A City to Live In

Scripture Focus: Psalm 87
1 He has founded his city on the holy mountain. 
2 The Lord loves the gates of Zion 
more than all the other dwellings of Jacob. 
3 Glorious things are said of you, 
city of God: 
4 “I will record Rahab and Babylon 
among those who acknowledge me— 
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush— 
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’ ”
5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said, 
“This one and that one were born in her, 
and the Most High himself will establish her.” 
6 The Lord will write in the register of the peoples: 
“This one was born in Zion.” 
7 As they make music they will sing, 
“All my fountains are in you.”

Genesis 4.16-17
16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

17 Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.

“I’ll find a city. Find myself a city to live in. Help me. Find a city. Find myself a city to live in.” — David Byrne, Talking Heads, “Cities

Reflection: A City to Live In
By John Tillman

In the Talking Heads song “Cities,” David Byrne sings of searching for a place to live. He weighs good points and bad points and longs for “home cooking” and a place where the river doesn’t stink. He’s checking them out and trying to figure them out, but this elusive city cannot be found.

Cities have good points. Cities have bad points. Anyone considering a move knows it is difficult to “figure it out.” Anyone who has left a familiar city knows the isolation of feeling like a wanderer.

The condemned, restless wanderer Cain named the first city after his son, Enoch. (Genesis 4.11-17) Cain was cursed and prevented from cultivating the ground, but in Enoch City, other skills were cultivated. From this city came arts and technology. (Genesis 4.21-22) Cast out of Eden’s garden, humans planted cities to protect and provide for themselves, but like other things humans planted, cities were subject to the curse. The cursed ground produced thorns and thistles, and soon, cities bore the fruits of violence, oppression, and evil rather than peace, advancement, or justice.

Most cities in the Bible are mentioned because of evil, not good. From the front pages to the last, the Bible uses the city of Babylon as a symbol of human wickedness. Other cities and empires such as Egypt, Tyre, the cities of the Philistines, and more represent rampant violence and evil.

These cities are covered in darkness. Their rivers stink of death. But there is another city for us.

Psalm 87 names Zion as a city God loves. Zion is another name for Jerusalem, but the city God loves goes beyond a physical location. This city is God’s city. It is founded on holiness rather than sinfulness. It hints at Heaven, described by biblical writers as a city of healing, peace, justice, and mercy, from which the river of life flows.

God loves cities. If they acknowledge God, even wicked cities are spiritually connected to Zion. God writes down Babylon, Rahab (here a nickname for Egypt), and Tyre as “born in Zion.” 

Cities have good points. Cities have bad points. But God loves cities and sends us to them. Small ones. Big ones. What are you doing to bring the freshness of the river of life and the aroma of the home-cooked banquet of the gospel to your city?

Video:The City,” by The Bible Project

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. — Psalm 118.23

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

​Today’s Readings
Micah 6 (Listen 2:28)
Psalm 86-87 (Listen 2:26)

Read more about The Urban Sprawl of the City of God
Jesus calls us to live within the borderless, wall-less, ever-sprawling city of New Jerusalem.

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May we make our light shine through good deeds, showing God’s mercy and his grace to us, and turning slums and suburbs into cities on a hill.

Tamar’s Story — Love of Advent

Scripture Focus: Matthew 1.1, 3
1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar…

Genesis 38.26
26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.

Reflection: Tamar’s Story — Love of Advent
By Erin Newton

These are the matriarchs of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. This is Tamar’s story.

Born among the Canaanites, Tamar was not one of Abraham’s kin. She married Er, the son of Judah and Shua, his Canaanite wife, and so became (for a short time) part of Abraham’s lineage.

Marital bliss was not to be found, for Er was evil. I imagine a loveless marriage filled with emotional or physical abuse. Perhaps a husband prone to angry outbursts and critical remarks. Perhaps a husband who sought other women or beat his workers. We are left only to wonder. The wickedness of Er, however, exceeded the tolerance of even God, and God ended his days.

Marital bliss certainly vanished. Tamar was a young widow. Among a people heralded for their covenantal righteousness—bound to be blessings among the nations—Tamar would find another form of abuse.

Judah’s second son, Onan, purposely thwarted his cultural duty to provide an heir for Tamar, though not hesitating to take pleasure in sleeping with her. She is used for her body but denied a child. Such selfishness of Onan exceeded the patience of God, and so God ended his days as well.

The final son, Shelah, is given to Tamar as a vague promise. A long time passes. I imagine Tamar living in her father’s house without a husband or child. Two men had abused her and now she must wait for the third. I imagine she worried he would be as terrible as his brothers.

Judah—a man of the covenant of Abraham, the namesake for the nation of God’s people, the patriarch in charge of Tamar’s honor—seeks out a shrine prostitute without hesitation just as the promises to Tamar have been delayed without hesitation. She takes matters into her own hands, maneuvering the situation so that Judah confuses her with a prostitute. She bears twin boys by Judah and reveals his failure of duty.  

