Where East Meets West

 I live on a small island off a narrow strip of land known as the Outer Banks in North Carolina. These barrier islands are so narrow at parts that you can easily see the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pamlico Sound to the west without turning your head. At its most narrow part, the “east” is separated by the “west” by only 150 yards. When a storm hits, east waters meet west waters and close down the narrow two-lane road, cutting off the southern part of the island from the rest of civilization. This area may be one of the only places on earth where “east meets west” as it were.

The reality of east meeting west of course is that it never happens. If you travel east, you will continually be heading east around the globe. Such is the basis of David’s metaphor in our psalm today, as he celebrates that fact that “As far as east is from west—that’s how far God has removed our sin from us” (verse 12).

Psalm 103 (Common English Bible)

God won’t always play the judge;
he won’t be angry forever.
10 He doesn’t deal with us according to our sin
or repay us according to our wrongdoing,
11 because as high as heaven is above the earth,
that’s how large God’s faithful love is for those who honor him.
12 As far as east is from west—
that’s how far God has removed our sin from us.
13 Like a parent feels compassion for their children—
that’s how the Lord feels compassion for those who honor him.

Our sins have been banished to a place that doesn’t exist; thus we suffer them no longer. This reminder of the infinite nature of God’s saving love is a blessing when we have strayed from God’s will for our lives. David’s beautiful psalm is a strong assurance of the power of the cross to obliterate our sins. The price that Jesus paid with his life is our guarantee that past sins won’t inform our present relationship with God. As David says, God won’t be angry with us forever and doesn’t deal with us according to our sin. Indeed, God deals with us according to the measure of our confession and repentance. The power of the shed blood of the atonement is the criteria upon which we will be judged … thanks be to God! Mercy reigns.

But do we believe that, or do we cling to past sins and use them as a way of beating ourselves up over and over again? It is so easy to lay our sin at the foot of the cross and then pick it up again the next day. Repeated self-condemnation of past transgressions becomes the devil’s playground, as he whispers in our ears that we aren’t worthy.

God’s faithful love says otherwise. As far as heaven is above the earth, that is the measure of God’s forgiveness and love for us.

If you are caught in a cycle of unforgiveness of your past, ask yourself this: is your sin actually greater than Christ’s crucifixion? Do you really have that much power? Isn’t holding on to past regret a form of arrogance?

God invites us to truly let go of our past and walk cleanly into the future with hope for which his Son died. Anything less diminishes the cross.

As Far as the East is to the West by Amanda Williams

Have Mercy

One of my favorite children’s songs is “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep.” This, of course, was before sheep were politicized.

The lyrics go like this:

I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa

The premise is that we are the sheep in God’s pasture, following the Great Shepherd Jesus. Sounds like a great life to me. But the brilliant part of the song is that it teaches kids about the nature of the Pharisees and the Sadducees in a memorable way.

Verse 3
Don’t wanna be a Pharisee
Don’t wanna be a Pharisee
‘Cause they’re not fair you see
Don’t wanna be a Pharisee

Verse 4
Don’t wanna be a Sadducee
Don’t wanna be a Sadducee
‘Cause they’re so sad you see
Don’t wanna be a Sadducee

The Pharisees weren’t fair because they were unkind and judgmental toward others. They condemned anyone who was not like them, and they hoarded their resources for themselves. They weren’t fair, you see. Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, so they were so sad, you see.

Isn’t that clever?

Our Scripture today addresses the unfair Pharisees. Jesus really had a time with them, didn’t he? They criticized the starving disciples for picking and eating wheat on the Sabbath. See what Jesus does with that:

Matthew 12 (Common English Bible)

1 At that time Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they were picking heads of wheat and eating them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are breaking the Sabbath law.”

But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those with him were hungry? He went into God’s house and broke the law by eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests were allowed to eat. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple treat the Sabbath as any other day and are still innocent? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice, you wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.

