18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Zechariah is a pretty normal figure in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. He is a good guy. Luke will even tell us that he and his wife, Elizabeth, are righteous. They are good church-going people. They are faithful but not extraordinary. They do their duty. They are older and never had children. They bear the burden of this barrenness with little comment, with faithful resignation.
These ordinary lives are exploded by Christmas hope. In order to prepare the way for Mary and for Jesus, God gives this ordinary, unassuming couple a baby. Elizabeth will support Mary and their child will support Jesus. Better, barrenness will be made fruitful! Their home will be blessed with the gift of a child’s laughter! In this invasion of Christmas, the angel Gabriel comes to tell Zechariah the good news.
I love Zechariah’s response. First, he is in awe of the angel and all that the angel has to say. Then, he pushes back… just a little. “Are you sure? We are getting a bit old for this.” He and Elizabeth had resigned themselves to the way life is quite some time ago.
In my opinion, Gabriel over-reacts just a bit. “Really? You are going to question me on this? I just came here from the presence of God! Yes, this is happening. And if you can’t be a bit more thankful and hopeful in response, then I don’t want you saying anything.” And Zechariah is struck dumb so that his doubts are restrained, and he is free to contemplate the hope that is overcoming his faithful resignation.
I see myself readily in Zechariah. He is not doubting God. He is doubting himself… his life. Would God really lavish such blessing upon Elizabeth and him? Does God really bring real hope to us on Christmas?
We get used to our lives of faithful resignation. We know the ways that life is tough. We have learned to accommodate the pain, the difficulty, to try our best to carve out lives of faith. We limit our fight and our passion to the things we can do. We work hard. We sweep our own front porch.
But Christmas hope comes to explode our ordinary lives. It sweeps us up into good news that lavishes from the very presence of God. Do we hear it? Will we push back? Or will we spend some time this Christmas contemplating the hope that will overcome all of our faithful resignation?
Jesus, thank you for the hope of Christmas. Thank you for the ways that you do not leave us alone in our ordinarily faithful lives. Help us to see and welcome the lavish gift of Jesus stepping into our world. In Jesus’ name, amen.
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
…if you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
Christmas is one of the most beautiful times of year. It is a time where we put tinsel and colored lights on everything, making sure nothing is drab or lacking in joy. It is a time of excess when we buy people stuff that they don’t need and eat stuff that we don’t need. It is a time of connection when cards come from old friends and family comes for a visit.
But above all of these things, Christmas is a season of hope. And frankly, hope is something we need more than tinsel or lights, more than gifts or holiday food, more than cards or visits from the in-laws. We could really use hope.
In Hebrews 11, the apostle Paul tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is living from hope. It is living from more than circumstances.
Our passage in Isaiah was spoken at a time when hope was hard to come by. It was spoken to the King of Judah just before Judah was about to be invaded. The invasion was going to come. Isaiah the prophet told the King that the only way to withstand the circumstances was with faith. If you have nothing to hope for, there is no way you can stand up in difficult times.
The thing about tinsel and decorations and holiday food and presents is that they do nothing to provide hope.
The thing about Christmas is that it is a season of hope.
A few verses after his statement about standing firm in faith, Isaiah told King Ahaz that God would give hope. A young woman would bear a son and his name will be Immanuel. A young woman having a baby sounds like normal circumstances. Perhaps, if the young woman is young and not ready, it is part of the difficult circumstances. There is little notable in this. But in the midst of these normal circumstances was Christmas. The child would be Immanuel, God among us.
Christmas reminds us that our circumstances are not without hope. Instead, they are pregnant with the presence of God. God is here. God is among us. This is something we can cling to and stand firm.
While we are standing firm, it is a pretty good idea to rejoice and celebrate with a little bit of tinsel and decorations, some gift giving and eating, and whole lot of sharing our hope with each other on Christmas.
Lord Jesus, you give us hope. Help us to know your presence this Christmas. Help us to know the hope that gives us the strength to stand firm. Help us to celebrate in this faith during this Christmas season.
21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
What does it mean to be a child of God? We sometimes approach the definition as a label of saintliness, a summary of evidenced character, or an earned quality of personhood. We can forget the indelible truth that this is a permanent identity substantiated by our mere existence as human beings. Every person is a child of God and nothing can ever change that fact. But do we claim that identity and act like his children? Do we live into that deepest truth about ourselves and understand and receive the privilege that comes with it? When we forget to see ourselves as permanently beloved children we forget the truth of our relationship with a God who accepts us always through Jesus and we also forget to see other people the way God does. Satan would tell us that God would no longer have us, that we are irredeemable, unwelcome to his presence, that we need to be better in order to live up to how God has forever seen each of us.
