Welcome to the August 2016 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 2016
“I thank my God whenever I remember you, always in every request of mine on behalf of you all making my requests with joy, for your partnership in furtherance of the Good News from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. It is even right for me to think this way on behalf of all of you, because I have you in my heart, because, both in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the Good News, you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how I long after all of you in the tender mercies of Christ Jesus. This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that you may approve the things that are excellent; that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:3-11, ASV
Seventeen years. Can you believe that I have been doing this for seventeen 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 worked 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. Midweek Oasis on Wednesday focuses on the lectionary text for Sunday. I began posting seven days a week, but realized that I should take a Sabbath rest, so moved to five days a week. I’m more likely to take a break from writing during a vacation. I have to admit that I sometimes repost older devotions, especially some of my favorites, including this one. I usually edit those repeats to clean them up or make them more relevant to the present, but the ideas from the past often seem to fit the present. I haven’t come close to writing about the entire bible, but in more than 2500 postings I’ve quoted a huge portion of it. The messages have included everything from the extremely mundane to deeply spiritual, from worldly problems to heavenly promises.
Today’s passage is one of my favorites; 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 Paul 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.
The persecution I’ve experienced is nothing like that of Paul and the many martyrs and saints throughout time, but it hasn’t always been easy doing this work every day. There are some days when I can’t even think of a place to start. There were threats in the early days, although never truly dangerous. I have experienced warfare in the spiritual realms.
I once hoped that there would be thousands of readers, not for the sake of fame but for the glory of God. Now I’m happy with a few hundred and very blessed to know when something touches just one heart. God makes seeds grow we don’t not even know have been planted. God’s grace flows through our words and our actions. 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. 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 not 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 us so that the light of Christ will continue to move and shine through this ministry and all your lives.
“God, the proud have risen up against me. A company of violent men have sought after my soul, and they don’t hold regard for you before them. But you, Lord, are a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth. Turn to me, and have mercy on me! Give your strength to your servant. Save the son of your servant. Show me a sign of your goodness, that those who hate me may see it, and be shamed, because you, Yahweh, have helped me, and comforted me.” Psalm 86:14-17, WEB
I choose a daily devotional to read each year. This year I have been following Timothy Keller’s “The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms.” It has been an excellent devotional, one I highly recommend to you for next year.
I don’t usually quote other writers, after all there are plenty of words for all of us, but Sunday’s reading impacted me enough that I want to share. Keller writes, “Learn from your critics. Proud men are attacking David, men who ‘have no regard’ for God (verse 14). Considering their character, verses 15-16 are remarkable. Instead of invoking God’s justice and calling for his enemies’ destruction, he turns the spotlight on himself. He appeals to God’s mercy, grateful for his patience with him. David is open to correction, willing to examine himself to see if, despite his enemies’ evil motivations, there might be something in him that warrants rebuke and needs to change. If someone is criticizing you and the criticism is mostly mistaken, identify the 20 percent of the indictment that is fair. Without excuse be willing to take it to heart. The strongest Christians are the ones most willing to repent.”
The strongest Christians are the ones most willing to repent. They are the ones humble enough to realize that they are sinners in need of a Savior, too. We were talking about God’s Kingdom and Jesus’ rule over our lives this week in Sunday school, remembering that no matter what happens in our world today, tomorrow or in a few months, that God is King over all our the earth, including the earthly leaders we select. See, no matter what happens, half of us will be happy and half of us will be disappointed and we will have to learn to live with others who do not see the world as we do. One friend said, “We have to remember that we might be wrong.” We need to be humble enough to know that we might be wrong and brave enough to admit it.
As Christians we are called to be like David, not invoking God’s justice or calling for our enemies to be destroyed, but rather seeking God’s mercy for our own sinfulness, our own failures, our own errors. We might be wrong. We must be willing to repent of those things that have caused the brokenness of our world, even if we are only at fault 20 percent. See, no one is completely innocent; no matter how much we justify the things we do, we are at least partly to blame for the pain and suffering around us. With Christ as King and righteous Judge we can trust that He will always make things right. He will forgive the sins of those who repent, who humble themselves enough to know that they could be wrong.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 7, 2016, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-16; Luke 12:22-34 (35-40)
“Our soul has waited for Yahweh. He is our help and our shield.” Psalm 33:20, WEB
We live in a world of instant gratification. People don’t write letters because it is faster to send an email. We have overnight delivery for packages we buy online; in some cases we can even get things delivered within hours. We don’t have to go into a grocery store anymore: we simply email the store our shopping list and they will have it waiting at a pick-up spot. We still wait in lines, of course. I visited a very popular fast food place the other day where the drive-thru line was at least twenty cars deep and the line inside was not any shorter. However, the employees work incredibly hard to ensure the wait is not very long and I had my food within minutes.
We don’t like to wait. We pick the shortest line at the grocery store. We follow recommendations at the theme parks so we visit the busiest rides early to avoid the crowds. We pay extra for expedited shipping. I read a post on Facebook the other day that suggested that if someone doesn’t return a text within minutes, then they must not want to communicate with you. We can have just about anything we want instantly, gratifying our deepest wants and our basic needs quickly so we can quest for new wants and needs.
Patience is difficult for us all. Imagine what it must have been like for Abraham. When Abraham first arrived in Shechem after being sent away from his home and family in Genesis 12, God promised that his offspring would inherit that land. Abraham was already an old man, as was Sarah. She was sixty-five, well beyond child bearing years. Yet, God promises him offspring. Now, legally this was more than possible as Abraham could easily adopt a child as we hear in today’s lesson. We don’t know exactly who Eliezer of Damascus is to Abraham; he was obviously a very trusted member of Abraham’s household. Some suggest that he was a slave. The promise, however, seems to indicate flesh and blood relation, fruit of Abraham’s loins. It isn’t until Genesis 15 that we seen Abraham questioning this promise.
“Behold, to me you have given no children: and, behold, one born in my house is my heir,” said Abraham. In this conversation we see that God is not bothered by our doubts and questions. When we are uncertain about what God intends for our lives, we wont be called unfaithful if we ask Him to explain. As a matter of fact, despite the ridiculousness of the promise as it is given in today’s lesson, Abraham “believed in Yahweh, who credited it to him for righteousness.” Faith in God means trusting Him, even when it seems like the promise will never be fulfilled.
Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old, so decades passed between the promise and fulfillment. We heard about the visit of the Lord to Abraham a few weeks ago, but today’s passage happened much earlier. Between Genesis 18 and Genesis 15, Abraham and Sarah took God’s plan into their own hands. Sarah gave him her maidservant Hagar and a child was born.
We don’t need to take God’s plan into our own hands, but we like to see results. The clock is constantly ticking in our world. God might not be limited by time or space, but we are. So, like Abraham and Sarah, we do whatever we think is best to make God’s will happen. We justify it with catchy little slogans like “God helps those who help themselves,” but by doing so we prove that we don’t really trust God to be faithful. Now, of course, there are those who will blame Sarah, especially since we know that Abraham’s faith is extraordinary. But the reality is that Abraham allowed himself to be swayed. He believed, but he also doubted.
The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.” It’s all about faith. This is an easy statement to make, but it is much harder to live it. After all, what is faith? How do we define something so intangible, so incomprehensible? The scriptures are filled with faith stories, and we all have our own stories to tell, but can we really define what it is? And what happens when our actions are faithless? What happens when we question God about how or when He will accomplish His promises? Does this mean we don’t have faith?
We won’t necessarily see the promises of God fulfilled as we want or expect. Think about the people in Jesus’ day who were expecting a military or political king. They didn’t get what they expected, they got something better, and yet most of them did not see the truth. There are many today who are still waiting for the Messiah to come to make Israel great again. They want God to make things happen in their time and in their way. The point of faith is to believe that God will do what He promises in His time and way.
That’s the hard part. We have a difficult time waiting and recognizing how God is fulfilling His promises. We really are impatient, but I don’t think that’s a quality that is missing just from those of us who live in this age of instant gratification. Abraham waited longer, but even so, he didn’t wait long enough. He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, and yet we learn he didn’t trust God enough to wait. The people in Jesus’ day trusted that God would send His Messiah, but they didn’t trust Him enough to believe that He was doing it differently than they expected. Despite all their failures, God was still faithful. Despite all our questions and doubts, God will be faithful.
The Old Testament and Epistle lessons today remind us that Abraham had faith. He trusted God and followed Him out of the world He knew into a world he did not know. He left his home and his people to become a nomad, to journey to a strange and foreign land because a God he didn’t know called him. There is nothing reasonable about Abraham’s story, at least from our point of view. How do we react to those who say “God told me to do this?” Usually we laugh or ridicule them, or we reject the notion that God might speak to an individual in such a specific way.
I wish God would talk to me with such clarity. I’ve been asking Him what He wants me to do for as long as I can remember. I’ve sought His will on my career, my family, my future. Sometimes I think I know what’s He’s saying, but most of the time I just muddle through. I’m not very patient, you see, and so when things don’t fall into place as soon as I think they should, I begin to second guess myself. So, even now as I wander through each day with the faith I have, I wonder if I’m headed in the right direction. God does not always seem as clear to me as He seems to have been to Abraham. Could I leave my home and family like Abraham to follow God? I’d like to say “Yes, I have that much faith,” but I’m not quite that confident.
But that’s the point of our scriptures today: it isn’t about how much faith we have, it is about trusting in God even when we feel like we are faithless. It is comforting to see this story of Abraham from Genesis 15, because even in this text that is quoted so often lifting up Abraham for his faith, we see the reality of Abraham’s faithlessness. He trusted God even while He doubted God. Abraham questions how and when God will provide him offspring because he doesn’t see how any gift or blessing really makes sense to His world view if he has no heir to which it can be passed.
I suppose the thing we have to ask ourselves in the midst of our questions is what to do while we wait. We don’t have to wait if we are instantly gratified, but that’s not the way it works with faith. Sometimes God’s promises take time. Take the promise of eternal life, for instance. We know we have eternal life now, but it is a future promise that we won’t see fulfilled until we pass from this life into the next. We are certainly not running off to take that into our own hands, although I have been finding myself crying out “Come, Lord Jesus,” often these days.
“I’m finished,” I say, but I’m not really. I know there is work to be done; there are people who need to be saved. Jesus will not come until, as Paul writes to the Romans, “...until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Christ will not come until everyone who is meant to believe does believe. How will they believe? Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. The way we wait is to share the Gospel with our neighbors so that they, too, might believe and be saved. Besides that, there are people to be fed and clothed, strangers to be befriended and prisoners to be freed. Living in faith means taking every gift and blessing and using it for God’s glory even while we wait for His promises to be fulfilled.
Jesus doesn’t make living in that faith easy. He tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, “Sell that which you have, and give gifts to the needy. Make for yourselves purses which don’t grow old, a treasure in the heavens that doesn’t fail, where no thief approaches, neither moth destroys.” Perhaps we have not been given the command to leave our family and our homeland to go to an unknown place, but God does want us to let go of the expectations that we think define us. He wants us to believe and it is that faith that is credited to us as righteousness.
Jesus continued, “Therefore be ready also, for the Son of Man is coming in an hour that you don’t expect him.” Abraham heard God’s voice and followed. We may not experience Him in that way, however we too can hear His voice. Have you ever experienced one of those moments when you knew you were exactly in the right time and the right place and you don’t quite know what took you there? It was a feeling, a thought, a compulsion. I’ve heard stories of people who have turned down the wrong street, only to find themselves face to face with someone in need. When it is over, these people knew without a doubt they have met the Lord in the eyes and heart of the person they helped.
