Servant Leaders

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 149; Isaiah 65:13-16; Revelation 3:7-13; John 6:15-27


What would you do if the public wanted to crown you king or queen? Would you embrace it? Would you run away? Jesus chose the latter. After he fed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes, they wanted to make him king – by force if necessary. He escaped to the mountain to be alone.

When God told Isaiah he was to be a prophet, Isaiah resisted. He declared to God all the ways he felt unworthy of being God’s voice. Many (most?) of the prophets chronicled in the Bible resisted God’s call. As far back as Moses, who tried to push the job off on his brother Aaron and blamed his speech impediment, the people God has chosen to lead have often shown reluctance.

When God knocks on the door, even to tell us we are fit to lead, we should be a little hesitant, maybe even fearful. The call is rarely easy. In his wisdom, God does not tend to choose leaders who are eager to embrace authority and power. Contrast this to our present-day system of secular leadership, where candidates spend millions of dollars telling you why they are unquestionably qualified for leadership, and their opponents barely deserve to participate in civil society. And religious leaders who seek power? We should always keep a critical eye on them.

Of course there are differences between people who seek power, and people who rise naturally to positions of leadership. For starters, the latter is much less common. The ability to acquire power is nothing like the ability to wield it wisely and justly. In hierarchical organizations, someone has to be at the top. The person who is the most eager, or eloquent, or assertive is not necessarily the best choice. The true sign of faithful leaders is not a desire to serve term of office but to serve the people who depend on them.

In God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last. A true leader does not fear other leaders, but encourages them. A true leader does not control subjects, but empowers people. When we are called to leadership – by God, people, or circumstance – let us consider it humbly and prayerfully. When God calls us to lead, he calls us to serve.

Comfort: God equips those whom God calls to lead.

Challenge: Be discerning about who is a self-proclaimed leader, and who is actually qualified to lead.

Prayer: Merciful God, I will seek to follow the example of Christ, servant and Lord of all. Amen.

Discussion: Who are the leaders you trust?

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Humble Piety

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 147:12-20, Isaiah 65:1-9, Revelation 3:1-6, John 6:1-4


The Gospels may be “The Good News,” but many of the things Jesus taught us – or perhaps more accurately re-taught us – were good and old. Centuries before Jesus reminded the people of his day that true obedience to God meant embodying a spirit of mercy and justice – rather than mercilessly following the letter of the law – Old Testament prophets had tried to deliver the same message. Isaiah told the exiled nation of Israel she had lost God’s favor because of her “holier than thou” attitude (not even paraphrasing – see Isaiah 65:5). Their burnt offerings, once a pleasing fragrance, became a stench in God’s nostrils as they substituted superficial piety for love and mercy.

Flash forward 800 years, and no one seemed to have learned anything. The occupying force may have changed from Babylon to Rome, but the Jewish people still needed to hear they were like whitewashed tomb: dressed up on the outside, but decaying inside. Flash forward another millennium or two and – no surprise – followers of Jesus need to hear we might be a little too focused on displays of piety and not enough on mercy. Who are the prophets of the message this time? Certainly many voices from within the church, but more telling are the voices of outsiders looking in. Surveys consistently reveal that non-Christians perceive Christians as hypocritical and judgmental. When non-believers are filling in for Isaiah and Jesus, it’s time to take note.

Misplaced piety seems to be a chronic condition of the faithful. And lest we begin to feel too superior for reigning in our own pious impulses … that’s a form of it also. The good (old) news is that prophets speak because there is always hope we will listen and change our ways. Sowing mercy and justice is challenging work. It’s much more comfortable to check off lists and to follow familiar rules than to listen to the voices telling us we need to reevaluate what we think God wants from us – especially when that might mean others will look down on us. When we feel challenged, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 3:6).

Comfort: God’s message to us has remained constant.

Challenge: We have to do the work of properly understanding it.

Prayer: God of Grace, teach me to be merciful.

Discussion: We are all sometimes guilty of hypocrisy. What do you do when you find yourself acting like a hypocrite?

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Engaged

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Isaiah 29:9-24, Revelation 21:9-21, Luke 1:26-38


Workplace engagement is an area of increased focus for many employers. Engaged employees take ownership of their jobs, feel like an integral part of a bigger team, and enjoy performing beyond minimum expectations. Disengaged employees are not necessarily bad employees, but usually perform below their potential because the job has ceased to matter to them. But engagement doesn’t create workaholics – to the contrary, work/life integration is an essential factor of it. Disengaged employees often don’t bother to complain; they simply withdraw and go through the motions. Employers can’t single-handedly create engagement; both parties must communicate about and work toward it.

