even if it might mean giving up family or even one's life.
The people addressed in this passage, who were apparently in the habit of spending the Sabbath doing what they pleased, probably thought they were choosing activities that would benefit themselves It was hard for them - as it is often hard for us - to accept that doing things God's way instead of what seemed best to them would in the end bring greater benefits to them. Not that we want to serve God just because of what it will do for us, but God makes it clear that life really will be better for those who do things His way.
By Jesus' day, strict observance of the Sabbath was very important to the leaders of the Jews. By following a detailed set of rules they thought they were doing things God's way, as Isaiah and other prophets had taught. But they were so focused on those rules that instead of the day being a time for people to be free of the burdens that they bore much of the time, it instead became just another burden to bear.
When people try to imagine what God is like, it's not surprising that they tend to think of God as being a lot like a human being, only bigger and more powerful. Someone powerful, but still limited. Our minds can't deal well with the idea of infinity. It can be hard to deal with the idea of a God who can be everywhere and see everything, even the things we'd prefer to keep hidden.
The only way we get our ideas about God right is when they come from Him, by what He has revealed to us, through the written revelation of Scripture and through the living Word, Jesus Christ.
We sometimes think we have an idea what the life of faith looks like. Perhaps it is based on some people we have known, or perhaps read about. But this passage reminds us how very differently that life can look. Faith leads some people into battles where God gives a clear victory, but for others faith leads to suffering and sometimes to death. Some people see miracles, while in others the miracle is the faith that continues despite ridicule and opposition, sometimes even from friends or family. In all this we are encouraged by the example of others who have followed Christ faithfully, and especially by the example of Christ himself.
For people with little familiarity with the Bible, the idea of offering animal sacrifices to God is often repulsive, a practice belonging to the distant past when people were primitive and superstitious. For Christians who know the Bible well, the sacrifices offered by the ancient Israelites were a pointer to the sacrifice of Christ that would one day put an end to animal sacrifices.
But for the people hearing Isaiah's preaching, those sacrifices were a normal part of their religious life, and the idea that God didn't accept their sacrifices would have come as a shock. After all, those sacrifices and rituals were based on the words of Scripture. We don't know how many - if any - people changed their behavior because of Isaiah's words here, but he certainly must have made some of them think about what it was that God really wanted.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
People are generally motivated by being able to look forward to what they will achieve, even if what they are working on is very difficult. But when our efforts don't seem to be having any results, and things don't seem likely to get better in the foreseeable future, it's hard to keep going. People with faith in God, however, know that God is working His will out, even when we can't see it. They know they may not see it fulfilled in their lifetime, but by faith they trust that God is in control, and that one day God's kingdom will come.
The kind of lifestyle money can buy has changed over the centuries, but the attitudes that go with wealth remain similar. Many people see their wealth as a form of security, a protection against many of the troubles that afflict those who are poor, and some see their money as an opportunity to establish a legacy so that they will be remembered long after their death. But those who are wise keep in mind that all the benefits of money end at the grave.
It's easy for us to hear the parable of the rich fool and think of other people it applies to, people with lots more money than we have, who give no thought to God at all. But Jesus spoke this warning against "all kinds of greed" to a crowd of people who probably were not wealthy and who presumably did give thought to what God wanted, since they were listening to Jesus. Greed has a way of tricking us, making us want what we do not have and do not need, at the same time thinking we are justified in our desires.
To some people, it will seem strange that the psalmist can at the same time speak of being in despair but also express a confident hope in God. From a purely human perspective, it may have seemed that his enemies were unbeatable, and he clearly feels anguish at his present circumstances. He does not know why God has not yet delivered him, but his expectation of future deliverance is so strong that already he is full of praise for what God will do.
We humans have a strong desire to group ourselves into those who are like us and those who are not like us. People have found many different ways to group themselves, based on culture or ethnicity, physical characteristics, social and economic status, and religion or ideology. The only distinction that ultimately matters, however, according to this passage from Paul, is whether or not we are in Christ Jesus.
1 Kings 17:8-24
When Elijah showed up at the gate to Zarephath, asking for water and then for food, he probably looked more like a hungry beggar than someone who could help a poor starving widow and her son. And the widow, not only nearly destitute but resident of a town in non-Jewish territory that had no reason to welcome a Jewish prophet, must have seemed an unlikely source of hospitality to shelter and feed Elijah. But God had arranged this meeting, and he used these two people and their willingness to trust in Him to provide for the needs of both. That trust was further tested when the son later sickened and died, but God used this occasion also to build trust in Him.
Throughout Scripture we are told that God cares about the widow and the orphan, because they often have no one else to care about them. Jesus exemplifies this caring when he raises the son of the widow of Nain. The people who witness this are in awe, not just because of what Jesus did but because it shows that God is at work among them, and they look forward to what God would continue to do to help His people.
This psalm may have been used in the context of worship by the people of Israel. It talks about singing praise, bringing an offering, coming into God's presence, and worshiping. But it also talks about declaring God's glory "among the nation," telling people who God is and what He has done. It is a reminder that true worship changes us so that we praise God outside church as well as inside it.
Paul expresses astonishment that the Galatian Christians are turning from the gospel of grace in Christ to a different gospel, but perhaps in some ways it's not all that surprising. People are often very glad to receive grace at a time of crisis, but when things are going okay, people tend to return to their usual habits of comparing themselves to other people and judging who measures up best and should receive God's favor. As Paul points out, his gospel came from God, not from other people, because people would not come up with the gospel of grace. Either we want to excuse our sins, or to feel good about how good we are. God's gospel of grace does not allow us to do either.
Enjoying the splendor of nature is a great way to be reminded of God's glory. Whether we look at the immensity of the mountains and the vastness of the sky, or the intricate details of the smallest plants and insects, we see the creative power and wisdom of God.
Seeing power of natural forces often makes us think of how small and powerless we are in comparison, but as this psalm reminds us, it is also a reminder that in spite of that, God chose us and gave us an important part to play in His plan.
We have probably all had classes in school where we didn't get all the way through the material that was supposed to be covered, whether because the teacher ran out of time, or we just didn't do all the work - or perhaps the material was just too hard for us to understand. In Jesus' final evening of teaching his disciples, he acknowledges there's a lot that he wasn't able to tell them. It doesn't mean they're going to be stuck with this big gap in their understanding, however, because the Spirit is going to come and pick up where Jesus left off. And this same Spirit is with us today to teach us also.
Anyone who has tried to put an end to a bad habit knows what kind of power those bad habits have over us. Paul's words here in Romans about being set free from sin sound very welcome. Anyone looking for an easy answer will be disappointed, but for those willing to count themselves dead to sin, the new life in Christ is not just pious jargon.
Some people have understood Paul's words here about setting our minds on things above rather than on earthly things as a contrast between life in heaven versus life on earth, but Paul makes it clear that the "earthly" things are sinful attitudes and behavior, such as greed and rage. The "things above" are the attitudes and behavior that belong to our new life in Christ, which we are already living here and now.
If we wonder sometimes what to pray for one another, Paul's prayer here for the Ephesian Christians provides us with a great model. He prays for the eyes of their heart to be enlightened, so that they will know three important things: the hope to which God has called them, the riches of His inheritance in His holy people, and his incomparably great power for us - which is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.
Many people today think that physical death is the end of their existence. Aside from the discomfort most of us feel at the idea of no longer existing, many people are bothered because this seems to provide little justice. Some people cause suffering to others but do not seem to pay any penalty for it, while others try to live good lives but suffer much or die young.
This passage in Daniel teaches that there will in fact be justice in the end. It tells us very little of what will happen when the dead are raised at the time of judgment, but it is clear that there is some kind of reward or punishment, and we can be confident that God in His wisdom and goodness will be entirely right in His judgment.
1 Corinthians 15:20-27
People often think of the resurrection just as something that happened (or that some people thought happened) to one person two thousand years ago. But Paul makes it clear that Jesus' resurrection was just the beginning, and that all of us who belong to Him will likewise be raised from the dead one day, as He finally subdues all enemies and destroys death itself.
People of every time and place have grieved over death, and complained about suffering and injustice. Some have despaired; some have tried to improve society, and hoped for some form of "immortality" by being remembered for their good deeds; and some have merely wished for a better life but seen no means to achieve it. Isaiah offers no easy fixes, but he does hold up the promise that God will in the end right all wrongs and give new life to His people, even those who have died and been buried.
Many people, if they were to try to write a story about resurrection, might try to write something featuring amazing supernatural powers, or deep philosophical insights. But what do we find in the Gospel of John? A story about catching fish and eating breakfast. There may have been something supernatural in the large catch of fish, so many that the net could not be hoisted into the boat but had to be towed in and then dragged ashore. But what really thrilled the disciples was to be reunited, at least for this one morning, with their beloved Master.
In the Gospels we see both the Sadducees and the Pharisees opposed to Jesus, but if they cooperated with each other in trying to get rid of Jesus, it was only because they saw him as an even bigger threat. When Paul appears before the Sanhedrin - which included both Pharisees and Sadducees, but predominantly Sadducees - all Paul had to do was identify himself as one who placed his hope in the resurrection of the dead, and the two groups forgot about Paul and started fighting with each other. There was much more than beliefs about the resurrection that divided them, but it was a pivotal idea, closely tied to many other aspects of their views of God, faith, and life in general.
1 Corinthians 15:49-57
There are people who don't think that the idea of living forever sounds so great. After all, look what life is like for some people who are very old, who have outlived all their friends, who are too frail to do much or enjoy life, but not ill enough to die. There have been some interesting books written in recent years based on the premise of someone living for hundreds of years, and some of the negative aspects of not growing old and dying as everyone else does.
But Paul makes it clear that the kind of life we will have in the resurrection of the dead is very different from what those people imagine. Right now we live in a fallen world, where sin and death distort everything from how it was originally created by God. The new life we will have is very different, because death and all that goes with it - and the sin that caused it - will be gone.
