Welcome to the January 2016 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.
    You are welcome to use these writings or pass them on. All we ask is that in all things you remember the Author and give Him the glory, and remember this vessel which He has used to bring them to you. Peggy Hoppes


Topics

Memories

New

Baptism

Daily Faith

Truth

Love

Unity

Obedience

Creation

Judge

Knowledge

Ideas

Word

Integrity

Praise

Sin

Practice

Trust

Service

Foolish


A WORD FOR TODAY


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 2016





January 4, 2016

"And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom." Luke 23:42, ASV

Human beings have always looked for some way to record their memories. Even before we had written language, the cave people drew paintings on the wall to remember great events. Even when writing surfaces were rare and expensive, they chiseled names and stories into rocks. Artists and writers have recorded memories for centuries in extremely creative ways. The Battle of Hastings is remembered on a tapestry. The old masters created massive paintings with thousands of figures to tell the stories of the great moments in European history. Portraits have been painted and biographies have been written so that important people will be remembered forever.

On a more personal level, families collected important information in family bibles. In the past hundred or so years we've been able to capture moments in photographs. Even so, the stories behind those photos have often been forgotten or transformed as they were shared over the generations. One day my kids will discover a trove of photos from our life together, but also from my childhood and beyond as well as from Bruce's life before our marriage. They may never be able to identify some of the people in those photos; I can't even do it in the older ones.

Several years ago many people were suggesting that young people audio record the stories of their elders. This was a wonderful idea, not only to save the memories because it brought the generations together. Writers put together stories of ordinary people. This devotional includes sixteen years of my stories from my daily life and from those I love. The more technology grows, the better able we are to save our memories. My Facebook feed has included numerous opportunities to document the previous year for posterity.

Here's the problem with spending the money on those hard copy books of my year on Facebook: the algorithms that choose what is important are not perfect. See, they can't possibly print everything I do on Facebook; I couldn't afford the volumes of books necessary. So, they set up a program that is supposed to think like you think. You see this all the time when you are surfing the Internet. Have you ever looked at a product online and then received advertisements everywhere for similar items? Have you read an article and then been bombarded by similar articles because the computer thinks that is an interest even though you have relatively little interest in the subject?

I clicked into one of those programs on Facebook that was meant to tell me my most important words. I did this activity shortly after a visit by some friends, a visit that resulted in dozens of posts with their names and the fun we had. The algorithm picked up on those posts and made their names a couple of the most important of my life. My son's name did not show up at all. The computer thought it new me, but it didn't. I'm sure the same would happen with one of those books.

The latest article that spurred this devotional had to do with a company that has been created to constantly survey you social media to keep your memories forever. They will store your most important thoughts, activities, people, stories in the cloud so that it will be able to be accessed by future generations. Of course, the computer will determine what is important. It will decide what you want remembered. Will it really remember the things I want it to remember, the photos I think would be of value? I'm not so sure. I'm one of those people who likes to post pictures of food; yes, I'm one of those. I love to share a recent recipe or show my friends what kind of goodness they could have if they visited me. Sadly, a high percentage of my photos are of food, but that's not what I would want to remember. I wouldn't want a book with shots of margaritas. Many of the photos that are most 'liked' on Facebook are those of nice things Bruce has built or done for me. While I love him for doing those things for me, those pictures are not the ones I would want to be remembered forever.

The next step, they say, is to find a way to capture our memories right from our brains. The article I read talked about how even the cloud could one day disappear. The company collecting our memories could go out of business. The Internet can collapse. If you believe any of the apocalyptic movies or TV shows, there will be no electricity or technology one day, so all those memories will be gone. As much as we want to try to remember as much as possible, the reality is that the stories of our lives will continue to be lost as future generations forget our stories or they are transformed into something mythic.

There is good reason to remember our stories; we learn from our failures and successes and we want to share that with our offspring so that they don't have to go through the same trials. Some stories are worth remembering; they are stories of joy and peace, hope and sacrifice, love and courage. They are worth remembering for the lessons learned. Unfortunately, that's not why we try to remember. Here's the thing: human beings are constantly trying to become immortal. That's what we are doing when we try to capture our memories and pass them on to future generations. We want to live forever, and we know that our flesh will die so we do whatever we can to be remembered.

It is good to be remembered, but it is best that we will be remembered by our Lord Jesus Christ. See, our memories, our photos, the writing on the wall and in biographies might make us immortal, but faith in Jesus Christ will give us eternal life. The memories on earth will fade, no matter how hard we try to keep them. The photos will fade, the stories will be set aside for new stories of joy and peace, hope and sacrifice, love and courage, but the promise of God will never fail. He will remember us and our names will be written in the Book of Life. May we always remember that this is our hope and where we will truly find peace.

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January 5, 2016

"What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun? One generation goeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it turneth about continually in its course, and the wind returneth again to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there a thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been long ago, in the ages which were before us. There is no remembrance of the former generations; neither shall there be any remembrance of the latter generations that are to come, among those that shall come after." Ecclesiastes 1:1-12, ASV

We think the world is very different today than it ever has been. Perhaps we are right, in some ways. There has never been a time like ours in terms of technology; there has never been a time when "it is a small world" has ever been so true. We are living longer, we are bigger, healthier, more knowledgeable. We've been into outer space and have reached the deepest parts of the seas. We have discovered more species and more elements. Perhaps we can't control the weather, but we certainly can predict it better than ever. You can probably think of other ways we are different. There has never been a time when hundreds of people can read the same thing at the same time from every corner of the world. There has never been a time when an ordinary person could write a few words and reach so many strangers, hopefully inspiring them (you) to a life of faithful living.

While we do live in a world that on the surface is much different than any other time in the history of people, we are no different than any of those generations in the most basic ways. The world in which we live is the same as God created in the beginning. There are lights in the sky and fish in the sea. The land is covered in vegetation and creatures that run and climb and fly. We are human. We love, laugh, cry, hope, hate. We need to eat and drink and sleep. We need shelter. We need to be needed; we need a purpose. We need to believe in something greater than ourselves.

While there are many people in this day and age who don't think they need to believe in anything but themselves, the reality is that every human being has a whole that can only be filled with God. Every generation has tried to fill it with their own understanding. The gods have been different throughout the ages, but God has always been the same.

Even the ideas that run through our heads are basically the same as those in former generations. The truth of God has been known by righteous from the beginning of time, and the foolish have told the same heresies over and over again. I was training for an evangelism program when I heard the following story. The leader established a relationship with one of the seekers in his group. The young man was excited about all that he was learning. One day he came into the meeting with a new idea. The leader listened carefully to an idea that was a twist of God's Word. The leader waited until the young man was finished, and rather than tear him down for his foolishness, the leader said, "That is interesting. I've never thought about it that way. The young man was very excited when he left the meeting, but as everything he learned that night ran through his head, he realized that if that well educated leader had never thought of it, then perhaps it wasn't quite right. He went back to the next meeting and asked. At that point the leader showed him the error of his idea.

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. While that is not entirely true--we know there are many things that are new--but the most basic and important things have always been the same. We belong to our generation, but we are no different than anyone who came before us. The truth of God does not change. God does not change.

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January 6, 2016

Scriptures for Sunday, January 10, 2016, Baptism of Jesus: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

"Fear not; for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back; bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the end of the earth; every one that is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, yea, whom I have made." Isaiah 43:5-7, ASV

The year 2015 was very wet for Texas, making up for nearly seven years with little measurable rain. Some places in the state were on the verge of exceptional drought, the worst possible situation. Nearly two thirds of Texas was at least abnormally dry a year ago, with nearly half in some state of drought and a quarter severe, but today's drought monitor shows less than five percent is abnormally dry. This is good news. It wasn't great news when it started raining, however, because the drought busting rains came down so hard and the water ran off the parched earth so fast that it caused flash flooding, extreme damage and even death. This year continues to be wet so far, but the rain is much different. It is coming in pleasant showers, dropping onto earth that is able to receive it. There has been no flooding and while some people are tired of the dark, damp weather, it is helping build our reserves of water so that we will be prepared for the next dry spell.

We have this phrase that is heard constantly when the rain threatens to be dangerous: turn around, don't drown. See, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of dry creek beds around the state of Texas. These are creeks that don't run with water constantly, but get filled with the runoff during times of rain. These creeks often cross roadways, but it isn't worthwhile to build a bridge because the water rarely causes problems. Sometimes those creeks look mild; people think that they can easily drive through the running water. They don't realize that it only takes a few inches of rushing water to carry away a car.

There are usually barriers that hinder a driver from going into the rushing creek, although there always seems to be someone who thinks they are smarter than those who try to protect them. They go around the barrier, get into the water and suddenly realize they have no control. It is almost impossible to save yourself at that point. Sadly, some people are found dead in their cars miles downstream. Those barriers are there for a reason: it might cause you to drive well out of your way and make you late for your appointment, but turn around, don't drown.

Unfortunately, these dry creek beds are not easy to predict. It might not even be raining in one place, but as the water gathers in the creek upstream, it comes racing down, catching people off guard. Those dry creek beds can go from dry to more than a foot of water in a second and you don't want to get hit with a foot of water rush at you. It is foolish to try to cross a raging creek, especially when there is a barrier place for your protection, but sometimes we can't avoid the danger because we simply don't know when it will come.

The same is true with other severe weather. We can't predict a lightning strike or a tornado. We might be able to give warning, but even a large storm like a hurricane can be unpredictable. Wildfires can seem to be under control until the wind turns and then they can suddenly burst to new life. We can be careful, we can prepare, we can even do whatever we can in expectation of the worst, but we can't know exactly what will happen.

It is interesting how many of the stories in the Bible revolve around water. In the beginning the earth is a formless void and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. A river watered the Garden of Eden. At God's command, Noah built an ark to survive the flood. Drought and famine sent the patriarchs on journeys to new places. Jacob sent his wives and all their possessions across the stream and was left alone to wrestle with God. Moses took the Israelites through the Red Sea and they later crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. During the Exodus they found water in the most unexpected places. Elijah covered the altar of Baal with water, and yet God still burned it all.

Fire is another subject of so many stories. The altar of Baal was destroyed by fire, as was Sodom and Gomorrah. The bush Moses encountered was on fire but did not burn. God led the people out of Egypt with a pillar of fire. These elements are so often identified with God, perhaps because they are so unpredictable. No human could have made the Red Sea part or burnt stone, but God can. He then uses those same elements to bring faith and hope to His people.

In Israel's history, some of the most important moments were when God led His people through water or fire. Noah was protected through the flood. Lot was saved from the fire at Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses was guided through the waters of the Red Sea. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego lived through the fiery furnace. Water and fire were elements that brought death, but also cleansing. Only by God's power could His people overcome the destruction of either water or fire. And He promised to be there in the midst of it with His people.

I always cringe a little when I read passages like today's Old Testament lesson. Isaiah speaks of hope in times of trouble, hope for a return to the homeland and restoration for the people of Israel. Yet, in the same text, Isaiah speaks about the destruction of others. He gives the people of Egypt, Cush and Seba as a ransom for the people of Israel. Historically, this may refer to the fact that Persia conquered those places. Perhaps God gave these victories to Persia because they treated Israel in exile with such kindness and then released them as God had promised.

As a matter of fact, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they took the best and the most intelligent Israelites to Babylonia. These captives were given positions of authority and they were able to gain wealth. Life in exile was not so horrible. Eventually the generation who were taken from Jerusalem died, leaving behind a people who had never known life in the Holy Land. They had certainly heard stories, but those stories included the reality that their beloved homeland was little more than a heap of rubble. They had a good life in Babylon. They were educated and gifted. They were respected. They had adapted to their new life. Perhaps the promise did not have such a lure for them. Would they really want to leave the good life they had created to return to a desolate and barren place?

The promise of Isaiah is a reminder to those wondering if they should go: the Lord God Almighty, the Creator and Redeemer loves His people. They are His chosen people, called by His name and created for His glory. He dwells amongst them and they are His. It might seem foolish to leave the good life to go back to the unknown, but that unknown is the life to which they have been called and for which they have been created. We do not know or fully understand the ways of God and we might be even be offended by the method by which He guarantees salvation to His people. But we are offended because we put God into a tiny box, making Him to fit only our desires and our perceptions.

The whole story of Jesus can be offensive to those who do not believe. We begin with the offense that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Perhaps this is even truer today than ever before. We live in a pluralistic world where there is no truth and righteousness is relative. We don't talk about sin anymore because the world rejects the notion. We don't talk about it because we don't want to offend anyone. We don't want to seem judgmental. We don't want to seem as though we are being haughty. We are all sinners; we all sin. We all need God to save us and we need to talk about it even if the whole idea seems offensive to the world. They need to hear that they need forgiveness and that Jesus is the only One who can save them.

