What Happens Next (January 20)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 49-50; Psalm 8; Luke, chapter 20

Genesis 50:22-26 (ESV) – So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house.  Joseph lived 110 years.  And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation.  The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own.  And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”  Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry my bones from here.”  So Joseph died, being 110 years old.  They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

Observations: For some reason, the last sentence caught my attention this morning:  “They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.”  When Jacob died, Joseph asked Pharaoh for permission to go to Canaan to bury Jacob, but as Joseph prepared to die, he chose a different way.  He was confident that God would come at some point and bring the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land, and he wanted his brothers to pass the word along to their descendants that when that day came, they would take his body and bury him in Canaan.

People have a lot of different ideas about what to do with “their bones” when they die.  Some people choose to be cremated; others want to be buried.  Many people probably just don’t care.  (I’m in that camp.  Since I know that I won’t be in whatever remains of this body, I don’t really care what happens to it.  I’m getting a new body anyway!)  

Twenty years ago, I was privileged to be part of a Work and Witness team which went to Volgograd, Russia, to help work on churches in that city.  At the end of our trip, we spent a couple of days in Moscow, and one of the places we went was to the Kremlin.  Many people don’t realize this, but the Kremlin is not just the seat of the Russian government; it also contains a number of Orthodox churches, and some other historical buildings.  And, with regard to today’s passage, it contains Lenin’s Tomb.  When we were preparing to go see Lenin’s Tomb, we were cautioned that there are some “rules” that must be followed.  First, no photography.  Second, no touching the clear “box” in which his body lies.  Third, no talking or doing anything that might be considered disrespectful.

It had been almost 80 years since Lenin had died when we were there, but his body had been so perfectly preserved and protected inside that tomb that he still looked much like the pictures of him which I had seen. But there was one difference – he was dead.  His body may have been preserved, but that’s all it was – just the shell.  In the same way, Joseph’s body was there, in Egypt, embalmed and preserved in a coffin, waiting to be transported to the Holy Land.

But the difference is that Joseph was looking beyond his death to God’s deliverance of his people.  On the other hand, Lenin was looking ahead with fear, concerned about what would happen if Josef Stalin took over after Lenin’s death.  Lenin’s focus was on this world, and the things of this world, like power; Joseph’s focus was on God, and the eternal purposes of God for his people.  What’s important is not what they do with your body when you die; what’s important is what comes after that.

Application:  We can get so focused on this life and the things of this world that we forget that our time here is just a blink of an eye compared to eternity.  Joseph wasn’t really worried about his body; he made his brothers swear to “carry my bones from here.”  His focus was on what God would do someday – come and lead his people from Egypt back to the land he had promised to them.  And he did!

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that what is important is “what happens next” – eternity.  Help us to live in ways that prepare us for eternity in your Kingdom, and to point others toward the joy and peace that only comes from knowing you.  Amen.

Weeping Over Jerusalem (January 19)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 47-48; Psalm 10; Luke, chapter 19

Luke 19:41-44 (ESV) – And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.  For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side, and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you.  And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Observations: Jesus weeping over Jerusalem – the image always is striking to me.  The city that had just seen his triumphal entry – “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38a, ESV) – would in just a few days reject him and call for his crucifixion, but as Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.  He was not weeping because they would reject him; he was weeping because of the consequences of that rejection.  That may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s not – and we have to recognize the difference.  Jesus was not weeping because of what was going to happen to him, because he knew that all things were in the Father’s hands.  He was weeping because their rejection of him would have long-lasting consequences for the individuals involved, and for the city of Jerusalem.

The consequences for the individuals, of course, would be the same as that for anyone who knowingly rejects Jesus – eternal separation from God.  The consequences for the city of Jerusalem would be seen in about 40 years, when the Romans gathered around the city and the finally destroyed it in AD 70.  Those “enemies” did indeed set up barricades around the city, surrounded it, and tore it to the ground, just as Jesus prophesied. That is also not a surprise, because the history of the Jewish people bore witness to the fact that when the people turned away from God, they suffered the consequences – collectively, as a nation.  Whether it was the cycle of subjection and deliverance that we see in the book of Judges, the conquest of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians, or the conquest and exile at the hands of Babylon, they had seen – time and time again – that they could not turn away from God without suffering the consequences.

