God's Got This

Isaiah 12:2–6

Surely God is my salvation;
 I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
 he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day:

Give thanks to the Lord,
 call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
 proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
 let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
 for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

God’s Got this

The prophet wrote these words at a time when the people of Judah lived under the might of the conquering Assyrian Empire. He reminds the enslaved people that earthly powers cannot defeat the power of God. “I will trust, and not be afraid.”

Today, whether we are worried about national and global news or something personal that is devastating and life changing, we know that it is no small thing to stare uncertainty in the face and say, “I will trust, and not be afraid.” 

Verse three reminds us that God's “got this,” whatever the problem. God’s “wells of salvation” makes it possible to choose trust instead of fear when the day brings situations and events beyond our control. My mother knew this, and she often went to God’s
“wells” that sustained and fortified her spirit of joy. When Mother faced death, she did not waver. She said, “I am not afraid.” She calmly passed over into God’s embrace.

During Advent, we wait for the day when God's salvation will come to us in all its fullness. "Do not be afraid," the angel will say, "I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”. 

As we look toward Christmas, let’s all go to the “well” just as those who went before us. We will trust God and not be afraid. We will “shout aloud and sing for joy” and together proclaim to all who would hear: “Great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel."

by Rev. Nancy Oliver

The Earth Will Be Full

Isaiah 11:1–9

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
 and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
 the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
 the spirit of counsel and might,
 the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
 or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
 and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
 and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
 and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
 the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
 and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
 their young shall lie down together;
 and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
 and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
 on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
 as the waters cover the sea.

The Earth Will Be Full

This has long been for me one of the most moving visions of the prophets. A few years ago, my wife actually did a couple paintings inspired by Isaiah 11. One of a cow and bear grazing together was given to a friend. Another of children playing with snakes hung unfinished in our dining room for a time, startling nearly every new visitor to our home. The sight of something delicate delighting in something dangerous.

It seems an absurd dream, but prophets are not strategists. What they offer is not a ten-step plan but tantalizing poetry. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined.”

Prophets bend and break our expectations for what is possible. Hurt and destruction seem inevitable. Predator and prey are locked in an unending dance. We not only accept but expect headlines of another mass shooting, another kidnapped child, another public scandal. We do not know a world without hostility, violence, and death. But we shall.

Isaiah has already envisioned weapons of war being beaten into farming tools (2:4). Human violence will end. Now, even the animal world is turned upside down. The dynamic of death that seems to sustain the natural world will disappear. 

This vision reminds us that the “judgment” dimension of Christ’s coming is not a narrow matter of sorting out sins and punishments. It is about filling the whole earth together with the incredible peace and complete knowledge of the Lord. May his kingdom come.

by Rev. Nick Chambers

Fast and Feast

Amos 9:8–15

The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
 and I will destroy it from the face of the earth
 —except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,
says the Lord.
For lo, I will command,
 and shake the house of Israel among all the nations
as one shakes with a sieve,
 but no pebble shall fall to the ground.
All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,
 who say, “Evil shall not overtake or meet us.”
On that day I will raise up
 the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breaches,
 and raise up its ruins,
 and rebuild it as in the days of old;
in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom
 and all the nations who are called by my name,
 says the Lord who does this.

The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
 when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
 and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
 and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
 and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
 and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
 and they shall never again be plucked up
 out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.

Fast and Feast

For the better part of Christian history, Advent has been seen and practiced as a season of fasting. Just as Lent is a period of preparation for Easter, so Advent was a fast before the feast of Christmas. It has even been called a “little Lent.” We have obviously lost hold of this pattern in our own culture, but the rhythm of this passage invites us back into it.

Yesterday’s passage predicted famine—not of food but of God’s Word. But here Amos assures us that this famine will not last forever. Feasting will return; our tables will be filled. Just as “the time is surely coming” for wandering and fasting, so “the time is surely coming” when wine will flow. God’s Word will not only be spoken. it will take on flesh and blood.

Such a mystery—Word of God made flesh—is so beyond our capacity to comprehend and control that it is indisputably “the Lord who does this,” not us. The Lord is clear: “I will restore the fortunes…I will plant them upon their land.” Restoration, joy, and fruitfulness come as a holy surprise in the midst of our fasting, a surprise to which we can only respond with gratitude. The Incarnation of God interrupts injustice, sorrow, and hopelessness to bring new life out of the ground.

The time is surely coming when we will fast.

The time is surely coming when we will feast.

by Rev. Nick Chambers

Who Will You Help?

Amos 8:4–12

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
 and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
 so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
 so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
 and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
 and the needy for a pair of sandals,
 and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
 and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
 and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord God,
 I will make the sun go down at noon,
 and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning,
 and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
 and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
 and the end of it like a bitter day.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
 when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
 but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
 and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
 but they shall not find it.

