Matthew 4:8-11 The Final Temptation

January 20, 2017

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. Matthew 4:8-11

Today the United States of America will inaugurate Mr. Donald J. Trump as our 45th President. People are very divided over this election. Some are overjoyed at the idea of a man with a great deal of experience in business coming into government with plans to shake things up, doing what he can to make things better. Others remain shocked that the tenor of his campaign evoked and used underlying prejudices and misinformation to fool people into thinking that he is something that he is not, which could result in the struggle for justice, freedom, and equal rights losing hard fought gains.

The inauguration will proceed with all of the pomp, pageantry, patriotism, and protest that have come to mark all such occasions. It is an event that is much bigger than the players in that it represents who we are as a people, what we stand for, and what we stand against. In all of that, we are a much divided people. And sometimes we need to ask – who is profiting from such division? Who is getting the short end of the stick?

Before Jesus moved out into the public dimensions of his ministry, the Bible tells us that he first suffered the private temptations of the desert. We have seen the first two. The temptation for material satisfaction and the temptation for personal safety. Both of these temptations were played in stereo during this past election season. The economy isn’t growing enough, our borders are insecure, immigrants are the cause, terrorists are at our gates – all of this reached deeply into our desires for materialism and safety.

And today we follow Jesus into the third temptation – the temptation for fame. To be known! To be honored! For the corner office on the top floor with everyone bowing down and telling Jesus whatever it is that might stroke his ego and convince him of his innate greatness. And Jesus will have none of it! Can’t you hear him spit the words in the devil’s face – “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

That one is pretty basic. It is foundational. If you want to reach back to the Ten Commandments you need only reach back to the first for it pretty well sums up Jesus’ response to the devil, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Oh, and by the way devil, you don’t own all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. They aren’t yours to give away…it just looks like it sometimes. Those all belong to God. Because everything belongs to God. They aren’t yours to give away, or to hoard. They are there that we might take care of what has been entrusted to us as a sacred trust. BTW, everything means everything.)

In the end, Jesus ends up in good hands. The angels come and take care of him. In the end, we will end up in good hands as well. Even if, in the meantime, we sell our soul to the devil for a little fleeting fame and fortune. Presidents come and go. Kingdoms and empires rise and fall. But we can trust that we will be OK in the end. Because we know the end of the story.

HINT: God wins.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you know how tossed and tempted we are by the cult of celebrity, the adoration of wealth, the business of business. We do pray for President Elect Trump as he prepares to steward the office of the presidency, and for all who will assume new positions of responsibility and public trust. May they discover the privilege of service and may they strive toward justice for all, the freedom to be, and the mutual responsibilities of godly citizenship. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 4:5-7 The 2nd Temptation

January 18, 2017

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying 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.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Matthew 4:5-7

See what happens when you slow your reading down? You notice little details that you have probably skipped over for years. Notice now that the devil, having just been stung by Jesus with a Bible verse after tempting to meet his most basic need, food, now ups the ante and HE comes at Jesus with a Bible verse.

(Note to self: Just because someone comes at you quoting from the Bible doesn’t mean that anything they have to say lines up at all with Jesus!)

(Further note to self: Don’t try and out Bible Jesus…)

But coming at Jesus with a Bible verse isn’t going to win the day. Not that we don’t try. We’re not above throwing Bible verses at God, expecting to hold God to keep up God’s end of the bargain. “But God, it says that ‘where two of you agree it will be done for you’[actually it does say that in Matthew 18:19…we’ll get to that later]…well, we got a whole bunch of people down here agreeing on stuff that just isn’t happening! What’s up with that?

The devil doesn’t get anywhere with that one. Which shows us two important things.

First, it shows us a Jesus who is going to slog through life just like we do. No short-cuts. He might feed 5000 people as an object lesson but there will still be days when he and his disciples go hungry. When the soldiers come at the end, Jesus gives himself up. If we’re tempted to imagine Jesus hovering two feet off the ground like some Holy Hovercraft (we’ll get to walking on the water soon enough as well), we have another think coming.

