Bible Study March 4 for Worship March 24

Bible Study March 4 for Worship March 24

Luke 19: 28 And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples,
30 saying, “Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here.
31 If any one asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, ‘The Lord has need of it.’”
32 So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them.
33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.”
35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it.
36 And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road.
37 As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen,
38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
39 And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”
40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”


Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. This is the central drama of the Christian Faith. We are at the beginning of an emotional roller coaster that will take fus rom the high point of the crowds hailing Jesus as King, through the intimacy of the Last Supper, the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane to the low point of the crowd demanding Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday. Then we wait at the foot of the cross sinking ever deeper into despair, until we take his poor dead body off the cross and place it in the tomb. We travel through the emotional wrench of Holy Week to arrive at Easter Sunday, when the Empty Tomb proclaims the joy of resurrection. And we can’t get to the joy of Easter without experiencing that roller coaster of Holy Week. And so we begin at the beginning with the Palm Sunday Parade.

The Mount of Olives is a large hill/small mountain that lies to the East opposite Mt. Moriah that was the high place where the Temple was located, and today is the location of the Dome of the Rock. The Mount of Olives is somewhat higher than Mt. Moriah, so the view from the top of the Mount of Olives looks somewhat down upon the Dome of the Rock, and in the time of Jesus as he crested the top of the Mount of Olives he was looking down on the Temple.

The Mount of Olives is the peak of a climb from Jericho up to Jerusalem. This is a considerable incline that rises from about 1400 feet below sea level to approximately 2700 feet above sea level. So over a distance of about 20 miles the road rises over 4,000 feet. The Mount of Olives was home to two villages Bethphage on the Eastward slope of the mountain facing away from Jerusalem and Bethany lying almost on the crest of the mountain.

Jesus had several friends and followers who lived in Bethany, Mary, Martha Lazarus, Simon the Leper. Bethany may have been the center of Jesus’ mission to Judea. We should note that every evening during Holy Week, he left Jerusalem to spend the night in a different undisclosed location in Bethany. If Jesus had not been betrayed into the hands of the Temple police by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, the authorities would have had a hard time locating him to arrest him.

Jesus arranged for the colt to ride in advance, because he wanted his entrance into the City to call to mind the words of the prophet: Zechariah 9: 9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.” Now we have to try to discern whether Jesus made these arrangements in advance in order that his entrance into the City should fulfill this scripture, or did the early church tell the story in such a way as to have the story fulfill the scripture. Many prominent commentators believe the early church embellished the stories of Jesus’ life to make them appear to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. But we can argue persuasively that a mass demonstration accompanying his entrance into Jerusalem would have been a good strategy for confronting both the Romans and the Temple Authorities. Messianic Jews would have been familiar with all kinds of scriptures like Zechariah 9:9 and Zechariah 14: 4 On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward.
5 And the valley of my mountains shall be stopped up, for the valley of the mountains shall touch the side of it; and you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD your God will come, and all the holy ones with him. This passage may have also provided the template for the earthquake reported to have accompanied Jesus’ death.

Jerusalem was crowded for Passover. Many Passover Pilgrims camped on the sides of the mountains surrounding the City. As Jesus and his disciples came over the Mount of Olives creating a “demonstration of support” for Jesus, thousands of other Passover Pilgrims may have joined the parade, if for no other reason than to see what was going on. This enthusiasm then created a kind of circle of protection for Jesus as he proceeded to challenge the authorities in the Temple itself. They could not arrest him for fear of the crowd. This also explains why he left the City each night to spend the night in an undisclosed location, so he could not be arrested without a crowd around him.

Jesus’ purpose then appears not to have been to foment violent rebellion but to engage the people and the Temple authorities in honest confrontation about the future of the Jewish people. Did he know when he led the Palm Sunday Parade that his effort would result in his death? Very possibly, after all he had the example of the execution of John the Baptist. But maybe he still had a glimmer of hope like so many other non-violent heroes after him that peaceful change might still be possible.

Every year we travel the same journey of Holy Week, but each time if we keep our eyes and ears wide open, God can reveal something we have never seen or heard before. Maybe this is the year we finally understand Peter’s fear, when he is accused of being a follower of Jesus. Or maybe we can see the screaming unwashed mob from the point of view of the more established leaders, who were afraid things were getting out of hand. Maybe we finally come to an appreciation of the man who lent Jesus the donkey for the ride into the City. Let us pray that somewhere in the course of Holy Week, God will give us new understanding of the story that lies at the center of our faith.


1. Where was Jesus coming from when he “came up to Jerusalem?”

2. How many disciples did Jesus send to find a donkey?

3. Where did he send them to find the donkey?

4. What were the disciples supposed to tell the owner of the donkey?

5. How did Jesus’ disciples initiate a demonstration?

6. What did the disciples shout to stir up the crowd?

7. According to the text in the midst of the demonstration, who rebukes Jesus?

8. Why do they rebuke him?

9. How did Jesus answer their rebuke?


1. Do you think Jesus had arranged for the donkey in advance?

2. Do you think the donkey actually happened, or was it an embellishment to the story provided by the early church?

3. What do you think might have motivated the donkey owner to cooperate?

4. If you had been one of the disciples how would you have felt about borrowing someone’s donkey?

5. Do you think members of the crowd spontaneously joined the Jesus demonstration, or do you think they were “stirred up” by the disciples?

6. Have you ever found yourself swept up in a public demonstration?

7. If you had been a Passover Pilgrim do you think you would have joined the Jesus demonstration?

8. If you had been one of the disciples what would you have thought about the large crowd following your teacher into the Temple?

9. What do you think motivated the Pharisees to rebuke Jesus?

10. If you had been a member of the crowd, when you arrived at the Temple, how would you have felt about Jesus over turning the tables of the money changers and driving out the sellers of the sacrificial animals?

11. What detail of the Holy Week Story do you find most compelling?

Week of March 18 – March 24: Palm Sunday – Luke 19:28-40 – Into Jerusalem – Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23, Luke 23:1-49.


This short passage may hold an important clue about Jesus and his ministry. First of all we learn that not all Pharisees were unfriendly to Jesus. The Pharisees were a broad group of people working on redefining Judaism and the Law of Moses. This movement had begun during the time of captivity in Babylon, and the effort to redefine Judaism was gathering momentum, because so many Jews were living outside of Israel away from the Temple. The rabbis were becoming as important a source of leadership as the priests or Sadducees.
Now there were strict Pharisees and there were more liberal Pharisees. Certainly Jesus would have been numbered among the more liberal like Rabbi Hillel. After the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the Sadducees, the priests, were all killed or deported. Thus the main opposition to the early church, resisting the claims of the Jesus movement, came from the Pharisees. The Pharisees still survive in the form of Rabbinic Judaism. The early church then found itself in competition with and in opposition to the Pharisees, but Jesus himself would have been identified as a Pharisee although a more liberal Pharisee. The Pharisees in our scripture were certainly on Jesus’ side over against Herod.
We can note from this passage that Herod was concerned enough about the ministry of Jesus to consider having him arrested and perhaps executed like John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Mark Chapter 6 verse16, Herod was afraid, that Jesus was John returned from the dead to haunt him. When Jesus asked his disciples, “who do the people say that I am?” They replied, “John the Baptist.”
We might ask then this morning, if Jesus was so meek and mild, why was Herod so concerned about his ministry? In Herod’s eyes Jesus was dangerous — radical and revolutionary. He advocated for the poor. He preached sharing. He opposed the oppression of the peasants and the fishermen. He said radical things like, “the meek will inherit the earth.” Herod represented the wealthy over against the poor. He represented the way of violence to keep the masses in their place. He had the power to arrest and execute people in his territory.
One reason Jesus conducted an itinerant ministry was to stay one step ahead of arrest. His choice of Capernaum as his headquarters was strategic. He could walk just over a mile and escape from Herod’s jurisdiction, into the Tetrarchy of Phillip. He could climb into a fishing boat and sail a few short miles and find himself in the territory of the Decapolis. At one point Herod’s secret police were so close on his trail, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon — a completely different Province. If Jesus had not been arrested and killed in Jerusalem, he probably would have been executed eventually in Galilee.
Why was Herod so afraid of Jesus? Why was George Wallace afraid of Martin Luther King or Ross Barnett so afraid James Meredith? Why was the British Viceroy afraid of Mahama Gandhi? I heard a story on NPR Ira Glass’s “This American Life,” that provides a clue. This story was told by the father of a four year old.
It all began at Christmas two years ago, when my daughter was four-years-old. And it was the first time that she’d ever asked about what did Christmas mean? And so I explained to her that Christmas was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she wanted to know more about him. So we went out and bought a kids’ bible and had these readings at night. She loved him, and she wanted to know everything about Jesus.
So we read a lot about his birth and his teaching. And she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we would talk about those words and what that meant.
Then one day we were driving past a big church and out front was an enormous crucifix. She asked, “Who’s that?”
I guess I’d never really told that part of the story. So I said, “Oh, that’s Jesus. I forgot to tell you the ending of the story. Well, you see Jesus ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.”
It was about a month later, after that Christmas, we’d gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant. And it was mid-January, and her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools. So Martin Luther King Day was off. I knocked off work that day and I decided we’d play and I’d take her out to lunch.
We were sitting in a restaurant, and right on the table where we happened to plop down, was the art section of the local newspaper. And there, big as life, was a huge drawing by a ten-year-old kid from the local schools of Martin Luther King.
She asked, “Who’s that?”
I replied, “Well, as it happens that’s Martin Luther King. And he’s why you’re not in school today. So we’re celebrating his birthday, this is the day we celebrate his life.”
“So who was he?” She asked.
I said, “He was a preacher.”
She looked up at me and asked, “Like Jesus?
“Yeah, actually he was. But there was another thing that he was really famous for. He had a message.”
She asked me, “What was his message?”
“He said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about that for a minute. And then she said, “Well that’s what Jesus said.”
“I guess it is,” I replied. “You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And it is sort of like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
She thought for a minute and looked up at me and then asked, “Did they kill him, too?”
On Maundy Thursday after sharing communion we have a Tennebrae Service reading the Good Friday scriptures. After reading the part of the Good Friday story, where the crowd asks Pilate to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, we have a short prayer of confession that addresses, “Did they kill him too?”
“Jesus, can’t you understand? You called our leaders hypocrites. You showed the emptiness of our worship. You sided with the poor – the nobodies. You said the harlots and tax collectors would enter the kingdom before us. Your teaching was too radical. You asked too much. Can’t you see we must get rid of you? Barabbas is less dangerous. We can handle his kind, but you are too disturbing. Can’t you understand, we have to crucify you?”
The light that shines forth from a truly authentic and courageous human being causes the powerful to tremble. For power based on lies, terror, violence and intimidation will always attempt to destroy the truth, and the forces of darkness always live in fear. For the truth will out. The truth sets people free. In the end the people of the lie will fail. The non-violent heroes of the truth will prevail.
Our scripture this morning includes foreshadowing of Jesus’ death: “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.” Jesus could foresee his death, and he knew his execution must become a symbol. Dying in a dungeon in Galilee or being beheaded in a fortress like John the Baptist away from public view would not embody the national crisis. Only if Jesus had an opportunity to confront the Temple authorities would his death highlight the need for spiritual reform. In the words of Jeremiah 31:33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The truth is if we have the courage to follow Jesus inevitably we will incite some of the same kind of hostility and opposition Jesus faced. We sometimes like to believe that being a Christian will make us good solid middle class citizens, who are liked and well thought of, but we are not called to be “Christians.” We are called to follow Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that Jesus was not crucified on a cross of gold between two candle sticks, he was executed by the state between two thieves, because he dared to challenge the conventionally good people who were in charge.
If we were charged with following Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Following Jesus requires authenticity and courage. Bravery is not one of my strengths. I feel more like the disciples on the night of Jesus’ arrest, ducking out and vanishing at the first sign of confrontation or trouble. My prayer is that during this Lent and Easter I might be encouraged by the resurrection. I might find new fortitude to follow the way of Jesus with renewed authenticity and faith. So if you will pray for me, I promise to pray for you that together we might become authentic and faithful to the way of Jesus.

