Psalm 1—All Will Be Provided

Psalm 1 (NRSV)

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Today’s psalm transports us to a river, and it gives us two pictures: the picture of a tree, planted close to the river, and the picture of a wheat stalk off in the distance. The tree finds itself on the bank of the river, not so close that the water’s rising and falling would cause it trouble or erosion. Instead, it’s just a bit further. Far enough that the river to prevent danger, but close enough to the river to keep its roots well watered. It produces beautiful fruit. It’s leaves never whither. And it’s not because this tree is special. It’s because that tree is close to the river. Any tree, planted this close to the river, would do well.

And then, there’s that stalk of wheat off in the distance. Maybe it’s part of a field. Maybe it’s not. It doesn’t really matter. The point is: it’s far from the water. It has to work hard. It’s roots have to grow deep, and even then it will dry up at the end of the season, and it’s chaff will be blown away. Unnecessary. Unwanted. Unnoticed.

There’s nothing special, good or bad, about either of these plants. There’s just the proximity they have to the river. That’s what the psalmist helps us see. And it reminds us to stay close to the river—to stay close to Jesus—because we too aren’t terribly special. And far from the river, we’ll struggle to find water. And so, the psalmist encourages us to stay close to Jesus—our source of water and  trust that in his presence, all will be provided. 

Ecclesiastes—Meaningless

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-26 (NRSV)

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me —and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” That’s a message I so often hear. It usually sounds like this: “Life is what you make it.” Or “You only live once.” Or “Life sucks and then you die.” At the root of messages like these is the claim that life is meaningless, so you and I better find something meaningful.

And if you’re anything like me, then maybe you’ve felt the burden, because when life’s meaningless, it’s our job to create it. I mean, we can’t just do our jobs, because they’re important. We have to figure out why they’re important to us. The same goes for our marriages. We can’t just be satisfied in marriage. We need to figure out why they’re satisfying to us.

And it’s not just the big and important things in life; it’s everything. Should we shop at Aldi or Walmart? Whole Foods or some boutique shop? Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android? We’ve got to decide which is the most meaningful, because unless we decide, it’s all meaningless.

And that’s one reason among many that I delight in our God, because he is God—he is meaningful—whether we wish it or not. And he imbues meaning into our lives and world whether we make these decisions or not. Is there meaning in life? Is it all meaningless? His answer is, “There’s meaning in all of it, because that’s how I made.”

John 8:48-59—Much to Identify with

John 8:48–59 (NRSV)

48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. 51 Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ 55 though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” 57 Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

This is one of those passages where I don’t know who to identify with first. 

So first, I try to identify with the Jews, and I have some similarities. There have certainly been times in my life when I’ve played “devil’s advocate” with Jesus. (Wow, that word takes on a new, or perhaps original, connotation when I use it in this context.) Jesus, why do you allow evil in this world? Why am I struggling in this way? Why must he suffer, yet I’m fine? Why isn’t this easier for me? If you’re God, then …

But, if truth be told, I know in these situations that I’m playing a fruitless game. Asking these questions is simply my way of coping with some bigger issue that will ultimately involve Jesus drawing me ever closer to him as I come to terms with it.

  • Why am I struggling in this way? “Struggling sucks. Temptation sucks. I’ve been there.”
  • Why must he suffer with anxiety, yet I’m fine? “In this world you will have troubles, but do not loose heart for I have overcome the world.”
  • Why isn’t this easier for me? “I didn’t call you to an easy life.”

And so, I wonder how far these “Jews” are from me? They are, of course, not evil. Their lives are simply marred by sin in the same way that my life is marred by sin. And the difference between them and me is ultimately hard to quantify and were I to probe this too much, I’d probably realize that there’s nothing about me that makes me different from them.

And then, I try to identify with Jesus. Here are these people who just keep trying to poke holes in his life, his relationship with the Father, and his mission to restore all creation. It must have been so frustrating. He’s come to reconcile them with God, yet they just want to poke holes in his ministry. I wonder if any of them (or their children) ever became his followers? And then I notice that Jesus responds so differently than I would. He never tries to make himself seem reasonable. He never tries to show them why he’s right. Instead, he just tells them who he is. 

