Welcome to the April 2019 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 2019
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse. Because, knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and traded the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals, and creeping things.” Romans 1:18-23, WEB
Today is April Fool’s day, a day filled with foolishness and jokes. Kids all over the world will play some sort of silly game with their parents and friends. As they tremble in pretend fear, they will say, “What is that sneaking up behind you?” as if there is a spider or rhinoceros were just inches away from your back. The tradition probably began in medieval times when the Gregorian calendar was established. Before the mid 16th century, the Europeans celebrated the New Year in the springtime, around April 1st. In 1564, King Charles IX of France accepted the more accurate Gregorian calendar, which made January 1st New Year’s Day.
Some people were too stubborn to change or they had not received the news of the change, so they continued to celebrate on April 1st. They were called “April Fish.” They were looked upon as fools and were targeted with foolish gifts and invitations to celebrations that were not really happening. Eventually everyone accepted the new calendar, but they continued to play pranks on April Fool’s Day.
The jokes are not limited to childish play. Adults also try to fool people. Most jokes are just harmless fun, but not all jokes have such a happy ending. Some people go to great lengths to plan and execute practical jokes, but at times they end in pain and heartache. It may be funny on April Fool’s day to cause someone to be a fool, but in the kingdom of God it is better to be wise than to be a fool.
Are we at a time when foolishness is creeping into the hearts and minds of men? There are many religions, even some that call themselves Christian, that have turned from the one True and Living God. They do not teach the truth of the scriptures or the message of Jesus Christ. They have traded the Gospel for something they desire, doctrine that tickles their fancy and touches their flesh. Many preachers today are teaching wealth and perfection. Others teach a focus on earthly works rather than God’s grace. Yet others encourage people to walk away from Christ’s body the Church, to forsake the scriptures and commands of Christ and to live an existence that seems right but is actually separate from Christ. Non-Christian religions give the appearance of truth, but twist God’s word and lure His people down the wrong path.
The truth of God, the incredible grace, mercy and nature of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Power of the Holy Spirit are clearly seen, not only in scriptures but also in the creation. Are you wise, or a fool? Do you truly know God, or are you following the images created by men?
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved. He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Yahweh is your keeper. Yahweh is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. Yahweh will keep you from all evil. He will keep your soul. Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.” Psalm 121, WEB
I love a road trip. As a matter of fact, I’d rather get into a car and drive for three days than get on an airplane and fly for seven hours. I know there are advantages to flight such as more time at the destination, but sometimes the best moments happen during the journey. There’s something special about seeing the world from the window of a car, stopping at those crazy roadside attractions, eating food at quaint diners and finding rest in motels. There are dangers, of course, because you don’t always know what lies around the next corner, but we have had some of the best experiences discovering places that we would never see if we were flying overhead.
I tend to over pack when we travel. I guess that’s why I prefer road trips; I have more freedom to take the things I might not need but really think I should have along “just in case.” You know how it is. You are traveling to a place where the weather is different than the place you live. You can check weather reports, but who knows what it will really be like in a few days. What if a cold front comes through? I should have a jacket and long pants. What if there is a record heat wave? I should have some shorts and a swimming suit. What if there is nothing to do? I should take a bag full of things to fill the time. I always pack my bible and my latest project. We fill the car with more snacks than we could possibly eat. I fill my cosmetic case with every type of health and hygiene product I might need along the way. I usually come home with clothes that haven’t been worn and items that were never needed. But, what would I have done if I had needed them? I am always ready for every possibility.
It is unlikely that a common family of history would travel very farm, but there are stories of travel in the ancient days. It was harder for those who traveled before the invention of the automobile. Some used horses or other beasts of burden, but the cheapest and most common way to travel was by foot. A traveler could generally walk about twenty miles in a day, so a trip we can make in hours by plane or days by car would have taken months to accomplish. Those who made such journeys had an important purpose; most were going on pilgrimage. Some even went as far as Jerusalem from the far corners of the known world to prove their love for God. Imagine what it was like to go on the road, on foot, with only a backpack to carry everything needed. Such a journey meant giving up a normal life. Only the bravest set out on those journeys because there was no way of being certain that they would even make it to their destination.
Travel was much more dangerous in the past than it is today. There are dangers in automobiles and airplanes, but we generally do not have to worry about thieves on the road or wild animals along our paths. We don’t suffer from the heat of the day or the cold of the night because our cars have air conditioning and there are hotels every few miles where we can rest. Mountain paths and extreme weather can be deadly. It is no wonder the psalmist looked to God for help along the path.
Today’s Psalm is the song of a pilgrim, sung by travelers to comfort them with the promise that God was with them through their journey. For those who had to walk through wilderness under the heat of the sun and who faced criminals around every corner, such a psalm offered hope and peace in the journey. We may not be subjected to the same dangers of the road, but it does not make our need for God any less than it was for them. Even if we never leave our home, we can rest in the knowledge that God will never slumber, that He will keep us and guide us through all our journeys, large and small.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 7, 2019, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
“Don’t remember the former things, and don’t consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing.” Isaiah 43:18-19a, WEB
I went on another wildflower adventure yesterday; this time I took out of town friends to the Hill Country. They came to San Antonio, and I wanted them to see more of Texas, so we drove through small towns, back roads and along rivers. We ate some Texas BBQ and wandered through a wildflower seed farm. We even went to Luckenbach, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere which is well known in the world of Country music. We found incredible fields of wildflowers along the way and got a taste of Texas with all of our senses.
Texas is known for its bluebonnets. These flowers are hardy but fickle. The seeds can stay dormant for years, but when the conditions are perfect, they burst forth in magnificent fields of blue that look like lakes or rivers. I went to the same routes a few weeks ago with my sister, and there were only a few flowers in bloom. I expected this to be a fantastic year because the weather has been just right, but as it turned out, we were simply early. The fields were extraordinary yesterday. The early blooms we saw a few weeks ago were the first signs of spring, and now we can hope that warmer weather is here to stay.
Bluebonnets are not the only wildflowers, but they are so beloved by Texans that they are our official state flower. We long for the day when the bluebonnets are in bloom, but then there is something in every place that indicates that the long winter is finally over. For some it is the crocus, for others the daffodil. In Washington it is the cherry blossom. I remember longing for the first lilacs to bloom on our bushes in Pennsylvania. When we see the color on the bushes and in the fields, we know something new is about to happen.
In Isaiah, we hear the promise of what is going to be. Do you not perceive it? It is like waiting for those first flowers of spring to burst forth; we wait longingly for it to happen and then when it does we can expect warmer days and green grass.
Do you remember the good old days? This question might bring up different memories for each of us. For some, it is the joy of childhood that is brought to mind. For others, it is a remembrance of a specific day or year. Some remember a decade as the good old days, others a century. They long to be there, to return to the ways of that culture and the experiences of life in that time. While it is a pleasure to remember, we can’t continue to live in the past. We don’t get very far on a journey if we keep turning back. We don’t see the joy and peace that is coming if we spend so much time thinking about the pain of yesterday.
God did some amazing things for the Israelites. Just last week we heard of how God finally led His people into the Promised Land and helped them to begin their new life there. The first thing they did was celebrate the Passover, a remembrance of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Even today, Jews all over the world continue to remember the Passover and celebrate with special meals and ceremonies.
In today’s lesson from Isaiah, Isaiah was speaking to the exiles, assuring them that the promise still existed. God has done great things, but He is about to do even greater things. They will be set free and sent home. These words were specifically given to the exiles, but they reach far beyond the day they would return to Jerusalem. This promise is for all of creation. Through Isaiah, God told the people to forget the things that have gone before, especially the suffering they experienced. “Behold, I will do a new thing” He said. He speaks of making the water flow in the desert, bringing life into the wasteland. This would be such a great thing that even the wild animals would honor God. The people will drink and proclaim praise for God, not just the exiled Jews, but all who trust in God.
The old has past and the new is coming. The psalmist sang praise to God because He delivered the people from the exile. They rejoiced as they went home, laughing and singing along the journey, giving praise to God in joy and thanksgiving. They once sowed in tears, but they returned with songs of joy. The old is set aside for something new.
Throughout the scriptures, we hear about the joy of God’s deliverance. When the Israelites made it across the Red Sea, Miriam danced. When the Ark of the Covenant arrived in Jerusalem, David danced. It is very difficult to dance in celebration and joy without laughing! Joyful laughter shows the world the condition of our hearts. Joy comes from God, and we feel the joy of our salvation when we experience His love. When we know the joy of the Lord, it is impossible not to laugh. When we do, the world sees that God has done a great thing for us.
Mary had this joy, and she showed it in the way she gave homage to Jesus. The scriptures show us that Mary repeatedly sat at His feet. In Luke’s story about Mary and Martha, Martha was busy serving, but Mary was at His feet listening. When Jesus arrived after Lazarus was dead, Mary fell at His feet to beg for mercy. In this story, Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet and anointed them with a very costly perfume.
Nard, otherwise known as spikenard, is made from a plant that in that day was only grown in what is now Nepal, above 13,000 feet in the Himalayas. It was used for several purposes. First of all, it was used to anoint a bride for her wedding night. The Song of Solomon describes how seductive the fragrances are to the groom, making him desire her. Secondly, when a person was buried, the body was carefully prepared with oils and spices, then wrapped in cloth and placed in the tomb or grave. The act of pouring expensive oil on the feet of a dead loved one was an act of love. The third purpose for nard was to anoint kings. It was poured over their head to show that they are the chosen one, giving them the authority and power to lead. Other oils may have been used, but the cost of nard made it popular choice as a sign of the king's wealth. The Egyptians also used it in cosmetics to rejuvenate the skin.
Today’s Gospel lesson is a turning point for Jesus. Until now, Jesus has been doing great and wonderful things for the poor, the sick, the lame and the lonely. He fed thousands, healed the sick and cast our demons. In chapter eleven of John, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after he had been in the tomb for four days. This was significant because they believed that the soul left the body on the third day. They had no hope of life for Lazarus, but Jesus gave them more than a promise. Jesus raised Lazarus to new life, a new life that would bring His own death.
The Jewish authorities were concerned about Jesus. He had fulfilled the expectations of the Messiah doing all they expected Him to do, but it was not a good time for change in Jerusalem. The authorities had a good working relationship with the Romans; they were in cushy jobs and quite comfortable with the way things were going for them. Jesus’ preaching did not fit their expectations. The people were amazed by Jesus and the leaders were concerned about the crowds getting out of control. Jesus never indicated that He would lead a revolution, but the crowd seemed bend on rebellion. He had to be stopped but they did not know how. The crowd was still small and uncertain and they could be controlled, but they did not know how long that would last. They hoped that Jesus would say something like the other wannabe messiahs so that they would turn from him.
Unfortunately, when news of Lazarus got out, many people believed beyond doubt that Jesus was the expected Messiah. There was little chance that He’d do something stupid, little chance that they would stop following. The Jewish authorities had to do something to stop Him. This was a turning point in their mission. It was also a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, for now it was time to turn His face toward Jerusalem.
Did Mary know that she was buying this nard to anoint Jesus in His death? Nard, as most essential oils, has a very short shelf life, only three to six months. This is not a substance that anyone buys ahead to keep on hand “just in case.” It isn’t something that would have been bought on sale and kept in the pantry until needed. Nard was purchased with a purpose; the purchaser expected it to be used in a short period of time.
Perhaps Mary did know. She was the one disciple who was always at His feet, listening to every word He said. She heard Him tell about His death. Without a doubt, she also knew it was the raising of Lazarus that would be the catalyst for the end. After all, it was the Jews who had been mourning with her that went to tell the Jewish authorities about the resurrection of Lazarus. He was already in danger because He threatened the status quo. He had been avoiding Jerusalem, but now He seemed set on going there, to face His enemies. Death loomed for Jesus, though none of them could have guessed the time or the day.
They were at a party; they were celebrating the new life Jesus gave to Lazarus. Mary took the jar of nard and poured it over Jesus’ feet, probably an unplanned act of love for her Lord. She felt joy, but she was suffering with an unexplainable grief. The very thing for which she was rejoicing was the very thing that would send Jesus to the cross. I can almost imagine her suddenly coming up to Jesus with the nard, and without warning pouring it over His feet. Luke writes that she wept as she honored Him in this way, wiping His feet with her hair and kissing them. She did not care what others felt, did not care that it was a disgrace to let her hair down. She did not care what the oil might do to her hair, which was the most valuable thing a woman had. All that mattered was Jesus.
Judas did care. He suggested that the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. This sounded like a good excuse. After all, until this moment, Jesus was pretty concerned about the poor. He fed them. He gave the people mercy and forgiveness. He taught the disciples compassion. They were expected to give as they had been given, to love one another sacrificially. Three hundred denarii would have fed a whole lot of people but Judas didn’t really care about the poor. He simply wanted access to more money he might steal out of the common purse.
