Welcome to the December 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.
When writing, I used the New International Version of the Bible. Due to copyright restrictions, I have not included quotes for the scriptures, but highly encourage you to open your own bibles to read the scripture passages for yourselves.
A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2015
December 1, 2015
"God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth do change, And though the mountains be shaken into the heart of the seas; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, Though the mountains tremble with the swelling thereof. Selah. There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, The holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God will help her, and that right early. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved: He uttered his voice, the earth melted. Jehovah of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. Come, behold the works of Jehovah, What desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; He burneth the chariots in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Jehovah of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah." Psalm 46, ASV
I was working on my homemade Christmas ornaments this morning. Each year I make something to give to family and friends. I finished the ones for family a couple weeks ago, but I had to make some to give at a party and to share with my husband's co-workers. I am almost finished, just one last step; I need to put the hooks on the ornaments.
Now, I am using a pretty ornament hook that has a swirly-q on the top. The hooks had been stored in a basket with the other materials for the ornaments and over time they became entangled. You have experienced that, haven't you? The ornament hooks begin neatly stacked, but somehow they twist and turn until they are a big mess. It is bad enough with the normal hooks, but add the swirly-q and you have a nearly impossible task to get them apart.
We see this happen with Christmas lights, too. No matter how good you are at packing the lights at the end of the Christmas season, somehow they become a tangled mess. I think our Christmas decorating would take half as much time if we didn't have to spend all that time working out the knots. One plastic bag company has discovered a new use for the baggies they make, suggesting their use to separate strands of light for storage. I've done this for several years and I have to admit that it does make a difference, although it isn't a perfect solution. Sometimes the strand gets all strangled with itself!
Have you ever thought about how easily our lives get out of control? I think that's especially true at Christmastime. We make lists, plan time to do everything we want to get done. And then we get an invite to a party or hear about a sale for something we want to buy on someone's list. We pull out the Christmas lights and it takes us twice as long because we have to untangle them. Yesterday I had to run errands to several stores to return items we bought by mistake. Today I have to go to the grocery store because I need to get some things for baking. I already had a list of dozens of tasks I wanted to get done, and then I realized that as the first day of the month I have to create the archive pages for my website!
Life sometimes gets in the way of our plans. We have to be flexible. Yes, I have a lot I must accomplish in the next couple of weeks so that my house will be ready for a party we are having, but I still need to take care of the normal day to day tasks like cooking food and doing dishes. We have to plan that everything we do will take longer than we expect and leave us more than enough time to do what needs to be done, even if we have to say "No" to some things. This year I've decided not to make a dozen different types of cookies.
The most important thing, however, is to remember that this season is not just about cookies and presents, decorations and parties. It is about Jesus. It is very hard when we are tangled in the busy-ness of the season to remember to take time for devotions or to simply sit quietly in the presence of God. It is hard to work in time to read a devotion or to follow some Advent practice. Sometimes it is even hard to breathe.
There is a word in today's Psalm that is found throughout the book of psalms; the word is "Selah." This is best understood as a musical term meaning "pause." Yes, we have a million things to accomplish in the next twenty-four days, but let us never forget who we are celebrating. We might be looking forward to the Nativity of Jesus Christ, but He lives in the here and now. We don't have to wait until Christmas Eve to spend time with our Lord and Savior. We can and should "Selah," to breathe, pray, listen, worship, and praise Him in the midst of our tangled lives. We might just find that things aren't so stressful when we do.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 6, 2015, Second Sunday of Advent: Malachi 3:1-7b; Psalm 66:1-12; Philippians 1:2-11; Luke 3:1-14 (15-20)
"But who can abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap: and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer unto Jehovah offerings in righteousness." Malachi 3:2-3, ASV
John the Baptist was the end of an era. He was the final prophet to live and die under the Old Covenant. He came, as was promised, to point the way to the One who would make all things new. All the prophets were tasked with the same message, "God will save His people." Some of the earlier prophets spoke to the very real needs of their own people, but in doing so, God also revealed the ultimate promise, "A Messiah will come." John was not really different that those who came before him, and yet he was much different. John met the Salvation of the world face to face. God gave the words of hope and warning about the coming of the Day of the Lord to the other prophets, but John saw the fulfillment of those promises in the flesh.
Malachi reminds us that facing the Lord is not a walk in the park; we'd rather keep the image of God as one that is kindhearted and compassionate. Malachi, which means "my messenger," asks, "Who can endure the day of his coming?" In the past few weeks we’ve seen apocalyptic images and experienced the fear that comes with curses of fire and brimstone. We see a similar image in today’s Old Testament passage. Malachi writes, "For he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap: and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer unto Jehovah offerings in righteousness."
In this promise, or curse depending on how you look at it, the refining will come to the sons of Levi. The sons of Levi were the priests in the Temple. The Levites were the ones who continued to man the altar of God, to present the offerings, to do the work of bridging the gap between the people and their God. Zechariah, John's father, was a priest. He was in the Temple when he learned that his elderly wife would bear a son. This was such an unbelievable promise that Zechariah questioned the angel that gave him the good news. They were old, well beyond childbearing age. When he asked how he could be sure of the good news, the angel answered, "I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak unto thee, and to bring thee these good tidings." He wasn't meant to believe based on any tangible proof, but to trust the Word of God brought by His messenger. Because he doubted, Zechariah went silent, unable to speak until the promise came true.
Zechariah was able to speak again when John was born and named according to the Word of God. John was an unusual name, not chosen based on tradition or family practice, but because it was the name given to the baby by God. When all was done, and God's Word was proven true, Zechariah began to sing praise to God. The people who saw this marveled at what had happened and wondered what would become of this first born of Zechariah.
Last week Advent begsn with apocalyptic texts and this week isn't much different. We still aren't seeing the warm fuzzies that make the Christmas season so special. The light in today's text is not the gentle glow of the Christmas tree and the words aren't messages of good cheer. Malachi calls us to be cleansed by fire and John calls us to repent! The message this week doesn't fit in so well with our festivities and preparations.
Malachi makes it clear that the Day of the Lord will not be a pleasant experience. Imagine what it would be like to be tempered with the fire necessary to purify silver. It is difficult to even get close to the furnace. It is no wonder that those who followed John thought it was worth getting a little wet in the Jordan to protect themselves from that sort of judgment. But the refining process is necessary because it readies us to stand in the presence of God. There is promise in that image of the refiner. God does not abandon us to the heat, or the wrath. He is there with us, through it, transforming us by His grace. We should not run from the power of God, for it is in the power of God that we are made new.
I don't know about you, but every year I promise myself that I am going to make this Advent and Christmas much simpler. I promise myself I won't do too much. I promise myself - and God - that I'll focus more closely on 'the reason for the season.' I fail, every year. This year is no exception. We are preparing for an open house next weekend and it seems as though I can't get everything done that I need to do. I suppose that's why it is good that we meet John the Baptist so early in the Church year. John reminds us of the reason for Advent.
Advent is not just a time for warm fuzzies or getting ready for the festivities of the season; Advent is a time of repentance. Repentance means turning toward God, renewing our faith and hope and trust. When we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season, we forget that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and transformation. He came to cleanse us, to make us new. He came according to the prophecies of the prophets throughout time to be both Judge and Savior for His people.
This is not to say that we should reject the traditions of Christmas that we love, after all they can be ways through which we make a joyful noise and praise God. That nativity puts Christ in the center of our celebration. The tree is symbolic of life and growth and creation. The lights represent the Light of Christ. Baking cookies is a way of sharing hospitality. Gift giving is a way for us to reflect the generosity of God and to share our blessings with others. These are not bad things.
However, it is so easy to let the warm fuzzies and festivities to make us forget the reason why Jesus came. We remember the reason for the season is Jesus, but do we remember that we need to be repentant? The fun and wonderful things we do for the Christmas season are not bad unless we think they are a way for us to flee the wrath to come. Are we decorating because we have to? Are we trying to win a neighborhood lighting contest, or do we really want our light to shine in the darkness? Are we sharing those goodies that we bake? Are we giving thoughtful gifts, or are we just spending money on useless things because it is expected? Will our preparation make way for the Lord?
During this Advent season we are waiting for the coming of the Lord, both in the manger and in His glory. What should we do? John calls us to live the life of repentance. This is not a time to run away and hide, or try to find our own way of surviving the coming wrath. Now is the time to turn to God, to seek Him, to follow Him as He works on our hearts, cleansing us and transforming us into something new. By His grace we’ll respond with acts of kindness that reflect God's grace and make Him shine in the world, manifesting the fruits of righteousness in keeping with God's purpose for our lives.
During this busy time we have lists of things we need to accomplish. I joked on Facebook that I did not get half of what I had hoped to get done. There is so much to do and so little time. "What should I do?" we ask ourselves as we see everything that needs to be done.
"What should we do?" This is the question that the crowds asked John as He was preaching and baptizing at the Jordan. They were busy doing all the wrong things and were missing the life God was calling them to live. The multitudes asked John what they should do and John answered, "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath food, let him do likewise." The tax collectors asked and John said, "Extort no more than that which is appointed you." The soldiers asked and John said, "Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse any one wrongfully; and be content with your wages." John answered them with a call to repentance and faithfulness to God's Word.
And so, in this second week of Advent, we ask, "What should we do?"
John answers, "Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance."
Paul answers, "And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God."
Paul was concerned for the Philippians. He knew that though they were doing well at living the life they had been called to live, they would face difficult times. There were those who had gone into Philippi to stop the growth of the Church and destroy the faith of the young Christians. Paul wrote to encourage them to stand firm in their faith and to keep their eyes on Christ. We wait for the Nativity, but we are also waiting for the Day when the Lord will come again. We have to be ready for Christmas, but we are reminded to be ready for the Day of the Lord when Christ will come in glory.
We are being called to live a fruitful life, one that glorifies God. We aren't meant to run away from God's refining fire, but to experience it. We are meant to be changed, transformed into something beautiful and holy. Advent has become a time to talk about hope, to look forward to the coming of Christ, but historically it was a season of repentance. Are we meant to be lost in the chaos of all our preparation? Or are we meant to be growing deeper in faith as we draw nearer to the Christ?
This can be a very difficult season for everyone with so much to do and so little time, although it seems as though the Christmas season has gotten longer and longer every year. In the days of my youth the holiday season began after Thanksgiving. I remember how Black Friday more than just a day of frenzied shopping for door-buster deals. It was a special day to kick off the season of preparation. The malls were transformed between Wednesday night and Friday morning. Santa came during a special ceremony accompanied by pretty girls in reindeer costumes galloping in front of his sleigh. We stood in line for hours to meet the jolly old elf and give him our Christmas lists. A few years ago I went to the mall before Thanksgiving and realized Santa was already there, bored by lack of children. The stores have had Christmas displays up for months with Christmas music playing in the background. What used to be the twenty-five days of counting down to Christmas has become months of preparing. Children don't have a sense of time. They see those first signs of Christmas and become excited about what is to come. But now that those signs come so early, it is easy to become disappointed and lose interest.
No matter how much we complain about the commercialization of the season, we still get caught up in it all. We get lost in the busy-ness and forget the purpose. People don't change. Just like those Israelites in Malachi's days and the Jews who heard John the Baptist's cry, we need to be called to repent, to turn around, to wait patiently and seek God.
That's why the cleansing is not a once and done process. A refiner tempers the metal over and over again until all the impurities are gone. A launderer might have to rewash an item several times before the stain disappears. We have to be reminded over and over again to turn to God, to remember what He has done. That's why we look forward to the Nativity year after year. Jesus certainly does not need to be born again, but in His first Advent story we see God's grace and remember His promise as we look forward to His final Advent.
On the second Sunday of Advent we hear the story of the last great prophet under the Old Covenant as he cries out in the wilderness for us to repent and turn to the Lord. His story is not the happy one we expect in a season of Rudolph and Frosty. The Gospel lesson ends with John's imprisonment. Yet, we listen to his story during this time because in the cry of John the Baptist we see the promise of forgiveness. Through his words we are called to return to the God who is faithful to His promise to make us new. We are waiting but while we wait let us rejoice in the work that God continues to do in our lives, cleansing us with the fire that transforms us into the people He has created and redeemed us to be.