The reason for what would happen, Jesus says, is that they “did not know the time of your visitation.”  God himself was there, in the person of God-with-us Emmanuel, and they did not recognize him – and ultimately rejected him.  As John says in the Prologue to his Gospel, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”

Application:  I think it’s important for us to recognize that there are certain principles that Scripture teaches us.  I don’t equate the United States with the nation of Israel, so I don’t just draw parallel lines and say, “This happened to Israel, and it will happen to the U.S.”  But there is a principle that we find throughout Scripture, and that principle can be summed up in the phrase, “You reap what you sow.”  The leaders and the people of Jerusalem rejected Jesus, and they reaped the consequences of that rejection.  We as a nation have largely rejected God’s direction, and we will reap the consequences of that rejection.  I’m sure that not every single person in Jerusalem rejected Jesus, just as not every single person in the United States has rejected him – but there is also no question that neither our government nor our culture is focused on honoring God.

I feel compelled to make one thing clear:  I do not view the fact that President Trump was not re-elected as a “rejection of God.”  While there were some things that his administration did which honored God’s commands, there were other things that did not.  There has never been an administration in this country standards, there were others which did not.  That is not simply a reflection in his administration; there has never been an administration in our country which made honoring God its first priority.  There have been administrations which have made seeking God’s will more of a priority than others, but none of them has done that perfectly.  This is not a surprise, because even within what I call the “big ‘C’ Church” we often disagree with one another.  As one who “swims” in the Wesleyan-Holiness stream of Christianity, I take seriously this direction of John Wesley:  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  As followers of Jesus, that’s what we’re called to model for the world – charity in all things, or, as Jesus put it, “Love your enemies.”

The city of Jerusalem was leveled, just as Jesus prophesied it would be – but that was not the worst thing that happened.  The worst thing that happened was missing the time of your visitation.  We need to recognize Jesus and his work around us, and we need to join him in it – and when I say “we,” I don’t mean the United States – I mean the Church. We need to seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and allow Him to direct us in whatever ways He chooses.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that we need to seek first your Kingdom and your righteousness.  When we seek your will, and seek to join you in your work, we will not miss “the time of our visitation.”  You are here with us; you have given us your Holy Spirit to live in us, and to direct us in the truth.  Help us not to miss what you are saying because we “think” we know what you want; help us each day to seek your direction, and then to do it, that your Kingdom would come and your will be done on earth as in heaven.  Amen.

Just Like the Prophets Said (January 18)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 44-46; Luke, chapter 18

Luke 18:31-34 (ESV) – And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.  For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon.  And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”  But they understood none of these things.  This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

Observations: The phrase that caught my attention this morning was, “everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.”  I think it caught my attention because it’s one of those things that we read and just skip over, because we think, “Yeah, I know that.”  That’s one of the reasons that I like to rotate translations of Scripture each year, to make sure that I’m actually reading and not just skipping by certain passages. (This year I’m using the ESV – English Standard Version – which I have not ever used before, either for study or for devotional reading.)  The fact is that this wording is practically identical to several other translations I’ve read – NRSV and NASB, for example – and the idea is the same in every translation I’ve read.

After that phrase caught my attention, though, it was the next line that really made me stop and think:  “For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon.  And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”  As I thought about it, the question came to my mind:  Did the people of Jesus’ day really understand that the prophets had written all of those things about the Messiah?  I know that the prophets did write those things (just see Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 for one example); the question is, did people realize that those things would literally happen to him?  

I think not.  I’ve been spending time in John’s Gospel recently for the sermon series I’m preaching right now, and it’s obvious from some of the comments that people made about the Messiah and what they expected him to be and to do that they weren’t thinking about him being delivered over to the Gentiles and mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon and flogged and killed.  Even the disciples didn’t get is:  they understood none of these things.  

And that led me to the question, “What things does Scripture say to us that we’re missing?”  I have my list, to be sure.  One of my biggest ones is about money and material blessings, and the disconnect between the popular “prosperity preachers” and what Jesus said about wealth and entering the Kingdom of heaven.  If it is “difficult for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” as Jesus said (Luke 18:24), then why would we think that God’s blessings would primarily be material?  Why would we spend so much time praying for something that Jesus says is spiritually dangerous?  Why would we encourage others to pray for that?

But the fact is that all Christians focus on certain parts of Scripture – parts that they like – and tend to skip over the harder parts.  I believe that one measure of our spiritual growth is our willingness to wrestle with those passages that are challenging for us personally – ones that call us to love our enemies, or be humble; ones where Jesus says that our “love” for him is validated by obedience; ones where Jesus tells us to forsake everything to follow him.  I think the apostle Paul is instructive in that regard.  In the earlier letters of Paul, he is very sure of himself and obviously comfortable issuing commands; in his later letters, like Philippians, he is seems much more humble and gracious.  “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12, ESV).  He is still willing to invite people to follow his example – but not just his example, and he makes it clear that his example is only valid insofar as he reflects the life of Christ.

