Welcome to the February 2020 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 World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, February 2020
“Blessed be Yahweh, because he has heard the voice of my petitions. Yahweh is my strength and my shield. My heart has trusted in him, and I am helped. Therefore my heart greatly rejoices. With my song I will thank him. Yahweh is their strength. He is a stronghold of salvation to his anointed. Save your people, and bless your inheritance. Be their shepherd also, and bear them up forever.” Psalm 28:6-9, WEB
I have had several conversations recently with people who are dealing with end of the life business for their loved ones. They have had to make difficult decisions about placing elderly parents into care facilities. They’ve had to deal with the financial aspects. They’ve had to sell homes and divide property. It is never an easy time, but it is made far more difficult in some families when the siblings fight over every dime.
I was lucky when I had to deal with my father’s estate after he died. He didn’t have much, and some of what he had was easily divided between the three of us. All that was left once the bills were paid was a few thousand dollars and a vehicle. I took the van and split the money between my brother and sister. While I might have gotten an item with more value than the money, I took on the responsibility of a vehicle and did not benefit from having the cash. My siblings and I agreed that it was the best way to divide the assets, and all ended with us still a happy family.
We live in a time when it is assumed that children will split an estate fairly. In biblical days the expectation was different. The first born was given a double portion and the rest of the children received equal portions of the rest. Of course, it is possible for parents to choose to make specific gifts, and that’s when the problems often occur. It doesn’t always end so well. I have heard stories of families that fought in court for every dime they thought they deserved. It did not matter if the will made the wishes of the deceased explicitly clear; they fought for what they wanted even if it meant rejecting the law and destroying a family.
All too often we think about spiritual things with our earthly minds. We look at the story of the prodigal son, and understand it to be a representation of God as Father and the sons as the people in God’s kingdom. The younger son asked his share of the estate long before his father died. The older son stayed and worked the estate faithfully. When the younger son returned repentant and humble, the father rejoiced because his son had been dead and now he was alive again. The older brother was upset because the father took from his share, which was everything left, and was treating his brother with such grace. Those who feel they have always been faithful see the father’s actions as unfair, as if there were limits to God’s grace.
But faith means trusting that there are no limits in God’s kingdom. God doesn’t disperse anything out piecemeal. There is not an inheritance of this much for one person and that much for another. All God’s children inherit the entire Kingdom! How can that be, we ask? How can I have one hundred percent while my neighbor also has a hundred percent? How can billions of Christians inherit one hundred percent of God’s Kingdom? Just as God is outside time and space, His Kingdom is without measure. We don’t have to fight over how much we get. We don’t need to hoard it as if it will somehow run out if we share it with those who were lost. We are meant to rejoice and praise God because He has saved us and made us His children. We are meant to trust in Him because He is faithful to all His promises, including the promise that we will inherit His Kingdom forever.
“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. Paul, as was his custom, went in to them, and for three Sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’ Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and not a few of the chief women. But the unpersuaded Jews took along some wicked men from the marketplace, and gathering a crowd, set the city in an uproar. Assaulting the house of Jason, they sought to bring them out to the people. When they didn’t find them, they dragged Jason and certain brothers before the rulers of the city, crying, ‘These who have turned the world upside down have come here also, whom Jason has received. These all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus!’ The multitude and the rulers of the city were troubled when they heard these things. When they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.” Acts 17:1-9, WEB
Hans Christian Anderson wrote a story about an emperor who was very vain. This emperor thought himself to be quite the looker, wearing the hottest clothes of the day. He showed off every outfit to his people. One day, a couple of lowlifes came to the empire having heard of the ruler’s vanity. They decided to use it for their own benefit. They approached the emperor and told him they were tailors who could make a suit using the most beautiful fabric in the world, something worthy of his magnificence. They told the emperor that this fabric would be so light and fine that it would look invisible. They warned that only the most stupid and incompetent people would say otherwise. He agreed and paid them handsomely for the work.
They worked for some time on the fabric, using the kingdom’s resources of fine gold thread and silk. All who visited the loom room raved about the wonderful fabric they were creating. No one wanted to appear stupid or incompetent. The grand day arrived when the two tailors approached the emperor with the new fabric. He agreed it was the finest he’d ever seen! The tailors then measured him for a new suit to be made with this special fabric. Days later they returned and helped the emperor into his new suit. The entire kingdom was called to the palace so that they could see him in his extraordinary finery.
The people gasped at the site of their emperor standing naked before them, yet none said a word because they knew that any who could not see the fabric were stupid or incompetent. The crowd of people yelled with joy and threw compliments toward their emperor. “That is truly the most beautiful suit in the world!” they said. They were in awe over the special clothes these tailors created for their emperor. None wanted to appear stupid or incompetent.
A small boy, who had no need to pretend, said, “But the emperor is naked.” Some of the people in the crowd realized the boy was right. The words he spoke were true. Those people realized the emperor was just a fool who had fallen for a trick. But the emperor and some of his followers, not wanting to appear stupid or incompetent, continued the charade.
Isn’t it amazing how differently people react to the truth? In the Emperor’s New Clothes, the emperor and his people continued to believe that the fabric was real because they did not want to appear stupid or incompetent. Yet, by continuing the charade, they were even more foolish. When Paul preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ, many people saw that what he spoke was the truth and they believed in Jesus. Others heard the Gospel and rejected it, continuing in their own misunderstanding of God’s kingdom. They did all they could to make Paul and the other disciples of Jesus appear to be the ones who were foolish troublemakers. They reacted to the truth according to their own desires and ideas.
We will face people who will do the same with us when we speak the Gospel of Christ. They will try to make us look bad; they will continue to live in darkness and sin. They will reject the forgiveness of Jesus and the eternal life that comes from faith in Him. We know the truth, just like the little boy who knew the emperor was naked. We will be persecuted for our faith, but that should never stop us from sharing the truth that every sinner needs to be covered by Christ’s righteousness.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 9, 2020, The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 58:3-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20
“But to us, God revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:10, WEB
What is a theologian? One definition calls a theologian an expert in the subject of theology, which is the study of what is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God. There are people in this world who are professional theologians. They get paid to talk about the things of God. They write books and give lectures. I have to admit that I’ve sat in lectures by theologians that make my head hurt. 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, I love to sit in those lectures because through the big words and high concepts, God speaks to me by the power of the Holy Spirit about what He has taught, what is being taught about Him, and what leads me into a deeper and fully relationship with Him. There is a place for those professional theologians, but theology is not just for them. Theology is for anyone who talks about God.
It is so exciting when our Sunday school class discovers 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.
It really is that simple, but we often make it so complicated that people will reject it. Then we blame them for the rejection. 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 couldn’t possibly be saved if you didn’t understand what they said.
Isn’t it funny how the Church has been 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. We can believe in the things we will never really understand. That’s faith. Faith is trusting that God’s promises are true and that our hope is found in Christ.
Did you know that only about 6% of the salt produced around the world is used for food? More salt is used to condition water (12%) and de-ice highways (8%). Another 6% is used in agriculture and a whopping 68% is used in manufacturing and industrial processes. Did you know that they use salt to make PVC, plastic and paper? It is also used to make aluminum, soap, rubber and pottery. It is used in to drill, to tan hides and to dye fabric. It is also used as a preservative.
There are many different types of salt. It used to be easy to buy salt at the grocery store, since there was usually just a few choices. Now you have to decide what type of salt you want. You can buy regular table salt, but there are other possibilities. Kosher salt is used for all types of cooking and contains no additives, so it has a better flavor. Sea salt comes in coarse to be used in cooking or flaky for use at the table. Fleur de Sel is a specialty salt, and is considered the caviar of salt. It is used at the table for a wonderfully melt in your mouth experience of saltiness. Pickling salt is used for preservation. Rock salt is used in making ice cream and can be handy on these icy winter days.
Salt is no longer just white; you can buy salts that are red, pink or black. It comes in coarse and fine. It can be cheap or you can spend a fortune on it. Each type of salt has a specific purpose, some are added during cooking and others are designed to enhance the flavor at the table. Salt does add a salty flavor, but it is also used to enhance the other flavors of food. Salt controls yeast growth in bread so that it will rise properly. A little salt on a margarita makes the tequila pop and it suppresses the bitter flavors.
I’m sure we could talk for hours about the qualities and purposes of salt. We know that too much salt is not good for our health; it leads to heart disease and stroke. I don’t use much salt in my house, a practice that would quickly get me kicked off most of the cooking shows. The judges are constantly complaining about the lack of salt. I don’t avoid salt completely, but I use it sparingly, because we get so much salt in so much of our foods these days. I found it interesting that animal products have a naturally higher salt content than plant products. We can’t live without salt altogether; it is a necessary part of our diet. We just have to learn how to balance our need for salt and how we get it.
Salt has always had a spiritual or religious dimension, too. Salt is often found on an altar or is used in ritual. Salt is used to ward off demons or to honor gods. According to some, salt is one of the four blessings from heaven, which included fire, water, iron and salt. Salt is the center of some ideas about hospitality. In ancient religions, the value of salt made the offering a covenant between people. If someone at the salt at your table, they became your responsibility while you were in their home. You had to protect them from any harm.
You didn’t know salt was so important, did you? It is hard to put such a high value on a commodity that we can purchase so cheaply and that we use so unsparingly. After all, how could something we just throw on the roads to melt ice be so valuable that the use of it at the dinner table offers a promise of protection and good will? In some places salt was so valuable that it was minted into coins and used to pay soldiers. As a matter of fact, that’s how we get the phrase, “He is worth his salt” and the term “salary.” It is interesting that salt comes from both land and sea, some harvested by evaporation and others through mining.
I came across all these facts about salt because I typed in the question, “Does salt really lose its saltiness?” This is a question that often comes up during bible studies focusing on today’s Gospel text. After all, I’ve never known salt to lose its flavor. According to my research, this is true. Salt is a very stable chemical, and it is only by a chemical reaction that it can lose its saltiness. However, it has been discovered that some salt, especially that which is harvested from marshes along the seashore, can lose its saltiness when it is in contact with the ground or is exposed to rain and sun. It isn’t that the salt itself loses its saltiness, but that the salt is contaminated with impurities collected with it. It is likely that this is what happened to the salt that they would have eaten in Jesus’ day, as their salt generally came from the shore of the Dead Sea.
What did Jesus mean in today’s Gospel lesson? The listeners knew the importance of salt, its rarity, its significance, its value. They also knew that if salt were left drying too long on the side of the sea, it would be useless. It was not only useless, but also hazardous. They could not keep this salt in the house because the impurities might be harmful, and they could not throw it into the fields or gardens because it would wreak havoc on the growth of the plants. It was not just tasteless; it was dangerous, and good only to be trampled underfoot, so it was thrown into the streets.
