Welcome to the January 2013 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, January 2013
“In that hour came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-4, ASV
A friend posted on Facebook a suggestion for all of us who are making New Year’s resolutions this morning. “DON'T MAKE NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS. At this time of year your body is in low gear for the winter and you have little willpower. You likely won't be able to keep your resolutions and you will feel like a failure. Instead, wait until Spring Equinox (March 20) to make your resolutions, when the natural cycle will increase your energy and willpower and help you achieve your goals.” Now, his purpose was to bring his scientist, druid and lazy friends into some sort of agreement, but there is definitely wisdom in the words.
We think about changing our lives in these days after Christmas because, well, we’ve all overindulged a bit during the past month or so. We know we need to eat better after eating so many sweets and treats since Thanksgiving (or perhaps even since Halloween!) We know we need to exercise, do better with our money, and take care of our relationships. None of us come out of the holidays unscathed and we think that we can immediately change ourselves in a way that will make all things right in the world.
But the wisdom in the above post is true. Because we are tired and weak in flesh and spirit, it is unlikely that we’ll keep those resolutions. We give ourselves much, too much, credit. We need time to heal and to strengthen. If we are to make any resolutions, it should be to return our lives to some sense of normalcy, and then we can pursue the life changes that will make our world a better place. We have to pay all our debts before we start putting extra money away. We have to get rid of the holiday cookies before we can begin a diet of leafy greens. See, we go into the holidays and lose all control, and then on January 1st we try not only to return to the status quo but to go twice as far! That’s like thinking we can run a mile in the wrong direction and yet go back two miles in the right direction in a smaller amount of time.
We think very highly of ourselves, even while we are suffering from the aftereffects of New Year’s Eve, and so we make commitments that we are rarely able to complete. Perhaps instead of making a grand stand this New Year’s Day, we should humble ourselves, first admitting that we are weak and tired and in need of forgiveness. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is not the one who can resolve to become better, but rather the one who will be like a little child, willing to receive the grace of the Father who can transform our lives. And then, as we live in His forgiveness and by His strength, we’ll be able to make the changes that will make things right in the world.
Sunday, January 6, 2013, Epiphany of Our Lord: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-11 (12-15); Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
“And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Isaiah 60:3, ASV
Who are the wise men? This is a question that has plagued theologians for nearly two thousand years. Matthew tells us that the magi came from the east, and yet the prophecies we identify with these wise men speak of visitors from Arabia. Traditions have arisen over the legends of these visitors to the baby Jesus. Our understanding of this particular aspect of the Christmas story is based on those traditions, not the biblical witness. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to tell us the story of the wise men. All he tells us that they came from the east in search of the king of the Jews born as indicated by the appearance of a new star in the sky. He also tells us that when they found the baby, they presented him with three rare and costly gifts while worshipping. That’s all we know. Everything else is based on interpretation of Matthew’s story and the prophets.
We do not know exactly where the wise men lived when they saw the star, but many experts suggest that they were from Iran, about eight hundred miles from Jerusalem. We do not know how many wise men traveled to see Jesus, but we base the number on the number of gifts given. It is likely that the three gifts were brought by a caravan of people, not only numerous wise men, but also family, servants and soldiers.
Some have suggested that the wise men were named Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior. Balthasar is said to be an Arabic scholar, Caspar an Indian scholar and Melchoir a Persian scholar. This is why the representations of the wise men in our Nativity scenes show different racial features. Some suggest that the wise men were not simply scholars, but kings. Other traditions give them different names. In Syria, the wise men were thought to be Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas, which are Persian names. Others identify the wise men as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater (Ethiopia,) or Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma (Armenia.) Chinese Christians believe that the wise men were from China.
Matthew’s purpose was to prove that Jesus was the one for whom they had waited. His style and organization seems to be in line with typically rabbinic education, suggesting that Matthew intended his work to be a catechetical document for teaching the faith to new believers, particularly Jewish ones. This is why we look to the Old Testament texts for answers to our questions about these wise men.
Isaiah and the psalmist give us some hints about the place from which the wise men came. Isaiah tells us that many camels from Midian and Ephah would come, and that all from Sheba would come. The psalmist says they are from Tarshish, Sheba and Seba. Where are these places and what do they mean? Though there is some question as to the actual location, most agree that they would have been in the general vicinity of southwestern Arabia, near Yemen or even Ethiopia. These would travel north from Arabia along the Red Sea and Jordan, the turn toward Jerusalem just east of the city to cross. Some suggest that the wise men were Persian. So, whether they were to the south or the east, they would have entered from the east, as Matthew says.
Wherever the wise men began their journey, they likely would have entered Jerusalem by the East, or Golden Gate. It was the only gate to face the east and it was the largest and most impressive gate into the city; an impressive caravan with wise men or kings would likely have entered by this gate. I’m not sure that it matters to this story, but the East Gate is the one through which the Messiah was expected to come. The gate leads to the Temple Mount and is just opposite the Mount of Olives. It is the gate through which Jesus entered on Palm Sunday for His triumphant parade into Jerusalem. The Muslims walled up the gate in 810 A.D. to halt the coming of the Messiah. The gate remains closed today, although we know that no walls will keep the Messiah from coming again.
While these facts may not be significant for the story of Epiphany, it perhaps gives some insight into Matthew’s description of the wise men coming from the “east.” Matthew may have wanted his readers to be looking east as they studied the story of Jesus, not literally; it may have been a literary device that would come full circle later in the book. Matthew writes in chapter 24, “For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the coming of the Son of man.” Is the east important because it tells us where the Magi live, or because it makes us look toward the second coming of Christ?
We generally understand that Epiphany is about the Light reaching out to the nations, which we can see in the promises of the prophets. However, I’m not sure the story of the wise men in Matthew necessarily contributes to that belief, since his purpose has to do with helping Jewish believers know the story of Jesus, especially since the prophecies point toward places that may have had some connection to historic Israel.
We are familiar with the story of Midian from the scriptures. Midian was a son of Abraham by his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25). Joseph was sold to the Midianites (Genesis 37). Moses lived in exile in Midian, and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest. The relationship is not always good, as God instructs Moses to destroy Midian. In the book of Judges, Israel is oppressed by Midian, and Gideon is sent destroy Midian. Ephah is the son of Midian.
Sheba is said to be in, or near, Ethiopia. Sheba was another son of Abraham by the concubine Keturah. History suggests that there was a thriving civilization in Ethiopia during the days of Solomon. According to tradition, the Queen of Sheba returned to the country after her visit to Jerusalem with a son she bore with Solomon, King Melenik. He founded the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. A small Jewish community still thrives there today. There are those who believe that Solomon also sent the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia with the Queen of Sheba, to keep it protected from the enemies of Israel. Ethipian Christians continue to claim they are the keepers of the lost ark. Ethiopia continues to have strong Jewish and Christian communities, as well as a strong Muslim community. The three religions live in peace, working together for the betterment of the nation and the people.
Sheba seems to have a much different relationship with Israel than Midian and Ephah, one of mutual respect. In the days of Solomon the nation of Israel was wealthy, powerful and independent. It was a place where the roads of the world crossed, where the best products from all over the world found a place in her marketplaces. The Queen of Sheba came and brought magnificent gifts of gold and incense, for which Sheba was world renowned. Isaiah seems to be promising a restoration to the Golden Age, and the people were searching for a Messiah that would restore them as a people to her God and to her place of prominence in the world.
Isaiah says, “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praises of Jehovah.” Another difference between Sheba and Midian is that Sheba was a nation that was settled. They built great cities and established trade with other nations. Midian was a nation of nomads, constantly on the move.
It is interesting that we use this as a text as a prediction of the wise men from Matthew’s Gospel, but perhaps he was thinking of this text, too, when he was telling the story. Sheba is not a surprise, since the people had long had a relationship with Israel, but what about the Midianites? Perhaps Isaiah was telling the people that the Messiah would come for Israel’s enemies, too. After all, the forgiveness of God is available for all.
The psalmist mentions Tarshesh along with Sheba, whose kings will come to honor and give tribute to the king of Israel. Of course, Tarshesh would have been among those to honor Solomon; there was a great deal of trade done between the two nations. The location of Tarshesh is even more in doubt, as some think that it is in Phoenicia, an ancient Semitic culture along the Mediterranean. Others specifically name it as Carthage, a city in Phoenicia. Yet others think it is Tartessian, a city in Spain that had open trade with Phoenicia. It is a city far away from the land of Israel, and apparently one that has a good relationship with Solomon, perhaps even religious ties to the Jewish people.
The psalm is a prayer given at the coronation of a king. It was used first by or for Solomon the son of David, and then for the kings that followed. It is the ideal reign of a king and prays for a nation of peace and righteousness. It calls the king to a right relationship with His people, taking care of their needs and leading them in the right path. It is a prayer for a long reign, for a kingdom that spreads far and showers blessings on the entire world. It is no doubt a prayer that reflects the hopes for the coming Messiah, and that’s why we identify it as foretelling the gifts of the wise men to Jesus.
King Solomon was a great king. He accomplished amazing things for the nation and for God such as the building of the Temple. His rule brought about a golden age during which Israel shined the world over. Kings and Queens visited Solomon, offering great gifts to pay homage to the power and authority he had in the world. Solomon ruled with justice, wisdom and a heart for God. But he was imperfect. He failed to be faithful; he even built temples to the gods of his wives.
The prayer continued for the sons of David as they were raised to the throne of Israel. Some of the kings were more righteous than others. Some of the kings were just and merciful. The kingdom thrived and the kingdom fell under the leadership of the sons of David. But the people believed God and trusted that He would provide the king who could fulfill this prayer. They waited for the Messiah. They longed for the king that would restore Israel.
Now, while Matthew may have written with the intention of uplifting and training Jewish Christians, there is no doubt that the Christ child came to save the whole world. Isaiah wrote about the light that will shine out of Israel, the glory of the LORD which will rise out of His people. The light will draw all nations to Jerusalem, strangers and foreigners will come to worship the God of Israel. Though the visitors may not have been as detached from the faith as we have suspected, the light no doubt did not come for Israel alone.
The light first appeared as a star in the sky leading magi from foreign lands to a humble stable in Bethlehem. There, the magi found the true light, the true King, the Messiah that had been promised. While Israel may have looked forward to the day when they would be restored, Epiphany shines the light on the real mystery of faith: that the mercy of God is available to us all.
The divine mystery, though once secreted from the world is now made visible in the life and grace of Jesus Christ. It is still a mystery; it is a thing that cannot be fully understand by human power or knowledge. It is given as a gift, but it has been given to the whole world. Paul tells us in the text from Ephesians that it is not hidden any longer. The light shines for all to see. We might enjoy calling ourselves part of a chosen people, but we haven’t been chosen to be separated from the world. We have been chosen to take the light of Christ to others, to shine the grace of God that all might see Him and receive the faith He has to give. We have been chosen to share Christ that all might believe.
Israel never expected that the Gentiles would understand God’s hand in the world, and yet it was God who made the light shine into all the world. Paul realized quickly during his ministry that he’d take the Good News to those outside Israel. He was the least of all the apostles because he was made an apostle apart from the twelve. But from the very beginning Paul knew His mission: to take the Good News to the Gentiles. It wasn’t clear to earlier generations that God’s salvation would reach beyond His people. Even the promises keep the Messiah close, foretelling the coming of the other sons of Abraham. But though we are not children through Abraham, we are adopted by God’s grace. Paul’s message was given to all nations, to the kings and authorities drawn to the light.
