Welcome to the January 2015 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 2015
"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal." 1 Corinthians 13:1, ASV
The first thing I read this morning was an article in Bible Study Magazine by former editor John Barry. He writes, "'Focus on your relationship with Jesus.' When my friend said this, I knew it was the answer to all my questions. I had been so focused on God's calling that I had neglected my relationship with the caller, Jesus. This is precisely Paul's message when he says to the Corinthian church, 'If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a ringing brass gone or clashing cymbal' (1 Corinthians 13:1). Without love, our lives are simply noise." The article, "from Noise to Music," reminds us that everything we do, even if it is good, is nothing unless God is the focus. Barry writes, "We're like an orchestra without a conductor."
This was extremely appropriate for me to read on this day of new beginnings. There are many things about my life that I really want to change in the coming year. I want to be braver, especially in my art. I want to find a purpose, something to accomplish this year, a place where I am needed and where I can offer my gifts. I want to find a friend, someone who has time for lunch on conversation. I want to be better about cleaning my house, exercising on my mini-tramp and being kind to those I meet. These are all good things, positive things, which I can do for myself and for those around me this year.
This past year was a good year. Oh, things weren't perfect, but we live in an imperfect world. People will disappoint. We will get sick. We will make mistakes. We will lose people we love, both through death and broken relationships. We will be lonely at times or confused. We will fail to do what we should do and we'll do things we should not do. We are human and we'll experience the ups and downs of life, no matter how hard we try to make our world happy. Sometimes the greatest success is to face the bad with an attitude of faith, trust and love.
We don't do this by our own power. As a matter of fact, our feeble attempts are much like that orchestra without a conductor. We do ministry for the sake of doing ministry, because we think we are called to something, but if God is not the center or the focus of our work, then we are just going through the motions. Whatever we choose to do to make 2015 a better year, whether it is changes in our lifestyle, our purpose, our attitude, the most important thing is to begin with these words in our hearts. It begins with love. Anything we do without God is just noise. Now is the time for us to make music.
Now is the time for us to fall in love again with the God who is our Father, Creator, and Redeemer. As we dwell in His love we will see the world through faith. We may not accomplish our goals and we will face those times and experiences that we try so hard to avoid. Through it all, however, the God who loves us will be with us and He will help us through. He will lead us to where He wants us to go, which is far better than anything we can imagine. Our focus might be good, but the best thing we can do is to focus on God, for it is in Him we will truly find love and will make beautiful music.
"Jesus saith unto him, Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name." John 20:29-31, ASV
It is interesting to look at the origin of words. The word 'eavesdrop' for instance, literally meant the water dropping from the eaves of a roof and falling to the ground. Eventually eavesdropper was a name given to people who stood within the eavesdrop of a house to listen to a conversation inside. This understanding was expanded to include any secretive listening of private conversations. The word 'muscle' comes from the Latin word 'musculus' which means 'little mouse' because a flexed muscle with its tendon appeared to be a little mouse under the skin.
Today's "Word of the Day" at the Merriam-Webster online site is 'solecism.' The word represents something I am probably guilty of on a regular basis, "an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence." It can also mean "a minor blunder in speech" or "something deviating from the proper, normal or accepted order."
Now, I like to play the word game that is found in Reader's Digest, and I have to admit that I do fairly well on a regular basis. I don't always get them all right, but I rarely get more than two wrong. I can usually look at a word and can get a gist of its meaning based on prefixes, suffixes, commonalities with other words. While I might not get the definition of the word on my own, it is easy with the choices they have given. A word with a negative prefix will be defined with a negative sense.
I doubt I could come up with a definition of today's word. 'Solecism' doesn't really seem to have anything to do with grammar, speech or decorum. Here's the thing, the Merriam-Webster site included this interesting fact of the day. "The city of Soloi had a reputation for bad grammar. Located in Cilicia, an ancient coastal nation in Asia Minor, it was populated by Athenian colonists called 'soloikos' (literally "inhabitant of Soloi"). According to historians, the colonists of Soloi allowed their native Athenian Greek to be corrupted and they fell to using words incorrectly. As a result, 'soloikos' gained a new meaning: "speaking incorrectly." The Greeks used that sense as the basis of 'soloikismos,' meaning "an ungrammatical combination of words." That root in turn gave rise to the Latin 'soloecismus,' the direct ancestor of the English word solecism. Nowadays, solecism can refer to social blunders as well as sloppy syntax." We have a word today that comes from the failure of a people to speak properly; that's a little insulting, isn't it?
Those who called the first followers of Christ by the name Christian meant it to be an insult. They saw the Christians as being separate from the people of God, followers of something strange and ungodly. We've taken on the name and wear it with joy and peace because by it we know we have everything that has been promised to us. We have life in His name. We are little christs, bearing Him in our hearts, speaking His Word with our lips and doing His work with our hands. We are Christian: the name was once meant to ridicule and it is still used derisively by many, but it is a word and a name filled with grace.
"And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father. So that thou art no longer a bondservant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. Howbeit at that time, not knowing God, ye were in bondage to them that by nature are no gods: but now that ye have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how turn ye back again to the weak and beggarly rudiments, whereunto ye desire to be in bondage over again? Ye observe days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid of you, lest by any means I have bestowed labor upon you in vain." Galatians 4:6-11, ASV
There are those who say that it is unlucky to keep your Christmas decorations up after Twelfth Night. The problem with this curse is that there is little agreement about the date of Twelfth Night. For some, the twelfth day of Christmas is January 5th, the day before Epiphany. Other's consider Epiphany the twelfth day. Then there are those who identify twelfth night as the night before the twelfth day and others who consider it the night of the day. To make things even more confusing, there are some who name January 17th as twelfth night based on the old Julian calendar. And if you want to put off the end of your Christmas celebrations a little longer, you can choose February 2nd, Candlemas, which was the original date associated with the curse.
While some suggest that keeping the decorations up past twelfth night is bad luck, others insist that they should keep them up until after Epiphany. We are almost unyielding when it comes to our own timing. I don't like to take anything down until after Epiphany, particularly the Nativity, after all the wise men haven't even arrived until then. Even the lights on the tree remind us of the star that led the wise men to Baby Jesus. I have already taken a few of my decorations, like the Advent wreath, and I will probably put my secular decorations away today, but I am trying to wait until later this week to take down the tree and the Nativity.
It doesn't really matter, though, does it? One friend took down their decorations this weekend because it was a convenient time to do it. Her facebook post was filled with others joking about how she was supposed to wait. It was a joke, but how often do we get so caught up in our traditions that we make them more like law than good news? We keep our decorations up as long as possible because we love to tell the story they are put up to represent, but it is so easy to get caught up in the expectations of those around us and to feel guilt when we don't do it 'right.'
I watched a movie the other day, one of those made for TV romances. The girl in the movie changed herself to match whatever was expected of her by her current boyfriend. Three times she choose men who wanted her to be something she wasn't, and she was willing to change to fit into the box they wanted to stuff her into. Meanwhile, she missed the one man in her life that loved her for her. She realized that he was the right one in the end and they lived happily ever after.
I think some Christians try to fit into the box of expectations that other Christians demand. They want to fit in, so they agree with certain ideas even if they don't seem right. Even the simple things can become like law. Take, for instance, raising your hands in worship. This is expected in some churches and it is unwelcome in others. But there are those who are uncomfortable raising their hands while there are others who can't help but lift them up with joy. Does it matter one way or another?
Our faith was never meant to be a burden. God invites us to enjoy Him in so many ways, including the way we celebrate the holidays that have been established around His birth, life, death and resurrection. The traditions we hold will not bring us luck or blessings, they are meant to be our way of honoring God and worshipping Him. Let us remember, then, to beware of making jokes about things that really don't matter because there is someone, somewhere who will take it seriously. How important is the day that the decorations come down since we can't even agree which day it is supposed to be? Let's not make the fun things about our celebration become more laws to obey when it is meant to be Good News for all.
ďThis mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.Ē Ephesians 3:6
In the book ďBalls of Fire,Ē Stefan Kanfer tells the story of Lucille Ball, the beautiful and prolific television actress. Kanfer described Lucille as ďa 68-inch actress not a 68-foot actress.Ē Though she was extremely popular on television, she was never able to find success in the movies. She was such a natural in front of the cameras that she was expected to do well. Though she tried to make the transition, she was at her best in the intimacy of the small screen. No matter how hard she tried, she could not learn how to be good in the movies; some things just canít be learned. Faith canít be learned. It is impossible for us to believe in Jesus if there is nothing deep within us calling us into that relationship. It is by Godís grace that we can know His love and pass on the wonderful message of the Gospel.
God knew from the beginning of time that His people would fail, planning for our salvation even before we were born. When the time was right, Christ broke through into this world to reveal something new. God reached out beyond His chosen people and revealed the promise to all people. Israel will always have a special place in His heart, but they were blessed to be a blessing to the rest of the world. They were blessed to reveal Godís salvation to all.
God created the heavens and the earth and we have always been able to see Godís hand in the movement of His creation. The stars are used to tell time and to recognize the order of the seasons. Along with the practical reasons for studying the night sky, changes in the stars were often interpreted as signs and omens foretelling of things happening in the world. Some magi in the East noticed the sudden appearance of a new star; they had knowledge of the promises and prophecies of Hebrew scripture and recognized that the star pointed to the birth of a new king in Israel. They traveled great distances to find the baby and worship him.
It is no surprise that He would send a star to guide those wise men to Bethlehem. God is intimately involved in every aspect of His creation, and He uses everything to manifest His promises before the whole world. The wise men followed a star that seemed to move as they moved, guiding them to the place where they would find the child. They traveled a dangerous and difficult journey to worship this new king based on a sign in the heavens.
In the Epiphany story we see the full revelation of Christ to the world. The gifts of the magi are signs of His purpose. The gold had a practical purpose; it would be used to care for Jesus in the world, especially during the escape to Egypt. The gold also represented Jesusí rule and authority as King over all Godís creation. The frankincense was a sign of Jesusí ministry, a foreshadowing of his role as High Priest when He would present Himself as the perfect lamb to atone for the sins of the world. Myrrh was an expensive ointment that was used only for the anointing of the dead. He came to be priest to all, to die for all and to rule eternally as King over all. The magi studied the prophecies, but it wasnít until they were called by the light of the star that they could follow in faith to offer their gifts. The promises and prophecies of Godís Messiah were revealed even to the Gentiles and fulfilled in the life of the baby Jesus.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 4, 2015, Baptism of Jesus: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
"The voice of Jehovah is powerful; The voice of Jehovah is full of majesty." Psalm 29:4, ASV
It is interesting how sometimes a word or phrase will stand out to someone when reading the scriptures. During our Sunday class on Sunday (we look at the lectionary for the next week), Genesis 1:2 caught the attention of one member. "And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." The word was 'face,' and the though we can understand this in different ways, someone was struck by personification of the water, as if it had a face like human beings.
We looked in multiple Bible versions and found that several did not put any word there while others used the word 'surface.' That's probably the better understanding of the Hebrew word, but there's something intriguing about the word 'face' in this context. The chaos over which the Spirit hovered does have a personality: that mess was going to eventually become you and I and the world in which we live. I don't mean this in the evolutionary sense, as if we evolved out of that material. That formless void was transformed by the voice of God who spoke light and life into the nothingness. He did that in the beginning and He continues to do so today as people hear His voice and are changed into His people.
He spoke light into the darkness of that formless void bringing life and He speaks the Light into our darkness sparking the faith that brings us life. The texts for today are about birth and rebirth, creation and recreation.
It began in the beginning, but from the start God had a plan. We do have to be careful that we don't put meaning into the text that isn't there, as in calling the formless void personified, but it is an interesting thought that God was seeing our faces in that formless void. As He spoke light into the darkness, He was already planning to save us by sending the Light into our darkness.
As we discussed the texts for today, certain words stood out for us. There is power in the voice of God. The Spirit is present through the texts. There is water in both the creation and in baptism. The texts speak of life and new life, beginnings and new beginnings. God is in it through it all. If all God ever did was create the world and everything in it, we would still honor and worship a most remarkable God. Yet, the creation story is just the beginning; there is so much more to see and hear about His love and mercy and grace.
God is far more than we can even imagine. By His Word, the world exists. By His Word, we have life. His Word gives us all we need to live and serve Him in this world to His glory. The Psalmist knows that God is bigger than human reason and understanding and praises God by singing of the awesome power of His Word.
The psalmist writes, "The voice of Jehovah is upon the waters." This brings us back to the image of God at the beginning of creation, speaking order into the chaos and something out of that formless void. The psalmist describes God's voice as powerful, full of majesty. It breaks the cedars and shakes the wilderness. He has not stopped speaking into the world He has created. His voice still makes the world tremble. But, even more so, His voice, His Word, gives life to His people.
