It Depends on Faith

When you are at your darkest moment and you open your eyes in the morning and all you see is crushing despair, how strong is your faith?

Friends who are saddled with the unrelenting sadness of failed marriages, family members involved in criminal activity, terminal diagnoses, and watching a mother waste away in hospice are currently experiencing this right now. Maybe you are, too.

In the bleakest of our circumstances, Paul advises us to look to God’s promises to counter-balance the hopelessness that we feel. God’s promises are real. God’s promises are steadfast. God’s promises are eternal.

The promise made to Abraham in the form of a covenant of God’s abiding presence with his descendants is one of the most comforting promises we can rely on in times of trouble. God promises to always be WITH us, having claimed us for himself. This promise is not based on any law, but based solely on God’s faithfulness to his people.

Romans 4 (New Revised Standard Version)

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 

The promise rests on grace. Hallelujah! It doesn’t rest on performance on our part, it doesn’t rest on the law, but solely on the grace of God. We understand grace to be the unmerited favor of our Lord. You can’t earn it, so you can’t lose it, thanks be to God. God’s grace is guaranteed.

18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 

And so we must be like Abraham, and hope against hope. No matter how awful your circumstance is, grace can come in such a way that your head will spin. God often does the unexpected in answer to our fervent prayers and unwavering faith. Even old Abraham and geriatric Sarah conceived a child!

20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

May we have the faith of Abraham as we encounter the terrible. May we have the righteousness of Sarah as we pray for the impossible. And may we be raised in Christ as the final proof of our hope that “with God, all things are possible.”

New Mercies I See by Michelle Robertson

By Any Other Name

Do you know what your name means? Were you named for someone in the family? Parents take great care to give their children names they hope they will live up to and live into. Ask any son who is a “junior.” The association with names and meaning is strong. No one here would name a child “Poured Concrete.” No one here would name a pet “Ground Meat.” If we were shopping for clothing, we would be loathe to purchase a garment from “Lepers, Inc.” Indeed, we associate things with the names they are given. Names have meaning, and we pay attention to that.

In our lectionary reading this morning, we see two people who receive name changes from the Lord himself. The changes are slight variations of the names they already have, but they signal to the community that a divine intervention has occurred and life will never be the same:

Genesis 17 (New Revised Standard Version)

 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty;[a] walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

So Abram becomes Abraham and is now to be known as the father of all nations. He has become the patriarch of EVERYTHING that follows. As the song goes, father Abraham had many sons; I am one of them, and so are you. This stunning intrusion of God into human history turned the world on its ear. In this singular moment, God’s covenant with his people is established, one that will be continued all the way to the cross and beyond.

15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Barren Sarai’s life also takes a drastic turn. Don’t miss the fact that she becomes the “Mother of All Nations,” and her offspring live out the covenant even to this day.

If you were to be given a new name from God, what would you choose?

“Redeemed?”

”Rescued?”

”Joy?”

“Beloved?”

”Harmony?”

”Forgiven?”

Every day, we have a chance to “change our name” in the eyes of God. Choose well today. God’s offer of covenant is yours for the asking.

Feathered Hope by Kathy Schumacher

Step By Step

“Step by step, inch by inch…” this phrase from an old Three Stooges movie reminds me of how some people approach faith. There is nothing wrong with a methodical process, says the Methodist minister! The blessing of pursuing incremental progress toward a goal ensures that you continue to move forward, and that’s always a good thing.

In his book based on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Because of This, I Rejoice,” writer Max Vincent leads us to find joy in our Lenten disciplines as we participate in the serious work of moving step by step, inch by inch toward Easter.

In discussing Paul’s approach to prayer in his letters, Vincent neatly breaks it down into four discernible steps. See if you can spot some of them in this passage:

Philippians 1:1-11 (Common English Bible)

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. 10 I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. 

