Welcome to the August 2014 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 2014
August 1, 2014
“I thank my God upon all my remembrance of you, always in every supplication of mine on behalf of you all making my supplication with joy, for your fellowship in furtherance of the gospel from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ: even as it is right for me to be thus minded on behalf of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as, both in my bonds and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how I long after you all in the tender mercies of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:3-11, ASV
Fifteen years. Can you believe that I have been doing this for fifteen years? I began writing A WORD FOR TODAY on August 1, 1999. I was moderating an email discussion list for an online acquaintance that went on vacation, and she liked to ensure that everyone had something in their mailbox on a daily basis. She knew how to work with graphics and tended to send a lot of funny or inspirational pictures. I, on the other hand, preferred to work in words. I committed to write the brief devotions for two weeks, but I kept going once the commitment was over. The list expanded beyond that group and eventually I created the website. Now I’m using Facebook to share God’s Word with the world.
Everything has changed in those fifteen years. I have developed in my writing. The format has changed. I’ve added MIDWEEK OASIS on Wednesdays. I once posted seven days a week, but realized that I should take a Sabbath rest, so moved to five days a week. I have to admit that I sometimes repost older devotions, especially some of my favorites. I often get my ideas from the past, although I usually edit the writing in some way to make it better, to remove typographical errors or to include new knowledge about the text. I haven’t even come close to writing about the entire bible; I have used some favorite texts many times over the years. The messages have included everything from the extremely mundane to deeply spiritual, from worldly problems to heavenly promises.
There was a time when I had hoped that the words I write would go viral, that my list would be sent not to hundreds but thousands of emailboxes. This was not a hope for fame or notoriety, but so that God’s Word would impact as many people as possible. While I wouldn’t mind reaching extraordinary numbers, my daily prayer is that the work I do will impact at least one heart in a life-changing way.
Today’s passage is one of my favorites. As a matter of fact, I’ve used it multiple times over the past fifteen years. I’ve even quoted verses 9-11 on the business card I use when sharing my website with others. In these words we see the deep love he had for the Christians in his care. He was unconcerned about the persecution that was happening to him as long as his brothers and sisters were growing in grace and love. The simple grace of Jesus Christ is the very thing that got him and them through the difficult times. They were constantly, as we still are, moving toward the Day of the Lord, and knowing that God is always near will help us persevere until He fulfills all His promises.
It has always been my desire to encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to grow in faith and live the life God is calling each of us to live, and I am often amazed that God has called me to this ministry. I continue to pray that these words do a great work in your life, that God is able to use my humble gifts to make a life-changing impact on your life. I am so thankful that He has chosen me for this work and I know that it would never have been possible on my own.
Though many of you are strangers, we are one in Christ, joined together in Spirit and truth. Sharing our faith is never easy; it is fraught with the dangers of persecution and spiritual warfare. However, I know I am never alone. I am confident that God has brought us together for mutual edification and that together we will continue to bless the world through our witness. May God continue to bless each of us so to shine the light of Christ into the world for another fifteen years!
“Oh give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; For his lovingkindness endureth for ever. Let Israel now say, That his lovingkindness endureth for ever. Let the house of Aaron now say, That his lovingkindness endureth for ever. Let them now that fear Jehovah say, That his lovingkindness endureth for ever. Out of my distress I called upon Jehovah: Jehovah answered me and set me in a large place. Jehovah is on my side; I will not fear: What can man do unto me? Jehovah is on my side among them that help me: Therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me. It is better to take refuge in Jehovah Than to put confidence in man. It is better to take refuge in Jehovah Than to put confidence in princes. All nations compassed me about: In the name of Jehovah I will cut them off. They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: In the name of Jehovah I will cut them off. They compassed me about like bees; They are quenched as the fire of thorns: In the name of Jehovah I will cut them off. Thou didst thrust sore at me that I might fall; But Jehovah helped me. Jehovah is my strength and song; And he is become my salvation. The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous: The right hand of Jehovah doeth valiantly. The right hand of Jehovah is exalted: The right hand of Jehovah doeth valiantly. I shall not die, but live, And declare the works of Jehovah.” Psalm 118:1-17, ASV
I have a decent digital camera which I took with me on my trip the other week. I managed to get some very nice pictures in Charleston, which I later downloaded onto my computer to share. I did the final download at the second place where I stayed, and when I finished moving the pictures I forgot to put the chip back into my camera. I never even closed the little door where it belongs. The chip is the memory for the camera, and allows me to take thousands of pictures. It is vital to the camera use, and the camera will not even turn on when the little door is left open.
There was something in my office I wanted to photograph the other night, so I grabbed that camera which was not far away. I tried to turn it on, but there was no power. I changed the battery. Still no good. I charged the battery. It still didn’t work. Then, after more than an hour of worry and fiddling I realized the little door was still open and that the chip was gone. I looked and could not find the chip on my desk, so I had to think and think and think about where it might be. That’s when I realized that it was still in the adapter, buried in my bag from my trip. I found the chip, put it in the slot and closed the door. Everything worked fine.
I was afraid that somehow I had broken the camera during my trip. I just spent money to have it cleaned and checked. I have joked about how I want the newest model, but I really don’t need it while this one still takes excellent pictures. I did not want to have to replace it because it was broken.
Technology is wonderful, but we become rather lost when it doesn’t work properly. The Sheriff’s office in Los Angeles County had to ask people to stop calling 911 during a Facebook outage the other day. Sadly, there are always a few foolish people who think that 911 is there to solve their petty problems, like the wrong order from the fast food place or a spider on the doorstep, but if the sheriff has to make a public announcement, then too many people made that call. Is Facebook so important that a brief outage requires emergency assistance? Technology is man-made and imperfect. It breaks, it needs maintenance, it will not always work as we hope it will work. But unless you are trapped in an elevator in a burning building, most technology bugs are not a matter of life and death.
We’ve come to rely on technology so much that we struggle when it doesn’t work. But that’s the problem with relying on man-made things, they will fail. Even human beings, while made by God, are imperfect and likely to fail. Sadly, we trust people and technology to the point that they become like gods, greater than God Himself; perhaps not greater, but more important. How many of us carry our cell phones everywhere we go? How often do you text while standing in a checkout line or check your email during lunch with a friend? How many times have you checked Facebook or Twitter during a worship service? It has gotten to the point that some pastors use the Internet during their sermons, and many experts suggest taking advantage of social media even during church.
Can we truly focus on the only one who is trustworthy if we are trusting in the things of this world?
Technology is wonderful. I like taking pictures with my big, fancy camera. I like sharing those pictures on my Facebook page. I like having a cell phone so that I can call my husband while I’m at the grocery store to ask what he wants for dinner. But we have to question our reliance on those things when we spend an hour trying to make it work, call for emergency help when it goes down and can’t turn it off for one hour a week while we worship the God who rules over all.
“Jesus therefore said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, It was not Moses that gave you the bread out of heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down out of heaven, and giveth life unto the world. They said therefore unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. 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.” John 6:32-35, ASV
I often find myself dazed and confused when walking around the super grocery stores that carry anything and everything. Instead of a shelf of oil, there is now ten feet of shelf filled with every kind of oil possible. What type of oil do I need? Do I need plain old vegetable oil or one of the more expensive olive oils? Is it worth the extra money to buy the imported oil from another country? Why should I use grapeseed oil? Is there value in those flavored oils? I find myself standing in front of the section reading every bottle for information, and I’m rarely alone. I often find myself turning to my neighbor and saying, “It was so much easier when we didn’t have so many choices.” They always agree.
This happens all around the store, including in the baking department. It seems like there are miles of different types of flour, everything from corn to wheat to semolina and teff. There are many choices in wheat flour: whole wheat, buckwheat, bleached, self-rising, gluten free and instant. You can buy flour that is produced for specific purposes; besides all purpose flour, you can buy flour for bread or cakes. Alongside the flour are products that make baking easier. You can buy mixes for cakes and breads and biscuits.
The choices are overwhelming, but you can see something amazing in that aisle of the grocery store. You can see the world. See, those different types of flour, different types of bread that you can make, all represent different parts of the world. Some places use rice flour, others corn, yet others use wheat, depending on what grows well in their fields. Those different types of flour make different types of bread, from tortillas to challah to baguettes and pitas. Some places use yeast or other ingredients for light fluffy loafs while others make flatbreads. Some breads are sweeter, often enhanced with cinnamon and fruit, while others are sour, made from starter that dates back for generations.
We often have fond memories of bread. I remember the baguette we bought right on the street in Paris and the wonderful loaves we’ve shared at Italian restaurants dipped in olive oil and herbs. Sometimes I think I could ignore the meal and eat just the bread. I love the smell of my house when I’ve just baked a loaf of banana bread. I remember driving by the Sunbeam plant near my home and enjoying the delightful smell even with my car windows closed. I remember crescent rolls with family dinners and pretzels from the snack bar at the alumni center at college. Who doesn’t walk up to the cart of freshly baked bread at the grocery store to see if they are still hot and if they are automatically buy a loaf? And who hasn’t torn into that loaf even before they’ve reached the car? How about those fresh tortillas at your favorite Mexican restaurant? There is something really wonderful about bread.
It is no wonder that Jesus talks about bread. We all know it; it doesn’t matter where you live or what your circumstances, bread made with some sort of crushed grain is part of your diet. And our memories of bread often have more to do with the people, places and experiences that surround the bread than the bread itself. We think of Mom when we see a certain type of bread in a bakery window. We remember that special vacation when we see a baguette at the grocery store. We identify certain types of bread with places we’ve lived, like tortillas in Texas and sourdough in California.
By calling Himself the Bread of Life, Jesus identifies with our most basic need and our humble experiences. He puts us into our everyday lives as well as our extraordinary moments. He wants us to smell the bread our mother baked and to see ourselves around the dinner table with our neighbors. He wants us to know that He fulfills our hunger, the true hunger of the human spirit, a hunger for filling with God. And as we think about Jesus as the Bread of Life, we realize that He comes to us in a way that is comforting and familiar. He invites us into the meal, to share in His body and feast on His promises.
I have tasted some of the best bread in the world, but I can’t wait for that feast He has promised, the feast of victory that we’ll eat with Him in eternity. I’ve had a foretaste each time I’ve received the Eucharist, and I know that the best is yet to come.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 10, 2014, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Job 38:4-18; Psalm 18:1-6 (7-16); Romans 10:5-17; Matthew 14:22-33
“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.” Job 38:4, ASV
We laugh at the weathermen. I know that meteorologists are highly educated and that they have incredible computer programs that help them predict the weather. I know that they get it right more often than not. It is sometimes quite amazing to watch the model predictions of expected storms and see how close they came to the real thing.
I laugh when the try to give us a two week forecast, or even try to tell us on Monday what will be happening the next weekend. You can watch every local newscast and hear different expectations. One puts the chance of rain at 60% while the other does not expect rain at all. Their models all come together on Friday and they tend to predict similar weather. The science is getting better, but it is still not something we can predict with any real accuracy so far in advance.
You can see this most clearly when the weathermen display the computer models for hurricanes. They call it the spaghetti model because the picture of the many different possibilities looks like a plate of spaghetti. Early in the formation of the storm, the models have it going many different directions. There are a few that tend to be more accurate, but even those will change as time goes on. In the end, the models tend to tighten up only when the storm is close to land, and then they can make their landfall predictions. Unfortunately, some storms still surprise them and veer one way or another. Hurricane Rita was expected to make landfall around Corpus Christi, putting San Antonio directly in its path. The city prepared, and though we are well inland and the hurricane would be downgraded significantly, we still expected nasty weather, flooding and the other problems associated with a storm. It turned at the last minute and made landfall near Houston. We had nothing but sunny skies. This last minute turn proved devastating because the city could not evacuate fast enough. People were stuck on the highways for hours trying to escape.
We try, and the science is getting better. Storm chasers are learning something new with every tornado they encounter. I am sure it is a frustrating job because no matter how many times they get things right, we still laugh when the weathermen get it completely wrong. We joke that it is the best job to have in San Antonio because they are right nine months out of the year (sunny and hot.) The local weathermen have created all sorts of new ways of sharing the weather to make it more interesting, comparing temperatures in different ‘zones’ just to show that there is something to predict. There is one map which puts up the expected temperatures in different neighborhoods; last night’s predictions were anywhere from 96-99 degrees. Is 96 all that different than 99, really? It is all hot. And the reality is that it might be 99 in my front yard where it is sunny and 96 in my backyard where it is shady.
It is an important job, though. We need to know the weather. It is helpful to know what the weather might be in two weeks, especially if we are planning a vacation or a picnic. It is good to know if a hurricane might come our way so we can make sure that we have the supplies we need. Families who live on the coastlines where hurricanes can hit need to board up their windows or evacuate. Families who live in tornado alley need to make sure that they have a safe place to hide. Flood zones need to be prepared. We need to know if it will be extremely warm or cold so that we can dress appropriately.
