Welcome to the April 2020 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 World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, April 2020
Scriptures for Sunday, April 5, 2020, The Sunday of the Passion, Palm Sunday: John 12:12-19; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:1-27:66
“Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.” Psalm 118:29, WEB
The lectionary Gospel texts take us through the entire experience: the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the prediction of Peter’s denial, prayer at Gethsemane, the betrayal, the arrest, standing before the Sanhedrin, Peter disowning Jesus, Judas’ suicide, the trial, mocking, crucifixion, death and burial. The amount of text for this week’s lectionary is daunting. How do you write a devotional for this Sunday in just a few thousand words?
Jesus had accomplished an incredible amount of work in the three years He did ministry. The four Gospels are filled with so many stories of His love, His teaching, His mercy, His healing, His correction and His grace. Last week we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus who was dead for four days, one of the many things He did that were impossible. He’d certainly had an impact on the world; many people were following Him because they saw how He had power and authority. His words rang true. His miracles were miraculous. His mercy was great.
It is no wonder that He was greeted at the gates of Jerusalem with shouts of Alleluia and the waving of palm branches. The people had heard what He could do; the people saw in Him the hope for their future. They were ready to receive their King!
The city was filled with many extra people who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. They were there offering their lambs for sacrifice, receiving their forgiveness for another year. They were there to join in the celebration of the Seder dinner when all the Jews remembered the Exodus and thanked God for His promises. They looked forward to the day that the Messiah would finally come and set them free to live once again as a sovereign nation under God’s care.
It is no wonder that people looked to Jesus with hopeful expectation. After all, He was fulfilling the prophecies found in the scriptures in so many incredible ways. Who else can feed five thousand with just a few loaves and fish? Who else could set a man free from a legion of demons? Who else could make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear? Who else could raise a dead man?
He was their King, but not in the way that they had anticipated. He would never sit on a throne. He would never deal with foreign leaders. He would never institute policies that would fill their needs. The man on the donkey hailed as King would be crowned on a cross in just a few days. It would not be very long before they rejected Him and cried for His crucifixion.
Isaiah wrote, “I gave my back to those who beat me, and my cheeks to those who plucked off the hair. I didn’t hide my face from shame and spitting.” For many men today, whether or not to wear a beard is most often a personal choice, but that is not always been the case. Religious and secular law has long controlled the wearing of facial hair. For some, a beard is expected: to shave the hair is actually an insult to the gods or rulers. For others, wearing facial hair is the insult. There are often rules about how the beard could be worn: long or short, cropped or covering the face. In Greek society, a beard was a sign of wisdom. Rulers often used the removal of a beard as a form of control. Beards were taxed by others. Along with a 100 ruble tax, Peter I of Russia made beard wearers also wear a medallion which had the words “beards are a ridiculous ornament.”
Depending on the society, beards were a sign of wealth or poverty, celibacy or manhood. Roman boys could not remove any facial hair until they reached adulthood. Amish men keep their faces clean until they are married. In some places, a man was not allowed to grow a beard until he had killed an enemy. The size of the beard was symbolic also. For those protesting, a long beard meant greater protest. A long beard meant greater wisdom. Alexander the Great insisted that his soldiers shave their beards because an enemy could grab a hold of the facial hair during battle and use it to his advantage. During World War I, it was discovered that facial hair affected the seal on the gas masks and so soldiers were very conscientious about keeping their faces shaved clean.
Since wearing a beard is so much a personal choice for many men, we don’t understand the imagery found in today’s lesson. Why would “pulling a beard” be considered so horrible? After all, we laugh when we see those pictures of children sitting on Santa’s knees, pulling at his beard to ensure that it is real. Even funnier are the pictures of the child who finds a Santa with a fake. Yet, to pull a beard was a great insult.
As a matter of fact, the suffering servant faces the most horrific interactions between people. He was willing to be beaten, the standard punishment for criminals. He was willing to give his cheek to the person wanting to show him disrespect and contempt. He willingly faced the hatred of mocking and the disgrace of someone’s spit. These words describe the final moments of Jesus’ life, for He was the suffering servant to which Isaiah was pointing.
We normally lead busy lifestyles. There is little time left for quiet time after we deal with family, work, and household chores. We fill our schedules with lunch dates and volunteer activities. We work in our yards, spend time running errands, and do what we need to do to stay fit. We are exhausted by the end of the day. We all claim to spend time in prayer while we are driving our cars and doing the dishes, which is a good idea, but it isn’t enough. We need rest.
Rest is not only about sleep, it is about spending time when we truly rest in God’s presence. Unfortunately, when our schedules fill with activities that we both love and that are necessary for our life in this world, quietly sitting in communion with God seems like wasted time. After all, we can pray on the go, saying prayers as we drive and wash the dishes. Doesn’t Paul tell us to pray constantly? He doesn’t mean we should leave the world for monastery life, praying every hour of the day. He means that we should always keep God in our sight, constantly seeking His will for our lives. Yet, we need that rest, that time that is set aside to pray and to worship. It is our prayer life that suffers when our schedules become too busy.
It is so easy to say, “Well, God won’t mind if I miss one morning” as we are running out the door. Of course He does not mind, though He wants to spend time with you. Unfortunately, if we miss today, it is even easier to miss tomorrow and eventually we forget that we ever scheduled time alone with God. It is easy to miss Sunday worship one week for a soccer game or an outing with family, because God does not require us to gather together. But it becomes easier and easier each time we miss, becoming ever more comfortable in our absence.
Yet even in our comfort, we hunger for something and we aren’t fulfilled with our activities. So we begin to feel a sense of guilt about our lack of prayer time and the missed opportunities to worship God. We become agitated, fear and worry hinders our activities. We lose sight of God and get overwhelmed by the cares of the world. It is amazing how easily joy gets lost and positive attitudes turn over to negative thoughts.
Maybe that’s why the people turned from Jesus so quickly during Holy Week. After the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus attacked the very foundation of their faith. He overturned the tables in the Temple, disrupting their religious ritual and their time with God. However, Jesus was not condemning faith, He was condemning the way they were focused on the wrong things. They’d lost touch with God, had set aside prayer time for a busy schedule of activities that were based on rules rather than on the heart of God. The crowds became upset, and in their sin they turned from God. Their negative attitude built day by day until the time when Pilate asked the question of what to do with Jesus. By Good Friday, it was easy to say “Crucify Him.”
But we who live beyond the resurrection are restored to that relationship that is lost by our sinfulness. We are called by God’s grace to live joyfully, to live faithfully, to keep our hearts and minds on God. Perhaps that is the silver lining in our current circumstances. We are not so busy these days, and we have plenty of time to spend in prayer and communion with God. We are learning to give thanks to God even in the midst of difficulty. The psalmist was able to go to the temple to worship, but even though we are struggling with the temporary loss of the tangible connection with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are never far from the One who has saved us by His grace.
Perhaps there is the silver lining in our current circumstances. We are not so busy these days, and we have plenty of time to spend in prayer and communion with God. We are learning to give thanks to God even in the midst of difficulty. The psalmist was able to go to the temple to worship, but even though we are struggling with the temporary loss of the tangible connection with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are never far from the One who has saved us by His grace.
As we finish this season of Lent and when life gets back to normal in our world, it will be very easy to set aside the disciplines we have begun. However, it is vital that we continue in those things that have brought us closer to our God, because that is where we will find rest.
A story is told of a holy man who was sitting on the bank of a brook while meditating. 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?”
Most of us are not so gracious. We are more like that friend, and at times we are perhaps even worse. While the friend may have just let nature take its course, we might even consider pushing the scorpion into a quicker death. We would justify our action, claiming at once that it would be better for the scorpion not to suffer and that it might save someone from being stung. There are certainly few of us who would take the time or the risk to save what is, in essence, an enemy.
It is in our nature, it seems, a tendency to try to come out on top. We work hard for the promotion. We’ll do what it takes to the nicest car, the prettiest house and the best lawn. We compete for the biggest trophies, the fastest times and the sports records. Our quest to be number one can easily become the sole focus of our life, as is seen so clearly in the training of athletes, especially as the Olympics draw near.
This isn’t true of everyone. I once read a story about a pole vaulter. He held the record in his division and no matter how high they put the pole, he always cleared it by a foot. His peers said it was so amazing that they decided to test him. Instead of raising the bar an inch, they raised it six inches. He still cleared it by a foot. When they told him what they did, he walked away and never jumped again. He realized that however high he flew, someone would expect him to fly higher. He did not see how he could keep getting better. No matter how great you become, there is always room to do better.
Unfortunately, there comes a time when you can’t do better by your own power and then you face the real test. At some point everyone faces a temptation that is difficult to overcome like the athlete that feels the need to use performance enhancing drugs to go one step further. In business, the temptation might be to steal a co-worker’s ideas or lie on a resume to appear more qualified for a job. In our relationships, we pretend to be someone we aren’t to win the most popular date.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is thought to have been based on an early Christian hymn describing Jesus’ kenosis, which is from the Greek word meaning “emptiness.” This hymn tells how Jesus emptied Himself to become one of us, to take on our sin and face once and for all the wrath of God on the cross. God honored His humble obedience by exalting Him above all else.
It is easy to see this exaltation in the eyes of our human desires to be first and best. It is even possible for us to think that the way to get ahead in this world is to “be humble,” justifying this attitude as following the example of Christ in the quest to be greater than others. However, this passage does not tell us Jesus humbled Himself so that He would be exalted. He humbled Himself because it was in His nature to be a servant; it was the life to which God had called Him to live and die. He was one with God; He emptied Himself and took on God’s will as His own. He calls us to do the same. We do not empty ourselves so that we might be exalted with Him, but because in Christ we have taken upon ourselves His nature, the nature that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy.
In a normal year, we are given opportunities to share in some of those final moments of Jesus’ life. We wave palms on Palm Sunday. We experience the Seder at Maundy Thursday. We weep at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. We wait with the disciples through the vigil until Easter morning. We won’t have those opportunities this year, although we may have more through the wonderful ministry that many pastors are doing online. Yet, even if we can’t attend services, we need to remember now more than ever that we cannot get to Easter without going through the cross. We will never understand Easter if we do not experience the Passion.
The community adored Jesus on Palm Sunday. It was a parade for a victorious Lord. They saw Him as the one who will fulfill the promises; they saw Him as the Messiah who would remove the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to the Golden days of Solomon. They saw Him as the King for whom they had been waiting for so long. Just days later at His trial, the references to His kingship are made with sarcasm and disdain.
In 27:11, Pilate called Him “the king of the Jews,” a title that would insinuate that Jesus was usurping the throne of a puppet king. Herod had no real power. He did only what Rome allowed. If Jesus was to be king of the Jews, He would also have no power. He would be a puppet, at least from the point of view of Pilate. How could this weak and suffering man ever defeat the great Roman Empire? Jesus answered Pilate’s question with “So you say.” But Jesus was not talking about usurping a puppet throne. His kingship is of something greater, a kingdom beyond Israel.
In 27:29 the soldiers mocked Jesus. “Hail, king of the Jews,” they said, after having stripped Him of His clothes and replaced them with a scarlet cloak. They made a crown of thorns and placed it on His head, adding to the humiliation and pain that He was suffering. They did not really think Him to be a king, but did it only to mock Him.
In 27:37, they made a sign that said, “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Here we see the publication of His crime. He was charged with the usurpation of the royal throne. This was, in its own way, another mocking, as His throne was not covered with velvet and jewels but was nothing more than a humble cross on which He would suffer and die.
While He hung on that cross, the people came to the hillside to gawk and mock Him. In 27:42, the chief priests and elders said, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. If he is the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” They wanted proof of His right to the throne. If only He would get down from the cross, they would believe.”
The irony of the sarcasm and disdain is that Jesus never came to usurp the throne or save Israel from Rome. He came to save Israel from a greater oppressor: sin and death. As we heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Jesus emptied Himself. He did not come to be an earthly king or to lead His people in a revolt against the oppressive powers of this world. He came to do the will of God, which was to become one of us to die on a cross for the sake of mankind. The leaders thought that they had defeated Jesus and kept Him from the throne. However, they put Him on the very throne for which He was sent: the cross.
In the end, the only one who recognized Jesus was the centurion who pierced Him with a spear. Since that man was the Roman in charge at the crucifixion, his declaration was vindication for Jesus. Jesus was ruled innocent, righteous despite the horrific and unsettling end to His life. The centurion, probably without even understanding, proclaimed Jesus to be the King, not of Rome or even Israel, but over all of creation. For his obedience to the cross, God would, as Paul wrote, exalt Him above all else and give Him the name above all other names.
God highly exalted Him at the moment when He was most humiliated, when He was suffering a cruel and unwarranted death. It was on that cross that Jesus was glorified because it was there that He fulfilled God’s word and promise for the salvation of you and I. It is on the cross where we find forgiveness and through the cross we are made free. It is there where Jesus Christ was crowned the King, glorified forever.
We could easily spend hours with the many details found in these texts. Yet, I wonder if we do not spend too much time trying to explain God and too little time lingering within the story getting to know Him. Since we have so much time on our hands, perhaps now is better than ever to stop and listen to the story, to hear it as the storyteller speaks for Himself. Spend time reading the Passion, not only in Matthew, but in all the Gospel stories. Experience Passion Week over again in a new way this year. Walk with Jesus and learn what He did for you so that you remember to dwell in His presence when our current troubles pass.
“Little children, these are the end times, and as you heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen. By this we know that it is the final hour. They went out from us, but they didn’t belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have continued with us. But they left, that they might be revealed that none of them belong to us. You have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I have not written to you because you don’t know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the Antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son doesn’t have the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also.” 1 John 2:18-23, WEB
I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue following John’s first letter when I came to this text. There is a Facebook post that people are copying and pasting that suggest that the book of Revelation is being played out in our world today. The writer talks about how there is too much immorality and that the boundaries of sin are going farther and farther. They say that the line between right and wrong has been slowly erased.
I agree in many ways. It breaks my heart to see how people are living. I struggle with those who say that what is good is bad and what is bad is good. We are constantly being told to follow our hearts even though our hearts will lead us astray. There are many so-called churches that do not teach the truth, that preach a theology of glory rather than the cross. Jesus has been lost in the midst of works righteousness, and faith has become whatever makes you feel good. I agree, too, that our task in this time (and in every time) is to stand in faith and to hold on to Jesus. To believe in Jesus is our only chance.
