Welcome to the April 2016 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.
Most of the scripture on this page is taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, April 2016
"Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30, WEB
Some people just have a gift for finding certain things. Some can find the perfect dress without shopping in a dozen different stores. Some can find the silver lining in every problem. Some can reach down and find a four leaf clover without really looking. Some have an ability to find the truth in the midst of a web of lies. I'm sure you know someone who amazes with their ability to find something that is illusive to most people.
I began writing this devotional nearly seventeen years ago. I have written well over five thousand devotions which have been read by at least a few people over the years. My format has changed as I've grown in both my faith and in my writing ability, but from the beginning this writing has been about finding God in the ordinary of our everyday lives. I suppose you might say I have a gift for finding God in the mundane. I once wrote a devotion on Drano!
I have to admit that it is getting harder to write; after all, how often can I say the same thing and still be interesting to my readers? How often can I tell you about the antics of my kitties and still remain relevant to your faith? How often can I focus on the Twenty-Third Psalm and still say something new? Can I see God in Drano twice and still hold your attention?
Yet, those moments when I see God in the mundane are still amazing to me. I went on a wildflower adventure yesterday to a local town that is known for beautiful red poppies in the springtime. I'm planning a poppy painting, so I went to do a photo study of the flowers. I found delightful different patches around town, and then came across the holy grail of photo ops.
A couple owns an old home with an even older cabin in town with a huge yard that is filled with poppies. I couldn't even guess how many plants were growing let alone the number of blossoms. The couple mows pathways throughout the yard each year so that visitors can enjoy the poppies from every point of view. They have strategically placed chairs and benches as well as interesting artifacts to give photographers the perfect shots.
The photos of the whole field are beautiful, but I found myself looking at individual flowers just to see the differences. The field has at least two dozen different types of poppies, from the typical four petal red to some lovely pinks, whites and purples. There were even poppies with layers of ruffled petals. Some of the poppies had black stamens while others had white or yellow. Some have center markings on the petals of black or white while others were solid colors. Some of the petals were outlined with contrasting colors.
My eyes were naturally drawn to the unusual colored flowers in the midst of the red, but I was also looking for poppies that would photograph well. It was fairly windy and the tall delicate plants are blown easily. The poppies also seem to face the sun, so I was looking at the poppies from the side or the back along many places on the path. It is also late in the season, so the flowers are beginning to wilt with the heat of the Texas weather.
In the midst of all those flowers, hundreds of thousands, at least, I found the perfect poppy. It was a red bloom with rectangular white center markings on all four petals. It made a perfect cross. Curious, I looked at many other flowers just to see if it is typical to find a cross, but none of the others were quite so perfect. The amazing part here is not that the flower exists, but that I found it in the midst of all those other flowers. It is amazing that my eye was drawn to that one particular blossom.
I'm not sure that the gift to find the perfect dress is God-given, but I do think God reveals Himself in subtle ways for those who are willing to see it. We find peace when we are fully aware of God's presence in our lives, not just in the big miracles that happen, but in the tiny reminders. That's why I look for the lessons of faith in Drano and wildflowers: knowing God is near gives me rest because I know He will help me carry the burdens of my life.
"The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel: to know wisdom and instruction; to discern the words of understanding; to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young man: that the wise man may hear, and increase in learning; that the man of understanding may attain to sound counsel: to understand a proverb, and parables, the words and riddles of the wise." Proverbs 1:1-6, WEB
There is a difference between knowing and understanding. I can easily say "The sky is blue," but I have no answer to the question, "Why is it blue?" It has something to do with particles in the air and reflecting light, but I do not understand the process. I can learn why by doing a little research, and with the help of books or teachers I might be able to understand enough to explain it to someone else. I'm not sure it matters much to me. When I am out on a wildflower adventure I don't think about why the sky is that incredible color, but rather stand in amazement at how pretty it looks against the green of the grass and the colors of the flowers.
Webster's Dictionary defines a proverb as "a short, pithy, and much-used saying that expresses a well-known truth or fact." This is much different than the oft used cliche, which is "a trite expression or idea." It becomes trite because it is overused and abused, especially by those who do not truly understand its significance or meaning.
Take, for instance, the proverb "Better late than never." This bit of wisdom becomes an excuse for people to show up whenever they want without consequences. There are, in every church, people who never managed to arrive on time. They are usually parking the car while we are singing the opening hymn and they manage to find their seats by the time we are well into the liturgy. Meanwhile they've missed joining the rest of us in the words of confession, the absolution, the songs of praise to the God they are there to worship. Oh, they are probably seated by the reading of scripture and they hear the sermon, but they haven't taken the time to really prepare their hearts through prayer for the hearing of God's Word. Perhaps it is better that they are there whether they arrive in time or not, especially when their lateness is caused by unexpected circumstances. But when it is a regular habit, the proverb is no longer wisdom but excuse.
This use of misunderstood proverbs leads too many people to live their lives as if wisdom can be found on a bumper sticker. Everyone knows what the poster in the end zone with "John 3:16" means but do they truly understand? There might be value found in sound bite theology, but there is much more to understanding the love, mercy and peace of God than can be found in a few words plastered to the bumper of the car in front of us in traffic or poster at a football game.
God reveals Himself to individuals through His creation, through prayer, through each other, and we can know Him through these things. But it is by God's written word -- the scriptures -- that we can understand and be assured that what we see, feel and hear are truly from God. Satan is very good at being the adversary. He is well versed in God's Word and cunningly twists it to fit his purpose to deceive and destroy. This is so much easier when we live by sound bites.
This is why knowledge is not enough; we also need understanding. God gives understanding by the power of His Spirit, but it is not handed to us. Understanding comes through study of His Word, through the witness of the men and women whose stories are recorded in the scriptures. It is not enough for there to be just one witness, so throughout the Bible speaks of the same concepts from beginning to end, over and over again. God has made a witness to things like faith, hope, peace, joy, love, responsibility, generosity, and many more repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testaments. As we study the scriptures we see the connections God makes, building His Word line upon line in our hearts making us wise and understanding disciples.
The goal of our faithful study of God's Word is so that we will grow in faith and wisdom, able to discern and deal in the world with righteousness, justice and equity. We learn when to speak and when to remain silent. We learn how to share God's Word with others in a way that glorifies Him. We learn how to deal with our neighbors. It takes more than a bumper sticker or a sign at a football game. It takes daily instruction from God through His Word, through the study of scriptures and the help of the Holy Spirit. While there is good theology in sound bites, let's learn how to understand them so that we will live well and rightly in God's Kingdom.
"The beginning of strife is like breaching a dam, therefore stop contention before quarreling breaks out." Proverbs 17:14, WEB
We like to win. I'm not sure that's ever been so obvious as it is now because of the Internet. I try not to get too caught up in the conversations, but I have to admit that it is far more interesting to read the comments on a post than the post itself, especially the posts of people who have a large following. It doesn't matter what they post; it can be the most inspirational sentiment or even a personal bit of news and there will be people posting negative comments. Then, of course, others have post in defense which sets the others on edge. The discussions inevitably become ad hominen attacks that have absolutely nothing to do with the original post.
We like to win, so we fight against the words of others. It is good to stand up for our point of view, to share our knowledge so that others will understand what we trying to say. Too many arguments begin because we don't really listen to one another or really try to hear what we are trying to say. Sometimes language gets in the way; we define words differently. We see the history from different perspectives. Unfortunately, the worst part of these modern discussions is that we've decided that everyone who thinks differently is simply an idiot and that they need to be bashed into submission. That's why we attack the person rather than discuss the ideas. The question can be as ridiculous as "Coke or Pepsi" and the comments will turn rabid over time.
It is so easy for us to bicker about things and once it starts, it only gets worse. Our human nature tends to desire to be on top, to be number one, to win the games or wars. It doesn't take much. We all have different experiences, different cultural and gender related expectations. We see things through clouded glasses and our idea of life is skewed. When we face others with diverse views, we can't help but try to defend our thoughts and dreams against those that disagree. One word can open up flood of nasty that cannot be easily stopped.
A dam is not easily breached. It takes a lot of pressure and pounding, but when the pressure gets too great, once cracks begin to form, it is nearly impossible to stop it from breaking. The same is true of our discussions. It is not the disagreement that makes a quarrel; it is the pounding and pressure to agree that turns into a fight. We quarrel because we can't let go, we can't just say what we think and move on. We have to win, we have to defend ourselves, and we have to be number one. We have to convince the others that they are wrong.
When we cannot get what we want, we do far worse, the dam is breached and we harm those who are caught in our path. It is better to just let it go, to stop the quarrel before it starts, even if we have to appear to be the loser. Truth will win in the end, but sometimes we must start with grace so that we will hear and be heard. Most of the time, the truth actually falls somewhere in between and we never really discover it because we are too busy quarreling to notice.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 10, 2016, Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:1-22; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:(1-7) 8-14; John 21:1-14 (15-19)
"Worthy is the Lamb who has been killed to receive the power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and blessing!" Revelation 5:12
The purpose of John's Gospel can be summed up in the verses that are right before today's Gospel lesson. "Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name." (20:30-31, WEB) John tells the story of the Gospel so that we will believe. In the passage we had last week about the story of Doubting Thomas, Jesus said, "Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed." We have faith even though we did not experience Jesus in a natural, physical way. We believe not because we have seen but because we have faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here's what's amazing about today's Gospel lesson: the disciples had seen Jesus several times already. He appeared to Mary, although they didn't really believe her story. He appeared to them on the day of His resurrection and received the breath of new life. He appeared again a week later so that Thomas could see Him for himself. These appearances didn't alleviate the disciples' doubt. They've seen. They've believed. They have even received the Holy Spirit. (20:22) However, they didn't really understand.
They didn't know what they should do, so Peter decided to do what he knows best. "I'm going fishing." Why did he decide to go fishing? Was he returning to his old life? Was he getting on the boat because that's where he did his best thinking? Was he thinking about the place where it all began, when Jesus called him from his fishing boat to be a fisher of men? John certainly gave us this story as a reminder of how it all began. "I will make you fishers of men," Jesus said. How was Peter going to catch any men from the boat? Apparently he couldn't even catch any fish.
The disciples returned to the sea, they went back to a place that was familiar. Fishing was all some of them knew three years ago. It was their livelihood, and the place where they felt most comfortable. It was a place where they were in control. They probably enjoyed the hard work, the fresh air, the satisfaction of bringing in a net full of fish. The disciples had experienced some incredible things with Jesus in those three years with Him; the last few weeks have been inconceivable. Now everything Jesus started was coming to a head; they were beginning to see that their lives were forever changed. It was probably too much to bear, so they went "home."
It wasn't a good night on the sea; they didn't catch anything. In the morning a man called to them from the seashore, "Haven't you any fish?" They didn't realize it was Jesus. At this point, after several appearances, you would think they might be watching for Him. They said "No" and Jesus told them to throw their net on the other side. Luke tells us a similar story in the beginning of Jesus' ministry, when He called the disciples to follow Him. They failed alone, but with Him they caught so much fish they couldn't lift the net.
John, with his much younger eyes and perhaps a better memory, realized it was Jesus. The disciples see Jesus as He reveals Himself through familiar experiences. Mary heard Jesus call her name. The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus when He broke the bread. And here, John saw that it was Jesus when He gave them another miraculous catch of fish.
When John said, "It is Jesus," Peter covered himself, jumped into the sea and swam to shore while the other disciples tried to pull in the boat. The fish net was dragged behind because it too heavy to lift. Jesus had some fish cooking over the fire and invited them to join Him. He asked for more fish. Peter helped with the net which did not break under the great number of large fish it held. In Luke's earlier story, the net broke. They were going to be fishers of men, and now that Jesus finished His work, their work of fishing for men would be lasting.
John tells us that there were 153 fish. Why 153? It is such an odd number, and why did they bother counting so many fish? Some have suggested that 153 is the number of known varieties of fish or people at that time. Others have identified a numeric code in the ancient languages that suggest a connection between 153 and words related to fishing and nets. Others have suggested that 153 is the 17th triangular number (1 + 2 + 3Ö + 17 = 153) thus a number of completion or perfection. There are other mathematical explanations of the number 153. Some have suggested that perhaps 153 was the number of disciples following Jesus at that point. It means something, but this is one of those mysteries of God's purpose and wisdom that makes us wonder but that we may never fully understand.
Here, now, after all the appearances, the disciples were still uncertain and yet they knew. John tells us that none of the disciples dared to ask, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. Their hesitation is understandable: this was an even greater mystery than the 153 fish. Jesus was dead and now He is alive. This was so outside their experience that they must have wondered if they were crazy. Despite the appearances, the whole idea of bodily resurrection at that moment in time was so outside common sense that it seemed preposterous. Every appearance was a surprise because it simply could not be real.
