Isaiah 61-62, Hebrews 12
One of the signs that life was slowly returning to something more familiar during the pandemic's first summer was the return of sports. But even then it was not the same. At first when games resumed there was one important piece that was missing. The fans! If there was ever a question about the importance of fans to the atmosphere of a live sporting event, those questions were put to rest. As the fans were gradually allowed to return there were many comments from the players indicating how happy they were to have people back in the stands.
Hebrews 12 speaks about running a race and about the fact that we don't run the race alone. Instead we are running our races in the presence of a "great cloud of witnesses" who are ever "surrounding us." The witnesses are those folks who have lived this life before us and have now passed from this life into the church triumphant. We are the recipients of the legacy of faith that they lived and passed on to us. When we are struggling to find the strength to run our race on any particular day it is a source of joyful encouragement to be lifted up by this great cloud of witnesses cheering us on.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, I am thankful this day for those who came before me, lived faithfully, and passed that faith on, one generation to the next. Help me to run this day well and to live with an eye towards the faith that I will pass on. Amen.
Isaiah 63-64, Hebrews 13
Hebrews 13 is like the last words before the team leaves the locker room. At that point, you are just trying to give a reminder of a few main points of the game plan and offer a final word of encouragement and inspiration before taking to the field of play. In this instance the field of play is our daily lives as we follow Jesus.
Basically, be good to each other, don't abuse relationships, and know God will help us. Trust Jesus and don't get pulled away from the work of faith by folks who suggest ways of living that are completely out of sync with Christian living. Ground these practical expressions of faith on a foundation of praise of our living God.
Close to the last is this wonderful blessing:
"May the God of peace, who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus, from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with every good thing to do his will, by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.
"To him be the glory forever and always. Amen." (13:20-21)
It is good to be reminded of what we are about as we aim to follow Jesus. And it is grand to be blessed in that endeavor. Finally it is worth remembering that we too can pronounce blessings on those we encounter – a gift that is easy to give and can mean so much.
Keys For Today…
Thank you for your call and your blessing. Remind me to share that blessing today. Amen.
Isaiah 65-66, John 1
John the Baptist is a puzzle Jewish leaders in Jerusalem are trying to solve in the first chapter of John's Gospel. They take the direct route, sending representatives to quiz him about his identity. Asked to give an account of himself John replies:
"I am a voice crying out in the wilderness,
Make the Lord's path straight
Just as the prophet Isaiah said." (John 1:23)
It is fitting that today we finish out the book of Isaiah and begin our trip through John even as Isaiah is referenced in John. Several days ago we heard Isaiah's call to "Arise! Shine! Your light has come." Here in the early verses of John we hear about a light that has come into the world and will change everything. In today's readings from Isaiah we hear of a promise that extends beyond Israel. "I'm coming to gather all nations and cultures. They will come to see my glory." (66:18) John introduces us to the "true light that shines on all people" (1:9) and more than once as the word spreads the invitation goes forth to "Come and see."
In today's readings we catch a glimpse of the continuity of the story of God in scripture played out over hundreds of years. Now more than two thousand years later that same story continues in our lives.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, Light of the World, we give thanks for the promise of light fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Open our eyes to opportunities to invite others to come and see! Amen.
Jeremiah 1-2, Psalms 112-113
Maybe you, like Jeremiah, have had that moment when you thought you were being asked to do a job that wasn't in your wheelhouse. You may have wondered if there wasn't someone better qualified. You may have questioned your own ability. Maybe you genuinely felt that you weren't the best person for the task. On the other hand, maybe you just didn't want to do it.
Jeremiah is resistant to God's call to be a prophet to Judah in what would be its final years.
"'Ah Lord God,' I said,
I don't know how to speak
because I am only a child." (1:6)
God's response is to let Jeremiah know that God has not made a mistake. It is Jeremiah whose mouth he has touched – it is Jeremiah who will speak the word of the Lord. Jeremiah does exactly that.
There are very good reasons that Jeremiah may have wanted to take a pass on the Lord's call. He may well have felt that he was too young and that he lacked the skill to speak on God's behalf. He may have had a sense of the hardship that could go along with the life of a prophet, a person set apart to say hard things to people who want to hear easy platitudes rather than challenging truths. As we read this passage we are invited to consider the times when we feel uncomfortable and/or ill prepared for something we believe God is calling us to take on. It is good to be transparent with God. To be upfront about our objections and our perceived shortcomings. It is also good then to wait and listen for God's voice helping us understand how best to respond with a faithful heart.
Keys For Today…
Calling God, keep challenging me and inviting me to be at work in your world on your behalf. Listen for my concerns and help me to understand how you have gifted me to carry out your call. Amen.
Jeremiah 3-4, John 2
At the end of the John 2 we are told that Jesus is gaining a following in Jerusalem. His ministry is in its early days, but people are seeing what he is doing and there are folks who are strongly drawn to what they are witnessing. Jesus is wary of them. The end of chapter 2 is a curious summation of Jesus' reaction to these would be followers.
"But Jesus didn't trust himself to them because he knew all people. He didn't need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what human nature was." (2:24-25)
Jesus knew people could be fickle. Jeremiah's prophecy from centuries earlier tells us that this fickleness was nothing new.
"At the same time you say to me,
'My father, my friend since youth,
Will you stay angry forever?
Will you continue to be furious?'
This is what you say
While you do as much evil
As you possibly can." (Jeremiah 3:4-5)
The people want it both ways and likely don't see the inconsistency of their words and actions. They long for God to forgive them and hold them close, and at the same time they push God away, acting in ways that require still more forgiveness from God. Jeremiah's prophetic word holds up a mirror for the people to see the difficulty of having it both ways. It is hard to draw near to God while running from God.
As always with the stories of scripture we are invited to consider our own tendencies to act inconsistently in our faith. There are times when we ask for God's love to define us and then make choices that are self-centered and lacking in love. We have moments when we promise God that what we most want is to know God's will for our lives, and follow this up with telling God what that will should look like. The good news is that while our inconsistencies and breakdowns in our faith complicate our relationship with God they do not end it. Jesus does indeed know what human nature can be like, yet his love for us continues through his life, through the cross, through the empty tomb and to this present moment.
Keys For Today…
Loving God, help me to love you and live as you would have me live. I want to less and less act in ways that push you away and more and more live in ways that draw me ever closer to you. Amen.
Jeremiah 5-6, John 3
The second half of John 3 is a window into the heart of John the Baptist, describing the way he understood his role in relationship to what he believed about Jesus. This is one of many places where the reader has to think closely about what is happening because it is so extraordinary and different than what one would have expected to happen.
John has been enjoying great attention from the people who come from all over the countryside to be baptized by him in the Jordan river. His message of repentance and calling the religious leadership to account for their hypocrisy has gained real traction. One could imagine that, if the story was taking place in our own day and time, the big question for John would be, "What's next for you?" It would seem the sky was the limit. Yes it could be dangerous, but there was nothing to suggest that John couldn't build on his popularity and have even more power and influence.
Except that John steps aside and points to Jesus. Of course he did, we might say, Jesus was the Son of God and John saw that and did what he was supposed to do. Here's the thing: what we are experiencing with two thousand years of hindsight and faith tradition behind us, John was living out in real time. When John says "He must increase and I must decrease" it is worth paying attention to how his words are full of grace. There would be no power struggle there in the Judean wilderness between these cousins. Instead there would be an acknowledgement by John that his work was that of a trailblazer, making a way for the Messiah.
John's actions challenge us to consider God's call on our lives. There are times when it is not easy to choose humility. It can be difficult to quietly work hard on something that will result in no accolades or attention. John knew and accepted God's call on his life. He knew that God knew his choice to be faithful. Our society is not one that applauds decreasing. Sometimes, however, it is what faith requires of us to play our role in the body of Christ as we move forward.
Keys For Today…
Grant us humble hearts Lord. There is great temptation to want to be noticed and celebrated for our work. Point us to John's example and help us recognize when by playing our role without adulation we are enhancing and growing your Kingdom. Amen.
Jeremiah 7-8, Psalms 114-115
Both Jeremiah and Psalms have messages today related to the divide that can open up between what we believe God might want and what God says God wants, and between who we imagine God should be and who God is. Our intentions may perhaps even be good – at times – but we still can stubbornly make our relationship with God more rather than less complicated.
Jeremiah suggests that God has given clear instructions on what kind of lives please God and that none of those instructions mention burned offerings or sacrifices. Instead what God did ask for were hearts that sought to be obedient. (7:22-23)
The Psalmist marvels that the people are so intent on the construction of idols. They craft idols with mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands, and feet. None of which work. The call is to abandon trying to fashion objects with human characteristics that offer no possible chance of relationship and which are powerless in the face of the challenges the people will face. God does not look like idols made by humans. Our call is to honor and trust the God who created us, the God beyond our sight, but completely available to our experience.
It is worth asking ourselves how we can best please God with our choices and actions. It is also valuable to be certain that we are not creating idols that drain us of our time and energy rather than investing our full selves in the God who gives us life.
Keys For Today…
Creator God, you made us for lives of grace and beauty. You call us into lives of relationship with you that are built on fidelity to your will. Today help me to know how to better live faithfully and more fully know you. Amen.
Jeremiah 9-10, John 4
We need to listen to Jesus.
Obvious, right? Of course we need to listen to Jesus. Why wouldn't we listen to Jesus. What I mean, however, is that we need to do more than hear what Jesus says so that, if questioned, we can repeat it back. We need to listen deeply to Jesus. We need to listen well, really well, before we act on what it is we think Jesus is saying. In John 3 and now in John 4 there are several examples of people hearing Jesus, but really struggling to listen well. To be fair, they are trying, they are working at it, and that is a good starting point.
Nicodemus hears Jesus say we must be born from above, born anew, born again – however your translation states it. His thoughts quickly turn to the impracticality of actually being born a second time. How would that work? It's totally impossible right? Perhaps. But then as we listen more closely. As we do the work of trying to get to a place of understanding Jesus, it turns out that we are being asked to take the language of being born from above and go to totally new places with it.
Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. She's there to draw water. He wants to talk about water, but the water on his mind is living water and it's not going to be found in the well. She learns in their conversation about the source of this living water and even more about being seen and known as a person of worth. To get to that point the listening had to move to the next level.
His disciples – the people the closest to him – fall into the same trap of hearing the surface of Jesus' words when they return from their errand in the Samaritan village. They are worried that Jesus hasn't had anything to eat. Jesus responds "I have food to eat that you don't know about." His friends turn to each other with puzzled expressions, "Has someone brought him food?" (3:31-33). Of course, Jesus is talking about reserves of sustenance that have nothing to do with what anyone could pick up at the local market.
The end result of these stories is not intended for us to shake our heads at these folks who struggle so to get it. It is for us to see folks who share the struggle with us. We, also, struggle to get it. By watching them we learn that one way to move past the struggle is to listen, listen and listen again to what Jesus is saying to us.
Keys For Today…
Help my ears to listen patiently for your direction, loving God. When I am struggling to know what you are saying, slow me down and bring depth and discernment to my listening. Amen.
Jeremiah 11-12, John 5
"You have as many gods as you have towns, Judah, and you have as many shameful altars for worshipping Baal as you have streets in Jerusalem." -Jeremiah 11:13
It's not, Jeremiah points out, that Judah had one opponent that was vying with God for their worship and obedience. They had many. More than the towns in Judah, more than the streets in Jerusalem. The lack of listening for God's will and following God's way wasn't the result of one massive rebellious act. It was many acts and many misguided choices.
Why is worship with a community of faith so important? Why is maintaining relationships of accountability with fellow Christians so critical? Why is regular interaction with God's word to us in scripture so necessary? The answer to each of these questions is at least in part because they keep us oriented towards God.
When we drift from these important activities, relationships and disciplines we find ourselves investing our time and energy in places and things that are not life-giving. We don't make a once and for all choice on a particular day to follow something other than God. Instead we are drawn in by the distractions that are as plentiful as the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. We never really mean to move away from our faith in God. It's just that our faith is pulled in a lot of different directions, and one day we find ourselves in a dry and barren place spiritually. Nurturing our relationship with God keeps us focused on the source of our life and our salvation, and keeping God as our ultimate focus maintains everything else in the right perspective.
Keys For Today…
My heart and my attention are prone to wander. Aid me in keeping my heart, mind and soul focused on you, O Lord, the one who made me and calls me to faithfulness. Amen.
Jeremiah 13-14, John 6
If John's gospel were a television series, the sixth chapter could be an entire season. It's that full of a story. As the chapter winds down the crowd is beginning to struggle with Jesus' teaching. They are all in for the spectacular miracles, but as the chapter concludes they are finding themselves questioning the wisdom of following him, and drifting away for less demanding pastures. A few, though, are ready to hang in.
"Jesus asked the Twelve, 'Do you also want to leave?'
"Simon Peter answered, 'Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God's holy one.'" (John 6:67-68)
I really want to hug Peter at this moment. I want to hug all of them. I want to believe that if I were there I would have been standing behind Peter and nodding in agreement. The disciples are often portrayed as not getting what Jesus is trying to teach them. They make mistakes. They are imperfect. But right here in these two verses they shine.
Jesus sees the crowds walking away and turns to those closest to him and asks if they want to head for the doors also. Peter answers out of the experience that he has had of Jesus, out of the profound truth of what he has seen, heard, and participated in as the group has traveled together. You can hear how foreign the notion is to him in his response. After experiencing the world with Jesus, where would they possibly want to go. They've been in the presence of truth. Nothing else would satisfy, everything that is not Jesus would fall short.
That is the truth of following Jesus. Our faith may at times ask a lot of us. There may be times when we don't understand what God is up to and what role we may play in the plan we aren't entirely seeing. Our hearts know however that this is the relationship that truly matters on the deepest level. Whatever other options that may exist as to how we might invest our time and who we might follow, we know in our core that none of them could match following Jesus. For the possibility of real, authentic meaning in our lives…where else would we go?
Keys For Today…
Holy God, help me to everyday recognize the unique gift of following Jesus. Christ alone is worthy of my devotion – he has the words of eternal life. Help me to follow and to listen. Amen.
Jeremiah 15-16, Psalm 116
At times Jeremiah gives us glimpses of the difficulty of being a prophet. There are places where the oracles being spoken are harsh. Standing in front of people who don't want to hear words of judgment was probably, at best, a difficult job. In its more challenging moments it was likely terrifying. Jeremiah describes those who "torment" him and asks for God's mercy that his life might be spared. (15:15)
Jeremiah's prophetic work began around 627 BC, "in the thirteenth year of Judah's King Josiah" (1:2) and continued until after the exile to Babylon some forty years later. That is a long time to wake up in the morning wondering what unpopular and potentially dangerous prophetic word God might have him speak on any given day.
On the other hand, it does give a window into the perhaps grudging respect the people had for those they recognized as prophets. It would seem, given such a long career, that Jeremiah was given the latitude to deliver difficult words. Perhaps we might take that to mean that, while the people may not have liked many of the messages they heard from Jeremiah, they still came to recognize him as an authentic prophet delivering God's words to the people.
Keys For Today…
Lord, thank you for the voices that you send into my life to speak truth and help me find my way. Help me to be receptive to words that are challenging and, while difficult to hear, are meant to bring positive growth in my life. Amen.
Jeremiah 17-18, John 7
The seventh chapter of John's gospel begins by telling us that Jesus was traveling in the Galilee, at least in part, because in Judea some of the authorities wanted to kill him. That bit of information is worthy of attention. It didn't just become dangerous for Jesus on that final Passover in Jerusalem when he was arrested and crucified. Jesus' public ministry was always dangerous.
The Sea of Galilee on one side was primarily Jewish and on the other side was primarily Gentile. One portion was governed by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and another by Philip, Herod Antipas' half brother. One of the reasons we see Jesus moving back and forth across the Sea of Galilee in the gospels (think about all the times we read of Jesus getting in a boat to go to the other side) has to do with his safety. Part of Jesus' movement is about staying ahead of authorities who are unhappy with him at any given moment.
The entirety of John 7 is a great window into the cultural milieu of Jesus' time. We get a glimpse of the struggle that was going on as people tried to understand who he was and openly debated whether or not he was the Messiah. It's fascinating to think of Jesus secretly slipping into the Festival of the Booths and then dramatically announcing himself as living water on the final day of the Festival.
