Breaking the rules… and blessing people…

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Mark 1:40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

This is the sort of thing that drove the Pharisees crazy when it came to Jesus. On the one hand the power for healing demonstrated here could only come from God. On the other hand Jesus defied the rules which stipulated no righteous Jew could touch an unclean person with leprosy.

Jesus was a walking contradiction.

Today is Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar. Tonight the congregation I lead will gather virtually to worship and to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. We would normally gather in the church sanctuary, but that is obviously not possible right now. So instead of having congregation members come to the altar where I would normally preside over the eucharist, we will invite people to commune themselves wherever they are.

There are some people in my denomination who are strongly opposed to this practice, which defies convention. And under normal circumstances we would expect people to come to the church for communion, but crisis has pushed us to rethink how we do many things including the sharing of communion.

Our passage for today reminds me that Jesus too was roundly criticized for doing things the wrong way. I guess that means we’re in good company when we defy convention – and bless people at the same time! If you’re reading this on Thursday I hope you’ll plan to join us for our Facebook livestream at 7pm.

And don’t forget your bread and wine/juice!

God is our refuge and strength…

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Psalm 46:1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…

Psalm 46 was the first passage of scripture I leaned into when this whole social distancing thing began in March. The psalmist is “in trouble” but “will not fear” though things are coming apart around him. He has peace because “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”.

God is near to you and me brothers and sisters, not far off. 

Heavenly Father make yourself known to us today. Calm our spirits, give us peace that passes understanding. We place ourselves in your hands as we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The crucible of the wilderness…

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Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

What happens with Jesus immediately following his baptism? He is called into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. What happens after his time in the wilderness? Jesus goes on to live the most remarkable three years in history, die on a cross, and be raised up in three days to secure eternal life for all who call on his holy name.

But it started in the wilderness.

Jesus’ story reminds me of other biblical figures who endured a season of hardship before coming into their destiny: Abraham leaving his homeland of Ur, Joseph incarcerated for alleged attempted rape, Moses fleeing Egypt as a young man guilty of murder, the Israelites wandering in the desert wilderness for 40 years, David hiding in the Cave of Addulum, the apostle Paul being struck with blindness, and so on. In each case one could describe the season of struggle and adversity as “wilderness”.

Wilderness is often where transformation begins.

There is something about the challenge of the wilderness that shapes people for God’s purposes. One could describe our current situation as a wilderness season. It’s uncomfortable, disconcerting, disorienting. No one likes the wilderness, including me. On a personal level, I am missing the company of friends and family who are not under my immediate roof. I wonder if any of us will get sick, or how long this crisis will last.

As a pastor I am working with my team of staff and volunteer leaders to figure out new ways of doing ministry. No doubt many of you are doing the same in your own vocation. It is hard. It is stressful. I would never have chosen this on my own, nor do I suspect would you. But here we are. In the wilderness.

Since we are going to be here for a while I find the nature of my prayers has changed. Instead of asking the Lord to helicopter me out of this situation, which is not gonna happen, I’ve begun to ask the Lord for grace to lean into it. How am I being shaped by this experience? What new capacities are growing in me which will be useful when this time of crisis is over? How do I embrace the changes underway rather than resist them? What opportunities are presenting themselves if I only have eyes to see?

Lord Jesus, you know what it’s like to endure the wilderness. It’s a painful place, but often a place of transformation as well. Give us grace to learn, to grow, to be shaped by these challenging days in ways that give you glory. We pray this in your holy name. Amen.

Clouds and fire…

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Exodus 34:34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 36 Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; 37 but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey. 

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to clearly see where God is leading? I mean, when there’s a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, there’s no guess-work involved. Where it goes, we go. Where it stops, we stop.

But that’s not our experience today as God’s leading is much more subtle. These are difficult days friends. And though we don’t have clouds and fire to show us the way, we do have the Holy Spirit to speak on the inside, fellow believers to speak on the outside, the Word of God in scripture to speak to us in written form, and more.

Lord Jesus, give us eyes to see and ears to hear where you call. Amen.

We are anxious and afraid…

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Psalm 44:9 Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies. 10 You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations. 12 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.

Yesterday we looked at the first verses of this psalm. The writer was giving thanks to God for victory over enemies, recognizing that it wasn’t his great weapons or strategy but the power of God that made the difference. There is, in those first eight verses, the tone of praise and thanksgiving.

How quickly the sentiment changes, huh?

It would appear the time of victory has passed and now they are being routed by the enemy. “You have made us like sheep for slaughter”. So what changed? The psalmist doesn’t give a reason, probably because he doesn’t know. As we will read in the rest of this psalm, the writer cries out to God for relief.

One of the things I like about the bible is that it doesn’t hide the contradictions people experienced at times with God. God was their protector, but protection was sometimes withdrawn. This was usually because the people had grown unfaithful over time, pushing God away, but we are not told that here. All we know from the psalm is that God’s people were in trouble and pleading for relief from the Lord.

It’s bad out there folks, as you all know. But why? What’s with this terrible virus making people sick – or worse – all over the world? If God created the heavens and the earth, which is most certainly the case, why not nip this virus in the bud? We don’t know. And so today we can follow in a very long line of believers throughout history who were in great pain and struggle, who cried out to God for relief.

Heavenly Father your children are struggling. We are anxious and afraid of what the day might bring. Come to the aid of your people in the face of this invisible and deadly organism. Hold tight to us dear God and see us through. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Lord give us eyes to see your hand at work…

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Psalm 44:4 You are my King and my God; you command victories for Jacob. 5 Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants. 6 For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. 7 But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us. 8 In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever.

I love the way the psalmist recognizes God as the source of victory in battle. True, there are people doing the actual fighting, but it is not their fighting skill or their weapons or any other earthly thing that explains their success. Rather, “through your name we tread down our assailants”.

One of the things we talk about a lot at Rejoice, the church I serve as pastor, is that God is our provider. It may be our hands that do the work, but the fruit comes from God. When we internalize this truth it sets us free to be generous. We know we can give to others because God is making sure we have what we need. This is especially important in times like these, when provision appears to be drying up both in the stock market and the job market.

I don’t know what the future holds, nor do you. But our God does. He can be trusted to anticipate our needs and find ways to care for us. Our God carries this burden so we don’t have to. Trust that today dear brothers and sisters.

Heavenly Father, give us eyes to see your hand at work as we move through these frightening times. Amen.

It will get better…

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Isaiah 65:19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

Isaiah was writing in a time when God’s people were in exile in Babylon. The verse was written in the future tense, “I will rejoice”… “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard”. It’s in the future tense because it did not reflect their current reality which was one of bondage and pain and loss. It was a promise of what would come in God’s time.

We’re in a terrible season right now as the coronavirus continues to spread, making people sick or worse. How long will it last? We don’t know. Will I get sick? Will you get sick? We don’t know. But we do know this too shall pass. The fear and anxiety and distress will subside. There will again be smiles and laughter and joy as we embrace friends and loved ones. It will get better.

But for now, we wait. Lord have mercy. Amen.