We do not understand as they did because we don’t usually throw our salt into the street, and when we do it serves an important purpose. Those who have had to walk on ice covered sidewalks are thankful that the salt can make it a little easier and safer. The same is not true of the salt to which Jesus refers.
Jesus was warning the disciples that they have a purpose and that they should not wait around too long before they go out to do that work. See, we are tempted to wait too long. We want to be ready. We want to have all the information. We think we need to be smarter. We think we need to know the scriptures better. We think we need to overcome our sins. We think we need to be perfect to go out into the world to share the Gospel message, we think we should let the theology to the theologians.
Jesus warned the disciples that if they waited too long they would no longer be of value. While they are trying to make things right in their own lives, they succumb to cares and worries of the world. Or they fall for the temptations that abound. Or they conform to the ways of the world around them. These are the impurities that make us, as salt, worthless.
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. 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.
The righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is manifest in the person who is in a relationship with Jesus. The people in Isaiah’s time were acting righteous, but they were not in that right relationship. They were going through the religious motions while ignoring what God was calling them to do in the world. The same is true of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, and in the religious lives of so many today. The Gospel lesson tells us what it would mean to be a Christian once Jesus fulfilled the Law. The question is, “What is our focus?” Unfortunately, when our focus is on being good or righteous, we tend to do things that try to manipulate man and God. God desires the kind of religious practices, including fasting, that will glorify Him.
We are three weeks from Ash Wednesday, and many Christians are thinking what they want to do for their Lenten discipline, including fasting. The discipline is a good thing, but the fasting can also lead to positive changes in our lives and our lives of faith. Does it do any good to give up something for seven weeks and then gorge on them on Easter Day?
As theologians, it is important that we look to all God’s Word for understanding and we are blessed with more than hope because all God’s promises have been fulfilled 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. In a sense, the online ministers who claim to have some sort of special knowledge are right; the people of the world don’t understand the Gospel because they aren’t in a right relationship with God. Unfortunately, those online ministers don’t understand it either when they spout their self-informed false spirituality.
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 have a worldly understanding of what it means to be spiritual. That might sound like an oxymoron, but I once 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 used scripture 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. 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, 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.
So, while the author of that article is wrong about what it means to be spiritual, she was right that ultimately it all comes down to love, peace, joy, truth and kindness. The difference is this: 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.
No matter how much theology we do, no matter how much we seek to understand God, there are many things about God that we will never know or understand. Everything 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 Him. We will not be moved or shaken when our hearts are steadfast and trust in 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. We aren’t worthless salt good only to be trampled underfoot, but we are the salt that will enhance and flavor the world.
“For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.” Romans 7:15-20, WEB
I have a lamp and a radio sitting together on a shelf in my office space. Every morning as I go toward my computer, I meant to turn on my radio, but every morning I instead turn on the lamp. I sit down at my desk and wonder why I can’t hear the radio and then realize that I have, once again, turned on the lamp instead of the radio. I don’t know why I do this. I even say to myself on my way to the office space to remember to turn on the radio, but I still hit the wrong switch. Then I need to get up, go to the radio and turn it on. I’d move the radio, but it receives the best signal where it is sitting. The lamp is there to give my son a light to see when he comes home at night.
It is ridiculous that I hit the wrong switch so consistently. You would think that I would learn and would be able to turn on my radio without mistakenly turning on my lamp, but day after day I do the same thing. While we may not turn on a lamp instead of a radio every day, there is something that we all seem to do that we don’t want to do, even Paul. Unfortunately, the things we don’t want to do are not insignificant actions like turning on the wrong device; we continue to do sinful behavior that hurts others and our God.
Paul is absolutely honest. He is often harsh in his letters, saying what most of us think but would never say out loud. He is willing to call a sin a sin and to admit that he is the worst of sinners. In his letter to the Romans, he talks about his inability to be all he wants to be, the perfect Christian, a righteous person. He admits his frailty and his lack of control. He wants to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but he recognizes and confesses his failure.
We want to be perfect because we think that we can make ourselves right with God. We can’t. We might end up fixing some things, but there are always buried sins that keep us from being truly free in Christ. Sometimes we do not even realize that we are doing wrong. No matter how good we think we appear, we are still sinners in need of a Savior. Like Paul, we will do what we don’t want to do and we will not do what we want to do. We don’t need to carry that burden on our own. Jesus Christ has already won for us the forgiveness and He stays with us, granting us the strength and courage to be transformed, so that we can be everything God has created and redeemed us to be. Step by step, day by day, the Spirit will help us see our failures so that maybe tomorrow we will do what is right and not do what is wrong.
“Most certainly I tell you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and he will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father. Whatever you will ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it. If you love me, keep my commandments. I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, that he may be with you forever: the Spirit of truth, whom the world can’t receive; for it doesn’t see him and doesn’t know him. You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you.” John 14:12-18, WEB
I was reading an article about the most recent terror attack in London. The attacker was released a few days from prison where he had been held for extremism-related offenses. The authorities assured the public that the man was under strict surveillance and curfew, and credit their quick response to the stabbing because they were prepared. Only two people were stabbed and neither died. The terrorist was shot and killed. The attack could have been far worse.
He was a twenty year old man who had a history of extremist activity. Most children dream of being a famous sports star or president, but this young man said, “When I grow up, I want to be a terrorist.” His former classmates laughed, thinking he was kidding, but in hindsight they said he was a weird loner who was obsessed with knives. He fantasized about killing police and kept an ISIS flag in his room. In a notebook found in his personal property the man wrote that one of his goals in life was to die a martyr. He was staying in approved premises, residential units where ex-offenders could transition back into the world under the watchful eyes of authorities. The thing that struck me in the article is that the man spent the days following his release, leading up to the stabbing, in prayer.
We have no way of knowing what was on his heart as he prayed to his god, but this detail made me think about all the times we hear people talking about how they are praying. We have no idea what is in their hearts either, but the actions that follow these prayers often show the state of their hearts. The Lord God Almighty does not send us into the world with knives to randomly kill strangers. The Holy Spirit does not direct our steps to fulfill the ambition to become a martyr for our cause. Prayer done rightly will lead us to a humble life that glorifies God and obeys His commandments. That includes “Thou shall not kill.”
The time following Jesus ascension and Pentecost was a time of prayer for the disciples. Those ten days must have been difficult, dealing with disappointment, discouragement, uncertainty and doubt. Despite the promises, the disciples did not yet have the indwelling Spirit of God, so for a moment they were left alone. How would they do it? How in the world would they ever do greater things than Jesus? After all, that’s what He promised.
Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead. He fed thousands of people with just a few fish and loaves of bread. Jesus spoke with authority and He changed lives. Jesus did things that only the Messiah was expected to do. Though they may not have fully understood the reality of it, they knew that Jesus was the Son of God. He was not an ordinary man. They might be able to follow Him, they might even be able to do some of the things He did, but they could never do greater things, could they? Yet, that was the promise in today’s Gospel lesson: they would do greater things than Jesus.
The greater things are not what we might expect. Jesus did miracles, but even greater than the miracles is the message of the Gospel. Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead, but even greater than these is the life-giving Word of God. We are amazed to think that someone might have been dead and then was alive, but the greater miracle is found in the salvation of God. Every Christian, saved by the Gospel and transformed by the Holy Spirit, is greater than all those miracles that Jesus did. Jesus’ expectations were not for the disciples to become like Him, wandering the countryside doing miracles, though that was one way the Gospel would be shared. Instead, Jesus intended something greater for His people. They were called to share God’s grace with the world, making disciples of all nations and teaching them to do all that Jesus commanded them to do.
So, when we talk about our prayer lives, let’s remember the purpose of that time alone with God. We can claim that we are seeking God’s will and purpose for our lives and that our prayers are for our friends and our enemies, but if our prayers lead us to go out into the streets stabbing strangers, then we are not praying rightly. If you truly pray in Jesus’ name, you will pray only blessing on others, seeking their good in all things, trusting that God will make His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. If you pray in Jesus' name, you will pray that their life will be filled with blessings even greater than the miracles of Jesus, that they will know His peace and joy.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” James 3:13-18, WEB
Sheep have a tendency to desire whatever is on the other side of the fence. Somehow it looks better over there, so they often harm themselves trying to get through. Don’t we all suffer from “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” envy in some way? We know people with nicer houses, bigger cars, better jobs and we wish we had all those things, so we try to keep up with the Jones’. Sometimes we are simply unsatisfied with what we have and we desire something different.
Yet, things aren’t always better on the other side of the fence. Suppose our neighbor has a greener lawn, but what we don’t see is that they also have a water leak in one of their pipes. So, the lawn is well watered, but their water bill is extraordinary and the excess water is causing damage to the foundation of their home. The lawn looks lovely, and perhaps they don’t even know they have a problem, but one day the problem will surface and they will have difficult times while dealing with it. Though this is a hypothetical situation, there are often underlying causes that we do not see. We envy our neighbors with all their lovely things, but what we do not know is that the marriage is failing because it takes too much work to maintain the lifestyle. We may want the great job without realizing the stress can cause disease and substance abuse. We envy without really knowing and we run great risks pursuing things that are not intended for us. God knows what we need and gives abundantly.
The shepherd knows what is best for the sheep, but they think that if only they could get on the other side of the fence they could get that delicious plant to eat. Meanwhile, they harm themselves trying. We think we are pretty smart when we figure out ways to get everything we want, when I reality we are quite foolish pursuing those things. God asks us to be content with our life as He has given, to seek His wisdom and live by it. James writes of that wisdom, that it is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Imagine if everyone followed that kind of wisdom, there would be no need to envy one another. That wisdom comes from God and is given to us in Christ Jesus.
We need to consider our ignorance and the reasons for it. We might be afraid of the truth. We might think that we know better. We may not have the right experience to make wise choices. Jesus and His disciples were opposites: Jesus was wisdom incarnate while the disciples were ignorant (ignoring the truth.) We often act like the disciples, but we are called to be like Jesus. We desire prestige and position like the disciples, we want what is on the other side of the fence. But we are called to be like children, trusting in God’s grace and seeking His favor above the favor of the world.
We pray, but we often ask wrongly. Our prayers are self-serving and they create walls between people. We are called to live according to the wisdom of Christ rather than that of the world, the kind of wisdom that considers what is best for all - for the community, for your neighbors, for your family. In that wisdom we’ll know what it is for which we should be asking, because it will be according to the heart and wisdom of God.
“But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Be subject therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners. Purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament, mourn, and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4:7-10, WEB
How do we live humbly in this world? Today’s passage includes ten commands calling us to actively root out the sin of pride in our lives. Pride is what causes us to chase after gold, power and fame. Humility, the opposite of pride, leads us in a life of service to others.
