Epiphany 5, Saturday, Year B

Inspired by Matthew 12:9-14 

“[Jesus] left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and [the Pharisees] asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him.” Matthew 12:9-10 (NRSV) 

A question sometimes asked of Christians is, “Can God create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it?” Whether we answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ we disprove his omnipotence and acknowledge a limit to God’s power and ability. C.S. Lewis called the question ‘nonsense,’ stating in Mere Christianity, “His omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.” Others have likened the question to asking if God can create a square circle, an equally nonsensical question.

The Pharisees asked Jesus a question that was nonsensical in its own way. Is it lawful to cure a man’s suffering on the Sabbath? While such a question is not a paradoxical impossibility, it does call into question the nature of God. Does God care more about the law than human suffering? Is it acceptable to disregard the law given to Moses by God?

The law was given for a reason, and it was not to be taken lightly. But the reason the law was given was to benefit humanity, and Jesus knew that. The Pharisees asked the question in such a way that it would most likely be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ both of which were wrong. But Jesus answered in his own way, which upheld both the importance of keeping the law and respecting why the law was given in the first place.

God’s nature is one of love and mercy. He gave us the law to guide us in those principles, but we should never doubt that love and mercy undergird all that God does.

Let us pray. Omnipotent God, all things are possible for you. Grant us the wisdom to not get caught up in nonsensical questions about your abilities, that we may instead become better acquainted with your loving nature. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Epiphany 5, Friday, Year B

Inspired by Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

“He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” Psalm 147:3-5 (NRSV)

There’s a common belief among some Christians that people who believe in God strongly enough and obey his commands diligently enough will receive a multitude of blessings and live free from hardship. When things go wrong, they tend to blame themselves, hide their wounds and brokenness, and pray for forgiveness and strength rather than healing and comfort.

God does forgive us, and he does give us strength. But he also heals us and comforts us. Jesus Christ, Son of God, lived on earth as a human being, though his faith and his obedience to his Father were perfect in a way ours can never be. Yet despite his perfect faith and obedience, things went ‘wrong’ for him as we tend to define it. He was wounded and broken. He suffered persecution, betrayal, and death. He knew life as it really is, not as we think it should be. The Word made flesh came not only to save us from our sins, but to demonstrate that he walks with us in all our experiences, and that he knows in the deepest part of his being the hardships we face. The God of heaven and earth, who has the power and authority to determine the number of stars in the sky and give each of them their names, also has the power and authority to wipe every tear from your eyes, and to comfort you when you’re hurting.

Wounds and brokenness are not abhorrent to God; he came to us because we are wounded and broken. He understands us, he comforts us, he heals us. And he forgives and strengthens us, too.

Let us pray. Merciful God, you know our failings and weaknesses. Embolden us to share our hurts with you, that we may experience your comfort and healing. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Epiphany 5, Thursday, Year B

Inspired by Proverbs 12:10-21

“Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 12:15 (NRSV)

Knowledge inspires confidence. When we know what we’re doing we do it well, and we sometimes instruct others who don’t know as much. It doesn’t matter if what we know is our livelihood, a hobby, or a certain way of living – we’ve studied our subject matter, we’ve applied our knowledge, we’ve lived it, and we consider ourselves experts.

But we don’t know everything. There’s always another bit of information we haven’t discovered. There’s always another perspective born out of an experience we haven’t had. No matter how confident we are in our knowledge, we never know enough to be able to claim absolute certainty.

God created each of us individually, but God did not create us to live strictly as individuals. He created us to live in community, contributing the gifts and the knowledge that each of us has to the benefit of all. No matter how much knowledge we have, we are only wise when we recognize that we don’t know everything, and when we listen to what others have to contribute.

Let us pray. God of wisdom, you have blessed us with intelligence. Grant us the humility to recognize the contributions of all your people, that we may truly be the body of Christ in the world. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Epiphany 4, Wednesday, Year B

Inspired by Jeremiah 29:1-14

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7 (NRSV)

‘Welfare’ is a loaded term these days, and ‘seeking welfare’ has very negative connotations. But God is not telling his people to try to benefit from social programs in the place where he has exiled them; ‘welfare’ in this context means health, happiness, and general well-being. Even though the Israelites have been exiled to a city where they don’t want to be, God is telling them to live there as though it were their own city, contributing to its well-being by building houses, planting gardens, and having families. By improving the lot (welfare) of the place where they live—even if it’s a place they never would have chosen for themselves—they can improve their own situation as well, and everyone wins.

