Gathered Together

Read Hebrews 10:19-25

Early in the 1970s Neil Diamond released the song, “Solitary Man.” The lyrics of the song speak of a person’s many failed romantic relationships. The decision is made that until the person can find a partner who will not leave the relationship for someone else, the individual will remain solitary. For a variety of reasons, there are people who choose to go through life without a partner. Some individuals even attempt life isolated from others altogether.

In the letter to the Hebrews who are, or are considering, becoming followers of Jesus Christ, we find words intended to encourage the people. The passage encourages the recipients to be drawn to God and strive to remain strong in their faith. Then the importance of regularly gathering as a group of believers is placed before the reader. The purpose of these regular gatherings is to encourage each other and prompt one another to love and participate in beneficial actions for others.

Living out faith has never been intended to be a solitary enterprise. The Christian faith has always been fully experienced as communal in nature. In establishing the Church, the Lord intended to create a community where love, support, encouragement and positive accountability is a vital aspect of following Christ. This is evident in the family-oriented language of Scripture, not just a bloodline family but a community which bands as family. For the full development of our faith, we need one another.

Having Confidence

Read Daniel 3:1-18

Confidence has a profound impact on the decisions which we make and the actions which we take. The converse of this is that a lack of confidence has a profound impact in both in an opposite manner. A person with confidence is more decisive; a person lacking confidence is often hesitant. There is a boldness which is visible with a confident person. The unconfident individual frequently is meeker. The source of confidence varies and often is dependent upon the dynamics of any given situation.

Today we read a portion of a usually familiar Biblical story, the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. This story takes place during the time of Israel’s exile. The Israelites were defeated and were scattered as slaves throughout the Babylonian kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar. The king creates golden idols and issues an edict that when signaled, all people in the kingdom must kneel before and worship the idol gods. The king had given authority to three Israelites which caused jealousy to arise among the Babylonian leaders. When they saw the three Jewish men not following the king’s edict, the leaders saw on opportunity to rid themselves of the three men so they reported the disobedience to the king. When questioned by Nebuchadnezzar, Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego showed confidence in God and their faith. They were confident that God would save them from the fiery furnace since they remained true to God’s command. God was the source of their confidence. 

Having confidence in a dangerous situation can be difficult. The three men in the story had to choose if they would be faithful to God or follow the king’s order so that their safety would be guaranteed. Faced with a similar situation in which you must choose to be committed to God or save one’s self from a dangerous situation, what would the choice be? You may not often be in a predicament which threatens you physically but what about the times where your reputation, status, or power may be threatened? If you have confidence in God and in your faith, your decisions will reflect that confidence.

Eden Quest

Read Isaiah 11:6-9

Throughout human history, humans have been on a quest for the idyllic way of life. This quest has led us on a search for Nirvana, Shangri la, Eden and many other “paradises” with different names throughout history. There is a vision of a place where all creatures, including humans, live in harmony. The search for a place where there is an ample supply of everything which a person could possibly need. This place is void of strife and grueling labor. As much effort and time has been dedicated to this quest, the claiming of such a place remains elusive from a physical and spiritual standpoint in this temporal world.

In the vision which Isaiah relates, we receive a glimpse of the place which has driven humans on the quest. Isaiah describes a mountain where creatures interact in a harmonious way. The vulnerable do not suffer at the hands of the stronger and/or more lethal. This vision harkens us back to the time before humanity attempted to be in full control. We see how God intended all of creation to exist. This passage also provides assurance that this state of existence will occur again at some point.

Humans, often unknowingly, always strive for what is part of God’s plan. We search for purpose because God intends all to have purpose in the world. We search for a place to belong because God created us to be interwoven into the fabric of creation. Seeking love is our need to experience the love in which we were created by the love we know as God. Living in harmony without strife and labor is how God intended us to experience life so we search for the place where this may be our reality. God promises us that this reality exists where God is and so we strive to be in the full presence of God.

May your quest lead you to find God.

Remove the Blinders

31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”

34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” 43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

Luke 18:31-43 (NIV)

Have you ever seen a horse who has blinders on its head? The purpose of these blinders are to prevent the horse from seeing behind it and on the sides of it at times. This keeps the horse focused forward and prevents it from being easily spooked. The blinders also improve the horse’s ability to remain focused on whatever tasks are being expected. Another benefit the blinders provide for the horse is a reduction in stress. With all the activity around most horses, their natural instincts to avoid anything perceived as a threat or predator can lead the horse to become overly stressed. For horses, blinders have many benefits which promote their safety and the safety of humans with whom they interact.

In today’s reading, we hear about Jesus’s interaction with a blind man along the road. Jesus predicts his death and the events leading up to his death which will occur upon arrival in Jerusalem. As he and his disciples are walking to Jerusalem, they encounter a blind man sitting by the road. The blind man cried out to Jesus seeking his mercy. People tried to silence the blind man but he only shouted more. Jesus stopped to ask the blind man what he wanted Jesus to do. The blind man requested to see. Jesus restored his sight indicating the man’s faith had healed him. The man then followed Jesus, praising God.