Some of the strongest motivations for people are having other people think well of us, and getting more money. Jesus addresses both of these in this passage, warning us against doing religious activities in order to be thought well of, or valuing our money too much. Either way we will miss out on what is most important.
We find it hard to think of suffering as other than something we would much rather avoid. We recognize that sometimes we must go through it, but we rarely think of it as having any positive aspects. Scripture doesn't tell us to seek out opportunities to suffer, but it does teach us to recognize how God works positive changes in us through it, as well as how the suffering of Christ led to our salvation.
When things are difficult, we sometimes start off well but after a while slack off, especially if our efforts don't seem to be producing much in the way of results or recognition. When it comes to serving God, this can be especially difficult, since we're not supposed to do it for recognition by other people, and rewards from God are not obvious and some are not even in this life. But the writer of Hebrews assures us that God does not forget what we have done for Him, and encourages us to keep it up to the end.
We laugh for all sorts of reasons, sometimes out of genuine humor, sometimes from nervousness, and sometimes to feel accepted in a group (which may include laughter at the expense of someone who is not in the group). In the case of humor, laughter usually depends on the element of surprise (which is why jokes rarely seem as funny after hearing them a few times).
When Sarah laughed upon hearing that she would have a son, a large part of it was probably that the idea of her having a child at her age was so surprising as to be thought utterly ridiculous. If she gave any consideration to the thought that it could really happen, the prospect could also have made her nervous - was she physically or emotionally able to deal with a baby at her age? If we had been told, earlier in our lives, some of the situations God would put us in, we likely would have responded the same way.
When people try to think of examples in the Bible of God doing the seemingly impossible, usually we think of things that seem to defy the laws of nature, such as Jesus walking on water or turning water into wine. The idea that it would be just as much a miracle for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God makes people uneasy. The disciples rightly inferred that if it was impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom, nobody else could presume it would be any easier for them. We sometimes face circumstances that seem like they would require a much bigger miracle than what it takes for us to have eternal life. But if we realize what God did in transforming us from condemned sinners to forgiven saints, we will know that none of our difficult circumstances are too difficult for God.
Few things are as hard to carry around as a guilty conscience, and few things as freeing as being relieved of that guilt. We can try to make excuses for our behavior, try to make up for the bad things we've done by doing good, or try to convince ourselves it really wasn't that bad. But in the end, only confession to God and forgiveness from God free us from guilt and give joy and peace.
1 John 1:5-9
Many of us were afraid of the dark as children, but grew out of it as we discovered nothing very bad would happen in the dark, at least in the safety of our own homes. Many bad things are done in dark places, however (sometimes even in homes where we should be safe), and we usually try to keep our sins hidden, whether in dark places or just behind closed doors. Fellowship with God, however, is impossible when we're keeping things hidden, because there is no hiding with God, who brings everything to light. Either we stay apart from God, or we admit our sin - and then in His grace He not only forgives us but also purifies us.
Sometimes even belief that God forgives those who confess their sins does not give people assurance that they are right with God. They feel God can only forgive them grudgingly because they're not living good enough lives, and that sooner or later He'll give up on them. Paul makes it clear in these verses that it's not how good we are that makes us accepted with God, but what Christ did for us.
Water is such a basic human need that thirst is a universally understood metaphor for desiring something important. No matter what culture someone belongs to, thirst is understood, and Jesus' words about giving water so that we will never be thirsty again will be seen as making a very bold claim indeed.
We may think of something as abstract as hope being far less important to sustaining life than water. Certainly someone can last longer without hope than without water, but people without hope often die in the same terrible circumstances where people with hope are able to survive. The message that God will fill us to overflowing with hope is not just flowery, feel-good poetry, but a promise that fills us with great joy if we believe it.
God's greatness, and the great gifts we receive from Him, are so vast that they boggle our human minds. Paul expresses his prayer that the believers he is writing to will know the incredible dimensions of God's love - how wide, how long, how wide, how deep. Then in the very next sentence he speaks of knowing this love that surpasses knowledge. We simply can't grasp how great it is, yet somehow we can still know it in some essential way.
Some of us may have trouble relating our particular worries to what Jesus says in this passage. Many of us don't actually worry about having food to eat today, or clothes to put on. We are more likely to worry about the car payment, the doctor bill, or saving for retirement or the children's college education. Flowers and birds get along quite nicely without any of those, so how does God's provision for them help with our concerns?
Jesus' words about the uselessness of worry can apply to whatever it is we worry about, however. Worry doesn't get us money to pay the bills, it just makes us focus on our fears and doubts rather than on God's provision for us. We might not have end up having money for all the things that seem important to us, but we will always have a God who loves us more than we can imagine and who takes care of us.
We tend to make two kinds of errors when it comes to the promises of God in Scripture. Sometimes we have trouble believing that God's promises really apply to us and our problems. Other times we really want something and convince ourselves that God will give it to us because of a promise we find in the Bible, without regard to the context. God does desire us to trust in Him and His promises, but not so that we can satisfy our own desires, but to glorify Him.
It's not hard to look around and see things to be afraid of. Often it's more a question of which things are bad enough to make us change our behavior, and which we can try to just ignore, or live with. This psalm reminds us that none of those things are bigger than God. The things that cause us fear may not go away, and feelings of fear may come back from time to time, but fear won't control our lives if we are trusting in God.
Our culture often tells us not to be afraid, that we should believe that we are strong and capable. Scriptures such as this passage in Isaiah, on the other hand, tell us not to be afraid even though we are small and weak, because we have almighty God with us to help us.
2 Tim. 1:3-10
People have often assumed that Timothy was timid based on Paul's reminder to him that God did not give us the spirit of fear. After all, why would Paul have mentioned that unless Timothy did tend to be afraid? It is likely, however, that Paul was using a literary style common in his day, mentioning fear as he did not to urge Timothy to be less timid but to continue to have courage as he trusted in God.
This story about Moses having needed to wear a veil over his face after speaking with God has given rise to a variety of explanations. Most commonly it is seen as the reflected glory of God, that was too much for the people to bear. Some Jewish commentators taught that Moses wore the veil out of humility, so people would not see him as exalted over them because of his close communication with God. Others believed that Moses' face had been disfigured by exposure to God's fiery glory, and the veil was to hide this, while still others suggested that it was because Moses knew the glow was starting fade and he didn't want people to see that. Whatever we make of this story, it is clear that being with God changed Moses.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Paul uses this image of the veil Moses wore to refer to people's spiritual blindness, unwilling or unable to see that salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ, not through the law of Moses. For those who have turned to Christ for salvation, the veil is removed and we see God's glory in Christ, in a way even Moses could not, and as we look on Christ we become more like Him.
While Paul spoke of our seeing Christ's glory, it is not with our physical eyes. Three of Jesus' disciples, however, did see Christ's glory with their own eyes, in the event we call the Transfiguration. The passage indicates only a little of the impact it had on them, but clearly it was so far beyond their understanding and previous experience that they did not know what to make of what they were seeing.
People's faces communicate a great deal of what they are feeling, even without saying a word - something we've become very aware in the past two years of wearing masks in public. We don't see God's face, but we sense that God looking at us with love shining out of His face is something wonderful. The thought that He would look right at us, paying attention to us and our needs, is very comforting - unless we're doing something we wouldn't want Him to see. The prayer in these verses is for God to look at us this way, with loving attention.
Commentators differ on what Jude means here about God keeping us from stumbling. Whatever sort of error it is that God preserves us from, the emphasis is on praising God for His power and goodness, and the joyful prospect of someday being in His presence in glory.
Paul gives a lot of different exhortations in this passage, urging people to a life of humble, loving, joyful service. We will often come up short in some of these areas. That's when it's important to remember that he starts out this passage by telling us to offer ourselves fully to God and to be transformed in how we think, and in reminding us of God's mercy and grace to us. If we're not letting God transform us, we'll end up instead being conformed to this world, even when we're trying not to.
To the people of Israel who had lived as exiles, far away from the land of Israel, salvation meant being back in the Promised Land and living in prosperity there, free from fear of invaders or oppressors. But God had always had a much bigger purpose in mind, to extend salvation to all peoples throughout the world, for everyone to come to know Him and worship Him.
For some of us, these verses are so familiar that it may be hard to hear much besides the echoes of past sermons. But an intriguing article suggested a connection between the setting here, on a mountain, and Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" earlier in this Gospel, pointing to that sermon as the content of what Jesus meant here by "everything I have commanded you." Everything would seem to encompass more than a few chapters of the Gospel, but any disciple-making efforts would certainly need to give them ample attention.
1 Peter 4:8-11
Right before these verses, Peter says "The end of all things is near." Some people would react to that pronouncement with fear, despair, or a determination to live it up while they still can. Peter follows it up with exhortations to love, to use the gifts God has given us to serve others, and to live so as to bring praise and glory to God.
Both the Scriptures and history tell us that some of the worst evil is often done by religious people, those who carry on with the outward forms of worship without loving God or God's people. Isaiah's words here are a chilling warning that we can let our hearts go far from God while deceiving other people - and perhaps ourselves - into thinking we are honoring God. But God is never deceived.
Paul did not know most of the people in the Colossian church. But he knew about them from Epaphras, and he knew what kind of struggles Christians in general face in their daily lives. They get impatient with other people, they resent wrongs done to them, they let conflict fracture relationships, and they dwell on the things that are wrong with their circumstances. So he writes about how belonging to God leads to patience, forgiveness, peace, and thankfulness - lessons we need just as much as the Colossian Christians did.
There are a lot of people who try to tell us how to live. Some of them we can just ignore, especially those we only hear in mass media or social media. But when God speaks, ignoring Him is not an option. Either we are learning to obey Him, enjoying His blessings and sharing them with other people, or we are disobeying Him and can expect His righteous judgment.
For many people, the words "delight" and "law" do not go together - unless perhaps it is about how to get around the law, or to use it for one's own benefit. Yet the psalmist tells us here that delight in God's law is what separates the righteous from the wicked. Not just doing good things, out of fear of punishment, but finding joy in knowing what God desires and doing it.
