The Broken Power of Death

Scripture Focus: Hosea 13.14
14 “I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; 
I will redeem them from death. 
Where, O death, are your plagues? 
Where, O grave, is your destruction? 

Psalm 146.3-5
3 Do not put your trust in princes, 
in human beings, who cannot save. 
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; 
on that very day their plans come to nothing. 
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, 
whose hope is in the Lord their God. 

Isaiah 25.8
8 he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. 

1 Corinthians 15.54-56
54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 

     55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
         Where, O death, is your sting?” 

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Reflection: The Broken Power of Death
By John Tillman

Hosea and Isaiah’s ministries overlapped and their writing echoes each other. Paul paraphrases their promises of resurrection into one of his brightest, most hopeful refrains. This chorus of hope comes most directly from one of the darkest chapters of Hosea.

Rather than rely upon God, Israel and Judah had turned to political alliances and the gods those allies worshiped. But these “princes” would soon commit atrocities. These sound eerily familiar to ones committed by today’s powerful countries who bomb maternity wards and civilian evacuation corridors.

Death is not only dispensed at the whim of greedy empires but is carried on the wings of disease and aging. What hope can we have against death? This question is common to the people of Israel and Judah in Isaiah and Hosea’s day, to downtrodden outcasts under Rome’s rule, and to those targeted by empires and dictators today.

The poor and the powerless are overrun by death. They have no defenses and little strength to resist or slow its advance. They are helpless.

Wealth and power do much to extend life. The wealthy can easily flee conflict and the powerful are welcomed to new countries rather than crammed into inhumane camps. Experimental and expensive life-saving and life-extending medical treatments are common among the powerful. Absent these extreme examples, even simple, quality of life differences add years to the lives of the wealthy. However, in the end, the rich, the powerful, and the poor all die. The teacher of Ecclesiastes would call these efforts meaningless or absurd. (Ecclesiastes 3:19)

To the unbelieving world, for whom mortal life is all there is, death is ultimate. It is the worst thing that can happen to a person and there is no remedy.

Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us and it does not have the final word in our lives but that does not mean we should not grieve it. Lazarus was only four days in the grave, yet Jesus wept. (John 11.35) We weep and mourn death, but not without hope. (1 Thessalonians 4.13)

While we flee or delay death, scripture describes death’s defeat. God promises the grave will not be our final destination. We will only pass through and when we leave, we will be led by Christ himself. For those in Christ, death is a toothless predator, a limbless wrestler, who cannot hold us down for long.

Death which swallows all, will be swallowed up.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
You are the Lord, most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods. — Psalm 97.9

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Hosea 13 (Listen 2:26)
Matthew 16 (Listen 3:43)

This Weekend’s Readings
Hosea 14 (Listen 1:39), Matthew 17 (Listen 3:46)
Joel 1 (Listen 2:59), Matthew 18 (Listen 4:25)

Listen to Too Much to Hold on the Pause to Read podcast
In Christ, we’re made to be like him
Too much for Death to hold

Read more about Stealing Death’s Sting
Untie our grave clothes and strip us of the trappings of this world.
Let us walk into the light and follow your loving voice.

Maintain Love and Justice

Scripture Focus: Hosea 12.6-9
6 But you must return to your God; 
maintain love and justice, 
and wait for your God always. 
7 The merchant uses dishonest scales 
and loves to defraud. 
8 Ephraim boasts, 
“I am very rich; I have become wealthy. 
With all my wealth they will not find in me 
any iniquity or sin.” 
9 “I have been the Lord your God 
ever since you came out of Egypt; 
I will make you live in tents again, 
as in the days of your appointed festivals. 

James 2.1
1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.

Psalm 82.2-4
2 “How long will you defend the unjust
    and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
    uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Reflection: Maintain Love and Justice
By John Tillman

Ephraim was another name for the people of Israel in Hosea’s time. They saw wealth as a shield, protecting them from being found guilty. They were correct. Wealth is a double shield.

The first shield is human assumptions about wealth. The prosperity gospel assumes that faithfulness and financial blessings are linked, but Christians didn’t create this idea. Human cultures have always considered wealth and power markers of divine favor even when they had no god other than greed and success. This skews the assumption of innocence in favor of the wealthy. From street cops to the Supreme Court, the benefit of wealth grants the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the law.

Charles Spurgeon, discussing Psalm 82, challenged the magistrates of his day to enforce the law equally: “Do not hunt down the peasant for gathering a few sticks, and allow the gentlemanly swindler to break through the meshes of the law.”

The second part of wealth’s shield is that, whether innocent or guilty, the wealthy have great resources to defend themselves in legal matters. Some people and businesses are willing to pay millions to armies of lawyers to prevent paying compensation to even one victim of their carelessness, incompetence, negligence, or criminality. The cash they can spare. What they value is the illusion of righteousness.

