God’s Care is Forever

My favorite Bible is the Revised English Version which often translates passages of scripture in ways that are somewhat different than more popular Bibles. This morning I was reading from Isaiah 40: 21-31 when the words “Do you not know, have you not heard, were you not told long ago?” popped out at me. I thought of how often I have to be reminded of what I already know about God.

I know that God moves in our lives in both mysterious and somewhat less than mysterious ways. I am confident (most of the time) that God’s love is real. When I look at my life I can point to times and places where I knew that God was not only present, but moving mountains that were in my path. I preach about a day I was going through a divorce, single parenting and choosing between rent money and food, when a person dropped by with a couple of bags of groceries. There are seasons, when I know God interceded on my behalf as I’ve lived  through a rough patch. What I don’t understand is why I forget those moments and times the next time I bump into a challenging situation.

Apparently, I’m not the first person who has a memory lapse when it comes to the goodness, compassion and faithfulness of God. Isaiah reminds a doubting people that God’s care and love is forever.

“Jacob, why do you complain,
and you, Israel, why do you say,
‘My lot is hidden from the Lord,
my cause goes unheeded by my God?’
Do you not know, have you not heard?
The Lord, the eternal God,
creator of earth’s farthest bounds,
does not weary or grow faint;
his understanding cannot be fathomed.
He gives vigor to the weary,
new strength to the exhausted.
Young men may grow weary and faint,
even the fittest may stumble and fall;
but those who look to the Lord will win new strength,
they will soar as on eagles’ wings;
they will run and not feel faint,
march on and not grow weary.” Isaiah 40:27-31 REB

Some days I just need to be reminded of what I already know.

Jonah – God’s Petulant Prophet

Jonah is a petulant prophet. He fumes, he expresses his frustration with God by running as fast and far as he can to get away. All of which is why the book of Jonah is one of my favorite Biblical books. One can give credit to Jonah for honesty. He does not mince words with God about  what he thinks and what he wants to do. He runs from God’s call to go to Nineveh because he simply doesn’t like the people. He’d rather they were not warned. What he hopes for is that God rains down fire, brimstone and tons of lava on the city of Nineveh and its people. So he runs from God.

God has a way of searching after us when we run and Jonah’s run from God was no exception. Caught in a storm and with the throw of lots indicating he was the reason for the storm, he just asks to be thrown into the sea. Jonah would rather die than see the Ninevites’ saved. It would be a final escape from the persistent call of God. Even there his plan fails. Instead of certain death, he is rescued by a large fish and eventually spit out on the shore. Once again he encounters the call of God to go to Nineveh. Fresh from his near death experience one would suspect there would be an authenticity about his message as he walks the city. So, Jonah shouts for the people to repent, hoping they won’t.

Yet, he is incredibly successful. Maybe it was the way he described being held in the stomach of a giant fish or being thrown into the stormy waters. For three days he walks the streets of Nineveh, fuming about being there. Having completed his task, he goes to edge of town and waits for  Operation Nineveh Storm to rain from the sky. But it doesn’t. Frustratingly for Jonah, the people believe him and repent. Even the king’s heart changes.

Jonah’s problem is that he doesn’t want God to love other people. He wants that for himself and his people.

Jonah’s strange trip to Nineveh is meant to teach him compassion. The story of Jonah ends with a word from God, after a plant gives Jonah shade for a day, then withers the next. He is distraught. God compares Jonah’s concern for the plant with his lack of concern for the 120,000 people living in the city. We are left wondering if Jonah’s heart was changed. Did the word mean anything to him. Was this reluctant prophet able to open his heart to love the other people God loves. Are we?

 

 

Skeletons in the Closet

A Devotion for The Eleventh Day of Christmas January 4, 2018
Read Matthew 1:1-17

“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew 1:1

The world Matthew lived in did not normally include women in the list of ancestors. Which is why the record of Jesus’s birth recorded in the gospel of Matthew is so important to us. It includes the names of five women, last of whom is Mary, mother of Jesus. Each suffered from prejudice in one form or another. Each woman included in the genealogy of Jesus has been a person on the outside. Through the words in the first chapter,  Matthew tells us that the Savior came for people who are the least loved in the world.  He does that  by naming the skeletons in the closet of Jesus.

