Welcome to the April 2014 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, April 2014
“Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice. Let your forbearance be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. The things which ye both learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” Philippians 4:4-9, ASV
Today is April Fool’s day. All over the world, people will be playing practical jokes on their family and friends. How did this tradition get started? It is likely that the tradition began in medieval times, when the Gregorian calendar was established. Before the mid 16th century, the Europeans celebrated New Year in the springtime, around April 1st. In 1564, King Charles IX of France accepted the more accurate Gregorian calendar, which made New Year’s at January 1st.
Some people were too stubborn to change or they had not received the news of the change, so they continued to celebrate on April 1st. They were called ‘April Fish.’ They were looked upon as fools and were targeted with foolish gifts and invitations to celebrations, which were not happening. Eventually everyone accepted the new calendar, but they continued to play pranks on April Fool’s Day.
I found an article this morning from Canadian television about the most googled search terms in Canada this week. People are looking for pranks to play. They are looking for ideas for office pranks and phone pranks. Those ideas include wrapping a coworker’s cubicle with tinfoil, hanging an air horn on the wall behind a door so that it blasts when the opening door hits it, and placing a photo of your head in a jar of water in the fridge, which appears as though you’ve been pickled. The searches were more interested in funny pranks rather than scary ones.
Another thing people searched was April Fool’s pranks that went bad. There were some pretty incredible stories. Take, for instance, the woman who decided to tell her boyfriend that she was pregnant. When his response was extremely negative, she got mad that he wouldn’t be happy and she responded by stabbing him. He was hospitalized and she went to jail. A restaurant manager decided to have a contest with his waitresses and told them that the one who sold the most beer would get a Toyota. When the contest was over, the winning waitress was taken out to the parking lot and shown a “toy-yoda.” She sued the manager and the company for fraud.
Throughout the day, many people will play practical jokes, and as many people will fall for those practical jokes. In most cases, it will be harmless fun. However, many jokes have a lasting impact that we do not realize when we are playing them. Many jokes, which seem harmless and fun, are actually rather hurtful to the one who is made the fool. Before you play any jokes this year, remember that your every thought, word and action impacts the world in some way. We are called by Christ to live in faith that is right, true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, good, virtuous, and praise filled. That silliness may seem harmless today, but it may cause someone you love lasting grief and could be the end of a relationship. Is it worth it?
Scriptures for Sunday, April 6, 2014, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45 (46-53)
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1, ASV
It is bluebonnet season in Texas. Well, it is wildflower season, but the favorite for most wildflower hunters is the bluebonnet. It is the official Texas State flower, and it is delightful to see. The bluebonnet is a lupine in a stunning shade of blue, which is amazingly rare in flowers. Most flowers are red, pink, yellow, white or purple. Every year there are families who search to find the perfect field of bluebonnets to take pictures of their kids; it is a delightful tradition that makes wonderful memories.
Bluebonnets are rather fickle. The conditions must be perfect for there to be large numbers of the flowers. Interestingly, the best seasons occur after particularly cold and wet winters; as someone wrote, “The more miserable the winter, the more beautiful the spring.” They are annuals, which mean they go from seed to flower to seed in a year. It is vital that the plants we see in those beautiful blue fields are allowed to mature until the pods have opened and dropped the seed for future growth. Unfortunately, many people get impatient with the fields once the beautiful blue of the flower has disappeared. They mow the dying wildflowers too early, destroying the chance for future flowers.
Fortunately, bluebonnet seeds can also go dormant for a number of years and spring to life years later. The seeds dropped this year may not become bluebonnets until the next miserable winter prepares the seeds for a most beautiful spring. Isn’t it amazing how such beautiful life can come out of death? After all, that’s what happens, isn’t it? The plant dies, drops the seeds which lie lifeless in the ground until they eventually crack open as the new growth sprouts out of the ground. Death leads to new life.
You can’t get any more dead than those old dry bones that Ezekiel saw in that valley. They were old and dry. The story of Ezekiel’s vision is odd, but amazing at the same time. The imagery is something out of a horror film, and yet miraculous in the way God can take something that is so far beyond restoration and give it life. Those bones were dry; they were probably lying in the wilderness for a very long time. There was no hope for life. God asked, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered, “O Lord Jehovah, thou knowest.” Then God told Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to tell them, “O ye dry bones, hear the word of Jehovah.” As Ezekiel spoke, the bones came to life. The bones were covered with sinews and skin, and then God breathed life into them. God did the work, but Ezekiel became part of the process by speaking God’s word to the dead bones.
In the religious understanding of the Jews in Jesus time, you couldn’t get any more dead than Lazarus. See, they believed that the soul left the body after three days, so while there might be resurrection until that moment, there was no hope after. Once the soul was gone, the person was dead forever. The Gospel story is a little different from the story from Ezekiel. Instead of a valley full of bones, the dead body was one man. Instead of being dried bones, Lazarus was rotting in a tomb. Instead of being a vision, it was an historical event. Jesus was there. He spoke the words. Lazarus was raised. Both stories speak about hope and trust. In Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones represented the people of Israel who no longer had hope because they no longer trusted in God. In the story of Lazarus, we see that Mary and Martha had lost hope. They trusted that Jesus would rush to the bedside of their brother. They probably even hoped that after Lazarus died, Jesus would be able to raise him until that third day. When Jesus delayed in coming, they lost hope. How could He wait so long when his beloved friend needed Him?
In last week’s Midweek Oasis, we talked about how the Messiah was expected to accomplish four miracles. He was expected to heal leprosy, to cast out a mute demon and to heal a man blind from birth. The fourth miracle was raising a man who was dead for four days.
That’s why Jesus waited. The man born blind in last week’s story wasn’t blind because he or his parents sinned. He was blind so that God would be glorified. The same is true with this week’s story. Lazarus died so that God would be glorified. We see in the story of the valley of dry bones that there is hope even when it seems hopeless. Ezekiel didn’t say to God that it was impossible for the bones to live; he said that only God knew. While he might have thought the situation was hopeless, he trusted in God, and it is there we exhibit our hope. We don’t have hope because we think we know what is going to happen or because we think we can make something happen. We have hope when we trust that God will make something happen.
Mary and Martha were upset. Human beings are emotional beings. We laugh and cry, love and hate. We face fear, doubt, lust, loneliness and pain. We experience joy, excitement, certainty and courage. Emotions fulfill a purpose in our lives. In the garden, our bodies worked perfectly. Our bodies, souls and spirits worked in harmony. We were healthy, we were whole, and we were in a right relationship with our Father. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit the harmony was destroyed and everything was turned upside down. Our flesh took control and we no longer looked to God.
Mary and Martha were close to Jesus, and I’m certain that they believed in Him. Perhaps they even believed that He was the Messiah for whom they were waiting. Martha understood that there would be a future resurrection of the dead and that her brother would rise with them. She just didn’t understand completely what that meant. She believed, but she needed help with her unbelief. She, like all the other disciples, needed to see God in action in the most miraculous ways so that they would know, without a doubt, that Jesus was more than they thought and every bit what He claimed. It would never be enough for the Messiah to be a worldly king. He had to be the King.
Many of the Jews refused to listen to Jesus or believe what He said. They were set in their ways. They had opinions about the Messiah and what He would do. When Jesus came, He did not fit into the image they had created and they could not see God in the works He did. Some even claimed that Jesus must be from the devil. This caused division among the people: there were those who believed and those who did not believe. No matter how much Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, some people could just not get past their attitude about Jesus.
As we read through the Gospel narratives about the life of Jesus, it seems impossible to us that anyone could disbelieve in Jesus. His words hold so much authority and His actions came from one with power. The Pharisees saw the miracles and heard His preaching and yet they would not believe. They could not get over their own interpretation of the signs and prophecies. They knew Jesus threatened to turn their world upside down and they did not want anything to change. They refused to believe despite the proof and came up with many excuses to reject Jesus.
Lazarus, Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. I imagine they spent many hours hosting Jesus in between His journeys. They offered a home, a place to rest, the comforts of family and friendships. Lazarus became sick while Jesus was away, but He heard about the illness from a messenger. His sisters hoped that Jesus would heal him. Jesus did not leave immediately, telling the messenger that the illness would not end in death. It wasn’t safe for Jesus to go to Jerusalem because the religious leaders were already threatening Him. The disciples didn’t understand the risk when Jesus said they must go.
Despite Jesus’ promise that Lazarus would not die, he died so that God would be glorified. He told the disciples, “And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.” Why would Jesus allow Lazarus to die? Why would He allow His good friends to suffer the pain of grief for even a few days? The sisters said to Jesus, “If only you had been here!” They still had hope in the spiritual, but they wanted their brother in flesh and blood.
Jesus waited so that we would see that there is hope, even when everything seems hopeless.
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die. Believest thou this?” In response, Martha offered a confession of faith in Jesus. “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” This amazingly simple confession is one of hope, it is the sprouting seed of new life that comes out of death. Martha trusted that God could make things right.
We are reminded by this story that Jesus is our friend; He is there for us in our times of need. However, He is also the Divine, the Son of God, and He knows the end of the story. We might think we need Him to be here at this moment, to heal at this time, to finish His work right now, but He sees beyond our immediacy. He knows the right time to come and He will be there. We will probably react like the sisters, complaining that if only He were there when we thought we needed Him, things would be different. We learn in this story, however, that God might have something even greater planned for us on the other side of our suffering. Trust Him. He is faithful.
He is willing to do whatever it takes to make us love Him, but we easily forget all that He has done. There are many reasons why this might happen. We get caught up in the cares of this world and forget that God will give us rest. When we are comfortable, we think we do not need God, so we forget that our success and prosperity comes from Him. We are easily distracted by the schemes of the devil or just with our daily living that we do not realize how near He is and how much He truly loves us. Once in awhile we wake up to the love and it is on those days we find ourselves truly rejoicing.
Life begins when we meet God, when He speaks our name and calls us out of the darkness of the tomb. Life begins when He puts life back into our old, dead, dried up bones. He lives in us and we live in Him. His kingdom flows out through our lives by His Spirit. Sometimes we forget our God. We forget what He has done and how much He loves us. Yet, God never forgets and He will continue to come to us in mercy and grace to make us fall in love with Him again. He dwells in our hearts and we can rest in the promise that we will be with Him for eternity because of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ
Our hope is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him we are nothing more than dead bones in a valley or dead men in the tomb. Without Him we have no hope. All too often, however, we don’t recognize our own death. We don’t see how we are being like the Pharisees by our attitudes toward others. We do not see that we are relying on our own righteousness. We don’t live as God has called us to live, full of mercy and compassion for those who are suffering in this world.
Paul reminds us that we are dead when we rely on ourselves, but we live in because God’s Spirit dwells in us. We will know real life and peace in Christ because we are no longer dead. “But ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. But if any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the spirit is life because of righteousness.”
I heard a story on the news about a man who had been paroled from prison. He quickly returned to his old ways, breaking in to a house to rob the owners of its contents. He needed money for booze, but in the process of searching the home for goodies, he found a bottle of Crown Royal. He sat down to take a sip and the owners later came in to find this man passed out drunk on a chair. He was arrested and returned to prison. When we walk in the darkness it is very easy to slip and fall deeper and deeper into sin. The paroled man was just looking for enough cash to be able to go buy a case of beer or a bottle of cheap booze. When he found the Crown Royal, he no longer needed any cash.
We all sin. We do not always treat people with love or respect. We get angry with our children and our spouses, gossip about others, take things that are not ours. We fall to the temptations this world has to offer. We sin against God and our neighbor in our thoughts, words and deeds by what we do and what we fail to do. However, Christians have something that others do not have. We are forgiven and we walk in the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. We know by faith that we can turn to Him even when we fail.
The man on parole was looking for help in all the wrong places. First he thought stealing would help him get a new start on life. Then he thought drinking would help him through. However, he got caught in his sin and instead of a new beginning, he was sent back into the life of prison, bound by the consequences of his sin. The correctional facility released him on parole with the expectation that he would stop leading a life of crime; he was given a new chance on life. When he failed, his past failures were recalled and he was punished more severely for his crime.
However, our life in Christ is different. When we fail and turn to God for forgiveness, He not only grants that forgiveness for the sake of our Lord Jesus, but He also forgets our sin. We don’t have a record or else we would become buried in the prison of our sinful nature. As we live in this hope, we find ourselves walking in the light of Christ, covered by the unfailing love of God, reconciled to Him by His own blood.
