Welcome to the February 2012 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, February 2012
Sunday, February 5, 2012, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: Isaiah 40:21-31;Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
“I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:22b, ASV
For twenty plus years I have been responsible for the lives of two children. The responsibilities changed over the years. When they were babies, I needed to take care of their every need. As they grew older, they could do many things on their own, but it was still my responsibility to make sure they had the resources necessary to do what they needed to do. I had to cook dinner, wash their laundry, make sure they went to school and did their homework. I had to kiss their booboos, take them to church, and make them birthday cakes every year.
I will never stop being a mom, but my motherhood responsibilities have diminished significantly since the kids have gone to college. I still cook dinner for Bruce and me, but our meals are simpler and easier to cook. I still have dishes to clean, but half as many. I still have laundry to clean, but half as much. I don’t need to be up early to get kids off to school, and I don’t have to rush my errands to be there when they come home. I don’t have to sit around waiting for them to get finished with practice or a meeting or run to the store to buy them materials they need for that project that is due tomorrow. They still call when they are sick, but I can’t do anything but give them advice.
My job for those twenty years has been to take care of those children, and now that they are grown, I find myself displaced in a sense. For those twenty years, my identity has been wrapped up in the lives of those kids. Now that they don’t need me in that way, I don’t know what to do with myself. This is an extreme example, I know, because I am more than a mother. I have gifts and abilities to share. But I have to admit that I enjoyed having the children home over Christmas vacation because I found myself restored to the work that I have been doing so long.
I think sometimes we read the story of Simon’s mother-in-law and we are shocked that they would waiting on them so soon after her illness. Didn’t she need time to recover? Didn’t she need time to get back her strength? The point of this story is not just that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, but that He restored her to her place in the community. She was given a chance to do her work. She was given the chance to be whole again, to do what she was gifted and meant to do. His ministry went beyond healing, to changing lives and transforming people.
Mark tells us that Jesus healed many people that night; so many that the task seemed to become overwhelming. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus stole away for a moment to go pray. Meanwhile, the disciples searched for Jesus. The people were still coming; the people were still seeking His healing hand. Once again we are surprised by Jesus because we expect that He would want to ensure that everyone is healed, and yet we hear that Jesus wants to go to another place to take the message to other people. Why would He abandon those who were still sick and possessed?
We are people of action. Words don’t mean anything. In the midst of our nation’s political climate, that might just be true. However, in the midst of the Kingdom of God, what matters is the Word. What matters is the message. In last week’s passage, Jesus healed to prove His credibility. He assured the people that He did indeed speak with authority, and the healing showed the people the source of His authority: God. He was willing to give people life and healing, wholeness and forgiveness. The problem at Simon’s house was that the crowds just wanted Jesus to heal them. They weren’t looking to be changed or to be transformed. They just wanted Him to fix their problem. They didn’t want the Word that came with the action.
It is so much easier to be people of action. We can easily give away a bag full of food to a poor person, but we are afraid to tell them that Jesus loves them. We don’t want to offend. We don’t want anyone to think that we are giving them the food because we are trying to convert them. We don’t want to waste our energy on words when there are so many who need us to do something. We can talk about faith later; first we need to fill their bellies or heal their hurts. Yet, as we see in this story: someone will always need us to do something. We can’t let the need for action stand in the way of proclaiming the Word.
The crowds could have easily dictated the course of Jesus’ ministry if He had answered every call for healing. He might never have left Simon’s home since the crowds continued to come. But healing was never meant to be the focus of His ministry; it was only a part of it. Healing was one of the ways that God would verify Jesus’ authority. By the power of God, Jesus changed lives and the miraculous moments testified to Jesus’ real identity. When the disciples find Jesus, He said “Let us go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also; for to this end came I forth.” He came to preach, to teach, to change people’s spirits as well as their bodies. Jesus would not allow the crowds to tell Him what He should do or to keep Him from His work. He did what God had sent Him to do. That is the share the Word that heals hearts and sets people free.
What is striking about this story is that Simon’s mother-in-law is given a central place but she remains insignificant. She isn’t named, she doesn’t speak. She is sick, she is healed and she serves. Sounds like most of us, right? Now, I can imagine Jesus and the disciples leaving the synagogue after the worship and the healing of the man, headed to Simon’s house for an evening meal. I can hear Jesus greeting Simon’s wife affectionately and asking, “Where’s your mother?” They were probably like family, even though it was early in Jesus’ ministry. She was important to them, though she might not seem very important to us.
The reality is that we are important to our own loved ones, but we aren’t any more significant than Simon’s mother-in-law. The people to whom Jesus ministered were insignificant. They were often unnamed. They did not have powerful jobs or important positions in society. They were a lot like us. We are reminded in Isaiah that we are trivial. We are like grasshoppers compared to God Almighty, who created everything and whose hand drives it all. God can bring down princes and rulers and scatter them like a storm scatters stubble. He placed every star in the sky and He knows them all by name. “To whom then will ye liken me, that I should be equal to him? saith the Holy One.” There is none like God. Yet, we try to be like Him. We try to be the one in control; we demand that God do what we want Him to do.
In chapter 40, Isaiah asks a number of questions about God. “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance? Who hath directed the Spirit of Jehovah, or being his counselor hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed to him the way of understanding?” And finally, “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?”
We lose sight of God when we focus on fixing our problems and forget the unmerited blessings of His grace. God’s people have always tried to find our own solutions to our troubles; we have always sought hope and peace and strength from the wrong places. Israel allied with neighbors for protection, sought encouragement from foreigners, all the while forgetting the God and King who provided them all they would ever need. They turned from Him, and in doing so lost touch with the One who could and would protect them. So do we.
Our problems may differ, but we are the same as Israel. Have we chosen to believe that we have the answers, that we know how to solve the problems? Have we become too comfortable in our action and forgotten that it is His Word that truly makes a difference? Have we lifted up the false god of our own goodness and made it our priority, ignoring the real purpose of God’s grace? Isaiah calls out to us today, just as he called out to the Israelites so long ago, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard? The everlasting God, Jehovah, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary; there is no searching of his understanding.” He is faithful and we will find our hope in Him.
Jesus broke down walls. He brought healing, He cast out demons. He changed lives and restored people. But that's not all He came to do. He also came to preach. Unfortunately, the people were so amazed by the miraculous things He was doing that they did not hear what He had to say. They were closing in on Him and expecting from Him only what they wanted. They were not giving Him the room to be who He came to be. So, after dark Jesus went out to a lonely place to pray. When the disciples found Him they told Him that everyone was looking for Him. He said to them, "Let us go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also; for to this end came I forth." He was not going to allow the people to dictate the work He was going to accomplish. It was time to move on, to share the message with others who might hear. Sadly, we learn in Luke 10 that Capernaum never came to believe. Strange, isn't it? They came to Jesus for healing, but never found wholeness.
What is the message that Jesus was preaching? It was good news! He may have even quoted Isaiah., “The everlasting God, Jehovah, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary; there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to him that hath no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait for Jehovah shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.” It is not what we do that makes a difference in the world, it is God.
We have been called to continue proclaiming the message of hope to the world, but we are reminded in today’s Epistle lesson that speaking the Word does not give us cause for boasting. The Gospel is shocking. It is life changing. It is powerful. Most of all, it is for everyone. That’s why Paul says that he has become all things to all people. He isn’t saying that he’s willing to give up what matters, to let the crowds dictate what he does or says about God. He’s not wavering on the one thing that matters—the message.
Paul knew that not everyone would hear. He wrote, “I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” He does not expect that all will be saved, but he’s willing to see the world from someone else’s point of view to help them see God in a life-changing and transforming way. He was willing to let God work through his life in a way that would heal people and make them whole.
The Gospel brings change. The change comes from the Spirit of Christ dwelling within, and it is in Him that we live. In Christ we are more alive than we have ever been, and the breath we breathe is from the Spirit of God Himself. This life leads us to a life of praise and thanksgiving, a like that can’t help but proclaim the message of Grace to the world. The Gospel gives us the power to take the Kingdom of God to those who will hear, and it gives us the power to continue the work of Christ in this world.
We will have to act. We’ll heal our neighbors and cast out their demons. We’ll feed the hungry and clothe the poor. We’ll act for justice and work for peace. But in the midst of these ministries let us never forget that ultimately our purpose is to proclaim the message to all people, so that they too might experience the transforming power of His Word. I might not be needed as a mother in the same way, but that was never really my purpose anyway. Raising my children was just one way that I lived out the work of proclaiming the Gospel which Christ has called me to do. Now I must go to the next town to share the message with others and trust that God will finish the work He began.
“The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh, Leaping upon the mountains, Skipping upon the hills. My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: Behold, he standeth behind our wall; He looketh in at the windows; He glanceth through the lattice. My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past; The rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; The time of the singing of birds is come, And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land; The fig-tree ripeneth her green figs, And the vines are in blossom; They give forth their fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Song of Solomon 2:8-13, ASV
This morning on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a groundhog named Phil proclaimed, “As I look at the crowd on Gobbler’s Knob, many shadows do I see, so six more weeks of winter it must be!” Many people in Texas are joking that perhaps this means we’ll actually get a winter. We don’t ever see winter they way they do in Pennsylvania, but so far our cold months have been very mild. The grass and gardens are confused, putting out fresh new growth; my roses are in full bloom. I’ve had to put on the air conditioning in my car, and I’ve opened the windows of my house to let in fresh air.
I’ve never quite understood why Punxsutawney Phil has been a national icon, since the weather forecast in Pennsylvania has little to do with the forecasts in the south or the west. If Phil were in San Antonio today, it is likely that he would not have seen his shadow. We are covered in a thick layer of fog. I’m not sure we can count on either prediction. The weathermen have a hard enough telling us what the weather will be like tomorrow. How could a groundhog in Pennsylvania possibly know what our weather will be like for the next six weeks?
The idea that a groundhog can predict the weather goes way back to ancient myths around other animals coming out of hibernation. If the animal came out on some specific day to find sunny weather, it took it as a sign that there would be more bad weather. But if it came out of its hibernation to a cloudy day, then it stayed above ground in expectation of spring. The day depended on the environment of its home, but is generally around the same time of year, early February. Christians in Europe associated these ancient myths with Candlemas, which happened to be on February 2. Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple and the recognition by Simeon and Anna of the divine manifestation in the babe Jesus Christ. It is celebrated with the lighting of candles and songs of hope.