We need to be reminded that even the most difficult, abrasive, and seemingly hopeless individuals we know and see bear the mark of our Lord’s craftsmanship, the image bearers of God by their mere existence. They are his children no matter how lost or rebellious and the Lord’s desire will always be to have his children come be with him and live a life that is rooted in and acknowledges this relationship. That God delights over this, celebrates when his children seek him, especially at their very worst moments. God as creator and father desires to freely and abundantly provide for his children. He desires to celebrate and feast with us and be present with him in the blessings that he provides us daily.
We ground ourselves in this identity by being in the Word of God as often as we are able, being in prayer and communion with our creator as often as we are able, and communing with his people, the church. This holiday season let us try to reflect the joy and embracing heart of our heavenly Father who welcomes the lost to his house and table always and eternally because of our King Jesus Christ – the ultimate provision, the ultimate cause for celebration.
Lord God you are our mighty Father in heaven who delights in being with your people. Help me to remember and rejoice in the truth that I am welcome to your banquet table always, that the sacrifice of Jesus invites every person to the celebration of your established Kingdom here upon the earth. Give me your eyes and your heart towards those who go their own way, those who don’t see who they are or how strongly you desire them to call upon you as Father, Lord, Creator. Let me be quick in remembering I am your loved child, and bold to remind those you seek to tell in this celebratory season. In Jesus’ name, amen.
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you…. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God….
Deuteronomy 8:10, 12
Sometimes I think that God needs a good publicist. There is so much that should be attributed to God that isn’t. Our text tells us that we get proud in our hearts and tend to attribute the things we should be thankful about to ourselves. Later in the passage, the writer puts words in our mouth: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” (Deut. 8:17) If you speak those words aloud, you will find that they fit more easily into your mouth than you would like to believe. It is easy to begin to believe it and forget God.
The prescription to this amnesia is laid out for us in verse 10. When we have eaten and are satisfied, we should praise the LORD our God. This takes discipline. Once the tryptophan starts to kick in, all we want to do is lean back, watch some football, and take a well-deserved nap. Instead, the text tells us, we should praise God for the good that he has given us.
Thanksgiving reconnects us to God. It is God’s publicist forcing us to reconsider, to correctly attribute, and to discover God in our blessings. As we listen, we find that our hearts are moved to worship. Our blessings take on the greater meaning of being the proof of God’s provision, God’s concern, and God’s connection to us. When that happens, we find ourselves thanking God all over again.
Jesus, thank you that I am more than me. Thank you that the blessings in my life have your fingerprints on them and not just the residue of my effort. Thank you for the ways you have upheld me even in the storm, sustained me even when I was wobbly, and gave second wind even when I had given up hope. Thank you for the testimony of my present blessings. Through them I am reminded that I will forever be in your hands. In Jesus’ name, amen.
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.
I recently spoke with a friend who had lost a relative who had been slowly declining for years. As we talked about both the practical and the soulful aspects of this death, I asked if my friend’s relative had left plans for a funeral. My friend smiled sardonically and said, “Dying wasn’t in his plans.”
This is true for so many of us. We don’t like to think about or even consider death. But we all do… or will die. Perhaps we avoid death because there seems to be only grief and mystery in death. Perhaps we avoid death because the only emotions we find there are fear and sadness. But when we avoid death completely, we miss the most powerful promises that are given to us in Christ Jesus. Thus, we make decisions and live life with a pall of fear and denial where God offers us hope and promise.
The apostle Paul was able to clearly look at death in this passage from his letter to the Philippians. He did not do so with any sense of depression or fear. Nor did he approach the passage because of resignation in the gift of his life. Instead, he looked at death in the light of the hope that was given to him in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul lived his life in the hope of Jesus’ presence. Thus, it is not surprising that death promised more of the same.
What is important for us to see is how this affected how Paul lived. He was facing a trial for his faith that could lead to his death. In that situation, it would be understandable for Paul to do anything necessary to preserve his life. But because death was colored by hope instead of fear, Paul was resolute in his faith. Come what may, he chose to partner with the glory of God.
