The life arrived in a box delivered to my front door. There was no way the living being could get out by itself, so I gently opened the package. I found what I was looking for – an apple tree! It was carefully wrapped – the trunk supported by a piece of bamboo and its roots in a moist packing of wood shavings. I was delighted to see this new tree that would be part of my life for decades.
I had just been entrusted with insuring that the tree’s life would continue, so I needed to act. The tree was helpless in that box. I could not make it grow, but I could provide the right conditions (justified) so it could have a healthy life. I dug a generous hole for the roots, carefully arranged the roots in the hole, filled the hole with good soil, and added water. I stepped back and admired this small whip of a tree and knew that it had been ‘reconciled’ to its new home.
I have a love for this apple tree – and the many others I have planted. Because of this love, I prune it (suffering); I stretch its branches so they won’t break under the weight of a full crop of fruit (endurance); I pay attention to the unique shape and health of the whole tree (character); and I anticipate the annual harvest of mouthwatering apples (hope). All these processes needed to happen to this life – an apple tree that appeared to be little more than a stick of wood in the box – to experience a generative outcome.
And the tree has its own ways of boasting – or shouting praise – as it produces buds, leaves and an abundance of fruit year after year!
In the same way, Christ is the orchardist of my life by bringing peace with God to me. Christ’s love is proven to me year after year by reconciling what I was with what God knew I could be. In response I commit daily to ‘shout out’ that love to all I meet.
SCRIPTURE: Romans 5:1-11 (NRSV)
God’s Promise Realized through Faith
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
There are few experiences in life that match that of driving for hours through the winding mountain roads of the Andes Mountains, reaching altitudes in excess of 3,500 meters. No matter which particular moment during transit, your position or vantage point, whether it is near the base or the peak, these mountains are absolutely massive. Not only are they massive in size, but they are vast; they seemingly go on forever into the distance. I have never felt so small as when I stood at the top of one of these mountains and gazed out all around me.
It is no wonder that there are so many Scriptures that reference the mountains and the Creator of these mountains. They are awe-inspiring! In the first verse we are invited to sing before the Lord, our rock of salvation. Sturdy, dependable, accessible and into whose presence we may freely enter. With joy! We have great reason to sing with joy, because our God is available. Incomprehensible and vast, much like the Andes Mountains. And yet here we read that we may enter the presence of God who is available to us. We may offer our praise, should we choose to enter. God is, was and will forever be standing there, our strong and dependable rock.
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 95 (NRSV)
A Call to Worship and Obedience
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.’
Therefore in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’
Trust and faith. The Israelites struggled with this a lot, and this is yet another account where we see the people of Israel failing to trust God. They didn’t have faith that God was right there with them watching out for their needs. In this passage, the Israelites were so furious that they were ready to stone Moses. Then Moses cried out to God and God provided water for the people. Wow. It’s amazing to me that with such a lack of trust and faith, God still gave them what they asked for. God is with us.
This passage reminds me of Matthew 6:31-32, where Jesus says, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly father already knows all your needs.” How much do we fail to trust that God will provide for us? We save up money for our own future as opposed to giving what we have now to the poor; we give only out of our abundance; we worry about things daily that are far less important than what we will eat, drink or wear.
Jesus calls these people who let worry dominate their thoughts “unbelievers.” Wow. Seems harsh. But it’s true. When we worry, we are not putting trust in God, or having faith that God will provide. We become unbelievers. So don’t be like the Israelites, who worry and get mad at God when God seems to be distant. God’s watching out for you, and for me. Just learn to follow God, and stay in touch with the spirit. Pastor Jim Brown once said, “Generosity is the cure to worry.” Just think about it. Give generously, love others and follow Jesus.
SCRIPTURE: Exodus 17:1-7 (NRSV)
Water from the Rock
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
THIS WEEK’S THEME: I will be standing there
My brother, who is three years older than me, got married last month on the beach. As I was sitting in my chair at the head table, I started looking at each person and I realized how our lives are all constantly changing. Time does not stop. We are not stagnant human beings. We all become older – our relationships change with our family and friends. We may view ourselves differently, but there always seems to be part of that same young child or teenager within each person.
It becomes so easy to think about the changes with negativity, sadness and fear. However, I have to stop myself. Tomorrow, and the change it brings, is a day not to worry about. The past has shaped each one of us to be the beautiful beings we are.