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto Jehovah thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days Jehovah made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore Jehovah blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it." Exodus 20:8-11, ASV
I was reading an article today about some surprise facts about our favorite fast food places. One was about the holes found in the mini burgers sold at White Castle: they exist so that the burgers will cook completely without being flipped. Another revealed that Shaquille O'Neal owns ten percent of all the Five Guys Burger franchises. There are more Subway franchises than McDonald's. McDonald's chicken nuggets are not random shapes; they are made as a boot, bell, bow-tie and ball. Every Waffle House is open twenty-four hours a day 365days a year, so the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency gauges the severity of natural disasters. The index is green when the local Waffle House is open and serving its full menu; yellow when it's open, but serving a limited menu; and red when it's closed. Those levels then indicate the extent to which a community has power and water.
One of the facts listed was about Chick-Fil-A's practice of closing on a Sunday. We all know how frustrating it can be to get a craving for their delicious chicken sandwiches on a Sunday! The author stated that the stores were not closed for religious reasons but because Truett Cathy, the founder of the chain, was tired. He opened his first store in Manhattan on a Tuesday and by Sunday he just couldn't go on, so he decided to take a break on Sunday. Now he believes all employees deserve the chance to take a break. Sure, worship and time with family are a terrific way to spend that time off, but the practice began for the sensible purpose of healthy living.
Here's the thing: Sabbath was not given to man so that he would go to church, but so that he can rest. Of course, part of that rest is spending time in God's Word and assembly among our brethren in faith. Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism, "We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear it." The Sabbath is a day of rest when no work is to be done, a holy day when we find rest not only for our flesh, but also for our spirits through worship. Leviticus 23:3 tells us that we are to work for six days but to leave the seventh day for a Sabbath of rest and a day of sacred assembly.
There are those who will argue about which day is the Sabbath, but that's not the point today. Many restaurants close on Monday after a long weekend of serving the public. In Texas, car dealerships are only allowed to be open on day of the weekend. Some have chosen close on Saturday. Though there are those who are frustrated about finding their favorite places closed when they want to visit, the practice does help keep costs down and gives the owners and employees a chance to rest. A representative of the organization that represents alcohol sales, another group affected by laws against selling on Sunday, believes that fighting the law would not help the stores. The expected sales would simply be spread out from the rest of the week, causing the stores to pay more to open without benefit from additional sales.
There are some places that take a Sabbath day for religious reasons, but we are reminded by the scriptures that even God needed a rest from His Work. He gave us the gift of the Sabbath so that we would not become too exhausted and burned out from our work. We have, throughout time, laid restrictions on that time of rest, specifying days and making laws that limit how we are to take advantage of this gift. However, we are reminded that the Sabbath is not just a time for us to gather in worship, but has the sensible purpose of healthy living. See, there's always a spiritual and physical purpose to the word God speaks to us; He cares for us in both spirit and body. So, let us remember to rest among the busy-ness of our lives, to take time for worship and family but also to get a break from our work.
"And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye. Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." Luke 6:5-13, ASV
One of the things I like most about Facebook is that it provides us the opportunity to see what's happening in the lives of those we know and love. We see when they are down, we see when they have something to celebrate, we see opportunities to speak of word of grace or say a prayer. Our friends often ask specifically for prayer, perhaps not with details, but with hints that there is something happening. "Pray for me..." they say. Sometimes they will reveal more details in private messages, which is better than posting our most intimate situations for the world to see.
The public and private posts require some sort of response so that the person knows that they have been heard and that we are joining them in prayer. I'm more likely to answer in the private messages than the public posts. See, even though I stop and immediately pray when I see something on Facebook, I do not like to make a show of it. Though we can't possibly know what happens in a person's heart and between them and God, the responses on those posts often seem canned and insincere. When someone asks for prayer, you tell them you are "sending thoughts and prayers" their way. It's what you do.
It seems even more insincere when you see news reporters, politicians and celebrities jumping on the "thoughts and prayers" bandwagon. What does that even mean? Thank you for the kind thoughts, but why are you sending me your prayers? It is like they don't even really understand what it means to pray. Prayer is taking time to talk to God, to whisper in His ear our deepest worries and fears, our hopes and our dreams. Prayer is asking God to deal with the problems of our lives, whether it is direct intervention or to provide us with guidance and comfort. When we are sick we pray for healing; God will answer, but the answer might not always be what we want or expect. Sometimes God knows a better way; God always knows the right way. Prayer is about trusting in Him.
Unfortunately, this impression of insincerity has made its way into the public discourse of the issues we face. There are those who recently began saying, "Stop praying and do something." This has made the division even greater between those who believe God will make a difference and those who don't. And perhaps the doubters have a point; God doesn't listen to canned responses and Internet memes. He listens to His people praying and He answers according to His good and perfect will.
Will God stop the next bullet because we have asked Him to protect us? Perhaps, but we can learn a lesson for the Israelites of the Old Testament. It might be hard to hear, but sometimes God allows His people to be defeated and sent into exile so that they will turn to Him. Could there be a lesson for us in the events that are happening worldwide, those we hear about and those we don't? Could it be that God has not abandoned us, but that we have turned our back on Him? The Jews of Jesus' day were very religious, but they had lost touch with God their Father. Perhaps the same has happened to us? Do we look religious with our canned responses and meme shares, but we've lost touch with our God and Father?
Do not let the scorn of those that doubt God will do something stop you from praying, but let's be sure that we are truly seeking God in our prayers. Jesus gave us a model of prayer, and though it need not be said verbatim, it offers us a direction for our conversations with God. We begin with praise and worship, and then confess our trust that God knows what is best and ask Him to guide us into doing His will. We ask for God to provide our daily needs. We confess our need for forgiveness and commit to living lives of forgiveness. We ask God to protect us from the harm that might come in this world, not only from outside ourselves, but also from inside our imperfect hearts. Let us turn to the one who can make a difference in the world and seek His guidance on how to live both in our private and public lives.
"And hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoso keepeth his word, in him verily hath the love of God been perfected. Hereby we know that we are in him: he that saith he abideth in him ought himself also to walk even as he walked. Beloved, no new commandment write I unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning: the old commandment is the word which ye heard. Again, a new commandment write I unto you, which thing is true in him and in you; because the darkness is passing away, and the true light already shineth." 1 John 2:3-8, ASV
We were on our way to church yesterday when I heard a noise. I thought it was the noise made by the turn signal but there was no reason for it to be on at that moment. I looked over at the dashboard, but nothing was blinking. That's when I realized it was a noise in a commercial on the radio. The noise was not necessary to the purpose of the commercial and didn't make sense that it was there. Perhaps there is some subliminal reason for it, but it bothered me. I don't even remember the product being advertised, so if it was meant to make an impact on me, it didn't really work. The impact on me was a discussion about how I would make the commercial differently.
I said that I think all commercials produced for radio should be listened to in the car before playing them for the public. I wasn't driving yesterday, but that noise would have bothered me when I was behind the wheel because it would cause me to look repeatedly at the dashboard to make sure that I didn't leave the turn signal blinking. There are other noises that are distractions. Have you ever heard a commercial that has a siren and then spent time looking all around for the emergency vehicle so that you know whether you should pull over? That has happened to me. Every time I hear that type of noise on the radio, I wonder if those who created the commercial thought about the indirect impact it could have on those driving.
Even worse than the impact it can have on the person when they first hear the noise, is the impact that can happen when they hear to noise over and over again. It would not take very long for us to assume the noise is on the radio and we begin to ignore it. We might hear the blinking noise and think it is the commercial, ignoring the fact that this time we really did leave our turn signal on. We might hear a siren and think it is the radio, ignoring the fact that there really is an emergency vehicle that requires us to pull aside. We get used to the idea that the noises around us are meaningless and so we don't pay attention when those same noises really do mean something.
I sometimes wonder if that is what happens to people who are not believers. Think about it: we have a whole season that is wrapped around the idea that God came into the world to save it. Even with the supposed "war on Christmas" there are still plenty of place where you can see the celebration centered on Jesus Christ. There are still nativity scenes (we have a huge one in our front yard.) There is still Christmas music about Jesus playing in the background of all the stores these days. Even the word "Christmas" has Christ in it. It has been this way for generations, even during times when Christianity was not only acceptable, but was the norm. Yet, there have always been those who do not hear and believe.
I wonder if they don't believe because all they hear is noise. After all, there are many Christians who insist we say "Merry Christmas" but who really do not live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. We often hear from non-believers that the Church is filled with hypocrites. That's true, and we justify it by saying that the Church isn't filled with perfect people but with imperfect people saved by grace. That's all well and good, but faith is transforming. Faith in Jesus Christ makes us into new people. We are certainly not perfect, but we are being perfected.
During Advent we ask questions as we prepare for the coming of our King both in the manger and on the Day of Judgment. Are we prepared to meet Him face to face? Are we allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, to cleanse us from those things that keep us from being all that we were created and redeemed to be? Are we really ready to stand before the judgment throne of God? Now, we know we are saved, but upon what foundation are we standing? See, non-believers have heard a lot of Christians talk about Jesus, but to them the words have become meaningless. And, well, like those who create those radio commercials with noises that make us oblivious to the real thing, we make them ignore the words of salvation because we talk to the talk but do not walk the walk. Our words have become little more than noise that causes them to ignore the grace that could make the light shine in those lives that are still living in darkness.
"Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me; and ye will not come to me, that ye may have life." John 5:39-40, ASV
I am really good at forgetting something at the grocery store. I often make lists, but I usually leave those lists on the counter in the kitchen and then have to remember everything anyway. I joke with the cashier when he or she asks, "Did you find everything?" I answer, "I hope so. If I forgot anything it is because I didn't look for it! I left my list at home." The cashiers always laugh and I go on my way, sure that there is something I should have purchased. I'm usually right; I find my list on the counter when I get home and realize that I did, indeed, forget something.
I am getting ready for a party on Saturday, and I've been shopping for weeks to get everything I need. There are a few things that I must wait until Friday or Saturday to purchase, but for today I've made a list of everything else that can be purchased ahead of time.
I am planning to begin baking today so I collected all the recipes and laid them on the counter. Then I went through each recipe, pulling the ingredients out onto the counter. As I found ingredients that I did not have at home, I put it on my list. I counted eggs and sticks of butter. I felt the boxes of baking soda and powder to make sure there is enough to get me through baking. I don't want to discover in the middle of a recipe (as I have in the past) that I've forgotten something vital. Now all I have to do is remember to take the list.
We don't need a list to be saved. Many religions have a checklist of things that must be done to reap the benefit of the faith. Even Christianity has had periods when this was true, although only because human beings demanded it, not God. Sometimes the list is the "do nots" but sometimes it is about doing this or that to earn God's favor. Do we pray regularly? Do we go to church? Do we feed the poor and minister to the sick? Do we avoid dancing or alcohol? Do we go on a pilgrimage? Do we meditate? Do we eat certain foods or avoid others? Do we give up everything for the sake of others? These are good and right responses to the grace of God, but there is no checklist we can finish to deserve what God gives for free.
Unfortunately, our lives are often too busy to remember to respond to grace, particularly at this time of year. We are so busy with baking that we forget to pray. We are so busy with shopping, we miss out on the opportunities to help others. We may be more likely to go to church through the Advent and Christmas seasons, but miss fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ because we are rushing off to some other event. The scriptures tell us the story of why we are preparing for the coming of our Lord, but how many of us open our bibles to read that precious story again?
The bible is not a checklist, but it is filled with good words to help us through our days. Daily reading will help us to remember to be thankful, to be generous, to be caring, to walk rightly, and to pray. Reading the scriptures each day will write God's Word on our hearts so that we are ever aware of His presence in our lives. Spending time in God's Word will help us to remember all that He has said so that we can and will be obediently responsive to His grace. As we do so, let us never forget that our time in His Word is not another mark on the checklist of our lives of faith, for Jesus Christ accomplished the work of salvation long before we could read. He alone saves, so let us constantly look for Him in the words rather than all the things we might do to gain His favor.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 13, 2015, Third Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 85; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 7:18-28 (29-35)
"Jehovah hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the King of Israel, even Jehovah, is in the midst of thee; thou shalt not fear evil any more." Zephaniah 3:15, ASV
It is said that fear is a powerful motivator. Take, for example, a family facing a fire in their home. Fear drives them to escape the flames by running out of the house. Fear of failure drives many people to work hard. Fear is a negative motivator, but it can have positive results sometimes. It can also have devastating results, such as when our fear paralyzes us into non-action. A deer in the headlights is afraid of the car, but the fear makes it impossible to move out of the way. This can happen to human beings who are too afraid to get out of the situation that is causing their fear.