First, we submit to God, this means to trust in Him. It means seeking His wisdom, being meek. We often misunderstand the word “meekness” to mean weak, but meekness is the humble understanding that you are not the greatest. Greatness does not come to those who force or manipulate others. True greatness comes to those who do what they are called to do in a way that glorifies God; He will glorify them for their faith. Humility is trusting that God will accomplish His work through us as we go about life doing what we can do, even if it means risking everything.
Next, we must resist the devil. You see, the devil is clever. Too many people, Christians included, have fallen for the lie that the devil doesn't exist. The world laughs at the image of a red creature with horns and a tail, saying it is just ridiculous to think anything like it exists. The truth is that Satan himself has created that image to fool those who want to remain ignorant of the spiritual battle that is raging all around us. Then, when you don’t believe he exists, the devil convinces you, slowly but surely, that all that God talk is ridiculous. And so you believe his word over that of God. We must resist!
Third, James writes, “Draw near to God.” This means that we should daily take time to be in His presence. We can resist the devil more easily if God’s Word is on our lips and in our hearts. Daily prayer, study of scriptures, worship and service in His name will give us the strength and the power to resist.
Next we are to wash our hands. This is not a statement about good hygiene, but rather points back to the practice of the Old Testament priests. They were required to wash their hands before they could approach God in the tabernacle. The command “purify your hearts” continues this thought. Washing our hands symbolizes spiritual cleansing. Washing our hands is an outward act showing the inward cleansing. We wash our hands and our hearts of sin by confessing that which we have done and failed to do in thought, word and deed. By admitting our sinfulness, we open ourselves to God’s grace and forgiveness.
The next three commands come together also; we are to lament, mourn, and weep. They may sound like they are repetition, but there are always subtle shades of meaning that are not quite visible in English. In Greek, the word that is translated “lament” means “be afflicted” or “endure hardship.” James is calling us to be willing to accept the consequences of our sin. We are to mourn our sinfulness, to lament our failure to live up to the expectations of our God. And finally, we are to weep. There is more to this than simply crying; we are to wail. While cleansing our hearts is an inner confession, wailing over our sin is a public, outer confession. These are all acts of repentance, recognition that we are not the greatest in anything.
We treat our sin casually. Just as we reject the idea of the devil, we reject our wrongdoing is sin. We dismiss as sin those things which don’t hurt others. We justify our actions even when they don’t line up with the Word of God, rewriting the scriptures to fit our desires. Just as we laugh at the idea of the devil, we laugh at those who call us to repentance and we embrace our sin with joyful glee. We do what the world says we can do even when it leads us away from our God, and we do so with joy because the world’s idea of life is so much more satisfying than the life that risks death and persecution. James calls us to change our laughter into mourning and our joy into gloom.
Finally, James says, “Humble yourselves.” This returns us to James' quote of Proverbs 3:34 in verse six, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The other nine commands bring us to the point of receiving God’s grace. When we are humbled, we can embrace the kingdom of God which begins with forgiveness and ends in the fulfillment of God’s promise of eternal life. None of the other commands have any value unless they lead us to fully and completely rest in God’s grace. That is true humility.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 16, 2020, The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
“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?” 1 Corinthians 3:3b, WEB
I had a friend who got a divorce. He hated his ex-wife. She could not do anything right. She was to blame for everything that went wrong. He thought she was evil and he could never find even a small positive thing to say. He was angry. Unfortunately, he was also blind. He refused to see the role he played in their break-up. He refused to believe that he was even a little bit at fault. Whenever I gently suggested that he look at his own sinfulness, he rejected my words. He even lashed out at me, insinuating that I was taking her side. I didn’t even know her.
The fault may have been mostly hers, but broken relationships are never wholly one-sided. The best we can do for our own life is to consider our own fault and work toward reconciliation. They may not have ever been friends, but they had children and had to find a way to work together. That would never happen if my friend did not even consider his own faults. Sometimes, for the sake of others and ourselves, we have to take the initiative to make things right in brokenness, even if we are not the one who is 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 matter? We think we are innocent. Listen to the arguments on the day time court shows and you’ll see just that. One litigant refuses 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 when we play the blame game. How do we forgive someone who hasn’t repented? How do they forgive us when we don’t do so?
I’m reading a book about Martin Luther as I prepare to take a tour through Luther country in Germany in May. When he began his career, Luther followed the ways of the religious world around him which suggested that human beings were capable of earning salvation. This caused him incredible difficultly because he saw that the more he tried, the less he deserved God’s grace. It is often said that he lived through “the dark night of the soul” during this period and came close to despair.
He took his job as a professor very seriously and as he delved more deeply into the scriptures as he prepared for his classes. He even went so far as to learn Greek and Hebrew so that he could translate the texts from the original. His understanding of salvation changed dramatically, and thus revealed to the world the true Gospel, as he taught through the book of Romans. He realized that we can’t earn our salvation; he realized that human beings will always tend toward selfishness and self-centeredness. He grasped onto Romans 3:28, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” and in that verse found the key that set him free from the despair that nearly sent him to hell forever. Christ and Christ alone make Christians “perfectly whole in hope.”
Even with Christ, we are not right, that’s why we need Him daily. We fail. We sin. We make mistakes that break relationships. It may be true that the “other” has done something worse, but we need to accept that the brokenness is because we are all sinners. Sometimes it is best for us to forgive where there is no repentance. After all, we are forgiven not by our actions but by God’s grace. As forgiven sinners, should we not try to work toward reconciliation? The blessing will never be found in holding a grudge and we may discover that taking the initiative will make miracles happen.
See, holding on to anger can hurt us even more. That’s what I saw in the life of my friend who refused to forgive his ex-wife and that’s what Jesus is saying in the confusing verse in today’s Gospel lesson. My friend was hurting his children, himself, and his ex by holding on to his anger. Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be in danger of the judgment. Whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ will be in danger of the council. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” This statement is a process before court. Each statement takes us further into punishment. Since anger is the same as murder, anger deserves a harsh punishment. We are first accused, and this sin deserves a sentence of death. What is the judgment? How will he die? He is found guilty and is already sentenced. Finally, he is handed over to the executioner and is sent to hell.
“Raca” and “thou fool” are both insults, but thou fool is the greater one. “Raca” suggests anger against neighbor, but “thou fool” (the word may translate as apostate and thus going to hell) suggests that the speaker sees the neighbor (or enemy) as already deserving of hellfire. The man who tells his brother that he is doomed to hell is in danger of hell himself. John Stott wrote, “Anger and insult are ugly symptoms of a desire to get rid of somebody who stands in our way. ‘I wish you are dead’ is an evil wish and a breach of the sixth commandment.”
The section of the Sermon on the Mount in today’s Gospel lesson goes on to talk about adultery, divorce and taking vows. These antitheses (“You have heard it said, but I say to you...”) show us the extreme expectations of Christian living. He quotes the Old Testament law and pharisaic understanding, but then tells us what God intends with the Law. He is comparing himself to the mistaken interpretation of the law. We are called to be Christ-like, even when it is hard. Actually, it is impossible, but we have God’s grace and His Spirit to help us. Luther wrote, “In the presence of God it is not by doing just works that one becomes just, but, having been made just, one does just deeds.” Just works include seemingly impossible acts of reconciliation.
Part of the liturgy in many denominations includes 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 at the Table. We can, perhaps, 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, or we can pass the peace and find common ground in the reality of our need for God’s grace.
Our Father wants us to be reconciled, to live in peace with one another.
When I teach this understanding of the passing of the people, those listening joke that they are 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.
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 using 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.
I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Corinth when Paul wrote his letter. 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. The people were missing that Christ was the center of both their ministries, and they were condemning one another in the process. We do the same by lifting up our own doctrines and denominations while claiming others are following false gods and false gospels. Now, there may be good reason to call a Christian a fool if they are following a heresy, but all too often we do so with anger and hatred and condemnation.
Paul had a problem. He wanted to teach the Corinthians a deeper understanding of God. He wanted to them to live a fuller, richer faith. However, they were not yet ready for spiritual understanding. They were still caught up in the world. He continued to teach them the basics of Christianity, even though they should have been moving on to deeper things; instead of having the heart of Christ, they were living according to their flesh. And their flesh was sinful. Paul writes, “For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?”
Paul tells us that we have different purposes in Kingdom of God. We have different gifts and different opportunities. 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. Yet, each was a part of God’s work in the world. 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.
Worst of all, we hold on to our hurts and our angers because we can’t believe that God would want us to reconcile with that other person.
Jesus makes it so hard for us. He commands not only that we obey the Law, but that we live in grace. He desires more than a life of obedience; He calls us to reconciliation. He knows our hearts and our temptations. It is so easy for us to respond to our anger by voicing our hostility. After all, we learn from a very early age that words can’t hurt us. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they are in danger of the hell of fire for calling someone a fool. The problem is not the words; the problem is the broken relationship. Murder is final, but even harsh words can destroy a relationship. We are called to live better; we are called to a life of peace. We can only do that when we are reconciled with our brother, despite the foolish things we all do when we fall to the temptations of our flesh.
The most important relationship that is affected by our sin is our relationship with God. Sin separates us from our Father in heaven, but thankfully God has breached the gap by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Now God sees our sin through Jesus-colored glasses, forgiving us each time we fail. It is only in forgiveness that we can be reconciled to God, because without Him it is impossible for us to live according to His Word. The same is true of our relationships with people. We can only be reconciled through forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and ourselves of the sins that destroy our relationships.
Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “Works indeed are good, and God strictly requires them of us, but they do not make us holy.” We humbly approach these texts with the reality of our sinfulness. We will fail. We will break the commandments. We will destroy relationships, with God and with our neighbors. But we come to these texts with a promise: even when we fail, Christ has forgiven. He has reconciled us to God so that we can reconcile with our neighbors.
This is an urgent calling! We tend to wait until the right time. We wait until we feel better. We wait for our wounds to heal. We wait until we are not so angry. Unfortunately, things do not get better while we wait. There is never a right time. We don’t feel better. Our wounds fester and our anger simmers in our heart. Healing comes with forgiveness. Peace comes with reconciliation.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to Yahweh’s law.” We aren’t perfect, and we will never be perfect in this life. We might get beyond the milk to the solid food to which Paul refers, but we will continue to be selfish and self-centered. Though we are forgiven, we are still sinners in need of the Savior. We will still do things that will satisfy our flesh and follow human understanding. But God gives us the grace and the Spirit to try to live as He has called us to live, to follow His commandments, and be obedient to His Word. We do this not of our own volition, but we do it because we have been forgiven. God makes us righteous. 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 deeper we love God, the more we will love our neighbors. When we truly love our neighbors, we will never abandon them to the hell of fire, but will invite them into the heart of grace.
