Bear fruit worthy of repentance…

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Luke 3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John the Baptist was a prophet, telling God’s people what they didn’t want to hear. A key problem with the Old Testament covenant of the law was that it never produced compassion, mercy, justice. People would go through the motions of fulfilling the letter of the law, but harbor in their hearts a desire to take advantage of the vulnerable, follow after other gods, stack the deck in favor of the wealthy and well-connected, and so on. The law didn’t transform people on the inside.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (v.8)

To repent is to have a change of heart that results in a different way of thinking and acting – what John is referring to here as “fruits of repentance”. Laws don’t transform people on the inside. Repentance does. Why? Because repentance admits we cannot create inner transformation by ourselves. We need the power of God to do a work in us. In this kind of humility and dependence on God there is hope. For fruit.

I’m being tested right now (as are you too I presume). There are so many challenges right now in just about every area of life it can be overwhelming. I’m tired and weary on the inside from responding in my own meager strength. It’s not working. I’m admitting that. I need the Lord to pick me up and push me through. So this morning I’m humbling myself before the Lord. I’m asking the Lord to produce in me fruits worthy of repentance. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Israel vs. Palestine… origins

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Numbers 33:50 In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 51 Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. 53 You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess. 54 You shall apportion the land by lot according to your clans; to a large one you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small one you shall give a small inheritance; the inheritance shall belong to the person on whom the lot falls; according to your ancestral tribes you shall inherit. 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.

Here God is giving to Moses instructions for the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land of Canaan. V. 52 makes God’s command clear. The people are to drive out the current inhabitants so they might inherit the land. In some cases this meant putting them all to death. At the very least it meant taking their lands, towns, and livestock from them by force. Two things come to mind for me this morning.

First, people who are pushed out of their land don’t easily forget. I’m thinking of the Palestinian people in relationship to Israel. The enmity between these two people groups is thousands of years old. Why Americans think we’re going to broker a peace between them is beyond me. As the prophet Doctor Phil likes to ask, “How’s that working out for you?”

Second, this passage reminds me why the Israelis believe they have a claim to the disputed territories to this day. Whatever international law and norms may be, the word of God clearly states the land is a gift to Israel in perpetuity.

See the problem here?

Lord Jesus it’s hard to read some passages of scripture like this one because the commands in it violate much of our current sense of right/wrong. Yet, scripture tells us that with God all things are possible. Bring peace to a world that is deeply divided. We pray this in your holy name. Amen.

The angel appeared to…shepherds?

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Luke 2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Here we have the beginning of the birth story of Jesus. What I find interesting is the appearance of the angel of the Lord to… shepherds. “Shepherd” is often used in scripture as an image for leaders of the people. Kings were often referred to as shepherds of the people. Jesus is referred to as the “good shepherd” because he led the people to life. Literal shepherds however, people who actually tended flocks, were not particularly well regarded. Here is an excerpt from one of my bible dictionaries:

“Literal shepherds were not highly esteemed in Graeco-Roman literature (e.g., Ovid, Her., 5.79). Aristotle speaks negatively of the shepherd when he writes that among men, “the laziest are shepherds, who lead an idle life, and get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals”.

If you were going to choose the ones to whom God would send an angel to give notice of Jesus’ birth, you would probably pick persons who were well-regarded, respected. But that’s not what God did here. He chose the lowly shepherds instead of one from among the rabbis or noble classes. We had already seen this theme when an angel visited Mary to tell her she would be mother to Jesus. We see this again when the angel appears to the women at the tomb after Jesus rose from the dead.

Our God is all about using unconventional, unqualified, marginal people for his purposes.

Lord it’s true that you often go against the grain of culture, passing up the likely ones and instead using persons on the margins for your purposes. Give us grace to discern how you are calling us to be your servants in our day. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The covid-19 wilderness…

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Luke 1:80 The child (John the Baptist) grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

John the Baptist was a prophet sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus. We’re told he was “in the wilderness” which has obvious connections to both Israel wandering for 40 years in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land and Jesus who was tested for 40 days in the wilderness before starting his earthly ministry. In each case the wilderness season involved testing, deprivation, but also strengthening in body and spirit for what was to come.

