Welcome to the August 2013 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, August 2013
August 1, 2013
“Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that hath endured such gainsaying of sinners against himself, that ye wax not weary, fainting in your souls.” Hebrews 12:1-3, ASV
On August 1, 1999 I took over moderating an email discussion list for a few weeks. The regular moderator was going on vacation, and she liked to make sure that we had mail in our box every day. Her habit was to send inspirational emails filled with cute graphics; that was not my style. I decided to write a brief devotional. Our list discussed various topics, but focused heavily on faith and Christian thought. It made sense to me to take some of those thoughts and apply them to our lives.
I enjoyed writing the devotions, and so I continued to write the devotions when the two weeks were over. Eventually I took the devotions to another list, and over the years it has evolved into the postings you receive daily. Most recently, of course, I took the devotional to Facebook. What will happen next? I do not know. Perhaps the day will even come when I have to give it up. But for today, we continue to share our faith through these words; I share with you through my writing and you share with me through notes of encouragement and prayers.
I have to laugh because yesterday on the eve of this anniversary, my thoughts turned to how often I mess up. You would not know it, but I completely dropped the ball on Monday. I began writing WORD in the morning, but I needed to go out to run errands that day and I wanted to go early before the temperatures got too hot. When I came home, I put away my groceries, ate some lunch and then jumped into my work in my studio. I completely forgot that I never finished writing. That evening, Bruce commented that he didn’t get my email, and it hit me! I forgot! He finished his work on the computer, I wrote and sent. While you might have wondered why it was delivered so late in the day, until this moment you had no idea how I almost failed.
Most of my errors are much more noticeable. I’m humble enough to admit that I make a lot of mistakes. There is some typo or grammatical error almost every day. I often forget to change the date on the heading. My process includes a number of steps in posting, especially on Wednesday when the devotional is posted on multiple lists and websites. I try very hard to follow every step carefully, but it is not unusual for me to miss something. I realized one day this week that I never updated the website. I saw on another web page that I hadn’t changed the date when I last updated for several months. I don’t know how many times I’ve forgotten to post a scripture reading.
These mistakes usually don’t matter very much, although sometimes they are inconvenient for my readers. How often have you gotten a wrongly dated devotion and thought I resent an old one? Next time remember, I probably messed up. I don’t worry about making these little mistakes or the changes known; I don’t mean to hide my failure, but it just doesn’t seem very important. I don’t want to fill your mailboxes or walls with superfluous postings. There are sometimes reasons to admit my mistakes, and I hope that you’ll always forgive my imperfections.
That’s what living Christian is all about: forgiving one another for our mistakes. We all do it. We forget to do the things we should do, we say the wrong things, and we repeat these mistakes over and over again. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes, but I know that even when I’ve learned my lessons I still manage to mess up. It would be nice if we became perfect as we overcome our failures, but we don’t. While we are being perfected, we won’t be perfect. We might feel like we have reason to boast when we overcome our failure, but in reality we should always remain humble knowing that we will probably make the same mistake one day. Though we will not be perfect in this world, we are constantly being perfected, transformed by the mercy and grace of God. Hopefully the fourteen years of experience has made me less likely to make a mistake, but I know I will. There’s probably even an error in this writing. But day by day we move past those failures, knowing that forgiveness encourages us to try again and again until the day when we will be perfect in God’s presence.
“John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from him who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits that are before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by his blood; and he made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they that pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn over him. Even so, Amen. I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Revelation 1:4-8, ASV
The letters of the alphabet are the building blocks of language. One of the first things that children learn are their A, B, Cs. They learn the song, begin to recognize the letters and then eventually learn how to put them together to make words. We use words to communicate our thoughts to other people, and though there are many ways to tell our stories, there’s something special about the written word.
We have not always had an alphabet. The earliest forms of written (or painted) communication seem to be paintings that are found in caves. Some of the most spectacular cave paintings are found in France and Spain. The oldest is in Cave of El Castillo in Northern Spain, scientists believe these paintings are more than 40,000 years old. Interpretation of the pictures varies, but they usually portray the animals as well as symbols, patterns and hands. Some have suggested that these drawings were part of a religious ritual to help the people have a successful hunt.
As man evolved, they began to develop a more complex way of communicating. This occurred in speech as well as in writing. Pictographs represented specific concepts or ideas. These pictures are often difficult to interpret because there is no direct connection between them and the language. Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt go a step further in the evolution of language. In this type of writing, the pictures represent a specific word or grouping of letters. Cuneiform writing is composed of wedge-shaped marks which did the same. The marks were simplified over time. Syllabaries used graphemes to represent specific syllables. Eventually the alphabet used symbols to represent specific sounds, with each letter representing a word. Some alphabets, called abjads, used symbols for just the consonants. Others have specific symbols for special sounds.
This devotion is written using the modern Latin or Roman alphabet. It has twenty six letters, including five vowels. It appears to be based on the Phoenician alphabet that was in use from about 2000 B.C. That was adapted by the Greeks around the ninth century B.C. and eventually adopted by the Romans in the third century B.C. Over the years it has changed, with letters added and removed as needed in the language. It is the most common alphabet used today and though there are some variations, they can all be traced back to the original letters used in ancient Rome.
The twenty-six letters of our alphabet can be used to make billions of words. Those words can be put together to make a limitless number of sentences, paragraphs and books. Those words can tell stories, describe experiences, and share knowledge. They can encourage and correct. They can declare love and hate, hope and fear, life and death. Everything that exists can be described through words, even God. Of course, words might not always be enough, but they are a good start.
John writes of God, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” It is interesting that he uses the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God isn’t limited by those two letters: He is the beginning and the end and everything in between. Everything points to Him. Our God is not one who is limited by time and space or even words. He is, He was and He is to come. He is the beginning and the end. He is the Alpha and the Omega. We can use all the letters of the alphabet to describe Him and tell His story to the world.
“And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Beroea: who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few.” Acts 17:10-12, ASV
I am going out of town for most of this week. It will be a very busy week with days filled with travel, meetings, workshops and fellowship with other Christians. I would normally carry my laptop with my on a trip and try to find time to write and post each day. However, I am traveling by airplane, and so I must limit the amount of baggage I am going to carry. I have also learned that access to the Internet in my hotel is very expensive, so I’ve decided to leave the laptop at home. It will be good to focus on the task at hand, to do what I am going there to do and to enjoy myself without becoming exhausted.
This is not a vacation, but as I prepare for this trip I can’t help but think about the old saying, “I need a vacation after this vacation.” All too often we try to plan so much during our trips that we come home exhausted. I remember when we lived in England a friend was going to visit the country. She was planning a three week trip and had a list of dozens of places she wanted to visit. She asked my opinion. I told her that I understood why she wanted to see so many things, but I encouraged her to limit her choices. You do not allow time for unexpected surprises if you schedule something for every minute of the day. And you become too tired too fast to enjoy what you do see. “Take time to enjoy a meal at a pub, to get to know the locals, to really sit and enjoy the gardens.” You might not see every castle with an attitude like that, but you’ll have a much better experience.
I expect to meet lots of new people, to have conversations with old friends. I want to learn what the theologians have to say and I want to make good decisions at the convocation. I hope to even have a few moments to wander around the city and enjoy the local flavors. I won’t be able to do that if I am rushing back to my hotel room to work and play on my laptop.
Don’t worry, however. I decided to write my devotions ahead of time this week. I’ve spent the weekend planning ahead and I will post all five on Monday evening. It will seem strange to have so many emails from me in one day, but I hope it won’t be too inconvenient. You are certainly welcome to read through the entire week in one sitting, but I hope you’ll have patience and click into them each day. It can be overwhelming to get so much inspiration and grace in one shot that I hope you’ll spread it out over the five days. We need to hear and study God’s Word on a daily basis, to grow in our faith and in our knowledge of God.
“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, Jehovah appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.” Genesis 17:1-2, ASV
Do you have a bucket list? A bucket list is a list of things that you want to accomplish before you die. Some people have extreme goals on their lists, things that are really not possible for them to do in the time they have with the resources they have. I want to have a painting hung in a museum. I laugh when I think about it because I can’t really imagine any of my paintings being museum worthy. Besides, most artists are never really respected until they are long dead.
There are places I would like to go on my list, including trips to foreign lands. Some of those destinations are difficult and expensive to visit, or are very dangerous. I hope one day that we will have the resources and the time to travel, but at the moment those trips are nothing but a dream. I look forward to experiencing so many things, but I sometimes wonder if it is too late.
I think we all have moments in our lives when we think that it is over. We think we can’t accomplish anything more. We think we’ve done everything we can do. I think we all have moments when we think that we will never get to do the very things that we are sure will make us happy. Is it too late to break those old habits or become someone better? Is it too late to go back to college? Is it too late to begin a new career?
Abram certainly thought it was too late. He was ninety years old and still childless. How could God’s promises ever be fulfilled if he did not have children on whom to pass all his blessings? God reminds him that He is Almighty, and that nothing is impossible for Him. I might not get to all the places I want to visit or have a painting in a museum, but I can trust that everything God has promised will happen. He is faithful and He accomplishes His purpose in the world and in our lives. Sometimes it doesn’t happen in our time, but it will happen if He has said it will.We pray you have been blessed by this daily devotion. If you received it from a friend, you can see other devotions and studies by visiting our website at www.awordfortoday.org. Please see below for information about this and other mailing lists.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 11, 2013, Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-16; Luke 12:22-34 (35-40)
“By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which appear.” Hebrews 11:3, ASV
I spend much too much time and money at the art and craft stores. I love to wander the aisles, looking at the supplies, wondering if I could make something out of that new and usual product. I look at the paint colors, imagining which ones would go well together. I touch every paintbrush, wondering what type of stroke it would make and if it would do what I want it to do. I measure the canvases, search through the clearance aisles, and check all the sales. In the end, I don’t think I ever leave without something in a bag.
This is especially true right now as I prepare for a craft fair in September, although I’m less likely to wander and more likely to go there with a specific list of items I need. See, I can’t make a painting without all the supplies. I need paint and canvas, brushes and varnish. I need crosses and clockworks for some of my projects. I don’t need any of those things to live, but I do if I want to create something. I need something tangible to work into something beautiful.