“Moses went out, and told the people Yahweh’s words; and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them around the Tent. Yahweh came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was on him, and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did so no more. But two men remained in the camp. The name of one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad; and the Spirit rested on them. They were of those who were written, but had not gone out to the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran, and told Moses, and said, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!’ Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his chosen men, answered, ‘My lord Moses, forbid them!’ Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!’ Numbers 11: 24-29
There is an ancient Jewish folktale about two beggars and a king. Each day the two beggars went to the king’s palace to ask for food, and each day the king gave them both a loaf of bread. The first beggar thanked the king for the bread, the second thanked God for making the king wealthy enough to be charitable. The king was upset that the second beggar never thanked him for the bread.
One day the king decided to punish the second beggar for his ungratefulness. He ordered the baker to fill one loaf of bread with valuable jewels and to give it specifically to the first beggar. “That will teach the beggar a lesson.” The baker was extremely careful to give the right loaf to each beggar - the one filled with jewels to the first beggar, the loaf only to the second. When the first beggar felt the weight of the loaf, he thought there was something wrong with it and asked the other beggar to exchange loaves. The second beggar, always desirous to help a friend agreed. Later, when he ate the loaf, he discovered the jewels.
The next day only the first beggar appeared at the gate of the king. The king asked the baker if he gave the right loaf, and the baker assured him that he did. Then the king asked the beggar what happened to the loaf that he’d been given. He told the king that it felt hard and poorly baked, so he gave it to his friend. The beggar who thanked God instead of the king for the blessing of bread was additionally blessed. Through this experience the king realized that all good things truly come through God. Only God can change the circumstances of men. Not even a king can change God’s will.
In Numbers 11, Moses complained to God that the people were ungrateful and complaining about their circumstances. “Why have you treated your servant so badly?” he cried out to God. “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.” God agreed to appoint helpers - seventy elders to help carry the burden of leadership. However, when God anointed the seventy with the spirit, they prophesied only once. There were two other men, who had remained in the camp, over whom the spirit also fell. They also prophesied.
A young boy heard the prophesying; he went to Moses and told him about the two in the camp. When Joshua heard about this, he told Moses to go stop them: they weren’t among the chosen! But Moses knew that God was in control. He couldn’t stop someone that was given the spirit any more than he could choose those who would receive it. “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!” God is in control and we cannot manipulate others to do what we want them to do against God’s will. He will make things right for those who love Him, who glorify Him, who know that He is the source of all our blessings.
“My beloved is white and ruddy. The best among ten thousand. His head is like the purest gold. His hair is bushy, black as a raven. His eyes are like doves beside the water brooks, washed with milk, mounted like jewels. His cheeks are like a bed of spices with towers of perfumes. His lips are like lilies, dropping liquid myrrh. His hands are like rings of gold set with beryl. His body is like ivory work overlaid with sapphires. His legs are like pillars of marble set on sockets of fine gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, excellent as the cedars. His mouth is sweetness; yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, daughters of Jerusalem.” Song of Solomon 5:10-16, WEB
They say Valentine’s Day is just another one of those Hallmark holidays, and yet there is good reason to celebrate love at this time of year. Spring is just around the corner. Some places are already seeing the return of spring like temperatures and regrowth. I’ve already seen signs of the neighborhood birds preparing nests for offspring. It was noted some time in history that love birds began mating on February 14th, thus sealing the day to be one of love. By the middle ages there were already traditions of passing love notes and flowers on the day.
Who was Valentine? There were actually three men named Valentine in the early years of the church. The legends surrounding St. Valentine are 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 made marriage illegal to keep it mighty. Christian priests, including Valentine, continued to perform marriage ceremonies despite the command. He refused to give up his Christianity, and was known to help Christians who were being persecuted. Valentine was beheaded when this lawlessness was discovered.
Valentine was a saint, but he has been removed from the regular schedule of feasts because there is too little information and too much confusion about his identity. They simply do not know how, or why, St. Valentine’s Day was celebrated. It is said he was martyred on February 14th, which happened to be the eve of the Roman festival honoring Juno, the goddess of marriage. A lottery was held on February 14th, with the names of all the unmarried girls being placed in a jar. The boys each selected one name and the couple spent the festival of Lupercalia together. Sometimes the lottery choice led to marriage.
What does it mean to love? Though it was once a Christian feast day, it is now a secular holiday. The stores are filled with gift ideas from candy to flowers to diamonds or cars, the secular and commercial world is willing to help you define love. There is a place for romantic love in all our lives; Christians are commanded to show real love to our spouses, children and other beloved family and friends. I loved the valentine tradition of giving penny valentines to classmates in elementary school, and I still love getting a red heart box filled with nutty chocolates.
It is hard to miss the seasonal aisle at the store these days, covered in reds and pinks and hearts. The cute Valentine cards meant for children to give classmates at school makes me sigh with nostalgia because my children have grown. As I look at those boxes of cute cards, I remember when we spent time preparing them for the classroom party. We worked together signing the cards, putting them into envelopes, sealing them and writing each classmate’s name on the front. We carefully chose which cards to give to best friends and which card would be best for the teacher. We haven’t done that for a long time, and I sometimes miss those childhood activities.
It seems I spent much time these days missing those days when my children were young and remembering the past. Yet, I also know that there are so many new and exciting things to come. I might not have youngsters that need boxes of valentines for school, but I do have two mature young adults that I love just as much. They celebrate the day in a much different way, but they are still my valentines. And now, as they grow in independence, my true valentine Bruce and I can enjoy our life together. We can return to the days of romance. We are even going away to a cabin in the woods for the weekend, spending time focusing on one another.
How are you spending Valentine’s Day? Will you have a special dinner with your loved one? Have you sent cards to anyone? Have you seen the price of roses in the flower shop today? The stores are still filled with plenty of heart shaped boxes of chocolate that will delight even those who are on a diet (at least for a day.) Facebook status posts are related to the holiday as everyone is posting their well-wishes for their friends. Valentine’s Day is a day for doing something nice for someone else, for showing those we love how much they mean to us. So, how will you spend the day?
The book Song of Solomon can be shocking to read; it is a romance novel in the midst of the story of God. Yet, it defines one aspect of our relationship with God; He romances the Church as a groom romances his bride. It is worth remembering that love is manifest in many different ways, including the love between a husband and wife. Valentine’s Day these days may not seem like a time to think about God, and yet even in the midst of the pink chocolate boxes and expensive roses, we are reminded that God considers us His beloved. He wants the kind of relationship we have with our spouses, a relationship where we focus solely on one another.
“Praise Yah! Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise him in his heavens for his acts of power! Praise him for his mighty acts! Praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet! Praise him with harp and lyre! Praise him with tambourine and dancing! Praise him with stringed instruments and flute! Praise him with loud cymbals! Praise him with resounding cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise Yah! Praise Yah!” Psalm 150, WEB
Our house has plenty of windows that are convenient for the cats to watch the world. I often find one or more of them sitting by the window just watching. Sometimes there is something to watch. Sometimes there is a bird or a squirrel in the tree. Sometimes a car will pass on the street. Sometimes the wind will blow a leaf across the sidewalk. Sometimes a neighbor cat will wander by. They aren’t looking for anything in particular when they sit by the window watching; they just sit and watch and sometimes they see something.
People don’t sit and watch. We see so many things but we don’t really watch. We see a sunset as we are driving home from work. We see the squirrels and birds. We see the people who cross our path. We see the flowers growing by the side of the road. We see many things every day, but do we sit and watch?
Do we take the time to really pay attention to the sun as it sets? Have you ever noticed how the sky turns into a rainbow with reds near to horizon and blues high in the sky near the darkness as it settles over the earth? If you look carefully, you will note that there is even green somewhere in the transition. Have you watched squirrels and birds as they play or search for food? Squirrels may be annoying sometimes, but they have the most fascinating tails. I have listened as they have chattered at the cats and me as we watch through the windows. The hawks that live in our neighborhood are beautiful to watch as they soar through the trees and the cardinals sit so grandly at the bird feeders.
The wildflowers on the side of the road are delightful to see as we pass by, but have you ever stopped to watch as they blow in the wind? Different flowers respond differently to the breeze. Some are pushed nearly to the ground while others stand straight and strong. If you watch long enough, you might even be surprised by the sudden appearance of a butterfly or bee. Is it worth the time? After all, we are busy people. We don’t pay attention because we are constantly on the move. We never sit on a bench just to watch the children playing in the park. We never take the time to watch the cats watching the world because we have things to do.
Yet, there are lessons to be learned in the watching. The ants teach us diligence. Bees teach us perseverance. Flowers teach us how to hold on when the winds blow. Cats teach us patience. Children remind us to laugh. We might see all these things as we go about our day, but sometimes we need to stop and watch. We need to pay attention. We need to see the world in a way that it will have more than a fleeting impact on our lives. Taking time to rest and watch will help us remember that we are not the center of the universe, that there is a great big (and little) world around us that was created by the God who loves us. Everything is His, and everything has a place in His creation. When we pay attention, we are humbled by the reality that everything is by God’s design.
We can certainly praise God with our work, with our business, with everything we do. But sometimes we need to stop doing and just watch. There is so much to see about God’s creation that we miss because we are not paying attention. Take time today to sit by a window like a cat; watch the world go by. See the squirrel’s tail and your neighbor with new eyes and realize that God has created everything for a purpose and said in the beginning, “This is good.” We have struggles, for sure. We have to work hard, this is true. Today’s world is filled with darkness, sin and evil. But God is still God and He is worthy of our praise for everything He created. When we stop to watch His good creation, we can’t help but praise Him.
“I thank him who enabled me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me faithful, appointing me to service; although I used to be a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent. However, I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. The grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. The saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience for an example of those who were going to believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:12-17, WEB
We lived in England when Zachary was in Kindergarten. The school wasn’t far, so I walked him to class. The Kindergarteners lined up near the door to the school to wait for their teachers. I usually waited with Zachary and the other children, taking time to chat with the kids and hear about their lives. It didn’t take long for the children to expect that they would get a high five or a hug from me along with a listening ear. Some days I nearly fell over when the whole class attacked me.
There was one boy who was very shy. At first he did not want hugs or high fives; he did not want to talk about anything. His mother always hovered, apologetic about his shyness. Each day, however, I said hello and offered him my hand. It took a long time - months - but he eventually opened up to me. At first it was just a shy smile or a brief word, but by the end of the school year his smile was bright and his hugs were long. I could have ignored him after the first couple of rejections, but I did not let go. In the end I am sure it made a difference to the way he performed in school: a little bit of confidence goes a long way.
Most of the children are not really as shy as their parents really think. The children usually respond as soon as the parent is out of the sight. For those who are truly shy, it is necessary to give them the distance they need to feel comfortable, but to be persistent with an outstretched hand and patient for the day they will come around.