Winter may or may not be past, but it doesn’t really matter in the greater scheme of things. What does matter is that God has come, seeking those He loves, bringing forgiveness and healing and transformation. He has come to make all things new. Like the coming of spring, the coming of Christ ensures new life. We might not be able to depend on the prediction of a groundhog, but in God we can have hope and peace. This day we remember the divine presence in the Temple and we look forward to the spring. It will get here when the time is right, just as God comes to us in His time and His way.
“I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:1-5, ASV
I just saw an ad for tonight’s episode of “Kitchen Nightmares.” This show puts chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsey into a dying business to help make it over into something successful. These restaurants are usually heavily in debt and empty on s nightly basis. The owners and chefs have lost their passion, and yet they don’t see the problems. They insist the experience is good for their customers and that everyone loves their food. They can’t understand what is wrong, and they are in such denial that they can’t hear the truth when Gordon points out the problems.
In the hour long program, Gordon teaches the owners and chefs how to run a successful business. He helps them create a better atmosphere, menu and food. He often helps families find forgiveness and peace, healing hurts and rebuilding the trust that has been lost in the midst of the failures. It is interesting to see how Gordon finds and fixes the problems, and then teaches the owners and chefs how to do things right from that moment on. I’m always happy in the end to see a wonderful new restaurant and to hope for their success in the future.
The show is a bit hard to watch, though. Gordon Ramsey is opinionated and harsh. If something is wrong, he won’t walk on eggshells. He is going to tell it like he sees it. This isn’t the hard part for me, though. The most difficult thing is to listen to the owners and chefs continue in their denial. Gordon is there to help them. He only has a week to change things completely, so he can’t waste time letting the people discover their own problems. They’ve had years to do that, and they just don’t see it. Some of them argue with him, and they insist that they are right. They hate Gordon and they hate his ideas. Gordon has to threaten to leave during many of the episodes, drawn back by a sense of duty or compassion, and the pleas of those in the restaurant that know he is right.
Now, I understand that this is reality television and that it is not nearly as unscripted as we might think. I often wonder if the food is really as terrible as Gordon makes it seem. During his initial meal, he sends back just about everything. He pokes and prods at the food, some of which looks horrible. But did it really make him gag? Later on the first day of his visit, Gordon watches the evening meal service. During that time, many of the customers send back their meals. I often wonder if those same customers would be so critical if Gordon Ramsey were not at the restaurant. They might be disappointed, and they may never return, but would they actually complain so loudly if there weren’t television cameras in their faces?
Sadly, the restaurant may not have ever gotten to such a sorry state if the customers had said something before Gordon got there. Instead of leaving unhappy, never to return, an honest word to the chef from multiple customers might have helped them see what they were doing wrong. I wouldn’t want to destroy a business, but if the conditions were bad enough, it might have been helpful to report the restaurant to the Board of Health. A poor score would have forced the owners and the chefs to see the reality and make changes that might have turned everything around.
We do not like to hear we have done something wrong. We do not like to be critiqued on the things we believe we do well. We don’t like to change because of someone else’s opinions. And yet, sometimes they are right. Sometimes we need to change. Sometimes we need to hear the truth so that we will repent. We may not like it, but by listening to the honest opinions of our neighbors, we might just find that we do have something that needs to change. We have a responsibility to help one another. Is someone trying to help you, today? Is someone speaking a hard word of truth into your life that you need to hear?
“But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were enlightened, ye endured a great conflict of sufferings; partly, being made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, becoming partakers with them that were so used. For ye both had compassion on them that were in bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of you possessions, knowing that ye have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one. Cast not away therefore your boldness, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, having done the will of God, ye may receive the promise. For yet a very little while, He that cometh shall come, and shall not tarry. But my righteous one shall live by faith: And if he shrink back, my soul hath no pleasure in him. But we are not of them that shrink back unto perdition; but of them that have faith unto the saving of the soul.” Hebrews 10:32-39, ASV
I have a pair of pants that I like to wear that are just a little too long for me. When I walk, the hem drags a little on the ground. I try to wear those pants when I am not going to be walking outside very much, since I really don’t want the hem to become frayed. I wore them to church yesterday, which wasn’t too bad, but then I ended up doing some shopping in the afternoon. I walked through several parking lots, lots filled with puddles because it has been raining for a few days. The puddles were not avoidable at one store. By the time I got into the store and then back to my car, the bottom of my pants were soaking wet.
The water was cold and it became very uncomfortable. I have to admit that I thought to myself, “It would be nice to have a few days of warm, dry weather. It’s funny how quickly we get tired of the rain, even when we need it so desperately. Of course, according to the numbers we are well above the usual for this year, so some people think that we’ve had enough. However, we have been in such an extreme time of drought that it will take a lot more of this type of rain to overcome. We might be two inches over normal for 2012, but we are still at least a food short, just for the last year.
It can be very depressing to have to deal with dark, cloudy skies and damp weather. As a matter of fact, winter is a terrible time emotionally, for even the most content people. We need the sun to keep us happy and healthy and strong, so when it rains or threatens to rain for weeks at a time, our bodies suffer. Our physical suffering leads to mental and spiritual suffering. We stop seeing the value of the rain and wish it would just stop. We become inconvenienced by the soggy lawns and puddled parking lots. We grow tired of gray skies and the chill in the air. There is nothing we can do about the weather, but we have to persevere through it. The rain is good, as bad as it can seem sometimes; it is restoring the ground and bringing life back in a place where so much has died.
We can all, intelligently, accept that some suffering can be good for us. People who face financial issues learn to live with less. Health issues help us commit to better diets and exercise. Failure makes us try harder or search for something better for us to do. Stories abound of people who have come through suffering stronger and better. There is an saying that states, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” In our minds we know a little rain is necessary and that it will fall, but we grow tired when it happens too long. The same is true of the suffering we face. We might say it is making us stronger, but we can’t help but feel disappointment and despair.
Is it raining at your house? Even worse, is it raining in your life? It is hard to persevere, especially when it seems like the suffering is never going to end. But be reminded that this life is temporary; something greater is waiting for you. Spring is coming and it will be here before you know it. Live by faith, knowing that though God is not causing your suffering, He is able to use it to make you better. Live by faith, knowing that God is faithful.
“For this is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another: not as Cain was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous. Marvel not, brethren, if the world hateth you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him: because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God; and whatsoever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments abideth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.” 1 John 3:11-24, ASV
I read a really sad article today. It was about a man who was discovered dead in his house four years after he committed suicide. This doesn’t seem possible, but extraordinary circumstances made this an unfortunate reality that has happened more times than we might want to know. The man was discovered by a realtor who was preparing a repossessed house. The house might have been left unnoticed for even longer because there was no mortgage, but the taxes were never paid, so eventually the government took ownership of the house. The tax foreclosure process by the government took so long that no one had been inside for four years.
The saddest part of this story is that no one even knew the man was missing. He quit his job and told fellow employees that he was moving out of state. The man had friends and acquaintances that said that he was a smart, generous and funny man, but they also thought he was moving. He was even a father, though he told the mother of his daughter that he didn’t want to have anything to do with her. He may have had family and friends, but he was obviously all alone, because no one even noticed that he was missing.
How could the neighbors not notice the smell that certainly must have been perceptible for at least some time? Why didn’t the mailman wonder why his mail remained in the box for days, weeks, and even months? One day he just stopped delivering the mail, thinking the house was abandoned. Though notices were sent about the taxes and other debts, no one ever found the man or tried to enter the house to see if he was alright.
The neighbors said they thought he had moved. They thought the house was abandoned. They kept the landscape clean and trimmed, but never went into the house. No one could say they him move, but how do you miss that? The house was not out in the country or far from other people; the man lived in a dense neighborhood with other houses nearby. How is it that someone can move without anyone seeing? Did they assume he took nothing with him? Did they think he moved out in the middle of the night? Are they so detached from their neighbors that they never notice people’s coming and going? No one worried when the bills weren’t paid; they just shut off the utilities. One neighbor reported water running from inside the house, so the water company turned off the water, but no one ever went in to see about the damage.
This is a shocking story, and a little frightening. Could I disappear and no one would notice? I doubt that it will ever become a common occurrence, but it is possible that someone else will fall through the cracks. Neighbors don’t want to appear to be snoopy, so we mind our own business. We ignore the comings and goings of our neighbors so that we won’t have to get involved. We might even do like those neighbors—taking care of the outside of the house without caring about the inside—just so it won’t hurt the value of the neighborhood.
Did the friends, neighbors, family, government, utilities, or employer murder the man? Of course not, he committed suicide. But what did they miss in his life that might have changed the course of this story? Something is very wrong if he went undetected lying dead in his house for four years. Something is worse if no one even suspected that something was wrong in his life. They may not have murdered him, but so many people cared too little, leaving him alone. Are we so worried that we’ll be called meddlesome or are we so caught up in our own lives that we miss the needs of our neighbors at the moments they need us most?
Sunday, February 12, 2012, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45
“And being moved with compassion, he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou made clean.” Mark 1:41, ASV
The Old Testament lesson about Naaman’s healing is often seen as a foreshadowing of the healing found in today’s gospel lesson. Yet, there are some very distinct differences between these two healings. Naaman went through the proper channels. He got permission from his own king to go to the foreigners for help. He sought the aid of the king of Israel rather than visiting the prophet. When he did finally make it to the prophet’s house, Elisha did not even see him face to face. Elisha simply said, “Go and do this.” Naaman was offended by the command and refused to do it. His people convinced him to try. Ultimately the credit for the healing belonged to God, but I have to wonder if Naaman ever really understood the truth of it. He confessed faith that the God of Israel is the only God, but even then he tried to pay the prophet for the gift of healing.
Another difference between the two stories is that Naaman was obviously not outcast because of his leprosy. Perhaps his people viewed it differently. Perhaps his skin disease was not the same as that which affected the man in the Gospel story. Whatever the difference, the man in the Gospel story was set apart due to his condition. We don’t know much about the man, but we do know that he was considered unclean by his religion and by his people. He was untouchable. He may have sought healing as was defined in the book of Leviticus; he might have gone to the priest as he was commanded to do. They were obviously unable to help, because the man continued to suffer from the disease.
I think that’s the biggest difference between Naaman and the man. Naaman did not really suffer from his disease. He was a powerful man, successful. He was not set apart from the business of his people. It was an Israeli girl who told him to get healed. She was probably right to do so, since illness left unchecked can eventually leave one disabled. But Naaman was unconcerned until she brought up the idea of being healed. The man in the Gospel needed more than healing. He needed restoration. He needed to be loved, and touched.
