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.