We understand that we cannot make something out of nothing. Even a magician who appears to make something come out of nowhere has prepared the stage. The rabbit may not be visible to the audience, but it is there. The milk may seem like it disappears, but there’s some trick. The magician manipulates something tangible in a way that amazes us, but he doesn’t do it with nothing. We need things to do what we are going to do.
And we can do some amazing things. We can grow large trees and beautiful gardens, but we can’t do it without seeds and water and dirt and sunshine. We can make the most delicious meals, but we can’t do it without the ingredients. We can build spaceships that take men to the moon and cameras into outer space, but we need the materials to do so.
But God doesn’t need anything. He doesn’t need anybody. In the beginning, God spoke and everything came into being. The writer of Hebrews tells us that everything we see was made when God spoke; it came out of nothing. We understand this by faith, although intellectually we have a difficult time with it. Scientists are constantly discovering things about the universe that helps to explain how we can to exist. They see fossil records and study the basic building blocks of life. They come up with theories and try to explain it all. But with every answer, all they usually find is more questions. Even the big bang leads us to ask, “How did that first atom come to exist?”
We don’t have to reject science to believe in God and creation. After all, science tells us that something happened to the stuff that existed, and faith tells us that God spoke that stuff into existence. While there are theories with which I do not agree, I do know that we should not limit God to time and space. He does things His way, according to His good and perfect will.
See, that’s what is so amazing. God does not need us, but He chooses us to be co-creators in His world. He chooses us to accomplish His work. In the Old Testament lesson, we see a bit of Abram’s story. Now, Abram had a good life in Ur. He had a home and a wife. He had family and he had many possessions, including livestock and slaves. The only thing he did not have was an heir.
One day a strange voice came to him and told him to leave Ur. The voice said that He would guide Abram. Abram left the stability of home to become a nomad. He didn’t know where he was going or what he would find there. He didn’t even know what purpose would be fulfilled. What does it mean to become a great nation? How does that happen in one generation? Abram was at that point already 75 years old. How could he become a great anything without a son? Despite the uncertainty, Abram believed and followed the voice.
We know that Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old, so decades passed between the promise and fulfillment. We’ve heard the story out of chronological order; we heard about the visit of the Lord to Abraham a few weeks ago. Today’s passage happened much earlier. Between the two stories, Abram and Sarai took God’s plan into their own hands. Sarai gave him her maidservant Hagar and a child was born.
We don’t need to take God’s plan into our own hands. But we like to see results. The clock is constantly ticking in our world. God might not be limited by time or space, but we are. So, like Abram and Sarai, we do whatever we think is best to make God’s will happen. We justify it with catchy little slogans like “God helps those who help themselves,” but by doing so we prove that we don’t really trust God to be faithful. Now, of course, there are those who will blame Sarai, especially since we know that Abraham’s faith is extraordinary. But the reality is that Abram allowed himself to be swayed. He believed, but he also doubted.
The promise in today’s Old Testament lesson is extraordinary. “Look now toward heaven, and number the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.” Of course, Abram understood that God was speaking about generations, and yet the number was still staggering. Can you imagine the sky that evening? Itwas not dimmed by the lights of a city. When we look at the sky, most of us see a few dozen or a few hundred stars; we can almost imagine the day when our great-great-great-grandchildren are having their own children. Abram, an elderly man with no offspring, was looking at a sky with more stars than he could possibly count. “So shall they seed be.” Abram would never see it. It was a promise beyond his imagination and one that he would never see fulfilled in his own lifetime.
“And he believed in Jehovah; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness.” His righteousness was not based on his actions; he could not be counted righteous by his actions since the next thing he did was take matters into his own hands. God understands. He doesn’t withhold His promises based on our failure. Even though Abram and Sarai tried to make God’s promise happen in their way, God still fulfilled it in His way. There is great comfort in knowing that even when we are faithless, God is faithful because He knows our hearts.
But Jesus knows that there is good reason for us to remain faithful even when we doubt. “Therefore I say unto you, be not anxious for your life…” He goes on to talk about not worrying about food or home or clothing, because there’s so much more to our life than those things. A few weeks ago Martha was worried about food, but Jesus told her that Mary found something better. We know we need food to eat, a roof over our head and clothes to wear, but this is not something about which to worry.
Neither is accomplishing God’s work. It is when we worry that we try to matters into our own hands. That’s probably what happened to Sarai. She felt like such a failure; she was barren and she had failed to give Abram a child. She worried that everything God intended would fall apart because she couldn’t do her part. But God does not need us; God can accomplish the impossible even when there is nothing. His Word spoken is as good as done. We just don’t understand the timing. God knows what we need and He knows how to give it to us. The righteous believes this.
Faith isn’t about the tangible. It isn’t about flesh and blood. Faith is about living in God’s promises. We won’t do it perfectly. We’ll doubt. We’ll be afraid. We’ll try to take matters into our own hands. But our failure doesn’t negate that which God has already done. Our righteousness is not dependent on our ability to stand firmly in the promises of God; our righteousness is credited to us by Christ. He covers us; we simply live under that cover. When we do fail, God is near to reassure us with His mercy and a reminder of His promises.
The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” How would you describe faith if you were questioned by a child or a non-believer? We might want to define faith in concrete terms, as if it is something we can hold. Unfortunately, those who do not have faith need something tangible that they can feel or see or experience. They want to take it in their own hands, do something to be worthy of the promises of God. They want to come up with human explanations; they want to find the answers to those age old questions. But sometimes the answer is that there is another question. Faith tells us that in the end, or in the beginning, the only thing that truly matters is that God spoke and it was.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed is the nation whose God is Jehovah, The people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.” The bottom line is this: God does not need us, but we need God. And He has chosen us for His own. He has called us into His Kingdom and given us all we need. He has promised us more than we can possibly imagine and we are counted as righteous because we believe. We are children of Abraham, one of those many stars in the sky, not by our own power or work, but because God is faithful. We need not worry or take matters into our own hands because in His time and in His way, He will make everything come together perfectly.
We might not see the fulfillment of all God’s promises in our lifetime; Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah all believed. And even though they were not always faithful, God is. He is faithful to us, too. So, let us walk in that faith, and live in the hope that rejoices at the promises even before they are fulfilled. In faith we will dwell with God now and forever and inherit the Kingdom that is eternal.
“For when God made promise to Abraham, since he could swear by none greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And thus, having patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men swear by the greater: and in every dispute of theirs the oath is final for confirmation. Wherein God, being minded to show more abundantly unto the heirs of the promise the immutability of his counsel, interposed with an oath; that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have a strong encouragement, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us: which we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and stedfast and entering into that which is within the veil; whither as a forerunner Jesus entered for us, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:13-20, ASV
When I was young, summertime was spent barefoot and in the pool. I ran around all the time without shoes on my feet, so much so that I hated when we had to go somewhere that required shoes. My feet were often black with dirt, and I could walk across sharp rocks without feeling any pain because my feet were hard from the extreme use. I used to say, “I don’t believe in shoes.”
Of course, that’s a ridiculous thing to say. Shoes exist; how could I possibly not believe in them? What I meant to say is that I didn’t like to wear shoes; I hated them so much that I was willing to proclaim that they didn’t exist. But this begs the question: what does it mean to believe in something? According to the Oxford dictionary, to believe means “to accept something is true; feel sure of the truth of” or “hold (something) as an opinion; think or suppose.”
I have believed many things during my life. I believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy when I was a child. I believed the anchor of our local news program when he told the news. I believed my mom and dad when they told me they loved me. I believed that I knew the right answers to the quiz in math class. At times, I have nothing of substance on which to base my answer. What I accepted as true very often turned false. I still believe that my mom and dad loved me, but I sometimes wonder if the anchorman is telling the truth. I no longer believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I failed a test or two.
Abraham believed God. The disciples believed Jesus. Paul believed that the vision he saw on the road to Damascus was so real and true that he changed his whole life and way of thinking. These heroes of faith believed in something that has no tangible proof, except God’s Word. We can believe many things; we can trust people and be self-confident. But, at times these things will fail. There is only one thing in which we should have faith – God. When the people and things of this world fail, God stands firm and faithful.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that the anchor of our soul is the hope we have in God’s promises. This may seem like a strange example to use to describe faith. After all, an anchor is a big, heavy object. But that object is used to, “connect a vessel to the bed of a body of water to prevent the craft from drifting due to wind or current.” Hope might not connect us to the floor of the ocean, but it does keep us from drifting away from the truth. There is nothing stronger than the Word of God. He is always faithful. We can count on Him to fulfill His promises.
“But I say that so long as the heir is a child, he differeth nothing from a bondservant though he is lord of all; but is under guardians and stewards until the day appointed of the father. So we also, when we were children, were held in bondage under the rudiments of the world: but when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” Galatians 4:1-6, ASV
I have friends that I’ve known for a long time, since I was a young person living in Pennsylvania. These friends were adults who were involved in my life, friends of my parents or leaders in my activities. In those days I called them by their surnames, “Mr.” or “Mrs.” It was out of respect; it was the expected way to address those who were my mentors. I couldn’t imagine calling them by their first names, anymore than I’d call my mom anything other than Mom.
I am now the age of those leaders and I’m still in contact with some, especially on Facebook. I have friends who are their age, twenty years my senior which I call by first name. One of these friends of my youth had a birthday a few weeks ago and I didn’t know what to do! I normally wish my online friends a Happy Birthday with their first name, but I’ve never address this one that way. It seemed odd, and yet I know I’m no longer that young girl. There are still twenty or more years between us, but we are now peers, both adults in the world. As it turned out, I still used the surname. My respect for the person I knew is still intact. Just as I have difficulty calling a pastor by his first name, or even disrespecting a politician with whom I disagree, I felt this friend still deserved my esteem.
Now, it is possible that my continued use of the surname is uncomfortable for some of those friends. As a matter of fact, I’ve specifically had some of them invite me to call them by their first names. It was hard at first, but I was glad to see that our relationship had changed. We relate much differently as adults than we did in those days so long ago. It can be a strong relationship and together we can accomplish so much more.
