Bread – Spread

September 30, 2011


Readings for Friday, September 30, designated by the Book of Common Prayer:  2 Kings 19:1-20; 1 Cor. 9:16-27; Matt. 8:1-17; Psalm 102, 107

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In 2 Kings today, Hezekiah is being told by the King of Assyria to give up because God was no more powerful than the other gods who were the gods of other nations Assyria had overrun. One of Hezekiah’s “allies” sent a message to Hezekiah with much the same warning. After receiving the letter, “Hezekiah ….read it. The he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord.” Hezekiah then asked the Lord to pay attention to the insult contained in the letter and to deliver the Jews from the Assyrians, “so that the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are God.” 2 Kings 19:14, 19

There is something so visual in taking the message and “spreading it out before the Lord.”

When we are involved in a legal transaction, involving multiple documents, we often “spread” the documents across the table so that all sides can (a) see the individual documents and (b) see the entire transaction, all at once. When a detective is investigating a crime, it is not unusual for the detective to spread the evidence across his or her desk or on a “story board” so that people can examine not only the little pieces of evidence one by one, but also see all of the evidence together at one time, giving everyone a chance to see a pattern, to see the whole.

There is also something symbolic in spreading the letter. In spreading something out for someone else to see, you are taking an action which discloses everything and you are taking an action which essentially says “help me.” The spreading of legal papers is an invitation for all sides to come together in agreement to achieve a purpose; it is the lawyers’ way of “giving it up” to the parties, to finish the transaction. When the detective spreads the evidence, it is an action which discloses all the evidence to view and it is an action which invites others who care about him to help him.

Hezekiah was troubled by the demand of the King of Assyria that he give up Judah. He was troubled by the advice he was receiving from his “friends” to give up. He took his troubles, represented by the letter, and “spread” it before the Lord, thereby giving it all up to Him.

We all have troubles. We all have opposition. We all receive advice on a daily basis, sometimes from well-meaning but wrong friends and sometimes from the pits of hell, which is troubling because somewhere in our brains, our hearts, and our souls, we know the advice is wrong, that it violates God’s commandments and His purpose. And we often don’t know what to do.

Let’s do what Hezekiah did. Spread our troubles before the Lord. Write them down and spread the little pieces of paper on the floor, asking God to observe them and deal with them. Or mentally take your troubles and put them on the visual altar before God, asking Him to see and to act.

And then listen to what God says. It may be something like He told Hezekiah through Isaiah, “I will defend this city and save it, for My sake and for the sake of David my servant.” 2 Kings 19:34. And He will defend you in your time of need and save you, for the sake of His Name and for the sake of His son, Jesus Christ, who died so that you might spread your worries before Him and have joy.

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Bread – Undivided

September 26, 2011


Readings for Monday, September 26, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: 2 Kings 17:24-41; 1 Cor. 7:25-31; Matt. 6:25-34; Psalm 89

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“Give me you undivided attention!” Have we ever had that said to us (perhaps as a little child)? Have we ever said it to someone (like our own children)?

If we as parents can be so frustrated when our children are not listening to us because they are paying attention to something or someone else, can you imagine how aggravated our Lord must be when we do not give Him our undivided attention?

In today’s readings from 2 Kings, Paul’s first letter to Corinth, and the Gospel of Matthew, we have three examples of how and when our attention becomes divided, how and when we lose focus on God.

The three examples are (a) other gods, (b) other people, and (c) ourselves. As we read these passages, it is appropriate to ask ourselves how many different ways does our attention upon God and His glory and wishes for us become scattered and divided, to ask ourselves how often this has happened already today.

In 2 Kings, the king of Babylon (Assyria) has resettled Samaria with non-Jews. The situation facing the people is that they are getting killed by a bunch of lions sent by God because, according to the Assyrian reporter, “The people … do not know what the god of that country [Samaria] requires. He has sent lions among them … because the people do not know what he requires.” 2 Kings 17:26. What do we do when we don’t know something? We go hire an expert. That is what the king of Assyria did; he found a priest to go explain to the people what the “god of that country” demanded.