The major difference between Naaman and the man is the humility with which they sought the healing. Naaman tried to use his power and influence to get the job done, and expected the prophet to cater to him. The man humble approached Jesus and said, “If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” It was faith that drove him to Jesus. He had heard what Jesus could do, but rather than demand Jesus’ healing, he offered himself to Jesus. “If you choose…” he said. Instead of going from one king to another to a prophet, the man went right to the source of healing and asked for help.
Jesus answered, “I will; be thou made clean.” This was an answer not only to the prayer for healing, but also to the prayer to be restored. The man was now clean. He was acceptable. He would no longer have to be outcast or untouchable.
Who else was there when Jesus encountered the man? He was probably not alone, since He was traveling with the disciples from one village to the next. The leper was probably living on the outskirts of a village, having been exiled by his disease. If Jesus cared about what others thought of Him, He would have performed the healing in a different way. By touching the man, Jesus would have been considered unclean, too. All it would have taken was a word from Jesus and the leprosy would have left the man. But Jesus reached out to the man and touched him. The leprosy left the man immediately and he was healed, but the man also experienced the physical touch of another human being. He was on his way to being made whole again.
But he was not completed restored to the community. Only a priest could make that happen, which is why Jesus sent the man to the priest. Jesus ordered the man to remain silent, to go to the priest and to do what was commanded. Instead of doing what he was told, the man went about the village telling everyone what God had done through Jesus. The man did not follow the protocol, removing the authority and power from the hands of the priests. The situation was likely to get out of control.
Jesus’ popularity was already growing. People had heard about His healing power and authoritative teaching. He had to leave the last village because crowds were arriving with their sick and possessed. He healed many. He was changing lives. Crowds make leaders nervous because crowds are easily swayed. Crowds can be manipulated into a frenzy. It is important to squash rebellion quickly. Though the Jews were waiting anxiously for a Messiah, the leadership knew that any rebellion would be a detriment to their own positions and power. It would not take long for those men to begin plotting against Jesus.
During a conversation about the scripture text this week, one member of the group noticed that in her version of the passage, verse 41a said, “Jesus was indignant.” Other versions say that Jesus was moved with pity, or that he had compassion. The word ‘indignant’ in this context seemed wrong. Was Jesus upset that the man interrupted Him? The overwhelming response to His healing in the synagogue earlier in the chapter made Jesus leave that village to go preach elsewhere. After all, that’s what He was sent to do. But in this story He is confronted by another person who needs healing. Was He indignant because He was tired of fixing the physical problems of the people when there was so much that needed to be fixed spiritually?
Instead, I think Jesus was indignant about the situation in which the man was forced to dwell. The word ‘indignant’ means, “feeling, characterized by, or expressing strong displeasure at something considered unjust, offensive, insulting, or base.” Jesus was indignant because the man was forced to be separated from his family, living outside the village. He did not have access to food or home. He could not experience loving touches or familiar embraces. He could not visit the synagogue or join in social gatherings. He was outcast, and if we look to the story of Naaman, we might wonder if there was good reason to do so. Yes, there are contagious diseases and we need to be careful. But was the man treated rightly? Did the Laws of Moses insist that the lepers be destroyed in the pursuit of protecting the rest of the community?
Jesus touched the man. He did not fear the disease that had sent the man into the outskirts of the village. He did not accept that the man was untouchable. He was indignant because His people had taken something good (the Law) and turned it into something that had no mercy or grace. He showed the people that those who are suffering need compassion and help.
Most of all, however, Jesus’ healing was meant to establish His authority and glorify God with His power. Unfortunately, His amazing touch was bringing all the wrong attention to Him. Jesus could not ignore the needs of those who were suffering, but He knew that it was giving people the wrong perception of Him. They wanted a king who would fix all their brokenness, but He was there to restore them to God.
Jesus was well aware of the power of His message and of the miracles He was doing. He told the leper not to tell anyone, not because He wanted to hide the miraculous work of God, but because He knew that if everything would be destroyed if it built too quickly and with the wrong purpose. The people sought Jesus not for the spirit but for the flesh. They wanted to be physically healed. If it meant listening to a sermon, they would, but they wanted healing. But the man did not listen to Jesus. He went throughout the countryside telling every one of Jesus’ mercy and power. He made it impossible for Jesus to enter into towns and villages. Jesus had to work on the outside. The consequence of the leper’s proclamation was that Jesus was forced to stay out in the countryside. Jesus’ healing restored the man to society, but it cast Him out.
Jesus did not let that stop Him from doing what He was sent to do. This story tells us that Jesus has to withdraw, and it is at the very beginning of the book of Mark. He has not even called all His disciples at this point. But he continued to do the work His Father sent Him to do. I wonder how many times we give up on a task because things aren’t quite going the way we expect. I wonder how many times we let others get in our way. Do we treat people as untouchables because it is expected? Do we allow people to be cast out because we are following some idea of what it means to follow the Law?
We are reminded in the psalm that our God is a God of mercy and grace. His purpose is not to burden us with a heavy set of rules, but gives us the gift of the Law to protect us from ourselves. As we see in these stories, lepers were treated differently in different nations. Isn’t it odd that the foreigners who did not know God were the ones who treated their lepers with grace? But those who supposedly knew God piled heavy burdens of ungraciousness on the backs of those who were suffering. It was good to protect yourself from leprosy, but it wasn’t good to do so in such an extreme way. God does not allow us to remain outside the community. He draws us in and connects us to one another. He transforms us in ways that makes us fit.
Paul writes that we are striving, like an athlete strives to win a race. But our race will not end with a crown that will tarnish. We are working toward that eternal life that Jesus already obtained for us. Paul writes that he punished his body and enslaved it. How could this be what God wants of us? The point Paul is making is not that our work will be the guarantee of our salvation, God is the guarantee. Our striving is pointless unless we keep Jesus in His proper place. He took on our exile, our pain, our loneliness so that we could be restored to the community and made whole. Our response to this grace is to to make everything smaller and put God where He deserves to be. When we trust in God, our burdens will be removed, we’ll be transformed, and we’ll be restored to one another in a way we would never expect.
The psalmist writes, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.” That's what God does; He removes the things from our lives that bring us down and sets us free to live in joy and thanksgiving. It was wonderful that Elisha gave Naaman the words that led to his healing and that Jesus touched the man and set him free from his leprosy, but there was much more to those encounters. Both Naaman and the man confessed faith in God, being saved from death and the grave. But do we accept that grace like Naaman, still trying to pay back God for His gift? Or do we take it like the man, and run from place to place telling others of God’s amazing grace? Do we seek a prize that will tarnish, or so we rejoice in the greater prize?
is all well and good when we are healed from our dis-ease. But it isn’t enough for our flesh to be healed. It isn’t all that God wants for us. He desires that we have everything, which is why He sent Jesus. Jesus is far more than a wonderful teaching, prophet and healer. Jesus is our Savior, the one who touches us so deeply that we are made free from everything that binds us and keeps us from God. He turns our wailing into dancing and He clothes us with His righteousness. How can we stay silent? How can we go on without telling everyone this good news? Thanks to Jesus, we have a crown that will last forever.
“And it came to pass, as he was praying in a certain place, that when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples. And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Father, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we ourselves also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And bring us not into temptation.” Luke 11:1-4, ASV
I am going to confess something: I occasionally buy a lottery ticket. I know it is not a good use of my resources. Thus far it has been a complete waste. I don’t do it very often, just when the jackpot is extremely high. I suppose I would have a greater chance of winning if I bought tickets every time, but then I’d just waste so much more of my money. I remember when I first began buying lottery tickets. I was eighteen and living in Pennsylvania. I bought a ticket every week for nearly three years before I hit winning numbers, only three, but at least I won something. Unfortunately, after a dollar a week, the payout was the lowest ever recorded for that lottery. After nearly three years and $150.00 or so, I won $24.00. Obviously, it didn’t pay to play.
Despite the fact that I lose, I have to admit that the idea of that one lucky moment is intriguing. I can think of a million things to do with the money, not all of them selfish. I’ve had plans to build buildings on college campuses, donate large funds to my favorite charities, and set my children up for a lifetime. My thoughts have not been completely unselfish. I would love to buy a new house, travel with my husband, and perhaps even open a gallery to sell my paintings. In this light, I have another confession to make: I’ve prayed for that winning ticket. I justified the prayers by promising to make good use of the money and to glorify God with the funds.
There is a school of thought out there that all you have to do is positively visualize yourself with anything you want and it will come to you. Some Christians are willing to believe this is reality and justify that belief by pointing to scriptures like Luke 11:9, “Ask and it will be given to you.” But they take that promise out of context. In today’s passage, Jesus is teaching us to pray. In His prayer we see an example of trusting God ahead of our own desires, seeking only what He knows we need.
I will probably continue to buy lottery tickets, and I will probably continue to pray for the winning one, but I know that God will give me exactly what I need. He will provide my daily bread. He has assured my forgiveness. He will reveal Himself and His kingdom through my life. He will guard me from eternal harm. It would be nice to have millions of dollars and it would be such a joy to help so many people with that money, but I will continue to be at peace as I trust that God will meet all my daily needs, including ways to be a blessing with the resources I already have.
“There are many devices in a man's heart; But the counsel of Jehovah, that shall stand.” Proverbs 19:21, ASV
Last night I attended a mixer for local business people. I was there as a ‘performer,’ although I’m not sure that is the best word to use when describing what I did. I was there to paint with several other artists and we worked while the business people mingled with one another and watched us do our work. Several people seemed interested enough that I talked about my painting technique and shared some stories about my paintings. It was a good opportunity for local business people to see my work and take my business card. Perhaps one of them will remember me when they have an art need in the future.
It was fun. I have to admit that I was a little concerned about ‘performing’ while people wandered around me. I don’t paint in a style that is conducive to that type of setting since I tend to layer colors and each layer needs time to dry. I spent time preparing my canvas, taking the painting to a point that would give me plenty to do for the hour or so that we were to perform. It worked out perfectly because I was able to finish the painting, despite the interruptions. It didn’t really matter if I got the painting finished; the whole point of the evening was to meet those business people. Those who spent time with me appreciated the time I took to share my thoughts and my art.
I’m sure everyone has had moments when interruptions are inconvenient. Mothers get interrupted by pesky children when they are business making dinner. Office workers get interrupted by the telephone. School classes get interrupted by announcements from the office. Commuters get interrupted by accidents. Football games get interrupted by injuries. Store clerks get interrupted by customers who need help. In what ways have been interrupted in the work you do?