Through it all, however, we have to remember that the weathermen are not God. They might get it right most of the time, but sometimes they fail. They can’t always predict the unpredictable.
I thought about the weathermen as I read today’s passage from Job. Of course, God wasn’t speaking to the scientists that try to predict how much rain will fall, but He is talking to us when we try to be in control. Sometimes we think we know better than God. Job certainly felt that way. He made his case before God, claiming that he did not deserve the suffering he experienced. We do the same; we cry, “Why me?” and then lay out all the reasons why we deserve better. We have been good. We have gone to church. We have done nice things for our neighbor. “Why did this happen to me?”
We never really know the answer, but sometimes we discover that we are blessed through the suffering. In this speech, God reminds Job that he can’t possibly know everything that God knows. We weren’t there when He created the world. We don’t know the measure or the line. Science may have come to understand a great deal about the way the world works, but no human being knows what God knows.
We suffer, not because God is making life difficult for us, but because we live in a perishable and imperfect world. No matter how good we are, we are not perfect. Sometimes the suffering is a consequence of our frail flesh. Through it all, however, we can continue to trust in God because He does know. We might be sick or going through a difficult situation. We make wrong decisions; we turn down the wrong path. Our mistakes are not always blatantly wrong; we aren’t evil because we make a mistake.
I was in Charleston, South Carolina during my trip the other week. I arrived early and spent time enjoying the sites, but on my way back to my hotel I decided to locate the venue for the conference. I knew where it was approximately, but I did not have exact directions. I found a part of the campus, but it did not make sense. I drove around the block and could not find a place to park or even a building that looked correct. I made a turn down one road and ended up at a dead end. I made another turn and found myself driving into the city. I went around the block several times, spent nearly an hour trying to find the place but never did. I went back to my hotel hoping I could find someone who had the answer.
I found my way, but I have to admit that there were some crazy, scary moments. I don’t like to be lost in a strange city. I’ve ended up in bad neighborhoods late at night because I have made a wrong turn. It is scary because I could possibly suffer at the hands of someone who wants to take advantage of my mistake. I could ask the question, “Why me?” but the reality is that I was in that situation because of my imperfection. Some suffering can be attributed to sin and the sins that we commit, but sometimes it is simply a reality of this imperfect world.
I suppose this is especially true when it comes to the weather. Can a family be blamed because their house is destroyed by a tornado? Are they experiencing the consequences of sin because they lose everything during a hurricane? Is it their fault that the temperature is too or too cold? We can’t even blame the weathermen for inconvenient weather, so we certainly can’t blame the victims. And we shouldn’t blame God.
Sadly, we do blame God when we experience unexpected suffering. We cry out, “Why me?” We lay down the reasons why He should have protected us or saved us or stopped the bad thing from happening. We don’t deserve it. This is actually true. We don’t deserve the good or the bad. Sometimes it happens. What we need to do is trust that God will help us through the good and the bad. Trust. It is all a matter of trust.
The disciples experienced an unexpected storm. Jesus sent them across the lake to the other side while He went to the mountain to pray. He was planning to catch up with them later. Unfortunately, the wind blew so hard that they could not make the boat go forward. It kept them in one place, a way off the shore.
Storms can be frightening. In this story, the disciples were familiar with the lake, with the boat and with storms, but it doesn’t make it any less frightening for them. They probably predicted that they had enough time to cross before the storm hit, but it came out of nowhere. They weren’t prepared. They were exposed to the elements. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to see a man walking toward them. There is no way a man could walk there, even in the best of weather. Who could be out there? Why would he be out there? They thought it must be a ghost, and I don’t blame them. Things like ghosts help us explain the unexplainable, and Jesus walking on water is one of those things. They were expecting to see Him on the other side, not to catch up with the boat on the lake. They were already frightened, and the image of a man in a place he shouldn’t be would just add to the fear.
In this story we see a wide range of emotion, especially from Peter. In just a few lines, Peter is terrified, uncertain, demanding, trusting, doubtful and then confident. He believed and then he didn’t believe and then he believed. He trusted and then he didn’t trust and then he trusted again. Isn’t that it is with us? We trust God with our whole hearts until something happens that makes us uncertain or doubtful. Like Job we cry out, “Why me?” and demand proof that God is really there. Like Peter we realize in the midst of faith that it is all so ridiculous. We take our eyes off God and realize that we can’t walk on water.
In the end, God has proven Himself in Jesus. He is truly the Son of God and He has ensured that we will be blessed in the end. It might seem like we should have that perfect life today; it might seem to us that the reality of the world should not interrupt our lives, but we aren’t in control. We can’t possibly know what God knows or see what God sees. We can trust that even in our bad times that God is near and that He will be faithful.
The storms of life will come, and no matter how good we are at predicting the weather, something will catch us off-guard. It is important to be prepared. In flesh we do so by having bottled water and non-perishable food, a radio to listen for news and fresh batteries. We can buy generators to provide electricity just in case and we make plans for evacuation when necessary.
The Psalm for today reminds us to be prepared in another way. Where do we get our strength? Who is our stronghold? In whom do we put our trust? Do we trust in the weathermen who get it wrong so often, or do we look to the God who created the whole world? It is good to be prepared for the storm, but what will we do when the storm strikes without notice? Will we be like Job, crying “Why me?” or will we look to our God and say, “You are my strength”?
It is good to be prepared for the inevitable storms. Even more so, it is good to be prepared for the storms of life, so that your faith will never waver. As the world tries to harm you and your enemies approach to attack, remember that the Lord God Almighty is your rock, your refuge. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ call out to God and by the power of His Holy Spirit you will know His love and grace. He will see you through.
We often face our suffering by demanding something from God. Job demanded an answer. Peter demanded proof. We demand healing or vengeance or salvation. Paul reminds us, however, that we can’t make God do what we want Him to do. We can’t go to heaven or hell to bring Him to us. We can’t make God do what we want Him to do. We can only trust that He has done what He has promised and that He will be faithful. See, it wasn’t man who demanded Jesus come, but God who sent Him and Jesus who obeyed. It wasn’t man who demanded Jesus be raised from the dead, but God who restored Him to life so that we can live with Him in eternity. We can’t do it; we can only trust that He can and that He did. It is in that trust that we find life and hope and peace, even in the midst of suffering.
Here’s the real joy of Paul’s words: God invites us to be a part of His work. Though we cannot go to get Jesus for ourselves, He is with us and near us in our hearts and in the Gospel, which is spoken into our lives. Paul says that when we believe His Word in our hearts and confess Him as Lord with our mouths we are saved. Of course, we often look at faith in extremes: it has to be fully God’s grace or fully our decision. But when we do this we lose the beauty of the relationship God has ordained between Himself and His people. We are given an active role in His Kingdom, even from the beginning of our relationship with Him. We join our hearts and minds with His by participating in His wonderful grace. It cannot happen without God, we can’t make it happen ourselves, for without Jesus none could be saved. By His grace we receive that which He has promised, confessing with our lives that His is indeed Lord of all.
When it comes to faith, I wonder about those who hold to extreme views, and yet by listening to discussions between people of different perspectives I have realized that there can be an understanding that falls in the middle, joining the good things of both extremes for the glory of God. Too many of the debates separate grace and confession when they belong together as one. Grace and faith reveals itself in word and action so that we can live in the assurance of God’s promises. We trust in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus is truly the Son of God. Through Him we have life and by His grace we are blessed.
He invites us into His work by giving us opportunities to tell others about Him. Those of us who know the Lord Jesus can’t imagine what life would be like without Him. We wonder at those people who are able to live day after day without some relationship with God. We can’t fathom the atheist who claims there is no God, especially when we see a perfect rose, a brightly colored rainbow or feel a cool breeze on a hot day. We see God’s hand in the coincidences that seem to occur at just the right moment in just the right place to answer our prayers. We see Him in our relationships, in our worship, in our lives as we walk forth in faith. So, we cannot understand how they do not see Him also.
Yet, even as we do not understand how they do not see Him, do we show them? Those who hear us speak about the Lord may not believe when they hear. They may not even believe a week, a month or years after they heard our words. However, once they know that God is there, it is hard to miss Him. Eventually they realize that coincidences are not coincidental, but rather that those moments are designed by the living, loving God of creation.
It isn’t easy to share the Word, to introduce people to Christ, especially if they look at our lives filled with suffering and refuse to believe in a God who would allow it to happen. It is no wonder that many refuse to see Him. That should never stop us from sharing Jesus with the world, however. We have been invited to be the mouths that confess God’s grace to the world. Our confession not only reminds us of the God who is near and who is trustworthy, but it offers that same grace to those who as yet do not believe.
Here’s a joke for today: An enthusiastic young Methodist minister was posted to a small town where there was both a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue. The Catholic priest and the Jewish rabbi welcomed the young minister warmly and offered any assistance he might need in his new charge. Then they invited him to go fishing with them. As they were sitting in the boat about fifty yards from shore, the priest said he was thirsty. But they had left the cooler on the dock. The Rabbi said, “I’ll get it.” With that he stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the cooler. Later the rabbi hooked a large trout, but the net had been left on the dock also. So the priest stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the net. By this time the young minister was a little red in the face. Then the old priest said that he had left his knife on the dock and he couldn’t get the hook out of the fish’s mouth. The young minister stood up and said, “I’ll get it!” With that, he stepped out the right side of the boat and promptly sank to his eyebrows. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “Well Father, if we’re gonna’ help this boy, we should start by showing him where the steppin’ stones are.”
The emotions that night on the water were intense. Peter experienced fear, uncertainty, overconfidence, trust, doubt and confidence in a matter of minutes. He saw Jesus walking on water and he wanted to believe. He wanted to believe so much that he thought the only way he could do so was to prove to himself, and to the others including Jesus, that he had enough faith to walk on the water. He did well in the beginning because he kept his eyes on Jesus. Then suddenly he turned his attention to something else—the storm. His thoughts turned inward, to his safety and the ridiculous nature of what he was trying to do. He could not walk on water and by stepping out of the boat he was sure he would drown.
The joke is funny because the priest and the rabbi didn’t really walk on water. They knew about stepping stones that would take them to the dock safe and dry. The young minister did not know there were stones. He thought that the priest and the rabbi had so much more faith and he thought he had to prove that he was as faithful and holy as they. His purpose for going to the dock was not to serve the others but to prove his faith.
I suspect that none of us will ever walk on water. No matter how much we trust God we do not need to prove our faith by doing something impossible and amazing. However, Jesus calls us out of our boat all the time. He calls us out of our comfort zone into situations where we can serve others even though we are not entirely comfortable. He calls us to come to Him in ways that are beyond our ability so that we will learn to keep our eyes on Him for strength. The problems come when we turn our thoughts inward. We get into trouble when our motivation is self-centered, when we allow fear and envy to guide our steps. When Jesus calls us out of the boat saying “Come,” we will stand as long as we keep our eyes, and hearts, on Him.
We weren’t there when God laid the foundations of the earth and we will never be able to fully understand Him. But He is with us, near us, in our lives and our hearts and our mouths. He knows how to turn suffering into blessing. He calls us to trust in Him, to believe with our hearts and to confess with our mouths that He is Lord. It won’t be easy. We are no different than Job or Paul. We can rest in the knowledge that God knows that, too, and that He has given us the way of forgiveness. He will be there to pick us up whenever we fail because He has promised always to be near.
“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another; in honor preferring one another; in diligence not slothful; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing stedfastly in prayer; communicating to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless them that persecute you; bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Set not your mind on high things, but condescend to things that are lowly. Be not wise in your own conceits. Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord. But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:9-21 (ASV)
Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock starred in a movie called “Two Weeks Notice.” In this film Sandra Bullock plays a Harvard graduated lawyer named Lucy Kelson whose lifetime goal is to save the world. She is an activist, willingly putting herself in the line of fire for a cause. One day she approached Hugh Grant’s character George Wade who was a multimillionaire. George was planning to destroy an important landmark to make space to build another sky rise building. He decided to hire her as his lawyer and she only agreed because she thought it would give her to resources to accomplish her charitable work.
It did not take long before Lucy realized that she would be far more than just a lawyer. On her first day, George approached her with two envelopes. The envelopes looked identical, but there was some very minor difference between the two. “Which should I purchase for our stationary?” George asked. Lucy looked at the two envelopes and then licked the glue. “This one tastes better.” From that moment, George knew Lucy was decisive, so he sought her advice to everything from which tie to wear to which girls he should date.
After some time, Lucy realized that she could not longer do the job. It was too hard and it was not what she signed up to do. George was calling her at all hours of the day and night, asking her to do the most ridiculous tasks. When he called in the middle of her best friends’ wedding, she decided to give her two weeks notice. During those two weeks, George and Lucy realized they were in love and the story ended happily ever after. Lucy continued to do the same decision making for George, but in the end it was not as his lawyer, but rather as his wife.
