Keep It Simple

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Exodus 24:1-16, Colossians 2:8-23, Matthew 4:12-17


Religion is painfully easy to exploit. We all want answers, and when someone confidently claims to have them, many people will listen. That’s why trends like the prosperity gospel, which teaches wealth is God’s will for us, are so appealing. They describe a formula for us to follow – the rights prayers, words, and (most importantly) tithes – and tell us it will resolve into the answers we seek. Whether it’s The Secret, Bible codes, or calculating the day of the rapture, answers – even false ones – are more reassuring than questions.

In Paul’s day the trends among the faithful included angel worship, following visions, and mortification of the flesh (self-inflicted denial and abuse of one’s body). He warned the Colossians to avoid such distractions, as they were human creations which did not serve God. Many of the faithful – who had given up physical idols – made spiritual idols of Sabbath rituals, dietary restrictions, etc. and spent more energy fretting over them than on the love and salvation of Christ. Paul declared these practices “of no value in checking self-indulgence;” to the contrary, they were self-indulgent displays of insincere piety.

Faith is not a magic decoder ring unlocking the secrets of the universe. Any religion or denomination that claims to teach us the secret spiritual handshake to get into Club Jesus does not serve God. Certainly we need to know to love God with our whole beings, and our neighbors as ourselves, but this information is handed out freely on Sunday mornings and in hotel nightstands across the country. Prayers, no matter how powerful or specific, are not magic spells and there are no get-blessed-quick schemes. Faith is trusting God to see us through every situation, good or bad.

Let’s keep our faith simple, while remembering even simplicity can become an idol. When Christ died the curtain in the Temple was torn in half, so all might know God is not contained only in hidden places where others can permit or deny us access. God is most available to us when we stop telling Him – and others – where He should be found.

Comfort: God is not hidden in secret places; God dwells all around and within us.

Challenge:  Avoid the temptation to treat faith as a means to an end.

Prayer: Creator, Redeemer, Counselor … thank you for your abiding presence. Teach me to turn to you above all others. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any religious practices which might not exactly serve God?

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Setting Our Clocks

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, Jeremiah 36:1-10, Acts 14:8-18, Luke 7:36-50


When Paul and Barnabas were evangelizing in Lystra, a Roman-occupied city in what is now Turkey, they met a man who had not been able to walk since birth. When they healed him, the locals proclaimed them gods in human form. The priest of the temple of Zeus tried to offer sacrifices to them. Despite their best efforts to persuade the people they were mortal representatives of God, Paul and Barnabas “scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.”

It’s possible to be a little too eager to put our faith in someone we believe represents God. Paul and Barnabas quickly deflected the adoration of the crowds, but not everyone in the business of faith is as strong. It’s very common for people, especially those in vulnerable states, to project strong feelings onto their ministers. Since a successful ministry relies partly on attracting people to listen, the line between persuasion and exploitation can easily blur. We might be tempted to blame ministers when this happens (and certainly there are an unscrupulous few who deserve it), but it can also happen with little to no encouragement. Even a good minister can head in a bad direction, and if she or he has developed a sort of cult of personality, people will follow.

Those of us not in ministry are responsible for being discerning about who we listen to and when. Cramming “Lord” and “Jesus” into every sentence doesn’t mean someone is directing our attention toward God more than toward themselves. We need teachers and preachers, but we don’t need idols. Elevating someone’s status too high tends to make us insufficiently critical of what they have to say.

Conversely, a worldview that divides people neatly into the righteous and the unrighteous also makes it difficult for us to hear truth and wisdom from people we’ve already dismissed. The saying is “a broken clock is right twice a day,” but aren’t we all – even the best of us – a little broken? Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re wrong. The best faith leaders don’t convince us that we need to follow them, but that together we can learn to hear the voice which guides us all.

Comfort: No one stands between you and God.

Challenge: Be discerning about who you listen to and why. Don’t be too quick to dismiss their (or your) critics.

