Bread – Decision

November 21, 2011


Readings for Monday, November 21, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: Joel 3:1-2, 9-17; 1 Pet. 1:1-12; Matt. 19:1-12; Psalm 106

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In the reading from Joel today, there is a phrase, “valley of decision.” Joel 3:14 The reference is to God’s decisions of judgment against the nations in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:12), but it struck me that it is the valleys in our lives, the deepest places of loss, despair, hurt, anger, poverty, loneliness, lifelessness, jealousy, selfishness, etc., where we make decisions which affect us for the rest of our lives.

Decisions made on the mountaintop are often fleeting in their effect; decisions made in the valley of decision rarely are fleeting and most often are of long and strong impact.

It is in the valleys of life where we decide whether we belong to the world or to God, where we decide whether what other people think is important or whether what God thinks is important, where we decide to yield to our loss or fight our way out, where we choose despair or we choose hope. It can be a place where faith in God is embraced or where it is abandoned.

It is in this valley of decision where Peter finds the disciples, the children of Christ, when he writes to them. Listen to his words:

In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into the inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may prove genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” 1 Pet. 1:3b-7

There is great danger in talking about the light, life, love, power, and self-control which comes from belief in Christ and the ongoing effort to lean into that new person and to shed the old man within us. The reason is that we associate light, life, joy, hope, power, self-control and similar words with good things, with happy things, with positive things. But Satan inserts into those positive things a few valleys, a few set-backs, a few losses, a few hurts, a few times of darkness and death. He then uses the valley to discourage us, to have us doubt the truth of God’s revelation to us in His Word, both in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, to cause us worry, to abandon dependence upon God and depend instead upon the false strength of ourselves and our world. We then might say, in such a valley, that we must not have faith because we are feeling no joy, we are seeing no light, we are experiencing no love.

What is the decision to be made at this time, the time in the valley? To believe the promise. When it is pitch black, we need to decide to believe the promise of light. When we are on death’s doorstep, we need to decide to believe in the promise of salvation. When our faith is weak, we need to decide to believe in God’s strength to achieve His purpose in our lives. When we are in chains, we need to decide to believe that God is a good God with a good plan for us. In the valley of despair, we must decide in the power of God to have hope.

Can we decide these things in these circumstances on our own? We know the answer to that intuitively, and the answer is “no.” How then, is it possible to make positive decisions in difficult times? The secret is in Peter’s reference to our faith being “shielded by God’s power.” It is not our power which sustains the day; it is God’s power. It is not our power which helps us to decide well in the valley, it is God’s power.

So when we are in the valley, what is the best decision we can make? I think it is the decision to rely upon God’s power. To do that, we begin, “Come Holy Spirit.”

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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

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Bread – Gracious

November 18, 2011


Readings for Friday, November 18, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: *; Rev. 22:6-13; Matt. 18:10-20; Psalms 102, 107

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Within Webster’s definition of the word “gracious” is this description: “indulgent or polite to those held to be inferiors.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1976).

When it comes to each other within the Christian community, when we look out among our brothers and sisters within the different denominations (different than the one we claim), how often does this description apply? It is almost funny if it weren’t so tragic. How can anyone who is called by God to believe in Jesus Christ, who will be my brother and sister for eternity before the Throne of God, who is a saint on earth, be deemed “inferior.” And yet we think that way all the time, “putting up” with those of “lesser understanding,” believing that we are somehow acting like our Savior in being “gracious.”

I am reminded of this today because of a passage from Revelation which just precedes the reading assigned for today. It is this: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.” Rev. 22:1-2

Notice something. “The” tree of life (not “a” tree of life) stands on each side of the river of life, which flows from God. How can a tree be on both sides of a river (two places) at one time? Are there two trees of life? No, there is just one, just like there is one river of water of life. Both sufficient for life, providing benefits and crops for the fullness and feeding of the kingdom (twelve tribes, twelve months).

The river creates two sides, both which appear to be different (one is here, but the other is over there), but both of which are entirely dependent upon the river. Because the river knows the sides, even though present, are essentially irrelevant to the nature of the water, the tree of life of the same nature (both giving life) ignores the sides as well.

There is one God, one baptism, one faith, one Savior. We may be about establishing boundaries and observing the sides, but the life is in what proceeds from the Father and the Son.

In this time of thanksgiving, maybe it is appropriate to lay down our arms against our fellow Christians, the ones on “that side over there,” and be grateful that the river washes all who believe and the tree of life on “each side” feeds those who live because of the Lamb.

The reading from today’s Psalms ends: “Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the Lord.” Ps. 107:43 Amen.