We, like horses, can sometimes have blinders on us metaphorically. Unlike the horses, most of our blinders are a detriment and not a benefit. When our blinders prevent us from seeing where the Lord is leading, they have a negative impact. If these blinders prevent us from seeing Christ in others, they are a problem. Blinders which do not allow us to experience the fullness of God limit us. We are then like the blind man who was sitting by the road.

We do not have to continue to wear the blinders. As the blind man did, we can cry out to our Lord. Our cry and request for the removal of our blinders has already been heard. The Lord invites us to grow our faith. As our faith grows and expands, our blindness reduces. Our eyes can open to new possibilities, new understandings, and new visions of God’s active work in our world. We can obtain this faith growth by studying God’s Word alone and with others. Expanding of our faith will occur as we engage in serving others and sharing in fellowship. Time in conversation with the Lord will increase our faith. Then, just as the blind man experienced, we can hear Jesus say that our faith has healed us.

The Unseen

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

Hebrews 11:1-12 (NIV)

As the gift of science has advanced, we have learned fascinating truths about our world, nature and our very selves. The discoveries have not been limited to just our world but have included understandings about space, planets, and our universe. We have come to gain insight into neutrons, protons, electrons, microscopic animals, amebas, germs, parasites and an endless list of objects which are undetectable with the naked eye. Aspects of the air we breathe, the air which moves the trees and the weather around us are all not visible to us but science has helped us understand these in deeper ways. What once was invisible and unknown to us has become familiar.

The writer of Hebrews speaks of the unknown. Here the unknown is in regards to spiritual matters and humanity’s relationship with the Lord. The passage starts with a definition of faith. Then the writer gives examples of faith from the forming of the universe, to Abel, to Enoch, to Noah, to Abraham. Faith is required of us to trust in that which we cannot physically confirm.

The definition of faith provided here is not unlike the mindset a scientist must have. The role of a scientist is to prove a theory based on assumptions or witnessing the effect something has on something else. At the start, the scientist must have confidence that there exists an element which may not be visible at first. When it comes to our faith in the Lord, we must begin with a confidence that the Lord exists and is responsible for what we experience. Then, like the scientist, we witness the evidence that what we believe is true. Until the day we see the Lord face-to-face, we find assurance and hope in our faith.

Reconciliation

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. 

Colossians 1:19-23a (NIV)

Reconciliation is defined as “the restoration of friendly relations.” After the Civil War in the United States, the northern and southern states had to reconcile. Friendly relations were required if the nation was going to heal and move forward as a productive country on the world’s stage. Reconciliation can also be necessary among family members. When individuals become estranged from one another, there is a need to reconcile with one another for the family to become whole once again. Unreconciled relationships create a gap among people. It is as if there is a hole in the spirit of the person who has not been reconciled.

In his comments to the Colossian believers, Paul speaks of reconciliation with God. The reason for the need to reconcile is because our thoughts and behaviors stand often in opposition to the love of God. God is love so anything which cannot abide within that love is unable to exist in God’s realm. God chose to create a way for us to be reconciled with God. Jesus Christ is the means for reconciliation to occur. God decided to fully live among humanity in Jesus. At the right time Jesus became the reconciler by physically dying on the cross. He stood in for us, bearing our sinful thoughts and behaviors on his body. By doing this, he made us holy, free and innocent in the sight of God. Our thoughts and behaviors are now compatible with the pure love of God.

Now having been made compatible with God and fully reconciled in relationship, Paul says we are to continue in believing Jesus has made this so. He tells us to be unmoved from the hope found in this good news. Where we once were alienated from God, we now live in full relationship. This is the truth of the gospel and this truth gives us hope.

The Test

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspringall nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Genesis 22:1-19 (NIV)

This time of year can be dangerous for anyone choosing to venture out on a frozen body of water. As the weather warms up, melting and freezing takes place. This causes the ice to become thin and brittle. It can be difficult as we transition from winter to spring to know with any certainty how thick the ice is. This is why it is extremely important to test the ice before venturing out on it, or just stay completely off of it.

In the passage assigned for today, we discover a much different type of testing. This is a familiar story which can be very troubling to many. The request which God appears to make of Abraham seems extreme and does not fit our image of a loving God. There is clearly more to unpack here than this devotional can cover. Remember that we must read this passage through the contextual aspects in which it was written. The struggle for Abraham here is a question of being willing to give up the most precious item in his life to communicate his faith in God and be obedient. See this story is much more about Abraham than it is about God. God provides a substitute for Isaac. Here God is communicating that child sacrifice is not what is required. Abraham had faith that God would provide a solution to a difficult situation and God did.

There are times when life can really test us. During those times, we discover a lot about ourselves. Who is it that we turn to or rely on when we are tested? When what we are experiencing does not make sense, do we turn to the Lord? We may want to give up, and may even be justified in wanting to give up, but our faith tells us that God will provide a way. Trusting in the Lord to provide the right people, resources, or solutions demonstrates what we believe. As long as we are open to the possibilities which God creates, we can face the test no longer how short or long it exists.

