Day 79: Urgent, Urgent!

         Today’s reading: Mark 1-16; Psalm 120-121

Perhaps today is the first time you have read an entire gospel in a single sitting. It’s a great project to undertake and Mark is the perfect gospel for doing it. His is the shortest of the four gospels and is propelled along by a sense of urgency. In fact, in the New Revised Standard translation, the word immediately occurs twenty-seven times in this gospel. When it comes to the excitement surrounding Jesus, there is hardly time to catch your breath between episodes.

You probably noticed quite a few similarities today to passages you read the last three days in Matthew. The first three gospels in the New Testament are sometimes referred to as the synoptic gospels–“syn” = alike and “optic” = to see. Matthew, Mark, and Luke often see things very similarly in telling the story of Jesus. Mark is generally regarded as the oldest of the three, and many scholars concur that both Matthew and Luke had access to Mark or some previous source when they composed their gospels. One striking difference of Mark’s account from the other two is that there is no mention of Jesus as a baby.

Perhaps it is Mark’s eagerness to tell the story of Jesus’ ministry that makes it unnecessary for him to bother with a birth narrative. When the curtain opens in Mark 1, we are already down by the river with John the Baptist with Jesus on his way to be baptized. In the oldest manuscripts available to us, the gospel ends almost as abruptly as it begins. There are no nostalgic reunions with the disciples or post-resurrection speeches. Instead, the last sighting of Jesus is at his last breath, prompting a Roman soldier’s profession of faith (“Truly this man was God’s Son!”). As the curtain closes on the gospel, it is as if Mark passes the sense of urgency on to the reader–will we believe what we have just heard? And will we share it, too?

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Day 78: Thirty Silver Coins

Today’s reading: Matthew 19-28; Psalm 119

For those of us who profess the Christian faith, the value of Jesus’ self-giving love–offered through his life, death, and resurrection–is immeasurable. Our deep gratitude makes the scene surrounding his passion and death in today’s Scripture almost unimaginable and certainly difficult to hear. The participants in his crucifixion and others looking on appear to be not only unmoved by the dramatic events but casually dismissive of Jesus’ life. Soldiers rolling dice, public dignitaries spewing sarcasm, bystanders taunting him in his agony, thugs laughing in the background–for many of those present, it’s just another day at Golgotha, where crowds gather to get their cheap thrills by watching the suffering of others. And the price that it cost the religious authorities to be able to give the crowd today’s macabre show? Thirty silver coins.

This is the amount Judas agrees to accept in exchange for providing the window of opportunity when they can arrest Jesus under the cloak of darkness. The specific amount is mentioned three times, suggesting that Matthew wants to make sure we hear it. . .and with good reason. This same amount showed up just three days ago in our reading of the prophet Zechariah. Do you remember? After delivering God’s message, Zechariah instructs the leaders to pay him whatever they think he is worth. They settle on thirty silver coins–a trivial amount, we are told, that Zechariah deposits into the Temple offering box for the poor.

Sold out for little more than pocket change–a decision that hours later haunts Judas to the point that he cannot bear to live with its burden. So, thirty silver coins show up in the Temple again, thrown in self-disgust. The high priests gather them up and, ironically, get them out of the Temple as quickly as they can, knowing that blood money is on their hands.

At the end of the gospel, there is a grim reminder of Judas’ absence: “Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee. . .” All for thirty silver coins.

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Day 77: Slow Learners

Today’s reading: Matthew 10-18; Psalm 118

When I celebrate Holy Communion, I sometimes will say, “When Jesus came, he gathered a group of friends around him. . .ordinary people with flaws and blemishes just like you and me who became his disciples. It’s a reminder to the congregation that those early followers were not chosen because they were extraordinary or unusual. They simply responded to Jesus’ invitation to “Follow me.”

Even after they decided to follow, they still didn’t have it all together. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus nurturing the disciples along in spite of their bumbling. One of the things we learn about them today is that they are slow learners–can anybody out there relate? Consider these two scenarios that repeat themselves in Matthew’s gospel. In both cases, you would think that after the first experience, the disciples would be more prepared for what to expect the second time around.

In one scene from yesterday’s reading, they are all out in a boat and a storm comes along. The disciples are terrified. They ask Jesus to do something. . .and he does. Today, we read another episode about the disciples in the boat when a storm comes along. And guess what? The disciples are terrified again! Jesus calms them (and the storm) again, after his little faith experiment on the water with Peter.

The other repeat performance involves meals for the masses. Matthew is the only gospel that tells us not only about the feeding of the five thousand but also the four thousand, both found in today’s reading. The scenario is quite similar in both–hungry people, an isolated location, and only a few loaves of bread and a paltry amount of fish on hand. When the disciples ask Jesus what to do the first time, his answer is simple–feed them. They do, and after everyone is served there is plenty of food left over. So, the next time it happens, what do the disciples say? “Jesus, where are we going to get enough food?”

I don’t know about you, but I have this terrible habit of needing to learn things more than once. Today lets me know I’m in good company. I really want to be a disciple. If that early bunch of Jesus followers could do it, maybe there’s still hope for me, too.

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Day 76: Knowing Your Audience

Today’s reading: Matthew 1-9; Psalm 116-117

Just as the closing chapter of Malachi offered the perfect segue into the New Testament, today we open the book of Matthew and begin with a chapter that takes us back to the Old.  As you read through the genealogy of Jesus today, wasn’t it great to recognize so many names that perhaps meant nothing to you 75 days ago when you started this journey?

An overarching goal of Matthew’s gospel is to establish an indisputable link between the person and ministry of Jesus and the law and the prophets that preceded him. The opening genealogy places him in an ancestral line that traces back through the kings of Israel all the way to Abraham. Matthew’s multiple quotations from the prophets in the first three chapters–including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah–are employed to present Jesus as the fulfillment of their prophecies.

Matthew is also quite skillful at using Jesus’ own words to solidify the link. Notice that when he is out in the wilderness being tempted (Matthew 4), he quotes from Deuteronomy (the Law) and from the Psalms (Israel’s songbook for worship). And not only does Matthew show that this “Messiah” know his Scripture. . .he says himself that he has come not to do away with the sacred Scripture that includes both the Law and the Prophets, but to uphold it to the fullest (5:17).

Identifying these elements in Matthew’s narrative helps us appreciate how carefully he composed his gospel so it would connect with its target audience–the Jewish community of his day. The church can learn a great deal from Matthew–whenever we share the good news, it is worth paying attention not only to the message itself, but the way in which we offer it.

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Day 75: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Today’s reading: Zechariah 1-14; Malachi 1-3; Psalm 114-115

Congratulations! You did it! If you’ve been following the reading plan for the perfect 100 up to this point, you have now completed the Old Testament. Only a small percentage of people will ever accomplish that feat, so go ahead. . .give yourself a hand.

In the closing sentences of Malachi today, we hear the words “Remember” and “Look Ahead.” For Christians, they are the perfect words to connect the Old Testament and the New.  Having read the Old in the last seventy-five days, you now have a deeper  appreciation for the story of our faith. You understand more fully the context into which Jesus Christ was born. It is important to remember this context. The coming of the New Covenant does not dismiss or negate what came before it. In the New, we see the fulfillment of what was intended in the Old.

Throughout the coming days, you’ll become even more aware of how integrally linked the two testaments are. As you begin to read the New Testament tomorrow, keep your eyes open for allusions to the Old. It probably won’t take long to spot some you recognize on the very first day–Matthew was fond of quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures as a way of authenticating the story of Jesus to the Jewish community.

Look ahead. The good news of the gospel is coming!

 

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Day 74: Seeing Beyond Circumstances

      Today’s reading: Nahum 1-3, Habakkuk 1-3,                                                                                             Zephaniah 1-3, Haggai 1-2, Ps 112-113

Habakkuk sees it coming. Israel has already fallen and destruction is closing in on Judah. Why would God let a godless nation run roughshod over God’s chosen people, even if they have been disobedient? As the book of Habakkuk begins, this is the question he wants answered.

What we experience over the next few pages is the kind of wrestling sometimes required  for a person to move from doubt and discouragement to trust and hope. Habakkuk feels no need to conceal from God his true feelings, nor does he shy away from asking the uncomfortable questions on his mind. God welcomes his concerns, and in response reassures Habakkuk that there is a better future ahead, which can only be viewed by looking beyond current circumstances. It is in the honesty of the dialogue that we get a picture of healthy faith formation.

Sadly, the church often fails to model the character of God in this regard. Rather than welcoming and embracing questions that spring from doubts normal and natural to the human experience, religious leaders and teachers often squirm at the uncomfortable questions. They squelch the voices that are hungry for answers, calling instead on the ones that act like they already have all the answers memorized. Yet, the conclusion of this book suggests that it just might be those who are allowed to work their way through the hard questions that end up at a place of profound faith. In the end, even though the immediate landscape looks pretty awful, Habakkuk sings praise to the God whose work is not finished yet:

“Counting on God’s rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength.” (3:18-19)

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Day 73: A Reluctant Prophet

      Today’s reading: Obadiah 1, Jonah 1-3,                                                                                                                       Micah 1-7, Ps 110-111

Poor Jonah. He really just wanted to be let off the hook. He was perfectly content with his life in Joppa and had no interest in being the messenger for God, especially to the people of Nineveh. How dare God ask him to participate in God’s plan to save those people who didn’t deserve it! As we discover near the end of the story, Jonah knew God well enough to know that was exactly what God would do.

Jonah is quite different from anything else we read among the prophets. While the rest of the books in this section of the Bible focus primarily on the content of the prophet’s message, in Jonah we get almost no content. In fact, he speaks a grand total of one sentence to the Ninevites: “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.” Not exactly a speech that would tend to win friends and influence people. Yet, the immediate response is one of repentance and trust in God.

What we get in Jonah is a reminder that ultimately it is not the messenger that matters but the one who sends him. God’s saving work can be accomplished even in the absence of eloquence or enthusiasm.

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Day 72: Connecting the Dots

      Today’s reading: Joel 1-3, Amos 1-9, Ps 109

In the book of Amos, our second reading for today, we get a sense of God’s passion for justice and fairness. It is a theme that we will hear repeated over the next few days as we come to the end of the Old Testament. Amos begins with pronouncements of judgment against Israel and its neighbors. In each case, they are found guilty of acting unjustly.

In a number of previous readings, we have heard prophets condemn Israel for its failure to worship properly. Today, we get the other part of the equation. Right worship is not an end in itself, but is intended to lead the congregation into right living. It’s the kind of living that pays special attention to how the most vulnerable members of the community are treated. Just as God demonstrates compassion and mercy, so the people are to bear witness by living out these God-identifying characteristics.

The voice of Amos has reverberated across the centuries, finding a home wherever people have struggled against oppression and injustice. From the civil rights movement in our own country, we hear echoes of his appeal to the Israelites in the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. In his most famous speech, I Have a Dream, one of King’s most familiar lines is a direct quote from its Biblical source:

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (5:24)

 

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Day 71: Unconditional Love

      Today’s reading: Hosea 1-14, Ps 108

Today’s reading takes us back to the early eighth-century BCE. You may recall that it was at this time Isaiah began serving as a prophet to the southern kingdom, Judah, during the reign of Uzziah. Our prophet for the day, Hosea, was Isaiah’s contemporary and served as a prophet to the northern kingdom, Israel, during that same era.

In the book of Hosea, we get the intriguing story of a prophet called to live out his call in a surprising and unusual way. Hosea is told to marry a prostitute, Gomer. It is an outlandish request that God makes. After all, how could Hosea expect the people to listen to anything he said if, according to the laws of the covenant, he violated the codes of purity and contaminated himself in such a shocking way. The command given to Hosea reveals that God cares much more about the spirit in which the law is lived out than the letter of the law.

God’s plan for Hosea has a distinct purpose, and for this prophet it just may be that what he does will speak much louder than anything he says. In the early chapters, we learn that Hosea binds himself to Gomer in marriage and remains faithful to her, even rescuing her when she leaves him at one point. While no analogy is perfect, the intent of Hosea’s lived-out message becomes clear when matched with what he is then told to speak: As Hosea’s love is for Gomer, so God’s love is for Israel. No matter what they have done, God will not abandon them.

As well as reminding us of the kind of love God has for Israel–and for us, perhaps Hosea’s example is also a witness of the kind of love we are meant to have for each other. The purest form of love we can offer is the unconditional kind.

 

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Day 70: Unwavering

      Today’s reading: Daniel 1-12, Ps 107

Our reading for today introduces us to a larger than life figure in Israel’s history. Daniel’s story reads in so many ways like that of Joseph, who centuries earlier had played a leading role in his people’s future. Like Joseph, Daniel finds that his gift for interpreting dreams  elevates him into a position of power and authority within a foreign ruler’s government. Like Joseph, Daniel acts with both wisdom and courage. Perhaps the most striking feature of Daniel’s character, however, is his unwavering commitment to honor God. Against the backdrop of Israel’s faithlessness highlighted in so many of our readings in recent weeks, his example stands out in sharp contrast.

In the person of Daniel, the people of Israel get just the role model they need. Imagine mothers and fathers in the generations after Daniel, telling their children how their ancestor would not bow down to the powerful king of Babylon. Imagine the children’s eyes growing wide as they listen to the story of Daniel being thrown to the lions. Imagine the confidence and bold faith inspired as the story comes to an end and Daniel steps out of the den unharmed. The one, true God has kept him safe in the face of great danger. No wonder he became such a favorite figure in Israel’s storytelling. . .and why he is still such a great example for us today, kids and adults alike.

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