Patience for God’s promises means waiting and watching and walking in faith. When our ultimate concern is our own selves, we miss those divine appointments. However, when our ultimate concern is God, we know that He will be faithful according to His good and perfect will, and that He provide for us in the meantime so that we can share out of our abundance in faith and trust that He will be true to His Word.
There may be promises that we long to see fulfilled, promises about our lives and future that God has spoken into our hearts. We believe that God can and will provide for us in these ways, but as we wait let us always remember that God will fulfill all His promises in His time and way. Blessed are those who trust in God because they know what truly matters. We have faith in something we will not see in this world, an eternal Kingdom where we will dwell in God’s presence forever. We have this hope by faith and this is what is credited to us as righteousness. God remains true even when we question and doubt. He watches from heaven above and knows all, into the very depths of their souls.
The psalmist reminds us, “Our soul has waited for Yahweh. He is our help and our shield.” This is what it means to have faith. Patience may be one of the most difficult traits in our age of instant gratification, but we are called to live in faith trusting that God will be faithful. We might not understand His timing or His way, but faith means waiting and watching, using the gifts and blessings that God has provided for us in the meantime so that all might trust in the God who has promised all who believe a place in His Kingdom forever.
“Where there is no counsel, plans fail; but in a multitude of counselors they are established.” Proverbs 15:22, WEB
I laugh at this particular proverb because we all know a multitude of counselors can make a decision more difficult rather than easier. Committees seem to make everything take much longer, especially when everyone has their own idea. They say that if you ask ten people you will get eleven opinions; while that may not be entirely true, we have all had experiences that give some credence to the idea.
Ask any pregnant woman or new mother about the number of opinions they’ve heard and you’ll know that a multitude is not always helpful. They don’t even have to ask for advice; others are always willing to voice their opinion. It doesn’t matter how much experience they have. My best advice for those women is this: listen to everyone and then do what works for you and your children. See, the advice of one person might not really be the best thing for another person, but there might be some wisdom in it that can be adapted for a situation. We listen to the advice of the many because someone might just have exactly the right thing that will help.
We can’t do it alone, and we don’t have to. That’s the point of today’s proverb. It really isn’t that we should go put ten people in a room to get their eleven opinions, but that we should be willing to listen to others because in the counsel of others we will find wisdom. We need to be discerning and we need to be wise in our own heads.
I don’t know about you, it seems to me that during every political season there are many people saying many words. For every word I hear against something I hear a word for it. I’ve certainly heard eleven theories for every ten people. I sometimes think it would be better to stop listening, and you certainly see that among so many who have become distressed over the current political climate in the United States. I have to admit that I’ve heard as many good arguments from every direction as I’ve heard bad ones. I am one of those who remains firmly in the “I have no idea what I’m going to do” camp, and I might stay there until the minute I walk into the voting booth. We still have three months until election day. Jesus could come before then (Come, Lord Jesus, please!)
But it is far better to hear the opinions of many than to stand so firmly in our own wisdom that we don’t even try to think things through. It can become frustrating and confusing, yes, but as we think through everything we hear, study and test it for ourselves, we will discover that there is an answer in the midst of it and it might not be what we thought in the beginning. In other words, the mother who is adamantly opposed to all kinds of medication might just discover there is value to certain treatments for her child.
We have to remember, as we are sharing our own wisdom with others, however, that we could also be wrong. We don’t any of us have complete knowledge. We don’t know have all the details. We must be as willing to listen to the counsel of others as we are to giving our own counsel. We can help one another be better and accomplish much better things when we work together in both word and deed. Ten people might give eleven opinions, but if we listen and work together, we might all just find the best way to accomplish our goals in this world.
"Don’t let kindness and truth forsake you. Bind them around your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor, and good understanding in the sight of God and man. Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and don’t lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Don’t be wise in your own eyes. Fear Yahweh, and depart from evil. It will be health to your body, and nourishment to your bones." Proverbs 3:3-8, WEB
I think one of the most difficult things about writing this daily devotional for so long is that it has become more and more difficult to come up with new ideas. I’ve told you all my stories. My kids remind me constantly how redundant my story telling can be, after all, they’ve heard my best stories over and over again. “I know, Mom, you told me that already,” they say with a heavy sigh. I like to think I’m a pretty good storyteller, but even the best stories get old after awhile. How often can you hear about a wildflower adventure or something silly my cats do? While the theological concepts might be different each time, I don’t want this writing to ever become boring.
I suppose that’s why I have changed the format several times over the past seventeen years. Not only does the devotion become new for you, it becomes new for me. We spent several years when we focused only on the texts of the Lectionary (which we do only on Wednesday now.) I’ve come up with different types of series, like the month we looked at Proverbs or the Advent focuses over the years. I even spent the better part of a year using the alphabet to inspire me with words to study.
It is impossible for me to hide the things that concern me as I write. The stories have always revolved around the cares and concerns of my world. I have written about my motherly worries, my fears when we have had huge changes in our lives and the joys when they have come. Some of the stories seem too ordinary to share something as extraordinary as God’s grace. I don’t want to tell you how many times I have shaken my head after I’ve written a devotional and wondered “What is that?” but hit the send button anyway. The most amazing thing is that it is on those days when I think what I’ve written is ridiculous that God seems to bless others.
That’s the whole point though, and a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again. Just when I’m getting to the point of being tired, I remember that it has never been about me. Even if I write about John 3:16 every day, God will find a way to use it to bless someone with His grace. Just when I think that I have nothing left to say, God gives me the inspiration and the strength to go on. When I set aside my own wisdom and turn my eyes on God, then the old stories are new and the new stories speak to something that is older than any of us can imagine. It is never about the stories, but always about seeing God in the world around me and sharing His grace with others so that they might grow and mature in faith. His Word is what transforms and I will always be thankful that He is able to use my stories, even the ones I’ve repeated too many times, to make a difference in the lives of those who happen to read this devotion.
“By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does the love of God remain in him? My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth.” 1 John 3:16-18, WEB
There is a video that was taken at night in a pet store in Taiwan of a kitten who climbed out of its glass enclosure to visit the puppy in the enclosure next door. It was quite a struggle for the tiny kitten because the glass had no traction and there wasn’t much for it to grasp, and yet it managed to climb, twist and squeeze its way over the top into the puppy’s enclosure.
The sleeping puppy woke and got very excited when it realized what its friend was doing. It jumped and put its paws against the wall, reaching as tall as possible with tail wagging. As soon as the kitten managed to move to the top of its enclosure, the puppy started licking in welcome. The puppy’s enthusiasm made it even more difficult for the kitten, but eventually it managed to jump into the enclosure and they began to play. The puppy, of course, began licking the kitten with even more frenzy but the kitten did not mind. They were both excited to see one another.
I suspect this happened repeatedly which is why someone decided to set up a camera to capture the escape. Imagine leaving the pet store each night with every animal safely resting in their enclosure only to return in the morning and discover the kitten and puppy happily snuggling in the puppy’s enclosure, especially since the enclosures seem to be designed to make it impossible.
Nothing is impossible for a cat, however. They can get into places that defy explanation. There are photos of cats hanging from ceiling fans, squeezed into tiny boxes, lounging on cabinet tops and sleeping precariously on hangers, laptops or flat screen televisions. Delilah climbs to the top of Bruce’s sweater pile and has managed to knock more than a few of them onto the floor. Our old cat Felix managed to break a favorite tea pot that was protectively stored on the top of a very high cabinet and even once opened a second story bathroom window so he could jump out.
I think what I like most about the video is that the kitten was willing to go to so much trouble to be with its friend. It was a sacrificial act, something it likely did more than once.
Are we willing to act out our love for our neighbors in such a sacrificial manner? Are we willing to risk everything to climb over the top for their sake? Are we willing to give more than just a word or a token, to lay down our lives as Jesus Christ did for us? Oh, we’ll never be able to do for others what He has done, we don’t have to because He has finished that work. But in faith we are called to live as He lived, to do as He did, to give as He gave. In faith we are called to love our neighbors in such a way that they will see the love of God and glorify Him. We all have so much to give, even if we have very little, because God has blessed us to be a blessing. How can you bring joy to your neighbors today? How can you go over the top to make a difference in their lives?
“Your words were found, and I ate them; and your words were to me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart: for I am called by your name, Yahweh, God of Armies.” Jeremiah 15:16, WEB
I love bread. Don’t we all? There are many who are trying to avoid bread because it has empty calories, too much sugar and natural toxins. Bread causes blood sugar to rise and inflammation in the body. There are better breads than others, of course. Those made with highly refined grains are the worst because the refining process removes important nutrients necessary for good health.
Of course, it is that highly refined bread that we love the best. And the bread covered in stuff. It is impossible to avoid dipping that fresh made bread into the bowl of olive oil and herbs or slopping up that extra sauce with a breadstick. And what’s better than bread? Bread with ooey-gooey melty cheese is the best. Who doesn’t love a cheese sandwich? There’s something very comforting about the combination of two pieces of white bread with a slice of American cheese in the middle. Quesadillas are simply cheese sandwiches made with tortillas. We eat three billion pizzas a year in America, which is simply cheese on bread with some other stuff. Have you ever thought about how queso and tortilla chips are a deconstructed cheese sandwich? I can’t go to a Mexican restaurant without eating way too much queso and chips. So, while I don’t eat much bread at home, I certainly don’t avoid it as much as I probably should. Those yummy cheesy configurations of bread that I absolutely love are even worse than the bread itself.
The irony of all this is that bread, which is ground grain made into a cake and cooked in some manner, has always been a staple in every culture throughout time. When all else is gone, people are sustained by bread and water. Bread is talked about early in Genesis and is the focus of many meals mentioned in the Bible. Bread is such an important part of our life that Jesus identifies Himself as the Bread of Life. He’s not the fruit or the broccoli or the steak of life, He’s the Bread of Life. He is the bread because bread is the most basic food that is found in some form or another everywhere and when all else is gone, He is able to sustain us. Our Christian life now revolves around the Sacrament of the Eucharist, a sharing of the bread that is the Body of Christ.
We should be careful about the food we eat. Queso and tortilla chips are not a healthy substitute for a simple cheese sandwich; it doesn’t nourish our bodies or sustain us very well. Highly processed flour might make delicious bread, but it won’t sustain us the way the grain breads did for those in ancient times. However, Jesus Christ is still the Bread of Life; He is enough to sustain us for eternal life. The life well lived “eats” of His Word on a daily basis.
Here’s the joy of it, though: God invites us to do more than just eat the Bread of Life. It is enough to hear God’s Word regularly, to read a devotional occasionally, to open the pages of our Bible on a regular basis. It is enough to sustain us. But God wants the Bread we eat to be more than a simple ground grain cake. He wants us to cover that bread with ooey-gooey yumminess by delving deeply into the scriptures, studying His Word, basking in it, meditating on it, letting it enlighten and transform us. We are invited to feast on the Bread of Life, to savor Him, to rejoice in our hearts and be thankful for the many blessings God gives so that we will have abundant life.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 14, 2016, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:16-29; Psalm 119:81-88; Hebrews 11:17-31 (32-40) 12:1-3; Luke 12:49-53 (54-56)
“Isn’t my word like fire? says Yahweh; and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” Jeremiah 23:29
What does Jesus mean when He says, “I came to throw fire on the earth. I wish it were already kindled.” This sounds almost like the boast of a warrior king who has come to bring destruction and wrath. Jesus’ message becomes more difficult to hear as He moves closer to the cross. Life in God’s Kingdom will not always be easy; there will be persecution. The Gospel is not a unifier, it is a divider. But Jesus comforts His disciples with the promise that they will not be alone.
