Not for Sale

Scripture Focus: Acts 8:18-19
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Reflection: Not for Sale
By Jon Polk

Simon was a big deal in Samaria. They called him “The Great Power,” a title befitting a god, attributing to him divine power. Simon was a sorcerer, a magician. No, not like Gandalf or Harry Potter or David Blaine – magic in the ancient world was generally used in a negative context to describe counterfeit demonstrations of supernatural power, either performed by trickery or by tapping into some evil spiritual source.

Simon was convincingly good and insanely popular. Whether just a persuasive huckster or actually connected with some demonic force, he had captivated the whole city and people were amazed at what he could do.

In yet another example of the Gospel of Jesus reaching the most unlikely of recipients, Simon the Magician, like many of the citizens of Samaria, was captivated by Philip’s preaching. He believed the message of Jesus, was baptized and began to follow Philip around.

However, Simon couldn’t completely shake his past. Magic in the ancient world was utilitarian, viewing the spiritual dimension as a commodity that could be bought or sold and used for one’s own personal gain. A magician sought to control or manipulate spiritual forces.

Sadly, for Simon, the lure of his old life was too strong a temptation. When Simon witnessed Peter and John laying hands on the other believers and delivering the Holy Spirit to them, he offered money hoping to purchase this ability to be a conduit of the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s response calls out the sin in Simon’s heart, the attitude that divine power can be acquired for a price and used to manipulate people and situations. Simon wanted to purchase what was supposed to be a free gift. You don’t pay for a gift. However, the underlying attitude is that when I pay for something, I can control it.

You can’t control the gift of God. You can’t manipulate the Holy Spirit into doing your bidding.

Simon believed in the good news and was baptized but he didn’t completely let go of his old ways of thinking and living. Instead of giving himself completely to serve God, he thought that God’s power existed to serve him. Like Simon, we often want God’s power to benefit us, but God’s power in us is always intended to bless and benefit others.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus taught the people, saying: “I tell you most solemnly everyone who commits sin is a slave. Now a slave has no permanent standing in the household, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will indeed be free.” — John 8.34-36

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 8 (Listen -5:40) 
Acts 8 (Listen -5:10)

Read more about Realizing the Power of Love
Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history, a movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world. A movement mandating people to live that love. —  Bishop Michael Curry

Read more about Revelation of Love
The story of Revelation is a promise that none of God’s children will be left behind. All God’s children will come home.

The Exodus and The Return

Scripture Focus: Ezra 7.21-23

Now I, King Artaxerxes, decree that all the treasurers of Trans-Euphrates are to provide with diligence whatever Ezra the priest, the teacher of the Law of the God of heaven, may ask of you—up to a hundred talents of silver, a hundred cors of wheat, a hundred baths of wine, a hundred baths of olive oil, and salt without limit. Whatever the God of heaven has prescribed, let it be done with diligence for the temple of the God of heaven. Why should his wrath fall on the realm of the king and of his sons?

Reflection: The Exodus and The Return

By John Tillman

There are two different examples in scripture of God setting his people free from oppressive captivity and parallels in the New Testament to go along with them.

In the Exodus narrative, freedom comes by rebellion, resistance, and cataclysmic confrontation. The people engage in deceitful (Exodus 1.15-21 and Exodus 5.3) resistance to the empire of Egypt that is their oppressor. In this narrative, the government is the enemy of God and the people triumph over and defeat the government oppressors in a violent confrontation in which God fights for them.

The New Testament version of this is the return of Christ described in Revelation and other prophetic writings. In this appearing, or second Advent, Christ comes as a liberating force, suddenly overthrowing the governments of the world which oppose Christ’s kingdom. Christ, the warrior on the white horse will, with his words, set us all free in a moment.

In the return from Babylon, freedom comes slowly over generations and is accomplished by faithful obedience. The people never engage in resistance or deceit. Others, working against them, use deceit and subterfuge but they never succeed. The empires act as their ally and protector.* 

*It is a mistake to assume the governments Ezra dealt with (or any government) is operating out of sincere belief as we would define it. The empires and kings Ezra references are operating in self-interest, honoring Yahweh as one of many gods in a pantheistic stew. It is only because of  Israel’s sinfulness and rebellion that it needed a foreign, idol-worshiping king to help it rebuild. When the church needs the power of government to help it change the world, it is a marker not of God’s favor, but of the church’s sinfulness and failure.

