Welcome to the February 2016 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, February 2016
"Jehovah make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: Jehovah lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." Numbers 6:25-26, ASV
I spent the weekend with a group of women from my church at my favorite camp. It was a fantastic weekend in every sense: the weather was perfect, the company was delightful and the lessons were inspiring. We sought God's face and in many ways we saw Him. We learned a new way to study the scriptures and we learned that pondering God's Word means getting our whole beings involved. We had prayer stations set up in the chapel that guided us into thinking about our relationship with God through our senses, including pondering patience with a Tootsie Pop.
We shared the camp with a group of college students who were 'Listening for God." We did not see much of them, although we sometimes passed one another on the pathways and we ate together in the dining hall. I enjoyed asking them about their retreat as we served up our food at the buffet line, discovering at least a few knew my own children from their time at camp and university. The students were from my daughter's alma mater.
It is camp, so meal prayers were often the songs used during the summer when hundreds of children enjoy the camp. The theme for this year's camp is "Saints and Superheroes" so our hostess led us in a table grace using the musical theme from Superman. It is silly and fun and a great way to thank God for His bounty. Later that day we were in the chapel at the prayer stations and a couple of us went outside for a moment. My friend looked up in the sky and saw Jesus' face in the clouds. "Look, there He is!" Even better is that the surrounding clouds made Jesus look like He was flying, just like Superman. It might be that my friend and I have wonderful imaginations, but we took this to be a Holy Spirit moment between us and the God we were pondering together.
Later that day, after our final session, we were invited to go out into the darkness of camp, where the sky was filled with the twinkling stars we don't see much in the cities where we live. We were to simply stand in awe of the God who created it all. In the distance, somewhere else in camp, we heard the voices of those college students singing their own praise to God. "I exalt you..." they sang to the strummed chords of a guitar. It wasn't planned; it was another Holy Spirit moment between us and the God who can do truly amazing things for His people. I'm sure there were many more Holy Spirit moments for the campers at both retreats, most of them very personal.
God wants us to experience Him, not only in those moments that we deem sacred, as in worship, but in our everyday life. He wants us to experience Him with our whole beings, to catch those Holy Spirit moments that happen to us every day. We miss so many of them because we are busy running from one place to another or just doing the stuff we have to do. Perhaps we don't pay attention because we think God is too busy to pay attention to us when we are cooking dinner or driving our kids to daycare, but God is never far from us; He is always ready to shine His face and touch our hearts with His grace.
The text from Numbers is my prayer for you today. I know that God will give you those Holy Spirit moments, and I hope you will seek Him with your whole being so that you will see and experience His peace.
"Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things that were heard, lest haply we drift away from them. For if the word spoken through angels proved stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation? which having at the first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard; God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will." Hebrews 2:1-4, ASV
This is what I've noticed recently: God has a way of confirming what He is saying to His people.
Have you ever had one of those thoughts that seemed to come to you from somewhere beyond yourself, one of those Holy Spirit moments? It isn't necessarily that you've heard an audible voice or a visit from an angel, but you see or hear something and it turns our thoughts to the things of God. This devotion is often built on those experiences.
How many of those moments have been followed by thoughts of doubt. You hear something, but the world seems to be telling you something completely different. I don't think any of us really feel like God is talking so directly to us, so when we have these thoughts we think we might be crazy. Or, we don't believe what we've thought. We question the idea because it seems as though we are the only one who has thought it. How could it be true if everyone else thinks differently?
Then you see a story or talk to a friend. You see a meme on Facebook with a scripture quote that parallels the thought. You read an article with a similar story and realize that you are not the only person who has been hearing these ideas.
Let me give you an example from just a few days ago. I wrote about the child pulling on the pants leg, seeking our full attention. The child just wants a moment of our time to tell us how much they love us, but we are often much too busy to bend over and listen. We miss the moment because we are caught up in life. I have been amazed at how many times in the past week I've heard stories about how other people are learning this very lesson. One woman at the retreat this week shared how she realized that she should spend more time with her daughter while she was coloring at one of the prayer stations. She said, "My daughter is constantly trying to get me to play, but I have other things to do. I wonder how many moments I've missed?" She said that she would find more time to color with her daughter; the prayer station taught her that not only would it be good for her relationship with the girl, but also with God.
Then today I read an article about a woman who decided to put down her cell phone and just watch her twin boys for a time. She kept track of the moments they sought her attention, the times they called out for acknowledgement that she saw what they were doing. It happened twenty-eight times in a half hour. She wondered how many times she ignored those cries, teaching her children that the Internet is more important than them. A comment under the story was from a woman who was playing with her son. Her phone was at hand and she kept looking at it during the game. The boy touched her hand, took the phone and set it aside upside down. She hadn't even realized how little attention she was paying him until he showed her.
I am not personally dealing with little kids who need my attention at the moment and my big problem with my cell phone is remembering to carry it with me. However, this experience has shown me that God doesn't use just one voice to make His points to His people. Here, in less than a week, several different people of their own volition made exactly the same point. It surely didn't start with my devotion, but my voice was just one of many making the same cry in our world today. I believe this is God's work in and through His people; it is obviously something God wants us to hear.
I'm currently working on a bible study that I will present at my church next week. The thoughts in the study seemed to come out of nowhere when I thought them a couple years ago. I thought I was crazy, and the world would probably say that I am. Yet, as I took the idea and began to study it, looking for ancient and modern references, understanding the history and language, I have discovered that I am not the first person to think of it. As a matter of fact, some people much more educated than I have already present papers and studies about the matter. They stand as witnesses that this is God's work and I'm just another voice.
Oh, we are really good at coming up with those crazy ideas that aren't from God and thinking they are. We believe in our hearts and we hold onto them, thinking surely God has blessed us with something new. This is how many of the modern prophets think. However, we can be deceived, our hearts can be led astray. It is better for us to look for the witnesses, to seek confirmation of our thoughts through the scripture and to ask God if what we have heard is really from Him. See, God has not changed. My thoughts about paying attention to the children is not new, although the circumstances in our modern world might be different. Jesus told us to pay attention to the children. Our thoughts about God and faith will never be new, but God will use us regularly to remind one another of His Word. And when He really wants us to hear the message, He'll use many voices to share it.
God still talks to His people; He does so through His people. May we always listen and seek to hear the many witnesses He has called to confirm that the word we hear is real and true.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 7, 2016, Transfiguration Sunday: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 99; Hebrews 3:1-6; Luke 9:28-36
"And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my Son, my chosen: hear ye him." Luke 9:35, ASV
"And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses..." Moses was a great man. There is no doubt about the importance Moses has in the story of God's people. After all, Charleton Heston played him in the movie "Ten Commandments." I joke a bit, of course, but we certainly have given a special place in the history of faith to Moses, deservedly so. Moses was a man who trusted God by standing up to those who could destroy him. He led God's people out of Egypt and delivered them to the Promised Land. He received the Law, the Ten Commandments and gave God's people guidance and direction in both civil and religious matters. He stood with God, face to face. We remember Moses for his faith because even when he doubted, he believed God and obeyed. We have placed him on a pedestal; the faithful of the Abrahamic religions call him a great prophet.
But Moses was far from perfect. Moses ultimately became frustrated with the people and did not honor God. In Numbers 20 we hear the story of when Moses smote the rock to get water for the people and the cattle to drink. Moses was commanded to hold up his staff and speak the word of God, but instead Moses hit the rock with the staff twice. "And Jehovah said unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them." (Numbers 20:12, ASV) By hitting the rock with the staff, Moses usurped the power of God. To those watching, the miracle was in the action, not the Word. This one action, after years of obedient faithfulness, caused Moses to be left behind.
But God is gracious. Even though Moses was faithless at that moment, God still honored Moses, "There has never been a prophet like Moses." The Israelites continued to hold Moses in high regard, almost to the point of putting him above God. Even to the days of Jesus, Moses was seen as more than just the man who led them out of Egypt. He was the deliverer. He was the lawgiver. They knew God was behind it, but they gave the credit to Moses. If God had allowed him to go on, they might have made him like a god, but Moses was just a man. He was a man chosen and gifted by God to do great and wonderful things, but he was just a man.
And so for his faithlessness, Moses was buried on the other side of the Jordan. He was not allowed to enter into the Promised Land. However, God is gracious and merciful: He gave Moses the chance to see it. Moses died with the reality of God's faithfulness in his sight. God did what God promised Abraham He would do. His people were home after four hundred years, after slavery, after forty years of wandering.
There was something else to notice in this story. When Moses died, he laid his hand upon Joshua and gave him the authority to continuing leading God's people into the Promised Land. Moses only went so far and then had to turn the responsibility over to another. This was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Even the name parallels the stories, since Joshua and Jesus are different forms of the same name. While Joshua is not Jesus, Joshua was the one who finished the Exodus; he led God's people home, just as Jesus does for us.
We see Moses again in today's Gospel lesson. Despite his faithlessness at that one moment in time, God still honors the work Moses did in obedience to Godís call. Moses may have failed, but he was also faithful. Isn't that true of all of us? We all respond faithfully to the call of God, but we often fail. Sometimes we even do things that seem to put us ahead of God. Like Moses in the desert, we make a big show of our power and authority and though we mean it to glorify God, it becomes more about the act than the Word.
Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain to pray. These three were the center of His ministry, always nearby. Despite their importance to Jesus, they were as human as Moses and us. What were they doing while Jesus prayed? They were sleeping! How often do we find ourselves so exhausted by the journey of life that we end up sleeping through the best parts?
They woke up just in time to see Elijah and Moses were talking to Jesus. What a strange and wonderful vision this must have been for them. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets and it was believed would come again to announce the Messiah. Moses had experienced the presence of God so completely that he was transformed by it, and in those encounters he was given the Law by which God's people were expected to live. They began the work of God, but Jesus finished it. They delivered and redeemed God's people for a season, but Jesus did it forever. Jesus was the one who revealed God's mercy and grace, the true deliverer of the people.
"And behold, there talked with him two men, who were Moses and Elijah; who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem." As I read through the texts for today, I noticed that it said that Jesus, Moses and Elijah spoke about Jesus' "decease." This struck me because the NIV translates that word "departure." I looked up the Greek and discovered that the word here is "exodus," which means "exit, departure; the close of one's career, one's final fate; departure from life, decease." Isn't it interesting that what Jesus does on the cross is all three? He departs this world, He ends His 'career' and He dies. We know, however, that like the first Exodus, the death of Moses was not the end, so too the death of Jesus was not the end of His work. He did leave this world, but He came back transformed and He will return again. His work as Rabbi to the disciples was finished, but He never stopped being Lord to us all. The cross ended His flesh, but not His life. At the end of this exodus, Joshua/Jesus/Yeshua takes us all into the eternal Promised Land.