Each of the women have compelling stories. Tamar’s story is found in the 38th chapter of the book of Genesis. Tamar is a young widow. In her world it was expected that when her husband died his brother would become her husband.  The tradition insured that the line of the lost child would continue, as well as support his widow.   Judah was Tamar’s father-in-law.   When  Tamar’s husband died,  she married his brother.   But, then that brother died.  Judah was convinced that Tamar was jinxed.    With the passing of years Tamar realized that Judah was never going to allow her to marry another of his sons.  Yet, she cannot legally marry anyone else. One day, disguised as a temple prostitute of a pagan religion, she meets Judah on the road. He spends time with her and she becomes pregnant. Some months later Judah  is outraged when he learns that Tamar is pregnant. He is ready to put her to death – until he discovers he is the father of her child. Among the ancestors of Jesus is the woman Tamar. Matthew is telling us that the Savior comes for people who have been unloved and unwanted.

The story of Rahab is told in the 2nd Chapter of Joshua. The Israelites are ready to move into the promised land. Rahab is a prostitute, forced into the trade by her economic circumstances. She offers to protect the scouts who stay at her home,  as she comes to believe that their God is the one true God. Rahab is brought into the community of Israel. According to rabbinic tradition, she is one of the four most beautiful women in the world and remembered for her kindness and courage. Among the ancestors of Jesus is Rahab, mother of Boaz. Matthew tells us that the Savior comes for those who have not always been proud of the way they have lived their lives. The Savior comes to give fresh starts and new beginnings.

The Familiar story of Ruth told in the book of Ruth, is the third woman named by Matthew. She is from Moab, a land and people hated by the Israelites. After her husband’s death, Ruth insists on going to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of her mother-in-law Naomi. Soon the village of Bethlehem sees Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law. They see her kindness, loyalty, and goodness. In spite of her immigration status she wins the hearts of the people and the heart of Boaz. Matthew tells us that among the ancestresses of Jesus is a foreigner. The Savior comes for the immigrant, the alien, the foreigner – anyone who is an outcast in society. Matthew tells us that the Savior came for people who have not found acceptance elsewhere.

The Wife of Uriah is the last before Mary to be mentioned. We find her story in the 11th chapter of II Samuel. Her name is Bathsheba and her story could be on the front pages of our newspapers. A powerful man and King takes advantage of her. She is caught between love for her husband and being a subject of a king. Her husband is off on the field of battle when King David spots her one day. She is a beautiful woman and he wants her for himself. Not long after he sends for her, he discovers that Bathsheba is pregnant. David decides to cover the deed by sending Uriah into the front lines, knowing he is likely to be killed in battle. Uriah dies, then David takes Bathsheba for his wife, but their first child dies. Bathsheba experiences losses and tragedy. She is violated by a king. Her husband dies in battle. Her life is manipulated by David. Since her first encounter with David, her life becomes crisis after crisis, filled with loss and pain. Later she will give birth to Solomon. Bathsheba stands in the line of Jesus as a statement that Jesus the Savior comes for those who have been violated and used by others.

Most all of us have some kind of skeleton in our closets. Along with the ancestors and family stories we tell only in whispers, there are the deeds we are ashamed of.   We remember moments when  we lost our temper. There are words we would take back if we could and attitudes which have been  destructive. We carry shame for things that have happened to us . . . ones we blame ourselves for. We keep our secrets tucked away. There are regrets and actions of an earlier day.

The promise of Christmas is, that the Savior comes for those who have reached their emotional and physical limits. The Savior comes for everyone who has felt forced by circumstances to compromise their deepest beliefs and values. The good news is that in Christ there is forgiveness for sins, a place for the outcast and acceptance for those who are living with shame. Most of all there is a love which frees us from our prisons of fear, of shame and of guilt.