One of my favorite passages of scripture is the story of Elijah running away from Jezebel. He makes it to a cave on a mountain and waits for a word from the Lord. He hears a great and powerful wind that tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then came a fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle whisper. Then Elijah knew the Lord had come to speak with him.
Have you ever had one of those God moments when it seems like He is trying to hit you over the head with a two-by-four? It is pretty easy to hear God when He is loud and thunderous, but we should also listen for God's still small voice; God speaks often speaks subtly, such as in the creation and through the love of other believers. Sadly, we often miss the Word that comes to us in that gentle whisper because we are so busy listening to the chaos? A quiet voice does not rattle the world but a thunderous voice does. Sometimes God speaks in a way that will get our attention.
God spoke subtly when Jesus was born at Christmas. Who would have ever expected the Creator of the world to enter it in such an earthly and unnoticed manner? Only a few people were even aware of the event, and then it was all but forgotten for thirty years. We have few stories from His childhood, and much that we have is from non-biblical sources. We know very little about His life until the moment we see in today's Gospel lesson.
We meet Jesus again in today's Gospel text. John the Baptist was a voice crying out in the wilderness, calling God's people to repentance. They flocked to him: the young and old, rich and poor. What were they looking for? What do they expect? How would we judge the man described in the Gospels named John the Baptist? I'm sure he was unusual in the days of Jesus; the writers of the Gospels are so specific about his wardrobe and diet that we have to assume it was not typical. Camel's hair is not comfortable and locusts don't taste very good. Now, the poor did not wear linen and eat steak, although John was the son of a priest. He should have been living as a priest. John probably stood out in a crowd, but his odd taste in clothing and food did not keep the crowds from gathering around to hear him preach. He is portrayed as a madman, with wild unkempt hair and fearful eyes. Would today's crowds gather around him? Would we believe his words?
The story of Jesus' baptism is another new beginning. Jesus was born king. He was always the Christ, even before the creation of the World. He was sent as the Messiah, born of Mary and worshipped from the beginning of His earthbound life by those few who recognized Him. His baptism was a ceremony of anointing, a moment when God blessed Him with the power and authority to do the work He was sent to do. It was the moment when Jesus began His ministry among us. For a brief period, God spoke with a human voice, a voice that had the power and authority to make the world new.
Jesus was indeed the Messiah King from before time began, but His ministry did not begin until that moment in the River Jordan with John the Baptist. It was then He was anointed and given the power and authority of His position in Godís kingdom. From that time until today the world was changed by His love and mercy. We often wonder why Jesus needed to be baptized since He was perfect and without sin. That was His moment of inauguration, a ceremony defining the moment when He accepted that which had been ordained and the world witnessed the legitimatizing of His ministry to this world.
I wonder how many people actually heard God's voice the day Jesus was baptized. How many heard God say that Jesus was the Beloved, the one for whom they had been waiting? How many knew that God had broken through the darkness and given them Light? Some believed John and were baptized. Some believed Jesus and went on to follow Him. But many did not believe. Many ignored the reality that was before them in the desert and continued to live in the chaos and darkness of the world.
Sometimes it is hard to hear His voice, after all we are only human and the noise of this world can confuse us. We hear God's voice, but we donít always hear everything He has said. In the story from Acts, Paul found some disciples who believed in Jesus. They had been baptized, but they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. They knew about the coming of Jesus from John the Baptist, but they didnít have the whole story. John's ministry reached far and wide. We don't know whether these disciples had heard John at the Jordan, or if they heard the message from John's disciples that traveled to Corinth. The voice of God was heard in the far reaches of the known world, but the full message of the Gospel took time to reach those places; the people only heard part of the story.
In Ephesus, Paul met some people who knew about the new hope about which John the Baptist was preaching, but they had not yet received the whole story. They'd heard about the coming kingdom through the message of John the Baptist and were even baptized. However, they had not yet heard about Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. Paul told the twelve men, "John told the people to believe in the one coming after Him." Luke writes, "And when they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus." God spoke yet again through the mouth of Paul. And His Word had the power to save. Paul laid his hands on the disciples and they received the Holy Spirit and when they did they spoke in tongues and prophesied. It was the voice of God, spoken through a man, by which they heard the saving message of the Gospel. John's baptism did not save them. It was only when they heard about Jesus that they received the gift of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit.
They had a foundation for faith, but they did not have everything they needed. They were probably living decent lives, doing good things for their neighbors, but it wasn't enough. Paul gave them the rest of the story and they received the power of the Holy Spirit. At that point they became part of the ministry of God, part of the work of Christ, part of the Church that was started in the life and love of Jesus.
The voice of God continues to be heard today and when He speaks, things still happen. The Holy Spirit still hovers over that which is formless and void and brings life, light and peace. We hear God's voice and believe through the beloved Son who came into the world to be just like you and me. Though He is different, though He is the incarnate Word of God, He came to be one of us, to live as we live, and to die as we die, so that we might become like Him. His voice gives us light and peace. His voice gives us life.
In the beginning God spoke and a formless void was changed. He said just a word and the light was separated from the darkness. He continued to speak and everything came into existence. In the Old Testament, God spoke into and through the lives of His people. Despite God's powerful word, we continue to fail, attracted by the darkness instead of the light. So He sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus came to change us, to make us whole, to give us the final word and faith.
With Jesus we receive a greater baptism. Just like Jesus in the River Jordan that day so long ago, the Holy Spirit comes out of Heaven and falls upon us while the voice of God speaks the assurance and encouragement of His love into our lives. At our own baptism, God says, "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased." This might seem very hard for us to believe. After all, we do not deserve such kindness. We aren't worthy of such amazing words. We know and we may even understand that God loves us, but these words say so much more. As a beloved child, God also likes us.
At our baptism, God speaks the words of assurance over our lives without any merit of our own. In the water and in His Word, God says, "You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased" even while we know we are not worthy to hear them. At our baptism, God says, "I like you and I want to be with you forever." God's Word brings light to our darkness, order to our chaos.
For two thousand years, men and women like Paul and the other disciples have been speaking God's Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered, people hear the words of assurance as if they are coming out of God's own mouth. That Word, which is Jesus, brings light into our darkness and order to our chaos. But, there is still darkness in this world and there is still chaos to contend with. We find peace in the light that shined on that first day; we find an even greater peace in our baptism. For in those words God gives us the strength to face the chaos and the trust to know that He will bring it to order.
Martin Luther said, "Remember your baptism." He was not calling us to remember the event or the day. He was reminding us to remember God's Word that came to us at that day. "You are my beloved child," He said. By those words we have the assurance we need to get through each day. We might have to face difficult times, Jesus did. The message He gave us to share is no more acceptable now than it was to His contemporaries. Yet we know, as we remember our baptism that we can live the words of the psalmist who said, "Jehovah will give strength unto his people; Jehovah will bless his people with peace."
"And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea-shore. And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all the nations round about. And he spake three thousand proverbs; and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spake of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; he spake also of beasts, and of birds, and of creeping things, and of fishes. And there came of all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom." 1 Kings 4:29-34, ASV
My favorite childhood book is called "The Hungry Thing." It is the story of a monster that comes into a town looking for something to eat. He is wearing a large sign that says "FEED ME." The monster has a strange way of speaking, so when he asks for his food it actually rhymes with what he would actually like to eat. He tells the towns people he wants shmancakes, tickles, feetloaf and gollipops. The adults in town make up ridiculous dishes to fit the words, but a little boy knows what the monster really wants. "Hookies sound like lookies sound like..." And everyone realizes the monster wants cookies.
This my favorite story because it is easy to get the children involved in the telling of the story. As I read it to groups of children, they sit on the edge of their seats waiting for the chance to yell out the next food. To do this, the children must be listening carefully so that they know what is coming next. They need to be audibly observant so that they can figure out the rhyme.
It might seem as though those children's books that we keep on out bookshelves are nothing but silliness with pretty pictures. Yet, picture books have so much more depth. They teach lessons; they help children learn to look at the world more closely. One book we have is called "Animals should definitely not wear clothing." The cover of this book shows a porcupine wearing a dress, with its quills poking through the fabric. A hen's pants make it hard for her to lay an egg. The moose's suspenders get caught in his antlers. The authors must also be very observant to notice the things that will create stories that teach and entertain the children.
The book of proverbs is a collection of sayings that speak truths about the world in which we live. King Solomon was the author of most, if not all, of the proverbs found in the Bible. The sayings touch on every aspect of life, and though spoken originally for the people who lived in ancient Israel, they still speak to us today. Laziness, greed, foolishness and wickedness are still bad. Righteousness, kindness, truth and honesty are still good. The proverbs speak of some of these things in human terms but they also use the rest of creation to teach about the truths of God's kingdom. Through the examples of the animals we learn about how to live in this world. In Proverbs 6, Solomon tells us of the ant. "Which having no chief, overseer, or ruler, provideth her bread in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest." It takes an observant, wise man, to notice the workings of the smallest creature known to man at the time.
To me, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) might have been one of the wisest men who ever lived because he was able to show us the world and make us think about it in new ways. Perhaps his stories seem like nothing but nonsense to adults, but the wisdom in those stories will stay with the children for the rest of their lives. Solomonís wisdom was a miraculous gift from God, but it was also practical. God gave Solomon the ability to see the world through His eyes, noticing the details and applying them to the life of man. What king has time to consider the life of an ant when there are much greater things for him to do? What mother can worry about the life of the lion and bear as she is trying to make ends meet in her own home? Yet, the wise person sees God's hand in every aspect of Godís creation and applies what they see to our life in this world.
"And John also was baptizing in Enon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized. For John was not yet cast into prison. There arose therefore a questioning on the part of John's disciples with a Jew about purifying. And they came unto John, and said to him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him. John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it have been given him from heaven. Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but, that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, that standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is of the earth, and of the earth he speaketh: he that cometh from heaven is above all. What he hath seen and heard, of that he beareth witness; and no man receiveth his witness. He that hath received his witness hath set his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for he giveth not the Spirit by measure. The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him." John 3:23-36, ASV
Today is the feast day for a saint named Adrian. He was a native of North Africa and was the abbot of a monastery near Naples when he caught the attention of Pope Vitalian. He was a learned man, a famous scholar and an excellent administrator. He was knowledgeable in the Bible, as well as Greek and Latin. He was a good candidate to fill a vacant position to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He declined the appointment, but offered to find another to fill the position. The first candidate was unwilling due to advancing years and illness. The second candidate, Theodore of Tarsus, was willing to take the position. The stories differ, but either Theodore or Vitalian insisted that Adrian accompany the man to Britain in 668 A.D.
Adrian agreed and it turned out to be an excellent decision. Theodore and Adrian made a great team. Adrian was appointed as abbot of the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul at Canterbury, and in that place he could best use his gifts. Scholars from around the world traveled to the monastery to learn from Adrian. His students were well prepared by their education at the monastery; he taught Latin and Greek so well that the students were as familiar with those languages as their native tongues. He taught there for thirty-nine years. His knowledge went far beyond religion; he taught poetry, astronomy and math. The Venerable Bede records that Adrian "poured the waters of wholesome knowledge day by day." Bede also said, "Never had there been such happy times as these since the English settled Britain."
There are those who would question Adrian's decision to decline being Archbishop of Canterbury, after all isn't our goal to rise as high as possible? We might question what would make someone give up such an important position in the church. Was he afraid? Was he lazy? Was he selfish? These are the reasons many people assume about those who aren't willing to rise to the top.
I had a job as a cashier in a home fashions department of a major retailer when I was newly married. I had been in retail management and I was good at my job, but as a newlywed I didn't want the hours or the responsibilities of management. I loved helping our customers; it was fun to help them choose sheets and towels or other items to decorate their homes. We often had the owners of Bed and Breakfasts shop in our department; I helped several people spend thousands of dollars as they decorated their guest rooms. I was happy with my job.
The manager of my department did not understand. She was determined to climb the ladder and was certain everyone else had the same goals. She hired me the minute I walked through the door based on my experience, but quickly feared that I was trying to steal her job. Several of our customers wrote wonderful letters of thanks for the work I did helping them and the store manager one day called me into his office to thank me for my hard work. It was nice to be appreciated, but it made the department manager even more insecure. She made my life miserable, giving me the worst hours and refusing to give me days off that I requested weeks in advance. I eventually quit.
We should pursue goals in keeping with our gifts and abilities, but the lesson we learn from Adrian is that it is OK to stand at the bottom of the ladder. We don't have to fight to make it to the top; we don't have to chase the top spot. We can give others the foot up, work to make them look good, support them in their gifts and abilities. We don't always have to be number one; sometimes number two is exactly where we should be.
