Bread – Cycle of Belief

December 30, 2009

Readings for Wednesday, December 30 as
    designated by the Book of Common Prayer:
    1 Kings 17:17-24; 3 John 1-15; John 4:46-54
    Psalms 20, 21, 23, 27

Our readings today, if read them in the designated order, present an interesting cycle.  In the first reading in 1 Kings, the widow’s son dies and is brought back to life by the prayers of Elijah and the power of God.  In response to this miracle, the woman believed, saying "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth."  1 Kings 17:24.  In the second reading, from 3 John, the Christian is commended for his good works in the name of Christ, particularly in his treatment of strangers (3 John 5).  In the third reading, Jesus heals the royal official’s son (who is on his death bed) from a distance.  When the father realized what had happened, that the mere healing word of Christ was sufficient to make his son well, "…he and all his household believed."  John 4:53b.

Good works are bookended by belief, based upon observation of a miracle.

I do not think that the people who organized these readings and their order hundreds of years ago were casual in their planning.  As a result, it is a good idea to ponder what message they might have had in mind from these Scriptures.

One might be tempted, as I was when I first began writing this, to say that belief gives rise to good works which then, in turn, reinforces belief.  This could certainly be a "cycle of belief."  However, the third text says nothing about good works reinforcing belief and this discovered "cycle," which may very well be a true statement, is not supported by the readings.

Another temptation is to conclude that belief comes from witness to miracles, since in both of the "miracle" passages the miracles are followed by statements of belief.  This "cycle of belief" would then suggest that we witness a miracle and then believe.  However, Jesus Himself squashes this type of thinking by his criticism of the father who had asked Him to save his son – "Unless you see miraculous signs and wonders…you will never believe." John 4:48.  Although miracles certainly aid in solidifying our beliefs, it seems that Jesus is critiquing belief which relies solely on miracles.  This apparently is not the "cycle of belief" either which these Scriptures intend to impart.

What then is the answer?  I think it is in what is not said.  In 1 Kings, the widow has made a place in her home for God (for the man of God, Elijah) and when her son is on his deathbed, she goes to Elijah to complain and to ask for a miracle.  In 3 John, the person commended for good works is characterized as being "faithful," or full of faith.  3 John 5.  There are two senses of "faithful" in English, one being true to particular principles and the other a state of belief or trust.  The Greek word used here suggests a combination of both senses, where the ability to be true to principles arises from the state of belief or trust in someone or something, in this case Jesus Christ.  The man is commended because he is acting out his belief in the Savior.  Finally, in the third reading, the father is confronted with his son’s impending death and seeks out Jesus to ask Him for his son’s healing.  When Jesus told the man what to do, he instantly obeyed in absolute belief that his son would be made well.

So in all three of these passages we have the same order — belief, followed by action upon that belief.  In the first and third readings, the belief led to the action of prayer which in turn led to a miracle which then led to a reinforcement of belief; in the second reading, the belief leads to simple positive action on behalf of the man’s neighbors.  In all three readings, belief preceded, followed by action, followed by good results.

Now the question arises, results for whom?  It is here that these three passages all come together.  In the first and third readings, we naturally think that the person blessed was the person with the belief who prayed for relief and who witnessed the miracle.  But who did they pray for relief for?  Not themselves, but for someone else, for someone they loved.  In the second reading, the beneficiaries, those persons who were loved by the Christian, were all someone else.

Belief followed by action followed by blessing of others.  How is this a cycle of belief?  It’s not, unless somehow the blessing of others circles back to something, a starting point.  And indeed it does.  In the first lesson, the widow is able to go to Elijah, the man of God, because God through Elijah first came to her.  In the second lesson, the Christian is able to love others because "what is good is from God."  3 John 11.  In the third lesson, the father is able to come to Jesus because Jesus first came to where he was, first by being born and secondly by coming into the area where the father lived.  Belief begins with God and is enabled because of God has come to and for us.

