Death and Dishonor

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Devotional for Tuesday of Holy Week (April 7)

Note: An online prayer room will be available this evening at 6 p.m. Go to https://us02web.zoom.us/j/244571373 to join, or dial in at (301) 715-8592, and then use this meeting i.d. number: 244 571 373.

John 12:34-36 (NLT)

The crowd responded, “We understood from Scripture that the Messiah would live forever. How can you say the Son of Man will die? Just who is this Son of Man, anyway?”

Jesus replied, “My light will shine for you just a little longer. Walk in the light while you can, so the darkness will not overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness cannot see where they are going. Put your trust in the light while there is still time; then you will become children of the light.”

After saying these things, Jesus went away and was hidden from them.


After watching Jesus ride into Jerusalem, hailed as a king, people in the crowd had questions. They had heard Jesus repeatedly call himself “Son of Man,” and they understood he somehow was staking claim to the role of Messiah, the one to fulfill the greatest promises in their Jewish Bible. But they also had heard Jesus indicate how he would die.

How can one anointed and glorified by God, the one we now understand to be God in flesh, die such a horrible, humiliating death? Over time, Christians have gotten used to the idea of the bloodied Jesus hanging on a cross, but we simultaneously have to admit the image is strange, particularly to people not raised in the faith.

Probably the most dramatic Old Testament reference to the “Son of Man” comes in Daniel 7:13-14: “As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed.”

Any orthodox-minded Christian reading that passage is going to think, “This is a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ.” We believe Jesus has authority, honor and sovereignty over all the nations, something all people will one day recognize. The vision does make him appear invincible, however.

To answer the crowd’s question, we have to explore the underlying design of salvation, and that means we must delve into a mystery too complex for us to understand in full. Jesus’ answer gives us deep insight, however.

For all practical purposes, the Son of Man mounted a rescue mission. Because of our sins, we were trapped in darkness—a place that the Holy God, who is light, has every right to disregard.

Out of love, however, God chose not to forget us or destroy us. Instead, the light entered the darkness to find us, taking on flesh to be among us. The title “Son of God” reminds us of Christ’s divinity; the title “Son of Man” reminds us of his blessed humanity. (Now we’re back to the Christmas story, the incarnation.)

To break the grip sin and death had on us, Jesus bore our punishment for sin. Or we might say he ransomed us from sin. Or we might say he carried our shame. Or we might say he became the one perfect sacrifice for sin, simultaneously priest and slain lamb. These and other descriptions of how atonement works mark the point where the mystery becomes almost unfathomable. We use metaphors to grasp what only God fully understands.

What’s important is that we believe Christ’s death on the cross is effective, that the divine machinery works even if we cannot comprehend all its cogs and pulleys. We have to have faith.

We also have an advantage the Passover crowd did not have. We know that ultimately, the Son of Man is invincible. Death could not bind him, and death will be destroyed by him. The proof lies in an event following the crucifixion.

That’s a story for Easter Sunday, though.

Lord, today we reaffirm our belief that the Son of Man died on the cross, knowing our belief is enough to pull us from darkness into light.

 

First Things First

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Devotional for Monday of Holy Week (April 6)

Note: An online prayer room will be available this evening at 6 p.m. Go to https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/607049869 to join, or dial in at (646) 749-3122, and then use this access code: 607-049-869.

John 12:1-11 (NLT)

Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.

But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.

Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

When all the people heard of Jesus’ arrival, they flocked to see him and also to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus.


Yes, we are to care for the poor. Yes, we are to do all sorts of good works. We should commit a significant portion of our resources to the work Jesus calls us to do, caring for people living on the edge of ruin and death.

In this story, however, is a remarkable idea, one that even some very good-hearted people might find confusing. Honoring Jesus Christ takes precedence over all other motivations and actions.

The story of Mary anointing Jesus is a story of extravagant thanks. Jesus had recently restored to life the brother of Mary and Martha, after Lazarus had decomposed in a tomb for four days.

Mary took what was probably her life savings, her security, and used it all at once to honor the one who had granted this miracle. The stench of death had been the sisters’ great fear; now, a perfumed declaration of joy filled the room, emanating from the one who had driven death away. If you’ve never smelled spikenard, know that it is sweet and musky, an earthy, lively odor. Try to imagine peat from the Garden of Eden.

Even though Judas’ motivation likely was theft, some people might agree with his stated objection—the pouring out of all that nard in one place seems like an awful waste! These would be people who take a humanist approach to solving the problems of the world, saying if people would just act right and do enough good, with enough efficiency, most of the problems of the world would go away.

Christians see that as a cart-before-horse assertion, however. God is our motivator. God provides the power. In John 17:20-26, we hear Jesus root his relationship in the Father, and then Jesus prays that we will be similarly rooted in the Father and Son.

Even altruistic actions properly begin with an understanding of who we are in relation to God. If we are to develop that relationship, we need to stop occasionally and give extravagant and even inefficient thanks. Then, rightly motivated, we will see God pour grace into us until it spills out of our church and onto the world.