It was time to deal with the elephant in the room (or on the beach) when the meal was finished: Peter. It is interesting that Peter did not think he was worthy of the work which Jesus was calling him to do in the call story from Luke. How much less worthy did he feel during this encounter? He denied Jesus three times on the night of His trial, just as Jesus predicted. I can understand why he ran away to his fishing boat: he was probably afraid to run into Jesus again because then they would have to deal with his guilt over the denial.
After the breakfast, Jesus turned His attention to Peter; Peter needed forgiveness. Jesus asked Peter, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?" What is Jesus asking of Peter? Does he love Jesus more than the other disciples? Does He love Jesus more than those disciples love Jesus? Does he love Jesus more than his fishing gear and the hard work of catching fish on the sea? Peter does not answer with specifics but simply said, "Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection for you." Jesus did know, for Jesus knew the hearts of His disciples as well as He knows our own hearts. Yet, Jesus asked again. And then He asked a third time, but this one was a little different. "Simon, son of Jonah, do you have affection for me?" Peter was hurt. "Lord, you know everything. You know that I have affection for you."
Peter was hurt, but this conversation was important. Jesus asked three times because Peter needed to repent three times for his denial of Jesus. The threefold confession of affection for Jesus counters the denial. For Peter, the three questions seemed to verify his unworthiness, but for Jesus the three answers restored their relationship and reinstated Peter to his position as leader among the disciples.
It is important to pay attention to the language in this passage. John uses two distinct Greek words to describe love: "agape" and "phileo." Agape love is a deep, abiding, committed love. Phileo love is a brotherly love. Twice Jesus asked, "Do you agape me?" and twice Peter answered, "Yes, I phileo you." The third time Jesus asked, "Do you phileo me?" and Peter answered, "Yes, Lord, I phileo you." To me it appears Jesus was asking Peter for a deep commitment while Peter was not yet ready to give him that much. Jesus did not reject Peter's uncertainty and insecurity. Peter was still restored and commissioned to do the work of Jesus Christ in the world. Peter was the key-holder chosen by Jesus and despite his doubt, Jesus remained faith to His promises. There is comfort in this for those of us who have taken too many years to make a real commitment to the work Christ is calling us to do. We can see that Jesus has patience, that He does not take away our commission because we have doubts and uncertainties. He loves us and encourages us until we are deeply and fully committed. Obviously, Peter's love became deeper as he continued the work until he did died a martyr's death on the cross.
This encounter reveals another thing about our ministry in this world. Jesus first told Peter, "Feed my lambs." Then He said, "Tend my sheep." Finally, He told Peter to "Feed my sheep." Peter was called to give the people the Word of God, to feed them and help them to become mature disciples and faithful followers of the Way. In this commission we see the progression of the Church and individual believers, from first faith, through growing faith, through continuing maturity and discipleship. The comfort we have in this view of the passage is that we can see that even when we canít quite give to God what we really should give to Him, He accepts us right where we are and gives us only as much as we can handle. Ultimately, Peter did prove to have agape love for His Lord, following Him even into death. This was a life-changing moment for Peter.
There is another life-changing moment in our passage from Acts. We could write a whole other sermon based on Paul's call to follow Jesus. Saul, as he was called in the beginning, was a murderous zealot who sought to put an end to the growth of the Christian movement. He was present at Stephen's stoning and was on his way to Damascus with letters giving him to authority to deal with the fellowship of believers there. He was stopped along the road, however, by a vision. He was on the road to Damascus when suddenly a bright light shone and a voice called to him from heaven. ďSaul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Saul cried out "Who are you, Lord?" Jesus told him that He was the Jesus whose followers he was persecuting and commanded that Saul go to Damascus and wait. "You will be told what you must do." Saul was blinded by the light; he was left dazed and confused. The people who were with him heard a noise but did not know where it was coming from. They took Saul into the city and he waited.
God called a man named Ananias to go to Saul and heal his blindness. Ananias questioned God's command, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name." The Lord told him that Saul had been chosen to be a vessel to take the Gospel to the world, so Ananias obeyed. Saul was healed and he began to preach.
Luke changes the name from Saul to Paul later in Acts, perhaps as a way to distinguish his old life from his new one. It isn't necessarily a name change like others throughout the scriptures, since he probably used both names during his life. Paul was a Roman name he would have used when he was in the company of other Roman citizens, while Saul was used among fellow Jews. The Hebrew name Saul means "prayed for" or "responded." This is appropriate for one who is in ministry. However, the name Saul is translated Saulos in the Greek. This word "saulos" means "the sultry walk of a prostitute." Since Paul was called to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, it was appropriate for him to use his Roman name.
Peter and the disciples saw the Lord Jesus with their eyes and heard Him with their ears. We do not have such a blessing in this day. For now, we are living by faith, not by sight. It is comforting to us to know that even those who were there had their own doubts and uncertainties. John tells us, however, that there will be a day when we will not have to live by faith.
While on Patmos, John had a vision of God's ultimate purpose for humanity and of His sovereignty over all the earth. It is a book of hope for the Christian, offering a glimpse into heaven and the promise that God will overcome all our fears. In today's passage we get a foretaste of that which is to come for each believer, an eternal lifetime of worshipping our God. John heard the voices singing, "Worthy is the Lamb that hath been slain to receive the power, and riches, and wisdom, and might and honor, and glory, and blessing."
Worthy is the lamb. Peter thought he was unworthy first of his calling and then of his restoration, but he humbly received the forgiveness when Jesus. Paul did not really think he was worthy of his calling, either, which we see repeatedly in his letters to the churches. He called himself the least of the apostles because he persecuted the Christians. Peter and Paul were unworthy and we are no different than they. There is only one worthy: the Lamb. Jesus was willing to be obedient to God's will and purpose for His life and He received everything that God intended for Him: power, and riches, and wisdom, and might and honor, and glory, and blessing. The lamb that was slain was seated with the One on the throne and all God's creatures fill the heavens and the earth with His praise.
The image in this vision from John is incredible: the number of those praising God is sometimes translated "myriad of myriads" which is the largest number named by the ancient Greeks. It is also the largest number found in the Bible. We now have terms for numbers higher than a thousand (million, billion, trillion, etc.), this myriad of myriads should be understood as a number larger than anything we can define in human terms. The number of those who were worshipping God, from heaven to earth to underneath the earth, is beyond our scientific knowledge and our imagination!
He is so worthy that we can't help but sing His praise. As the psalmist sings, "Sing praise to Yahweh, you saints of his. Give thanks to his holy name."
Peter did exactly what Jesus foretold, denying that he was one of the disciples of Jesus. When he realized what he had done, he wept with regret. When he realized that Jesus was standing on the beach near where they were fishing, he jumped out of the boat with joy. But then he had to face the reality that he had denied Jesus. Jesus was angry for only a moment; He had a greater purpose for Peter. The doubt and uncertainty was transformed into a passion for God's people. When Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus, he was changed from one who persecuted the church into the greatest of all the apostles. He suffered for a moment, made blind by the vision of light and the voice of the Lord. But God's anger was brief because He had a greater purpose for Paul. His pain was transformed into a passion for the Gospel.
Our own experiences of God's presence are also life-changing. He turns our mourning into dancing. The pain from our failures is quickly forgiven as God then blesses us with the gifts and the calling to do His work in the world. Jesus transformed the disciples from those wearing sackcloth into those who wear joy. He does the same for us by changing our attitude from doubt and uncertainty, pain and grief into rejoicing and praise.
We step out in faith to do the work God has called us to do, but we can't help but ask ourselves, "What is our purpose?" We seek to understand God's will for our lives and we try to do be obedient to His will. To do so means stepping out of our comfort zones, to do things that we do not think we are worthy to do. When we succeed, it is easy to pat ourselves on our backs in a congratulatory way. Yet we learn, particularly during the Easter season, that our purpose is to join our voices with the myriad of myriads in praise God and the Lamb.
We are created with the purpose of praising God. His anger is brief and His blessing is eternal. God speaks His Word into our lives, makes His presence known to us, so that we'll be reconciled and transformed into the people He created and redeemed us to be. It won't be easy; we will face persecution and perhaps even martyrdom. Many will reject the Word we take into the world, but we are comforted by the reality that God is greater than our failures. The doubt and uncertainty that we all have experienced is transformed into a new life of joy and praise by God's grace. It can happen to others, too, which is why we are called to continue the work begun by Peter of feeding the lambs, tending the sheep and feeding the sheep.
"Don't let kindness and truth forsake you. Bind them around your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor, and good understanding in the sight of God and man." Proverbs 3:4-5, WEB
Ask any college student and they will tell you that their wardrobe consists of a lot of t-shirts. The reason for this is not because they buy a lot of t-shirts, but because they get a lot of t-shirts for free. They get a t-shirt from their department. They get a t-shirt every time they attend an event. They get t-shirts at certain sports events. Many collect more than a dozen t-shirts by the end of their freshman year without even realizing it! They do so without paying a dime.
It might seem like a costly venture for the schools or organizations to give t-shirts to everyone who participates, but there's method to the madness. See, the t-shirts act as human bulletin boards and they draw people in. Some students attend the events just to get the t-shirt, which is good for the organization because it means more people attend. In the end you know which shirts and organizations are most popular by the number of students wearing them around campus each week. My kids' favorites get worn out because they want to share the particular message written on the garment.
T-shirts tell a story. We buy t-shirts as souvenirs from our vacations. We buy t-shirts that have superheroes or famous characters that we love. We buy t-shirts that say something about what interests us. I have one that is about being an artist. I've seen similar shirts for musicians and scientists and nurses. There are funny t-shirts for cat and dog lovers, people who play sports and geeks of every sort. My emailbox is currently filled with ads from several places offering custom shirts for summer camp, VBS or church mission trips. T-shirts are designed to start up a conversation about the subject. One summer the kids had t-shirts for a youth gathering that simply said, "Ask me." No one really knew what they were supposed to ask, but it certainly made a lot of conversation!
T-shirts have become problematic in some places. Schools don't like when students wear shirts that have certain messages and so they are banned in dress codes. People are often offended by what they see strangers wearing. It has even become a First Amendment issue that has been tried in court. I've seen stories about students sent home for wearing shirts with themes from patriotism to crude jokes to faith.
T-shirts are one way we can literally wear our faith on our sleeves. My kids still wear their camp shirts and have other shirts that have statements of faith. Like the bumper sticker theology we talked about a few days ago, t-shirts can say something powerful in very few words, but it isn't always helpful to be so blatant with our faith. The term "wearing our faith on our sleeves" probably comes from an ancient Jewish custom of wearing a tefillin (or phylactery in the Greek) during prayer. The tefillin was a small leather box containing scripture that was a sign to remember God's Law. The boxes were worn on the forehead and/or on the arm. The biblical instructions are unclear, but the rabbis throughout the ages have interpreted what this means for the faithful. Unfortunately, there are about as many interpretations as there are interpreters, so the use of tefillin today is as diverse as those who practice it.
Today's Proverb tells us that we should wear kindness and truth around our necks. This perhaps points to the use of phylactery, but it probably isn't meant to be so literal about wearing the signs of our faith on our flesh. As a matter of fact, it is calling us to live the lives in a way that shines as a sign of our love for God. Kindness and truth glorify God in very real way, and in ways that bring attention to His kindness and truth. It is by His kindness and truth that the world is saved, so our faithfulness to His Word is better than any t-shirt or phylactery will ever be.
"Then will they call on me, but I will not answer. They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me; because they hated knowledge, and didnít choose the fear of Yahweh. They wanted none of my counsel. They despised all my reproof. Therefore they will eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own schemes. For the backsliding of the simple will kill them. The careless ease of fools will destroy them. But whoever listens to me will dwell securely, and will be at ease, without fear of harm." Proverbs 1:28-33, WEB
I saw a picture of a bridge the other day, I think it was in China, which hung high above a very deep canyon. I say "hung" because it was a very flexible bridge, not exactly like those scary rope bridges that the hero must always cross in the adventure movies set in wild places, but a bridge that swings in the breeze and bounces with every step. There's another picture of a trail that edges along a high cliff, with some places barely wide enough for a person to walk. There are videos of insane rides like rollercoasters with steep drop offs or tight twists and turns. These pictures or videos often come with the question, "Would you do this?" or "Would you do this for a million dollars?" or "How much would it take to get you to do this?"
There are always some people that don't need an incentive; they are willing to do anything crazy just for the thrill of it. Some people might try to do these things with some incentive, but there are some who won't do it for anything. "NO WAY!" they say. I'm not one of those seeking the thrills, but I'm willing to do a little crazy. The bridge might seem frightening, but it is strong and would not be a tourist attraction if it was dangerous. The cliff is a little more frightening, and I'm not sure I'm confident enough to try such a challenging hike, but I might do it. The roller coaster would be fun, although old age has made that type of ride physically uncomfortable for me.
Did you ever take any chances when you were a kid, teenager or even a young adult? Perhaps you climbed a very tall tree or swam in an old minehole filled with water. The risky actions are not always physical: you may have written a note to a boy or girl you like, even though you did not know if they liked you back. Everyone has to take some chances like riding a bike the first time without training wheels or trying out for a sports team. Those chances are part of our growth and maturity. Those chances are not dangerous and there's a lesson in both the success and failure of them. There are some things we do both as children and adults that are downright foolish.
Whenever a movie or television show comes out with dangerous stunts, the producers make a very big deal about the warnings to the viewers; "Do not try this at home" they plead. We have heard that is a statement a million times but every time we hear it, we also hear accompanying stories of people who have ignored the warnings. There have been too many young people who have died or been injured in attempts to recreate something they have seen. It is sad when that happens, but unfortunately we do suffer the consequences of our foolishness.
How often do we take chances with God? Do we ever test Him, make deals with Him, or try to get out of Him exactly what we want, rather than what He has planned for our lives? Do we cross dangerous bridges, take risky paths, or try to do the things we've seen others do, not only with our physical bodies but also with our spiritual lives? We do so when we conform to the world and follow the ways of those who do not obey the Word of the Lord. When we lie, cheat or steal we are risking our relationship with our God. When we lust or covet we are chasing after the things that will keep us from our God. When we hurt someone with our words or destroy relationships with our actions, we hurt our Father and break our relationship with Him.
Sometimes we get lucky; we make it across the bridge or to the end of the trail, but sometimes we slip and fall. Hopefully we won't do so when the consequences are too great. Is it worth the risk? It is thrilling or foolish to do those crazy things that the movie producers warn should not be done? We reap what we sow, physically and spiritually. Instead of risking our relationship with the One who has saved us, let us always do that which is pleasing to God and we will dwell in His presence now and forever.
"Commit your deeds to Yahweh, and your plans shall succeed." Proverbs 16:3, WEB
I spent the weekend at a camp retreat designed for those interested in creative endeavors. We are invited to take classes that are offered or to take our own projects. Some people take work they've wanted to do but are unable to accomplish because they are so busy at home. A weekend away from the phone and housework makes it possible to finish projects that are otherwise left in a box or on a table. One group from a church finished three quilts that they began as a group at a regular weekly meetings. Several of their quilts are donated to the camp each year, so they thought it would be fun to work on them at the craft retreat. Another group worked on another type of quilt. One woman did jewelry. Several people worked on scrapbooking. One woman began a cross stitch project. There were knitters and women who did crochet. Quite a few women spent the time coloring.
Along with the opportunities to craft, the camp provided people to pamper the campers. There were several people giving massages and a woman who talked about beauty tips. We were fed very well, with healthy, filling meals and snacks of wine and cheese and tea and scones. We had times for worship and prayer. Best of all, we were staying in the quiet serenity and beauty of camp in cabins with the comforts of home.
I usually take some sort of project with me, although I do take the classes that interest me. You don't have to work on crafts, I spent one year curled up on a couch reading a good book. I took a painting one year; last year I bound my painting-a-day project from Lent into a book. This year I took the materials to get started on my Christmas ornaments. I had a plan which included trying some new things. I had fun designing the ornaments, using pastel pencils. Pastels require some sort protection from smudging and I took along my usual spray varnish.
I was doing really well. The designs came out beautiful and my crafter friends loved what I was accomplishing. I decided to spray the ones that were finished as I went along so that they would not be ruined with handling. Unfortunately, the choice of spray was absolutely wrong; in combination with the work surface that was not really right for the job, the spray made the color almost completely disappear. There's a 'ghost' of the original, and while still sort of pretty up close, it can't be seen at all from a distance. It surely isn't what it was before spraying. I've done some research and discovered some solutions to this issue, but I think that I will probably paint the ornaments with acrylics instead and save the pastel pencils for some other project.
We always gather at the end of the retreat to share our accomplishments. I didn't really feel like I accomplished anything since my project did not work out as I planned. I didn't think I would finish all my ornaments, but was hoping to get well on my way. I even talked about having failed, although most of my friends were encouraging. In the end I realized that what I accomplished was the design that I would use later and learning techniques that would not work. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." So, I got up at the Show and Tell portion of the weekend and talked about trying, experimenting and the failures that teach us what we need to know to do it better.
While I don't believe God is going to guide my hands in my projects, I do know that it is important that we look to God's guidance in everything. The proverb tells us to commit to God all we do, and in doing so we will find success. That success might not be great accomplishments or perfect projects, but even the lessons we learn can glorify God as we are transformed into ever more faithful disciples.
"There is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." Proverbs 14:12, WEB
Bilbo Baggins was going through his daily routine which usually included much feasting in his hobbit home, when strangers arrived and made themselves at home. He had difficulty dealing with the intrusion, but everything eventually became clear when Gandalf arrived to explain. The intruders were dwarfs who were preparing for a journey to take back their ancestral home and Gandalf convinced them that Bilbo would be a good addition to their party.
The dwarfs had lost their mountain to a dragon, but a recent map showed them a way they might be able to enter and defeat the beast. They knew they could never do it through the front door which the dragon watched carefully, but the map showed a tiny, hidden doorway. The front door meant certain death, but they could win the battle against the dragon if they entered the narrow door. Bilbo's task would be to go into the door, sneak into the den of the dragon and scout the situation so that the dwarfs could decide how best to fight and win.
Bilbo had no idea what he would find. He was a timid creature as it was, but the journey helped him become brave. He did what he had to do and despite his fear finished the journey as a hero. It wasn't an easy journey for any of them. They ran into difficulty along the way and had to be saved several times; it was often Bilbo who did the saving, but that didn't stop him from being afraid of what might be on the other side of the door.
We never know what is around the corner or behind the door. The path that begins wide might lead to steep terrain or flooded plains. The big door may lead to crowded halls or the wrong part of the building. When it comes to hiking in the woods or arriving at a place, it is good to get instructions from those who know better so that we will go the right way. We tend to go through the bigger door or take the wider path because it seems like it must be easier, but that is not always true. I have had too many experiences of getting lost because I did not take the path recommended to me. You would think I would learn by now.
I went on a wildflower adventure the other week; I went with a plan. I had my routes all worked out, although I am always willing to take a different turn if I think it might lead me to the prettiest wildflower fields. I was headed in the right direction, but the main road I was traveling was not very interesting, so I decided to turn onto a county road. The first section of this road was well paved and it was headed in the direction I eventually wanted to go. I didn't need to go to the city; this was a short cut.
Unfortunately these county roads never go exactly straight, often having wide curves that send you in a completely different direction. They also don't stay nicely paved very long. This particular road become little more than a dirt track, and barely even that. At one point the road was so filled with wholes that previous drivers had created a new pathway through the field around the problem. It didn't take very long for me to realize that I was lost. Very lost. I had no idea where I was and no idea which direction I would have to go when I did finally get to a better road.
I found my way out and ended up in the city I was trying to avoid. Somehow I cross the road I wanted along the way, but it wasn't marked so I did not know it was where I should have turned. I did find some beautiful wildflowers to photograph, but it was a bit frightening to be so alone and so lost in the country.
The Proverb tells us that there is a way that seems right to man. It is the direction many people go: the bigger door or the wider path. Yet, it is the way of destruction if it is not the way of God. Unfortunately, too many Christians are willing to follow the trends, to conform to the world and to do what feels good even if isn't according to God's Word. Someone grabs onto an idea that is new and sounds good, so thousands, even millions, follow. These teachings may sound good on the surface, but they twist the Word of God in a way that makes it a false Gospel, dangerous to those who seek the love and mercy of God. It leads to death because there is no life found in the words.
Jesus was concerned for those who were taking the wrong path, the path that does not lead to life. He is the way, He is the gate. We should not follow the way we think we should go, but rather follow the way Jesus has paved for us. The wide path and the bigger door may have dangers lying just out of sight, but the way God has planned is safe because He is with us. He knows what is best, He knows what lies ahead, and He knows how to guide us through each difficulty. We tend toward our own way, thinking that it surely must be right. We listen to those whom seem to be speaking well. We need to test those ways against God's Word and go where He wants us to go. Any other path will lead us away from life and into death no matter how good it seems.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 17, 2016, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 20:17-35, Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
"They cried with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" Revelation 7:10, WEB
My husband attends a large Bible study and has recently taken on the responsibility of sitting in as a group leader when someone is unable to attend. They are studying the book of Revelation this year and so the conversations have been enlightening and interesting. There are those who have very fervent ideas about the meaning of Revelation and those ideas often collide with the ideas of others. Anyone who has had a conversation about the book knows what I'm talking about.
The group Bruce led this week has one of those people. He had only been attending the study for a couple weeks, so he doesn't have the background that they've had after eight months of lessons or the relationship that had built between the other members of the group, but that didn't stop him from boldly proclaiming his truth. While we all need to be challenged about our ideas, we need to learn how to discuss things with the humility of knowing that we might be wrong.
This is true, of course, in all our conversations. It is true for politics and child rearing, the best way to cook eggs or how to serve wine. How much more important is that humility when talking about something so beyond our human comprehension. Oh, we can read and interpret, as many have done over the millennium, but the reality is that the apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation makes our analyses little more than guesses. For some those interpretations bring fear; for others it brings comfort. Some use the book as a way of forcing people into faith to save them from the horror and others think it is a very literal timeline that can be held against the calendar of human history.
This particular writing is not really about the virtues and vices of human interpretation of the book of Revelation. It is a conversation that will certainly bring about those differences of opinion, especially from those who passionately believe they have the right interpretation. Too many suggest that if you don't believe as they do, perhaps as the person in Bruce's group, then you aren't really a Christian. I have known people who have claimed to have some special knowledge about the apocalypse and that you will only ever truly understand when the Holy Spirit makes you understand.
It doesn't help when our text says something like, "These are those who came out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb's blood." What is the great tribulation? When will it be? How will it happen? The answer to those questions are as numerous as people who have studied it. Some say the day will come, others have suggested we've been in it since the days of the early church. There is value in trying to understand what God means by the text in Revelation, but what is that value?
The passage from Revelation shows us a vision of heavenly worship, where a great multitude from every nation and tongue are standing before the throne of God in white. They are waving palms, just as been done in religious ceremony for generations. The symbolism here can mean many things: God's victory, His hospitality, His peace and strength. It can represent the joy of the multitude and their thanksgiving for God's blessings. The white of their robes does not come from their own righteousness, but because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. They cry out, "Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!Ē They sing praise and thanksgiving to God because the blessing and honor and glory for ever and ever belongs to Him.
We might want to know and understand what all these things mean, but the best conversations will begin with worship. In praise and thanksgiving to God we realize that our differences don't matter nearly as much as we think they do. Whether we are waiting for the tribulation or whether we are dwelling in it today is made bearable but the reality that God is with us through it all.
I saw a quote from C.S. Lewis this morning that said, "There have been some so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ." I think that's true about so many of our discussions about doctrine and faith. We are so busy fighting one another about whether or not the rapture comes before, during, after or not at all that we forget that we have eternal life today and always because of what Jesus Christ did for us two thousand years ago. I love to study the scriptures to see if I can understand it in a relevant or spiritual way, but the bottom line is that our life of faith begins with worship. Anything we do without praise and thanksgiving is pointless.
Too many people do not appreciate the book of Revelation because it requires faith and a willingness to accept that some things about God are mysterious. We want answers. We want solid, irrefutable facts. We don't want things to be outside our ability to reason. That's why we get so upset when others interpret the apocalyptic texts differently than we do. We aren't any different than those who were meeting Jesus two thousand years ago. It is a human trait to want it all spelled out clearly.
"The Jews therefore came around him and said to him, 'How long will you hold us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.'" We want Jesus to tell us these things plainly. I suppose that's why we are so willing to believe when someone tells us that they have figured out the hidden messages of the scriptures. If someone can tell us the meaning of the seals or the identity of the Antichrist, then we will follow because it is easier to have the answers than trust in the God who has purposely given us the riddle. The Jews didn't want to figure out the answer for themselves. "Give it to us in a way that we can know intellectually so that we don't have to rely on faith."
Faith is hard because it isn't tangible. Faith can be attacked with very simple questions, "What if you are wrong?" "Why do you believe it means this when they believe it means something else?" If you look around the church, particularly in the United States, there are so many divisions and debates about the most basic aspects of Christian life that it is hard to believe any of it. Faith or works or faith and works. What is our focus: social justice or evangelism? Contemporary music or hymns on the organ? Of course, the debates deal with even more significant issues, and the answers to those questions have very real consequences in this life and the next. It would have been much easier if God had spelled out the answers much more clearly.
We think it matters, and perhaps it does, but we will not truly know until we stand in the presence of our God. And then we'll wonder why it even mattered.
Paul had a tough job. He was establishing communities of faith throughout the known world. He was helping the Christians discover what it means to be faithful and faith-filled. He was fighting those who had differing opinions about what Jesus meant. Even today some of those ideas still exist in churches. The arguments have gone on for two thousand years. Paul was adamant about certain things and it makes him seem, to some, to be like that guy at the bible study table: too zealous. It is a misunderstanding of Paul, however, to see him like that.
We often talk about Paul's arrogance, if that's the right word for it, but Paul was really a very humble and obedient man. He says, "But these things donít count; nor do I hold my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to fully testify to the Good News of the grace of God." His flesh didn't matter to him; the ministry did. If scourging or martyrdom would spread the Gospel of Christ and glorify God, then he was willing to go through it.
It is texts like this one from Acts that reminds us to be humble with our words about God. Paul was certain that he would never see Ephesus again. The people in that community did not want him to return to Jerusalem because they were certain that he would die at the hands of those who disagreed with the work he was doing. He was taking the Gospel to the foreigners and pagans, certainly not the expectation of the Jewish Christians who thought that this new faith was meant only for those who were first willing to be Jewish. Paul was certain, too, that he would not survive the trip. "Now, behold, I know that you all, among whom I went about preaching God's Kingdom, will see my face no more," said Paul. "I know..." is easy to say but we can't always be so sure. Paul had a prophetic voice, but he didn't seem to have the power to foresee his own future. As a matter of fact, it is possible that he did return to Ephesus at some time during a later journey. He certainly did not die in Jerusalem at that time.
Though he knew he did not have a choice but to go to Jerusalem, Paul was concerned for the people of Ephesus. He thought he would never see them again, and he knew that their future would be full of similar difficulties. In the story from Acts, Paul was talking to the leaders of the Ephesian church, those who had been given the responsibility to take care of the flock. They were the shepherds, Godís helpers. But the duty of those leaders was to be the voice of Christ, to speak His Word to the people and to keep them safe from those who would come to twist the scriptures to their benefit.
The Church was bought by a heavy price: the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son. He took the life of His people very seriously. He is concerned that they stay on the right path, that they live as He has called them to live. If we think about the history of God's people, we can see that it isnít as easy to live according to God's Word as it seems. After all, generations of people have come before us. It only took a few generations for the people to turn away from God and follow the ways of the world. Though there were faithful judges and kings to shepherd the people, their sons often turned to other gods. It took catastrophic events to cause the people to return to Him. And then they'd be faithful for a generation or two, quickly forgetting all that He'd done for them.
We might think it is easier to live under grace, but the reality is that we are as unfaithful as those who came before us. We need to be guided by God's Word, to hold on to it, to keep our eyes on Jesus Christ. It is too easy for us to accept the ideas of those who are fervent, looking to them because they have answers to questions that we can't seem to answer for ourselves. The problem is that sometimes these zealots lead us down a path away from our God.
I was once in a bookstore and I overheard a conversation between a young couple. They were in the department with Christian fiction, and this was when the "Left Behind" series was very popular. They were talking about a friend, someone they were sure was not a Christian. "We should buy this for so-and-so," one of them said. "Yes," said the other, "She needs to be saved." The fictional books were being used for evangelism. Instead of sharing the Gospel with their friend, instead of giving her a Bible to read, they wanted to frighten her into submission to a faith that was focused on saving oneself than on meeting the One who saves.
That's the biggest problem with our debates about religion: we start thinking that our answers will be the reason or our salvation. That's why we question the faith of those who do not think as we do. If we are right, then they must be wrong, and if they are wrong, they must not be saved.
Why do we try so hard? Our works and our ideas will never save us. Paul writes, "Take heed, therefore, to yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the assembly of the Lord and God which he purchased with his own blood." We are, perhaps, not the elders of our congregations or the pastors called to lead flocks of sheep, but Paul's words ring true to all of us who are called to the priesthood of all believers. We are to look after one another, to introduce our friends and neighbors to the Living God and to show them that Jesus is the way to eternal life.
One of the hardest words of Jesus for us to understand is in today's Gospel lesson. Jesus says, "I told you, and you donít believe.Ē I think this is hard for us to understand for two reasons. First of all, we know from our own arguments with others that things are not always quite so plain in the scriptures. He certainly doesn't say, "I am the Messiah," although many believe He is by the things He said and did. The other thing that makes it hard is the reality that they can't believe because they are not Jesus' sheep. Doesn't God love the whole world? Doesn't He promise His grace to all? How can there be sheep that do not belong to Him?
His sheep are those who hear, but hearing is not a passive verb. Hearing is doing, it is acting, it is following, it is obeying. Paul heard and he believed. He went out and began preaching the message of the Gospel to all who would hear. The Jews heard, but they did not believe. They demanded proof. They wanted to see Jesus do and say what they expected from the Messiah, but Jesus didn't fit their mold. He refused to conform to their expectations because God had already proven Him. Jesus' authority and power were established in the signs (especially in John's Gospel) and in the words He spoke. Saying "I am the Messiah" would not change their hearts.
Giving us the answers to our questions would not change our hearts. Dealing with the issues of our day would not make us more faithful. God leaves us with questions so that we will look to Him. See, when we look to Him we realize that the questions that bother us really don't matter as much as we expect because we are so busy being thankful with praise for what really does matter: that He purchased us with His own blood. He gained our salvation by the blood of the Lamb who was slain, His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
They wanted Jesus to be the Messiah they expected, but Jesus was the Messiah God intended. His plain words would never have convinced them.
Jesus clearly declared with word and deed the truth of His identity and purpose. He was the Good Shepherd. He was the Light. He was the presence of God they so desperately were seeking in their oppression, and they did not hear because He was not what they wanted for a Messiah. He could not be a king; He could not deliver them from their enemy. His teachings were different than the established Jewish thought. They did not want to hear because they had rejected Him. He did not fit into their expectation, so they ignored His voice. They were not His and it was not because Jesus rejected them. They rejected Him.
The same was true for the Church in Ephesus and for us today. Unfortunately, the wolves are not only those who try to get us to conform to the world, but we often find them in our midst. They speak words that sound true but are far from God. They havenít heard His voice, but have followed another. While we can talk about the devil, we can't ignore the reality that the false voices are often our own. They seek the wrong things. They turn others away from God for their own benefit. They say and do what makes them feel good or fits into their own agenda. They turn from God and act as their own gods. Then they try to get others to follow. Sometimes they do so with good intent but without beginning from a place of humility before the throne of God.
The psalmist writes, "He leads me in right pathsÖ" We want to be independent. We want to be in control. We want to make our own choices and so we do so without the help of our shepherd. Sadly, our question for independence often takes on the well-worn paths laid down by others rather than the path that truly leads us to where we want to be. I don't think there is a Christian who hasn't struggled with times of doubt or confusion, who hasn't tested the waters of other faiths or sought answers to questions that do not really matter. Most of the time our wrong choices mean we are lost for a while but we eventually find the right way. Sometimes, however, the wrong path is dangerous. When we go those ways we can lose faith, lose hope and worst of all lose sight of our God. Our shepherd leads us on the right path, guiding our footsteps so that we are going His way.
The psalmist writes that the shepherd makes the world safe for the sheep, being present, protecting, providing, anointing and restoring. Even when the world seems dark and frightening, the sheep have no reason to fear. As long as the shepherd is nearby, the sheep are blessed with all they need. The Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want, for He will provide everything we need. The most important thing we learn in this weekís passages is that it is the Lord that provides. He is the shepherd. He is the healer. He is the Savior.
There is a prayer that we use at our church as a benediction as we leave to go out in the world after we have worshipped God together: "As you leave this place, may the living Lord go with you. May he go behind you to encourage you, beside you to befriend you, above you to watch over you, beneath you, to lift you from your sorrows, within you to give you the gifts of faith, hope and love, and always before you, to show you the way. Amen."
There may be good reason for us to study the texts, even the hard ones, to better understand our God. However, let us always remember what truly matters is God is with us through it all. He is our Shepherd. He calls us to a life of sharing that bit of Good News with our neighbors so that they, too, can hear His voice and follow Him. He calls us to a life of sharing our lives with others, both friends and strangers, so that they will join us in that heavenly worship for all eternity before our Father and the Lamb.
The Lamb is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who will guide us to springs of the water of life. We will no longer hunger or thirst; we will not mourn as God wipes the tears from our eyes. This is such a vision of hope and promise on that fulfills the promises that are written by the psalmist.
The Twenty-third Psalm is probably one of the most beloved passages from the Bible, a message that even non-believers recognize as comforting during times of need. This psalm is often read at funerals and Iíve heard countless stories of the dying seeking the words to that prayer as they enter into the valley of death. It is a song that puts the control back into the hands of the One to whom all the world belongs and defines the work of His hands.
We don't have to wait for our death beds to see God as that Good Shepherd. We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death even now because every step we take takes us closer to the day we will no longer live in this world. For some, like Paul, there is a very real reason to fear because our faith has been rejected by the world. Persecution may come, death may be at the hands of those who refuse to believe, or at the hands of those who think we should believe differently. We might try to foresee what is waiting for us at the other end of our journeys, but I doubt our prophetic guesses are any better than Paul.
Do not fear, for the Good Shepherd is near. Hear and believe. Go and speak and do as He has commanded. Who knows? Perhaps God has chosen you to be the vessel through which He will guard and protect and provide His sheep with everything they need. Or you might be the one to help them join the fold. Then we will spend eternity together singing Godís praise and thanksgiving at the foot of His throne.
"A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." Proverbs 15:1, WEB
I have to admit that I have a tendency to raise my voice when I feel like I am not being heard. It happened too often when I was a preschool teacher. It doesn't matter how many times I learned that it is better to get the attention of the children by whispering, I tended to talk louder than the chaos just to be heard. The theory is that raising your voice will make the noise of the room even louder; it is just hard for me to believe that the quiet voice will catch their attention. So, I yell.
I typed "quiet voice" in my search engine this morning, expecting to find stories or research about this idea. The answers, however, were focused on the troubles of those who have a quiet voice. Most of the articles seemed to target those with social anxiety, whose nervousness make speaking loudly is difficult. One woman posted a story about how she was trying on shorts in the dressing room of the store when an attendant knocked to see if anyone was there. She answered as loudly as possible, but it was too soft, so the attendant opened the door to find her half-dressed inside. The woman was embarrassed, especially since the attendant mumbled, "They get mad, but they don't say anything," without understanding that the woman tried to be loud enough but she was just not heard.
One article talked about the disadvantages of having a quiet voice. People get frustrated because they have to ask repeatedly for the person to say things again and again. The speakers get frustrated by the same thing. Most people will give up on that relationship because of the frustration. People with quiet voices never get a chance to tell their ideas or stories in a lively conversation. Repeating statements can cause a person to become flustered and confusing to the listeners. Most people are too lazy or impatient to take the time to hear a quiet speaker. Sadly, most people think the quiet speaker is weak or apprehensive and therefore not worth knowing, as if they have nothing valuable to offer a relationship. This problem can cause a quiet speaker to lose confidence. They retreat, turn inward and become even more unable to deal with social situations.
There are some people for whom this is not a problem. They are always able to get a word in edgewise, making it particularly hard for the quiet talker. We all know a person who dominates every conversation. They speak just loud enough to be heard over everyone else, have an answer to every statement and a story to match everyone else's. They have advice even if you haven't asked for any and are confident that every word they speak is more valuable than anything else anyone else has to say. It doesn't matter the topic, they have something to say and they will say it even if they have to step on others to do so.
Today's proverb really doesn't have to do with the difference between the quiet and loud talkers. Rather it has to do with what comes out of our mouths. Unfortunately, in our quest to be heard we often do not think about what we are going to say. We blurt out whatever comes to our tongues without considering whether it is really of any value. You see much too much of that if you pay attention to the political or religious conversations in our world today. Sadly, the words often have nothing to do with the real subject at hand, but are instead words meant to bring down an opponent. That doesn't lead to conversation but argument.
That's why we must tame our tongues. It doesn't help to yell at a room full of kids because it will just raise the level of their noise. The proverb probably doesn't mean that we should become quiet talkers, or even that we should stop being loud talkers, but instead cautions us to consider carefully what we should say before we say it. The way to a good conversation is not to dominate the conversation with harsh words, but to listen and gently answer. No one hears anything in the midst of a fight, but the gentle answer opens the door to civility and peace.
"If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat. If he is thirsty, give him water to drink: for you will heap coals of fire on his head, and Yahweh will reward you." Proverbs 25:21-22, WEB
I read an article the other day about a man who ended up in prison. He was highly educated, had a great job, and even went into politics. That's where his troubles began. He did something that apparently "everybody" does, but he got caught and was sentenced to a year in prison. It was tough because he didn't know the "rules." On the first night, he sat at a table with his blockmates, all of whom were black (he was white) and he was threatened by both because they segregated themselves. He was threatened when he refused to break the rules. In the end, he found his way through the complicated relationships, survived his time and returned to the world with an insight into a world he might never have experienced if he hadn't made a mistake.