If you ask a hundred believers what it means to be a Christian, you might be surprised to find how many different answers you will get. Some people think being a Christian is about being an advocate for the poor. Others consider the church a family and think church is about those relationships. Some think it is an intellectual lifestyle of study and debate. Yet others consider it a call to separation from the world, such as in a monastic community. None of these ideas is wrong, but they aren’t complete. As Christians, we are called to be in the world but of another world. We are called to be advocates and to be students. Our Christian life will have grand moments of inspiration and great acts, but it will also be filled with those little daily acts of faith. Most of all, it will not be easy. The life Christ calls us to live is hard and usually nothing like we will expect it to be.
We all have expectations for our life in Christ. There are many who pursue the vocation of pastor with the expectation of making grand things happen for God; they want to build large churches, motivate active disciples, or reach out into the community with powerful ministry. When they get into a parish, however, they suddenly realize there are hundreds of small, seemingly insignificant tasks that need to be accomplished. They become discouraged and give up. The Christian lifestyle is about living in a relationship with God. We want to make great things happen, but sometimes we are called to those menial tasks, the humble acts of faith that manifest the love of Christ. We live in that love for the sake of others, despite our agendas and goals.
Paul notes that the Christian life is hard but it is the life that God is calling us to live. It is a life of active love, joy in hardship, compassion, forgiveness, humility and peace keeping. The expectations found in today’s passage seem impossible. I might be able to serve my friends, but it is much harder to serve my enemies. I might be able to stay out of a fight, but how can I ever see beauty in a terrifying murderer? I don’t mind giving food to the food bank, but I am hesitant to give a dollar to the guy on the corner who might not really be homeless. Can I real avoid evil in a topsy-turvy world where good is called evil and evil good? How do I live as a good friend to someone who isn’t a very good friend?
Paul tells us earlier in the chapter that we do all this by putting our lives before God as an offering. We embrace what God has done for us and then we do the same for our neighbors. After all, aren’t we the friend who isn’t a very good friend? Aren’t we hungering for something we don’t really deserve? Don’t we make life difficult for our neighbors; aren’t we ugly from sin and unbearable in our selfishness? That which we do to our neighbors, we also do to our God. Yet, our God still loves us, forgives us, and serves us in ways we cannot fathom or duplicate. It is impossible, and yet it is the life God calls us to live, a life of active love that overcomes the worst of human failure and meets the deepest needs of the world.
“Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ. Yea verily, and I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but refuse, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death; if by any means I may attain unto the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye are otherwise minded, this also shall God reveal unto you: only, whereunto we have attained, by that same rule let us walk.” Philippians 3:7-16, ASV
It is strange to be a mom without small children. It is especially strange as we get closer to the first day of school. When our children are young, we spend these last few weeks getting ready. The stores are filled with Back to School sales. This weekend is a tax-free weekend in Texas. The television commercials, news broadcasts and Facebook posts remind us every day that now is the time to prepare. We should be out there buying new boxes of crayons and the latest lunchbox fashions. I love shopping the school supplies and it drives me crazy that I have no reason to do so. I have to admit that I did buy new crayons, colored pencils and markers. I looked at notebooks; after all, how can you pass them up when they are just 17 cents? I did, because I have a stack of unused notebooks from previous sales. I just don’t need to spend that money anymore.
The good thing about this is that my children are growing up. They are becoming independent adults, finding their place in the world. There are always decisions that need to be made, opportunities will come and life will throw curveballs; but for now, they seem to be on a good path. It is hard to watch them wander away, but that’s a part of growing up.
I recently watched the Facebook posts of a mom who went with her daughter as she set out on a new phase of her life. She is going to graduate school far from home. I’ve seen other young people make similar journeys, including my own daughter Victoria. These young people make life-changing decisions. They have to pack up everything, leave their home, family and friends to establish new lives in other places far away. These decisions often work out well; the young adults succeed in their chosen fields and their lives are changed for the good. It is never easy. Homesickness, immaturity and lack of responsibility can lead to disasters. The trouble is not always self-imposed. We do live in precarious times. It is dangerous out there and not entirely secure. What happens when a young person moves a thousand miles for a job that is cut because the company has to file for bankruptcy? What if that young person contracts a disease or experiences a natural disaster? What if they discover that the perfect job isn’t quite so perfect? Was it worth giving up a secure, happy life for the risk of something uncertain? It is hard work to walk away from the old to follow something totally different.
Paul gave up so much to become an apostle for Jesus Christ. He was successful and powerful, a leader among the Jews. This new faith was different than anything he already knew, he had to learn the language, establish credibility. He had to fight for any respect he had from both the Jews and the Christians. The Jews stopped believing him because he spoke about the One who they were trying to stop. The Christians could not believe the change in him because he had persecuted them for so long. Yet, in the end Paul overcame all the difficulties and did well as an apostle, bringing many to faith in Christ.
We give up a great deal to become followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our faith takes us into a new world. We often lose friendships and family ties are broken. Sometimes we are forced into finding new jobs because the expectations at work contrasts with the life we are called to live in Christ. We are transformed and in faith we no longer do the things we once thought were right to do, becoming a whole new person. And yet, everything we give up is worth setting aside so that we can journey in faith toward the ultimate goal: eternal life with our Father in heaven.
It isn’t easy. We want to be perfect today, but we still fail. We know that we disappoint our Father because we think, say and do the wrong things while not thinking, saying and doing the right things. We miss the opportunities to share God’s grace or avoid them because we are afraid. We don’t understand everything about God or Jesus. We can’t explain our faith to our neighbors so we do not try to tell them about it. We have doubts. We are discouraged. We want to get to the goal, but we have a long, long way to go. Sometimes we fail along the way. Sometimes we want to give up.
I heard a speaker talk about today’s passage. Here are the three points that he made to inspire us with this text. First of all, let us remember that God isn’t done with us yet. We aren’t perfect, sure, but He is still transforming us. We won’t be finished until that day when we stand in His presence and we shouldn’t be discouraged because He hasn’t given up. Second, we will make mistakes. We are imperfect. God knows that we are, but He continues to forgive our failure and then He teaches us how to be better. Finally, we should always remember that the best is yet to come. We want to be perfect for God here and now, but we can’t. We live in an imperfect, sin-filled world and dwell in imperfect, sin-filled flesh. But our goal is not to make this world into heaven, but to do God’s work in this world until it is time to go to heaven. See, the here and now is temporary; we are striving for something far more permanent. Not just permanent, but eternal.
Paul says, “Press on.” God isn’t done yet, we will make mistakes and the best is yet to come; these are the very reasons why we should press on. We can trust that God knows what He’s doing, that He will forgive our failure and that He is preparing an eternity that is beyond anything that we can possibly imagine. For today, let’s be thankful for the opportunities that we have been given, move out into the world even if it is scary and remember that God is with us no matter what happens. We might have to take a step back, reassess our lives once in awhile. We might even have to give up and try something new, but we can always trust that God is with us, pushing us forward, encouraging us to press on.
“Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.” Hebrews 10:19-25, ASV
There is a television commercial for a very large, local church that has been running lately. The pastor begins by saying, “I know you can’t always get to church,” and then he says, “But when you do, we want you to come here.” He’s reaching out to the people who are nominally Christian, filling his pews with people who aren’t willing to make the commitment to attend church regularly. There’s an honesty to this advertising campaign; he’s reaching out with a gracious understanding of the reality of life in the 21st century to people who are searching for something. I can understand why he has chosen this message for his ads.
I’ll be honest, however, it bothers me. I’m sure he thinks that the people he gets through the door the first time will become disciples under his leadership. After all, the hard part of growing a congregation is getting people through the door the first time; catering to the reality of modern life and promising no pressure for commitment will at least make them curious. I think it bothers me because I doubt that it is really honest; sure, they admit that schedules are hard, but are they all that willing to have uncommitted people pouring through their doors?
After all, we have been commanded not only to get them through the door, but to make them disciples by teaching them everything Jesus taught us. We are not just supposed to get them to say a quick prayer of salvation and dunk them in some water. We are sent into the world to teach and preach and change lives. It isn’t enough to show up to church on the occasional Sunday morning to worship God; we are called to commit our whole lives to worship and service. We can’t be all that we have been created to be if we try to do it on our own. We need to dwell in the fellowship of believers, to join in prayer and confess our sins in community. We need to hear the Word read and proclaimed. We need to feast on the Eucharist. We encourage one another, teach one another, and correct one another. We can’t be Christians alone, or even if we just pop into church occasionally. We need to be part of the body which God has built; without regular Christian fellowship we are like an unattached pinky toe: virtually useless to God.
I do understand why the pastor is using this kind of advertising focus for his ads on television. Perhaps it will fill his pews with seekers who will come to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. I, however, find it problematic because it is yet another example of the church catering to the ways of the world. It is easy to make church about meeting the needs of human beings and making God fit into our lives. In doing so, we settle for less than the true salvation by working toward something that is less than real. We seek after redemption that fits into our box without ever seeing that the freedom of God’s grace comes only by committing ourselves to the faith He gives. It is never enough to show up once in awhile, and I wonder what sort of disciples the church is making when they are looking for those occasional Christians.
God is looking for those who are willing to make Him the priority. He wants disciples willing to sacrifice the demands of the world to be with Him for that one hour a week so that we can take Him into world with knowledge, wisdom, strength, courage, grace, peace and joy. We can’t do that on our own. We need to be strengthened by the whole body in worship and praise, prayer and study so that we’ll be ready to do His work.
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name's sake; among whom are ye also called to be Jesus Christ's: To all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:1-7, ASV
I was looking for inspiration for today’s devotion. My daughter, who follows the Daily Office, gave me the scriptures for today. Included in the list was 2 Samuel 13. I knew right from the start that the story was not likely to be very inspirational for me. It was the story of Amnon, David’s son, and his love for Tamar his half-sister. He wanted to convince her to sleep with him, but she was a virgin and he could not have her. Amnon’s friend thought of a plan to get Tamar into his bed.
Amnon pretended to be bedstricken and asked Tamar to make him some food. He asked her to enter his bedroom to feed it to him with her own hand. When she did as he asked, he grabbed her hand and pleaded with her. “Come to bed with me.” She begged him not to do this terrible thing; she knew it would be disgraceful among the people of Israel. She knew it would ruin her. He ignored her pleas and raped her. He no longer loved her afterwards and sent her away, disgracing her just as she feared.
Not much inspiration in a story like that, is there? The story goes on to tell how Tamar’s brother sought vengeance on Amnon for what he did to Tamar. Absalom killed Amnon and then fled from David’s house. This was the beginning of David’s family troubles, troubles that played out in murder, treachery, and a fight for the throne. David deserves the blame because he never deals justice for the act and continues to treat Amnon, the firstborn and heir, with fatherly affection while ignoring the needs of his daughter Tamar. Perhaps he felt guilt over his own adultery with Bathsheba and refused to meet out punishment to Amnon that he deserved more. Whatever the reason, we see in this story the beginning of God’s warning in 2 Samuel 12:10, that the sword would never leave David’s house.
This is a hard story. It is one we would rather ignore. What point does it make as it relates to the Gospel message that we are called to share? I certainly would never use this story in a conversation about my faith. There seems to be nothing redeeming in it. It is no wonder that we don’t pay attention to it. It is not found in the Revised Common lectionary. I doubt you’ll see it in any of the Sunday school curriculum. I think we would probably have a hard time finding it in any common bible studies. And yet it is important because we see God’s word (even the warnings) is fulfilled in the story.
We also know, from the rest of the story, that God redeems the failures of David. Despite his sin, God remembered His promise to David from 2 Samuel 7:16, “And thy house and thy kingdom shall be made sure for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.” The kings of Israel and Judah failed throughout their history. They turned from God. The people worshipped other gods. They ignored God’s Word. They went their own way. Like David and his family, they were imperfect and constantly needed forgiveness, redemption and salvation. We see in David’s story the reality that no human, even God’s great kings, are immune from the realities of life in this world. People will make the wrong choices. We’ll take matters into our own hands. We will turn away from God.
We will suffer the consequences of our sin, just as the sword would never leaves David’s house, we can rest in the knowledge that God’s promises are true and that He is faithful even when we are not. David’s throne was established forever, and that promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ our Lord. We benefit from that promise by faith, by believing that God can redeem His people. The story of Tamar’s rape and all that followed doesn’t seem like something we need to know as Christians, but the consolation we receive is that even when our story is filled with violence and intrigue, God is able to use us to share His forgiveness, redemption and salvation with the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 17, 2014, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32; Matthew 15:21-28
“Oh let the nations be glad and sing for joy; For thou wilt judge the peoples with equity, And govern the nations upon earth.” Psalm 67:4, ASV
We have seen in the past few weeks how Matthew has organized his gospel in a way that gives us a lesson and then living that lesson in very real and tangible ways. The same is true in Matthew 15. The chapter begins with Jesus speaking about the way the Pharisees and teachers have made God’s Law a burden, piling human interpretation onto God’s intent in a way that rejects mercy and justice. They wanted to know why his disciples do not wash their hands, but He asked them why they used the traditions to dishonor their parents. They used the Law as an excuse to avoid mercy.
