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Monday - The Prayer of the Week

Almighty God, by Your great goodness mercifully look upon Your people that we may be governed and preserved evermore in body and soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

If there was a prayer which was written for these days of pestilence and plague, this might just be it. God has all the power. We are counting on his goodness to mercifully look down up on us. The result of such a merciful look will be good governance and our preservation in body and soul. As of this morning when these are being written, it appears that much of the country is heading toward a mandatory isolation in place. Perhaps by the time you are reading these words you will be forbidden to leave your home except to procure food, medical care, or other absolute necessities. The governor announced just such an order in my state today. 

We pray for good governance. Yes, that surely includes the clarity of mind and insight to be self-governing in this time. God preserve us from joining the hoarders who can only think of themselves in these days. But we also pray for those who are empowered to govern. I am talking about the leaders of our state and federal governments who make the decisions that might save millions of lives or crash the economy. Pray for them. Even if you did not vote for them or if you personally loathe them, pray for them. Their decisions are important, and the Bible calls on us to pray for them. Paul prayed for Nero. 

Pray for those who govern, but also trust in God. The leaders of Jesus’ day thought they were saving their social order when they brought Jesus to trial and sentenced him to die. He looked to them like a dangerous man with revolutionary ideas who was likely to bring the wrath of the Romans upon them. It all made sense to them. They made a decision which looked right. As Caiaphas said, “do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50). Our leaders may make disastrous decisions or wise decisions. But it is never beyond God’s ability to save. He used the wicked and terrible logic of Caiaphas to save the world once before. 

We pray that God look upon us in his great goodness and mercifully govern and preserve us in both body and soul. Say that prayer, today and every day. 

Friday of Lent V - Luke 20:9-20

(Again, many thanks to Rev. Dr. Phil Brandt for the use of his devotions)

9 And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. 10 When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. 13 Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” 17 But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone’?

18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes what seems like a good idea at the time ends up being really foolish? I once thought it would be a good idea to buy a small Italian car. 1978 was not a good year for Fiat. There was a fault somewhere in the system that recharged the battery. I discovered that small cars can be push-started very easily by a couple of college friends. I always looked for a hill when I parked. Unfortunately, I attended school in Nebraska where hills are in short supply. 

Of course, a college student with an undependable car is not exactly a high-stakes scenario. All of us right now are concerned about decisions we and others are making. Pray for those in authority who are making the decisions which may save millions of lives. Jesus’ parable and my own automotive experience have taught me, however, that I should not have too much confidence in human decision making. What were those tenants thinking anyway? How could they have imagined that killing the owner’s son was ever a good idea? Yet, I have known enough people who made disastrous decisions to realize that Jesus has a pretty accurate picture of human nature. 

But turn to the final paragraph of this story and take heart in God’s nature. The scribes and chief priests are making a terrible decision. It probably seems like a good idea. Jesus was stirring things up and they were afraid. But their terrible, wrong-headed, and unjust actions would become the mechanism for God saving the world. I really do believe we need to strive to make good decisions. I think it is a good idea to take a step back and think again before we do something drastic. But never does this world, even when evil and death are at their strongest, ever slip from God’s grasp. The decision to kill the only righteous man who ever lived was a terrible decision. Look what God did with that. Rest today in the fact that throughout all of these days, God is still the creator, lover, and redeemer of you and the rest of this world. 

Thursday of Lent V - Philippians 3:(4b-7) 8-14

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, 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— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 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. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 

Paul’s little letter to the Philippians may be one of your best options for Biblical reading in these days of pandemic. Paul has every reason to be sour and unhappy. He is in prison. He has enemies who using this time of his imprisonment to self-promote, Paul admits that the authorities might execute him, and even his friend and helper, Epaphroditus, has grown grievously ill. But Paul is joyful. How can that be? Or perhaps and more importantly, how can I have that sort of durable joy which just would not be extinguished in Paul? 