Bible Study for Monday February 25 for Worship March 17

Bible Study for Monday February 25 for Worship March 17

Isaiah 43: 16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.
19 Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.


“I am doing a new thing,” says God! God is always doing new things. We are almost always lagging behind where God is moving in the world, and we need to run to catch up. The new thing God was up to in the time of Second Isaiah was bringing the Jewish captives in Babylon home to Israel. The military might of the Babylonians had been crushed, and God was going to do a new thing by making a way in the desert for his people to return to their homeland.

In the First Century God was doing a new thing in Jesus and the church. You have heard that it was said, “and eye for an eye, but I say to you love your enemies.” God was doing a new thing in Christ to show us the way to the Commonwealth of God.

Many Jews returned to this passage, when the Jewish homeland was reborn in Israel in 1948 after the devastation of the Holocaust. They especially paid attention to the rivers in the desert as new Israeli agriculture converted waste land into forest and wilderness into productive crop land as they made the desert bloom.

The question we must face in the church in the 21st Century is what new thing is God doing in our time in our world? Almost all churches are hemorrhaging membership. Church budgets have been stretched to the breaking point, and many congregations will be dissolving in the next twenty years. The new thing God may be doing is saying: “change or die.” Become faithful in following the way of Jesus, or your institutions will collapse. Something new is not necessarily good news for the institutional church. Learn to adapt and grow or die.

Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, seeks to document the tremendous cultural upheaval all around us, and how that is affecting the church. Her theory is that about every 500 years Western Culture experiences a massive displacement, and after about a 100 years of uncertainty and upheaval new cultural forms and new expressions of faith emerge on the other side. The last great upheaval according to Tickle was the Protestant Reformation. She claims that we have now entered into another great cultural upheaval, and we cannot even begin to predict in what form our social institutions especially the church will emerge from this cultural transformation.

In case anyone is not clear that we find ourselves in the midst of dramatic change think about these questions. Thirty years ago, who would have predicted most of us would be carrying around phones in our pockets and pocket books? Twenty years ago how many of us had heard of the internet? Ten years ago who would have imagined we would be surfing the internet on our phones? One month ago, who would have predicted a Papal resignation?

