Welcome to the April 2017 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, April 2017
“Mary, therefore, took a pound of ointment of pure nard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” John 12:3, WEB
Jesus was a doer. He went out into the world and He healed the sick, comforted the grieving, encouraged the weak, raised the dead and forgave the guilty. He fed crowds with food for their bellies and their souls. He taught everyone who would listen about the Kingdom of God and called them to a new life. We follow Jesus approximately three years of His life through the four Gospel books and it seems like He never stops doing things for other people. Lives were changed thanks to Jesus’ actions.
I am a doer; at least I have been through much of my life. I’ve volunteered for many organizations, served on committees at my church, spent time in my children’s schools. I’ve baked cookies and made meals to give to others. I have read books at preschools and painted paintings for silent auctions. I’ve earned rewards and awards for my service, but most of all I’ve experienced the joy of giving and doing for others.
It is good to be a doer. The Bible tells us over and over again that we are to serve our neighbors, to do what we can to meet their visible and invisible needs. We are to give a cup of water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. We are to share not only our money, but also our time and our talents for others. We want to be faithful so we do whatever we can, but I have learned that it is possible to do too much. Everyone should be a doer, but it is easy for those who doubt that they have anything to give to let the doers do everything. “She is so good at that, let’s let her do it.”
Sometimes, just sometimes, we need to those who are afraid, uncertain, and shy the opportunity to do. Mary made a very expensive and unnecessary gesture to Jesus. Judas Iscariot argued that the nard ointment should not have been wasted in such a way. We know that he argued about the money not truly out of concern for the poor, but because he was greedy, but it still seems like it was over-the-top. We also know that the nard would have been used for the burial that would not happen. It had significance beyond cost.
Most of all, Jesus allowed her to serve Him. Sometimes we forget that we need to let others be doers, too, but Jesus shows us that this is as much a service to someone as doing it ourselves. I watched a movie the other day in which a florist says, “No one thinks to give a florist flowers.” The romantic interest later arrived at her door with her favorite. “I thought I would give the florist some flowers,” he said. Jesus shows us that it is ok to be on the receiving end of someone else’s actions. If we feel the joy of giving and doing for others, shouldn’t we want to give others the opportunity to experience the same joy? Today, when someone asks if they can do anything to help, let them, even if you think that the action is over-the-top. It will be an incredible blessing to you both.
“Yahweh is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Yahweh is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers came at me to eat up my flesh, even my adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell. Though an army should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. Though war should rise against me, even then I will be confident. One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after, that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me secretly in his pavilion. In the covert of his tabernacle he will hide me. He will lift me up on a rock. Now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me. I will offer sacrifices of joy in his tent. I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to Yahweh.” Psalm 27:1-6 (WEB)
When thieves break into a house there are a number of things they want to steal. They have learned where people usually hide their valuables; the places we think are safe are often the first places they look. They ruffle through underwear drawers expecting to find expensive jewelry. They rummage through bookshelves hoping to find cash stashed in books. They check out the refrigerator and pantry to try to find that fake can or box we think will hide our valuables. They grab the silver and electronic equipment. They can do this in a matter of minutes and be out of the house before anyone knows what is happening.
We think a safe is a good security measure; after all, what good is a safe if you don’t have the combination? But a safe isn’t even safe. If they can carry it, they will take it expecting to find valuable items inside. They have ways of breaking in and they don’t care if the safe is useless afterwards. I once read a story about a man in Massachusetts whose safe was stolen. The thieves didn’t care about the contents; they just took the safe expecting to find treasure. Unfortunately, these particular thieves didn’t find anything of value. Instead, they found a series of DVDs and videotapes of the homeowner with underage girls. The homeowner was arrested for child pornography and related crimes. He must have thought that his safe was impenetrable when he went to the police to report the theft, but someone gave the DVDs and videos to the police. He thought his secret was safely hidden, but his secret was brought to light when the safe disappeared.
Evil exists. People do evil things. We live in fear of what might happen, and in our world perhaps it is right to be afraid. Our fear acts as a guard, causes us to take the precautions necessary to protect our loved ones and our possessions. Sometimes those things we try to protect are secrets we want to keep in the dark. Imagine the fear of that man when he discovered that his secret had been stolen. It was necessary for him to find the safe before it was opened because the revelation would destroy his life.
There are lots of reasons why we might be afraid in this world. There are those who want to steal, harm or destroy the things we hold dear. There are others that want to find the very secrets that could ruin our lives. Fear might cause us to take precautions, but it won’t always keep us safe as we might hope. There is only one thing to truly fear: the Lord God Almighty. The fear we have of Him is not a fear that we will lose anything, but rather that He is greater than anything we might fear and worthy of our awe. He is our light and our salvation. Whatever threatens, we know that God is grace and mercy and love. In Him we can find peace in even the most difficult of circumstances.
When we dwell in His love, the light shines on even our darkest secrets. There may be things we would rather stay hidden, but then we will rightly live in fear of being discovered and suffering the consequences. In Christ, our hidden secrets are not only revealed, but they are forgiven and we are transformed. It is in that light we can be confident and fear God with awe and reverence.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday: John 12:12-19; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:1-27:66
“But I trust in you, Yahweh. I said, ‘You are my God.’” Psalm 31:14, WEB
The lectionary Gospel texts take us through the entire experience: the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the prediction of Peter’s denial, prayer at Gethsemane, the betrayal, the arrest, standing before the Sanhedrin, Peter disowning Jesus, Judas’ suicide, the trial, mocking, crucifixion, death and burial. The amount of text for this week’s lectionary is daunting.
It is even harder for preachers to find a direction for their sermons. Besides the limited time, how do you expound upon the story of Jesus’ passion? I saw a satirical article entitled, “Pastor Expertly Distills Two Bible Verses Down To Just 67 Sermon Points.” In the article, the fictional pastor said, “Most laypeople can’t hang in there for a long, drawn-out theological argument, and that’s why I’m always careful to structure my exposition around just the sixty or seventy most relevant points.” If two verses can be drawn out to sixty-seven ideas, how much more can we glean out of two whole chapters of a Gospel lesson?
Jesus had accomplished an incredible amount of work in the three years He did ministry. The four Gospels are filled with so many stories of His love, His teaching, His mercy, His healing, His correction and His grace. Last week we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus who was dead for four days, one of the many things He did that were impossible. He’d certainly had an impact on the world; many people were following Him because they saw how He had power and authority. His words rang true. His miracles were miraculous. His mercy was great. It is no wonder that He was greeted at the gates of Jerusalem with shouts of Alleluia and the waving of palm branches. The people had heard what He could do; the people saw in Him the hope for their future. They were ready to receive their King!
He was their King, but not in the way that they had anticipated. He would never sit on a throne. He would never deal with foreign leaders. He would never institute policies that would fill their needs. The man on the donkey hailed as King would be crowned on a cross in just a few days. It would not be very long before they rejected Him and cried for His crucifixion.
They honored Him on Palm Sunday with a parade and shouts of acclamation. Isn’t that what every person wants? Don’t we want to be raised onto a pedestal? Don’t we want people to crown us? Don’t we want to become the best, to reach higher than everyone else? Jesus should have appreciated their approval. However, Jesus was not looking to become an earthbound King. He had even more in heaven. He was there at the beginning of time and participated in the creation of the world. He had power. He had glory.
In Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord speaks with a voice of humility and sacrifice. Isaiah writes, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” These are not the words of a king, how could this possibly refer to a Messiah? Yet, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, this is exactly the image of Christ that we must see and we are called to live in that same attitude, which is one of humility.
Paul writes, “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.”
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is thought to have been based on an early Christian hymn describing Jesus’ kenosis, which is from the Greek word meaning “emptiness.” This hymn tells how Jesus emptied Himself to become one of us, to take on our sin and face once and for all the wrath of God on the cross. God honored His humble obedience by exalting Him above all else. But, it is in our nature to try to come out on top. We work hard for the promotion. We’ll do what it takes to the nicest car, the prettiest house and the best lawn. We compete for the biggest trophies, the fastest times and the best records. Our quest to be number one can easily become the sole focus of our life.
Unfortunately, there comes a time when we can’t do better by our own power and then we face the real test. At some point everyone is tempted to do whatever it takes to win: the athlete that feels the need to use performance enhancing drugs to go one step further is just one example. In business, the temptation might be to steal a co-worker’s ideas or lie on a resume to appear more qualified for a job. In our relationships, we pretend to be someone we aren’t to win the one we desire.
Jesus did not humble Himself so that He would be exalted. He humbled Himself because it was in His nature to be a servant: it was the life to which God had called Him to live and die. He became one with God: He emptied Himself and took on God’s will as His own. He calls us to do the same. We do not empty ourselves so that we might be exalted with Him, but because in Christ we have taken upon ourselves His nature. That nature is one that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy. We are not called to ride on the war horse or even the donkey, but to go with Him on a journey with the weak and vulnerable.
The week began on a donkey and many hoped that He would get on the back of a warhorse to save Israel from the Romans. For one day Jesus received the cheers and the shouts from the crowds. It would have been tempting to use His power to fulfill their wishes. Satan tried that once, but how do you say “No” to a crowd of screaming fans?
It is no wonder that people looked to Jesus with hopeful expectation. After all, He was fulfilling the prophecies found in the scriptures in so many incredible ways. Who else can feed five thousand with just a few loaves and fish? Who else could set a man free from a legion of demons? Who else could make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear? Who else could raise a dead man?
Not everyone appreciated Jesus. There were those who refused to believe. He had debated with them and won. He had refuted their teaching. He had warned people to beware, because the religious leaders put forth doctrine that was self-righteous, and even worse, it was entirely self-beneficial. They did not care about God or His Word; instead they interpreted it to suit their power and position. Jesus was a threat that had to be stopped.
Unfortunately for them, He was a threat that was impossible to stop. How could they turn the people away from Him? How could they convince the crowds that were in Jerusalem that He was not what they needed?
It is easy for us to see what was happening because we have the reports from after the fact. On this Sunday of Holy Week, this Palm Sunday, Jesus entered into Jerusalem, set apart by the crowds by their praise and adulation. While the perfect lambs were being chosen for the celebration of the Passover later this week, the crowds were cheering the Passover Lamb that would be sacrificed for the sake of the whole world. This Lamb would not bleed for a yearly reprieve, but would be the final sacrifice. His death would bring forgiveness to all who believe; His death would set us free to be God’s holy people.