Judas was looking back, but Jesus was looking forward. It was a new day; the time had come for God’s promises to be fulfilled. The poor would be here tomorrow, and Christians are expected to feed them both in body and spirit. However, in this moment Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem where He would die for the sake of the world. Mary anointed Him not on the head like a king, but on the feet like one who is dead. She may not have known what she was doing, but she will always be remembered for seeing and acting beyond that moment.
Jesus received her extravagance and reprimanded Judas for his unbelief. The poor would still be with them tomorrow, but Jesus had little time left. Mary was giving Jesus a wonderful gift, the honor of anointing while still living so that He could see her love and humility. My mother always said, “If you never buy me flowers when I am alive, don’t bother when I am dead. Give them to me today so I can enjoy them.” Mary gave Jesus the sweet fragrance of thankfulness in the days of His life so they could be savored together, rather than later in the tomb.
Paul had a great set of credentials. He had a long list of reasons why he should have been respected among his people. His credentials gave him authority; his voice was one of power and influence. He was qualified to be a leader, to speak on behalf of God about Jewish Law and practice. Paul had a great set of credentials, so great that people were willing to follow his lead in persecuting the Christians. He could easily have held his genealogy and his blamelessness above all others because he was right with God according to the Law of Moses. But, in Christ he realized that his credentials were meaningless. Instead of being someone above all others, he knew that his place in God’s kingdom made him a servant of all. He realized that he was not greater than anyone, and even suggested that of all sinners he was the greatest. He had persecuted Christ’s church, and thus persecuted the Savior. He knew now, in Christ, that all that he had was useless. Only in Christ is there righteousness. Paul did not look back, holding on to what was, but looked forward to what would be because of Jesus.
Paul advocated repeatedly that salvation is found in Christ and Christ alone, but also reminds us that the salvation we seek is not fully ours. We continue in the race, striving forward to the day when it will be ours. Paul, who was the Pharisee of Pharisees, Jew among Jews, never thought of himself as a Christian of all Christians. He knew he was a sinner continually in need of the Savior and called to be a humble servant for Him in this world. We might have great credentials but they never make us greater than others. God gifts us with all we need to serve Him in love and humility, joyfully showing the world the condition of our hearts and that Jesus Christ is our all in all.
The old is past and the new is coming. It came on the cross, when Jesus died for our sake. The final road to the cross begins as Jesus sets His anointed feet toward Jerusalem. The resurrection of Lazarus brought the death of Jesus. But that is not the end, for the death of Jesus brings the resurrection of us all, all those who live in faith in Jesus Christ. Like Paul, we have set aside what is behind and we too strive toward the promise, which is assured in Christ Jesus. We are new creations with a new attitude praising God with songs of joy for that which He has done on the cross and for which He is doing in our lives today.
After the long wander in the wilderness of Lent, we are waiting anxiously for this new life that he has promised. The God of Isaiah, the God of the Israelites, can do amazing things. He made a path through the Red Sea for those who left Egypt to travel as they escaped slavery and oppression. He made a path for the exiles to return home. We are slaves to our flesh but He has made a path for us to return home to Him forever. We are oppressed by the expectations of this world and by the burdens of the Law. But God is about to do a new thing. He has created a path through the sea of oppression so that we will be free. Jesus Christ is the living water that He promises, water in the wilderness that we are given to drink. Soon, very soon, just as the bluebonnets burst from the earth in joyous proclamation of Spring, we will burst with joyful praise to God along with all the hosts of heaven for the fulfillment of all His promises as we are resurrected into eternal life.
“The life of the body is a heart at peace, but envy rots the bones.” Proverbs 14:30, WEB
Luckenbach, Texas existed as a town beginning in 1849, but it was an Indian trading post established by a German immigrant named Albert Luckenbach. It once supported a post office, school, dance hall, general store, blacksmith shop and steam-powered cotton gin, but it became little more than a ghost town. In 1971, a man named Hondo Crouch bought what was left of the town and created a legend. Before Luckenbach, Hondo was an All-American swimmer for the University of Texas from which he received a degree in physical education. He was a swim coach, trained with the Air Corps and raised sheep, goats and cattle near Fredericksburg. He was a writer for a local newspaper, creating stories of interesting characters in a fictional town; his stories satirized politics, government, ecology, deer hunters, social life, and everyday country problems and celebrations. Crouch was the self-appointed mayor of his town with three residents and a parking meter. He organized interesting events like a World’s Fair and “non-talent” contests. These events, and many others, were meant to draw people to the town. He was even able to draw celebrities like Willie Nelson to perform in the dance hall. The motto of the town was “Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach.” It worked, although it took some time for it to become a legend.
We drove through Luckenbach during our wildflower adventure the other day and it is almost humorous to do so. There are a few buildings; it is almost shocking how little is there considering its fame. Some of the original buildings were lost during a flood. It was never very big; Hondo once said, “If you find Luckenbach, you have to be looking for it.” Hondo died in 1976, but his family still owns the town. The General Store is an interesting mix of souvenirs and history. The dance hall is used regularly; there is a beer garden and food available. We drove through on a Tuesday afternoon when nothing much was going on, but the town was filled with people being somebody in Luckenbach.
Hondo Crouch was a character. He is quoted as saying, “We have discovered that Luckenbach, on the globe, is right in the middle of the world, and we figure that if God hadn’t intended for us to be the center of the world, He wouldn’t have put us here.” It is interesting to note that Luckenbach did not achieve legendary status until 1977 after Hondo died. That’s when Waylon Jennings hit song “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” became a national favorite.
I read a story about a successful man who met a fisherman. The fisherman caught just enough fish to support his family. The successful man asked what he did with his time. “Oh, we rest and play and enjoy one another.” The successful man couldn’t understand why the fisherman didn’t want more for his life. “If you did this, that, and this other thing, in twenty-five years you could be a millionaire.” The fisherman asked what he would do then. The successful man said, “You can rest and play and enjoy one another.” The fisherman said, “That’s what I have now. Why should I wait twenty-five years to get it?”
I don’t know much about Hondo Crouch, just what I’ve read on the internet today. His life wasn’t perfect but I suspect that he would have a similar attitude as that of the fisherman. I think he had probably found a measure of peace in his town. He had some success and he was well known as the man who made Luckenbach a place where people would want to be. Yet, as the “clown prince,” Hondo lived the motto of his town. Everyone was somebody to him. When asked why he bought Luckenbach, He said, “Dallas wasn’t for sale - besides the American way is to start small and work your way up.” Luckenbach never even tried to compete with the neighboring towns; they were satisfied to be a place where everyone really is someone. It looks more like a ghost town than a town, but it draws big crowds, not only for events but for a day out with the family to enjoy some old fashioned country hospitality.
“Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness. According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions. My sin is constantly before me. Against you, and you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight; that you may be proved right when you speak, and justified when you judge. Behold, I was born in iniquity. In sin my mother conceived me. Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts. You teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness, that the bones which you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all of my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me. Don’t throw me from your presence, and don’t take your holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways. Sinners shall be converted to you.” Psalm 51:1-13, WEB
Have you ever wondered about the origin of the phrase “crocodile tears”? If you ask an expert in crocodiles, they will tell you that crocodiles do not even have tear ducts, so they can’t cry. However, the glands that moisten the crocodile’s eyes are so close to the animal’s throat that they tend to secret moisture when the animal is swallowing.
The phrase seems to have come into existence more than six hundred years ago when European explorers were adventuring in less civilized parts of the world. A travel book from 1400 called “The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville” was published with this statement, was published with this statement, “In many places of Inde are many crocodiles - that is, a manner of long serpent. These serpents slay men and they eat them weeping.” To some, it seems as though the beast weeps over the head of its victim, not out of any sense of shame but rather because the head is inedible.
Reverend William Secker, in “Nonsuch Professor in His Meridian Splendor” wrote, “Some have tears enough for their outward losses, but none for their inward lusts; they can mourn for the evil that sin brings, but not for the sin which brings the evil. Pharoah more lamented the hard strokes which were open to him, than the hard heart that was within him. Esau mourned not because he sold his birth-right, which was his sin, but because he lost the blessing, which was his punishment. This is like weeping with an onion, the eye sheds tears because it smarts.” These are crocodile tears.
Today’s psalm is a prayerful cry for mercy by King David. He spoke it in response to Nathan’s judgment concerning his dealing with Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. After an adulterous affair, he killed Uriah and took Bathsheba as his own wife. David realized that his sin was not only a sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, but that it was even more so a sin against God. All our sins, from the smallest mistakes to the greatest willful disobedience, are sins against God.
Lent is a time for realizing our own unworthiness and our sinfulness in the flesh. We are no different than Pharoah with his hard heart or Esau selling his birthright. We cry those crocodile tears that pass the blame of our sinfulness on to others. As we draw nearer and nearer to the cross with our Lord Jesus Christ, I pray we will look at our own sin and cry real tears - the tears that reach deep into our soul as we mourn our sins against God in thought, word and deed, crying out for God’s mercy. He will blot out the iniquities of those who are sincerely repentant.
“For I desire to have you know how greatly I struggle for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; that their hearts may be comforted, they being knit together in love, and gaining all riches of the full assurance of understanding, that they may know the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden. Now this I say that no one may delude you with persuasiveness of speech. For though I am absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, rejoicing and seeing your order, and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:1-5, WEB
A green screen is used in television production, particularly in news and weather reporting. During the evening news, the weatherman is actually standing in front of a blank screen - usually green - and the picture of the radar, satellite and forecasts are added through mixers in the control room. The weatherman can see what he’s pointing at on monitors, but it is still somewhat difficult to move his hand in the right direction, to point at the picture properly to show what he is talking about.
Green screens are used in other ways, too. One comedy show uses it for a game. One comedian stands in front of the screen pretending to be a reporter at the event playing in the background. He or she does not have a monitor, so has no idea what is there. Two other comedians give clues about the action so that the reporter can guess what he is reporting on. Meanwhile, the reporter must answer their questions without any knowledge of what is happening. One night, the reporter was standing in front of a beach scene where elephant walruses were coming ashore, playing and mating. It is amazing sometimes how the comedians sometimes say something such as “Wow, look at that!” at just the right moment or duck when something is headed straight toward the camera.
Green screens are a wonderful technological development for television production because the picture that is put into the screen during production is much clearer than it was when the weatherman or reporter was actually standing in front of a screen with the picture. They can also be the source of frustration. The weatherman has to practice moving his hands so that he is actually pointing at the right things. It is sometimes funny to watch them as they point at one thing while talking about another. Like the game on the television show, it is almost as if the picture on the screen is a mystery to the reporter.
Paul’s purpose for writing the letters to the churches was to encourage Christians and keep them united in love. He did this by preaching the Gospel and teaching the pure and simple doctrine of Christ. His letters were written for a specific congregation, but also for all who would read them. The letters were copied and sent to other churches and then saved forever in the New Testament for us to read. Though he did not know everything there is to know about God or the people who would read his writing, he did so in a manner that would bring encouragement to Christians for many generations.
Our own opportunities for ministry may seem like we are standing in front of a green screen, not really knowing what is happening on the video. We are called by our Lord God Almighty to share the Gospel and encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ so that He will be glorified. We can only do so by the power of the Holy Spirit. May He always bless us so that we can minister in a way that will touch the lives of those who hear and bring them encouragement and love.
“Beloved, don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit who doesn’t confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God, and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, of whom you have heard that it comes. Now it is in the world already. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God listens to us. He who is not of God doesn’t listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” 1 John 4:1-6, WEB
On this day seventy-four years ago, a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed for standing on God’s Word. Well, he had been imprisoned for defying the Nazis, but his life and death revolved around his faith. He was an intelligent, passionate man, a Christian who stood firmly in his faith and in the Word of God, who saw beyond the surface and was spurred to action for the sake of others. He knew that something was wrong and he worked tirelessly from the moment of Hitler’s rise to power. He eventually had to make the commitment to ‘sin boldly’ because he knew that doing what was right on paper was wrong in Spirit. His choices took him from being a theologian and pastor to being a prophet and a spy and then eventually to being a martyr.
The whole story is shocking. As we look back on the World Wars and the Holocaust, it is impossible for us to understand how it could have happened. How could people have been so blind? How could they allow someone with such evil intentions get away with such horrors? Shouldn’t someone have spoken up? Shouldn’t someone have done something? Though I can’t fully understand, as I learn about his story I can see more clearly how it might have happened. Hitler was brilliant at being, saying and doing what he knew people wanted. He said he was a Christian, yet his actions and policies proved he was not a Christian. He said he cared for the German people, but he cared only for his power.
