Welcome to the February 2017 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 2017
Scriptures for Sunday, February 5, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Epiphany: Isaiah 58:3-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20
“Things which an eye didn’t see, and an ear didn’t hear, which didn’t enter into the heart of man, these God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9, WEB
Our Sunday School class has been using the Book of John as a foundation for a study of the character of God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the thing we are proving over and over again is that Jesus is the One promised in the Old Testament, but even more so, He is God incarnate fulfilling everything God laid forth throughout the history of His people. The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament all point to the One who is our Savior.
The writer of the book of Hebrews goes on for several chapters talking about the faith of those who heard the promises but never saw them fulfilled. Abraham was promised that his offspring would dwell in the Promised Land, but it didn’t happen for hundreds of years. He was promised that his offspring would be as many as the stars in the sky, but he was a very old man when his son was born. The writer lists many promises given to God’s people and then says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Many of those promises were fulfilled in some way in their day, but pointed to an even greater promise. They saw God’s work but could only hope for the salvation that would come. They believed anyway, not because they saw the fulfillment but because they were in a right relationship with God.
We look to the Old Testament to see what God has promised, but we are blessed with more than hope because everything has been complete in Jesus Christ. Of course, this isn’t so obvious to those who do not believe. They think our hope is foolishness because they can’t see or hear the Gospel as it has been made clear to us by the Holy Spirit. We have faith and therefore we rest in the knowledge that God has prepared something beyond this world for us, but the world does not understand. They don’t understand because they aren’t in a right relationship with God.
That’s the definition of righteousness: to be in a right relationship with God. The people in Isaiah’s time were acting righteous, but they were not in that right relationship. The same is true of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, and in the religious lives of so many today. They were going through the religious motions while ignoring what God was calling them to do in the world. We are still a few weeks away from Ash Wednesday, but how many Christians will decide to fast on something as a Lenten discipline. That can be a good thing, but how many of those same Christians will gorge on those items on Easter Day? They give it up- fast - for seven weeks, but nothing is changed?
The religious rituals that are mentioned in Isaiah were commanded by God, but they had become something much different than God intended. The people saw their actions, their obedience, as the source of their salvation and their blessings. They did all the right things, so they must have been righteous. Jesus says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Too many people are confused by the word righteousness. The world thinks it means being good, doing good things. Like those in Isaiah’s day, they think being righteous is doing all the right religious practices. “I fasted, so I deserve to be blessed.” The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were the same. “I keep the Law, so I deserve to be blessed.” Today people work so hard to be right with God, and never realize that the things they are doing will never make them right with Him. We can’t work our way into righteousness: that’s called self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the very thing that divides us from God and from one another. When we think we are being obedient, following all the rules, then we think we deserve favor from God.
Paul writes, “Now the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” It doesn’t make sense to our natural man to live the Christian life. We want to follow rules and earn our reward. We want to get what we deserve. We think we are entitled to God’s blessings because we are righteous. So we do what we do to earn our place in God’s kingdom. However, we can never earn our place; we can’t manipulate God into giving us what we want. Righteousness is not a matter of works; it is a matter of heart.
Unfortunately, many read this text and have a worldly understanding of what it means to be spiritual. That might sound like an oxymoron, but I recently read an article that defined someone who is spiritual as one “whose highest priority is to be loving to yourself and others. A spiritual person cares about people, animals and the planet. A spiritual person knows that we are all One, and consciously attempts to honor this Oneness. A spiritual person is a kind person.” This is not what Paul means when he talks about being spiritual.
The author of the article suggested that one could follow different types of religious practices like attending church and doing yoga and not be spiritual. This is true, but as many in today’s world, the author use some scripture quotes but removed God completely from the equation. Paul tells us that we need God’s Spirit to know the things of God. That’s what it means to be spiritual. The worldly definition of spiritual makes it about works, about doing good things to and for others.
Paul is not referring to the spiritual man as being non-religious as many tend to understand it today. Paul is talking about those who are focused on God, who live lives that glorify Him. The man who lives by faith will live according to God’s Word, doing what God calls us to do, living the life of discipleship. The spiritual man is the one who lives the Christ-centered life, who has the mind of Christ. The world would rather remove Christ from the equation, and even God, reducing Him to some sort of great force of which we are all a part. The world would rather be self-righteous rather than right with God.
The whole message of Christ, the message of forgiveness and mercy, is beyond our vision. The idea of God the Father giving His Son for our sake is just crazy. Why would an all powerful God do that? Why would He have to? Though there are still things about the spiritual realm that we do not fully understand, we have a wisdom that is greater than anything in the world because we have a connection to the source of all wisdom. The Spirit of God dwells in our hearts and reveals to us that which God would have us know. We no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit. We are no longer uncertain, but have confidence in the promises of God. We don’t live in darkness, but in the Light.
I suppose sometimes we make it all too complicated. I like to use the word “theology” when I’m teaching, but I know many are intimidated by it. After all, shouldn’t the professionals be doing theology; shouldn’t we leave theology to the theologians? Since theology is the study of God, we do theology every time we talk about him. Perhaps I should ignore the big religious words like theology, but I want others to find joy in the discussion and to realize that it should not be left to the professionals.
I try to go a theological conference each year. I have to admit that there are times when I am intimidated by the lectures I hear. They use Greek and Latin words I don’t understand. One speaker spoke so quickly that I could barely comprehend the fifty-cent words he used before he moved on to the next topic in his lecture. I was dazed and confused! Yet, it is so exciting when I’m sitting in my Sunday school class and we have discovered together some great idea about the character of God. Our discussions have left us breathless, in tears, laughing with joy. While people may be afraid to do theology as it is done among the doctors of the Church, the simple reality is that talking about God helps us to see Him, hear Him and understand Him. The Holy Spirit works among us during those conversations, revealing to us the God who loves and forgives us with such grace as to send His own Son for our salvation.
A motorist was driving in the country when he came upon a priest and a rabbi standing on the shoulder of the road, fishing. Next to them was a sign that read. “Turn around. The end is near.” The motorist didn’t like to be preached to, so he rolled down the window and yelled, “Mind your own business, you religious nuts!” A few seconds later the two fishermen heard tires screech, then a splash. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “I told you we should’ve just written, ‘Bridge Out.’”
The message of the priest and the rabbi would have helped the driver keep from ending up in the river, but they spoke in a language that the driver rejected. They made it too complicated for the motorist to understand. He saw two religious men and assumed the sign had religious significance. He quickly rejected what it had to say because to him it seemed unreasonable. If they had put the simpler words “Bridge Out” on the sign the man would have stopped and turned around.
How often do we try to share the Christian message in a way that is too complicated for the hearers to understand? Sadly, we sometimes do this because we are trying to put our own spin on the Gospel message. I experienced too many people doing online ministry who convoluted the Gospel and would then say, “I don’t need to explain it to you. If you had the Holy Spirit, you would understand.” They made it seem as if you couldnt possibly be saved if you didnt understand what they said.
That which brings people to Christ is the message of love and mercy found at the cross of Jesus Christ. By His blood He restored our relationship with God our Creator and Father by paying the price and providing forgiveness for our sin. By His resurrection we are raised to new life as His child to live and love in this world, sharing that message with others. We think we have to make it complicated, sound intelligent among the intelligent, to speak into the lives of those to whom we are sent as witnesses. We don’t come to faith by understanding the things of God. Rather, it is by hearing the Word of God, having Him move within our hearts to convict us and transform us by His love. It is the simple message, “Jesus loves you” that will plant seeds of conviction into the hearts of the unbelievers. Then God will do the rest.
People from every age think that it is enough to go through the religious motions and then go on to do what they want to do in their daily lives. They think it is alright to cheat or hurt their neighbors if they repent with the right rituals. It is no wonder that God did not hear the prayers of those in the text from Isaiah. He calls us to be merciful, to be just, to be compassionate and to be generous. He calls us to sacrifice from the heart, not the flesh. God cannot be manipulated, and too many people then and now think that if they just appear to be faithful, then God will bless them. God sees behind our masks; His grace is not a reward for good works. He looks to the heart.
Isn’t it funny how the Church has lived through two thousand years of discussing the nature of God and His will for this world, and yet today we are no closer to understanding Him than the disciples were when they lived with Jesus? It is good that we have these conversations, discovering together the character of God and the fulfillment of His promises in and through Jesus Christ. There are things about God, however, that we will never fully know. We can talk about the things we know, the things we believe, the things we see and understand. That’s faith. Faith is trusting that God’s promises are true and that our hope is found in Christ.
While our works will never make us righteous, God calls us to be the people He intends us to be. He isn’t looking for religious folk who fast when they are supposed to fast or who sacrifice when they are supposed to sacrifice. He is looking for believers who use their gifts for His glory.
A bible study leader once asked, “Are you a banker or a distribution center?” In other words, when you receive gifts from your heavenly Father, do you hold on to them or do you send them right back out? An item is not nearly as valuable sitting in a warehouse as it is being sold in a store. A loaf of bread will perish if it is not offered for sale quickly enough. So it is with our gifts. Withheld from the world, our gifts our useless. Everything we have and everything we are should be shared generously. That’s how we, as salt, flavor the world and as light shine in the darkness.
There are many things about God that we will never know or understand, but what we know comes from the Spirit of God. God has prepared so many good things for us, has given us incredible gifts. Both Isaiah and the psalmist show us what it is like to live the spiritual life. We are blessed when we delight in God’s commands. He will bless those who dwell in a right relationship with God. We will not be moved or shaken when our hearts are steadfast and trust in God.
Isaiah writes the word of the Lord, “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh. Then your light will break out as the morning, and your healing will appear quickly then your righteousness shall go before you; and Yahweh’s glory will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and Yahweh will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”
So, while the author of that article is wrong about what it means to be spiritual, she is right that ultimately it all comes down to love, peace, joy, truth and kindness. The difference is, she contends that it is by our power we can heal and change the world, but we know that it will only come about through God’s power. We are salt because He makes us salty and we are light because He shines in us. It is by faith, trusting that God has given us all we need, that we can go out into the world to share the Gospel in word and deed. We are spiritual because we have been given His Spirit, and we can trust that God will answer when we call, accomplishing His great works through our lives.
