Welcome to the April 2015 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 2015
"Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might put him to death; for they feared the people. And Satan entered into Judas who was called Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went away, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might deliver him unto them. And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money. And he consented, and sought opportunity to deliver him unto them in the absence of the multitude." Luke 22:1-6, ASV
While Tuesday is the most written about day, Wednesday has nothing; the Bible is absolutely silent about what Jesus did the day before Passover. Jesus knew the time of His death was growing closer, why wasn't He in the Temple trying to convince more people to believe in Him and in what He was saying? Why wasn't He out there healing as many people as possible, accomplishing as much as He could in the short time He had remaining? I think I would be desperate to continue my ministry until the very last moment so that I could make as much of an impact as possible.
I was once acquainted with a woman in an online chat room who became bothersome with her constant attempts at changing people's minds about their theology and ideology. She debated with animosity and fanaticism, telling anyone who disagreed that they were undoubtedly unsaved. There was desperation in her posts, but we missed it because we only saw her anger. We found out later from her brother that she had died, that she had been dying all that time. She was desperate because she thought that she had not completed her work. She thought that she did not do enough for the kingdom of God; she thought it was up to her to save everyone before she died and that saving them meant convincing them to believe as she believed.
We wonder why Jesus didn't keep ministering until the last moment because we feel like we need to keep working to get as much done as possible, but Jesus knew that His true work was meant to take a different form. He did many great things. He healed the sick, cast out demons and raised the dead. He told parables about the Kingdom of God. He warned people about the coming days and He called everyone to repentance. These were all good and important works, but they weren't His purpose. They proved His authority so that all who believed would recognize the validity of what He was about to do: die for our sake. His work was not to fix people or save them from the evils of the world. His work was to die, and in doing so He saved us all from ourselves.
So, on this day before Passover, it is likely that Jesus didn't run to the Temple to preach some more. He did not gather with the crowds to heal or cast out demons. He didn't feed people, walk on water or calm the storms. He didn't make a last ditch effort to convince the world that He was everything He said He was.
Instead, Jesus knew a better way. The next three days, the Triduum, will be difficult, even for Jesus. He will cry out for mercy, feel abandoned and suffer the hatred and violence of His detractors. He will watch as His closest friends betray and deny Him. He will pray with such fervency that He will sweat like drops of blood. He will hang from a cross and die. And He knows this. If you had this much knowledge of your final moments, how would you want to spend them? It is likely that Jesus rested, prayed and delighted in the company of those He loved.
Jesus was so different than other men. He shared the Kingdom of God with the chosen people of Israel, but they rejected all that He was telling them. When we are rejected, we do everything we can to convince people of our message. We even go as far as to sin with anger, hatred, violence, bitterness, fear and pain to accomplish what we set out to do. We do not intend those emotions, but in our desperation we lose control. Jesus was not desperate; He did not seek to convince anyone. He was in control during every moment of this journey; He spoke the truth then let it go. Either they heard and believed or they did not.
Meanwhile, as Jesus spent the day of rest in prayer and fellowship, the leaders in Jerusalem continued to plot His destruction. It is likely that Judas made his pact to betray Jesus sometime on Wednesday. Why did Judas join those who opposed Jesus? First of all, Judas' heart did not understand. He was also greedy and lusted after power. Some have suggested that Judas was trying to put Jesus in a position that would force Him to rise. He was right, in a sense, but Judas wanted Jesus to rise to earthly power but Jesus was sent to rise in a much different way. Judas may have been disillusioned with the harsh message that Jesus had been preaching; he may have been desperate to make things turn out his way. Ultimately we know that Judas was not really in control; Satan entered him, and Jesus allowed it. Judas went to the leaders and agreed to watch for the right moment to hand Him over for thirty coins.
The world around Jesus was in tumult as the people played out their roles in this incredible drama. Through it all, Jesus remained calm and in control. On this day He prepared His heart for that moment when He would take all our sins, including those committed against Him in these final moments, on His own shoulders, to save us from ourselves not only for today but forever. It would do us well to follow His example, to spend time in prayer as we prepare to enter into the Three Days.
"Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto his disciples, Sit ye here, while I go yonder and pray. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and sore troubled. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: abide ye here, and watch with me. And he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Again a second time he went away, and prayed, saying, My Father, if this cannot pass away, except I drink it, thy will be done. And he came again and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. And he left them again, and went away, and prayed a third time, saying again the same words. Then cometh he to the disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Arise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that betrayeth me." Matthew 26:36-46, ASV
We celebrate many important and holy days throughout the Christian calendar. Christmas and Easter are certainly on the top of our list, and we see the importance of these days in the attendance reports. Churches are often overflowing with members and visitors or they schedule extra services to accommodate the crowds. Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday is also well attended. Though not really a religious holiday, the pews on Mother's Day are often filled with grown children honoring their mothers. There are other days that are important, but are not as well celebrated as the major feasts and festivals. Ascension happens on a Thursday, and many churches do not even hold a service on that day any longer. Pentecost and Holy Trinity are important, and fairly well attended, although they often fall during summer vacation. Sadly, most Christians do not even pay attention to these last few special days or their importance to our faith and our walk with Jesus.
We have begun the Triduum, the Three Days. These are the days that fall before Easter, holy days in the story of Jesus' life, death and teaching. Most churches will hold some sort of service for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Few will observe the Easter Vigil. I suppose part of the problem is that it is harder to get to church on a week night; we are so busy with our lives. Late nights at work and rush hour traffic jams make it difficult to get to church on time. Our children are so active with school and after school activities that we simply can't commit to another night out. Besides, who wants to face the emotions of the last supper and the cross? We prefer the joy of Triumph than the pain of sacrifice. It makes us uncomfortable.
However, these next three days, no matter how uncomfortable they make us, are the most important days in the Christian church year, perhaps even more important than Christmas and Easter. Without the cross, there would be no resurrection, and no need to celebrate the birth. We need to watch our Lord take our sin upon His shoulders on Good Friday to truly understand what it means to be saved. We need to mourn, wait and watch with the disciples through the Easter vigil to truly experience the surprise of Easter Sunday. Maundy Thursday, today, is perhaps the best day of all. As we worship on this day, we experience intimacy with our Father in the most personal way.
Jerusalem was bustling with preparation for the Passover feast. This is the day many had waited for, the day of Deliverance. Those that surrounded Jesus saw Passover as the ideal time for Him to grasp His kingship. This would have great meaning to the Jews, making a connection to Moses and the deliverance out of slavery from Egypt. The Messiah was to come and save the people, so throughout the week as Passover grew near, the people were expectant for something incredible to happen.
The disciples asked Jesus where they were to celebrate the Passover feast. As usual, the preparation was in the hands of God, and Jesus gave them instructions; He told them where to go and who to see. As the evening drew close, the disciples gathered in the upper room, ready to celebrate this meaningful night with their Lord.
The evening did not go as they hoped. Rather than speak about being a king, Jesus spoke of being a servant. He spoke of death, betrayal and denial. Peter, as usual, made great claims of his love for Jesus and his willingness to even die. Jesus told him that he would, that very evening, deny Him three times. Jesus knew Judas was the betrayer, and was clearly in control as He told Judas to do the task quickly. The disciples were confused by the words of Jesus, and became agitated as the vision they had of a kingdom began to fall apart before their eyes.
Even in the midst of betrayal and denial, Jesus comforted His disciples. He promised them the Holy Spirit, that they might continue His work after His death. He established a new covenant with the people, one of life, hope and remembrance. He spoke to them in love and shared the truth of His message. He told them to submit to God and one another in sacrificial love.
Jesus didn't just talk about that love, He showed them. At the supper, He removed His cloak, wrapped a towel around His waist and got on His knees to wash their feet. This was a menial task that only the lowliest servant would do. Peter was so incensed by the action he rejected Jesus with the words, "No, you shall never wash my feet." Jesus persisted because it was by His example that He showed them what they were expected to do. "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." The disciples were specially chosen to serve the Lord. Jesus gave them a model of service they were called to follow, a model in which they know that they were no greater than those in the world to whom they would take the Gospel.
After washing the feet of His disciples, Jesus instituted a new covenant of faith. The Passover Seder was a meal to remember the deliverance of the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. It was highly symbolic, recalling the bitterness and affliction, as well as the rebirth and joy of their new life of freedom. The people celebrated the Passover each year in expectation that the Messiah would come soon. There was great hope at this celebration, because the people believed they had found the one who would free them from the oppression of the Romans.
One of the most shocking things Jesus said during His ministry had to do with eating His flesh and drinking His blood. It was those words that began to turn people away. They did not understand how He could say such things because their law instructed believers to avoid human flesh and to never drink blood. How could they do such things when God commanded them against it? How could Jesus be from God and tell them that the only way to live is to do so?
Jesus never promised that He'd be king. Rather, He made a new covenant with His people through the elements of the Passover meal. He took the bread, gave thanks to God and gave it for all to eat. He was the bread of life; His body is truly and substantially in, with and under the bread of the sacrament; as we eat we remember that He is our true bread. After the supper He took the cup, symbolic in the Seder as being the cup of Redemption. He gave thanks and gave it to all to drink. "Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins." We are forgiven by the shedding of His blood. This meal fulfilled His shocking words to the people about eating His flesh and drinking His blood; here He offered a foretaste of the eternal banquet we will join when we, too, are raised into eternal life with Christ. On Maundy Thursday we join together in sharing this meal, recalling the words of His promise and obeying the command to eat and drink the body and blood given for the remission of sin.
During the celebration, Jesus spoke about betrayal and denial. Peter said he would stand with Christ to the end, but Jesus told Peter he would deny him three times. Jesus spoke to Judas and told him to go do what he was chosen to do. Several of the disciples got into an argument about who would be the greatest among them in the kingdom. Even at this late hour, after all Jesus had spoken to them about sacrificial love, they still sought the power of this world. Yet, even in the betrayal, denial and pride of the disciples, Jesus still had full control. As He comforted them, He gave them the final, most important command of all, "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another."
After the dinner was complete, Jesus and His disciples went to the Mount of Olives to pray. Jesus took the disciples to Gethsemane so that He could spend time in prayer. It is at this moment that Jesus Christ makes the final and most incredible act of submission to His Father's will. His prayer was so intense that His sweat was like droplets of blood. Jesus, as human as you and I even as He is as divine as our Father, sought the Father's mercy, but willingly consented to what was required. The disciples still did not understand what was about to happen; instead of watching and waiting, they fell asleep. The ministry of Jesus Christ was about to close in a most painful and horrible manner, yet He stood and walked right into the hands of His betrayer. It was the will of God.
"For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die. But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:6-8, ASV
Please consider reading one or more of the following texts about Jesus' arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial: Matthew 26:47-27:66, Mark 15, Luke 22:27-23:56, John 18:2-19:42. The text for today is too lengthy to quote, but worth our time to read.
The events of Maundy Thursday meld into Good Friday. After praying in Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested and taken to be tried. He was given over by the hands, and kiss, of His friend Judas. The next few hours were chaotic, and the world seemed to be in control. Jesus was lead before the chief priest and the Roman governor. He was questioned, mocked and beaten. The disciples hovered nearby, too scared to do anything to help their teacher. Peter even denied knowing Jesus three times while warming himself in the courtyard.
It had been approximately thirty-three years since the birth of Jesus. He spent His last three years sharing the Kingdom of God with the people. He did many incredible things during that time. He healed the sick, cast out demons and fed thousands. He even raised the dead. He preached a lost truth to the people: that God is merciful, full of forgiveness and love. He also taught that following Him would not be easy, that He demands much from our lives.
Peter tried to stop the arrest by swinging his sword; a guard was injured but Jesus healed the wound. The will of God would not be hindered by the desires of men. Jesus appeared before Caiaphas, the chief priest, so that the Sanhedrin could find some crime worthy of death. By Roman law, the Jews could not put a man to death. They found him guilty of blasphemy.
The disciples scattered. They hid in the crowds, trying to see each moment, but afraid of being discovered. Peter warmed himself over a fire, trying to fit in to the crowd. Three people approached him and claimed they had seen him with Jesus. Three times, Peter denied knowing him, just as Jesus said. After the final denial, a rooster crowed and Jesus looked directly at Peter. Peter wept bitterly because he knew that he had betrayed his Lord.
Jesus was taken before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate could find nothing against Rome that would be punishable by the death penalty. When Pilate discovered Jesus was from Galilee, he sent him to be tried by Herod. Pilate was anxious to be rid of this problem. His wife had a dream in which Pilate was be blamed for the death of this innocent man. Leaders from the temple were scattered in the crowd that watched the proceedings. He was taken to Herod who was quite excited about seeing Jesus face to face. He’d heard so much about the man; he wanted to see some mighty miracle performed before him. When Jesus would not prove himself, Herod humiliated Him and sent Him back to Pilate.
Pilate saw no reason for death, so he took the question to the crowd. He first tried to get past this problem by offering to set a prisoner free for Passover. They insisted on Barabbas, a notorious prisoner guilty of murder. Pilate was shocked, after all Jesus was without sin. But Barabbas, "the son of the Father," seemed to offer a more likely figure in the salvation of Israel. When Pilate asked what he should do with Jesus, someone yelled, “Crucify him!” The crowd that was yelling, “Hosanna” just days before were so agitated by the fact that Jesus refused to be a warrior king, that they easily turned into an angry, fearful and violent mob. They yelled, “Crucify him!” Pilate had no choice. The final betrayal came when the people said, “We have no king but Caesar.” They showed Jesus that they did not even look to the Lord God Almighty as their King.
Through all this, Jesus was humiliated, beaten and stripped of everything. They took His clothes and His dignity. They force a cross onto His already sore and bleeding back and pushed Him on to Golgotha. He walked His final footsteps on this earth; along the way He faced the women who were weeping over His fate. He told them to weep for themselves, because the time would come when they would face great suffering.
He had great difficulty carrying the cross, falling under the heavy burden. A man, Simon, was ordered to carry it for Him. Other condemned prisoners were taken to the hill. The world went dark for three hours, from the sixth hour to the ninth hour. One thief begged Jesus to save them, but the other humbled Himself in repentance and accepted responsibility for the wrongs he had done. Jesus welcomed him to His kingdom. The soldiers mocked Jesus and tried to serve Him a poison that would bring death more quickly, but Jesus refused. He saw His mother at the foot of the cross, standing with John, the only disciple who did not disappear. He asked John to care for Mary as if she were his own mother and asked Mary to take John as her son, seeing to her welfare even in the midst of His pain. He controlled every moment, even the moment when He cried out "It is finished," and breathed His last breath. At that moment the earth shook, the rocks split and the veil in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. A centurion pierced Jesus' flesh with his spear; water and blood poured from His body. The soldier declared, "Truly this man was the Son of God."
The rest of the day was spent dealing with the body of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. The hour of the Passover Sabbath quickly approached and it was necessary to take care of the body as soon as possible. Pilate was shocked that He died so quickly, but when the death was confirmed, Pilate agreed. Joseph was one of the few Sanhedrin that believed in Jesus, although he did so privately; he refused to consent to the condemnation of Jesus. He took the body, wrapped it and laid it in his own newly hewn tomb. Joseph rolled a heavy stone in front. The women watched where Jesus was laid, expecting to return after the Sabbath to anoint the body properly for burial. Then they went away to mourn.
Sometime during the day, Judas was seized with remorse and tried to return the blood money to the priests, but they refused to take it or offer him comfort in his repentance. They laid the responsibility entirely on him. He threw the money at their feet, went away and hanged himself.
It is finished. Jesus Christ is dead.
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou answerest not; And in the night season, and am not silent. But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in thee: They trusted, and thou didst deliver them. They cried unto thee, and were delivered: They trusted in thee, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and no man; A reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn: They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, Commit thyself unto Jehovah; Let him deliver him: Let him rescue him, seeing he delighteth in him." Psalm 22:1-8, ASV
Is it finished? Is Jesus Christ really dead?
The dramatic account of the death of Jesus Christ ended rather abruptly. It is finished; Jesus Christ is dead. There is such finality to that statement. Jesus died at the ninth hour, 3:00 PM. The earth rocked with the anger of God. The ground shook and the rocks split. A centurion pierced Jesus in the side, and His blood spilled into the earth. The curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. This curtain was not some flimsy piece of material like lace, easily ripped. It was thick, a wall like protective covering over the Most Holy Place, the dwelling of God Himself. Within the room which was covered by this curtain was the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat, the Throne of God. When Jesus died, God ripped the curtain from top to bottom, opening the way into His presence for all people, not just the High Priest. God would no longer live in a box, and we would be called the priesthood of all believers able to approach the throne of grace.
For today, however, we mourn alongside the disciples as they reflected on Jesus' life. They probably gathered in the Upper Room, waiting anxiously for the knock at the door that would take them to be tried and crucified. Jesus was not the only Jew who had been crucified under the Romans. The Jewish historian Josephus and others wrote that thousands have been killed in this horrific manner. Crucifixion was used for slaves, pirates and enemies of the state. It was not just judicial murder; it was used to humiliate the criminal. After a horrendous beating which left the person near death, they were forced to carry their own cross piece to the place of crucifixion, which was placed at a busy crossroad for all to see. They were stripped naked and left to hang where they could be ridiculed by any passerby. The death was slow; they bled inwardly and outwardly from the beating, and breathing became impossible in their exhaustion.
Can you imagine how you would feel if someone you knew and loved had experienced this type of death? Can you imagine how you would feel if you thought you might be next?
The disciples were in hiding; they spent this day in fear and confusion. Can you imagine the things they must have thought about, and talked about? Who was Jesus? Why did He die? Why did we spend these years following Him? What will happen to us? Had we truly wasted three years of our lives? Is this really the end? We, too, consider these questions as we journey with Jesus. Why me, why now, why this? Is this really the end?
Along with our grief, however, let us consider our own place in this story. Jesus Christ died on that cross for me a terrible, awful sinner. It is hard to say the words because in general we think we are pretty good people. I do good things for my neighbor. I do not really commit any crimes against my neighbor. I go to church, pray and read the scriptures. I am a Christian, and I think the world can see that in my words and deeds. Despite my apparent goodness, it does me good to remember for at least one day a year that I was there on that horrific day nearly two thousand years ago. I was among the religious who missed God's presence manifest in Jesus Christ. I was among the crowds who were easily manipulated by lies to believe whatever I was told. I was among the Romans who beat, humiliated and crucified our Lord. I was among the disciples who were afraid and confused, who betrayed and denied their master, teacher and friend. We all were there.
The song asks, "Where you there?" Yes, we were all there, sinners in need of a Savior. Jesus saw us; Him took upon His own shoulders the very sins that put Him on the cross and died to save us from the wrath that we deserved. We mourn His death, but today it would do us well to mourn our own fault in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We know the end of the story. We know that it is finished, but this finish is just the beginning. We know that there is hope and forgiveness. We know that there is eternal life in Christ. We know that tomorrow will be a day of jubilation as we rejoice with the disciples that their story was not over. The disciples would have reason to fear; over the years they would be persecuted, beaten, imprisoned and humiliated. All would die, but many would die at the hands of those who were against the saving grace of God. Christians throughout history and the world live with the same fears. We might feel abandoned at this moment, as the psalmist in today's text as we mourn the incredible loss of our Lord who did not deserve to die.
We also have a hope that can't disappoint; a hope that came to us on the cross. We put Him there, but only because He chose to be there for our sake. We can't know His grace without knowing our fault. So, while we wait for tomorrow, let's pray and ponder the reason He died: to win for us the forgiveness of sin and the victory over death that by our own sin we rightly deserve, guaranteeing our place in God's Kingdom forever.
"Now I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above 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." 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, ASV
A boulder blocked the entrance to the tomb. It was sealed and Roman guards watched over it. There was no chance for tampering. The disciples were in hiding, afraid to show their faces to the world. They did not know what awaited them. If He who was so good and truthful could face such a horrific death, what would become of them? It seemed like everything was finished, that there was no reason for hope. The hope is in the third day.
As morning approached, the women awakened to the sad task of preparing Jesus' body for burial. When they got there, they discovered the tombstone was already rolled away and the tomb was empty. The stories of what happened that morning differ slightly, but they all say the same thing: the disciples were confused by the disappearance of the body of their Lord. Where was He? Who stole the body? What happened.
They were confused until Jesus showed up. He appeared to many people in different ways, each revealing an aspect of Jesus' resurrected body. He called out Mary's name in the garden. He walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and revealed Himself as the fulfillment of the scriptures. He appeared before the disciples in the Upper Room as they wondered about all they heard. They weren't sure about what was happening around them, despite all the times that Jesus told them it would. He rebuked them for not believing the witness of those who testified to His resurrection. He appeared to people around Jerusalem; Paul tells us that He appeared to more than five hundred people at one time. On the eighth day, Jesus appeared to Thomas. We often call him Doubting Thomas because he wanted tangible proof that Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus told him to put his finger in the wounds. He wanted proof, but Doubting Thomas is actually believing Thomas, because at that moment he confessed His faith as no other: "My Lord and my God."
Jesus answered, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." We are reminded that we do not need to see Jesus to believe. Do you believe? Do you believe that the Lord Jesus Christ walked this path, from His victorious ride into Jerusalem to the cross and tomb, and finally raised from the dead? Do you believe that He took upon Himself the sin of the world, your sins, so that you will be forgiven? Do you believe that He died and rose again? Rejoice and be glad! We have the hope of eternal life because the tomb is empty. He is alive. Hallelujah. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
We still wait for Christ to come again, but in the meantime He appears before others in the form of His body, the Church. He touches the world, heals the people, comforts those who grieve and provides for their needs through the hands that belong to those who already believe. His Word is shared by the tongues of those who speak the Gospel to those who are still in darkness and burdened by their sin. Salvation comes by the power of the Holy Spirit, and He calls us to join Him as He continues to change lives, giving forgiveness, life and hope.
Rejoice for today is Resurrection Day! Jesus is alive and because He is alive, we live, too. May your joy flow freely into the world so that others might experience the same joy and peace that comes with faith.
"After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels were standing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, These that are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and whence came they? And I say unto him, My lord, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they that come of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God; and they serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall spread his tabernacle over them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun strike upon them, nor any heat: for the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes." Revelation 7:9-17, ASV
It doesn't matter that we've had two thousand years to understand. It doesn't matter that there have been brilliant theologians in those past two thousand years that have done a very good job at explaining what Jesus meant and what God intended in creation and redemption, in His word and church. It doesn't matter that we have often glorified God in these past two thousand years, serving Him and our neighbors. It doesn't matter because no matter how spiritual we are, or how religious, or even how many answers we have to the questions of life, there are just some things that simply do not makes sense to us.
How can a robe washed in blood become white? We know that blood stains, and is impossible to get out even with bleach or modern cleaning solutions. It seems that up is down and in is out for God.
Even as we continue to celebrate the victory of the Resurrection, we can't help but wonder why God had to save us through the cross. He seems to do things in an upside down way. He chooses the weak when the strong would be a much better choice. He chooses the children and the innocent when maturity makes more sense. He chose the flesh and blood of one Man to save the world when legions of angels would have taken care of the problem in a much swifter and more permanent way. The Lamb that was slain became the Shepherd, how is that even possible? The world tells us to hate but God tells us to love. How can Jesus possibly bring peace to a world so filled with turmoil, especially since even we who believe find it necessary to fight?
We seek answers to our questions through religion, although many consider religion a bad word. The word religion is difficult to define. The main understanding is a belief in the supernatural, in an institutionalized setting. Yet, there are religions that that hold to no supernatural force at all, and those who practice their faith privately. The Merriam-Webster dictionary adds several other definitions that must be considered when discussing the meaning of religion. If we reach into ancient history, the word religion meant conscientiousness. It can also be simply a cause, principle or system of beliefs held with ardor and faith.
Human beings are religious by nature. We believe in something. We hold to a cause, principle or system of beliefs, whatever it may be. Even the secularist, humanist and atheist are religious in their lack of belief in a supernatural force. Unfortunately, religion tends to be a catalyst to many problems in this world. When two people with differing ideas clash, the end result is often violence. We attack one another in words, violence and war. Many Christians emphatically claim they are not religious simply to avoid the stigma that is attached to the word based on a long history of improper action in the name of God. Yet, we are all religious.
The thing that makes Christian faith unique is that we have a hope that will not disappoint. Though I live out my Christian life in ways that are blessings to me while benefiting my neighbor and glorifing God, I also look forward to the day when I will be face to face with my Lord. The life that waits beyond this world is one so incredible that we simply cannot imagine. We see that life in today's passage. Even this vision of eternity in heaven is topsy-turvy in a world that is constantly seeking excitement, entertainment, and fulfillment. Won't we get bored doing the same thing over and over and over again?
Yet, these words were written to give us hope so that we will live in our faith in Jesus Christ in the world today, certain of the knowledge that one day soon we will live in a place with no hunger, thirst of pain. Someday soon, we will live in the very presence of God for eternity, our white robes washed in the blood of Christ, praising Him for His amazing grace. Jesus will be our Shepherd, having snatched us out of the hands of our enemies - sin and death - so that we will be His forever.