And second, Jesus teaches us that one of the best ways to interpret the Bible is to hold the Bible up against the Bible. When we do that we are forced to consider the source. To realize that real live flesh and blood people just like us put pen to paper, or quill to papyrus, in writing down their experiences and understandings of God. The world, the moment out of which they wrote, and their own development are important to our understanding of what they wrote.

God didn’t take a snapshot of reality several thousand years ago and then add an extra commandment (Thou shall not grow in understanding or experience!)

When we hold the Bible against the Bible we aren’t disrespecting the Bible. We are instead showing the highest respect for the Bible. And we are trusting in the on-going work of the Holy Spirit to teach us just like Jesus said would happen in John 14:26 and John 16:13.

I mix fabrics in my clothing. I like bacon (but it’s not on my current diet.) And I applaud gay marriage – FINALLY – but that doesn’t mean that I am selling out the Christian faith or I’m a heretic or I’m trying to destroy the Christian church.

I’m just trying to follow Jesus to the best of my ability, to follow grace where it leads, and I’m willing to take lots of steps without being able to see the staircase.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, the voices are all around us. Loud and soft, they call our names. They want us to follow. They want what we have. They tell us that we aren’t good enough or that we are better than others. They tell us we have to be rich to be good or that poor people are somehow holier than people who pay a lot of taxes. All these voices tempt us. Speak to us. Clearly and frequently, lest we go astray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 4:1-4 Jesus in the Wilderness

January 17, 2017

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:1-4

Even before the tempter shows up it is already a bit of a shock to our system to see Jesus moving, in the space between two verses in the Bible, from the affirmation of his baptism to the deprivation of the desert. That just doesn’t seem right to us.

And it isn’t like Jesus took a wrong turn on his way back to town. The text says that he was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” This whole scene is God’s idea.

Native American Sioux would see this as a vision quest. A time of disconnection and isolation, carefully prepared, to wait for clarity about self and life. Jews would immediately appreciate the significance of forty days and forty nights. Anyone in Jesus’ world would have recognized hunger as the vast majority of people lived at a bare subsistence, survival level.

But this time it wouldn’t be God who showed up but the devil. There would be no manna drop. Jesus would meet the temptation for fast food with a Bible verse.

He says, “It is written…” and it really is. In the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy where Moses challenges the people not to forget God in the coming good times of their lives. It IS written: 2Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.3He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 4The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. 5Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you.

Do we have room in our imaginations for a God who actively disciplines us? Do we have the courage to look in the mirror and be confronted by how much time, energy, and meaning we put into the pursuit of our own daily bread compared to how much time, energy, and meaning we put into listening, internalizing, and then externalizing what God says to us?

God takes Jesus away from a place of physical security and comfort to a new place on the edge. The wilderness. That place of powerlessness. And there Jesus reminds us that there is in fact something more powerful, more empowering, and more substantial than our next meal – there is a new found certainty that no wilderness can take us away from God’s presence. We have God’s word on that.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, mostly our lives are good times. Don’t let us forget you. And when things head south, when life gets hard, don’t let us forget you. Use our hunger to bring us back to you in spirit and in truth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 3:13-17 Jesus’ Baptism

January 16, 2017

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17

Something happened last week that left me feeling unsettled. It began in our confirmation class on Sunday afternoon. We are in the midst of our “Bible Overview” year and had finally arrived at the New Testament gospels. We were finally going to be looking at the stories of Jesus.

In the midst of our conversation, I realized how seldom we do that.

We had spent weeks walking through the Old Testament. We learned about the four main sections, the crucial history behind the text, some of the great stories, the emergence and the vital importance of the prophets. But still it felt to me like I was just giving a “lick and a promise” to the young people and their parents who faithfully came together to learn something new.

Flying across the United States at 2000 feet might give you a broad sense of the geography but you aren’t going to learn much about what it means to be an American.

We are, after all, Christians! Jesus is God’s revelation at the heart and soul of our faith. Jesus is the cornerstone, the fulcrum of history, our Lord and Savior. But our learning schedule would leave only two weeks to look at the gospels before continuing the journey through the rest of the New Testament and I realized that was not nearly enough.