In those years, Hitler accomplished things that the people wanted finished. He restored Germany’s honor. Though he did so by destroying other countries, killing innocent people and humiliating world leaders, the German people saw only that they were getting back everything they had lost during the First World War. He used the state church and transformed it into a more secular organization that was willing to support his plan; the people missed what was happening because he was able to convince them that their way was right for Germany. He was determined to destroy the confessing Christians like Bonhoeffer by arresting them for ridiculous reasons and convincing the average people that the state church was true while the confessing church was false.
The Holocaust is well known and the millions of Jews who died are remembered in memorials and museums. What is not as well known are the millions of others who were killed at Hilter’s hand. The sick and weak were destroyed because Hitler wanted to strengthen the German stock. Anyone who was sick, disabled or less than perfect was in danger of being killed. Hitler emptied entire hospitals and took the patients to camps where they were killed. At first the murders were unnoticed because the perpetrators were sneaky. Administrators at hospitals were given surveys about each patient, asking details such as type of sickness, length of sickness and possibility of recovery. Later they received lists of patients that were to be moved, with the explanation that those beds were necessary for war injuries. The administrators had no idea where their patients were going and they had no reason to believe that they’d receive anything less than the best care. They didn’t know those patients were headed to gas chambers. Families were not informed until the ashes of their loved ones were delivered with the startling news that their loved one had died. The reason for death was given as pneumonia or some other disease, and the ashes made it impossible to autopsy the bodies.
Though the entire story of Hitler and the Nazi reign is frightening and sad, I think the murder of innocent children and adults with disabilities was the most heartbreaking. This is where it all began and then it ended with the murder of millions just because of their faith, including the death of men like Bonhoeffer who only wanted to serve God. All those killed by the Nazis were deemed unworthy of life and were easily and quickly removed from society. I’ve seen people with disabilities live life in my neighborhood and even in my family, and I can say without a doubt that each and every one of them is of value. They are loved by God and worthy of our love. Could we end up in the same place as those Germans in Hitler’s time? Could we become the kind of people who allow the sick and disabled to be destroyed for someone else’s sake? Yes, we could, and in we are headed down that slippery slope even today. We will be there sooner than we realize it if we do not listen to the Spirit and Word of God. We are no different than the German people in the early twentieth century. We, too, can be deceived. The spirit of the anti-Christ is powerful, but the Spirit of God is greater. Let us trust in God and be obedient, even if obedience takes us down a path that leads us to ‘sin boldly’ for the sake of others, even if it means we may be persecuted or martyred for the truth.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 14, 2019, Palm/Passion Sunday: Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29/Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49
“Behold, the Lord Yahweh will help me! Who is he who will condemn me?” Isaiah 50:9a, WEB
The life and ministry of our Lord Jesus was filled with incredible signs, wonders and teachings. From the first miracle at Canaan when he changed water into wine, to the raising of Lazarus from the dead and everything in between, Jesus showed Himself to be different from anyone the world had ever seen. People were amazed at the Word He taught in the temple and on the hillsides because it became alive before them. He helped people understand that there was a better way of living and that there was a deeper meaning to the scriptures.
Jesus was controversial. Whenever he breezed through a town or village, many would follow and listen. However, there were those who did not believe Jesus came from God. His own village rejected Him. Many claimed He was of Satan. Some tried to stone Him for the things He said and did. The teachers in the temple and other religious leaders began to fear his power over the people.
The people saw Jesus as the answer to their prayers. They sought a Messiah, someone who would set them free from the oppression of the Roman invaders of their land. They wanted to be a free nation again and live as they did during the Golden Age of Solomon. As Jesus gained in fame and following, His disciples pleaded with Him to go to Jerusalem and claim His place. They knew that there were enough people to support Him, and that they would fight to give Him the throne they felt He had come to fill. However, Jesus did not go to Jerusalem until it was the right time.
As the Passover of His third year of ministry approached, Jesus knew the time had come for Him to fulfill the promise of His Father. It was time to go to Jerusalem. He was in control of every moment, of every detail of what was to come. A donkey was waiting, to carry Him into Jerusalem; it was a sign of His kingship. Yet, this gathering of praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy would not last very long. It seems impossible that the crowds who sang “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday would be screaming “Crucify Him” just a few days later. But this is how it was meant to be. We can read about the three years of ministry and be amazed at His wonders, impressed by His teaching and excited about His ministry to the poor and outcast. Yet, Jesus’ life was about much more than feeding the poor and healing the sick. The Passion was all part of God’s plan, a plan we do not fully understand, but one that brought salvation to the world.
Isaiah writes, “The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of those who are taught.” there is a big difference between the tongue of the teacher and the tongue of one who is taught. A teacher can learn as much from a student, but there is more to this description. The tongue in this text is that of one like a prophet; the words are not his own, but have been taught to him by God. In other words, the teacher himself is a learner, one who listens to God and then shares what has been given. The teacher has such a relationship with God that he is in communication on a daily basis; his teaching comes directly from the heart of God.
What is it that the teacher is teaching? “...that I may know how to sustain with words him who is weary.” The words of the teacher, the words from God’s heart, are words that will give strength to the weak and hope to the hopeless. The Word gives peace to those in turmoil. The teacher himself is one who is in turmoil: persecuted, humiliated, beaten, insulted and spit upon. Yet the teacher does not fall from grace. Instead, he has the assurance, through his daily communication with God, that he is not alone. Though the world seeks to accuse and convict the teacher, God will ensure his vindication.
Isaiah wrote them, but we see Jesus in these words. Jesus was indeed the teacher whose relationship with God was so close that His words were God’s Word. He was like one who was taught, even while being the Teacher. His word provided comfort to those who were weary; His message was grace to the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, the oppressed and those lost in this world. He gave forgiveness for the soul and food for the body. He gave hope to the hopeless and faith to those who heard His words. Though we might expect such a teacher to be regarded with honor, Jesus was rejected, humiliated and beaten. He is the subject of this Servant Song, the One whom God helps. We see this in the Passion story; even as Jesus suffers, God is never far from Him.
The sheer length of today’s Gospel lesson makes it difficult for most of us to pay attention. Do we really listen to the story? After all, we hear it every year. Yet, we have heard it so many times that we stop listening. There is nothing new about the Holy Week events; we can recite what Jesus did as if his actions are part of our own lives. But this is a story we cannot hear enough. It is a good idea for each of us to read every word even though we are extremely familiar with this story. I suggest that you try to read it in an unfamiliar translation because when you do so, you’ll hear it with new ears. You may even hear something you have never heard before. It is also valuable to read it out loud, either to yourself or with a gathering of friends. This simple change can bring the text to life in a whole new way. There is something for us each time we truly listen as God’s word is read: a word of comfort, a word of hope, a word of peace. Maybe this time you will find a word of warning or admonition. When we stop listening because we assume that we know the story well enough we miss what God has to say to us today.
We could spend weeks studying this text, line by line trying to understand what was happening and what God would have us learn. Yet, there are times when we should just let the Word of God speak for itself, to listen to the story as it was given to us. There are so many subtleties that could be brought out, details that could be debated. There are so many verses that have both historical relevance as well as spiritual meaning. There are hundreds of questions to be asked, some of the answers are widely accepted and others are contested. Yet we find common ground in the belief that Jesus did for humankind what no other human being will ever be able to do: He died so that we might be reconciled to God. Whatever path His Passion took, our faith rests on that moment when Jesus hung on the cross, because without His death we would never know life as God intended.
We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey. How did it go? Were you able to continue your spiritual disciplines? Did you fast as you wanted? I confess that I did not do very well this year. I’ve managed to keep up fairly well with my reading, making up missed days quickly. I haven’t done as well in my studio, my art practice failed quickly. I learned some things, but I didn’t end up with the final product I had visualized in my head at the beginning. I didn’t really commit to any particular fasting; between visitors and illness, I probably would have failed it anyway. To be honest, my heart was not in it. We do it every year. We go through the motions of fasting, or prayer, of self examination, but do we really do all those things? After all, we’ve done it before; it is like an old habit. So, I wonder how many of us were really changed by our six weeks. Were we really changed by that daily devotional and bible reading?
It is never too late. Take time today to read this story. As a matter of fact, read and reread it several times before Good Friday. Make the reality of the Passion a part of your being. Don’t try to pick it apart to understand every detail. Simply listen to God’s story. Put yourself in the place of the characters - the crowds, the disciples, the Pharisees, Pilate. Experience it, not as a theologian trying to understand its meaning two thousand years later, but as a sinner who was there in Jerusalem during that unbelievable week. Feel the pain, the anger, the hatred, the guilt, and remember that Jesus experienced it all for you.
The most amazing aspect of the Passion story is how Jesus seems to be so out of control. After all, if Jesus is the Messiah, shouldn’t He have had the power and the authority to subdue any opposition to His plans? And when we think about our expectations, we do not think that anyone would plan to do anything so foolish as to get hung on a cross. The Passion and Easter story is the most difficult thing about Christianity to believe and to accept. Jesus had to die? How does that line up to the ideal of a loving and caring God? How does that help Jesus’ social ministry and seemingly political aspirations? How could this happen if Jesus was who He said He was? It doesn’t make sense.
Yet, even more amazing is how Jesus was in control of every moment. When it was time to ride into Jerusalem, Jesus knew where to send the disciples for a donkey. On Palm Sunday Jesus went victorious into Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted by crowds of people singing “Hosanna.” The Jewish leaders were already very nervous by the things Jesus said and the things Jesus did, and they were already conspiring against Him. Some of the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” because the crowds were singing praise to Him. Jesus answered, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” It seemed like all that was happening was beyond Jesus’ control.
If we followed Him day by day, we would see Him in prayer, teaching, casting the moneychangers out of the Temple and sharing those final moments with the people He loved. It didn’t take long for the crowds of Palm Sunday to turn into the mob of Good Friday. Jesus didn’t present Himself as the conquering hero they wanted. He didn’t call the troops to arms or confront the Roman leaders who were oppressing them. Instead He confronted the priests and religious practices, attacking the corner of their world they thought was right. They willingly supported Barabbas, a Jewish insurrectionist who was in Roman custody. Instead of choosing Jesus as their Messiah, they chose the man they thought would fulfill their expectations.
Those who believed in Jesus did not follow the crowd, but they did not help Jesus. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied Jesus. The rest of the disciples went into hiding. The excitement of Palm Sunday quickly disappeared as their world began falling apart. Jesus was not what the crowds expected, so they turned to another. Jesus did not fight the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, so they were disappointed and confused. When He died, they didn’t know what to do. Where would they go? Who would they turn to? Jesus was everything. They didn’t believe what Jesus said about His passion and death and they were left uncertain about the future.
God does not allow us to wallow in the triumph of our expectations, because our expectations are all too often not His will for us in this world. The people in that crowd were worshipping a false Messiah. They were worshipping their idea of an earthly king not the Messiah Jesus came to be. We need to hear the whole story over and over again because this text helps us understand how much control Jesus had. He had the authority to preach and teach, to cast out the moneychangers and the merchants. He had the authority to lay down His own life. He even had the authority to forgive sins.
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.” Jesus gave up the glory of heaven to live among His people. Though He had every right to the glory and honor due the Son of God, He humbled Himself to become like one of us and suffer for our sakes. He died on the cross to grant forgiveness.
His first words after being nailed to the cross were “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” He prayed their forgiveness even as they humiliated Him with their words and actions. They were not repentant. They did not seek His grace. He gave it to them, with as much authority as He had to do everything else we have seen Him do. The perfect Lamb of God without blemish or sin was the one dying for sin while the rest were filled with sin deserving death but acting as if they had the authority to take His life. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were blinded to the truth of Christ. They did not recognize Him because they saw only what they wanted to see.
There is a story about a holy man. He was sitting on the bank of a brook while meditating when he noticed a scorpion that was caught in a whirlpool in the brook. Every time the scorpion tried to climb on a rock, it slipped back into the water. The holy man took pity on the scorpion and tried to save it from certain death, but whenever the man reached out to the creature it struck at its hand. A friend passed by and told the man that his actions were futile because it is in the scorpion’s nature to strike. The man said, “Yet, but it is my nature to save and rescue. Why should I change my nature just because the scorpion doesn’t change his?”
Thank God that Jesus didn’t change His nature to fit our expectations.
Jesus did not let the world stop Him. After all, He left the glory of heaven to come to earth in flesh to reconcile us to God our Father. His nature is to love and save and He willingly suffered humiliation in life and death. We are called to do the same - not on a cross, but in our every day experiences so that others might know God’s love and mercy and grace. The day will come when all will bow to our Lord Jesus Christ, but will they bow in thanksgiving or fear? We are called to bring salvation to the world even when it strikes back so that all will bow by faith.