Prayer: Loving Savior, You came to walk this journey with us. You came to free us from the hurt, pain, guilt and shame of yesterday. In this day, may we be willing to surrender our hurts, our pain, our guilt, our shame to you, trusting that in your love you will accept and love us even  as we are. We give thanks for the message that each of us is loved and cherished by you. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

I Have Called You by Name

A Devotion for The Tenth Day of Christmas on January 3, 2018
Read Isaiah 43:1-2

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1b

Moss Hart lived in the early 1900’s. His family was desperately poor. One year his father had taken him shopping on Christmas Eve. As he told the story, he said, “The cluster of lights ahead were those of 149th street and Westchester Ave. And those lights seemed to me to be the brightest I’d ever seen. Tugging at my father’s coat, I started down the line of push carts. I would merely pause before a push cart to say with as much control as I could muster, ‘Look at the chemistry set,’ or ‘There’s a printing press,’ or ‘Look at the stamp album,’ and each time my father would pause. He would ask the push cart man the price and then without a word, he would move on to the next push cart. Once or twice he would pick up a toy of some kind and look at it and then at me as if to suggest that this might be something that I would like. But I was just a ten-year-old kid and my heart was set on a chemistry set or a printing press. There they were, on every push cart, but the price was always the same and soon I looked up and saw that we were nearing the end of the line. Only two or three push carts remained. My father looked up too and I heard him jingle some coins in his pocket and in a flash I understood it all.”

My father had managed to get about 75 cents together to buy me a Christmas present and he hadn’t dared say so in case there was nothing to be had for so small a sum. As I looked up at him, I saw a look of despair and disappointment in his eyes that brought me closer to him than I had ever been in my life. I wanted to throw my arms around him and say, ‘It doesn’t matter. I understand! This is better than a printing press. I love you!’ But instead we stood shivering beside each other for a moment and then we turned away from the last two push carts and we started silently back home. I didn’t even take his hand on the way home nor did he take mine. We were not on that basis. Nor did I ever tell him how close I felt to him that night and that for a little while the concrete wall between a father and a son had crumbled away and I knew that we were two lonely people struggling to reach each other.”

In moments of deep loneliness, God calls out to us saying, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” God knows our name, speaks to our hearts and reminds us that we are beloved and precious children. Our lives may be imperfect. Our Christmas celebration may have been far less than what we have hoped for. Still God calls to us with the message, “You are mine.” In that message is both our hope and our promise. For if we belong to God, we are God’s children . . . Beloved and cherished children of God.

Prayer: God, You know our name. You love us just as we are. On those days when our lives are far from perfect and crises overwhelm us, draw us close to you. Encircle us with your love and compassion. Renew our hearts and spirits. Tell us again that we belong to you and we are truly yours. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Telling the True Story

A Devotion for the Second Day of Christmas December 26
Read Luke 2:15-20

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Luke 2:20

Rich Barger and his family lived in Iran during the revolution that eventually led to the overthrow of the Shaw. On Christmas Eve 1978, they were gathered around the Christmas tree in their home in Tehran. They were under a mandatory curfew; otherwise he and his family would have worshiped in a local German church. On that night they would do church in their home.

As nighttime fell, he writes, “we heard the sounds we had become accustomed to hearing each night. We would hear voices shouting in Farsi from the rooftops; ‘God is great!’ and ‘Death to the Shaw!’ and ‘Death to America’ we would hear the deafening rumble of armored military transports rolling down the street outside our door, taking soldiers to their positions in the city. We would hear machine-gun fire and other eruptions of violence. Inside, my wife, a friend from the US, and I were singing Christmas carols as loud as we could to keep our small children, whom we held in our arms from hearing the mayhem outside.”