“The plans of the diligent surely lead to profit; and everyone who is hasty surely rushes to poverty.” Proverbs 21:5, WEB
Today is my baby’s birthday. Of course, he’s not much of a baby anymore. He is a grown man and fairly independent. It was much easier to deal with his birthday when he was a child; I could easily walk into any toy store and find something that would make him happy. Big boy toys are a much different quest; it is much harder for Mom to find the right present. It didn’t help that my schedule has been packed with other things I had to do. I said to someone, “I didn’t forget Zack’s birthday, but I was too busy to remember.” In other words, I didn’t have the time to go searching for the perfect gift. Zack and I went out on Tuesday and bought him a new suit. I also paid for a grab bag at his favorite store in the mall. It wasn’t much, but it was something that brought him joy. Yet, I still feel bad that there isn’t a surprise for him to unwrap today.
I didn’t forget but I didn’t have time to remember. How often have we said the same thing about other tasks we should do but we don’t manage to get them done? I know at least a few people who send cards early in the new year rather than for Christmas because they just don’t have time to get them prepared. More than one sitcom has shown a mother rushing to buy cookies at the grocery store for the school bake sale rather than making homemade ones, a joke that probably happens in real life more often than we would like to admit. This week I meant to call a friend and let her know I was going to attend a party, and it took me so long to call, she called me to see if I was coming. I didn’t forget; I just didn’t have time to remember.
How often do we do this with our relationship with God? How often do we forget to spend time with Him, not that we have forgotten Him, but we just don’t have time to remember? How often do we get behind on our reading because we are so busy with other things? I started reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion last year using a reading plan that would end two weeks before Christmas. Unfortunately, I still have a month to read because my schedule became out of control last fall. Worse, I was so tired when I had time to read that I couldn’t deal with it. This can happen with other faith and devotional practices. We don’t forget; we just don’t have time to remember.
Zack will be fine if I don’t manage to have anything wrapped and waiting for him when he gets home from work this evening, but he really won’t mind even if I don’t. He understands that the past few months have been extremely busy for me and how hard it is for me to choose things that I know he would enjoy. God is even more understanding. He doesn’t need us to remember to spend time with Him in prayer or Bible study. The reality is that we need it more than He does. We need to slow down so that we can listen to what He has to say. We think we have to do all the other things to be satisfied and successful, but time with our Father will give us something even better: peace and joy. The proverb for today may focus on earthly profit, but how much richer will we be if we seek the treasures of life in God’s Kingdom! We might be rich with good things when we fill our schedules with wonderful things, but we are poor when we don’t have time to remember to be with our Father.
“Therefore Jesus perceived that they wanted to ask him, and he said to them, ‘Do you inquire among yourselves concerning this, that I said, “A little while, and you won’t see me, and again a little while, and you will see me?” Most certainly I tell you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she gives birth, has sorrow, because her time has come. But when she has delivered the child, she doesn’t remember the anguish any more, for the joy that a human being is born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.’” John 16:19-22, WEB
We have talked a lot in recent days about joy because ultimately our faith in Jesus Christ leads us to a joy that is beyond human comprehension. We rejoice in His works and we rejoice when we are able to accomplish the works He has given for us to do. The Christian life is one of joy. That doesn’t mean that we will never feel sad. I am sure that the talk of joy has been difficult for some to bear. We face times of struggle, of pain, of loss and sadness. We lament the passing of people we love and cry out in our suffering.
It is ok. Some people try to put on a happy face at all times, not wanting to be unfaithful to God. After all, if He wants us to rejoice always, as Paul tells us, then shouldn’t we do so? How can we rejoice when we are suffering from the pain of losing someone we love? We are reminded, however, that we all face those times and God is with us through them. Didn’t He say that He would be with us as we walked through the valley of the shadow of death? More than a third of the Psalms are songs of lament! The book of Lamentations is a series of poetic laments over the destruction of Jerusalem. God knows our pain and He cries with us, just as Jesus cried with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus.
Imagine what it must have been like for the disciples. They had followed Jesus for three years, and though He spoke repeatedly about how His ministry must end, they never quite understood that His purpose was to die. They thought He would be King!
John chapters 13 through 16 are called “The Fairwell Discourse.” It was in this lengthy lesson that Jesus prepared His disciples for His ultimate departure. It must have been disheartening to hear words in that conversation. They wondered among themselves, “What could He mean?” He knew. He knew their hearts were not truly prepared for what they would face. They would watch Him be arrested and tried. People would lie about Him, beat Him and nail Him to a cross. He would die at the hands of those He came to save, and they would not be able to do anything to save Him. There was no joy in that Good Friday, and it is likely that there was little joy in the days leading up to His arrest. How could they rejoice when Jesus talked about suffering and death so much?
They did weep and lament for a time while the world was rejoicing. They were afraid and confused. What would they do? Where would they go? How could they return to their old lives after having experience the love and grace of God in such a real and powerful way? Yet, without Jesus, what was left? Isn’t that how we feel sometimes? Don’t we feel the same fear and confusion when our world seems to be crashing down around us? How can we go on when we lose someone we love? How can we move forward when we lose our jobs or our homes? How can we face tomorrow when it is likely to be as bad as today? How do we rejoice when there is nothing happy in our world?
We live by faith, knowing that God is with us even when we feel like His has abandoned us. Even Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He lamented and He knew what would happen in three days. He doesn’t expect us to be any stronger. It is ok to be sad, to be afraid, and to be confused. It is ok to lament; God is bigger than our frailties. As a matter of fact, it is in those moments of lament that we actually look to God. It is there are faith shines as we trust that He will truly be with us and that He will helps us through that valley. We will rejoice again because that joy is in our hearts even as we struggle through out times of difficult. The faith God has given us holds on, sometimes desperately, to the joy that He brings. It may sometimes seem lost, but He has promised that no one will ever take it from you. Rest in Him and trust that He will always be faithful. You may weep and lament today, but you will rejoice tomorrow, for He has promised it will be so.
“Rejoice in Yahweh, you righteous! Praise is fitting for the upright. Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre. Sing praises to him with the harp of ten strings. Sing to him a new song. Play skillfully with a shout of joy! For Yahweh’s word is right. All his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice. The earth is full of the loving kindness of Yahweh. By Yahweh’s word, the heavens were made; all their army by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap. He lays up the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear Yahweh. Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it was done. He commanded, and it stood firm. Yahweh brings the counsel of the nations to nothing. He makes the thoughts of the peoples to be of no effect. The counsel of Yahweh stands fast forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh, the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance. Yahweh looks from heaven. He sees all the sons of men. From the place of his habitation he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions all of their hearts; and he considers all of their works. There is no king saved by the multitude of an army. A mighty man is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a vain thing for safety, neither does he deliver any by his great power. Behold, Yahweh’s eye is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his loving kindness; to deliver their soul from death, to keep them alive in famine. Our soul has waited for Yahweh. He is our help and our shield. For our heart rejoices in him, because we have trusted in his holy name. Let your loving kindness be on us, Yahweh, since we have hoped in you.” Psalm 33, WEB
Loving kindness. This is the image of the God we adore. I have heard from more than a few people that they don’t like the Old Testament image of God, the one in which God commands kings to go to war, walls to come tumbling down or faithful men to sacrifice their own children. There are even a few New Testament stories that many would rather ignore, like Ananias and Sapphira dropping dead because they lied about their offering. They believe in a God of love, and any bloodshed could not be from Him.
That’s why many people question the wisdom of the cross, including many Christians. Those who are not believers think that the cross is foolishness. What is the point in God demanding the death of His own Son?
The reason for the cross goes all the way back to the book of Genesis. In chapter 15, God made a covenant with Abraham. His name was still Abram, he was an old man who had walked away from the life he knew to follow the voice of an unknown God. God promised (in chapter 12) that Abram would be the father of many nations, that he would be blessed to be a blessing. Yet, many years later, Abram and his wife Sarai still did not have any children. How would God fulfill His promises? How would Abram ever be the father of nations if he didn’t even have a single child of his own?
In answer to Abram’s question, God told him to prepare the sacrifices to make a covenant. They didn’t have lawyers, courthouses, and legal documents. They didn’t even base a promise on a handshake. They cut a covenant. This meant that they sacrificed animals and placed them on the ground with a walkway between the pieces. The people making the promise walked through the blood on the ground, literally promising that if they broke the covenant, than they would give their own blood in recompense. Yes, times were different in those days.
According to God’s command, Abram cut a heifer, a goat and a ram as well as a turtledove and a pigeon. Then, rather than walking the covenant path together, God caused Abram to fall into a deep sleep, and then as a light He walked the covenant path alone. God knew from the beginning that humankind would never be able to remain faithful to the promise, and so He took it upon His own shoulders. When we failed, God remained faithful and paid the price on the cross.
Abram eventually became Abraham and Sarai was named Sarah. God fulfilled His promise to them when they were very old. He was faithful. Isaac was the beginning of a long line of offspring who eventually gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ. We, as children of Abraham, are offspring, too, made righteous by the faith we have in the God who can do such amazing things. But besides the miraculous things that God did, as we hear in today’s Psalm, God was faithful to the covenant He made with Abram so long ago. When we failed, He gave His own blood to pay the price. He was willing to do what was necessary to restore us to Himself. He had a plan, a plan that began even before Abraham. We can rejoice that this God has done what is necessary to fulfill the covenant promise, the things we would never be able to accomplish on our own. This is a God who is worthy of our awe. We can rejoice because we are made righteous by the faith that He has made possible by His grace. We can truly hope in His loving kindness because it was that love that made Him do the unthinkable for our sake. It was His love that spilled Jesus’ blood so that we would be restored to our Father for eternity.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 12, 2017, Sixth Sunday of Epiphany: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
“If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24, WEB
Part of the liturgy in many denominations is a moment of reconciliation between people. It is called “Passing the peace.” This has become a time to shake the hands of those sitting next to us, to wish them well and perhaps even ask about their kids. It often takes more time than it should as the worship leader had difficulty getting everyone to settle back into their seats. I know that on many Sundays I have chased after my friends to give them a hug and tell them how pleased I am to see them. This isn’t a bad thing, although it is not really the purpose of that time in the liturgy.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Passing the peace is about reconciliation. It is about restoring our relationships with one another before we stand before God.