John the Baptist knew that he was not the Christ, although some of his disciples were jealous over the success of Jesus. They were pushing John to be number one. John said, "He must increase, but I must decrease." John had to do what he was called to do and stay out of the way. Adrian also knew, somehow, that there was a better way for him to accomplish God's work in this world. He would not have had the time or the presence to teach so many. He accomplished a greater work by remaining the lesser.
We might just rise to a high position in whatever job we pursue in this world, but let's always remember the words of John, "He must increase, but I must decrease." No matter what we do, there is always one who must be greater than us, our Lord Jesus Christ. Even if we are at the top of our field, our work will be so much greater if we let Him be the boss while we use our gifts and abilities to do the work we are called to do.
"My brethren, hold not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come into your synagogue a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, and there come in also a poor man in vile clothing; and ye have regard to him that weareth the fine clothing, and say, Sit thou here in a good place; and ye say to the poor man, Stand thou there, or sit under my footstool; Do ye not make distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Hearken, my beloved brethren; did not God choose them that are poor as to the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to them that love him? But ye have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you, and themselves drag you before the judgment-seats? Do not they blaspheme the honorable name by which ye are called? Howbeit if ye fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well: but if ye have respect of persons, ye commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors." James 2:1-9, ASV
There is a story told about a pastor who decided to give a very powerful sermon about our Christian responsibility to use our gifts for the benefit of those who need all that we have to offer. He dressed in old, dirty clothing, covered his head with a hat and disguised his appearance with a beard. He lay on the church steps while the congregation gathered for worship. He hoped that at least one of the members would do something for the stranger on their doorstep, but he was sorely disappointed. He overheard them grumbling about the dirty man on the steps. Some of the people pointedly spoke loud enough for the stranger to hear, calling him lazy and disgusting and unwelcome. The pastor was disturbed to discover they were far too interested in one another's new clothes and material possessions than in hearts and lives. When everyone was seated, the pastor came in the front door. The congregation was shocked as he approached the pulpit. He took off his hat and his false beard.
In another story, the congregation was seating in their pews waiting for the service to begin. A young man in ripped jeans, t-shirt and much too long hair came in to the church. He walked down to the front of the worship space and plopped himself on the floor. The congregation was shocked that anyone would do such a thing, but no one dared say anything. As the pastor prepared to speak, an elderly man got up. With his cane, he slowly moved to the front of the church. Most of the congregation could understand why he would want to confront the young man. He was a long time member of the congregation. When he reached the young man, you could almost hear the members holding their breaths. Instead of chasing him away, the old man slowly sat on the floor, enjoying the worship with the young man so that he would not be alone.
What was the sermon given during worship in these two stories? It is said that the Gospel should be preached in a way that both comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. The first pastor was broken-hearted to discover how self-centered the members of his congregation were. In the second story, the pastor began his sermon with the statement, "You won't remember a think I say in this sermon, but you will always remember what you have just seen."
In both these stories, the members of the congregation make judgments based on their perception of the person that does not fit their expectation. I suppose outer appearances or individual worship practices are much of a problem for many modern churches today. As a matter of fact, many churches pride themselves in how open and welcoming they are to everyone. "Come as you are" is the mantra. Yet, James' words are still important for us because we still have our own biases. Those welcoming congregations will sometimes even grumble about those who prefer to worship in the old way, calling them frozen, unwilling to change, intolerant.
We tend to show favoritism to those who are willing to give us exactly what we want, while ignoring the others who also need the grace and mercy of God. We chase away those who don't fit into our boxes, our expectations. James was dealing with a congregation that honored those in fancy clothes. What do the poor have to offer? We might be surprised to see that their wealth is found in gifts that the church needs. But we have to remember that it is possible to reject the rich, too, focusing solely on our ministry to those who are in physical need. The rich need Jesus, too. They need the grace of God, they need the opportunity to worship, they need a place where they can share their gifts (not only their money) in a way that will glorify God.
James was dealing with a very specific problem, one I'm sure many of us understand. I have belonged to congregations where the pastors could have preached those sermons as the congregation has rejected people based on their perception of the person. We must be very aware of our own biases and prejudices. Who do we reject and for what reason? Who are we assuming does not belong because they appear different? Who do we favor in our worship and our work? Are we rejected the old because they don't like praise music or are we rejecting the young families because their kids cry out in worship? Are we tolerating the rich man because he's paying the bills, but ignoring the gifts he has to offer? Are we ministering to the poor man in flesh, but forgetting that they need the forgiveness and mercy of God for their sins?
We are reminded by today's text to favor no one above any others. God does not see our outer appearances, and while it is hard for us to ignore what we see, faith gives us the eyes of God to see people as He sees them. The royal law says that we are to love our neighbor, no matter who they might be. Rich or poor, well dressed or in blue jeans, young or old, educated or not... it doesn't matter who we are, God loves us, and He calls us to love all our neighbors in a way that will give them the hope, joy and peace to serve God with their gifts and worship Him with their whole hearts.
"The Lord Jehovah hath given me the tongue of them that are taught, that I may know how to sustain with words him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as they that are taught. The Lord Jehovah hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away backward. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord Jehovah will help me; therefore have I not been confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He is near that justifieth me; who will content with me? let us stand up together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord Jehovah will help me; who is he that shall condemn me? behold, all they shall wax old as a garment, the moth shall eat them up. Who is among you that feareth Jehovah, that obeyeth the voice of his servant? he that walketh in darkness, and hath no light, let him trust in the name of Jehovah, and rely upon his God." Isaiah 50:4-10, ASV
There are a number of shows on television that help business owners overcome problems. There are a million different reasons why a business might fail. Restaurants often have filthy kitchens or nonworking appliances. Bars have taps that pour beer at the wrong temperature or bartenders that don't know how to properly measure the alcohol. The poorly run businesses often leave room for employee apathy or even greed as they take advantage of the situation by stealing or being lazy. It is easy to point at the employees of these places because they are obviously doing things wrong, and the owners or managers are quick to point out their failings.
In the end, however, the real fault always rests on the head of that owner and manager. If they were doing their job, the employees would be better prepared to handle theirs. The employees would not have the opportunity to take advantage of them. The owners and managers should be aware of the problems, like the filth or appliances. They should properly train their employees, give them everything they need to do their jobs and make the work environment one that ensures success for everyone.
An online website lists five things a good manager will do, as well as five things that should never do. The positive qualities are: keeping the big picture in mind, consistency in behavior, treating their employees' time as if itís as important as their own, they are unafraid to question their own management and earn the trust of those they manage. On the other side of this equation, the best managers don't: become intoxicated by positional power, play favorites, go off half cocked, avoid conflict, feel threatened by the abilities of their employees.
One of the obvious problems on those business help television shows is that managers or owners will be uninvolved with the business. Some are there in the bar or the restaurant on a regular basis, but they are more interested in having fun, drinking at the bar, flirting with the customers than they are in running their business. Some are so unprepared for the business that they don't know what to do. Some run around like madmen trying to keep everything in order but in doing so cause more problems. Some are so concerned about every penny that they choose all the wrong ways of saving money.
When I was in retail management, I learned one very important lesson: Sometimes it was necessary for the manager, or assistant manager to do be every-man. In other words, there were times when the janitor was not available to deal with an emergency, so I grabbed mop to clean up the mess. If the crowds were overwhelming the cashiers, we would jump on a register to help ease the load. If a truck with an extra large load showed up at the back door, we would lend a hand. A willingness to experience the hard work gave the management credibility. If some smart aleck kid refused a job saying, "You do it," I could easily answer, "I have; now it is your turn." There is nothing I didn't experience and the employees knew it. They also knew that I was the boss, and they had their own job to accomplish.
The lesson from Isaiah is a servant song, a song spoken by one who has been chosen to bring hope to God's people. Some prophetic words were sent as a warning or to discipline God's people, but God was always speaking words of hope for those weary from living in the midst of suffering and pain. Isaiah knew what it meant to suffer. He not only received the gift of the word, but he also lived in the midst of pain. He was persecuted, humiliated, insulted. He was shamed, but without shame. Though he experienced this suffering, he never turned from his calling. He persevered through it, trusting that God was there with him.
Through the eyes of the cross, we also see this song as sung by our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the suffering servant who was persecuted, humiliated and insulted. He was even crucified on the cross. Yet, He never wavered, standing firm on the word that had been given to Him. He spoke those comforting words to the people and those who had ears to hear; those whose ears had been wakened found hope in the midst of their own suffering and pain. We can trust in the God who makes these promises because He has identified fully and completely with our own experiences. He has identified fully and completely with us, dwelling in the flesh, tempted by the world. Yet, our Lord Jesus Christ remained sinless, He was obedient and He accomplished the good work that now saves us. We can follow Him and trust that He knows and that He has overcome all that threatens our lives and calls us to live and work in faith.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 18, 2015, Second Sunday after the Epiphany: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]; Psalm 139:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
"Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee underneath the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these." John 1:50, ASV
We have been involved in the organization of a mission congregation in our city. We've working at it for nearly three years. We were not involved from the very beginning, but we became part of the process within a few months. The organizers heard a call from God, as did all of us who have joined them in the struggle.
And it has been a struggle. We've had wonderful support from a sponsoring congregation and many of the other churches in our region. They gave incredibly generous donations in the beginning, from monthly financial gifts to hymnals and furniture. The congregation members have been generous, too, ensuring that we have everything we need to operate on a Sunday morning, from bulletin boards to coffee and cookies. We have had the help of a pastor and some musicians who have led our worship. We found a lovely office space that even looked like a church, and for the past year we have gathered together for worship, Bible study and fellowship. We've become a family.
Sadly, our family has not grown in the past three years. We have had visitors come through the door and enjoy our company, but few have been willing to commit the time, resources or energy to help us succeed. The gifts have dwindled and there have been changes in the lives of our most active members, making it impossible for us to continue. Our lease is up in a few weeks and we see no long term future, so we have voted to disband. We all have places we can go; we aren't giving up on God or our faith, but we know that the time for our tiny congregation has come to an end.
Here's the hard part: we all felt called to this and we were certain that God would do a miraculous thing in, with and through us. We don't think we've failed, but we can't help but question whether or not we were truly called to do this. After all, if God calls, won't He bless it? We have to come to terms with the reality that God may have had a different purpose than what we expected.
See, most of our members were in a state of flux with their faith. They were facing difficult times in one way or another. One member was attending a bible study that was causing her to doubt everything she knew and understood about God. Our pastor's husband became sick with cancer and died. Other families dealt with other crises, spiritual, physical and emotional. We became a haven; we became a place of healing, comfort and peace. We were also a jumping off point for some people; many people who walked through our doors moved on quickly to other places, including our sponsoring congregation, and have become very active there. Several people who had been deeply involved heard God call them in another direction, and they found their place in God's kingdom in a powerful way.
Of course, we want God to call us to something miraculous, something positive, something that will succeed. We wanted to become a powerful force in our city, to speak God's Word to our neighbors and to grow His Kingdom. Instead we were little more than a pit stop for a few dozen people as they made their way through this world. Who wants a calling like that? It is no wonder that we have been questioning whether or not we truly heard God.
At least we didn't get called like Samuel. Now, Samuel was a most unusual young man. His mother Hannah was barren, but loved deeply by her husband Elkanah. He treated Hannah with love and grace to the point of making his other wife jealous. Whenever he went to Shiloh to worship the Lord God Almighty, Penninah treated Hannah so poorly that she wept and refused to eat. Elkanah asked, "Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?" She ate and then went into the temple to pray. Her ache was so deep and her tears so bitter that her prayers came from the very depths of her heart even while her lips moved soundlessly. Eli the priest saw her and thought she was drunk. He rebuked her, but she told him that she was pouring out her soul to the Lord. He said, "Go in peace; and the God of Israel grant thy petition that thou hast asked of him."
During her prayers, Hannah made a vow, "O Jehovah of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thy handmaid, but wilt give unto thy handmaid a man-child, then I will give him unto Jehovah all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head." She became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. As soon as he was weaned, Hannah took Samuel to the temple and gave him to Eli to serve the Lord for his whole life. Her faithfulness was rewarded as she was blessed with more children.
Eli was father to two sons who were wicked in the eyes of the Lord. They took advantage of their position, abused their power and lived sinful lives. Eli knew his sons were evil, and tried to stop them, but he did not succeed. They continued to be wicked and the Lord decided to put them to death and end the house of Eli. They lived under a promise made to Eli's father that they would minister before the Lord forever, but since Eli chose to honor his sons more than God, God chose to end that promise.
Today's Old Testament lesson picks up Samuel's life sometime later, perhaps a decade. He was probably in his early teens. He had been ministering before the Lord, learning the work under his mentor Eli. It was a time when God had been silent; there were no visions and the word of the Lord was rare. Samuel had never experienced that kind of incarnation; he probably didn't even know that it could be. His understanding of God was limited; though he served in the temple, his service had always been to Eli. Eli was as like a father to him and Samuel did everything he could do to help Eli. Eli was quite old, he could barely see; he needed a helper to do even the most mundane things on a daily basis.
Samuel was attending the lamp in the temple, ensuring that it would not go out, when he heard a voice calling to him. He assumed it was Eli and he ran to his mentor's side. "You called?" Eli said, "No." Samuel went back to the lamb and heard the voice a second time. He ran to Eli. "You called?" Eli said, "No." This happened a third time. This time Eli understood that the Lord was calling Samuel. "Go back and when He calls, answer, "Speak, Jehovah; for thy servant heareth."
Samuel obeyed. When the Lord stood there and called Samuel's name, Samuel answered as Eli told him. Did he understand what was happening? I am not so sure; even at this point Samuel is obedient to Eli, the one he knows and has served for so long. It must have been a frightening thing since his experience of the Lord had been so mundane.
It doesn't help that the Lord spoke words against Eli, difficult for Samuel to hear. What would you do if the Lord came to you and told you that He was going to do this horrible thing to someone that you loved? The words made Samuel afraid. How could he tell Eli this truth? The first thing God laid on Samuel's shoulders was this harsh word. Eli warned Samuel to be honest with him, and that God would punish him if he hid anything. Samuel told Eli what he heard. Eli answered, "It is Jehovah: let him do what seemeth him good."
It might seem like a hard way to begin a career serving the Lord, but this harsh word acted to verify to Eli that Samuel was a chosen prophet. He was not telling Eli something new; Eli had already heard this word. Now Eli knew without a doubt that it was true because it was given to him again. But Eli also knew that God was not leaving the people desolate. Imagine if you were Eli, trying to reign in out of control sons, knowing that you have failed to be not only the father, but also the priest, that God called him to be. It was up to him to ensure the spiritual welfare of his people, but how could that happen if there was no one to carry on the ministry? Samuel was a ray of hope in a hopeless situation. Samuel grew and ministered to the Lord; the people heard God's Word through him. God was no longer silent.
His life was never easy, but He was obedient to God and He did what God called and sent him to do. The people of Israel were, as all of us are, imperfect. They believed God but often fell away. The history of God's people is a constant circle of faith, apathy, sinfulness, repentance and faith. God had to remind His people of their failure, their needs and His grace over and over again. They suffered the consequences of their apathy and sinfulness but were always given a word of hope and God always remained faithful to the promises He made to them.
Last week the scriptures spoke about the powerful and majestic voice of God; when God speaks, things happen. At His baptism, Jesus heard that wonderful voice as the Holy Spirit came upon. It was a very personal, intimate moment as God the Father blessed His Son. "Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased." There would be more of these moments, not only for Jesus but also for those who heard Godís voice. The scriptures for this week take us into that relationship, where God speaks personally to those He has chosen to serve.
Philip heard God's voice. Philip had an advantage over Samuel because he heard a voice that was connected to a person: Jesus. Jesus called Philip into a relationship. The encounter was no less miraculous: Philip dropped everything to follow Jesus. Philip was excited about what was happening in his town. John the Baptist was preaching a good word about God and baptizing people in the Jordan. He told his followers that someone greater was going to come along. They were expecting a Messiah because Moses and the prophets had written about him. So, when Philip met Jesus, he knew this was something that he should not keep to himself. He found Nathaniel and told him about Jesus. Nathaniel didnít believe Philip right away because the news did not match his expectations. ďWhat good can come out of Nazareth?Ē he asked. God was speaking through Philip, but Nathanael didnít believe the voice because it was outside his expectation.
I suppose we are much more like Nathanael than Phillip. We have a hard time believing it when someone says, "God told me..." We even doubt our own calling when it doesn't come out the way we think it should.
Philip had no doubt that what he was saying was true. When Nathanael questioned the invitation to meet Jesus, he answered, "Come and see." He didnít try to prove his words or his worth. He didn't try to prove that he heard God's voice. He simply invited Nathanael to see for himself the man who could be the One they were waiting to see. We do not need to fight the doubt or worry about the ridicule when we believe we've heard the voice of God, we simply need to trust that God is doing His work in His way even when it feels like we've failed.
When Nathanael met Jesus, Jesus said, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" Jesus knew Nathanael, intimately and personally, as He knows all His children. The Psalm speaks of God's handiwork; He knows everything about our life, even before we know it. We cannot hide from Him. He created us and laid our path before us. He gives us His life and word. He will guard and protect us; He will mold and guide us. We can depend on Him and without Him we would die. David sings of God's knowledge, how He knows our inner being and the lives He has ordained for us to live. He knows our calling, even before we are born. He knows our thoughts and our ways.
In the lessons for today, we learn that God doesn't let our doubt get in the way of the intention of His calling. He keeps calling so that we will hear. We might not always understand why or how God comes to us, but He does until we get it.
When Nathanael wondered how Jesus knew him, the proof was not very exciting. "I saw you under the tree." Why would that be the word that convinced Nathanael to believe in Jesus? It doesn't make much sense. And yet, when does it make sense to say we believe in something so extraordinary? The proofs that people give that God called them often sound coincidental or seem like the perception of crazy mind. Jesus assured Nathanael that this was the beginning of something extraordinary. His faith may be based on so little, but it would grow as God continued to speak. Nathanael would see the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but even when it seemed like there was no physical body to the voice, the voice would still speak.
There are some who might think that everything we did for our tiny mission congregation was a waste of time and resources, yet we do not think so. God did something miraculous even if it appears to be nothing spectacular. He brought together a group of people who needed one another and gave us everything we needed to help one another. Each of us has taken our hope and peace into our own little corners of the world and impacted others in ways we don't even realize. We might misunderstand our calling, but God's Word will always accomplish what He intends.
Godís grace is always bigger than our failures. He has overcome our sin and has defeated death despite our inability to stand firm in His promises.
The people of Corinth understood the spiritual relationship God had with His people. They knew about grace and forgiveness and knew they would live eternally with God. Yet, they rejected that God's relationship with them was flesh as well as spirit. They thought it was ok to abuse and misuse their flesh because it no longer mattered; faith was spiritual only, nothing of the world mattered.
They did not see sexual immorality as a problem because they were spiritual beings. God did not communicate with or through their bodies. But Paul reminded them that their bodies were the dwelling place of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. God lives in us, works with us, and shares His love through us. Though the blood of Christ forgives our past, present and future sins, we dishonor God by abusing that which He so lovingly made and called into His service. We are called to honor God with our whole bodies.
The Lord stood before Samuel. Jesus spoke directly to Phillip and Nathanael. The members of our congregation heard God's voice and trusted that He would do His work through us. God still speaks to His people in many different ways, and we are invited to hear His voice in a very real way. We might not always get it right or fully understand what He is saying. We have to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can see God through their eyes and wonder at His amazing grace. The life God is calling us to live might not be what we want; it might even be frightening. It might seem like we have failed Him. None of us want to live the life of a prophet. None of us want to give up our wishes and dreams.
Samuel and Nathanael reacted with a humble obedience to the life they were called to live. They knew that their life was no longer their own, but rather that they belonged to God. They lived in the hope of God's promises, but they did not do so recklessly. They lived as if every moment was meant to glorify God and His word was reflected in their life. In Christ we have a freedom that we do not have under the Law, but that does not mean living that way is beneficial. Eli and his sons did what they wanted despite dwelling in the house of God, but they lost their place in His kingdom because they dishonored God. Samuel was given to God as a thankoffering from Hannah and he lived accordingly. Nathanael did not need to lead a life of contemplative prayer, but it was the life God called him to live and in doing so He brought glory to God.
God still speaks and He calls us into a relationship. It is difficult in this world because even Christians wonder if we are really hearing the voice of God. We want to be accepted, to be respected, to be happy. We want to fit in. On this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are reminded that God has invited us into a new life, a life following Him. It doesnít matter if others think we are crazy because we believe God has spoken to us. It doesn't matter if others think we've wasted our time and resource. What matters is that we live the life that glorifies Him, trusting that He has done something we might never fully understand. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we are meant to do. He knows what purpose our life holds. And He has promised that we will see extraordinary things happen. When we hear His voice, and we will, we need only say, ďSpeak; for thy servant heareth.Ē
"Thy testimonies are wonderful; therefore doth my soul keep them. The opening of thy words giveth light; It giveth understanding unto the simple. I opened wide my mouth, and panted; For I longed for thy commandments. Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me, As thou usest to do unto those that love thy name. Establish my footsteps in thy word; And let not any iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from the oppression of man: So will I observe thy precepts. Make thy face to shine upon thy servant; And teach me thy statutes. Streams of water run down mine eyes, Because they observe not thy law." Psalm 119:129-136, ASV
A few weeks ago, I wrote the following paragraph for this devotional: "Psalm 119 is a devotional on the Word of God. It is divided into twenty-two stanzas, each focusing on a specific letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line of each stanza begins, in Hebrew, with the letter of that stanza. Throughout the psalm, the writer repeatedly uses eight different Hebrew terms, which can be translated as 'law,' 'statutes,' 'precepts,' 'commands,' 'laws,' 'decrees,' 'word,' and 'promise.' Though these may seem redundant, there are subtle but distinct differences."
I didn't really know how this would manifest in my understanding of Psalm 119, but when my Bible study group began meeting again after Christmas, we decided to take on this behemoth and see what we could learn from it. I have to admit that I don't know much about Hebrew, but I have enough knowledge to at least know where to look, and the Internet is filled with great resources to help. What I learned is that even the translations above do not do justice to the meaning of each of the eight Hebrew words.
It is difficult, because these words can have dozens of meanings, and each translator has to choose which English word best fits their understanding of that particular verse. This is why you'll find different words used in each translation, though the text itself seems to say the same thing. This is also why we find Psalm 119 so tedious. How many times can you read "statutes" and find something meaningful in the text. For those of us who understand the balance between law and gospel, Psalm 119 seems quite heavy with law and light on gospel.
The eight Hebrew words, in a transliteration from a website with the Hebrew text, are as follows: TORAH, MISHPAT, DABAR, MITSVAH, CHOQ, PIQQUWD, IMRAH, and EDAH. (You might find these words spelled slightly differently at other sites.) While each of these words are translated by words referring to God's Word, some with the same words, they each focus on one specific aspect of God's Word. TORAH, we know means the five books of Moses (the first five books of the bible) but it more generally means the instruction or teaching of God. MISHPAT is a word referring to justice, a verdict pronounced judicially. DABAR is the spoken word, often specifically the words spoken by God or for God. MITSVAH refers to the entire body of God's law, or as I've been putting it "all God's law." CHOQ (and a parallel word CHUQQAH) means boundary, ritual or fixed portion; it is the word that make's God's will known. PIQQUWD is often translated precepts, which means mandate or official order; it is the word of God properly appointed by His authority. IMRAH means promise. EDAH (and a parallel word EDUWTH) is translated testimony, but can better be understood as the witness or evidence of God's work in the world.
Taking this understanding of these words, I've rewritten today's passage from Psalm 119. (Please understand that I am not trying to rewrite the Bible or suggest that I know better than the translators. I found it helpful to use a paraphrase to see these verses more clearly, to better appreciate what Psalm 119 can mean for us.)
"The testimony (EDUWTH) of what God has done is so wonderful that I treasure it deep in my heart and soul. As God's Word is spoken (DABAR) it brings light and helps the simple to understand. I anxiously desire all God's Law (MITSVAH). Have mercy on those who love You according to Your justice (MISHPAT). Guide me according to Your promise (IMRAH) so that I will not sin. Save me from the oppression of human authorities so that I can live according to Your appointed authority (PIQQUWD). Make Your face shine on me; teach me Your boundaries (CHOQ). I grieve for those who do not know Your teaching (TORAH)."
Do you see how this passage encompasses the entirety of God's Word for His people, from the spoken word to that which is buried deep in our hearts, from the rules we should follow to the mercy we experience based on God's grace? This passage is not eight verses of law talk, but is the prayer of a man longing to be obedient to the Word he treasures. There is a depth to this text that we lose in our English translations, but when fully understood causes us to pant with anxious desire not only for ourselves, but also for those who do not know the blessing of God's Word.
"But this I say, He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Let each man do according as he hath purposed in his heart: not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound unto you; that ye, having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work: as it is written, He hath scattered abroad, he hath given to the poor; His righteousness abideth for ever. And he that supplieth seed to the sower and bread for food, shall supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness: ye being enriched in everything unto all liberality, which worketh through us thanksgiving to God. For the ministration of this service not only filleth up the measure of the wants of the saints, but aboundeth also through many thanksgivings unto God; seeing that through the proving of you by this ministration they glorify God for the obedience of your confession unto the gospel of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution unto them and unto all; while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, long after you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift." 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, ASV
I read an article today about a woman who moved into a small town. She was from a place that was very friendly and she spent time in a big city where she was able to get close to her neighbors, but nothing prepared her for her experience in this small town. The people there were very close and they had a hard time accepting outsiders. She joked in the article that they went out of their way to remove the sign on the highway so that no one would know they were there. After just a few days she began to regret her move. She tried to be friendly, but the natives closed their doors in her face when she tried to deliver cookies to introduce herself.