Religion and faith can be similar. Isaiah explains the frustrations of the prophets by saying they may as well be handing over sealed, unreadable documents as shouting from the rooftops. The people are disengaged. Those who can read won’t make the effort to break the seal, and those who can’t read already have an excuse. Nobody in this picture is invested in doing more than they have to. Disengaged, they honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him.

Mary, by contrast, is as engaged as it gets. When the angel Gabriel tells her she will conceive a son, she asks how that is possible for a virgin. It’s not a defiant question, but an honest inquiry. Mary wants to communicate – to understand the big picture. When Gabriel explains it all, she replies: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That’s not a passive “Whatever you say…” but a commitment to be faithful even in uncharted territories. Like engaged employees, the engaged faithful know there is always a new challenge approaching over the horizon, and they step up to meet it. Mary, a betrothed virgin, knows she will be facing many challenges, but is dedicated to the larger plan of salvation for her people.

Like Mary, we should not passively resign ourselves to an inescapable fate. Rather, we should wrestle with it, hammer it out with our own angels, and find our place in the scheme of things. Sincere (if questioning) lips are preferable to distant hearts merely punching a clock until it’s time to check out.

Comfort: An engaged faith unlocks your potential.

Challenge: Where in your life are you simply going through the motions? Is it something you need to abandon or to take more seriously?

Prayer: Creator God, I pray for a heart like Mary’s, true and strong. Amen.

Discussion: Have you had a job you just didn’t care about? If so, what did you do about it?

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Be Prepared

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 13:1-13, Hebrews 12:18-29, John 3:22-30


As we reach the mid-way point in our season of Advent, today’s scripture readings appropriately focus on preparation.

Psalm 24, written a thousand years before Christ’s birth, uses the metaphor of a king returning victorious from battle to describe the Lord assuming his place among his people. Not written about Jesus specifically, this psalm sets the stage for the hoped-for Day of the Lord.

Isaiah also describes the Day of the Lord (prophetically speaking, there were several such days), but from a differing viewpoint. Rather than describing a glorious victory, Isaiah warned the Babylonians of the destruction awaiting them for turning away from God and oppressing God’s people.

The letter to the Hebrews, written after Christ’s death, warned its audience to listen for the word of God so they would be prepared for Christ’s return. Its author claims that on the Day of the Lord his voice will shake heaven and earth, and he will return like a “consuming fire” burning away unrighteousness.

Our passage from John is more gentle. It tells us how John the Baptist willingly stepped aside when Jesus – the one for whom he had been preparing the way – began his ministry in earnest. John was content to have played his role faithfully, and sought no further adulation. Unfortunately, retirement would not be kind to John; because he had angered too many powerful people by telling the truth, he would soon be executed.

As common-sense as “failing to plan is planning to fail” may sound, we also have to accept that events of our lives, community, and globe are frequently unpredictable. The Jews and Babylonians, despite prophecy, weren’t ready for what happened. The audience of Hebrews was preparing for Christ’s literal return, but had to keep going when that didn’t happen. Like John the Baptist, we must be content with having faithfully done our part. We can’t control whether the world responds accordingly. When the Day of the Lord seems distant and unrighteousness all too near, our best preparation occurs in our own hearts, where God provides us the faith and strength to face what we must.

Comfort: Relying on God is the best preparation …

Challenge: … but be ready for God to ask you to do some challenging things.

Prayer: Loving God, I have prepared for you a room in my heart; may you dwell within me always . Amen.

Discussion: Isaiah and Hebrews both mention mount Zion – Isaiah as a spot of military-like victory, and Hebrews as a place triumphant through grace and mercy. How do you think about these contrasting visions of the Day of the Lord?

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Thud!

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12, John 7:53-8:11


“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

So Jesus said to a group of scribes and Pharisees ready to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery. Before saying it, he bent to write in the dirt with his finger. One tradition says he was writing a list of the secret sins of her accusers. Whatever he wrote, one by one the crowd members dropped their stones and walked away. When all were gone, he sent the woman away without condemning her, but advising her to sin no more.

We probably prefer to identify with the woman in need of mercy, but we also all potentially have a rock in our hand ready to hurl. There’s an adage that what we dislike about others is a reflection of what we dislike about ourselves. We clench that private guilt or shame until its weight becomes so unbearable that we are compelled to fling it at others if only to find some relief from the burden.

We think of the woman as the one who finds forgiveness, but what if those stones dropped because the crowd realized that if this woman could be forgiven, they could too?  What if they no longer felt the need to hurt someone else to soothe their own feelings of guilt?

Imagine the sound of all those stones dropping to the ground.

Thud! My own infidelity is forgiven. Thud! My anger at my brother is forgiven. Thud! My thieving ways are forgiven.

Thud! … Thud! … Thud! Thud! Thud! like the slow, building thunder of a cleansing storm.

