Welcome to the February 2014 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, February 2014
“Then Jonah prayed unto Jehovah his God out of the fish's belly. And he said, I called by reason of mine affliction unto Jehovah, And he answered me; Out of the belly of Sheol cried I, And thou heardest my voice. For thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, And the flood was round about me; All thy waves and thy billows passed over me. And I said, I am cast out from before thine eyes; Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; The deep was round about me; The weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed upon me for ever: Yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit, O Jehovah my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Jehovah; And my prayer came in unto thee, into thy holy temple. They that regard lying vanities Forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation is of Jehovah. And Jehovah spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” Jonah 2:1-10, ASV
Memory is a funny thing. Most of us, especially those of us who are getting older, often have those moments of memory lapse. We go to a room to get something and forget by the time we get there. We want to tell someone a joke and forget a key part of the story. The words we want to use is on the tips of our tongues, but we just can’t make that word manifest vocally. We struggle to remember details as we tell the stories of our life. “What was the name of that restaurant we love? What street did we live on in that town? What was the name of that girl that used to come over to play?” We often have to work very hard to remember.
Then there are other times when the memories come flowing without our trying. Unfortunately, many of those memories are ones we’d rather forget. We remember our most embarrassing moments. We remember the argument we had with an old friend. We remember something we were supposed to do and forgot. I seem to remember the most ridiculous things just as I am about to fall asleep and then my brain refuses to let go of the thought. I’ve lost too many hours of sleep to those unwelcome remembrances in the middle of the night.
There are multiple definitions of the word “remember,” but the American Heritage Dictionary lists two very different and yet the same idea as the most common definition: “to recall to the mind with effort, think of again” or “to recall or become aware of suddenly or spontaneously.” Both ways of remembering are dependent on the thought or idea already being in one’s head, but one takes work and the other comes out of the blue. Those of us who forget why we’ve walked into that room know what it is like to try to remember something, and those of us who are kept awake by our thoughts in the middle of the night know what it is like to remember spontaneously.
Jonah prays, “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Jehovah.” This is one of those cases when spontaneously remembering is good, but wouldn’t it have been better if Jonah had made the effort to remember that God is a good and gracious God, and done what he was called and sent to do? Then again, would we have done any differently? I don’t think I would have wanted to go into the city of my enemy and tell them that God loves them. I might just have jumped on that ship going in the wrong direction, too.
We are so much like Jonah. We spontaneously remember our God when we are in the midst of trouble. We pray for God’s help when our own souls faint within us. The thoughts of God come to us because we have faith. We believe that God can help us. God’s grace is written on our hearts. So, when we need it, we spontaneously remember Him and seek Him. This is good.
What is better, however, is for us to make the effort to constantly remember that God is with us, so that we can make right decisions on the questions that will affect both our lives and our calling. We are human and we will forget. We study and pray so that our knowledge of God grows and His word is readily available when we need it most, because it is written on our hearts and is waiting on our tongues. Like in Jonah’s story, it will come to us when we need it most. Let us, however, make every effort to remember God always so that we will not turn from God and end up in the belly of a big fish.
“These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, and perfect in his generations: Noah walked with God. And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is how thou shalt make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A light shalt thou make to the ark, and to a cubit shalt thou finish it upward; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it. And I, behold, I do bring the flood of waters upon this earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is in the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with thee; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female. Of the birds after their kind, and of the cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive. And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them. Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he. And Jehovah said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation.” Genesis 6:9-7:1, ASV
Have you ever asked a child what they want to be when they grow up? The answers are amazing and wonderful. Children have such high hopes. They want to astronauts or ballerinas or presidents or doctors. You will rarely find a child saying that they want to be an accountant or a tollbooth operator. Some might answer that they want to work at McDonald’s, but I doubt it is because they feel that the work would be exciting and meaningful. They just love McDonald’s and think they would get to eat as many burgers and fries as they want.
We ask children this question because we want them to dream high. We want them to reach for the stars. And, if in the course of their life, they begin to show some aptitude toward that kind of work, we can help them make the decisions necessary so that they will be qualified to do so. Mothers enroll children in dance classes so that they will begin from an early age to learn how to move and become disciplined so that they can succeed. We encourage our children to join after school activities and organizations to have experiences that will ultimately help them with their careers. A position on the Student Council will help them if they want to have a career in politics or government. Math camp is great for the kid who has an aptitude for math. School counselors encourage those kids who will do well in college to take classes in high school that will prepare them. In the end, those children who have been encouraged and gently guided will have a more complete resume the day they go out looking for their dream job.
See, you can’t be a ballerina if you haven’t learned to dance. You can’t be an astronaut if you do not know about space. Every job comes with a description of requirements. Some jobs, like McDonald’s, do not require much besides a good attitude and a reliable mode of transportation to work. Other jobs require special degrees and certifications. Companies want their employees to have certain experience and talents. I’ve heard it said that in today’s job market, all it takes is the right word, or the wrong word, on a resume and the human resources person will accept or reject an applicant. In some cases, they do not even read the application; they have computer programs that weed out unwanted applicants and they only read the resumes of those who get through.
Today’s scripture is a job description. The applicant is Noah; it is unlikely that any child would have wanted to have a job like his. It is unlikely that any person has all the qualifications to do that job. Think about what he needed to know to build a ship, keep it afloat, collect the animals (male and female), and care for them. He needed to be a carpenter, shipbuilder, logistics manager, zoo keeper, doctor, nutritionist, weatherman, etc. While there might be some people who have a wide range of knowledge and talents, I don’t think anyone would ever have the resume that would qualify them for Noah’s job today.
But today’s passage bookends the job description with the only qualification that God required: Noah was righteous. Now, we often read the word righteous and we think that means that Noah was a good man, that he was perfect, that he did everything right. But the first verse tells us what it means to be righteous: Noah walked with God.
What does the Christian job description look like? What requirements are needed on a person’s resume to become a follower of Jesus? Do we need to be good or perfect? Do we need to have the bible memorized? Do we need to refuse to do certain things in this world or are we expected to have accomplished anything specific? There are many who think that they have to wait until they have everything right before they join a Christian fellowship. They think need enough money so they can donate to the church. They think they have to understand the deep spiritual concepts of faith. They think they have to stop being sinners and become saints before they even walk through the door.
But God invites us into His presence so that He can do His work in and through our lives. Noah did the work, but He didn’t do it alone. God helped. We don’t need a resume to apply to be part of God’s Kingdom. He gives us everything we need to do His work in this world. We are not righteous because we have all the right qualifications, but because we walk with God. He’s looking for people who love Him, who believe in Him. And the best part of this is that He loves us first and gives us the faith so that we can be His. He helps us walk in His ways and fulfill His purpose for us in this world.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 9, 2014, Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 58:3-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20
“Ye are the salt of the earth…” Matthew 5:13a, ASV
Did you know that only about 6% of the salt produced around the world is used for food? More salt is used to condition water (12%) and de-ice highways (8%). Another 6% is used in agriculture and a whopping 68% is used in manufacturing and industrial processes. Did you know that they use salt to make PVC, plastic and paper? It is also used to make aluminum, soap, rubber and pottery. It is used in to drill, to tan hides and to dye fabric. It is also used as a preservative.
There are many different types of salt. It used to be easy to buy salt at the grocery store, since there was usually just a few choices. Now you have to decide what type of salt you want. You can buy regular table salt, but there are other possibilities. Kosher salt is used for all types of cooking and contains no additives, so it has a better flavor. Sea salt comes in coarse to be used in cooking or flaky for use at the table. Fleur de Sel is a specialty salt, and is considered the caviar of salt. It is used at the table for a wonderfully melt in your mouth experience of saltiness. Pickling salt is used for preservation. Rock salt is used in making ice cream and can be handy on these icy winter days.
Salt is no longer just white; you can buy salts that are red, pink or black. It comes in coarse and fine. It can be cheap or you can spend a fortune on it. Each type of salt has a specific purpose, some are added during cooking and others are designed to enhance the flavor at the table. Salt does add a salty flavor, but it is also used to enhance the other flavors of food. Salt controls yeast growth in bread so that it will rise properly. A little salt on a margarita makes the tequila pop and it suppresses the bitter flavors.
I’m sure we could talk for hours about the qualities and purposes of salt. We know that too much salt is not good for our health; it leads to heart disease and stroke. I don’t use much salt in my house, a practice that would quickly get me kicked off most of the cooking shows. The judges are constantly complaining about the lack of salt. I don’t avoid salt completely, but I use it sparingly, because we get so much salt in so much of our foods these days. I found it interesting that animal products have a naturally higher salt content than plant products. We can’t live without salt altogether, it is a necessary part of our diet. We just have to learn how to balance our need for salt and how we get it.
Salt has always had a spiritual or religious dimension, too. Salt is often found on an altar or is used in ritual. Salt is used to ward off demons or to honor gods. According to some, salt is one of the four blessings from heaven, which included fire, water, iron and salt. Salt is the center of some ideas about hospitality. In ancient religions, the value of salt made the offering a covenant between people. If someone at the salt at your table, they became your responsibility while you were in their home. You had to protect them from any harm.
You didn’t know salt was so important, did you? It is hard to put such a high value on a commodity that we can purchase so cheaply and that we use so unsparingly. After all, how could something we just throw on the roads to melt ice be so valuable that the use of it at the dinner table offers a promise of protection and good will? In some places salt was so valuable that it was minted into coins and used to pay soldiers. As a matter of fact, that’s how we get the phrase, “He is worth his salt” and the term “salary.” It is interesting that salt comes from both land and sea, some harvested by evaporation and others through mining.
I came across all these facts about salt because I typed in the question, “Does salt really lose its saltiness?” This is a question that often comes up during bible studies focusing on today’s Gospel text. After all, I’ve never known salt to lose its flavor. According to my research, this is true. Salt is a very stable chemical, and it is only by a chemical reaction that it can lose its saltiness. However, it has been discovered that some salt, especially that which is harvested from marshes along the seashore, can lose its saltiness when it is in contact with the ground or is exposed to rain and sun. It isn’t that the salt itself loses its saltiness, but that the salt is contaminated with impurities collected with it. It is likely that this is what happened to the salt that they would have eaten in Jesus’ day, as their salt generally came from the shore of the Dead Sea.
There are dozens of websites trying to explain what Jesus meant when He told the disciples that they are the salt of the earth. They knew the importance of salt, its rarity, its significance, its value. They also knew that if salt were left drying too long on the side of the sea, it would be useless. It was not only useless, but also hazardous. They could not keep this salt in the house because the impurities might be harmful, and they could not throw it into the fields or gardens because it would wreak havoc on the growth of the plants. It was not just tasteless; it was dangerous, and good only to be trampled underfoot, so it was thrown into the streets.
We do not understand these words as they might have because we don’t usually throw our salt into the street, and when we do it serves an important purpose. Those who have had to walk on ice covered sidewalks are thankful that the salt can make it a little easier and safer. The same is not true of the salt to which Jesus refers.
Jesus is warning the disciples that they have a purpose and that they should not wait around too long before they go out to do that work. See, we are tempted to wait too long. We want to be ready. We want to have all the information. We need to be smarter. We need to know the scriptures better. We need to overcome our sins. We think we need to be perfect to go out into the world to share the Gospel message, but Jesus warns the disciples that if they wait too long they will no longer be of value. While they are trying to make things right in their own lives, they succumb to cares and worries of the world. Or they fall for the temptations that abound. Or they conform to the ways of the world around them. These are the impurities that make us, as salt, worthless.
In the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, God is addressing the cries of His people, who think they are doing everything right and deserve to be blessed. Unfortunately, they did not see that their worship was false. Their worship was not God-pleasing, but was manipulative and man centered. They fasted, but they exploited their workers. They humbled themselves, but their fasting ended in hypocritical religious activity. God says, “Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul?”
See, they thought that it was enough to go through the religious motions and then go on to do what they wanted in their daily lives. They thought it was alright to cheat or hurt their neighbors if they repented with the right rituals. It is no wonder that God did not hear their prayers. He calls us to be merciful, to be just, to be compassionate and generous. He calls us to sacrifice from the heart, not the flesh. God cannot be manipulated, and too many people then and now think that if they just appear to be faithful, then God will bless them. God sees behind our masks; His grace is not a reward for good works. He looks to the heart.
Jesus says, “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Too many people are confused by the word righteousness. The world thinks it means being good, doing good things. Like those in Isaiah’s day, they think being righteous is doing all the right religious practices. “I fasted, so I deserve to be blessed.” The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were the same. “I keep the Law, so I deserve to be blessed.” Today people work so hard to be right with God, and never realize that the things they are doing will never make them right with Him. We can’t work our way into righteousness: that’s called self-righteousness.
The righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is manifest in the person who is in a relationship with Jesus. That’s what it means to be righteous: in a right relationship with God. The people in Isaiah’s time were acting righteous, but they were not in that right relationship. They were going through the religious motions while ignoring what God was calling them to do in the world. The same is true of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, and in the religious lives of so many today. The Gospel lesson tells us what it would mean to be a Christian once Jesus fulfilled the Law. The question is, “What is our focus?” Unfortunately, when our focus is on being good or righteous, we tend to do things that will manipulate man and God. God desires the kind of fasting that will glorify Him.
I worked in management at a large retail company a long time ago. We had to go to the distribution center as part of our training program. A distribution center is a place where merchandise is received, sorted, divided and released very quickly. Merchandise arrives constantly on trucks, which come from the port or from local manufacturers. There are always trucks in the bays with employees unloading merchandise. Meanwhile, in another set of bays, there are trucks constantly arriving to take the merchandise out to the stores. As the items arrive, they are sorted and immediately loaded onto new trucks. Most of the merchandise does not stay in the warehouse more than a few days. For a food service distribution centre, it is even more important for quick turnover. The food cannot sit in a warehouse for days because it will get stale or moldy and then be worthless to the company. Merchandise is worthless in a warehouse. It must be distributed.
A bible study leader once asked, “Are you a banker or a distribution centre?” In other words, when you receive gifts from your heavenly Father, do you hold on to them or do you send them right back out? An item is not nearly as valuable sitting in a warehouse as it is being sold in a store. A loaf of bread will perish if it is not offered for sale quickly enough. So it is with our gifts. Withheld from the world, our gifts our useless. Everything we have and everything we are should be shared generously. That’s how we, as salt, flavor the world.
Paul writes, “Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged.” It doesn’t make sense to our natural man to live the Christian life. We want to follow rules and earn our reward. We want to get what we deserve. We think we are entitled to God’s blessings because we are righteous. So we do what we do to earn our place in God’s kingdom. However, we can never earn our place; we can’t manipulate God into giving us what we want. Righteousness is not a matter of works; it is a matter of heart.
Paul is not referring to the spiritual man as being non-religious as many tend to understand it today. Paul is talking about those who are focused on God, who live lives that glorify Him. The man who lives by faith will live according to God’s Word, doing what God calls us to do, living the life of discipleship. The spiritual man is the one who lives the Christ-centered life, who has the mind of Christ.
The whole message of Christ, the message of forgiveness and mercy, is beyond our vision. The idea of God the Father giving His Son for our sake is just crazy. Why would an all powerful God do that? Why would He have to? Though there are still things about the spiritual realm that we do not fully understand, we have a wisdom that is greater than anything in the world because we have a connection to the source of all wisdom. The Spirit of God dwells in our hearts and reveals to us that which God would have us know. We no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit. We are no longer uncertain, but have confidence in the promises of God. We don’t live in darkness, but in the Light. We aren’t worthless salt good only to be trampled underfoot, but we are the salt that will enhance and flavor the world.
“Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! That with an iron pen and lead They were graven in the rock for ever! But as for me I know that my Redeemer liveth, And at last he will stand up upon the earth: And after my skin, even this body , is destroyed, Then without my flesh shall I see God; Whom I, even I, shall see, on my side, And mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger. My heart is consumed within me.” Job 19:23-27, ASV
Job had it all. He was prosperous with a wonderful family. The book of Job tells us that he was blameless and upright, feared God and shunned evil. He was living the high life and it was said that anyone who did business with Job was blessed. The prologue of the book also tells us that Job was so concerned with his family that he made sacrificial offerings for the sake of his children, to redeem them from any sin they may have committed that would bring curse upon their lives.
The book of Job then tells a story about how Satan accused Job of loving God only because he was prosperous and living the high life. “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan charged that God was protecting Job so that he would never really know what it is to be afraid in the midst of suffering and pain. God allowed Satan to take away Job’s blessings until Job was left with nothing, not even his health. The story goes on to be a conversation between Job and three friends, discussing the reasons why these curses have come to Job’s life. Though Job never comes out and accuses God of injustice, he protests about his suffering and questions why God would allow this to happen.
There are as many interpretations of this story as there are theologians who think about it. Some suggest that Job was a real, historical figure, and there are even places that claim to have been the place of Job’s trial. There are three places that claim to have the grave of Job. Some rabbinic scholars have suggested that Job was actually one of the three advisors that were consulted by Pharaoh when it appeared that the Hebrews were growing too large (story found in the Talmud.) One advisor suggested that Pharaoh kill all the Hebrew babies, another said he should not harm them at all. Job keeps silent even though he knows that Pharaoh should not do this evil thing. It is thought by these scholars that God allowed the suffering of Job because of his silence.
We see Job as an example of perseverance in the midst of suffering. In the end, God responded to Job and his friends, reminding them that He is God. Job realizes that he is not worthy to even answer God’s questions. God restores Job and blesses him. Though Job seems on the verge of faithlessness throughout the book, on the verge of rejecting God altogether, somehow he stands firm in his faith despite his pain. Both Ezekiel and James lift up Job as examples of righteous living and perseverance.
Journalist William Safire summarized the legacy of Job in his book “The First Dissident”: “If the Book of Job reaches across two and a half millennia to teach anything to men and women who consider themselves normal, decent human beings, it is this: Human beings are sure to wander in ignorance and to fall into error, and it is better — more righteous in the eyes of God — for them to react by questioning rather than accepting. Confronted with inexplicable injustice, it is better to be irate than resigned.”
While I don’t suggest that we sit around with our friends accusing God of being unfair when we are in the midst of difficulty, I think there’s something to be said about Safire’s summary. We can easily fall into despair and just let the world defeat us completely. That is certainly what Satan wanted from Job. He wanted Job to reject God. But even when Job was at his lowest, he still said that words that we find in today’s passage. Even if he questioned God, he still believed.
“I know my redeemer lives…” Who among us have suffered such complete and horrific disaster in our lives? Can we say these words when we are having trouble finding a job or paying our bills? Can we say them when suffer the loss of our loved ones? Can we say it when we are dealing with dis-ease? We can cry out to God in our pain. We can even ask “Why?” God can handle our response to the difficulties of life; He is strong enough to stand up to our accusations. But let us always hold on to the truth that Job learned: we are not worthy of the grace that God so lovingly and mercifully heaps upon us. Let us especially remember at those times when it seems like God is absent from our world the most important thing: He is our Redeemer and He lives!
“Give ear to my words, O Jehovah, Consider my meditation. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God; For unto thee do I pray. O Jehovah, in the morning shalt thou hear my voice; In the morning will I order my prayer unto thee, and will keep watch. For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: Evil shall not sojourn with thee. The arrogant shall not stand in thy sight: Thou hatest all workers of iniquity. Thou wilt destroy them that speak lies: Jehovah abhorreth the blood-thirsty and deceitful man. But as for me, in the abundance of thy lovingkindness will I come into thy house: In thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple. Lead me, O Jehovah, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; Make thy way straight before my face. For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; Their inward part is very wickedness; Their throat is an open sepulchre; They flatter with their tongue. Hold them guilty, O God; Let them fall by their own counsels; Thrust them out in the multitude of their transgressions; For they have rebelled against thee. But let all those that take refuge in thee rejoice, Let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: Let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee. For thou wilt bless the righteous; O Jehovah, thou wilt compass him with favor as with a shield.” Psalm 5 (ASV)
The Olympics have begun, and even though the opening ceremony is not until this evening, many of the athletes are already at work on the slopes, rinks and other fields of play. These young athletes have worked very hard to get to the Olympics; they have practiced and lived disciplined lives so that they can be at their best during the next few weeks. They practice for hours every day, listening to their coaches and following programs that include practices that are best for the body, mind and spirit. They are committed to their sport and each one hopes to leave Russia with medals around their necks.
For every one of those athletes that have worked hard and are now competing in Sochi, there are thousands of people who think they are good, but who have not put their heart or their energy into anything. These armchair athletes will spend the next few weeks judging the Olympians by their failures even though they have never had the discipline to win at even the lowest levels of competition. Oh, they’ll say that the athletes are there by luck, or that they are naturally gifted, and there might be some truth to those claims. However, none of those athletes in Sochi got there without hard work and dedication.
They also wouldn’t be there without the people who have helped them along: their parents, their coaches, their fans. The people who surround them have always been there in their successes and their failures, to offer encouragement, advice and accountability. I’m sure life wasn’t always happy for the athletes. Frustration can make someone want to give up; parents, coaches and fans can be difficult when they are disappointed with a loss. Despite those difficult times, the supportive friends and family who surround an athlete are like a refuge for them.
We might not have the talent or the luck of those Olympic athletes, but there are reasons why we, too, should be disciplined. We can’t be good at our jobs if we do not put our hearts into them. We can’t have strong and vital relationships if we ignore the people we love. We can’t have a powerful faith that will change the world if we do not spend time in prayer and worship and study. When we do put our hearts into our faith, we will realize that we are surrounded by the love and mercy and grace of God. He is our refuge.
I think we all can identify times in our lives when we were faithful to our devotional lives. During these times we pray regularly, are disciplined in our study practices. We manage to find the time even if we are overwhelmed by our schedule because it is a good habit we have developed. We can also identify times when we were so faithful. We get caught up in the daily grind, think we don't have even five minutes to give specifically to devotions. We pray on the run, eat the scriptures like we eat fast food. When we practice the daily routine of our devotional time, it is a natural extension of our being and we find our days go better. When we stop, for even a few days, it gets harder to keep up the practice and things in our life get out of control. Our devotional time, or lack of it, becomes visible to the world around us.
Ignace Jan Paderewski, a polish pianist, once said, “When I miss a day of practice, I can always tell it. If I miss two days, the critics will pick it up. If I miss three days, the audience will notice it.” The same is true about those Olympic athletes. Daily time spent doing the things they love will be manifest in the world, and in the end they might even end up with a medal. So, too, with the disciplines of faith.
Though our devotional time is private, our time spent with God is obvious to the world around us. We go forth in faith, with joy and love, to do all that God would have us do. When we stop spending that time with the Lord, we lose touch with the source of our strength and faith. It does not take long before it becomes difficult for us to even find a few moments alone with God. We claim a lack of time and we try to go at it on our own. We find, all too quickly, that it is only with God's help that our world is really under control. It is not enough to cry out to God occasionally in passing. It takes practice to develop a good pattern of devotional time, but it is well worth the trouble. For our daily time with God will help us to live more closely in His heart and kingdom. It is there we will find a refuge.
“If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou wilt heap coals of fire upon his head, And Jehovah will reward thee.” Proverbs 25:21-22, ASV
I have a confession to make: I have wanted to heap coals of fire on the head of my enemy. Now, I can’t say that I wanted to literally heap coals on his/her head, after all which of us has a pile of burning coals handy? But, I have wanted to take revenge on my enemy. An enemy is not just someone we do not like; an enemy is someone who has done us harm, and we want to pay them back. We want an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We want them to suffer the way we suffered. Piling a heap of coals of fire might just to the trick.
I’ll make another confession: the last thing in the world that I want to do is give my enemy food and water. Why should I do something good for someone who did something bad to me? Even if I didn’t find some way to pay them back, I’d rather ignore them than do something good. Feeding them and quenching their thirst doesn’t seem like a very effective way of getting our reward.
The Apostle Paul quoted today’s Proverb in his letter to the Romans (12:20) and I have to admit that it has always bothered me. I have experienced the pain of a burn, although I have never been burnt very seriously. I’ve spilled that drop of hot oil on my arm, or touched that hot pan with my bare hands. Those burns are minor, but they hurt tremendously. It is always so hard to figure out what to do to ease the pain and it doesn’t go away very quickly. I have been lucky; I can’t imagine the pain of a 3rd degree burn, which damages all the layers of skin and even reaches the fat, muscle and possibly bone. This type of burn permanently damages the body, and the pain very often lingers for the rest of the person’s life.
I suspect that heaping coals on one’s head would cause more than minor pain. As a matter of fact, the coals would set the hair on fire, and would burn the face. Though modern doctors might be able to do some reconstructive surgery, the person’s appearance would never be the same again. It would be even worse in the days of Solomon or Paul. As a matter of fact, that kind of burn might have even killed the victim. That’s not revenge, it is murder.