It is not just modern people who notice one justice system for the poor and another for the rich. Hosea saw and condemned it. Ephraim saw and abused it. In their days, James (James 2.1-9; 5.1-6) and Charles Spurgeon saw and spoke against it. But more importantly, God saw then and sees now.

Ephraim expected to continue living in lavish luxury, protected by the shield of wealth—but God saw. God promised to return them to living in tents as wanderers and exiles—and God did. 

Let us pray that God would bring justice in our day to people, rich or poor, according to their ways and deeds. May God himself expose those who assume justice cannot penetrate their defenses. May we examine our own hearts and maintain love and justice. (Hosea 12.6)

Let us challenge those who swing the state’s sword of justice rashly and wildly at the poor, yet cautiously hesitate to prosecute claims against the powerful, prominent, and wealthy. Let us advocate for our legal system to live up to its written ideals of equal justice under the law.

We must. For God sees.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
My eyes are upon the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me. — Psalm 101.6

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Hosea 12 (Listen 1:51)
Matthew 15 (Listen 4:23)

Read more about A Way Back for Strivers
As Israel lied, deceived, and cheated his relatives
We have lied, deceived, and cheated our brothers and sisters.

Read more about Distrust of God and Fraud
It is the unbelief and contempt of heaven, which make men risk it for the poor commodities of this world.

Clumsy Doves

Scripture Focus: Hosea 11:10-11
10 “They will follow the Lord;
     he will roar like a lion.
 When he roars,
     his children will come trembling from the west.
11 They will come from Egypt,
     trembling like sparrows,
     from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
 I will settle them in their homes,”
     declares the Lord.

Reflection: Clumsy Doves
By Erin Newton

During the pandemic, we all became amateur birders, right? Confined to our homes when businesses and schools shuttered for a varied amount of time, I think many of us started to look out the window. I was one of those people who moved all the bird feeders to the window with the best sunshine and comfiest chair.

We have a dozen different species of birds nearby. Hawks, crows, and vultures rule the skies. We also have daily visits from cardinals, chickadees, finches, and roaming the ground—doves.

The hawks soar and swoop effortlessly. The cardinals are adept at flying down to the feeder and back up to the limbs ever so quickly. The doves—well they fly down, flapping their wings rather clumsily. When I read about the return of the Israelites fluttering back home, it paints a vivid picture in my mind.

Fluttering sounds nice and soft, like a butterfly landing on a rose. The NIV translation, however, is a bit poetic when describing the “fluttering” of the doves and the “trembling” of the sparrows. The Hebrew text uses only one verb for both birds: “trembling.” It seems that the NIV misses some of the depth of the Hebrew here.

Theological dictionaries point out this word describes someone (or something) that is frightened. In fact, the essence of the word is not fully understood unless the element of panic is also embedded in the image. They are not fluttering like butterflies in a meadow. They are trembling, terrified—wobbling down to the ground in the clumsy flight of a dove.

Why are they so afraid? They are following a roaring lion. Like Aslan in Chronicles of Narnia, he is not “safe,” but he is good. They follow the Almighty God, not the weak gods of their idols.

But I imagine they are also a little traumatized from living in exile and experiencing the previous invasion by the Assyrians or rule by the Egyptians. 

It is no ordinary thing to experience God. We might treat it as common but usually only when life has been “safe.” Pain tends to heighten our spiritual sensitivities. Some of us stumble into the presence of God after the long dark night of the soul. Some emerge from the consequences of sin, only to see God roaring as a lion—not to devour—but to lead us home.

Even in our clumsy, stumbling spiritual journey, we can trust in his promise of compassion.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. — Psalm 36.5

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Hosea 11 (Listen 1:53)
Matthew 14 (Listen 4:14)

Read more about Hearts God Moves
May God move in our hearts, as in the hearts of the returning exiles, making his dwelling place with us and shining brightly through us.

Read more about Beyond Second Chances
Haggai spoke to people returning from exile. They are at home, yet homeless, returning to a flattened, burned, destroyed city.

Confessing Idolatry—Guided Prayer

Scripture Focus: Hosea 10.12-13
12 Sow righteousness for yourselves, 
reap the fruit of unfailing love, 
and break up your unplowed ground; 
for it is time to seek the LORD, 
until he comes 
and showers his righteousness on you. 
13 But you have planted wickedness, 
you have reaped evil, 
you have eaten the fruit of deception.

Reflection: Confessing Idolatry—Guided Prayer
By John Tillman

During election week in 2020, we prayed this prayer from Hosea, seeking repentance, patience, peace, and faith. We return to this prayer today, knowing that idols can be adorned in the colors of any political party, candidate, or movement. Let us pray that we not adorn any “sacred stone” but Christ the rejected cornerstone.