Jesus knew God’s way was the better way. The servant does not see himself as greater than anyone. He says he was given the tongue of one who is taught, rather than identifying himself as a teacher. The words are passed on, and he does teach, but he recognizes that he is not the teacher. He humbled Himself before God’s word and was obedient. He did not turn from God, but faced the suffering knowing that it was God’s will. He trusted that God would be with him. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred and disgrace were humiliating, He knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against God’s mercy.
God highly exalted Him at the moment when He was most humiliated, when He was suffering and cruel and unwarranted death. It was on that cross that Jesus was glorified because it was there that He fulfilled God’s word and promise for the salvation of you and I. It is on the cross where we find forgiveness and through the cross we are made free. It is there where Christ is glorified.
We find it hard to believe that Jesus could lose so many followers in such a short period of time. After all, they went from singing hosanna to murder in less than five days. We almost have to assign blame to someone in the crowd, an instigator who took advantage of the mob to turn people’s attitudes away from Jesus. However, as we look at the story between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we realize that there is far more there than a quick change of heart. Jesus spent those few days attacking the status quo. He went into the temple and taught, He overturned the tables of the money changers, He spoke in parables that painted the leaders in a less than positive light. He turned their world upside down: not just the leaders, but also the people. He assaulted everything they knew and they did not know how to handle it.
Most especially, He rejected the expectation they had of Him. On Palm Sunday, they welcomed the king whom they thought was going to save them from the Romans. They were ready to make Him king of Israel so that He would lead them to freedom. They did not understand the kind of freedom Jesus came to give.
They went from jubilant celebration on Sunday to His arrest on Thursday and His death on Friday. How can anyone lose so much support in a matter of days? Even His closest followers ran away in the end. Judas betrayed Him and Peter denied Him. Where were the rest? They were hiding, afraid. They were confused and upset. They didn’t know what to do without Him. They believed in Him on Sunday, but their faith wavered in the end. Wouldn’t yours? We can’t expect our ministry to continue if our leader is arrested, tried and then crucified.
But it was all according to plan. This is what Jesus was born to do. He was born to die. We know that we will die in the end, but we can’t imagine how our death will ever serve a purpose. Though some deaths do have an impact on the world, like those of the martyrs, even their deaths are not the intent of God. See, God didn’t want any of us to die. When we were created, He intended that we would live with Him in paradise for eternity. Sadly, Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree; they fell for the temptation to be like God and the learned what it means to mortal. We suffer the same limitations because we were born with the sinful desire to be like God.
In the context of the Passover Feast, Jesus is the perfect Lamb. During the Exodus story, the people were told to sacrifice a lamb, to roast it and to eat it in a certain way. The blood of the lamb was to be painted on the lintel of the house. That night, when the angel of death went over Egypt to take the firstborn, those with the painted lintels would be saved. This was the last straw; it was the final nail that made Pharaoh set the slaves free. Those who were in Jerusalem would join together in feasts, celebrating their salvation so long ago. What they did not realize is that the blood of Jesus would be painted on the hearts of those who believe so that death would once again pass over them. Jesus’ death on the cross would defeat death forever. Our flesh will fail and our bodies will die, but through faith in the blood of Jesus we will live forever.
As we begin the final days of Lent and anxiously face the Passion, let us prayerfully consider what this means to us. Isaiah writes, “But I trust in you, Yahweh. I said, ‘You are my God.’” Jesus lived this to the very end. Now He calls us to follow in His footsteps, to carry our own cross, to trust in God in humble obedience to His Will.
We can celebrate as Jesus enters Jerusalem, but we know that it is a short lived party. Those same people will quickly turn from Him, hearing the words of Jesus’ enemies and falling for the lies. We don’t understand how they could turn so easily, but it doesn’t matter. This was all in the plan. No matter how the people reacted to Him, Jesus had to die. The religious leaders thought they won. The followers of Jesus thought they lost. In the end, however, Jesus accomplished the work He was born to do, and He did it according to God’s good and perfect will.
“In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus called a little child to himself, and set him in the middle of them, and said, ‘Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of occasions of stumbling! For it must be that the occasions come, but woe to that person through whom the occasion comes! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire. See that you don’t despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man came to save that which was lost.’” Matthew 18:1-11, WEB
A local charity that aids children who are victims of abuse was having a day of awareness. They have given out 80,000 cardboard blanks shaped like children which have been decorated by many people in many different ways. I’ve seen some that look like superheroes, others that are dressed like children. There are cardboard kids that are dressed in t-shirts from sports teams. Some people used pencils, crayons and markers. Others used paper and fabric. Yarn and ribbon is used for the hair. Some cardboard kids hold props. Some have been made by children, others by adults. The cardboard kids became projects for schools and nursing homes, businesses and organizations. The whole point of creating the cardboard kids were to take them out and leave them where other people could see them to raise awareness about the number of children suffering from all types of abuse in our city.
Today was the day. I’ve seen pictures of many different cardboard kids displayed in places of business and along the fence lines of schools. I created four cardboard kids. I put two of them in the front yard and took two of them as I ran errands this afternoon. One went to lunch and sat across from me as I ate my burger. The other went to the craft store. He rode in the shopping cart, belted in for safety (!), and helped me shop for a picture frame. I’d hoped to leave the cardboard kids in the places I visited, but I sought permission and was denied by both places. I did have a few comments about my kids at lunch and shopping, but the whole point is to leave them for others to find and befriend.
I could have just left them there without asking, and I thought about it. But the whole idea troubled me. The whole point is to make people aware of the problem of child abuse; the incidence rate in our city is among the highest anywhere. It just seemed wrong to just leave them on a shelf or by a trash can. I realized that even leaving them in the car was not a good example either, since too many children die every year because they are left in hot cars by foolish or frazzled parents. I went to a park and thought about letting them play in a tree, but I couldn’t do it. Though the cardboard kids are not real children, I could not bring myself to just abandon them. I was disappointed that I could not leave them out in the city, but I placed the other two in the yard for the neighbors to befriend.
I suppose it was silly to worry about abandoning a cardboard replica of a child, but the experience made me think about those children who are served by the charity. See, I couldn’t leave a cardboard cut-out, but there are parents that have no problem abandoning and abusing their real children. The abuse is everything from beating to verbal to sexual. I have a hard time believing that any parent can do that to any children, let alone their own flesh and blood. Unfortunately they exist, which is why the charity organized the day of awareness.
For most of history, children have been treated like little more than chattel. There are even places around the world that use children as slaves in factories and bedrooms. Too many children have been forced into prostitution around the world. While some of our children might be spoilt today, no child should be treated inhumanely. They should be protected, encouraged, trained, and loved. They provide for us an example of what the life of faith should look like. Children innocently trust those who are given their care, just as we should innocently trust our Father in heaven. Unfortunately, those children who are abused, especially those abused by their earthly fathers, will never learn to trust in the unseen God of heaven. That’s why we are called to guard those children, to help them, to fight for justice for those who are being abused.
“Having therefore, brothers, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over God’s house, let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for he who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:19-23, WEB
When I was young, my friends and I often walked places together. It was fun to have conversation, to talk about our day, to share jokes and stories. Those walks were important because we supported one another; our relationships were built during those times. One day I noticed two young men walking together on their way to school. Unfortunately for them, the boys were barely conscious of each other. They both had earphones in their ears, listening to music.
Modern technology has made our lives easier. We can cook dinner in minutes with our microwaves, keep in constant touch with one another via email and cell phones, stay updated with the world on the Internet and news programs on television. Our cars go fast; airplanes can take us to the four corners of the earth. We can send pictures anywhere and fax important documents in minutes. We have programs that will automatically categorize our finances, our friends and our calendars. We can listen to our favorite music wherever we go.
Though there are many benefits to modern technology, there are also disadvantages. We are losing touch with people. If you are in a rush at the grocery store, you need only go through the “Self Check-out” lane, where you can scan your own groceries and pay without every speaking with another human being. We can shop on the Internet, without ever going to the store. Even if we are out in the world, our noses are buried in our cell phones. We telecommute, do everything by email and even order pizza order online. We can get through the day with barely a word to another human being.
This is not only true in our relationships at home, work and school, but it is also often true of our relationships related to our faith. After all, it is possible to watch wonderful worship services with powerful messages without ever leaving our couches. We can quickly find any Bible passage by typing a few words in a search engine, never even holding the book in our hands. We’ve lost something, something very important, by living this technological existence.
I really have nothing against modern technology. After all, where would this particular ministry be if you and I didn’t have access to a computer and the Internet? I own many of the latest gadgets and use the fast check-outs occasionally when I go to the grocery store. I’ve even been known to put those earphones in my own ears to block out the noise of the world while I’m walking or working.
However, we need human contact. It is a fact of human existence, even if we think we can be an island. We need the touch of another person, to hear their voice, to sit in their presence. We need to worship God together, to raise our voices in one accord. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ to show us our errors, to encourage us and to share with us the gifts God has given to them. God did not create any one of us to exist alone. In the Garden of Eden, He said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” and He created another being to live with Adam. We are drawn together by the power of the Holy Spirit and the mercy manifest on the cross.
Technology is a good thing, but we need to learn to put it in its place. Gadgets will never replace the benefits of human interaction. We need one another, not just as a shadow walking beside us. We need to have conversations, to laugh, to tell stories, and to encourage one another. We can’t be Christian by hiding in our homes, behind a computer or in front of the television. We need to gather together, to build up one another in faith. Together we can draw near to God.
“When he came near, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had known today the things which belong to your peace! But now, they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come on you, when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, surround you, hem you in on every side, and will dash you and your children within you to the ground. They will not leave in you one stone on another, because you didn’t know the time of your visitation.” Luke 19:41-44, WEB
A.W. Tozer once said, “If you’re not worshipping God on Monday the way you did the day before, perhaps you’re not worshipping Him at all.” The time we spend together on Sunday in prayer, singing, communion and listening to the Word is good for us. Faith is not something that comes to us all at once. We receive faith when we are saved, but we continue to grow in faith until the day we die. God works in us, transforming us from what we were into what we meant to be. Sunday worship is one way He does so.
Yet, we are not made whole in just one hour a week. That hour with other Christians gives us the courage and the strength to go out into the world to worship God in the mundane activities of our ordinary lives for the other one hundred and sixty-seven hours. Sunday worship is a minute fraction of our time; shouldn’t God get more of our time and energy? Yet, by Monday morning we get caught up in the normal hassles of life. We don’t pay attention to the lessons we’ve learned on Sunday. We forget the commands of God. We don’t even think about the sacrifice of Jesus.
Even during Holy Week, we don’t think much about what happened between Palm Sunday and Easter. We are prepping for next week by buying candy and toys for baskets, making reservations for brunch, cleaning the house for company. We might plan to attend worship on Thursday and Friday, but how many of us really think about what happened to Jesus during these days?
Jesus’ ministry was at its peak; He had a large following. The crowds gathered to listen to Him speak about the kingdom of God. The people constantly sought Him to heal their illnesses and cast out their demons. There was talk among the disciples about making Jesus king of an earthly kingdom. They saw Him as the Messiah, the king of the Jews. But their image of the Messiah was one who would take the world by force. It would be easy for Him to do. Though His followers were not a mighty army, they were willing to do anything for Him. By the time He rode into Jerusalem, the people were in such a frenzy that it would have taken just one word from Jesus for them to rise to fight.
Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” The people were excited, pulling palms from the trees to wave and throwing cloaks in the path of the donkey on which He rode. Some of the Pharisees rebuked Jesus, telling Him to quiet the crowd. Jesus answered, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Jesus’ answers had a way of cutting right to the heart of a situation. The fire of hope that burned in the hearts of those who were following Him was spreading like wildfire.
The same was not true of those who were leaders in the Temple. They saw Jesus as being a threat, not only to their power and position, but to the entire nation of Israel. Jesus might have gained an army with heart, but they would never have stood against the Romans. The soldiers that guarded the city were trained, they had weapons, and they sought glory through war. The leaders did not understand that Jesus’ purpose had nothing to do with fighting an earthly battle. He was headed to the cross for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
But, despite their important roles in “the church,” the leaders had no real understanding of what it meant to live in God’s Kingdom. They spent a minute fraction of their time in worship and then got caught up in the normal hassles of life. They were worried and afraid; Jesus wanted to give them peace. Perhaps there was reason to be worried and afraid, but when we trust in God and keep Him in focus every day, nothing that the world throws at us can discourage us. Jesus wept because the people who were tasked with caring for the hearts and souls of God’s people were too busy with the everyday to notice what God was doing in their midst. We do the same when we don’t worship God in the same way on Monday as we did the day before.
“The disciples came, and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered them, ‘To you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not given to them. For whoever has, to him will be given, and he will have abundance, but whoever doesn’t have, from him will be taken away even that which he has. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they don’t see, and hearing, they don’t hear, neither do they understand. In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says, “By hearing you will hear, and will in no way understand; Seeing you will see, and will in no way perceive: for this people’s heart has grown callous, their ears are dull of hearing, they have closed their eyes; or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and would turn again; and I would heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For most certainly I tell you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which you see, and didn’t see them; and to hear the things which you hear, and didn’t hear them.’” Matthew 13:10-17, WEB
Tuesday of Holy Week was a day of controversy and stories. Jesus spent time in the temple teaching. He warned of false teachers and the end of the age, so that His children would follow the right path. The leaders confronted Him and questioned His authority. The disciples desperately tried to understand the changes they saw in Him. In many ways, the crowds were becoming confused because the sweet stories of hope were becoming warnings of woe to those who would not listen. The more He spoke the more the leaders became determined to be rid of Him, but He seemed untouchable.
Jesus was a great storyteller. The people sat mesmerized when He spoke the word of God in ways that touched their life and experience. He used examples from their everyday life: vineyards, yeast, animals, clothes, building, treasures, farming, friends and money. He used the things in this world that they knew to teach them about the Kingdom of God. The crowds were drawn to Him and the children delighted in His presence. The parables of Jesus always had a spiritual message, but were presented in a tangible way so that the people who heard them with a heart of faith understood the promise of God for their life. The people listened and some believed.
Not everyone received those words with a heart of faith. The leadership often heard the stories of Jesus as condemnation. They were threatened by Jesus’ focus on submission, poverty and forgiveness. They were offended by His insinuation that their obedience was not righteousness, but rather was the act of self-righteous hypocrites. With every word, they became angrier at what they heard and their hearts hardened even more. I have heard it said that the same sun that melts ice hardens clay. Those who had the heart to believe understood that the Kingdom of God was about power in our weakness, hope in our affliction and repentance from our old ways of life. Others did not hear the grace of Jesus’ message and they sought a way to end the ministry of this man, Jesus.
Even those who were following Jesus began to question Him. Many began to turn away from Jesus, because He was no longer fulfilling their desires. He was preparing them to accept the ultimate sacrifice. Were they ready to receive it? Are we ready? Those of us who hear the words of Jesus after the Resurrection have an advantage: we know that Jesus fulfilled all God’s promises. Yet, the parables can still be confusing to us. As we get closer to Good Friday, we struggle with the events that are to come. We still wonder why Jesus had to die. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Do we believe the Word that will bring us healing and peace?
Scriptures for Sunday, April 16, 2017, Resurrection of our Lord: Easter Sunrise - Exodus 14:10-15:1; Psalm 118:15-29; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18. Easter Day - Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 116; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10
“You are my God, and I will give thanks to you. You are my God, I will exalt you. Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.” Psalm 118:28-29
I was at a store yesterday, wandering the aisles while I waited for some photos to be printed. It was a pretty busy day at the store, with lots of people wandering those same aisles. Sometimes it was difficult to find my way through. It wasn’t just customers; the store staff members were busy straightening shelves. I turned one corner and the aisle was filled with shopping carts and mothers and children. I went to the next aisle and an employee had a pallet of merchandise. I came across two old friends who were chatting in an aisle in another part of the store. One man decided to abandon his cart as he shopped other places right in front of the product I was seeking. It seemed like I was trapped; there were people blocking my way every direction I turned.
I tend to be non-aggressive at the store. If I have to enter a busy aisle, I wait until those in front of me move. Others are not so patient and they rush past, only to stop and block the rest of us while they pick their product. Unfortunately, it seems like those most in a rush are the ones who take the longest. Others join the traffic jam and it quickly becomes impossible to move in any direction. I might not be aggressive, but I get very frustrated when I’m trapped in a crowded aisle.
I’m sure we all have examples of having been caught between a rock and a hard place. We can’t move forward, we can’t go back. This might be perceptible like at the grocery store, or it might be invisible like our spiritual life. How often have we been faced with experiences that give us two equally impossible outcomes and we don’t know how to get out of it?
The text from Exodus is the Old Testament lesson for sunrise on Easter day. It is from the story of the Hebrews escaping Egypt. They had just come to the Red Sea when they realized that Pharaoh had changed his mind and was chasing them with an army. They had nowhere to go. They couldn’t go into the sea, and they couldn’t return to Egypt; the only outcome for both possibilities was death. The people were afraid. They argued with Moses, “Isn’t this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” They would return to this thinking over and over again as they journeyed to the Promised Land.
Though they wanted to escape the heavy hand of the Egyptians, God’s plan was as frightening because they did not know where it would lead. They were ready to turn back at the first sign of disaster.
This is an interesting text for us to read at Easter sunrise. Imagine how the disciples were feeling after Jesus died on the cross. They did not know what would come next. Despite His repeated assurances, they felt like they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Danger surrounded them. They couldn’t move forward and they couldn’t go back. Their lives had been changed, but now everything was for naught. They scattered during the trial, only a few saw Him on the hill. Though some returned to the upper room, we know that Thomas was hiding elsewhere because he was not there when Jesus appeared to the rest.
The answer to the Hebrews was to trust in God. “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of Yahweh, which he will work for you today: for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you shall never see them again. Yahweh will fight for you, and you shall be still.” At that, Moses raised his staff over the sea and the sea parted before them. They ran for their lives. The Egyptians followed, but when the last Hebrew was safely on the far shore, Moses raised his staff and the sea closed up again. By the power of God they were saved.
The disciples waited and worried and wondered. I’m sure they prayed, but did they even know for what they were praying? They probably discussed what they did wrong, what Jesus did wrong, what they should do next. They grieved, they cried, they were angry and confused. How could it turn out so wrong? Did they think, perhaps, that they should have told Jesus to leave them alone three years ago? “For it would be better for us to lead our normal humdrum lives, than to die at the hands of the powerful.” I don’t doubt that at least some of the conversation revolved around returning home, going back to the way life was before Jesus. No matter how good it was to be with Him, the old ways are better than death.
But God said, “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see my salvation.”
The scriptures tell us that early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb to take care of the body of Jesus. They did not have time to complete the burial because of the Sabbath, so they returned to use spices for anointing and grieve for their Lord. Yet, when they arrived in the garden, they noticed the stone had been moved away. Jesus’ body was gone. Now we look to this empty tomb as the sign of the hope to come – our tombs will one day be empty because we have eternal life in Christ Jesus and we rejoice. Yet, at this point in the resurrection story, the disciples were not yet rejoicing. The women were afraid. Mary wept. The disciples were confused. They did not understand what was happening.
Then Jesus began appearing to them. He called Mary by name in the garden. He broke bread with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He entered through a locked door. He appeared to five hundred. Eventually, Jesus appeared to Paul. When He appeared to Mary, she ran to tell the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Then they believed and rejoiced. We often think of the empty tomb when we think of Easter. While there is promise in that emptiness, there are also questions, doubts, fears and grief. The hope and joy of Easter is not found in a cemetery, or folded grave clothes, but rather in the Risen Lord. It was when the disciples saw Jesus that they knew all He spoke had been true. It was when He spoke their names, when He ate with them and showed them His wounds. It was when they heard His voice and saw His face that they believed.
The promise was fulfilled. The sea was parted and those who believed came out on the other side.
Do you believe? Do you believe in the God who created the heavens and earth? Do you believe in the God who saved Israel from Egypt and took them to the Promised Land? Do you believe in the God who gave us the Law to help us to live good and right and true lives in this world? Do you believe in the God who appointed the judges and the kings and the prophets? Do you believe in the God who repeatedly saved His people despite their failure to live according to His Word? Do you believe in the God who had mercy on His people who kept turning away? Do you believe that God was always faithful, even when His people were not?
Do you believe in the God who sent His own Son to be beaten, betrayed, denied and killed on a cross? Do you believe that the One named Jesus who was obedient even to being nailed on a cross? Do you believe He died and was buried in a tomb for three days? Do you believe that in doing so Jesus took upon Himself the entire weight of the sin of the world, including your own? Do you believe that He rose again? Do you believe that He did this so that you will be forgiven and raised to new life with Him? Do you believe that He has called and gifted His Church and sent us out into the world to tell the story again and again so that the whole world will believe?
The Psalm for Easter sunrise is a song of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance. It is not the song of an individual, but rather the hymn of a nation. While it was originally written and most likely sung in response to God’s hand against Israel’s enemies, it is also a foretelling of the ultimate salvation that would come to the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We are lucky because we look at the Christian story from a post resurrection perspective. How would we have felt if we were one of those disciples, left in mourning and afraid for our own lives after Jesus died on the cross? Would we see the hope of new life? No, everything they had come to believe screeched to a halt when Jesus was arrested. We catch glimpses of some of the disciples: Peter in the courtyard denying Jesus, Judas in despair, John hovering with Mary at the foot of the cross. Yet, for most of the Passion, the disciples were nowhere to be seen.
Seeing the story from a post resurrection perspective might make us feel overconfident about the way we would have reacted. We believe and can see that Jesus is indeed all that He said He was. He is the right hand of God who has come to save the world. But would we have felt that way two thousand or so years ago? The disciples did not yet have the gift of the Holy Spirit. The scriptures tell us that when Jesus talked of His death, they did not understand because it was hidden from them. It was not until after Pentecost that they fully understood all there was to know about Jesus.
For those first disciples, the cross was the end of everything. Jesus was rejected, cast off, and killed. Again we read in the psalm a foretelling of this. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” That stone has been identified as Jesus Christ; His death and resurrection was the foundation of a new life, a new community of believers and a new hope.
The psalmist writes, “Open to me the gates of righteousness. I will enter into them. I will give thanks to Yah. This is the gate of Yahweh; the righteous will enter into it.” Who are the righteous? In the days of Jesus, the righteous were the ones who had the power, who had the appearance of righteousness. They knew the scriptures and they knew Law. Yet they did not know God. They did not recognize Him in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. So, they rejected Jesus, cast Him away to the cross. His death was not permanent, however.
Our minds are set on heaven as we experience the miracle of God’s grace in Easter. We see the world come alive with the fresh new growth of spring. We celebrate the day by gathering with our family and friends. We break out of best clothes, and even go buy a new dress or suit for the occasion. Our churches will be filled with sweet smelling lilies and we can once again since “Alleluia” to our God. The stories of the Passion and the Resurrection turn our hearts to the God who has done all this for us. He has parted the great sea and delivered us from sin and death.
The psalmist wrote, “The right hand of Yahweh is exalted! The right hand of Yahweh does valiantly!” Then he adds, “I will not die, but live, and declare Yah’s works.” Moses was the hand that God used to part the Red Sea to deliver the Hebrews to the Promised Land. Jesus is the right hand of God, sent to deliver us from an even greater enemy. In ancient culture, the right hand attests to the victor’s powerful superiority. A commander, when entering a city, would raise his right hand in the air to show that he is the winner. God has raised His right hand, because He has conquered sin and death. He raised Jesus to show that He is all powerful. Jesus may not have been accepted by all the people in His day, and His death and resurrection may have been questioned by both the unbelievers and the believers, but He was still victorious.
The empty tomb was the sign that God did something amazing with Jesus, but as Jesus was revealed to all those witnesses everything became clear, not only to those who saw Him two thousand years ago, but us today.
On that first Easter God did something new and amazing; it was not the end but only the beginning for the disciples and for us. He gave us a peace that we could never know without Him. Peace of heart. Peace with God. Peace that changes the world. Let us join with the first witnesses in sharing that peace, preaching that Christ died but was raised by the God who keeps His promises. We might feel like we have been backed into a corner, or caught between a rock and a hard place, but God has delivered us from sin and death when Jesus, the right hand of God, parted the sea so we could cross into heaven and dwell with our God for eternity.
When you believe in the Risen Christ, you will be raised with Him, and when you have been raised with Christ you are called to a new life. God will make Him manifest to others through you. You are called, like those first disciples, to be His witnesses, revealing Christ in your words and in your deeds. There may still be moments of waiting and worry and wonder, but God says, “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see my salvation.” You are called to a life of thankfulness and praise that leaves behind the old ways to trust in His promises. No matter what obstacles you face, in front or behind, He will always be faithful to lead you to the Promised Land. He is our God, let us give thanks and exalt Him for His loving kindness endures forever.
“So when he had washed their feet, put his outer garment back on, and sat down again, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me, “Teacher” and “Lord.” You say so correctly, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Most certainly I tell you, a servant is not greater than his lord, neither one who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’” John 13:12-17, WEB
Today is Maundy Thursday. The name comes from the Latin mandatum, which means “command.” We recall on this day the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as well as the commandment that we love one another. Jesus showed us how to love by washing the feet of His disciples. He willingly did the most menial task was one that only a servant would do. Peter was so incensed by the action he insisted that Jesus would never wash his feet. Jesus persisted because it was by His example that He showed them what they were expected to do. “I have given you an example...” The disciples were specially chosen to serve the Lord. By humbling Himself, Jesus reminded them that they must humble themselves in the same way.
Queen Elizabeth will reach her 91st birthday in a few days. She has been Queen of England for sixty-five years. It is a longstanding tradition in England (since the 13th century) for the monarch to take part of Maundy rituals. In the past they gave out food and clothing and washed the feet of the poor. In more recent years, the monarch has given Maundy coins to specially chosen subjects. This year, Queen Elizabeth gave two purses each to ninety-one men and ninety-two women in recognition of their service to the Church and to England. A red purse contained a £5 coin, commemorating the centenary of the House of Windsor and a 50p coin commemorating Sir Isaac Newton. A white purse contained uniquely minted Maundy coins, equating in pence to the Queen’s age. This year Queen Elizabeth attended the service at Leister Cathedral, and in doing so has managed to attend at least one Maundy service in every cathedral during her reign.
Many churches will hold feet washing services tonight, along with the celebration of Holy Communion. These are special moments for Christians as we recall the beginning of the Passion of Jesus Christ. We are reminded, however, that today is about more than what we do for ourselves inside our buildings, but that Jesus commanded us to be servants. We are to take our faith into the world, to feed the poor and clothe the naked. We won’t necessarily give commemorative medals, but we can share our resources by giving alms to those in need. We learn by Jesus’ example to humble ourselves to serve our neighbors in whatever way we can make their life better.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18, WEB
In my photo devotion for today, I gave a rather gruesome description of what Jesus underwent on Good Friday. The word for today was “good” and despite how horrific, humiliating, painful, heart-rending, shameful, disgusting, untenable, and unjustified it was, it was good.
My daughter once asked me why we call this day “Good Friday.” How could something so horrible be called good? This form of capital punishment was cruel and painful. The criminal was beaten, humiliated, hung from a cross and left to suffocate. If they took too long to die, the soldiers broke their legs so that they could not push upward with their feet to get a breath of air. They were not given water to drink, but rather vinegar that was sometimes laced with poison.
The comic strip “B.C.” once put it very bluntly. In the first panel, one caveman said to another, “I hate the term ‘Good Friday.’” The other asked, “Why?” In the second panel, the first said, “My Lord was hanged on a tree that day.” The other said, “If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?” On the third panel, the first answered, “Good.” The other turned to walk away with “Have a nice day.” It is Good Friday not because anything about this day was good as we come to know and desire. It is good because of what Christ did for us on that cross.
All the writing I do, from devotions to Bible studies, gives me the opportunity to think a lot about what I believe. Who is Jesus? What did He do? What does this mean for my life? My thinking always leads me to one place especially at this time of year: we can’t get to the Resurrection without the Crucifixion. Now, perhaps that sounds like a pretty simplistic statement and you are thinking “Yeah, so?” Well, it seems that there are a great many people who believe in Easter and the joyous proclamation of the disciples “He is risen!” without fully understanding that persecution, suffering and death come with the Good News.
It is easy to believe in the Resurrection. God is all-powerful; it was nothing for Him to raise someone from the dead. Jesus did it with a word. He even raised Lazarus when there was no longer hope. Such an incredible act is no less than we could expect from the Lord God Almighty. It is a proclamation that brings joy and peace to all those who believe. Even those who do not believe in Jesus enjoy the celebration of Easter, whatever it means to them.
It is a lot harder to believe in Good Friday. Since God is all-powerful, why would there need to be blood to reconcile His people to Him? Why would His son, our Lord Jesus, have to suffer such incredible pain and humiliation? Why did He have to die? We have difficulty seeing anything good come out of suffering. Even if we can come up with the right theological answers to the questions we ask about the events on Golgotha that sad day so long ago, we still wonder in our hearts why it had to be. There are even those who reject it, claiming it to be foolishness. Paul said it would be so in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God.”
We cannot reject the events of Good Friday, for it is here that the power of God is the greatest. It was the most horrible day in the history of the world, for the Son of God was seemingly destroyed in heart, mind and body. And yet, Jesus willingly went to the cross. As Max Lucado wrote, “He chose the nails.” The Resurrection would mean nothing without the Crucifixion. Jesus had to take upon Himself the sin of the world, to experience the entire wrath of God so that it would no longer come upon us sinners. He was the Lamb to be slain; His blood would set us free. We cannot get to Easter without the cross.
We see this story with twenty-twenty vision, knowing that in a short time Jesus will be raised from that death into a new life for us. We look at the story in the hope for Jesus’ imminent return in glory. Yet, we should not set this story aside and only rejoice in the good things. We are sinners in need of a Savior. The cross is the only way for us to have the forgiveness that God has promised to all who believe. Let us consider today our role in this story, our place in sending our Lord to His death. For one day we should not blind our eyes to the suffering that comes from our sinful natures and accept that this is the way God chose to bring reconciliation. Very soon we will rejoice again and live as Easter people, made new by our resurrected Lord and seen by God through His mercy and grace. But for just one day, let us look to the cross of Jesus, see ourselves as we should be seen, and grieve the great loss that came at our hands. It might seem foolish to the world, but for us who have been saved it is the power of God.
“It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Yahweh is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him.” Lamentations 3:22-24, WEB
When I was young, my family used to go to the Atlantic Coast for a convention every year. I tried to get up very early at least once during the trip so that I could spend some time on the beach and watch the sunrise. I checked the newspaper for the right time and made sure I was there well before it would happen. It was dark and quiet and very peaceful. I found a place on the sand to watch and sat facing the east, usually with a camera in my hand. I loved those moments, and still have a photo framed from one of those visits even though it was nearly forty years ago.
I’ve seen and photographed some spectacular sunsets, too, but there is something incredible about the early morning. The world is awake when the sun sets, but by eventide, we are tired from the long day of work and play. The stresses of this world have worn us down and we need to rest. Too often our daily grind leads us to sinful behavior. We argue with our spouses or snap at our kids. We are impatient with each other and would prefer not deal with one more problem. The kids can get tired and uncooperative. The house is messy or the dishes need to be washed, it seems like the hectic pace of life’s responsibilities never end. We get into bed with tomorrow on our mind, unable to sleep as we worry about the projects that are due or the meetings that are scheduled. The guilt of our negative thoughts, words and deeds weigh upon our hearts. We are ready to rest, to put aside the good and the bad of the day.
Sunrise, however, is at the beginning a new day. It begins very quiet, but then as the sun peeks over the horizon the birds begin their symphony of song. The world is just waking up, and God is bringing light into the darkness once again. It is a whole new day. There is hope that today will be filled with love and joy. There is hope that perhaps this will be day we can get through without sinning. We’ll fail, of course, but in the morning we are always reminded that God is giving us another chance. His mercies are new every day. He can have hope because even when we fail, God is faithful.
Yesterday was Easter. I have been thinking that in some ways Easter should be the Christian New Year. I have thought about changes I should make to my life now that Jesus has made the world new again. We’ve spent forty days fasting, considering our sinfulness, praying for grace, asking for God to transform us. Most of us are ready to go back to our regular daily grind. Yesterday was the sunrise, but we will probably go back to living the sunsets, arguing with our spouses and snapping at our kids, being impatient without each other. Our houses will become messy and our sinks filled with dirty dishes. We will return to our hectic pace with responsibilities that never end. We’ll go back to the guilt of our negative thoughts, words and deeds that wear on our hearts.
We don’t have to go back to that life. God has made everything new! The troubles of yesterday are past and today is a whole new day. God is with us and He is faithful. We are Easter people, and we dwell in the hope of the new morning every moment because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. He took upon Himself our burdens and fills us with His peace. Christ is risen and He has invited us to dwell with Him for eternity. Let us begin this new life today, keeping our eyes always on the rising Son, holding on to the hope of everything He has promised.
“Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, that you don’t grow weary, fainting in your souls.” Hebrews 12:1-3, WEB
Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon on Monday. She was one of 27,221 people who began the race, one of 26,411 who finished and one of the 11,973 woman who made it to the finish line. The Boston Marathon is always filled with incredible stories. This year included the man who proposed to his girlfriend at the finish line after running at near-7-minute-mile pace and an 84 year old woman who won her division, the 80+ female age group, in 6:04:07. There were plenty of stories of paralyzed competitors wheelchairs or handcycles who inspired us as they overcame their disabilities. There were acts of kindness along the way as competitors helped one another with encouragement. A few even carried another over the finish line. Volunteers and spectators along the route handed out water and encouragement. One group even gave the runners popsicles to help them cool off since the day was warm. Other spectators held up signs, some with jokes to encourage the runners to keep going.
You have probably heard about some of these stories, but you surely have heard the one about Kathrine Switzer. This was the ninth time the seventy-year-old runner ran the Boston Marathon and it was her fortieth marathon. She even won a few. This is quite a feat, but it is even more incredible when you realize fifty years ago women were not even allowed to run the race.
Women in 1967 did not run; they certainly did not compete in races with men. Women did not participate in competitive sports and were thought to be too delicate to run that distance. Even her coach at Syracuse University discouraged her from running, although when she proved she could do it, he helped her. Kathrine signed up using only her initials, though she never hid the fact that she was a woman. It wasn’t until the second mile that someone realized she didn’t belong. She wasn’t the first to run; Roberta Bingay Gibb had completed the Boston Marathon in 1966 but she did so without a number. Kathrine finished the race, although officials tried to forcibly remove her and rip off her number. Her boyfriend interceded, and she went on to finish the marathon in four hours and twenty minutes.
Kathrine was disqualified and expelled from the Amateur Athletic Union, but she went on to fight for women in sports and she continues to inspire women to run. She created a women’s only circuit of races which helped pave the way for the women’s marathon in the Olympics. Her organization named 261 Fearless which has groups across the world which encourages women to put one foot in front of the other, to encourage women to get through their personal challenges with running or walking. The group is named after the number she wore in that first race.
Kathrine took her challenges and turned them around for the sake of others. She ran the marathon again this year wearing the number 261, fifty years after she was the first woman to wear a number in the race. Other women from 261 Fearless joined her. At seventy years old she finished the marathon in 4:44:31, although her time would have been even better if she hadn’t stopped for autographs and interviews along the way. The organizers of the Boston Marathon have officially retired number 261 in her honor.
Her story may not have anything to do with Jesus; there is no mention of faith in any of the accounts of her accomplishment. However, from this story we learn about how to take the difficulties of life and make the world a better place. We learn how to run the race without growing weary, knowing that in the end we will experience great joy and peace. We might win a medal along the way, but we’ll certainly receive our crown, the one that has been promised to us by our Lord Jesus Christ and won through His endurance even to the cross.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 23, 2017: Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5:29-42; Psalm 148; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
“Every day, in the temple and at home, they never stopped teaching and preaching Jesus, the Christ.” Acts 5:42, WEB
The Easter story is very short in this lectionary year of Matthew. We only heard of the women going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body on Easter Sunday. However, a few other things happened on that first Resurrection Day. Jesus appeared before two disciples on the road to Emmaus, ate with them and as He broke the bread they recognized Him. They quickly returned to Jerusalem to share the Good News. Jesus appeared from behind locked doors as they told their story to the other disciples. He breathed the Holy Spirit upon those who were present.
Jesus was revealing Himself to His disciples so that they would know and believe that it was true. Slowly, but surely, they were really beginning to believe.
Our Gospel text for this Sunday begins on the evening of the Resurrection. Thomas was not with them then. We don’t know where he was; perhaps he scattered much further than the others and had not yet managed to return to the place where they were meeting. Perhaps he was more frightened than the others. Yet, he returned to their company and was there a week later when Jesus appeared a second time. He was skeptical about what they had told him. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe,” he said. It is this statement that makes us call him “Doubting Thomas.”
Yet, that negative identification is not entirely fair. How is Thomas any different than the other disciples? They doubted, too. They questioned the word of the women. They were afraid when Jesus entered a week earlier, thinking that He was a ghost. Jesus showed them His hands and His side. Didn’t Thomas deserve the same proof that they were given? They believed when Jesus breathed upon them, how can we expect any more from Thomas until he has the same benefit?
We live a long way from the resurrection, not only in distance but in time. The eyewitnesses are long gone, only their stories remain. It is easy for us to assume that there is exaggeration in the records, that it couldn’t possibly be real. It is easier to doubt than it is to believe. So, is it any wonder that Thomas was uncertain? I don’t think Thomas’s doubt suggests a lack of trust or love for his fellow disciples, but the story they told is incredible. Jesus came, walked through a locked door, and stood among them.
Thomas was one of those guys who need to see to believe. Imagine how the other disciples must have felt. Thomas was like a brother, having traveled with them for nearly three years. He heard the same stories, he learned the same lessons. He was given the same prophecies and promises. If he did not believe them, who would? How could they possibly share their message with outsiders? I imagine they were hurt; there may have even been discord among the disciples. When Jesus appeared the second time, He spoke the words of peace again. “Peace be with you.”
The disciples needed peace amongst themselves to do the work they were called to do. How could they take the message of the Gospel out into a world if there is no reconciliation between brothers? Whatever was going on behind those closed doors during the week between the first and second appearance, Jesus pointed them in a new direction. Once Thomas was given the same experience, there was nothing to keep the disciples divided.
Jesus brought peace, and He said it twice in today’s lesson. In last week’s Gospel the women were twice told to have no fear. One word is never enough for certainty, especially if we are experiencing overwhelming emotions like grief, fear and doubt. Jesus knew that of all things, peace was the most important at this point. In peace, they could face whatever it was that waited for them outside the door to their room. They would not find peace out there, since the Jews and the Romans would eventually respond to the Christian story with violence and oppression. They needed a different kind of peace.
Real peace is not the absence of conflict but an unassailable trust in God. The world outside our door is not conducive to that feeling of peace that we long for today. As a matter of fact, we face grief, fear and doubt every day. But Christ comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” He is saying, “Trust in me and trust in my Father. His promises are true and He is faithful. Whatever you face, do so with faith, knowing that everything is already taken care of for your and for the world. Live in the forgiveness I have obtained for you and take it out the door into the world for others.”
Peace leads to the manifestation of peace: forgiveness. Or perhaps peace is the manifestation of forgiveness. They are inseparable. We can’t have peace if we are holding a grudge against someone. We can’t have peace if another is holding a grudge against us. But we can face the sin of our world with forgiveness, at peace with the reality of our brokenness and God’s forgiveness. As we dwell in His grace, we share that grace with others and we experience real peace.
Jesus wanted the disciples to see one another through the eyes of grace. Thomas may not have believed their word, but he really isn’t Doubting Thomas. There are those who prefer to call him “Confessing Thomas.” When Jesus appeared amongst them the second time, He showed Thomas His hands and side. Jesus said, “Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.” John does not tell us that Thomas touched Jesus; on seeing Jesus and hearing His voice, Thomas immediately proclaimed “My Lord and my God.” He witnessed the living Christ and believed.