In the last few days news has been breaking that covid-19 hospitalizations are at record levels in my home state of Texas and several other places around the U.S. and the world. This news is being accompanied by further easing of restrictions to economic activity. My older daughter Victoria is being called back to her part-time job since area restaurants and bars will be allowed to function at 75% starting Monday. I’ll admit I’m concerned. But I understand the impulse to get out of isolation.

Being mostly separated from friends and family this long has been hard on many of us. It feels like the wilderness. A relational wilderness. For many of us it’s also been an economic wilderness. Even a spiritual wilderness. Mostly I just want it to end. I want to get back to something closer to normal, though I expect it’s going to be a while yet. Ugh. But at the same time I wonder what we’re being prepared for. I’m reminded of the teaching on Romans 8:28

“28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Paul’s point is not a denial of hardships, but a reinterpretation of them. Somewhere in the middle of this mess there is a divinely inspired witness that glorifies God, that gives hope to people struggling, that offers light in the midst of a dark world. This morning I’m asking God to reveal my role in this witness and for grace to live it out. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Walking wounded…

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Psalm 74: 20 Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence. 21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name. 22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause; remember how the impious scoff at you all day long. 23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually. 

Here the psalmist is lifting up a complaint to God – though it may not sound like it. Israel was in covenant with God, meaning they shared an identity together. The two became one beginning with Abraham. What belonged to God belonged to Israel and vice-versa.

An important dynamic of covenant between God and Israel was protection. As Israel worshipped God alone, God was expected to protect Israel from enemies who were not in relationship to God and who did not honor the commandments, the ordinances, the ways of God. Apparently this was not happening at the time of this psalm. The author is essentially saying, “What the heck God?!”

It’s a problem as old as God and people. There are times when God doesn’t seem to be holding up his end of the bargain. Injustice rules, the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. God has a way of rectifying these situations in the long run, but in the short term it’s painful.

There’s a lot of pain right now for believers and unbelievers alike. Including me. I get that all things will be made right in the end, but some of us need relief right now. So what do you say God? We’re your people and we need a break. Most of the people I meet in person and otherwise are essentially walking wounded. We’re still showing up, but we’re drained on the inside, running on fumes. Give us grace to weather this storm. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Mary’s profound faith…

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Luke 1:46 And Mary said (after learning she would bear a son),
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

As you would expect of a teenaged girl, Mary was perplexed when an angel of the Lord told her she would bear a child despite her having never been with a man. However, though perplexed, she never expressed doubt that it was possible.

This is in contrast to several women in the biblical narrative who scoffed at the notion of giving birth after having been childless. Sara, Abraham’s wife, comes to mind as does Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, who gave birth to John the Baptist. Reminds me of the words of Jesus in Matthew.

Matthew 18:3 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

I love Mary’s simple faith that immediately receives the good news – even though it will make her life complicated in the short-term. Lord, give me the simple but powerful faith of Mary. Amen.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you…

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Luke 1:35 The angel said to (Mary), “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Reading in the Moravian Daily Texts we have finished Mark and now begin Luke. Mark begins his gospel with the story of Jesus’ baptism, but Luke contains the story of Jesus’ conception and birth. In this verse I’m drawn to the phrase “will come upon you”. The Greek word here “ἐπέρχομαι” is also used in the book of Acts (also written by Luke):

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you (ἐπέρχομαι)…

We understand Acts 1:8 to have been fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came like a violent wind filling the room where the disciples were meeting and tongues of fire rested upon each of them. It was an extraordinary event that no one could forget.

So here we have the angel telling Mary the Holy Spirit would come upon her – which obviously happened because Jesus was born to a virgin. Did Mary experience an amazing visitation from the Lord as was the case at Pentecost? Or was it something more subdued? If it was the former, why isn’t it mentioned? Did Mary not tell anyone? Did Luke not think it was fundamental to the gospel narrative and so left it out?

I’ve experienced both – extraordinary engagement with the Holy Spirit and the more subdued version we read about here. Both are equally valid in my opinion. What’s important is not what it looks like, but that it happens. Have you experienced a visit from the Lord? Or perhaps from an angel? I’d love to read about it.

Come Holy Spirit. Come. Amen.

It’s time to listen…

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Mark 16:1 When the sabbath was over (two days after Jesus was crucified), Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

If you’ve been following along in Mark you know that, in this final section of the story, Jesus’ disciples are not exactly portrayed as a profile in courage. They swore to him they would never leave him or allow anything to happen to him – only to completely abandon him in his hour of need. Here the theme continues.