Then she met a woman, the owner of the preschool her son attended. That woman and her husband owned a farm nearby and they all became very good friends. They were to her like life preservers, welcoming her and her son as part of their family. She began to settle into life in the small town.
One day the man had an accident which made it impossible for him to work on his farm. They needed help. The woman's first thought was that she'd take them a casserole, after all, that's what they did in her hometown. She realized quickly, however, the problems they faced had little to do with what to eat for supper. They didn't know how they would take care of the animals. Who would collect the eggs if the man could not walk? She offered to help. It was tough; she had no experience with chickens, but she managed.
As she was helping in this way, she learned a very powerful message. The reason this small town is so closed to outsiders is not because they do not like new people. They just need to know that the people they welcome into their family will be willing to be a part of the community. They depended on one another, not for plates of cookies, but to get through the tough times. The town needed to know that those they welcomed would be available when there was hard work to accomplish. Some folk aren't willing to work that hard.
The woman learned what it means to be part of a community, it isn't just about living in the house next door. It is about the willingness to jumping into the middle of their lives and taking on the responsibilities that they can't accomplish themselves. It is about being present in a very real way. We might think that we don't have the time to deal with their problems when we all have our own, but what we learn quickly is that when we give of ourselves, they will also be present in our lives when we need them.
It is easy to take a casserole to someone who is having a hard time. It is easy to hand someone a check when they are in need. It is easy to offer to help and then walk away knowing that they'll never ask. The hard part is getting our hands dirty with the work of helping our neighbors. Would you be willing to attend to the chickens at a neighbor's farm if they needed your help? Everything you do glorifies God, whether it is food, a check or the hands on work necessary to help our neighbors survive and everything we do that glorifies God blesses our lives in ways we never expect.
"These wait all for thee, That thou mayest give them their food in due season. Thou givest unto them, they gather; Thou openest thy hand, they are satisfied with good. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled; Thou takest away their breath, they die, And return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; And thou renewest the face of the ground." Psalm 104:27-30, ASV
We have a house full of cats. Ok, perhaps the house isn't full of them, but sometimes our three cats can be overwhelming. Whenever I open a can of food, they think I'm opening a can of tuna fish to share with them. It doesn't matter what is in the can, they gather at my feet making it impossible to do whatever I'm trying to do in the kitchen. There are other times when they gather around. Mornings mean breakfast and if we are even a few minutes late out of bed, they pace the hallways crying for our attention. Sammy loves to play, and he will get underfoot to get my attention. Delilah likes to take naps, so she'll follow me around during the afternoon to get my attention. Tigger just likes my attention, especially when I'm at the computer, and he will rub on my legs and sit at my feet to make sure I know he's there.
It makes me sad when I see the neighborhood cats that hang out around our house, especially when the weather is cold or wet. I understand that cats are independent and that they like to roam at night, but I think too many people use that as an excuse. They don't want to be bothered by the demands of a pet, so they let them fend for themselves in the world. It isn't just cats that have to deal with this indifference; we hear far too many stories about animals that are ignored, especially in winter. Dogs are left chained outside without suitable cover from snow and cold. They are barely fed and forced to live with their own waste, left dirty and unloved.
Of course, there are those who do keep their pets inside, but become overwhelmed by the care. We've all heard the jokes about crazy cat ladies, but it isn't a joke when a woman ends up with a literal house full of cats. There are too many; the care and upkeep of their space, especially the litter box, can be overwhelming. Even with my three cats I worry about the smell; I can't always tell if there's a problem because we become immune to it. I can't imagine the smell if there are twenty cats and overflowing litter boxes. When it gets too bad, the cats don't even bother, and then it is impossible to be rid of the smell. These homes are unhealthy and dangerous for both human and pet.
These crazy cat ladies, and those who take on too many other pets, believe that they are being compassionate and loving by adopting the pets into their home. "I just couldn't say no," they tell us. Yet, is it compassionate to make any animal live in its own waste, to be left out in the cold, to have to fight for a little bit of attention? Pets need more than just food for their stomach and a roof over their head. They need love.
Today's Psalm reminds us that God is not a creator who set everything into motion and then stepped away to let the world and the people fend for themselves. He is not a God who puts us out at night so he can get a good night sleep or one that is overwhelmed by the care of His creatures. He feeds us, cares for us, protects us, and provides for us. Most of all, He loves us. He listens when we pray, even if we are pestering Him like a cat who wants breakfast. He makes His face shine on our lives so that we will know He is present. He has promised us that even when life is over on this earth, He will be waiting to welcome us into heaven. He has given us His Spirit as a guarantee for the eternal life He has planned for us. By God's benevolent care, His house full of creatures will flourish.
"Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things that were heard, lest haply we drift away from them. For if the word spoken through angels proved stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation? which having at the first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard; God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will." Hebrews 2:1-4 (ASV)
I don't know why, but I spent a lot of time watching those made for television romance movies on the channels geared toward women. I know that they are ridiculously easy to predict, there is always a girl and a boy and a problem which ends in happily ever after. There might be a twist in the middle, but guess the direction of the movie within minutes. I guess I just like the happily ever after.
If you google the question, "How many stories are there?" you'll find a variety of answers. Some, like Aristotle, say only two: comedy and tragedy. Others have suggested seven: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man against God, Man vs. Society, Man in the Middle, Man & Woman, Man vs. Himself. Yet others have suggested the number is more like 20 or 36. William Wallace Cook, a dimestore novelist, has suggested a possible 1,462 plots. He was a prolific writer, publishing as many as 54 books in one year. Joseph Campbell has written that there is only one plot: the monomyth, the hero's journey. The plot of the monomyth is, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." This is certainly the format for many of the popular movies of our day.
One popular storyline often used in those made-for-television movies is the Cinderella story. This is a plot that begins with a happy girl whose life is turned upside down by some catastrophe. She is persecuted and denied her greatest wish, but waits patiently, being humble before those who treat her cruelly. A kind force helps and opens a new door for her where she is saved by her hero and lives happily ever after. In the end, the cruel ones receive their just reward. The biblical book of Esther is a Cinderella story. This plot line can be found in myths and legends from around the world.
The Native American Indians version tells of a great warrior who lived on the Atlantic Ocean. His greatest gift was his ability to become invisible. His name was Strong Wind and all the maidens sought to marry him, but he refused any who were dishonest. With the help of his sister, Strong Windís tested each maiden that came to him. His sister took the maidens to the shore when Strong Wind was due to come home in the evening. As he approached, his sister asked the maiden if she saw him. They all said yes, but when asked to describe something about his appearance, they could only guess. They were always wrong and he knew they were lying.
There was a chief with three daughters. Their mother had died long ago and the two older sisters were jealous of the youngest. They treated her cruelly, burning her face and putting her into rags for clothes. They told their father she did it herself. She did not complain, but patiently did her work with a gentle heart. The two older sisters sought Strong Wind but he saw through their lies. The chief's youngest daughter also tried. She fixed her appearance as well as she could, but she was ridiculed by her sisters and the others along the way. Strong Wind's sister had mercy and took her to seek her brother. When it was time for Strong Wind to come home, his sister asked, "Do you see him?" The girl said, "No." Once again the sister asked if the girl could see her brother and this time she said, "Yes." When Strong Wind's sister asked her to describe him, she said, "His sled is drawn by a rainbow and his bow is the Milky Way." Since she had been honest with the first answer, he made himself visible to her. They took the girl home, healed her wounds and cleaned her face and body. She was clothed in fine clothes and many rich ornaments. The fate of the two sisters was not so great. Since they had lied and had treated their sister with such cruelty, Strong Wind turned them into Aspen trees. Whenever he came to them, their leaves trembled and they knew of his anger.
The maidens thought they could convince Strong Wind to marry them with their good looks or clever answers, but Strong Wind was only visible to those to whom he revealed himself. The same is true of our God, although throughout the ages we human beings have tried to create a relationship with Him on our own. We do good works, we say the right things, we go to the right places and claim our self-righteousness is enough to be the one who can see God. For the Jews, righteousness meant being obedient to the Law of Moses, those who did not keep His commandments were not worthy of His grace. Unfortunately, none of us are worthy.
For this reason, Jesus came to bridge the divide between God and His people. Through Christ we can see God, be healed, cleansed and robed with the finest garment He has to give: His righteousness. We need to recognize our inability to see Him and honestly say that we have eyes that are blinded to the truth. With that confession, repentance, our eyes are open and we can see Him as He is. If we continue in our old ways, claiming a righteousness that is not in Christ but through the Law, we will never know the salvation Christ gives through His Gospel. The young sister humbled herself before Strong Wind and he gave her the world. When we do the same before God, we are given eternal life and a place in His kingdom forever by His grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 25, 2015, Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (32-35); Mark 1:14-20
"And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men." Mark 1:17, ASV
I know what it is like to harbor bad feelings, to withhold the words "I forgive you" from someone who has done me harm. I think we all do. I also know what it is like to say the words in a meaningless way. It is fairly easy to say ďI forgive youĒ but it is a lot harder to show forgiveness. I've said the words, I've written them on my heart, I've tried to return the relationship as it had been, but I can't. My heart aches when they say something that reminds me of the pain; I lay sleepless, writing letters in my head to remind them of the wrong. Even if I say "I forgive you," those are just words if the relationship remains broken.
Rev. Walter Everett was the father of a young man who was murdered. When he heard the news, he became very angry at the murderer. His anger began to destroy his life. At the hearing, the young man who had done this horrible act stood before the court and said he was truly sorry. A few weeks later, Rev. Everett wrote to the young man, confessed his anger and asked some questions. Then he wrote that he was glad to hear what he had said in court and though it was hard, he wrote, "I forgive you." Those three words brought the young man to his knees in his cell and he prayed for forgiveness from God. Rev. Everett and the young man continued to write and visit, sharing their faith journeys together. Rev. Everett then testified at the young manís parole hearing. He was released early and they remained friends. They both learned about the true freedom found in forgiveness. It was also a lesson in mercy.
God forgives, but Heís also merciful. It is actually fairly easy to say ďI forgive youĒ but it is a lot harder to show forgiveness. Rev. Everett not only spoke the words, but became a traveling companion through the journey of faith in Jesus Christ with the man who killed his son. He shared the Gospel, encouraged the young man's faith and helped him become free in both spirit and flesh. Thatís mercy.
Jonah was a Jew and the Ninevites were the mortal enemies of his people. Border skirmishes between the nations caused too much suffering; Jonah could not forgive. That's why he ran away when God called him to preach to Nineveh. Jonah did not want them to repent; he wanted them to experience God's pain so that they might suffer, too. But God had plans for them, so he sent his reluctant prophet into the city of sin to warn them to repent or die. Jonah's hope was that it wouldn't work, that they would just go on sinning. Yet, the word of God had an awesome affect on the people of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh believed the prophet, they repented and God spared them His wrath.
Sometimes we would rather hang on to the anger and bitterness than see than love our enemies. I once heard someone ask, "Is it ok to wish someone were dead?" She was upset by the actions of someone who had harmed her family and she just wanted them out of her life. We can all identify people in our lives, either past or present that were like enemies for us. The young man was an enemy to the Reverend. It does us no good to hold on to our anger; it is harmful to our spiritual and physical health. However, when we forgive, we open a world of new possibilities. Perhaps, such as in the story of the preacher and his son's murderer, we may lose an enemy and gain a brother in Christ. I'm not sure I could do the things Jonah or Rev. Everett did.
The call of God is never easy. We'd rather focus on the benefits of being a child of God, the promise of eternity and His provision in our lives. God blesses those who trust in Him, although we must be careful what we consider blessedness. Some will tell you that God has promised big cars, big houses and rose gardens. They will insist that if you love God enough, that He will ensure your health and wealth. They tell you that you will have nothing to fear because God will put a hedge around you and will protect you from all harm.
We know, however, that faith in Jesus does not guarantee warm fuzzies. The Saints from throughout the ages will tell you that it means persecution, and possibly even martyrdom. It means rejection, especially when we begin living a new and different life under God's Word. We will still get sick and we will die. We will still experience the troubles of life like lost jobs, broken relationships, natural disasters and human sin (both the harm of others' sin and the consequences of our own.) The promise of God is that He will be with us through it all and in the end we will spend eternity with Him.
In the meantime, we are called to a life of obedience to His Word. We are called to follow Him. The work may be hard; we may think we are completely unqualified, but we can trust that God will be with us through it all. When God calls He equips, provides, qualifies and enables; we may not be called to do something that is comfortable, but God will give us all we need to accomplish it.