Abba. Can any of us imagine calling the God of heaven and earth something so personal and informal? It seems almost disrespectful. And yet, this is the name that God invites us to call Him. In faith we are no longer what we were, we are embraced and welcomed into God’s kingdom, not as servants but as children. We are promised more than a place to dwell or work to do, we are promised the Kingdom itself, and as heirs we are brought into a deep and abiding relationship with God our Father forever.
“Now unto him that is able to guard you from stumbling, and to set you before the presence of his glory without blemish in exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, before all time, and now, and for evermore. Amen.” Jude 1:24-25, ASV
My trip to Pittsburgh last week was for a national gathering of people from my church; we spent the week in study, prayer and discussion, hearing incredible theologians and missionaries, as well as making decisions about our future. At the beginning and end of every session we had a time of worship with singing, scripture reading and prayer. We regularly sang doxologies, brief liturgical hymns of praise to the God who is our hope and our peace. Our focus on Jesus helped us to keep our discussion gracious and our decisions according to God’s will.
There are many doxologies with which we are all familiar. At the end of the Lord’s Prayer, we include the line, “For yours is the Kingdom, the power and the glory.” Many people use a doxology for a table prayer, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, praise Him above ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.” The Gloria Patri is a doxology, “Glory [be] to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, both now, and always, and to the ages of ages. Amen.”
This last doxology often follows the reading of a Psalm, bringing the fullness of God into the worship hymns of our forefathers. It is meant to keep our work of worship completely focused on the center of our faith and to give Him glory. There are times when we hear the Word of God and it cuts to our hearts, showing us the reality of our fallen nature. This can be upsetting, causing us to feel worthless, making it impossible to do God’s Work. But the doxology reminds us that our God is great and good and gracious, always near and full of mercy.
The book of Jude is very brief, but it is a letter written to remind God’s people of the destruction that came to those in the past who did not believe. He warned about those who followed the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. “These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their advantage.” We all are guilty of these things at times, and we are reminded that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Jude doesn’t stop with a word of Law, however. He encourages us to perseverance, reminding us of the Gospel, encouraging us to remain faithful. He ends the letter with a doxology.
Jude gave them a reminder that it is God who will keep them from following the foolish ways of the flesh. If he had written only of the godlessness, the people would have left feeling unworthy to do the Lord’s work, however he reminded them of the true focus of faith. It is important to be reminded of our sinfulness, but the Law does not stand alone. Christ has given us the Gospel, the promise of forgiveness and transformation. When we show people their sin, we must remind them of the source of their forgiveness and strength to overcome. Let us keep a doxology in our hearts and on our tongues so that even when we feel hopeless and in despair, we know that the living God is near and is faithful. Then we will live every moment in praise and thanksgiving to the God who is able to overcome even our sin through the blood of His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“Praise waiteth for thee, O God, in Zion; And unto thee shall the vow be performed. O thou that hearest prayer, Unto thee shall all flesh come. Iniquities prevail against me: As for our transgressions, thou wilt forgive them. Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee, That he may dwell in thy courts: We shall be satisfied with the goodness of thy house, Thy holy temple. By terrible things thou wilt answer us in righteousness, Oh God of our salvation, Thou that art the confidence of all the ends of the earth, And of them that are afar off upon the sea: Who by his strength setteth fast the mountains, Being girded about with might; Who stilleth the roaring of the seas, The roaring of their waves, And the tumult of the peoples. They also that dwell in the uttermost parts are afraid at thy tokens: Thou makest the outgoings of the morning and evening to rejoice. Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it, Thou greatly enrichest it; The river of God is full of water: Thou providest them grain, when thou hast so prepared the earth. Thou waterest its furrows abundantly; Thou settlest the ridges thereof: Thou makest it soft with showers; Thou blessest the springing thereof. Thou crownest the year with thy goodness; And thy paths drop fatness. They drop upon the pastures of the wilderness; And the hills are girded with joy. The pastures are clothed with flocks; The valleys also are covered over with grain; They shout for joy, they also sing.” Psalm 65 (ASV)
Do you have a place you like to go to feel close to God? Do you visit a mountain, hike through a forest or sit on a beach? Do you find peace in the quiet of the night with a sky full of stars or in the noise of a waterfall? Have you ever heard the voices of angels in the songs of a congregation or been inspired by the sight of a rainbow? Over the years, I have seen experienced pretty incredible things. I have seen a sunflower that grew ten feet high with a head over two feet in diameter. I have watched as kittens were born. I have felt like I was in heaven during evensong. I have seen war and peace, hate and love. I don’t know if I was ever visited by an angel, but I’ve seen the hand of God change people’s lives.
I’m an ordinary woman; there is nothing special about the life I’ve lived. I’m sure most of you can tell me stories about God’s hand in your life inspire awe and praise. It is easy to see God’s hand in the sunrise and rainbows. But do we see Him in the ordinary moments of life? We might be amazed at Gods’ creation when we see the rare bloom of a century plant, but do we see Him in the dandelions that cover our yards? A pride of lions takes our breath away, but do we thank God for mosquitoes? Do you know that He is in control of everything?
Unfortunately, it is easy to miss God, especially in the ordinary. Some even reject the idea that God even exists. They believe that creation came to be without any help and that it can take care of itself. They do not think that we need a divine explanation for the way the world works. Others believe that God created everything and stepped back leaving the world to spin on its own. After all, doesn’t the suffering of this world prove that God either has no power or has refused to take responsibility? However, it is even in the midst of the pain and turmoil of this world that I see God is still active, loving and powerful.
We expect to see God on the mountaintop and in the glittering stars in the sky, but do we look for Him in our everyday troubles? Do we see Him standing beside us when we grieve or when we are afraid? Things often become overwhelming for us and we don’t know what to do. But the best thing is to simply remember that God is in control. He created all things, and His hand still moves the waters of the rivers and brings life to the fields. He saves us from ourselves, forgives our sins and shows us the ways of righteousness and truth. How can we go through any day, looking at the awesome world that God has created and not praise Him for His mercy and grace? God has His hand in all the incredible things in this world, and in the ordinary. He is there in the times of war and the times of peace. He is visible in the beauty and in the pain. God deserves our thanks and praise for all He has done. Let us rejoice and sing today.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 18, 2013, Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:16-29; Psalm 119:81-88; Hebrews 11:17-31 (32-40), 12:1-3; Luke 12:49-53 (54-56)
“My soul fainteth for thy salvation; But I hope in thy word.” Psalm 119: 81, ASV
The psalm for today is part of an alphabetic acrostic poem and prayer, with twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The psalm also focuses on the Torah. Each stanza features one letter which titles the section and uses multiple synonyms for God’s Law. In the section we read today, the psalmist laments persecution by his enemies, but stands firmly in God’s Word. The psalmist cries out for God’s salvation from his enemies, but trusts that God will be faithful. Though the psalmist is being wronged, he knows that God will help him.
Do we remain so faithful in times of trouble? All too often, I think, instead of believing God’s Word to be true, we make deals with God. “If you get me out of this, I’ll do this…” we say, often promising something that we are commanded by God’s Law to do anyway. We promise to take care of our neighbor or make some grand gesture toward the poor. “I’ll be good, if only…” we promise, making it God’s responsibility to help us so that we can live as He has already called us to live. We want to see the salvation before we commit ourselves, demanding proof from the Savior that He will do what He has promised to do.
The same is not true of those listed in today’s epistle lesson, a continuation of last week’s cloud of witnesses. They lived by faith, even though they did not see the fulfillment of the promise. They passed the promise on to future generations. Abraham told Isaac, Isaac told Jacob, Jacob told Joseph and they all lived faithfully in the hope of the promise.
Think about what they did in response to God’s Word. Abraham nearly sacrificed his long awaited son. Jacob honored God in worship even to the very end. Joseph prophesied about the future of Israel, and asked that his bones be taken into the Promised Land, even though it would not happen for generations. Moses refused the power that he would have as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and accepted the harsh reality of slavery with his people. By faith the Hebrews walked away from the life they knew for a life of the unknown; they marched around Jericho like fools without understanding God’s plan. Rahab turned away from her own people to save God’s people, believing God’s promise that she would be saved. They all believed God’s promises and lived in faith despite the trouble they faced.
For them, the promise was more powerful than the suffering. They didn’t find peace in overcoming the pain, but in believing that God was with them. This is why Paul wrote, “Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that hath endured such gainsaying of sinners against himself, that ye wax not weary, fainting in your souls.” Christ took upon Himself the worst pain, suffering and humiliation for our sake, not so that we would not suffer, but to give us a greater hope.
It is so easy to believe the prophets that tell us about peace, especially when they speak words that promise a life without pain or suffering. The big problem we face is: how do we know? So many voices in the world claim to be speaking for God, and we have trouble knowing which ones to believe. I’m confused by the many voices that scream at me on a daily basis about what I am supposed to do and what I am supposed to believe. Too many of our churches are divided today because we have contradicting voices telling us God’s “truth.”
I want to hear a message that talks of peace without hardship. I want to believe that there is an easy path. The message of prosperity and promises of good times certainly sound intriguing, but are they real? It isn’t easy to tell the difference between the words of God and the words of people who claim they are from God. We are human, and we are easily deceived. This is a problem that God’s people have experienced since the beginning of time. Even the serpent was able to twist God’s word to his purpose.
There are many people today who claim to be prophets and who say that they have been given a special message from God. There are prophetic mailing lists, people who make bold statements about what they see in the world. I recently read an article about a pastor who has claimed that the Holy Spirit gave him a message for their special partners to help pay for an upgrade for his ministry helicopter. “As I pondered and looked at the situation, I heard that still small voice of the Holy Spirit say tell your special partners who have special transportation needs and their obedience will release favor for their needs and desires.”
I guess some of the messages are a little easier to weed out. But sometimes the messages sound good and right and true, but still contradict the Word of God. “Did God really say?” they ask.