Jesus did the same thing in today’s Gospel lesson, at least to start. A woman, a foreigner, cried out to Jesus for help. She did not belong there. The woman in today’s passage does not fit into the mold of those whom would be considered righteous according to the rules of the Jews. She was a foreigner, a woman, a sinner in need of a savior. We know nothing of this woman. Is she married? Is she wealthy or poor? Is she respected among her people or is she an outcast? All we know is that her daughter is possessed and she is desperate.
She yells to Jesus, “Have mercy,” but Jesus does nothing. He ignores the plea. The disciples did not help her; instead they told Jesus that He must send her away. They were probably concerned about what the other people might say. They didn’t want to ruin the ministry. They didn’t want to upset the authorities. They didn’t want to chase away the very people whom they were saving.
In response to their concern, Jesus answered her, “I was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He seemingly rejected her, but His words brought her closer; she saw the open door and she entered into His presence. She asked again. He answered, “It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs.” These are answers expected of someone in His position. Jesus was being like the Pharisees He’d just rebuked for following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. He was showing His disciples what it looks like to be unmerciful.
But the woman showed what it means to be faithful. She accepted His judgment: she was a dog. She was a sinner. She needed Him. She probably knew what the Jews thought about her daughter’s demon-possession. She probably understood that she was to blame; she accepted that blame and humbled herself before the Lord. She knew Jesus could fix it. “Yea, Lord: for even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She sought Jesus’ mercy and had confidence that God’s promises were as real for her as they were for God’s people.
They are. And because she believed, she was lifted up as an example of great faith. In the end, Jesus showed the disciples and those Pharisees what God intended.
How hard must it have been for those Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who thought they had great faith, to see Him crediting this foreign woman with a faith that was not obvious in their own lives? What about those disciples? They left homes and families and followed Jesus everywhere and yet in last week’s story about walking on the water in the storm, they had little faith. How could a foreign woman have great faith when they had little?
She had great faith because she trusted in God even though she had no reason to think He would do anything for her. The disciples had everything going for them: they were Jews. They came from the right heritage. They believed in God. They knew the scriptures. They followed the Law. They followed Jesus. Surely their faith must be great!
Jesus isn’t suggesting that she was better than the others, or that she was more deserving of God’s grace. Compared to the disciples and to the Pharisees, she didn’t have the credentials. She didn’t appear to be the right kind of person to receive God’s blessing. She simply had no reason to believe that God would do anything for her. Yet Jesus saw her faith and humility and held her up as an example of great faith. She doesn’t need the credentials; she only needs to believe.
God made this promise well before Jesus ministered in and around Israel. He promised that His grace and mercy would be given to all who have faith. In the Old Testament we see that the identifying mark of God’s people was national and religious heritage. The Jews were Jews because of where they came from and their genealogy. It had seemed to have nothing to do with their hearts. At least, that’s what they thought. In today’s passage from Isaiah, God warns them that it is not their race, nationality or any other outwardly identifying marks, which makes them people of God. His people are those who love Him and who live according to the intent of His Word. They are found worshipping in the Temple with joy. They do justice and have a right relationship with God and His creation. Those are the ones whom God will embrace, whose sacrifices God will accept. It doesn’t matter what they wear, whether or not they can pinpoint their genealogical line. God sees their hearts. The world sees their witness in the way they trust God’s Word.
In this passage from Isaiah, the Lord promises the foreigners that they will have a future and that they will benefit from the covenant promises. They will be adopted into God’s family and given His name if they believe and obey His Word. Though they may not be able to claim a physical ancestry to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they become sons of the patriarchs through faith. Most Christians are foreigners, but we also will benefit from the promises of God. We are those who have been gathered along with Israel to live in the heart and the kingdom of God. We are the dogs, but our faith is great because we humble ourselves and believe.
We know that the promises, like this one found in Isaiah, were meant for us. We don’t need special credentials to enter into the presence of God. Jesus Christ broke down all the barriers between people. In Him there is no difference in nationality, gender or race. Jesus Christ came in flesh to live and to die for our sake, to reconcile all of us to the God who has mercy. By faith we all become part of one family; we are made right by God and we are invited to share in the covenant promises no matter who we are.
I’ve heard people say, “He (or she) looks like a Christian.” What does a Christian look like? Does it have to do with what they wear? Can race, nationality, physical features or gender act as identifying marks? Does wearing a certain piece of jewelry mean a person is a Christian? They may be outward signs that make a person’s faith obvious, but even then we can’t always be sure. Those physical signs do not guarantee commitment to God. Like the Pharisees, they may look like they are doing all the right things and come from the right heritage, but are they humble and trust in God? We might not know the answer to those questions, we can’t read the heart, but God can.
We also can’t read the hearts of those who don’t look like Christians, either. Who have we rejected because they didn’t fit our expectations? Who have we sent away because they didn’t belong to our group? We aren’t much different than the disciples that day in the region of Tyre and Sidon. We’ve ignored the cries of those who have reached out to God for mercy. We have rejected them. We’ve told God to send them away. Thankfully, some of those who were rejected continued to seek God. They persevered in that faith, knowing that it is God who saves, not His disciples.
But what happens to those who reject Him because we’ve rejected them?
Sadly, we forget that we are Christian because of God’s grace. Like the Israelites of Isaiah’s day and the Pharisees when Jesus lived, we take credit for God’s grace based on all the wrong things. We reject the foreigner because they don’t look like we think they should look. All too often we think that we have great faith based on that which we have done or from whence we come. We think we deserve the blessings of God because we have done what is right. We think that being a good Christian, attending church regularly, giving our tithes and doing good works is what makes great faith. Yet, even the disciples who gave up everything to follow Jesus had little faith. We are no different, no better, because we believe. We were, and are, also disobedient. But He is merciful, and so we are called to be merciful. God does not forget His promises, and He made the greatest promise to all those who believe.
In today’s epistle lesson, Paul is in agony over the question of his people. He knows three truths: first, that Israel is God’s chosen people; second, that God is faithful; and third, something new has happened. People around Paul have claimed that Paul is rejecting God’s Word of promise to Israel by claiming something new has happened. Paul, having experienced the love and mercy of God cannot understand how the rest of Israel has not embraced Jesus, but he knows God is faithful. He has found comfort in the reality that Israel is God’s chosen people. They are blind for a moment, but Paul is certain that the truth dwells within and that one day, when the time is right, their eyes will be opened and they will believe. For now their hearts are hardened, but there is hope. There is hope because God is faithful.
The psalmist understands that God’s grace is not meant to be confined to a small box, but that it is given so that we might be a blessing to others. God shines His face on ours and blesses us so that we might make Him known to the whole world. This means taking the message to people we do not think is worthy, to the foreigners, the outcasts and the sinners. We are blessed to be a blessing, to draw all people into His heart, to share His promise with the world.
God is not looking for people who are perfect. He is not searching for the people who follow the law to the letter without mercy. He is looking for people who are humble of heart, those who willingly accept the reality that we are merely dogs. We are unworthy of the crumbs God gives, but we are faithful when we believe the promises. God doesn’t bless us because we do what we think is right or because we deserve His blessings based on some temporal credentials. He has mercy on those who trust in Him and gives us the faith to be merciful. It is by that mercy that they will know we are Christians.
“And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that ye who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life. But many shall be last that are first; and first that are last.” Matthew 19:28-30, ASV
Most Christian saints, those who have been set apart for extraordinary faith, come from a time and place that is far distant from what we know today. The apostles, who we know through the scriptures, lived much different lives than we do. They experienced the world without the scientific knowledge that we have, without the technological advances. They did not have cars or fast food; they had no television or Internet. News traveled slowly because letters took months, even years to get from one place to another.
I don’t think our life is any simpler due to our modern conveniences. Sometimes I wonder if I would have preferred living two thousand years ago. I doubt it; I like technology. I like the freedom we have. I like driving across America in a few days rather than walking for months or years. I like being able to click a button on the computer to send a message to family a thousand miles away in a second.
I don’t think it is any safer today than it was then. While I don’t hear of many Christian martyrs, people like Paul who are crucified upside down, we still live in a dangerous would. Cancer is rampant; dis-ease is everywhere. We can die in a heartbeat if a neighbor makes poor judgment while driving their car. It takes very little for the crowds to explode into raging mobs. A basketball defeat, or even a championship, can set a city ablaze. We might not face the same difficulties of the earliest martyrs, but we have our own reasons to worry. We have our own reasons to be afraid. We face risks, too. It is as important that we trust in God and remain faithful to Him as it was for them.
Some of the saints come from a much closer time, and faced difficulty that we understand. We don’t know much about the history of 1st century Palestine; we know only what we have from historical documents and from archeological digs. We are far more familiar with the 20th century; we know what happened in the concentration camps of Hitler and the Nazis. We have seen pictures and videos. We can visit the places. We can even see the piles of shoes the victims of the holocaust left behind.
August 14th is the Feast day for one of those modern saints. Maximilian Kolbe was born in Poland in 1894. He became a Franciscan monk and an ordained Catholic priest. He accomplished many things including founding a movement to honor Mary, forming a monastery in Japan, writing catechetical and devotional tracts. He used the radio to share his faith and used the best technology to publish a newspaper and other works. He is known for hiding thousands of refugees in the friary at Niepokalanów, including two thousand Jews. He was arrested in February 1941, spent time in Pawiak prison and was then transferred to Auschwitz.
He was a brilliant scientist, a mathematician and a religious journalist, but he is best remembered for his last act, a selfless act of charity. Though he was an outspoken critic of the Nazis, Kolbe was not martyred by hatred; his death came by his choice. In July 1941, several people escaped from the camp, and to teach the detainees a lesson, the deputy camp commander chose ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker. Kolbe heard one man call out to his wife and children and he volunteered to take his place. Kolbe lived his faith, even in that terrible place, leading the other condemned men in hymns and offering communion to them daily. It is said that whenever someone entered the cell, Kolbe was standing or kneeling in the center with a calm look on his face. The other nine died before him, and the guards could no longer stand his sense of peace. He finally succumbed to death on August 14th, 1941 when the Nazis gave him a lethal injection.
We often think of the saints as far off, almost mythic people. They come from a different time and place. They experienced life much differently than we do. And yet, we are reminded that there have been people in every time and place that have experienced the same dangers as the apostles and other martyrs from two thousand years ago. The weapons may be different and the excuses unique to the time, but their faith brought them to the gates of Hades and to the point of decision. What would we do if we were in their shoes?
I pray that none of us are ever put in the same position, but by all the stories of the saints we are reminded that the Christian faith has been despised since the beginning. There have been martyrs in every generation. We have as much reason to fear. However, we do not have to be afraid. Even if we find ourselves facing the possibility of death, our Lord Jesus has overcome death and the grave. He’s blocked the gate to hell and has invited us to dwell with Him in eternity.
“And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid: For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; And holy is his name. And his mercy is unto generations and generations On them that fear him. He hath showed strength with his arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart. He hath put down princes from their thrones, And hath exalted them of low degree. The hungry he hath filled with good things; And the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath given help to Israel his servant, That he might remember mercy (As he spake unto our fathers) Toward Abraham and his seed for ever.” Luke 1:46-55
The Magnificat is a song of faith. The singer knows who she is, whose she is and what He has done for her. She rejoices in serving Him with all she is, to the very depths of her soul and spirit. This is the song of Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, a simple teenage girl facing an incredible situation.
God promised to send a deliverer to save His people. Over time they had been scattered and many lived away from Jerusalem; they had been conquered by many enemies and taken far away. By the time Jesus was born, the Israelites were living under the thumb of the Romans who had established puppet rulers in Israel. These were local people who had been trained by the Romans to rule for Rome's best interest. They were incentivised to make Rome's interests their own, and so did the bidding of their masters even when it went against God's intention for His people. The tax collectors were cheating the people. The rulers were basking in wealth while the people starved. The priests put heavy burdens on the people. The common men were poor and frustrated. They cried out to God, “Save us!” When the time was right, God answered their prayers.
Sometime around the year 4 BC, God sent the angel Gabriel to a young woman named Mary who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, a carpenter in the small town of Nazareth. Mary was probably no more than fifteen years old. The angel came with an incredible message, saying: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:31) Upon hearing the news of her miraculous pregnancy, Mary went to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who the angel had told her was also with child (Luke 1:36). Greeted with joy, Mary burst into poetic praise. This was certainly a promise. But would it be a blessing? Only time would tell.
