Doubt and Despair

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S (Scripture):

Lamentations 1:9 

Zion’s gates sank into the ground; he broke and shattered her bars;

her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction![b]

Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord.

10 

Daughter Zion’s elders sit on the ground and mourn.

They throw dust on their heads; they put on mourning clothes.

Jerusalem’s young women bow their heads all the way to the ground.

Hebrews 7:26 It’s appropriate for us to have this kind of high priest: holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, and raised high above the heavens. 27 He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself. 28 The Law appoints people who are prone to weakness as high priests, but the content of the solemn pledge, which came after the Law, appointed a Son who has been made perfect forever.

O (Observation): Today’s texts remind us of two very different points in the revelation of God and God’s overall story. In Lamentations, God’s people sense that God – in the form of Instruction, or Torah – has “left the building” so to speak. Their understanding of God’s presence was wrapped up in the physical presence of God in the book of Instruction and in the Temple, neither of which were present any longer (at least not perceived to be present). God’s people begin their Babylonian exile.

Fast forward to God’s story post-ascension of Jesus, post-Acts. Now we have a God being understood as a priest forever. But not just any priest. Jesus is now the priest forever. Nothing can separate God’s presence from God’s people now. For our priest is perfect, now and forever.

God is always “in the building.”

A (Application): In our heads, we get what the Hebrews text is speaking to. In our hearts, we can get mired down in the world of Lamentations.

THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL FOR US!!!

No shame is found in doubt or despair. As we discover (and re-discover) the story of God’s people, we are constantly being reminded that God’s people have (and will) experience moments or even seasons of doubt or despair.

How do we recall that our priest – Jesus – speaks to God for us, giving us freedom to act out of grace? We gather around the story as individuals and as community. We worship together. We serve together. We find ways to build relationships and ways to give to God and neighbor. Here, we rediscover God’s presence.

The story of God includes you. You are made in God’s image. Remember that this day. Remember that Jesus intercedes for you and brings your prayers to God. Jesus encourages you and me and all that seek grace.

Turn to God. Do so in community. See the grace flow.

P (Prayer): Gracious Jesus, sing for us, speak for us, when we can do neither. Amen.

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Pushing Others Down

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S (Scripture): Romans 2:28 It isn’t the Jew who maintains outward appearances who will receive praise from God, and it isn’t people who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. 29 Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally. That person’s praise doesn’t come from people but from God.

O (Observation): Most of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was about reconciling the differences between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. His beef with the Jewish Christians was that they were acting arrogant. They believed that with their outward customs, they were better than Gentiles who became Christian. Or that somehow Gentile Christians should adopt the outward custom of circumcision to be on equal ground with Jewish Christians.

The problem that Paul points out is that nothing is gained from the outward practice. He says that the real change God seeks is one of the heart (or spirit). If someone comes to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior, the change doesn’t come from the outside in. The outside marker is just an indication of the internal change that God enacts in someone’s being.

So do the Jews have an advantage? If they do, it’s only because God established a covenant with them first, and revealed the Law and Scriptures to the Jews first…but this gift has always been available to all people.

A (Application): “They’re not Christian.” Quite often I hear people say things like this about other people. The ones making the accusations go to church (or at least say they do) and act all prim and proper. But when it comes to living like Jesus and acting out of grace, they come up way short. I do, too.

The problem with lifting up one’s self over another usually comes because we are insecure about our own faith. We recognize we don’t do the Law, and so we try to make ourselves feel better than others by pushing them down, rather than asking God to lift us all up.

We do this by class, race, sexual orientation, and other ways. We simply are insecure. And that scares us. And thus, we get defensive.

We don’t do The Law. It is a guide, and it is meant to show us our shortcomings. And in the wake of that realization, God hears our cries and welcomes us back with the Gospel.

What would it look like if instead of hiding the ways we break The Law, we face the music and let God redeem us. Then, maybe, we can do less judging of others and more inviting into relationships so that we can share this Gospel message with others. We can speak from our own brokenness and let God come to others.

P (Prayer): Lord, redeem us and make us whole, as only you can. Amen.

Finite

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S (Scripture): Romans 1:16 I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

O (Observation): Paul speaks of the Gospel to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He is clear: the Gospel is God’s saving power. Not adherence to Law alone, but receiving grace through Jesus Christ. The Law was meant to guide God’s people, not be a litmus test for whether or not God loved God’s people. The Law was never a litmus test to decipher who should be loved and who should be considered an outsider (and thus treated as less than human).

