Welcome to the January 2017 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, January 2017
“This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their hearts; who having become callous gave themselves up to lust, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you did not learn Christ that way; if indeed you heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus: that you put away, as concerning your former way of life, the old man, that grows corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth.” Ephesians 4:17-24, WEB
Happy New Year. Today is January 2nd and we are at a time of new beginnings. Though it is a holiday for many, we are all getting back into our normal routines and schedules. The roads will be crowded with cars during rush hour again tomorrow morning as students and workers head back after a long holiday. At least a few people will wake up this morning promising to never overindulge as much as they have over the past month (or two.) At the beginning of every year, millions of people set some goals to change the way they are living their lives. They resolve to break year old habits that are destroying their health or their relationships.
Today, many people are making promises for change. In the first days of the New Year it is as common to hear people ask “Are you making any resolutions?” as it is to hear wishes for health and prosperity. Since we are at the beginning of a new year, it seems like a good time to make ourselves new. So, we promise to give up smoking or some other bad habit. We promise to spend more time with our families and friends. We promise to eat better, exercise and begin new intellectual pursuits for our physical and mental well being. I have made the commitment to spend more time in the studio focusing on my art.
Unfortunately, by mid-January, most of those resolutions are broken and long forgotten. Too often, we make rash decisions about change; we think that going cold turkey is the best way to deal with our bad habits. Unfortunately, we usually focus only on the bad habit and we do not seek the reasons why we indulge in those things. When someone decides to quit smoking they don’t try to discover that they smoke because of stress. Diets seek weight loss but ignore that overeating often has to do with fear or loneliness. A new daily routine of exercise will not help if the program doesn’t take into consideration physical limitations. The first moment they feel stress, loneliness or pain they give up the resolution and go back to the old habits. If we find the root of our problems, then we can make a total change. The one who feels stress will give up smoking when facing the source of their stress. A new friend or a change in circumstances might have more impact than a diet. The person who needs to exercise can find a better program by learning the proper exercises for their physical condition.
New Year's resolutions can be good, especially if they truly change our levels of stress and fear or loneliness or if they cause us to look more deeply at our physical and mental problems, but we usually focus those changes on physical or mental conditions. We rarely think about our spiritual life at this time of year. We have just been through Advent and Christmas during which we have focused heavily on Jesus and church; we think that the holidays are over and we can to get back to the real world, to normal life. We are busy packing away the nativities and other Christmas decorations, worrying about the bills that will be coming and thinking about what we can do to make this year better than the last. We usually wait for Lent to make adjustments to our spiritual life; we are religiously burnt out today.
Have you thought about making a resolution to build up your relationship with God? The world around you is making resolutions to quit some bad habit, to diet and to exercise, but have you thought about spending more time in prayer and Bible study? As you consider the possibility of making some change in your life, have you looked beyond the flesh into your spirit? There are very real reasons why we have so many bad habits, and some of those reasons are physical and mental. However, have you considered the fact that most of our bad habits have an even deeper reason? We are so busy following the ways of the world that we ignore the work God wants to do in our lives. God is the One who can and will help us transform, not only in flesh and mind but also in spirit. If you are going to make any resolution, perhaps you should begin with the promise to listen and obey the Lord your God and do according to His will. Jesus came to transform our hearts and our minds, and when we are transformed by His grace we'll find ourselves better able to deal with the other changes we need to accomplish in our lives.
“Pray like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. Let your Kingdom come. Let your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.’” Matthew 6:9-13
One of the greatest difficulties we have with prayer is knowing what to say to God. After all, He’s the Creator of all that is, Covenant-maker, Redeemer of all who are His. He can make the seas roar like thunder and cover the mountains with snow. He brings forth the wildflowers and the winds that scatter the petals. He is harsh and gentle at the same time, bringing justice and mercy, vengeance and lovingkindness in the very same breath. What do you say to the One who is greater than all that exists? What is there to ask from the One who has promised to provide everything they need to those He loves?
It was probably not so easy for the disciples to even talk to Jesus. They loved Him, without a doubt, willingly following Him wherever He went. Yet, it seemed like every time they opened their mouths they said something stupid. They fought over who was the greatest, they argued with Jesus about the way He spoke to the people and what He was saying about the future. They tried to get Him to go places He didn’t want to go and to stay hidden when it was time to step into the limelight. It was difficult to talk to Jesus because they did not always understand what He meant and why He did what He did, even though He was the Lord in flesh and blood. No wonder it is difficult to talk to God whom we cannot see. So, Jesus taught them to pray.
We love Christmas because we love the story of the baby in the manger. We love the angels and the shepherds and the wise men. We love everything that goes with the story of His birth: the celebration, the gift-giving, the joy and peace to all the world. Yet, Jesus was not always so simple and delightful. Jesus’ words and actions were often confusing and frustrating. Why did He do the things He did? What will this accomplish? Yet, in everything Jesus He lived the life He was calling His disciples to live. He believed in the prayer He taught them. He put God first, He was obedient to His will, He sought only what was necessary for that moment, He gave forgiveness and He overcame temptation. He became one of us so that we would find peace in coming to God in prayer because we can know He understands what we are going through. He’s been here. Now we can go to Him as our Father and know that even when we say something stupid, He still loves and listens. And He fulfills all He has promised.