We are going to mess up. Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, but still wondered what He could do. It is that way with us every day. We second guess God’s work in the world. We question His mercy, we doubt His promises. As Martin Luther put it, we are “simul justus et peccator” which means that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. However, in Christ we have been given His Spirit which dwells in our hearts. In Christ there is no more condemnation, only life. We may think things are hopeless, but when we trust in God we will see Him as He brings life out of death.
“Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God: and whosoever loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. Hereby we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and do his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. For whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith. And who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” 1 John 5:1-5, ASV
I once heard a story was about a young boy who had been picked on for several years, and was at times too frightened to go to school. The bullies waited for him, threw things at him and hit him with books. He never knew when he left for school if he would return home unharmed. He was not physically strong, which is why the bigger boys used him as their punching bag.
One day, he decided to do something to change the situation. He signed up to perform in a talent show at his school. His talent was to show his skill in jujitsu to the students. He did not enter to win the contest, but he wanted the bullies to see that he could defend himself. He won second place, got the prize for the most popular act and earned the respect of those who had beaten him for so many years. He could have used his talent to harm the bullies, but he decided there was no value in returning evil for evil.
When we are harmed by the worldly actions of the people who surround us, we are very tempted to seek revenge in the same manner. When someone attacks us physically or with words, we tend to fight back. When someone questions our faith or commitment to Christ, we do the same to him or her. Yet, this young boy realized that it would be fruitless to return the violence. So, he showed his power without harming another, and received thunderous applause.
When it comes to our Christian walk, we need to expect that we will be bullied by the world. They do not understand our perspective or attitude, so they will do everything they can to put us down or make us like them. However, our life in Christ should be different. We are commanded to love our God and our neighbor. Jesus taught that we should love our enemy and do nothing to bring him or her harm. Jesus taught that it is better to suffer persecution for the Gospel than to turn to the ways and methods of the world.
The boy won a victory: he overcame the world, not by fighting it, but by showing his gifts. As Christians, the conquering power that overcomes the world is our faith. We are called not to fight, but to believe and to live as God calls us to live. We will be bullied. They will try to beat us down until we act like they want us to act. However, the work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has overcome this world. Those of us who believe in Jesus Christ no longer need to live according to the ways of this world, but according to the love and grace of God. When we do so, the world will see the light of Christ and experience the merciful forgiveness that He has won for us all. The true victory is His; we share in His victory by faith.
“As one that taketh off a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon soda, So is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart.” Proverbs 25:20, ASV
Modern sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) has a million different uses. Yes, I know that is an exaggeration, but some of the lists of uses are extremely long. One list had seventy-five different ideas, and there was more listed in the comment sections below the article. I’ve seen several different posts on Facebook with lists of uses. We know that it is used in baking to help baked goods rise. See, when combined with an acid, baking soda creates bubbles of carbon dioxide which fills the cake or bread with air pockets. That’s basically what makes it fluffy.
Baking soda neutralizes odors and it is an excellent cleaner. It is safer than many of the chemical detergents that are available. There are dozens of uses for personal hygiene, including as a deordorant, tooth paste and bath soak. It can soften the skin and help relieve itching. It can be used to help with pain, as an antacid and is used for healing. There are some who say that baking soda can cure the flu, and I’ve even read articles that claim it can rid the body of cancer. It can be used to extinguish fires, keep plumbing from getting blocked and safely clean fruits and vegetables. The best part of baking soda is that it is cheaper than the products that are sold for all these uses.
The main way I use baking soda is in my kitchen sink. I use it with vinegar to clean the pipes and garbage disposal. It removes the slimy grunge that sticks to the sides of the pipes and the blades of the disposal, leaving the drain smelling clean and the disposal working better. Besides, it is fun to watch the baking soda explode into a bubbling mess when it is mixed with the acidic vinegar. Anyone who has had a child do the volcano experiment for a middle school science fair knows the truth of this! It is usually baking soda and vinegar that is poured in the top of the volcano to show the flow of lava. A little red food coloring and it even looks like lava!
I was taken aback when I read today’s passage because of the reference to soda and vinegar. I thought this was a modern idea, but a form of sodium bicarbonate was available back in ancient times. As a matter of fact, one of the materials used in mummification was natron salts, which included both sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate along with other chemicals. They may have used the natron for cleaning, and perhaps even for healing. The Dead Sea was an important source of natron salts. Even today people go to it for healing.
There are so many good uses for soda, but that’s not what we see in today’s passage. We might think that it is a good thing to sing songs to the heavy of heart because music always makes everything better, right? And yet this proverb tells us it is like removing a garment on a cold day and like pouring vinegar on soda. What makes these two things the same? They both leave you cold. See, the chemical reaction between the acid in the vinegar and the sodium bicarbonate actually causes the temperature of the mixture to drop eight degrees in a matter of minutes.
The study notes in my bible refers us back to Psalm 137, which tells us that the exiles have hung up their harps because they cannot sing the songs of Zion. See, the Babylonians wanted them to perform, to sing their songs as entertainment. They wanted the Israelites to sing the songs of joy, but how could they when they were so far from their God? The hearts were heavy because they were in a foreign land, and they refused to sing them until they were home.
I suppose I can understand this point of view, because it is hard to sing when our circumstances are difficult. I would not want to sing songs that are demanded for entertainment when they have such powerful meaning for me. Life in Christ changes our attitude, however. We know that God is not limited to one city or one Temple, but that He is with us wherever we go. We can sing songs in a new way even if we have a heavy heart. Vinegar and soda are cleansing and healing. When we are in the midst of a difficult time, perhaps even when we feel like we are in a foreign land separated from our God and our home, songs of praise will help us remember that God is not stuck in one place. We can find hope and peace in the knowledge that God walks with us; He is with us wherever we go.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, he taketh it away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he cleanseth it, that it may bear more fruit. Already ye are clean because of the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; and so shall ye be my disciples.” John 15:1-8, ASV
My kids love to remind me of “one of those moments.” We all have those moments, you know the ones: when you are looking for something and you just can’t figure out where you left it. For me, the object of my search is usually my cell phone. I lose my keys, too, but only because they often fall to the bottom of my purse and are impossible to find in the midst of all the other junk in there. My cell phone, however, could be anywhere. I don’t carry it around with me very much; I have it to have with me when I go out of the house. I try to put it in the same place when I am home, but I’m not very good at it, especially if I’ve used it. It might be in my office, in the kitchen, or even buried in my purse.
I doubt I could find it if it was lost at this moment because I’m sure that it is still on silent from church yesterday. We’ve all done that, too: called our phone to find it. That’s where the “one of those moments” comes in. The kids and are were getting ready to leave the house and I couldn’t find my phone. One of the kids dialed the number and thankfully it was on, so we heard it. It sounded like it was coming out of my purse, which I had hanging on my shoulder. I looked and looked and couldn’t find it. We dialed the number again, and I tried to find it again. We went through this several times when I finally realized that my phone was in my pocket, which was right under my purse.
We like to say that these moments of forgetfulness are age related, but if we are honest with ourselves we have them throughout our lives. Even as kids we forget a word or a name; we forget where we left our shoes or our coat. It doesn’t get any better as we age, and it is hard to understand why we are going through those moments of forgetfulness. Why can we remember the entire script from a movie we saw when we were children but we can’t remember what we had for lunch yesterday? Research has shown us that it is important to keep our brains active. The more we think, the better we think. There are games on the internet designed to help keep a brain young. It might not help you remember where you put your keys, but it will help.
On a spiritual level, it is important that we keep our hearts and our minds focused on God. As we practice daily disciplines of faith like prayer, bible study, and gathering with other Christians, we will find that our mind is more able to pull out God’s word when it is necessary. It will be written on our hearts and within reach when the need arises. It is through our constant connection with Jesus that we have everything we need when we need it. He is the vine, we are the branches. As we abide in Him, His life, light, hope, peace, joy, love and forgiveness flow through us to the world. Let us never lose touch with our Lord Jesus Christ, because when we do we are more easily tempted by the world. We will have moments of forgetfulness, but God has written His word on our hearts and He abides with us, producing fruit in our lives.
“These are springs without water, and mists driven by a storm; for whom the blackness of darkness hath been reserved. For, uttering great swelling words of vanity, they entice in the lusts of the flesh, by lasciviousness, those who are just escaping from them that live in error; promising them liberty, while they themselves are bondservants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he also brought into bondage. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them. It has happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire.” 2 Peter 2:17-22, ASV
The cubicle has been the brunt of a million jokes, particularly in situation comedies. Television shows and movies that use office space with cubicles always manage to make those offices look dismal and depressing. The people have pasty complexions and sour faces. There is no beauty to these half-wall boxes that are crowded into large florescent lighted rooms.
Robert Probst, the designer who invented the cubicle, lamented his creation. He called it “monolithic insanity.” In an article from Fortune Magazine, Julie Schlosser described some of the ways that people have tried to overcome the box-like image of the cubicle: an image that was never the intent of the creator. As a matter of fact, the “Action Office” was originally designed with more flexibility in mind. The shelve systems were meant to be raised or lowered to provide more and different work surfaces for the employees. Shelves could be set higher so that an employee could do some work while standing, thus promoting better health and circulation.
Unfortunately, the cubicle took on a life of its own. The economy made cubicles a quick and inexpensive solution to the high costs of real estate. Employers could fit more employees into smaller spaces while still giving them enough privacy for higher productivity. They flexibility was ignored; the walls were built into boxes with one desk height shelf. Thirty seven years ago a man tried to create a helpful system to make work better, but it has been transformed into even more depressing drudgery. No matter how hard people try to make it better, it always seems to return to the same old thing.
Today’s passage from Peter is found in a chapter that discusses the false teachers. There are always false teachers. In the end, someone somewhere always comes up with something “new” but in the end it is the same old thing. The same heresies make the rounds in every generation. They may come with a new name or a different package, but they are the same old thing. That’s why the New Testament letters are as relevant for us as they were for the Christians in those days; we all have to deal with the human nature that tends to turn away from God to teachings that make us feel good or give us more power and control than we really have. That’s what heresies really do: they make man into gods. They make man think that their vain words are important. False teaching is nothing but vanity, so beware not to follow.
The word translated as “vanity” in today’s passage has other possibilities. Some translations use the word “futility” or “folly.” One says, “Mouthing grandiosities of nothingness…” and another, “They brag out loud about their stupid nonsense.” Yet another says, “They boast with words that mean nothing.” The modern understanding of vanity often has to do with looks, but it is also an excessive belief in abilities or attractiveness. That’s what happens when we get caught up in our own idea of God. We put God in a box. While we might think that we’ve found a new way to use an old thing, the reality is that those who teach false, heretical ideas, are doing the same old thing over again. They are putting themselves before God. They are uttering great swelling words of vanity which turn people from the truth path which God has ordained for His people.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 13, 2014, Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday: John 12:12-19; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:1-27:66
“For the Lord Jehovah will help me; therefore have I not been confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Isaiah 50:7, ASV
Jesus had accomplished an incredible amount of work in the three years He did ministry. The four Gospels are filled with so many stories of His love, His teaching, His mercy, His healing, His correction and His grace. Last week we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus who was dead for four days, one of the many things He did that were impossible. He’d certainly had an impact on the world; many people were following Him because they saw how He had power and authority. His words rang true. His miracles were miraculous. His mercy was great.
It is no wonder that He was greeted at the gates of Jerusalem with shouts of Alleluia and the waving of palm branches. The people had heard what He could do; the people saw in Him the hope for their future. They were ready to receive their King! The city was filled with many extra people who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. They were there offering their lambs for sacrifice, receiving their forgiveness for another year. They were there to join in the celebration of the Seder dinner when all the Jews remembered the Exodus and thanked God for His promises. They looked forward to the day that the Messiah would finally come and set them free to live once again as a sovereign nation under God’s care.
It is no wonder that people looked to Jesus with hopeful expectation. After all, He was fulfilling the prophecies found in the scriptures in so many incredible ways. Who else can feed five thousand with just a few loaves and fish? Who else could set a man free from a legion of demons? Who else could make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear? Who else could raise a dead man?
Not everyone appreciated Jesus. There were those who refused to believe. He had debated with them and won. He had refuted their teaching. He had warned people to beware, because the religious leaders put forth doctrine that was self-righteous, and even worse, it was entirely self-beneficial. They did not care about God or His Word; instead they interpreted it to suit their power and position. Jesus was a threat that had to be stopped.
Unfortunately for them, He was a threat that was impossible to stop. How could they turn the people away from Him? How could they convince the crowds that were in Jerusalem that He was not what they needed?