If you tried to write a line of verse about your relationship with God, would it be about following His instructions? And if you did try to write about that, how many lines could you write that started with the same letter? It might seem like an odd thing to attempt, but acrostic psalms like this one were written with lines starting with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Often it is only one line per letter, but in Psalm 119 it is eight lines for each letter.
2 Tim. 3:14-17
There are many things we believe because of who we learned them from. Parents, teachers, friends - we trust them so we trust what they tell us. Sometimes we end up believing the wrong things this way, but Paul assures us here that those who trust in what God has spoken to us in Scripture will find it entirely reliable to direct our faith and our lives.
People react in different ways to impending catastrophe. Some try to ignore it, to go on as though nothing too terrible will happen. Some try to find ways to keep themselves safe, without regard for others around them. Some give in to despair.
Joel's message at such a time is to return to God, not just as individuals but as the community of God's people. He does not offer any assurances that God will prevent the catastrophe if they do certain things, but he reminds them of God's character, that He is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love.
Psalm 100 is often used as a call to worship, because in its few verses it tells us not only to worship, but why and how. We come with joyful songs and with thanksgiving and praise, because He made us and we belong to Him, and because He is good and loving and faithful, not just to us but through all the generations to follow.
In this passage, as throughout the book of Hebrews, the writer exhorts believers to persevere in their faith, even in the face of persecution. One reason he gives for us to be faithful to God is that God is faithful to us. The writer knows this is not easy, however, so he also exhorts the believers to gather together and to encourage one another, because we can better be faithful as a community than by ourselves.
1 Chronicles 16:23-31
Sometimes it's easy to think of things to praise God for. Other times it can help us to be reminded of these things. The verses in this passage are part of a longer psalm used by worship leaders to lead the Israelites in praising God - for who He is and what He has done. There are many reasons given, and they all lead to worship and rejoicing.
While many of the reasons given for praise in the 1 Chronicles passage deal with God's covenant relationship with His people, this psalm focuses on God's power displayed in nature. It is not the calm power displayed in the distant view of a mountain or the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, but the dynamic power of crashing waves, flashing lightning, and booming thunder, all of which in some way speak with "the voice of the Lord."
One things that comes across clearly about the believers in this passage is that they spent a lot of time together. They met together every day. They ate together. They shared their possessions to give to those in need. And one thing we don't see in this passage is any mention of fear. They weren't afraid of not having enough for themselves. They weren't afraid of what people thought of them for following Jesus. They weren't afraid of other people in the group taking advantage of their faith and generosity. No wonder more people kept wanting to join them.
Spending time with loved ones at times of crisis or celebration is such a familiar part of our lives that many people didn't realize how essential it is until the pandemic deprived us of those opportunities. We can only speculate as to how much Mary's decision to visit to Elizabeth was from a sense of crisis - due to a highly unconventional pregnancy - or celebration - of the new lives both women were nurturing. But Elizabeth clearly responds to the visit with a feeling of celebration, seeing God at work in both their lives.
Micah does not mention King David directly in this passage, but there are clear parallels between David and the ruler anticipated in these verses. Like David, the ruler will come from Bethlehem, and this ruler will be a shepherd of God's people, just as David was first a shepherd of sheep and then of the people of Israel. And like David, coming from the little town of Bethlehem, this ruler will not initially be recognized as someone destined for greatness.
This passage in Zephaniah is full of familiar themes of rejoicing in God's salvation, in His forgiveness, and in His presence with us. We are grateful to God for His goodness to us, and we do rejoice in the salvation we have received, are receiving, and will receive even more fully in the future. But for some, perhaps many, of us, it can be hard to think of God taking "great delight" in us. This particular phrase is spoken to Israel, yet based on the rest of Scripture, it would seem that it applies to all God's people, even us, as incredible as it may seem.
People often want to turn to God for a message of comfort, but John's message here reminds us that coming to God means turning away from sin. Anyone who wants to come to God without repentance really doesn't want to come to God, but rather just to have life made easier. The message that John proclaimed was one of good news, but it is only good for those who choose God instead of their own way.
Luke 1: 68-80
The Jews of Jesus' time looked forward to a Messiah who would deliver them from their enemies. We sometimes focus on their desire for an earthly king - which was part of the reason they did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah, since he did not act like the kind of king they were expecting. But one important reason they wanted to be delivered from their oppressors was to be able to worship God "without fear, in holiness and righteousness" as Zechariah says in this passage.
During the second century before Christ, the Jewish temple had been defiled by a pagan sacrifice, leading to a Jewish revolt. As long as their land was ruled by Greeks or Romans, there was always the threat of some kind of pagan defilement of the temple, to show the Jews who was in charge. They longed for a Messiah who would free them to serve God without such a fear, to worship God in the holy manner that He deserved.
As Zachariah had prophesied, his son John became a prophet, preparing the way for the Lord, calling people to seek forgiveness for their sins. His preaching was a reminder that worshiping God in holiness was about more than prayers and sacrifices at the temple. They had to turn from crooked paths and walk in the straight ways that are God's ways. In Advent, we likewise hear John's voice calling to us, to turn from anything in our lives that would keep us from God.
We live in a world littered with broken promises. Each of us has probably been guilty of a quite a few broken promises ourselves - especially the ones we make to ourselves. It's easy to become cynical and put little hope in promises, knowing humanity's poor track record in keeping them.
But the promise in this passage wasn't made by humans. Some people aren't too sure of God's track record of keeping promises either, since there is sometimes a very, very long time between the promise and the fulfillment. But God assures us that He will fulfill what He has promised, and there will finally be a truly righteous King ruling on the earth.
All of us know what it's like to wait. Sometimes we wait for things we look forward to, with eager anticipation of the joy we will experience. Other times we wait with apprehension, or even with dread, fearing what is to come but unable to prevent it.
For those who trust in Christ and look forward to His coming, it is the waiting of joyful anticipation. For other people, it will be filled with fear, even if they don't understand what is coming that is so dreadful.
Twice in these five verses God is identified as the one "who is, and who was, and who is to come." In times of social unrest - which has probably characterized every period in human history to some extent - we can know that there is Someone unchanging who is always present and always in control. That doesn't mean our current problems will go away, but it means our suffering is not without meaning, and that the One who created all things is with us now and will set all things right in the end.
This conversation between Jesus and Pilate makes clear how differently they saw the concept of kingship. Pilate could only think in terms of an earthly ruler of a political territory. Some people might think that Jesus' kingdom, "not of this world," is mystical and therefore less "real." But Jesus' power is far greater than any Roman emperor, and his kingdom will last long after all earthly kingdoms have fallen.
1 Samuel 2:1-10
People like to root for the underdog. It satisfies our sense of fairness to see the little guy win. Of course, that can change if, instead of spectators, we become participants. Then many people much prefer to be on the stronger side, even if the outcome may be unfair.
In the Scriptures, God often seems to be on the side of the underdog. In Hannah's psalm of praise in 1 Samuel 2, we hear one example after another where God overturned expectations. Barren women like Hannah give birth, the poor and needy are exalted, and those who thought themselves strong and self-sufficient find themselves at the bottom of the heap. It's not primarily about satisfying a human sense of fairness, however, but showing that everything ultimately comes from God, and that those who oppose God will ultimately be the losers.
Much of the theological discussion in Hebrews can feel foreign to us. The author is clearly working to counter arguments that we would not make, however real the conflict may have been for the original recipients of this letter. But his conclusions, about how these truths should shape our faith and our lives, are just as important to us as to first-century Jewish Christians.
Jesus is talking about the end times here, but he's also talking about the things that tend to deceive us or shake our faith. We trust in things that seem solid and unchanging, but then they are shaken to pieces. We trust in people who seem so persuasive, but then they turn out to be quite different than what we thought. Or we find everything so uncertain and threatening that we feel overwhelmed by it all. But Jesus is telling us that He knew it was going to be this way, and through it all we can trust in Him because He won't fail us and in the end He will make all things right.
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Most of us enjoy a story with a happy ending, and this one does not disappoint. There are several ways that things could have gone badly in Naomi's plan to get Ruth married to Boaz. And even once she was married, there was no guarantee of a successful pregnancy and a healthy baby boy. There are certainly plenty of stories in the Bible where things do not turn out so well. But God has clearly blessed Ruth and her new husband, and among their child's descendents will be King David, and many centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth.
In our modern society we often think of ourselves as being in control of our circumstances to a large degree. Advances in science and technology have enabled us to control our enviroment far more than most previous generations could have imagined. But there is still a great deal we don't understand or know how to do anything about, from diseases to weather to social problems, and these things remind us that it is still God who provides for us even when we think we are doing it all ourselves.
Some people claim that our ideas about heaven are nothing but our imagining of a much better version of real things we are familiar with on earth. But the writer of Hebrews sees the most real things as being those in heaven. When the Jewish priests sacrificed animals on the altar every day, and once a year entered the Most Holy Place with blood of a sacrifice, they were actually copying the reality that is in heaven. Up until the time of Jesus the earthly copy was all they knew, but now the heavenly reality has been made known, and the earthly copy is no longer needed.
Of all the accounts in the Gospels of what Jesus said and did, probably none shows more clearly than this one that he is divine. Only God can raise from the dead a man who has been in the tomb for four days. To those who do not believe in God, it is a prime example of a story made up to support religious belief. But for those who trust in Christ, it provides a vibrant hope both for this life and the next.
Later in this chapter, the new Jerusalem is described as being filled with gold and jewels. Whether one takes those descriptions as literal, or symbolic of the perfection and beauty of God's dwelling place, all that richness and beauty is not the center of attention. It is the presence of God Himself, living among His people, that will be the joy of all who enter there.
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Some people find the conclusion of the book of Job somewhat less than satisfying. Job now becomes wealthier than at the beginning, and has another ten children - is that a reward for his having repented? Is it to make up for his suffering? Are his lost sons and daughters so easily replaced?