As we remind ourselves of what Christ was doing during Holy Week, we are called to consider our new life that comes from our immersion into His Passion. The texts show us how to follow the Jesus we do not expect or deserve, but receive freely by His grace. Isaiah’s servant song helps to remind us that Jesus was one with God, in mind and in purpose. The Psalm shows us the trust that Jesus had in God, as He put His life in God’s hands. The Epistle lesson shows us that despite our sinful human nature, we have been baptized into the life of Christ, putting ourselves into God’s hands. We are to be like Jesus, willingly obedient to God’s good and perfect will for our lives. It won’t be easy because the world will hate us just as they hated Jesus.
We live in the hope that just when we think our world is falling apart, God bursts through with new life. But that is a story for another day.
“When he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast, and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Joseph and his mother didn’t know it, but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey, and they looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they didn’t find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the middle of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ They didn’t understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth. He was subject to them, and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Luke 2:42-52, WEB
Every mother has a similar story to tell about the day they lost their child. The most memorable for me was when I was shopping with Victoria. I was picking through the clothing racks, looking for bargains, and Victoria was playing hide and seek in the clothing. I don’t know how it happened; it seemed to be seconds between the last time I saw her and the moment she was gone. The giggles went silent. The clothes stopped rustling. I didn’t panic at first. I called her name. I got worried when she didn’t answer after a few minutes. Every thought went through my mind, including the fear of kidnapping. People around me began to see my panic and they helped. The staff at the store spread out to check every department. After what seemed like a millennium (it was just minutes) she was found crying in a changing room at the far end of the store. I can still feel the emotions of that day: the fear, the worry, the anger, the relief, the thankfulness. I remember doubting my ability to be a mother. How can any mother lose her child, even for only a minute?
Now, imagine you are Mary. She had been given the responsibility to care for the most important child ever. Jesus was God’s Son. He was the Savior of the world. He was the only hope for all humanity. However much Mary and Joseph understood about the purpose of Jesus’ life, they knew He was special. They knew they had to take extra care to guard and protect His life. He had been announced by visits from angels. God sent them to Egypt to save Him from Herod, providing them with the resources they needed to do so by the visit of the magi. This was no ordinary child, and Mary lost him.
She surely felt all the same emotions as I did the day I lost Victoria. Jesus was twelve, so he was more capable of taking care of himself than my two year old, but that wouldn’t have reduced Mary’s fear for her Son. After all, this boy was threatened even as a baby. Who might have taken Jesus to defeat God’s plan? What if He fell along the path? Jesus wasn’t missing for minutes; it had been at least a day when they realized He was missing. He could be anywhere and He could be gone forever. Along with fear, worry, and anger, Mary surely felt despair. She had let God down.
The text tells us that Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus among their family and acquaintances. When they didn’t find Him there, they returned to Jerusalem and searched for Him in the great city. They finally found Him seated with the teachers in the Temple, learning and amazing them with His knowledge. Mary, like me, out of her worry and fear, rebuked Jesus, angry that He would treat them as He did. Jesus answered, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus wasn’t being disrespectful to His parents; He was reminding them, and us, where He can be found.
Martin Luther spoke about today’s text in his sermon for the First Sunday After Epiphany. In many of his sermons, Luther interpreted the Temple to be the Word of God. In this sermon, he noted that before seeking Jesus where He was, they searched for Him among family and friends and then the great city, but it was only when they searched the Temple, His Word, did they find Him.
Like many mothers, I experienced losing my daughter when she was a child and thankfully found her soon, but an even greater loss is one many have experienced. They have lost Jesus. They didn’t lose him as Mary did, but they lost touch with the One who is their only hope. There may be many different reasons. They may have had doubts about God’s promises or their own worthiness. They may have been distracted by the cares or comforts of this world. They may have been angry because it didn’t seem as though God was doing what they thought He should do. They search when they realize their loss, but like Mary, the look for Him in all the wrong places. They look for Him among family and acquaintances and in the great city, but they get ever more desperate when they can’t find Him. Our lesson for today is to look for Him where He may be found, in His Word. We may see signs of Him, hear His truth and experience His grace in those other places, but it is only in His Word that we can be truly certain that we are finding Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
“Unless Yahweh builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless Yahweh watches over the city, the watchman guards it in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to stay up late, eating the bread of toil for he gives sleep to his loved ones. Behold, children are a heritage of Yahweh. The fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. They won’t be disappointed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.” Psalm 127, WEB
April is the month of the military child. We are very good at thanking our Veterans and active duty members for their service. I think we are even fairly aware of the sacrifices made by the spouses of military members. How often, however, do we think about the children? The military members make their career choice and the spouses also make the choice to be married to the military, but the children have no choice in the matter. They are born into the military and are dragged all over the world, following their father or mother (or both!) wherever Uncle Sam would have them go.
There are definitely advantages to the military life. The children get to experience cultures all over the country and even the world. They are given opportunities that civilian kids rarely have. My kids took part in several different programs that are offered to children who live on military bases. Zack attended space camp in Huntsville thanks to a military scholarship program. Victoria learned to love theater through military programs. Military children learn to adapt to changes and they make friends very quickly.
The disadvantages, and the sacrifices, are that military children experience upheaval in their lives on a regular basis. Just as they build relationships with other military children, someone’s father or mother receives order to another assignment. It is hard to move to a new school, get caught up with new curriculum, become part of new sports teams. It is hard to finish things they begin. Will they find a dance studio? Will their new school offer their favorite subject? Will there be a lake for fishing or a skatepark? These kids often grow up far from grandparents and other relatives.
That doesn’t take into account the greatest sacrifice of all, again a sacrifice they make without choosing to do so. Military children deal with parents who are often sent away for long periods of time, often into places of danger. They know the fear of wondering whether Daddy will ever come home. I remember a deployment when Zack was just a toddler. Bruce had been gone for some time and we were at the hospital for a regular check-up. Zack saw a man in uniform, a man with a similar build as Bruce. He ran up and hugged him, not realizing it was a total stranger. All Zack knew is that he missed his daddy and that he wanted him home. We found ways to keep in touch, much more difficult before the days of email and cell phones, but it is not the same. Parents of military children often miss important days like birthdays and awards presentations. They aren’t around to cheer at ball games or to watch the spring choir program. They aren’t there to read stories to them at night or to push them on the swing. For some of these children, the sacrifice means that their mom or dad will never come home as they give their lives in service to their country.
There are certainly people in the military that do not have faith in God, but I don’t think there are many. We found during our years of service that faith is the one thing that kept us going through those times when we were struggling with the sacrifices we had to make. We trust God to protect our loved ones. We find comfort and peace in the congregation of believers. There are men and women that can stand in as surrogate grandparents, loving our kids as their very own. Though the churches may change every few years, there is a consistency we can find in the community of faith.
All children are blessings from God, but I believe that there is something particularly special about military children. They give our military members are reason to do their jobs well because they are the future for which they are fighting. They give those active duty men and women a reason to come home. The children give those who struggle with the things they have had to see and do in the job a reason to hope. Those children love even when it seems like an impossible task, and in this they are the greatest blessing to the military members who make great sacrifices for the sake of others. Let us remember these kids today and for the entire month of April, thank them as we do their Veteran and active duty parents, and pray for them as they make sacrifices we rarely see.
“As he spoke these things, many believed in him. Jesus therefore said to those Jews who had believed him, ‘If you remain in my word, then you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’” John 8:30-32, WEB
Any kind of story follows a pattern; there is a beginning, middle and end. The beginning of the story establishes characters, settings and plot. The middle of the story describes what happens, develops the characters and story line. The plot thickens as we progress through the story and a conflict is created that needs a conclusion. We see the resolution of the conflict at the end of the story.
The Bible is the Story of God and His people. We have a beginning. The book starts with “In the beginning” and tells of God and creation. The book then develops the relationship between God and Israel, also showing the world in which they lived. We meet many characters, each having a purpose in the story. The conflict comes because God desires to be close with His children but our sin stands in the way of that relationship. Jesus Christ is the conclusion to His story.
For three years Jesus ministered to God’s people, teaching them how to live according to the promise of God. The Gospels are filled with stories of His healing, teaching and loving. He was loved by many, but not by all. The Word He spoke was difficult to understand and accept by those who were set in their ways. The people thought they knew God and thought they were living a godly life. However, Jesus came to share the truth.
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 of their everyday life – vineyards, yeast, animals, clothes, building, treasures, farming, friends and money. He used the things in this world that they knew to share the Kingdom of God. The crowds were drawn to Him and the children delighted in His presence. These 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.
Jesus was controversial. Whenever he breezed through a town or village, many would follow and listen. However, there were those who did not believe Jesus came from God. His own village rejected Him. Many claimed He was of Satan. Some tried to stone Him for the things He said and did. The teachers in the temple as well as other religious leaders began to fear his power over people.
The people saw Jesus as the answer to their prayers. They sought a Messiah, someone who would set them free from the oppression of the Roman invaders of their land. They wanted to be a free nation again and live as they did during the Golden Age of Solomon their king. As Jesus gained in fame and following, His disciples pleaded with Him to go to Jerusalem and claim His place. They knew that there were enough people to support Him, and that they would fight to give Him the position they felt He had come to fill. However, Jesus did not go to Jerusalem until it was the right time.
As the Passover of His third year of ministry approached, Jesus knew the time had come for Him to fulfill the promise of His Father. It was time to go to Jerusalem.
Jesus’ ministry was at its peak; He had a large following. The crowds gathered to welcome Him into Jerusalem with pomp and circumstance. They listened 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 frenzy that it would have taken just one word from Jesus for them to rise to fight.
Not everyone received Jesus’ 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 were the actions of self-righteous hypocrites. They were afraid that Jesus would cause a rebellion that would ruin their cushy lives. 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. Many did not hear the grace of Jesus’ message and they sought a way to end His ministry.
“But though he had done so many signs before them, yet they didn’t believe in him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke, ‘Lord, who has believed our report? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ For this cause they couldn’t believe, for Isaiah said again, ‘He has blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and would turn, and I would heal them.’ Isaiah said these things when he saw his glory, and spoke of him. Nevertheless even of the rulers many believed in him, but because of the Pharisees they didn’t confess it, so that they wouldn’t be put out of the synagogue, for they loved men’s praise more than God’s praise.” John 12:37-43, WEB
Most scholars agree that Jesus’ ministry lasted approximately three years. Yet, as we read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, it is hard to judge the time. On one hand, it seems impossible that He did so many things in such a short period of time. On the other, it seems like Jesus just wasn’t around long enough. Early this week Jesus entered into Jerusalem in triumph, with crowds waving palm branches and laying their cloaks in the road before Him. How quickly He came into such fame, to gain such a following in just three years without benefit of MTV or movies. Yet, this honor would pass away even more quickly than it came.
The life and ministry of our Lord Jesus was filled with incredible signs, wonders and teachings. From the first miracle at Canaan when he changed water into wine, to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and everything in between, Jesus showed Himself to be different from anyone the world had ever seen. When He taught in the temple and on the hillsides, people were amazed at the Word as it became alive before them. He helped people understand that there was a better way of living and that there was a deeper meaning to the scriptures.
The time had come for Jesus to accomplish what He’d come to do. It was time to set the captives free from the bondage of sin and death that kept them from a true relationship with their Father in heaven. They were not bearing fruit in this world as they’d been created by God to do. In just a few short days, the crowds would turn from shouts of “Alleluia!” to shouts of “Crucify him!” Every person would be brought to judgment at one moment in time. But the wrath of God would fall on just one: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Jesus illustrated this truth as He passed a fig tree that was not bearing fruit. He cursed it, and the disciples noted how quickly the fig tree withered. In the same way, the crowds turned on Jesus quickly, but all was for the glory of God. Jesus set His eyes and His feet toward Jerusalem. The time had come for judgment. Time seemed to pass too quickly during this final week of Jesus’ life, as the entire fruitlessness of the human race came to a head. The death of Jesus brought new life to His people. In faith we can bring this new life to all those who are still full of leaves without any fruit.
Tuesday of Holy Week is the most written about day in the scriptures. Jesus spent the day in the temple and around Jerusalem telling parables and causing controversy. The leaders confronted Him and questioned His authority; they sent men to catch Jesus in some sort of crime so that they might have him arrested. The disciples desperately tried to understand the changes they saw in Him. Jesus warned of false teachers and the end of the age so that His children would be prepared in heart and spirit. 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 leaders became more determined to be rid of Him, but He seemed untouchable.
Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus began to show the people, particularly those close to Him, that there was only one way for us to be able to live according to God’s promises. There had to be one final sacrifice. He had to die. His disciples and the people did not understand when Jesus spoke about death, because they saw His life as triumphant. They saw Him as a king among men. A few, by the power of God, understood.
After an incredibly busy day at the Temple, Jesus spent the Wednesday of Holy Week in prayer and in the company of His beloved friends. He knew the time was drawing close for His death and that there was nothing left for Him to do.
Jesus was so different than other men. He shared the Kingdom of God with the chosen people of Israel, but they rejected all that He was telling them. People tend to get desperate when we think we have not been heard, or when people do not react to our words as we think they should. When we are rejected, we do everything we can to convince people of our message. We even go as far as to sin; we cause anger, hatred, violence, bitterness, fear and pain to make our expectations come to pass. We do not do it on purpose, but in our desperation we lose control. Jesus was not desperate; He did not seek to convince anyone. He was in control at every moment of this journey. He spoke the truth of God then let it go. Either they heard and believed or they did not.
While Jesus was spending the day of rest in prayer and fellowship, the leaders continued to plot His destruction because they feared and despised Him. For whatever purpose, Judas went to the leaders to offer his services. Perhaps He wanted to force Jesus’ hands. Perhaps he was simply greedy. But for thirty silver coins, Judas agreed to watch for the right moment to hand Him over to His enemies. The world around Jesus was in tumult as the people played out their roles in this incredible drama. Through it all, Jesus remained calm and in control. He was preparing His heart for that moment when He would take all our sins, including those committed against Him in these final moments, on Himself.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 21, 2019, Resurrection of the Lord: Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but is risen.” Luke 24:5b-6a, WEB
What can we say about the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that hasn’t been said already? The only words that come to mind are “Alleluia, He is risen! He is risen indeed.”
Easter is not just a special day filled with baskets and bunnies and pretty new dresses. It is the culmination of the redemptive work of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The crucifixion brings us forgiveness and the resurrection brings us eternal life in Christ. We are now drawn into a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.
The hard part is that I’m writing this before we have even experienced Holy Week. We are still considering what the disciples and the other people were thinking about as they watched every move Jesus made. How could they go from a royal welcome to crucifixion in such a short period of time? Did the disciples ever try to stop Jesus? What made the people change their mind about Jesus? Perhaps these are silly questions, questions without answers, but it helps me identify with the people involved and understand my own role in the death of my Lord. I see the imperfection of those whom Jesus chose as His own and I can believe that He chose me too. I experience the hypocrisy of the temple rulers and know that I am no different. I sense the confusion of the people and I rejoice at His love and mercy even when I have doubts and fears.
So, I’m not ready to talk about the resurrection. I think it is unfortunate that so many Christians would prefer jump past the events of Holy Week and move right into the celebration. Oh, we have the advantage of looking at everything with twenty/twenty vision. We know the end of the story. We know we are saved. Yet, if we ignore the message of the cross - the forgiveness of sin given through the blood of Jesus - what need is there for the resurrection? How can we live as Easter people if we do not know we were sinners in need of a Savior? Though it is hard to write about the Resurrection today, by Sunday morning the crucifixion will be over and the day of mourning past. We will wake to the jubilant cries of Christians worldwide who sing praises to God. “Alleluia, He is risen, He is risen indeed.”
Easter Sunday gives us a taste of what heaven will be: churches overflowing with believers, altars covered with fresh blooming lilies and all of creation singing Alleluia again. The sorrow of Good Friday has passed and the people are overflowing with joy and peace. The congregation is crammed with every type: the long standing member, the C & E Christian (Christmas and Easter), family who are dragged along to make their mothers happy and even a few who are just curious about what we are celebrating. They are looking for answers to their questions: what is Easter? Who is this Christ? More than Christmas, Easter provides us an opportunity to share the Gospel message: that Jesus Christ was raised so that we all might have new life in Him.
In Easter, we see the fulfilling of the promise made through Isaiah the prophet: that God will create new heavens and a new earth, and that the lion will lie down with the lamb. As we catch a glimpse of that promise being fulfilled, we feel a longing for the time when we will not experience hurt or destruction. This is especially true in those times when we are facing difficulty in our world. As people are still suffering from disappointment and defeat, they need to know that God is doing something about it.
We know God is faithful, but we still see suffering and pain all around us. People are still hungry. Enemies still wage war. Leaders still let us down. We still sin. In our hearts we believe that God is doing this new thing, creating this new world, bringing reconciliation and peace to His creation. But in our minds and through our experiences we know that the promise has yet to be fulfilled. Even though we are filled with joy on Easter, we wake up Monday morning to the reality of our lives. We look forward to heaven, but we live in this world now. And in this world, the lion eats the lamb.
Yet, the promise in Isaiah is not just for some far off place, but for a renewing of our world here today. God is not concerned only for where we will be for eternity, but how we live in the here and now. Heaven is something to look forward to, but it is also something to be experienced as we live our lives in this world. While we do still experience hardship and death, has not the world become a better place? Though children still die much too young, have we not been able to save the lives of infants that once never stood a chance? Though men and women do not always make it to old age, are we not living longer? Though some have had economic difficulty, are there not more people who dwell in homes of their own? We can focus on the pain and the things that have gone wrong, or we can realize how much we have been blessed and then join God in recreating the world into the place He means it to be.
It won’t be perfect. We’ll still fail. Paul tells us that Christ must rule until He puts all His enemies under His feet. He rules now; we see this to be true on Easter Sunday, as we gather together to celebrate His resurrection. He was the first. We look forward to the day when He will come again. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the hope for our Christian faith. One by one the enemies of Christ are being defeated, even as each person’s heart is melted by God’s grace. It seems like it will never end, because just as one ruler is changed, another rises to fight against God. As one person comes to a lifesaving faith in Christ, it seems others are born to reject Him. But God is working. He is creating new heavens and a new earth. He is changing the world, one heart at a time.
God speaks through Isaiah and He begins with a new beginning. “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered, nor come into mind.” This is as great an accomplishment as the first creation, perhaps even greater. The first creation was made out of chaos, out of nothing, out of darkness. This new creation is made out of the failures of God’s people. We were created and commanded to care for the earth but we failed. We failed to care for all that was entrusted to us, especially our relationships. In our sin we broke the harmony between God and man and between one another. Our sins, though against each other, hurt God even more because in our sin we were not living as He intended us to live.
But God’s love for His people is greater than our failure. He is faithful to His promises even when we are not. So, in response to our sin, He has promised to make things new, a new creation that will lead to a new beginning for the world. This promise of new heavens and a new earth is a future promise, something that will come in the day God has promised. That day began with Jesus Christ, who lived and died for the sake of mankind. He restored the relationship of men and God, made it possible for men to restore their relationships with one another. The fulfillment of that day is not now; it will be. Though things began anew with the raising of Jesus, there is another day coming when we will see everything as it was meant to be.
There is a candy called “Now and Later.” It was given that name because it is a package of several individually wrapped squares of a chewy substance, some of which can be eaten now while some is saved for later. There is enough in one package for now and for later. There is so much about the Christian story that has a “Now and Later” viewpoint. Jesus Christ reigns and will reign. Eternal life is our hope for tomorrow and our assurance for our today. Salvation is now and later.
On Easter Sunday we celebrate the empty tomb. We are amazed with the women and surprised with the disciples that Jesus’ body was gone, wondering what it all means. Once Jesus appeared before them, stories we will hear in the weeks to come, they began to understand everything that He had told them as they journeyed together toward the cross. They began to understand why He had to die and what God had planned all along. Once Jesus appeared before them, they saw that God’s power is over everything, including death.
Yet, on Easter Sunday we see only the empty tomb and the promise of meeting Jesus again. On that day when our pews are full, with family and friends of our members or curious strangers seeking to understand Christianity, we speak of Jesus being raised and give them the empty tomb, and yet in Luke’s version of this story we do not meet the risen Lord. We are given the promise that we will see Him again, but we see only a missing body and the confusion of the disciples.
Unfortunately for many people, hope in an afterlife gives no consolation in times of stress and difficulty. The disciples were told what was to come, that He would die and be raised again, but they did not understand what that meant while they were experiencing the grief of their loss. They could not see beyond the moment. What good does an afterlife do when we are suffering in this life? The Christian faith, to those who do not believe, is foolishness. Recently someone said to me, “He’s dead, get over it.” The resurrection is meaningless to many because it does not seem to do anything to change this life.
Though Isaiah speaks of the heavens in the first verse of the Old Testament passage, everything else is about the earth. The future promise is for today, also. The future fulfillment is the hope of today and in that hope we can live in joy and peace. We aren’t to see the Easter story as one that is still to be completed. God’s salvation is now. In that salvation we live and breathe the Gospel in this world, offering hope and peace to those who are still lost in the darkness. The world is being recreated one heart at a time as we, God’s people, share His love to the world. In our words and works, things are transformed and people are changed. We can see a glimmer of what is to come when we will no longer labor in vain or be subjected to misfortune. How great a day it will be when the earth is new, when the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox shall share the bountiful gifts of God’s abundance.
Easter is about life. Certainly, the raising of Jesus is about new life for Him, but it is also about new life for all of us. The empty tomb means that we will receive the eternal life that is promised by God to those who believe. In baptism we die with Christ, in faith we are raised again. Life is the end of all we face in Christ. That is completely upside down from what we experience in the world. No matter what we do, our flesh will perish and decay. Believing in Jesus will not keep us from dying. Our Christian lifestyle might extend our life a bit. Good and healthy living can keep death at bay, but not forever. We will die.
Cemeteries are often placed near churches, sharing the hallowed ground. In places where the church buildings are hundreds of years old, the more prominent members of the congregations are even buried inside, with engraving on the stone floors marking the resting places of the wealthy landowners or exceptional members of the clergy. Churches like Westminster Abbey appear to be little more than huge, elaborate tombs. While the church is known for other things like weddings and coronations of monarchs, funerals and even secular gatherings, most people visit the site to see the resting places of hundreds of famous people from poets to kings.
Yet it is a living church. People gather there each Sunday for worship, to hear God’s Word and to receive the sacraments. As a matter of fact, the church offers several worships every day, including weekdays at lunch, so that people visiting and working in the city can gather to worship the living God in the midst of the hustle and bustle of our life. We happened to be visiting over the lunch hour. We heard the worship announced over the loud speaker that there would be a brief communion service. We asked one of the staff how to get to the service and he was so excited that we wanted to worship that he took us through through the red velvet ropes and against the flow of visitors so that we could be there in time.
I was terribly disappointed when we arrived at the worship area to discover that there would only be a few dozen worshippers. There was easily a thousand people in that church at that moment, and in the midst of that chaos we few received the body and blood of Christ. I wondered, as I watched the visitors filing by, why they would spend so much time with the dead when they could be worshipping the living God. For them, Westminster Abbey was nothing more than a tomb.
Our world is truly upside down. After the resurrection, the women went to the tomb seeking Jesus’ body so they could finish the work of anointing Him for death. As they were there, two men in dazzling robes appeared asking them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” They did not yet know that Jesus had been raised, though He told them to expect it. They did not understand what He meant until later when He appeared alive before them. As Christ lives, so do we. But we see the world with a skewed point of view, seeking death instead of life. We would rather spend an hour looking at the tombs of famous people then worship the living God. This is true of our daily lives, also, as we chase after the things that will perish and decay rather than spending time with our God.
Peter was in an unusual situation in the story from Acts. He was a preacher for the Jews, sharing the love of Christ with those from his own cultural background. He knew the Jews understood the story of God, the symbols of his faith, the expectations of the God of their forefathers. He could not be so sure with the Gentiles. This is perhaps why it was so important for the Gentiles to be converted to Judaism first, so that they would understand the history of God, His purposes and His grace. Yet, Peter was given a vision and that vision changed his point of view.
Peter was traveling around the country, preaching and teaching the Good News of Jesus Christ when he received a message from a man in Caesarea named Cornelius. Cornelius is described as a God-fearing man, one who gave generously to the poor and needy. He received a message from God to call Peter to his house so that he might hear the Gospel message. Peter would have been reluctant; after all, Cornelius was not a Jew. Before the messengers found Peter, God sent Peter a vision. In it God told Peter not to call anything He created unclean. So, when the messengers arrived, Peter followed them to Cornelius. Cornelius told Peter about his own message from God. Peter had no choice. This was God’s work.
He began this brief sermon with the words, “Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism; but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” So, despite all his fears, doubts and biases, Peter told them about Jesus. Perhaps this is not his sermon verbatim; what it is a summarization of all the Luke had written about the story of Jesus and the work He did for the world. This is the last evangelistic message of Peter in the book of Acts, and it is given beyond the nation of Israel. Peter reaches out, pointing toward the future of the Church which is found not only in Israel, but throughout the entire world. The Gospel is for all those who fear God and do what is right.