I’ve always been bothered by this text because I don’t want to feed my enemy, and I know that it is not right to heap burning coals on his head. Would God actually reward us for doing such a thing? The answer to that question is an emphatic “No.” God does not reward us for seeking vengeance on our enemies, especially since the way He has commanded us to do so is with food and drink. The act of feeding our enemies and quenching their thirst is an act that will heap kindness rather than pain on their heads.
So, why do both the teacher and Paul talk about this incredibly painful outcome of our good works? Carrying a bowl heaping with burning coals on one’s head was an act of repentance by a guilty person in ancient Egypt. It is possible that both Solomon and Paul are referencing this ancient practice to show how doing a kindness in exchange for the harm someone has caused can bring that person to repentance, and possibly build a relationship between enemies. We will be rewarded by God for this kindness, even if our enemy continues to be hostile. But even more so, we might find that we will receive an even greater reward: the blessing of friendship.
“What unto me is the multitude of your sacrifices? saith Jehovah: I have had enough of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; new moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies,- I cannot away with iniquity and the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a trouble unto me; I am weary of bearing them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith Jehovah: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it.” Isaiah 1:11-20 (ASV)
Anyone who has ever seen the old television show “Leave it to Beaver” will certainly remember Wally’s best friend Eddie Haskell. Eddie was the kind of guy you loved to hate. He was obnoxious and scheming, yet lovable in a creepy sort of way. Eddie was the guy who would always let you down. He managed to manipulate his friends to do all the things that he didn’t want to get caught doing.
Eddie was a completely different person in front of adults. He was kind and polite. He would offer to do anything for anybody. He could appear sincere speaking words or doing things that were offensive to his character only moments before. He thought his façade was believable, that the adults really considered him a most polite young man, but he was wrong. They saw through the act and knew not the trust Eddie as far as he could be thrown. Ward and June often wondered why Wally had a friend like Eddie.
I am sure we can all identify with the attitudes of both the parents and Wally. We know people like Eddie both as friends and as thorns in our sides, yet we keep them around because we are sure there must be an innate goodness that is hidden by the rebellion. No one knows why they act the way they do, there must be some reason and we hope that some kindness and friendship will help bring out the positive behavior. Wally saw Eddie’s vulnerability and in the end their friendship did have an impact. The trouble with these folks is that the façade of politeness is destroyed by their behind the scenes antics and they have no credibility or integrity. We cannot believe the Eddie Haskells in this world when they show a moment of kindness, especially since it will be only words; the actions never come to pass. Their offering is unacceptable because it is not from the heart.
To God, Israel was much like an Eddie Haskell. They came forth bringing sacrifices regularly, seeking forgiveness and blessings. Yet, as soon as they were out of sight of the temple they were worshipping other gods. They turned to their neighbors for help rather than to the Lord. They did not love Him with their whole hearts or live according to His will and purpose. They wore two faces: one at the temple where they were facing God and another when they thought He was not looking. He tired of these meaningless offerings. They were a waste of blood because there was no sacrifice in the heart of His people.
It is easy to look at a character like Eddie Haskell and think that we are so much different, and yet we all have moments when we are two-faced before God. We make offerings and sacrifices before the Lord thinking that they will be enough to overcome all that we have done to dishonor Him. However, our sacrifices, whether they are rams and bulls or the types of things we give to the Lord today, are never going to be good enough. God says, “Let us reason together…” He is willing to show us our failures, to teach us the way He wants us to go. But even when we continue to fail, He has provided a way out: Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ was sent into this world to pay the final debt and set us free to live in God’s blessings. All that seems hidden is revealed by the light of God; He knows what we do behind the fence and in the privacy of our own rooms. We deserve to be rejected, but He loves us and He is willing to give us another chance. He has invited us to dwell in His presence; all He asks is a humble heart, and an honest admission of our sinfulness. Our offerings are offensive if they are only a façade to make it appear as if we are polite and kind, just as Eddie’s attitude around adults. God reasons with us through His Word and His Son, so that we will know our failure and turn to Him. We will truly know what it means to be blessed when we listen in faith and respond to His Word by living a life of humble obedience.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 16, 2014, Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
“…and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire.” Matthew 5:22, ASV
Ok. I admit it. I have called more than a few people, “Fool.” I laugh when talk show hosts go out on the street and ask people seemingly simple questions and get ridiculous answers. I laugh at the litigants on the daytime court shows who believe the charlatan and get themselves into difficult financial situations because they foolishly bought the car that did not work or lent money that will never be returned. And yes, I’ve called more than a few people who disagree with me “Fool.”
Does this mean I’m going to hell? After all, Jesus says, “…and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire.” This seems like a rather extreme punishment for calling someone a name, particularly when some of them really are fools. In their letters, both James and Paul call people fools. Jesus Himself says, “You blind fools!” and “You foolish people!” So, it is, perhaps, not the calling of someone a fool that makes us liable to the hell of fire. There are good, and kind, reasons to call someone a fool, to help them see the errors of their ways and to set them on a wise and faithful course.
There are, however, times when our own anger gets the best of us, and we speak the words “You fool” out of that anger. Matthew Henry writes, “Thou fool, is a spiteful word, and comes from hatred; looking upon him, not only as mean and not to be honored, but as vile and not to be loved; ‘Thou wicked man, thou reprobate.’ The former speaks a man without sense, this (in scripture language) speaks a man without grace; the more the reproach touches his spiritual condition, the worse it is; the former is a haughty taunting of our brother, this is a malicious censuring and condemning of him, as abandoned of God. Now this is a breach of the sixth commandment; malicious slanders and censures are poison under the tongue, that kills secretly and slowly; bitter words are as arrows that would suddenly, or as a sword in the bones. The good name of our neighbor, which is better than life, is thereby stabbed and murdered; and it is an evidence of such an ill-will to our neighbor as would strike at his life, if it were in our power.”
Jesus leads this statement with “…whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council…” Calling someone “an empty fellow,” could make someone end up in court. But when we call someone a fool out of anger, we are reaching into something deeper. Several times through the psalms, the psalmists tell us that “The fool says in heart, there is no God…” and in calling someone a fool in anger, we question the deepest thoughts of their hearts. We are making ourselves like God. We are suggesting that they are not only in error, but they are in grievous error that will send them to hell. And so, in judging them to hellfire by murdering their spirit, we damn ourselves.
In this section, Jesus is showing the difference between living under God’s Law and living in His grace. He talks about how someone who murders is liable to judgment, and then goes on to talk about how someone who is even angry with his brother is liable to judgment. One act is liable to the judgment of men, but the other is liable to a greater judgment: that of God. He does the same with adultery. A man is commanded against adultery, but Jesus says it is even worse to look upon a woman with lust. Men can provide justice for someone who has been wronged by the physical act of adultery, but only God sees the deepest lusts of our hearts.
God knows that our hearts can be false, and that they can lead us down a dark and dangerous path. See, it might seem harmless to be angry or lust in our hearts, but it doesn’t take very long before that lust is manifest. It creeps up on us; we are tempted until we see no harm in action. We even justify that action because we are ‘following our heart.’ How many times have we seen the family and friends of a murderer interviewed who have said, “He was such a kind and caring man”? They are so often surprised by what they didn’t see: the anger simmering in his heart that exploded into physical violence. How many people are surprised when a spouse is discovered having an affair?
When it comes to calling people names, it might seem quite harmless. After all, as children we learned the lesson, “Sticks and stone can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I doubt anyone would be taken to court today for calling someone “Raca.” And we surely don’t expect to go to hell for calling someone a fool. Jesus’ point here, though, is to remind us how easy it is to go from judging someone according to the laws of men, to condemning someone by our interpretation of the Law of God.
This is a matter of the heart.
What does it mean to be “in danger of the hell of fire”? The word used here is gehenna, which was in Jesus’ day the garbage heap of Jerusalem. It was an incineration pit, where the waste of the city was dumped and burned. The pit was constantly on fire. This particular valley was a place of death, too. It was where the ancient people sacrificed their children at the altars of Moloch and Ba’al, and it was where the Jewish courts executed criminals. It was located between the Temple Mount and the Hill of Calvary and it was a place where unwanted things were thrown.
Sadly, it was even a place of abandonment by Roman citizens at different periods of their history. See, the Romans followed a practice where a newborn was taken to the patriarch of the family, who judged whether or not the child would live or die. If the child had any blemish, any physical defect, even if the child was the wrong gender, the patriarch could order it abandoned and left to die by exposure. Gehenna was a convenient place for the Romans in Jerusalem to abandon those children.
The juxtaposition of the act and the punishment is striking in this text. Jesus is comparing our accusation of foolishness to the abandonment of the children in Gehenna. If we condemn someone by suggesting that they do not believe in God, we murder their spirit and leave them to die. Jesus says this is a great sin and in doing so, we are in danger of the same abandonment.
Last week Jesus said, “Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil.” In today’s passage He goes on to talk about some of the Laws, and He points out that truly faithful living comes from the heart, not the flesh. We don’t murder because the law says we should not murder, but Jesus says, “But I tell you, if you live in my grace, you will not even think of others in this way.” Remember, Jesus is talking to the disciples during the Sermon on the Mount. He is talking to people who are in a relationship with Him. He is talking to those who have been reconciled to God by Jesus. He is talking to us.
These laws, both the physical laws and the greater spiritual ones, are given so that we who are in a relationship with God will live faithful and righteous lives. That means sharing not only God’s grace with others, but being gracious, also. We can’t share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with people that we think are beyond salvation. We won’t tell our neighbors about God’s forgiveness if we think they should be dumped in the everlasting fire of the garbage heap.
Sadly, I’m not sure we are beyond this kind of name calling, even two thousand years later. We might not use the term “fool” as they did then, but how many times have we labeled people who are different and disagree with us with words that have equal condemnation? It is interesting that both the words conservative and liberal are used with disdain by opposite sides of every argument. Words like racist, sexist and bully have been so overused that they no longer mean what they once meant, and yet come from the hearts of the speakers as condemnation. When we speak these words out of anger, we cannot possibly believe that the one about whom we are speaking has value. We think they should be dumped in the everlasting fire of the garbage heap.
Paul writes, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ.” I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Corinth at this time. Well, perhaps I can, because we continue to do the same things. There were factions in the church of Corinth, each following a specific teacher. One followed Paul and another followed Apollos. They were missing the foundation of both their ministries, and they were condemning one another in the process. We do the same by lifting up our own doctrines and denominations while claiming others are following false gods and false gospels. Now, there may be good reason to call a Christian a fool if they are following a heresy, but all too often we do so with anger and hatred and condemnation.
Paul had a problem. He wanted to teach the Corinthians a deeper understanding of God. He wanted to them to live a fuller, richer faith. However, they were not yet ready for spiritual understanding. They were still caught up in the world. He continued to teach them the basics of Christianity, even though they should have been moving on to deeper things; instead of having the heart of Christ, they were living according to their flesh. And their flesh was sinful. Paul writes, “…for ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you jealousy and strife, are ye not carnal, and do ye not walk after the manner of men?”
It is said that the nineteenth century evangelist D. L. Moody had a temper which in Christian love and brotherhood he learned to control. There was an occasion, however, when he let a detractor get to him. When the man spoke a word of offense, Mr. Moody got angry and shoved the man down a short flight of stairs. He was not hurt, but Moody’s friends were concerned that the tone of the evening’s meeting would be dampened by this outburst. How could the congregation be influenced by Moody’s preaching after having witnessed such an obvious act of sin?
D.L. Moody called the meeting and began with an apology. He said, “Friends, before beginning tonight I want to confess that I yielded just now to my temper, out in the hall, and have done wrong. Just as I was coming in here tonight, I lost my temper with a man, and I want to confess my wrong before you all, and if that man is present here whom I thrust away in anger, I want to ask his forgiveness and God’s. Moody acted in flesh, but then sought immediate forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jesus makes it so hard for us. He commands not only that we obey the Law, but that we live in grace. He desires more than a life of obedience; He calls us to reconciliation. He knows our hearts and our temptations. It is so easy for us to respond to our anger by voicing our hostility. After all, we learn from a very early age that words can’t hurt us. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they are in danger of the hell of fire for calling someone a fool. The problem is not the words; the problem is the broken relationship. Murder is final, but even harsh words can destroy a relationship. We are called to live better; we are called to a life of peace. We can only do that when we are reconciled with our brother, despite the foolish things we all do when we fall to the temptations of our flesh.
The most important relationship that is affected by our sin is our relationship with God. Sin separates us from our Father in heaven, but thankfully God has breached the gap by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Now God sees our sin through Jesus-colored glasses, forgiving us each time we fail. It is only in forgiveness that we can be reconciled to God, because without Him it is impossible for us to live according to His Word. The same is true of our relationships with people. We can only be reconciled through forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and ourselves of the sins that destroy our relationships.