Application:  God is reminding me today – again – that Scripture is not just a security blanket to make us feel better about ourselves; it is his revelation of himself, his character, his nature, and his plan of salvation for us.  If he is forming us in the image of Jesus, as Scripture teaches, then there is hard work to be done.  None of us is anything like Jesus when we come to faith, and none of us is completely like Jesus no matter how long we’ve been walking with him.  The humility that comes with walking with Jesus leads us to recognize more and more how far we still have to go – and the way that we make that progress is by being willing to embrace and apply all of what Scripture teaches, not just the parts we like.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for blessing us with your Word, the written revelation of you.  Thank you for the revelation of your nature and character in your Son, Jesus Christ, and the example that he sets for us.  Help us to embrace his call, and not to shy away from the challenges of walking in his footsteps.  You have promised us everything that we need in order to live each day according to your purpose for us; help us to be obedient.  Help us to do your will, that we may see your Kingdom come in ever increasing measure, until that day when we see it in its fullness.  Amen.

“Some Time After This” (January 16)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 39-41; Luke, chapter 16

Genesis 39:19 – 40:4 (ESV) – As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled.  And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison.  But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.  Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it.  The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him.  And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.

Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt.  And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined.  The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them.  They continued for some time in custody.

Observations: The story of Joseph is a familiar one, at least some parts of it: he was his father’s favorite, which meant that his brothers hated him, and they finally sold him as a slave and told their father that he had been killed by a wild animal.  He was eventually sold to Potiphar, an Egyptian who was the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.  Joseph did well at Potiphar’s house, but when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, he refused – so she accused him of trying to rape her, and Potiphar had him thrown into prison, in the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.

Eventually, Joseph was freed from that prison.  As we read at the end of our passage for today, Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker were thrown into prison with Joseph.  They both had dreams on the same night, and Joseph interpreted those dreams: the cupbearer would be returned to his position, and the baker would be hanged.  And those interpretations both came true.  Joseph asked the cupbearer to “remember me when it is well with you” and use his influence to get Pharaoh to let Joseph out of prison.  “After two whole years,” Pharaoh had two dreams, and the cupbearer remembered Joseph.  Pharoah sent for Joseph, Joseph interpreted the dreams, and Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of collecting food during the seven years of plenty so there would be food during the seven years of famine.  Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt during the famine looking for food, Joseph eventually revealed himself to them, and he brought his father and all of the family to live in Egypt.  (We’ll see all of that in more detail in the next few days, as we finish our readings from Genesis.)

But the key phrase that catches my attention this morning is, “Some time after this.”  Joseph was a young man when he was sold as a slave, and he must have spent quite some time in Potiphar’s house before he was thrown into prison.  Genesis 39:5 (ESV) says, “From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.”  That implies that Joseph was there for quite some time, for it to be evident that the Lord had blessed all that he had in house and field.  Crops didn’t just grow overnight; animals didn’t breed and flocks grow overnight – so Joseph must have been there for some period of time before he was thrown into prison.  After he was thrown in prison, some time must also have passed for the keeper of the prison to come to trust him and to see that “the Lord was with him.”  And then, chapter 40 begins with the phrase, “Some time after this…” 

What must Joseph had been thinking?  He had been happy with his family, and God had given him two dreams – dreams which seemed to indicate that God had special plans for Joseph.  And then he was sold Joseph had been happy with his family, and God had given him two dreams – dreams that seemed to indicate that God had special plans for Joseph.  But then his brothers sold him as a slave, and then he was thrown into prison, and that’s where he was when the cupbearer and the baker showed up. Although Joseph continued to acknowledge God’s sovereignty, and God continued to bless Joseph, he was still in prison, with no sign that God’s “special plans” were anywhere on the horizon.  He must have had a glimmer of hope when he interpreted their dreams, and the cupbearer was released just as Joseph had predicted – but then the cupbearer was gone, and nothing happened.  Chapter 40, as we noted, begins with the phrase “Some time after this,” and chapter 41 begins, “After two whole years…”  Time passed, and Joseph was still in prison – but from all that we can tell, his faith never wavered.

Some time after this reminds us that God’s timing is always right, that God is always at work, even in those periods of life when nothing seems to happen – or everything seems to go wrong.  Sometimes, those things that “seem” to be wrong are the ways that God is working to put us right where we need to be.  Sometimes, we are the ones who need to be reoriented and adjusted; at other times, God’s plan needs time for all of the details to become aligned.  If the cupbearer would have mentioned Joseph to Pharaoh right when he was released, Pharaoh would have had no reason to let Joseph out, but when Pharaoh had his two dreams, the time was right – the cupbearer remembered, Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and Pharaoh not only let Joseph out of prison, he made him second in command in all of Egypt.  Genesis 41:42-43 (ESV) says, “Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck.  And he made him ride in his second chariot.  And they called out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.”  The dreams of long ago, with people bowing down to him, had come to pass – but only some time after this.