It is easy for us to see what was happening because we have the reports from after the fact. On this Sunday of Holy Week, this Palm Sunday, Jesus entered into Jerusalem, set apart by the crowds by their praise and adulation. While the perfect lambs were being chosen for the celebration of the Passover later this week, the crowds were cheering the Passover Lamb that would be sacrificed for the sake of the whole world. This Lamb would not bleed for a yearly reprieve, but would be the final sacrifice. His death would bring forgiveness to all who believe; His death would set us free to be God’s holy people.
It was probably an amazing moment, with crowds lining the streets waving palms and shouting with joy. I can just see the pride in the disciples as they stood tall next to their master. Jesus was probably gracious as He rode on the donkey, receiving the praise, but with reserve. He was probably a little tired: it had been a long three years. He was probably a little sad, knowing that the people were shouting for all the wrong reasons. He was determined, and every moment of this Holy Week was in His hands. He picked the donkey. He timed the moments. As Max Lucado said, “He Chose the Nails.” He was finishing what was started at the manger, according to the will and purpose of His Father.
It is sometimes hard to understand how we can go from this jubilant celebration on Sunday to His arrest on Thursday and His death on Friday. How can anyone lose so much support in a matter of days? Even His closest followers ran away in the end. Judas betrayed Him and Peter denied Him. Where were the rest? They were hiding, afraid. They were confused and upset. They didn’t know what to do without Him. They believed in Him on Sunday, but their faith wavered in the end. Wouldn’t yours? We can’t expect our ministry to continue if our leader is arrested, tried and then crucified.
But it was all according to plan. This is what Jesus was born to do. He was born to die. We know that we will die in the end, but we can’t imagine how our death will ever serve a purpose. Though some deaths do have an impact on the world, like those of the martyrs, even their deaths are not the intent of God. See, God didn’t want any of us to die. When we were created, He intended that we would live with Him in paradise for eternity. Sadly, Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree; they fell for the temptation to be like God and the learned what it means to mortal. We suffer the same limitations because we were born with the sinful desire to be like God.
The people sought forgiveness for this sinful nature by sacrificing animals in the Temple, and the sacrifices were good to a point. But the sacrifices were required every year, and no matter how many lambs or bulls or goats were killed, another needed to be sacrificed. The blood of lambs and bulls and goats would never accomplish the work of forgiveness; they would never bridge the gap between God and His people. Only the truly perfect sacrifice of God’s own Son could accomplish the forgiveness necessary to restore us to a right relationship with God.
In the context of the Passover Feast, Jesus is the perfect Lamb. During the Exodus story, the people were told to sacrifice a lamb, to roast it and to eat it in a certain way. The blood of the lamb was to be painted on the lintel of the house. That night, when the angel of death went over Egypt to take the firstborn, those with the painted lintels would be saved. This was the last straw; it was the final nail that made Pharaoh set the slaves free. Those who were in Jerusalem would join together in feasts, celebrating their salvation so long ago. What they did not realize is that the blood of Jesus would be painted on the hearts of those who believe so that death would once again pass over them. Jesus’ death on the cross would defeat death forever. Our flesh will fail and our bodies will die, but through faith in the blood of Jesus we will live forever.
We can celebrate as Jesus enters Jerusalem this day, but we know that it is a short lived party. Those same people will quickly turn from them, hearing the words of Jesus’ enemies and falling for the lies. We don’t understand how they could turn so easily, but it doesn’t matter. This was all in the plan. No matter how the people reacted to Him, Jesus had to die. The religious leaders thought they won. The followers of Jesus thought they lost. In the end, however, Jesus accomplished the work He was born to do, and He did it according to God’s good and perfect will.
The crowd yelled, “Hosanna” to the son of David they saw riding on the donkey. This was not a cry of victory, but it was a cry for help. The word “Hosanna” means “Save” or “Have mercy.” The people were looking to Jesus to be their savior. What we know from hindsight is that they were thinking in terms of the wrong Kingdom. They wanted Jesus to restore Israel, but Jesus was there to bring the Kingdom of Heaven. He came as a servant of God, willingly putting Himself in the most vulnerable position. He would be whipped and beaten, humiliated and killed. Most of us wouldn’t take it. We would fight back. We would rely on our own strength. We would fight with words and with weapons to stay on top.
Jesus never turned from God. Every word was God’s; every action was God’s. In the words of Isaiah, “The Lord Jehovah hath given me the tongue of them that are taught, that I may know how to sustain with words him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as they that are taught.” God gave Jesus the tongue of one who teaches and the ears of one who learns. And then Jesus walked into Jerusalem and accepted the wrath that He never deserved. He took our punishment so that we might be reconciled to God and be like Him.
The words from Isaiah are also a foretelling of the final moments of Jesus’ life. He was whipped and slapped. He was humiliated and shamed by the men in charge and the soldiers under their rule. And yet, Jesus did not feel shame. He kept His eyes on God knowing that the kingdom of this world would not ultimately win. He stood firm in His purpose even though it seemed like His ministry was a failure. These images make it seem like Jesus debased Himself allowing the world to beat and humiliate Him. Here’s the reality: He humbled Himself before God, fulfilling the prophecies that were made about Him throughout the ages by the forefathers, judges, kings and prophets. He did not turn from God, but faced the suffering knowing that it was God’s will. He trusted that God would be with him. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred and disgrace were humiliating, He knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against God’s mercy.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is thought to have been based on an early Christian hymn describing Jesus’ kenosis, which is from the Greek word meaning “emptiness.” This hymn tells how Jesus emptied Himself to become one of us, to take on our sin and face once and for all the wrath of God on the cross. God honored His humble obedience by exalting Him above all else.
Jesus did not humble Himself so that He would be exalted. He humbled Himself because it was in His nature to be a servant—it was the life to which God had called Him to live and die. He became one with God: He emptied Himself and took on God’s will as His own. He calls us to do the same. We do not empty ourselves so that we might be exalted, but because in Christ we have taken upon ourselves His nature. That nature is one that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy. We are not called to ride on the war horse or even the donkey, but to go with Him on a journey with the weak and vulnerable.
Paul writes, “Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Where did God exalt Jesus? Was it on that day when palm branches were spread before Him as He rode into town on a donkey? Was it on that day when He was found missing in the tomb?
No, God highly exalted Him at the moment when He was most humiliated, when He was suffering a cruel and unwarranted death. It was on that cross that Jesus was glorified because it was there that He fulfilled God’s word and promise for the salvation of you and I. It is on the cross where we find forgiveness and through the cross we are made free. It is there where Christ is glorified. This is made especially clear in Matthew 27:54, “Now the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” It was not the raising that convinced the centurion that Jesus was the Son of God; it was His death that proved that He was the Messiah.
I have not focused very long on the lengthy Gospel reading for today, but we are reminded that it is in the passion we truly see Christ’s glory. I would encourage you to read Matthew 26 and 27 this week and ponder the incredible thing Jesus did for us. We can’t die for anyone’s sake, but after all He suffered for us, we can certainly live for His.
“Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For the foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there is a cry, Behold, the bridegroom! Come ye forth to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are going out. But the wise answered, saying, Peradventure there will not be enough for us and you: go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went away to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage feast: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:1-13, ASV
I tend to over pack when we travel. I guess that’s why I prefer road trips: I have more freedom to take the things I might not need but really think I should have along “just in case.” You know how it is. You are traveling to a place where the weather is different than the place you live. You can check weather reports, but who knows what it will really be like in a few days. What if a cold front comes through? I should have a jacket and long pants. What if there is a record heat wave? I should have some shorts and a swimming suit. What if there is nothing to do? I should take a bag full of things to fill the time. I always pack my bible and my latest project. We fill the car with more snacks than we could possibly eat. I fill my cosmetic case with every type of health and hygiene product I might need along the way. I usually come home with clothes that haven’t been worn and items that were never needed. But, what would I have done if I had needed them? I was ready for every possibility.
I even do it when I am headed out for a few hours. I try to take a book wherever I go, just in case I have a few minutes to read. I keep a few things in my purse, like a nail file for a broken fingernail. I always make sure I have a few dollars in my wallet even though most places I shop will take my debit card. I like to be prepared. Even so, I am not always prepared. It amazes me how many times I forget my e-reader and then end up waiting longer than expected. I can never find that nail file when one of my nails breaks. Despite the fact that I try to keep at least a couple of pens in my purse, I can never find one when I need it.
This story never really made sense to me, probably because I’m an overpacker. Who doesn’t ensure enough oil for the lamp? But then, who would expect the bridegroom to take so long to arrive? There was no reason to think that they would need more oil than was in their lamp. There was no reason to plan ahead. Yet, five of the virgins did just that, they looked at the possibility that the bridegroom might be delayed. They prepared for the “just in case.”
The early church had an expectation that Christ would come immediately, certain that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. Some of the Christians were becoming doubtful and frustrated because their loved ones were dying and Christ had not yet come. What would happen if they died, too? They thought they would see the fulfillment of the promise. It is disappointing to know that we might not see the hope realized in our lifetime. The Church has longingly waited for Christ to return for two thousand years, but it is very easy for us to lose hope.
There are those today who live their faith as if we are the generation who will finally see the promise fulfilled. It is possible. We can look around our world and see the signs. But, every generation since Jesus has seen the signs. In every generation there are those who are disappointed when the signs are interpreted in correctly. They point to a day that never comes to pass, and they lose hope.
We do a lot of waiting. We wait in traffic, in checkout lines, for special days and for our family to come home. Sometimes the wait is unbearable, particularly when things do not come when we expect. If someone is late, we worry that they’ve been hurt or lost. We wonder if they are ever going to make it home. If they are extremely late, the dinner we prepared gets cold or we fall asleep. Sometimes as we wait, we let things slide and by the time the wait is over we are no longer prepared. Jesus is coming, we know this without a doubt, yet there are times when the wait seems unbearable.
The oil in the lamp of the virgins is the hope we have as we wait for God to finish the work He began two thousand years ago. Hope can die out; our light can dim. We must hold onto the promise. The five wise virgins were prepared for the wait. They continued to have hope even when it seemed like the Bridegroom would never arrive. The five foolish virgins were not prepared for the long haul, and when the Bridegroom was late, they were looking the other way.
Jesus is coming to take us to a great and glorious feast. We know this without a doubt because He has promised, but we aren’t all that different than those foolish virgins. When we wait too long and things don’t happen as we expect, things begin to slide or we fall asleep. Jesus said that we would not know the hour. So, we would do well to be prepared at every moment – through prayer, bible study, corporate worship and ministering to others – so that when Christ comes we will be ready.
“Then Jonah prayed unto Jehovah his God out of the fish's belly. And he said, I called by reason of mine affliction unto Jehovah, And he answered me; Out of the belly of Sheol cried I, And thou heardest my voice. For thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, And the flood was round about me; All thy waves and thy billows passed over me. And I said, I am cast out from before thine eyes; Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; The deep was round about me; The weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed upon me for ever: Yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit, O Jehovah my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Jehovah; And my prayer came in unto thee, into thy holy temple. They that regard lying vanities Forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation is of Jehovah. And Jehovah spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” Jonah 2:1-10, ASV
Jonah was a man of God, but he was also a man. He was a prophet who heard God’s voice, but he didn’t like the message he heard. After all, Nineveh was his enemy. His people were constantly in bitter border conflicts with the Ninevites and Jonah was not at all interested in helping them experience God’s mercy. So, he ran away.
We know we can’t run away from God. Jonah knew that, too, but he still tried. Unfortunately, Jonah’s rebellion against God’s call affected the lives of the sailors on the ship he chose to take him as far from Nineveh as possible. The sea began to rage around them, the ship was tossed to and fro. They were afraid. These were seasoned sailors which had probably experienced similar storms. Perhaps this was the worst of their lives, but sailors know that it is always a risk and that they need to be calm to survive the storm. Their reaction, however, was probably typical. They assumed that someone had done something to upset the gods, and they turned to their gods in prayer.
In the end, Jonah admitted that he was the reason they were suffering. “Throw me over the side of the boat and the storm will cease.” Can you imagine what would happen if this happened today? Even then, the sailors did not want to risk upsetting any more gods. If they’d done something to deserve this storm, what would happen if they killed a man? Jonah insisted, and the sailors agreed. Before they did so, though, they made vows to God. They did so with sacrifices, worshipping God as just another god. They respected His power, and they thought it would help to appease Him as they’ve always appeased their gods.
Today’s passage is one of my favorite passages of scripture. Jonah’s prayer is not a prayer that comes from the attitude that we go to God just to appease Him. We go to God because He is God. We remember God in our distress because we know only God can make things right. Jonah knew that it wasn’t the sailors who threw him into the sea; God did so. Jonah also knew that God could save him. He cried out for God’s mercy and vowed to do what was right in God’s eyes.
