The demons know…

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Matthew 8: 23 And when (Jesus) got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” 

28 When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31 The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32 And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water.

We have two stories here: Jesus stills a storm and then Jesus casts out demons into a herd of pigs. What’s interesting to me today is the difference in discernment between Jesus’ disciples and the demons. You’ll note Jesus “rebuked the winds and the sea” resulting in “dead calm”. How did the disciples respond? “What sort of man is this?”

Compare this to the demons in the second story. Jesus doesn’t have to perform any miracles for the demons to recognize who Jesus is, “What have you to do with us, Son of God?” Why is this?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I know this sort of thing happens a lot in the gospel passages. People who should recognize Jesus (his disciples, the religious authorities, and so on) do not. People who you wouldn’t expect to know who Jesus is (Gentiles, demons, blind persons) recognize him as the Son of God.

I’m probably more like the ones who should know things of God, but perhaps don’t. I’m asking the Lord to open my eyes today to spiritual realities I may be missing. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Spared…

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Genesis 22:1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

We don’t know how old Isaac was at the time of this story, but I’m thinking Isaac was at least 12 years old or more. He walked up the mountain by himself so that would indicate a boy of some strength. We are told earlier in the story that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, and about 80 years old when God called him from his original home toward a “promised land”. So I’m thinking Abraham had been walking with the Lord for some 30+ years by this point.

It’s notable because early in his journey, not more than a year or two after meeting God, Abraham was not nearly as faithful a man as we read about here. You may recall he lied to Pharaoh telling him that Sarah was not his wife, but his sister – this way they would not kill Abraham and steal his wife but would instead honor Abraham as the older brother and probably give him a generous dowry to marry Sarah. Which is exactly what happened. It was later revealed to Pharaoh in a dream that Sarah was Abraham’s wife – not his sister – so Pharaoh gave Sarah back to Abraham (for fear of punishment by God) and let Abraham keep the goods Pharaoh had given to him. In fact, Abraham did essentially the same thing a few years later to another king!

Abraham relied on deception instead of trusting the Lord for protection.

There is no such lack of faith in Abraham in this story. There is no hint of hesitation when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar. It suggests that Abraham trusted God to make good on his promise to give him children and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. But God did not make Abraham go through with it.

I don’t know what I would do if I discerned the Lord commanding me to sacrifice my children. I’m guessing I would refuse. But Abraham did not refuse, though Isaac was ultimately spared. It brings to mind, of course, the fact that God the Father did not withhold his only son Jesus from death on a cross for all our sakes. It boggles the mind when you think about it.

Thank you God that you did not withhold your own son for us. Amen.

Touching a leper…

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Matthew 8:1 When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

Jesus has just finished his famous “sermon on the mount” and as he’s coming down from the mountain he encounters a leper who asks to be healed. Now, one would assume Jesus didn’t necessarily have to touch the man to heal him. If you keep reading in chapter 11 you’ll read about a Roman centurion whose ill servant Jesus healed from a distance. Jesus never even laid eyes on the servant yet the healing was accomplished. However, in this case, Jesus chooses to touch the man and heal him.

Touching a leper was a no-no for ancient Israel as lepers were considered ritually unclean. Yet Jesus, as an act of love, broke the rules and touched the man. This is just one example of why Jesus confused the authorities of his day. There was no doubt he exhibited great spiritual power from God, yet he also did “ungodly” things – like touch a leper or eat with tax-collectors or befriend prostitutes.

Jesus repeatedly refused to conform to the “rules” if love required breaking them.

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate Jesus’ defiance of conventions, especially when “love” was at stake. Has me thinking this morning about the unloved or untouchable persons in our world today. I wonder where the call of the gospel may be pushing me and the church I lead to touch some lepers. Lord give me eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.

A good tree will not bear bad fruit…

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Matthew 7:15 (Jesus said) “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

What gets my attention in this passage today is the metaphor of “fruit”. You plant a seed, then you wait. It can takes weeks, months, or even years to see the results. During dry months a plant can look almost dead, but then rain comes and perks things right up. Or a plant can look great in the early going, only to be eaten by bugs or stricken by drought. This is especially true with something as large and slow-growing an oak tree. The timelines are long, but the results can last hundreds of years.