We see, once again, the human tendency to need to 'do something.' Peter, James and John saw Jesus in His glory; they heard God's voice declare Jesus as the beloved One. But they followed Him to His moment of glory only to discover that the brilliance and magnificence was fleeting. Peter did not want it to end. He did not know what to do with the experience, except perhaps to grasp onto it as a symbol of the hope they had that Jesus was to be the One sent to save them from their earthly troubles. Peter offered to build a permanent structure, tabernacles for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Peter wanted to take control; for him it became more about the act than the Word.
Peter was interrupted by a voice from heaven. A cloud came down and covered them and they were afraid. "This is my Son, my chosen: hear ye him." The voice does not command the disciples to bow down and worship Jesus, to follow Him or even obey Him. God commanded the disciples to hear Him. They were to listen to Jesus. God's word matters and it is Jesus who speaks God's word with faithfulness. We are to believe and do whatever He says.
The writer of Hebrews says, "For every house is builded by some one; but he that built all things is God." God does not negate the ministry of those who are sent to be like Moses or Elijah; He calls us to continue the work of Christ in this world today. However, He reminds us that something matters more than our action: His Word. Jesus is our hope and our salvation and more worthy of our praise and thanksgiving, for He has built the house.
The psalmist reminds us that God spoke to the Israelites through the pillar of cloud and through His priests. He spoke to them through His Law. "They kept his testimonies, and the statute that he gave them.Ē In later times, God spoke through His prophets. Moses and Elijah represent the people God chose to speak His words to the people. And then God sent His Son. Now, we hear God's words through the stories of Jesus, through the scriptures, through the people who are still called to preach and teach today. God speaks through our priests, pastors, preachers, missionaries, prophets and teachers. He speaks through other Christians. He speaks through us.
We must remember, however, that what is important is not the work we do, but that we remain true and faithful to God's Word. Unfortunately, we often act in response to our circumstances without really listening to God. That's when we show our own faithlessness. Moses hit the rock because he was frustrated by the continued faithlessness of the people, and in doing so showed his own faithlessness. Peter offered to build tabernacles for Jesus, Moses and Elijah because he didnít want the moment to end, and in doing so ignored the true ministry to which he was called.
How often do we act when we should simply listen and obey?
But God is gracious. Even when we are faithless, He is faithful. We may suffer the consequences of misguided trust, but God will let us see the Promised Land. And though Moses did not enter with the people when they finally crossed the Jordan, he was not forgotten by God. He was still honored for his obedience and faith by standing in the glory of the Savior who will take us all into the Promised Land. We, too, will fail but one day we will also stand in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. And when we do, it will be for eternity because by His grace we have been made a part of His house forever.
As God told Peter, James and John on the mountaintop on that day when Jesus was transfigured before them, the most important thing we can do is listen to Jesus because He is God's Son, the Chosen One.
"His disciples say, Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no dark saying. Now know we that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee: by this we believe that thou camest forth from God. Jesus answered them, Do ye now believe? Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye may have peace. In the world ye have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." John 16:29-33, ASV
I have a book that helps explain some of Jesus' harder sayings. It was one of those books that I bought as a reference, but have to admit that I didn't spend very much time studying. I'm not sure why, probably time. It is possible that I became more confused as I looked through it. It might be that I discovered quickly that I didn't agree with the world view of the writer. The lesson learned is that we are constantly trying to figure out what Jesus meant when He preached and taught the disciples and the crowds during His life.
The comfort is that even the disciples, who spent three years with Jesus, didn't understand those hard teachings either. They were just like me, probably more confused as Jesus explained the lessons, or they had difficulty with Jesus' world view. They certainly expected a different kind of Messiah, so on this eve before Jesus' crucifixion, the truth was finally becoming clear. They were going to be disappointed because the throne that Jesus was going to mount was not what they were expecting.
Today's passage comes near to the end of Jesus' Farewell Discourse in John. It is a lengthy monologue, John 14-17, spoken as the disciples gathered for Jesus' final Passover meal. Jesus prayed for His disciples, gave them a few final thoughts, encouraged them to face the difficulties with faith and warned them of what would happen.
They didn't get it. They were confused because Jesus was not making sense in their minds, despite three years of Jesus telling them that this is the way things had to be. He repeatedly told them that He would have to suffer and die, but they held out hope that Jesus would overcome the persecution and take the throne of Israel. We look back on those references to His death found during His ministry and wonder how they could miss it, but we have to remember that we see the cross through hindsight. We know the end of the story; they didn't.
Sometimes it all seems so clear; sometimes we wonder what God is trying to tell us. This has been true of every generation of Christian since the very beginning. Sometimes what is clear for me is confusing for you and vice versa. God speaks to us as individuals even as He has spoken to all His people. Sometimes the lesson just makes sense to one of us more easily than others. I have to admit that I get frustrated when I try to explain something as I understand it, but it doesn't make any sense to someone else. I have to remember that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to us and I am simply a helper. It is amazing, not only for me but also for pastors and other teachers, when someone 'gets it' but the 'it' is completely different than what we were trying to teach -- that's the Holy Spirit revealing the Living Word to a person in need.
The funniest part of this story is that the disciples said, "We finally get it!" and Jesus was excited for them. Yet, it was only hours later when they were cast into doubt and confusion again, fulfilling Jesus' words! They heard, they understood and then they didn't know what was happening. The same happens to us when we face times of difficulty, frustration and confusion. We will seek out God's Word in desperate need and it often seems even more confusing and unbelievable. However, Jesus says to us in those times as well as the good times, "Be of good cheer! I have overcome the world."
"Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me. Father, I desire that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world knew thee not, but I knew thee; and these knew that thou didst send me; and I made known unto them thy name, and will make it known; that the love wherewith thou lovedst me may be in them, and I in them." John 17:20-26, ASV
I have an organizational arrangement that I like to call chaotic order. I know that's an oxymoron. As with many people who live in a cluttered and chaotic world, I claim I know where everything is, that I just need to find it in this pile or on that shelf. That works, sometimes. Most of the time, however, I begin looking and realize it doesn't look like I remember it or it got moved the last time I cleaned. I usually find what I seek, but it sometimes takes much more time than I planned.
That's what happened to me yesterday as I was organizing my bible study materials. The class I'm teaching at church is more free-form; we are talking theology (the study of God) while we look in depth at scripture. It is free-form because we aren't using any published materials, but I spend hours preparing so that we can fill our time with informed conversation. That's what I want from the group; I want us to discover God's Word together. But even so, it is important that I have some background to get us going and to fill in the quiet moments.
I do a lot of research, and I often print information so that I have it handy. I also have pages of handwritten notes taken as I wandered through the scriptures or listened to a lecture. As I was preparing a notebook for future class topics, I knew I had certain pages that would help with one topic I'm planning. I began looking through my notebooks, which number in the dozens, for a couple specific pieces of paper. In the process, I realized that my chaotic order would be a challenge for anyone who comes after me. Yet, I hope that all that paper does not simply get recycled, but is organized into my own theological legacy.
Clearly that is an overly optimistic goal, just like my wish to have one of my paintings hanging in a museum someday. It isn't that I really strive to leave a legacy, but that I hope my work picking through God's Word will continue to inspire and transform people long after I'm gone. See, I want my love for God to last in this world long after I'm loving God in eternity. We don't do this just for ourselves; we live and believe and share for those who will come after us. We all leave a legacy with our faith; we all leave those behind who have seen our love for God and who share that love with future generations. If my research helps someone grow in love and faith someday, then God has certainly been a blessing to me and through me. That chaotic order is filled with God's grace as He has continued to reveal Himself to His people in His Word, and through those notebooks, I pray, future generations will know the love of God that dwells in them through Jesus Christ our Lord.
"So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly." Ecclesiastes 7:25, NIV
I don't know why, but I have been thinking of a friend from a long time ago. We were friends because we had a great deal in common, although we didn't live near one another. She was from a town a couple hours away, but we belonged to chapters of the same organization and saw one another often at meetings. We were the same age and were both named Peggy. We loved the organization to which we belonged and we worked hard to make it even better. Even our hobbies were similar.
That's why I was devastated the day I heard that my friend Peggy was killed by a drunk driver. She was just sixteen years old, a new driver on her way to her job. The drunk driver hit her so hard that she died instantly (the only silver lining), her car was unrecognizable and so was she. Peggy was not the first person I knew who died, but she was the first who was killed by the actions of a selfish, stupid, useless human being. Her death was very hard on me; I was depressed for a while, and though I never seriously contemplated suicide, I wanted to die.
A few years later I had a similar encounter, but obviously mine ended much differently. I was working in New Jersey, traveling to different parties to do quality control for a mobile disc jockey company. I was making a left turn, at the green arrow, right in front of a police station, when a drunk and drugged driver hit my car. The car spun around several times before it came to a stop in the middle of the intersection. You never know what might have been, but I believe that my seatbelt saved my life. I had an unopened can of soda on the seat beside me which flew into the dashboard and exploded. That could have been me. Thankfully, the driver hit only my rear passenger fender, and though I was quite shaken by the accident, I was able to drive away from the scene. The other drive was arrested by the officer that just happened to watch the accident happen right in front of him.
I guess it would be no surprise to you, then, that one of my favorite commercials from the big game last night was the one from Budweiser starring Helen Mirren. She's one of my favorite actresses and she was so perfect for the part. "Hello," she says, sitting in a fancy restaurant. "I'm Helen Mirren, a notoriously frank and uncensored British lady." She goes on to talk about how she just can't understand how anyone still drives drunk. "If you drive drunk, you -- simply put -- are a shortsighted, utterly useless, oxygen-wasting human form of pollution, a Darwin award-deserving selfish coward." She finished her rant with a word of grace, "Now, the chances are you're a fun, solid, respectable human being." And then a word of advice, "Don't be a pillock."
You may have been a little offended by my calling the drunk driver who killed my friend a "selfish, stupid, useless human being. I learned a long time ago that we should not call someone stupid. It isn't very nice to say they are selfish or useless. Isn't it funny that the lovely and sophisticated Helen Mirren used all three of those words in the commercial? Of course, she found a much nicer word (mostly because most Americans don't have a clue what "pillock" means) for the word "stupid." As much as we probably should not use words like "stupid," it is the perfect word to describe those who drive drunk.
I agree that we must be careful about the language we use, particularly when describing another human being. Sometimes, however, it is important to call a thing what it is, as we saw so eloquently in the Budweiser commercial. A duck is a duck and a person who drives drunk is definitely a pillock. We might think that our sin, no matter what it is, does not harm our neighbors. Fortunately a majority of drunk drivers somehow make it home in one piece without the accident that steals someone we love from this world. Most people who drive buzzed are really fun, solid, respectable human beings. However, we are reminded that all it takes is one moment to change our lives forever. Don't be stupid; instead, seek wisdom and live accordingly, for God calls us to live for the sake of others.
"Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and declare unto my people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways: as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near unto God. Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find your own pleasure, and exact all your labors. Behold, ye fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye fast not this day so as to make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Jehovah? Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of Jehovah shall by thy rearward. Then shalt thou call, and Jehovah will answer; thou shalt cry, and he will say, Here I am." Isaiah 58:1-9a, ASV
Today is the day before Ash Wednesday, often referred to as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. What is it all about? For many people, it is a day to go overboard, to party until they can't party any longer. They don't know why they are partying, except for the fact that it is Fat Tuesday, the day to go overboard. Christians throughout history have marked this day with carnivals and celebrations to indulge before the Lenten fast. The traditions for Fat Tuesday include foods that use up the things that must be removed from the house like eggs, milk and sugar. In England we ate pancakes. In Finland they eat a sweet bread pastry filled with whipped cream and jam. In Pennsylvania Dutch culture, we ate fastnachts, which is a potato donut.
When I was a kid we just bought donuts from the donut shop for Fastnacht Day, but my husband's family is Pennsylvania Dutch. I got the recipe from my mother-in-law a long time ago and I've made the fastnachts most years since. The recipe makes a lot of donuts; this year I got eight dozen donuts and eight dozen donut holes. That is more than we can possibly eat, so I usually force everyone in the house to take some to work. This year we took some to church and gave some to friends.
When I posted pictures of the donuts, a friend said, "That's a lot of donuts." She told me she had never gotten into making them herself. I told her that sometimes I wished I had never gotten into the habit. It is a lot of work. The work is appreciated by those who get to enjoy them because they are really yummy, but I always end up feeling it in my back the next day. All this so we can overindulge the day before we plan to fast for seven weeks. It is a good thing we don't really fast the way they did a long time ago, because we are going to be eating fastnachts for at least a few more days.
But that brings up the annual question: what are you going to fast for Lent? Are you planning to give something up? We don't get rid of our eggs, milk and sugar any longer. Most people will give up something more personal. Some will give up that daily trip to the coffee shop or that chocolate bar they like to eat at 3:00 every afternoon. Others will give up Facebook or video games. Our pastor suggested that we fast "noise." He was referring to the electronic noise that we always have all around us. He said we should turn off the computer and TV, put down our phones. We should open our Bibles instead or spend time in prayer.
Others will take on some sort of challenge, a daily commitment to do something. One site I read today suggested filling a bag a day to rid your house of all that extra 'stuff' that weighs us down. There are dozens of groups providing daily devotionals or bible readings. Some have put out lists of words with the challenge for readers to take a photo and post it on social media. I've done this several times and found a list I like this year so I might do it again. Another group has made a list of people for which we should pray and perhaps even write a note, such as a person who hurt you are a teacher who had an impact. Another group suggests finding some way to give something away each day; buy a cup of coffee for someone or donate food to a food bank.
It doesn't hurt for us to fast the things on which we tend to overdo during the rest of the year; unfortunately, most people will overindulge in those very things the moment Lent is over. The practice will not have brought them any closer to God or made them any more aware of their need for Christ.
There are a million things we could do over the next forty days, things that either challenge us to do something for someone else or something more personal in our lives. This fasting, whether it is giving something up or taking something one, is not meant to be a burden. Instead whatever we choose to do should help us look more seriously at our own lives, our sinfulness and our need for Jesus Christ. Lent is about preparing ourselves for the sacrificial gift of Christ on Good Friday and then the ultimate salvation He won for us on Easter. We take the time in Lent to remind ourselves of our need for God's salvation, so whatever we choose should be something that turns our thoughts to God's Word where we hear His story. Then, when Lent is over, we are living our lives closer to the way God is calling us to live.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 14, 2016, First Sunday in Lent: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-13; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
"For, whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Romans 10:13, ASV
We begin Lent with the story of Jesus' temptation immediately following His baptism. We do this because Lent is a time when we are reminded of the temptations we face in this life. We are encouraged during Lent to face our own temptations and fight them with God's Word, just as Jesus did in the wilderness. Jesus confronted the temptation to fill His belly with the word, "It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone." He rejected the temptation to receive worldly authority, because Satan demanded to be worshipped. Jesus answered, "It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve." He confronted the temptation to follow an easier path with the word, "It is said, Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God." Jesus faced the temptations of flesh, power and faith with God's Word and He prevailed against it.
Most of us have probably chosen something to fast for the next seven weeks. I have to admit that it would be far easier to fast from chocolate or whatever we love to eat if I had to do so wandering in a wilderness. It is extremely difficult to avoid eating that Oreo cookie that I know is in the cookie jar, and I don't rid my house of them because others are not fasting. I haven't really chosen to fast Oreos, so it doesn't really matter, but I am not sure that I'm strong enough to do so while there are Oreos around. We live in a world surrounded by temptations and it is very, very difficult to avoid falling for them.
Our pastor suggested that we choose to fast something that we don't eat; in particular he suggested we fast 'noise.' He was talking about how we are surrounded constantly by noise: the radio, televisions, computers, cell phones, etc. It isn't just that we live in a noisy world; we live in a world that is constantly demanding our attention. Advertisers want us to hear their pitch. Politicians want us to hear their campaign promises. Activists want us to hear their latest dispute with the world. You can't go anywhere these days without finding television screens, even the grocery store. Everyone wants to sell you something whether it is a product or an idea. They want your attention. They want your loyalty.
It would probably be a good idea for me to fast politics; I admit that I've done it other years. It is extremely difficult, however, to do so during such an important election year. I want to avoid hearing all the hype, but I know that somewhere in the midst of the noise is information I need to make a good decision. How do I avoid reading those articles or listening to the reports for the next seven weeks and still do my duty as a citizen of this country?
It would be much easier to avoid temptation in that wilderness where Jesus faced Satan. We can't put down our cell phones because we have learned to rely on them to keep us in touch with our family. We can't turn off the television because the one joy we have each week is watching "The Big Bang Theory." I certainly can't fast Facebook because it is where I do ministry. I will certainly try to avoid certain aspects of social media, like the games, but it will be tempting to be so close. Can I be strong?
I say that it would be much easier to avoid the temptation in that wilderness, but was it easy for Jesus? We find it difficult to understand this story because we know Jesus is perfect, sinless, both fully human and fully divine. How is temptation even a question for Him? Especially since us fallible, human beings are tempted by such unnecessary things.
The temptation in the wilderness was not an easy forty days for our Lord. Jesus doesn't need to be standing in a bakery to be tempted by bread. He is able to turn stones to bread, but it was important for Jesus to experience the time in the wilderness so that His focus is where it must be: on His Father and His Word. Satan didn't just force Jesus to confront flesh, power and faith; Satan forced Jesus to think about the ministry He was able to begin. Jesus faced not only the questions of human beings, but the questions of ministries.
Jesus was faced with three temptations, all of which we have faced at one time or another. I think the easiest for us, especially during Lent, is the temptation to fill our bellies. When we are fasting, particularly if we have chosen to give up something we love for the forty days, we hunger for it even more, especially at the end of forty days. How many people gorge themselves with chocolate on Easter Sunday because they have given it up for Lent? We justify our actions because we have been so good giving it up for so long. Notice that the devil does not come to Jesus until He was famished. The temptation was not during the forty days but at the end, "What will you do with your power once the fasting is over?"
In the first and third temptations, the devil taunts Jesus and questions His identity. "If you are the Son of God..." He is manipulating Jesus to prove Himself. How many of us keep ourselves busy with the work of the kingdom as a way of proving ourselves faithful? We think that if we are busy enough with good works then we will be assured of who we are and whose we are. Unfortunately, we get so caught up in the busy-ness of life that we often miss what is most important. We are tempted to fill our time and use all our resources on ministry that we forget to praise God and confess our faith in Him. It is honorable to do good works, to satisfy a need, to share what God has given. Jesus says, "Man does not live by bread alone." There is more to life. Good works do not save.
Jesus answered the devil's temptations with God's word. Jesus refused to worship the devil: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." Satan could not give Jesus what he was claiming anyway, but even if he could, Jesus knew that He was sent to rule a different Kingdom, not one of this world. Who are we serving when we get caught up in the busy-ness of our lives? Are we serving God, or are we serving our egos or the demands of the world around us? Sometimes we don't even realize that our busy-ness is Satan's way of keeping us from doing the very thing God is calling us to do. This happens to us as individuals, but it can also happen in our churches.
The third temptation is addressed once again to the Son of God. The devil tells Jesus to throw Himself off the roof of the temple. The angels of God are just waiting to protect Jesus from any harm, so why not prove to the world that He is the Son of God. Jesus was tempted to take a chance with His life to prove God's blessing on His life. Don't we face the same temptation? The world sees prosperity as proof of blessedness and dis-ease as proof of sin and rejection. If someone is suffering, then they must have done something wrong. If they are happy, healthy and wealthy then they must have done something right. If the pews of our megachurch are full, then we must be blessed, even if we are preaching something other than God's Word.
Some Christians have built their ministries on this idea" a theology of glory. This is righteousness that is defined by a manifestation of blessedness. They take God's Word and fit it to meet their needs and desires. They seek God's power for all the wrong reasons, to bring wealth and fame and power, rather than to glorify God. Jesus knew the temptations we would face today; He faced them Himself in that wilderness experience. Satan did not just offer Jesus a loaf of bread, a kingdom or angelic protection. He was offering Him an incredible ministry of miracles, authority and power. Satan was trying to prove Jesus was nothing more than any other man, easily tempted away from God's will to a self-centered ministry.
Sometimes Christians try to prove their faithfulness by testing God's promises. The Psalm for this week tells us that God will protect those who love Him from the sting of the snake and the teeth of the lion. Some Christians even prove their faith by wrestling with poisonous snakes or taking other chances. Yet Jesus reminds us that we are not to put the Lord our God to the test.
Jesus did not prove Himself to be the Son of God by turning stones into bread or by testing God's faithfulness with foolish actions like jumping off the roof of the Temple. Jesus proved He was the Son of God by dwelling in the presence of God and relying on His faithfulness. He was secure in His calling to save the world. The proof was not in what Jesus did. Jesus did not come to feed the hungry, to rule over the nations or to be a famous preacher. Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God because He dwelt in the power of the Most High God, turning to God's Word and God's promises as the foundation of all that He was to do. He came to die, to bring forgiveness and healing to a world that was sick and dying from sin. He was Immanuel, God with us, and from then until now God no longer lives in a temple. Instead, He lives within the hearts of those who believe.
Whatever we choose to do as we go on this Lenten journey, let's remember that we aren't trying to prove ourselves. We feel pretty good at the end of the forty days when we manage to survive our fasting without failure. I am still delighted to say that a Lenten fast from years ago continues today because I stopped drinking so much soda. I love the paintings I produced during last year's Lenten challenges. These practices had an impact on my, not just spiritually but in my daily life. But we are reminded that this is not the reason we go on this journey. We follow Jesus to draw near to God. We practice our devotions and fasting to remind ourselves how to call on the name of the Lord.