The gift of The Law (which includes the Gospel – God’s saving power) was given to the Jews first. And so as the first recipients of God’s saving power, Paul does not deny access to the Gospel for the Jews. Instead, Paul adds into the list of recipients, the Gentiles who have faith in God.

And Paul clarifies: God’s righteousness comes to us through the gospel, instilling in us faith. This faith is what makes us righteous. Not adherence to The Law. Not being a good person. Not being perfect in prayer or praise. No! Faith comes from God giving us the gospel.

Nothing in us is good or holy, apart from God’s saving grace. Only the gospel saves. Whoever believes this is made righteous.

A (Application): Last night, as I led Ash Wednesday services, I was reminded of our mortality and frailty. I was reminded that my finiteness cannot compare to God’s vastness. As we surrender our lives, through the gift of baptism, we surrender our earthly frame to God’s saving power.

In our weakness, there is Christ. In our sadness, there is joy, for there is Christ. We spend a lot of time covering up our weakness to make us strong.

Instead, let us expose the frailty of our lives to God to let God lead us into healing. We can do this by sharing in faithful community. By prayer and fasting.

Let God care for you in the midst of your brokenness. Let God love you and re-shape you this Lenten season.

P (Prayer): God, you give your gospel gift to all humanity. Help us to let down our guard and embrace it. Amen.

Carry the Light

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S (Scripture): Acts 26:20b [Paul said to King Agrippa:] “My message was that they should change their hearts and lives and turn to God, and that they should demonstrate this change in their behavior. 21 Because of this, some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to murder me. 22 God has helped me up to this very day. Therefore, I stand here and bear witness to the lowly and the great. I’m saying nothing more than what the Prophets and Moses declared would happen: 23 that the Christ would suffer and that, as the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to my people and to the Gentiles.”

O (Observation): Paul stands accused by the Jews of inciting unrest and they make Paul stand trial. The Roman authorities don’t care much for these problems, but when the skirmishes become unrest for a large part of the population, they listen in.

King Agrippa listens to Paul’s claims.

But maybe these words are more for God’s followers.

Paul lays it out: Jesus was always part of God’s plan. As told through Moses and the Prophets, Jesus – the Suffering One for All – was not a backup plan when people “messed up.” People were never perfect, and thus wandering in the dark, fighting for self-preservation and self-interest.

Jesus is the light to all people, a true revelation of God’s glory.

And now, Paul simply witnesses to the light for all who would hear. He bears God’s redeeming word for all the heat.

A (Application): Quite often we feel like we have to defend Jesus and defend our faith in a preemptive way. Like anything we do could rightly defend our God.

I’m not saying we don’t stand up for peace and justice, but we first struggle with the idea that we are first and foremost seeking the light for ourselves. Sounds selfish, but this is the starting point for all of us. To stumble in the dark until the light is revealed to us in the person of Jesus.

In receiving the light, we are then compelled to share our story to any who would listen.

And as we share the light, as Paul does, we also remain humble, because the light is never ours to own. We simply carry the light for God. We give thank to God that we can carry that light that never diminishes.

We humbly, with broken hearts and minds, carry this light into our homes, work places and schools.

May we be the light…humbly thanking our God for brining the light to us in the first place.

P (Prayer): Lord, shine your light on this poor sinner. Amen.

The Wounded Healer

(A nod to Henri Nouwen for today’s use of the phrase “Wounded Healer.” Thank you for the gift, Nouwen, of this concept. My reference to this work is implied in today’s post.)

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S (Scripture): Acts 13:26 [Paul said:] “Brothers, children of Abraham’s family, and you Gentile God-worshippers, the message about this salvation has been sent to us. 27 The people in Jerusalem and their leaders didn’t recognize Jesus. By condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Even though they didn’t find a single legal basis for the death penalty, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they finished doing everything that had been written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead! 31 He appeared over many days to those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to the people.

32 “We proclaim to you the good news. What God promised to our ancestors, 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it was written in the second psalm, You are my son; today I have become your father.

O (Observation): Paul and Barnabas are in Antioch, and Paul is describing to the God-followers there God’s salvation for the world. Paul hopes to convey to Jews and Gentiles (“children of Abraham’s family, and you Gentile God-worshippers“) that the salvation we all seek – and that God promised Israel – has come to fruition in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Resurrection matters as a fulfillment of what God promised and establishes hope for all people.

