Welcome to the January 2014 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, January 2014
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. We who died to sin, how shall we any longer live therein? Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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 6:1-4, ASV
Happy New Year! How are you receiving the new year? Are you happy that 2013 is gone? Are you coming into 2014 with hopeful expectation that this year will be better than last? Are you beginning this year with a list of resolutions, changes you want to make so that your life will be better, happier, healthier? It always seems appropriate on January 1st (or January 2nd) to commit to giving up bad habits and developing good ones. After all, it is a new year; shouldn’t we try to be new people?
But it is so hard to make those changes now, isn’t it? We just came out of a month or more of holiday festivities. We’ve indulged in great feasts and piles of homemade treats. We have enjoyed using our resources buying presents and hosting parties for our friends. There is joy in these holiday activities even if we know that we will regret spoiling ourselves and our loved ones in January. We party in December with the expectation that we will get back to normal after it is all over.
But it isn’t easy getting back to normal, is it? January is a depressing time. The holidays are over and the joy of time spent with family is replaced by the duty of our jobs. The weather is cold, dark and wet, and we are trapped in our homes or risk the dangers of winter. We are more likely to be sick with colds and flu. We don’t feel good about ourselves because of those extra pounds. We are worried about how we will pay off the credit cards. We say we are going to exercise, but we just aren’t motivated. We say we are going to do better with our money, but we can’t afford to save while we are scrambling to pay our bills. We say we will build better relationships, but we are too depressed to leave the house. It is no wonder that people fail to keep their resolutions.
It is a new year and it might seem like a good time to try to become a new you, but how do we do so? We all think we can make the 180 degree turn from party to discipline in a day, but we do not take into consideration all the things that are working against us. We quickly return to our old habits and then become even more depressed because we’ve failed. Change does not come immediately. It takes work. It takes time. Instead of big leaps, we are more successful when we take small steps. And we do best when we have help.
Paul writes, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” I’m not suggesting that we go into the new year continuing to party, overspend and overindulge. Now is an excellent time to stop to reflect on our lives, to see where we’ve gone wrong and to put our failing aside. Instead of trying to overcome all the bad habits, this new year gives us the opportunity to become the people we are in Christ. We have been buried with Him, and by His grace we can overcome that which keeps us bound to our old ways. Instead of trying to become something new, now is the time to remember who we are and live accordingly. The old habits and indulgent actions will fade away as we walk in the newness of life that comes from faith in Christ.
“Nevertheless I am continually with thee: Thou hast holden my right hand. Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart faileth; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: Thou hast destroyed all them that play the harlot, departing from thee. But it is good for me to draw near unto God: I have made the Lord Jehovah my refuge, That I may tell of all thy works.” Psalm 73:23-28, ASV
Did you feel close to God during December? It is very easy. Many people followed an Advent devotional which helped focus our attention on the God who would come to us in the manger and in glory. I did an advent photo challenge which I posted on Facebook, constantly looking for things to photograph that would be witness to God’s love through the words in the challenge. Neighbors decorated their homes with lights and with nativity scenes. We worshipped God together at our regular times, but also at extra services, many of us doing so in different churches as we visited family and friends. Christmas music in the stores was littered with our favorite carols that helped us remember the reason we were shopping. It is easy to see God in Christmas and in the weeks that lead up to the big day.
What about now that we are into the new year and getting back to normal? Attendance on the first Sunday of January is one of the lowest of the year for many churches. People are recovering from the holidays, many are traveling home after extended vacations, some just want a break before getting back to the humdrum of everyday life. The weather is often cold and wet, roads too bad to risk the drive. The decorations are disappearing in homes and around the street. The habit of daily devotional reading is set aside. The music has returned to the “musac” that is soft covers of 70’s disco. The world which tolerates talk of God in December is ready to ignore Him again, and we quickly forget because we don’t have those constant reminders.
The psalmist writes, “But it is good for me to draw near unto God.” Of all the resolutions we make for the new year, perhaps the most important is to remember that God continues to linger near us all the time, hoping that we will acknowledge His presence in our lives, not only for our benefit but for the sake of the world. It is especially important for us to be God’s shining light and voice in the world when there is nothing to remind the world that He is here. We need to be constantly aware of God in our own life, through worship, bible study, prayer, devotional reading, Christian fellowship and opportunities for service so that we will be ready in every moment to share Him with someone who needs Him.
If you make just one resolution this year, let it be the words of the psalmist, committing to a life in which God is always in our presence. It is funny to say that, because He is. But we forget. We ignore. We go about our life in our own way, ignoring the guidance of God that will lead us on the right path. Can 2014 be the year when we can truly say, “And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee.” When we desire God above all else and we remember that He is always near, we find the peace, hope and joy that is promised to us during the Advent and Christmas journey.
“And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Matthew 2:10-11, ASV
The story of Epiphany is much longer, of course, but for this day we are going to focus on the part of the story we have experienced. We did not follow a star over continents, meet a king who was disturbed by our quest or have visions that sent us away by a different road. We did not fear the possibility that someone has been born that will threaten our throne or send soldiers to a tiny village to have all the children killed. We have, however, seen a sign that has caused us to rejoice with exceeding great joy. And we have offered to our God the gifts we have so that He might use them to His glory.
We spend much time discussing the meaning of the gifts given by the wise men. The gold is the gift for a king, the frankincense is a gift for a priest and the myrrh is a gift that is used to anoint someone who has died. These gifts represent the character of Christ and the work He did in this world. These are gifts that we cannot give to God, we have too little wealth to buy gold or frankincense and myrrh. What is the meaning of those gifts we can give?
Some of the best Christmas stories tell of people who have little but who give from their heart. The story of the poinsettia tells about a young boy on his way to church on Christmas Eve watching all the others carrying great gifts to lay at the altar for the Baby Jesus. He had nothing, but picked a weed from the side of the road. He was embarrassed by his gift and tried to take it back, but God saw the boy’s joy at seeing the promise of the manger and He blessed the weed by turning it into a bright red flower, the most beautiful gift at the altar.
In the children’s book “The Littlest Angel,” the little angel had nothing to give to Jesus but a box filled with the earthly treasures from his young life. This gift was raised above all others because it was a gift of the heart. In O’Henry’s classic tale “The Gift of the Magi,” the husband and wife see the joy of giving even though they had to give up something they loved to purchase a gift for the other. The gifts were items that would enhance the very things that they gave up: a hairbrush for the wife who sold her hair and a pocket watch chain for the husband who sold his watch. The gifts were offerings of incredible love between people who were more concerned with the happiness of the other.
We have seen a sign of great love: the Baby Jesus in the manger. God gave His only begotten Son to the world to save us from sin and death, to bring life and light and hope and peace. We greet this sign with great joy and wish, like those wisemen, to worship Him with the gifts we have to give. We might not have gold and frankincense and myrrh. We might just have weeds picked by the side of the road or a box full of trinkets that have no value except sentiment, but God sees the heart in those offerings. He sees the love when we are willing to give our treasures for the sake of another. On this Epiphany, let us remember that God does not judge the value of our offerings, He sees our hearts. So let us rejoice with exceeding joy at the sign of His grace, the Lord Jesus, and offer Him our hearts to use for His glory.
“I cry with my voice unto Jehovah; With my voice unto Jehovah do I make supplication. I pour out my complaint before him; I show before him my trouble. When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, Thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walk Have they hidden a snare for me. Look on my right hand, and see; For there is no man that knoweth me: Refuge hath failed me; No man careth for my soul. I cried unto thee, O Jehovah; I said, Thou art my refuge, My portion in the land of the living. Attend unto my cry; For I am brought very low: Deliver me from my persecutors; For they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, That I may give thanks unto thy name: The righteous shall compass me about; For thou wilt deal bountifully with me.” Psalm 142, ASV
It is pretty cold out there, extremely cold in many areas of the country. Most people are being smart about this weather, staying home where it is warm. It is probably getting tough; the kids have been home for days, the end of the school year is extending into summer with every snow day. They are bored and anxious. Though many are enjoying the fact that they aren’t in school, there’s only so much you can do trapped with Mom in the house. It is even too cold to play in the snow.
Families have long range concerns, too. Missed work often means smaller paychecks. This cold means that electric or heating bills will be extreme next month. They are even warning people here in South Texas to be ready for shock when we get our statements. This doesn’t help those families who are trying to catch up with their overspending in December.
There are probably a million different reasons why people are feeling overwhelmed today. Work has piled up over the holiday vacations. Christmas decorations need to be taken down and put away. Holiday excess is showing in tight fitting pants. This is also a time for dealing with fear and grief. Too many people get sick and die during the cold winter months. Common colds or the flu lead to worse problems or the discovery of other dis-ease. It can be overwhelming.
The holidays and the beginning of a new year is also a time when people reveal things to their family and friends that is hard to understand and accept. They see the new year as a time for new beginnings. They choose to make changes in their life that is not always seen as appropriate or helpful. It is overwhelming for both the one making the revelations and for those to whom they reveal these feelings. It is difficult to begin the year with hurt and disappointment, and there is no easy way to get through these times.
What is overwhelming you today? David was overwhelmed by his enemies, who were surrounding him while he and his men hid in a cave. He cried out to God for help. David turned to the LORD in prayer, praise and faith. He did not kill his enemy, because he knew that God would fulfill His promises. We, too, can trust in God to help us through the things that overwhelm us. Through faith in Christ we can cry out to God for help through our troubles. He is our refuge and our portion. He will hear our cry and answer. When you feel overwhelmed by life, turn to the Lord in faith. He will help.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 12, 2014, Baptism of our Lord: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29:1-11; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 3:13-17
“But if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him; knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death no more hath dominion over him.” Romans 6:8-9, ASV
I’ve missed a few weeks due to a sudden holiday trip, but the Gospel lesson we would have seen last week is the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple. At twelve years old, Jesus understood His relationship to the Father, and He was prepared to learn and grow. We don’t know what happened between the day Jesus’ parents found Him sitting with the scholars of His day and when He was thirty years old. Some stories exist about those eighteen years, travels to the four corners of the earth, where He learned and taught among the scholars of many different cultures. The scriptures do not tell those stories, but we do know from Luke, “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52, ASV)
The church year has so far been filled with the stories of the coming of Jesus. His birth fulfills the promise that we see in the passage from Isaiah. The Old Testament covenants were promises of land, power, and perpetuity, but God also promised salvation and forgiveness. In this lesson, we see that the servant is given as a covenant for the people. Though some understand the servant to be Israel herself, we know that this was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Israel may have been a sign of the covenant, but Jesus is the covenant. The signs are the things He would do: open the eyes of the blind, set the prisoners free. Just as Israel was meant to be a light for the nations, Jesus is a light for the entire world.