So when I looked at the assigned readings for the week from Taking Faith Home I realized it was going to be more of the same. More readings from various books of the Bible that only tangentially dealt with the claims and the life of Jesus. And I just didn’t have it in me to do it. All I knew was that something needs to change. And since the reason I get up early in the morning to write devotions is primarily to invite others to join me in engaging the Bible on a daily basis, that change needed to happen with me.

All week long, instead of writing, I walked in the morning. I thought about people and I thought about the life and ministry of our congregation. And I realized that I needed to spend more time directly connected to the radical, challenging, liberating, hopeful stories of Jesus. So that is what I hope to do for awhile here. I want to slowly walk through the gospels and let them teach me anew about Jesus.

So we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning of his public ministry. The Bible tells us what we need to know – not always what we want to know. Infinite is the list of questions we all might have about Jesus the person, Jesus the little boy, Jesus the teenager. But Matthew and the others all start the public story of Jesus at the waters of the Jordan River and the hands of John the Baptizer. Jesus is baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”. It was the right thing to do. It resulted in a voice from heaven proclaiming, over Jesus and over each of us who have also been under those waters, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Regardless of the circumstances of our baptisms – the devotion of our parents, the haranguing of our grandparents, the peer pressure from our fellow students, or that dark crisis moment late at night in a hospital room – baptism marked the beginning of a new relationship with God and the beginning of our own personal ministries. It was the right thing to do. And God was very pleased with us, long before (and, we would come to learn, long after) we had the capacity to be pleasing.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we want to know Jesus even as we trust that we are already known by Jesus. For however long it takes, lead us through the stories of Jesus that have so long shaped our faith and our understanding. Help us listen well, engage deeply, and respond as you direct us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Acts 8:26-40

January 11, 2017

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. Acts 8:26-40

Godly appointments. Being in the right place at the right time. How many people have joined this Ethiopian eunuch in being surprised at how God shows up for us when we least expect it and are most ready to hear it?

Philip. He’s in the game. He is living the mission of the church. Always ready to season his conversation with his faith, even when God takes him to the most unlikely of places, to the most unlikely of people.

Again the words of my preaching teacher, Sheldon Tostengard, ring in my ears. “If you don’t know what else to say, tell them about Jesus. You can’t go wrong there.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you came to an Ethiopian government official riding across a desert in a chariot. Come to us today. You opened Philip’s mouth, gave him the right words to say, open our mouths today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 28:16-20

January 9, 2017

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

Yesterday morning in worship we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. That moment represents the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. While told slightly differently in each gospel, Jesus moves from baptism to wilderness preparation to going public with his teaching, his healing, and his challenging work.

This morning we hear his last words from Matthew’s gospel. These last marching orders are no less surprising than seeing Jesus climb down into the same muddy water of baptism that he would invite his future disciples into.

At this point, the ministry of Jesus isn’t all that impressive. He started with twelve key insiders and ended up with eleven. Even among those, gathered together again in Galilee, some still doubt. But that doesn’t stop Jesus. He has a job for them, even for those who doubt.

His charge is framed by two promises. Jesus himself will retain all authority – he is clearly the leader, the boss, the authority. Anything the disciples might do will always point back to Jesus. And Jesus promises to be with them, to the end of the age.

Jesus isn’t going to be some desk jockey boss without any of his own skin in the game. He isn’t going to sit in a cushy central office chair while everyone else does all the work. He will be with them. But he can’t do what only they can do.

Only they can tell the story. Only they can bear witness to what they have seen and heard. Only they can invite others to come and follow them as they together follow Jesus. That’s his plan. That’s his only plan. And that has always been his plan.

Now we are those disciples. The baton of the faith has been passed on down to us. We were baptized into this mission of baptizing, teaching, and making disciples. Jesus is still the boss, and his promise to be with us holds, but only we can do what we can do.

Now stop reading and look up from your screen. Look around you. Notice where you are.

The mission of those first disciples began on a mountain top. Your mission begins anew right where you are now. Let’s do the best we can.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, you have entrusted the treasure of telling the story of your love, your presence, and your will to fickle doubters like us. We don’t know if we are up to the task but we trust that you will give us whatever we need to do whatever it is that you want us to do. Take our hearts, inspire our willingness, and give us the courage to care. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Hosea 11:1-11

January 5, 2017

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord. Hosea 11:1-11

The more time that I spend listening to the Bible, the more I am convinced that we have done great damage to this incredible witness to God’s love by turning it into something it never was.  It is not a book, it is a library shelf. It was written over the course of a long period of time. People didn’t write the Bible and then experience God–they experienced God and then shared their experience in stories and words.