Last week Jesus warned His disciples to be ready. Ready for what? The religious leaders were already pressing Jesus to catch Him in some crime so that they could be rid of Him. The inevitable end of Jesus’ ministry would be on the cross. Jesus certainly wanted the disciples to be ready for what was soon to come because His passion and death would be trying on them as well. But Jesus constantly reminds them not to be afraid. “They can’t really kill you because your Father in Heaven is willing to save you.” No matter how wonderful this message sounds to us, there are too many who do not hear and believe.
That’s the dividing that comes with the fire Jesus’ throws on earth. He divides hearts; some are inflamed with the divine love of God, others are left cold. The fire is not a fire that destroys, but one that fills the hearts of God’s people with His love. Jesus wishes that it was already burning, but it would take something very radical for it to happen. Jesus had to die on the cross, and then after His resurrection, the Holy Spirit could be thrown upon God’s people, filling them with everything God has promised to those who believe.
The Blessed Denis the Carthusian wries, “The way to attain the perfection of divine love is then stated. ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth?’ In other words, do not imagine that I have come to offer people a sensual, worldly, and unruly peace that will enable them to be united in their vices and achieve earthly prosperity. No, I tell you, I have not come to offer that kind of peace, but rather division - a good, healthy kind of division, physical as well as spiritual. Love for God and desire for inner peace will set those who believe in me at odds with wicked men and women, and make them part company with those who would turn them from their course of spiritual progress and from the purity of divine love, or who attempt to hinder them.”
See, living fully and faithfully in God’s divine love means turning away from the expectations of the world. It means being at odds with those who would make vices acceptable and prosperity the goal. It means dwelling in God’s grace and being transformed into the person that God has created and redeemed you to be.
Sadly, many in Jesus’ day did not recognize the signs of His coming. They didn’t see that He was the fulfillment of God’s promises. They didn’t recognize the signs of the coming age because of their spiritual emptiness. It is no wonder that Jesus wanted to fill them with the fire so that they could hear and understand His teaching that God’s Kingdom had arrived. They wanted God to fulfill His promises in their way and they could not hear what Jesus was saying. There are many who continue to live like that today. Prophets preach messages that sound good to listening ears, but are not truly from God. They are messages offer the kind of peace that allows followers to be united in their vices and achieve earthly prosperity.
It isn’t easy to tell the difference between the words of God and the words people claim are from God. We are human, and we are easily deceived. This is a problem that God’s people have experienced since the beginning of time. There are many people today who claim to be prophets and who say that they have been given a special message from God. These messages often come in the form of dreams, but they also say, “God told me.” While it is important to hear what they have to say, we are to always remember that God’s Word does not contradict itself.
In the passage from Jeremiah God asks, “What is the straw to the wheat?” Straw is part of the wheat; it is the stem that is left after the wheat kernels are taken. Straw has value; it can be used for bedding, for warmth, for building. But wheat is life-giving. The kernels can be used for food or they can be planted to grow more wheat. God’s word as compared to that of the false prophets is life-giving. It is forgiving. It is filled with grace and hope and peace. God’s word might be demanding. It might be powerful, like the hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, but it is also healing and it is transforming. Most of all, God’s Word reveals His faithfulness.
The best way to know whether to trust a prophet is to discern whether they are speaking for God or if their message somehow benefits themselves. Does it bring them glory or give them leave to act as they want? Does it fill their pockets or further their agenda? I once belonged to a list where “prophets” provided “words” for the people, but it became nothing more than a marketplace. Even the prophecies were filled with sales pitches for books or workshops and rather said anything of value.
God does not always lead us into a path of wealth and happiness. The passage of Hebrews gives a much different picture. “Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword.[h] They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.” This isn’t a life I would choose and it is not one in which I would expect to find peace. However, over the history of the Church, the stories of those persecuted and killed for the Gospel describe the faces of the martyrs filled with joy and peace as they were burnt or beheaded for their faith.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that the faithful throughout history did not see the promises of God fulfilled. Abraham had a child, but he never saw the multitudes that God said would be His offspring. Isaac, Jacob and Joseph never saw what would come. Moses did not enter the Promised Land toward which He led God’s people. He lists many other faithful people who accomplished great things but never fully saw what was to come. The promise of Jesus was always there, in their words and in their hope, but they didn’t live to see that day. Even the earliest Christians, many of whom knew Jesus personally, did not see the ultimate fulfillment of His work on earth. They lived in faith knowing that God was faithful, trusting that God would, in His own time and way, provide His people with all that is to come. We are still waiting for that day, the day when He comes again to make everything right. We are waiting for the day when we will all be welcomed back into the Garden to dwell in His presence forever.
They were not perfect. Each one had a black mark on their account along with the stories of their faith-filled journey. Rahab was a prostitute. Gideon tested God. Samson was easily deceived. David pursued Bathsheba. If we were to point out similar people in our world today, I doubt we would ever expect that they would be commended for their faith. And yet God accomplished great things through them because they believed in Him. We can accomplish great things, too, as long as we remember that it is God’s Will to be done, not ours.
It isn’t easy. We may have to step out of our comfort zone and allow God to do something incredible in our lives. We might have to accept the assignment that doesn’t fit our desires. We may have to trust voices that say what we know to be true even if they don’t say what we want them to say. But we do all this knowing that God is near, helping us through.
It is hard for us to hear Jesus say that He came to bring fire when we prefer to think of Him as bringing peace. However, the peace Jesus gives is not necessary a lack of conflict. Faith in Jesus will cause division, it will bring tension. Those who are passionate about their faith, about Jesus, will stand up for their beliefs at all cost. It is no wonder that we question God’s peace when we are surrounded by conflict. We question because we misunderstand; we seek peace to be as the world defines it. But the peace of God is a life of joy in God’s kingdom even when we are facing persecution and death. God calls us to a life in which the fire that dwells within us burns brightly to light the world in which we live. The peaceful life might just mean divisions between those who believe are separated from those who do not.
We are called to be passionate about our faith. We are called to speak God’s word in the lives of those around us. Jesus expects us to be passionate about our faith, so much so that it just flows out in our everyday experiences. The fruit of the Spirit is not something that should be quenched for the sake of unity. Unfortunately, not everyone will agree with our passion and this will bring division.
In Jeremiah God asks, “Am I a God at hand, says Yahweh, and not a God afar off?” The problem with people now as in Jesus’ day is that they do not recognize the Lord God Almighty. They follow the words of men and have forgotten all that God had done. In Jeremiah God says, “I have heard what the prophets have said, who prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, even the prophets of the deceit of their own heart? who think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbor, as their fathers forgot my name for Baal.”
Jesus stood before the people in Israel, presenting the Kingdom of God and they could not see Him as He is. He was calling them to see the signs that pointed to the truth of His character and to repent, to turn back to God and follow Him as those who walked in faith throughout the ages. Even now, after He has suffered the baptism that brings us hope and peace, too many do not see Him as He is or follow Him as He leads. They don’t recognize the signs because they expect God to fulfill their expectations rather than be faithful to His truth.
See, God’s Word is good and it is the word upon which we can live and dwell in peace not only in this world but for life eternal. The Psalm for today is part of that lengthy hymn praising God’s Word. Each of the stanzas in Psalm 119 use words that describe God’s Law. Many people are uncomfortable with this psalm because of the seeming legal focus. However, when we study the words used we realize that this psalm is really a comfort to those of us who trust God because they remind us that God’s Word is more than rules we must obey.
We trust in God’s salvation because He has said He will save us. When we are let down we can look to God’s promises. When we struggle with the life we are living in this world we can see how God’s boundaries will guard and protect us even from ourselves. When we are being persecuted, we can trust that God will provide justice for us against those who do us harm. We are reminded that those who are against us are not living according to God’s teaching, but we can trust in all God’s Word because they are faithful. Even when the world means to destroy us, we can look to God’s authority for peace. God’s testimony is worth obedience because He will protect us by His mercy.
Isn’t there great comfort in those words? We are being called to repentance, to live the life of faith in peace that might not be so peaceful. God’s Word is truly like fire, breaking apart the hardness that keeps people from believing in Jesus Christ. It also divides. Our passion for Jesus Christ will bring discord. The world will not approve of the choices we make to witness our faith to others. We will face persecution. We will suffer. We will die. But we are being called to take our faith into the world no matter what might happen. This means being ready at any moment to do whatever it is God is calling you to do.
“You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do you light a lamp, and put it under a measuring basket, but on a stand; and it shines to all who are in the house. Even so, let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16, WEB
We had the light in our laundry room repaired a couple weeks ago. I talked to the electrician while he was here to discuss options for my studio. See, the lighting in that room is typical fluorescent lighting, not very good for art. I can work with it, but it is very difficult to get a decent photograph of my work. I have other lights available, and often have the all shining to overcome shadows and glare. It is even worse when the sun is shining. While you might think natural light is best for painting, and it is, the way the light shines in the room also matters, and the sun is rarely my friend in that room.
Have you taken time in the lighting department of the home improvement store lately? The choices do not just include style anymore: now you have to decide what sort of light bulb to use. Do you want incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, or LED? The choices even include color and size. Do you want a warm, yellow light or a cool, more natural white light? Do you need a regular size bulb or a candelabra type? What used to be a few feet of possibilities now fills a whole aisle.
I think what’s truly amazing is how the light bulbs have gotten so small. A single LED light can brighten a dark space better than the much larger fluorescent bulbs if it is properly placed. The electrician suggested that I replace the large fixture in my studio with a series of track lighting. Those bulbs are so small, but shine with an incredible brightness and can be purposely directed at certain spots. All light shines with the purpose of lighting the darkness, but the right light can shine more intentionally and specifically.
A candle is perfect for a romantic dinner. A portrait photographer needs special filters to take good photos. Certain outdoor lighting enhances the landscape while other lighting provides for safety and protection. The right lighting makes a meal more palatable; the wrong lighting can make people look sad or angry. A nightlight doesn’t seem like it would do very much good, but in the middle of the night it shines bright enough to help us find our way.
You are the light of the world. There may not have been very many choices in the days of Jesus, but they certainly did understand the importance of light. As with so many technological advances, I wonder if we truly understand the importance of light. We flip a switch and the world is no longer dark; we do this with little thought. It is just as easy to turn it off. We “hide” lights all the time with just the flip of a switch.
Do we do this also with the Light that shines through faith? We can be extremely passionate about Jesus when we are in church on a Sunday morning or gathered with our friends in Bible study during the week, but we switch off that light when we head to work because we don’t want to risk our jobs or offend our neighbors. Jesus is the Light, and He calls us to shine His light into the world. We shine by being kind and generous, honest and respectful, joyful and full of thanksgiving. We shine His light by telling people about the saving grace of Jesus, which means also revealing the darkness in which they live. We shine His light by responding to God’s call with obedience, even when we’d rather hide under a bushel or turn off the switch. Our lives lived in faith glorify our Father and that’s the best way to shine the Light.
"Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know that Yahweh, he is God. It is he who has made us, and we are his. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations." Psalm 100, WEB
There is a commercial for a car sales company that has a very annoying jingle, one that uses a word that is considered a vulgar word by some, including myself. Unfortunately, the jingle is extremely catchy and I find myself singing it in my head much too often. It just won't leave my head!
This can be very annoying, no matter what song is stuck in our heads, but it can have a positive effect on the world around us when the music is uplifting. Martin Luther once said, "Next to the word of God, music deserves the highest praise." This is true because music is a powerful way to share a message and it is often through music that the message is best remembered.