We may not know what happened to Jesus in those eighteen years between His visit to the Temple at twelve and His baptism at around thirty, but the stories for the next few months will focus on His ministry. On this day we begin to see Him as He takes upon Himself the work of His Father in this world. We begin at the beginning: His baptism.
At His baptism, Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh—identified completely with you and I, taking upon himself the very nature of man and all that goes with it while still remaining without sin. The purpose of His life was to take on the sin that was brought into the world in the Garden by Adam and Eve and destroy it forever, making it possible for men to once again live in harmony with God and one another. At His baptism, the Spirit of God once again hovered over the formless and empty earth, His voice spoke and there was Light. At that moment, Jesus Christ was anointed with the power to truly change the world, to restore our relationship with our Father.
When Jesus was baptized, the water poured over Him. When He came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit poured over Him. From that moment, Jesus started a journey during which the Spirit and the Word flowed to those with whom He came in contact. He poured out God’s grace to the world, as God’s voice continued to speak.
John felt unworthy to do the task to which he had been called. How could he possibly baptize the One whom he knows has no need of baptism? He would have to submit to God’s will and accept that God sometimes calls us to do things we do not want to do and that we do not think we are worthy of doing. It is through weak, broken vessels that God fulfills all righteousness. Jesus asked John to endure what is asked of him because through it God would do a wonderful work.
After Jesus came out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit came down upon Jesus and the Father spoke, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus was claimed and anointed at that moment to be sent into the world to do the work of God. While Jesus had nothing to repent, His baptism was a turning point in His life. From that moment, Jesus was set on the path to the cross, the path that would ultimately fulfill all righteousness.
Jesus is more than just a son; He is the chosen one. Isaiah writes, “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.” The promised servant is a powerful man, yet the prophet writes of a suffering servant enduring pain and persecution. “He will not cry, nor lift up his voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set justice in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law.”
While many descriptions of the Messiah foresee a conquering King, Isaiah shows a man with an even more powerful weapon: love. Jesus presented His message with gentleness to all who would listen. He did not bring further hurt to those who were wounded, but rather healed their bodies and their spirits. He did not snuff out the passion that burned in the people, but fanned it with the truth so that it would burn brightly and rightly. He did not force His message on any; He simply spoke the truth and moved on. He loved even when He was not loved. Too often people are destroyed by our lack of gentleness when sharing the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus brought justice with gentleness.
Jesus was claimed, anointed and sent into the world to do God’s work that day at the Jordan. The baptism of John was one of repentance, but Jesus made it something new. Today all those who come to the font of baptism in a Christian church are cleansed and forgiven, but we also experience baptism like Jesus. We are claimed as children of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit and then sent into the world to share the grace of God with those who do not yet know Him.
God can do all these things without baptism. God forgives without water. God claims without witnesses. God anoints in His time and His way. God sends us into the world to do His work; sometimes we do not even realize it.
There is a story about a man who had a gut feeling he should buy a gallon of milk. He didn’t understand why, but he obeyed the voice that was calling to him. He heard the voice again on his drive home; it told him to turn down a street and stop at a house. It told him to deliver the milk to the door. He knocked and was greeted by a desperate person, shocked to see him holding a gallon of milk. “We did not know how we were going to feed our baby tonight, we had no milk. But here you are: a gift from heaven.” Have you ever had something happen and not until after it was over realize that it was an act of God? Not knowing why you make a phone call or turn a corner you find there is someone at the other end who needs God’s grace. You were there because God sent you even though you did not know it at the time.
God can do this without baptism, but God has given us this great and wonderful gift for a reason. We join with Christ in baptism, dying to self and being raised to new life. 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. Paul writes, “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin; for he that hath died is justified from sin.”
As a church we baptize because by it we are joined to one another by this simple act of grace. We are commanded in Matthew 28 to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are baptized because it is a tangible sign and means of God’s grace. God knows that we need tangible things on which to grasp so that we can see and know the intangible. In the Old Testament, God’s promises were accompanied by signs, like rainbows and circumcision. These were signs for the people so that they would remember what God has done and will do for them. So, too, are the gifts of the sacraments. In baptism, we experience and are assured of the promise of God.
At Sunday School this week as we talked about Jesus’ baptism, I asked people to tell their own baptism stories. Of course many of us in our church were baptized at a very early age, so we do not remember our own, although we can remember the stories as they were told to us by our families. I remember my daughter’s baptism very well. It was Christmas Eve and she was just a few weeks old. She screamed the whole time we were hearing the words of the liturgy at the font. I was afraid that she would scream bloody terror at that beautiful moment the water was poured over her, but she quieted immediately. It was like she was comforted by the washing of God’s Holy Spirit over her. The other members of our class shared stories that were different. God comes to us in unique ways, even as we share in a common sacrament. It isn’t what man does at the font that matters, but that God washes, claims, anoints and sends us into His world to continue His work among His people.
On this day we are reminded of our own baptisms. When we came out from the water, the heavens opened up and God spoke our name. He anointed us with the same Spirit that gave Jesus His strength and sense of purpose in this world. We are called as Christians to live in our baptism. That’s how Martin Luther lived. When we are faced by temptation, we usually claim our own strength, “I can avoid this” or “I can make it go away.” Luther knew he had no power over sin by his own will. He answered temptation by saying, “I am baptized.” He knew that it was only by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the mercy of God, that he, and we, could live rightly. The devil has no power over us when we are covered by the grace of God.
Luther lived in his baptism by remembering it daily. In his small catechism, Luther writes that as soon as we get out of bed in the morning we should make the sign of the cross and say, “Under the care of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.” We should do the same in the evening before we go to bed. These acts help us remember that God is with us daily, walking with us, guiding us, and helping us to serve Him in this world. This is the kind of life Jesus lived, the life we see modeled in the scriptures. It began with His baptism and then again with ours. He began something new, made a new covenant with His people. The voice of God calls us to this life and sends us out to be His voice in the world.
“Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear, though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation; named of God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 5:7-10, ASV
Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself were something of value. Not at all! In fact, when you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth.” We are cautioned to be careful that we do not say “Yes” too quickly, because it is too easy to break those promises we make. But we are also called to discern the work that needs to be done so that we do not miss out on the opportunities we’ve been given to live as God has called us to live.
When I was a retail manager, I had several different types of employees. I’m sure we could find these types of people in other areas of life, such as among students in a classroom and believers in a community of faith. There were those employees with whom it was a joy to work. They were anxious to get to work. They looked for work to do they completed all their tasks with enthusiasm and enjoyment. The work was well done, as the employee had gone above and beyond the ‘call of duty.’
I also had employees that accepted assignments with enthusiasm, but they never finished the work. They were easily distracted by other things and though they might have started a task, they never managed to finish anything. They had plenty of excuses for not getting work done. For example, I had one employee whose job was to take care of the stationary department of the store. This department (pens, notebooks, office supplies) was definitely hard to deal with because there were so many small items on the shelves. This employee was also often called to serve as a cashier during busy times, but she was always given plenty of time. She was even given help, but she still managed to waste time. She found a way to make her brief stints at the register lengthy time away from her regular duties. She lingered around the check-out station, stopped to chat with other employees and excused herself to the break room.
I think the greatest number of employees were the third type. They were the grumblers and complainers. They were the ones who were vocal about those tasks they hated to do. They often found work on the floor quickly so that they would not be assigned the hated work. They never said “Yes” with or without enthusiasm. They said “No, I have other work to do.” Yet, I often found them doing the work later, having realized how important it was to get it done. It was those employees that often took over the tasks of the one who said “Yes,” but never accomplished it. Despite the grumbling, I would rather have these employees because at least I knew the work would get done.
Where do you fall in these types? Are you the one who does the work with enthusiasm, going the extra mile? Or do you say “Yes,” while finding excuses to set it aside. Or do you grumble but manage to get the work done? When it comes to the Christian life, which type are you? I suspect most of us would like to think that we are disciples who will enthusiastically obey everything God has called us to do, but I’m sure there are times when we fall into the other types. We have all experienced the opportunities that seem doable, but life gets in our way. We have also grumbled about the work that we know we should do, but eventually get around to it.
We who believe have made a promise to God. We’ve said “Yes” to living in faith, but are we living in the obedience we’ve seen and learned from our Lord Jesus Christ? Those tasks that seem impossible because we are so busy with other things, or the ones that we just don’t want to do, are far easier than the great thing Jesus did for us. He was obedient, even unto death. Did He want to do so? He cried out in the garden and asked God to take away the cup, but He never said “No.” And He went to the cross without argument, the Righteous One willingly receiving the punishment for the rest of us so that we can be obedient when God calls us to His work.
“Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me; For my soul taketh refuge in thee: Yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I take refuge, Until these calamities be overpast. I will cry unto God Most High, Unto God that performeth all things for me. He will send from heaven, and save me, When he that would swallow me up reproacheth; Selah God will send forth his lovingkindness and his truth. My soul is among lions; I lie among them that are set on fire, Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, And their tongue a sharp sword. Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; Let thy glory be above all the earth. They have prepared a net for my steps; My soul is bowed down: They have digged a pit before me; They are fallen into the midst thereof themselves. Selah My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing, yea, I will sing praises. Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp: I myself will awake right early. I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, among the peoples: I will sing praises unto thee among the nations. For thy lovingkindness is great unto the heavens, And thy truth unto the skies. Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; Let thy glory be above all the earth.” Psalm 57, ASV
Leonardo da Vinci was an incredible man. If he were to write a resume, he could include many skills and areas of knowledge, such as painting, sculpting, architecture, music, mathematics, engineering, invention, anatomy, geology, cartography, botany, and writing. He is probably one of the most famous polymaths, which are people who excel in multiple fields. Leonardo, along with other great thinkers from his age and incredible people from every age, was a Renaissance man, seemingly gifted in everything he did.
While Renaissance man is still a complimentary term for someone who does it all, ‘Jack of all trades’ has taken on a negative connotation. The phrase as we know it today is “Jack of all trades, master of none,” but the second half of that was not added until the late eighteenth century. The term ‘Jack’ was used to reference a common man in the 16th century, but the phrase used for someone stretching their talents too far was ‘Johnny do it all.’ Interestingly, a literary writer in the sixteenth century once wrote about Shakespearre, “An upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you. Beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum (Johnny do it all), is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”
Jack was often added to the name of skilled craftsmen, like lumberjack and steeplejack, not in a negative way. Little could be done in those days that didn’t take a craftsman with ‘jack’ on his skill. Eventually the term “jack of all trades” described someone who could perform well in many jobs. He might be hired on the crew that is building a grand cathedral and used wherever there was a need. The negative connotation came into being in the late eighteenth century when the headmaster of a school wrote about the poems of Dryden, “Your Writings are like a Jack of all Trades Shop, they have Variety, but nothing of value.”
In 1785 the phrase “master of none” was written in a book about druggists; the argument was that they had become more than drug merchants, by expanding their business beyond providing medical help to creating too many potions, including lotion, oils and paint. Today’s drugstore might just be the perfect example of that; they have a lot of everything, but not much of anything.
We do not use the terms Renaissance man or jack of all trades to describe God, but doesn’t it seem as though He is? Books have been written describing the many characters, attributes and works of our God. He is Creator, Redeemer, Counselor, Friend, Priest, Lamb, Father, Son, Spirit, Guide, Teacher, Master… We can go on. The gods of the Pagans were focused on one particular work, so they had dozens of gods, each taking care of something unique. There was a god for the sun, the rain, the winter, procreation, war, peace, etc. It must seem like our God is a jack of all trades, especially when many of those who do not believe see Him as failing. After all, if God were truly a Master of everything, wouldn’t the world be better? Wouldn’t there be peace? Why is there suffering if God can do anything?
We describe God with many words that have the prefix “omni.” Omni means ‘all’. So we know that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. This means that God is all knowing, all powerful and all present or all seeing. How can He be all these things and do everything well? He is God. A human being might be a Renaissance man or a jack of all trades, doing what he does well or not so well. But our God is not human. He is. He knows. He is power. He is everywhere. While it might seem to those who do not believe that God is less than ‘omni,’ we know that God is to be exalted because He does all things for us.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philemon 1:3, ASV
We’ve had a rough week. We received some news that was disappointing and discouraging. At first we were hurt and angry, but time has helped us to understand the situation and we have found the grace and the courage to forgive. There’s still work to do, lives have been changed and the future is still unknown, but we are on a good path.
The hardest part of dealing with a crisis is sharing it with others. We are embarrassed or the feelings are too fresh. We don’t want to be handed a lot of advice from people who are not intimately connected to the situation. Advice can be helpful, but it is often impractical or inappropriate. While it might be good advice for someone, it is often wrong for the particular person or situation. It can be frustrating to hear everyone’s ideas and it is so easy to become defensive, so we tend to keep our crisis private. Unfortunately, it is impossible to hide a problem when it is written all over your face. Certain words bring tears. It seems as though no matter where we go, what we see or hear, everything reminds us of the crisis.
We’ve been rather cryptic with friends during this time, not really saying anything, but hinting that there’s a problem. A crisis is “any event that is, or is expected to lead to, an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community, or whole society.” While that might be true of our situation, it isn’t really as bad as it might seem. It has been interesting to see how many people understand. I’ve learned that our crisis is not so unusual. It seems as though everyone knows someone.
Our friends have been sympathetic, and I have found it easier to deal with the whole thing as I’ve heard their stories. I wanted to hide. I didn’t want advice. I didn’t want to deal with everyone’s opinions or ideas. But I realized quickly that they weren’t trying to tell us what to do, but to help us through. They understand that our crisis is a crisis to us in this moment, but there’s hope and a future, even if it is different than what we expected. Our peace was shattered for a moment, but not really, because in the end we found the grace to get us through. That grace was shared by people who care.
I love the way Paul begins every one of his letters to the church. Somewhere in the first few verses we always find some form of the greeting in today’s scripture. Paul speaks to the churches that are in the midst of some sort of crisis, some more critical than others, and he gives them words that might seem like unsolicited advice. I wouldn’t doubt that at least some of the listeners became defensive; don’t we when we read bible passages that give an answer we don’t want to hear? But Paul is not writing to get the Christians to do it his way, he writes to encourage them in ways that will help them through.
He begins his letters with the greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” because he wants the Christians to know that he’s not writing to start a fight. He doesn’t want to upset them or given them unsolicited advice. He encourages them to listen, to hear his story, to see that he understands and wants to help. In these words Paul also reminds them, and us, that grace and peace are gifts of God, and he encourages us to trust that God is with us to help us discern. We might want to hide from others during our crisis, but if we graciously give them a chance to share their experiences, we might just find peace.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who by the power of God are guarded through faith unto a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, ye have been put to grief in manifold trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold that perisheth though it is proved by fire, may be found unto praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ: whom not having seen ye love; on whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable and full of glory: receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls. Concerning which salvation the prophets sought and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what time or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did point unto, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glories that should follow them. To whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto you, did they minister these things, which now have been announced unto you through them that preached the gospel unto you by the Holy Spirit sent forth from heaven; which things angel desire to look into.” 1 Peter 1:3-12, ASV
I delivered a few boxes of hygiene products to a Christian assistance ministry in town a couple months ago. I met a man named Larry as I was leaving. He is homeless and was seeking help. We spoke for a long time and he shared a song that he had written about Jesus’ life and his love. I prayed with him and promised to continue to pray. I don’t know whether he was encouraged by our encounter, but he certainly encouraged me.
I encountered another homeless person a few years back. She was resting in the doorway of a closed shop near a theater where my daughter and I were about to see a show. This encounter was much different than my time with Larry. Sadly, I walked on by, ignoring her like the rest of the people who were there for the show. I felt bad, but I didn’t know what I could do to help her. It made me particularly sad that we didn’t get a to go box at the Mexican restaurant where we ate dinner. I didn’t take it because I didn’t want to deal with it during the show, but we left behind so much food. We prayed for her, but the encounter was certainly not encouraging for either the woman or us.
It is hard because there are many people who stand on the street corners begging for a few dollars. They hold signs that say that they are homeless, that they are hungry, that they need or help. Unfortunately, many of those peddlers are not really homeless or hungry or in need; they make thousands of dollars a week from the kind-hearted gifts of strangers who drive by. A reporter in Washington did a story and she discovered that they are dropped off in the morning by a man in a nice, new van which was filled with others who were dropped off on other corners. I always wonder what I should do, after all Jesus told us to share our blessings with those who need help. However, He also told us to be good stewards with our gifts.
We had similar peddlers when we lived in Washington. I decided to keep a lunch bag in my car filled with non-perishable food. It had a bottle of water, some pop-top foods, fruit cups or peanut butter. I included plastic utensils and napkins and at the very bottom of the bag I put some money. I gave these lunches without hesitation, even if I doubted the peddler was really in need. I thought that if the man were truly hungry, he’d eat the food and find the money. If not, then he would throw it away and it would be found by someone who rummaging through the garbage that was really hungry. I trusted that God would see that the gift was given to the one who truly needed it.
See, here is what I’ve noticed: the people who are truly in need do not ask for help. Perhaps they’ve been rejected too often, perhaps they are too proud. Perhaps they trust that God will provide or they are satisfied with the help they get from the people who respond to the call of the heart. Here’s another thing I’ve noticed: the people who need our help the most carry something with them. Larry had a suitcase and a bag. The lady at the theater had a shopping cart. They carry their whole life in those bags, their most precious things. Larry had a bible in his bag, which he pulled out to show me a favorite text. I don’t know what the woman had in her cart, but she kept it close. The guy on the street corner never has anything but a beat up old sign and a bottle of water. Does he need my help, or is he taking advantage of the kind heartedness of people?
I look around my house and I have a lot of things that I think are precious. I couldn’t carry those things in a small suitcase or a shopping cart. What would I take with me if I were cast out on the street? What would become precious if I had to fit my whole world into something I can carry? The word precious is defined: “of high cost or worth; valuable; highly esteemed; cherished; dear; beloved; affectedly dainty or overrefined.” I doubt that Larry or the woman had anything that we might call valuable, but to them these things are cherished. They are precious.
We have too many precious things in our homes, but even worse is the fact that we have too many things. It doesn’t matter who we are, whether we are rich and live on the hill or we are poor and live on the streets: we cling to the things we think matter. Unfortunately, the value we put on those things often stands in the way of our doing what God is calling us to do. We think our stuff is precious, but we miss out on the opportunities we have to truly share His grace with others. Larry, who was certainly in more need than me, shared his faith and encouraged me.
The most precious thing we have isn’t something that we can keep in a house, in a suitcase or a shopping cart: it is our faith. Do we live in that faith? Do we faithfully answer the call of God? Do we share what is precious with those in need, both our material goods and our trust in God?
Scriptures for Sunday, January 19, 2014, Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42a
“He brought him unto Jesus.” John 1:42a
I made soup and salad for dinner last night. We had roast chicken on Sunday and I thought that the leftovers would go well in a soup and in a salad. I first learned to make soup in Home Economics class in Junior High School. We followed a very specific recipe with the meat, diced vegetables, spices and other ingredients. The soup was delicious, but I have to admit that I lost that recipe a long time ago. My soup last night was a hodgepodge of leftovers. I had some stewed tomatoes and green beans from a meal a few days ago. I added some aromatics: celery, onion and carrot. I threw in some complimentary spices. And of course I added the chicken and chicken broth.
I learned how to make soup by following a very specific recipe, but throughout my life I’ve also watched as others cooked. I have learned a lot about flavor and technique by watching the cooking shows on television. Eventually I just started experimenting. When I am not sure about something, like cooking time or temperature, I try to find a similar recipe and use it as a reference. I have to admit that some of my creations do not turn out so well, although most of them are at least edible. Sometimes they are so good that I hope I can recreate it.
This is how we learn. We begin with words that explain how to do what we are trying to do, like a recipe. Most of us do not learn very well by just reading words on a page. We have to have someone explain it to us, like a teacher in a cooking class. Even then the learning is only minimal. We need to see how things are done as the teacher demonstrates technique, shows us how to measure, explains the use of the equipment. We learn best when we get our own hands dirty and try to do what we are learning. The chicken soup recipe would be a lost memory if I’d only read it on a page, but because I can still see our teacher telling us about it and I can still feel myself cutting the chicken, I can take that lesson into my kitchen and make my own kind of soup today.
The Gospel lesson for today shows John pointing to Jesus and declaring that He is the Lamb of God. I’d like to back up our text a few verses, beginning at John 1:19. In these verses, John tells the Jewish leaders that he is not the Christ. He admits that he’s really a nobody compared to the One who is to come; he’s just the messenger proclaiming the coming of the One for whom they were waiting. They wonder why he is baptizing if he’s a nobody, but he says, “I baptize in water: in the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not, even he that cometh after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose.”
Last week we heard about John baptizing Jesus even though he thought himself unworthy to do so. With that act of obedience, Jesus appears on the scene, and John witnesses the very thing that God told him he would see: the Holy Spirit resting on the One who He has sent. In today’s passage, John points to Jesus and tells them He was the One he was talking about. “See, that’s Him.” Finally, John tells two of his disciples that Jesus is the one, and they go on to follow Him. The story began with John speaking the words of the promise, then he showed the One who is the promise, then the disciples followed the Promised One. It wasn’t enough to hear about Jesus, but they had to also see and follow Him to receive the promise.
We sometimes think that it is enough to just tell people about Jesus, but they need more. They need to see Him, they need to experience life in His presence. Can they do that if they are looking in from the outside? That’s why we need to do more than give them the words. We need to point to Jesus, invite them in so that they can experience the love, mercy and grace of God within the community of saints. We need to be like Andrew, who went to his brother and dragged him to see Jesus. “Come and see!”
Shouldn’t we, too, want to drag those we love into the presence of God? Oh, I know, that’s sounds terribly narrow-minded and fanatical. Shouldn’t people be able to decide for themselves? A generation of Christians has grown up with parents that did not want to force their faith on their children. They didn’t attend Sunday school. They didn’t even go to church. The parents chose to give the children the freedom to find out about Jesus on their own. But how will they ever learn if someone doesn’t take them? How will they ever experience the love and mercy and grace of Jesus if they have not been dragged to church on a regular basis?
Yes, dragged to church sounds awful, and I’m sure many of the children who are dragged to church on a Sunday morning reject the idea of institutional religion for just that reason. But why is it seen as dragging? Why are those parents going to church? Are they going out of duty? Do they think that they have to force some sort of faith on their kids? Where is the joy? Where is the peace? Where is the hope that comes from being in a relationship with Christ?
It is no wonder that the servant in Isaiah felt frustrated by the work He was called to do. We know, of course, that the Servant Songs of Isaiah (chapters 42, 49, 50 and 53) are about our Lord Jesus Christ. The song we hear today is from the servant’s perspective. In verse four the servant says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nought and vanity.” The words may have been said about any generation, because we all go through periods in which we disappoint our God.
Look at Israel, God’s chosen people. I was looking through a concordance for the word “peace” and I found dozens of times when it was written in the history books (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles). The nation of Israel was like a roller coaster ride. They lived under the care of a king whose heart was for God and they knew peace, but eventually the king’s children or grandchildren began to turn away, worshipping false gods and relying on pagan allies. After a few generations another king came whose heart was for God and the nation once again knew peace. It is no wonder that God was exasperated with His people!
We aren’t any different. We continue to go through the roller coaster of faithful obedience to self-righteousness. This happens to denominations, churches, nations, and individuals. We look to God in faith but eventually the cares and temptations of the world turn us away. It takes God’s grace to bring us back. It took Jesus to make us His people. In the Servant Song, we see that the servant is not only sent to restore Israel, but to draw the whole world into God’s heart. Everyone is invited to experience God’s salvation. His grace reaches to the very ends of the earth.
But the world will not know Jesus if we let them find Him for themselves. Too many people have an eclectic faith, a faith based on what they want to believe. Oh, there are many who believe in Jesus, but they prefer to pick and choose the parts they want to believe. If they don’t like one aspect of the scriptures, they explain it away as being specific to that time and place. If they don’t like one aspect of God’s character, they claim that He isn’t like that anymore. If there’s something about the Christian faith they do not believe, they site that it is nothing more than myth or superstition or a literary tool.
Yes, if I were God, if I were the Servant, I would be frustrated. We fail constantly to live up to the expectations of our faith. Willingly or not, we can’t believe without some help. We can’t be disciples if we just hear the words. It is not even enough that we hear and see. We have to experience God in Christ Jesus, dragging one another into His presence so that we will all be part of His Kingdom together.
I had a friend with whom I had several conversations about faith. She knew I was active in my church and that I really believed. She said she believed, too, but had not found a church to attend. I invited her to ours, but she had plenty of excuses. She didn’t think she was good enough. She didn’t accept the fact that churches are filled with people who are not good enough, but that we go because God loves us so much that He wants to help us transform into the people He has created us to be. She didn’t have enough money. When I said that there is no financial requirement, she said she couldn’t belong to a church that didn’t require a tithe. It is no wonder that the Servant is frustrated. Maybe if I’d dragged her to church…
We can’t do that, of course, with our neighbors. We can only encourage them to become part of a Christian community, to grow in their faith and experience the love, mercy and grace of God.
The problem here has been the use of the word “drag.” I suppose it is true that some children feel like they are being dragged to church. Quite frankly, there are many adults who feel that way, even though they have a choice. They go for all the wrong reasons. They live their faith only on Sunday morning and ignore God the rest of the week. They don’t have that longing to be in His presence always. They want God to be available to them at their convenience, but to stand back when they are busy living in the world. The faith Jesus calls us to is deeper, fuller, eternal. It calls us to be part of something bigger.
I was disappointed, of course, that I couldn’t convince my friend that she needed to find a church home. We are reminded in the text from Isaiah that even Jesus was disappointed. How can we expect anything less? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And these words remind us that when we are disappointed and discouraged, we need only look to the promises and remember that God is with us to help us do all that He has called us to do. While we may not see evidence of our work in this world, we can trust that God is doing something we can’t see and He is faithful.
The problem with my friend’s attitude is that she thought she had to begin ‘good enough.’ The psalmist, however, understands that we don’t begin good enough. We don’t even end up good enough. We are made good by God’s grace. The words of the psalmist are the words of a child of God who has realized his own sinfulness and has cried out for the saving grace of his God. God is the peacemaker who went into the middle of the battle and shed His blood for the sake of others. He is the teacher that tried for many generations to speak the truth into their lives, but they did not hear. They did not see the truth even as the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, stood and spoke in their presence. So, He went to the cross and took the wrath that was released by our self-centered choices.
Paul had some very real issues to deal with in his letter. By God’s grace, the Corinthians had a sense of self assurance about their faith, an almost haughty understanding of their spirituality. They were a gifted congregation, both in word and in deed, able to do amazing things in the name and for the sake of the Gospel. Yet, they were also arrogant, thinking that they were a little more spiritual, a little more gifted. They also began to see themselves as gifted because of themselves, not because of what God had done. That is the whole point of the first letter to the Corinthians, to remind them that God is faithful and that He will get them through the good times and the bad.
What those who claim to be Christian but do not become part of a community of faith do not realize is that they are withholding the very gifts God has given them by staying apart. It is not enough to say that we are Christians and that our gifts will do amazing things. Our sophisticated tongue and superior wisdom are useless without God’s grace. The gifts are not given for us to be an island, to use them on our own or for our own benefit. They are given to be shared with the community of faith, to build up the church. Faith is not simply a personal relationship with God. It is a relationship within the kingdom of God, the body of believers and through it we will be sustained until the day of Christ’s return.
Paul began by pointing them back to their salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ. How easy it would have been for Paul or John the Baptist to take credit for the salvation of millions. Paul’s words have been read for nearly two thousand years and he has been a witness who has pointed a multitude of people to Christ. Yet, when John’s disciples were drawn toward Jesus, he did not try to hold on to them. He told them that Jesus was the anointed one, the chosen Messiah. He pointed out Jesus and sent them on their way. Paul reminded his readers that the grace they knew came from Jesus.
John and Paul both knew that discipleship meant more than just hearing the word or even seeing Jesus; discipleship is about living in the faith we have been giving, following Jesus. It means not just speaking words to people or showing them what God is all about, but also dragging them into the fellowship of believers so that they too can grow and learn and share God’s grace with others.
Peter found Jesus because Andrew pointed to Him. Andrew found Jesus because John pointed to Him. John found Jesus because God Himself pointed to Jesus and revealed Him to be the One for whom they were waiting. We are called to do the same. We aren’t called to be saviors, to bring salvation to the world. Rather, we are called to be witnesses to what we have seen; pointing to Jesus so that He might draw them into a relationship. It isn’t about us, it never has been. As John, we are nothing more than voices crying out in the wilderness with a song in our hearts and praise on our lips, pointing the way so that the world might see that which has been revealed in Christ Jesus. We might sometimes be disappointed, but it is never in vain because God is always faithful.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ: even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love: having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved: in whom we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, making known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him unto a dispensation of the fulness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth; in him, I say, in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will; to the end that we should be unto the praise of his glory, we who had before hoped in Christ: in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation,-- in whom, having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance, unto the redemption of God's own possession, unto the praise of his glory.” Ephesians 1:3-14, ASV
We have moved a lot during our twenty-five years of marriage. My husband was in the military, and we were sent from one base to another. It is important to keep your life uncluttered when you move every few years. With every move we managed to get rid of the things that no longer mattered. We don’t have baby toys or furniture. We purged our books with every move, getting rid of the ones that we read and would never use again. We got rid of knickknacks that had no sentimental or monetary value. We purged old clothes, to the point that none of us even have a winter coat.
The best example of this was during our move to Arkansas from England. We had moved to England from Washington State; because we were going overseas we had a limit on the amount of stuff we could take. We had to put some things in storage for those four years. We began to unpack our storage boxes as soon as they arrived in Arkansas, but I was surprised by the items I found. Almost immediately I got another box, and as I was unwrapping items that I hadn’t seen or used in four years, I put them directly into a box to donate. I asked myself, “Does this really have a purpose for my life today?” Most of it didn’t; after all, I didn’t need it for four years.
We moved again a couple years ago after having lived in a house for nine years. It is amazing what you can accumulate when you live in a same place for a long time. I questioned the purpose of each item as I packed it into a box, and I managed to give away truckloads of things that I did not need any longer. Sadly, I discovered items in the pantry and in the medicine cabinet that I had moved from Arkansas that had been out of date even before that move! That means I moved food and medicine that was already no good to use, and therefore no longer had a purpose. Even when we are resolute about purging our life of the superfluous things, we still let things get through.
We spend a lot of time thinking about our purpose in life. There isn’t someone somewhere deciding whether or not we are of value, whether we should be put on a shelf or dumped in a giveaway box. There may be times when we think so, but there is a great and wonderful purpose for which we have been created and redeemed. Oh, there’s lots of things we can do, and we have been given great and wonderful gifts to do those works, but the real purpose of our life is to glorify God.
“And let him turn away from evil, and do good; Let him seek peace, and pursue it.” 1 Peter 3:11, ASV
I was working on a project a number of years ago making prayer beads to give to people I met while attending a convention. I wanted to have at least a hundred of these gifts. They were made using a specific type of bead which was not inexpensive, so I tried to buy them when they were on sale at my favorite craft store. Unfortunately, the sales were every few weeks, and the store didn’t have very many packages of the beads each time. I would never have made enough purchasing the beads at the rate I was able to find them on the shelf.
