Archive for March, 2009

Tuesday, March 10th

March 10, 2009

“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 quarreled 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 quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”  Exodus 17:1-7

 

Yesterday they were hungry.  Today they are thirsty.  And you really can’t blame them.  There are no doubt worse things in life than walking through a desert wilderness all day only to arrive at a campsite with no water…but that would be pretty tough.

 

Which reminds me, in a world with millions of people who suffer every day due to a lack of sanitary and available drinking water, we have it pretty easy.  I experience being thirsty but I can’t remember the last time I had to endure that feeling for longer than a few minutes.

 

The interesting part of this story is how the crowd complains to Moses.  He has walked as far as they have.  He is as thirsty as they are.  He has no more water than they do.  But he gets their complaints.  More on that below…

 

Every pastor, every person in any position of authority, every parent who has driven the kids on a long trip with them constantly fighting in the back seat has to love how Moses responds – first to the people, “Why do you quarrel with me?” and then to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people?”

 

Moses gets their complaints.  Of course he does.  That is his job.  He is their leader.  The very fact that they are complaining to Moses demonstrates their understanding that he is, in fact, their leader.

 

They have a leader in the wilderness.  His presence and his role means they aren’t lost…they’re just taking the long way around.  And Moses is a good leader.  He realizes that he and the crowd aren’t alone.

 

So, although he might be frustrated and exasperated and tired of the whining, he brings, once again, their cause to God.  And then, in faith, he strikes the rock at Horeb and streams of living water flow out to quench the thirst of all.

 

So it is in the wilderness. When things seem horrible, surprises abound.

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, help us trust your provision when we seem lost in our complaints, our hunger and our thirst.  Thank you for leaders who know where their power and authority come from, and thank you for the surprising glimpses of grace you give us when we least expect it.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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Monday, March 9th

March 9, 2009

“The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”  Exodus 16:1-3

 

This week we’re going to join the children of Israel on their walk through the wilderness.  The wilderness wanderings, one of the defining experiences in shaping the cultural consciousness of Judaism, is tied deeply into our own lives as well for we have all tasted “wilderness experiences” along the way.

 

When we pick up the story, they have been out of Egypt for about 45 days.  They are complaining about being hungry and already starting to reframe their memories of life in Egypt.  To gain a little perspective on their complaints, remember that they had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years.  They had been harshly abused, used as slave labor, their children targeted for extinction.  But now, after all of that, in less than two months of freedom, they want to go back and get a little more of that oppression.

 

There might be a lesson in this for us.

 

God wants us to be free.  Free to live, free to love, free to worship, free to serve, free to succeed.  God wants this freedom for all people, not a select few.  But this freedom is not without price or cost.  It is a freedom within a spiderweb of interconnected and interdependent relationships. Freedom thus comes with responsibilities.  Rooted in God’s love, God’s freedom makes us “response-able” people and our response leads us in seeking freedom for all.

 

The truth is, 400 years of slavery has caused the people to forget what freedom is like.  They have forgotten that the fleshpots and bread they remember with such yearning was only a rope of slavery around their neck.  Their time in the wilderness would become for them a living lesson in letting go of a past in preparation for accepting a new future.

 

Along the way, all complaints aside, God would provide for their needs.  Their needs, not their slavery-stained desires.

 

A little tidbit from the recovery movement comes to mind:  Don’t leave before the miracle happens.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, as we begin a new week, and as so many begin this week with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, we pray that you might teach us what you would have us know as we travel through the wilderness of our lives.  May we trust your provision and be open to the lessons along the way.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Friday, March 6th

March 6, 2009

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”  John 19:16-22

 

When all is said and done, there is only one important mountain.  It isn’t Mount Vesuvius, home of the gods.  It isn’t Mount Everest, the natural world’s tower of Babel.  It isn’t a place of glory and honor but a misshapen hill just outside the old city walls of Jerusalem.  Golgotha.  The Place of the Skull.  Mount Calvary.

 

Moses left the mountain to travel back to the Egypt from which he had fled.  He later came down another mountain to bring order into the lives of his followers, order which they rejected.

 

Elijah came down from Mount Carmel to the desert into which he retreated in fear for his life.  Jesus came down from the mountain of his transfiguration to the crowds who waited down below – the hungry crowds who didn’t realize what they were hungry for.

 

No one stays on the mountain.