Lent teaches us how to abide in God even as we have to face the difficulties and temptations of this world. The end of our Lenten journey is not pleasant. We have to face the cross with Jesus, deal with His death and the end of our assumptions about what He really came to do. We want Jesus to feed us, to be our king and for the whole world to believe in Him as we do. But we realize as He is hanging on the cross that this is not how it is meant to be. Our troubles are far more complex, our pain is even deeper than we can imagine. Our sin is beyond our ability to overcome. There was no easy way to fix what was wrong with the world and we have to face that reality on Good Friday when even Jesus cried out to His Father in His suffering and pain.
And so we'll spend the next six weeks learning how to abide in the shelter of God so that when the storm does hit, we will trust that He can pull us through. We may use this time as a time for fasting, as Jesus fasted during His forty days in the wilderness. But even more so, let us take this Lenten season to listen to God's words, to keep His Word on our lips and in our hearts so that we, too, can face the devil with God's truth when he tries to tempt us to go by a different path.
Modern Christians prefer to have control. We like choice. We like to do things that make sense, and have multiple purposes. A forty day cleanse is good for our physical health and it can have spiritual advantages, too. But even Jesus wasn't given a choice in His wilderness experience. He was led by the Holy Spirit. He obeyed. Perhaps God is calling us through today's texts to listen to Him and follow in His footsteps in a radical way. Giving up chocolate and coffee and even video games has become almost cliche. What new thing is God leading you into? What new place will you go if you follow Him? How will you be transformed by the experience?
We might prefer to be guided by our own stomachs, minds and hearts, but last week we heard the command of God on the mountain to the disciples, "Listen to Him." We follow this week with the lesson of Jesus in the wilderness speaking God's Word to overcome the temptations of the devil. Perhaps this Lent should be a time of listening to Jesus, and using God's Word to overcome the temptations we face. We might think they are chocolate, coffee and video games, but perhaps there are greater temptations that we face which we do not even realize. The worst of them might just be our insistence that we are in control.
In today's Old Testament lesson, Moses told the people what they should say when they presented their first fruits at the temple. This was God's command. But we are bothered by the idea that every person had to say the same thing year after year? We wonder, "Where is the heart in rote speech?" Where is the individuality? We want to say the words that burn inside us, not a prescribed verse or prayer. Some even reject the use of creeds and the Lord's Prayer for that reason. They want to pour out their hearts to God in their own words and follow their own guidance about their life and work in this world.
There is certainly a place for individual prayer and God gives us the freedom to make choices. However, in this scripture we learn something more important; we are reminded that everything we have comes from God. We say the prescribed words because we are bound together by God's gracious acts, in the past, present and future. We might wonder how the Exodus affects us, but even acts that seemingly have little or nothing to do with our lives today are part of the story of God and they are part of our relationship with Him.
The words spoken in the Old Testament lesson are meaningful to all of us. All believers -- whether the first to enter into the Promised Land or the generations that follow up until today -- are identified by what God has done. He gave them a creed to remember their past as they thank Him for the present and move into the future, so that His story will be written on their hearts and in their minds forever. In the creed they remember that they have the land and the fruit of the land because God set them free by His grace and power. They knew that they did not have anything except that which God had given to them. We follow with the same understanding.
We weren't slaves in Egypt, but we are slaves to sin. We weren't led on an exodus out of Egypt, but God has saved us from death. We cried out, "...And Jehovah heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression; and Jehovah brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders; and he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey." Our story is definitely different than that of the Israelites, but not really. Their words are still relevant to us.
And their temptations are ours, too. They, too, were threatened by temptation of stomach, power and faith. They complained about a lack of food. They turned to other gods. They tested God in their wilderness. Don't we do that, too? Despite all God has done for us, the devil can come and tempt us to go our own way, do our own thing, be in control of our own lives. The more we turn to God's words, however, the easier it is for us to overcome the temptation because by doing so we are abiding in God.
As Paul writes, "The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith..." The word is near to us; God is near to us. Do we have the strength and courage to face our temptations as Jesus did? Do we know God's Word well enough to turn Satan away when He tries to tempt us from God's will? Iím sure we could all work on that, and perhaps that's a way we can journey through Lent.
But for now, we have words that we can speak to turn away the devil: "God heard our cry and He saved us." It doesn't matter who we are or what we try to accomplish during this Lenten season. Whether we fast from those habits that we know are bad, or we take up some devotional practice, we can seek that greater relationship with God because He has saved us. There is no distinction between believers; Jesus is Lord over all who believe with their hearts and confess with their mouths.
And so during this Lenten season, let us remember that we do not choose to go into the wilderness, we are led there by the Holy Spirit. And though it is a place of temptation, we need not fear because we are not alone. We, like Jesus, are filled with His Spirit, and He will help us through. So, while it might do us well to fast, let's approach this time with God's Word in our mouth and in our heart so that we can overcome all the temptations that Satan forces us to face. We have nothing to fear, for God has already heard our cry and saved us. We already dwell in the secret place of God; we abide under the shadow of the Almighty. We have the words to remember our past as we thank Him for the present and move into the future, so that His story will be written on our hearts and in our minds forever. We have the words by which we have life and by which we live: "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."
"Yet even now, saith Jehovah, turn ye unto me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto Jehovah your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, even a meal-offering and a drink-offering unto Jehovah your God?" Joel 2:12-14, ASV
I love my house, but it is definitely a bit of a fixer-upper. We knew this when we purchased it; we were able to lower the price because of the work necessary to make it perfect. We have, slowly, been making some of those changes. We bought new appliances. We've replaced some doors. We had the chimney repaired. We put in a new HVAC system. Each job has made the house a little better, but we keep seeing the next thing that needs to be done. Unfortunately, the work that still needs to be done is very expensive; it seems as though every quote we get comes out to $15,000.
Our floors desperately need to be replaced. We have tile floors, original to the house. We don't mind the tile, it is high quality and probably looked fantastic when it was first installed. I'm sure that cleaning the grout would make it look terrific in some places, but too many of them have chipped or cracked over the years. Even worse, quite of a few of them have 'popped' and are no longer glued to the foundation. The grout between those that have popped is crumbling and the tiles move. I have been dealing with the problem by covering the worst spots with throw rugs. It is a helpful solution until we have the money to do it right. The problem is that these rugs are just cover the surface and don't really make things right. We can live with it for a time, but the longer we wait, the worst it gets.
All too often our Lenten practices are like throw rugs covering up the problem. We spend seven weeks fasting from something that we already know we should limit and then we gorge ourselves with that very thing once Easter comes. We haven't been transformed by the experience; we haven't dealt with the underlying heart issues that cause us to pursue those things. God transforms our life when we have faith in Christ. We are forgiven, cleansed and made into a new creation. Sometimes, however, we try to take shortcuts, ignoring the work the Lord is doing in our lives. We think it is enough cover up the problem, but if our hearts are not changed, the trouble will simply grow worse.
God wants our hearts, not just a surface change. He desires repentance, not just remorse or regret. He looks for a change in our ways, not just the words. Our Father is merciful, loving and just, slow to be angry with us and quick to bless our repentance. He works with us, brings transformation by His Holy Spirit to those who give themselves to Him fully, not just our words or surface actions, but our hearts. He gives us everything we need, for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, who died that we might be transformed for His glory.
"And straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God. And all that heard him were amazed, and said, Is not this he that in Jerusalem made havoc of them that called on this name? and he had come hither for this intent, that he might bring them bound before the chief priests. But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews that dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is the Christ. And when many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel together to kill him: but their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates also day and night that they might kill him: but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. And he was with them going in and going out at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord: and he spake and disputed against the Grecian Jews; but they were seeking to kill him. And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus." Acts 9:20-30, ASV
There are certain Christians that believe that life in Christ means an earthly life that is blessed with goodness and joy and great things. They preach a message that if you are a Christian, and doing it right, then you should be prosperous and happy, never sick or hurt. They believe that financial blessing is the will of God for believers. There are those who even suggest that donations to their ministry will be repaid by God in security and fortune. The only ones who seem to prosper in these assemblages, however, seem to be the people collecting the money in the offering plate. Too many Christians in these congregations become despondent and desperate because they aren't seeing the blessings they expect.
That's because they are expecting the wrong kind of blessings. God has never told us that our life in Christ will be a rose garden. As a matter of fact, Jesus and the apostles all warned us that we would face persecution and even death for the sake of the Gospel. I've heard that Muslims in many of the refugee camps are becoming Christian in record numbers. There are those who are cynical about the conversion; they think these Muslims are just putting on an act so that they will be accepted by the world. However, conversion means death in these communities. They risk their very lives when they say "Jesus is LORD." None of them will ever likely see prosperity. They may never even experience security or health. Yet, they know that they are blessed because they have received the forgiveness of the Savior, the One whom many are meeting in visions and dreams in those camps. They have discovered, much to the detriment in their earthly lives, that following Jesus is the way, the true and real life.
Saul had it all. He was educated and powerful. He was a leader among the Jews and they followed his leadership; they were even willing to stone a man (Stephen) under his oversight. Saul gathered letters giving him the authority destroy the communities that were under the influence of this cult, and that was what it was at that point. It was a new way of thinking, a relatively small group of people whose beliefs seemed strange to the world around them. The Jews wanted it stopped; the Romans were concerned. Those people were weird and Saul had the authority to stop them.
But one day Saul met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. He saw Jesus and it changed his life. He was blinded by the experience, but God had a plan. He was taken to Damascus where he stayed for three days before a man named Ananais visited him. Ananais laid hands on Saul, his eyes were opened and he believed. Ananais was not really anxious to go to Saul because he's heard the stories. He knew Saul was there to murder the people who followed the Way. God assured him that He had a plan. "Trust me, Saul is going to do great things for my kingdom."
Saul, who was later renamed Paul, did do great things. We consider him the greatest of the apostles even though he wasn't among the original twelve. He was sent into the world, the whole world, to take the Gospel to those who did not even know the LORD. He was sent to preach the Good News, to establish communities and to teach the new Christians how to live in this new faith. He wrote letters to guide those communities into a life that would glorify God and share the Gospel with the world.
Paul was blessed, but it wasn't a blessed life as we define it today. Even from the very beginning, Paul faced opposition to his ministry. The Jews in Damascus and then elsewhere were constantly discussing how to kill him. Faith in Christ didn't mean prosperity, security and wealth for Paul; faith in Christ meant danger, persecution and even fear. He didn't always know how he would find his next meal. He was beaten and imprisoned. He was nearly killed on a shipwreck. If we shared the life of Paul as a parable to those who believe a Christian should experience worldly benefit, then they would claim he did not have enough faith.