Epiphany is defined as “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” The story of Epiphany talks of wise men, or kings, or magi following a star toward the fulfillment of a promise. They saw the star rise in the east and they followed it. The journey ended in Bethlehem where they saw the true Light. Isaiah writes, “And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Jesus Christ was the rising light and His birth was the dawn of a new age.
Our lessons focus on what God does for the poor and oppressed through much of the church year. Many of our lessons talk of how God will tear down the thrones and topple the wealthy. But in today’s lessons, we see that there is also a place for the rich and the powerful in His kingdom. The light draws all people, young and old, rich and poor, those who lead and those who follow. Rulers are called to the light, and encouraged to live faithfully for the sake of God’s people. God can do His work in their lives and through their vocations, too. It is our prayer that all our rulers will live in the light. The ruler who knows God does what is right. When the king rules with righteousness, the people prosper under his care.
We may never have another ruler like Solomon, or see a Golden Age for any nation, but the promise has already been fulfilled. The Messiah has come; there is no turning Him away. He was born in a stable in Bethlehem and honored by strangers near and far. He has already crossed through the Golden Gate and finished the work He was sent to do.
On the day of Epiphany, we recognize that God revealed the divine nature of Christ to the world. We see this most clearly in the gifts they presented to the child, and this is where Matthew really points to Jesus as the Messiah. The gold was a symbol of royalty and wealth, it pointed to Jesus the King. The frankincense was used in worship and was a sign of Jesus’ ministry as priest. Myrrh was an expensive ointment that was used only for the anointing of the dead. This gift is the most shocking because it points to the reality of Jesus’ purpose for coming. He came to die.
And He lives so that we might live. Life comes through forgiveness, and forgiveness is offered to all men through Christ. It is given to those who hear God’s word and believe. Our present rulers might fail us, as the kings of Israel often failed God’s people, but we have a King that will always be faithful. His light still shines in this world even though it seems like it is dark as night. But there is something wonderful about the night: that is when we can see the stars. The wise men found the baby by following a star, but now we are the stars that draw men to Christ.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Psalm 34:8-14, ASV
I am sure that many teenagers received some sort of cell phones for Christmas this year, but the story of Greg Hoffman is unusual. Along with his gift, Greg received a contract with eighteen rules written by his mother. She knows that he is a good and responsible young man, which is why she thought he deserved the phone, but she was determined that it would not take over his life. Unfortunately, that’s what happens with these gadgets: the owners become owned by the phone. His mother wanted to train him in proper use of the phone. The rules included times when the phone had to be turned off, like in the evening, at the movies or out to dinner. He is not to use the phone to lie or hurt or send improper pictures.
She wants him to put the phone away sometimes, leave it home once in awhile. The phone is never to go to school with him, “Have a conversation with the people you text in person. It’s a life skill.” She wants him to do things without the phone, like read a book or play a game. She wants him to live his life, “Don't take a zillion pictures and videos. There is no need to document everything. Live your experiences. They will be stored in your memory for eternity.” The rules may seem restrictive to a boy whose friends have no rules, but the contract is filled with good advice for all of us.
We have become so attached to our technology that we have lost touch with one another. I used to work in retail, and I recall how difficult it was to balance the need to pay attention to the customer in front of me while answering the phone, which was also part of my job. As a customer, I understand how frustrating it is to be put aside by a clerk who has to give time to a customer who thinks their time is too valuable to go to the store in person. Now we do this very thing to one another by paying more attention to our technology than to the person who is in our presence.
Some people think the woman went too far, especially her son. But hopefully one day he will realize the valuable lesson she’s teaching him. She has threatened to take the phone away if he breaks any of the rules, but she has also agreed to talk about the infraction together. “You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You & I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together.”
Greg might think that contract indicates a lack of trust and is a sort of punishment before he even gets to use the phone, but it is really a way to discipline him into good habits with the technology. Discipline and punishment are two very different things. Discipline means training. The psalmist talks about teaching the children about fear, and this might seem harsh. The fear of the Lord is not about being afraid, but of being wise and living according to God’s words. The fear of the Lord is good habit; it is the beginning of wisdom, the kind of wisdom that recognizes the value of the covenant of God that helps us to do what is good and right.
“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Jehovah. Lord, hear my voice: Let thine ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. If thou, Jehovah, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, That thou mayest be feared. I wait for Jehovah, my soul doth wait, And in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord More than watchmen wait for the morning; Yea, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in Jehovah; For with Jehovah there is lovingkindness, And with him is plenteous redemption. And he will redeem Israel From all his iniquities.” Psalm 130, ASV
I once heard a story about a man who was paroled from prison, but quickly returned to his old ways. He broke into a house to rob the owners of its contents. As he searched the home for valuables, he found a bottle of Crown Royal and decided to take a few sips. The owners later came in to find this man passed out drunk on a chair. He was arrested and returned to prison.
It is amazing how easy it is for us to slip into more and more sin. Many of those who are in prison began their criminal careers early, using illegal means to support some habit like drug or alcohol abuse. They need cash, so take to robbing people and businesses to fund their addiction. This even leads to violent behavior when a criminal finds it necessary to use force to get what he wants. The paroled man was probably just looking for enough cash to buy a case of beer or a bottle of cheap booze to feed his addictions. When he found the Crown Royal, he no longer needed any cash.
Most of us aren’t robbing our neighbors but we all sin. We do not treat others with love or respect. We get angry with our children and our spouses, gossip about others, and take things that are not ours. We fall to temptation every day. We sin against God and our neighbor in our thoughts, words and deeds by what we do and what we fail to do. However, Christians have something that others do not have; we are forgiven. We know that even when we fail, we can turn to God for forgiveness and He will help us through our troubles.
The man on parole was looking for a solution to his troubles in all the wrong places. First he thought stealing would help him get a new start on life. Then he thought drinking would help him. The correctional facility released him on parole with the expectation that he would stop leading a life of crime; he was returned to the world and given a new chance on life. When he failed, his past failures were recalled and he was punished more severely for his crime. Instead of a new, better life, he was caught doing wrong and sent back to prison to suffer even greater consequences.
We probably deserve to experience even greater consequences for our own sin, but God is different than the penal system. When we fail and turn to God for forgiveness, He not only grants that forgiveness, but He also forgets our sin. We don’t have a record or else we would become buried in the prison our sinful nature deserves. We are covered by the unfailing love of God and reconciled to Him by the blood of Jesus. Though we still fail daily, we put our hope in the Lord and rest in His forgiveness. He never fails.
“And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against Jehovah. And Nathan said unto David, Jehovah also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of Jehovah to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die. And Nathan departed unto his house. And Jehovah struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick. David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. And the elders of his house arose, and stood beside him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he hearkened not unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead! But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David perceived that the child was dead; and David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead. Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel; and he came into the house of Jehovah, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat. Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread. And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who knoweth whether Jehovah will not be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” 2 Samuel 12:13-23, ASV
David’s servants thought he was crazy; he mourned for the child that was born of Bathsheba while it was alive, but when it was dead, he cleaned himself and went on with his life. This seems somewhat callous to us. How could he be so upset while the child was alive, but then act as if nothing happened after he was dead?
David realized he had done something terribly wrong when Nathan pointed it out to him. Despite David’s sin, God was gracious to him; he would live. However, God insisted that there must be a consequence for David’s sin; the child born of David’s sin would die. This is among the hardest texts for us to understand, because we have difficulty believing that God would cause the death of a child to pay for the sin of the father. It does not seem fair or right. I don’t know how to deal with the contradiction between a loving God and this God who would cause an innocent to die, and it seems few others because my study bibles do not give any explanations for that verse.
However, there is something important to be found in this story, and it is the example of David to repent and then let it go. David knew that it was his own sin that took away the child’s life, and he spent the seven days in fasting and prayer. He hoped that God would relent and let the child live. When God did not change His mind, and the child died, David knew that there was nothing left to do. He let go. He accepted God’s answer to the prayers and he moved on with his life. He did not wallow in self-pity or hold on to his sin. He moved forward.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to hold on to my failures, often allowing my own remorse to keep me awake at night. If I’ve said or done something that I know is against God’s will, I worry and wonder how it might have been different and how I’ve affected others. Even after I have dealt with the situation, either by making it right or by asking for forgiveness, I still remember.
Now, it is good to be aware of our sinfulness so that we will not commit the same sin a second time, but it is not good to continue to mourn when we have dealt with our failure. David had work to do. He was God’s chosen, and there were battles ahead to establish his throne for eternity. His son Solomon would bring a golden age to Israel, and through his continuation of David’s line would bring forth the Messiah. He could not waste time or energy mourning the child. His mourning would do nothing to make it right for the child, so he moved forward with his life to make things right for all God’s people.
We are already a week into a new year, and I’m sure that too many of us are thinking about our failures from the last. What should we do today? Should we continue to mourn over our sins, or should we move on? Should we wallow in the past or look forward to the work God has for us to do now? Our sin might have extraordinary consequences that do not make sense to our understanding of God, but we can not change anything by weeping forever. So, today, let us let go of our past sins and move forward in the grace of God. He has a purpose for your life, and He will bless your repentant heart and help you to do the work He is calling you do.
“But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach: because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved: for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him: for, Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Romans 10:8-13, ASV
The local museum has a fascinating exhibit called “Mummies.” The focus of this exhibit is not about Egyptian mummies and their sarcophagi, but more about the study of mummies and what we’ve learned from them. They have mummies from all over the world, including animal mummies and naturally occurring mummies. Not all mummies are carefully wrapped in linen and placed in tombs. One mummy in the exhibit was a woman found in a bog in the Netherlands. Another was a rat found in an attic. Yet another was a howler monkey from Argentina.
It was a fascinating exhibit. They use modern technology to see deep inside the mummies, to test for age and for other information about the people from that time. The mummies were not all ancient: a few were less than a couple hundred years old. The mummies from different parts of the world were dealt with differently. In Egypt, the type of mummies we all have learned about sometime, the bodies were laid flat, wrapped with linens after the organs were removed and the flesh treated with spices and chemicals. In South America, the mummies were folded into a sitting position and if spices and chemicals were used, they were different than the ones in Egypt. The mummy that was found in the bog in the Netherlands did not seem prepared at all; it even had its intestines, which still contained the food from the woman’s last meal.
Many of the mummies, no matter where they were from, were found with items from the person’s life. One mummy was found with coca snuff boxes and every day tools. Children were left with toys. The mummies from South America were often found with beautiful fabrics and a few of the newer mummies were found fully clothed.
The belief, of course, for those who mummified the bodies, was that they needed to be prepared properly for their life in the great beyond. The Egyptians were especially focused on the important details to guarantee the body would be right to meet the gods. Each Egyptian was required to carry with them into a death a book called “The Book of the Dead.” These books were carefully prepared and included everything that the people would need to know for their journey to heaven, including spells and words to be said to the gods along the way. Though these books were very expensive and took a long time to create, so the people began saving for then long before death threatened. If they failed any of the tests, they would not make it to eternal life.
