Comfort, O Comfort

Isaiah 40:1–11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
 says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
 and cry to her
that she has served her term,
 that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
 double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
 make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
 and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
 and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
 and all people shall see it together,
 for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
 And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
 their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
 when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
 surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
 but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
 O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
 O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
 lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
 “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
 and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
 and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
 he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
 and gently lead the mother sheep.

Comfort, O Comfort

I remember sitting in a pew at our little island church with my face covered in tears. Heart-wrenching news came earlier that Sunday morning. My father was dead. Feelings of concern and confusion were muddled with fresh grief as I sat wondering if God saw and was attentive to my despair. I felt like life had ended for me too. Had God forgotten about me? 

Similar to the Jews in Babylonian exile, we find ourselves in the midst of spiritual and emotional deserts feeling abandoned and forgotten. It seems like all we have encountered are trials and tribulations. Tears of hardship and tears of heartache are our food. We ask, “Where is God?”

Isaiah 40 responds with words to encourage the soul. The Lord has indeed heard our cries in the midst of the wilderness and has sent words of comfort. Listen! Hear the good news! The Lord is coming! The Lord, our rescue, will sustain us. Justice and mercy are in his hands. The Father to the fatherless has not forgotten his own.

Cry out in the dry places of death and defeat. Our God will hear you. Prepare your hearts to meet God. The Comforter will surely come. Our present tears will be exchanged for future joy. Dear friends, wait expectantly, work diligently, and worship wholeheartedly. Be encouraged!

“The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

by Kim Bolden

GREAT AND TERRIBLE

Malachi 4:1–6

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Great and Terrible

This is hardly the “oven” we want to hear about this time of year. Instead of being filled with cookies or a roast, it’s filled with the arrogant and evildoers. The image becomes even more striking, as those who fear the Lord are seen as runaway calves skipping and stomping on the ashes of the wicked.

But nestled within this vivd imagery of wildfire and livestock is the very heart of the prophets: “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses.” The message of the prophets brings the past into the present in order to heal and hope for the future. They continually call for the return and renewal of the covenant that God created when he called Israel out of Egypt. The exodus founded a community of freedom and forgiveness, and the greatly anticipated Day of the Lord is always seen as a final fulfillment of this community.

Malachi specifically envisions the reconciliation of families, an image that might be tender to us during this season. Over the coming weeks., all the holiday gathering and gifting may remind us of hurts and absences.

It is indeed “great and terrible” to seek reconciliation, to see the walls that separate us go up in flames. It is risky and humbling to reach out and restore broken relationships. Grudges build cramped stalls. God frees us through forgiveness. This season is a time for reconciliation—not out of sentimentality, but because the arrival of God means that his forgiveness and freedom are here.

by Rev. Nick Chambers

What Does it Profit?

Malachi 3:13–18

You have spoken harsh words against me, says the Lord. Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?” You have said, “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the Lord of hosts? Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.”

Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.

What Does it Profit?

Have you ever thought to yourself that it may pay to be bad? It sometimes seems like people who have little regard for the rules and have disrespect for others come out on top. In our scripture today, we see that the people had these thoughts and came to the conclusion that it was “vain to serve God.” They were mistaking what it meant to be blessed. They saw evildoers prospering and failed to understand that success is not wealth, fame, or power but intimacy with the Lord. 

God took notice of the faithful and in an amazing display of grace, accepted those who turned back to him. He showed them mercy—the mercy a good parent shows his children. God’s treatment of these forgiven people, as special possessions, is shown completely when he sent his own Son, Jesus, to be the perfect sacrifice to bring them close to him.

We must struggle against the desire to place our trust in material blessings rather than in Jesus Christ. During this advent season, ask the Lord to bring you close that you may know his grace and mercy in powerful ways.

by Sarah Brasington

Robbing and Returning

Malachi 3:5–12

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”

Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

Robbing and Returning

The prophet proclaims the faithfulness of the Lord and the waywardness of his children. A call to return to the Lord leaves them asking, “How shall we return?” They then get accused of robbing God.

When I was young, I took something from my piano teacher’s home without asking. It was a few slips of paper from a very pretty notepad. I failed to take it out of my piano book the following week and when she saw them, she confronted me about not asking her if I could have them. From that day on, I felt ashamed and uncomfortable at each lesson. I didn’t want to be around her. I had robbed her and my relationship with her had changed.

I imagine that the people of God felt the same when they failed to bring God their tithes and offering. In the Old Testament, giving tithes and offering wasn’t simply about money. The gifts brought into the temple provided food for the Levites and the poor. When God commanded his people to stop robbing him of tithes and offerings, he is actually inviting them to come and share a meal with others.