Two stories were being told that night. The story told in the street was a version of one of the oldest stories, the story of Cain killing his brother Abel. That story has been reenacted in every age – a tale of the quest for power and the use of force to seize it. It is a story we have never been able to resolve. The second story told that night was the story disclosed in the words of our carols. ‘Hark the Herald Angels sing, Glory to the newborn king; Peace on Earth and “Mercy Mild, God and sinners reconciled. Silent Night, Holy Night! All is calm, all is bright – round yon virgin mother and child.’ Only one of these stories can be true. Only one will have the last word.”*

At Christmas we dare to proclaim the Light of Christ which is the true story . . . God’s story. It is the story of how light came into our world to stay. Darkness has not overcome . . . will never overcome it. For Christ came to be our light, to be our hope, to be our peace and to give us life. On that holy night, the shepherds returned, telling everyone they could find all that they had seen and heard. The spoke of angels with a message of  “Peace on earth,” a child wrapped in “swaddling clothes” . . . and of angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest.”

Prayer: God, you send us messengers. We look for halos and wings, but most often your messengers come wrapped in the ordinary faces of friends, neighbors or the strangers who surprise us with care. May we hear the messages you are sending to us, embrace the words and follow, even when we wonder how what we hear can possibly be true. Amen

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Christmas – He is Born

A Devotion for the First Day of Christmas on December 25
Read Luke 2:1-14

“And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11

My first memory of hearing these words, comes from the Christmas Pageants of my childhood. There would be that magical, mystical moment when under dim lights we would see Mary, Joseph and the baby. We would ponder God’s gift to the world. When I became a teen,  I went from being in the pageants to planning them.    One pageant stands out in my memory. I was directing the play in my small childhood church. Curtains were hung on a string that ran from behind the piano to the other side of the church. Between the wall and the piano  were some very rambunctious angels.

At one point in the play, the angels managed to pull the curtains down. We were forced to make speedy repairs. Throughout the pageant, a teenager was singing a song of eighteen verses spaced between scenes of the play.  We were near the end of the program, lights dimmed and only one  small  light on the piano to see by, when one of our angels pulled the cord. Our light was gone. We were left to sing and play by the light of a solitary street light.  As Mary sang, in the darkened sanctuary, one could sense that Christmas had arrived, in spite of or because of . . . our Messed up angels.

Anne Weems writes in her book, “Kneeling in Bethlehem”
“Each year the Child is born again.
Each year some new heart
finally hears, finally sees, finally knows love.
And in heaven – there is great rejoicing!
There is a festival of stars!
There is a celebration among the angels!
For in the finding of one lost sheep,
the heart of the Shepherd is glad, and
Christmas has happened once more.
The Child is born anew – and one more knee is bowed!”

God’s message of forgiving and reconciling love . . . continues to break into our world, even on this day, when tensions between the nations rise and fears abound. Christ was born  for a time like this time, to remind us of both our future and our hope.

Prayer: On this Christmas Day, we give you thanks O God, for the gifts of life and hope in Jesus, for the wondrous gift of love. Pull us back from our wanderings and open our hearts to joy. May we know the gift of your love and your presence in our hearts. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Mary’s Song

An Advent Devotion for December 21, 2017
Read Luke 1:46-56

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things . . . ” Luke 1:52-53a

In the least expected of places our hearts are opened to Christmas. For me, it was our annual visit to the Mission Farm in Plymouth MN which housed troubled men, who would otherwise be homeless. Every Christmas a group from my church would go there to sing carols. Eventually, we would end up in their chapel. Then Roger, with his deep bass voice, would sing “O Holy Night.” Roger’s voice would reverberate as he sang out. Each year I would listen to the power of the words and music as they flowed together into a message of hope.

“O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine.” Placide Cappeau

As the words filled the chapel, I would watch tears come to faces of men broken by life and my own heart would be filled with the essence of Christmas peace.

Mary would sing, “The Mighty One has done great things for me . . . God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation . . . God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1:46-53  (Selected verses). Christmas does not depend upon our material worth or even upon our goodness. For Christmas is God’s gift of love in Jesus Christ for all people.

Prayer: God of promise and hope, you do fill the hungry with good things. You send your messengers of love to us when we most despair. You surprise us with compassion and grace. Your words speak to our hearts. For all the moments we were surprised by your compassion and love, we give you thanks. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions