It took a year to read the Bible, then almost 9 months to read the Apocrypha. Now, I'm going to try to offer reflections on the Narrative Lectionary. But, I won't be posting daily--at least, for a while.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Even Now, a Reflection on Matthew 3:10-12

Those of us who are faithful churchgoers and Bible readers may get uncomfortable when we read John the Baptist's warnings to the studious and scrupulous leaders of that time. "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

He said, "even now." Do we hear the "even now" to extend to our time? Is it still now?

During the season of Advent, we are contemplating the second coming; yet, the first coming gets most of the attention. What do we do with this ax and winnowing fork talk? What kind of trees are we? What is our fruit? Are we more wheat or chaff? Should we just hope that John is talking about pruning a few limbs but leaving the main tree standing, separating our bad parts from our good and tossing out the bad?

Here's what Fred Craddock has to say in Preaching through the Christian Year A:
Whereas Mark speaks only of a promised baptism with the Holy Spirit (1:8), Matthew has the stronger image of judgment in the phrase "with the Holy Spirit and fire" .... John's preaching makes it abundantly clear that one aspect of the Lord's Advent is the full revelation of the kind of persons we are and of the consequences of character and conduct that await us.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Offertory Prayers for December 2010

The GBOD has published Offertory Prayers for December written by David Bell.

December 5, 2010 -- Second Sunday of Advent
Lord of our life, the path to you is straight, yet we waiver in our behavior like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Our hopes and dreams often are self-serving and materialistic. We rush through this season, buying gifts that we hope will convey just the right message. However, you invite us to ask ourselves if we are equally as busy preparing messages that proclaim the good news to a hurting world. Through giving, remind us again, O God, of the baptismal covenant. This Advent, may we proclaim a message that is exemplified by our generosity, our kindness, and our prayers. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen. (Matthew 3:1-12.)

December 12, 2010 -- Third Sunday of Advent
Redeeming God, you sent us your messenger, John the Baptist, to prepare our hearts and souls for the coming of Christ. Multiply these gifts to echo his message of your greatness and glory. Open our ears to the needs of your people shrouded in depression and despair. Use our voices to tell your stories and to lead others into the community of Christian fellowship. Let our actions of faithful giving be a beacon of our complete devotion to your guidance in our lives. We pray to your glory forever and ever. Amen. (Matthew 11:2-11.)

December 19, 2010 -- Fourth Sunday of Advent
Father, teach us how to listen for your call in our lives. Teach us how to be faithful stewards with the gifts you have entrusted to us. Teach us how to use this offering as a source of your ministry and mission. Teach us how to bow down on our knees and to spend time beholding the miracles all around us. In the name of the greatest teacher, Emmanuel, we pray. Amen. (Matthew 1:18-25.)

December 24, 2010 -- Christmas Eve
Glory to God in the highest heaven! We praise your name with our offerings and tithes. We give these gifts in recognition of Jesus, a tiny babe who from humble birth was created great in your light. Thank you, Gracious God, for pure, unbounded love wrapped in clothes laying in a manger -- a gift so great to share that it could not be contained. Let the joy we feel in our hearts overflow in unending praise. Amen. (Luke 2:1-14.)

December 26, 2010 -- First Sunday after Christmas
Compassionate God, your mercy and unfailing love are as constant as the rising sun. You offer us salvation and swaddle us in your Holy Word. You sent us the example of living and giving by sharing your son, Jesus Christ, and by asking us to follow his ways. We are now ready to follow those ways. We place upon your table the fruits of our labors as an outward sign of our commitment to your bounteous grace. We pray in the name of the one born in a stable, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen. (Matthew 2:13-23.)

Written by David S. Bell, Vice-President of Stewardship with the United Methodist Foundation of Michigan and Senior Design Partner with Design Group International™. You may contact him by visiting

Copyright © 2010 David S. Bell. Used with permission. Any local church, regardless of denominational affiliation, or any United Methodist organization may reprint any or all of these prayers provided that the author is cited.

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Repent, Yes, You, Too, a Reflection on Matthew 3:1-9

We are in the time that the church calendar has designated as Advent. Advent, waiting for an arrival. Remembering the birth of a baby and anticipating the return of our Savior. Advent.

While we are waiting, we read this passage from Matthew.

John the Baptist preached repentance. In looking forward, they also were looking back. John and his appearance and his words recalled for them the prophet of an earlier time, Isaiah, who had also preached repentance and hope.

John was addressing people who were living geographically in the land promised to them, but the conquering Roman army was occupying that land. John preaches to them that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Many are listening and responding. They come from the city of Jerusalem and from all over the country to hear John and to be baptized by him.

To summarize, so far: John preached. People responded.

Matthew tells us that among the crowds that came to hear John and be baptized by him, some religious leaders also showed up. John addressed them sharply, calling them names. Look back at Isaiah 28 to read judgment on the corrupt rulers, priests, and prophets of his time--and, to John's time, and, to ours.

Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A:
What John attacks is the presumptuousness of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The prophet had written, "look to the rock from which you were hewn...Look to Abraham your father" (Isa 51:1-2). The problem was that the rock had become something behind which to hide, a place of supposed protection, a spot of security. John challenges the privileged position claimed by the Pharisees and Saducees...Repentance has to do not only with remorse over past failures, but also with a new heart and a changed life...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's Time to Wake Up, a Reflection on Romans 13:11-14

Advent theme: It's time to wake up.

"The night is far gone, the day is near."