By Faith

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:1-14 (NIV)

For the longest period in the history of our nation, the principles and ethics of society were based on the Puritan code of conduct. One principle that governed the everyday lives of the people was the importance of self reliance. As our nation expanded to the west, self reliance aided settlers in establishing new homesteads in unsettled territories. Like all principles, there are good and bad aspects when it comes to self-reliance. The positives include independence, pride in our achievements, and obtaining a variety of skills and knowledge. Some of the negatives include an unwillingness to accept assistance, an arrogant or boastful attitude, and failure to acknowledge the contributions of others.

Paul writes to the believers in Galatia expressing disappointment in them. He is disappointed because they have begun to adopt the idea that by their own works they are justified before God. Paul reminds them that they began to believe in Jesus Christ not because they were following Jewish law but because they heard of the saving acts of Christ. Paul points out if they choose to take a self-reliant path of using their works to be justified, they will fail. Only by believing in salvation through their faith in Jesus Christ can they succeed.

Even today there are still individuals who follow an understanding that only self-reliance based on their own work can guarantee the favor of God. This leads to a constant effort to do better, be better in actions, and an adherence to a prescribed set of standards. Time and time again disappointment and a sense of constant failure accompanies the efforts of these Christians. Paul reminds us of a better way. By having faith in Christ, we can be relieved of the burden of living “good enough.” Our reliance on Christ and his saving actions eliminated our need to rely upon ourselves. Then our good works become a response of gratitude instead of a way to justify ourselves.

Faith and Trust

21 When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”

36 Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him.

After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Mark 5:21-43 (NIV)

Sometimes in life, taking the first step can be the most difficult thing to do. Near the small town of Spring Green in southern Wisconsin is an attraction known as The House on the Rock. This attraction opened by Alex Jordan in 1960 is a house built on top of a rock chimney. Jordan began collecting an array of exotic and unusual items to fill the house once it was constructed. A feature which he included in the design of the house is known as the infinity room. The room extends without any support 218 feet over a scenic valley and is composed of glass planes on the sides for an amazing view of the valley. Taking the first steps into the room can cause anxiety and fear as the movement of the floor can be felt. A person who has faith in the design and construction of the room is rewarded with a spectacular glimpse of beauty below.

The healing stories in today’s passage are familiar to many. The Bible has a number of healing stories, especially in the accounts of Jesus’s ministry. Healing stories can be somewhat problematic because they lend themselves to easily being misinterpreted. Too often the focus of interpretations is on the actual act of healing when in reality the purpose of telling the story is often to communicate a different message.

Today’s story contains a message regarding taking the scary step of believing. In the first healing story, a woman who has experienced many years of bleeding uncontrollably takes a step of faith and reaches out to touch Jesus’s cloak. She is confident that in taking this action she will no longer suffer. The second healing story involves the daughter of a synagogue leader. The leader comes to Jesus believing he could prevent his daughter from dying. The message in both their stories is not found in Jesus healing but in the two people who believed that Jesus could heal. They exhibited a trust in Jesus. Each of them took the somewhat scary step of approaching Jesus. In their actions we see a demonstration of faith and confidence in the Lord.

For us today, the question is do we exhibit the same level of faith and confidence in the Lord? Would we take the step of approaching the Lord? Too often many of us try to take care of items on our own instead of approaching the Lord. Why is that? Do we not trust that the Lord is able to help? The woman and the leader clearly thought Jesus could help. Jesus tells us, “Don’t be afraid, just believe.”

Armor of God

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:10-17 (NIV)

Football players experience powerful hits to their bodies during a game. These hits come from other players, from their attempts to prevent opponents from advancing, and from hitting the ground in the course of play. Because of all of this hitting, protective gear has been developed to reduce injury to the player’s body. Advancements in the development of this gear have reduced injury and lasting damage but there still is a need for more improvements in this area. Helmets, shoulder pads, leg pads and specialized pads all play an important role in protecting the player.

Paul talks about the importance of protection in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He speaks to them about putting on the armor of God. Often when we hear about armor, we think in terms of battle and offensive attack. Paul is not intending an offensive here but rather a defensive stance. He describes God’s armor as the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes/sandals of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. It is important to note that all of these items find their origins with God. None of the armor pieces are forged by human effort but are gifts from God. They are designed to protect the wearer from a spiritual attack, not an attack by humans. The enemy is a spiritual force, humans are not the enemy.

Like a football player, we cannot expect to wage a battle without proper protection. The belt of truth holds us together. When truth surrounds us, we have stability. Christ has given to us the righteousness which we use as our breastplate. This righteousness protects our heart from being attacked. The footwear which provides a firm foundation for us is found in the good news of Scripture. Our faith in the Lord allows us to fend off the attacks aimed at us. The knowledge that we are saved from a sinful nature defends our minds and thoughts from becoming negative. Through the Spirit, we are able to slice through our bindings and the confusion of the world.

Every day put on the armor given to you by the God who loves you beyond comparison. When you do, your defense against all which is evil will be strengthened in ways only possible with our Lord.