Jesus then said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.” This reprimand was given to all the disciples, not just Thomas. They had an advantage: they saw the Risen Lord. They lived with Him and learned from Him for another miraculous forty days. But the Church would grow out of faith in the word heard, not in the flesh seen. The blessed ones would be those who would believe when they heard their testimony.
It is easy for us to get caught up in the cares of the world, even those that really have no value. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to be a disciple in those first few days after the crucifixion and resurrection? They were worried and scared, perhaps even rightly so. But Jesus came to them in the midst of that difficulty to give them peace. We can experience the same peace if we keep our hearts and minds firm in the promises of God. He calls us to obedience. That doesn’t mean that we should be like dogs. As followers of God saved by Jesus, we are called to love God so much that we trust Him completely.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but Peter and the other disciples grew into such deep and abiding faith, particularly after Pentecost. Time with Jesus after the Resurrection gave them a better understanding of His lessons. The Holy Spirit gave them everything they needed to go forth boldly in faith. Fear no longer held them back, uncertainty did not freeze their tongues. They taught about Jesus wherever they went.
The leaders disliked what they were doing as much as they disliked Jesus. They thought being rid of the leader then followers would scatter. It had happened to other movements. It still happens today. They ordered the disciples to stop preaching in Jesus’ name. Their preaching had as much power as Jesus’ had. People were being converted in large numbers. They were doing incredible signs and wonders. Their preaching was as harsh against the self-righteous religion of the Jewish leaders; they laid the blame of Jesus’ death on the shoulders of those who sought to silence them, too.
Peter answered their demands of silence, “We must obey God rather than men.”
The Jewish leaders became extremely angry and they wanted to kill the disciples. There was one Pharisee, a well respected teacher of the Law, who brought calm to the situation. He told his fellow councilmen to be patient and let God take care of the situation. This was wise advice, although I’m certain the council was hoping it would turn out much differently. Gamaliel gave examples of other movements that had failed after the leader had fallen. Then he said, “Now I tell you, withdraw from these men, and leave them alone. For if this counsel or this work is of men, it will be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it, and you would be found even to be fighting against God!”
Now Gamaliel may have had a concealed motive for speaking such wise words. We know that this Pharisee was a Jewish scholar and teacher of the Law. His most famous student was Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as Paul. Tradition holds that Simeon, the old man in the Temple who recognized Baby Jesus as the Messiah, was Gamaliel’s father. If this is true, he most likely told his son about Jesus. Did Gamaliel know that the men standing before the Sanhedrin were followers of that baby in the Temple? It is believed that Gamaliel did become a Christian and was baptized by Peter and John, but that he kept his Christianity a secret until his death so that he could remain in the Sanhedrin and offer aid to the Christians who were being persecuted. The Jewish account of his life maintains that he remained a Pharisee until he died. But his speech at the trial of the apostles gives some credence to the possibility that he had faith.
It is easy to see the obedience of Peter and the apostles in this story as they stood firm even against such a great risk. What about Gamaliel? Gamaliel was risking his power, position and reputation for a bunch of misfit prophets. It didn’t matter if he was a believer or not; Gamaliel was willing to trust God in this situation, and he convinced the others to trust Him, too.
This was a most extraordinary thing that they were doing. Jesus died and you would think that His death would have put an end to any movement of faith that would follow His name. And yet the stories in the book of Acts tell us that the people believed in extraordinary numbers. Three thousand were baptized on Pentecost, and the scriptures tell us that people were being added to their numbers daily. These were people who believed by the word of those apostles: they told the stories and the Holy Spirit instilled faith. There is no way that the council would be able to stop the growth of faith in Jesus Christ, even if they killed all the apostles. By the time they had been arrested, others were already spreading the Good News. The people who had witnessed the Pentecost miracle were traveling to the four corners of the earth with stories about Jesus.
The disciples trusted God and though most of the original twelve were martyred, they lived long enough to take the Gospel to the four corners of the world. In his first letter, Peter spoke to those about whom Jesus spoke that did not see Him and yet still believed. “Wherein you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been put to grief in various trials, that the proof of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ - whom not having known you love; in whom, though now you don’t see him, yet believing, you rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable and full of glory - receiving the result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” We may not have seen Jesus, but we believed the words spoken about Him and thus we have received the forgiveness which He gives.
Peter talks about the hope we have in Christ. Our faith is built on a rock. Our rock is Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again for our sake. The promise of eternal life is not dependent on anything human or created, it is founded in God’s grace and love for His people. We have been given the eternal kingdom by resting on the True rock of our faith. The promise is real and the King is faithful. We may experience hardship and trials, but through those difficulties our faith will grow and mature. Our joy rests not on the blessings we will see in the here and now, but in faith that God has assured our salvation and that we’ll share in His glory.
Peter talks about joy. We rejoice even in our trials because by faith we know that God done what He has promised and that we have been reborn into a new life that is eternal. And now we live in hope, not for something that cannot be, but something that is assured. We are certain, not because we have experienced it for ourselves, but because God is faithful.
We don’t have to do it alone. Thomas continued to grieve, fear and doubt because he had left the company of the other disciples. He missed what they had experienced together. Yet, when he returned to the gathering place, he joined their joy and peace. He joined them in praising God.
We are called and gathered by the Holy Spirit to join with the entire creation to sing praises to God our Father. He hears our praise wherever we are, because everything He has made sings along with us. Yet, there is something very special when Christians raise their voices together to glorify God in the here and now. When you consider the entire creation it is easy to see the greatness of God. It is also easy to see that we are not much in the entire scheme of things. It is humbling to realize our place in this world. Yet, He has created us to be the crown of His creation. Should we not want to glorify Him together with one voice of praise? He has given us the heavens and the earth. He has given us the sun and the wind and the rain. He has made the animals, birds, plants and trees for us. And He has given the care and love of one another.
Thomas disappeared when he really needed to be with the other disciples. He was caught up in the cares of the world rather being in the company of those who best understood his grief, fear and doubt. Our God is gracious and revealed Himself to Thomas who immediately believed, confessed his faith in Jesus and joined in the joy of the other disciples. The joy and faith that came to them by the power of the Holy Spirit made it impossible for them to remain quiet. No matter how often we are threatened by the world, God will be faithful to fulfill His promises.
We will never see Jesus the way those first disciples saw Him, but we have their witness and the Holy Spirit to help us believe. We will face our own grief, fear and doubt, but we can trust God as much as they did. Our little troubles are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He created the entire world and everything in it. He redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, Jesus has promised us His peace so that we can trust in God our Father. We can live in His forgiveness and never stop teaching and preaching Jesus, the Christ.
“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 11:28-29, WEB
I am pretty strong. I can usually open my own pickle jars. I can lift and carry heavy boxes. I am usually the one to shop at the kitty store, to buy the big bucket of kitty litter and the huge bag of food. I lift them into the cart from the shelves and from the cart into the trunk of my car. I have to admit that the kitty litter is a struggle, those buckets weigh thirty-five pounds, but I can do it. I am the person that can get out to the kitty store, so I do what I have to do, right? I will also admit that I don’t carry those heavy items from my car into the house; I leave it for one of my boys. While I am pretty strong, they are stronger and struggle less with the burden.
Our walk with Christ is often filled with worries and cares that we would just as soon not carry. When we see hungry children and lonely widows, our hearts break at their pain and suffering. Yet we often feel it is impossible for us to do anything to help so many. As pictures come from third world countries and we see dozens of children dying in the streets, we long to provide everything they need but feel so overwhelmed with the burden of responsibility. The need is so great, we don’t even know where to start and in our frustration we tend to do nothing at all.
An even greater burden we bear is that for the lost in this world, particularly our friends and family members who do not know Jesus Christ or have rejected His mercy and love. We grieve at the thought that we will not see them in heaven. When they die, we find no comfort in the usual words and promises, because they did not have the hope of eternal life in Christ. The burden we carry is guilt, for not doing more to take care of our loved ones and convince them to know the Lord.
Yet, this is a burden our Lord did not want us to carry. The yoke of Christ is light and it is in that very place where we will find rest. The gift of faith is from Christ Himself and we cannot see the heart of any man, to know the work of the Lord in His life. We can live in the hope that God is faithful to all His promises, and trust that our Lord Jesus Christ loved all of His creation. With that hope, the Gospel is not a burden, but a gift and we can share it whenever we have the opportunity. We don’t have to worry about whether the hearers are saved; Jesus will take care of carry the burden at that point.
Once someone has died, there is nothing we can do to change their fate, it will not do any good to live a life burdened by guilt. It may even hinder our ability to share the Gospel with others. Too often during our Christian journey we take on burdens far too heavy to bear, and in the process we do more damage than good. We are determined to be the ones to give salvation to our loved ones. If we do not see proof when they die, we feel we have failed and carry a burden of guilt.
Jesus Christ has given us the Great Commission to go out and make disciples of all nations, but it is not a burden that we carry alone. We may be overwhelmed, but there is One there to help. He has promised to be with us and it is by His power that the nations will be saved. We rest in the promise of hope that comes from faith in Christ, and trust that He will be faithful. We don’t know who we will find in heaven, so let us stay on the solid foundation that is Christ. He will carry all our worries and cares, so that we will be free to be witnesses to His grace and invite others to dwell in His rest.
“Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand on the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in Yahweh’s law. On his law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that produces its fruit in its season, whose leaf also does not wither. Whatever he does shall prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For Yahweh knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish.” Psalm 1, WEB
Spring in Texas is time for wildflowers. I have taken three trips this year, each to a different region, and each with a different type of display. I do this every year, sometimes following the same roads, sometimes veering off on an unknown trail. I am less likely to get lost if I follow the roads I know, but sometimes the best surprises are found off the beaten path. Unfortunately, that also often means getting lost, if only for a little while. One year I turned onto a road that seemed to be going in the direction I wanted to go. I knew it was going to be a small road, but it quickly became little more than dirt, rocks and holes. It twisted and turned so many times I lost which direction I was going. When I finally found a way out, the next road was blocked by road construction. Meanwhile, I had ended up miles from where I meant to be.
