Lord we believe, help our unbelief…

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Mark 11: 20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

This is a fascinating and difficult passage. Jesus commands a fig tree to wither, which it does. Jesus then points out to Peter this is no big deal. One with great faith can do much more than wither a fig tree, “if you say to this mountain…”. The key is “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours”. This highlights the difficult part.

Jesus suggests the faith of the one praying determines whether a prayer is answered or not.

A family in the congregation I serve lost their young adult son recently. They are devastated, as you can imagine. I know that many people, myself included, prayed for their son’s healing and recovery. Yet it did not happen. If this passage is taken literally it means all the people praying the young man were deficient in their faith or he would have been healed. I can’t believe that’s what this passage means.

Lord Jesus the truth is that most of us Christians believe, yet also doubt at some level. We don’t have perfect faith. If perfect faith is what’s required, then we’re all in trouble. Lord we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.

Faithful and flexible…

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Mark 10:1 He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 

Jesus is the rock star in this scene and the Pharisees (religious officials responsible for teaching the rules of faith to Israel) want to bring him down a notch. So they ask him a question to test him. They’re hoping Jesus will answer incorrectly (not according to the inherited tradition) so they can discredit him. After all, with his healing ministry and miracles and such there are thousands who follow him. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The “correct”” answer is “yes”. The law of Moses made allowance for divorce, which had been the practice of the Jews for many centuries. Jesus doesn’t deny that divorce is permitted, only that divorce is a reality reflecting human frailty and brokenness in relationships.

Jesus took the rules as he received them and interpreted them in his own time and culture.

Throughout our history, the church’s teaching and practice has evolved, adjusting to a changing world. I am personally grateful for this. The church is being challenged again by the “hybrid” nature of our ministry, occurring both in-person and on-line. Most of our churches didn’t have a digital expression until two years ago when the pandemic shut us down. We’re still in the very early stages of learning what it means to be a hybrid church, but we all agree on-line ministry is here to stay.

I expect over time some of our inherited practices will be challenged. Some already have. We share communion with people who aren’t physically in the same space. That didn’t used to happen, but it does now every Sunday. We have on-line church members and even our first on-line church council member. But these are baby steps really. We haven’t yet figured out the most effective ways of including our on-line people, but we will. And as was the case with Jesus, I have no doubt we will have to set aside some important traditions and teachings to do so. Lord give us grace to be faithful and flexible at the same time. Amen.

Seed of doubt…

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Mark 9:14 When they (Jesus, Peter, James, and John) came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out…

I’m drawn to the words of v.24 “I believe; help my unbelief!” If there was anyone with a stake in seeing the young man healed it was his father – who is the one speaking these words. It’s obvious he brought his son to the disciples because he’s desperate to see him healed. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see your own child writhe on the ground and foam at the mouth (perhaps what we now call “epilepsy”?). I’m a father to three children and one of the hardest things of all is to see your children struggle or suffer and be powerless to do anything about it. Such was this man’s situation, so he threw a hail Mary and went to Jesus’ disciples, who failed to cast out the demon.

Jesus himself then showed up and asked how long this had been going on. The man answered “since childhood”. Then he said, “If you are able to do anything…”. There’s a seed of doubt there, right? There’s that little word “if”. Jesus picked up on this and rebuked him. But it’s clear the man was not completely without faith or he would not have gone to the trouble of bringing his son in the first place. And so he said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Very often I think this describes me. It’s not that I have no faith, it’s just that I don’t always have COMPLETE faith. And I would say my “doubt” is not whether or not our God is able to accomplish the impossible, it’s just that I’m not sure if God will choose to do so in a particular instance. This morning I’m asking the Lord to show me where doubt is getting in my way and to free me from unbelief. Lord let it be so. Amen.

My sin and God’s grace…

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Leviticus 26: (God said to the Israelites via Moses) 40 But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors, in that they committed treachery against me and, moreover, that they continued hostile to me— 41 so that I, in turn, continued hostile to them and brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. 43 For the land shall be deserted by them, and enjoy its sabbath years by lying desolate without them, while they shall make amends for their iniquity, because they dared to spurn my ordinances, and they abhorred my statutes. 44 Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, or abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God; 45 but I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, to be their God: I am the Lord. 

In this chapter God is telling Israel both the blessings of obedience to the will and ways of God – and the penalties if they fail to do so. If you go back and read from the beginning of chapter 26 you’ll see that the section explaining the blessings is way shorter than the lengthy section describing, in gory detail, the punishments that await disobedience. If you know the rest of the story of the Old Testament you know why this was so. The people of Israel were continually rebelling against God. And paying the price.