Simon and Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Most scholars will tell you that they were probably not educated beyond the schooling they would have received as children. They were probably familiar with the scriptures, learned at the feet of their mothers. They may have had enough knowledge in the common languages of the day so that they could conduct the business of fishermen. It is likely, however, that they were strong, dirty and rough, mouths filled with foul language. Though they could have recited the psalms, they were probably more likely to tell an off-color joke. They were surely not prepared to follow Jesus. They were men of the sea, hardworking, patient and willing to endure hardship, but the life of wandering the wilderness or hanging with crowds in the villages was beyond their scope of experience. Worst of all, they were not preachers or teachers. How could God possibly call these guys to this life?
I think most of us, at some time or another, ask the same question of our own lives. "How could God possibly call me to this life?" I don't mind following Jesus, although I'd much rather if He would go the way I want to go.
We don't see that in today's Gospel story. Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John left their fishing boats "immediately" and followed Jesus. This has always struck me as amazing. Even with the Holy Spirit urging them to faith and obedience, I find it difficult to identify with someone who would leave everything without thought or consideration for the costs. I'd want a few answers, first. Where are we going? What will we do? How will we survive without nets, or jobs, or our families? Can we go home and get a change of clothes and hiking boots?
We assume by the text that they heard the call of a stranger and just left everything for him. When we see the chronology in the other Gospels, however, we realize that the four fisherman were familiar with Jesus and the work he was doing. As a matter of fact, this story does not happen until chapter four in Matthew. In Luke, Jesus heals Simon's mother-in-law after healing in the synagogue before He called the fishermen to follow Him. We don't know how long it was between the wilderness temptation and the calling of these disciples. It could have been months or even a year. We do know from Mark that the time was right; John the Baptist was arrested, passing on the work he began to the One for whom it was begun. These fishermen didn't drop everything at the call of a stranger. Andrew was a follower of John and heard John tell the crowds that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. He told Simon that they had found the Messiah. (John 1)
The fact that these guys had time to think about it doesn't make it any less amazing. As a matter of fact, thinking about it might have been the worst thing they could do. Who really walks away from a good living without considering the costs? Here's what's amazing: Jesus certainly met many people in that time between the wilderness and calling the disciples. What made him pick this rag-tag group of men? Why would He choose fishermen? Why would He pick the ones that have no experience with ministry?
He chose them for that very reason: those disciples were clay that could be molded. The religious establishment was too set in their ways, there was too much for Jesus to overcome. He chose people who weren't afraid, who could learn, whose hearts were open to the Holy Spirit's guidance. They weren't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. Even after traveling with Jesus and spending all their time with Him, they did not understand. Even to the cross, the disciples thought that they were picked for a different purpose. James and John thought that they were chosen to rule with Jesus when He became king. None of them expected Jesus to surrender to the cross. They wanted to follow the Messiah. Would any of them have really followed immediately if they thought Jesus would end up on the cross?
There is a sense of urgency to the mission throughout the Gospel of Mark. The kingdom of God was at hand and Jesus knew He would not have very long to teach the disciples. Jesus never forced faith on anyone. He was received and believed through the grace of God. Imagine what it must have been like for Peter and Andrew. Jesus invited them to leave the life they knew for some unknown, and they immediately left. They did not even clean up their nets to follow Him. James and John did the same thing, leaving the responsibilities of this world to their aging father and the hired hands. I'm not sure I could do the same thing.
Add to my own doubts the reality of the world in which I live. Now that my children are grown I have more freedom to follow God's expectation of my life, but it was much harder when my children were small. I had opportunities to travel, to speak, to teach, but I always had to consider the cost. Could I get away from the children for a few days? Would Bruce be available to be there when they got home from school, to cook them dinner, to tuck them in at night? I worried that Bruce might get deployed while I was gone; I wondered if I could get home in the case of an emergency. Even now I have to consider my relationship with my husband when I make decisions, just as he does the same for me. We find it difficult to follow God because we've made promises to each other.
Paul honored marriage, but in today's epistle lesson he talks about a reality that we do not often consider. Paul wrote that the time had grown short and that Christians should keep their eyes on Jesus, even living as though one did not have a spouse. It meant turning away from family in their greatest time of need. It meant ignoring the joyous times of life. It meant giving up all their stuff. It meant giving up all dealings with the world. This seems rather extreme to us, after all Jesus was not against marriage.
Paul is not telling us to reject earthly things like marriage. Paul is more concerned about sparing the Christian from the trials that occur when distracted from their calling from God. A spouse, the responsibilities of work and children, the care of a house and property keeps us from time that might be devoted to Christ. It is not only a matter of time. It is also a matter of the emotions that come with the relationships and responsibilities. Our hearts are torn every time we have to choose between a family need and the calling of God.
Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John were busy when Jesus happened by their boats and called them to follow Him. They dropped everything to follow Jesus. This was an incredible commitment, particularly since James and John had to walk away from their father. They could have just as easily told Jesus they'd be along when the nets were prepared or the fish caught. Instead, they went immediately.
I think, sadly, we are more like Jonah. I'm sure he was a devoted Jew, willing to obey God, except for this one thing. We jump with excitement when we hear God calling us to work we like, but we tremble with fear or drag our feet when it seems His calling is something uncomfortable. Sometimes we even run away. We get angry when God accomplishes a work that seems to be against our best interests. We have to remember, though, that God doesn't call us to worthless or unimportant work. He calls us to follow Him. That might take us to places we'd rather not go.
In today's passages we are reminded that while our attachments in this world might be gifts and they might be useful for our ministry, God demands to be first. When He calls, He expects us to hear. His calling is urgent and our obedience should be immediate. Can God accomplish the work without us? Of course He can. Can we accomplish anything without Him? No, absolutely not. When God calls us to join Him it is because He has chosen us to the task. He does not need us, but He wants us to follow. We might be more likely to be like Jonah, thinking that we have a better understanding of what is happening. We are easily distracted by the world, using ever excuse to keep from following immediately. We'll think about joining Him later, after we've fixed the nets or brought in the catch. Maybe then we will have a better idea of what He's planning to do. After all, what if He calls us to take the Gospel to our enemies?
The psalmist writes, "Trust in him at all times." The psalmist, probably David who was having troubles of his own, knew that the best way to deal with trouble was to trust in God. David had so many enemies. His enemies wanted him dead or at least off the throne. His life and his honor were at stake. However, he knew that he could not defeat his enemies on his own. He had to wait on God, for God's plan is always right and good.
God has mercy. He had mercy on the Ninevites. He has mercy on us and He calls us to have mercy on our enemies that they might hear the Good News of forgiveness that is found in the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. The Psalmist reminds us that God alone is our salvation, that He is our hope, our rock, our rest. Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God who came into time and space to draw people into the kingdom of God. We are really nothing, our stuff is useless and time is fleeting, but God is strong and loving, our refuge. This God calls us to follow, to join Jesus Christ in sharing the Kingdom with the world. We need not worry that we are unprepared because He will provide us with all we need to accomplish His work in the world.
"And as he was going forth into the way, there ran one to him, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good save one, even God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor thy father and mother. And he said unto him, Teacher, all these things have I observed from my youth. And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. But his countenance fell at the saying, and he went away sorrowful: for he was one that had great possessions. And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And they were astonished exceedingly, saying unto him, Then who can be saved? Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God. Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee. Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or lands, for my sake, and for the gospel's sake, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last first." Mark 10:17-31, ASV
What would you do if someone offered you a million dollars? If you are like most people, the first question you would ask is "What do I have to do?" We don't expect someone to give us something for nothing, so we assume there is a catch. We assume that they will expect something in return. We feel that way about much smaller gifts, too, even acts of kindness like dinner or gifts. We are so cynical that we wonít even accept a simple act of kindness without trying to pay it back.
On the surface, todayís story seems to be about a man who honors and respects Jesus and His teachings. Mark tells us that he ran up to Jesus, knelt before Him and called Him "Good teacher." This is little more than flattery spoken by someone who is looking to have Jesus justify the life he was living. He wanted Jesus to tell him what he needed to do to earn a place in heaven. The young man was probably quite wealthy. It is possible that he was even part of the ruling class, perhaps even a Pharisee.
Jesus' initial answer made the young man feel good. Jesus quoted the Ten Commandments, listing the laws that involved human relationships. The man easily responded that he has never broken those laws. He didn't kill, cheat, steal, lie or covet. He honored his parents. "Teacher, all these things have I observed from my youth." He was a good man, obedient to the law and the expectations of his religion. I can almost hear Jesusí sigh; I hear it every time I think of myself as a good person.
"And Jesus looking upon him loved him." We aren't much different than the rich young ruler. We want to know what we have to do to earn the kingdom of heaven. We respond to Jesus' answer in the passage with a sigh of relief. It should be easy for us to earn heaven because we are generally good people. Most of us don't kill, cheat, steal, lie or covet on a daily basis. We even try to present our good life to the Good Teacher with humbleness and respect. "I have done all these things." Jesus looks upon us with love and a sigh.
He doesn't let us wallow in our self-righteousness, however. He responds with love and a reality check. "One thing you lack," He says. Even though we seem to do everything right, we all have something in our life that is more important than our God. We aren't willing to give it all up. We aren't willing to let go of our old life to follow Christ. We all hang on to our burdens and baggage. The rich young ruler's burden was wealth. Jesus' words made him sad. Jesus expected too much; he did not want to sell everything and give it to the poor. The young man wanted to know what he had to do to earn what God was giving for free, so Jesus made the payment beyond the young manís ability to pay.
When the disciples asked, "Then who can be saved?" The truth is that no one can be saved by their own obedience or goodness. But Jesus answered, "With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God." Now this is good news. God is offering us a gift worth far more than a million dollars and He is asking nothing in return. The gift is free, but when we ask what we have to do to earn it, Jesus will also ask us to give up the one thing we don't want to let go. The cost is always beyond our ability to give. How will we respond? Will we respond with sadness, turning away from God or will we truly be humbled by His amazing grace?
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but the corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." Matthew 7:15-23, ASV
There was a commercial a few years ago for an insurance company that showed a man using a mobile application. A woman asked what he was doing and he told her. "I thought they didn't have all those apps," she said. He asked her where she heard that and she answered "On the Internet." "And you believed it?" he asked? She said, "Yes, they can't put anything on the Internet that isn't true." "Where did you hear that?" "On the Internet," she answered. Then a less than attractive man walks up to the two. "There's my date, he's a French Model. I met him on the Internet." He stammers out a less than convincing "Bonjour," and they walk away.
We know that not everything on the Internet is completely truthful, although it is not the only way schemers try to catch us. I received a phone call the other day from someone trying to convince me that I owed the IRS a lot of money. This scam has received quite a bit of attention in the past few weeks. The news did a story about it and I read an article about it this morning. One woman decided to play along with the scam, recording the conversation. The caller became angry and belligerent, insisting that the sheriff would be at her door if she did not give her a credit card number to pay the outstanding tax bill. I didn't answer the call I received, but heard similar threats on the voice mail they left behind.
I didn't worry about it because I have dealt with a tax mistake with the IRS in the past. I know the process, and it doesn't begin with a threatening phone call. As a matter of fact, in response to this scam the IRS has been reminded people through these news reports that they will never initiate a phone conversation. They insist that you should never give any information unless you have phoned the IRS at a number you have looked up yourself. It doesn't matter how official the call sounds or an email looks, scammers will take advantage of anyone who can be manipulated with half truths and twisted facts.
Sadly, the twists are not limited to secular or earthly things. There are many, too many, who have twisted God's Word in a way that confuses God's people and sets them on the wrong path. Satan is real and he is constantly trying to lead people away from God. He has copies of everything in God's kingdom: a trinity, a church, prophets, ministers and even a gospel. However, everything of his is false, a twist of the truth. He uses God's holy word to confuse his victims, in the hope that the listener will say, "There is some truth to that..." He tried that with Jesus in the wilderness during the temptation. He quoted scripture to tempt Jesus into making bread, calling on the angels for aid and ruling over the whole world. Yet, Jesus knew that Satan was misusing the Word. He could make bread, but it was not God's Will. He could have jumped from the top of the temple and the angels would have saved Him, but it was not time or the way for the Christ to be glorified. He knew that He would rule the whole world, but in submission to His Father, not the devil.
Unfortunately, we are not Jesus; we hear things taught that sound pretty good, so we accept it. A teacher, preacher or prophet quotes scripture, so we think he or she is a servant of God; yet, too many are abusing God's word and teaching a false gospel. They are sharing a gospel of self, one in which the believer seeks not God's Kingdom but what God can do to make their kingdoms better. Jesus is taught, but as one who will grant our every wish, not as Savior of the world. They teach that if only the believer would do this right or that right, they will be blessed with everything they want. These teachers and their followers have been deceived into believing a false gospel, not in Jesus Christ as Lord.