Paul, first known as Saul, was zealous for the Lord, but he did not understand the grace that came to the world through Jesus Christ. To him the movement of The Way was nothing more than an attempt to destroy the faith of his people. He went out on a rampage, destroying Christians even to the point of murder. There were so many loyal followers who were quite gifted to speak the Gospel into the lives of the people who could have reached the Gentiles, but God had a special plan for Paul. One day on the road to Damascus, Paul met Jesus face to face and was immediately converted. He learned about Jesus and then went forth into the world reaching millions of people with the love of Jesus Christ.
There are not many people over the course of Christian history who can claim to have had an experience like Paul’s. I don’t think I would have wanted to come to faith in such a dramatic and frightening way. Most of us come to faith after patient and persistent witness of those who have come before us. I wonder how many times Paul heard the message of the Gospel before God struck him down on that road. Perhaps this was the only way Paul could have had such an incredible impact on the world. The other disciples, who came to faith in a much different way, each had their own influence but none have reached so many with God’s grace.
We never know the affect we will have on people. We might think we should just give up, that they are beyond hope. Yet, there are none that are beyond hope in God’s eyes. We all know someone who refuses to believe in Christ for one reason or another. Sometimes it is because they are afraid. The word of God is life changing and few people really want to be changed. Other people ignore the message because they think they are not worthy. Whatever the reason that they will not believe, we are called to reach out to them, not with bible bashing or manipulation, but rather with a kind hand and a word of hope. In this way they will see the grace of God shining through our lives and receive the love that He has to give.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 23, 2020, Transfiguration of our Lord: Exodus 24:12-18; 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.
Paul warns the Corinthians, “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.” And he then encourages them with these words, “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?
We are warned to be careful to discern what we hear coming from men, and to always remember to keep our focus on God.
I often look back at my twenty-plus years of archives for ideas for this daily devotion. Sometimes I repost slightly edited previous devotions; sometimes I just use the ideas with new insights. One thing I found during one of those searches is that I used today’s Epistle lesson from 2 Peter on September 11, 2001. I must have written early because I did not mention the horrific events of that day, but the warning was appropriate to what would come.
In that writing, I talked about how people interpret the signs in creation in relation to the coming of Christ. “Prophets and prophetic interpreters watch for things to happen and they try to decipher what they mean and how they relate to the biblical descriptions of the last days.” This was certainly true in the days following the horrific events of that day. Many people used the disaster as a launching point for their prophetic utterances. Grief and fear made people flock to religious centers, to gather for prayer and worship, to comfort one another and seek answers to the questions on their hearts. Many voices were willing to give answers, but so many of those voices did not agree.
Unfortunately, many of the prophetic voices of our day do not speak from God’s power or Spirit, but from a sense that if they speak it loud enough or long enough, then it will happen. It is humorous to watch a prophet explain away his mistake, justifying his misinterpretation by reconciling it with actual events. Many prophets will wait to release a “word” until after he or she can make it fit the circumstances of the day. “See, I received this word, but now I see it is true and reveal it to you.”
Peter writes, “For we didn’t 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.” And, “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” How do we know which voices are right and which are false?
We can ask a couple of questions. What is the focus of the prophecy? Who is the subject of the “word”?
Thomas Aquinas lived in the thirteenth century. He was a teacher and a theologian. The thirteenth century was a time of philosophical rebirth. The work of Aristotle was making a renaissance, very popular among the educated in that day. Thomas Aquinas studied the works of Aristotle and found connections between his philosophy and that of the Christians. He believed that truth is known through both reason (natural revelation) and faith (supernatural revelation.) Natural revelation is available to all human beings as they use observe and experience the world in which they live. Supernatural revelation comes to men through the scriptures, the church and prophets.
Some prophetic utterances are worth our attention. God does still speak to His people. We are reminded, however, that we are to discern that which comes from God and that which comes out of the desires of men. Is that prophetic word confirmed by that which has been revealed to us already? Does it stand up to the light of Christ? Aquinas found the Gospel in the midst of that which was popular in his day and he taught the people how to balance faith with intellect. He didn’t change the Christian message to fit into the society of his day but developed a method of using philosophy to explain Christianity. The false prophets are those that change the message to fit their prophetic utterances.
The voices are becoming louder and longer, these days, aren’t they? Self-proclaimed prophets will shout from podiums that others are not living according to the scriptures, even while they do not live according to the scriptures. They see through a window, without realizing it is a mirror, pointing the fingers at others while actually pointing at themselves. Of course, they have twist the scriptures to make it, just as the prophet twists circumstances to fit their “words.”
I don’t usually talk about politics for multiple reasons. First of all, I know that the readers of this devotion come from many points of view. Though American politics can have an impact worldwide, many of my readers are from other nations. They have greater concerns in their own little corner of the world. This is not a political blog, it is an inspirational devotion. So, while our opinion on the politics of the day might be tempered by our religious perspective, it is not necessarily a topic appropriate to devotional writing. The other reason I avoid politics is that a number of readers are from other nations. American politics is not a topic that will enhance our spiritual lives.
It is impossible, however, to ignore the reality of our world at this moment: politics is a part of our lives. Unless we never listen to the news or pick up a newspaper, we can’t avoid the topic. Even if we do avoid the media, it is a topic that will inevitably come up in our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces. Our neighbors have political signs in their yard. Political discussions are happening in our churches. There is no doubt that an important election is just a few months away because the world around us has politics on its mind.
It is sometimes interesting, sometimes disturbing, to listen to the debates and discussions about the upcoming election and the candidates. Some people are deeply rooted in their opinions and discussion is about converting others to a similar point of view. To them, any difference in opinion is a condemnation of a person’s sanity, intelligence, or even faith. It is not the opinion that is questioned or debated, but it is the person who has the disagreeable point of view that becomes the focus of the discussion. The person with an opposition opinion becomes an enemy, someone who is less in some way. This seems to get worse every year.
This happens in all aspects of life. It happens in religion, in science, in academia. It even happens on subjects that are totally inconsequential. Try starting a debate about regular tea and sweet tea someday. Or types of soda. Or which burger is the best. The person who is passionate about his or her opinion will often put down the other point of view. I don’t think that this is the way a majority of people act. Most people can sit down and have a discussion without becoming nasty or arrogant. Most people recognize that there are different points of view.
Early in Psalm 22, the psalmist asks why the nations want 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 about politics, we often think to ourselves, “I just don’t understand how he or she can think like that.” We don’t understand because we see the world in an entirely different perspective. Unfortunately, we are too rarely interested to hear the other point of view; we simply dismiss it, and the person, as being wrong. The psalmist knows the loving grace of God and simply can’t understand a perspective that can’t see that grace. The psalmist is amazed by this point of view because he or she knows that any revolt against the LORD is fruitless.
In the Old Testament lesson from Exodus, the Lord says to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and stay here, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commands that I have written, that you may teach them.” That place was where heaven and earth mingled, where God met man face to face. The man, in this case, was Moses. A cloud covered the mountain and the earth trembled at the presence of God. All others were warned to stay at the foot of the mountain. I don’t think they minded holding back since the mountain seemed to burn with fire.
Imagine what it must have been like at the foot of the mountain when Moses went to talk with God. Though he was meeting with the God of their forefathers, the Hebrews did not know Him very well. They had spent four hundred years in Egypt. They had lost touch with their God. They knew the foreign gods and recognized that the signs of nature could be interpreted as communication from the divine. It must have been frightening to see that cloud descend down the mountain as Moses was climbing up. Was it a bad sign? Was Moses going to be safe? What did the fire mean? Would this God really save them from their suffering?
They weren’t very patient people. Moses was on the mountain for forty days, and the people feared he was dead. Instead of waiting for him to come, they turned to the gods they knew from Egypt and convinced Aaron to create an idol of gold. They worshipped the idol and sought its protection and guidance. God was not idle during those days and Moses was not dead. The people looked to themselves for salvation instead of waiting for God. They tried to take the divine into their own hands, to lift themselves into heaven.
The cloud covered the mountain for six days and then God called Moses out of the cloud. He was invited into the presence of God, and during the forty days Moses received God’s Word for His people. They received that Word, but failed to live by it over and over again. They revolted against God, not in an open rebellion as it at the foot of Mount Sinai; they revolted by turning to the strength and power of men and nations for help. They revolted by going their own way instead of the way of God. They revolted by doing their own thing. That’s sin. We are all guilty of that sin. We all go our own way. We all think that we know better than God. We all think that our way is the right way.
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, “But 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.
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. 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, just as He had at Jesus’ baptism. 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. They 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 has risen from the dead.” Then Jesus went back into the valley and headed toward the cross to die.
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 understand 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.”
The world is filled with voices in politics, religion, science and academia. The voices we hear these days speak with so-called wisdom, but does not come from God. There are many people who seem to preach, but are speaking a different gospel. They twist the word to fit their point of view and ignore everything about the scriptures that reject their own way of living. They often focus on mountain top experiences and ignore the reality of sacrifice. They avoid the cross. In their own way, they have turned from God. They aren’t building altars of gold, but they are building altars that serve their own desires.
On the mountaintop, the voice of God told Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus. He is the focus of prophecy; He is the subject of true “words” from God.
Jesus invited the three to follow Him to the valley, to do the work of God. He did not tell the disciples to seek after the riches of the world or avoid suffering. He took them into the midst of poverty and pain. He taught them to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. He encouraged them to endure persecution. He died on the cross and invited all those who believe to follow Him. He experienced the glory on the mountain but left it behind for the true glory that comes with sacrifice. We might not understand. It is certainly easier to seek after the good things in life than to experience the bad. But God knows His plan and His purpose. He knows His grace. And He is faithful. By His grace we can be both holy and perfect because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.
“Let’s fear therefore, lest perhaps anyone of you should seem to have come short of a promise of entering into his rest. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, even as they also did, but the word they heard didn’t profit them, because it wasn’t mixed with faith by those who heard. For we who have believed do enter into that rest, even as he has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, they will not enter into my rest;’ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has said this somewhere about the seventh day, ‘God rested on the seventh day from all his works;’ and in this place again, ‘They will not enter into my rest.’ Seeing therefore it remains that some should enter into it, and they to whom the good news was preached before failed to enter in because of disobedience, he again defines a certain day, today, saying through David so long a time afterward (just as has been said), ‘Today if you will hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts.’ For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken afterward of another day. There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For he who has entered into his rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from his. Let’s therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience.” Hebrews 4:1-11, WEB
This might seem odd, but sometimes I wonder how much I could get done if I were sick enough to be forced into bed rest. After all, if I didn’t have to do housework or grocery shopping, I should have plenty of time to focus on writing. I wonder, then I get sick, and I realize that I wouldn’t get anything done. I learned this lesson once again on Monday: I got food poisoning and was unable to accomplish much of anything for twenty-four hours. I slept for most of that time, unable to focus or even stay upright for more than a few minutes. A bout with the flu last year made it difficult to do anything for nearly two weeks.