One week I decided that I would search beyond my usual location. That particular chain has multiple locations in my city, and on sale week I visited every single store. In the end I managed to find everything I needed, but it took more than a casual search to do so. I had to eagerly pursue the beads to be able to finish the project.
I do this: I get an idea in my head and then I run from store to store to store until I can make it happen. I search different departments, I seek out possible solutions. My latest project includes items that I found on the Christmas clearance rack. I went to every store and bought all their leftovers. Then I had to figure out what to do with it. I’ve tried multiple ideas, tested different products, and used different color combinations. After trial and error I found the answer. I’m happy with the direction of the project and I look forward to working on the pieces throughout this next year.
At first when I read today’s scripture, I thought Peter was being redundant when he said, “Seek peace and pursue it.” Isn’t seeking peace pursuing it? And is peace something you can pursue? Using a good study bible, I’ve spent the morning looking into this word pursue and into the references that help us understand what Peter is saying. He is quoting Psalm 34 which helps us to understand that peace comes from living the godly life. See, the psalmist understood that a good relationship with God will give us that peace that can’t be found, but is given by God.
We often think of pursuing peace in diplomatic terms, like approaching our enemies with forgiveness and seek a treaty. We know from history and experience that the peace we have between each other is fleeting. It is fleeting because we are all human. We fail to live up to the expectations of our neighbors. We make mistakes. We say the wrong things. We don’t do what we should do. We hurt our friends and we anger our enemies. We don’t do these things on purpose, they happen because we are human. However, Peter and the psalmist tell us to seek peace and pursue it. That means being very purposeful in the way we live, avoiding the things that might cause conflict.
We will make mistakes, but as we live in this relationship with God that brings peace, we’ll find that we can avoid those mistakes. We can reject the sinful impulses that cause harm by looking to God for strength and direction. It is not enough to just seek peace between enemies. We are encouraged to pursue the relationship with God that will fill our lives with a peace that we can’t find on our own, but is given to us by God.
“Now the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of an eternal covenant, even our Lord Jesus, make you perfect in every good thing to do his will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Hebrews 13:20-21, ASV
Over the years I’ve used different examples of perfection. One of the most obvious, of course, is the perfect wife and woman as found in Proverbs 31. I jokingly refer to her as the Martha Stewart of King David’s court. A friend of mine once said, “I could be the perfect wife if I had servants to help.” We have learned in the past few years that even Martha Stewart, who has a reputation of being able to host the perfect occasion, dress the perfect table, cook the perfect meal, is not perfect. She is not the ideal that we imagined her to be.
Another example I used was from the pages of “Architectural Digest Magazine.” The magazine is filled with photographs of the homes of the rich and famous and show how they’ve decorated with style and taste. Some of the homes are exquisite. The furniture is expensive and beautiful, every accessory perfectly placed. Even the lighting coming through the windows is perfect. I’ve often looked at those pictures and wondered what it would be like to live in a perfect house. I don’t think I will ever get there; there is always something out of place in my house. No matter how clean and organized I get, there is always a cup in the sink or laundry in a basket. I have books scattered throughout the house and a pile of research on my desk. Don’t look at my studio because you are sure to find multiple projects scattered about, with tubes of paint and brushes drying on the counter.
On another occasion I talked about Jane Wyatt, the actress who played one of television’s favorite mothers. She starred in many roles throughout her life, but she will be most remembered for being Margaret Anderson, the wife of Robert Young’s character Jim. Perhaps shows like “Father Knows Best” showed an unrealistic vision of the world, after all, no family was like those television families. They might not be real, but they held up an idea. The characters dealt with real problems that families were facing. Sure, they solved them much too easily; they had to, they only had thirty minutes. The actors from that show were certainly not perfect even if their characters seemed to be, but who among us is?
Today’s scripture is one of those passages that we have difficulty understanding, after all, I don’t know any Christian who is perfect. I might like to think I am, but I know I’m not. I have never cooked the perfect meal, my house is never neat enough to make it to the pages of a magazine and my family is much too normal. I have been angry. I have made mistakes. I have broken at least a few of the commandments by lying or coveting. I want to be perfect, but no matter how much I try, I still fail. When I read that God makes us perfect, I wonder why He has not done such a good job with me.
We think the word “perfect” means “faultless,” and that is certainly one of the definitions. However, the most common definition is “having all essential elements” or “lacking nothing essential to the whole.” When we read that God will make us perfect, we should not think that He is making us to be the perfect wife with the perfect house and the perfect family, but that He has given us everything we need to do His work in the world. We will never be faultless; God has done so many good things for us, but we still live in an imperfect world. Our bodies will fail. We’ll have dirty dishes and laundry. We’ll have fights with our kids and we’ll make bad decisions. But we can be comforted by this text: Paul is asking God for His divine help for all of us, so that for the sake of Jesus Christ we will have everything we need to do His work and glorify Him in the world.
“Then on that day did David first ordain to give thanks unto Jehovah, by the hand of Asaph and his brethren. O give thanks unto Jehovah, call upon his name; Make known his doings among the peoples. Sing unto him, sing praises unto him; Talk ye of all his marvellous works. Glory ye in his holy name; Let the heart of them rejoice that seek Jehovah. Seek ye Jehovah and his strength; Seek his face evermore. Remember his marvellous works that he hath done, His wonders, and the judgments of his mouth, O ye seed of Israel his servant, Ye children of Jacob, his chosen ones. He is Jehovah our God; His judgments are in all the earth. Remember his covenant for ever, The word which he commanded to a thousand generations, The covenant which he made with Abraham, And his oath unto Isaac, And confirmed the same unto Jacob for a statute, To Israel for an everlasting covenant, Saying, Unto thee will I give the land of Canaan, The lot of your inheritance; When ye were but a few men in number, Yea, very few, and sojourners in it; And they went about from nation to nation, And from one kingdom to another people. He suffered no man to do them wrong; Yea, he reproved kings for their sakes, Saying, Touch not mine anointed ones, And do my prophets no harm. Sing unto Jehovah, all the earth; Show forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, His marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised: He also is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols: But Jehovah made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him: Strength and gladness are in his place. Ascribe unto Jehovah, ye kindreds of the peoples, Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength; Ascribe unto Jehovah the glory due unto his name: Bring an offering, and come before him: Worship Jehovah in holy array. Tremble before him, all the earth: The world also is established that it cannot be moved. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; And let them say among the nations, Jehovah reigneth. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; Let the field exult, and all that is therein; Then shall the trees of the wood sing for joy before Jehovah; For he cometh to judge the earth. O give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; For his lovingkindness endureth for ever. And say ye, Save us, O God of our salvation, And gather us together and deliver us from the nations, To give thanks unto thy holy name, And to triumph in thy praise. Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel, From everlasting even to everlasting. And all the people said, Amen, and praised Jehovah.” 1 Chronicles 16:8-36, ASV
It took a very long time for them to get there. God made a promise to Abraham, but so many things happened between that promise and the moment that is chronicled in today’s passage. It was more than a thousand years. In the scriptures we hear the stories of Abraham’s children Ishmael and Isaac, Isaac’s children Jacob and Esau, Jacob’s children, Joseph’s adventures, slavery in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, Joshua and the conquest, the Judges. It was not an easy time for the Hebrews. They suffered. They wandered. They fought. They failed. They were given another chance, and another, and another. During this time, God never forgot His promise. They day would come when the words given to Abraham would be fulfilled.
David knew that time had come. They were in the Promised Land. They had a place to lay down roots and all was ready for God’s kingdom on earth to be established. The passage today follows the return of the Ark of the Covenant, which was placed once again in the Tent of Meeting. The restoration of God’s dwelling place among His people was a reason for celebration. David began the celebration with a song of praise. In this lengthy passage, David recalls the promises of God and His works among His people.
David knew that the best way to begin anything is to praise God. Do we do the same? Do we realize how much of our history is tied to our present? Do we know that we are in this place because of God’s work before us? Do we praise Him for all those things He did and bless His name?
Our journeys are not always easy and we do not always understand why we have had to experience the bad things along with the good. A thousand years is a long time; it seems impossible that the moment the Ark of the Covenant was put into a tent is the culmination of a promise made to a long dead forefather, and yet David knew that they would not be there at that moment had it not been for everything God did from Abraham until that day.
It might be hard for us to see the same fulfillment in our own lives, especially if we look back two thousand years to the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. All we have in this life can be directly attributed to His grace, whatever new beginning we have today is because Jesus saved us on the cross. And so today, as we read this song of praise from David, let us remember that our future, whatever it might be, is thanks to God’s work in our past, and let us praise Him, recalling His good works that have brought us to this time and place.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 26, 2014, Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-9 (10-14); 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” Isaiah 9:2, ASV
God promised that the Messiah would come out of the area known as Zebulun and Naphtali. Matthew recognized the connection when he quoted Isaiah. During this season of Epiphany we are reminded that Jesus came to bring the message of hope to all the nations. He came to be a light in the darkness. He came to bring peace between peoples.
Zebulun was the tenth son of Jacob, the sixth son of his wife Leah. He became one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe that eventually settled to the east of the Sea of Galilee. The name Zebulun has two possible meanings. It can mean “gift.” Leah saw Zebulun as a gift, particularly in her sadness over Jacob’s rejection. It can also mean “honor,” and it stems from the idea that Leah hoped that her sixth child would finally bring her the honor due to her from her husband. The people from the tribe of Zebulun were known to be scribes and they are remembered for their sacrificial willingness to fight for Israel.
Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob, the second son of Rachel’s servant Bilhah. The tribe of Naphtali settled north of Zebulun, also just to the east of the Sea of Galilee. His name came out of Rachel’s grief over her own barrenness, “with great wrestlings have I wrestled my sister.” When blessing his sons, Jacob said of Naphtali, “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.” Naphtali had an independent spirit, set apart by geography and topography as it was from the rest of Israel. The people from the tribe of Naphtali were fighters, and like Zebulun they gave their lives sacrificially for the sake of the whole nation.
The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali settled in the region that came to be known as Galilee. Both these tribes were conquered by the Assyrians, exiled and lost forever. While some people claim to be from the lost tribes, the exile and the intermingling of foreigners with those left behind makes it unlikely that there are still people who can truly trace their roots back to Jacob’s offspring. Perhaps this is what made it a place of darkness. It was a place where Gentiles and Jews lived side by side. Galilee was set apart from the rest of Israel, and they lived their faith as they were able, different than those in Jerusalem.
