Author: Tom Letchworth

Rev. Tom Letchworth, Senior Pastor of Marion United Methodist Church Bro. Tom was ordained an Elder in the Little Rock Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985. He has served First UMC in Paragould, (2007-2011), St. Paul UMC in Searcy (2002-2007), and First UMC in West Memphis (1995-1998) as senior pastor. He has also served Salem UMC in Benton as pastor (1985-1995), and St. James UMC in Little Rock as associate pastor (1983-1985). As a full-time local pastor in the beginning of his ministry, he served the Morrilton Parish (1980-1981). While attending Perkins School of Theology, he served the Maypearl/Venus charge in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The son of an Air Force chaplain, Bro. Tom has lived all over the world. He received the call to ministry while he was a member of Yucaipa UMC in California, where he started the candidacy process. He was introduced to Arkansas through his seminary internship at Pulaski Heights UMC and thus completed his candidacy requirements with the Little Rock Conference. From 1999 to 2002 he was appointed as a General Evangelist, during which time he added dramatic presentations to his sermons and preached/taught workshops in Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He and his wife, Celeste, have written full-length plays published by Lillenas Drama (Nazerene Publishing House): Mysteries With a Message, Volumes I and II; and Meet Me at Luigi’s. They are also the proud “authors” of Sam, a creative writing graduate of the University of Arkansas, and Joe, a music graduate of Asbury University.

Gospel for December 17, 2017

“John the Baptist”
photographed by Romana Klee.

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
John 1:6-8, 19-28
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

The Prologue to the Gospel of John, which comprises John 1:1-18, is one of the more majestic passages in all of Scripture.  But in this selection the Gospel writer is seeking to clarify the relationship of John the Baptist with the Messiah.

There are many who believe that John’s followers formed an early rivalry with the disciples who followed Jesus.  This is understandable.  John was a dynamic, charismatic and prophetic fellow who spoke truth to power and summoned a spiritually hungry people to renewal.

However, as the Gospel of John makes clear, and then John the Baptist himself insists, he is not the Messiah.

As the Prologue makes clear, John the Baptist is not the light but only bears witness to the light.  The identity of the light has already been revealed as the preexistent Christ, who was present at the beginning and through whom and for whom creation was made:  

In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it(John 1:4-5).

John the Baptist himself insists that he is not the Christ.  Interestingly, verses 19-28 introduce the dialogue form that is so common in the Gospel of John.  There is in these dialogues a sense of debate — a conflict is introduced and then resolved.

In this case, Jewish leaders in Jerusalem have become aware of John’s ministry, and so they send a “Committee on Investigation” to ask him some questions.  Their first question is insinuating and indirect:

Who are you?

John’s response is direct — he tells them he is not the Messiah, nor even a prophet.  So then, they want to know, just who do you think you are?  And John answers with the prophetic text from Isaiah 40:3:

I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.

This is the text cited by the other three Gospel writers as well in reference to John’s unique relationship to Jesus.

John clearly sees his role as preparing the way for the Messiah by calling the people to repentance.

When asked then why he baptizes, he answers with a cryptic response. He doesn’t answer their question directly.  Instead, John tells them that the Messiah is already among them, and they don’t realize it.

The “Committee on Investigation” may have asked this question because baptism was certainly not unknown to the Jewish religion.  A Gentile who converted to Judaism not only had to be circumcised but also baptized as a sign that he was “born anew.”  And of course the Essene Community at Qumran by the Dead Sea practiced ritual washing.

But John was baptizing those who were already Jews!  They were already part of the covenant!  What authority did he have to do such a thing?  Again, John is making clear that his ministry is a preparation for the ministry of the Messiah. Therefore he doesn’t seem to find it necessary to explain himself to the priests and Levites.

APPLY:  

Perhaps the greatest service we can provide is to be a little like John the Baptist.  I don’t mean that we should wear camel’s hair and eat locusts and wild honey, or even that we should go around baptizing people willy-nilly.

No, perhaps one of the greatest services we can provide is to prepare others for the coming of Christ into their lives.  We can tell others that Christ is already among us — they need only turn to him in faith.  We, like John, can bear witness to the light that has come into the world.

What a difference it might make if each Christian made an effort to point others to Christ, and to say “I am not the focus here, Christ is!”