The men tasked to care for Tamar placed their pleasures and priorities over her dignity and honor.

This was no story of godly love. 

But she is not defined by the abuse she suffered at the hands of men or by her assertive (and albeit, morally questionable) actions. Once abused and neglected, Tamar is chosen and honored as one of five women named in Jesus’s family. She is a matriarch of Jesus.

In the love of Jesus belong the abused. 

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
I will thank you, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify your Name forevermore. — Psalm 86.12

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

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 11-12  (Listen 6:00)
Psalms 119-25-48 (Listen 15:14)

Read more about The Wrong People
Many of us have felt like we’re the wrong people to build up God’s kingdom…God uses the Tamars…Rahabs…And the Pauls. 

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Mistakes for Good? — Readers’ Choice

Scripture Focus: Genesis 48:17-19
17 When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”
19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.”

Originally published on February 15, 2023, based on readings from Genesis 48.

Readers’ Choice posts are selected by our readers:
Brian, Washington D.C. — Thanks for this reflection and your beautiful perspective. After years of thinking about what happened to the church where I worked…I have come to these conclusions: The Lord used the destruction of this congregation to scatter anointed lay people to other churches that needed fresh ideas and new gifts…And I learned about the grace of our Lord who loved the man who brought the damage. The Lord allowed him to learn and now he is a humble servant…And I learned about the grace of God for me, as I was filled with anger and judgment…God allowed me to see what He was doing so that I could gain wisdom and patience. God is good.

Reflection: Mistakes for Good? — Readers’ Choice
By Erin Newton

God can take something meant for evil and make it work for good. But what about mistakes? Can God take a human mistake and use it for good?

As Jacob lays on his deathbed, Joseph brings his two sons to see their dying grandfather. Jacob blesses the boys with promises given to his own sons. But the grandsons are blessed out of order! Ephraim, the younger, is given the elevated blessing, a firstborn’s portion. Manasseh, the oldest, is blessed as a second-born.

Jacob is blind, and Joseph assumes his crossed arms were an accident. Jacob continues by granting Ephraim the greater blessing.

Joseph only sees a mistake being made. (He even tries to jump in to correct his father.) He bases his assumptions on how things ought to be. He has done everything right, reconciled with his brothers, and visited his ailing father. This should be a straightforward situation; nothing can go wrong.

Like the story of Joseph’s enslavement and deportation to Egypt, God worked through situations that looked hopeless or bound for misery. We are accustomed to looking at tragedies and preaching to our hearts that God can work something good out of them. But what about things that look haphazard? What about the events that look like someone messed up? 

The text never really indicates if God divinely inspired Jacob to switch the blessing order or if a mistake was made that Jacob accepted. The blessing was done, and the results could not be changed.

How many times do we look at a situation and assume that someone has made a mistake? If it’s a small thing, we don’t give it a second thought. But what about the big mistakes—the doctor who missed a diagnosis, the airline that lost your luggage, the distracted driver that hit your car, or the cashier who overcharged you?

When these things happen, we fault the person for making a mistake. We think, “If only they had done it right, I wouldn’t be suffering right now!” We cling to an “if-only” faith.
Jesus was blamed for an “if-only” scenario. “If only you had been here, Lazarus would not have died” (John 11.32).

It is easier to blame someone for making a mistake rather than trusting God to work among errors. God works through perceived irregularities. Think of the “if-only” times in your life. Hear God say, “I know, son, I know.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Come and listen, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. — Psalm 66.14

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

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 21-22 (Listen 6:35)
Revelation 2 (Listen 4:59)

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Our broken world seeks righteousness.
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Our lost world seeks truth.
Speak it through us.

Life in the Blood

Scripture Focus: Leviticus 17.10-12
10 “ ‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. 11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.” 

Genesis 4.10-12
10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 

Genesis 9.4-5
4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. 5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

From John: We live in a world of casual, uncaring, bloodshed. Worse than that…we are often unmoved by that bloodshed. We are unmoved by children dying in shootings or children dying crossing the border or children dying in the womb. At least, not moved enough to change anything. As Russell Moore said in a recent Christianity Today article, “Americans—especially Christians—should ask just how much we have adjusted ourselves to this kind of horror. How numb to it all have we become?” 

We need to reinvigorate our hearts to care about the shedding of blood, our careless collaboration in it, and our callous response to seeing it. Because of this, we return to this rewritten devotional from 2021.

Reflection: Life in the Blood
By John Tillman

Biological facts often reveal spiritual truth. Our life really is in our blood. 

