Category Archives: Lord’s Day Devotion

Two Births–John 3:3-6

John gospel iconJesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Back in 1976, when Jimmy Carter made headlines by being interviewed in the pages of Playboy, he also arched some readers’ eyebrows by using the term “born again,” as in born-again Christian. As peculiar as the term might have seemed to the vast non-evangelical masses, it doesn’t biblical Christians as an odd term, coming straight out of this passage from John 3.

My Catholic sister-in-law, presumably representing a common Catholic reading of this passage, understands the “born of water,” the first of the two births mentioned here, to refer to baptism. Since that phrase follows hard on the heels of Nicodemus’ reference to climbing back into his mother’s womb, I think it much more likely to refer to that original birth. For me, it took place on December 28, 1962 and, like all human births, involved the shedding of some water.

Everyone who reads these words has experienced that first birth, the birth of water. That birth is the common legacy of all humanity. In fact, every human to come along since Adam and Eve has passed through that birth of water in one way or another. The person you love and appreciate the most has not experience birth of water any more than the worst ISIS militant or annoying driver on your morning commute.

The other birth, on the other hand, belongs only to those who, presumably like Jimmy Carter, have trusted in Christ and been regenerated, reborn, by the Holy Spirit. I mention President Carter because I find the man both fascinating and annoying. He’s the only U.S. President I’ve met. I admire his woodworking and his attempts as President to be a decent human being. On the other hand, he has stood for some things, over the years, that I would wholeheartedly stand against.

And in the end, Jimmy Carter will have to put up with me for eternity in the presence of God just as I will have to put up with him. We share–assuming that he was telling the truth to that interviewer, which I believe he was–that second birth, a birth of the Spirit.

Look around your church on Sunday. There are certain to be people who have, like you, experienced the second birth and who drive you bonkers. Maybe you argue with them on committees or just find them rude and abrasive. It doesn’t matter. We’re all stuck with each other.

Some day, perhaps soon, we’ll all–you, me, your annoying person, Jimmy Carter, and a host of others–will find ourselves, by virtue of our second birth, spending eternity with God. All those annoyances from this world, the world of the first birth, will seem like nothing in that day.

The Game Changer of Flesh–John 1:14

John gospel iconThe Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.—John 1:14
Recently, I went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art with my 1st-grade grandson Uri’s class field trip. Although I really didn’t see that experience coming, you have not lived until you’ve tried to shepherd a bunch of 1st-grade boys through a museum. Early in our visit, we found ourselves in a room full of Baroque paintings, many of them portraying Biblical subject matter. I tried and failed to get the boys interested in a rather lurid image of the beheading of John the Baptist.
Then I heard a voice ring out at a level decidedly above that appropriate for an art museum. “Hey, that’s God!”
I looked to my left and saw a painting that portrayed a group of soldiers and henchmen crowning Jesus with thorns. “That’s Jesus,” I pointed out, not exactly correcting the boy.
“Yes, that’s God. Jesus is God.”
This boy’s mother happened to be the other adult in our group of six energetic boys. She found herself caught in the same slightly awkward spot as I did. Apparently she agreed with her son’s identification, but the matter was slightly more complex than he was making it. On the other hand, she recognized that this room at the art museum was not the place for an in-depth exploration of the theology of incarnation.
The idea of a deity taking on human flesh is not completely unique to Christianity. In Greek myth, gods and goddesses were constantly popping up in human form attempting to seduce a genuine human or to impart some bit of knowledge. The distance between Greek god and man, however, was not all that immense. Zeus, after all, was not the creator of the universe. He didn’t even create the world.
When the Word takes on flesh, things are different. Jesus suffered through 33 years of human life, 33 years of smelly, petty, stupid, selfish people. Long before a few hours of arrest and trial, beating and crucifixion, Jesus suffered in the flesh in ways that make my field trip with Uri seem trivial.
I have written elsewhere that Easter and the resurrection of Jesus changed everything. That’s true, but in reality, the first game changer came when the Word became flesh, when God wrote Himself into the drama of human existence

Stay in Bed and Avoid Problems: Ecclesiastes 10:8-9

Whoever digs a pit may fall into it;

    whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them;
    whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.—Ecclesiastes 10:8-9
As I sit here this morning, taking a bit of slow start to the day, I have time to reflect on various things. It is 7:41. I didn’t get up at 6:00 or even at 7:00 today. Since I didn’t have to go to work and Olivia didn’t have to go to work, there was no rush. There’s been rain falling gently for the last 90 minutes or so, so my mind said, “Stay in bed and avoid problems.”
Life’s problems can be best avoided, I think, by doing nothing. Think about it. If I never mow my grass, then I will never risk injuring myself with the lawnmower. If I don’t drive anywhere, then I cannot get into an automobile accident. If I don’t brush my teeth, there’s no chance of me choking on toothpaste. I could go on.
In the verses quoted here, Solomon gives four examples of ways that work can seem to be foolishness. Is this to be read as saying that work is folly? I’m not going to dig a hole, because I might fall into it. Or is he simply pointing out that every worthwhile thing has its attendant dangers?
Life has its risks. If I go through life without risk, then it is really not life. I wrote recently about Dean Potter, a famous climber who died in a BASE jumping accident. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who risk their necks foolishly, but is such risk really worse than risking your life by not living it? Would you rather have your life cut short when you’re doing something or to have your life cut short because you spent it sitting on the couch watching reruns of MASH?
Throughout Ecclesiastes, you run into that word ‘meaningless.’ I try to make sense of that word by substituting “What’s up with that?”
Throughout this chapter and throughout life, we have a series of examples of things that don’t make a great deal of sense. But our job is not really to make sense of life and all of its details. If you cut stones you might get hurt by them. What’s up with that? No, it doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t really make sense, but that’s just the way life is. Life under the sun doesn’t always make  sense, but that’s okay. We can’t hold out for sense. Instead, we just need to accept the risk. Then enjoy our food and drink and work. That’s the fate of man under the sun.

Crashing the Helicopter Parents–Ecclesiastes 7:16-18

Do not be overrighteous,

    neither be overwise—
    why destroy yourself?
17 Do not be overwicked,
    and do not be a fool—
    why die before your time?
18 It is good to grasp the one
    and not let go of the other.
    Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
—Ecclesiastes 7:16-18
Bubble wrap parent
The most careful parent on the planet hovers over the child like a helicopter, spawning the term “helicopter parent.” This parent invests in every piece of protective gear for junior, effectively wrapping her in bubble wrap for every activity. This parent carefully rations the child’s television usage and ensures that the little one does not sit too close to any device that might emit harmful and as-yet-unidentified radiation. Don’t even ask about vaccination, because this parent won’t take any chances, lest an MMR booster kick junior over into the autism spectrum. Smoke alarm batteries are changed religiously when daylight savings time begins, and background checks run on each and every adult who crosses junior’s path. This is a careful parent.
How surprising then when that child became the victim of a freak, unpredictable accident.
When Solomon speaks of someone being “overrighteous” or “overwise,” I think he might be speaking of the helicopter parent. The overrighteous person is obsessed with doing the right thing in absolutely every situation. The overwise person thinks things through perhaps a bit too much and believes himself possessed of all the right answers.
Solomon doesn’t suggest ignoring the right thing. He doesn’t think that the helicopter parent ought to land, hand the kids a box of razor blades, and tell them to play on the Interstate. Instead, he’s pointing out the uncertainty of human life and the inability of individuals to control that life.
Happily as stewards of our own bodies and as guardians of the growing bodies of our children, we don’t have to be perfect. We—or our children—can eat a little bit of junk food, engage in a  bit of dangerous play, and expose ourselves to a moderate amount of contagion without utterly ruining our lives.
Both obsession and neglect destroy life, in Solomon’s view. In between those extremes lies a wide swath of acceptable and healthy behavior in which we can be happy and make the best of things.
We’re all going to die, he continues to remind us. We might as well enjoy matters and please God until then.

A Time for Everything, but Especially…–Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
–Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

It’s pretty much impossible for me to read Ecclesiastes 3 without hearing the Byrds singing. If you’re so inclined, you can click “play” and listen as you read on. (Or just listen. After all, it’s your time.)

I’d like to focus not on “a time to cast away stones,” which I know is the part of that passage that holds the greatest meaning for you, but on that first half of verse 2. “A time to give birth, and a time to die.” We tend to emphasize the first part of that pairing without acknowledging the inevitable second part. The moment we are born, we start dying. That’s a simple truth of mortal existence, but who wants to talk about the time for that particular event under heaven?

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas famously urged his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and I would not be one to argue for accepting an early exit from this life. It’s easy for me, at age 52, to say, “I’ll be ready to go when I hit 90,” but I’m pretty sure that I’ll feel differently when I’m blowing out 89 candles on a cake.

There is, however, a difference between being ready and eager to die on the one hand and being open to the fact that death will one day arrive. Knowing that death will immediately put me into the presence of Christ, as 2 Corinthians 5:8 makes clear, does not incline me to take an early trip in that direction.

Knowing that death will come one day should sober us to use each day that we have in a manner worthy of the God who gave us that day. Knowing that the first death will not be followed by the second death but instead by an eternity in a glorified resurrection body allows me to live those days I do have without fear.

What prompted the Byrds to record “Turn! Turn! Turn!” or Pete Seeger to write it? I’m not sure. Pete passed from this mortal coil in 2014, and I won’t speculate on his eternal fate. What I can state with confidence is that we all had a time to be born and will all have a time to die. Living with the hope of Christ makes the latter fact far less ominous.