It's not clear what would be a more satisfying ending, however. We might like Job to get an explanation for what happened to him, but we just saw in the previous few chapters that the Creator does not owe explanations to those He has created. We might like to see a recognition that the ten additional children do not erase the grief for those who died - but the people of Job's day understood that as well as we do, even if it is not stated in the passage. In the end, like Job, we have to accept that God is beyond our understanding, and all that we receive from Him is a gift.
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
It is interesting to see that this psalm was written when David had pretended to be insane before Abimelek. Some people today would consider David's claims about God to be, if not a bit insane, then at least pretty irrational. Why does David give God credit for saving him out of his troubles, but he doesn't hold God responsible for allowing those troubles to begin with? Besides, didn't David get himself out of trouble by pretending to be insane?
David might find such questions to be themselves pretty irrational. God is good, and of course He is to be praised for all the good that He brings into our lives. We don't find out that God is good because He saves us from trouble, but because we know He is good, we can see evidence of it in our lives.
It can be hard for us, who only know about the Levitical priesthood as ancient history, to really appreciate the arguments that Hebrews makes about why Jesus is a better high priest. But for the original audience, this was an important issue - were they better off depending on the established tradition of animal sacrifices offered by priests in the temple, or this relatively new teaching about Jesus having died once for all for their sins? Even if we take it as settled that Jesus is our true great high priest, however, we can learn to appreciate more fully the meaning of what he did for us by learning more about the sacrificial system described in Hebrews.
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
When people ask the questions raised in Job - why is there so much suffering, even for people who have lived good lives? - we often try to give theological and philosophical answers. We talk about free will, about a fallen creation, about how good often comes out of suffering. God's response to Job is very different. Look around at creation, He says. What role did you have in bringing any of this about? You see these things every day - the earth, the clouds, the various animals in their habitats - but what do you know about how it all works?
God's answer doesn't satisfy people who think they have a right to know why God does what He does - because it's essentially saying that no, they don't have that right. But for many people who suffer, God's answer is enough. The fact that He answers at all means that God wasn't absent after all, as Job thought. He was listening to Job's complaints. Creation does not give us philosophical or theological answers, but it stirs in us a sense of awe, an appreciation of its marvels, and - for those of us who believe - a recognition of who God is and who we are in relation to Him.
Different cultures and religions have come up with very different views of creation. Some see it as populated with many powerful spirits, which may sometimes do things that help people but can also be malicious or simply indifferent to human suffering. Others see the physical creation as a burden to be escaped from into the pure world of the spirit. Today some see it as merely an accident of time and chance. Jews and Christians have a very different view. Creation is the good creation of a gracious God, and in it we see His wisdom, power, and majesty.
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Most of us have probably at some point felt something similar to what Job expresses here - though we don't usually put it into words, at least not among other people. Even as believers we may feel that God is absent, but we don't say so. What would people think?
Like other psalms of lament, this psalm expresses both suffering and trust in God. The psalmist alternates between describing terrible pain, both physical and emotional, and recalling how God has worked in the past, in the lives of his ancestors and in his own life. Whatever kind of difficulties we are dealing with, it provides a model for our own prayers, bringing to God both our troubles and our trust.
Not all of us have experienced a sense of call to a particular form of ministry, but as Christians all of us are called by God. Paul speaks of that calling in this passage, how we are called to be one body in Christ, with one hope and one faith, living in humility and love for one another.
1 Corinthians 11:23-30
People have all sorts of traditions for remembering important events of the past. Sometimes, over the passage of time, the traditions become more important to them than the events they are supposed to be remembering. Paul wants to be sure that Christians have a clear understanding of what it means when sharing the bread and the cup in celebrating Communion. There are different views of what he means when he speaks of doing it in an unworthy manner, but clearly it is not something to take lightly.
We don't know the details of the terrible danger God's people were in, that that were delivered out of, that form the background for this psalm. Whatever it was, though, it was clearly a situation where no amount of human effort would have been sufficient to save them. Only God had the power to save them.
Our circumstances are very different from theirs, but this psalm reminds us that no matter how bad things seem, God has the power to save. And in times when we might think we can cope with things ourselves, we are reminded that only God has the power to save us from our own sinfulness. Finally, it is also a reminder to stop and give thanks for the ways that God has already saved us.
This passage has been interpreted in very different ways, with some people claiming it as a promise of physical healing for those who pray with the proper faith, and others who believe that the healing referred to is spiritual rather than physical. Some of us may simply be uncomfortable trying to understand a passage that is the subject of such heated controversy. But what is clear is that James teaches the importance of community in bringing people to wholeness, the necessity of confession of sins, and the power of prayer.
In this passage, Jesus states that "whoever is not against us is for us." Taking just that phrase out of context, one might think that means that someone who is not actively opposed to Jesus, but just taking a sort of neutral position, would be seen as "for" Jesus. Yet elsewhere, Jesus says, "Whoever is not with me is against me." There is no being neutral about who Jesus is and his claims on our lives. But those who follow him often come from very different backgrounds, and following him will join us with people who we might have thought we had very little in common with.
Particularly in our fast-paced modern society, people tend to make choices based on short-term benefits, not paying a lot of attention to the long-term consequences. They may not be all that interested in projects that require years of patient work before any kind of return on the investment of time and effort. This psalm uses the metaphor of a tree that has grown and is fruitful, a process that takes considerable time. If we want the blessedness spoken of in this psalm, we not only have to choose God's way instead of the way of the wicked, but we have to be committed to it for the long term, not giving up when we don't see results right away.
James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a
People often think of wisdom as primarily associated with the mind - what we know, how well we understand things, perhaps how well we can explain things to others. But the wisdom James is talking about seems to have more to do with our desires and values. The unwise person is concerned with himself, with getting what he wants, and getting at least as much as anyone else does. The wise person is not thinking all that much about himself but about others and their needs and having good relationships among the whole community.
When we consider how God has spoken in creation and in Scripture, we often focus on comparing and contrasting these two types of revelation. In this psalm, however, the focus is all on seeing the goodness and glory of God in all the ways He has revealed Himself, and in the joy of knowing, worshipping, and obeying Him.
Our ability to talk is a huge part of who we are as human beings. Even people who cannot speak due to some disability have ways to communicate using some kind of language. We talk to tell stories and jokes, to give instructions, to persuade people, to educate and entertain. But having such a powerful tool means it is just as powerful when misused, to tell lies, to persuade people to do wrong things, to mock and humiliate people. James reminds us that how we use words tells something about what kind of people we really are, and if we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, then one would expect the ways we use our words to reflect that, not just when we're trying to look like good Christians but in all circumstances of our lives.
Like all of us, Peter sometimes said just the right thing but other times - probably more often - he got it very wrong. When he declared that Jesus was the Messiah, he got it right, but immediately after that he got it wrong when he challenged Jesus' prediction of his own suffering and death. When we use words to try to manipulate people or events to go the way we would like them to go, we will end up misusing them. But when our primary desire is to follow Jesus and glorify God, it will show in what we say.
There are verses elsewhere in Proverbs that point to poverty as likely to result from laziness, gluttony, or drunkenness. But those warnings are to deter people from the kind of behavior that will lead to poverty, not to give more prosperous people reasons not to help those who are poor. On the contrary, we are reminded that God cares about the poor and will bless those who are generous to them.
While our society is very different, socially, religiously, and economically, from that of the first century Christians, the lessons of this passage are just as relevant to churches today as those that James first wrote to. Favoritism today to those who appear wealthy may not be primarily about who gets the best pew, but there is still the temptation to want to attract those who can benefit us, more than those who seem mostly to need help from us. We know the Golden Rule, but we manage to apply it rather selectively.
Jesus frequently surprises us with what he says and does. Why does he seem reluctant to help the Syrophoenician woman? Why does he take the deaf-mute man away from the crowd, and do what seem like such odd things in the course of healing him? It's easy to get distracted by trying to come up with answers to these questions, and lose sight of the clear demonstration of both his compassion and power in both healings.
It may strike us as odd that right after recounting what God did in the days of the Exodus, God says "Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past." Why mention them, in that case? One answer might be that we should think on them but not "dwell on" them, but that may be making too much of the phrasing in a particular translation. Other translations say do not "consider" those things. A better answer might be that the subject of the previous two verses was not the things God did, but God himself. The God who did those things is the one who is now going to do something new.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
For the Israelites taken from Jerusalem to Babylon, their exile must have felt like a disaster. They were torn from their homeland, the temple where they worshipped God and felt His presence had been destroyed, and they now had to live among people who spoke a different language, worshipped different gods, and had different customs and values. God assures them, however, that He has this all planned out and it is not a disaster. They can have a good life in this strange country. But it is not their new homeland. The day will come when God will bring their children and grandchildren back to the land that had been theirs.
Ephesians was probably written by Paul while in prison, and it has been suggested he may have written these verses while looking at the Roman soldier who was guarding him, noting each piece of the soldier's armor and thinking how it relates to us as Christians in a spiritual battle. We often read this passage about the armor of God and think about what it means for us as individuals trying to do what is right. But the strength of the Roman army was not in what each individual soldier could do, but in their strength as a unit, as they advanced together in an unbroken line that was very hard for the enemy to penetrate. Likewise, we will have victory in our spiritual battles when we are united with our brothers and sisters in Christ, armed with the spiritual qualities described in this passage.
Many of us have probably heard so many times about Jesus being the bread of life that we need to feed on to have eternal life, that we can find it hard to understand how difficult these words would have been to those who heard him first say these things. Did people leave him because the metaphor of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was too graphic, suggesting a sort of cannibalism? Or were they offended because he claimed to be the source of life, essentially claiming to be God? When people today are not offended by these words, is it because they accept his words as truth, or because they haven't ever had to think too deeply about what it means? Jesus acknowledged that not everyone could accept his teaching, only those whom the Father enabled to do so.