We often measure life based on brain activity. For example, the rapper, DMX, recently died after life support was removed following a coma/vegetative state. However, many of the brain’s commands are carried out by the hormones, proteins, and other chemical signals that travel through the blood.

Everything that makes us alive circulates in our blood. Life “moves” within us even when we are at rest. When blood stops moving, or is spilled out, life ends. 

The most important and revealing reason for the prohibitions regarding blood was spiritual not physical. Blood is life given for atonement. Since the blood of the first animal, killed by God in the garden to clothe Adam and Eve, animals have given their lives for human sin and creation has groaned for the blood spilled. (Genesis 3.21; Genesis 4.10-12; Romans 8.20-23)

All spilled blood, God says, is precious and holy, not only on its own but because it points to the blood of Jesus. Christ’s blood is the most precious blood in history, but every drop of blood shed draws precious meaning from his. 

Blood is still life and it should disturb us when blood is spilled. Blood is the life of our brothers and sisters of every race. Blood is the life of the unborn. Blood is the life of those dying of Covid. Blood is the life of both Christians and non-Christians murdered for their faith. Blood is the life of victims of every kind of violence whether in distant wars or neighborhood streets, whether in mass shootings or lone suicides.

So both the lives of a police officer lost stopping a mass shooting in Colorado and of a Black citizen, crushed by a police officer’s knee are united in that their lives point to and plea for Christ’s blood. One is lost in self-sacrifice and one cries out from the ground in a plea for justice.

May we revive a holy respect for blood, no matter where, how, or by whom it is shed. May we not carelessly “eat” blood by profiting from violence, supporting bloodshed, or indifferently shrugging off bloodshed that doesn’t affect us.

God will require an account. (Genesis 9.5; Isaiah 5.7) When he does, we must plead the blood of Jesus to cover all of our bloodshed. Only in his blood will we find true life. (John 6.53-57)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Jesus taught us, saying: “He who comes from above is above all others; he who is of the earth is earthly himself and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven bears witness to things he has seen and heard…since he whom God has sent speaks God’s own words, for God gives him the Spirit without reserve.” — John 3.31

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

Today’s Reading
Leviticus 17 (Listen 2:39) 
Acts 13 (Listen 7:36)

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Rulers with Borrowed Scepters

Scripture Focus: Genesis 49.10
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

From John: Rulers with borrowed scepters abound. This post from 2021 reminds us that, even the best of them is not worthy of the honor we owe to Christ.

Reflection: Rulers with Borrowed Scepters
By John Tillman

Most of what Israel says to Judah has little to do with the son in front of him, but the Son who was to come through him.

The ruler prophesied would eventually come to Judah. The staff of rulership that Israel saw, resting between the feet of Judah’s descendants, would one day be claimed and taken up.

Ten tribes broke away from the Davidic kings’ after Solomon’s death. The Northern secessionists kept the name, Israel, and the Southern kingdom, composed of Judah and Benjamin, was called Judah after the tribe of its rulers.

Judah and Benjamin managed to preserve their identities and heritage through Babylonian captivity and, eventually, were returned to their capital of Jerusalem to rebuild. The northern tribes were less successful, if at all, in holding on to their unique identity. This is perhaps due to how muddled and corrupted their identity was even before captivity.

The Northern kingdom never had a ruler who could be classified as “good.” In fact, King Ahab, whose name is synonymous with poor leadership and corruption, might be considered one of the better kings Israel ever had. He set quite a low bar, but most who came after him were even worse. Almost half of the kings of Israel took the throne by insurrection or assassination.

The rulers of Judah fared better but still suffered political swings from evil and idolatrous rulers to pious and faithful reformers. However, none of them were the one foreseen. That is Jesus alone.

Jesus is the king we are waiting for—every other ruler is using a borrowed scepter.

From Joseph’s beneficent Pharaoh to Moses’s genocidal Pharaoh, rulers are highly variable. But no ruler, not the best of Pharaohs or of Judah’s kings, not any emperor or empire past, present, or future, is worthy of our unswerving loyalty. Any of them will betray our hopes. None of them can be trusted to deliver us. The best human rulers are but poor stand-ins for Christ and the worst of them are anti-Christs.

No matter if we live under Pharaohs or Sauls, under Davids or under Ahabs, under Hezekiahs or under Nebuchadnezzars, they are only shadows that will pass and grass that will dry up and blow away.

We, like Simeon, (Luke 2.25) are waiting for our true king, Jesus, the root of Jesse, the “glory of Israel.” (Luke 2.29-32) Our king and kingdom are from another place. (John 18.36)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Exalt yourself above the heavens, O God, and your glory over all the earth. — Psalm 57.6

Today’s Readings
Genesis 49 (Listen 4:54
Matthew 10 (Listen 5:07)

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Xerxes has one thing modern leaders could learn from—Xerxes does not react negatively toward those revealing his mistakes.