Then he describes behaviors that we might have indulged in if we thought nobody could see--reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness.

It's time to wake up. It's time to live in the light. Those dishonorable actions of ours weren't really hidden by the dark no matter how we might have thought that they were.

And then, for those who may pride themselves on not being reveling drunks, Paul adds a couple more behaviors to give up--quarreling and jealousy. Two more activities that the dark does not hide. I'm trying to imagine a world in which we had something like AA but for people who were addicted to quarreling or jealousy. Or, do we already have such an organization, and we just need to pay attention?

It's time to wake up.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Song for Pilgrims, a Reflection on Psalm 122

In this week's passage from Isaiah, we looked back at a time of upheaval and fear and heard words of promise--along with a call to repentance. Isaiah told them what the future was to be--the restoration of place and, moreover, in that place, a life of peace among all people.

We read these ancient prophecies and hear them new for us. We remember what God has provided for us and look forward to a realization of hopes and peace.

Psalm 122 is the lectionary response to the reading from Isaiah.

It begins with an expression of gratitude to be able to go into Jerusalem. We modern day Christians can read this as a reminder of what God did long ago, and we can read these words as a reminder of what God is still doing and will do.

What is our Jerusalem? Where do we see ourselves gathered in worship? Do we visualize this place as one with many kinds of people gathering?

And, there, what do we pray for?

And, having prayed, what do we do when we leave our places of worship? Whose good are we seeking?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Repentance and Promise, a Reflection on Isaiah 2:1-5

Isaiah lived in a time when his nation was under threat--and a time when the leaders and the people of the nation had not been following the instruction of the Lord. Having called the powerful to repentance, the prophet also offers hope to the fearful.

In the season of Advent, we are remembering the birth of the Christ child and we are looking forward to the Second Coming, with the realization of a world like the one described by Isaiah. We are looking back, looking around, and looking forward.

Questions to consider as you read the text:

v1, What new thing have you seen--something that was totally unexpected?
Can you hope for something without working for it?

v2, What parallels do you see between the highest mountain and our places of worship?

v3, Why do we go to church?

v4, How important is the prophecy of peace for us? Do we think we are judged on basis of whether we are will to go to war?

v5, What does the phrase "walk in the light of the Lord" mean to you?

Is this passage from Isaiah about them and then, us now, or us someday?

In his article, "Preaching the Advent Texts: Hope, Peace, Courage," in the Journal for Preachers, Advent 2010, John Buchanan writes:
We know how the story of human history ends--with God's creation healed, whole, and all of God's people, at last, living together in justice and compassion and peace. Advent hope lives in the midst of darkness in every age. It will not be defeated, silenced, or extinguished. The light that is coming into the world shines in the darkness, after all, and the darkness has not and will not overcome it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Day of Thanksgiving, a reflection on John 6:25-36 and Philippians 4:4-7

These readings selected for Thanksgiving Day have also been in the lectionary on other occasions.

Repeat from July 2009: True Bread, a Reflection on John 6:28-35
Jesus has told them that they need to work for a different goal.

Both are important--work and what they are supposed to work for.

Their work is to believe. Believe--how hard is that? Believe--is it possible? Believe--does he mean creed or something else?

The goal is bread. And they want it. They ask how they can get this true bread from heaven. Jesus says, "You've already got it. I am the bread of life."

This passage is raising a lot of uncomfortable questions for me today: Why do I go to church? What do I pray about? What am I working for? How do I know if I have passed the "believe" requirement. Am I looking for a sign? And most disturbing, what do I do with verse 35? I know that hunger and thirst exist, and I know that good, believing people are among the hungry and thirsty. And I know that I don't want to metaphorize the terms completely.


Menus, a Reflection on John 6:24-27
Why do we go to church? What do we expect to get out of it?

Or, what methods do we use to try to get other people to join our church? What do we think motivates them?

Jesus told the crowds that day, "You've come because I provided food for you."

He adds, "You're searching for the wrong kind of food. Church suppers are great, but you'll still want breakfast the next morning."

Yet, I don't think he is disparaging typical church evangelistic efforts. We do want to get people in the doors. But, once inside, they need to know more.


Rejoice, a Reflection on Philippians 4:4-7
Always rejoice. Never worry. Tell God what you want.

Are Paul's instructions realistic for you? That is, can you imagine yourself rejoicing at all times? Or, showing your gentleness to everyone? Or, perhaps, even having gentleness whether you show it or not?

Have you experienced the peace of God during a tough time in your life?

What portion of your prayers typically are expressions of joy? or even of moderate gratitude?

How does your congregation live out this passage?

The Vanderbilt Divinity Library offers Prayers for Thanksgiving Day including this one:

O God,
in your Son Jesus Christ
you richly bless us with all that we need,
bread from the earth and the bread of heaven,
which gives life to the world.
Grant us one thing more:
grateful hearts to sing your praise,
in this world and the world to come. Amen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Offertory Prayers for November 28, First Sunday of Advent

God of the Advent, as we joyfully enter this time of waiting, we feel nestled and safe in your everlasting peace. You have taught us the paths and choices that lead to being in your Temple. We wait, hushed in anticipation of the coming of your son. He serves as the guide of our lives and the shepherd of our souls. We hope to emulate his generosity and compassion as we share these gifts. Use these gifts so others can be blanketed with the warmth of your unconditional love, like a newborn baby wrapped in the loving arms of a parent. Amen. (Isaiah 2:1-5.)

Written by David S. Bell, former Director of Stewardship with GBOD. He currently serves as Vice-President of Stewardship with the United Methodist Foundation of Michigan. You may contact him by visiting

Copyright © 2010 David S. Bell. Any local church, regardless of denominational affiliation, or any United Methodist organization may reprint any or all of these prayers provided that the author is cited.

Thankfulness, a reflection on Psalm 100

For Thanksgiving day, the psalm responding to the reading from Deuteronomy is 100. Go to Jack and Lauri Marti or the Norfolk State University Concert Choir sing Psalm 100.

Here's a repeat of a discussion of this psalm I posted in June, 2008 (not Thanksgiving Day but any day is a day for us to be thankful.

Reading Psalm 100 and asking Who? and Where?
I once asked a group of church-goers what scripture they had memorized. Several named Psalm 100. I was not surprised because when I was a child I had been encouraged to learn this psalm either at Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.

I don't know what I made of that phrase "all the earth" when I was trying to memorize Psalm 100. I'm not even sure if I learned it in the NRSV or KJ. I'm not sure what I mean by it when I say it today. Who is being called to make this joyful noise? Am I recognizing Christians in other countries? Am I including Jews? What about Muslims? What about everybody else, those who don't descend from Abraham?

What do I think about "his gates"? Am I restricting the meaning of this phrase to church buildings (and synagogues and mosques)? Can God's gates include somewhere outside the church building? That is, am I restricting worship to a kind of formal space?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Gift that God Has Given Us, a reflection on Deuteronomy 26:1-5

We in the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving Day this Thursday. For help in planning, see the GBOD website for lectionary notes and lists of other sources. Here's an excerpt:
What feeds your soul?
It is no secret that many of us are driven by a soul-hunger almost impossible to articulate. The Thanksgiving holiday has, unfortunately, become a time to stuff ourselves with what we thought we wanted, while often neglecting what we need most -- Bread from heaven. Jesus declared himself to be the Bread of Life (verse 35), sent from heaven to satisfy the longings of the human soul (33). Have we discovered that God has provided both food and drink for the hunger and thirst of our souls?
When You Get There, a Reflection on Deuteronomy 26:1-5
The book of Deuteronomy as we have it is a reshaping of Moses' words in light of the later experience of exile. We read of the hope that Moses was sharing and realize that, even after failure and loss, we are still offered hope.

The passage begins, "When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you..." We aren't where we want to be, but Moses says that we're going to be.

A second point that was true for Moses' first audience, for the readers of the compiled Deuteronomy, and then for us as well: we won't get there by ourselves--we are going as a congregation, and the achievement is not due solely to our own efforts; rather, the Lord God is making a gift.

Now, what are we supposed to do with this gift? Not hide it or hoard it. Rather than ownership, we have assumed something more like trusteeship. We are supposed to use this gift to continue God's work.

In Moses' time, the distribution was through the priests. We still use the church as one of our conduits.

And not just do it--Moses commands us to say what we are doing, and why.

I'm trying to imagine a church service at offering time when all of us sitting in the pews might say something--either individually or together--as we put our money in the plate. Once again, I am grateful for the choir who takes care of this part for us. Yet, I can't quit wondering what I would say to help me remember that it is God's gift to me that I am sharing with others that day.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Be Ready, a Reflection on Matthew 24:36-44

We begin the season of Advent by contemplating the second coming. Jews had been awaiting the coming of the Messiah. The early Christians identify Christ as the Messiah had expected him to return in their lifetimes.

In speaking to them, Matthew is addressing our needs and concerns as well. "No one knows when; so, stay ready."

Jewish hope and Christian hope had (can I say "has"?) been for a Messiah to come to rescue them from their earthly enemies and troubles by setting things right. No more war. No more poverty. No more oppression. No more sin.

If we think that the Messiah is coming immediately and will end the world as we know it, we might be tempted just to sit around and wait for that event. But, that attitude might interfere with our living our lives the way God intends.

With the rescue, Matthew ties in judgment. He cites the examples of many who had been living lives not in accordance with the ways of the Lord. He warns, "If they had known when, they would have prepared; so, you be ready."

Someone once told me the difference between prophetic and apocalyptic texts is that prophecy is telling us to change, but apocalypse is saying that it's too late to do anything about it, just hold on, it's almost over. Then someone else later told me that the prophets were also calling for perseverance and the apocalyptics were also calling for repentance. Whoever is right about that, I am hearing both repentance and perseverance in Matthew's text. And, I think both attitudes are appropriate for us to assume in Advent.

After writing all this, I discovered a better commentary in, WUMFSA Advent Reflections 2010 offered by Wesley White through his Kairos CoMotion page.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reign of Christ, a Reflection on Colossians 1:11-20

Russell Rathbun writes in his regularly excellent blog, The Hardest Question,
I like this text’s unshrinking dismissal of any power or authority other than that which proceeds from the Living God. This dismissal is not just about the world to come, or some kind of non-material after life, but is embedded in the blood and earth and death and life of the now.
I long for the reassurance that God, whom I have long been convinced has redeemed my soul, also redeems a living breathing us, freeing us in the midst of our cultural and political context.

Repeat from July 11
Prayer for Wisdom and Strength, a Reflection on Colossians 1:7-14
Paul and Timothy (or perhaps other apostles writing in their names) give words to prayers of gratitude and of hope for the Colossians. As we read the prayer, we can think about our own congregations--how we originated, what gifts we exhibit and share, and what problems we face.

Paul prays that they will be filled with the knowledge of God' will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And he adds to this request the reason for it--so that they may lead lives worthy of the Lord, so that they may bear fruit in every good work.

But, he explicitly includes the recognition that wisdom and work will not preclude pain. Not preclude but means to overcome.

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of Christ in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Repeat from July 18:
Provided that, a Reflection on Colossians 1:15-28
Last week's passage from Colossians ended with the reminder that God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins. Let us recognize that in order to need either redemption or forgiveness, we have been spending some time in the wrong kingdom.

This week's passage says more about the Son of God--the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, before all things and in him all things hold together.

[Tangent: I'm reading from the NRSV in which all of this is laid out in prose. Other translations present this passage as a hymn. I suppose the difference would affect whether I read this as Paul's original ideas or Paul's reminding the Colossians of something of which they were quite aware.]

In any case, we who came after them may read these lines as references to the Trinity. I had, anyway. Then, today, I read what was to me a new idea in Ronald Allen & Clark Williamson's Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law:
An example of a wisdom hymn or saying in Judaism regarding Woman Wisdom read, "She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness" (Wisdom 7:26); and Wisdom herself claims, "Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me" (Sirach 24:9)...The church expressed its faith in the language of Israel's Scriptures.

According to Allen & Williamson, the term translated as "image" is in Greek, "eikon" connotes agency. Christ is the way that an invisible God can be disclosed to us. Further, as the firstborn, Christ "reveals not only God to us but humankind as well..." (15-21)

Back to the "in him all things hold together": the reconciliation came through the blood of his cross. We have been made holy and blameless and irreproachable (22).

Yet, we need to live up to the image that Christ provides for us. Paul adds "provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you have heard...." (23).

Paul is writing to an ancient congregation reassuring them and warning them, and his words still apply to us. Our congregation have their origin in the gospel, we are living out the image of God in our communities, we are held together by Christ, and we also need to be reminded that if our congregation begins to neglect our faith's requirements, then we will inevitably start to dissolve. Shifting from Christ to anything else would change what we would do, what we would be capable of doing.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

God is our refuge and strength, a reflection on Psalm 46

Psalm 46 recognizes that life does have pain and disruptions. It speaks of disruptions in nature and among people. Mountains tumble into the sea because of earthquakes. Nations fall to attack by enemies.

Yet, in times of affliction, we have the comfort of the presence of God.

Listen to the comfort of Psalm 46.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Into the Way of Peace, a Reflection on Luke 1:68-75

Repeat from DECEMBER 3, 2009
The Benedictus,
Zechariah was a priest serving in the temple in Jerusalem, but Jerusalem is ruled by the Roman government and its army. And the army had been there a long time.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had lived a righteous and blameless life, but not one like they would have chosen for they had no children. They had been waiting for a long time. Then the Lord sent a messenger, Gabriel, to Zechariah to tell him that Elizabeth was going to have child.

Zechariah disputed the possibility of getting something that he had longed for so long. Gabriel responded, "Because you didn't believe these words, you are not going to be able to speak until the things I have promised you occur."

Today's reading is the opening portion of Zechariah's response when he is allowed once more to speak.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, he prophesied that a savior was to come and that a messenger had been sent to announce that news.

He expressed gratitude to the Lord that the promises made to Israel were going to be realized, promises of rescue from enemies. Zechariah then reminded them what forgiven, rescued people were supposed to do with their freedom: serve God in every way on every day.

Try making Zechariah's Benedictus part of your morning prayer each day:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for you have looked favorably on your people and redeemed us.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of your servant David.
You have spoken through prophets that we would be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.
You have shown mercy to our ancestors and remembered your holy covenant,
the oath you swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us rescue from our enemies
so that we might serve you without fear
in holiness and righteousness all our days

On this Sunday when we focus on the Reign of Christ, we hear the words given by the Holy Spirit to Zechariah and Elizabeth's son, the one we call John the Baptist:
And you child, will be called the prophet of the Most High: for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.

The Holy Spirit also told what was to be for these forgiven people. They had been living in darkness, afraid of death. Now the light from the Lord would guide their feet into the way of peace.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Justice, Righteousness, and Safety, a Reflection on Jeremiah 23:5-6

Jeremiah was writing to a nation undergoing great turmoil and spoke words of promise giving them hope. Christians read this prophecy and adapt it to our own times.

Gene Tucker in Preaching through the Christian Year C:
Although the king is a ideal one, the promise is rooted in flesh and blood and history. This is the promise that the earliest followers of Jesus saw fulfilled in him, the divine will incarnate. Theologically, the Old Testament text enables us to keep our eyes fixed on two points also fundamental to the New Testament witness: the humanity of the Anointed One, and the faith that through him Christ is at work.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Judgment and Salvation, a Reflection on Jeremiah 23:1-4

Jeremiah had been commanded by the Lord to speak to the king, "Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow; or shed innocent blood in this place" (Jeremiah 22:1-5). King after king has failed rule as they should have. Rather than care for the welfare of the people, they have built up their own wealth.

The Lord is ready to take action against these injustices, "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture. So I will attend to you for your evil doings."

Persons of wealth, persons in positions of authority had forgotten what the Lord had expected of them, had forgotten that the wealth and authority was not solely for their own benefit but was intended to be used to care for the poor, the powerless, the stranger.

In the time of Jeremiah, Babylon invaded Judah, destroying Jerusalem and taking many into exile. But, destruction and exile, though deserved, are not to be the end. The Lord promises to regather them and to install new shepherds for them.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Somebody finally realizes, a Reflection on Luke 23:39-43

The authorities had condemned him to a humiliating, painful death. Many onlookers had just watched--not voicing agreement with what was happening but saying nothing in protest. But other witnesses, powerful people and soldiers, had mocked him. Even one of the criminals condemned to the same punishment derided him in the same terms as the others had, "If you're the Messiah, then start saving."

The first dissenter to the scoffing and mocking is the other criminal who is being crucified with him that day. "We deserve this punishment because we have done what they have accused us of doing. This man has done nothing wrong." He then addresses Jesus directly, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom"

Jesus had not responded to the leaders or soldiers or the criminal who kept deriding him. But, he does respond now, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Jesus has not done anything to prevent his death that day, but death is not the end of life.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Recommended blog for this week

In his blog The Hardest Question, Russell Rathbun ponders what he terms as the beautifully problematic feast day, in his discussion of this week's gospel reading, Luke 23:33-43.

Reign of Christ

Check out the Text This Week website for resources for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday.

Mockery, a Reflection on Luke 23:33-38

The leaders scoffed, "Let him save himself if he's the Messiah." The soldiers also mocked him, "If you are the King, then save yourself." Their point--since he was being crucified, then just how powerful could he be?

Allen & Williamson in Preaching the Gospel remind us that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah or the King of the Jews. Rather, he spoke of himself as the "Son of Man" and of the kingdom of God:
But Luke's leaders and soldiers misunderstand salvation, seeing it entirely in terms of the continuation of life or military "liberation" and not as the restoration of people Israel through forgiving of sins, including the marginalized, feeding the hungry, or dying the death of a martyr, a witness, to all of these.

Those long-ago leaders and soldiers thought that anyone who couldn't stop his own death sentence must not have much power. We might ask ourselves what is proof to us of power? what goals do we think the powerful should have? And, we might also ask what salvation means to us--whether it can begin only after we die or whether it can start right here, right now.

Also we might consider what kind of people, what kind of actions that we make fun of.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Not To Do List, a Reflection on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

We need to think about the then-and-now setting for this passage. Then, Christians were expecting the imminent return of Christ to issue in the final days. Why work, why do anything tedious when the whole world was going to undergo great transformation soon? Why not just sit back and do nothing while waiting for Christ to come handle stuff for us? Well, Paul said, "Don't be idle and don't associate with idlers."

Our expectation of the eschaton has changed over the millenia. How does Paul's advice fit our modern lives?

One school of thought is to think about what behavior and beliefs aid the work and continuity of the congregation. What are the minimum entrance requirements? What actions would lead to a person's being ejected from church membership? What actions not taken would? Does each member have to do some of the church work? What portion of income or wealth is a person required to contribute? And so on with questions that I'm supposing that very few church congregations consider.

Paul was concerned with how the church appeared to pagans. Are we worried about a modern-day equivalent to that? Paul criticized busybodies--what should today's church do to change the behavior and attitude of our busybodies?

Warning from Carl R. Halladay in Preaching through the Christian Year C:
In the wrong hands, this text can easily become a club used to beat those who are out of work, especially the long-term unemployed. Clearly, if we are idle and remain idle, for no good reason, we come under the censure of this text. Paul's example also serves as a worthwhile corrective to the 9-to-5 ministry. As we know, genuine ministry often involves us in round-the-clock work. People in need do not punch a clock. But perhaps one of the most important dimensions of this text is its insistence that we best prepare for the end time not by being idle but by working and earning our own living.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Comfort and Praise, a Reflection on Isaiah 12

Scholars believe that the first thirty-nine chapters of the book of Isaiah were written during the 8th century, a traumatic time for that part of the world. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem during the time that the Assyrians were expanding their empire--invading nations and taking them over, forcing them to pay tribute to the Assyrians so they could continue their expansion. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, was overtaken by the Assyrians in 722. Although the Southern Kingdom, Judah, escaped being destroyed by the Assyrians, they had their own disruptions. The rich began to accumulate large estates and appropriating much wealth for themselves leading to the impoverishment of the poor (Read Chapter 3, for example.) Yet, Isaiah could see a peaceful, harmonious future for them (Read Chapters 10 and 11). They will have a new beginning, one that will be for them like their new beginning made possible when through the help of the Lord, Moses had led them across the sea to escape from the Egyptians.

Chapter 12 is a psalm describing what the people of Judah will experience when the Lord delivers them from their suffering.

The people will recognize and admit that they have sinned and have deserved to be punished. Yet, God does not stay angry with them. God replaces anger with consolation. The people have been afraid, but they will replace their fear with trust in God.

When they recognize the comfort that God offers them and they are able to trust, then they will be able to express their gratitude to God. Isaiah calls on them to tell others about the deeds that God has accomplished for them--and that God is still with them, living in their midst.

In his commentary, Isaiah 1-39, Walter Brueggemann says:
Chapters 1-12 have uttered Jerusalem to its sorry judgment and have imagined Israel in the nadir of its existnece, due to its recalcitrance. None of this is here denied. But if these chapters constitute an intentional unit, then it is important that israel's final word is praise and thanks. That is because Yahweh's final act is not wrath but comfort. Yahweh does indeed do harsh work. In the end, however, Yahweh will do otherwise. Yahweh will give an abundant life. Of this, Isael must sing. To this, all the others are invited as well.

We Christians are reading this oracle by Isaiah during our own time of disruption, fully recognizing how much of the pain we experience is the result of our own sinning. And we can continue to rely on the nature of God, a God who will bring comfort to our lives. Let us also respond to the gifts that God has given us by singing praise.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A New Earth, a Reflection on Isaiah 65:17-25

Internal conversation I had with myself: How do we read this passage? Is it about heaven? Being about just heaven doesn't fit. But, if it's about life here on earth, is it realistic? Are we able to believe such promises? We can testify that the calamities that existed in Isaiah's times persist into ours; e.g., infant mortality, theft and usurpations, and, in the U.S., economic disruptions that have caused great losses in retirement accounts by many and great difficulty in acquiring resources by others who had not been able to accumulate much during the time of national prosperity.

The words from Isaiah call us to rejoice and promise long life, economic stability, and blessings. And peace. Creatures that are natural enemies will live together in peace.

Walter Brueggemann, in his Westminster Bible Companion on Isaiah 40-66 says:
This poet, and the Isaiah tradition more generally, knows that Yahweh's coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible. And although the work of urbanization is hard and daily and concrete, that work is situated in a vision unscarred. What this poet imagines for his treasured city, the subsequent people of faith have regularly entertained as a promise over every failed city. Here the old city is submitted to the wonder of the creator, the one who makes all things new.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Judgment is Coming, a Reflection on Psalm 98

In this week's gospel lection, Jesus tells them about destruction that is coming and what their response should be, "This will give you an opportunity to testify....I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict." He tells them that even their families and friends may betray them. The lesson from Malachi also faces the reality that believers may undergo pain and destruction.

From Luke and Malachi, we also get assurances that the Lord will be with us through our times of loss and pain.

Psalm 98 is a call to all of us to give thanks to the Lord who has done marvelous things for us, whose love has remained steadfast and faithful. And not just us few gathered in worship centers many weeks a year. All the earth is to sing praises to the Lord. All the earth.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presences of the Lord

Psalm 98 has appeared in the lectionary several times this year--including last week. What makes it particularly appropriate in this penultimate week of the Christian year is its attention to the eschaton, the time of final judgment:
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

We might consider how pleased or how irritated we are with the thought that the Lord is interested in everyone, not just the people who are in our particular denomination. We also might consider whether we are living lives that encourage our being comforted by the idea of judgement with righteousness and equity.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Day is Coming, a Reflection on Malachi 4:1-2a

In the gospel lesson this week, they are looking at the temple, talking about its significance. Not only was it adorned with beautiful stones but it was the place where people could bring gifts to God. Jesus warned them that the temple was soon to be destroyed.

Five centuries earlier, Malachi (since the word means messenger, we can't be sure if Malachi is a prophet's name or a description of his function) spoke to the faithful remnant--or, perhaps to the first returning exiles. He told them that they needed to change a lot of things from the ways they had been behaving before the destruction by Assyria of Jerusalem and the temple, "You have not been faithful in worship or in your dealings with each other. Repent."

In the passage from this week's lectionary, Malachi warns that the Day of the Lord is coming and that this arrival is not good news for evildoers. But, he promises that those who have been faithful will be rewarded.

At the time of exile, they could look back and contemplate rather they really had spent much effort on caring for widows and orphans, or being honest in business, and worrying about the welfare of the stranger. And at the time of Jesus, they also could also review whether they had followed those commands of the Lord or whether they had focused more on their own welfare. And, of course, here we are, with the same opportunities and temptations.

Jesus said, "For some of you, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings." Here's what Allen & Williamson, In Preaching the Old Testament, say about this assurance:
The good news in Malachi is that, although we sin long and hard, God never gives up on us. God's steadfast love is an adamant love, a love that will not let us go....

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Endurance, a Reflection on Luke 21:12-21

After listing the portents of the end--war, earthquakes, heavenly signs, Jesus warned them that before those disruptions would come arrests and persecution for them. The first hearers of Luke's gospel would have been witnesses to the disruptions both within the synagogues and with the Romans whose government and army occupied and controlled their nation.

Jesus said, "Your arrests will give you the opportunity to testify. You don't need to worry about what you are going to say because I will give you the words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict."

They are not to take this as an assurance that nothing bad was going to happen to any of them. They are not exempt from suffering. Rather, some of them were going to be betrayed by relatives and friends, some of them were going to be put to death, they were going to face hatred because of their loyalty to him.

Yet, he added, "But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls." Historically, tribulation did befall the early church. And, historically, God has continued to support the community through conflict--internal and external. Sharon Ringe in her commentary on Luke writes:
Even a false assurance (21:18)--for many would indeed suffer harm--echoes an earlier word of comfort (12:7). The final promise is not that they will be spared the suffering, but rather that their hope lies in endurance (21:19)--standing firm and refusing to give in to the evil around them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Signs of the End, a Reflection on Luke 21:5-11

They are talking about the temple, how beautiful it is--beautiful to see and beautiful in purpose. Then Jesus announces to them that one day this temple will be destroyed.

Those listening to him that day would have known about the destruction of the first temple and the pain and disruption of the exile that the destruction had signaled. Those would have read the words that the prophets had used to call the people to repentance and change and the accusations and sorrow that followed when they did not.

They responded to his announcement by asking "How will we know when this is going to happen?"

Jesus cautioned them not to be misled by some who would claim to be coming in his name. Still good advice. Then he told them what signs would foretell the end: Wars and insurrections, natural disasters, and great signs from heaven.