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
King Solomon had a very promising start as a good and wise king. He knew enough to know that he did not know enough, and asked God to give him the wisdom he needed. God was pleased to grant his request, and although Solomon did not ask for wealth or long life, God gave him wealth also, and the promise of a long life if he was obedient to God.
If we read the accounts of the rest of Solomon's life, we see that while he possessed great wisdom, he also made some very foolish choices, especially later in life. We can learn a lot about wisdom from Solomon, both by studying the wise things he said, and by observing the mess he made of things when he failed to follow that wisdom himself.
Often when people think of wisdom, they focus on being able to handle difficult situations, where the best path is not at all clear. Much of this comes from experience, as well as following the guidance of those who can pass on their wisdom to us. These verses, however, focus not on figuring out those difficult situations but on our relationship with God, on responding to what God has done in our lives with praise, joy, and thanksgiving. A great many of the foolish choices people make come from wanting the wrong things, and if we delight in God and in His good gifts to us, we will be much more open to the Spirit's guidance in making wise choices.
Paul's various exhortations in this passage of sins to avoid and virtues to cultivate can sound like a nice ideal to shoot for, but very hard to actually do on a consistent basis. Some of us may hear the list and feel guilty for our many failures and wonder how we could possibly meet that high standard. Paul's statement that "we are all members of one body" can help us, if we can hear it not just as a reason to treat other people well but let it truly shape our attitudes about our membership in the body of Christ. If I really am part of the same body, like a foot or a lung or rib, then I am not giving up something to show love in these ways to other members of the same body, but rather I benefit by it as much as they do.
John 6:35, 41-51
Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had multiplied five small barley loaves to feed thousands of people. They were impressed by the miracle, but Jesus saw that they were focused on loaves of bread to fill their stomachs, and he wanted them to desire him as the bread of life to nurture their souls. This metaphor has many layers of meaning, evoking memories of the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness, the comparison of God's word to food we need to chew on and digest, and for those who know the rest of the story of the New Testament, it points to Jesus' coming sacrifice and his words at the Last Supper, "This is my body."
2 Samuel 11:26-12:15
In literature, a good writer is one whose characters have depth, showing both strengths and weaknesses, and both good and bad character qualities. Some people's impression of the Bible is of one-dimensional characters, either heroes or villains, perhaps because they only remember Sunday School stories from early childhood. But many characters in the Bible are much more complex, and David is a prime example. He was a hero in his early years, but a villain in his actions with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. In this passage, he is brought forcibly to face that ugly truth, that he has committed terrible sins. Unlike many powerful men in that situation, he repents, and in humility faces the judgment God will bring on him.
With most psalms we have little if any idea of the context in which they were written. With Psalm 51, however, we know exactly what was behind it, because we just read about it in 2 Samuel. Our own sins are different from those of David, but we can find in his words a pattern to follow in recognizing our sinfulness and guilt, and also in finding forgiveness and hope for our future relationship with God.
We may sometimes wonder how we can ever be the kind of faithful, mature disciples of Christ that we are called to be, as we find ourselves again and again giving in to certain temptations, allowing ourselves some of the more socially acceptable sins such as pride, resentment, or only being committed to telling the truth when it is to our advantage to do so. In this passage, Paul not only exhorts us to "live a life worthy of the calling" we have received, but also reminds us that God has given the church - that is us - people with various gifts to teach and guide us so that we will develop into those mature disciples.
These verses promise an eternal kingdom to David and his descendants. Because God is faithful, this promise cannot fail. Yet in the latter part of the psalm, after the verses in today's passage, it appears that God has in fact renounced the covenant He had made. There are many times when life looks more like the latter part of Psalm 89 than the first part, when we do not see evidence of God's love. At that point some people discard faith in God and His promises. But that is the time when we need to remember them, and remember how God has kept His promises in the past even when things seemed terrible, and trust that He will always be faithful.
All of us want to have a group of people where we feel we belong, whether it is a family, neighborhood, church, or some kind of club or other organization. But one thing that often makes us feel good about belonging is knowing there are other people who don't belong, that there is something special about being in our group that might be lost if all sorts of other people became part of it. Some groups have to be limited in order to accomplish their purpose, but other times the limits serve no good purpose and just keep people apart.
God's plan had always been to bring the blessings of salvation to all people through His chosen people of Israel, but it was hard for many in Israel to think that God might want to join to them other people who didn't have their long history with God. And it was probably hard for the other people to accept that coming to the true God meant joining with those Jews who held themselves apart from everyone else. Only through the saving work of Christ and the power of the Spirit were Jews and non-Jews able to come together as the people of God.
2 Samuel 6:1-19
Many people find part of this passage very troubling. The passage as listed in the lectionary actually leaves out the troubling verses. People don't want to read that God killed someone for trying to keep the holy ark of God from falling to the ground. It is important, however, to read even the parts of Scripture that we would rather not deal with, and to struggle to understand why these things are in the Scriptures and what we can learn from them. If we only want the parts that comfort us, we won't get very far in knowing and serving God. This passage makes us think about what it means to say that God is holy.
Thinking about God's holiness naturally leads one to ask, who can come into God's holy presence? The psalm gives an answer, but that's not its main focus. The focus is on God, and that's where the focus needs to be in order to worship Him. We need our hearts right with God to come to Him, but if our focus is on ourselves, or even on how worship makes us feel, we are probably doing something other than worship.
2 Samuel 5:1-10
These verses, telling of David becoming king over all Israel and Judah and taking Jerusalem as his city from which to rule the country, are probably among the least well-known of all the stories about David in Scripture. We enjoy the stories that tell about his courage and his steadfast faith in God, and we take to heart the lessons we learn from the stories of his sins in the matter of Bathsheba, and the terrible things that happened with some of his children. But these verses have little excitement and no obvious lessons to learn. Yet we see that he came to this place of power "because the Lord God Almighty was with him." All that he did would have counted for little if God had not chosen to use David as king to lead His people.
This psalm seems to exalt a particular geographic location in a way that probably strikes many of us as strange. Many of us feel a strong tie to the particular place where we live, or perhaps where we lived in the past, but we know that it is special to us because of our personal connection, not because the place itself has some universal significance. But it is primarily God who is being praised in this psalm, and Jerusalem because it is considered the place where God makes Himself known and is the focal point of His people's relationship to Him.
There are many kinds of situations where we unable to cope with the problems we face, but perhaps none more so than when we feel trapped by our own sin. We've done things that are not just stupid but bad, and we know we've caused our own misery, but we also know ourselves too well to think we can fix it just by wanting to, because it's not just things we've done that are wrong, but we ourselves who are wrong.
The psalmist cried out to God from the depths, knowing God was the one way out. He recognized the seriousness of his sin, but he also knew the reality of forgiveness. He put his hope in God, and called for all Israel to do the same.
Fear keeps us from doing a lot of things we would like to do. Sometimes it's fear of failure, or of being disappointed, or of finding we have wasted time and effort on something that didn't work out. Often it is fear of what other people will think or say, that we will be rejected in some way, losing prestige or approval.
In this passage in Mark, both Jairus and the woman who has suffered from bleeding probably struggled with fear as they approached Jesus. Jesus could refuse to help, or he could turn out to be unable to help. People might think poorly of Jairus for going to Jesus, and they would certainly think very poorly of the woman for touching people when she was unclean due to her bleeding. But desperation gave them strength, and trust in Jesus' power gave them hope that was stronger than the fear.
1 Samuel 17:32-49
Even people who have never read the Bible have heard of David and Goliath. They may have no idea why David was fighting Goliath, only that he was the plucky little guy who fought a giant and won. If David had been matched against an enemy of the same size and strength, many people would have little interest in the story. David didn't fight Goliath because he was a giant, however, but because he had no respect for Israel's God. The fact that David appeared small and weak in comparison just made it more obvious that God was at work when David defeated his enemy.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
When people consider religious teachers, there is often a question of whom they can trust. Too often we have heard stories of respected religious leaders who turn out to be very untrustworthy. The way Paul characterizes his ministry in this passage doesn't prove that what he teaches is true, but it certainly shows him as someone who could be trusted to be faithful to his calling, no matter what the cost.
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Since God was able to direct Samuel to go to Jesse of Bethlehem to find the new king he had chosen for Israel, one would presume God could have been specific enough to tell Samuel ahead of time which of Jesse's sons God had chosen. But the process having seven of Jesse's sons appear before Samuel, with God telling Samuel each time, "No, not this one," made it clear that God wasn't looking for the oldest or tallest or best-looking. We aren't even told in this passage why God did pick David, but we know that it was something within David that only God could see.
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
To people concerned with outward signs of success, the apostle Paul's ministry was not very impressive. He had very little in terms of status or material possessions, and he had been run out of town more than once. Even some members of the church he started in Corinth didn't seem very impressed with him. But Paul had learned to see things differently, because Christ had transformed him, and his life was devoted to telling other people how Christ could transform their lives also.
Some psalms tell a lot about the trouble someone has gone through, while also praising God for His deliverance. This psalm mentions the trouble only in passing, and says a lot about praising God and His greatness. There are times when it is helpful to know what great problems someone has been delivered from, but people whose testimony of God's goodness does not include such striking accounts of trials do not need to think their witness to God is any less valuable. Sometimes it is good to focus primarily on the greatness of God's love and faithfulness without needing to know the details of what He delivered us from.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
It's not hard to find reasons to lose heart, if we think about the problems we face and the mistakes we have made and the lack of progress toward goals we had set. And if this world and this life were all there was to existence, it might be hard to come up with reasons not to lose heart. But Paul reminds us to keep our attention on what we can't see with our physical eyes, because what we see as trouble can be God working out His plan to make us more like Christ and to use us to bring other people to Christ.
Many people say that they can worship God better out in the middle of natural beauty than in a church building. There is certainly much to praise God for in nature, and as this passage in Isaiah reminds us, "the whole earth is full of His glory." But it is in his vision of God in the temple that Isaiah hears the message of atonement for sin and where he receives God's call to serve Him.