Do you see what Paul is doing in this reading? Look closely at the first paragraph. Paul says his whole life lived without Christ is rubbish, trash to be taken away to the dump. Paul no longer lives in the middle of his universe. That spot has been taken by someone else. Now Paul revolves like a satellite around Jesus. He is caught in Christ’s gravity and he strains upward to Jesus. Jesus is his sun and source. Even if they kill Paul, they have not extinguished the light of his life. That light belongs to Jesus and it cannot be extinguished. Because Paul shines with that reflected light, Paul also cannot be really extinguished. 

Do you find yourself feeling down and perhaps a little sorry for yourself today? It can happen. It happens to me too. I find that when I get like that, if I take stock of myself, I am usually being very self-centered. I have allowed myself to resume my normal but sinful place in the center of my world. The best way to have Paul’s joy is to displace my ego from the middle of my world. And the best way to do that is to serve with love someone other than myself. Jesus is found today in the needy person in your life. Put Jesus and that other person first. You will find that the joy which Paul expresses in this letter is possible for you too, even in these days of anxiety and pandemic. Call a friend to see how they are doing, serve a neighbor, forgetting what is behind, strain to what is right in front of you. You will lose focus on your fear and sadness and might be very surprised to find that it has been replaced with an irrepressible joy. 

Wednesday of Lent V - Psalm 126

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
    we are glad.

4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like streams in the Negeb!
5 Those who sow in tears
    shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    bringing his sheaves with him.

Genesis tells us that we were made in the image of God. That word, image, has such a rich meaning. I think that being in the image of God has something to do with our imagination. We can imagine things that are not. Using imagination, we can also step into the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of another person through literature and art. If you think about that, we really are fearfully and wonderfully made. Of course, the fall has had its terrible effects upon us. Our imagination has often become a tool for our foe to sow fear and anxiety among us. In the absence of knowledge, our imaginations rarely trend positive. We always seem to imagine the worst. 

The Psalm today asks us to imagine the best, the day when the exiles of Israel could go home. They were walking around as if in a dream, their mouths full of laughter. It seemed unreal to them. Right now, the simple act of standing in front of a full grocery store shelf of toilet paper and choosing which package to buy might seem like a dream, another life entirely. It was only a few weeks ago that life was “normal.” Will those days ever return? I don’t know. Right now, such days might seem impossibly distant. 

The psalmist is remembering those good days which were in the past for him. He remembers the days when God restored their fortunes and then he turns to the future and looks for God to do it again. Yesterday Isaiah asked us to be open to God’s new thing that he was doing. Use your memory to reflect on what God has done and imagine what he will do for you in his goodness and mercy. 

Tuesday of Lent V - Isaiah 43:16-21

16 Thus says the Lord,
    who makes a way in the sea,
    a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings forth chariot and horse,
    army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
    they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 “Remember not the former things,
    nor consider the things of old.
19 Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild beasts will honor me,
    the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give water in the wilderness,
    rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21     the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise.

 

God is doing a new thing (vs 19). Those who have spent a great deal of time thinking about temptation and ministering to people who are tempted (all of us!) have observed that Satan is not very creative. His temptations tend to follow a handful of patterns. He uses fear and lust and greed to lead us to stumble, but the script is very much the same all the time. God, on the other hand, is exceptionally creative. Isaiah sees that in today’s verses. He remembers the great day when God parted the waters of the Red Sea but tells the people that God won’t rescue them that way again. This time, instead of dry ground in the sea they should expect water in the desert. 

How did that play out? God used Moses to rescue his people from a genocidal Pharaoh in Exodus. When the enemy of God’s people tried his same old genocidal tricks through Haman in the days of the Persian king Artaxerxes, God did not resurrect Moses. He sent them Esther. She did not save them with plagues and flight through the Red Sea. She threw dinner parties. I think this was so strange that the people of the time needed to be woken up to it. They were looking for a new Moses but got Martha Stewart instead! If you have extra time on your hands in these days of self-isolation, consider reading the story Esther in the Old Testament. It is a great account of God using regular people to work his Kingdom goals in difficult days. 