Oh, it is doubtful that most of us Christians, especially those of us who live in the United States, will ever experience the kinds of things that Paul experienced. We will probably never have to really fear being beaten, imprisoned and killed because we are Christian. But it doesn't matter if we do because our salvation is assured by our faith in Jesus Christ. That salvation is not from hunger, or injury, or pain, or even death. It is an assurance that our faithfulness will be rewarded when the promise of God is fulfilled. That promise is that we will dwell in His Kingdom forever. Our true blessing will never be in this world; it is the promise of eternal life.
"Jehovah thy God is in the midst of thee, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love; he will joy over thee with singing." Zephaniah 3:17
We are looking at Psalm 23 in our Sunday School. We are taking it verse by verse, word by word, looking not only at the meaning from David the shepherd's point of view, but also looking at the Hebrew words and cross references from the Bible. We are constantly asking the question in our class, "Who is God" and in this study we are discovering so much about God our Shepherd.
David writes, "He leadeth me beside still waters." God leads us to the places where we will find what we need. This in itself is a beautiful thought, one that calls us to trust God to provide for us and to take care of us. The thing that was interesting, though, is that we discovered the Hebrew word for "leadeth" is a primitive root which means properly "to run with a sparkle." It is translated fed, guide, guided, lead, leads, led, and proceed in the context of the scriptures, but I love the idea of running with sparkle. I'm not really sure what it might have meant to the Hebrews in David's day, but the image that came to mind is that the shepherd delights in being with his sheep. This meant, to me, that God delights as He leads me to the places where He will provide me with all I need.
Parents will understand what it means to delight in their kids. People with furbabies know what it is like to delight in their pets. Teachers know what it is like to delight in their students. It is a joy to see those under our care. How much more so does our God delight over us? It is a joy to Him to take care of us, to lead us to the places where He will provide for us everything we need. He is worthy of our trust. Our God is not one who stands distant; He runs with a sparkle beside us, ensuring that we are cared for in every way. As Zephaniah tells us, "God will rejoice over those of us whom He has saved with joy and singing!"
"So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and questionings: that ye may become blameless and harmless, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom ye are seen as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life; that I may have whereof to glory in the day of Christ, that I did not run in vain neither labor in vain. Yea, and if I am offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all: and in the same manner do ye also joy, and rejoice with me." Philippians 2:12-18, ASV
Milton Hershey was a failure. He was born in 1857 and left school early. He was fired from an apprenticeship, opened and closed several candy stores around the United States. In 1886 he returned home hoping that his family would help him, but they refused to support his latest scheme. Though he had no money, he refused to act defeated. He turned to an old friend who helped him start a caramel company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was helped but a risk-taking loan officer who gave him the funds he needed. That candy business finally became successful. He made chocolate, which was a delicacy available for only the rich and elite, accessible to all people. Hershey Chocolate is still a leader in candy in the United States and is exported around the world.
Milton Hershey not only became a successful businessman, but he was also a successful human being. He treated his employees and other members of the community very well. When he opened the chocolate factory in what is now Hershey, Pennsylvania, he provided every possible convenience. He built a town around the factory with homes, schools, shopping, a bank and a hotel, as well as parks and other facilities for the people who lived there. He provided shuttle service for those who chose to live in other towns. Instead of cutting production and staff during the depression, Hershey provided more work for his people. He and his wife began a school for orphaned boys. He found his success by working toward the best interests of others, rather than himself.
Our Christian walk is not perfect. As a matter of fact, we fail at many things. It is easy to become discouraged when our plans do not work out as we want. Our failures might not be as great as that which faced Milton Hershey, but we burn the potatoes and overwork our paintings on a regular basis. We have accidents, we get bad grades, and we experience disappointment in our quests to be successful in business and in relationships. We even disappoint ourselves when we can't seem to live up to our own expectations of our Christian life. Yet, in faith we go on, continuing to do as God has called us to do: to pray when prayers seem unanswered, to share the Gospel when it is unheard.
We live in a world that has much different expectations than our God. We are called to live in Christ, through whose life we are made blameless so that we will shine His light in the world. Milton Hershey had a vision that reached beyond a successful career, so he continued to work despite his failure. Hershey grew up on a Christian household, his family were all Mennonites, although formal religion was not a part of his adult life. When asked once what his religion was, Hershey answered, "The Golden Rule." We can't know any man's heart, or his motivation, but it seems as though something of his mother's faith became an important part of his life. After all, the Golden Rule is a biblical principle: to do unto others as you would wish them to do to you. (Matthew 7:12)
Paul speaks to the Philippians about obedience and encourages them to continue to do as Christ as commanded. Things were not perfect for those early Christians. Paul was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote this letter. The Christians faced risks as they sought to understand this new faith they had received, and they saw how dangerous it was in Paul's life. Yet, Paul told them not to be disappointed or discouraged. Success in God's kingdom is defined by His word of life not by this world. We might not even realize that it is God working through us, but as we go about our lives finding ways to make this world a better place for our neighbors, then we will shine the light of God's grace and glorify our God in ways we might never expect.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 21, 2016, Second Sunday in Lent: Jeremiah 26:8-15; Psalm 4; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
"Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of Jehovah your God; and Jehovah will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you." Jeremiah 26:13, ASV
The Judean kingdom was falling apart because they had begun to conform to the world. They were honoring gods other than the LORD. He is a jealous God and so He allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take Jerusalem and the Jews were sent into exile for a time. God used Nebuchadnezzar to bring His people to their knees. He did not do so, however, without warning. He sent Jeremiah to call the people to repentance. Jeremiah obeyed even though his words were risky. They didn't want to hear that they were sinners; they wanted to hear that they were special and that God would take care of them no matter what. They liked the prophet Hananiah, who told them that God would break the back of the king of Babylon and restore His people in just two years. His words were encouraging because they were so much different than Jeremiah. Jeremiah said that the exile would last seventy.
Jeremiah's answer to the false prophet was interesting. He said, "Amen! May it be so!" Jeremiah knew that God did not want His people to come to harm. God wanted repentance; He wanted them to trust Him and to honor Him and Him alone. But Jeremiah went on to tell the people that if they trusted the false prophet they would find themselves serving the king of Babylon. He told Hananiah that the prophets that preach peace will only be recognized if their prediction comes true; then he told Hananiah that he'd die within the year. Jeremiah's prophecies were true. Judah went into exile for seventy years and Hananiah died in the seventh month.
We want to hear the happy prophecies; we want to hear that God will bless us and that we will live well no matter what. After all, God loves us. We definitely don't want to hear anyone telling us that God is calling us to repent. The world tells us to follow our hearts. The world tells us that God loves us no matter what we do. The world tells us to ignore the parts of the bible that talk about sin because they were written for a different time and place. Those people didn't understand science or technology. We are smarter today; we know more. We easily explain away the calls to repentance and justify our actions. In doing so, we are no better than the Judeans. We might not be worshipping the gods of their world, but we've taken on our own gods. Sadly, I think the god we just most is ourselves.
We even claim that because Christ died for our sin, then we need not worry about sin any longer. He has forgiven me for the sins of my past and my future. We talk about the God of love and mercy and avoid the call to repentance because Jesus took care of it for me. I need not deal with my sin because He dealt with it already. We need not be transformed because He loves me just the way I am.
Yet, God calls out to us today with the same words as Jeremiah spoke to Judah so long ago. As a matter of fact, He's made the call for repentance to every generation from the beginning of time. See, we have this tendency toward conformation. We fall to temptation. We begin to look like the world in which we live. We believe the lies of the false prophets and we miss the opportunities to truly experience His love and mercy because we are so busy being self-righteous and following our own hearts.
We are saved. We have eternal life by faith through the grace of Jesus Christ. Our God does love us and He has mercy on us, even when we continue to fail to be faithful over and over again. We will fall to the temptations of this world; we will conform to the world around us. We will choose our hearts over the will and Word of God like every other generation of men. God has called us to repent and obey Him so that we will have the life in this world that God desires for us.
God did not want His people to go to Babylon, but He knew that the only way they would turn to Him was to experience the consequences of their rebellion. We might not be sent to Babylon, but we too suffer the consequences of our own rebellions against our God, and He calls us to repentance so that we'll live according to His Word and be well.
That's what our Lenten journey is all about: recognizing our need to repent, to be humbled by the reality of our own sinfulness. We spend these forty days facing the temptations of the world and seeking God's grace in rejecting them, so that we are transformed into the people who live fully in God's grace.
It is hard to be someone like Jeremiah, speaking God's truth in a world that wants to hear messages from false prophets like Hananiah. They threatened Jeremiah's life, although He was protected because of God's promise. We don't know what happened to Jeremiah, although there are several different traditions about his death. We do know that they never fulfilled their threat after these warnings from Jeremiah. God said, "Speak, I'll take care of you," and He did. We don't want to be like the prophet, but would rather live and let live. It isn't our business, right? Who are we to say that someone has sinned? Who are we to call others to repentance?
Yet, God has made us part of His salvation story, inviting us to call people to repentance so that they, too will experience the lovingkindness of God and live in His grace. We don't want that responsibility, especially when it is so risky to tell our neighbors that they need to repent, but how can we allow them to wallow in their self-righteousness and suffer the consequences of their sinfulness when the answer is so easy? They need to know the reality of their sin so that they will turn to the One who has saved them.
In the passage immediately before our Gospel lesson, someone asked Jesus, "Lord, are they few that are saved?" (Luke 13:23b) Jesus answered that many would try to enter into the kingdom of God in their own way, and they would wait until it was too late. The only way to be saved is by faith in Jesus Christ. Self-righteousness has always been a problem for human beings; we have turned against God by chasing after false gods over and over again since the beginning of time. We have sought to work our way into blessedness, to earn our rewards, to be in control of our salvation. We have to hear the truth that it is only in a relationship with God that we are made heirs to His Kingdom. Faith in Christ is the open door. And faith does not come from our actions but from God's grace.
We don't know very much about the Pharisees who went to see Jesus in today's Gospel lesson. Were they really concerned about Jesus? Or were they people who just didn't want to deal with Him? Perhaps they weren't bothered by His teach, but just wanted Him to do it elsewhere. They certainly wanted Him far from the Temple because they would not have to deal with the questions and accusations if He was somewhere else. Jesus could quietly disappear into the wilderness to teach and preach to the animals. Outside Jerusalem, He would not rock so many boats. Jesus was unwilling to submit to the temptation. He knew His task took Him to Jerusalem. The time had come, it was time to pay the price for our unwillingness to trust God's Word completely.
Jesus calls Herod a fox. Foxes are not trustworthy, and that was certainly true of Herod. The religious understanding of the word "fox" in Jesus' day is someone who was worthless and insignificant. Jesus was telling them that though Herod Antipas was the ruler, he was worthless and insignificant to the plans of God. He was a puppet prince with no authority, a pretentious pretender, doing someone else's bidding. Herod might have seen himself as a lion, a king, but in reality, he was just a fox, an insignificant peon.