With help from Allen & Williamson's Preaching the Gospels, here are several texts that would be useful for background reading:

God destroyed the first temple because of Israel's unfaithfulness, Jeremiah 7:1-14
Signs of tribulation, 2 Chronicles 15:5-6; Daniel 11:20-44.
Elements of nature--earthquakes, famines, plagues, and astrological signals, Haggai 2:6; Zechariah 14:5

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Stand Firm, Hold Fast, a Reflection on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The Christian Year begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas with the season of Advent--this year, November 28. This period in the Christian calendar is more complicated that just waiting for Christmas, and I'll write a lot about this later. But for now, the weeks before Advent, the lectionary focuses on eschatology--end times, second coming, or the coming reign of God.

This week's lesson from 2 Thessalonians was written to caution those new Christians not to be unduly disturbed by what had to happen before the culmination and what was required while waiting.

Waiting was not, and still isn't, easy, especially when the waiting is taking place during times of disturbance. In this year's edition of The Upper Room Disciplines, Bishop Gregory Palmer writes:
When change, fear, or anxiety come, we must keep this in mind: God's great love, God's salvation, and God's faithfulness will lead us to confidence, growth, and the peace that abides in God's arms. Our purpose does not change. The tools we employ may vary. But our purpose--to be a sign of God's love and reign in this world--is unchanging.

BTW: Next year's book of daily devotions is already available, Disciplines 2011.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sing to the Lord a new song, a reflection on Psalm 98

One time when someone in the congregation complained about having to sing unfamiliar hymns, I told her that the Bible told us to and quoted Psalm 98:1, "Sing to the Lord a new song." Yes, I know that was snarky, but, I was kind often enough that they put up with me when I wasn't.

And, I wasn't just being snarky--this psalm does call us to newness. Every day, we have something to be grateful for that day. God has led us to a new victory over new problems.

The psalms include many laments which is appropriate since we find so many situations in our lives as individuals and our life in community to times of despair, fear, and need. Yet, the psalms also include praise and thanksgiving. As we read this week's lesson from Haggai, we can remember their pain at losing their country and their frustration at the length of time it was taking to reform their nation even after they had been granted release from their enemies. Yet, they turned to God, worked to rebuild their temple as the place where they could focus and proclaim their gratitude.

Let us continue to practice gratitude to God by singing the phrases of Psalm 98:
Shout with joy to the Lord,
all you lands;
lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.

Christ Church, Moscow Idaho sings Psalm 98.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Great is the Lord, a Reflection on Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21

If you have trouble finding words for prayer then consider Psalm 145 as a guide. And, if you aren't having any trouble finding words, you might consider it anyway. This psalm is a song of praise to God.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised

It reminds us to think about God and remember that so many have helped us to know about God and because they they shared with us we are not to keep those thoughts to ourselves:
One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your works, I will meditate.

We are part of a long line of worshippers who have praised God, learned about God's care, and told others:
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless his holy name foever and ever.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Take Courage, I Am with You, reflection on Haggai 2:1-9

Historical context: Judah's rebellion against the Babylonian empire resulted in an overwhelming defeat. The center of government, Jerusalem, fell, many people were taken into exile, and the Temple, the center of worship, was destroyed. Almost 50 years later, Persia defeated Babylon, and allowed the people to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (from commentary in The Jewish Study Bible.)

The word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai, "Tell the governor and the high priest and the remnant of the people that are left to remember the greatness of the Temple and to look at the rubble it was turned into."

Being faithful does not mean ignoring pain or defeat.

But, in their case, just looking and grieving was not all that the Lord had in mind for them. "Tell them: take courage, I am with you. I was with you when you came out of Egypt. I am with you now. Things are going to get better for you. Rebuild the temple."

No, the church is not a building, but gathering to worship is essential for the church. So, the building that houses that place is important. Many of the prophets had scorn for the temple and what went on there, but none of the prophets can be interpreted to mean that right worship is anything but right--and since the building is the place, then we who gather there should in all ways think and act as God's people.

Interesting sideline (also from JSB): The Lord promises that gold and silver from all over is going to come to Jerusalem. But, note that this treasure is not intended to enrich individuals; rather, it is the Lord's.

A portion of this passage is quoted in Handel's Messiah: Thus Sayeth the Lord

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Plea for Protection, a Reflection on Psalm 17:1-9

The psalmist asks for deliverance, and backs up the request by asserting his innocence. Thus, this psalm does fit the situation of Job. However, I can't help but wonder at least a little if it applies to me when I am in trouble. How often have I contributed to whatever particular difficulty that I find myself in?

So, I'm not sure that in every case, every day that I can say that there's no wickedness in me, that my mouth hasn't transgressed, that my feet have never slipped.

Yet, beginning in verse 6, I find the words ones that I can more honestly pray,
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words.

Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge
from their adversaries at your right hand.

The psalmist, although in great difficulty, is confident that God will always love and, in that confidence, turns for help.

Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me.

In the notes for Psalm 17 in the Wesley Study Bible, I learned that Charles Wesley had used the image of God protecting the psalmist with his wings in the hymn, Jesus, Lover of My Soul.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Know My Redeemers Live, Reflection on Job 19:23-27a

Job had replied to those who had been reproaching him, "How long will you torment me?" He recounted a list of people who had failed him, forgotten him, despised him. Attacks. Laments.