Isaiah writes, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” During this season of Epiphany, we think about Christ as the light in so many ways, and we identify with Christ as He reached out to the entire world. Our texts for this week show us how God remembers and fulfills His promises in extraordinary ways. Why did Jesus go to Galilee when there were so many opportunities in Jerusalem to teach and transform God’s people? Was He afraid after hearing about John’s arrest? Or was He simply fulfilling the promise, beginning His ministry of light in a place of darkness? See, we would expect the Messiah to focus His attention on the place of power, calling out to the people in authority. How much more can someone get done by going to Washington than they can get done meeting with people on the street corners of a small town? Shouldn’t Jesus have gone directly to Jerusalem and convinced the priests and other Jewish leaders that He was exactly the answer to their prayers?
But Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, according to today’s Gospel passage, the first thing Jesus did after His baptism and the temptation in the wilderness was move to Capernaum. It was called “the region and shadow of death” due partly because of the number of foreigners. It is there, where God did not shine so brightly as the marble walls of the Temple and the glittering jewels of the priests, that the Light who is Christ could be best seen. It is from there that Jesus fulfilled the promise found in Isaiah.
Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem and He didn’t call the priests or other Jewish leaders to follow Him. Instead, He saw two brothers working their fish nets on the Sea of Galilee. He called to them and they left their nets without a second thought. His words, “Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men” evoked an unusual and immediate response. Can you imagine dropping your work and following someone with no notice? In our day we would think it is irresponsible to do such a thing. Jesus found two other fishermen, James and John, and called them to join Him. They left their boat behind—again an irresponsible thing to do, yet they did so seemingly without thought or concern.
I can say with little doubt that the people in Jerusalem probably would not have followed Jesus with such immediacy. Why leave cushy positions in the Temple where everything they needed was readily available for a life that was unknown with a guy they didn’t understand? Why follow this rising star that didn’t shine the way they thought He should shine? See, it is hard to see the light in a place where the people think the light is shining. The people of Jerusalem looked to the priests and the leaders to teach them about God, to lead them in faithful lives, but the leaders had their own agendas. They were shining a light, but was it the light God promised? Would we leave our cushy (or our not so cushy, but secure) lives to follow someone into the unknown?
The idea that light shines in our darkness is a little scary, too. Which of us really wants to see what’s hidden in the deepest parts of our beings? We all have those little secrets, the sins of our past that we don’t want revealed. We especially don’t want them to be seen by God.
A few years ago I read a story about a man whose home was burglarized. The thieves managed to take his safe. You might think a safe is a good place to keep your valuables because they can’t open it without the combination. But if thieves can carry it, they’ll take it; there are dozens of ways to open locked safes. They don’t care if the safe is damaged, they are looking for the valuable contents inside. Unfortunately for the thieves, the man they robbed was a child pornographer; the safe contained a series of DVDs and videotapes of the man with underage girls. He thought he was safe when he went to the police to report the robbery, but his secret was revealed when the safe was opened. He was arrested and his life was ruined.
I doubt that any of our sins are as bad as that man, but sin is sin. The things we do that go against God’s Word hurt others in ways we might not ever realized. Most of all, our sin hurts our relationship with our God. He knows. He doesn’t need to open a safe to see our deepest secrets, He can see our hearts. It is a little scary to think that having God in our midst will shine light on those hidden things. I’m sure there were many in Galilee that didn’t want Jesus preaching to them. They’d rather live life by their own rules. They aren’t much different than you and me.
When we dwell in His love, the light shines on even our darkest secrets. There may be things we would rather stay hidden, but when we hide those things and reject the truth that we are sinners, then we will end up living in fear of discovery. The joy comes, however, in the reality that even though the hidden things are revealed in Christ, they are also forgiven and we are transformed. In the light that destroys darkness, we can confidently follow Jesus without fear.
See, the second part of the reading from Isaiah says, “For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, thou hast broken as in the day of Midian.” Christ came not to burden us under our sin but to set us free from it. Isaiah talks about Midian because that is where Gideon, with a very small army, defeated those who were trying to destroy the tribes of Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali. Gideon didn’t win that war, God did. It wasn’t the handful of soldiers who saved God’s people, but it was God. The same is true of the One who was the Messiah. It wasn’t the band of crazy people Jesus invited to follow Him, but it was God who shined the light into the darkest place.
We might not want to drop everything to follow Jesus, but we can do so without fear. We make all sorts of excuses. We can’t speak with charisma. We don’t know the scriptures well enough. We are imperfect. We are just ordinary people. But who were the disciples? Were they charismatic? Were they well versed in God’s Word? Were they perfect? No, they were none of those things. Most of they, they were just ordinary men. They were fishermen. They were probably dirty and calloused from hard work when they left to follow Jesus, with a smell that wouldn’t draw a crowd. I’m sure they were not genteel, with language that would shock your grandmother. They may have been faithful Jews, but did they attend the Sabbath services or did they sneak in another chance to catch fish?
Jesus didn’t call the ones who thought they were divinely called to shine the light to the people; He called those who were living in the shadow of death. He calls us out of darkness into His light, too. Unfortunately, we live in a time in which death is everywhere. Of course, we have the reality of death. People get sick and they die. People have accidents and they die. This is natural. It is part of our human condition. But we focus so much on death. Watch the first ten minutes of news tonight and you’ll see stores about the violence in our cities and around the world. Television shows are full of death. I love to watch N.C.I.S., but at the beginning of nearly every episode one of us says, “There’s the dead body. There’s always a dead body.” We say this as if it is no big deal. The most popular books, movies, television shows deal with death and darkness: zombies, vampires, drugs, witchcraft. The most popular videogames allow kids to shoot strangers from around the world, killing them over and over again. Even when we laugh we say, “You’re killing me!” We don’t mean it, but the words of death and darkness dwell on our lips. We need the Light, which is Christ, more than ever.
Jesus chose those fishermen and then sent them into the world to do the job they knew in a new light. He chose you, too. You don’t have to be someone special. You don’t have to do anything spectacular. You have been called into the light so that the light can shine through you, too. It won’t be easy; the revelation of our hidden things can hurt. It can hurt us, and it can hurt those we love. We will suffer the consequences of our past failures. But we can follow Jesus knowing that by His grace we have been forgiven.
The point of our texts this week is to remember that it isn’t about us anyway; it is always about God. He is the One who does the work. He is the One who shines. He is the One who forgives. He calls us to join Him in the work, using our gifts and our resources for His purpose. Unfortunately, we don’t always remember that it is about Jesus. We think highly of ourselves, a lot more like those priests and Jewish leaders than the humble fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
We run into trouble when we make ourselves the focus, we end up dividing the church like what was happening to the Church in Corinth. Some of the followers were focusing on the evangelist from whom they had heard the Gospel, rather than focusing on the message. They were loyal to Paul or Apollos or Peter rather than loyal to Jesus Christ. There were some very real differences between them. Paul preached to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews. They were gathered around his message because it met them in their experience and understanding. Peter took the message to the Jewish community. He preached to them in a way that helped them juxtapose their heritage and faith to this new understanding of God. Apollos preached the Gospel with a baptism of repentance like John, which is a message with which many people identify.
These men preached to their audience and their audience was drawn by the message they preached. What Paul was writing to the Corinthians, however, is that there was not three different messages. There is only the Gospel. Though they spoke about Jesus in different ways, they were of one mind in Christ. Paul, who is among the greatest of the evangelists and preachers, did not want anyone ‘following him.’ He was nothing; it was the message that mattered. He was calling the people in Corinth to a life following Christ, not man.
I think it is interesting that Paul makes a big deal about not baptizing many people. His point with this statement is that it is not Paul who baptizes, and it is not in his name that anyone is baptized. God does the work of grace that is found at our font and it is in His name that we are baptized. It is in Jesus Christ that we will find hope, peace and grace.
The psalmist writes, “One thing have I asked of Jehovah, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of Jehovah all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of Jehovah, and to inquire in his temple.” This is what it means to die—to humble ourselves before God. Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from a life of security to face the unknown with Jesus. God calls us too, inviting us to die to our old life and walk with Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, so that His light might shine through our lives and His grace be experienced by those who still dwell in darkness.
“But before all these things, they shall lay their hands on you, and shall persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name's sake. It shall turn out unto you for a testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate beforehand how to answer: for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to withstand or to gainsay. But ye shall be delivered up even by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake. And not a hair of your head shall perish. In your patience ye shall win your souls.” Luke 21:12-19, ASV
A man once had a conversation with God. He asked, “Lord, I have always wondered about time. What is a thousand years like for you?” God answered, “For me a thousand years is like a second.” The man then asked, “What about money? What is a million dollars like for you?” And God answered, “For me a million dollars is like a penny.” The man became eager and said, “Lord, could you give me one of those pennies?” God answered, “No problem, but you will have to wait one second.”
We’ve heard the jokes about patience: “Lord, give me patience, and give it now,” and, “Beware of asking God for humility or patience… he just might give you plenty of opportunities to practice.” We don’t do very well with the patience thing. We live in a time when we can get what we want quickly. We send an email and get an answer in seconds. We buy something on the Internet and it is delivered within days. We can go to the grocery store twenty-four hours a day. We can watch a television show on demand whenever we want to see it. We have vehicles that get us from one place to another in a matter of minutes. We can even fly around the entire world in a day. We get frustrated standing in line. We get angry if a package is a day late. We don’t like the stores that are closed on Sunday because we just need to have something right now.
We aren’t very patient when it comes to our prayer life. Since the world provides us everything we want immediately, we think God should do the same. After all, He is God! He can instantly heal someone who has been sick for decades with just a word. He can make five loaves and two fishes feed five thousand people in an afternoon. He rebuilt the fallen Temple in three days. Can’t He get me a job in a day or heal my ills right now? Sadly, we think that when the answer seems to have been delayed that God does not care or that He will not help us. Too many people have rejected Him because they could not wait to see how He might answer their prayers.
If we can’t wait a cheeseburger or a new book, how in the world will we ever have the patience to live through the experiences described in today’s passage. Jesus tells us that a time will come when we will be persecuted for our faith. People will hate us. We might even be beaten. Those of us in America don’t really know what it means to be persecuted, but I know that some of my readers do. They live in countries where churches are bombed and Christians are imprisoned for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even in America there are some who are rejected and made fun of because of their beliefs. Jesus says, “In your patience ye shall win your souls.”
The things we have to deal with might be hard, and it might seem like God is not answering our prayers, but Jesus assures us that we need not go through these experiences alone. God is with us, and He is doing His work through our lives, and He will not allow the world to destroy what He has done for us. We are His, and the patience about which Jesus speaks is trusting in God. When we are in a time of persecution, when we are rejected or hated because we are His, we need only remember God’s promises for our lives and live in the reality that our eternal life in His Kingdom can never be destroyed.
