Believe, Trust, and Love

“Believe, Trust, and Love”

John 3:14-21 – March 14, 2021

            Have you seen the televised sporting events where people in the crowd hold up big signs? These signs have all kinds of messages on them – from super fans supporting their teams to political messages. Sometimes, someone will show a large sign with “John 3:16” printed on it.

John 3:16 – this is one of the dearest and most memorized Bible verses of all time. “For God so loved the world that God gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not die, but have eternal life.”

            Have you thought about what that beloved Bible verse means? I mean, really means?

            Many people have a romanticized idea of love in their minds. With Valentine’s Day so recently celebrated, a month ago, when some think of “love” they think of Cupids and flowers and hearts. Valentine’s Day cards and chocolates in heart-shaped boxes for your sweetheart. This idealized, Hallmark-card conception of “love” is not what the Apostle John mentions here. Not by a long shot!  

            The idea of taking a single Bible verse and displaying it for everyone to see is a tricky proposition. People can run into all kinds of problems and misunderstandings that way. It’s like taking John 3:16 and saying that God’s love is all hearts and flowers, lace and Valentine’s Day wishes – and that is all. This superficial way is not the way to interpret individual Bible verses.

            The most important thing when we consider a single verse from the Bible is to look at the context. Where does it come from? What was happening in the Bible chapter? Was it part of a conversation or discussion? An extended statement or argument?

            John chapter 3 is early in the Rabbi Jesus’s ministry, and He was already gaining wide popularity and even stature for His great Biblical knowledge and understanding. An older man named Nicodemus, a learned teacher and member of the national Jewish ruling council, was so intrigued with Jesus that he snuck away to meet Jesus one night, under cover of darkness.

            During that extended conversation, Nicodemus and Jesus cover several important topics: Moses in the wilderness, how Moses saved the people of Israel, Nicodemus as a leading teacher of Israel, and how to be born from above. It is then that Jesus makes this extraordinary statement: God so loved the world.

            Several of these topics in John 3 have the foundation of belief. We need to believe in order to live. In order to be born from above. In order to have eternal life. Except – belief can be strictly intellectual. It can be cold-hearted and clinical. We can believe in the law of gravity. We can believe in the rules of cleanliness and hygiene for good health. We can believe in the invisible electric current that flows through our walls, enabling us to have electric lights, power for appliances, and power for our computers and cell phones.

            But, this pure, clinical statement of belief – even belief in Jesus’s statement “God so loved the world” – is not necessarily earth-shaking, not deeply emotional, never even reaching down into our very souls.

            If we consider the word “believe” – as used in this verse 3:16, and verse 3:18, too – I do believe in gravity, or electricity. But, is this intellectual belief enough? Will this kind of belief get me through the difficult times, or the painful situations, or those times when you or I cry out in despair to God? Sometimes, cold, pure belief is not enough.

            Another, alternate word that can be used to translate this Greek word for belief, pisteuo, is “trust.” Trust is more immediate, more intimate. Commentator Mark Skinner suggests that we use “trust” instead as we read this verse:  “For God so loved the world that God gave His one and only Son, that whoever trusts in Him shall not die, but have eternal life.”

            “Jesus is asking his hearers to trust that, in him, God has given a gift of love. Jesus urges them to commit themselves to that reality and all it entails. Trust will change a person. God’s love has consequences. How does one merely believe in love, anyway? Trust is riskier. Trusting in another’s love entails surrender.” [1] Trusting God is riskier, too.

            When my children were younger and went to church youth group, several times they had an activity called “trust falls.” This activity is called different things in different youth groups, but it has “trust” as the primary ingredient. The youth group would get in a tight circle, one member would stand in the middle, and then they would fall backwards, trusting the other members of the group to catch them as they fell. Trust taps emotions. Trust takes risks.

            It is difficult to trust that God can see us through, sometimes. More than intellectual belief, do we trust God to be there for us? To walk with us, or sit with us, right by our sides?  

            Some people cannot get past the words “God so loved the world.” If they trust that God loves them, they think God can’t possibly love their awful neighbor. Or the guy who cussed them out in traffic. Or the lady who is always really mean at the store. God can’t possibly love them? God loves the world – except for those people from a certain country overseas. Or, except for those homeless people. Or, except for those people who believe something really weird. Or, well, you get the idea.

            God’s love is extended to each of us. To all of us. “The love of God means blessing and belonging, even when the world around us chooses the way of death and self-interest.” [2] Even when we as fallible humans slip and slide in our trust of God, the Lord will never waver in persistent, caring love for each of us. And, that is a promise that is faithful and true – we have the words of Jesus on it.

For God so loved the world. Even you and even me. Amen.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/love-among-the-ruins

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Reviving the Soul

“Reviving the Soul”

Psalm 19:7-10 (19:7) – March 10, 2021 (Midweek Lenten Service, Week 3)

            When I think back to elementary school and the playground, a lot of memories come back. Isn’t it that way with you, too? Many children really want to know the rules for specific things, whether it’s games, or the class schedule, or riding the bus. How many of us recognize the plaintive cries, “It’s not fair!” and “You’re breaking the rules!”