Many Christians today try to separate themselves from society, creating parallel or alternative Christian societies in competition with the larger society. While it’s true that we’re called to be in the world but not of the world, God did not intend for us to remove ourselves from the prevailing culture. Rather, by abiding in and among people who don’t know or recognize God, we can proclaim his love through our own faithful living. Just as the holy Son of God abides with us sinners.

Wherever you live, no matter how sinful or fallen it may seem to you, it is not beyond hope. Seek its welfare; engage fully with your environment while living faithfully in the Lord. Doing so will improve your situation as well as everyone else’s, and God’s steadfast love will be demonstrated.

Let us pray. Abiding Savior, while we were yet sinners, Christ came to us, lived among us, and died for us. Encourage us to show the same love to the people around us, that they may recognize your goodness and turn to you. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Epiphany 4, Tuesday, Year B

Inspired by Psalm 35:1-10 

“Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers; say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation.’” Psalm 35:1-3 (NRSV)

Even the most faithful among us will be treated poorly by someone. No amount of turning the other cheek or meeting hatred with kindness will turn away the attacks or insults of some person or persons who, for reasons known only to them, wish to do us harm. Being faithful in the Lord will not prevent that from happening.

But we are not left alone to face it. The psalms show us that not only is it OK to call out to the Lord for help, but it is reasonable to expect that we will receive it. Perhaps God won’t literally pick up the weapons of war to physically fight at our side, but he may work through other people to come to our aid, or he might grant us greater measures of patience, kindness, and other virtues with which to counter the hostility that is directed at us.

However he chooses to help us, when we are faithful to the Lord, he will support us in our faithfulness. When we are faithful to the Lord, we know that more than any weapon or shield, God is our salvation.

Let us pray. Faithful God, you have called us to proclaim your will and advocate for your ways. Help us in our struggle to fulfill that call, that we may be living examples of your righteousness. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Epiphany 4, Monday, Year B

Inspired by Numbers 22:1-21

“Once again Balak sent officials, more numerous and more distinguished than these. They came to Balaam and said to him,‘Thus says Balak son of Zippor: “Do not let anything hinder you from coming to me; for I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do; come, curse this people for me.”’ But Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, ‘Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God, to do less or more.’” Numbers 22:15-18 (NRSV)

The pressures to conform to this world are great. We are tempted with riches, status, security, or renown, all if we abandon the commands of the Lord for the values of this world.

But what can the world offer us that’s better than the blessings of the Lord? Riches can only buy so much, and nothing of great importance; status is precarious. There’s no such thing as true security, and renown is fleeting. The rewards of this world may seem abundant, but the demands of this world are relentless, and we will never be able to achieve all that the world requires in order to earn what the world claims to offer.

The blessings of the Lord are substantial, dependable, and eternal. He alone will never fail or forsake us. He alone will never demand more than we can give. God has lovingly created each and every one of us, and we will never lose our status in his eyes. He has given us all that we need to live fully and abundantly. As much as the world may tempt or threaten us, its rewards are limited, temporary and worthless, and cannot match the abundance of God’s love and grace.

Let us pray. God of abundance, you have provided us with all that we need. Grant us the wisdom to see through the world’s temptations, that we may remain steadfast in your will and your ways. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

Inspired by 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

“But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” 1 Corinthians 8:9 (NRSV)

When we truly know Christ, then we know that we have many freedoms in him. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works, so we don’t need to worry about earning our way into heaven; we know that our actions are a result of our living under grace, and that we will be forgiven when we fall short.

But to those outside of the faith looking in, our freedoms may look like hypocrisy. The issue in Paul’s day was whether or not it was acceptable for Christians to eat food sacrificed to idols (as most meat available had been). Mature Christians understood that there was only one God, and that food sacrificed to any other god was merely food, and that the idol was nothing. Immature Christians or non-Christians might see mature Christians eating this food, and might mistake it for participating in pagan worship. Paul advised that it was better to refrain from eating meat entirely than to risk damaging the fragile faith of a Christian who had not yet reached that level of maturity or understanding. He wasn’t changing the rules to match the opinions of the weaker members; he was suggesting that building up the faith was more important than one’s individual liberty. If a weaker member’s faith isn’t damaged, then that person can later be taught to understand on a deeper level.