As we begin this new and as we continue into the Church year, we'll see that Jesus that sometimes confuses and frustrates us. We will wonder why He did what He did and what He thought it would accomplish. We'll wonder at every action, especially those that don't seem to fit the character of Jesus that makes us comfortable. We'll even want to return to the manger because the baby is far more managable than the man. Yet, we are reminded that Jesus lived as we are meant to live, in trust and obedience to God. We get there through prayer. And we can begin our prayer life with the words our Lord Jesus taught us. There are plenty of ways to pray, and it is our duty and our right as people of God to approach Him in faith. Let us remember, however, that prayer is about more than seeking something from God. We pray to honor Him, to worship Him, to praise Him, to thank Him and to ask Him. As you begin a new year of new habits, make time for daily prayer and if you don't know where to start, start with the words Jesus gave us.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 8, 2017, Baptism of Our Lord: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 3:13-17
“...and make you a covenant for the people...” Isaiah 42:6d, WEB
God made covenants with His people throughout history. He made a covenant with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses and with David. Those covenants were accompanied by signs, such as the rainbow for Noah and circumcision for Abraham. Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign for all the promises. He is the sign that God will remember His promises, that we are made children of God, that the Law has been fulfilled and that we will have a King forever. He came to fulfill all God’s promises, to be the covenant that will last.
The new covenant was different than the old because, as we heard from Isaiah, it was given for everyone; it was given for the whole world, even those beyond the edge of the world. It was given for unknown people in unknown places, and at unknown times. It is a lasting covenant. He is a lasting covenant, given for us as He was given for them.
It is Jesus who stands between the holiness of God and the godlessness of this world. We are not worthy of God’s grace, but Jesus is the sign that God will favor us with mercy and forgiveness. He makes us righteous. He gives us life. We are His and as His, we are also children of God.
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to be born. He had to complete the work that God sent Him to earth to do. That included opening the eyes of the blind, making the lame walk and the deaf to hear. He was sent to minister to the crowds and tell them the Good News. He was sent to teach and heal and forgive. He was sent to die. But before He could do all these things, He had to identify with the people He came to save.
At His baptism, Jesus Christ - the Word made flesh - identified completely with you and me, taking upon himself the very nature of mankind and all that goes with it while still remaining without sin. The purpose of His life was to take on the sin that was brought into the world in the Garden by Adam and Eve and destroy it forever, making it possible for us to once again live in harmony with God and one another. At His baptism, the Spirit of God hovered over the formless and empty earth as in the beginning, God spoke and there was Light. At that moment, Jesus Christ was anointed with the power to truly change the world, to restore our relationship with our Father.
The water poured over Jesus as He was baptized and when He rose out of the Jordan the Holy Spirit poured over Him. From that moment, Jesus started a journey during which the Spirit and the Word flowed to those with whom He came in contact. He poured out God’s grace to the world and through Jesus God’s voice continued to speak.
God has a voice. John writes in his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) As we look back at the beginning, we see the Spirit hovering over the formless and empty earth. The first manifestation of God’s presence was His voice. “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” (Genesis 1:3) God spoke and there was light. God spoke again and created the heavens and earth. He spoke and there was life. Then, He spoke to men, first to Adam and Eve, then to the patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets. And He spoke through men, putting His voice in their mouths.
God is far more than we can even imagine. By His Word, the world exists. By His Word, we have life. His Word gives us all we need to live and serve Him in this world to His glory. Yet, with our words we still try to make God fit into a box that suits our needs and desires. The Psalmist knew that God is bigger than human reason and understanding; the psalm praises God by singing of the awesome power of His Word. We should do the same, using God’s Word to lift them out of their tiny box into a greater understanding of His Love.
In the Psalm David writes, “And in his temple everything saith, Glory.” In the sanctuary of God’s presence, the people need not tremble with fear despite the apparent turmoil on earth. Jesus, the living and breathing temple in which the fullness of God dwelt on earth, is the sanctuary in which we can take refuge. This is the kind of life Jesus lived, the life we see modeled in the scriptures.
Jesus was who He was. He was the incarnation of the living God: Christ, Messiah, Son, Emmanuel. He did not need a baptism of any sort, yet He went to John to be baptized, a baptism for repentance. He had no sin to be forgiven or separation from the Creator which needed reconciliation. He was the living Word of God in flesh. Yet, Jesus was also man. His baptism was far more than just an act of example for the rest of us. His baptism defined His identity, as God reached out of the heavens to claim Jesus as His own Son. By going to John, Jesus demonstrated His humble obedience to the will and purpose of God. It was right for Jesus to be baptized, even if John thought it was wrong.
John was not willing to do as Jesus asked. “But John would have hindered him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’” We don’t see the nuances of this conversation in the English: John did not just say “No,” he argued with Jesus. Finally Jesus answered, “Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is how God willed it to be, so John gave in to Jesus’ request.
John, who recognized that Jesus was the Christ, the Savior of the world, knew he was not worthy even to touch Jesus’ sandals. How could he possibly baptize the One whom he knows has no need of baptism? Jesus had no need for repentance, what purpose did it hold for Jesus to be buried in the Jordan? John had to submit to God’s will and accept that God sometimes calls us to do things we do not want to do and that we do not think we are worthy of doing. It is through weak, broken vessels that God fulfills all righteousness.
“Behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” After Jesus was baptized, a voice called from heaven claiming Jesus as His own Son. What did this sound like to the crowds? What kind of voice they heard coming from the heavens. It was an audible voice because God’s words address the people. He announced and identified the man Jesus as His beloved, His chosen One. Yet, as we look at the description of the voice of God in the Psalm for today, I can’t help but wonder how it sounded to those listening. David writes that the voice of God is like thunder. It breaks the mighty cedars, brings forth fire and shakes the wilderness. The voice of the LORD is like a tornado, tearing apart the forests. How could the people who were there that day listen without falling down in fear? Such a voice would make me tremble. What must it been like to be at the Jordan when Jesus was baptized? The heavens opened up and they heard a voice from heaven. Did it bring the people to their knees in fear and awe?
Perhaps the voice of God that day was like thunder, but Jesus was there to bring peace and joy to the world.
His voice may make us tremble, but His love calls us to sing His praise. Through faith in Christ we enter into the Temple of God and join with the heavenly beings singing “GLORY!” The Almighty God has done everything necessary to reconcile Himself to His people. He sent Jesus to finish the work of salvation that was begun even at the first sound of His voice. He sent Jesus to be the fulfillment to every promise. Through Jesus, He claims us as children, anoints us with the Holy Spirit and then sends us into the world to share His grace with those who do not yet know Him.
It seems to us that we are not worthy of such a calling. We are tempted by so many things, and it can be very difficult to overcome when we constantly face that temptation. Our Father knows how difficult it is for us to walk away from those things that are harmful to our spiritual life. Jesus Christ came in flesh and was tempted so that He could truly identify with the failures of our flesh. However, Jesus did not fall into the temptation; He remained perfect and true to the Word of God no matter what Satan offered Him. His understanding of the grace and mercy of God was so perfect, that He was able to keep from sin. By His death and resurrection, we are forgiven our failures and given the freedom to live in His grace and mercy.
Paul asks in his letter to the Romans, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”
We can go out and overindulge in the temptations of this world, knowing that the blood of Jesus Christ forgives us. Yet, Paul answers, “May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?” By our baptism we are dead to sin, no longer bound to death and the grave. We have been given the greatest gift: through Jesus Christ every promise of God has been fulfilled. How can we continue to live according to the world when we have been adopted into the Kingdom of Heaven? Will you take advantage of the opportunity to overindulge? Or will you be trustworthy and walk in the light and life of God, glorifying Him every step?
The baptism of John was one of repentance, but Jesus made it something new. Today all those who come to the font of baptism in a Christian church are cleansed and forgiven, but we also experience baptism like Jesus. We are claimed as children of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit and then sent into the world to share the grace of God with those who do not yet know Him. At the Jordan Jesus did not need to be forgiven, He was sinless. He did not need to be claimed, He was the Son of God. He did not need to be anointed; He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. He did not need to be sent, for His purpose was always to do the will of God.
We also do not need baptism for these things to happen. God forgives without water. God claims without witnesses. God anoints in His time and His way. God sends us into the world often without our knowing. Have you ever had something happen and not until after it was over realize that it was an act of God? Have you ever made a phone call or turn a corner you find there is someone at the other end who needs God’s grace? You were there because God sent you even though you did not know it at the time. So, why do we bother to be baptized?
Humans are physical beings dependent on our sensory experiences. When we are children we know love by the touches and kisses of our mothers. When we are children, we learn about the world through our eyes, ears and mouths. Even as adults, we experience God and His creation with our senses. We see a sunset and we praise God for making such a beautiful world. We smell a roasting turkey and we thank God for giving us a home, food and a family. We touch one another and know that it is only by the grace of God that we would be so blessed. Even in our church services, we experience God through our senses. We hear the music and the Word. We see and touch God in the faces and the hugs of our fellow Christians. We smell and taste God’s grace in the Eucharist.
God knows that we need tangible things on which to grasp so that we can see and know the intangible, this is why the sacraments include physical elements. God is Spirit and we can know Him through spirit but such a knowledge leaves room for doubt. God’s promises in the Old Testament were accompanied by physical signs, like the rainbow and circumcision. These were signs to the people so that they would remember what God has done and will do for them. So, too are the gifts of the sacraments. Jesus is God’s New covenant with His people and in baptism we experience the promise of God with our whole beings.
Though Jesus was God’s Son, the living Word in flesh, I imagine He too needed some assurance of His identity. That day at the Jordan, when Jesus went forth in faith to begin His ministry in the world, Jesus received what He needed. He was given a word from God: “You are my beloved.” He was washed with the waters of change and anointed by the Spirit. He then went forth to do everything that God promised that He would do. If He ever had a moment of doubt He could remember His baptism and the promise that came when the heavens opened and God claimed, anointed and sent His Son into the world.
We have the same assurance. As we read through the scriptures, we see the story of a man who was living in His baptism. Jesus woke and slept in the promise of God and lived every moment in between doing what God was calling Him to do. We can live as Christ lived even when we think we are unworthy or unable. When we are tempted or feel unworthy, we need only say “I am baptized” and we’ll know that God is with us, helping us to do His work in this world. This is living in our baptism, dwelling in the covenant that is our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we will truly find peace and joy.