Now what is funny about this (and tragic at the same time) is that the priest did his job. He taught the people that God requires that they “not worship any other gods or bow down to them, serve them or sacrifice to them.” 2 Kings 17:35. However, the people in the land “worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.” 2 Kings 17:33.

How many of us do the same thing? We have been brought into the church from the world. How often do we worship the Lord on Sunday, only to worship our own gods (money, power, ourselves, work, play, good looks) [the customs of the world] the rest of the time?

So, in 2 Kings, we are taught that our first major source of divided interests, of divided attention, is the existence of other gods and our service to those other gods “in accordance with the customs of the nations.”

In our reading today from 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses marriage in the context of the Corinthian situation and suggests that marriage not be automatically sought because it creates divided loyalties. He says “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided.” 1 Cor. 7:32-34. The point here does not involve so much marriage as it does other people; when we are bound to other people our interests and attentions are divided. When we are paying attention to our spouse, we are not paying attention to the Lord. When we are paying attention to someone else, we are not paying attention to the Lord.

Because we live among people with different degrees of affinity and affiliation, the fact is that our attention will always be divided, unless we (a) acknowledge it (and see it for what it is) and (b) work hard to counter-act it. One way we can help this division of attention is to constantly ask ourselves whether we, in interacting with the other person, are acting like Christ to that person, whether we are abiding in Christ. While, then, we are attending to the other we are also attending to Christ. We are then “piggybacking” on our divided attention to refocus our attention where it needs to be. Unless we do what Paul suggests, withdraw from personal relationships, divided attention will always exist; however, by recognizing what is happening we can act in the power of the Holy Spirit to help us effectively deal with it.

The third place we can become divided from attending to our Lord is ourselves. Our reading today from Matthew is the teaching on worry. Jesus tells us not to worry because God has it under control. Why worry about worry? Because it divides us from the power source, from God Himself. What is the first thing that happens when we worry – we ask ourselves how we are going to fix it. (What can I do to fix ….?) Jesus reminds us simply that if our undivided focus is first on “His kingdom” and “His righteousness,” “all these things [the things we worry about] will be given to [us] as well.” Matt. 6:33.

Other gods, other people, our personal situation – which of these today divides your attention and takes you away from undivided focus upon God’s kingdom and God’s holiness and righteousness? There is no answer but one. “But seek you first His kingdom and His righteousness,” and other gods will be cast off as irrelevant. “But seek you first His kingdom and His righteousness,” and we can see people through the eyes of Jesus and deal with them firmly grounded in truth and love. “But seek you first His kingdom and His righteousness,” and those things about ourselves we are concerned about will be handled.

The way we remain undivided is to seek first things first. “Seek His kingdom and His righteousness” and the “divi” words – divided, division, divisiveness – will disappear into the woodwork.

And wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to begin the week!

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Bread – Understanding

September 14, 2011


Readings for Wednesday, September 14, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: 1 Kings 22:1-28; 1 Cor. 2:1-13; Matt. 4:18-25; Psalms 72, 119:73-96

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How do we understand what God is saying to us? How do we know that we are not listening to a lying spirit instead of God’s true message to us?

In a sense, that question is what all three of our lessons today are about.

The first lesson, from 1 Kings, has Ahab, the King of Israel, contemplating whether he should attack the King of Aram and take back Ramoth Gilead. He asks Jehoshaphat, the King of Judah, whether he would help him in this quest, and Jehoshaphat wisely suggests that, before they embark on war, they should “seek the counsel of the Lord.” 1 Kings 22:5 So Ahab calls up his prophets (some 400 of them) and asks them to tell him what the Lord says, and they say with one voice “attack.” Jehoshaphat, however, has a concern about the validity of this prophecy, so he insists that Ahab call forth a prophet he does not like, because that prophet “never prophesies anything good about me.” 1 Kings 22:8. The prophet is called but, prior to making a statement, he is warned that the other prophets have predicted success. He gives into the crowd and says that Ahab will be successful. In a strange moment of clarity, Ahab gets mad at the prophet and says “How many times must I make you swear to tell me [the truth]?” 1 Kings 22:16 Then the prophet says something which strikes us as peculiar, because he says that the Lord permitted a lying spirit to seduce all of the prophets because He wanted Ahab to be enticed to go to his death. Then, the king gets mad (because the prophet never says anything good), sends him to jail, and goes to war (where he dies).