The other day I was at a craft supply store and I couldn’t find something I needed. I found a worker in an aisle, busy with some sort of inventory. I stood nearby for a moment, waiting until she could look up from her work. I didn’t want to make her lose track of her numbers in what appeared to be very tedious counting. It soon became noticeable that she was ignoring me. She wasn’t so caught up in her work that she didn’t notice; she knew I was there, but she never asked if I needed help. I finally interrupted her work, and though she helped me, she made it obvious that I had inconvenienced her.
I’ve worked in retail, so I know what it is like to be interrupted in the middle of such a tedious task, but the reality is that our job is to take care of the customer’s needs. It did not matter if we had a warehouse full of merchandise that needed to be put on the shelves or if there is a plan-o-gram that needed to be reset, the safety and convenience of the customers was our first duty.
Interruptions give us the opportunity to do what we are meant to do. This is true not only for those store clerks, but for all of us in every aspect of our life. Interruptions make us stop what we are doing and meet the needs of someone else. We might seem inconvenienced, but those interruptions just might be divine appointments with God. Jesus was often interrupted from His ministry by people who needed Him for healing and forgiveness, but He was never inconvenienced. He stopped whatever it was that He was doing to touch them, speak to them, and share God’s grace with them. He even interrupted His life to die on the cross for our sake.
We are here to worship God and to glorify Him in this world. We might have a million other things to do, but we will be interrupted in the middle of those tasks. How can we take advantage of those interruptions? Are they opportunities to share a kind word or say a prayer? Do you have a chance to speak a word of grace or tell them about God because someone has stopped you in the middle of some task? The next time you are interrupted, stop and respond: that person might just be there according to God’s good and perfect purpose.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.” John 3:16-17, ASV
What does it mean to love? Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and the stores are filled with gift ideas for your favorite valentine. From candy to flowers to diamonds or even cars, the secular and commercial world is prepared to give you ways to define love. There is certainly a place for romantic love’ there is certainly a place for showing love to our spouses, children and other beloved family and friends. I loved the valentine tradition of giving penny valentines to classmates in elementary school, and I do love getting a red heart box filled with nutty chocolates.
It is interesting to ask this question about what it means to love on the day before Valentine’s Day. It is the saint day for Catherine dei Ricci. Now, if Catherine lived today, she would be considered foolish, possibly even mentally ill. She would be ridiculed and perhaps even imprisoned in a mental hospital for her own safety. See, Catherine was a Dominican nun who lived in the sixteenth century. During Lent in 1542, Catherine meditated intensely on the passion of Jesus, and in doing so became extremely ill. She was ill until she had a vision of the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene who healed her. From that year until 1554, Catherine experienced the crucifixion of Jesus from Maundy Thursday until Good Friday, suffering the same pains Jesus experienced in a miraculous and mystical trance. The next day, Catherine returned to her normal work.
She was not thought to be mentally unstable or foolish. As a matter of fact, her fellow sisters elected her to prioress and she managed the convent well. She was humbled by the gift of this vision, and never considered it something about which she should boast. As a matter of fact, after twelve years she begged God to stop sending the vision so that the sisters could live in peace. She wasn’t bothered by the physical effects of the vision, but her experience drew pilgrims to watch that took the sisters away from the ministry. God answered their prayers and Catherine stopped receiving the visions in 1554.
What does it mean to love? We see the answer not in the life of Catherine, but in the reality of what Jesus did for us. She was given the gift of experiencing His pain, but we do not need to re-enact the suffering of Jesus to see how much He loved us. We know His love because He did what God sent Him to do: He died to bridge the gap between us and our God. He took our sin upon His shoulders to that we might receive the grace of God. He accepted God’s wrath so that we will inherit eternal life. That’s what it means to love, but it is a love which we human beings are incapable of sharing. We can only thank and praise God for it. We can only receive it, cherish it, and tell others about it so that they too might know the grace of God.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; For thy love is better than wine. Thine oils have a goodly fragrance; Thy name is as oil poured forth; Therefore do the virgins love thee. Draw me; we will run after thee: The king hath brought me into his chambers; We will be glad and rejoice in thee; We will make mention of thy love more than of wine: Rightly do they love thee.” Song of Solomon 1:2-4, ASV
Once we understand that love begins with God and that all the love we experience is centered in His grace, we can look at the love we have for one another. Romantic love, familiar love, love of friends and even the love of our enemies is founded in the love He first gave us. Once we put God first, everything else falls into place. The trouble is that we tend to put everything else before God and we get lost in those things. When we get lost in the love of our romances, families, friends and even our enemies, our love becomes twisted and unreal.
I once knew an unmarried woman who refused to read the book of Song of Solomon, because the sexual inferences were so strong that she preferred to avoid lustful feelings it produced in her flesh. She said she would gladly read it when she was married. She knew that the text was often interpreted to be an allegory about Christ and His Church, but that understanding was not enough to keep her from seeing it in a very human way. Ironically, her impression of the text is likely to be the more realistic interpretation of Song of Solomon. Set into the context of the scriptures and parallels about love, the book of Song of Solomon is a witness that God’s grace is even found within a romantic relationship. Wisdom and love are gifts from God, and those gifts will always make every relationship better.
Today is Valentine’s Day. We might think that as Christians we should not fall into the foolishness of passionate, crazy love. Flowery words and romantic gestures seem so worldly. Talk of kisses and private encounters seems so carnal that it is unworthy of the Christian mind. But even love—romantic, crazy love—is a gift from God and is better when it is centered in the love He has for us.
The NIV Study Bible notes that the Song of Solomon belongs to the Biblical wisdom literature and that this understanding, “…views the Song as a linked chain of lyrics depicting love in all its spontaneity, beauty, power and exclusiveness—experienced in its varied moments of separation and intimacy, anguish and ectasy, tension and contentment. The Song shares with the love poetry of many cultures its extensive use of highly sensuous and suggestive imagery drawn from nature.”
So, on this Valentine’s Day, let us first remember the lesson of love in yesterday’s message, that God so loved the world that He gave us Jesus, wholly and perfectly, so that we would have eternal life. And then let us live in that love wholly and perfectly within even the romantic and passionate relationships with those whom God has given us. For God’s grace is found even in the intimacy of a romantic relationship. And while my friend may be right that this scripture is given for those who are blessed with a spouse, we should not avoid the reality that God has gifted us everything, including our carnal pleasures. As we keep Him as the foundation of even those relations, they will never become worldly or vulgar, but will glorify God.
Sunday, February 19, 2012, Transfiguration: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that perish.” 2 Corinthians 4:3, ASV
For the past few weeks we have been following Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus at the beginning of His ministry. We saw Him call His first disciples, drive out an evil spirit, heal many people (including Simon’s mother-in-law), pray alone and move on to other towns to preach the Kingdom of God. Elijah was a foreshadowing of Jesus; he did many of the same things and experienced many of the same sufferings. Jesus was not the return of Elijah, but Elijah provided God’s people with a revelation of the Christ so that they would recognize Him when He came.
There were also many parallels between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus. Both Moses and Jesus had extraordinary infancy stories, with intrigues and danger. Both faced the possibility of death commanded by a king; both survived by being hidden. All three—Jesus, Moses and Elijah—provided food for the hungry, water for the thirsty and hope for all God’s people. They all offered the promises of God: Moses through the Law, Elijah through prophecy and Jesus through His life. That’s why it is so appropriate that Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop.
We begin this week’s texts with the assumption of Elijah, when the chariot of God came to take him away in a whirlwind. In this story, we see Elijah and Elisha traveling through the prophetic communities of Israel so that Elijah can say good-bye. All along the way, Elijah told Elisha to stop following him. “I have to go one.” But Elisha refused to leave his master. All along the way the prophets told Elisha that he was about to lose his master. Nothing stopped Elisha; he was determined to follow Elijah every step of the way. Elijah was prepared to take this journey alone, but Elisha would not leave him.
This must have been a frightening time for Elisha. Was he ready to take on the responsibilities of being God’s prophet? Being a prophet was not a pleasant job, especially if the word God speaks is unpopular. Elisha knew that he would experience persecution and threats, but he also knew that it was where he belonged. He did not allow any fear to keep him from doing what he was called to do. At the end of the journey, Elijah and Elisha found themselves at the Jordan River. While this is the story of the passing of Elijah’s authority to Elisha, Elijah’s story is the one that matters today. Elijah was taken up into heaven suddenly in a fiery chariot, the sign of God’s blessing on Elisha’s ministry, and it is for this reason many believe that Elijah will return.
The Old Testament lesson takes us on a journey where Moses was never allowed to tread. Due to his own failings, Moses never entered into the Promised Land. Instead, the Hebrews were led across the Jordan River by Joshua as Moses watched from a hilltop. Then he died and God buried him in Moab. Joshua took the Hebrews through the Jordan, through Jericho, through Bethel to Gilgal where they were circumcised. All those who had left Egypt that had been properly circumcised had died in the desert. There, at Gilgal, Joshua restored the people to the covenant between God and His people by circumcising all the men. Elijah followed that same route, only returning to the very place that the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. On a mountain nearby, Moses died after watching the people cross into the promise. There are some who believe that Jesus was baptized in the same area of the Jordan.
These parallels are more than mere coincidences; they show us that God’s hand was guiding each chosen one into the fulfillment of all His plans. And so we see, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the glorification of Jesus. He was lifted up, placed in between the two greatest men of Israel and established as the One who brings it all together. It is in Christ that the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled. It is through Jesus that God has finally made all things right again. Of course, the transfiguration is not the end of Jesus’ ministry; it was truly just the beginning. From that moment, Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.
It might seem odd that we spent so much time on chapter one of Mark, and now we’ve jumped to chapter nine. Mark uses a literary technique called “bookending.” He says something, then later says something relating back to that first thought. Everything in between defines and explains the bookmarks. For the past few weeks, we’ve seen the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and today we see the beginning of the end. In the beginning of Mark, God is heard saying, “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.” In today’s passage, God says, “This is my beloved Son: hear ye him.”
In the beginning of Mark, God spoke to Jesus, gave Him the authority and the encouragement to do what He was sent to do. In today’s passage, God told the disciples to listen to Him. The words were meant for their ears. In between, Jesus did many wonderful things, miraculous things. He healed people and fed large crowds. His works were powerful proof of His identity, but as He drew closer to the cross it was important that those who believed listen and learn so that they could continue His work.