11 I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.

Paul used a four-step method, starting with THANKSGIVING. This is key, as it focuses us on God’s activity in our lives and in the lives of the people for whom we pray. When we concentrate on thanking God for the blessings he has poured out first, it helps us focus on God’s POWER before we even begin with our list of wants and needs. Giving thanks at the beginning of each prayer puts us into a spirit of praise, joy, gratitude, and humility. By starting our prayers with words of thanksgiving for all of our blessings, we remind ourselves of how good God is.

The second step is INTERCESSION, where we petition God for the needs of others and ourselves. We ask God to intervene in our lives and our situations to bring healing, mercy, comfort, and grace. We are reminded here that we exist in fellowship and connection with others. By putting the needs of others even before our own, we again focus on the power of God, and practice the type of humility Jesus taught from the cross.

The third step is CONFESSION, a necessary part of every prayer. We confess our distance from the righteousness to which we are called. We confess our willfulness. We confess our sins. We confess it all in the sure and certain knowledge that God hears our confessions and cleanses us of our sins.

And then we finish our confession with the doxology, or a word of PRAISE. God is worthy of our praise every day, and it’s important to let him know that! We praise God, from whom all blessings flow, and that moment reminds us that we are not self-reliant, but indeed we rely on God for everything that we have and need.

Try this pattern in your prayer time this week. Remember that God ALWAYS answers our prayers, so be persistent. Prayer changes things…mostly it changes US.

Step by Step by Kathy Schumacher

In the Desert

Name something that tempts you….as in, REALLY tempts you. Something that causes you to go weak in the knees trying to resist. Money? Power? Fame? Immortality? Gossip? Drama? Chocolate-covered caramel bars? CHEEZE??

The Greek myth of King Midas comes to mind when I think of temptation. He loved and worshipped gold. Gold was his kryptonite. He was granted a wish that everything he touched might be turned into gold. What joy! What bliss! Until the very food that he needed to survive was turned into gold and he couldn’t consume it. He cursed his power then, and sought relief from that which had once tempted him so strongly.

Today we read about Christ’s forty days in the desert where he was tempted by Satan. This reading falls in the first week of Lent for a reason. We are challenged to face the things that tempt us and have the power to pull us away from observing a Holy Lent.

Mark 1 (Common English Bible)

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

12 At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

An oversimplification of this passage would point out that God finds happiness in all of his children at the moment of baptism. He experiences joy when we commit to a life of resisting evil in all of its forms and promise to walk a righteous path. Temptations don’t come from God. He is not trying to ensnare us, but rather will send angels to take care of us in those moments of weakness….if we allow it. Sometimes our addictions block us from receiving help.

These 40 days of Lent are an exercise against temptation…the temptation to give up on our Lenten disciplines. The temptation to step off the path of righteousness. The temptation to succumb to evil in the form of gossip, sin, anger, betrayal, and shutting out God. The temptation to withhold forgiveness.

14 After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, 15 saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

Jesus calls us to something better. He invites us to change our hearts and lives. We are encouraged to trust the good news of his life, death, and resurrection. Don’t be tempted to do anything less….that’s how Satan wins.

Wilderness Wonderland by Mary Anne Mong Cramer

Teach Me

We are officially in the season of Lent. This 40-day time of solemn preparation for the celebration of Easter Sunday is often marked by “giving something up.” This is always a good practice for those of us who have slipped into a spiritual lethargy since last Lent, methinks! I encourage the plus/minus form of Lent-making. In other words, don’t just give something up, but add something new in its place.

This year I decided to teach a Lent Bible Study in my congregation. It is my own personal “adding to.” I know that the discipline of preparing for class each week will add to my own discipleship and shake me out of my complacency. Our first lesson is on prayer, and already God is working in my spirit to teach me things I need to learn about prayer.

So imagine my joy when Psalm 25 came along in today‘s lectionary. Not only is David’s psalm a prayer, but it also teaches us about prayer! Let’s find those teaching points together today.