In the passage from Jeremiah God asks, “What is the straw to the wheat?” Straw is part of the wheat, it is the stem that is left after the wheat kernels are taken. Straw has value; it can be used for bedding, for warmth, for building. But wheat is life-giving. The kernels can be used for food or they can be planted to grow more wheat. God’s Word is life-giving; the words of the false prophets are not. God’s Word is forgiving. It is filled with grace and hope and peace. God’s word is demanding and powerful. It is like the hammer that breaks a rock into pieces, but it is also healing and it is transforming. Most of all, God’s Word reveals His faithfulness.
Those words of the false prophets, the promises they tell, focus on the comfort and the desires of the people. We want peace. We want a world without division, without conflict. We want everyone to be satisfied and without pain or suffering. We want utopia. We want perfection. Wouldn’t a God of grace and love ensure that His people are blessed? But what does it mean to be blessed? The false prophets give us what we want; God’s Word gives us what we need.
In the end, this is why God’s Church is divided; we are divided because too many of us choose to hear the voices we want to hear, rather than the voice that belongs to God. We don’t necessarily choose to follow the wrong voices, but we have been so deceived that we no longer recognize His voice. The Word of God has been watered to the point that it no longer matters; we rely on our own interpretations to make it say what we want it to say. The scriptures are seen by many Christians as little more than myths that teach us a lesson. The promises are for those in the past. The miracles have scientific explanations. The history is not real, the people represent ideals. Some who claim to be Christian no longer believe that Jesus is God.
But we aren’t the first to be divided by these things. It has happened throughout the history of the Church. Men’s hearts always get in the way of God’s reality. We follow our own path, ignoring that which God intends because we want to avoid the suffering that comes with faithfulness. I suppose that’s why today’s Gospel lesson is so hard for us to accept. Jesus says, “Think ye that I am come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: for there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.” We talk constantly of unity. We are willing to let go to get along. We compromise and tolerate for the sake of being one body. But God’s Word divides; it is a two edged sword. While there might be room for concession in some things, there are doctrines that matter. We will be persecuted for not going along with the prevailing voices. We will be cast out for standing firm on God’s Word. We will be made out to be the ones who are going their own way, accused of following our own voice. We can’t worry about what the world thinks of us. No matter what suffering we face, it is up to us to follow the example of that great cloud of witnesses that came before us.
It will be hard; Jesus never promised that it would be easy. He did promise that it will make a difference in the end. The promises are real, God is faithful. It might seem like He is taking too long; we are tired and lonely. At times we are even afraid. We want to be able to grasp the promise, to see it fulfilled. We are singing songs of lament, like the Psalmist, when we want to sing hymns of praise.
Jesus does not give us permission, however, to take a holier than thou approach to our relationship with others. His Word does not justify our rejection or hatred of those who have followed another path. On the contrary: it is up to us to continue to speak God’s Word into the world so that all might hear and believe the Gospel of forgiveness. God’s Law still matters, but we all fail to live up to it. God requires a sacrifice for our sin, but He has provided it Himself. He gave His Son for our sake; Christ died so that we can live. Jesus didn’t come to promise us wealth or health or happiness. He came to reconcile us to the only One whose voice matters, our Father.
We are called to live lives of faithfulness, even when we face difficulty. We might have to accept circumstances that are uncomfortable. We might not like what we hear from those speaking from God. We do all this because we know that God is near, helping us through. Our text today reminds us that God is also far from us. He is not limited by our experiences or point of view, even if we would like to keep Him in our little box. Jeremiah writes that God “fills heaven and earth.” He is far and He is near. He is greater than we can imagine and more personal than we can expect. He has a purpose for us and a plan for His creation. He will be with those who have faith even when it seems like everyone else has abandoned us. And when we wander from His path (we all do, it has been that way since the beginning of time), He forgives and He loves us, calling us back to the life He has created for us.
Be faithful. This world is temporary, this life is fleeting, but God’s promise for eternity is real. He has promised us salvation and He is faithful. We will not see the fulfillment of all His promises in this world, but we know that He has already finished the work. Though our souls faint for His salvation, we can live in peace today, firm on His Word and praising Him. The peace He promises is ours already, to help us through the times of trouble until that great and wonderful day when we will be face to face with Him forever.
“My little children, these things write I unto you that ye may not sin. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world. And hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoso keepeth his word, in him verily hath the love of God been perfected. Hereby we know that we are in him: he that saith he abideth in him ought himself also to walk even as he walked.” 1 John 2:1-6, ASV
We are all very familiar with the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. This is one of the rare stories that is found in all four Gospels. I like John’s version of the story (John 6:1-13) because Jesus involves the disciples in the problem solving. In the other stories, the disciples try to get Jesus to send the people away, but Jesus commands them to feed the people. They complain that they don’t have enough and He invites them to give Him everything they have. He takes the little bit of bread and fish and makes it feed the whole crowd.
In John’s version, Jesus asked the disciples how they were going to feed the crowd. Philip answered that it would take too much money to give each person even the smallest bite. Andrew answered the question with the most ridiculous answer, “Here is a boy with a few fish and loaves.” Did he offer the lunch because he knew Jesus could use it, or because he was pointing out to Jesus that there wasn’t enough food for even a little boy? Andrew said, “How far will they go among so many?” Jesus took this small offering and made it feed the whole crowd, not just with a tiny bite but until they were satisfied. There were even baskets full of leftovers.
The people were amazed, and they saw Jesus with new eyes. They saw Him as someone who would take care of their physical needs; they wanted to make Him king so that He could fill their bellies. Jesus knew this and He withdrew so that they could not force Him to be something that He isn’t meant to be. Jesus fed them, but that was never His purpose. He did not come to do good works; He came to give them bread that is eternal. After telling them that they are seeking Him for all the wrong reasons, the people asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answers, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
This seems extremely easy, but is it? Is it easy to just believe in Jesus? How do we know that our faith is real? How do we know, especially when we sin, that we do believe? We want to be like those who dwelled in the ancient times before Jesus came, who had a long list of laws that they could follow to prove their righteousness. How do we prove our righteousness when all that is required is faith? John expounds upon the story in today’s letter by telling his readers that those who believe will not sin. They will obey God’s commandments. They will love God and neighbor, and serve them sacrificially. We will know that we believe, and others will see it in our life, if we walk like Jesus walked.
The difference between that Old Testament understanding and this one from the New Testament is that we recognize that it is impossible for us to live perfectly according to the Law. We will fail to love our neighbor. Like Philip, we’ll find excuses to not meet the needs of the world, and like the people, we’ll seek Jesus for all the wrong reasons. Even worse, we’ll do the works for all the wrong reasons: we’ll feed people because we think it is what God requires or because we want the world to make us king. We’ll fail one way or another.
This is why Jesus tells us that the work of God is to believe. John tells us in today’s passage that Jesus acts as our advocate when we sin. He is one busy Savior, because I know I fail to avoid the temptations of life, to obey the commandments. I fail to love God and my neighbor. And if our salvation depended on our good works, we’d all be lost. But the work God requires is to believe, and as we live in faith God helps us to be the people He has redeemed us to be, righteous not only in spirit, but also in the way we live. We aren’t perfect because we act perfect, but because Jesus presents us as perfect to His Father. This is truly good news.
“But now hath Christ been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that are asleep. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ's, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be abolished is death. For, He put all things in subjection under his feet. But when he saith, All things are put in subjection, it is evident that he is excepted who did subject all things unto him. And when all things have been subjected unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subjected to him that did subject all things unto him, that God may be all in all.” 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, ASV
W. C. Fields is quoted as saying, “The world is getting to be such a dangerous place, a man is lucky to get out of it alive.” This might be funny if it weren’t so true! We live in a time that seems extremely dangerous; the news is filled with stories of death from disease, violence, auto accidents and fires, food poisoning, natural disasters and human mistakes. It seems like someone dies of something every day.
Yes, I know. Someone, many people, die every day from something. The joke in W. C. Field’s quote is that we even have a choice about whether or not we will die. One hundred percent of people who lived have or will die (except maybe Enoch.) In the midst of all the uncertainties of life, there is only one thing of which we can be certain: we will die. Not a very inspirational or uplifting subject, is it? The reality for most people is that the most certain thing is the very thing which we fear the most, and yet it is the very thing that we need not fear at all.
Death is the end of life. When a tree dies, it decomposes and becomes part of the earth. The same is true of all living things. Human beings have rituals that revolve around death; we bury those whom we love in some way. The rituals are different from culture to culture, but ultimately all our bodies eventually decay; we are dust and to dust we will return. It is no wonder we fear death; it is the end. Some societies consider immortality to be the stories that are told about the life we lived, but there’s no way for us to know for sure if we’ll be remembered. Wander through any ancient cemetery and you’ll see empty flower pots and memorial stones with words that have eroded away. No one is left to remember and for them not only is the body gone, but so is the memory.
Jesus died. If He were like you and I, then He would be gone, too. We would have no record of His life. We would not remember the good works that He did or the stories He told. Whether He died a natural death or was violently killed would make no difference to us today. If His death was the end of the story we’d have no reason to have hope. But Jesus did not stay dead. He is alive. He rose from the dead and those of us who believe in Him will be made alive, too. Everyone who has ever lived has died or will die, but those of us in Christ will be alive forever.
“But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, for that God chose you from the beginning unto salvation in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you through our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours. Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, ASV
Paul had an interesting relationship with the congregations that he established during his ministry. The bulk of the New Testament includes letters that he wrote to those congregations to help them deal with the problems they were experiencing. In some cases the trouble was from within, as people did not fully understand the Gospel or the life they were expected to live. In other cities, the problems came from outside, as other prophets or preachers tried to instill a different Gospel into the hearts of the believers. Paul’s letters were written to help them stay on course, to continue in the message they received from him. They were dealing with questions that were difficult to answer.
After all, the Christian faith was very new. At the time of Paul’s journeys, the Gospels were probably not yet written down, but the stories were already well established through an oral tradition. It is easy, when something is so new, for people to take what is being established and change it to fit their own ideas. It still happens even today, but imagine what it must have been like for those new Christians who did not have the Bible or two thousand years of tradition. They were establishing what it meant to be a Christian, and not everyone was teaching God’s truth or His true Gospel message. There were those requiring certain laws to be kept while others taught a freedom that was not founded in Christ. It took hundreds of years for the Church to establish even the most basic understanding of the doctrines that we still believe today.