Yet, I can’t agree that we are seeing the playing out of Revelation in our day as the writer suggests. I’ve studied the book and I see it differently. It is not a timeline; the book of Revelation has played out in this world over and over again. It is a cycle that goes worship, through struggle and sin, a call to repentance, repentance, and then back to worship. Though it seems like there are different events, this same story plays out over and over again, like a spiral. It took me nine months to each the study on Revelation, so one paragraph or devotion cannot do it justice, but the point of Revelation is to encourage God’s people to be disciples, faithful and faith-filled for the day. We are to focus on God, not the end times.
Will Jesus come again? Yes. Come, Lord Jesus! Will it happen in this day? Perhaps. Come, Lord Jesus! Quite frankly I’m ready for it all to be over. I want to spend eternity in heaven with my Lord, and I’d be happy if it happened today. However, we are reminded by the scriptures that we will not know the time or the day. Not even Jesus knows. Only God knows when He will finish the work that Jesus began on the cross.
I never quite understand why people are so quick to make our time the time. Jesus will not come again until every person God has chosen has come to faith in Him. Are you so ready for the second coming that you would let someone you love face Him without faith? John writes that we are in the end times. Indeed, we are. We have been since Jesus was raised from the dead. John also talks about the Antichrist, and the many that are against Christ. There are many, and while there will be one adversary against our Lord Jesus in the Day, we are faced with those who speak against our Lord in this time and place.
What gives us hope in these days, whether we truly are in the End Times, or whether it won’t happen for a thousand years, is that we have been anointed by God, by the Holy Spirit, and we have been given His Word written on our hearts. Those who deny Jesus, whether by word or deed, are antichrists. They deny the truth of God. They deny Jesus the Son. But we have faith in Jesus Christ, and because we have faith we also have a Father in heaven that is anxiously waiting for us. Yet, even as He wants us with Him for eternity, He also cares for those who still need to know and believe. He does not want any to perish. Heaven is big enough for all.
So, perhaps this is the end, but what will you do today? The post writer counsels self-evaluation. The post suggests preparation and repentance. This is good. We need to be ready because Jesus could come again today. Yet, we also need to remember that we are human and we will sin again. So, while we need to be living as disciples, walking the walk, serving God according to His Word, let us remember that the One who will grant us forgiveness and that lifetime in eternity is Jesus. It is our task as these days go on to share Him with the world, to shine His light and reveal His grace so that they, too, will be ready when He comes again. Let’s use these days, and every day, to speak the word that draws people to the Savior so that they will have the Father, just like us.
“Therefore, as for you, let that remain in you which you heard from the beginning. If that which you heard from the beginning remains in you, you also will remain in the Son, and in the Father. This is the promise which he promised us, the eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who would lead you astray. As for you, the anointing which you received from him remains in you, and you don’t need for anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is no lie, and even as it taught you, you will remain in him. Now, little children, remain in him, that when he appears, we may have boldness, and not be ashamed before him at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” 1 John 2:24-29, WEB
There is a danger at times like these. We are vulnerable when we are separated from our brothers and sisters in Christ. There are plenty of opportunities to watch pastors preach and give devotions on the Internet, but those videos are interspersed with videos from people who are not preaching the sound word of God. Who are you listening to these days?
We have discovered that in this day we can worship God in our homes, gathering together virtually to praise God and hear His word. However, this is never the best way to remain in God the Father and Son. The Holy Spirit does bind us together, but it is vital that we also find ways to connect with others on a personal level.
I spent several years ministering online in chat rooms. Those anonymous “places” were good in many ways. I made friends with people that I actually met face to face. I took part in a wedding for two people who met in a chat room. I’m still friends, and have met personally, several friends that I met in an email discussion group. Good things can happen, but there has to be a personal connection. I counseled those who “met Jesus” in a chat room that they should not rely on that “place” for their continued spiritual life. It encouraged them to find a local church, to join in Bible study and worship, so that they would experience the Love of God in very tangible ways.
My fear for them was that they would listen to and believe every person who spouted theology in those chat rooms. Many were deceitful. Many were poorly informed. Many had followed their own understanding not the truth of God’s Word. When we gather with others face to face, we can discuss the lessons and reason with each other to know and understand what God intends for His people. If we try to go it alone, we can falter and follow the false teachers that are abundant at times like this. It is easier to go the wrong way than you might think.
John encourages us to remain in what we have heard from the beginning. If we hold on to the truth of God’s promises, we will stand firm against the false teachers. Remember that Satan is an angel of light, a deceiver. He speaks words that sound good, but they are twisted and false. Now, more than ever, we have to find ways to remain in God, to live according to His Word, to stand firmly in His truth. You have been baptized into His death and raised to new life in Him. You have heard the truth if you believe, so remain in Him today and always. Hold on to the promise of eternal life even when you are frightened, confused, and in doubt. Test all those who try to teach you and listen only to those who preach what you have heard from the beginning. Trust God and follow Him, for He is our only hope and He is faithful.
“See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him. Beloved, now we are children of God. It is not yet revealed what we will be; but we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure. Everyone who sins also commits lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and no sin is in him. Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him and doesn’t know him.” 1 John 3:1-3, WEB
One of the benefits for our current isolation is that families are spending so much time together. They are eating meals at the same table, not in the car while running from one activity to another. They are playing games and enjoying walks together. Spouses are spending time in each other’s presence, reading or watching television. Parents are helping their children with school work. Our busy lives have slowed down significantly and we are getting to know one another again. We are taking time to share our faith, to be kind, and to model the life we hope for our families. We are transforming and being transformed by this experience.
Drew Barrymore starred in a film called “Irreconcilable Differences.” The story was about a young girl who was the daughter of two famous people. They spent too many hours away from home and barely knew their child. The housekeeper was much more like a mother to the girl. She decided to divorce her parents so that she could move in with the housekeeper and live a normal life with a parent around to give her the love and attention she needed. I imagine that there were at least a few children who felt the same away a month ago.
Many parents from all sorts of households do not spend enough time with their children, leaving them to fend for themselves. They are dropped off at day care or taken to school, with little guidance from the parents. The parents even ignore the spiritual and religious health of their children, allowing them to find their own beliefs and moral understanding. Stay-at-home mothers can even get so caught up in some project or the work of caring for the needs of their families that they forget to actually spend time with them. I have done this, justifying my own actions because I’m doing it for the children and for their future. I thought I was doing what was best for them. Many families a month ago thought the same, but this isolation has shown us how we have been failing our families.
The parents in the movie thought they were doing their best, giving their daughter everything she could possibly want, but all she needed and wanted was a family. The character Drew played in the movie did not feel like a daughter to her parents anymore. They were never around, they never listened to her problems, and they never saw her achievements. She didn’t want the big house and the best toys; she just wanted the love of the people who she loved.
God, our heavenly Father, is not like the parents in the movie. Even though He is the King of Eternity and the Creator of all things, He wants a personal and intimate relationship with all His children. He is able to take each of us by the hand, sit us on His lap and love us individually. We, who are nothing more than specks compared to the wholeness of the universe in time and space, are called children of God. He is with us, transforming us into His image, manifesting Himself through our lives. As we grow in the hope of that which is to come, we are changed to become more and more like Him. This can’t be done if He is not a part of our daily lives. But He is our Father, and is with us always.
“Everyone who sins also commits lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and no sin is in him. Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him and doesn’t know him. Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed: that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him, and he can’t sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother.” 1 John 3:4-10, WEB
Sarah Ruhl wrote a play called “Melancholy Play.” The main character is Tilly who is melancholy. Melancholy is a state of being that is beyond sadness: it is deep and lasting, a lingering state of depression. Most of us would consider a lasting state of sadness unattractive, but there is something beautiful and attractive about Tilly’s melancholy. The other characters are drawn to her; each and every one of them falls madly in love. They are happy in her presence.
Their happiness must have found a way through her melancholy because in the middle of the play she suddenly becomes deliriously happy. In this state of joy, Tilly is no longer attractive or beautiful to her friends. They do not share in her joy: instead they fall into her melancholy. Their friend Francis becomes so blue over Tilly’s transformation that she becomes an almond. The rest of the play focuses on the group of friends trying to find a way to bring Francis back and in the end the audience and the cast are never quite sure whether Francis has become human again or if everyone has become an almond. The play is a humorous look at melancholy and is very funny.
One of the things that makes this play so funny is how Tilly’s melancholy makes her friends respond in quite the opposite emotion. We usually share emotions. We are happy when those around us are happy and sad when those around us are sad. We certainly do not become joyously happy when our friends are depressed. Even if we don’t become melancholy, we don’t act deliriously happy in their presence. We try to help them through their emotions, meeting them with compassion.
There’s a funny sign that women like to post in their homes that says, “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” This is true because when Momma takes everything out on the others in the house when she is frazzled by the work she has to do. The kids hear long lectures about wasting valuable resources when they take a clean cup every time they take a drink of water if there are too many dishes in the sink. Toys on the living room floor bring out the wrath of Momma. You don’t even want to see Momma when there are dirty footprints in the kitchen. On the other hand, the household is exceptionally happy after Momma has had a quiet and relaxing bubble bath without children interrupting. The point of the funny sign is so that everyone will remember that happiness comes when Momma is kept happy.
As Christians of faith, we live on the edge of eternity. We live in between the now and the someday. We are saints but we are also still sinners. We are saved and yet we are not fully saved. We live in the already but not yet. We are children of God, and yet what that means for us in the future has not yet been revealed. We are transformed by the grace of God, but we’ll be transformed fully in that day when we are in His presence again. What He is has already changed us. We are forgiven. We have the Holy Spirit. We are living new in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Though we are not quite there and we do not see Him clearly, He is still with us and in us. We live in a hope that is without disappointment, knowing that what is now will be even more someday. In that hope we live as Jesus lived, doing as He did. We share in His righteousness and are righteous as He was righteous.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 12, 2020, Easter Sunrise: Exodus 14:10-15:1; Psalm 118:15-29; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18. Easter Day: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 16; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10
“The angel answered the women, ‘Don’t be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus, who has been crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, just like he said. Come, see the place where the Lord was lying.’” Matthew 28:5-6, WEB
I usually try to find time during this time of year to listen to the soundtrack of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I usually do it when I am driving through the country on a wildflower adventure, because I have plenty of time and my favorite stations get lost as I travel away from the city. Since we are isolating due to the virus, I am not going on any adventures, so I will probably listen at home. Perhaps the theology is not perfect, but I enjoy the music and the story. Besides, it is tradition!
The song “Superstar” comes near the end of the show. Judas has already killed himself and Jesus is about to die on the cross when Judas begins singing. “Every time I look at you I don’t understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand. You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned. Now why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land? If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”
The pastor that performed the wedding ceremony for Bruce and I made a similar conclusion. He suggested that Jesus should have come during modern times when He could have reached a much larger audience. Radio, television, and the Internet would have made sharing the Gospel quick and easy. I’m not sure that Good Friday could have happened in modern times, but God would have found a way to accomplish His will whenever it happened.
Peter says in today’s lesson from Acts, “God raised him up the third day, and gave him to be revealed, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen before by God, to us.” The revelation of Jesus Christ at that moment in time was not meant to be given to everyone at one time. It was given for a few at first, who were then charged with taking the Good News to the world.
We began our Lenten journey with the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Satan tempted Jesus several times, trying to convince Him to take His ministry in a different direction. At one point, Satan suggested that Jesus should do something that would catch the attention of the world. “He set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.’” If Jesus did this, God would protect Him; He would send a legion of angels to lift Him up. That would have had an impact on the world! Jesus knew that was not the way, and answered the temptation with God’s word. We are not to test the Lord our God, and Jesus refused the temptation.
It seems like the end of the story would be a good time to make that worldwide impact. Why not take the opportunity after the Resurrection to shine the light so that the whole world would see? Instead Jesus revealed Himself to a few very specific people that God chose to be the first recipients of the Good News.
At first Peter thought it was right to keep the message was given for a very specific group of people and them alone. He thought Christ came for the Jews, for God’s chosen people. He was willing to allow others to join into the blessings if they followed the prescribed path of a proselyte. They could not be Christian unless they first became a Jew. However, Peter learned a much different lesson when he met Cornelius.
Peter realized that God’s mercy is not given just for those we want to receive it, but God desires all to turn to Him because He loves us all. Christ does not play favorites, nor should we as we live our lives of faith in Him. We are called to rejoice when God has mercy on the enemy who turns to Him in faith, for in Christ we are no longer enemies but brothers. The world would truly be a much better place if we all loved our enemies by sharing the Gospel of Christ with them so that they will become our brothers in faith. The number of people to whom Jesus was revealed on that first Resurrection was relatively small, but God chose them to be the beginning of something that would more to the four corners of the world one person at a time.
Resurrection Day reminds us that God was doing the unexpected. God did everything differently than they planned. Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they wanted; He didn’t teach the lessons they thought He would teach. He did not fellowship with the right people or do all the right things. I imagine it was tough for those first disciples as they discovered that God was doing something new in the world through them. God taught Peter an awesome lesson that day in today’s first lesson: that His love and mercy is for all men who hear and believe the Gospel message. Peter expected to minister to the Jews, to his own people, but when God called him to the house of Cornelius, he realized that God did not play favorites. The people who heard the Gospel were not all in the same circumstances. God provided the opportunity and the gifts for the apostles to share Him with all sorts of different people.
The celebration of Easter will be much different this year because we cannot gather together to celebrate the Empty Tomb. We are watching the joyful message from the privacy and isolation of our own homes on televisions and computers. We are using that modern technology, that mass communication that Judas sang about in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” What is interesting, though, is that it is not just members of our congregation who are watching the services online. We don’t know who the others are. They may be members of churches that do not have the capability to stream. But it also might just be people who are hungering for something other than “normal” in our strange world.
They want to have what we have.
The Old Testament story for Easter Sunrise is from the book of Exodus. It is the story of the Hebrews escaping Egypt. They had just arrived at the Red Sea when they realized that Pharaoh had changed his mind and was chasing them with an army. They had nowhere to go. They couldn’t go into the sea, and they couldn’t return to Egypt; the only outcome for both possibilities was death. They were caught between a rock and a hard place. The people were afraid. They argued with Moses, “Isn’t this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” They returned to this thinking over and over again as they journeyed to the Promised Land.
Though they wanted to escape the heavy hand of the Egyptians, God’s plan was as frightening because they did not know where it would lead. They were ready to turn back at the first sign of disaster.