Psalm 25 (New Revised Standard Version)

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
    do not let me be put to shame;
    do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
    let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

We can’t enter a conversation with the Lord without lifting up our soul. This first sentence reminds us that we need to be deliberate in seeking and entering God’s presence. To lift up one’s soul is to expose everything we are dealing with in our hearts and minds to him. We enter a sacred chamber and wait, trusting God’s immediate presence. Through prevenient grace, we know that he is already in the chamber. We wait for OUR spirit to catch up with his presence.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
    teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
    for you are the God of my salvation;
    for you I wait all day long.

So often our prayers are mere lists of needs and wants. Indeed, God inclines his ear to hear our wailing, but David reminds us that if we pause our litany of woes long enough, we can also be taught and led into God’s ways and his truth. The difference is LISTENING. God gave us two ears and one mouth. They should be used proportionally in prayer. Speak once. Listen twice.

Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
    for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
    according to your steadfast love remember me,
    for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Reminding God of his goodness is a psalmist’s trick to remind the reader of God’s mercy and steadfast love. When we remember those truths, our prayers are more honest and forthcoming. And remembering that God forgets our sins gives us permission to also forget them.

Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
    and teaches the humble his way.
10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
    for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

The Psalmist ends with more references to instructing, teaching, and leading.

What are you learning about prayer today? How will your prayers during Lent be different than before? Being humble in your approach to God is the first step. Humility calls us to be listening learners rather than loud demanders.

May we all rejoice in practicing listening, and may we celebrate a Holy Lent this year.

Our Prayers Take Flight by Michelle Robertson

Re-Lent

It happens every year. We just get past the overindulgence of Thanksgiving gravy, Christmas pie, New Years’ toasts, Super Bowl snacks, Valentine’s chocolates, and BAM. Lent happens. This 40-day period of self examination is not designed to punish us for our self-indulgences, but rather it provides an opportunity to grow closer to God by focusing on the things that realign our priorities and our time. It is a chance to re-center our thinking. It is a chance to re-do our to-do lists and put God at the top. We worship a God of second chances, and Lent is our chance once again to shift our lives back toward God.

But more than that, Lent is about our mortality. The ashes we place on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday remind us that from the earth we have come and to the earth we return….ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This sobering season begins when the alarm has sounded, the assembly has gathered, and the day of darkness is upon us:

Joel 2 (New Revised Standard Version)

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
    a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
    nor will be again after them
    in ages to come.

We are invited to return…..and repent:

Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13     rend your hearts and not your clothing.

The promise is offered: if we return to the Lord, he will relent from punishing. As we re-Lent, he will relent.

Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
    for the Lord, your God?

The call is urgent to come to the altar quickly. The time is upon us to begin this process. Even the bride and bridegroom are summoned from their bedchamber to be about the Lord’s business.

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16     gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
    assemble the aged;
gather the children,
    even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
    and the bride her canopy.

17 Between the vestibule and the altar
    let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
    and do not make your heritage a mockery,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’”

Many of us will not be able to gather in an assembly tonight due to the pandemic. Some of you may have obtained ashes from your church and will participate in an Ash Wednesday service online. In any case, you are invited to contemplate taking on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, scripture reading, self-examination, repentance, meditation, and penitence. You may choose to give something up for the next six weeks so that you can focus on God in its absence. You may choose to add a new practice that would take you deeper in your discipleship. I hope reading this daily devotional will be part of your commitment! If you don’t have access to ashes, you can use water and make the sign of the cross on your forehead as a mark of your sincerity.

I pray that you will join me as we observe a Holy Lent.

Gracious and Loving God, be with us today as we contemplate those things that have pulled us away from you. Help us to return. We hear your call and we desire nothing but a right relationship with your Son. Grant us a meaningful Lent season, so that when Easter morning dawns, you will find us to be new people, made more like him and less like ourselves. AMEN

Dust to Dust by Becca Ziegler

He is Risen!