The story of Jesus doesn't fit our modern, scientific and technological understanding of the world. We try to explain away the Christmas story as being myth, Mary is not a virgin but a young girl, the vision of the shepherds was nothing but a mass delusion and the wise men didn't follow a supernatural sign. The miracles of Jesus can be explained in medical terms. There are no demons, just mental illness. Jesus didn't really die on the cross. These are all ridiculous fairy tales which offends the intellectuals.

In a world where we are to love one another for who we are, we are offended by the idea that God calls us to become something new, transformed, and different. See, God doesn't demand that we change so that He can love us, He loves us so much that He takes us through the water and the fire to transform us into the people He created and redeemed us to be. The world suggests that we are to love one another no matter what; God calls us to love one another into being the best we can be. See, if we accept people exactly as they are, then we can't help them become what they are meant to be. I know that's offensive to say, but should we really stay silent and let people die in their comfort, or encourage them to be transformed by the water and fire of God?

Someone suggested today that the difference between crying out against gun violence and abortion is that abortion is legal. Does that make it right? It was once not only legal, but expected, for babies to be sacrificed on altars. The laws of Germany under Adolph Hitler made some of the most monstrous actions legal. It is legal to bribe the traffic police in South Korea as long as the officer reports the bribe. It is legal for a man in Saudi Arabia to kill his daughter if she has a relationship with a non-believer. Just because something is legal according to the world, does that make it right in God's eyes? Should we stay silent because the law is acceptable to the culture or should we stand firmly on God's Word?

God as He wholly is in the scriptures is offensive. He is both Law and Gospel. He is both love and wrath. He is both Father and Judge. We need Him to be all those things, and we need to be reminded by His Word that God IS. He is more than our expectation. He is more than we can imagine. He is more than we want. But it is in that more that we find what we really need to be the people He has created and redeemed us to be.

The psalm for this week describes God's voice a thunderous, powerful. It is not God who breaks the cedars, but Godís voice. His voice strikes like flashes of lightning. It shakes the desert, twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. The response of Godís creation to this voice is awe. "And in his temple everything saith, Glory."

This is not an image of God with which we can easily identify. We tend to prefer the idea of God's still, sweet voice, the quiet calling of a Father to a child. Thunder and lightning bring fear to our hearts. We tremble at the thought of God's voice shaking the desert, twisting the oaks and stripping the forests bare. If He can do that to His creation, which will that voice do to us? Instead of expressing awe, we are offended by an image of God that might denote an iron fist over His creation. We are willing to ascribe to Him the glory we know He deserves, but we'd much rather keep Him confined to one specific image. We like the idea of the shepherd king or the mother hen protecting her chicks. We like the image of a loving father or a brotherly friend. There is little room for wrath in that perception of God.

We are reminded, however, that this God whose voice can level a forest also calls out to His people in hope and peace. Isaiah writes, "But now thus saith Jehovah that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine." In this passage, we are reminded that God created and formed us, and He named us. Yes, we are named by our parents who are given as our physical caretakers, but in God's book, we have a special name: God's child. We are His. Though we continue to be sinners, we are made saints by the grace and God and He will always be with us. He loves us and He will not allow us to be destroyed. He will be with us through the water and fire. We have been redeemed from the consequences of our own failures because we are precious and loved by our Creator.

It began with Jesus, this grace filled life. The story that offends the world so much is the only story that can guarantee our eternal life in the presence of God. He had to be born, to live, to minister, to heal and cast out demons and He had to take God's wrath upon His own shoulders. Jesus had to die so that we could be saved.

I can't see everything. I can't know everything. But God can. He sees hearts, knows all, and has control over even the chaos of this world. The waters and fires might come unexpectedly to us, but God knows and He has promised to be with us through them.

In the Gospel lesson, the people were amazed by what they heard from John the Baptist. They thought perhaps he might be the one for whom they were waiting. They thought He might be the Messiah. He fulfilled their expectations, but he knew he was not the One. He knew he was just there to announce the coming of the One. "I indeed baptize you with water; but there cometh he that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire." See, we expect the waters of baptism to cleanse us, but we need the fire of the Holy Spirit, too.

Luke's version of the baptism of Jesus is much shorter than the others and it is only in Luke that we see Jesus praying. Prayer is an important part of Luke's telling of Jesus' story. We'll see that focus through the coming year. It is in prayer that we see the extraordinary relationship between God and His Son Jesus. They talked often. Jesus listened. He sought His Father's Will in all that He did. And in prayer God spoke back to His Son; in this passage, His voice proclaims the name of Jesus: God's beloved Son. While He prayed, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him.

While our baptism may not have appeared to be so dramatic, the same thing happened to us at the font: God called us His beloved child and the Holy Spirit descended upon us joining us to His body forever. On this Sunday as we recall the Baptism of Jesus, we are reminded of our own baptisms. When we came out from the water, the heavens opened up and God spoke our name. He anointed us with the same Spirit that gave Jesus His strength and sense of purpose in this world. We are called as Christians to live in our baptism. When we are faced by temptation, we usually claim our own strength, "I can avoid this" or "I can make it go away." Despite our salvation, we are still sinners and we have no power over sin by our own will. We can answer every temptation with the reminder, "I am baptized." The devil has no power over us when we are covered by the grace of God. God was with us through the water and the fire and He will stay with us as we continue to face the world.

We are sinners, there is no doubt about that, and unfortunately we all continue to make foolish mistakes. Like those who think they can get through the raging waters of a rising creek, we go around the barriers meant to stop us and get caught up in the consequences of our sinfulness. We justify our actions by the mantra that God loves us anyway, and while that is true, we need to know that God is disappointed when we reject the transforming power of His grace. And yes, there are those who sin because they know how much greater God's grace is than our failure.

Paul writes, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?" No, God has cleansed us with the water and fire of baptism to be something better, to be like Christ. Like those cars that get caught in the sudden, unexpected flood, we will fail, but we should never go about our life purposely acting against the Word of God. We died to sin. We were made new. The old desires no longer have the power to keep us enslaved. We are freed from those sinful desires and made part of the body of Christ, raised to new life in Him.

It is interesting that we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus so close to the New Year. How many of you made resolutions? How many have you already failed? Did you forget to say that daily prayer or read that devotion? Did you skip the gym this morning or eat that extra cookie? Did you turn on that television show even though you promised yourself you would spend more time with the kids? It is only January 6th, so there is plenty of time to work on our resolutions. There is plenty of time to be transformed from what we were into what we can be. By our baptism and the faith we received by grace, we have died to sin so that we will be made alive unto God in Christ Jesus.

The key is to remember that we don't have to go about it alone. We don't have to try to avoid our temptations with our own strength or make things go away by our own willpower. We can say, "I am baptized" and trust that God will be with us through the cleansing that we need to undergo. Whether it comes by water or fire does not matter; we simply rest in the knowledge that God is doing good things in and through us. Let us pay heed to the barriers that block our way to sin because they might just be God's way of stopping us from falling to the temptations that can destroy us. He is there with us, even when we get overwhelmed by the rushing floods, but He will continue to work in our lives so that we will be forgiven, healed, cleansed, made whole and transformed into the people He has created and redeemed us to be. By His promises and in His faithfulness He will bring us through the waters and fires of life and into His presence for eternity.

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January 7, 2016

"Grace to you and peace be multiplied in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that his divine power hath granted unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that called us by his own glory and virtue; whereby he hath granted unto us his precious and exceeding great promises; that through these ye may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in that world by lust. Yea, and for this very cause adding on your part all diligence, in your faith supply virtue; and in your virtue knowledge; and in your knowledge self-control; and in your self-control patience; and in your patience godliness; and in your godliness brotherly kindness; and in your brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, they make you to be not idle nor unfruitful unto the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he that lacketh these things is blind, seeing only what is near, having forgotten the cleansing from his old sins. Wherefore, brethren, give the more diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never stumble: for thus shall be richly supplied unto you the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." 2 Peter 1:2-11, ASV

I know there are many who like to be rid of the Christmas decorations the minute the clock strikes midnight on Christmas night, but we always keep our things up until Epiphany. I have to admit that the cut tree came down a few days early; it was just too dry to leave in the house any longer. I began with the secular decorations like Santa and our Christmas village earlier this week, but I kept a couple small trees and the Nativity up until today. I joked about it being the Epiphany season until Ash Wednesday and that I should keep it up until then, but I decided that it was time. Bruce will want to store everything on Saturday so that it will be out of his way and so he can get his garage back.

Most people have returned to work or school. Our Christmas cookies are gone. The mail is filled with bills rather than pretty cards. We don't have party plans. The neighborhoods are dark at night again. All the joy and fun of the Christmas season has been replaced by the humdrum realities of everyday life. We are fighting traffic, thinking about our taxes, succumbing to the midwinter blues and the sniffles we've ignored for the past few weeks. We are broke and tired and we are not very generous right now with our resources or our time.

But the best part of Christmas can't be packed away with the decorations. The joy and peace we feel as we celebrate the birth of Jesus can be ours year round. The needs of the world do not stop when the lights are turned off and the tree is chopped up for mulch. Our neighbors still need our generosity; sacrificial love is not limited to December. The charities focus their fundraising during the Christmas season because they know people are more willing to give during that time, but we should find ways to give every day of the year. We might just find that the joy and peace we feel at Christmas will be present every day if we do.

See, we aren't joyful because there is a tree in the house or because there are cookies in the tins. Oh, those things make us happy, but they aren't the source of true joy. Joy comes from dwelling in the presence of God, following His Word, doing His work and living the life He has prepared for us. That life is filled with opportunities to do good things for our neighbors. It might be dark at night, but the Light of Christ continues to shine through us into the world. It might be depressing to know that we have bills to pay, but there's always enough left to give a cup of water to a thirsty person. We might be tired and the world might seem boring or routine, but God still rules over it all and He deserves our worship and praise. It is harder to focus on God in our everyday life, but it is more important to do so at those moments than when the whole world is focused on Him. It is through our daily lives that the world will see God most clearly, because they will see Him through faith rather than the glitz and glitter of a holiday season.

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January 8, 2016

"Many therefore of his disciples, when the heard this, said, This is a hard saying; who can hear it? But Jesus knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at this, said unto them, Doth this cause you to stumble? What then if ye should behold the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that giveth life; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit, are are life. But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who it was that should betray him. And he said, For this cause have I said unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it be given unto him of the Father. Upon this many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Jesus said therefore unto the twelve, Would ye also go away? Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and know that thou art the Holy One of God. Jesus answered them, Did not I choose you the twelve, and one of you is a devil? Now he spake of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve." John 6:60-71, ASV

A few years ago I worked through St. Augustine's "City of God," an epic theological tome published in 426 A.D. Last year I worked through "The Book of Concord" the foundational documents of the Lutheran Church, written about five hundred years ago. This year I am tackling John Calvin's "The Institutes of the Christian Religion." John Calvin was a contemporary of Martin Luther, so this work is also about five hundred years old.

These are difficult not only because they are filled with lengthy theological statements, but because the style of writing is different than our expectations. They were all written in another language and so I have to rely on translation. The writers are often extremely wordy because of the teaching and writing techniques they use. They often quote older texts, use Latin, Greek or Hebrew words and gloss over theological terms that they expected would be understood by the reader. I'm not unintelligent, but I have to admit that during my reading last night I was amazed at the number of "fifty-cent words" with which I was unfamiliar. The section I finished last night had nearly twenty pages of footnotes.

Why do we bother? Surely their words are out of date and irrelevant for our modern times? We are told this constantly, not only with the ancient writings, but even with the Bible itself. Modern scholarship has explained away many of the long understood truths of God, conforming the Church to the expectation of our modern world. As I read through my assignment for last night (I'm following a reading plan) I was amazed at how timely were Calvin's words to today. See, the eternal truths of God do not change, but every generation has found ways to twist and turn God's Word to suit their own ideology and desires.

We talked a few days ago about how there is nothing new under the sun. The ancient heresies have reappeared on a regular basis; they are different but the same. We are different in many ways, but our sinful flesh is the same as every other human being to ever walk the face of the earth. We face the same questions, doubts and battles, and though our language might be different or our teaching and writing techniques change, the eternal truths of God never do. Calvin's (and Luther's) argument was against the Roman church of the day, fearful that at man's hands the Church has disappeared, perhaps even been destroyed. Through this fear, however, they all recognize that although God's Church is often hidden, she survives not because of human intervention, but despite human intervention. Our hope always rests in the reality that as long as Christ reigns at the right hand of God our Father, the Church will not only live, but will accomplish God's purpose in the world.

