Scriptures and Reflections for the week of December 3-8
Monday, December 3
Psalm 137:1 & 4
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
This psalm is about a season of life in Israel when it was held in Babylonian Captivity. For most of us this is difficult to imagine. We live in our own land. We may agree or disagree with governance, but we are free. However nearly all of us have experienced seasons when we felt robbed of joy, controlled by forces and events outside of ourselves. How can we sing when there seems so little reason for joy? One great Christmas Carol is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and rescue captive Israel.” This carol fills us with anticipation and joy and renewed life. When down, sing! When really down, sing unto the Lord! And when utterly lost, sing of the Christ who restores us back to life. In short, never quit singing – even if you believe yourself tone deaf!
Tuesday, December 4
Before reading further this week, it is important to know that this is a story of wealth, power, fidelity and betrayal. It is the National Inquirer of the Bible. The story takes place during the Babylonian Captivity of Israel, when the Babylonians ruled from India to the Mediterranean. This is a story about revenge. Its value may be for us to remember how fickle life is if we depend on wealth, power, beauty, loyalty, and the ultimate need to win at all costs. If we think our political season was/is pained and twisted, it pales in comparison with the story of Esther. There are neither heroes nor heroines. But it does reflect life and it serves as a reminder that humanity has a selfish and even vicious streak running through it that can run out of control. So pursue, if you dare.
Esther 1:4-6 (excessive opulent wealth)
For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty. When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa. The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.
Xerxes, who ruled all of Babylonia, made what might be called a vulgar display of his wealth and power. All one could eat and drink and all the wealth one could behold were on display. What fascinates us about the abundance of others, or drives us to show our own abundance? Does it make any of us better, more valuable before God, raise our prestige? Sometimes we all fall victims to the homes we have, the cars we drive, the places where we dine. It is potentially a terrible pit of emptiness just when we were hoping it would bring us joy and satisfaction. Someone can always outdo us. But none could outdo Xerxes. He had it all – or did he? This will lay the foundation of a tragic undoing. As it can for any of us – trusting in wealth alone.
Wednesday, December 5
Esther 1:9, 11-12
Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes. (King Xerxes commanded his servants) to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.
This is a soap opera to beat all soap operas. The Queen defied the King. Insurrection! Stubborn wills! And now a king is in full rage. Nothing good can come of this, nor does it. Yet this story is in our Scriptures, and there must be something to learn. By the end of this chapter, the Queen is deposed. Out of this will come a new kingly edict – that ALL WOMEN in the empire must obey their husbands. Where in the world is tender love, compassion, serving one another in love, caring about one’s spouse? Is it only about absolute power? Before throwing too many stones, we might pause to explore our own shared relationships: husbands and wives; parents and children; friends and neighbors, Democrats and Re;ublicsns. Some centuries later the Apostle Paul will remind us that: love is patient and kind, love does not envy nor proud, nor does it boast. It is not rude or self-seeking. Chaos is the result when selfish power becomes the measure of one’s life. We who follow Christ are Servants, not Masters.
Thursday, December 6
Esther 2 – selected portions and a Beauty Contest of Biblical Proportions – best to read it privately as it is so convoluted that one finds it hard to believe. In short, Esther (Babylonian name for a Jewish beauty) ends up as the one who has stolen the king’s heart. She has seven maids, is given special foods and a beauty treatment for a number of months. She wins the contest. Every food and treatment (diet and cosmetics) is in pursuit of absolute beauty.
What constitutes true beauty for you? Is it on the outside or inside? Sophisticated accomplishments or humble compassion? This chapter is a riveting reminder of beauty pageants and of how sometimes that are among the most shallow of entertainments and the most severe of judgments. God does not regard us by how we look, but who we are. The first half of this chapter sets up the next significant conflict. Jealousy! And with it a thirst for power. And then revenge. It is a descending spiral we need to understand in order to mind ourselves and seek something more lovely for the sake of our Lord.
Friday, December 7
During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai.
Mordecai is the Uncle of Esther, a Jew, and the one who has been her protector. Unaware, he now sets in motion the next phase of destruction. What began as a pathetic display of ostentatious wealth descended into a power contest between husband and wife, moved to a demand for absolute obedience, entered a phase of a beauty contest, and now arrives at political conspiracy to assassinate the king. This is indeed the House of Cards. But wait, there is more. For the moment simply ponder the danger of empty pursuits and maybe where in your own life you are chasing that which is not worthy.
Saturday, December 8
When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.
This came about when Mordecai refused to bow before Haman, now the second in command to Xerxes. This was to be genocide, the atrocity condemned today by most civilized nations. Haman’s anger was so great that he sought total destruction.
So ends this week, but we must finish the story, because it does not finish well. This is a reminder of the way we are to live, we who this week celebrate the coming birth of the Christ Child, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Love. Esther will orchestrate the slaughter of those who would slaughter the Jews. Do we seek in our daily lives revenge or redemption? The world in which we live has all the elements of the Book of Esther. But it is not the last word. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Our world too often is as ugly as the story of Esther. But God suggests another way, and we who follow Jesus are the people of the other way. Do not let this world despair you. We are in the business, not of revenge but of redemption. Oh that politicians would hear just as we in our own lives need to listen. This is a tough story for tough times. That makes it our story in our time. Share the love of Jesus Christ wherever you go this Advent Season.
