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These readings are in addition to what you hear on Sunday morning.  You may use it as you wish, including reflection and devotion.

Brief Bible Study – Jeremiah 8:4-7

You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord:

When people fall, do they not get up again?

If they go astray, do they not turn back?

Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?

They have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return. I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying, "What have I done!"

All of them turn to their own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows its times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their coming; but my people do not know the ordinance of the Lord.

I just came back this morning from my annual physical and you have to face up to the truths about how your health is going. The news is the news. (I am doing well, by the way.) We cannot fib to our physician how we eat healthily, but in reality are loading up with processed and insalubrious food. Jeremiah is the "Dr. House" of prophets – everybody lies to themselves and lies to God. Jeremiah had a very negative view of the human condition. We are sinners, engaging in "perpetual backsliding." We do not relent from our errors; we hang on tighter and tighter. Repentance, turning to healthier living, we may very well refuse.

In a very unflattering way, Jeremiah suggests we are dumber than birds, who at least can figure out the seasons and what they need to be doing for survival. What changes do you need to make? What is the resistance?

Jeremiah, like the prophets as a whole, believes strongly in "turning," an image for repentance. If you were to face God right now, what faithful or unfaithful living would be your confession? In the end, we all have to say, "What have I done?!"

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ — whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
     But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

Paul is proclaiming an Easter faith, not because he is trying to shift our attention away from Good Friday, but because he believes in the dynamic spiritual process God has instituted between Jesus the crucified and Jesus the resurrected.

Like in any day for the faithful, we wonder and hope for the resurrection – which starts with Jesus and is the center of our Christian message. He is the "first fruits" from the dead and leads the way to God’s holy and saving power.

The power and truth of our faith comes from Easter Day, Paul is saying. How do you experience the resurrection hope, day in and day out?

It is difficult to imagine and accept Jesus as being "dead" and yet so does scripture teach. If Jesus trusted God to save him from the place of dead, we might ask, how deep is your trust?

Hebrews 5:1-10

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you;" as he says also in another place, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek." In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Whether it is the high priest of ancient Israel or Jesus, the son of God come into the world, the designation comes from God and God alone. Whatever our aspirations or dreams, serving in this capacity is the will of God.

Jesus attains his virtuous and vital power by releasing power, by performing "reverent submission." The suffering itself taught obedience and the obedience led to perfection, becoming the "source of eternal salvation." Jesus is our model and Jesus is our hope.

In what ways do you believe you are responsible for atoning for your own sins?

Why do you think it is important for us to voice in worship our sins and acknowledge God’s forgiveness?

How do you see Jesus’ experiences in our life and its struggles helping you in times of difficulty?

James 5:13-18

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

The times for praying include moments of suffering, celebrations of happiness, when members of the church are sick and receive also the anointing with oil, giving and receiving confessions followed by forgiveness – all of which, James says, lead to "healing." He concludes, The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (v 16b).

No better example of prayer can be found by James than Elijah’s petitions for God to close the reign of drought and bring on new rains to water the parched earth (1 Kings 17:1 ff.). Jesus once told his disciples their prayers had the power to uproot a mountain and cast it into the sea (Mark 11:23). The Bible recommends big prayers.

Like we hear in Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a time and a season – and there "Solomon" means there is not time distinct from God’s presence and power – here James means prayer is always spiritual and practically appropriate and effective. What is your practice and discipline for prayer?

1 John 3:1-7

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now. What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Two thoughts here. Over and over in John’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims how knowing the Son means knowing the Father. Because people reject Jesus, he tells them, they have also rejected God. We are God’s children and again the "world" rejects this knowledge because they have rejected Jesus as the Messiah. While not all of the future is here yet or immediately obvious, when Jesus is "revealed" then his purity will spill over to us; that is our "hope."

Like all good Presbyterians who foundationally believe structure and order leads to goodness, so John here emphasizes sin being "lawless," which is chaos. Even though we live in a world grasping to sin, we do not have to do the same. Letting go of the power of sin is righteousness, mirroring the victory of Jesus.

If Jesus is made known today through his followers, how do you see yourself living a life of "purity" and "righteousness?"

Can we really refuse to sin at all? You have to wonder what John means here. Paul suggests we are in a constant state of sinfulness . . . How do you understand this teaching from John?

1 Corinthians 1:3-10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful. By him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

Paul starts very graciously by extending a spiritual and divine blessing from God upon his congregation at Corinth. Beginning with the positive and hopeful and generous is always a good move.