The Old Testament lesson comes at the end of the Exodus. The Israelites had been wandering in circles throughout the wilderness for forty years because they had broken their relationship with God. A whole generation passed and the new generation had finally reached the Promised Land. They were standing on the far side of the river preparing to finally see the promise made to their forefathers fulfilled. Moses gave them one final message before they crossed. They made the choice once, when offered the opportunity to be saved from Egypt. The choice was easy then: stay in slavery or go to the Promised Land? They overwhelmingly chose to go forward into God’s promises. Yet, that first generation did not stay faithful. They turned from God along the way. That’s why they wandered for forty years. They made their choice to not trust God and they suffered the consequences.
But now a new generation stood on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over. The next part of their journey would take even more trust. Joshua would have to lead the people in a parade around Jericho instead of into a battle. They would have to destroy everything according to God’s command. They would have to fight with ridiculously small armies. They would have to follow directions that made no sense at all. Sometimes they obeyed, and when they did, they succeeded. But sometimes they made another choice. They went another way. They did their own thing, and in doing so chose destruction.
We aren’t any different. We go our own way too often; we choose to follow our flesh rather than God’s grace. Our lives may appear good because we haven’t murdered anyone, slept with our neighbor’s spouse or gone to court over defamatory statements about our neighbors. But who among us can say we haven’t been unrighteously angry with our neighbor, or lusted over the sexy celebrity or thought someone was not saved because they didn’t believe what we believe?
Jesus challenges us to be what God intends us to be because He knows the consequences of our failure. Anger can get us into deeper trouble. Adultery can destroy lives. Harsh words can lead to dismay. We come to this realization with the foundation of the Gospel in our lives. Moses invites us to love God, walk in His ways and keep His commands, decrees and laws. We will fail, but Christ has already finished the work of forgiveness.
Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “Works indeed are good, and God strictly requires them of us, but they do not make us holy.” We humbly approach these texts with the reality of our sinfulness. We will fail. We will break the commandments. We will destroy relationships, with God and with our neighbors. But we come to these texts with a promise: even when we fail, Christ has forgiven. He has reconciled us to God so that we can reconcile with our neighbors.
This is an urgent calling! We tend to wait until the right time. We wait until we feel better. We wait for our wounds to heal. We wait until we are not so angry. Unfortunately, things do not get better while we wait. There is never a right time. We don’t feel better. Our wounds fester and our anger simmers in our heart. Healing comes with forgiveness. Peace comes with reconciliation.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed are they that are perfect in the way, who walk in the law of Jehovah.” We aren’t perfect, and I can’t imagine any of us will be perfect in this life. We might get beyond the milk to the solid food to which Paul refers, but we will still do things that will satisfy our flesh and follow human understanding. But we can try to live as God has called us to live, to follow His commandments and be obedient to His Word. We do this not of our own volition, but by the grace of God. He makes us perfect. He leads the way. He loves us with a gracious and forgiving love and calls us to do the same with our neighbors. The more we dwell in this grace, the less we will fail. The deeper we love God, the more we will love our neighbors. When we truly love our neighbors, we will never abandon them to the hell of fire, but will invite them into the heart of grace.
“For Jehovah restoreth the excellency of Jacob, as the excellency of Israel; for the emptiers have emptied them out, and destroyed their vine-branches.” Nahum 2:2, ASV
We usually focus on Jonah when discussing the story of Jonah. We learn about obedience and trust from the prophet, as well as the consequences of disobedience. We know that the king of Nineveh and all the people believed the words of Jonah and repented when he finally obeyed God’s command, and we know that Jonah was disturbed by God’s gracious forgiveness of Nineveh’s sin. In the end, God reminds Jonah that He is compassionate: “…should not I have regard for Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)
The book of Nahum begins with a description of the nature of God, who is kind and stern. Nahum’s name means “consoler” or “comforter,” and this book is a poem of comfort to the people of Israel who continued to be oppressed by the Assyrians. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and so was the focus of God’s mercy and wrath. A century before Nahum, Jonah convinced those Ninevites to turn to the Lord God Almighty, and they did for a moment. Whether the repentance was true or just a façade, they turned again to their old ways and angered God once again.
Opinions vary about the book: some think that Nahum was writing prophecy while others think it is a liturgy of thanksgiving for God’s vengeance. The book is written as a warning to Nineveh, but it is also a book of comfort to the people of Israel who see that God is true to His character. He has compassion, but He is also just. Nahum writes, “Jehovah is slow to anger, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty.” (1:3a) God gave Nineveh and the Assyrians a reprieve, but their power did not last forever.
Did you have the same response as me when you saw that today’s passage was from Nahum? I thought, “Is Nahum a book of the Bible?” Yes, of course I have heard of it before, but it is so unfamiliar that I had to open my bible to the actual pages to see that it is not one of the apocryphal texts. We don’t hear anything from Nahum in the lectionary. I don’t think I have ever written about Nahum in this devotional (in nearly fifteen years!) The only passages that sound familiar are those that quote earlier scripture. For most of us, Nahum is probably the prophet we do not recall and the book that stumps us when reciting the books of the Bible.
I suppose in some ways we Christians see little use in this particular prophet’s words. He talks of God as a divine warrior. We prefer to focus on God’s mercy and grace, His love for the world. The bloodletting of Nineveh’s fall seems unnecessary for us in today’s world. We know that every word of scripture builds into the entire story of God, but there’s nothing here that adds to the story. We no longer need a warrior God, so this book that describes God in that manner seems outdated and unimportant.
After all, our salvation did not come at the hands of a warrior as they expected in Jesus’ day. Most of the people did not recognize Jesus because He didn’t come on a chariot with a flashing sword. They thought that the restoration promised in prophecies like this one in Nahum would come with a powerful king who would defeat their enemies and rebuild their nation as it had been in the days of Solomon. Even John the Baptist began to question whether or not Jesus was the Messiah because He wasn’t fighting the world, He was healing people.
But Jesus was a warrior; He was fighting a much different enemy. He promised restoration, but not that of a nation. He promised and provided restoration of people to their God. We look to the words of the prophet Nahum because he continues to remind us that a battle wages all around us, even if we are not in a place of war. We fight something greater than nations; we fight those who try to separate us from our Creator. But Jesus has restored us; He fought the final battle, paid the final price, overcame the final enemy, so that we can glorify God forever.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who by the power of God are guarded through faith unto a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, ye have been put to grief in manifold trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold that perisheth though it is proved by fire, may be found unto praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ: whom not having seen ye love; on whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable and full of glory: receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:3-9, ASV
Ted Engstrom tells a story of a man who was tired of his wife in his book “The Fine Art of Friendship.” He stopped seeing her as attractive or interesting. He found fault with everything she did and with everything about her. He wanted to serve her divorce papers but decided to see a psychologist first. Sadly, his purpose was not to discover his own faults, but to find out how to make the process as difficult as possible on his wife.
“The psychologist listened to Joe’s story and then gave this advice, ‘Well, Joe, I think I’ve got the perfect solution for you. Here’s what I want you to do. Starting tonight when you get home, I want you to start treating your wife as if she were a goddess. That’s right, a goddess. I want you to change your attitude toward her 180 degrees. Start doing everything in your power to please her. Listen intently to her when she talks about her problems, help around the house, and take her out to dinner on weekends. I want you to literally pretend she’s a goddess. Then, after two months of this wonderful, just pack your bags and leave her. That would get to her!”
The man was excited about this idea, so he immediately started doing what the psychologist told him to do. He treated her like a goddess. The program didn’t work like the man thought it would, however. The more he treated his wife like a goddess, the more he saw her as one. They went on romantic vacations. He listened to her, bought her gifts, served her breakfast in bed. After two months the psychologist called the man and asked how things were going. “Are you a happy bachelor, now?” The man said, “Are you kidding? I’m married to a goddess. I’ve never been happier in my life!” The man began to see his wife through new eyes, and a dead relationship was given new life.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of our faith. Because He lives, we have the promise of new life in His eternal Kingdom. This is our hope. But life in Christ does not begin at the end, it begins in the here and now. We have eternal life even while we wait for that Day. We dwell in the presence of our God even while we continue to live in His created world. See, Jesus changes the way God sees us. We are no longer judged by our flesh but we are made righteous by His grace. The relationship between God and His people is made new, resurrected from death into life. God sees us through Jesus-colored glasses and He no longer wants to be divorced from us, but sees us as His beloved children.
“And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and made trial of him, saying, Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And he said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” Luke 10:25-28, ASV
A children’s sermon on this passage typically asks children to point to the parts of the body described here. The children easily point to the heart and mind. They usually make muscles with their arms when showing strength. The funniest answer was given one Sunday by a child trying to point to soul. He pointed at the bottom of his feet: sole, rather than soul. The pastor was quick with an answer: he talked about how love God by walking the walk, by going out into the world to share His grace with our neighbors. That, of course, fit into the rest of the story, which goes on to talk about who is out neighbor.
Today I want to think about another part of us with which we love God: our strength. Now, I am not a terribly strong person. I need help opening the pickle jar. I cry at those heart touching videos everyone posts on Facebook. I get angry much too fast. I can’t resist the chocolate candy bars that are displayed in the grocery check-out lane. I can’t even come close to doing a chin-up or push-up.
God wants us to love Him with our hearts, souls and minds, but my strength is usually more like weakness. My heart is weak: I falter in faith, in hope, in love. My mind is weak: I believe the lies of the devil that convince me that I should do things that seem good but are not God-pleasing. My soul is weak: I get desperate, disappointed, depressed when it seems like God has abandoned me. I’m not strong. How can I possibly love God with my strength?
Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 1 that God’s weakness is stronger than our strength. He talks about how God has used him in his weakness. As a matter of fact, Paul writes repeatedly about how it is our weakness that God is able to use to do His work in this world. When we rely on our own strength, we try to be God and do God’s work on our own. God would rather that we be weak so that He can work through us. He is not looking for the person who has the greatest faith, or the perfect behavior, or the most joy or physical strength. He is looking for those people who are willing to give everything they have. None of us are good enough in any of these things. None of us are strong enough. We love God with our whole strength and we discover that whatever we have is enough, for it is God’s strength that helps us do whatever it is He wants us to do.
“Blessed be Jehovah, Because he hath heard the voice of my supplications. Jehovah is my strength and my shield; My heart hath trusted in him, and I am helped: Therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; And with my song will I praise him. Jehovah is their strength, And he is a stronghold of salvation to his anointed. Save thy people, and bless thine inheritance: Be their shepherd also, and bear them up for ever.” Psalm 28:6-9, ASV
I have been reading a series of stories from Bernard Cornwell based on the 9th century Saxon period in England. It was a difficult, violent time, as the Saxons were determined to keep the Danes out of England and to unite the island into one nation. England was divided, ruled by multiple kings who were constantly fighting with one another for control. The Danes were determined to rule the entire island themselves, and so they took advantage of the conflict between rival Saxons.
Bernard Cornwell has done an excellent job telling the story, describing the weapons and practices of those competing armies. They were fighting a much different battle than we see today. They didn’t have modern weapons or technology. They had to battle their enemy face to face. They couldn’t hide behind computers or send bombs from high in the sky. They had to look a man in the eye as they cut off his head.
This sounds like a horrific time, and it was, and yet as we read these stories of historic battles and we think of them through our own experience. We remember pictures of armies with thousands of men crossing the beach or field. We have video of hundreds of airplanes dropping thousands of bombs. We picture these ancient battles with similar numbers. The reality is that some of those bloody battles on the fields of England were waged between armies with hundreds rather than thousands of warriors. Modern warfare seems so clean and easy, but in reality those battles are so much more horrific with far more death than entire wars in ancient times.
I’m fascinated by the descriptions of some of the weapons from those days. While most of the battles took place with hand to hand combat, they did have archers with arrows and weapons that sent rocks or fire hurtling over tall castle walls. On the battle field they often used knives and axes, spears and javelins. The most precious weapon was the sword. Every warrior carried several different types of weapons because they were used under difficult circumstances. A spear could not be used when fighters were too close together, so they used a knife or sword.
While the weapons were important, the most important thing a warrior carried was his shield. The shield did not always protect a warrior, but it helped. A good warrior knew how to attack around a shield or how to destroy one, but the shield it protected them for awhile. The materials of the shield depended on the time period and the culture; some shields were made of wood, others metal. In Roman times, the shields were made of leather, which could be soaked in water. This helped put out flaming arrows, which could quickly destroy a soldier’s shield.
Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “…withal taking up the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one.” Paul was encouraging the Christians to carry a sword that would protect them from the dangers of the enemies. In this case, he knew that the Roman shields were designed against fire, so he used that to describe the danger that Christians face.
We don’t carry actual shields made of wood or metal or leather and we don’t fight our enemy with swords. Both Paul and the psalmist understood what truly protects us from the tricks of our enemy: God. He is our shield, and He gives us the faith to believe that He will protect us in this world. Oh, we might still experience the physical danger of an enemy, but in faith we will not die, but will live forever with our great and powerful King.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 23, 2014, Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-23; Matthew 5:38-48
“For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” Matthew 5:45, ASV
We live in such a different world than they did when the book of Leviticus was written. Do farmers still leave some of the harvest on the edges for the poor and the foreigner to use? Do they leave the gleanings? We know it is wrong to take something from our neighbor, and yet we steal and deal falsely with our neighbors in so many ways that are acceptable in this age. We lie. We even justify our lies as being for the sake of those to whom we have lied, even though the truly merciful thing is always to tell the truth. We know it is wrong to oppress our neighbor or rob him, and yet so many things we do have the same affect without our even realizing it. What employer pays his workers on a daily basis? We have to wait a week or two, sometimes a whole month, to receive payment for the work we do.
Most of us are concerned about the welfare of the handicapped, but modern television shows often create people who are deaf and blind and then curse them or make them stumble. Daytime talk shows put someone in a sound proof booth and then talk about them behind their backs, while game shows put on blindfolds and make people stumble through impossible obstacle courses. Justice has been skewed. We favor people for what they can do for us, but do not do what is right if it doesn’t fit our agenda. And we slander one another in so many ways, particularly when discussing the heated issues of our day.
And, well… sadly we hate our neighbors, and justify our hate because they do not believe what we do or do what we think they should do. We take vengeance and bear grudges. We love ourselves, and we claim to love our neighbors, but in this day and age we do not realize that Jesus meant that we should not just treat them as we might want to be treated, but that we should put our neighbors before ourselves.
Here is one example: Your friend loves to sing. She sings everywhere: in the car, in the shower, on the street as she walks from store to store. She performs at family gatherings and sings with the choir at church. The problem is that she can’t sing. You encourage her to make a joyful noise, but never tell her she has other, better, talents. You can’t tell her she’s awful because it will hurt her feelings. You can’t ask her not to sing at family gatherings or in the church choir because she’s convinced that she’s good. It doesn’t matter so much at family gatherings, and the choir director can bury her voice among the other singers, but continued encouragement can lead to humiliation.
We have all seen them. They are the people who end up on the audition programs of those singing reality shows. They obviously have no talent whatsoever, but the producers always let a few slip through for the laugh. These singers get in front of the judges and make complete fools of themselves, and then continue the foolishness with the after appearance interviews. “The judges are obviously wrong; everyone says I’m a good singer.” “They made a mistake, I’m better than all the others because my mom said so.”
This is a selfish thing to do, not on the part of the singer but on the part of the friend. You don’t say anything because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or lose their friendship, but ultimately their feelings are destroyed by the public humiliation and you might still lose the friendship. An honest answer doesn’t have to be mean; as a matter of fact, that friend might just have some gift for music, and an honest assessment of their singing might lead them to do what they need to do to do it right. A few lessons could make a world of difference. A change in musical type or instrument might be a good way to continue doing what the person loves to do, but in a better way.
What little white lies have you told that have backfired? In what ways have you harmed your neighbor by not being truthful? This may seem insignificant, and of course it is when it comes to these reality television shows. Whether or not someone gets a place in the top twenty in a singing competition does not make a difference in their eternal destiny, but the hurt and humiliation can cause them to sin.
We understand the reason for these rules from Leviticus, but they don’t always seem very practical to us. I have driven to Lubbock multiple times taking and retrieving my son from college. The route we drove was right through farmland, mostly cotton. As we drove along the route right after harvest time, I noticed there were usually some plants on the edges of the fields that were not cut. I often wondered if those farmers left those plants there because of the biblical charge to leave some for the poor and the foreigner. Yet, I doubt very much if those farmers would appreciate me picking their cotton for my own personal use. There are more than a few farmers not just in Texas, who would stop you from doing so with a shotgun. It is more likely that the leftovers, those bushes that are left and the ‘gleanings’ on the ground, are just the waste left behind by modern machinery, and it isn’t worth enough for the farmer to harvest by hand. Cotton is probably a bad example, since we don’t eat cotton, and I can’t imagine the amount I could pick would be usable. I’ve seen other fields like corn and wheat that are harvested to the very edge; modern machinery doesn’t leave behind any gleanings. Do those farmers sin for ignoring this charge? Or is this an impractical command from God for our day?
The thing to remember is that God does not make laws to burden us or to oppress us, but to help us to be the best we can be. As a Lutheran, I understand that the Law is meant to help me see how unable I am able to keep it, so that I’ll turn to Christ. That doesn’t mean that I have no responsibility to be the person God wants me to be. I am still expected to live a life that takes care of others. Jesus didn’t come and die so that we can be ‘free to be me’ but so that we can free to be what we were created to be.
The rules might seem impractical to us today, and we certainly are not living by them, but it is our responsibility to look at the way we are living our lives and make sure that our choices and our actions will not harm others. In the example of the lie, our choice is selfish and ultimately harms our neighbor. We have to look at the world through God’s eyes. How will this affect others? It might on the surface seem harmless, but there is no such thing as a victimless sin. When we do something wrong, someone suffers. It might seem insignificant. They might not even know that they are victims. They might be willing to accept the consequences without a thought. But that sin still made an impact on someone else’s life in some way.
Christ calls us to be the kind of people who put others first. Everyone. Even our enemies.
It is so easy for us to look at the sins of others and think that we should get justice. We are bothered by the words of today’s Gospel lesson. Should we let someone who is harming us continue to harm us? Shouldn’t we stand up for ourselves? We can’t let a bully win because then he’ll go on hurting us and others. By taking a stand, we put a stop to their bad behavior. I don’t want to get slapped twice; I’d rather get a slap in, too. I certainly don’t want to give someone who is suing me my cloak as well as my tunic! It isn’t fair, we say, and so we take matters into our own hands. If they are sinning, don’t we have the right to return ‘an eye for an eye?’
Oh, I know: we do this and we become doormats. We get stepped on. They take advantage of us. I don’t think I have the grace to do what Jesus is asking. The text from Leviticus reminds us that we are to treat our neighbors with respect, doing to them only as we would want them to do to us. We are pretty good at living that way when others treat us with that type of respect, when they love us first. But when we are hurt, we are quick to forget God’s Word.
God does not want us to be doormats. He is calling us to look at our neighbors, whether they are friend or foe, through the eyes of God. See, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” He makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the good and the bad. We all get warm by the heat and wet by the drops, no matter who we are. We also all get burned by the UV rays and flooded by the deluge. In other words, the reality of life hits us all equally.
We don’t know the circumstances of our neighbor’s lives. What causes someone to lie or cheat or steal? What causes them to hate and attack others? We can’t always see what is happening in a heart or behind closed doors. If we respond to our neighbor with vengeance, seeking that eye for the eye, we will just make matters worse. We will cause our neighbor to do more than slap us. We will cause something small to become something big. No one knows what started the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, but everyone agrees it was something ridiculous. We must think about how we respond to our enemies so that we will not cause one another to commit a greater sin.
Who is your enemy? Is it a person at your workplace or neighborhood with whom you have butted heads? Do you get into tangles about politics or religion? Jesus tells us that the rain falls on us all. God, our Father, created us all and we should love everyone, including our enemy. Though you may disagree with someone, always treat him or her with kindness and respect, calmly sharing the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. It may seem impossible for us to be perfect in love, yet we can grow each day in Christ Jesus so that His love will be made perfect in us.
The text from Leviticus is filled with rules for living, and I like this particular chapter because the various laws listed seem so down to earth. We might not understand some of the dietary or hygiene rules. We certainly don’t understand some of the sacrificial and ritualistic rules. But we do know what it is like to lie, steal and cheat our neighbor. We do know that we are called to do what is right for our family and our friends. These laws are very practical, and they help us to know how to live in this world. We are reminded in the Gospel text that Christ calls us to be more than the Law. He calls us to be like Him, Christ-like. This means considering the needs of our neighbors above our own. This means considering our neighbor first, before our egos, before our desires, before our dreams.
God could have given up on human beings a long time ago. He certainly didn’t need to send His Son to pay for our sins. Jesus could have done so much without going to the cross. As we’ve heard so recently, the message of the cross is foolishness anyway, couldn’t He have done it a better way? Yet, Jesus was obedient to God’s plan of redemption. He put us first. He turned the other cheek. He died so that we might live. He calls us to do the same.
We won’t be hung on a cross, and even if we are there is no way we could save the whole of creation. We don’t need to, because Jesus already finished that work. But now, as we live in this world, in this time and place, we continue His work with our neighbors, sacrificing ourselves for their sake. We don’t do this so that they will be converted. We don’t do this for some reward. We do this because God has called us to be perfect like He is perfect.
Sadly, no matter how hard we try, we won’t be perfect. We’ll still choose to tell that little white lie. We’ll laugh at the people who are stumbling over obstacles on that game show. We will slap that person who slaps us first. We’ll seek our own brand of justice. We will sin those sins that seem to be victimless and ignore the consequences that affect others. We will even justify them, insisting that we lie for their sake and that we have a right to vengeance.
Paul writes, “The Lord knoweth the reasonings of the wise that they are vain.” Our justification and vengeance is foolishness because we can neither see in the hearts of our enemies or know the future consequences. God knows and He guarantees that He will take care of His people. He will pay back the eye for the eye, in His way and in His time. We might never be witness to it, but we can trust that God will be righteous and faithful.
So, we are encouraged to stand on the foundation, which is Christ.
Paul writes, “Wherefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall each man have his praise from God.” The context of this statement is about the work we do for Christ in this world. We have been given a commission, and that is to make disciples of all nations and teach them how to live their faith in this world. It says nothing about judging their hearts, about deciding who is going to hell and who is going to be in heaven. The scriptures are very clear that it is God’s job to bring to light that which is hidden. We are simply to be the vessels through which God shines. We wear the righteousness of Christ, and as Christians we are meant to be like Him in this world.
We are very quick to assume many things about the people we meet. When their response to the Gospel is different than ours, we assume that they are unsaved or even hypocritical. If their Christian life looks different than we expect, we judge them to be false believers or even evil. We must remember that each person is at a different place in his or her journey of faith, some only believe superficially and others have a deep and abiding faith. Though we can see the fruit that is produced in the life of a Christian, it is impossible for any human to know what is in the hearts of men. We can only share the Gospel of Christ, pray that seeds are planted and that God will make them grow. Condemnation will not bring faith; only the Word of God can do so.
The Gospel will lay a solid foundation of faith in God or it will build upon that which is already laid. God knows the right time to judge the hearts of men, and He will do just fine without us. Until that day we should be concerned with the building of our own lives with prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship and faithful sharing of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the end, that which is built on Him will survive and all else will be destroyed. It isn’t up to us to burn the buildings others build, but to share Christ in word in deed so that the foundation of our neighbors’ faith is strong and true.
Over the years we build our lives with relationships, experiences and knowledge. Some of it is good: the time we shared the Gospel with someone who was hurting, the time we gave food to the beggar on the street, the times when we prayed and studied the scriptures so that we could know Jesus better. Some of it isn’t so good – those times when we did things just for our own benefit, the offerings we gave out of a sense of duty rather than in the joy of giving. If we work our entire lives thinking that our good works will save us, we will be surprised in the day how little we have done will remain. However, no matter what we build, whether it is out of gold or straw, if the foundation is Jesus Christ then we will be saved.
I hope that when I stand before my Lord there will be enough there for Him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” How I long to hear those words. But I know that whatever happens in that day I will be saved. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of my life, and to Him I owe everything. What are you building with your life? Do you know without a doubt that the foundation is Jesus Christ? Even if everything you have every done disappears from existence like the ancient ruins of England, with Jesus as your Savior our Father will still see Him in your face. In Him you have eternal life. Everything else is a blessing and a joy, but of little importance in the scheme of things. For eternity in the presence of our Father is more than we ever deserve and the most incredible blessing we can receive.
Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously. We think we know it all, or at the very least we think we know more than our neighbor. We can't take a joke and we can't laugh at ourselves. We think we are wise, but we are not. We are insulted when people consider our faith ridiculous even though it is. After all, we believe in a story that is beyond belief. However, it is beyond belief because God made it that way. He made it impossible for human flesh to believe the Gospel. It is only by His power that we can believe that Jesus died for our sins. It is only by His grace that we can be Christlike, to be perfect as He is perfect. Only God can make us holy. In Christ we know the grace of God that allows us to laugh at ourselves and be true to that which we are, children of the Most High God today, tomorrow and always.
Now, there are those in this world who believe in karma. Properly defined, karma is a force generated by a person’s actions which will affect the future life of the believer. They might say that though you’ll get slapped by turning the other cheek, the force of karma will guarantee something good will happen to you and something bad will happen to the slapper. For those who believe in reincarnation, karma is the force that will decide the kind of existence they will have in the next life.
For many people, the idea of karma is used very loosely in their daily life. You hear about it on the sitcoms and other television shows, often in a joking manner. When someone does something wrong, the action is met with a threat that “it will come back to bite you one day.” Then, later in the show when something bad happens the person is met with “I told you so.” They are supposed to learn something from this experience: mostly that you should never do something wrong because it will hurt you in the end. Good karma comes to those who do good things. They are rewarded for doing kindnesses or paid back more than they gave. A person who gives a ten dollar bill should expect to be rewarded with an even greater gift somewhere in the future. Ultimately, the person who lives the good life will be reincarnated into a wonderful life, a life of comfort and peace.
I have this habit of offering to take a shopping cart from a person in the parking lot so that they don’t have to walk it to the cart coral. I always hope that there’ll be someone ready to take mine when I am done at my car. There never is. My good deed is never returned. I grumble, “Where’s the karma?” especially when the weather is too hot or cold or wet. Of course I’m kidding; karma is not a Christian concept.
Unfortunately karma is often discussed in the context of church meetings. Listen in on the stewardship sermon and you will often hear the pastor promise some sort of windfall for the believer. One ministry claims that if you send them a certain amount of money in faith, God will return that amount tenfold. It is interesting, however, that most Christians would never teach the idea of negative karma, the punishment for bad behavior. Why would God provide us with tenfold reward for a donation to a church and not also require recompense for the things we do wrong? What about the karma for those who are hurt? If they get through suffering, should they not be given some sort of reward? If we are at fault, shouldn’t we experience the consequences of our sin against that person?
Karma is not a Christian teaching because it puts the power of God into the hands of human beings. In other words, we can control our destiny by doing good works. It makes righteousness a work of man and everything that happens a reward or consequence of his or her actions. Yet, we all know that our experiences are not caused by some previous action. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes good things happen to bad people. Sometimes we can’t explain why these things occur. As Christians, we can only expect God to be just, merciful and faithful. As Christians, we are expected to live Christ-like in the world: just, merciful and faithful. This does not mean we will always receive justice, mercy or faithfulness.
We like the idea of karma because it makes the world a fair place. Everyone is treated ‘equally’ according to their actions. Yet, we know that it just is not true. Sometimes people get away with things they should not do and sometimes people never get the recognition they deserve. All too often, we try to make karma happen by being the ones to bring the consequences or rewards to those who have crossed our path. Karma is not Christian, however. Jesus taught us not to repay others for their actions, but rather to treat them with mercy and grace. In today’s Gospel, Jesus even tells us to give the cloak off our back to someone who would steal it from us.
If karma were really part of our Christian thought, since karma ultimately leads to our next life, then every one of us should be very afraid of our future. None of us are good enough to deserve anything wonderful in our next. We don’t live up to our God-given potential or gifts. We often treat others poorly, hurting them with our thoughts, words and deeds. We would not only fight for what we consider ours, but we would take more as payment for what our enemy intended to do. Jesus teaches us to live differently. We aren’t to live today as if it will make a difference in our tomorrow. Instead we are to live in Christ who has already assured us of our future.
We don’t know how to be perfect. We don’t know how to love our enemies. Sometimes we have difficulty even being kind to lose we love. We tell lies that seem good at first, but ultimately harm others. We do what seems right without considering the consequences. We build houses of straw and twigs without really ensuring that the foundation is Christ. There are lots of laws we can obey, laws from the past and from our present. There are lots of interpretations of what it means to live by those laws. What matters most, however, is that we remember we are God’s temple, and as such we are created and redeemed to be like Him in this world. We might not know the hearts of our neighbors or the future, but we can stop and think about how our actions will affect others. We will find that the best course of action is always to love by putting them first, whether a friend or an enemy. In the end, the sun will shine and the rain will fall and God’s people will be loved into eternity by His grace.
“The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; But a broken spirit who can bear?” Proverbs 18:14, ASV
Charles Spurgeon wrote about this proverb: “Every man sooner or later has some kind of infirmity to bear. It may be that his constitution from the very first will be inclined to certain disease and pains, or possibly he may in passing through life suffer from accident or decline of health. He may not however have any infirmity of the body, he may enjoy the great blessing of health; but he may have what is even worse, an infirmity of mind. There will be something about each man’s infirmity which he would alter if he could; or if he should not have any infirmity of body or of mind, he will have a cross to carry of some kind—in his relatives, in his business, or in certain of his circumstances. His world is not the Garden of Eden, and you cannot make it to be so. It is like that garden in this respect—that the serpent is in it, and the trail of the serpent is over everything here. It is said that there is a skeleton in some closet or other of everybody’s house. I will not say so much as that, but I am persuaded that there is no man in this world but has trial in some form or other, unless it be those whom God permits to have their portion in this life because they will have no portion of bliss in the life that is to come. There are some such people who appear be have no afflictions and trials; but as the apostle reminds us, ‘If ye be without chastisement, whereof all (the true seed of the Lord) are partakers, then are ye bastards and not sons;’ and none of us would wish to have that terrible name truthfully applied to us. I should greatly prefer to come into the condition of the apostle when he said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” I say again that every man will have to bear an infirmity of some sort or other. To bear that infirmity is not difficult when the spirit is sound and strong: ‘The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity.’”
Let me repeat the important sentence here: “To bear that infirmity is not difficult when the spirit is strong and sound.”
Have you met anyone whose life circumstances tug at your heart and yet they live that life with peace and joy? Have you ever known anyone who struggled with cancer and yet still had a kind and encouraging word for you? Have you seen someone who doesn’t have a dime to their name and yet still has a quarter to share with the homeless man on the street? Have you met with someone who is dealing with grief and yet still has a word of comfort for you?
In “The Message” Eugene Peterson translates today’s proverb: “A healthy spirit conquers adversity, but what can you do when the spirit is crushed?” The lesson for today is to keep your spirit strong and ready so that you can be sustained through those moments of adversity that will come to your life. We all have bad times, whether it is illness or financial problems, relationships that break and loved ones that leave us. It is so easy to feel crushed under the weight of life’s struggles, but the one whose spirit is strong can stand through it.
What makes our spirit strong? It is certainly not something we do on our own. It is by God’s grace that we can see the hope in death and the joy in illness. It is by God’s grace that we can feel generous when we have nothing and joyful when our world is falling apart. We stay strong in spirit by keeping close to our God, through prayer, the reading of His Word and through fellowship with other Christians. As we grow in faith and in our relationship with God, our spirit will be filled with God and He will sustain us through every difficulty.
“Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul: He guideth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou hast anointed my head with oil; My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and lovingkindness shall follow me all the days of my life; And I shall dwell in the house of Jehovah for ever.” Psalm 23, ASV
Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved passages of scripture. People embrace it in times of stress and difficulty. It calms those who are in distress and comforts those who are in pain. It is no wonder: Psalm 23 reminds us that we have someone who will take care of us, and we need someone when we are hurting.
We don’t think of this scripture very often during the good times, though, do we? Sadly, we don’t think much about God or the scriptures when everything is going well in our world, but we definitely do not need the calming and comforting words of the Shepherd’s Psalm in those times when we are happy and healthy. As a matter of fact, these words might even make us uncomfortable in those days. We don’t need a shepherd when we are successful. We don’t want someone to tell us where to eat or to lead us to a place to drink because we can do it ourselves, particularly in America where we are very individualistic and independent. We don’t want to be one of a hundred. We don’t want to be rounded up by sheep dogs. We don’t think we need to be protected or fed or watered. We definitely do not want to experience the rod and the staff.
But we all know what it is like to feel so alone, so needy, in those times of trouble. What adult hasn’t wished for a mother’s love when we are sick or hurt? What employee hasn’t been thankful for a boss to take the brunt of business collapse? What teacher has not been glad to send a disruptive student off to the principal’s office for discipline? When things aren’t going so well, we are so happy to turn the burden to another, someone greater than ourselves. That’s why this passage is such a comfort when we are hurting.
I think the key for us, however, is to remember that God is our Shepherd always, in good times and in bad. David was a shepherd boy, so he understood the hard work that goes into caring for the sheep. When he wrote this psalm, he saw the Lord as his shepherd doing everything necessary to keep him safe and satisfied. Phillip Keller was able to look at these words of David and embrace them because he too had lived the life of a shepherd. Though we have not experienced that type of life, we can know that Jesus will be true to His Word and that He will keep us through the cold of winter and the heat of summer. He will care for the fields so that we will not harm ourselves or get lost because we have gone looking for greener pastures. He will be with us as He guides our paths into places where we will find everything we need to sustain our lives. He will protect us from the things that seek to bring us harm. He will keep us safe with His rod and staff. In Him we will find comfort, peace, joy and life. Jesus is our shepherd, we shall not want for anything.
It doesn’t help to look to Him as our Shepherd only when we need Him. He is always there whether or not we are thinking about Him, but as we recognize all the good things He does for us in good times as well as the bad, we live a life of thanksgiving. We might work hard to have a good job and keep ourselves healthy. We might have some reason to claim that we have created our own happiness. We may not think we need a shepherd to guide our way or provide what we need, but He does all this for us anyway. So as we live in the reality that the Lord is our Shepherd, we spend the days in thankful praise for His grace. And then we are more ready for those bad times when they hit; instead of crying out to a God that seems to have abandoned us, we know He is right there to help.
“And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: and Jesus also was bidden, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when the wine failed, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. And Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. Now there were six waterpots of stone set there after the Jews' manner of purifying, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the ruler of the feast. And they bare it. And when the ruler of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and knew not whence it was (but the servants that had drawn the water knew), the ruler of the feast calleth the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man setteth on first the good wine; and when men have drunk freely, then that which is worse: thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of his signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed on him.” John 2:1-11, ASV
When I graduated from college, I decided not to go into the career field for which I had gotten my degree. I didn’t know what I should do. I had been working in retail to help pay my college bills, and one day the human resource lady and store manager approached me with an idea. They thought I should go into their retail management program. I love working in retail, so I agreed. I went through the program and became an associate manager. One day I was head-hunted by a larger national chain and they hired me with a better package, so I moved on. I was well on my way up the corporate ladder.
That is, until I met Bruce, (the best thing that ever happened to me.) We decided to get married and we were going to live on the other side of the country, so I quit my job and planned my move. My district manager tried to convince me not to quit, but to transfer to a store near where I would live. Unfortunately, the closest store was more than an hour away. That’s ok when you are single, but it makes it difficult to build a marriage when you spend half your day commuting to a job. Besides, as much as I love working in retail, the hours for management are horrendous. I often worked seventy hours a week and had at least one day a week when I was there from before opening to after closing. Again, that type of work was not very conducive to building a strong and happy marriage.
I happily found a job at a different retail establishment, exactly what I wanted. It was part time as a cashier in the home fashions department. I loved my job. I loved dealing with the customers who came in and needed help designing their homes. Some of my favorite customers were owners of bed and breakfasts who came in to buy entire ensembles for their rooms. Have I told you that I loved my job? It was obvious in the way my customers received my help; several of them sent letters to the store commending me to the manager. I was happy.
My department manager, however, was not. She knew when she hired me that I had been in retail management and that I had been doing very well. She also knew that I was newly married and happy to be in a part time position so that I could enjoy time with my new husband. I had no desire to be in management. Despite all this, she saw me as a threat. She was certain that I was trying to steal her job. She got upset the day the manager called me into his office to congratulate me, certain that he was offering me a better position in the store. She started to do everything she could to make my life unbearable. She scheduled me at the worst times. She rejected my requests for time off. She made me work in the warehouse whenever she knew there was a high dollar customer in the department.
