Friday, January 28

John 3:19-21

The light has come into the world… (v. 19).

The first time my mother ever flew in a plane she traveled from Washington, DC, to Maui, Hawaii to meet her newborn grandson, Evan. Her seven adult children were more than a little nervous about her first flight. But in spite of our concerns, she was determined to make the journey.

When my mom returned from her trip, she relished telling story after story about how much she enjoyed flying, and how she loved the beauty of Hawaii and the time she spent with family. But one story she told will always hold a place in my heart. Her plane flew over the Pacific Ocean at night. She had never experienced utter darkness like that before. When the first light of dawn appeared, its beauty was breathtaking. It was a glorious sight beyond description that left her with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. 

The Gospel of John reminds us that the Light of the World has come. This light comes for all people. This glorious light breaks forth into our darkness. We have nothing to fear because the darkness will never overtake the light. May an experience of this truth beyond description leave us with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence.

Consider

When have you experienced the feeling of utter darkness? When has an experience of light helped you sense God’s presence?

Pray

Light of the World, give us the wisdom and grace to follow your way of light and love that will overcome the dark places of our soul. Through Jesus we ask this. Amen.

Thursday, January 27

John 3:16-18

For God so loved the world… (v. 16).

One of the most heartbreaking experiences of my pastoral ministry was watching a child suffer with cancer. She was an exceptional young girl: beautiful, bright, full of life, and talented beyond her years. A loving God and the existence of childhood cancer seem contradictory. 

Our church prayed for this child without ceasing as she underwent one treatment after another. I often found myself pleading with the Almighty: Please, God, cure her of this disease. Please don’t allow her to die. 

I had this young friend in mind as I attended an evening worship service at the CBF General Assembly one summer. When the choir sang John Stainer’s anthem “God So Loved the World,” tears flooded my eyes. As I listened to this well-known verse lifted in song, a peace suddenly came over me. Through the music, I was able to hear this well-known Scripture in a fresh way. God loves this suffering child far more than I could ever imagine. 

After visiting with her family on the day she died, I drove back to the church. Once in the parking lot, I stayed seated in my car, crying uncontrollably. When I finally looked up, I noticed a beautiful butterfly dancing around the azalea bushes outside the church office. In that instant I realized that this beloved child was at that moment as beautiful, bright, and full of life as she had ever been. How do I know? Because God so loved the world.

Consider

What life experience has caused you to doubt God’s love? What experience led you to affirm it?

Pray

Holy God, we can never thank you enough for your overwhelming, unrelenting love for us. Thank you, Jesus, thank you. Amen.

Wednesday, January 26

John 3:11-15

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (v. 14).

I love my home church, Takoma Park Baptist in Washington, DC. This church ordained me to the Gospel Ministry. I love its rich diversity of congregants: black and white, rich and poor, government and community leaders, employers and employees. 

One of its Advent traditions is decorating a live Christmas tree in the sanctuary with beautiful, handmade Chrismon ornaments. Gazing at those ornaments during worship always enhanced the Christmas season for me.

I confess, however, that I’m not fond of every Chrismon on the tree. I could skip the ornament of a snake twisting around the cross. If you ask me, snakes don’t belong on Christmas trees. Yet that Chrismon always made its appearance, symbolizing both the snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness and the cross of Calvary on which Jesus died.

Referring to Jesus’ teaching, Nicodemus has just asked, “How can these things be?” (v. 9). Jesus responds by wondering how this Pharisee can believe the truth he seeks: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (v. 12). Jesus knows that for teaching to become real to us, its truth must be experienced. This why the Word takes on flesh, talks with Nicodemus, and gives life to everyone who seeks him to find it.  Just as Moses lifted the serpent on the pole to heal the Israelites, Christ will be lifted up on the cross to become healing love for every person, everywhere.

Consider

What truth do you have yet to experience and believe?

Pray

Loving, merciful God, thank you for giving your life so that we could find and understand our own. Amen.

Tuesday, January 25

John 3:9-10

“How can these things be?” (v. 9)

In 2020, I lost my dear friend Janie to cancer. She was one of the most talented women I have ever known, and I marveled at her abilities. Janie was as comfortable threading a sewing machine as she was using a screwdriver. She served on the building and grounds committee at our church, and when something broke, she knew what to do.

Whenever I walk into a hardware store, however, I am entering a foreign land. My lack of mechanical ability means that I do not understand how to put things together or take them apart. When I need to repair something, I know to rely on someone like Janie. 

