In the Office: “His Face Was Radiant”

In today’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 34:18-35), Moses is nearing the end of a visit to the top of Mount Sinai, where God is giving him the words of the covenant. And when Moses comes down the mountain to return to the people, we’re told:

radiant

That speaks to me this morning. Granted, what the scriptures are describing here is almost undoubtedly a supernatural phenomenon occasioned by direct and personal contact with God’s presence. And yet, by extension, might we not hypothesize (or at least hope) that there would be a certain “radiance” to our faces as a result of the time we’ve spent with the Lord? We may not climb sacred mountains and chisel God’s words in tablets of stone. But doesn’t the very fact that you’re reading this suggest that we’re attempting to enter some kind of sacred space in which God’s Word is allowed to permeate our hearts and change our lives? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the “radiance” of that encounter could “shine before others” for the rest of the day in the look of our face, the tone of our voice, and the holiness of our lives?

Of course, we all too easily allow one thing or another to “veil” the radiance. We get too busy, or too anxious, or too distracted by lesser gods to allow the lingering light of the LORD’s presence to illuminate our interactions with others. But it need not be this way. If we’re willing, God’s promise to us is that we, “who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

May it be said of us today that our faces are radiant. And may we become light as we follow the One who is the Light.

In the Office: Faithful Transmission

Today’s reading from the Book of Psalms (Psalm 145) is one of many wonderful expressions of praise that we find as we move toward the end of the Bible’s treasury of poems and songs. As such, it is filled with phrases that resonate across the pages of scripture: “Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise!” (v. 3) “The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” (v. 8) “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations.” (v. 13)

But one of the things that strikes me about this psalm is the way that it describes a process of “faithful transmission” — in which both “giver” and “receiver” are fully invested — in order to insure that God’s glory and faithfulness are given their proper due. “One generation commends your works to another” the psalmist says:

They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty —
and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They speak of the power of your awesome works —
and will proclaim your great deeds. (vs. 5-6)

In other words, it takes both: people who will declare God’s glory and people who will attend fully to the glory declared so that they, in turn, can declare it to others. All of which begs the question: Are we being intentional about our role (or roles) in this vital transmission process? Are we meditating on what we hear from others about God’s goodness and faithfulness, and are we declaring His goodness to others so that they, too, can become a part of an unbroken chain of worship and witness?

The Apostle Paul offers a similar word in one of his letters to Timothy: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). May we be faithful today in our listening and our speaking (and our living) so that God’s glory will be more fully known.

In the Office: Out of the Book

Have you ever found yourself asking to take the punishment that someone else deserved? In yesterday’s Old Testament reading, we saw how the people of Israel broke covenant with God by fashioning gods for themselves; and in today’s lesson (Exodus 32:21-34) we see the ramifications of that sin.

Like yesterday’s passage, there are elements of today’s verses that it’s hard to know what to do with. Moses, for example, summons to his side “whoever is for the Lord.” And when the Levites rally to him, he sends them rampaging through the camp, killing their fellow Israelites. Is this an action that God commanded, or one that Moses took on his own? (In the text, Moses tells the Levites, “This is what the Lord says.” But we never hear God give this instruction.) And if we do see this slaughter as the result of God’s direction, how do we keep those who think they are on the Lord’s side from inflicting violence on those who they perceive to be the Lord’s enemies?

The passage also has elements of comic relief. My favorite moment comes when Moses asks Aaron how he could have sinned so grievously by fashioning a golden idol for the people, and Aaron responds: “They gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (v. 24). (Honest, Moses! the gold got made into a calf all by itself!)

But the moment that captures my attention today is when Moses pleads with the Lord to obtain mercy for the people. And after acknowledging their fault, he says: “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (v. 32). What could motivate such a request? Is Moses he trying to protect God’s reputation? Is he foolish? Or — does he have such a deep love for a sinful people that he is willing to “stand in the gap” and accept their punishment if that’s what it takes to bring them back to God? Would we be willing to accept such a dramatic consequence in order to make it possible for others to receive God’s mercy?

In the end, of course, we can’t take the penalty for someone else’s sin. But we know the One who can. We know Jesus, of whom the scripture says:

He was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Thankfully, we will never have to ask God to remove our names from the Book of Life so that others can be included. But may we have such deep love for sinful people that we’re willing to point them to the One who did take their punishment; so that they, too, can receive the mercy that enables them truly to live.

In the Office: Holy Cow!

In the OfficeToday’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 32:1-20) serves up the story of the Golden Calf, that infamous incident in which the people of Israel fashioned an idol right after entering into a covenant with God that forbade such behavior. Now, it has been a while since I studied this text; and so, I’m reluctant to attempt any bold pronouncements about it (especially verses 9-14, in which God expresses His intentions to destroy the people, and Moses seems to “talk Him out of it”). But what does strike me this morning are the twin temptations that seem to provoke the people’s unfaithful behavior.

First, the people fell prey to the temptation to demand a god who works on their timetable. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down the mountain,” the chapter begins. There is within most of us a “perceived schedule” by which God “ought” to act. And when God fails to work on that schedule, it can be awfully easy (too easy?) to start looking around for something that can move things forward.

Second, the people embraced the temptation to demand a god who shows up in tangible ways. The Israelites gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” In other words, “We want gods we can see — gods whose visible presence assures us that we’re moving in the right direction.” But when scripture tells us that “faith…is assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1), perhaps we can understand the danger of exchanging the way of moment-to-moment trust for one of manufactured certainty.

Of course, it would be nice to think that we’re too enlightened to give in to such temptations. But perhaps we can acknowledge — that sometimes — we still crave a god who operates on our schedule. And it’s still very tempting to bow down before gods that produce tangible results, rather than trusting in the God who promises that He’s with us, even when we can’t perceive His presence.

What “golden calves” that are hindering our covenant relationship with God today?

May we turn from our idols today and cling to the One God who can lead us into promise.

In the Office: Drive-Thru Lessons

In the OfficeThis morning, I did something that I don’t usually do: I went to a fast-food drive-thru on the way to work to get a breakfast biscuit. Now, I like a good biscuit as much as anyone. But I know they’re not good for me, so I tend to reserve them for special occasions (like Fridays, birthdays, and other days that end in “y”). Even when I’m allowing myself one of these indulgent treats, however, I still like to get my day started quickly. And so, I tend to rely on fast-food establishments actually providing “fast” food…and that’s where my teachable moment began.

For reasons that I hope were unintended, this particular fast-food establishment (which shall remain nameless to protect the not-so-innocent) had only two employees on duty: one cooking the food, and the other running both the drive-thru and the counter. That was it. No other cooks. Nobody prepping orders to get them to the customers. And as a result, both lines were significantly backed up, and the whole visit took about four times longer than I had expected it would. Needless to say…I was “miffed.”

When I arrived in the office, I wolfed down my biscuit (probably because I felt like I needed to make up for lost time). And then I turned my attention to these words, which happen to kick-off the reading from the psalms (Psalm 105) in today’s Daily Office:

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
    tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
    seek his face always. (emphasis added)

Of course, the psalm then goes on to recount the “wonderful acts” of the Lord. And in so doing, it reminds me that we always have a choice about where we’re going to focus our attention. We can dwell upon the frustrations and pains that threaten to inconvenience or harm us — with the result that we’ll probably find ourselves feeling bitter or anxious and will spend our day nursing our grievances. Or we can “look to the Lord” and “seek His face always” — with the result that we’ll see any frustrations and pains we might encounter in the broader context of His strength and His faithfulness and will spend our day celebrating the assurance that nothing can separate us from His love.

Of course, I’m a pastor. I should know this. And I do know this. But as I’ve heard it said, sometimes the longest journey is the trip that truth has to take while moving from our head to our heart.

May that journey prove to be remarkably short for you today. And may all of us look to the Lord and seek His face always, discovering in the process that He is more than able to handle any minor inconvenience — and any major challenge — that might come our way.

In the Office: The Aim

In my sermon preparation this week, I’ve been reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the Christian philosopher and author Dallas Willard:

willard

Conveniently, today’s Old Testament lesson (Exodus 19:1-16) underscores this truth:

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (vs. 3-6)

Naturally, there’s a lot that goes into becoming that “kingdom of priests” (or “all-inclusive community of loving persons”). So many of the things that we often think of as being the “point” of our sacred pursuits — worship, evangelism, study of the scriptures, and so on — are essential elements in the life that makes it possible for us to reach this greater goal. And yet, unless we keep this true aim in mind, we’re all-too-easily convinced that the focus of our spiritual life is meant to be “me and God.” We devote ourselves to my growth, my prayers, my ministry — which are all vital, to be sure — but which can never come to full fruition unless they’re conformed to the mind of Christ, which the Bible describes as “looking not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

So, here’s my question for today: What are we doing (or could we do) to put our spiritual life (our knowledge, our gifts, our time, our resources) at the service of that “all-inclusive community of loving persons” through which we find our true calling and in which God will one day dwell?

May all of our attitudes and actions today be the ministrations of “kingdom priests,” who stand between a holy God and a hurting world and point them to the One Mediator who alone can make them whole.

 

In the Office: Be Shepherds

Today’s New Testament lesson (1 Peter 5:1-14) is one of those passages that I hope expresses the spirit of my ministry:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

I’m not sure that I could ever “live fully” into this particular job description; in its simple summons to watch over, to serve, and to be an example there are endless opportunities to question my motivations, my methods, and my devotion to the task. But on the whole, I’m captured by the notion of being a servant of the “Chief Shepherd”; and as a result, it means a great deal to me that my congregation has come to think of me not as “Reverend Martin” but as “Pastor Alex.”

In the Office

Of course, while this passage is addressed specifically to “elders” who have a specific role within the churches to which Peter is writing, I think that it’s fair to point out that just about everybody has a “flock that is under your care.” It might be a family or a group of friends; it could be neighbors or a group of coworkers. But whatever the particular nature of our “flock,” God has placed all of us within situations where we have the opportunity to “be shepherds”. So, how different might the world be if all of us who follow the “Chief Shepherd” embraced the opportunities that He gives us to watch over, to serve, and to be an example?

May all of us serve faithfully in the fields of our Lord this week; and may we live a life worthy of our Chief Shepherd, who promises to reward all of His good and faithful servants.

In the Office: Where Are We Pointing?

Today’s readings challenge me to think more deeply about the fundamental attitudes with which I pray and live. On the one hand, we have today’s reading from the psalms, which happens to come from Psalm 17. Now, this is one of those biblical prayers that takes a rather confident (perhaps too confident) approach to seeking God’s favor. The psalmist says, Hear me, Lord, my plea is just…Hear my prayer; it does not rise from deceitful lips…Though you examine me at night and test me, you will find that I have planned no evil…My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not stumbled.” 

pointingAdmittedly, prayers like this have always seemed a bit arrogant to me. I typically feel much more comfortable with the spirit of Psalm 19, which takes a much more humble stance in terms of personal righteousness: “Who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.” But then again, wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing — and a desirable thing — to be able to point to our lives and say both confidently and accurately, “Lord, I have lived with obedience and integrity”?

Of course, I’ve become completely convinced that such a life is only possible when we are becoming more and more yielded to God’s Spirit. And that’s where today’s gospel lesson moves my thinking to a deeper level. In John 16:1-15, Jesus talks about the promise of the Spirit and says: “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”

A scholar named Dale Bruner has studied this and other passages and has come to the conclusion that it would be appropriate for us to think in terms of the “shyness” of the Spirit. “What I mean here,” he writes, “is not the shyness of timidity — but the shyness of deference, the shyness of a concentrated attention on another; it is not the shyness (which we often experience) of self-centeredness, but the shyness of an other-centeredness.”

If we want to picture the ministry of the Spirit, Bruner suggests, we could start by drawing a stick figure (representing Jesus) on a blackboard. Then, to express what the Spirit does, we stand behind the blackboard, reach around with one hand, and point to the image of Jesus: “Look at him, listen to him, learn from him, follow him, worship him, be devoted to him, serve him, love him, be preoccupied with him.”

Of course, Bruner goes on to observe that this same “shyness” characterizes the other members of the Trinity. Jesus doesn’t walk around saying, “I’m the greatest!” but instead, takes on the role of a servant and prays to his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” And even the Father, when he speaks at Jesus’ baptism, says, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.”

So, where does this leave us? Perhaps here. It’s a good thing to live in such a way that we can point to our lives and know that we are showing others an example of godliness and Christlikeness. But the ultimate goal in such situations is never to point to ourselves — but to point to the power and grace of the Triune God who makes such living possible. Perhaps the Apostle Paul put it best when he said: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)

Where are we pointing today? May our words and our lives direct people’s attention to the One who loves us and gave himself for us.

In the Office: Into a Spacious Place

I had the opportunity to take a few days off recently, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The rush of Easter-related activities at my church — combined with some deaths in my church family and some sermons that didn’t come together as easily as I had hoped — left me feeling a little “shut in” by stress and weariness. Please understand, however, that in saying this I’m not seeking pity. After all, I think that all of us encounter times when our souls feel cramped and our options seem limited. I’m simply acknowledging that there are those circumstances that make us long for a sense of balance and freedom and “openness” to return.

Enter today’s psalm (Psalm 18:1-19). David understood that feeling of being surrounded by hemmed in by troubles. After opening his psalm with an expression of devotion and trust, he gives voice to his predicament: The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.” (verses 4-5) But even from within the confines of his prison, David knows that he serves a God who shatters tombs and opens prisons and sets captives free. And so, his lament is transformed into an expression of deliverance and thanksgiving:

He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
He brought me out into a spacious place (emphasis added);
    he rescued me because he delighted in me. (verses 16-19)

psalms-118-5

The Lord has brought me into a spacious place, and I give thanks for that. But in addition, I pray that the next time I feel “imprisoned” — because let’s be honest: there will be a next time — I’ll be able to remember that there is always room to breathe for those who dwell within the ever-present embrace of God’s love. As Eugene Peterson puts it in his rendering of Ephesians 3:14-19…

My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

May the Lord lead you into a spacious place today, my friends. And may you live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

In the Office: So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt?

If you caught my “In the Office” reflection yesterday, you’ll remember that the people of Israel were last seen singing God’s praises for bringing them safely through the sea and drowning the Egyptian army behind them. But in today’s Old Testament lesson (Exodus 16:1-10) — which comes just nine verses and approximately 75 days later — they’re already starting to complain: “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (verse 3).

At one level, of course, it’s easy to be critical of such a grumbling spirit. How could anybody be so quick to forget the Lord’s previous blessings and to jump to the question, “What have you done for me lately?” Certainly, we would never do something like that, would we? [And come on, now. Let’s pause for a moment of honest reflection.]

In the Office

But I think the deeper dynamic that’s revealed by this passage is how difficult it is for us to trust in God’s future. We’re on our way to the Promised Land! And we’ve got all kinds of evidence that God is with us and plans to guide us and protect us and provide for us. But when the way gets hard — and when we struggle to imagine how God could ever bring good out of the situation in which we find ourselves — it often feels easier to do business with the devil you know than to rest in the promise of the God whose ways are sometimes beyond our knowing.

I find myself wondering this morning: In my life, the life of my family, and the life of my church — what are the ways in which I’m resisting God’s invitation to “Come further up. Come further in!” (as C. S. Lewis once put it) and plotting instead to “go back to Egypt”? Maybe that’s a question we should all ask from time to time.

May our promise-making God call you forward today, my friends. And even in your moments of need, may you discover that He is more than able to set a table in the wilderness.