“Such were some of you, but you were washed. But you were sanctified. But you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:11, WEB
I have been putting away the Christmas decorations a little at a time this week. We usually try to wait for Epiphany to take down the tree, but it is has been up for thirty-three days and is wilted. It is dry and the needles are beginning to drop, but it has held amazingly well. I’m not looking forward to the mess that will cover my floor when we drag it out of the house, but it has been worth the trouble. The house was festive and beautiful all season. It is a little depressing to see it all get put away again.
We worked on taking the ornaments off the tree this morning and I think we did a good job. It went quickly, but then it is always easier to take them off than to put them on. I think we did a good job finding all the ornaments, but it was like a scavenger hunt. It was amazing how many small ornaments I still had hanging when I thought I was finished. All it took was a new perspective and I would see the shine. One, once I saw it, was obvious but two of us passed over it several times before it was found. We are waiting to take the lights off until we get it out of the house to save some needle clean-up and I hope that if we missed any that we’ll find them then.
We are all thinking about the new year and new beginnings. What ways are you trying to make your life better? What habits do you want to stop? Searching for the things we want to change is much like stripping the Christmas tree of its decorations. There is always something that is buried and hidden that we forget to remove. We don’t want to forget on the ornaments, but we are not quite so anxious to discover our failings. There are some things about our lives we need to fix but we don’t want to let go.
There are some things that are easy to see, and are obviously need to be changed. We usually begin with our body image, but other resolutions include changing the way we eat and cutting back on things we know that are not good for us. At least a few of us have committed to getting more exercise. Have you ever thought about the changing the way you react to world around us? Have you thought about giving up using certain words or facial expressions? Have you thought about stopping before posting a response on a Facebook post?
We don’t realize how much words and actions can impact those around us. We don’t realize how our harsh words will be taken by those who hear even if they aren’t meant for them. We don’t know how our tone of voice can impact those to whom we are speaking; even if we don’t mean to sound angry, or testy, or frustrated, it falls differently on their ears. What about the ways we deal with people in public spaces? Do you know how much impact you could have if you paid more attention to the other people in the aisle at the grocery store? If you took your face out of your phone as you are walking down the street? How much smoother traffic would be if you let that car merge into your lane?
As I have had to look through the tree from many different perspectives (a pursuit that found a number of ornaments) we should look at our lives from different points of view. How does our neighbor perceive our responses? Did my words impact our loved one in a way we did not intend? Is the world any better because I am one car length closer to the red light? It is amazing how a smile at a stranger can ease the tension of a crowded grocery store aisle and it takes so little for us to give up our grumbling attitude. But we have to be willing to see how those not quite so obvious failings can actually have a deep and lasting impact on the world in which we live. Only then will we allow God to help us make the changes in our hearts and attitudes that will transform us into the people God has created and redeemed us to be.
Today’s text is pulled out of a lengthy passage in which Paul is teaching the Corinthians about their own faults. He is giving them a new perspective. The sins he describes are pretty obvious, and yet are they? Do we always see when we are being idolaters or covetous? Do we always realize our own slander against our neighbor or stealing from them? Do we really know how we extort attitudes from those we love by the way we speak to them or look at them? We are made new in Jesus Christ, and we have the opportunity during this time of new beginnings to be transformed ever more like Him. Look more closely, you might discover there is more in you to change than the amount of cake you eat and the time you waste on the couch watching television. You might just make a much greater impact on the world by remembering that you belong to Christ and that He is calling you to be like Him.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and Yahweh’s glory has risen on you. For, behold, darkness will cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but Yahweh will arise on you, and his glory shall be seen on you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. “Lift up your eyes all around, and see: they all gather themselves together. They come to you. Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters will be carried in arms. Then you shall see and be radiant, and your heart will thrill and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you. The wealth of the nations will come to you. A multitude of camels will cover you, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah. All from Sheba will come. They will bring gold and frankincense, and will proclaim the praises of Yahweh.” Isaiah 6:1-6, WEB
The Old Testament scriptures show us God's promise for a Messiah, which is why it is important for us to study the Old as much as the New Testament. Through the history of God's people and through the words of the prophets we know that the Messiah would be a king that would deliver God's people from their bondage. It is important that we read the words from the prophets and kings that speak of that promise and God’s faithfulness. The Jews longed for the day when that promise would be fulfilled. This was especially true at the time of Herod the Great’s reign. The people wanted to be a free nation with a proper king, a king from the House of David. They took the promise literally; they looked forward to the day when God would restore the nation as it had been in David's day, but the Glory of Zion would not be found in prosperity, wealth, fame and honor. The Glory of God would be found in a baby born in humble circumstances.
God knew from the beginning of time that humankind would fail, planning for our salvation even before we were born. When the time was right, Christ broke through into this world to reveal something new. God reached out beyond His chosen people and revealed the promise to all people. Israel will always have a special place in His heart, but they were blessed to be a blessing to the rest of the world. They were blessed to reveal God’s salvation to all. The Savior of the world was to come through Israel and the world would see the greatness of God through them. Isaiah writes, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
It is no surprise that God would send a star to announce the birth of His Son. God is intimately involved in every aspect of His creation, and He uses everything to manifest His promises before the whole world. The word Epiphany means, “A revelatory manifestation of a divine being.” On this day the Church recognizes that through the magi God revealed the divine nature of Christ to the world. The promise of a King was not just for the Jews or for this life. Jesus was the fulfillment of everything promised in the Old Testament.
