Adapting to our new reality…

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Acts 6:1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.

“Hellenists” were people of Jewish descent who had adopted Greek language, customs, and culture. They believed their widows were getting short-changed in the distribution of food. We were told in Acts chapter 4 that the disciples held all in common:

34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

The problem here wasn’t a lack of resources, but a lack of administration. The community had simply gotten too large for the apostles to teach/preach/heal AND hand out the food. So they made a change. They appointed seven others to deal with administration of food while the apostles focused on ministering the Word of God. A wise move!

I would be wise to do something similar with the staff members I supervise. I don’t mean handing out food to Hellenistic widows, but clarifying the boundaries of our work together. It’s a new world that, in some ways, requires a different church. What we do and how we do it is constantly shifting right now. It’s exciting and a bit scary at the same time.

Lord Jesus we’ve been saying for many years that the pace of change in our world is accelerating. But 2020 has kicked that into overdrive. Help us to align ourselves with our new reality so that we might serve your purposes more effectively. I pray this in your holy name. Amen.

Waiting for the salvation of the Lord…

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2 Kings 18:1 In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done… The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him…13 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. 14 King Hezekiah of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear.” The king of Assyria demanded of King Hezekiah of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. 15 Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king’s house…

The Assyrians took Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel) – which was somewhat understandable. The people of the northern kingdom had done wicked things to anger the Lord for several generations. As such God withdrew protection from them and they were sent to Assyria as slaves after bring defeated in battle.

But Hezekiah is a different matter. We’re told he was a faithful king, seeking after the Lord as his ancestor David had done. And yet – the king of Assyria invaded anyway, forcing Hezekiah to give mountains of silver and gold. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The first covenant of the law was simple. Follow the laws and commandments of God and you will be protected. Violate them and suffer.

But this morning I remember the promise is not that we will avoid suffering altogether, only that we will ultimately be saved from it.

God does eventually come to the aid of King Hezekiah, turning back the Assyrian invaders. In the book of Genesis, God raises up Joseph to be ruler in Egypt, but only after Joseph spends time in prison. God does make good on the Promised Land for the fleeing Hebrews, but only after they spend 40 years wandering in the desert wilderness. With God, salvation is generally preceded by suffering/struggle and lots of waiting.

So here we are in the season of Advent. Waiting. Waiting for the Lord to save us from… What are you waiting for? I’m waiting for the time when I can see my mother again without worry. When I can see my friends and colleagues across the country, most of whom I’ve not seen in-person for at least nine months. When businesses open and I can go to the movies again, or visit the grocery store without a mask. Mostly I’m waiting for the congregation I serve to be able to worship indoors in-person with no attendance limits or need for distance. When I can share an embrace of peace with my brothers and sisters in Christ. When we can come to the table of the Lord and receive Holy Communion as is our custom.

Lord give us peace. As we wait. Amen.

The new face of idolatry…

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2 Kings 17: Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land (of the northern kingdom of Israel) and came to Samaria (the capital city in the north); for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria…This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God… They had worshiped other gods and…12 they served idols, of which the Lord had said to them, “You shall not do this.”

You will recall that the unified kingdom of Israel under King David had split in two – a northern kingdom and southern kingdom. Here the Assyrians defeat the northern kingdom and lead the surviving Israelites away as slaves. Why? “They had worshipped other gods” (v.7). Of all the sins of the people, it was idolatry that God objected to most. Remember that the very first of the 10 commandments was “You shall have no other gods before me”. In Martin Luther’s small catechism he explains this first commandment as:

” We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

I have a confession. Like many Americans in recent weeks, I’ve found myself getting into heated debates about the November 3rd elections. I’ve felt myself grow increasingly confrontational, almost hostile. Until finally, a couple of days ago, I sensed the Lord telling me “enough”. Then I believe God showed me the root of the energy I was expressing in negative, divisive ways. I was confronted with the fact that I had been trapped in a form of idolatry – that I’d been sucked into the secular notion that my hope and trust lay in the political system of elections and politicians, lawsuits and courts.