In Egypt, the heart was believed to be the center of the person, the place from which all thought and emotion came. As a matter of fact, the brain was thought to have no greater purpose than to push snot out of the nose. While other organs were carefully removed and stored, the brain was either ripped out through the nose or left intact. The heart was left inside the body, since it was so vital. When the body was wrapped, a heart scarab was placed within the linens over the heart to protect it during the journey.
The final test was in the hall of Ma’at, the goddess of truth. Egyptian faith included a strong sense of morality and justice, as well as balance, so the final test was meant to discover if the person led a balanced life. If they were good in their life and did good for others, their heart would be light. So, in the final hall, the person faced Osiris, the god of the dead, who judged the person by weighing the heart against the feather of Ma’at. Though the Egyptians did not expect the person to be perfect, they did insist on balance, so the test was to see if the heart balanced with the feather. If the heart was heavier than the feather, the person was devoured by Ammit, the devourer. The heart scarab was believed to be used during the test.
Now, we might say, “How silly,” when ready about the ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and practices, but in many ways they aren’t much different than we still think today. How many times do we say, “She (or he) is certainly going to heaven because she was such a good person”? We weigh the heart by the good deeds done during a lifetime. Christians also understand that the person will not be perfect, but we recognize the goodness of a person by the impact they had on the world.
However, we understand that we could not pass a test like that of those Egyptian dead. Our hearts always weigh more than a feather. Our reception into eternal life is not based on anything about our own bodies or souls, but is dependent entirely on the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 13, 2013, Baptism of Jesus: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Luke 3:15-22
“We were buried therefore with him through baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:4, ASV
At the beginning of a Lutheran funeral service, the minister says, “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Baptism makes us one with Christ.
Luther in his small catechism answers the question, “What gifts or benefits does Baptism give?” with “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”
Now, there are those who say that Jesus is baptized as an example for us, after all, he had no need for the above stated benefits of baptism. Jesus did not need forgiveness for sins, because He was perfect and sinless. Jesus didn’t need to be rescued from death and the devil, neither had power over him. He did not eternal salvation because he is eternal. So, why did Jesus need to be baptized?
His baptism was a beginning. It was the beginning of His ministry. From this moment, He was walking toward the cross. Did anything change the moment Jesus went under the water? Was anything new when the heavens were opened before Him and the voice of God called Him Son? No. Though we do not hear much about Jesus’ life before His baptism, we do know that even at twelve He knew that God was His Father.
In Matthew, John did not want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he should be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus said, “Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” Jesus was about thirty years old when he was baptized by John. This was the age when men entered into the priesthood, and washing was part of the ritual. It was one of the legal requirements for entering into the priesthood. The other was anointing with oil. The oil of anointing is associated with the Holy Spirit, and so when the dove descended upon Jesus, everything was fulfilled for Jesus to have the authority of a priest. This authority was required at the cross, when Jesus the priest offered himself as the perfect lamb as a final sacrifice for our sin.
The answer to the question of why Jesus needed to be baptized is not simple to answer, but I appreciate a perspective that I read during my research. The writer suggested that Jesus was baptized to consecrate the sacrament. In other words, Jesus was baptized so that our baptism would be a holy action. While our baptism leaves behind the filth of our sin, He took upon the filth of all sin for all men over all time at his. He left the water clean, not literally, but sacramentally, so that we will be made clean.
Whatever the reason, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan. When he came out of the water, a voice came out of heaven and said, “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.” I wonder what this sounded like to those who were watching. Did they hear the words of God or did they hear something like thunder? The voice of the Lord is powerful, as we hear in the passage from the Psalm. His voice echoes above the sea and it thunders. It can break the cedars and make mountains skip. It is like lightning and makes the desert quake. The voice of the Lord twists the might oaks and strips the forests bare. But the voice that Jesus heard was fatherly, kind, proud. It is full of love and grace.
Just as God sits enthroned over the waters of the earth, including the flood, so too He sits enthroned over the waters that make us clean at baptism. He is our king, and when we are baptized, the voice of God speaks tenderly over us, calling us His own.
God is certainly powerful and mighty, but He is also tender and gracious. His words bring both wrath and hope, as we can see in the text from Isaiah. Isaiah spoke of hope in times of trouble, hope for a return to the homeland and restoration for the people of Israel. Yet, in the same text, Isaiah speaks about the destruction of others. He gives the people of Egypt, Cush and Seba as a ransom for the people of Israel. Historically, this may refer to the fact that Persia conquered those places. Perhaps God gave these victories to Persia because they treated Israel in exile with such kindness and then released them as God had promised.
As a matter of fact, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they took the best and the most intelligent Israelites to Babylonia. These captives were given positions of authority and they were able to gain wealth. Life in exile was not so horrible.
Eventually the generation who were taken from Jerusalem died, leaving behind a people who had never known life in the Holy Land. They had certainly heard stories, but those stories would include knowledge that the beloved homeland was little more than a heap of rubble. They had a good life in Babylon. They were educated and gifted. They were respected. They had adapted to their new life. Perhaps the promise did not have such a lure for them. Would they really want to leave the good life they had created to return to a desolate and barren place?
Now, let’s think about this as it relates to our life of faith. We have to admit, being a Christian isn’t always the most exciting thing in the world, is it? At times it is even frightening; ask any of the martyrs from the past two thousand years, or the saints in third world countries that suffer because of their faith on a daily basis. Our neighbors can party all night and sleep in on a Sunday morning. Though most people don’t go around doing bad things just for the sake of doing bad things, they live according to societal rules and not an impossible set of spiritual or religious expectations. They can, for example, never murder their enemy, but they can justify hate while Christians are expected to love their enemies and even forgive them. It is not easy being a Christian, so why would we want to leave the good life for this new life?
We do so because of the promises of God. While life in this world as a Christian might have its struggles, the benefits of our baptism cannot be experienced in any other way. We might experience forgiveness from people we have wronged, but we’ll never know the kind of forgiveness that we receive from God. We will all die, but in Christ we will live forever. We might think that we don’t need to be saved, but we do, and we are only saved by the Word and the promise of God.
Salvation is one of the focuses of Luke, who as a doctor and scientist recognizes the miraculous nature of God’s grace. For Luke, the story of Jesus’ baptism is one that shows that God’s work is far more powerful than anything done by man. John tells the crowds that he is not the Messiah, and then tells them that the Messiah will come and baptize with more than water. “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The promise found in baptism after Jesus is more than that which John gave. He was preparing people for the coming of the Messiah, but baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit welcomes us into eternity.
As baptized children, we are forgiven. We know we are forgiven, even when we fail. We are saints, but we are also still sinners. We will continue to sin, despite our best efforts. There are those who claim that because you have been baptized that even your wrongdoing is no longer sin. They justify any bad behavior by the promise of God. “It doesn’t matter any longer, because I am forgiven.” And yet, is this the life God calls us to live? Yes, when we do wrong we are forgiven because God has promised and is faithful, even when we aren’t. God’s grace is sufficient to cover all our sins.
There are even those, like some of the people in Paul’s day, who thought that sinfulness would bring out God’s grace in even greater abundance. In Romans 5, Paul writes, “And the law came in besides, that the trespass might abound; but where sin abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly: that, as sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” They use this truth to justify their own sinful behavior.
But Paul says, “NO!” We cannot keep sinning and justify it as a way of revealing God’s grace to the world. We are made one with Christ and one another in and through our baptism, and as such we are called to a new and different life. This new life is not boring, or frightening, or easy. We will face struggles and experience persecution. We’ll suffer the consequences of our sin and we’ll eventually die. But we’ll do so under the grace of God and with the promise of eternal peace. The power of sin and death is broken by God’s power; our old self is dead and we are free to be everything God is calling us to be.
We read the words from Romans at our funerals because it is then that we see the fulfillment of God’s promises to us at our baptisms. We are made one with Christ, and we know that because we died with Him, we will also live with Him forever. The water at our baptism may have been nothing but water out of the tap in the sacristy, but when Jesus went into the Jordan River so many years ago, He changed the water forever. Now when His words are spoken over the water, it cleans us in a way that water never will. It makes us holy. It makes us God’s beloved child now and forever.
“But abide thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them. And that from a babe thou hast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:14-17, ASV
In several recent devotions, I’ve talked about how a specific book was written for a specific purpose to a specific group of people. Many study bibles begin each book with information like this for the use by the readers. Matthew was written to prove Jesus is the Messiah to the Jews. Paul’s letters were written to specific communities to help solve the problems that the growing churches faced. Revelation was written as encouragement to a persecuted people. Knowing this information helps us understand the message that was being sent to the people.
Take, for instance, someone writing to a community of believers today. If I were writing to people who lived in New York City about the awesomeness of God, I might tell a story about the skyscrapers of Manhattan, comparing Him to the heights that reach beyond our sight. If I were writing the same devotion to the people of Montana, I would probably talk about the plains that reach beyond the horizon. Both examples share the same awesomeness, but the people of Montana would not be able to identify with the reality of skyscrapers and the people of New York can’t imagine the horizon being so far away. If the New York letter were sent to Montana or vice versa, they would have to see it through the eyes of the other to really understand.
Even though the Gospels and letters were written with a particular audience in mind, the message is helpful to us, too. Sometimes it is hard to understand because the language is different than we might use, but we can study the books through their eyes and learn valuable lessons that can be applied to our own situations. Jesus’ farm stories don’t make much sense to those who live in a city, but we can see through those stories that God’s word begins as a seed and grows by God’s grace and the watering and nurturing of the people He calls to help. Though at times the text seems irrelevant to us, we can read and study it to find the truth that is within given for us, to use to help one another live our faith more fully and completely in this world.
“But having the same spirit of faith, according to that which is written, I believed, and therefore did I speak; we also believe, and therefore also we speak; knowing that he that raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also with Jesus, and shall present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the grace, being multiplied through the many, may cause the thanksgiving to abound unto the glory of God.” 2 Corinthians 4:13-15, ASV
We went to get shots for the kitties the other day at one of those cheap vaccination events at the local grocery store. It is a really great way to get affordable vaccinations for the cats, which can be overwhelming financially. They do a great job with the animals and it is relatively painless for the cats. Of course, a majority of the animals are dogs, but they deal with the cats at the car, so there’s no danger.
The line was very long when we got to the event, so Bruce stayed at the car with the cats while I waited. The dogs were excited to be there and to meet so many new dogs. I stood between owners who had multiple very large dogs, all of which wanted to get to know one another. They jumped, pulled their owners, and sniffed one another as dogs do. Some of the dogs found sticks from the woods nearby. Others investigated the people in line. I don’t mind dogs, but I’m not terribly fond of them, especially when they start jumping on me or sniffing me in inappropriate places.
Still, it wasn’t a bad experience. I enjoyed watching all the different types of dogs. I know that there are different types of cats, but I have no idea what breed mine are, and I don’t think that the staff really worries about it when giving their shots. Most of them are simply shorthair or tabbies. Dog owners are more likely to know their breed, particularly when they are pure bred. While the cat breeds have some unique characteristics, cats rarely differ in significant ways. They are all about the same size; they all have a similar shape. A cat is a cat.
Dogs, on the other hand, are incredibly diverse. I saw one dog that was so small it would have made a light snack for some of the other dogs. I don’t know if it was a baby, but it couldn’t have been larger than a grapefruit. The tiny dog was wearing a tiny sweater and its owner held it most of the time. The Labradors on either side of me in the line were so large that on their hind legs they would have towered over me. They are strong dogs, which I learned firsthand when I offered to hold the leash of one while the owner was filling in her paperwork. It was hardest when the other dogs wanted to get close, especially when she didn’t want them near.
