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The God who is with us

Posted: December 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

Ἐμμανουήλ

That’s a little more than the Greek word of the day.  That word (Ἐμμανουήλ) is the word that we translate as Emmanuel.  In Scripture, it has a definition that has the power to change everything.  No, I’m not being overly dramatic. I mean it has the power to change EVERYTHING.

It means, “God with us.”

And so much is packed into a work that only appears in the words of the prophet Isaiah (as Immanuel) and then again Matthew 1:23 as Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament.

Here’s the way it appears in Matthew 1:23: Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (CEB)

The concept of “God with us” isn’t just limited to a couple of words from a prophet, a quote in the New Testament and the song that we sing during Advent (O Come O Come Emmanuel).  The idea of “God with us” begins in the opening words of Scripture and flows through the entirety of God’s love letter to us that we call the Bible.

In Genesis, in the Garden, God is with us.  In Egypt during the famine, God is with us. In the wilderness journey, God is with us. In the Promised Land, God is with us.  In the struggles to be like other nations and to have kings, God is with us.  In the times when it all falls apart, when the wheels come off, when we end up in exile — God is with us.

In the silent times, when we wonder whether we’ve messed it up so much that God has forgotten about us, God is still with us.  In the promise of salvation and forgiveness, of redemption and atonement, God is with us.  When we mess it up so much that we can’t get back to where we need to be on our own, God is with us.

In the birth of a savior, born in the most humble of places, to a set of couple of poor teenagers, God is with us.  To the downcast and the downtrodden, to the hopeless and the forgotten, God is with us.

In the darkest Friday of human history, the mourning of a Saturday and the power of resurrection that comes on a Sunday morning, God is with us.

In the mission to “go and make” disciples of Jesus Christ to change the world, God is with us.

In the moments when our light seems to slight to hold back all of our dark, when the problems we face seem overwhelming, when all seems lost, when failure hits, when the news knocks us to our news… Guess what?  Even then. Maybe especially then.  God is most definitely with us.

Maybe the great promise of this season of Advent, this time of waiting, is the hope, the confident expectation, of knowing that God has been with us, is still with us and will always be with us.

Emmanuel.

God is with you.

 

James 1:9-10: An upside-down world

Posted: February 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. – James 1:9-10 (NIV)

It’s all about where we see ourselves in the big picture.

Have you ever looked down on someone because you saw them as beneath you?  Maybe we don’t enter the day with that intention in mind.  Yet, we see another person and make snap judgments based upon the way they look, the way they are dressed, their overall cleanliness.  Sometimes, maybe without any real thought, we turn away from them and head in the other direction.  Or, we hurry past time in the store.  Or maybe we really don’t give them much of a thought at all.

But there are other people that when we look at them, we see them as having it all together.  We make those judgments based upon their clothes, their car, their wealth, their job, their status.  Maybe instead of heading in the other direction, we try to find ways to move closer to them. 

That’s the world that James seeks to address.  It’s a world where there is a bias against the “least of these” and a bias toward the “blessed of the blessed.”  One of the places it is playing out in James’ time is in the community of faith.

So, James seeks to turn that world upside down.  Those in humble circumstances, the least of these, the poor are to take pride in their “high position.”  And the rich, the wealthy, the blessed of the blessed are to take pride in “humiliation.”  Is this a statement about wealth or something else?

James is pointing out the fact that in a spiritual sense, we all come to the same place before God.  For those who have nothing, God reaches out to lift up and love the “least of these.”  For those who fall into a temptation of wealth as a god (with the little g), God shows what it means to lose all of our shame, guilt, etc., to be built up again in love.

James challenges us to see the world in a new way.  So, how will we see it today?  Will we still see it with our biases and preferences?

All-loving God, open our eyes to the world around us.  Expose to us our biases and show us the ones that we might otherwise ignore.  God help us to know that in you, we are all equals in need of your love, grace and mercy.  In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

James 1:2-8: Joy in trials?

Posted: February 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:2-8, NRSV)

There are some moments in Scripture that can absolutely leave you scratching your head.  Does James seriously think that I’m going to be joyful when I’m going through the tough moments in life?  Maybe you get where I’m coming from on this.  Joy is often times the last thing that I will feel in the moments of stress, the times of struggle, in the hours of pain, in dealing with fears and questions and doubts.

