Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. [2 Timothy 4:2 (NLT)]

snowy egretWhen writing about dance yesterday, Footloose came to mind. This 1984 movie was about a small Midwestern town that had banned dancing and rock music. A pivotal scene in the movie occurs when the young hero, played by Kevin Bacon, reads off several Bible verses in an attempt to convince the city council that God approved of dance. I used some of the same references in yesterday’s devotion. The young man, however, was way off base because the verses he cited were about sacred dance rather than social dancing. He didn’t want to worship the Lord; he wanted to have a senior prom!

Kevin Bacon’s character did something almost all of us do at one time or another: misinterpreted scripture by taking it out of context. We usually do this for one of two reasons. Either we come to the Bible with a preconceived notion of what it says or we come wanting to find a verse to support our viewpoint. In either case, we’ve drawn a conclusion before looking at all of the evidence.

For example, to support existing prejudice, rather than the sacred mark of protection it was, racists have interpreted the “mark of Cain” as the curse of black skin. To justify slavery of blacks, they wrongly interpreted Noah’s curse on Ham’s son Canaan as that of blackness and servitude. If we wanted to justify drunken revelry, I suppose we could cite Jesus turning all those jugs of water into wine at Cana. We wouldn’t mention the length of the feast, the number of people present, or that He was saving the groom’s honor. Jesus wasn’t promoting drunkenness at Cana any more than he was promoting gluttony when he turned a few fish and loaves into an excess of food for 5,000. Nevertheless, we could make it sound that way!

One of the most frequently misinterpreted verses is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” The Hebrew word translated here as welfare was shalom, meaning peace, completeness, and soundness. While most updated translations use “welfare” or “peace” for shalom, some Bibles still render it as “prosper” and those are the translations used by prosperity gospel proponents. The completeness of the word shalom, however, wasn’t found in possessions or wealth; it was found in a relationship with God—the one who makes us complete. Moreover, a quick look at the context tells us this was not a promise made to everyone. It was made specifically to the Jewish people who had been exiled to Babylon and would remain there for seventy years. Rather than a promise of wealth and health for all, this was God’s promise to Judah that, at the end of their judgment, He would bring them back to their land where they would have a future and a hope.

We must be cautious of reading our own presuppositions into the text or of cherry-picking verses out of context to support our opinions. It comes down to two fancy words: exigesis and eisegesis. Exigesis is drawing the meaning out of the text through careful reading (which is good) but eisegesis is reading meaning into the text (which is bad)! The first is objective and seeks to find the true meaning while the second is subjective and seeks to make a point. Although he didn’t know it, Kevin Bacon’s character in Footloose committed eisegesis. While it made for a good story, his was faulty reasoning and bad theology. God has entrusted us with His truth; let us be good workers and handle His word wisely, honestly, and carefully.

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15 (NLT)]

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“Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14b-16 (NLT)]

pipevine swallowtail butterflyWhen we moved to southwest Florida several years ago, everything was new and strange—we didn’t know which farmer’s market had the finest produce, the best routes to avoid traffic, the amenities of each beach, the fun activities available, or where to hike or bike. Rather than be confused and discouraged, we got out the guidebooks and maps and enthusiastically started exploring—churches, parks, theaters, markets, beaches, and museums. Every day became an adventure and, as we got to know our community, we came to love it.

I continue to be amazed at the number of people we meet who’ve lived here for decades or more who haven’t been to the Conservancy, zoo, or free band concerts in the park. They’ve never gone to the county museum or walked the boardwalk through the mangroves, visited the nearby state parks, wandered the old town alleys, or hiked any of the land trust trails. They’ve missed seeing the orchids and butterflies at the Botanic Gardens, the spoonbills at the bird sanctuary, and the giant gingerbread house at the Ritz. Taking the local attractions for granted, many old-time residents have ignored the beauty and opportunities right in their front yard.