I used to love horror films. I would go with my friends whenever a new slasher film was released. I hate to admit how many of the "Friday the 13th" movies I went to see. We enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the fear that builds with the background music and the certainty that the bad guy was just around the corner. We laughed at those movies, too, because we knew that the whole concept is ridiculous. Surely there aren't that many stupid teenagers in the world? Like the Hallmark Christmas romance movies, slasher movies follow a formula. They both work at getting the reaction they want.
I remember one time when I went with a friend to see yet another of those slasher movies. We went at night to a movie theater in a rough part of the town where we lived. We were looking forward to feeling all the usual feelings even though we knew that it was going to be a terrible film. The experience of fear began long before the movie began, however. We were very out of place among the other moviegoers. I know I shouldn't make judgments based on appearances, but we were truly afraid, rightly so based on the actions of those around us. There was at least one fight that night outside the theater. We definitely did not enjoy our movie, but our fear taught us a lesson: don't go to that theater at night.
I don't go to horror films any more. I'm not sure what made me stop; perhaps it was that night with my friend. I think having children has also made me stop looking for the adrenaline rush that comes from any type of product that is in that genre. I stopped reading horror books, too, and I don't find any pleasure in any of the television shows based on monsters or death. I suppose I experience plenty of fear in worry about my kids that I don't need background music or the expectation of a bad guy to give it to me.
We fear death. We fear loneliness. We fear failure. Advertisers take advantage of our tendency to fear by playing on that; they make us fear missing out on something. There is a commercial right now for an electronics store that bothers me. They encourage the viewer to shop at their store so that they can "win Christmas." The point is that they'll get the best gifts at that store and that the receivers will thing they are the best. They play off the fear that we'll get the wrong gift or that someone else will buy something even better, to motivate us to rush out to their store and buy the newest, most expensive gadget so that we'll "win." Gift-giving isn't about winning or losing. Christmas isn't about winning or losing.
Fear is rampant in our world today, perhaps rightly so. There are very real reasons for us to be afraid. Fear can have a positive impact if it causes us to be more watchful or careful. It can also have a very negative impact if we respond with anger or hatred or violence. Sadly, that's how many people do respond when they are afraid. Oh, many times we will ignore the underlying fear that causes us to act as we do. Fear gets covered up by other emotions and actions. Fear is seen as weakness, and in a world where the weak are manipulated and abused, any sign of weakness is buried by attitudes, words and actions that seem powerful and strong. The rough moviegoers are hiding fears they would never admit and perhaps do not even realize they have.
Zephaniah gives us the Good News, "Thou shalt not fear evil any more." In a world were so much is driven by fear, this is something we want to hear, but we have a difficult time believing it. We don't know when it will happen, but we know that we will hear reports of some disaster happening to a neighbor and we will worry that it might happen to us. We'll hear the weather report forecast potentially dangerous weather and we will fear what might happen to our homes. We'll hear about another outbreak of violence and wonder if it could happen to us.
We have a hard time believing this good news because we think it means that there will no longer be evil. There will come a day, the Day of the Lord, when God will truly finish that which opposes Him. In the meantime, however, we will deal with the things that make us afraid. The promise is a call to trust.
Zephaniah says, "The King of Israel, even Jehovah, is in the midst of thee." That is the promise of Christmas. That is what we are waiting for during this Advent season. We are waiting for the King to come, both as a baby in the manger and as the eternal Judge and Savior. Because He came, we have no reason to fear.
Oh, we'll still face the dangers of the world, but with Christ Jesus as our King we know that we will receive the promise no matter what happens in the flesh. See, we might lose our home to a fire or even die at the hands of someone who has chosen to respond to their own fears with anger or hatred or violence, but we have something that is better than fear: hope.
Advent is a season of lights. We begin with darkness, representative of the darkness of our lives. Each Sunday we light a new candle. As we draw closer to the coming of our Lord Jesus the light grows until that joyous night when we can light the Christ candle and celebrate His coming. We have finally reached the third Sunday, Christmas Day is coming quickly and we can feel the excitement building. On this day, we finally have more candles lit than are dark and it is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday or the Sunday of Joy for that very reason. Finally, the light is greater than the darkness and will continue to grow.
This joy is found in our readings for the day. The book of Zephaniah is hardly joyful. The prophet announces to the people that in His day God will bring judgment to the nations, including His people who had abandoned their faith. Yet, the prophet does not leave them without hope. Today's reading tells of the restoration that will come when God completes His work. Zephaniah foretells the rejoicing that will go on within the city of Jerusalem.
To the Jews, prosperity meant God was near, misery meant that He had abandoned them. Though God was never far away, it was not hard for them to fear when things began to go wrong. When the nations could overwhelm them with their power, it was obvious that God was no longer protecting them. Yet, God has a purpose for all things, including those times of pain and suffering. They help us to turn to Him, to repent of our sin and look to Him for our needs. God did not intend for the Jews to be destroyed, He knew that He would provide salvation in His time and way. After judgment, God cleanses His people, purifies their lips and they call out to their God. The day will come when He will bring them home. "At that time will I bring you in, and at that time will I gather you; for I will make you a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I bring back your captivity before your eyes, saith Jehovah."
Our greatest trouble is trusting God. It began so long ago in the Garden of Eden, when Eve believed the lie of Satan about the Word of God. She did not trust that He spoke the truth; she saw goodness in the thing He said would bring pain and made the decision to do what she thought was best. The Israelites did not trust that God would take care of them. They grumbled in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. They turned to other nations for help against their enemies. They asked for a worldly king when they had the King of kings as their ruler.
When we turn from God, He does not force Himself. He allows the natural consequences of our mistrust to humble us before His throne and we cry out for the One we know can overcome our difficulties. He doesn't allow more than we can bear, but He does allow enough so that we will remember His faithfulness and trust Him again. Over and over again throughout history, God did this with His people. They were defeated by their enemies and then restored when they turned to Him. They were taken into captivity, but then were returned to their home when they looked for Him. We suffer our own consequences when we turn from God, but He is always near to respond when we repent and trust Him. We respond to our fear in all the wrong ways instead of looking to God to get us through.
Instead of fear, God gives us hope. We know that evil will continue to happen all around us, but we do not need to be afraid because God has defeated evil. Whatever happens to us, we know that God has won and that we will receive the eternal inheritance He has promised. In a time of fear and anger and hatred and violence, we have hope because the Light has overcome the darkness. Instead of fear, we are called to live in the joy that comes from being in the Light.
Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice." Paul is not calling us to be happy all the time. He is calling us to rejoice in the Lord always. In everything we do, in everything we are, we are to live in the joy that is found in our relationship with God; we are to trust that God is greater than anything we might fear. During Christmas we recognize the coming of God in flesh, we honor and remember the child in the manger. However, we aren't waiting for God to come again. He is here now, dwelling amongst us, walking with us, guiding us, loving us with a tender and compassionate love. We can rejoice in the Lord always, because He is always with us. In good times and bad, we can trust God because He is always faithful to His promises.
That's what John the Baptist came to proclaim. He came to be a witness to the coming of the Light, to testify to the gracious mercy of God. I'm not so sure we think about mercy when we think about John the Baptist. After all, he is a man who is perceived to be wild, harsh and demanding. He was very unusual and acted counter to the culture in which he lived. He lived in the wilderness, wore clothing made from camel's hair and ate locusts for lunch. He defied the self-indulgent ways of the culture in which he lived. He did not wear silk or linen and he did not feast at great banquets. He chose a simple life, a life in which he could focus more clearly on His vocation as a prophet of God. He identified with the prophets of old and lived as they might have lived. He preached about repentance and called the people who came to him a "brood of vipers." There was nothing about John the Baptist that should draw people to him.
Yet, there was something about him that drew the people into his presence. Even the temple leaders came to hear him speak. The passion story of Jesus shows us a group of men who rejected Jesus and refused to believe that He was the fulfillment of God's promises, but that does not mean that they were not seeking the Messiah. As a matter of fact, since they were the educated and the religious experts, they knew more about the signs of the coming and they were anxious to see it fulfilled. In the end Jesus did not meet their expectations, but early in the story they saw possibilities with John. Many of them wondered if John might be the Messiah.
John knew he wasn't the Messiah. In last week's reading we saw John identified with the Old Testament prophecies as the one who would prepare the way for the Lord. John told them that he would baptize with water, but that the Messiah would baptize with fire. He encouraged the people to be prepared for the coming of the King by turning their lives around. His words, especially those about Herod, put him in prison.
Jesus began His ministry after John was in prison. Rumors trickled their way to John as his disciples questioned what they should do. They were loyal to John, but if Jesus was the One, should they follow Him?
John sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, "Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?" This seems like an odd question coming from John the Baptist, since his story is one of faith even before his birth. John leapt for joy in Elizabeth's womb when Mary visited her relative. He identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist explained to his followers that God gave him a message that he'd know the Messiah because he would see the Holy Spirit descend when He was baptized. John knew that Jesus was the One who was sent by God to save His people.
So, why did John send his disciples to ask this question? Did he do it to prove to his own followers what he already knew? Did he doubt Jesus? Did he doubt himself? Did John question his own ministry? Was he afraid that perhaps he was not the promised messenger? Did he need the encouragement of Jesus that the work he was doing was what God wanted him to do? John was in prison; he was probably facing his own fears which brought on uncertainty. He wanted to know for sure that he was sending his disciples down the right path.
I have to admit that there are often times when I could use that kind of encouragement, and you are probably the same. Do you wonder if you've heard God's voice correctly? Do you wonder if you are doing what God is calling you to do? Do you ever think that it is absolute craziness that God would choose you for that task? Do you wonder if you can even accomplish it? Do you ever face the fear of what might happen in you fail? Even worse, if you succeed? After all, John the Baptist was a successful evangelist and he ended up in prison. What might happen to us today? We cry out to God in our fear, doubt and uncertainty, "Surely there is someone better than me for this!" Did John wonder if he was really the one to fulfill the promise of a messenger? Perhaps Jesus was meant to be the voice crying out in the wilderness and the Messiah would come later?
I like the possibility that John needed encouragement. After all, if he whom Christ called the greatest man born of woman needed to hear the he was indeed doing the work God intended, then how much more might I need to hear it? I haven't had visions. I haven't been visited by angels. I haven't had any miraculous experiences in my life to verify I'm doing the work of God. Jesus verified to the crowd, and to John, that John was what he said he was. He was the one crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord and Jesus told them to look for the signs that might reveal the truth.
The religious leaders did not believe. Unfortunately, many of the people who began following Jesus turned away at the end. Jesus sounded good in the beginning, but after a while He did not live up to their expectations. He didn’t do what they wanted Him to do. They began looking for another. They were looking for the wrong kind of Messiah. They were responding to their own worldly fears instead of trusting that God had a plan greater than their expectations. They hoped for salvation, but their expectations were too low and when Jesus didn't climb to an earthly throne, they turned away from God. They didn't want a Messiah that would change their faith, so they chose darkness rather than the Light.
Jesus had great words the crowd about John the Baptist. He said, "John was more than a prophet. He was the prophet promised by God." And then Jesus said that this prophet, great as he was, is less than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. That's you. That's me. That's anyone who has come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. With Good News like that, who are we to be afraid?
It won't be easy, of course. There are still those who do not believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, that He is the Judge and Savior who has come and will come again. They will persecute those who shout the Good News of forgiveness with the world. John was beheaded a short time after the encounter in today's Gospel lesson. Our end may not be so dramatic. As a matter of fact, few of us will be martyred in any way. The things we fear are tame by comparison.
We have seen the rejection of Christianity in our world; for many, faith is nothing more than a fairytale. There is are billboards that have been purchased by a group of atheists that show Santa Claus with his finger in front of his mouth as if he is about to tell us a secret. The sign says, "Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness' sake. Happy Holidays!" There are those who are offended and upset by this. They are afraid that the world is trying to steal their joy by diminishing their celebration of Christmas. They are afraid that piece by piece our traditions and practices are being stripped from us.