            Here in Psalm 19, we see a number of statements about the rules of God. The Lord loves the people of Israel so much that God has set boundaries, and has shown us standards to live by. Although many people don’t give a care about God’s rule book or God’s law codes, Psalm 19 lets us know that God cares, very much.

            Psalm 19 uses several synonyms for the rule book of God, including laws, decrees, statutes and ordinances. Setting boundaries or parameters around behavior and speech, giving God’s people standards to live by are totally in keeping with God’s loving care for God’s people.  

            Let’s take a closer look at verses 7 through 9. Each verse begins with a synonym for God’s rule book – the Torah, or Law of the Lord. Law, decrees, precepts, commandment, fear and ordinances. All of these refer to the Scriptures as a whole. Plus, this psalm does not mean “law” in the legal sense. According to commentator Rolf Jacobson, God’s rule book refers to “’instruction’ in a more holistic sense. This section of the poem celebrates what God has done and continues to do through the Scriptures. God revives the soul, makes wise the simple, enlightens the eye, endures forever, and is altogether righteous.” [1]

            Psalm 19 is chief among these hymns of praise and thanksgiving, specifically for lifting up the Word of God. Or, as we can see, the instruction book or rule book of God.

            In this past year of the pandemic, all of us, everywhere, have had to adapt and react to new and ever-changing rules, regulations and laws. This has been a tumultuous and upsetting year for most everyone, especially those who have had their personal lives turned upside down by COVID. The majority of society has conformed to these rules, regulations and laws, out of loving concern and respect for those around them – regardless of whether it is family, friends, neighbors or strangers. As with God’s rule book – for example, the Ten Commandments – these rules were not given out of a desire to control, oppress, or crush expression. No! Right here in Psalm 19 we can see such rules given by God in love and concern, and as a means of promoting revival, wisdom, joy and light. [2]

            We do not have a distant, uncaring God! Not one who is mean or nasty or punitive, either! Instead, by following God’s rule book, we can be caring and loving to all those around us. Plus, we will show our love for God, too! As if that wasn’t enough, our Psalmist then declares that God will abundantly pardon our missteps, when we do break God’s rules.

            The prayer at the end of this psalm is a prayer frequently used by preachers at the start of their sermons. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” I am certain that God is unhappy from time to time with my sermons, no matter how hard I try to rightly discern and handle the Word of God.

Thank God that the Lord is gracious and forgiving, full of compassion for preachers and for all those who have hidden faults – that is everyone, you know! God is forgiving, as well, for everyone in God’s vast creation. God, our Rock and our Redeemer, fully redeems us, too. And for that, we all can thank and praise God. Amen!

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-psalm-197-14-3

Commentary, Psalm 19, Rolf Jacobson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[2] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/74507/7-March-3-Sunday-in-Lent.pdf

The Faith Nurture Forum would like to thank Rev Jonathan Fleming, Minister of Cumbrae with Largs St John’s, for his thoughts on the third Sunday in Lent.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


Letter of the Law?

“Letter of the Law?”

Exodus 20:1-17 – March 7, 2021

            I enjoy driving very much. My husband is happy to let me be the primary driver in our house. I used to be a commercial driver some years ago, and I still hold a commercial driver’s license. So, I do know a good deal about the rules of the road.

            What would it be like if drivers did not obey these rules of the road? Just think of stop lights. We all know what happens when cars or trucks run a red light. Accidents happen, and sometimes, people get very badly hurt. All this happens because people just plain break the rules of the road.

            Our Scripture reading today comes from Exodus 20, and is a listing of God’s rules for living – the Ten Commandments. What would happen if people just plain broke God’s rules for living, any time they felt like it?

            One of my favorite Bible commentators is Carolyn Brown. She is now retired, but she was a longtime Children’s Ministry Director in the Presbyterian church. She wondered what would happen if we turned the Ten Commandments on their head, and made them the complete opposite of what God intended? Here are Ten Ways to Break God’s Rules.

1.    You are your own boss.  Do whatever you want to do whenever you feel like it. 

2.    Decide who and what is important to you.  Pay attention only to those people and things. Everyone else can drop dead.

3.    It does not matter when or how you say God’s name.  You can use it to swear or cuss or to get what you want (as in “God is on my side so you better do things my way, or else!”).

4.    It doesn’t matter if you never worship with God’s people on Sunday, or regularly.  If there are other things you’d rather do, go do them.

5.    Parents don’t get it.  Ignore them whenever you can.

6.    Kill whatever or whoever gets in your way.  The strongest live longest.

7.    Don’t worry about your family.  Think only about yourself and what you want.

8.    Finders keepers!  Toddler’s Rule of possession:  I see it, I want it, it’s mine! 
If you want it, figure out how to get it; cheat if you need to.