Jesus Christ was the morning star; His birth was the dawn of a new age and revealing of God’s light and glory in this dark world. Far away magi who were studying the skies looking for signs saw a new star appear. They knew the prophecies of the Jews and that the star was a sign of the birth of a king. The left their homes and traveled a dangerous and difficult journey to Jerusalem to Herod’s house expecting that the new king would be born in the royal household. But there was no child there. Herod called to the priests and asked of the prophecies found in the scriptures. They told him about the words of Micah that foretold of a king to be born in Bethlehem, a shepherd from the House of David. Herod told the magi they would find the king there.
Isn’t it amazing that the people to whom God made His promises did not see the signs of the coming fulfillment? When the magi informed all of Jerusalem of their quest, no one followed. Not one person went with them to find the newborn king. Herod told them to come back to report, but he didn’t bother to go with them. God’s people were not filled with awe and joy but rather fear. They saw Him as an obstacle, a threat, to their way of life. They did not recognize Him, they did not see Him as He truly is, the Lord incarnate sent to save them from death and the grave. They continued to miss Him as He did God’s work in the world, though by His actions He showed Himself to be the fulfillment of the promises. They did not see the Light appear; yet foreigners knew something incredible was happening and traveled far to be a part of it. After leaving Herod, the wise men continued to follow the star that seemed to move as they moved; the light guided them to the place where the child lay. The worshipped Him and presented Him with great gifts.
We see the full revelation of Christ to the world in the Epiphany story. The gifts of the magi are signs of His purpose. The gold was practical; it would be used to care for Jesus in the world, especially during the escape to Egypt. The gold also represented Jesus’ rule and authority as King over all God’s creation. The frankincense was a sign of Jesus’ ministry, a foreshadowing of his role as High Priest when He would present Himself as the perfect lamb to atone for the sins of the world. Myrrh was an expensive ointment that was used only for the anointing of the dead. He came to be priest to all, to die for all and to rule eternally as King over all. The magi studied the prophecies, but it wasn’t until they were called by the light of the star that they could follow in faith to offer their gifts. The promises and prophecies of God’s Messiah were fulfilled in the life of the baby Jesus and revealed to the world. He is the Light that shined to those who see with the eyes of faith.
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God; and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if indeed we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us. For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees? But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered. He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Whom he predestined, those he also called. Whom he called, those he also justified. Whom he justified, those he also glorified.” Romans 8:16-30, WEB
2016 was a rough year for many. I know more than a few people who were ready for the year to end and hopeful that 2017 will be much better. They faced difficulties in health, relationships and their jobs. I have to admit that there were a few things that I could have lived without. The spring storm that caused so much damage in my city also caused me a great deal of stress. The company I chose to do the work was irresponsible and did a terrible job. The job turned out worse than at first expected and cost me thousands of dollars. I complained and I got angry. That same storm system caused an accident that totaled my car. It wasn’t a pleasant spring.
I struggled with many of things everyone else found difficult. I did not enjoy the election process. I worried about the health of people I love. I served on the jury of a very hard case in which we had to decide against our gut reaction. We set a man free that we all believed was guilty but was not proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. I have been lonely. I have been afraid. I have been angry. I have cried out for Jesus to come because I’m tired of living in a world that is so out of control. I, for one, didn’t blame the year on the loss of so many celebrities. I didn’t really think that 2016 was to blame for all my troubles. I am happy to see time move forward because it gets us closer to the day when Jesus will come again, but I can also see all the good that happened in the past year. My daughter got a wonderful new job and though she isn’t close to home, she’s closer to home. I had the opportunity to visit a beloved aunt. I boldly tried new things in my studio and discovered that I can do some things I didn’t expect to be able to do. I’ve gained new friends and found new ways to share my life with others. I’ve struggled, sure, as do we all, but I’ve also found a great deal of joy in my life.
So, I understand how those friends felt when they wanted 2016 to end, but I wonder sometimes if it isn’t just about attitude. We are barely past the first week of 2017 and I have already seen some of those same friends complain that this year isn’t any better. We can’t judge another’s struggles because we are blessed with different thresholds, yet many of the complaints seem petty and the responses extreme. The difference between people is the way they face the troubles of the world around them.
On the one hand, today’s scripture has been misused to convince people that God sends us troubles to make us stronger or to prepare us for something we’ll have to face in the future. God does not make life more difficult for us. We should never have the attitude of “woe is me” assuming that God is either punishing us or is unfair. Paul was encouraging the Romans to remember in the midst of their troubles that God is with them and that He will help them through. Those who got through 2016 with hope and peace did so because they saw the silver linings amidst the storms. I wonder if those who are already complaining would do so if they took the time to count their blessings. Would they think every struggle is the end of the world if they looked beyond the trouble to the hope of what God can accomplish through their lives?
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6, WEB
It is not easy being a mother. After nine months of carrying another being, a woman goes through intense pain so that child will be born into the world. That pain is set aside as a mother takes her child in her arms loving that baby from the very beginning of life, caring for that little human being more than herself. During the early days, the child is completely helpless. Mother must change diapers, carry, feed, bathe and love the child from sun-up to sun-up. The child eventually becomes more independent, but Mother continues to love and worry and care for a lifetime, even after they become adults out in the world.
