Death Valley, California is unique because it contains the lowest, hottest, driest location in North America. Nearly 550 square miles of its area lie below sea level. It is one of the hottest places on earth, attaining the second-highest temperature ever recorded, 134 degrees F. in 1913, and the average yearly rainfall is only 2 inches. In this harsh environment life seems rare—plants are minimal and animals work hard to survive. But in the fall and winter of 2005 an over 50 year record was broken as 6.5 inches of rain fell and Death Valley underwent what some called a “once in a lifetime” “Superbloom” as entire hillsides came alive with flowers and splashes of color replaced the barren expanses of desert. As I tell the children, the “conditions were just right. There was just enough water, sunlight, and fair temperatures” for Death Valley to be completely transformed.
Those of you who grew up in the ‘80s may be familiar with the phrase, “I love it when a plan comes together.” (A-Team, anyone?) But don’t we all? Love it when everything comes together in just the right way and at just the right time?
For the Children’s Message I used the story about the 2005 Superbloom in Death Valley as a comparison to some of what Jesus talks about in John 12:22-30—that the time had come for his death. As I explain, everything that God had desired to be accomplished in Jesus’ life had happened, and now it was time for God’s rescue plan—the one He had from the beginning of time—to be accomplished. At just the right time God sent Jesus to come and live among us, to teach us about God’s love and God’s Kingdom, but it would only be through Jesus’ death—His crucifixion and resurrection—that the sin and death that separates us from God could be defeated once and for all. Only through the sacrifice of Jesus could our relationship with God be restored. Praise God that in Jesus there is more than enough love, grace, and mercy for us to be completely transformed!
The printable Together at Home activity sheets for today’s Worship Service are available to download here.
Barring an unfavorable change in the COVID metrics, our church will officially open its sanctuary doors for in-person worship three weeks from today. Indeed this Easter will be a “high and holy day” (as one of my divinity professors used to say)—made even sweeter by the ability to once again join together in one place for worship. Yet, as much as we look forward to the coming days, my hope is that we have learned and will not forget the lesson offered in this time apart—a lesson related to this morning’s scripture reading from John 2:13-22. As I explained to the children, “In Jesus’ time, people traveled for days to visit the temple where God’s presence dwelt (or lived). But that’s not the case today. God doesn’t live in our churches, in our sanctuaries. No. The Bible tells us in John 1 that God came to dwell (or live) among us in the person of Jesus. And in the Bible book of Acts, we learn that after Jesus’ death and resurrection and return to heaven, God’s Holy Spirit came to live within each person who believed in Jesus and chose to follow Him.”
The pandemic reiterated one of the most important truths of our faith: that the Church is not a place, but a people—God’s people wherever they are and whatever they are doing. In the coming weeks and months this idea will be tested as we rediscover what our purpose as a church is to be, and as we envision what this might mean for us, it is imperative that we do not forget. God has not called us to build a congregation that sits in the pew each Sunday, but to build His Kingdom—by discipling and equipping those in our care, so that we might share the Good News of Jesus not just with those who enter our services, our classrooms, or programs, but with each person we meet outside our doors, off our campus, too. We can choose to be inward-focused and measure our success by counting numbers and coins, or we can choose to fulfill God’s calling to meet the needs of the world outside our doors—trusting that when we are obedient to God, He will be faithful to us as well.
God doesn’t dwell in certain buildings. Rather, as I Corinthians 3:16 reminds us, we are God’s temple in which God’s Spirit dwells. May we honor God with all that we are—our thoughts, our actions, our very lives.
Abraham knew that God was faithful and would do what he had promised but he had to be patient and wait for God’s timing.
Many schools are now gradually reopening – it can be hard to watch some children able to return and be with their friends while others cannot. For some they may be back at school but longing for their days at school to return to normal.
Why not have the children take some time to write or draw what they would like their school life to look like. Bring what is shared to God in prayer and help them to ask for patience while they wait. You could keep the writings or drawings as a prayer focus and a reminder to trust in God. If your children do not attend school, they could also complete this activity thinking about other areas of their lives, such as church and other activities which have changed during the pandemic.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;”
So begins Robert Frost’s infamous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” We’ve all been there—at that crossroads where we’ve had to make a choice. As I tell the children in today’s message (using the example of a board game), “sometimes there are splits in the road, where you have to pick which way to go, and just as in real life, what happens to you depends on the choice you make.”