We live in the midst of change. If we refuse to recognize that change, and how that change is changing us, and the how that change is affecting the church, then we are dooming the church to irrelevance and eventual extinction. One of the changes that made the Protestant Reformation possible was a revolution in media — the printing press. Today once again we are experiencing a revolution in media brought about by the internet. How the changes in media will reshape the church we can only begin to see, how congregations choose to respond will determine their futures.

God is doing a new thing! Verse 18 “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.” It always helps to know where we come from, how we are connected to our roots. Indeed, the Great Emergence, seems to be calling many congregations to renew their connections with ancient liturgies, symbols of faith and spiritual practices. There is a renewed interest, even a hunger, for ancient spiritual practices, meditation, prayer, chanting, prayer beads, but always adapted in new ways and new forms. God is doing a new thing!

The call to a re-visioning process at United Church is our opportunity to figure out what God is calling us to do and become in the Twenty-first Century. We need courage and faith to step into a planning process that will seek to discern what new thing God is doing among us.


1. Where all does God make a path?

2. What will happen to chariot and horse, army and warrior?

3. What is the reader asked to forget?

4. According to the Psalmist, what is God up to?

5. Where does God promise to “make a way.”

6. What will God send to the desert to make it more hospitable.

7. What is the purpose of God’s people?


1. How might God make a way through the sea?

2. What are some of the former things that are no longer useful?

3. How can nostalgia become destructive?

4. What new things have you experienced God doing within your life time?

5. What cultural changes you observe are most troubling?

6. What cultural changes you observe are most hopeful?

7. Are there changes going on around you, that you just can’t keep up with?

8. For you what would be like finding a river in the desert?

9. What do you find happening around you for which you would most like to give God praise?

Week of March 11 – March 17: Fifth Sunday of Lent – Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126 (UMH 847), Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Honest Self-Reflection