See the difference in the vows? The sailors made vows “just in case”; Jonah made a promise to God from his heart. We have many opportunities to cry out to God, and we do. We cry out in fear and in uncertainty. We make vows to God to try to get Him to change His mind, as if we could do anything for Him. God is looking for something different: He is looking for men to turn to Him with hearts committed to doing what is right. Jonah did fulfill his promise. He went to Nineveh and preached God’s mercy to the people.
We know there’s much more to the story and that Jonah doesn’t look so good in the end, but for today, let’s think about his prayer and his vow. How do we deal with our moments of fear? Do we cry out and offer vows as some sort of appeasement to a God we think will honor our half-hearted prayers? Or do we vow to our God to do His will and work in this world, not because we think it will make God save us but because we know God will save us and we want to live in a way that will glorify Him?
“Therefore I say unto you, be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value then they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? And why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Matthew 6:25-34, ASV
Don’t worry. I wish it were that easy.
I’m a worrier. I worry about money when things are tight. I worry about my family every time they walk out the door. I worry that there might be hail or tornadoes when I see storm clouds on the horizon. I worry that people won’t like something I do. I worry that I’ve said or done something stupid. I worry that my family won’t like my latest creation in the kitchen. I worry about the time and money I’ve wasted. I worry about whether the people I love are making good decisions. I worry when I wake up in the middle of the night, and that worry often keeps me awake when I should be sound asleep.
It is very easy to say “don’t worry,” but it is not so easy not to worry. We are human, and worry is a natural response to stress. We worry because we want to control everything. We want to hold on to the power, even when we know we have none.
The scripture today reminds us that we can’t make anything better by worrying. We won’t find power in anxiety. Rather than worry, God calls us to trust in Him. He isn’t going to put gas in our car or make our food taste better. He won’t put a fence of protection around our children or keep the storm from passing over our heads. He takes care of us, but when things seem to go wrong we can still know that God has His hand in it; He will make things right even when everything seems so wrong. We are called to live in faith daily, remembering His promises so that we can get through to tomorrow. We are to remember again and again daily the promises of God. We do not always understand what’s happening to us, and that leads to stress because we feel so out of control, and then we are overcome with worry. It is hard, but God says, “Don’t worry, I am with you.” He will get you through even your worst moments; just trust in Him. He does it for the birds of the air, and He promises even greater things for you, His beloved.
“The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction; To discern the words of understanding; To receive instruction in wise dealing, In righteousness and justice and equity; To give prudence to the simple, To the young man knowledge and discretion: That the wise man may hear, and increase in learning; And that the man of understanding may attain unto sound counsels: To understand a proverb, and a figure, The words of the wise, and their dark sayings. The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge; But the foolish despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:1-7, ASV
One of the ladies that attends our Sunday morning adult bible study told me the other day how much she enjoys attending bible studies. She said that it didn’t matter how old she got, she always wanted to learn. We both commented about how the more we know, the more realize how much we don’t know, and we were both so happy to be learning from one another. That’s what makes bible studies so wonderful: we share our own knowledge with each other and even the teacher learns something new.
Jesus spent three years teaching His disciples. They’d heard Him preach and teach on a daily basis. John tells us at the end of his Gospel that Jesus did many things that he could not write down. “I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written.” Even at the end of that three year long Bible study, there was much that the disciples did not know. They had knowledge. They saw connections. They experienced God’s word in action. But in the end they were still confused and upset by Jesus’ death. It took the Holy Spirit to create in them true wisdom.
We need both, you know. We need the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and with that Spirit we will have vision and insight that human brains and hearts can never have. He will give us the words to say. He will be light the ‘lightbulb’ that goes off when something becomes clear. He will help us make good and right decisions as we journey along in this life.
But even with the Spirit, we would do well to continue the quest for knowledge every day of our life. We need to keep learning. Even the greatest teachers need to sit at the feet of teachers. Sometimes the greatest teachers are those who we would never expect. Children teach us far more about grace and joy than most adults can fathom. People with physical and mental disabilities can teach us how to be content in the midst of adversity. Our enemies can teach us to see ourselves in the mirror of their actions, because the things we hate most about our neighbors is often the very thing that rules our own lives.
The foolish think they know it all. The truly wise are willing to learn. The book of Proverbs was given to us to instruct us in the way to live. The proverbs might be brief, and even seem more like bumper stickers than gems of wisdom. But in those maxims we see how to live a good life and a life that will be blessed. We learn wisdom, just as the disciples learned wisdom listening to the stories and parables of Jesus.
What will you learn to today? Remember the more we know, the more we should realize that we don’t know. So, let us embrace learning; let us constantly look for the lessons of wisdom that God is showing to us through teachers who may not even seem very wise. The best things of God often come from the least likely sources, including wisdom.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 20, 2014, Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Day : Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 16; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10
“For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:3, ASV
The calendar says we still have to get through the Three Days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil, but here we are already looking at the text for Resurrection Day. The forty days are almost over. We can see the end of our Lenten journey. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem and He has set into motion the culmination of His life and ministry.
So, how did you do? Did you manage to break an old habit or are you anxiously awaiting the moment you can dive into your favorite chocolate bar? Did you establish a new habit of prayer or Bible study over the past seven weeks, or did you fail during the first few weeks and never bother to try again? Did you even get around to making a commitment to do something new or give up something old?
It doesn’t matter: however you answer those questions is between you and God. You aren’t a bad person if you didn’t give up chocolate for forty days or take up a new prayer discipline during Lent. You aren’t any more a sinner if you ate meat on Friday or forgot to attend Wednesday night Lent services. God does not call us to these things to burden us with more than we can handle; the Lenten disciplines were meant to be gifts to help us focus more clearly on our relationship with God. It does not help us to end this journey with a powerful guilt; guilt keeps us from seeking God’s grace because it makes us feel like we aren’t worthy.
Here’s the thing: we aren’t worthy. We aren’t good even if we have managed to keep our commitments this Lent. Our fasting does not earn us anything in God’s Kingdom and though good devotional practices and prayer will be to our benefit, they don’t make us any more worthy in God’s eyes for His grace.
We can’t be worthy. Ever. But God is not looking for worthy people to join Him in rejoicing at the empty tomb this Sunday. He is looking for humble people of faith who know that the only way to get to the empty tomb is through the cross of Jesus Christ. A prominent politician recently said, “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.” He has earned his way to heaven.
Has he? He says, “…if there is a God…” His attitude is no different than most of the world. We believe in good works. We believe that we have done enough to earn our way into heaven. The truth is this: whatever we have done, whichever ‘side’ of any issue on which we stand, our work will not make us worthy. It is by faith we have been saved, and that too is a gift. It is given to us by the One who obediently and humbly and passionately went through the Three Days of pain, betrayal, denial, suffering, crucifixion and the grave to defeat sin and death by rising on Easter morning.
It is ironic that the politician would make such a claim during Holy Week. Our minds are set on heaven during this time as we experience the miracle of God’s grace in Easter. We see the world come alive with the fresh new growth of spring. We celebrate the day by gathering with our family and friends. We break out of best clothes, and even go buy a new dress or suit for the occasion. Our churches will be filled with sweet smelling lilies and we can once again since “Alleluia” to our God. The stories of the Passion and the Resurrection turn our hearts to the God who has done all this for us. Yet in the midst of all this, there are many who have this understanding that their good works will earn them a place in heaven.
They miss it completely; they misunderstand God as much as those religious leaders in Jerusalem did nearly two thousand years ago. They continue to rely on their own strength and to see their own accomplishments as good and right and true. They are arrogant and ignorant. They don’t necessarily appear arrogant or ignorant. As a matter of fact, many people who think like this do wonderfully good works and are both humble and intelligent in the ways of men. However, their humility and knowledge are the very things keeping them from a good and right and true relationship with God. They act as servants to men while ignoring or rejecting or doubting the reality of God and thus raising themselves as gods in this world.
If we read the resurrection texts from all the Gospels in the next few days, we will see Jesus appear before many people. He appeared to Mary in the garden and when He spoke her name she knew it was her Lord. He walked with two of His disciples on the road Emmaus. These men were discussing the events of the week when Jesus joined them. They told Him the story and invited Him to dinner. They did not know who He was, because their eyes were closed. At the table, Jesus broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they understood the scriptures Jesus had spoken to them. He appeared to the disciples who were eating together, and He rebuked them for not believing the witness of those who testified to His resurrection. He appeared to Thomas, who required tangible evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus came and told him to put his finger in the holes. Thomas confessed His faith, “My Lord and my God.” But Jesus answered, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The question we ask for this week is not “Did you do enough to earn your way into heaven,” but rather, “Do you believe?” Do you believe in the God who created the heavens and earth? Do you believe in the God who saved Israel from Egypt and took them to the Promised Land? Do you believe in the God who gave us the Law to help us to live good and right and true lives in this world? Do you believe in the God who appointed the judges and the kings and the prophets? Do you believe in the God who repeatedly saved His people despite their failure to live according to His Word? Do you believe in the God who had mercy on His people who kept turning away? Do you believe that God was always faithful, even when His people were not?
Do you believe in the God who sent His own Son to be beaten, betrayed, denied and killed on a cross? Do you believe that the One named Jesus who was obedient even to being nailed on a cross? Do you believe He died and was buried in a tomb for three days? Do you believe that in doing so Jesus took upon Himself the entire weight of the sin of the world, including your own? Do you believe that He rose again? Do you believe that He did this so that you will be forgiven and raised to new life with Him? Do you believe that He has called and gifted His Church and sent us out into the world to tell the story again and again so that the whole world will believe?
Do you believe?
How do you think the disciples were feeling during the Three Days? They were broken. The unimaginable had happened and they could not see beyond that moment. I wonder if some of them were angry with God? Did they think about following Barabbas, who was set free while Jesus was crucified? Did they think perhaps he was what his name suggests “son of the father,” instead of Jesus? Were they ready to give up and return to their old lives, getting along as best they could in an oppressed world?
Whatever plans they were making on that Resurrection Day were shaken. The cross wasn’t the end; it was only the beginning. The tomb was empty. Jesus had been raised. It wasn’t enough, however, for the body of Jesus to be missing from the cave. Most of the people in Jerusalem, especially the Romans and the religious leaders, suggested that there had to be some other explanation. They didn’t believe in the resurrection, so they spread rumors that someone stole the body. There are still people who say that it could not have been resurrected.
The disciples, despite the promises in the prophecies and the words of Jesus, wondered what happened. They lost hope and they didn’t believe the witness of those who did see Him at first. But we know from the story that Jesus not only was raised, but that He visited His disciples and even ate with them. He was made manifest in their presence after He was raised so that they might believe. Jesus honored those disciples by appearing to them; they were chosen to see Him so that they could then go out into the world and reveal Him to others. Do you believe?
When you believe, you are raised with Christ, and when you are raised with Christ you are called to a new life. God will make His grace manifest in your life. You are called, like Peter and those first disciples, to be His witnesses, living a life of revealing Christ to others in your words and in your deeds. You are called to a life that leaves behind the old ways and takes on His garments of righteousness. Through faith in Christ, a faith that God produces in us when Christ is revealed, we become His people and He is our God.
We will never be worthy. We are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s why Jesus died and rose again. We don’t realize it because we think what we are doing is good. See, sin begins small but builds, as it takes more and more to fulfill the desire, drawing us ever deeper into the sinful behavior. Take gambling, for instance. It usually begins rather innocently—a successful trip to a casino or a night of bingo. It doesn’t hurt to buy just one lottery ticket and how fun it is to win! So, the gambler goes back to play again, certain that luck is on her side or that he is destined to get rich. So certain are they of their promise, they go back again and again, even when they lose, expecting the next trip will be the winner.
The consequences of sin do not begin as overwhelming problems. As a matter of fact, there is usually some pay-off: the occasional win for the gambler, the buzz for the alcoholic, the excitement and intimacy of promiscuous sexual behavior. For someone like that politician, the pay-off is the respect and acclamation of those who like what he is doing. It is mesmerizing to have the crowds hang on your every word. They ignore the criticism and forget that they aren’t perfect, and then eventually they claim they will walk into heaven because the work they did made them worthy.
A gambler takes ten bucks and turns it into a hundred. They don’t give up when they lose, they are sure the next game will be a winner. A weekly trip to the bingo hall becomes a daily ritual. Ten dollars becomes hundreds. The family is pushed aside so that the gambler can feed the desire to win, always hoping to recoup what has been lost. Eventually the money for food, rent and clothes is gone and the family is left desolate. Relationships break and the gambler is left with nothing but the need to gamble. Most hit rock bottom before they ever realize they have a problem. This is true for all addictions. At that point there seems to be no way out, no hope for the addicted. But this is exactly why we celebrate the Resurrection; there is no hope without Him.