Although one focus of his passage is surely God’s control over kings and nations, what I want to focus on is King Ahab’s ambivalence. He knows in his heart that he may not be hearing the truth from the group of court prophets, so when the other prophet tells him the same thing Ahab warns him to tell him the truth, not what everyone else is saying. But after he is told the truth, Ahab ignores it and does what he wanted to do anyway.

How do we understand the voice of God? Maybe part of that answer lies in who is telling us and what are they telling us. Do we listen to the mob or to the “still small voice.” Do we listen to our friends on the golf course or to our accountability partner, whose job it is to pray for us, to listen to God for us, and to tell us the truth even when it hurts (“he never prophesies anything good about me”). Do we set our objective and then listen to only those voices which support our objective, or do we let God set our objective and then listen and observe carefully whether confirmation is coming from other sources (as opposed to our own thoughts and desires).

Another reading from today is from Matthew. It reads in part: “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew…’Come, follow me,’ Jesus said,….At once they left their nets and followed Him.” Matt. 4:18. From being gainfully employed to being itinerant followers of Christ in a single instant – How did Peter and Andrew know they were hearing the voice of God and not some lying spirit? How?

Why did Ahab tell the prophet to tell him the truth even though (a) what he was saying was what the king wanted to hear, and (b) he knew he did not like what the prophet normally said? Why did Peter and Andrew drop what they were doing immediately when Jesus said “Follow me?”

There is a standard of truth which sounds horrible in today’s scientific, rational environment where, if it cannot be tested, it is not real. To modern ears, this standard of truth rings hollow and somehow “fake.” And that standard of truth is “you know it when you see it.” The real McCoy is real because it is real.

Before you begin to squawk about irrationality, lack of standards, and the like … how is what I am saying any different than what Paul says in our readings today: “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Cor. 2:12-14 (italics emphasis added).

When the Spirit of God, operating through God’s written revelation to us (His Word), operating through other Godly people, operating through circumstance, and operating through direct contact with us, speaks truth to us, we know it. We know it because it is spiritually discerned and because, when tested against God’s Word, it is not inconsistent with that Word. We know it because, since it is not the wisdom of the world, it often does not match up with our own desires, our own nature, our own education, our own understanding of “how things work.” We know it when we see it.

Now the real question. If we know the truth when we see it, if we have the gift of God’s Spirit so that we may discern spiritual things, what is our response? Is it the response of Peter and Andrew, to drop what we are doing and follow Him, follow the call of Jesus on our lives, accepting the free gift of grace and salvation? Or is it the response of Ahab, to ignore the truth and go do what we were going to do anyway and die?

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All Bible citations are to the New International Version (NIV), unless otherwise noted.

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This and previous Breads may be read, critiqued and commented upon at the Bread blog: https://1bread.wordpress.com

Bread – Temptation

September 12, 2011


Readings for Monday, September 12, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: 1 Kings 21:1-16; 1 Cor. 1:1-19; Matt. 4:1-11; Psalms 56, 57, 58, 64, 65

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“…and lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil…” This is an excerpt from the Lord’s teaching on how we should pray.

In our reading from Matthew today, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where He fasted for forty straight days and nights. The purpose of this was so that He would be “tempted by the devil.” Matt. 4:1. The Greek word for “tempted” here conveys the idea that the purpose of temptation is to prove what we are made of – are we corrupt or capable of being led to corruption?