The entire chapter roils with questions and challenges and revelations of the forces at work in the world where Jesus carried out his ministry. If this chapter piques your interest you may wish to do some research and find a book that would fill in some of the history of what the world that Jesus lived in was like. The Roman occupation, the politics of the Jewish leadership, the particularities of the Galilee and Jerusalem are all aspects of the story that can lead to a fuller and deeper understanding of the story we find in the Bible.
Keys For Today…
Our world is complicated and can seem far removed from the stories of the Bible. Help us to understand that Jesus lived in a world as complex as ours is today and that he knew what it was to consider the pressures of making difficult choices. Thank you for scholars who do research that further opens up the world of the Bible to us. Amen.
Jeremiah 19-20, John 8
Jeremiah is worn down by the weight of the judgment he must proclaim. He's tired of being mocked and having people dismiss him as nothing more than a constant naysayer. And he's undoubtedly tired of the actual abuse he experiences at the hands of people like the priest Pashur (20:1-2).
Jesus, in John 8, is also facing opposition and a lack of understanding that must have been frustrating and tiresome. He too is threatened on more than one occasion. We are told more than once that he avoids serious injury in these would be assaults because it is not yet his time. (8:20, 8:59) He says in plain language that he understands their goal is to kill him. (8:37)
Jeremiah gives us a hint as to what keeps him speaking the Lord's words. Basically, he can't stop. It is too much to keep inside. It will find its way out.
"I thought, I'll forget him;
I'll no longer speak in his name.
But there's an intense fire in my heart,
trapped in my bones.
I'm drained trying to contain it;
I'm unable to do it." (20:9)
Jesus draws strength and purpose from his relationship with his Father. The religious leadership consistently quizzes him on who he is and Jesus keeps saying that he's being plain about who he is – that they seem to be almost willfully blind to the truth before them.
Imagine the bravery of Jeremiah knowing he spoke unwelcome words and the physical violence with which he was threatened. Imagine the courage of Jesus standing up before a mob set on stoning a woman. When confronted with situations where faith compels us to speak an unpopular truth, these are passages we can turn to for examples to inspire us not to choose the safe thing, but to chose to say and do the right thing.
Keys For Today…
When faith requires courage, help me to trust you and to speak and act in ways that are consistent with your will. Amen.
Jeremiah 21-22, Psalms 117-118
In Jeremiah, a group from the king goes seeking a positive word from God through Jeremiah. Jeremiah is having none of it. Jeremiah's response is that the king is largely reaping what he has sowed through his attitude as king and his failure to honor God with his actions. The king's actions have consequences. The people are told to make a choice. Stay in the city and suffer at the hands of the invading forces or flee and/or surrender and preserve their lives. It's a grim choice.
Psalm 118 is a whole different story. Here we find words of praise, perhaps from David, though that is not clear, following a victory. The psalmist does not claim responsibility or seek out personal praise for what has been accomplished, instead turning the focus to God.
"It is far better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust any human leader." (Psalm 118:9)
When we follow after Jesus it is not always an easy journey, but it is a faithful journey, and there is long term happiness and fulfillment in that faithful journey. Following the whims of any human leader may seem to bring blessings for a season, but we risk much if we ever allow our fidelity to any human leader to take precedence over our fidelity to God.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, we give thanks to you because you are good. Your faithful love lasts forever. When life closes in around us, you lead us to a place of peace and open fields. Help us to trust in you in all things and to offer praise as we rejoice in your light which shines on us. Amen. (From Psalm 118)
Jeremiah 23-24, John 9
God poses a great question in Jeremiah 23:34.
"Can people hide themselves in secret places
so I might not see them?
Don't I fill heaven and earth?"
There are would-be prophets claiming to prophesy in God's name, but they are not truly prophets at all. They are trafficking in false assurance. They are telling people what they want to hear. This might be, at least in material terms, a profitable enterprise if God wasn't real. God's question could be restated, "Don't they think I'm real?" Or perhaps, "What sort of divine being are they imagining." If they have a true belief in God they must imagine God to be a very limited God from whom one can actually hide.
When they prophesy falsely, God sees. God knows.
Seeing and understanding are at the heart of John 9 as well. Jesus heals a blind man and a true comedy of misunderstandings unfolds. The people who have sight don't see. The person who was blind is the one capable of sight. This theme is played out over and over throughout this chapter.
As we read Jeremiah we are reminded that God sees us. God always sees us. When we imagine we are hiding things from God, the only ones we are fooling are ourselves. When we do this, we join with the Pharisees in John 9. We become so committed to what we want to be true that we are incapable of seeing the truth that is plainly before us.
Keys For Today…
Open my eyes that I may see, Gracious God. When I feel like hiding, remind me that I am an open book to you. Teach me to be truthful with you, to train the eyes of my heart on you, and to trust in your grace. Amen.
Jeremiah 25-26, John 10
If all we had was John 10, the image of Jesus as good shepherd would be compelling and memorable. The shepherd is invested in the sheep. He is not just doing a job, he cares for the sheep and would die for them. When we take into consideration a number of passages in the Old Testament, the image of shepherd grows fuller and richer.
Both yesterday's and today's readings from Jeremiah contain shepherd language. Today we heard of shepherds who would be devastated by the loss of their sheep as judgment was pronounced against Judah. (25:35-38)
Yesterday Jeremiah 23 spoke of a shepherd with messianic qualities.
"I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the Lord.
"The time is coming declares the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David's line, and he will rule as a wise king." (23:3b-5)
Today in Christian communities, our primary awareness of shepherd imagery is likely centered on John 10 and the very familiar Psalm 23. It is important to remember that Jesus (and John the Baptist) are both understood by at least some of the people as prophets and to recognize that when Jesus employs shepherd language to describe himself, he is utilizing language that is a part of the larger prophetic tradition. Jesus would have made this choice intentionally and the religious leadership, who again in John 10 are accusing him of "making himself out to be God" (10:33), would be taking that into account as well.
Keys For The Day…
Guide me, protect me and help me to faithfully follow you, my Lord and Shepherd. You are indeed good beyond my imagining. Keep me listening for your voice. Amen.
Jeremiah 27-28, John 11
There is a book by Frank Viola called God's Favorite Place On Earth. I have to admit the title had its desired effect on me – I was intrigued. God's favorite place? Isn't God like a parent, no favorites allowed? What would be that favorite place? A quiet place around the Sea of Galilee? Somewhere in Jerusalem? Where?
Viola argues that "the place where Jesus Christ – God incarnate – was happiest, the most satisfied, and felt most at home was Bethany." It is in Bethany that Jesus was able to set aside the pressures of his ministry and relax at the home of his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Of course, it's all speculation, but the basic idea that Bethany was a bit of a place of refuge for Jesus is consistent with the way Jesus' visits there are portrayed in scripture.
It is also consistent with the great emotion of the story of the death and miraculous resurrection of Lazarus. This miracle is deeply personal for Jesus. The people looking to Jesus for help are dear friends. Jesus does what anyone would do at the loss of someone close; he weeps. And then he does what no one else could do, he calls Lazarus forth from the grave.
We point too often to Jesus' humanity as evidence that Jesus knows how we feel and what we go through because he lived a life like ours. This may be one of the best examples of Jesus deeply experiencing the emotions we all experience at some point in life, in a place and with people that held a special home in the heart of the itinerant preacher from the Galilee.
Keys For Today…
I give thanks this day that Jesus enjoyed friendships and a place of rest and enjoyment during his earthly ministry. I take heart in this knowledge that Jesus understands my attachment to certain places and my deep love for special people in my life. I rejoice that the Christ's call to "Come out!" to new life is issued to each one of us. Amen.
Jeremiah 29-31, Psalm 119:1-24
On May 18, 2018, a horrific school shooting took place at Santa Fe High School in a suburban community of Houston, Texas. Ten lives were lost, eight students and two teachers. Thirteen other students were wounded. I have this in mind because of a note that reminds me I read the following from Jeremiah 31 the day the shooting took place:
The Lord proclaims!
A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and wailing.
It's Rachel crying for her children;
she refuses to be consoled,
because her children are no more. (31:15)
Something had led me to Jeremiah that day and his words seemed to speak across millenniums to what surely must have been going on in the anguish of the people of Santa Fe. The text itself is, of course, spoken to the time of the Old Testament exiles in Babylon, and is familiar to many because it is cited in Luke's gospel at the time of Herod's slaughter of the innocents following the visit of the magi. These words capture the depth of the despair and the pain of great loss.
It's important to recognize that it's to people living with that level of hurt that the words of Jeremiah 29:11 are written.
"I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope."
This verse is a popular verse. It is prominent in praise songs. It appears on graduation cards. You can find it on posters intended to provide generic inspiration. All appropriate uses, but the original context adds power to the promise. This is not a verse spoken into an already okay situation promising even better things in the future. It's not assuming a blank slate and saying the sky's the limit. It is a bold promise of a future filled with hope to a people who don't believe they have hope for next week. Whether heard by the people in exile or us in our present day in the face of tragedy and hardship, this extraordinary word of hope is one to hold fast to – God holds out a future for us filled with hope.
Keys For Today…
Gracious God, life is a series of highs and lows, mountain tops and valleys. Fill us with hope that through it all your promises are true, and that your plans for us are the best. Amen.
Jeremiah 32-33, John 12
People are naturally intrigued by the resurrection of Lazarus and are wanting to see both Lazarus and the teacher, healer, preacher from the Galilee who called him back to life. The Pharisees are frustrated by the out of control interest in Jesus - "Look! The whole world is following him!" (12:19).
The Palm Sunday event happens quickly in John's telling. Situated here between the story of Lazarus and the Pharisees' concern over Jesus' popularity provides larger context for how Palm Sunday will resolve into Good Friday. At one point we are told that the chief priests also have plans to kill Lazarus. Anything to try and quash this powerful story as they see it taking hold around them.
I wonder how it must have felt for the disciples. On the one hand it must have seemed like they were so close to breaking through to whatever the next step would be on the ascent of the one who they had chosen to follow. And yet, consistent with the ongoing theme of darkness and light, there is always the undercurrent of danger that follows Jesus and tempers even the most joyous of occasions.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, again we see the courage that is necessary to follow Jesus. John tells us that many believed, but loved human praise more than God's glory. Help us to embrace the call to follow you and to truly live for your glory.
Jeremiah 34-35, John 13
Some years back I participated, as a small group leader, in a foot washing service at a youth conference. It was memorable. What I most recall was the general discomfort of most of the group at the outset which gradually transitioned over into a consensus that it was a deeply meaningful experience.
The greatest concern was the condition of people's feet. We weren't accustomed to other people touching our feet and so there was some nervous humor rippling through the room as the partners began the process. Was the water too cold? Were feet not very pleasant after a day of walking around the conference? Like Peter, there were some who weren't sure they were up for this exercise.
As we washed each other's feet we began to understand something of humility and of caring for one another. And Jesus' actions with his disciples became all the more moving for us as we contemplated the master washing the feet of his disciples. What a profound expression of his love for his friends and what a compelling lesson in leading through an act of service.
Keys For Today…
Loving God, teach us humility. Give us hearts that long to serve, and when we are given the opportunity to lead, help us to lead with compassion and love. Amen.
Jeremiah 36-37, Psalm 119:25-48
In Psalm 119 we read about the liberating power of speaking the word and the law of the Lord. The psalmist says talking about God's laws in front of powerful leaders is no concern at all. (119:41-48) In Jeremiah we get to see a practical example of what this kind of courage looks like.
Jeremiah is called to speak a powerful word from the Lord that the King will not be glad to hear. He calls for his scribe Baruch to come and together, Jeremiah dictating and Baruch recording the prophets words, they compile the words God desires to be spoken. Baruch then takes the words with him to the temple where he reads them aloud. The prophecy eventually reaches the circle of advisors to the king and ultimately the king. The king ignores and burns the scrolls. Jeremiah and Baruch produce another set along with a specific word of judgment against the king.
As we read this it may not seem like what Jeremiah gets is liberation and wide-open spaces. What he gets is prison. Still I believe that Jeremiah and Baruch both would resonate with the words of the Psalm. The words of the oracles are placed in Jeremiah's mouth by God. He is compelled to speak. Baruch is a partner in this process, an interesting window perhaps into how we have the recorded words of Jeremiah and other prophets. As we read about the bravery of these individuals who spoke the truth to the powerful with a willingness to face the consequences, we are challenged to speak truth born out of our faith. It may not always be well received, but perhaps we will find wide-open spaces in its liberating power.
Keys For Today…
I want to speak truth and not be afraid. Thank you for the inspiring words of Psalm 119 and the example of Jeremiah and Baruch. Grant me the courage to live towards wide-open spaces. Amen.
Jeremiah 38-39, John 14
A good cautionary note for reading the gospels is to not be too hard on the disciples. It's easy to wonder how they could have spent so much time with Jesus and still struggled so much to understand his message and what would happen to him. We are so familiar with the story that it seems like you have to willfully be trying not to understand Jesus at times.
This misses on two counts. First, there is nothing easy about understanding the Son of God in your midst. I just feel that is undeniably true. At times I marvel at their loyalty and willingness to hang in there with Jesus when walking away and returning to their previous lives was always an option. Second, we misunderstand Jesus regularly. It's not like the disciples were the last ones ever to be perplexed by Jesus and since then everyone, including us, has understood the totality of who Jesus was and is and the breadth of what he taught. There are times in our lives of faith when we either don't understand what Jesus asks of us or we would rather not know what Jesus' claim on our lives should mean for our choices and actions. Brian McClaren wrote a book called The Secret Message of Jesus. Having read it, McClaren's argument isn't so much that Jesus really had a secret message. It's more that, given how much of it Christianity has struggled with and sometimes willfully misunderstood, one would think it was a secret.
All of this is to say that I am sympathetic with Philip in John 14. Philip asks Jesus, "Lord show us the Father; that will be enough for us." (14:8). To paraphrase, Jesus response is along the lines of asking what Philip thinks Jesus has been doing. "Don't you know me Philip, even after I have been with you all this time?" (14:9)
Again the takeaway is not to wonder how Philip could be so clueless. It's to start us asking how often we really do take the time to examine who we understand Jesus to be, and how Jesus is revealing God to us. If we begin to feel comfortable with how well we understand Jesus it may be time to ask how much we understand Jesus at all.
Keys For Today…
Thank you for the disciples. Thank you for the stories in scripture that reveal their honest questions, their shortcomings, and ultimately their love for you. Help us to aspire to know you and to love you well. Amen.
Jeremiah 40-41, John 15
Another of the "I am" statements in John's gospel appears in John 15 as Jesus tells his friends, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. …I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can't do anything." (15:1,5) This is a vivid and memorable image, wonderfully capturing the organic nature of life in Christ.
My reading of this passage was forever enhanced by Rob Fuquay, a Methodist pastor, who wrote a study called The God We Can Know, which explored the "I am" statements throughout John's gospel. Fuquay pointed out that when we think of that healthy vine we are often looking at the fruit at the end of the vine as evidence that things are going well. In the analogy, if we are the vine this would mean our eyes are focused on the outcome of what Christ has done through us. We would have our eyes on the fruits, or accomplishments, of our faith.
He reminds us that while the manifestations of our faith are exciting, it is even more important to keep our eyes focused back on the health of our connection to the vine. How are we doing at remaining in Christ? How healthy is our connection to the one who gives us growth? This insight and question transformed my reading of this passage and has encouraged me to focus on the vine, knowing that if my relationship with Christ is being nurtured and growing stronger the fruits of that relationship will take care of themselves.
Keys For Today…
You are the living vine Holy God. Keep me trimmed and remind me each day to nurture my connection to you that I may be a fruitful follower of Jesus. Amen.
Jeremiah 42-43, John 16
John 16 is home to two of the most interesting, fascinating, important verses in scripture in my opinion. The trajectory of the story at this point is towards the account of Jesus' arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. There is a lot going on, all of it is important, and our eyes are justifiably drawn along in the flow of the narrative. These two verses are each comments by Jesus in which he is making flat statements of truth. They are more than worthy of a close look.