Educators will often suggest to students that they should set their information to a tune because it makes it easier to commit lists of facts to memory. Even from a small age teachers use this technique. The alphabet song has nothing important to say, but I still find myself singing it when I'm looking things up in the dictionary. The preschoolers at our church learn songs about colors, numbers and shapes. Most of all, they learn songs about God, Jesus and the Bible. I'm sure that there are at least a few parents wondering if their children will ever stop singing this summer's VBS songs. There are a few of those songs, however, that will stick with us forever - happily.
The story is told about a famous theologian who, after giving a lengthy presentation on Christianity, was approached by a reporter who asked him to summarize his lecture. The professor thought a moment, and then said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” There are times when such simple words express more than elaborate dissertations on theology ever could. These simple and familiar words come from the song “Jesus Loves Me,” written by Anna Bartlett Warner. The song was written by Anna as a poem for inclusion in one of her sister Susan’s books and was set to music by William Bradbury. Anna was a Bible study teacher at the Academy at West point and shared with the song with her students. The cadets were often heard singing it on campus. Who would have thought that such a simple song could become such a powerful witness of God's grace?
It is so easy for us to draw from our memory jingles and tunes we've heard on the television or radio, but those songs will not bring faith or hope to the world, especially if the language is uncomfortable for some. However, music is a powerful way of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so let us fill our heads with a joyful noise unto the Lord as we walk through this life and constantly glorify God with praise and thanksgiving.
“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Good News -- not in wisdom of words, so that the cross of Christ wouldn’t be made void. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, I will bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing.’ Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are: that no flesh should boast before God.” 1 Corinthians 1:17-29, WEB
I went to a bead market on Saturday. This is a show that comes around town several times a year where many dealers offer supplies to crafters at wholesale prices. Sometimes I go to these things with a wallet full of money and leave broke but with a bag full of new beads to use. I met one woman who told me she spent hundreds of dollars at just one of the vendors. I never go that crazy, but then she is a professional and will likely make back that much at one or two shows this fall.
This time I went with a purpose. I have collected a large supply of beads between finds on the clearance racks of my favorite stores and an online order I made when prepping for a retreat earlier this year. I need to replenish my selection of prayer beads for upcoming shows and so I spent Friday night and Saturday morning doing an inventory. By the time it was finished, I had beads picked out for several dozen new items, but there were a number of holes to fill. So, I took my examples with me and searched through the tables full of beads in search of the perfect ones. A few were easy to find. Others were a little more difficult. I have to admit that I found a few beads I didn’t really need but purchased anyway because I knew they would work with other beads I had in my supplies.
One of the things you notice as you visit places like craft supply stores and bead markets is that there are always trends. I tend to avoid the trends, but you can see by the end caps and by the project sheets what’s popular this year. You’ll see those very same projects over and over again if you visit the craft shows this fall. People tend to follow the trends, although I’ve never really figured out who starts them. I suppose it is the craft supply makers and sellers who convince us that this is what we need to do. Have you ever noticed how when one friend will post a pinterest idea, lots of other people post the same thing? Is it any wonder that we all have a red, white and blue bandana wreath on our doorways this year?
I can assure you that the trends you will see this fall will be jewelry made with tassels and polished geodes because every dealer had a large supply of both. The problem for me is that when the dealers focus on a trend, they tend to ignore the materials I need. Sadly, the thing that was missing from this year’s bead market was crosses. Oh, most of the dealers had a few, but there was not much choice. One had a supply for making rosaries, but I use more unique crosses in my prayer beads. Another had a type that is used specifically for bracelets. Another had a few crosses that were much too big and others that were too small. There were some pretty ones at one dealer, but not really appropriate for prayer beads because the paint wash would quickly be worn off with handling. Needless to say, I didn’t find what I needed.
The bead market is not the only place where the cross is missing these days. I went to a Christian conference a few years ago and it was nearly impossible to tell it was a Christian conference. The only place where you could find a cross was in the marketplace. The banners had the name of the group, but the logo had no cross. The focus in the decorations was a huge globe. Even the worship space was sparse, with only a small cross used in the processional. Sadly the cross was not even mentioned in the lectures and speeches, and the Jesus about which most of them spoke would never be found on a cross. It was the Jesus that teaches us to be good people and who sets a good example but does not die for the sake of sinners. The trend in too many churches is to ignore the reality of our sinfulness and to promote a lifestyle that can change the world. Who needs a cross when we can do good works?
It is no wonder that the world ignores the cross. The cross is foolishness. The cross doesn’t make sense. Besides, the good works we do are truly good and they do transform the world. We are called to live that life, to follow Jesus’ example, to do good works in His name. However, it is all meaningless without the cross, but glorifies God and is truly life-giving through the cross of Christ.
“I will bless Yahweh at all times. His praise will always be in my mouth. My soul shall boast in Yahweh. The humble shall hear of it, and be glad. Oh magnify Yahweh with me. Let us exalt his name together. I sought Yahweh, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked to him, and were radiant. Their faces shall never be covered with shame. This poor man cried, and Yahweh heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. Yahweh’s angel encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. Oh taste and see that Yahweh is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. Oh fear Yahweh, you his saints, for there is no lack with those who fear him. The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger, but those who seek Yahweh shall not lack any good thing.” Psalm 34:1-10, WEB
John Wesley was raised in a Christian home and joined his brother in a society of men at Oxford who committed to holy lives of prayer, worship and study. He sailed to Georgia to minister; during the trip the ship encountered a fierce storm. It was so terrible that the wind split the mast and broke it in half. He was terrified. His ministry in Georgia failed.
There was a group of Moravians from Germany aboard the same ship. During the storm the Moravians showed no fear. Instead, they gathered together to sing hymns, singing so loud that they could be heard above the wind. Wesley later asked one of the Moravians if he was afraid. The man replied, “Thank God, no.” John’s fear made him lack confidence in his faith. He returned to England and struggled with his Christianity. He tried to be good, but found himself frustrated. “I was indeed fighting continually, but not conquering. I fell and rose, and fell again.”
It was during a meeting that John was transformed. He wrote in his journal, “In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” He joined George Whitefield in ministry, and though they eventually went their own ways, John found his passion for the Gospel and became a great minister.
The Moravians on board that ship worshiped God in the midst of their trouble. This worship not only gave them comfort, it was a catalyst for change in the heart of John Wesley. It took awhile, but he learned to trust God through their example and eventually found His ministry in God’s kingdom. We are called to a life of worship and thanksgiving, a life in which we can sing praise to God in all our circumstances. That life shines the grace of God and helps others to see Him and hear His voice. You never know: your worship might just help someone find their own passion and their ministry in God’s kingdom.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 21, 2016, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 66:18-23; Psalm 50:1-15; Hebrews 12:4-24 (25-29); Luke 13:22-30
It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with children, for what son is there whom his father doesn’t discipline?” Hebrews 12:7, WEB
The Olympics have captured the attention of the world. We are watching the competitions on television, following the results online. We are cheering for our team and for those who have overcome obstacles to make it into elite of their sport. We have heard their stories; we have cried with them in victory and defeat. We’ve loved the loveable and screamed about those moments that don’t seem fair. We have celebrated the winners.
Unfortunately, we’ve nearly forgotten the thousands of athletes who have failed to win anything in their sport. There are more than 11,000 athletes competing for approximately 2,500 medals. We can’t say that the non-winners are losers because they have accomplished so much. They are the best of the best from their countries. They have trained for years, sometimes since they were very young children. They have worked hard to represent their nations. Some of them were even among the favorites, but it takes only a small mistake to change the outcome of any race. God medals are a great way to finish years of hard work, but those who do not win have so much about which to be proud.
There is always a story or two about the Olympic spirit that touches our hearts, like the one featuring Abbey D’Agostino of Team USA and Nikki Hamblin of Team New Zealand. Nikki fell and Abbey tripped during the first round of the womens 5000-meter race and they both tumbled to the ground in the collision. They both lost, having been left behind by the other racers on the ground, but the key to perseverance isn’t winning, it is finishing. Abbey convinced Nikki to get up and keep going but quickly discovered that she was injured. She didn’t think she could make it to the finish line, but the Nikki wouldn’t let her quit. Together they made it, hugged and then Nikki helped Abbey into a wheelchair.
There is no easy path to victory. Every one of those 11,000 athletes worked very hard to get to Rio. They had many people helping them along the way. They had parents who paid for lessons when they were kids and coaches who trained them to do their skills well. They had national committees that held competitions to choose the best of the best and supporters who donated to make it happen. They faced other athletes who also worked hard, but not quite hard enough, to make it to the team. They all have fans in their home nations and towns that are rooting for them. It takes a lot of work by a lot of people to win a gold medal.
Some think that there is an easy path. They try techniques that are supposed to make them faster, stronger and better. They buy shoes or equipment that will give them an edge. They use trendy methods for healing and recovery. Some even try using drugs to take their bodies farther than the other athletes. No matter what they try, the best athletes are those who work hard and practice. They have coaches that train them, using discipline to get them to be the best.
We struggle with the word “discipline” because we think that it means negative reinforcement. Discipline is a ruler wrapped on the knuckles or a spanking. It is punishing and thus it must be harmful. But good discipline techniques might actually seem punishing, but in the end the athletes realize that the coach is not causing harm, but is training their bodies. A gymnast must do a skill a thousand times before they do it right and then a thousand more times to make it perfect. Doing the same thing over and over and over again is punishing, but in the end it becomes so natural that it seems like they could do it all along. Thats the hard way to get to your goals, but it is the only way. New shoes and supplements won’t make you run faster or jump higher, but hard work will and in the end we discover that the hard work -- the narrow door -- is actually the best way.
Faith is the narrow door. The athlete that trusts his or her coach is the one that will grow and succeed. They are the ones that will understand discipline is necessary for training and will obey even when the training doesn’t make sense. Why struggle through a narrow door when there’s a big wide open space that is easy to clear? Why spend nine hours a day doing the same simple skill over and over again when the more difficult ones are more impressive and fun? The coach knows that to do the more difficult skills an athlete must train their muscles with practice and in the end the harder task will be easier to learn.
God knows what He is doing. We have a tendency of seeing a better way, however. The Hebrews were anxious when Moses did not come off the mountain and they turned to a religion that made more sense to them. It was easier to worship a golden calf that they could see than to worship the God that they could not see.
Exodus chapter 19 describes God as coming to the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai like a dark cloud, with lightning and thunder and a great trumpet blast. The mountain was engulfed in fire. Everyone in the camp trembled in fear. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that they could not bear to even listen to the Word of God because they were afraid. It was much the same for the people in Jesus’ day. They trembled, but not at the foot of the mountain. They trembled at the foot of the Law, out of fear that they would do something against God. They listened to the council of the leaders who burdened them with long lists of rules and taught that God’s grace depended on their obedience. They did not trust in God’s grace.
The writer of Hebrews gives us two visions of life under the rule of God. In the first there is fear. The people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, receiving the Law as given to Moses. That mountain was fearsome -- not even an animal could set foot on it. Anyone who touched it would be stoned. The people were so frightened by the sound of God’s voice that they begged Moses to be an intercessor. Even Moses was terrified and trembling with fear.