The first Sunday of Lent we focus on the temptations of Jesus. Lent is a time of testing, when we try to deny some of our appetites in order to develop some spiritual discipline. Now I want to be the first one to admit, my struggle with will power. As a diabetic I do well avoiding sweets. But I regularly succumb to over eating. I constantly find myself saying, “well I will try again tomorrow.” And one of the keys to any Lenten discipline is if we fail not to give up but just to start over again. Jesus’ temptations are not our temptations, but maybe if we examine them more closely we can see ourselves in Jesus’ struggle and learn.
Fasting or “giving up” something for Lent has been a traditional spiritual exercise to mark the six weeks leading up to Easter. In recent years the practice has fallen out of favor especially among Protestants, but maybe in our unwillingness to discipline ourselves by fasting we are missing something important about the spiritual life.
When we make a commitment to deny one of our appetites, we are trying to use our minds and our spirits to exert some control over our bodies and our passions. The discipline of self-denial can bring us into struggle with the dark side of our natures. One Lent I was preaching about Jesus embracing his dark side in his temptations in the wilderness. A visitor got up and walked out. Carol Howie, God bless her, concerned that maybe he was ill, followed him out of the sanctuary, and asked if he needed any help. The stranger turned and said in a very upset voice, “Jesus didn’t have a dark side.”
For those who need to think of Jesus as “perfect” Jesus struggling with his dark side is upsetting. If the temptations of Jesus weren’t real, if he didn’t feel the temptation, and truly know the potential for sinfulness within himself, then Jesus wasn’t fully human like us. And if Jesus wasn’t fully human like us, then what’s the point of the incarnation?
SLIDE 6: And if we doubt the necessity of knowing, embracing and integrating the dark side of our natures, just look at the tragedy of Olympic Hero Oscar Pistorius. Known as the Blade Runner Pistorius was the first paraplegic to compete in the London Olympic Games. Running on carbon fiber blades he competed as an equal. He was hailed as an Olympic Hero. This past week on Valentine’s Day of all days he shot and killed his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius has been charged with murder. The press is now reporting the Dark Side of the Blade Runner. And as our friend and favorite criminal defense attorney will tell us, we are all capable of acting out of our dark side.
Jesus’ temptation to change stones into bread can be seen as our tendency to experience everything through the lens of our material desires. God knows we need bread, but we need more than bread to sustain us spiritually. We need more than material stuff. We complain we don’t have enough time for spiritual matters, but the truth is we Americans are working fools. We work longer work weeks, have shorter vacations and fewer holidays than any other work force in the developed world. And we do this in order to afford the affluent life style to which we would like to be accustomed. Our obsession with accumulating stuff is sometimes called “affluenza.” We make tremendous sacrifices to acquire material things, because we think they will make us happy, missing the point that maybe happiness isn’t the point, but peace and joy are conditions of the spirit.
Our God is gracious and generous and gives us enough each day for our need. “Give us this day our daily bread.” But the abundant generosity of God is not enough for us. We want tomorrow’s bread too, and next week’s bread, and next month’s bread, until we become like the rich fool who pulls down his barns and builds bigger barns to store his stuff (or he rents at an off-site storage facility), not knowing that he is scheduled to die that very night, and his spiritual account is meager. And how do we make deposits into our spiritual accounts: prayer, worship, mission, charity, cultivating love in relationships. Perhaps in the simple act of fasting God can help to re-direct our concerns from our material stuff to our spiritual needs.
The temptation to power may not seem relevant to many of us, but over and over again, at work, at church even in our families and relationships there is struggle over power and control. We may not aspire to play out our power needs on a national political stage, but our need to have power and control over our lives can be seen in our families, our work places, even in church.
You doubt your own need for power? Consider this, the number one reason for fighting in marriage is money. Money is monetized power. Money is a symbol that can tell us, who is in charge, who controls the purse strings.
I’m reminded of a couple in a previous church, and both of them worked in their own business that provided a good income. One day the husband came home with a new pick-up truck without consulting his wife. When the wife saw the truck, she asked what’s that, he said, “I needed it!” The next day the husband came home from work and the wife was in the home/office wearing a new fur coat. The husband, asked, “What’s that?” The wife replied, “I needed it.” They eventually realized that it wasn’t about money, and they worked out the power issue.
Power issues in churches are often played out over money. And one reason power is such a difficult issue in the church is because church, especially congregational style churches is one of the only places people feel like they have any control or say so in their lives. Most of the institutions in our lives don’t give a damn about our preferences. When was the last time the State, or the City, or the School District, or your Employer, asked for your input on a decision affecting your life? Congregational Churches on the other hand are about as close to a participatory democracy as you can get, and one person can have an impact. So church often suffers from folks acting out their frustrations over feelings of powerlessness in the other institutions of their lives.
The temptation to play God, to assume we are immortal, that the universe should make exceptions for us is something with which we might all identify. We put off doing what we really want, because we assume there will be a tomorrow. Bob Neuschaefer kept warning us travel, while you are still able. Yet many of us live as if we will be able to travel and perform feats of physical strength, when we are old. We put off making health and lifestyle changes willing ourselves to remain ignorant of the abuse to which we are subjecting our bodies. Perhaps we are seldom confronted with the stark decision Jesus faced to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. Our pinnacles are lower and the consequences are further in the future, and so we believe we can have our cake and eat it too. But sooner or later the consequences catch up to us, and too late we realize we will not survive the fall.
Another more subtle way of playing God is in our judgments of other people. We have no idea the path that another human being has walked, but we reserve for ourselves the right to judge them. We also make decisions for other people, when we choose not to confront them. We are in a sense withholding information from them and judging their behavior. We are also playing God, when we manipulate people or withhold information to take away their right and responsibility to make decisions for themselves.
What we might identify with the most is in verse 13 of our passage: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” Understanding when we are most vulnerable to temptation can be a great aid in surviving enticements without surrendering. Nikos Kazantzakis in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ explores the theme of the devil returning to Jesus at an opportune time, when Jesus was suffering on the cross. The story is really about Kazantzakis rather than Jesus, but it might prompt all of us to examine the “opportune moments” of temptation in our own lives.
As I have said, my greatest temptation is overeating. And there are times when I am feeling good about myself, when my appetites are well regulated, my ego is under control, and I am well rested. At times like that I can most of the time resist temptation. But when I am over busy, tired, distracted, depressed, or alternatively when I am elated and full of myself, then I am most likely to over indulge. Those two states probably take up 50% of the time. We need to know ourselves, because the truth and only the truth will set us free. Part of knowing ourselves is to understand all of the disparate parts of our personalities. Like Jesus we have to know and embrace the dark sides of our personalities.
What’s the greatest temptation in your life? Can you identify it? Can you own it? Can you embrace it, and be honest about it? Jesus showed us the way.
Bill Green wrote a Still Speaking Devotional that addresses our need for integration. We can’t know God’s love if we overlook parts of ourselves we’d rather weren’t true. Sooner or later that trips us up. “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17) The truth will out. We’re a blessing to God and one another when we’re open and honest. Let us begin the season of Lent with honest self-reflection acknowledging weakness as well as strength, our deceits as well as our honest moments, our resentments as well as our love, our doubts as well as our faith, our fears as well as our hopes, and all of the disparate parts of our lives that are simply out of control. Let’s honestly take it all to God in prayer, and let God help us put it together.

Bible Study February 18 for Worship March 10

Bible Study February 18 for Worship March 10

Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.
2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons;
12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.
13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.
14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.
15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘
20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet;
23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry;
24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant.
27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’
28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,
29 but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’
31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”


We like to focus on the younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We all long to be welcomed home by the Father. We are forgiven and the party is in our honor. And indeed, as the church reaches out to people outside the church we need to understand that God really, really wants to welcome everyone to come home. But where we in the church can really be helped is if we focus our attention on the elder brother.