Where are you in this cycle of belief?  Have you approached Jesus with the simple faith of a father who wants to save his son and who knows that Jesus as God has the power to save?  Are you saved by faith and are now acting to bless others through your good works?  Have you witnessed the miracles in the lives of others brought about by Jesus Christ acting directly and through you?  Have you taken this witness of others’ blessings to strengthen you own belief?

More to the point, where are you in relationship to the starting point, your relationship with God?  Are you like the widow who has welcomed God into her home but is having trouble believing in His Word?  Are you like the father who believed in God enough to ask for favors but not so much as to trust Him with his eternal salvation?   Do you so trust in God that He is able to act through you to bless others?

A cycle is a circle.  In the case of belief, the circle begins with God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and ends with God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  Start there and all is well.  Start there and people will be blessed and saved.  Start there and you will be blessed and saved.


Bread – God’s House

December 23, 2009

Readings for Wednesday, December 23 as
    designated by the Book of Common Prayer:
    2 Sam. 7:1-17; Titus 2:11-3:8a; Luke 1:39-56
    Psalms 72, 111, 113

In our reading from 2 Samuel today, David has been made king by the mercy and power of God.  As he sits there contemplating his palace, he becomes embarrassed for God because God’s house is in a tent and commits himself to building God a temple which exceeds David’s palace.  The prophet Nathan is given a revelation by God where God says essentially that His home is currently a tent and when He decides He wants a temple, He will have David’s son build it, not David.

This Christmas Eve, most of us will attend some Christmas Eve church service in a place which is bedecked with beauty.  Some of our churches will be adorned with gold.  Others, more plain, will be decorated with Christmas trees, specially hung lights, candles, and various wall hangings of bright gold, silver, green, red, purple, and blue – all royal colors.  Some of our churches will have stained glass windows of incredible craftsmanship; others will have carved wood; others will be resplendent in their simplicity.

Why are our churches so decorated?  Well, for one it is a celebration of the birth of our Savior.  For another, it is pretty.  For another, it adds to the "feeling" of our worship experience by exalting us beyond our daily existence.  On Christmas Eve, with the music, the lights, the decorations, the wonderful sermons, the smiles of our friends – we feel like we have entered into a piece of heaven.  And perhaps we have.

But we need to remember what Nathan said to David.  On that Christmas morning (on "the" Christmas morning), God did not reside in temples made by man but in a feeding trough for sheep.

And what an amazing thing.  When Israel needed God to be with them on their journey out of slavery into freedom, God lived among them within a tent.  When God chose to come to all of us who are poor in spirit, who know our need for Him, He came and resided where we live, in the hovel, in the slum, in the stable, in the feeding trough.

Is God with us in the high points of our worship?  Yes.  Is He with us in the pits of despair, in the tent while we are wandering around, in the dark places?  Yes.

Emmanuel – God with us.  Everywhere, all the time, in all circumstances.  God in the stable and the steeple, in the depths and the heights – for all those who acknowledge and trust in Him.

"For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." Titus 2:11  God’s house can be your house.

Wonderful news.  Wonderful birth.  Merry Christmas!


Bread – Babies

December 18, 2009

Readings for Friday, December 18 as
    designated by the Book of Common Prayer:
    Zech. 7:8-8:8; Rev. 5:6-14; Matt. 25:14-30
    Psalms 40, 54, 51

During Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to speak with a Chinese Ph.D. student in nanotechnology who was an agnostic.  As we discussed the complexity of the tiny machines identified through nanotechnology and his research into the area, I mentioned how incredible it was that as things got smaller (nanotechnology) and larger (quantum mechanics and the structure of the universe), they actually became more complex rather than less.  He agreed.  I then mentioned to him that those facts alone, increasing complexity on the edges of knowledge rather than simplicity, should stand as irrefutable evidence to him of the existence of a Creator, of God.  His response was that he was trained in China to be neutral toward religion, and I let it drop, knowing that God had given me the opportunity to plant a seed.  And the person I was talking to heard what I said – I could see it in his reaction – and so I have confidence that the seed will be watered and that one day he will confront Jesus.