Acts 9:1-22—Through Their Eyes

Acts 9:1–22 (NRSV)

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

I picture myself along Saul’s side in today’s story. I’m with him as he travels to Damascus. This incredible thing happens to him. He tells me about it. The light flashing from heaven. The voice speaking from the sky. God’s word saying, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Yet I hear none of it. In one sense, Saul seems crazy. What’s gotten into him. In another sense, this makes him more credible, because his eyes are covered in scales, and he really can’t see. I’m not sure what to do, but Saul seems to know. We need to continue on to Damascus, but he wants to visit the home of a believer there. It’s all very strange.

And I hear the rest of this story through Ananias. What an incredible blessing it is to receive a vision from God. These aren’t the sort of things that happen every day. I know about the prophets of old who received visions—even my Lord’s parents. But me? Who am I to be blessed in this way.

At least that’s what I’m thinking until I receive his instruction, because I know who Saul is. We all know who Saul is. We’ve been told to be very careful—to stay out of his way when he enters town. But apparently he’s got my address, because the Lord sent it to him, and he sent it on purpose. How strange?

Yet the strangest thing about his message is that I’m not the one to suffer. Saul is. “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” That’s what God says to me. Now, I’m not sure exactly what he’s talking about. Part of me wants him to suffer. I mean, we’ve lost track of all the murders he’s responsible for. But when he comes to Damascus, I can tell that God’s up to something. Something indeed. This man who persecuted the church—this man who persecuted me—is completely different. If this isn’t God’s doing, I don’t know what it is.

Philippians 2:5-11 — Not to Be Grasped

Philippians 2:5–11 (NRSV)

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Verse 6 really captures my attention today.

“Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.”

I’ve always rushed by this verse, trying to get to the meat and potatoes of this passage—Jesus condescension, his obedience to God, his death on a cross. Yet before all of this happened, Jesus “did not think of equality with God as something to cling to” as the NLT puts it. And I just can’t imagine. So much of my life—my old, rebellious life—is spent trying to claim equality and peer-ship with God. That’s what sin is, isn’t it? I decide that I know what’s best. I decide that God doesn’t get to decide or that I get to decide in his place.

And I just can’t imagine what the world would look like if Jesus was like me—if he did consider equality with God something to be grasped as I do. We would be gods servants—his slaves. It would be like the age of kings in which monarchs claimed divine right—equality with or at least legitimacy from God—and extracted all kinds of goods and services from their subjects. And I know that I’m not any better than those monarch were—I’m just more accountable to the society in which I live.

Yet Jesus was different. He did not consider these things important. He considered me important. And so, “he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.” He made himself no different than me, yet he was completely different. And because of that, he promises that now I can be like him too.

Thank you, Jesus.

Amen.

Luke 20:9–20 – For Someone Like Me

Luke 20:9–20 (NRSV)

He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean:

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

Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.

I’ve always thought that the owner of the vineyard in today’s reading was a little thickheaded. Maybe that’s a bad thought to have, especially since Jesus likens this owner to our Father in heaven, but it seems like the guy can’t take a hint. Your tenants progressively injure more and more of your servants, yet you think, “Maybe they just don’t respect the people I’m sending enough. Maybe I should send someone they’ll respect more. Maybe I should send them my son.” I sort of want to shake the master and say, “You idiot! They’re not going to listen to him! They’re going to leverage him against you.”

So, what do I make of the fact that the master of the vineyard is the Father, the son is Jesus, and the tenants are the people that Jesus encounters before he tells this parable? I could tell myself, “Well, Jesus isn’t talking to me. He’s talking to the teachers of the law and the chief priests.” I could count myself out. But I also know that given enough opportunities, I too would leverage Jesus against the Father for my own benefit. Maybe not all the time, but I can certainly think of times when I would.