Happy Easter, beloved readers! I am breaking my sabbath practice of not posting on Sunday to share this beautiful Outer Banks Easter sunrise picture. May your Easter celebration be holy, happy, and draw you closer to one another and our Savior. He is risen, indeed!

Easter Sunrise by Wende Pritchard

Completed

We have finally arrived. Today is Good Friday, the last weekday of our journey through Lent. As a child, I used to wonder why we called it “Good.” It seemed to me the day Jesus died on the cross was anything but good. Easter Sunday? Good. Birthdays? Good. Last day of school? Very good. But the crucifixion? Not so good.

Some believe that it is a variation of “God’s Friday.” In Germany, it is called Karfreitag, or “Sorrowful Friday.” Of course what remains good about today is that God’s plan to save humanity could only come through Jesus’ willing sacrifice, which brought eternal life to everyone. Even though it was horrific by any measure, God indeed used Jesus’ death for the “good of those who love him.” (Romans 8:28)

John 19 (The Message)

28 Jesus, seeing that everything had been completed so that the Scripture record might also be complete, then said, “I’m thirsty.”

29-30 A jug of sour wine was standing by. Someone put a sponge soaked with the wine on a javelin and lifted it to his mouth. After he took the wine, Jesus said, “It’s done . . . complete.” Bowing his head, he offered up his spirit.

Note that the scripture reads that he offered up his spirit. It wasn’t taken or forced from him, but he offered it. Can you imagine? He did that for you.

38 After all this, Joseph of Arimathea (he was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because he was intimidated by the Jews) petitioned Pilate to take the body of Jesus. Pilate gave permission. So Joseph came and took the body.

Take a look at the detail in the descriptions of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (below). Joseph was a “secret” disciple, because he was intimidated by the Jews. Nicodemus, however, has made the leap from first coming to Jesus in the dark of night to now being able to come in the broad daylight. What are we meant to learn?

Be Nicodemus. Stand in the light and proclaim Christ as Lord. Don’t be intimidated by the secular world or the scorn of non-believers. Share your faith openly and boldly. You have a story to tell….because it doesn’t end with Good Friday.

39-42 Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, came now in broad daylight carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. They took Jesus’ body and, following the Jewish burial custom, wrapped it in linen with the spices. There was a garden near the place he was crucified, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been placed. So, because it was Sabbath preparation for the Jews and the tomb was convenient, they placed Jesus in it.

But for today, we leave Jesus in the tomb. You have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday.

On this day of sorrows, be mindful of everything it cost our Lord to purchase your salvation. He loves you that much.

It is finished.

The Garden Tomb by Faye Gardner

Love to Die For

Ever wonder what your last thoughts will be just before you die? (A dark subject, I know…) I imagine our thoughts will be about our lives and our loves. We may have sadness over unfinished business, memories of happy times, or recall words we wished we had said, or not said…

They say that in the moments just before dying, your “life flashes before your eyes,” like a video stuck in rewind. How we live today will determine the content. Will it be a movie filled with joy, laughter, shared love, and warm memories? Or will it be filled with regret?

More importantly, what can you do today to change how the video will play?

It is interesting to see what thoughts Jesus had in the hours before his death. He knew that he was at the very end of his life on that last night as he sat among friends having supper:

John 13 (The Message)

 1-2 Just before the Passover Feast, Jesus knew that the time had come to leave this world to go to the Father. Having loved his dear companions, he continued to love them right to the end. It was suppertime. The Devil by now had Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, firmly in his grip, all set for the betrayal.

“Having loved his dear companions, he continued to love them right to the end.” His last hours were filled with active love. It was this love that would see its greatest manifestation the next day on the cross. Jesus’ entire life was love in action.

3-6 Jesus knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything, that he came from God and was on his way back to God. So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron. When he got to Simon Peter, Peter said, “Master, you wash my feet?”