Dying might not be in your plans, but the promises of God provide the freedom to live without the fear of death. In fact, in Christ, dying need not be part of your plans because God’s promise is that “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54)
Do not be afraid of death. Ask God for the hope that is yours in Christ Jesus. Thus, live every moment of life you are given fully and free of the fear of death.
Dear Jesus, thank you for your promise of life… life now and life without end. We ask for faith to believe what we cannot see in regard to life and death. We ask that you step into our fear of the mystery and the sadness, the pain and the loss, and give us hope. Thus, free us to live in hope now and die in hope when it is time. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
3 Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments 5 and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ. - 2 Corinthians 10:3-5
In his letter to the church, James, the brother of Jesus, made a very relevant statement about anger. He wrote, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
We exist in a time where anger drives much of the thought and action of our lives. Instead of listening and slowness of reacting, we are quick to anger. We are even quicker to believe that our anger is connected to our closeness to (and our opponent’s distance from) God’s righteousness. Into this milieu, James says clearly, “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
This simple decoupling of our anger from righteousness leaves many of us rudderless. Much of our politics and opinion and even relationship is informed by our anger. The apostle Paul offers us an alternative way of understanding anger in his second letter to the church in Corinth.
He begins by admitting that we are human. In terms of anger this allows for the presence of anger in our lives. Anger is not a sin. It is human.
But he quickly reminds us that we do not make our choices “according to human standards.” We are not alone to make sense of ourselves and our world simply based upon our anger responses. Instead, the Presence of God offers us the opportunity to invite the Holy Spirit into each moment of our lives. When anger floods or smolders, we are able to take those impulses captive. The power of God enables us to tear down the strongholds of argument, opinion, defensiveness, self-protection, and ego that are at the root of our anger.
We do this slowing down and holding these things in the light of the knowledge of God. We are invited to anchor our thoughts to truths such as:
- God is for us;
- God loves us;
- we are eternally valuable in his sight (and so is everybody else, even our opponent);
- and God’s ultimate concern is healing and wholeness.
When we do this, two things happen. One, we are empowered to respond in love that considers the true cause of our anger. Two, the deep places of our pain and insecurity are healed in the surety of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, our anger is very intimate to us. For many of us, our anger has been the place of our refuge, protection, and self-care. The habit of anger is our stronghold. This morning, we ask you to gently step into the depths of us. Help us to slowly yield to you the ground we formerly entrusted to anger. Root us in the truth of your love for us, your love for others, and your love for the world. We ask that you grant us a small step to practice this unmasking of our anger today. As we entrust this intimacy to you, reveal to us the ways that you tear down strongholds, take thoughts captive, and ultimately make us whole. In Jesus’ name, amen.
1Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. 2 Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” 4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7 Then the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man. - Matthew 9:1-8
As we have spent time with the giants in the land, we have visited things in our walk with Christ that can inhibit and prohibit our walk from going forward in the way God would desire. In this story, the paralytic is a great representative for someone who has dealt with addiction. Verse 2 states some pretty powerful things.
One way we carry people to Jesus is through prayer. Intercessory prayer gives us the privilege to bring other people, their needs, their requests, their pains to the person of Jesus.
Who are you in the story? Are you the paralyzed person in need of Jesus’ healing? Are you in a good place with Jesus? If so, are there others who you could be bringing to Jesus? Or are you like the Pharisees – doubting the authority of Jesus? Questioning whether Jesus is enough? Pray for God to reveal where you are and what to do next.
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” - John 4:10
The story of the woman at the well is one that we should all be able to relate to.
The women went to the wellt was the hottest part of the day. In a place and time where there was no air conditioning, noon was the time most people slowed down and avoided hard labor. It was not the time most people chose to carry the heavy jug to the well to lug water back to town. But that was the reason the woman in the story went to the well at noon. She did not want to see anyone else.
We don’t really know the reason for her insecurity. We do not know what or who she was avoiding. But we all know what it is like to be insecure. We know what it is like to avoid the places of our pain, our rejection, the whispers and name calling, the reminders of our failure to live up to some standard or look. We know what it is like to carve out ways of coping and avoiding. We know what it is like to have our insecurities dictating how we live.
It is precisely in the place of her insecurities, her coping mechanisms, and her life dictated by anxiety that Jesus appears. He sits at the well. But he does not judge her or call her names. He asks her for a drink.
Into her insecurity he tells her, “You have value. I need you.” Would she believe him? Do we?