But there is another way to live in God’s Kingdom: by faith. This means trusting God. God disciplined His people when they turned from Him at the foot of that mountain. It was punishing, but full of grace because He did not reject or abandon them. Instead He called them to repentance and drew Him into Himself. He remained faithful to His promises. They learned to trust in Him. It didn’t happen overnight. As a matter of fact, He had to teach them that lesson over and over again. The story of Gods people has always followed the same pattern since the beginning: faith, wander, discipline, repentance and faith. We hear this throughout the history of Israel and throughout the history of the Christian church. We wander because we want to go through the big door, to follow the wide path. We want to do things our own way.
What happens when an athlete goes his or her own way? They might learn how to do things, but they do so with greater risk. They are more likely to get hurt. They are likely to get caught if they are using drugs to enhance their performance. In the end, they are likely to end in failure because they have ignored the one who can lead them on a good and right path.
Moses delivered a covenant from God to His people. This covenant was a promise that God would always be with them wherever they would go. The people would see the awesome power of God as they moved into the Promised Land, defeating their enemies and settling into the life of blessing promised to their forefathers. The LORD asked only that the people obey His commands; to keep themselves separate from those who worship other gods. This command was for their own protection, since union with the pagans would lead to their own worship of those gods.
We have seen that happen throughout history, and even in our time. Though we talk about Jesus and live as a part of the Church, we get lost in the culture of our world and forget, at times, that God has warned us to be careful that we do not follow the ways of the world. We forget that the door is narrow, and we open the big doors to let everything in. This leads us to worshipping the wrong things, for chasing after the wrong Gospel, for doing what seems right but is not according to God’s will and purpose for our lives.
The reading from Isaiah is a message of judgment and hope. God says, “For I know their works and their thoughts.” God knows our hearts; He knows what we do and don’t do. He says, “The time comes that I will gather all nations and languages, and they will come, and will see my glory.” He promises to set a sign for all to see His glory, and by that sign to know that He is God. That sign is Jesus. We see in Jesus the love, mercy and grace of the Father, as well as His glory. He is the door. He is the light. He is the way. He is the only path. Those who believe will survive the judgment; those who reject Jesus will not.
It is hard for us to follow Jesus in our world today. It has never been easy of course, but we have only this time and place in which to live, so we know the difficulties we face. Our struggles are different. How do you live faithfully in a world that won’t let you say the name “Jesus?” How do you act as a witness to others when they don’t want to hear? How do we bring the nations to see His glory when they think that any path will do?
Isaiah writes, “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,’ says Yahweh, ‘so your offspring and your name shall remain. It shall happen that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh will come to worship before me,’ says Yahweh.”
We are saved from the wrath of God for a purpose: to take God’s glory into the world. Isaiah talks of bringing others to Jerusalem, as an offering to God. This is an interesting image, and one we should seriously consider if we are to be Church in today’s world. We often think it is enough to give God our money, time and our talents, but what God really wants is for us to bring more people to Him. He owns everything! As the psalmist writes, He is not looking for our sacrifices. He doesn’t need our bulls because they are already His.
But He wants us to be missionaries, to share His Word with the world whether across the sea or in our own backyards. He wants us to invite more people into His presence. He wants us to lead them through the narrow door, to help them see that any other path leads to nothing. God is calling us to bring them into the Church so that they too might join in the eternal banquet.
Faith is not easy because it means giving ourselves over to the training and discipline of God. It might, at times, seem punishing to follow His path because there’s always a way that seems better. Only those who walk through the narrow door, who believe in the sign which is Jesus, will be left to dwell in His presence for eternity. This is particularly hard to proclaim in a world where everything is good and acceptable. The narrow door is too limiting, the narrow path is too restraining. Yet, it is there we’ll find the grace that saves. It is in the relationship with God, who loves His children enough to discipline them in the right way, that we will have the victory.
“Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” Colossians 3:14-17, WEB
It is back to school time. Some students have already returned and the rest will be making their way in the next week or two. The beginning of a new school year is exciting. The students have brand new supplies; they will meet new friends and a new teacher. It can be a little scary, especially for those who are starting at a new school. Middle school and Junior High can be overwhelming for those students who are used to Elementary school. High school is even worse.
College freshmen are dealing with a new way of learning, but they are also dealing with the change of lifestyle: dorm life, life far from home, time management, and new responsibilities. They won’t have Mom and Dad to remind them to do homework or to help them stay on schedule. It is so easy to get caught up in the freedom that the reason for going to college gets lost. They eventually realize that they have to become responsible or they will fail. Many do. The freshmen will undoubtedly hear at one of their orientation meetings, “Look to your left and to your right. One of you won’t be here next year.”
We usually talk about the whole, “What are you going to do with your life?” question at the end of the school year, especially when talking about those who are graduating and deciding what’s next. However, there are many of those college freshmen that have no idea what they will do in four years. They have signed up for basic courses, the common requirements necessary for graduation, but they have not yet chosen a major.
There are at least a few college students, both freshmen and upperclassmen, who thought they knew what they wanted to do until they spent this summer working in retail or fast food or summer camp. It is common for Christian camp counselors to come out of a summer with the feeling that they are being called to ministry. They already had a plan, and this new calling is confusing and frustrating. “How can I become an accountant when God is calling me to be pastor?” They are going about their life as if nothing changed, but worry and wonder if they are doing the right thing.
The thing we have to remember is that God calls all people to their vocation, not just the clergy or church workers. Dallas Willard said about vocation, “It is as great and difficult a spiritual calling to run the factories and the mines, the banks and the department stores, the schools and government agencies for the kingdom of God as it is to pastor a church or serve as evangelist. The division of vocations into sacred and secular does incalculable damage to our individual lives and to the cause of Christ.” Martin Luther and many other theologians made similar comments.
The key here is to remember to serve God in all we do. That’s our vocation, whether we are doing the work that seems holy or doing the work that seems worldly. See, God calls us to represent Him in all places, not just church. He needs Christian men and women who will do the ordinary work of the world with the grace and holiness of God. It is possible that the call those students heard over the summer is not “Leave your work and become my servant,” but rather, “You are my servant, do you work to my glory.” See, we very rarely think about God in our normal, everyday work. We are reminded that every vocation is a spiritual calling from God, as important and sacred as any that seems particularly holy.
“This is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he listens to us. And if we know that he listens to us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him.” 1 John 5:14-15, WEB
We, along with all our neighbors, had damage on our roof during hail storms a few months ago. Since the damage was not extreme (we didn’t find any leaks) we decided to wait. We finally called the insurance company a few weeks ago, hoping that we might be the lucky ones in the neighborhood that did not need to have the roof replaced. We weren’t lucky. Thankfully, the insurance will cover most of the cost and so we are in the process of choosing a roofer.
I did extensive research, checking websites, looking for reviews, looking at the signs at our neighbors’ houses to see who they used. I contacted nine companies to schedule an estimate. So far I have only heard back from six and only met with four. One of two emailed a question which I answered and then followed up, but I haven’t heard from them again. The other could not even schedule an appointment until mid-September and then changed that appointment until a week later. Of the four I interviewed, one suitable until I interviewed others. A second did not make it passed his initial assessment: I could tell he didn’t have the kind of knowledge he needed for my job. I’m down to two, both good, but leaning toward one in particular.
This process has been far more difficult than I expected. I thought waiting would put me in a good position because most of the work would be over by now. I was hoping that the companies would be knocking on my door to continue the windfall the storms had created for their companies. I was wrong. These companies are still backed up with months of work and they simply don’t need my business. Some of those who have returned my calls have even seemed to assume that I will be desperate enough to settle for them even though their service is not customer focused. It is the law of supply and demand at work.
One of the things I liked most about the last company I interviewed is that they do not take on more work than they can handle in a certain amount of time. They don’t want to put off the work for months after they have received a commitment from a client. I suppose the same is true of some of the companies that did not respond to my requests, although I would have appreciated some contact. I followed up with several because I couldn’t be sure their online forms were working. Still no contact. It makes me wonder if they even hear my cry.
God does hear our cry. God does not work on the law of supply and demand. He is not confined to time and space; He is available for all. God’s answers are not always in the positive. He doesn’t give to us everything we request. As we pray in faith, we pray according to His will. We pray as He guides and directs through His Word. We may not win that lottery we keep asking to win, but God will answer with something even better: enough. He knows what we need better than we do. We can be confident when we pray in faith because in doing so we are asking for the very things that He has promised and He is faithful.
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that you, always having all sufficiency in everything, may abound to every good work. As it is written, ‘He has scattered abroad, he has given to the poor. His righteousness remains forever.’ Now may he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness; you being enriched in everything to all liberality, which produces through us thanksgiving to God. For this service of giving that you perform not only makes up for lack among the saints, but abounds also through many givings of thanks to God; seeing that through the proof given by this service, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the Good News of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all; while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, yearn for you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Now thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:8-15, WEB
A few years ago I was visiting a small English village with a friend who had come to England for a visit. There happened to be a news reporter in that village that day because a famous American had given a generous tip to the wait staff at the pub. The staff was having a fundraiser to help others in their profession who had financial difficulty and the American was thrilled to help. The reporter happened to notice our American accents so approached us for an interview.
“What do you think of this action by your fellow countrywoman?” My friend said something about how nice it was that she would share her wealth with charity. I answered with a stronger opinion. “I don’t know if she is a Christian, but for me it would be a matter of faith to share my blessings with others.” We made the news later that day, but our answers were creatively edited. The reporter was looking for something much different. He even asked us if we thought it was an action to show off her wealth, making the donation appear to be selfish rather than generous; he wanted to reveal “those arrogant Americans.” While some of my interview was used, every word about faith was removed.
I was watching an interview with some Olympians the other day, and while faith has been an important part of their lives, the interviewer avoided the subject like the plague. At the end, one mentioned going to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue. The interview was quickly cut off and they moved on to the next thing. Now, it was the end of the interview, so the charitable reaction would be to assume that they ran out of time.
I’m not always so charitable, especially since the interviewers have seemed to so purposely avoid the subject of faith. We have heard the faith the stories of the athletes from other places as they have been witnesses to Jesus Christ in their thankfulness and their humility. I know that it can sometimes seem insincere, this “I thank God for making me so great,” and perhaps the reporters should ignore the arrogant proclamations that God gave them the win. However, most of the athletes are truly amazed that they would have not only have the opportunity to compete but also to win, and they want to glorify God in those moments. After all, we are called to glorify God in all our experiences.
My friend was amazed after our interview on the street because I’d managed to be a witness to Jesus so easily. I never really thought about it. My faith tradition has never been very good at evangelism; we don’t go out there and just talk about Jesus. I was actually surprised at myself, but the thought just flowed naturally. I love Jesus because He loved me and I am overjoyed when there are opportunities to be generous because I want to share what God gave me. I naturally thought the same might be true for the famous American who gave a super-huge tip in response to a fundraising campaign.
We don’t have to be great evangelists to share Jesus with the world. We are called to be thankful and humble, to praise God whenever possible. God did not give those athletes the medals; they worked hard for them by practicing and doing their best, as did all the other athletes. Faithful Christians are not thankful for the medal, but for the grace of God that brought them to the opportunity to glorify Him with their gifts, talents and resources. I like to think that’s why the famous American gave that tip and why most of those athletes praised God after their competitions. I like to think that’s how I have managed to be a witness for the love of Jesus Christ -- not because I try but because the praise simply flows naturally out of thanksgiving for all God has done.
"Moses said to the children of Israel, 'Behold, Yahweh has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of workmanship; and to make skillful works, to work in gold, in silver, in brass, in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all kinds of skillful workmanship. He has put in his heart that he may teach, both he, and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with wisdom of heart, to work all kinds of workmanship, of the engraver, of the skillful workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of those who do any workmanship, and of those who make skillful works.'"