However in our passage God makes a graceful turn.

“But if they confess their iniquity… I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt…”

Sin on the part of Israel tested their relationship to God over and over, yet that relationship was never severed. They may have been in the dog house, but they ALWAYS belonged to God who loved them and would never forsake them. Two things come to mind for me here:

  1. Note that our passage begins with “if they confess their iniquity”. Confession is a powerful thing. It requires us to be honest about our sin and take responsibility. As such it’s not always easy to do. Sometimes I want to blame someone else for my shortcomings. Or rationalize rebellion against God, telling myself a sin is not really a sin. When I do this I carry the heaviness of guilt around like a ball and chain. Confession is God’s way for us to put the burden down and give it to God, knowing that Jesus has already taken on the punishment for our sins and that forgiveness is ours for the asking.
  2. God goes out of his way to affirm the inviability of his relationship to the people. They fall short of God’s hopes and expectations all the time, yet God’s love never leaves them. They may be a train wreck, but they are God’s train wreck!

So today I’m spending some time in confession, asking the Lord for grace to be honest with myself and with God about this. I’m also listening for the voice of God calling me “beloved” once again, as the Lord continues to love me despite all my flaws. Thank you Lord for your grace and goodness. Amen.

A word from the Lord Jesus…

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Mark 8:1 In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.” His disciples replied, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people.

There’s a lot going on here, but I’ll focus on one key idea. Note v.1 “there was a great crowd without anything to eat”. It was one thing for people to hear Jesus in a town or village with lots of people. It wouldn’t have taken much to stop for a bit and listen, likely on the way to doing something else. But this crowd is different.

They went for several days without food, in the wilderness, in order to hear Jesus, which suggests they were desperate. In Jesus they are looking for hope, but perhaps not all the same form of home. Hope for healing. Hope for justice. Hope for love. Hope for freedom from the violence of the Romans. Hope that Yahweh had not forgotten them. Hope that their future could be different from their past.

I’m into my first week of sabbatical leave and I too am listening for a word from the Lord. What does the Lord want for me and for the church I lead as we lean into an uncertain future? What does the Lord want for my family, particularly my young adult children as they move into life on their own? What does the Lord want for me and my wife Jana now that she is retired from teaching? What does the Lord want from the war continuing to grow in Ukraine? So many questions and so few answers.

Lord speak for your servants are listening. Amen.

Sabbatical starts today!

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Acts 9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord (after presiding over the apostle Stephen), went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 

So much to say. First, we have to remember that Saul presided over the execution of the first Christian martyr – Stephen. Saul was a Pharisee, one of the religious authorities whose job it was to teach Israel and hold the Israelites accountable to the laws of God. The Pharisees recognized Jesus’ works as perhaps originating with God the Father, but there were too many instances of Jesus and his followers breaking the rules as they were understood in his day. So they had Jesus killed and then persecuted his followers. Having successfully put Stephen to death, Saul then wanted to pursue more Christians (those who belonged to the “Way”) as far as Syria.

But it turns out Jesus gets a vote!

Just as Saul is on his way, he encounters the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Later in this chapter Jesus gives to Saul (afterward to be known as the apostle “Paul”) his marching orders. He would not only stop persecuting Christians, but would be the chief apostle sharing the good news that Jesus of Nazareth was not dead, but alive. In fact, Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would set people free from bondage to sin and death.

But before Saul began his apostolic work as “Paul” he would take time to abide with the Lord (v.9).

Today is the first day of my Sabbatical leave from work as pastor of Rejoice Lutheran Church. I’ll be away from church responsibilities until August 1st – three months total of paid leave. Sabbatical is a time of rest and renewal in the spirit of “Sabbath”. The idea is to be renewed and prepared for the next season of life and ministry post-Sabbatical. I’m very grateful this provision was included in my contract when I came to Rejoice in 2013. Truth is, I was supposed to go on Sabbatical in 2020 (after seven years) but then a stupid thing called Covid hit the world, so I’ve been delayed a couple of years. Nevertheless, my Sabbatical begins today.