Jesus then invites her into a new way of being. He calls it living water. It is poetic… it is genius. It takes the reality of her insecurity as it is evident in her having to go to the well… and he solves it. But not with a bucket… he doesn’t have one of those. But he invites her to lose her insecurities in him… to be filled by him.
Into her insecurity he tells her, “I have all that you need. Will you look to me?” Will we?
When our insecurities assail us, let us pause and look for Jesus waiting for us at the well. Let us begin to look and listen to him. Let us be filled with living water.
Living God, you know our insecurities. You know the things and people and situations we worry about. We also know that you have stepped into our lives, that you meet us here. Open our ears that we might begin to hear you. Let us begin to know that you choose us, you value us, you love us. Then fill us with the living water of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This text is from a letter the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. Paul wrote it while he was in prison for being a Christian. The church Paul wrote to was in a town that similarly threatened people daily for being Christians.
If I were to put myself in either of these positions, I would say that they are tailor-made for worry. Paul must have been a man who knew anxiety. The church in Philippi were people who must have been constantly battling fear.
Even though we are neither imprisoned or under constant threat of oppression, most of us are worried. Low levels of fear are our constant companions. We cannot help but wonder how Paul and the church in Philippi were able to cope with their anxiety.
In this text, the apostle Paul gives us very practical steps toward peace. He says, “Do not worry about anything!” There is no circumstance that is an exception to his encouragement. When we realize this is a man writing from prison, who had been beaten and flogged, shipwrecked and pelted with stones (read in 2 Corinthians 11 for the full list), we can’t help but wonder how he can tell us this is possible.
Pray. That is the simple answer. The truth is that we all do that. But more often than not, our prayers are simply rehashing our worries toward the ceiling. They usually leave us more worried than we started.
So, Paul is more specific. Begin by rejoicing. Begin by focusing upon the strength and power, majesty and love or our God. Ultimately, we need to bring God into our worries. To do that, we need to recognize the fullness of God in rejoicing.
Then, we are to pray in supplication and thanksgiving. Supplication has a sense of honesty. We are to pray honest about ourselves and our circumstances. We are to pray honest about who God is. Thanksgiving means taking time to thank God for the ways we are blessed. Both of these together put the anxiety within the perspective of a God who blesses us.
Finally, we are to present our requests to God. We are to lay at Jesus’ feet the thing that otherwise would be causing us anxiety.
The result of this is peace. It is peace of not trying to control things on our own. It is the peace of the presence of God in the same space as our anxiety. It is peace that passes understanding.
Jesus, we begin by praising you for who you are. We praise you for your grace and love toward us. We confess the anxiety in our lives. We confess the ways that fear whispers into our lives and keeps us on edge. Step into the place of our worry. Open our eyes to the ways your blessings reveal your love all around us. Shift us to begin to lean upon your love for us. Thus, open us to begin to know your peace… peace that floods us and washes our anxiety away. In Jesus’ name, amen.
27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.” - Numbers 13:27-28
A good friend of mine will often say to me, “Don’t look at the giants in the land, look at the fruit.” He says this knowing that it is easy for me to get caught up in the things that keep me from being faithful. It is hard for me to keep my eyes on the promises of God.
This whole idea comes from the story of the people of Israel and the promise God had given them about the land of Canaan. Throughout the generationa since Abraham and Sarah, God had promised that he would give to Abraham’s decedents the promised land. In Numbers 13, Israel is poised to receive this promise.
There is only one problem. The people in who lived in the land at the time weren’t in on the deal. So, when the people of Israel spied out the land, they saw two things. They saw how fruitful the land was. As an illustration, the spies brought back a bunch of grapes that had to be carried by two men. They also noticed how strong and fortified their enemies in the land were. The question was, which one would inspire them: the fruit of God’s promise or the giants who threatened their obedience.
Few of us find ourselves in the same physical scenario of land and fruit and conquest. But each of us knows the giants in our own lands that keep us from faithfully pursuing God’s best for us. For some it is fear, for others anger, and still for others it is addictions or comfort or busyness. Each of these things pull our eyes from path God calls us upon. Each of these seem like giants to us. We feel like grasshoppers (v. 30) in comparison.
“Don’t look at the giants, look at the fruit.” My friend would call me to remember what God has promised rather than focusing upon what I fear.
Naturally, this is not the answer to such things as fear, anxiety, anger, addiction, or the like. It is too simple. But it is the proper footing upon which to start. It places those things within the context of the promises of God, the presence of God, and our identity in God. It reframes the giants that would otherwise keep us from entering the land. It begins to give us guidance on how we must step forward against the giants in our land.