This is an interesting text for us to read at Easter sunrise. Imagine how the disciples were feeling after Jesus died on the cross. They did not know what would come next. Despite His repeated assurances, they felt like they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Danger surrounded them. They couldn’t move forward and they couldn’t go back. Their lives had been changed, but now everything was for naught. They scattered during the trial, only a few saw Him on the hill. Though some returned to the upper room, we know that Thomas was hiding elsewhere because he was not there when Jesus appeared to the rest.
The answer to the Hebrews was to trust in God. “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of Yahweh, which he will work for you today; for you will never again see the Egyptians whom you have seen today. Yahweh will fight for you, and you shall be still.” At that, Moses raised his staff over the sea and the sea parted before them. They ran for their lives. The Egyptians followed, but when the last Hebrew was safely on the far shore, Moses raised his staff and the sea closed up again. By the power of God they were saved.
The disciples waited and worried and wondered. I’m sure they prayed, but they may not even have known what they should pray. They probably discussed what they did wrong, what Jesus did wrong, what they should do next. They grieved, they cried, they were angry and confused. How could it turn out so wrong? Did they think, perhaps, that they should have told Jesus to leave them alone three years ago? “For it would be better for us to lead our normal humdrum lives, than to die at the hands of the powerful.” I don’t doubt that at least some of the conversation revolved around returning home, going back to the way life was before Jesus. No matter how good it was to be with Him, the old ways are better than death.
But God said, “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see my salvation.”
He says the same to us today.
How often, during times of difficulty, do we think to ourselves, “If only we could go back to the good old days.” We remember better times, and those better times were not that long ago for us. Just a month ago we were living well. What a difference a day makes! While Good Friday reminds us that the triumph of Palm Sunday can disappear quickly, Easter reminds us that the darkness of Good Friday has been overcome. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we will see a resurrection of our own one day. We need only trust in God in this time, to praise Him now, to look forward to His promises and remember His faithfulness.
Those promises are being proclaimed to people who may not have ever heard. Though Jesus was revealed to a select few in the days following His resurrection, we can rejoice that He is being revealed to people who have never heard His story by pastors who are using social media to pray and teach and lead worship. Strangers are joining the streaming of congregations across the world. God’s Word is reaching the four corners of the world in a way that it would not have moved two thousand years ago.
The first to experience Jesus’ resurrection were the women who were headed to the tomb to take care of Jesus’ body. The Passover Sabbath loomed as He died and they did not have time to prepare His body properly for burial. Joseph of Arimathea took the body to a newly carved tomb, but he did not have time to give Jesus the honor due to a great friend and teacher. The women went back to do a better job, to anoint His body and wrap it correctly.
When they approached the tomb, a great earthquake shook the earth. If nothing else affected the women, an earthquake would have shaken them. However, they were already particularly emotional and there was more to come. An angel, whose presence would have been shocking and fearful, appeared before them and said “Do not be afraid.” I don’t know about you, but those words rarely have the intended affect on me. The angel told them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen. After they saw the empty tomb, they began to run to tell the disciples. Matthew tells us that they departed with fear and great joy.
Along the way Jesus appeared and said, “Rejoice!” They fell at His feet and worshipped Him. Now, more than ever, you would think that they would let go of the fear. Their friend and teacher stood alive before them. However, Jesus knew that there was still fear; this was not a normal circumstance. He said, “Fear not!” and repeated the command to tell the disciples. Fear can become so all overwhelming that we do not do what we should do. This was an extraordinary experience, and Jesus appeared to them to give them peace so that they could go on and do what they were called to do. Jesus comes to us in the same way, giving us the courage to go forward despite our fear and do what we are called to do in this world.
What is peace? We certainly can’t find it in the papers or on the nightly news programs. The news programs may be filled with information about the virus, but there is other news. People are still being murdered. Leaders continue to argue. Facebook comments are still hurtful. International relationships may not be at the forefront of our thought right now because the world is working together to solve the problem of the virus, but there are still struggles between nations. There seems to be no peace in our world today.
What is peace? Jesus knew peace. He lived with threats of violence. One day the crowd tried to stone Him. The temple leaders accused Him of blaspheme and insurrection. He was crucified on the cross, which was a most horrific death. Yet, He faced large crowds of hungry people with only a few fish and some bread without worry. He touched the untouchable, spoke to the outcasts, and ate with the sinners with love. He faced His trial without fear, and He spoke only the words necessary despite threats from His accusers. He had peace, the peace that comes from knowing God is close.
Jesus said “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, I give to you. Don’t let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful.” Beauty pageant contestants are always saying that they want “Peace on earth.” The world thinks of peace as a lack of violence, but the peace we really need has nothing to do with a lack violence. As a matter of fact, violence is brought on by a lack of peace. The unending cycle of attack and retaliation will only be stopped when the hearts of the warriors find true peace. We have that peace; Christ’s peace is the assurance that God is with us. We live in that peace singing praise and thanksgiving to God and we have been called to share that peace.
It is tempting to read today’s Epistle lesson and think that Paul is suggesting that we reject the world and look toward heaven. There are many Christians who think solely about those things “above,” rejecting the things of the flesh. Yet, Christ calls us to live in the world even while we are no longer of the world. In other words, in Christ we are being transformed into His image and we belong to His Kingdom, but there is still work to do in the here and now. We are joined with Him and as we grow in faith and mature in grace, God shines through our lives in every increasing glory. When Christ, who is our life, appears, the world sees the work of God in our flesh and in our works. We become more and more like Him and it is Him that the world sees when they see our life.
We are called to seek after the things of God, not only heaven, but also His kingdom here on earth. We are to look for the helpless and the hungry, the lonely and the sinners. These may seem to be the very things that are ‘below’, but it is in the suffering of this world that we find Christ. As we reach out to those who need to experience God’s grace, then God’s glory will be manifested in our lives. As we do what we can to ease the distress of our neighbors during this time, we will find Christ in the midst of it all, taking us through our triumphs and our pains to resurrection and new life.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you experienced both fear and great joy? The most outstanding example of this would most likely be when women learn they are pregnant. What a joy it is to know that you are going to bring a new life into the world, but it is also an incredible responsibility. It can be frightening to face pregnancy, labor, delivery and then a life time of loving and caring for that new life.
In our modern age, we are not surprised or bothered that God used women as the first witnesses; women have earned the respect to be witnesses to events. Yet, in that day and age it was quite unusual for men to take the word of women. In Luke’s account, the disciples even said the testimony of the women was nonsense.
The first time the disciples saw Jesus, they were startled and frightened. They thought He was a ghost. The first time the women saw Him they fell to the ground and worshipped Him. It is not that the women had greater faith. It is just that men look at the world with a different point of view. In general, women see the world through their hearts and men through their minds. Men need answers, explanations. They need to consider what is happening before acting. Despite the fact that the disciples followed Jesus for three years, they would probably have had a similar response to the visitation of the angel as the soldiers at the tomb. Jesus had mercy on them when He gave them time to prepare for His appearance. Even then it was troubling, Jesus revealed Himself in a way that they could believe.
The women also give us hope that the message of the resurrection is meant for all people. In Acts, Luke writes that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name. The Gospel is not meant for certain people, it is given for all. The promises for Israel have become our promises. Jesus is the right hand of God our Father and through Him we are saved.
Paul writes, “If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God.” Through our baptism we are buried with Christ and when we come out of the waters we are raised with Him. We are made new, transformed into children of God and through Christ we share in the hope of eternal life. He is our advocate, the one standing at the gates of the temple to welcome us in. He opened the gates by making us righteous before God as we wear His righteousness. He is our life. As Paul writes, “When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.”
Though we see the story of Christ’s death and resurrection from a completely different perspective than those first disciples so long ago, we do not respond any differently than they did. Some want to run and hide, some need answers about what it all means. Others receive the news with fear and great joy. Like the women, however, we are called to run and tell others about what we have seen and heard, so that they too might know Christ and believe.
While we are inconvenienced by the isolation and we miss our brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remember that God can use all our circumstances to make His will happen. This time may be hard for us, but it is an opportunity to share Jesus in a new way with a world that desperately needs Him. Jesus died, but He rose again and He promises eternal life with Him for all who believe. As we approach Easter Sunday, pray for the Spirit to help those who are ministering online, pray for patience and encouragement for those who are already Christian, but most of all pray for those who will hear the Gospel during this time and be saved.
“For this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; unlike Cain, who was of the evil one, and killed his brother. Why did he kill him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s righteous. Don’t be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. He who doesn’t love his brother remains in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.” 1 John 3:11-15, WEB
We lived in England when my children were young and they attended a school on the Air Force Base. The school had an in-school post office that the children could use to send letters to one another throughout the day. My children often passed messages to one another. They were simple cards that wished each other a nice day and say, “I love you.” This happened with such regularity that the teachers noticed their love for one another.
My kids were not perfect, though. They bickered often, particularly when Zack wanted to play and Vicki just wanted to be a prepubescent girl. They drove me crazy when it was time to make decisions because they seemed to always want the opposite of the other, even if the other wanted their favorite thing. However, most of the time they loved and cared for one another. Sibling relationships are not always so warm. I have heard stories of children constantly fighting, even physically injuring one another for one reason or another. There are deep emotional problems in some families, jealousy and anger can ruin relationships.
This has gone on since the beginning of time. The first brothers disputed over how to worship the Lord God almighty. Abel gave God the first fruits of his life and God was pleased. Cain, on the other hand just gave some of his fruit and God did not look favorably on this act. Cain became jealous of Abel and attacked him violently, to death. God warned Cain. It is much too easy to leap from jealousy to anger to murder, which is why we are cautioned to keep things right from the beginning. Sin is waiting just around the corner, and once it gets a foothold it is hard to overcome.
John reminds us to beware of the choices we make, especially in reference to our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Is that argument really worthwhile? There are certainly things that matter, but how do we deal with the disagreements between fellow Christians? The argument between Cain and Able was religious, and though I doubt that any of us would murder another Christian over a disagreement in doctrine, every broken relationship has a negative impact on the body of Christ, the Church. We need one another even when we do not agree, because the world hates everything about God, including us. A lack of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ mean that we are agreeing with the hatred and the darkness around us rather than dwelling in the love that our Father has for each of His children.
“By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But whoever has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, then closes his heart of compassion against him, how does God’s love remain in him? My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and persuade our hearts before him, because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have boldness toward God; so whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he commanded. He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.” 1 John 3:16-24, WEB
Tom Hanks has proven to be an incredible and versatile actor. He has starred in everything from flops to successes, stage to television to movies. He writes, directs and produces. He can play comedy as well as drama, and has appeared doing voiceovers in numerous animated films. He has been nominated and won dozens of award from all over the world and the entertainment industry. He is one of only two actors to receive back to back Academy Awards for his appearances in “Philadelphia” in 1993 and “Forrest Gump” in 1994. He is one of the highest all-time box office stars with career earnings over $8 billion. He even has an asteroid named after him.
He has become extremely successful, but it wasn’t easy. He began acting in High School and did some in college, but he often struggled to get roles. He worked in community theater including an internship that was extended to three years during which he learned most aspects of theater production, including lighting, set design, and stage management. He did a slasher movie, a made for TV movie and more stage before landing my first memory of Tom Hanks: as Kip Wilson in the television situation comedy “Bosom Buddies.” That role, as well as a guest appearance on “Happy Days” introduced Tom to Ron Howard, who was, at the time, working on a movie called “Splash,” a romantic comedy mermaid movie that was released in 1984.
Ron asked Tom to audition for a minor role in the movie. He often tells the story of how he bombed that audition, yet Ron saw something in Tom’s performance and decided to give him a chance, not for the minor role, but as the lead actor. Ron was under pressure to make his movie quickly and cheaply because another studio was also working on a mermaid movie, so his choice might have had financial considerations, but Tom was chosen over many other actors who had been considered, including John Travolta, Michael Keaton, Chevy Chase, Jeff Bridges, Richard Gere, Kevin Kline, Burt Reynolds, Bill Murray and Dudley Moore. Some of them turned down the role, but it gives Tom a great story: he’s often said that he was the 11th choice for the part.
The audition tape was included on the twentieth anniversary edition of the DVD which was released in 2004. When asked if he minded, Tom said it was fine to include the video, but he didn’t understand why anyone would want to see it. It was certainly not Tom Hanks at his best; by that time he had accomplished so much more in his career. We like to see those early videos, though, because it helps us to see from whence they came.
“Splash” was life-changing for Tom Hanks. It turned out to be an incredible success and it led to many more jobs for the actor. He eventually moved into more dramatic roles, but he is often remembered fondly for his lighthearted romantic comedies. We love Tom Hanks because he is the average Joe, the boy next door, the widower whose love was so great that he couldn’t love again. Ron Howard knew that Tom had something to offer and hired him for the role even though his audition didn’t earn him the chance.
Isn’t that really what God has done for us? We fail our audition to be a child of God, but He has chosen us for the role anyway. Have you ever really thought about how amazing it is that Jesus Christ went to the cross for us? We were sinners, incapable of keeping His Law and constantly separating ourselves from God’s love, mercy, and grace. As we look around at one another, and at ourselves in the mirror, we can’t help but wonder what made Him do such a thing. Yet, He saw something in His people: a potential to love Him and one another. He knew we were unable to accomplish such a thing on our own, so He sent Jesus to live and die for our sake. On the cross, Jesus overcame all that separates us from God and reconciled our lives with His. Now that He has been raised from death into eternal life, we too are given all we need to live in love according to His ways.
“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
I once read a story about a woman who turned on her faucet for a glass of cold water only to discover that it was running with beer. There are many people who would celebrate this unfortunate disruption to normal; free running beer is a college student’s dream! The woman lived in an apartment above a bar that had some plumbing work done. Somehow the pipes were confused in the process, so the beer ran to the woman’s faucet while water ran to the bar’s taps. I don’t know how a mistake like this would happen, but apparently it did.
While it might be fun for someone who likes beer to have a free running faucet, beer is not enough. We can’t do our laundry or wash our dishes with beer. We can’t cook all our food in beer. We certainly can’t bathe in beer. While it might be fun for a day or two, even those who like beer would eventually become sick of the taste and smell of beer. It would be disastrous for someone who can’t drink alcohol and problematic for those who do not like beer, like me.
I’m sure the woman was quick to inform the bar owners of the trouble. Even quicker, however, would have been the bartenders. They certainly could not sell water as if it were beer. The patrons would have been pretty upset. Who wants to pay the price of a beer for a glass of water? One tiny twist of the pipes caused numerous problems for numerous people; they did not get what they needed after the pipes were switched.