In all things, we are reminded that the message of Easter is not limited to those whom we believe to be right with God. The Gospel is given to all men so that they might believe and be saved. Some will reject the message; some will persecute the messengers. Yet, we are called by God to share the Gospel with all men. He has no favorites. We are commanded to preach to the people and to testify that He is Savior. At Easter we rejoice in what He has done, and then we go out in the world to share His grace with all. As Easter people, we are to be like Peter, telling others about Jesus, no matter who they are, having hope and trust in God that He will be in the words we speak making miracles of transformation in their lives.
Perhaps that’s why it is good that we are hearing this message a few days early. Now is the time to pray for those you know who do not yet know the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now is the time to invite them to join you at worship this week. Take them on Maundy Thursday to experience the covenant Jesus made with His people so that we will be assured of His promises even while we live in a world that is still chaotic and difficult. Take them to Good Friday services so that they will see what Jesus was willing to do so that they would be freed from sin and death. Take them on Easter Sunday to rejoice in the empty tomb, to hear the worlds of forgiveness and the promise of life so that they can join in chorus of voices singing “Alleluia!”
It is interesting that Paul uses the word “pitiable” in the epistle lesson because for many non-Christians we are to be pitied. They think we should be pitied because we believe in myths or fairy tales about Jesus of Nazareth being raised from the dead. They think that we should be pitied because we believe in heaven, in eternal life with our Lord Jesus Christ. Christianity is unique in that we believe in something beyond this life. It seems odd that Paul would call us the most pitiable, but the world in which the Corinthians lived was a pagan world, a world where there were dozens of gods available for human consumption. You could take a pilgrimage to any of the larger cities and find massive temples in honor of those gods as well as all the tourist trappings to help make your trip more enjoyable. You could enjoy the physical pleasures of that religion: the food, the wine and the prostitutes. Christianity has always set a different standard, a standard of moderation and of self-control. Based on the moral code established by God through the Hebrews, Christianity has a moral code that defines the actions of the believer, both behavior that they should not do and behavior that they should.
For many people, Christianity is to be pitied because they prefer to live for the satisfaction of their hedonistic desires, which the religions of Paul’s world satisfied. Unfortunately many today have the same expectations within their belief system, even some Christians. Faith, to them, is about feeling good, about self-satisfaction, about being a better person. And though the Christian response to God’s grace often brings about good feelings, satisfaction and a transformation into something new and better, Christ never promised that our life with Him would be easy. As a matter of fact, Christian faith is hard. The Christians in Paul’s day were persecuted because they did not live according to the societal expectations. Even though they had faith, Christians got sick and they died. Though there were those in the community of faith who had wealth, many of the Christians suffered because they had been outcast from both the Jewish community and the pagan world for their unusual beliefs. Christians truly are to be pitied, if you expect faith to be rewarded in this life.
If there is no heaven, if there is no eternal life, then we are indeed to be pitied. But in Christ we are not to be pitied, because we have a hope that goes beyond today. The non-Christian who pities a Christian for faith in some heaven or afterlife sees no purpose of living beyond the here and now. They want their reward immediately. We know that Jesus Christ was the first of many, the first born of the dead. He rose and through faith we will rise with Him. Those without faith in Christ can’t see the point of it. But we know that Christ lives and in Him we live also. This is our hope and the foundation of our faith.
“As they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had blessed, he broke it, and gave to them, and said, ‘Take, eat. This is my body.’ He took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave to them. They all drank of it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.’” Mark 14:22-24, WEB
Today is Maundy Thursday. Many Christians will gather tonight to share in the final night of our Lord Jesus Christ. He gathered with His disciples to share the Passover Seder feast. During that gathering, He spoke to them in love and shared the truth of His message. As His followers we are to submit ourselves to God and each other in sacrificial love.
Jerusalem was bustling with preparation for the Passover feast. This is the day many had waited for, the day of Deliverance not only in remembrance for the Exodus, but in hopeful expectation of a new Israel. The people were expectant for something incredible to happen. The disciples asked Jesus where they were to celebrate the Passover feast. As usual, the preparation was in the hands of God, and Jesus gave them instructions where to go, who to see. As the evening drew close, the disciples gathered in the upper room, ready to celebrate this meaningful night with their Lord.
Jesus talked about love, but He did more: He showed them. At the supper, He removed His cloak and wrapped a towel around His waist and got on His knees to wash their feet. This menial task was one that only a servant would do. Peter was so incensed by the action he rejected Jesus with the words, “No, you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus persisted because it was by His example that He showed them what they were expected to do. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” The disciples were specially chosen to serve the Lord. They had to know that they were no greater than those in the world to whom they would take the Gospel.
The evening did not go as they’d hoped. Rather than speak about being a king, Jesus spoke of being a servant. He spoke of death, betrayal and denial. Peter made great claims of his love for Jesus and said he would stand with Christ to the end, but Jesus told Peter he would deny him three times. Jesus knew Judas was the betrayer, and was clearly in control as He told Judas to go do what he was chosen to do. Several of the disciples got into an argument about who would be the greatest among them in the kingdom. Even at this late hour, after all Jesus had spoken to them about sacrificial love, they still sought the power of this world. The disciples were confused by the words of Jesus, and became agitated as the vision they had of a kingdom began to fall apart before their eyes.
Even in the midst of betrayal and denial, Jesus comforted His disciples. He promised them the Holy Spirit, that they might continue His work after His death. Jesus instituted a new covenant at this meal one of faith, life, and hope. The Passover Seder was a remembrance of the deliverance of the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. The meal was highly symbolic, recalling the bitterness and affliction, as well as the rebirth and joy of their new life of freedom. The people celebrated the Passover each year in expectation that the Messiah would soon return. There was great hope at this celebration, because the people believed they had found the one who would free them from the oppression of the Romans.
Jesus made no such promises. Rather, He spoke through the elements of the Passover and made a new covenant with them. He took the bread, gave thanks to God and gave it for all to eat. He had told His followers that He is the bread of life. In this new covenant He told them to eat regularly of the bread to remember that He is the true bread. After the supper He took the cup, symbolic in the Seder as being the cup of Redemption. He gave thanks and gave it to all to drink. He told them that this cup is His blood, and that only His blood would redeem them from their sins. By His death we would be forgiven. Today we recall those words and His promise according to His command to share the bread and wine in remembrance of Him. By His death we are forgiven.
The ministry of Jesus Christ was about to close in a most painful and horrible manner, yet He stood and walked right into the hands of His betrayer. It was the will of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16, WEB
It had been approximately thirty-three years since the birth of our Savior. For the last three years, he shared the Kingdom of God. During that time he did many incredible things. He healed the sick, cast out demons and fed thousands. He even raised the dead. He preached a new truth to the people, that God is merciful, full of forgiveness and love. He also taught that following Him would not be easy, that He demands much from our lives.
After He spent time in prayer, Judas came with a crowd of people. So that His accusers would not which man to arrest, Judas betrayed his friend with a kiss. Peter tried to stop the event from continuing by swinging his sword. A guard was injured by Jesus healed the wound. The will of God would not be hindered by the desires of men. Jesus appeared before Caiaphas, the chief priest, so that the Sanhedrin could find some crime worthy of death. By Roman law, the Jews could not put a man to death. They found him guilty of blasphemy.
For the next few hours, the world seemed in control. Jesus was lead before the chief priest and the Roman governor. He was questioned, mocked and beaten. The disciples hovered nearby, too scared to do anything to help their teacher. Peter even denied knowing Jesus three times while warming himself in the courtyard.
Leaders from the temple were scattered in the crowd that watched the proceedings. Pilate did not see reason for the death of Jesus, and tried to push Him off on the temple leaders. They sought the death penalty, and under Roman rule they did not have the power to put someone to death. He was taken to Herod who was quite excited about seeing Jesus face to face. He’d heard so much about the man; he wanted to see some mighty miracle performed before him. When Jesus would not prove himself, Herod humiliated Him and sent Him back to Pilate.
Pilate was around at the beginning of the week. He had seen how popular Jesus was with the people. He did not view Jesus as a threat, after all this was the Roman Empire. Who could destroy it? So, he went to the people. The crowd was easily agitated because events of the Passover evening did not go as they’d hoped. Scattered among the people were leaders from the temple, ready with a word to manipulate the crowd. When Pilate saw that Jesus was innocent, he asked the people if He should be freed. Someone yelled, “Crucify him.” At this, the whole crowd went wild and began to yell for Jesus’ death. Pilate tried three times to release Jesus, but he had no control over this situation. Jesus had to die.
Through all this, Jesus was humiliated, beaten and stripped of everything. They took His clothes and His dignity. They force a cross onto His already sore and bleeding back and pushed Him on to Golgatha. As He walked His final footsteps on this earth, He faced the women who were weeping over His fate. He told them to weep for themselves, because the time would come when they would face great suffering. He saw His mother and the one disciple who stayed near. He gave Mary to John to care for the rest of her life, seeing to her welfare, even in the midst of His pain.
He had great difficulty carrying the cross, falling under the heavy burden. A man, Simon, was ordered to carry it for Him. Other prisoners were taken with Him to the hill, each sentenced to die for their crime. One thief begged Jesus to save them, but the other humbled Himself in repentance and accepted responsibility for the wrongs he had done. Jesus welcomed him to His kingdom. The soldiers mocked Jesus and tried to serve Him a poison that would ease the pain, but Jesus refused. He would control every moment. As Max Lucado so eloquently states, “He chose the nails.”
We recall seven words that Jesus spoke during His struggle: Matthew 27:46, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani?’ That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Luke 23:34, “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’ Dividing his garments among them, they cast lots.” Luke 23:43, “Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” John 19:26-27, “Therefore when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ From that hour, the disciple took her to his own home.” John 19:28, “After this, Jesus, seeing that all things were now finished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I am thirsty’.” John 19:30, “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished.’ He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.” Luke 23:46, “Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ Having said this, he breathed his last.”
Jesus died at the ninth hour, about 3:00 PM. Even to the final moment of His life, Jesus was in control. Those final moments on the cross, He took care of His business. He forgave His enemies, honored His mother and found a son to care for her, and provided the hope of Salvation to a sinner in need. When all was complete, when the scriptures had been fulfilled, Jesus cried out for the last time and He gave up His spirit. It is finished.
All around the world rocked with the anger of God. The earth shook and the rocks split. A centurion pierced Jesus in the side, and His blood spilled into the earth. The curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. This curtain was not some flimsy piece of material like lace, easily ripped. It was thick, a wall like protective covering over the Most Holy Place, the dwelling of God Himself. Within the room which was covered by this curtain was the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat, the Throne of God. When Jesus died, God ripped the curtain from top to bottom, opening the way into His presence for all people, not just the High Priest. God would no longer live in a box.
Where was everyone else at this point? Judas, so upset by the events of the day, went back to the priests and confessed his sin against Jesus. He gave back the money. But there was no one left who could help him see the forgiveness offered by Jesus. The priests did not care, they got what they wanted. Jesus was unable to speak to Judas, and the disciples were scared and hiding. So, Judas did the only thing he felt he could do. He committed suicide to end the pain.
When Jesus was arrested, the disciples hid in the crowds. They listened in fear to the accusations and watched the events unfold. At the trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. He wept because he was so heartbroken over his actions. The other disciples went into hiding. Only a few of Jesus’ closest companions were at the place of the cross. His mother had watched Him die, to be comforted by John, the man whom Jesus appointed to care for her. Mary Magdalene was also present. She had anointed Him once, just days before, and now she would have to anoint Him again, but this time with the spices that accompany burial. Other women who were His followers were also present.
The disciples spent that day in fear and confusion. They hid from the world and mourned the loss of their beloved teacher and companion. Can you imagine the things they must have thought about, and talked about? Who was Jesus? Why did He die? Why did we spend these years following Him? What will happen to us? Had we truly wasted three years of our lives? Is this really the end? Is it really finished?
We, too, consider these questions as we journey with Jesus, particularly at times of sorrow and distress. Why me, why now, why this? Is this really the end? Is there any hope?
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, WEB
Nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ spent a short time on earth and changed the world. In the days since, the world has wondered about this man. Christians and non-Christians alike have debated the meaning of his parables and they have questioned the events which surrounded His life, death and resurrection. The story of Jesus Christ has been told all over the world, and people continue to worship Him.
Do you believe? Last week we shared in Jesus’ Passion and in the pain, grief and doubt of His disciples. We watched as the crowd turned from jubilant to defiant. We watched as the disciples hid because of their regret and fear. We watched and identified with the mourning. Were we crying over Jesus or over our own participation in Jesus death?