Last week we heard a text from Isaiah in which God asked, “Is this the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to humble his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under himself? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Yahweh?” God was calling our attention to the ways we think we are honoring Him, but in reality we are ignoring the ways we should do so. “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?” Jesus has added to this these expectations that the right way to live is not found in our offerings to God, but in our reconciliation with one another.
See, we think it is enough to attend church on Sunday and throw a twenty in the offering plate, but are we truly worshipping the Lord when we sit in our pew grumbling about our neighbors? It is usually not very hard to avoid the conflicts in our lives, whatever the reason. We can sneak out the back door or go the other way when we see them across the room. I have known too many Christians who sneak out of worship as soon as they receive communion, not because they have somewhere they need to be but because they want to avoid someone in the congregation.
Our Father wants us to be reconciled, to live in peace with one another.
The joke regularly made after I’ve mentioned this true reason for passing the peace is that everyone is going to watch me. “We’ll know something is up if we see you cross to the other side of the sanctuary!” We don’t really want to make such a public demonstration of our brokenness, and so we pass the peace to those who are nearby and continue to ignore the conflicts that are causing us to lose sight of our God. See, brokenness in our everyday life and world is magnified in our relationship with God. We can’t hate a neighbor and love God; this is why God wants us to lay down our offering and reconcile.
Here’s the hard part of this lesson: in most of our conflicts there is not just one person at fault. Jesus says, “If you remember your brother has something against you...” This text is calling the guilty to be the initiator. Yet, how often do we wait until the other initiates the reconciliation because we believe they hold the greater guilt in the manner? We think we are innocent in the matter. Listen to the arguments on the day time court shows and you’ll see just that. One litigant refused to pay because the other did something wrong. The other litigant will tell you that they did that thing because the other didn’t pay. It is a vicious circle. How do we forgive someone who hasn’t repented? How do they forgive us when we don’t do so?
There is a place to argue that we should not forgive without repentance, but the reality is that reconciliation is a two way street. Instead of running to the other side of the sanctuary to make peace with our neighbor, we should be meeting in the middle because we are all sinners in need of Jesus to make things right.
We have a choice. We can hold the grudges that keep us apart from our brothers and sisters, or we can pass the peace and find common ground in the reality of our need for God’s grace.
The Old Testament lesson comes at the end of the Exodus story. The Israelites were wandering in circles throughout the wilderness for forty years because they broke their relationship with God. A whole generation passed and the new generation finally reached the Promised Land. They were standing on the far side of the river preparing to see the promise made to their forefathers fulfilled. Moses gave them one final message before they crossed. They made the choice once when offered the opportunity to be saved from Egypt. The choice was easy then: stay in slavery or go to the Promised Land. They overwhelmingly chose to go forward into God’s promises. Yet, that first generation did not stay faithful. They turned from God along the way. That’s why they wandered for forty years. They made their choice to not trust God and they suffered the consequences.
But now a new generation stood on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over. The next part of their journey would take even more trust. Joshua would have to lead the people in a parade around Jericho instead of into a battle. They would have to destroy everything according to God’s command. They would have to fight with ridiculously small armies. They would have to follow directions that made no sense at all.
“Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil. For I command you today to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it.” Moses called God’s people to commit to a life of obedience to God.
Sometimes they obeyed, and when they did, they succeeded. But sometimes they made another choice. They went another way. They did their own thing, and in doing so chose destruction. We aren’t any different. We go our own way too often; we choose to follow our flesh rather than God’s grace. Our lives may appear good because we haven’t murdered anyone, slept with our neighbor’s spouse or gone to court over defamatory statements about our neighbors. But who among us can say we haven’t been unrighteously angry or overcome with lust? Who among us can say we have never called someone a fool?
When they followed His direction, decisions and rules, they succeeded. When they did not, they knew only failure. God held them in the midst of it, but they suffered destruction and death along the way. He restored them each time, reminded them of the promise and re-instructed them on His commands, decrees and ordinances.
Psalm 119 is the longest book of the bible with 176 verses. It is divided into twenty-two sections, each one representing a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The psalm speaks of the law over and over again in many and various ways. What we do not see in our English (and perhaps other language) translations is that it is an elaborate acrostic poem, with the verses of each stanza beginning with the same letter. It is devotional in character, perhaps used as a learning tool for instruction on godliness. The writer may have been a priest who was passionately devoted to the Word of God; he also humbly acknowledges his own failure to live up to it.
To many, including those who put less focus on the Law, the 176 verses seem very repetitious. Each stanza uses many synonyms for the word Law. If you compare the texts from different translations, you will find that there are dozens of different words used like, “statutes,” “ordinances,” “testimonies,” “precepts,” “commandments,” “decrees,” “laws,” and “word.” While this psalm might seem unduly focused on obedience, we see within the stanzas repeated reminders of God’s promises. The one who lives according to God’s Word will be blessed with life, salvation, protection and provision.
If we look at this passage in Hebrew, we’ll see even more depth to what is being taught. The law words are very different, and each of the stanzas of 119 has a unique focus on living according to God’s Law. The first stanza promises God’s blessing on those who walk according to God’s Law.
The first verse sets us on the right path; it talks about being blessed by the Torah, the instruction or teaching of God. Those who do so are blessed because doing so leaves us blameless. They are also blessed who seek with their whole hearts to know God’s story. The second verse may use translations like statutes or commands, but the Hebrew shows that those who seek to know God’s story, His testimony, with their whole hearts will be blessed. In the third verse, we see that those who walk on the path God has established will do nothing wrong. He gives us the Law to keep us right with Him, so in the fourth verse we are called to obey God’s authority. The psalmist cries for help to stay on that right path in verse five. The word here, often translated statutes or decrees is about limitations or boundaries. We ask God to help us stay on that right path because when we do, we won’t be disappointed. Our failure to live up to God often ends in destruction and death, but obedience to entire body of God’s Law - word, command, promise, instruction, testimony, authority, scripture and most especially the Word made flesh - will bring us blessing. Verse seven reminds us that God’s judgment is right. We can and should give thanks to the God who has set on us His path. The psalmist promises to stay within the limits of God’s Law and prays that God will always be there.
We can rest in the knowledge that God will always be there and trust Him to lead us in the right path. We can trust that as we walk according to God’s Law, He will bless us and we will make the choices that lead to life.
Jesus seems to make it so hard for us. He commands not only that we obey the Law, but that we live in grace. He desires more than a life of obedience; He calls us to reconciliation. He knows our hearts and our temptations. It is so easy for us to respond to our anger by voicing our hostility. After all, we learn from a very early age that words can’t hurt us. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they are in danger of the hell of fire for calling someone a fool. The problem is not the words; the problem is the broken relationship. Murder is final, but even harsh words can destroy a relationship. We are called to live better; we are called to a life of peace. We can only do that when we are reconciled with our brother, despite the foolish things we all do when we fall to the temptations of our flesh.
The most important relationship that is affected by our sin is our relationship with God. Sin separates us from our Father in heaven, but thankfully God has breached the gap by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Now God sees our sin through Jesus-colored glasses, forgiving us each time we fail. It is only in forgiveness that we can be reconciled to God, because without Him it is impossible for us to live according to His Word. The same is true of our relationships with people. We can only be reconciled through forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and ourselves of the sins that destroy our relationships. We need to be reconciled before we will be able to present our gifts to God with a right heart.
Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “Works indeed are good, and God strictly requires them of us, but they do not make us holy.” We humbly approach these texts with the reality of our sinfulness. We will fail. We will break the commandments. We will destroy relationships, with God and with our neighbors. But we come to these texts with a promise: even when we fail, Christ has forgiven. He has reconciled us to God so that we can reconcile with our neighbors.
Jesus came to fulfill everything God promised in and through the Law. He came to help us reach the final destination. The Israelites may have crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, but a greater promise lay ahead: the restoration of God’s people to Him for eternity. How do we get there? How do we keep going forward? We love and trust God because He is our life.
Jesus’ word for us today is hard. It is easy to say that we haven’t killed anyone, but quite frankly I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get angry once in a while. A story is told about D. L. Moody, the evangelist, who was almost always an example of Christian love and charity. He was known to have a temper, but he kept it in check. Once, however, he was disturbed by a heckler and he lost it. In his anger he shoved the man down a short flight of stairs. The man was not harmed, but the tone of the evening was damaged because so many had witnessed his outburst. Anger can destroy lives as badly as murder.
The same is true of lust. Perhaps this is truer in our day and age when it is so easy to become involved in non-physical adulterous relationships. How many marriages are failing today because of online romances and virtual intercourse? Unfaithfulness is not just a physical action, but it is a turning of the heart. When one is unfaithful to a spouse by lusting after another, one has walked down the wrong path.
This is not easy. There are perfectly valid reasons to get angry. Perhaps the attacker had said something that could ruin his reputation? What if the detractor said something libelous? We don’t know what made him lose control, but it may have been something we would quickly justify in our own lives. But Mr. Moody knew he was wrong. When the meeting began, he apologized. “Friends, before beginning tonight I want to confess that I yielded just now to my temper, out in the hall, and have done wrong. Just as I was coming in here tonight, I lost my temper with a man, and I want to confess my wrong before you all, and if that man is present here whom I thrust away in anger, I want to ask his forgiveness and God’s. Let us pray.” Moody crossed the sanctuary and passed the peace with the one who had something against him.
We will fail. We certainly should try to live up to the expectations of the Law and Jesus. We’ll get angry. We will lust over someone. We will fail. I suppose that’s why we have such a hard time with these texts. He sounds so very unforgiving in this passage. He tells us we won’t get out of prison until we’ve paid our debt and that we should rid ourselves of our eyes if they cause us to look at someone with lust. This is not good news, and it doesn’t seem as though Jesus is giving us a way out.
We come to these texts knowing that Jesus has completed the work and that His forgiveness is ours. The text for today comes out of a larger body of words; it is an isolated scripture that is read in light of the rest. In this passage Jesus challenges us to be what God intends us to be because He knows the consequences of our failure. Anger can get us into deeper trouble. Adultery can destroy lives. Breaking our promises can lead us down a path of darkness and death. And so we come to the knowledge of our failure with the promise of forgiveness.