The twisting of God’s Word can create a similar situation, leaving people with a hungering that can’t be fulfilled.
The devil twisted God’s word when Jesus went into the wilderness to fast before He began His ministry. Unfortunately, there are teachers in our world who do the same thing. The teachings sound good, they use language that appears to be right and true, they even use the very words that come out of the scriptures. But there is always a slight twist, almost indistinguishable, that brings us something we do not expect: beer when we need water. These twists make grace out to be a burden, hope to be earned, faith to be an action when these are all gifts from God. These twists make the Gospel out to be a command to be obeyed rather than a proclamation of God’s message of grace to His people.
Satan asked Adam and Eve, “Did God really say...?” It is our responsibility to compare the preaching we hear to the Word of God as it has been given us through the scriptures. We are to test the spirits. Just as the twisted pipes sent the wrong fluid to the taps, so too does the twisting of God’s word send the wrong refreshment to those who hear.Test the spirits. The teaching might sound good at first. It might even feel good for awhile, but eventually too much of the wrong thing leads to trouble for everyone. God’s grace is not a burden, hope is not earned, and faith is not an action we are called to do. These are the gifts of God that we receive through our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Beloved, let’s love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves has been born of God, and knows God. He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love. By this God’s love was revealed in us, that God has sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we remain in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him, and he in God. We know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. In this, love has been made perfect among us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because as he is, even so we are in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us. If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother.” 1 John 4:7-21, WEB
Churches are trying to find creative ways of keeping in touch with the members of their congregations. The variety of Easter Sunday offerings was overwhelming, from Zoom meetings to drive-in services, from pastoral video blogs to virtual choirs singing the Hallelujah Chorus. They are even trying to meet the needs of the children by sending out coloring sheets and having youth gatherings in online chat rooms. One church has even had adult members record videos of themselves singing favorite childhood songs so that the kids can experience worship in the way they would in Sunday school.
“We love because God first loved us,” are the words to one of those favorite children’s songs. Without God we cannot love because God is love. This is what John is trying to tell us in today’s scripture lesson. Love is a gift from God. Without Him it would be impossible for us to love. Oh, non believers can show love as it is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties; attraction based on sexual desire; affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests.” Sure, all human beings are capable of this kind of love.
All people, including Christians, are also capable of apathy. Hate is not, as we might expect, the opposite of love. Apathy is the opposite of love. Not caring whether someone lives or dies, is happy or sad, is sick or hungry or unclothed is the opposite of love, especially when we think of love as unselfish, loyal, and benevolent concern for the good of another. This is more like the fatherly concern God has for humankind and the brotherly concern we have for others. This is the kind of love that is impossible without the love of God on which to build. Unfortunately, most people do not love this deeply.
John writes, “If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” The word “hate” is not defined as we do in modern language. “Hate” is an intense or passionate dislike for something. However, in the ancient languages the word “hate” means “to separate oneself from another.” It is more like apathy. It means to ignore, reject, or turn our back on. When we hate someone, we purposely and willingly refuse to meet their needs. Love is active. Love is sacrificing oneself for the sake of another, while hate sacrifices another for our own sake.
If we think so highly of ourselves that we can ignore or reject the cries of our brothers and sisters, it is impossible for us to love God. It is in and through the needs of others that God manifests Himself to us in this world. It is in the thirsty that we are given the opportunity to love God by offering them a drink of water. It is in the hungry that we are given the opportunity to love God by sharing with them our lunch. It is in the sick, imprisoned, unclothed, and homeless that God appears to us and we love when we love them with our resources and our actions. If we ignore those needs, we hate those who are needy and therefore cannot possibly love God. The love God gives to us is not meant to be held between God and each individual. It is a gift given to be shared with all. We love because God first loved us, and because God first loved us we are called to love others.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 19, 2020, Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5:29-42; Psalm 148; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
“Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.’” John 20:29, WEB
Many people thought Easter ended on Sunday with the worship and baskets full of chocolate. Lent is over, the fasting to which we committed is finished, but Easter has just begun. This week is what is called the Octave of Easter, eight days of celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a holiday at some times and in some places throughout history. These are the “days of joy and laughter” and are often celebrated with parties and picnics and even practical jokes. The Second Sunday of Easter (the 19th) is often called “Holy Humor Sunday” or “Bright Sunday.” The custom came from the thoughts of early church theologians like Augustine that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis: the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.
Easter didn’t end on Sunday. As a matter of fact, it has just begun. It is a season that lasts fifty days. During these days Jesus continued to walk with His disciples, to teach them everything they needed to know to continue the work Jesus began. The teaching continued for forty days, and then Jesus ascended into heaven. The disciples waited ten days until the Day of Pentecost when they received the Holy Spirit. The Gospel lessons for the next seven Sundays will reveal Jesus to us again and again as the Lord of our life, beginning with His appearances to His disciples following His resurrection.
After extremely long Gospel lessons over the past few weeks, the accounting from Matthew in the lectionary is relatively brief. We only heard about the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body; they found the tomb empty and met Jesus on the road. He told them not to be afraid and to go tell the disciples that He would meet them in Galilee. The disciples didn’t believe the women at first.
A few other things happened on that first Resurrection Day. In John’s accounting, Jesus called Mary by name. She told the disciples, but they didn’t know what to believe. Jesus appeared before two disciples on the road to Emmaus; He ate with them and as He broke the bread they recognized Him (next week’s Gospel lesson from Luke). Those disciples quickly returned to Jerusalem to share the Good News, but the disciples still wondered if it were true. Jesus appeared from behind locked doors as they told their story to the other disciples. He breathed the Holy Spirit upon those who were present. Jesus revealed Himself to His disciples so that they would know and believe that it was true. Slowly, but surely, they were really beginning to believe.
Our Gospel lesson begins that first Easter night and ends eight days later. The disciples gathered in the Upper Room had no hope. They had glimmers of possibilities because they had heard the stories of the witnesses, but they found it too hard to believe. Suddenly, out of nowhere, through a locked door, Jesus appeared before them. He was alive, but even then their first reaction was that they were seeing a ghost. Jesus answered their fear with a word of peace. Then He showed them His hands and side, and the disciples knew that they were seeing the risen Lord. Jesus said again, “Peace be unto you: as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.”
In this first appearance, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This was like a down payment of what was to come: the Holy Spirit that would anoint them at Pentecost. In the days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus taught the disciples everything they needed to know, but it would not be enough. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit could the disciples ever believe and do the work God was calling them to do.
“Receive the Holy Spirit” was a symbolic act that looked forward to Pentecost, but it also looked back to the creation. God breathed His Spirit into a clay form and gave it life. When Jesus breathed on the disciples, He gave them new life. God created, Jesus re-created. God created through His Word and He re-created through His Word. We receive that same Spirit at our baptism when God breathes new life into us. The God who breathed life into Adam, breathes new life into all those who believe in Jesus.
What was God calling them to do?? What is the word they are called to take to the world? It is the word of forgiveness that is found in the grace and mercy of God through Christ Jesus. Jesus said, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they have been forgiven them. If you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained.” Forgiveness is a difficult thing; do any of us really deserve to be forgiven? Even the specially chosen followers of Jesus deserved death. After all, think about the things they did in those last moments of Jesus’ life. They abandoned Him. They denied Him. They were afraid, uncertain, and doubtful despite the words of Jesus. Even more so, I think about my own sin and know that I do not deserve to benefit from what Christ has done.
The disciples were not able to believe in Jesus without the power He gives them to believe. The breath He breaths into all believers is the Holy Spirit, and it is by the power of that Spirit that they have faith. To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to deny His power, to reject Him.
The lesson of that first Easter evening is hard for us to grasp, because quite frankly there are folk we would rather not forgive. Here’s the thing: we aren’t called to go out into the world to condemn those who sin, but rather to proclaim the word of forgiveness into their lives. It is not our job to decide who deserves to hear that word and who does not deserve it. We are commissioned to take it to everyone.
Thomas was not with them on that first Easter night. We don’t know where he was; perhaps he scattered much further than the others and had not yet managed to return to the place where they were meeting. Perhaps he was more frightened than the others. Yet, he returned to their company and was there a week later when Jesus appeared a second time. He was skeptical about what they had told him. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe,” he said. This statement is why we call him “Doubting Thomas.”
Yet, that negative identification is not entirely fair. How is Thomas any different than the other disciples? They doubted, too. They questioned the word of the women. They didn’t know what to think about the report from the two disciple who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They were afraid when Jesus entered a week earlier, thinking that He was a ghost. Jesus showed them His hands and His side. Didn’t Thomas deserve the same proof that they were given? They believed when Jesus breathed upon them, how can we expect any more from Thomas until he has the same benefit?
We live a long way from the resurrection, not only in distance but in time. The eyewitnesses are long gone, only their stories remain. It is easy for us to assume that there is exaggeration in the records, that it couldn’t possibly be real. It is easier to doubt than it is to believe. So, is it any wonder that Thomas was uncertain? I don’t think Thomas’s doubt suggests a lack of trust or love for his fellow disciples, but the story they told is incredible. Jesus came, walked through a locked door, and stood among them. I know it is true and I wonder.
Thomas needed to see to believe. Imagine how the other disciples must have felt. Thomas was like a brother, having traveled with them for nearly three years. He heard the same stories, he learned the same lessons. He was given the same prophecies and promises. If he did not believe them, who would? How could they possibly share their message with outsiders? I imagine they were hurt; there may have even been discord among the disciples. When Jesus appeared the second time, He spoke the words of peace again. “Peace be to you.”
We celebrate the resurrection during the Octave of Easter with parties and jokes, but I imagine the atmosphere was much different during that first Octave. They were still uncertain, confused, frightened. The disciples needed peace amongst themselves to do the work they were called to do. How could they take the message of the Gospel out into a world if there is no reconciliation between brothers? Whatever was going on behind those closed doors during the week between the first and second appearance, Jesus pointed them in a new direction. Once Thomas was given the same experience, there was nothing to keep the disciples divided.
Jesus brought peace, and He said it twice in today’s lesson. In last week’s Gospel the women were twice told to have no fear. One word is never enough for certainty, especially if we are experiencing overwhelming emotions like grief, fear and doubt. Jesus knew that of all things, peace was the most important at this point. In peace, they could face whatever it was that waited for them outside the door to their room. They would not find peace out there, since the Jews and the Romans would eventually respond to the Christian story with violence and oppression. They needed a different kind of peace.
Real peace is not the absence of conflict but an unassailable trust in God. The world outside our door is not conducive to that feeling of peace that we long for today. As a matter of fact, we face grief, fear and doubt every day. But Christ comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” He is saying, “Trust in me and trust in my Father. His promises are true and He is faithful. Whatever you face, do so with faith, knowing that everything is already taken care of for you and for the world. Live in the forgiveness I have obtained for you and take it out the door into the world for others.”
Peace leads to the manifestation of peace: forgiveness. Or perhaps peace is the manifestation of forgiveness. They are inseparable. We can’t have peace if we are holding a grudge against someone. We can’t have peace if another is holding a grudge against us. But we can face the sin of our world with forgiveness, at peace with the reality of our brokenness and God’s forgiveness. As we dwell in His grace, we share that grace with others and we experience real peace.
Jesus wanted the disciples to see one another through the eyes of grace. Thomas may not have believed their word, but he really isn’t “Doubting Thomas”; he is “Confessing Thomas.” When Jesus appeared amongst them the second time, He showed Thomas His hands and side. Jesus said, “Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.” John does not tell us that Thomas touched Jesus; on seeing Jesus and hearing His voice, Thomas immediately proclaimed “My Lord and my God.” He witnessed the living Christ and believed.
Jesus then said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.” This reprimand was given to all the disciples, not just Thomas. They had an advantage: they saw the Risen Lord. They lived with Him and learned from Him for another miraculous forty days. But the Church would grow out of faith in the word heard, not in the flesh seen. The blessed ones are those who believe when they heard their testimony.
Perhaps this Octave of Easter is not so joyous as it should be as we are uncertain, confused, and frightened like the disciples. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been in those first few days after the crucifixion and resurrection? But Jesus came to them in the midst of their difficulty to give them peace. We can experience the same peace if we keep our hearts and minds firm in the promises of God. He calls us to obedience. As followers of God saved by Jesus, we are called to love God so much that we trust Him completely.
The book of Acts records the early experiences of the Church. The text preceeding today’s lesson records the Apostles doing great works; they were performing signs and wonders. Demons were cast out and the sick were healed, sometimes by just their shadow as they passed by. Many people were drawn to them. The Jewish leaders were filled with jealousy and they arrested the apostles and put them into jail. During the night, however, an angel of the Lord set them free so they could return to the Temple to preach. The Jewish leaders were shocked they were there. “Didn’t we tell you never to teach in Jesus’ name? Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
The temple leaders persecuted the disciples, but God was with them, giving them strength, peace and hope in the midst of their troubles. God sent angels to help them and opportunities to share the Gospel through their persecution. Nothing was going to stop them because they loved their Lord with their whole being and they were willing the stand for Him no matter what happened. The leaders met to discuss the problem.
The disciples didn’t mince words when facing the Sanhedrin. They said, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree. God exalted him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins. We are his witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” This made them extremely angry, and they wanted to kill them.
But there was one man, a Pharisee, who brought calm to the situation. He told his fellow councilmen to be patient and let God take care of the situation. “Now I tell you, withdraw from these men, and leave them alone. For if this counsel or this work is of men, it will be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it, and you would be found even to be fighting against God!” This was wise advice, although I’m certain the council was hoping everything would turn out much differently.
Gamaliel, however, may have had a concealed motive for speaking such wise words. We know that this Pharisee was a Jewish scholar and teacher of the Law. His most famous student was Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as Paul. Tradition holds that Simeon, the old man in the Temple who recognized Baby Jesus as the Messiah, was Gamaliel’s father. If this is true, he most likely told his son about Jesus. Did Gamaliel know that the men standing before the Sanhedrin were followers of that baby in the Temple? It is believed that Gamaliel did become a Christian and was baptized by Peter and John, but that he kept his Christianity a secret until his death so that he could remain in the Sanhedrin to offer aid to the Christians who were being persecuted. The Jewish account of his life maintains that he remained a Pharisee until he died. But his speech at the trial of the apostles gives some credence to the possibility that he had faith. His council saved their lives so they could continue to share the Gospel.