Mothers do not only provide for the physical needs of a child, but also the intellectual and emotional needs. From the day of birth, a mother speaks to a child, holding him close and whispering love and encouragement through the tears, fears and hurts. Mother sings songs, such as the Alphabet Song, that helps the child in language development. Mother provides opportunities throughout their toddler and school age years for continued learning and growth.
Mothers also provide for the spiritual welfare of their children. As a Christian mother, it has been very important for me to provide my children with Christian worship and fellowship and copies of the Bible so they can read and study it on their own. Mothers take their children to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. We teach our children the Lord’s Prayer and other ways to speak to God. We teach them the ways of living faith, so that they will be obedient to God our Father in Jesus’ name.
Mothers suffer many things. They suffer through the pain of childbirth, the rambunctious toddler years, the preteen years when children begin to grasp their own independence and the teenage years that provide their own difficulties. We do our best to raise our children in the ways of Christ, pray for them and hope that they will continue to walk in those ways. There may be periods of rebellion, even rejection. Every mother has known the heartache of that cry “I hate you.” However, as mothers (and fathers) we plant the seeds of faith in the hearts of the children, we teach them about the grace and mercy of God and give them every opportunity to see His love in our lives. We do this in the hope that they will never wander far from Him.
In the first letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” Paul saw that Timothy’s mother and grandmother took his spiritual welfare to heart, raising him in the faith. It was obvious from the life Timothy was living as a Christian in his world. I have experienced the great joy as a Christian mother to see my children grow in faith and walk the life I had hoped for them. I have heard the words of encouragement from others confirming that my children have not departed from the path and I pray that you will hear the same about yours.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 15, 2017, Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42a
“Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the inside of my mother he has mentioned my name.” Isaiah 49:1b, WEB
Today’s Old Testament lesson is one of four servant songs from Isaiah the prophet. These servant songs describe the Messiah, whom we identify as Jesus Christ our Lord. Today’s song is from the servant’s perspective and in it we see that the servant is not only sent to restore Israel, but to draw the whole world into God’s heart. Everyone is invited to experience God’s salvation. His grace reaches to the very ends of the earth.
This was the plan all along. The servant said, “Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the inside of my mother he has mentioned my name.” We know from the Nativity story that God told Mary and Joseph the name they should give Jesus. A few weeks ago we talked about His name; I wrote, “God is given dozens of names in the scriptures: Creator, Almighty God, Father, the Lord our Righteousness, ‘I AM.’ The Holy Spirit has a special name: the Counselor. Jesus is identified by certain names: the Light of the World, Savior, Redeemer, the Christ, and Son of God. The name Jesus is especially important; it means ‘the Lord saves.’ It is by His name we are saved. Paul writes to the Philippians that the name of Jesus is the name above all other names, that at His name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It is His name we take when we are baptized, we become Christians by faith. His name is written on our hearts and on our heads. In His name we are adopted and made heirs of the Kingdom of God.”
God knew from the beginning that He would send Jesus to save us. The promises begin in Genesis and continue through the books of Moses, the history of Israel and the words of the prophets.
John recognized Him.
John had a pretty good thing going. He was followed by many, sought out by men for baptism and to hear his teaching. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees seemed to be interested in what he had to say. Herod was fascinated by his teaching. He had disciples, men who had committed to his cause, who were with him as he ministered. He could have been a powerful force in and around Jerusalem, perhaps even as a military leader. Certainly there were others who were fighting the Romans, and a powerful leader was what the people sought to save them from Rome.
Did John think twice before pointing out Jesus to his disciples? He must have known he would lose followers. John had to do what God intended. He was not meant to be a powerful leader, but instead was born to point the way to Jesus. He even told his disciples when they argued against Jesus that he must be diminished so Jesus could flourish. (John 3:30)
The Gospel lesson for today shows John pointing to Jesus and declaring that He is the Lamb of God. In the verses preceding our text, John answers the question of the Jewish leaders that he is not the Christ. He admits that he’s really a nobody compared to the One who is to come; he’s just the messenger proclaiming the coming of the One for whom they were waiting. They wondered why he was baptizing if he’s a nobody, but he said, “I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you don’t know. He is the one who comes after me, who is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen.”
Last week we heard about John baptizing Jesus even though he thought himself unworthy to do so. With that act of obedience, Jesus appeared on the scene, and John witnessed the very thing that God told him he would see: the Holy Spirit rested on the One whom He has sent. John saw the fulfillment of the promises; the One whom God planned all along was finally breaking into the world to accomplish His work of salvation. In today’s passage, John pointed to Jesus and told the crowds that Jesus was the One he was talking about. “See, that’s Him.” Two of John’s disciples followed Jesus.
We are still at the beginning of the Epiphany season, the time we talk about the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world. It is a long Epiphany this year, with seven Sundays (there can be as many as eight) so we’ll have plenty of time to get to know Jesus before we begin the penitent period of Lent. In the next few weeks we’ll study the Sermon on the Mount, focusing heavily on Matthew chapter 5, but before we get there we are reminded that Jesus is the fulfillment to God’s promises. He is the One we seek; He is the One God named even before He was born. He is the One who was chosen even before the beginning of time.
He is the One to whom we must listen.