In today’s passage, Paul addresses the congregation as, “brethren beloved of the Lord.” I love this phrase, especially the use of the word “beloved.” The word “beloved” is different than the word “loved” in that “beloved” includes a sense of action by the one being loved. Be-loved. The Lord loves His people, but not everyone lives as if they are loved. I know too many Christians who, despite their faith that God forgives their sin, have a hard time believing that they are loved. Even worse are those who never live in that love. How will anyone ever know of the love of God, if God’s own people do not actively live in that love? We still deal with difficult questions, but as we do let us live in the reality that we are loved by the Lord. Be loved, beloved, so that as the world witnesses your life they know that you are among those who have met and believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“At that season Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and didst reveal them unto babes: yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight. All things have been delivered unto me of my Father: and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:25-30 (ASV)
So far the season has been quiet, but we are nearing the height of the hurricane season. The hurricane center updated their predictions at the beginning of August and they are still expecting an active season, with at least three major hurricanes and as many as nineteen named storms. Though we know that hurricanes are dangerous, those of us in Texas are hoping that there will be some tropical development that will help ease our drought. We don’t want the hurricanes, but large rainy systems would be a blessing.
Of course, as we near the peak of the season in September and October, especially if there is a storm brewing, the news reports will include information on how to prepare and survive the storms. There will be lists of things that every family should stock in their homes, like water, batteries and non-perishable food. Just the other day I heard rumors of a tropical system in the Gulf of Mexico, and I looked at those things I know I should have in stock. I wondered if I should buy bottled water since it was well stocked on the grocery shelves. Unfortunately, when the threat is real, it is very difficult to find the things you need most.
One of the questions the reporters will ask when there is an evacuation order is “What do you take with you?” The answers usually include things like important papers, photos, pets, medicines, money, a travel kit with food, a radio and batteries. When you have a short time and limited space, you have to choose carefully. Some people choose to ignore the evacuation warnings because they would rather take the risk to protect their property. Some don’t believe that the danger is real. Some can’t make the decisions necessary to protect their lives, and then they run out of time to escape.
A number of years ago I read a story about a family who evacuated ahead of a major hurricane. There was a three-year old who had the simplest answers to the questions that were being asked, “Do we follow the order or stay and protect our homes? Where shall we go? What should we take?” Her father was busy filling the car with clothes, important documents and memories. But she knew what to do: she stood in the front yard with a bullhorn saying, “Leave! Be Safe! Take your Bible!”
If only we could be so trusting. Children do not complicate things with worries. They give up their burdens easily to those who are better able to carry them. In their innocence, they are able to see the truth; the little girl knew to get out of the way of the danger, to go be where it was safe, and to take God with her. We might not have to evacuate for a natural disaster, but the concept is true for our everyday living. How often do we try to carry too much, burdening ourselves with worries and fears when all we have to do is get out of the way, go somewhere safe and take God with us? Jesus invites us to walk with Him, to let Him take control of our burdens. He invites us to rest in Him, like a child who is willing to give up our burdens to the One who can carry them.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 25, 2013, Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Isaiah 66:18-23; Psalm 50:1-15; Hebrews 12:4-24 (25-29); Luke 13:22-30
“When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, open to us; and he shall answer and say to you, I know you not whence ye are…” Luke 13:25, ASV
I worshipped at a church when I was on my trip the other week that had the most magnificent door I’ve ever seen. The church was old; the congregation was the first in Pittsburgh, but the building was only about a hundred years old. It was obvious from some of the architecture that some parts of the building were newer than that, but it was a splendid building that was much like those I’d experienced throughout Europe.
Now, in Europe many of the churches have huge front doors, made of thick wood. These doors were often made even sturdier with iron belts. Since the churches were often the last line of defense against an enemy, they made them like fortresses. I’m not sure why they make the doors so large, as they are somewhat impractical. The doors were rarely opened, only for special occasions, because they were so big that it often took many men to swing it open. It is possible that the size of the doors may have had something to do with defense, making it possible to move large equipment inside for protection. There may be something in the symbolism and the large doors may have been used in processional ritual.
There was no need to open these larger doors because the builders included a much smaller door in the larger door. These smaller doors are often very small; I am very short, but I often had to stoop to walk through them. I always thought about today’s Gospel lesson when going through one of those doors. It would certainly be easier for me to go through the big doors than to stoop to go through the little one, but Jesus reminds us that the way of Christ is not the easy way. It is a narrow door. The Kingdom is not on a mountain with a thousand paths leading to the top. There is only one way into the Kingdom: Jesus.
What I liked about the church in Pittsburgh is that the magnificent door did not lead into the church, but was inside the church. There was a large archway over the high altar, with a quire behind it, although it did not appear as though they used it for a choir. The space was set with tables and chairs, like a banquet hall. The door was nearly three stories tall and it divided the worship space from that banqueting hall. I imagine that it is often used for weddings with the door closed, separating the ceremony from the party. The door was concave, so when it was closed behind the altar it appeared almost cave-like, giving space for movement during worship. It was made of the most beautiful wood and it was so smooth that it shined.
I wish that it had been closed during our worship, but there was something wonderful about the imagery of that banquet hall. The door into the church from the street was pretty average, although beautiful. It was the size of a normal church door, although quite small compared to the one inside. As I considered the story in today’s Gospel lesson, I loved the imagery of getting into the church by the small door, but the door to the banqueting hall is large enough for everyone.
Now, Lutherans (and I’m certain lots of other types of Christians) really like to sit in the back of the church. Parents with small church often do so because they don’t want their fidgety kids to disturb the other people. I learned that sitting in the front row helps a child be connected to the worship; they can see, so they don’t get so fidgety. They also learn quickly how to behave in church. Others sit in the back because they are afraid that the pastor will see them falling asleep during the sermon. As one who has preached, I can assure you that the preacher sees you anyway. I recently learned that most people try to sit near the doorway, either out of safety concerns or because they want to get out quickly.
The worst part of our habit of sitting in the back, however, is that those who arrive at worship late then have to walk to the front to find a seat, disturbing others in the process. Now, we might say that it’s best to get there early to get a good seat, but what about visitors? Do we really want to force them into an uncomfortable position just because we want to hide from the pastor? I wonder if it wouldn’t be good for us to purposefully leave the last few rows open. A visitor who is visiting for the first time will likely not want too much attention; they are there to check us out. Will they come back if they are paraded in front of the congregation to the only open seats?
But then I saw this huge beautiful door leading to that banquet hall, and I was thinking that if there were a banquet in that room after worship, it might be best to get stuck with one of those front pews, because then you would be the first into the banqueting hall! After all, Jesus tells us that the last shall be first!
Of course, we know that the verse helps those of us to know that even though we’ve been Christians for as long as we can remember, we aren’t any better than those who come to faith at the last hour. Jesus tells other stories that are similar. Those hired last were given the same wages. The people who were not at first invited to the wedding feast were the ones who brought in off the streets to celebrate. Jesus makes it clear that just because we call ourselves Christian does not mean that we’ll enjoy a place of honor in His kingdom. We might even, in our apathy, forget how it is that we came to be Christian in the first place.
Even harder for us in today’s passage is the reality that Jesus might not recognize us when we go knocking on that door. How can it be that our Lord Jesus doesn’t know us or where we come from? After all, we’ve been sitting in the back pew of our church for years. We gave a check every Sunday. We even attended bible study and did our part to keep the church clean and welcoming. We went to committee meetings, volunteered in the preschool and food bank, and sang in the choir. We even chaperoned a youth retreat! Surely that deserves to be rewarded?
But in our quest for doing church stuff, too many of us lose touch with the real reason why we are there: Jesus. The work God calls us to do is to have faith. It is to believe in Jesus. It is to enter the kingdom through that narrow door. How many of us have given in to societal pressure, agreeing with the idea that there are many paths to the top of that mountain? How many of us have decided that we need not tell others about Jesus because their god is good enough? How much do we really believe the words of Jesus in today’s passage about the narrow door if we allow our neighbors to continue on a path that leads to nowhere? It is no wonder that Jesus says He doesn’t know us. If we are unwilling to stand for Him, why should He open the door for us?
The reading from Isaiah is a message of judgment and hope. God says, “For I know their works and their thoughts…” God knows our hearts; He knows what we do and don’t do. He says, “…the time cometh, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and shall see my glory.” He promises to set a sign for all to see that glory, and by that sign to know that He is God. That sign is Jesus. We see in Jesus the love, mercy and grace of the Father, as well as His glory. He is the door. He is the light. He is the way. He is the only path. Those who believe will survive the judgment; those who reject Jesus will not.
The message that hits the mark for me in this passage is, “…I will send such as escape of them unto the nations…” We are saved from the wrath of God for a purpose: to take God’s glory into the world. Isaiah talks of bringing others to Jerusalem, as an offering to God. This is an interesting image, and one we should seriously consider if we are to be Church in today’s world. We often think it is enough to give God our money, time and our talents, but what God really wants is for us to bring more people to Him. He wants us to be missionaries, not necessarily in foreign lands, but in our own backyards. He wants us to bring Him more people. He wants us to help them go through the narrow door, to see that any other path leads to nothing. We should be able to live with our neighbors whether they are Christian or not, but God is calling us to bring them into the Church so that they too might join in the eternal banquet. If we accept their faith as ‘good enough’ because they seem to be acting good enough, we will condemn them to a judgment that will lead to death rather than life.
Does Jesus not recognize us because we haven’t the faith to share the Gospel in a world where toleration is more acceptable than conviction?
Isaiah writes, “And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith Jehovah.” We should not assume that this is true now, or that it is true that all faiths will be part of this joyous worship. Only those who walk through the narrow door, who believe in the sign which is Jesus, will be left to dwell in His presence for eternity. God does not want anyone to perish, and He’s calling us to lead them toward true life.
Will it be easy? The life of a missionary is sacrificial. We will face persecution. We’ll be called bigoted and intolerant. We will be rejected and we may even lose jobs, homes, family and friends. After all, we were reminded last week that Jesus’ word will cause division. In a world where is has become acceptable in some places for churches to be burned and priests to be beheaded, it is easy to just worship God quietly behind closed doors. Though we are not persecuted in America as they are elsewhere, it may not be long before we are suffering great humiliations.