Application:  God is reminding me that when we say that we trust him, we have to trust him with timing as well as results.  One of Satan’s greatest temptations is to convince us not to wait for God, but to take things into our own hands.  As Peter writes in 2 Peter 3, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness…” (2 Peter 3:9, ESV).  Peter was writing about Christ’s return, but the same thing is true in regard to all of God’s promises – they are always right on time.  We need to be comfortable that God is working, and trust that some time after this, we will see his promises and plans come to fulfillment.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding me that your promises are sure, and your timing is perfect.  Help me to be comfortable waiting for you, and to trust that “some time after this” I will see your plans come to fruition.  Help me to know what I should do each day as I wait for you, and to be patient in the knowledge that your Kingdom will come on earth as in heaven.  Amen.

My Righteousness, or His? (January 15)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 37-38; Psalm 7; Luke, chapter 15

Psalm 7 (ESV) – O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it to pieces, with none to deliver.

O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, if I have repaid my friend with evil or plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my glory in the dust.

Arise, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgment.  Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about you; over it return on high.

The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.  Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous – you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God!  My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart.  God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.

If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.  Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.  He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made.  His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.

Observations: It is easy for us to read a particular verse and take it out of context – hearing what we want to hear rather than what the entire passage is telling us.  Context is critical to our understanding of Scripture: we need to understand a particular verse within the context of its passage, the overall message of the book in which it is found, and the message of Scripture as a whole.  God is not using one particular verse to “undo” the overall message of Scripture.

With that in mind, we see David’s prayer in verse 8 that God would judge me…according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.  That sounds like David is saying that he is righteous, and that if God judges him according to his righteousness he will “come out all right.”  But we know that David’s life was not an unblemished run of righteousness and integrity.  How do we square this with David’s famous prayer in Psalm 51 – “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:2-3, ESV)?

The answer is that we must recognize that the only righteousness that counts is the righteousness that God attributes to us.  Our own righteousness, as Paul writes in Philippians 3, is “rubbish” – “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9, ESV).  That is the thrust of Psalm 51 as well; David understands that the cleansing that can “blot out iniquities” only comes from God.  After all, our spiritual forefather, Abraham, was declared by God to be righteousness because of his faith – “And he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, ESV).

Now, once we grasp that – that the only righteousness that matters comes from God rather than from our own efforts – we can face God’s judgment with confidence, because we understand that in effect God is judging himself, and his righteousness, rather than our efforts.  That doesn’t mean that what we do and say and think doesn’t matter, because it does – it matters as the proof of the righteousness that God has given us.  Our “works” don’t create righteousness; they reflect God’s righteousness at work in us.

That understanding also allows us to rest in God’s plans, rather than seeking revenge for ourselves and punishment for those who treat us wrongly.  If I’m really taking the “long view,” with a focus on eternity rather than just on what happens today, I can trust God to deal with everything in exactly the right way, at exactly the right time.  That’s why David can close this prayer with the statement, I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High – because he knows that God’s righteousness is perfect, and God will make everything right in his time.

Application:  God is reminding me today that the events of today are not the “end of the story.”  God is also reminding me that I can’t possibly understand all that there is to his plans and purposes.  It’s all that I can do to focus on what God is calling me to do today, and to do it.  It is a very dangerous thing to think that we understand all of the ways that God is working, and the reasons why; when we do that, we can substitute our priorities for his.  The fact that we “think” that we’re working for God’s purposes makes it worse, because that makes it much less likely that we’ll be willing to acknowledge when we’re wrong (and all of us are wrong at some time or another).  We need to hold loosely to our ideas and our priorities, and stay firmly connected to God’s priorities, which we find in his Word.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding me that you are at work in so many ways that I can neither see nor understand.  Help me not to hinder your work – in me, or in others – by thinking that I “have it all figured out.”  My trust is in you – in your grace,  your righteousness, and the redemption that only comes through Jesus.  Help me to reflect your grace to others today, that they may find life and hope in you.  Amen.

The Cost of Discipleship (January 14)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 34-36; Luke, chapter 14

Luke 14:25-33 (ESV) – Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.  For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not at first sit down and count he cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?  And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.  So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

Observations: I was first caught by the section title for this passage in the ESV:  “The Cost of Discipleship.”  That, of course, is the title of a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so as I began to read these verses, I thought about it in terms of Bonhoeffer’s idea of “cheap grace” versus “costly grace.”  The first thing we notice is that Jesus says that if we are going to be his disciples, we have to “hate” our own fathers, mothers, spouses, children, siblings, and even ourselves.  That’s a hard thing to square with the command to love everyone, so what does it mean to “hate” others the way that Jesus describes?  