9.    Lie if you have to get out of trouble. Lie to get what you want.
Lie to make yourself look good – even if it makes someone else look bad.

10. The one who dies with most toys wins.  The world is full of awesome things.  Get your share, no matter what! [1]

            What was all that? Those Ways to Break God’s Rules sound totally selfish, absolutely self-centered, and completely against any kind of moral code or rulebook.

Why did God give God’s people the Ten Commandments, anyway?

“We suppose it is for our own good. Right? Well, you have to wonder. Is God one to bring the whole nation of Israel out into the wilderness for a time out? Is this conversation started with a wag of the divine finger and slow shake of the holy head, displaying disappointment and the prelude to punishment? Are these ten [commandments]given because the people of God have proved unworthy, have fallen short of who they were intended to be? Are they being grounded by these words” like a big bunch of misbehaving teenagers? [2]

            Let’s look at the beginning of the commandments. ”I am God.  I brought you out of slavery in Egypt.  I opened the sea for your escape.  I am the one and only God.  Don’t worship or pray to anything or anyone else.” The Lord tells the people of Israel exactly why God gave them these rules: to help them know how to live together as God’s free people. Not as slaves anymore! No, the Lord brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt: Exodus 20 tells us so!

            God is also warning the people of Israel about the different idols and gods of Egypt. People in Egypt worshiped many different gods. So, to ask the people of Israel who had just left Egypt to worship the Lord – and only the Lord – was a big stretch. A huge challenge! We might think we are only worshiping one God – but, are we? What are our modern-day idols? Do we worship money? Possessions? A job? What about how many “likes” we get on social media? What keeps us from making God the center of our lives? What distracts you and me? [3]

            These rules are not super-strict laws for people to follow reluctantly, or with their arms twisted behind their backs. Instead, as we read them, we can see descriptions of the kind of people God wants us to be. Not because God is a mean or nasty Heavenly Parent, but because we can strive to be that kind of people, the Lord’s relatives, in close relationship with our God.

            Remember, God will not say, “Jump through these hoops, or over these hurdles, and only then will I love you!” No! Instead, God says, “My love for you will shape you into these kinds of people, this kind of loving, beloved community.”    

            Let us strive to live together as a people of faith, as a community loved by God. Amen!


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-third-sunday-in-lent-march-8-2015_7.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 3B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/rend-your-hearts-claiming-the-promise/third-sunday-in-lent-year-b-lectionary-planning-notes/third-sunday-in-lent-year-b-preaching-notes

[3] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/74507/7-March-3-Sunday-in-Lent.pdf

Third Sunday in Lent – 7 March 2021 The Faith Nurture Forum would like to thank Rev Jonathan Fleming, Minister of Cumbrae with Largs St John’s.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God Answers When We Cry

“God Answers When We Cry”

Psalm 22:23-31 (22:24) – March 3, 2021 (Midweek Lenten Service, Week 2)

            How often do you cry out to God in prayer? Whether it’s sadness, grief, despair, or anger for yourself, or in pleading prayer for a loved one, this is an agonizing feeling that so many people have in common.

            This psalm, Psalm 22, may be familiar to many people from Jesus’ last words on the Cross. The first line of this psalm are those words of lament, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” These are words many suffering people have echoed throughout the centuries. And, some will more closely examine these words from the beginning of Psalm 22 in just a few weeks, when we enter into the Passion of our Lord, in Holy Week.

            However, there is so much more to this psalm! The reading for today is from the end of the psalm, verses 23 through 31. Yes, it comes from a psalm of lament. And, who has not complained to God at some time or other? Sometimes, more often than any of us wish to?

            These cries of lament and complaint have a specific pattern to them.

  1. the invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to hear and listen
  2. the complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong
  3. the petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do
  4. the expression of trust, in which the psalmist tells God why she or he knows that God can do what the psalmist asks
  5. the expression of praise and adoration, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God [1]

This psalm reading, from verse 23 on, is wholly in the last part of this pattern: the expression of praise and adoration. We are in the praise territory of this hymn, and this last portion of the psalm is tied closely to the beginning, which seems so dark and hopeless. The psalmist makes a journey from darkness and despair to light and hope.

Is that our journey, sometimes? Can we be in the depths of misery or sadness or grief or despair? And then, gradually, the light of God’s presence comes into our experience. God extends hope and encouragement into our hopeless or sorrowful situation.

As I learned from Dr. Ken Bailey in one of his excellent Bible seminars, centuries ago there were no titles or numbers for the psalms. Bible students and scholars would refer to psalms by the first line. So, when our Lord Jesus referred to “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Yes – I am sure He was speaking forth this great lament from Psalm 22. However, I believe Jesus may also have been thinking of this portion of the psalm, especially verse 24: “God does not neglect the poor or ignore their suffering; God does not turn away from them, but answers when they call for help.”

            We do not have a distant, uncaring God! Yes, there is pain and suffering and sadness in the world. Yes, we will have sorrow and grief and even despair in our lives. Yet, God is present even amidst all that negative stuff. God will sit with us, or walk by our sides, as we go through all of that. And if we have a loved one who is going through the valley of the shadow, we can come alongside of that family member, or friend, and let them know that we are there, too.