I recall years ago going into a restaurant and seeing on the menu words to this effect:  “If you meet me and forget me, you have lost nothing. But if you meet Jesus Christ and forget Him you have lost everything.”  It was signed by the late owner of the restaurant, who was still making a witness by that aphorism long after his own death!

RESPOND: 

I must remember that the goal of my life is to bear witness not to myself or my meager accomplishments, but to point only toward Christ as the meaning and purpose of life.

Our Lord, empower me to be a witness to your coming into the world.  I don’t need to argue with other people about my authority, or who I am.  I just need to direct their attention to you.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
john the baptist” by romana klee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.
 

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Epistle for December 17, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is likely the oldest piece of Christian literature in existence.  Paul had visited Thessalonike and established a church there after he had crossed the Hellespont channel into Europe from Asia Minor. This was one of his many stops on the second missionary journey (49-52 A.D.).

This passage is the conclusion of this letter.  It is a series of exhortations, followed by a blessing.  In some ways it is almost proverbial or aphoristic in nature, and full of good, solid advice.

The first series is positive — rejoice, pray, give thanks.  Note that Paul encourages them to do all of these all the time, and in all circumstances. He sees this attitude of gratitude and joy and prayer as the will of God for believers.

Then there are some “do nots”:

Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t despise prophesies …. Abstain from every form of evil.

He doesn’t elaborate on what it means to quench the Spirit, but based on his other letters, as in 1 Corinthians 12, he truly believes that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Christian community providing gifts and empowerment for ministry.

Moreover, the prophecies to which he refers might be a reference to the Old Testament, but just as likely may relate to the active gift of prophesy that occurred in the context of worship in the early church:

But he who prophesies speaks to men for their edification, exhortation, and consolation. He who speaks in another language edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the assembly. (1 Corinthians 14:3-4).

The evidence for this is strengthened by the phrase:

Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good.

Paul, a former Pharisee who believed fervently in the inspiration of the Scriptures, would never have consented to “testing” the prophecies revealed in the Scriptures. However, he would definitely have been compelled to weigh the prophecies uttered in worship so that they might keep the good and reject the bad.

Ultimately, his prayer is for the total sanctification of the believers, that they might be blameless in spirit, soul and body until that time when Christ returned.  He holds out the prospect of total holiness in the lives of believers.

APPLY:  

As an Advent passage, this text reminds us that holiness and sanctification are not distant goals that are only accomplished in heaven.  No, God’s desire is to sanctify us “through and through” and present us blameless in every dimension of our lives – spirit, soul and body.

Salvation is not simply buying “fire insurance” until we finally arrive at the “sweet by and by of pie in the Sky.”  We are to be equipped to live holy lives in the present so that we may be ready for Christ’s return!

Rejoice, pray, give thanks at all times and in all circumstances because that is God’s will for us now, not just in the age to come.

Don’t ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives now by quenching the Spirit or denying the possibility that God is speaking now in our lives through the prophecy of those around us.

We pray for holiness because God’s nature is holy.  If he can make us holy in the future, he can make us holy in the present.  Otherwise, he is not all-powerful. This is a statement of faithful confidence in God:

He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.

RESPOND: 

I hear Christians quite often excuse their fallibility and their poor decisions by saying “nobody’s perfect until they get to heaven.”  I’ve made the same kind of excuses for myself.  But the claim of scripture is that if God has called us to be holy, he can make us holy.  If I am lazy in my spiritual or bodily habits, keeping me from obeying God’s call to holiness, that’s on me not on God.

Our Lord, give me the sense of your presence that brings that constant joy, prayer and thanksgiving that helps me anticipate your coming. Be at work in my spirit, soul and body to render me blameless in your eyes.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18” by Charlotte Tai is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Psalm Reading for December 17, 2017

“Bringing in the Sheaves”
Tim Green photographed this detail from Lindley Tower, Huddersfield

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
Psalm 126
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

A Psalm of Ascents was typically sung by worshippers as they approached and climbed the hill and/or stairs at the temple in Jerusalem. The tone of this particular Psalm suggests a great sense of joy.

What’s interesting about this Psalm is that the language speaks of restoration and joy after a period of tears and grief.  It seems very likely, even on a superficial reading, that this Psalm reflects a post-exilic context.

Those who wept and mourned now laugh and sing; they are restored to the temple from which they had been exiled; moreover, they return with songs of joy.

Even the “nations” take note that:

Yahweh has done great things for them.