In fact, grace can arrive in such abundance that efficiency becomes at most a side issue. Remember the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes? All those leftovers indicate efficiency was not something the disciples needed during the distribution.

Great works will happen through churches that put Christ first. We hold on to God, the anchor of all altruism, and then we are able to pull back from the brink people living on the edge of ruin and death.

Lord, we offer thanks for who you are, and we consider in our hearts what we might do today to show extravagant thanks. May we revel in the inefficiency of it all. Amen.

 

Oh, the Humanity!

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Devotional for Saturday, April 4

Matthew 17:2
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

If you were in the Luminary sanctuary Feb. 23, you heard the story of Jesus’ divinity being revealed to Peter, James and John in the Transfiguration. I described this as God’s revelation of a deeper, unseen reality, evidence that there is more going on than what we usually experience with our senses.

In the week to come, we will see Jesus’ humanity fully revealed. Blood will flow across his face, and his stained clothes will be stripped off him. At one point, the Son of God will be so cut off from the Father that he will quote Psalm 22, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Try not to look away. You will witness God taking our side, broken for us so that we may be lifted up to eternal life despite our sin. It is a remarkable thing: The Creator utters the same lament we all have felt at one time or another.

This is mysterious, but it also is the most comforting kind of mystery. Sinful humans don’t deserve this kind of attention. God is holy, and rightly demands to be surrounded only by what is holy, but God has another powerful motivation. God is love. He has taken on flesh so we can be made holy through sheer belief.

Prepare yourselves. The Son of Man is about to perform the greatest work of love ever done.

Lord, may the story we hear this coming week change us for the better, drawing us closer to you. Amen.

Things Plainly Said

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Devotional for Friday, April 3

Matthew 20:17-19
As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside privately and told them what was going to happen to him. “Listen,” he said, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die. Then they will hand him over to the Romans to be mocked, flogged with a whip, and crucified. But on the third day he will be raised from the dead.”

Despite being so stuck in place, we need to ready ourselves for a journey. Starting Sunday, we are going to walk with Jesus into Jerusalem, following him through the week toward the cross. And once we’re through the horror of it all, we will experience something astonishingly beautiful.

We will spend today and tomorrow remembering some of what we heard while we were gathered in our sanctuary earlier this year. Jesus did not sugarcoat what was going to happen to him. In fact, as demonstrated in the verses above, he was quite plain about being arrested, beaten and killed on a cross, and then raised from the dead.

Clearly, what Jesus was saying went over the disciples’ heads, despite his bluntness. After hearing Jesus say he would be crucified, James and John, aided by their mother, began jockeying for positions alongside Jesus in his kingdom, one at his right hand, one at his left.

“You don’t know what you are asking!” Jesus replied.

It is obvious none of the disciples understood God’s plan to redeem the world through Jesus Christ until after the resurrection had occurred. Hindsight is much clearer. If I had lived among them, raised in their context amidst the confusion roiling their world, I’m sure Jesus’ plain teachings would have eluded me, too.

Recognizing their confusion will help us better understand some of their behaviors in the stories we will see during Holy Week, as we move toward Easter on April 12.

The disciples’ confusion also reminds us that we need to stick to the plain teachings God gave to post-resurrection people. We can forget some important principles in the midst of our modern-day troubles.

Yes, the world remains a broken place. Jesus said suffering and sadness would abound.

Yes, Christ will return, setting all things right, undoing in a most final way the power of sin and death! Jesus made us a promise.

And yes, in the meantime, we are to be busy declaring who Jesus Christ is, sensing the Holy Spirit’s leading. God still empowers us, comforts us, and works through us for the betterment of the world.

Lord, may we be plain examples of your kingdom for all the world to see. Amen.

Cycle of Love

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Devotional for Thursday, April 2

Philippians 1:3-11 (NLT)

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

So it is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart. You share with me the special favor of God, both in my imprisonment and in defending and confirming the truth of the Good News. God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus.

I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God.


I want to introduce you to a resource. As some of you already know, many pastors use something called the “lectionary,” a cycle of readings in line with the themes of the church calendar, to guide their preaching. The lectionary is broken into Years A, B and C. Right now, we’re in Year A.

I use the lectionary on a regular basis because it keeps me from clinging to pet ideas I may overemphasize. I also am continually surprised at how a planned cycle of readings can be so timely, providing answers to current concerns. I suppose this is because God’s teachings are timeless.

A lot of people don’t know there also is a daily lectionary, which can be very useful for people serious about delving into the Bible. One of the advantages of the internet is it makes the daily lectionary much more manageable. For example, you can go to this Vanderbilt Divinity Library web page and find all of Year A’s readings listed, the citations linked to their full texts on Bible Gateway. One click and you can explore the daily readings in just about any translation you want.

The Philippians verses I quoted above are part of today’s readings. Paul was writing to a church he loved, one from which he was separated while in prison. Physically separated from most of you at Luminary, I found the words particularly poignant.