In Zechariah today, God says this to Zechariah about His miracles – "It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to Me?"  What a great question!  Does what seems marvelous, incredible, wonderful, special, miraculous to us seem that way to God?  Does the work of God’s hand seem marvelous to Him?  No (good, yes, but marvelous, no).  Why not?  Because God knows Himself even if we do not; He exercises His power in all circumstances whether we acknowledge it or not.  The miraculous to us is only, to Him, acting to achieve His purpose.

Now, if the wonders of the expanding universe or the micro-nanos are proof of a marvelous Creator, how much more are the wonders of babies?  Yes, babies.  A baby works.  The baby’s eyes work, his limbs work and will become stronger, his brain works, his hands work, his feet work, and the less noble parts work as well.  The baby strikes me as the ultimate complexity – it exists as a whole, more than the sum of its parts, and yet each part by itself is incredibly complex, a wonder of creation.

A baby is a miracle.

So is a virgin birth.  So is that event that we celebrate this Christmas – that God so loved the world that He sent His Son as a baby, to be born of a virgin, in fulfillment of prophecy.

This event, this Christmas, is so marvelous that the world attempts to minimize it – the world calls the virgin birth impossible, just as it denies that Jesus was resurrected from the dead; the world calls the New Testament myths because otherwise it has to admit God’s involvement; the world says there can be no miracles, that everything is explainable through science, that faith is misplaced as old-fashioned; the world says we should have a Holiday Season because that helps the economy, but a Christmas, no way.

And yet there the Baby is, and there the babies are.  And what seems marvelous to us does not seem marvelous to God – after all, He is the one who did it and does it.

Babies also represent new life, and the birth of Jesus Christ proclaims the most marvelous thing of all, that we have new life through Jesus Christ, a new life which can be obtained no other way except through Him.

As you walk through the day, marvel at what is around you.  It may not be marvelous to God, but it certainly can be, and ought to be, marvelous to us – beginning with the birth of the Baby who saves, Jesus Christ. 

So let us celebrate this marvelous season!   Merry (and Holy) Christmas!


Bread – Clothing

December 15, 2009

Readings for Tuesday, December 15 as
    designated by the Book of Common Prayer:
    Zech. 2:1-13; Rev. 3:14-22; Matt. 24:32-44
    Psalms 45, 47, 48

As the nation gathers to celebrate the birth of Christ and, in some circles, the "Holiday Season," several categories of gifts are being purchased.  One of these is clothing.  Clothing is important.  It keeps us warm, it conveys something of who we are, it advertises, it makes statements, and it is necessary for something we don’t talk about very much.  It is necessary to hide our shame.

There is a tendency to equate shame with embarrassment.  We are taught that we should not be embarrassed about "who we are," which is why in part our clothing becomes almost non-existent on the beach or when we want to show that we are different or that we are in control.  But shame is much deeper than embarrassment – shame goes to our underlying sense that we have done something seriously wrong.  Shame means "a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others because of improper behavior, incompetence, etc. … dishonor, disgrace." (Webster’s New World Dictionary 1976).

And we know we are ashamed.  And we know why – Adam and Eve were disobedient to God and that disobedience, that original sin, resides in us.  We know that we have done something seriously wrong.

In today’s reading from Revelation, Jesus tells the people of the church to buy their clothes from Him – "I advise you to buy from Me … white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed…"  Rev. 3:18 (NASB).

Good clothes, clothes which really cover our shame, have two characteristics.  The first is that the clothes come from Jesus Christ Himself and no-one else.  The second is that they are white.  White clothes convey no worldly message, advertise nothing, promote no cause — they cover the shame and, because they are white, it is really easy to see when they are dirty and need to be cleaned up.

So there are two types of clothes to be bought this season.  The first are the clothes of the department store, useful for our needs in the world.  The second are the white clothes from Jesus Christ, useful for our needs for eternity.

Which ones are you buying for yourself?