It’s not just our surroundings about which we can get jaded; it also can be our faith. While new believers are usually enthusiastic about prayer and Bible study and excited about getting to know Jesus, old believers may get blasé and lax in exercising their faith. Our Bible study can get humdrum, prayer time repetitive, meditation wearisome, and worship unexciting. Familiarity may not breed contempt but it can breed boredom. Jesus, however, is anything but dull and uninspiring

I’ve encouraged my neighbors to look at our town with the fresh eyes of a tourist or newcomer. Perhaps we should do the same with our faith and look at Jesus with the heart and mind of a new believer. Could that be what receiving the Kingdom of God “like a child” means—coming to Jesus with the unbridled enthusiasm of a youngster? Children, like newcomers to town, are fully aware of how little they actually know. Inquisitive and eager to learn, they want to discover all there is to see; they seek so that they can find!

When Mrs. Zebedee asked her boys about their day, I doubt that John and James responded with a bored, “Same old, same old—a big picnic lunch, several healings, and some parables.” Eager to learn more about Jesus, every day was an adventure in faith for them. It can be for us, as well.

If our faith has become lackluster or monotonous, it’s not God’s fault. We’ve just become unaware of His presence, blind to His works, and deaf to His voice. It’s time to open our hearts and minds, renew our acquaintance with Jesus, and experience His glory the way a child or new believer would. We wouldn’t want boredom or indifference to cause us to miss experiencing all that Jesus offers: direction, strength, peace, joy, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, salvation, an abundant life today and an eternal life tomorrow.

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way. He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ’Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him!’”  [Mark 1:1-3 (NLT)]

christmas starLast Sunday, my husband and I lit the candle of hope on our Advent wreath. This Sunday, we’ll re-light that one along with a second candle, the one we call the peace or Bethlehem candle. Because the Advent wreath custom has been adapted in a variety of ways through the years, there are several names for the candles and explanations for their symbolism that probably have more to do with the selling of wreaths, candles, and devotional booklets than with church tradition. There are no official names, meanings or rituals because an Advent wreath isn’t based on Scripture. It’s merely a tradition to help make this season more meaningful.

We’ve selected our Advent readings (or “lections”) from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), an ordered system of Scripture readings. The Christian church has used lectionaries since the 4th century but the RCL was adopted in 1992. An ecumenical project of several American and Canadian denominations, the goal was to provide a common experience of God’s word among all Christians as a way of uniting the Church. Used by a majority of the Protestant churches in the U.S. and Canada, the RCL is a three year cycle of weekly Scripture readings to be read at public worship. During most of the year, the four selections are from the Old Testament, Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. Chosen for their common theme and relevance to the church season, these common lections connect Christians with one another across denominational lines and enable an Episcopalian in Minneapolis to recite the same psalm or hear the same epistle as a Methodist in Denver or a Lutheran in San Diego.

Before lighting the candles Sunday, we’ll read portions of Isaiah 40, Psalm 85, and 2 Peter 3. Isaiah tells the people of Judah to be prepared: “Your God is coming!” Saying that salvation is near, the psalmist speaks of the meeting of unfailing love and truth and the kiss of righteousness and peace. Joining these verses are Peter’s words to live peaceful and righteous lives and be ready for the end times when “the day of the Lord will come.” These lections again remind us that Advent is not just about anticipating the Messiah’s birth; it’s a time to anticipate His return. As we prepare our homes for Christmas, let us remember that it is more important to prepare ourselves for meeting Jesus.

Advent is the perfect time to clear and prepare the Way. Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace. By reflection and prayer, by reading and meditation, we can make our hearts a place where a blessing of peace would desire to abide and where the birth of the Prince of Peace might take place. [Edward Hays]

On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. And so, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight. [2 Peter 3:12-14 (NLT)]

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Last Judgment - Minster Cathedral - BernThere shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. [Isaiah 11:1-2 (RSV)]

I remember standing in awe in front of an enormous sandstone sculpture of the Last Judgment at the entrance to Bern’s Minster Cathedral. With 294 figures, the naked wicked are on the right while the white-robed righteous are on the left. There are prophets, angels with trumpets, Jesus, Lady Justice, the wise and foolish virgins and both sinners and saints—the condemned and the blessed. In graphic detail, it illustrates God’s final judgment and the horrible fate of the damned!