"I assure you that it is better for you that I go away." (16:7)
Further on in this passage the disciples are all talking with each other and are frustrated as they compare notes and discover they don't understand much of what Jesus has just told them. Jesus' words here must have been confusing to or maybe just dismissed by his friends. How could they be better off without Jesus? What leader has ever aimed to offer words of inspiration that include the point that the whole movement will improve when the leader is not longer present. Jesus goes on to clarify that when he departs, the Holy Spirit will come. The Holy Spirit will be of one mind with Jesus, but will be accessible to all. Jesus is sharing a powerful truth, but likely one his friends were not at all ready to hear.
"'In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.'" (16:33)
I have to confess that I had never really noticed this verse until a few years ago. Michael Card, the Christian musician, has released CD's of songs for each of the four gospels. On his CD on John he includes a song in which Jesus says the words, "I have conquered the world" and somehow, as music often does, I heard the verse in a way I had never experienced it on the page. The somber tone of the time before the crucifixion is present, but alongside it is the quiet and sturdy assurance of Jesus as he speaks this truth. This is not the phrase Jesus says as he comes bounding forth from the tomb in Easter victory. This is the phrase he says before Good Friday has unfolded and Easter is days away. However dark that moment must have felt, Jesus knew that the triumph was coming. It was a done deal. He had conquered the world.
Keys For The Day…
When I am feeling the weight of the world, when the flame of hope is flickering, help me to hear Jesus saying firmly and confidently that he has conquered the world. Amen.
Jeremiah 44-46, Psalm 119:49-72
The psalmist alternately praises the law of the Lord, while pledging fidelity to them and pointing out the undesirable actions of those who oppose God's precepts. In one place we read, "the world is full of your faithful love!" (119:64) and in another "the arrogant cover me with their lies" (69). It's a vivid portrayal of the struggle to match the desire to follow God's will with the reality of living in a world that seems to throw up one roadblock after another to that faithfulness.
As we reach the final chapters of the book of Jeremiah, a similar theme is playing out. Chaos reigns. Judah has fallen, Babylon is in control, Egypt seems like a place of possibly safe refuge, and everyone has an opinion on what has happened. The argument is not so much over what will happen in the future; the division we find, particularly in Jeremiah 44, is over what went wrong. Did the people endure calamity for failing to follow God and chasing after other Gods or, as some of them assert, was the problem that they didn't make offerings to other gods soon enough?
These are not simply the challenges of people thousands of years ago. We still live in complicated times. We still must discern what is God's will and what is not. There are still divisive factions who will provide differing interpretations not only of what might happen but of what has already taken place. Take comfort in troubled times that the world is indeed a place that is full of God's faithful love. Knowing this, we can be guided as much as possible by the love God has given us – that same love that God calls us to share.
Keys For Today…
I rejoice that the world is indeed full of your faithful love. Fill my spirit with a joy that celebrates your love and shares your love today. Amen.
Jeremiah 47-48, John 17
John 17 is at least two things.
On the one hand it is a theological gold mine. Jesus makes regular reference to his relationship with his Father and the way he relates to and facilitates the relationship of his followers with his Father. All of which is right in John's wheelhouse. John is a deeply theological exploration of the life and ministry of Jesus, and this passage is about as thickly packed as it gets. It would be worth rereading the passage once or twice and simply asking the question, "What is Jesus saying here about his own identity as well as the Father's?" Walk slowly through it, don't rush, make notes.
On the other hand, it's just a beautiful love letter. It's intimate and personal. It's Jesus speaking movingly of his love for his followers. The care he has shown for them in his ministry and the hopes he has for them in the future. Imagine hearing this passage not only as a disciple hearing Jesus pray, but as a member of an early Christian community, threatened by persecution and uncertain about what is taking shape as they become the church. How wonderfully encouraging it would have been to read of Jesus' passionate concern for those who follow him! How encouraging for us today as well.
Keys For Today…
Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Thank you for the Bible and for using it to share the wonderful truth of Jesus' love for us. Amen.
Jeremiah 49-50, John 18
Pieces fall into place. Jesus is arrested and goes before Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas. While this goes on, Peter is in the courtyard denying any connection with Jesus. Three times. The scene shifts to Jesus before Pilate. Pilate seems confused by what he is being asked to do. Pilate is trying to understand who Jesus is and what he has done that have landed him in such trouble.
Pilate questions Jesus, and the questioning goes nowhere fast. Pilate is interested in power and in kings as he understands power and kings. Jesus puzzles him with answers like, "My kingdom isn't from here." (18:36). Pilate throws up his hands rhetorically at the end of the conversation asking the question, "What is truth?" (18:15).
This is where things have gotten in the story – truth is hard to discover, murky at best. Peter, in his denial, seems as lost as Pilate at this point. All support appears to have been stripped away from Jesus. He is alone.
Here is Jesus, who back in chapter 14 described himself as the way, the truth and the life. The way looks to be reaching its end; the life will be taken away; the truth, as Pilate has articulated, is in doubt. John has taken us to a dark place that will become darker before the light returns. In this dark place each one of us has the opportunity to recognize ourselves in Peter's lack of courage and Pilate's lack of vision. On the encouraging side we may also be profoundly moved by Jesus' commitment to the truth of his mission on our behalf.
Keys For Today…
Gracious God, you are the way and the truth and the life. Help me to have the courage to follow you and the wisdom to hear your truth, even when it is difficult and challenging. Amen.
Jeremiah 51-52, Psalm 119:73-96
I was waiting for a take-out pizza at a deep dish place in Chicago. My wife and I had just enjoyed a day of blissful tourism, including a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, where I was captivated by a gorgeous Tiffany window, recently relocated from a church in Providence, Rhode Island. Lunch with a longtime friend at a lovely restaurant followed. We were enjoying the beautiful fall weather, and simply soaking up the vibrant energy of the Windy City.
We'd returned to the condo our friends were letting us use and take-out seemed the least stressful way to enjoy the last of the day. As I waited another person, a woman, came in, went to the counter and then came and stood near me to wait. We talked.
We quickly shared that we were both visitors and both were feeling like we needed to have the Chicago deep dish experience since we were here. She asked why we were in town and I explained a couple of days of relaxing and enjoying the city. I asked her and she spilled out that her young adult son had made a poor choice that had ended up with him in the ICU of a Chicago hospital. Things had gotten a lot out of control in her world in a short period of time and it was hard.
"My whole being yearns for your saving help!
I wait for your promise.
My eyes are worn out looking for your word.
'When will you comfort me?'" (119:81-82)
When I read these verses this evening I thought of my conversation with this anxious mom. We had a few minutes of conversation, prayed and I promised to continue to pray for her son. All of which was possible because we found ourselves waiting for pizza at the same time. Sometimes we are the recipients of the gift of another person's attention and sometimes we arrive at a moment when the opportunity to point to God's grace presents itself. Thanks be to God who brings us together when we are yearning for help.
Keys For Today…
Be present with us in the moments when life is hard. Thank you for the opportunity to be present for each other. Amen.
Lamentations 1-2, John 19
The story began in a garden. Way back in Genesis there was a garden, Eden, where all was well. Until it wasn't. Paradise was lost, Adam and Eve were sent on their way. The story continued in a garden, Gethsemane, where all was not well. In John 18 we read the account of the arrest of Jesus, setting in motion the trials and eventually the crucifixion. As John 19 wraps up, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are placing Jesus body in a tomb – and we find ourselves, once more, in a garden.
"There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid." (19:41)
It is fitting for the story to find its way back to a garden. A place where things grow. A place, perhaps, of beauty. A place where seeds are planted and new life bursts forth. At this moment, the bleakest moment of the gospel story, John does an interesting thing. Instead of dwelling in the darkness, he points out the light. We are reminded that Nicodemus had come to Jesus at night, but now here he is in a somewhat public way, identifying himself with Jesus by helping to care for his body. Night will fall. A day will pass. Night will fall again. But on the third day…keep your eye on that garden.
Keys For Today…
God of gardens and new life, nurture the seeds of faith in my life that I may grow to be the person you have created me to be. Amen.
Lamentations 3-5, John 20
The short book of Lamentations is a harrowing read. So much despair and anguish. There is a core trust in God, but there is a deep fear on the part of the people that they have angered God beyond the point where God will never restore them to their land or desire to be in relationship with them again.
To be truthful, I struggle with that perception. I believe the feeling is truly the people's interpretation of what has happened – they turned away from God and God is punishing them. I don't believe God ever turns away from us. I believe we turn ourselves aside from God, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot, and at great effort on our part. It is a good pairing to have the story of the resurrection alongside of the desperate sadness of Lamentations.
Frederick Buechner has famously drawn this lesson from the resurrection story: "The worst isn't the last thing about the world. It's the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best." No matter the depth of our despair, God will not give up on us, will not abandon us, will love us. The psalmist said that joy would come in the morning. That was correct. The greatest joy came early in the morning on the first day of the week.
Keys For Today…
Life is hard. There will be struggle. I will get it wrong a lot of the time. Thank you for loving me, for loving each of us, all the way to the cross and beyond to the empty tomb. Amen.
Ezekiel 1, John 21
Three times Peter denied Jesus. Three times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" Peter is around a fire with others in the courtyard on the night of the denial. Peter is on a beach at the Sea of Galilee, around a fire with Jesus and some of the other disciples when Jesus questions him. The parallels are there.
The beautiful thing is that Jesus' questions don't come from a place of doubt. He doesn't doubt Peter. He knows Peter doubts himself. So he asks the question, and Peter answers and each time Jesus responds with a further call on Peter's life. "Feed my sheep." Jesus is confronting the hard reality of Peter's denial and helping his friend move past that to a greater faithfulness in the future.
The last verses of John's gospel are fascinating. They hint at the so much more that could have been told about Jesus. Who doesn't read that and wish they had gone on and told those stories and filled us with even more awe and wonder. And yet they remind us of the purpose of the gospels. John is not intended to be a comprehensive catalog of Jesus' life and actions. It is a carefully constructed collection of stories and sayings designed to persuade us of the truth of the ministry and mission of Jesus. Still, wouldn't it be amazing to know what was left on the cutting room floor?
Keys For Today…
When I fall short, when I make poor choices, when I rebel against your will, I am grateful for your forgiveness, your grace and your call to begin again. Amen.
Ezekiel 2-3, Psalm 119:97-120
Among the works of pastor and author Eugene Peterson is a tome called Eat This Book. The origins of the title lie, at least in part, in the events of Ezekiel 3. Ezekiel is instructed to eat a scroll filled with "mourning, lamentation and doom." (2:10). He is then to take these words and deliver them to the people who are described as being in rebellion against God. We are told that Ezekiel ate the scroll, "and in my mouth it became sweet as honey." (3:3) It's clearly a symbolic act by the prophet, using his actions to deepen his point. Also, it may seem a bit odd.
But then perhaps you noticed the language in Psalm 119, that echoes the words of Ezekiel:
"Your word is so pleasing to my taste buds -
it's sweeter than honey in my mouth!" (119:103)
I don't know if Ezekiel literally ate a scroll to call greater attention to his prophetic word, but it is clear that it's not completely unusual to describe God's words in scripture as sweet like honey. It's why we are in the process of reading through God's word in a year. We believe that God speaks to us in it, and by reading it we can better know God's will and direction for our lives and our world. In that sense, whether the reading is uplifting or challenging, comforting or troubling, it is indeed all sweet like honey because it brings us closer to our Creator.
Keys For Today…
As I read your words in scripture I give thanks for this daily bread that is indeed sweeter than honey and a gift beyond description. Amen.
Ezekiel 4-5, James 1
James calls on us to be people who not only hear the word, but who live the word. He suggests if you aren't doing it then it's likely you haven't heard it. You are deceiving yourself. (1:22)
For some, this is problematic. It sounds like works-righteousness, meaning that rather than salvation coming through God's grace alone, it sounds like James is suggesting that salvation has to be earned by our actions. This seems to me to misunderstand James. His interest is not in making rules to describe how salvation is accomplished. His interest is pastoral. He wants what is best for the people of God.
Faith can be both a gift freely given by God and at the same time be a gift that finds its fullest and best expression in our lives when we are responding to love with love for God and for others. The point is not to earn what God gives, it is to unwrap the gift and utilize it, rejoice in it, live it. Pastor James wants us to know as fully as possible the totality of what we have received from God. He wants more than for us to hear it. He wants us to live it.
Keys For Today…
How are you calling me to be a doer of your word today, O Lord. With a heart full of gratitude, help me to know how to respond to your love by reaching out to share that love with the world. Amen.
Ezekiel 6-7, James 2
I can quickly think of a long list of people whose life of faith has inspired me. It's a list that includes Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School volunteers, pastors, youth group advisors, seminary professors and ministry mentors. They did not teach me by standing idly by and thinking about faith. They did it through their actions. They taught, they gave up their time, they did things that I could see them doing and thereby blessed me and gave me much to reflect on.
James would understand. How does a person of faith bear witness to the power of faith to change a life – by living a changed life. To be clear, not a perfect life or a holier than thou life – a changed life. A life that is noticeably different because it is guided by a strong faith in God.
The folks I have in mind did not set out to win God's grace with their actions; they lived vibrant lives because they were so filled with God's grace. I will never do anything to merit God's great love. I pray, however, that I will live a life that aims to be transformed because of the love I have experienced from God and from those in whom I saw God at work.
Keys For Today…
Thank you Lord, for the many people who have been blessings to me throughout my life. Lead me to share your love with others as it has been shared with me. Amen.
Ezekiel 8-9, Psalm 119:121-144
Two observations today. First from Ezekiel. There is a lot of judgment in the first half of Ezekiel and today's chapters are very much in that vein. The primary vision here is of Israel's elders worshipping foreign gods in the temple. What caught my attention here is the couple of places (8:12 and 9:9) where the elders in the vision are said to describe God as having abandoned them and complain/observe that God no longer sees them. This seems to be offered as some sort of defense for their actions of worshipping foreign deities in the vision – God doesn't see us, what does it matter to God what we do?
Ezekiel's prophetic word announces that God indeed does see and is not pleased. This is one of those places where perspective makes a lot of difference. Was it truly that God did not see them? Ezekiel says that is not the answer. Had the people's behavior over the years grown so different from the lives that they had been called to live that they no longer could recognize God in their midst? That seems to be closer to the truth.
Over in Psalm 119 I see a verse that can perhaps provide us some insight into the Pharisees of Jesus' time.
"River of tears stream from my eyes,
because your Instruction isn't being kept." (119:136)
As we've been reading through Psalm 119 there have been many references to God's laws, precepts, and instruction. In this verse we see that God is saddened by the failure of the people to live by God's instruction. It is possible to imagine that well-meaning folks could take such a message and decide that God's instruction must be followed at all times and that the best thing a religious leader could do would be, as much as possible, to enforce the law. It's not a long trip from there to the Pharisees of Jesus' time who are consistently after Jesus and his followers for perceived Sabbath violations among other things. The problem becomes how we understand the law and what exactly the law is trying to encourage people to do. Jesus teaches that the heart of the law is love rather than a rigid adherence to a set of rules. Did the Pharisees misunderstand Jesus and become overly zealous in the observance of the law? In the gospels it seems the answer is yes. But in passages like this one from the Psalms we can see where such zealous observance may have found it's well meaning source.
Keys For Today…
God of all good things, keep me focused on you and living out your command to love. Guard me against religion that is dry, rigid observance and enliven me with your love, compassion and grace. Amen.
Ezekiel 10-11, James 3
Our words can lift people up. Our words can bring people down. Our words are powerful. The thing with speech is that it is deceptively easy to do. We think of something and in a heartbeat the thought can be translated into words and be coming out of our mouth. James wants us to slow that process down. Consider our words.
"Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn't be this way." (3:10)
He goes on to point out that fresh water and salt water don't come from the same source. Neither do figs and olives come from the same tree. And yet, from the same source we can speak a word of blessing or a word of hurt. The difference, of course, is our decision making role – we select our words. In that selection, there is a calculation going on. It can happen more quickly than we realize. The desire to inflict damage goes up examined from the heart to head to the lips and out it comes.
James encourages us to let our lives be guided by God's wisdom, the wisdom that comes from above. That wisdom may be available and the simple cost may be pausing a moment and considering what we are saying and why. Sometimes the simple act of pausing will save us from speaking words we will regret. Given a moment we recognize quickly the damage we may do. Pausing allows us to examine our intent and to listen for God's direction. God's direction will lead us to our best word choices. In moments where a difficult word needs to be voiced, how can we say it so that its aim is clearly growth and not destruction. And very often we may discover that what is most needed is a word of love and encouragement, a word that may not have been our first impulse, but may well be our best choice.