On another occasion, I followed the advice of someone from the area, but unfortunately, the road was not the one I thought it was. Instead of going west, I was headed northeast. I had plans to meet a friend on that trip, so I was in a time crunch. It would not have mattered otherwise. The wrong road meant I would not have time to stop and photograph the flowers, at least on my way to the café. I tried to take a detour, but the road was another of those tiny country roads that twisted and turned. I made it to lunch on time, but spent most of my morning finding myself.
We had similar experiences in England. We learned very quickly that the best way to see the country is to get lost. Of course, there was always a roundabout to get you going in the right direction, and you might just discover something beautiful along the way. I had one such experience. I was lost because I had taken the wrong exit off a roundabout. I went a few miles and came to another. It was then I realized I wasn’t going the right way. I followed the exit I thought would get me headed toward home, and it took me past the most beautiful manor house. I didn’t have time to visit then, but I went back as soon as I could. While I did make the right choice on that roundabout, I made a few other wrong choices. My trip home took me much longer than it should have, but I enjoyed the journey.
Unfortunately, those wrong turns can be dangerous. On another trip I ended up in a gully. Luckily a nice man pulled my car out. On another trip I ended up in a very dangerous part of a big city. I have struggled around road construction, one way streets and other obstacles. It is stressful and frightening sometimes.
Our Christian life is a journey. We travel on well worn roads and into unknown places. The most important thing for us to remember as we walk in faith daily is to be careful in our Christian walk to follow the right path. When we love the Lord, we will live according to His promises and obey His commands. When we obey God’s Word, in the name of Jesus, then goodness and mercy will shine through our lives, and the fruit of His Spirit will be produced abundantly. When we keep our eyes on our Lord, we’ll end up where we belong, doing what He is calling us to do.
“Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus, and said, ‘You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.” Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man. The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked. But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent, because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.’” Acts 17:22-31, WEB
We search for the right church, a place we’ll feel like we are at home. We search for a place where we will find peace and grace, where we will experience God’s love and mercy, where we will find friendships and support. We look for that place in many different ways. In the past we asked neighbors or looked up churches in the Yellow Pages. Sometimes we search for a certain denomination, other times we search for certain activities that meet our needs. Modern church searches include hours of surfing on the Internet as we look for information from websites. We can even find reviews on our phone apps these days. We hop from church to church until we find the right one.
Churches often want to know how you managed to find them, so that they know how to continue reaching out to the neighborhood. We didn’t have very many choices when we moved to Arkansas, and the search was more difficult because we were moving from overseas. We found information about a church named Faith and I contacted the pastor long before we moved. They were looking forward to our first visit and we quickly found our place in the congregation. When it came time for us to become members, we were given a survey. One of the questions was “How did you find Faith.” I laughed when I read it because my answer was “the Yellow Pages.” They certainly meant to ask how we found that particular church, but the question is much broader, although I doubt anyone is finding faith in the telephone book. I’m sure it is equally difficult finding true faith on the Internet.
A friend wrote in a newsletter, “So, I’m headed for a retreat at Christ the King Retreat Center. I know where it is, but I have an appointment somewhere else first, the time is short, and I think it might be wise to find out the most efficient route. I whip out my iPhone and ask Siri, ‘Directions to Christ the King.” She replies, ‘Please direct your spiritual questions to someone better qualified to answer them. Preferably a human being.’” Who would have thought modern technology would be so responsible?
It is practical to use a telephone book or the Internet to find a church where we will be blessed, but we are reminded that we often search for God in all the wrong places. Paul saw that with the people of Athens. They were trying to answer the questions of life with gods who had no power. They wanted to be sure to be covered by every possibility that they had an altar to the Unknown God. Paul knew that God and introduced them to Him. He is the God who created the universe, who redeemed mankind. He is the foundation of faith, that we receive faith through His Word. As we search for the place to call home, let us always remember to look for Him within the walls and we will find peace and grace, love and mercy.
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, watching therein with thanksgiving; praying together for us also, that God may open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds; that I may reveal it as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Colossians 4:2-6, WEB
Cheryl Frasier was a contestant from Rhode Island in the Miss USA Beauty Pageant. There was a terrible threat to the contestants, so the FBI placed Gracie Hart as Miss New Jersey to protect the girls and investigate from the inside. Cheryl had a history of activism, so Gracie befriended her to find out if she could be guilty of the threat. She quickly realized that Cheryl was not the violent sort; as a matter of fact, Gracie didn’t think Cheryl was capable of being the terrorist. She was beautiful and kind, but a little dimwitted at times. While she might be intellectually smart, Cheryl has a child-like innocence that makes her gullible and foolish, not evil and manipulative. This, of course, is the plot to the movie “Miss Congeniality” starring Sandra Bullock.
During a scene that was filmed right here in San Antonio, Stan Fields the pageant master of ceremonies, asked the contestants a number of stock questions. These questions are expected by the girls and they practice their answers. “What do you want most?” “World peace,” they all say. “What do you want to do after this pageant is over?” They have prepared speeches about their goals in life, usually having something to do with helping others. Cheryl’s question was, “Describe your favorite date,” referring to what she would like to do on a date with a young man. Cheryl answered, “That’s a tough one. I’d have to say April 25th because it is not too hot and not too cold. All you need is a light jacket.”
Later Cheryl agonized over the answer, telling some other contestants, including Gracie, that she had the perfect response to the question. She felt so unworthy of the title even though she was one of the top contestants. In the end, Cheryl won the pageant, Gracie saved everyone’s lives and the perpetrators are arrested. Cheryl may not have thought she was worthy, but the judges gave her the highest scores because they saw something special in her.
Cheryl was ready for the question, but when it came she forgot what she intended to say. We may laugh at the silliness, but haven’t we all had a moment when we weren’t prepared to give an answer to a question we expected? This is particularly true for those questions of faith. We don’t know what to say when someone asks us why we believe. Sometimes we aren’t even certain what we believe. We have an advantage over the character of Cheryl Frasier, however. We have the Holy Spirit who will give us the words we need to speak during those opportunities God gives us to share His grace with others. Paul gives us some simple instruction for how to be prepared to share the Christian message. Follow these words, and you will be ready to receive the opportunities given by God to spread the Gospel of our Lord. We can be ready with an answer, to speak with wisdom and grace to give the answers the world needs to hear.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 30, 2017: Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-14; 1 Peter 1:17-25; Luke 24:13-35
“Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” Acts 2:38, WEB
“Turn around, don’t drown” is an often heard phrase around here when extreme rain hits. The normally dry creek beds quickly fill with rushing water and cover the low lying roads. It doesn’t look bad; many drivers are certain that they can get through, but they quickly realize that it doesn’t take much to send a car floating down the creek. It is incredibly difficult to escape once drawn away from the safety of the road, so we are reminded to turn around so that we do not drown. Too many people lose their lives because they think they know better than those who put up the barricades.
Today’s scriptures all call for us to turn around so that we don’t drown under the weight of sin and death. Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit, spoke to the Pentecost crowds and told them to turn around, repent, so that they might be saved. Peter continues the call of repentance in his letter, pointing to the incorruptible precious blood of Jesus Christ, the perfect lamb and the enduring Word of God as the source of our redemption. The psalmist gives us an example of repentance, crying out to God in his moment of great need.
We know we need to turn around, but like the driver that thinks they can get through the rushing water, we try to save ourselves. I’m sure we can all come up with examples of times when we waited until it was almost too late to deal with a problem. We try to do it ourselves. We try to hide our pain and suffering and confusion, sure that we can overcome alone. We become frustrated and exhausted doing so, until we reach the end of our rope and then we finally go for help. This is true not only in those mundane problems of life, but also in the eternal problems of our spirits.
I don’t doubt that most of my readers are people of prayer. I imagine that you pray daily and that you seek God’s help for those you love, for the people who ask you to pray, for the world and everything in it. Yet, all too often when it comes to our own needs especially that of our spirits, we tend to try to deal with it on our own. Are you embarrassed to take your problems to God? Do you think that your problems are inconsequential compared to those of our neighbors? After all, why worry about a little doubt when our neighbor has rejected God altogether?
The psalmist understood this human tendency to go it alone. It was not until he was overwhelmed with trouble that he cried out for God’s help. “The cords of death surrounded me, the pains of Sheol got a hold of me. I found trouble and sorrow.” He had reached the end of his rope; he could not deal with it alone. But even though he waited so long to seek God’s hand, God was ready to answer. “Then I called on Yahweh’s name: ‘Yahweh, I beg you, deliver my soul.’” Turn around, don’t drown; God has given you a better way to go. Repent and be saved.
We are human and despite the graciousness of God, we still have a nature that is wrapped up with sin. We still fail to live as God created and intended us to live. We still make mistakes that hurt others. We still ignore God. We still reject Him when we think we can do it better. We go our own way and forget that God is ready to help us whenever we need it. It is only when we reach the end of our rope, when there is nothing left that we can do, that we turn to Him. And though we’ve ignored Him all along, He is there and ready to respond to our cries.
He comes to us.
I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like for the disciples in those days following the crucifixion. Three years of ministry with Jesus was over in a heartbeat. They were afraid, confused and uncertain about the future. Jesus was dead and they were alone, not really understanding what had happened.
Luke tells us that on the day of the resurrection some of the disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. The appearance stories differ from one Gospel lesson to another, but we know that on that first Easter morning women, including Mary Magdalene, reported to the disciples that the tomb was empty. They were left wondering what was happening.
Last week we heard that Thomas was nowhere to be found, but he wasn’t the only one to leave the company of the disciples. Today’s Gospel lesson tells of two who were walking back to Emmaus. One of them was named Cleopas. The other is unnamed, but it is thought that it was, perhaps, the wife of Cleopas who may have been at the tomb that morning. They were discussing the events surrounding Jesus’ death when a stranger joined them. They did not recognize Him because their eyes were blinded. In all the stories of Jesus’ appearances, He had full control. When He asked what they were discussing, the disciples were shocked to hear that He did not know what had happened. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things which have happened there in these days?”
They told Jesus about everything that had happened. They told him about how Jesus was crucified and how some of the others had seen Him alive. Jesus answered their query with a lesson in Old Testament scriptures. “Foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” Then He opened up the scriptures to them so that they might see that what happened to Jesus was just as God had planned.