            As Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 1, the Lord helps us in all our troubles – vertically – so that each of us may be able to help others – horizontally – when they go through their troubles and difficulties. Praise God for God’s faithfulness to all generations.

Remember, this psalm assures us that all peoples will worship the Lord; from every part of the world they will turn to God. This is a promise from God, and it is faithful and true. Amen.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-2223-31-4  

Nancy deClaisse-Walford, Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages, McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, GA


Reminders from God

“Reminders from God”

Mark 8:31-39 (8:34) – February 28, 2021

When my teenage children reminded me about something, I certainly heard about it. They were never shy. They came right out and told me. This brings to my mind our scripture reading this morning. We hear Someone who reminded His disciples about something important, and wasn’t afraid to talk about it.

            Here is our Lord Jesus, acting as He often did in those years He traveled through Palestine, teaching His disciples, preaching, and healing. He was an itinerant Rabbi and teacher, traveling from place to place, setting up open-air classrooms, and doing theological seminars. Arguing scriptural points with other religious leaders. His followers tried to learn as much as they could from Jesus. They had an opportunity to observe Him closely, for three years.

            Just before today’s passage in the Gospel of Mark, our Lord Jesus asked the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” We can see from their responses that the disciples were starting to have some idea of their Rabbi’s purpose here on this earth.

            But now, our Lord Jesus began to systematically teach His followers that He was going to suffer, be rejected and killed, and then rise again. Moreover, Jesus did not just say this in private, but He said it openly, repeatedly.

            But, just a minute . . . the disciple Peter just made the declaration that Jesus was God’s Anointed. The Messiah. Then—immediately afterwards—Jesus reminds His followers of His passion and purpose here on earth.

            Whose priorities come first? What was Peter’s idea of the Messiah, God’s Anointed? Was Peter even ready to listen to Jesus? What is our idea of the Messiah, God’s Anointed? Do we listen to Jesus when He tells us who He is?

            A common, first-century idea of the Messiah, God’s Anointed, was that of a powerful, earthly Savior of His people, who leads them to worldly victory, and sets up a mighty earthly kingdom. Peter may very well have absorbed some of this idea of a worldly Messiah. The concept of Jesus being rejected and killed may have been completely out of the question for Peter. It was out of the question for many other people, too—in Jesus’s time, and our time today.

            Intellectually, we are familiar with the idea of Jesus being a suffering Savior. But how often, deep down, do we prefer a safe, comfortable idea of Jesus as a cheerful, safe, sensible fellow? A meek and mild Heavenly Friend? In other words, can you—can I—accept the idea of Jesus undergoing great suffering, being rejected, killed, and after three days rising again?

            I suspect Peter was unwilling to accept Jesus’s explanation of His passion and purpose. I think he refused to believe that Jesus was proclaiming Himself a meek, mild, Suffering Servant, ready to endure the Cross. From Mark’s description, Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him! I suspect Peter was putting his own priorities first!

            Do we put our own priorities first, as well? After all, in this modern day and age, the idea of dying on a cross is an extreme thing. Radical, in fact. It’s so much easier for us to believe in a moderate, neat, tidy, sensible religion.    

            Jesus does not mince words with Peter. Let’s read from Mark 8:33: “He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan? For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Those are harsh words! Especially since Peter made such a marvelous declaration a short time before, that Jesus was God’s Anointed, the Messiah!

            But, isn’t it so typical of Peter, wanting things his own way, and not God’s way? Did he even listen to Jesus, and hear what his Lord was saying?

            Isn’t it so typical of us, to want things to be easy, cheerful, and sensible? Isn’t it simpler for us to shut out any concept of suffering and sacrifice? Or the pain of overcoming evil and temptation? We can see how Jesus reminds us, again, of God’s priorities. Jesus talks about how His followers need to think and act.

            Taking up His cross—for Jesus—was showing God’s love in the ultimate way. Jesus says that His followers are invited to take up their crosses, too. This isn’t shouldering a calamity, or enduring pain like a Stoic for your whole life. Taking up our cross is putting ourselves at the service of Christ, preparing a way for the Kingdom of God, whatever the cost.

            How can we follow Jesus’s example? The first thing I think of is putting God first. My insistent ego is a pesky thing, with its preoccupation with “me first!” and “I want some!” and “where’s mine?” A good suggestion is to think of God first, others second, and myself last. It’s a simple as wishing someone a good morning, and meaning it, or asking how someone is doing, and actually being interested in the answer. Thinking of others, and thinking of God – first.

            Being all focused on my own thoughts and activities can be one sure way to get my priorities messed up. Then, I lose sight of God’s priorities, and lose sight of Jesus and what He would encourage me to do, and to think.

