The Message Is The Same

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 19:16-25, Colossians 1:15-23, Matthew 3:13-17


There’s an old marketing belief that prospective customers need to hear your message seven times before they become interested in your product. Given the scene at Mount Sinai in the days preceding God’s arrival, God may have been a marketing major. As God descended the mountain hidden by a thick cloud, He told Moses to keep the people off the mountain, lest they be destroyed by the very sight of God. Moses seemed a little confused when he replied: “The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'” The gist of God’s response was: “OK. Go get your brother. And keep the people off the mountain.”

God’s warning wasn’t a threat; to the contrary, He was concerned with the welfare of the people. The destruction was not a consequence of His wrath, but His mere presence. If this scene had been written for a movie today it would surely foreshadow someone’s ill-conceived attempt to approach the mountain, but Exodus doesn’t mention anyone disobeying the warning.

When Jesus asked John the Baptist for baptism, John was reluctant because he felt unworthy, but he quickly consented. “And when Jesus had been baptized […] suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” Quite the contrast to Sinai, isn’t it?

Hearing from God can be terrifying, or it can be exhilarating. It’s terrifying when we realize charging that mountain may mean, for our own good, utter destruction of life as we live it. But when we’ve submitted ourselves to God, as John the Baptist had, God’s voice is reassuring and life-giving. Our perception depends very much on whether we are open to receiving the message … but the message is the same either way. God is always calling us to new life. Are we being dragged uphill against our will, or are we enjoying the mountain view?

Comfort: God’s message is always one of love…

Challenge: … but we may need to do some work before we can hear it.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for always reaching out to me. I will do my best to answer your call willingly and enthusiastically. Amen.

Discussion: Do you feel God speaks to you? If so, how?

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Shifting Perspective

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 19:1-16, Colossians 1:1-14, Matthew 3:7-12


Many Christian seminaries require students to write a thesis demonstrating they have developed a consistent view of the nature of God and religious belief (systematic theology). This is an important part of preparing students for ordained ministry. Not too many people want to approach their minister with a pressing issue, only to hear: “Well I’ve never really thought about it…” Given the challenges of reading the Bible as a unified and consistent text, developing such a statement is a tall order.

In today’s scriptures we read about multiple understandings of God. In Exodus, God gives the nation of Israel three days to purify themselves for His arrival on Mount Sinai. He descends in a thick cloud and, under pain of death, permits neither man nor beast to approach the mountain while he remains. This God shows power and authority to a nation who doubts.

In Matthew, John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming Messiah. He speaks to the descendant priests of that same nation and tells them they have become like trees bearing rotten fruit and Jesus is on the way with an ax. This God shows his disappointment in a nation where the powerful exploit the weak.

In Corinthians, Paul congratulates the church and encourages them to keep bearing good fruit of the Spirit by holding fast to Christ. This God showers blessing and encouragement on a community of believers.

If we conclude the nature of God changes across time, theology is useless – God could be totally different tomorrow! Better perhaps to think our understanding of and expressions about God change with our personal and community evolution. God is constantly liberating us, and constantly correcting us (whether through supernatural intervention or natural consequences) when we misuse that liberation.

The average age of seminarians is creeping into the 30s and early 40s, an age where certainties from our 20s mature into more questions than answers. Our relationship with God is one we build throughout our lifetime – and beyond. As our vision of God ebbs and flows, we eventually realize God isn’t moving – our perspective changes because we are.

Comfort: God is constant and present to us wherever we may go.

Challenge:  Draw yourself a timeline of your ups and downs, and keep it handy for future updates.

Prayer: Immortal God, thank you for being present to me at all times. Please give me wisdom when I cast my own doubts and limitations on you.  Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of God changed over time? When has that been joyful, and when has that been painful?