Of course, the “trees” Jesus names in the passage refers to people. As a father my mind goes to my children, but this can apply to most any form of human development. Training up people takes time. I was talking with a mother of a teenage daughter who is perplexed by her daughter’s change in demeanor. They used to be so close, now it seems the daughter wants nothing to do with mom. Until she does. She is surly and contrary one minute, then wants hugs the next. Mom is thoroughly confused and is certain she has done a terrible job as a mother.

As the father of three young adult children I have more perspective than this struggling mother. It’s true, the teenage years are hard as young people make the transition from child to adult. It’s easy to think you’ve blown it. My counsel to this woman was to ask the Lord for patience. Lord willing, there are better days ahead. The parts of the child that seem to have been lost in teenage years will re-emerge. The seeds of “good fruit” mom planted in her child over many years are still there and will blossom with time.

Lord teach us to have faith when doubt creeps in. For you are not done with us. Amen.

Do to others…

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Matthew 7:12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

The law and the prophets of the old testament include a LOT of material. So it’s interesting to me that Jesus sums it up with one statement. It’s one of those verses that is very familiar so it can be difficult to hear it anew. But this morning I’m drawn to the power of its simplicity. How would I act if I applied this teaching more consistently? Where in my life and I functioning outside of this teaching?

Yesterday I was picking up a to-go pizza from a local restaurant and had an increasingly common experience – slow service. It’s a pick-up only place so there’s no inside dining. There is a small counter at the front where people pick up their food. I knew I was in trouble when I walked into a crowded waiting area. I could see there were multiple staff in the kitchen area hustling to get food prepared, but the person dealing directly with customers looked lost.

As I watched it became evident this person is new. She struggled to find the right keys on the register, find the right orders to be picked-up, answer questions from hungry customers. What should have taken a few minutes took much, much longer, and I felt my self becoming irritated. I’ll admit, patience is not my strong suit. And this kind of situation has become VERY common these days when many places are short-staffed.

This morning I’m praying for this young woman and for the restaurant that employs her – and all of the “retail” type businesses and service providers everywhere who are struggling mightily to keep their doors open. I think it’s what I would want from others if I were the one behind the counter. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Light in the midst of darkness…

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Matthew 6:22 Jesus said to his disciples, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Perhaps a more helpful translation (or paraphrase) of this passage comes from “the Message” which writes:

  “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar."

With God all things are possible (light), even when things appear to be impossible (dark). This is a fundamental dimension of faith, to believe in that which cannot be seen. There are days when it seems we’re never going to get over Covid. I’m personally sick of it as I’m guessing are you.

Later this year I’ll be taking a three month sabbatical, a paid time away from work to renew, refresh, reset for the next leg of my working life. I was supposed to take sabbatical two years ago, but Covid interrupted those plans. At this point I’ve decided it’s pointless to wait until Covid is past because it appears it’s here to stay. While I understand this intellectually, it’s disappointing. I had once envisioned traveling overseas, perhaps to Europe, to see some ancient sites with biblical significance. Or perhaps travel to New Zealand to visit my brother there. Those things are pretty much off the table now.

So it seems I’m likely to remain stateside. This morning I’m asking the Lord to speak hope into me, when planning for sabbatical seems a bit hopeless. I know there will be blessing coming even if I can’t yet see where or how. Lord give me grace to see light rather than darkness. Amen.

Power of a simple prayer…

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Matthew 6: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”

You may be familiar with the words of the prayer beginning in v.9 – which Christians often refer to as the “Lord’s Prayer” or perhaps the “Our Father” in the Catholic tradition. It so happens that I’m starting into a sermon series studying this prayer which Jesus taught his disciples. It’s a key element of the Lutheran worship tradition to include this prayer in our gatherings.

Over the years I’ve had opportunity to pray with all kinds of Christians in many different forms. Some Christians are more formal in prayer, choosing to read beautiful prayers written in lovely prose. Other Christians are more extemporaneous, less formal, praying in everyday language. Yet other Christians are more expressive in prayer, spending extended periods of time praying about all sorts of things. I believe there is a place for all kinds of prayer. Recently I’ve been using music as a vehicle for prayer – spending time each day playing my guitar and singing to the Lord as I pray in the spirit.