Weekly Devotionals for December 10
Scriptures are adapted from The Message Bible version. This is a series of stories from the Book of Daniel – a prophet and exile during the era of Babylonian and then Persian control.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
Monday, December 10
King Nebuchadnezzar built a gold statue, ninety feet high and nine feet thick. He ordered all the important leaders in the province, everybody who was anybody, to the dedication ceremony of the statue.
A herald then proclaimed in a loud voice: “Attention, everyone! Every race, color, and creed, listen! When you hear the band strike up fall to your knees and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Anyone who does not kneel and worship shall be thrown immediately into a roaring furnace.”
The band started to play and everyone fell to their knees and worshiped the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
Just then, some Babylonian fortunetellers stepped up and accused the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “… there are some Jews here—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—whom you have placed in high positions in the province of Babylon. These men are ignoring you, O king. They don’t respect your gods and they won’t worship the gold statue you set up.”
At some point in our lives we have all heard the adage “Well, if your friends were jumping off a cliff would you follow them?” We are taught that just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it is the best thing to do. It is often difficult to stand up against the tide of culture and traditions, especially during the holidays, however even when we feel like exiles because of our faith we can find encouragement from those who have put faith first. Jesus spent a lifetime exposing the veiled gods of culture that had interfered with the practice of faith so that his followers could freely express their faith by loving God and loving others. What are the gods of our day that act so demanding in our lives? What are the “triggers” like the band striking up the chord, that play in our unconscious causing us to bow to culture instead of stand up for our faith?
The Fiery Furnace
Tuesday, December 11
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar, “Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us in the fire, the God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king. But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king. We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, bound hand and foot, fully dressed from head to toe, were pitched into the roaring fire. Because the king was in such a hurry and the furnace was so hot, flames from the furnace killed the men who carried Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to it, while the fire raged around Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Suddenly King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in alarm and said, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound hand and foot, into the fire?”
“But look!” he said. “I see four men, walking around freely in the fire, completely unharmed! And the fourth man looks like a son of the gods!”
Nebuchadnezzar went to the door of the roaring furnace and called in, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the High God, come out here!”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walked out of the fire. Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him! They ignored the king’s orders and laid their bodies on the line rather than serve or worship any god but their own. Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Even if. Even if the God we serve does not rescue us from distress and tribulation it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. The servants of God, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, are exiles living in a foreign land and immersed in a culture devoid of faith in the Living God. But, they have discerned that living a life faithful to God is better than a life enslaved to the whims of a faithless king and fickle society, even if. Our faith cannot be conditional on whether God provides for us a perfect life void of struggle and sorrow; that is not faith but a selfish allegiance for our own benefit. We take a chance each time we stand up for our faith – what are the fiery furnaces that we fear we might enter if we follow Jesus Christ? No human power can rescue us from the fiery furnace, but God promises to be with us wherever we find ourselves even in the most desperate of places. How do you experience God’s presence in times of trouble?
The Writing on the Wall
Wednesday, December 12
King Belshazzar held a great feast for his one thousand nobles. The wine flowed freely. They drank the wine and drunkenly praised their gods made of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.
At that very moment, the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the lamp-illumined, whitewashed wall of the palace. When the king saw the disembodied hand writing away, he went white as a ghost, scared out of his wits. He yelled out for the enchanters, the fortunetellers, and the diviners to come. He told these Babylonian magi, “Anyone who can read this writing on the wall and tell me what it means will be famous and rich—purple robe, the great gold chain—and be third-in-command in the kingdom.”
One after the other they tried, but could make no sense of it. The nobles were in a panic.
The queen heard of the hysteria among the king and his nobles and came to the banquet hall. She said, “…There is a man in your kingdom who is full of the divine Holy Spirit. There was no one quite like him. He could do anything—interpret dreams, solve mysteries, explain puzzles. His name is Daniel, but he was renamed Belteshazzar by the king. Have Daniel called in. He’ll tell you what is going on here.”
This was long before CGI (computer generated imagery) and would have been a frightening image for all to see. Imagine the panic and hysteria caused by a dismembered hand writing on a wall as if it were a chalkboard! Of course the nobles were in a panic – they were no longer in control of the message, they are feeling vulnerable and exposed. When we feel like we must have control and things don’t go as planned panic is a normal response. But when we begin to be more like Daniel, when we allow ourselves to be full of the Holy Spirit, we are far more capable – we can do anything. The illusion of human power and control is just that, an illusion, but when we relinquish control to God we find so many more things that are possible. Is there a message that God is writing on the wall for you?
Thursday, December 13
So Daniel was called in. The king asked him, “Are you the Daniel who was one of the Jewish exiles my father brought here from Judah? I’ve heard about you—that you’re full of the Holy Spirit, that you’ve got a brilliant mind, that you are incredibly wise. So—if you can read the writing and interpret it for me, you’ll be rich and famous—a purple robe, the great gold chain around your neck—and third-in-command in the kingdom.”