"There was together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also come with thee. They went forth, and entered into the boat; and that night they took nothing. But when day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach: yet the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus therefore saith unto them, Children, have ye aught to eat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes." John 21:2-6, ASV
How did you do? Now that Easter is over and you've gotten back into your normal (if there is such a thing) schedule, today is a good day to evaluate our Lenten practices. Did you make it through the forty days? Did you miss doing it yesterday? Did anything you do become habit? Did you rush to eat that chocolate you gave up or drink that soda? Did you look for a new daily devotional to read? Did you continue to find ways to live out the Lenten journey even though it ended with the raising of our Lord?
Many of you have followed at least some of my Lenten practices, as I've posted pictures of my paintings on my facebook page. I have to admit that there were days when I regretted the commitment; I didn't have the time or patience to get into the studio. Sometimes I even cheated on my painting, taking the easy way, choosing a topic or style that I could slap together and move on to other things. On the other hand, I produced some of my favorite pictures on dreaded days. I ended up working longer and harder than I had time or patience for on those days, but I discovered the blessing of keeping the promise and focusing on God rather than the world.
I avoided the studio yesterday. It was over, hallelujah! I did not have to worry about painting because the commitment was complete. However, by late afternoon I felt something was missing. I ended up in the studio, and though I did not put paint onto a canvas, I spent time cleaning up the mess that my Lenten practice had left behind. I had dozens of tubes of paint all over my studio, paint brushes drying by the sink, reference pictures piled on my art desk. It needed to be cleaned before I could start anything new.
I learned the value of daily time in the studio during Lent, even if it was just a few moments scratching something together. That's what our Lenten devotional practices are all about: creating new habits that bless our lives. The daily reading might have been inconvenient at times, but weren't you blessed by it? Why not try to continue it with another book? You gave up soda for forty days? Don't you feel better? If you continue drinking that glass of water, the forty days might be the beginning of a healthier you. The extra prayer time could only be good for you if you continue it into the rest of the year. They say a habit forms in twenty-one days, but if we give it up because Lent is over, then we won't benefit from its goodness at all.
One of the devotional books I have been reading is not yet complete. Instead of ending at Easter Sunday like all the others, it continues through the Octave, the eight days, of Easter. It will finish with the story of Thomas next Sunday. Did you know that there are eight days of Easter? We know about the twelve days of Christmas, but few even realize that Easter continues for eight days. Though the holy day is over and our lives are getting back to normal, it would do us well to remember that the disciples were still confused and uncertain about what was happening for them. Jesus had appeared before them, but were they ready to truly believe? Were they ready to go forth into the world telling others about Jesus? We do not hear a true confession of faith until the eighth day when Thomas says, "My Lord and my God." The eggs may be found, the chocolate eaten and the lilies fading, but Easter continues.
So should all the good things we did throughout Lent. Continue in prayer. Find another devotional. Pick a new book of the Bible to read. Continue to fast those things that weren't good for you anyway. Give to a neighbor. Establish new relationships and build those that already exist. Think about God. For me, I think I will try to spend time in the studio. I probably won't make any more small paintings on paper, but I can begin to apply the lessons of Lent to other projects. What lessons did you learn? How will you apply them to your own life of faith and your daily living in this world? The value of Lent is not in keeping our promise until Easter, but in growing more Christ-like through it. It is easier to go back to our normal lives (whatever that means) but like Peter in today's lesson, we have to learn that we can't go back again: all things are new. We are Easter people! Jesus is waiting for us on the other side of His resurrection to bless us as we continue to live and walk in faith.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 12, 2015, Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 148, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31
"...and these things we write, that our joy may be made full." 1 John 1:4, ASV
Jesus appeared to many people during the time He walked on earth after the Resurrection, twelve appearances in all. He appeared to Mary (Mark 16:9; John 20:10-18), the women returning from the tomb (Matthew 28:9-10), the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32; Mark 16:12-13), Peter in Jerusalem. (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5), His disciples except Thomas in the Upper Room (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23), Thomas and the disciples in the Upper Room (John 20:24-29), seven of His disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-24), five hundred believers at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6), James (1 Corinthians 15:7), eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:18-20), along the road to Bethany, on the Mount of Olives before He ascended into Heaven (Luke 24:50-53), and Paul on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:8). We also know that in the forty days between the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus spent time with the disciples, augmenting the knowledge He had given them before His death.
It is worthwhile reading these texts to see that the witness of these disciples and followers is true. They were witnesses, not only of the great work Jesus did before His death, but of the reality that Jesus didn't stay dead. He is alive, and those hundreds of people saw it for themselves.
We tend to be like Thomas, though, don't we? We want to have the proof for ourselves. Thomas was not there the first time Jesus appeared before the disciples in the Upper Room. We don't know why he was not with the other disciples on that first night, but he was unwilling to believe their testimony when he finally returned to their gathering. Aren't we like that? Don't we want our own proof of the things people tell us?
I watch some of the television court programs during the day. In judicial law, the judge can make determinations based on a person's testimony, particularly in small claims court. However, the judge usually wants more than their word. The judge wants proof. "Do you have receipts?" "Did you take photos? Every phone has a camera now." "Did you get that in writing?" The judge will absolutely not accept hearsay. "Why isn't that person here to allow me to ask questions?" The judge wants all the information before making a judgment. The judge wants proof. So do we.
Yet, we give Thomas the critical name "Doubting Thomas" because he refused to believe without seeing Jesus for himself. We forget, however, that the other disciples had the same reaction when they heard the testimony of the women. They didn't believe that they saw Jesus. They doubted, too. It took the proof of Jesus standing before them for them to believe. Even then they thought they were seeing a ghost. He showed them His hands and His side, only after seeing the wounds were the disciples were glad to see the Lord. They got their proof, and yet we call Thomas the doubting one.
However, Thomas should be called the believing one. His confession of faith was absolute when he saw Jesus. Jesus offered to allow Thomas to touch His hand and side, "Do not disbelieve but believe. John doesn't say that Thomas actually touched Jesus; Thomas simply answered, "My Lord and my God!" The other disciples rejoiced greatly that Jesus was alive, but it was Thomas who recognized that Jesus was everything He said He was, Lord and God.
I don't know any people who have gotten the kind of proof that Thomas was given. Jesus reminds Thomas that those who believe without proof are the ones who are truly blessed. We haven't quite learned that lesson in the two thousand years since Jesus' Resurrection. We still want concrete evidence for our faith.
John writes, "Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name." The point of the scriptures telling His story is so that we will believe. It is a hard thing that Jesus asks of us, but He knows we are human. He knows that we are no different than His disciples. He knows that we will doubt, but we are reminded that we will find the blessing in faith rather than proof.
It is very important to John that we understand his reason for writing. In the second lesson for today, John's first letter, John writes, "...these things we write, that our joy may be made full." John was there. He saw the risen Lord, he heard His voice. He listened as Jesus reminded them of everything that He taught throughout the three years. John was there when Jesus appeared out of nowhere and breathed on the disciples. He was there to experience the joy of knowing that Jesus fulfilled all His promises. The joy he felt on that first day was a joy that needed to be shared. We don't believe in Jesus for a personal, private faith, we believe in Jesus with an active, public faith so that the light of God will shine to the world. John wrote so that others would believe and would join in the fellowship of the faithful. We are sent into the world to continue this work. This is the life that God has promised us. This is the life that begins today.
I wrote yesterday about the Easter Octave. Sunday, April 12th is the eighth day. The eighth day is the first day of the rest of our lives. It has not ended; we continue to dwell in the eighth day. While the earth still turns and the sun still rises, we no longer live in darkness. We live in the light because the Light is Christ. He lives so that we might have life. He shines through us to overcome the darkness.
We'll begin the cycle of the Church year again after we get through the Easter season, Pentecost and the season of Pentecost. We will live through the promise of His coming, His birth, life, death and resurrection as we do every year. However, we will no longer have to fear sin and death because Jesus overcame them both for our sake. We dwell in eternity in the here and now even while we wait for eternity in the future. Life does not come to us by physical proofs, but from the faith that we know that God is faithful to His promises. As we dwell in this reality, we are called to continue sharing our faith with others in word and in deed. We are called together to be the body of Christ in the here and now as we wait until the day when we will all be joined in eternal praise and thanksgiving to the God who is victorious over even our sin.
What does that look like? Christians have been trying to figure that out for two thousand years. We all have our idea of the perfect church, although I can't imagine that anyone has actually found it. We can love our church, but it is made of imperfect people and we will all continue to sin while we are still in the flesh. We will make mistakes. We will fail our neighbors. We will hurt those we love. We are fallen people. Even so, we are saved by Christ who died and doing so appeased God and fulfilled the requirements necessary for reconciliation not only for us but for the whole world. Sometimes it is hardest to remember that when we are hurt by a brother or sister in Christ. It is sometimes easier to believe that Christ died for our non-believing neighbor than for the sins of our Christian brethren. They should know better, right? We also forget that we continue to need Jesus just as much today as the day we first believed. As John says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
We all have sins that need confessing; we all need Jesus. However, we can live in the joy of the eighth day for the rest of our lives. This day is a day of joy. The psalmist knows that even the most terrifying things of the earth and the most mundane aspects of life here, we have reason to praise God and given Him thanks. "And he hath lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye Jehovah."
You can't praise God with sad faces; the eighth day is a day for joy. As a matter of fact, it is a day known as Holy Humor Sunday. The Greeks saw the humor of the resurrection: that Jesus played a practical joke on the devil. The devil thought he won, but Christ rose from the dead. The week following Easter were called the "days of joy and laughter." They held parties and played practical jokes on one another. The Octave culminated in "Holy Humor Sunday" the second Sunday of Easter. Some churches have recently taken up the practice again, using humorous liturgies and throwing parties to celebrate the joy of the resurrection.
We have been given the witness of those who have come before us, and though we are just like them, we also have something they didn't have: we have the Holy Spirit. He gives us the faith to believe based on their witness rather than on proof. Though we cannot experience the flesh of Jesus as they did, though we can't see Him or touch Him or hear Him as they did, we can believe their words. The Resurrection was not something spiritual, it was real, physical and according to the scriptures. To reduce it to something less diminishes the witness of Peter and the others. It also diminishes Jesus because He fulfilled everything that was promised by God through the Old Testament prophets. It all may seem ridiculous and impossible, but the story of Jesus' ministry, Good Friday, Easter, and Eternity is as God intended. Jesus lived, died and rose again by God's hand and for God's plan so that we will live in joy forever.
The devil didn't see the joke coming. It was outrageous and preposterous. It was unexpected. Celebrating Holy Humor Sunday gives us a way to laugh at ourselves, as perhaps Peter and Thomas and all the disciples must have laughed after they realized everything that was happening was real. Holy Humor Sunday gives us the opportunity to look at this beloved story in a new way, with new eyes, without taking ourselves so seriously. We've heard it all before, but can we still hear it with fresh ears? Can we tell jokes about ourselves, about our fear and our doubts and laugh in the joy of God's forgiveness? Can we trust that God is merciful and that we can experience His grace in laughter and merriment? We can be glad and rejoice because what God has done is really a great joke that has brought salvation to the world.
John wrote his book and his letters to share the joy he felt every day, the joy of faith that brings light into the world. We continue to share our joy with others so that they, too, might become part of the body of Christ, shining the light brighter with every new forgiven believer.
"Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 4:43-48, ASV
Comedian Chelsea Peretti is quoted as saying, "We should try to encourage a movement where you have to hands (showing) in all photos… called 'Keeping America Honest.' You throw up two peace signs or two thumbs-up, and it means you're not doing a selfie; you actually have a friend. Or a tripod." Prince Harry recently got in on the discussion by telling a fan "No, I hate selfies. Seriously, you need to get out of it. I know you're young, selfies are bad. Just take a normal photograph!" He doesn't mind his photo taken, and he doesn't mind having his photo take with his fans. He simply does not like the selfie, where the people in the photo are doing it themselves.
The selfie has become the bane of social media, especially the barely dressed fish lipped standing in front of the mirror selfie. Many stories have talked about the history of selfies, equating the self portrait with the modern incarnation. I have to admit that I once posted a pencil sketch of myself from college and called it a selfie but is it? Is there a difference between the artist with paintbrush and the screaming fan with a smart phone? What about the photographer who uses a tripod to catch a self portrait in a field of wildflowers?
Museums have taken advantage of the selfie crazy by creating a museum selfie hashtag. Though the official museum selfie day is in January, people use the hashtag year round. There is even a list of the best museum selfie types, like making kissy faces at babely statues and interacting with a scene. The point of the museum selfie hashtag is to get people interested in visiting these institutions where they might learn something or be inspired.
Chelsea suggests the reason why selfies are bad, the point of my devotion today: hands in your photos prove you have a friend or that you are willing to interact with other human beings. In the old days we asked a passerby to take our picture in front of the museum or in the field of bluebonnets. Now those people are taking pictures of people taking selfies. We have separated ourselves from our neighbors in a strange way. We rely on ourselves rather than interacting with the world.