Keys For Today…
Let my words be chosen wisely today and every day Gracious God. Amen.
Ezekiel 12-13, James 4
Consequences. Outcomes. Accountability. All of this is on Ezekiel's mind in today's reading. Towards the end of chapter 12 the word of the Lord comes to the prophet. The people have become comfortable with adverse prophecies. "The days go by," they say, "and every vision vanishes." (12:22). They keep hearing that a judgment is coming and it never seems to come, so why worry about it. God is aware of the people's line of reasoning and is assuring them here that the prophecies are real and the consequences for rebellion will be real.
This brought to mind for me a topic like our care of the environment. We might look around today and say it all looks fine to me, nothing to be alarmed about, but the more we neglect the planet the closer we get to the day where we feel it and our children and their children will live with the consequences. Consequences that will be real.
Further along, in chapter 13, the prophet speaks about the people and a wall of protection. Some of the false prophets have pointed to the wall and said that God built it and as a result the people will have peace and will be safe from their enemies. The prophet's warning is that they should not fool themselves about the origin of the wall.
"Without a doubt, they led my people astray, saying 'Peace' when there was no peace, and 'He is building a wall' when they were the ones who laid on the plaster." (13:10)
The warning for the people and for us clearly has to do with discernment. Is the work we attribute to God our own work that we wish or hope is God's? What will the outcome be if we have followed our own direction and convinced ourselves that it is God's?
Keys For Today…
We often pray "thy will be done." Help me sincerely offer that prayer. I do desire that thy will be done. Walk with me and help me to discern if the direction you are leading is the direction I am going. Amen.
Ezekiel 14-15, James 5
The words of patience and endurance which James spoke to the early Christian community were much needed. The fledgling church was struggling to define its identity as well as looking ahead with uncertainty about the end time. The dynamics of those concerns were much different in those days than now, but the concerns themselves still remain.
Every current moment has to find its place. History tells a long story, some of which we know, much of which we are unaware. The present always has its own issues and concerns. There is always an eye looking towards the future and wondering how what we are doing now impacts tomorrow. And for followers of Jesus there is also an ongoing reckoning of what the final days will look like, and what we are to anticipate when we speak of the return of Christ.
These concerns can simmer in the background for us, but crises in our personal lives or in the world can bring them sharply into focus and raise them anew with urgency and intensity. James' counsel of patience and endurance continue to be helpful. It is not that we are to simply ignore the topic and assume that something will happen one day. Legitimate inquiry as we pray, worship and study are always appropriate. The final word though is that it will all unfold in God's time. Until then we do pray for each other, ask for and offer forgiveness, place our hope in God's good future, and lean into patient resolve when times are challenging.
Keys For Today…
God, you have brought me safely to a great new day. It is filled with opportunity and possibility. It may also include challenge and uncertainty. Remind me that in all of it you will be with me today as you were with me yesterday and as you will be each day of my life. Turn my heart towards the future you have planned. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Ezekiel 16-17, Psalm 119:145-176
The readings today allow for a point about paying attention to what comes to mind as we read through any day's scripture readings. My specific point today is to take notice when reading a passage of scripture and a different passage of scripture comes to mind. While that could be in a direct – the present passage obviously connects to another passage relationship – kind of way, I'm thinking more of the less obvious connection. In both of today's readings I found myself thinking of the gospels and, in particular, Jesus' teachings in the gospels.
What I want to clearly say is that I don't know of any relationship at all between these texts, except that they are all a part of the witness of scripture. What I am suggesting is that when a connection like this happens in your reading it's potentially valuable to let your mind play with how the two passages might bring interpretative insights to one another.
Ezekiel 17 speaks of vines, producing branches and sending out shoots. (17:6). In this language of vines and fruitfulness I can hear Jesus speaking in John's gospel about himself as the vine and us as the branches. Further on towards the end of chapter 17 we hear of a tree that will flourish and bear fruit and also that God will bring down the tall trees and raise up the lowly trees. (17:22-24). Hearing this, I think of Jesus and the fig tree that does not bear fruit and also more generally of Jesus speaking of the first being last and the last being first.
Over in Psalm 119, which we are completing today, notice this, the final verse:
"I've wandered off like a sheep, lost.
Find your servant
because I haven't forgotten
your commandments!" (119:176)
My thoughts quickly went to Jesus, the good shepherd, and to the story of the one lost sheep which Jesus tells us the shepherd went out and found. The more we read of scripture, the more we can find connections like this. Connections of themes, of imagery, of ways of understanding God. Keep your eyes open for these kinds of connections and give your imagination permission to see where they might lead.
Keys For Today…
As we continue to read our way through the Bible we continue to listen closely for your word to us for this very day. Tune our ears to hear the symphony of the multiple voices of the biblical authors as they unite to become your voice speaking to us. Amen.
Ezekiel 18-19, 1 Peter 1
Early on in the pandemic the lectionary texts for preaching led me to offer a sermon series on 1 Peter. The original context of 1 Peter had nothing to do with a pandemic, yet the message of the book spoke important words into that destabilizing experience. 1 Peter was written to encourage the early Christian community as it experienced persecution. It pointed to the suffering that Jesus endured and called the people to faithfulness in spite of the adversity they were facing.
"You now rejoice in this hope, even if it's necessary for you to be distressed for a very short time by various trials." (1:6)
The reminder for the original recipients is that they are people who have a hope that will not disappoint, even when the days they are living through may seem to be hopeless. The pandemic certainly felt at times like an adversary bent on taking away our happiness and our hope. As I write this a year and a half out from those early days of the pandemic we are in a better place, but by no means out of the woods. The struggle continues. We continue to be called to live with hope in difficult times. In this moment, or in any of the difficult days of life, we can trust the promise articulated in 1 Peter 1:4 – "You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."
Keys For Today…
Holy God, source of our hope, we give thanks for the reality that you are with us through each moment of our lives. You will not abandon us. You will guide us safely home. We rejoice that we may rely on you. Amen.
Ezekiel 20-21, 1 Peter 2
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God's own possession." 1 Peter 2:9
It has occurred to me that this verse would be ideal to put on a piece of paper and have somewhere near to wherever you wake up in the morning. The first thing you put eyes on as you start your day would be this amazing statement that you are both called and deeply valued by God. Implicit also is the message that you are a part of something larger than yourself. As a child of God you are part of a holy nation. With that reminder of the worth bestowed upon you by God, you would be ready for whatever the world might send your way.
Just a bit past this soaring language there is the following very practical direction:
"Live honorably among the unbelievers." (2:12)
When we identify ourselves with the church, the body of Christ, we become ambassadors for the church. If someone who is not a Christian wants to know what a Christian looks like, they may well look to us. This verse calls us to consider what they will discover when they look closely at us. This is not talking about how we might choose to package the faith to present it in the best light to unbelievers. This is suggesting that every choice we make and every action of every day holds the possibility of representing our faith to others. By aiming at all times to live honorably in the communities of our home, work, and schools we give ourselves the best chance of representing and offering Jesus in a winsome light.
Keys For Today…
As your follower, loving God, I am part of a holy nation. Help me to remember that as I go about my life this day. Amen.
Ezekiel 22-23, Psalms 120-122
Psalms 120 through 134 are known as the Psalms of Ascent. Some translations, the Common English Bible which I most commonly use, call them the pilgrimage songs. It is thought that the Jewish pilgrims would sing them on their way up to Jerusalem and ultimately up to the Temple.
Psalm 122 rejoices in arriving in the Holy City:
"I rejoiced with those who said to me,
'Let's to to the Lord's house!'
Now our feet are standing
in your gates, Jerusalem!" (122:1-2)
We know that Jesus and his family were among such pilgrims at least when he was 12, and that Jesus and his followers likely made regular trips to Jerusalem for the festivals. Towards the end of his earthly ministry Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives and cries over Jerusalem. (Matthew 23:37-39 and Luke 19:41-44). Perhaps a piece of Jesus' deep sadness in that moment was recalling more joyous times when he had joined his voice in with other pilgrims, happy to have reached their destination.
The present day walls of the Old City of Jerusalem were built some 1500 years after the time of Christ, but to look at those walls and to walk through those gates allows modern day pilgrims to join in the long tradition of spiritual seekers who have made that journey. It is not necessary to travel to the Holy Land to be a follower of Jesus. Not at all. But I would also say, if you have the interest and the opportunity to travel there, I would encourage it. It is powerful to know that we can still today stand on the Mount of Olives and gaze across the Kidron Valley at the city where so many gospel stories took place.
Keys For Today…
God who calls us forward towards your kingdom, each of our days offer us the opportunity to be pilgrims. As we journey through our lives keep our eyes on you as we journey towards our destination. Amen.
Ezekiel 24-25, 1 Peter 3
Has anyone ever asked you to explain your faith? Why did you make the choice to follow Jesus? How did you become aware of Christianity? How did you come to trust in a person who was crucified and, we believe, resurrected more than two thousand years ago? How can you look around at the world today and imagine that there is any good reason to be hopeful? Why believe when so often good people suffer and struggle in life and at the same time people behaving badly seem to be rewarded?
If you've run into any of those questions or others like them, how have you answered? 1 Peter 3 is interested in how we address such questions.
"Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience." (3:15-16)
If people see us as people who live with hope, that is a good thing. Something of our faith is showing through and drawing interest. Sometimes a question may be earnest while other times it may seem to be mocking, but an invitation to speak of our hope is one we do not want to pass up. Therefore, we are instructed to be ready. You don't have to have a polished speech, but when the question comes, be ready to accept the invitation to share how Jesus makes a difference in your life. Finally, while answering with assurance and confidence in what you believe, be humble as well. Humility is shown through sharing what you have to share in a spirit of friendship and love, not in a pushy or aggressive way that demands immediate agreement with all that you have said. We share and we trust that the ultimate work in the hearts of others is in God's hands.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, I pray for words to share the story of my faith and for actions that bear witness to my life in you in ways that go beyond words. Amen.
Ezekiel 26-27, 1 Peter 4
Things are not what they seem or appear to be. Not in Tyre, a commercial hub and seaport to the north of Israel. In Tyre the concern is ever about what is good for the economy. The prophet Ezekiel is intent on speaking a different truth to Tyre. All may seem to be well and Tyre may mock Jerusalem for the troubles it faces (26:2), but there will be a reckoning led by the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar. The prophets words have the timeless quality of speaking to any country or any person whose only concerns are financial well-being that disregards the needs of many.
1 Peter also suggests that things are not as they appear, but in this instance it's a good thing. The Christian community is suffering. Their faith is eroding in the face of persecution. Peter counsels, "Don't be ashamed if you suffer as one who belongs to Christ."(4:16) He continues by encouraging the people to "trust their lives to a trustworthy creator by doing what is right." (4:19)
There is a cautionary note here for each of us on our journey following Jesus. Because things seem to be going well at a moment in time does not mean that everything is blessed by God. And because there is hardship does not mean that God is not with us. Most importantly Peter continues to point back to the truth that Jesus was obviously living out God's will and it was that faithfulness that led to his suffering. That was not the end of the story for Jesus, and by the grace of God when we are visited by hardship it is not the end of the story for us either.
Keys For Today…
Grant me the wisdom, gracious God, to listen intently for your will for my life and to trust your calling both on the easy days and the challenging ones as well. Amen.
Ezekiel 28-29, 1 Peter 5
The time changed here in Kentucky this past weekend as it did in much of the country. The daylight is growing shorter, we are moving deeper into fall and closer to winter. This past Sunday in church we spoke about upcoming activities that will close out one liturgical year with Christ the King Sunday and then move us into the season of Advent that this year will begin on the final Sunday of November. Advent is just a few weeks away.
Having Advent on my mind leads me to be predisposed to clearly hear the call to watch, in this instance, watch over the sheep, and to keep alert in 1 Peter 5. These are dominant themes of Advent. Living in the present moment, often shrouded in darkness, but watching for the One who is to come.
I am grateful for this message and for its recurring emphasis in Advent. It is a blessing to be reminded to set our eyes on the horizon. There is much to draw our attention and energy in the day to day. It is easy to get so drawn in by the present moment that we begin to live as though all that is important is what is presently taking place. Peter advises us to stay alert for the chief shepherd, Jesus will appear. Our belief is not that Jesus might return, but that Jesus will return. Live each day, but always with our eyes on God's promised future.
Keys For Today…
Remind me this day that faith looks forward. Keep me awake, alert and expectant for the return of the Good Shepherd. Amen.
Ezekiel 30-31, Psalms 123-125
Psalm 124 is a rallying cry for the times when you've come through a hardship or a challenge and found the other side. Then standing on that other side, you look back and know you could not have made it on your own. And in that moment realize you didn't have to and you won't have to in the future because God is with you.
"If the Lord hadn't been for us -
let Israel now repeat!-
If the Lord hadn't been for us
when those people attacked us,
Then they would have swallowed us up whole
with their rage burning against us!" (124:1-3)
Keep in mind we are still in the Psalms of Ascent. These are people who are arriving at the end of a pilgrimage and are making that last climb up to the Temple. It's possible to imagine the joy and the praise in the call and response as a leader implores, "Let Israel now repeat!"
We also are enjoined to repeat our own experiences of God's deliverance. Those days we know we could not have navigated without the presence of God leading the way. Our heartfelt expression of thanks is our best witness to the difference God is making in our lives and becomes an invitation to others to experience that difference for themselves. That is definitely worth repeating!
Keys For Today…
When my heart is filled with gratitude for your love and care, help me point to you with thanks and praise. Keep me repeating your praise each day. Amen.
Ezekiel 32-33, 2 Peter 1
My wife and I were a part of a group that gathered in Louisville one evening to hear Dr. William Barber II preach on the racial divide in our country and what response people of faith might make to be part of a growth producing change. Dr. Barber is a powerful speaker and his message both helped me to know deeply that I needed to do more and encouraged me to believe that more was indeed possible. I left the church that evening convinced I had been in the presence of a modern day prophet.
2 Peter 1 says that a prophet is identifiable in that it is evident that the prophetic message is not the message of the prophet, but the prophet speaking the word that God had placed in her or his heart. That evening in Louisville I felt strongly that the words spoken were God's powerful truth of equality, justice and reconciliation.
Ezekiel 33 promises that when the prophetic message is delivered the people will know that "a prophet has been among them." (33:33) Obviously that sounds like a subjective measure, but, when God's truth is spoken plainly to us, as I believe it was that evening, its truth feels both convicting and filled with possibility that we could do better.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, your ways are just and true. Open our ears, our hearts, and our minds to the words of your prophets in scripture and today. Through their words challenge us and plant the seeds of a future more in tuned with your will. Amen.
Ezekiel 34-35, 2 Peter 2
Both the Ezekiel and 2 Peter passages have a very direct word to religious leadership. A word about faith and responsibility and keeping very clear about the role that leaders are called to play. Leaders are there to guide, protect, and help as they are able. They are not there to do the exact opposite. Whether it is the self-centered shepherds of Ezekiel or the false teachers of 2 Peter, there is a very real intensity to the invectives issued against each.
I hear echoes of Jesus all over the Ezekiel 34 passage. The shepherds here are exactly the opposite of the good shepherd Jesus identifies himself as in John 10. Remember the story that Jesus told of the shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep, who is not satisfied when ninety-nine out of one hundred are accounted for? Ezekiel speaks of lost sheep and how God responds:
"The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock I and seek them out." (34:11)
The image of the shepherd who cares for the vulnerable, the sick and the weak (34:4) can be woven into Jesus' description of himself as the good shepherd and is entirely consistent with Jesus' teaching and ministry. It's fair to imagine Jesus contemplating Ezekiel 34.
Finally, we have language here of sheep and goats and ultimate judgment. It links up thematically with Matthew 25's portrayal of the judgment of the nations. Again I would always encourage you to be open to listen for scripture speaking to scripture and ask how that conversation may enrich your understanding of the totality of God's word.
Keys For Today…
Good Shepherd, I give thanks that you are indeed good and that your love is deep and wide for each one of your sheep. Amen.
Ezekiel 36-37, Psalms 126-128
If you are a sports fan long enough you will know a couple of feelings. You will know the soul crushing feeling of seeing your team give away a win, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as they say. Those are the hard times and you wonder why you bother with being a fan of a sport at all.