Satan does not like that we believe in Jesus Christ and will do whatever he can to turn us away. He is sly, knows the scriptures better than we do and can twist them oh so slightly so as to make his lies appear true. He has gotten a foothold into some churches, leading the sheep down a path of destruction rather than salvation.
Let us rejoice in the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and His care of His people, but let us also remember that Satan is very real and is roaming this world in search of people who can be fooled down a path that leads away from God's promises. We are not alone in this battle, for Jesus walks with us. By His Holy Spirit we produce the fruit of faith which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Be wary of those who bear any other fruit, for he or she might be a wolf in sheepís clothing.
"Let us fear therefore, lest haply, a promise being left of entering into his rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good tidings preached unto us, even as also they: but the word of hearing did not profit them, because it was not united by faith with them that heard. For we who have believed do enter into that rest; even as he hath said, As I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he hath said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise, And God rested on the seventh day from all his works; and in this place again, They shall not enter into my rest. Seeing therefore it remaineth that some should enter thereinto, and they to whom the good tidings were before preached failed to enter in because of disobedience, he again defineth a certain day, To-day, saying in David so long a time afterward (even as hath been said before), To-day if ye shall hear his voice, Harden not your hearts. For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken afterward of another day. There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from his. Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do. Having then a great high priest, who hath passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need." Hebrews 4:1-16, ASV
We like weekends. Oh, they are usually filled with plenty of things to do, keeping us much too busy, but weekends usually mean that we get to sleep a little later in the morning. Our lives are always filled with things to do; if the calendar isn't full of activities, and there is always work that can be done around the house. No matter how hard we try to keep up with everything, there are always dishes in the sink, clothes in the laundry, and yard work to be done. Saturdays leave us breathless with busy-ness, but that extra hour of sleep in the morning can really help to refresh us from even busier weekdays.
Sunday morning is set aside for worship. In those hours we experience a spiritual rest that we can't get anywhere else, even in bed. That time with other Christians, worshipping God, hearing His Word and dining at His table gives us the strength to make it through another week. Isn't it funny, though, most of us don't really even get to rest much at church on a Sunday morning? We have responsibilities, work to be done around the church. Some of us are busy with bible study lessons or preparing the sanctuary for worship. Others are practicing the music or ushering visitors to their seats. We need people to prepare coffee for fellowship and to make sure there is toilet paper in the bathroom.
I spent some time as a part time employee of a congregation a few years ago. I was in charge of the newsletter and other communication. It was a blessing to be able to work with the other staff and to serve the members, however it had some disadvantages. One of those had to do with Sunday morning; those who are employed by the church often find themselves involved in conversations about work that will need to be done during the week. See, many members would rather just deal with the necessary conversations on a Sunday morning when they will be at church anyway, forgetting that the staff members also need to be able to focus on the Lord and worship, experiencing that moment of spiritual rest that is the Sabbath. There is work to be done, and it seems like there is no end to it all, even at church.
God created the world in six days, and then He rested. He did not rest because He was tired, but because His work was done. The gift of the Sabbath, given from God to mankind, is a moment in time when we can stop and rest, knowing our work is done, but our work never seems to be done. We take time out on the weekends from whatever job pays our bills, but then we must mow the lawn or do the laundry. We have to go grocery shopping or change the oil in the car. We need to do our work at church, preparing the things for worship, singing in the choir or teaching Sunday School. The rest of Sunday is spent doing the work that didn't get done on Saturday. By Monday morning, we begin again without ever really finishing.
So many of our commitments are good things; we volunteer at church or in our neighborhoods, giving ourselves sacrificially to other people. At times, however, these responsibilities become burdens. Our attitude changes from that of "wanting to serve" to "having to serve." We grumble and moan when we need to attend yet another meeting. Our work is never done, and we get very tired of it all. We fear that if we don't say "yes" to every task that comes our way, we will disappoint God. We think our works make us righteous, so we do as much as possible to become more right with God. We never enter His rest.
Our salvation is never dependent upon our works. God created the world and on the seventh day He rested because His work was finished and it was good. The Sabbath was given to man so he could look toward the finished work of God and rejoice. Now, the Sabbath is no longer one day a week to hear God's Word, but rather it is Today; every moment we rest in Jesus Christ for it is through Him that we can truly rest in God.
Jesus gives us permission to stop and rest, to count our work finished for the day because He has already completed everything necessary for our salvation. We cannot earn the eternal life that we have been promised, it is not a reward for the good work we can do. Our righteousness is founded in His love and His work on the cross, not in a schedule filled with commitments. Our work never really will be done; no matter how hard we try there will still be dishes in the sink and clothes in the laundry. No matter how good we get about focusing on God at church on Sunday, there will be work that needs to be done. Through it all, however, we are reminded that the real work, the work of salvation, was made complete in the work of Jesus Christ. We can rest in Him even when we feel like there is too much left to do. Remember this today when you hear His voice and all your works will be done with joy to His glory.
"But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the marketplaces, who call unto their fellows and say, We piped unto you, and ye did not dance; we wailed, and ye did not mourn. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a demon. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! And wisdom is justified by her works." Matthew 11:16-19, ASV
Zack had an interesting conversation with a friend this morning. He had posted a birthday greeting on a mutual friend's wall, and the friend wondered how Zack could have known that person. Zack knew the young man from boy scouts, the friend knew him from college. Small world, isn't it? I have had similar experiences with facebook friends. It is interesting to see what mutual friends we share even though there is usually no reason why we should know each other's friends. I knew one friend from work who knew another friend from school and yet another friend from his faith community. I knew the first mutual friend from an organization and the other from my school. We should not have known each other, and yet through these separate experiences we were connected.
We do tend to stay within our own little corner of the world, never realizing that there is always some overlap with other people's worlds. This can be shown using a Venn diagram, the type of chart that has overlapping circles that show where people have things in common. I think we might be amazed to discover how many of our friends know other friends, even though there seems to be no reason for it. I laugh when I think about it because I can't even think of things those friends have in common with one another; sometimes I wonder what they have in common with me!
It is good to know people from different backgrounds and experiences; through them we can get a bigger and better understanding of the whole world. The further afield we go, the more likely we are to know people who are different than us. I know some friends who have never left their hometown. Our mutual friends tend to be from one specific place, like school, work or faith community. Our life gets so much more interesting when we get out of our comfort zone and experience life beyond our little corner of the world. Besides, those relationships might just have an impact on our life. Not only that, but we can have an impact on their lives.
Jesus could have easily stayed in His little corner of the world. He could have saved the world without touching the lives of those whose stories we read in the scriptures. The grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ would have saved the world no matter how many people Jesus taught, touched, loved and healed. Those stories provide us with lessons about the Kingdom of God and signs to prove that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be, but could as easily have been accomplished among a small group of people. There were certainly those who thought Jesus should have been more careful about the company He kept. The religious leaders were offended that Jesus might have dinner with sinners and tax collectors; they were upset that He reached out to foreigners and outcast.
They liked the status quo and were bothered by both John the Baptist and Jesus. Things were about to change, they knew it, but they were going to try to keep it from happening by telling the people that John and Jesus were not what they should seek in a religious leader. John did not follow the pattern of a priest, as he should have since he was the son of a priest. He lived a humble and pious life, without rich food or wine. He wore sackcloth and lived in the wilderness. Jesus, on the other hand, feasted with the people. He had fun, He laughed, and He celebrated. He had a serious side, of course, but Jesus told His followers that they should be happy while He is around since they would mourn soon enough.
Since Jesus was not willing to hide Himself away in a community of like-minded people, He touched the world in a way that we might never have been touched. Think about the people we would not know, like that of Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene. Think of the stories that we can experience through bible reading and study, teaching us the grace of God in so many different ways. The best part, I think, is that the way Jesus reached out to the world gives us the confidence to reach out to our world. It doesn't take very long for us to see how Jesus connects us to our neighbors in ways that we would never expect.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 1, 2015, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
"And they were astonished at his teaching: For he taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes." Mark 1:22, ASV
What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? Over the past few weeks we've seen the stories of some of God's prophets: Samuel, Jonah and even John the Baptist. The words they said and the work they did was not always easy. They were not perfect; as a matter of fact, they were often afraid, uncertain, and unwilling to do what God was asking from them. In the end, however, they did as God asked, spoke the word that He sent them to speak and in doing so they called people to God and changed their lives. They did great things and are still remembered today for their gifts and their impact.
The prophetic word of God is a message sent through a chosen vessel for God's people. The message is not always the lesson we want to hear. Samuel's message to Eli was frightening because it meant death and an end to God's promise. Jonah didn't want to take that word to Nineveh because it meant mercy for his enemies. John's message disturbed the status quo; the call to repentance required an acknowledgement of sin. Some prophetic words are messages of grace and hope; as a matter of fact, every warning comes with a word of promise. John did call the people to repentance, but he promised that they'd see their salvation.
It is hard, though, to know for certain that the words we hear are from God. The prophets do not always fit our expectations. Samuel was young. Jonah was reluctant foreigner. John was downright bizarre. Why would anyone listen to them? Yet, people listened and were changed by the word. It wasn't Samuel or Jonah or John who made the difference, it was God and His word. We know this because the word was fulfilled.
It is very difficult for us because we are surrounded by many people claiming to speak for God. I used to belong to an email list that purported to send prophetic words to the world, most especially to Christians. Many of these words were (are) uplifting. They encourage Christians to go forth in faith, to do whatever it is that God is calling us to do. I became disengaged with the group when I realized more than half of their messages were sales pitches for the speaker's latest book or for a workshop on how to be a prophet in today's world. I have no doubt that some of their words are real, that they speak with God's grace and love for God's people.
However, some of their words have been false. I recall a message that came through the list a few years ago about an incoming weather situation. The word was for the city that was about to experience a catastrophic storm. The word told the people that the storm was a sign of God's wrath and that they would suffer the consequences of their sin. The storm veered off its path and had little impact on any cities. Not long after they released another word about another storm. This time they waited until after the storm hit, claiming that they knew what it meant when it was received, but that it was necessary to withhold the word until the time was right. Quite frankly, when the word was released, I could barely see how they made the connection, but they claimed it was the fulfillment of God's word.
We have to be careful about who we believe. The promise in today's Old Testament lesson doesn't help us much, either. God tells us that we can believe those prophets whose words come to pass but that those who try to speak for God that have not been called will die. What do we do in the meantime? What do we do when we are between hearing the message and seeing its fulfillment or lack thereof?
And what do we do when we think we've been given a word to speak, but we aren't sure and we are afraid because we know that the false prophet will die?
I attended a workshop by a speaker who was teaching the group how to start an evangelism program at our churches. One of the things I remember clearly had to do with dealing with seekers who misunderstand the Word of God. He recalled an experience he had with one of his students who had 'discovered' an exciting idea about God. The idea was not biblical, it was far from true and it had the potential of leading people down a false path. The speaker said that he didn't want to squelch the young man's excitement about his newfound faith and that he didn't want to discourage him from continuing to seek understanding of God's word.
His recommendation to us in those situations was to say, "Hmmm, that is a very interesting idea," and then to subtly take the conversation in a better direction. The story continued from the young man's point of view. He was so excited about his discovery that he went home happy and feeling very smart. He thought that he must be a prophet if he could think of something so great. As he thought about the conversation, however, he came to a realization: Christianity has been around for two thousand years and the teacher was extremely knowledgeable. How could his brilliant discovery have gone so long undiscovered by so many who knew and loved God's word so much? He was humbled and returned to the class the next week with more questions than answers. The teacher knew that the student needed some room to come to the right understanding on his own.
This isn't to say that the greatest among us have nothing to learn. None of us know God and His Word so completely that we can learn something from another Christian. We must be careful, however, that we make sure everything we hear and learn lines up to God's Word. The young man's idea did not and the teacher found a way to graciously allow him to discover the truth.
Not everyone is so humble. The prophets at that email list tend to have an arrogance that makes it impossible to show them how their words often twist God's word for their own benefit. When the word they sent about the storm failed to be true, they made a million excuses, never accepting that they could make a mistake. The twisted the word and the Word to still make it fit their interpretation to prove that they were prophets of God.
One more story: I was hanging out in an online chat room one day when a young woman was impressed with something I said. I don't remember what it was, I doubt it was anything of any real consequence, but she thought it was brilliant. She even called me a prophet. She told me that she was learning to be a prophet and she wanted to know if I would help her by reviewing a sermon that she wrote. She sent it to me.