Jesus knew that Herod could try to kill Him, but it wouldn't be done according to anyone's will but God's. Jesus had no need to fear, He was in a right relationship with His God. He dwelt in the Temple, lived daily in His presence. He knew His purpose and knew that it was necessary to finish His journey to Jerusalem and the cross. The promise to Abraham depended upon it. Our future depended upon it. He did not hesitate to speak the truth because He knew trusting God meant obedience no matter what the world thought.
But it made Jesus sad. In this passage, Jesus mourns the unbelief of Jerusalem. Jesus wanted the best of God's Kingdom for them: the hope, the peace, and the joy. He wanted to gather them under His wings, to give them fully and freely the gift He had to give. Perhaps He even wanted all this without having to face the cross: how much more wonderful would it have been if Jerusalem repented! Yet, Jesus knew this is not the way it was to be. He knew that He is destined for the cross, for death. Salvation was going to happen according to God's time and in God's way. Jesus would not be moved from the path on which He was set, for it is the path of true life for all those who believe.
We will never be expected to give our lives the way Jesus gave His for us, but we are called to live our faith in this world while we wait for that day God promised. We live that life of faith by building relationships with people, by being part of a community. It is important that when we live in community that we offer one another every support we need, including calls to repentance. We need to help each other see where we are failing to be faithful, to encourage one another to obedience. We do this by humbling admitting our own sinfulness, by constantly turning to God when we fail to faithful so that we experience His mercy and grace.
It should be a daily habit!
We can see the impact that people and their ideas have on the world. In the right circumstances, one person can change the course of an entire nation. One designer can set the fashion that millions of people will wear. One reporter can introduce an idea that will become a standard of policy and practice for many. One politician can set the agenda for the entire government. Good or bad, right or wrong, we can easily be led down a path of achievement or destruction by someone to whom we look as a role model.
It is not that we are simply followers, blind or ignorant. It is that the human flesh looks for someone to emulate. We look to people who will be an example for us to help us to grow and mature. Intelligent, powerful people will grasp on to a policy or practice that seems right, to help it to spread and change the world. Sometimes, unfortunately, we grasp on to the ideas that are not right. With all good intention, we sometimes follow examples that are not centered in the Word of God.
Paul encourages us to emulate those who hold firm to the Gospel of grace. In the community of Philippi were those who were enemies to the cross. Though they were not necessarily people who meant to destroy Christians or Christianity, they sought after the things of this world. They chose to live a life of fulfillment and self-indulgence. This was not only in terms of satisfying lusts: some well-meaning people were satisfying the Law, keeping their eyes on earthly things.
These two extremes were not the life God calls us to live. They are also not the life which Christ lived as an example for us. Paul reminds us not to get stuck in the pattern of self-righteousness and self-indulgence. We have been given the example to follow: people who are being transformed daily into the image of Christ, overcoming the world which temps us to follow without question. The example we are called to follow is the life of willful obedience, believing and trusting in God without concerning ourselves with the opinions of others. Then, as we live faithfully in God's grace, we can stand as an example to the next generation, leading them into a life of repentance and obedience to God's will and Word, so that they, too, will experience the salvation that God has promised.
Paul writes, "For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things unto himself." This is the promise for which we wait, toward which we walk, and with which we live in peace. The world might threaten us, and our sense of failure may deter us, but God will always be faithful.
"And on that day, when even was come, he saith unto them, Let us go over unto the other side. And leaving the multitude, they take him with them, even as he was, in the boat. And other boats were with him. And there ariseth a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling. And he himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion: and they awake him, and say unto him, Teacher, carest thou not that we perish? And he awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye fearful? have ye not yet faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Mark 4:35-41, ASV
I am reading John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion." I'm following a yearlong reading plan that suggests about five pages a day, five days a week. I try to read ahead when I'm doing these challenges so that I won't get behind if I miss a day or so. The book is huge (actually, it is two very large volumes) and so is difficult to carry. Besides, when I read something as intense as this, I like to sequester myself away from noise and activity so I can concentrate on what I am reading. I do my reading in my bedroom with the television off and the door closed. My reading set up is rather comical because I move my rocking chair close to the bed, with a pillow behind me and a pillow in front of me. I prop the book on the pillow against the bed so it is easier to hold. It is also a good position to get the best light.
Of course, my habits don't keep the kitties from visiting me while I read. I always see at least one of them at some point in the hour or so I am reading; usually all three find their way in my direction. Sammy is bothered by the closed door. Tigger just wants to see what is going on, although he often jumps on the bed and demands a moment of my time. Then he lays down a few feet away and takes a nap. Last night was Delilah's turn, but she didn't settle for just a moment. She wanted my full attention.
She began the visit by jumping on the bed and squeaking at me. That's how she tells me she wants a nap. I couldn't do that, but I moved things around so she could get comfortable, giving her a blanket and stuffed animal she enjoys cuddling. That was enough for a moment, but she quickly pushed closer and closer to me until she was laying on my book. I had managed to read two paragraphs, and obviously had to stop reading.
I could have chased her away so I could make my goal for the day, but instead I gave her my time and attention. Who can say no to soft and fluffy purring kitty? Besides, I needed some affection, too. I did not think it would last very long; these cuddle moments usually don't. Last night, however, she fell asleep on my book and didn't move for a very long time. I wished that I could communicate telepathically to Bruce or Zack so they'd come take a picture, but I couldn't even yell for them because it would have disturbed Delilah. I wasn't getting my reading done, but I was enjoying her love. It lasted more than twenty minutes and the only thing that made her leave is I woke her up with a cough.
How often do we get so caught up in the things we have to do that we end up missing the moments when we can just be? We are so busy that we don't bother to take time to be still or be quiet. We don't even take the time to be loved. The world around us is chaotic with demands. We have to do this, we have to chase after that. Even during Lent it seems as though we are too busy with our devotional practices to stop and breathe. We are reminded by today's scripture that our Lord can, with just a word, still the storms around us. He can still our own hearts. We need not be afraid of the troubles in the world around us that cause us to be so busy, for the Lord is able to make all things well in our world. Let us simply be faithful, trusting in His mercy and love. It might seem to be a bad time to be still or quiet, but our God who can control the wind and storms knows better than we do when we need to simply stop and be loved.
"And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit." 1 Peter 1:19-21, ASV
I was reading from John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion" last night and came across something that surprised me. I have known for a long time that the author of the book of Hebrews is in question, although traditionally it was thought to be Paul. I tend to address this issue by saying "the author of Hebrews" instead of naming Paul since there is a question. While I don't outright question modern scholarship, I am a bit skeptical. It seems to me that if the early church fathers thought that the letter was written by Paul, then we should trust their words. After all, they are much closer to the time when it was actually written.
I learned that Calvin and the other reformers were already questioning the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews. As a matter of fact, the question was asked as early as 300 A.D. The writing and specific emphasis is much different than is found in Paul's letters. Though it isn't contrary to Paul's works, it doesn't fit his pattern. Other possible authors have been considered since as early as 200 A.D. Some have suggested that it might have been Barnabas who traveled with Paul and would have been familiar with his teaching. Another possibility is Apollos. Whoever wrote the letter was obviously educated, knowing Greek well and wholly acquainted with the Septuagint which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Does it matter who wrote the letter? Ultimately, no, it does not matter who put the words on the page to be read by those who first received the letter and us today. There were four criteria which were used to determine the canonicity of the scriptures. The first is apostolic origin, meaning that the text was written by someone who had a direct and personal encounter with Jesus Himself. This included Paul because of his experience on the road to Damascus. The others included universal acceptance and liturgical use in the early church. Finally, the canon of the scriptures has a consistent message.
Some make a big deal about the 'lost books of the bible' including newly found texts that reveal secrets about Jesus that the church wanted to keep hidden. There were many reasons why those texts were rejected in the early years: they espoused heretical information. They were not universally accepted or read. Most of all, those texts were often incomplete. One text that supposedly proves a point, only does so if you read between the lines because the only copy is ripped with important words missing. These texts were rejected a very long time ago, by those who were closest to the beginning of the Church. They did not reject them because they were hiding something, but because the Holy Spirit guided them into decisions that established His Church as He designed it to be.
Learning that the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews was in question for so long helps me to understand something that has long bothered me. Martin Luther, who is a bit of a theological hero to me, did not like several books of the Bible, including the Letter to the Hebrews. He did not remove these books from his translation, but he placed them at the end of the compilation. If there was a question even in his day of the authorship, then the book of Hebrews does not fit the criteria for canonicity. Luther accepted that the book had value because it was accepted by the historical church, but he gave it less importance because it cast into doubt some of his theological ideas.
I'm about two hundred pages into my reading of Calvin and I have to admit there have been a few things that have made me cringe. I'm not going to agree with everything I read, just as many people will disagree with some of the things Luther taught. They were human, and yes, they were fallible as are all men. We must remember that we are human and fallible, too. We can't interpret scripture to mean what we want it to mean. We can't throw out the things we don't like and rewrite the Bible to fit our scriptures to mean whatever we want them to mean.
If we think of something new, something no one has ever thought about God's Word, then we must question whether there is any truth to it by juxtaposing it to the rest of the scriptures. Luther didn't -- couldn't -- outright reject the texts he did not like because he was humble enough to recognize the authority of the historic Church and the work of the Holy Spirit in establishing the text that God means us to use to guide our lives. Some things simply don't matter, such as the order of the books or even the authors who put the words on paper. Even our interpretations don't matter because we must remember that God's will establishes the Truth. What matters is that the texts point to the source of our salvation, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
"Putting away therefore all wickedness, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, long for the spiritual milk which is without guile, that ye may grow thereby unto salvation; if ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious: unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Because it is contained in scripture, Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: And he that believeth on him shall not be put to shame. For you therefore that believe is the preciousness: but for such as disbelieve, The stone which the builders rejected, The same was made the head of the corner; and, A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence; for they stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed. But ye are a elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lust, which war against the soul; having your behavior seemly among the Gentiles; that, wherein they speak against you as evil-doers, they may by your good works, which they behold, glorify God in the day of visitation." 1 Peter 2:1-12, ASV
There is a story about two friend who were walking through the desert. They got into an argument along the journey and one friend slapped the other in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying a word he wrote, "Today my best friend slapped me in the face," in the sand. As they continued the journey, the pair decided to stop at an oasis to clean themselves. The one who was slapped began to drown, but his friend saved his life. When he recovered, the nearly drowned man wrote, "Today my best friend saved my life," on a rock. Curious, the friend asked, "Why, after I hurt you, did you write in the sand, but when I saved you, write on a rock?" The man replied, smiling, "When a friend hurts us, we should write it down in the sand, where the winds of forgiveness will erase it away. But when something great happens, we should engrave it on a rock, where no wind can erase the memory of it."