Yet, that’s where this letter goes.  Go to joy.  Why?  Because it’s a chain reaction.  View it as joy because this trial can test your faith and show you just how much you need God.  And when you realize that about your faith, your faith can mature and grow.

But still, joy? Joy when someone is stabbing you in the back?  Joy when people are talking about you?  Joy when you hear a rumor or half-truth?  Joy?

Maybe what James is ultimately pointing us to is that we can reach a place in our faith when we see past the emotions that we encounter and we can see that God is still present.  It’s a place on the other side of pain and doubt.  It’s the place where we know that no matter what, God is there.

Maybe that’s what can lead us to be able to ask God without doubt.  Why?  Because we’ve had the chance to see God in our trials.  And because we’ve seen God there, we know that he’s going to be there in the future and that God’s never going to leave.

Maybe that’s what I find myself coming back to.  God is here, God is there.  God is always.  Even in the trials.

And for some reason, that does start to make me feel joy.

Almighty and loving God, thank you for your presence with me in the toughest moments of life.  God, you are with me there just as you are with me in happiest of times.  Help me, God, to find the joy in knowing you will not leave even in the toughest of moments I experience. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.

Book of James.0011 My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. 2 We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. 3 When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies. — James 3:1-3 (CEB)

At the beginning of Chapter 3, the book of James makes a move from the ideas of keeping favoritism out of worship and growing in faith to one that hits home for many of us:  It’s that’s spot just below our noses.

Our mouths becomes the source of so many words.  Words that have the potential to life others up and to glorify God and words that have the potential to destroy lives.

In fact, these warnings remind me of the words to a Hawk Nelson song called, “Words.” You can find it at the end of this devotion.

Over the next few devotions, we will continue with this topic of our mouth and how the words that come from it have an impact.  But today, everything begins with a warning for those who teach.  That’s the challenge for those who teach, those who lead Bible studies, those who preach — the words that are used in those times of teaching should be chosen carefully.  Those who teach are held to a higher standard.  That’s a challenging thing to remember — it’s a warning to be prepared, to study what we’re talking about, to pray and root ourselves in God.

Then, James lets us all off the hook just a little.  We all make mistakes and we all make mistakes with our words. We all say things that we wish we could grab while they’re still hanging in the air and bring back.

Ultimately, the ability to speak without those mistakes and without those downfalls is the ultimate sign of maturity.

Maybe what we can take away from James today is that when it comes to our words, we’re not there yet.  Yet, there is hope that as we continue to grow in Christ that we will continue to move closer and closer to that place where our words only bring help and not hurt.

Almighty God, forgive us for the times that our words get in the way, for the times those words hurt others.  God help us to be able to continue to grow closer to you.  Help us as we strive to move to the place where the words we speak only bring glory to you and to the Kingdom.  Thank you for forgiving us in the times we fall short.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Book of James.00118 Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. 19 It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. 20 Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all? 21 What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. 23 So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. 24 So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone. 25 In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute shown to be righteous when she received the messengers as her guests and then sent them on by another road? 26 As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead. — James 2:18-26 (CEB)

It’s safe to say that we live in a polarized world.  We take sides and there’s very little middle ground.

People are generally labeled as Conservatives or Liberals; Democrats or Republicans; Coke drinkers or Pepsi drinkers; Star Wars or Star Trek fans.  We often don’t find much common ground in the middle area.

The writer of James seems to be addressing one of those polarizing debates of his day and time.  What is really at the heart of salvation?  Some of those in this newly forming church would have been converts from a system that was all about following the rules and the law.  By following the rules and the laws, one could remain closer to God.

Others in this new church would have come from a life outside of the law.  Maybe for them it was all about simply believing.

And then James goes to a place that is in the middle of those polar opposites.   He links believe and action in a BOTH AND statement.

Faith and actions are inseparable.  To believe in God is to act as if one believes in God.  To have the heart of God leads one to live as if one is connected to God’s heart. Faith and action become linked.

Faith is more than just talking about faith.  It’s about putting faith into action.  And belief is more than just an exercise in doing good things.  Anyone can do go things.  Faith and action, then, are linked as a means of living more like Christ in the present world.

And maybe that presents the toughest challenge of all — Believing in God and living for God somewhere in the middle.