We see the truth of this in the life of Jesus. Though only the Gospel of Luke speaks specifically of Jesus “setting his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), all of the gospels recount his journey there. It was the path Jesus chose to take, not simply to a city, but to his death. And despite Jesus’ attempt to prepare his disciples for what is to come in today’s scripture passage from Mark 8:27-38, they simply do not understand. Imagine then, what they thought when he announced, “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). A cross? What’s this talk about a cross? We read it differently because we stand on the other side of it. We know what happened on The Cross—that Jesus, being both fully divine and fully human, denied himself and chose to suffer and die, not for anything that he had done, but for us—God’s wayward children—to show us God’s love, to offer us God’s mercy and grace free for the taking if we simply believe.
Whether we choose to accept this gift, however, is our choice to make. Will we chose to believe and to follow Him with our lives—denying ourselves by giving up living life our way, on our terms, in exchange for the way of Jesus—a way of love and forgiveness and mercy and grace always extending to others? I tell the children it is the most important choice they will ever make, and it is—from an eternal perspective it is the one that, as Frost would say, makes “all the difference.” May it be so—may our salvation be secure as we declare Jesus Christ to be our Savior and Lord but may our discipleship—our decision to follow—be a lifelong endeavor as we chose God’s way over our own each and every day.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent—a time when we prepare for Easter by turning our hearts towards God. The scripture passage for today’s children’s message as well as for today’s devotional (Using your first Activity Egg!) is the story of Noah. It may seem like an odd choice for a lectionary text on the first Sunday of Lent, but in truth it provides a hint about what is coming during this season.
To explain, in The Jesus Storybook Bible (one of my favorite Bible story books for children), Noah’s story is entitled “A New Beginning.” The book explains that during the time of Noah “…many people filled the earth. Everyone everywhere had forgotten about God and were only doing bad things all the time. God’s heart was filled with pain when he saw what had happened to the world he loved. Everywhere was disease and death and destruction—all the things God hates most.” It then goes on to tell about how God found favor with Noah, about the building of the Ark and the coming of the animals, and about the rain and flood. But it is the way story ends—the focus verses for today’s lectionary reading—that most captures my attention:
“The first thing God did [after everything was over] was make another promise. ‘I won’t ever destroy the world again.’ And like a warrior who puts away his bow and arrow at the end of a great battle, God said, ‘See, I have hung up my bow in the clouds.’ And there, in the clouds—just where the storm meets the sun—was a beautiful bow made of light. It was a new beginning in God’s world. It wasn’t long before everything went wrong again but God wasn’t surprised, he knew this would happen. That’s why, before the beginning of time, he had another plan—a better plan. A plan not to destroy the world, but to rescue it—a plan to one day send his own Son, the Rescuer. God’s strong anger against hate and sadness and death would come down once more—but not on his people, or his world. No, God’s war bow was not pointing down at his people. It was pointing up, into the heart of Heaven.”
Instead of destroying the world to get rid of sin, God in Jesus will forgive sin from the cross. As I tell the children in the message, “The good news for today is that God keeps his promises—not just the rainbow promise that shines on dark, rainy days—but more importantly, the promise of forgiveness and a new beginning for us when we choose to believe in and follow Jesus.
In my thoughts posted in last week’s email related to the February 7th Children’s Message and Resources, I spoke about the importance of “making a quiet space” literally and figuratively to just be with God. When I wrote those words, I did not know exactly what God might lead me to focus on in this week’s message on Jesus’ Transfiguration found in Mark 9:2-9. Looking back at children’s messages I wrote in previous years on the event, I realized that I often spoke to the children about all of the different emotions/feelings present within the passage—exhaustion, surprise, fear, confusion, etc. Reflecting upon the current state of affairs in relation to the pandemic and political climate, I believed such a message still fit, but this year the words that continued to call to me were these three: “Listen to Jesus!” Punctuated by an exclamation point, it seems this phrase is not a mere suggestion, but rather, an imperative. God knows our exhaustion, our confusion, our fear and sadness, our every emotion, God is aware of the brokenness of our world, and God’s answer to it all—the essential instruction of vital importance—remains. “Listen to Jesus!”