Sitting down at a meal together wasn’t automatically going to set everything right, however, it was a simple gesture to begin to restore the relationship between the people, the priests and God. Sharing with the poor also begins to restore justice between those who have enough and those who don’t.

During Advent we await the ultimate Restorer of our relationship with God the Father. Give thanks and praise that we can return to God and our relationship with others can be strengthened through Christ.

by Sarah Brasington

Clumsy, Unfiltered

Isaiah 1:24–31

Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:

Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
 and avenge myself on my foes!
I will turn my hand against you;
 I will smelt away your dross as with lye
 and remove all your alloy.
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
 and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
 the faithful city.

Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
 and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
 and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
For you shall be ashamed of the oaks
 in which you delighted;
and you shall blush for the gardens
 that you have chosen.
For you shall be like an oak
 whose leaf withers,
 and like a garden without water.
The strong shall become like tinder,
 and their work like a spark;
they and their work shall burn together,
 with no one to quench them.

Clumsy, Unfiltered

Several years ago, I attended a prayer vigil shortly before Christmas to mourn the loss of a mother who had been tragically murdered. We collectively grasped for words, held hands, prayed, and read Scripture on streets that were already decorated with Christmas joy. Our words were clumsy, unfiltered, and full of grief. Sometimes pain collides with joy—interrupting our prayers, thoughts, and desires. 

The late Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs once described the tail end of the first chapter of Isaiah as an exilic dirge. In other words, there is something in this passage that feels drawn from the same well of words that are drawn to mind during a funeral procession. There’s something raw, incomplete, and out of place if we fail to comprehend that these troubling words are coming within a context of unfathomable loss. Israel, facing the painful demise of one part of its story, utters words of unbridled anger and lament. The end of this first chapter of Isaiah reads as a brittle prayer spilling across the page. It’s a prayer for God to intervene in the midst of a pain that—without God—would be insurmountable. 

In being honest with the text, the human desire is one of retribution—of wanting someone else to suffer for the harm and trauma they’ve caused. Depending on your life experiences, you might find this desire comforting, off-putting, or confusing. But in processing these words, it’s important to see that violence isn’t being enacted by those who were wronged. Instead it’s a prayer for God to act in accordance with God’s own sense of justice. It’s a cry of desperation by a people whose pain has blurred their sense judgment. These words are a cry for God to act with clarity and righteousness. In this season—and in every season—let us pray for God’s goodness and justice to be known. 

by Rev. Jared Wortman

No Place

2 Samuel 7:18–29

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord God! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord God! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O Lord God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O Lord, became their God. And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, con rm it forever; do as you have promised. us your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you. For you, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house’; therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. And now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”

No Place

Whether we’re decking our halls, visiting family, or singing “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” our imaginations gravitate home during the holiday season. I love the way this chapter in 2 Samuel begins: “Now when the king was settled in his house...” I see David with his feet up on the hearth and a steaming mug of hot chocolate (or something stiffer), Bing Crosby crooning carols in the background. Now that everything else is in order—desserts are baked, gifts purchased and wrapped—now that we’re all relaxed and cozy, we can actually enjoy the “reason for the season.” Settled in our houses, we begin to make room for God.

But when David proposes from his comfortable home to build God a house of his own, God has different ideas: “I will build you a house.” God won’t let us set a place for him. God arrives out of doors. is is the hospitality of God, and it is more expansive then our expectations. Christmas gives us a longing for home—for togetherness, belonging, festivity, and rest. And rightly so. e sending of Christ (Christ-mass) brings peace on earth, good will to all. But we would do well to ask with David, “who am I, and what is my house?” And what does it mean for God himself to “be home for Christmas.” We, like David, want to prepare a place for Jesus to arrive. What we get instead is a baby born out back of the small town motel, a child destined to have “no place to rest his head.”

by Rev. Nick Chambers

The Dry Wood Yielded Fruit

Numbers 17:1–11

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and get twelve staffs from them, one for each ancestral house, from all the leaders of their ancestral houses. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each ancestral house. Place them in the tent of meeting before the covenant, where I meet with you. And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will put a stop to the complaints of the Israelites that they continually make against you. Moses spoke to the Israelites; and all their leaders gave him staffs, one for each leader, according to their ancestral houses, twelve staffs; and the staff of Aaron was among theirs. So Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant.

When Moses went into the tent of the covenant on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. en Moses brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the Israelites; and they looked, and each man took his staff. And the Lord said to Moses, “Put back the staff of Aaron before the covenant, to be kept as a warning to rebels, so that you may make an end of their complaints against me, or else they will die.” Moses did so; just as the Lord commanded him, so he did.