The older brother has always done it right. He is responsible, hardworking, dutiful, and when God gives a party to welcome his worthless, irresponsible brother home, the older brother naturally refuses to join in the celebration. This worthless scum of a brother needs to be punished, made to shape up and become hardworking and responsible like the older sibling. Of course the older brother objects to the father’s misplaced generosity. Let’s see if we can understand the older brother, and maybe we will begin to understand how we need to change, if we are going to follow the way of Jesus.

The older brother feels badly for the way his younger brother treated his father. Verse 12 should probably be translated: “old man why don’t you just drop dead, so I can get what’s coming to me when you die!” How could this younger son treat his father so? Surely the poor father was cut to the quick by his younger son’s behavior, and the older boy feels badly for the father.

The older brother probably also resented his younger brother for wasting the family resources. That no good brother took a third of the estate and went out and blew it. Now we can ask how did the older brother know the younger brother blew his money on prostitutes? Is the older brother doing some projecting of his own repressed desires? Frugality and dutifulness are virtues, but for Jesus they tended to be lesser virtues than generosity, love, faithfulness and forgiveness. In another passage Matthew 23:23 where Jesus engages with the self-righteousness of the law keepers he says: “Woe to you, law keepers, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, but you have neglected the weightier matters of the law — justice, mercy, love and faithfulness; your minor virtues you ought to have done, without leaving the major virtues undone.”

A clergy colleague used to talk about “hot sins” and “cold sins.” The hot sins are sins of the passions or of the flesh: lust, anger, gluttony, addictions, even sloth. The cold sins are sins of the spirit: greed, envy, pride, self-righteousness, gossip, excessive business. This colleague noted that “good” people like the older brother make a big deal about the “hot sins” of others, but they don’t even recognize the “cold sins,” that Jesus thought were more problematical that the sins of the flesh. One way to explain Jesus’ attitude is that the hot sins tend to get us into trouble. We know we have sinned, and the consequences can drive us to our knees seeking forgiveness. People who commit the cold sins usually aren’t even aware of their self-righteousness and so they seldom if ever seek forgiveness. Sin is sin, but the cold sins often go un-forgiven, because they are un-confessed.

How do we help the elder brother come to the party? How do we give up our resentments of those who we see as profligate, and share in the father’s generosity. Part of our national debate going on centers around the resentment of those who have saved their money and done everything right from a good middle class perspective. Those people who need Medicare, Social Security, Food Stamps and Unemployment are seen as leeches who have been unwise and profligate. They should be punished rather than welcomed to the table by the father. I also see this kind of resentment, when I hear people in the church complain, “can’t you find some new members who have some money?” Or when people object to welcoming “everyone” into the church. The Older Brother in the story ends up being more alienated from the father’s love, than the younger brother ever was. How do we help the older brothers in the church find the forgiveness they need to come home?


1. In the original passage, for whom was Jesus telling the story?

2. How many children did the father have?

3. What did the younger son ask of his Father?

4. After receiving his inheritance, where did the younger son go?

5. What causes the younger son to seek work?

6. What kind of work is he about to obtain?

7. When did the younger son “come to his senses?”

8. When the younger son goes home, what does he propose to his father?

9. What did the father do for the younger son?

10. How did the older son find out his brother had come home?

11. What reason did the older son give for not coming in to the party?

12. How did the father try to convince the older boy to come to the party?


1. Who in our culture would you compare to the scribes and Pharisees?

2. Who in our culture would you compare to the tax collectors and sinners.

3. Who do you think the Father in the parable represents?

4. Who do you think the younger son in the parable represents?

5. Who do you think the older son represents?

6. When the younger son returns home, do you think he was truly repentant?

7. Have you ever received grace you didn’t deserve?

8. Why do you think the Father welcomes the younger son back home?

9. How might the Father have informed the older brother of the return of the younger son?

10. Do you think the older son was justified in his resentment?

11. The story is unfinished. How do you think the story should come to an end?

Week of March 4 – March 10: Fourth Sunday of Lent – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Embracing Love – Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, II Corinthians 5:16-21.