The women arrived to Jesus’ tomb prepared to anoint his body for burial, but he was not there. A “young man dressed in a white robe” (presumably an angel) told them “He has been raised.” The women were then instructed to tell Peter and the rest of the disciples what they had seen and heard. How did that go? “… they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. So – fear continued to be in control.

I get it. Who would believe them? As women they were not considered people of authority in the community so it didn’t make sense that Jesus would appear to them instead of to Peter or one the other leaders. In later verses we find out when the women finally did muster the courage to share the news, their suspicions were confirmed. No one believed them. Jesus would later chastise them all for their unbelief.

Our country is in a mess right now. I don’t think that’s really debatable. Most recently we had the horrible killing of an Africa-American man in police custody followed by many days of peaceful protests – and violent looting and destruction in dozens of cities. It’s not our finest hour as a nation.

Unfortunately the violence and looting has taken our attention away from the most important aspect of these painful events – that ANOTHER black man was killed unnecessarily by a white man in authority. It happens over and over again and it has to stop.

But here’s a painful truth for me today. People like me, for whom the status quo basically works (not perfectly, but mostly), are inclined to just want the unrest to stop. We think “ENOUGH”! But for many people for whom the status quo is NOT working, ending the disruption of protest and civil unrest is NOT okay because when that happens many will be inclined to stop listening. Yes, it’s true it can be hard to listen to someone who is screaming in your face, but more than ever I believe what they are saying matters. Deeply.

If people like me don’t take seriously what desperate people are saying right now, we are a lot like those who ignored what the women at the tomb had to say. We may not like the messengers. Or the method. Or even the message. But here’s what I DO know. As the people of God, the One who continually showed concern and love for people on the margins, how we respond in these days says a lot about who we really are.

Come Lord Jesus. Amen.

King Solomon – not his father’s son…

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Psalm 72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. 2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. 3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. 4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. 5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. 6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. 7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. 8 May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 9 May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust. 10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. 

This psalm is attributed to King Solomon who was King David’s son. I’m struck by how different is the tone of this psalm has compared to a typical Davidic psalm. David often cried out to God from a place of perceived desperation, even oppression from enemies. He was also effusive in praise of God. David was known as a man “after God’s own heart” which comes through in his psalms – very much a Myers-Briggs “feeler” if you’re familiar with those distinctions. Some might even say he was a bit of a drama queen.

Solomon is different, much more oriented to thinking. First he asks for wisdom to lead well, defending the vulnerable and intending to “crush the oppressor” (v.4). Then he asks that God give him “dominion from sea to sea”. It’s not a request for power simply for power’s sake, but so that God could rule through Solomon. V.11 explains,

“May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service”.

Again, Solomon saw his own kingdom as a reflection of God’s kingdom on earth. To submit to Solomon was to submit to God.

Jesus’ thoughts on the issue were very, very different from both David and Solomon as we read in the gospel of Matthew chapter 20:

“26… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What does it look like to lead as a servant according to Jesus’ words in this time and place? I’m asking myself this morning. Lord open our minds to understand your will for us all. Amen.

Abandoned. Completely.

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Mark 15:25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified (Jesus). 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

Jesus’ abandonment was complete. First, God the Father abandoned him in the Garden of Gethsemane, refusing to reply when Jesus cried out to him. Then there was Judas who betrayed him. Then there was Peter and the other disciples who fled from him and denied knowing him after his arrest. Then the crowds in Jerusalem shouted, “Crucify him!”. Pilate handed him over the be crucified. The Roman soldiers beat him and mocked him. Once crucified everyone from the casual passerby, to the chief priests, to the criminals crucified on either side of him mocked him.

It’s hard to imagine how awful this must have been. Perhaps this experience is why Jesus later promised his disciples, “Remember I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matthew 28).

As of this morning, the violence and destruction continues across America. Demonic powers and forces of evil in the heavenly realm appear to have the upper hand. One could imagine that our God has abandoned us in our time of need, but we know that is not true. Scripture tells us that the Lord will never leave us or forsake us.

Heavenly Father, bring peace to our land. Scatter the forces of evil wreaking havoc in the cities of our nation. Show your power, O God. Save us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.