The Greek word that Jesus uses is misei, a form of miseo, and one of the meanings of that word – the one which applies to this passage – is this:  “To love less.  In Luke 14:26 Jesus contrasts love to family with love to Himself: ‘If any come to me, and hate [misei, present active indicative 3rd person singular] not his father and mother, and wife, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.’  Here Jesus asserts His deity.  Every member of a man’s family is a human being, and the love shown to human beings compared to the love shown to Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, must be so different that the former seems like hatred.  The meaning of miseo as loving less is made clear in Matthew 10:37, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’  In His commands for loving other human beings, the Lord never said, ‘Love other human beings as you love me,’ but ‘Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself’ (Matthew 19:19).  When it comes ot loving God, however, He is placed in a unique position.”  (Complete Word Study Dictionary – New Testament)

From there, Jesus goes on to talk about “counting the cost” – making sure that you can complete a task before starting it.  He gives two illustrations – building a tower and starting a war.  Most of us can relate, at least a little, to the illustration of building a tower; we know what it means to have a plan and a budget and to figure out before we start something whether we will be able to finish it.  Most of us would not relate at all to the idea of starting a war, but there are important lessons to consider there.  In the context of being a disciple, we do have an enemy who opposes us – and he has some pretty powerful forces at his disposal.  If we try to fight that war in our own strength, it will be like taking a force of ten thousand up against a force of twenty thousand.  In fact, although we know that Satan is powerful, most of us don’t really understand his power – or the limits to it.  C.S. Lewis wrote that people often make two equal and opposite errors about Satan: they either deny that he exists, or they ascribe too much power to him.  He does exist, and he does have power – but his power is limited.  More important, his power is inferior to that of God:  “…for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4b, ESV).

That brings us to the last part of this passage:  “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”  The word “renounce” here is a form of apotasso, which means “to assign to different places, allot.”  In other words, the interpretation of “renounce” here follows the interpretation of “hate” earlier in the passage; we “hate” others by loving God most, and we “renounce” all that we have in favor of having Jesus.  This renouncing is a matter of trust:  do we trust God enough to put our faith in him rather than in things (or other people)?  As long as our trust is in things or people, we will not exercise the faith necessary to see God work completely.  When we learn to trust in God, he will supply all that we need – because he has promised to do just that.  Renouncing everything else is our way of saying that our trust is in God.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that we give everything away (because God has given things to us in the first place); it simply means that we learn to hold loosely to the things of this world, because we don’t want to lose our grip on God’s Kingdom.

Application:  God isn’t calling us to “hate” anyone; that is completely contrary to the overriding message of Scripture.  But he is calling us to constantly assess our priorities and our attachments, to make sure that our trust remains in him and him alone.  To do that, I have to walk closely enough to recognize God’s voice and respond to him, and to block out the many other voices that clamor for my attention and allegiance.  That’s what it means to “renounce everything” for the sake of following Jesus.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding me that you are the source of every good thing.  I don’t have to cling to things, because you will always supply what I need.  I am called to love people, not to elevate them above you.  Help me to keep everything in my life in its proper place, so I can fully experience the joy and peace of your Kingdom.  Amen.

“Don’t Let Anger Control You” (January 11)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 27-28; Psalm 4; Luke, chapter 11

Psalm 4:1-8 (NLT) – Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent.  Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

How long will you people ruin my reputation?  How long will you make groundless accusations?  How long will you continue your lies?

You can be sure of this: The Lord set apart the godly for himself.  The Lord will answer when I call to him.

Don’t sin by letting anger control you.  Think about it overnight and remain silent.  Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust in the Lord.

Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, Lord.  You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine.  In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, will keep me safe.

Observations: As I read this psalm today, my thoughts were first drawn to verse 4:  Don’t sin by letting anger control you.  Think about it overnight and remain silent.  And I thought:  how many times would we save ourselves great trouble, pain, and/or embarrassment if we followed this advice?  We live in a world which gives us a number of avenues to immediately express ourselves. and too often we do so.  If you are on Facebook, scroll down through your feed and see how many posts are expressions of anger. We have become a nation of people who will not, or cannot, hold their anger – and the result is an overtone of bitterness and division that is tearing us apart.

That is bad, of course, but what is worse is that the Church seems to have adopted this practice.  We’re right in there with them, slugging it out – calling people names, and claiming God’s authority to express our own feelings.  When we do this, we are no better than those we attack; in fact, we’re worse, because we should know better.