I think my favorite dog of the day was the English sheepdog. The dog was huge, but had the bounce of a puppy. He must have been to the groomer that morning because his fluffy fur was especially clean and fluffy. He was white and light gray and looked a little like a panda bear. I would have liked to snuggle up with him and bury my head in his fluff.
I will always love my kitties, and I know that each one is unique even if they have similar characteristics. They have their own personalities and their own colors. Delilah pounces when she runs. Tigger walks with a regal dignity. Sammy flops to the floor and shows his belly for rubbing when we want to play. They each like certain toys and follow individual patterns, but a cat is a cat. I enjoyed watching the dogs at the vaccination event, seeing how really different they are. And yet, a dog is a dog, too. They may look very different, but in so many ways they are the same.
The same is true of Christians. We don’t look alike, and we certainly have our own unique personalities. But in Christ we are the same. We have died with Him and we will be raised with Him. We are saved by the grace of God, and in that way we are all the same. A Christian is a Christian, at least in God’s eyes.
“O Jehovah, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising; Thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, And art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, But, lo, O Jehovah, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, And laid thy hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain unto it.” Psalm 139:1-6, ASV
I drove to Lubbock to take Zack back to college yesterday. It is a long drive, about four hundred miles, and usually takes us seven hours which includes a few rest stops. We drive the same route most of the time, and we’ve done it enough that the road is very familiar to us. We know when we need to get into a specific lane to turn, where to buy gas and how long it takes to get from one stop to another.
Now, west Texas does not offer the most exciting scenery. Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful, in a rugged and wild sort of way. But you drive for miles and miles and miles looking at a landscape that is exactly the same as the miles before and after. You might see an oil well or windmill here and there. Some hardy souls have built homes in the middle of the countryside, and there is occasionally some building that looks like a business or industrial site. There are fields full of sagebrush, forests of oak and mesquite, and farms covered in cotton. I have seen tumbleweeds and dust devils, and roads that are so straight and long that I don’t think I am ever going to get anywhere. I’ll make the return trip today.
The route is so familiar that we know when there is something new or different, but not so familiar that we’ve stopped seeing the landscape. I noticed a brand new sign along the road identifying the company that owns the land and who drills the wells. It is a large and impressive sign, and impossible to miss. Along with the big changes, I also noticed a few things that might not be so obvious. There are hundreds of windmills that line the ridges just south of Lubbock. Every windmill looks exactly the same, and yet I could see that they have added more in the time since I last took the trip. The number of windmills has at least doubled since we started making this drive two years ago. Over past two years I have noticed a few businesses that have closed or changed. There was a brand new drug store that was under construction last month, but was nothing more than an empty lot in August.
I often wonder how the locals see this world that I travel occasionally. I realized one day that people on the highways around town see it very different. The tourist who is in San Antonio for the first time is confused by the octopus exchanges where several major highways meet. They are busy trying to find their way. Locals are so familiar that they practically get from one place to another with little thought. Do the locals even notice the changes? They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but I think in many cases familiarity breeds apathy. When we know something so well, we simply stop paying attention.
Thankfully, God does not stop paying attention. He knows us better than we know ourselves, but He does not stop loving us or seeing everything about our life. There might be times when we wish that God would travel by us without seeing the changes that have occurred, but we can rest in the knowledge that even when God sees something that makes Him sad, He is faithful to His promises of forgiveness and mercy.
“Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; yea, God hath made the one side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out anything that shall be after him.” Ecclesiastes 7:13-14, ASV
There are more than 300,000 miles of roadway in Texas. There are probably more than a dozen main routes I could take to and from Lubbock. Of course, there are certain routes that make more sense based on time and mileage. Most choices only add a few miles onto the trip, although a few add much more time because of the types of road. You can get so much further when driving 80 mph on an Interstate highway than you can when driving the back roads through the small towns. However, sometimes it is nice to take the back roads, to see those small towns and to stop to shop or eat.
Despite the length of my trip from Lubbock, I decided to take a detour. I was curious about a region that is just to the west of where we live that I’ve heard so much about. I mapped my route and figured it would add about an hour onto my trip, and though it is a lot to add to an already long day, I thought it would help me decide if I would want to go back to visit later. I never took into account the possibility that the road would not be as fast as the highway I usually use.
My plan was to go south and then turn east through parts of the Texas Hill country. The area includes many rivers and caves, and is very hilly compared to the flat topography of so much of Texas. Most of the wine growers are found in the hill country and it is a favorite spot for recreational resorts and camps. I was amazed at the number of ranches that offered safaris or exotic game hunting and how many church camps I saw along the way.
Things were going really well on the first part of this detour, as the road was country but still relatively straight. The speed limit remained high and the driving was good. At first I couldn’t understand why the route was deemed a scenic route because there was nothing different than I saw during the previous hour, but then I hit the scenic area and I was amazed. The Frio River has carved through the hills creating canyons that have steep cliffs and rock walls. I stopped at a scenic overlook for a few minutes to take some pictures. The path from the parking lot led down the hill and ended at a six foot chain link fence, which was there for the safety of the visitors. The fence was solid, but it was right on the edge of the cliff. I knew I was safe, but I couldn’t help but feel dizzy at the height. I had to hold my camera over the fence to take pictures, and I was afraid that I’d drop it. If I did, it would be gone, splashing into the river that was at least a hundred feet below.
I should have realized at that moment that the rest of my trip would not be so smooth. The view I was seeing was the place I would have to drive, and there was no straight road through those hills and over the rivers. The drive became much slower as I turned east; the roads were small, winding their way up and down and around the hillsides. There were signs along the way warning me of falling rocks and reduced speeds. Ten miles seemed to take forever.
It was so different than the miles I traveled in the northwest part of the state where I traveled better than a mile a minute. It took me as long to go the last sixty miles as it did to go the first hundred and fifty. I wouldn’t have minded quite so much if I hadn’t already been on the road for hours at that point, but once I got on the road there was no turning back: I had to take the hard road. I was glad I did; I’m sure I’ll go back, particularly during wildflower season when I’m sure it will be absolutely beautiful.
When I was looking for a scripture to use with today’s message, I found that most of the text spoke of God making the road straight and level, or about keeping to a straight and level road. This is a good thing, reminding us to follow God’s ways because He will help us to get to where He wants us to go. However, we are reminded that there are times when God gives us a challenging journey, to teach us a lesson or build in us the virtues we will need to face whatever is coming our way. We can’t make the way any easier if it is what God has planned, and it would do us well to experience the journey with joy and peace, knowing that God is with us through it all.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 20, 2013, Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 128; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
“For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee; and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.” Isaiah 62:5, ASV
There are a number of shows on the television that focus on that special day when a man marries a woman, the wedding day. These shows often spotlight the party that comes after the ceremony, and put most of the attention on the bride. Some of the shows make the brides seem selfish and self-centered. I get frustrated by those women who think it is ‘all about me’ or who make their wedding day a coronation of sorts. They’ve lost the true purpose of the day, which is to bring together two people, two families, into one.
These brides, or bridezillas as some appear, insist everything is perfect, and perfect means exactly as they want it to be. They have an image in their mind, and even though the image they have is sometimes impossible or ridiculously expensive, they are going to make it happen no matter what. Sometimes their wishes are terribly uncomfortable for others; they don’t take into account the needs of others as they plan. In some cases, they even say it doesn’t matter. “It is my day, who cares what they need.” There are others who try to please everyone and in the process make it a nightmare for the staff and for the guests.
I worked as a mobile disc jockey for a number of years, and I went to many weddings. Most of them were delightful events, from what I could see. Of course, I was involved in a very small part of the day, so if there were issues with food or venue or with the wedding, I never knew. But I often knew when it was a difficult day because the problems would flow into the party time. I remember one particular occasion when the bride and the mother of the bride were at odds about everything, including the music. The bride gave me a list of songs she wanted played, and I did my best to have those songs available. I was playing some of them when the mother of the bride came to complain. “You need to play music for the older folk.” I promised that I would present a balanced selection to give everyone a chance to dance and enjoy themselves.
I finished a brief set of the bride’s music and then began playing a few songs that would make the older folk happy, when the bride came to complain. “I gave you a list of music to play. Stick to it.” I explained that her mother wanted to hear something for the older folk. “This is my party,” she said. The minute I turned back to the bride’s music, the mother complained again. The party was no fun for anyone because the two women refused to let go and let me do my job. The guests were uncomfortable because they were at odds, apparently over more than just the music. The worst part is that they made themselves miserable. If they had just enjoyed themselves rather than worried about every detail, the party would have been a success.
We don’t really know much about weddings in the days of Jesus. We do know that they were large affairs that lasted for days. Hospitality was extremely important, and if they failed to live up to the expectations of the guests, they would be dishonored. Empty wine casks would have been disastrous.
We don’t know what relationship Mary had to the hosts, but she was close enough to know there was a problem. She wanted to help, and she knew that her son Jesus could help. She knew that God was an intimate and abiding part of His life and she had no doubt that Jesus could do something. She had seen the hand of God at work in Jesus life: angels announced His coming and warned His parents of danger. She saw the miraculous signs that accompanied Him. He was knowledgeable and wise about the things of God. She remembered all these things and treasured them in her heart. She knew that He was kind and generous and that He would not allow the family to be shamed.
She didn’t push Him, she simply said, “Do whatever He tells you.” He didn’t need to do anything. He didn’t need to answer the call. This was not His problem and He could have simply ignored the request. However, He told the servants to fill the jars. This could have been enough. People could have had water to drink. It was important for the host to provide the people with something to quench their thirst as they continued to celebrate. But Jesus knew that the problem was not about quenching the thirst of the guests, it was about protecting the honor of the hosts. Water was not enough.
Once the jars were filled, Jesus told them to take some to the steward. The steward was very surprised to find that the host had kept the good wine for last. The party had already lasted some time and the guests were already drunk, they would not have known the difference. The gift was Jesus exceedingly generous; it may have been excessive. At least we would think so. In our day, good guests know when it is time to leave. Imagine how hard it would be to get them to go if an excellent wine is flowing so freely! Yet, in their day hospitality was very important; the host was expected to be generous.
God is exceedingly generous, even when the difficulties we face are our own fault. Take, for instance, the exiles who were returning to Jerusalem in today’s Old Testament lesson. Perhaps they didn’t make Jerusalem a ruin, but it was their rejection of God that allowed the foreign armies to destroy it and take them into exile. They saw the consequences of their own disobedience to God. Yet, God would not allow Jerusalem to be desolate. He would not rest until the city was restored and the people prosperous again. He would give His people and their city a new name.
Hephzibah means, “My delight is in her.” Beulah means “Married.” The relationship between God and His people was meant to be deep and intimate, like a marriage. God delights in His people and He is faithful, even when we are not. Isaiah encourages the people and tells them that Jerusalem will be vindicated and restored. She will be like a crown of beauty or a royal jewel in the hand of the King. God will rejoice over her. The restoration that God has promised will be like a bridegroom marrying a bride. The relationship between God and His people is not that of a far off famous powerful person, but like a family: intimate, close, real.