We will get sick. All our flesh is weak; even those who take very good care of themselves can breathe in a virus that will lay them up for a time. We are sometimes shocked to discover someone has cancer or diabetes even though they don’t seem to have the typical markers of probability for those diseases. Healthy bodies tend to overcome these illnesses more quickly, but we are all susceptible. The key is to let our bodies rest so that we can overcome. Sometimes illness is simply our body’s way of making us slow down, or even stop, so that we do not destroy ourselves completely.
There is just too much to do. We all have experienced those late nights of hard work, trying to finish projects or get ready for some big event. We don’t get enough sleep, and wear ourselves out with excitement and anxiety. We are not as rested as we should be. We are usually fine as long as we don’t continue this for too many nights in a row. The real exhaustion comes when we go too long without real rest. And then we are no good to anyone. We get sick, and our ability to work suffers.
God understands this, which is why He has commanded His people to take a Sabbath, a day of rest. Even God took a Sabbath rest after He created everything, how can we expect to need less? If we work hard day after day, we need to stop for a moment, to rejuvenate our bodies and our spirits. The Sabbath does both, because it is not only a day for rest, but also a day for experiencing God’s Word in worship and study. If we take that day of rest, we might just find that our week is easier and our work is better.
Our bodies certainly do need rest, but the writer of Hebrews was talking about another kind of rest in today's passage. The Israelites were saved from Egypt so that they might find peace and goodness in the Promised Land. They would, after so many years in slavery, find rest. Unfortunately, the people rebelled against God and He refused to give them the rest immediately. They had to wander in the wilderness until the last of their generation died, so that their offspring might receive the promise and find rest.
We learn, however, that entering the Promised Land is not the end of the promise. It isn’t about the land. It isn’t about the place. It is about resting in God’s grace. That was the promise all along, even from the foundation of the world. That’s the Gospel message. That is the rest that comes from faith. We can get as much sleep as we need. We can take Sunday off and spend time in worship and study. We can keep our bodies healthy and our spirits fresh, but we will never get real rest without faith in Christ Jesus. He is our true Sabbath. He is the fulfillment of the promise.
We can do much to keep ourselves healthy during our years on earth, taking time to properly rest, getting the right exercise, eating the right foods. Yet, no matter how well we take care of our bodies, we will get sick and all of us will eventually die. For those who have faith in Jesus, who have a relationship with the God of the Promise, we will die, but when we do we will begin life anew in His presence for eternity. We build that relationship by keeping the Sabbath, taking time to worship Him, know Him through His Word, and experience His grace in the body of Jesus Christ. The more we grow in faith, the more we will rest in Him.
“For this cause the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill him, because he did these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, so I am working, too.’ For this cause therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God. Jesus therefore answered them, ‘Most certainly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father doing. For whatever things he does, these the Son also does likewise. For the Father has affection for the Son, and shows him all things that he himself does. He will show him greater works than these, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom he desires. For the Father judges no one, but he has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who doesn’t honor the Son doesn’t honor the Father who sent him.’” John 5:16-23, WEB
The word “invalid” is defined as being “one who is sickly or disabled. This word perhaps should not used in this manner anymore because it can be confused with a similar word that means “without validity.” Someone with a disability should never be set aside in the world as if they are nothing.
A Catholic priest from Shiner, Texas is an excellent example of the truth that all people have validity no matter their physical abilities. He was studying to be a priest at a seminary in Texas when he was overcome by polio. The disease left his arms and his legs paralyzed. It took a long time for him to learn to live life as a quadriplegic but he eventually returned to finish the work he began in seminary. Ordaining a priest with no functioning arms and legs would take special consideration, but after twenty three years of work and discernment by both Charles and the Church, he finished his education and was made a full-fledged priest. He worked as a chaplain in a hospital and was deeply loved by those to whom he ministered. He helped people see that they can make the most of their lives even when they suffered from a disability.
His life could have become one without validity. Many people who suffer from disease and disability give up living. They do not try to overcome their troubles or try to find God’s grace in the situation. Instead they blame God and the world, complain about their lot in life and surrender to the disability. They make themselves in-valid.
The Bible tells the story of a paralytic that was healed by Jesus. He had been invalid for thirty-eight years, unable to get into the healing pool to be made well by the stirring waters. When Jesus asked him if he wanted to get well, he blamed his disability and everyone else for not being able to get well. Jesus said, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk.” Jesus did not let him settle for invalidity, but told him to go and do something. Not all people see this as good work. Jesus was persecuted for His healing words.
Charles Kram was never able to walk again, but Jesus healed him too. He told Charles to go do the work he had been called to do. His life could have become useless because of his disability, so that he might have been truly in-valid in this world. However, he did not stop when the disability tried to stop him. He continued to move forward even if it was slowly.
We might think the greater miracle would have been for Charles to have been healed, for God to have made him walk and give him back the use of his arms. However, he has touched so many people through his disability, something he may have never been able to do if he had full use of his body. He overcame with the help of others. He needed people and technology to be his feet and his hands, but through the grace of God he helped change the world one person at a time. The greater works God does in this world may seem less than the miraculous things Christ did when He walked in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but I think we ought to marvel over every person who is transformed by the love of Christ and who live in the grace of God no matter what their circumstances.
“For our boasting is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and sincerity of God, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God we behaved ourselves in the world, and more abundantly toward you. For we write no other things to you than what you read or even acknowledge, and I hope you will acknowledge to the end, as also you acknowledged us in part, that we are your boasting, even as you also are ours, in the day of our Lord Jesus.” 2 Corinthians 1:12-14, WEB
I read an article today about people who tend to use big words in conversation to appear smarter. They think it makes them appear to have a larger vocabulary, which usually implies intelligence. Unfortunately, this can go terribly wrong, especially if they use words that are not really intelligible. Take, for instance, the people on the television court shows. They try to sound more impressive to the judge and the audience by using language that is not typical of their daily life, and they often sound ridiculous rather than smart. One word I hear repeatedly is “conversating.” They talk about something happening while they were “conversating” with the other person.
Now, “conversate” is a word that can be found in dictionaries, but it is a non-standard word, sometimes acceptable in certain dialects. The correct word in those sentences would be “converse.” It is easy to make the mistake, particularly when you are nervous or rushed. After all, we have a conversation when we converse with another. Our brains will translate conversation to conversate, and that’s the word that comes out. Of course, it would have been much simpler to simply say, “We were talking and this happened,” but they want to give their case a boost by sounding better than their opponent. In the end, it usually makes them sound more foolish. Perhaps they use it because it is part of their dialect, but I suspect it is usually to look smarter.
How often do people do the same thing with religious and spiritual words? I sometimes attend conferences and retreats with professional theologians, and I have to admit that there are a few that make understanding their lessons difficult. I have to admit that there are times I get glassy eyed as I try to figure out what the speaker is trying to say. It usually takes me a sentence or two to figure out the meaning of a word which is often from another language, and then I’ve missed two more points. I don’t think they do this to make themselves sound smart, but they certainly don’t teach the faith to people like me.
I just finished reading a biography about Martin Luther as I prepare for a trip to Germany this spring. The writer talked extensively about Luther’s conversations with the other theologians of his day. He was often cruel with his attacks against his opponents, especially when they were supposedly educated teachers of the church. He used a lot of religious language in those conversations, but it was never meant to make himself look smarter. He was concerned about the Church and the Christians. His real goal, in all things, was to make his brothers and sisters in Christ “theodacti.” (Sorry for the big word. It means “those taught by God.”) He was heartbroken that most Christians did not even understand the most basic ideas of the faith. Many Christians did not know the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed.
So, if you read Martin Luther’s works, you will almost find yourself reading two different writers. He wrote to the theologians, but he also wrote the common man, making the Christian faith accessible to everyone, even children. The Small Catechism is the perfect example. He even included woodcut pictures by Lucas Cranach to give the children visual representations of the ideas.
Unfortunately, there are people today who use the big religious and spiritual words when talking about Christian faith, not because they are trying to build up the church or other Christians, but because they want to appear to be smarter or more spiritual than others. Though these theological conversations can help Christians grow deeper in knowledge of God, we don’t need the Latin and Greek words to have faith in Jesus Christ. We don’t need to understand the many different “-isms” of Christianity to believe the Gospel. We don’t need big words, we need simple faith. We don’t need special education to be able to share the truth of Jesus Christ with our neighbors. We can all be theodacti, people taught by God, by reading and studying the scriptures with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
“This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:5-10, WEB
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Lent is traditionally a time of fasting. Modern fasts tend to focus on the things we love like coffee, video games, or chocolate, the things that draw our attention away from God. A meme online suggests fasting from things like harsh words, anger, pessimism, and selfishness. Many people encourage taking up good disciplines rather than just giving up bad ones. Some Lent practices include clearing clutter or filling boxes for a food bank.
In previous ages, Lent was a time to give up more common foodstuff, foods forbidden during the penitential season. The people abstained from eating meat as many do today, but milk, yeast, eggs, and fat were also forbidden. It is difficult to make bread without those items, but industrious people did manage to find a way. As a matter of fact, pretzels with their “little arms” were invented using just flour, salt and water as a reminder that Lent is a period of penance and devotion. Since dairy and fat were forbidden, the people had to rid their homes of those items before Ash Wednesday.
Traditional foods and celebrations grew out of the need to get rid of these items. Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, became a day of indulgence. It is also known Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. The foods are often a type of sweet bread or cake that use dairy and fat. In England, they eat pancakes that are much like crepes. In Sweden, the cake is called a semla, and is filled with cream. In Madeira, they are called malasadas. In Pennsylvania they eat fastnachts, which are deep-fried potato donuts.
When I was a kid we simply purchased donuts, but I learned to make fastnachts with my mother-in-law’s recipe and I have made them nearly every year for decades. Though they aren’t very sweet, they can be covered with confectioner’s sugar, chocolate, honey or cinnamon sugar to make them a special treat. We no longer make these treats to rid our homes of forbidden foods, but the traditions and celebrations continue. I tried a new recipe this year, baked rather than deep-fried.
It is hard to imagine as we watch the frivolities of Mardi Gras, but Shrove Tuesday is actually meant to be a deeply religious day. We continue the fun of the day, but an important part of Shrove Tuesday has been lost. The word “shrive” means “to hear confession and give absolution” or to “to make confession.” This day is about confessing our sins openly, hearing the joyful words of forgiveness from Jesus Christ before walking into that wilderness time of Lent when the “Hallelujahs” are packed away. For the next seven weeks we will journey together toward the cross.