Bread – Tipping Points

December 9, 2009

Readings for Wednesday, December 9 as
    designated by the Book of Common Prayer:
    Amos 8:1-14; Rev. 1:17-2:7; Matt. 23:1-12
    Psalms 38, 119:25-48

In the news is the global congregation in Copenhagen of people who have gathered to avoid what they describe as a "tipping point," an alleged environmental disaster waiting around the corner to occur if we do not change our oil and coal consuming ways.  We are at a "tipping point" they say, and should we not choose wisely we will die in an inferno of global warming.

While man speaks of his tipping points through the blare of advertising and obsessed media, through manufactured argument and science, God speaks of His tipping points through His Word – quietly, firmly, and with the consistency born of the One who has created all.  In today’s readings, God speaks to us about three tipping points – one for the nation, one for the church, and one for each of us.

The first is for the nation and is from our reading in Amos.  It begins simply enough – God asks Amos what he sees and Amos says a "basket of ripe fruit."  Amos 8:2.  Nothing dramatic here, except to demonstrate our incredible ability to see plain things in plain sight and not be able to perceive the truth.  Ripe fruit is dying fruit.  And God speaks to a dying nation.  He describes the features of that dying nation and it has a significant characteristic, a famine – "not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD."  Amos 8:12.  Every day I read of new attacks against the expression of Christian faith in the public marketplace of ideas.  Lawyers are not exempt – a university has denied the Christian Legal Society a club in a law school because it requires a statement of faith to belong and at least one Court of Appeals has agreed with the university.  Have we begun to enter the day of famine spoken about in Amos?  Have we reached a tipping point as a nation?

The second is for the church.  In Revelation, Jesus addresses the Church in Ephesus, at that time one of the strongest churches in Christianity.  Rev. 2:1-7.  It is a church of mighty works ("I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance." Rev. 2:2a)  It is a church of strong doctrine and adherence to the Word of God ("I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false." Rev. 2:2b).  However, the church is at a tipping point because it has forgotten its first love, Jesus Christ.  Rev. 2:4.  Are you part of a congregation at that tipping point?  Is your congregation so focused on truth, doctrine, and works that love of Christ and love of neighbor and servant leadership is being abandoned?  On a personal level, what motivates you to walk and grow in the Christian faith?  Is it your desire to be obedient to the truth or your response of appreciation for the One who first loved you?  They are not the same.  A response of gratitude arising from love will necessarily result in obedience to the truth of the One who showed you that love.  A response of obedience to the truth will not necessarily lead you to a response of appreciation for Jesus.

The third is for us as individuals.  In the reading from Matthew, Jesus tells us to obey the instructions of those religious leaders in authority but to do not do what they do.  Matt. 23:1-12.  One of the chief criticisms leveled at self-labeled Christians is that we are hypocrites.  We say one thing and do another.  We speak one way in church and act another way in the world.  Jesus has something very interesting here to say about hypocrites – listen to them because they have something good to say (if they are speaking God’s word), but don’t use them as your example of how we live our lives.  There are two tipping points here for individuals.  The first is in whether or not we listen to God’s wisdom spoken by His chosen leaders.  We ere if we do not listen to God, even if the message is delivered by broken vessels.  By failing to listen, we tip in the direction of failure.  The second tipping point is whether or not we follow what they do, recognizing that they do not do what they say.  Doing what they do when they are not consistent with what they say is tipping in the wrong direction, with disastrous consequences.

Are you personally today at one of these tipping points?  Have you so eliminated your Bible study and prayer from your life that you are in the age of famine – where the Word of God is missing?  Have you so eliminated the time to be be with One who saved you that you are forgetting, or have forgotten, your first love?  Have you stopped listening to Word of God because it is being delivered by a hypocrite?  Have you followed the pattern of living demonstrated by hypocrites?

If so, Jesus has the same instruction for you that He did to the Church in Ephesus — "Repent and do the things you did at first."  Rev. 2:5b.  And withdraw from that tipping point into the power, strength, love, protection, safety, and peace of our Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


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