But our worship is meant to go beyond the church doors, and not limited to an hour a week when we are in the company of other Christians. God desires lives of praise that glorifies Him before the nations. He does not need the things that we think we can give Him; the whole world, the creation and all those who live in it are His. We can, however, boldly proclaim the Gospel message, glorifying God in our songs of praise and thanksgiving. He is the Lord God Almighty, Creator, Redeemer and Comforter. True spiritual worship will focus entirely on Him, not only at church in the presence of all the nations.
Think, sometimes, that we are afraid to be bold with our proclamation because we are afraid we’ll do something wrong. This is not unusual for human beings; the Hebrews were certainly that way. Exodus chapter 19 describes God as coming to the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai like a dark cloud, with lightning and thunder and a great trumpet blast. The mountain was engulfed in fire. Everyone in the camp trembled in fear. The writer of Hebrews tells us that they could not bear to even listen to the Word of God because they were afraid. It was much the same for the people in Jesus’ day. They trembled, but not at the foot of the mountain. They trembled at the foot of the Law, out of fear that they would do something against God. They listened to the council of the leaders who burdened them with long lists of rules and taught that God’s grace depended on their obedience. They did not trust in God’s grace.
The writer of Hebrews gives us two visions of life under the rule of God. In the first there is fear. The people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, receiving the Law as given to Moses. That mountain was fearsome—not even an animal could set foot on it. Anyone who touched it would be stoned. The people were so frightened by the sound of God’s voice that they begged Moses to be an intercessor. Even Moses was terrified and trembling with fear.
But there is another way to live in God’s Kingdom: trusting in Christ. Eugene Peterson presents Hebrews 12:22-24 like this: “No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.”
The Hebrews were given a covenant from God through the prophet Moses. This covenant was a promise that God would always be with them wherever they would go. The people would see the awesome power of God as they moved into the Promised Land, defeating their enemies and settling into the life of blessing promised to their forefathers. The LORD asked only that the people obey His commands; to keep themselves separate from those who worship other gods. This command was for their own protection, since union with the pagans would lead to their own worship of those gods.
We have seen that happen throughout history, and even in our time. Though we talk about Jesus and live as a part of the Church, we get lost in the culture of our world and forget, at times, that God has warned us to be careful that we do not follow the ways of the world. We forget that the door is narrow, and we open the big doors to let everything in. This leads us to worshipping the wrong things, for chasing after the wrong Gospel, for doing what seems right but is not according to God’s will and purpose for our lives.
God does not want us to remain separate, but He warns us not to follow the ways of the world. Those of us with faith in Christ have been welcomed into the Kingdom and are invited to the eternal banquet. We are given a life that isn’t restrained by a set of rules, but is made righteous by the blood of Jesus. This is a life God wants for everyone; He has promised to share it with all the nations. Will Jesus open the door for us if we are silent and conforming to the world? Will we, who were first, end up last because we refuse to share the Gospel? He has sent us as His messengers so that they will hear and believe. But they will never believe if they never hear His Word. We shouldn’t hide in our church buildings, but are called to go out and proclaim the Gospel to all, knowing that God is with us and that He will reveal His glory through us.
“Jesus said unto them. I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, that ye have seen me, and yet believe not. All that which the Father giveth me shall come unto me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the will of him that sent me, that of all that which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one that beholdeth the Son, and believeth on him, should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. The Jews therefore murmured concerning him, because he said, I am the bread which came down out of heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how doth he now say, I am come down out of heaven? Jesus answered and said unto them, Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him: and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Every one that hath heard from the Father, and hath learned, cometh unto me. Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he that is from God, he hath seen the Father. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth hath eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which cometh down out of heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down out of heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: yea and the bread which I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” John 6:35-51, ASV
I love bread, especially really good bread. There are a few types of bread I really enjoy, and I tend to eat more bread when those are in the house. I don’t really eat a lot of bread. Sandwiches are not my favorite, and I find that burgers or other sandwich meals in restaurants have way too much bread. I eat the insides and leave at least half the roll on my plate. But give me a lovely soft bread that can be squooshed into a doughy ball, or a fresh sourdough boule and I will gobble it down.
It is truly amazing to consider how many different kinds of bread there are. You can get white, wheat, whole grain, light, dark, hard, soft, long, sourdough, rye, unleavened or fruit breads. You can get rolls and loaves in every shape and size. The bread aisle at our local grocery store is at least twenty-five feet long, plus there is bread available at the bakery, in the freezer section and there are all sorts of mixes in the dry goods that you can make yourself. With modern conveniences such as the bread machine, it is possible to have home-baked bread with little effort, and even without that technology, bread is easy and it is relatively inexpensive to make.
That’s why bread has always been a staple of living. When there is nothing else to eat, somehow there always seems to be enough grain and oil to make a loaf of some sort of bread. The Bible is filled of stories about desperate people eating bread when there is nothing left. In 1 Kings 17, God kept the flour and oil jars full for Elijah and the widow of Zarepath. The bread they made from those jars kept them alive through the famine. When three visitors came to Abraham’s tent, Sarah made bread for them to eat. In Acts 27, the boat on which Paul was being taken to Rome for trial was beaten by a powerful storm. Paul blessed some bread and made the men eat it so that they would survive the trial they faced. When Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, Satan tempted him by telling him to make bread out of the rocks. Jesus fed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread.
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, He answered Satan’s taunts with the words, “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus called Himself the bread of life. When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God provided them with bread from heaven, manna. Though that was not like the bread we eat today, it was enough to sustain them and to teach them to trust the Lord God Almighty for all their needs.
Jesus is characterized in the book of John through analogies that the people understood. In today’s passage, we see that Jesus is the bread of life. Bread is needed to sustain life as can be seen in the stories from the history of the Jews. But they also knew that bread was not enough for their lives, that the Word of God is what gives them strength in their hearts, minds and spirits. Those who believe in Jesus will be fed with the manna that will give them eternal life. He is the bread of life, the staple of our lives by which we are given eternal life in Christ and nourished for our journey of faith.
“Bring forth the blind people that have eyes, and the deaf that have ears. Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the peoples be assembled: who among them can declare this, and show us former things? let them bring their witnesses, that they may be justified; or let them hear, and say, It is truth. Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen; that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am Jehovah; and besides me there is no saviour. I have declared, and I have saved, and I have showed; and there was no strange god among you: therefore ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and I am God. Yea, since the day was I am he; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand: I will work, and who can hinder it?” Isaiah 43:8-13, ASV
What do you believe about God? This might seem like a outlandish question to ask a Christian, especially since the Church has established a very basic understanding of what every Christian should believe. Yet, the world often sees our faith in a way that we do not mean it to be seen. So, as Christians it is important to not only think about what we believe, but also to think about how to live our lives so that the world will see our faith as it is meant to be seen.
For instance, I read an article in Reader’s Digest about Anaheim Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton. Hamilton was an All-Star when he played for other teams, but he had a difficult time when we went to Anaheim. He once struggled with substance abuse, but credits his relationship with God for his recovery and continued sobriety. Unfortunately, he has relapsed several times, and that might be the reason for his inability to play as successfully as he had once played. He was booed by the crowds. During an interview, the baseball great told a columnist that he turns to the bible for strength when dealing with the rejection of the crowds. The columnist then asked, “Does it mention anywhere in the Bible what it takes to hit more home runs?”
The author of the Reader’s Digest article writes, “Of all the things my non-sports-fan friends dislike about sports, the biggest one is how athletes are always thanking God for their achievements. It drives them crazy. The notion that God—who has his hands full of larger matters than the score of the Maaco Las Vega Bowl—would pick one team over another is self-aggrandizing ‘spiritual’ megalomania at its worst.” The author goes on to say that this is a completely different understanding of faith.
When a man like Josh Hamilton says that he’s amazed at what God’s done in his life, the world sees that as thanksgiving for a successful career, riches and talent. But what Hamilton was referring to is the way God helped him see his addiction and helped him overcome. Hamilton was the most successful when he was faithful to God, not because God was rewarding him, but because he was living a life that honored God. By staying sober and living as a witness to God’s mercy and grace, Hamilton stayed healthy and focused. He played better because he was not distracted by alcohol and drugs, or causing problems for others.
We don’t believe in God because we think He will reward us for our faith. We don’t believe that God will make us successful or that He will cause our favorite sports teams to win because of our faith. When we believe in God, we live a life as His witnesses in the world, a life which impacts others positively. The article continues, “Christianity isn’t some peripheral notion of Hamilton’s life; it is his life. As a Christian, Hamilton believes that everything he does, from showing up to church on Sunday to going food shopping to hitting a home run or striking out, is done for the glory of Christ. Hamilton isn’t thanking Jesus for helping him hit a homer; he is thanking Jesus for everything. From the homers to the strikeouts to the millions of dollars and all the boos and cheers in between.”
What do you believe about God? The answer to this question will help you live the life God is calling you to live. He is God, and though He does not help our favorite team win the game or give us success in everything we do, knowing that He is near helps us to be the men and women that He has created us to be. And when we live as if God is with us always, we act in ways that lead to good things for ourselves and the world.
“What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth? I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them, than to rejoice, and to do good so long as they live. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it; and God hath done it, that men should fear before him.” Ecclesiastes 3:9-14, ASV
Ray Stevens was an entertainer who is best known for his novelty songs. Hits like “The Streak,” “Ahab, the Arab,” “Along came Jones,” and “Gitarzan” still make us smile. They were silly, catchy and well played on the radio. Some of them were so popular that Stevens was awarded gold records for sales. Stevens also had a short-lived television show in the summer of 1970. He has expanded his work beyond music, and even opened his own theater in Branson, Missouri. He is still producing music, posting songs often of a political nature, on YouTube.