It is a lie.

My hope and trust – and yours brothers and sisters – is in the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Period. It’s perfectly acceptable to participate in the political process, but we’ve no need to fear or be anxious. When conversations start to divide people, turn loves ones from loved ones, pit Christians against other Christians, divide a nation formed “under God”, we have surely gone astray. We might as well carve a statue and bow down to it. I feel as though I’ve been convicted by the Spirit, but at the same time set free from the power of evil and a demonic spirit of division.

Lord let it be so. Amen.

No grace. No mercy. Just judgment…

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Acts 5:1 But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. 

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things. 

I would expect something like this in the Old Testament, but not here. Not in the New Testament church. There is no grace here. No opportunity to repent and be restored. Just judgment and death. I’m going to have to wrestle with this…

Lord help me understand things in scripture that confuse me. Which are many. Amen.

Christian communism?

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Acts 4:32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 

Here is an interesting description of the early Christian community and their practice of shared property. Logically this makes sense. If every good thing comes from God then it’s all a gift of grace. And I can understand how this arrangement, applied with integrity, could be a great blessing. That said it cannot help but to bring to mind 20th century communism and how poorly that form of government functioned. Granted, that was mostly atheistic communism, so it is not the same as what is described in our passage. And, of course, a form communism that embraces elements of capitalism and private property is alive and well in China.

I wonder if I would have enough trust to live in such a community – not trust in God, but in people. I don’t know. But it is an intriguing idea. Lord teach us to share our material possessions in ways that honor you. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

What are human beings that you regard them?

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Psalm 144: 3 O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them? 4 They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow. 

In these verses the psalmist (King David) gives us a bit of awe and wonder. He’s drawing a comparison between our eternal God and humans whose years are relatively few and whose works/efforts disappear in a relative moment. Two thoughts come to mind for me here.

First, I’m thinking about how short life is. The older I get the shorter the years seem to get as well. As a younger man I was always anticipating what comes next. Nowadays I find myself wanting to slow things down. I want to savor life, even in an awful year like 2020. I no longer take for granted that I have years ahead of me because that may or may not be true. I’m learning to be present in the now.

Second, like the psalmist I am astounded that God knows us (you and me) intimately. We are but specks of dust on the landscape of creation; of little consequence in the great scheme of things. And yet God has “regard” for you and me. Actually knows us and loves us. Has a plan and purpose for us, even in our failings and shortcomings. And each day God invites us to join in the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ.

Gracious God thank you for your love for us. Help us to make the most of each day, for each day is precious and can never be repeated. Give us grace to live this day well. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Here today, gone tomorrow…

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2 Kings 12:17 At that time King Hazael of Aram went up, fought against Gath, and took it. But when Hazael set his face to go up against Jerusalem, 18 King Jehoash of Judah took all the votive gifts that Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, and Ahaziah, his ancestors, the kings of Judah, had dedicated, as well as his own votive gifts, all the gold that was found in the treasuries of the house of the Lord and of the king’s house, and sent these to King Hazael of Aram. Then Hazael withdrew from Jerusalem. 

We’re told in v.18 that King Jehoash of Judah handed over most of the material wealth of Judah accumulated under four kings (himself included) to buy off King Hazael of Aram. There are echoes here of King Rehoboam who handed over to the Egyptians the massive wealth his father Solomon and grandfather David had accumulated.

Here today, gone tomorrow…

I like “stuff” as much as the next person, but our hold on material things is tenuous at best. And in a consumer culture there is great temptation to focus on “things” rather than the Lord. It’s as Jesus taught in a parable about a wealthy man storing up his crops in barns:

Luke 12:20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” 

Gracious God, by any global or historical measure we are a materially blessed people – which can be a blessing or a curse. Keep our hearts and minds focused on you, dear Lord. We want to use the resources you’ve given to us in a manner that is pleasing to you, for you are the source of all good things. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Author or life…

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Acts 3:14 (Peter said to the people of Jerusalem) But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.