Many people were following Jesus, but they became very uncomfortable with His words. Today's passage followed the feeding of the five thousand. The people loved that Jesus filled their bellies, but they did not understand He was giving them a sign of something so much greater. He is the Bread of Life, and not just in some 'spiritual' way, but His body is actually the source of eternal life. "He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life: and I will raise him up at the last day." This is an eternal truth of God and it is a truth that has been argued about ever since Jesus said it two thousand years ago. Even today many reject that the bread and wine is the body and blood, so they go their own way, follow their own understanding, twist the Word to make it comfortable.

This is the hard teaching to which the disciples referred in today's passage. Jesus wasn't talking about cannibalism, but was pointing toward the future, foretelling of the way in which His people would be physically bound together: in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic meal. However, the people who heard this message could not accept it. While they loved that Jesus could feed five thousand and heal the sick, they could not receive everything He offered.

Most Christians want to believe in the Jesus that makes them feel most comfortable, the Jesus that heals and forgives. But they are much less willing to follow the narrow path to which Jesus calls us to travel. Some of His teaching is hard and the cost of discipleship is believing in the whole Jesus, the Jesus who is revealed in all of scripture. The hard path is accepting that there are eternal truths of God and that it is not up to us to interpret or justify what God has said or make it conform to the world. There might be a less costly type of faith, but God's Church is filled with Jesus' disciples who are willing to humble themselves and believe everything He says. We follow Jesus not because He can fill our bellies or heal our ills, we follow Him because He has the words of eternal life.

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January 11, 2016

"Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:43-48, ASV

What does it mean to be perfect?

I am a bit of a perfectionist. I get very frustrated with my paintings sometimes because I can't seem to make the paint do what I want it to do. I work at it over and over again, often ruining a perfectly good piece of art because I've tried to make it into something it never was going to be. The people around me are almost always impressed with what I've created, but I'm never satisfied. I want it to be perfect, but what does it mean to be perfect?

I was cooking dinner last night while a repeat of the show "Worst Cooks in America" was playing on the television. Even while those cooks were accomplishing the most incredible mistakes for our entertainment, I seemed to be participating in my own kitchen. The potato cakes burned and the roasted chicken was raw. I finished cooking the chicken in a pan, but by the time the meat was finished everything else was cold, including the Yorkshire puddings which are much better when they are hot out of the oven. My problems were not that I'm a bad cook, but that I mistimed all my food and none of it turned out very good. It certainly was not perfect. Thankfully I live with two men who are extremely patient when Iím having a bad day in the kitchen, but I was upset because I wanted it to be perfect.

Brides work very hard to ensure that their big day is absolutely perfect, and yet it never fails: something always goes wrong. The show "Bridezillas" showed the world what happens to certain brides who demands perfection and do not get it: they freak out. They get angry. They throw things. They sue people for failure to do their bidding. They make themselves miserable because they demand something that is impossible, a utopic perfection that simply does not exist in this world. Something always goes wrong to make everything we human beings try to do less than perfect.

That's why it is so hard for us to grasp the text in today's passage. Jesus says, "Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Impossible. I will never be perfect and I frustrate myself in the attempt. I fail often and end up upset or angry, even when those around me think I've done something wonderful. Ask most of the guests at one of those failed Bridezilla weddings, and they'll probably tell you it was a wonderful event. Sometimes those little imperfections are the very things that have the most meaning. They provide the life lesson; they make for a story that is told amidst joyful laughter around the Thanksgiving dinner table for generations. They bring people closer together.

So, what does it mean to be perfect? According to the Greek word used into today's passage, perfection is not as we imagine it to be. Perfection in modern times is beauty like a "10", intelligence that earns a 4.0, consistent success at everything. However, the Greek word transliterated as "teleios" means "brought to completion, fully accomplished or fully developed." God is perfect in every sense, but especially in this one. He is complete, and this is what He is calling us to pursue. We will never be perfect in this lifetime; we will not be complete until He completes us in eternity, but our calling is to continually move forward toward completion. Being perfect means becoming more and more Christ-like in our attitudes and actions every day.

It is especially hard when God asks us to do things we do not want to do such as love our enemy, but our journey toward perfection means looking at our enemy through Jesus-colored glasses. How does God view His enemies? Thank goodness He loves them, or else we would never have been saved. For we were once His enemies but by His grace and the blood of Christ we have been adopted as His children and inheritors of the eternal life He has promised where we will finally be made complete, perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

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January 12, 2016

"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ. There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus. And if ye are Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, heirs according to promise." Galatians 3:26-29, ASV

My desk chair is situated in a way that makes it possible to watch birds in three different directions. To the east I have several different types of bird feeders with food that satisfies multiple types of birds and a bird bath filled with water. To the south is a bird feeder with seed that small birds enjoy. To the west is a make-shift feeder where I put suet, old bread and dried fruit. I've seen a variety of birds at that one, too. Of course, the squirrels also love the feeders, but as long as I keep all the different types filled with food, they all seem to share.

We get a wide variety of birds. I've seen doves, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, sparrows, wrens, titmice, finches and mockingbirds. I even saw a robin the other day. I love to watch them come and go, and they are surprisingly considerate to each other. I've heard that blue jays can be mean, but I have watched the jays share the feeders with the smaller birds. The mockingbirds tend to be mean, but they stay on the west side of the house and eat from the fruit and bread without bothering the other birds at the seed feeders. Despite their differences, my birdie friends seem to have found a way to get along. They even tolerate the squirrels. Many different types of birds can live in harmony in the same place; they are the same and they are unique because God made them that way.

Christians have something in common and we have many things about us that are unique also. We all have different gifts, used for God's individual calling on our lives. We are given unique opportunities to share the Gospel that fit our personalities, geography and abilities. We have different perspectives on certain aspects of faith. We have different worship practices. We are all at different places on our journeys of faith. Yet, in Christ we are all the same.

Birds of a feather flock together; I often see the same types of birds at the feeders or in the birdbath at the same time. The same is true of Christians; we like to gather with people who are similar to us in many ways, in thought and practice. That doesn't mean that those who gather elsewhere are any less Christian than us. We have something in common: we are loved and God makes us sons through our Lord Jesus Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God gives us individual gifts and purpose, each according to His promise. We tend to flock with others who are like ourselves, choosing a church that best suits our needs. Unfortunately, we do not always live like the birds, in harmony with other Christians. Let us always remember that if we belong to Christ, we are all heirs according to the promise.

It was a joy to watch the birds, living their lives so simply and peacefully. Life is not so easy for humans. We have places to be and jobs to accomplish. Our relationships are far more complicated. Human minds -- ideas and egos -- get in the way of our seeing others as fellow sons of God. God doesn't see our differences as barriers to unity; He has given them to us as gifts through which He accomplishes His purpose. We will not always agree with one another on the issues, particularly political or theological, but all those who truly believe that Jesus Christ is Lord will join us in eternity. There are things that matter as we live in this world, but ultimately we are bound together by something that reaches far beyond the problems and issues of our lives. Despite our differences, we can begin our life together today by remembering that through our baptisms we all wear the righteousness of Christ.

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January 13, 2016

Scriptures for Sunday, January 17, 2016, Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 128; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

"Thou shalt also be a crown of beauty in the hand of Jehovah, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God." Isaiah 62:3, ASV

There are millions of people who are walking around today with their minds on the possibilities of what might happen to their lives tomorrow. See, there are millions of people who have bought a lottery ticket for the Powerball with its prize of more than a billion dollars. The winner's life will be changed completely overnight. Even if the prize goes to multiple winners, each one will have more money than they know how to use. Oh, a million dollars can be spent in minutes, but a billion dollars is more difficult to piddle away. There are those who are foolish enough to blow it in time, but it will be a life-changing experience even for the foolish ones.

There was a movie in the mid-eighties called "Brewster's Millions." Richard Pryor played Montgomery Brewster, a man who was set to inherit $300,000,000 from his great uncle. The will had a complicated set of conditions that Brewster had to abide to receive the inheritance. He had to spend $30,000,000 in thirty days. He could not donate too much to charity or retain any assets; at the end of the thirty days he had to be exactly where he started. The trouble was that he could not tell anyone the conditions. He had to spend foolishly while they tried to help him be responsible. He had to waste it while they tried to keep him in check. They even tried to earn him money, and in the end took up a collection to help him pay his bills. He almost lost it all because the lawyers cheated and hid some of the money so that Brewster would still have a few dollars at the last minute. They would then handle the estate and claim a hefty fee for their work.

The point of the game was so that Brewster would learn how to handle his money. By the end of the thirty days, his uncle reasoned, Brewster would be so sick of money that he would be responsible with it. It worked. Brewster, who was a failed minor league baseball player before the inheritance, realized the value of the gift and began his new life with a good attitude. The winner of tonight's Powerball will not have such an opportunity. They will go from average to billionaire overnight. How do you handle such a huge change?

Every person who has gone to buy a ticket, myself included, is dreaming of tomorrow. We are thinking about what we will do. Paying off my bills will be pocket change. I saw a house on the Internet I wouldn't mind owning. There are islands that only cost a few million. My husband could quit his job. I could open a studio where struggling artists can have work and gallery space. I could give money to my children so that they will not have to struggle. There are a few charities that will certainly benefit and I will find other ways to be generous.

I'm sure similar thoughts are going through the heads of millions of other people, most of whom will never see their wishes or dreams fulfilled. We won't win, our lives won't change. In a way, I know that's a good thing. See, the minute the world knows that I have a billion dollars (or whatever it turns out to be after taxes) my life will be changed in ways I won't like. People will be knocking on my door, begging or demanding that I share my windfall. Strangers will want to be my friend, and acquaintances that have not been very good friends will pretend that we have been besties all along. People will become angry with the word "No" and will call me selfish, greedy. They will try to guilt me into generosity or take advantage of my heart. My life would change if I won, but not only in positive ways. I've been thinking that the negative might just outweigh the positive; perhaps I don't want to be a billionaire.

Our Gospel lesson is set at a wedding. That is another time when a person's life changes dramatically. It isn't quite as true for modern marriages since so many people live with their spouse for a time before the wedding, but in ages past the wedding was the moment when everything became different. The bride left her home and began living with her groom. The husband took his wife into his home and they began a new life together. They had to learn to rely on one another, to work together, to deal with all the surprises that come as they discover all those habits and attitudes that were never revealed during the courtship. Perhaps, like Brewster's uncle, they believe that the test period will make the marriage stronger, although I'm not sure that's proven to be true. Unfortunately, the best outcome is often that those couples realize that they can't handle living together and they never get around to the marriage.

We don't know anything about the marriage in today's Gospel lesson; we only hear about the party. We don't know much about the family or the couple; we don't even know why Mary was so interested in their problems. Weddings were large, festive affairs that lasted for seven days and as in all things, hospitality was extremely important. The success of the marriage feast was a matter of honor for any family. Empty wine casks would have been disastrous and Mary knew that it would be a disappointment for both the couple and their families.

Mary wanted to help, and she knew that Jesus had the ability to do so. God was an intimate and abiding part of His life and she had no doubt that Jesus could do something. She had seen the hand of God at work in Jesus' life: angels announced His coming and warned His parents of danger. She saw the miraculous signs that accompanied Him. He was knowledgeable and wise about the things of God. She remembered all these things and treasured them in her heart. She knew that He was kind and generous and that He would not allow the family to be shamed. Did she think He might produce a miracle? Perhaps she was concerned because the presence of Jesus and his disciples contributed to the shortage. Whatever her thoughts, Mary had faith. "Do whatever He tells you to do."

She didn't push Him; He didn't need to answer the call. As we think about all the problems around the world, it seems very odd that this was important enough to get Jesus involved. Wine at a wedding seems frivolous when you think about all the other miracles of Jesus. The honor of a family seems unimportant when there are people who are sick and oppressed by demons. He knew it was not yet His time: this was not His problem and He could have simply ignored the request.

However, He told the servants to fill the jars. The stone pots were used by Jews for purification; they were used for washing the utensils and the guests' hands. Water was helpful because at least the guests would have something to drink to quench their thirst, but Jesus knew that the problem was about something much greater, more personal than thirst. Mary was asking Jesus to protect the honor of the hosts. Water was not enough.