It is not so surprising, then, that a wedding was the place where Jesus performed His first sign. Here, at a wedding, Jesus reveals the exceedingly generous nature of the relationship between God and His people: the good wine is overflowing and the people are rejoicing.
The miracle that Jesus performed at Cana was very personal. As a matter of fact, the only ones who knew what happened were Jesus, Mary, the servants who filled the jars with water and the disciples. Even the steward was left out; he was surprised when the good wine was held until the guests were already drunk. The bride and groom and their families may have never even known how the problem was solved. God does not do miraculous things for fame or glory. He does what He does out of love for His people.
That’s the kind of life He calls us to live. We don’t have to make a grand gesture or do something that will bring fame or power. He calls us to do what He means for each of us to do and He gifts us with everything we need to do it. Jesus’ first miracle was a behind the scenes gift of mercy. He gave the family the wine they needed to continue the wedding banquet. Few people even knew it happened. The same is true of the gifts He has given for you: intimate, personal, real. God’s grace was given for you: every one of you. God’s lovingkindness that was manifest in Jesus Christ is for each individual child of God. He was given for YOU.
And while this gift is personal, it is given to make you part of the body of Christ. He has been given for you so that you might be one with Him. We are joined together by faith and by the Holy Spirit. We share in His Spirit not for our own sakes but for the sake of others. And we need one another. We can’t do it all alone. Paul writes, “Now there are diversities of gifts.” He lists nine gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues.” We are each given a portion of these gifts, in good measure, to be used in acts of mercy and grace.
This first big sign seems somewhat insignificant, especially when you consider the other signs of Jesus as found in the book of John. Jesus heals the official’s son, a paralyzed man, and a man born blind. He walks on water and raises Lazarus from the dead. He feeds five thousand people. How is God glorified by a bunch of drunk partiers? We might find we are asking the same question about the work we are called to do in this world. “How will you be glorified by this?” we might ask. “It seems so mundane and unimportant.” But God is merciful in ways that we do not understand. He just asks us to be obedient and to respond to the needs that come our way.
The psalmist writes, “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine, In the innermost parts of thy house; Thy children like olive plants, Round about thy table.” We are His wife, and we are given to the world to be fruitful, to provide God’s grace to the world. We are meant to use the gifts we’ve been given to meet the needs of our neighbors. I might be given one gift, and you another, but together God will use us to bring peace and joy to the world. God’s Spirit works in and through each of us.
Jesus could have done nothing for the host at the wedding banquet, but He was exceedingly generous. We don’t have to do anything, either, but when we’ve been given such a great gift, how can we not let God’s generosity flow through our own lives? It might seem unimportant. It might not seem like the right time. But we never know how God might use us in a miraculous way, turning water into wine for the sake of someone’s honor.
Why does honor matter when there are so many in the world who are suffering? Why did God put so much importance on the honor of the family at the wedding in Cana? To honor someone is to value them and God values His people. Our gifts are not meant to make us famous or powerful. God gives us gifts because He values His creation, this means all men, including those who reject God’s word today. He wants them to be restored to Him. He loves them enough to be merciful, to return the home, to make their world beautiful again. He values them and wants them to know peace. So He calls us to use our gifts in a way that will show them His mercy so that they will see His glory and believe.
“But Saul, yet breathing threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and asked of him letters to Damascus unto the synagogues, that if he found any that were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven: and he fell upon the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: but rise, and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but beholding no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing; and they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink.” Acts 9:1-9, ASV
Do you have a story of an amazing experience of God? Have you seen angels or lights or heard God’s voice? Is there a particular moment when you absolutely, without a doubt, knew that God was with you, talking to you, changing you? I have had some of those moments, although I can’t say I’ve ever had an experience of sudden light or the physical presence of Jesus. I, like most people, came to know the Lord Jesus in quiet, simple ways. I grew up in church, attended Sunday School, sang “Jesus Loves Me” and learned how to live my faith under the care and mentorship of some awesome Christians. I’ve heard His voice, felt His presence and experienced His grace, but not in a dramatic or extraordinary way. I can tell you my stories, but I’m not sure that they will help you believe that God has sent me to do this work.
Jacob Koshy came to know Jesus in an extraordinary moment. While living in Singapore, he was obsessed with success and it drove him, but eventually it led him to a life of gambling and drug abuse. He ended up in prison where he was not allowed to have cigarettes. He used smuggled tobacco and the pages of a Gideon Bible to roll cigarettes. One evening he fell asleep while smoking and the cigarette went out. When he awoke, he noticed the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” on the paper. He asked for a new bible to read the story. It was the story of Paul’s conversion.
As Jacob read Paul’s story, he suddenly realized that if God could save a man like Saul, then He could help him too. He knelt beside his bed to pray, asking Jesus to change him, too. He could not stop crying, but his pain was washed away with every tear. He stopped wasting his life in pursuit of all the wrong things, married a Christian woman and became a missionary in the Far East. When he tells his story, he says, “Who would have believed that I could find the truth by smoking the Word of God?”
There are those, of course, who tell of extraordinary experiences of conversion. They tell stories like the ones we hear about Paul and Jacob, with bright lights and the physical presence of Jesus or a revelation of God’s truth. They use these stories to gain credibility with their audiences. Sometimes the stories are true. Sometimes the people aren’t. Sometimes these people create an extraordinary back story so that people will follow them, but they are leading them astray.
So how do we know? How do we know that Paul is what he says he is? There are many who see Paul as an arrogant and overly confident. We see leaders who teach a false gospel and have these incredible stories to back them up, yet they have no real calling or credibility. All they have is a story.
Paul has more than a story. He has witnesses. Those who were traveling with him may not have seen Jesus, but they heard something. They saw Paul fall to the ground. They saw how Paul was changed so dramatically in that moment. He didn’t eat or drink for three days. He did nothing for those three days. They saw that he was left blind and that he was, in some sense, dead. They knew that something extraordinary happened to Paul, and they believed what he had to say because they were witnesses to the transformation.
I don’t think any of our leaders can tell us a story like Paul’s. We have to trust that they have been called by God to do His work. We can know whether they are credible by watching their life and listening to their words. Does it line up with God’s Word? Do their actions reflect the mercy and grace of God? The stories of their experiences with God might help us to understand them, but if those stories are accompanied by a false gospel, then they are worthless. We should not follow anyone who claims to be from God but who leads us away from Him.
Paul might seem arrogant and overly confident, but he was called by God do to a very hard work. He had to convince the Gentiles that the God of the Jews was the one true God and that He sent Jesus to save them, too. God didn’t leave Paul’s conversion open to question. He guaranteed that Paul’s stories had credibility by providing witnesses.
“Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said unto him in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus: for behold, he prayeth; and he hath seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight. But Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard from many of this man, how much evil he did to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call upon thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name's sake. And Ananias departed, and entered into the house; and laying his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, who appeared unto thee in the way which thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mayest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And straightway there fell from his eyes as it were scales, and he received his sight; and he arose and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened. And he was certain days with the disciples that were at Damascus.” Acts 9:10-19, ASV
Yesterday we looked at Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, and we saw that Paul had an extraordinary experience of revelation from God. There were witnesses to this moment in Paul’s life, and though they did not see what he saw, they knew something happened. They saw the difference in Paul. They saw that he turned blind, that he was like one who was dead. Then they saw the transformation that came spiritually, and religiously, for Paul from the encounter.
Now, we might not have witnesses when we have such an extraordinary experience, but when God touches us in such an amazing way the difference is noticeable. Our neighbors will see the changes in the way we think, talk and walk. They will see a change in the way we relate to the world and in the things that we do. A real encounter with God changes us in a very visible way.
But the witnesses to Paul’s encounter were not the only one who provide credibility to the work Paul did after his conversion. In today’s story, we see that God sent someone from the church to forgive and heal Paul. This is an amazing moment, because Ananias saw Paul (who was at that point still Saul) as an enemy. He was a murderer, calling for the death of Christians and the destruction of the church. Ananias even argued with God. “He’s a bad guy, Lord. Please don’t make me go.” He was probably afraid, after all Saul was the man who could bring about his death. God told Ananias to go without fear. “He is my chosen vessel.”
We may read Paul’s words and think he is arrogant, but the reality is that he was absolutely confident in his calling from God. I’ve heard God’s voice, felt His presence and experienced His grace, and though they were not extraordinary experiences, they did make an impact on my life. Still, I worry and wonder and doubt whether or not I’m really doing the things that God has called me to do. I don’t have Paul’s confidence. I don’t have witnesses that saw my encounters with the holy to verify that something extraordinary did happen.
What I do have is the encouragement of other Christians. I’ve had words from pastors and friends who have confirmed this ministry. Whenever someone likes a devotion or shares it on facebook, whenever I get a letter telling me about how these devotions helped them through a bad day, whenever a person sees the world a little differently because they’ve come to know Jesus a little better: those are the moments when I’m confident that God has called me to this ministry.
Do you ever doubt what God is doing in your life? Do you ever worry and wonder and doubt whether you are really doing what God has called you to do? Rest assured, God does not let us waver when He has work for us to do. He will send someone your way to help you see. It might not be someone you expect; it might even be someone that you once deemed an enemy. But God will give you the confidence to live your faith in a way that makes a very real difference in the world.
“We speak wisdom, however, among them that are fullgrown: yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nought: but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory: which none of the rulers of this world hath known: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory: but as it is written, Things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, And which entered not into the heart of man, Whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him. But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words. Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, ASV
Our neighbor is having some work done on her house. The workmen have been working almost daily for more than a week building a new deck off an upstairs bedroom. The workmen have been considerate, beginning the day late enough so as not to disturb the sleep of neighbors. But, they are loud. I can hear the saws and air tools from almost everywhere in my house. The sound is filtered through my walls and windows, but still audible. I don’t mind, but it has been the source of confusion.
The sounds do not always sound like construction noises. The other day I heard a noise that sounded so much like a cat gagging that I was concerned for one of my kitties. I couldn’t get to him, so I yelled out “Are you ok?” (Yes, I talk to my cats. And no, he didn’t answer.) The noise stopped and I planned to check on him as soon as I could. Then I heard the noise again and I got very concerned. I heard the noise a third time, and then several times in quick succession. It was then I realized I was hearing some sort of air tool. My confusion was based on a misinterpretation of a noise I heard. I was even wrong about the direction of the sound; it was nowhere near where the kitty was sleeping.
Words can be very confusing, too. Think about what it must have been like in the early church. There were apostles and teachers who were sharing the message of Christ around the world. Some of them were well founded in faith and in knowledge of Jesus, but not all of them. Some were confused; some shared words that sounded good but were not quite right. Some were passionate about Jesus, but they didn’t really understand everything He taught or did, and they taught a gospel that confused the people. Some were not passionate about Jesus at all, and willfully taught a false gospel to lead them astray.
It is no less confusing today. There are so many people who are trying to tell us what to think and what it means to be a Christian that it is easy to become confused. We might think we know what the words mean, and think we are interpreting what is being said in a way that will help us to grow in faith and grace, but it is very easy to be deceived. When we hear those words, it is vital that we not only listen to the one speaking, but also seek God’s word through the means of grace which God has given to us.