Peter later wrote, “Wherein you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved in various trials, that the proof of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ - whom, not having known, you love. In him, though now you don’t see him, yet believing, you rejoice greatly with joy that is unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Thomas may have had the opportunity to see and touch Jesus, but most Christians for the last two thousand years have not, including us. We were given the story by those who were there, through the scriptures and the Church. We may not have seen Jesus, but we believed the words spoken about Him and thus we have received the forgiveness which He gives.
Peter talks about the hope we have in Christ. Our faith is built on a rock and our rock is Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again for our sake. The promise of eternal life is not dependent on anything human or created; it is founded in God’s grace and love for His people. We have been given the eternal kingdom by resting on the True rock of our faith. The promise is real and the King is faithful. We may experience hardship and trials, but through those difficulties our faith will grow and mature. Our hope rests in the promise that God has assured our salvation and that we’ll share in His glory.
Peter talks about joy. We rejoice even in our trials because by faith we know that God does what He has promised and that we have been recreated by His breath and given a new life that is eternal. And now we live in hope, not for something that cannot be, but something that is assured. We are certain, not because we have experienced it for ourselves, but because God is faithful.
We don’t have to do it alone. Thomas continued to grieve, fear and doubt because he had left the company of the other disciples. He missed what they had experienced together. Yet, when he returned to the gathering place, he joined their joy and peace. He joined them in praising God. We can experience the same peace and joy if we keep our hearts and minds firm in the promises of God.
Our worries and our fears are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He has created the entire world and everything in it. He has redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He has brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. Let us join with all of God’s creation in a song of praise, spending time each day in adoration and admiration of the God who has done it all, so that when we face those difficult times we won’t use our freedom to run and hide, but instead stand and speak the Word.
“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. Whoever loves the Father also loves the child who is born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is loving God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world: your faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three who testify: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and the three agree as one.” 1 John 5:1-8, WEB
I am still friends with my best childhood friend. We have known each other for forty years, ever since I moved in to a house just a few doors away from her. We played together often: swimming in summer, snowball fights in winter, Trick-or-Treating in the fall, and games of hide and seek in the woods behind our house in the spring. We loved to pretend that we were owners of a restaurant and would spend days getting everything ready. We’d plan and make menus, ‘hire’ entertainment, rearrange furniture and decorate. By the time we were done with the planning and prep, we were so tired of the game we went on to do other things.
We both had pools, so you could see us running through the neighbor’s backyard in our swim suits with our beach towels flapping behind as we went from one pool to the other. We could be found playing flashlight tag late into the warm summer night. We’d hide in her cool basement during hot summer days playing our favorite board games or reading Archie comics or we would hang out on my patio, drinking Pepsi, and playing incredibly long card games of War or Slap. We had other friends who sometimes joined us, especially when we were older. But I don’t remember a year, or even a week, going by without spending time with my best friend. We laugh now when we remember those days, retelling the stories of our greatest adventures.
She was my best friend, but as with all relationships we had some rocky times. Most of our fights were over the silliest little things. Unfortunately, most of our fights were because we were being selfish. When we didn’t want to share or if the other stepped over some boundary, we stomped away in a huff. When we didn’t want to do what the other wanted to do, we found some excuse to go home to avoid doing that thing the other wanted. Our fights didn’t last long; sometimes they didn’t even last a whole day. Sometimes we fought because we were tired or not feeling well and we didn’t even realize something was wrong. Sometimes we fought because we had just spent too much time together and we simply needed a break. I just know that my friend was not always a good friend, but then I did not always love her as I should have loved her.
Christ’s commandment is that we love one another and lay down our lives for our friends. We are commanded to bear fruit, lasting fruit, fruit built on love. His command is that we live as He lived, in selfless, sacrificial love. Sacrifice means giving up something, perhaps even something we love or something we have earned through our own suffering. It means changing our ways. But when we practice sacrificial love we do not experience a sense of loss or emptiness because those things are no longer for us to enjoy. We find the real joy in the relationship we have with Christ through our obedience to His command. The grace of God does not come to us because we are obedient. Instead, we receive God’s grace which fills us with His love. As we abide in love, we can do no other than be obedient. in God’s love is a life of joy, even when it means sacrifice.
Faith means change. It means transformation. It means living differently than the world. We are commanded to love our God and our neighbor. Jesus taught that we should love our enemy and do nothing to bring him or her harm. Jesus taught that it is better to suffer persecution for the Gospel than to turn to the ways and methods of the world. As Christians, we are to obey God, live by His commandments, and show the world our gifts. We’ll face many people who do not understand our faith and they will respond with anger and bullying. When we love as God has commanded us to love, the world will see the light of Christ and experience the reality of life in faith. Our love, or Christ’s love in and through us, might just help others see that life is much better when lived in love and hope and peace.
It always comes back to love. Jesus commanded that we love one another as He loved us. John tells us that we love because God loved us and His love has given us new life. We are reborn in faith by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, by His blood and through the waters of baptism. We are given His Spirit and called to take His Word into the world and to call all those who are lost and dying to Him, where they will experience forgiveness, grace, new life, peace and His joy. We are sent into the world, as the Church, to invite all nations into our fellowship, to make them part of us, so that they will benefit from the Spirit, the water, and the blood as we have.
“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is God’s testimony which he has testified concerning his Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who doesn’t believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. The testimony is this, that God gave to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has the life. He who doesn’t have God’s Son doesn’t have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. This is the boldness which we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he listens to us. And if we know that he listens to us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him. If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for those who sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death. I don’t say that he should make a request concerning this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. We know that whoever is born of God doesn’t sin, but he who was born of God keeps himself, and the evil one doesn’t touch him. We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding, that we know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:9-21, WEB
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a judge. They sit on the bench every day and listen to the stories being told to them by both plaintiffs and defendants. I love to watch some of those daytime judge shows like “The People’s Court” which takes small claims court cases out of the system and into the limelight. These cases have a financial limit, but there is no limitation on the strangeness and hilarity. The litigants tell stories that are unbelievable, not only because they are so strange, but because they simply are not truthful.
During one episode the plaintiff obviously forged a signature to prove her case, even the name was misspelled on the promissory note. Others, both plaintiffs and defendants, forget their stories even while they are telling them, jumping from one idea to another. The judge will often call attention to something they have written in their statement to the court that is contrary to their testimony; they don’t even remembering what they wrote. They make excuses or justify their words to try to convince the judge to rule in their favor. In the end, however, the judge has to make a decision based on everything he or she hears according to the law.
The judge often says “I don’t believe you.” We want to believe what they say, especially since they have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. However, many people do not take that oath seriously. They make the vow, but then say what they think will help them. Unfortunately, when their stories do not line up, the judge sees past the lies and rules accordingly. The litigants often respond that they are not liars but their answers to the questions clearly show them that they are not telling the truth. The problem is that many people think it is ok to be a little dishonest and think they are good even when they twist the truth. They believe their lies are justified. The judge, however, has to pick through the lies and find the truth that will provide justice to both sides of the case.
“I don’t believe you” is the assumption that the person is a liar. Sometimes I question the judgment of the judge because I don’t think he or she has really heard the person. I am surprised some days when the judge does not believe a story that seems to make complete sense to me. Of course, I’m limited in my knowledge; I only see what the editors and producers of the show reveal to the audience. It is possible that the judge has information that I do not know, giving him or her insight into the character of the litigant or the case that is unavailable to the rest of us. Sometimes, however, it seems like the judge doubts statements that seem to be true.
“I don’t believe you,” makes a person out to be a liar, but we have to remember that our judgment is not always right. We are fallible human beings; we see the world through our imperfect and biased understanding of the world. Unfortunately, we live in a day when we say this often when listening to the news. We don’t believe politicians. We don’t believe journalists. We don’t believe the police. We don’t believe the brutes that run on the streets and attack others. We don’t believe our family or friends when they say something that does not fit our expectations. We don’t believe others, and when we don’t believe them, we make them out to be liars.
John writes, “He who doesn’t believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” Jesus is exactly who He says He is and Jesus does what He says He does; whoever does not believe this to be true calls God a liar. Disbelief is a judgment against God. John writes these things so that we know that we have eternal life.
Jesus does not need to prove that He is who He says He is, and yet throughout His life and ministry Jesus constantly pointed to the witness of God’s promises fulfilled in Him. The Old Testament scriptures told God’s people, and continue to show us, how He would make things right. We failed, but God knew all along that He would send Jesus to reconcile us. We can read those promises and see Jesus in the words, whose place is then proven through the stories of His life found in the New Testament. We can believe Jesus because He is the truth and He speaks the truth that leads to eternal life.
“Yahweh, who shall dwell in your sanctuary? Who shall live on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right, and speaks truth in his heart, he who doesn’t slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his friend, nor casts slurs against his fellow man; in whose eyes a vile man is despised, but who honors those who fear Yahweh; he who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and doesn’t change; he who doesn’t lend out his money for usury, nor take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be shaken.” Psalm 15, WEB
Every college or university begins the school year the same way. They corral all the freshmen students, put them into an auditorium and lay down the rules of the school. They begin this assembly with the statement, “Look to your left and to your right. One of you will not be here to graduate.” In other words, thirty percent of college freshmen fail to live up to the expectations set before them. It takes hard work and dedication to succeed in upper level schools. The students are no longer in schools required by law. They have chosen to attend so that they will have a higher education and a better chance at a good job. It is no longer a duty, but it is their responsibility to do the best that they can.
What does it take to succeed? It takes dedication. The student must attend classes and study. They must complete the assignments. To study well they must live an upright life, eating and sleeping properly so that their body is able to handle the physical stress of academic life. The student should not party excessively, though a well-rounded life does include fun and leisure. It is important that they have friends and go out occasionally to release the stress of deadlines and expectations.
Similar speeches are given during the first day of a new job or at the first practice of some sports team. The employee is expected to be present when assigned and do all that is required of them. The player is expected to be present at practices and games and to do their best at all times. Failure awaits the student, employee or player who does not live up to the requirements of the position.
As Christians, we live in God’s sanctuary and He lives in us. There is great responsibility that comes with our inheritance of God’s kingdom. God has given us His Holy Word in the Bible and it is there that God gives us His expectations. A college president, employer, or coach may be quick to remove a person who is failing; God is not like that. He knows that all humans, even faithful Christians, are not blameless. That is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ to the cross for our sins. It is by His blood, and in His life, that we are made righteous. It is by His power that we can do what is right. Do you live up to the expectations of this Psalm? Walk accordingly and you will not fail.
“May Yahweh answer you in the day of trouble. May the name of the God of Jacob set you up on high, send you help from the sanctuary, grant you support from Zion, remember all your offerings, and accept your burned sacrifice. Selah. May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your counsel. We will triumph in your salvation. In the name of our God, we will set up our banners. May Yahweh grant all your requests. Now I know that Yahweh saves his anointed. He will answer him from his holy heaven, with the saving strength of his right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust in the name of Yahweh our God. They are bowed down and fallen, but we rise up, and stand upright. Save, Yahweh! Let the King answer us when we call!” Psalm 20, WEB
We all make great armchair quarterbacks, don’t we? We see what’s going on and we know that we could do it better. We are sure that our opinion is the right one. We are certain that we would make a better decision. The term, of course, comes from all those football fans who sit in front of their televisions and yell at the team when something goes wrong, screaming about the foolishness of the players. The words are not nearly so polite, however.
I’m seeing the same thing from many people these days when it comes to the world-wide pandemic. Everyone has an opinion, no matter how they feel about what’s happening. Comments on articles describe the writers as uninformed, ridiculous, even worse. Others will attack the commentators because they are the ones who are uniformed and ridiculous. We are all, in some way, armchair quarterbacks. We all have our opinions about what is right. Some want a return to our freedoms; others believe that the recommendations are necessary. Some think that the virus is the worst thing that has ever happened in the world; others believe that the officials are using this pandemic to overreach. There might be truth in all the opinions; there might be foolishness in them all, too.
The trouble with armchair quarterbacks is that they aren’t there in the midst of it all. No matter how well informed they are, they don’t have all the information available to those making decisions. No matter how much they know about one aspect of this problem, they don’t know everything. Even the experts do not know everything they need to make the perfect decisions. It takes a team, and everything is happening so fast that they have had to act without surety. The decisions may not turn out to be the best, but we will not know for sure until we are on the other side.
There may be some place for demanding accountability from those who are our leaders. Some are making decisions for all the wrong reasons. They are making foolish demands; they are overreaching on their authority. Grace will hope that they are not making those wrong choices for selfish reasons, although all are human and all will sin. We may have to deal with those leaders on the other side of this, that’s what elections are for. However, there is one thing we can do for them today: we can pray.
Today’s psalm title says that it is a Psalm of David. It is more likely a psalm for David. In other words, someone, perhaps a priest or musician, wrote this prayer for the king of Israel. It is a battle prayer, a prayer asking God to bless the king with victory. It is a psalm of certainty that God will answer the king’s requests because the king desires the same things that God desires. Of course, we know that not all our leaders are faithful believers. We know that not all trust in God. We don’t always know which ones truly trust in God and look to Him for deliverance. That’s part of the problem with our armchair quarterbacking. We can’t read hearts, but God knows and God will bless those who have His people in their hearts.
This psalm, along with Psalm 21, are a model of prayer for us in this day. We should be praying for our leaders, both those we trust and those we fear are not following God’s Word and Way. Most of all, we are to trust that God is in the midst of all of this, even in the work of the questionable leaders. He will make things right. Ultimately, the king we can trust without doubt is King Jesus. There are battles going on all around us, often seen in the comment sections of those Facebook posts, but there is a spiritual battle that rages constantly. It is up to the faithful to keep our leaders in prayer, that they seek God’s Will and do what is right.
Good or bad, all our leaders are human and they are all sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness. Good or bad, they have all been given their authority by God, and they need our prayers to stay on the right path. We don’t always understand why God would choose someone whose decisions seem selfish or don’t make sense, but God has a purpose and God’s purpose will be done. There might be struggles along the way, but we can trust Him, and trust that He is doing what is best for His people in the end. Let’s pray that our leaders will desire God’s heart and will, and pray in confidence that He will bless them with a victory and save us from harm.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 26, 2020, Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-14; 1 Peter 1:17-25; Luke 24:13-35
“They rose up that very hour, returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and those who were with them, saying, ‘The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ They related the things that happened along the way, and how he was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.” Luke 24:33-35, WEB
Bruce and I like to go to a cabin in the country for restful weekends away from our lives in the city. We take a TV with us, but we use it to watch movies. We usually take some fun work with us: I do crafts of some sort, Bruce reads. We take hikes, and we enjoy the sunsets. The last time we went, we took a couple puzzles, thinking that forty-eight hours would give us time to do more than one. Unfortunately, we chose a very hard puzzle, though it looked relatively easy.