Bezalel was an incredibly talented person. He was smart, had common sense and knew a lot. He was also gifted in craftworks. We are all pretty happy if we can find one thing we are good at doing and, quite frankly, most of us struggle with even one thing. Yet, Bezalel seemed to be able to do everything. Not only could he do it, he could teach others how to do it. That’s a special gift, too. It seems like when God was handing out gifts, Bezalel was at the front of the line.
Do you know someone like that? I can’t help but get a little jealous when I see other artists who are so successful not only in their chosen craft but also in everything else they try. I’ve managed to create some worthwhile things, but I struggle at it on a daily basis. I suppose they have their own struggles, but it doesn’t seem like it, does it?
I’ve had people tell me that I’m so creative. Then they tell me that wished they could be creative, too. They think being creative means producing some sort of creation, like a painting or an opera or a book. “I just can’t do any of that.” However, I like to tell those who don’t think that they could do anything creative that we are all creative. We were created in the image of our Creator. We will probably never be like Bezalel, but we can serve God in creative and amazing ways.
Bezalel was called to create and teach others to create everything necessary for the Temple. God is building a new and greater Temple in our world today. Now, this Temple doesn’t need paintings or embroidered linens, but He calls each of us to use our gifts and our talents to build the body of Christ. You think you are not creative? Have you ever cooked a meal? Have you solved a problem? Have you found a new way of doing something that makes life a little easier? “Well, sure,” you say. Then you have been creative. Being creative doesn’t necessarily require paint or material or wood. Being creative means taking something and making it into something else, something better. If you’ve pulled a weed, sent a letter or rearranged the furniture, then you have been creative.
Yet, I think you could be creative in ways you might never expect. Look at how many people have gone to one of those art studios where you can create a painting in a night with a bunch of friends. Those paintings, while perhaps not a Michelangelo or a DaVinci are lovely and creative. And how do they feel when they’ve accomplished something they thought was impossible? They feel terrific, inspired, even fulfilled. It is relaxing and joyful to be creative. That’s because we are fulfilling the very essence of who we are: creatures created in the image of our Creator.
Find a way to be creative today. Pay attention to the work you do; see how it makes a difference. Pay attention to how you interact with others and see how your words can change the way they see the world. Perhaps you can even find a moment to create something tangible, something to share, something that will make others happy. In doing so, you’ll find real joy and peace. We don’t need to be jealous of those like Bezalel who seem to be able to do everything well because God made us creative in our own way, with our own gifts and our own opportunities. We glorify God as we go and create however we are able, sharing God with the world through our gifts.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 28, 2016, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proverbs 25:2-10; Psalm 131; Hebrews 13:1-17; Luke 14:1-14
“So that with good courage we say, ‘The Lord is my helper. I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” Hebrews 13:6, WEB
One of the most difficult parts of being an artist is letting go of the paintings that I have work on for a long time. They become like children to me. Will the buyer put that piece in a place of prominence or will it end up in a dark corner? I had one person question whether the piece would hold up in a steamy bathroom.
I had one person consign a piece, trusting in my creativity. I did what we discussed, but he was disappointed. I made a few changes, including one that completely destroyed the piece. I was able to make another change that helped, but his original requests were odd and I think he realized that after it was finished. I told him he did not have to take the piece and he tried to consign another. I refused because I did not think he’d be happy with my creativity no matter what. He took the piece anyway and planned to give it as a gift to a friend who was coming to visit this month. I wonder if he decided to give it to her and if she would like it. I’ll probably never know.
I have had the experience of seeing my work hanging in a place of prominence. I sent my aunt a cross painting after my uncle died, a way of sharing in her grief and brightening her day. When I went to visit this summer, she made sure to show me where she had hung it. She was so pleased to have some of my work on her wall, and that made me happy. The gift was meant to give her joy, and it does in a very small way. I want my art to make people happy, and whether it gets hung in a place of prominence, a dark corner or a bathroom. It is their piece once it leaves my studio and I have to be humble enough to let it go.
What does it mean to be humble? I think one of the hardest things for me is to “sell myself.” I attended a meeting with a group of artists a few weeks ago and one asked me, “How do you market your work?” I don’t, really. Oh, I post a few pictures on Facebook and I attend a craft fair or two. I open my studio occasionally and invite people to see what I have to offer. Mostly I give my paintings away as donations for silent auctions or galas. I’m not sure I would ever do well as a professional.
As Christians, we live in a paradox. On the one hand, the world expects us to boldly blow our own horn so that we can get ahead. As Christians, however, we are reminded that we are called to be like Jesus, who had it all but humbled Himself for the sake of the world. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the crowds not to rush for the best seats at a banquet. He reminds them that there are others who may deserve to sit higher, and that it is better to sit lowly and be raised rather than sit according to our expectations and be humiliated when asked to move. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” So, too, it is with us: if we think too highly of ourselves, we will find that there is someone greater. But if we humbly accept the least, we’ll find ourselves raised.
The scriptures for today consist of a number of random thoughts. Each would make a powerful sermon. In the passage from Proverbs, the writer tells us that God’s glory is in what is hidden, but kings’ glory is in the search for God. We might know that heaven and hell are far from us, but we can’t know what’s in the heart of a king. Silver must be refined, for it is in the silver without the dross that we’ll have something precious, so too a king must be cleansed of wickedness to be righteous. The rest of the passage talks about our humility before the king, remembering to take the lowly place and to deal with our neighbors privately.
The writer of Hebrews talks about being a good host, because in doing so we might actually entertain angels. We should seek justice, live honorably and chaste, avoid greed, be obedient to those who have been chosen to lead us, do good and share our resources with others.
The Gospel lesson reminds us that the life of faith, the life of humility, is manifested in a life that is lived for others. When we trust in God, we need not pursue after the places of honor or the satisfaction of our lusts and greed. The humble will be lifted and the place of honor is much greater than anything a man can offer. We will be seated in the presence of God to bask in His glory for eternity. For this we most certainly can praise God.
That’s what it is all about, trusting in God.
The Gospel lesson begins at a dinner. Jesus has been invited to dine with the rulers of the Pharisees, and they are watching closely. They were people for whom outward appearances were of utmost importance. They wanted to see if Jesus was living according to the Law, doing what He was supposed to do. Would He maintain His own purity, especially in their presence?
Jesus noticed a man with dropsy, a disease that made the man unclean and untouchable. Jesus asked the lawyers if it was alright to heal someone on the Sabbath. They didn’t answer, so Jesus “took him, and healed him, and let him go.” The word here translated “took” means to take hold of or grasp, so Jesus didn’t just say a few words and send him on his way. Jesus touched the unclean man, an act that would have made him unclean in the eyes of all those lawyers. Before they could say anything, Jesus asked, “Which of you, if your son or an ox fell into a well, wouldn’t immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” They couldn’t answer this one, either, because they certainly would disobey the Sabbath laws to save their sons or oxen.
Jewish theologians believed God’s providence continued to govern the world. This was confirmed by the fact that people continued to be born and die on the Sabbath. Consequently, the belief developed that God exercised two prerogatives on the Sabbath: He gave life and he executed judgment (2 Kings 5:7.) So only God could “work” on the Sabbath and healing was considered work. By healing the man with dropsy, Jesus not only touched the untouchable, but He did the unthinkable: blasphemed. He made Himself equal with God.
Now, that may seem like an odd lesson on a day when the lessons talk about humility. However, Jesus is the ultimate example of humility. After all, He is God and yet left the glory of Heaven to do the Father’s will, to take on flesh to suffer the humiliation of man so that we might join Him in the glory of heaven. See, Jesus took the lowly seat at the table, was raised and invites us to join Him.
Just as Christ was a humble servant for the people to whom He was sent, we are called to live in faith and share the message of forgiveness and freedom from our burdens with the world. By living a life of humble action, giving to others and sharing God’s grace, we may not end up with fame or fortune or have a huge impact on our world, but we will bless those see God glorified in our life and we will share in that blessing.
We do tend to think highly of ourselves. We each have talents and knowledge that makes us a little better than another. I’m a better photographer than some of the professionals I’ve seen. I’m a better writer than some of the bloggers I’ve read. I’m a better painter than some of the artists I’ve seen. While I might be better than many others, I know that there are many who are much better than I am. That’s the trouble with thinking too highly of ourselves: even though we might be good at what we do, there is always someone better. I could never hope to compete with professional photographers, writers and artists in this world, and I don’t think I want to try. I’m happy to do what I do and hope that those who buy or receive my paintings will find joy in them.
The psalmist writes, “Yahweh, my heart isn’t haughty, nor my eyes lofty; nor do I concern myself with great matters, or things too wonderful for me.” How many of us want to have our work stand in a place of prominence, without realizing how much our work might be needed in the dark corners and bathrooms of this world. It is there, perhaps, that my paintings will bring something the most joy.
Too many people these days need a job, but refuse to work in the mail room because it is below them. Some think that a degree guarantees them a place in an executive suite without even getting the valuable experience of time in a cubicle. But the guy who humbly accepts the lesser job will prove himself and find that he can rise quickly in the company. With both the education and experience, the humble person who works hard and does his job well will be noticed. None of us are “too good” for the lowly work of this world and we are not better than those whom we serve. We do not deserve the high places; we are raised by grace.
We are encouraged by today’s scriptures to settle for a lower place until someone values us enough to give us a lift, yet we live in a world that demands we “sell ourselves.” How do we live in this paradox? How do we do what it necessary to succeed and yet also remain humbly respectful of those who are inevitably better? This isn’t a question of worth or ability. It is a matter of pride. It is good to give an employer reasons to hire you, to do a good job and show that you are a valuable asset to any company or organization; it is not good to be too proud.
The random thoughts in today’s passages come together in the life and work of Jesus Christ. He shows us how to be kind to our neighbor, to touch the untouchable, to have mercy and grace and to do good. He shows us how to be humble, to stop worrying about what others think of us and to trust in God. Jesus shows us that heaven is much closer than we can ever imagine because God has come to dwell among His people, to heal us and to make us clean and pure.
The writer of Hebrews gives us an image of the life of faith manifested in this world. He calls Christians to love one another, to be hospitable to the stranger, empathetic to the imprisoned, faithful in relationships and content in everything. He calls us to look to God who supplies everything we need: physically, emotionally and spiritually. He reminds us to remember the witnesses who have shared the Gospel of Christ with us so that we might be saved and follow their example. We are to stand firm in the truth that Jesus Christ is the same today as He was and as He will be.
“Through him, then, let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which proclaim allegiance to his name. But don’t forget to be doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The life of faith, the life of humility, is manifested as we do good for others. When we trust in God, we need not pursue after the places of honor or the satisfaction of our lusts and greed. The humble will be lifted and the place of honor is much greater than anything a man can offer. We will be seated in the presence of God to bask in His glory for eternity. For this we most certainly can praise God.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson that we should not do things for the sake of the impression we’ll make on others. Instead of inviting people to our feasts so that they will return the favor, we are to use our resources to feed those who can’t pay us back. We are called to lift them up, to make them better, to do for them what Jesus has done for us. We are called to invite them to the table so that they can experience grace.
Pride means putting ourselves above the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. Humility means sitting in the lesser place and meeting the needs of others. When we put others, especially God, ahead of ourselves and do what is right, we will find ourselves to be greatly blessed. God sees the humble heart and draws it to Himself. There is no better place for us to dwell. Trusting God is where we’ll find joy.