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* The assigned reading is from the Apocrypha, which I do not use for Bread because, although recognized by much of the church as useful for teaching, it is outside the Bible proper (the canon of Scripture). It is therefore omitted from the list of readings.

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Bread – Images

November 16, 2011


Readings for Wednesday, November 16, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: *; Rev. 21:9-21; Matt. 17:22-27; Psalms 101, 109, 119:121-144

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In the television series “Dragnet,” we are confronted with the police investigator who always says, “Just the facts, Ma’am, nothing but the facts.” As modern people living in the west, we are factually, procedurally and systems oriented. We like to think we are “rational” and “scientific.” Precise reasoning is exalted. Rigid adherence to systems of thought are considered a virtue.

But there is something about a transcendent, all powerful, all loving, all truthful, sovereign God that screws this up. Something above reason cannot be fully incorporated into reason. Someone unbounded by time cannot fully be comprehended by time-bound people, no matter how rational or scientific.

Beyond systems and procedures and “facts” there is something else. Today, I call those “something else” things images. We can place them in words but everyone understands that the descriptions are poor and incomplete, that it is the image which conveys the fullest meaning.

Today’s readings are pregnant with many images.

There is the image in Revelation of the New Jerusalem, where all God’s people are gathered in eternal glory. It is an image of something so big, so wide, so tall, so encased in light, wonder, and glory, that one can only imagine, one can only dream about what it really is. It is a place of beauty, it is a place of wonder, it is a place of peace, it is a place of strength, it is a place above all places, it is a place large enough for all of the saints, it is a place ruled by God, it is a place infused by God. And even these words and descriptions are not complete or powerful enough to convey the image. Think about it. Meditate on it.

There is the image of Christ on earth, telling Peter to pull some coins out of fish to go pay the temple tax, as reported to us in our reading from Matthew today. A fish? Sure, you need to go get some money to pay your taxes, so go get it out of a fish. The image is almost laughable and yet at the same time beyond human understanding. God provided for Himself and for Peter. He provided from Peter from His (Christ’s) creation. Take a moment and think about this image. Does not God deal with you the same way? You are able to get what you need from the raw material of creation, from what is provided by God. You may say that you are a college professor, so you get your income from the school. Really? Have you ever pulled that string to see where it leads? Does it not lead ultimately to the sun, the earth, the weather, the minerals, the provision of God in His creation for our dominion and use? Is this not a miracle every minute of every day in everyone’s lives? What an image!

In Psalm 119:123 from our readings today, there is this lament “My eyes fail, looking for Your salvation, looking for Your righteous promise.” This is an image as well, reflecting our state of reason on earth, where we look with our eyes to and fro for evidence, for facts, for systems, for procedures, of a mighty God which cannot be seen with eyes of unbelief, who cannot be loved without something more than we can bring to the table. Our natural self cannot see. Our natural self fails. This is an image of man, of us without the Holy Spirit. It is a natural cry from an honest soul, and it can be honestly answered – yes, your eyes do fail and they will fail. This is an image beyond description of despair, of the natural state of man, of ourselves when we are trapped in the maze of facts, of analysis, of procedures, of rules. It is an image of a prison of human making, of rationality.

But, as usual, God provides an image of Himself if we will but truly see with spiritual eyes. And that is contained in the next section of the same Psalm, “Turn [O God] to me and have mercy on me, as You always do to those who love Your Name.” Ps. 119:132 This is an image of a God who “always” does, who always has mercy on those who love His Name. This is an image of a God of mercy, a God of promise, a God of deliverance, a God who is and who does. This is not a God who we can cook up a relationship with, who we can define with our little sets of “facts” and “doctrine” and “procedures” and magic acts and incantations. It is an image of a God who is above, beside, ahead, and behind us. A God who has been, is, and will be. A God who we cannot describe, but we can worship; a God who hears us, but whom we cannot command; a God who loves us in spite of ourselves and foolishness; a God who shows up for His people.

Images of the future, images of the present, images of ourselves, and images of our God. Wonderful images; awesome God. All wrapped up in a few words from God’s revelation to us, His Word written, the Bible.

To which we respond, …

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* The assigned reading is from the Apocrypha, which I do not use for Bread because, although recognized by much of the church as useful for teaching, it is outside the Bible proper (the canon of Scripture). It is therefore omitted from the list of readings.

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Bread – Judgment

November 14, 2011


Readings for Monday, November 14, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: *; Rev. 20:7-15; Matt. 17:1-13; Psalm 89

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I almost called this Bread “The Gospel.” In today’s world, the positive side of the gospel – health, wealth, joy, peace, life – are emphasized because no one wants to be a downer. The positive side is something to grasp hold of. What I call the negative side is something to avoid.