            Thank God that Jesus gives us a clear idea of how we are to follow God’s priorities. Thank God for His reminders. We don’t need to forget the Cross, or avoid the Cross, but take up the Cross. We are encouraged to put ourselves at the service of our Lord Jesus. To think of others, and especially to think of God. That’s how to follow God’s priorities.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God’s Constant Love and Goodness

“God’s Constant Love and Goodness”

Psalm 25:4-10 (25:7) – February 24, 2021 (Midweek Lenten Service, Week 1)

            I fondly remember a dear older pastor who died several years ago. Pastor Lou often used to spread his arms wide and say at the beginning of worship, “God is good, all the time!” And the congregation in his church would respond, “All the time, God is good!”

            Sometimes, the goodness of God can be difficult to experience. Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes, with all the falls and missteps, the sins and shortcomings that people commit, the goodness and faithfulness of God can be so distant. It even seems like that goodness and faithfulness is never to be reached, never to be felt, disappearing like smoke.

            Do you sometimes feel the lack of relationship in your life, just disappearing like smoke, too? Many of us feel lonely, closed in, even isolated. The missteps, sins and shortcomings can amplify those feelings, and cause further separation from God.  

            As we read this psalm over again, we can see the view “of the landscape of the soul that experiences pain and difficulty, even at times a sense of abandonment, yet which longs wholeheartedly for God. Waiting for God to draw near, for God to be felt and discovered is in the cry of the faithful who wish only to be remembered by God.” [1]

            Feeling especially lonely and isolated yet? I think that abandonment is what our psalm writer is reaching for here. Yet – all is not lost! This psalm is a deeply personal psalm about relationship – the relationship between the psalm writer and God. Even though our writer does talk about the sins and errors of his youth (and some of us are guilty of sins and errors when we get older, too), hope is certainly not lost!

            Yet, there is a bedrock of truth in what my friend Pastor Lou said: “God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!” We can see that repeated several times in this psalm. Our writer repeats the fabulous Hebrew word chesed, here translated steadfast or constant love. It has an even richer and fuller meaning than that, but that translation is a huge concept on its own!

“Remember, O Lord, your kindness and constant love which you have shown from long ago. Forgive the sins and errors of my youth. In your constant love and goodness, remember me, Lord!” This wonderful petition, “Remember me!” is coupled with the Lord remembering all the kindness and constant/steadfast love which has been abundantly shown, already!

The request is for relationship. And, we know God is in relationship with us, already! It does not matter that we do sin, for we know a forgiving, merciful God. The capper is the constant, steadfast love extended not once in a while, not sometimes, but all the time. For – that is exactly what “constant and steadfast” mean.

             Dr. Nancy Koestr has a superb illustration of this idea: “My dog has the right idea. She takes the leash in her mouth when I take her for a walk, so that she can lead me. It is an endearing gesture and always makes me laugh. If this give and take happens between animals and humans, surely it happens between us and God. And as we live in that relationship, we wait, and receive, and lift our souls.” [2]

            Praise God, we are offered a deep relationship with God. We are loved by God! And, this is a good God. Not sometimes, not most of the time, but all the time. I can indeed say with Pastor Lou, God is good, all the time! And, all the time, God is good. Amen, amen.


[1] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/73719/21-February-1-of-Lent.pdf

Thanks to Rev. Marjorie McPherson, Edinburgh Presbytery Clerk, for her thoughts about the 1st week of Lent.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26/commentary-on-psalm-251-9-4

Commentary, Psalm 25:1-9, Nancy Koestr, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Meeting Jesus In-Between

“Meeting Jesus In-Between”

Temptation of Jesus – Jesus MAFA

Mark 1:9-13 (1:13) – February 21, 2021

            How often do we experience several significant happenings in our lives, and yet feel very much in between things? On the virtual road through life, yet not arriving at any settled place and not staying there for a good long time? When young people pass between one grade and the next, or graduation from one school or course of study to another, that is a time of being in-between.

            This whole past year – 2020 – might be seen as an in-between time. Certainly not a normal year, by anyone’s understanding. Whether it’s a busy time for our families, a hectic time at work, or a stressful time in terms of health, we might be in-between things in one or more areas of our lives. This seems like a time that is especially full of a lonely, uninhabited wilderness for so many.

As we look at Mark’s Gospel reading today, we see big changes for Jesus. His baptism – a big event! Jesus driven into the wilderness – another significant event! And then, Satan coming to Jesus – a third, powerful event! All in the space of five short verses. These three significant events all come crashing into Jesus’s life in a very short time, and with Mark’s typical economy of language.

We talked more about the Baptism of Jesus several weeks ago. This was certainly a highlight in our Lord’s life, and sure sign of His Heavenly Father’s approval. Then, immediately (one of Mark’s favorite words!), Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. Jesus must have had major feelings concerning this sudden ushering away from all human habitation. To cap the wilderness experience, the devil and Jesus interacted, face to face. That must have been a sight to see! Imagine, Jesus on one side, and Satan on the other.   

            Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, all alone in that deserted region. In-between times, in a time that is not a big, wonderful event, but is separated at a distance both physically and in terms of thought and experience. An in-between time, a wilderness time of loneliness and quiet.

            I understand a number of nurses serving in hospitals and care centers are so weary of seeing patients so very sick. This time of pandemic is stressful for everyone, but especially for those who care for seriously ill patients. Since the pandemic has caused patients to be so lonely and isolated, seldom receiving even one relative as a visitor, some nurses have taken it upon themselves to come alongside of very sick patients. To sit with them, give an extra squeeze of the hand or a sentence or two of encouragement or comfort before going to the next room.

            Is there a possibility that hospitals and care centers might be another place of the wilderness in the present day? Perhaps not the actual semi-arid wilderness of Palestine, but certainly an isolated experience, away from other humans except for brief times during the day.

            All the same, this in-between time can also be a time that is hallowed by God’s presence. Sure, God can meet us in this space, this liminal place in between the big things that happen in our lives – in yours and mine.  

            Even though big events can happen in our lives, so much of the daily activities of our lives are not big. Not earthshaking. Are you in the wilderness in some way today? In between events, and wondering how everything is going to right itself, or even somehow manage to continue?

            Let me tell you some good news! It is a comfort and encouragement to know that God seeks us out when we are in those in-between times. True, those wilderness times in our lives can be discouraging and disorienting for each of us. When we are lost or wandering or angry or grieving, God finds us again and again. This is the bedrock of our Reformed faith, that God takes the initiative and comes to seek us out, no matter what

            Just as the Lord God proclaimed Jesus to be God’s Son at His baptism, just as the Lord God sent angels to attend Jesus in the wilderness after Satan left, the common thread in each of these significant events is the Lord God’s closeness to Jesus. We hear the heavenly voice meet Jesus at the threshold of something new and different, and proclaim Jesus as God’s beloved!

            Not only the big places and events are holy, but also the in-between places. All places become holy as our God comes into all of them, breathing new life and encouragement and comfort into every space and place.

Are you at the threshold of something new or different? Still in the wilderness? Or, just continuing to walk that road of day-to-day existence? We can all take heart! God names us all God’s beloved. Did you hear? Each of us is God’s beloved child, no matter what.

As commentator Denise Anderson says, God meets us where each one is. God approaches each of us to claim us, equip us, and send us to do God’s will – as God’s beloved children. Amen!       

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

I would like to thank the Rev. T. Denise Anderson, Coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and former Co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), for her contributions to the Lenten sermon guide Again & Again, from Sanctified Art. These Lenten sermons are based on that sermon guide.

Make Us Clean!

“Make Us Clean!”

Psalm 51:1-12 (51:2) – February 17, 2021

            The marvel and puzzle of adults with smudges on their foreheads – on purpose! – is a wonder to many children. Why would adults have dirt or ash crosses put on their foreheads? And why wouldn’t they wash it off to make it all clean?

            It takes a while for young people to learn, “yes, I am a sinner, too.” Doesn’t it? Sometimes it is difficult for grown-ups to state plainly that they sin, too. They fall short of what God would have for them in this life. They mess up the clean sheet of paper. Isn’t that what sin is? Falling short, missing the mark, washing away the guilt and stains of sin. However we describe it, we know very well when sin happens. King David knew when he was dirty on the inside from sin, too.

            It does not matter whether King David was remembering the women of the village where he grew up, washing, scrubbing and wringing out their families’ clothing in tubs outside their homes, or whether we think of the agitator on those automatic wringer washers of yesterday, we all need to be cleansed from the wrongs we commit, on a regular basis.

            Today is the first day of Lent, that penitential period of forty days before Easter when the Church all across the world begins to journey with Jesus towards the Cross. Many people use external things like food or drink or certain practices to show their observance of Lent. This is a good thing, and I do not want to cause anyone to rethink their Lenten practices. However, King David here in Psalm 51 had something far more radical in mind. He wanted more than just his exterior cleaned. He wanted his insides cleaned up, too. Cleaned, and renewed!

            Ash Wednesday is the day in the liturgical year when we concentrate on renewal—the messing-up we have done, on the inside as well as the outside. Whether large or small, we can all be cleansed and renewed deep down on our insides. The psalmist uses that most intimate of all things, first-person pronouns. “Have mercy upon me,” “blot out my transgressions,” “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” “I know my transgressions,” and “my sin is ever before me.”

“We are all first marked with the cross using water (and sometimes oil) at our baptisms.  At that time to be marked with the cross is a wonderful thing.  We are identified as the beloved children of God.  On Ash Wednesday we are marked with the cross using ashes and the words, “remember you are dust.”  The ashes and words remind us that we are not so wonderful.  In fact, we are all sinners.  The sign is not an X, marking us as [mistakes or] hopeless rejects, but a cross reminding us that God loves and forgives us, sinners though we be.” [1]  

We are not perfect believers in God. But, God says that is okay. God loves us just the same. This Ash Wednesday service is a special time to gather together, and to become aware of our turning-away from God. This understanding of the messing-up we have done and are continuing to do—prepares us to receive the forgiveness and joy of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. And the cross of ashes on each forehead is a reminder of that blessed forgiveness in each one of our lives. Praise God, we can be restored to a close relationship with God.