Maybe Nicodemus talks to Jesus at night because he understands his limitations. The longer we live, the more we realize that life breaks everyone in some way and every life needs spiritual repair. Perhaps this Pharisee has been a religious leader long enough to know that when it comes to helping others heal spiritually, he needs to rely on someone like Jesus. Jesus pinpoints the problem when he responds, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (v. 10). With what tone of voice do you hear Jesus ask Nicodemus this question? Does this sentence make Nicodemus want to wince or hide? Does it assure him that Jesus sees beyond the surface of their conversation and is diagnosing the real problem in his soul? Maybe this turning point in their dialogue is not just painful, but also full of mercy.

Christ knows how to fix our brokenness, too. When we rely on the one who makes us whole, painful moments become merciful ones as well.

Consider

In what ways are you broken and in need of repair? 

Pray

God, help us know that if we want to be whole, we need you to help us. Amen.

Monday, January 24

John 3:4-8

The wind blows where it chooses (v. 8).

I experienced my first hurricane in 2003 while I was living in Virginia. I remember the power going out and sitting in the dark listening to the sound of trees popping as Hurricane Isabel came roaring through. Recalling that frightening time reminds me how the wind is a powerful force that can destroy. But I also know that wind can create. Consider the wind turbines and wind farms that produce clean energy.

Jesus uses this metaphor of the wind to remind Nicodemus that God’s transforming power cannot be controlled or contained by human beings. Being part of God’s Kingdom calls us to let go of self and submit to God’s reign over our lives. God’s spirit is always taking us in new directions if we are open to them.

As we were emerging from the pandemic last year, I visited a church that was still practicing social distancing. They blocked off every other pew with a rope and a sign that read: NO. When you walked down the aisle of the church, you encountered the words no, no, no, no, no, no. I wonder if this is a metaphor for the twenty-first century church. Without realizing it, do we resist the Holy Spirit when it moves us in the direction of change?

The Spirit moves where it chooses. Let us be open to what God is doing, then ride the wind with joy!

Consider

In what direction might the Spirit of God be leading you? What would it mean to answer Yes?

Pray

Gracious God, forgive us when we resist your call upon our lives. Help us ride the wind of your Spirit with joyful hearts. Amen.

Sunday, January 23

John 3:1-3

He came to Jesus by night… (v. 2).

Over my lifetime I have heard and preached my fair share of sermons based on John 3. Preachers tend to make a big deal out of the fact that Nicodemus chooses the evening for his first encounter with Jesus. Why did he come at night? Was he trying to hide his meeting from the community he served? Was he afraid of being ridiculed by his religious colleagues? Was he simply trying to avoid the crowds that always seem to gather around Jesus?

Important conversations can occur at night. When the night falls, we tend to let our guard down. Think about a couple’s pillow talk just before they say goodnight. Consider the questions a child asks as they’re being tucked into bed. My housemate and I watch the PBS NewsHour most evenings. Watching the news often leads us into deeper conversations about our concerns for our nation and world.

Perhaps Nicodemus chooses the cover of night because he is truly seeking. His conversation with Jesus is full of rich metaphor. All those who choose to believe will find the words Jesus speaks at night hard to hear. Being part of God’s Kingdom requires radical change, a complete overhaul of self. We must be born again. And we must be honest about our need to be transformed.

Consider

Where and when do you engage in a deep conversation with God?

Pray

God, we confess that we resist change. Help us to submit our lives to you daily so that, through your love and grace, we will be born anew. Amen.

Saturday, January 22

Matthew 27:38-44

“If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (v. 40). 

Like the tempter in the wilderness of Matthew 4, those who mock Jesus at his crucifixion also challenge him to put his divinity to selfish use. The difference in the two accounts is that Satan knows that Jesus is God’s Son. The mockers who pass by Golgotha are just as certain that he is not. But we, as Matthew’s readers, know the truth: Jesus stays on the cross because he is the Son of God. That is the very reason he does not save himself (v. 42).

At various times in our lives, all of us would like God to act in a certain way. We decide what is best and wish God would make things happen as we planned. The crowd is certain that Jesus is just another messianic pretender; if Jesus had come down from the cross, they would have been amazed and terrified. They are disappointed in him because he refuses to lead a rebellion against Roman rule. The religious leaders are scared of Jesus and his followers. The last thing they want is a popular rebellion and a war with Rome. By now, they know which arguments will persuade Pilate to act as they desire.