Does it sound right? The answer to this question might not be enough because we can be deceived, so we seek confirmation though the Bible and the Church. What does God’s word say about the matter? What has the Church said about the matter for two thousand years? What are other Christians saying about the matter today? We have been given God’s Holy Spirit to help us discern, but we are not perfect and can be led astray. So, let us work together, and reason together, with the help of God’s Spirit, the cloud of witnesses that have come before us and the Holy Scriptures that He has given to help us understand. We might be confused for a moment, but if we seek truth, God will help us find it.
“But godliness with contentment is great gain: for we brought nothing into the world, for neither can we carry anything out; but having food and covering we shall be therewith content. But they that are minded to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil: which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” 1 Timothy 6:6-10, ASV
I saw an online poster the other day that showed a cartoon man closing a wall box that held a crucifix of Jesus. The man was getting ready to put a key to a lock to shut it up. The caption read, “See you next Sunday.” One of the respondents posted, “How cute!” I thought, “Cute?” and so did the person who posted the picture. It isn’t cute that we lock Jesus away for the week. Our faith is not something we limit to one day, or even one hour a week. Jesus isn’t meant to be taken out on Sunday morning and then locked away for the rest of the week.
I understand the disconnect between church and life. We all are so busy doing the everyday tasks of living in this world, tasks that don’t seem very spiritual or important to God. After all, does He really care if the dishes are washed and the floors scrubbed? Does He really care about the financial accounts of your clients or sales at the retail store? Does He care what we are having for dinner or how we pay our bills? We don’t have time to think about God when we are busy helping our kids do their homework.
We lock Jesus away because we’ve put so much importance on the things of this world. Our jobs, our family, our homes (which are all good things) come first except for that hour or two a week when we focus on worship and bible study. We don’t want to bother God with the mundane existence of our daily lives. The problem with this is that the mundane things in our lives have become so important that they are like gods to us. The most obvious example of this is money. We know we need money to pay our bills and buy our food, but we also become so focused on making more money that we forget that it is simply a tool of life. Our days revolve around making money, spending money, saving money, using money to fulfill our deepest needs.
Money is vital. We cannot avoid using it. We can, however, put it in its proper place. But we can’t do that if we lock Jesus away during the week and bring Him out only on Sunday. When Jesus stands before us and leads us through the mundane tasks, we think about them much differently. He does care about the way we live and the way we do our jobs. He does care about how we interact with the world. He cares about everything in our life. He wants to be there when we are doing the dishes and choosing dinner. He wants to be in our office while we are dealing with clients. Perhaps we can’t have a crucifix hanging on our wall, but Jesus can be there in our words and actions. He can be there in our heart as we seek His guidance about even the most ordinary questions. When Jesus is there in the midst of our everyday, the other things that we tend to worship can’t have the power that controls us.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 27, 2013, Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19 (1-6) 7-14; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:16-30
“Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye grieved; for the joy of Jehovah is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10, ASV
About a year has passed since Jesus changed the water into wine at Cana in Galilee. He had been preaching and teaching around the region, impressing people with His authority. The people praised Jesus for His teaching and word spread. When He returned home to Nazareth, Jesus was invited into the synagogue to preach and teach. They wanted to hear and experience what had been rumored about this son of their own town.
The synagogue was a place that was likely created during the Babylonian exile. Though the people were being denied worship and sacrifice in the Temple, they could still gather together to pray. A synagogue could be established wherever there were ten Jewish men who wanted to assemble. Although the word has come to be understood as an actual place for prayer, synagogue means assembly, and so the gathering in our story today might not have been a specially designed worship space. The synagogue was where the people gathered around the word of God, to hear it read and to learn to understand it.
I love the image we have in today’s Gospel lesson, with Jesus at the center of a crowd of people who were anxiously waiting to hear what He might have to say. There may have been a few skeptics; after all they knew Jesus from when He was just a boy. Though we are proud when our sons and daughters find their place in this world, we are shocked and dubious when they seem to be reaching way above their station or former experience. I once heard the friend of a pastor say, “Who would have thought you’d become a pastor. I knew you when you were causing trouble in High School.” I wonder how many people were expecting Jesus to be exactly the same man as had left Nazareth a year or so ago.
They were certainly in for a shock, because Jesus did not simply read a text and teach on it. He read a text and identified with it. They were waiting for the Messiah, preparing their hearts for the coming of a Savior like the one that was written in the prophecy of Isaiah. The text was certainly good news. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The text was good news, but Jesus’ teaching was not. He wasn’t the first to claim to be the Christ, and it is no wonder that the people were surprised because these things just don’t happen to our neighbors or the kids of our friends. That neighbor kid couldn’t possibly be able to save the people of Israel. He has no power, position, and even if he seems to have authority in his speech, how could he ever be the one who is sent by God? “Is this not Joseph’s son?” In other words, “How can Joseph’s son make such a claim?”
They weren’t angry yet. They had heard the stories of Jesus, and they expected Him to do in Nazareth what He’d been doing elsewhere. After all, if he could visit Samaria and do amazing things in a village there (the story of the woman at the well likely took place before this visit to Nazareth) surely He could do amazing things among His own people, right?
Jesus knew what they were thinking. He said, “Doubtless ye will say unto me this parable, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in thine own country.” But He warned them that a prophet is never acceptable in his own country. Jesus knew that they didn’t believe that He could heal them or cast out their demons, they expected it. After all, if He could do these things for strangers, surely He should do them and even more for His family. But the healing touch of Jesus doesn’t come at our demand, but by faith. That’s why God sent Elijah and Elisha to foreigners instead of to Israel during those times of need. God’s people were not living by faith; they expected God to save them because they were Israelites.
God doesn’t choose us to give us special privilege. He loves us and He is faithful and gracious to those who believe.
In the Old Testament lesson, the people gathered in the square to hear the reading of God’s Word. Nehemiah continued the work that Ezra. The two books are often considered to have been one in ancient times. Ezra led the first exiles home to Jerusalem, and then oversaw the rebuilding of the Temple. During that time, Ezra, who was a priest, rediscovered the ancient scrolls of the Torah and began implementing God’s Law among His people. Later, Nehemiah was sent home with more exiles. They rebuilt the walls of the city. When the people were safe and the work was complete, Ezra and Nehemiah called the people together to hear the reading of God’s Word.
The Law was given to Moses at Mount Sinai, but God’s people lost touch with what it meant to be His people. This is why God gave then into the hands of the Babylonians; to discipline them and to make them whole and new. They needed to see life outside of God’s grace to understand how to live within His grace. God did not do this as a form of punishment, but as a way to bring His people home. He always intended for them to be renewed and gathered as one people, manifesting His grace to the world.
In today’s story we see how they began that new, transformed life. They began it by gathering around his Word. Just as Jesus read the scriptures to the people gathered around Him, Ezra and Nehemiah read the scriptures to the people gathered in the square. And they didn’t rely on the people understanding what they heard, they explained it to them. They gave it to them in their own language. They made it relevant to their lives.
And the people did understand. The reading of God’s Word made them weep because they saw how lost they had been. But now they are found, and Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites spoke that word of grace into their life. “This day is holy unto Jehovah your God; mourn not, nor weep. Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye grieved; for the joy of Jehovah is your strength.” They told the people to go celebrate, for God is pleased with His people and has blessed them.
God’s Law makes us weep. We have this negative perception because we think that we will be punished for our disobedience. We know we deserve to be punished. Yet, Nehemiah and Ezra knew that the people should not weep because the Word they heard is a gift. God’s word is not meant to confine us to some rules; it is given so that we’ll be set free from our sinful natures and live within God’s grace. Sin binds us more than any law, because we have to live with the consequences of our failure to be what God has created us to be. The Law is given to guide us, to help us live according to God’s expectations, which are good and right and perfect. Instead of weeping when we hear God’s Word, we are invited to celebrate the life God intends for us, the life He has created us to live.
God is visible in His Law. Through His Word we can know Him and know what He expects of us. God’s word, described in the psalm in so many terms—law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, and ordinances—can provide us with all we need to know. The people of Israel understood this, which is why they stood for hours in the town square listening to it read and explained. They knew that God’s word is perfect, trustworthy, right, pure, true and altogether righteous. They knew, as the psalmist says, that the Word of God restores the soul, makes wise the simple, gives joy to the heart, enlightens the eyes, endures forever; it is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.
The people in Nazareth heard Jesus speak God’s word and immediately they were amazed at the words coming out of His mouth. But as soon as Jesus told them that they would not see what they hoped to see—they would not experience the “proof” they thought they deserved—they became angry and threatened Jesus. They, like the Israelites before them, had lost touch with God. They were being handed over into the hands of the Romans. But like that last exile, God had a plan to redeem them and restore them to Himself. They just didn’t understand that plan. They wanted the Messiah to be under their control. They wanted the Messiah to live up to their expectations; Jesus of Nazareth could never do that, so they saw His words as blasphemous.
The good news is that we are saved from ourselves. God is made manifest in the scriptures and He was made manifest in our Lord Jesus Christ. We gather around the Word and we gather around Jesus to experience God’s presence in our lives. Jesus brought the promises of God to fulfillment so that we can be all that He has created us to be. And the promises continue to be made manifest through the body of Christ, which is the Church. Every believer is part of that body. We have been created to be a part of the whole. We have been given our own gifts and purpose so that the Church together might continue the work Jesus began.
The Corinthian church was a difficult congregation. There were many things about the new Christian faith that they did not fully understand. The church was located in a major Greek city, a place where there were many temples to the gods. Corinth was an important world community, a place of crossroads where many nationalities came together. It was a place of questionable morality, where worship of the gods included the satisfaction of many physical desires. The Corinthian church was plagued by questions of how to live in their world while also living according to the expectations of their new faith. They often failed, falling back into ways of their past and fulfilling the desires of their flesh.
In today’s Epistle lesson Paul is addressing one of the questions of the Corinthian congregation. They had incredible gifts: powers that were not from themselves. Yet they were immature and unspiritual. They did not understand the things of God or the place they held in His kingdom. They did not understand that they had been called and gathered for a purpose and that the purpose was to continue Jesus’ work in this world. They needed guidance about the gifts they had been given and about the expectations of God for them.
Some Corinthians thought that they had been given special privilege. They thought they had higher gifts or that their gifts proved that they were more blessed by God. Paul reminds us that God has created a perfect machine, a body that works together, all parts being valuable parts of the whole. We are individuals in Christ, gifted in our own unique ways, but all necessary to make manifest the grace and mercy of God in the world. Gathered around the Word, both the scriptures and Jesus, we see Him as He is and ourselves as we are. The good news is that God sees us through Jesus, and that’s why we can celebrate.
God’s Word has a way of cutting to our hearts, bringing out emotions that we may not even know are buried there. God’s Word convicts us. He causes us to see into the very depths of our souls. When we hear His Word with believing hearts, we realize how deeply we have grieved our Lord by our rebellion. We grieve with Him, knowing that there is no one but ourselves to blame for our separation from our Creator. God's Word of Law helps us realize that we are nothing, that we have nothing without Him. Then God’s Word of Grace calls us to celebrate as we are joined in faith to His body and gifted to continue His work in the world.
“How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Jehovah of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of Jehovah; My heart and my flesh cry out unto the living God. Yea, the sparrow hath found her a house, And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, Even thine altars, O Jehovah of hosts, My King, and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: They will be still praising thee. Selah” Psalm 84:1-4, ASV
We were at the home do-it-yourself store the other day when I had to duck as a small bird flew by. The birds often get inside these large box stores and they can’t find their way out. I’ve seen them in grocery stores, bulk stores, even the large discount store down the street. It is strange to see them inside, but I can understand how it happens. Sometimes they accidentally fly through the sliding doors and then they discover ways to survive. I often wonder if they hire someone to get them out at night when the store is closed.