We live in a world with many voices screaming at us with opinions on blogs, on television shows, in print. Everyone is an expert, or at least thinks they are. Words are twisted and truth is sometimes very hard to find. It is hard to know to whom we should listen. Which one is right? Who is telling the truth? What is truth? God tells us what to do: “Listen to Jesus.” I,m not sure it is that easy, because there are so many voices trying to tell us what Jesus meant, and they rarely agree. But we can listen. We can pray. We can do our best to live as God calls us to live, serving Him with our hearts and our hands and our voices, knowing that God is faithful and that He is more powerful than our failure.
The epistle lesson is probably included in today’s texts because it speaks about the story of Moses. When Moses met God on the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, he came back glowing with an eerie light, a reflection of the glory of God. It bothered those who saw it because it was unnatural. It was a reminder of how unworthy they were to stand in the presence of holiness, how God was powerful. They thought they could not hear God’s voice or they would die. Moses was all that holy; he was human, with human foibles and faults. But Moses had seen God’s face and did not die. He had heard God’s voice and he lived. He was the one to whom God gave the Law. When Moses had that glow, he wore a veil to hide the glory because the people were uncomfortable looking upon his face. It was their fear that made them avoid experiencing God’s presence.
We aren’t much different than the Israelites. None of us want to be the prophet. None of us want to be the one to do the hard work with God. Even Peter, James and John were also afraid when they were confronted by the reality of God’s magnificence. They, like the Israelites and modern day Christians, wanted control. In their fear they tried to make God fit into their comfort zone. Peter responded by suggesting a building project. Do we respond to God in the same way?
Paul writes, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that perish.” Like the people who refused to see God’s glory on the face of Jesus, those who are ruled by sin and death refuse to see God’s hand in the world. They prefer to let God be veiled, to hear God’s Word from other people. They prefer to believe what sounds good to them rather than hear what God really has to say. Jesus came to speak God’s words in a new way, to cause God’s people to see Him as He is, not as the voices of His day had twisted them.
Not everyone hears Jesus. Paul knew this. He recognized that there were those in opposition to his ministry. They accused him of manipulation and lies. Those accusing him were those who ministered out of self interest, commending themselves so that they might gain positions of status and influence. They refused to admit, or even see, that they were the ones playing games. They cared nothing for the Gospel or Christ, but only for themselves. To them, there was no glory on the cross. To them, the truth was veiled. They could not see because they were blinded by the god of this world. They were also blinded by their own fears and their own desires.
Paul writes, “Seeing it is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ was a moment of glory, more magnificent than the whirlwind that took Elijah to heaven or the glory that shone from Moses’ face. It might have seemed like that was the culmination of Jesus’ work. But it was merely the beginning of what was to come. Jesus was about to speak a strange and wonderful word into their lives, a frightening reality that included death.
The reality of God is frightening. The psalmist writes, “Our God cometh, and doth not keep silence: A fire devoureth before him, And it is very tempestuous round about him.” Moses experienced the bush that burned without burning. Elijah was taken to heaven in a flaming chariot. This is how God revealed His presence to the Law and the Prophets. God revealed the reality of Jesus to Peter, James and John on the top of the mountain. In the presence of Moses and Elijah, Jesus was transfigured into one covered in glory, and God spoke the words we are called to hear today. “This is my beloved Son: hear ye him.”
The Word often falls onto deaf ears, but that does not mean God is less powerful or Jesus any less authoritative. The god of this world continues to blind those who would prefer to keep the truth and glory veiled. But we need not fear the presence of God or the consequences of telling His story. He has called us into this relationship, invited us to experience His glory and then follow Him into the valley to do His work. It is frightening, but as we join Jesus on the journey to the cross, we need not live in fear. God goes with us, and He has assured us that He has the power to fulfill His promises. He can make it happen, and He does. We might not think we are ready to take on the mantle of responsibility, but God blesses those who have faith. Moses trusted God. Elijah and Elisha trusted God. Peter, James and John trusted God. Jesus trusted God. Now we are called to trust God, too, to follow Him wherever He leads and to listen to Him above all the other voices.
“And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. And when his friends heard it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. And the scribes that came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and, By the prince of the demons casteth he out the demons. And he called them unto him, and said unto them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan hath rise up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end. But no one can enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house. Verily I say unto you, All their sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and their blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: but whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin: because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.” Mark 3:20-30, ASV
I read an article in “Reader’s Digest” that asked the question, “Are you normal or nuts?” They asked readers to write about their greatest fears and asked experts to determine whether or not those readers were normal or nuts. The questions included problems with memory, anxiety and stress. One wondered if her mother was a hoarder another was worried about everything she read. The experts agreed that nearly all of the problems were normal. The one that was questionable was the hoarder and was only problematic if it began to interfere with the mother’s life.
A side box with the article showed how it is positive to be a little crazy. Certain behaviors in moderation are actually virtues. They, like the hoarding, only become problematic when they interfere with life. For example: people with obsessive compulsive behavior are actually very hardworking and diligent. They make excellent accountants and business managers. Asperger Syndrome is a problem because it causes social awkwardness, but those who have the syndrome are focused and do very well in math, science and technology because it makes sense in their brains.
We often put the label of “nuts” on people who do things that we do not understand. The daughter was worried about her mother because she found stacks of paper towel tubes in her basement. When she asked her mother why she was saving them, her mother did not know. Now, if that daughter watches any of the hoarder or organization shows, she might automatically assume her mother has a problem. Perhaps she does, but my first thought was that perhaps that mother read an announcement in her church’s newsletter about a need for paper towel tubes for an upcoming project, but then when she began saving the tubes forgot who was meant to get them. Instead of throwing them away, the mother might have just thought she should keep them until she found the announcement or heard another one. Instead of insisting something was wrong and begging the mother to throw them away, the daughter could have suggested a good use for them and given the mother an opportunity to do something good with her collection.
It is good to be concerned about those we love, and the tube collection could easily turn into a house full of things the mother just couldn’t throw away. However, we have to understand that our diagnosis might not be right. We can’t assume someone is nuts just because they have some personality quirk we do not understand. It is up to us to find a way to graciously help that person if they need help and to love that person even if we think they are crazy.
We look at the life of Jesus and wonder how the people could have ever thought He was out of His mind. We know that He was doing something new and different for a reason, that He’d been sent by God to change the way God was known and understood. Yet how would we react if Jesus were amongst us today? Would we know that He was really doing God’s work or would we think He was beside Himself? Would we worry that His words and His actions were a sign that something was seriously wrong? What about our friends? Do we see their faith as something virtuous, or do we think they are out of their mind with their talk of God? Do we ever deny the power and work of the Holy Spirit because we think the person is crazy?
“Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I came forth and am come from God; for neither have I come of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and standeth not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof. But because I say the truth, ye believe me not. Which of you convicteth me of sin? If I say truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth the words of God: for this cause ye hear them not, because ye are not of God.” John 8:42-47, ASV
On the television show “How I Met Your Mother,” the character Barney uses every possible technique to catch the girl. He is willing to lie, cheat and steal if it will advance his cause. His prey is usually a gullible and ditsy blonde who will fall for anything. In one technique, Barney approaches a girl with a smart phone as if she should recognize him. He is surprised when she doesn’t have a clue. He gives her a name and then walks away for a moment. She quickly looks him up on the internet, only to discover several websites describing his incredible life. She’s so impressed by what she sees, she readily follows him anywhere.
Of course, the websites are false. He has put them together just for this scam. News reports of his exploits are from fake news organizations. Photos were created in Photoshop. The entire character is fiction, but she’s drawn into what she believes to be reality.
It is easy to be fooled. I have to admit that I’ve fallen for news stories that were posted on satiric websites. As a matter of fact, a discussion group recently had a lengthy discussion about a story that was posted that was not real. The problem is that the story provided fodder for discussion about a very real problem. Though the solution in the article was fiction, it was an option that several people in the discussion thought might actually be the answer to a question many have asked. We were reminded several times that the article is fake, but the discussion went on because we saw some value in the foolishness.
I discovered the latest interesting use of false websites this week. There is an advertisement for a car company in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. The picture in the ad shows a shiny new car with a beautiful girl standing nearby. Well, you have to assume she is beautiful because you can’t see her face. She’s sexy, though, wearing a tiny bikini that matches the color of the car. Sex has sold automobiles for a long time, and I don’t see that changing. The car company has simply decided that you do not need to know the girl; it is enough to see parts of her.
The ad identifies the girl, and a quick internet search finds a website for this swimsuit model. This website is set up with a portfolio of her pictures. Every single one was with a car from that company. And you cannot see her face in any of the photos. The website has no information. It has no links to administrators or email. There is no biography or tour information, just pictures of parts of her with cars. The website is there to give credence to a woman who is not real.
The internet is just a new tool in a very old game. Satan was twisting the truth in the beginning and he continues to do so in every generation. We must not believe everything we see or hear. We must be especially careful when listening to those who claim to speak about the things of faith, because Satan continues to twist God’s word in and through the work of people who are either willing or unaware of the falsehood. So, listen for God’s voice and test every word against what you know to be true. Does the word line up with the whole revelation of God? Does the word glorify God or does it put human agenda, desires and opinions first?
“Jesus said unto him, If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. But when the young man heard the saying, he went away sorrowful; for he was one that had great possessions. And Jesus said unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And when the disciples heard it, they were astonished exceedingly, saying, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them said to them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. Then answered Peter and said unto him, Lo, we have left all, and followed thee; what then shall we have? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that ye who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life. But many shall be last that are first; and first that are last.” Matthew 19:21-30, ASV
We cleaned the pantry this weekend. Now, I’ve cleaned the pantry in the years we’ve lived here, but never to the extent that we did it this weekend. I checked every can and container of food for expiration date and put them onto piles. Outdated cans went in a garbage bag, soon to expire cans that I don’t think I can use in the next few months went into a bag for a food bank and the food we will use went back on the shelf. I made a bag or two of superfluous paper products to donate to a preschool and added some items to be donated to the thrift shop. I didn’t get rid of everything, but I did manage to create a lot of room in my pantry. And it has never looked so clean.
The sad part of this exercise was that some of the products on my shelf were really old. I know I’ve gone through the cans on a regular basis, but somehow some of them have been missed year after year. Sadly, I found one can that was out of date before we even moved to Texas. That means that I moved an out of date item and put it on my shelf, and ignored it for eight years. Talk about carrying unnecessary baggage!