We were about three quarters finished and some pieces just did not fit. We didn’t understand. We had the outside complete, but none of the inner pieces seemed to be right, almost to the point we thought that they gave us the wrong pieces. We finally realized that though they looked right, some of the outside pieces were out of place. We took it apart piece by piece, checking for errors, and we finally made it right. Then the rest of the pieces fit together and we were able to finish the puzzle.
There is a story about a father wanted to give his child something to do. He took a map of the U.S. out of the newspaper and tore it into pieces to see if his child could put the map back together. A few minutes later the child returned with it all taped back together. The father was amazed. “How did you do that so fast?” The child turned the page over. One the back was a picture of Jesus. “I just put Jesus together and everything fit into place.”
Jesus is always the answer. Ask any youth minister and they will tell you that. It doesn’t matter what question you ask, the kids will always say “Jesus.” And they are right. Jesus is the answer. The problem is that sometimes we don’t know how to put all the pieces together.
That’s what was happening to the disciples in those moments following the crucifixion and the resurrection. The encounter in today’s Gospel lesson took place on the first Easter Day. Some of the disciples stayed in Jerusalem, hiding in the Upper Room. Others left; even Thomas was missing in action. In this story, two disciples were walking home to Emmaus. These disciples had been with Jesus and learned from Him for some time, possibly most of His three years of ministry. They did not understand how everything fit together. The crucifixion of Jesus did not fit their expectation. The witness of the women that Jesus had risen confused them. They could not make the puzzle fit together because there was something wrong with some of the pieces.
Today’s Gospel story is one of my favorites, perhaps because we see how truly human the disciples really were. We often think of them as special and extraordinary, but they were just like you and I. We wonder how they did not recognize Jesus, but then we realize that we are sometimes so overwhelmed by our circumstances that we do not see the obvious. Jesus was probably in a form that made him appear different and their eyes were kept from recognizing Him. However, they were also distracted by their thoughts and emotions. What had happened? What were they going to do? Who was this Jesus, really?
We don’t always recognize the presence of God in our ordinary circumstances. Jesus said that we would see Him in the faces of those we serve, but how often do we really do so? Do we see Jesus in that neighbor who needs a helping hand or the hungry man at the food bank? Do we see Jesus in the politician that needs our prayers or the teacher that is overwhelmed by her work? Do we recognize Jesus in the person behind the wheel of the car that just cut us off or the friend that has forgotten to answer an email?
God does not always come to us in dramatic and forceful ways. Sometimes He comes to us slowly at first, carefully laying out His story so that when He is fully revealed we will recognize him. Though some Christians have extraordinary experiences of Jesus, like Paul on the road to Damascus, most of us learn about Jesus through Sunday school teachers and our parents. Slowly, but surely, we hear the stories until one day we finally see Him and understand. Even then we wonder how we could have not seen, just like the disciples. In the stories of God’s grace we see that we are just like those who were there at the beginning, learning and growing in grace each day.
Today’s Gospel lesson tells of two disciples who were walking back to Emmaus on the evening after the Resurrection. One of them was named Cleopas. The other is unnamed, but it is thought that it was Mary, his wife, who was at the foot of the cross and possibly at the tomb that morning. They were discussing the events surrounding Jesus’ death when a stranger joined them. They did not recognize Him because their eyes were blinded. In all the stories of Jesus’ appearances, He had full control. When He asked what they were discussing, the disciples were shocked to hear that He did not know what had happened. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things which have happened there in these days?”
It must have seemed impossible that someone could have been in Jerusalem and not heard about Jesus. They told Him the story as they knew and understood it, how Jesus was crucified and how some of the others had seen Him alive. Their story was laced with sadness and confusion. They had heard He was raised but were uncertain. “Foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” Jesus answered by opening the scriptures for them, sharing Old Testament passages and explaining how they related to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They began to see and understand more clearly, although Jesus was not yet fully revealed to them.
We might wonder why Jesus did not just say, “Hey friends, here I am!” Yet, can you imagine the impact His appearance would have had on these disciples? They still did not fully understand how everything fit into the plan of God. Jesus needed to put all the pieces into the puzzle in the right way, but it would have been very difficult to do so if they knew that it was Jesus walking beside them. They listened intently, growing in knowledge about the story as Jesus revealed the words of Moses and the Prophets foretelling of Jesus’ life, ministry, and suffering. He also showed them how He was to be raised.
When they arrived at their destination, Jesus tried to keep going but the disciples invited him inside. It was late and they were probably very curious about this man they met on the road. He had so much knowledge of things they should have known but didn’t. They wanted to learn more. I am sure they found comfort in His word. They sat down to eat and Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it for them. At that moment, they saw Jesus. They were amazed, not just that Jesus was alive, but that they didn’t recognize Him. “Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?”Jesus was revealed to the disciples in the sharing of the word and of the bread.
Jesus not only taught the disciples about the Kingdom of God as found in the Law and the Prophets, but He gave them His flesh to eat. As we hear the scriptures read and preached, we learn about the Jesus who came to do all this for us. It is in the breaking of bread that we join in the fellowship of His people, receiving His body and blood together with every Christian in all time and space. We are made new every time we receive this gift: forgiven, transformed and purified by His grace so that we can go forth another day to trust God and live in love.
In this story we see how Jesus established the pattern of worship for our lives of faith. He is revealed in word and bread. We experience Christ in body and in spirit. Our faith is founded on both reason and mystery. What does it all mean? Where are we going? What do we do with this faith we have been given? It was not until the bread was broken that the disciples could see Him clearly. Then they knew it was Jesus and they were amazed. They ran back to Jerusalem to share the Good News with the other disciples. It was just as they were reporting their encounter that Jesus visited the disciples in the Upper Room for the first time (last week’s story.)
The Gospel message demands a response. It is not enough to believe. It is not enough to simply accept Jesus is the Messiah. He died so that you might live and live abundantly. This Good News calls us to turn around, to go back into the city, to tell others that Jesus is not dead. He is alive, and He’s calling His people into a relationship of love. In faith we live forever, no longer condemned to death. The lesson from Acts comes seven weeks after the first appearances of Jesus. In that time He continued to teach and reveal Himself to His disciples. They gained in wisdom and courage so that on the day when Jesus returned to His Father, they would be ready to do the work He was calling them to do.
The Jews had three festivals that were tied directly to agriculture and the harvest. These festivals were celebrated throughout the year as a constant reminder of God’s presence among His people. The celebrations also remembered the history of God’s people; they thanked God for His daily care and for His goodness to them throughout the ages. Passover occurred first and was a remembrance of the Exodus. On the third day of Passover, a sheaf of the first barley was given at the Temple as a wave offering. The priest literally waved the sheaf toward God so that He might accept it and bless it. No one was allowed to eat any of the barley wheat before the wave offering. This was also called the Feast of First Fruits.
Another feast was called Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. This festival occurred for a week in the fall and it celebrated the harvest. During this festival the people remembered the journey from Egypt to Canaan and thanked God for the productivity of the fields of Canaan. The religious life of God’s people went from Passover to Sukkot, just as the agricultural calendar went from planting to harvest. The people identified God’s deliverance and His provision by celebrating the harvest of their daily bread and the remembrance of their past.
Between those two festivals was another. The people celebrated the Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavu’ot or Pentecost, fifty days after Passover. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the early harvest by giving offerings from the first fruit of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain; they remember this by traveling to Jerusalem fifty days after the Passover to thank God and to hear once again the words given to them on Sinai. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.
The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.
The text from Acts is from Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost. The crowds thought that the disciples were drunk with new wine when they began speaking in tongues, but Peter told them that it was the power of God. Imagine if you were in the crowd on that day, hearing the strange words coming out of the disciples’ mouths. They must have heard to story of Jesus, after all rumors would have been all over the city. Everyone was still wondering what happened to Jesus’ body. Only fifty days had passed since that first Easter morning. Some might have agreed with the Roman claim that the body was stolen by the disciples.
It could not have been easy for Peter to give his first sermon to those Pentecost pilgrims. It was bold and courageous. He was offering them a new promise, a different promise. As they heard his words, the people were “pricked in their heart” or “cut to the heart” and they wondered what they should do. Peter told them to repent, not only of their sins, but also of the way they worshipped God and lived their lives of faith. Peter told them to be baptized so that they would be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. He said many other things, testifying to convince them of the truth. His boldness brought the word of God, Jesus, to thousands of people in one day. The Word had already been planted in their hearts with the rumors around Jerusalem; Peter simply watered the seed.
We don’t know much about the crowd, but I wonder how many of them may have been there on the day of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Were they among the crowds who once waved palm branches? Were they also among the crowds who called for Jesus’ crucifixion just days later? Imagine the confusion and frustration! It is so hard to know what to believe. Faith is something we can’t achieve on our own. It takes the hand of God. That’s what happened on that Pentecost Day. God took the seeds that were planted, He brought order into their confusion, and He set their hearts on fire with faith so that they could believe.
Those people who heard Peter’s sermon had good reason to be confused. It is hard to discern the difference between truth and rumor sometimes. Even the disciples who had been with Jesus for a long time were scared and frustrated in the early days. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know where to go. The disciples didn’t believe the witness of the women who met Jesus in the garden. Some ran away. How can we expect that the crowds in Jerusalem to believe when they had nothing but rumors?
We are so much like them. We are rattled by so many ideas. It has been said, “Ask twelve theologians the meaning of a biblical text and you’ll get thirteen answers.” The bookstores are filled with commentaries and devotionals that will give the seeker seemingly contradictory advice. I can understand why so many non-Christians are confused. It doesn’t make sense if you can’t put it all together. Jesus meets us along the way, as He did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and opens the Word for us. The Holy Spirit helps us to believe and understand.
“Turn around, don’t drown” is an often heard phrase around here when extreme rain hits. The normally dry creek beds quickly fill with rushing water and cover the low lying roads. It doesn’t look bad; many drivers are certain that they can get through, but they quickly realize that it doesn’t take much to send a car floating down the creek. It is incredibly difficult to escape; we are reminded to turn around so that we do not drown. Too many people lose their lives because they think they know better than those who put up the barricades.
Today’s scriptures all call for us to turn around so that we don’t drown under the weight of sin and death. Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit, spoke to the Pentecost crowds and told them to turn around, to repent, so that they might be saved. Peter continued the call of repentance in his letter, pointing to the incorruptible precious blood of Jesus Christ, the perfect lamb and the enduring Word of God as the source of our redemption. The psalmist gives us an example of repentance, crying out to God in his moment of great need.
We know we need to turn around, but like the driver that thinks they can get through the rushing water, we try to save ourselves. I’m sure we can all come up with examples of times when we waited until it was almost too late to deal with a problem. We try to deal with it ourselves. We try to hide our pain and suffering and confusion, sure that we can overcome alone. We become frustrated and exhausted doing so, until we reach the end of our rope and then we finally ask for help. This is true not only in those mundane problems of life, but also in the eternal problems of our spirits.
I don’t doubt that most of my readers are people of prayer. I imagine that you pray daily and that you seek God’s help for those you love, for the people who ask you to pray, for the world and everything in it. Yet, all too often when it comes to our own needs especially that of our spirits, we tend to try to deal with it on our own. Are you embarrassed to take your problems to God? Do you think that your problems are inconsequential compared to those of our neighbors? After all, why worry about a little doubt when our neighbor has rejected God altogether?
The psalmist understood this human tendency to go it alone. It was not until he was overwhelmed with trouble that he cried out for God’s help. “The cords of death surrounded me, the pains of Sheol[a] got a hold of me. I found trouble and sorrow.” He had reached the end of his rope; he could not deal with it alone. But even though he waited so long to seek God’s hand, God was ready to answer. “Then I called on Yahweh’s name: ‘Yahweh, I beg you, deliver my soul.’” Turn around, don’t drown; God has given you a better way to go. Repent and be saved.
We are human and despite the graciousness of God, we still have a nature that is wrapped up with sin. We still fail to live as God created and intended us to live. We still make mistakes that hurt others. We still ignore God. We still reject Him when we think we can do it better. We go our own way and forget that God is ready to help us whenever we need it. It is only when we reach the end of our rope, when there is nothing left that we can do, that we turn to Him. And though we’ve ignored Him all along, He is there and ready to respond to our cries.
He comes to us.
Jesus revealed Himself to the Emmaus disciples in a pattern of Christian fellowship that we continue to follow today, around the word and sacrament. There we see the risen Christ. We listen to the word as it is read and preached and then we gather around the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine. Notice that it is not only in the word that Christ was revealed to them; it was in the sacrament that they could see Him. It is in the cup that we receive His forgiveness that leads to gift eternal life.
I think, perhaps, we have lost touch with the reason for communion; in many churches it is not the center of the worship. It is an occasional practice, an imposition on the altar guild and worship planners who have to work it into the program. Some people would rather not have communion on a weekly or even monthly basis. “It takes too much time.” “It is not as special if we have it too often.” “Visitors won’t understand and they’ll be turned off if we don’t give them plenty of entertainment and music.”
Peter writes, “...knowing that you were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from the useless way of life handed down from your fathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish or spot, the blood of Christ...” The cup bears the very blood of Christ which was offered for our sake on the cross. “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” Christ did this for you. And there at the table Jesus Christ is revealed in that cup. We are made new every time we receive that gift, forgiven, transformed and purified by His Word so that we can go forth another day to trust in God and live in love. Why would we want to diminish the place this has in our experience of God?
We forget how much we need God. We try to go our own way. We think we know better than God how to get through our problems. It isn’t until we reach the end that we finally accept that we are lost and need His help; it is then we finally turn to Him, recognizing our need for His mercy and grace.
Each time we gather around the table, we are calling out to the Lord for salvation. We find life in His answer as we remember the cross of Christ. His love is revealed in that breaking of bread. There we see Jesus revealed for us. The Psalmist sings, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call on Yahweh’s name. I will pay my vows to Yahweh, yes, in the presence of all his people.”
When we finally cry out to God, He is right there to do for us all that He has promised. How much better is it that we approach the throne of grace even before we need God’s help, seeing His salvation in that which He has already given for us? The answer is always Jesus. He puts the puzzle pieces together so that we can see more clearly. He is revealed anew each time we gather for the Word and the Sacraments. We are amazed, and this Good News demands a response, so we are called to go and tell others so that they, too might believe and be saved. It might be scary, but like Peter and the disciples on Pentecost, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, to give us courage, to fill our mouths with the words that others will hear. He will put the pieces together for them, too.