The piety of the Pharisees led them to condemn the innocent actions of others. They were so concerned with the outward appearances of themselves and others, they neglected the human need right before them. Ritual practices do not equate to the heartfelt worship of God. We are reminded that God looks upon the heart, not the appearance. So, all of the pious activities of these men meant nothing if mercy was not extended to God’s people in need.

This causes us to step back and consider our own piety. Do you make a show of attending church for the sake of being seen there? Do you read your Scriptures religiously and then go out and judge or condemn others? Are you practicing mercy toward God’s people in need in your community?

God wants sheep who will follow his Son seven days a week, not just Sundays. Where is he calling you to offer someone mercy?

Mercy Me! by Becca Ziegler

A Well-Taught Tongue

Compassion has gone out of style. Maybe not with you, or your small group, but as a society, we are less compassionate toward the marginalized and more focused on a “Me First” mentality. This attitude prevails from the schoolyard to the seats of government. Bullying is common at all levels of society and often goes unchecked. People say and post things aimed to mock others. Nations turn their backs on struggling nations so that their own resources aren’t compromised.

Thank God for Poland, who has graciously received over two million Ukrainian refugees. England agreed to take 10,000. America will receive 100,000. Frankly, we all can do better. Who will stand up for the tired people?

Isaiah reminds us that God has given us a “well-taught” tongue and we are called to use it as we offer COMPASSION to people who are struggling.

Isaiah 50 (The Message)

The Master, God, has given me
    a well-taught tongue,
So I know how to encourage tired people.
    He wakes me up in the morning,
Wakes me up, opens my ears
    to listen as one ready to take orders.
The Master, God, opened my ears,
    and I didn’t go back to sleep,
    didn’t pull the covers back over my head.

All of us have opportunities every day to alleviate someone’s suffering. A kind word, a smile, a card, or casserole delivered to someone who is sick or isolated can go a long way toward easing someone’s burden for even a brief moment. God is trying to open our ears to the people around us whom we can encourage and lift up.

Isaiah found himself being ridiculed and mocked for his prophetic warnings to the people of Israel. Sometimes doing God’s work entails taking on someone’s anger and rejection. In those cases, Isaiah reminds us to set our faces like flint:

I followed orders,
    stood there and took it while they beat me,
    held steady while they pulled out my beard,
Didn’t dodge their insults,
    faced them as they spit in my face.
And the Master, God, stays right there and helps me,
    so I’m not disgraced.
Therefore I set my face like flint,
    confident that I’ll never regret this.

Have you ever been ridiculed or rejected for doing something good for someone? Never mind. God is our only audience when we walk in his instruction and offer compassion to others.

My champion is right here.
    Let’s take our stand together!
Who dares bring suit against me?
    Let him try!
Look! the Master, God, is right here.
    Who would dare call me guilty?
Look! My accusers are a clothes bin of threadbare
    socks and shirts, fodder for moths!

Look, the Master is RIGHT HERE. Are you being called to serve God by serving others? Don’t listen to the nay-sayers. They soon will flit away to discourage someone else. We are called to serve the Master, God. And when we do, WE receive the blessing.

Sunrise Colors by Michelle Robertson

Pray for Your Enemies

Before we get to today’s Scripture, which ironically commands us to pray for our enemies, we need to pause for a moment to pray for Ukraine. Waking up yesterday to the realization that we are watching a war in Europe begin was a shock. We sat stunned as we witnessed the merciless invasion of the peaceful people of Ukraine by Putin’s armies. Europe hasn’t seen an invasion of this scope since Hitler took over Poland in 1939 … and he didn’t stop there. Never in my lifetime did I think I would see what may end up being a Third World War. But I never expected to live through two years of a global pandemic, either.

And so we join our hearts with brothers and sisters in the British Methodist Church, who published this prayer yesterday on social media. As a European denomination, this situation is much closer to them than it is to us. All of Europe trembles today.