Of course, he learned about the impact a year in prison had on his life. Despite his education and experience, that red mark on his record made it very difficult for him to find another job. He realized that if he had trouble, then it must be even truer of those who went to prison without his advantages. Yet, while he was in prison he realized that those men have an entrepreneurial spirit that would be very successful in the real world if they were only given a chance. Sadly most end up back in prison because they can't find a way to use their abilities in positive ways. The article suggested that everyone mentor a convict, to help them to stay on a good path so that they will succeed outside the walls of the prison.
The worry, of course, for those outside the prison walls is that it is impossible for a leopard to change its spots, so we don't trust those who have been imprisoned. They might have an entrepreneurial spirit, but when you consider the ways they used it in prison, you will see that they did so by being dishonest and disobedient. They stole things, threatened fellow inmates and made up their own rules. Will they do the same to be successful outside the walls? The whole point of mentorship is to help them learn a new way of using their abilities, to teach them the rules of living in community so that they will be successful without doing things that harm others along the way.
One of the hardest lessons we all have to learn is how to deal with those who hurt us. Our first response is the need for revenge. We want to get back at our enemies. Another man was a prison inmate who became a Christian while he was locked up. He had to relearn how to live since his convict ways were not faithful. He had an enemy, a convict who stole some of his property while he was in the yard. The man was angry and wanted revenge but he prayed and realized that he had to deal with this in a new way. Instead of hurting his enemy, the man prayed for him. He found that prayer was changing his attitude about the man and his hatred began to fade. Instead of violence, he began to do good things for him and telling him about Jesus. The man's kindness help the other man turn to Jesus Christ. Good overcame evil.
We read the words of Solomon and think that heaping burning coals on the head of our enemy isn't really very nice. Similar words are repeated by Paul in his letters to the Romans. However, it is likely that this is a reference to an ancient practice in which a guilty person carries a basin of glowing coals on their head as a sign of repentance. Being kind to our enemy is not meant to be something that makes them suffer, but rather something that makes them turn around and be transformed. The blessing comes not from our enemy being paid back "an eye for an eye" but rather in the relationship that is changed from enemies to brothers.
"The sacrifice made by the wicked is an abomination to Yahweh, but the prayer of the upright is his delight." Proverbs 15:8, WEB
Have you ever wondered why we don't see the kind of miracles that surrounded Jesus and His disciples in the early days of the church? When was the last time you heard about someone being raised from the dead? We hear lots of survival stories these days; modern medicine has made incredible strides in healing heart disease and cancer, although too many people still die from these and many other diseases.
We call at least some of these survival stories miraculous because they were given short life expectancy and yet managed to live for months or years after the prognosis. These are miracles, although we tend to credit the doctors (who work hard to make good things happen for their patients) and miss that God had a hand not only in the healing, but in the preparation and work of the doctors and nurses. Whether they are believers or not, God can work through their hands and He deserves the credit. With modern technology, however, we forget to credit God for the things that we think we accomplished on our own.
Despite these miraculous healings, we don't hear about people being raised from the dead like we do in the scriptures. Take, for instance, the story of Tabitha. Tabitha (or Dorcas in Greek) was a wonderful woman of God. She was extremely generous, doing good things and helping the poor. She got sick and died; the widows grieved the loss of someone who served so graciously. Peter was a few miles away and so the widows sent some men to get him. What did they expect? Did they think Peter could restore Tabitha to them? Did they want this man of God to know that such a wonderful woman served God? Whatever the reason, Peter went with the men to Joppa. The widows showed him the good work she had done. He chased them all out of the room, prayed to God and then reached for Tabitha's hand. "Tabitha, get up!" And she did.
She wasn't dead for minutes. Joppa was about twelve miles from the place where Peter was staying. There was probably at least a day between Tabitha's death and Peter's prayer. She was ready for burial, but Peter's prayer and his word brought new life to this woman of God. We read today's proverb from Solomon and wonder why we can't make these kinds of miracles happen today. Are we more wicked than Peter? Are we less righteous? We grieve over the loss of those we love, of the lack of miracles in our world today; we don't understand why we don't have the same power.
A little girl died a few years ago; her family was part of our congregation. We grieved as a body; this little girl was only a toddler, but she was a delightful example of a child of God. She loved Jesus. She joined in worship. She boldly proclaimed the Gospel in her way, with Amens and Allelujah's as well as the most wonderful renditions of "Jesus loves me" in the middle of worship. I don't think there was a single member of the congregation that didn't feel the loss. And I don't think there was a single member of the congregation who wouldn't have given anything to be able to pray, reach out for Claire's hand and say, "Claire, get up!"
Here's the thing: it wasn't Peter's prayer or his words that brought new life to Tabitha. It was God's will and purpose. God has a reason to bring Tabitha back to life. We rejoice over the wonderful miracles that we see in the scriptures, but have you ever realized that for every person raised from the dead, both by Jesus and the prophets or disciples, many others have died (at this point in the history of mankind, more than 100 billion people have died!) Paul had to comfort the early Christian church because faithful people were dying. Even those raised must have died again.
We pray, trusting that God will do what is good, right and true to His purpose. The truth is that we are all wicked, but thanks to the work of Jesus Christ, we are made righteous and reconciled to God. He hears us because of Jesus. That doesn't mean we will always get what we want. We won't necessarily be able to reach out and take the hands of our beloved dead and speak them back into life. Miracles do happen, but the righteous see the miracles and praise God while the wicked find a way to take credit. The prayer of the upright is a prayer of trust in the God who is faithful. Peter did not demand that God raise Tabitha, he sought God's will and responded with faith. So should our prayers be. The real sacrifice of faith is letting go, giving to God all our hopes and believing that He will answer with grace.
"Donít boast about tomorrow; for you donít know what a day may bring." Proverbs 27:1, WEB
My husband and I are thinking about what we want to do for a vacation this year. We so enjoyed our National Parks adventure last summer that we are looking into a similar trip for this year. I'm also thinking about taking a trip to see an aunt. There are a few other "we should probably..." ideas we are kicking around. We should really be making some decisions, but we are waiting because there are a few "what ifs" that make us hesitate. We don't know what tomorrow will hold. Of course, we might miss the opportunity if we wait too long. That's what makes to live only in this moment. Some things just have to be planned.
We have some investments. We are certainly never going to be wealthy with the savings we have. I have to admit that I sometimes wonder how we'll manage when it comes time for retirement. Twenty-plus years ago a financial advisor warned us that we would need to have a million dollars tucked away by that time if we wanted to do the things we hoped to do. We are very far from that goal and I probably should be worried.
Jesus told us a story about a very rich man who has no worries. As a matter of fact, he's so prepared for the future that he has to build more barns to hold all his stuff. In the story the man said, "I will tell my soul, 'Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'" But God said to him that he would die that very night. All his boasting was put to naught. Everything he had gained and saved would go to someone else.
Does this mean we should not save for retirement or put money away for a rainy day? Should we never plan a vacation because we don't know what tomorrow holds? No, Jesus instructs us to be good stewards of all God has given us. That means working hard enough to ensure for our own care. When we have enough, then we also have plenty to share. Most parents will tell you that they are not just saving for their old age, but are preparing a legacy for their children. The purpose of today's proverb or the story from Jesus is not about whether we should be extravagant with our resources, but to remember that there is no way for us to know what will happen tomorrow.
The man in the story was about to die, but many other things could have made his boasting unreasonable. The brand new, big barn that he built could burn down along with all the stuff he stored in it. Those of us who have some investments know that a thousand dollars today can equal five hundred tomorrow; we don't know what might happen. We hope we have made good choices so that we'll have enough when the time comes, but we should never boast that we are prepared because it doesn't take much to for it to go away. We should not boast about how well prepared we are for the future because today might be the day when we are called to sacrifice something for the sake of others.
So, while we will, and should, plan for vacations and prepare for our future, let us remember this quote from Mother Theresa, "Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin." We can, and should, hope for tomorrow, but there is no reason for us to boast because we do not know what will happen to change our plans. Instead of celebrating our future as the man in the story, may we always be thankful for everything we have now -- our time, our resources, our opportunities -- so that we will glorify God with everything we have.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 18, 2016, Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-7; John 16:12-22
"I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, 'Behold, God's dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.'" Revelation 21:3, WEB
I think it is a good idea to be good stewards of the world which God has given to us. After all, He gave human beings dominion not to waste and destroy but to make use of His gifts in a way that glorifies Him. I'm certainly not perfect, but I try to use my resources in a way that is not wasteful but also meets the needs of my family and neighbors. We recycled when it was not convenient and we keep our house a little warmer than we'd like in summer and a little cooler than we'd like in winter. We don't litter and we support causes that protect nature and animals.
I love Matthew McConaughey's line in one of the Lincoln commercials, "It's not about hugging trees; it's not about being wasteful either. You've just got to find that balance where taking care of yourself takes care of more than just yourself." Being a good steward is about finding that balance.
I think, in many ways, Earth Day is a good thing. In the 32 years since the first Earth Day, many people have become aware of the ways we have been wasting God's creation and destroying it. Laws have been enacted that help, but there's also something to be said about the technological advances that have come from our knowledge. People don't want pollution, so the automobile industry has created better cars. We don't want to fill landfills, so entrepreneurs have found ways to reuse our garbage. We don't want to destroy the forests, so people are planting trees. There are more trees in America today than there were a hundred years ago. While those forests are younger than those before we foolishly overharvested, but in the past sixty years the forests are showing signs of renewal. "Mother Nature" is miraculously self-healing, and when we are good stewards, we find that our resources are better for our use.
One of the problems with Earth Day, from the very beginning, is that the most extreme advocates hold the Earth in greater esteem than human beings. Some have even suggested that it would be better if all humanity were wiped off the face of the earth. Their faith is pantheism and their god is the Earth. Pantheism is the belief that god is everything and everything is god. They do not believe in a personal, transcendent God. Though we believe that God transcends everything, the pantheists limit God to the Universe. We also believe that God is a person -like entity that has a will and can act in and upon the universe. The pantheists do not believe this, but rather is a non-personal divinity this is found in everything that exits. This 'god' unifies everything.
Unfortunately, the heresy of pantheism is finding its way into modern Christian thought. It is heretical because it limits God and makes the work of Jesus Christ unnecessary. If I am part of the cosmos, part of this unity, part of god, then I have no need to be saved by God. In an effort to reject dogma and the seemingly corrupt institutions that have been called "church" for so long, many people are finding comfort in the idea that God is all around us, in us, with us, etc. There is biblical precedent for these ideas. However, it is a fine line between God dwelling among us and us being god. Pantheism gives us the freedom to believe in the power of God while rejecting the attributes of God that we do not like. . "God is Love," makes us breathe a sigh of relief because a loving god does not make demands but instead loves us as we are. Sin is no longer a reality and if there is no sin there is no need for the cross.
Now, most Christians would never go that far with their ideology, but it is a fine line between orthodox Christian thought and modern New Age interpretation. There is no doubt that neo-Gnosticism has pervaded the modern church. Gnosticism parallels pantheism in some ways. I've also read articles that have shown examples of how some Christians, even pastors, are essentially atheists. Pantheism is not entirely atheistic, although they are close. One believes there is god while the other does not, but since pantheists believe all is god, then they agree with atheism's rejection of a higher power. If I am god, then there is nothing higher than me, right?
John writes in the Revelation, "Behold, God's dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them..." It is not very hard to stretch this word. God, being Spirit, is everywhere. The difference is found in the rest of the statement, "...and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." There is a distinction between God and His people. He is a higher power. He is the Creator, not the created. He has breathed life into us and given us His Spirit, but we are not god or gods. We are part of His Kingdom, but we will never be the King.
There is another distinction that has been lost in modern thought, and that is the distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian. Again, our texts can be stretched, leading some to believe in the idea of Universalism. Peter had a vision in which God showed him that He could save anyone He pleased. "What God has cleansed, donít you call unclean." Peter went to Joppa and witnessed the Holy Spirit coming upon a community of Gentile believers. When questioned about his disobedience to God's Law, Peter answered, "I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave to them the same gift as us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?"
Some within the early church believed that they only way someone outside the Jewish faith could become part of "The Way" was to first convert to Judaism. They believed that it was necessary for proselytes to be circumcised. Peter was disobedient because he ate with people that they believed were unclean, ignoring their ritualistic laws. Peter knew that when God sent him to Joppa that something had changed. He told his story and the others realized that God really is for all people. "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life!" they exclaimed.