Hear the Good News! In Jesus Christ, we all are forgiven! Amen.


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/01/years-abc-ash-wednesday-february-18-2015.html

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Listen Up!

“Listen Up!”

Mark 9:2-9 – February 14, 2021

            When I was in elementary school, on rainy days we would play games in our classroom instead of going outside for recess. One of these games was “Telephone.” The whole class would line up single file, in a big circle around the classroom. The teacher would quietly whisper a sentence into the first child’s ear. By turns, one by one, each child would communicate the sentence exactly as they heard it to the next person. And—imagine the giggles when the sentence got to the end of the line and ended up all garbled!

            We can imagine the way the disciples sometimes received information from Jesus. We can just tell from listening to this reading from Mark. Let’s set the scene. We have Jesus with His disciples, and some other followers. Women, too! Usually unnamed, but also there. In several important instances, Jesus had an inner circle. Three special, or key disciples, who would be the ones he wanted to tell special things. Important things, as in the Gospel reading for today.

            Jesus had been preaching God’s word, healing people and doing other miracles for some time. If we think about it, by this time the Rabbi Jesus was really in demand. Think of any popular person, or famous celebrity. Often mobbed by people when He stopped to preach in a synagogue, or if He stayed overnight at someone’s home.

            A week before the happenings in our passage today, Jesus fed more than four thousand men, plus women and children. Immediately afterwards, He heals another blind man. Jesus was even more in demand than ever, after that display of power and might! Remember, that’s one of the main emphases for Mark. Showing the power and might of the Son of God!  

            As much as Jesus taught and preached and performed miracles, He needed time to Himself, too. He withdrew to have time with his Heavenly Father, all alone, in prayer. Here at the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus took three of his disciples with Him to pray. I suspect they took off early in the morning to go up to a high mountain, nearby.

            I want you all to take note! Jesus actively looked for time to get alone with His Father. To pray as well as to listen and concentrate on what the Lord was saying to Him. Sure, Jesus said amazing things and did astounding miracles, on a regular basis. He rubbed shoulders with crowds and taught large groups of people. But He also knew He needed to separate and recharge. To have down time, personal time, family time with His Heavenly Father.

            Sure, it’s great to be in crowds, fun to be with people sometimes! But it’s also good to be alone. Restful to take some time away, time to pray and take stock. Recharging time! As one of my daughters says, alone-time can be wonderful, too.

            But this time is a little different. Jesus brings Peter, James and John with Him to the top of the mountain. And then, He prays—as it says in the parallel Transfiguration account in Luke. While all four of them are there, lifted up, apart from the ordinary everyday life down at the bottom of the mountain, something happens. Something completely unexpected, and marvelous.

            Or, was it? The disciples had already seen their Rabbi and leader Jesus do miraculous things on a regular basis! Feeding thousands of people, performing a number of miraculous healings, and ejecting unclean spirits—and we’re just talking about during the past few weeks!

            While Jesus is in prayer at the top of the mountain, His clothes become dazzling white. Whiter than any laundry could possibly make them. Plus, Moses and Elijah show up in the same bright white clothes, and start talking with Jesus. (I am not sure exactly how Peter, James and John could tell the other two were Moses and Elijah, but somehow, they knew.) Mark even tells us what the reaction of the three disciples was to all of this—they were scared to death!

            Let me ask—do you know someone who tends to dither? When they are scared, or nervous, or excited, do they just start talking? Just a reflex action? I think that’s exactly what Peter is doing here. And Mark tells us Peter didn’t even know what he was saying.

            Can you just see these three grown men, clutching at each other? Scared to death at these miraculous, out-of-this-world happenings? “Um—Lord! Um—let’s build three altars here! One for You, and—um—one for the other two guys, too!” Or, something like that. Do you think Peter and the other two disciples were receptive to what God was saying at this point? I suspect not.     

But wait—there’s more! As if that wasn’t enough, with Jesus, Moses and Elijah showing up in dazzling white, a cloud covered them all. And a voice came out of the cloud.

            Can you remember when a supernatural cloud appeared before? Remember, the LORD appeared as a cloud to the nation of Israel, in Exodus 13. Again, in Exodus 19, the LORD’s voice came out of the cloud in thunder. And so it is, again. God’s voice came out of this cloud that surrounded the disciples and Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The voice said, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!”

            It isn’t every day that the Lord God Almighty talks to you! The Lord even gave specific instructions to the three disciples. “Listen to Jesus!” This is a command, NOT a suggestion! The verb tense is present imperative! Here God not only commands the disciples to listen, but by extension, God commands the whole world to listen—to Jesus!

            Jesus healed deaf people, so they could really hear. What’s more, Jesus came to heal the spiritually deaf to His words! Jesus opens all our ears so we can hear the truth in His words!