The disciples had an idea of the Messiah they expected when John pointed at Jesus. They heard his words “the Lamb of God,” and understood that the Messiah would be a servant like we see in Isaiah, but were they really expecting that Jesus would face the cross in barely three years’ time? Did you see Him as the Lamb that would be slain or as the one whom kings and princes would worship? The Epiphany story begins with the wise men from the East; did the disciples think the story would end with Jesus on a throne worshipped by the world?
It was probably pretty easy to follow Jesus, knowing that He was the One. Would they have followed Him if they could have seen what would happen in a few years? Would they have believed if they knew He would die? Jesus was the hard path, but did they know that? Or were they taking the easy way out? John was rough and harsh; Jesus was clean and gentle. John preached about repentance and wrath; Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God. Which would have been the harder path to follow?
We know that it didn’t turn out as they expected. As a matter of fact, it ended horribly. Israel never got a new king. They weren’t saved from Rome. Jesus did not fulfill their expectations. Instead, He was slaughtered like a lamb on the altar of sacrifice, just as God intended. See, God was not sending Jesus to save them from earthly troubles, but to save them from sin and death. Jesus was the Lamb who was slain, He was the final sacrifice that made all things right again. Faith in the Lamb brings forgiveness and life.
At that moment, however, the disciples were ready to follow a king. They left John and went to follow Jesus. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asked. They didn’t know how to answer. Have you ever felt that way? Have to ever wondered what you want when you drive to church on a Sunday morning? “What are you looking for?” is a question that is often asked when a church is in a time of transition. We put out surveys; we ask members what they want from a new pastor. Should we build a new education building or a larger sanctuary? Should we put our money into ministry or hire new staff? What are you looking for? I don’t know about you, but I have a tough time answering the questions on those surveys. I don’t always know what I’m looking for.
Perhaps their answer to the question is not unreasonable; after all if they are going to follow Jesus they need to know where to find Him. Yet, Jesus’ question begs a much different answer, particularly in light of the message of John’s Gospel. John writes to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Messiah for whom they were waiting. He writes to prove that even though Jesus did not fit the expectations of the people, He was exactly what God promised.
The question “What are you looking for?” begs us to consider why we are following Jesus. What do we seek when we go to church on a Sunday morning? Are we looking for entertainment? Are we seeking a place where we feel like there is someone who cares? Do we expect that God will hear our prayers and give us what we need to survive another week in the world? What are we looking for when we open our bibles to read at home or study with others? Are we looking for the answers we want or are we open to the answers God has for us? We might just discover that God has something completely different planned than what we expect. Jesus was never meant to be an earthly king; will God nail our expectations to the cross, too, and give us the Savior we really need?
John’s law focused ministry might seem tough; who wants to be told they are doing everything wrong? His harsh ways, his strange life, his angry words were not pleasant to the ear. Jesus was soft-spoken, kind and loving. He talked of God’s kingdom and about loving our neighbors. He was humble and He had a charisma that drew people to Himself. The text for today is early in His ministry, but He was a man that would heal the sick, raise the dead and offer forgiveness to those who were outcast. The Old Testament prophets promised that the Messiah would set the prisoners free: who wouldn’t want to follow that man?
It would not take very long for the disciples to realize that following Jesus was not going to be the easy path. Jesus drew great crowds, but they disappeared when His words became hard to accept. “We have to eat His flesh and drink His blood? That’s ridiculous.” The words of the Sermon on the Mount are certainly not easy.
I can just imagine Jesus giving Andrew and his companion a sweet smile, knowing that they would be His followers and that they would eventually learn the right questions to ask. The question He asked was, “What are you looking for?” He wanted to know what they thought they might find with Him. Were they looking for the Messiah? Were they looking for the easy path? Were they looking for the latest, greatest prophet in the land? He wanted to know why they would leave John to follow Him. “What are you looking for?” is the same question He asks us.
We might not always like what we find when we follow. We might think that we’ve chosen the better way, whether it is the easier or harder path, but when the circumstances become difficult we begin to question our choice. I wonder how often the disciples thought about returning to their fishing boats or their homes. I wonder if they ever regretted the choice they made to leave John and follow Jesus. I wonder if Jesus ever wished that He could take a different path.
Isaiah writes, “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength in vain for nothing; yet surely the justice due to me is with Yahweh, and my reward with my God.” I get it. I've felt the same way. I often wonder if the work I do has any impact on others. Jesus did not see kings rise up or princes bow down once He began His ministry. He saw the rulers of His world reject Him and deny His words. Yet, He did not concern Himself with those failures; He went forth in faith knowing that He has been anointed to accomplish God’s will in this world. His ministry was never about Himself or His work; His task was to point to the One who sent Him. He was the promised servant through whom God would draw His people, both Jew and Gentile unto Himself.
But the words of Isaiah remind us that when we are disappointed and discouraged, we need only look to the promises and remember that God is with us to help us do everything He has called and gifted us to do. While we do not see evidence of success in our work in this world, we can trust that God is doing something we can’t see and He is faithful.
The work of Jesus was to bring salvation to the world. This is what John spoke about Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. John bore witness to the fact that Jesus was the One promised by the prophets. He pointed toward Jesus who pointed to God. John came to baptize people, to call for repentance and prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. He was not the savior, he did not save anyone. He simply pointed toward the One who was God’s salvation. What are we looking for? Are we looking for salvation, or are we looking for something that satisfies our own expectations.
