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On this day when our nation inaugurates a new President and Vice President. I have chosen to pause my regular Scripture-based devotional. Instead, I am moved by the Spirit to share two prayers from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Common Worship.
The first is for our newly elected and installed government leaders:
O Lord, our governor, your glory shines throughout the world. We commend our nation to your merciful care, that we may live securely in peace and may be guided by your providence. Give all in authority the wisdom and strength to know your will and to do it. Help them remember that they are called to serve the people as lovers of truth and justice; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The second is a prayer for our nation:
Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage. Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will. Bless our land with honest industry, sound learning, and an honorable way of life. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Make us who come from many nations with many different languages a united people. Defend our liberties and give those whom we have entrusted with the authority of government the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful; and, in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail. We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May our prayers be heard as we begin on a new path.
(Photo courtesy of kiplinger.com)
1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
2 I will praise the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
6 He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
10 The Lord reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.Psalm 146 (NIV)
Trust is something which is earned. Through consistent actions, an individual can acquire the trust of others. Children are quicker to trust others because they have less life experience involving people not demonstrating actions consistent with their promises. Many of us may struggle on both sides of the trust coin. We see unfulfilled promises and lose trust in individuals and human institutions. At times, we are incapable or choose not to fulfill promises which we make to others. In both situations, trust crumbles. We become wary of others. Once trust deteriorates, it takes time and effort to rebuild.
The psalmist speaks to us today about trust. In the words of the psalm, we are warned not to place our full trust in humans and human leaders. Even the most trustworthy have a finite ability to follow through on plans and promises. The psalmist tells us to place our trust in the Lord. This is followed by a litany of how the Lord has consistently cared for the most vulnerable of our society. By listing these consistent care patterns, the psalmist is making a case to support trusting in God. In addition, we are reminded that the Lordis faithful, the faithfulness endures forever because the Lord is forever.
All of us experience challenges in our lives. The Lord places individuals in our lives to assist us during these times. Institutions have been created out of necessity to address larger issues. The important thing to remember is humans, and the institutions which we create, have limits and will fail at times. Trust in these will be broken, rebuilt, and then broken again. Only the Lord can be trusted every time. First, and foremost, trust in the Lord who is forever and consistently provides for all in need. As the Lord works through humans and our institutions, good is provided. A healthy perspective is important. Remember, humans and institutions will have times when they do not carry out the Lord’s work and will break our trust. Only God can be trusted completely so place your trust in the Lord.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.Ephesians 4:1-16 (NIV)
At Christmas time, one of my favorite holiday classics is “It’s A Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart. The message of this movie is important for each of us to hear on a regular basis. Stewart’s character, George Bailey, learns that if he had not lived, the world would be in a much worse situation. His contributions to the world have made positive impacts on many lives within his community. George had a position to fill which benefited individuals, families, and the community as a whole. The additional message from the movie is that when a community joins together, amazing outcomes are possible.
Paul’s message in today’s passage is one which Clarence, the angel, demonstrated to George Bailey in the movie. Paul tells us to live a life which is worthy of our calling, our calling as children of the one God. We achieve this by striving for unity within the Spirit, requiring us to humble ourselves, be patient, and bear with each other. In addition to striving for unity, we are to mature in our faith. Jesus has given us apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to aid in our maturing. Third, Paul states that as members of the body of Christ, each of us are to do our part (like George Bailey) to grow and build up the community of faith.
During a time of difficulty and an uncertain future, George Bailey thought the world would be much better if he were no longer alive. There may be times when we have similar thoughts. George learned that these thoughts were wrong. He found that he had a calling in life into which he must live in a worthy way. No one else was given this unique calling. Each of us is the same. We each have a part for which we are chosen in the community. We must use our position to create unity. We must mature in our faith so that we understand our call and community better.
16 This is what the Lord says—Isaiah 43:16-21 (NIV)
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21 the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
During the winter months, I long for spring as most people do. Winter is when the earth takes a rest. The trees are without leaves. The ground is dry and lifeless. Most of the flowering plants sit idle and without their beautiful blooms. Some animals either hide away in warm shelters or leave for the opposite hemisphere which has warmth. A longing for new life grows each month through the winter season.
New life is the theme of Isaiah’s words today. God announces that there is now a new thing coming into being. Just as in spring when we see sprouts coming out of the ground and buds form on the trees, something new is bursting out. God asks if we perceive it. In anticipation of spring, one must keep watch to see glimpses of new life in creation. The things which happened before are no longer like leaves which fell to the ground in the fall. But on the same branches which held last year’s leaves, buds are forming, a sign of life. God will provide the necessities for life to be sustained in this new thing. Creation responds with praise and gratitude.