She simply could not understand that I didn’t want the long hours or the responsibility of a manager’s position. I didn’t want to climb that corporate ladder. I was happy to have a job I enjoyed. This is hard for some people to understand because they are so focused on getting ahead and being financially successful that they can’t see the value of working as a part time cashier. They think that everyone has the same attitude, so they see everyone as a threat. I eventually quit the job, had my first child and have been a stay-at-home mom ever since. Can you imagine what she would think of that choice?
This story is relevant to today’s passage because I was struck by something I had never thought of before when I was reading it. John tells us, “but the servants that had drawn the water knew.” The servants knew something that even the steward of the feast did not know. They saw the miracle happen. They saw what Jesus did. They were given a glimpse of God’s glory in a way that the master, the guests and even the bride and groom did not see.
We think we must climb to the top of the corporate ladder to see the good things of life. We think we have to be financially successful and get ahead to be happy. We certainly do not want to be anyone’s servant. We like our independence. We like having control. We like being our own boss. But let me tell you this: if I’d been a manager in that store, I would have missed a lot of wonderful moments. I would have not been able to focus so much attention on my customers because I would have been stuck in an office doing paperwork. Worst of all, I would have missed the time I spent getting to know my new husband and building our life together. I didn’t have a title or a huge paycheck, and I didn’t have a future that would have given me even more power and ‘rule’ over even more people in the company. But I was happy to be ‘just a cashier.’
I say that in that way on purpose, because no one is ‘just a…’ We are all important, vital to the success of our place of work, from the guy who signs the paychecks to the guy in the mailroom who delivers them. Love your job, whatever it is you do, and be open to seeing God in all your work. You don’t have to be in the penthouse to see something amazing; sometimes God gives a glimpse of His glory to even the lowliest servants.
“And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, ASV
Whenever I get to the check-out of the grocery store, the cashier always asks, “Did you find everything?” I don’t think this is a silly question, although it is one that I always answer the same way, “I hope so.” The problem that the cashier is trying to solve is the customer’s inconvenience, although I am not sure that the cash register is the best time to do so. By the time I am in the checkout line, I am ready to go home, and if I didn’t find something, I have probably already sought the help of a floor associate. Sometimes it is impossible to find a floor associate when you need them, but it won’t be any easier once I get to the check-out. So, I give up on the item.
I have never been very good about grocery shopping. I make lists and forget to take it to the store. Even if I have the list, it is likely that I will miss something on it. When I try to rely on my memory, but there is always something that gets buried in the busy-ness of my mind and I don’t realize I forgot until I get home. The cashier certainly can’t help me with that! So when they ask if I found everything, my flippant answer is self-deprecating: if I didn’t find something, it isn’t that I couldn’t find it in the store, it is that I didn’t even bother to look.
I know that the financial experts encourage organized shopping as a money saving practice. If you have a list and follow it, you are less likely to purchase things that you don’t need. I’m really good at buying things I don’t need. I don’t buy things I don’t want, but I usually do manage to put something in my cart that is not in the plan for the day or the week. I’ve found some wonderful products by trying that something new because I have perused the shelves in departments that were not on my list.
I will often buy something that I do not need today, because it is on sale or because I happen to see it and know I will need it eventually. This doesn’t always pay off for me, because someone in the house will use it without my knowledge and then it will be gone when I go looking for it. I have to admit that I’ve gotten upset about this, so much so that my family avoids things in the pantry or fridge because they think that I’m saving it for something. Sadly, items often go bad (especially perishable foods) because I find no use for them in my daily cooking and no one manages eat them.
This might seem a totally irrelevant story in light of today’s story. When we talk about sanctification and holiness, we think of things much more sacred than groceries. I suppose that’s why so many people have difficulty believing that they will ever be holy. We ask God to sanctify us, but we fail to live up to His expectations. We believe that God can sanctify us because we know He is God, but we fall into despair when we can’t live as someone who is perfect.
Here’s the thing: sanctification is not about making us perfect, it is about separating us for a special purpose. We are holy not because God has put us on a pedestal, but because He has taken us for His own, gifted us for His purpose and sent us into the world to do His work. Sanctification is the process of God making us into the people He has called us to be through Christ. It is a lifelong process and we will never be perfect. But we are holy even today because God has set us apart. As we grow in our faith in Jesus Christ, the life of a sanctified child of God becomes more natural. We love because God first loved us and we share that love without a thought. Our joy is made complete in Jesus Christ, so we are naturally joyful without trying. As we are sanctified for God and by His work in us, the fruit of His Spirit manifest in all that we do, not left on a shelf to go bad, but used for the benefit of others in the world and for the glory of God.
“And Jesus came and touched them and said, Arise, and be not afraid.” Matthew 17:7, ASV
There is a term that is used particularly in television circles that describe the moment a show begins its inevitable decline. The term is “jumping the shark” and is a reference to a point in “Happy Days” when Arthur Fonzarelli (Fonzie) ski jumps over a contained shark while on a visit to California. It was a crucial moment in the show because it indicated a transition from the wholesome show about a family in the 1950’s to a focus on the near superhuman powers of the not so wholesome Fonzie. The show lasted another seven years, but it was never quite the same. When Fonzie jumped the shark, the character of “Happy Days” changed.
So, the term “jumping the shark” indicates a moment when something changes in its character, taking it in a new direction. That moment is usually something extraordinary, or at least out of the ordinary, and it leads to a decline in popularity. While it is most often used in reference to television shows, it has been said about politicians, products on the grocery shelves and other things that begin to decline after a particularly unexpected moment. It happens when a politician says something shocking or when a food product changes its formula. The public looks at them differently, rejects them, and thus the decline.
This is Jesus’ jump the shark moment. After nearly three years of healing and preaching ministry, Jesus has set His face toward Jerusalem and the cross. The difference between Jesus and the television shows, however, is that Jesus did not change character or purpose. He was always headed toward the cross. This is the moment when people started seeing Him differently. He still had followers, but they began to doubt whether or not He was the Messiah. He was not the victorious military leader they expected. His enemies began looking more closely for opportunities to destroy Him.
Jesus and His disciples were in Caesarea Philippi six days before the transfiguration. Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” At that moment, Peter confessed his faith in Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed Peter and told him that the only way he could confess such faith was by the hand of God. God revealed the truth to Peter, but even then his understanding was not complete. The expectation was political; they were looking for an earthly king.
After that moment, Jesus began sharing the plan of God with his closest friends. He told them He must die. Peter took Him aside and said “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter did not really understand his confession only moments ago. He knew the prophecies that promised a Messiah, but he did not see that Jesus had to fulfill the role of suffering servant, the pure Lamb of God, which is also found in scriptures.
Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain. While there, Jesus was glorified and stood in the presence of Moses and Elijah, who represented the Law and the Prophets. They came first in the history of God’s people, but they pointed to Jesus as the fulfillment. Once again Peter did not understand and he tried to build permanent tabernacles for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Peter thought this was the beginning of His time of glory, but it was just a foretaste of what was to come. It was a beginning; it was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ life. After this moment, He set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.
The permanence of those shelters was not the only problem with Peter’s plan. See, a tabernacle is a meeting place, and the tabernacle of the Jews was a place where God’s people could meet with Him. Moses was the first; Moses entered the tabernacle in the desert to hear God’s word which he then reported to God’s people. The people came to the tabernacle to meet with Moses, to receive God’s word from Him. It was a place of mediation between God and His people.
Our Old Testament lesson for today shows Moses in the role as mediator before there was a tabernacle. The Israelites were at the foot of Mount Sinai, having escaped Egypt. They were preparing to go toward the Promised Land, but first they had to receive the gift of the Law.
This is an amazing moment. Moses and the Israelite leadership went up to meet with God. This passage says, “They saw the God of Israel.” The God on that mountain was the God of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not know Him very well. They had spent four hundred years in Egypt. The Israelites had lost touch with their God. They knew the foreign gods and recognized that the signs of nature could be interpreted as communication from the divine. This God on the mountain was different. He was powerful. He was present. He spoke like thunder and looked like fire. They thought that if they saw the face of God, they would die. This was a special moment. “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.” They saw God, but God did not lay His hands on them. They did not die. Yet, they continued to misunderstand this God who is their Savior.
Imagine what it must have been like at the foot of the mountain when Moses went to talk with God. It must have been frightening to the people to see that cloud descend down the mountain as their leader was climbing up. Was it a bad sign? Was Moses going to be safe? What did the fire mean? Would this God really save them from their suffering?
Forty days and forty nights are a long time. We begin to worry if someone is out of our presence for even a day or two. How could Moses survive up there? For Moses it was an extraordinary experience. For forty days and nights he was in the presence of God, learning how to lead God’s people. He learned about the tabernacle, the laws, and the worship. He received the tablets of stone. When he came off the mountain, he retained some of the glory of God. It shone in his face. By then, however, the people had forgotten and they were worshipping an idol, running from that which frightened them by trying to placate the gods in a manner that they knew. In less than forty days they forgot the one who had delivered them out of bondage and returned to the ways they had known for four hundred years.
There was a time when the people could go to Moses and Elijah to hear God’s Word. They liked having someone to mediate for them. They were afraid of that God on the mountain. They were afraid of the unknown. The Law and the Prophets served a purpose; they gave the people a way to connect with the God that seemed so distant and untouchable. They gave the people instruction on how to live. They answered their troubles for today and gave them hope for tomorrow.
But they also pointed to the Jesus who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. Peter wanted to build meeting places for all three, making it possible for the people to continue to seek God’s Word from Moses and Elijah, but that was no longer necessary. He was making Moses and Elijah equal with Jesus, giving continuity to the Old Testament, but Jesus exceeds that which came before Him. Jesus is the only one who should have a meeting place. He transcends Moses and Elijah, the Law and the prophets. He is the place of mediation between God and His people.
We have reached the end of a very long Epiphany. We’ve seen the Light of God shining in the world and experienced Jesus’ presence with us in the reading of the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve learned what it means to live as Christians in this world. We are blessed not when we live on the mountain top, but when we wallow in the valley with the poor, sad, meek and hungry. We are blessed, happy, when we are dwelling among those upon whom God has mercy. We celebrate the holiness of God when we praise Him and obey His Word. We are saved and forgiven so that we will be like Him, sharing His light and His mercy in the world.
But now that Epiphany is over, we are about to set out on another long journey, that of Lent. Ash Wednesday is next week, but we don’t get there until we see the Light glorified on the mountain. The Transfiguration is the end of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of His journey to the cross. Things will change now, as we begin to see the world reacting to God’s grace with confusion and hatred. But first we see Jesus as He is completely and perfectly. He is transfigured on the mountain, glorified so that those with Him will know that He is all that He has said that He is. It may seem like Jesus has jumped the shark, but we know that Jesus is revealed as He was sent to be: the perfect Lamb of God.
There are parallels between Moses and Jesus in the texts we read this week. In the Old Testament story of Moses and the Gospel story about Jesus, we see the place where heaven meets earth, where God mingles with His people. Moses waits on the side of the mountain for six days before he is invited into the presence of God and the story of the Transfiguration happens six days after Jesus reveals His true purpose. In the case of Moses, the people thought that he would die. Jesus knew he would. Both trusted in God’s Word and obeyed God’s command, knowing that He would do what was right and necessary. Both Moses and Jesus entered into the glory of God. Both were totally covered by His Light. Both heard the voice of God and experienced His presence.
The Israelites weren’t very patient people. Moses was on the mountain for forty days, and the people feared he was dead. Instead of waiting for him to come, they turned to the gods they knew from Egypt and convinced Aaron to create an idol of gold. They worshipped the idol and sought its protection and guidance. God was not idle during those days and Moses was not dead. The people looked to themselves for salvation instead of waiting for God. They tried to take the divine into their own hands, to lift themselves into heaven.
Peter might not have tried to lift himself into heaven, but he did try to find a way to stay on that mountaintop. We are constantly trying to find ways to raise ourselves into the heavenly realms or bring heaven to earth by our own power. The ultimate human sin is that we want to become as gods. We want to be righteous by our works. We want to control the world. We want to control God. Peter wanted take the divine into his own hands and control the place where God meets man. We do the same today when we try to make God be what we want Him to be.
Thomas Aquinas was a teacher and theologian in the thirteenth century. He was a student of Aristotle’s philosophy, which was popular at that time. Aquinas found connections between that philosophy and the beliefs of the Christians. He believed that truth is known through both reason (natural revelation) and faith (supernatural revelation.) Natural revelation is available to all human beings as they use observe and experience the world in which they live. Supernatural revelation comes to men through the scriptures, the church and prophets.