Even in the face of overwhelming consequences, there is always hope. When salvation seemed impossible, God saved sinners from death and the grave. We all suffer the effects of sin in our lives, we are all tempted and we fall into that temptation; we are drawn so deeply into our sin that we know no way out. But there is always a way—God. He is our victory over the things of this world that threaten to destroy our lives. Even when nothing is left, there is hope in the salvation of our Lord. We have been saved from eternal death by His mercy and grace. In that grace God’s transforming Spirit makes us new and gives us the strength to face the things that threaten to destroy us.
We don’t say, “If there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven.” Easter reminds us to say, “There is a God and He died so that I will be forgiven and He rose so that I will be welcomed into heaven.”
Paul writes, “If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth. For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory.”
I don’t think we should stop with verse 4, though. See, many people read this text and think that Paul was talking about some spirituality that rejects the earthly body. It is tempting to read today’s epistle lesson and think that Paul is suggesting that we reject the world and look only toward heaven. There are many Christians who think solely about those things “above,” rejecting everything about the flesh.
If we continue to read, we will find that the next two paragraphs put Paul’s lesson into perspective. First Paul shows us what we are to let go. He said to put aside fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry; for which things’ sake cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience. The people of Colossae knew what it was like to live in a religious world that focused on these things. They used their bodies, the pursued their passions, they focused on their own goodness and lusted after the things that can harm the flesh and the spirit.
But that doesn’t mean we should reject the body completely. Paul goes on to tell us to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness.
Christ calls us to live in the world even while we are no longer of the world. In other words, in Christ we have been transformed into His image and we now belong to His Kingdom, but there is work to do in the here and now. We are joined with Him; as we grow in faith and mature in grace, God shines through our lives with ever increasing glory. It is not our work, but God’s. It is not our glory, but God’s.
So, we are called to seek after the things of God, not only heaven, but also His kingdom here on earth. We are to look for the helpless and the hungry, the lonely and the sinners. These may seem like some to be the very things that are ‘below’, but it is in the suffering of this world that we find Christ. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember as we join together to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord this Sunday. Our pews will be filled with people who have come to hear the story of Hope found in the empty tomb. Many of them will be suffering in ways we cannot possibly know. Many of them will not even know why they have come to worship that day.
We need to remember that it is not in our power to change their lives. As we reach out to those who need to experience God’s grace, we need to let go of our own goals and expectations to let God be manifested in our lives. We need to stop being arrogant and ignorant, remembering that we would be worthless if Christ hadn’t made us worthy. They’ve come to see His glory, not ours.
God taught Peter an awesome lesson in today’s first lesson: that His love and mercy is for all men who hear and believe the Gospel message. Peter expected to minister to the Jews, to his own people. But when God called him to the house of Cornelius, he realized that God did not play favorites. The people who heard the Gospel were not all in the same circumstances. God provided the opportunity and the gifts for the apostles to share Him with all sorts of different people. It is the same today. Not all will be prepared for the message in the same way, not all will receive it with the same heart. But God does not play favorites. He does not care if people are from one place. It does not matter to Him if they are male or female, young or old. He does not look at a person’s credentials, their job or the people they know. He only sees the heart. His message is given for all those who will hear and believe.
Do you believe? That is the question for this Easter Sunday. Your answer will determine whether you walk through those gates into heaven. Christ is the One who obediently and humbly and passionately went through the Three Days of pain, betrayal, denial, suffering, crucifixion and the grave to defeat sin and death by rising on Easter morning. We who believe need not spend our days looking to heaven wondering if there is a God. We know that we have died with Christ so that we will live with Him for eternity.
As His Easter people, He has invited us to go out into the world in that faith to share His grace with all the nations so that they too will believe.
“Now before the feast of the passover, Jesus knowing that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto his Father, having loved his own that were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And during supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all the things into his hands, and that he came forth from God, and goeth unto God, riseth from supper, and layeth aside his garments; and he took a towel, and girded himself. Then he poureth water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. So he cometh to Simon Peter. He saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt understand hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is bathed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew him that should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. So when he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and sat down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me, Teacher, and, Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, a servant is not greater than his lord; neither one that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them.” John 13:1-17, ASV
Washing the feet of visitors was the task of the lowliest servant. It was a terrible job, carrying the pan of water, kneeling on the floor, touching the filthy feet of a stranger. The roads were not paved, the pathways were dusty and muddy. They did not wear socks and sneakers, the sandals protected the feet from the rough path but not from all the dirt. Though the sandals protected the feet, the feet were most likely to be rough and worn, and even broken, from the long journeys. A long journey might even leave the feet bloodied. Foot washing was an intimate process, but it was given to the person who could not even think about intimacy with the guest.
Foot washing was left for the least of the servants; a master would never have even considered doing such a thing. Jesus was not just any master. Jesus had all power and authority; God had given Jesus control over everything. He was the Master, the disciples’ rabbi, who was training His disciples for a new covenant. He was their Lord, and yet He humbly knelt before them to do the menial task given to only the least of the least. He was devoted to the disciples in love, a love that would take Him to the cross.
We might not always enjoy the menial tasks that are necessary to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As a matter of fact, we might think that those tasks are beneath us. We certainly do not want to do them for people who do not seem worthy. Yet, as Christians we are called not just to love one another, but to be devoted to each other, so much so that we are willing to get on our knees in service to their needs. We are encouraged to put others first and serve them in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Foot washing is not common in our households these days, but think about the things we do wash. Who wants to touch dirty underwear or scrub plates covered grease and ketchup? Who wants to scrub the toilet or the bathroom floor? Who wants to wipe the bottom of a stinky baby? We don’t want to do these things but we do without complaint to take care of the needs of our families and make their life pleasant. I think it is interesting that I’m more willing to wash the dishes in the kitchen sink when everyone is home than when I’m alone. I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that it would become overwhelming if I left them for a few days, but I also want to make sure that there are clean glasses available so that they can easily get a drink when they need it.
Jesus did many other things for His disciples besides washing their feet. He healed their illnesses and He forgave their sins. He fed their bellies with food and their hearts with God’s Word. He showed them the Kingdom of heaven and gave them hope in the midst of their troubles. He put the needs of not only those disciples, but also each of us, before His own needs and desires. No one wants to die, but Jesus humbly went to the cross for our sake, showing us His devotion and honoring us with His service, even though we did not deserve it. He doesn’t kneel before us to wash our feet anymore, but He has done something even greater: He has washed us of our sin and made us righteous before God so that we will dwell with Him for eternity.
“And he entered into a boat, and crossed over, and came into his own city. And behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven. And behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, Thy sins are forgiven; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath authority on earth to forgive sins (then saith he to the sick of the palsy), Arise, and take up thy bed, and go up unto thy house. And he arose, and departed to his house. But when the multitudes saw it, they were afraid, and glorified God, who had given such authority unto men.” Matthew 9:1-8, ASV
Think about the journey Jesus has walked in the past few days. Sunday was a triumphant day with the crowds singing Hosanna and throwing palm branches. In the following days, Jesus made such an impact on the city of Jerusalem that the religious leaders were debating how to be rid of Him. They were angry because He upset the order and commerce of the Temple and was preaching a message that was counter to their teaching. Today’s story is from much earlier in His ministry, but I’m sure the words of forgiveness were spoken often during this Passover, as Jesus pointed to the promises of God.
In the final days Jesus said good-bye to His closest friends, knelt at their feet in servitude as He washed their feet, gave them a new commandment to love one another and a new covenant of bread and wine. In the garden, He begged His friends to stay awake so that they were be prepared for the coming storm, but they ignored His plea and fell asleep while He agonized over the things that must happen. He was betrayed by a close friend, arrested, beaten and humiliated. He was denied by His closest friend and abandoned by all the others. He was harassed by the religious leaders, the soldiers and the Roman rulers.
In the end, the hardest journey was the walk to Golgotha. No one knows for sure, but most scholars estimate that Jesus walked a half mile. Much of that journey was taken with the cross on His back. He stumbled and fell. He ached from the slashes in His back. His head was bleeding with the crown of thorns. He was hassled by the spectators. He witnessed the pain of His mother and the other women who were grieving for Him. On the hill, Jesus saw prophecy fulfilled in the way the soldiers dealt with His clothes. He was nailed to a cross and poisoned with bitter wine mixed with gall. He was taunted, even by another criminal nailed to a cross.
Can you imagine how defeated He was in those final moments? The only friends He could see were His mother, some other women and John. There may have been others shocked and dismayed by the proceedings, but they were hiding. They were afraid. “If someone like Jesus could be hung on a cross, what might they do to me?” In the end, Jesus was even forsaken by God.
He did this because only He has the authority and the power to forgive. He took upon His own shoulders our sin, He died in our place. He makes all things knew. Like the man in today’s story, Jesus forgives us and then calls us to rise into a new life. He sends us out into the world to live for His sake, to tell His story, to continue His work, to speak forgiveness into the lives of those who are burdened by sin and the grace to show them that Jesus can make them well. He walked the hardest walk to His death so that we can walk with Him in His life.
“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Jehovah. Lord, hear my voice: Let thine ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. If thou, Jehovah, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, That thou mayest be feared. I wait for Jehovah, my soul doth wait, And in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord More than watchmen wait for the morning; Yea, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in Jehovah; For with Jehovah there is lovingkindness, And with him is plenteous redemption. And he will redeem Israel From all his iniquities.” Psalm 130, ASV
Domino’s Pizza might not have the best pizza on the planet, but it was because of the company that we have the kind of access to pizza that we have today. A show I watched recently suggested that pizza would not have been the staple of American cuisine if it hadn’t been for the innovations that came out of the company. They were constantly finding new ways to ensure that the pizza was delivered hot and delicious with corrugated cardboard boxes and heated bags.
Of course, the thing about which Domino’s is probably most famous in the 30-minute guarantee that was instituted in 1973. The chain promised that you would see your pizza within thirty minutes or it was free. In the 1980’s the pledge was reduced to $3.00 off the pizza. Unfortunately, the stress on the drivers was too great, and they often drove like maniacs to get their pizzas to their destination on time. The company faced multiple lawsuits in the early 1990’s from accidents by delivery drivers that caused death or injury to other drivers. The company canceled its 30-minute guarantee in the United States in 1993 because of the “public perception of reckless driving and irresponsibility.”
We might not get our pizza in thirty minutes or less, but we want it as fast as possible. Most of the pizza companies now have online ordering, so you don’t even have to wait for someone to answer the phone at the shop. In 2008, Domino’s added an online pizza tracker, an application that allowed the customer to watch the status of their order in a simulated “real time” progress bar. We want what we want and we want it now. We don’t like to wait. I suppose they thought we’d feel better waiting if we had something to watch to see that there is progress to our order.
We can get anything in no time, it seems. We can ship things across the country in a day. We can get someone to fix our windshield in minutes. We can receive a letter via email in seconds. We don’t like to wait for anything, and we are often willing to pay so that we don’t have to wait. Overnight delivery costs more money, but it means that whatever you ordered will be in your hands nearly as fast as if you went to a store to buy it. It takes longer to get in the car, drive to a pizza place and place your order, then drive home than it does if you make a few clicks on the computer and let them do the driving.
The trouble with our modern obsession with having what we want when we want it is that we have lost the ability to wait. We hate waiting in lines. We hate traffic jams. We hate waiting for the waitress to bring us our soda at a restaurant. We hate those uncomfortable moments of silence during church while we are supposed to be waiting on the Lord. We hate to wait for the God to answer our prayers. We demand that God answer us immediately; we give up when we don’t get an answer.
Here’s the thing, God isn’t like Domino’s. He doesn’t have a 30-minute guarantee. He didn’t cancel such a promise because of recklessness or irresponsibility. God knows what we need when we need it. Sometimes the healing is found in the prayers we speak over and over again. Sometimes the blessing is found in an answer different than we want or expect. Sometimes the greater blessing is found I the waiting.
God invites us into prayer. He doesn’t guarantee that He’ll answer the way we want, but He promises to listen. If we take the time to wait and listen, we will discover that God really does have our best interests in mind when He does answer our prayers. Sometimes the answer is “Yes.” Sometimes it is “No.” And sometimes it is “Wait, I have something even better on the way.” So, let us wait, perhaps not with patience, but with expectation, knowing that God will always provide for us all that we need and more. He is generous and He is merciful. He is right and He is faithful. Just wait, not in anxious frustration but in faithful trust, for God will answer your cries in a way that will amaze and astound you.