They can't steal our joy. Our joy does not come from celebrating Christmas, it comes from being in Christ. It comes from the Holy Spirit whom God has given as a guarantee of the inheritance that He has promised. Our joy comes from trusting in God who has overcome the darkness. We may have valid reasons to be afraid in the world today. Persecution is real. People are dying for their faith. Christianity is under fire in many ways, even from within. Yet, Zephaniah's words are still true. God is with us and we have no reason to fear evil. He has overcome everything and has promised that in His day we will share in the inheritance of His eternal Kingdom. Our fears can have a positive impact on our lives as they drive us in a way we should go, but let us always remember to trust in the God who will be faithful no matter what happens.
"My heart is sore pained within me: And the terrors of death are fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, And horror hath overwhelmed me. And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! Then would I fly away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, I would lodge in the wilderness. Selah I would haste me to a shelter from the stormy wind and tempest." Psalm 55:4-8, ASV
I have an e-reader. A few weeks ago I noticed a problem with it; the battery was dying much, much too quickly. My e-reader is able to connect to the wireless for easy downloads, but it is important to keep the wireless turned off because it uses the battery faster. I thought perhaps I had forgotten, so I checked. It was off, but a book that I ordered automatically downloaded which meant that the wireless was activated. Something was obviously wrong with my e-reader. I tried several things, but nothing worked, so I started using my husband's e-reader until I could buy a new one.
I looked at the screen a few days ago and it had a message that said that my dead battery was a critical problem. I wondered if the dead battery might have fixed the issue with the wireless, so I plugged it in. So far, despite heavy reading, the battery has barely moved. I don't know what might happen in the future, but for now it seems that letting it die worked. I guess I am going to have to find something else to put on my Christmas list.
Anne Lamott once said, "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you." I know that unplugging many things really does make a difference; we've all probably experienced it at one time or another with our computers or cable boxes. We are in the habit of turning our computer off every night because we find that it works better when it has had time to cool off and reboot. I know this is one of the biggest controversies in the computer world, but many experts will tell you that it is not necessarily better to leave it on or turn it off, it just depends on your use. I like to think of my computer as a brain, and every brain does better if it gets a little sleep.
Ann Lamott was talking about more than a good night sleep, however. We are so busy that we rarely have even a few minutes to stop and breathe. We rarely take the time to sit and do nothing; it seems like such a waste of time when there is so much to do. For some it is even difficult to find the time to get a good night sleep, but our bodies eventually force us to rest. What we don't do is take time to rest our spirits, to unplug from the world to spend time with our God. See, the world in which we live demands our attention constantly. We carry our cell phones everywhere; there's always a television or computer monitor filling our lives with noise and information.
We easily recognize our need to rest our bodies, but we are not so good at recognizing our need to rest our spirits. We don't realize that our inability to see God in our daily lives or to pray is because our spirits are so exhausted by the world around us. We get broken without even realizing it. Like my e-reader, we aren't really broken, we just need to be restarted and we'll find that everything works again.
Unfortunately, we too often wait until we can't do anything, until our batteries 'die.' But we can make things right by taking time to unplug, to pray, to worship our Father and to spend time with Him. We'll find that when we do unplug, everything will work better again when we get back to our work. We'll think better, we'll focus more, we'll have more clarity and follow God's will with more joy and peace. We don't have wings, but we can fly away in those moments when we shelter in the love and mercy of our God. Don't wait until you can't accomplish anything: take time today to breathe, rest and reboot.
"But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, for that God chose you from the beginning unto salvation in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you through our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours. Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word." 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, ASV
Glitter. It is impossible to avoid glitter at this time of year. Greeting cards, tree skirts, and Santa hats are all covered with the stuff. There is often glitter on those adorable ugly sweaters and many use glitter spray or make-up for a special merry look for parties and events. Teachers let the kids use glitter to decorate gifts for parents or pageant costumes; even bakers use special glitter to decorate the sweet treats of the season.
I've never really been a fan of glitter. It is pretty and makes everything look very festive, but it is impossible to get rid of it. I bought a candle ring the other day that happened to have glitter on the edges of the leaves and flowers. The glitter got all over my hands, my purse, the shopping cart, my shirt, and then after I got home, it got all over the table where I have it displayed. I noticed glitter in my hair that evening when I looked in the mirror as I was getting ready for bed. I've even found glitter on one of the cats, although I'm not sure whether it was from me petting her or from something she got into that day. We'll be finding glitter for months after Christmas is over.
We should be glitter, not in the annoying way we can't get rid of it, but as having our good qualities sticking to everything we touch. It is often said, "If Momma ain't happy, ain't no one happy," and there is some truth to that statement, although I would suggest that we can all have an impact on the attitudes and emotions of those around us. Have you ever had a bad day, but run into someone who is contagiously happy? Somehow their smile makes your day seem a little better. The same can happen in the reverse, our negative attitude can affect our neighbors. So, which should we do?
We can affect the way our neighbors live in the world, too. By being a good example of graciousness and hospitality, we spur others to be gracious and kind. By living lives of thanksgiving, we cause others to count their blessings. By acting on our faith by being generous we encourage others to share. Our good attitudes and actions can rub off on people, hopefully to the point that it even rubs off on more people.
There are certainly those who get rattled and frustrated during the Christmas season. It is too busy, there's too much to do. We run from store to store to deal with crowds and cranky cashiers and fellow shoppers. We are so busy that we burn the cookies and can't get the tree to stand up straight. We get frustrated by the Christmas lights that never seem to work. There are so many things that can make this season not so pleasant. Yet, a simple act of kindness, like holding the door with a smile for someone overladen with packages, can rub off on people. Who knows, that one moment might spread some happiness to many other people.
Glitter is pretty and festive, and so we can be. It takes work; it takes a willingness to be happy even when we are rattled and frustrated. It takes a willingness to be forgiving rather than angry. It takes a willingness to be generous with our time, our resources and especially with our love. That love might just rub off and make the world a more beautiful and festive place. The glory we shine will not be like that of glitter, but as that of our Lord Jesus Christ.
"I waited patiently for Jehovah; And he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay; And he set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: Many shall see it, and fear, And shall trust in Jehovah. Blessed is the man that maketh Jehovah his trust, And respecteth not the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies. Many, O Jehovah my God, are the wonderful works which thou hast done, And thy thoughts which are to us-ward; They cannot be set in order unto thee; If I would declare and speak of them, They are more than can be numbered." Psalm 40:1-5, ASV
A story is told about a man who slipped and fell as he was hiking along a cliff. He managed to catch a branch on his way down and though relatively unhurt, he was stuck. He was too far from the top to climb up the cliff and he had no idea how far he was from the bottom, but knew it must be too far to get down safely. He called up to the trail and asked if anyone was there who could help. Someone answered, "I'm here." "Help me, please!" the man pleaded. The voice called, "Do you trust me?" The man had no choice and said, "Help me, please!" The voice called, "Let go!" The man thought this was a ridiculous idea, so called up "Is there anyone else up there?" What the man didn't know is that there was a large shelf jutting out from the side of the cliff. He would only fall a few feet and would be safe until more help could arrive.
This story, of course, is used as an example of trusting in God. Just when we think that there is no way out of our messes, God asks if we trust Him. He knows the best way to save us, but the plans He presents often seem ridiculous. Let go? Are you kidding me? I'll fall and get hurt! We are so good at praying and asking God for help, but we are not quite as good about trusting that God's answers are the best for us. He will ask us to trust Him and tell us to let go, but we are more likely to call out again to see if someone has a better answer for us.
Our lives will not be warm fuzzies and roses all the time. We will have ups and downs, good times and bad. We will have moments when we desperately need the help of others, especially the help of our God. There are times when we will feel completely abandoned, especially by our God, times when we are stuck hanging from a branch on the side of a cliff or deep at the bottom of a horrible pit. It is hard to see ourselves as blessed when we are in unfortunate circumstances.
The Christmas season can be a difficult time for so many people. It seems like a time when too many people die; my pastor told me yesterday that this busy time is likely to be made even busier with at least one funeral. We all miss someone at our holiday celebrations. Christmas is a difficult time for those who do not have the resources to buy presents or that special meal for their family. Broken relationships hurt so much more at this time of year. The hustle and bustle of all the preparations and busy-ness makes us tired, frustrated and grumpy rather than happy. The weather doesn't help. We get sick more easily. The happiest time of the year is not always so happy for too many people.
Believing in God is not magic and God’s love and mercy does not magically change our lives. Here is what Advent does for us, however: our Christmas preparation reminds us that God loves His children and will provide whatever we need for today. We just have to trust that God knows best and that whatever happens tomorrow will be according to His will. May God grant us the patience and trust we need in times like this, and may we continue to praise Him for all His goodness and mercy. We might not always like the answers we hear, but God knows better than we do what's waiting for us under the branch or after the pit, and in the end we will find that He is right. We'll discover the shelf below the branch or feel His hand lifting us out of the pit into something even greater than we ever expected.
"But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and he came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh: for through him we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father. So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit." Ephesians 2:13-22, ASV
Theology is the study of the nature of God and religious things. According to Wikipedia, Theology "is the systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious ideas, but can also mean the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university, seminary, or school of divinity." The word theology is a little overwhelming, and most of us would rather let the study of God to those who have been trained in religious studies. I went to a theological conference this past summer and listened to one man whose language was so over my head that I had difficulty keeping up with his lecture. They use terms like heresy, apostasy, apologetics, eschatology, filoque and a whole lot of words that end in -ism or come from another language like Latin or Greek. It is no wonder that most Christians would rather let the theology stay with the theologians.
Theology, the study of God, is for all people. We won't write lengthy dissertations or use Latin in our discussions, but our relationship with God is dependent on our time spent seeking Him and answering the questions that affect our faith. We are doing theology any time we think and talk about our God. How can we believe in the One we do not know? We come to know the One in whom we believe by studying the scriptures and pondering what we read.
It is necessary because the world tries very hard to define our God and our faith for us. They lay before us ideas and expectations, calling us to follow them and to make decisions based on their thoughts rather than the truth and reality of God. Oh, many of those ideas sound good, but they are twisted. Think about what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; they listened to the word of the serpent and believed what he said. After all, how could it be bad to have more knowledge? How could it be bad to be like God? Aren't we suppose to emulate our Creator?
The problem is that the serpent, as well as the world around us, twists the truth into something that is no longer pleasing to God. They make us question and doubt. Now, questions are good, after all, theology is all about asking questions. But the serpent, and the world, make us ask questions that lead us away from God. They make us doubt God's Word and go our own way.
Good theology is necessary for us to make the right decisions. Too often we make decisions because they feel good or seem right, but by following our own path we miss the path that God has planned for us. We miss what is best for us. The more we do theology, the more we study our God, the better we are at recognizing when the serpent or the world is trying to twist the Word and lead us astray. The more we think about the nature of God, the better we are able to recognize Him around us. The more we study the scriptures, the better we will be able to reject the words that are meant to turn us from God. As we do theology together, studying the words that came to us through the apostles and prophets, we are truly built into the body where God dwells on earth.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 20, 2015, Fourth Sunday of Advent: Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)
"And this man shall be our peace." Micah 5:5a, ASV
Some Christians would rather set aside the Old Testament. They think the God of the Old Testament is different than that of the New Testament. Yet, it is from the Old Testament that we hear the promises that God would send a Messiah, as we do in today's prophetic passage from Micah. God promises that Jesus will be our peace.
I learned something this week I never realized. We all know that during the show "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Linus gives us a monologue about the meaning of Christmas. It comes after Charlie Brown is mocked for picking a puny Christmas tree. The show is a statement about the commercialization of Christmas, amazing to think since it was first created fifty years ago. We think we have it all wrong, but we've had it wrong for generations. Charlie Brown gets upset and begins to yell, asking if anyone knows what Christmas is really about. Linus walks to the middle of the stage and recites Luke 2:8-14, the story of the angels telling the shepherds that a Savior has been born for the world. When he finishes, Linus tells Charlie Brown, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." The monologue hits the hearts of all their friends and they end up seeing the value of Charlie Brown's choice and together they decorate it. It is made beautiful through love.
Now Linus, we know, is always afraid; that's why he carries his security blanket everywhere he goes. Linus is often the one who gifts us a glimmer of brilliance with words of truth but is very insecure. Charles M. Schulz, has said of the character, "Linus, my serious side, is the house intellectual, bright, well-informed which, I suppose may contribute to his feelings of insecurity." During the Luke monologue, as Linus says, "Fear Not!" he drops his blanket, a subtle reminder but powerful reminder that the story of Christmas is given to us so that we'll have peace, not fear. He also uses his blanket as a tree skirt for the Christmas tree as he finds peace among the love of his friends. Together they sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing!" reminding us of the announcement of the angels in Luke 2. The story of Christ takes away our fear and gives us peace.