Jesus, we invite you into our lives this moment. You know the giants that bear down upon us... that weigh us down with anxiety and fear… that cause our blood to boil… that lull us to sleepy contentment. We have been bullied by these for so long, we don’t know where to start. So, we start with this prayer. Will you step into this picture? Will you help us to know you and your promises in the midst of the giants that loom so large? Open our eyes so that we might begin to know you and to know ourselves. Thus, inspire us to faithfully look at the fruit rather than the giants.
10 Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”
Many years ago, I visited with some young married friends of mine in a bar in Alabama. In a corner booth of the darkened bar, I found myself engaged in an impromptu counseling conversation. They argued with passion about the way toilet paper was replaced in their bathroom. It was with difficulty that I tried to help them see that their disagreement wasn’t really about toilet paper.
One of the mistakes we often make in conflict is pretending that we are primarily rational. We ignore the ways that our emotions rush into our conflict demanding to be heard. We continue to talk about toilet paper instead of acknowledging that what we most need is to be heard, to be loved, to apologize, and to forgive.
In our passage this Sunday, the people of Israel confront Moses on the rational grounds that they were running out of water. But the quarrel quickly spills over the boundaries of logic. They unfairly question whether Moses’ leadership was from God. They denigrate the ways that he has provided for them. They spoke longingly about the time before Moses when they had pomegranates to eat.
At this point, Moses becomes the focus of our story. He brings the entire experience to God. God responds with a powerful affirmation of God’s presence. No matter the accusations, God affirms that God indeed was near to Moses! On those grounds, he empowers Moses provide for the people of Israel by bringing water from a rock.
Could Moses rest in who he was to God? Could he forgive the unjustified accusations? Could he bring the people back to a place of their common need for water? Could he heal the rift by standing with the people and receiving the provision of God?
As you can tell from the verse we have chosen for our meditation this morning, Moses failed. He chose instead to use God’s provision of water to win in his argument with the people who rebelled against him. “You, rebels! Why should we miraculously provide water for you?”
God provided water that was meant to be for Moses with the people of Israel. Instead, the water God provided was received by Moses while he was still set against the people of Israel. Water meant to bind and heal as well as slake thirst was unable to do all it was intended to do.
Jesus, you know the places where we are at odds with one another. You know the accusations and attacks upon us. You know our need. You know where our hearts are stone against one another. We recall those experiences… those people before you now. Come, Lord Jesus. Bring forth the Water of Life (John 4:14) even now within these places of stone. We ask you to lead us into healing and wholeness, reconciliation and peace. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
1The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will showyou. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.[ 3 I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. -Genesis 12:1-5
There are definitely moments in our Christian walk where God instructs us to stay and remain somewhere for a while in order to rest or recover. But where God truly shows up and is present with his people is in the “Go.” He tells Abram (later to be renamed Abraham) to leave the comfort, stability, predictability and safety of the his own land, and is instructed to “Go.” In the same manner, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go” and make disciples.
When we venture outside of our comfort zones. When we enter into new places. When we go somewhere unfamiliar. When we are sometimes even forced into new territory, it is in those places – in the midst of us being on the go – that God shows up. God shows up to help us, and support us, and help us work through the challenges that are in the new places. And in the process we grow and learn and mature and see more of Him.
So as God shows you new places to go – new adventures to embark on. As you “GO,” may you be encouraged that you are not alone in your new travels, and it is precisely in those places that God watches and is pleased as we grow and learn and ultimately look more like Christ in the process. So, “GO!” in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit this day. Amen.
9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” - Genesis 4:9
If you know the story around this quote, then you know that Cain knows where Abel is. God knows where Abel is. Cain should know that God knows that Cain knows where Abel is. Even so, God asks Cain where he is. Even so, Cain lies: “I don’t know.”
In order to understand what is happening in this interaction, two questions need to be asked. First, why does God ask what he already knows? Second, why does Cain lie so obviously to God?
The more complicated question is why Cain lies. It is a question that exposes all of us. It exposes us because we all use lies… believe lies that we think protect us. Usually, our lies aren’t obvious. They take the form of narratives. Likely, Cain built a narrative where he believed that his conflict with his brother wasn’t his fault. It was Abel’s fault. It was God’s fault. God and Abel had conspired against him first. He was simply protecting himself from their unfairness and ganging up against him. In that narrative, he is not his brother’s keeper. In that context, God is not to be trusted with truth that God will just use against him.