This is true in many ways. We use the self checkout at the grocery store. We work in cubicles surrounded by walls so that we don't have to see our coworkers. We spend every free moment with our noses in our cell phones, checking our facebook or texting the people who are in the next room. I saw at least one photo of a happy Easter family gathering where people were busy checking their phones. They couldn't spend one day without knowing what was happening in their world; meanwhile they were ignoring the people who were actually in their presence!
I love modern technology. Where would I be without the computer? I am glad to have a cell phone to take with me when I travel so I can easily keep in touch with those I love. I play too many games on my tablet, but it is relaxing. I'm glad that I can get coupons for my favorite stores at the touch of a button or find directions with my GPS. I never expected it, but I love my ebook reader more than actual books. Yet, we can't leave the house without seeing people in their own little world completely cut off from others by their technology. Ear buds keep us from hearing what others have to say. We don't look people in the eye because we are so busy looking at our screens. Our hands are so full of our technology that we can't even shake a hand or give a hug!
The first step to loving our neighbor is recognizing that they are there and seeing their need. We can't do that if we do not even pay attention to their presence as we walk the aisles of the grocery store. We can't hear them cry if we are so focused on our phone calls or the music streaming through our ear buds. We won't plant the seeds of faith if we don't look people in the eye because we are so busy looking at Facebook memes. We will never see the good in our enemies if we are too busy posting nasty comments on their social media.
The selfie might not be as bad as some have made them out to be in recent days, after all people have done self portraits since the beginning of time. However, let's remember that we do live in a world with a lot of other people, and we have to interact with them to share God's love. The small act of asking someone to take a picture is a way of connecting with another person in this great big disconnected world. We may never see them again, but that brief moment can give us a chance to raise them up in prayer, speak a word of hope, and give them a chance to see the Christ that dwells within. A few moments with a stranger can even give us the confidence to deal with our enemies with mercy and grace.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a merchant seeking goodly pearls: and having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but the bad they cast away." Matthew 13:45-48, ASV
April 9, 1945 marked the beginning of the life of one man who had an incredible impact on God's people for the past seventy years. I say beginning, although in reality it was the day of his death. It was the man himself who believed it was the beginning, because it was the beginning of his life in God's eternal kingdom. The man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and as he left his prison cell for the last time, walking toward the hangman's noose, he said, "This is the end - but for me, the beginning of life."
Dietrich was only thirty nine years old, but he had spent most of his life pursuing a life of obedience to God's Word. His father, a scientist, was not thrilled with his choice of pursuing a religious vocation, but Dietrich never thought he had a choice. He is now known as having been a man willing to stand up for truth against a world that was being turned upside down by selfishness and greed. He was willing to risk his life for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have had the opportunity to read and study about Dietrich, and it made me wonder who will be our Bonhoeffer in our topsy-turvy world?
The thing I've learned, however, is that we can't sit around waiting for our Bonhoeffer because we are called by God's grace to be obedient, even unto death, to God's Word. It isn't enough that Jesus saved us; it is, but Bonhoeffer wrote that there is much more to it. Bonhoeffer actively opposed National Socialism and the Nazi takeover of the Christian churches of Germany, criticizing the cultural Christianity that presented a false gospel that was unbiblical and served only to lift Hitler and his leaders and give them an excuse to destroy life throughout their realm.
In his book "The Cost of Discipleship," Bonhoeffer talks about the difference between the grace of God and the grace that was pervasive among the Christians of his day. "Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
He went on to talk about costly grace: "Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye, which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him." Grace is not something we fall upon when we need it, but something that we willingly pursue even if it leads us down roads we would rather not follow. Grace comes at a great price; it came first with the blood of Christ and we embrace it by following Him into willful obedience to God's Word.
"Cheap grace…" This is a concept that has often been misunderstood and misrepresented. For a long time I did not understand it. It wasn't until I read and studied the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I truly understood what it meant. Some define cheap grace as that which does not rely wholly and completely on God, but Bonhoeffer actually said the opposite. Though grace does come wholly and completely from God, through the blood of Christ, it comes at a cost. It calls us to a life in which we are willing to give up everything to pursue. We can't continue to live as if nothing has changed because Christ has shed His very blood to make us His. As His, we are new people, we no longer belong to the world, we no longer follow the ways of the world.
Let us follow in the footsteps of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who willingly walked to the hangman's noose because He believed in Jesus Christ. We might not have to die for His sake, but His grace is worth our willingness to give up everything to buy that pearl that is ours, not because we will be saved but to the glory of God in thanksgiving that He has already saved us.
"Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me." Matthew 25:34-40, ASV
I saw a commercial on television reminding everyone to be watchful. We've seen similar information released in the past dozen or so years, asking citizens to be wary and to contact authorities if they see anything out of place. It is enough to make some people paranoid, but the watchfulness of ordinary people have helped find and eliminate dangerous situations that could have hurt or killed innocent people. Of course, the fear also led to the destruction of packages that were absolutely harmless, so our watchfulness must have a basis in common sense. Sometimes people do accidentally leave packages on trains.
I was thinking about this public service announcement when I came across another story. It was about a woman who sold her baby's crib at a yard sale after it was stillborn. She had been keeping it in the garage, she didn't know why, and it wasn't really for sale. However, a man who uses old beds to make benches saw it in the garage and asked her about it. She didn't want to sell, but he convinced her to sell it to him. The man's wife had seen the baby clothes and other items for sale and asked the woman about her son. She told the woman about her baby's death, how she feared something was wrong because he'd stopped moving in the last weeks of her pregnancy. She told the woman about how she just didn't want to let go of the things that reminded her of him, even though they brought her pain.
On the way home, the man and woman discussed the mother and her lost child. He decided that he'd use the crib to make her a very special surprise. He converted it into a beautiful bench and delivered it to her house. She was shocked and deeply moved by his kindness. The bench now sits, not as a sad reminder of something lost but as a beautiful memory of someone deeply loved. There's a difference, and the bench has helped her heal and find peace. The man responded to an opportunity to touch another person's life and it made a very real difference to her.
I don't think we should ignore the call for watchfulness in this world. A smart response to an unexpected situation can mean the difference between life and death in a world so filled with violence and terror. However, as Christians we are called to another kind of watchfulness. We are to watch for the opportunities to glorify God with those simple deeds that will make a difference in someone's life. The text for today gives some very specific examples of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned. But there are millions of other ways we can serve those who cross our path. We watch to see how we can help our neighbors, and in responding to their needs we are responding to the call of Jesus Christ. We can see His face in their faces and glorify God in our humble service.
"If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others." Philippians 2:1-4, ASV
I love to go on these wildflower adventures. Texas is absolutely beautiful with color in the springtime, beginning in February or March with the Bluebonnets and extending well into June with a variety of other flowers. There are usually some wildflowers year round, although the heat of summer and chill of winter can make them few and far between. The show in spring is so spectacular that people come from all over the world to visit and see. I love to go, take pictures and share my favorite spots with others so that they, too, can experience the wonder of God's handiwork.
I found a couple of websites and Facebook pages that give regular reports on the best places to visit. Many of these places are simply fields along the back roads of Texas, out of the way places with ranches and wilds. The administrators and others post pictures and directions, making it easy for us to follow their footsteps. The pictures made me anxious to get out into the country so that I could take pictures of the flowers, too. I was able to find a new (for me) and extraordinary place to visit, and it was more than I could even imagine.
I took one picture that made me very sad. It was a picture of a large area of the flowers trampled by human feet. It is tradition around here to get pictures in the middle of the flowers. We take our children, animals, families and visitors out to these fields, carefully plop them in the middle and photograph them surrounded by the flowers. You can't really plop people anywhere without some trampling, but most people are careful to find a way to take the picture without disturbing the flowers. See, every trampled flower is a dead flower. If it is dead, it can't go to seed. If it can't go to seed, there will be no seeds dropped to the earth to grow another year. Every trampled spot is a place where the flowers will not be as think and beautiful the next time, even if the weather is perfect.
There were a few of those trampled places the day I went, so obviously not everyone is careful. Sadly, the place I photographed was just feet from four more places. Why didn't the second, third and fourth people use the same spot? They all wanted a pristine spot, so trampled a new area to get the perfect photo. Several people posted on those websites and pages that the crowds became overwhelming and that the fields were being destroyed.
I have to admit that I regretted sharing the location of those flowers, and so did others. Now, I don't want to be greedy, because I would love for everyone to experience what I did. We expect everyone to treat these places with the same respect, but quickly learn that they are more focused on what they want than on what they should do to keep the fields beautiful for everyone.
It isn't just the beauty that was a concern. I drove 300 miles last week and passed many places that would have made beautiful photographs. I stopped a few times, but only when there was a safe place to park. I try to find a place where I can pull fully off the road without hurting the wildflowers. Those places are few and far between, so I see far more flowers than I photograph. The ranchers and homeowners travel those roads daily, and they should have a safe trip when they are going to work or home. Some of the tourists don't care; they stop in the middle of the road, block driveways, and park their cars over patches of flowers. One spot was so popular that it was difficult to get around the cars. I nearly saw an accident in another spot as a car stopped short because of the view and a rancher nearly rear ended it.
Yesterday we talked about being aware of the people around us so that we can meet their needs. Today, however, we look at this watchfulness from a different point of view. We are selfish, self-centered beings; it is our selfishness and self-centeredness that has been our biggest problem since the beginning of time. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God so they believed the word of the serpent and they ate the fruit. Like Adam and Eve, we think we know better than God; we focus on our selves without concern for everything or everyone around us.
Today's call for watchfulness is to look at ourselves in a different light. How are we affecting the world in which we live? Are we too busy pursing our own desires that we do not see how we might be harming the rest of creation? Is our selfishness and self-centeredness hurting our neighbors? Are we trampling them in our quest for perfection? Are we putting them in danger because we are thinking only of ourselves? Are we looking to our own things or to the things of others?
Scriptures for Sunday, April 19, 2015, Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3:11-21; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
"Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is." 1 John 3:2, ASV
Miracles still happen. I can say that even though I don't think I've ever seen a supernatural occurrence that defies scientific explanation. Oh, we often talk about the miracle of magnificent sunset or a baby's giggle. We see miracles in nature all the time with the blooming fields of wildflowers in springtime and the way the land is restored after a disaster. It doesn't take very long for a forest to begin sprouting after a fire or a valley to recover after a flood. Even draught stricken regions of the world have turned green with new growth when it begins to rain.
Oh, there are those who scoff at the idea that those are miracles. They can easily be explained away. There is a always a sunset, and those brilliant days come because of the right conditions. A baby's giggle isn't anything extraordinary; babies laugh and cry all the time. The wildflowers will bloom year after year; they will be magnificent when the conditions are perfect. Fire is good for the forest, and that's why it recovers so quickly. Floods leave behind nutrients that get washed out of the earth and even draughts can provide positive effects. Where is the miracle?
We see miracles through the eyes of faith, simply knowing that God's hand is in the midst of everything in our world. We see Him as He touches our lives in subtle but very real ways. We see Him painting that sunset and that field of wildflowers. We see Him make good things happen out of the bad. They might not be miraculous miracles, but to us they are miracles. We are happy to settle for the little miracles because we believe that God can and does make incredible things happen every day.
We read the stories of Jesus and we are amazed. He healed the sick, cast out demons, made wine out of water and fed thousands on multiple occasions. He walked on water and stopped the storm. He made the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame walk. He cured leprosy and raised the dead. We don't see that kind of miracle anymore. Oh, we occasionally hear of something that is beyond our everyday experiences, but even then we can usually explain it away. Even medical miracles that surprise the doctors can often be discounted with questions.
When we do hear about an actual miracle, like stories from places like Africa of people being raised from the dead, we wonder if it could be true but think like Thomas: we will believe when we see it for ourselves. We don't doubt that God can make these things happen, but we want proof. We believe in Him, but there's no reason for us to believe in miracles because our faith is based on what Christ has done rather than on what He might do today. We know that the stories in the scriptures, both of Jesus and His disciples, helped to establish their authority to speak the Gospel to the world. We don't need these miracles to establish our credibility. We have the power of the Holy Spirit and as we speak, the Word does the work. Those who believe do so because the Spirit gives them faith. While it would be nice if we had the backing of miraculous works to put credibility to our words, we don't need them. The true miracle has nothing to do with supernatural occurrences. The true miracle is faith.