What is the new thing the Lord is doing in your life? How is the Lord preparing the way for you? Is the Lord providing you the essentials to make this new thing happen? How are you responding?
“See I am doing a new thing!” says the Lord.
“Do you not perceive it?”
Today, I have decided to introduce a different type of devotion. I want to walk you through a process to hear a message that the Lord intends for you today. Below is a copy of a painting drawn by artist Thomas Blackshear. He entitled this piece of art, “Forgiven.” You may have encountered this painting previously. Today, I want you to spend some time with it and reflect upon it.
Start by looking at the image for five minutes. Observe what details stand out to you. You may wish to take time to write some of these details down.
What do you notice about the man who Jesus is holding?
What does the hammer and spike communicate to you?
Is there anything about the man’s jeans which stands out?
What about the flowers in each of the bottom corners of the painting?
Notice anything about the ground on which they are standing?
Why is Jesus holding the man in this way?
What contrasts exist between Jesus and the man?
Is there anything missing from the painting which you would add? What and why?
How does Blackshear use light and what does that communicate to you?
What is the overall message you receive from this painting today?
What do you wish to say to the Lord at this time?
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”Mark 2:13-17 (NIV)
When there has been a major accident or natural disaster, emergency responders have to check every person to evaluate and triage them. This allows the first responder to determine who needs care first due to the nature of their injuries. They also then are able to determine what type of care is going to be the most beneficial. Medics on a battlefield were the originators of triage. This tool is vital due to the limited time and resources which is available to save lives. Clearly the patients who are in the greatest need of care which can lead to survival receive priority in care decisions. If a person is not in danger of dying or will not benefit from care, they are made as comfortable as possible. These are not easy decisions to make even with the excellent training our first responders receive.
When we read the passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus speaks of triage. Jesus first calls Levi, the tax collector and an undesirable to Jews, to follow him. When he eats with Levi, other tax collectors, and other sinners, the Pharisees question his choice of dinner companions. Jesus tells them that the sinners are the ones who need his help, not the righteous (triage). Jesus has done the necessary triage and knows where the greatest need is at this time. He has a limited amount of time so he must use it to fill the greatest need. The Pharisees are more concerned about image and entitlement. This is a bit ironic since they do not even believe Jesus is who he claims to be but they wish to be Jesus’s honored guests at table instead of the undesirables.
This passage makes a strong point to us. Gathering with and spending time with fellow believers provides us opportunities for growth and support. We may even expect our faith leaders to prioritize their time to be with us in order to meet our needs, Jesus would take some issue solely using these approaches.
First, Jesus wants us to go to those who have the greatest need like he did in his ministry. We gather with fellow believers to recharge and strengthen ourselves but then are sent to those who need to experience the grace and love of God. Second, we invite those who the world labels to be undesirable to join in our fellowship and sit at table with us. Third, we support and encourage our faith leaders to spend their time and energy looking after the needs of those outside our fellowship. This is the example which Jesus has given us to follow.
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.Ephesians 2:11-22
One of the recurring themes of human history is division. Looking through the annals of history it is like watching the waves of the sea. One group of humans separate from another group for a number of reasons. There are times of deliberate breaking away, while at other times it is not by choice but out of necessity. These divisions can occur for philosophical or religious reasons. Practical reasons like a need for space or access to resources being depleted due to the group’s size may cause separation. Then we see groups reunite because the original impetus to divide is altered or no longer exists. The pattern continues indefinitely, apart then together then apart once again. Currently in our country there has been a growing division of our citizens. Calls to reunite are growing stronger. Only history will be able to determine which trend will prevail.
In the letter to the believers in Ephesus, we hear about the reuniting of two groups. A majority of the Ephesian believers were Gentiles, or non-Jewish. Paul writes to them declaring that in Jesus Christ the barriers between Jews and Gentiles are removed. While they had lived separately over thousands of years, Jesus has reunited them into one house. All are fully children of God’s covenant with the people. Every person has full access to the Father, Son and Spirit. The binding together of all people, accomplished by Christ, created one household.