“You are all children of light and children of the day. We don’t belong to the night, nor to darkness, so then let’s not sleep, as the rest do, but let’s watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep in the night; and those who are drunk are drunk in the night. But since we belong to the day, let’s be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God didn’t appoint us to wrath, but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Therefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as you also do.” 1 Thessalonians 5:5-11, WEB
When the isolation started more than a month ago, I made a commitment to find a way to connect to others every day. I have been texting my friends, especially those who live alone. I have written letters to distant friends and relatives, particularly those who are elderly and may be feeling particularly lonely. I make phone calls and chat with neighbors when I see them outside. I make a point of speaking words of encouragement to strangers in the grocery store, especially the employees who are working so hard to keep the stores stocked and clean for us.
Another healthy habit I’ve formed is regular walks around my neighborhood. I take different routes, walking anywhere from .7 of a mile to just over a mile. I’m not the only one; I have discovered people I know from church live close by. I pass other neighbors walking their dogs. I see mothers with their children. Today I saw an elderly couple a couple blocks from my house planting flowers in their garden. My route took me past their house twice. They were just getting set up as I walked out, and the plants were nearly in the ground by the time I passed by again.
I commented at how the garden would look very pretty. The woman thanked me. I then said, “Thank goodness you have your supervisor to help.” I don’t think he’d moved the whole time she was working. She answered, “I told him he had to come out and help for ten minutes.” I said, “Well, he’s been out longer than that.” She said, “But he hasn’t done anything!” We all laughed. She talked about how much she enjoyed being outside; she praised God for His creation. I answered, “Amen.” It was a brief encounter of little importance, except that we encouraged one another, gave each other a moment of joy, and praised God.
Under normal circumstances we are constantly connecting with people, but do we really pay attention? Do we talk to strangers or call our elderly aunts? Does anyone even write a letter and send it through the mail anymore? Perhaps this time of isolation has reminded us of the small ways we can connect with people to encourage them, even when we are not establishing long lasting relationships. Perhaps we are learning the simple ways we can share our faith with others.
We are called to live in the faith, love, and hope that is given through Christ Jesus our Lord. In faith we believe, in love we give and in hope we live together in Christ in the expectation of eternal life as promised. As we walk in faith, love and hope, we share Him with one another, encouraging and building each other into witnesses who will speak the message of Christ Jesus to those who are still lost in the darkness of this world.
“Always rejoice. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you. Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t despise prophecies. Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good. Abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it. Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the holy brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-28, WEB
A few years ago I volunteered at a local theme park for special needs people, and I often took a basket of origami butterflies that I made to give out to the guests. It took awhile to learn how to make the butterflies. I found several different websites with directions, and none were quite complete. It took trial and error to figure it out, but eventually I was able to do them quickly so that I could a large number to give away. There’s thing called muscle memory, and repeated tasks become second nature to someone who has done it over and over again; I made it look simple, even though it was initially very complicated for me. I once tried to teach the same design to a group of women, and I didn’t realize as I was teaching how much detail I was missing in my lesson. I had to slow down my teaching and explain every step of the process, even to the tiniest detail. If those steps aren’t taught, the project will not be properly completed. A few women gave up trying, and I ended up making them butterflies to take home.
I have tried working on different animals; I have watched multiple videos to learn. Unfortunately, I have found that the teachers on the websites do the same as I do. Though the videos seem comprehensive, there’s always a small detail missing that makes it hard to get the job done. I had to interpret certain actions, which left room for error. Even though I have managed to make different animals, they are never quite as pretty as the ones on the video because I did not make some of the folds perfectly.
I rarely ever follow directions in my art studio, although I will often search the internet for advice. I wanted to make decorative flower pots with poured paint, so I checked a few YouTube videos and found some ideas. Then I took those ideas and adapted them to my situation. I fiddled with the paint, tested different products, figured out how to set up a work station. There may have been an easier way, but I made it work. When people ask how I did it, though, it is hard for me to describe so that they can learn. Some steps naturally happen without a thought on my part, so I must carefully describe each tiny detail of the task or they will not be able to reproduce the project.
As we grow in our faith in Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit and His works are manifest in our lives. They become a natural part of our day. We love because God first loved us, and we share that love without a thought. Our joy is made complete in Christ Jesus, so we are naturally joyful. As we are sanctified for God and by His work in us, the fruit becomes such a part of our lives that we do not have to work at them.
In this letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, Paul gave specific instructions for living a life in Christ Jesus. These actions had become a natural part of his existence, and his faith showed clearly by his life, but he knew the importance of laying down the steps to a life of living in God’s grace. Paul deemed it necessary to establish every step of the process for us to follow. Rejoice, pray, give thanks. Don’t quench the Spirit or despise prophecies. Test all things, hold firmly to what is good. Abstain from evil. The more you practice these steps, the more naturally the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit will manifest in your life.
“Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? Which of you by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan? Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith? Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient.” Matthew 6:25-34, WEB
One of the jokes that went around the internet a week or so before Easter was a picture of the nightgown section at a department store. The caption read, “The new line of Easter dresses has arrived!” The inference, of course, was that people were not even bothering to shower or dress for church on Sunday morning because they were watching on televisions and computers in the privacy of their own homes. I admit that I didn’t dress up, but I did get dressed on Easter Sunday, specifically wearing clothes that would go with my Easter bonnet. I did wear my hat even though I was doing so on my couch.
My husband took a photo of me that day and posted it on Facebook. I thought he just did my face, but he showed my whole body, so you could see I wasn’t very dressed up for the occasion. The reality is that my husband and son were even less dressed up, wearing shorts and t-shirts, but I was the only one anyone saw. One friend, I suppose not thinking about the reality in which we are currently living, was surprised that I looked so informal to go to church for such a special day. Someone had to remind him that church was coming to me.
I must confess that there is not much different about my life under this quarantine. I leave the house less often, but I often go days without leaving under normal circumstances. I am dressing the same as I usually do, even on Sunday. There are a few differences, but my life is pretty much the same. In other words, the boring life that many people have discovered by staying in their homes for weeks is the life I’ve lived for years. I have to admit that it is difficult some days to even come up with something to new to say in these devotions. You’ve heard it all before. I’m telling the same old jokes, and resurrecting the same old stories. I don’t see anything new in my humdrum daily life.
I suspect that many of you feel much the same way these days, perhaps even more so because your usual daily lives are so much more interesting. The scenery isn’t very exciting when you are looking at the same four walls all the time. Though we love our families, we long to hear other people’s voices, thoughts, and ideas. We all just want to go to a restaurant to enjoy a meal at some other table. We want a reason to dress up.
There is a joke out there that shows two different people. One is hunky with abs of steel, happy, healthy and well groomed. The other is barely able to sit up with rolls of corona weight bulging over the elastic of their dirty sweatpants. The caption reads, “You can come out of this one of two ways.” The joke is funny, but I suspect that most of us will fall somewhere in the middle. We are trying to at least keep some semblance of normalcy, even if there is no reason. We may not dress up for church on Sunday, but we at least change out of our night gowns.
It may sound strange, but perhaps that’s one of the silver linings of this time: perhaps we are less worried about what we wear and what we eat. We don’t have to decide which restaurant to visit; instead we enjoy a simple meal at home with our family. We don’t spend hours and our paychecks on new clothes to one-up our coworkers, we are happy with what is in our closet. We aren’t constantly worried about saying the wrong thing; we are learning to experience the joy of being in someone’s presence without having to impress them with witty responses or brilliant ideas. It is humbling to realize how much time and resources we spend to be notable in the world.
Are we worrying about things that do not matter, working to have things we do not need? Have we been more concerned about our outer appearances than is necessary? We have learned that we don’t really need the façade to make things better for ourselves. We will return to our old lives sometime, hopefully soon, but will we continue to worry about all those things that were so distracting? We used to think that the pretty clothes, the visits to the restaurants, and everything else would make our lives complete. We have learned that our lives might not be exciting, but we don’t need it all to be satisfied. We can’t buy happiness or success. We can’t purchase the things that make our lives more complete. Our quest for those things often turns into worry.
We have been given the most wonderful opportunity to find God’s grace in the ordinary space where we live. The reality is that God it is only in faith that we’ll really be content. When we focus on the things of God, everything else falls into place; it is there we find contentment, even if it isn’t very exciting. We simply need to remember that our life is not dependent on the things we always thought were necessary. We need not worry because God will give us what we really need.
“David also commanded all the princes of Israel to help Solomon his son, saying, ‘Isn’t Yahweh your God with you? Hasn’t he given you rest on every side? For he has delivered the inhabitants of the land into my hand; and the land is subdued before Yahweh, and before his people. Now set your heart and your soul to follow Yahweh your God. Arise therefore, and build the sanctuary of Yahweh God, to bring the ark of Yahweh’s covenant and the holy vessels of God into the house that is to be built for Yahweh’s name.’” 1 Chronicles 22:17-19, WEB
Have you ever wanted to do something, but it seemed like something was blocking your way? I suppose most of us can answer “yes” to that question right now. We want to go to the movies, to the craft store, to sit in a restaurant and enjoy a meal. We want to go on our long planned and awaited vacations (we were supposed to go to Germany in two weeks.) We want to get out of our house! The following devotion is not meant to infer that we can’t do these things because God is keeping it from us, but David’s story will teach us to be patient while we wait for our opportunity.
David wanted to build a Temple for God. Until that time, God lived in the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. David had a heart for God and was upset that he would have a home of wood while God dwelt in a tent. Nathan the prophet told him to begin the process, but soon heard from God that David was not to be the one to build a permanent place for Him to dwell; the work would be completed by his son. (1 Chronicles 17) When it was time for David to pass on the kingdom to his son Solomon, he told him that he could not build the Temple because he had shed too much blood, but that honor was passed on to Solomon who would be blessed by God as a man of peace. (1 Chronicles 22:8-9)
Frustrated desire might not seem like an affliction, although it can be when you consider that David’s desire was not for himself, but for God. David wanted to honor the Father who had given him the kingdom, who had won him victory after victory. He was afflicted by this desire to show praise to God that he could not fulfill. Despite this frustration, David praised God. As I have been studying the psalms, many of which were written by David, I have noticed how often David praises God even in the midst of affliction. He knew that the God of grace was also a God of wrath, and both are necessary to a God worthy of worship.
In “Letters to Malcolm” C.S. Lewis writes, “I call upon Him in prayer. Often He might reply - I think He does reply – ‘But you have been evading me for hours.’ For He comes not only to raise up but to cast down; to deny, to rebuke, to interrupt. The prayer ‘prevent us in all our doings’ is often answered as if the word prevent had its modern meaning. The presence which we voluntarily evade is often, and we know it, His presence in wrath. And out of this evil comes a good. If I never fled from His presence, then I should suspect those moments when I seemed to delight in it of being wish-fulfilment dreams. That, by the way, explains the feebleness of all those watered versions of Christianity which leave out all the darker elements and try to establish a religion of pure consolation. No real belief in the watered versions can last. Bemused and besotted as we are, we still dimly know at heart that nothing which is at all times and in every way agreeable to us can have objective reality. It is of the very nature of the real that it should have sharp corners and rough edges, that it should be resistant, should be itself. Dream-furniture is the only kind on which you never stub your toes or bang your knee. You and I have both known happy marriage. But how different our wives were from the imaginary mistresses of our adolescent dreams! So much less exquisitely adapted to all our wishes; and for that very reason (among others) so incomparably better.”
We are not frustrated by our desires to go and do what we want in this time of isolation because God has sent His wrath on our world. Yet, so many of us have discovered that there has been something very healing about this time; we have been looking at God with new eyes. This has been an opportunity for us to experience much needed discipline, to realize that our watered down versions of God are not big enough. Our God, by His grace, sometimes frustrates our own desires so that we will follow His right ways. May this time, whatever the cause, bring us to set our hearts and our souls to follow Yahweh our God. He knows what is best for us, His way is always the right way.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 3, 2020, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” John 10:4, WEB
Saint Peter was walking the streets of heaven which seemed overly crowded to him. He went to the gate to look in the book they keep when people check into heaven. He found no comfort in what he saw; he knew that there were too many people on the streets based on the information in the book. He said to Saint Paul, “Paul this doesn’t look good! Are there really that many extra people in the streets? Who are these people and how did they get here? Go and see if you can find out what is happening.” So, Saint Paul ran off to investigate while Saint Peter stood at the gate personally. After a while Saint Paul returned with a report. “You are right, Peter, there are extra people here.” Saint Peter replied, “I knew it. Where are they coming from?” Saint Paul answered, “Oh, its Jesus. He’s helping people climb in over the back fence again.”
This is a funny joke, but this is the lesson in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus doesn’t have to bring people in over the back fence because He is the gate. It is through Jesus Christ that we enter into the blessedness of eternal life. Comedy often has a ring of truth to it, and sometimes it seems the Church tries to limit entrance to heaven. We set boundaries and judgments based on our understanding of the scriptures.
It is a fine line we draw, since the scriptures are sometimes difficult to understand. What does any city dweller know about shepherding? What does any businessman know about tending sheep? So, we live in the hope of eternal life, based on the promise of Jesus rather than the sum of our knowledge. Unfortunately, we sometimes read texts from the Epistles and we see how a joke like this one can be made. Peter, Paul, and the others seem to set boundaries and judgments that keep people out of the Church.
The scriptures are given so that we might grow into the people God has created and ordained us to be. As we follow the example of those who have gone before, we grow in faith and maturity, giving us the courage and the strength to share the message of Jesus with others. If we have hope for them, we will share the gift of eternal life with them. If we set up boundaries and judgments against them, then we will not bother to do the one thing God has commanded us to do: share the Gospel. Why bother if they don’t belong anyway?
In all things, Jesus is our focus. As we follow Him, listening to His voice, going only where He leads, we will find that God’s grace will multiply in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine. Those who we once considered enemies will become brothers, not because they change but because we begin to see them from a new perspective: through Jesus colored glasses. There is no reason to limit the number of people on the streets of heaven because God’s grace is big enough for all. He wants us all. We are reminded in this passage that the way we get there is through Jesus - whether it is over the back fence or through the front door.