Mary was a young girl living in a very strict society facing this incredible blessing from God. When she was found to be pregnant, her fiancée wanted to cancel the marriage. The community would look down on her as a fallen woman, even as a prostitute. They were praying for the Messiah, but they did not believe her story. The news from the angel was not good news. Yet, Mary did not complain. In Luke 1:38 she answered, “I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me as you have said.”
After the birth of baby Jesus, his parents took the child to the Temple. There they met two faithful people, Simeon and Anna who praised God for the birth of this child. They saw that Jesus was the answer to the prayers of Israel. Even from the beginning of His life, Jesus was in danger. Mary and Joseph were warned by angels to get away, so they ran to Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod, who feared that the promised Messiah would destroy his kingdom, even though it was nothing but a façade for the Roman rulers. They returned to Nazareth after Herod died and lived as a normal family for a time.
We last hear of Joseph when the family travels to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve years old. They went for a festival, and Jesus found comfort and learning in the presence of the great teachers of Israel. He stayed among them, even as Mary and Joseph returned home with the rest of their family and friends. They didn’t realize Jesus was missing until three days later. They ran back to Jerusalem and found Him among the teachers, learning and impressing them with His own knowledge of God.
Mary remained a part of Jesus' life even after He was an adult. She loved Jesus in a way no other human being ever would: Mary had been chosen to be the mother of her Lord. It was never easy, but Mary did not complain. Mary stayed faithful to that first confession to be the Lord’s servant and accept His will in the matter. This doesn’t mean that she was perfect.
Throughout his ministry, Mary didn’t always understand what Jesus was doing or why. She became angry with Jesus when He stayed at the Temple. She pushed Jesus to help the wedding family at Cana even though it might be too revealing too soon. (John 2:5) Mary and the rest of Jesus' family tried to stop Jesus because they thought He was out of His mind. (Mark 3:21, 31) Despite these moments, Mary trusted God's Word and stayed with Jesus until the very end.
We honor the life and faithfulness of Mary not because she is extraordinary, but because she is just like you and I: a sinner who needed a Savior. She played a unique role in the life of Jesus, one no other Christian can claim. She was His mother. In that role, she knew Jesus and the salvation He offered before anyone else. She knew it when He was in her womb. That knowledge did not make her perfect; she failed and doubted and feared. She grieved more than anyone over the death of Jesus; what mother would not? And yet, she remained faithful to the end because she trusted in God’s promises.
“And as they spake these things, he himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they beheld a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and wherefore do questionings arise in your heart? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye behold me having. And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here anything to eat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish. And he took it, and ate before them.” Luke 24:36-43, ASV
I have been married to my husband Bruce for nearly twenty-six years. It has been a wonderful life, full of good times. It hasn’t been perfect, of course. Like every family we have faced difficult times. We have had moments of financial instability. Health issues cause fear and worry. Our children, as amazing as they are, have provided their fair share of stress. Despite all this, we love each other as much today as we did when we were married twenty-six years ago, perhaps even more.
There are still days, however, when I still wonder what he sees in me. I ask myself occasionally how I ever got so lucky. I’m not beautiful. I’m an awful housekeeper. I regularly overcook dinner (although I’ve gotten better about not burning it!) I spend too much money, usually on projects or art materials or books. I’m too selfish. And yet, he looks at me as if I am the most beautiful woman in the world, he overlooks the dust, he chooses the burnt piece of meat and he compliments my creative works. He loves me and shows me in so many simple ways every day. He has even gives me the television zapper during football season so I can choose what program to watch.
Have you ever been so joyously happy and yet at the same time questioning how you could be so lucky? Have you ever received an award you don’t think you deserve and yet accept it with joy that you are the recipient? Have you ever seen a test result thinking that you surely failed only to discover that you did very well? I’m sure each of us can remember a time when we’ve received something with joy but also disbelief.
That’s what happened to the disciples after the resurrection. They were so grief-stricken over the death of Jesus Christ. I’m not sure the appearances helped at first. Imagine the confusion and the doubt that must have been running through their minds. Jesus was dead, how could He possibly be alive? The witnesses must have seen someone that looked like Jesus. Perhaps it was a ghost. Some modern experts claim that some of the sightings were simply hallucinations or mass delusions. The witness testimony was rejected because it was so ridiculous.
One by one they began to see the truth and when they witnessed Jesus with their own eyes, they could not longer ignore the reality. Jesus was alive. Even then, however, they disbelieved for joy. Other versions translate that phrase, “…they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness…” (CEB) or “The disciples were so glad and amazed that they could not believe it…” (CEV) or “Still they stood there undecided, filled with joy and doubt.” (TLB) It is possible to be happy and uncertain at the same time.
How did Jesus deal with this mix of emotion? He brought them back to earth with a simple request, “Get me something to eat.” There are some things that we just can’t get our head wrapped around and Jesus helped them understand by showing them that everything was true. He was alive. He was different, but He was the same. Things were the same but something was very new. The disciples were ordinary guys. They didn’t have the credentials to be companions to the Savior of the world. They were in the middle of the biggest thing to happen to humankind and it was just too good to be true.
How do you deal with the immensity of it all? You live. You do what you have to do. You take one step at a time, just like we do when we are joyously happy in the face of unexplainable circumstances. We go forward in joy with wonder and amazement, embracing that which we do not believe we deserve with thanksgiving and peace.
“For this is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another: not as Cain was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous. Marvel not, brethren, if the world hateth you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him: because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God; and whatsoever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments abideth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.” 1 John 3:11-24 (ASV)
Tom Hanks has proven to be an incredible and versatile actor. He has starred in everything from flops to successes, stage to television to movies. He writes, directs and produces. He can play comedy as well as drama, and has appeared doing voiceovers in numerous animated films. He has been nominated and won dozens of award from all over the world and the entertainment industry. He is one of only two actors to receive back to back Academy Awards for his appearances in “Philadelphia” in 1993 and “Forrest Gump” in 1994. He is the highest all-time box office star with career earnings of $8.4 billion. He even has an asteroid named after him.
He has become extremely successful, but it wasn’t easy. He began acting in High School and did some in college, but he often struggled to get roles. He worked in community theater including an internship that was extended to three years during which he learned most aspects of theater production, including lighting, set design, and stage management. He did a slasher movie, a made for TV movie and more stage before landing my first memory of Tom Hanks: as Kip Wilson in the television situation comedy “Bosom Buddies.” That role, as well as a guest appearance on “Happy Days” introduced Tom to Ron Howard, who was, at the time, working on a movie called “Splash,” a romantic comedy mermaid movie that was released in 1984.
Ron asked Tom to audition for a minor role in the movie. He often tells the story of how he bombed that audition, yet Ron saw something in Tom’s performance and decided to give him a chance, not for the minor role, but as the lead actor. Ron was under pressure to make his movie quickly and cheaply because another studio was also working on a mermaid movie, so his choice might have had financial considerations, but Tom was chosen over many other actors who had been considered, including John Travolta, Michael Keaton, Chevy Chase, Jeff Bridges, Richard Gere, Kevin Kline, Burt Reynolds, Bill Murray and Dudley Moore. Some of them turned down the role, but it gives Tom a great story: he’s often said he was the 11th choice for the part.
The audition tape was included on the twentieth anniversary edition of the DVD which was released in 2004. When asked if he minded, Tom said it was fine to include the video, but he didn’t understand why anyone would want to see it. It was certainly not Tom Hanks at his best; by that time he had accomplished so much more in his career. We like to see those early videos, though, because it helps us to see from whence they came.
That film was life-changing for Tom Hanks. It turned out to be an incredible success and it led to many more jobs for the actor. He eventually moved into more dramatic roles, but he is often remembered fondly for his lighthearted romantic comedies. We love Tom Hanks because he is the average Joe, the boy next door, the widower whose love was so great that he couldn’t love again. Ron Howard knew that Tom had something to offer and hired him for the role even though his audition didn’t earn him the chance.
Isn’t that really what God has done for us? We fail our audition to be a child of God, but He has chosen us for the role anyway. Have you ever really thought about how amazing it is that God did this for us? We were sinners, incapable of keeping His Law and constantly separating ourselves from His love, mercy and grace. As we look around at one another, and at ourselves in the mirror, we can’t help but wonder what made Him do such a thing. Yet, He saw something in His people: a potential to love Him and one another. He knew we were unable to accomplish such a thing on our own, so He sent Jesus to live and die for our sake. On the cross, Jesus overcame all that separates us from God and reconciled our lives with His. Now that He has been raised from death into eternal life, we too are given all we need to live in love according to His ways.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 24, 2014, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
"For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?" Romans 11:34
As we’ve talked about the Gospel of Matthew over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that Matthew was a brilliant rabbi who did not just report the events surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry; he wove a story that pointed toward one thing. In the first part, Matthew introduced us to Jesus. He told us about the birth and about His preparation, including his relationship with John the Baptist. In the second part, Matthew shows Jesus proclaiming the message of His life, He is followed by the crowds and they see the parables in action. The second part ends with today’s Gospel passage: the confession of Peter.
This is a turning point for Jesus. Everything He has said and done was for one purpose: to prove that He is the Messiah. His sermons showed the people that He had the authority. His miracles showed them He had the power. His conversations with the religious leaders showed how He was different than all those who came before Him. At this point the people believed, they were following Jesus and looking to Him for their salvation. Of course, they did not truly understand what God intended for His Messiah.
Peter’s confession is only the second time since the birth story in Matthew that Jesus was referred to as the Christ. The first time was when John was in prison; he sent his followers to Jesus to ask if He was the Messiah. Jesus told them to report to John what they had seen and heard. His identity as the Christ, the Messiah, was wrapped up in His ministry. It was the proof John needed. It was all any of them needed, although many were concerned that Jesus would unravel their world. The Pharisees and Sadducees recognized that there was something different about Jesus, but they were afraid. They didn’t want a king who would take away their power and authority. Early in chapter sixteen they demanded a sign from heaven. Jesus told them that the only sign they would see is the sign of Jonah.
Jesus was already pointing toward the purpose of His life. We like to think that Jesus was a good guy, a healer, teacher and prophet. We like to see His radical hospitality and His generosity. Many Christians today like to stop there. Just like Peter. They don’t like to think that the whole reason Jesus came was to die.
Now, we won’t see Peter’s rebuke until next week’s Gospel lesson, but it is important to see today’s story in the context of what comes next. Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people will go downhill from here. He is of one mind now; He is moving toward the cross. The sermons and miracles will continue, but they will be more pointed. Jesus is not telling us that God has sent an earthly king to meet their physical needs. He is the Promised One who would fulfill all God’s promises.
In today’s Old Testament passage from Isaiah, God is speaking to His people. He says, “Listen to me you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” The stories of Abraham and Sarah were irrevocably woven into their lives. The promise on which they live was given first to Abraham, a man alone with no hope for a future to whom God fulfilled His promise of becoming the father of many nations. The people listening were the fulfillment of that promise. They were the children of Abraham. Jesus Christ the Messiah was sent to reconcile God with His people, not only of one nation, but all nations through the forgiveness of sin.
We now are also the fulfillment of that promise. We are of those many nations that came from the bosom of Abraham and from his wife Sarah. Because the promise was fulfilled, we can rest in all God’s promises, including those found in this passage. We will be comforted. God will look upon His children with compassion. He will restore His people and they will rejoice. We will become the light that shines to the world, manifesting God’s justice and peace. God will grant us His righteousness and His salvation. It is ours to live in hope, patiently waiting for that eternity He earned for us at the cross.
There are several abandoned quarries in and around San Antonio, Texas, as there are in many other places. These quarries are often seen as the unfortunate and ugly consequence of digging stone out of the earth. The stones might be beautiful, but the removal of that stone leaves a huge hole in the landscape. We want the stone, but we are disturbed by the eyesore left behind. How could anything beautiful come out of that? Fortunately, many cities have found ways of using these abandoned quarries, such as transforming them into theme parks and sports stadiums. In these places, the quarry actually becomes a beautiful backdrop.
Isaiah tells us that those who pursue righteousness are like stones hewn from a quarry. Sadly, we don’t look much like beautiful stone, do we? As a matter of fact, we don’t always seem like we are really children of Abraham. We are sinners; we make mistakes. Israel turned from God and worshipped false gods over and over again. They did not do justice in the world. They were unable to keep the Law. We are exactly the same, cut from the same quarry. However, God’s promise still stands, as much for us as for them.
Even father Abraham was not perfect; his righteousness was not based on his goodness, but simply on his God-given faith. God says, “Listen to me, you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” God’s people have always been cut from the same quarry; the stories of Abraham and Sarah have been irrevocably woven into our lives. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, but that seemed like an empty promise given to a man who had no hope. Yet, Abraham believed, and he became the father of not just one son, but of all the people of faith.