The Dry Wood Yielded Fruit

This is what God does: fruit from the fruitless, birth in barrenness. From the very beginning: light from the void, humanity from the dust, Isaac from Sarah’s barren womb, water from the wilderness rock. All of these prepare us for another mystery: the virgin birth of Christ. Aaron is even included the cover image above, which depicts Old Testament saints surrounding Christ and the Virgin Mary. He holds his blossoming staff in symbolic anticipation of Christ. It may not be the most popular Old Testament image that foreshadows the coming of Christ, but it does not escape the imagination of fourth century hymn-writer Ephrem the Syrian:

Thee staff of Aaron, it budded,
and the dry wood yielded fruit!
Its mystery is cleared up to-day,
for the virgin womb a Child hath borne!

Just as in this blooming, Aaron was chosen to lead the priestly tribe, so in his birth Jesus is chosen as High Priest over God’s priestly people, the Church. The covenant has been renewed. e author of Hebrews expands on this theme more than any other New Testament writer, so I will leave it to him to encourage us:

“Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrew 10:21–25).

The Day approaches. Hold fast.

by Rev. Nick Chambers

Clothed with Splendor and Majesty

by Rev. Nick Chambers

I remember first discovering Google Earth. I spent hours fascinated by its ability to scale seamlessly from cosmos to street corner. I looked up places I had lived, visited, or never seen before—both the spectacular and the lackluster, the crowded and the uninhabited. Even so, the quality and features of the tool have vastly improved over the years. While writing this, I have pulled it up and double-clicked until the screen was all green, then until a particular grey mass appeared in the midst of the green, until lines and colors emerged, until familiar road patterns came into view, then the corner of Peachtree and Spring, and finally until Peachtree’s courtyard filled the entire screen. I almost expected to see our gardener Mai walking back and forth, tending to all the greenery. 

Psalm 104 takes us a similar telescoping journey. The shape of it leaves no rock unturned. It surveys the skies, the land, the primordial forces and foundations of the earth. It treads the mountains and follows the rivers as they shape the landscape.

Then it begins to populate the scene: birds and trees, castle and grass. It moves into the dimension of time: the seasons, the gleaming and gloaming of days, the way they give rhythm to human work and economy.

This no mere catalog of scientific observations. It is an awestruck response to the creating and refreshing work of the Spirit in all things. At every level, the hand of God is present and providing. All the way from most massive to the most minute and mundane, there is care. And it all works as whole. The primordial force of water is wielded to feed and grow and move.

 Pray Psalm 104 today and throughout your week. Let it open your eyes to the things all around you everyday that speak of God’s care for creation. 


Seek the Lord And Live

by Rev. Nick Chambers

“Seek the Lord and live.” This refrain desperately echoes through Amos 5. The people of God has fallen into the have been blessed—but blinded—by prosperity and comfort. They are confident and secure. They have beautiful homes. Their crops are thriving, and their kids are in good schools. Even more than that, they remain good church-going folk; their piety is impeccable. But their wealth oppresses. They are so worried about maintaining their standard of living that they reject or ignore anything that poses a threat. Amos has things to say about this, as the prophets tend to. Seeking the Lord cannot be confined to formal worship; it spills out into the streets.

Amos warns them that if their religion does not care for the poor, it is deceitful and doomed. God cares so much more for justice than rituals, songs, and offerings that he is willing to consume his own house: “he will devour Beth-el ('the house of the Lord’)” (Amos 5:6). Consider for a moment that our beautiful sanctuary could fall to ruin or irrelevance if we do not seek the Lord and “establish justice at the gate.” (Amos 5:15).

Now to the Gospel. Here comes one seeking the Lord, seeking good. He doesn’t seem to be another skeptic trying to trap Jesus; he asks and answers with sincerity, and “Jesus, looking at him, loves him” (Mark 10:21). But then Jesus pierces the final barrier between this man and life that is true, good, and beautiful: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). He is blinded and bound by the things he possesses—or rather the things that possess him. Like Amos’s audience, he is impeccable in principle, but wealth has isolated him from the true treasure and source of life. The stakes are too high. He can’t surrender to such a life of insecurity.

This may sound more like preaching than prayerful reflection. But it may be the case that we need to allow the Word of God—“living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12)—to slice open not only our prayers but our pocketbooks—which is not too far a jump. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

 


Like a Tree Planted by Streams of Water

by Rev. Nick Chambers

This week’s psalm is of particular importance to me personally. They are some of the last words my late grandfather ever spoke. As I have actually shared in a previous reflection, my grandfather Jack was a remarkable man. Our son is named after him. Every morning he would get up early to run five miles and read Scripture and drink coffee out of a mug I swear was as large as a soup bowl. He was particularly a lover of the Psalms. I inherited a few of his Bibles, and throughout the Psalms, the pages are heavy with the red ink of his pen.