Jesus once said, "You will do greater things that these." They were amazed at His miraculous works, but Jesus assured them that they would do more. They did do miraculous works as we see in the story before today's first reading from the book of Acts. Peter saw a crippled man who was left at the gate to beg. He wasn't very enthusiastic about his 'work'; he didn't even look at those who were passing him by when he asked for money. When Peter called him to look, he paid attention because he thought they were going to give him some coin. Peter gave him something better. "Silver and gold have I none; but what I have, that give I thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." Peter helped him up and he was so excited to be healed that he danced around the Temple praising God. The people were amazed.
The miracle made the people pay attention. Isn't that what we want? Isn't that why we want the miracle? We want people to pay attention to us. However, it is very easy to get caught up in the fame and amazement of the crowds while losing touch with our true ministry. After all, Jesus didn't heal to make the crowd follow Him; He healed so that they would listen. As a matter of fact, how many times did Jesus tell those He healed to be quiet about it?
The healing definitely got the attention of the people in the Temple. They came running, surrounding Peter, John and the man. Peter asked, "Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this man? or why fasten ye your eyes on us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made him to walk?" It wasn't about Peter or John, or even about the man. It was all about the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the God of their fathers. It was all about glorifying Jesus. See, Peter didn't heal with fancy words but with the name of Jesus Christ. Peter went on to tell the people what really mattered: "Believe in Jesus."
See, miraculous healing, raising the dead, overcoming nature and the physical world is nothing compared to the real miracle: faith. Sharing the Gospel is the greater work that we are called to do, because in speaking God's Word of forgiveness and hope we give the people what they truly need: life. Amazing, isn't it: the one thing that was denied Jesus is the very thing He won for us on the cross. Peter uses this opportunity to tell the people that even though they missed the truth of Christ Jesus when He was alive, God was doing exactly what He intended so that they could see the truth. Jesus died at the hands of all those who rejected Him, but He has promised forgiveness for all who turn back to the God who loved them so much that He sent His Son to make all who believe heirs to the eternal kingdom.
This is love. Jesus loved all those He healed and raised. He loved those He fed and taught. He loved the disciples. He even loved those who sent Him to the cross. They did not recognize Him, even as many still do not know Him. Even the disciples weren't so sure in those first moments after the resurrection. We heard John's version of His appearance in the Upper Room last week. This week we hear Luke's. The disciples were startled and frightened. They thought Jesus was a ghost. Jesus showed them His hands and side, and just so that they would know that He was not just a spirit, He asked for some food. Though we do not know the kind of body Jesus had after He was raised, we know that it was a real, physical body. Then Jesus spoke to them again about everything He taught them along the way. He showed them clearly, with hindsight and twenty-twenty vision, that He was the fulfillment of the prophets. Peter took that knowledge with him when he went out to preach and teach in the synagogues.
It would be nice to experience a truly miraculous event in my lifetime, to see something happen that is beyond explanation. I wonder at times if we are truly living in God's Spirit, doing God's work since we are not seeing God's glory in the miraculous. However, we are truly doing the greater things because every person who hears God's Word and believes is not just converted to a religion; they are given a new life and made children of God. There will be a day when that makes a difference; there will be a day when those who do not believe will be judged. On that very day, those who do believe will become like God because we will see Him as He is.
The psalmist says, "Many there are that say, Who will show us any good? Jehovah, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us." The English Standard Version translates this, "Oh, that we might see 'better times!'" Miraculous events make life better. The lifelong cripple in the story from Acts saw that first hand. Instead of lying by the gate begging for pennies, he was able to walk and jump and praise God. We all want that kind of healing from whatever it is that ails us or we want it for the people we love. We want to see better times, that's why we look for the miracle.
But the true miracle is faith, and life is better here as we wait for the day when we will live forever in the presence of our God. Faith, hope, peace, joy, love, mercy, grace: these are things that come to us from the Author of life. He has rescued us from doubt, hopelessness, anger, sadness, hatred, greed, selfishness and made us His children forever. He has, by the power of the Holy Spirit, opened our hearts and our minds to understand His reality, giving us the faith to go out into the world and see His hand in everything. Most of all, He has called us to a life of sharing the Gospel so that others will hear and believe and become the children of faith who will dwell with Him forever.
"Now Joshua was old and well stricken in years; and Jehovah said unto him, Thou art old and well stricken in years, and there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed." Joshua 13:1, ASV
I'm not old. I feel like I am sometimes, but I'm not really old. As a matter of fact, according to an article I read this morning, I haven't even hit middle age. I can't imagine being a centenarian, although I think I could pull off crazy old lady pretty well. Though I'm not really old, I don't foresee accomplishing anything extraordinary at this point in my life. I don't mind. I think I've raised two incredible children, I've touched many people with the Gospel in both word and deed, and I've had a good life with the sweetest man in the world. Life is good. Life will continue to be good if I live until I am a hundred, but I don't think I need to try too hard to make a great impact on my world.
Yet, for some reason I found myself reading today's verse. Think about this: Joshua was old, probably in his 90's. Joshua and his friend Caleb were the only one who started in Egypt who made it to the Promise Land. They were allowed to go forward because they were faithful and trusted God after spying on the people who dwelled in the land they were sent to take. The other ten did not believe that the Israelites could win and told the people not to try.
Even after crossing the Jordan, they still had work to do. They had land to take, people to settle and a nation to build. I suspect that Joshua was tired. The bible tells us stories of ancient people living to incredible ages, but in Joshua's time, ninety was unusual. He never really had a home; he lived in tents and wandered in the wilderness for the better part of his life, first under the leadership of Moses and then as the leader of Israel. He had been faithful for so long, yet there comes a time in every man's life when he is ready to let the next generation do the work.
I have to laugh because I have already had one of those moments. I was always more than willing to help in Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School at whatever church we attended when the kids were young. They began to help as they got older. Victoria and I even worked together one year as a team leading the worship and storytelling. Victoria now plans summer camp for children in Pennsylvania. I was pretty burned out the year Zack was old enough to help. I thought to myself, "I have replaced myself with two sets of hands. I think it is time to retire." And I did. I still drove them back and forth, made donations toward the projects and attended worship time with the kids when I could. I didn't stop serving; I just found new ways of sharing God's grace.
I just can't imagine being so active or to have so much responsibility when I turn ninety years old. The last thing I would want to hear is God telling me, "You are old, but here's what you need to do today." Yet, faithful Joshua went out to follow God's call. I hope I can be as faithful when I'm "old and well stricken in years." I hope I am as faithful tomorrow. God has work for us to do, and though we might think we've done enough, there is always something new we can do. We might even need to learn a new skill or go a different direction with our future. We might have to try something that scares us or go somewhere we don't know.
No matter how old we get or how much we have accomplished already, God still has a purpose for our lives. If we are here, walking on this dirt ball we call Earth, then there is "land" to be possessed. There are people who need to hear the Gospel, there are sick who need healing and demons to be cast out. There are children who need to hear the story and adults who need help finding their own place in God's kingdom. We might think that once we cross the Jordan our work is done, but it isn't. Here's the most important thing to remember: Joshua didn't do it. God did it. He will not leave us alone when He calls us to do His Work. He'll be right there, beside us, inside us, accomplishing His Will in our lives.
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:8-9, ASV
I have been reading a daily devotional with quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a brilliant theologian, compassionate pastor and brave human being. His thoughts often lead my thoughts; I could quote something from the book almost every day. Yesterday's thought was taken from Bonhoeffer's "Life Together," I book I have and need to read.
Referencing James 5:16, "Confess your sins to one another," Bonhoeffer talked about how we tend to separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ because we don't want them to see our sinfulness. When we refuse to confess our sins to one another, we are left utterly alone, even when we are in fellowship on a regular basis with other Christians. "It is possible that Christians may remain lonely in spite of daily worship together, prayer together, and all their community through service - that the final breakthrough to community does not occur precisely because they enjoy community with one another as pious believers, but not with one another as those lacking piety, as sinners."
Although we understand that a Christian assembly is a group of people who are both saints and sinners, we'd rather not see the sinner part. As a matter of fact, we remain blinded to the reality of all our lives, even our own, by seeing ourselves as good while we all have skeletons that remain hidden from the world. We hide those skeletons because we want to fit in to the fellowship, thinking everyone else is clean and good. It is shocking to the point of crisis when a community discovers the sinfulness of one of its members. The scriptures remind us that everything hidden will be seen; God is light and light reveals what is hidden in the darkness. It is much better for us and for the community of believers for us to be honest with one another, to confess our sins and seek forgiveness rather than pretend to be sinless. If we pretend we are sinless we are lying, because we are all sinners.
The quote from Bonhoeffer goes on, "For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner. Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community. We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners."
We are sinners. I am a sinner. I confess to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, that I fail to live up to the expectations of the community and our God. I get angry and extremely annoyed by the silliest things. I do not always do what is right for my neighbor. I am selfish and self-centered. I have lied. I have put others in danger and left others in need. I am judgey, full of pride and I can hold a grudge for a very, very long time. I'm sure the list could go on, and I could give too many specific examples. I am a sinner. We all are.
Here's the thing: with confession comes forgiveness. We confess to one another so that we can hear the words of God's grace and experience the life changing mercy of the God who already knows what we've done wrong. Most of us think that we really don't need to confess to our neighbors because God knows, and that is true. However, as Bonhoeffer suggests, confession helps us connect with one another. By hiding our sin, even if we know that God has forgiven it, we build a wall between us and our brothers and sisters in Christ. The wall tumbles when we confess and we see each other as we really are: both saints and sinners. Your neighbor needs to hear the words of forgiveness as much as you do; your own confession not only eases your own fears and guilt, it gives others the courage to make their own confessions. God is light and He will reveal everything that is hidden in darkness because the hidden things must be brought to light. How much better is it for us all if it is revealed under an umbrella of grace and compassion, empathy and understanding?
"I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; that in everything ye were enriched in him, in all utterance and all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye be unreproveable in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom ye were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment." 1 Corinthians 1:4-10, ASV
On Friday we talked about sin. I know it is a hard concept to talk about; we'd rather hide the truth about ourselves from the world. We want our neighbors to see us as good, to not see our skeletons. The idea of public confession of specific sins or even private confession is definitely outside our comfort zone. Most of us are willing to make the standard public confession in worship alongside our neighbors that we have sinned against God and our neighbors in thought, word and deed by what we've done and what we've left undone. But we don't want to give specifics. Even I was not fully willing to commit to my specific sins in this forum. But we all know that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that the Savior is Jesus Christ. Forgiveness comes from Him by His grace; by His blood we are saved from ourselves and from death.
While most of us don't want to admit our sinfulness, it is just as easy to let is weigh upon our lives. We hide those sins and they become a burden too hard to bear. We can easily convince ourselves that we are unforgivable and of little or no value to the world. While it is good to remember that we are sinners in need of a Savior, today's message is about goodness.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the plants, fish, birds, and land animals. On the sixth day He finally created humankind. Each day He said, "It is good," but on the day He created our ancestors God said, "It is very good." The fall of Adam and Eve has made the world dark and has stained us, but in the beginning God knew that we are the best of all His creation. We were so good that He did not destroy us all with the flood, but saved eight so that we could begin again. We were so good that we were worth sending His own Son to restore everything to what it was meant to be.
We see that goodness sometimes. I am always astounded in a good way when there is a disaster at home or on the other side of the world. Within minutes of hearing of a hurricane or earthquake, we search for ways to help. We get our hands dirty if we are nearby, cleaning debris, feeding the hungry and comforting those who mourn. We send donations for those situations that are too far away for us to help immediately. We plan mission trips, make blankets, and hold charity dinners to aid those who are in trouble. We make casseroles for our neighbors when they lose someone they love. We try to do something the minute we are aware of a need. This is the goodness shining through.
We are, by far, not perfect. As we say in our confession, we have failed God repeatedly by not doing what we should do. I suspect that for most of us, though, the problem is not a lack of wanting to help, but of our blindness to the needs of our neighbors. We are blind because we are self-focused; self-centeredness is the sin that causes us to sin against God and our neighbors in thought, word and deed by what we do and what we don't do.
Here's the Good News: there's a fix! Oh, it isn't something we can accomplish on our own. Sin will always be a barrier to our goodness. But the God who created us good made it possible for us to be the people He created us to be. Jesus Christ lived, loved, died and was raised to win the victory over sin and death and to restore us to our Father. With faith and the Holy Spirit, we can look to something better than us and as we do so we will be perfected by His grace. In other words, as we look to our God through our Savior Jesus Christ, we can be very good as He created and intended us to be, even though we are still sinners living in a world that continues to be lost in darkness. He did this to make us saints so that we will look at Him who sees the needs of our neighbors. When we look at Him we will see the world as He sees it, not focusing on ourselves, but responding with grace by giving ourselves at every opportunity.
"Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, of the village of Mary and her sister Martha. And it was that Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. The sisters therefore sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick. But when Jesus heard it, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thereby. Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When therefore he heard that he was sick, he abode at that time two days in the place where he was. Then after this he saith to the disciples, Let us go into Judaea again." John11:1-7, ASV
Bruce and I went on a wildflower adventure on Sunday. We visited a church where a friend is pastor, took him and his wife out to lunch and then followed the breeze to find fields of beautiful flowers. I didn't expect to find too many bluebonnets at this point, but a lady at the visitor center directed us to a place where they are still widespread. They were on their way to seed, with many pods visible and fields that were less lush than a few weeks ago, but still incredibly beautiful with millions of the blue flowers. Then we just followed the country roads that others have suggested are colorful and we found that the later spring flowers are beginning to bloom in red, yellow, purple and white.
I always take my camera, snapping hundreds (this time over a thousand!) pictures of fields and individual flowers. I am so thankful for digital cameras because I can take as many as I like and be guaranteed at least a few good pictures. Sometimes, especially when it is windy, I snap a dozen or two shots of the same flower, just to be certain that it is focused and properly composed. I can delete eleven of the pictures without feeling like I'm wasting anything There was never a guarantee with film, and every shot cost money; I still have thousands of prints that I can't seem to throw away even though I know that they are pointless to keep because they just aren't good pictures.
I use a pretty decent amateur digital SLR (single-lens reflex) which has some pretty nice features. I don't use the automatic setting because I try to play with the lighting and make choices based on the subject matter. I have several lenses I use, swapping out from one to another depending on whether I'm doing a close-up or a landscape. It can get complicated and confusing. I added to the trouble with a wide angle lens that I can attach to my other one to give a wider view of the landscapes. We are planning a trip to Utah, and I want to be able to get those sweeping vistas. The proper lens to do that is too much money, so I was testing this option just to see if it made a difference.
There are still things I have to learn, though. First of all, I do check my settings, but sometimes I don't check them all. I realized after taking photos of several areas that I had one setting all wrong. My photos are not nearly as crisp and clear and bright as I want them to be, and I didn't realize it was wrong because I couldn't see it on the little screen. The other thing I discovered when I got home and looked at the photos on the computer is that there was a piece of dust on one of my lenses. Every picture I took with that lens has a black spot in the same place. I don't often edit my pictures, even to crop, but I did do a little blending to get that spot out of the best of those photos.
The special lens addition is not a perfect choice because it cuts off the corners. This was another opportunity to edit, because I simply cropped the picture down to remove the blackened corners. This created a wonderful panoramic format. The additional lens may have been a little inconvenient and an expensive lens might do a better job, but I think it will help me get some fantastic photos of the incredible places we are going to visit this summer.
I have to learn my lessons, though. I have to pay attention to the details. I tend to see something, grab the camera and just begin shooting. We paid so much more attention when we had film because we knew we couldn't waste money. I know that I can take a thousand and hope for a dozen good pictures without it costing me anything extra. However, I will never go to these places again and I may not discover until later that I've made my mistakes. I need to pay attention so I won't be disappointed later.
How can this be related to our spiritual life? How often do we just jump into something without considering the details? We think we know what is best to help our neighbor, but we often discover later that we did not pay attention to the whole situation; we offer what we think they need rather than what they need.
Jesus knew what needed to be done. He saw a bigger picture than we will ever be able to see, but He didn't run to Lazarus to heal him but instead paid attention to His Father's will. Lazarus was sick and everyone thought it would have been better if Jesus had just gone right away to heal him. Jesus waited, not only until it was too late, but until it was beyond too late. He did the thing that glorified God. Oh, I'm sure that the sisters and the others probably continued to think that Jesus should have done it the other way. After all, His delay caused a grief that most surely imprinted on their hearts forever. Even with the joy that followed, that moment of hurt had to change the way they looked at Jesus, like the poor lighting or the spot in the picture affected my pictures.
As you go about your day and see the world that is in need, try to see what's happening below the surface. Pray before you jump, think before you do. Sometimes the right action is the one that on the surface seems to be so wrong, but God knows what needs to be done and He always accomplishes it in the right way. The story of Lazarus would be so different if Jesus had followed the will of the people involved, and though we still second guess His choice because we see that it hurt the sisters and it led to the cross, Jesus knew that it would all glorify God. That's the real purpose of our lives, the reason we have been created and redeemed. The Holy Spirit guides us in this work and if we pay attention to the details, we might just create that perfect picture that He has ordained for that moment.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 26, 2015, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:1-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
"Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." 1 John 3:16, ASV
They were afraid. They were so afraid that they were hiding in the Upper Room, wondering what they should do. Jesus appeared before them, taught them everything they needed to know and then ascended to heaven. He told them to wait because He would send a helper. They waited, prayed and though they had more confidence on seeing Jesus alive, the idea that they could continue His ministry was daunting and perhaps even frightening. How could they do it? What if they leaders came after them, too?
We are actually a few weeks from Pentecost in the Church year, so chronologically we have not seen the solution to their uncertainty and fear. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to fill the disciples with the gifts and the courage to go out into the world to continue Jesus' ministry. They could not have done it without Him, and though they were sad that Jesus went to the Father, they could not have had Him in this way with Jesus still among them. The one man who held the power of God - Jesus - went to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to fill all believers with God's power.
Last week we heard the story of the beggar at the gate that Peter healed, and that story continues in today's first lesson. The people were amazed that Peter, with just a word, could raise the man into a new life. They wanted to know how he did it. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, had the courage to tell them that it was in Jesus' name. He told them how they missed the Messiah, how they missed seeing that Jesus was the One for whom they waited. He told them that it wasn't his power, but the power of God granted to believers because of Jesus. They denied Him, but the disciples saw everything Jesus did and they were witnesses. The frightened uncertain men from just a few weeks ago were now filled with bold confidence and were willing to tell Jesus' story.
This angered the leaders. I've been watching the NBC production on Sunday nights called "A.D. The Bible Continues," and while I have not agreed entirely with their interpretation of the text or the theology, I have found it interesting to see these stories played out in an accessible way. I have been disappointed that they've felt the need to insert conflict and violence, sneakiness and fanaticism even among the disciples. They are trying to 'sell' faith using modern media techniques while telling a story that shows us that faith can't be sold. Faith comes only by hearing His story and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Can this television show spark faith? Of course it can, even with the unnecessary additions to the story, because God can use the most unlikely people and things to accomplish His work in the world.
The story on Sunday showed the anger of the leaders at the things Peter was saying in the Temple. So far the program has shown the Romans dealing with the foolishness of the Christian claims, killing guards and filling Jerusalem with troops. The Jewish leaders tried, unsuccessfully, to quell the enthusiasm for Jesus of Nazareth, first by having Him crucified and then by chasing His followers. They knew that Roman oppression would not help their power or cause, and tried to appease them but putting a stop to the movement. It is no wonder that the early disciples might be afraid. They had every reason to be.
And yet, with the power of the Holy Spirit, they were willing to do and say what Jesus sent them to do and say. They were willing to take a chance, to speak the truth, to tell Jesus' story. They were willing to stand up to the world even though it was likely that their bold confidence would make them martyrs. It did for ten of the eleven. They humbled themselves for the truth and the truth truly set them free.
What is truth? This is a question we heard during Holy Week. It is the question Pilate asks of Jesus. Peter tells the truth in today's first lesson, "And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved." We live in a time when many people are asking, "What is truth?" even Christians. In an effort to be the humble, kind and merciful people we know God is calling us to be, we've turned faith in Jesus into something that is just one possible interpretation of God's love. We talk about mountains with many roads leading to the same place, a place where we will dwell with all people of faith no matter what they believe. There is no absolute truth; truth is subjective and personal.
From the beginning of this thing called Christianity we've heard what Peter says so clearly in today's lesson. Jesus said it, too. "I am the way." Salvation comes only through the blood of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that somehow Christians are better than others. It also does not mean that the Christians you know today are the only ones who will spend eternity with the Father. But there is no doubt, from Jesus' own words and the witness of those first Christians: those who reject Jesus will not be saved. It is up to us to be bold witnesses to that truth, to tell the story so that they will hear and believe. We can't be wishy washy. We can't accept everyone's idea of truth and ignore the reality that Jesus is the only way to be saved. We can love, honor and respect all our neighbors no matter what they believe. But we are called to tell the story of Jesus to them all so that they will be saved.
This attitude is seen as arrogance, haughtiness, superiority, conceit, pride by those who do not believe. "You just think you are better than others," they say. So we concede and encourage our neighbors to follow their own truth. I agree that there are some wonderful aspects of other religions. Yes, there is grace and mercy, kindness and peace. Yes, there are people in every faith tradition who do good and wonderful things. It is even possible that God is working through those faith traditions in His own way. We are not meant to be arrogant, haughty, superior, conceited, or proud, but called and gifted to be loving, joyful, peaceful, longsuffering, kind, good, faithful, meek, and self-controlled. We are called to a humble life of sharing the story of Jesus Christ with bold confidence so that everyone will be saved.
Why bother sharing God's grace if they do not need Jesus? Christianity is not the best religion; there are other faith traditions that are far more satisfying. The possibility of martyrdom isn't very attractive, either. We'd rather believe what meets our needs or satisfies our desires. I once knew a woman who called herself an eclectic Christian. She picked and chose the parts of Christian faith she liked and the supplemented her religion with the bits and pieces of other religions that sounded good to her. She still called herself a Christian and believed in Jesus and yet He was nothing more than a friend, role model and great teacher. She didn't believe in sin or the need for forgiveness and salvation. The inconvenient parts of Jesus' story were interpreted to be spiritual rather than physical. The same ideas are being taught in too many churches today. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
Peter and John knew that some day they would face inquiry from the Temple leaders. Jesus told them that they would be hated as he had been hated. They knew they would suffer the same persecution; perhaps even drink the cup that Christ drank. Yet, Peter faced the arrest and false trial with confidence. It wasn't his word or power that gave him hope; it was the knowledge that Jesus Christ was his Shepherd. Perhaps the comforting words of Psalm 23 were on his lips that night he spent in prison. He was walking through a valley, and did not know what would happen the next day. But he trusted in the One who did know, and who had prepared that table of goodness on which Peter could feast even in the presence of his enemies. He was happy, content. He knew God's lovingkindness surrounded him, despite the circumstances he had to face.
Psalm 23 is an appropriate psalm for today because the Gospel lesson is the Good Shepherd text from John. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. John tells the story of Jesus in his Gospel in a way that makes it clear that Jesus is exactly what He claimed to be: God incarnate. The "I AM" statements parallel the understanding of God and the expectation of the Messiah. Jesus came to save the world, and He did so with His blood. That's why He is the only way for salvation.
John writes, [Jesus said,] "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep." In the days of Jesus, the shepherds took their sheep out into the country to eat the grasses. When they returned to town, they kept their sheep in a pen that was often an open roofed room with tall walls and just one door attached to a house. The shepherd paid rent to the homeowner, and the gatekeeper opened the door only for the shepherd. This is why Jesus talked about being the gate in the earlier verses of John 10. These pens were often shared by multiple shepherds, and when the gatekeeper opened the door for the shepherd, he called each of his sheep by name and they came to him because they knew his voice.
The shepherds did not always take their sheep into town, but it was not good to allow them to roam in the fields at night. The dangers were too great. So, there were sheep pens built out the fields; they were basically nothing but a stone wall high enough to keep the sheep in and the dangers out. There was no door, so the shepherd lay in the doorway to sleep so that any danger had to get past him to get at the sheep. This was dangerous because a hungry wolf can hurt or kill a man; the shepherd literally laid his life down for the sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who literally lay down His life for us. The thing that makes Jesus unique is that He was in control, from the beginning, through the cross and to the empty tomb.
The text from John 10 follows the story of the healing of the man born blind. That story led to a trial of Jesus, although it was really the leaders of the Jews who found themselves on trial. They were not being the shepherds of the people; they were doing what they needed to do to survive and remain in their power and position. They were not teaching the people about God; they were burdening the people with laws that were never intended by God to be burdensome. Jesus answered their accusations with the parables of the gate and the shepherd. They were the thieves who tried to steal the sheep and the hired hands unwilling to lay down their lives for God's people.
John continues this picture of the shepherd laying down his life in today's second lesson, but in it he calls us to live like Jesus, willingly laying down our lives for our brothers. That's what Peter and John did when they met the beggar at the gate. They didn't have silver or gold to give the man, but they had something better. Of course, healing the man guaranteed that their time of trial would begin because it would reveal them as followers of Jesus. There was no way for them to give the man what they had without others discovering it. They didn't worry about it. They healed the man in Jesus' name and then testified about the power they received from Him. It was bound to be a problem, and though this particular occasion did not martyr Peter, it was the first of many times that he would be tried. Peter was willing to lay down his life by giving that man the best thing he had: Jesus.