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Org Chart

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Exodus 18:13-27, 1 Peter 5:1-14, Matthew (1:1-17) 3:1-6


Did you know Moses had to develop an organizational chart? He was spending morning to evening serving as judge for the people. His father-in-law, Jethro, realized this situation was unsustainable; Moses would soon be exhausted and the people would suffer for it. Jethro suggested he select trustworthy men to share the burden, so Moses appointed judges “over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.” Does this system of lower and higher courts sound familiar? Only the most difficult cases floated up to Moses, a “supreme court” of one, which was probably fine since he reported directly to God.

Lawyers get blamed for our lawsuit-happy culture, but people have been seeking compensation for wrongs for millenia. The preamble to the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest known recorded set of laws pre-dating Moses by 300 years, states the Code was created in part “so that the strong should not harm the weak” and to “[bring] about the well-being of the oppressed.” Some of the penalties required under both Hammurabi and Moses might make that difficult to believe (adultery was punishable by death), but it’s important to remember both represented tremendous advances. “An eye for an eye” is a vast improvement over an essentially lawless culture practicing “the lives of your children for my eye.”

Whatever structure our legal system takes, people of faith must remember God’s justice does not begin with “what do people deserve?” but with “what do people need?” After all, the hungry steal less bread if there are fewer of them, and a person who has to leap twice as many hurdles to reach the same opportunity as someone else is half as likely to get there honestly. If we are to reflect God’s grace, unearned but freely given, we must found our sense of justice on mercy, not revenge. By the time punishment needs to be applied, the “justice” system has already failed.

Tens of people seeking God’s justice together soon form fifties. Then hundreds. Then thousands. While we look higher on the org chart and seek mercy, let’s be sure to look lower to see those who hopes for the same from us.

Comfort: God’s grace is freely given. Your job is to accept it, not earn it.

Challenge: Seriously consider where your ideas of justice diverge from the ideas Christ describes.

Prayer: Loving God, forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me. Amen. 

Discussion: In what areas are you more concerned with the satisfaction of revenge or punishment than establishing a truly just society? What changes can you make in yourself and the world?

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Between Love and Hate

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 18:1-12, 1 John 2:7-17, Mark 16:9-20


One Sunday after church, my little brother began telling our dog Buffy that he hated her. Buffy was his best friend – what could have happened? When our mother asked why, he said the priest told us to love God and hate the things of this world. Imagine his relief when Mom reassured him it was perfectly OK to love the dog.

If, like my younger brother, we want to take scripture seriously, how are we to deal with texts like 1 John which tell us to love only God and hate the world?

When these passages were written, people thought Christ was returning any minute. All their focus was meant to be on that event. We’ve since realized we need to live in this world a bit longer; hating it is more difficult when you’re in it your whole life.

Are we really to hate it? After all, the Psalms glorify creation, and Christ instructed us to love our neighbors. He also told one young man to abandon all he owned. There’s a lot to sort through to figure out what we’re supposed to be loving and hating.

Maybe the lowest common denominator is this: love God above all else, with a love that makes all other affections seem insignificant – perhaps hateful? – by comparison. We love the beauty of creation because it glorifies God. We love other people because they are first beloved by God. We recognize anything we possess is a gift from God and valuable only in proportion to how we use it to glorify him. This perspective shifts our affection from the things themselves, and directs our love and gratitude where it truly belongs.

As we navigate the world and try to be “in it but not of it,” we find things to love because we are created to love. Specifically, we are created to love God and the things God loves. We will also find things worth hating, such as injustice and oppression. At all times, our benchmark should be love of God, and we can trust God will love the rest for us and through us.

Comfort: Loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul puts everything in perspective.

Challenge:  This week, abandon one thing that distracts you from your faith.

Prayer: God of love and mercy, thank you for the blessings and gifts of this world. Help me to remember they are reflections of your glory, so all my love may be directed toward you. Amen.

Discussion: What things might you “love” too much?