The miracle in this scene is that Jesus refuses to perform a miracle. He demonstrates his divine nature—and his divine power—through his willingness to die. Part of our spiritual journey is learning how to trust in God’s faithfulness. We also work to grow a faith that needs no further proof of Jesus’ divinity than his death and resurrection.

Consider

How do we learn to trust that God is faithful in loving and caring for us? What can we do to “lean in” to God’s faithfulness? How can we learn to trust and believe without the necessity of a miraculous sign?

Pray

Loving God, thank you for the gift of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Thank you for your ongoing presence in our lives. May your Spirit be powerfully present with us today. Give us strength and find us faithful, this day and every day. Amen.

Friday, January 21

Matthew 26:59-64

Who could have been as calm and in control as Jesus is in this scene? The Gospels make it clear that he is being subjected to unfounded accusations. His “trial” is irregular at best. Its outcome was decided well before the false witnesses tell their lies. We readers know from the beginning how this story will end. He will die in a way intended to cause excruciating physical and cultural pain. In fact, the authorities might have been as concerned with shaming Jesus and his followers as they were with executing him. Jesus does not defend himself to either the Jewish authorities or the Roman procurator. He suffers and dies in relative silence.

Ironically, what Jesus says in this scene strikes a rare triumphant note. The authorities are so worried about stopping him from upsetting the political and religious order that they have missed his ability to overturn the cosmic order. His execution actually restores him to his rightful place: powerful, transcendent, and holy at God’s right hand. 

Lest we judge those in this scene too quickly, we should remember that our limited perspectives also keep us from understanding the complete truth. We find it so easy to focus on the next task, or the loudest problem, that we can miss what God considers valuable. Our faith journey calls us to see the world through God’s perspective.

Consider

How can we seek God’s perspective about our lives? How can we listen for God’s voice and follow wherever God’s Spirit leads us?

Pray

God, help us to see and hear as you do. Keep us in your grace and mercy. Teach us to love you and each other. Amen.

Thursday, January 20

Psalm 69:9

It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.

We don’t often use the word “zeal.” And when we do, we probably use it negatively to describe behavior that we find irrational. We are seldom comfortable with people who are openly zealous about something. But perhaps we should find this adjective more appealing, particularly since it reflects the psalmist’s attitude. After all, living with such passion for God that it leads us to worship devotedly is a good thing. Being comfortable must not always be our goal. 

The tricky part lies in being sure that our love for God and each other is what motivates our zeal. Sometimes our passion turns into self-righteousness, and we wind up defending ourselves and our entrenched opinions. After all, God is all-powerful and needs no defense.

Some zealous pursuits, though, are clearly wrong. The good news is that we can discern zeal gone awry when it obviously contradicts Jesus’ command to love others. The bad news is that too often wayward zeal receives societal—and even religious—support.

Jesus is the ultimate example of One with zeal for God’s house. His passion for God motivated him to take on human form, to live and die for us. His zeal motivated him to minister to the poor and outcast, to heal the sick and comfort those on the margins of society. It also moved him to challenge religious leaders who were more concerned about rules and regulations than they were about people. 

What kind of zeal consumes you?

Consider

What are some ways to make sure that the focus of our zeal is on worshiping God and caring for God’s creation?

Pray

Almighty God, use our hearts to love you and each other. Use our lips to praise you and support each other. Use our hands to serve you and help each other. Amen.

Wednesday, January 19

Psalm 127:1-2

Western culture loves to preach that everyone is capable of achieving any goal they want to reach. Rugged characters in our books and films, the ones who need no one else’s help to succeed, become our heroes and heroines. We enjoy the idea that every individual has the ability and the resources they need to construct their own success. Based on this storyline, the only ones who fail are those who lack the proper motivation or drive.

The problem with putting our faith in these ideas is that they are not biblical. While the long history of what we call the Protestant work ethic often baptizes this narrative in our mindset, a biblical narrative consistently recognizes our dependence on God and God’s people.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain, the psalmist preaches (v. 1). Most of us will admit that we live with too much anxiety. Stress defines modern life to such an extent that we often take pride in our ability to endure stress levels that damage us spiritually and physically. Too often we adopt our culture’s false self-reliance narratives as our own and forget that our truest story centers on the relationship God offers us. The psalm tells us that those who fail, who live a vain life, are not those who lack ambition or drive, but those who do not recognize God’s presence with us.

Consider

How do you define “being productive”? How many of your daily tasks are ultimately busy work? How would your life change if you spent more time communing with God and less time being busy? 

Pray

God, help us rely on your wisdom, strength, and courage as we live these days. Show us how to live and work with you. Amen.