Prayer:  Gracious God I listen for you, however you may call me. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any tendencies to agree or disagree with anyone just because of who they are?

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Idols of Virtue

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, 1 Kings 18:41-19:8, Philippians 3:17-4:7, Matthew 3:13-17


John the Baptist was the antithesis of the scribes and Pharisees in both his message and his appearance. Rather than the elaborate and expensive garments favored by the religious elite of his day, he wore a rough, inexpensive, and probably itchy garment made of camel’s hair. When he wasn’t fasting, he ate locusts and honey. His commitment to humility and simplicity was a physical representation of his message of baptism and repentance. It’s no surprise that when Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized, John humbly objected, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” When Jesus said “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” he consented.

Though he briefly questioned Jesus’ instructions, John was more committed to Christ than to humility.

Can we always say the same? Maybe it’s not humility we turn into an idol. Maybe it’s tithing. Or virginity. Temperance. Or – in an oddly paradoxical progressive twist – moralizing against the foibles of Christian culture (guilty).

Such spiritual disciplines can be excellent means of exploring and expressing our faith – many of them are even direct commandments – but we must remember they are tools and not currency; they do not buy us God’s favor – rather, they help us build an understanding  of God’s goodness and our relationship with our creator. We must remember they are tools and not weapons; when Christ and Paul talk to us about what is right and wrong it is so we can change our own hearts, not so we can aim those words at others who fail to fall in line.  Currency and weapons, even in a spiritual sense, are seductive idols; they offer us a false sense of control and power when we should be seeking to surrender.

So are we free to do whatever we wish? Of course not. But our moral successes and failures do not save us; Christ already did that. We can accept or reject that redemption, but we can’t diminish or improve upon it. Be generous. Be chaste. Be sober. But be these things out of grateful obedience, not because you think they can save you.

Comfort: Jesus has already done the work of your redemption. 

Challenge: Meditate on whether your spiritual impulses are motivated by gratitude or fear.

Prayer: God of Mercy, thank you for Christ the Redeemer. Amen. 

Discussion: When do you feel like you let God down?

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Cults of Personality

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Judges 8:22-35, Acts 4:1-12, John 1:43-51


Poor Gideon. He was a poor farm boy from a poor clan and had no desire to lead Israel, but God the Father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. After Gideon – with the Lord’s help – led the Israelites into a miraculous victory over the oppressive Midianites, his people asked him (and his son and grandson) to rule over them. Gideon replied: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” Instead he fashioned an ephod (priestly garment) from the golden earrings which had been worn by the Midianites and become spoils of war. Scripture tells us the Israelites made an idol of this ephod, and flocked to it as if they were chasing after a prostitute. It was the ruin of Gideon’s family.

It’s quite telling how easily the people settled for an idol instead of a leader as though they were equivalent. How little we’ve changed. Many churches build entire identities around the charisma of a specific minister. Millions of people hang on every word from celebrity preachers and cite their books and sermons like gospel. Citizens surrender their individual identities under banners and deafening chants of a candidate’s name. At least Gideon had the sense to say “don’t follow me – follow God.” When humble Gideon made a huge error in judgment, the people worshiped the error to the exclusion of God. When we turn a person into an idol not only are we prone to overlook their flaws, we are prone to double-down and spin those flaws into virtues.

We belong not to a single pastor or congregation, but to the Body of Christ. We owe our primary allegiance not to a candidate, a party, or even a nation, but to the Kingdom of Heaven. We must not turn anyone into an idol who warps our faith; rather we must measure all would-be idols against the standards set by Christ. Idols – whether graven or human – eventually betray us. We may out of necessity follow a Gideon into battle, but only Christ leads us to eternal life.

Comfort: Christ is our spiritual north star.

Challenge: Meditate on the people and institutions you follow; how critical of them are you?

Prayer: Loving and all powerful God, I am faithful to you above all others. Amen.