God does still speak to His people. We are reminded, however, that we are to discern that which comes from God and that which comes from men. Aquinas found the Gospel in the popular philosophy of his day and he taught the people how to balance faith with intellect. He didn’t change the Christian message to fit society or culture but juxtaposed philosophy with the Gospel. False prophets change the message to fit their prophetic utterances.
Peter writes, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” And, “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” Peter understood this better than anyone. Remember: his grand confession of faith was not something he came up with on his own. He answered Jesus’ question, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but even then he didn’t truly understand what Jesus was about to accomplish. He, like the rest of the world, thought Jesus was jumping the shark. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” He was only able to confess his faith by the power of God, but just moments later he was rebuking Jesus for revealing a plan that didn’t make sense to him. And then six days later he was trying to control God’s plan again by building tabernacles for the Law and the Prophets, alongside and equal with Jesus.
Jesus is where God meets man. He is the mediator. He is the one through whom God now speaks. He hasn’t made the Law and the Prophets obsolete, but He has fulfilled them. We don’t need to go through the Law to see God and we don’t need the Prophets confirm to us that Jesus is the One for whom we have been waiting. Even today’s prophets must speak words that point to Jesus, or they are not from God’s mouth. Many of the prophetic voices of our day are speaking not from God’s power or Spirit, but from a sense that if they speak it loud enough or long enough, then it will happen. It is humorous to watch a prophet explain away his mistake, justifying his misinterpretation by reconciling it with actual events. Many prophets will wait to release a ‘word’ until after he or she can make it fit the circumstances of the day. “See, I received this word, but now I see it is true and reveal it to you.”
There are many popular preachers who teach a false gospel. Some focus on the mountaintop experiences, choosing to embrace the glory while ignoring the suffering of the cross. Others want to build tabernacles for Moses and Elijah, giving a place for the people to seek God by way of the Law and Prophets, rather than through Christ. If our works are good enough, then there is no need for Jesus to die on the cross. They make Jesus to be a good man obedient to the Law, a teacher, a rebel who fought for some type of justice.
The preachers of false Gospel do these things because they think God jumped the shark. They think the cross is outside of His character. They retell the story. The call it a myth or give it a new meaning. They explain it away, ignoring the reality of our sinfulness and our need for redemption. They reject God’s wrath and redefine Christ’s work to fit their own understanding, just like those Israelites waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Jews who rejected Jesus in those final days of His life.
But God does not jump the shark. He doesn't change His character. The plan from the very beginning was for Jesus to come and die in our stead. He came to take our sin to the cross, to pay our penalty so that we can be saved. Peter, James and John were blessed to see a brief glimpse of what is to come, but we can’t get there without the cross.
We tend to listen to Jesus when He speaks things we like to hear, but we would rather ignore the hard words. We will listen when He speaks about the promises of God, but we reject the talk about sacrifice. We listen when Jesus speaks about the love of God, but we would rather not consider how Jesus suffered His wrath on the cross. We accept His words about mercy and forgiveness when it has to do with our own sin, but we are less than willing to give mercy and forgiveness to others. Jesus told Peter, James and John just six days before the transfiguration, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Perhaps Peter forgot, or perhaps there are just some things Jesus says that we would rather not hear.
The experience ended when Jesus went to the frightened disciples and said, “Don’t be afraid.” He was no longer shining like the sun, but rather looked like the man who climbed the mountain with them. He touched them, offering healing and peace in the midst of their turmoil. Then He led them back down the mountain and commanded them to not tell anyone what they have seen until the right time.
The day did come when they would share their vision of the transfiguration with others, when the Son of Man was raised. They were His witnesses in the world. Peter wrote of his experience in today’s epistle lesson: “For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard borne out of heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount.”
In the end Peter finally understood what it was all about: Jesus doing His Father’s will. He was one of the witnesses and we have seen God’s glory through his words. Now that we have been given a glimpse of His glory, we are sent out into the world in faith to reveal to others the true character of God, so that they too might see His glory and be transformed by His grace.
The way will not always be easy. We’ll see over the next few weeks how difficult it was for Jesus. During Holy Week we will watch as He is beaten and rejected and eventually killed. We will experience the disappointment that He is not the victorious military leader who will become an earthly king. We will wrestle with the reality that our sinfulness leads to death, but find hope in the promise that God has saved us with the most radical solution. We've seen Jesus in His glory on the mountaintop, but we’ll see the even greater glory of the cross. It is there that Jesus was crowned Eternal King, and it is there that God truly meets us, where heaven really did touch the earth.
We need not be afraid because God will never lay His hand upon us; we can see God and dwell in His presence forever because Jesus is our mediator. In faith we take up our cross and follow Him. This is not simply an acceptance of the bad things that will come our way. Once we've seen the glory on the mountaintop, we are called to follow Jesus to the cross. We begin that journey on Ash Wednesday, as we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Our journey takes us to the cross of Christ where we also die. We die to self. We die to our own ambitions, our own understanding, our own interpretations.
It was no good for Jesus, Peter, James and John to stay on top of the mountain. Jesus had to move forward. He had to get to the cross. The Law and the Prophets said many things about Jesus, but here’s the most important thing: Jesus, the beloved Son was sent by the Father to fulfill all righteous by suffering for the sake of God’s people. It might seem out of character, but it was the plan all along. Christ died so that we can live.
“And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren: and whom he foreordained, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth? It is Christ Jesus that died, yea rather, that was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Even as it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:28-39, ASV
What is your most prized possession? As we enter into the hurricane and tornado seasons, we often ask the question, “What would you take with you if you had to evacuate immediately? Of course, many of us will include the truly important things: we would take our family, our pets, our important papers, old photos, vital medicines, a bible, some clothes and food. It makes sense to take these things because we do not know how long we will be away from our homes or whether there will be anything left when we get back. We take what we need and what is irreplaceable.
But the question here is “What is your most prized possession?” What one thing would you want to take with you if you had to leave everything else behind? Do not think in terms of necessities, assume that you can get all the food, clothes and medicine you need. Is there a favorite book? A piece of jewelry? A curio that was given by someone you love? Do you have a favorite cross or piece of art? An old toy? A copy of a poem or prayer? Is your prized possession important because it is valuable or because it is sentimental?
Now imagine yourself out in the world. You don’t need to worry about food, drink or shelter. Everything you need is provided. All you have is your one prized possession. One day you realize that your one thing is the only thing that will save the world. You can’t just give it up; you have to destroy it. You might think that the answer is easy. It is just a thing. Whether it is valuable or sentimental, it is not worth more than the whole world. Of course you give it up for the sake of the world. But is it really that easy? This is your only connection to your past. It is the only thing that is yours; it is part of your identity, your history, your family. Your whole life is wrapped up in that one thing. We don’t think we should be defined by things we possess, but the reality is that we are. People can’t see our hearts, but they can understand us better by seeing the things we hold dear.
With that thought it mind, can you destroy it? You think it should be easy. We know that we can’t take it to heaven, so it shouldn’t matter that much. Isn’t it better to sacrifice what we have for the sake of others? We quickly answer “Yes” because we feel guilty that we have so much and we do not think that we’d ever be in that position. But think about this: the homeless people on the street are very often in the position I’ve laid out here. They have very little, but they have something. They carry all their possessions in a bag, a backpack, or a cart of some sort. They never let it out of their sight. In times of stress they hold on to those bags as if it is a lifeline. It is, of a sort. It is everything they have. Their whole life is wrapped up in their bag. It would not be such an easy answer for them.
Of course, we could never save the entire world by destroying our one and only prize possession, but this kind of philosophical exercise makes us think about how it must have been for God. I purposely did not ask you to think about giving up someone you love, because there is no way we could ever match the incredible sacrifice. There are numerous stories out there about people who have let their children die for the sake of another, and if they are true they are beautiful and inspirational. That answer would be multiple times harder to give. How do we give up one life to save another? Besides, there is no way that the one life of a loved one could save the entire world.
Unless that life is Jesus’. Jesus is the beloved Son, and all of heaven and earth was wrapped up in Him. He is God’s Son, and as God’s Son the only way to save the world, including you and me, was to destroy Him. We will enter into Lent next week, on our way to the cross, and we’ll see how the world accepted and rejected Jesus Christ. During Holy Week we’ll see how the world accepted and rejected Him. We’ll see His trial, His suffering, His death. And we’ll blame those who caused it. We’ll even blame ourselves, and rightly so. But in the end, Jesus the Son died at the hand of His own Father, destroyed to save the world.
And now, in faith, we can rest in the knowledge that nothing will stand in the way of God’s love for us. Because God destroyed the one thing that He held most dear, His Son, we have been saved to be His sons and daughters for eternity.
Those of us who live in Christ have a hope that goes beyond the things of this world. We know God’s love will see us through everything we face. Even death cannot hold us down. Live your life in Christ knowing that nothing can separate you from Him. As God shines upon you, the light will touch others, and they will be blessed. Be faithful and hopeful, for out of that will come true joy and peace. We have the victory, and though there are still battles being fought, we know the outcome of this war. God defeated death and the grave by the life of His beloved Son for our sake and for the sake of the world.
“Now unto him that is able to guard you from stumbling, and to set you before the presence of his glory without blemish in exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, before all time, and now, and for evermore. Amen.” Jude 1:24-25, ASV
Zac Hicks is the worship pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He writes on a recent blog: “James K. A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom, reminds us that the very form and rituals of worship have a shaping effect on us. We don’t just become more godly by learning the theology of the songs and imbibing the propositional content of the sermon. Our desires and habits, as we move along the path of the liturgy, are shaped to more subconsciously and instinctively move along the direction of that path. For instance, I have been in a context where I have experienced the same weekly liturgy of Confession, Assurance, and Repentance for over ten years now. I now find that I have new instincts and desires when I slip into sin. With nearly Pavlovian certainty, my heart drops to its knees, I acknowledge it before God, I preach the good news to my heart of God’s assurance of my pardon through Christ, and I find greater strength to turn and re-commit myself to God’s service. Repeated liturgy makes you love it and live it every day of the week. There are many things that we could point out about the shaping effect of the Doxology.”
He goes on to point out three: the Doxology shapes us into whole worshipers; the Doxology blows open the supernatural nature of worship; and the Doxology makes us a Trinitarian people. In this case, Zac is referencing the Doxology with which most of us are familiar: Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” You can see his points in these words. The first two lines remind us we are part of something greater, it gives us a reason for singing praise to God. He has created us and the world and blesses us daily in so many ways. The next line reminds us that we join in the praise of heaven as well as earth. Worship is not a mundane, commonplace experience, but is supernatural in its very nature. Finally, we sing praise to God as He is, a Trinity, a single Godhead of three distinct but equal persons.
This particular doxology is not the only one. Many liturgical resources use a doxology to follow the reading of the psalms, bringing the fullness of God into the worship hymns of our forefathers. That doxology is, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” It is also appropriate to say before a meal or after the reading of God’s Word. In all things, it brings our hearts and minds into worship of God in His fullness.
There are times when we hear the Word of God and it rips through our flesh and shows us our true nature. This can be upsetting, bringing us into a sense of worthlessness, making it impossible to do God’s Work. But if we sing a doxology, a hymn of praise, we are reminded of the greatness and the glory of our Lord. Law is meant to convict us, but a doxology reminds us of the Gospel, God’s message of grace that makes us whole again.
We look around us at the world today, particularly at the Church, and we see so many problems. Many people refuse to become part of a congregation because they see nothing but hypocritical sinners. “If only there were a church like is was in the early days.” Sadly, the letter of Jude shows us that things weren’t better back then. In Jude’s letter we discover that he was surrounded by godless men. He wrote to remind them of the destruction that came to those in the past who did not believe. He warned about those who followed the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. “These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their advantage.” We are all guilty, and need to be reminded of our sin.
Despite the harsh nature of his letter, Jude doesn’t leave them in despair. He calls them to repentance and perseverance, reminding them of the Gospel and encouraging them to build their faith so that they will not follow the foolish ways of the godless. He ends the letter with today’s passage, “Now unto him that is able to guard you from stumbling, and to set you before the presence of his glory without blemish in exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, before all time, and now, and for evermore. Amen.”
This, too, is a doxology. It gives us a reason to praise God, reminds us that worship reaches beyond our daily existence, and establishes the nature and character of the God who is worthy of our praise. If Jude had written only of the godlessness in the Church, God’s people would have felt unworthy to do His work. He understood the importance of a doxology, and though he showed people their sin he also reminded them of the source of forgiveness and strength. Whenever we preach a word that cuts to the heart, let us always follow with a doxology of praise to our God and Savior, so that we can all go out with hearts filled with the wholeness of God.