Here's where it has been twisted: some have suggested that God has saved all people. They say that since God's grace has been given to all people, then we can count all people as having received that grace. Since all gods are the same and since there is only one God, then anyone who believes in any god must also believe in God. If they believe, then they are saved. It is true that our God is the God of the whole world. He is our Creator and Redeemer. He has done this for all people. However, not all people believe in the One God, but n their own idea of God. They choose to follow their own interpretations. They choose to believe what they want to believe. They choose to go their own way. God is their God, but they've rejected Him by choosing another god.
Here's where we run into the problem that the early church faced: what is orthodox? How do we know what is right? What are the rules for becoming part of God's Kingdom? We look back on those early Jewish Christians and think they were foolish for demanding the ritualistic practices to continue; we don't need those laws anymore, right? We have Jesus. But look at your own congregation. What rules have been established there? Are there any that would bring a vision from God like the one given to Peter? Who are the "unclean"? I struggle with the answer to that question myself.
While it seems like the Church is dealing with greater issues today than ever before, the heresies and unorthodox interpretations have existed all along. We look at the world around us and cry out in pain that God is being rejected in the little as well as the big things, that scripture is being twisted to suit self-serving, self-centered ideologies, we aren't the first and we won't be the last. The Church will always struggle with understanding what God meant. We will feel discouraged and disappointed when it seems like God has failed. Of course, the world will rejoice around us, point fingers and laugh because it will seem as though our faith is foolish.
There was some truth to the way those early Jewish Christians believed. After all, God did choose them to be special and separate from the world. It is no wonder that they required the converts to do what was necessary to be part of the Church. Peter did not disagree until he had the vision from God. It was only after Peter saw the Holy Spirit at work in the community of Gentile believers that he realized that God was doing something new. Though it is hard to tell the timing, it seems that afterward, Peter had some disagreement with Paul over this very issue. If they couldn't get it perfect, how can we expect to do so?
We shouldnít consider ourselves any better than those disciples. We might see more clearly than they did in the beginning, but we still suffer from the same human imperfections. We still see things darkly. We still see things through our own human frailty.
Think how hard it must have been for the first disciples. Imagine their grief after Good Friday! After all, Jesus was going to do great things. He was going to lead Israel into a new golden age. He was going to defeat Rome. He was going to make them a strong nation. And then He died. He was cut off from the world before He could accomplish everything they hoped He would accomplish.
It couldnít have helped to have Jesus speaking so cryptically the words in today's Gospel lesson. "I have yet many things to tell you, but you canít bear them now," He said in the hours leading to the cross. The disciples had been with Jesus for about three years; they had experienced things that we can't imagine. They heard the scripture preached from the One who knows it better than any human being. They were mature in their faith; they trusted and loved Jesus in a way we might never experience. Yes, we know that they failed miserably at the end, but not because they didnít have faith. They failed because they had so much faith. Unfortunately, it was faith in all the wrong things.
Jesus knew that they needed something more. He knew that we would need something more. We can't make sense of all these things without His help. We need the Holy Spirit. Jesus could not explain everything to them because some things only really make sense when the Spirit of God explains it to us in our hearts. We must beware because it is easy for us to be deceived into believing that everything we think with our heart is true. I am sure that those who believe all the things I've written above believe so with their hearts. That's why God has given us both His Word and His Spirit so that we will know what has been revealed and understand by His grace. Jesus had more to tell them, but it would never make sense without God's Spirit. Where would we be without that same Spirit? It was only after they were given the Spirit that they could truly get to work, and the same is true for us.
That's what makes us different from those who do not believe: we have God's Spirit
We don't know everything. We simply do not know what God has in mind for our neighbor. We may think we can judge the book by its cover, judging by a person's outward appearance what they think and feel and expect. Even more so, we cannot tell by what we see today how God will impact their lives. And since we have been called to be God's witnesses in the world, we might just be surprised to which neighbor God wants us to take the Gospel.
If we accept that everything everyone feels about God is true, that God is whatever we want Him to be, that there is no sin because everything is good as it is, then we will not bother to share the Good News with our neighbors. Who are we to suggest that they do not have faith in God? It is all the same, isn't it?
God cares about all His creation: every bug, fish, bird, animal and even every human being. Human beings might be the only creature that creates buildings in which to worship God, but we are just a small part of the creation that does so. The sun, the moon and the stars all praise God. The heavens and the raindrops glorify God; the earth and all that lives on land and in sea sing His praises. The elements, the mountains, the hills and all the trees praise God. Wild and domesticated animals, clean and unclean and birds of the sky all join in the worship. No man is greater than all this, whether ruler or servant, young or old, male or female. All creation was made by God and all creation sings His praise. We may not be able to see it in the way the birds fly or cats sleep, but they are thankful to God and worship Him.
The same is true of our neighbor. This is not to say that every human being has benefitted from the saving grace of Jesus Christ, or even that all our neighbors believe in the God of our faith. However, we are reminded by our scriptures for today that we cannot judge our neighbors' faith by what we expect. That neighbor whom you think cannot possibly know God might just be the very person to whom you are being sent to share the Gospel message. The atheist that is unwavering in their lack of faith could be the next one upon whom God's Spirit will fall. We might just be surprised; we might just realize that there are no limits to God's grace.
The psalmist says, ďHe has lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near to him." I suppose it is easy to assume from passages like this that salvation is meant only for a few. And yet the rest of the psalm tells us that even the sea monsters praise God. Perhaps someone who sees the world differently than we can too?
Peter had an amazing experience. God gave him a vision that he understood to mean that all food is good, and then he was taken to Cornelius' house. There he saw that even the non-Jews can believe and that God can bless them. The believers in Jerusalem were shocked when they received word that Peter had entered a Gentile's house and even ate with them. When he went back, he was criticized for it. So, he told them the story, sharing God's vision and his experience. When they heard the story, they realized, like Peter, that God can give even the Gentiles faith.
Throughout the history of the Jews, it seemed that He dwelt among them in the Tabernacle, inaccessible to anyone but the priests. No matter what they thought, God was not hidden behind the curtain in the temple. He was still working amongst His people, making them to be a unique nation among the nations, a people through whom the world would see the True and Living God. In this, God gave Israel the Law. He made circumcision a sign of the covenant between them. He made His grace visible in their lives, in His judgment and in His mercy. They were made to glorify Him. Israel's enemies saw that God dwelt among them. When He removed His hand, Israel fell, but He always turned back to restore her to Him. Through it all, Israel's unique relationship with God made Him visible to the world.
Jesus extended the grace beyond the bounds of the relationship with Israel to touch the whole world. God was not trapped in the Holy of Holies, available only to those who came to the temple. He came to dwell among His people and then filled those who believe with His Spirit. The Holy Spirit now fills our lives, teaches us everything we need to know and guides us into the life God always intended for us to live.
God has done something new, but it isnít really all that new. It is as He always intended. The psalmist shows us that the entire creation sings His praise. In Revelation we see all Godís people, no matter who they are, joining in the eternal worship of the One who did it all. Death and tears may have entered the world, but God has overcome death and will wipe away all our tears. One day we will all join in the praise of the whole creation and all the Church for eternity, dwelling once again with the God who created us, loves us and saves those who hear His voice and believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.
"Like water reflects a face, so a manís heart reflects the man." Proverbs 27:18, WEB
Follow your heart. This is the advice that is often given to people who are facing a difficult decision. "Should I take the job or not?" "Follow your heart." "Should I marry this woman?" "Follow your heart." "Should I pursue this opportunity?" "Follow your heart." The reason for following your heart is that you know best what you need to do in the very depths of your being. No one else can know these things, so who can give you advice better than yourself?
The Bible warns us, however, that our hearts can deceive us. We need one another to help us see the truth of our hearts. We need someone who is willing to honestly tell us when we are pursuing something that might seem good and right, but which actually not the way we should go.
Take, for instance, my own story. A few years ago I was absolutely certain, in my heart, that I should pursue ordination. I knew I was meant to be in ministry and I thought that the only way to do so was to have the title to go with it. I told my plans to several people and a few answered, "Follow your heart!" A few, however, discouraged my plans. Now, there are those who would say that they had underhanded motives for halting my dreams, but as I prayed I discovered their advice was truer to God's Word than those who were telling me to go for it. One said, "You are in ministry," reminding me that my vocation did not need to be clerical to be faithful to God's calling. Another suggested that the process would be ruinous to my spiritual maturity. I realized that my heart was following selfish, self-centered motives, not God's intent for my life.
Oh, I'm sure that God would have used my mistaken journey to His glory, but I'm thankful that there was someone willing to tell me the truth when I needed to hear it the most. Following my heart would not have glorified God in the same way as following His heart has done. I have the time, resources and freedom to speak and minister in a way that is not possible for those who are ordained.
Sadly, there are many people who are following their hearts in a way that is revealing the reality of what is found there. They are choosing to do things that are selfish and self-centered, ignoring how their choices will harm others. They follow their hearts to the detriment of their neighbors. They follow their hearts on paths that do not glorify God. In the end, too many people follow their hearts down a road to destruction because their hearts are reflecting a spirit that has rejected God.
"He who walks blamelessly walks surely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out." Proverbs 10:9, WEB
My years in retail as a clerk and then manager taught me some things about human nature, things I didn't like knowing. One of most important jobs, both at the register and as a manager, was to do all we could to halt shoplifters from taking merchandise from our store. It isn't just up to a security guard, particularly since most small stores do not hire someone just for that task. When I was first trained about shoplifting, I thought we were talking about the people who come and stick something under their shirt and then go out the door. But most shoplifters do not try to get something for nothing; they try to get something for less.
Take, for instance, braziers. I purchased a bra from Walmart and the cashier could not get the UPC code to work. I had to explain to her that she needed to take the item out of the box and scan the code located on the item itself. It is possible to take a more expensive bra and slip it into a box of a cheaper item. At Woolworth's, we had that problem with yarn, shoes and jewelry. Other shoplifters try to stuff things inside of other things. We had to open every box and take the paper out of every purse to ensure that something was not hidden beneath. At Toys R Us we ran into the problem of people trying to return items of a questionable nature. We had several regulars who never had the proper receipt. There were times when it was quite obvious that the person was trying to pull one over on us. After a while it became difficult to look at them without wondering what game they were playing today.
I disliked dealing with people when I knew they were not being honest with me. I could not understand how someone could live a life such as theirs, having to tip toe through every exchange, and keeping up appearances. They use the same excuses, the same stories and the same indignant responses when questioned. Eventually, even as they walked in the door, the store employees went on guard; managers were called immediately. We made sure that they were given no opportunity to pull anything. Their dishonesty became evident and we did all we could to stop their scheme.
Unfortunately, we can find the same sort of schemes in the ministries of many Christians today. Teachers and preachers who claim to be speaking the Word of God are just filling pages with garbage and making a fortune off it. We buy into the slick trends and pretty packages, thinking that they will change our lives. Sometimes they do, for a brief moment, but they lead us on a path of destruction. False teachers are selling a false Gospel.
Chasing after shoplifters was definitely not my favorite part of the job when I worked in retail. After all, I would much rather enjoy knowing that people are honest and trustworthy. Yet, it was important for the sake of the store, employees and our customers to keep shoplifting to a minimum. The cost of everything rises when we have to make up for that which has been taken or destroyed.
When it comes to the things of faith, I would much rather that everyone who claims to be from God really spoke the truth, but I know this is not going to happen in our world. This is why it is necessary to discern between right and wrong. The comfort in this, as found in the Proverb, is that the ways of the schemer will be found out and their folly will come to an end. Until then, let us preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and pray for the gift of discernment for all who hear, so that they will see the love and mercy of God and come to live in His grace.
"Instruct your children; they will give you peace of mind and bring delight into your life." Proverbs 29:17, WEB
I was in the grocery store yesterday, and I have to admit that I don't much like shopping for groceries these days. It was particularly bad because it was a Sunday. I usually try to avoid the place on Sunday, but I hadn't been to the store in a few days because of my schedule, so I went to get those things we'd need for the next few days. It was crowded, and it always seems as though people are in their own worlds, even when there are so many other people around.
I'm sure we all love the person who parks their cart across the aisle from the item they want and then stand in the middle of the aisle scanning the shelves, making it impossible for anyone to get by. There's the person who pushes their way through impatiently, even though you have been waiting for a few minutes for a chance to go. It is lovely when neighbors meet and get a chance to talk, but I'd really prefer they don't do so in front of the milk case. Then there's the mother of three who is struggling to keep them rounded up; I feel for their frustration especially since I probably had similar days at the story. I have to admit, though, that is exasperating when the kids run wild and get in everyone else's way, and .