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Skin in the Game

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Exodus 17:1-16, 1 Peter 4:7-19, John 16:16-33


Though the nation of Amalek shared a lineage with the nation of Israel, they were bitter rivals. When Israel was encamped at Rephidim, Amalek attacked. While they fought, Moses stood on a hill and held his staff in the air. As long as he kept it raised Israel prevailed, but when he tired and let it drop Amalek prevailed. Growing weary, Moses sat on a stone and  his brother Aaron and companion Hur held his hand steady. The whole incident is a little strange, as it paints Moses almost as some sort of magician casting a spell over the battlefield. If God wanted Israel to claim victory, why not just destroy the Amalekites like He had the Egyptian army? We can learn some valuable lessons from this story.

First, it seems God wants us to have some skin in the game. He gives us our freedoms, but they are ours to defend. When enemies storm the camp, we can’t assume God will take care of it all like a superhero. Of course we depend on Him for our strength, but actual effort is required. For example, if our enemy is hunger, we might remember words attributed to Pope Francis: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

Second, we have to be willing to receive and give help. Our leaders aren’t superheroes either. Aaron and Hur didn’t stand back and criticize Moses for failing to keep that staff aloft; they offered moral and literal support for as long as it was needed. They took turns because they were invested in the outcome, and leaders can’t do things alone. There was a measure of risk to getting involved: the people of Israel were fickle and quick to turn on their leaders, and if the battle had been lost Moses’s comrades would likely have paid a price. Like them, we need to shore up each other’s faith in difficult times, even when the outcome is uncertain.

Faith is not a miracle factory. It is a source of strength that grows stronger as we share it with others.

Comfort: Not only do you not have to carry every burden alone, it’s a sign of strength to share it.

Challenge: When you can, be part of a solution instead of an observer of problems.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the community of believers who supports me in my journey. May I pass on the strength you share with me to others who need it too. Amen.

Discussion: In what areas of your life are you passively waiting for God or some earthly leader to solve a problem? What could you be doing to help with it right now?

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Give It A Rest

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Exodus 16:23-36, 1 Peter 3:13-4:6, John 16:1-15


The first Sabbath (except maybe for the day God rested) occurred shortly after the Israelites fled Egypt. The people began to complain because they were thirsty, so God provided water. They complained because they were hungry, so God provided manna on the ground each morning. They complained because they weren’t eating meat, so God sent quail in the evenings. All that complaining was a lot of work. Moses told the people that on the sixth day of the week, God would provide twice as much food as normal so they could rest on the seventh day; no one was to go looking for food. Of course some people went looking, so God asked Moses: “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions?”

We might cluck at the disobedient nature of the Israelites, but these were a people traumatized by centuries of oppression. They barely knew God and had not yet learned to trust Him again, so each step toward freedom seemed to be a step toward annihilation. Over the next forty years of wandering, the Sabbath became essential to their national and religious identity. For Jews a Sabbath is more than a day of rest – it is a day of holiness set apart from ordinary days. Christians have mostly lost that sense of Sabbath holiness. We may go to church, but we also prepare family dinners, mow the lawn, and crowd the mall. For many, Sunday is a day to accomplish tasks left undone earlier in the week. Businesses cater to our demand for convenient hours, but “convenience” has robbed us of any excuse to rest.

Paradoxically, preparing for a day of rest and holiness is hard work. It requires planning and little extra push just as we are hoping to wind down for the weekend. But what value might we find in actually observing a Sabbath? Is there anyone who couldn’t use more rest? Imagine how our lives might change if once a week we devoted an entire day to re-energizing our relationship to God and the world. Jesus observed the Sabbath. Maybe we should consider it.

Comfort: The Sabbath does not exist to deny people, but to replenish them.

Challenge: Create space in your life for a Sabbath.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the gift of rest. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think would be most likely to distract you from a Sabbath? What benefits might you find?

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Impractically Possible

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 16:10-22, 1 Peter 2:11-3:12, John 15:12-27


After his resurrection, Jesus commanded his apostles to carry on his mission of love for the world and one another.He unflinchingly told these newly appointed bearers of love how the world would receive them: people who hated him would hate them; authorities who persecuted him would persecute them. Imagine similar words coming from a corporate recruiter looking for top talent, or a politician trying to build grassroots support: follow me and you’ll be hated and persecuted! Why would anyone sign up?