Remember that the word nations in Hebrew is goyim, also known as Gentiles.  The Jews had been exiles in Babylon, which became the Persian Empire, for more than 50 years. So the Gentile nations under which they had been oppressed, as well as other nations, took notice of their liberation!

The reference to streams in the Negev may be an historical allusion to the wandering of the Israelites nearly a thousand years earlier.  The Negev is the dry desert in the southern regions of Israel.  Streams in the desert would be welcome indeed!

They carry their sheaves with them because it is a festive day. It was quite common on feast days like the feast of Tabernacles, etc., to cut off palm branches or willows and wave them as a sign of celebration.  Note that this is how the crowds in Jerusalem heralded Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week.

APPLY:  

Only those who have been in bondage can fully appreciate the transformation from grief and tears to joy and laughter.

I think of accounts I’ve read of the masses of slaves who followed the Union armies during the Civil War, or who greeted Abraham Lincoln when he visited Richmond, Virginia after the surrender of the Confederacy.  Or of film I’ve seen of Holocaust survivors as their camps were liberated by American G.I.’s.  Those folks could certainly have understood Psalm 126!

Can we?  Certainly.  As a friend of mine pointed out years ago when someone spoke derogatorily of the wealthy members of a mega church, “Even rich people are in bondage without Jesus.”

We all can identify with the sense of joy that comes when we have been delivered from addictions, depression, disease, and guilt.

RESPOND: 

May I never lose the sense of joy that comes from the knowledge that I have been restored and returned to God through Jesus Christ.  May I never take that liberation for granted.

Our Lord, fill my heart with the joy of knowing that you have restored and returned me to your side.  May my worship and praise of your mighty deeds be unselfconscious and unrestrained!  Amen.

PHOTOS:
Bringing in the sheaves” by Tim Green is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Old Testament for December 17, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

A famous preacher has said that the purpose of preaching is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”  In this passage, the purpose of Isaiah is to comfort those who have been afflicted.

As part of the section of Isaiah called by some the “Third Isaiah” this passage is possibly written after the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem, which occurred in 587 B.C., at the hands of the Babylonians.

The prophet is claiming divine inspiration for his oracle:

The Lord Yahweh’s Spirit is on me;
because Yahweh has anointed me to preach good news to the humble.

Therefore, what follows describes the focus of his ministry — the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners.  This confirms his word of comfort to those in exile.

There is also the reference to the Year of Jubilee declared in Leviticus 25 — that is, the year of the Lord’s favor that occurred every 50 years. In this year slaves were freed and the possession of ancestral land reverted to its original owners.  This would be very poignant to people who were captives and exiled from their homeland.

He calls for a time of celebration, signified by festive symbols:

to provide for those who mourn in Zion,
to give to them a garland for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness…

And the rebuilding of cities that have been destroyed confirms the interpretation that the Prophet is envisioning a return of the Jews to their homeland, where they will rebuild what has been razed.

Yahweh himself then speaks, in verses 8-11.  Yahweh makes it clear that his standard of righteousness for the returning community is extremely high:

For I, Yahweh, love justice.
I hate robbery and iniquity.
I will give them their reward in truth,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

The language that Yahweh uses is restorative.  He will be restoring the covenant that Israel had broken.  This was the covenant established in obedience to the law, that guaranteed a holy heritage in the past, and will restore that legacy:

Their offspring will be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge them,
that they are the offspring which Yahweh has blessed.

Isaiah’s oracle then returns to symbols of celebration.  He describes the scene in terms of a wedding:

 I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh!
My soul will be joyful in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation.
He has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Weddings, and wedding feasts, are a frequent symbol in Scripture of the eschatological hope of Israel and the New Testament church.  Here, the bridegroom and bride represent the joyful community of exiles who will return to their ancestral home in Israel.

Finally, Isaiah compares the restoration of Israel to a fertile garden, which will benefit not only the chosen people but all nations.

The bottom line, is that the restoration of Jerusalem  will be as prosperous and peaceful as it had been devastating and violent when Judah was destroyed in 587 B.C.

APPLY:  

While we can easily see the post-exilic hope of return for Israel, we have to ask ourselves why this passage shows up in our Advent cycle of readings.  While there are people and ethnic groups that can testify to feeling like exiles from their homeland, why does this particular passage speak to all of us?