“Continue stedfastly in prayer, watching therein with thanksgiving; withal praying for us also, that God may open unto us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds; that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer each one.” Colossians 4:2-6, ASV
It is very important to be fully alert when driving a car. We need to constantly be looking in every direction, making sure that we know about all the other drivers on the road around us. We need to see the car speeding too fast in the passing lane so that we are not suddenly surprised when he is on our bumper. We have to be aware of every car that is trying to turn onto our road so that we can slow down if they decide to cut out in front of us. We have to be aware of any sirens so that we can move out of their way. We have to be aware of any problems along the roadside so that we will not bring further harm. We have to pay attention to the gadgets and gizmos on our dashboard and the sounds of our engine so that we take care of our vehicle before it causes us irreparable damage. We might think that driving just requires looking the windshield ahead of us, but it requires total concentration and our whole bodies as we constantly look in every direction, always aware of every hazard and circumstance along the way.
How many of us spend our lives just going through the motions. We are always headed forward, which is a good thing. We don’t want to wallow in the past or linger too long in the present, but we can’t just go forward with blinders on our eyes. We have to be aware of everything that is happening around us. We don’t know when some temptation might be speeding up from behind us, coming at us so fast that we can’t avoid a collision. If we aren’t paying attention, we might not be ready for that problem that is coming at us from the side, like a disease or a job loss, and we won’t know how to deal with it. We won’t know what to do when the sirens of life come our way, we won’t be ready to stop and pray for those who need us. We might just find ourselves stranded and alone if we haven’t paid attention to our needs, both physical and spiritual.
Paul writes that we are to be constantly attentive to the spiritual aspects of our life, praying and praising God always. “Watch” he says, but not just to make sure that we are safe. We are to watch with thanksgiving, always keeping our eyes focused on the One who can keep us safe. See, we are in charge when we are behind the wheel of an automobile, but when we are going through life God is our driver. He will take us where we need to go, He will give us what we need to do our work, He will take care of us along the way.
As we become so aware of God’s presence in the driver’s seat, we will discover that those moments that were once so frightening are actually opportunities. The person who is speeding through life too fast is someone who needs to slow down to hear God’s story. The person who is trying to merge into traffic needs mercy and compassion. The sirens tell us about those who need our prayers and our comforting presence in the midst of difficulty or sorrow. The gages and gizmos remind us that we need to take care of our own spiritual needs, too. We need to pray and study the bible. We need gather with others in worship of God and in fellowship. We need to be watchful so that we’ll see all the opportunities God is giving us to serve Him in the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 27, 2014, Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5:29-42; Psalm 148; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
“But Peter and the apostles answered and said, We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29, ASV
British dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse has this to say about the obedience of dogs. “In a dog’s mind, a master or mistress to love, honor and obey is an absolute necessity. The love is dormant in the dog until brought into full bloom by an understanding owner. Thousands of dogs appear to love their owners, they welcome them home with enthusiastic wagging of the tail and jumping up, they follow them about their houses happily and, to the normal person seeing the dog, the affection is true and deep. But to the experienced dog trainer this outward show is not enough. The true test of real love takes place when the dog has got the opportunity to go out on its own as soon as the door is left open by mistake and it goes off and often doesn’t return home for hours. That dog loves only its home comforts and the attention it gets from its family; it doesn’t truly love the master or mistress as they fondly think. True love in dogs is apparent when a door is left open and the dog still stays happily within earshot of its owner. For the owner must be the be-all and end-all of a dog’s life.”
This is the kind of obedience that is called for by Christ. This is not to say that we are like dogs to our Master, but that we are willing to stand firm with Him even though we are given the freedom to wander. Some would like to think that we are able to do whatever we want because Christ forgives our waywardness. While it is true that we are forgiven, we are not given new life in Christ to run rampant around our neighborhood, like the dog who has taken advantage of his master’s grace.
In today’s first lesson, Peter and the apostles answered the questioning of the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men.” The movement of the followers of Christ was called The Way; it was growing daily. This made the Jews nervous and jealous. The temple leaders persecuted the disciples, having them arrested, beaten and threatened with death. But God was with the disciples, giving them strength, peace and hope in the midst of their troubles. God even sent angels to help them at times, and gave them opportunities to share the Gospel through their persecution. Nothing was going to stop them because they loved their Lord with their whole being and they were willing the stand for Him no matter what happened. The leaders met to discuss the problem.
The disciples didn’t mince words when facing the Sanhedrin. They said, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew, hanging him on a tree. Him did God exalt with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God hath given to them that obey him.” This made them extremely angry, and they wanted to kill them.
But there was one man, a Pharisee, who brought calm to the situation. He told his fellow councilmen to be patient and let God take care of the situation. “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will be overthrown: but if it is of God, ye will not be able to overthrow them; lest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God.” This was wise advice, although I’m certain the council was hoping it would turn out much differently.
Gamaliel, however, may have had a concealed motive for speaking such wise words. We know that this Pharisee was a Jewish scholar and teacher of the Law. His most famous student was Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as Paul. Tradition holds that Simeon, the old man in the Temple who recognized Baby Jesus as the Messiah, was Gamaliel’s father. If this is true, he most likely told his son about Jesus. Did Gamaliel know that the men standing before the Sanhedrin were followers of that baby in the Temple? It is believed that Gamaliel did become a Christian and was baptized by Peter and John, but that he kept his Christianity a secret until his death so that he could remain in the Sanhedrin and offer aid to the Christians who were being persecuted. The Jewish account of his life maintains that he remained a Pharisee until he died. But his speech at the trial of the apostles gives some credence to the possibility that he had faith.
It is easy to see the obedience of Peter and the apostles in this story as they stood up for The Way even against such a great risk. What about Gamaliel? Gamaliel was risking his power, position and reputation for a bunch of misfit prophets. It didn’t matter if he was a believer or not; Gamaliel was willing to trust God in this situation, and he convinced the others to trust Him, too.
This was a most extraordinary thing that they were doing. Jesus died and you would think that His death would have put an end to any movement of faith that would follow His name. And yet the stories in the book of Acts tell us that the people believed in extraordinary numbers. Three thousand were baptized on Pentecost, and the scriptures tell us that people were being added to their numbers daily. These were people who believed by the word of those apostles: they told the stories and the Holy Spirit instilled faith. There is no way that the council would be able to stop the growth of The Way, even if they killed all the apostles. By the time they had been arrested, others were already spreading the Good News. The people who had witnessed the Pentecost miracle were traveling to the four corners of the earth with stories about Jesus.
It was so extraordinary that even the closest disciples had trouble believing. The disciples were afraid, hiding behind locked doors. They didn’t know what to expect. They did not yet have the Holy Spirit to give them strength. They were still dazed and confused about what was happening. They’d heard the stories: the women saw Jesus in the Garden. The disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It was crazy and impossible. It was frightening. There may have been rumors of body stealing, and though they knew they didn’t take His body, they may have been afraid that they would be arrested anyway. If Jesus, who was so good and righteous, so gifted and devout, could be put to death, what would stop the religious leaders from destroying them, too? Thomas was so frightened; he wasn’t even with the other disciples in the Upper Room.
Viktor Frankl experienced Auschwitz and Dachau. He’d been condemned to a living death, along with so many others who were devastated by the horrors of the holocaust. It was humiliating to be treated like an animal; they were stripped, whipped, shaved and put into prison. He lost many family members through death in the camps and gas ovens. He had every right to lose hope; what did he have to look forward to? Yet, Viktor knew that the only thing that kept him alive was hope despite the cold, fear, starvation, pain, lice and vermin, dehumanization, exhaustion and terror. Faith in the future kept him going day by day. Many prisoners just stopped living, they refused to move off their beds, wash or dress, even when they were threatened by the guards. They no longer cared; they had no hope and so gave up. This is what Viktor called “give-up-itis.”
We can almost understand giving up under such extreme circumstances, and yet looking at those who survived we can see that God did amazing things through their lives. When we think of the record that has been written by those who lived through the horrors, and the lessons they’ve shared, we are thankful that they never lost hope. Otherwise, we might have lost their witness, not only to the horrors of what happened at the hands of the Nazis, but also the amazing grace of God.
“Give-up-itis” is not limited to people who are in extreme circumstances. Have you ever known someone who felt there was no hope in their job or their relationships, and so they just gave up on them? They stop working to make things better. When there is no room for promotion, a worker will only do what is necessary to get through every day at the job. When there seems to be no future in a marriage, a couple will give up and stop trying to build up their relationship. Sadly, I think there are many people who are living in America today who have “give-up-it is.” They have no hope for a job or a better life, so they just give up trying. There are those who think there is no solution to our problems, so they hide ignoring the possibilities that really do exist.
Our Gospel lesson begins that first Easter night and ends eight days later. The disciples gathered in the Upper Room had no hope. They had glimmers of possibilities because they had heard the stories of the witnesses, but they found it too hard to believe. Suddenly, out of nowhere, through a locked door, Jesus appeared before them. He was alive, but even then their first reaction was that they were seeing a ghost. Jesus answered their fear with a word of peace. Then He showed them His hands and side, and the disciples knew that they were seeing the risen Lord. Jesus said again, “Peace be unto you: as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.”
In this first appearance, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit.” This was like a down payment of what was to come: the Holy Spirit that would anoint them at Pentecost. In the days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus taught the disciples everything they needed to know, but even then it would not be enough. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit could the disciples ever believe and do the work God was calling them to do.
What is that work? What is the word they are called to take to the world? It is the word of forgiveness that is found in the grace and mercy of God through Christ Jesus. Jesus said, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Forgiveness is a difficult thing; do any of us really deserve to be forgiven? Even the specially chosen followers of Jesus deserved death. After all, think about the things they did in those last moments of Jesus’ life. They abandoned Him. They denied Him. They were afraid, uncertain, and doubtful despite the words of Jesus. Even more so, I think about my own sin and know that I do not deserve to benefit from what Christ has done.
The disciples were not able to believe in Jesus without the power He gives them to believe. The breath He breaths into all believers is the Holy Spirit, and it is by the power of that Spirit that they have faith. To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to deny His power, to reject Him.
The lesson of that first Easter evening is hard for us to grasp, because quite frankly there are folk we would rather not forgive. Here’s the thing: we aren’t called to go out into the world to condemn those who sin, but rather to proclaim the word of forgiveness into their lives. It is not our job to decide who deserves to hear that word and who does not deserve it. We are commissioned to take it to everyone.
Many will reject the word we speak. They will not believe us. Some believe their sin is too great for even God to forgive. They can’t accept that there is mercy that can overcome. Others do not think we are credible witnesses, like the women who were ignored on that first resurrection day. What have we seen that we can really report? There are others who do not believe they need to be forgiven. The worst reason the Word is rejected is that we do not reveal to the world our own need for forgiveness. We paint a mask that tells shows the world that we are good Christians and they see our calls for repentance as judgment and condemnation. Or they see us as hypocrites because we say one thing but they see our flaws too clearly. They do not believe that we speak the Gospel because we know we are sinners in need of a Savior. They think we see ourselves as their savior. There are yet others who simply need to see something tangible to believe, no words will ever be enough.
Thomas was one of those guys who need to see to believe. Eight days after the first appearance, the disciples were still hiding behind the closed doors of the Upper room. This time Thomas was with them, unwilling to believe their word. Imagine how that must have felt for those disciples. Thomas was like a brother, having traveled with them for nearly three years. He heard the same stories, he learned the same lessons. He was given the same prophecies and promises. If he did not believe them, who would? How could they possibly share their message with outsiders? I imagine they were hurt, there may have even been discord among the disciples. When Jesus appeared the second time, He spoke the words of peace again. “Peace be with you.”
In this greeting, Jesus touched on the greatest problem within the Church even today. For the disciples to do the work they were called to do, there must be peace among them. How can they take the message of the Gospel out into a world if there is no reconciliation between brothers? Whatever was going on behind those closed doors during the week between the first and second appearance, Jesus pointed them in a new direction. Once Thomas was given the same experience, there was nothing to keep the disciples divided.
We pick on Thomas, but can we really blame him? After all, we would probably have felt the same way if we had been out of the loop. We would have had difficulty believing the testimonies of those who were those first witnesses. Instead of recalling the sadness and of the disciples after Good Friday, which Thomas was still feeling on that first Sunday, we are invited to join in the joy of the week after Jesus’ first appearance to His disciples. Jesus said to the disciples, “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” This reprimand was given to all the disciples, not just Thomas. They had an advantage: they saw the Risen Lord. They lived with Him and learned from Him for another miraculous forty days. But the Church would grow out of faith in the word heard, not in the flesh seen. The blessed ones would be those who would believe when they heard their testimony.