Jesus’ love was manifested that night in a beautiful act of servanthood. It did not feel right to the disciples that the Master was going to get on his knees and wash their dirty feet. It almost felt like groveling.

Jesus answered, “You don’t understand now what I’m doing, but it will be clear enough to you later.”

Peter persisted, “You’re not going to wash my feet—ever!”

Peter’s objection was in part his way of acknowledging Jesus’ authority over them. Looking at the filth on his bare feet, he cringed at the thought of his teacher, rabbi, master, and friend even touching them. But Jesus was trying to leave them with a very important message: “when you serve one another, that is when you have served me.”

Jesus said, “If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing.”

“Master!” said Peter. “Not only my feet, then. Wash my hands! Wash my head!”

We need to be like Peter and take the full immersion of Jesus’ washing. Only the blood of Jesus that flowed from the cross can truly make us clean. From our head to our toes, we need to allow him to cleanse us from the inside out.

Imagine if you were ask for complete cleansing, and commit to living a life of servanthood in his example. How different would your end-of-life video look?

It’s not too late. Jesus is waiting, with his basin and towel. On the night before he died, he thought not of himself, but of YOU.

Come to the water. Jesus is ready.

The Basin and the Towel

Betrayal

Think of a time when you were betrayed. It happens to everyone sooner or later. It might be as simple as a confidence that was shared inadvertently, or as devastating as a spouse cheating on you and destroying your marriage. Maybe it happened in your family, with siblings or parents. Perhaps it was a co-worker who stabbed you in the back in order to further their career. Whatever the circumstance, betrayal is a gut-wrenching experience. You suddenly feel like the floor has dropped out from under your feet and you are riding one of those centrifugal-force carnival rides that presses you up against the wall. All you can do is wait for it to stop spinning.

Imagine being Jesus, sharing a last meal with his buds, and realizing that one of the cherished twelve was about to do that very thing:

John 12 (The Message)

21 After he said these things, Jesus became visibly upset, and then he told them why. “One of you is going to betray me.”

This tight-knit group was confused and somewhat horrified. Who, among them, could do such a thing? You probably felt the same way about your betrayer.

Note the tender care John takes to describe his own relationship with Jesus here. I love the image of him reclining next to Jesus with his head on his shoulder:

22-25 The disciples looked around at one another, wondering who on earth he was talking about. One of the disciples, the one Jesus loved dearly, was reclining against him, his head on his shoulder. Peter motioned to him to ask who Jesus might be talking about. So, being the closest, he said, “Master, who?”

Now watch what happens with the bread. In our understanding of Jesus as the Bread of Life, and realizing that this meal is the institution of Holy Communion, it is fascinating to see how bread is used here:

26-27 Jesus said, “The one to whom I give this crust of bread after I’ve dipped it.” Then he dipped the crust and gave it to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot. As soon as the bread was in his hand, Satan entered him.

“What you must do,” said Jesus, “do. Do it and get it over with.”

28-29 No one around the supper table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that since Judas was their treasurer, Jesus was telling him to buy what they needed for the Feast, or that he should give something to the poor.

30 Judas, with the piece of bread, left. It was night.

Jesus broke the bread (his body,) dipped it in oil (an anointing,) and offered it to his betrayer. The betrayer took it, but did not consume it. Satan took that opportunity to fill the void.

Then Judas left, bread in hand.

This is what happens to us when we are offered the Word of God but fail to internalize it. It opens us up to all kinds of influences. Jesus is the Bread of Life, but in order for that take hold, you have to consume him by taking in EVERYTHING he taught, and by following the example of his life. Otherwise, you are simply getting up from the table and walking away unchanged, with the bread in your hand.

Jesus said, “Take. EAT. This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

So eat the bread, people. Let him fully enter in to your mind, your heart and your life. He died for it, so that you might live.

The Garden of Gethsemane by Michelle Baker