The answer is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4. Jesus returns to his hometown in Nazareth and, as is the custom on a Sabbath day, attends synagogue. As a visiting rabbi, he is given the scrolls of the prophets. He reads publically from this great text:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the broken hearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).

This must have been a comforting text, to the Jewish brethren of Jesus in the synagogue. Since the defeat of the Hasmonean kings by the Romans in 63 B.C., Israel had been occupied territory, and they had been like exiles in their own land.

So, the congregation that day may have expected Jesus to say a word about their future hope for deliverance — when one day the Messiah would come. But to their shock Jesus says very simply:

Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:21)

In other words, they need wait no longer for the Messiah to come, who would bring good news to the poor, bind up the hearts of the brokenhearted, and free the captives.  He had come to do just that!

Instead of words of comfort, these had become words of either heresy or faith!  Either Jesus is who he says he is, or he is a fraud.  And subsequent events would provide conclusive evidence that Jesus is the real thing!

If Jesus is our prophet, who proclaims good news to the poor; if he is our priest who binds up the wounds of the brokenhearted; if he is our king who liberates all of us from our addiction to sin and our imprisonment to oppression, then indeed his words are fulfilled in our hearing as well!

RESPOND: 

When I hear the words of scripture I can react one of two ways — I can simply listen as though they are the words of some ancient, dusty dead men that have no relevance to me; or I can realize that those words come alive when I hear them in faith.  If the latter, then Jesus proclaims good news to my poor spirit, binds up my broken heart, and releases me from captivity to sin and death!

Our Lord, may I listen for your living word in my own heart, and know that I too have been liberated and healed.  You have fulfilled your promises for me and all who trust in you. Amen.  

PHOTOS:
Isaiah 61:1” by Roger Sadler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Gospel for December 10, 2017

John the Baptist prepares the highway of our hearts to receive the King of kings.

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
Mark 1:1-8
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Mark begins, to our modern minds, in the middle of things rather than with the birth stories of Jesus. This is unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and even John, which begins with the very beginning of time.

The beginning in Mark starts with the ministry of John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Messiah.  But the Gospel of Mark makes it  very clear that the central focus of the book is:

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

John is identified in the Gospels by Jesus as the figure of Elijah, who was prophesied to come at the end of the age.  Here, we see John as the figure who is fulfilling the prophecy of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. He is “preparing the way” for Jesus.

One clever way of understanding this is that Jesus is the Savior, John is the PaviourPaviour is an archaic Middle English word that means a road maker, a paver.

As mentioned in the SOAR Lectionary Bible study on Isaiah 40:1-11 (click here to go to that post), kings in the ancient world often required roads to be built to facilitate their visits to different provinces of their kingdom.  John is the contractor for the highway of the Lord.

John’s ministry is a proclamation of the coming of the kingdom, with the demand for repentance.  His baptism was a powerful symbol of cleansing – but he makes it clear that the Messiah who comes after him will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit – signifying an intense, purgative and infilling power.

John is an eccentric figure with unusual clothing that was typical of some Old Testament prophets, and a strange wilderness diet.  Some scholars are of the opinion that his baptismal practices and his habitation in the desert may suggest some association with the ascetical Essene sect that lived in a kind of monastic setting near the Dead Sea.

Some scholars also suggest that because of John’s charismatic and dynamic ministry, he gathered a following that may have been seen as a rivalry early on between the followers of John and the followers of Jesus.  All of the Gospel writers are careful to emphasize John’s powerful message of repentance, but they also stress his humility – he is very conscious that the one who is to follow him surpasses him.  The ministry of John marks a transition to the ministry of Jesus.

APPLY:  

How are we to prepare in the season of Advent for the coming of our Lord?  Is it Christmas trees and Christmas shopping and overeating at Christmas parties?

It may come as a surprise that the original purpose of Advent in the church wasn’t as an early extension of the Christmas season.  It wasn’t intended to add to the shopping days!

Instead, the season of Advent was to be like Lent, a season of self-examination, self-denial, and repentance.  In that sense the message of John is well suited to the season.

If we are to be truly prepared for the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit, we need to ask for the interior of our hearts to be thoroughly cleansed.  This is to be no superficial change of habit, but a deep and inner change.  This is a change only the Holy Spirit can bring.