It is easy for us to get caught up in the cares of the world, even those that really have no value. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to be a disciple in those first few days after the crucifixion and resurrection? They were worried and scared, perhaps even rightly so. But Jesus came to them in the midst of that difficulty to give them peace.
We can experience the same peace if we keep our hearts and minds firm in the promises of God. He calls us to obedience. That doesn’t mean that we should be like dogs. As followers of God saved by Jesus, we are called to love God so much that we trust Him completely. Obedience means believing that the best place in the world to be is within earshot of our Master.
Our worries and our fears are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He has created the entire world and everything in it. He has redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He has brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. Let us join with all of God’s creation in a song of praise, spending time each day in adoration and admiration of the God who has done it all, so that when we face those difficult times we won’t use our freedom to run and hide, but instead stand and speak the Word.
“I waited patiently for Jehovah; And he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay; And he set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: Many shall see it, and fear, And shall trust in Jehovah. Blessed is the man that maketh Jehovah his trust, And respecteth not the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies. Many, O Jehovah my God, are the wonderful works which thou hast done, And thy thoughts which are to us-ward; They cannot be set in order unto thee; If I would declare and speak of them, They are more than can be numbered.” Psalm 40:1-5, ASV
When was the last time you truly experienced the sense of wonder at something? The word ‘wonder’ is defined as “the feeling excited by something strange; a mixture of surprise, curiosity, and sometimes awe.” Children experience this all the time, I suppose because so much is still new to them. As we grow older, things stop being strange because we’ve ‘seen it all.’ It doesn’t help that our days are filled with the hustle and bustle of life. Most of us don’t have time to stop and wonder at the roses or the sunsets or the rainbows. Most of the time we are so busy that we miss them.
I’m going to wax nostalgic for a moment. I remember when I was a child that we spent the summer chasing after wonders. We didn’t have a summer full of camps or activities every day. We stayed outside past dark to catch lightning bugs and play flashlight tag. We swam in the pool from sun up to sun down and sometimes even later. We wandered in the woods behind our house searching for anything that might pique our imaginations. We ice skated on the puddles that froze over in the field, even though the surface was broken with dead grass sticking through. We stretched out on the grass and watched the clouds go by; we hid under the umbrella tree with our favorite books. We were fascinated by lady bugs, picked ‘yard mums’ (dandelions) for our mothers and ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
Peanut butter sandwiches are wonderful. I don’t eat them very often, but I love to make them when I have a brand new soft and fresh loaf of bread. They make me feel like a child again; they remind me that there is so much to be thankful for in this world. Silly, isn’t it? And yet, that child-like wonder is exactly how we should feel all the time.
We often think that children are more willing to see the wonder in the world because they have not experienced the hardships. They don’t know what it is like to suffer the consequence of their wrongdoing. They don’t have responsibilities, so they can fritter away their lives under the rolling clouds and blue skies. Yet, I think in many ways, children are more aware of their shortcomings that adults. Even more so, they are more likely to do what needs to be done to make amends for their hurtful behavior. I remember all the fights I had with my best friend when I was a child, but I also remember that we made up within hours. We didn’t hold grudges. We forgave. We reconciled. We loved. And then we went back to wondering about the amazing things in the world.
The psalmist knows what it is like to be buried in the muck and mire of sinfulness, but trusts in God’s forgiveness. Children know that kind of trust; it comes with the innocence of childhood. Perhaps we should be more like we were when we were children. Perhaps we should take more time to be in awe of the sunset or the rainbow. Perhaps we should watch the clouds roll by. Most of all, we should take time to be in awe of God’s wonderful works. He has pulled us out of the muck and mire, washed us and clothed us with His righteousness. He has made us new so that we can see His creation with new eyes. We should be singing from the rooftop so that everyone will see that our God has planned wonderful things for His people; things that were, things that are and things that will be!
“After he had ended all his sayings in the ears of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion's servant, who was dear unto him, was sick and at the point of death. And when he heard concerning Jesus, he sent unto him elders of the Jews, asking him that he would come and save his servant. And they, when they came to Jesus, besought him earnestly, saying, He is worthy that thou shouldest do this for him; for he loveth our nation, and himself built us our synagogue. And Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself; for I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. And when Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned and said unto the multitude that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole.” Luke 7:1-10, ASV
“Miss Congeniality” is a movie starring Sandra Bullock, in which she plays an FBI agent Gracie Hart who is tasked with entering the Miss United States pageant as a contestant so that they will have someone on the inside to protect the girls from a dangerous threat to the contest. In that position, Gracie is able to see possible suspects in places that most of the agents do not have access, like in the dressing room. Despite her tomboyish character—she says she doesn’t even own a hairbrush—Gracie is transformed into a woman beautiful and graceful enough to seriously vie for the title.
One of the suspects, due to her youthful role as an animal rights activist, is the contestant from Rhode Island, Cheryl Frasier. Gracie befriends Cheryl and discovers her secrets, but being a terrorist is not one of them. Cheryl is beautiful and kind, but at times seems a little dimwitted. While she might be intellectually smart, Cheryl has a child-like innocence that makes her gullible and foolish, not evil and manipulative.
During a scene that was filmed right here in San Antonio, Stan Fields the pageant master of ceremonies, asks Cheryl to describe her favorite date. The question, of course, was referring to what she would like to do on a date with a young man, but Cheryl answered, “That’s a tough one. I’d have to say April 25th because it is not too hot and not too cold. All you need is a light jacket.” Later Cheryl agonizes over the answer, telling some other contestants, including Gracie, that she had the perfect response to the question. She feels so unworthy of the title even though she is one of the top contestants. In the end, Cheryl wins the pageant, Gracie saves everyone’s lives and the perpetrators are arrested. Cheryl may not have thought she was worthy, but the judges gave her the highest scores because they saw something special in her.
Today’s story is about a man who is not a Jew. He is a Roman centurion who loves the people under his care. He even built their synagogue for them. His beloved servant is sick, and the sent for Jesus to heal him. The elders told Jesus that he was worthy of the help, and so Jesus went toward his home. The man, however, did not think he was worthy of meeting Jesus face to face. He sent word to Jesus, “…say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.” He saw something in Jesus that many others missed: that Jesus had the authority and the power to make things happen with just a word. He had faith. Jesus saw that faith and He was amazed. The man’s servant was healed from that moment.
It isn’t who we are or what we do that makes us worthy of God’s grace. God makes us worthy. He gives us faith; our faith is not of our own will, but is a gift of God. He sees in us something that we don’t even see. Like Cheryl, we know we are not worthy to win the prize, but God sees beyond our failures and has mercy on us. He has granted us the greatest gift, not a crown at a pageant but eternal life in His Kingdom.
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, Nor standeth in the way of sinners, Nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers: But his delight is in the law of Jehovah; And on his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, That bringeth forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also doth not wither; And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. The wicked are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For Jehovah knoweth the way of the righteous; But the way of the wicked shall perish.” Psalm 1, ASV
We moved into our house almost two years ago, and one of the first things that we had to deal with was the sprinkler system. We found a coupon form a company that came in to do a system tune-up. Unfortunately, our system was very old and not working very well, so that first visit cost far more than original coupon. They made a few changes that helped, but in the end they spent hours and hours (for which we paid big bucks) and did not get the system into perfectly working order.
In the movie “A Cinderella Story,” Samatha’s (Hillary Duff) wicked stepmother Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge) insisted on running her sprinkler system despite the drought rules in place in the San Fernado Valley neighborhood. Theirs was the only bright green lawn for miles. Everyone else’s was brown, or golden as we called it when we lived in California, because it was just better to let the grass go dormant through the dry period. Fiona claimed that her wealth gave her the right to have a pretty green lawn, so she wasted water while the rest of the city was trying to conserve.
Right now our lawn looks more like those dry houses in the movie, although our neighbors have been able to keep some green using their sprinkler systems according to our own drought restrictions. We have used the system as best we could, but it has been obvious that some of our yard is not getting any water. We haven’t had appreciable rain for years. I doubt our yard will never be a lush green and I don’t need it to be like Fiona’s. My biggest concern is that the drought has killed many of our bushes, and it will continue to do so unless we can get water to them. We’ve had another company come and look at the system, and they’ve done a good job of getting things running fairly well. Hopefully we can find a good balance between giving water to the yard while also conserving.
No living thing can live without water. Some can live for long periods of time on little water like cacti and camels. Even with drought resistant plants and grasses, water is necessary to keep the landscape neat and alive. We need spiritual water to live, too. The psalmist says that the blessed ones are those who spend time in God’s Word. The Amplified Bible has put it this way: “But his delight and desire are in the law of the Lord, and on His law (the precepts, the instructions, the teachings of God) he habitually meditates (ponders and studies) by day and by night.”
The psalmist, of course, is referring to the Law, the scriptures as available to the people of God before Christ, but we are reminded that we have something even greater: we have Jesus. He is the Word of God, and in Him we find the fullness of God’s Law. As we dwell with Him, learning from Him, following His instructions, pondering His teachings, we will find ourselves like a tree standing beside a river. His Word is the living water. Today let’s get drenched in Jesus, for it is there we’ll find true life!
“And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: and Jesus also was bidden, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when the wine failed, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. And Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. Now there were six waterpots of stone set there after the Jews' manner of purifying, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the ruler of the feast. And they bare it. And when the ruler of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and knew not whence it was (but the servants that had drawn the water knew), the ruler of the feast calleth the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man setteth on first the good wine; and when men have drunk freely, then that which is worse: thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of his signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed on him.” John 2:1-11 (ASV)
We live in expectation. We hope for good things to happen at our jobs because our employers made promises when we were hired. We hope for success in our marriages because we promised one another that we would love each other through better and worse. We hope for great things for our children because they’ve shown such promise in school, sports and other activities. Yet, things are not always good. The promotion or raise seems to take forever, and we are disappointed when others get the step up we were hoping to receive. Every marriage faces bumpy patches as outside forces create friction; this is true in every relationship. Our children don’t always fulfill our expectations and we are left wondering if they will ever succeed. The promise of happiness seems to be right around the corner, but somehow misses us.
Mary knew from before Jesus was conceived that He would do great things. She probably had some expectations, based not only on the promise of God but also of her knowledge of the world, for what He would accomplish. Yet, He was already thirty years old and did not seem to be following the path she expected. He had gathered a rag-tag bunch of men who seemed to have no future. They were a bunch of low-class uneducated men, who had nothing better to do than to follow the latest prophet.
Mary had been waiting for so long for the promise to be fulfilled. She knew that Jesus would lead His people and fulfill all that God had sent Him to do. So, as any good mother, Mary pushed Jesus a little. “Do this, for me.” Jesus told her that it was not yet His time, and yet He fulfilled her wishes. Mary did not always see clearly Jesus’ purpose and she even tried to divert His path, but Jesus knew the right time and the right way to complete the work of salvation. While Mary might have moments of disappointment, in the end she saw her salvation at the cross on which her son had died.
Isn’t it amazing that the first miracle of Jesus was such a frivolous act? Does God really care about the wine at a wedding? It would be something that might concern a mother, so it is no wonder that Mary asked Jesus to help the family, but did Jesus really care? He did care; He took care of their need. He did it in a way that would not bring Him any attention because it was not yet His time, but He took the risk for the sake of that family.
God has this way of doing things in His own way and in His own time. We might be disappointed because we it seems like He doesn’t care but then we discover that He has done something even more spectacular than we can ever imagine. He doesn’t just answer our prayers, sometimes He gives us wine out of water when we don’t even realize it. Our life does not seem to go exactly as we hope or expect, our jobs, relationships and children might disappoint, but we can always count on God. He knows the right time and He cares about even the most frivolous things in our lives. He will bless us in ways that we will never expect! We might just find that He has changed our water into wine.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 4, 2014, Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-14; 1 Peter 1:17-25; Luke 24:13-35
“Gracious is Jehovah, and righteous; Yea, our God is merciful.” Psalm 116:5, ASV
I suppose it isn’t so much of a problem today because just about everyone has some sort of GPS device, but have you ever gotten so lost that you were afraid you would not be able to find your way? I was working for a mobile disc jockey company a few decades ago doing quality control. I would go to a bunch of contracted parties that were located relatively near one another and check to see that the disc jockeys were doing their job. I would watch from a corner to see if they were entertaining, appropriate and if they were giving the clients all the services in the contract. I talked to the client to make sure that they were happy, and I spent a few minutes with the disc jockey to see how they felt about the party.