A theologian named Miroslav Volf noted: “Sin is not so much a failure of knowledge as a misdirection of will which generates its own counter-knowledge.” What he means by that is that sin is rarely intentionally choosing the wrong thing. More often it is interpreting things wrongly to justify what we want, what we believe, or what we’ve done.
Cain’s lying was his attempt to live from a counter-knowledge that justified him.
Now it is easier to understand why God asked a question he already knew the answer to. God was inviting Cain into a shared narrative. God was giving Cain an opportunity to work through what was true about God, about Cain, and about life. God wanted to hear Cain’s perspective, his pain, his lament, in hopes that Cain might also begin to more clearly see God. God was inviting Cain into a place where redemption was possible.
Here is why this is helpful to us. Each one of us live by self-protective narratives. These are the narratives that allow us to justify sins as common as anger or as diabolical as racism. They provide space for us to dismiss and devalue others. Every one of us struggle with these narratives. But if we listen, if we incline our ears to God, we begin to hear his questions. We begin to hear his invitation to trust and to open our narratives so that God can lead us into healing, into redemption, into forgiveness, and into truth.
Dear Jesus, we confess that we are not aware of where our narratives are false. But we do realize the ways that anger and hatred and dismissing our brothers and sisters creep into our lives. Help us to hear your questions. Help us to trust you enough to listen. We place our lives in your hands to lead us into healing, reconciliation, and truth. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
31 Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
For the second summer in a row, we have decided to look at Bible Stories that we tell our children in Sunday School. Many of these are stories that we have allowed to stay children’s stories in our memories and imaginations. Our intention is to listen to them again with all of the cynicism, wisdom, and experience that our years have given us.
This Sunday, we started at the beginning. We looked at the poetic rendering of the beginning of things found in Genesis 1. This is a text that typifies the “children story” vs. “adult belief” divide. Where our children can listen to this story with wonder, we often find ourselves pitting our Sunday School teachers against our high school science teachers. As a result, the story gets twisted and crushed under the answers we demand from it.
Step out of that conflict and re-read the story! Try it. Read Genesis 1. I’ll wait.
Do you see what it is trying to say to us… even to the adults in the room?
The text isn’t trivia. It isn’t just giving a theory about how things came to be. It is linking how those things came to be with God. The importance of the text is the glimpses it gives to us: glimpses of what God thinks, what God intends, who we are, who everyone else is, and what everything else is. The text is connecting all of those things with God. And what is God’s intention in all of these things? Goodness. It is good.
Now, as we read this, we may be able to agree with it. We may see it and can sing out in praise. But to many of us, it seems a bit of a stretch. All we can do is shake our heads because of how far things have all fallen from everything being good. Wherever we are, this text speaks to us.
This text tells us that God’s intention for all things is good. God’s heart is for good. This text invites us into this. Maybe things have gotten so not good because this story is an invitation. Maybe it being only an invitation is why people can be so cruel. Maybe that is why the earth is so polluted and abused. But that doesn’t change the invitation and the intention in this text. There is still an invitation to enter the good that God intended. There is still God’s intention and he has not given up on his dream for good.
This is the gospel. God’s intention has second wind in Jesus Christ. Jesus came to re-create, to redeem. The wind blows once again as the Holy Spirit. They will bring to pass God’s intention for all things… for us. In this story, we are invited to be part of the good that is still there, that is reflected in us and in our neighbors, that is reflected in the sun in the sky and the light separated from darkness, that is reflected in Creation.
It is good. It will be good. We are valued and invited to be part of it… to reflect the good of the God who created all, who redeems all, and who will recreate all for good.
Jesus, we confess that skepticism builds the more we experience the way this world you created works. Even so, we ask that you help us to see the good of your intentions for us and for our world. Help us to be people who can see your heart for Creation. Then give us the courage to be the image of Your heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”
One of the most difficult places for us to steward our resources has to do with our time. The demands of life seem to outstrip the time we have to meet them. When we do have space, too often we end up consuming it frivolously.
In this verse, God steps into our time stretched lives in a way only God can do. It is the fourth of the ten commandments and thus has a bit of weight to it. But notice that weight doesn’t begin with the words “Don’t do this” or “You should do that.” Instead, it begins with the word “remember.”