The prophet Isaiah describes a vision in which a seraph (a type of angel) places a live coal on his lips. The seraph tells him: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” The phrase “live coal” might be better translated as “glowing stone.” By trusting God to deliver him through the pain, Isaiah found forgiveness. We must find the courage to name and face the glowing stone of our own sin before we can ask forgiveness, but afterward we can drop it to cool in the dirt. When we no longer burn, we no longer desire to burn others.

Comfort: If you ask and repent, you are forgiven.

Challenge: When you are angry with someone’s mistakes or transgressions, ask yourself what that says about you.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the abundant forgiveness of your love. Amen.

Discussion: What flaw in yourself most irritates you when you see it in others?

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Flip The Mattress

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 145, Isaiah 1:10-20, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Luke 20:1-8


As a mattress ages, it slowly loses its ability to properly support us. Even as it grows less and less physically comfortable, it grows familiar – more emotionally comfortable – so we work with what we’ve got. And while we learn to avoid low spots and bad springs, we wake up a little less refreshed every morning. Eventually, we arrange ourselves to fit the mattress when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Very often we wait until we are physically pained before going to the trouble of getting a new one.

Religion has something in common with a mattress: the very act of inhabiting it, distorts it. During Advent we read from the book of Isaiah because it calls God’s people to look at how they twisted their religion until it no longer supported their once vibrant, living faith. The sacrifices they once made to honor God became an abomination, because the people managed to follow the rules without showing compassion and mercy to the least among them. Over time, the people contorted themselves to rest on the comfortable parts of the law and avoid the harder demands of mercy, all the while failing to realize how seriously they were damaging the backbone of their faith.

According to Isaiah, the Jewish people were driven into Babylonian exile, despite ample warnings, because God withdrew his favor. During Advent, which is a time of looking both backward and forward, the words of Isaiah should prompt us to reevaluate how we live out our own faith. Are we relying exclusively on rules and ritual? These are not bad things, but alone they do not meet God’s expectations for us to seek justice and rescue the oppressed. It doesn’t take long for us to settle into a routine and forget why we adopted it in the first place. Does our faith practice refresh us to live in love, or does it only equip us to sleepwalk through life?

We can settle for a slowly dilapidating mattress, we can flip it over a little to see if that does the trick, or we can invest in reinvigorating it entirely. Faith doesn’t need to be reinvented, but every so often it does need to be refreshed. We are, after all, a resurrection people.

Comfort: In the end, renewal is more refreshing than it is inconvenient.

Challenge: This Advent season, look at how you might renew your faith practices. Consider participating in a Reverse Advent Calendar.

Prayer: God of all that is, may I never forget you are the reason for all I do. Amen.

Discussion: What are some habits or practices (religious or otherwise) you have abandoned or reworked because they no longer served a purpose?

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Our Daily Apocalypse

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 148, Isaiah 25:1-9, Revelation 1:19-20, John 7:53-8:11


Isaiah 25 looks toward the day when “God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” Today’s reading from Revelation introduces John’s vision of Christ’s victory over the evils in the world. Both are standard Christmastide readings, as we celebrate Christ’s arrival in the world. To which victory of the Lord do these readings refer?

Ancient people read scripture with a different sense of time and meaning than we might. For example, we read the Lord’s Prayer as the present-tense: “give us this day our daily bread.” In Greek, this prayer uses the aorist tense, a kind of “once and for all” tense signifying not just the present, but the unfolding future as well. While Isaiah’s vision was about the eventual restoration of a Jewish people exiled in Babylon, early Christians co-opted it to tell of the coming Messiah. This approach might seem odd to modern sensibilities, but for people of the time it was part of understanding that God’s plan of salvation unfolds in the past, present, and future.

Isaiah 25 is an early example of apocalyptic literature. Revelation is also apocalyptic literature. Typical of the genre, both blur the lines between the past and the future. Apocalyptic literature is not so concerned with historical accuracy or specific prophecy as with the idea of the cosmic story of salvation. Time is fluid in these writings because God is always revealed anew to us, and the world is always being remade.

Apocalyptic literature invites us to dwell in the mystery of God’s unfolding plan, better expressed through visions and dreams than facts. The events have already happened, yet are still to happen. This paradox offers confidence that change will come, because it has come. During the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, African-Americans and their allies found inspiration in apocalyptic themes, which assured God’s eventual deliverance. Though mysterious, these themes were comforting.

If we read Isaiah only for the past, or Revelation only for the future, we miss the message of what God is doing today.

For additional thoughts on today’s reading from John, see Thud!

Comfort: God’s plan is unfolding—and we are part of it.

Challenge: Watch the news for modern stories of God’s deliverance.

Prayer: O timeless Creator, thank you for your people’s dreams and visions. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to see Christ’s work as both complete and continuing?

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