The more we understand the history and the context out of which the stories emerged, the more we can appreciate the stories.  Human nature has not changed much through the years. We see today’s world echoed in the stories of the past. The Holy Spirit guides this interaction of our lives and God’s word. To listen well to the stories, and to find ourselves in them, is how we discovered God working in our lives.

Hosea, like all of the prophets, was written during a period of great turbulence. The northern kingdom was in trouble. The Assyrians were powerful and would soon overrun the north. Trying to make sense of this, Hosea uses the covenant of marriage as a metaphor for our relationship with God. God is faithful, God’s people are fickle. God is trustworthy, God’s people are easily seduced by the gods who are not gods. The same God who brooded over the waters of creation is the God who tenderly cared for the people of Israel but none of that mattered.  They traded the God they could not see for the graven images, the golden calves, the sacred poles, the high places, that they could. And their lives fell apart.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel remembered these words from Hosea. He saw the connection. He saw how quickly people were reduced to bondage by chasing false gods. Trading in their freedom for slavery.  He saw Jesus as the embodiment of God’s will and God’s law. He saw God’s people as the bride of Christ. He saw Jesus, entering our lives, not to change God’s mind toward us, but to change our minds toward God. To see God as the source of our lives, and to see love as the path of our lives. As God intended all along.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you love us more deeply then we can know or imagine. Catch us up in our faithlessness and disobedience that we might know the freedom of being who you have created us to be, and loving our neighbor as you have created us to love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

Isaiah 60:1-6

January 4, 2017

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. Isaiah 60:1-6

Yesterday there was an article in the paper about what people have long called “the prosperity gospel”.  Here is another one. So this morning I see this text and I wonder what the people from that corner of the Christian world would do with it. My guess is that such eyes would automatically move to “the wealth of the nations shall come to you” or ”they shall bring gold and frankincense.”  Those are not my first thoughts.

Instead, I thought immediately about an email I received from our bishop recently. Bishop Rinehart regularly sends out commentaries on upcoming Bible texts for worship. In one of those, he added the Old Testament reference to the gifts of gold and frankincense. I have never noticed that before.  I almost wrote back to thank him for the quality of his work and his faithfulness in helping us prepare for Sunday worship but I got distracted.

As we have seen over these past several weeks of listening to Bible readings from Isaiah, the movement of the prophet from gloom to promise is all about telling the people, not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. As is often said, the prophets comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  The prosperity gospel fails to see beyond materialism and, in that, any promise has to do with worldly wealth and no one will ever have enough.

This is what happens when we twist God into the Great Santa in the sky. This feeds our selfishness, blunts our compassion, and ignores Jesus. It happens so quickly, and is so seductive, that we are easy prey.  So what are we to do?

The New Testament warns us about this. In Matthew 7 Jesus warns us to be aware of false teachers. 1 Timothy 4 says “If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

God is our best teacher; Jesus is the living illustration that God uses for our instruction.  Any teaching that draws us away from the lessons of Jesus will misguide us.  The more we learn about the faith,  the better equipped we are to recognize solid teaching and reject false prophets.

Let us pray:  dear Lord, we can be a selfish and disobedient people. We want to go our own way, do our own thing and get what we can get while the getting is good. Forgive us. Guide us to be more like Jesus.  May we love our neighbors more than we love our stuff, in good times and bad. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Isaiah 49:13-18

January 3, 2017

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. Your builders outdo your destroyers, and those who laid you waste go away from you.

Lift up your eyes all around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, says the Lord, you shall put all of them on like an ornament, and like a bride you shall bind them on. Isaiah 49:13-18

Through the years I have heard plenty of criticisms about congregations and their “edifice complexes.” Too much attention placed on buildings. Too much money spent on buildings. Too much ego gratification built into buildings. Yada Yada Yada. Well this morning I will offer one defense for church buildings (in addition to air conditioning): Building don’t move.