Remember the Sabbath day. Remember is an empowering word. If you think about it, remember is a word of distraction. It is a word that calls our focus to something that is not right in front of us. Whatever the normal pattern of life at the moment, let it be broken by remembering.
If I were to remind you that it was a loved one or best friend’s birthday, you would be thankful. You would know that this is not a normal day. It is a day worth celebrating! We should go out to eat! No leftovers tonight!
God is saying to us here: I know that there are tons of things swirling around you right now. I know that you feel like you will never get done all the work that needs to get done. But remember the Sabbath day. And that remembering points us to God. It points past the normal anxieties and priorities that clamor for our attention. It offers to break our patterns.
When we steward our time past the push and pull of life… to be present to God… we step past anxiety and worry and fear and pressure and deadlines into holiness. That time of transcendence changes the time that we give. Then we begin to hunger for the rest that we can only find when we remember.
Jesus, you know the pressing and the pulling we feel from our schedules. You know the weariness we feel trying to do all that is asked of us. You also see the myriad ways we allow that busyness to steal from you the time we could be… should be spending upon you. Whisper to us this moment to remember. Break us from the tyranny of the things going on around us and teach us to rest in you. Thus rested, allow us to live anew into the things required of us today. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Not long ago, there was a violent and bloody stand-off between the Israeli military and Palestinian protesters. The news showed smoky pictures of passion and violence. The enmity between the two groups runs deep with mutual threats at eradication and dehumanization.
During the time of Jesus, things were not much different. The Jewish people hated the Roman powers that occupied their land. The passion for revolution was barely hidden under the skin of every person Jesus spoke to.
In fact, this conflict was wrapped up in the idea of Israel being the children of God. The people of Israel believed that their special relationship with God was the foundation of their right to revolt against Rome. So, when Jesus opened his mouth, most were expecting, hoping he would affirm their enmity. But Jesus did not.
Instead, he identified children of God with peacemaking. Those who most closely identify with and live from their relationship with God will bring peace and wholeness of relationship. This walk of counter-cultural peacemaking is the path of being blessed by God.
That kind of political violence seems worlds away from most of us. And yet, we have been slowly nurturing a polarized and angry political climate of our own. We do little to try to understand the people who line up across from us. While we might not throw stones or shoot guns, we certainly do damage to our souls with our dehumanizing thoughts, words, and tweets.
In this text, Jesus is calling Christians to be different. Instead of taking on a mantle of defending a position or ethic or policy, we are to be peacemakers. We are to be people interested in the holistic connection and reconciliation of people. We are not simply to be peacewishers or peacewanters who desire peace from a distance. We are to be people who step out of our polarized tribes and make peace with our lives, with our relationships, with our listening, with our learning, with our loving, and with our presence.
We are to make peace because we are children of God by the peace made for us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus, thank you for being the one who made peace between me and God. Thank you for the ways you have restored my chance to be in relationship with you. Flood me with this peace so that I begin to desire it for those around me. Show me how to step out in little ways today to make peace. Show me how to craft my words, my actions, and my courage so that I embody the very peace that has been given to me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”. - Matthew 5:5
When we first began this sermon series on the opening to the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, this verse stood out to me. In the introduction sermon, I admitted that I don’t get how meek can be something God calls blessed. After the sermon, a friend of mine came up to me and agreed.
“I’m not sure how it is possible to make that one make sense,” he confided.
So much of our lives seem to be fighting for the opposite of meekness. We strive for respect, safety, power, and the right to a voice. Weakness and passivity are the road to failure in business, in relationships, in parenting, in self-esteem, in just about everything.
But what if meekness was not about lack of respect, safety, power, or voice? What if meekness was simply the absence of fighting for these things? What if the meek that are blessed are those who do not need to fight because they trust their blessedness… their inheritance is in God’s hands?
All the sudden, meekness is not to be avoided. It is the life where there is freedom from the need to control or prove things. It is the life of freedom to partner with God. The meek are not worried about grabbing their part of the earth because they are already assured of their inheritance of the whole thing in God. The meek are free and flexible to find and pursue God each step of the way.
Put that way, the meek in Christ are among the most blessed.
Jesus, we confess the ways we are bent toward pride and power and greed as ways of being secure. These words on meekness challenge the very core of this. Help us to begin to see the ways that we are already secure in you. Thus freed, show us how to be both blessed and a blessing in the freedom of meekness. In Jesus’ name, amen.