Instead of worry, sadness and fear, I begin to have joy for too many things to even list, but mostly the fact that my feet are able to dig into warm sand and I can be surrounded by my dearest family members watching my brother get married to a wonderful woman. I have hope that in the future, which will have its challenges, I will be okay with God by my side. God will be standing there.
The fear and worry subsides with the knowledge that things may be different tomorrow, but different is not a bad thing. I challenge you to enjoy today for today and not worry about tomorrow.
Matthew 6:34: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”
Transfiguration is a daunting word. The process of being transfigured is difficult. But in Matthew 17, Jesus’ transfiguration was simple. It makes me wish that I could be transfigured into a holy being as easily as Jesus was. But read on in the passage, and you will see that a mysterious voice has one command for the disciples: “Listen to him!”
God’s words to the three disciples were not complex teachings about life and faith. It is easy to get into life’s rhythm and forget about the simplicity of faith, of listening to both God and to nature. God tells us to “not be afraid.” Jesus did not answer all the disciples’ questions, but rather he calmed their fears. It is through listening to Jesus that the disciples were able to find peace, and we too can overcome our fears by grasping the simple, but often difficult, task of listening to God and allowing God to direct our paths. And just maybe, through listening and trusting in God, we too can be transfigured like Jesus.
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
My first thoughts about this passage are defensive because Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of faith” is often understood through Martin Luther’s writings to mean something given to us as a gift rather than something we earn by doing good works. I have not found Martin Luther’s dichotomy between two kinds of righteousness helpful because it rips Paul’s thought free of its foundations in the Old Testament teachings of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, from whom Paul takes his mandate to be the apostle to the nations through a ministry of reconciliation.
Isaiah and the prophets insist that true worship and acts of righteousness go hand in
hand. Luther reduced Abraham’s faith to one act of obedience rather than a life through which Abraham bore witness to the one true God by being the first to worship God alone. I think of the story told in the Jewish midrashic tradition, in which Abraham is left to tend his father’s idol shop. When his father returns, he finds the idols smashed to pieces. Abraham points to the one remaining idol with a club propped in its hands as the culprit. His father states bluntly that it is not possible for a lump of clay to do anything. By conceding to his father’s point, Abraham makes his first statement as a monotheist.
Just as the prophets found that true worship of God could not be separated from righteousness, I see in this passage an affirmation that the beginnings of righteousness lie in Abraham’s worship of the one true living God, creator of heaven and earth. The act of justifying the ungodly is the act of bringing the nations into a worshipping relationship with God not through the redemptive act at Sinai, but when God extends forgiveness to the nations through Jesus’ death and resurrection. God’s righteousness lies in God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham, that he becomes a source of blessing for all nations. Paul understands Jesus’ gift of grace as the fulfillment of that promise because Jesus brings Jews and Gentiles into one worshipping body.
Paul’s appeal to Abraham reminds me that we find God’s righteousness through worship of God, in which we recount the narratives of God’s mercy, repent of our failure to enact God’s mercy towards others, giving thanks for the forgiveness and blessings we receive and praising God for God’s goodness and the goodness of God’s creation. We go into the world inspired to honor God and Christ by enacting their righteousness through acts of mercy and offering the blessings we have received to others. There is no dichotomy between two kinds of righteousness.
SCRIPTURE: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (NRSV)
The Example of Abraham
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
God’s Promise Realized through Faith
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
At 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 20, I opened my eyes to find myself on the floor, with a bruised knee, eye, hand and elbow. Eight strangers with furrowed eyebrows stood above me, waiting for me to speak. What are you supposed to say after passing out in public? As if I knew these people for years, I mumbled: “Hey!”
Do you know where you are? I did.
Do you know the date? Oh no! I never know the date!
With the hands of these strangers, I was pulled up from the ground. Under concussion precautions, I was transported to the emergency department of the hospital. Upon arrival, my heart started racing – at a rate of 216 beats per minute. Not only was I admitted for a potential concussion, but a suspiciously rapid pulse!
I was poked, prodded, jabbed and stabbed with more hands.
Tests, labs and scans returned with no complications.
Unable to ease my heart rate, my old ticker was stopped completely and restarted.
It worked! My heart rate settled.
Though I was met with continuous misfortune throughout the day, there was always a hand. Whether it was a hand pushing a gurney down hospital corridors or umpteen hands lifting me from the ground, I always had a hand.
It’s important to recognize that a higher being works in various ways.