 

Jesus spent a horrific day on that final mountain.  But he didn’t stay there.  From his mountain to his tomb.  But he didn’t stay there either.

 

And where did he direct his disciples to meet him after his resurrection?  To another mountain top in Galilee.  Yet even then, Jesus met them only to send them.  To send them back to the plains with a story to tell and a mission to accomplish.  If you are a person of faith, baptized into the kingdom, and you are willing to carry that story to another person, then you are evidence of the faithfulness of those first disciples.

 

There was a disagreement on Mount Calvary.  Some argued that the sign should read, “This man said…”  But Pilate wouldn’t give.  He left the sign up that declared the bloodied Jesus to be King of the Jews.  Was this Pilate’s way of sticking it to those who made his life complicated?  Was this God’s ringing endorsement of the suffering, redemptive, love of Jesus?  Can’t it be both?

 

Few of us live on mountain tops.  Most of us think they are nice to visit.  They put our lives into perspective.  They teach us about God’s vastness even as they encourage humility in us.  But ours is not a mountain top faith.  Ours is a faith lives in the valleys, the highways and byways of the lives of real life people.  May the mountain tops of our faith – especially that misshapen hill outside of Jerusalem – bring purpose and meaning to our lives. 

 

Let us pray:  Thank you, Jesus, for taking our brokenness unto yourself as you were lifted high on Golgotha.  May your redemptive love flood us with courage and conviction as we tell your story in words and deeds.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Thursday, March 5th

March 5, 2009

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  Mark 9:2-8

 

There are high points in all of our lives – great accomplishments, graduations, beginning new careers, marriages, the births of children, the births of grandchildren.  The most memorable of these moments feel almost transcendent, otherworldly.  We can’t imagine our “good fortune.”  We know we’ve seen a glimpse of glory. We know we have been truly blessed.

 

Here, halfway through the gospel of Mark, Peter gets such a glimpse.  He sees Jesus together with the heroes of the faith – his own “Field of Dreams” – and he hears God’s affirmation of the person and ministry of Jesus.  It was a mountain top experience on top of that mountain, no wonder he wanted to stay!

 

As I find myself now realizing more and more each day that my time at Covenant is drawing to a close, I look back and see many mountain top moments along the way.  I remember well certain moments, certain accomplishments, that we celebrated at our little congregation on the west side of Houston.

 

But glimpses, by definition, are fleeting.  Which is not to take anything away from them.  They are what they are.  But then – “poof” – they are suddenly looking around and seeing no one but Jesus.  It’s over.

 

Soon they would leave this mountain behind.  They would carry the memory, the vision, a renewed sense of purpose and God’s favor, but they would carry all that back down to the valley of life and the mountains yet ahead.  For now, just now, we enjoy the peak.  Or is it the “peek”?

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, thank you for the little peeks you give us into the glory of your kingdom at those peak moments, those wonderful moments, of our lives.  May such moments encourage us and send us forth down the paths you open before us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 4th

March 4, 2009

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.  At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”  1 Kings 18:30-39

 

At first it seems that the story is about Elijah doing battle with the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.  Elijah, alone and unarmed, against 450 of the best and brightest prophets of the false god in which the people’s hopes had come to rest.  As if that weren’t enough, Elijah did the equivalent of tying his arms behind his back, standing on one foot and hiding his eyes.  He covered the bull on his altar with water and joined the false prophets in the “Battle of the Burning Bulls.”

 

The false prophets prayed, pranced and prattled all day long but couldn’t produce a spark, let alone kindle a flame.  Even in the face of Elijah’s prophetic trash talking, Baal didn’t answer.

 

Then, with a single prayer, a solitary plea to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Elijah’s sacrifice burned like a $20 bill in a teenager’s pocket.  Gone in a flash.  Winner:  Elijah and the one true God.

 

At first it seems that the story if about Elijah doing battle with the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.  Until we see the response of the people in the 39th verse.  Then we see the battle for what it truly was.

 

It was a battle for the hearts and minds of people who ought to have known better in the first place.  It was about God graciously accommodating the needs of his fickle-faithed children.