Once the jars were filled, Jesus told them to take some to the steward. The steward was very surprised because the wine he tasted was better than anything they'd offered to that point, down to the bottom of the barrel. The party had already lasted some time and the guests were already drunk; they would not have known the difference. The gift was exceedingly generous; it may have been excessive. At least we would think so. In our day, good guests know when it is time to leave. Imagine how hard it would be to get them to go if a hundred and twenty gallons of the finest wine is flowing so freely!

There's a photo that has made the rounds on social media of a shelf in a liquor store. The sign above the shelf says "Water" but the shelf is filled with bottles of wine. The words say, "Jesus was here." We laugh at the joke, but what does this miracle, or sign, have to do with the Kingdom of God? Why would John use this particular event as the first of the seven signs, the miracles with a message, which showed that Jesus was the Messiah? Even if it wasn't His plan, why is this the way Jesus began His ministry?

The wedding was a symbol of the arrival of the Messianic age, both in Judaism and early Christianity. The Old Testament text shows this promise. Isaiah repeats the promise that they'd heard so many times: though you are Forsaken and Desolate today, your name will be changed to Hepzibah which means My Delight is in Her. The people of Israel had turned from God repeatedly throughout their history; they suffered the consequences but God always brought them home. He allowed the exile so that His people would turn to Him and Isaiah was encouraging God's people with His faithful promise.

See, God delights in His people and He is faithful, even when we are not. Jerusalem would be vindicated and restored. She would be like a crown of beauty or a royal jewel in the hand of the King. God would rejoice over her. This passage uses the image of marriage: the restoration that God has promised will be like a bridegroom marrying a bride. The relationship between God and His people is like a family: intimate, close, real.

The abundance of wine was also a symbol of the coming of the Messianic age. Many Old Testament texts reveal the promise that the extravagant goodness of God will be revealed. Jeremiah writes, "And they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow unto the goodness of Jehovah, to the grain, and to the new wine, and to the oil, and to the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all." (Jeremiah 31:12) This imagery continues today in the Eucharistic feast as we celebrate a foretaste of the feast to come.

The Messianic age was promised to be a time when God would display His glory. It seems a little odd, then, that this miracle was kept hidden from those who were there that day. This miracle was very personal. The only ones who knew what happened were Jesus, Mary, the servants who filled the jars with water and the disciples. Even the steward had no idea; he was surprised when the good wine was held until the guests were already drunk. The bride and groom and their families may have never even known how the problem was solved.

This first big sign seems so insignificant compared to the other signs that John lists in the stories of Jesus. Jesus heals the officialís son, a paralyzed man, and a man born blind. He walks on water and raises Lazarus from the dead. He feeds five thousand people. How is God glorified by a bunch of drunk partiers? We might find we are asking the same question about the work we are called to do in this world. "How will you be glorified by this?" we might ask, "It seems so mundane and unimportant." But God is merciful in ways that we do not understand. He just asks us to be obedient and to respond to the needs that come our way.

God does not do miraculous things for fame or glory. He does what He does out of love for His people. That's the kind of life He calls us to live. We don't have to make a grand gesture or do something that will bring fame or power. We don't need a billion dollars to do God's Work. He calls us to serve our neighbors in their very mundane and unimportant needs and He gifts us with everything we need to do it. Jesus' first miracle was a behind the scenes gift of mercy. The same will be true for the opportunities He sends for us to serve; they will be intimate, personal, real. In the end they might even be hidden; the one served may never know that God has done something incredible. That's not the point: God is glorified by the very act of obedience; you praise God by doing what He is calling you to do and by trusting that He will provide everything you need.

God's grace was given for you; God's lovingkindness was manifest in Jesus Christ for each individual child of God. He was given for YOU. This gift is truly life-changing. And while this gift is personal, it is given to make you part of the body of Christ. He came to make you one with Him. He sent the Holy Spirit so that we would be joined together in faith. We share in His Spirit not for our own sakes but for the sake of others. And we need one another. We can't do it all alone. Paul writes, "Now there are diversities of gifts." He lists nine gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues." We are each given a portion of these gifts, in good measure, to be used in acts of mercy and grace. God will be glorified in those acts, no matter how inconsequential and hidden they seem.

We join in our actions with the psalmist as he sings a song proclaiming the greatness of God. God's love extends to the heavens, His faithfulness to the clouds. His righteousness is firmer than the mountains and His judgments are right. He rules over all of creation, gives life and breath to all that breathes. Yet, this song about the greatness of God reminds us that we are welcome into His presence. The psalmist sings, "And the children of men take refuge under the shadow of thy wings." The psalmist knows that God will provide for His people everything they need; He is worthy of our trust no matter what He is calling us to do.

The psalmist sings, "How precious is thy lovingkindness, O God!" The Hebrew word translated as lovingkindness in the American Standard Version is "chesed." As with many Hebrew words, it is difficult to translate into English. None of our words fully encompass the depth of its meaning. It is sometimes translated "steadfast love" or "mercy." This word, especially when it is used in reference to God, is about the divine love that is so faithful that God does everything, even forgives, for His people even though they do not deserve it because we are unfaithful and filled with sin. In other words, this lovingkindness is the heart of grace, it is about the loving God doing what only God can do.

Jesus could have done nothing for the host at the wedding banquet, but He was exceedingly generous. We don't have to do anything, either, but when we've been given such a great gift, when we have been forgiven everything and given more than we could possibly expect, how can we not let God's generosity flow through our own lives? It might seem unimportant. It might not seem like the right time. But we never know how God might use us in a miraculous way, turning water into wine for someone, perhaps even for their honor.

Why does honor matter when there are so many in the world who are suffering? Why did God put so much importance on the honor of the family at the wedding in Cana? To honor someone is to value them and God values His people. Our gifts are not meant to make us famous or powerful. God gives us gifts because He values His creation, this means all men, including those who reject God's word today. He wants them to be restored to Him. He loves them enough to be merciful, to bring them home, to make their world beautiful again. He values them and wants them to know peace. So He calls us to use our gifts in a way that will show them His mercy so that they will see His glory and believe.

I don't know if I should want to be a billionaire. I have to admit that I am among those running the possibilities through my head today. I hope that if I am so blessed that I will faithfully use the gift to God's glory. Even more so, however, I pray that I will faithfully use the gifts I already have to respond to every opportunity that God gives me to serve Him and my neighbor. I don't need a billion dollars to glorify God. God is glorified not by the stuff of this world, but by our obedience to His call. Isaiah, writes, "Thou shalt also be a crown of beauty in the hand of Jehovah, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God." It is God that makes the simple extravagant and the unimportant valuable. I just need to fill a pot with water and He'll make it the finest wine because He is exceedingly generous and able. He has changed our lives forever in ways that we may never fully understand, but we can trust that He will use it for His glory if we go forth in faith and obedience.

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January 14, 2016

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:8-9, ASV

It is funny to look at photos of the earliest computers. They were huge; they filled entire rooms and didn't really accomplish very much considering what computers do today. Computer chips are found in everything today, from pens to toilets to football helmets. You can't buy anything electronic without it having a computer inside. There are even computer chips in things you don't plug in, like credit cards. It takes a technical education to fix a car or appliance these days because the moving parts are all connected in some way to a computer program. This often makes it easy to diagnose problems, but it also makes it incredibly expensive to fix. The best solution too often is to replace the item completely. That's what happened the last time my washer broke down: the replacement part would have cost more than a new one. Sadly, this means the old one probably ended up in a landfill somewhere.

We have come to rely on our computers, however. We like to have a refrigerator with a touch screen so we can keep our shopping lists up to date. We like waving our credit cards in front of the magic box because sliding it through the slot is so much work. We like having a pen that records the lecture on which we are taking notes because we can never remember what we meant when we scribbled those half sentences.

Computers make our lives easier; at least we think they do until something goes wrong. How many of us become frustrated when our laptops or tablets decide to do something we do not expect? What do we do when the screen freezes? What do we do when our files suddenly disappear? I usually scream and then cry. Then I start over again.

The earliest computers did exactly what the operator told it to do. They were used mostly for analyzing information. One of the first computers was sold to the U.S. Census department to make sense of the numbers. Now computers not only process information that has been input, but they make choices based on patterns. Have you noticed how the ads on your computer seem to match things you've done on the computer? Somewhere in the vast networks you've surfed, a computer has determined that you are interested in certain things and it will make sure you see advertisements geared toward your interests. Computers can determine the environment and do whatever is necessary to make our world comfortable.

Computers are even being designed to have intelligence comparable to human beings. Take, for instance, the new self-driving cars. Even today's average cars have features that make it so much easier for a human being to drive. I love cruise control because I can sit more comfortably when on the open highway. I still have to pay attention, but the cruise control helps keep the car at a consistent pace. The self-driving cars supposedly make it possible for the 'driver' to do nothing. It starts and stops on its own. It determines traffic patterns and makes decisions about speed and direction.

Unfortunately, they are definitely not perfect. I heard a story today in which the developers have admitted that the self-driving cars require a human operator to avoid potentially dangerous situations. From the article: "'Of the 341 total disengagements, 272 were due to the "failure of autonomous technology" -- where the car's computers detected a fault of some sort, and handed over control to the human, signaling that a takeover was needed with a "distinct audio and visual signal.' Google points out, though, that the company's objective is not necessarily to minimize the number of disengagements, but to 'gather as much data as possible to enable us to improve our self-driving system.' For this reason, the thresholds for this sort of takeover are 'set conservatively,' and include what might be relatively minor 'anomalies in sensor readings' (as well as more serious problems). The 69 other disengagements, though, are more critical. These are events where the 'safe operation of the vehicle requires control by the driver' -- that is, when the test driver decided they needed to grab the wheel for some reason. These aren't all potential crashes. Google notes that the reason for humans deciding to take over (rather than being prompted to) can include bad driving from other road-users or decisions 'relating to comfort.'"

I love computers and I'm thankful for the ways that they make life easier. We must, however, remember that they are created beings. Worse than that: they are created beings created by created beings. We are imperfect and while a computer may be smarter than we are, they aren't human. We can't make something that is better than ourselves. Computers fail. They freeze. They break down. And they can't be held responsible when something goes wrong because they have no moral compass. How do we provide justice if a self-driving car's computer fails and it runs into a crowd of people, killing many? We need to keep the tools of our world in their proper place.

See, we are reminded by our own creations that we can never be greater than our Creator. Sadly, we try. Just as we have tried to build computers that are independent of human operation, we try to be independent of our God. We make decisions not based on His truth but on our feelings. We do what we think is right, but eventually realize that God's way is always better. We take over the controls but constantly fail to stay on the right path. Just as a human driver will always be better than a self-controlled car, our Father in Heaven will always have better answers because He has an omnipotent and omniscient point of view.

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January 15, 2016

"O Jehovah my God, if I have done this; If there be iniquity in my hands; If I have rewarded evil unto him that was at peace with me; (Yea, I have delivered him that without cause was mine adversary;) Let the enemy pursue my soul, and overtake it; Yea, let him tread my life down to the earth, And lay my glory in the dust. Selah" Psalm 7:3-5 (ASV)

I was called for jury duty a few years ago. As is typical, the first step to being chosen for a jury is a time of questioning by the lawyers for both sides. Some of the questions are pretty standard, asking if we know the defendants, attorneys, witnesses or the case. They try to get to know the jurors a little, asking about their opinions on matters of law. They often give away specifics of the case to be heard, to see if any of the jurors have a preconceived idea of how they would rule. The attorneys will quickly reject any juror who is likely to rule against their client.

A case on this day involved an automobile accident. The defendant was making a left turn during which the light turned red. She insisted it was yellow when she began, but the plaintiff insisted she ran a red light. The defense attorney asked the jurors if any of us had ever found ourselves in a similar position. We all agreed there had been times when conditions warranted travel through the intersection when the light was changing from yellow to red. Several people shared stories of being rear ended because they stopped too quickly to avoid going into the intersection. The attorney then asked if we always wait after our light turns green to ensure everyone has moved safely out of the intersection.

The lawyer wanted us to think about our own experiences. He wanted us to question in our own minds if we have a right to rule against his client, since we might have been the one at fault in a similar accident. He was hinting toward a biblical concept that is often abused and misused, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged." We are often too quick to judge, to put a negative spin on the actions of others while twisting our own to make us look good. In the case of traffic lights, we are quick to claim the only safe thing for us to do is to run the light, but we think everyone else should be more careful. It would do us well to remember our own offenses when judging others.