The answer is when the opposite occurs. Down a run in the bottom of the ninth, two men out, one man on, the batter down two strikes. The pitcher sends a ball down the center of the plate, the batter deposits the ball in the bleachers and your team tastes the glory of an improbable victory. You thought all hope was lost and then…joy!
Life has its versions of these moments that are related to things that are far more meaningful than sports. The nation of Israel thought all hope was lost in their time of exile. They were through. They would have understood the image of the valley of the dry bones, they would have known they were those dry bones. Nothing could be done for them; the life had gone out of them; they were finished. Except God calls them back to life. God can breathe life where God chooses. It was good news for Israel and it's good news for us. When you have reached the circumstance where you see yourself in that valley of dry bones and you feel that you cannot reanimate yourself, know that you don't have to; it is God who gives life. It is God's Spirit, the breath of life, moving in our midst that can rescue us from the pits of lifeless despair, and return us to joy beyond our imagination.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, Breath of Life, blow across my life, refreshing and renewing me. Thank you for the vision of a better future that you give to your people. Amen.
Ezekiel 38-39, 2 Peter 3
The earthly life and ministry of Jesus unfolded on Earth more than two thousand years ago. There were followers of Jesus in the early church who anticipated that the end of this present world would come in their lifetimes and they would see Christ's return. As the years passed, and as the persecutions increased, some began to question the whole thing. 2 Peter 3 is one of the places where scripture gives us a window into the leaders of the church speaking to fellow Christians who were beginning to have doubts and lose hope.
"Don't let it escape your notice, dear friends that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day. The Lord isn't slow to keep his promises as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish, but all to change their hearts and lives." (3:8-9)
The early church held together through all that it faced and their legacy continues on today. There are times when we ask the same question they were asking. How long? Each year as Advent begins we sing "O come, O come Emmanuel" to give voice to our prayer that just as Jesus came as an infant at Christmas, so will Christ return in glory. The world is filled with evidence of the glory of God – I believe that. But it's also undeniable that the world is filled with brokenness, atrocities, hardship and at times deep sadness. Passages like this one remain critically important to remind us that our timetable is a human life and God's is beyond human history. We are called to trust in God's great love to sustain us when hope wanes, and also to encourage and be present for one another, seeking at all times to change our hearts and lives that we may more faithfully live as God's people. And trusting that in God's good time, God's promises are true and our Lord will return.
Keys For Today…
When I struggle, help me to trust your promises. Help me to live in such a way that my eyes never stop looking for your glory around me now, and are ever expectant of the glory that will come. Through Christ. Amen.
Ezekiel 40-41, 1 John 1
Ezekiel 40 begins a long prophetic oracle that will continue to the end of the book. It is the moment that often comes in the Hebrew prophets, when, after an avalanche of judgment, the prophet's tone shifts and a vision of a hopeful future is cast. Proverbs 29:18 speaks of the devastation that can come when the people do not have a vision. Here, Ezekiel is casting a vision for the people in the midst of ongoing exile.
Commentator John Goldingay points out that we are tipped off to the visionary nature of what is being described in Ezekiel 40:2 where the prophet describes being set down on a very high mountain. He is not in Jerusalem, he is near Jerusalem. Goldingay goes on to say that the power of the vision is in its specificity. As you read these two chapters you could not miss the various measurements that were a constant part of the prophets description. His vision is not vague, it is precise.
How uplifting might that have been to a populace in exile who perhaps imagined never returning to their homeland. Ezekiel is not making a vague promise of future hope – he is laying out the blueprint. Such a vision can speak powerfully to us as well. In moments where the world feels as though it is in shambles around us, remember the powerful clarity of Ezekiel's trust in God's future and lean into that trust for the future still before us.
Keys For Today…
When I am lacking in hope for a better tomorrow, help me to have the clarity of vision to start measuring what your good future looks like. Amen.
Ezekiel 42-43, 1 John 2
Dr. Steve Harper, a retired seminary professor, writes that "the phrase 'in Christ' is used 172 times in the New Testament, and it is the quality of life Jesus said he came to give us." We run into a handful of those occurrences (or close variations) in today's passage from 1 John 2, and it is precisely the quality of life that is the topic of discussion.
We are encouraged to live in the light, to choose truth, to love our brothers and sisters. We are to look to the example of Christ, and make following that example our aim.
"This is how we know we are in him. The one who claims to remain in him ought to live in the same way he lived." (2:5-6)
The goal here is obedience, but it is more than obedience. It is the joy of living the life God created us to live. As Dr. Harper put it, the life Jesus came to give us. It's worth remembering that deciding for light, truth and compassion are not always easy choices. If we did it automatically, always without a second thought, it's unlikely there would need to be a biblical exhortation to live with these priorities. At heart there is a challenge to choose truth over lies. I hear this as a call to be honest with ourselves about our motivations, and to be consistently asking if our choices do meet the goal of being more and more in Christ.
Keys For Today…
Often the truth is not difficult to know, it is just hard for us to choose. Keep our commitment to following Christ's teachings and example so that we can be more and more in him. Amen.
Ezekiel 44-45, Psalm 129-131
Psalm 130 is one of my favorites from the entire collection. It begins in the depths and is completely cognizant of how lost we are without God. It recognizes our failings and confesses that God is more than aware of how short we fall of who God calls us to be. But there is a deep trust in God's forgiveness to be found here as well and that turns the tide of the Psalm.
"I hope, Lord.
My whole being hopes,
and I wait for God's promise.
My whole being waits for my Lord -
more than the night watch for the morning;
yes, more than the night watch
waits for morning." (130:5-6)
That one simple sentence. I hope, Lord. That's where all of our faith hangs. Not on our capacity to rescue ourselves. Not on any illusion that I can arrive at a place of deserving God's forgiveness. It's all resting on hope. And, paradoxically, this is the mystery of faith – that hope is our certainty. As sure as the night watch can expect the morning we can expect God to show up. In those times when our whole being is desperate for God we can trust that morning will, as it does after each night, come.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, I celebrate the greatest certainty I have in life – my hope in you. Amen.
Ezekiel 46-47, 1 John 3
"See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called God's children, and that is what we are!" (1 John 3:1)
These words from 1 John 3, are what I often say after performing a baptism. God names us and claims us as God's own. We didn't go looking for it. God comes to us and says we are God's children. This is a beautiful expression of the sheer unexpected joy of discovering our identity in God.
I think of the accounts of Christ's baptism. John baptizes Jesus and then – surprise – a voice from on high proclaiming Jesus as God's beloved son. When we are sealed in the waters of baptism we are given our most important way of knowing ourselves – we are children of God. Allow yourself to bask in the joy of knowing God speaks your name and claims you as God's child.
How great is God's love for us? God makes us family. We will be called children of God because, it is true, we are.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, as our loving divine parent, you name us as your own. It is a great gift to be your child. It is also a standard to live into. Grant us the grace to live in such a way that our lives joyfully point towards you. Amen.
Ezekiel 48, 1 John 4
Fear is such a strong motivator. We do some things because we are afraid not to, and we do not do other things because fear holds us back. Fear does not demand credit. It is perfectly happy for us to think we are making choices based on weighing the alternatives, logic and wisdom. But behind all of it there is often fear.
Will I look foolish? Will I make myself vulnerable? Will I be the only one? Will the cost be too high? Each of these can seem to be a reasonable concern that leads ultimately back to unreasonable fear.
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear…" (1 John 4:18)
Walking in faith with God in Christ, and experiencing God's love for us can move us away from fear. Our priorities change. Recall the various times when the apostle Paul spoke of being a fool for Christ. He had moved past being concerned about how he was perceived by the world. His only concern was sincerely living out his faith.
It can be a joyful experience to move past our fears to new exciting opportunities. We need not be prisoners to our fears. There are people to meet, gifts to open, and transformative actions waiting to be taken. Very often the only thing between us and much that is good is fear. Love wants to help us with that.
Keys For Today…
Fill me, faithful God, with the perfect love that drives out fear. Amen.
Daniel 1-3, Psalms 132-134
Daniel begins as the story of the Hebrew people in exile. It is a very specific story of four young men selected for the service of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. It's the story of these four young men, but it is a story of inspiration and a story to model how the people may continue to live their faith and follow their God in a foreign land.
First there is a story with echoes of Joseph in Egypt. Just as Joseph was brought up from prison to interpret Pharaoh's dreams back in Genesis, so here it is a conquered Hebrew youth who is the one who is able to interpret the dreams of the king. An additional layer here, the King had asked for interpretation of his dream from his own people employed for just such a purpose, but with one curveball – he didn't intend to tell them the dream. Daniel hears of the king's demand, prays to God and receives the dream and its interpretation. In so doing Daniel saves his life, the lives of his friends, and the Babylonian sages as well.
Chapter 3 tells a story that is surely in the Sunday School hall of fame – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. The three will not bow down to the king's statue and are sentenced to the furnace as punishment. They accept their fate, trust in God, and survive. The effect of these stories would clearly be to encourage the Hebrew people living in Babylon and faced with the reality of daily having to make choices about how to deal with Babylonian culture.
These stories are distant from us and near to our hearts as well. What brings them close is the reality we sometimes feel keenly that, as the old hymn/folk song says, "this world is not my home." We read in scripture about the values of the kingdom of God and we look around at the world, broadly and in our own lives, and see that an entirely different set of values seems to carry the day. The message offered here, to support and encourage, is that we are never alone in our decisions and choices. When the world seems to demand one thing, these stories offer us the example of people who bravely chose to follow their convictions and remain faithful.
Keys For Today…
In your scripture, O God, you inspire us with examples of people who make the choice to follow you in the face of adversity and potential danger. Help us to follow you, trusting that you walk with us at all times.
Daniel 4-5, 1 John 5
What do Nebuchadnezzar, his son Belshazzar, and the people of the early church have in common? They each received a message from God calling them to align their wills with God's will. To refuse to do so would result in hardship and various sorts of calamities. To follow the advice and follow God's will would result in blessing.
Daniel 5 retells the story of Nebuchadnezzar's dream and of finding Daniel to interpret it. Fast forward a generation and his son Belshazzar has broken out the gold and silver taken from the Temple in Jerusalem and is using it to drink at a party. Handwriting appears on the wall – likely you thought of the old phrase, the handwriting is on the wall. In this instance it is there and it is for Belshazzar. In an echo of his father's story, no one knows what it means, but Belshazzar's wife remembers Daniel and his gifts for understanding divine messages. Daniel is summoned and the message is basically the same as it was to his father, acknowledge God or experience hardship – the loss of his kingdom.
In the New Testament letter the writer is not addressing a powerful king, but a persecuted people. Yet the message is not all that different. God is in charge of everything. God has made his will known through Jesus and through the witness of the Holy Spirit. This witness calls the people to live in obedience to God, to align themselves with God, to experience the life that God intends for them.
"I write these things to you who believe in the name of God's Son so that you can know you have eternal life. This is the confidence that we have in our relationship with God: If we ask for anything in agreement with his will, he listens to us." (5:13-14)
We people, you and I, like the two kings and the people of the early church, are all made by God. Nothing else made us. God made us. Our deepest purpose and fulfillment is to be found in living in agreement with the One who made us and calls us God's own children.
Keys For Today…
Teach me, my God and my Creator, to seek out your will above all else. Help me to trust that what you desire for your world and for my life is the best possible outcome I can ever know. Amen.
Daniel 6-7, 2 John 1
When I was a child in Bible club at our church we regularly had the assignment of learning Bible verses. It wasn't original to us, but we would often joke that the verse we thought was best for us to learn was John 11:35 - "Jesus wept." Clearly it wasn't the profound theological truth of this verse that drew us to it – it was the length. In the same way, as we did Bible drills – hearing a verse read out and then racing against the group to see who could find it first – we discovered the wonders of the brief letters at the end of the New Testament. We decided that if we ever were assigned the task of reading a book of the Bible in its entirety we would make a beeline for the letters of Peter, John and Jude.
2 John is instructive in its brevity. There isn't much space here to talk about peripheral things. So what is left? What is the heart of the message that remains when the communication is so concise? Love.
"Now, dear friends, I am requesting that we love each other. It's not as though I'm writing a new command to you, but it's one we have had from the beginning." (1:5)
Love. It's just the bedrock foundation of our relationship to God and to each other. There is so much more to know and to explore, to wonder and speculate about as we make our way through life with the aim of following Jesus. But none of it will be contradictory to love. God is love. God loves us. God's desire is for us to live in loving relationship with God and with each other. That's likely a good description of heaven – a place where all of creation lives in loving relationship. Truly, it's not a new commandment, but just as surely it is one that has been there from the beginning.
Keys For Today…
God of all creation and of all time, of yesterday, today and tomorrow, walk with me and help me to not make your call too complicated. You made us for love. Help me to live your love. Amen.
Daniel 8-9, 3 John 1
The biblical letters are often longer than we would think of an actual letter and are intended for broad sharing with the goal of teaching and instruction. It is not unusual to run across names of particular individuals, but the writing is usually meant for wide application, supporting all of the church in a location or churches in a general area. 3 John feels different than that, much more like we have intercepted an actual letter to a specific person.
We have no idea who Gaius was or why we have a letter to him. We don't know who Diotrephes was, but we know that Diotrephes seemed to be trouble. We don't know who Demetrius was, but we do know he was well thought of as one of whom people spoke highly. This short letter is a tiny window into the day to day lives of people who are lost to us, but from whom we have received a great gift. There will always be a place for the great names that dominate the pages of the Old and New Testaments, whose stories are told and retold in Sunday School lessons and Bible studies across the millennia. But thanks to 3 John there will also always be a place for Gaius.
The church needs many folks like Gaius. It has always needed them: men and women of faith who strive to do their best to be the disciples God has called them to be, living lives of faithful service and leaving a legacy that continues the work of God from generation to generation.
Gaius could be us. Gaius could be one of the folks we worship with regularly. Gaius loved God and did his best to live his faith. We truly know almost nothing about him, but we do know, if two thousand years from now someone is reading about the church of today and somehow it mentions us, we'd like to be remembered the way this ancient letter remembers our fellow disciple Gaius.
Keys For Today…
O God, help me to live faithfully day after day. Help me to be a blessing to the people with whom I share the journey of faith. Thank you for the people who have blessed me the way Gaius blessed the people of his time. Amen.
Daniel 10-12, Psalms 135-136
A beach next to the ocean can be a mesmerizing place. Sometimes on vacation we may go down early in the morning and set up chairs on the beach. If the tide is low, the ocean may be far away and the expanse of the beach may stretch out forever. Time passes and the tide rolls in and eventually the water may arrive at the chairs that once seemed beyond the reach of the ocean. Time and again this process repeats itself, day after day. People come and go, books are read, children play, people swim and surf, fishermen ply their trade…and the waters relentlessly and repeatedly rise and fall, rise and fall.
The refrain in Psalm 136 has the quality of the reliability of the tides about it. However the phrase begins, be it a word of praise or a recitation of a chapter of Israel's history, the response is the same: "God's faithful love lasts forever!" Each step of the way God has been with the people, and in God's actions the truth of the proclamation is borne out – God's faithful love is as dependable and mighty as the tides.
Review some of the moments from your life. Perhaps compose your own personal version of Psalm 135. Write a sentence that describes a time that you were aware of God's presence from your childhood years, your youth, young adult, etc. Follow each line with the same refrain as the Psalm – God's faithful love lasts forever!
Keys For Today…
In good times and in hard times, you walk with us and encourage us on the journey. Your faithful love does indeed last forever. Hallelujah! Amen.
Hosea 1-2, Jude
In the early days of my comic book collecting I took great care of my books. After reading them, I saw that they found their way into individual bags, smoothed the excess air out, taped the flap closed and then organized them by title into special boxes. I was obsessive. I'm still particular about my comic books and their care and handling, and yet…not like at the first. I will allow them to collect now, sometimes for months, in stacks. I will put entire groups of them into boxes without taking the time to bag them. I still give them a good home, but I've become more lax with the passage of time.
My stewardship of my comic book collection is a benign example of the way passion can give way to work. This is one way of understanding what is happening in the book of Jude. The early church is moving past its initial phase of passion and into a dangerous time of being tempted to follow folks who would distort and misrepresent the way of Jesus.
One word in particular drew my attention - reverence.