Moses told God’s people to love God, walk in His ways and keep His commands, decrees and laws. The psalmist shows us the many ways that God’s Word touches our life and the many ways we can be obedient. When we follow God’s Law, we will keep on the right path and we will know God’s blessing. It might be difficult to read these texts because they are so law-focused, but sometimes we need to hear God’s voice so we know the direction that He wants us to go.
I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Corinth in Paul’s day. Well, perhaps I can, because we continue to do the same things. There were factions in the church of Corinth, each following a specific teacher. One followed Paul and another followed Apollos. They were missing the foundation of both their ministries, and they were condemning one another in the process. He writes, “For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s farming, God’s building.” The trouble that was happening in Corinth is that the people were following individuals. One group believed the Gospel from Apollos’ point of view. Another followed Paul’s witness. They weren’t looking to God, but to man.
That is, perhaps, our greatest problem. We look to ourselves, to our opinions, to our points of view for guidance, when God has something completely different in mind. We get so caught up in what we want that we miss what God has for us. The Israelites followed God out of Egypt, but it didn’t take them very long to realize that the path was going to be hard, and they stopped looking to God. They wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. How often do we start following God but when the going gets rough we decide to turn around? We think, “This way is better.” Or, “God could not have made this decision.” Or “I can’t go forward.” And then we end up going in the wrong direction. And when we end up going in the wrong direction, we find ourselves suffering the consequences of our actions.
Paul wanted to teach the Corinthians a deeper understanding of God. He wanted to them to live a fuller, richer faith. He wanted them to know God’s Word, and God’s Law, in a new, richer way. However, they were not yet ready for spiritual understanding. They were still caught up in the world. He continued to teach them the basics of Christianity, even though they should have been moving on to deeper things; instead of having the heart of Christ, they were living according to their flesh. And their flesh was sinful. Paul writes, “Brothers, I couldn’t speak to you as to spiritual, but as to fleshly, as to babies in Christ. I fed you with milk, not with meat; for you weren’t yet ready. Indeed, not even now are you ready, for you are still fleshly. For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?” They were following the wrong path, making the wrong choices. They were choosing death rather than life.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to Yahweh’s law.” We aren’t blameless, and I can’t imagine any of us will be so in this life. We might get beyond the milk to the solid food to which Paul refers, but we will still do things that will satisfy our flesh and follow the paths that lead us in the wrong direction. We’ll still get angry or have lustful hearts. But we can try to live as God has called us to live, to follow His commandments and be obedient to His Word. We do this not of our own volition, but by the grace of God. He makes us perfect. He leads the way. He loves us with a gracious and forgiving love and calls us to do the same with our neighbors. The more we dwell in this grace, the less we will fail. The deeper we love God, the more we will be able to cross that sanctuary to pass the peace with the person to whom we need to be reconciled. Then we can approach God and present our offerings with a right heart.
“But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, confined for the faith which should afterwards be revealed. So that the law has become our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Galatians 3:23-27, WEB
There is a local outdoor recreation store that has a huge digital sign that advertises specials and promotes the joys of outdoor living. They sell a variety of recreational vehicles, have on-site storage, and service the vehicles. The sign builds excitement about the possibilities of camping and invites the viewers to visit and buy an RV for their own adventures.
The funny part of this is the way that they have designed the sign. It is digital, and so flips through several different frames or videos in a minute or so. The first frame shouts, “Let’s Go Camping!” and then the frames go on to talk about their payment options. The second frame is a picture of a stop sign that simply says “NO,” leading to the third frame that says “Cash Down.” I think it is funny that they ask if I want to go camping, but then gives my answer for me. I laugh every time I drive by.
There are times when this type of technique can work in advertising; the brief pause between one word and the rest of the thought can catch your attention and cause you to consider what they are saying. In this case, however, too many people probably never see the “Cash Down” part of the advertisement and are left with the subliminal message that we shouldn’t want to go camping.
How often do we leave people with the wrong message because we have offered a witness that is not complete? I come from a tradition that focuses heavily on both Law and Gospel; we need Law so that we recognize our need for the Gospel. Unfortunately, we too often only talk about Law or Gospel and we leave our listeners confused. Without the Law, the Gospel doesn’t seem necessary. Without the Gospel, the Law seems crushing.
The Old Covenant was given to point us toward the New. The Law was given to guide God’s people until the day when Christ would establish the New Covenant. In Christ we no longer live under the Law. We live under grace. Before Christ we were prisoners to the Law, but Jesus sets us free to live in faith. This freedom is given to all who believe, even those who were not born under the Law. Just as Jesus had to go through the cross to be raised to new life, we are crushed by the Law so that we can be raised by grace into a life of faith in Christ.
Too many Christians focus on the Law without sharing the promise of the Gospel, and yet it is equally dangerous to focus solely on the Gospel without showing people their need for Christ. They reject Jesus because they don’t see a need for Him. They don’t know they need forgiveness because they don’t know they are sinners. Oh, we all know we do things that aren’t always good, but we don’t think our bad behavior is all that bad. We justify our actions, or compare ourselves to others. “I know I do this, but did you see what she did?” We think we are good enough. We even see that at funerals.
The reality is that we are all sinners, not by our action, but by our nature. We are separated from God, and that truth of that is manifest in our actions. The thing that Jesus overcomes is that separation. We are saved and transformed not from being bad people who do bad things, but from our complete inability to live up to the expectations of a holy and perfect God. The Law shows us that, but the Gospel shows us that Jesus did live up to the requirements of the Law so that we could be called God’s children.
Don’t be like that sign; don’t give the message in a way that will be incomplete. Too many will be like me, laughing that half of the message answers “No!” just like me with the question of camping. The Law points us to Christ and Christ overcomes the Law. We need to hear the whole story to discover the joy, peace and hope that is found in life as children of God. Law and Gospel leads us to faith, which transforms us into the people God has created and redeemed us to be.
“So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and Yahweh enabled her to conceive, and she bore a son. The women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be Yahweh, who has not left you today without a near kinsman. Let his name be famous in Israel. He shall be to you a restorer of life, and sustain you in your old age, for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’ Naomi took the child, and laid him in her bosom, and became nurse to it. The women, her neighbors, gave him a name, saying, ‘A son is born to Naomi’. They named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Ruth 4:13-17, WEB
Naomi’s life was hard. She had a husband and sons she loved, but circumstance caused her to lose everything. Their homeland suffered from a drought, so they moved to a foreign land, far from their God. Her sons married local girls. Eventually her husband and both her sons died, leaving her alone in a strange world. She told the girls to return to their father’s homes and said that she was going to go home. One of her sons’ wives tearfully said good-bye, but Ruth refused to leave her. They became mother and daughter even though their only link in life was gone. Ruth chose for follow Naomi, to love Naomi’s people and to love Naomi’s God.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, Ruth took over the responsibility of caring for her mother-in-law. She gleaned the fields for grain. God’s hand was in Ruth’s life and she found herself in the fields of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s husband Elimelech. Boaz saw what a blessing she was to Naomi, loving the woman as her own mother. He took care of Ruth, offering her special privileges as were given to the women in his own household. He blessed Ruth with these words, “May Yahweh repay your work, and a full reward be given to you from Yahweh, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:12)
Naomi was amazed at the amount Ruth gleaned from the fields and asked if anyone had noticed her. When she learned it was her relative Boaz, she blessed him, too. “May he be blessed by Yahweh, who has not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead.” God did bless them all for the love they held for one another. Boaz and Ruth were married and they had a child. Though Naomi was not a blood relative of either Boaz or Ruth, they counted her as the mother of the child that was named Obed. Obed was not just any child; he became the father of Jesse who was the father of David. The childless widow was given new hope in the life of a child. Through her story we are reminded to trust in God because whatever troubles we have today, there is always hope in God’s plan. He will be faithful and will bless us in ways we can never expect.
“My brothers, don’t hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality. For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in; and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, ‘Sit here in a good place’; and you tell the poor man, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit by my footstool’; haven’t you shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers. Didn’t God choose those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you, and personally drag you before the courts? Don’t they blaspheme the honorable name by which you are called? However, if you fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak, and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:1-13, WEB
One of the most incredible experiences I had when I was in England was at Westminster Abbey. This is famous, of course, for being the site of royal weddings and coronations. It is a favorite place for many to visit, since its halls and chapels are full of tombs and monuments of some of the most important people in English history. It is also a church with services on a regular basis.
We happened to be there around noon on a weekday, during the time when the congregation held a daily service with Eucharist. We were somewhere along the tour, not very convenient to the worship space when we heard the announcement. We quickly found a member of the staff to ask if all were welcome and the man helped us jump ropes and get around the crowds so that we could attend. Who wouldn’t want to have that experience? Apparently a thousand other people didn’t care; they kept looking at the tombs of dead people while we worshipped the living God with about two dozen locals who came during their lunch hour.
The most incredible moment of the day, however, came when I went to kneel at the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ. The present building is about seven hundred and fifty years old, and though there have been changes and renovations over the years, even the railings and cushions are ancient. As I knelt there with the other celebrants, I realized something amazing: I was kneeling where kings and queens, prime ministers and other political leaders, poets and artists and musicians had also knelt to receive the body and blood of Christ. There, in that place, God looked upon me with the same love and mercy and grace as He looked upon all those others. He didn’t see our rank or our power; He saw the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He saw each one of us as His child. He had no favorites; He treated us all with the same grace.
I wish I could be more like God in this. I do have favorites, although I hope I don’t choose based solely on fine clothes and lots of bling. James does focus on wealth in this text; it makes sense because we are likely to focus on those with money because we need it to run our ministries. We want them to share, so we give them extra attention. Yet, it is possible to show favoritism to one group while ignoring the physical, emotional or spiritual needs of the others. We are to show no favoritism in our fellowship with other Christians.
We are all brothers and sisters in Christ by grace through faith, and God sees us through Jesus-colored glasses, but if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we see others through our own biases and experiences. We are all sinners in need of the Savior, and He came for us all. James calls us to love our neighbors as God has loved us, with a mercy that does not see the things that make us different, but through the those Jesus-colored glasses because He has made us all to be children of God.
“Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ASV)
I have to admit that I enjoy watching those made for television movies on the Hallmark Channel. Yes, love comes too easily and the lovers struggle over cliched conflicts caused by their own insecurities and imperfections. Someone says something or doesn’t admit something else. They eventually find the way to get through their trouble and the end up kissing at the end. You can usually figure out the storyline in the first five minutes, but there’s something wonderful about seeing two people discover love and join their hearts forever. The movies are sweet and there’s a certain innocence in those relationships. I don’t enjoy the movies that focus on the sordid side of love as is found in too many movies these days. While sex is certainly part of the life-long relationship between a husband and wife, I prefer to watch movies in which the love that is pure and filled with joy.
Who was Valentine? There were actually three men named Valentine in the early years of the church. The legends surrounding St. Valentine are probably a combination of the three, though the most likely candidate was a Roman priest who died in the third century. Emperor Claudius II Gothicus had a mighty army and he decided it would stay mighty if he made marriage illegal. Valentine was beheaded when it was discovered that he and other priests continued to perform marriages. We love the happily ever after that we see in the movies, but in real life we are reminded that the relationship we seek is more than a physical bond. It is also a spiritual bond. When God created Eve for Adam in the garden, her presence made him complete, and through marriage, the two became one. The scriptures compare marriage to the union of Christ to His Church.
Someone usually asks “Is Valentine’s Day for Christians?” around this time of year, especially when the theaters have movies that are not sweet and innocent. Valentine’s Day started as a feast day for the saint called Valentine, but the church stopped celebrating the festival decades ago. Now the day is focused solely on romance. It is the biggest day of the year for florists, who are selling roses by the dozens. Chocolates and stuffed animals are other favorites. Lovers try to find time together, restaurants will be packed full of men and women holding hands and enjoying each other. It has become a day about making the right impression, certainly not a Christian concern. There is too much pressure on everyone to prove their love.
On this Valentine’s Day, enjoy those you love, even give them flowers, candy or stuffed animals. Chase after the romance for the sake of your most important relationship, but remember that there is so much more to love than we can find in the movies or on the grocery store shelves. The text from Paul for today is almost stereotypical these days as it is used in so many wedding ceremonies, but it shows us the way to live in all our relationships with love that is pure and filled with joy. The gifts and dinners on Valentine’s Day can be fun, but we need not pressure ourselves to prove our love in those ways. True love is found in the love of Christ and manifests in the way we live and love every day.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 19, 2017, Seventh Sunday of Epiphany: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-23; Matthew 5:38-48
“Turn my heart toward your statutes, not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from looking at worthless things. Revive me in your ways.” Psalm 119:36-37, WEB
Sadly, we hate our neighbors and justify our hate because they do not believe what we do or do what we think they should do. We take vengeance and bear grudges. We love ourselves, and we claim to love our neighbors, but in this day and age we do not realize that Jesus meant that we should not just treat them as we might want to be treated, but that we should put our neighbors before ourselves. We are human and we are far from perfect. We think of ourselves first and give to others our leftovers.
Think about this: your pastor just gave a sermon about repentance and encouraged you to make up with the person with whom you have a conflict. “Think about someone with whom you should reconcile and do it this week.” You might easily think of a broken relationship that should be fixed, but what is your next thought? “But he...” and we think of all the reasons why the other person should be the one to make the first move. We refuse to give forgiveness until we see some form of repentance.
Today’s scriptures do not allow us this attitude. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”
How do you love the neighbor that gives you no peace? How do you love the co-worker who has done everything to make your job more difficult and steal your rewards? How do you love the sibling who took the treasures your parents promised to you after they died before you could even get to their house? Every reader of this devotion has some story they can tell of someone that is impossible to love and forgive.
We also find it difficult to aid those who are unwilling to aid themselves. We are willing to help the poor, but what about that lazy guy who takes advantage of the system? I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at the guy on the corner begging for change with that well worn sign saying, “Homeless” and wondered which car in the fast food parking lot belongs to them. We are willing to help the homeless, but how do we decide which ones are truly in need and which ones are scamming folks? These are the normal questions we all ask. We know we are supposed to love everyone, and most of us will say that we do, but is it enough to say it if we don’t accompany our words with action?
Christ calls us to be the kind of people who put others first. Everyone. Even our enemies.
It is so easy for us to look at the sins of others and think that we should get justice. We are bothered by the words of today’s Gospel lesson. Should we let someone who is harming us continue to harm us? Shouldn’t we stand up for ourselves? We can’t let a bully win because then he’ll go on hurting us and others. By taking a stand, we put a stop to their bad behavior. I don’t want to get slapped twice; I’d rather get a slap in, too. I certainly don’t want to give someone who is suing me my cloak as well as my tunic! It isn’t fair, we say, and so we take matters into our own hands. If they are sinning, don’t we have the right to return ‘an eye for an eye?’
Oh, I know: we do this and we become doormats. We get stepped on. They take advantage of us. I don’t think I have the grace to do what Jesus is asking. The text from Leviticus reminds us that we are to treat our neighbors with respect, doing to them only as we would want them to do to us. We are pretty good at living that way when others treat us with respect, when they love us first. But when we are hurt, we are quick to forget God’s Word. God does not want us to be doormats. He is calling us to look at our neighbors, whether they are friend or foe, through the eyes of God. He makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the good and the bad. We all get warm by the heat and wet by the drops, no matter who we are. We also all get burned by the UV rays and flooded by the deluge. In other words, the reality of life hits us all.
Who is your enemy? Most of us would say that we don’t really have any enemies. How often do we hear “Everyone loves that person”? That might be true, but even the best of us run up against people with whom we have disagreements. While we might not call them our enemy as if we are going to war, while we might not feel hatred toward them, we all have someone that we would be better off avoiding if possible. Is it a person at your workplace or neighborhood with whom you have butted heads? Do you get into tangles about politics or religion? Jesus tells us that the rain falls on us all. God, our Father, created us all and we should love everyone, including our enemy.
As if it is not hard enough for us to live up to this expectation of doing kindness to those who do not do kindness to us, God speaks through Moses saying, “You shall be holy; for I, Yahweh your God, am holy.” The rest of the passage is much easier for us to deal with. We know what it is means to lie, steal and cheat our neighbor. We know that we are called to do what is right for our family and our friends. These laws help us to rightly live in this world. And yet we don’t always live up to them. We do sometimes lie. Sadly, sometimes in ways we do not realize, we all steal and cheat our neighbors. I don’t think any of us get through a lifetime without profaning God’s name in one way or another. If we can’t even get through a lifetime without lying, stealing or cheating, how can we ever expect to be holy?
Jesus tells us the same thing but in slightly different words, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Being holy might be easier than being perfect, especially when we try to define holiness according to our own point of view. From my Concordia Study Bible, “When we contemplate the six authoritative teachings of Jesus in vv 21–48, we must agree with Luther’s verdict: ‘At this point you will discover how hard it is to do the good works God commands…. You will find out that you will be occupied with the practice of this work for the rest of your life’ (AE 44:109). Some people, when confronted with the strict demands of the Law, will whittle off a point here, another there. They suggest that we do the best we can, and God will be satisfied. But God demands perfection, which sinners cannot achieve (cf Rm 7:21–25; 1Tm 1:15). Our perfection is in Christ alone. As God’s redeemed people, Jesus declares that we are salt of the earth and light of the world.”
Everything in today’s passages is impossible for us, but that doesn’t mean that we should strive to be any less than holy and perfect. God has done the work in and through Jesus Christ. We are salt and light. We are God’s people; this separates us from others. We are meant to be different, to be holy and perfect, and we do that by living the life God calls us to live which is upside down and inside out of what the world expects.
God does not make laws to burden or oppress us, but to help us to be the best we can be. As a Lutheran, I understand that the Law is meant to help me see how unable I am able to keep it, so that I’ll turn to Christ. That doesn’t mean that I have no responsibility to be the person God wants me to be. I am still expected to live a life that takes care of others. Jesus didn’t come and die so that we can be ‘free to be me’ but so that we can be free to be what we were created to be.
The rules we find in the Bible might seem impractical to us today, and we certainly are not living by them, but it is our responsibility to make sure that our choices and our actions will not harm others. We have to look at the world through God’s eyes. How will this affect my neighbor? It might seem harmless, but there is no such thing as a victimless sin. When we do something wrong, someone suffers. It might seem insignificant. They might not even know that they are victims. But that sin still made an impact on someone else’s life in some way.
We live in the world. And while we live in the world, God expects us to live generously and graciously toward others. We might prefer to ignore the rules, knowing that Christ came to grant us forgiveness from our failure to live up to the Law, but we heard several weeks ago that He did not come to do away with it. The words in Leviticus are as much a part of our life in Christ as it was for the Israelites who received them from Moses. We are still meant to be holy as God is holy, to live holy lives for the sake of others. Jesus calls us to be even more than holy; He calls us to be perfect. In Christ we have been given a new identity and Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to grow up. He turns our world upside down and inside out, but in doing so He sets everything right.
Despite these rules in today’s texts being very down to earth and practical, we are constantly reminded about the authority of the One giving the Law. “I am the Lord your God.” That’s why we do what is right and avoid what is wrong. We do it because God is our Lord. We do it because He wants us to be holy like Him. We do it because He has told us that this is the way we should live. We are God’s Temple; we don’t live within these rules because we expect reward or punishment, but because God has created and redeemed us to be His children.
God told His people to leave crops at the edge of the fields for the poor and the foreigners. The story of Ruth showed us how necessary this can be for those who do not have resources for themselves. Boaz was extraordinarily generous to Ruth because she was helping Naomi, but he also allowed strangers to clean his fields because he was doing what was right and just. We don’t leave the crops at the edges of the field because we think that God will give us a greater harvest later, but because we know that it might make a difference for someone who does not have enough to eat.
Jesus reminds us that we don’t love our neighbors for what they can do for us, after all, that’s the way the world works. He turned it upside down and commands us to love those who would not do anything for us. He takes it a step further, calling us to love those who have done us harm. That’s what it means to be holy. That’s what it means to be perfect. That’s what it means to be like God. Faith turns us upside down and inside out; it sets us on a new path.