Stevens wanted something special as the theme song of his television show. In an interview, Stevens explained, “I needed a very special song for the program. I went down in my basement for about three days. I had crumpled paper all over the place. And suddenly the idea for the song came to me. I wrote it in maybe 45 minutes. It was a very special song and one that a lot of people still remember and sing along when I do it in shows.” That song is called, “Everything is Beautiful.” The song, unlike his other music, is Gospel-centered and inspirational. It is also anti-racist, a good reminder that everything that God created is beautiful.
This idea of everything being beautiful is often hard for us to grasp, because we see so much that is ugly in our world. There is violence, racism, crime, death, disease, anger, hatred, and these things are not some distant possibility but are often a part of our everyday lives. You can’t listen to a news program without seeing a story about some evil that has occurred in our town or nation or world. Murders happen so often that we barely even notice that someone has died. These ugly things have become a part of our leisure time, too, as the television, movies and video games are filled with violence. It is no wonder we’ve become numb to the reality of the world, and because we no longer pay attention to the ugly, we rarely even see the beauty. We certainly do not see any beauty in the ugly.
And we shouldn’t see beauty in the ugly, but we can find beauty in the midst of it as God is with us through it all. Life is not always beautiful. We have problems in our jobs, in our relationships and even in our own bodies. We get sick. People we love die. We are disappointed by those who are unfaithful and we are hurt by our neighbors. As we deal with loss and heartache, we often wonder “Why?” In the midst of trouble we ask, “Why me?” When we are in a place we dislike we ask, “Why here?” When bad things happen at inconvenient times we ask, “Why now?” We do not understand why God would allow these things to happen to us.
Everything might not seem beautiful but as we focus on God and His good purpose, we no longer question those things that we do not understand, but endure them for His Glory. Everything He does is beautiful in its time, in His time. While we do not like enduring through the ugliness of this world, we know that God is with us through it and that He will bring us out of it even more beautiful than we were before it started.
“The God that made the world and all things therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is he served by men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and he made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain even of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.” Acts 17:24-28, ASV
What do we need to live? This is the fundamental question of human life. Most lists include the most basic needs like water and food, both of which are absolutely necessary. Others will include things like shelter and a way to create heat for both warmth and cooking. Modern answers include things that are not really necessary, but have become necessary in our culture like cell phones, microwaves and cars. Some include the need for companionship and love. In some ways our needs are dependent on the time and place where we live, but there’s no doubt that we physically need water and food to live.
There’s another thing that we need that rarely seems to find its way onto the lists: air. We need to breathe. We can go days without water and weeks without food, but we can’t go more than a few minutes without air. Now, the lists of necessities include things which human beings can provide for one another. We can grow food and cook it. We can gather water and pour it into a glass. We can build houses, and invite our neighbors inside to get out of the rain. We have created cell phones and microwaves and cars. While we do thank God for all these things, and recognize that without Him we wouldn’t be able to share these necessities with others, we can take credit for the work involved in providing these things to others.
But we can’t create air or make someone breathe. Now, we have created medical equipment that helps someone whose lungs have failed and we have created air conditioning that makes it easier to breathe when the weather is harsh, but we can’t give someone the breath of life. When a baby is born, the doctor knows that the most important thing to do is to get that child to take its first breath, to inhale the life sustaining air that is all around us in the world. When God created man, the first thing He did was breathe into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life. We need water and food and shelter, but we can’t live even a few moments without taking a breath.
Isn’t it funny how the most important thing we need to live is invisible? And yet, as we think about our faith, we see that the most important thing for us to believe in is also invisible. Our faith in God, in light of all we know and understand in this world, is truly ridiculous. We believe in a God who created everything and loved all His creation, who created man in His image and gave us the freedom to fail and turn from His love, who sent His Son to die in our place so that we can be forgiven our sinful ways, who does not require good works for the fulfillment of His promises. Some of the stories about God and His people are preposterous, who could believe them? Men leaving their homes for unknown lands, women having babies when they are old, prophets taken away in flaming chariots, donkeys talking and armies defeated with song. It’s no wonder that so many have not come to believe in Him, it is unbelievable. The true miracle, the most incredible act of God of all, is that some do believe.
We breathe every day without even thinking about it, and we know that it is vital to do so. Try holding your breath for even a few minutes and you will realize how hard it is. Try staying under water for more than a couple minutes and you will see that it is impossible. They say it is nearly impossible to kill yourself by suffocation because your body does not allow you to hold your breath long enough to do so. Breathing is an automatic reflex, not a voluntary action. It is no wonder that God is seen giving life with His breath.
We know that air exists and that we must breathe to live. We believe in the invisible. How much more should we believe in the God who has given us the breath of life? The Christian faith is truly ridiculous to those who have not experienced the Lord God Almighty. Yet, despite our reluctance to believe the unbelievable, we thank God for giving us everything that we need. We thank Him for the water and food and shelter that we provide with our own hands. How much more should we thank Him for the very breath of life which He has given and the air that sustains us minute to minute?
Scriptures for Sunday, September 1, 2013, Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Proverbs 25:2-10; Psalm 131; Hebrews 13:1-7; Luke 14:1-14
“Jehovah, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; Neither do I exercise myself in great matters, Or in things too wonderful for me.” Psalm 131:1, ASV
There was an article in this month’s Reader’s Digest called, “13 Secrets a Reality TV Show Producer Won’t Tell you.” I’m sure that none of us are surprised by any of these secrets. The first, “Reality TV is actually not, well—real.” While we might want to believe that there is some semblance of reality in these shows, we all know they are not documentaries. After all, they film for hours every day with multiple cameras. In one case, it is eleven cameras for eight hours seven days a week. They end up with 616 hours of footage, out of which we see 42 minutes. It is easy to make 42 minutes say whatever they want it to say.
They even edit those on camera interviews, though not scripted are edited to make the person say what the producer wants the person to say. They even do what’s called, “frankenbiting,” which is a process of fitting words and phrases together from different conversations to create the conversation the producers want to present. The contestants are not real, either. They are often characters created to make the show interesting. In one case, a person who was ‘cast’ as a villain turned out to be the nicest person.
The producer convinced her to play along or she would be fired (sent home early.) Even the winners are sometimes planned ahead of time, and the judges do not always have a say in who goes home. If a character is good for ratings, they will stay no matter how terrible they are.
These truths make me wonder about some of the characters on reality shows that I have hated in the past, or even in the present. We all have experienced that disappointment that someone who needs to go home now is kept on for another week. We ask, “How could they possibly leave her continue?” Now we know; she’s a moneymaker for the show. She keeps it interesting. She gives them good footage. She may even be much better than we know because we haven’t seen 615 hours and 18 minutes of footage. They’ve created an image that is not real, and they’ve made us love or hate their characters by their editing.
I think what bothers me most about the reality shows is how the contestants are always so sure of themselves. They have this haughty, better-than-everyone-else attitude. Now, I understand that in a competition, the contestants must be confident of their ability to succeed, and who doesn’t want to win? What isn’t necessary is the way they talk against the other contestants, especially when they are in danger of being kicked off the show. Some speak to their own failure and they promise to do better, with an acknowledgement that they have more talent than it appeared that day. Others, however, only point out the failures of the other competitors insisting, no matter how terrible they were; they insist that they are the best choice to win. I would pick humble over arrogant every time. Unfortunately, we all know that they don’t always make for good television, and it is the arrogant that gets through for another chance.
Things are much different in the Kingdom of God. Or at least it should be.
As Christians, we live in a paradox. On the one hand, the world expects us to boldly blow our own horn so that we can get ahead of our neighbor. As Christians, however, we are reminded that we are called to be like Jesus, who had it all but humbled Himself for the sake of the world. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the crowds not to rush for the best seats at a banquet. He reminds them that there are others who may deserve to sit higher, and that it is better to sit lowly and be raised rather than sit according to our expectations and be humiliated when asked to move. “For everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” So, too, it is with us: if we think too highly of ourselves, we will find that there is someone greater. But if we humbly accept the least, we’ll find ourselves raised.
I have to laugh when watching those reality shows because you can sometimes figure out who is going home by the way they’ve edited the footage. When a contestant talks about this being their day to shine, the reality is that they end up failing miserably. When they say that they are going to win a challenge, they come up with the worst presentation. At the height of their arrogance, they are often humiliated.
When we put our focus on ourselves, we become self-centered and demanding. We expect others to bow to our greatness, to give us what we think we deserve. But the world of the proud is a frightful place because the haughty never stay at the top for long. There is always someone better who will come along to put us in our place. S o we live in fear that someone else will come along and do what we did against us to get ahead. We become paranoid that everyone is out to destroy us. When we are not content with our lot in life, we think that no one else is content either. In our pride, we refuse the opportunities that will make us truly blessed because we are too busy fighting to keep on top.
Jesus says, “Don’t sit at the head of the table. Sit instead in the lowly seat. When the host sees you there, he will raise you to a better place. But if you go to the head of the table to start, you may be humiliated and moved to a lower seat when someone greater comes along.”
Here’s the problem with human nature: when we see ourselves as better than others, we are unable to see that they are good at what they do, too. Like the reality show contestants, we get stuck in the idea that we are better than the other guy and we miss the opportunities to help them grow and be better. We want to win, and we think we are the ones who should win, so we ignore the possibilities and opportunities to help others. When we sit on the lowly seat, we can see the other guests even while looking at the King, but if we sit next to the King, we can’t see those behind us without looking away from Him.
The psalmist writes, “Jehovah, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, Or in things too wonderful for me.” How many of us look for the big impact without realizing the impact those small actions have on others. Take, for instance, the guy who needs a job, but refuses to work in the mail room because it is below him. He has graduated with a degree and deserves something higher. Some even think they deserve a place in an executive suite without even taking the time to learn what it is like to work in a cubicle. Those people who rush or a rushed through the corporate ladder never learn how to deal with those who remain on a bottom rung. But the guy who humbly accepts the lesser job quickly learns how to rise. With both the education and experience, the humble person who works hard and does his job well will be noticed.
None of us are ‘too good’ for the lowly work of this world and we are not better than those whom we serve. It might seem so, sometimes, and there is perhaps no better example than the work that is done in prisons. It is easy to look down at those who have been convicted and imprisoned, especially when our lives seem so righteous. Even if we willingly give our time and our resources, we still think that we are better than they are.