“When their hearts were merry, they said, ‘Call for Samson, that he may entertain us.’ They called for Samson out of the prison; and he performed before them. They set him between the pillars; and Samson said to the boy who held him by the hand, ‘Allow me to feel the pillars whereupon the house rests, that I may lean on them.’ Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were on the roof about three thousand men and women, who saw while Samson performed. Samson called to Yahweh, and said, ‘Lord Yahweh, remember me, please, and strengthen me, please, only this once, God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.’ Samson took hold of the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and leaned on them, the one with his right hand, and the other with his left. Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’ He bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell on the lords, and on all the people who were therein. So the dead that he killed at his death were more than those who he killed in his life.” Judges 16:25-30, WEB
The characters on “The Big Bang Theory” love to talk about superheroes. They spend much of their time in the comic book store buying the latest books or arguing about which one is best. They buy memorabilia with every spare dollar and attend every comic convention possible. They have costumes in their closets and make-up kits that would make a Broadway star jealous. There was an episode that revolved around a visit with Stan Lee of Marvel Comics.
The scriptures have a many characters that have extraordinary experiences and abilities. David overcame much stronger enemies, Solomon had amazing wisdom, Elijah performed miraculous deeds and Paul survived horrendous persecution, imprisonment and beating. Yet, none of these men would have enjoyed these blessings without the Lord. He gave them their power and they did amazing things. In the midst of it all, however, they continued to exhibit signs of weakness.
Of all the superheroes in the Bible, the most amazing must be Samson. He had such incredible strength that he could kill a lion with his bare hands and defeat an army of a thousand single-handedly. However, his power was not his own, it came from God. Samson was blessed by God to be a vessel of His vengeance against the Philistines. Unfortunately, Samson had his own weakness and it was his downfall. He fell under the spell of Delilah who nagged him until he gave away his secrets. She cut his hair and he lost his strength. Ultimately, though, he lost his power because God had left him. Instead of doing the work of God, he was abusing his power. In the end, Samson humbled himself before God and accomplished His work.
The enemies of the superheroes always tried using their weakness against them. Somehow, in the end, it was the downfall of the villain because the hero turned to their source of their strength and won the victory. Samson knew that God was the source of his strength and in the end turned to Him. God accomplished His work through Samson and though his greatest feat brought his own death, Samson will be remembered forever as an amazing superhero that served God to the end.
In more than one episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” the guys find themselves in a position to be superheroes, but they have trouble finding the courage. They surely all have incredible weaknesses and no particularly special abilities. Yet somehow, despite all their failures, they manage to make things right in the end. I don’t think any of us will ever be a superhero, and I doubt we’ll ever be in the position of defeating our enemies in the dramatic ways of Samson or the comic books, but we can make good things happen when we trust in God. We’ll fail because we are imperfect human beings, but God can use our weaknesses to accomplish His work. Let us repent and trust in Him, for He has great plans even for the most ordinary believer willing to give everything in obedience to God’s purpose for their lives.
“Now I desire to have you know, brothers, that the things which happened to me have turned out rather to the progress of the Good News; so that it became evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my bonds are in Christ; and that most of the brothers in the Lord, being confident through my bonds, are more abundantly bold to speak the word of God without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even out of envy and strife, and some also out of good will. The former insincerely preach Christ from selfish ambition, thinking that they add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the Good News. What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed. I rejoice in this, yes, and will rejoice.” Philippians 1:12-15, WEB
I was reading an article today about how people are using the crowd funding source “GoFundMe” for ridiculous reasons, and some of the reasons are truly ridiculous and self-centered. Some want others to fund their vacations or pay for their booze. Yet others are seeking help to get along in a career in movies or music or sports, even though they’ve been unable to succeed thus far. I saw a story in another source about a man who was given a free trip to Japan, all expenses included, but he wanted more money in case he found something to buy or do that wasn’t part of the package. He had months to prepare for the trip, and could have easily gotten a summer job, but didn’t want to waste his time in menial labor. He wasn’t very successful on GoFundMe, although he did get a $25 donation from his aunt.
Sadly, many of these ridiculous accounts get at least some funding, although I’ll never understand how. I have responded to several campaigns, ones to help families with sick children or to buy a vehicle for use in a family with someone who is handicapped. There are good campaigns, well worth the time and money. Crowdfunding is truly making a difference in some lives. While there may be some using it for all the wrong reasons, and succeeding at it, we should not let it stop us from doing what is good. We don’t know how God might just use those ridiculous campaigns to accomplish something great.
Paul understood the need to trust God. See, he was in prison for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but even while He was in prison, he found ways to glorify God. Meanwhile, out in the world, there were people who were taking advantage of his imprisonment. They preached Christ, but did so in a way that humiliated Paul, using the opportunity to get ahead, perhaps even hoping to make things worse for Paul. Paul might have fought and complained, but instead he rejoiced because Jesus Christ was preached even by those who did so for all the wrong reasons. He trusted that God would make things right. For him, the best outcome would always be the furthering of the Gospel message in the world.
Those ridiculous campaigns will probably never accomplish anything of value, but it is possible that those self-centered requests can end in some sort of transformation that will do some good in the world. We don’t need to wait for that to happen; we can make a difference in the lives of many by supporting the ones that have value. We can help a grieving family or support a sick child. We can trust that God will be glorified when we do what we do in response to God’s grace.
“I marvel that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ to a different “good news”; and there isn’t another “good news.” Only there are some who trouble you, and want to pervert the Good News of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any “good news” other than that which we preached to you, let him be cursed. As we have said before, so I now say again: if any man preaches to you any “good news” other than that which you received, let him be cursed. For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? For if I were still pleasing men, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-10, WEB
Faith traditions have different ways of understanding and presenting the Sacraments. While I prefer the ways in my faith tradition, I understand that the Bible stories show us many different ways. The important thing to remember is that the sacraments are God’s covenantal signs of His promises and means of His grace that God has commanded for His Church. “Do this...” He says. He commands us to baptize the nations and to share His holy meal. God comes to us in a very real way at the font and at the table.
I tend to look for the sacramental practices of a church when I visit their websites, and I’ll admit that I tend to avoid those that have attached human law to their sacramental practices. Take, for instance, one church I thought I might visit, perhaps even join. I discovered, however, that my baptism as a young child was not acceptable. While I could attend the church, I would never be able to be actively involved in the leadership unless I made the decision to be baptized again as an adult. In other words, after a lifetime of faith and working in ministry, I was not truly a Christian until I did things their way.
Many years ago we were active in the military chapel at the base where we were stationed. The chapel had an annual picnic at a lake where they did baptisms for those who had made the decision to follow Jesus Christ. It was a wonderful event; I enjoyed watching those who were receiving this gift for the first time. However, several of my friends were trying to convince me that I should do it, too. They wanted me to get baptized “for real.” I have to admit I wondered, despite my lifelong understanding of baptism as a means of grace. As I sat watching, I pondered, “Should I Lord?”
Now, I don’t claim to hear God talking to me on a regular basis, although I “hear” Him in many ways. However, His answer for me that day at the lake was audible. “My grace is sufficient for you,” He said. I knew then that any doubts I had about my own baptism were unfounded. God does the work at the font, whoever is there and however they happened to be there. It is a sacred moment when God breathes new life into His child.
I was visiting a website the other day of a church that is trying to be “relevant” in today’s world. It is a very successful church, with multiple services at multiple locals on Sunday and plenty of small group gatherings throughout the week. Here’s the problem I found as I wandered through their pages: the only one that even mentioned Jesus Christ was the page on baptism. There they invited all those who had recently asked Jesus into their hearts to “take the plunge” the next time they did baptisms, which they do several times a year at what seem to be a pool party from the photos they’ve posted.
I am so happy to know that people are coming to Christ in many and varied ways. The Bible certainly shows the early church developing those sacramental practices according to their circumstances. We need each church to reach out to the lost and to introduce them to Jesus in a way that they will see and believe. They might not be fit for me, but they can draw people into the family of God. I hope, however, that the churches that try to be “relevant” remember the foundation of faith is found wholly and solely in Jesus Christ. We don’t get faith by making a decision or from taking a plunge at a pool party; faith is a gift given by God through His Word and His Son. Let us always remember that the sacraments are sacred gifts from God, covenantal signs of His promises and means of His grace that God has commanded for His Church so that our faith practices will glorify Him as we “Do this” according to His good and perfect Word.
"Previously saying, 'Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you didn't desire, neither had pleasure in them' (those which are offered according to the law), then he has said, 'Behold, I have come to do your will.' He takes away the first, that he may establish the second, by which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest indeed stands day by day serving and often offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God; from that time waiting until his enemies are made the footstool of his feet. For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,'This is the covenant that I will make with them: "After those days," says the Lord, "I will put my laws on their heart I will also write them on their mind;"' then he says, 'I will remember their sins and their iniquities no more.' Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. Having therefore, brothers, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over God's house, let's draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for he who promised is faithful." Hebrews 10:8-23, WEB
The daytime courtroom dramas often include cases revolving around dogs and their owners. Quite a few of them have to do with dog bites, either to other dogs or to people. The owners of the guilty dogs have left the animals off the leash or have not done enough to secure them; there are stories of broken gates or holes in fences. They defend themselves by claiming that their dog is the sweetest thing and it is the fault of the bitten person or dog which has caused some aggravation. Few of those cases end well for the owner of the dog.
At least a few of the cases have to do with the purchase of a dog. A person, who for some reason is looking for a particular breed or temperament, buys a dog from a pet store or a breeder. Within days the dog is found to be sick with some congenital ailment. The owners have to pay thousands of dollars to have their beloved new family member tested and treated; in the end too many of them die from the disease and complications. The court cases usually demand repayment, not only for the original cost, but also the veterinarian bills. One plaintiff even asked for the cost of toys and other supplies even though she bought a new dog. “The new dog is a girl and we had to buy new stuff because the old stuff was for a boy.” While many of these plaintiffs win their case, that last one didn’t get everything she wanted.
During the intermissions, the guy on the street interviewer of one show often asks the question, “Which is better, a rescue dog of one bought through a breeder or pet store.” You might think that it is better to buy from a breeder because then you will get a perfect dog. It will be a dog that has a pedigree, a history. It will cost a lot more money, so it should be perfect. However, the interviewer firmly stands by the idea that a rescue dog will always be better. He tells the crowd that rescues dogs know they have been rescued and that they will love you with joy and thankfulness forever. They may not be perfect breeds and you may not know their history, but they are perfect in their own way. While they may not have a pedigree, they are perfect in much better ways.
In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What does this mean? How can we possibly be perfect? He’s the One with the pedigree and we are rescue dogs with no history and questionable breed. Yet, God loves us and has saved us and adopted us to be His own. By His grace we are being transformed daily into His likeness. This doesn’t mean that we are being made into something that has no blemish, but that we are complete. We are made complete in His love, just as a rescue dog is made complete by becoming part of a family that will love them. And like those rescue dogs, we love the One who has saved us with hope and faith because He has promised new life and He is faithful.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 4, 2016, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-35
“Whoever doesn’t bear his own cross, and come after me, can’t be my disciple.” Luke 14:27, WEB
It used to be so easy to go to the grocery store. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but have you been there lately? Try choosing a can of tomatoes. There is ten feet of shelf space for all the different types of tomato products they carry. It isn’t just a difference in brand names. Each brand seems to have a dozen different types of tomatoes. One is seasoned with garlic and herbs, another with chili. There are diced and finely diced, stewed and roasted, whole and pureed. There are even choices between the different types of tomato sauces and tomato pastes. The bread aisle is even worse. The number of choices is boggling. And the barbeque sauce! My favorite store must have at least a hundred different bottles. How do you choose?