It seems hard to believe, but Wednesday is the first day of Lent. I’ve heard stories over the past few days about Mardi Gras and I couldn’t figure out why they were celebrating already. And yet, here we are to Ash Wednesday in a couple of days. It is time to think about the journey to the cross, to think about how we will engage with Christ along the way. In ancient, and perhaps some not so ancient times, this past weekend would be spent cleaning out the pantry, removing the forbidden foods from the household stock, the cooks would have spent time preparing things for Shrove Tuesday (tomorrow) to use up that flour and sugar and other foodstuff that they would not need for nearly two months. That’s what Mardi Gras is all about: getting rid of baggage.
I’ve heard several different interpretations of today’s story, but the one I like the most has to do with a gate in Jerusalem. It is said that the Eye of the Needle was a small gate, large enough for someone to walk through but not much larger. A camel could be led through it but not heavily laden, so the guide must remove all the baggage and lay it on the ground, lead the camel through, and then put the baggage back on its back. This wise saying is spoken in response to the question of the rich young man. His burden was his wealth and everything that goes with it. We might interpret his disappointment with greed, but wealth comes with responsibility. There were people who relied on him and his wealth. Could he sell everything and walk away from them, too?
So, while there might be reason to look at this story only from the point of view that the rich will not get into heaven, to me the point is that we should go through the door unburdened. We all carry burdens; they are just different for each of us. The rich man’s burden was the responsibility of his wealth. What is yours?
Now, the purpose of the camel is to carry the burden so it is necessary to put all that baggage back on his back. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could lay all our stuff down and never pick it up again? I suppose that’s my focus for this Lent: not only laying down those burdens that make it difficult to get through the gate, but also leaving them behind. What do I have that I do not need? What do I do that isn’t good for me? What habits would best be left behind? What fears do I carry? What sins need repentance? What grudges need grace? We carry a lot of baggage with us, baggage that isn’t even visible to others. Like that expired can of whatever, we need to clean out our closet and get rid of it because it is worthless and makes our journey heavier.
“Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of Jehovah shall by thy rearward. Then shalt thou call, and Jehovah will answer; thou shalt cry, and he will say, Here I am.” Isaiah 58:6-9a
Lent is often a time when people repent of their New Year’s failures. They choose now to go on that diet, to give up the food that they know is bad for them. They choose now to give up soda or coffee or cigarettes. But Lenten fasting is not meant to be a time of dieting; fasting is a spiritual discipline that brings us closer to God. While the question today and tomorrow might be, “What are you giving up for Lent?” a better question would be, “What are you going to do to glorify God during Lent?”
I remember when I was a kid we used to get a small cardboard box at the beginning of Lent in which we were meant to put our pennies. At the end of Lent, we gave the box as an offering in Sunday School. It was a lesson in sacrifice and commitment. I have to admit that I don’t recall being dedicated to the process, daily adding to the coins in the box, but I do remember the feeling I had the day I returned that box each year. I don’t know how to describe it, but there was a sort of holiness about it, and a sense of accomplishment. It was somehow right to give that little (relatively insignificant) box to God. I don’t recall my childhood friends talking about giving something up for Lent. That didn’t come until I was a little older.
Fasting is a good thing, a powerful spiritual discipline that can transform you body and soul, but God does not necessarily ask us to give up the things we love. When God calls for a fast, He calls for us to make things right. It is probably a good idea to give up coffee for two months, but what does that do for God’s Kingdom on earth? Instead of giving up coffee, you can choose to use the money you would use to buy that coffee to give an offering to a food bank. How will giving up video games glorify God? Instead of just committing to the discipline of avoiding that wasted time, you can choose to do something productive with that time? Instead of giving something up, perhaps we should choose a more positive fasting, a fasting of doing something right rather than giving up something wrong.
When we are living rightly the wrong simply disappears. A commitment to a volunteer job means less time available to be wasted. The money in a Lenten box is unavailable to purchase the luxuries that we want but certainly do not need. Time spent in fellowship with others, serving them and sharing the Gospel of grace, is time that can’t be spent focused on the satisfaction of selfish desires. So, during this Lent let’s focus on fasting in a positive way, fasting as God commanded by doing what is right rather than giving up what we think might be wrong. As we do, we’ll see God’s grace in a very real way and His hand in the answers to our prayers.
Sunday, February 26, 2012, First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
“And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” Genesis 9:16, ASV
I’ve seen a lot of rainbows in my time. They were a rare treat growing up in Pennsylvania, due to the landscape and the buildings around where I lived, but other places have proven to be conducive for producing the beautiful phenomenon. In England they became so common that I stopped taking pictures. Every picture looked the same because the scenery around the rainbows never changed. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing them, though. Rainbows are beautiful and surprising; you never know when one will appear.
There are three rainbows that will always be memorable to me. I recall driving down one of those tiny English roads shortly after a shower had passed through. The sun was shining on the other side and a rainbow appeared. It was so close to my car that it actually tinted the color of the house that was just behind it. I could see where it touched the ground, and I think that if I’d been able to park and walk across the field, I could have found the end of the rainbow. I doubt I would have found a pot of gold, but I was sure impressed by incredible nearness of God that day.
The second was in California. I don’t recall why we were driving, but we were out on one of those long straight roads in the middle of the state, surrounded by nothingness. A shower passed north of us and the sun was able to pierce through the rain. The rainbow that was created was extraordinary: a full double bow that was so bright it seemed solid. It lasted for a very long time, and though I knew it was far away, I was certain that we would drive right through it eventually.
The third was also in California. We were at church for a special event; I don’t even recall what it was. Everyone was outside on the lawn for some reason. It had just rained and a rainbow appeared over the church. I had my camera along to take pictures of the event, and I managed to get a picture of the rainbow with the cross on the top of the church. I’ve always loved that picture: a remembrance of the two great promises of God.
We are beginning a journey that will lead us to see the fulfillment of all God’s promises. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts until Holy Week, Good Friday, and then Easter. Lent is a time of examination, to consider the reality of who we are and what we have done. It is a time of repentance and renewal. It is a time to look at God, to see Him from the reality of our imperfections and to realize just how magnificent He is. The Old Testament scriptures we will follow for the next few weeks focus on the great promises of God.
This week we recall the promise given to Noah that God will never again destroy the entire world with a flood. The story of Noah is so familiar that I wonder if we even listen to it anymore. We know the delightful children’s version, with cute animals on a charming little boat and old man Noah taking care of them.
The story was told in a modern way in “Evan Almighty” with Steve Carrell as the Noah-like character. In that story, the cute animals even helped build the ark. Despite its cuteness, the movie had a certain realism about it. Evan ran into all sorts of problems while building his ark. It wasn’t a sweet experience. It was hard work. He was ridiculed. The animals became annoying. In the end, the flood did not destroy everything, but the ark served to save many people who were in danger when a dam broke.
Were Noah’s animals cute and cuddly, happily living together side by side, predator next to prey? I’m sure it wasn’t. While God would have interceded in this miraculous experience, Noah still had to deal with many animals in a small, enclosed space. The animals needed to eat. They had to be cleaned. They needed fresh hay and clean water. The people on board had to deal with the messiness of life.
Imagine what it must have been like on that boat. Some animals would have birthed young, so the cozy space would have quickly filled up with extra animals. The smell must have been suffocating. The work of caring for so many animals would have been exhausting. It rained without end for weeks. There was nothing to see but water. When the water disappeared, what would have been left? The only survivors were Noah, his wife, his sons, their wives and a boat load of animals. It would take time for the earth to be restored, for the trees to grow and for the flowers to bloom. I wonder if there was ever a time when Noah might have thought it would have been better to drown with everyone else.
Noah was blessed to be the first to see the rainbow and to hear the words of the promise. But Noah, who had a special relationship with God, failed to live rightly even after experiencing the hand of God in such a miraculous way. That’s why God had to keep making promises. Despite His grace, humankind continued to sin. But God did not stop loving His people, and repeatedly promised that He would be with them, that He would take care of them, and that He would bless them.
Our inability to live up to the expectations of our God is exactly why the fulfillment of the promises was dependant on Jesus. He was just like us, but He was different. He was human in every sense of the word, and yet He did not sin. On this first Sunday of Lent we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Mark doesn’t give us much detail; his report is so short about the wilderness journey that we include verses we’ve read, or will read, at other times this year. The scripture for today could be two short verses, Mark 1:12-13. “And straightway the Spirit driveth him forth into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.”
It is interesting that the word used here describing how Jesus ended up in the wilderness is the same word that is used when Jesus drives out the demons. This is not something Jesus chooses to do. He is forced into the wilderness. Mark does not show us how Jesus was tempted or how Jesus overcame. He simply says that Jesus was tempted by Satan. This was a time of testing for Jesus, a time of isolation from all human contact. In Mark’s version of the story, He was with the wild animals and angels waited on Him. When I picture the temptation story, I think of Jesus wandering around in the desert, with only rocks and dust around Him. Yet, Mark shows Him in the presence of animals and angels.
A commentary suggests that Jesus with the wild animals identifies Jesus with Adam, who was alone with all the animals before God created Eve. I wonder if we can also indentify Jesus with Noah, who was not alone with the wild animals, but who spent forty days with them in the rain. Of course, in the text we see Jesus coming through baptism, which Peter connects to the flood. We notice, too, that Jesus is waited on by the angels, who are there to provide for and protect Jesus. In Mark’s version, Jesus wasn’t alone, although we know that He wasn’t alone anyway because God was with Him.
Why would the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness the way Jesus drove demons from people? Why would God make Jesus spend forty days isolated and tempted? There are times God tests us. Jesus wasn't given a choice; this was a necessary part of His journey. Satan was given free rein to tempt Jesus, and according to the other versions of this story, Satan did try to get Jesus to turn from God. Was Noah tempted? Was he tempted to give up building the ark when he was persecuted and ridiculed? Was he tempted to open the doors and let his neighbors board the ark when the rain began to fall? Was he tempted to throw any of those animals overboard when they were annoying him? If he is anything like me, I’m sure he thought about all those things. God did not make disobedience a possibility for Noah, though. Jesus, like us, had free will and could have said yes to any of the temptations, but He stood firm. When Satan tempted Him, He remained true to God.
We are tempted daily, and Lent is a time for us to recognize this reality. Lent is a time for us to journey through our own wilderness. What does that look like for you? Do you see yourself isolated, perhaps more like my image of the temptation of Jesus from the other gospel writers? Or do you see yourself hanging with wild animals and angels? Do you know that even in the wilderness God is with you? God had a plan from the beginning of time. There was no way for human life to redeem themselves, no sacrifice good enough to repay our debts. Human repentance would never be enough to restore our relationship with God after our sinfulness. There was only one way to fulfill all the promises of God: Jesus.