 

Because of a series of strokes, for the last few years of his life he could articulate little more than “yes” and “no.”  For a long time, he could still beat you in cards, but he couldn’t communicate. One beautiful gift, however, was that he could still sing hymns. His favorites that he knew by heart would come easily to his lips long after everyday speech would not. When Jack's health took a final turn, during the last couple days of his life, he was barely responsive. Their pastor visited him in hospice. He talked and prayed with my family, and he began to read Psalm 8, and Jack weakly but clearly began to recite it along with him.

 

“Like a tree planted by streams of water,” Jack’s soul was saturated in the psalms. Even when our bodies and brains rebel against us, certain storehouses can remain. I pray you memorize Psalm 8 this week. It is a song of wonder, humility, responsibility, and—as Hebrews reads it—of the lordship of Christ himself. 


Healing and Holiness

By Rev. Nick Chambers

If we read our passages carefully, we see that sin is depicted less as a violation of rigid rules and more as a sickness that spreads. Even for James, the lines blur between sin and sickness, and the answer to both is prayer: "The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” It is in this communal context of confession and forgiveness that James famously states "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Notice also Jesus’ final command: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

 

There is no separation between personal holiness and social holiness. Mark places Jesus’ body mutilation metaphor immediately after his millstone metaphor. This sickness spreads not only through the soul but through the society. One of the most tragic effects of my sin—and one of the most compelling reasons to confront it—is that it makes me a stumbling block to others. The sin in my hand and eye threatens the health of the rest of the Body of Christ. Temptation is therefore more than a private matter. It can happen deep within us but have drastic consequences outside us. And we need more than our own devices to discern and defeat sin within: for “who can discern their own errors?"

 

Imagining sin this way helps us to understand how the psalmist can sing so exuberantly about Law. Holiness does not mean austere insistence on letter of the law. Holiness means healing—for ourselves and our relationships. Pray the translation below of Psalm 19:7–14, taken from The Message. Let its different language awaken you to the true nature of God’s commands which heal and make whole. Pray then for discernment to see where and how temptation is making you sick with sin. As James urges us, confess your sin and ask forgiveness. As Jesus urges us, recognize the occasions and incentives that cause it. Resolve to cut it off, to tear it out—for sake of your health and the health of others.

The revelation of God is whole

    and pulls our lives together.

The signposts of God are clear

    and point out the right road.

The life-maps of God are right,

    showing the way to joy.

The directions of God are plain

    and easy on the eyes.

God’s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold,

    with a lifetime guarantee.

The decisions of God are accurate

    down to the nth degree.

God’s Word is better than a diamond,

    better than a diamond set between emeralds.

You’ll like it better than strawberries in spring,

    better than red, ripe strawberries.

There’s more: God’s Word warns us of danger

    and directs us to hidden treasure.

Otherwise how will we find our way?

    Or know when we play the fool?

Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day fresh!

    Keep me from stupid sins,

    from thinking I can take over your work;

Then I can start this day sun-washed,

    scrubbed clean of the grime of sin.

These are the words in my mouth;

    these are what I chew on and pray.

Accept them when I place them

    on the morning altar,

O God, my Altar-Rock,

    God, Priest-of-My-Altar.


Teach Us to Pray

by Rev. Nick Chambers

As in August the lectionary brought us bread, so in September, it brings us speech. Many of these weeks highlight the ethical and theological meaning of our use of language. This week focuses especially on what it means to teach.

 

All except the psalm strike fear and trembling into my own heart. Here I am writing a meditation called “Teach Us to Pray,” and James comes out of the gate with this: “Not many of you should become teachers…for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). Peter speaks an inspired insight, only to turn around and be called “Satan” by Jesus himself. Isaiah (and Christ by allegory) actually succeeds in hearing and speaking truth, only to be abused and insulted for it. Jesus teaches life through self-denial and death.

 

We must be taught before we teach. We must be silent before we speak. Even Jesus commands the disciples’ silence despite the truth of Peter’s confession. They still needed time. We must trust that “morning by morning, [God] wakens—wakens my ear to listen” (Isaiah 50:4). Then we can learn what this gift of speech is actually for: “to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4), to “call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:3), to “bless the Lord and Father” and “those who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9). Part of what it means to “deny ourselves” is to lay aside the opinions we so preciously cherish and share. To have the tongue of a teacher does not mean to command, instruct, or import ideas; it means to speak life to others.

 

As recommended a couple weeks ago, spend more time in silence this week. Take the first portion of every morning and simply listen. God wants to open your ears and challenge your assumptions. He wants to make your tongue a tool for blessing.