It is my prayer that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. I know that one of the best ways to gain knowledge and understanding is to spend significant time in the Bible, learning to wrestle with the principles found within and rejoicing in the story.

So today, I simply offer you a tool. May it be a blessing.

Lord, as we open ourselves to your word, let it truly sink into our souls, giving us deep discernment. Amen.

The Donkey Said What?

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Devotional For Wednesday, April 1

Okay, funny story, or at least I think it’s funny. I’m almost afraid to attempt humor these days—who knows what might happen between my clicking our website’s “publish” button and sunrise—but I need to think about something funny.

Plus, this is our April Fools’ Day devotional.

You know the one about Balaam and his donkey, in Numbers 22? First of all, if you were raised on the King James Version of the Bible, your Sunday school teacher, without a hint of irony, likely referred to the story as “Balaam’s Ass,” or even “Balaam’s Talking Ass.”

When you are 12, that alone is funny.

So anyway, without going into a lot of background, Balaam was a prophet who displeased God by saddling his donkey and heading on a journey, apparently with improper intent in his heart.

“God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary,” we are told in Numbers 22:22. “Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road.”

Now, I should clarify, beating an animal is wrong. That is not the funny part.

Also, the donkey gave as good as he got. When the angel cornered Balaam and his donkey in a narrow part of the vineyard where the donkey had fled, the donkey hugged the nearest wall, scraping Balaam’s foot in the process. The move did win the donkey another whack, though.

Finally, confronted by a heavily armed angel that only he could see, the donkey lay down under Balaam. Picture that, if you can.

Donkeys are relatively short beasts of burden; average-sized riders can almost touch the ground with their feet. When the donkey went prone, Balaam either had to stand, staring down at a reluctant donkey, or remain seated, his knees near his shoulders.

Once again, Balaam whacked the donkey.

The Lord intervened, allowing the donkey to speak. (This causes me to wonder if our pets have a lot to say, but just no way to say it.) “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” the donkey brayed.

Balaam, apparently so distressed that he forgot he was talking to a donkey, said, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”

The donkey replied, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” Balaam admitted the situation was unusual.

At this point, God allowed Balaam to see the irate angel, sword still in hand, standing before him. The angel berated him for beating the donkey, noted that if the donkey had not turned aside, Balaam would be dead, and gave Balaam precise instructions regarding what he was to do.

Scripture does not record the rest of the donkey’s story, but I’m guessing he got a heaping helping of oats later in the day.

The lessons here are pretty simple. We don’t always fully grasp how God is at work. Also, God can use any part of his creation to accomplish the divine will.

And if you’re stuck at home with pets of any kind, don’t be surprised at their reaction if you start sinning. Yowling, barking or talking—well, anything’s possible.

Lord, keep us mindful of your will, and may we watch for the signs you give us. Amen.

 

Take Care

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Devotional for Tuesday, March 31

Ephesians 2:1-10 (NLT)

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.


It’s good in any circumstance to pause and remember who we are and what we believe.

Most of you reading this can call yourselves children of God. That is, you have accepted the gift of God given through Jesus Christ. You have professed that you believe Christ’s death on the cross was real and effective for undoing all your sins. It was an act of faith on your part, made possible by the grace God always is pouring into a broken, sinful world. Even before we turn to God, he makes it possible for us to sense his divine presence.

You made that profession of faith, and God poured out his saving grace upon you, snatching you from the power of sin and death. God’s grace continues to bathe you in his life-changing love. As you stay engaged with God through the Bible, in prayer, and in fellowship with other Christians, you each day become more able to love as Jesus loves.

You are a truly blessed person—you have a unique joy in this life, in good times or bad, and eternal bliss and communion with God in the life to come.

Both you and I need to remember these glorious truths. When we are under stress and confused, it is distinctly possible we can stray from what we have become through Christ. Our routines are disrupted, our sense of security is strained or even snapped, and Satan, that “commander of powers in the unseen world,” will try to use the opportunity to pull us into sin.

I noticed a few years ago I had unconsciously shifted to a short farewell phrase: “Take care.” The phrase usually is spoken gently, but it is packed with meaning. Be alert, it says—watch out for pitfalls as you move through life.

I often was being literal when I said it to my children as they headed out as neophyte drivers, or when they went alone on an outing for the first time. “Take care to look both ways, take care to notice strangers around you.”

The phrase can be whispered to our own souls, however. We need to take care when we are frightened, lonely or bored. As we spend more time away from practicing our identity in a church community, worldliness in all its forms has more opportunities to come straight at us, even as we are supposedly isolated.

For example, think of the portal the computer, cell phone or television represents. Choose wisely what flows into your home from the world. That’s a message for all modern times, but particularly for right now.

Don’t let the world sully your clean clothes! We are God’s masterpiece! He has plans for us, meaning there is a future with him.

Lord, remind us through the day who we are. Amen.