In the New Testament, we see a similar kind of growth in the way the early church proceeds to live under the corrupt rule of both the religious rulers and the brutal empire of Rome. This is the mode of freedom in Christ that we are still operating under today.

As we live under corrupt governments we must remember to live wisely and prudently. (Matthew 10.16) Those who are not against us are for us. (Mark 9.38-40) But we must also not abandon our integrity to fawn for the support of any king. For those who are not with us are against us. (Luke 11.23) The testimony of Ezra tells us that kings come and go, but it is the Lord who is our only hope and protector.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. — Psalm 118.28

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Read more about Light Shines in the Darkness
The Temple Solomon built was destroyed by God because it lost sight of holiness. The second Temple Ezra built would be condemned by Christ for losing sight of mercy.

Read more about The Mingled Prayers of Exiles
Lord, we pray today as the exiles prayed, with mingled sorrow and joy.

Light Shines in the Darkness :: Epiphany

Scripture Focus: Acts 6.7
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. 

1 Peter 2.9-10
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Reflection: Light Shines in the Darkness :: Epiphany
By John Tillman

On Christmas, the Advent candles fill our homes and hearts with joy and light. In Epiphany, we set that light on a lampstand for the world to see the light of Christ.

Epiphany’s purpose is to draw attention to the expanding and inclusive nature of the gospel. It is good news of great joy that will be for all people. The light has come to everyone—Gentiles included. No one is to be left in the dark.

The Temple Ezra rebuilt had always been intended to be a light to the nations, demonstrating God’s holiness and love. Just as the priests, stood between the people and God, confessing sin and administering pardon, so too was the nation of Israel intended to be a priest for the nations. It is this function to which Peter is referring when he describes the church as a “holy priesthood.” (1 Peter 2.9–10) Israel struggled to maintain the tension, however, between being holy and being a light to the other nations. We do too. 

Holiness and mercy seem to be consistently difficult for communities of faith to balance. In some communities, the emphasis on holiness is an impenetrable cultural barrier. Sinners don’t dare approach, even if the community would allow them to. In some communities, there is little in the way of holiness, for mercy has come to be interpreted as the non-existence of sin, rather than forgiveness offered for sin.

The Temple Solomon built was destroyed by God because it lost sight of holiness. The second Temple Ezra built would be condemned by Christ for losing sight of mercy and for preventing those of other nations from seeking the God of Israel. 

God would make us holy not so that we will be absent, abandoning the world, but so that we can be present, serving the world to demonstrate God’s love for them. It should be light which dispels darkness, not the other way around. 

Pray to be a light:
Jesus, Light of the world, help us to have a holiness that is not off-putting. May holiness be a light that comforts and reveals love, rather than condemnation. May the light of your holiness and love be a beacon in us, calling others to repentance and the renovation of their souls.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
I will confess you among the peoples, O Lord; I will sing praise to you among the nations.
For your loving-kindness is greater than the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. — Psalm 57.9-10

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 6 (Listen -4:24) 
Acts 6 (Listen -2:35)

Read more about Radical Outreach to Outcasts :: Epiphany
If we listen long enough, Jesus will ask us to allow someone in, whom we would prefer to keep out…share our blessings with people who do not deserve them.

Read more about Setting a New Standard
Jesus rejected the morally compromised thinking of his culture, while at the same time welcoming into his fellowship those in clear violation of what he taught.

The Mingled Prayers of Exiles :: Epiphany

Scripture Focus: Ezra 3.11-13
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. 

Reflection: The Mingled Prayers of Exiles :: Epiphany
By John Tillman

To begin anything rightly, we must begin in prayer. 

As we approach the first Sunday of the new year and the culmination of Epiphany on Monday, we humbly join in prayer that our hearts will be moved to return to the Lord and serve him this year. 

Joy and Sorrow Mingled in A Prayer for Exiles
Lord, your servant Ezra tells us that as the assembly of exiles gathered, reestablishing worship and devotion toward you, there were whoops and shouts of excitement mixed with weeping and wailing. 

Lord, we pray today as the exiles prayed, with mingled sorrow and joy.

We weep for losses, sins, error, and struggle. 
We shout for mercy, comfort, redemption, and aid.
The entwined sounds of joy and weeping are the sounds of the gospel. 