This would be a horrible story if it were not for the ending. Jesus appeared before many people in the days that followed the Resurrection. He appeared to Mary in the garden and when He spoke her name she knew it was her Lord. He walked with two of His disciples on the road Emmaus. They told Him the story of what had happened in Jerusalem and invited Him to dinner. At the table as Jesus broke the bread they realized that it was Jesus and they ran back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. He appeared to Thomas who demanded tangible evidence that Jesus was alive. Jesus came and told him to put his finger in the holes. Thomas confessed His faith, “My Lord and my God.”
Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, just as Jesus said he would. When the rooster crowed at Jesus’ trial, Peter realized what he had done and wept bitterly. Jesus gave him three opportunities to confess his love. For each denial, Peter made a confession of faith. Peter’s denial had the potential of destroying his confidence to do God’s Will in spreading the Gospel, but Jesus’ forgiveness gave him reason to hope.
Mary grieved, but Jesus called her name and she turned to Him. He lifted her from her grief. The disciples on the road to Emmaus felt defeated, but Jesus opened their eyes through the scriptures and through the breaking of bread. He lifted them out of their defeat. Thomas doubted and insisted on proof that Jesus was truly alive. Jesus opened his eyes by showing him the wounds He received for the sake of the world. Jesus lifted him out of doubt. Peter felt despair because he denied his Lord Jesus. Jesus opened his eyes to the forgiveness that comes by faith and lifted him out of despair. He does the same for each of us. He opens our eyes so that we can see His grace and lifts us out of grief, defeat, doubt and despair.
In His final moments, Jesus Christ finished the work He had come to do. He opened their minds and their hearts so that they would believe and told them to go out in the world to share the Truth of God’s mercy and love with all His creation.
God is glorified when the world sees His grace in our lives. We have been blessed with this incredible gift so that we will be a blessing. Yet, the feelings of the disciples two thousand years ago are as real to us today as they were for them. Some of you do not quite know what you believe. Perhaps you go to church, but you do not know why. Or perhaps you do not fellowship with Christians because you have many doubts about God. You are in despair because the resurrection is not real to you. Others understand the resurrection, but do not know how to live their faith out in the world. You are in a state of gloom, trying to learn how to live your resurrected life to God’s glory. There are yet others who are just discouraged.
The Story of Jesus Christ is one that we continue to share today. Do you believe? It is time to leave the grief, defeat, doubt and despair behind, for the Lord God Almighty has given to you the gift of eternal life through Christ Jesus. You are His ambassador, called to a life of active faith in this world. As you share what God has done for you, others will be called away from the grief, defeat, doubt and despair so that they will live their faith in this world.
“Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:20-25, WEB
Martin Luther had a way of putting things. I’m currently reading a book of his sermons and he often makes me chuckle. He also makes me think. I struggle with some of his thoughts, but I’m also impressed with the way he sees the scriptures and the faith of Christians. Of course, he’s rather rough on those he deemed enemies, but even the best of us have our own biases and ways in which we sin against God and man. After all, that’s why we need a Savior.
His sermons are interesting because he sees the scriptures far more spiritually than I ever expected, sometimes focusing on minute details that don’t seem important, and yet fascinating in his point of view. As I was reading last night, I found a line that made me laugh because he had sermons that must have lasted for hours, but he said about others, “Such babbling is good for killing time, if you have nothing else to preach.” The point of the line is that there were some preaching an interpretation of a scripture that did not focus on Christ, but instead were interpreting the text in a way that would have no real impact on the lives of the Christians to whom it was being preached. In other words, Martin Luther was not against interpreting the text in spiritual ways but insisted that the preaching keep Christ as the center. Martin Luther might have preached for hours, and he may have looked more spiritually at the texts than we expect, but he ensured that the focus of his sermons was always the simple truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The third chapter of the Gospel of John tells the story of Nicodemus who was a very intelligent man. He was among the elite of the day, an expert in the scriptures and a teacher of Jewish law. Yet, Nicodemus did not know the simplest things about God. For the intellectuals of Jesus’ day, many of the things which Jesus was speaking were nothing more than foolishness. What wisdom could be found in a story about a field or a vineyard? What truth could be shared by doing the miraculous things Jesus was doing? Yet, in his heart Nicodemus knew that Jesus had come from God. He was afraid to visit Jesus in the daylight, but he came searching for some answers to the questions that were raised in his heart.
It is funny that even though it takes knowledge and maturity to truly understand the theological concepts of Christianity, most children understand better than the adults. We seem to lose a sort of innocence and trust that is found in a child’s heart as we grow older and more knowledgeable. We look for some special meaning in the text while missing the truth about Jesus Christ. Much of the world has missed out on the true wisdom of the Gospel because it seems like foolishness and weakness. It is my prayer that even though we might study the scriptures to better understand, we can look at the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the eyes of a child, looking for Jesus first and focusing on Him. The foolishness of God is truly the wisdom of life that can only be seen through faith and trust.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 28, 2019, Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
“We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:32, WEB
We pick on poor Thomas for his attitude in today’s Gospel lesson. He said, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Why wouldn’t he believe based on the word of his friends? Shouldn’t he have accepted what they had to say, based on their reports? After all, the disciples were not the first to proclaim this good news; even Jesus told them it would happen before He was crucified. The women reported the missing body; Mary said that she had seen the Lord. How many witnesses would it take for Thomas to believe?
We shouldn’t be so hard on poor Thomas! None of the others believed until they saw Jesus for themselves. They didn’t believe the women; they thought they were mumbling nonsense. Even when Jesus appeared, they were glad only after they had seen the physical evidence of Jesus’ crucifixion, knowing that indeed the one who appeared before them was their Lord. Jesus is speaking to all of us when He addressed Thomas’s faith after having seen the evidence because we all think we need some proof of God’s mercy and grace to believe. We are reminded, though, that we believe not because we have seen and not because we, by our own power, can believe. We believe because we have been given the power of the Holy Spirit and by that power we can believe. Thomas was not present when Jesus breathed on the disciples; he did not have the faith that comes from God, the faith on which our assurance is built.
None of the disciples believed without the help of God. For Thomas and the other disciples, the help came in the appearance of Jesus before them and from the breath of the Spirit He breathed upon them. He appeared from outside the locked door, almost like a ghost. Yet, He was not a ghost, He was a living being. He let them touch Him, to see His wounds. They reported His presence with joy to Thomas, who did not believe them. He’s not alone. Many people in the world still do not believe in the Living Lord, the resurrection of Jesus. They will not have the opportunity to see Him in the flesh like Peter and the others or Thomas. It is no wonder that they do not believe.
Yet, many people do believe. We believe not because we have any sort of proof, but because we have been breathed upon by God and anointed with the Holy Spirit. We believe not based on the physical presence of Jesus, but on the word of the witnesses. We believe by the mercy of God, for it is only by His grace can we have faith. We have the Word, given to us in the scriptures, to speak the testimony of the witnesses into our lives. As John wrote, “Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” We are the blessed ones, because we believe by God’s power, not because we are eyewitnesses or have been given any sort of proof.
I read a lot of historical fiction, particularly from the Middle ages in Europe. It was a violent and bloody time, when men fought with swords for their life, their women and their land. Victory came not only by defeating the enemy, but by destroying them. Many of the wars are described as bloody massacres, with fields filled with hacked flesh and mud made with the blood of the injured and dead. Our impression of these ancient wars is that the battles were between millions of people. The reality is that there were likely only thousands on those battlefields, including the women who followed their men. But hand to hand combat is deadly; swords against swords leave the fields bloody and covered with bodies.
The way to win was not necessarily to get the upper hand in the actual fighting, but to have power over the mind and the courage of the enemy. Courage is vital when coming face to face with someone determined to kill you, and it is the warrior’s job to make the enemy afraid of what will happen. The armies will shout insults and obscenities, bang on their shields with their swords to make thunderous noise and put on displays of strength and power so that the enemy will know what they are up against.
One of the most disgusting things that they did was to put the severed heads of dead enemies on poles above the gates to their fortresses. This was a display of dishonor, because it means the body was not properly disposed according to the traditions of his people. If the head was separated from the body, then the warrior could not go into the afterlife with honor. The person would be humiliated as the head was picked clean by the birds, leaving only the skull and some hair flowing in the wind. The equivalent of this dishonor in Jesus’ day was to ‘hang someone on a tree.’ When someone was put to death for a crime, they were hung on a tree and left for the birds. They were not only punished for their crime, but they were dishonored as well.
Peter, in his speech to defend himself before the Sanhedrin, acknowledged that they not only killed Jesus, but they dishonored Him by hanging Him on a tree. He told them they did this not simply to a man who wanted to be king, but to they did it to the One whom God Himself had lifted to be Savior. Jesus the One they dishonored and killed was the One who came to redeem Israel. They, the disciples, were witnesses to these things and they could not do anything but preach the Word that God had given to them. Though Jesus had been dishonored, which was done to bring fear into the hearts of His followers, the disciples were not afraid so they continued to preach and teach all that He had given them. They knew their strength was not in human power and authority, but in God's grace and they could do nothing but obey.
What must it have been like for Jesus’ disciples in the hours following His arrest? They were frightened and uncertain. What would happen to them? Would they be arrested also? Would they suffer from the beatings of the Romans and be led to their own crosses? Would they be outcast from the Jewish community, having followed a leader that was such a disappointment? How could Jesus die? He was the Messiah, the appointed King of Israel. Jesus died with nothing, but the disciples were left with even less, because they chose to leave everything to follow this Lord and now even He was gone. They disappeared, hid behind closed doors. Peter tried to keep track of what was happening during the trial, but he denied that he even knew Jesus when he was confronted by the others in the courtyard.
Things never really got easier, even after Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection. The stories of the earliest missionary journeys and church planting missions are filled with frightful examples of hard times. Persecution, false accusations, rejection, imprisonment, beatings, hunger and all sorts of other dangers were part of their daily existence. Following Jesus did not guarantee safety from natural disasters, as Paul discovered on his voyage to Rome. They had only the assurance that God was with them through their hard times and that He would get them through, even through death as a martyr that most of them would face. The biggest difference between the disciples during the hours after the resurrection and the time after they were sent into the world is that they had the Holy Spirit.
It took some time, but they realized that life in Christ, even in the midst of suffering, is a life of joy and peace. In mathematics, multiplying -1 by any number will make it a negative. The same is true of our emotions. It is easy for us to let the negative emotions take over our life. When we are facing difficult times, one bad moment can lead to more. This happens when we turn from God, when we keep our eyes on our problems instead of Him. We are called to trust that God has given us all we need to get through each day, and that even if we end up being martyred for our faith that He has an even greater promise waiting for us.
It is hard to find joy when things don’t seem to be going our way. Very few people have the eyes that see the light in the midst of trouble. They can’t see the sun shining behind the clouds. Yet, there are times when God grants us a vision of what heaven will look like. Sometimes it appears in a dream, but often He simply uses the beauty of His created world to give us a foretaste of the world to come. I’ve seen heaven in the laugh of a baby; from the top of a mountain overlooking a hidden valley; in a meadow filled with flowers; in a rainbow after a storm. I can’t see these things and ignore the majesty of my Creator.
When we were living in England I saw the most incredible sight in the sky as I was standing at the sink washing the dishes. In an otherwise cloudless sky, there was a large, dark mushroom shaped cloud. The waning sun was behind this cloud and the rays shown from behind, creating a halo around the cloud. It was as if God was behind a curtain, and His light was trying to break through to the world. As I continued with my work, the bottom of the cloud began to split, like the curtains on a great stage. The sun’s rays broke through, and the stage behind was breathtakingly beautiful. This foretaste made me long for the day when I will stand in His presence and worship Him at His throne.
I saw a much different vision of heaven on another occasion. I saw a hummingbird during a time of terrible weather. It was one of the first of the season. He took a moment at our feeders, but the wind was bitter and the rain was cold, so he took refuge under the bush that was near my window. He sat there for a long time, and though he seemed to be shivering, he was also safe and dry. I could almost see God’s hands surrounding him, protecting him from the cold.
God reveals Himself in His creation so that we will have a vision in our hearts and our minds of the heavenly realms. He gives us a glimmer, to draw us ever closer to Him and to keep us on His path. We just have to take the time to see Him, to witness the beauty of His creation and His constant presence in His world. That glimmer is not necessarily going to be something as grand as the sun bursting forth from beneath a cloud. It might just be someone in need, someone who needs to know God’s loving presence in their life. How will He reveal Himself to you today? Perhaps it will be the kind words of a friend or the awesome power of lightning in a thunderstorm. Perhaps it will be someone who needs to get out of the cold. Go about with your work today, but be ever mindful of His presence. Perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of heaven.