In good times and bad times, lean years and plentiful years, changes come and changes go, but church buildings don’t move.

Isaiah tells us that Zion cries out, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” But that isn’t how it works. God, like church buildings, doesn’t move.

I don’t know who first said it but, at least according to my life experience, they were right – whenever we feel we are far from God, we can be fairly certain that we are the ones who moved. That was the case with the ancient people of Israel and their fascination with false gods and their inclination to disobedience and it remains the case with us today. When we feel we are far from God, we moved.

Psalm 139 tells us that we cannot get away from God. We cannot hide from God. We cannot escape from God. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Which also means there is nowhere we can go where God is not.

Jesus promised us in John 14 that he would not leave us orphaned. God doesn’t abandon us. God doesn’t forsake us. That isn’t how God rolls.

But sometimes it sure feels like it!

And in those times, and they can sneak up on us from every direction, we do well to stop and take a quick inventory of what is going on. Is a false god in our life inviting us to run away from the real one? Is a broken relationship or a bad diagnosis calling our name and taunting us that God has left us so why not just leave God? Is worldly tragedy making us question God rather than confessing the depths of human sin and depravity?

In all those times, just remember, like a church building, God doesn’t move. And unlike a church building, every one of which will one day be rubble, every day with God is brand new.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, it seems that good times test our faith as powerfully as bad times. Any time can be a time for us to question your presence, your power, and your goodness. Come to us that we might come to our senses and trust that you are always right there, calling us home. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jeremiah 31:15-17

January 2, 2017

Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.

Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country. Jeremiah 31:15-17

What if Jesus was born today?

Bethlehem is in the West Bank. It is Palestinian territory. When I traveled there from Jerusalem I passed through exactly the kind of gate that I remembered separating East and West Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie. A tall concrete wall. Graffiti. Affluence and fear on one side. Poverty and despair on the other. Jesus would be a Palestinian Jew.

Jesus was born into a day when times were hard. Rome was a fearsome occupier. Everyone Jesus knew lived at a subsistence level. Barely getting by. Barely staying alive. Life was cheap and life was short.

I trust that Jesus was taught the history of his people much like we were. As children of the North we learned about a Civil War where the good guys won and the bad guys lost. It was a glorious, God-inspired victory. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord! Only later did I come to realize that other children were taught differently. Still later, that disease killed many more soldiers than bullets and bombs. War IS hell.

So Jesus no doubt learned stories of his people suffering. Under the Egyptians. Under the Assyrians. Under the Babylonians. Under the Greeks. Now under the Romans. Children killed in Egypt. Children killed in Bethlehem. Rachel is weeping for her children. But always the stories were tempered with hope – though we have often brought such destruction down upon ourselves, God will not forget about us. God will not let abandon us. We shall never lose hope.

What if Jesus was born today?

Would his life be any different? Would his life be any less obscure? Would his healing ministry be less welcomed? Would he finally not be rejected again with his pie in the sky ideas of loving God and loving neighbor? How is it that his life, his death, his resurrection, would renew trust in God and hope for the future?

Our whole lives many of us were taught that the only way to connect to Jesus was to confess our sins and “accept him into our hearts.” Such a tidy proposition. It cost us nothing but saying the right words in the right way to make all things right. Which led to acceptance among those who encouraged such a confession. We were in the club, on the bus to heaven!

Only later have we learned that there is so much more to following Jesus than this empty, hollow, game of lip service and social acceptance. There still remains the nitty gritty dirty business of actually living life with open eyes and open ears to the cries of mothers for their children as bombs fly and people die and others get rich by the carnage.

Loving God and loving neighbor. Neither is easy, safe, or socially acceptable. Both require choices to be made. Boundaries to be crossed. Weapons laid down. Whether then or now, Jesus was born into the real world, and his message of love would still be our only real hope.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, as we come into a new year, we continue to remember your birth. Your flesh and blood entry into a broken world. You embrace the broken. Guide us this year into real faith, real discipleship, real willingness to choose you and your way of being in our lives. For it is only in hearing the cries of Rachel’s children that we can know the hope of your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.