The Message Is The Same


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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Give It A Rest


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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Fear of the Fear of the Lord


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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No Turning Back


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 14:5-22, 1 John 1:1-7, John 14:1-7

Pharaoh quickly regretted his decision to free Israel and sent his army to bring them back. When Israel saw the approaching army, the people were frightened and declared it was better to live in servitude than to die in the wilderness. Moses assured them the Lord would save them if they stood firm.The Lord parted the Red Sea so Israel could pass through it, then He closed it over the Egyptian army of soldiers and chariots.

We often choose servitude when we should be trusting the Lord to lead us  through the wilderness. Maybe it’s the servitude of acceptance; we hide our true selves – the people God created us to be – when we fear the wilderness of judgment. Then there’s the servitude of success. Our culture tells us bigger (homes, cars, etc) equals better quality of life. How many of us would seriously consider scaling back our standard of living to find peace – or follow Christ? Servitude to safety is also common. Maybe we would die for our right to be Christians, but would we put ourselves in danger to actually follow the teachings of Christ?

Most of us are comfortable briefly venturing into the wilderness of hunger, poverty, and sickness like tourists being led on a soup-kitchen safari, but – citing common sense and a need for security – we let others do the dangerous work of exploring that terrain and creating safe outposts for us to visit. We can strike a balance; because Jesus knew he was dispatching the apostles into unfriendly territory, he sent them in pairs … but he still sent them.

Facing an uncertain future, Israel quickly began to look back on centuries of slavery as “the good old days.” When we pine for the “simplicity” of the past, we tend to gloss over the bad parts like slavery, genocide, racism, sexism, disease, violence, and lack of indoor plumbing. Perhaps that’s because we are in the servitude of denial that all these things are still problems today.

Faith calls us to the wilderness. Fear tells us to turn back. Only one of those directions leads to the promised land.

Comfort: The future may seem uncertain to you, but it is all in God’s hands.

Challenge: God not promise us lives of ease or comfort.

Prayer: God of justice, help me embrace your freedom even when it frightens me. Thank you for leading me through the wilderness. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you feel drawn, but afraid, to serve?

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The Rest of the Story


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 12:28-39, 1 Corinthians 15:12-28, Mark 16:9-20

The phrase “history is written by the victors” is usually attributed to Winston Churchill or Walter Benjamin. The implication is that each culture or civilization gaining prominence rewrites history as propaganda flattering itself. Some facts may be inconvenient or unavoidable, but over time the need to define ourselves as the good guys spins them; consider recent proposed textbook revisions redefining slaves as “immigrants” and the slave trade as the “Atlantic triangular trade,” or Canadian First Nations peoples mutually agreeing to “make room” for European settlers.

Could this idea influence our reading of the Passover story in Exodus?

Moses had been trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave captivity to worship in the wilderness. Every time Pharaoh refused to free them – the text says God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” – God sent another plague upon Egypt. These escalated in severity until finally, in the dead of night, God slew all the firstborn of Egypt. Through Moses God warned the Hebrews to mark their doorways with blood, so their houses were passed over for death. As grief devastated Egypt, Pharaoh finally relented.

Exodus was written by the Hebrew people for the Hebrew people. Of course they are its heroes … but God also created the Egyptians. They were estranged from Him and worshipped other Gods, but surely He took no joy in slaughtering His children. Our Christian story traces its roots through the history of the Hebrew people, so we celebrate this victory, but can we imagine the horror of this story from the perspective of an Egyptian peasant family losing their only son?

In numerous biblical passages, God forbade the Jews to return to Egypt. Yet when the infant Jesus was in danger of being killed by Herod, God instructed Joseph to flee to Egypt, where he and his family stayed for years. Moabites, Uzzites, and Samaritans were similarly vilified, but God raised heroes from them and Christ spoke freely with them. When we wrestle to reconcile texts like the Passover narrative to God’s loving nature (and we should), we should also be wrestling with our own attitudes about personal, cultural, and historical enemies. People on the losing side of history have stories too.

Comfort: It’s OK to think critically and ask questions of difficult Biblical material. God will always be able to handle your questions and doubts.

Challenge: Do some research into history as relayed by people who didn’t fare so well.

Prayer: God of the past, present, and future, guide me so my contributions to the story of humankind are just and merciful. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of your national history are subject to “whitewashing?”

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