Notice how David prays in this psalm:  He asks God to hear his prayer and answer him; he voices his feelings about being accused and attacked; but then he expresses his trust that God will make things right.  And he closes the psalm with an expression of trust:  Many people say, “Who will show us better times?”  Let your face smile on us, Lord.  You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wife.  In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.” 

Application:  We can take matters into our own hands, and express our anger as we choose – or we can hold our tongues, think about it overnight and remain silent, and leave things in God’s hands.  When we leave things in his hands, he will enable us to lie down and sleep in peace.  He doesn’t expect us to solve the world’s problems; he just expects us to trust him, and do what he tells us to do – Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust in the Lord.

Prayer:   Father, we thank you for the promise that we can “lie down and sleep in peace” because we trust in you.  I pray today for those who are struggling with finding that peace; remind them through the power of your presence that you are with them, and you are in control. Help us all to not let anger control us; as we trust in you, we don’t have to let anger control us. Give us your peace, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Message of Jesus (January 9)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 23-24; Luke, chapter 9

Luke 9.21-27 (NLT) – Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone who he was.  “The Son of Man must suffer many terrible things,” he said.  “He will be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law.  He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead.”

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it.  But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.  And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?  If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels.  I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God.”

Observations: We’re all familiar with the basic message of this passage – we all know the phrase “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”  But there are two things today that caught my attention in this passage.  The first is the way that the NLT translates “deny yourself” – turn from your selfish ways.  That really hits the core of what Jesus calls us to – to stop doing things and viewing things from the perspective of self.  Of course, our world glorifies self – everywhere you look you find encouragement to “look out for number 1,” advertisements that tell you that “you deserve this,” and a basic mindset that I should be entitled to do whatever I want to do.  Let’s be clear:  that attitude is the exact opposite of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  I’ve mentioned this passage fairly frequently in my reflections, but we are called to have the attitude or mindset of Christ:  “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human bring.  When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God, and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8, NLT).

This has been weighing on my mind quite a bit during this past year, as I’ve heard more and more people demanding their “rights” – complaining about governmental regulations about wearing masks, restricting gatherings, and the like.  As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to serve others, not to focus first on my “rights.”  It is good to have rights, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them, but we need to be careful that our concern about our “rights” doesn’t take precedence over our call to love others and to serve them.

The second thing that caught my attention is in verse 26:  If anyone is ashamed of me and my message…  Now, no one who considers himself or herself to be a follower of Jesus would say that they are ashamed of Jesus and his message.  But that brings us to this question:  What is the “message” of Jesus?  You see, there are a lot of people who are proclaiming a “message” that is starkly different from the message that Jesus himself preached and taught.  There are people who preach a message of power, and who seek to align themselves with earthly leaders in the thought that this will further the Kingdom of God.  The problem is that that has never worked well for the Church.  There are others who preach a message of prosperity, claiming that God will give us all sorts of earthly riches if we follow Jesus.  The problem with that is that it directly contradicts what Jesus taught.  If it’s hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven, as Jesus said, then why would God “bless” us by making it harder for us to enter his Kingdom?  

The message of Jesus is what Jesus has just said in this passage:  turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me.  The message of Jesus does not depend on the outcome of an election, nor on the desires or commands of any government.  The Church is growing vibrantly in places where the government is openly opposed to Christianity – communist countries and Muslim countries, for example.  The message of Jesus is to love others, and serve others, knowing that if we “lose” ourselves for the sake of his Kingdom, we’ll gain our lives for all eternity.  And the example of Jesus, and of his first disciples, proves that they didn’t “lose” this world at all!  The world is not looking for another group to exercise earthly power; the world is looking for the followers of Jesus to live like he did.

Application:  God is reminding me that we’re called to love others (both neighbors and “enemies”), and to serve others in Jesus’ name.  The transformation of this world will come with the establishment of God’s Kingdom, and our participation in that process is by carrying his message to others.  If the answer to the problems of this world were in an earthly kingdom, God could have made Jesus king 2,000 years ago.  When the Church has gotten involved with earthly power (whether governmental or through material riches), it has never resulted in the Church lifting the world to higher spiritual levels; instead, the Church has usually lost sight of its true mission in its search for earthly power. There is a story about Thomas Aquinas visiting the Pope, and being shown all of the riches that the Church had.  The Pope said to Thomas something like this:  “The Church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”  Thomas Aquinas is said to have responded, “But neither can we say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”  We cannot forfeit God’s power and blessing for the sake of seeking earthly power and wealth, no matter how we may try to justify it.  The only thing that can change the world is the power of Jesus, and that power is based in love.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that our hope is in you.  Help us to deny ourselves – to turn from our selfish ways – and follow Jesus.  As we have seen this week, any trust that we place in human leaders and human institutions is misplaced.  Forgive us for trusting in anything other than you.  You are God Almighty; you are still the Sovereign of this universe.  Help us not to second-guess your purposes and your will; help us to keep our eyes firmly focused on you.  Amen.