There is permanence in rock. It is hard, strong, does not wear away easily. When a person builds a house, he chooses to build it on rock rather than sand. Rock provides a good foundation because it is stable. Jesus Christ is called the Living Stone, and it is important that we build our Christian life on that solid foundation. In Christ we become like Him, living stones being built into a spiritual house.
The friend in the story thought the actions of the man was silly. The man realized the importance of having a solid foundation for the goodness of life; he also knew the futility of holding on to the things that bring us pain, anger or hate. He learned to practice a life of forgiveness and behaved accordingly. Our lives will be filled with moments of hurt and pain. We will have arguments with those we love. We will also experience moments of great joy, or blessing and of peace. How will you respond to both the bad moments and the good? Will you forgive those who have hurt you and will you remember the good things they have done? Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of all our sins, and through Him we know the love and mercy of God. As we have been forgiven, God calls us to forgive. By His grace we become like Him, people who share that love and mercy with others.
Peter tells us that Jesus was the Living Rock. Jesus, our Savior, suffered the greatest hurts. He was not hurt just by those in His day who sent Him to the cross, but by every person who lives because we are sinners in need of a Savior. We slapped Jesus on the road and Jesus recorded our sin in the sand. Our Lord Jesus Christ died to forgive our sins, so that we might know the love and mercy of God. In that forgiveness, we become like Him, living stones that are part of an unmovable spiritual house. It is not easy to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us, but we are called by our God to be mature in our faith, to live as Christ lived and to offer spiritual sacrifices that glorify our God. It begins with forgiveness, the mercy that comes from God, and continues as we live in the salvation that Jesus Christ has won for us, forgiving as we were forgiven and loving as we are loved.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 28, 2016, Third Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 33:7-20; Psalm 83; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
"...for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" Ezekiel 33:11, ASV
I was shopping with my daughter who was only a toddler at the time. We were in the clothing department. She played, as all little kids loved to play, by climbing in and out of the racks as I searched to find the perfect outfit. I was probably not paying as much attention as I should have, but I suddenly realized she was not in the rack where I was standing. I called her name; after several times I began to panic. It wasn't long before this incident that the news was filled with the story of a child kidnapping, and while I doubted that it would happen in this out of the way store in an out of the way place, I couldn't help but worry. I called louder and she didn't hear me. Others began looking with me. Finally an employee from a department at the far end of the store found my daughter crying in a fitting room, heard our panic and came to get me. My daughter was safe, and while I was angry that she had wandered away, I was even more thankful that she had been found.
The tone of today's Old Testament lesson is not very pleasant to our modern ears. It seems to focus on death. Even the righteous, if they sin, will taste death. Where is the fairness? Where is the mercy? After all, if I have done a million good things, shouldn't they outweigh a bad thing or two? Even worse is the promise that the wicked will be saved if they just turn around. How is that fair to those who live a lifetime of goodness? This understanding leads us to a lifetime of fear that the last thing we do will not be good enough to be saved. It leads us to be afraid that we will meet our end if we wander away. Yet, we are also angry because we know that 'those others', the wicked, have done far worse things than we will ever do. Where is the justice?
We miss the grace in this passage when we ignore the word "repent." This is a hard word for us today because we live in a world that tells us we should go our own way. The world tells us that it is ok to follow our hearts. The world tells us that whatever path we choose is the path that is right for us. We have no reason to repent; this is what happens in a world that ignores the reality of sin. Sin is not just a list of things we do wrong. Of course, as we wander on our Lenten journey we are reminded to consider our own sin, to look at how we have failed to be the people whom God has created and redeemed us to be. We fast as a discipline so that we might be transformed in one tiny way, step by step becoming the people that God calls us to be.
Unfortunately, it is often useless because we fast something that we take up almost immediately after the Resurrection. Instead of continuing in the path of discipline, embracing the transformation, following as God leads us into a better life, we celebrate the promise of salvation and then head in the opposite direction. We turn around and walk on our own path again.
During Lent we often follow a devotional practice of some sort, reading the bible more or praying daily, but as soon as Easter comes, we stop and go about our lives as they were before we started this journey. Instead of allowing the discipline to become a habit in our lives, we think seven weeks is enough to earn us the goodness and mercy of God for another year. "I did my duty: I fasted and prayed. So now I can go walk on my path until it is time to do my duty again. "It must be enough to hold me over until next time," we think.
The key word in today's texts is "repent," but it is not enough to simply say, "I've done this thing and I'm sorry. Forgive me so I can go on my way." Repentance is more than saying I'm sorry. It is even more than confessing our daily sins. Repentance is turning to God, following Him, keeping Him in our sight, trusting Him to lead us on the right path.
See, righteousness is not about being good and doing what is right. Righteousness is about being in a right relationship with our God. We want to play the games, to hide in the clothing racks, to wander on our own paths. Unfortunately, when we do so we end up like my daughter, crying in a place where we don't want to be, afraid of what will happen when we are found or if we are never found. We aren't punished for our disobedience, we suffer the consequences of turning our backs on God.
That's why God calls us to repent. "Turn around. Keep your eyes on me. I can make things right." See, God does not want anyone to die. He takes no pleasure in our death. He calls out to us in mercy and grace. "Why will you die?" He asks us. "Why will you continue to do those things that will keep you from my love and grace? Why will you turn away and walk your own path, the path that leads to death?
Paul seems to give us a list of those things that we do when we turn from God. He reminds us of the story of the Exodus when too many of His people died, "for they were overthrown in the wilderness." Some died when they lusted, ate and played in worship of the idol. Others died when they tested God and grumbled against Him. All who perished in the desert wanted to go their own way, they wanted to walk their own path. Donít we do that too? We'd much rather worship the god we choose, have the world (and the god we worship) satisfy the needs we want satisfied. We are more than willing to blame God for our misfortune, to see God as a punisher and a destroyer because then we can claim and create the god of our choosing.
The ways we turn from God is not limited to the list in today's letter to the church in Corinth. Paul used those stories from the Exodus to remind the new Christians God's people suffered because they turned from Him. They suffered the consequences of going their own way. They died because they did not keep their eyes on Him.
"Repent!" Even Jesus cries out the people that they should repent. He also shares a few stories, stories which would be on the evening news today. Men died at the hands of a powerful ruler. Others died when a tower collapsed. "Do you think they were worse sinners than you?" He asked. The prevailing thought is that trouble comes because of sin. "I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Jesus is not suggesting that the listeners will suffer a cataclysmic death because they aren't good; He is warning them of a greater death that will come if they do not repent and turn to God.
The passage from Ezekiel is confusing and frightening. It seems to say that we will live or die based on the most current actions of our flesh. If the wicked repent and then die, they will live, but if the righteous commit iniquity and die, their righteous deeds will be forgotten and they will truly die. This is confusing because we know that it is not by our works that we live or die, and it is frightening because we know that we are sinners and that we fail on a daily basis. What chance do we have to die at that exact moment when we are being righteous?
Ezekiel writes, "...if he trust to his righteousness..." then he will die if he commits sin. It isn't the sin that will kill him, but the reliance on a righteousness that is fallible. When we trust in the good deeds that we have done to save us, we'll find that they are never enough to cover the bad deeds that we continue to do. Our works will never make us righteous. Repentance is not simply making things right after we have done wrong; there is no hope in that sort of faith. We can never know if we will truly be in the right state at the moment we die. Repentance is turning to God and trusting in Him. Faith is trusting that we are in a state of God's grace so that no matter when we die, we'll be saved by His righteousness.
Jesus told His listeners a parable about a fig tree. The tree was not bearing fruit after three years and the landowner was ready to let it go. Now, we might wonder why the landowner would be upset because such a young tree is not bearing fruit, but the according to ancient farming practices, the tree was probably more than six years old. They would not have even looked for fruit until after the third year when it should bear fruit. They gave the tree extra time, an extra three years. It was taking nutrients from the other trees and wasting space. The gardener begged the landowner to give it one more year with the promise to work with the tree so that it will produce. "Give me time."
Isn't that what Jesus does for us? He is the gardener; and He keeps asking God for a little bit more time. He keeps working to make us better, to nourish us and to help us to bear fruit. But the day will come when it is too late. So, He calls for us to repent today. "Repent now, so that you will not perish." The hard scriptures we read during Lent help us to face our own difficulties: our temptations, our fear, our doubt, our greed and our grief. We are forced to see our sinfulness, but we are also given a glimpse of God's grace in Jesus Christ. We know that even while we are journeying with Jesus in the wilderness that He is on the way to the cross to pay our debt. And as Jesus calls us to repentance, we can live in the reality that our God is faithful.
I've suggested several times that the best sermon title for today's lessons might be "Death, tragedy and all that crap." Perhaps the language isn't quite acceptable in the church, but it is an honest assessment of how we deal with the troubles in our life. We look at suffering as "crap" without realizing that it might just be the manure that our Lord uses to help us grow in faith and maturity. God does not purposely make us suffer, but He uses the circumstances of our life to help us to bear fruit in this world. In the midst of our suffering and pain He calls us to repentance, to return to the path that He has laid out for us. When we turn we'll see that He has been there all the time, and that it was us who got lost.
We donít understand and we think God is not fair. We cry out "Why me?" but we learn that it is our own self-righteousness that takes down the road to death. We are judged, not according to our good or wicked deeds, but according to the righteousness of Christ. Jesus calls us to repentance, not to save us from the possibility that our world will collapse, but so that we will not die the ultimate death. God is patient and longsuffering, like the landowner whose tree would not fruit, but there will come a day when it is too late. Thankfully we have in Jesus a gardener willing to work with us, to help us, to see if He can bear the fruit that God demands. "Give me time," He says to His Father.
When Jesus talks about life and death, He isn't referring to the physical life and death; He is referring to eternal life and death. The Gospel text is not a lesson about our own righteousness, but about trusting in God for true life. We don't become perfect overnight. As a matter of fact, there's only one who was able to live a perfect life in this world: Jesus. This call to repentance is not a command to be perfect, but to turn to the One who covers us with His perfection. Wickedness is not simply the sins we commit against our neighbors, but the insistence that we can go our own way and earn our place in heaven.
Salvation is found in a right relationship with God. Repent, therefore, and turn to Him for He will have mercy as He has promised. He is faithful. We will be tempted. We will lose sight of our God like a toddler playing games in the clothing racks at the store loses sight of her mother. We'll get angry with God and blame Him for our troubles. We'll doubt and fear and go down the wrong path. We deserve to perish.
The psalmist writes, "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springeth out of the earth; and righteousness hath looked down from heaven." Truth leads us to a right relationship with God. The truth is that we don't deserve God's mercy and grace. However, our Lenten journey is leading us to an even greater truth: the fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth come together in Jesus Christ. It is not up to us to be or create or earn these things. It is ours when we believe in Jesus.