The peace is not necessary a world without war. This is what we really want. When we quote the song of the angel in Luke 2, we often say, "Peace on earth and good will toward men," asking God to help us be at peace with one another. This is a good thing because war destroys. However, the angels do not sing "Peace on earth and good will toward men," they sing, "And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased." This is worlds apart from the idea of peace in Luke's world, Pax Romana, which was an external tranquility. The peace about which the angels sing is an inner peace, a more lasting peace of heart and spirit that comes from God, made possible only by the Savior. This kind of peace comes with faith, a faith that is given to those in whom God is well pleased.
This is the promise of Christmas. We want world peace, but God promises inner peace. God promises that we will not have to be afraid when the world is at war around us because we have a Savior that has guaranteed a life beyond today, an inheritance that is eternal. This is not a promise for the world, but for those who believe. Of course, God wants the whole world to believe, but for today there are still many who have rejected the child who is Immanuel, God with us. For today, we have to settle for the peace that comes with faith.
The text from Micah gives us a clue about the One who is promised, this man who will give us peace. He will be born in Bethlehem. It is to this text that Herod's advisors pointed when the wise men asked where to go to meet the baby king who was born. They knew from the prophecy that the ruler of Israel, the Messiah, would come from Bethlehem. Bethlehem means House of David; it also means House of Bread. Jesus is the descendant of David and He is the Bread of Life. In this promise we see that Jesus is truly Immanuel, God with us, both human descending from the House of David and the Son of God. We needed the Jesus who was promised in the Old Testament because He is the only one able to give us peace.
In the reading from the Psalms for today, the writer asked God to save Israel from her enemies and from His wrath for their sin. Between these petitions, the writer repeats the most important petition. "Turn us again, O God; and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved." There is no salvation apart from God's presence. When God's face is shining on His people, they prosper in all things. God is never far from us but we have this tendency to turn from Him, to walk away from our God. We turn to others for our help; we sin against God's Word. The wrath we suffer is deserved.
Try as we might, we can't restore ourselves to God. We can't make ourselves righteous enough. We can't redeem our lives. We can't do anything to make ourselves worthy of God's grace, to gain His forgiveness, despite the ways we try. We can't make God come any closer, even through prayer, because our God is never far. Our petition is not for God to change anything about Himself, but for God to turn us back to Him. "Turn us again, O God."
By the time Jesus was born, it had been four hundred years since God had last spoken to His people. They forgot the prayer of the psalmist and tried to turn to God on their own. They tried to make themselves righteous through obedience to a bunch of rules, to cleanse themselves with the sacrifice of animals. The temple priests were busy day and night slaughtering birds, sheep, goats and bulls, begging for God's mercy. The people gave generously to the temple - oil, incense, grain and coin - hoping that God would be pleased with their offerings and shine His face on them once again.
Yet, the writer of Hebrews tells us that God was not happy with those sacrifices. When Christ came into the world in the body that had been prepared for Him, He offered Himself to do the will of His Father. Born of flesh and blood, the Christ would not rule on a throne made of gold and fine wood. The Christ was born to die. Through Him we are all made holy, not by our good works or our righteousness, but by His sacrifice.
During Advent and Christmas we are very aware of the presence of God. Many of the signs in these days are secular, but for those of us who wait for the Savior, even those signs point to the baby in the manger. Our lights remind us of the Light, the gifts remind us of the best gift, and even our parties are experiences in hospitality. We are generous not only with those we love, but with strangers as we give to the poor. Santa Claus might not seem very religious, but even his story has a foundation in faith. We can see our God everywhere if we pay attention.
Yet, as the twinkle of Christmas fades and the tinsel disappears, we easily forget the presence of God in our daily lives. We leave God at the church door and go about our business as usual. This is why we meet together weekly to confess our sins and pray for God's mercy. Though our words might be different, we cry out, "Turn us again, O God!" In response we hear the blessed words of God's promises, see His mercy manifested in Christ Jesus and receive His forgiveness in the Sacraments.
Mary saw the answer to this prayer in the promise of a Son.
God chose a young virgin named Mary to bear His Son. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary conceived the baby who would save the world. When she wonders how it will happen, the angel messenger tells her that nothing is impossible with God. She learns that her relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. Elizabeth is elderly, far beyond childbearing years. Yet, God chose her to carry the one who would prepare the way of the Lord: John the Baptist.
It must have been the most incredible news for this young girl to hear. She was chosen to bear the Messiah. She was nobody; she was just a woman, barely more than a child. She had no wealth, no husband though she was promised to Joseph. A pregnancy would be scandalous. How could Elizabeth be pregnant? Yet, Mary believed. "And Mary said, Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." Joseph was ready to break off the engagement quietly for the sake of Mary, but God revealed the truth about Mary's child and told Joseph to marry her. He also believed and did as God commanded.
Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth for a time. In today's story, when Mary arrived and greeted Elizabeth, the child in her womb leapt for joy. Elizabeth cried, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." She could not contain her joy at seeing Mary, the mother of her Lord. Elizabeth is the first to proclaim that Jesus is her Lord. She did so even before the child was born. That confession came not by her own power but by the power of the Holy Spirit.
There is so much about the Christmas story that is miraculous and unbelievable: the virgin birth, the star in the east, the visit of the wise men. So many prophecies were fulfilled, prophecies that were given to us by the people of the Old Testament. The child was born in Bethlehem. Rachel cried out as Herod slaughtered the children of Bethlehem. The most miraculous part of the entire Nativity is the faith of those whom God chose to participate. Mary believed. Joseph believed. Elizabeth and Zechariah believed. The wise men believed. The shepherds believed. God spoke and they did whatever God told them to do.
It wasn't easy for any of them. Mary and Joseph dealt with the ridicule of their community over Mary's pregnancy. Elizabeth and Zechariah gave birth to a child when they were too old to raise him. The wise men risked life to travel a long way to follow a star with a purpose that wasn't more than a theory. The shepherds - who would ever believe what they would say? Yet, they all believed God and did what God told them to do. They had hope that these miraculous things were happening to fulfill God's promises. The responded with faith and saw that Jesus is the eternal establishment of all the promises of God made to the covenant community by those who came before them.
Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds were not chosen because they were holy. They were made holy because they were chosen and they believed.
As Christmas day approaches quickly, with the birth of Christ only days away, we are excited and anxious for the coming of our King. We look forward to the day when He will come in glory to take us forever into His presence. Yet, in a few days or weeks, as Christmas fades and the tinsel disappears, we will forget the hope we have known throughout this Advent season. We may even go back to living our daily lives with little notice of God's presence. It is my prayer that after this Advent is over, we will all continue to live as if this is the day our Lord will come in glory to bring His peace to the world forever.
"For we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning our affliction which befell us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, insomuch that we despaired even of life: yea, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raiseth the dead: who delivered us out of so great a death, and will deliver: on whom we have set our hope that he will also still deliver us; ye also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift bestowed upon us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf." 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, ASV
There was a home fire in town the other day. Two members of the family managed to escape but a man died before the rescuers could get to him. The safety officials of our town used the opportunity to talk about the dangers of burglar bars. See, the house windows were covered with these heavy metal bars meant to protect those inside from those who want to break in to steal and hurt. They are often used on homes in the rougher parts of town, although I know there are at least a few houses nearby that have them, too.
They are good for keeping out the bad guys, but they are a serious danger. A woman died earlier this year because she could not get out of her house and rescuers could not get inside to help her escape. Her fire engulfed the front of the house and every exit point in the back was either boarded up or covered with bars; every escape route was barred and because of it, she died. That fire and this week's fire gave officials the opportunity to talk about ways to use the burglar bars safely. There are inexpensive releases that can be added to the bars to make them easy to open from the inside. One of those may have saved the woman's life.
It is a natural human characteristic to want to protect ourselves. We put bars on the windows and locks on the doors to keep bad guys out. We do what we can to stay healthy so that we don't die too early. We maintain our vehicles and homes so that we will stay safe. We avoid relationships so that we won't get hurt. We set aside money in retirement accounts to ensure we will have enough to last into our old age. We create ridiculously long passwords we can't remember to keep the hackers out of our accounts. Granted, there is real value to many of these precautions. It doesn't hurt to protect ourselves, unless we do so without trusting on God.
See, we also try to protect ourselves spiritually. As a matter of fact, most religions require human works to receive divine blessings. Sometimes these ideas creep into Christian practice as people believe that they must do certain things to be saved. They think they have to go to church or follow certain rules. They think they have to make sacrifices to be saved. They think they can earn God's mercy by their own works and so protect themselves by going through the motions for all the wrong reasons.
See, God sent Jesus, not because He knew that we'd do good to deserve His grace but because He knew there was no way we could ever do enough to overcome our own sinfulness. Even the very act of thinking we can protect ourselves from the evils of the world is an act of selfishness and self-centeredness. When we try to earn God's mercy, we reject the greatest gift that is Jesus Christ. He is the only One who can do what is necessary to protect us from the inevitable: death and the grave. By His grace we are saved to life eternal.
Paul knew that he couldn't protect himself from the inevitable. Oh, I'm sure that he did what was necessary to keep from being robbed on the road and kept himself as well as possible during his missionary journeys. He faced difficulties along the way and I can't imagine that he did not take precautions so that he could continue to do what God had commanded him to do. But he trusted in God and he knew that ultimately there was nothing he could do without God's help. Even his suffering was given up to God so that God might be glorified. He knew that he could never rely on himself and that God is in control.
"And Jehovah God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." Genesis 3:14-15, ASV
I know a lot of people who hate snakes. As a matter of fact, several of them live or have lived in my house. I don't mind snakes even though they are definitely not my favorite animal. I am extra careful when I go on my wildflower adventures because I know that there are snakes in the fields of Texas that can be dangerous, but it doesn't stop me from going after the best photos. You never know how close one might be.
One time Bruce and I were out chasing wildflowers in the country, driving on a dirt road through huge ranches. We saw lots of critters, particularly domesticated cattle, which have the freedom to stand in the middle of the road if they want. The ranchers keep their cattle in with barbed wire fences and cattle guards. The metal grids have holes too large for cattle hooves, but can be driven over easily. We saw a few deer, birds and other types of animals. It was fairly late in the afternoon when we noticed a stripe across the road. At first I thought it was a stick. Bruce was sure I was wrong. We saw another and again I thought it was a stick that blue into the road during a storm the night before. The third one was moving and I finally agreed with Bruce that they were all snakes. The third one was very unhappy that we had intruded on its sunbathing and it started shaking its rattle at us. We decided it was time to go home. We certainly did not get out of the car again on that road.
Rattlers and other poisonous snakes can be deadly, although most snakes are helpful. We saw one snake on the path during our vacation in June which was nothing more than a gopher snake. The ribbon and garden snakes that hang out in our yards are good because they help keep our homes rodent free. They don't look very pleasant, though. They lie on the ground and slither. They hide in dark places. It isn't always easy to tell if we are dealing with a good snake or one that can kill. Most people who have a fear of snakes have had an up-close and too personal experience with the deadly kind. Their fear helps keep them safe.
I suspect that most of the fear we feel about snakes has to do with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. The serpent, often described as a snake-like creature, set Adam and Eve on a very bad path that we all follow. We are sinful human beings because they failed to trust God. Instead of trusting God, they believed the word of the serpent. Our relationship with God was strained right from the beginning of time. No wonder we hate snakes.
Here's the thing about this story: right from the beginning of time, God had a plan. Even before Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of the Garden, God was working toward restoring His relationship with His children. It is almost hidden in these words; though we see the promise of salvation throughout the Old Testament, this passage doesn't sound very hopeful. God says, "I will put enmity..." and then talks about two sides harming one another. In the end, however, we know that the serpent, Satan, is defeated by the life, the work, the death and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, Satan won a battle on the cross, but God won the war and because of it, we are able to enjoy a relationship with God our Father as they did in the Garden of Eden. Oh, things aren't perfect today, but as we wait for the coming of Christ on Christmas and at the end of time, we are reminded that this promise has been fulfilled and one day we will dwell with God again as we were meant to do.