I wasn't chosen as a juror for that trial so I do not know the evidence that was presented or how it turned out. Without that information I could not judge fairly, yet don't we do that every day with our family, friends, neighbors and most especially our enemies? We see something happen or hear about it on the radio and quickly jump to conclusions. We cry out for justice or revenge without having all the evidence. We make judgments based on our own perceptions, disregarding the notion that we hold some of the blame or do the same things. There are times when we are put in the position to make a judgment against our neighbor, but we must do so with knowledge that we, too, are guilty of sinning against God and our neighbors.

The words of David in today's Psalm are difficult for us. We don't want to admit that we have failed and deserve to suffer the consequences of our mistakes. As Christians, however, we have something on which to build our hope: we have the forgiveness that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. We have the assurance of faith that when we cry out to our God with our confessions, we will be granted forgiveness by His grace and are covered by His blood. We may suffer consequences: if I run a red light I might be hit, injured and even worse. Yet even in those times of suffering, God is my refuge and my strength, an ever-present help through those trials. It is good for us to recognize our own sinfulness, to say the words, "O LORD, if I have done..." We will have to judge our neighbors sometimes, but we must do so with the grace which our Lord Jesus Christ showed to us; it is through love and mercy that everything will be made right.

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January 18, 2016

"Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand. Neither let us make trial of the Lord, as some of them made trial, and perished by the serpents. Neither murmur ye, as some of them murmured, and perished by the destroyer. Now these things happened unto them by way of example; and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as man can bear: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that ye may be able to endure it." 1 Corinthians 10:6-13, ASV

I read a lot. I particularly like historical fiction from England and Europe in the late middle ages. The story of Henry VIII and his wives is fascinating, although I much prefer to read about it in fiction. Historical fiction written by the best authors is based on the available facts about the lives of the characters in their books, although they have to supplement the history with characters, conversations and even events that are not real or verifiable to make it a good novel. We can't base our knowledge on the fiction, although we can learn enough to give us direction to study the history more deeply. I am currently reading a story about Henry II and I often end up looking for more information about the people and the time to see if the author has stood true to the history. It is amazing how often the subject matter of these books make me think about my faith and my place in this world.

I also like to read through a devotional book of some sort each year. Last year my book focused on the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was a fascinating look at the theology and life of a man who deserves our attention. Dietrich was killed by the Nazis mere weeks before the end of the WWII. He was only 39 years old, but he had an incredible impact on the people whose lives he touched, not only in the church, but also in prison. Few of his works were published during his life, and much of it had to be finished and edited by those left behind, but those we have are a powerful witness of his faith and his theology. I often wonder if we would even know his name if he hadn't been martyred in 1945.

The devotional books are faith based, but as with the historical fiction, we have to read that type of literature with the understanding that the devotions come from a specific point of view. They should cause us to look beyond those words and dig more deeply into the scriptures so that we will have a better understanding of our own faith. While I agree with so much of what Bonhoeffer taught, we have to read even his words through the lens of God's Word so as not to raise a man and his word above God.

For the past few years I have also been challenging myself with theological literature. I trudged my way through St. Augustine's "City of God" a few years ago. Last year I read through the Book of Concord, the foundational documents of my denominational choice. This year I am following a reading plan for John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion." These books have been incredibly overwhelming; I have to admit that I only retained bits and pieces of actual knowledge from these challenges. I did, however, find myself better understanding my own faith and theological point of view. It has given me more confidence to talk about these things, or at least to work through them with others who are struggling to understand.

I found it interesting as I read through today's scripture passage that Paul writes, "Now these things happened unto them by way of example; and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come." The stories we read in the scriptures had a very real impact on the people living them. Moses and the Hebrews learned lessons as they wandered in the wilderness. Elijah and the prophets learned to trust God. The kings learned the importance of repentance. These stories are still relevant to us today and were written down as a warning for us. How much better is it to learn the lesson from the experiences of others than to have to suffer through those experiences ourselves?

The historical fiction novels, devotionals and challenging theological literature helps me to learn and grow in my own life and faith. I learn from their experiences. How much more so will we be helped by the stories in God's own book for our lives? The Old Testament and New Testament gives us examples, but admonishes us to live according to His Word rather than their ways. We learn so that we will live on the right path, rejecting the temptations that have caused our forefathers to fall. We need not suffer as they did because we have their examples and God's Word to escape and endure that which we face.

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January 19, 2016

"Wherefore girding up the loins of your mind, be sober and set your hope perfectly on the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as children of obedience, not fashioning yourselves according to your former lusts in the time of your ignorance: but like as he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living; because it is written, Ye shall be holy; for I am holy. And if ye call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to each man's work, pass the time of your sojourning in fear: knowing that ye were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from your vain manner of life handed down from your fathers; but with precious blood, as of a lamb without spot, even the blood of Christ: who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was manifested at the end of times for your sake, who through him are believers in God, that raised him from the dead, and gave him glory; so that your faith and hope might be in God. Seeing ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth unto unfeigned love of the brethren, love one another from the heart fervently: having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth. For, All flesh is as grass, And all the glory thereof as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth: But the word of the Lord abideth for ever. And this is the word of good tidings which was preached unto you." 1 Peter 1:13-25, ASV

I was in a craft and hobby store the other day. I was there for something very specific, but I tend to wander around the store looking down aisles, just in case something catches my eye. Sometimes I discover a sale on a product I use regularly or I just see something that might be useful. I really didn't have a lot of extra time, but it is hard not to look.

As I passed one aisle, I noticed a woman holding a paper box. She was staring at it, turning it over in her hands. She was obviously thinking about this item. She was probably wondering if the item would suit her needs. "Will this do what I want it to do?" "How can I make this fit my purpose?" "What sort of products would I need to make this do what I want?" I know because I've been there. I have often gone to the craft and hobby store with an idea and then I have to wander the aisles trying to figure out how to make that idea become something tangible. It isn't always easy; I come up with some really wild ideas.

It isn't unusual to see me standing in one aisle for a very long time, thinking about the merchandise on the shelf. I pick it up and look at it from every point of view. I put it back on the shelf and pick up something else. I will often go back and pick it up four or five times. Sometimes I will put it in my shopping cart and then move on to the next product I might need. When I consider how to use them together I realize that something else would be better. I move back to the other aisle and begin the process again. Eventually my idea comes together.

Or I give up. Sometimes my ideas are so wild that they are simply outside my ability to make them come together. The reason is often beyond my control. I tend to have ideas that use products that were last year's trends. It isn't that I'm late with the trend, but that I remember a product existed and I want to use it for another reason. Unfortunately, those craft and hobby places do not carry those older items past their popularity. I can sometimes find it online, but I'm always a little concerned about buying it that way because I'm never sure until I try whether the idea will work. Do I really want to buy a supply of something that might be useless? So I think of something else, and it is usually better than the other idea would ever have been.

Giving up is often seen as a negative. "You don't want to be a quitter, do you?" Of course I don't want to be a quitter, but sometimes it is better than trying to do something that simply won't work. Giving up sometimes means moving on to something better. Continuing to pursue something that really does not work is actually the selfish or self-centered choice. We are unwilling to admit that we are imperfect and that even our ideas can fail. By chasing after a bad idea, we make ourselves like gods.

This is especially true when it comes to our ideas about faith and religion. I was once acquainted with a woman who called herself an eclectic Christian. This meant that she had many of her own ideas of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and they included what she felt was the best of every other religion. She picked and chose the bits of the Bible that suited her. She twisted the word to make it fit her ideas. Even when confronted with the truth of where her ideas did not work, she refused to give it up. She was determined to make it work even when it didn't work. She made herself a god by rejecting God and His Word. Her ego was more important than the truth.

This is not to say that we should quickly abandon every idea that comes into our heads. Like me in the craft and hobby store, it is important to think over these things, to study them, to line them up to other things. It is important for us to take our ideas and see them through the lens of God's Word. Does it work with the rest of what God has said, or do we have to pick and choose what we like to make it fit into our box? Sometimes we have to have the humility to admit that our idea just doesn't work; sometimes we just have to give up. What we'll discover, though, as we go through this process of thinking through our ideas as they relate to the Word of God, is that what God has said is much better than we can ever think on our own.

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January 20, 2016

Scriptures for Sunday, January 24, 2016, Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19:(1-6) 7-14; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:16-30

"And all bare him witness, and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of his mouth: and they said, Is not this Joseph's son?" Luke 4:22, ASV

I am always dumbfounded when the lectionary texts skip a verse here and there. Why not read the whole ten verses? Why take out verses four and seven? This makes me look them up to see what they saw. Sadly, the missing verses often make a point that matters; they often talk about sin or wrath or something we would rather ignore. Sometimes, as in today's Old Testament passage from Nehemiah, the missing verses simply list names that seem to be unimportant to the text. In verse four, Nehemiah tells us that Ezra was flanked by six men on one side and seven men on the other. In verse seven, the men listed were Levites that helped expound upon the text being read so that the people would understand. Their names are not terribly important, few are even mentioned anywhere else in the scriptures. The lectionary probably ignores those two verses because it is just not central to the subject matter at hand.

While the names may not have much interest or pertinence to our lessons for today, I think there is something about those two verses that is important for us to see. The names and placement may have had significance to the people in Nehemiah's day which we do not understand. I couldn't find anything of value in my research about these men today. But we can realize the importance of their presence: Ezra did not do this alone.

See, if we look at the text from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that God's work is accomplished not by one person, but by a body of people whom God has called and gifted with faith and everything we need. Together we can accomplish God's Work.

The story in Nehemiah is about the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem. This is preceded in the book of Ezra with the rebuilding of the Temple. The people had been in exile in Babylon and were restored to their homeland by God. The books tell the story about the renewing of the relationship between God and His people. Nehemiah continues the story begun by Ezra. There were those, of course, who did not want to see the Temple or the city rebuilt. However, King Darius searched the archives and discovered the sacred writings of the Jews and demanded that all the leaders in the region allow the building of Godís Temple according to the Word of God. He even ordered that it be paid out of the royal treasury. Once the Temple was rebuilt, the people could once again follow the religious practices of their forefathers, made known again to them through those newfound writings.

The generation of Israelites at the square in today's lesson had never heard God's Word read. They'd forgotten what had been written on the hearts of their forefathers. They did not know God's will or His expectation of His people. They did know that the entire nation had suffered greatly for their lack of faithfulness, and they were ready to be changed. They gathered to hear so that they would be the people God created them to be. They gathered to learn how to live in the covenant that God faithfully continued with His people despite their failure. They were mesmerized by what they were hearing because they knew it was the Word of the God who saved them.

The Law had been given to Moses at Mount Sinai and they had lost touch with what it meant to them as a people. This is why God gave then into the hands of the Babylonians: to discipline them and to make them whole and new. They needed to see life outside of God's grace to understand how to live within His grace. God did not do this as a form of punishment, but as a way to bring His people home. All along He intended for them to be renewed and gathered as one people again, manifesting His mercy and grace to the world. They were willing listeners because they had suffered the consequences of their unfaithfulness. In today's story we see how they began a new, transformed life. They began by gathering around his Word. Just as Jesus read the scriptures to the people gathered around Him, Ezra and Nehemiah read the scriptures to the people gathered in the square. And they explained it to them so that the people would understand. They gave it to them in their own language. They made it relevant to their lives.

And the people did understand. The reading of God's Word made them weep because they saw how lost they had been. But now they are found, and Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites spoke that word of grace into their life. "This day is holy unto Jehovah your God; mourn not, nor weep. Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye grieved; for the joy of Jehovah is your strength." They told the people to go celebrate, for God was pleased with His people and blessed them.

The people of Nazareth were not quite so ready to hear God's Word.

About a year had passed since Jesus changed the water into wine at Cana in Galilee. He had been preaching and teaching around the region, impressing people with His authority. The people praised Jesus for His teaching and word spread. When He returned home to Nazareth, Jesus was invited into the synagogue to preach and teach. They wanted to hear and experience what had been rumored about this son of their own town.

It must have been a remarkable moment for the people of Nazareth. After all, this Jesus was special and He would bring acclaim to their sleepy little town. He would take care of their hungers, their hurts and their desires. They would no longer be the rejected and downcast of the cities, but would rise above all the others. Nazareth was an unimportant town, but Jesus would make it important. Isn't it interesting how in the desert it was very easy for Jesus to reject the temptations thrown at Him by the devil? Jesus would face the same temptations, but coming from those He loved. They would look to Jesus to prove Himself so they could believe. We will learn that God does not perform on demand.

Word of Jesus' power and authority had preceded Him to Nazareth. As His family and friends, they thought they deserved the proofs that they had heard Jesus could perform. There were already people who were claiming to be the Messiah. The Jews were crying for freedom from the oppression of the Romans, and some of the messiahs were calling for the people to revolt. They thought salvation would come with the arrival of a new king, a king who would rule Israel like the golden age of David.