What Jesus does in this passage, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, is make clear one doesn’t have to go on and on in prayer, or craft lovely prose for prayer. The words of this single biblical prayer Jesus gave to his disciples is more than enough. There is depth here even as there is brevity.

Lord Jesus thank you for teaching us to pray. Give us grace to set aside time for prayer every day and trust that you answer our prayers. We pray this in your holy name. Amen.

Abram – a work in progress…

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Genesis 12:10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. 

On the one hand Abram was willing to leave his homeland and family to follow the promise of God to possess a land he’d never seen and, perhaps more importantly to Abram, to have an heir to carry his name. That’s an astounding act of faith for sure. However, this story reveals another side of Abram.

Instead of trusting God to protect him from the Egyptians, he conspires with his wife to lie to Pharaoh – deploying deception to secure his safety. That is not an act of faith at all. So we’re getting mixed messages about Abram early in his story. He’s very much a work in progress at the time of our passage. Abram would eventually be known as “Abraham” the founding patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet even one so revered had to grow in faith over time.

Just like you and me.

Lord there are times when we get discouraged. We want to do the right thing, yet can find ourselves choosing the wrong. So this morning we reflect on the places in our lives where we have wandered from you. Teach us to trust you and seek after you with all of our hearts. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Leaving the known for the unknown…

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Genesis 12:1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

At this point in time, Abram (whose name would change to “Abraham” later) did not know God – this is their introduction. God makes an interesting proposition. First, there is the challenge: leave “your country and your kindred and your father’s house”. In ancient times one’s extended family were essentially one’s protection and safety net. There was no police force to speak of, so staying close to family was critical to survival. This would have especially been the case for a wealthy man like Abram, as there were always people wanting to rob the wealthy. Also note that God doesn’t tell Abram exactly where he will go, only saying, “to the land that I will show you”. Pretty vague don’t you think?

But then there is the reward in v.2-3. To a wealthy man who was childless at an advanced age, having no heir to leave one’s wealth would have been considered tragic – much more so than might be the case today. So the possibility of having an heir late in life would have been enormously attractive.

In order to realize blessing in the future, Abram would have to leave the security of the now.

I resonate with the idea of leaving the known for the unknown, though unlike Abram it has not been a choice. Covid is realigning all kinds of things: work, home, school, neighborhood, and so on. I would never have chosen to make all these dimensions of change all at the same time, but I didn’t get a vote. Nor did you. But here we are.

So this morning I’m wondering what blessing the Lord has in store for me in the midst of this massive upheaval. What opportunities is the Lord giving me to bless other people? How can I grow from this experience? How can the church I lead bear witness to the love Jesus has for all people? How would you answer these questions?

Lord open our eyes and ears to discern where you are leading. And help us to see the blessing in the midst of the struggle. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Giving it to God…

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Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. 

In this passage human beings are at it again. Adam and Eve got in trouble because they ate the forbidden fruit thinking it would make them like God – knowing good and evil. It was a rebellion against their place in God’s created order, for which they were thrown out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis chapter 3). Here we see people attempting to subvert God’s created order once more by building a structure to invade the heavens – the place where God and heavenly beings dwell. People weren’t created to invade heaven, but to live upon the earth to care for it as God commanded. Strike two.

The question I’ve been asking myself this morning is, “Where am I rebelling against God’s created order, trying to occupy space that belongs to God?” I think for me the temptation is to carry burdens that actually belong to God. As a husband and father I have concern for the care of my wife and children. As an oldest son I have concern for the care of my mother and father, both still living. As the senior leader of a church I have concern for the care of the congregation. Then, in the midst of it all, there’s concern for my own well-being. It’s a lot.

I don’t want to suggest that I alone seek to fulfill these obligations of care. There are many people who partner with me in this work. But the load of care has been high for two years now, with no end in sight. It can be overwhelming as I know many of you reading this blog understand. You’re feeling it as well. We weren’t created to bear these burdens, but our God is.

Dear Lord, give me grace to stay connected and empathetic for those in my care while casting the burden for outcomes upon you. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.