We confess the pain and loss of the past and the joy and grace revealed and manifested to us in the Holy Spirit, our comforter and advocate sent by the power of Christ’s prayer on our behalf. (John 14.26)

The exiles prayed, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever.” (Ezra 3.11)

As they did they were echoing this repeated theme from many psalms of prayer and worship. We echo those psalms today…

We thank you, Lord, that your anger lasts only a moment and that, though we may weep through the night, the morning is coming when we will rejoice. (Psalm 30.5)

We thank you for the blessing of telling our redemption story—of being homeless, hungry, and hopeless—until you delivered us from our distress. (Psalm 107.1-6)

We thank you for bringing us into a spacious place in your presence.
Mortal harm and danger may come upon us, but no suffering removes your presence from us.
We abandon hope in princes, kings, or human power, taking refuge only in you, Lord. (Psalm 118.1-9)

You, oh Lord, look kindly on the lowly and distance yourself from the lofty in spirit.
As we humble ourselves, draw close to us.
May we, in danger and trouble, sense your preserving and comforting right hand, Jesus, the arm of the Lord which is not too short to save us. (Psalm 138.6-8)

May we establish today, as the exiles did, a foundation of faith built only on the rock of Christ Jesus.
May our cries of mingled joy and sorrow ring out far into our world, telling our culture the story of the gospel and revealing to them the glorious grace of Christ.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.
You speak in my heart ans say, “Seek my face.” Your face, Lord, will I seek.
Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure. — Psalm 27.10-12

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 3 (Listen -3:01) 
Acts 3 (Listen -3:33)

This Weekend’s Readings
Ezra 4 (Listen -4:27) Acts 4 (Listen -5:15)
Ezra 5 (Listen -3:02) Acts 5 (Listen -6:49)

Read more about A Different Kind of Exile
In this world, we are cast out. In the renewed world we will be brought in. May that day come soon. And may we bring many following behind us.

Read more about In Denial in Exile
For the sake of God’s name they were exiled. But also for the sake of God’s name, he promised to restore them.

Hearts God Moves :: Epiphany

Scripture Focus: Ezra 1.5
…Everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem

Reflection: Hearts God Moves :: Epiphany
By John Tillman

In our reading plan, Ezra and Acts fill the early days of our even years. These accounts show what it looks like when God starts something new and renews what has been destroyed.

In both books we will see what it looks like when God begins to move in the hearts of people.
In both books we will watch as God’s relationship with his people is restored.
In both books we will see God build a community of worshipers, followed by a place of worship.

Ezra’s account concerns the Temple of Jerusalem. The Temple was the place that the Lord loved, in the city that the Lord chose to bear his name. The Temple was the place that God said would never be without his presence and where he would always hear the prayers of anyone who sought him. It was defiled, abused, and ultimately destroyed by human sin and human actions. It was robbed, reviled, and ripped apart stone by stone. 

In Ezra we will see God’s work to, stone by stone, reconstruct the Temple of Jerusalem to bear his name.  

Luke’s account in Acts concerns the church—called by Paul the body of Christ and by Peter a Temple of living stones. Jesus was God’s beloved Son, upon whom the Spirit was given without limit. In perfect unity with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, he demonstrated God’s love for his people. Innocent and righteous, Christ became for us human sin and was killed by human actions. He was betrayed, reviled, and crucified having his bones pulled apart joint by joint. 

In Acts we will see, God’s Holy Spirit coming to dwell not in a Temple built by human hands, but in individual human hearts. We will see these people become the living stones of a new Temple, God’s Church, the members of the Body of Christ. Stone by stone, part by part, we will see God construct a place from which his Spirit will never depart and to which all people are called to worship Jesus Christ.

During Epiphany, we celebrate the light of Christ being revealed to the nations. One of the gifts of Christ is that we become a part of Epiphany—Christ’s manifestation—as we fulfill our role in the body of Christ and take our place as living stones in his Temple.

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 in the coming year.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods. — Psalm 96.2-4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 2 (Listen -5:25) 
Acts 2 (Listen -6:35)

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Read more about Sight for the Blind :: Epiphany
To appreciate the Epiphany of Christ—literally the manifestation or appearing—we must be healed of our blindness.

Read more about The Radical Procedure of the Gospel
May our hearts be made sensitive enough to feel his breath, hear his voice, and move as he directs.

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