Discussion: Without tearing apart someone’s character, when have you been disappointed in someone you trusted as a leader?

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God or Caesar?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Numbers 24:1-13, Romans 8:12-17, Matthew 22:15-22

Political parties thrive on an “Us vs. Them” mentality, so beware equating faith with politics. It’s difficult enough to find a congregation aligning with all our religious values, so how could any secular organization hope to do so? While we should stand on our principles, political affiliation – whether Left, Right, or Center – is not a litmus test for determining who is a “real” Christian.  When politics and faith become so entangled that the issues of a party – regardless of whether they have anything to do with the Gospel – acquire religious status and devotion, political affiliation becomes an idol.

The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking whether Jews should pay Roman taxes. He answered: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” His answer stymied them, in no small part because he didn’t actually answer the question! Some interpret this passage as implying we should honor state obligations as long as they don’t interfere with religious ones; if the emperor’s face is stamped on the coin of the realm, we can return it to him as required. Does this seem a little out of character for the Jesus who would flip the entire social order so the last will be first? Let’s not confuse a reconciling faith with one that merely appeases. Might this interpretation have Jesus giving too much regard to the state? Could we instead say Jesus teaches us the state is a reality we live with, but it does not impact our faith? Christians in capitalist democracies aren’t more or less Christian than those living happily under monarchies or socialism.

Since in truth everything belongs to God, nothing really belongs to the emperor (or any government). We live our faith regardless of the emperor or president. We can have an opinion on taxes – or any number of secular issues – but if we elevate them to religious status we fall into the Pharisees’ trap. Friends, family and associates may push us, even unwittingly, toward such traps. Instead let’s follow Jesus’ example, and not flip the coin of false choices.

Comfort: God’s nature is the same regardless of circumstance.

Challenge: Do some study of Christians in other countries.

Prayer: God of Hope, teach me to recognize what is important to you. Amen.

Discussion: if you have a political affiliation, has it ever come into conflict with your faith?

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The Unknown God

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Numbers 21:4-9, 21-35, Acts (17:12-21) 17:23-24, Luke 13:10-17


While Paul was stranded in Athens after being driven out of Berea, he didn’t waste any time. Paul noticed the Athenians were always looking for something new to believe in, and he took advantage of their nature to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Greek pantheon included a dozen Olympian gods and many more besides, so the city was full of idols to all of them. In one temple he noticed an shrine dedicated to “an unknown god” just in case the worshipers had missed a deity. Paul told the Athenians this unknown god was the god of Israel, who had made the world and everything in it.

Constructing an idol to an unknown God may seem opportunistic or pragmatic, but there is a certain element of humility in it. Allowing for an unknown God was admitting “there is more to the nature of divinity than we know.” Despite all our talk about the mystery of God, many Christians are content to behave as if God is completely known to us. Our idols are creeds and books, doctrine and dogma. How often have we used them to justify the worship of a false god – a god who condones inequality and injustice, corruption and bigotry; a god who values what and who we value, and hates what and who we hate? A god we have created in our own image.

Jesus remains a constant source of surprise about the nature of God. Over and over he taught us that defining and limiting God – even with the most righteous intentions – reduces us to worshiping a cold, dead idol with no spark of love or mercy. By using parables rather than directives, he showed us God is more knowable through question and mystery than through rigid rule books. We aren’t free to define God however we want, but we are free from having God defined for us by people pretending to have all the answers. Admitting ignorance is sometimes a giant leap toward wisdom. Genesis tells us God spoke the world into existence; Christ’s incarnation transformed that monologue into an ongoing conversation.

Comfort: You don’t have to have all the answers.

Challenge: Nobody has all the answers.

Prayer: God of creation, I seek to follow Jesus Christ to truth and love. Correct my path when I am in error, and keep my heart humble. Amen.

Discussion: What is the difference between seeking truth, and simple rebelliousness?

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