I’ll be doing some traveling with family during this time as well as taking some personal retreat time focused on the topic of Sabbath. I’ll also just be hanging out at home, which I enjoy. I’m actually a homebody by nature which seems to surprise some people. I’ll also be focusing on further improving my personal health and fitness during Sabbatical so I’m physically prepared for whatever comes after Sabbatical. Pray for me and my wife Jana that we won’t drive each other crazy spending so much time together! No, I’m sure it will be delightful. 🙂

Lastly I’ll say how grateful I am to my church for allowing me this privilege and to our church staff who will carry the baton in my absence. Lord hold us all in your care as I begin three months away. Grant us grace to fulfill whatever purposes you have for this time. Amen.

Who shall serve in the temple?

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Leviticus 21:16–21 (NRSV): 16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God.

A passage like this one is hard to embrace in an age when we are trying to include people who have various physical challenges. They are created by God precious, valuable, capable – sometimes as a result of their adaptation to their physical challenge. One ability might be diminished but another enhanced.

Christians often struggle with how literally to follow the directives and commands of scripture. This passage is an example of why we might now always follow the Bible to the letter. Granted, this passage speaks to worship leadership within the temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists, so our church contexts are different. That said, it’s worth considering application in our churches.

As you can tell, I’m not in favor – for reasons mentioned in the first paragraph. This does not mean I don’t have a high sense of respect for the authority of scripture because I do. But I believe there are times when the cultural ethic of our day is very different from biblical cultural context.

Lord we are grateful for your Word handed to us in the holy scriptures. Give us wisdom to apply that Word as you would have us do. Amen.

With great need comes the power of God…

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Mark 6:He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. 

First, Jesus very explicitly gave the disciples authority over unclean spirits. V.12-13 seems to suggest a subsequent connection between the invitation to repent of sins and deliverance from demons/healing. In other places in the bible Jesus will first forgive someone’s sins then, to demonstrate the authority to forgive sins (something it was believed only God could do) he would then heal their infirmity. Repentance then deliverance. Repentance then healing. Interesting.

Second, before sending the disciples on their way Jesus tells them to take nothing extra on the journey (v.8-9). This begs the question, why? Why would it matter if they have some extra food or not? Or a change of clothes? Or a little money – just in case? They were essentially sent with nothing but the clothes on their backs, completely dependent on the Father to provide for them as they went on their way.

There seems to be a connection between complete dependence on God and activation of the power of God in their ministry.

One day I was listening to a Christian evangelist from mainland China who was visiting the US. He ministered in the rural areas far from city centers and plagued with grinding poverty. He spoke of people desperate for help, who had no means to secure needed medical care or other kinds of services we take for granted in the US. And he told us of amazing miracles and works of God in their midst. When someone asked why such things are less frequently experienced in the West he told us we often have no need of God – we can depend on our worldly resources to address our needs. He didn’t say this as a criticism, just a fact.

People who tend to experience the miraculous power of God aren’t necessarily more faithful or spiritual or godly than others, it’s just that they have no other options available to them. Today’s passage has me thinking about this, reflecting on it, praying. Lord teach us to minister in your power. Amen.

Holy interruptions…

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Mark 5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” 24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years… 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 

Some random thoughts I have regarding this passage:

Jesus was on his way to attend to Jairus’ daughter when a suffering woman approached him and was healed by him. It would have been forbidden for a woman in her condition to touch a rabbi, so she likely expected Jesus to fuss at her – but he didn’t. Instead he blessed her.

I also find it interesting this healing story took place in the middle of another healing story that was unfolding. In essence Jesus was interrupted while on his way to Jairus’ house. We are told that Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, a sort of VIP. Certainly he would have been closer to the top of the local food-chain than the bottom. The woman with the persistent hemorrhage would have been closer to the bottom. Jesus heals in both cases.

Lord never let us be in too big a hurry to bless people in need. Amen.

Rebellious nature…

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Psalm 51: 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 

We are told this psalm was written by King David after he was caught in adultery. You may recall from scripture that David and Bathsheba actually conceived a son in that act of adultery – but the child died. Shortly afterward David actually took Bathsheba as his wife and they later conceived another son – Solomon – who would be David’s heir on the throne.

The words of our passage are filled with remorse and regret. And in verse 10 David asks God to do what he cannot do for himself, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…”. Like David, you and I were born with a sinful nature. We tend toward rebellion against God. As I’ve gotten older, I think I am a bit less rebellious than I used to be, but my sinful nature remains. I know that, in my own power, I don’t have the strength to overcome this predisposition to sin. Like David, I need the Lord to cleanse me from the inside out. Lord, let it be so. Amen.