Then this. Job speaks confidently that he will be rescued and that he will be in God's presence. Many commentators and other readers assume that Job is talking about God when he says redeemer. For example, hear an excerpt from Handel's oratorio, Messiah:

I know that my redeemer liveth

Monday, November 1, 2010

Attempt to divide, a reflection on Luke 20:27-38

Jesus has come to Jerusalem. The crowds welcomed him enthusiastically but the religious authorities are not pleased with him at all. They have questioned him and eve sent spies to try to trap him into saying something about taxes that would warrant his arrest (19:29-26).

When that trick did not work, they try another. They try to force him to take a position on the theory the alternative he proposed would alienate either the Pharisees, who believe in resurrection, or the Sadducees, who don't. That is, the Sadducee asking the question doesn't want elucidation or support; he wants to try a wedge into the crowd of supporters.

The question was based on the requirement in Deuteronomy that if a man died without a heir, then his brother should marry the widow. They asked then if a seven brothers followed their law one after the other, at the resurrection, whose wife would she be?

Jesus responded first by stating that life after death is not like life before it. Resurrection is not merely resuscitation (also see 1 Corinthians 15:35-57).

Then he uses a reference to Exodus to remind them that those who are dead to us are alive to God.

I've used Sharon Ringe's commentary on Luke in this comment and now quote directly:
Jesus' response ends the riddles (20:39-40) but not the opposition. One who speaks so well that he is able to defuse the arguments of the powerful presents a clear and present danger to the public order, and appropriate steps must be taken.

Suggestions for All Saints Day Services

All Saints Day is November 1. Methodist churches often celebrate on the first Sunday of November, this year the 7th. Either way, the General Board Of Discipleship offers A Contemporary Global Celebration of All Saints Day/, written by Taylor W. Burton-Edwards.

The GBOD also offers Homiletical and Worship Notes:
Make this a festive day, and take time to give thanks and remember those from the congregation who died during the last year in the context of the great parade of men and women made holy by the Holy Spirit. Consider using a bell to toll for each person as each name is read. Consider using a brief refrain, spoken or sung, such as: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" or "Absent from us; present with the Lord (God)" or "Into your hands we commend their spirits."
You will find a service outline for All Saints' Day on the General Board of Discipleship's Worship Website.
See resources in the United Methodist Book of Worship (1989), 413-415.
You will find a helpful article called "Do United Methodists Believe in Saints?" in the November-December 2001 issue of Interpreter magazine (published by United Methodist Communications).
For many churches in the New York and Virginia-D.C. areas or other towns and cities that lost people tragically to the terrorism of September 11, 2001, this may still be a difficult day; but it also could be a reassuring and comforting day. It is another time to grieve in hope. It is a time to speak the names, remember the lives, and to honor those who have died, whether heroically or tragically.
Preaching on this day may be on one of the texts or may build on the texts. The first reading opens the subject of saints and holy ones. The second reading gets clear about the vision of "holy making" and God's means of working holy love in our lives by the resurrection of Jesus. The Luke reading takes us to the far edge of holy love's way — loving the enemy, the opponent. Consider focusing on saints as those who are baptized into Christ's royal priesthood — people who are stewards of sanctifying love. If you go in this direction, include a brief overview of Wesley's understanding of grace: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.
This is a day to celebrate Holy Communion and to experience the creed's affirmation: "I believe . . . in the communion of saints . . ."

Offertory Prayers, November 2010

GBOD continues to deliver the full text of each month's offertory prayers via email. You may also find the Offertory Prayers online at

November 7, 2010 — Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
God of all generations, pour out your goodness on this bounty so it multiplies according to your will. We rejoice in the teaching of Psalms as we strive to be more hopeful, merciful, and generous in our lives. We are committed to sharing your mighty acts with those in despair. We offer these gifts in thanksgiving and praise. May our ministry satisfy the thirsty across our community and world. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen. (Psalms 145: 1-5, 17-21.)

November 14, 2010 — Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Exalted Lord, how can we sufficiently prepare our hearts to stay firm in your love? We praise your name with songs and prayers, yet are we truly ready to stand on your promises and risk persecution for being a fully committed Christian? Are we devout to your will by the way we live and give? Our offertory response is one means of answering those questions. Thank you for this opportunity to dedicate these gifts as we become bold in our faith and slow in our judgment. Let your stream of living water flow from our lips as we share your good news. Amen. (Luke 21: 5-19.)

November 21, 2010 — Christ the King Sunday (Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)
Gracious God, you provide hope for our future. We join together in unison prayer knowing that you act as a loving parent who calms our worries and fears. You consistently give us truth unclouded by the good that you work in our hearts. Multiply these tithes and offerings so our hearts and our actions reflect your love. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen. (Jeremiah 23:1-6.)

November 28, 2010 — First Sunday of Advent
God of the Advent, as we joyfully enter this time of waiting, we feel nestled and safe in your everlasting peace. You have taught us the paths and choices that lead to being in your Temple. We wait, hushed in anticipation of the coming of your son. He serves as the guide of our lives and the shepherd of our souls. We hope to emulate his generosity and compassion as we share these gifts. Use these gifts so others can be blanketed with the warmth of your unconditional love, like a newborn baby wrapped in the loving arms of a parent. Amen. (Isaiah 2:1-5.)

Written by David S. Bell, former Director of Stewardship with GBOD. He currently serves as Vice-President of Stewardship with the United Methodist Foundation of Michigan. You may contact him by visiting

Copyright © 2010 David S. Bell. Any local church, regardless of denominational affiliation, or any United Methodist organization may reprint any or all of these prayers provided that the author is cited.

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