The phrase that sticks out for me is “Author of life”. Notice it is capitalized which indicates a name or title. “Author of life” is used only once in scripture, in Acts 3:15. Looking at my bible resources it would appear there are several possible meanings of this title, two of which I find interesting.

First, the word “Author” comes from the Greek “ἀρχηγός” (archēgos) which can mean “first” as in Jesus was the first to be raised from death to life. Our Christian faith teaches us that we too shall be raised from death to life when the Lord Jesus returns.

Second, the word can mean “originator” or “source” of life. It is through Jesus that we receive eternal life now and in the age to come. Apart from Jesus was are condemned to suffer in sin and death.

In these difficult days of pandemic I’m continually reminded how much I need the Lord. There are so many unknowns, so much to do, so little time. Without faith I would surely despair. And to be honest, even with faith there are times when I get close to despair. So this morning I’m focusing on Jesus as the source, the Author, of life. It is in Jesus that I find forgiveness, mercy, grace, strength to carry on. And even on days when I feel like I’m being swallowed up by life, I know I am not alone.

Thank you Jesus for walking this difficult path with me. Amen.

Healing in the name of Jesus…

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Acts 3:1 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God…

Stay with me here. You may recall the story from the gospels in which the disciples were unable to help a boy with a demon (Matthew 17:14-21). We’re told the disciples went to Jesus in private and asked why they had failed.

20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

There is no lack of faith in Peter and John in today’s passage from Acts. The shaky disciples (learners) we read about in Matthew 17 have grown to be apostles (sent ones) ministering in power of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. The words Peter uses (“stand up and walk”) echo Jesus’ command in John 5 when Jesus tells a man “Stand up, take your mat, and walk”. In other words, Peter and John are simply doing what they saw Jesus do many, many times.

There was a time when I ministered healing with much more confidence than I do now. And that’s mainly because I regularly saw with my own eyes people receive healing from illness and disease and deliverance from demons. And in some cases I was the one doing the praying. I’m reminded this morning that the key to seeing God move like this is not special words or a formula of some kind. Nor is it the need for the person praying to be especially holy. The power is in the name of Jesus Christ and the desire of the Holy Spirit to set people free. Which means this power is available to all baptized Christians. Even you and me dear reader. Pray with me.

Lord Jesus too many of us Christians shy away from healing ministry. We fear that our prayers may not be answered. Or that we might give false hope to others. Or whatever. But this morning I’m reminded this is just a strategy of the enemy to mitigate our effectiveness in ministry, to prevent us from employing the resources of the Kingdom of God. Lord, give us grace to suspend our disbelief long enough to release healing for others in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name which is above all names – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Creating “oikos” in a digital world…

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Acts 2:37 Now when (the people listening to Peter’s preaching) heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 

Two things stand out for me today. First there is v.40 “And he testified with many other arguments…”. Like Jesus before them, the surviving apostles would employ miraculous healings and signs to draw people to the gospel, but not in this case. Peter uses logic and reason to demonstrate to the hearers that Jesus is the promised Messiah. For some “thinker” types this was perhaps more appealing than miracles.

Secondly I’m drawn to v.42 and the description of the Christian community that emerged from the gospel. It’s a picture of “oikos” which in Greek means an extended family of blood and non-blood relations. This kind of community became the incubator through which the converts became committed disciples of Jesus. And it’s the kind of community many churches are lacking right now during the pandemic. “Oikos” includes both formal time (bible study, prayer time, worship) and informal time (fellowship, breaking bread). We’ve managed to reproduce some of the formal activity via online gatherings, but much of the informal gathering has disappeared – especially for those who are wary of gathering in person.

And I expect that digital community is here to stay even after it becomes safe to gather in person in larger numbers. How do we produce oikos online? We have learned some over the last several months, but it’s only a beginning. This will be a high priority for the church going forward. Lord show us the way. Amen.