“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray and make request for you, that ye may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, unto all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks unto the Father, who made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love; in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins: who 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.” Colossians 1:9-17, ASV
John French and Bertram Raven conducted a study about power in leadership roles in the 1960’s. They study showed how different types of power affected one’s leadership. The five types included coercive, reward, legitimate, expert and referent. A sixth type—information—was added later. These types are very different, and we can see by their names how the leader might control the people or allow them to use their talents for the benefit of the group.
The coercive power base is one that forces others to do something that they do not want to do. Though the coercive power base might have positive impact on the workforce, it often leads to abuse of power. These leaders use threats to get their way, which leads to poor motivation and attitude. Reward power is more positive, but equally risky in that the reward required for good work gets progressively greater. The original reward eventually becomes unsatisfactory, and thus ineffective. The third power base is legitimacy, which is the power to control the workforce because they are respected based on their role, position, or title. This particular type of power is difficult to hold on to when the leader is no longer in that role, position or title that once deemed respect.
The first three power bases have to do with the leader’s actions in the workplace; the others have more to do with the particular person’s individual personality or ability. Referent power has to do with the way the leader is received as a person. He is more likely to be able to lead based on how much he is liked. This type of power can be easily lost if the person does something that disappoints the workers. Expert power has more to do with gifts and abilities. This is a leader who can get work done because they have the knowledge, expertise and information to lead. The power is given by those who perceive the leader’s superior skills. The final type is informational power, which is somewhat connected to expert. In this type of power, the leader is able to use the information well. They know what to say, what to do, and when to share the information to the best outcome.
The reality is that the best leaders are able to use every type of power base. They know how to keep people working with positive and negative outcomes; they have earned their place in the company because they are talented, knowledgeable and shrewd with their abilities. They can encourage others to be their best and provide opportunities for success.
The word “power” is found three times in today’s passage from Paul’s letter to Corinth. First he shares his hope that God’s people will be strengthened with power. What sort of power is he talking about? Is he talking about these power bases that are used to control (positively and negatively) others in this world? That’s the kind of power that is used by the world, the powers referred to later in the text. He talks about the power of darkness and the powers that rule the world later in the passage. The difference between these powers is that the one Paul hopes for God’s people is the power that comes from God. We have it by faith, and by faith it gives us all we need to do His work in the world against the other powers of the earth. Our power is not something we work toward or earn, it is the power of God in our lives.
“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife; But every fool will be quarrelling.” Proverbs 20:3, ASV
A joke for this last Monday of January… “After quarrelling with his wife, the man grabbed her by the arm and dragged her down to his local pub. He bought a pint of bitter and thrust in into her hands. ‘Here, drink that,’ he said. His wife took one gulp and made her face in disgust, and said, ‘How can you drink such foul – tasting stuff?’ Her husband beamed with satisfaction, ‘Right then’, he said, ‘I will have no more accusations from you that I come down here to enjoy myself.’”
This joke is funny, but there’s nothing funny about the quarrels that happen between people. A quarrel is “an angry argument or disagreement, typically between people who are usually on good terms.” I’ve seen this more times than I can remember, especially between my children, but I’m sure I’ve been in the middle of a quarrel or two myself. They are arguments over the stupidest things, arguments that could be completely avoided if we would listen to one another, consider the words and ideas of the other and willingly accept that they see something a little differently. Quarrels can be avoided with some compromise.
I think the biggest quarrels between my children were over things like the answer to the question, “Where should we go for dinner?” It didn’t matter what was available or even what they wanted to eat, they always disagreed about where to go. They always complained that they never got a chance to choose. “S/he always gets her/his way!” That was not true; though I can’t say that I made sure that we satisfied each kid by going to their choice every other time, I certainly took into consideration both their opinions and I tried to give them the chance to be the decision maker equitably. The process drove me crazy, however, because I saw the worst of both of them. If they had learned how to compromise, we might have gone out to eat more often.
The quarrels are usually over the most ridiculous things. In one recent argument, two people were arguing about which celebrity was the first to do a certain shtick. As an outsider, I knew they were probably both right, because they were talking about something that was similar but not the same. Sadly, neither was willing to give in, insisting that they were right, so the argument went on for much too long, even though the entire subject was not even important. They could not see beyond their point of view and were not willing to accept that they could both be right.
There are times and reasons to stand up for the truth, for what is right, for what is important. But quarreling is never helpful. Quarreling often ends up in long term division. Take, for instance, the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud between families. No one is even sure what started the feud, but it most certainly was something ridiculous and easily overcome. However, no one was willing to be the one to accept the possibility of compromise, and it destroyed the relationship between neighbors for a very long time. Families are destroyed by quarrels over petty issues. It is no wonder that the proverb says that fools quarrel.
It isn’t easy. I understand what it is like to think that you never get your way. I understand what it is like to be put down by others who always think they are right. I understand that our pride requires that we stand up for what we believe. But is it worth destroying a relationship just so you get to go to Burger King instead of Wendy’s? Is it worth an afternoon of hurt and anger because two celebrities did a similar shtick? When you are about to quarrel with someone, think to yourself, “Is it important? Will the outcome of this argument really make my life better tomorrow? Or am I risking a relationship over something trivial?” You might feel like you are always on the losing side of every argument, but in the end you will discover that you’ve won something greater: a life with someone you love will not be destroyed by something that really doesn’t matter.
“Do not quench the Spirit.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19, ASV
Isn’t it interesting that the two definitions of the word “quench” are the same and yet very different. We quench our thirst and we quench a fire. In a sense they are both quenching a fire, our thirst is like a fire in our mouths and we put it out with water, just like a fire. But quenching our thirst is a positive thing, satisfying a need or desire. Quenching a fire extinguishes it; putting something out has negative connotation. Of course we can take this to extremes, satisfying our lusts is not always a good thing, and putting out a fire in a house is very positive.
This opposite perspective is found in this quote from Sara Ban Breathnach, author of “Simple Abundance.” She says, “Let’s choose today to quench our thirst for the ‘good life’ we thinks others lead by acknowledging the good that already exists in our lives. We can then offer the universe the gift of our grateful hearts.” Satisfying our thirst for the ‘good life’ means filling our lives with things that do not really matter; she wants us to put out the fire of lust, jealousy, and envy in our hearts with the cool water of truth: we have enough to dwell in this world according to God’s good and perfect will.
Today’s verse comes in the middle of a list of positive Christian attitudes and actions which Paul is encouraging for all Christians. We are to encourage one another, to be at peace in our Christian fellowship, be patient with our brothers and sisters. We are to have mercy, to do good to our brethren and our neighbors. We are to be joyful, prayerful, thankful. We are to have faith in the work God is doing in and through other Christians, but to also be careful not to fall for false faith. We are to do what is right and good in God’s eyes.
Among these instructions is today’s verse, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Contextually, I’m sure Paul is encouraging us to help fan the flame of God’s grace in one another’s lives, helping them to grow in their faith and in their gifts. We are not to put people down because their calling does not fit into our expectation, but help them to be all that God has created them to be. See, we often try to make other Christians fit into our idea of what needs to be done in the Church and the world, stopping them from being what God intends them to be. We try to make someone be a Sunday School teacher when they should be preaching, or we force someone onto the Finance Committee when they have much different gifts. We try to fill our needs without respecting the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives. This is a good and powerful truth that we should all remember: God does not gift spiritual gifts for our use, but for His, and we should never try to quench someone’s spiritual passion because it does not fit our perspective.
But I would suggest we consider this text from the other point of view: satisfying the spirit. How often do we satisfy our own spirits at the risk of rejecting God? Our flesh is weak and we thirst after things that are not good for us. We want to feel good; we want to satisfy our own needs. “Do not quench the Spirit,” found in the midst of this list for faithful living, reminds us that we should neither quench the Holy Spirit by putting out His fire nor quench our own spirits by fulfilling all our lusts and desires.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 2, 2014, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
“Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom…” 1 Corinthians 1:22, ASV
Are you a right-brain or left-brain thinker? This question comes from a theory in psychology that each side of the brain controls certain types of thinking. The right-brained thinker is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective. The left-brained thinker is said to be more logical, analytical and objective. Right-brained people tend to be more creative and emotional while left-brained people tend to be more methodical. It has been proven that this theory is a myth; people do not have a dominant side of their brain which controls their personality. Sadly, many people use this theory as an excuse for not using more of their brain capacity. “I can’t do anything creative because I’m left-brained.” Or, “I am not good with following directions because I am right-brained.”
The reality is that neither side of the brain is dominant in anyone; as a matter of fact, the two sides are not so divided. There are parts of the brain that are specifically designed to enhance communication between the two hemispheres, and the person experiences problems if that connection is severed. I’m certainly not a brain surgeon, and most of the sites I read about the subject today, though written in simple language, were difficult for me to understand and relate to you.
It doesn’t really matter; I started thinking about this right-brain/left-brain theory when I was reading through today’s scripture. The verse from 1 Corinthians struck me, “Jews ask for signs and Greeks seek after wisdom.” Perhaps the Jews are right-brained and the Greeks are left-brained! Really, it is interesting that Paul has divided the two nations in this way. The Jews, whose lives and history are built upon their faith, are more spiritual in the way the deal with wisdom. The Greeks, however, who are more academic in their focus, want to have intellectual answers to those questions. In this text about the foolishness of the cross, Paul has shown us the mistake we so often make.
A scientist once thought he’d discovered something remarkable about the brain, dividing people by certain types that have been debunked by other scientists. Creative people have the brain capacity to be logical and methodical people have the capacity to be creative. This same mistake manifests in the idea that we should approach the questions of life from either a spiritual or an intellectual perspective. One person will say, “I’ve studied and researched and I’ve found this to be true,” while another will say, “I have faith and I believe it to be true.” The one with faith thinks that their answer is greater because it comes from trusting in God, while the intellectual one sees his answer as greater because it is founded on facts.
On the face of it, Christianity is foolishness. Paul’s right when he says so in today’s epistle lesson. After all, what good is it to believe in a God who can die on a cross? Why have faith in a system that allows an innocent man to take the consequences of the whole world’s sin upon His shoulders? Is God so weak that He can’t protect His people from suffering? Is He so incompetent that He can’t save us in some other, more civilized way? The Jews want to answer these questions with wisdom that comes from the tradition of their faith, and the Greeks want answers that can be studied philosophically.
Perhaps we are still divided in the ways we take on these difficult theological questions of life. However, there is not good answer to the question, especially if we are trying to do it with human wisdom. After all, as Paul wrote, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”
The Christian message is viewed as foolishness in today’s world. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him.