Who Will you help?

The prophet Amos delivers fierce warnings to God’s people. In chapter 8, he blasts out a furious message from God that rails against trampling on the poor and needy in a heartless quest for profit. It seems some of the people in his time were grumbling against the religious holy days because they interrupted commerce. They were impatient to get back to business, even in some cases to shady business with ruthless tactics. 

Cleary, the situation has now flipped, and business and busy-ness control the pace of Advent. Commerce dominates the seasonal messages of our holy days. “What do you want for Christmas?” is the dominant question this time of year. 

And yet, just imagine if that mantra were switched from “what do you want” to something like “who will you help this Christmas?” What if we swap some of the objects we want for actions we’ll perform? It might look like this: volunteer at a shelter or nursing home, take a veteran to lunch, invite “holiday orphans” to your Christmas feast, visit homebound people, invite your neighbors to Christmas eve services, call an old friend and revive a friendship, mend fences with an estranged family member, look around you for overlooked people and create a relationship with them, inject kindness into hard situations. 

And then, what if we repeat our list frequently throughout the year? What would Amos say to that kind of religious observance? What would Jesus say? What do you say?

by Rev. Dee Stone

Like Those Who Dream

Psalm 126

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

LIKE THOSE WHO DREAM

This psalm has two hands, one that reaches into the past and one into the future, bringing both near to the present. The first half looks to the past: “When the Lord restored our fortunes.” The second half looks to the future: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.” This shift in tense is significant for us as we celebrate Advent, which is a season of waiting, not only for the birth of Christ but also the day of his return. We live in the time in between these two arrivals, in the tension between memory and hope. Just like the psalmist, like Israel in exile, we remember the past of what God has done and look to the future of what God has promised to do. Desperation and joy can overlap as we cry out in the same breath “You restored us, please restore us!”

Our dreams for the future grow our of the past. They are not the phantoms of empty optimism, the projections of human progress. I think of the missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin, who famously said “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” Our dreams are the paradoxical, astonishing promises of God who has proved himself faithful. God has shown us his dream, and we can dream again. We can have laughter and joy, even in strange times and places. For Christ has come, and Christ will come again.

by Rev. Nick Chambers

A WORLD OF DREAMS

Isaiah 35:3–7

Strengthen the weak hands,
 and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
 “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
 He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
 He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
 and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
 and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
 and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
 and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
 the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A World of Dreams

No matter who we are, where we are living, or what time of the day, we live in a world of dreams. The reality of the moment is interrupted by the dreams of our hopes. Israel finds its life in a mess. What is going to happen? Can it survive? Isaiah plants his feet and pours out a message of hope that is almost unreal. A picture painted in the minds of his people of a land where God is present and in control. So as we dream of hope we too can find a place where God is and where we are at peace. That is the hope and message of Advent and Christmas. No matter what is happening in our lives, God is present and we are His.  It has been stated that this is the first prelude to what Christ brought to the world in the Bible. So our journey in this life is not the most comfortable. We need help! Then let’s do two things: Put this passage in our dream world, and then open our hearts to the magnificent picture of the Christmas story.

by Rev. Tom Money

Blessing For All People

Isaiah 19:18–25

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.

On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Blessing for all people

My favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” like today’s reading from Isaiah, speaks of God’s deliverance from a place of pain. In the words of an earlier version of the hymn, Israel’s exilic plea is for God to act in history—yet again—to “close the path to misery.”

Throughout the Old Testament, the exodus story functions as a reminder that God sees and hears the cries of his people. The biblical logic is that if God heard and responded to these laments in the past, God can also act in the future in the most comprehensive way imaginable. Isaiah not only envisions God making a way forward, but it also dreams of an altar to God being built in Egypt—in the place where the people of God had once been oppressed under Pharaoh’s cruelty. Israel’s creative remembering in this way allows for the reader to imagine what it would be like for there to be a place firmly established in their future circumstances where God would be rightly acknowledged. 

Remarkably, in this imaginative remembrance and forward projection, God’s acting in the past is not premised on inflicting retribution. The prayer for God to act is one thoroughly convinced that God’s action should be known as a blessing for all people—for Egypt, for Assyria (i.e., even for our enemies). It looks forward to a day when the people of God can be “a blessing at the center of the world.”

In this season of Advent, let us sing, pray, and look forward to God’s hope and healing being experienced in the world. And let us also labor and live in such a way that God’s blessings are made known whatever our circumstances.

by Rev. Jared Wortman

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

Massive and Minute

by Rev. Nick Chambers

Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

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

Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

“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

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

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

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

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.