We are in Advent and we have good biblical reason to be expectant. Here Paul also surfaces our waiting, in this case,

Centering our lives on Christ brings unity in a way no other commitment can. Having the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our future hope pushes us into the future, the possibilities God has for us as the people of God, and for which we wait but wait with hope.the same mind and the same purpose is the higher standard to which we aspire this season and throughout the year.

How do you wait? patiently? not sad or despairing? What keeps your heart centered on Christ?

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The love poem lists positive and negative virtues for love, like being patient (+) but avoiding being rude (-). The list is a primer for enacting love in one’s life. Love also must be part and parcel of our life, all we do, or what we do will be incomplete or in vain. Paul also ends by suggesting love is an adult quality for us to practice and while there are other dimensions of spiritual wholeness – faith, hope – love is king.Here is what Paul calls the "more excellent say," the way of love. This love poem follows his tract on spiritual gifts and their use within the life of faith, individually and through the church. For a review, he says, (1) there are many gifts, each are important and all are meant to serve the common good; (2) like the human body has different interacting but also distinct organs, so people of faith are not all the same but function together to provide a coherent whole within the church. It goes without saying, so we will say it for emphasis, we gain these gifts through the Spirit, not by our own efforts or glory.

How do you see "love" animating your Christian faith? Avoiding the bad aspects of practicing non-love is good, but also, embracing the positive angles and actions. How do you enter into a discipline by which you grow into a greater and more mature love of God and people?

Mark 9:33-37

Then they [Jesus and the disciples] came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

Too often we waste our time, and God’s time, jockeying for position in the race to serve at the side of our divine Christ of heaven. Or in this case, the earthly reward of being the most special to Jesus and his ministry. In either case, the disciples – and we ourselves – miss the point.

Like elsewhere Jesus makes it a matter of serving, not being served (Mk 10:45).

Here he uses a child as an object lesson. Welcoming a simple and humble and innocent child is the mark of the true follower of Jesus, not internal back-biting and positioning within the circle of disciples.

We might also wish to emphasize, as does Jesus, the special and crucial ministry to "welcoming" the children in our midst. It is a holy effort to raise children into the faith. It is an act not just pressing upon the parents but also the family of God, the church.

With the disciples circled around Jesus, several sought to put themselves at Jesus’ right hand, the position of power and authority. Their temptation was to get to the highest point. Our problem today is probably different – we are hoping not to exhaust ourselves with service to the church. What do you see as your primary duty to serve Jesus?

2 Samuel 6:1-11

We can try to find all kinds of ways to explain, or even better, explain away this story. Or we can dismiss it out of hand – "it is after all the Old Testament." The story does not need adjustment but we need to adjust our view of God. The OT has serious value theologically when it teaches us lessons we do not know or wish they were otherwise. Here God is holy and wholly other. You do not mess with God, or in this case, the Ark representing God’s visible presence on earth. Even if your act was involuntary or useful / needed, crossing the line and straying into God’s space is a bad idea. You do not mess with God. Uzzah inappropriately touched the Ark and got too close. We do not need to fear God but it would not hurt us to have a little more respect for God’s power and majesty. Moses stammered when God appeared in the burning yet unconsumed bush; Isaiah felt faint and sinful; Jeremiah argued, citing his youth. When God comes calling, it is a moment of holy terror. Just because we have a human face for God in Jesus, or the warmth and direction of the Holy Spirit, does not mean God is not God and we are little angels. Messing with God is a mistake, a mistake of the highest order.

1) When have you experienced the Lord-God of heaven and earth and felt God’s awesome and terrible power? Were you, like the parents of Samson, shaking in your boots!?

2) If we are going to understand God on God’s terms, do we allow God to be divine and not human, eternal and not mortal?

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, "How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?" So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.

Palm Sunday, March 29thScripture readings for this day:

Isaiah 50:4-9a, wisdom comes to the suffering servant of God

Mark 11:1-11, Jesus enters Jerusalem

And –Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

1) We are "Christ-like" when we adopt the "same mind" as Jesus, being willing to let go of our sense of power and prestige and entitlement – we become servant people.

2) Jesus "humbled" himself, being obedient to God, and being willing to be subjected to the mortality of humanity (and in a very extreme and unjust way, execution on a cross).