My favorite thing to see is when Mom is constantly talking to a child who is sitting in the cart. The conversation often looks silly; really, Mom, your two year old cares whether there is salt in the pickled beets on the shelf? No, the child does not care, but those conversations are a form of teaching and learning. The toddler won't be out shopping for pickled beets any time soon, but even at that age they are learning. The chatter helps the child learn words. The lessons of good nutrition are imbedded in the child's mind and become part of their habits of living. Conversation helps the child know he or she is loved. The child that is not ignored in the shopping cart is the child who becomes watchful and considerate when they are set free to walk around the store.
We teach our children from the very beginning with everything we do and what we don't do. If we are so focused on the groceries that we do not acknowledge our children are with us, then they learn to life as though no one else is there. But when the mother engages the child, then the child learns to engage with their environment. They say that the child whose parents read become readers. The child who helps mom in the kitchen learns to eat well. The child that helps dad in the garden learns the joy of getting their hands dirty with good hard work.
While it is important that we constantly teach our children so that they will grow up to be considerate and hardworking, it is equally important for us to teach them about our faith. Some parents are under the impression that they need to let their kids decide for themselves about faith. "I don't want to push that on them," they say, and yet they'll force them to eat Brussels sprouts and cooked carrots as if food for the belly is more important than food for the soul. Yet, when we ignore the lessons of life and faith, we find our worries and fears to be overwhelming. The child who has been trained to behave in the grocery store and to share in the liturgy is a child that gives parents peace.
The churches that practice infant baptism ask the parents to make a commitment to the faith life of the child. They are asked to promise that they will help the child grow in faith by the devotional and prayer life in your house, help your child grow in faith within the community of faith, the Church, and take every opportunity to show your child God's steadfast love and mercy given in Baptism. Specifically, we are asked to promise that we'll teach our children the basics of faith like the creeds, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments, ensure that they have a bible to read and take them to church. As a church community we are asked to participate in that child's life, too, by supporting the parents and making the child a part of God's family in love and grace.
When we do this, when we teach our children what it means to be a child of God, we will have the peace of knowing that they will down the right path and that they will have the wisdom to make good decisions on their own. Like the mother that teaches a child how to shop, the parent that teaches a child about faith will be blessed with a child that knows and loves God, and that is a truly the greatest delight.
"The words of a person's mouth are deep waters, a bubbling stream, a fountain of wisdom." Proverbs 18:4, WEB
Texas is semi-arid, which means that is characterized by small yearly amounts of rain. We aren't quite desert, but we are often stricken with drought. We've had a very good year with above average rain, so we are happy. A year ago most of our lakes were low, but today most of them are at 100% capacity. People watch this because the lake levels help us to know whether we need to be more concerned about conservation.
What is most interesting about this is that only one lake in Texas is natural; the rest are manmade reservoirs created by damming rivers to collect water for irrigation and to meet our water needs. We cry drought when the lake levels are low, forgetting that those lakes wouldn't even exist without human intervention. Drought is not really the extreme, here, it is the norm. However, we have chosen to make this place our home; good or bad, we do what we need to make it habitable for us.
One characteristic of semi-arid landscapes is that when it does get around to raining, it tends to flash flood. Recent reports out of Texas, particularly the Houston area, have shown what happens when these flash floods strike. They come fast and seemingly out of nowhere. I watched one video that showed a creek go from a trickle to a raging river in less than four minutes. Not only did the waters rise, but the current was filled with trees branches and shrubs that got caught in the stream.
We have this mantra that is repeated over and over again when these systems pour on us: "Turn around, don't drown." This can mean long detours that will take too much time. Our schedules are so important these days that we can't waste an hour to get around the flood waters, so too many people arrogantly drive around the barriers because it doesn't seem that bad. They quickly discover why the road was blocked as their car is pushed downstream. It takes a fortune in emergency services and endangers the lives of those sent to save them.
When we look at running water the rapids seem to be the most dangerous, because the water is moving so fast. Yet, we must be extra careful in the water that looks safe. Calm water that is barely moving is where it is deepest and most deceiving. I saw the video of a truck that decided he could get through a flash flood. The water looked calm and the truck was very big. He got about half way across when he started to slip. He almost got it under control, but then the water took him way off course. The man was able to get out of his truck and swim to shore, but his truck was gone. When you try to cross these high water spots you quickly discover the water is much deeper than you expected and moving much harder than you can imagine. There are additional dangers, such as debris, animals and pollutants that can harm or make one sick. It is best to avoid those waters if you aren't properly prepared like the emergency workers who are trained to deal with the dangers.
In Pennsylvania, as well as in other places I am sure, there are springs of water that flow over the rocky walls along the roads. These springs produce clean, clear, cool water. Iíve seen people parked along the side of the road filling jugs with the cool, clear water. It is so good because the water is filtered by the rocks, cooled in the natural refrigeration of the earth and forced to the surface by pressure. By the time it appears it is pure and it flows almost all the time. Even in the winter you can find signs of the springs as the water freezes in beautiful cascades of ice hanging on the rocks. Those springs are small, flowing rivers under the surface of the earth providing life-giving water to those who thirst.
The proverb says that man the words of a man's mouth are deep waters, but wisdom is like a bubbling brook. Many people think themselves quite intelligent, able to recite long dissertations of knowledge using big words and complex ideas. Yet, there is often very little wisdom found in those ramblings. It is the living spring of water that gives life and renews a person, the Word of mercy, forgiveness and grace that Jesus gives. It is delightful to get deep into God's Word, to study it, to understand it, to discern the lessons that God is giving to us. It is pointless, however, to be a great theologian without having faith in Jesus Christ. We should be properly prepared with faith when we delve into the depths of inquiry. True wisdom is found in the living water of faith that flows through Jesus into our hearts and into the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 1, 2016, Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27; John 16:23-33
"I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple." Revelation 21:22, WEB
We've had some weather issues recently, including large, dangerous hail. The weather men predicted more storms last night. We were afraid that our unbelievably good luck had to end (we've only had very minor damage so far) and so we wanted to do something to protect our cars. My husband planned to get out early from work so he could cover the windshields with wood, cardboard or blankets, which is helpful, but complicated. I thought that we should look for car covers. We could still use extra padding underneath, but the car cover would help hold it into place.
Of course, after two major hail storms in a week (we had lemon and lime sized hail both times!), I was certain car covers would be impossible to find. We have five auto parts stores within blocks of each other a few miles from our house. It seems impractical to have so many of the same sort of store in such close proximity (four of them are in one block), but it made it very convenient for me. My plan was to hit each one until I found what I needed. I found exactly what I wanted, even the right sizes for all our cars, at the second store.
I'm always surprised also by how close the different drug store chains build to one another. How do they do business right across the street? I suppose that some people are loyal to one brand and others stop at the one that is convenient to the direction they are traveling, but it seems like very strange business practice. Auto sales are the same way. Every town has their "auto mile" where all the car dealers seem to congregate. Car shoppers will lot hop from one to the other until they find exactly the right car for their needs. It may seem impractical, but they all seem to sell just enough cars to stay in business.
There was a street in a town near where we lived a number of years ago that had what we jokingly called "church mile." It was almost like the street was zoned only for churches. There was one after another. I can't imagine what traffic was like on a Sunday morning. You might think it would make more sense to merge those churches, especially since some, if not all, were struggling. Yet, each of those churches, though all Christian, were unique. They each had their own style of worship, their own mission focuses, and their own preferences in the administration. They all share Christ but had aspects that make them unique. And it was those unique aspects that make their identity.
I like my own church. I like liturgical worship, lectionary based readings and preaching, a variety of music. I like the focus on the sacraments and the symbolism found in our worship space. I have tried other types of worship, and I appreciate those who enjoy and prefer their practices even though I was not particularly comfortable with them. That's ok! We all have unique personalities and like the chain drug stores, there are those of us who are loyal to a particular type. I am delighted to know that there's a place where someone who likes to shout "AMEN" can go and worship God in a style that gives them joy, but also a place for the quiet, introspective type to go and find the joy of God in prayer and listening.
We often mourn over the fact that there are so many church bodies because it seems like we are too divided, and yet what a blessing it is to have so many different ways available to us so that everyone can find God in a style that suits their personality! God gives us what we need in many and various ways. That "church mile" might seem impractical, but it is actually a gift because it opens the church up to people from every culture. We want our pews to be full, but our task is to share Jesus and every person needs the opportunity to experience Him in a way that fills them with joy.
Unfortunately, we end up arguing about these things. We see the church down the road is growing and we think that we need to change the way we do things so that we will grow, too. We change our music, we get rid of the things that make us unique and we add programs to compete with that church. We reject our identity and conform to what we think will draw people to Christ, but sadly we often ignore the thing that they really need: Jesus Christ. We focus on programs and forget the Gospel. Oh, we call our basketball league an evangelism program, but we don't spend time talking about Jesus. We claim our outreach is meant to bring people into the Church but we never really give them what they need: the Word of forgiveness and hope.
We try too hard. We think if we just offer this or just change that or just conform to this way of thinking, then we'll be successful. We think it is about us and our work; we try to draw people to us instead of being the vessels through which Jesus draws people to Himself.
We see that in today's lesson from Acts. Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia. Paul understood this as a vision from God and he left immediately to go on a trip that eventually led to Philippi. Philippi was a Roman city, a retirement spot for Roman legionnaires, with few Jews and Jewish believers. It was usually easy for the apostles to find the believers when they traveled to a new city because they went to the synagogue. But, the Jewish community at Philippi was not large enough; they did not even have the ten men which were required. The Jews that lived in communities like Philippi often met by the river to pray and worship. That's where Paul went to search for believers.
When he arrived at the place of prayer Paul met Lydia, who was a seller of purple and so a woman of wealth. Luke tells us that she was a worshipper of God, which does not mean that she was necessarily a proselyte, but that she was one who believed in the true God and followed the moral teachings of scripture.
She listened to what Paul had to say and she believed. She was baptized and so was her whole household. We don't know what happened with the other women. Did they also believe? Were they baptized? We don't know, we only hear the story of Lydia. Paul did not do anything to convince her to believe. Luke tells us, "[Lydia] heard us; whose heart the Lord opened to listen to the things which were spoken by Paul." The Lord opened her heart to listen.
I think this is interesting, especially since we spend so much time trying to fill our pews. We boast when we have a large number of people join our congregations. We triumph over every baptism. We are excited when we can claim double digit growth in our communities. But are we willing to trust God to open the hearts of those to whom we are sent to share the Gospel? We do what we can to get people through our doors, but are we willing risk the dangers that Paul faced when he followed that vision to a strange land to speak to one open heart?
How did he know that this was a vision? What made him follow? Did he have other visions that he ignored? Would he have followed the vision if it had been the woman Lydia who had called him to come? It is impossible for us to answer these questions based on the record we have been given, but it is helpful to realize that the apostles most likely suffered from the same kind of questions that we ask today. For every story of a healing, there must have been a dozen people who weren't healed. For every conversion there must have been hundreds that never came to faith.
That's what happens when it is all about "we." We forget that we do not know the mind of God. We do not have a complete picture of His plan. We want to fill the pews and to grow like the church next door, but what God truly wants from us is faithfulness. We have a purpose; we have work to do and that work is to share the Gospel in a voice that will be heard by the one whom God has opened the heart to hear. That voice might loud and joyful, full of AMENS or quiet and introspective with prayerful listening. God knows and He's called us to be true to our own identity for His sake. We can't do that if we are so busy trying to be something we aren't for people who can't hear because God is not drawing them to Himself.
It is sad that there are so many different churches, but that's how it is in this world. The passage from Revelation makes a promise, however. There is a time coming, hopefully soon!, when there will be no need of a temple, or church, or river community because we will dwell in the New Jerusalem. We will dwell in God's eternal Kingdom, and there's no need for special places for us to worship in our own personal, individual ways. John writes, "I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple."
We have that today, although not as it will be. See, we do meet in different buildings with different practices, but as long as the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the foundation of those places, then we are one body. We share in the same promises; we are called to the same mission. We are blessed with the same Holy Spirit who gives us everything we need to follow God's vision for our lives today. When God is our focus, then all we have to do is speak and we will be heard by the hearts God has opened.
Jesus knew it would be this way. He warned the disciples, "Behold, the time is coming, yes, and has now come, that you will be scattered, everyone to his own place, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you these things, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have oppression; but cheer up! I have overcome the world." He was addressing the disciples and the fact that they would scatter after His arrest, but isn't it also true for us today? Aren't we scattered and in our own worries and fears of failure, and don't we also ignore our Lord Jesus Christ?
When our churches seem to be failing, when our pews are empty and we aren't sure what will happen to our congregation tomorrow, we can have hope: Jesus Christ has overcome the world. We can live in peace even in the midst of chaos because God is with us. We gather together not to be "successful" but to rejoice in our God. When that is our focus, we will see God doing great things among us.