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words and that’s true of the Last Judgment. In fact, much of the art in old European churches was there to illustrate Scripture for the largely illiterate population of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Seeing the portrayal of the last judgment, Michelangelo’s image of the outstretched hand of God giving life to Adam or Rembrandt’s picture of a distraught Moses smashing the stone tablets brought those stories to life for a people who couldn’t read them for themselves. Several churches had what was known as a Jesse Tree. Rather than a tree, these were large tapestries, carvings, or stained glass windows that illustrated the Bible’s salvation theme through the Old Testament to the birth of Jesus.

For example, the stained glass Jesse Tree in the Cathedral of Chartres (c.1150) portrays a sleeping Jesse at the bottom of the window. A shoot springing from his loins reaches up into four branches. Above Jesse are four kings (David, Solomon and two unnamed ones) and, above them, is Mary. At the top is Jesus surrounded by seven doves (representing the Holy Spirit and His gifts). Surrounding this center panel are fourteen figures holding scrolls. These are the people like Moses, Zechariah, Isaiah, and Samuel, who foretold the coming of a savior. In this single sixteen-by-five-foot window, the whole of the Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in Jesus is represented and God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises is illustrated.

The Jesse tree comes from Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would come from Jesse’s line—the Davidic line of kings. Jesse was David’s father. The prophet referred to the lesser known Jesse rather than his famed son because, by the time of the Messiah, Judah would be a conquered nation and, with no more kings, David’s line would appear chopped off, like the stump of a hacked down tree. There was, however, life within that stump and a new branch, the Messiah, would sprout from it. The Jesse tree art in churches illustrated that Jesus’ story didn’t start in the New Testament. It began in the Old; Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promises made thousands of years earlier.

Nowadays, some people celebrate Advent with a Jesse tree that serves as a sort of Advent calendar. Each day during December, a different Bible story is read and then a small ornament representing the story is placed on the “tree”—the family’s actual Christmas tree, a bare branch anchored in a stand, a small tabletop tree or even a felt hanging. An apple might accompany the story of the fall; an ark or rainbow, the story of Noah; and a scarlet cord, the story of Rahab.

Although I’m not decorating a Jesse tree, I am reading stories and prophecies from the Old Testament that tell of God’s faithfulness and plan for redemption. Starting in Genesis with God telling the serpent (Satan) that his final defeat will be brought about by one of Adam and Eve’s descendants, I’ll do a quick tour through the Old Testament and read about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua and David. As I prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, I’ll put his arrival in historical context—in the world of Rahab, Gideon, Ruth, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and John the Baptist: a world in desperate need of salvation.

We often think of the Bible as two separate books—the Old and New, the Hebrew and the Christian, but it is one continuous story that leads across thousands of years to Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. Let us never forget that Jesus, as the Alpha, was there at the very beginning and, as the Omega, He will be there at the end.

And 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; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. … In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious. [Isaiah 11:1-5,10 (RSV)]

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THE SLANDERED (Psalms of Ascent – Part 2)

wild phloxRescue me, O Lord, from liars and from all deceitful people. … How I suffer in far-off Meshech. It pains me to live in distant Kedar. I search for peace; but when I speak of peace, they want war! [Psalm 120:2,5-6 (NLT)]

When we are slandered it is a joy that the Lord knows us, and cannot be made to doubt our uprightness he will not hear the lie against us, but he will hear our prayer against the lie. [Charles Spurgeon]

While many of the fifteen psalms designated A Song of Ascents display the sense of joy and pride in Israel that we’d expect from people returning to their homeland, a few express distress, looming peril, or trials. One such psalm is the first in the collection: Psalm 120. It is the individual lament of someone who seems to have become the victim of slander—the prayer of someone who is surrounded by warlike people.

While I’ve never been the victim of slander, I have a friend who was. His reputation was deliberately damaged by falsehoods, misrepresentations, and innuendo. Until I studied this psalm, I don’t think I truly understood how isolated and defenseless he must have felt. Like the psalmist, he longed for peace but felt like a stranger in the midst of a hostile nation.

The psalmist expresses his distress at such deceit and pleads for relief. He then describes the destiny of the liar’s tongue: being pierced by fiery arrows, like those used in sieges to set places on fire. This is a bit of irony since Scripture frequently likens deceivers’ tongues to a bow that shoots out harmful words. In effect, the psalmist is asking that his enemies receive a dose of their own medicine! Having shot their vindictive words at him, in a bit of divine justice, God will shoot his own flaming arrows of judgment at them!