Paul’s words make it sound so simple. Clearly God views us as one people. Yet we continue to see divisions of nationalities, races, philosophical ideals, faith and religious concepts, and political views. Is it possible to achieve a sustained sense of being one people? Yes, in some areas of our lives but not completely at this point. Is there notvalue in diversity? Absolutely! But like a jigsaw puzzle which has diverse pieces when connected together creates one picture, diverse people connected can create one people. God is our connection. Jesus did not intend to make everyone the same. Jesus provided the avenue for us to understand that while we have differences, we are one people, one household, one redeemed collection of God’s covenant people.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.Mark 1:29-39 (NIV)
There is nothing better than traveling to a secluded place where you can spend some time recharging. Most individuals spend a large amount of time occupied with work or some type of tasks. There is less and less downtime. The United States Bureau of Labor reports that most workers do not even use all of their vacation time each year. Even when we attempt some vacation, or downtime, our electronic devices keep us connected through emails and messaging applications. It is not uncommon for individuals to respond to work emails or have online meetings while on vacation. We need to start disciplining ourselves to take true times of retreat.
Jesus was not immune from having many demands upon his time. We read today that after spending a full day teaching in Capernum’s synagogue, he goes with four of his disciples to the home of Simon’s in-law. The woman was suffering from a fever. Jesus heals her and that evening is spent physically and spiritually healing many others. Truly an exhausting day of ministry. Before anyone could seek him out the next morning, he awakes and went to a secluded place. He knew that he needed a retreat to recharge and be in conversation with the Father. When the disciples tracked him down, he was re-energized and ready to continue his ministry in nearby communities.
Jesus once again sets an example for us to follow. Early in the history of God’s people, God established a day of retreat each week when the people were told to take a sabbath. Jesus models for us this as an important part of his ministry. Research has shown us that our productivity and quality of work suffers when we do not have regular times of retreat. Our relationship with the Lord also suffers when we do not have regular times of communicating with and focusing on the Lord.
All of this serves as a reminder to deliberately take time to go to a secluded place. We should use this time to recharge physically, mentally, and spiritually. We can commune with our Lord while communicating in prayer.
25 “To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
27 Why do you complain, Jacob?Isaiah 40:25-31 (NIV)
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
The ability of long-distance and marathon runners to complete such long runs truly amazes me. I have never been an athlete or a runner of any type. How these athletes are able to go such distances without quitting or falling to the ground after a mile is beyond my understanding. To be able to complete a race takes strength, training and endurance. Similar qualities which can be necessary for times in one’s life.
The passage from Isaiah speaks of the qualities which I just ascribed to successful long-distance runners. First, Isaiah points out that God never is tired or weary. Then he speaks of the Lord providing the needed strength and power to the weary and weak. God understands the needs we have and is able to meet these needs. The tired are not only renewed but given so much that they are able to soar like eagles.
What truly comforting and encouraging words are shared in our passage today. Each of us has times in our lives when we are unsure that we can go forward one more hour, or even one more day. Life can beat us down and lead us to lose hope. Here we are reminded to place our hope in the Lord, the one who never grows tired or weary. God will not only carry us through difficult times but restore to overflowing the strength and energy for the next step in life. Imagine having so much that you are unstoppable in your soaring. It is possible if you turn to the Lord.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.John 1:1-13 (NIV)
All of us enjoy when our work is acknowledged and we receive kudos because of that work. Receiving a pat on the back encourages us to continue in our efforts. If we are the supervisor or manager of people or volunteers, taking the time to stop and express our recognition of extra effort by one for whom we are responsible is vital. A person who feels unnoticed and underappreciated will only do the minimum amount of work which is required. There is no motivation to go beyond if the efforts are not acknowledged.
The Gospel of Mark opens with the introduction of John, the Baptist. John tells of one who is coming and this one will be greater than John. Jesus then arrives and seeks baptism just as so many others have. In the midst of this baptismal rite, Jesus sees the heavens appear to open, an image of a dove descend upon him, and then hears a voice. The voice affirms Jesus as the Son followed by an acknowledgment that Jesus has pleased God. This occurs before Jesus has even begun the work of his ministry. Jesus has received a pat on the back before entering the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for a large number of days. It appears that God knew how important it would be for Jesus to hear recognition prior to undertaking a very difficult challenge.
Imagine hearing the words recorded here from a heavenly voice, from God. Realizing how motivating recognition from a human is to us, receiving similar kudos from our Creator would have to build us up in tremendous ways. The truth is that we already have received such recognition. Scripture tells us that God knew us before we were even born. God has already affirmed us as God’s daughter or son. God’s demonstration of love and grace has already told us we please God solely by being who we are. So we respond and are motivated to daily make the effort to be who God already sees us to be.