In the case of the apostles, they were motivated by love. Their leader had laid down his life for them – for the whole world – and in doing so overcame death. He wasn’t asking them to do anything he hadn’t done. Experiencing such love straight from the source left them unable to deny that the mission was worth any risk. The eternal life that Jesus promises doesn’t begin after our deaths, but in the moment we realize the willingness to lay down our lives down for one another frees us to love as Jesus loves.

Except for John, all the apostles died as martyrs. Most of us will not be tested to this extreme, but there are other ways of laying down our lives than death. Taking the smallest slice of cake or dropping spare change into a charity bucket is good but not enough. Following Jesus makes impractical and dangerous demands that may  require us to risk our finances, reputations, and livelihoods. Love that requires us to take in strangers and to decline striking back in revenge seems positively scandalous. In a culture where Christians are the default authority, we will be at odds with fellow believers who would cling to the dominance of Christendom so blindly they cannot recognize when we are no longer the light revealing the corruption of the empire, but the empire itself casting long shadows of injustice. We value security above faith at our own spiritual peril.

Jesus does not prioritize the safety of our bank account, good name, or physical person. He does call us to sacrifice all these things in service to each other.

Comfort: In the long run the sacrifices we make to follow Jesus do not deny us of anything, but help him give us everything.

Challenge: Almost all of us have a point where our desire to be safe impedes our desire to be faithful. Discuss this with some fellow believers.

Prayer: Loving God, give me strength to follow in the steps of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: When does your faith inconvenience you? Does it ever put you in harm’s way?

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Whether to Wither

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 15:22-16:10, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 15:1-11


A friend who is a lifelong gardener once said she was amused when people found peace in parables about sowing, tending and harvesting. Gardening, she said, is brutal. One is continually ripping living things from the ground to make room for other, more desirable living things. Foundering plants are removed to prevent the spread of rot and disease. As in today’s parable about the vine and branches, a gardener prunes away unproductive branches so they don’t drain resources from or contribute to the demise of healthy ones.

Sometimes parables like the vine are used to paint a picture of a God who’s waiting to damn us. It’s not difficult to take a story with actual burning in it as proof God is eagerly stoking the fires of hell for us right now. Preaching and teaching which use this fear of punishment to motivate us produce obedience that more resembles a hostage situation than worship. When Jesus says unfruitful branches will be trimmed and thrown into the fire, is he being a ruthless gardener and threatening us with eternal suffering?

Not quite. The difference between us and a withered branch on a grapevine is that we have a choice in whether we wither. Jesus knows the world is a hard place, a wild place overgrown with corruption and danger. He is not resigning us to the inferno, but extending an offer to shelter in his love, where our spirits can grow fruitful. Without the love of God, we are subject to everything that tries to choke out and nibble away at our spirits. Christ’s message about unhealthy branches is more lifeline than threat. He concludes by saying: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

God’s hope for us – and therefore Christ’s hope for us – is that we will know and flourish in his love. He wants us to know the natural consequences of ignoring or rejecting that love is a withering of the soul. Christ does not threaten us with death. He invites us to life.

Comfort: Christ provides nurturing shelter in a world overgrown with disorder.

Challenge: If you are a gardener, allow a small section of your garden to grow untended. If you are not a gardener, cultivate a small bed of flowers or herbs. What do you think you will learn?

Prayer: God of Life, thank you for tending my soul. I will seek shelter in your love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you relate to the images of a vine and branches? Why or why not?

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Make a Joyful Noise

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 15:1-21, 1 Peter 1:13-25, Gospel Reading John 14:18-31


How do you express your joy in the Lord?

After the Red Sea closed up behind the nation of Israel, forever freeing from the slavery of Pharaoh and Egypt, Miriam (the older sister of Moses and Aaron) took up a tambourine and began to dance and sing the Lord’s praises. Other women soon joined her.