"These people who join your love feasts are dangerous. They feast without reverence." (1:12)
To live our faith is to live with reverence. To go through the motions of faith, but without reverence is to do something else entirely. The letter is an admonition to strive to keep that reverence alive and well as we walk through our lives with God. The closing blessing in verses 24 and 25 is a reminder that our best ally in faithfulness to God is God, who at ever step is pulling for us. God is the "one who is able to protect you from falling, and to present you blameless and rejoicing before his glorious presence."
Keys For Today…
I rejoice, Holy God, in the days where I find passion for you and for others easy to feel and to share. I am grateful for your assistance on the days when I may fail, and for your protection. Help me to find my way to you, revering you this and every day. Amen.
Hosea 3-5, Revelation 1
Revelation is a wonderful book, but it is also a book that challenges and confounds at times. It falls into the genre of apocalyptic literature in scripture. Apocalyptic writing is typically filled with visions and symbolism that aims to make visible something that might previously have been understood to have been hidden.
Revelation is the largest piece of apocalyptic literature in our scripture. The Old Testament book of Daniel which we just finished reading within the past couple of weeks is another place to look for examples of apocalyptic in scripture.
A good commentary is always a good companion in digging into the depths of scripture. All commentaries are not created equal. Revelation is a place where you would want to be sure you have a solid commentary as there are many interpretations of this book that venture off into the speculative, the fanciful and the theologically irresponsible. There are many good books on Revelation, but one that I always like to point towards is Breaking The Code by Bruce Metzger. Metzger was as fine a Bible scholar as you could find and as far from as a sensationalist as you could get. If you are curious about unpacking more of the book of Revelation, Metzger is a great place to begin.
Keys For Today…
Holy God you have blessed us with your scriptures and with many companions to share the journey with us and, at times, help guide the way. Help us to listen for what you are saying to us as we engage your word. Grant us wise conversation partners as we do that listening. Amen.
Hosea 6-8, Psalms 137-138
Psalm 137 is a poem of great beauty and a cautionary tale about where our feelings can take us. The first verse sets the scene perfectly:
"Alongside Babylon's streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion."
What seems to be an idyllic scene, the banks of the streams of Babylon, is not idyllic at all. The streams are in the wrong land, the thoughts of the exiles are on what they remember as the greater beauty of their homeland. They find themselves unable to sing the songs of their faith in this alien place. I remember one commentator pointing out that here we have a song about not being able to sing a song. Jerusalem, the Holy City, has become still more beautiful in their absence from it, and they are committed to keeping their hearts set on their home.
"Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong right hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don't remember you,
if I don't make Jerusalem my greatest joy." (137:5,6)
The cautionary tale comes in the final verses of this otherwise beautiful love song to Jerusalem. At the last, in verses 7-9, the poetry slips away and the pain comes pouring forth with prayers for violence born of bitterness, anger and the desire for revenge. Two things about this. First, it's ugly, but it's the feelings of the psalmist, and even in their ugliness it's a first step towards dealing with these feelings in a healthier manner by simply getting them on the table. It's not wrong to share our feelings with God.
Second, one benefit of pouring out our feelings could be that they help us to see what we do not want to become. In the midst of heartbreak and pain it is human to desire heartbreak and pain for those you blame for your present circumstances. However, it will not move us closer to resolving or moving on, or growing from our own places of hurt, to lash out in ways that hurt others, regardless of what they have done to us. This Psalm is yet another example of why keeping a journal of some sort can be such a helpful thing for us. It can be a place where we can be honest about what is going on in our lives, and in being honest begin to have some perspective not only about who we are now, but where we believe God is leading us in the future.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, I want to accept your invitation to honest conversation about what is going on in my life. Keep me truthful in good times, hard times, and times of great pain. Guide me away from bitterness and resentment and desire for revenge, and to paths of growth that lead towards your desired future. Amen.
Hosea 9-10, Revelation 2
When things do not go our way in life, often our thoughts turn to God. We come to the realization that we are facing forces beyond our control, and we cry out to our Creator. God, we believe, is the resource of last resort – when there is no obvious plan to pursue, God becomes the plan.
The opposite can also be true. When life seems to be working out, when we are happy and healthy and whole, we run the danger of thinking of God as an accessory that is not essential. In the same way there is no need of a rain coat on a sunny day, it can feel like there is no need to dial up God when life is good. Hosea seems to have run into that in one of our earlier readings and again today.
"Since you have forgotten the Instruction
Of your God,
So also I will forget your children.
The more they increased,
The more they sinned against me;
They exchanged their glory for shame." (4:6-7)
"Israel is a growing vine
that yields its fruit.
The more his fruit increased,
the more altars he built;
The richer his land became,
the more he set up sacred standing stones." (10:1)
The message is similar in these two passages. Israel imagines itself to be healthy. It is increasing, experiencing growth and prosperity. Surely all is well. In chapter 4 great success doesn't produce gratitude; it instead creates a false sense of self assurance. In chapter 10 their hearts begin to wander as they dabble in altars to other gods.
How we handle adversity is important. The message here is that how we handle blessings and success is equally important. In all the seasons of life the one essential at the top of the list is our relationship with God.
Keys For Today…
Creator God, there is never a time when I do not need you. I offer thanks and gratitude for your constant presence and abiding love. Keep my heart humble and turned to you. Amen.
Hosea 11-12, Revelation 3
Revelation 2 and 3 are individualized messages to seven churches, in most instances praising them for what is praiseworthy, and then calling them to faithfulness and repentance. One church, Laodicea (3:14-22) seems not to receive any praise, while two, Smyrna (2:8-11) and Philadelphia (3:7-13) are not called out as in need of correction.
The three churches in chapter 3 each provide food for thought as we walk with God individually and in community. Sardis is running off its reputation. Because it had been vibrant and alive they imagine themselves to still be vibrant and alive. They are called to take an honest look at themselves and return to their more faithful days. Philadelphia is described as having little power and yet they have remained faithful. (3:8)
We are never too small to be beyond God's notice. Our strength and ability to live faithful lives is not bound up in our size, our wealth, or our popularity. Laodicea is the most often cited church in this list. They are famously neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. (3:15) Our commitment to God cannot be of the "kind of" or "halfway" variety. If we sort of follow Jesus we will wind up entirely lost.
It is interesting to read of the lives of these ancient faith communities and to realize that as far away as they may be historically, they are near to us in the work of living our faith. The names and the specifics of the challenges may change over the years, but adversity has always been part of the human story. How we live out our faith, whatever the circumstances of our day, is always the challenge and the joyful task of being children of God.
Keys For Today…
Help me to learn from my siblings in the faith of long ago, Holy God. Help me to be honest about my need for you, to trust that you are at work in all people, and that your desire is that I commit myself fully to your will and your way. Amen.
Hosea 13-14, Revelation 4
John's vision takes flight in Revelation 4. Following the messages to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3, the text turns to John's vision of the heavenly throne. John reports that he "looked and there was a door that had been opened in heaven." (4:1). N. T. Wright, in his Revelation commentary begins with a focus on that door.
Wright says that for a long time he'd thought of that door being off in a distant place with John being somehow drawn to it and the vision that follows. Over the course of his years of studying the New Testament, his picture of the door had changed.
"'Heaven', God's sphere of reality, is right here, close beside us, intersecting with our ordinary reality. It is not so much like a door opening up on high up in the sky, far away. It is much more like a door opening right in front of us where before we could only see this room, this field, this street. Suddenly there is an opening leading into a different world – and an invitation to 'come up' and see what's going on." [N.T. Wright, Revelation For Everyone, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2011, pages 42-43.]
This is wonderfully consistent with the way God comes to us everyday throughout our lives. We are going about our day and we catch a glimpse of something ordinary, but in that moment it becomes more, beautiful – an experience of God. God is not far away. God is ever and always close by, available to us when we have the eyes to see. God is not in hiding from us. The journey of faith, and the practices of discipleship, are ways we intentionally aim to develop the vision to see the doorways to God that are all around us.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, you are around us and with us at all times. You are at work in your world and you are at work in us and through our communities of faith. Energize us and give us the vision to more and more recognize your presence in our midst as you show us your will and the path you would have us walk. Amen.
Joel 1-2, Psalm 139
I stopped at a convenience store for gas late one night on the way home from staying with a family member who was going through an extended hospital stay. There were maybe three people in the store along with the clerk. We all reached the checkout counter at the same time.
The first person stepped to the register and within moments the clerk and the customer were laughing. They seemed to know each other. I thought that person must be a regular. The clerk must know him. The next person's turn came. The first person had been an older gentleman, the second person much younger, close to the clerk's age. Soon they were talking and laughing. I must be the only one who is not a regular I thought to myself.
Then it was my turn. The pleasant clerk made a comment about the t-shirt I was wearing, light-hearted, good-natured. I responded. Soon we were talking and laughing. As I walked to the car I realized that everyone was a regular to that clerk. His gift was seeing the person in front of him and engaging them and making an ordinary moment – paying for gas – seem like a special encounter between friends.
The psalmist speaks in Psalm 139 of the deep way that God knows every one of us. God doesn't look past anyone. God isn't too busy for anyone. God's care, love and compassion are for everyone. Wherever we go God is there. Imagine a place and God is there. Life can seem like it is rushing past at times. It can feel like no one notices what we are going through. In those moments, know that God sees us. God sees me and God sees you. Celebrate the joy of sharing the journey with God.
Keys For Today…
Thank you for seeing me and for caring for me Holy God. Help me to be more intentional in seeing the people you place in my path each day. Help me extend your love, compassion and care into the world. Amen.
Joel 3, Revelation 5
My favorite Christmas recording is Andrew Peterson's masterful "Behold The Lamb Of God." Peterson moves through Old Testament history in a few songs and then transitions to the New Testament and specifically to the Christmas story. As the story reaches its crescendo the angels sing their alleluias and the Christ child is born. Peterson sings "Behold the Lamb of God who comes to take away our sin."
It's a clear tying together of the Passover lamb and the baby born in Bethlehem who will grow up and die on a cross for us. The lamb of God who takes away our sin indeed.
Revelation 5 gives us a glimpse of the Lamb of God, not as sacrificial lamb, but reigning in glory. It's a scene of praise that encompasses all of creation.
"And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea" praising God – I heard everything everywhere say,
'Blessing, honor, glory and power
belong to the one seated on the throne
and to the Lamb
forever and always.'" (5:13)
What a remarkable vision and what a powerful word of hope to the early Christian community, persevering in the face of Roman persecution. It continues to be a strong vision of hope for us in the present day. Whatever this moment looks like, the future belongs to God – to the Lamb who is worthy.
Keys For Today…
Our todays sometimes cause us to wonder if good is even possible. Hearts are broken. Bad actions are rewarded. We are sometimes hurt by the actions of others, and other times surprised and dismayed by our own capacity to hurt. Thank you for the hope we have that you hold the future and for the promise that in that future our voices will be united in praise. Amen.
Amos 1-2, Revelation 6
Following the time of David and Solomon, the unified kingdom of Israel split in two. The northern kingdom was Israel, the southern kingdom, with Jerusalem in its borders was Judah. Amos, my favorite of the prophets, hails from Tekoa in the southern kingdom, but his prophecy is delivered in the north.
The book begins with a series of oracles that would have delighted the people in the north who would have been hearing them. Beginning with Damascus, one nation after another that surrounded Israel was the target of God's judgment that would not be revoked. You can imagine the nodding of approval as the crimes were detailed and the judgment announced. Perhaps things began to feel a little close when there was an oracle against Judah, but maybe that was well received as well. Maybe the people looked at Amos, who hailed from Judah in the south, and thought his willingness to pronounce judgment even against his own nation gave him credibility.
If this was the case, they were likely about to change their mind and most certainly not be thrilled when he reached the culmination of this series of oracles – a word of judgment on Israel. It was a word skillfully delivered by the prophet; lulling the people into a false sense of security before turning the word of judgment on them.
Keys For Today…
Gracious God, the truth I most need to hear is the truth about myself. Help me to listen when you correct me and to know that I will grow most when I am listening with humility and clarity your call for me to do better. Amen.
Amos 3-4, Psalms 140-141
Here in Psalm 141 is a much earlier voice chiming in alongside of James in the New Testament about the power of the words that come out of our mouth.
"Set a guard over my mouth, Lord;
keep close watch over the door
that is my lips.
Don't let my heart turn aside to evil things
so that I don't do wicked things
with evil doers,
so I don't taste their delicacies." (141:3-4)
Notice that the psalmist makes the same point about the origin of our struggles that Jesus makes in Mark 7:15 where he says, "Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God's sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person." The psalmist wants a guard on his mouth, but the mouth is only acting on the intentions of the heart, hence the request to keep the heart from turning to evil things.
There is a lot of practical wisdom here. How many times have I spoken something that I immediately wanted to take back. And how many times have I had to learn the truth that some bells cannot be unrung. Why do I say things that I regret the moment they are spoken. Both Jesus and the psalmist seem to suggest that what I need to do is examine my heart and give a close look at what motivations are taking root inside of me. Yes, our mouths may need to pause before engaging, but beyond that we are being called to look inward to the source of the damage our words can cause.
Keys For Today…
Creator God, set a guard over my mouth and turn my heart from selfishness, hurtful thoughts towards other, and all manner of wickedness. Amen.
Amos 5-6, Revelation 7
Amos is masterful in his use of language. There are places where the text soars to the level of poetry and places where the very format of the oracle supports the meaning of the words. Case in point of the latter is the beginning Amos 5.
I can remember my Old Testament professor at Berea College, Dr. Robert Suder, explaining the brilliance of this passage. The word of judgment here is delivered as a funeral dirge. The prophetic word is presented as a dirge for the nation of Israel. Dr. Suder read the passage aloud to us, not in the way that we would typically think of scripture being read, but evocatively in the way one would think of a funeral poem.
"Fallen, no more to rise,
is virgin Israel,
deserted on her land,
with no one to raise her up." (5:2)
Each comma received a healthy pause, each phrase read with sadness and allowed to settle before continuing. Keep in mind that this prophetic word is being delivered to a people who believe that everything is pretty much okay. The northern kingdom did not imagine themselves to be anywhere close to their final days. For them, Amos was an outsider, an interloper from the south who brought them news that they were all too ready to dismiss. What could Amos know about them? He wasn't from around there.
You can see Amos' craftsmanship at work further along in the parallel beginnings of verses 5:14 and 15.
"Seek good and not evil,
that you may live…(14)
Hate evil, love good
and establish justice at the city gate…."(15)
This is a regular feature of Hebrew poetry, stating something, and then, with slight alteration, basically restating what's already been said. Clearly good is to be sought after and evil is to be avoided. To do so will bring life and justice.
One further quote that is often lifted out of chapter 5 is found in verse 24.
"But let justice roll down like waters,
Like an ever-flowing stream."
Dr. Martin Luther King invoked these words often in his work, notably in his "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" and again in his "I Have A Dream" speech delivered on the national mall in Washington D.C. Just as Amos had spoken these words to the powerful of his day, so Dr. King challenged the powerful of more recent times with the inevitability of God's justice. This serves to remind us that God's desire for justice moves ever forward with us. Because it is God's concern it must also be our concern. A question to keep before us is how is our faith moving us to seek the justice God desires in our world today.
Keys For Today…
God of truth and might, you promise that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Help us to know what impact we can have for a tomorrow that is more just than today for all of your children. Amen.
Amos 7-8, Revelation 8
Amos 7 features an interruption of the prophecy of Amos with a narrative featuring a confrontation between the prophet and the priest of Bethel, Amaziah. It's a classic insider/outsider match-up. Amaziah has the ear of the northern king, Jereboam. Amaziah oversees the religious life of the northern kingdom of Israel. Into his domain has come this prophet from Judah. Amaziah reports to Jereboam that Amos has prophesied the death of the king and the fall of Israel. (7:11)
Amaziah confronts Amos, telling him, in short, to go home. He's from Judah, not Israel and he should take himself and his negative words back where he came from. Amos does not back down.