Most of us don't spend much time thinking about inheritance, because our parents don't have all the much to leave to us. And the ideas we do have about inheritance of money, land, or other material possessions doesn't seem to apply very well to being an heir - along with billions of other people - to an immortal God. Being co-heirs with the Son of God sounds like it must be something pretty special ... but kind of vague. Paul doesn't elaborate on what it means, but if we look ahead to the following passage we'll see that it is a reason for hope in the middle of a messed-up world.
The disciples had been waiting - as Jesus had instructed them - for the gift of the Holy Spirit. We don't know what they were expected. They probably had little idea what to expect. They were probably nearly as surprised at the way it happened as the crowd that gathered in amazement and puzzlement.
We pray for God's presence, and for Him to take action in our lives. We need to be prepared for the possibility that He will show up in very unexpected ways. Probably it won't be as dramatic as what happened on the day of Pentecost, but it may unsettle our lives just as much.
We are in a season when gardens and crops are being planted. Every gardener or farmer works hard to plant things well, so that roots will take hold, seeds will sprout, and strong healthy plants will grow. Scripture tells us how to take the same care for our spiritual growth, so that we bear fruit for God.
Jesus' prayer for his disciples covers many things, but a link running through these verses is how we as His followers are like Him.
1 John 5:9-13
Many people today find it hard to accept what is in the Bible, seeing it as a collection of ancient fables, and preferring to learn from those considered experts today in science and philosophy. We can certainly learn a great deal from scientists and philosophers, but in this passage John points out that if we accept testimony from other people, we should be all that much more ready to accept the testimony given by God.
We use the word "friend" to mean a variety of things - an acquaintance, someone you know well and like, or a supporter of a cause. These days it can even be someone you've never met in person, but know only from posts in social media. When Jesus tells his disciples that he calls them his friends, he clearly has a very close relationship in mind. These are people he has told everything he has learned from his Father. And they are people he is willing to give up everything for.
1 John 5:1-8
In these verses John continues the argument he has been making in the previous verses, that we cannot separate loving God from loving other people. There may be people we have trouble getting along with, but if they are children of God, then they are loved by God and dear to Him. If we love God, how can we not also love those who are dear to Him?
We have all seen beautiful bouquets of fresh flowers, which initially have much the same appearance as before they were cut from the plants they were taken from. But even with careful tending, soon they begin to wilt because the source of their life is gone. As churchgoers, we can sometimes do and say things that sound a lot like the life of faith, but unless we follow Jesus' exhortation to remain in him, sooner or later our lives will reveal the lack of that vital connection to him.
1 John 4:7-21
Many people think of love primarily as a feeling. When it comes to loving God, they try to feel loving feelings, and to feel loved by God. If they succeed in having those feelings, they think they love God. If those same people are characterized by hatred for other people, however, John says they are lying when they claim to love God.
Being in a position of power generally gives a person confidence. When you have authority you don't have to back down just because someone disagrees. When you know someone powerful is backing you up, you can say or do things you wouldn't otherwise.
In Acts 4, we see two different groups of people, each with a different kind of power and authority. The religious leaders were used to being in charge and having people do what they said. But Peter and John know that when they speak and act in the name of Jesus, they represent God who has the greatest power and authority in the universe, and that nothing those religious leaders do can stop what God is doing.
1 John 3:16-24
We don't know exactly who the people were the John addressed this letter to, but it appears that what they knew - or didn't know - was an issue. John uses the word "know" thirty-two times in this letter. Eight times he says "this is how we know," and he uses that phrase three times just in these nine verses. Whether we know what we don't know and want to know it, or don't even know what we don't know but need to know, John has important answers for us to learn.
When we think about ways that our faith in God can be seen by how we live, we tend to focus on our activities and things we say, along with time spent in worship, Bible study, or prayer. But in this psalm we see that faith - or the lack of it - also shows up in what we think about as we go to bed at night. Do we lie there dwelling on disappointments from today or worries about tomorrow? Or do we turn all that over to God and go to sleep with a thankful and trusting heart?
1 John 3:1-10
When we see children with their parents, we often notice a family resemblance. Physical build, the shape of the face, perhaps a particular gesture, or a way of speaking - these all show ways that the parents have shaped their children. Scripture tells us that we as God's children show a family resemblance to Him, because we do what is right, as He does. If that resemblance is missing, it's a sign that there is not a family relationship at all.
We tend to think of people who lived thousands of years ago as having been superstitious, quick to believe in a supernatural explanation for everything. They may have been less skeptical about miracles than many people today, but this passage shows that they thought first of a natural, everyday explanation for a body missing from its tomb: somebody had come and moved it. Belief in the resurrection come from actually encountering the risen Christ.
There can be something about being in a crowd that makes it easier to express emotions in a way we would not when by ourselves. Sometimes that is a bad thing, when a mob lets its anger go wild in a destructive riot. But when those with faith in God join together in praising God, it can help us give voice to joy and praise in a way that can be difficult for some of us as individuals.
Not everyone in the crowd on Palm Sunday joined in the praises, because it was clear that those who followed Jesus were praising God for the work He was doing in and through Jesus, and the Pharisees saw him as their opponent when it came to leading God's people. They wanted to shut him up, but Jesus made it clear that no matter what they did to him or his followers, the work of God and the praises of God would go on.
A primary concern of anyone looking for a house is that it have a good foundation. Even with a good foundation, most houses eventually experience some settling due to changes in the ground below the foundation, and the owner's hope is that it simply settles evenly.
Jesus states in this passage that his church is built on rock. Regardless of one's interpretation of what constitutes that rock, it is an assurance that the church is build on a solid foundation. Even when everything in life seems very unsettled, the foundation remains firm for those who belong to Christ.
In this passage Jesus severely rebukes the Pharisees and the experts in the Jewish law. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the harshness of Jesus' words, not at all like "meek and mild" Jesus they are accustomed to. Others may find satisfaction in hearing Jesus clearly rebuke those who reject him and his teachings.
What is probably difficult for most of us is to put ourselves in the shoes of those Pharisees and experts in the law, considering how we might sometimes be guilty of the same attitudes. They paid a lot of attention to the "outside," what could easily be seen, neglecting what is more important but less obvious.
Many people have speculated about what Jesus wrote on the ground, in this passage about the woman taken in adultery, which is the only time we are told that he wrote anything. Some people think he was writing down the sins of her accusers, or their names. Whatever he wrote, it seems to have served its purpose, as the accusers all went away. Jesus neither condemns her for a crime he has not witnessed, nor condones the sin she committed, but offers her a chance to live a better life from now on.
This psalm is overflowing with praise for God. Nearly every verse names God directly, and the few that do not are still clearly pointing to God and what He has done. This psalm also draws a clear contrast, showing on the one hand the greatness and goodness of God, compared with the limited power and often deficient moral character of human beings.
When we hear this parable, and hear that it was spoken against the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders, our tendency may be to focus on how foolish those men were who rejected Christ (and perhaps we congratulate ourselves a bit on knowing better and having believed in Him). While we have not rejected Jesus in the way that they did, however, we need to consider the ways we do sometimes reject his teaching, when taking up our cross to follow Him is more than we want to do.
From the first line of this passage, the reader knows what Abraham does not yet know, that the Lord has come in person to talk to him. Only later, after food has been prepared and the visitors have eated, does it become clear that these visitors are not just ordinary travelers.
We often recognize that God has been present in our lives only later, as we reflect back on our experiences. Then we can trace the hand of God in shaping our circumstances and in prompting our words or actions. But knowing this, we can have confidence that God is continuing to be present in our lives, even when we are not aware of it at the time.
We often have trouble believing things that we cannot see for ourselves. Yet we do believe them if there is someone we trust who can assure us of the truth of these things. The disciple Philip asked Jesus, "Show us the Father" (though we might wonder just what Philip had in mind that Jesus might show him). Jesus responded that in seeing him - Jesus himself - the disciples were seeing the Father. They may have had trouble understanding what he meant by that, but they trusted him and through him trusted in the Father.
It has been suggested that Abraham presented himself as Sarah's brother, rather than her husband, not only to save his own life, but also to put himself in a position as the responsible male family member, to try to control what sort of situation Sarah might end up in. He probably did not expect his wife - who was no longer young - to attract the attention of Pharaoh himself, who had no need to negotiate with a father or brother when he took a wife but could simply set his own terms.
Like Abraham, we sometimes justify what seem like small sins because we feel a need to be in control of the situation, but also like Abraham, we end up learning that only God is in control and we dishonor Him by our failure to trust Him.
1 John 4:15-21
It is often hard for people today to understand what the Bible says about love, because people think of love as a feeling. People can think they love God if they have warm feelings toward God, and they may even think of loving humankind in general the same way. But loving individual people we rub shoulders with every day isn't about having warm feelings, it's about making choices. And God says that how we make those choices to love - or not love - those people around us says a lot more about whether we really love God than what we claim to feel about Him.
While Scripture tells us next to nothing of Abram's past before God called him, we do know that he came from a family of idol-worshippers. In Jewish tradition, his father Terah made and sold idols, before the family left Ur and traveled to Haran. When God initially called Abrah to travel to another land, it does not tell why, but we can speculate that a part of it was to make a thorough break with his family's religious traditions.
These days many of us move away from the town where we grew up, and anyone who has moved to another part of the country knows that it is not easy to leave behind not only family and friends but familiar surroundings and possibly familiar ways of speaking and doing things. But at least most of us know something about where we are going before we get there, and may have had contact with someone at a school or job where we are going. Abraham had none of that, only the call of God and the promise of God.
Genesis 2:7-9, 15-17
Most of us can probably think of times and places when we have marveled at the breathtaking beauty of nature, whether it was at the ocean, the mountains, or a well-kept garden. But we can only get a taste of the beauty and bounty of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were at the beginning able to cultivate the land without the pain and frustration that accompany such work today.