The gardener says, "Give me another year. I'll do everything I can to make it produce good fruit." Jesus gives us another chance, but He calls us to repentance. "Turn to God, learn the lessons of the past, know that only that it is my righteousness that can save you." Our good works will never be enough and we can't be assured that we will be good at the moment when we die. We could be in the wrong place at the wrong time; we could fall prey to a wicked ruler or be standing under a falling tower. We could be in a car accident or get sick or lose everything because the world around us is falling apart. We could wander off so far that we stop hearing the voice of our Father. We don't know what tomorrow might hold.
God does not want us to perish, why would we want to die? He wants us to live in His grace in this world and in His glory forever and ever. He has done everything necessary and He is faithful. It is good for us to do the disciplines that help us to grow and mature in faith. It is good for us to fast and pray, study the scriptures, give alms to the need and help our neighbors. These are the good fruit we are called bear. Lent is a time of repentance, not just in word but also in deed. It is a time for letting go of control, turning around toward God, and trusting in Him. Our righteousness will never save us, but His will. His righteousness has saved us. He did it so that we would have life, and so that we would bear fruit in a world that desperately needs to see God's people living the life He has called and redeemed us to live, following His path and doing His work for the sake of the world.
"In the mean time, when the many thousands of the multitude were gathered together, insomuch that they trod one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. But there is nothing covered up, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. Wherefore whatsoever ye have said in the darkness shall be heard in the light; and what ye have spoken in the ear in the inner chambers shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, who after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pence? and not one of them is forgotten in the sight of God. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not: ye are of more value than many sparrows." Luke 12:1-7, ASV
I have a tablet which is several years old. I've had issues with my tablet for a long time, but I find ways around those issues and I keep using the same one. I would like to buy a new one, but the reality is that I really don't have the money to buy a new one when the old one is still usable. It would be a waste. Of course, the day will come when it stops working altogether, but we'll deal with that problem when it comes.
I thought the day had come. I've had issues with it charging. My battery dies much too fast, so I'm often forced to plug in while Iím using the tablet. I have had a weird notification that shows I'm plugged in but with a red "X" over the charge symbol. It seems to indicate that there's something wrong with the connection. I assumed, since everything seems to be messed up with my tablet and that the misconnection was inside. I've unplugged and tried different sockets. I've purchased a new cord. I wiggled the cord at every connection. Last night, finally, the indicator did not even show that it was plugged in at all. How could I use my tablet once the battery ran out of charge?
I decided to try one more thing before giving up completely. I replaced the USB charger adapter. I didn't even think of it because it seems like such an insignificant part of the whole. I didn't think there was even something about the charger adapter that could break. After all, it is just a piece that allows you to plug one thing into another, a bridge. What could go wrong? And yet, my problem was solved when I used a new USB charger adapter. It was obviously more important to the whole system than I thought.
It is easy for us to find the big problems. Ask an accountant and he'll tell you that it is easier to find a million dollar error than a penny. Ask a mechanic and he'll tell you that the worst problems are the tiny screws that get loose than the larger parts. Oh, the larger parts might be more expensive to replace, but the time it takes to find that loose screw can cost a fortune. The big lies are easy to see, but the tiny twists of the truth are easily lost in the midst of that which is really true. It might not seem very significant, but those small things can cause deep trouble.
We don't realize how much those little things really affect our lives. Oh, perhaps they make no immediate difference, but that small problem always leads to bigger ones until everything falls apart. God loves us so much that He shines His light in our lives so that we'll see even the small problems. He helps us to be transformed, and amazingly we discover that overcoming the small problems makes our life better. Most of us, overcoming those small problems keep us from falling to the one who would lead us down the wrong path. See, if we think it is ok to continue in any sin, no matter how small it is, we give the devil a foothold into our life. From there he can do the greater destruction, leading us down a path away from our Father and toward the final death.
God cares so much that He wants to reveal it all and by His grace He works to transform even the smallest aspects of our lives so that we will never wander away from His path toward that which will ultimately kill us completely. See, we want to believe that all is well and good and that the devil is nothing but a myth. But Jesus reminds us in today's message that there are those who want us to fail; they want us to die. He calls us to a life in His Light so that all will be revealed. There we will experience His forgiveness and His grace and be turned again to the path that leads to true, eternal life in His Kingdom.
"Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm alone? And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken." Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, ASV
I read the story today of Andy George, a YouTube star who decided to make a sandwich from scratch. When we talk about making a cake from scratch, we usually mean that we combine the most basic ingredients rather than pre-assembled mixes. I have to admit that I personally rely on cake mixes, although I tend to add extra ingredients to make them more interesting. Perhaps 'from scratch' makes things better, and it does in cooking some foods, but sometimes it is good to take advantage of the work of others to make our life easier.
Andy George didn't just go to the most basic ingredients of a sandwich for his project. He didn't buy a loaf of bread, or even make one. He didn't go to the farmer's market to buy organic lettuce and tomatoes. He didn't buy a chicken or fresh cheese at the grocery store. He decided to make the sandwich by doing all the work involved himself. He planted a garden. He made salt from ocean water. He grew a cucumber and pickled it with his own salt and herbs from his garden. He grew sunflower seeds to make vegetable oil for homemade mayonnaise. He milked a cow to make his own cheese and butter. He harvested his wheat, threshed it, ground it and made it with honey that he harvested from a beehive. He killed, plucked and butchered a chicken. He didn't do everything locally, but he did do everything with his own hands. After six months and $1500.00, Andy assembled his made from scratch sandwich with homemade bread, butter, pickles and cheese, fresh picked lettuce and tomato, and fresh cooked chicken breast.
Finally, after all that work, he sat down to what he expected would be the best sandwich he had ever eaten. He said it wasn't bad. "My homegrown vegetables tasted a lot better than store bought ones and the pickles were pretty good, but they were soggy. I think it was the cheese and mayo that threw off the sandwich the most," he answered.
"Six months of my life for 'Not bad.'"
He said the experience has made him appreciate the work of those involved in the making of every sandwich, from the farmer to the bakers to the employees at the grocery store. He discovered that he could make a sandwich by himself, but it is much better to do so with the help of his neighbors. While families in times past lived off the land doing the work of survival with their own hands, they labored to exhaustion and dwelled in poverty. Even then they did not do it alone: they had family, neighbors and friends to provide some things they could not make on their own.
We dwell in community, not just for our daily living, but for our spiritual welfare. We need one another, to provide encouragement and accountability, to offer our gifts for the benefit of everyone. As Paul has told us, we need the whole body because the different parts do different things. We can try to do it all alone, but in the end we'll find that what we have created is "Not bad," and we will realize that it took too much of our resources with which we could have done so much more if we had worked with others. Together we can make a sandwich that is not only edible, but delicious and satisfying. And together, as the Church, we can share the Gospel with the world so that many will be saved by God's grace.
"Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction, And sayest, Return, ye children of men. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, And as a watch in the night. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth. For we are consumed in thine anger, And in thy wrath are we troubled. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: We bring our years to an end as a sigh. The days of our years are threescore years and ten, Or even by reason of strength fourscore years; Yet is their pride but labor and sorrow; For it is soon gone, and we fly away. Who knoweth the power of thine anger, and thy wrath according to the fear that is due unto thee? So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom. Return, O Jehovah; How long? And let it repent thee concerning thy servants. Oh satisfy us in the morning with thy lovingkindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory upon their children. And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it." Psalm 90:1-17 (ASV)
Our church is going through the call process to find a new senior pastor. In the meantime, we have had a wonderful interim pastor who preached his final sermon yesterday. It was an interesting sermon, comforting for those of us who find so much of our Christian faith mystifying. His sermon was titled, "I don't understand but I believe." He talked about those difficult Christian concepts that are impossible to define in human terms, concepts that aren't explained by reason or science, but are vital to our Christian faith. He said that the older he gets, the more he knows he doesn't know, and that in these late days of his life, he has realized that it is ok that he does not understand but believes.
There are many non-religious subjects that are confusing as well. Sometimes my brain hurts when I watch "The Big Bang Theory" because they talk about concepts that are merely theories to explain the unexplainable. Even though they do so in fairly simple language, physics tries to make tangible the intangible, and we are people who prefer to understand our world in concrete ways. Another subject that is difficult to truly understand is the concept of time. We know that we can watch a clock and a calendar to see time pass, but do those clocks and calendars really help us understand the passing of time. I found an article about a physicist who is trying to answer the question, "What is time."
In an interview, Sean Carroll answers the question of whether he can explain his theory in layman's terms. "I'm trying to understand how time works. And that's a huge question that has lots of different aspects to it. A lot of them go back to Einstein and spacetime and how we measure time using clocks. But the particular aspect of time that I'm interested in is the arrow of time: the fact that the past is different from the future. We remember the past but we don't remember the future. There are irreversible processes. There are things that happen, like you turn an egg into an omelet, but you canít turn an omelet into an egg." Is your head swimming as much as mine? And this is the 'easy' statement, which went on for several other paragraphs.
We know time passes because we watch the hands on the clock turn and the pages on the calendars turn, yet those are man-made measures of something that doesn't exist in a tangible way. We have determined that there are 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day, 7 days to a week and 52 weeks to a year. We've made those measurements based on the passing of the heavenly bodies, the sun, the moon and the stars. Yet, when you read through the story of the creation of the universe, you discover that the heavenly bodies were not even created and set into place until the fourth day. Did time exist before the sun counted the days and the moon the nights? We somehow know that time would pass even if we did not count the days, and yet we human beings needed some way to measure time.
Those man-made measurements are not perfect. Every day we lose a bit of time, so much so that every year we lose a quarter of a day. Instead of trying to make up that quarter of a day each year, we add a day once every four years. February 29 is the Leap Day. There is no February 29 three years out of four. The day simply does not exist. I saw one post on Facebook that asked, "If we had to add an extra day, why did it have to be a Monday?" No matter what we try to do, the system is not perfect. The true year as defined by specific positions of the earth and the sun happens in exactly 365.2422 days. This means that we must occasionally skip the leap year to readjust the adjustment. I know. If your head wasn't swimming before, it is now. So is mine.
I don't understand, but I believe that God has created the perfect universe and it doesn't matter if we can measure it perfectly. The important thing to remember is that time passes. The Leap day as a gift, time we would not have had without the extra day on the calendar. Yet, our time is not extended by even a minute by means of a calendar or watch. God has designed the world around us to move perfectly according to His good and perfect will. We can't make it fit into our own understanding of time and space. We can't even work to make ourselves perfect, let alone the creation.
This is why we seek God. Only He can control the days, weeks and months, and only He knows the course our life is ordained to go. He gives life and He takes it. He guides and directs our footsteps. He even gives us all we need to live in this world and the next. The day will come when we will not measure time because time will be beyond measure. Our God has mercy and grants us the forgiveness that makes us heirs to a Kingdom that will never be defined by time. In His grace we will spend eternity in His presence, yet another concept that we do not understand but by faith we believe.