We might wonder why Jesus did not just say, “Hey friends, here I am!” Yet, can you imagine the impact His appearance would have had on these disciples? They still did not fully understand how everything fit into the plan of God. Jesus needed to put all the pieces into the puzzle, but it would have been very difficult to do so if they knew that it was Jesus walking beside them. They listened intently, growing in knowledge about the story as Jesus revealed the words of Moses and the Prophets foretelling of Jesus’ life, ministry and suffering. He also showed them how He was to be raised.
When they arrived at their destination, Jesus tried to keep going but the disciples invited him inside. It was late and they were probably very curious about this man they met on the road. He had so much knowledge of things they should have known but didn’t. They wanted to learn more. I am sure they found comfort in His word. They sat down to eat and Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it for them. At that moment, they saw Jesus.
Jesus came to those disciples and opened the scriptures to them so that they would see and recognize Him.
Today’s story is one of my favorites, perhaps because we see how truly human the disciples really were. We often think of them as special and extraordinary, but they were just like you and I. We wonder how they did not recognize Jesus, but then we realize that we are sometimes so overwhelmed by our circumstances that we do not see something that is, to others, obvious. Jesus was probably in a form that made him appear different than they remembered and their eyes were kept from recognizing Him. However, they were also distracted by their thoughts and emotions. What had happened? What were they going to do? Who was this Jesus, really?
We don’t always recognize the presence of God in our ordinary circumstances. Jesus said that we would see Him in the faces of those we serve, but how often do we really do so? Do we see Jesus in that neighbor who needs a helping hand or the hungry man at the food bank? Do we see Jesus in the politician that needs our prayers or the teacher that is overwhelmed by her work? Do we recognize Jesus in the person behind the wheel of the car that just cut us off or the friend that has forgotten to answer an email?
The two disciples saw Jesus clearly when He broke the bread with them. I would not like to admit how many times I saw the truth as I was on my knees receiving communion. Too often as I take the bread and wine I realize my own failures during the week, seeing His face in those that I failed to serve. I remember the opportunities I had to share the Good News but was so caught up in my own cares and concerns. But just like those disciples, I also see God’s grace in the breaking of the bread. I remember his forgiveness and receive the strength to go on into another week of trying to live as witnesses in this world.
God does not always come to us in dramatic and forceful ways. Sometimes He comes to us slowly at first, carefully laying out His story so that when He is fully revealed we will recognize him. Though some Christians have extraordinary experiences of Jesus, like Paul on the road to Damascus, most of us learn about Jesus through Sunday school teachers and our parents. Slowly, but surely, we hear the stories until one day we finally see Him and understand. Even then we wonder how we could have not seen, just like the disciples. “Weren’t our hearts burning within us?” we ask. But in the stories of God’s grace we see that we are just like those who were there at the beginning, learning and growing in grace each day.
When the disciples recognized Jesus, He vanished from their sight. They did not sit around waiting for something special to come. Fed and renewed, they ran back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the other disciples. “The Lord has risen indeed!” So too should we, strengthened by our Lord Jesus Christ, go out into the world to proclaim the good news of salvation found in Christ.
The Gospel message demands a response. It is not enough to believe. It is not enough to simply accept Jesus is the Messiah. He died so that you might live and live abundantly. This Good News calls us to turn around, to go back into the city, to tell others that Jesus is not dead. He is alive, and He’s calling His people into relationships of love. In faith we live forever, no longer condemned to death.
The first lesson comes seven weeks after the first appearances of Jesus. In that time He continued to teach and reveal Himself to His disciples. They gained in wisdom and courage so that on the day when Jesus returned to His Father, they would be ready to do the work He was calling them to do. The Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost and they spoke the Gospel that was heard by men and women of many nations. The crowds thought that the disciples were drunk with new wine when they began speaking in tongues, but Peter told them it was the power of God.
Imagine if you were in the crowd on that day, hearing the strange words coming out of the disciples’ mouths. You surely had heard of what had happened during the Passover festival with Jesus. Rumors were all over the city about the lost body of Jesus. Some might have been in agreement with the Romans, who claimed that the body was stolen by the disciples. Only fifty days had passed since that first Easter morning.
It could not have been easy for Peter to give his first sermon to those pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost. It was bold and courageous. He was offering them a new promise, a different promise. As they heard his words, the people were “pricked in their heart” or “cut to the heart” and they wondered what they should do. Peter told them to repent. He told them to be baptized for forgiveness and to receive the Holy Spirit. He said many other things, testifying to convince them of the truth. His boldness brought the word of God, Jesus, to thousands of people in one day. The Word had already been planted in their hearts with the rumors around Jerusalem; Peter simply watered the seed.
We don’t know much about the crowd, but I wonder how many of them may have been there on the day of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Were they among the crowds who once waved palm branches? Were they also among the crowds who called for Jesus’ crucifixion just days later? Imagine the confusion and frustration! It is so hard to know what to believe. Faith is something we can’t achieve on our own. It takes the hand of God. That’s what happened on that Pentecost Day. God took the seeds that were planted, He brought order into their confusion, and He set their hearts on fire with faith so that they could believe.
Those people who heard Peter’s sermon had good reason to be confused. It is hard to discern the difference between truth and rumor sometimes. Even the disciples who had been with Jesus for a long time were scared and frustrated. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know where to go. The disciples didn’t believe the witness of the women who met Jesus in the garden. Some ran away. How can we expect that the crowds in Jerusalem to believe when they had nothing but rumors?
We are so much like them. We are rattled by so many ideas. It has been said, “Ask twelve theologians the meaning of a biblical text and you’ll get thirteen answers.” The bookstores are filled with commentaries and devotionals that will give the seeker seemingly contradictory advice. I can understand why so many non-Christians are confused. It doesn’t make sense if you can’t put it all together. Jesus meets us along the way, as He did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and opens the Word for us. The Holy Spirit helps us to believe and understand.
Jesus was revealed to the disciples in the sharing of the word but also in the breaking of bread. The word and bread belong together. Jesus not only made the scriptures clear to the disciples, but He gave His flesh for their sake. As we hear the scriptures we learn about the Jesus who came to do all this for us. It is in the breaking of bread that we join in the fellowship of His people, receiving His body and blood together with every Christian in all time and space. We are made new every time we receive this gift: forgiven, transformed and purified by His grace so that we can go forth another day to trust God and live in love.
Jesus established the pattern of worship for our lives of faith. He comes to us in word and bread. We experience Christ in body and in spirit. Our faith is founded on both reason and mystery. What does it all mean? Where are we going? What do we do with this faith we have been given? It was not until the bread was broken that the disciples could see Him clearly. Then they knew it was Jesus and they were amazed. Fed and renewed, they ran back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the other disciples. “The Lord has risen indeed!” Strengthened by the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ in our own lives, we are called to go out into the world to proclaim the Good News of salvation found in His blood, calling others to “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Then they, too, will turn around so that they won’t drown in sin and death, experiencing the life giving grace found in the blood of Christ.
“Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever. Let the redeemed by Yahweh say so, whom he has redeemed from the hand of the adversary, And gathered out of the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. They wandered in the wilderness in a desert way. They found no city to live in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. Then they cried to Yahweh in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses, he led them also by a straight way, that they might go to a city to live in. Let them praise Yahweh for his loving kindness, for his wonderful deeds to the children of men! For he satisfies the longing soul. He fills the hungry soul with good.” Psalm 107:1-9 (WEB)
Here are some riddles from an old copy of Reader’s Digest. Some of the answers, when known, seem ridiculously simple, and yet they provide a challenge for even the most intelligent people. Perhaps the problem with these riddles is that they are too simple. Sometimes the answers that are right in front of you are the most difficult to find.
Take, for example, the first question. “Where can anybody but you sit?” The answer, of course, is “my own lap.” I felt foolish when I did not think of that answer. Some were more difficult such as “Why didn’t William Howard Taft run for a third term as President?” The answer is that he didn’t run for a second term. Perhaps if I were more knowledgeable about the Taft presidency, that answer would have come simply. “How can you throw a ball so it will reverse direction and return to you without the ball bouncing against or touching any solid object?” I wondered if a sharp twist to the wrist would put the right spin on the ball, but then I looked at the answer. I groaned. Throw it straight up in the air; the affects of gravity will bring it right back to you. The easiest, but perhaps hardest of all the questions was “If Betsy Ross were living today, what would she be most noted for?” I thought to myself, “How can we know, she may have accomplish a great many things.” The answer was her age. Yes, that makes sense; if she were still alive today she’d be hundreds of years old.
Though these questions are somewhat silly and perhaps I look the fool for not knowing the answers, there is something to be said about hindsight being twenty-twenty vision. Would you have gotten the answers if they had not been laid out in this story? Sometimes the simplest answers are the hardest to grasp. This is even more true about matters of faith. Think about all the people who are wandering in the wilderness of this world for whom peace and joy are illusive. They seek the meaning of life, unable to find it. They seek fulfillment, most often looking toward relationships, work or hobbies to satisfy, but never quite finding the thing they long for most of all. There are so many who are hungry and thirsty, not physically but spiritually, and they do not even know what they seek.
The one question I did get right immediately was “What common mechanical transports in New York City (120,000 of them) carry three times as many passengers daily as all the city’s subways, trains, buses, cars and taxis combined?” To me the answer was quite obvious in a city filled with skyscrapers where most of the inhabitants get around on foot: an elevator. New York is a rather large city, ost people do not travel very far from one place to another, and yet they have to climb up many floors. The logical answer is a conveyance that goes up and down rather than around the streets.
What are people’s greatest needs? We need food, shelter and security. Most of all we need love. Those of us with faith know that the answer to the question of life is found in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. God meets our greatest need with His unfailing love, providing everything we need to survive in this world if only we will trust in Him. Those who do not know Jesus continue to wander in the desert wasteland that is life in this world; to them the answer is beyond reach. It is the easiest question to answer, because the truth is right in front of us, written in God’s Word and the world He created.
Yet, many continue to hunger and thirst in their trouble because they do not cry out to the Lord for deliverance. They try too hard to answer the questions of life on their own, in their own way. They seek for answers in all the wrong places. We can help them by sharing the Good News that God has provided for their needs. He will satisfy the thirst of their soul and feed them with the life-giving bread of Life found in Jesus Christ.