Almighty God, thank you again for the reminder that we are called to live faithful lives that lead us to faithful action.  God let our belief in you be more than just something we strive for in our mind and heart.  And God let our belief in you be more than something that just prompts us to do good things.  God, so infuse our lives that in living and breathing, we show the world what it means to be loved by you.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

James 2:5-7: Rich and Poor

Posted: October 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? — James 2:5-7 (CEB)

In the time of James, as he is writing this letter, there is a stark division in society.   There are those who are wealthy and, most often, you could tell that they were wealthy simply because of the clothes that they wore.  Then there was a very large group that was considered, by society’s standards, to be poor.

This new church that was starting to grow and develop and spread became a mixture of those who were rich and many who were poor.  At times this division must have created a great deal of strain on these growing communities of faith.  The issue is frequently addressed in the New Testament.

James uses that issue here to paint a contrast — being poor in earthly standards as opposed to being rich in terms of faith.

There’s so much going on in these verses — especially in the ways that those are rich and poor can treat one another.  But I keep coming back to that phrase “rich in terms of faith.”

Isn’t that the goal of discipleship?  I want to realize that, on my own, I am poor in spirit, even spiritually bankrupt.  Yet, in my connection to God, in following after God, in reading scripture and in connecting to God, then I’m making a huge spiritual deposit that changes my life.

It makes me think of those times when the busy-ness of life can get in the way of spiritual connection.  It’s been a particularly busy few days, I’ve been on the go a lot, I haven’t spent as much time reading Scripture and my prayers have been hurried.  I often describe myself in those moments as feeling “tired.”  It’s because in those moments I’m feeling “poorer” in Spirit.  Yet, what often turns those moments around is taking the time and being intentional to pray and reconnect with God.  It has the power to change my outlook and my direction.

Maybe I can see this challenge from James in light of the haunting question that we find in Matthew 16:26: “Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?”  Faith and connection to God are what ultimately matter for our lives.

The challenge:  What can I do today, and every day, to continue to grow “rich in faith?”

Gracious and Loving God, your love for us knows no boundaries.  You give us a gift of grace that is beyond anything we could ever pay for or deserve.  Your mercy is priceless.  God, help us to continue to grow rich in our faith as we spend our days following you.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

9 Brothers and sisters who are poor should find satisfaction in their high status. 10 Those who are wealthy should find satisfaction in their low status, because they will die off like wildflowers. 11 The sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass so that its flowers fall and its beauty is lost. Just like that, in the midst of their daily lives, the wealthy will waste away. 12 Those who stand firm during testing are blessed. They are tried and true. They will receive the life God has promised to those who love him as their reward. — James 1:9-12 (CEB)

The grass is always greener on the other side.

You’ve probably heard that statement in your life. You might have even used it from time to time.  It’s our way of saying that the possessions and the situations of others can look better than our own — even if they really aren’t.

From the early verses of James 1 until now, the writer has been talking about faith in the face of trial.  And then it turns to the images of those who are poor and those who are wealthy.  Maybe what he’s really pointing out is that we do fall into the “grass is greener” comparison trap when we’re going through the tough times of life.  It’s easy to look at someone else’s life from the outside, or from a distance, and think that their situation is so much better than what we’re facing.

Yet, at the end of the day, those comparisons fade.  Why?  Because we all experience trials and tough times. We all have moments where we feel like we are in the pit.  When you’re living through those moments, all of the things that we use to separate ourselves from one another just don’t seem to matter.  Maybe you remember a song from the group, REM, called “Everybody Hurts.”  It was a reminder that everyone, all of us, will have those moments where it hurts.  What do we do in those situations?

James advice to all of us who go through trials is simple:  Hold onto God.  You might feel as if you are walking through a fire, through a storm, through a hurricane, but God walks through it with you and will be there on the other side of it all.

And when we make it through, when we hold on to God, then we start to see the depths of God’s love for us.

No one likes to go through the tough times in life, but, if we keep our eyes on God, if we hold onto faith, we can grow deeper in our relationship with the God who loves us enough to stand beside us in the midst of those trials.

Dear God. Help us to know your presence in the tough moments of life.  Keep us from falling into the trap of thinking that the grass is greener.  Help us to see that everyone goes through trial, through tough moments and through the hurricanes of life.  God, let us know that you are holding us together as we press on to make it to the other side.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.