I’m sure they find some comfort inside, especially when the weather is cold or wet. In the home do-it-yourself store there is even food for them to eat. As a matter of fact, we were near the large bags of bird seed when the bird flew close the other day. I’m sure that seed falls on the ground when those bags break, and I doubt that they manage to clean it all up. The birds can roost in the rafters or even in the plants that they keep in the garden department. I sometimes think that the birds just choose to stay inside because they have it good in there. There are no predators inside the buildings, also.
I thought of that bird when I read today’s scriptures. I suppose if they can get inside the big box stores in modern America, they could certainly find their way into the Temple, especially in the outer courts. How wonderful would it be for God’s creatures to be in a place where they are generally safe? I imagine they found crumbs in the outer courts, or even some of the offerings that were left on the altars. In this passage, the psalmist knows that God doesn’t mind the birds being there. They are part of His creation, and they praise God, too.
This passage also brings to mind those who do not have access to God’s house. Now, we know that God is not limited to a Temple or our churches, but there’s something special about the places where we gather to worship God. The church down the street is not necessarily more holy than the mountainside or waterfall, but it is made holy by the speaking of God’s word and the sharing of the sacraments. The people who cannot attend surely have a deep longing for that fellowship.
The singer must have been someone who, for some reason, was denied access to the dwelling place of God. I wonder how many people have found themselves suffering from the same longing? Who do we know that have been kept away and why? And how might we take God’s presence to them? Perhaps there are shut-ins or others who are sick that we can visit and share God’s word? Or what about those who are imprisoned? Perhaps some can’t attend at the times we gather for worship. Is there some way to open the doors for them at another hour of the day or day of the week?
There are many, I am sure, who are not comfortable with attending worship because they haven’t heard the Good News that God doesn’t expect them to be perfect. He invites all His creation into His courts. How can we help them get through that sliding glass door and find a place of comfort and grace in which to dwell?
“And they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. And when he was come out of the boat, straightway there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling in the tombs: and no man could any more bind him, no, not with a chain; because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been rent asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: and no man had strength to tame him. And always, night and day, in the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying out, and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshipped him; and crying out with a loud voice, he saith, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the Most High God? I adjure thee by God, torment me not. For he said unto him, Come forth, thou unclean spirit, out of the man. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he saith unto him, My name is Legion; for we are many. And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country. Now there was there on the mountain side a great herd of swine feeding. And they besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. And he gave them leave. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered into the swine: and the herd rushed down the steep into the sea, in number about two thousand; and they were drowned in the sea. And they that fed them fled, and told it in the city, and in the country. And they came to see what it was that had come to pass. And they come to Jesus, and behold him that was possessed with demons sitting, clothed and in his right mind, even him that had the legion: and they were afraid. And they that saw it declared unto them how it befell him that was possessed with demons, and concerning the swine. And they began to beseech him to depart from their borders. And as he was entering into the boat, he that had been possessed with demons besought him that he might be with him. And he suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go to thy house unto thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and how he had mercy on thee. And he went his way, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men marvelled.” Mark 5:1-20, ASV
I read an interesting story today about a man who lost a great deal of his life in the collapse of the World Trade Center in September 2001. He lost many things including friends and co-workers; he also lost many material possessions, including his business school diplomas. He moved into a new office several months after the attack and decided to see what he could do about replacing the diplomas from his two business schools.
He called both schools and made the request. One school went out of their way to reproduce his diploma as it might have looked hanging on the wall of his office, even to the point of having it signed by the Dean and President who actually signed his original diploma. They even put it in a frame for him. The second school did not go to that much trouble. They made an extra diploma when they were getting ready for the spring graduation and sent it to him. There was nothing personal or real about the piece of paper. Then they sent him a bill for $200 for replacing the diploma.
One school understood the grief and impact that the events of 9/11 had on the man, and they did what they could to help restore him to some semblance of normal; they even went out of their way to bring some comfort to his life. The other school probably followed a written policy on diploma replacement, but even in business there is room for grace, as we can see from the first school. This is a tale of two responses to the same question, and it causes us to ask about our own responses to the circumstances of life that we face.
Today’s scripture lesson is also a tale of two responses. The man who met Jesus on the shore was possessed by many demons, called “Legion” and was so disabled by these demons that he was living in tombs and he was uncontrollable. He was violent and dangerous to others and to himself. When the man saw Jesus, he went and worshipped Him, then begged Him to leave him alone. “Do not torture me!” This was the voice of Legion, not the man. The demons knew Jesus and humbled themselves before Him. Jesus ordered the demons to leave, but they begged Him to allow them to stay in the region. He gave them permission to enter the herd of pigs, then the pigs ran down the hill into the water and were drowned.
The man was healed and he sat at the feet of Jesus to hear His teaching. The pig herders ran to the town and told everyone what had happened. When they came out and saw the man calmly sitting, they were afraid. They begged Jesus to leave the region. They were more afraid of the man after he had been healed than when he was possessed by the demons because they didn’t understand what happened. The man’s response to Jesus’ power was to beg Him to stay.
How do we respond to the grace of God, especially those moments when we do not understand why or how something has happened? Do we seek to be in God’s presence, begging Jesus to be near, or are we afraid and think it would be better if Jesus just went away? Do we see the impact of our response on the people who are touched by God’s grace, or are we more concerned about the impact it might have on our lives?
“At that season Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and didst reveal them unto babes: yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight. All things have been delivered unto me of my Father: and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 12:25-30, ASV
We found ourselves watching a marathon of shows yesterday focused on barbeque. The show pitted three pitmasters against each other with challenges in specific cuts of meat. Throughout the day we saw different cooks making various types of beef, chicken and pork. In the end, three judges score the food on presentation, taste and tenderness, then one pitmaster takes the prize.
I’m not sure I like the show very much, because they spend so much of their energy how the other pitmasters are doing it wrong and how theirs will win because they do it right. Most of the time, the loudest claims are easily overthrown because they’ve made a mistake or something terrible happened along the way. As the judges are doing a blind judging (they don’t know which pitmaster made which plate, the contestants sit in a special area with a television that lets them see what the judges have to say. This is, to me, the worst part of all because they make comments about the judges’ comments, continuing the (usually) friendly banter between one another. It is bad because they don’t really have anything to say, but they have to talk for the cameras. It sounds almost scripted, but not well acted, and it drives me crazy.
However, I like watching the pitmasters do their thing, and it is important to see how the piece of meat turned out in the end. After watching hours of the show yesterday, we learned some hints on how to barbeque, came to understand flavor profiles and recommended cooking procedures. We learned about the cuts of meat, and which work best with which spices. We learned how to make the meat tender and tasty.
I’ve found that I learn a lot from watching any type of cooking show. I don’t usually follow anyone’s recipes, but I do learn what I can from the chefs and find a way to use their ideas in my own kitchen. I surf the Internet for recipes, never accepting the first one as the best, but reading several that end in similar foods, so that I can learn which flavors go well together and how long things should cook. Then I take those ideas and I create my own recipe. Sometimes it works, and I end up with something delicious. It is a process of learning and of discovering the possibilities.
Now, my family never went hungry, but lately I’ve been so much more adventurous in the kitchen. We certainly had our favorite meals, to the point that my cooking and our dinners seemed to be stuck in a rut. The other day I heard a joke about peanut butter and chicken, and I decided it might be a good combination, so I researched and found that it isn’t new. We tried it and we liked it. That adventurous spirit in the kitchen comes from learning; I have the confidence to try new things and to find new ways of preparing food.
Do you ever feel like you are in a rut with your faith? What we do is good: going to church, praying, reading the Bible, and yet sometimes we know it isn’t enough. We know we need to get out of our comfort zone, but we are worried that we will fail. My experiments in the kitchen don’t always work, but I learn something and then I try again. The same is true when we learn something new about God. Our prayer, worship, Bible study and fellowship with other Christians helps us to have a more adventurous spirit in the world and confidence in our faith. With that confidence, we are willing to try something new, speak God’s word to someone new and go out into the world trusting that God is guiding us into His purpose for our life.
“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me cast out the mote out of thine eye; and lo, the beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.” Matthew 7:1-5, ASV
I have this habit of helping people with their shopping carts. If I see someone at their car with a cart, I offer to take it for them and use it myself. This saves their walking to a cart corral and it saves me finding a cart. At one particular store, where they have few carts, I was lucky to see someone with one in the parking lot on a very busy day. Unfortunately, a man had followed them from the store to their car just to take the cart for his family that was already shopping in the store. I offered to take it, thinking that he was with the family at the car, but he was not going to let it go.
Shopping carts are one of those things that are so valuable, and yet such a pain. The aisles in stores are often just wide enough for two carts, but barely; it is difficult to maneuver with them when the store is crowded. The cart corrals get full, especially when people are not careful about tucking them inside one another. Many people are lazy and just leave their carts by their parking space, which makes parking more difficult and is dangerous when it is windy.
I saw a guy just the other day that didn’t even bother to walk all the way to the cart corral. He pushed it from the other side of the lane, and while it made it to the corral, it just smashed into the other carts and made it all a jumbled mess. His cart was outside the barrier, in the road and a danger to pedestrians and vehicles.
Now, I have to admit that I am among those who occasionally get lazy with my cart. I don’t have good reasons, just excuses. It usually has something to do with time. And somehow it seems, even though I’m always ready to help a fellow shopper by taking their cart to save them time, there’s never anyone willing to take mine.
Here’s the thing: when I see one of those carts just left in the parking lot, I want to get angry, especially when the cart has made it difficult or impossible to park in the empty spot. However, how do I get angry with someone who has done something that I do? Even though I am usually good about putting my shopping cart where it should go, I do the same thing sometimes. Who knows whether they are just lazy or if they have similar excuses as me?
That’s why Jesus warns us about judging others: we fail, too. He doesn’t say we should not make judgment calls about our neighbors, but that we should recognize that when we do we will also be judged in the same manner. When we see a failing in our neighbor, we should consider ourselves, too. Do we do what we see our neighbors doing? Do we think we can do something but think our neighbor should not? Do we accept our own failing and receive God’s grace for them, but then condemn our neighbors for the same thing? There is a time and a place for calling our neighbor out for what they do wrong, to help them repent and be transformed, but as we do so let us always remember that we have failings, too, and we just might be called out for the very same thing.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 3, 2013, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: Jeremiah 1:4-10 (17-19); Psalm 71:1-6 (7-11); 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13; Luke 4:31-44
“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12, ASV
Imagine that you are the newly hired mail person at a large company with a huge hierarchy of people, from office assistants to department heads to Vice Presidents. The CEO comes to you one day and says, “I am going to put you in charge of everything.” He explains that the job includes firing a bunch of people who have done something that almost destroyed the company, including a couple of the VPs and your own supervisor. How do you respond? “But Sir, I’m a nobody. They won’t listen to me. I just deliver the mail.”
I don’t think I’d want the job. After all, I probably do not even know why there’s been a problem. I’m sure I wouldn’t have any credibility with any of those people I’d have to fire, especially those who have been with the company for a very long time. I don’t think they would even listen to me.