Confessing Idolatry
God, Hosea tells us Israel built many places for worship, had many “sacred stones,” but their hearts were far from God.

As his land prospered, 
he adorned his sacred stones.
Their heart is deceitful, 
and now they must bear their guilt. 
The LORD will demolish their altars 
and destroy their sacred stones. — Hosea 10.2

Our hearts are deceitful, Lord. 
Point out our guilt and break down our idols.
Help us see and confess our sins, so similar.

Israel sought success and security by any means necessary, abandoning religious principles, while giving lip service to you, Lord. 
Help us see and confess our sins, so similar.

Israel committed destructive and bloody violence against their brothers and sisters. Injustice, civil wars, coups, and slaughters were the norm.
Help us see and confess our sins, so similar.

Then they will say, “We have no king 
because we did not revere the LORD. 
But even if we had a king, 
what could he do for us?”— Hosea 10.3

Israel hoped in king, after king, after king and you took them away.
Do not let us worship kings as idols.
Remove any leader (secular or sacred, local or national) we would give undue devotion to.

They make many promises, 
take false oaths 
and make agreements; 
therefore lawsuits spring up 
like poisonous weeds in a plowed field. — Hosea 10.3-4

Israel could not vote for kings, yet still shared in their guilt.
The poison of a leader’s deceitfulness infects the country, the people, the ground itself.
How much more, O God, are we complicit in the sins of those who we take part in electing?
Even if there were perfect leaders to choose from, what can earthly kings do for us, O God?

May we place our trust instead in our true and only king.
Who rode humbly on a donkey.
Who stooped low to wash feet.
Who walked to the cross.

It is time to seek the Lord.
Break our unplowed ground.
Sow into our lives your unfailing love
And pour your righteousness on us.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
I will bear witness that the Lord is righteous; I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High. — Psalm 7.18

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Hosea 10 (Listen 2:47)
Matthew 13 (Listen 7:23)

The Gospel Heist

Scripture Focus: Matthew 12.22-29
22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”
24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

Reflection: The Gospel Heist
By John Tillman

The Pharisees accused Jesus of bargaining with Satan to defeat demons, but Jesus didn’t make deals with the devil or pay him bribes or ransoms. Jesus described his actions as a robbery.

It’s hard to beat a good heist story.

Heists begin with something of value worth stealing. Most of the time, the villain, not the rightful owner, holds the valued item. The villain gained it by theft, manipulation, or violence and guards it with all their power.

A mastermind plans the crime and leads a team to carry it out. There may be a hacker to overcome computer systems, a grifter using false identities to manipulate the outcome, a thief who enters in an unexpected, concealed way to remove the item, and a hitter, a martial arts expert who incapacitates guards who stand in the way.

I just described the team from the heist television series, Leverage, but other heist tales have similar characters and plots. The Leverage team steals from corporate raiders. Ethan Hunt steals a confidential file to prove his innocence and save lives. Bryan Mills takes back his taken daughter. A good heist restores freedom or justice. The gospel is a heist which restores both.

Satan conned humanity and holds us captive. In varying degrees of severity, we both suffer under and participate in his ruthless rule of manipulation, theft, and violence.

In eternity past, God, the mastermind, set in motion a heist. Jesus entered in an unexpected way. He hacked the corrupt system. Then, he was captured. Beaten. Crucified. Dead.

There’s always a moment in a heist when the villain thinks he has won. The hero seems trapped. The plan appears to have failed. This is the turning point in the heist, when the truth is revealed and the villain’s fate sealed. The cross is that moment. What looks like a loss, is actually the moment of victory. That’s when Jesus kicks down the door, ties up the guards, and sets the captives free.

The demonically afflicted man Jesus healed had lost hearing and speech. What have you lost? What has sin taken? What traps you? Are you blind, deaf, or dumb? Lame, leprous, or lifeless? Put your faith in Jesus, the thief in the night, the strong man, the plunderer of Satan’s house. You are what he values. And he is coming. Jesus comes to steal you back and set you free.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Then he went into the Temple and began driving out those who were busy trading, saying to them, “According to scripture, ‘my house shall be a house of prayer’ but you have turned it into ‘a bandit’s den.’” — Luke 19.45-46

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Hosea 9 (Listen 2:52)
Matthew 12 (Listen 6:41)

Read more about Why The Cross?
Every good thing before the cross pointed to it. Every good thing after the cross is evidence of the power broken on it.

Read more about Christ, Our Undeserved Friend
My sin he grasped with nail-pierced grip
Dragged sin to hell, and there left it…
With death defeated, he grasped me,
That I should live eternally.