A (Application): Even when all the world rejects Jesus, God embraces him. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to think that God embraces us in our time of need. Anyone who turns to God in time of need can expect some sort of response – directly, indirectly, a sign…something.

Practicing listening to God’s voice and training your eyes to see what God is up to can take a lifetime. The people of Antioch need Paul to help them see what God was up to.

Now, you and I are to help others receive the Good News: hope for the hopeless, healing for the wounded.

P (Prayer): Lord, Heal us…that we might become wounded healers. Amen.

God – the Giver of Grace

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S (Scripture): Judges 13:1 The Israelites again did things that the Lord saw as evil, and he handed them over to the Philistines for forty years.

2 Now there was a certain man from Zorah, from the Danite clan, whose name was Manoah. His wife was unable to become pregnant and had not given birth to any children. 3 The Lord’s messenger appeared to the woman and said to her, “Even though you’ve been unable to become pregnant and haven’t given birth, you are now pregnant and will give birth to a son! 4 Now be careful not to drink wine or brandy or to eat anything that is ritually unclean, 5 because you are pregnant and will give birth to a son. Don’t allow a razor to shave his head, because the boy is going to be a nazirite for God from birth. He’ll be the one who begins Israel’s rescue from the power of the Philistines.”

24 The woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson. The boy grew up, and the Lord blessed him. 25 The Lord’s spirit began to move him when he was in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

O (Observation): So the Lord’s messenger shows up. When this happens, something REALLY BIG & IMPORTANT is going on.

In case any of you sense that the Old Testament is all Law and the New Testament is all Gospel, know this: the Lord sending Samson is “Gospel”! When Jesus sends a messenger, reaching to help God’s people – that’s Gospel!

The Law is that God’s people have erred again and God has released the people from God’s protection. Now the Philistines are in charge. But the Gospel saves: God sends help…in the form of baby. (Hmmm? Where else have I heard that???)

A (Application): How often do we feel abandoned by God? We may fail to see that we have drifted from God and the promises God has made to us in our baptism. We fail to see how God has adopted us. We fail to see how God wishes to bring us life. We try to create new life for ourselves…but that so often backfires.

I’m someone who likes to try new things, because I think that God gives me ideas to enact. But sometimes the way I go about the “new thing” makes it all about ME and how I will bring the Gospel. (Oops!)

Instead, God finds a way to be patient or to act lightening quick…God finds a way to erode away my ego and pride to expose my need for God’s mercy and grace…God finds a way to bring someone into my life (like Samson for the Israelites) who will give me guidance and direction and hope.

Maybe we will see a messenger. Maybe we won’t. But God is still with us: Sending people into our lives to guide us; giving us sustenance in bread and wine; reminding us of how God claims us every time we touch and see water.

P (Prayer): Lord, remind us that you are always beside us. Amen.

Law AND Gospel

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S (Scripture): Mark 10:17 As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19  You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

23 Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” 24 His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! 25  It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

O (Observation): So the man coming before God claims that he has no problem keeping the Law. Turns out…his problem is with living out the Law. Sounds strange.

The Law was about giving God’s people boundary-markers, which in turn supports life for everyone. Over time, the Law became more and more about what someone could get away with and remain in good standing with God.

This rich man may very well have been keeping to the letter of the Law, but the spirit of the Law was completely missed. I blame the teachers of the Law.

The result of the teaching at the time: you could be rich, have no worries about the poor, and keep to the letter of the Law…all while avoiding one’s personal cross and corporate cross.

Who cares for the poor, then? We don’t have a commandment about that.

A (Application): So each of the 10 Commandments is a Law, but when explored through the lens of Law & Gospel, we see a bit more clearly how each commandment brings life!

For example: “You shall have no other gods.” Seems like a problem if we look at money or fame to bring us hope in this life. That is true. We will never get enough of those things. But what do we have? The ONE true God who brings life! Can’t get any better than that!

Or how about the commandment: “You shall not steal”? Martin Luther says this in his teaching regarding this commandment in “The Small Catechism”:

We are to fear and love God so that, we neither steal or take our neighbor’s property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.

So not only are we to “not steal” from someone, we are to do all we can to help improve and protect our neighbor’s property and financial status.

Law AND Gospel.

What to avoid AND how to engage.

Who is teaching the Law to you these days? Who is teaching the Gospel?

Seems to me that a bit of both is the way to go. Guess that’s what makes me a Lutheran Christian.

P (Prayer): Lord, keep us on track and give us grace to keep moving. Thanks!