And what is there to avoid? Judgment. God’s judgment on what we have done with our lives.

Revelation today speaks of this final judgment, what is sometimes referred to as the “Great White Throne” judgment. John wrote in Revelation the following vision from God:

“Then I saw a great white throne…And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened…The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done….If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Rev. 20:11-15

Everyone is to be judged according to the work he or she has had done. This includes the “good” people and the “religious” people, according to the world’s standards. It includes the “ethical” people and the “right” or “righteous” people, according to the world’s standards.

Everyone ends up in the lake of fire, condemned for eternity, based upon their works. There is no evidence in Revelation of anyone avoiding the lake of fire by virtue of their good works. There are no works which will avoid the lake of fire. We cannot be good enough, ethical enough, religious enough, or righteous enough to avoid the lake of fire. The only people who avoid the lake of fire are the ones whose names are written in the book of life.

So, how does one get into that book, the book of life? Is it through works? We’ve already seen that works end us up in the lake of fire. Is it through “religious” belief and practice? Aren’t these just another form of works?

In another writing, John (the same John who wrote down Revelation) reports this exchange between the disciples and Jesus: “Then they asked Him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.’” John 6:28-29.

And who has He, God the Father, sent? That answer is in today’s reading from Matthew: “After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There He was transfigured before them. His face became like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light…While he [Peter] was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This [Jesus] is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!’” Matt. 17:1-5

God the Father sent God the Son to earth to die for us, to pay the price for our failure, our inability to do any work pleasing to God, our sin, so that through His sacrifice on the cross we might have our names written by God in the book of life, so that we might avoid judgment of our works by relying upon God’s work on the cross.

Maybe this Bread finds you today in a place of confusion about who Jesus is and how you find Him. What work must you do to find Jesus Christ? Nothing. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.” My belief in God is God’s work in my life and not my work. My belief in Jesus Christ exists because God in His mercy chose me to hear, receive, and believe in spite of who I am and what I have done. There is nothing to discover, there is nothing to investigate, there is nothing to think about, there is nothing to do. However, there is something to receive – faith, belief, trust. And the beginning is the smallest, when we join with the father of the boy rescued by Jesus in saying – “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Mk. 9:24

Do you want your name written in the book of life? The gospel which gives life is the same gospel which saves us from the consequences of our own work and our sin, the lake of fire. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Pray that God in His sovereign mercy chooses to so enlighten your mind and quicken your heart that you are able to begin “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” And then when that white throne judgment comes, when they begin to open the books which tell about your works, you can say … “Hey you! No need. Don’t waste your time. My name’s in that other book over there, thanks to my Lord Jesus Christ. Look at His works, not mine!”

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* The assigned reading is from the Apocrypha, which I do not use for Bread because, although recognized by much of the church as useful for teaching, it is outside the Bible proper (the canon of Scripture). It is therefore omitted from the list of readings.

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Bread – Roles

November 9, 2011


Readings for Wednesday, November 9, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: Neh. 7:73b-8:18; Rev. 18:21-24; Matt. 15:29-39; Psalms 81, 82, 119:97-120

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In our reading from Nehemiah today, a congregation in worship is described. Within this description are various roles.

Ezra has two roles. The first is as scribe. In this role, Ezra could be a person taking roll, he could be a person who “recounts” the history of God’s people, and he could in fact be a person whose job it is to accurately transcribe God’s Word, making sure that it survives intact from generation to generation. In this role, he is a person who studies and who has knowledge. Certainly, as he carefully transcribed the Torah from one manuscript onto fresh medium to create another Torah, he would read each word, each jot and tittle, each phrase, each “sentence,” each paragraph, and each book with the utmost care, attention, and focus.

But Ezra was also a priest descended from Aaron’s line. As such, in that role he led the assembly in worship. Actually, what he did was to read the Word straight up, without interpretation. “He read it [the Book of the Law of Moses*] aloud from daybreak till noon.” Neh. 8:3

Then there was the role of the assembly. The assembly was comprised of three groups of people – “men and women and all who were able to understand.” Neh. 8:2. The third category, “all who were able to understand” presumably includes all those children who had not reached maturity (were not “men and women”) but who were old enough and intelligent enough “to understand” what was being said. The implication is that infants and young children without this ability had no role in worship.

Finally, there is the role of the “Levites,” defined as a group of specific people, not including Ezra, whose role it was that they “instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” Neh. 8:7-8. Thus, the role of the Levites in this service was one of translating and teaching. Notice that this role was exercised during the worship service, not before or after.