"And as he was now drawing nigh, even at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works which they had seen; saying, Blessed is the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest. And some of the Pharisees from the multitude said unto him, Teacher, rebuke thy disciples. And he answered and said, I tell you that, if these shall hold their peace, the stones will cry out." Luke 19:37-40, ASV
I was driving down a street in our neighborhood the other night and I was amazed at one house I passed. It was brightly lit with twinkle lights and decorated with more than a dozen large cut-outs of holiday characters. The homeowner has made pieces from several shows, Disney characters and other childhood favorites. It is a fun, festive house, brightly lit with many strands of lights. What was more amazing, however, was how that one house stood out even more because it is the only one for at least a block in every direction with any lights at all. The rest of that street was dark. There is a street not so far away that organizes their lighting displays. Every house puts up something similar. They all participate and even work around a common theme.
Christmas lights and decorations are fun and festive. Our zoo decided to do a nighttime light display. They have opened for this special event every evening over the past few weeks and will continue until the new year. Besides the lights, they have activities for the children, including cookie decorating, a pick-a-package game and hook the ring on the reindeer antlers. The covered some of the buildings and trees with twinkle lights, posted a few animal shaped displays and place brightly colored Christmas trees everywhere. We were only able to see a few animals, most were tucked away in their warm dens; a large part of the zoo was dark. We had fun and enjoyed seeing all the lights.
We heard Christmas music playing as we walked along the paths, and eventually realized that it was coming out of the big rocks in the gardens. Bruce joked, "Even the rocks sing!" and I thought about today's passage. It might seem odd to use a Palm Sunday text this close to Christmas, but we are reminded that Christmas is not just about the baby in the manger, but also about the man who died on the cross. Our holiday festivities are much like that day when Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. We are happy and excited about Christmas day, anxiously awaiting the time we will spend with family and friends around the tree and the table. In the midst of it, those who believe will praise God for His great gift of Jesus.
Yet, I know that there are many people who are getting ready to celebrate a secular day, focused not on Jesus but on all the stuff of the holiday. Most people who decorate their homes do not do so because it represents the light of Jesus Christ. They don't put Christmas trees in their homes because it represents new life. They don't buy presents because they are following the example of the wise men. They don't necessarily make cookies because we are called to live lives of hospitality and generosity. Many of us do these things because they are tradition, because they are expected, because they are part of 'the season.'
Here's the thing: rocks can't sing. Oh, modern day technology makes it possible to send music via wireless to speakers inside plaster rocks. And Christmas lights brighten the darkness. Trees and presents and cookies aren't always done for all the right reasons, but it doesn't matter. God can speak through those things even if the decorators and givers and bakers aren't motivated by a love of God. God can touch the hearts of those who see and receive and eat even if it seems as though God has had nothing to do with it all. God can make the stones sing, but He calls us to a life of praise and worship because God uses our voices to invite people into His story, to hear the Gospel and believe. Don't let them hear it from the rocks; shout the Good News in word and deed today!
"The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity; there is none that doeth good. God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek after God." Psalm 53:1-2, ASV
I watched a fun video this morning of a special military singing group. They came on stage and told the crowd that they would be singing the "Twelve Days of Christmas." Unfortunately, they said, they hadn't had time to fully practice the song and the group member with the sheet music was running late. After an 'uncomfortable' silence, the member came running up the main aisle with the music. He tripped on his way up the steps and all the sheet music flew all over the place. They quickly grabbed the music and shuffled the pages as if trying to put them in order. The song that followed was hilariously chaotic as they couldn't get together on which day of the week they were supposed to be singing, and then eventually which song! There were lines or simply words from many different beloved Christmas songs with an occasional "...and a partridge in a pear tree," thrown in for good measure.
That song has been used in a variety ways over the years. Who can forget the version by Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas on SCTV)? They, of course, don't use items like those in the original; they focus on gifts that might be given in "The Great White North": a beer, two turtlenecks, three French toast, four pounds of back bacon, five golden tooks, six packs of two-four, seven pack of smokes, and eight comic books. At this point in the song Bob and Doug fall far behind the chorus and they skip all the way to day Twelve! because it is just too much for them. The get caught in a conversation about how they should have done donuts completely forgetting that they are even singing a Christmas song.
I saw a different video a few weeks ago that show two guys playing out the different characters in the song. For each bird they had a sound and flapping wings, and some other pantomime for each verse. There is a children's chorus singing it seriously in the background while they try to keep up. They are exhausted by the end of the performance and it is no wonder because it was five minutes of constant physical exertion.
It is easy to take a song like the "Twelve Days of Christmas" and do something fun with it. It is even in its most pure form a rather silly song. One writer has taken it from the point of view of the recipient. The first gift, a partridge in a pear tree, seems like a delightful idea, although difficult for those who live in apartments that don't take pets. By the fourth day there are an awful lot of birds. The golden rings might be nice, but then you are back to birds. What do you do with eight maids and their cows? Where do you put ladies dancing and lords a-leaping? How loud would it get to have so many pipers piping and drummers drumming? The cost for giving all those gifts in 2015 would be $34,130.99.
Yet, it is said, that even a silly Christmas song can be a teaching tool for the story of Jesus Christ. Oh, there are those who say that it is ridiculous to juxtapose the two, but even if the song had no origin in Christianity, there is value in recognizing the tenets of faith that the gifts could represent. First of all the True Love is God, not a smitten courtier. The Twelve Days are the days between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6th) and that is a good time to really think about what we believe. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the greatest gift of all. According to some sources the rest of the gifts represent the following things: the Turtle Doves are the Old and New Testaments; French Hens are Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues; the Calling Birds are the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists; the Golden Rings are the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace; the Geese A-laying are the six days of creation; the Swans A-swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments; the Maids A-milking are the eight beatitudes; the Ladies Dancing are the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit; the Lords A-leaping are the ten commandments; the Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles; and the Drummers Drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.
I have to admit that I don't know how that silly song could make anyone remember any of those things, although learning was different in the days when this song was created. Perhaps it made sense to them. For us today, besides being an excellent song for craziness, we can look at those points and ponder what they mean to us in this day. Is Jesus our greatest gift as we come up from under the mountain of wrapping paper on Christmas Day? Do we read and study and believe the words found in the Testaments? How do we live out the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity? What questions can be asked about the other gifts? Our faith should bring us to the point of questioning everything and seeking how God, His Church and His grace fits into our lives. We focus our sights during Advent on the Christ to come in the manger on Christmas Eve, but are we willing to keep our focus on Him in the days that follow? Let us seek God in all our moments, for God can and will speak to us in ways we may never expect.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 27, 2015, Christmas 1: Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15; Psalm 111; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:22-40
"Praise ye Jehovah. I will give thanks unto Jehovah with my whole heart..." Psalm 111:1a, ASV
It is no wonder that many look back onto the Old Testament texts with questions and doubts. We prefer to believe in a God who is loving and kind; any stories of death and destruction is difficult for us to juxtapose with our understanding. We can't believe the God who sent us the baby in the manger could possibly allow the death of all the first born of Egypt. That's what happened at the Passover, when the angel of death passed over the homes covered in the blood of the lamb and took the sons of Egypt as the final plague to convince Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free. There must have been a better way.
The Old Testament passage comes in the midst of the story of this final plague. The Exodus was the first of many great works and a foreshadowing of the greatest work that He performed in and through Jesus Christ. The deliverance was not easy; Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against the Hebrews and he refused to let them leave despite his promises. So God made the ultimate demand, the demand that the other gods had no right to make. He gives life to all, include humankind, so only He has the right to take that life away. As a last resort, God took the first born of Egypt, man and beast. But as proof that He is God, He saved the firstborn of the Hebrews. He saved His sons.
After Pharaoh ordered the Hebrews to leave, God gave the people instructions about the journey. He told them to remember the Passover regularly, to remember how God delivered them out of Egypt. Then He called His people to consecrate all their first born males, human and animal. This consecration is to happen not only in this night, but in all time after they enter into the Promised Land. The animals were sacrificed; it was not a command to sacrifice to death for the first born human sons, but to life. This was a command to dedicate their first fruits to God's service. The first born belonged to God.
According to Numbers 18:16 there was a redemption price of five shekels that could be paid to a priest when the first born son of a mother was thirty days old. This redemption price would have 'bought' or 'redeemed' or 'paid the ransom' for the child so that they could be restored to their family. If a father could not pay the redemption price, the child had to do so when he became a man. It is expected that Joseph paid, although we do not hear about it in the scriptures. Perhaps in the case of Jesus, the ransom was never paid by humankind because Jesus was sent to pay the price Himself, not with shekels but with His own blood.
In other words, the very command we hear in today's Old Testament lesson was truly fulfilled in the life, ministry and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus to God's service, and Jesus served in a way that only He could serve. Ultimately we know that Jesus was the final sacrifice and it is His blood that is now painted on our doors so that the angel of death will pass us by.
Jesus was circumcised at eight days according to the Law and when the forty days of purification was over, Mary, Joseph and Jesus went to Jerusalem so that He might be presented at the Temple. They gave a pair of doves or two young pigeons. A wealthy family would have given a lamb and dove or pigeon; this offering is a reminder of the humble state of Jesus' family and perhaps further reason to believe that Joseph didn't pay the redemption price for Jesus.
In the Gospel lesson we meet two people, a man and a woman, both were waiting expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. The first person was a man named Simeon who was righteous and devout. This description of Simeon as both righteous and devout is interesting. Matthew Henry suggests that righteousness is lived for the sake of other people and one who is devout is devout toward God. "...these must always go together, and each will befriend the other, but neither will atone for the defect of the other." In other words, we love God and neighbor, not one or the other. If we hate our neighbor we cannot love God. And if we love God, we will always love our neighbor. Simeon was a man who gave his life to God's service; he loved God and his neighbor.
Simeon had the Holy Spirit was upon him. There are not many examples of the Holy Spirit on men before Christ finished His work, and yet we see the Spirit clearly in the Luke's Gospel. Luke, being a man of science and medicine was focused on the miraculous works of God, as we see in the telling of Jesus’ birth and in His presentation at the Temple. Simeon apparently lived in Jerusalem; he prayed often. He lived in thanksgiving of God’s works. He was an example to us of the life that glorifies God. Simeon had been given a promise; he would not die until he saw the Messiah.
The second person is an elderly woman named Anna. We know that she was old. She was at least eighty-four, but she could have been more than a hundred, depending on the translation. She had been living in the Temple for many decades, living a life of pious prayer and fasting. Her life was indeed one of glorifying God. She worshipped day and night.
Simeon and Anna both recognized that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting. They knew He was the Messiah and they praised God for His faithfulness. Simeon boldly proclaims what Jesus came to do, that He would be the salvation of Israel and a light to the Gentiles. This was an amazing thing to say. Simeon knew by the power of the Holy Spirit that the boy Jesus would die, and that his death would pierce the very soul of His mother. These are powerful words. Anna came upon the scene as Simeon told Mary and Joseph about their son's future and she began praising God loudly and telling everyone about Jesus. "He's the one we've been waiting for! He's the promised King!" Simeon may have quietly shared the story of Jesus, but Anna was not going to be silent. She was ready to tell the world.
Simeon and Anna committed their lives to the promises of God. They waited patiently to see the God's faithfulness. Their sacrifice was not blood and death, but their whole lives of hope and faith. When they received the fulfillment of God's promise, they spent their rest of their lives praising God with thanksgiving. I think my favorite part of this story, however, is the response of Mary and Joseph. They marveled at the words spoken about their son. They knew because they too experienced the Holy Spirit and the messengers of God. And yet they marveled at everything that happened to them after Jesus was born.
Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever feel that you know what God is doing in your life, and yet continue to marvel when it gets done? I know I do.
Sunday falls between two of the most significant festivals of the church year. December 26th is the day we remember St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. On December 28th we remember the Holy Innocents, the children massacred in Bethlehem at the hands. We find ourselves this Sunday between these two horrific moments. Yet, in the midst of it we are called to praise.
We all suffer our own let downs after Christmas is over. Our families return to their homes. We realize how much we spent when the credit cards come due. We feel stuffed and know we've gained that ten pounds we were determined to avoid. We know that we have to go back to work and get back to the normal of our everyday lives. We've been praising God for a month or so as we prepared for the coming of our King in Bethlehem. We are tired, not of praising God, but just tired and we are ready to focus on our lives again.