 

The mountains of our lives are tests.  Tests of loyalty and tests of power.  Tests, not in the sense of passing and failing but tests in the sense of burning away the impurities of our doubts, despairs and defects.  Those mountains never go away, they just keep coming and coming.  Elijah tasted God’s power that day on Mount Carmel;  it wouldn’t be long before Elijah would taste again a sense of God’s  absence.  Then too, it would be faith that would make Elijah well.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, we often long for the kind of cosmic display of your power seen on Mount Carmel.  Yet even in that story, we see that such longings display a lack of faith on our part.  And then we realize that it isn’t the majesty of a fire but the still small voice that reassures us of your presence that is what really strengthens our faith.  Speak that word to us today.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 3rd

March 3, 2009

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.  Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.  As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the LORD descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people not to break through to the LORD to look; otherwise many of them will perish.  Even the priests who approach the LORD must consecrate themselves or the LORD will break out against them.”  Exodus 19:16-22

 

The first time that Moses met God on a mountain, God revealed himself in a burning bush.  Moses could only see God’s backside.  When asked for a name, God said only an obtuse “I Am.”  Now today, at the foot of the mountain where Moses would soon receive the commandments, God appears only in smoke, thunder and lightning.

 

What do we make of that?

 

As a pastor, I am often asked the hard questions of the faith.  Things like, “What happens to babies who die without being baptized?”  “Do you have to be baptized to be included in God’s kingdom?”  “What will God do to Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims at the last day?”

 

Often in the face of such questions, Martin Luther would return to these scenes of Moses’ encounters with God.  The Moses who only saw God’s backside, not God’s fullness.  Luther would remind us that God only reveals things on his own terms, in his own time.  God reveals what we need to know;  what we WANT to know often remains shrouded in mystery.

 

Why?

 

Because we live and walk by faith, not by sight.  We live by trusting in the goodness and the graciousness of God.  We trust in Jesus, the God whom we can see, who reveals the essential love of the God whom we cannot see.  But that isn’t good enough for us.

 

If you have time, read the rest of the story of Moses on Mount Sinai.  After you are reminded of the prominence of the Ten Commandments, skim quickly through the next chapters until you get to the 32nd chapter.  After hearing this long account of God’s conversation with Moses on the mountain, the 32nd chapter will amaze you when you see what has been going on back at the ranch.

 

Aaron and the folks have made themselves a god.  They have melted the jewelry which they had received from the Egyptians and have fashioned themselves a golden calf.  They made their own god – one they could see and touch and control and take credit for.  Impatient at the God whom they could not see, they settled for one of their own making.

 

Which God do you want to follow?  The God whom you cannot see but can only trust, or the quick fix gods of our own making?

 

Let us pray:  Dear Jesus, we can be so restless and impatient.  We don’t like to wait – we want answers and action and certainty.  We want goodies more than goodness.  Help us embrace the mysteries and walk by faith.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Monday, March 2nd

March 2, 2009

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…Exodus 3:1-8

 

The rhythms of my life used to include an annual drive from North Dakota to the Seattle area.  The high point of the trip, literally, came when this prairie raised boy drove ever closer to, then through, the majesty of the mountains.

 

It is easy to see how the ancient ones set mountains aside as the seat of the gods.  They tower over life below, dancing with the interplay of light and shadow.  And they test any person that dares conquer them.

 

Like everybody else, I would drive through those mountains and wonder at the courage of the first pioneers who figured out a way to cross them.  I would admire the ingenuity of those who ran the first rail lines and cut the first highways that “tamed” the mountains for future travelers.  The mountains were a joy.

 

But the strangest parts of that drive were the “continental divides.”  A continental divide is a geographic feature where the rain which falls heads toward lower ground in two different directions.

 

I was confused the first time through as I actually crossed several continental divides and not all of them happened at the mountain passes I expected.  I thought there was only one and it ought to be at the highest point of my drive.  But, like life itself, it doesn’t work that way.  It is never as simple as it seems, or as we long for it to be.

 

Whenever we reach key turning points, like Moses on Mount Horeb, we get just a little bit afraid. Are we doing the right thing?  Does God really want this?  Couldn’t God choose a better leader?  Can we really take God at his word when he promises to provide what we lack?

 

All week long our devotions will look some key turning point, mountain top, experiences in scripture.  I hope they encourage us as we traverse the peaks and valleys of our lives.

 

Let us pray:  Guide us ever, Great Redeemer, pilgrims through this barren land.  We are weak but you are mighty, hold us with your powerful hand.  Hold us indeed.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.