Mountain Top Experience

Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. In this story Jesus is revealed as a spiritual being meeting with both Moses and Elijah. The story is not without precedent as a story about a Holy Person: Mohammed’s night journey, the awakening of the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, the revelation of Zoroaster, Rama Krishna under the Banyan Tree. Jesus transcends the limitations of flesh on the mountain top and becomes a being of light. He then returns to his fleshly body to continue his ministry and begins preparing for his passion in Jerusalem.
When Beth and I visited Israel in 1998, we rented a car and drove to the top of Mt. Tabor, one of two possible sites for the Mount of Transfiguration. This Monte Sano size mountain sits in the middle of the Jezreel Valley with a view of many of the important places in Israelite history. To the East there is the Jordan River life blood of Israel. To the Southeast is Mt. Gilboa, the place where Saul and Jonathan were killed by the Philistines. To the South is Megiddo one of Solomon’s chariot cities and the place where King Josiah died in his battle with the Egyptians. To the West is Mt. Carmel site of the contest between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal. To the North is the mountain where Jesus’ home village of Nazareth was located. And Mt. Tabor was itself the site of the battle, where the prophetess Deborah led the Israelites in defeating the Canaanites.
The air was clear, the sun was bright, and the impression I had was Mt. Tabor was an historical even a sacred place. The chanting of the monks in the monastery lent an otherworldly flavor to the mountain top experience.
Jesus didn’t take all of the disciples to the mountain top, just Peter, James and John. While Jesus was praying his appearance was altered. “Dazzling white” apparel in the scriptures is usually associated with angels. It would seem that Jesus in those instants made a transition to a different level of consciousness, a different level of existence. He became in those moments perhaps a spirit being. The two men who talked with Jesus “appeared in glory,” the same kind of dazzling white apparel and visage. The disciples were described as “heavy with sleep.” Perhaps Jesus had been long in prayer into the night, when the disciples awoke to his transfiguration. Another possibility is “heavy with sleep” is intended to communicate a state of altered consciousness.
As the two visiting luminescent figures were preparing to leave, Peter offered to construct three booths, like the structures made of branches used during the Feast of the Tabernacles. Peter wanted to try to preserve the moment, capture the sacred. But sacred moments cannot be captured. The spirit blows where it wills, and we cannot seize it or hold on to it. We cannot live on the mountain top. At best we can hoist a sail, and hope that we can catch enough of the wind of the spirit to propel us where God wants us to go.
As Peter cried out, a cloud overshadowed them, and the disciples were afraid. Then a voice spoke from out of the cloud saying: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice from the cloud made almost the same statement as the voice at Jesus’ Baptism. Unlike the Baptism of Jesus, the voice on the mountain top was definitely heard by and seems to have been intended for the three disciples. The cloud was the Shekinah, the Hebrew symbol of the Holy Spirit.
Human beings have come to refer to important spiritual events in our lives as “mountain top experiences.” The view from the top of the mountain literally lifts our horizons. We feel above it all and that sense of enlarged vision can be inspiring. Temples and religious shrines historically have been located on the “high places,” that change our perspective.
Something extraordinary happened that day as Jesus was revealed in his glory, and perhaps spiritual glory was revealed to Jesus in preparation for the terrible suffering he would face in Jerusalem. This revelation may have inspired him to press on despite the horrible suffering that awaited him. He became for a few minutes a being of light and energy. After all we are all made of star dust. Not only can this story prompt us to reflect on this special experience of Jesus, but we might all ask ourselves what “mountain top” experiences have we had, and how God might have been at work in our lives through those spiritual encounters?
Like the “turning points” of our lives we talked about three weeks ago, what have been the mountain top experiences that have changed our perspective on our lives? Inspiration and hope are common themes of mountain top experiences. Emotional inspiration can keep us going, when we confront life’s difficulties. Moses brought the tablets of stone down from Mount Sinai, he also brought with him a vision that sustained him for 40 years leading a complaining recalcitrant people in the wilderness, and that’s hard.
I remember when I climbed Mt Sinai. We had to get up at 2 a.m., and we started out in the darkness. I had envisioned a small group of spiritual pilgrims setting out for the summit of the sacred mountain. Instead, we had an intimate group of about 2,000 tourists climbing up the mountain that morning.
Our guide had arranged for us to ride camels half way up to the summit. That’s as far as camels can take you. The camels knew where they were going, and they were anxious to get there, because then they could get these stupid humans off of their backs and get something to eat and rest. There were a number of Europeans climbing the mountain that day. The Germans especially liked to walk four a breast across the trail somehow figuring they had the right of way. The camels had other ideas. We had no control over the animals, and like I said, they knew where they wanted to go, and they weren’t about to let anything or anybody stop them.
I tried yelling a warning, “camel, camel get out of the way.” But like I said, the Germans insisted they had the right of way, right up until the camel would run over them or push them aside. It was embarrassing, having angry Germans scream obscenities at my back, but we had no control over the animals. They knew where they were going and they were determined to get there.
When we finally reached the summit, we almost froze to death waiting for the dawn. The night sky began to lighten, and finally the sun came over the horizon, and I was struck by the absolute desolation of the desert all about.
God speaks in the wilderness because only out of that profound quiet can we be attuned to listen.
Another prophet almost 50 years ago spoke of a mountain top experience that like Jesus gave him the courage to continue leading even in the face of threats of martyrdom:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
A lot of people can climb to the top of a mountain, but the mountain top experiences that give us courage, faith and hope to continue on in the face of life’s difficulties and challenges, those are the spiritual experiences that really count. When we can rise above the everydayness of life just enough to get a glimpse of the horizon of hope.
But from where does our hope come? Is our hope in progress? Is our hope in the stuff we accumulate? Is our hope in ourselves? NO! One of the great psychological and spiritual crisis’s of our time is narcissism, our persistent and obsessive focus on our selves. We are not the answer. We aren’t even the question. We are not the source of hope. To paraphrase Paul, if for this life we have hoped in ourselves, we are truly to be pitied. Truth is all of us are going to die. Of our own effort we have no hope. A good cure for narcissism is to take a lawn chair and go sit in a cemetery until we learn we are not the center of the universe.
God’s love for us is our only hope. And it is not God’s will that any of us should be lost, no matter how hard we may try. The ancient Psalmist speaks the truth in poetry:
Psalm 139: 7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
God has made us from star dust, and God gives us imagination to aspire to become beings of light and energy. On that mountain top in Galilee, three disciples witnessed the transformation of Jesus into light and energy, and that is our hope. We will die, just as Jesus surely died. But death is not the final answer. For nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord

Bible Study February 11 for Worship March 3

Bible Study February 11 for Worship March 3

55:1 “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.


This passage is from “second” Isaiah. He was a prophet writing to the exiles in Babylon. His purpose was to give hope and inspire faith. This passage contains images that were called upon by Jesus in his teaching and other writers and teachers of the faith. It is a rich passage.

The prophet was writing to a people who were spiritually starved and thirsty for hope. He was picturing God offering to those who placed their faith in the divine love a limitless supply of food and drink. “Come to the waters. Come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” This passage sort of sounds like the extravagant welcome of the Sharing Table. Think of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. Anyone who is hungry, who will admit they are hungry can be fed. Maybe the problem of so many modern folks is we are so full of our stuff, we cannot feel our spiritual hunger. God wants to welcome us to a table of love and sharing, if we will put down our material possessions long enough to come to the table.

In verses 3, 4, and 5 Isaiah gives a kind of mission statement for the people of Israel. Nations will come to you to see what it means to be God’s people. The nations will learn from you and come to worship the one true God. If the people of Israel turn to the God of David, then God will make a covenant with them to become a blessing to all the peoples of the earth, sort of an echo of God’s promise to Abraham, that Abraham and his family would become a blessing to all the families of the earth.

But there is a moment of opportunity. A door or a window is open in the present moment for the people to return and reclaim their relationship with God: 6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Maybe the key is that in that moment the Israelites who are weak will indeed put their faith in God, rather than themselves. While they are yet dependent upon God, there is an opening for them to deepen and strengthen their relationship with the divine.

Verses 8 and 9 eloquently express in metaphor the important affirmation God is God and we are not. Even if the Israelites are God’s chosen people, that is a call to humility rather than pride. Only by humbling themselves can the people of Israel become God’s instrument of redemption for the world.

Verses 10 and 11 are a beautiful metaphor in a land that is always on the verge of drought. Vernon Volz , a Northeast Colorado dry land wheat farmer can attest to the importance of timely moisture and just the right amount of snow cover in order to nurture the winter wheat to fruition. The prophet compares the word of God to timely moisture, that can save the people from starvation. The difference between abundance and prosperity and want is the Word of God. Notice how verses 10 and 11 hearken back to verses 1 and 2: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

Isaiah then closes with another metaphor that has inspired a wonderful Hebrew folk song:

You shall go out with joy
And be led forth with peace
The mountains and the hills
Will break forth before you
There’ll be shouts of joy,
And all the trees of the field
Will clap, will clap their hands

And all the trees of the field
Will clap their hands
The trees of the field
Will clap their hands
The trees of the field
Will clap their hands
While you go out with joy.

As we at United Church think about Isaiah 55 let us remember it is an open invitation to one and all to eat and drink at the table of God. Jesus practiced open hospitality eating with everyone – commensality. That is the message of United Church. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome at the sharing table. The message of open commensality was radical in Jesus’ time, it is still radical today — Open Invitation!


1. In verse 1 of Chapter 55, who is invited?

2. Who is doing the inviting?

3. To those who are invited, what is being offered?

4. What impediments might get in the way of the invitation?

5. What is the nature of the covenant mentioned in verse 3 through 5?

6. According to the Prophet what is important about the present moment?

7. What is being offered to those who “return?”

8. According to the Prophet how is God different from people?

9. What metaphor does the Prophet use for the Word of God?

10. What does the text promise to the people?


1. What do you hunger and thirst for?

2. What does our modern culture try to use to satisfy our hungers?

3. If the Prophet is writing to United Church, how do you understand verses 3 through 5?

4. What do you think is God’s covenant with United Church?

5. What do you think United Church needs to do to keep the covenant with God?

6. Are there special moments, when relationship with God are more open than others?

7. In what ways do you think God is calling you to greater humility?

8. In what ways might God be calling United Church to greater humility?

9. If God’s word is the essential moisture that brings life, what should we be doing with God’s word in our lives?

10. If God calls upon people to bear fruit, what fruits do you think you can produce?

11. What fruits might God be trying to cultivate at United Church?

Week of February 25 – March 3: Third Sunday of Lent – Isaiah 56:1-9 – Open Invitation – Psalm 63:1-8, I Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9.