In this case, hands. Lots and lots of hands!
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 121 (NRSV)
Assurance of God’s Protection
A Song of Ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.
Today’s scripture marks the very beginning of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Abram encounters God and is challenged to leave behind all that is familiar. God asks Abram to trust that he will be led to a new land. As a reward for his trust, he will receive a blessing. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word used here for “bless” is “to kneel down.” Its extended meaning is “to give something of value to another.”
Some Christians equate blessings with wealth. A “prosperity gospel” website announces, “God’s desire is for His children to be rich… not just in spiritual blessings but in material blessings as well.”
Abram does become a rich man, but God’s promise to him does not focus on material wealth. God wants Abram to be a blessing to “all the families of the world.” The goal of faith is not a comfortable family dynasty. The goal of faith is for God’s blessings to flow through the trusting ones out into the world. What might those blessings be? Money and material goods? Yes. Healing, hope and hospitality? Of course.
But the most precious blessing anyone can receive or give is always love—the kind of love that kneels down before another and offers something of value with open hands.
Bryan Moyer Suderman, founder of Small Tall Music, writes catchy tunes with important messages. His lyrics to “The Blessing Song” echo the promise of God to Abram in Genesis 12:
I will bless you, I will bless you, I will bless you so that you will be a blessing too.
Go to the land that I will show you. I will bless you.
Through your family, I will bless all the families of the earth.
It’s not for you to keep for yourselves.
It’s not because you’re better than someone else.
It’s not because I love you more than any others.
I want your help to share my love with everyone.
I will bless you, I will bless you, I will bless you so that you will be a blessing too.
SCRIPTURE: Genesis 12:1-4a (NRSV)
The Call of Abram
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.
THIS WEEK’S THEME: The LORD is your shade
I always slept with the closet light on. What my parents told me about saving electricity didn’t matter. For one, I didn’t pay the bills. But more importantly, I was sorely afraid of the dark and couldn’t fall asleep without a nightlight.
Eventually, the nightlight became more annoying than comforting. Now, in the light, sleep doesn’t come easily – it’s in the shade of night that I can finally rest.
This week’s devotional theme is, “The LORD is your shade.”
Jesus said the church is “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14) and King David called God’s word “a light to my path” (Ps. 119). However, this week’s theme explores an opposite idea: God meets us in the shade.
Lent is an opportunity to dwell in the shade of God, before celebrating under the light of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. During this shaded time, it’s tempting to flip on a nightlight. But in the shade, we also encounter God.
The shade is where God meets us in our suffering. It’s where God feels the pain of racism, violence and oppression – with us. It’s a place where loneliness is outmatched by God’s presence. It’s where Jesus entered our broken world, held our hands and declared that the chains of sin don’t imprison us anymore.
In a shaded place, Jesus looked at us and said, “In me, you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)
During Lent, we join with God and with each other, asking, “What have we witnessed?” And we see clearly without a nightlight that God has been with us, even in the shade.
Jesus knows hunger. Deep, gnawing hunger – the kind that would send most of us speeding through the nearest drive-thru, rummaging through the fridge with shaky hands, sifting through the compost, even. Drastic, painful hunger.
My comfortable lifestyle (and lack of discipline, to be honest) does not grant me a familiarity with this kind of hunger. But there’s another type of hunger I know very well. A hunger for love, vocational fulfillment, the safety of my family, financial security. First world hunger, the kind that goes with privilege. It’s a hunger of deficit – the space between what is, and what we want.
The crucial difference between Jesus’ behavior in this passage and my own approach to hunger is this: Jesus allows his hunger to propel him INTO God, whereas mine frequently drives me away from God. Jesus’ loneliness and pain in this passage only serves to strengthen his resolve. Rather than becoming weak, fearful and lacking in conviction, the opposite is true. In his pain, Jesus becomes strong. In his hunger, Jesus’ connection to his Creator, his True Parent, solidifies.
My tendency during periods of hunger? Much fist-shaking, questioning, wondering “God, my God, where are you?” Desiring my freezer to be filled with God’s manna, in labeled Tupperware containers. Begging for more signs, more answers, more promises.
“God, I want more!” The response? “I know, my child.” “God, I want security, a future, a hope!” “I know, my child.” “God, I’m hungry!” “I know, my child.”
May we, this Lenten season, allow our own hungers to strengthen our resolve. May we choose deeper unity with the One who knows our pain and welcomes us with open arms.
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.