We could not have done it ourselves. Unfortunately, we like to try. We like to seek our own righteousness, that’s why Jesus is more palatable as the kind of Messiah who offers a tangible salvation from our physical problems. We prefer the Jesus we see in the first half of Matthew. It becomes very uncomfortable when Jesus begins talking about death. Even the idea that Jesus is the Son of the Living God is too difficult for us to comprehend.
That’s why the words that came out of Peter’s mouth were not his own. Peter made the great confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was overjoyed that Peter answered His question with those words. They had been discussing what the people thought about Jesus. There were rumors and guesses, but Peter gave the true answer. Peter gave the only answer. Only the Christ, the Son of the Living God would be able to accomplish the work of God in this world. Only He could fulfill God’s promises and restore God’s people.
Jesus told Peter that He would build His church on that rock. We often debate over the meaning of this promise. Is Peter the rock? Is the confession the rock? I think the answer might be a little bit of both. Peter is the first to make that confession of faith, to declare the truth of who Jesus Christ really is. And yet, Peter isn’t much better than the jumble of rocks left behind after the quarry is abandoned. He isn’t really all that beautiful. He continues to fail. He continues to misunderstand Jesus. We’ll see his greatest failure next week.
But there is great comfort in knowing that Peter is just like you and I.
Jesus’ question is something that we must answer, too. Who do you say that Jesus is? There are a million words that we can use to answer. He is a friend, teacher, rabbi. He is our brother. He is the living water, the bread of life, the gate. He is the great high priest and the lamb of God. He is all these things and more. Peter was inspired to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” with the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This is a revelation that God makes to each believer; He fills our mouths with the words.
Here’s the strange part of today’s passage. Jesus tells the disciples to keep the confession a secret. “Don’t tell anyone,” He says. Why would He do such a thing? After all, in a short time Jesus would command the Church to be His witnesses. Why silence at that moment? Shouldn’t they tell the world that Jesus is the Messiah? After all, it would help the crowds to know Jesus better, to follow Him with more commitment, to establish His authority.
That’s exactly the point of Jesus’ call to silence. Jesus is not King because of what He did during His life or ministry. The authority He has over life and death was established on the cross and in the empty tomb. Peter thought he understood, but he would not understand until the he heard the rest of the story. A detail still needed to be revealed. A light still needed to shine. Then, and only then, could Peter and Christ’s Church fully live God’s calling in this world.
It is this act that was the answer to the prayer in today’s Psalm; we praise His name because He has fulfilled His promises. Singing a song of praise brought the singer into the presence of God. He dwells where His name dwells. He dwells in the hearts and on the lips of the faithful who sing about His goodness. As they sing, they not only show their praise to God, but they reveal His wondrous goodness to the world. Thus, God is made known to those who have not believed through the praise and thanksgiving of God’s people, and with our voices we remind the world that all other gods are lowly while the Mighty One is raised high.
As we sing praise to God, He is glorified. He is found dwelling wherever His name is praised. Amongst His people, even in their times of trouble, His glory shines for the world to see. He helps the poor and humble, raises the lowly and sets the prisoners free. The psalmist reminds us that God brings down those who raise themselves up and stands far off from those who are haughty. Blessing comes, not only for ourselves but for the whole world, when we glorify God.
Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves. The God we worship is beyond our reach. We may try to search His wisdom and knowledge, but it is well beyond our human capability to fully and completely know Him. When I first began writing this devotional, I did a series on scuba diving. One day I used the text from Romans.
In that devotional I talked about the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific Ocean, which is the deepest discovered submarine trench in the world. It is 1500 miles long, averages over 40 miles in width, and has a maximum known depth of 36, 201 feet. That is seven thousand feet deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Obviously, we have very little information about this wonder. Man is not able to scuba dive at those depths, even with the best equipment. Recent technology has made it possible for robotics to explore the bottom, but the vastness of area makes it impossible to study every inch. There are mysteries under the sea which will go unanswered.
The Bible clearly teaches that we are to seek God. The word ‘seek’ is used over 200 times and 2/3 of the instances of that word are in reference to seeking the things of God. Bible studies and prayer are necessary for us to know God as He is. There are certain things that are easy to explain and understand. Yet, there remain mysteries too far beyond our comprehension. We try to put God into a box, but God is bigger than we can grasp. It is good that there is mystery to God; after all, would a god that is knowable be able to do what our Lord God Almighty was able to do?
Paul writes, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” We may not ever fully understand God, but that does not mean we are to stop seeking. Our work in this world is to continually discern God’s will, to constantly be transformed by the renewing of our mind. It isn’t a once and done thing; our faith takes work. It takes commitment. It takes prayer and study and fellowship with other Christians.
We are Easter people, living after the story has been completed. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ has been revealed to us and we can know who Jesus is and understand what it means to us today. He still asks us two questions: “Who does the world say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” We can see a thousand different answers to the first question. He was a teacher, a rabbi, a miracle worker and a good man. He was a radical willing to stand up against the injustice of His day. He’s a friend, a comforter, a guide whose example we would do well to follow. But the answer to the second question is the one that truly matters. Our answer, and how we live out that answer in this world, is all that really matters.
We believe that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God when we see ourselves as little more than ugly rocks. However, believing in Him also means that we are covered with His righteousness. We look to the rock from which we have been hewn and see the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is there we find the strength to live and love and rejoice. It is there and within the fellowship of believers, that we can shine His glory so that the world will see Him as He is and be blessed.
“Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song: Sing unto Jehovah, all the earth. Sing unto Jehovah, bless his name; Show forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, His marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised: He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him: Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe unto Jehovah, ye kindreds of the peoples, Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength. Ascribe unto Jehovah the glory due unto his name: Bring an offering, and come into his courts. Oh worship Jehovah in holy array: Tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, Jehovah reigneth: The world also is established that it cannot be moved: He will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; Let the field exult, and all that is therein; Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy Before Jehovah; for he cometh, For he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with his truth.” Psalm 96, ASV
Advertisers rely on word of mouth as one of their best forms of advertising. There is good reason: people don’t always believe the claims made by testing and researchers, no matter how much evidence is obtained. Consumers want to hear a testimonial, especially from people they know and trust. They are more likely to believe someone who says, “I tried it and I liked it!” than if the research proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is the best product ever produced.
One of the things celebrity endorsers are often asked is whether or not they really use the product they are advertising. Some people refuse to tout a product they don’t believe in, others are willing to sell their name for anything. However, the people that really believe in the product are the ones who are more likely to make the sale. They have a passion for it and speak with honesty and integrity. The ones who are unconvincing are most likely the ones who have never used it. Advertising is much more believable when the speaker tells what the product has done for them rather than what the product can do to others.
Evangelism is the same way, which is why testimonials work so well when sharing the good news of Christ. A person trapped in the web of guilt and sin is more likely to listen to someone who was in the same position. This is why the former alcoholic can reach the alcoholic much better than someone who never liked to drink. The sin and guilt is often so entrenched that the sinner who needs to hear Christ's message of love and forgiveness can't hear it from someone they don't think is a sinner. They think it was easy for Christ to save the goody-two-shoes, but impossible to save them. So, rather than evangelizing by telling unbelievers what Christ can do for them, we need to sing our own praises of the things He has done for us. We need to proclaim that we are also sinners in need of the Savior and praise Him for His grace. Then they might listen and believe that He could transform them too.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if we lived daily praising God and thanking Him for His grace? What would it be like if we let it shine into our everyday encounters? Oh perhaps some people would think we were nuts and others will persecute us for our foolishness. However, many people – those open to the Gospel message – will see our joy and want to know from whence it came. Evangelism, witnessing the grace of God to the world, does not come simply by telling others their need for a Savior, but rather it comes from telling the world what that Savior has done for us. Our testimonial will help others to realize their own need and then they can look to the one that meets all our needs: Jesus Christ our Lord.
“He that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” Luke 16:10-12, ASV
I read an article today about several police officers who were working together in a conspiracy that would net them all extra pay in their paychecks. The conspiracy was not really very harmful to any of its ‘victims.’ The officers listed one another on speeding tickets as witnesses so as to earn the overtime received for going to court. The speeder never knew the difference: the speeding fine was not any bigger. The officers probably deserve higher paychecks for the work they do and the danger they face. The only real ‘victims’ in this conspiracy is the taxpayer who had to pay higher taxes to cover the bill, and the amount for each taxpayer was probably insignificant.
They would never have been caught if one of the officers had not given a ticket to an off-duty police officer. He looked at the ticket and knew something was wrong. There were no witnesses to the stop, but there was another police officer’s name listed as a witness. A thorough investigation has revealed that the conspiring police officers had done this many times. As a matter of fact, they have discovered multiple occasions when the police officers gave tickets to separate motorists in different sections of the town at the very same time.
Perhaps we can excuse these officers because their crime seems rather harmless. But we are reminded by today’s lesson that the little things do matter. If we can be trusted with doing what is right when the consequences are miniscule, then we can be trusted to do what is right when the advantage for making bad choices is greater than the risk. I don’t know what sort of punishment these police officers will receive. They’ll probably be moved to a different job in the force and perhaps fined, but I doubt they will see prison or even loss of job.
Here’s the thing: it probably doesn’t matter very much, except this story has added another reason for the public to mistrust the police officers who have been hired and trained to protect us. There are certainly stories in the news recently which has given us plenty of reason to question them. Police officers have been found to violate people’s rights, to be extraordinarily violent, to take advantage of their position and even side with the criminals. It is no wonder that people are upset by the stories they hear.
The number police officers who make poor choices and act improperly are a fraction of those who serve with integrity, but those are the stories we hear and their example makes us question all the others. Many people are afraid of the police because they know that there are some who will justify their wrong doing because it seems like the result is harmless. We should hold people accountable, especially when they have authority over us, and yet our mistrust because of a few bad stories has made it very difficult for the good guys to do their job.
We think the things we do don’t matter, especially when they seem harmless, and yet we can see that even an insignificant infraction can destroy the trust we build with people. Those police officers might not seem to have done something wrong, but in being untrustworthy they might have discouraged someone from reaching out to the people who can truly help them when they are in trouble.
God has placed us in the world with a purpose. We often find ourselves in situations that require us to make decisions; what will we do and how will we respond? These are not necessarily tests to see if we will be faithful, but God can see by our actions if we will be. If we choose to do the right thing when it doesn’t matter, He will know that we will choose to do the right thing when it does. Our purpose, ultimately, is to share God’s grace with the world. We’ll have different tasks along the way, some will seem insignificant, but can make a huge difference in the life of the person touched. The more faithful we are with those little things, the greater opportunities God will provide for us to bless the world.
“Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song; For he hath done marvellous things: His right hand, and his holy arm, hath wrought salvation for him. Jehovah hath made known his salvation: His righteousness hath he openly showed in the sight of the nations. He hath remembered his lovingkindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel: All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise unto Jehovah, all the earth: Break forth and sing for joy, yea, sing praises. Sing praises unto Jehovah with the harp; with the harp and the voice of melody. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the King, Jehovah. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein; Let the floods clap their hands; Let the hills sing for joy together before Jehovah; for he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98 (ASV)
Today is the first day of school around here, at least for the public schools. The news reporters were at several brand new schools around the city this morning interviewing the staff about the upgrades in the buildings. The traffic reporters were busy watching the highways for the extra traffic that threatened to make the commute more difficult. The weathermen were making recommendations for how to dress the kids on this hot and humid day. The promise of back to school has been seen in the area stores with stacks of new notebooks, crayons and folders for sale. The latest Facebook memes have pictures of excited parents celebrating their freedom for another nine months.
Even the teachers are excited on this first day of school. They are looking forward to a new beginning with a room full of fresh children. They hope that this year will be the best ever, that the children will be excited about learning. Teaching is a tough job, especially for the younger grades. The classrooms are very diverse, with children who love to learn and those who would rather spend the day getting in trouble. Many of those children have not yet been diagnosed with the disabilities or they live in a world that is very difficult. Children in broken homes or with abusive custodians do not do well in school. They fight any authority, even those who have a sincere love and concern for them.
It gets so much harder as the year goes on. The teacher can sometimes overcome the child’s difficulties, but even the best teachers find it impossible to deal with some children. The school day becomes less than an educational opportunity as the teacher has to find helpful ways of transforming those children. At the same time those teachers must continue to encourage and teach the other students. It is a thankless job and sadly we are more likely to see the failures than the successes.
They will be in our prayers for the next few weeks and parents will celebrate with joy that their children have a teacher who will care for them this year. There will be a few parents who will volunteer to help in the classrooms or with after school activities. Other than that, most of those teachers will be left alone to deal with everything that happens in the classrooms, forgotten except when there is a problem. Those same teachers will be inundated with gifts of “#1 Teacher” mugs at the end of the year and a few will be remembered with “Teacher of the Year” awards. By then they will be burnt out, desperate for summer vacation.