Life will not always be beautiful, and many of the things we witness will seem much too far from heaven. Though war is different today, we still struggle with conflict with enemies. There have been shocking and horrifying events in the past few weeks that remind us that life as a Christian is dangerous. We don’t really experience that fear in the United States, but we stand with those who have been captured, tortured and killed all over the world. We need to be aware that the day may come for any Christian anywhere when they will be harmed by someone who seeks to end Christianity in this world. Satan is real and Satan is still actively trying to destroy faith in God. We need to beware that the ways of Satan are not always blatant, that the worst we could do in this day is be like Peter, denying our Lord to protect our own lives.
We have a choice of two Psalms this week. Both are songs of joy and thankfulness to God. The disciples faced incredible difficulties as they mourned the loss of Christ, and then in the work they did after they knew He rose from the dead. Life in Christ never meant that we would not suffer. However, in Christ we have the grace to keep our eyes and our hearts on God, so we can get through anything with Him. So, we are called to live in praise and thanksgiving, to joyfully take God into any and every circumstance, knowing that He will be with us through it all.
This coming Sunday, the first Sunday following Easter, has been historically known as “Low Sunday.” Though the meaning of this is uncertain, to our modern ears it makes perfect sense. The Sunday following Easter is often very poorly attended. Perhaps that day seems unimportant compared to the significance of the Holy Week and Easter worship. Perhaps it is a letdown after the celebrations of the week before. Perhaps everyone is exhausted; pastors, lay people who were actively involved in the worship, even those who simply attended so many services take a break for a week. It is a day when many pastors choose to take vacation, to rest and recover from the draining experience of Holy Week. Unfortunately, many parishioners take the same Sundays off when the pastor is away.
It doesn’t help that we hear the same story every year on the Second Sunday of Easter. We hear over and over again the story of Doubting Thomas. It is an uncomfortable story to hear because we think so negatively about doubt, and yet we all experience some level of doubt when it comes to the stories about Jesus Christ. It seems as though during Lent each year we face some story that makes us question the foundation of our faith. Tombs are located, historical writings surface, books are popular that cast a shadow on the things we learned in Sunday school and have experienced in worship. If there is an ossuary, a bone box, that held Jesus’ bones, then how could He have risen from the dead? There would not have been time in the three days He was dead for the box to be made and the body to decompose to be placed in the box. Though they reject the truth of the scriptures, these reports cause us to doubt.
However, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Indifference or apathy is the opposite of faith. Doubt makes us question, makes us seek, makes us study to know and understand. Doubt makes us grow, and it often makes our faith deeper and more real than it was before we had those questions. Thomas doubted. He refused to believe the disciples when they said, “We have seen the Lord.” He needed to see Jesus for himself. Don’t we all? Perhaps we can hear the stories of Jesus and believe them to be true, but we also doubt. We need a very real experience of God’s revelation to us for us to truly believe. That revelation comes at Baptism, when the Holy Spirit comes upon us and grants us the faith by which we will live. We can’t do it on our own. Without God’s help, we would not doubt, we would be indifferent because we would not have the faith to believe. Doubt leads us to faith because it makes us seek to know and understand that which God has given to us.
Another name for this Sunday is Quasimodo Sunday. I know you are asking, “Why would we name the first Sunday after Easter after a character from the Victor Hugo story?” In reality, the character was named Quasimodo because he was left on the church steps on the Sunday after Easter. The words “quasi modo” in Latin mean “in the manner of new born babes.” Quasimodo was the main character in the story “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” who fights to protect the beautiful Esmeralda. His faith is innocent; his hope is child-like. His name is appropriate, “in the manner of new born babes.”
Jesus told Thomas, and the other disciples, that those who believe without seeing are blessed. Blessed are those who have a child-like, innocent faith. That faith is true; it is real because it is not based on human effort but on the work of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, we all grow up. We all lose our innocence. We face difficulties. We face persecution. We face the attempts by Satan and the world to break our faith and cause us doubt. Doubt is, unfortunately, a part of maturity, because we are forced to give answers to the questions about the grace that which we have been given. We are forced to seek out for ourselves the meaning of our faith when it is questioned by the world. Our doubt, and overcoming our doubt, becomes a witness to the world, just like Thomas’s confession of faith has become a witness to us. He doubted, but he continued to seek the Lord and in the end he made the greatest confession of all, “My Lord and my God.”
Witnessing, as is seen in the story from Acts and Revelation, are the work of both God and the one whom God uses. Together, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the faithful will speak the Word into the lives of those who will hear. In this way, God’s story has been shared with every generation since the resurrection of Jesus and will continue until the day He comes again, trusting that God has given us all we need to get through each day, and that even if we end up being martyred for our faith that He has an even greater promise waiting for us.
“Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it. Then Hezekiah went up to Yahweh’s house, and spread it before Yahweh. Hezekiah prayed before Yahweh, and said, ‘Yahweh, the God of Israel, who sit above the cherubim, you are the God, even you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, Yahweh, and hear. Open your eyes, Yahweh, and see. Hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to defy the living God. Truly, Yahweh, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they have destroyed them. Now therefore, Yahweh our God, save us, I beg you, out of his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Yahweh, are God alone.’” 2 Kings 19:14-19, WEB
We are living in a time of great turmoil around the world. The Middle East is always exploding with violence. People are dying over land and religion. Africa is laid waste by drought and famine, much caused by the greed of men in leadership positions. Thousands of Christians are being persecuted all over the world, put to death for their faith. Flooding, hurricane, earthquake and other natural disasters are happening frequently. We have a lot to pray about.
In America, and other western countries, we suffer from other turmoil. Our families are falling apart because of the ease of divorce. Children are being killed before they are even born in abortion clinics. The Internet offers many avenues for sin like cybersex affairs that cause marriages to fall apart. We are greedy, self-focused, hateful, bitter and angry. Pain and sickness abounds, every day when we learn of someone with cancer or some other disease. The flu seems to be lasting forever this year, and it seems like everyone is suffering in one way or another. We have a lot to pray about.
In our personal lives, our faith is wavering because we see so much of this turmoil and we wonder when it will stop. We pray, but things seem to get worse. We cry out to God, but the world just laughs in our face. We are bombarded with accusations that our God is not capable of dealing with these troubles. We are ridiculed for our prayers, because they say God does not hear.
The story of King Hezekiah of Judah is found in 2 Kings 18-19. The Assyrians were a great and powerful nation when he was king, overpowering every nation that stood in their way. Hezekiah did what was right before the LORD, removing every pagan altar and monument. He prayed to God and sought His protection and guidance. Israel, by now a separate nation, had not obeyed God’s law and fell under the hands of the Assyrians. When they came to Judah, Hezekiah rebelled. He was willing to fight, even though the odds seemed impossible.
The king of Assyria asked on whom they were depending, since every nation had been defeated. Hezekiah said, “The LORD.” The Assyrians then spoke to the people directly telling them that God would not save them. The king’s representative told them to give up the fight and join them. But Hezekiah refused to listen. Instead he went to the Temple and prayed to God for deliverance from the hands of the Assyrians.
At times the troubles in our world seem overwhelming. But when we pray, great things happen. God did deliver Hezekiah and the Jews from the hands of the Assyrians. He will deliver us, in His time and way. We can never give up. When the world seems overwhelming and everything is out of control, pray. When your burdens seem too heavy to carry and you want to give up, pray. Pray when you are at the end of your rope. Pray when you are sick, tired, worried, afraid or impatient. Don’t let the world make you believe that God does not hear your prayers. He does. So, pray and believe. God is in control.
“Surely in vain I have cleansed my heart, and washed my hands in innocence, for all day long have I been plagued, and punished every morning. If I had said, ‘I will speak thus’; behold, I would have betrayed the generation of your children. When I tried to understand this, it was too painful for me; until I entered God’s sanctuary, and considered their latter end. Surely you set them in slippery places. You throw them down to destruction. How they are suddenly destroyed! They are completely swept away with terrors. As a dream when one wakes up, so, Lord, when you awake, you will despise their fantasies.” Psalm 73:13-20, WEB
There are many competition type shows on the television these days. There are, of course, the music and talent shows, which pit people against one another for a prize of a record contract or a show where they would perform for a period of time. There are too many cooking competitions to even count. Fashion designers have their shows. There are shows with people struggling to survive in the wilderness. Some shows demand creativity like those for blacksmiths, artists, builders and decorators. The shows always end with a winner and at least one loser. The losers walk away with nothing but the experience. Some learn something about their craft, but many leave bitter because they believe they should have been the one to win.
After a person is kicked off one of these shows, they are interviewed in front of the cameras. They often insist that the vote was unfair. They look to the past failures of others, they guess who might be the next to fall, or they blame their loss on someone else. A contestant rarely accepts responsibility for his or her own mistakes. I have seen the best players kicked off because of one blunder. No matter how good they were until that moment; one wrong move will send them packing. These shows are often more about the drama than about accomplishing something, so it is sometimes hard to know if the people are acting as a character. However, I’m sure many of them feel that in the end they have been bullied and that it was not fair. They often complain that the winners lie, cheat and steal to win.
How often does that happen in real life? The bullies on the playground manage to victimize child after child without getting caught and punished. The good kid who finally stands up for himself in the midst of bullying gets caught and sent to the principal’s office. We look at the wicked who succeed in this world and wonder why life is so unfair, especially when it does not seem like the winners really deserve the prize. It is interesting because it is said that it is often better to come in second place in some of these shows. Though they don’t get the big prize, the runners-up are often given a much better future as they are hired by someone who would rather the one who has the talent and good work ethic.
We will come across the wicked in our work, play, school, church and neighborhoods that seem to prosper in this world. We cannot always understand why those who lie, cheat and steal appear to be blessed. However, as we draw into God’s sanctuary, our life in Christ Jesus, we realize that the true blessing is eternal life, not winning on a television game show. We must live our life from day to day knowing that without the blood of our Lord Jesus, we too would be counted among the wicked. It is by His life in us that we can keep our heart pure, and by His blood that we gain the true blessing. The wicked will perish according to God’s will. Thanks be to God that we have Jesus who has given us the greatest prize.
“After these things I looked and saw a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, like a trumpet speaking with me, was one saying, ‘Come up here, and I will show you the things which must happen after this.’ Immediately I was in the Spirit. Behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting on the throne that looked like a jasper stone and a sardius. There was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald to look at. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones. On the thrones were twenty-four elders sitting, dressed in white garments, with crowns of gold on their heads. Out of the throne proceed lightnings, sounds, and thunders. There were seven lamps of fire burning before his throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne was something like a sea of glass, similar to crystal. In the middle of the throne, and around the throne were four living creatures full of eyes before and behind. The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within. They have no rest day and night, saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come!’ When the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to him who sits on the throne, to him who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever, and throw their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, the Holy One, to receive the glory, the honor, and the power, for you created all things, and because of your desire they existed, and were created!’” Revelation 4:1-11, WEB
Holly is usually considered a Christmas plant, used as wreaths to decorate doors or drawn on everything from cards to placemats to t-shirts. Perhaps it is because holly has red berries on the branches around Christmastime, or because it is an evergreen, giving hope for new life to come in the midst of the cold dark winter. Yet, there is a legend involving holly that makes it as important for the Easter season. It is said that a long time ago the berries on the holly bush were white. At the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the soldiers made a crown of thorns to place on His head. It was meant to humiliate Him, to give Him a crown since He was ‘the king of the Jews,’ but since it was made of thorns it pricked His head and made Him bleed. The legend says that from that day the white berries of the holly turned red from the blood of Christ.
Whether that crown was holly or some other branch, it must have been an incredible image to see the King of all creation wearing raggedy crown of thorns. He deserved nothing less than the finest crown of gold and jewels, but He got a crown that pierced His skin and made the blood streak down His face. What is most amazing is that He that crown willingly and willfully so that we might become children of God and heirs to His kingdom. In Christ we are royal sons and daughters of the Most High and therefore princes and princesses who will one day rule over creation with our Savior. We will share in His glory because He suffered for our sin. He truly is worthy to receive the praise of heaven and earth.
This is one of my favorite passages from scripture because in it we see a vision of heavenly worship. We will spend eternity praising God for His goodness and mercy. We will take the royal crowns given to us by His grace and lay them at His feet, giving back to our Father that which He has given us: everything. I suppose when we think about our lives in this world, it may seem like it would get boring doing the same thing for eternity. However, when we are in the presence of God, living forever as His children and heirs to His kingdom, I can’t imagine anything being as exciting as worshipping Him all day long. All this will be ours because on Good Friday Jesus wore a crown of thorns and died on a cross. Our God is truly an awesome and amazing God. Amen.