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.

 

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.

Anticipation

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Devotional for Monday, March 30

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Confession time: I’m a little frustrated. If you haven’t figured it out by now, yesterday did not go as planned. We were supposed to have online worship at 9 a.m. and drive-in worship at 10:30 a.m.

Unfortunately, about 5 a.m. a wicked storm cut through Ten Mile, taking down trees and power lines. Guess what? You cannot get online without an internet connection, and you cannot broadcast an FM signal without electricity.

Sigh.

It’s safe to say I’m not the only one wanting things to be as they were. It’s likely that our world will never be the same as it was before the COVID-19 crisis, but much will be familiar after.

We’re going to need a way to mark a return to familiarity. Note the root of “familiar”—family. Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ve made a decision regarding how we will mark that day.

Communion. The Lord’s Supper. Eucharist. Call it what you want; this will be our mark. It is possible that during this crisis, we may see some relaxing of church rules prohibiting online communion, allowing me to bless bread and juice you set out at home. It’s also possible to hand out sealed juice-and-bread kits in a drive-in church setting. But I think we’re going to forego such options.

Please understand, I love leading communion. It is one of a few pastoral acts that can bring tears to my eyes. I long for the experience. We’re going to save it, however, for when we are truly together, in the meantime anticipating it. 

As we wait for the day, know that there are other “means of grace,” places where God will always meet us and show us extravagant, undeserved love. Open God’s word and read. Take time to pray. Be in fellowship as much as possible online and on the phone (assuming there’s electricity and internet).

The day will come when we stand in our sanctuary together and break out the bread and juice—the body and blood—give our confessions, accept God’s forgiveness, lift up the Great Thanksgiving and partake. On that day, we will rediscover something like normal, and we will revel in it.

Lord, return to us the day of communion, that day of holy sacrament, very, very soon. Amen.

Be Still …

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Devotional for Saturday, March 21

Jeremiah 17:7-8: Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

A familiar morning blesses us in ways that barely can be captured in words. But I’ll try.

I awake this morning in the same neighborhood where I spent most of my childhood, just one house away from the home where my father still lives. The sky is gray and misty, but the air is alive with sound. The same old crow caws just before sunrise. As the sky lightens, the same doves make their rain song, and their little songbird friends join them.

They cannot be the same. I remember birds from 40 years ago. At best, they are the oh-so-great grandchildren of what was there before. And yet, they are the same, as is the train passing in the distance, pulling the hill toward downtown Jonesborough, rumbling and blowing its low horn.

There is great comfort in the familiar. For those of us raised in church, we find a similar comfort in the stories we first learned from flannel board cutout characters clinging to their fuzzy backgrounds: Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jesus in the Manger, Jesus on the Cross, the Stone Rolled Away.

On any morning, wherever we are, whatever the situation, we have familiar places we can go simply by revisiting those stories. And if those stories are new to you—well, trust me, regardless of your age, they and all the stories surrounding them can become as familiar as any home place. 

In them, we are reminded God’s love is unchanging, even as the world seems to shift under our feet. May we all seek the Lord and find many good mornings to come.

Lord, thank you for the moments of blessed peace you continually offer us.


Image courtesy Ninel S, Pixabay