In today’s scripture we see the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, the beloved Son of God, was sent to fulfill God’s promises, to restore the relationship between God and His creation. Jesus was baptized and tempted, fully identifying with the people to whom He came to save. During the wilderness journey, Jesus overcame the twisted expectations of Satan and the world, setting His feet on the road to overcoming even death and the grave. Peter wrote, “Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18a)
God did not disregard those who had perished in the flood. Peter tells us that God waited patiently while Noah built the boat, but then He saved only the eight: Noah, his wife, sons and daughters-in-law. The others did not obey and were drowned, but they were not forgotten. When Jesus died in the flesh, He went to preach to those spirits imprisoned in death before the coming salvation that is found in Christ. Though Noah may have warned the people of the coming flood, the people repaid him with persecution and jokes. Yet, there was hope for them even as they were swallowed by the flood waters. Noah and his ark were not meant to save all people, but to prefigure that which was to come. The flood was followed by baptism.
We look at the rainbow and remember that God has promised that He will never destroy all the earth with a flood; when it seems like there will be no end to the rain we can live in the hope of that promise. I love rainbows, and I love what rainbows stand for, but in Christ we live with an even greater promise. It is the promise of salvation, of forgiveness, of wholeness and eternal life. Noah was righteous in the eyes of God; he walked with God in times when men were far from God. Yet, even Noah failed to live as God demanded. Even worse, he did not know salvation as we do in Christ. His hope lasted a lifetime, but our hope is eternal. God established a new world after the flood. He established a new Kingdom in Jesus. The cross is a sign that there is reason to have hope: our journey in the wilderness will end and we will forever dwell with Jesus in the presence of our God.
Jesus suffered for all; He suffered for Noah and for all those who were lost in the flood. He suffered for you and for your non-Christian neighbor. In this we see that there is hope in Jesus’ name and in His baptism for anyone. Even today as we look at those around us who seem to be disobedient to God’s Word, we can know that there is hope for them.
Peter writes, “…which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ; who is one the right hand of God, having gone into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.” It isn’t the water that saves us. Water is yet another sign of God’s grace. Salvation comes to us because we have faith in the One who rejected the temptations of Satan and went forth to die on the cross. It is His blood that cleanses us from our sin.
God makes promises and He keeps them. I think it is interesting that though we see the rainbow and remember, the sign was put there for His sake. God says, “And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” The rainbow reminds Him of His promise, and He has been faithful.
As we enter into the journey of Lent, let us remember that Jesus now sits at the right hand of God, forever a reminder of His promise to us in baptism. God is faithful. No matter what we face in our wilderness, God is with us. He may drive us out there to be tested, but He does not leave us alone. And at the end of the journey, when we have finally passed through death into eternal life, we’ll see what comes of those who humble themselves and follow, trusting in His grace every step of the way.
“For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die. But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8, ASV
I decided to clean my oven today. I have to admit that this is a job that I do not do often enough. Housekeeping is not my strong suit. Now, I’ve always tried to clean up the major spills, but there are years worth of splatters on the walls. I’ve been thinking about using the clean cycle for a long time, but I was not sure what would happen since I had never done it. I knew it would take a long time, and I knew I should make sure that I would be home for the entire cycle. I often thought about it too late in the day and I worried that it would interfere with cooking meals. I had a million excuses.
I thought about it early in the morning today, so decided now was the time. I took out the racks, figured out how to set the oven to clean and then let it go. Almost immediately I knew that I was in for an interesting time. The smell and heat was intense. See, a self-cleaning oven works by heating the inside to extraordinarily hot temperatures, like 900 degrees. It literally burns the dirt off the walls which are made especially for this function. At the end I should have a pile of ash on the bottom to wipe out and my oven will be ready for use. By using the self-cleaning function, you don’t use harsh chemicals that can be harmful.
Even though I didn’t use chemicals, this morning could have been very uncomfortable in the house. Fortunately, today has started off to be a very nice day. The temperature is warm, the sky is sunny, and I have been able to open the windows for some fresh air. I turned on the fan above the stove, but it would not have been enough. I needed to be able to open the windows. I’ve been putting off this task for way too long, but today was just the right time.
Yesterday we heard the text from Genesis about the covenant between God and Noah, and we heard Peter’s report about Jesus going to preach to the ‘spirits in prison,’ including those who were lost in the great flood. Now, the time between Noah and Jesus is estimated at approximately 2000 years, although there is no way to determine the exact amount. Two thousand years is a long time. Why would God make anyone, even those who were disobedient, wait for so long to hear His saving Word? Why did He wait two thousand years, allowing His people to wander and disobey over and over and over again, before He sent Jesus to finish everything? Why did Jesus come in that day, in that place, for those people?
Paul tells us that Jesus came at exactly the right time. We may never really understand why turn of the millennia Jerusalem was the right time and place, but we can trust that God knew exactly what He was doing. We can trust that what He has done is sufficient to overcome the disobedience of those who died two thousand years before He came and those of us who live two thousand years later. He still comes at just the right time for each of us, speaking His saving Word into our hearts and our lives so that we will be made clean.
“Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom also we have had our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand; and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we also rejoice in our tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh stedfastness; and stedfastness, approvedness; and approvedness, hope: and hope putteth not to shame; because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us.” Romans 5:1-5, ASV
I like to be in control. I like things done in a particular way. I like to know that the outcome will be exactly what I expect. The easiest way to make this happen is to do it myself. If I allow someone else to do it, and it is not right, then I have to do it all over again. I’d rather just do it right the first time. Over the years, I’ve learned to delegate the tasks necessary to complete the work I do, but it is still hard to let go.
God comes at just the right time, but human tendency is to make things happen on our schedule. We want control. We want to trust God, but we tend to trust ourselves even more. What if God doesn’t do it the way we want? What if God doesn’t answer our prayers with the answer we think is best? Isn’t it easier to just make our own outcomes happen instead of waiting for God to do it wrong?
Now, some people make God answer prayers by putting themselves into a position where God has to answer. He has promised to care for His people, to do good and to ensure their well-being. There are those who prefer to live a miserable life, truly believing that God will intercede for them. They even use scriptures like this one today to show how it is a good Christian discipline to pursue suffering. People fast, not for the spiritual blessing it can bring but because it brings them pain. There are even those who physically abuse their body, claiming it is a spiritual discipline.
But God does not want us to suffer. He does not call us to pursue pain. He does not demand that we destroy our flesh or our lives in any way. He simply asks us to be patient through the times when we do face suffering until the time when He will make everything right. Faith means trusting God and giving Him control. Faith means letting go of our own wants so that God can do what really needs to be done. Yes, we are called to bear with suffering, and in persevering through the tough times we’ll be blessed with character, hope and contentment. We might think that God’s answer to our prayers will be a disappointment because He doesn’t do what we want, but the reality is that in God’s answers we’ll find true peace.
“It is of Jehovah’s lovingkindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. Jehovah is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. Jehovah is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Jehovah. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” Lamentations 3:22-27, ASV
I went to the zoo the other day. I love to visit the zoo, to watch the animals and to take pictures. I usually try to do something new with my camera each time, or the pictures would begin to look the same. One day I used only the black and white setting. On another occasion I used only one particular lens. Naturally no day is the same with live creatures, the animals act differently depending on the weather and time of day. Some are also affected by the crowds. There are also changes happening around our zoo as they renovate some habitats and expand to new property. I noticed some animals were moved to new habitats while others were moved to new zoos. I even discovered a few new animals on this trip.
My main goal this week was to take Flat Stanley for a friend of mine. If you haven’t heard, Flat Stanley is a character in a children’s book. Something happened that made him flat, so he has to learn to live life like a cardboard cut-out. He takes advantage of his flatness by slipping through doors and playing funny games. He can also be sent in an envelope to visit friends. My Flat Stanley comes to me from Indiana, and I hope to take him to many exciting places in the next few weeks. I took his picture with some of the animals while we were at the zoo.
I also spent a long time during this visit with the flamingos. I love the flamingos; they are one of my favorite animals. They are so fascinating to watch, and the colors of their feathers make extraordinary photos. I love the lines created by their long necks when they are standing in a group. Their legs are intriguing, too. Their ‘knees’ bend backwards, so when kneeling their feet are in front of their bodies. And their legs are so thing and scraggly, it seems impossible that they could hold up such a large bird.
During a previous visit to the zoo, I watched the flamingos do a dance that is apparently part of their mating rituals. This dance involves the whole group and happens randomly. All of a sudden, the birds run to one particular place and begin to squawk. Then they turn their heads from side to side. Eventually this dance becomes such a frenzy that some of the birds crouch and flap their wings. It stops almost as suddenly as it starts and they go back to doing what they do, which is usually preening or sleeping. I decided to take my video camera on this trip to the zoo because I wanted to try to get this funny dance on video. It would make you laugh as much as it makes me laugh.
So, I stood by the flamingos and waited patiently. I took some video of them doing what they do, which was preening and sleeping, and I wondered if I would see the dance. All of a sudden, some of the birds moved into the large area of the habitat and started the dance. I aimed my camera, turned it on and videotaped the whole thing. After a couple minutes I noticed that my video camera was off. I was mad at myself because I thought I hit the wrong button or something, so I turned it back on, hit record and took more video. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that my battery had died, and on those two occasions I only got a few seconds of video.
I had fresh batteries, so I went back to the flamingos at the end of my visit and tried again. Unfortunately, late in the afternoon was apparently the wrong time for the dance. They squawked occasionally, and I saw one or two birds doing the head thing, but the group was more involved in bathing than mating. It was still fascinating to watch as they splashed in the water, flapped their wings and preened every single feather on their bodies. Unfortunately, the video was not quite as interesting or funny. I took almost an hour’s worth of video, and I might have found a few minutes by putting together bits and pieces, but it wasn’t the outcome I’d hoped for when I began my visit.
We do not always succeed at what we do. Sometimes our timing is off or we do not have the right resources. This is as true in our spiritual work as it is our everyday life. We might find ourselves with the perfect opportunity to share Christ, but something goes terribly wrong. I once had the chance to share the Gospel with a group of postal workers, but I became tongue tied and I let the opening pass. I’ve stumbled over words or said the wrong thing. I’ve ignored the needs of my neighbor or showed up at the wrong time. But when it comes to the work of God, we might think we are failing, but God does not fail. Though we do not accomplish what we plan, but we can expect that God will be faithful.