What has God got in mind in these days? I am no prophet and I do not know. I do know, however, that we will need to be open to God’s strange ways. He is creative. He rarely does the same thing twice. The closure of public gatherings and schools will adversely affect the churches of our land. I am concerned that people who stop attending church for weeks on end will get in that habit. I am concerned that parochial schools which were already struggling and now have closed, may stay closed for lack of students. But that is fear and our foe having the better of me. Today, through his prophet Isaiah, God is calling us to hope and openness to God’s salvation freshly and creatively expressed. 

Pray that God opens all our eyes to what He will make of this. It will be good. 

Friday of Lent III

(Alert: If you are reading this with small children, be aware that the story involves a woman’s sexual sins. You may need to edit appropriately.)

John 4

The Gospel reading for this week of Lent is the entire chapter of John 4. It is a passage which resists any editing or shortening. You may already know the story well but take a few moments to read it carefully. If you are doing this with someone, have someone be the narrator, someone be Jesus, someone be the woman, and someone else the disciples and the people from the city of Sychar. 

This woman was coming out to the well at noon because she was avoiding the other women in town. This part of the world is hot. Women come to a well like this to get water first thing in the morning when it is cool. It is a social event when they chat and help each other. She was not interested in their company. They scorned her. She knew why. They were right. Her life was a moral train wreck. She has this strange encounter with Jesus in which she asks him for the living water he speaks about. She thinks it is just water, but he has something very different in mind. He wants to restore her life. If he is going to do that he will have to deal with her sexual sins, and they are many! She tries to deflect the conversation, but Jesus won’t let her. She finally leaves her jug and runs to town. She exclaims to the people she meets, “He has told me everything I have ever done.” 

I want you to think about that encounter for a moment. Imagine you are one of the people of Sychar and the town’s most infamous sexual sinner has just come up to you and said those words. What thoughts are running through your head at that moment? “Wait a minute, he told you everything you ever did!? We have all been spending the last several years imagining and talking about all the things you have been doing. I have to meet this guy!” It says the whole town came out. Is this the reason why? 

The theme of this week is penitential humility. We often imagine that Jesus will use us in our best moments. We do the right thing and look over our shoulder hoping for God’s approval. But in this story Jesus sends the lowest person possible to be the evangelist of this town. It may well have been her worst moments which became the honey that attracted Sychar’s moralizing flies that Jesus might convert them. 

This Corona virus has many of us feeling helpless and powerless before it. Are you trapped in your house or missing your friends? It may well be that your helplessness will become the very instrument of Christ’s great work. 

Thursday of Lent III

Romans 5:1-8

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

There is so much in these words of Paul. We cannot possibly think about all of this in one sitting. Let’s focus on one part of this passage. Paul says that he rejoices in his suffering. I look around the world today and see so many people suffering, so many lives distorted, so many people’s livelihoods threatened by this disease, and so much anxiety. Suffering seems like a strange occasion for rejoicing. Is Paul just a little crazy here? I sometimes wonder if he were alive today, would we pack Paul off to a psychiatric unit somewhere. We medication for this sort of thing these days. 

Paul is not crazy, but he has been changed by an encounter with Jesus which started on a road to Damascus. One of the many changes that Jesus has worked in his life is the way he looks at suffering. It is no longer wrath God being poured out on Paul. He has peace with God. He stands in that peace through faith. God is no longer angry with Paul or you. Nothing can take that joy from Paul, not even suffering. For suffering itself has been changed. As Paul says, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Through suffering, specifically the suffering of Jesus, God saved this world and all its ungodly people. Suffering has become something else and that includes my own suffering. 

I don’t know what suffering will produce exactly in your life. Paul speaks of endurance, character, and a hope which is not put to shame. The devil may imagine that he has wrought some terror on the world through this virus. In one sense he has. But God is bigger than COVID-19 or our eternal foe. He will find a way to work in all things to the good of those who love Him. (Romans 8:28).

If you are suffering today, know that there are people praying for you and God is with you. Consider reading the words of Paul which he wrote at the end of chapter 8. 

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