Psalm 51, Day 6

Devotional for Saturday, May 23

Psalm 51:16-19
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
Look with favor on Zion and help her;
    rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit—
    with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings.
    Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.

The end of this psalm reminds us it was written in a place and time. Burnt offerings were the order of the day for relating to God, and would continue to be so for a long time.

But we also get a glimpse of what was to come, what was to make possible the healing of broken and repentant hearts even today. Sacrifices were a means to an end. To demonstrate this, God came in flesh to provide the ultimate sacrifice, atoning for every sin committed.

Fully divine, Jesus could not be repentant, but he could demonstrate how terribly broken God’s heart is when we sin. Through Jesus, God experienced a painful and humiliating death, bearing the weight of all the world’s sins while nailed to some timbers. All this to help us break free from sin’s grip.

To take advantage of this great gift, all we have to do is be contrite and repentant enough to believe. We have to humble ourselves, finding our place in the great design of the universe. We are the created, God is the Creator.

As always, there is good news in this story. The Creator loves his creation dearly. The joy and freedom God offers far exceeds what we could find on our own.

With all his power and all his wealth, King David believed it, and we should, too.

Thank you, Lord, for the process of repentance and salvation, a gift freely given and undeserved. Amen.

Squeamish

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Devotional for Tuesday, April 21

Jonah 1:1-3 (NRSV)
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

The story of Jonah is, in some ways, quite complicated, full of nuanced references to long-dead cultures and employing ancient humor we don’t always get.

Its main point, however, can be boiled down in a song in a children’s cartoon. Ever watch Veggie Tales? When my kids were small, they watched certain episodes repeatedly. I still get this song stuck in my head when I see a reference to Jonah:

Jonah was a prophet
Oo-ooh!
But he really never got it
Sad but true!
And if you watch him you can spot it
A-doodley-doo!
He did not get the point!

In short, God told Jonah to go preach to a people Jonah did not like, an enemy. Jonah preferred they be destroyed. So he tried to go the opposite direction.

Whether you learned it from a flannel board presentation or a cartoon, if you were a child raised in church, you know the next part: Jonah wound up in the ocean, swallowed by a whale. (Yes, the Hebrew word can be translated “great fish,” but the Israelites also didn’t use modern taxonomy to distinguish between fish and whales.) Three days later, the whale (or great fish, or sea monster—it was a whale on my flannel board) spit Jonah out on the shore, and the prophet started walking toward Nineveh, where he was supposed to be.

From Jonah’s perspective, here’s the worst part: The people of Nineveh actually listened to him. They repented of their wickedness and turned to God, who relented from destroying them.

“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?” Jonah complained. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

The story ends with a sullen Jonah sitting outside the city, waiting for something bad to happen to Nineveh. God tried one more time to teach the prophet a lesson about compassion, but Jonah’s response is not recorded.

I think the story is open-ended because we are supposed to put ourselves in Jonah’s place. Are we going to respond appropriately to our compassionate God, so compassionate that he came among us in flesh to die for our sins?

In particular, how will we respond when we hear specific instructions from God, those moments when God tells us, “Do this now!” I think most of you know what I mean. We don’t need a thundering voice from heaven to give us instructions. Often, we simply have a sharp, clear thought, and we know God is sending us in a less-than-desirable direction.

“Stop.”

“Speak to that person.”

“Ask the right questions.”

“Offer help.”

And deep down inside, we also know that Jonah-like squeamishness is not allowed. We must get the point!

Lord, when we hear from you, may we always travel in the right direction. Amen.

The Plain Truth

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Devotional for Monday, April 20

1 Corinthians 15:12-20 (NRSV)

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul asserted a point that still needs to be made from time to time, if for no other reason than to counter dangerous notions within the church.

Beware Christians: There are people, some of them clergy or theologians, who would obscure or even deny the core Christian truth that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, resurrected—that is, transformed in such a way that death can no longer touch our Lord and Savior.

Jesus was not merely raised in the hearts of believers. Resurrection cannot be reduced to a vague hope for a better future. The Easter story is not a fantasy to demonstrate the power of positive thinking.

Scripture is clear: Christ died on the cross, Christ physically arose from the dead in the resurrection, and the risen Christ will come again. Thanks to Christ’s victory over death, a day is coming when we also will experience resurrection.

The Bible is full of allegories and parables, some of them coming straight from Jesus’ mouth and clearly marked as such. The story of the crucifixion and ensuing resurrection is neither. To be effective, these events had to occur in space and time, to overcome the sins we have commited in space and time.

Believe this, and you are Christian. Churchgoers who deny this are people who like the trappings of Christianity, but have not absorbed its core message, its distinguishing, world-altering feature.

These people use very important words differently than the rest of us, and they often hide the fact they are doing so. Christians, be sure you are asking your leaders the right questions.

The subject of the resurrection’s importance came up in a seminary class years ago. The professor laid out a hypothetical scenario where someone definitively proves Christ’s dead body has been found. Then he asked us students, what would such a discovery do to our faith?

Some of the students said they would want to continue in their ministries, talking about Christ’s message of hope and love. I took a different approach.

“I would be going back to public relations work,” I said. “Might as well make as much money as I can in this life, enjoying the experience as much as I can.”

Only fools would build their lives around what they know to be a deception. And if God is not at work to restore the world from sin, all that remains is at worst a “dog-eat-dog” lifestyle or at best a kind of utilitarianism.

Paul was more eloquent: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I believed in the core message of Christianity in my seminary class, and I believe it now. We who have such a belief have hope, and we should tell others the message that changes everything.

As Paul said in the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified.” Anyone preaching anything less has yet to present the gospel truth.

Lord, may we never forget or deny what Christ did for us on the cross, the proof being in the resurrection. Maranatha! May your return be soon. Amen.

Death on a Cross

Devotional for Good Friday (April 10)

John 18-19 (New Living Translation)


Posted above is a link to the story of Jesus Christ’s arrest, trial, beating and death. A video depiction of that story also is above for you to watch.

Today is a day for remembering. It is a somber and sad day. Even when we are able to be together in the sanctuary, we depart in silence. We should, after all, be shocked at what Jesus Christ was willing to undergo for us.

Good Friday is about the ultimate action, Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest, he sought relief from the terrible work that had to be done. But once that work was underway, “He never said a mumblin’ word.” The negro spiritual declares Jesus’ prophetic words could not be construed as complaint or reluctance.

Today calls for a simple response from Christians. Give thanks for the work that has been done. We reap immeasurable benefits from the ultimate action story.

In this story, Christ gathers us in his arms, yanking us from death’s tight grip and delivering us to eternal life. As you lift up Good Friday prayers, thank Jesus by walking by his side as he stumbles toward the cross. As he hangs on the cross, some who had followed him ultimately run, and some stay for the burial. Remain with him to the bitter end.

We will join together online tonight at 7 o’clock (note the time—our prayer gatherings were an hour earlier). We will hear the stages of the story, and respond accordingly. More details about that service will follow.

As dark as the story may get, remember, good action has eternal consequences.

To join tonight’s online service:

From your computer, tablet or smartphone:
https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/607049869

You can also dial in using your phone:
United States: (646) 749-3122
Access Code: 607-049-869

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.

 

Oh, the Humanity!

bleedingchrist

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.