Are we willing? Do we trust that God is our Shepherd, that He will take care of us even unto death? If we believe that Jesus is the Savior, that by His blood we have been guaranteed forgiveness and eternal life, then the fears of this world should not matter. Here's the problem with the Christians of today calling Jesus just one of many ways: if truth is not absolute than we do not have to lay down our life for anything. Why risk death over faith in Jesus if any path will get us what we need?
The text from John's letter tells us to love so deeply that we are willing to give up everything for the sake of another. This includes our lives if that's what it takes to help them discover the source of life and eternal life. John repeats the statement we hear in Acts and expands upon it, "And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment."
The world may see our bold confidence and unwavering faith as arrogance, haughtiness, superiority, conceit and pride, but faith in Christ is all about love. What is love? Love is not giving in to the desires of the world around us, diminishing Jesus to what we want Him to be and tolerating every expression of faith as being valid and acceptable. Love is standing firm on the truth and being willing to give up everything to tell the story of Jesus so that the world may be saved.
"Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter jealousy and faction in your heart, glory not and lie not against the truth. This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where jealousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for them that make peace." James 3:13-18, ASV
Ben Jonson is considered one of England's greatest writers, second perhaps only to William Shakespeare. The two were friends, perhaps enemies, along with John Donne and Francis Bacon. His life was interesting. He was the son of a minister who died before he was born and his mother remarried a bricklayer. He was well educated, a fact that aided in his release after he killed a man in a duel. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death, but due to an ancient law called "benefit of clergy" that considered clergy as touched by God and above human law, he was released. He was not a priest, but he could read Latin, something he had taught himself to do. He faced trouble with the court under Elizabeth, but was highly favored under James I. He wrote many masques for the court and is often referred to as England's first poet laureate. Charles I paid him a large pension to be the city chronologer even after he had a debilitating stroke.
He had a circle of admirers, including nobles, who called themselves the "Tribe of Ben" who met at the Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil's Head; they gathered in a special chamber known as Apollo to exchange wit. He was a genius and extremely entertaining, Ben Jonson was rather sure of himself. He was keenly aware of his own stature as an author and self published his works in 1616. A story is told that Ben had an encounter with a local landowner who boasted of his wealth at a local pub. It is said that Jonson replied, "What care we for your dirt and clods? Where you have an acre of land, I have ten acres of wit." The gentleman retorted by calling Ben, "Good Mr. Wiseacre." Though the word wiseacre is probably a corruption of an old German word, some have suggested the negative connotation of our modern definition, "a person who says or does things that are funny but also annoying," might come from this story.
Though Ben Jonson was able to write and answer with great wit, his wisdom was not really wise in the sense of today's Bible passage. He was a stubborn and angry man. He had many students and he was greatly respected by the literary establishment. His plays put down the establishment and foolishness of the world in which he lived, yet he was honored by kings and queens. He was known to be wise, though his life did not always show true wisdom.
True wisdom comes from God and is revealed in the way you live your life. If you are quick to anger or seek to advance in the ways of the world, then your wisdom is earthly. James tells us how we can recognize those who have wisdom from heaven. They are not 'wiseacres'; they are considerate, submissive, and merciful. The fruit that is produced is the good fruit that comes from the Spirit of God. Peace follows wherever they go.
"But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land? While it remained, did it not remain thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thy power? How is it that thou hast conceived this thing in thy heart? thou has not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down and gave up the ghost: and great fear came upon all that heard it. And the young men arose and wrapped him round, and they carried him out and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much. And she said, Yea, for so much. But Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to try the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them that have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out. And she fell down immediately at his feet, and gave up the ghost: and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all that heard these things." Acts 5:1-11, ASV
Some of the stories in the scriptures are hard to bear, like this one. We are bothered by the idea that Ananias and Sapphira keeled over dead because they didn't give the profits from the sale of their land to the church. There are those who would interpret this story as a command to vows of poverty and that anything less is less than faithful to God. In the days of the early church, the believers shared everything. They lived in community, ensuring that no one was hungry or cold. Those who had more gave food and clothing to those who had less. There were some members who were even selling property to help the church.
The story before this one is about a man named Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, also called Barnabas. His name meant "Son of Encouragement." He sold a field and took the money and laid it at the feet of the disciples. He is the example of a faithful, giving disciple. Then we hear the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Seemingly encouraged by Barnabas, the couple sold a piece of property and laid an offering at the feet of the apostles. This story is different, however, because Ananias and Sapphira willfully withheld some of the profits. You might think as you read these stories in tandem that they really were struck down for their lack of generosity. The truth, however, is revealed in the following verses the truth. They lied to God.
Can you imagine the scene? Barnabas, out of the generosity of his heart, gave the church a great gift. Though I'm sure he did not desire any attention for his gift, he was probably honored for it. Human beings are imperfect, we all sin; in this case, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was a desire to have the attention heaped on them. They weren't being generous; they were putting on a show, competing with Barnabas. They didn't get away with it because the Holy Spirit revealed their deception. Peter asked why Ananias why they lied and then reminded them that they were under no obligation to give it all. We are asked to give as we are led and able. Ananias lied to God and the very revelation of his sin struck him dead.
The story is made even clearer when Peter confronts Sapphira. She didn't know what happened to her husband, so when Peter asked if they sold the land for that amount, she continued in the conspiracy and said, "Yes." She lied, too. And the revelation of her sin struck her dead.
God did not cut down Ananias and Sapphira because they kept some of the money for themselves. They died because they lied to God. The revelation of their sin cut them down immediately. If they had gone to the apostles and said, "We sold our property and this is a portion of the proceeds," Peter would have gratefully received the money and used it to glorify God. However, Ananias and Sapphira wanted to have their cake and eat it too.
This might be a story about financial resources and generosity, but it is even more so a story about truthfulness. Do you make claims about your faithfulness in word and deed before men, but in your heart you are hiding something? How many of us claim to love all our neighbors and yet harbor anger in our hearts? How often do we make confession but hide the very sins that destroy relationships and community? We won't be struck down as Ananias and Sapphira, but aren't we buried by our sin? Aren't we destroying our relationship with God when we try to hide the very things that He knows even more intimately than we do? God knows our hearts and He is calling us to be truthful. One lie might not seem very bad, but one lie leads to another. It becomes easier to put on the show and yet that show builds a wall between you and the God who forgives. The lies show a lack of faith and without faith there is no relationship with God. That's true death.
Jesus Christ died so that we would be freed from sin and death. He didn't die to force us to give all our stuff away. He has sent the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with love, generosity, grace and mercy for our brothers and sisters. He wants us to give it all, but He does not require it and He won't strike us dead if we don't share everything. He does not require a vow of poverty or a tithe of one hundred percent. He has given some, like Barnabas, an extraordinary faith and gift of generosity and he stands as an example. However, we should never put on a facade of generosity to compete against others. We have our own gifts and God will lead us in the use of those gifts if we are willing and honest and faithful.
"So I hated life, because the work that is wrought under the sun was grievous unto me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind. And I hated all my labor wherein I labored under the sun, seeing that I must leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he will be a wise man or a fool? yet will he have rule over all my labor wherein I have labored, and wherein I have showed myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. Therefore I turned about to cause my heart to despair concerning all the labor wherein I had labored under the sun. For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, and with knowledge, and with skilfulness; yet to a man that hath not labored therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil. For what hath a man of all his labor, and of the striving of his heart, wherein he laboreth under the sun? For all his days are but sorrows, and his travail is grief; yea, even in the night his heart taketh no rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I? For to the man that pleaseth him God giveth wisdom, and knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that pleaseth God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind." Ecclesiastes 2:17-26, ASV
I spent the weekend at my favorite camp, at a retreat designed for women who like to be creative. They plan multiple opportunities to learn new crafts and provide space for those who want to work on their own things. The weekend is meant to be relaxing, as they offer other things like facials and back massages and a quiet place to just "be." I try to go every year. Sometimes I take my own project, sometimes I try theirs. One year I did nothing but read. There are trails to hike, a creek to visit and places to just be quiet. There are plenty of opportunities to spend time with the other women, whether we are struggling to learn something new, sharing a meal or just sharing stories of our lives.
There are several devotional times, too, to remind us to stop and breathe and listen for God. We were created in His image as creators and He invites us into His presence in our work, to use our gifts to create something that will glorify Him and make the world a more beautiful place. We can certainly jump into our work and do our projects without that quiet time, but how much better is it to listen to the voice of the God who made us creative and gave us our gifts? How much better can we glorify Him by doing what He calls us to do, and how will we ever know what He's calling us to do if we do not listen to Him?
I took my own project this year. During Lent I painted forty paintings, one a day, as a spiritual and artistic endeavor. I wanted to do something with the paintings even though I did not like them all. Each one, good or bad, taught me a lesson and I wanted to keep them together in some way. So I found instructions on the Internet for binding single pages into a book. I bought what I thought I needed and took it with me to this weekend. I also signed up for a class. Though we are under no obligation to be at the other activities like the devotional times, those times are given to us as a gift, so that we have the opportunity to be aware of His presence and hear His voice.
We get so caught up in our work that we forget that rest is a gift and a necessity. The schedule for previous years included time on Sunday to continue our crafts, and while it was possible to get a few minutes here and there to work on our projects, those brief moments were not enough for some of the projects. Some projects require longer times of focused attention and constant breaks lead to mistakes. I was happy that I finished my project Saturday, but felt for the other crafters who were trying to finish sewing projects.
I was thankful that I did not need to rush through finishing my work on Sunday. We work so hard and pursue all our activities whether they are for pleasure or to sustain our lives, and it is very important that we take time to stop and breathe. We complained a bit about the schedule, but as we talked about Sabbath rest at our devotion on Sunday it began to make sense to me. The writer of Ecclesiastes, possibly Solomon, understands that it does not good to work constantly if we aren't spending time in the presence of God. Everything we collect from our work is vanity if we do not give thanks to God for His gifts and provision for us. Everything we collect will be left behind for those who follow us; all we have in eternity is our relationship with the Father who created us and who calls us to spend time with Him each week so that we will know Him now as we wait to dwell with Him later.
"Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye are otherwise minded, this also shall God reveal unto you: only, whereunto we have attained, by that same rule let us walk." Philippians 3:12-16, ASV
I'm a bit of a perfectionist, which is a problem because I am far from perfect. So, I am extremely critical of myself and of every error I make. The mistakes glare at me and become my focus. Someone can tell me that my food is delicious, but I only see how the noodles are overcooked or that the food is too salty. I look at my paintings, which others think are beautiful, and I see all the ways I could have made it better. My devotions inspire others to faith, but I see every typo and rewrite every sentence in my head as I wonder how anyone could find anything useful in my words.
Imagine how I felt as I tried bookbinding for the first time this weekend. I took the paintings from Lent and I backed them with the devotions I wrote which I printed on sticky paper. I trimmed the excess, added a strip of tape at the top of the painting to help keep the binding from ripping the page. Then I punched holes in the paintings and sewed the pages together with thread using a technique for single page binding, adding a front and back cover. I put a button on the front and a thread from the back to hold the book closed. It was a pretty good attempt at my first book. The other ladies at the retreat thought it was wonderful.
But there is so much wrong with it. When I started reading the book for the first time after it was finished, I realized that the horizontal pictures were upside down. See, it had to do with the way the words were stuck on the back of the painting. The vertical pictures were relatively easy; the top of the words went with the top of the painting (although I later realized that it would have been better the opposite way: another mistake.) I had to think more carefully about how to put the words on the horizontals. I figured it out and then followed the pattern, although I messed up several times. I discovered that I could remove the sticky, turn it over and fix the problem, so I did. It was not until later that I realized that I fixed the ones that were actually right. Once I punched the holes there was no going back. I solved this problem by telling everyone that we had to read the book "Hebrew." In other words, we turn the pages from left to right rather than right to left.
It is a very difficult book to read. I should have put the words on the previous page so that you could see the painting as you read the devotion. I had trouble with the binding thread knotting on me, so the binding is ratty and imperfect; the thread I bought is a little too small for the thickness of the pages. The back cover is already loose and will probably fall off after just a few more readings. The painting pages are not consistently the same size, since I had to trim off some edges more than others. I didn't know how to attach the button and by the time I figured it out, I had practically destroyed the cover.
No one else cared about the problems; they simply enjoyed the book I made and the paintings within. The mistakes made it quirky. One friend said, "It is a coffee table book; they can be anything you want them to be." Despite the comedy of errors that is my book, I do think it is awesome. It was actually pretty good for the first try of something that I taught myself to do. All I had was a video on how to bind, and even though I figured it out wrong, I did it. I tried. Every mistake is a lesson learned, and all the changes I would make to this book gives me ideas for the next. In the end I still have a wonderful memory and a way to share those forty paintings with others.