Instead of a time of confession, Fat Tuesday has become the day to get all our lusts and desires out of our system before the forty days of fasting during Lent. But we are meant to enter into Lent humbly, knowing that we are sinners in need of a Savior. This period is a time of penance, a time to seek God’s mercy for our failure to live as He has called us to live. Let us never lose sight of the purpose of Christ’s life and death: forgiveness. The end of Lent - Easter - would be unnecessary if we were perfectly able to keep the Law. Even more than Easter, we need the cross of Christ to make us right before God.
How will you fast? What will you add to your day to focus on God and His Light? How will you prepare for Holy Week and Easter? As you party today, enjoying donuts, pancakes or whatever your own tradition offers, remember that you are a sinner in need of a Savior. Confess your sins so that you might begin this Lent looking forward to the light and forgiveness that lies at the end of the journey. Seek ways to empty your life of the things that keep you from a right relationship with our Father. Even if we do not cleanse our homes of dairy and fats, it is good to cleanse our hearts so that we can enter into the Lenten journey free to pursue a deepening relationship with God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 1, 2020, First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
“Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Psalm 32:1, WEB
Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit after His baptism. It was a time of preparation, prayer, and temptation. The devil came to him during the forty days and tested Him, tempting Him to feed His flesh, His heart, and His ego. Jesus stood firm on the Word of God, and came to know more clearly who He was and whose He was, discerning His purpose in this world. We enter into Lent with the same purpose, to prepare, pray, and face the temptations of our lives so that we can learn more clearly who we are and to whom we belong. We may even discover God’s purpose for us.
The temptations Jesus faced do not seem sinful, especially according to the ways of the world. Our bodies are naturally in need of food, our hearts need the love of other people, and our egos need success. Jesus was tempted by the things He would face during His ministry.
Satan first offered Jesus food for His belly. Bread is good to eat and Jesus was hungry. He’d been fasting for days, and Satan tempted Jesus to put the needs of His flesh first. Jesus was in the desert to prepare for His ministry. It was an act of obedience to the will of God, to strengthen Him against the things He would face in the days to come. The temptation was not only to feed His own hunger, Satan said, “Command these stones.” Jesus would not have needed more than a loaf, but with many loaves of bread He could have fed all the hungry in Jerusalem. Though He did feed the hungry, Jesus did not begin a food bank. He fed the crowds with the Word of God.
The second temptation focused on the heart; it was about fame. Imagine what an impact Jesus would have had on His world if He had actually gone to the top of the temple to take a flying leap? The appearance of angels and the miraculous landing would have made Him the talk of the town. People would have come flocking to hear Him speak, they would have loved Him. How many ministries focus on the impact they have in their cities and neighborhoods without caring about the message they are giving to the people? Jesus responded, “Do not test God.” He spoke to draw the people to God.
Finally, Satan tempted Jesus with power. Jesus could rule over the nations of the world if only He would bow down to Satan. This is a promise Satan can’t keep, even if Jesus did worship him. Jesus knew His purpose was not control or power. He was not sent to be a worldly king. He was sent to die, and nothing Satan could do would stroke His ego to follow another path. He eventually faced all three temptations during His ministry. He refused each time, keeping the focus on what mattered: God. Our Lenten journey is meant to be a time when we also focus on what matters most: God. Why do we do this? What set our lives on a path where we would need to understand our own unworthiness to be in the presence of God?
It all began in the Garden of Eden.
Adam and Eve were created and God called them “good.” They lived in harmony with their Creator and with the rest of His good creation. Then the serpent made them aware that there is more than “good” in the world. They sought to know more. They thought that they could be like God and that it would make them more than “good,” but the reality is that only God is good. Everything that isn’t God is less than good.
We aren’t God. We are created by God and beloved of Him, but we aren’t God. And we aren’t good. We are imperfect, frail, fallen beings. We are created and fallible. We are perishable. We are sinners. We are just like Adam and Eve. They sinned in the Garden of Eden by eating the apple fruit that God told them not to eat, but the sin goes even deeper.
The serpent found the woman and said, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” The serpent twisted God’s word to put doubt in the minds and hearts of God’s people. They were allowed to eat of any tree but one. Eve proclaimed God’s word to the serpent, with a twist, adding her own interpretation to what she’s heard. “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but not the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it. You shall not touch it, lest you die.’” She added the part about touching the fruit.
How could this be a bad thing? After all, if the fruit of the tree was not good to eat, then it would be best if she did allow herself to be tempted by touching it. Eve already knew that the fruit looked good; she saw it with her own eyes. The serpent heard her twist God’s Word and knew he had caught a live one, so he went a little deeper. “You won’t really die.” He was right, in a sense. Adam and Eve did not immediately die physically when they ate the fruit. But it was only a half truth. He convinced them to believe his word above God’s by giving them the final reason to eat: they would become like God.
They did die, though. They were sent outside the Garden, into the dangerous world where they would no longer live under the protection of God or in His fellowship. They were sent into the realm of death so that they would not have access to the Tree of Life which gives them the ability to live forever. If they continued to eat that fruit, they would spend their lives in fear of their Father and Creator.
We join Adam and Eve in the reality of our failure and continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning: sins that focus on our bodies, hearts, and egos. Jesus faced those same temptations, but He did not fall because saw through the lie. He did not seek to attain more and He stayed the course which God had given for Him. He walked to the cross because it was what God intended for Him to do. He didn’t reach beyond what He had because He knew He had everything. His obedience has secured the gift of life for all who believe. We have been healed by Jesus and washed clean so that we can dwell once more in the Garden and in the fellowship of our Father and Creator.
“The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write. A child is black, a child is white, the whole world looks upon the sight. A beautiful sight.” This song was made popular in 1972 by the group Three Dog Night and was a statement about the Brown vs. Education decision of the United States Supreme court which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Sammy Davis, Jr. made the original version of this folk song using a verse that was not used in later versions. “Their robes were black, their heads were white, the schoolhouse doors were closed so tight, nine judges all set down their names, to end the years and years of shame.” The issue of segregation demanded that people be seen as opposites, just like the colors black and white. However, we can’t separate people so easily. Though skin color makes us different, there are too many things we share to think that people can be separated by just one trait.
It is easy to look at the world as dualistic. White or black, tall or short, fat or thin, these are ways we can define people and things, but are there really only two choices? If you go to a paint store and ask for white paint, he will ask what type of white you want. Can we really tell the difference? Yes. Compare ecru to ivory and you’ll see a difference. Most people would not know if you’ve painted ecru or ivory on your wall, but if you place them side by side you can see the difference. Are there really just black and white people? How do we discern one from another?
When we consider good and evil, we think again in dualistic terms. There is good and there is evil and neither the twain shall meet, right? The reality is that we live in a world where it is difficult to separate good and evil. Theft is considered evil and yet there are those who believe that theft which serves a virtuous purpose is good. Is it possible for us to do only good things? Even though we try to do good, to many things we do turn out to be less than good. If it is less than good, is it still good or is it evil? Where do we draw the line?
In this passage, the serpent told Eve that she would be like God if she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by its fruit she know good and evil. This phrase was not meant to define the world as dualistic, but instead to show that God knows everything. If they ate, Adam and Eve would know everything from A to Z. There is not only good and evil, there is good to evil and everything in between. There are times when we have to choose the better of two evils. Which is better - to shoot a dying horse or allow him to die naturally? Both options are evil, but a choice has to be made. It is the consequence of living in a fallen world.
Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.” He did not mean that we should go out in the world to purposely sin against God and man. He meant that if, as you are living in this sinful and fallen world, you have to sin, do so boldly knowing the grace of God. The whole statement is “Sin boldly but believe more bolder still.” In other words, if you have to make a decision to do something that is less than good, do so with the knowledge that forgiveness is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So, what is forgiveness?
If you do an online search, you will find that many websites talk about forgiveness in terms of healing and psychology. Many people agree that if someone is going to experience wellness after a difficult situation, they have to get through forgiveness. This means forgiving others, but sometimes we also need to forgive ourselves. Sometimes we even need to forgive God. Many of the websites list stages of forgiveness, much like the stages of grief. They suggest that it is necessary for someone to recognize hurt and experience a form of hate before they can even begin to forgive.
While I agree that there is a need to face the hurt and the hate, I think our passage for today gives a more narrowed focus on how to forgive. This psalm shows us God’s example of forgiveness, which is more than simply offering words of absolution. This first stage is perhaps the easiest part of forgiveness, saying “I forgive you.” But forgiveness requires much more.
William Gladstone was Prime Minister of England in the late nineteenth century. Earlier in his political career he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British cabinet minister responsible for economic and financial matters. One day he asked for the statistics necessary to write his budget proposal from the Treasury office. The clerk was always very precise with his calculations, so much so that the chancellor did not bother to verify the numbers. Unfortunately, the clerk made a horrible mistake and the budget using those numbers was entirely wrong. Gladstone did not notice the mistake until the budget was presented to the House of Commons. He looked like a fool before the House and the entire nation.
Gladstone sent for the clerk. The clerk was terrified, certain that he would have been fired immediately. Mr. Gladstone said, “I sent for you, because I could imagine the torture of your feelings. You have for many years dealt with the bewildering intricacies of the national accounts, and you have done your work with such conscientious exactness that this is your first mistake. It was because of your splendid record that I did not trouble to verify your calculations. I have sent for you to compliment you on that record and to set you at ease.” In this story of William Gladstone, we see the second stage of forgiveness. The psalmist says that the one whose sin is covered is blessed. Mr. Gladstone did not focus on the mistake but covered it with the compliment about the clerk’s good work so that he could experience forgiveness in a very real way.
The third step is probably the hardest for us: to forget the sin. The psalmist says, “Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit.” God does not hold on to the sin. We often say the words and cover the sin, but we eventually remember and use it against the one who sinned against us. God does not do that. When He grants forgiveness, He covers it with Christ’s righteousness, and then forgets. It is by God’s grace that we are set free from the burdens of our sin.
Unfortunately, we continue to sin. This is why we go through Lent every year, remembering our need for Jesus Christ the Savior.
I grew up with a pool in my yard and learned to swim at a very young age. In the beginning we had an above ground pool that was three feet deep, but as my siblings grew older, we added a larger pool that was four to seven feet deep. It was impossible to take that pool down each winter. We didn’t bother with it for those colder months, which meant the water became dirty and gross. We spent Memorial Day weekend cleaning the pool for summer use. We removed all the water, washed the vinyl sides with soap and water, and then refilled the pool with fresh clean water. Only then could we add pool chemicals to make the pool ready for another season. We kept the pool clean and safe with those chemicals and regular cleaning until the season was over.