Now, the mail person would not have much control. He or she would not choose which employees to fire. The decisions would be made by the CEO. He would tell the mail person how to do the task. He would, in some sense, be nearby. He would give the mail person the credibility needed. It would not be the mail person’s work, but the CEO’s work done through the mail person. It still would be hard. Who wants to give that sort of news to anyone, particularly people that are in authority?
We might not want this to happen, but that’s what happened to Jeremiah. The titles and circumstances are different, but God called young Jeremiah to tell the people of Judah some bad news. God was preparing to pronounce judgment on Judah for their faithlessness. They willingly submitted to foreign gods and turned their back on Him. Jeremiah was called to speak a word of warning to the people: Babylonia was coming to rule over Judah.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want this job. Jeremiah says, “But sir, I’m a nobody.” He knows that he’s too young and inexperienced to stand against the rulers of Judah. And yet God assures him: “I will be with you. I will give you my word in your mouth. I will protect you. They will not overcome you with me at your side.”
Would you answer “Yes” if you had that kind of assurance? Would you step forth, trusting that the CEO would protect you as you carried out his work? It doesn’t matter how young, or how old, we are: sometimes the things we are asked to do seem to be outside our ability to do it. How many of us would be willing to preach a sermon if our pastor asked us to step up and do so? How many of us would be willing to go to the city council to demand help with an issue your church is experiencing? How many of us would tell the president, or king, or other ruler that they are doing something against God’s Word? We think we are nobody, and we don’t think we can get anything accomplished.
But if God asks us to do it, will we do it anyway? Will we trust that God provides us with all we need no matter what we face?
Last week we watched as Jesus stood up in the synagogue in His hometown and told the people that the scripture about the Messiah was being fulfilled in their presence. He then added that they wouldn’t get it. They would miss the truth. They would not believe in Him. He told them that they would reject the one for whom they were waiting. They were impressed and astonished at His first lesson, and then angry and upset at His second. They were so offended that they tried to drive Him over a cliff to His death. He escaped and went on to another town to teach.
In Capernaum, Jesus went to the synagogue and taught another congregation. They were astonished by His; they heard the authority in His voice and in His word. In the congregation was a man who had a demon. The demon spoke out against Jesus. The demon identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. Isn’t it interesting that in the previous passage, Jesus identified Himself as the Messiah, but He knew that they wouldn’t believe, but in Capernaum He rebuked the demon for saying the same thing in a place where people might believe?
The demon left the man at the word of Jesus, and the people were amazed. “Who is this and what is this word that he speaks? He has power and authority even over the demons.” The word got out into the region about the things Jesus could do, and the people came to Jesus for more. The demons kept crying out “You are the Son of God,” but Jesus did not allow them to tell the people that He was the Christ. Jesus was not yet ready to be identified as the Messiah. He had too much work to do.
It must have been overwhelming for Jesus to have so many people seeking His healing touch. I think about the scene from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” when Jesus is confronted by lepers, cripples and beggars, all wanting to be healed. He is crushed by their need, and he angrily tells the crowd to heal themselves. I am not sure what Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber intended with this scene, but I see it as having come from the stories from Luke 4. Was Jesus overwhelmed? Perhaps. But there’s something more to these stories about Jesus being unable in Nazareth and being overwhelmed in Capernaum.
In Luke 4:43, Jesus says, “I must preach the good tidings of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for therefore was I sent.” The people of Capernaum did not want Jesus to leave because He was making a real difference in their lives. He was healing their sick and He was casting out the demons. I wouldn’t want Him to go, either. However, Jesus knew that His work was more than healing. He came to preach the Kingdom of God. The good news is more than what God can do for us today, in this world. It is more than what God can give to us. It is more than how God can protect us.
God’s Word says we are His children and inheritors of His Kingdom. Yet, we do not take Him at His Word; we desire physical blessings as proof. We are more concerned with flesh and blood than we are eternal consequences and promises. Jesus did not want the people to know He was the Messiah because they were looking for a Messiah who would sit on a throne and be king over a sovereign nation as Israel had once been. They wanted a king who would fill their bellies, fight their enemies and make their life golden.
Jesus was not that kind of Messiah. The message of God’s kingdom was different. It was eternal. He came to restore God’s people to their Father, not return the nation to a glory day.
This is what we see in the story of Simon’s mother-in-law. After Jesus left the synagogue where He cast out the demon from the man, He visited the home of Peter. Simon Peter’s wife’s mother was ill with a fever. She was sick in bed, separated from her family and her work by her illness. Jesus went to her, rebuked the fever and she was made well. Luke tells us that she “immediately rose up and ministered unto them.” Most of us look at that and think, “The woman has been sick, can’t they give her some time to recuperate now that the fever is gone?” But I like the use of the word “minister” in this translation. Jesus restored her health, but He also restored her to her place in the Kingdom. He made her well so she could continue to minister to the people, to follow her calling, to do her work. Jesus didn’t come to make things golden, He came to make things right.
He doesn’t call us to make things golden; He calls us to make things right.
“But God, who am I to do that? Who will listen to me? How can I saw what you want me to say? How can I make a difference?”
We are so much like Jeremiah. Though we may not be young, we have our own excuses for arguing with God about the work He is calling us to do. Abraham and Sarah thought they were too old. Moses didn’t think he was eloquent enough. Jonah was angry and didn’t want to share God’s grace with his enemy. We argue, too. Are we too busy? Too sick? Too tired? Are we too young or old? Are we the wrong gender? Are we in the wrong place? Is this the wrong time? We think we know better than God, and so we offer Him our reasons why His plan just won’t work.
But He doesn’t choose us because we are the right age, or because we have the right gifts. He doesn’t call us because it fits into our schedule or because He thinks we are strong enough. He chooses us and gives us everything we need to make His work happen.
We saw that in the scripture from Paul’s letter last week. God chooses us and makes us apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles or healings, helpers, leaders, or speakers of divers kinds of tongues. He gives us the gifts to do those tasks.
Now, there were those in Corinth who thought that their gifts were better and more important, but Paul reminded them that all are needed. God created the perfect machine when He created the Church, but we tend to think we know better than God and we try to fit people into the wrong roles. We agree with one another’s assessments that we are too young, old, busy or whatever else excuse we want to use. We do not try to help one another discover the gifts or the callings that God has established for each of us. We define one another by our expectations rather than God.
But it just might be that the young man is meant to be the preacher or the old woman is meant to travel as a missionary. It just might be that the person who is bedridden has been called to accomplish a great work in this world. Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.” God doesn’t expect us to be perfect; He just calls us to be faithful and obedient, without excuse, trusting that He will provide us everything we need.
The passage from Paul provides us with a word of caution. The gifts of God given wrongly are of no help and have no power. Paul says that prophetic voice is nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal if it does not have love. This passage, often used in the marriage ceremony has a much deeper purpose. It is not just about the romantic love between a man and a woman, but is about the love of God that is manifest through the Church which He created. The words of this ‘love chapter’ that are used so often at weddings may mean something very special on that day, but what marriage is perfect. Are we really able to avoid breaking some of the exhortations? Are we always patient with our spouse? Are we always kind? Do we really manage to live together without envy, boasting, arrogance or rudeness? Unfortunately, we all have moments when we demand our own way, when we are irritable and resentful. We can probably all think of a time when we have even rejoiced in wrongdoing.
But love—the love of God—bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love—the love of God—never ends. So, we are reminded by this passage that though we have amazing and powerful gifts from God, everything of God is to be built on the love of God. Our words are meaningless if they are not said in love. The gifts are given to be a blessing to the Church and to the world. But they are nothing without love. Paul told the Corinthians that they were missing the most important gift of all: love. Everything else was meaningless if they did not lay it on the foundation of love.
Love is patient. The American Standard version says, “love sufferth long.” It endures hardship for the sake of another. The perfect example of this is God. Imagine if God were as ‘patient’ with our faults as we are with the faults of others? We would not have the story of Jesus. God would have lost patience with us long before He was able to complete His plan. It is harder for us, unless we approach all things with love. This does not mean that we sit back and allow the world to step on us, but it does mean that we deal with them as God deals with us: with love. We give kindness where it is undeserved. We do not covet that which belongs to another. We do not respond with rudeness.
God starts with love. He loves us. He calls us. He gifts us with everything we need. God knows us better than we know ourselves, because He has known us even before He formed us in our mothers womb. And we go forth in faith, obediently fulfilling our calling in the world, even if it seems to be a ridiculous task. God knows our failing. He knows exactly when we should not be the one He is asking to do that work. But He also knows how to use our imperfections to His glory. We don’t know what to say, but it is God’s words we speak. And because we speak God’s words, they are filled with power and authority.
The thing to remember is to approach everything you do from the reality that is Gods’ presence in your life. The psalmist writes, “In thee, O Jehovah, do I take refuge: Let me never be put to shame.” We take refuge in and deal with the world from there. Like Jeremiah, we might have to speak tough words to the people. Like Jesus, we might have to leave those who are expecting the wrong things from us. But as we dwell in love, in God’s heart, and do what He has called us to do, we will find ourselves in the right place at the right time doing the right thing to make the world right, according to God’s word.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens.” Colossians 1:15-20, ASV
I have a painting that I made that I call “Colossians 1:17.” I began with a black canvas, and I taped a cross in the upper right hand corner. Then I covered the canvas with every color I had, using a dry brush technique that looks almost like I used chalk. I covered the canvas with swirls of color, which I wanted to look chaotic and yet as if it was all coming together into something beautiful. As I was painting it, I thought about the creation of the world, and how God spoke and everything came into being. After I finished applying the colored paint, I removed the tape to reveal a cross. Christ was there before the creation of the world; He has always been present in the midst of it.
(You can see the painting at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=524705000888892&set=pb.515079321851460.-2207520000.1359665820&type=3&theater)
I called the painting “Colossians 1:17” because that verse is one of my favorites. Paul writes, “He is before all things and in him all things consist.” I once learned that some scientists have identified the force in an atom that holds it all together as “the Colossians force.” Some scientists have recognized that no matter how much they know about life, the universe and everything, there are still mysteries that we cannot fully explain. Those who are much smarter than me might be able to give some scientific clarification, but even then it is limited.
I found this at a physics website. “The nucleus of the atom contains positively charged and neutral particles-to use a simplistic model. Mutual electrostatic repulsion between the like-positive protons would drive the nucleus apart if it were not for the ‘strong force’ which binds the nucleus together. There is thus an active force imposed on the universe, which actively holds the very atoms of the material world together moment by moment, day by day, century by century. Similarly, accelerated electrons circling the nucleus should quickly radiate all their energy away and fall into the nucleus unless there exists an invisible energy source to counteract this.” (http://www.khouse.org/articles/1997/60/) Some scientists have come to understand that the invisible force that holds the atom together is God.
Christ is the image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word made flesh, the God of creation dwelling with us. He was there when God laid down the foundations of the earth and it was through Him all things were made. In Christ we see that God did not make the world and disappear, but that He has been with us always, planning even in the beginning the redemption that was to come. Everything is His, and through Him we are re-created and reconciled to God our Father in heaven, part of the body of Christ and blessed with eternal life in Him. One day we will be face to face with our Lord Jesus, and then we will inherit all that has been promised. Until that day we can know that we are never far from Christ. As a matter of fact, He is the very force that holds us together, even to the very atoms in our body.