We learned last week that despite the inordinate number of “law” words, Psalm 119 is about more than the Law. In today’s stanza, the psalmist is calling for God to help with repentance. “Turn my heart and turn my eyes,” the psalmist cries. Jesus Christ says, “Look at me as your guide. I was perfect, but for your sake I allowed myself to be murdered on a cross. I forgave those who harmed me. I loved my enemies. My blood makes you holy and my righteousness makes you perfect. So, live like me.” We don’t have to resist evil because Jesus overcame it. We may become the world’s doormats, but it doesn’t really matter because we have been promised eternal life in Him. Obedience to the rules won’t get us to heaven, but they will help us bring a little heaven to earth.
I hope that when I stand before my Lord there will be enough there for Him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” How I long to hear those words. But I know that whatever happens in that day I will be saved. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of my life, and to Him I owe everything. But Paul talks about the work we do in this world. “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another builds on it. But let each man be careful how he builds on it.” He says that some lay down gold and silver and others wood and straw. In the end, only that which has value will survive. He writes, “...each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is.” The gold and the silver are those things we do that have a lasting impact on others. What are you building with your life?
You don’t need to worry if you have built too much with straw and too little with gold, because the foundation of your faith is Jesus Christ? Even if everything you have every done disappears from existence, our Father will still see the holiness and perfection of Jesus in your face. In Him you have eternal life. But haven’t we been blessed to be a blessing? Do we not want to honor our God with gold and silver, to build for Him a great and glorious Temple in this world?
It might seem impossible for us to be holy and perfect, to always be obedient to God’s Word. That’s true; it is impossible. However, we should strive to be grow in holiness and perfection. God has done the work in and through Jesus Christ. We are salt and light. We are God’s people separated from the world for a purpose. We are meant to be different, to live by faith in the upside down, inside out Kingdom of God. God has turned our hearts and our eyes, so let us do everything we can to glorify God by doing what is good and right for our neighbors no matter who they are.
“My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth.” 1 John 3:18, WEB
I have worked in retail and I must have the look because I’ve had several encounters in retail establishments with people who thought I was an employee. They asked me questions as if I would have an answer. I often do. They are thankful for my help and usually realize, when I go back to my own shopping, that they made a mistake. They laugh and apologize for disturbing me, but I always respond with a smile and tell them that I don’t mind helping. I have even offered help when it appeared as though someone was confused, especially in the craft stores. I might not be an employee, but I can usually answer the questions anyway.
My favorite encounters have been in the art department. I have run into people who are starting to paint and they don’t quite know where to start. “Are you an artist?” they ask. I tell them that I try and ask if there is any way I can help. They usually hand me a list that was given by an art teacher or that they found online and tell me they don’t know where to start. I’ve spent a long time showing them the differences between paint brushes, explaining the purpose of certain supplies and offering suggestions that might help. I even give them a coupon if I have an extra one in my purse. I share my Facebook page and offer to answer any other questions if they have them. They leave the store with a smile on their face and a little knowledge in their head.
These encounters sometimes take time, but it is amazing what a little act of kindness can do for a person. I read a story about a man who worked on a train that had an encounter with a passenger who was very kind to him. The worker had a sore toe and it was making it difficult for him to do his job. The passenger said, “I’m not a doctor but perhaps I can help.” The passenger took off the worker’s shoe and did something to ease the pain, then bandaged the foot. He offered words of comfort and asked if the worker was a Christian. Though the man’s mother was a Christian, he didn’t believe. The passenger told him about Jesus and they prayed together. That moment of kindness turned into a life changing event for the worker.
I don’t usually have that conversation when I have my encounters in the retail shops, but faith is always a part of why I do what I do. I tell them that my work is often faith based and that I paint so that I give my work away to charities. My card includes the link to this devotional and I always wear a cross around my neck. Perhaps I should be bolder with my witness like that passenger on the train, but the little act of kindness provides a subtle witness to the love of Jesus Christ. That subtle witness has occasionally led to the deeper conversation about faith. At the very least, I’ve shown a stranger that people who have faith in Jesus are kind and helpful.
I often talk about how our witness must be in words because it is by God’s Word that people are saved. We have to share the Gospel with the world so that the Light will shine in their darkness. Yet, we are also reminded that it is not just the words that will make a difference in someone’s life. Perhaps my subtle witness is God’s way of planting a seed that will be watered by another and harvested by someone like the passenger on the train. This doesn’t give us the excuse to never speak the Gospel to our neighbors, but we are encouraged by John to speak and act as witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ.
“You were made alive when you were dead in transgressions and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the children of disobedience; among whom we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus; for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.” Ephesians 2:1-10, WEB
A woman in Providence, Rhode Island was issued a parking ticket. No parking was allowed in the spot between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. The problem is that she pulled into the spot at 9:58. The ticket was written two seconds before 10:00 a.m. She decided to fight the ticket in traffic court. The judge began to read the violation out loud and when he got to the point about time he said, “Oh no.” He went on to reveal the horrendous criminal activity of the woman. She laughed, and so did he. Her defense was that the clock in her car said it was 10:00 a.m. and he joked about her blaming the clock. He joked about how great the parking enforcement officers of their city and the punishment. “Inspector Quinn, what does justice demand in this case?” He dismissed the charges, having mercy on the poor woman.
It is a funny video, but the reality is that the judge could demand that she pay restitution for her infraction. As Inspector Quinn says in the video, “10:00 means 10:00.” Yet, justice in this case demanded mercy. It is ridiculous to charge a woman a parking fee for pulling into a space two minutes early. She had a good reason to fight the ticket: her car clock told her that she was pulling into the spot right on time, yet the standard for the law was the officer’s clock. She wasn’t even out of the car before the officer approached her. The judge took all that into consideration when he dismissed the charges.
We learned from James a few days ago that “whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” That’s us. We are guilty of being disobedient to God’s Law. For most of us, the infractions are extremely minor, little more than parking in a spot two minutes early. Yet, we are sinners desperately in need of the mercy of the Great Judge. We are guilty and without His mercy we would face the consequences for our sin: death. But faith gives us that which we could not earn by our own works: eternal life. Through His Word we believe and trust in the One who has mercy and by His grace we are saved.
Since we are saved, we are called to a life of walking in grace, sharing God’s mercy with those who are still burdened by their guilt and who are threatened by the punishment we deserve for our sin. Today is “Random Acts of Kindness Day.” It is a good time for us to practice the life God has called us to live. You never know, those random acts of kindness might just be the ones that offer a witness to your neighbor of the love and mercy of Christ. Those random acts of kindness might just be the ones that make a difference in the world. Those random acts of kindness are God’s mercy revealed through us so that our neighbors will experience the joy and peace when the Great Judge passes His verdict: “Because of my Son Jesus Christ, the charges against you are dismissed.”
“Now Moses used to take the tent and to pitch it outside the camp, far away from the camp, and he called it “The Tent of Meeting.” Everyone who sought Yahweh went out to the Tent of Meeting, which was outside the camp. When Moses went out to the Tent, that all the people rose up, and stood, everyone at their tent door, and watched Moses, until he had gone into the Tent. When Moses entered into the Tent, the pillar of cloud descended, stood at the door of the Tent, and spoke with Moses. All the people saw the pillar of cloud stand at the door of the Tent, and all the people rose up and worshiped, everyone at their tent door. Yahweh spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. He turned again into the camp, but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, didn’t depart from the Tent.” Exodus 33:7-11, WEB
God was angry with His people. Moses was on the mountain receiving the tablets of the commandments for a very long time and the people began to lose hope of his return. They lost trust in the God who delivered them because they were afraid. They didn’t know what they would do without the one who talked with God. They turned to Aaron and begged him to build a golden calf so they could pray and worship as they had in Egypt. Our God is a jealous God. As Moses was receiving the Law that said, “You shall have no other gods,” the people were turning to a false and powerless god.
He was angry and told the people to go on their way without Him. He remained faithful, reminding them that He would give them the land He promised to their forefathers; He would send an angel to lead the way but He said “I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you on the way.” His absence, in this case, was the merciful thing for God to do because He was protecting His people from His wrath. He was still among them, but they would suffer the consequences of their sin; they would not experience the blessings granted to God’s faithful people.
The people mourned their sin and loss and sought to better understand how to dwell in a relationship with their God. Whenever the pillar of cloud descended in front of the door of the Tent, the people turned toward it from the doors of their own tents, worshiping their God. They knew God had not abandoned them because He continued to have a relationship with Moses. He spoke to Moses face to face as a man speaks to a friend; they learned to trust that God was willing to listen to Moses. He interceded for them and because Moses found favor in God’s sight, He answered their prayers.
The people of Israel were afraid to have such an intimate relationship with God; they were happy to let Moses be the one who spoke to God face to face. We, however, do not need an intercessor. There are times, perhaps, when we feel that our God is far from us. We think that God is so angry at our sin that He must stay away to keep us from suffering from His wrath. However, Jesus Christ bridged the gap that caused us to be separated from our God; He received the wrath of God on the cross and now we can speak with Him as a man speaks with a friend. We can trust that He is faithful; He will listen to our prayers and will answer.
“For this cause I also, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which is among you, and the love which you have toward all the saints, don’t cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope of his calling, and what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to that working of the strength of his might which he worked in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come. He put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things for the assembly, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:15-23, WEB
“Follow your heart.” This is the advice that many people will give someone who is struggling with a decision. This counsel has some validity. “Should I marry this man?” a woman ponders, and it is good for her to search her heart to decide whether or not she should spend the rest of her life with him. “Should I take this job?” a man considers, and he thinks about whether the work will make him happy and if it will satisfy all his needs. “Follow your heart” recommends a person to consider their emotions as they make these life changing decisions.
We are warned repeatedly in scripture, however, to beware of our hearts. Jesus said, “So be careful, or your hearts will be loaded down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day will come on you suddenly.” And Peter in Acts, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land?” Satan has this ability of being able to play with our hearts as in the story of Jesus’ passion: “During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him...” Our hearts are fickle, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings out that which is good, and the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings out that which is evil, for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks.” Our hearts can make us choose the wrong way, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been so.” There are many more examples of hearts that lead us down the wrong path.
