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Thursday - Romans 8:1-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

The world is gripped by fear. Fear also has a hold on me and you. But Paul’s words loosen that grip and free us from its control today. Before we can hear those words, however, we need to address another fear which often seizes people when they read this passage. Did you notice the word “If” in the final paragraph of our reading today? It shows up three times. “If the Spirit of God dwells in you…if Christ is in you…If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus dwells in you…” It sounds like Paul is not sure. Should I be questioning these things? Here is one of the reasons why Pastors need to study the languages in which the Bible is written. Greek uses the word “if” in many ways. These are what I like to call “evidence ifs.” Imagine me pointing at the water on the window and saying, “If the windows are wet, it’s raining.” The question is not whether windows are wet. Paul is not calling into question whether the Spirit or Christ or God dwells in you. He is pointing to the Spirit’s presence and drawing conclusions much like I might point to wet windows and conclude that it rained. I find it easier to sometimes to substitute the word “since” when I am reading these verses: “Since in fact the Spirit of Christ dwells in you.” I think that gets a little closer in English to the way we might say what he means. 

Now we can hear the fear-smashing words of Paul. There is no condemnation for us. Since the Spirit of God dwells in us we are no longer in that flesh which has been incapacitated by sin. We are in the Spirit. That Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will also restore life to your mortal body. Death no longer has its grip on us. 

For Christians that means we no longer fear death. And without the grip of fear, we can lead our lives in service to Christ liberated from the mandates of fear. It no longer gets to call the shots. I may shelter in place, but I do this to spare my vulnerable neighbor. I may invest in my retirement accounts, but it is not because I am afraid of poverty, but because Christ has entrusted me with resources, and I will use them well. Own the decisions you make today. You have been liberated from the fear of death and all that Satan can throw at you. I can serve Christ today. I know the end of this story, and he has promised me life. 

Wednesday - Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
2     O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
    that you may be feared.

5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plentiful redemption.
8 And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.

“Out of the depths” cried the psalmist today. I wonder what his depths were. I have been a pastor for nearly 30 years and heard some truly horrific stories of human suffering. The human condition can often lead us to feel we are in the depths. Loved ones die, economies crash, abusive spouses and parents, and so much more can leave us with our head in our hands and weeping bitter tears. Are you afraid right now? The news is hardly good. This virus is frightening, and the measures taken to curtail its spread are having significant effects on the people of this whole planet. You might feel in the depths. Your depths might be compounded by all sorts of situations. I fear for a woman I know whose only respite from an unhappy marriage was that she could go to work and be supported by colleagues. What is happening in that home which was not happy before? I pray God’s Spirit is bringing healing to that relationship. 

Whatever depth you find yourself in today, the Psalmist offer us two very important things. The first is forgiveness. Sometimes our deepest sorrows are in some way self-inflicted. Sin has a way of making us miserable. But God has not reckoned the sin. As Paul says in Romans 5, we have peace with God. Jesus has established that peace for us. Your sins no longer are a barrier between you and God. 

Secondly, the Psalmist offers us hope for right now. God, who has forgiven us, did so out of his steadfast love for us. From the depth of our fear and sorrow we can lift our eyes toward God in hope. You have the promise. God will raise you up from the depths. Jesus will dry every tear. God is faithful. Hope in his Word and look to him. He does not disappoint. 

Tuesday - Ezekiel 37:1-14

(Again, thanks to Rev. Dr. Philip Brandt) 

1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

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My colleague, Herb Hoefer, used to say that you could tell the Christians in India, where he served as a missionary, because they had hope. He said they simply carried themselves differently as they walked down the street. He sent me over there for a couple of weeks to lead some pastoral conferences over a decade ago. I was not able to read the Indian expressions well enough to say that he was right, but I surely was struck by the indominable hope and joy I found in the Christian people I encountered there. The photo on the right is a young woman I met in an orphanage. Her parents had been swept out to sea in the great tsunami of 2004. She happened to show up in the photo, but her smile was hardly unique. It was all over that orphanage and other places I visited. 

There are undoubtedly many reasons for her joy, but I really do think that one of the reasons is the content of this reading from Ezekiel. The people of Israel at the time felt like they had lost all hope. They felt that they were dried up husks and cut off from God. The Babylonians had come and taken them from their homes, killed many, enslaved the rest. They were miserable. But Ezekiel calls them and us to hope in a God who, with a Word, calls forth living people from death. This young woman, who had every reasonable excuse to be angry or to despair found joy. That same God who, through Christian people, picked her up from the wreckage of a tsunami is present in your life today. He does not leave us. There is a good chance you are stuck at home, unable to leave your house except to get food or other necessary items. That is the governor’ order to the people of my state. These times feel strange and surely are not precedented in our lives. But they never exceed God’s ability to save. Hope in him. 

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.