One friend reminded me that imperfections are a sign that something is handmade rather than mass produced. I found this quote on a website this morning, "As hard as it is to accept the imperfect, it's essential that we do. We're not machines, and we don't have a factory line of people assembling our work so that every piece might look as exact as the last. What we are doing is real, and its imperfect nature is testament to that fact. Next time you're staring at a piece of work lamenting its inconsistencies, stop. Simply embrace it, because your imperfections are your greatest asset." (Michaela, "For the Creators" blog.)
This acceptance of imperfection is not an excuse for creating inferior products, but helps us to remember that we are works in progress, too. See, God knows that we are not perfect today, but He is working on us, constantly moving us toward perfection. That won't come in this life because we are perishable, fallen beings. But Jesus Christ has promised that we will be like Him one day. We will be perfected, not like those pieces that are mass produced and consistently the same as if made by a machine, but uniquely molded into the people God intended us to be from the beginning. The important thing for us to remember today is to learn the lessons and keep moving forward transformed by God's grace. We won't be perfect until we reach the eternal Promised Land, but we can live daily as if we are being perfected by the God who will make all things right.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 3, 2015, Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 150, 1 John 4:1-11 [12-21], John 15:1-8
"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." John 15:5, ASV
Texas, like so many other places, has been suffering from a drought. It has become very obvious when looking at the hillsides that are filled with dead and dying trees. I have noticed that things are much greener this year as I have gone on my wildflower adventures, but the years of drought have taken its toll and many of the scrub fields need major maintenance. In ancient times, the earth healed itself with fire. A lightning strike set a field to blaze which burned the dead wood and made the earth ready for new growth. Those same fields today have homes and businesses that need to be protected. It is important that those owners do something to clean up the dead and protect the living.
As you drive down these roads at this time of year you can see the work that is happening. The old trees are cut and stacked in tall piles. They are left to dry for days, weeks, perhaps even months depending on the weather. When everything is ready, they carefully burn those piles of wood, protecting the surrounding field. You can often see fire crews standing by to ensure the fire does not get out of hand, and then smoldering piles of ash. The removal of the old dead trees leaves room for the living ones to grow. The landowners know how to make things right by removing that dead wood which is ugly, useless and dangerous.
It might seem like a lot of trouble for the wide open spaces of unused wilderness, but a healthy field is better for all those who dwell there, including the birds and animals. A tended field has much more wildlife because there is good food and shelter for them. That's why the earth naturally heals itself, but as caretakers of God's creation, we are given the task of helping the world be as fruitful as possible even while we subdue it for our use.
Have you ever felt like you are living in a time of spiritual drought? There are times in everyone's life when we find it difficult to pray and worship. We doubt God and get angry with Him. We can't read the bible or if we do, it is like a foreign language that just doesn't make sense to us. We can't see God in our neighbor or in our daily lives. We feel empty, confused, abandoned.
This can happen in many different ways. We can get sick or suffer some sort of crisis in our life, leaving us wondering where God is in the midst of our trouble. We can be hurt by other Christians or by our church and walk away from the fellowship. We can get so busy doing the things that need to be done at work or with our families that we miss out on time in worship, prayer or bible study. After awhile it is hard to get back in the habit. We can walk down the path that leads us away from our God.
Faith can survive any of these experiences, and God never really abandons us even when we feel like He has. The trouble is that when we lose touch with Him bits and pieces of us can die. Sometimes those bits and pieces need to be removed so that rest of us can become healthy again. We may not always understand what is happening to us, and we might be hurt or blame God for our trouble, but eventually we realize that the difficulty was actually a good thing; we realize that God was cutting away something that was making us unhealthy. A time of drought might actually be a time for God to prepare us for a time of re-growth and renewal.
It is so easy to get lost, however. I knew a young man on the Internet who had been a very passionate Christian. He loved Jesus, worked in the church, shared God's grace with everyone he met. One day he suffered a severe blow and he began to doubt everything about his faith. He tried to find answers, but he did so in a way that led him farther and farther from God. Eventually he stopped believing. It wasn't that he was angry or uncertain. He simply stopped believing. His faith was dead, like those scrubs in the field. I don't know what happened to him; eventually he simply disappeared from my life. Miracles can happen, of course, and God can fan the smallest spark into a great and powerful faith, but sometimes the disbelief is so strong that it is beyond reform. Some people reject God so completely that they are cut off, thrown away like a branch and withers, then thrown into the fire with others and burned.
We don't want to hear this because we don't like to hear that some people will not be saved. We don't want to think that it is possible for us get to the point that we will lose touch with our God so completely that there is nothing left to hold us to Him. We don't want to hear it, but we have to understand that we can become so focused on the wrong things that we lose sight of the One who is our life. That's why Jesus reminds us to abide in Him.
He says, "I am the true vine." He probably said this while standing in the shadow of the Temple buildings on which was a large gold decoration of a grapevine. The symbolism is obvious, as the scriptures often use the image to describe Israel. The decoration at the Temple was so large that some of the grapes were as large as a human head, and it was created out of gifts from benefactors to the Temple. The gold was even engraved with donor's names, much like we put names on buildings or other donations. Jesus reminds the people that He is the true vine, the one that really abides in God and through whom faith and fruit comes. "Look to me, abide in me, and bear fruit." Unfortunately, we often spend so much time looking outward, away from God, focusing on our fruit that we lose touch with Jesus. We can't bear fruit without Jesus; we can't bear fruit without faith.
Keeping our eyes on Jesus is scary, though. We like to be in control. We like to know what we are doing. We like to go our own way, to accomplish the things that matter to us. God might just ask us to do something we don't want to do. He might ask us to step outside our comfort zone. He might send us on the road into the unknown.
I love today's first lesson. Philip's faith is such an inspiration to me, but the story is quite frightening. After all, can you imagine God calling you to do what He called Philip to do? "Rise and go..." He said. Go where? Philip was sent into the wilderness on a dangerous road, alone. The road was filled with thieves and murderers, definitely not the place for a lonely traveler. Then, when he got to the desert place, the Holy Spirit told him to approach a caravan of Ethiopians with an important official of the court of Queen Candace. He would have been surrounded by a protective force and companions, an intimidating procession and not very welcoming to strangers on the road. The first thought of those armed soldiers would be to protect their official and his companions.
Philip was not concerned. He knew that God was with him and that God would accomplish His work no matter what happened. He went on the road and approached the caravan with no fear. I like this story because I hope I can do the same when God calls me out of my own comfort zone. We are saved and sent to bear fruit, and it is only with God's help that we can do so. The willingness to go on the dangerous road and approach the intimidating procession is only possible in the life of the person who abides in Christ.
The other thing that is inspiring in this story is that Philip was not afraid to speak. I can't imagine what it would be like if God sent me to approach a learned man who was reading the scriptures along the road. I might be able to explain what it means, but I have to admit that I rely on notes and commentaries; I'm thankful for the Internet and the thousands of other people who came before me who have studied and written on the subjects.
I've been working on a study of John the Evangelist and his writings. I've read the scriptures for myself, of course, but I have also looked into many resources, to see what scholars say and what has been understood since the beginning of the Church. I've checked on word meanings and relied on the work of others who delved deeply into the details, the history, and the language. There is nothing new under the sun, so it helps to join others in the study of the scriptures, searching for understanding with the rest of the church.
Philip did not have two millennia of study when he approached the Ethiopian. He had the teachings of Jesus, had listened to Him as He opened the scriptures to the disciples. He had the Holy Spirit to guide his words and his understanding. Yet, it was Philip sitting there with the Ethiopian. What if he had been reading one of the more difficult texts from the prophet Isaiah? As it happened, the text was about Jesus, an easy subject for one of His disciples. Philip was able to speak with confidence and grace, to tell the Ethiopian about the forgiveness that Jesus won for the world. His words, by the power of the Holy Spirit, revealed God's mercy to the Ethiopian. He was baptized at the side of the road and went away with joy.
We have an advantage over Philip because we have the whole history of the church behind us. We have the writings of the disciples, the Gospel stories and the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John. We have the writings of the early Church fathers who knew the Apostles or were only a generation or two away from them. Their writing has been tested for millennia, and their understanding has developed into the basic beliefs of the church today. Those thoughts were developed into the historic creeds and the foundation of the Christian Church as it has been understood for two thousand years.
Of course, we have to be careful when we are relying on other people's thoughts and interpretations. John reminds us not to believe every spirit. There are, indeed, many false prophets and have been from the beginning of time. The fact that we have 'lost Gospels,' writings from the earliest days of the Church that tell us a different story testifies to that fact. Those very writings still find an audience today by those who hear words that tickle their ears and satisfy their desires. There were competing understandings of Jesus even in those early days, but those writings were rejected by the Church for many reasons. There are still many competing teachers today, selling a Gospel that does not fit the Biblical witness of faith.
We have to be careful about listening to the wrong spirits, but we also have to beware of our own understanding. We can be easily swayed by our own life experiences. We are selfish and self-centered. We interpret God's Word to benefit our own desires. If we are in a spiritual drought or facing a difficult time, we will twist the scriptures to justify our anger or uncertainty. We can be swayed by every thought, inward and outward, and if we are not abiding in God, those thoughts can come from the spirit of the antichrist.
Jesus is the true vine and we have no need to fear living and working in this world because God will be with us through the good and the bad. Even when we have difficult times, we can be at peace knowing that in the end God will use it all for His glory. He calls and sends us out into the world, sometimes He sends us outside our comfort zone into unknown experiences. He will not throw us on the heap to wither and be burned when we keep our focus on Him and He will produce the kind of fruit that makes a difference in the world. Who knows, we might just be the one to explain the scriptures to a stranger on the road, sending them off with joy in their heart and today's psalm on their tongue.
The world might be frightful, but abiding in Christ gives us reason to sing. And our singing will be shared by those who hear and believe the Gospel we share. We bear this fruit with His help, by His power, with His Holy Spirit. So, let us abide in Christ as He abides in us, always holding on to the only One who can truly change the lives of those who hear His Word and believe.
"Praise ye Jehovah. Praise God in his sanctuary: Praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: Praise him according to his excellent greatness. Praise him with trumpet sound: Praise him with psaltery and harp. Praise him with timbrel and dance: Praise him with stringed instruments and pipe. Praise him with loud cymbals: Praise him with high sounding cymbals. Let everything that hath breath praise Jehovah. Praise ye Jehovah." Psalm 150, ASV
Today's passage is one from the lectionary for Sunday, but we didn't pay much attention to it in yesterday's devotion. I could imagine the Ethiopian going his way with these words on his lips, singing praise to God with joy over his new understanding of grace and forgiveness. Philip's explanation set the Ethiopian on a path that led to salvation. He had reason to celebrate; he had reason to praise God.
We also have reason to celebrate and praise God, although it is difficult to believe sometimes. We all have distractions that bother our hearts and minds. We have trouble at work, issues with family, difficulty with our neighbors. We don't even have peace at church sometimes, as we argue with our brothers and sisters in Christ about everything from theology to the color of the carpet. We can't turn on the television without hearing of the latest reason to fear. When I am upset about something, I find it difficult to even think straight.
There are many storms brewing in the world today. War and rumors of war leave us frightened and angry. The suffering in the world-illness, hunger and pain-saddens us. Families are divided and communities are broken. Even the church is facing more schism because there are so many differing perspectives and ideas. It is heartbreaking to see this discord among brothers and sisters in Christ, to see so many people arguing, often over the most ridiculous things.
There is a scene in the movie "The Sound of Music," during which Maria was in her room preparing for bed while a storm thundered outside her window. One by one the children ran into her room, frightened by the lightning and thunder. Maria calmed their nerves by getting their minds off the storm by singing a song. She tells them that when she is sad or scared, she simply remembers her favorite things and then she doesn’t feel so bad. It is filled with remembrances of the most wonderful things. "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens; bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens; brown paper packages tied up with strings... Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels; doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles; wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings... Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes; snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes; silver white winters that melt into springs..."
As we face these storms of life, we can look to the advice from Maria and get our minds off it, if even for just a moment. The best way I know to clear my heart and mind is to turn to God in praise and prayer, for He is always ready with comfort and peace. Our problems will not go away this easily; the storms will not stop because we have said a few words of praise. However, we will look at things much differently if we keep God as our focus in the midst of our troubles. We should not let the emotions of anger or fear cripple us; we should take them to the Lord in prayer. We remember that He is there comforting and teaching, transforming and blessing us when we do and that He is the only One who can bring hope and peace to the world. The storms do rage outside in our world today, but God is with us in our rooms, comforting us with words that will give us strength and courage to face the world again. This is definitely reason to celebrate and sing songs of praise.