Paul uses the word “heart” about fifteen times in the letter to the Romans. He begins by talking of our hardened and unrepentant hearts (1:21, 24) and how we should know how they are expected to live according to God’s Word (2:15, 29.) Then in chapter five, Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” He goes on to tell us that we have become obedient from the heart because of God’s grace (6:17.) God knows our hearts (8:27.) Paul grieves over those who are lost because they have not yet come to believe (9:2) and his heart’s desire is that they might be saved (10:1.) He warns us to beware of the questions of our hearts, but to trust in God’s Word that has been poured into our hearts and to trust in Him, speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit that is in our hearts (10.) We are warned again to be careful, for we can go wrong by thinking our feelings will set us on a good path and thus deceive the hearts of the innocent (16:18.)
The key here is that we should not follow our hearts when we are making the life changing decisions that we face, but that we should seek God’s Word that is near us, in our hearts. Our emotions can, and will, lead us astray, but God will never do so. Trust in Him. Jesus said, “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Follow your heart, but not your emotions. Follow the Spirit that God has put into your heart.
In today’s passage, Paul was thankful when he heard of the faith of the believers in Ephesus. The heart, as understood in the bible, is not the place of emotions but of thought and will. Paul prays that God will give the Ephesians, and those of us who have faith today, wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. He prays that we will see the blessings we have through Christ and that we will live accordingly, for all good things come from having a relationship with Him. He is our King, He has power, authority, and dominion over everything, including the lives of those who trust in Him. Believe in Him and look to Him as you make your choices. Seek help from the Holy Spirit rather than your emotions. Follow faith, always remembering that our hearts are fickle, but God is faithful to lead us in the right path.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 26, 2017, Transfiguration of Our Lord: Exodus 24:8-16; Psalm 2:6-12; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
“For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Peter 1:21, WEB
We have reached the end of the Epiphany season, although we do so with one great flash of light. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been enlightened with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, giving us instruction on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It hasn’t been easy to hear, since Jesus put before us expectations that at times seem impossible. The Beatitudes demand living upside down in the world. We are salt and light. Avoid anger and lust. Do not divorce, make oaths or retaliate. Love your enemies. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
We’ve heard Paul warn us, as he warned the Corinthians, against division in the church. Our focus is now and ever shall be Jesus Christ, for it is through Him and His work on the cross that we have received grace and salvation. God’s temple is holy and we are that temple.
The Epiphany epistle lessons end with Paul saying, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone thinks that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He has taken the wise in their craftiness.’ And again, ‘The Lord knows the reasoning of the wise, that it is worthless.’ Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23)
You are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. The rest doesn’t seem so impossible now, does it?
Our Gospel text occurs quite awhile after the Sermon on the Mount. It seems like Jesus has just been born, circumcised, baptized and begun His ministry and we jump quickly to the end when we follow the church year calendar. Jesus spent several years ministering to the people, healing the sick, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God alongside His disciples. He showed Himself to be exactly who He claimed to be. Now that Epiphany is over, we are about to set out on another long journey, that of Lent. Ash Wednesday is next Wednesday. The time has come to move in a new direction: toward the cross. First, however, we will see Jesus in a new light.
Matthew writes, “After six days...” as he begins the story of the Transfiguration. The event that came previously is the confession of Peter. Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus blessed Peter, but told him that he did not speak those words on his own. Six days later Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a high mountain and there they saw the truth of Peter’s confession. He was transfigured on the mountain, glorified so that those with Him would know that He is all that He has said that He is. Things changed on that mountaintop, as we begin to see the world reacting to God’s grace with confusion and hatred.
I think it is interesting that Jesus began and ended His ministry with a mountaintop experience. In Matthew 4, Satan took Jesus to a high mountain and offered Him the kingdoms of the world. In that temptation, Jesus was given the opportunity to avoid all the messiness of obeying God’s plans. Satan gave Him the chance to rule without the cross. It would be easy for any of us to take the easy way out, to accept our own ideas and take control of our own destiny. But Jesus knew that God’s way was the right way. He had to go through the cross to complete what God began in the beginning. God’s justice demanded a price and Jesus was willing to be the sacrificial lamb. On the mountain of transfiguration, God commended Jesus for His obedience and called Him the beloved Son. With Him, God was well-pleased.
There are parallels between Moses and Jesus in the texts we read this week. First of all, Moses waited on the side of the mountain for six days before he was invited into the presence of God and Jesus climbed the mountain six days after predicting His death. In the case of Moses, the people thought that he would die. Jesus knew he would. Both trusted in God’s Word and obeyed God’s command, knowing that He would do what was necessary for the sake of His people. Both Moses and Jesus entered into the glory of God. Both were totally covered by His Light. Both heard the voice of God and experienced His presence. In the Old Testament story of Moses and the Gospel story about Jesus, we see the place where heaven meets earth, where God mingles with His people.
Peter, James and John received a glimpse of heaven that day on the top of a mountain. They witnessed a miraculous event as Jesus was transfigured into a divinely shining being, the Light shined with glorious light. He was standing among the great men of their faith. Moses, the father of the Law and Elijah the father of the prophets, stood for everything on which their faith was built. Peter wanted to capture the moment, to build a temple on the spot to honor Jesus and hold on to the glory. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came over the scene and a voice commanded the disciples to listen to Jesus. Peter’s sense of assurance was overpowered by a sense of fear. All three fell on their faces when they heard the voice.
Peter reacted to the transfiguration as we all might have done. Peter was trying to seat Jesus as king over an earthly kingdom. God interrupted, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” God commanded them to listen to Jesus, the Word incarnate. He is the culmination of what was started on Mount Sinai. He is the Word made real and sent to dwell among God’s people. Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet.
Peter wanted to capture the moment, but Jesus said “No.” He told them to keep it a secret. He told them to hide their experience away until the future day when “the Son of man be risen from the dead.” Then Jesus went back into the valley and headed toward the cross to die for our sake. The transfiguration, as glorious as that moment must have been, was a mountaintop experience that had no lasting value like the real glory to come. It seems backwards to us. It seems upside down. Didn’t Jesus deserve to be honored on that mountaintop? Of course He did, but He knew the real glory would come on the cross, where the word and work of God would be complete. He did not become King on the mountaintop; He became King when the world crowned Him with thorns. Peter, James and John would not know that until later. They would not see the truth until after the resurrection. That is why Peter wanted to make a lasting tribute on the top of that mountain.
How hard must it have been to go back down into the valley after seeing that glory and not be able to tell anyone! I would have wanted to share it with others, to let that glory linger, to act as a witness to the truth of Peter’s confession. “See, I told you He was the Christ!” Who would believe their story days, weeks, months or years after the event?
This is, of course, the problem we continue to have today as we act as witnesses for the Lord in this world. How many people reject the Gospel as nothing but myth? They explain it away, ignoring the reality of our sinfulness and our need for redemption. They reject God’s wrath and redefine Christ’s work to fit their own understanding, just like those Israelites waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Jews who rejected Jesus in those final days of His life. It didn’t help that Jesus did not return immediately. Even today many claim that two thousand years is too long. “He’s not coming back. Stop living in a fairy tale.”
Peter writes, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Peter was there on the mountaintop when Jesus was transfigured, but he was also there when Jesus died. Then he saw the risen Lord and he anticipated the future coming of the King in glory with the other believers. It would be easy for those who did not have such extraordinary personal experiences with Jesus to doubt the stories of those who did. Then, when Jesus did not return immediately, it was easy for them to reject the words of the Apostles. Yet Peter had something else besides his experiences.
The psalmist asked why the nations wanted to revolt against the Lord God Almighty. The question is not a cry of arrogance against the other nations, but a question of surprise. When we sit down with a person with a different point of view, we think to ourselves, “I just don’t understand how he or she can think like that.” We see the world from entirely different perspectives and we can’t grasp their way of seeing. The atheist makes no sense to us just as we make no sense to the atheist. We aren’t really even willing to listen because their point of view seems foolish to those of us who believe. Yet, have you ever really thought about the foolishness of the cross? The psalmist knows the loving grace of God and simply can’t understand a perspective that can’t see that grace. Any revolt against the LORD is fruitless; why don’t they believe?
Peter writes, “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” Peter understood this better than anyone. Remember: his grand confession of faith was not something that he came up with on his own. He answered Jesus’ question, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but even then he didn’t truly understand what Jesus was about to accomplish. He, like the rest of the world, thought Jesus was being ridiculous when He prophesied His suffering and death. “Far be it from you, Lord! This will never be done to you.” He confessed his faith by the power of God, but just moments later he was rebuking Jesus for revealing a plan that didn’t make any sense. And then six days later he was trying to control God’s plan again by building tabernacles to hang on to the glory.
We have something that even Peter didn’t have when Jesus was with him. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts. We have the faith that came after the cross, the Spirit that came at Pentecost, the faith that now leads to eternal life. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ by the power of God’s Spirit and we can do the same, but not everyone has that advantage. They haven’t seen the glory of the cross, only the foolishness. The rest of the story is nothing but myth to them.
It was no good for Jesus, Peter, James and John to stay on the mountaintop. Jesus had to move forward. He had to get to the cross. The Law and the Prophets said many things about Jesus, but here’s the most important thing: Jesus, the beloved Son was sent by the Father to fulfill all righteous by suffering for the sake of God’s people. It might seem out of character, it might seem like foolishness, but it was the plan all along. Christ died so that we can live. In the end Peter finally understood what it was all about: Jesus was doing His Father’s will. He was one of the witnesses and we have seen God’s glory through his words. Now that we have been given a glimpse of His glory, we are sent out into the world in faith to reveal to others the true character of God, so that they too might see His glory and be transformed by His grace.
We might be surprised that the Israelites turned from God during those days at the foot of the mountain, but we are no different. We might be surprised that Peter wanted to build tabernacles at the top of the mountain, but we are no different. We still try to carve our own path, to establish our own power, to set the agenda for God’s kingdom on earth. The things God demands are impossible to us.
We shouldn’t be surprised because we are the same as all those who have come before us. But Jesus was different, and we are touched and transformed by His grace. God heals us and grants us a new life. He calls us to serve with fear with trembling, to kneel at the foot of His throne and to kiss His feet. He invites us to take refuge in Him, to dwell in the very place where heaven and earth meet: Jesus. With Him, nothing is impossible.
“If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion, make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself; each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:1-11, WEB
I once had a boss that was not very good at her job. I am sure just about everyone can say the same thing about at least one employer over their lifetime of working. I was working in the home fashions department of a major company and she was the department manager. I had previously had retail management experience, but at that time of my life I had no desire for a full time job, especially a position that would require so many hours. When I applied for the job, I interviewed with this woman and clearly stated that I just wanted a part time job that would pay a few dollars and give me something to do a few days a week. She hired me immediately, glad to have someone on her staff with experience.