We have so far described the role of priest (or keeper and reader of the Word, and the person in charge of the service), of translator and teacher (Levites), and of the assembly (men, women, all who were able to understand). The final role described is that of exhorter, a role fulfilled not only by Ezra and the Levites, but also by Nehemiah, the “governor” (Neh. 8:9). These people exhorted the people to act in particular ways in response to God’s Word preached and applied, to act joyfully because “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Neh. 8:9-10. This exhortation apparently came at the end of the service, because the assembly is thereafter reported to have broken up in order to “eat and drink, to send portions of food [to those who have none] and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.” Neh. 8:12 Thus the roles of the assembly changed from listeners and learners inside of worship to doers after worship.

It strikes me that all of these roles are filled by us from time to time, both in our families and in our world. Sometimes we are called to be studiers of the Word and sometimes pronouncers of that same Word. Sometimes we are called to be teachers and interpreters. Sometimes we are called to be leaders of the assembly, and other times we are called to be members of the assembly, listening and digesting what we hear. Sometimes we are called to be exhorters, encouragers of others. Sometimes we are in the role of those in the assembly who weeped (Neh. 8:9-11) and who are in need of the encouragement of others who have stepped up to their role as exhorters. In all cases we are called to the role of doers.

What role is God calling you today to fill in your family, in your workplace, in your city, in the assembly, in God’s family of believers, the Church? Look around and, step up, step down, or step aside as the need is seen, knowing that God through His Holy Spirit will equip you for every good work.

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* There is an interesting progression in this reading today which could easily be the subject of another Bread. The progression is in what the Torah is called. First, it is called the “Book of the Law of Moses.” Neh. 8:1b Then it is called the “Book of the Law.” Neh. 8:3b. Finally it is called the “Book of the Law of God.” Neh. 8:8 This represents our three stages in understanding Scripture. First, we think of it as the work of man with some good philosophy, maybe. Second, we reach a place of doubt, where we realize that it has something to say about how we should behave. Finally, we reach a place in our understanding where we understand that the Book, the Bible, is Scripture which is the work of God, is His revelation to us, and is to be treated as a holy thing, authoritative, inspired, inerrant. All this progression occurs in the context of worship (within the Church) where the Word is spoken accurately, where it is translated so that it can be understood, where understanding does occur and, as a result, repentance follows, to be followed by joy and good works.

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Bread –Come Out

November 7, 2011


Readings for Monday, November 7, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: Neh. 9:1-25; Rev. 18:1-8; Matt. 15:1-20; Psalms 77, 79, 80

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In Nehemiah today, all of Israel has gathered together. One quarter of the day is spent in reading Scripture. Another quarter of the day is spent in confession and worship. The entire reading is an introduction to this ceremony, where the history of God’s action with His people to date is recounted. It begins with Abram, where God “brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans.” [Neh. 9:7] It continues where God brought out His people from Egypt, from bondage. It further continues where God brought out His people from their forty years in the wilderness into the promised land.

The title of today’s Bread is “come out.” This word combination suggests the human side of God’s action of “brought out.” God brings out; the people, in obedience, come out. Out of what? Out of slavery, bondage, fear, imprisonment, darkness, death. Into what? Freedom, adventure, life, light, opportunity, discipline, courage. Out of a life of man’s laws and into a life of God’s laws. Out of a life of consequences from following man and into a life of consequences from following God.

This human side is emphasized in our reading today from Revelation. In Revelation, we read “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! … Come out of her, My people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; …” Rev. 18:2, 4 This is the clarion call to leave the ways of the world if you are God’s and to follow Him and Him only. “Come out!” How can we do this? Because God brings us out?

What is the command in the present to which it appears we respond (“Come out!”) is in fact the action of God which we recognize in hindsight (God “brought out.”) The net effect is the same – we are saved from the corruption of our world, but our ability to “come” is dependent upon the action of the God who “brings.”

In Matthew, Jesus speaks today about our state of uncleanness which flows from our heart and out of our mouths. Although the context is food and the tradition of the elders with respect to the handling of food (to make it clean), Jesus makes it clear that the issue of uncleanness goes well beyond simple adherence to external behavioral standards and instead is only rightly measured by the condition of the heart. The “called out” by God (and the “come out” by man) is demonstrated not just by compliance with the external demands of the moment, but also and more importantly by the accompanying change of heart which then demonstrates itself in “clean” action.

The command in Revelation to “come out” is not a command to leave a physical place (although that might be involved); it is a command to leave a spiritual place, a place of the heart. Babylon existed in Egypt as the time of the Exodus. Babylon existed in the Israeli nation as it built and worshiped the golden calf, saying that a god of their making had brought them from Egypt. Babylon existed in the Pharisees. And Babylon exists in us.

Have we “come out” yet from Babylon? Have we “come out” of our cruel bondage? If not, why not?

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