This particular job meant that I drove a lot in one night. I might have to visit five or six parties, located at great distances. The parties were always in cities with which I was unfamiliar, and finding the buildings was always challenging since I was going at night. I didn’t have the internet to help me establish a route or to print detailed maps. I usually had the simple, not always reliable, instructions from the client. I was working mostly in eastern New Jersey, where the small towns had merged so it was hard to tell when you left one and entered the next.
I usually managed to find the parties, since the halls were very often located right along the major highways or roads, but I remember one that was impossible. I had the right general area, but nothing looked right. I drove around the block numerous times, checked street names, and looked for the landmarks. I was able to find the road, but not the building. I was frustrated. Just as I was going to make another pass through the neighborhood, I decided it was silly to keep driving in circles. I found a gas station and asked for help.
Unfortunately, the attendant had no idea where it was. He was unfamiliar with the area, despite working there. I asked a few other people and I finally found someone who could direct me to the right place. It seems I was driving through the wrong town, that the neighboring towns had similar street names. A few minutes later I was pulling into the parking lot, extremely late and frustrated. I had to change the rest of my schedule for the evening, and I ended up with a smaller paycheck because I didn’t see as many disc jockeys at work.
I probably should have stopped to find directions much sooner, although we never really know how lost we are until we just can’t deal with it anymore. I’m sure we can all come up with examples of times when we waited until it was almost too late to deal with a problem. We try to do it ourselves. We try to hide our pain and suffering and confusion, sure that we can overcome alone. We become frustrated and exhausted doing so, until we reach the end of our rope and then we finally go for help. This is true not only in those mundane problems of life, but also in the eternal problems of our spirits.
I don’t doubt that most of you are people of prayer. I imagine that you pray daily and that you seek God’s help for those you love, for the people who ask you to pray, for the world and everything in it. Yet, all too often when it comes to our own needs especially that of our spirits, we tend to try to deal with it on our own. Are we embarrassed to take our problems to God? Do you we think that our problems are inconsequential compared to those of our neighbors. After all, why worry about a little doubt when our neighbor has rejected God altogether?
The psalmist understood this human tendency to go it alone. It was not until he was overwhelmed with trouble that he cried out for God’s help. “The cords of death compassed me, And the pains of Sheol gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.” He had reached the end of his rope, he could not deal with it alone. But even though he waited so long to seek God’s hand, God was ready to answer. “Then called I upon the name of Jehovah: O Jehovah, I beseech thee, deliver my soul. Gracious is Jehovah, and righteous; Yea, our God is merciful.”
We are human and despite the graciousness of God, we still have a nature that is wrapped up with sin. We still fail to live as God created and intended us to live. We still make mistakes that hurt others. We still ignore God. We still reject Him when we think we can do it better. We go our own way and forget that God is ready to help us whenever we need it. It is only when we reach the end of our rope, when there is nothing left that we can do, that we turn to Him. And though we’ve ignored Him all along, He is there and ready to respond to our cries.
The Jews had three festivals that were tied directly to agriculture and the harvest. These festivals were celebrated throughout the year as a constant reminder of God’s presence among His people. The celebrations also remembered the history of God’s people; they were thanking God for His daily care and for His goodness to them throughout the ages. Passover occurred first, and was a remembrance of the Exodus. On the third day of Passover, a sheaf of the first barley was given at the Temple as a wave offering. The priest literally waved the sheaf toward God so that He might accept it and bless it. No one was allowed to eat any of the barley wheat before the wave offering. This was also called the Feast of First Fruits.
The third feast was called Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. This festival occurred for a week in the fall and it celebrated the harvest. During this festival the people remembered the journey from Egypt to Canaan and thanked God for the productivity of the fields of Canaan. The religious life of God’s people went from Passover to Sukkot, just as the agricultural calendar went from planting to harvest. The people identified God’s deliverance and His provision by celebrating the harvest of their daily bread and the remembrance of their past.
Between those two festivals was another. Fifty days after Passover, the people celebrated the Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavu’ot or Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the harvest by giving offerings from the fruit of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Just as the people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain, so too do the people stopped briefly during the year to thank God for the blessings He has already given and to hear once again the words given to them on the mountain. The giving of the Law occurred fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, so it occurred fifty days later in the yearly remembrance of God’s mercy. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.
The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.
Today’s first lesson is part of Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost. Remember, the crowds thought that the disciples were drunk with new wine when they began speaking in tongues, but Peter told them it was the power of God. Imagine if you were in the crowd on that day, hearing the strange words coming out of the disciples’ mouths. You surely had heard of what had happened during the Passover festival with Jesus. Rumors would have been all over the city about the lost body of Jesus. Some might have been in agreement with the Romans, who claimed that the body was stolen by the disciples. Only fifty days had passed since that first Easter morning.
It could not have been easy for Peter to give his first sermon to those pilgrims who were in Jerusalem to hear the reading of God’s Law. It was bold and courageous. He was offering them a new promise, a different promise. As they heard his words, the people were “pricked in their heart” or “cut to the heart” and they wondered what they should do. Peter told them to repent—not only of the sins they had committed, but also of the way they were doing worship and living their lives of faith. He told them to be baptized so that they would be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. He said many other things, testifying to convince them of the truth. His boldness brought the word of God, Jesus, to thousands of people in one day.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “…that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to about five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also.” We know also that Jesus appeared to Mary and the women. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus appeared to the men on the road to Emmaus. It is unlikely that Jesus could have appeared to so many without word spreading through Jerusalem. Visitors must have heard the rumors in the marketplace. They may have heard the stories from other travelers passing them on the road. The people there on that first Pentecost may not have realized that Peter and the disciples were connected to the stories when they heard them speaking in tongues, but it is no wonder that they were cut to the heart when Peter spoke. The Word had already been planted in their hearts; Peter simply watered the seed.
We don’t know much about the crowd, but I wonder how many of them may have been there on the day of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Were they among the crowds who once waved palm branches? Were they also among the crowds who called for Jesus’ crucifixion just days later? Imagine the confusion and frustration! It is so hard to know what to believe. Faith is something we can’t achieve on our own. It takes the hand of God. That’s what happened on that Pentecost Day. God took the seeds that were planted, He brought order into their confusion, and He set their hearts on fire with faith so that they could believe.
We see this in a more personal way in the Gospel story for today. This encounter took place on the first Easter Day. Some of the disciples, including ten of the eleven, stayed in Jerusalem, hiding in the Upper Room. But others left; even Thomas was missing in action. In this story, two disciples were walking home to Emmaus. These disciples had been with Jesus and learned from Him for some time, possibly most of His three years of ministry. They did not understand how everything fit together. The crucifixion of Jesus did not fit their expectation. The witness of the women that Jesus had risen confused them. They could not make the puzzle fit together because there was something wrong with some of the pieces.
Jesus explained the scriptures to them and corrected their errors during their walk. He showed them how the pieces fit together. He revealed the whole picture in a way that they could finally understand. When Jesus revealed Himself to them later that evening in the breaking of bread, the men wondered how they could ever have doubted.
When it comes to our faith in Jesus Christ, a misunderstanding about the scriptures can mean the difference between salvation and death. It is no wonder that so many people in Jerusalem were confused before Peter explained things in his sermon on Pentecost. When we do not have a good foundation in the Word we are easily blown by every wind. Many people have rejected Jesus as their Lord and Savior because they do not see how it all fits together. They are confused by the seemingly inconsistent messages of the scriptures. The Bible is not faulty, our understanding of it is. God does not leave us alone and confused. He corrects our error and shows us the truth so that we might know Him fully and be saved.
We inherit from our past so many things: health, tradition, culture, finances, property, business, personality, habits, politics, biases, debts, feuds, religion and interests. Some of these things can be good and are worth continuing into another generation. However, some of the things we inherit from our past have no value and can actually be harmful. There are things that we have to set aside to become the person we are meant to be. Jesus made it possible, redeeming us from the failures of our past. The sacrificial system had little value because it was not lasting. Jesus, as the perfect Lamb of God finished for all time the need for atoning sacrifice. In His grace, we are called to trust in God, love one another and living according to the world of God.
God does not always come to us in dramatic and forceful ways. Sometimes He comes to us slowly at first, carefully laying out His story so that when He is fully revealed we will recognize him. Though some Christians have extraordinary experiences of Jesus, like Paul on the road to Damascus, most of us learn about Jesus through Sunday school teachers and our parents. Slowly, but surely, we hear the stories laid out before us until one day we finally see Him and understand. Even then we wonder how we could have not seen, just like the disciples. “Was not our heart burning within us?” we ask. But in the stories of God’s grace we see that we are just like those who were there at the beginning, learning and growing in grace each day.
Those people who heard Peter’s sermon had good reason to be confused. It is hard to discern the difference between truth and rumor sometimes. Even the disciples who had been with Jesus for a long time were scared and frustrated. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know where to go. The disciples didn’t believe the witness of the women who met Jesus in the garden. Some ran away. How can we expect that the crowds in Jerusalem to believe when they had nothing but rumors?
We are so much like them. We are rattled by so many ideas. It has been said, “Ask twelve theologians the meaning of a biblical text and you’ll get thirteen answers.” The bookstores are filled with commentaries and devotionals that will give the seeker seemingly contradictory advice. I can understand why so many non-Christians are confused. It doesn’t make sense if you can’t put it all together.
The psalmist sings, “Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.” The Lord God is gracious and merciful. He hears the cries of His people and He answers their prayers. Our psalm was used as part of the liturgy for the religious festivals throughout the Jewish year. It is a hymn of thanksgiving and praise for God’s deliverance from death. The worship of God was tied up in many aspects of their lives. Each festival had significance at several levels. They were times of remembrance and looking ahead, times of feasting and fasting, times of joy and sacrifice. They worshipped God with their hearts, their minds and their resources, bringing Him into their ordinary world.
That’s why our New Covenant experiences include the sacraments. God did not simply speak to us; He gave us ordinances that were connected to very real, very tangible things of this earth. In Baptism the word is joined with water, reminding us of all those times when God used the water to make the world clean while cleansing us for the future. In the Eucharist the word is tied to the bread and wine, reminding us of the last supper, Christ’s death on the cross while also giving us a foretaste of the feast to come. In this way God’s story has woven together the ordinary with the extraordinary, reason with mystery, the past with the future, the grace of God with our response.
When they arrived at their destination, Jesus tried to keep going but the disciples invited him inside. It was late and they were probably very curious about this man they met on the road. He had so much knowledge of things they should have known; they wanted to learn more. I am sure they found comfort in His word. They sat down to eat and Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it for them. At that moment, they saw Jesus.
This is the pattern of Christian fellowship that we continue to follow today, as disciples gathered around the word and sacrament. There we see the risen Christ. We listen to the word as it is read and preached and then we gather around the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine. Notice that it is not only in the word that Christ was revealed to them, but that it was in the sacrament that they could see Him. It is in that cup that we receive His forgiveness that leads to gift eternal life.
I think, perhaps, we have lost touch with the reason for communion; in many churches it is not the center of the worship. It is an occasional practice, a imposition on the altar guild and worship planners who have to work it into the program. Some people would rather not have communion on a weekly or even monthly basis. “It takes too much time.” “It is not as special if we have it too often.” “Visitors won’t understand and they’ll be turned off if we don’t give them plenty of entertainment and music.”
Peter writes, “…knowing that ye were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from your vain manner of life handed down from your fathers; but with precious blood, as of a lamb without spot, even the blood of Christ…” The cup bears the very blood of Christ which was offered for our sake on the cross. “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” Christ did this for you. And there at the table Jesus Christ is revealed in that cup. We are made new every time we receive that gift, forgiven, transformed and purified by His Word so that we can go forth another day to trust in God and live in love. Why would we want to diminish the place this has in our experience of God?
We forget how much we need God. We try to go our own way. We think we know better than God how to get through our problems. It isn’t until we reach the end of the road, when we finally accept that we are lost and need His help, that we finally turn to Him. Then we approach God recognizing our need for His mercy and grace.
Each time we gather around the table, we are calling out to the Lord for salvation. We find life in His answer as we remember the cross of Christ. His love is revealed in that breaking of bread. There we see Jesus revealed for us. The Psalmist sings, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of Jehovah. I will pay my vows unto Jehovah, Yea, in the presence of all his people.” When we finally cry out to God, He is right there to do for us all that He has promised. How much better is it that we approach the throne of grace even before we need God’s help, seeing His salvation in that which He has already given for us? He is revealed anew each time we take the cup and drink, receiving the forgiveness for which Jesus paid such a high price. And when we do so, we are His witnesses, sharing the truth of God’s grace and revealing to the world the Living Christ.