I doubt that I dealt with the situation with the same grace as the teacher in the previous story. I tried to be kind, but from the beginning I knew that the sermon was problematic. The language, grammar and spelling required serious editing, but so does my writing (I'm sure there's at least one mistake every day!) I emailed her with some suggestions and we began a conversation about the sermon. Her ideas, like that of the young man, were the ideas of a passionate novice. They were new and they were unbiblical. We went through the text together, but she quickly realized that I was showing her the error of her ideas through the scriptures and she didn't like it. She refused to believe I was wrong and she continued to twist the scripture to fit her interpretation. She then turned the tables and tried showing me the error in mine. I listened, but she never argued from the Bible. She thought she was a prophet, after all, so she claimed she was arguing from the Holy Spirit. She refused to accept that her arguments were not from God even though they did not line up with the scriptures. She thought I was the one rejecting the Holy Spirit because I didn't believe her. Her argument had no authority, however, because it was not founded on God's Word.
Jesus had a way of stopping people in their tracks. In today's Gospel lesson we see the crowds in the synagogue ready to hear what they already knew about God. It was not unusual for visiting teachers to give a message at worship. They would be invited to read text and explain it to the congregation. I can just imagine the surprise of those people: Jesus knew what He was talking about. We have all had experience with listening to a bad preacher and we know a good preacher can change our attitude and our life. It is not just a difference in preaching style; the good teacher speaks according to God's Word rather than according to their interpretation of it.
God promised to give us prophets who will speak His word into our lives. Moses was the first among many. But Moses was followed by prophets, priests and kings who lost sight of God. They spoke words for other gods or claimed to speak for the God they did not know. The people followed these false prophets, over and over again. They believed in the false gods and the false ideas about God. They did not, or could not, test the words for themselves.
They heard something very different when Jesus preached. They called it "new," but it wasn't. It was the authoritative Word of God that had been lost to their human failing. There was something about His teaching that struck the people as true. He wasnít just a good spokesperson or a charismatic personality; He knew what He was talking about. He knew God, and when He spoke, He spoke with one who has authority. The difference between Him and the scribes must have been shocking; after all, they had been listening to the scribes for so long that they didnít recognize the falsehood. When they heard Jesus, they knew that He had something the scribes didnít have; they knew He had the truth.
We are blessed because we have something they did not have. We have the Holy Spirit. That doesn't mean we should rely solely on our human hearts, minds and spirits. We have to test the words we hear against that which God has given us in scripture. We have to ask, "Is that word from the prophet true?" Human beings donít change. We are as likely to believe the false prophets as the people in Moses' day and the people in Jesus' day.
Many of the so-called prophets talk about knowing God, knowing how to be a prophet, knowing what to say. Life in Christ is not about knowledge. As Paul writes, "Knowledge puffs up." No, living in Christ we have something even better than knowledge. We find wisdom in His Word. The self-proclaimed prophet demonstrates that they don't know God by usurping His authority. They are not humble, they do not fear God. They speak their own words while claiming to speak for God; they might have knowledge, but they have no wisdom. In the end, they will be proven to be a false prophet.
A common characteristic of false prophets is their haughty attitude; they act holier than thou. They are like the Corinthians in today's Epistle who took advantage of their Christian freedom by eating meat from the temples of the gods while ignoring the needs of the weaker believers who do not understand the proper use of our Christian freedom. They eat the meat without explaining what it means to have Christian freedom. Those watching know only that the meat has a purpose in that temple and they follow the example without knowing the truth. They put their trust in the idol without understanding that by trusting in that idol they are rejecting the true God.
There is only one God. We know this is true and Paul makes it clear in this week's epistle lesson that the other gods in this world are nothing. But Paul also reminds us that there are things--idols--that are like gods in the eyes of many people. They are nothing, not real, but they do hold the place of God in the lives of those who believe in them. All those things, or people, or ideas, in which we put our trust and faith, are gods to us, even though they cannot be compared to God. They are impersonators, given the power and authority of a god even though they are nothing and have no power or authority.
There is no real consequence to the eating of the meat, since the idols are nothing, but it is still a stumbling block to the faith of some. Paul reminds us that it is better to abstain from those things that might cause another to fall or be destroyed. Paul writes, "And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ."
We are called to live a life that glorifies God, the life that reveals Him to our neighbors in a way that is life-changing. We are called to speak God's Word into their lives so that they will know Him. We have to remember that as they learn they will watch us and learn from us, so it is up to us to be witnesses who will speak and live the truth. We have the freedom to do as we please, but if our freedom puts another at risk it is up to us to stop for their sake.
Paul writes, "We know that we all have knowledge." Lots of people know about God. They have read the scriptures and have prayed. Many people go to church and hear God's word read and preached. They sing the hymns and do the work of the Church. They serve in the community and live a moral and faithful life. Yet, knowledge is not the center of our relationship with God. The false prophets claim knowledge, but they ignore the consequences of their false prophecies.
Jesus was the prophet promised in our text from Deuteronomy, although some in our world claim to be him. Jesus fulfilled the promise, and everything we know about God we can know in and through Him. Those who claim to have something new that leads God's people away from Him will pay for their deceit. Now the authority to speak for God comes to us through Jesus Christ. We have His authority to share the Good News and to bring healing and redemption into the lives of those who are broken and burdened.
I don't know why so many people want to claim to be prophets. I understand that they want to encourage God's people and help Christians stay on the right path. It seems to me that too many give themselves the title so that they can sell more books or book more workshops. They think the title gives them the authority to speak for God, but in usurping this responsibility they make themselves accountable. Unfortunately, too many Christians believe what they say, follow their examples and walk down that dangerous path that leads away from God rather than toward Him.
The psalmist writes, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." This a hard saying for most of us. Fear in our world is a bad thing. We fear terrorism. We fear disease. We fear losing everything we own. We fear those things that can bring us harm. But we don't want to fear God; He is so good to us and blessed us beyond our understanding. His faithfulness and mercy is beyond comparison. Yet, He is fearsome. This is not to mean that we should be afraid; instead, we are to be in awe. "Holy and reverend is his name." If His name is holy and awesome, how much more so is He?
The psalmist knew God's mighty works among His people, but those works were little more than a memory, handed down by generation after generation. Yet, these are still worth our songs of praise. God did these things, and in them we see His power, faithfulness and grace. When considering the work of God we might want to reduce it to a few important tasks like giving daily bread and providing deliverance for those who seek His mighty hand.
David knew that God's work was not just that which is visible in the world. He did what He did to be remembered. The stories we hear in the scriptures pass on the message of mercy and grace from generation to generation. He remembers His promises and is faithful. God is not just a creator who set the world in motion and then walked away; His hand has been in the midst of His people from the beginning and in the end He sent His Son to win the redemption we do not deserve. He continues to work in and through His people today, granting us the authority and the power to make the world right according to His grace. God deserves our thanks and praise not just for creating us, but for recreating the world every minute of every day through forgiveness and grace.
And so, we are called to praise Him, not only for the beauty of His creation or for the goodness of His dealings with His people. We are called to praise Him because we fear Him. We know of His power. We also know of His mercy and grace. He is faithful. Wisdom is seen in the lives of those who live according to His good and perfect Word; not in the things we can see but in the things that are. Wisdom is seen in mercy and love, it is found in the words and deeds that glorify God and shine His grace.
What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? It means glorifying God in a way that sets people on the right path, turns them to the only God who can be trusted and who will save them from themselves. We might be called to speak a word as did the prophets throughout the ages. It might not be easy because the messages of the prophets are often words of warning. However, every word that comes from God comes with a promise. Even when we are called to bring people to repentance, we know that God has something wonderful waiting for them on the other side. The word that is true is the one that rests in authority of God and is delivered by His power. That word is the word that will succeed because it will lead God's people to praise Him.
"For Moses writeth that the man that doeth the righteousness which is of the law shall live thereby. But the righteousness which is of faith saith thus, Say not in thy heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down:) or, Who shall descend into the abyss? (That is, to bring Christ up from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach: because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved: for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him: for, Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Romans 10:5-13, ASV
I was watching one of those transformation shows last night and I was very impressed by the owners. See, most of the time the owners are extremely stubborn about the work that is done to help them overcome their problems. The chefs are insulted when they are told that there food is not very good. The managers think that they knew everything about running a business and they refuse to change systems. The decorators are upset that anyone would suggest their ideas are not pleasing or welcoming. They all make excuses for the filth, rotted food in the refrigerator and all the other things that are wrong in the business. Their stubbornness makes you wonder why they even called the guy.
They often blame their problems on the neighborhoods or the employees. They are certain that they are doing everything right, but they quickly discover that the transformation will not happen if they are not willing to be transformed. The shows are heavily edited, so it is hard to know how much that attitude is creative editing, but in most cases there really is a haughty attitude that is offended by any suggestion that they are to blame. They argue with every change and I sometimes think that the owners have called the show to get a free remodel. The transformers make the necessary changes anyway and in the end the owners usually realize that the change is for the best. A few never accept the changes and go back to their old ways. Those stores are usually closed within months; the owners might have held on to their ideas, but they lost everything else.
So, the shows are usually filled with moments of fighting as the owners try to hold on to some semblance of what they created while the transformers do everything necessary to turn their businesses around. They spend a lot of time in conversation, often therapeutic in nature as the transformer works to change attitudes as much as the business itself. In the end a majority of the owners realize that the transformer was right all along, seeing the end product gives them hope that it wasn't a waste of time. The businesses often show an immediate rise in revenue and the old debts are wiped away in months.
The show last night was a nice change from the usual attitudes, however. The owners knew they had a problem. While the transformer still did some activities to show the owners how they were failing, the couple recognized that they were to blame. They were incredibly humble through the whole show, willing to listen and to accept any changes. "I trust him," the man said at one point. The show itself was not filled with any exciting battles, but that was a relief. I was thrilled to watch a transformation that did not require harsh reality checks. I had so much respect for the couple because they accepted the blame and allowed the work to happen without argument.
We are like those owners and God is our transformer. He comes into our lives with so much work to do transforming us into the people He intends for us to be. How do receive His changes? Are you like the owners who fight against everything He wants to do in your life? Are you offended by the idea that you are a sinner in need of a Savior? Do you want God to only fix the parts of your life that you want Him to fix, but insist that He leave the rest of it alone? Or are you like the couple on last night's show, knowing that you need Him, that you are willing to accept whatever He wants to do, that you are to blame and only He can make your life right?
"And he wrote the name of King Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by post on horseback, riding on swift steeds that were used in the king's service, bred of the stud: wherein the king granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey, upon one day in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar. A copy of the writing, that the decree should be given out in every province, was published unto all the peoples, and that the Jews should be ready against that day to avenge themselves on their enemies. So the posts that rode upon swift steeds that were used in the king's service went out, being hastened and pressed on by the king's commandment; and the decree was given out in Shushan the palace. And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a robe of fine linen and purple: and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad. The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor. And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, the Jews had gladness and joy, a feast and a good day. And many from among the peoples of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews was fallen upon them." Esther 8:11-17 (ASV)
We want to think that our relationship with God will guarantee us a life free from fear and worry. There are even some Christians who teach that very doctrine. They insist that if you are suffering, then you must not trust God enough or that you are not living according to God's Word. They claim your suffering is the consequence of your sin, and that if you were right with God He would protect you from all your troubles. They are wrong. Christian faith does not mean a life without trouble. Christian faith gives us the strength and courage to face the good times and the bad with the faith that God will get us through.
Esther was a Jewish girl who was taken from her home into the palace of the King Xerxes. He was looking for a new wife after casting his old one away, and Esther was just one among many. She was greatly favored by the king and his court. He chose her over the rest and she became queen. Xerxes did not know she was a Jewish woman, and in that kingdom the Jews were unwelcome by many.
There was one man in particular who was set to destroy the people of God. Haman was a powerful man who desired the honor and glory that went with his position. Mordecai, a leader of the Jews and Estherís uncle, refused to bow down before Haman because that honor is due only to the Lord God Almighty. Haman wrote an edict against the Jews ordering that all would die on a particular day. He manipulated the king, convincing him it was the best thing for the kingdom, so the edict was sealed with King Xerxesí approval. It could not be revoked.
Queen Esther could not allow her people to be destroyed, so she risked her life to approach the king with a plea for the lives of the Jews. He was upset with Haman for tricking him into doing something that was purely selfish. Haman was punished and Mordecai took over his position in the king's palace. This may have seemed like a happy ending to a sad story, but unfortunately according to the law of the land, even the king could not overrule the edict. The Jews would still die. The king ruled that another edict should be written, giving the Jews the right to protect themselves against the slaughter that was set to come upon them.
We learn from this story that we are not always saved from the persecution that might come at the hands of our enemy, but we are not left without power. God does not leave us alone. He is with us through our troubles, giving us the gifts we need to overcome. We might suffer for a season, but in the end the mourning will turn to joy. For God, our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ is our strength, our refuge and our salvation. We need not worry when we see disaster ahead, when we cry out for salvation, God will answer in His own way. Through it all we will find that He has made us stronger, wiser, more blessed because of the suffering than we would ever be in a life without trouble.