Perhaps we should remember them on a daily basis through prayer and constant encouragement.
Isn’t it funny that we often treat God much like we treat those teachers? Oh, we are thankful for all that God has done, but don’t we think about Him more when there’s trouble and ignore Him when things are going well? Don’t we look focus on what He has done while we forget that He is active in our lives today?
Today’s psalm is a song of praise and thanksgiving for the good things God has done. The psalmist tells us about those things: about how God has won the victory over Israel’s oppressors and how He has saved them from exile. The psalmist calls us to sing about God’s faithfulness and His lasting love for His people that is lasting. We can praise God by telling others about the great things God has done. The psalmist tells us other ways. We can sing a new song. We can sing praises with a harp. We can sound trumpets. The creation even gets involved with the heavens and earth joining in the noise of praise. The sea roars, the floods clap their hands, the hills sing.
We praise God in so many other ways, also. We gather in worship together, hear the Word together and study the Bible together. We gather in fellowship and at meals. We celebrate the sacraments. Our worship and praise does not stop at the front door of our churches, however. We praise God when we share a word of hope with someone in distress and when we give a cup of water to the thirsty. We praise God when we pray for the healing of the nations and our neighbors. We praise God when we tell His story and introduce others to the saving grace found through Jesus Christ our Lord. As we do so, let’s remember that our thanksgiving is not just for those things from the past, but for everything God is doing and will do in our lives. We are most thankful for the one thing that He has done that will not be fulfilled until the end: our salvation. While teachers deserve our thanks every day, God does even more. He has done great things for us and will continue to do so for eternity.
“I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:1-5, ASV
Here’s the question for today: Why do I hate the sound of my own voice on recordings? I think this is something we all experience because the sound is never the same as what we experience when we speak. We hear ourselves much differently than others do. We often blame the difference on a bad recording, but the reality is that it is only on the recordings that we actually hear ourselves as others hear us.
The scientific explanation is perhaps more technical than would be of interest to my readers, but it has to do with the fact that we hear ourselves in two ways while the world only hears us in one. See, when we make a sound, the sound waves are transformed into an electrical impulse in the ears of the listener that is ‘heard’ by the brain. The same sound is processed twice in our own brains. We hear the sounds through our ears from the outside just like others do, but we also hear the sounds from the inside. The physical act of speaking causes a contraction of muscles that creates an extra vibration in the ear that affects the sound that the brain hears. Your voice only sounds like your voice to you. Everyone else hears it like you do on that recording.
When I read this, I thought about all those people who try out for the talent and singing shows, especially those who do not really have a good singing voice. It is possible, even probable, that the inner effects of singing on the person’s ears make them sound like they have a decent voice. We laugh and wonder how they could possibly think that they would qualify for the show, but we do not really know what they hear. They get so upset with the judges, claiming that they have no idea what they are doing. “I am the best singer in the whole world!” they say, which makes it more entertaining for us. I know, we shouldn’t be laughing at people, but I’ll confess that the audition episodes are my favorite part of those shows because they make me laugh.
We always wonder how they could get to the point of auditioning, after all, haven’t they heard their own voice? Well, scientifically we know that they are probably hearing it differently. Shouldn’t they have recorded themselves in practice? They can justify the difference with excuses like bad recording equipment if they do not understand the science of hearing. Many of the contestants insist that they have had many people tell them that they are good. “My mom thinks I am the best singer in the world.”
Therein lies the problem. It is good to be supportive and encouraging to those who are trying to find their place in the world. It is good to lift them up with praise and to stand behind them as they test their gifts and abilities. We must help people discover what it is that God has given for them to do. Unfortunately, that sometimes means being brutally honest. Sometimes it means telling people that they are not what they appear to themselves to be.
See, if we pursue a vocation that we are not gifted or talented by God to pursue, we ignore our true calling. So, if we spend our time trying to become the next rock star, we can’t discover the incredible blessing of doing God’s work. It is a self-centered way of thinking. We need one another to keep us on the right path, and that will at times require us to tell them help those we love to avoid a path that was not meant for them, even if it means telling them a truth they don’t want to hear.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 31, 2014, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
“For whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Matthew 16:25
Satan is real. I am beginning with that statement to make it clear that today’s discussion does not in any way diminish the reality that there is a being bent on destroying the work of God in this world. Our conversation today will look at Satan from another point of view, one that has become the prime focus of modern spirituality and justification for ignoring spiritual battle that continues all around us today. In a radio address in April, Pope Francis spoke about this very issue. “Some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!’ But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here… even in the 21st century!”
It is easier for us to blame human nature for the evil that we see happening in the world. Surely we are too advanced to suggest that there exists a being like the devil! I’ve never seen him, have you? The homily referenced by Pope Francis was using the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; in that text, the devil or Satan tries to convince Jesus to pursue a different kind of work in the world. Temptation is real, we all know that, but we moderns think that it is ridiculous to blame a character for our own limitations. We especially reject the notion that Satan is a dude with horns and a tail carrying a pitchfork around the world. This is a good thing, because Satan certainly is not a character. And sometimes, yes sometimes, human nature is to blame.
So, Satan is real and sometimes our neighbors cause us to sin. This does not mean that our neighbor is Satan. Satan is real and sometimes it is our own weakness that causes us to sin. This does not mean we are Satan. We are reminded that he is real so that we’ll be prepared, not only when we see him face to face, but when we are faced with the temptations that come to us through our neighbors and our own hearts. See, that’s the best way for Satan to accomplish his goals, with the help of flesh and blood people to do his dirty work.
We see this most humorously in the brilliant story of Screwtape and Wormwood, the insightful book by C.S. Lewis called “The Screwtape Letters.” Wormwood is an apprentice demon seeking for advice from his Uncle Screwtape. Uncle Screwtape tells him how to use human nature to his advantage.
Here is a quote out of the book: “[M]an has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”
And another, “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Screwtape advises his nephew to play upon the image of the devil as being a scaly red dragon with horns and a tail. The best thing for Satan to do is to convince us that he doesn’t exist, and what better way than to make the image so ridiculous that it just makes sense to ignore the reality of his existence? He’s done a pretty good job; many people, even Christians, doubt that Satan is real.
Satan is real. It is not old fashioned to think so; it would do us well to remember that the battles we face are not just physical; a spiritual war wages around us all the time and it is up to us to be prepared to fight against Satan with faith and hope and grace every day.
That said, the biblical word that is often translated ‘Satan’ does not always refer to the being. It means “an adversary, opponent, enemy.” Satan is God’s adversary; unfortunately, so are we when we follow our own path. Human nature is the enemy of God’s intention for His people. Temptation is real and we fall to it every day whether the temptation comes from Satan, others or from within our own hearts. We are His enemies when we fall to the temptations and sin against His will. Jesus cries, “Get behind me, Satan” when we stand in His way and do what we want to do rather than what He is calling us to. That doesn’t mean He’s calling us Satan, but that we are opposing Him in a way that is not only dangerous to ourselves, but will hinder His work in the world.
We are just like Peter. He was the one who opposed Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. Peter was not standing there as Satan incarnate, but he had been convinced by his own understanding and the expectations of the world that Jesus would be the kind of Messiah they wanted. Death was not in that plan. Peter was ready to fight for Jesus in the flesh but didn’t realize that he’d been deceived in spirit.
Jesus met Satan in the wilderness before He began His ministry. Satan, the devil, was there tempting Jesus to take a different approach to His mission and ministry in this world. Jesus rejected Satan’s temptations with the Word of God, but Satan did not go away forever. Luke tells us, “And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him for a season.” Poor Peter was the perfect opportunity.
I’ve always pictured this scene between Peter and Jesus as having that third character: Satan standing between them. Satan, whispering in Peter’s ear, sends Peter down the wrong path. “Tell Jesus that He shouldn’t die.” Isn’t that what Satan tried to do in the wilderness? “Jesus, dude, you don’t have to die. You can feed the hungry, prove God’s power and make an impact on the whole world.” Oh, and of course there was that little thing about worshipping Satan. But the devil didn’t even need to add that to make his temptations wrong. Satan wanted Jesus to follow the wrong path, and in today’s lesson we see Peter taking up Satan’s cause. Jesus came to die, and everyone who stands in the way of His purpose is an adversary, an opponent, the enemy.
So, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” It doesn’t matter whether Jesus was speaking to the being called Satan or to the fallible human part of Peter that was bent on opposing His purpose. Peter was a stumbling block; his mind was on the wrong things.
Isn’t it amazing that we have seen the rise and fall of Peter is a few brief minutes? After all, as we saw in last week’s lectionary, Peter had just given the most powerful confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter had, by the power of the Holy Spirit, spoken the truth about Jesus Christ, and yet in the next breath he spoke by the power of his own understanding. He spoke by the power of the adversary. He spoke words that meant to block the true purpose of Jesus’ ministry: to die.
In this story we see the real battle that wages: the battle between God and Satan, the spiritual battle that we ignore or refuse to believe exists. It is a battle that continues to be waged in every one of our lives. Will we trust God and believe Him or will we follow our own path, tempted down the one that seems easier, practical, contemporary, academic? These are the things that Satan is whispering in our own ears, and when we listen we stop seeing Jesus as He is and start seeing Him through our own understanding and expectation.
We still wonder why Jesus had to die. As a matter of fact, too many Christians have set aside that confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God for more practical understanding. He’s our friend, our teacher, a wonderful example of goodness and grace. He is a radical, a community organizer, a miracle worker. Too many people, including Christians, have reduced Jesus to nothing more than a really great man, just as they have rejected the reality of Satan in this world. Jesus is more, much more.
Many people, including Christians, have reduced the rest of our passage to a frivolous motto. After telling Peter that he’s got his mind on the wrong things, the things of the world, He tells the entire group of disciples that they have to be willing to set aside everything for His sake. He says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” How many of us have used this verse to find comfort in the midst of suffering? “This is my cross,” we say. What are we calling our crosses? We use it to help us through a hard day at work dealing with a frustrating co-worker. We use it when we are sniffling and sneezing from the common cold. We use it when we can’t seem to pass that math test we need to complete to get our degree.
Sometimes the suffering requires us to make sacrificial decisions, like when we are taking care of an aging parent or selling our favorite piece of jewelry to pay our bills. We equate our cross to the hard things in life, to the things we don’t want to do but we do because we know they are right. We accept is as if we are being martyred for our faith because we are giving up something of ourselves for the sake of another. Jesus expects this of us, but in this passage He is demanding so much more.
We have to die to ourselves, our selfishness and our self-righteousness. We have to set aside that theology of glory and stop expecting God to give us the good things because we have enough faith. We have to stop looking at the world through our lenses of self importance and see the world through God’s eyes. We would rather be in control and wield the power. We like the words that Satan is whispering in our ear because they tickle and make us feel good, so we’d rather follow that path than the one to which God is calling.
The Gospel message, the message that salvation comes from spilled blood, is a hard one to take. We would rather our God restore the world by grasping onto the power that we want to give to Him through our works and our faith. We are like Peter, wishing God would do our bidding, provide for our every desire and ensure that we will never feel pain. However Jesus never promises them a life free of pain. As a matter of fact, Jesus tells His disciples that seeking after the glory will cause them to lose their life. Yet, if we lose our life for the sake of Christ, we will find true life.
Jeremiah had a tough job; it was difficult to be a prophet. He was persecuted, threatened and even called a traitor. He understood that the Babylonian exile was established by God as just punishment for the rebellion of God’s people and he encouraged the survivors to submit to the Babylonians. They thought he was being unfaithful to God by accepting the power of the enemy, when Jeremiah knew that God had all the power. They could not see the blessing in that time of exile because they expected that God would only bless them with success, wealth and freedom from oppression. How could a heavy burden be from God? Jeremiah knew that it would bring God’s people to repentance, submission and humility. Repentance means seeing God as God is, instead of how we want Him to be.
Jeremiah was persecuted for doing exactly what God called Him to do; the persecution led him to despair. He cried out to God in the midst of his pain. He begged God for retribution against his enemies. He laid out his own virtues as the reason why God should respond. He complained to the Lord about his pain and even blamed God for his troubles. “Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuseth to be healed? wilt thou indeed be unto me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?”
Perhaps Jeremiah had a right to complain. He had to preach a hard word to people who wanted to hear only warm fuzzies. He was persecuted for doing God’s work; he suffered at the hands of his own people. He lived in fear for his life and his future, but he had no choice. He had to do what God called him to do.
It is tough to read the book of Jeremiah because it is so raw and honest and personal. We identify with Jeremiah because we often feel the same abandonment and desperation. Jeremiah admitted to God that he was unhappy. How many of us do the same? God is big enough to hear our complaints. He’ll probably remind us, as He does to Jeremiah, to turn to Him (repent) and see the blessing in the midst of our pain, but He will listen. He’ll remind us that He’s called us to a difficult life, a life filled with danger and risk. He expects us to give up ourselves, even unto death.