I pray for all people all around the world this morning. I pray for bold Russians who risk arrest to protest by the thousands in Russian cities. I pray for the orphans in Ukraine who, even as we sip our coffee, are hunkered down in dirty subway tunnels. I pray for peace.

If you are tired of worrying about all of this and want to do something practical, please consider donating to the orphanage. I have friends who have traveled for years to do mission work there, and this is a legitimate cause with a legitimate and urgent need: https://www.fathers-care.org

And now to our devotional.

Do Good

Think of someone who has really, really hurt you. Someone who has wronged you so wrongly that you want to wrong them back with a vengeance. We all have people on that list. From the girl who gossiped about you in Middle School and made your life miserable, to someone who has abused you on some level, it is natural and normal to have enemies. I have them. I know you do, too.

What does the Bible say about how to treat our enemies? Get ready for the bitter pill:

Luke 6 (Common English Bible)

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

Lawdy. Of all the teachings of Jesus, this may be one of the hardest ones to swallow. I confess that I would so much prefer to salt the wounds left by my enemies by recalling ad nauseam EVERY INSTANCE OF HURT they inflicted on me. Over, and over, and over. And then I want to hit back. But Jesus calls us to a higher response. Jesus commands us to love them. Jesus commands us to do good to people who have hurt us. Jesus calls us to a response that reflects the way we wish they had treated us.

Is Jesus asking for the impossible?

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 

Yes, this calling is hard. But he states his case beautifully. Should you be commended for only showing grace to the people who love you? Will you get a pat on the back for being good to those who are good to you? Nope. That is the easy way out. Being good to your enemies takes a lot more work. But when you do, you are acting just like Jesus.

36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

And there it is. Being God-followers means we have to respond like God … with kindness and compassion, even to the ungrateful and wicked people.

37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”

I don’t know about you, but in the end, I would much rather be like Jesus than my enemy. Lord, bring on that good portion to us! And may we bring it to others in your name and for your sake.

Frolicking Fins by Michelle Robertson

Wondrous Works

It is chilly on the Outer Banks. January and February are my least favorite months here. The wind is aggressive, the sky is mostly gray, and the temperatures are frigid without the promise of snow.

What’s not to like, right?

But there are unexpected days here and there when the wind stops and the sun comes out and that same frigid temperature suddenly feels approachable and even…dare I say it….nice.

Living on the water is a constant reminder of God’s wondrous works, regardless of the weather. My favorite photographer for these devotionals goes to the ocean almost every day to take pictures of the sunrise. She braves the abrasive, sandy wind and bitter “Real Feel Temps” to be present with God as he wakes up the world. If you read these devotionals every day, you have seen the beauty of her work. Michelle’s sense of awe in the presence of God’s majesty comes through every shot. My sense of awe that she is up that early in all kinds of weather is big, too! I thank God for every picture she takes that brings the rest of us, snuggled warm in our beds, into the magnificence of God’s sunrise moments.

Psalm 111 (Common English Bible)

Praise the Lord!
    I thank the Lord with all my heart
    in the company of those who do right, in the congregation.
The works of the Lord are magnificent;
    they are treasured by all who desire them.

It is easy where I live to see the works of the Lord and to proclaim them “magnificient.” There are other works of the Lord that are harder to see: humility, generosity, patience, grace, righteousness, and all those quiet things that we see in God’s people. These works are just as treasured by the Lord and his people.

God’s deeds are majestic and glorious.
    God’s righteousness stands forever.
God is famous for his wondrous works.
    The Lord is full of mercy and compassion.

The Lord is indeed full of mercy and compassion. Are you? Can you show mercy to someone who doesn’t think like you? Do you have compassion for those who are oppressed and forgotten? Is God calling you to reconsider your words?

God gives food to those who honor him.
    God remembers his covenant forever.
God proclaimed his powerful deeds to his people
    and gave them what had belonged to other nations.

God is in the business of righteousness, mercy, creativity, and generosity. May we also be about our Lord’s business this day.

Good Morning, Dolphin by Michelle Robertson