RESPOND: 

I like the feasting and the celebration of Christmas, but in order to be ready to receive my King I need to prepare my heart with repentance of sin.  Thankfully, Jesus has come to bring pardon from my sin, but also power over sin in my life.

Our Lord, I know that a mere ritual, external cleansing is not enough to prepare me for your coming.  May your cleansing fire and Holy Spirit cleanse me from within and prepare me for you.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
Relax” by Martha Soukup is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Epistle for December 10, 2017

God’s perspective of time and ours are very different

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
2 Peter 3:8-15a
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Any serious student of the New Testament soon becomes aware that the concept of the parousia, that is, the second coming of Christ, is built into the DNA of the Gospel.  It is inescapable and inevitable.

However, even in the early church there were already those who were beginning to question this comforting doctrine, primarily because in their minds it was simply taking too long.

Sometimes in these lectionary snippets of scripture we lose the full context.  Earlier in this chapter, Peter has posed the problem to which he is giving an apostolic answer:

in the last days mockers will come, walking after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For, from the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.” (2 Peter 3:3-4).

Even within a generation of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the birth and expansion of the church, there were scoffers who were second guessing the teaching of the return of Christ!

Peter’s response is nuanced, and careful.  He doesn’t venture an opinion about when it might happen.  Instead, he reminds the Christians that God’s perspective of time and ours are very different.  He makes an obvious reference to Psalm 90, which is a haunting meditation on time and its consequences.  Psalm 90:4 says of the Lord:

For a thousand years in your sight are just like yesterday when it is past,
like a watch in the night.

So, Peter is advising them that people need to have a more eternal perspective.  Moreover, the reason for the perceived delay is that God is merciful!  The longer it takes for the end to come, the more opportunity there will be for repentance!

The language that Peter uses to describe the end is dramatic and apocalyptic. He uses the same metaphor that Jesus and Paul use — that the end will come stealthily, like a thief; but that it will also be a violent conflagration.

So, the application to the church is simple:

Therefore since all these things will be destroyed like this, what kind of people ought you to be in holy living and godliness,  looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God.

There is a fascinating alternative translation to the latter half of this verse:
awaiting and hastening the presence of day of God (transliterated from The Revised Standard Version Interlinear Greek-English New Testament).
This translation actually implies that how Christians live may speed up the coming of the Lord! 

The bottom line, however, is that for Christians the Day of the Lord is not to be feared but welcomed.  For the Christian it is not a day of destruction but of the joyful consummation of history:  

But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

APPLY:  

There is an awful lot of theology packed into these verses.

First, we have to reckon with the same problem that Peter was addressing — why has the second coming of Christ seemingly been delayed?  I mean, from our perspective it has been forever!  Two thousand years!

So, we must address the issue of time and eternity.  The biblical answer to our dilemma is that God doesn’t see time the way that we do.  Some theologians like John Wesley would argue that for God all time is eternally now.  So, relative to God, our perception of time is like that of an ant’s compared to a human.  Stop and think – even a dog ages faster than we do as humans.   How much greater is the difference between God as an eternal being and ourselves as finite mortals of no more than 70 or 80 years?

Peter isn’t necessarily arguing that we should impose a literal calendar on God’s timing — i.e., that one day is a thousand years to God, therefore it has only been two days from God’s perspective since the time of Christ’s earthly ministry.  Rather, he’s saying that God’s time is not our time. God transcends time as the Eternal One.

Ultimately, though, Peter is making the point that if there is a delay, it is only because of God’s infinite patience, and his love for sinners:

The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some count slowness; but is patient with us, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

By the way, this is not a claim for universalism, that everyone will be saved.  There is too much evidence in scripture to the contrary – many will reject the salvation that God offers.  However, it is a stern rebuke to the notion that some are chosen for salvation from the beginning and others are damned – God’s earnest desire is that all might come to salvation who will come.

There is another challenge that this provides us — those of us who are earnestly looking forward to Christ’s return are  not to be slackers, or complacent.  We don’t know when he will come, but we are to live holy, godly, spotless, blameless lives as we look forward to the:

 new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

There is a moral demand to the Gospel that we cannot escape.

Wiser minds than my own will have to parse out the variant readings in verse 12. One reading is that by living holy lives we may speed its coming,  the other that we are:

 looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God.

These two translations have very different implications — one that by our active participation in the process we may have an impact on when the kingdom may come.  The other is more passive, that we are to simply wait eagerly, while we live the holy lives to which we are called.