Daniel answered the king, “You can keep your gifts, or give them to someone else. But I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.
“Listen, O king! The High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar a great kingdom and a glorious reputation. He developed a big head and a hard spirit. Then God knocked him off his high horse and stripped him of his fame. He was thrown out of human company, lost his mind, and lived like a wild animal…until he learned his lesson: that the High God rules human kingdoms and puts anyone he wants in charge.
“You are his son and have known all this, yet you’re as arrogant as he ever was … you treat with contempt the living God who holds your entire life from birth to death in his hand.
“God sent the hand that wrote on the wall, and this is what is written: mene, teqel, and peres. This is what the words mean: God has numbered the days of your rule; you don’t measure up and your kingdom has been divided up and handed over to the Medes and Persians.”
Belshazzar did what he had promised. He robed Daniel in purple, draped the great gold chain around his neck, and promoted him to third-in-charge in the kingdom. That same night the Babylonian king Belshazzar was murdered. Darius the Mede was sixty-two years old when he succeeded him as king.
Humility. Without it we are lost – we become like wild animals, we become separated from others and ourselves. It has been said that it is lonely at the top – of course it is – when we begin to think too highly of ourselves we end up spending a lot of energy reminding ourselves how great we are and stoking our own egos. That doesn’t leave time for much else. Daniel reminds the king that just like his father, he is only king because God allowed for him to be king. If only the king had recognized where the true power lies. The first step toward humility is recognizing that God holds our entire life in his hands. Ironically, humility is what can make someone great. How might we serve with humility in the places that God has put us?
Friday, December 14
Darius reorganized his kingdom. He decided to put Daniel in charge of the whole kingdom.
The vice-regents and governors got together to find some old scandal or skeleton in Daniel’s life that they could use against him, but they couldn’t dig up anything. He was totally exemplary and trustworthy. So they conspired together and agreed that the king should issue the following decree:
For the next thirty days no one is to pray to any god or mortal except you, O king. Anyone who disobeys will be thrown into the lions’ den.
King Darius signed the decree.
When Daniel learned that the decree had been signed and posted, he continued to pray just as he had always done. His house had windows in the upstairs that opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he knelt there in prayer, thanking and praising his God.
The conspirators came and found him praying, asking God for help. They went straight to the king and reminded him of the royal decree that he had signed.
Then they said, “Daniel, one of the Jewish exiles, ignores you, O king, and defies your decree. Three times a day he prays.”
Smear campaign – this was a political hit piece in the making. Daniel’s rivals were patiently setting up a no-win situation for Daniel. Or so they thought. Daniel could have prayed in secret but the scripture takes great pains to point out that Daniels house had windows – windows that expose. Daniel prayed toward Jerusalem, a home he had never been to but a place he knew was part of his history and his future. We pray toward heaven – a home that is part of our history and our future. Daniel’s prayers exposed his faith, it exposed his humility, his gratitude and his joy. Are there times that we shy away from exposing our faith because we fear “the Loin’s Den?” Do we keep our prayers secret and hidden because we fear the questions from others, or we imagine ridicule or judgment? Even in the face of an unwelcoming and critical society, can we imagine how we might pray with the windows wide open? Can we imagine putting our faith on display for all to see?
The Lion’s Den
Saturday, December 15
At this, the king was very upset and tried his best to get Daniel out of the fix he’d put him in. He worked at it the whole day long.
But then the conspirators were back: “Remember, O king, it’s the law of the Medes and Persians that the king’s decree can never be changed.”
The king caved in and ordered Daniel brought and thrown into the lions’ den. But he said to Daniel, “Your God, to whom you are so loyal, is going to get you out of this.”
A stone slab was placed over the opening of the den. The king sealed the cover with his signet ring and the signet rings of all his nobles, fixing Daniel’s fate.
The king then went back to his palace. He refused supper. He couldn’t sleep. He spent the night fasting.
At daybreak the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. As he approached the den, he called out anxiously, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve so loyally, saved you from the lions?”
“O king, live forever!” said Daniel. “My God sent his angel, who closed the mouths of the lions so that they would not hurt me. I’ve been found innocent before God and also before you, O king. I’ve done nothing to harm you.”
When the king heard these words, he was happy. He ordered Daniel taken up out of the den.
Daniel’s rivals who had conspired against him tried to create a no-win situation for Daniel and the scriptures indicate they believe they were “fixing Daniel’s fate.” They used strong words like “never” and “sealed” and yet the God of possibilities was indeed able to save Daniel from the Lion’s Den. There are times in our lives when we feel boxed in by circumstances – sometimes by circumstances we have created and other times by circumstances totally out of our control. We proclaim our innocence and yet find ourselves in a den of hungry lions. But even in those darkest of times we have others praying for us, fasting for us, caring for us – acting as angels on our behalf. Our fate is not sealed by society or by the rulers and principals of this human existence, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit through grace and our destiny lies outside of the den of lions. Who needs your prayers right now? Who needs you to intercede on their behalf, to be their angel in times of trouble? How can you live more faithfully both inside and outside the den of lions?