Year after year, however, we still let the pool go and we had to start over again the next Memorial Day weekend. It only takes a couple of weeks of missed maintenance before we could see the water turning nasty. Even though we could kept it clean during the season, the threat of stagnation, algae, and built up foreign matter was always possible. It would have been impossible to restore the pool after a long winter’s rest with a few chemicals. We had to take out the old and put in the new. We had to stop the process of decay. We had to start over.
Adam and Eve started a process. They may have been the first to turn away from God by listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but we continue to do the same. God created us to be able to reason and to make decisions, which means we have the freedom to reject God and go our own way. This means that sometimes we do act against God’s Word in ways that harms our relationship with Him and His creation. We are like that pool: no matter how “clean” we appear to be, the threat of corrosion, stagnation and filth is always part of our life. We are imperfect. We are frail. We are sinners. We need, more than anything else, a Savior.
Ever since that day in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word for that of the serpent and their own desires, we have suffered from the consequences of sin. We see it in our everyday lives. Small lies lead to bigger ones, bad habits lead to health problems, anger leads to violence, greed leads to thievery and lust leads to improper conduct. Some would like to believe that there are victimless sins, but all sin affects all people. We live in community in a fallen world. Everything we do will affect others.
Jesus Christ is the Savior we need. At the cross, He started a new process. This is like what we did on Memorial Day. He took all the crud, scrubbed us down and filled us with fresh clean water. Unfortunately, the old process still exists in our flesh; we continue to be sinners even while we have been transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ. Unlike our family, though, Jesus never gives up. He keeps His grace freely flowing into our lives, granting forgiveness when we fail and showing us the better way. The process will not be complete until the day when He comes again. For now, God will continue to speak words of forgiveness, cover us with Jesus’ righteousness, and forget our sin every day, filling us with His grace so that we can do His work in this life.
In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who died because he fell to the words of the tempter and Jesus who faced death without failing. Through Adam we have inherited the reality of sin and death; through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to another word and believed it more than God’s. Jesus never believed the lies of the tempter and stood firm in God’s Word. Paul draws these two stories together, comparing the trespass and the gift in today’s epistle lesson. “So then as through one trespass, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness, all men were justified to life. For as through the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one, many will be made righteous.”
God has given us His Word and by His Word we can stand firm in His promises. When Satan tempts us, we need only turn to that which He has spoken. Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness by proclaiming God’s Word. We can do the same.
Lent is a time of repentance and a time for reflection as we consider our own humanness. We begin on Ash Wednesday with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. This calls us to a season of confession, but we can’t confess that which we do not accept to be true. The world may not be black and white, good and evil, but we are reminded by the Lenten journey that we are not good. We need the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and His grace to be restored into a right relationship with God our Father.
Once we have made our confession we can rest in God’s promise. We are blessed because our sins are forgiven, our transgression is covered, and our God has forgotten our sin. We are blessed because our Lord Jesus did not fall into the temptations He faced in the wilderness. Yet, we are also reminded by the psalmist that when we do not confess our sins we suffer the burden of guilt and God’s hand of discipline. Forgiveness comes to those who trust in the Lord.
Lent is a journey in which we seek God, seek His will for our lives, and face our unworthiness so that God can build us up to be the people He has created us to be. It is an inward journey as we come to know ourselves better. It is also a journey that is taken within the community. As we look more closely at ourselves, we can discern the ministry to which God has called us as individuals and the body of Christ.
I encourage everyone to commit time each day to spend with God during this Lenten season. Choose a time and a place, whatever works best for you. Pick a time when you can focus completely on God. Be consistent as you build this habit into your day. Find a place away from distractions so that you can concentrate on prayer, study, and worship. Structure your time with God because it will help you stay focused. Find a Lenten devotional online or in a bookstore that will help guide the direction of your study. Or, choose to read through certain books of the Bible. Study the Lenten lectionary texts as we do in this devotional. Begin your time with prayer. Read some scripture. Listen to what God and others have to say about faith in our world today. Hear what God is saying to you personally for this time and place. Discover your own temptations. Discover your gifts. Let God transform you by His Word and His Grace.
Whatever you decide to do throughout this season of Lent, remember that God’s grace is greater than our failure. If you break your fast, ask forgiveness and begin again. Do not let failure become an excuse to stop trying. We are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s the whole point of Lent, to realize that we need Jesus and the cross to be in relationship with God. Begin each day as if it is a new day because with God it is.
“For this cause, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, to the end that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strengthened to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:16-19, WEB
One of my favorite Christmas traditions is having a poinsettia in the house. These beautiful flowers bring color and life to our homes. I still have a poinsettia at my front door that I purchased weeks before Christmas. It is beginning to look a little rough, but has lasted much longer than I ever expected. Despite their beauty, we know that the poinsettias we buy for Christmas will last a season and will be put into the trash as the leaves begin to fall. After all, they are really nothing but a weed.
Poinsettias were named after Joel Poinsett, a US statesman who brought them to America after visiting Mexico. These weeds are found in the wild, and can grow up to ten feet high. They are found growing on the sides of the road. Over the past few centuries, these plants have been cultivated into the beautiful flowers we purchase as gifts or for ourselves over the holidays. The flower is not what we think. We look at the beautiful red, salmon or white ‘petals’ and think this is the flower. They are not. They are bracts or modified leaves. The flower is actually the tiny yellow centre of the plant. It is possible to keep these flowers alive from year to year, but that takes more care than most people are willing to give. So, these weeds last a season and are tossed in the garbage heap.
I suppose the same could be said about the beautiful wildflowers that are beginning to grow along the roads in Texas. Those flowers are really nothing but weeds, and yet we go out of our way to see and photograph them. See, a weed is simply a plant that is in the wrong place. We do not think a poinsettia in a beautiful pot is a weed, but we might if we saw one growing in the middle of our pristine lawns. The same is true of the wildflowers. Fields of wildflowers are beautiful, but some can be poisonous to livestock in a rancher’s field. They also can invade a farmer’s field, destroying the yield of his crop. The wildflowers that are allowed to bloom are quickly mowed away at the end of the season so that the ranchers and farmers can go about their work.
Unfortunately, we often deal with people as we do those Christmas poinsettias and the spring wildflowers. We see their beauty and enjoy them until we start to see the imperfections. We begin to see things we do not like. We see the habits that drive us crazy. We see their faults. We see the ways that they do not agree with us in ideas or practices, and we even get angry with them. It becomes even worse if they do something, willingly or unwittingly, that hurts us. We distance ourselves from them when they are no longer the beautiful flower that we first knew. How easily we cast away our fellow man when their leaves begin to fall! Like those poinsettias, we do not work to keep those relationships alive.
Thankfully, God does not cast us away. We are rooted in His love. He sees our hearts, and knows our true selves that are ignored by the world. As we begin to fade, He nurtures us so that we might grow more beautiful for His glory. We were reminded of this yesterday as we received the ashes of repentance and mortality. Though we really are not perfectly beautiful, we are sinners in need of a Savior, Jesus Christ walked the journey to the cross to make us right with our God. By His grace we have life, nurtured in His Word and transformed by His forgiveness. Our leaves will continue to fall and one day we really will die, but God will not throw us away. He will work with us in this life until the glorious Day when we will join Him in eternity. And then we will never die.
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were born, before you had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. You turn man to destruction, saying, ‘Return, you children of men.’ For a thousand years in your sight are just like yesterday when it is past, like a watch in the night. You sweep them away as they sleep. In the morning they sprout like new grass. In the morning it sprouts and springs up. By evening, it is withered and dry. For we are consumed in your anger. We are troubled in your wrath. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days have passed away in your wrath. We bring our years to an end as a sigh. The days of our years are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty years; yet their pride is but labor and sorrow, for it passes quickly, and we fly away. Who knows the power of your anger, your wrath according to the fear that is due to you? So teach us to count our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Relent, Yahweh! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work appear to your servants, your glory to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us. Establish the work of our hands for us. Yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:1-17, WEB
I have heard a commercial on the radio for the past few days. The announcer suggests that because Saturday is a special, rare day, then we should give something special and rare to those we love. Since February 29th only happens every four years, we should give diamonds to celebrate.
The concept of time is difficult to understand. We know that we can watch a clock and a calendar to see time pass, but do those clocks and calendars really help us understand the passing of time? I once read an article about a physicist who is trying to answer the question, “What is time.” In an interview, Sean Carroll answered the question of whether he can explain his theory in layman’s terms. “I’m trying to understand how time works. And that’s a huge question that has lots of different aspects to it. A lot of them go back to Einstein and space/time and how we measure time using clocks. But the particular aspect of time that I’m interested in is the arrow of time: the fact that the past is different from the future. We remember the past but we don’t remember the future. There are irreversible processes. There are things that happen, like you turn an egg into an omelet, but you can’t turn an omelet into an egg.” Is your head swimming as much as mine? And this is the “easy” statement, which went on for several other paragraphs.
We know time passes because we watch the hands on the clock and the pages on the calendars turn, yet those are man-made measures of something that doesn’t exist in a tangible way. We have determined that there are 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day, 7 days to a week and 52 weeks to a year. We’ve made those measurements based on the passing of the heavenly bodies: the sun, the moon, and the stars. Yet, when you read through the story of the creation of the universe, you discover that the heavenly bodies were not even created and set into place until the fourth day. Did time exist before the sun counted the days and the moon the nights? We somehow know that time would pass even if we did not count the days, and yet we human beings find it necessary to measure time.
Those man-made measurements are not perfect. Every day we lose a bit of time, so much so that every year we lose a quarter of a day. Instead of trying to make up that quarter of a day each year, we add a day once every four years. February 29 is the Leap Day. There is no February 29 three years out of four. The day simply does not exist. No matter what we try to do, the system is not perfect. The true year as defined by specific positions of the earth and the sun happens in exactly 365.2422 days. This means that we must occasionally skip the leap year to readjust the adjustment. I know. If your head wasn’t swimming before, it is now. So is mine.
I don’t understand, but I believe that God has created the perfect universe and it doesn’t matter if we can measure it perfectly. The important thing to remember is that time passes. The Leap Day is a gift, time we would not have had without the extra day on the calendar. Yet, our time is not extended by even a minute by means of a calendar or watch. God has designed the world around us to move perfectly according to His good and perfect will. We can’t make it fit into our own understanding of time and space. We can’t even work to make ourselves perfect, let alone the creation.
This is why we seek God. Only He can control the days, weeks, and months, and only He knows the course our life is ordained to go. He gives life and He takes it. He guides and directs our footsteps. He even gives us all we need to live in this world and the next. The day will come when we will not measure time because time will be beyond measure. Our God has mercy and grants us the forgiveness that makes us heirs to a Kingdom that will never be defined by time. In His grace we will spend eternity in His presence, yet another concept that we do not understand but by faith we believe.