What follows is a lament about living in both Meshech and Kedar among people who hate peace. The psalmist is speaking figuratively since these pagan nations were in opposite directions and he couldn’t be in both places at once. The people of both nations, however, were ferocious and aggressive barbarians. Living among the ungodly—people who prefer war to peace—the psalmist feels like an outsider. The psalm’s final line expresses the psalmist’s desire for peace and the deceitful people’s desire for war. Maligned and slandered by people who wanted to make his life difficult, the psalmist asks the Lord for peace, for His shalom.

It’s easy to wonder why such a psalm would be among this collection of hopeful and encouraging psalms until we realize that, unlike most psalms, this one is somewhat backwards. Instead of beginning by stating his plight and following with a plea for deliverance, the psalmist begins by telling us that God already has answered his prayer. From the first verse, we know that the Lord has dealt with the problem and delivered him from his enemies. Rather than a lament, this is a psalm of thanksgiving. The psalmist found refuge and peace in a hostile world because God answered his prayers. Let us take comfort knowing that we have a God who answers our prayers!

When we fight our battles on our knees, we win every time. [Charles F. Stanley]

I took my troubles to the Lord; I cried out to him, and he answered my prayer. [Psalm 120:1 (NLT)]

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OUR KEEPER (Psalms of Ascent – Part 1)

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. [Psalm 121:1-4 (RSV)]

zion - court of the patriarchsPsalms 120 through 134 have the superscription A Song of Ascents. What that means exactly, no one really knows. The original word translated as ascent was “stair” or “step” and some scholars believe the title refers to the temple’s fifteen steps leading from the Court of the Women into the Court of the Sons of Israel. Jewish tradition holds that Levites sang a different one of these psalms as they climbed the steps to the temple. Other scholars posit that the title of the psalms has to do either with the rising moods or thoughts in the psalms’ words or their rising pitch as they were sung.

Written by several different authors and ranging from the time of David to post exile, these fifteen beautiful psalms were at one point a separate temple songbook that later was incorporated into the Psaltery. Some scholars attribute the collection to King Hezekiah who, when laying on his deathbed, was granted another 15 years of life. He supposedly compiled these 15 psalms to represent those additional years. Psalm 126, with its reference to returning from exile, disproves that theory since it had to have been composed after Hezekiah’s death.

Because Jerusalem was on a hill, all roads leading to it went uphill and some scholars believe these psalms were sung during the journey back from Babylon as the exiles ascended the hill to Jerusalem. Another commonly held belief is that these psalms were brought together to be sung by Jews returning to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

One of my favorite psalms, Psalm 121, is in this collection. Perhaps giving credence to the theory of pilgrims walking up to Jerusalem’s gates, the psalmist looks to the hills and asks from where his help comes. When he asked that, was he looking at the hillside with its threats from wild animals, pagan enemies, and bands of robbers? Or, was he confidently looking up toward Mt. Moriah and the temple? With his answer of, “My help comes from the Lord,” I think he was looking beyond the mountains to the God who made them. The psalmist is so confident in the Lord, the one who “keeps” Israel, that he doesn’t even mention what is troubling him!

In this eight verse psalm, the Hebrew word shamar is used six times. Usually translated as keep or preserve, it meant to have charge of, protect and guard as would a watchman. For many pilgrims, the trip to Jerusalem was an arduous one taking several days. With its promise that the one who watched over them never slumbered, this psalm would have been reassuring to the pilgrims as they made camp in the wilderness each night.

We’re not Levites ascending the temple’s stairs nor are we pilgrims journeying up to Jerusalem and we’ll never know why these psalms are songs of ascents. Nevertheless, we’re all on a journey that often seems like an uphill climb. The psalmist’s faith and strong conviction that God will come to his aid certainly makes my spirit ascend. Let us take comfort in knowing the Lord is our keeper, watchman, and protector; He is the God who never sleeps!

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore. [Psalm 121:5-8 (RSV)]

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