“But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils, and in theirs synagogues they will scourge you; yea and before governors and kings shall ye be brought for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.” Matthew 10:17-20, ASV
I spent the night out of town. Since it was only going to be an overnight trip, I didn’t bother to take my laptop along. I knew that I would be able to use a computer at the home where I was staying, and I wasn’t going to have much time to play anyway. At the end of the evening I asked to borrow her computer for a few minutes. I went into my email provider and tried to log in. Unfortunately, I could not remember my password. I tried a couple possibilities, but they didn’t work, and since I didn’t want to be locked out of my account, I let it go.
Passwords are important, but often problematic. Most sites that require password protection have started to recommend using a more complicated series of characters. Gone are the days when you could just use your birth date or even your favorite pet’s name. Gone are the days when 1234 are acceptable passwords. Most websites now want you to use not only letters and numbers, but capitals and smalls and even other characters. I could not make one password without using all of the above. It is no wonder that it is impossible to remember.
It doesn’t help that I’m able to save some of my passwords on my computer, so that the programs remember them for me. Then all I have to do is hit enter, and I’m in the site. I don’t have to type the weird combinations over and over again until I remember them. Many of us never have to worry about whether or not we’ll be able to get into these websites because our computers do it for us.
We use passwords to protect us from the bad guys who want to steal our identities and everything that goes with it. The reason why most websites are demanding such complicated passwords is because the crooks are much better at breaking our code. If it is just a word, a simple dictionary program might find it for them. If it is an important date, a calendar program might find it for them. But if our passwords have multiple characters and weird patterns, it is much harder for them to discover, and they move on to the person who still uses his middle name.
I don’t know if any of us will face the persecution that those first Christians had to face. I don’t know if any of us will ever have to face the authorities or to speak a testimony in front of them. I don’t know if it smart to speak up against the authorities, but I do know that if we are in a position to stand firmly in the faith that God has given to us, then He will stand firmly with us and provide us with everything we need, even the password to the Kingdom of God for those willing to listen.
Sunday, March 4, 2012, Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
“Ye that fear Jehovah, praise him; All ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; And stand in awe of him, all ye the seed of Israel.” Psalm 22:23, ASV
The basketball team did great in a regional tournament and was invited to the state semifinals. Unfortunately, they could not attend the game because it was on a Friday evening and the boys were all orthodox Jews. They could not participate and observe Shabbat, so they decided to stand firm in their faith, letting go of their opportunity to win a state championship. One of the commentators on the article was incensed that some Jews demand that the world revolve around them. Yes, the team asked the committee to change the date of the game, but when the request was rejected, they accepted the decision. Though they were disappointed, they willingly chose their faith over the chance to win a title.
Would a Christian basketball team be as faithful if the game were scheduled on a Sunday? Now, in these modern times we are not forced to be in church on a Sunday morning. We know that grace does not demand attendance. But do we know that the boys on that basketball team are going because they are forced? Or does their commitment to their faith make it impossible to disobey? They don’t ‘have’ to be there because someone is forcing them, but because their spirit draws them into worship and fellowship with others of similar faith.
Christians are more likely to think, “Yeah, I feel bad that I’m not there, but it doesn’t really matter.” This might be true, but that feeling in the pit of your stomach is not necessarily some sense of guilt laid on you by the Law, but the knowledge of the reality that by choosing someone of the world you are rejecting God. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. Christ died for you, and your eternal life is not dependent on perfect attendance at church. But there may come a time in your life when the choice does matter, when the decision to chase after the worldly prize is forfeiting their true life.
We do not understand what it means to face persecution for our faith. Even that basketball team hasn’t really suffered in any way. However, there are more news stories today than we’ve seen for a long while questioning the very wisdom of faithful living. However you feel about the current debates, the question we ask today is at one point do we stand up for what we believe against the expectations and demands of society? The issues might seem unimportant, but what happens tomorrow when the demands go even further? At what point does it matter? At what point are we willing to be obedient to God?
Peter knew what he wanted: he wanted Jesus to lead them for a long time, to perhaps even sit on a throne and take the nation into a new golden era like that of Solomon. He certainly did not want, or expect, Jesus to die. Even if he understood that the leaders would reject Jesus, he didn’t want the idea of sacrifice to get around. “Be quiet, Jesus, let’s not talk about it.” He didn’t want to know what was going to happen. He didn’t want to accept the reality or deal with it at that moment. “Let’s put that off until another day,” he might have been thinking.
It is easy to see Jesus in the role of master, teacher, rabbi and friend. It is easy to accept Him as brother and to listen when He speaks about taking care of those in need and loving one another. It is much harder to deal with the cross. Dying on the cross is failure! Dying at the hands of those in control is a loss. The world loves a winner, and those willing to give up the possibility of the title or crown are losers. But is that title or crown worthwhile if you reject God’s will for your life? Is that popularity worthwhile if you turn your back on your God?
Living in faith makes us different. The Old Testament story tells us of the moment when Abram becomes Abraham. We see in this text another great promise of God. Here God promises Abram that he will be the father of many nations. In other words, through Abram’s faith that believers inherit, God will be the God of the gentiles as well as the Israelites.
Abram’s name is then changed to Abraham and Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. The Hebrew letter which is inserted into these names to make these changes is the letter Hei, which is often used as a name for God. It is also thought to represent breath or spirit. So, by adding this letter to both Abraham and Sarah’s name, God becomes part of their entire existence; He is part of their name and part of their life. His Spirit is added to theirs. Our names are not changed, but at our baptism we receive that same breath, that same spirit. At our baptism, we receive the same faith as Abraham: we become one of Abraham’s offspring. The promise given to Abraham is given to us also. God becomes part of our entire existence.
Think about that: God becomes part of our every day. He is part of our successes and our failures. He is part of our virtuous and faithful life and He is part of our sinful life. We don’t want the people we love to see us at our worst, but God is in the midst of it. He is a longsuffering, forgiving God. He sent Jesus to die for our sake, even to forgive us for the unforgiveable. But at what point does our selfishness and self-centeredness send us walking away from God? We might not want to think about this, preferring to trust in God’s grace, but isn’t this exactly what Lent is about? Isn’t this journey a reality check about how we deny and reject Christ every day with the choices we make, even those that even seem like they matter?
When we become followers of Christ, He expects us to deny ourselves. That might just mean giving up the chance for a title or a crown for His sake. It might mean speaking unpopular words or losing friendships. It might mean facing actually suffering and perhaps even martyrdom. This doesn’t seem possible in our modern world, but people still die for their faith; Christians still suffer for Christ’s sake.
Peter had great plans for Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he knew Jesus was the Messiah and he had everything figured out. He thought Jesus would go to Jerusalem to win the prize, to gain the title and the crown. But Jesus knew that God’s plans were different. When Jesus began to speak about death and the cross, Peter took Him aside and rebuked Him. Then Jesus rebuked Peter. “Get thee behind me, Satan; for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus was not calling Peter Satan, but Peter was trying to make God fulfill his own plans, which is exactly what Satan tempts us to do every day. Satan tried to tempt Jesus to turn away from God and go a different way in the wilderness. Satan tried to get Jesus to build a huge ministry, to be that king, to do miraculous things, but the path of God was to the cross.
In today’s scripture, Satan is back, not in the form of Peter, but in the attitudes and expectations of the disciples. Jesus faced rejection all the time, but in this story it is coming from His closest circle. Satan is no longer working with demons and strangers; Satan is in the hearts of the believers. To truly follow Jesus, however, we have to accept His way of fulfilling the covenants of God. We might think we have a better way, but we don’t. God’s way sometimes means living our life for His sake: giving up the things we love and refusing to do that which keeps us from doing what He wants us to do.
Death was not just part of what would happen to Jesus, but He warned the disciples that they also must be prepared to give up their own lives. Following Jesus meant death; it meant taking up their own crosses and following Him. It means the same for us. We try to define our crosses by those things we have to suffer, saying that every illness or rejection is “My cross to bear.” But taking up our cross is more. It is rejecting the expectations of the world to do what God calls us to. It is giving up the life we want to live for the life He has given us.
Peter rebuked Jesus for teaching them that the Son must die. He was afraid. What would they do? They would be alone without Jesus, without His wisdom and authority. They could not go on, because who would follow a dead king? Jesus answered, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter is not Satan, but Satan was standing in Peter’s way. He could not see the truth through this earthly focus. Notice that Jesus turns to face the other disciples and then rebukes Peter. This simple action put Peter behind Jesus. “Follow me,” He says. The path does not lead to a title or a crown, it leads to the cross.
Not every suffering is a cross we are called to bear. We face testing and temptation every day, decisions we have to make. What is the difference between the two? Testing will lead us to Christ, but temptation will lead us away. We may never have to choose between church and the big game, but every decision we make will either lead us toward the cross or away. Some of those decisions may not seem to matter, but they do matter if they lead you away from the life God has called you to live.
The promise to Abraham was ridiculous. How could a nearly hundred year old man because the father of anyone, let alone multitudes? Yet, Abraham believed. The promise we have been given is far easier to believe: forgiveness and eternal life. Yet, how many of us believe it so deeply that we are willing to lose our lives for it? Paul wrote, “…yet, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God…” Abraham might have had doubts, but he did not waver. We rarely have doubts, but we waver every day. We choose our own path; we choose to turn our back on God’s plan to do what we think is right.
We are reminded in this story not only of the promise, but also that God changed Abraham and Sarah’s names. Their new names were a sign that this was not for them to do, but to believe. God not only promised to fulfill the covenant, but He also promised to be with them always. They did not have to make it happen in their own way. They did not have to rush God’s plan. They simply had to believe and live in faith. With the new names, God became a part of their being, just as He does for us at our baptism. Abraham never saw the fulfillment of the promise; he did not see the Promised Land for Himself. But Abraham gave glory to God and his faith grew stronger.
We might be disappointed when we are faced with those tough decisions. We might be ridiculed or rejected when we choose to stand firm in our faith. We might suffer even death for the sake of the Gospel. But with every decision we make to continue following Christ wherever He might lead, we’ll find ourselves filled with even more faith and courage and peace. We will feel like we truly are a son of Abraham, part of a Kingdom that will never end. The cross we bear along the journey may seem hard, but we do not carry it alone. God is always with us and He is faithful. We have every reason to praise Him for He is our God.