Just as we closely listen to a doctor when he or she is talking to us about our cancer, or heart attack, or broken leg, just as we ask our spouses or family members to accompany us so that we have another set of ears to listen accurately to the doctor, so also you and I are to listen carefully and attentively to the words of Jesus. The voice from the cloud, from heaven declared Jesus to be none other than the Son of God. Then, the voice commanded us to listen to Him.

The message of this Gospel reading today is clear. To hear, we need to listen carefully. To experience, we need to open our minds and hearts to the possibility of God’s voice. Look at the Son. Listen to His words. Open your mind and heart to His presence. We don’t need to be on the top of a mountain to experience God’s presence and fullness. Just shake off the routine, the same-old same-old. And, God will be there. We can celebrate the fullness of the Lord’s presence! The possibility of God’s power and grace! Alleluia, amen.

Take a few moments to reread the gospel. Imagine you’re before the Lord Jesus as He speaks to you in His glory. What is His word to you? We start the journey of Lent this week with Ash Wednesday. How will that word of Jesus help you this week as you begin your Lenten journey?

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

St. Luke’s Church – Part of Christ’s Body

“St. Luke’s Church – Part of Christ’s Body”

1 Corinthians 12:12-26 (12:26) – February 7, 2021

            So many activities needed to stop with the shut-down and shelter-in-place last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing I have missed very much is the wonderful time I spent reading to the preschool children here at St. Luke’s Church. Every Tuesday morning for years, I read picture books of all kinds to the children.

            I was reminded of this sad experience as I considered today’s Scripture reading. Paul’s discussion about the Church compared to an actual, human body reminded me of a delightful children’s picture book, one I’d love to read to the preschool children. This book is a retelling of a Liberian creation story about a human head, two arms, a body, and two legs, and how they all decide to come together and work as a team, creating a complete human body.

I believe the apostle Paul would greatly approve this story and message! A human body does need its various parts to work together. Just imagine the commotion, the disruption that would happen if parts of the body went on strike, or refused to work with other parts of the body!

As Paul said, “15 If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” that would not keep it from being a part of the body. 16 And if the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,” that would not keep it from being a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were just an eye, how could it hear? And if it were only an ear, how could it smell? 18 God put every different part in the body just as God wanted it to be.”

No matter how many parts of the body we name, each part is important, and each part is needed. We can tell right away if a part of the body is hurt, or broken, or not working normally. And, what if certain parts are missing altogether? The functionality of the body – or, as Paul would remind us, of the Church – would be very much diminished.

I know most people are associated with a local church, and many people are active members. What a wonderful way to honor and please the Lord when God’s children are active and vital parts of God’s body – the Church.

The local church has members who are active in many roles. There are those who are the mouth of the congregation – the pastor and teachers in the church. The arms of a local church are often seen as the deacons, in the food pantries and serving ministries. And, the feet of a congregation can be those who transport people, or participate in Meals on Wheels. The heart of the local church can be those vital members who are well-beloved among the church folk.

As I describe various tasks and ministries, I suspect you can think of individuals who fit these to a “T.” And, all of these parts of the body, of the Church, are needed.

From time to time, churches need to take stock, and see where they are going as a congregation. Group reflection and consideration is useful, even exciting. We here at St. Luke’s Church are going to put together a timeline of the past 20 years this coming weekend! As Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” said, “Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”

I need to present this church timeline as the final project in a clinical internship I am taking right now. Plus, I see this marvelous opportunity for our congregation to find out more about some important history that this church shares together. Both the ups as well as the downs, the celebrations as well as the difficulties are all so important and valuable to reflect upon and consider. The best part is that we will have a marvelous church coach to assist us this weekend.

The Rev. Brandyn Simmons has a great deal of experience in working with congregations on the historical background of a congregation as well as the assessment and understanding piece. I am very grateful to Pastor Brandyn, and I ask each of you for your prayers as we take this exciting journey of memory and discovery.

Some of you may have long experience with your local church, or you may be a more recent member. Regardless of how long you have been at your church, what has kept you coming to worship services? What aspects of fellowship and togetherness at your church are important to you? What is the single most positive thing you would like to tell me about your church? Now, take that thing – whatever it is – and write it down. Send it to your pastor in an email, or in a phone call, text, or note by mail. This is such a blessing for your pastor and your congregation!  

For many churches, the first Sunday of the month is Communion Sunday. In the Lord’s Supper, the local congregation has another reason to come together as the Body of Christ. We are invited to come together around the table and share the bread and the cup together. Even in the socially-distant time of the pandemic, we can still be together in spirit and in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.    

Yes, we are all individuals, and yes, each of us is beloved by God to be whatever part of the Church Body God has meant for us to be! And yes, we can be the best hand or eye or foot or whatever Church Body-part we are able. Can you do that? I know I will try. Let’s all strive to be God’s Body as we pull together, work together, and celebrate together. The apostle Paul would certainly approve!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!