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.

A Mutual Conversion

Scripture: Acts 10:34-35
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Reflection: A Mutual Conversion
By Jon Polk

Cornelius was a big deal in Caesarea. A Roman centurion stationed in the city as a member of the Italian Regiment, Cornelius and his entire family were “God-fearing” Gentiles, regularly praying to the God of the Jews. He was also known for his generosity to the poor and needy.
None of this, however, is why Cornelius is recorded in the history of the early church. Instead, he is remembered for a vision and a summons.

During the middle of the day, Cornelius was visited by an angel, who instructed him to send for Peter. Marshalling his resources, he sent two servants and a trusted soldier on the mission to persuade Peter to come visit.

Meanwhile, Peter was experiencing his own vision in which he was instructed by God to eat unclean animals. While Peter wrestled with the meaning of his vision, Cornelius’ entourage arrived and convinced him to accompany them to Caesarea.

Impressed by Cornelius’ faith, Peter began preaching to the crowd gathered in the house, opening with the words, “I realize now that God does not show favoritism, but accepts anyone who fears him.” He then recounted for those assembled the gospel story of Jesus Christ.

Peter’s opening statement indicates a change in his own understanding. As a good Jew it was unlawful for him to even associate with Gentiles. It was incomprehensible to him that uncircumcised Gentiles could become disciples of Jesus, but that’s exactly what happened. We witness a mutual conversion, both of Cornelius the Gentile and of Peter the Jew.

Scholar Beverly Gaventa writes, “The end of [verse 36, chapter 10] may be the most important line in the drama: ‘He is Lord of all’ means not only that there is no other Lord but that no one can be excluded from his Lordship.”

Through the conversion of Cornelius and company, the news of God’s impartial love for all humanity impacted Peter, but it also compels us as well. Because God shows impartial love to all kinds of people, we have a responsibility to show the same kind of love to all people. As God seeks out relationships with all people, we too are called to open ourselves to relationships outside our own social and cultural spheres.

It took the power of the Holy Spirit to bridge a relationship between Peter and Cornelius. That same Spirit empowers us in our calling to love others.

The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Let all flesh bless his holy Name for ever and ever. — Psalm 145.22

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 10 (Listen – 6:19)
Acts 10 (Listen – 5:49)

A Congregation of Hope

Scripture: Acts 9:40
Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.

Reflection: A Congregation of Hope
By Jon Polk

Tabitha was a big deal in Joppa. A disciple and prominent member of the Joppa congregation, she was known for her generosity and considerable service to others, especially the widows in their midst. Apparently, her reputation carried outside the church to the larger Greek community as well, where she was known by her Greek name, Dorcas.

Tabitha’s great significance to the church is revealed after her untimely illness and death. Upon hearing that the miracle-working Peter was in nearby Lydda, not one but two witnesses were dispatched to urgently summon him. When Peter arrived on the scene, the group of weeping widows—who were not the usual professional mourners common of the day, but rather dear friends of Tabitha—showed him that the very clothes they were wearing were made by Tabitha, who distributed them to the poor and needy.

For the congregation in Joppa, Tabitha’s death was more than the loss of a close friend, it presented a serious impact on their ministry outreach to the poor. Without attempting to deal with the situation on their own, they reached out in tremendous faith for the power of God, represented by the healer, Peter.

In The Sacred Journey, author Frederick Buechner writes,

When it comes to putting broken lives back together—when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls—the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still.

The congregation at Joppa recognized they had a God-sized need that required a God-sized solution. This congregation believed in a resurrection hope, in a God that could exceed all expectations. They came together to mourn and weep, but also to hope and pray, and eventually, to celebrate. They were vulnerable enough to accept that the situation was desperate beyond their control.

Life presents us with our share of challenges from daily nuisances to more significant needs for physical healing or spiritual resurrection. May we have the faith of the Joppa congregation and be willing to place our hope daily in our great God, the giver of life.

The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. — Psalm 124.8

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 9 (Listen – 3:19)
Acts 9 (Listen – 5:10)