Our little troubles are really insignificant when we consider the difficulties of those who truly suffer around the world. The past year has been filled with stories of terrorism, and there has been so much more than we have seen reported. We can only bear so much at a time, and so the reporters have moved on from telling us about the Christian children in Nigeria and other persecution. Despite knowing all that is wrong in the world, including our own little sufferings, we are called to live a life of daily praise to the God who sent Jesus into the world. Jesus's birth obviously didn't stop bad things from happening, but in seeing the fulfillment of God's promises we have the hope that one day God will finish His work and we'll dwell with Him in eternity.
Our God has done amazing things. He created the entire world and everything in it. He redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. By our rebirth through our baptism we are dedicated to a life of service for our God. It is a sacrifice of living, not death. Such a life begins with a daily sacrifice of praise to God, singing songs of adoration and admiration. As we live this life of thanksgiving, we will realize how inconsequential our troubles really are because we will be looking for the fulfillment of God's promises and His faithfulness.
Our God is great and He does great things. The most incredible part is that He does so much of it through us. He calls us to live that holy life, to live faithfully in thanksgiving, doing everything in His name. Whether it is with quiet voice or loud proclamation, His name will change the world. The peace we have in Christ does not guarantee a world without suffering. We'll see horrific moments. We'll panic in the face of danger. We'll cry when we are afraid. We will have to let go, let others take their place in the work of God, give up the things we hold most dear. But as we dwell in Christ and sing His praise together, we can live like Simeon and Anna in hopeful expectation that God will be faithful.
When Paul says, "And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him," he is not telling us how to live our calling in the world. We might be like Simeon, led by the Spirit to be at the right place at the right moment to see or hear or do something that seems rather insignificant in the scheme of things. But our quiet life of faithful living will impact others in some way. Or, we might be like Anna, loudly proclaiming the truth we know so that others will hear and believe in the good works of our God. But whatever you do in word or deed, do it in Jesus' name with thanks to God, and He will be glorified.
Paul's message to the Colossians sounds like a message filled with 'to dos' and yet this is not a message of law, but of Gospel. You have heard God's word and believe. Being of God means a life of peace and joy even though it is not a life without conflict. As a matter of fact, the peace of God for many Christians comes with the risk of violence and even martyrdom. Perhaps Stephen should have given the Sanhedrin what they wanted: fearful trembling before their power and their authority. He might have been freed, but he would lose the peace that dwelled within. Instead of cowering before them and giving in to their demands, Stephen spoke the Word of God into their lives. The Word of God brought death to his body, but turning from that which God was calling him to do would have brought death to his spirit. He followed his Lord in complete submission to God's service, giving fully of himself even unto death.
You are God's holy and beloved, dedicated by faith to service in His Kingdom. The life you are called to live is not necessarily like those of Simeon or Anna. You will probably not be martyred like Stephen. It is unlikely that you will experience personally a horror like that of the slaughter of the innocents. The sacrifice God seeks from is thankfulness with your whole heart. Even though Christmas is past, will you continue to seek Him, to watch for Him, to wait for His coming with your whole being, serving Him with your entire life? It might sound like too much, but when we consider what God has done for us we know that it will never be enough. Thankfully, Jesus accomplished more than enough. That babe that was laid in the manger became the man who died for our sake. By His grace we live in word and deed in His name, sharing the peace of God with one another and the world.
"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, thou hast increased their joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, thou hast broken as in the day of Midian. For all the armor of the armed man in the tumult, and the garments rolled in blood, shall be for burning, for fuel of fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of Jehovah of hosts will perform this." Isaiah 9:2-7, ASV
Hallelujah, Christ is born! But who is this baby that was born and laid in a humble manger?
Isaiah 9 describes the character of Christ. The four titles in this passage tell us about the kind of King He would be.
Wonderful Counselor is the King who will establish a royal kingdom worthy of wonder. He is the divine King worthy of worship and praise.
Mighty God is the King who whose divine power as warrior is stressed. He is the King who will provide justice to His people, the King who will conquer all His enemies including sin and death.
Everlasting Father is the King who will be an enduring, compassionate provider and protector. He is our Creator and Redeemer. He is the King in whom we can trust to be faithful to all His promises.
Prince of Peace is the King who will bring wholeness and well-being to individuals and to society. He is the King who will restore all things not only for today but for eternity. In Him we will have true and lasting peace.
We love the Christmas story with the baby in the manger and all the beautiful things. We love the angels and the stories of the wise men and shepherds. We love to see how Mary and Joseph overcame all their obstacles to bring into this world the Savior. It's all good. But the promise of Christmas is not just a beautiful baby or even a king; the promise of Christmas is that God wins. Christmas is a reminder of the promise to us that God will restore all things as they were meant to be.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth." John 1:1-14, ASV
Luke tells us the beloved Nativity Story, the story we likely heard when we gathered in worship last night. John tells us a nativity story, too, but John focuses from the point of view of the divine. In John's nativity story (a nativity story is the story telling of someone's origin or birth) we see God revealing Himself as Light and then in the flesh of Jesus Christ. John tells us that Jesus was in the beginning. This compares to the first line of the Bible "In the beginning…" God speaks and there is Light. Now, in the Creation story we do not see the sun or moon or stars until the fourth day, so when God speaks "in the beginning" He is revealing Himself for the first time. The Light is the self-expression of the God who is, who was and who will be forever. Jesus, then, is the Light revealed in flesh. Jesus isn't pre-existent, but the Christ is the nature of God which has existed before time and it is revealed, incarnated, in Jesus Christ.
Most of the gods who are worshipped in this world are too great to pay much attention to the humans over whom they are charged to rule. But our God, the Lord Almighty, is so great that He willingly humbled Himself, took on the flesh of humankind to dwell among us, to die for our sake and to be raised to new life so that we can dwell with Him for eternity. Jesus Christ is the Incarnation, God in flesh; He is Emmanuel, God with us.
The true and living God came to earth to deliver us from everything that has separated us from Him. This is the Good News. Merry Christmas.
"Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Wise-men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Wise-men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she would not be comforted, because they are not." Matthew 2:16-18, ASV
The numbers are disturbing. Statistics show that about five children a day die due to child abuse, some form of child abuse is reported every ten seconds. In our local county, it is reported that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday; almost one-third are not old enough to attend kindergarten. I'm not sure if those numbers include the many children that are sold as sex slaves, even here in the United States. Not all child abuse is sexual, of course, but all abuse is heartbreaking and extremely damaging to the victims. Some children are abused physically, some verbally, some emotionally. Too many children are used as pawns for adults, particularly in broken relationships. Too many children are used around the world for political purposes, trained as babies to be suicide bombers or used as human shields. And of course, all too many children are never born because many are aborted for selfish and self-centered reasons.
It isn't new, this abuse of our babies. Ancient religions used children in human sacrifice. Historically, the children of the powerful were often used in the political games as they were given in marriage not for love, but to join kingdoms. Children didn't matter, they were little more than property to be used for the benefit of the family, community or kingdom. Children were beaten to teach them lessons or left to die when there was not enough food. I wonder, though, if we aren't doing as much or more damage to our kids in modern times. It doesn't seem like abuse to give our children everything they want or to tell them how wonderful they are, but it is possible to coddle our kids into adults who do not know how to be responsible adults. They suffer at our hands; our over-protectiveness and extreme care creates people who are selfish and self-centered, leading them to abuse others in other ways.
The children are innocent victims who have no control over their lives. They count on the adults who are charged with their care to do what is right and to raise them with everything they need. The numbers really don’t matter; every act of abuse against a child is wrong.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day we remember the children who perished at the hands of King Herod. He heard that a new king had been born and he was so concerned for his own power and throne that he did whatever was necessary to ensure his rule. Millions of children have suffered since the beginning of time, but we are particularly taken aback by the story of these babies. We imagine this to be a horrid event with blood running down the streets as thousands of children are slaughtered. The reality is that Bethlehem was a small town, and even with those visiting to register, the number of those killed was probably less than a dozen children. It does not make the incident less horrific: one innocent life is one too many. One child suffering for whatever reason is one child too many.
What Herod did not understand is that our Lord Jesus Christ was not born to rule as an earthly king, but He was sent to bring forgiveness, to transform our lives and reconcile us to God our Father. What we often forget is that the blood of those children is on our own hands. Our sinfulness brought Jesus into this world. We blame Herod for the death of the innocents, but he is no different than us; his sin is no greater than ours. I can't imagine any of us laying a hand on a child to guarantee our job or position, but how often do we think of ourselves before we think of the effects of our actions on others? How often do we accept that our own sin can cause another to suffer? How often do we do what we think needs to be done for our own benefit, ignoring what we might be doing to our children?
As we recall those innocent lives lost, we should also remember the children who suffer every day in the violence and selfishness of this world. Even more so, let us pray that God will kill the vices in our lives that affect those around us, that we won’t bring harm to others through our selfishness. May God help us to understand how our actions affect others and think first before acting, especially when we might bring harm to an innocent child.
"In that hour came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me: But whoso shall cause one of these little ones that believe on me to stumble, it is profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea." Matthew 18:1-6, ASV
The vicar at the church where we attended in England gave a children's sermon one day. It was about the scripture that we should love God with our whole body. He had the kids point out the different parts mentioned in the text: the heart, the mind, and the strength (arms). The soul, of course, is the hardest part to point to because there is no place on the body to which we can point. When he asked, however, one child heard "sole" rather than "soul" and pointed to his feet. We all giggled at the answer, but the more we thought about it, the more we realized that there was some truth to the answer. While the sole is not the soul, we do love God when we walk in faith. The wisdom of children is amazing.
Anyone who has done a children's sermon knows that the answer to every question is Jesus. Or God. But usually Jesus. Even if the real answer isn't Jesus, there is something awesome in the fact that the children know they can look to Jesus for the answer. Jesus is certainly not the answer to what we should have for dinner, but if we put Jesus first in our thoughts, we will think about how God might be glorified with our choice. Is the food healthy for our body, the temple? Are we making good use of our resources? Are we planning a meal to satisfy our needs not our desires? While it might make us giggle when we hear the answers the children give in the children's sermon, we should think twice. Is Jesus really the answer to our questions? Amazingly, He might just be.
Children believe. They have a faith that is not based on intelligence or knowledge. They are wise not because they have years of experience, but in their innocence they seem to have an absolute trust in God. How many of us have been in church when a child has done something out of context but seemingly appropriate. They are more likely to yell "Amen" at the wrong time but in a very right way. Once a child began singing Jesus loves me during silent prayer. Another cheered when the bells began to ring. Every parent probably has a story when their child quietly made some faith-filled and faithful comment during worship, when we, the parents, see what childlike faith looks like.
My daughter is a church youth and family minister, so she is constantly paying attention to what happens in the world, particularly media and social media. Last night she was texting me while she was watching "The Bible Bowl." I turned it on for a few minutes, but I could quickly see why she was upset. These kids weren't learning the Bible so that they would know that the answer to every question is Jesus; their parents were pushing them to know the words of the Bible so that they could win a college scholarship. She was disturbed when they prayed for one another than gave each other the evil eye. She was sad that they said the scriptures so quickly that there was no way to really hear what God was saying. She was upset by the hypocrisy of it all, how they were using the Bible as a means to a worldly ends rather than a spiritual beginning.
I thought about yesterday's Word while we were talking about this. It is disturbing to know that there was a man two thousand or so years ago whose selfishness caused the death of innocent children. It is disturbing to know that children have been used and abused since the beginning of time for the benefit of a family or society. On that show I saw a different type of abuse, one that is hidden by good intentions. It is good to know the scriptures. It is good to win a college scholarship. But the danger is that those kids will always see God's Word as a tool for their own success (or failure) not the love letter from their Father in Heaven. They've had their innocence and faith stolen and are left with knowledge but no wisdom.
I find it hard to believe whenever I see a story about child abuse in our world. How could that mother drown her own child? How can any man beat a child until his or her brain is mush? How can adult men or women use children sexually? It is much easier to believe that parents might push their children to be successful; they have good intentions. But when we push our children too hard and too fast, we steal the very thing that makes them a gift from God. They no longer have that innocence, that childlike faith that is knows Jesus is the answer to every question. They stop yelling "Amen" and singing "Jesus loves me" and cheering and speaking God's unexpected word in our lives. It might not seem as bad as shedding the blood of innocent children, but it could very well be the first step of leading them down a path that rejects the God who loves them.