If my wife’s life were at stake or my family. If it meant jeopardizing the stability of our nation. I can certainly think of times in which I’d think, “God I’m not sure what you’re doing here, but this is really important!”

And it’s easy for me to dismiss what the chief priests and the teachers of the law are doing here. They’re bad guys after all. They’re trying to have Jesus put to death, but maybe they’re not as bad as I’d make them out to be. You see, Jesus is a big enough threat that they’re willing to work with the governor, the Roman governor, to have him put to death. They’re willing to admit that they’re wive’s lives, their families, their God ordained nation is ultimately under the power of Rome to prevent Jesus from upending it even more. He’s a huge threat—the kind of threat where you’d tell God, “I’m not sure what you’re doing here, but this is really important.”

So today, I realize just how easy it is, that I’m really no different from these teachers of the law and chief priests, and yet the Father sends his son to someone like me.

John 2:1-11 — Why He Comes

John 2:1-11 (NRSV)

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The interplay between Jesus’ and Mary really strikes me this morning. In a lot of ways, I really wish that John had told us more about their conversation. Mary comes to Jesus and informs her son of their predicament: They are out of wine. And while John doesn’t tell us a whole lot more about their conversation, I wonder: What was the tone in her voice? Was it a tone of desperation—perhaps because this is the wedding of a close family friend? Was it a tone of insistence. You’re young; you can do something! Or you’re the Son of God; you can do something. I remember getting these sorts of looks or sentences from my own mother growing up. Sure, they’re an observation, but they’re also a request. The wood pile is getting low. The toilet’s clogged. Your shoes aren’t where they belong.

And then there’s Jesus’ response. My hour has not yet come. And I know what Jesus’ is referring to here. He’s referring to the cross—to the crucifixion. Jesus is the Christ. He has come to save his people. And taking care of a wine shortage at a rural wedding in Cana of Galilee isn’t going to solve that problem. And so, I don’t really expect Jesus to do anything. At least, if I were to respond in this manner, that’s what I would mean. (And quite honestly, if I were to say to my mother, “Woman, what concern is this of you.” I’d certainly have earned myself a response beyond my mother telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”)

Yet, here’s the remarkable thing. Jesus does act. It’s not yet his hour, but he still acts. And he acts even though this isn’t some big, God-sized problem—even though this isn’t a death or an earthquake or a tsunami. And so, among all the things in this story, I’m reminded that God cares about me, because God comes and cares even when it’s something as small and cosmically insignificant as the wine on the third day of a wedding.

Prayer: Lord thank you for responding to your mother, and thank you for responding to me. Though many of my problems may seem small and insignificant, I know that you care about and are inclined towards me. Amen.

Luke 7:18-28 — What Did You Go Out to See?

Luke 7:18–28 (NRSV)

The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ ” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

“What did you go out into the desert to see?”

I hear Jesus asking me this question today.

  • I hear him asking it of all of us. He asks it of me when I attend and lead worship. “What did you go out to see?”
  • I hear him asking it when I interact with others: those I know—my wife, family, friends, and coworkers—and those I don’t. “What did you go out to see?”
  • I hear him asking it when I’m all alone. When no one else is watching, what do I do? What thoughts travel through my mind? In what ways do I spend my time? “What did you go out to see?”
  • And I hear him asking it when I buy and sell goods, when I purchase Christmas gifts, when I update my budget. “What did you go out to see?”

I hear it, because it’s not just my words, but my actions—my whole life—that answers Jesus’ question. “What did you go out into the desert to see?” This question and Jesus’ somewhat snarky response reminds me how easily I become like the religious leaders of his day, saying one thing but doing and meaning another. Do I follow God in name only? Or do I follow him, seek him, go out in the desert to see him with all my life and being? That’s the question I hear Jesus asking me. And my prayer is that Jesus would give me a heart like his—a heart to become the least in the kingdom of God. Because it’s not just my words, but also my actions, that answer this question.

Amen.