Genesis 3:6-7, 17-19
Adam and Eve apparently expected to know more after eating from the forbidden tree, but while they may have known more, they seem to have understood less, in terms of the significance of what they did and its consequences. From the moment of their sin, they start trying to "fix" things, trying to deflect attention from themselves to others, not wanting to be seen as they truly are.
1 Corinthians 15:12-24
For some people, the resurrection seems to be only about the hope of finding there is life after death. Some people even consider it a myth, and they consider the main point of the Christian faith to be Jesus' teaching and moral example. But as Paul explains, the resurrection is central to our faith, not only for our future in heaven but as the decisive victory that defeated the powers of evil and reversed the curse that began with Adam.
After all the upheavals in our lives this year, we may feel more than usual that we have been walking in darkness, looking for the light to come, and that we need someone to end the violence and death and establish peace and righteousness. The promise of the Prince of Peace tells us that no matter how bad things seem, God is still working to bring about His kingdom.
Even in a normal year, it is hard to escape an awareness that sooner or later each of us will face death - though people find many ways to avoid thinking about it. This year we have been more aware of it than usual. The writer of Hebrews speaks of people being "held in slavery by their fear of death" but he also tells how we have been freed from this slavery. Jesus destroyed its power, not by escaping death but by submitting to it, and then triumphing over it.
The Christmas story, so familiar to many of us, tells something amazing if we pay close attention. The baby born in Bethlehem was not just a fulfillment of prophecy, not just God doing something miraculous in the lives of people like us, but God actually entering into our world as one of us.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
We make all sorts of plans for the future, and we try to make things work out the way we have planned. We think our plans are good, but God's plans for us are even better, even when they are totally different from our plans. In today's passage in 2 Samuel, David made plans to build a house for God, but God had a better plan, to establish the house of David, and an eternal throne.
For centuries the Jewish people had waited for the prophecies of a Messiah to be fulfilled. When the Messiah did come, many did not recognize him. But those who did recognize him glorified God for what He had done for His people.
Mary's plans for the future certainly hadn't included getting pregnant before she was married. Neither had she expected to play a key role in God bringing salvation to His people. But faced with God's call to play this special role in His plan, she quickly and humbly accepted.
Music helps us express feelings in a way that conveys more than we can with words alone. We have no idea, of course, of the music of Mary's song in Luke 1, but we can try to imagine how it helped her pour out her feelings of amazement, joy, gratitude, and anticipation of greater blessings to come.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
It is often far easier to understand what God wants us to do than to actually do it. We can see how it will benefit us spiritually to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances, even when things are going badly, and to pray throughout all these various circumstances. But it takes considerable discipline and practice to behave this way on a regular basis.
People are always looking for someone they can count on, especially in difficult times. Even the best people, however, let us down sometimes. The Bible many times compares people to grass, or to flowers. We thrive and look good for a little while, but we are frail and fickle. God, in contrast, never fails us. When He promises something, we know we can count on it.
It had been several hundred years since that prophecy of Isaiah. Some people had probably stopped expecting God to fullfil those promises, when suddenly a man named John appeared in the wilderness, quoting Isaiah and announcing that the fulfillment was finally at hand. It wasn't a time for people to just wait and watch what God would do, however. They needed to prepare themselves, confessing their sins and turning to God.
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Time seems to go so much more slowly for young children. Waiting for a few minutes feels like hours to them, while for us who are older, whole years seem to go by quickly. Compared to God, we are all like those young children, feeling as though God must have forgotten about us since it has been so long and He hasn't done everything that He has promised. Peter points out that this is because God is patient, allowing more people to turn to Him before it is too late.
We generally don't like waiting. If it is waiting for something pleasant, we want to have it already. If it is waiting for something unpleasant, we'd like to be able to stop it from happening, or perhaps just get it over already. Waiting means we aren't in control, and we have to accept a timeline set by someone else.
In this passage, Jesus tells us to be waiting and watching for His return. We certainly aren't in control of the timeline. But it's not a passive waiting, because Jesus says we are to be busy as we wait, doing the tasks we have been assigned by God.
The Bible has so many stories of God taking care of His people in miraculous ways that we often have the impression that this was a familiar experience for people in Bible times. But the Bible covers a long period of history, and for a great deal of that time, most people saw no more obvious signs of God at work than we do today. In this passage in Isaiah, we see the longing for God to intervene in people's lives. But we also see an awareness of the people's sinfulness, not deserving of God's blessing, yet asking for it anyway because of His grace.
Our prayers both of thanksgiving and petition often focus on the physical blessings God gives us - not necessarily "things," but often giving more attention to physical health than spiritual health. When Paul speaks here of giving thanks, he is moved to do so by the faith and love of the people he is writing to, and what he prays for them is that they have a greater understanding of God's power and the hope they have in Him.
Romans 1:18-23, 25
People who do not believe in God often point to what they see as the lack of evidence. They may not know where the universe came from, but they do not see any sign of God's presence today, and they see plenty that they see as incompatible with the existence of a good and all-powerful God.
Paul, on the contrary, says that everyone has seen the clear evidence of God in creation, and that the problem is that they choose not to worship Him, looking instead for their meaning and purpose in created things.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
We are so accustomed to having electric lights both indoors and out, so that there is always some light around, that it is hard for us to understand how much darkness was feared in Bible times. Even at night, there would be a lit lamp in the house - though the light it gave was fairly dim. Light meant life, and only the most destitute were so unfortunate as to have to sleep in the dark. So it is natural that those who have been given new life through Christ are seen as those who belong to the light and to the day, while those without Christ are left in the darkness of night.
Our culture tends to value people based on what they are able to do. In this parable, the difference in abilities is mentioned, but only as an explanation for the difference in responsibility that was given. The praise and rewards that are given, however, are based on the men's faithfulness in carrying out those responsibilities.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We have all at some point felt the crushing weight of grief. But as followers of one who rose from the dead, we have hope because we can look forward to resurrection life together with Christ and those who have died before us.
This is one of several parables about the need to keep watch and be ready for Christ's coming. Foolish people aren't prepared to wait very long, or think they can do whatever is needed at the last minute. The wise are ready for Christ at any time.
There's a great deal people disagree about on the meaning of the book of Revelation. But one thing very clear in this passage is that there will be a huge number of people, who on earth were separated by all sorts of geographical and cultural differences, united in praising God.
1 John 3:1-3
People have imagined all sorts of things about what heaven will be like, and what we will be like in heaven. Scripture doesn't tell us much, but this passage tells us something very important - that we will be like Christ. Knowing we will be like Him then, we try to act more like Him now.
Many passages in Scripture tell us how different God sees things from how people generally see them, but this is perhaps seen most clearly in the passage we know as the Beatitudes. The people who are the worst off from the perspective of worldly values are those who are blessed by God.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
During election season, we are inundated with messages from people claiming to have our best interests at heart, but some, we suspect, are motivated more by the desire for power or prestige. Unfortunately those same motives are sometimes behind the appeals of some preachers and evangelists also. While televangelists are a modern-day development, there have always been preachers who have used religion to get money or power or prestige, including in Paul's time, and he makes it clear in this passage to the Thessalonians how different from that was the ministry of Paul and his companions.
We are often asked about what is most important to us. Our answers likely include family, health, and making a meaningful contribution to society. Those are important, but Jesus reminds us of what is most important, and our other worthwhile goals will fall into place when we follow the greatest commandments as Jesus taught.
If someone has just given what you asked for, do you respond by asking for even more? We tend to see that as bad manners. What if it is God who has just given you what you asked for? Many of us would still tend to back off from asking for more right away.
When Moses asks for God's presence to with His people, God agrees. Moses responds by asking to see God's glory, a request that might be seen as audacious in any case. But God seems pleased with the request, although He tells Moses that no one can see God fully and live.
What things motivate us to worship God? This psalm lists several - God's sovereignty and mighty power, His holiness, His justice, His having spoken to His people, and His forgiveness.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
We often think of imitating someone else as a bad thing, because it is frequently done to ridicule, and other times done because someone lacks confidence and wants to look and act like someone successful. But Paul speaks approvingly of how the Thessalonian believers imitated both him and the Lord. Imitation is how we learn to be like Christ.
Our culture tells us that joy and peace are feelings that depend on our circumstances. But Paul, in prison and facing execution, clearly is filled with joy and peace, and in this passage he shares with us how this comes about.
An invitation to a wedding today is very different to the sort mentioned in this parable, where a Bible dictionary would be helpful to explain the cultural background. But we all have experience with giving and receiving invitations, and probably with sometimes turning down an invitation, or having those we invited just not show up. What might seem like a little thing to one person - whether one goes to a particular event or not - may have far greater social and emotional significance to the other party.
The set of laws we know as the Ten Commandments is worthwhile simply as a set of rules to live by. But they are far more than that. They tell us what is important to God, how to live in relationship with God, and how to live as the covenant people of God.
This psalm reminds us of two important ways that God reveals Himself to us. Creation speaks of the glory of its Creator, a speech without words but full of meaning. And God speaks more clearly through His Word, telling us whom He created how He means for us to live.
When we think about things that are important to us, we generally think of them in comparison to other things that have greater or less importance. In this passage Paul names a number of things that used to be important to him, most of them things that are morally neutral or even good. But in comparison with what he has found in Christ, they are worthless.
Many times people want to emulate someone great. Paul offers the ultimate example of someone great to emulate - but to be like Jesus means aiming not for greatness, at least as people usually think of it, but rather to be a servant to all.
We don't hear a lot about John the Baptist after his death, but as this passage makes clear, his influence is still strong. Those who have recognized that God was speaking through John, calling them to repentance, also recognize that same authority in Jesus. But those who ignored John's message have no use for Jesus either, and do not realize that the one they are rejecting is God.
Most people would have trouble describing being in prison as a win-win situation, especially those under threat of execution. But that is how Paul sees his situation as he writes to the Philippians. Either he's going to be allowed to go on proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, which will bring him joy as he sees people growing in their faith, or he will die and know the joy of being with Christ.