We instinctively know that that the answer to this question is “yes,” that we are either corrupt or have a powerful leaning in that direction. Therefore, we are smart enough to pray that we not be taken by the Holy Spirit into a place of temptation, just like Jesus was. We know that, if we find ourselves in such a place, we are likely to either reveal our existing corruption or become corrupt. Since we have little power to resist, except in and with the power of the very same Spirit, we ask instead that the Holy Spirit deliver us from the clutches of Satan and the old man, our nature before God saved us. But, in spite of that prayer, we end up in times of temptation.

When we do, when we are permitted by God to be tempted, our lessons from Scripture today are to remembered as bulwarks against slipping, as strong toeholds against sliding down, as safety nets from heaven to keep us from error. These bulwarks taught in Scripture today are (a) knowledge of our position in Christ before God, (b) knowledge of the gifts of our forefathers, and (c) knowledge of God’s revelation, His Word.

In the letter to Corinthians, we are introduced to a church in disarray as it is full of factions following different theologians and ways of thinking. As Paul says, some say that they “follow Paul,” others say that they “follow Apollos,” and others say that they “follow Cephas [Peter].” 1 Cor. 1:12. Paul asks how there can be these divisions when Christ is one? Well, it is actually easy to see how there can be divisions in the church. “Our pastor preaches the Word,” “Our pastor walks in the Holy Spirit,” “Our pastor cares for his flock,” “Our pastor has the correct view of Scripture,” “Our pastor speaks of love,” “Our pastor speaks of sin,” etc. Our natural tendency is to be tempted to follow the better speaker, the nicer person, the smarter leader – in other words, the person who we like and who teaches what we like. We are tempted to follow the person, philosophy, knowledge, custom, or thought right in front of our nose, rather than to look through and beyond that person or institution to see Jesus. Christ is not divided, but we are, tempted to follow our own desires and courses, chasing after those who would “tickle our ear.” What is the bulwark against this temptation? To remember that Jesus is our King and Lord, not the pastor, not our best friend, not our teacher, and not our spouse. As Paul might say it, to focus on the cross – “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Cor. 1:18. One bulwark against temptation is our reason, using our minds to pierce the present to see clearly Christ, and Him crucified.

Another way we are tempted is through wealth or trying to please other people. In 1 Kings today, Ahab the king tries to bribe Naboth into giving up his vineyard. Naboth could well have been tempted to sell the vineyard to the king, thereby increasing his fortune (“In exchange, I will give you a better vineyard.” 1 Kings 21:2) or at least pleasing the king. Instead, Naboth says “No,” because the vineyard was inherited from his fathers. It had been in his family throughout generations and, if he had anything to say about it, it would remain in his family for many generations more. This is analogous to the modern day expression that “if you are asked to do something, before you do it ask yourself if your mother would be pleased.” A bulwark to temptation is tradition, the knowledge of what our forefathers have done and why they did it. If prior generations did not do something, it was not because they didn’t have the Internet (all sin is common to all man at all times). Maybe it is because they knew better. A great way to avoid temptation is to listen to the past, to give credit to those who have gone before us. In other words, a great bulwark against temptation is what many would call “tradition,” not the kind of tradition which does something over and over again for no good reason, but the kind of tradition which transmits from the past the wisdom of the ages, the historical sorting of good from evil, the well-worn paths which are followed because they lead to places you want to go.

And then, of course, we have Jesus in the desert, being tempted to satisfy His physical needs, His loneliness, His need for control, by taking control of His life and “getting what He deserves” (the modern sound bite for modern man). His bulwark against temptation was God’s revelation to us in His Word. Every temptation He dealt with by reference to Scripture. His bulwark against temptation is ours as well – God’s Word.

Scripture first, tradition second, reason focused on the person of Jesus Christ third – sound familiar? The bulwark against temptation – the communion of saints (the church), where is practiced obedience to the Word of God, honoring the tradition which has tested that Word throughout time, with a focused mind upon Him who died on the cross.

The temptation of Christ began by removing Him into the desert. Are you in such a place where you now find yourself separated from the church, from Scripture, from tradition, from Christian reason? Pray, then, that God brings you back into communion with Him and His followers, so that you will indeed be “delivered from evil.”

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