“A Godless Place” (January 8)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 20-22; Luke, chapter 8

Genesis 20:1-17 (NLT) – Abraham moved south to the Negev and lived for a while between Kadesh and Shur; and then he moved on to Gerar.  While living there as a foreigner, Abraham introduced his wife, Sarah, by saying, “She is my sister.”  So King Abimelech of Gerar sent for Sarah and had her brought to him at his palace.

But that night God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him, “You are a dead man, for that woman you have taken is already married!”

But Abimelech had not slept with her yet, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?  Didn’t Abraham tell me, ‘She is my sister’?  And she herself said, ‘Yes, he is my brother.’  I acted in complete innocence!  My hands are clean.”

In the dream God responded, “Yes, I know you are innocent.  That’s why I kept you from sinning against me, and why I did not let you touch her.  Now return the woman to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet.  Then you will live.  But if you don’t return her to him, you can be sure that you and all your people will die.”

Abimelech got up early the next morning and quickly called all his servants together.  When he told them what had happened, his men were terrified.  Then Abimelech called for Abraham.  “What have you done to us?” he demanded.  “What crime have I committed that deserves treatment like this, making me and my kingdom guilty of this great sin?  No one should ever do what you have done!  Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?”

Abraham replied, “I thought, ‘This is a godless place.  They will want my wife and will kill me to get her.’  And she really is my sister, for we both have the same father, but different mothers.  And I married her.  When God called me to leave my father’s home and to travel from place to place.  I told her, ‘Do me a favor.  Wherever we go, tell the people that I am your brother.’”

Then Abimelech took some of his sheep and goats, cattle, and male and female servants, and he presented them to Abraham.  He also returned his wife, Sarah, to him.  The Abimelech said, “Look over my land and choose any place where you would like to live.”  And he said to Sarah, “Look, I am giving your ‘brother’ 1,000 pieces of silver in the presence of all these witnesses.  This is to compensate you for any wrong I may have done to you.  This will settle any claim against me, and your reputation is cleared.”

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants, so they could have children.  For the Lord had caused all the women to be infertile because of what happened with Abraham’s wife, Sarah.

Observations: At first glance, it seems amazing that Abraham “did it again” – tried to pass his wife Sarah off as his sister because he was afraid.  It happened in Egypt (see Genesis 12), and now it has happened again.  But there are a couple of big differences between the stories that we need to recognize.  First, Abraham did this “again” after God had demonstrated his care, protection, and provision for Abraham on numerous occasions.  Second, Abraham did this after God had specifically promised to give him a son with Sarah.  Why would he risk the fulfillment of God’s promise by doing this?  If Abimelech had slept with Sarah, and then Sarah became pregnant, there would always be the question of whether God had given Abraham his son, or whether Abimelech had.  (I know that God still would have had to open Sarah’s womb, but in those days before DNA tests, the question would have remained.)  It’s hard to understand why Abraham would do this, but he did.  Thankfully, God protected both Abraham and Sarah from that.

There is one other difference between the two occasions (Genesis 12 and this passage) that bears comment, and it is the one which God has specifically directed me to today.  In today’s passage, tells Abimelech that his reasoning was that “this is a godless place.”  It is often the case that people who believe in God suspect that others – people of different cultures and backgrounds – are godless; in fact, sometimes they are.  But there is a big difference between saying that certain people do not know or acknowledge God and saying that this is a godless place, because Scripture and orthodox theology tells us that there is no such thing as a “godless” place.  God is omnipresent – he is everywhere.  “I can never escape from your Spirit!  I can never get away from your presence!  If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.  If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me.  I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night – but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.  To you the night shines as bright as day.  Darkness and light are the same to you” (Psalm 139:7-12, NLT).

God demonstrates that Abraham was not in a “godless” place by appearing to Abimelech in a dream and warning him not to take Sarah – and Abimelech obeys God, and makes restitution for the sin he didn’t commit by giving an offering to Abraham and Sarah.  There is no such thing as a “godless place.”