Today’s scripture passage from Mark 1:29-39 illustrates in three short vignettes one of the most important doctrines about the nature of Jesus—the hypostatic union (that is, the combination of both divine and human natures in the single person of Christ). To explain, verses 29-31 open the story with Jesus’ visit at the home of Simon and Andrew after a morning at the synagogue. The restrictions of Sabbath observance necessitated their having a quiet day, but Simon’s mother-in-law was ill and Jesus was moved to cure her. Little wonder that by sundown (the end of the Sabbath) we find in the second set of verses (32-34) “the whole city” bringing their sick to Jesus—encamping by the door seeking their own miracle. As God incarnate, Jesus had the power and authority to heal the sick and he did so—meeting the needs of people in body, spirit, and mind—probably late into the night.
Yet, lest we forget, the last section (vs. 35-39) of the story reminds us that Jesus was not only fully God, but also fully human as we find that in addition to healing, casting out demons, and preaching, one of Jesus’ regular habits was slipping off alone to find a quiet place to pray—in this case, in the early morning before it was even light. That’s because in addition to accepting the limits of humanity such as a need to eat, sleep, and rest, Jesus recognized there was another aspect of his personhood that needed to be fed—he needed time to pray and gain perspective. As I tell the children in today’s message, “even Jesus needed times to get away….even he needed an alone time to be with and talk to and listen to God.” Jesus did not neglect this part of himself, and in doing so taught his disciples a lesson: if they were looking for Jesus, they could probably find him somewhere praying.
Yet, Jesus’ example is also instructive to us. Today’s Gospel portrays a very busy day in the life of Jesus. Personally, I find my life is busy these days too—but in a different way than usual. People aren’t coming over, and I’m not traveling about, running from one place to another as much, but when everybody is working from home, there’s a different type of busyness—that can really feel, as I tell the children, “too much!” (I imagine you and your children probably have felt this way at some point during the pandemic, too.) What is comforting to me is realizing not only that even Jesus likely had these feelings—times when life was “too much”—but also, he set the example in how we too can overcome them: making a quiet space (literally and figuratively) to just be with God.
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Lord, help me be more like Jesus—still my body and my mind in your presence that I may better know You and hear and follow Your voice.
In the time of Jesus, words were important. Without modern media and in a culture where literacy was at a premium, the spoken word was the only sure means of communication. Words could command, they could instruct, they could heal. The spoken word revealed one’s inner power, one’s character.
The people who heard Jesus teach and saw him heal in today’s Gospel story from Mark 1:21-28 were said to have been astonished and amazed by the authority of his teaching. So compelling were Jesus’ words and actions that the news about him could not be contained; it spread quickly throughout all of Galilee. Over two thousand years later, the news about Jesus continues to spread as we participate in sharing the Good News of Jesus with others in our words and in our deeds. May our lives be a testament of the power and authority of God at work.
Today’s Bible story from Mark 1:14-20 describes Jesus calling a group of fishermen—Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John—to follow him. It’s a story found in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) with some variation, but two important commonalities. The first is the idea that these fishermen would no longer work to catch fish, but instead “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17, Luke 5:10), while the second (and the point I focused on in today’s message) is that these men left “everything”—their jobs and their families—behind and followed “immediately,” “at once,” “without delay.” Reflecting on this passage, I wonder sometimes whether I would have responded as Simon, Andrew, James, and John did. Would I have really just walked away “immediately?” It was risky business giving up a livelihood. And what about their families? The way Matthew and Mark tell the story, it sounds like James and John simply walked away from their father Zebedee—leaving him behind in the boat. Could I have possibly done the same?
We don’t know what went through these first disciples’ heads, why exactly they responded in the way they did. I imagine that as they spent time with Jesus there may have been days when they wondered if they made the best choice—especially when they saw him arrested, beaten, tried, crucified, and buried. But was it worth it? The fact that we know the story of Jesus, the fact that we can read about it in our Bibles today, proves that it was.
As I tell the children, “Jesus does not promise that following him will always be easy,” and indeed, there will be times in our lives where it will require more than we wish to give. It can be risky business. Is answering Jesus’ call on our lives worth it?
As one of the founding professors of my divinity school used to say, “Answer the call…It’s worth a life.”
Today we read of Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John—the turning of the water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. When thinking of Jesus’ other miracles—the healing of the sick, the casting out of demons, the raising of the dead, calming storms and walking on water—this one seems to be a strange one. Why is it included? As we may remember, John doesn’t refer to any of the “miracles’ in his gospel as such. Rather, he calls them “signs.” And as he writes in verse 11—the turning of the water into wine is “the first of the signs through which he [Jesus] revealed his glory.” The glory, as we read back in John 1, of the “one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (1:14) And as a result, the disciples believed