It did not take very long before I realized that she was a poor manager. She also realized quickly that I was an excellent employee. Instead of taking advantage of my willingness to do my best for the sake of the department, she became paranoid that I was vying for her job. She did whatever she could to make me want to quit, lording over me with her power and authority. She changed schedules last minute and refused time off even after she had promised it. She gave me tasks that weren’t in my job description, such as the stock boy’s job of moving heavy boxes and other things that I was not physically capable of doing. I eventually left that job for a number of reasons, some directly related to her treatment of her employees.
Of course, this is a very one-sided portrayal of this relationship. Perhaps I did things that made it seem as though I was after her job. However, I was not the only victim of her inability to manage. She had an extremely high turnover rate. Employees did not last very long in the department, either transferring to another or leaving the company altogether. Her poor management skills got her fired shortly after I left. I know that not all horrible boss stories come out so well. Some people work for years under a supervisor who does not take care of his or her employees. It is stressful to work in such an environment, and it is probably the main reason people leave jobs that they love.
There is some sort of hierarchy in every aspect of our lives, both secular and religious. There is always a ‘boss’ of some sort, someone who is in charge. In the family we have parents and children. In a school we have principals, teachers and students. In the government we have the president, cabinet, and many layers of staff down to the most seemingly insignificant employee. In the church there is always some sort of leadership, no matter what we call them. The best associations or institutions have leaders that take good care of those for which they have been given responsibility. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way, even among God’s people. The kings, priests and prophets did not always care for the people, often leaving them lost and confused in this world.
Good bosses do not lord it over their people. They don't take advantage of them or treat them harmfully. Jesus Christ is the top of our hierarchy. He is King and Priest. He's the boss. He was a good boss. He didn't treat people with contempt, even those who did not give Him the respect that He deserved. He even forgave those who harmed Him. Jesus showed us a good example of how to lead, not as a ruler, but as a servant. He washed His disciples’ feet. He did the dirty work. He took the blame. He humbled Himself in obedience to His Father, even to hanging on the cross. We are called to follow Him, to be leaders who serve and care for those in their charge in every aspect of our lives.
“There is no creature that is hidden from his sight, but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account. Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold tightly to our confession. For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace for help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:13-16, WEB
Bruce and I spent last weekend hidden away in a lovely cabin in the woods. We were disconnected from the world since there was no wifi or cable. We enjoyed each other’s company, did a little hiking and made simple meals in the small kitchen. We took a television and blue ray player to watch movies all weekend. We worked on bible studies and read books. We rested and just enjoyed the time away together.
I had one moment of concern during the weekend. I use an e-reader because it is so much easier to carry than a bunch of books. I happened to check the library on my device and I noticed several books I did not order. They were strange books: Eastern European dictionaries and user guides. I could not think of any reason why anyone on my account would purpose those books and yet I had no way of checking to see why they were in my account.
I’ve had experience with identity theft, and I was afraid someone from one of those countries had managed to hack into my account. They begin by purchasing inexpensive items to test to see if the account is good. For instance, they use a stolen credit card to buy a pack of gum at a gas station to make sure the card works. Then they use the card to buy electronics and to pay for shipping charges. I could only imagine the kind of items they were stealing on my account while I was hiding in the woods.
I checked as soon as possible after we got home and it didn’t appear as though the books were purchased with my credit card. After doing a search, I discovered that the company had recently added those dictionaries to everyone’s accounts so that they would be available in case we read a book that might reference those languages. Apparently they do this whenever a new dictionary is written. They don’t show up in our order history, but they are there and waiting if I ever have the need.
The company has been doing this for a long time, but this was the first time I noticed that it happens. I don’t know why this particular update showed up in my device, but when I researched the downloads I discovered that there are dozens of these dictionaries and user guides available to my account and more are added as the files are created, hidden on “the cloud.” The appearance of these latest books on my e-reader made me aware of the updates. Until last weekend, these were hidden in my library.
What’s hidden in your heart? We are all sinners in need of a Savior. It began with Adam and Eve in the Garden and we continue to dwell in a world that is broken. God could have put us all out of the Garden forever, and allowed that separation to be complete. Instead, He stayed with us through our rebellion always providing a way out of our evil ways. When we did not turn to Him, He sent Jesus Christ in the flesh to live among us and to be tempted by the same things. He knows what it is like to be human and yet Jesus Christ did not sin. God loved us so much that Jesus died to heal the brokenness and bridge the gap that separated us from our God. He changes us from within, filling us with the Holy Spirit, transforming us into the people He created and redeemed us to be. That update is hidden in our hearts until we boldly share the Gospel with the world, shining our light and speaking God’s Word so that others will be healed and changed by His grace.
“Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me, but in him who sent me. He who sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in the darkness. If anyone listens to my sayings, and doesn’t believe, I don’t judge him. For I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He who rejects me, and doesn’t receive my sayings, has one who judges him. The word that I spoke, the same will judge him in the last day. For I spoke not from myself, but the Father who sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. I know that his commandment is eternal life. The things therefore which I speak, even as the Father has said to me, so I speak.’” John 12:44-50, WEB
I took a course in Biblical Greek a few years ago. I have to admit that I haven’t used it as much as I should to become proficient, but I remember enough to be able to make reference to some thoughts and ideas that mean more coming from the original language. The most common lesson is the one about the different understandings of the word “love” in the Greek. Almost everyone has heard that John uses different words of love in the forgiveness story of Peter in chapter twenty-one of his Gospel.
My professor told our class that the Gospel of John is the best book to use when just learning Greek because his language is the easiest to understand. He wrote in “street Greek” meaning that it was the language used by the common man in his day. He was telling a story and worded his Gospel in a way that made it accessible to all people. Perhaps that’s why it is my favorite Gospel.
John might us simple language, but the concepts in his writing are much deeper than just a record of Jesus’ life. He has painted a picture revealing Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament, revolving around the design of the Temple. Of all the Gospel writers, John most clearly reveals the character of God as seen in and through Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
Twenty-five times throughout his Gospel, John writes of Jesus’ words, “Truly, truly I say to you...” and He goes on to tell something very important. The Greek word translated “truly” is “amen,” and is also translated “verily” and has come to mean “so be it.” The other Gospel writers often begin those important lessons the same way, although they only use the word “truly” once. John very specifically uses the word twice. The word “amen” means “truth.” In John’s Gospel, those twenty-five sayings are more than truth. They are very true. Not only are they true, but they are life-saving.
John tells us that those who refuse to hear the words of Jesus are rejecting the God who is offering them life through His Son. Jesus says that He will not judge those who do not listen to His words, but we are judged by our rejection of Him. Condemnation comes when we choose to believe the words of the world above the Word of our God. In the end, it is that rejection that will be the root of judgment against them. Truly, truly I say to you, Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and by His words we are saved. Hear Him and believe, for He has the words of eternal life.
“Praise Yah! Praise Yahweh from the heavens! Praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels! Praise him, all his army! Praise him, sun and moon! Praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you heavens of heavens, you waters that are above the heavens. Let them praise Yahweh’s name, for he commanded, and they were created. He has also established them forever and ever. He has made a decree which will not pass away. Praise Yahweh from the earth, you great sea creatures, and all depths! Lightning and hail, snow and clouds; stormy wind, fulfilling his word; mountains and all hills; fruit trees and all cedars; wild animals and all livestock; small creatures and flying birds; kings of the earth and all peoples; princes and all judges of the earth; both young men and maidens; old men and children: let them praise Yahweh’s name, for his name alone is exalted. His glory is above the earth and the heavens. He has lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near to him. Praise Yah!” Psalm 148, WEB
As we learned yesterday, when John writes, “Truly, truly...” we know that the words of Jesus that follow are extremely important to the message John is giving us in his Gospel. Throughout the Bible and in other literature, doubling a word focuses our attention on what is happening around that word. When a name is repeated in the scriptures, like “Abraham, Abraham” (Genesis 22:11), “Moses, Moses” (Exodus 3:4), “Saul, Saul” (Acts 9:4), a greater intimacy is indicated. We know that God had special relationships with Abraham, Moses and Saul/Paul, and we see that so clearly in the way He spoke to them.
If repeating something twice makes it important, then repeating something three times gives it even great importance. Of all the attributes of God, only one is repeated three times: “Holy, holy, holy.” This is the greatest emphasis that can be put on anything or anyone in scripture and this is telling us that this is the most important thing about God. It is even more important than “God is love.” He is holy, holy, holy. The trisagion, which means “thrice holy,” is found twice in the scriptures, Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees the heavenly host singing eternal praise to God the Father. In Revelation the focus is on John’s vision of Jesus Christ, who is holy, holy, holy, too.
In 1826, Reginald Heber used the ancient heavenly chorus from Isaiah and Revelation for wrote a hymn to use on Trinity Sunday. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” are words that most of us have sung at one point or another. The hymn is found in more than a thousand hymnals. With this hymn we are drawn into the heavenly worship along with the hosts of heaven, the angels and the saints from every time and place as they sing the words of the trisagion found in Isaiah and Revelation. We join the eternal chorus in praise of our God along with all of God’s creation. God’s holiness, love, and purity are cloaked in mystery, but this God we worship is not some distant unreachable being. He is our Father who sent His Son to dwell among us to restore our broken relationship. Thanks to Jesus, we can experience God’s mercy and mighty power, and we can participate in praising God.
We are called and gathered by the Holy Spirit to join with the entire creation to sing praises to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When you consider the entire creation - the heavens that reach far beyond our imagination, the microscopic organisms that could destroy a population of humans, the redwood trees that reach so high we can’t see the top, the depths of the sea that are too deep for our technology - it is easy to see the greatness of God. The reality brings us to our knees in humble surrender to the Word of God. Despite our imperfections and unworthiness, He has given us eternal life by His grace. That life begins now as we dwell in this world, by faith we have eternal life even as we continue to wear our clothes of flesh. For now we are invited to join in the heavenly chorus singing, “Holy, holy, holy,” and each time we do, we get a glimpse of the life we will have in God’s presence forever.