However, the choice presented to us in today’s scriptures might be even harder. Moses writes, “Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil.” This choice might not seem that difficult, after all, who would choose death over life? Yet, Jesus tells us why it is hard: we must choose God above everything to choose life.
The LORD lays it on the line with Israel in today’s Old Testament lesson. The kind of life we will live is dependent on the way we walk in this world. If we love God and walk in His ways, we will see the blessings of obedience which is life and prosperity. “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce to you today, that you will surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you pass over the Jordan to go in to possess it.” If we turn away from God, in essence “hate” Him, we will suffer the consequences.
Jesus uses equally strong language in the Gospel lesson. It is shocking to us to hear Him say to “hate” someone. The word “hate” is defined in Webster’s as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing.” If it is used as a verb it means, “To feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful.”
Hate manifests as violence in the streets in our world today. We fight hate cries for peace and love and understanding. We weep over the many that have unnecessarily died because of the “isms” that divide us. It is because we define hate as intense hostility that we are shocked by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson. Surely Jesus does not mean for us to have extreme dislike and loathing for our family? After all, He reminds us to honor our parents and love our neighbors. How could He ask us to hate anyone?
Jesus did say that we are to hate our mothers and fathers, but He did not give us permission to make them our enemies or treat them with dishonor. “Hate” as it is understood in ancient Israel has to do with priorities. To hate something meant to turn your back on it, to separate yourself from it. Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah. Obviously, he did not feel a strong aversion to her since they made several children together. The passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachel’s sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and our fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them poorly. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everyone else for His sake.
There are no shades of gray when it comes to God. Either He is first or He is last. We can’t put him in second or third place. If we choose Him, we hate -- or turn away from -- the world. If we choose something of this world, then we hate -- or turn away from -- Him. Discipleship means keeping our focus on God, doing His work, walking His path, following His Word completely.
Where is our priority? I don’t think any of us can really say that we keep God first. We all have moments when our focus is on Him: when we are involved in ministry, reading the Bible, worshipping at church, joining in Bible study and fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. But we also have moments when we don’t think about Him. We go to work, and since many employers insist that we keep our faith separate, we turn our back on God for those eight or ten hours a day. None of us would say we hate God, but are following Him, really, if we ignore Him a third of our lives?
That’s the point of Jesus’ statement here, but He has taken it even closer to home. As a matter of fact, He’s put this right smack dab in the middle of our homes. We are to give God the priority above even those with whom we live. How can He expect that from us?
It is interesting that Jesus would turn to the most important relationships in our lives in this passage. In Jesus’ day it was easy to see which false gods were turning the people’s hearts from the one true God. Rome was filled with temples to deities that had no real power. It is a little more difficult in today’s world because our gods aren’t necessarily the subject of myths and legends. Our jobs, our homes, our hobbies and sports are like gods to us. How often do we put a trip to the golf course or a child’s soccer tournament before worship? How many times do we give up on our bible studies or Christian fellowship because we have to work? How often do we say, “I’m just too tired to think about God today”?
Even harder to see is how our families are the gods which we worship. Jesus brings this problem closer to home. The gods we worship were not just found in the temples of Rome, they are the flesh of our flesh. Our mothers and fathers gave us life. We become one flesh with our spouses. Our children came forth from our loins. Certainly human beings play a role in procreation, but we do not give life. The breath of life can come only from the Creator, our God. Yet, we put so much emphasis on our relationships with one another, as if life would not exist without us. We feel we owe our parents or children our lives and we put them before everything else. It is by God’s command that we become one with our spouses. How could it be wrong to love them? The problem is not that we love, honor and serve them. The problem is that we put them ahead of God. They become our gods.
Life with Christ means putting Him first. It means doing His will even when it will go against the will of our families and the society in which we live. It means being obedient to God when the world around us expects something else.
Jesus not only asks us to follow Him, but He demands that those who want to be His disciples “hate” everything else. In this passage He was being followed by large crowds, a mob of people. Most of them believed in Jesus, at least to a point. They believed that He could do great things and that He was a charismatic and credible speaker. He had authority they had never seen in any man.
He told them what it meant to be a disciple. It meant putting Him first. The people in the crowds had not given themselves fully to Jesus. They could leave at any moment, to go home to care for the needs of home and family. They believed but had not committed themselves to Him. It is a very hard thing that Jesus asks. It is hard to give up everything, to turn our backs on everyone we love. I can’t imagine giving up the wonderful life I have been living. It is an impossible request from Jesus.
And yet, does the servant who stays with the master want for anything? No, as the master’s servant he had everything he needed: a home, food, work, clothes, family and friends. Jesus is not calling us to live a life with nothing. He is not telling us to become penniless wanderers. He is asking that we give up even our very lives for His sake to be more than followers. He is calling us to pick up His cross and follow Him.
Now, many will say that their cross has something to do with something they are suffering. “I’m sick, but I can carry this cross.” “The cross I have to bear is this job I hate.” “My relationships are difficult, but I’ll stick them out because they are the cross I must carry.” This is not what Jesus meant when He told us to pick up our crosses and follow Him. He wants us to be willing to give up everything, even our families and our lives, to be disciples.
Jesus told them two parables -- one about a builder and the other about a warrior king. He asked what would happen if they did not count the cost of their projects. The builder would be seen as a fool when his foundation lay undeveloped, the king would be routed by the enemy. The builder and the king had to count the cost so that they knew if they could succeed. The cost of discipleship is great -- it means giving up everything for the sake of Christ. Jesus wants the crowds to consider whether or not they want to be followers or disciples. It is much harder to be a disciple. “So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has, he can’t be my disciple.”
There are many followers. There are many people who make to church on a regular basis, who serve on committees and attend Bible studies. There are a few who seem to fully and completely immerse themselves in their lives of faith. However, I often wonder if it is even possible for anyone to really be the kind of disciple that Jesus demands in today’s text. I can’t imagine giving up everything I own and everyone I love to turn my back completely on the society in which I live, to follow Jesus wherever He might lead. I praise God for the incredible blessings I have in my family, my home, my work in this world. Perhaps this is an impossible request from Jesus.
Yet, I’m not sure that Jesus is demanding that we completely separate ourselves from the world in which we live, dwelling in a hermitage with our Bibles open constantly. It is not necessary to hide from the world. Instead we are called to take God with us into it. To do so, however, means keeping His Word in our hearts and in our minds. It means taking time daily for prayer and study, for renewing ourselves by drinking in the waters of life. All too often we think that we are strong enough, faithful enough, knowledgeable enough to live on what is already a part of our lives. God intends for us to be like the tree that dwells by the streams of water, drinking in His Word daily for life. Unfortunately, we are so easily distracted by the world in which we live. We ignore God during those moments when we are interacting with the world that rejects Him. Our focus turns to the needs of our families, to our work, to our interests. That is why Jesus tells us to hate our fathers and mothers, our wives and children, our brothers and sisters and even our own lives. We are to hate them, turning to God, so that we can love them with His love and grace.
Philemon was a Christian man that lived in Colossae. Paul was probably in Rome, living as a prisoner under house arrest for his faith and preaching. Paul wrote many letters during his imprisonment’ it was a way to encourage congregations and individual Christians to be the men and women God has called them to be even though he could not work amongst them personally. Philemon was a master whose slave named Onesimus ran away. Onesimus eventually met Paul, heard the Gospel and believed. He became a Christian and then served Paul as he was able.
I usually approach the story of Philemon and Onesimus from the perspective of Paul talking to Philemon. The letter is a lesson in forgiveness. We don’t know much about these two men. We don’t know how Onesimus came to be a slave; he most likely owed a debt, committed a minor crime or was taken in battle. For most slaves in Jesus’ day, service was payment and it ended after the debt was paid. We don’t know why Onesimus decided to run away, although by Paul’s description of Philemon, it is unlikely that he was a cruel master.
Onesimus ran away, found Paul and met Jesus. He became a Christian, and as such needed to restore the relationship between himself and Philemon. See, Christianity is about reconciliation, even if there is good reason for the brokenness. We know that slavery is wrong, but so is theft and by running away, Onesimus did not fully pay his debt to his master. How do you go from freedom back into slavery, which is what Onesimus was being called to do? And yet, restoration and forgiveness was what Onesimus needed the most.
Slaves were not slaves forever. They served for a time and then were set free. If the slave was married when he went to a master, his wife was also set free. However, if he married and had children while serving a master, the wife and children belonged to the master. The slave could decide to stay with the master, choose to be with him forever for the sake of his wife and children. “But if the servant shall plainly say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go out free;’ then his master shall bring him to God, and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever.”
When a slave chose to stay with a master, he was nailed through his ear to the doorpost as a witness to his willingness to be a servant forever. Perhaps this was what Paul was referring to in this letter when he said that Philemon would have him forever. Onesimus, in his new found faith and trust in the Lord, could have willingly returned to the life of servanthood for the sake of the Gospel of love. The sacrifice of his freedom may have been his cross to bear, the cost of being a disciple for Jesus Christ. Reconciliation could come as Onesimus turned away from freedom and submitted himself to a life of service. Though he would be returning to Philemon, this turning was an act of repentance as Onesimus trusted in God’s grace. But if he continued to run, Onesimus would not only turn his back on his debts, but also on the God who saved him.
Paul wrote the letter to encourage Philemon to look at Onesimus through the eyes of love, forgiveness and faith. He wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus in a new way, as a brother of Christ. There were debts to be paid, and Paul was willing to pay those debts for the sake of reconciliation. Paul says that Onesimus is more valuable now as a Christian than he was as a slave. It broke Paul’s heart to send Onesimus; he considered him a son.
We have no idea what happened to Onesimus or Philemon. Did they reconcile? Did they live in a new and better relationship? Did they work together as disciples of Christ? A man named Onesimus is identified as a Bishop in the early church writings. Was it the same man? One writer suggested that the fact that a private letter like this one to Philemon still exists is possibly proof that Onesimus was forgiven. After all, would Philemon keep a letter encouraging him to do something he refused to do?
Though still master and servant, the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus would be different as they both lived their faith together. They were both being offered a very hard choice, “Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil.” Philemon was being asked to forgive Onesimus for his transgression and Onesimus was being asked to trust God. The call to discipleship required them both to carry heavy burdens. Yet, those burdens are not so heaven when we remember that Jesus Christ carries us by His grace. Repentance and forgiveness will lead us to a life of blessings we can’t imagine.
We will not suffer the wrath of God for our poor decisions, but we’ll never truly know the blessings of grace if we turn our back on the One from whom true life comes. We will suffer the consequences of a life poorly lived. So God, in His love and mercy, calls us to put Him first in our lives so that He can love us and care for us as He has promised. Following Jesus comes at a great cost, even the world, but having Jesus to follow came at an even greater cost to our God. He paid the debt to set us free. In that freedom we are called to willingly serve Him, to turn our hearts away from the world to become His disciples. We are called to allow our ear to be nailed to God’s doorpost, to give even our lives for Him. As disciples we’ll truly know what it means to be blessed, like a tree planted by the streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season. Our sacrifice will last but a season and we’ll soon know the blessing of dwelling with Him forever.
The crosses we have to bear has nothing to do with the suffering we experience in this imperfect world. Jesus calls us to willingly give up the freedom we think we have and take up a life following Him, even if it means the loss of everything we love in this world. We’ll find, in the end, that by hating the world and turning to Him, that we’ll have so much more love to give to the world through Him. It is, perhaps, the most difficult choice we’ll ever have to make, but being a disciple will reap the greatest benefits in this life and the next.