Jesus did not establish His credibility with a sword, but with the Word of God. He chose a passage from Isaiah. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

Isaiah was alluding to a year of Jubilee, a time of restoration and redemption. It was a time of transformation. The fiftieth year was called the Jubilee year and was a time when the slaves were set free and all debts were counted as paid. At the Jubilee, everything was made new. Everyone was given a new beginning, another chance. In the reading, Jesus was not referring to a specific calendar year; He was pointing toward the day when God would set His people free from the bondage that keeps them from living as He has called and gifted them to live.

This was good news for those who were tired of living in bondage under the Romans. Jesus was fulfilling the expectations they had about the Messiah: expectations of a man with power and authority, who healed and who brought change. They saw Jesus as the fulfillment of all their hopes. He would be the king for whom they had been waiting. It is not so surprising that the anointed king of God's kingdom would take care and provide for all the human needs of the people to whom He was sent. Preaching and healing would provide the proof they needed to know that God's hand was on the life and ministry of the One who claimed to be the Messiah.

Jesus' preaching was shocking because He did not simply read a text and teach on it. He read a text and identified with it. They were waiting for the Messiah, preparing their hearts for the coming of a Savior like the one that was written in the prophecy of Isaiah. The text was certainly good news. And then Jesus said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

"How can Joseph's son make such a claim?" They asked this question with the expectation that Jesus would answer it with acts of power or authority, but Jesus knew they didn't have faith. He could not do the miracles they desired, not only because God does not submit to human demands, but because they wouldn't believe even if He did. They were truly amazed by what they heard in the synagogue that day, but as soon as Jesus told them that they would not see what they hoped to see they became angry and threatened Jesus. They didn't have faith, they demanded God's grace.

We can't demand God's grace. We do not truly understand God's grace if we think we deserve it. There's nothing to transform if we believe that we are good enough. We have no reason to mourn and weep at the hearing of God's Word if we think we are worthy of His grace. They, like the Israelites before them, had lost touch with God. They were being handed over into the hands of the Romans. But like the exile to Babylon, God had a plan to redeem them and restore them to Himself. They just didn't understand that plan. They wanted the Messiah to be under their control. They wanted the Messiah to live up to their expectations. Jesus of Nazareth would never be what they wanted Him to be.

God has blessed us with the revelation of Himself in the world. We can certainly see God in nature. The psalmist talks about the praise of God in nature, how the creation declares the glory of God through all the earth. Yet the creation cannot speak the words of God or tell of His will for mankind. Only God's Word can give us what we need to know to truly and fully understand Him and His intent for us in the world. We know from Godís Word, Godís Law, what He expects. Though we have known for many generations, we have failed miserably to live up to His Law. That's why the Babylonians were sent to take the Israelites into exile for a moment, to disciple God's people and cause them to turn back to Him.

A passage from John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion" that I read yesterday talked about how we come to know God. We often talk about seeing God in the world around us. God is visible in the natural world in ways that amaze us. We see Him in the sunset and the rainbow. We see Him in the face of a newborn baby and in the life-long love of our grandparents. We see Him in the fields of wildflowers and in the fierceness of a storm. However, Calvin warned that our understanding of God manifest in nature is in vain. See, in nature we see what we want to see. He writes that we need something more: we need the Bible, God's Word, through which to truly see Him in His creation. We can't rely on our own hearts, we must seek understanding of God as He has manifested Himself to us.

God is made manifest in the scriptures and in our Lord Jesus Christ. We gather around the Word and we gather around Jesus to experience God's presence in our lives. Jesus brought the promises of God to fulfillment so that we can be all that He has created us to be. And the promises continue to be made manifest through the body of Christ, which is the Church. Every believer is part of that body. We have been created to be a part of the whole. We have been given our own gifts and purpose so that the Church together might continue the work Jesus began.

The Corinthian church was a difficult congregation. There were many things about the new Christian faith that they did not fully understand. The church was located in a major Greek city, a place where there were many temples to the gods. Corinth was an important world community, a place of crossroads where many nationalities came together. It was a place of questionable morality, where worship of the gods included the satisfaction of many physical desires. The Corinthian church was plagued by questions of how to live in their world while also living according to the expectations of their new faith. They often failed, falling back into the ways of their past and fulfilling the desires of their flesh.

In today's Epistle lesson Paul was addressing one of the questions of the Corinthian congregation. They had incredible gifts: powers that were not from themselves. Yet they were immature and unspiritual. They did not understand the things of God or the place they held in His kingdom. They did not understand that they had been called and gathered for a purpose and that the purpose was to continue Jesus' work in this world. They needed guidance about the gifts they had been given and about the expectations of God for them.

Some Corinthians thought that they had been given special privilege. They thought they had higher gifts or that their gifts proved that they were more blessed by God. Paul reminds us that God has created a perfect machine, a body that works together, all parts being valuable parts of the whole. We are individuals in Christ, gifted in our own unique ways, but all are necessary to make manifest the grace and mercy of God in the world. Gathered around the Word, both the scriptures and Jesus, we see Him as He is and ourselves as we are. The good news is that God sees us through Jesus, and that's why we can celebrate.

God's Word has a way of cutting to our hearts, bringing out emotions that we may not even know are buried there. God's Word convicts us. He causes us to see into the very depths of our souls. When we hear His Word with believing hearts, we realize how deeply we have grieved our Lord by our rebellion. We grieve with Him, knowing that there is no one but ourselves to blame for suffering the consequences of our sin. God's Word of Law helps us realize that we are nothing, that we have nothing without Him. Then God's Word of Grace calls us to celebrate as we are joined in faith to His body and gifted to continue His work in the world.

God had a plan, a plan to restore His people and to redeem them. When they returned to Jerusalem, God helped them restore the city and the temple to its former glory. Then He called them together to hear His Word. Though the hearing caused them to mourn, they were reminded that it was a day to rejoice. The salvation of God came to the people, they were set free to live and love and share everything they have with the world.

The plan was fulfilled for the people of Nehemiah's day, but God's people did not remain faithful. They needed a more permanent fulfillment, a Jubilee that would be forever. So, God sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be the Savior of us all. Not everyone believed, they demanded proof. The same is true today. Many people claim to believe in God, but they want to believe in the god they have imagined. They refuse to see the God that has been revealed in the scriptures and in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The good news is that we are saved from ourselves. God has given us the faith to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of all His promises. He was the Messiah for whom they waited even if they did not believe. Nothing He did would have changed that because they did not have faith. They saw the authority of His words, but doubted that Jesus was really the One because He was just Joseph's son. They called Him a blasphemer because He didn't do what they wanted Him to do.

Sadly, we do the same thing, sometimes, demanding from God what we expect from Him. But we can be like the Israelites rather than the Nazarenes. We can become part of what He is doing in this world because of the faith He has given us. He has been revealed in the scriptures and in His Son, and now He is revealed through us, ordinary people in an ordinary world speaking the most extraordinary message ever given.

So, let us be constantly vigilant about hearing God's Word as it is spoken and explained. Let us study the words for ourselves, to see God manifest as He intends. Let us never demand from Him something that proves Him to be what we want Him to be, but believe in Him as He is, manifest both in words and in the flesh of Jesus. Together we will celebrate our own new and transformed life, praising God for His salvation and the promise of His grace.

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January 21, 2016

"Finally, be ye all likeminded, compassionate, loving as brethren, tenderhearted, humbleminded: not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but contrariwise blessing; for hereunto were ye called, that ye should inherit a blessing. For, He that would love life, And see good days, Let him refrain his tongue from evil, And his lips that they speak no guile: And let him turn away from evil, and do good; Let him seek peace, and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, And his ears unto their supplication: But the face of the Lord is upon them that do evil. And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous of that which is good?" 1 Peter 3:8-13, ASV

I know several churches that are currently looking for a new pastor. It is a lengthy course of action in our denomination, beginning with a process of self-identification for the congregation so that we can define the characteristics we want in the one who is called to fill the position. This means asking some of the tough questions about the issues of the day, vision for the future and expectations for those who serve. It is tempting to answer those questions and define those expectations in the way that we think we are supposed to answer and define them, but are ways we are not really prepared or passionate to make happen.

Let me give you an example. I know several pastors who have complained after the process that the congregations to which they have been called have no real interest in doing what is necessary to grow a congregation. The surveys and conversations always end up with the expectation that the new pastor will fill the pews, but when he arrives, the people don't respond to the ways he has developed to make it happen. We all grumble when we are told we should invite our friends or make the necessary changes, but it goes deeper than that. One pastor told me that his congregation might have wanted growth, but they were unwilling to even welcome visitors. We all know the joke: how will people ever feel welcome if we get angry because they took our seats in the pew?

Both pastors and congregations have to find a way to survive through the process. They wonder about how to word things to make them seem like the right choice. It is like dating. We put on the most beautiful faÁade when we are dating because we want to convince the other that we are perfect. We also see the other through rose-colored glasses. We see their faÁade, and nothing will convince us otherwise. Have you ever known someone so infatuated with a boy or girl friend that they refuse to see any of negatives? "They will always be exactly what I want them to be!" Sadly, we do this with politicians, too.

We try to make them fit what we want them to be and we refuse to see that they are not. We ignore the things that we don't want to see. We talked about this yesterday with our understanding of God. The Nazarenes were disappointed because Jesus did not fulfill their expectations of the Messiah. He didn't fit into their box. They were willing to see His power and authority in the reading of the word, but when He wouldn't do what they wanted, they turned from Him. Isn't that what we do to our pastors (and the congregations), our loved ones and politicians. We are disappointed when they do not live up to our expectations. What we need to remember is that we are as much to blame for being a disappointment because we had expectations they could not fulfill.

Now, we shouldn't reject someone because they are not perfect, especially since we too are not perfect. The best relationships are those that are built on humility and integrity, rather than unrealistic expectations. The person you seek, whether a pastor, a spouse or a politician, will never be perfect. We can't possibly know everything about any human being and we are bound to be disappointed by something eventually. Instead of building an image of someone, making them to be what we want them to be, we should be willing to accept the good and the bad, the real characteristics that make that person. Those surprises are much easier to face when they don't contradict something we think is true. We might just find that the relationship is even better because those characteristics we want to reject are the ones that are our greatest blessings.

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January 22, 2016

"Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song: Sing unto Jehovah, all the earth. Sing unto Jehovah, bless his name; Show forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, His marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised: He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him: Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe unto Jehovah, ye kindreds of the peoples, Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength. Ascribe unto Jehovah the glory due unto his name: Bring an offering, and come into his courts. Oh worship Jehovah in holy array: Tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, Jehovah reigneth: The world also is established that it cannot be moved: He will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; Let the field exult, and all that is therein; Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy Before Jehovah; for he cometh, For he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with his truth." Psalm 96, ASV

The story is told of a time when King Alfonso XII of Spain taught the attendants of his court a valuable lesson in gratitude. He had learned that they were not praying to God in thanksgiving for their food before meals. He held a large banquet and arranged for a beggarly man to crash the party. The guests all came in and none gave thanks to God for the magnificent meal. When the beggar arrived, they sat with bated breath expecting the king to have him thrown out. The man ate his fill, got up and left without a word to the king or the guests. The king overheard someone near him comment about the ungratefulness of the beggar. He rose and told them that they are no different than that man, ungrateful servants who never thank the Lord for their gifts. They are even more disgraceful than the beggar because they ignore their Creator and Master.

How often do we do the same? Oh, perhaps we remember to pray at our meals, but do we thank God for all things? Even in the midst of trial, do we remember Godís grace and mercy as He guides, comforts and protects us from evil? We try to raise our children with good manners, so that they will say please and thank you. Yet, we often forget to teach them to do the same thing in their relationship with the Lord. God has been so very good to us. He gave us the earth and all that is in it and He provides for our every need. He gave us His Son and the salvation that comes from faith in Him. He gave us the gifts we need to carry on His work in this world. How can we not go through each day singing His praises?

The art of gratefulness has been lost in this day. Thank you notes are a forgotten nicety and many people do not bother to show that they are thankful to their neighbor for the nice things they do. Even worse, however, is that we do not show the Lord God Almighty the praise and glory He is due for all He has done. It is hard to see the joy and live joyfully in a world that is filled with hatred, violence, greed and lust. Yet the whole creation sings of God's majesty, even the lives of non-believers show His mercy and grace. But those of us who are Christians, who know the depth of God's love and the peace that comes from knowing Him, are blessed to be living sacrifices for our Lord. Out of our lives flow the living waters that bring salvation to the world. It is a joy to be able to sing to the Lord that new song, the song of praise and thanksgiving for all He has done. Today, let us join together with all of creation and sing His praise. Glorify Him with every thought, word and deed, for He is worthy of praise!