We tend to be very concerned about fairness, comparing our work and our rewards with those of other people, and feeling resentful of those who work less or are rewarded more. We value generosity when we are the givers, or when it goes to people far away whose needs are far greater than ours. But when it comes to what is given to a group of which we are a part, we want generosity to mean that we receive our fair share.
Christians in different times and places have had different beliefs about what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior for a faithful Christian. What doesn't change is the tendency to disapprove of those other Christians who don't follow the same rules, or who think that even stricter rules are required. What also does not change is the right way to deal with those differences, explained by Paul in this passage.
The impulse to come up with rules to be sure of having done enough for God does not find satisfaction in Jesus' teaching here. Keeping track of how many times we forgive someone clearly is not appropriate, and the parable Jesus tells emphasizes just how very far we all fall short of God's standard. Yet his point is not to show us how badly we fail, but how great God's grace is to us.
A hurried reading of this passage may give the impression that Paul is addressing people with a much bigger sin problem than we have. After all, how hard is it to not harm your neighbor? Or to avoid drunkenness and debauchery? But he also mentions a few sins that are less obvious, like quarreling and jealousy. These may not cause immediately obvious harm, but they destroy relationships just as thoroughly, and need Paul's "wake-up call" just as much.
When someone treats us badly, our inclination is often to break off any kind of friendly relationship with the person, and tell someone else how badly that person treated us. Jesus doesn't allow for either of those reactions, instead telling us to start by talking to the person alone about what is wrong. Only when that fails do we get to go to other people about it, and then only for the purpose of attempted reconciliation.
Psalm 105:1-6 23-26, 45b
When we think of the worshipping community, often we think primarily of the people who sit in pews in the same building. But we join with saints not only in churches across the world but also with those who lived long ago, who have written songs like Psalm 105 praising God for what He has done in the past, giving us confidence that He will provide for us also.
Often we read for the purpose of getting information, for learning something new. If we approach this passage in Romans 12 that way, we will probably get through the passage very quickly, because there is nothing all that new or surprising here, at least not if we live in a culture that has roots in a Christian ethical system. But if we slow down and consider what is needed for our behavior to conform to the commands in this passage, it will take us a lifetime to complete the project.
Sometimes we worry about all the things that might go wrong. What if ...? Such speculation usually does not lead to trust in God. The psalmist looks at what has already happened and imagines a different scenario. What if God had not rescued us from the terrible danger we were in? The obvious answer is that it would have been total disaster.
In light of that, the response of God's people is thanksgiving for the past, and confident hope for the future. More disasters will no doubt threaten, but God will again deliver His people.
Earlier in Romans, Paul has shown us that on our own, corrupted by sin, we cannot please God. No deeds that we do or offerings that we make would be enough. But now because of what Christ has done for us, we are made holy and can offering ourselves to God in a way that does please Him. There are a variety of ways we can serve Him, but all of them are giving back to God in some way what He has given to us.
Much of the discussion of this passage centers on the metaphor of "rock" and what it refers to - on whom or what is the Church built? But another striking metaphor is "the gates of Hades" - that is, the entrance to the realm of the dead. Since they were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, it is possible that from where Jesus and his disciples were sitting, they may have had a good view of a pagan temple to the god Pan, built in front of a cave that was believed by many to be the entrance to the underworld.
As Peter pointed out, Jesus is the Son of the living God. Jesus promised life to all who believed in him, so that while following him would mean for many going to their deaths, death would have no true power over them.
Considering the history we read in the Old Testament, the psalmist's enthusisam for the joy of living in unity was probably more in praise of an ideal only rarely experienced than a description of daily life. When we do experience unity, we know how precious it is, then feel its lack more keenly when we are embroiled in the more common human experience of disunity.
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
School textbooks often have a short section in each chapter giving a summary of the important points in that chapter. Most of us have probably at one time or another depended on those summaries, either because the chapter was so hard to understand, or because we didn't make time to actually read it.
Paul's arguments in this chapter, in all the verses we are skipping over, are well worth the study, but they are not easy reading. The verses we are reading, though, make the important points: God always keeps His promises to His people, and it is only by His mercy that we receive His blessings.
Matthew 15:10-20, 21-28
Throughout the Bible, people's expectations are reversed. The older son serves the younger, the barren woman gives birth, the first are last and the last are first. In this chapter in Matthew, the people who think they have done so well at keeping God's law are rebuked by Jesus for breaking God's law, while a Gentile woman is praised for her great faith.
Psalm 105:1-7, 16-22, 45b
We come to know God first by hearing what He has done in other people's lives, both people we know and those we only hear about, whether in the Bible or elsewhere. In most cases, it is only later that we learn about what God has done, after people have had time to reflect on their experiences and recognize how God had been at work in their lives.
Joseph trusted God throughout the time of his being sold into slavery and then unjustly imprisoned. But it was only after he was released from prison and directing Egypt's food distribution plan that he was able to see how God had used circumstances to save the lives of Joseph's entire family.
Perhaps if the disciples had been sitting in some safe quiet place, and had been asked if they thought that Jesus, who had the power to miraculously multiply loaves and fish, could likewise show miraculous power over wind and waves, they might have agreed he could. But they wouldn't really have been sure.
Instead it was in the midst of the storm, with their boat perhaps seeming ready to capsize, that they saw Jesus coming to them on the water. Their first reaction to this wholly unexpected sight was fear, but when the crisis was over their faith was increased.
Various explanations have been offered as to the identity of the man Jacob wrestled with. An archangel? The dark side of his own nature? God? Jacob clearly believed that he had wrestled with God, since he spoke of having seen the face of God and lived, though the book of Hosea refers to Jacob having wrestled with an angel. Whoever he wrestled with, Jacob came out weaker in body but stronger in spirit.
Psalm 17:1-7, 17
This psalm is thought to have likely been written when David was being hunted by Saul. Some people helped David, but others sided with Saul, whether out of fear of Saul's anger or because they believed the king must have a good reason to be chasing down a man to kill him. David knows that people will choose sides based on rumors they have heard, or how they think it will benefit them personally. David trusts that God, unlike those people, knows the truth about him and his enemies, and will in the end bring about a just resolution.
Considering that Paul had been persecuted for his faith by Jews who did not believe in Jesus, he could have distanced himself emotionally from them. But he not only continued to call them "my people," he had such a deep longing for them to find the salvation he had found in Christ that he felt he could give that up if it meant they could receive it.
We all have different ideas of what blessings we would like God to put in our lives, but for many - probably most - of us, they have to do with our work, our families, and our communities. These are the same kinds of blessings mentioned in this psalm, even if they are phrased using imagery that seems to belong to another place and time.
Paul says we are "more than conquerors," but many of us probably don't feel like conquerors at all most days, let alone more than conquerors. A large part of that is probably that we want the battle with sin to be over already, in order to feel like conquerors. But Paul is talking to people who are still in the thick of that battle, reminding them that no matter how bad things are looking, they are on the winning side.
Unlike most Scripture passages, where there is a clear development of an idea from one verse to the next, in acrostic psalms like this one, what connects the verses is which letter of the alphabet begins each verse. In most acrostic psalms, each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In Psalm 119, there are eight verses for each letter.
Some letters would certainly be easier than others, in any language. But the psalmist finds so much significance in God's Word, and so many benefits from following it faithfully, that he is able to create a remarkable number of different statements about it, 176 in all.
The frequent repetition of the words "flesh" and "Spirit" in these verses may lead some people to think that Paul is contrasting the material world of the body with the immaterial world of the spirit - and perhaps saying that the spirit is good while the body is bad. But in the distinction Paul makes, it is the mind, and what one sets one's mind on, that is key. Not that one can simply decide to think differently - it is a matter of whether one has the Spirit of God, who gives life and enables one to submit to God and live as He desires.
1 Peter 2:13-17
As a Jew in a land ruled by the Roman Empire, Peter probably would have had trouble imagining the political freedom we have today in the United States, where we actually get to vote for those who will govern us. But he would no doubt tell us the same as he told the Christians in the first century, to honor those who govern, and not to use our freedom as a means to get away with doing wrong.
People quote "the truth will make you free" in a variety of contexts. It is used in support of academic freedom in schools, it is used by psychologists to encourage people to be honest about their problems, and it is used against anyone who appears to be trying to keep people in ignorance about some subject.
No doubt more truth-telling in general would benefit society, but Jesus is speaking to his followers about following his teachings. He is himself the Truth, and it is those who know and follow his teachings who will be set free from sin.
Historians try to identify people and events that have shaped the course of history, to explain why nations rise and fall and why some social movements change society while others remain at most a forgotten footnote. God works through people, and there is certainly a sense in which key people do shape history. But behind it all, God remains sovereign, and no human or nation can thwart His plans.
We often think of ambition in a negative sense, what Paul refers to in this passage as selfish ambition, a strong desire for power and fame, along with a willingness to push others aside in order to achieve it. But the vision Paul has for the church could also be called ambition, a strong desire for a certain result and the willingness to strive to bring it about. The difference is that what Paul desires, what he wants the people he is writing to also to desire, and to work to achieve, is a church where people care deeply about each other, a caring that is not just sentimental feeling but is lived out in humble acts of service to one another.
The metaphors used in this psalm may not have much meaning for us, unless we use a Bible dictionary or commentary to figure out their significance. If this psalm were being written today, we would find very different images to portray a sense of soothing and refreshment, rather than oil or dew. But in our modern society is in just as much need as ancient Israel of the soothing and refreshing blessings of people getting along well with one another.
Sometimes we're given something that we don't even know we're going to need. Maybe the giver recognizes what is coming, or maybe the giver is prompted somehow by God, who alwasy knows what we will need long before we do.
When Jesus talked with his disciples at what we now know was his Last Supper, they had little idea what was coming. Even if they understood that Jesus did mean it literally when he said he was leaving them, they surely did not expect it to happen the way it did. But Jesus knew what they were going to need, the Holy Spirit to comfort and teach and guide them, and even before they could recognize the need, he had already promised to fill that empty place he was leaving.
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.