Application:  As we look around and consider the events of this week, it would be easy to think that we’re living in a “godless place” – or, at the very least, that there are parts of our country which are “godless places.”  God is reminding me that this is not true – that he is in those places.  As I was in my pastors’ prayer group yesterday morning, we were talking about the way that evil seems to be spreading and increasing, and I reminded the group that in Revelation 2 Jesus describes the city of Pergamum as “the city where Satan has his throne…where Satan lives” (see Revelation 2:12-17) – but even in those circumstances, “you have remained loyal to me.”  We cannot “sell out” to false teaching – from whatever direction – but we must never fall prey to the lie that we live in a “godless place.”  Even in “the city where Satan has his throne,” God is there – and in the end, God’s power and God’s Kingdom will triumph.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us that there is no such thing as a “godless place,” because no matter where we are, you are there.  Thank you for your promises to be with us, to lead us, and to continue your work in us to prepare us for eternity in your Kingdom.  Help us not to fall prey to the despair that Satan tries to peddle when it seems as though evil is “winning,” because we know that you still are, and always will be, God Almighty.  May your Kingdom come and your will be done in us, by us, and through us today.  Amen.

Singled Out (January 7)

Scripture:        Genesis, chapters 18-19; Psalm 3; Luke, chapter 7

Genesis 18:16-19 (NLT) – Then the men got up from their meal and looked out toward Sodom.  As they left, Abraham went with them to send them on their way.

“Should I hide my plan from Abraham?” the Lord asked.  “For Abraham will certainly become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. I have singled him out so that he will direct his sons and their families to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.   Then I will do for Abraham all that I have promised.”

Observations: The first part of Genesis 18 is the confirmation of God’s promise (from chapter 17) that Abraham will have a son with Sarah, his wife.  When Sarah hears this, she laughs in disbelief – a memory that must have brought a smile to her face every time she looked at her son Isaac, whose name means “he laughs.”  The last portion of chapter 18 is the account of Abraham “negotiating” with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Abraham famously asking God if he would spare the city if a certain number of righteous people were there.  Of course, in chapter 19 Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, because there weren’t even ten righteous people there, but Lot and his daughters were spared.  (The story of Lot and his daughters at the end of chapter 19 makes us wonder whether there were any righteous people in Sodom, but that’s a question for a different day.)

But tucked right between the announcement that Sarah would bear a child and Abraham’s negotiation with God over Sodom are the few verses set out above, where God ponders whether to tell Abraham what he is going to do with Sodom.  And the thing that stands out to me today is what God says in verse 19:  I have singled him out so that he will direct his sons and their families to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.  Then I will do for Abraham all that I have promised.

We often overlook Abraham’s part in the covenant that God made with him.  God didn’t just look down and say, “Abraham is a nice guy; I think I’ll do great things for him.”  God called Abraham, and Abraham responded, and it was that faith response to God’s call that was to be Abraham’s part in the covenant.  God makes that clearer in these verses than he does anywhere else (in my mind, at least) when he says that Abraham is to direct his sons and their families to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. 

I thought about this a couple of days ago when I read God’s promise to Abraham to give the land of Canaan to his descendants.  The fact is that by the time Abraham died, the only part of the Promised Land that he “owned” was the parcel that included the cave where Sarah was buried.  Abraham could easily have thought, “Well, I’m not going to own this land; God has promised it to my descendants.  So I’ll just do my thing, and I’ll leave it to them to respond to God and see whether God gives them the land.”  But he didn’t – and today’s passage makes it clear that God expected Abraham to tell his sons about God, and to teach them to honor God by doing what is right and just.

God had made the promise to Abraham to make him into a great nation, and to bless all the nations of the earth through him – and God would keep that promise.  But the opportunity for his descendants to participate in that work, and to experience God’s full blessings, depended on their willingness to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.  The fact is that they didn’t; the history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament demonstrates that many of them did not keep the way of the Lord, but instead followed the ways of the godless nations around them.  God still kept his promise, but they missed out on God’s blessing for them.

Application:  The phrase keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just is a powerful reminder to us that God expects us to honor and obey what he has commanded us.  We dare not think that we can do whatever we want and trust in God’s grace, because God’s blessings follow our obedience.  Then I will do for Abraham all that I have promised tells us that the ability and opportunity for Abraham’s descendants to fully experience God’s blessing was grounded in their willingness to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.  And our ability and opportunity to fully experience God’s blessings depends on our willingness to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.  

That doesn’t happen because we talk about how right and just we are, and point out how wrong and unjust other people are; it happens because we do what is right and just.  God has singled us out to live for him, so others may come to know him too. As the prophet Micah reminded us: “No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NLT).  We know how God wants us to live; to borrow a phrase from Nike, we need to “just do it.”

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding me today that you have called us to keep your way by doing what is right and just – and to teach others to do the same.  We teach them by modeling behavior that honors you, not by just telling people what to do, so help us to honor you with our actions and our attitudes today.  May our lives point people toward you and help them to find their way to you.  Amen.