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January 25, 2016

"Every one that doeth sin doeth also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. And ye know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither knoweth him. My little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous: he that doeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin, because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother." 1 John 3:4-10, ASV

I heard one of the anchors on one of the national news programs say, "It was a great day to watch football because everyone was snowed in." It just goes to show you how the world revolves around the region that was subjected to feet of snow over the weekend. The reality is that out of the 322 million people who live in the United States, only about twenty-five percent were affected in some way by the storm and many of those were not affected significantly. Oh, the roads will take days in some of the big cities to clear, people have died, and there will continue to be damage over the next week or so as the snow begins to melt and flood the streets. Some people were without electricity. Quite a few did sit in front of the television and watch the football game because they were snowed in. The storm was certainly an inconvenience to many.

But as I watched the pictures and videos from the storm ravaged corner of the United States, I looked out my living room window to see sunny skies. We had near freezing temperatures in the mornings, but it was delightfully warm in the afternoon. We were by no means snowed in here in Texas, and the same is true in so many other places around the United States. There was such a difference between what I was seeing on the news and Facebook and the reality I was living. It was hard for us to juxtapose our reality and the reality we saw everywhere else.

That reality in the storm ravaged region had an effect that went far beyond a few states, however. The snow shut down thousands of airline flights even though most of the miles on those trips were nowhere near the snow. See, if a plane is affected by one stop on a route, the whole route is shut down. So any plane that had to fly in and out of one of the major east coast airports was canceled, even if some of the passengers only needed to fly a portion of that route. The flight schedules will take days to catch up, especially since some of those airlines have not yet begun flights.

I didn't have to fly, but I can imagine the confusion at the airport this weekend when people were expecting to travel, especially those traveling in the opposite direction from the snowstorm. Who would expect snow in Philadelphia to affect someone flying from Dallas to Denver? Sometimes it does. So, the local news reporters were recommending that travelers call ahead, just in case.

We don't realize how the things that affect our lives can affect others. This is particularly true of our sins. We justify our willful disobedience by claiming that it does not harm anyone but ourselves. What we think are victimless crimes and harmless sins actually have an impact we do not always realize. The truth is that every sin, even the smallest of them, is a sin against our God, but we would be surprised how our selfishness and self-centeredness, which is the root of all our sin, really does affect others in some way.

I know: we all fail on a daily basis. Though out Lord Jesus Christ has overcome death and the grave, forgave us our sin and covered us with His righteousness, we continue to sin against God and our neighbor. Most of our daily sins are truly insignificant and there is no lasting impact on our world. That isn't the point, however. We must go through our lives with the knowledge that any sin, no matter how small, might harm someone some way at some time and thus live the righteous life God has called and gifted us by the power of the Holy Spirit to live. Even if we don't affect our neighbor, God our Father grieves each time we are led astray because it means sin and death and the devil still have a hold on our lives.

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January 26, 2016

"Little children, it is the last hour: and as ye heard that antichrist cometh, even now have there arisen many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they all are not of us. And ye have an anointing from the Holy One, and ye know all the things. I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, even he that denieth the Father and the Son. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that confesseth the Son hath the Father also. As for you, let that abide in you which ye heard from the beginning. If that which ye heard from the beginning abide in you, ye also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father. And this is the promise which he promised us, even the life eternal. These things have I written unto you concerning them that would lead you astray. And as for you, the anointing which ye received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any one teach you; but as his anointing teacheth you; concerning all things, and is true, and is no lie, and even as it taught you, ye abide in him." 1 John 2:18-27, ASV

I used to love to do cross stitch projects. I have several framed around my house and at least a few of my Christmas ornaments over the years have been stitched. I haven't done any for a long time. I started one fifteen or so years ago, a large piece with the Air Force Seal that I intended to give to my husband when he retired. The project was overwhelming and I was simply too busy to make it happen in good time, so I have to admit that in the end I gave up and gave it away. I didn't even try any other projects for years.

I bought a project a few years ago, thinking that I should try again. This one was smaller and less overwhelming. I began work on it but became frustrated very easily. I didn't want to admit it at the time, but my eyes had aged and the tininess of the materials made it very difficult. The markings for some of the stitches were so small that I could not see them even with a magnifying glass. I bought a light, thinking better lighting would help, but it just didn't help. I gave up, but I didn't get rid of it.

Now that I have glasses and can see, I decided to try to work that project. The difference is amazing. I still use the magnifying glass to read the markings for the partial stitches, but I can do cross stitch again.

I've had to overcome something much different now, though. I have not done this type of work for so long, I had to remember how it should be done. I pulled out the little bit that I did when I first bought the project to start again because it didn't look very good. I started again, but I was still not happy with my work. One of my problems is that I always did it wrong; I always made the cross stitch backward. I followed the directions when I began but it seemed so unnatural and I found myself returning to my old way on the second row. The direction of the cross doesn't really matter as much as consistency. Last night I removed my work again, and tried one more time.

I was ready to give it up but I was so pleased with my work last night that I think I will enjoy it again. It isn't like I have a great deal of time to take on another project, but cross stitch is good to do while watching television and it is easy to carry when I travel. It would have been so easy to give up and get rid of the project, after all, I have plenty to keep me busy already. Why focus so much time on something that I'm not very good at doing? One of the reasons is because I have an idea for a future project and I need to know that I can do cross stitch. I need to practice. I need to become proficient at it so that I can do what I want to do.

We need to work at the things we want to do to become proficient. This includes the things of faith. Believe it or not, you can become better at prayer and Bible study. You become better by doing it on a regular basis. Many people don't like to pray in a group especially when there is someone in the room who does it well. That person didn't always pray so well; they pray well because they didn't let a few rough prayers stop them from trying. The same is true with Bible study. It is easy to give up because something doesn't make sense, but if you keep it up, you will find that as God's Word is written on your heart, the confusing things become clearer because you see it through the lens of the rest of scripture.

The problem is that we tend to give up. We let others pray because they are better and we listen to what others say because they can put the words together in a way that is easier for us to understand. In the end we get so out of practice that we don't even try.

Now, God does give specific people the gifts necessary for prayer and teaching for the sake of the body of Christ. We need them and we need to lift them up in their gifts so they can do what they are called to do. However, we are all gifted with the faith and the Holy Spirit to do these things in our own way for the sake of others. We are greatly blessed by those who cry out to God in a way that encourages us to trust in Him. We are blessed by those who teach us about the Bible because through their teaching we learn and grow in trust and faith. However, John warns us that we must trust that God has given us these gifts, too, so that we can know that the people we hear are truly filled with and guided by God's Holy Spirit. Too many people have been led astray because they are not proficient in the actions of faith, relying on others without the foundation of knowing whether they are trustworthy and faithful.

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January 27, 2016

Scriptures for Sunday, January 31, 2016, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: Jeremiah 1:4-10 (17-19); Psalm 71:1-6 (7-11); 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13; Luke 4:31-44

"Bow down thine ear unto me, and save me." Psalm 71:2b, ASV

It is a wonderful experience. You feel a tug at your pants or skirt and look down to see a small child with a face full of expectation. You acknowledge them, and they tug a little more to get you to come down to their level. They want to tell you something, so you do. You bend over or kneel so that you can look them in the eye and they say something delightful like "I love you." It might be hard. It might hurt the back or the knees, but it is worth every ache and pain to hear those words. You wrap your arms around that child and say "I love you, too," because it is impossible not to respond to that overflowing heart with an overflowing heart.

Oh, I'm sure I've missed a few of those moments, especially with my own children, because I didn't take the time to listen. I was too busy to bend over and listen. It was an inconvenient moment, in too much of a rush to take the time. My knees or back were aching from hard work. I regret missing those moments not only because of what they would have meant to me, but because I know ignoring that child at that moment hurt them. Thank goodness children are so able to forgive and forget and they give us second chances.

The psalmist says, "Bow down thine ear unto me, and save me." I like the way the American Standard Version has translated this verse. NIV says, "Turn your ear to me." I suppose in some ways this idea of bowing down might seem degrading, especially when we think of protocols that require subjects to bow down to royalty. But as I read it today, I heard it more as the voice of a child seeking a father's attention. Aren't there times that we do this with our God? We don't want to yell so that He'll hear us in heaven, so we pull on His robe and ask Him to bend over to hear us. "I love you" means "I trust that you will take care of me." This means that the Father will provide everything we need, including His overflowing heart.

The Old Testament lesson is about Jeremiah's call from God to be a prophet. Jeremiah trusted God enough to argue with Him. "I can't do this," he said. He, like Moses, did not feel he was eloquent in speech and therefore was unqualified for the task. "I am too young." We don't know how hold Jeremiah was at this time; most of the commentaries give the possibility that he may have been just in his teens, but all suggest that "young" in this case may simply mean that he was not old enough to take on such an important role in God's kingdom. Priests became priests at about thirty years of age, although they may have been working in the Temple as apprentices for many years. How could a teenager, or even a young adult ever hope to be heard by his elders?

God answered. He "bowed down" to listen to Jeremiah, heard his complaint and answered him. "Youth and inexperience do not disqualify you for the job to which I have called you. Do not be afraid, I am with you." See, God does not call us to do something for which He has not prepared to provide. God's prophets do not speak from age or experience, but from the heart and will of God. God then touched Jeremiah's mouth and said, " Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth: see, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

If you've ever read the book of Jeremiah all the way through (it is hard), you'll know that he was a prophet of doom (that's why it is hard.) His words were not well received. He had few friends. It isn't a life anyone would choose, made even worse by the lack of authority by human standards. Who is Jeremiah to speak these words? The false prophets gave a much better sounding message. We would all rather hear about peace than destruction. We would rather go about the status quo than hear the need for repentance. His warnings about the wrath of God were so uncomfortable that they did not hear that grace and mercy could be found in humble submission to God. Even though Jeremiah warned that they would face God's judgment, he also promised that there was hope. Forgiveness and cleansing would come, a new day would dawn, and God would restore His people.

We might be tempted to ignore those children when they tug on our pants or skirt because they are just children. What could they possibly say? But then we think about the times, those moments, when they said the most important thing and realize how prophetic their words can be. Jeremiah loved God and he loved His people. He warned them because he wanted them to live the blessed life that God chose them to live. They were God's people, how could they not respond? How could they not "bow down" and hear that the words he spoke were the most important words they could hear?

God knew it wouldn't be easy. "Gird up your loins!" He said. What does that even mean? We understand that it means to prepare for what is to come, but it is a phrase that is a little lost to us. There are pictures available that show how to gird one's loins, but I'll try to describe it in words so that you'll understand. See, in those days they wore tunics, not pants. They were often long, almost to the ground, making it difficult to do battle or hard work. To gird the loins, one lifted the fabric of the tunic above the knees and gathered the fabric toward the front so that the back us snug against the buttocks. You then pull the excess fabric underneath and between the legs to the rear. It feels much like a diaper. Then divide the fabric, half in each hand and bring to the front, tying the two halves together in the middle. This not only gives one freedom of movement, but it gives a little extra protection to the loins, the vulnerable mid-section of the body.

So, to gird one's loins is not just about being prepared, it is about trusting that God will provide you with everything you need to accomplish His work.

Jesus was a grown man by the time He entered the synagogue in His hometown, but He was still a son of the community. Of all the people in the world, it seems like His family and friends should believe Him the most, but as He said, a prophet is not accepted in his hometown. They didn't have faith because it was all too impossible to believe. How could this boy be the One? Jesus escaped and went to teach another congregation in the synagogue at Capernaum. They, too, were astonished by His lesson; they heard the authority in His voice and in His word.

In the congregation was a man who had a demon. The demon spoke out against Jesus. The demon identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. Isn't it interesting that in the previous passage, Jesus identified Himself as the Messiah but He knew that they wouldn't believe, and then in Capernaum He rebuked the demon for saying the same thing in a place where people might believe?

The demon left the man at the word of Jesus, and the people were amazed. "Who is this and what is this word that he speaks? He has power and authority even over the demons." The word got out into the region about the things Jesus could do, and the people came to Jesus for more. The demons kept crying out "You are the Son of God," but Jesus did not allow them to tell the people that He was the Christ. Jesus was not yet ready to be identified as the Messiah. He had too much work to do.

After Jesus left the synagogue where He cast out the demon from the man, He visited the home of Peter. Simon Peter's wife's mother was ill with a fever. She was sick in bed, separated from her family and her work by her illness.