The world reads today’s Gospel lesson and laughs at the foolishness. The beatitudes are eight beautiful attitudes that are lived by those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is organized to establish Jesus as the foundation, as the First, accomplish the will and purpose of God in this world. His life lies parallel to the people of Israel, but where Israel fails to keep the faith, Jesus does so and in doing so, Jesus makes it possible for the rest of us to do so, too.
In the opening lines of the Old Testament passage from Micah, God asks Israel to plead her case before Him. She turned away from her God, walked away from the covenant and was unfaithful. God gave her a chance to defend herself. He called the mountains and the foundations of the earth to be witnesses in this judgment, because they were there when the covenant was made. Then God turned it to Himself and asks His beloved what He has done wrong, defending His own actions by recounting his redemption of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.
Israel responded by trying to find some way to make up for the sin against God, but looked for some act that would earn God’s mercy. They thought that bowing before God or giving some sort of offering would be enough to cover their sins. They even offered to sacrifice their first born sons, an offering God would never accept.
God answers that He has already shown His people what is right and good to do in this world. A right relationship with God means right relationships with other people. He says, “Do justice, be merciful and walk humbly with God.” Humility does not mean bowing or giving with a hard heart. It means recognizing our own sinfulness and submitting ourselves to that which God has already done. Instead of demanding that the people of Israel give their sons on the altar of sacrifice, God sent His own son to take the wrath they deserve. The One who lived out what is right and good also laid down His own life so that we to might be just, merciful and humble before God.
What does it meant to be blessed? According to the world, blessedness is visible to others; it is seen in our happiness, our wealth and our health. Even Christians talk about their good lives by saying, “I have been so blessed.” But we do not see the blessings when we are suffering from a terminal disease or we are unemployed and can’t pay our bills? Blessedness is often thought synonymous with happiness, but the sort of happiness that comes with faith is not necessarily giddy pleasure, but rather a deeper inner joy from God.
The word “bless” means “may God speak well of you.” What is it that God seeks from those He loves? What about our life might He speak well of? It would be easy for us to use the psalm for today to establish the criteria for blessedness. The psalmist writes, “Jehovah, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?” He answers that those who are blameless, righteous and honest, that those who do good works and who fear the Lord are the ones who will be blessed. Yet, the expectation in this psalm is too hard for any human to uphold. Who is blameless? Who is righteous? There is no one who would ever be so blessed.
Jesus was the first. God spoke well of Jesus because in the midst of His very human life, He remained faithful to His Father. Thanks to the work of Christ, we can remain faithful to God in the midst of our own very human life. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather are those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God comforts them. Those who are humiliated are raised and those who are hungry and thirsty are fed.
Jesus does not call us in this text to overcome our troubles or wallow in them, but rather He encourages us to live in an attitude of trust and confidence that God is faithful to His promises. The beatitudes are the attitudes of God’s people living in faith. The students for today’s lesson were not the great crowds of people; Jesus was speaking to the disciples. This lesson is not give for those who are trying to earn their way to heaven, but is given to those who believe in the work of God. The lesson is given for us, the Christians who have been saved by the cross of Christ.
It doesn’t seem like a wise lesson, does it? After all, it makes more sense to be strong in spirit, to celebrate life, to be assertive, and to satisfy our own needs. We would much rather life comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because we turn to grace in our suffering. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the one who can heal our problem. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.
See, that’s what Paul is talking about: God takes our lives and He shines through them. It is easy for God to get lost in the midst of a bright shining star, but He shines brightly in the valley of the shadow of death. In other words, it is hard to see how God’s work when the world sees our successful and happy lives. Even if we answer their questions with “I am so blessed,” they see it not as a gift from God but as a reward for our hard work and perseverance. However, if we can say we are blessed in the midst of pain and loss, then the world will truly see that it is God’s grace that makes us happy. God uses our weakness to show His strength and raises us out of our pits into His Kingdom. Blessedness is seeing ourselves as we truly are and turning to the One who can give us all we need. Blessed are those who humble themselves at the altar of the Lord and give their lives into His hand so that through their weakness He is glorified.
The psalm tells us that those who are welcome in the Temple of God are an exclusive group. Who can live there? It is a place where only those who walk rightly and do good works, where those who speak truth and do no evil are welcomed. Those who hate evil and love those who love the Lord are those who are invited into the presence of God. We have to honor our oaths even when they are painful, lending our resources to others without expectation and never accepting anything that might hurt another.
I would like to think that I can be welcome in the house of the Lord, but quite frankly the words of my mouth are not always right and my actions are not always just. I take advantage of my neighbor and I do not always do what I should do for their sake. Those who would be welcome is an incredibly exclusive group. As a matter of fact, only one was truly righteous: Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the only one who will never be shaken, the only one who can dwell in the house of the Lord. We simply can’t get an invite to that party on our own. Those who are blessed are the ones that stand firmly on Him.
I’ve always thought myself as right-brained, and yet I can understand why the scientists have rejected the theory. I am creative, but I am also logical. I am emotional, but I am also rational. Our brains do not work like separate organs, but work as a whole to accomplish its work. I suppose that’s why we should not try to be like either the Jews or the Greeks, focusing on simply the spiritual or the intellectual. It is good to study the scriptures, to learn and understand what God is saying in and through His creation and His Church, but we also have to live in faith. It is good to be faithful, to trust in God without proof, but we also have to be ready with an answer when the world asks us the hard questions of life.
The Christian faith is foolishness, because it makes no sense in a world that honors the powerful, promotes the strong, encourages the self and puts the great onto pedestals. However, God has chosen to bless those who humble themselves before Him, beginning first with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As we follow His path, and live as He lived, we might seem to have a life that is far from blessed. But God will shine through our weakness; through our poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, mercy, suffering, humility and rejection He will be glorified.
“Better is a dry morsel, and quietness therewith, than a house full of feasting with strife.” Proverbs 17:1, ASV
The big parties being planned right now are weddings. Brides are huddled over magazines, calling venues and caterers, meeting with photographers and musicians. They are planning the biggest event of their lives. Some women go to extremes, and their fathers pay fortunes, for the party of their dreams. It takes multiple trips to the bridal shop to find the perfect gown. They taste dozens of different types of food and cakes to make the perfect menu. They search the Internet for ideas on the best ways to entertain their guests. Invitations are being printed and will be mailed soon.
That’s when the hard work begins. Family gatherings, even something as special and important as a wedding, can be difficult and chaotic. There always seems to be a crazy uncle who drinks a bit too much eggnog or an aunt that won’t let go of some topic of conversation. Let’s not get started on what happens when the gathering includes people who are passionate about some political or religious issue, especially if there are two people who are on opposite sides of the issue. The argument that ensues can certainly destroy the happiness of any reunion, no matter how much the people love one another. The poor brides have to carefully make seating charts so that they can control some of the conversation, purposely putting people with similar interests at the same table.
Weddings are such an important milestone in the life of the bride and the groom, but all too often they become a chaotic circus rather than a joyous celebration of marriage. I don’t think a bride should ever settle for less when it comes to her big day, but there is definitely wisdom in today’s proverb. Sometimes it is better to have a nice, quiet, simple event. I used to DJ at weddings, and I remember at least a few brides that had a terrible time at their big fancy wedding because of the strife that was happening between guests.
There isn’t an easy answer for the bride who is trying to decide what sort of event she wants to have to celebrate her wedding. Do you invite everyone and their brother and have a huge, expensive wing ding? There may be family expectations. There may be a long list of friends who deserve to be a part of the happy day. What is most important to remember is that it isn’t the party that makes the marriage. They don’t need a ten tiered cake or a whiskey sour fountain to have a happy life together.
This is true for other events, too. Sometimes it is better to plan a nice quiet event, an intimate experience that will leave us filled with joy and peace. We don’t need expensive food to enjoy the company of friends and family we love. We don’t need a twelve piece band to have a good time. Sometimes the best thing we can do is keep it simple.
“And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of Jehovah, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And Solomon told her all her questions: there was not anything hid from the king which he told her not. And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built, and the food of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of Jehovah; there was no more spirit in her. And she said to the king, It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thine acts, and of thy wisdom. Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the half was not told me; thy wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame which I heard. Happy are thy men, happy are these thy servants, that stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom. Blessed be Jehovah thy God, who delighted in thee, to set thee on the throne of Israel: because Jehovah loved Israel for ever, therefore made he thee king, to do justice and righteousness.” 1 Kings 10:1-9, ASV
God asked King Solomon, “What should I give you?” Solomon praised God for His lovingkindness and answered, “Give thy servant therefore an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this thy great people?” God found this answer pleasing because Solomon did not ask for wealth or fame or long life, so He gave Solomon wisdom as well as everything he could possibly want.
Solomon became known throughout the world for his wisdom. The scriptures tell a story about two women who were fighting over a child. They demanded that Solomon make a ruling. He said he could not choose between the two women, so they should just cut the child in half and give half to each. One woman agreed, but the other said, “No, give the baby to her.” Solomon knew the true mother would refuse to allow the child to be harmed, so he gave the child to the one willing to sacrifice her own desires for the life of the child. The wisdom of Solomon made Israel and strong nation to which the world was drawn.
Among those seeking Solomon’s wisdom was the Queen of Sheba. She spent much time with the king, asking questions and hearing his answers. She had heard of his wisdom and wanted to see it for herself. After he answered her questions so well, she believed what she heard and believed in the God of Solomon. They spent time together and gave each other gifts. Then she went home to Sheba and told the story of the great king of Israel and the God who gave him such wisdom.
We talk about faith as if it is something that we are meant to take blindly. Some people will listen to a preacher and accept every word as if it were God’s word without question. Some people will hear a message and believe it, without even a second thought. There is something to be said of those who trust in God, but He does not expect us to believe without knowledge or reason. God is not so weak that He cannot take our questions. He has answers, and He wants us to ask.
Jesus was not the kind of preacher who talked and talked and talked without listening. He accepted questions, and He even conversed with those He knew were against Him. He helped them to see what He was saying; He helped others see the error of other thought by answering the questions with wisdom. He hears our questions, too. He knows we have doubts and that we do not fully understand everything. He knows that some aspects of Christian faith are difficult. He knows that so much of what we have to believe is nothing but foolishness in the world.
Like Solomon, Jesus is willing to listen and answer our questions, and when we do seek to understand He reveals Himself to us so that we will not believe blindly, but that we’ll believe with confidence. Then we, too, can take His story into our own world, to tell others that what they’ve heard is true and that they should go to God with their own questions. They say that there are no stupid questions, but we all laugh at some questions because they seem pretty stupid to us. When it comes to the questions of faith, God does not laugh at any of us. He is delighted that we want to seek Him, learn more about Him, and grow closer to Him by understanding everything He has to say.