The Psalms speak of many ways to express our joy: with song and praise; with trumpets, horns and harps; with dancing and joyful noise. The Psalmist describes the earth herself praising the Lord through the roaring sea, clapping floods, and singing hills.

Can’t sing well? Sing joyfully anyway! Got two left feet? Dance joyfully anyway! Can’t play the harp or drum? Clap your hands, stomp your feet, hum a crooked tune … joyfully!

Spontaneous expressions of joy aren’t something we see a lot, at least not outside of church. And if we do see them, it’s often through a cynical lens. When a stranger at the gym greets us with: “Jesus wants to you have a blessed day!” (true story), do we mumble “Thanks…” or do we shout “Amen, sister! You too!”

Maybe you’re an introvert, and such overt expressions seem more stressful than joyous. Let your joy erupt through poetry, kind deeds, or deep whiffs of spring blossoms. Your joy is between you and God, so don’t let anyone tell you there’s a right or wrong way.

The important thing is to express it when you feel it. Let it settle into tapping fingers and swinging hips and smiling lips. Do this often, and when you don’t feel it – when reasons for praise seem far away – you’ll have the muscle and soul memories to draw on to help you get through tough times. The body, the spirit, and the mind can all influence each other. It’s no cure for clinical depression or anxiety, but choosing to act joyfully can often bring us closer to feeling actual joy.

We are joyful because Christ has redeemed us. We are joyful because God is still moving through the world. Every day there is a new song to sing.

Comfort: You aren’t just allowed to be joyful … it’s encouraged!

Challenge: Make time every day to express joy. See if it changes you.

Prayer: God of Joy, thank you for all you do and all you are. My joy is complete in you! Amen.

Discussion: How do you express joy?

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Fear of the Fear of the Lord

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Exodus 14:21-31, 1 Peter 1:1-12, John (14:1-7) 8-17


After God parted the Red Sea so Israel could flee Pharaoh’s advancing army, God closed it again over the soldiers and the chariots and drowned them all. Afterward “the people [of Israel] feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” Psalms and Proverbs tell us “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but modern Christians, particularly more progressive ones, aren’t always comfortable with the idea of a God we should fear. After all, doesn’t Jesus tell us repeatedly: “Be not afraid?”

After four centuries in slavery, the Israelites were not at all convinced the Lord was either powerful or on their side. As the story of Exodus unfolds, their lack of faith surfaces again and again, but the demonstration of power at the Red Sea must have been unimaginably (if temporarily) sobering. This God they didn’t think much of – and practically mocked – could wipe out armies at will. Serving such a God had to be at least a little intimidating.

The most commonly used Hebrew word for this type of fear is yirah, which can mean anything from an anticipation of pain or danger to a sense of reverence, awe, or wonder. We like to emphasize that second part more than the first, but straight-on fear is a healthy part of our emotional makeup.

Even loving parents know fear is sometimes a necessary element of teaching children; a one-year old can’t be reasoned out of touching a hot stove. Throughout childhood they force us to do things for our own good. As we mature, that fear evolves into more of a healthy respect. Don’t many of us, on some level, well into adulthood, retain a fear of disappointing our parents not because we think they will punish us or withdraw their love, but because that relationship means so much to us? In a similar manner, hopefully our childish notion of a God waiting to smite sinners eventually gives way to understanding the God described to us by Christ. Fear of God may be the beginning of wisdom, but it is never the end.

Comfort: Our understanding of God and relationship with God are always evolving. It is OK to feel many ways about God, from fearful to playful, as long as we maintain respect.

Challenge:  Meditate on how fear might be masking other feelings.

Prayer: Grant me the courage, O Lord, to follow you wherever you would lead me. It is in your service that I find freedom. Amen.

Discussion: What is something you fear? What other emotions are entangled in that fear? Respect? Shame? Confusion?

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