Living by unearned grace is a difficult concept in such an achievement-oriented culture as ours. As you do so, consider carefully whether your actions are serving to build up the fragile faith of others, or if they’re getting in the way of someone hearing the good news that you live by. Then ask yourself how important your individual liberty in this matter is compared to building up the whole body of Christ.

Let us pray. Gracious God, you have given us your grace as a free gift. Grant us the humility to consider the needs of your beloved children before our own wants, that we may build up and strengthen the whole body of Christ. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Epiphany 4, Saturday, Year B

Inspired by Deuteronomy 13:1-5

“The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast.” Deuteronomy 13:4 (NRSV)

There is so much competition for our attention. Every day we’re bombarded with options for entertainment, fashion, commerce, success, popularity, and leisure activities, not to mention the ordinary concerns of family, work, chores, and errands, to name just a few. Some of these concerns are important; some aren’t as important as we make them out to be, and some aren’t important at all.

Yet all of them have the potential to be our god, the object of our utmost attention and even worship. But none of them are worthy of that level of attention, because there is only one God.

When we allow a lesser concern take the place of God in our lives, we focus on it to the exclusion of everything else, even those important things that do merit some attention of their own. But when we keep God as God in our lives, following and serving him alone, then we’ll also be attending to the other important matters in our lives, because God wants us to have strong, healthy family relationships, and contribute constructively to society, and any number of other things. And those things that we do end up losing or letting go of when we focus on God alone? We find that those are the things that weren’t actually all that important anyway, and we didn’t really need to be giving them our attention in the first place.

Let us pray. Sovereign Lord, you alone are God. Help us to keep our focus on you, that we may give our attention to those things that are pleasing to you, and not to those things that would lead us astray. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Epiphany 4, Friday, Year B

Inspired by Deuteronomy 12:28-32

“Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.” Deuteronomy 12:28 (NRSV)

During most congregational meetings, when the subject of youth ministry comes up, someone will advocate for the younger members of the congregation with the words, “These kids are the future of our church!” In one sense that’s (hopefully) true, yet it also understates the importance of the kids’ future responsibilities, and ignores the fact that, since they’re here now, they’re also the church’s present.

Our children are not only the future of the church, but the future of the world. As the current adults age and die, the younger generation will take over. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it always will be. In the meantime, they’re here now, watching us, learning from us. What are we teaching them? How are we teaching them?  Are they seeing us live according to our values? Probably. But do our lived values match our stated values? In other words, when we say it’s important to follow God, do our children see us actually following God?

The commands of the Lord are not capricious demands given by an egomaniacal taskmaster. The Lord is a just and loving God, who has given us his Word in order that we may know how to live peacefully and prosperously as a society. Failure to obey that Word brings calamity and strife of our own making. It’s up to us to teach our children not only with our words but with our actions how best to live in the society that they will inherit and shape. Are we teaching them to do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord so that it will go well for them, or are we teaching them to do what is right in their own eyes, and hoping it all works out?

Let us pray. Just God, you have given us your commands that it may go well with us. Help us to teach our children your ways, that it may go well with them, too, as you desire. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Epiphany 4, Thursday, Year B

Inspired by Psalm 111

“Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.” Psalm 111:2-3 (NRSV)

The world is a marvelous place, full of wonder and mystery. From the time of the ancients through today, both scientists and artists have studied the earth, seeking to understand and describe it: what it is, how it works, what it means. Such studies are an honor to the Lord, who is known in part through his creation. By better comprehending the creation, we can better comprehend the Creator.

The danger comes when we refuse to acknowledge that the creation has a Creator. The insult to God comes when we value our attainment of this knowledge over the knowledge itself, and what wisdom it can impart to us.

God has blessed us with inquisitive minds and creative expression. Delighting in the works of the Lord by seeking to understand his creation or by artistically communicating what we observe is a form of evangelism, because it proclaims some aspect of the God of all. It is only when we seek to glorify ourselves that science and art become offensive to the Lord.

Let us pray. Majestic Lord, you have revealed aspects of yourself through your wondrous creation. Enable us to seek you in everything around us, that we may recognize your works and your loving providence. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.