"'I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet's son; but I am a shepherd, and a trimmer of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from shepherding the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go prophesy to my people Israel.'" (7:14-15)
Amos embraces the role of outsider. Not only is he from Judah, but he says he is not even a prophet. Just a shepherd/farmer with a message from God. This is another window into the identity of the prophet in ancient Israel. Kings have the power of the kingdom. The religious hierarchy, priests and prophets on the payroll of the king, have conflicted interests at best. The biblical prophets, like Amos, are independent operators. God speaks to them and they speak God's truth to the people and to power. The same dynamic holds true today. It is often important to listen closely for voices from beyond the halls of power to hear the concerns for the poor, the oppressed and those who are on the margins of society.
Keys For Today…
Loving God, thank you for those you send who speak truth to power and hold us accountable for living in accord with your will. Help us to listen for the prophetic voices in our midst today who challenge us to value all of your people and creation in the way we go about our lives. Amen.
Amos 9, Revelation 9
"The rest of humankind, who weren't killed by these plagues, didn't change their hearts and lives and turn from their handiwork." -Revelation 9:20
There is a lot in Revelation that is mysterious to me. Some folks really enjoy chasing after each image and symbol to mine the meaning of these passages. There are times when I find that interesting and enjoy reading such explorations. Ultimately, I think the verse above gets at a core message that rises up from all that surrounds it: people have a hard time changing their hearts and lives, even when it's abundantly clear that it's in their best interest.
It appears to be a timeless theme. As we close out the book of Amos we find the prophet pronouncing judgment on people who have been called time and again to faithfulness, and who have experienced the difference between living in alignment with God's will and not doing so, and who still choose not to. When we consider that this happened in the time of the Old Testament prophets and continued right on into the days of the New Testament church and the culture it was situated in, our next thought might be to examine ourselves. How often do I make choices that I know are not faithful choices or are questionable at best, but find some way to justify my actions or, worse, just refuse to consider the consequences. The biblical witness invites each of us to aim for faithfulness and building a right relationship with God.
Keys For Today…
I say things I should not say. I act in ways that are not consistent with your will. I am selfish when I should consider the needs of others. Thank you for the biblical witness which calls me to turn away from that which is not life-giving and to turn to you, the One who created me and gives me life. Amen.
Obadiah 1, Psalms 142-143
If you ever feel like you need permission to bring urgency to demanding God's attention, Psalm 142 and 143 are handy to keep close at hand. The psalmist is feeling lost and not seen, perhaps even not seen by God.
"I cry out loud for help from the Lord.
I beg out loud for mercy from the Lord,
I pour out my concerns before God;
I announce my distress to him." (142:1)
"Listen to my prayer, Lord!" (143:1)
This is for those times when the need is raw and urgent. God is not expecting that we will always have perfectly chosen words. God does not desire that we wait till we are in a better frame of mind to seek God's face. God invites us to come as we are. When we are joyous, God wants to celebrate with us. When we have questions, God wants to guide us in our pondering. When we are hurting, aching, desperate, and exasperated, God's will is that we bring it all to the conversation that is prayer.
Christians view God through the lens of incarnation. God came to us as Jesus, fully God, fully human. Passages like these two Psalms remind us that it is not only in the humanity of Christ that we can find biblical portrayals of God who is ready to relate to our human particularities of pain and suffering, our times of being lost and needing to be drawn close. Whatever is on your mind, whatever is in your heart today, God is ready to listen.
Keys For Today…
When I cry out in pain you do not turn away. When I am angry and not my best self, you are still up for conversation. When I celebrate and give thanks, you rejoice with me. Holy God, I am ever grateful for the open door. Amen.
Jonah 1-2, Revelation10
Jonah is summoned by God to go to Nineveh and pronounce judgment on the people. Jonah gets up and goes the opposite direction. He wants no part of a mission of any sort to Nineveh. He finds a ship and sets sail for Tarshish. Probably less for Tarshish and more for anywhere else besides Nineveh
Jonah is a memorable story with a lot of teachable moments. I can easily see myself in Jonah at different times in my life. In high school I would do anything to avoid an oral presentation to the class. If you offered me a choice between a five minute presentation and a twenty page paper I would take the paper every time. When I became aware that I felt God calling me to ministry I had a clear line in the sand with God. I would try to follow the call, but I did not want to preach which obviously involves standing in front of a room of people and talking.
Eventually I felt called to a small church in Eastern Kentucky. I would be the solo pastor. It would be necessary to preach. Every week. I was hesitant, but can still remember the peace that settled over me upon becoming the pastor in Prestonsburg. Ten years there have been followed by what is now sixteen years at Hebron. What I've learned is that God knew better than I did what I would find life-giving. I love many things about being a pastor, but among the things I love best is the thing I thought I didn't want to do at all – preaching.
Jonah's life featured a great lack of peace when he resisted God's direction. We'll see whether that improved entirely after Jonah changed his mind and went to Nineveh (spoiler alert: not so much), but the fundamental point remains true: a strategy of resisting God's call is one that is problematic at best.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, you made me and know me better than I know myself. Help me to listen attentively when you call. Grant me a teachable heart that does not assume that I always know what is best for me. Let thy will, not mine, become the guiding force in my life. Amen.
Jonah 3-4, Revelation 11
Not that we necessarily ever thought it was a good idea, but Jonah 3 and 4 are more evidence of what a great thing it is that you and I are not God. There is a question that often floats around Sunday Schools and Bible studies. It has to do with why bad things are allowed to happen. "Why doesn't God do something about that?" is a question that will arise in one form or another.
Jonah knew that God was gracious and merciful. Jonah didn't have mercy and compassion for the people of Nineveh. He explicitly tells God that he went to Tarshish to avoid prophesying to the Ninevites because he anticipated that God would forgive them. From Jonah's perspective it was not forgiveness that Nineveh needed. It was punishment.
It is important for us to really grapple with God's grace. We celebrate it when we experience it in our lives, but we can be grudging with it when we see it unfolding elsewhere. God's grace is available to everyone. God loves everyone. God doesn't love us until something causes God to stop loving us. God's love endures. Jonah was unable to see past his limited, human perspective, and his personal thoughts and feelings about Nineveh. He was never going to believe that forgiveness and new opportunities for Nineveh would be a good idea. Who are we convinced is beyond redemption? Where do we believe God should be demonstrating judgment? How much does our understanding of God's grace, mercy and love need to grow and expand?
Keys For Today…
God of grace, mercy, love and forgiveness, we are blessed that your ways are not our ways. Your ways can be so far beyond our understanding, but help us. Help us to love more deeply, care beyond our own friends and families, have compassion even for those we disagree with and who have hurt us. When you want us to go to Nineveh, help us not to run for Tarshish. Amen.
Micah 1-3, Psalm 144
Both the Micah and the Psalm reading this morning are focused on leadership and its impact on the people of God. Micah is a forceful denunciation of the failures of the leadership of God's people. They are charged with planning evil before they ever get up in the morning. (2:1). They try to silence any voice of dissent (2:6). They knowingly abuse their position of leadership and then announce that all is well. (3:1-5)
The Psalm is the flip side of the Micah passage. It is a Psalm largely of praise, attributed to David. It is words of praise for God from the heart of David. It recognizes the grandeur of God, celebrating the gift of God reaching out and caring for the people. There is a recognition that any blessing or abundance that the people know begins with God.
These two views of leadership are important to us even though we are not kings or leaders in ancient Israel. There are still leaders, political and religious in our times, and we are called to hold them to a high standard. The sins outlined by Micah are still temptations faced by leaders to this day. The humility expressed by David and the recognition of complete reliance on God for everything still holds true.
Finally, in one way or another, we are all leaders in some aspect of our lives. These are not directives that apply only to kings, presidents, and important, well-known religious figures. They apply to parents, to people in the work place, to any situation where someone is in a position to provide guidance, support and encouragement to others. We are all at various points in our lives tasked with leadership. These words of challenge and hope are for all of us.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, you are the Good Shepherd and I am grateful to be a sheep in your flock. Keep me mindful that wherever I am called to lead, my ultimate identity is as your follower. Amen.
Micah 4-5, Revelation 12
If it happens that you are reading this on December 17 then you find yourself in the midst of the season of Advent. As we make our way through the prophetic books, it is inevitable that Christians will hear the occasional prophecy that puts us in the mind of Advent. The advent of Jesus, God incarnate as a baby around two thousand years ago and in some instances the second advent of Christ to which Christians still look.
In today's scripture we run into a familiar prophetic word that points us towards a place so out of the way that even a prophet pointing in that direction didn't save Jesus from a fairly anonymous beginning.
"As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
though you are the least significant
of Judah's forces,
one who is to be a ruler in Israel
on my behalf will come out from you.
His origin is from remote times,
From ancient days." (5:2)
Bethlehem is described here as the least of Judah's forces. It seems that by the time of the gospels not much had changed about Bethlehem's profile on the region's stage. A small hamlet in the shadow of the holy city, Jerusalem. Surely something truly important would come from Jerusalem. And yet here is Micah, suggesting an important role for Bethlehem. It's possible to imagine someone paraphrasing Nathaniel in the first chapter of John's gospel when he asks if anything good can come out of Nazareth. It could, it seems, also be asked, could anything important come out of Bethlehem? To which our answer would be yes and yes.
We also encounter another familiar passage which connects up with an Advent theme.
"They will beat their swords into iron plows
and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
they will no longer learn how to make war." (4:3)
Peace was yearned for in the time of the prophet, at the time of Christ, and still today it is one of our heart's desires. Here the prophet speaks of taking weapons of war and refashioning them into farm implements. Nations will have no further interest in conflict. That probably seemed a long way off when Micah said it and it feels a long way off to me now. But I still believe it to be true. I have faith in it even when that faith stretches very thin and so much evidence seems to suggest we'll never get there. Something good did come from Nazareth. Bethlehem was worth keeping an eye on. And one day we will be so finished with our weapons of war that we'll make a whole sculpture garden of stuff out of them.
Keys For Today…
In this season of waiting, fill us with expectation of your grand and glorious future. When the present is not what we know you want for your world and for us, help us to keep your vision before us and to live towards it day by day. Amen.
Micah 6-7, Revelation 13
I was at a youth event once where around five thousand young people sang Micah 6:8 as a round. The question kept being asked, "What does the Lord require of you?" The answer kept coming back, "Justice, kindness, walk humbly with your God." The simplicity of the message was irresistible as the words kept echoing round the room. For a moment it seemed possible that not only did we know what God wanted from us, but we believed for a moment that we could get there.
There is this frustrating truth that we keep running up against in the prophets. The things that God desires are not complicated or hard to understand. The challenge is they can be so hard to do, so difficult to live out in our daily lives. Revelation, in all its complexities, perhaps gives us a good way of understanding why the life God desires for us is so hard.
At least in part it is because there is so much that is actively opposed to it. Behind all the apocalyptic language of Revelation there is the Christian community trying to live out their faith and the Roman Empire consistently and systemically pushing them in the opposite direction. It appears that Rome has the power. Caesar has the power. The authorities applying Roman rule have the power. Yes, the church has God, but God's promises are hard to trust in the face of all that opposition power.
"This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints." (13:10)
Revelation is intended to encourage. It is intended to lift up the oppressed and let them know that things are not ultimately the way they appear to be in the moment. Endurance and faithfulness are not foolish. Beyond the beasts and monsters the world can summon, Revelation points to the Lamb. As we make our way forward today there is still a need for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints. Trusting God, and working through justice, kindness and humility to do what God requires.
Keys For Today…
Justice. Kindness. Humility. Your requirements keep me busy Lord. Help me to focus on you in all my actions and keep me from wandering. Grant me strength when it all seems too much. Celebrate with me when I experience the joy of life as you mean for it to be lived. Amen.
Nahum 1-3, Revelation 14
Christian faith in this present life is practiced between the now and the not yet. There is always a tension in this. On the one hand is the cross and the resurrection - here we believe Jesus once and for all won the victory over death. On the other hand is the present reality we live in each day. Wars. Natural disasters. Personal heartbreaks. It often does not feel terribly victorious.
Revelation is a letter written to the church in its infancy. Christians faced persecution because of their beliefs and because they sometimes found themselves at odds with the demands of the worldly power of their time, specifically, the Roman Empire. Their daily reality might well have felt like they were in constant peril of a final defeat (death) while the source of their oppression just grew stronger, wealthier, and more powerful over time.
Revelation 14 is an example of how the letter aims to encourage the struggling Christians by giving a glimpse of a future where the tables will have turned and the true nature of things will be revealed - a revelation! The faithful are promised that their endurance will be rewarded as the truth of God’s plan plays out. These promises continue to be spoken regularly at funeral gatherings to this day as the saints pass from this life to the next.
“Ashes to ashes,
dust to dust,
blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,
they rest from their labors, and their works follow them.”
These are words I have spoken at numerous gravesides that find their origin in Revelation 14:13. They are meant to commend the lives of those who have died, and to encourage each of us to persevere in the faith, trusting that whatever today looks like, the victory has indeed been won, and we can look with confidence towards God’s bright future.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, who made yourself known to us in the resurrected Christ, help us to each day trust in the certainty of what we know and believe. With Christians of all times and places we draw our strength and our hope from you. Amen.
Habakkuk 1-3, Psalm 145
The Sundays of Advent always have a special energy in worship. The sanctuary is decorated for the season. We are lighting the candles of the Advent wreath, each week adding one and taking a step closer to the Christ candle which we light on Christmas Eve. The story of how God came to us at Christmas is one that fills our hearts with joy and the season encourages us to remember that we look ahead to the time when Christ will return bringing the joy of God’s kingdom in its fulfillment.
And of course there is the delight of the children who are soaking all this in, learning the traditions of generations past and looking forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus, and yes, Christmas presents. Psalm 145 gets at the beauty of sharing faith from one generation to the next.
“One generation will praise
your works to the next one,
proclaiming your mighty acts.
They will talk all about the glorious
splendor of your majesty;
I will contemplate your wondrous works.” (145:4-5)
Yesterday in worship our children sang with the adult choir on two pieces during worship. One of the songs was Away In A Manger. An elementary age girl, Regan, brought her keyboard from home - she has been taking lessons and is happy to share her talents. She played the song through once, then the children sang a verse with her playing, and, finally, the children and adults sang the carol all the way through accompanied by the organ.
It was a glorious moment. Multiple generations singing together, praising God’s works and proclaiming God’s mighty act that took place long ago in a manger in Bethlehem. For the adults the story takes on a new and deeper meaning when we experience it through the smiles and voices of the children. For the children it’s among the first of what will be a lifetime of visits to the stable to celebrate the Christ child. Moments like this reveal the glorious splendor of God’s majesty and fill us with memories to contemplate God’s wondrous works for years to come.
Keys For Today…
Holy God, you reached out to us in love and sent us Jesus. As we read through your scripture and find the story of the Christ child and so many other gifts, fill us with thanksgiving. Nurture our desire to share your good news with generations to come, just as they have been shared with us. Amen.
Zephaniah 1-3, Revelation 15
I’ve been participating in a weekly spiritual formation group for the past year and we presently are working our way through what the folks at Renovare call the “word-centered” life. In this section they have been unpacking what it means to speak of the “Word of God.” They point out that historically when Christians speak of God’s Word it points to scripture and more. Jesus is identified as the Word who became flesh in the first chapter of John’s gospel. In worship we speak of the Word read - the scripture reading - and proclaimed, the sermon.
I have this on my mind as I’m reading about the Cushites, the Moabites, and the people in the city of Nineveh. I’m pondering this as I consider fantastic visions of heavenly singers holding harps while singing songs of Moses and the Lamb, and angels toting plagues. This is the word of God, at least in part, for today. Somehow.
This is the place where this conversation about God’s Word turns. It’s all God’s Word. We believe these stories didn’t reach an expiration point when the Cushites and Moabites left the scene. We believe that the apocalyptic language of plagues and bowls of anger begins with a message for ancient Christians, but doesn’t stop there.
But hear this as well - everything will not speak to everyone every time you encounter it. Many days the scripture will be uncanny in the way an ancient text can speak truth into your life in this very moment. But some days it may not be so obvious how it is happening. We read and we pray that God will help us to see what we need to see as we engage the Word in scripture. For instance, as I finish the Revelation passage today I notice that both Zephaniah in chapter 3 and Revelation towards the beginning of chapter 15 offer words of hope. In both the judgment of the prophet and the often turbulent vision of John of Patmos the mercy, grace and hope of God shine through. We are in the final stretch of our journey. Keep listening each day for what God is saying through God’s Word to you.