3) Jesus’ shame on the cross is God’s glory and the center of our "confession" of him as the central and principal teacher and guide for our human life.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, "Let there be light"and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Here is the very beginning of the Bible, which opens with God’s creative act of making all things. Scholars debate whether or not some "stuff" was already present. The poet seems to suggest waters lurked in the background, and like we have learned from storms, water can be chaotic, unpredictable and destructive. God gets it all under control, though. Light is made first. The creation is effortless – just a simple, verbal command: "Let there be light" (in the Hebrew, only two words). Light and darkness need each other to exist but they are separated in order to provide their own benefits to the world. Night and day come into existence and after they have rotated their cosmic dance we have one day, a complete cycle.

1) How do you see yourself as a special creation by God?

2) We fit into the divine orders for the world, benefitting from the cycles of nature like day and night. If nature is in fact providential, how strongly do Christians need to insist on care for the world?

[If you want to read more, the lectionary (schedule of readings for Sunday) includes Acts 19:1-7]

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’"

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

1. In your own life, have you had a ‘John the Baptist’-like character who prepared the way for your life of faith? If so, who? What did they do?

2. John resurrects the prophetic office. Who are modern day Christian prophets? What are their main issues to address?

What prepares the way for Jesus’ life and ministry is John, his relative (probably a cousin). By the ninth verse of Mark, Jesus appears, as a full-grown adult. John makes way for Jesus, though, who sees in his ministry the signs of the times, God’s time.We are onto our second Sunday in Advent and still we have not hear about any angels or shepherds or wise men. While the calendar starts a new year next month, the lectionary – a schedule of Bible readings for each Sunday – begins now. The gospel book for the year is Mark, who has no birth story. His beginning is right here – the good news of Jesus Christ. So Mark has no secrets; Jesus is the messiah.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Paul has a problem. Based in the sayings of Jesus and the teachings of the early church, they expected our Christ to return soon, very soon, ‘before those who taste death.’ And yet, people were dying and Jesus had not yet returned. They wondered about Jesus’ teaching; they were dismayed at the non-fulfillment of what seemed to be a promise; they worried over the eternal status of those who had died already. Paul suggests we grieve but grieve as people who have hope. Then he goes on to describe what he believes is God’s plan to save the dead in Christ first and then the living who will ascend to Christ and eternal glory.

1. What do you believe about Christ’s return? What does scripture teach?

2. When others around you are dying, how do you understand their standing before God?

3. What does it mean to grieve, but grieve with hope?

Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Paul is asking the church at Philippi to do two very important spiritual tasks – be in unity, one with another; be obedient to the example of Christ. Along the way, because God has been gracious to us in the gift of Jesus himself, we are to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling." What are we to make of this potent passage?

1)  We are asked to avoid "selfish ambition or conceit," mirroring the example of Jesus, who let go of the safety and satisfaction of "equality with God" and came and dwelled among us, as we are. Such a spiritual release was not easy or cheap, in fact, the opposite. It lead to Jesus’ death on the cross. When you think about Jesus’ ministry and mission among us, what do you see as his most important accomplishment?

2) Knees bend and words confess Jesus as Lord. How do you see your life being in submission to Jesus’ holy rule?

3) I (Hugh) used to sign off my radio program by expressing, "Work out your salvation in fear and trembling." If salvation is a gift, what exactly are we working out?

4) Faith, Kierkegaard wrote, is our highest passion. "There are perhaps many in every generation who do not even reach it, but no one gets further." Faith is a gift from God, like Jesus is a gift from God, but it does require we use to the gift to see clearly how Jesus’ example is a blessing to humanity. What role do you see sacrifice playing in your own life, after the releasing of heaven Jesus himself has done, to our benefit?) We are asked to avoid "selfish ambition or conceit," mirroring the example of Jesus, who let go of the safety and satisfaction of "equality with God" and came and dwelled among us, as we are. Such a spiritual release was not easy or cheap, in fact, the opposite. It lead to Jesus’ death on the cross. When you think about Jesus’ ministry and mission among us, what do you see as his most important accomplishment?

Romans 12:9-21

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Paul here is giving the Roman Church good advice, some of it theological and some of it standard wisdom teaching. ‘Letting love be genuine’ is good practice for anyone and not necessarily Christian in nature – anyone can fulfill this admonition. ‘Never avenge yourselves’ appeals to Jesus peaceful nature and practice while also being consistent with Old Testamental teaching, leaving room for God to act. Overcoming evil with good ought to please all of us but it quite succinctly could be applied to the work of the cross. In the end, the Good God wins.

Here are some guided questions –

1. If you were to give a young or new Christian advice on living the good spiritual life, what would you say? Do you have a central teaching you would want to pass along?

2. How would you justify your advice? Would you suggest it works well with the nature of the world or works out best for the many? How would Jesus fit into your advice?