It is not enough to simply protect our children from the use and abuse of our selfish and self-centered world. It is up to us to feed their childlike faith, to encourage their trustful innocence, to walk with them and listen to the wisdom they offer. We will serve God by pursuing justice, but we'll see heaven when we humble ourselves like our children and recognize that the real answer to all our questions is Jesus.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 3, 2016, Christmas 2: 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm 119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52
"How sweet are thy words unto my taste! Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" Psalm 119:103, ASV
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me: six geese a laying. Of all the bird gifts in the song, this is probably the most practical. At least the receiver will have eggs to eat. Practical or not, I'm thankful I won't be finding six geese on my doorstep today. Yes, today is the sixth day of Christmas, although you would probably not know this from the darkening streets of my neighborhood. Most of my neighbors have been turning off their lights and removing their decorations even though it is not yet Epiphany. Most of my neighbors don't even realize we are still celebrating Christmas. There is still a little holiday excitement in the world since we will be celebrating the New Year this Friday, but I imagine a majority of the Christmas decorations will be taken down this weekend.
The world will be back to normal Monday. Vacations will be over, kids will be back to school and workers will be back to the old grind. For Christians, however, the holiday does not end when the ball drops on New Year's Eve. We celebrate the birth of Christ through Epiphany. Even though the wise men have been in our nativities from the beginning, they don't actually show up in the church year until January 6th. That's why we have twelve days of Christmas.
The scriptures for this Sunday do not include the story of the wise men, but since most churches no longer celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, it is worth mentioning in today's message. Epiphany is defined as "a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something." The story of Epiphany talks of wise men, or kings, or magi following a star toward the fulfillment of a promise. They saw the star rise in the east and they followed it. The journey ended in Bethlehem where they saw the true Light. Isaiah writes, "And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." Jesus Christ was the rising light and His birth was the dawn of a new age.
Who were these kings? We also call them magi or wise men. From whence did they travel? What made the wise? Matthew tells us that the magi came from the east, and yet the prophecies we identify with these wise men speak of visitors from Arabia. Our understanding of these wise men often come from traditions rather than the biblical witness.
Some have suggested that the wise men were named Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior. Balthasar is said to be an Arabic scholar, Caspar an Indian scholar and Melchoir a Persian scholar. This is why the representations of the wise men in our Nativity scenes show different racial features. We number the wise men based on the three gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense, but it is likely that the three gifts were brought by a caravan of people, not only numerous wise men, but also family, servants and soldiers.
Some suggest that the wise men were not simply scholars, but kings. Other traditions give them different names. In Syria, the wise men were thought to be Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas, which are Persian names. Others identify the wise men as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater (Ethiopia,) or Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma (Armenia.) Chinese Christians believe that the wise men were from China.
Now, we often talk about Epiphany as being the day we celebrate the Light shining into the whole world, with the wise men representing the Gentiles. They are said to represent us. However, Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience and was telling the story to prove that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. The prophecies point toward places that may have had some connection to historic Israel.
Isaiah says, "The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praises of Jehovah." (Isaiah 60) In Psalm 72, the psalmist mentions Tarshesh along with Sheba, whose kings will come to honor and give tribute to the king of Israel.
We are familiar with the story of Midian from the scriptures. Midian was a son of Abraham by his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25). Joseph was sold to the Midianites (Genesis 37). Moses lived in exile in Midian, and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest. The relationship is not always good, as God instructs Moses to destroy Midian. In the book of Judges, Israel is oppressed by Midian, and Gideon is sent destroy Midian. Ephah is the son of Midian.
Sheba is said to be in, or near, Ethiopia. Sheba was another son of Abraham by the concubine Keturah. History suggests that there was a thriving civilization in Ethiopia during the days of Solomon. According to tradition, the Queen of Sheba became pregnant with a son by Solomon, King Melenik, during her visit to Jerusalem. He founded the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. A small Jewish community still thrives there today.
Tarshesh was among those who honored Solomon; there was a great deal of trade done between the two nations. The location of Tarshesh is even more in doubt, as some think that it is in Phoenicia, an ancient Semitic culture along the Mediterranean. Others specifically name it as Carthage, a city in Phoenicia. Yet others think it is Tartessian, a city in Spain that had open trade with Phoenicia. It is a city far away from the land of Israel, and apparently one that had a good relationship with Solomon, perhaps even religious ties to the Jewish people.
The prophecies do point toward places that may have had some connection to historic Israel. We are not surprised by Sheba or Tarshesh since they both had a good relationship with King Solomon, but what about the Midianites? They were enemies, oppressors. Why would a wise man come from Midian? We like to believe that the wise men represent us, but perhaps Isaiah was telling the people that the Messiah would come for Israel's enemies, too. After all, the forgiveness of God is available for all.
Wherever the wise men began their journey, they likely would have entered Jerusalem by the East, or Golden Gate. It was the largest and most impressive gate into the city; an impressive caravan with wise men or kings would likely have entered by this gate. It was the only gate that faced east, and is the gate through which the Messiah was expected to come. The gate leads to the Temple Mount and is just opposite the Mount of Olives. It is the gate through which Jesus entered on Palm Sunday for His triumphant parade into Jerusalem. The Muslims walled up the gate in 810 A.D. to halt the coming of the Messiah. The gate remains closed today, although we know that no walls will keep the Messiah from coming again.
What is it about these kings or wise men that set them out on a strange and difficult journey? The followed a star. They may have had some knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, but their understanding was imperfect since they went to Herod's palace rather than to Bethlehem which was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah. They took gifts that had great value, not only financial but also spiritual. Did they know they were giving gold to the Great King, myrrh to the Great High Priest and frankincense to the perfect Lamb who would be slain? Perhaps they had knowledge, but what makes us wise?
Wisdom. That's what this Sunday is all about, that is what we see in the scriptures for this Sunday. Solomon understood the importance of seeing things from the right perspective. He could have asked for anything, and God would have provided it for him. Yet, Solomon didn't ask for health or wealth. He asked for wisdom. God was pleased and granted him not only wisdom, but the rest.
Solomon was humble; he knew that he was not qualified to lead the people of Israel. The nation had grown so great, fulfilling the promise given to Abraham so many generations earlier, that God's people would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. How could a boy, barely twenty years old, lead such a nation? We might think that health and wealth are exactly what we need to accomplish our purpose, but Solomon knew that he needed wisdom, and with wisdom came the rest.
The psalmist seeks wisdom, too. Psalm 119 is a devotional on the Word of God. It is divided into twenty-two stanzas, each focusing on a specific letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line of each stanza begins, in Hebrew, with the letter of that stanza. Throughout the psalm, the writer repeatedly uses eight different Hebrew terms, which can be translated as "law," "statutes," "precepts," "commands," "laws," "decrees," "word," and "promise." Though these may seem redundant, there are subtle but distinct differences. The psalmist recognizes the importance of knowing the Word of God and living it obediently.
I often joke about my gray hair being a sign of wisdom. It is a signal that I've lived a long life, and that I've experienced many things which gives me knowledge about how the world works. It might be somewhat true, but the psalmist writes, "I understand more than the aged, because I have kept thy precepts." Wisdom is not necessarily something for the old; the young, like Solomon, can be wise. Wisdom comes to those who seek God, who humble themselves before Him and who live according to His Word.
It is that kind of wisdom we see in today's Gospel store. Jesus, only twelve years old, sits with the elders in the Temple to discuss the things of God. It is hard for us to imagine a twelve year old theologian, but that's exactly what Jesus was in this story. He was sharing with the learned men His thoughts and understanding about God. As the Son of the Living God, Jesus had more knowledge than the others. In this story, though, we see Him also being humble before the elders, asking questions. They were amazed, not only that He was interested, but that He knew the right questions to ask and that He had an understanding far beyond His years. Jesus had the wisdom that is more than knowledge and experience.
It was risky for those wise men, perhaps not even very wise, to go chasing after a star to find a baby born to be the king of an insignificant nation. It is risky for us to chase after the same star. After all, Jesus never sat upon a throne and He died on a cross. What sort of king is that? The world certainly rejects Him and it rejects those who follow Him. They call us foolish for believing and give us plenty of reasons why our faith is misplaced. The wise man of the world is the one who has great knowledge; he is the one who follows the ways of the world. The wise man of the world would never chase a star or believe a fairy tale.
But the wisdom of God is much different than the wisdom of the world. Solomon knew that he needed more than health and wealth. He needed God to give him a discerning heart so that he would rule rightely. We don't rule over a kingdom, but we do rule over our own little corner of the world, our own flesh and lives. We need wisdom as much as Solomon to make the decisions that will affect us and those around us. We would do well to be like Jesus in today's Gospel lesson, humble enough to sit at the feet of those who have come before us, asking questions and learning about the God who has called us out of darkness into the Light. We would do well to seek the wisdom that comes from God our Father, to seek Him and to listen to His Word.
Paul reminds us that we have everything we need to live according to God's Word. Sometimes we think we know what we want, or need, but we would do well to see Solomon and Jesus in light of our own spiritual journeys. They were young, but they had the mind of God. They were humble and willing to learn, to seek wisdom. They understood what was truly needed to do what God was calling them to do.
We can be like Solomon and Jesus. We can seek God's wisdom and He will give it to us. As we trust God we will ask the right questions, He will answer according to His good and perfect purpose for our lives. As we live according to God's Word which is sweeter than honey, we will see the changes that will not only make us healthier and more responsible, but even more so, more faithful to God. It will take a lifetime and we will fail time and again, but God will continue to work in us and through us, transforming us into the people He created and redeemed us to be.
"For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward. For the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For in hope were we saved: but hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopeth for that which he seeth? But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. And in like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren: and whom he foreordained, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." Romans 8:18-30, ASV
I heard a five minute report naming the top news stories for the past year and it was the most depressing five minutes. The important news stories of 2015 seems to have been all bad news, violence and heartache. One of the major stories in Texas had to do with weather, particularly the weekend storms that destroyed so much and the storms from back in May that killed an entire family when their vacation home was ripped from its foundation by a raging river. This was very bad news. Anytime someone perishes from unexpected circumstances is heartbreaking.
Now, there is no good in death and disaster and it was a major story of the year. What we don't hear in the news reports, however, is the good that came out of the bad. We don't hear the stories of those who responded the minute that disaster struck. We don't hear about the people who donated funds to help the victims. We don't hear about the people who went to the flood area to help clean up and rebuild. We don't hear the hundreds of wonderful stories about people who found belongings and returned them to the owners. Oh, we hear about them as a side-note, but those stories aren't important enough to be listed in the top ten of the year.
Sadly, as I think about the previous year, I'm not sure I can make a top ten of good news stories. Oh, I could probably recall some good news, but were any of those stories more important than the focus of the list I heard? Good news doesn't sell because it isn't very informative. We hear about attacks because we need to be prepared and to protect ourselves. We hear about the weather because we have to learn the lessons of safety that are learned from experience. We hear about the failures of people in business and politics so that we'll make good choices in the future. It is still depressing.
As I think about my little corner of the world, I’m not sure I can think of much good news. The people around me have dealt with health issues, broken relationships, and financial difficulties. Friends have dealt with personal losses like the death of someone they love. There has been much about which to pray. Many of my friends are looking forward to the new year because they hope that it will be better than the last. Unfortunately, I'm sure that we will have more bad news in the world and in our own little corners and the lists that are created next year will equally depressing.
I read an article about something that we can do in the new year. Someone suggested that we write down something good every day and place it in a jar. Then, when we get to the end of the year, we can go back and read three hundred and sixty five bits of good news. It will still be important to remember the major stories of the year, which will probably be filled with death and disaster, but at least we'll have something to make us smile and a reason to hope for more good news in the next new year.
See, it is all about our attitude and our focus. We must know what is happening in our world, but can we see the good along with the bad? Can we remember that every natural disaster brings out the goodness of people who are willing to give their time and their resources to help others who are in need? Can we remember that for every bad thing that happens to those we love, there are many willing to kneel before God in prayer? Can we remember that while the news reports stories that are depressing, there are a million reasons for us to be thankful every day?
The new year is a time to adjust something in our lives. We are thinking about resolutions, ways to be healthier and more responsible. Perhaps one of the best resolutions would be to find the silver linings in the bad news. Even better would be for us to be the silver lining in the life of someone experiencing the bad. We can find the way to put the good news into the bad. We can share God's grace in ways that might never be remembered, but will make a very real difference. God has a way of making good news come out of bad, after all, He saved us by the death of His own Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Through us, the world can be a better place, even as death and disaster reigns around us.