Now, most of the people who are in prison deserve to be there because they have harmed others. But are we really any better in the Kingdom of God? Our sins are different, but we, too are sinners in need of a Savior. We have failed to be everything God created us to be. We have failed to do the things He has called us to do. We have hurt others in too many ways. We may not deserve to be in a prison made of stone and iron, but we do deserve a harsher sentence: eternity in hell.
The writer of Hebrews says, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; them that are illtreated, as being yourselves also in the body.” This was written to a community that was dealing with imprisonment for their faith. Though many have suggested otherwise, some think that the book of Hebrews was written by Paul, who spent many years in prison. Whether it was Paul or not, there were likely few Christians who did not know someone who spent time behind bars; they knew the dangers of faith. Paul did not consider his imprisonment a time to hide or stop ministering. He preached to the other prisoners. He preached to his captors. He wrote letters of encouragement to the churches. He didn’t preach to auditoriums filled with thousands of people, but he’s had a huge impact on the world.
We know the great things Paul did from the scriptures and the writings of the early church fathers, and yet I wonder if we would recognize him in today’s world. He wrote a few letters. He gathered with a few people and shared the Good News of Jesus. Someone asked recently on a forum I visit how many people were part of the congregation at Corinth. Though we are not sure, one person suggested that it was probably no more than fifty. In today’s world, a church of fifty members is seen as an evangelistic failure. Through it all, Paul did not think himself to be better than others. As a matter of fact, if he had any arrogance at all, it was in his humble understanding that he was the worst of sinners because he had persecuted the Church. He knew he was a failure, but he also knew that he was saved.
If we act as if we are holier-than-thou, and place ourselves at the right hand of God, we might just find ourselves humbled and lowered to that place where we belong. If we humble ourselves and live in service to others, we will find that the reward is greater than any worldly greatness. It might seem as though we will be blessed as we climb that corporate ladder, but we see in Jesus a life of sacrifice that was far more of a blessing. His was one life and one death, and yet that one resurrection has saved the world.
We think we can do more if we think big, but we can have an incredible impact with the small acts of kindness. Imagine how much you can help someone with a letter of encouragement or a brief moment of prayer. We might think that a few cans of food are no big deal, but for the mother whose children are hungry, those cans can mean a day without worry. Every pastor knows that even though his name is on the sign, it is the church secretary, janitor and volunteers that really make it work. We don’t have to strive to be great to have an impact on the world. We simply strive to be what God has created us to be, and the world will be blessed. He doesn’t call us to start great and powerful ministries; He calls us to give the little ones a cup of water.
The scriptures for today consist of a number of random thoughts. Each would make a powerful sermon. In the passage from Proverbs, the writer tells us that God’s glory is in what is hidden, but kings’ glory is in the search for God. We might know that heaven and hell are far from us, but we can’t know what’s in the heart of a king. Silver must be refined, for it is in the silver without the dross that we’ll have something precious, so too a king must be cleansed of wickedness to be righteous. The rest of the passage talks about our humility before the king, remembering to take the lowly place and to deal with our neighbors privately.
The writer of Hebrews talks about being a good host, because in doing so we might actually entertain angels. We should seek justice, live honorably and chaste, avoid greed, be obedient to those who have been chosen to lead us, do good and share our resources with others.
The Gospel lesson tells the story of a dinner Jesus had with some Pharisees. In it, Jesus heals a man, and though they were watching Him closely, they could not argue with His questions. There was no reason He could not heal the man on the Sabbath, because they would save their sons or the oxen if one fell into a well on a Sabbath. And then He told them the parable of those who seek the high places and reminds them to invite those who cannot return the favor. The life of faith, the life of humility, is manifested in a life that is lived for others. When we trust in God, we need not pursue after the places of honor or the satisfaction of our lusts and greed. The humble will be lifted and the place of honor is much greater than anything a man can offer. We will be seated in the presence of God to bask in His glory for eternity. For this we most certainly can praise God.
That’s what it is all about, trusting in God. We do not need to make ourselves better, but instead rejoice in God’s salvation and share it with others. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that even in death, Jesus was humble and obedient. He didn’t seek glory on the cross, or try to make his death something spectacular. Imagine the impact He would have had if He’d actually been sacrificed on the altar as the true Lamb of God sin offering. Instead, He was hung on a cross outside the city, a scapegoat for the rest of us. Because His death was outside the camp, we can partake in His life and enjoy the bounty of His grace. His humble action made it possible for us to share in both His death and His eternal life.
Just as Christ was a humble servant for the people to whom He was sent, we are called to live in faith and share the message of forgiveness and freedom from our burdens with the world. By living a life of humble action, giving to others and sharing God’s grace, we may not end up with fame or fortune or have a huge impact on our world, but we will bless those see God glorified in our life and we will share in that blessing.
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; And my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts; And in the hidden part thou wilt make me to know wisdom. Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, And blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; And take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; And uphold me with a willing spirit.” Psalm 51:1-12, ASV
Have you ever heard the phrase “crocodile tears?” Have you ever wondered about its origin? Experts in crocodile life and behavior tell us that crocodiles do not even have tear ducts, they can’t cry. However, the glands that moisten the crocodile’s eyes are so close to the animal's throat that they tend to secret moisture when the animal is swallowing. The original use of the phrase seems to go back more than six hundred years ago to European explorers. In a book titled “The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville” that was published in 1400 said, “In many places of Inde are many crocodiles—that is, a manner of long serpent. These serpents slay men and they eat them weeping.” The crocodile does not weep out of shame for eating a man, but it seems as though it is crying. Is the crocodile sad that it cannot finish the inedible head?
Reverend William Secker, in “Nonsuch Professor in His Meridian Splendor” wrote, “Some have tears enough for their outward losses, but none for their inward lusts; they can mourn for the evil that sin brings, but not for the sin which brings the evil. Pharoah more lamented the hard strokes which were open to him, than the hard heart that was within him. Esau mourned not because he sold his birth-right, which was his sin, but because he lost the blessing, which was his punishment. This is like weeping with an onion, the eye sheds tears because it smarts.” These are crocodile tears.
How often have you heard so called apologies in the same breath as passing the blame? I once attended a Christian function in which the speaker gave a message that was so offensive as to have been a sin against God and our Lord Jesus Christ. The organizers of the event offered a word of apology for the offensive speech without ever really taking responsibility for their mistake. They offered a word that stated, “We are sorry if you were offended…” Of course we were offended. God was offended. There was no confession, no attempt to correct the errors, no sense of repentance at all. The apology was little more than crocodile tears.
Today’s psalm is a prayerful cry for mercy by King David in response to Nathan’s judgment concerning the episode with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife and his killing of Uriah. David realized that his sin was not only a sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, but that it was even more so a sin against God. All our sins, from the smallest mistakes to the greatest willful disobedience, are sins against God. God calls us to repentance, but if we place the blame on others we are crying nothing more than crocodile tears; we are no different than Pharoah with his hard heart or Esau selling our birthright. We would do well to be more like David, to recognize our sin, repent and seek God’s forgiveness. We sin against Him and the world in thought, word and deed, and today is the day to cry out for God’s mercy. His mercy is great; He will blot out our iniquities.
“Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah: and thou shalt love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ASV
According to the Talmud, which is a Jewish book with the text and commentary of civil and ceremonial law, there are 613 commandments. Those commandments include rules for the priests, for the men and for everyone, and they provide rules for life in community and faith. The bible includes other rules for living, including many commands from Jesus that augment the 613. Perhaps this sounds like a lot of rules, but it is important to understand the reason for Law.
In the movie, “Mona Lisa Smiles,” Julia Roberts plays an art teacher at Wellesley College. The women who attended Wellesley in the 1950’s were not interested in getting an education. The degree they wanted was the MRS. They were there to find a husband who would provide a good life so that they could happily live as a housewife and a trophy on his arm. The girls were smart; they knew the facts. But they had no opinions of their own. Julia Robert’s character taught them to see the world from a different perspective; she showed them that they could be happy with a career and without a husband.
Of course, she faced opposition; she lived by her own rules and upset people along the way. The college alumni did not let her change the status quo. The mothers of the girls expected them to find husbands and would not waver. The boyfriends demanded obedience from the girls. In the end, they realized that there was indeed more to life than being a housewife and they stepped forth in faith. To them, the rules became burdensome and oppressive.
The behavior of the girls, the teachers and the mothers had consequences. If they went against the expectations of society they were outcast. Relationships were broken if they disappointed their friends. They failed if they did not follow the instructions. A new path led to divorce or separation from loved ones. They lost homes, jobs, children, respect and honor in a world where such things were lifted onto pedestals. Adherence to the rules meant peace and happiness. Unfortunately, the rules were a confusing and contradicting mix coming from every direction. Some of the rules were meant to keep things as they were; others were made to bring change. Some seemed to protect and others to endanger. Which way should they go? It is no wonder that many women rebelled against the status quo in that time.
But rules are not meant to be oppressive or burdensome, especially God’s Law. Jesus spoke to this often; He reminded the people of the reason for the Law. It was meant to protect them. It was a sign to help them see and believe and remain in the care of the God who was their Creator and Redeemer. Law was a gift given so that the people would remember God and look to Him always. The stories in the bible show us what happened to the people when the people turned away. He did not punish them, but they suffered the consequences. They broke the relationship with God when they went their own way. The blessed life of the obedient is not a reward for good behavior, but it is effect of a right relationship with God.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells us that the rule found in today’s text is the foundation of it all. There might be 613 rules, or more, but the bottom line is that they are all based in love. Peace and happiness comes to the one who loves: first God and then one another. The rules help us to live well in those relationships. Generations have discussed the meaning and practice of following those rules. The commentary in the Talmud is the compilation of hundreds of years of debate. It can be confusing. Some rules keep the status quo; others bring change. This confusing mix makes it difficult for us to follow the Law.
Our Lord Jesus came to remind us of the true purpose of the Law: to turn our hearts and minds to Him. There are certainly rules that we should teach our children so that they will live well and avoid the consequences of sin. But the real lesson that God has written on our hearts and that He calls us to share with the generations that come after us is to love God and our neighbors with our whole being.