The LORD answered Jeremiah, “Turn around and there you will see me. I’m right here with you. Times are tough but I will not abandon you. Speak what is good and you will see my hand do amazing things.” In his confession, Jeremiah was doing and saying what is worthless. Complaints do not change things. Accusations only make things worse. We all do it; it is part of our nature. Those of us who are honest admit that we do. But our complaints have no value. Even when things seem like they can’t get any worse, we find peace and hope in the precious words of God’s promises. Transformation comes from the utterance of God’s word. We may feel alone at the moment, but as we stand in the presence of God we will see His mercy and His grace in our lives and in the world.
Sadly, Satan blocks our vision. Whether the physical being is whispering in our ear, we are listening to the other temptations around us or we are following our own hearts, we can’t see God when we are too focused on ourselves. We can’t follow God if we are trying to make Him follow us. It is at those times when God says, “Repent, turn around. I’m here. Listen to me, not to them.” This is the real cross, the cross that says, “I will do Your Will, O Lord, not mine.”
Today’s psalm is a prayer of one who has been falsely accused. David faced persecution from Saul because Saul knew that he was no longer in God’s favor. Saul suspected David of conspiring against him and did everything he could to demean David in the eyes of the people. The reality is that the accusations of Saul about David were a mirror to Saul’s soul. I once did a study on the word “seek” as it is found in the story of David and Saul. In every case, Saul sought after David while David sought after God. Saul wanted David dead; David wanted to follow God’s heart. We see that in the last verse of this passage as David says, “Jehovah, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwelleth.”
God is calling us to the life that seeks Him above all else, even if seeking Him puts us in a risky or dangerous place. His path may not be easy, but He is there with us. His path may lead to physical death, but He has promised a life that will last forever. When we die to self, we are free to live for Him.
If you asked a hundred believers what it means to be a Christian, you might be surprised to find how many different answers you would get. Some people think being a Christian is about being an advocate for the poor. Others consider the church a family and think of themselves brothers and sisters to other believers. Some think it is an intellectual lifestyle of study and debate. Yet others consider it a call to separation from the world, either in a monastic community or some other fellowship of believers. None of these ideas is wrong, but they aren’t complete. As Christians, we are called to be in the world but of another world. We are called to be advocates and to be students. Our Christian life will have grand moments of inspiration and great acts, but it will also be filled with those little daily acts of faith. Most of all, it will not be easy. The life Christ calls us to live is hard and usually nothing like we will expect it to be.
We all have expectations for our life in Christ. There are many who pursue the vocation of pastor with the expectation of making grand things happen for God – larger churches, more active disciples, vast outreach into the community. When they get into a parish, however, they suddenly realize there are hundreds of small, seemingly insignificant tasks that need to be accomplished. They become discouraged and give up. The Christian that realizes that the Christian lifestyle is about living in a relationship with God, when we realize that it is about love, we won’t mind taking care of the hard things, the menial tasks, the humble acts of faith because we live in the love of Christ for the sake of others, not to accomplish our own agenda or fulfill our desires.
The Christian life is hard as Paul notes in this passage to the Romans. But it is the life that God is calling us to live. It is a life of active love, joy in hardship, compassion, forgiveness, humility and peace keeping. These words are not easy, for I know I could not bless my enemies without the help of God. Nor do I find it easy to rejoice when I am sad or mourn when I am happy. I don’t do a good job about living in harmony with my neighbor, I am often proud and I prefer to avoid those who are different than I. Sometimes I am conceited. But then aren’t we all these things sometimes? This is why Christ died, so that by His grace we are forgiven and reconciled to God and one another, so that tomorrow we can try again.
Paul tells us what it means to take up our cross. It means to love genuinely. The cross calls us to do what is right not for the reward it will bring but rather because love demands it. Love often demands what is hard. We are to rejoice in hope – not hope in the glory but rather the hope that comes from the cross. How many of us really want to be patient in suffering or persevere in prayer when it appears God is unwilling to answer our way? Paul's words get even harder. How do we bless our enemy? Is it really possible to be humble in this world of ours? What if, like Jonah, we know God will not avenge us but will seek our enemy's repentance? How can we let go and treat our persecutors as if they deserved our compassion and mercy? How can we let Christ die for the sake of all human flesh when most people will never deserve His grace?
We do so by picking up our cross and following Jesus. We do so by laying down our lives for the sake of His Gospel and speaking God's Word into the lives of all whether we want them to be saved or not. We trust in God by humbling ourselves before His throne of grace realizing that we ourselves have no reason to expect His incredible blessings on our lives. Sometimes the blessings will come through pain. Sometimes they will come in joy. Through it all, we are called to speak what is precious, the message of the cross that brings true life to those who believe. We will not see the glory in this flesh, but we will live in the assurance that God is always faithful to His promise and we walk in the hope that eternal life is ours today even while today might seem out of control.
Satan is going to whisper in our ear. The world is going to give us temptations that we just don’t want to refuse. We will want to follow our hearts even when we know that they are leading us down the wrong path. Like Peter, we’re going to tell God what we think He should do. Like Jeremiah we will complain when things don’t go our way. We’re human. We fail.
Jesus says, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” He’s not calling us into a life of suffering and pain or even death. He is calling us to reject the whispers of Satan and the temptations that threaten to lead us astray, to focus on God and to be obedient to Him. That’s what Jesus did, despite all the opportunities to follow a different path, Jesus went to the cross for our sake. He was tempted by Satan, by Peter and even by His own heart in the garden on the Mount of Olives, but in the end He did exactly what God sent Him to do: to die on the cross.
Our cross will never save the world, but as we die to self we will discover the incredible blessing of being raised to new life in Christ. That new life will not always be pleasant; as a matter of fact, we are more likely to see persecution as we are obedient to God. But the new life to which we are raised is one that will last forever even if we suffer death at the hands of our enemies. We need not fear Satan, the world or our own hearts. Let’s just keep our eyes on Jesus and though we lose our lives we can rest in the promise that Jesus has already saved it.
“I manifested thy name unto the men whom thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them to me; and they have kept thy word. Now they know that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are from thee: for the words which thou gavest me I have given unto them; and they received them, and knew of a truth that I came forth from thee, and they believed that thou didst send me. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me; for they are thine: and all things that are mine are thine, and thine are mine: and I am glorified in them. And I am no more in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are. While I was with them, I kept them in thy name which thou hast given me: and I guarded them, and not one of them perished, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy made full in themselves. I have given them thy word; and the world hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them from the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, even so sent I them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.” John 17:6-19
I love to travel, but there are definitely some disadvantages. Hotels can be very comfortable, with accommodating staff and the amenities delightful. We usually stay at the same hotel chain, so we have benefitted from free nights and we love their breakfast. I get frustrated when the WiFi doesn’t work and the cable is confusing because I never know where to find my favorite shows if I have time to watch.
The worst part of staying in a hotel is the other guests who forget that they are living in close quarters with other people. I am usually in a hotel because I’m traveling long distances or I’m attending some event; both leave me exhausted by the end of the day. All I want to do is go to bed and rest. The worst experience is when you choose a hotel where large groups of people are attending an event together, especially when the event is in that same hotel. The meetings of the day often become long, loud discussions in the hallways or in their rooms.
My daughter and I were staying in a rather expensive center city hotel that was hosting a conference for a women’s organization. There was a door connecting our room to our neighbor’s room, and although it was locked from both sides, we could hear them very clearly. They were discussing something that happened at the meeting that day. They were unhappy with something one of the officers did and they spent hours complaining about her. They were so loud that it seemed as though they were in our room.
We knocked on the door and told them that they were keeping us awake. They stopped briefly, but it wasn’t long before they were loud complaining again. I called the front desk and after a time it got quiet again, briefly. I was ready to call the desk a second time when things settled down. It was 2 a.m. They were never considerate neighbors; we always knew they were in their rooms.
It is very odd to be an outsider but also privy to such an intimate conversation. I felt bad for the woman and wondered if she was really as terrible as they made her sound. I found myself looking at the faces of the women from the conference wondering if they were either the woman or the group of women in the room next door. I wanted to find the woman and tell her about her ‘friends,’ but I knew that was inappropriate. I was in their world because we were all staying in the same hotel and I overheard their conversation, but I was not part of their world.
People are people, and there are always those in every organization that do not get along with one another, including the church. I am certain that I’ve spent sleepless nights in hotel rooms at conferences or conventions thinking—if not talking—about someone who has done something to hurt me during the event. It is possible that the woman really did do wrong. It is equally possible that the ladies in the room next door had done something wrong. It is probable that everyone is at fault for the broken relationship. We want to lay blame on the other person, forgetting that we are also imperfect and ignoring the role we might play in the situation.
We live in the world but as Christians we are from another world. We are expected to live differently, although we will often experience the disadvantages of being in close contact with people who do not live in the grace of Jesus Christ. Some Christians over time have chosen to live in closed communities, avoiding the world as much as possible, but God doesn’t necessarily call us to be so separate. After all, isn’t our commission to go out and speak the Gospel to the world? How can we do that if we are hiding behind walls?
People often wonder why there are Christians. There is this misunderstanding that faith should guarantee that we will never suffer and that we’ll be happy all the time. However, we live in the world and we are affected by the world. God does take care of us, but that is no guarantee that we will never be sick or hurt or in need. God will get us through the hard times. In faith we will experience the suffering with grace as our foundation and hope as our strength. As we are in this world, as we wait for the final fulfillment of all God has promised, we are called to live as Christ lived. And as we do so, we will be sanctified to do the work that He began until He comes again.
“And if also a man contend in the games, he is not crowded, except he have contended lawfully.” 2 Timothy 2:5, ASV
Today is ‘According to Hoyle Day.’ It is also ‘National College Colors Day,’ ‘Individual Rights Day,’ ‘International Day Against Nuclear Tests,’ ‘More Herbs, Less Salt Day,’ ‘National Sarcoidosis Awareness Day,’ and ‘National Whiskey Sour Day.’ You can make a similar list of strange holidays for every day of the year. I’m not exactly sure how these things become the focus of an official holiday, but it is fun to see what people are celebrating. (By the way, for those interested, tomorrow is ‘Bacon Day.’
“According to Hoyle” is a phrase that has come to mean “in accord with the highest authority; in accord with a strict set of rules.” One site suggests that the phrase refers to the attitude of a controversial twentieth century English astronomer named Fred Hoyle who made many contributions to science, although his opinions were contrary to the opinions of many other scientists. He rejected Darwinism and the “Big Bang” theory. That particular term for the cosmological beginning of the universe was actually coined by Hoyle on a radio program. He was respected for some of his work, but held some odd theories, including the idea that flu epidemics correlated with the sunspot cycle, and that human life began in space. He was also a science fiction writer. He was known for holding firmly to his opinions without concern for the opinions of those who dissented, which leads to the suggestion that he thought himself the highest authority, thus the reason for the phrase.
The true origin, though, goes much farther into history . The Hoyle in the phrase was a games person who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. Edmond Hoyle taught members of English high society how to play the game of Whist. He sold his clients a written manuscript of his notes for their reference. He eventually published the notes as a treatise which sold quickly even though it was highly priced. He sold the rights to the treatise to a publisher who also paid him per copy to sign the book because the work was being pirated by another publisher. He published treatises about other games, which were eventually put into a single volume.
The phrase “According to Hoyle” was first published around 1786, seventeen years after his death. He had become to expert on card games and his name continued to be put on the published copies of his treatises. The publisher used a woodblock print of his signature as proof of authenticity after his death on August 29, 1769. The use of the name “Hoyle” on modern books of card rules does not mean that Hoyle had anything to do with the contents of the book. After all these years, Hoyle’s rules are no longer the standard, but his name lends credence to any ‘official’ book on card games.
We usually focus on people with great stories of faith, and yet it isn’t always our faith that has an impact on people or history. We know very little about Edmond Hoyle, especially his early life. The only information I could find on the Internet was about his work with games. That work really doesn’t affect our faith in any way, although from Edmond Hoyle we learn the importance of following the rules and of having a standard in games. It is interesting that Hoyle was one of the first members of the Poker Hall of Fame despite the fact that Poker was not even created until sixty years after his death. He had nothing to do with most of today’s gaming, but his vocation has had a lasting impact on good gamesmanship and rule following well beyond the games with which he was familiar.
While games playing is not really a Christian theme, there is an expectation that a Christian will do everything, including games playing, with good sportsmanship according to the rules. A Christian doesn’t cheat. A Christian doesn’t make up the rules as they go. A Christian does everything, including games playing, with grace, mercy and integrity. We might not play according to Hoyle these days, but we should always remember that the real winner is the person who plays fairly, following the rules so that everyone has a chance to do their best, even in our leisure.