The Psalm for this week is a song of praise for the world as God means it to be. "Oh let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for thou wilt judge the peoples with equity, And govern the nations upon earth." This is the heaven for which we hope, knowing that our own names are written in the Book of Life. It is not by our works or by our righteousness that we will be remembered, but by our faith in Jesus Christ.
The Psalm includes a word that is used more than seventy times in the psalms and a few times in a poetic portion of the book of Habakkuk. That word is "Selah." It is not easy to identify the meaning of this word, though many would suggest it is simply a liturgical word in the midst of the psalm to direct the music, as in a rest or a stop in modern musical composition.
However, there are those who think this word actually suggests something much deeper than just a pause in the music, that it is also instructional to the singer and listeners. The word "Selah" is thought to mean something like "stop and listen" indicating that the words deserve some extra attention. Others take this meaning even further, suggesting that it is related to the Hebrew word that means "to measure." With this understanding the listener and singer are given the command to do more than just listen, but to also consider or "measure" the words. In this way, the verse to which it refers should be heard and understood and applied to our lives. Listening is more than hearing; it is stopping to really listen to understand what is happening.
In today's passage, the word "Selah" is used twice. The first is following a benediction. "God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us." Stop and listen; measure these words and those that which comes after, "That thy way may be known upon earth, Thy salvation among nations." God blesses us to be a blessing and the purpose of that blessing is so that the world knows His salvation. His blessings to us are not for our own good, but for the good of the world.
The second time comes with a directive to the people, that they -- meaning all nations -- be glad and sing for joy, for God's mercy and judgment is given without favoritism. The blessings are not meant for one people, but for all people. God's grace extends far beyond our borders, beyond our walls, beyond our opinions and biases. Selah. Stop and listen. Understand that God has created and redeemed the whole world and one day the whole world will sing His praise.
This is the will and purpose of God: He calls us to take the risk, to go out into the world and find those opportunities that He has prepared for us to share His Gospel. We just need to go out in faith. God knows when and how it will happen. Thanks to the mark of Christ we have nothing to fear; our names are written in indelible ink in God's Book of Life. We aren't called to worry about the numbers of people in our pews or doubt whether we are doing everything we can do to be successful. We are called to believe. We are called to take one step at a time, sharing with one person at a time.
We don't need to wait for the Heavenly Jerusalem to come because God's Light already shines on us even though it seems like there are too many different churches along the road. As the body of Christ we dwell in His glory now just as we will dwell with Him forever. We can believe in the indescribable promise written by John of the New Jerusalem because we know the end of the story. We already have a place in this incredible city because we have been forgiven. That hope is our foundation and it is even more beautiful than the jewels John uses to describe it. So let us dwell in this world as if the New Jerusalem has already come to us and share the Gospel so that those hearts which God has opened might hear and receive the forgiveness and hope of Jesus Christ and the peace that comes from knowing that their names are written in God's Book of Life.
"Don't say, 'I will pay back evil.' Wait for Yahweh, and he will save you." Proverbs 20:22, WEB
One of the most difficult concepts we have to learn in this life is that it isn't our place to bring revenge on our enemies. It is so easy to get caught up in the justification of paying back someone for something they did for us. I often see litigants on the daytime court shows who get into trouble because they have retaliated against a coworker, landlord or friend. It isn't right to key someone's car or steal their tablet just because they posted something nasty on social media. It isn't right to get someone fired because they went out with your ex-boyfriend. It isn't right to beat someone because he used the wrong brand of motor oil in your car.
Now, these definitely seem like silly reasons to get revenge, but there surely must be justifiable times to do so? After all, isn't there something to be said about justice? What is most interesting about those court shows is how many times people who have done something out of revenge find themselves on the other side of justice. Instead of getting the revenge they wanted, they end up paying for the damage they've inflicted. Justice doesn't come from revenge; real justice comes from the earthly authorities like judges whom God has appointed. It is sometimes hard to see God's hand in it, especially when those authorities do not seem to have God's Word as their foundation, but God does ultimately grant justice for every wrong done to us; we simply have to trust.
The problem is our human tendency to take everything to an extreme. We do not repay an eye for an eye; we decide that our suffering is worth an eye and an ear. Then because the revenge was not just, our enemies come back to get their due reward: more revenge. It becomes a never-ending cycle of violence against one another.
The story of Dinah is a story of revenge. Dinah was the daughter of Jacob and Leah, the only daughter of Israel. We know very little about this woman, but she is the focus of one of the most disturbing stories in the Old Testament. After spending many years as a servant to Laban, making him very rich, Jacob took his wives and all they owned and left for his home country. After reconciling with Esau, Jacob settled in sight of the city of Shechem on land he had purchased from the sons of Hamor. Dinah, a lone girl among so many brothers, went into the city to visit the women. The son of Hamor named Shechem raped Dinah, but then fell in love with her. He decided to take her to be his own. When Jacob heard of what happened, he kept silent, but his sons were filled with grief and rage. Hamor and Shechem offered the family anything to make her a bride, so the sons of Jacob used this as an opening for revenge.
They told Hamor and Shechem that Dinah could not be given to a man who was not circumcised. But if the entire city, all the men, would agree to circumcision, then they would settle among the people there, giving their daughters to each other in marriage. They agreed, Shechem quickly obeyed the request and convinced the townspeople that it would be beneficial to the entire town to do the same. "Won't their livestock, their property and all their other animals become ours?" So, everyone agreed and the men were circumcised. Three days later, while they were still in pain, Simeon and Levi went into the town and killed every male. They looted the city and carried off the wealth as well as their women and children. But Jacob was very displeased with this scheme of his sons. "You have troubled me, to make me odious to the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites. I am few in number. They will gather themselves together against me and strike me, and I will be destroyed, I and my house."
I'm not sure what Jacob intended to do for Dinah. Perhaps he saw no need for justice, she was the least of his children because she was a woman. Perhaps he had his own plans that would benefit his daughter and the entire family. Whatever Jacob's thoughts were on the matter, he was faithful to God and trusted in Him. His sons, however, decided to take matters into their own hands. Shechem had done a disgraceful thing; "Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?" was their response to Jacob's rebuke.
Simeon and Levi did what they thought was best for the sake of their sister, but their vengeance was not just. Their violence against the city of Shechem brought a curse upon their own households, for their descendents were scattered: Simeon's offspring became part of Judah and Levi's were dispersed throughout the land. The revenge on Shechem the man destroyed an entire town, too extreme to be considered justice, but a typical human reaction. Whenever someone harms us, or even more so when someone harms those we love, we seek revenge, taking far more than we lost.
Yet, the proverb reminds us that the Lord knows how to provide true justice in the face of our loss. It is most difficult to sit back and patiently wait for restitution; we want to take action! But revenge does not make things better and it usually makes things worse. Rather than repay evil for evil, it is better to do mercy and lovingkindness, which will make the enemy consider his own sin and seek forgiveness. When evil is overcome, we are no longer enemies but brothers and friends.
*The story of Dinah is found in Genesis 34.
"Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears Yahweh, she shall be praised." Proverbs 31:30, WEB
You may have noticed that I've been quoting the book of Proverbs throughout April. We could do this for a year and still not hear every bit of wisdom found within. The book of Proverbs is a collection of verses and sayings that help us to live a God-centered, moral and productive life. It is worth our time to read and study these saying to help us be the people God has created and redeemed us to be. It teaches us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In this collection of verses we see the difference between wisdom and folly, righteousness and wickedness. It isn't easy to follow all the teacher's advice: we tend to be foolish and wicked rather than wise and righteous.
The last chapter is about the perfect wife, often called the Proverbs 31 Woman. It recalls the words of a mother to her son, an unknown and possibly fictional king. Proverbs 31 describes the expectations of a mother-in-law for her daughter-in-law, often a tenuous relationship at best. The expectations in this text seem impossible, especially to those of us who live in the 21st century. Lemuel's mother expects much of the woman her son will choose as queen.
A friend once told me, "I could be a Proverbs 31 woman if I had a few servants like she does." That seems like a valid solution, after all look at what she does: she works her hands raw from dawn to dusk ensuring that everyone in her house is fed, clothed, comfortable and safe. She takes care of the business of her estate while her husband sits at the gate of the city. She buys and sells, she is creative and loving. She is the perfect woman: a combination of supermom, corporate executive, diligent homemaker, attentive lover, and volunteer of the year. Yes, I could probably do all those things if I had a few servants, too. This Proverbs 31 woman, she's like the Martha Stewart of King David's Court.
But this is not the point of the Proverbs 31 woman. Here's the point of the passage: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears Yahweh, she shall be praised."
The person who fears the LORD is to be praised.
The Proverbs 31 woman isn't the perfect woman; she isn't an impossible ideal. This, my dear friends in Christ, is a description of you. Whether you are a woman or a man, Proverbs 31 describes what it means to be in partnership with God. While focused on the duties of a wife, this passage helps us to see how we can live the life in God's kingdom that He is calling us to live.
I know: go ahead and laugh. None of us could ever accomplish everything that Lemuel's mother expects from the queen. None of us could ever hope to be this perfect. "Her children rise up and call her blessed." Ok, maybe that might happen on a good day, but there were many days when my kids did not like me very much. I know my husband appreciates me, but I doubt he would ever say, "Many women do noble things, but you excel them all." There is dust on the furniture, I burn dinner more times than I care to admit and I'm not always pleasant to live with. But that's not what this is all about. The Proverbs 31 person is the one who dwells in faith and trust in God, who is transformed by God's grace to be the person that He has created and redeemed them to be.
The Proverbs 31 woman exhibits eight virtues or characteristics which God gives to His people. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be hopeful, shrewd, trustworthy, generous, competent, faithful, wise and orthodox. As a matter of fact, Christ calls us to be hopeful, shrewd, trustworthy, generous, competent, faithful, wise and orthodox. We can be all these things because God gives us everything we need.
We can see these virtues manifest in the lives of Biblical women. Sarah is hopeful. Tamar is shrewd. Rahab is trustworthy. Ruth is generous. Bathsheba is competent. Mary the mother of Jesus is faithful. Mary of Bethany is wise. Priscilla teaches orthodox faith.
These women lived lives that were far from perfect. They are held up as examples of faith, but we know that they were as human as each of us. Sarah might have trusted God as she followed Abraham, but she took matters into her own hands and then after twenty-five years of waiting she laughed when God renewed the promise. Tamar slept with her father-in-law to guarantee her future. Rahab was an innkeeper and possibly a prostitute. Ruth was generous to a fault, but she was an outsider. Bathsheba's motives have been debated since ancient times. Mary loved her Son and believed, but sometimes she doubted His mission; she even wondered if He was crazy. Mary of Bethany was frivolous. Priscilla was, perhaps, a little overbearing.
They may have been imperfect, but they were loved by God and called to great things. Along with their own accomplishments, Sarah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary are all woman through whom God established the genealogical line of Jesus Christ. Mary of Bethany was a close friend of Jesus and through her life we learn how to love Jesus in real, tangible ways. Priscilla was a friend of Paul; she supported him in his ministry and she helped teach the people in the early church what it meant to be a Christian.
We can be like these women, not because we are perfect or gifted by our own power, but because God makes us virtuous and invites us to be a part of the work of Jesus. Jesus calls us to be His friend and a coworker in His ministry in this world.
Sometimes it is hard for us to identify with Biblical characters: they seem so far outside the world we know, but history has also given us examples of women who manifested these virtues. Martha Washington was like Sarah, living in the shadow of her husband, but she lived in hope not only for the nation they were working to create, but also in the hope for the life God has promised in His Kingdom. Harriet Tubman shrewdly saved the lives of many slaves as she lived in the faith that God called her to do that great work. Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, chose to stay in England during the world war, suffering with her nation because she trusted God and in doing so she earned the trust of her people. Mother Theresa was generous like Ruth, giving her whole life for the sake of others. Florence Nightingale understood health and medicine in a way that was well beyond her time and she competently stepped out in faith to do what she believed needed to be done. Katie Luther had an incredible faith in Jesus Christ, and that faith led her to support Martin Luther in every way, domestically and spiritually. Like Mary of Bethany, Ruth Bell Graham gave her whole life to Jesus Christ, studying the scriptures and dwelling in His presence from a very early age. Anna Bartlett Warner, the writer of the song ďJesus Loves Me,Ē used her knowledge of scriptures to guide the young men at West Point in Bible study so that God would be an important part of their whole lives.
These biblical and historical women remind us that we do not have to be perfect to serve God, we donít have to reach for an impossible ideal, but we are all Proverbs 31 people, called to a life of faith, trusting God to give us everything we need to do His work in the world. You don't need to strive to be like the Martha Stewart of King David's court or have a bunch of servants to be a Proverbs 31 person. Fear the LORD and you will be praised; not necessarily by man or child but always by the God who loves you and has invited you to be the virtuous person He has created and redeemed you to be.