I don’t know that it matters much, unless you subscribe to the notion that there is a realized eschatology.  By that I mean that there may be times when the kingdom of God seems to “break in” to our midst, when we become aware that God is present, perhaps in a moment of worship, or a tender moment with loved ones, or in an act of ministry.  Jesus said many times in the Gospels that the “Kingdom of God has come near.”  This has also been translated “in your midst,” or “among you,” and even “within you.”  In other words, the Kingdom of God can be realized now, at least in part, even though it is not yet present in its fullness.

One example of a preacher who seemed to believe this is Martin Luther King Jr., who said in his famous “I Have a Dream” sermon:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day (emphasis mine) when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Bottom line: we are to live holy, blameless lives by God’s grace, seeking to bring others to the point of repentance and faith, as we await the fullness of God’s kingdom at the consummation of history.

RESPOND: 

I sometimes find myself wondering why history has been allowed to meander along for two thousand years since the coming of Christ.  But Peter’s answer makes sense to me – that God’s eternity transcends my time; and his plan to bring as many as possible into his kingdom is much more patient and loving than I am.  My part is to live the holy, blameless life and bear witness to his Gospel every day.  That is more than enough challenge for me!  I can only live that life through his grace.   And that is how I must wait for his coming – in patient grace.

Lord, thank you for your promise to return.  But thank you also for your patient love that seeks to save as many as possible who will turn to you.  And thank you for your patience with me when I was wandering and lost. Come when you are ready, and when we are ready for you!  Amen.

PHOTOS:
Keeping An Eye On Time” by Ian Foss is license under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Psalm Reading for December 10, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This Psalm describes the reward and abundance that are produced when the Lord shows favor to the land.

The first section here is past tense.  The Lord has shown favor to the land, restored the fortune of Jacob, and forgiven all their sins. In Hebrew poetic parallelism, these are all ways of saying that restoration and forgiveness are intimately related.

The reference to the restoration of Jacob makes me wonder if this Psalm is post-exilic – a reference to the promised return that we learn about in Isaiah 40?

The next verses we consider, from 8 to 13, are oriented toward the future. When the servant listens to the Lord, he hears the promises of peace – so long as the people don’t mess up again!

Peace in biblical terms is more than just the absence of conflict.  Peace is shalom, which denotes the well-being and wholeness that come when all is right with our world.  It is a sign of the salvation and glory that are near to those who fear God.

And then there are the remarkably intimate pairings of desirable qualities.  The metaphor is that of lovers, or of close kinsmen, who kiss one another – love and faithfulness meet, righteousness and peace kiss.  What can be more intimately described than these wonderful qualities?

Next, it is almost as though these pairings of wonderful attributes produce their own offspring!  Faithfulness springs from the earth; and righteousness looks down from heaven benignly. And the Lord yields what is good.

The persistence of the words faithfulness and righteousness suggest that there is a holy, ethical purity to this blessing that will be poured out on the land.

And once again we have that Advent theme:

Righteousness goes before him,
And prepares the way for his steps.

This is a vision of the world that is promised, but that has not yet arrived. It is still in preparation.

APPLY:  

It seems perfectly clear that when this Psalm talks about restoration and forgiveness and salvation and righteousness and peace and faithfulness, that it doesn’t begin with us.  God is always the initiator.

We have a tendency to think that “if anything’s to be, it’s up to me.”  Well, maybe in the business world or the academic world or the athletic world.  But in the world that is to come:

Yahweh will give that which is good.

God is the active actor in bringing all of those attributes together in a holy marriage of love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace.  We are the passive receivers of his blessings: we listen,  we fear him, but all begins in him.  After all, where do love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace originate?  Only in God.

While that’s hard for doers and movers and shakers to accept, which is what those in our culture tend to be, in relationship to God we are all responders and receivers.  God always takes the initiative.

RESPOND: 

I always want to find out what I can do to receive the blessings that God has for me.  But the truth is I need to listen and to fear him first.  Or, as another Psalm says it “Be still, and know that I am God.”  (Psalm 46:10).

Lord, prepare us for your love, righteousness, faithfulness and peace.  May those qualities, so wonderfully and intimately blended in your nature, become second nature in us. Amen.

PHOTOS:
Crocuses pushing through winter – Psalm 85:11” by Ben R is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.