March 8

Numbers 21:4-9

“So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” vs. 9

Given the general distaste for snakes that exists among humans, it can be surprising to learn that the symbol used to designate medical professionals is a serpent coiled around an upright rod or stake. It’s origin is traced by scholars to the rod of Asclepius, the staff associated with the Greek god popularly connected with medicine and healing. It’s somewhat surprising to learn that the Hebrews had a similar story that they connected with a wilderness incident involving Moses. The common element is the serpent. According to their recollections the bronze replica of a dreaded killer, by the grace of God, became the instrument of healing for people who had been snakebit. For centuries after, there’s evidence that the Hebrews continued to use the serpent on a pole as an object of cultic worship, though ultimately the practice was discontinued. For early Christians this story from Numbers was perfect for understanding what had happened with the death of Jesus on the cross. And after a few centuries the image of Jesus on the cross came to dominate church sanctuaries in every land. The message was unmistakable:The crucifix (Body of Christ on the cross) was balm for all our woes. In looking to him we are healed through the forgiveness of our sins.

Thought for the Day: What does a crucifix mean for me?

March 7

John 2:17-22

“After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” vs. 22

John tells us that the disciples didn’t understand what was going on when he wreaked havoc in the temple–it was only much later, after his resurrection that his words made sense to them. That was probably the case with much of what Jesus said and did during his ministry. In fact, what we have in the gospels is not so much a “play-by-play” of Jesus’ words and deeds, as a compilation of his disciples’ memories, things that they remembered as the Risen Christ came to them some years later. Not only does this account for some of the differences in the gospel record, it’s a fair account of how the Spirit of God works in each of our lives. We don’t always know the significance of things as they are happening–it’s only at a later date that our memories kick in and give meaning to what our parents and teachers may have said. That’s certainly the way it is with faith. Sometimes it takes years to figure out what we’d seen and heard in the days of our youth. Bible stories that seemed childish when first told to us become in later years the foundation of our faith. The things we re-member, even when we get details mixed up, are what keep us on track in a constantly changing world.

Thought for the Day: What old memories have centered my faith?

March 6

John 2:12-17

“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” vs. 15

According to the gospel of John Jesus took his family and disciples to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover toward the beginning of his ministry. When he came to the temple for worship he was outraged. The whole outer courtyard had the atmosphere of a country fair. There were cattle and sheep for sale, and money-changers had their tables set up to serve the pilgrims seeking to change their Roman coins into image-free ones that could be used for the temple offering. Jesus considered the whole show to be a sacrilege and chased everyone out. It’s a reminder of how easy it is for the purity of worship to be subverted by the ways of the world. In our time, every congregation is a corporation and has business obligations to the state and its membership. Always there is a concern for proper accounting and for operating within budgetary limitations. But sometimes things get out of hand, and making money can become a congregation’s primary mission. Our purpose as the people of God in this world is not to stay in the black but to go with the gospel and spread the good news of God’s unconditional love and grace. When that mission is undermined, from Jesus’ perspective, we might as well shut the doors!

Thought for the Day: How can a congregation’s mission get side-tracked?

March 5

1Corinthians 1:22-25

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” vss. 22-23

Some of us spend a lot of time trying to make the gospel palatable to unbelievers and skeptics, and that’s really not anything new. For centuries Christian thinkers have tried to make sense of it through logic and systematic theologies. And sometimes those efforts have produced fruit–some people have found their work satisfying and convincing. Even now there are preachers who can find appreciative audiences for their logical and carefully reasoned expositions of scripture–and if they can throw in some jokes, it’s all the better! But as nice as it is to have such gifted presentations, we ultimately run into a brick wall. The gospel in its purity is both a stumbling block and foolishness! It can’t be made palatable to our human appetite for a “feel good” message. The gospel begins with crucifixion, the death of our messiah, and as disciples we are called to lose our lives for Christ’s sake. Of course it doesn’t end there–this is only the beginning! As St. Francis put it, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Even though it would be nice to begin at the end and simply focus on the life part, that’s not how it works. The journey begins at the cross, as nonsensical as that may seem, and the suffering, either individual or collective, has to be endured. As Paul discovered, this is how the power of God is made manifest!

Thought for the Day: How can I believe something that doesn’t make sense?

March 4

1 Corinthians 1:18-21

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” vs. 18

Paul quickly discovered that both Jews and Gentiles had a tough time wrapping their minds around the cross as the central image in the message he was proclaiming. They simply couldn’t believe that the path to salvation ran through excruciating suffering and death. Messiahs were supposed to triumph over all–that’s who they are! But Jesus had been abandoned by his followers and then executed as a common criminal. The whole story didn’t make sense! Times haven’t changed. The message about the cross still seems absurd, yet those who have absorbed its truth marvel at its power. Where people have centered their faith on the cross they have found enormous resiliency and strength. They don’t expect their lives to be free of pain and loss–Jesus suffered and so will they, and in their cross moments they have drawn closer to God than they ever dreamed possible. In their darkest times they have found strength and vitality in their suffering Savior. And as they’ve walked with Jesus through the valley they have discovered that the end of the story is not oblivion but eternal life. Out of the darkness has come light! There are days in which we wish the story of salvation had been different–we’d like life to be all about prosperity and wealth. But such stories are frauds! The way of the Cross is where the power is!