Jesus went to her. I can almost imagine this scene as Jesus bows over the sick bed of this woman; perhaps He even knelt on the ground beside her bed so that He would be close to her. He rebuked the fever and she was made well. Jesus felt the tug and responded to the faith of those who prayed for her with and overflowing heart. This story is almost a side note in today's text, two verses about someone so important to Peter, bookended by the casting out of a demon and the healing of so many.

Luke tells us that she "immediately rose up and ministered unto them." Most of us look at that and think, "The woman has been sick, can't they give her some time to recuperate now that the fever is gone?" But I like the use of the word "minister" in the American Standard Version translation. Jesus restored her health, but He also restored her to her place in the Kingdom. Jesus didn't come to make the world as we want it to be, He came to make things right. He made Simon's mother-in-law well so she could minister as God had called her to do.

By that evening, word of Jesus' exorcism had reached the surrounding area and many people came to be healed. It must have been overwhelming for Jesus to have so many people seeking His healing touch. I think about the scene from "Jesus Christ Superstar," when Jesus is confronted by lepers, cripples and beggars, all wanting to be healed. He is crushed by their need, and He angrily tells the crowd to heal themselves. I do not know whether Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber were interpreting these passages in that moment, but it seems like they might have been. Was Jesus overwhelmed by so many demands in Capernaum? Perhaps. But there's something more for us to see in these stories.

Jesus went out to pray early in the morning, but the people would not leave Him alone. They wanted Him to stay. They wanted to keep His gifts all to themselves. They wanted to ensure that everyone they loved was made well. They believed in the healing power of Jesus, but they still did not understand why He came. They were looking for the wrong kind of Messiah.

In Luke 4:43, Jesus says, "I must preach the good tidings of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for therefore was I sent." The people of Capernaum did not want Jesus to leave because He was making a real difference in their lives. He was healing their sick and He was casting out the demons. I wouldn't want Him to go, either. However, Jesus knew that His work was more than healing. He came to preach the Kingdom of God. The good news is more than what God can do for us today, in this world. It is more than what God can give to us. It is more than how God can protect us.

The reason why Jesus did not want the demons telling the world that He was the Messiah is because they were expecting a different kind of king. They wanted someone who would fill their bellies and defeat their oppressors. They wanted a king to sit on the throne of Israel, to give them a new Golden Age as they had under David and Solomon. The message Jesus came to deliver was eternal. He came to restore God's people to their Father, not return the nation to its glory.

I think sometimes we'd just as well prefer to offer excuses so we don't have to respond to God's call because God seems to call us to work that doesn't fit our expectations. We don't think we are old enough or eloquent enough. We don't think anyone will see us as credible or having any authority. We make excuses: "But God, who am I to do that? Who will listen to me? How can I saw what you want me to say? How can I make a difference? Can't I have just a little while to heal completely? Can't I have just a little more time?" The real reason we reject the call is because we are afraid, but in doing so we reject God and show that we do not trust that He will provide everything we need.

We are so much like Jeremiah. Though we may not be young, we have our own excuses for arguing with God about the work He is calling us to do. Abraham and Sarah thought they were too old. Moses didnít think he was eloquent enough. Jonah was angry and didnít want to share Godís grace with his enemy. We argue, too. Are we too busy? Too sick? Too tired? Are we too young or old? Are we the wrong gender? Are we in the wrong place? Is this the wrong time? We think we know better than God, and so we offer Him our reasons why His plan just wonít work.

Perhaps we reject His call because we are not enough like Jesus. See, Jesus willingly spoke the words that needed to be said, both to the people in His hometown last week and to the people in Capernaum this week. They needed to know that they had mistaken expectations, that they were seeking the wrong kind of Messiah. They needed to know that God would not prove Himself and that God had more to do than meet their physical needs. There were those in the world who needed to hear the call to repentance, the invitation to confession, the promise of forgiveness.

God has called us to be like Jesus, to share the Gospel with the world. He has called us to heal and restore, to warn people to repent, to invite them to confess and to offer them the promise of God's forgiveness. He doesnít choose us because we are perfect for the job. He doesnít call us because it fits into our schedule or because He thinks we are strong enough. He chooses us and gives us everything we need to make His work happen. Even when we complain, however, He bows down to hear us and He responds with an overflowing heart. "Do not be afraid, I am with you." God chooses us and makes us apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles or healings, helpers, leaders, or speakers of divers kinds of tongues, as we heard in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians last week.

But Paul adds a word of caution. God gives us His gifts for His purpose, not our own. And God's purpose is wrapped in love. Sadly, at least a few of those missed moments with children were moments when I was busy doing the work I thought I was called to do. I was working a project for church or volunteering for my children's class. I was typing a devotional at the computer. Sometimes I was busy with the everyday tasks that were part of my vocation as wife and mother: cooking food, folding laundry, vacuuming the floor. My kids are long grown, but I can almost still see their looks of disappointment when I shooed the away when all they wanted was to give me a hug.

Paul says that prophetic voice is nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal if it does not have love. This passage, often used in the marriage ceremony has a much deeper purpose. It is not just about the romantic love between a man and a woman, but is about the love of God that is manifest through the Church which He created. The words of this 'love chapter' that are used so often at weddings may mean something very special on that day, but what marriage is perfect. Are we really able to avoid breaking some of the exhortations? Are we always patient with our spouse? Are we always kind? Do we really manage to live together without envy, boasting, arrogance or rudeness? Unfortunately, we all have moments when we demand our own way, when we are irritable and resentful. We can probably all think of a time when we have even rejoiced in wrongdoing. We can remember a moment when we refused to bow down and respond to an overflowing heart.

But love--the love of God--bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love--the love of God--never ends. So, we are reminded by this passage that though we have amazing and powerful gifts from God, everything of God is to be built on His love. The gifts are given to be a blessing to the Church and to the world, but they are nothing without love. Paul told the Corinthians that they were missing the most important gift of all: love. Everything else was meaningless if they did not lay it on the foundation of love.

Love is patient. The American Standard Version translates this: "Love sufferth long." It endures hardship for the sake of another. It bows down to hear the words of a child filled with hopeful expectation. The perfect example of this is God. Love bows over the bed of a sick woman and restores her to her place in the Kingdom. Love kneels on the floor even when the back and knees hurt so much and getting up will be difficult.

Imagine if God were as 'patient' with our faults as we are with the faults of others? We would not have the story of Jesus. God would have lost patience with us long before He was able to complete His plan. He would never have given that promise of restoration to the His people through the prophet Jeremiah. He would have left them exiled forever. He would have never sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die for our sake. We would not know the forgiveness that we receive by His grace.

It is harder for us, unless we approach all things with love. This does not mean that we sit back and allow the world to step on us, but it does mean that we deal with them as God deals with us: with love. We give kindness where it is undeserved. We do not covet that which belongs to another. We do not respond with rudeness.

God starts with love. He loves us. He calls us. He gifts us with everything we need. God knows us better than we know ourselves, because He has known us even before He formed us in our mothers' womb. And we go forth in faith, obediently fulfilling our calling in the world, trusting that God will provide even if it seems to be a ridiculous task. God knows our failing. He knows exactly when we should not be the one He is asking to do that work. But He also knows how to use our imperfections to His glory. We don't know what to say, but He touches our lips and fills our mouths with His words. Remember, it is God's words we speak. And because we speak God's words, they are filled with power and authority. Most of all, they are filled with love, calling people to a new life: to healing, forgiveness and the overflowing heart of God that fills us with peace. So, let's gird our loins, for God has told us not to be afraid and that He is with us. We can go out into the world with trust and faith, doing whatever it is He has called us to do.

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January 28, 2016

"And let our people also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful." Titus 3:14, ASV

A mother took her child who was born with Down syndrome and later diagnosed with autism to the store to buy a new Ipad. See, they discovered early in his development that the Ipad was not only a device that held his attention with entertainment; they used it as a form of communication. After seven years and a number of fixes, his Ipad finally died and needed to be replaced. The mother was desperate because it broke just days before an expected snowstorm and she knew it would be frustrating for them all if they were stuck in the house without this vital tool.

The child was doing well until something in the mall caught his eye. He ran toward it, not realizing that there was a clear glass wall in his way. He smashed into the wall and fell on the floor bruised and in pain. The mother ran to her son and comforted him; his tears stopped quickly, but the event was likely to make the boy less able to cope with the time necessary to make the purchase.

A young man, an employee of the store came over to the mother and child, sat on the floor with him and quickly understood the situation. The mother, desperate to both meet the child's immediate needs and the need for a new Ipad asked the young man if he could help. He took care of them right there on the floor of the store. He got the new Ipad and set it up with the boy's help. Together they overcame the situation. The mother wrote to the company with a word of thanks to the store employee. "There are no words to accurately describe how grateful I am that he took the time to 'meet us right where we were.'"

I don't know if the young man was a Christian, but isn't that what we are supposed to do? Aren't we called to meet people exactly where they are? Jesus never told His disciples that they had to create great programs or serve millions; He sent them out into the world to take His Word and share His love with those who cross their paths. Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply get on the floor and be with someone. That's what God does for us, isn't it?

I have a book by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde called "Where God Meets Man." It is about Luther's simple, down to earth theology. Luther understood that the God-man relationship is completely bound up in the things of this world -- the cross, the sacraments, love for one another, the church. Jesus Christ gave up the glory of heaven to come to us, to dwell as a human being, to die on a cross. He touched people who were untouchable and fed people who were hungry. He spoke to people in words they needed to hear, both judgment and forgiveness. He taught people with stories they understood and reminded them of the promises of God. He did this not only for those who were there with Him two thousand years ago, but for us today. God meets us where we are so that we can meet others where they are. It is there that we are most fruitful for the Kingdom of God.

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January 29, 2016

"There are many devices in a man's heart; But the counsel of Jehovah, that shall stand." Proverbs 19:21, ASV

For many people in our town, a trip to the Zoo is incomplete without a ride on the train. It was originally built in 1956 and runs through the neighboring park along the San Antonio River. The original train was 1/5 scale and ran on tracks more than three miles long. The train and tracks have been upgraded over the years with new stops, train stations and even a cafe. One of the stops on today's route is at the Witte Museum, a wonderful collection that is interesting to children of all ages. They've had special exhibitions of dinosaurs and mummies. The museum also has permanent displays of Texas art, local history and a huge play area for the kids.

One of the interesting stories about the Zoo train is from 1970 when two robbers decided it would be a good idea to rob the train. I'm not sure what they expected to gain from it, although I suppose it was filled with tourists who might have had extra cash in their wallets. At first the visitors on the train thought it was part of the show; perhaps that's something they should add to the ride every day!

I can almost imagine the thought process of those train robbers. The train, much smaller than a normal train with open carriages and an engine that was not designed for escape, probably seemed like a very easy target. I don't know if they managed to get anything from the visitors before they were arrested, but I imagine the confusion about whether it was make-believe or real made it even harder for them to accomplish their quest. In the end it was very real; the men were arrested and sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison. This event was the last train robbery in American history.

Some of the funniest stories are those of foolish criminals. It makes us laugh when we hear someone has left their driver's license at the scene of a crime or fell asleep on a chair in a house because they decided to drink the bottle of Scotch before leaving with their loot. We laugh at the pictures of robbers trapped in the ceiling tiles because they fell through as they crawled through the ductwork or got knocked out by the brick they tried to throw through the bulletproof windows. We laugh because we know that their schemes were doomed at the start but think about what was going through their mind: their plan probably seemed very good to them.

We laugh at them, but we all have to admit that we've done something that might make us seem foolish. Most of my foolish plans have to do with my adventures. There was this one time when I thought I would take a different route home from a retreat. I was thinking that it would be fun to stop somewhere along the way, but I wasn't entirely sure how to get there. I thought I was taking a short-cut, but after driving for quite a few miles I realized that I was going in exactly the wrong direction. In the end I drove more than a hundred miles out of my way, I never made it to the place I wanted to stop and I got home very late. As they say, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray." And very often, those plans go astray because they were not very good plans from the beginning.

There is a Yiddish proverb that says, "Man plans, God laughs." The text for today from the book of Proverbs says something similar. We often hear it said that we should follow our heart, but is that really the best path to take? We think that following our hearts will make us happy, but how many times does following our hearts lead us to do something foolish? It is good to know what we want and to find ways to enjoy the life we have been given to live, but let's always remember that God's foolishness is greater than any human wisdom. His plans for our lives will take us down the right road to the place where we'll find joy and peace.

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