Our texts for today revolve around the word “shepherd.” The fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and we hear a piece of John 10 each year. This year, John 10:1-10 tells us Jesus is the gate and the gatekeeper, the only way to salvation, and how He is willing to lay down His life for His sheep. In the end He provides proof of His authority to be the Good Shepherd. His sheep are those who believe, they’ve been given to Him by His Father. The psalm for this day is always Psalm 23; it is a song of the sheep who is praising the goodness of the Shepherd who is the LORD. The LORD provides. The LORD directs. The LORD leads. The LORD restores. The LORD guides. The LORD protects. The LORD comforts. The LORD feeds. The LORD anoints. Life under the LORD’s care is good. Life in the presence of the Shepherd is blessed. We are called to be faithful to the LORD, to follow our Shepherd and to trust in Him. We will hear His voice and He will take care of us.
I suppose there are those who are as troubled by our confidence. The world struggles to understand how we can be obedient to a fairy tale. How can we believe that God would call us follow His commands, especially in this day and age? Tithe? Isn’t there better ways to spend our money? Church on a Sunday morning? Don’t you want to sleep in? You are studying the Bible again? You have read it so many times there can’t possibly be anything new to glean out of it!
We know, however, that God will use our resources in ways we can’t even imagine, that time with God in community is more than just a place to be and that the Bible will always surprise us with something new. Yet, we also know that there are people who make claims about God’s voice that are questionable. God will never call a mother to murder her children. God may call someone into a job or situation, but we can’t assume that He’s doing so because we will win. How many politicians look foolish after an election when they did not get selected after boasting that God told them to run?
The thing is, sometimes we just don’t know the reason for God’s calling. Do you think the disciples ever thought that they were following a shepherd who would die on a cross? The politician might just be led to run to be a voice, but not a winner. His reasons might be different than we expect. We are to trust His voice, to be obedient, to follow. He is not leading us down the road we want to go, He will guide us on the road He intends for us. Unfortunately, His path might mean walking through the valley of the shadow of death, a place we would rather not go. But the blessing is not found in the satisfaction of our desires, but in the trust that God is in control. We need to be careful that we are listening to His voice because He will not lead us on a path that goes against His Word.
As much as we want to believe that we hear God rightly, we must remember that we are imperfect and that we can easily be confused and tempted to believe what we want to believe. We live in a world that is full of noise. It is full of voices calling us to follow this path or that path. They want us to believe in their idea, to do things their way, to follow the path they think we should follow. That path is very often not the narrow path of the Gospel that relies solely and only on Jesus Christ, but is a wide path filled with options. People today prefer choices. They want the best of every religion. They want to believe what feels good. They want their faith to express and fulfill their desires.
We live in a world that is increasingly becoming “people-free.” It is even more so at the moment since we are isolating against a virus, but it has been happening for a long time. The grocery stores provide “self check-out” lanes so that the consumer can do all the work for themselves. You can take care of almost all your business on the internet, with voice mail, with text messaging. We use email instead of the phone. Gas pumps have pay points, so we do not need to pay a cashier. We don’t even have to go to the post office anymore: we can print our stamps on our own computer and put the envelope in a mailbox. We can watch church on television, order pizza on the Internet and watch movies streamed to our televisions.
The problem with this “people free” world is that personal interaction is a necessary part of living. Even the most introverted person needs other people. We need to share our joys and pain. We need hugs and smiles. People need people. In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” so He created woman and at the same time a community. He drew His people together and gave them laws to help them live together. He ordained a pattern for worship that was practiced in community and a social system that made all people important to the whole. That is perhaps the hardest part of this whole experience for many. We can’t live virtually forever.
The “people-free” society is even making its way into the church. Besides televangelists, people can attend worship at mega-churches where they are assured a sense of anonymity. Individuals get lost in the crowd, which is just as well for many of the people who attend. On the other extreme, many Christians are choosing to have a solitary life of faith, no longer attending services at the church down the street. They sit in front of their television or go worship in a field. They read and study the scriptures and have a life of prayer, but they miss the life of community that comes from fellowship with other Christians.
We are struggling now because our communities are divided. I’ve seen a meme that shows Satan laughing because he closed all the churches. God answers, “But I opened one in every house.” This might be true, and I do believe that people are finding ways to be faithful in this time of uncertainty, but the problem with the meme is the idea that God is satisfied with a million little churches. He’s not. We have to find a compassionate and safe way to gather together again, but we can’t “do church” this way forever.
Some people would happily allow the virtual community to become the norm, but they don’t see how it is having a negative impact on a lot of people. Children are being abused at a greater rate because they are constantly with their abusers. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and pornography are on the rise because people are depressed, bored, and afraid. Though many have made the choice to get outside and exercise, others are living on a diet of junk food and video games. A virtual community may help to a point, but it also allows a certain amount of anonymity. There is less accountability. We may have found ways to connect online, but we need personal interaction to stay on a good path.
We need one another to help us hear God’s voice, to know that what we hear is truly God’s voice.
Community was everything to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He grew up in a huge, loving family that did everything together. He worked at creating a community to educate young men in ministry. Even after he was arrested, Dietrich found a way to create community inside the prison where he was kept. He died well before his time, but through his life we have learned what it means to dwell together in grace and love.
His death was humiliating and painful. He was executed for his role in trying to stop Adoph Hitler. His execution was so horrific that even some of the German soldiers refused to watch. They did not have enough gallows because so many were hung in those days. Instead, they used meat hooks from the slaughterhouse, lifting the victim slowly as they were hung with nooses made out of piano wire. The victim suffocated to death in about thirty minutes. Before the hanging, he was stripped naked and beaten, then led into the yard. His last words were, “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life.” He lived his life in the knowledge that he followed the faithful Shepherd. Despite the hardship, Bonhoeffer knew that he would find himself in the presence of God in the end.
Martin Doblmeier, filmmaker, created a documentary about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that was aired on PBS a few years ago. In an interview about the movie, Doblmeier said, “Most people know Bonhoeffer because of his writings. Cost of Discipleship, Letters and Papers from Prison, Life Together, these are classic books that will inspire Christians and non-Christians for generations. You feel in his words the youthful passion of a man struggling to understand the will of God, knowing the earthly price that is often paid for responding to that call. In his own time Bonhoeffer was not a widely known figure, but over the last few generations his stature has grown and his writings have become more and more influential. I think that is because, in the language of today, he was a man who not only ‘talked the talk,’ but ‘walked the walk.’ In the world of religion today there seems to be a widening chasm between the left and right, the progressive and traditional - especially in the Christian world. What is extraordinary is how Bonhoeffer’s appeal seems to cross over the divisions, finding wide acceptance on both sides. Conservative Christians are attracted to Bonhoeffer because he is so Christ-and Bible-based. The progressive wing is attracted to Bonhoeffer’s commitment to social justice. It is not that the two sides should be in any opposition, it is simply the fact that too often they are and Bonhoeffer is a unifying figure, not a divisive one.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an example of the kind of life God calls us to live. He was neither a liberal nor a conservative; he was both. He was frustrated with the liberal theology of the Lutheran Church in Germany which caused him to eventually leave. He felt that it was willing to follow the loudest voices, which is why it was no longer relevant in the society of his day. The Church was not willing to stand up for what God said was right and against what He said was wrong.
Everyone has an opinion in the conversations about what to do next, but few are willing to listen to the others. In Bonhoeffer we can see that there are different ways of seeing the world, and that perhaps the best way to deal with it is not division, but community. There is a reason that God chose the image of a shepherd to describe His character and work. A shepherd doesn’t lead one animal, he cares for many. It isn’t a hundred individuals that is under His care, it is a flock. While He knows and loves every sheep, able to call it by name, the shepherd’s world is in community.
We can work together for the sake of God’s kingdom, unified not by a point of view but by the amazing grace of Christ Jesus. Our work here in this world will end, but that end is not the end, it is only the beginning of life for us as we join in the heavenly community of saints for eternity. We join that community not by our own discipleship or actions, but through faith in Jesus Christ. If we remember this, eyes always on the cross and the promise that is found there, we’ll know the unity that they saw in the early church. We can have the kind of community that Bonhoeffer tried to build wherever He was, even if we are a diverse group because we are led by the same Shepherd.
Through the Church we live without fear as we walk together in faith, because God is with us. In Acts, the believers shared everything in common, even selling their goods to care for the needs of other brothers and sisters in Christ. They shared God’s grace, giving to those who had less and receiving when they had their own needs. They met daily for prayer and study, and often gathered to share fellowship with one another. They did all this with joy, praising God. Doesn’t that sound like dwelling in the house of the Lord forever?
Jesus told those listening that He is the door for the sheep. He is the way into this life of grace and mercy. Then he told them that those who came before were thieves and robbers. This does not refer to the Old Testament prophets, but rather the false prophets who had so distorted God’s word and burdened the people with a false gospel. “The thief only comes to steal, kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly, like the sheep cared for by the Great Shepherd.
Peter reminds us that dwelling with God does not mean we will never walk through the valley of the shadow of death. As a matter of fact, our Lord Jesus suffered for our sake and calls us to follow Him. He suffered at the hands of men, though He’d done nothing wrong. He was hung on the cross, innocent of sin. Though men found it right to put Him to death, Jesus did not turn away from their wrath, but instead stood firmly in the will of God, doing that which He had been sent to do. It was for our sins that Jesus died, and for our sake that He now lives. “For you were going astray like sheep; but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Jesus is indeed the door, the only door into the kingdom of heaven. Those who hear His voice will follow without fear, knowing that the Great Shepherd will provide all we need. The life we live in this world will never be perfect. The shadow of death looms over all that we do because sin still rules in the lives of many. It seems that shadow looms ever more clearly these days, taking from us not only our freedom but our peace of mind. It has also stolen from us the community that we need to keep us on the right path. There are false prophets and false shepherds who do not teach God’s truth. Hear the voice of the Lord Jesus and do not follow after those who speak that which does not give life. You might suffer, because the world does not like when we follow the Shepherd. The world wants control, false prophets promote a doctrine of works righteousness and religiosity because it gives them the power over your soul. However, we walk in faith knowing that God has already established our home forever. We will struggle today and tomorrow, but God’s promises are eternal. We don’t know if it will be now or later, but we will be able to gather again in community, following the Good Shepherd as a gathered flock, receiving His gifts that sustain us like the green pastures and still waters in David’s song of praise.
In the beginning, the Church was more than a group of people who got together for an hour or so a week to hear the Word and receive the Eucharist. They prayed together. They studied the scriptures together. They ate meals together. They gathered in their homes as well as at the synagogue. They shared with one another. If someone needed something, someone else supplied it. This was a community that knew each other so well that they knew what everyone needed and offered it without thought.
Have we lost touch with His voice? Do we hear Him when He calls? Are we ready to respond with mercy and grace to meet the needs of those who are suffering in the world? Or are we following the voices of strangers? Do we trust the thief that claims to be the voice of God but who only wants to steal the gifts God has given? Are we willing to trust God even when we are suffering? Is Jesus our focus, or are we chasing after our own agendas, theories, expectations?
As we follow Jesus, listening to His voice, going only where He leads, we will find that God’s grace will multiply in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine. Even if we don’t think we have enough, we’ll be able to find more than we need to help our neighbors just as they will help us. This is the kind of community that others long to join.
We struggle now because we cannot be together, but we can trust in Him as we walk this shadowed valley. Let’s devote our time to the work of God, learning how to hear His voice through study, worship and prayer. Then when God gathers us together again, our community will look a lot like that one in Jerusalem so long ago. We don’t understand what God is accomplishing through us at this time, but we can trust that His will is being done by those who hear and believe enough to act. The work might not be what we desire or expect, but as we follow the Good Shepherd, it will glorify Him. And the Lord will add to the numbers daily those who are being saved, perhaps even bringing them over the back fence according to His grace.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Will I eat the meat of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Pay your vows to the Most High. Call on me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” Psalm 50:12-15, ASV
I’m sure my family will ask me the inevitable question any moment now: What do I want for Mother’s Day? We ask the same question before Christmas and birthdays. I ask it of my family. We want to make sure that if we buy a gift for these special days that it will be a gift they want and appreciate. While there are times we all come up with that fantastic choice without asking, most of the time we want some direction when we go shopping. It is frustrating to get that answer, “I don’t want anything” or “Surprise me.” This lack of choices often leads to surprise or disappointment because there is no gift or a really bad one.
I’m guilty of the uninformative answers. I can always think of things to buy, but I usually buy what I want when I want it. As I get older, that happens less because I don’t really want anything. There’s probably a book I would enjoy, but I already have a dozen books on my bookshelf I need to read. I could use some clothing, but I am picky and hard to fit, so it is unlikely that my family would buy something I would wear. I really don’t need chocolates, although I’m always happy to enjoy that treat. I have several collections that can be extended, but that would just give me something else to gather dust in the house. I don’t need anything and I’m really just happy to be remembered and appreciated.
Throughout the history of mankind, human beings have tried to find ways to pay homage to whatever gods they worship. They’ve built temples out of stone and offered gold and precious gems to those gods in the hope that they will be satisfied and will bless the people. They have created complicated rituals and offered sacrifices, hoping to make the gods happy with their generosity. Even the Jews had a list of appropriate gifts to take to the priests, some for forgiveness, some for thanksgiving, some to provide for the care and upkeep of Temple. In all these communities of faith, the sacrifices and offerings became a duty and requirement. And, unfortunately, throughout the history of mankind, those who have received the sacrifices and offerings have taken advantage of the desire of the people to do what is right for their god.
It is not a bad thing to make sacrifices for the sake of our faith. When we tithe to our church or give alms to the poor, we show our commitment to our God. When we avoid the temptations of life and give up the habits and lifestyles that oppose God’s Word, we show Him that we are willing to be obedient. When we build churches, we provide a place to continue the work Christ began in the world. But as we do all these things, we need to remember that God does not need our gifts. He is God, and everything is His already.
Every mother will appreciate whatever her kids manage to find to give her for mother day. But when a mother says, “I don’t need anything,” it is true. She doesn’t need a new book or another dust catcher. She doesn’t need a box of chocolates or a vase full of roses. She may enjoy receiving those things, but what a mother really wants is to know that she is appreciated. She is willing to do whatever is best for her children, and she just wants to know that she is loved.
God delights in our gifts when they are given with a pure and faithful heart. Like a mother, He hears the requests of His children and He answers. He doesn’t stop us from building buildings or making offerings. He has encouraged us to make those gifts because they support the work of His Church on earth. But He really just wants to know He’s loved. He’s looking for thanks, not stuff. He doesn’t live in our Temples or spend our money. He desires only praise and He rejoices to see when we are obedient to the life He is calling us to live.