Thought for the Day: How can we avoid suffering?

March 3

Psalm 19

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” vs. 14

The psalmist had been led to create a prayer for the use of his congregation, and he used the opportunity to pour out the meditations of his heart with as much grace and beauty as he could muster. He was a keen observer of nature and saw the fingerprints of God in every part of the creation. As a person of faith he also recognized the blessing of the law, and saw in the commandments God’s design for the perfect life. But as the words of his poem came together he became deeply conscious of his own fallibility. He knew how easy it would be for him to slide into error–there was no guarantee that his writing would be worthy. So he closes his prayer with the familiar words, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord…” He wanted all the glory to go to God! Those same words are often used by contemporary preachers and teachers as they prepare prayers and sermons by meditating on the texts of nature and scripture. To present the Word is a massive responsibility and it’s so easy to be led astray. Thank God for those persons whose meditations are guided by humble spirits and whose words inform and inspire our lives. They are indeed a gift from God!

Thought for the Day: How do faithful preachers craft their sermons?

March 2

Exodus 20:12-17

“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” vs. 12

Typically this commandment is referenced most often by parents who are having a tough time getting the respect and obedience they desire from their children. Out of control kids are forcefully reminded that God wants them to behave–they are to honor their fathers and their mothers or face divine anger! That might be a good thought but it has little to do with the intent of this commandment. Kids do disobey and discipline is important, but this word from God was intended as a safety net for the elderly. There wasn’t a network of nursing homes available for aged parents, instead it was expected that they would live with their children, and be well taken care of. As a result, grandparents were an integral part of a family’s daily life, and the system worked pretty well. Of course we live in different times and customs have changed but we’re still called to honor our parents–and sometimes, with our splintered families, that can become a major issue for us. We spend long hours wondering how it will go when mom and dad can no longer care for themselves. Will there be a place for them in our homes, or is it better to find a care center for them? Where do they want to be? Those are tough questions–and we struggle to find loving answers–but we do know that elderly parents deserve to be honored!

Thought for the Day: How have the elderly been honored in my family?

March 1

Exodus 20:1-11

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” vss. 2-3

Most people are familiar with the Ten Commandments, though only a few would be able to name more than a few of them. They’re a staple of education in our churches, and it is commonly felt that they’re important for directing our daily living. In our scriptures it can easily be seen that they come to us in two sections, the first three or four (depending upon our numbering system) have to do with our relationship with God, and the last six or seven cover our community connections. While it’s unlikely that they were etched in stone by the flaming finger of God on Mount Sinai, they do represent our ancestors’ best attempt at summarizing the centrality of God in our human existence. Over against the common polygamy of their time, those faith pioneers asserted that there is but one God, and that we are the people of God. They then remind us that God’s name is precious and not to be used lightly, and that all creation should enjoy a Sabbath rest, a special day for worship and meditation. Of course, as is our tendency, we’ve turned these words of grace into rigid and binding rules and regulations, often obscuring the love and mercy that are at the heart of God. To have God at the center of our universe is a wonderful gift and not at all an onerous burden!

Thought for the Day: How do I keep the Sabbath day holy?

February 28

Mark 8:34-38

“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” vs. 36-37

Over the last dozen years or so many people in our country have taken advantage of the rising stock market to accumulate more money than they ever dreamed possible. And as tax rates have gone down they’ve found ever new ways to protect and increase their fortunes. And now they’re scared to death! They’re afraid that political forces will turn against them and that their abundance will disappear. They’re searching for new and imaginative investments and tax shelters, some new mechanism that will allow them to hang on to their riches. And Jesus says, “What’s the point? Even if they gain the whole world, what’s their profit?” He speaks the truth! And what’s most amazing is that many who call themselves Christians have gotten caught up in this wealth-making frenzy. How can they even dream that Jesus desires his followers to do all they can to make more and more money? How does that mesh with his call to take up the cross? Obviously many dedicated disciples have profited from this wealth-making environment–they too have boatloads of money. But they’re figuring out ways to give it away and lift up those who live in poverty. They find satisfaction, not in accumulation, but in sharing, and as their fortunes dwindle, their joy increases!

Thought for the Day: When does wealth become dangerous?

February 27

Mark 8:31-33

“But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” vs. 33

Having resisted the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, it must have surprised Jesus to hear the tempter’s voice coming from his most trusted disciple. But that’s how temptation works! Seldom can we be tempted by those who we don’t know well–we just don’t trust them enough to put much credence in what they say. But when someone dear to us, someone we love, begins to whisper in our ears, we pay attention. Peter was bold and confident, certain that he knew the way, and he doesn’t hesitate to rebuke Jesus. Oh how often we are led astray by such folks! And before we know it we’ve wandered off in pursuit of wealth or prestige because that’s the human way. But Jesus wasn’t a newbie, he’d faced Satan down once before and was familiar with the tempter’s tale. Sometimes it takes us awhile too. We might even have to be led astray a time or two before the divine call sinks in and we realize that humble, self-giving service is the way to eternal life. All those things the world offers are pipe-dreams and dead-end roads and do nothing to enhance our souls. The way of the cross offered by Jesus isn’t necessarily appealing, but ultimately it leads to new life–and that’s what the journey is all about!

Thought for the Day: Where have I heard the tempter’s voice?