Keys For Today…
As I open your Word this day I am grateful for the way you speak to me through what I will find in its pages. Thank you for speaking words of truth, hope, mercy and love into our lives each day. Amen.
Haggai 1-2, Revelation 16
The opening of Haggai lets us know the situation of the people and the circumstances being addressed by the prophet. We are told that it is the “second year of King Darius,” which is important because Darius is a Persian king. We are in the time of the exile. Some of the people have returned to Jerusalem and Darius has allowed them to have a Governor and a High Priest from among their own people. They are trying to return to some sense of normalcy.
They began to rebuild the temple, and then stall on their effort. Haggai critiques them for putting their energy into their own homes and giving up on the Lord’s home. Haggai’s prophetic work reignites the peoples' effort to rebuild. These events place Haggai around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The basic issue here I think is not so much about God having a particular building, but about God being the priority of the people. Their willingness to let the effort to rebuild the temple languish and turn to their own affairs was a turn inwards, away from God and away from community. The prophet asserts that to fail to prioritize God will result in any other efforts failing as well. For life to flourish for the exiles who returned home, God must be at the center of their lives, individually and communally. The temple is the symbol of that commitment.
Keys For Today…
God, you are the Lord of our lives. All of our lives. Help us to keep that truth ever before us. Our fulfillment in life will be found in keeping you at the center of all that we do. Amen.
Zechariah 1-2, Psalm 146-147
The song “Away In A Manger” includes the words, “the stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.” With Christmas two days away, I think of those stars as I read Psalm 147:
“God counts the stars by number,
Giving each one a name.
Our Lord is great and so strong!
God’s knowledge can’t be grasped.” (147:3-4)
I think of the stars in the sky. The stars that did look down on the stable in Bethlehem. The stars in the sky that were surrounded by angels bringing greetings to shepherds. The star that some Persian magi noticed that drew them to come and bear witness to one born to be king. Stars bring grandeur and majesty to the story. Stars elevate the story, reminding us that this is no earthbound story, this is a story that needs the largest stage possible.
“God’s knowledge can’t be grasped.” I feel this is the Christmas story as well. It’s all so unlikely. Who chooses Mary and Joseph? Who chooses Bethlehem? Who chooses shepherds? Who decides to make the most important entrance into human history with so little flourish? Who would imagine such a plan? We would not - it’s beyond uncertain; far too many long shots need to fall for it to have any chance. But that’s our knowledge talking, at Christmas we attune ourselves to learn from God’s knowledge.
From the words of praise the psalmist offers, to the words of joy and restoration in Zechariah, to the mention of stars that draw me to the story of the advent of God that is very much on my mind at present, it’s all the revelation of God’s knowledge and marvelous plan. Thanks be to God.
Keys For Today…
When I am downcast, O God, lift my eyes from the ground to the stars. Help me to trust your plan is in place and moving ever forward. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.
Zechariah 3-4, Revelation 17
Reading again today through the lens of someone in the final days of Advent and preparing to celebrate Christmas. Traditionally one of the great themes of Advent is the call to keep awake, to stay alert for the second coming. The idea is that it can become so comfortable to look back and remember what God has done, and on occasion so overwhelming simply to do what needs to be done in the present that we can fail to be looking forward with expectation.
Such a general description might well have applied to the people receiving the word of Zechariah. They look back with longing to the days of former glory, to the temple prior to its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. They are covered over with the work of forging a new life in Jerusalem - the glory they remembered is not the place they have found upon their return. It is taking everything they have to make a way for themselves - it is hard to find the capacity within themselves to rebuild the temple.
In the midst of that malaise, chapter four begins with a word to the prophet that may describe the desired effects of the prophet’s word on the people and God’s word on us:
“The messenger speaking with me returned and woke me like one who awakens someone who is asleep.” (4:1)
The prophet was brought to attention by the messenger. It was though he had been asleep and was waking up. Advent is a time of encouragement to evaluate our relationship with God and to hear the call to not fall into a passive slumber as we live out our days. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us the people responded faithfully and built the new temple. They were inspired by God’s vision of what was possible, and discovered they were capable of more than they knew when they lived with an eye towards the future.
Advent keeps us looking forward to the vision of the glorious future that God has in mind. The best piece of all is that we are being nudged to keep awake and realize that it’s not a future that will happen to us, but a future that God invites us to participate in creating. If the temptation is to sleepwalk our way through our days, Zechariah and the message of Advent both invite us to set aside slumber and keep awake.
Keys For Today…
Lord, you hold before us a vision of a beautiful future. A place where justice, righteousness and love will carry the day. Help us not to be too busy or too sleepy to live towards your future today. Help us to keep awake and to stay hopeful. Amen.
Zechariah 5-6, Revelation 18
We need Christmas. We need the promise of Christmas. We need the reminder of the life Christmas has given us the opportunity to live. Revelation 18 gives a vision of how things fall apart when built on the unstable, unreliable, and uncertain foundation of all the world holds valuable. There is a lengthy list of items of value in verses 11-13; over these things, we are told, merchants will weep.
“The fruit your whole being craved has gone from you. All your glitter and glamour are lost to you, never ever to be found again.” (18:14)
A cartoon I saw recently in the days leading up to Christmas showed two children surrounded by packages ripped open and toys revealed. They were nearly covered over, but their heads still were visible above the debris. Their faces were thrown back in despair as together they exclaimed, “Is that all?!?”
I am no Scrooge and I don’t mean to throw cold water on the warm feelings of gift-giving. What I do think is that this cartoon is a fairly accurate portrayal of what the Revelation passage is saying. We have an emptiness within ourselves. There are a variety of ways in which we can try to fill that emptiness. One way is to acquire as much as possible, to get things and hold on to things and then to get some more. If we pause in that project we will find ourselves with the same words in our mouths.
Is that all?
Christmas is the reminder that, no, that is not all. That in fact is not really it at all. All is our God who came to us in love, sending his son in the humblest of circumstances. All is the scripture which speaks to us the stories of God, among them the majestic story of a child born in Bethlehem and announced to shepherds. We are into the final week of our journey through scripture. Merry Christmas. The blessings of God, made known to us by the infant whose birth we celebrate, be with you today and always.
Keys For Today…
Christmas is a day of gifts because it is the day we received your most profoundly perfect gift to us, Jesus. Hear us as our hearts, filled with gratitude, sing your praises this day. Help us to guard against craving for that which is nothing more than glitter and glamour. Renew each day our gratitude for your love incarnate in Christ. Amen.
Zechariah 7-8, Revelation 19
Perhaps you can remember a moment in the the life of a friend where things had just completely fallen apart. Not only had things completely fallen apart, but it was no mystery as to why. It was choices and the behaviors that resulted from those choices. They may have been unclear at the time, but looking back from the end result to where the carnage began, it becomes evident that better choices would have produced better results and the reason for those poor choices is often short-sightedness, selfishness and a lack of compassion.
For Zechariah, that is where the people of God find themselves at the end of chapter 7. Verses 9 through 11 outline how the people had been instructed to live their lives, but we are told that they “steeled their hearts against hearing the instruction.” (7:12). The end result is this sad and forlorn description:
“The land was devastated behind them, with no one leaving or returning.
They turned a delightful land into a wasteland.” (7:14)
However, it turns out that this is not in fact the end result at all. This is the good news for us. This is the good news the prophet brings. This is good news that sounds very much like Jesus in the gospels. When the people arrive at the place where despair seems the only option and they can imagine no way forward, the problem isn’t that there is no way, the problem is they have not yet recognized that there is no heartbreak that God cannot overcome.
“Even though it may seem to be a miracle for the few remaining among this people in these days, should it seem to be a miracle for me? Says the Lord of heavenly forces.” (8:6)
It is no accident that this sounds very much like Jesus in Matthew 19 when he aims to offer a word of encouragement to his followers, telling them that, “…all things are possible for God.” (19:26) When we reach the edge of despair and begin to question how things can ever improve; when we are filled with regret over choices made and what appear to be dead ends; remember the promise of restoration God made to the people through the prophet Zechariah.
Keys For Today…
God of all times and places, I am often reminded of my limitations. I make poor choices and I must live with difficult consequences. Even in hard places though, you walk with me and with you a better future is always possible, both today and in your future kingdom. Amen.
Zechariah 9-10, Psalm 148
Zechariah, likely a work of the sixth century BC, is another prophetic word delivered to a people in exile. Zechariah 9 begins with oracles against nations beyond the land of Israel and then in verse 9 becomes a promise of a new king to come to Jerusalem. For Christians this passage becomes important in understanding the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels, and of why Jesus was viewed as such a potential problem by the political and religious leadership of his time.
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion,
Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
He is righteous and victorious.
He is humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.
When Jesus sends his followers to search out a donkey for him to ride into Jerusalem it is clear Jesus is not just looking for a mode of transportation. He knows the prophets - he knows Zechariah. To make it crystal clear, in their rendition of the Palm Sunday story, both Matthew 21:5 and John 12:14-15 reference Zechariah. This symbolism would have been recognized, and when the people start to call out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9) they are quoting Psalm 118:26 as they see the words of Zechariah play out in front of them.
The entry into Jerusalem is clearly a significant moment when taken at face value. Layers of meaning are added to the event when we explore the Old Testament references. This is a strong indicator of why it is important to value the totality of the Old and New Testaments and embrace all of the Bible as the rich interweaving of the timeless story of God.
Keys For Today…
In these days following Christmas, we are fully focused on God come to us and with us. We pray that as we engage scripture we will be led to a fuller understanding of your self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Zechariah 11-12, Revelation 20
A few pieces to explore today. First, following in the same vein as yesterday, when something you read in one piece of scripture calls to mind what you have read or remember from another part of scripture, pay attention and explore the connection. Here in Zechariah 11 the prophetic oracle indicates that God’s work had been valued by the people at thirty shekels of silver, which is to say, not much. Those thirty shekels of silver may remind you of the price that was paid to Judas to betray Jesus. That amount was still not a great sum. In both instances the amount points to the failure of people to recognize the importance of God. We are to not only recognize this as a historical problem, but also to ask ourselves what our lives, our choices and actions, say about the way we value our relationship with the One who gave us breath.
Next, we have in Zechariah 11 another use of shepherd as a way of understanding God’s guidance of the people, and the role that leaders are expected to play. Those entrusted with leadership are to place the lives of the sheep as their priority. The sheep are not there, when shepherding is used symbolically in biblical texts, to be manipulated and used by the shepherd. The shepherds should offer their best effort on behalf of their sheep. There are many references to shepherds in the prophetic books we have been going through. All of this should add depth to our understanding of Jesus, particularly in John 10 when he uses the language of the “good shepherd.”
Finally a quick thought on Revelation. Revelation is thick with numbers. Lots of numbers, such as seven, which are understood to have a symbolic value. As we come to the end of the book we find the reference to the one thousand year reign of Christ. Of the many things John may have had in mind in this vision, I do not imagine him thinking in terms of a literal thousand year time period. Something is being depicted here, but an exact literal timeline of the end times doesn’t seem likely to me to be the point. These texts should be read alongside of the admonitions of Jesus to his friends that they should not be anxious over when the precise time of the final days will come. Instead Jesus suggests, as in Matthew 25, that what we most should be concerned with is not how long our days will be, but how we are going about living whatever days we have.
Keys For Today…
Loving Shepherd, keep me ever grateful for your care and guidance. As I make decisions about what will receive priority in my daily life, help me not to lose sight of you and all that you have done for me. Amen.
Zechariah 13-14, Revelation 21
Revelation’s word to the early church is meant to recognize the oppressive persecution they are living with each day, alongside the hope they have in Jesus. Hope in the face of persecution can be hard to hold. We don’t have to be ancient Christians to recognize that truth. In chapter 21 a comforting and inspiring vision of the future is offered to all who read these verses; in whatever century we find our way to them. The new Jerusalem descends from the heavens and God comes to live with God’s people.
“‘God himself with be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I am making all things new.’” (21:4-5)
This is a timeless vision of great power. Every tear taken away. Death a thing of the past. In seasons of loss, regret, pain caused and pain felt - whenever we are keenly aware that who we are at present is not yet full who God has created us to be, this vision call us forward.
Keys For Today…
Help me to live each day with anticipation and expectation of the day when every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more. Until that day help me to hold and to share your promises. Amen.
Malachi 1-2, Psalms 149-150
People love their favorite hymns. The problem is people may not love another person’s favorite hymn. Also people are not in love with new hymns - until they are. As a pastor this can make picking hymns for Sunday morning a challenging experience. Every week every hymn cannot be “Amazing Grace.” We do our best to rotate in the favorites of as many folks as possible and to work in the occasional new piece. And yes, there are times when the pastor chooses a clunker.
Hymns are a vital, essential, irreplaceable part of our worship. Music speaks to a part of our being that nothing else can reach. It is not uncommon to look into the congregation on what otherwise seems to be a fairly normal, uneventful Sunday morning and see someone moved to tears by a hymn. Perhaps the words impacted the person right then in the moment. Maybe the tears come because the music brings the individual to another place, another time, somewhere meaningful to the core of their being. Music can do that.
The call at the beginning of Psalm 149 is to always be adding in new verses to our musical memory.
“Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
sing God’s praise
in the assembly of the faithful.” (149:1)
New music, new songs, new lyrics, remind us that the God we know from the mighty actions of the past, is the God who continues to be made known in the new verses being created today. Let us sing with gusto the great songs of past generations that inspire and propel us forward, and let us sing with expectation the new songs that are born of our each new day.
Keys For Today…
Today, let me sing another line in the song my life is writing to you, O God, my Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Malachi 3-4, Revelation 22
It’s taken three years to read through the Bible in a year. Sort of. This project began in 2019 and I made my way from January 1 to the early days of September. I finished out the reading, but the writing piece stalled at that point. In 2020, the pandemic arrived - forcefully for us in the United States in March. I kept writing, but my focus was elsewhere. My intention and my goal was to return to the “Through The Bible” project and complete it, and that return finally happened in September of 2021. So here I am today on December 31, 2021 three full years and more than one hundred thousand words later, writing the final of these three hundred and sixty-five devotionals that will hopefully walk with others who embark on the same journey in the future. If you make it to this last devotional, perhaps you too have finished the journey of reading through the Bible. Maybe you did it in a year. Maybe it took longer. Whatever the journey was like, I pray that you found engaging scripture to be challenging, eye-opening, life-changing, inspiring and so much more.
“See whether I do not open all the windows
of the heavens for you
and empty out a blessing
until there is enough.” (Malachi 3:10)
To be clear, I do not believe in any sort of prosperity gospel. I don’t believe this text is saying that we should hit the marks of some rules-based faith and God will bless us with more stuff than we can imagine. I believe it’s a much better promise than that. I believe it promises us that when we engage with God, when we pray and read scripture, when we seek God with intention and humility in spite of our sinfulness, our shortcomings and the brokenness of life, God will indeed bless us. God will not only walk with us, we’ll know it’s happening. This is one of the reasons I’m such a strong believer in regular scripture reading, like this project we're wrapping up today. It will always be a blessing to come to scripture each day. It will always increase the possibility of our catching glimpses of God at work in our lives and in our world. God’s promise here and elsewhere in this glorious book is not too much. God’s promise is enough. Enough for the moment, enough to see us through, enough for the day. Everything in this grand story points us towards this truth:
“Look! I’m coming soon.” (Revelation 22:12)
Revelation was written some two thousand years ago. The church of Jesus Christ and the people who follow Jesus have been holding fast to that promise all these years. At times it perhaps has felt like it’s been a long time. I’ve thought that. Two thousand years is a long time for me. As we’ve read through the Bible we’ve seen the vast cosmic dimensions of God’s story. Two thousand years is not a long time for God. Jesus says, “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (22:13) I can’t explain the specifics of that to you, but it fills me with awe - it means that all of history is surrounded with Jesus.
I like to do my devotionals in the morning.
“I’m the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (22:16)
When Jesus says this it resonates deeply with me and I hope it does with you as well. We are not by ourselves. We are not left alone. Jesus is our bright morning star every day of our lives and each of those days is a step closer to the advent of our Lord.
“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.” (22:20-21)
Keys For Today…
For the blessings of each new day, help me to be thankful. For the promise of Christ’s coming, help me to be expectant. As you have walked with us in the past, walk with us into the future, our Bright Morning Star, our Alpha and Omega. Amen.