The church at Corinth had numerous problems, among them immorality and misconceptions about what it meant to be a Christian. The church was divided as the people began following specific ministers rather than worshipping as one body in Christ Jesus. The focus had turned and the people were wandering in whatever direction they wanted to go, believing the doctrine that tickled their ears rather than that which was given by the witnesses like Paul. The people were following their own expectations rather than the Christ who is revealed in Jesus.
All too often, even in today’s world, we put our hope and our faith in the wrong things. We think we are able to bring salvation to people. There are those who count the number of souls they have saved by witnessing. There are pastors who plaster their pictures on billboards to call people into fellowship at his church. There are ministers who spend so much time on agendas and issues that they lose sight of God’s kingdom. We are just as likely to miss the Messiah like those in Jesus’ day when we seek our own expectations rather than see Him as He is revealed. We can’t see the Christ because we are so busy seeking the Jesus we want.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is still relevant to us today, since we are beset by divisions, immorality and the other troubles that early church experienced. Even more so, we need to read the words of Paul’s greeting to that congregation, for it sets our hearts and minds in the right direction. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; that in everything you were enriched in him, in all speech and all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that you come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will also confirm you until the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” Paul had some very real issues to deal with in his letter, but he began by pointing them back to their salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ.
By God’s grace, the Corinthians had a sense of self assurance about their faith, an almost haughty understanding of their spirituality. They were a gifted congregation, both in word and in deed, able to do amazing things in the name and for the sake of the Gospel. Yet, they were also arrogant, thinking that they were more spiritual and gifted than others. They also began to credit their gifts to something they did rather than God had done. Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians to point them back to God, to remind them that He is faithful.
Paul began by pointing them back to their salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ. How easy it would have been for Paul or John the Baptist to take credit for the salvation of millions. Paul’s words have been read for nearly two thousand years and he has been a witness who has pointed a multitude of people to Christ. Yet, when John’s disciples were drawn toward Jesus, he did not try to hold on to them. He told them that Jesus was the anointed one, the chosen Messiah. He pointed out Jesus and sent them on their way. Paul reminded his readers that the grace they knew came from Jesus.
Even though Andrew did not answer Jesus’ question with his expectation of the Messiah, Jesus told him to “Come and see.” Even when we do not know how to answer the question, Jesus still calls us into a relationship with Him so that we will come and see.
Jesus dwelt among the people. He drew them into a relationship. He made them part of His community, and then sent them out to bring in others. Andrew listened to Jesus, and in the hearing knew that he’d found something new and different. He went to his brother Simon (Peter) and said, “We’ve found the Messiah.” Simon Peter became part of that community. Jesus was revealed at His baptism and then John testified about what he saw. Then the people followed Jesus, lived with Him and served with Him. They learned and grew and were transformed by His grace. The baptism may have been a very intimate and person moment in the life of Jesus Christ, but it was just the beginning of a very public and personal relationship between God and His people. It is a relationship that led to salvation, not just from worldly troubles but from the worst enemy: sin and death.
The words of the psalmist are the words of a child of God who has realized his own sinfulness and has cried out for the saving grace of his God. God is the peacemaker who went into the middle of the battle and shed His blood for the sake of others. He is the teacher that tried for many generations to speak the truth into their lives, but they did not hear. They did not see the truth even as the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, stood and spoke in their presence. So, He went to the cross and took the wrath that was released by our self-centered choices.
The servant in Isaiah said, “Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the inside of my mother he has mentioned my name,” and thanks to God’s grace we know that the servant is Jesus Christ. It is as God intended from the very beginning. Jesus was promised throughout the Old Testament and revealed in the New. Peter found Jesus because Andrew pointed to Him. Andrew found Jesus because John pointed to Him. John found Jesus because God pointed to Jesus and revealed Him to be the One for whom they were waiting to save them. “What are you looking for?” The answer to that question is “The Savior.”
We are called to point to Jesus. We are called to be witnesses to what we have seen; pointing to Jesus so that He might draw the people of the world into a life-saving and life-giving relationship with God. It isn’t about us; it never has been. Like John, we are nothing more than voices crying out in the wilderness. We might face difficulties, we might even be persecuted for our faith, but it is never in vain. God is faithful. He planned our salvation from the beginning of time, promised His Messiah through the ages and fulfilled all His promises in Jesus Christ. Let us go through each day, no matter what we face, with a song in our hearts and praise on our lips, pointing the way so that the world might see that which has been revealed in Christ Jesus.
“It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear Yahweh his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them; that his heart not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he not turn aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the middle of Israel.” Deuteronomy 17:19-20, WEB
Today’s passage from Deuteronomy is found in the midst of the instructions to God’s people about how they should live. This particular section gives specific words for Israel’s kings, interesting in that they would not have a king for several centuries. God was meant to always be Israel’s king, but even in the beginning of the formation of His chosen nation, He knew they’d seek the guidance of a human king like all the other nations.
The words in the book of Deuteronomy were sermons and poems by Moses, given to God’s people to remind them of God’s mercy and encouraging them to dwell in God’s promises. The text of these sermons would be kept by the priests, those who would train God’s people to live in fear of the Lord. Moses says that the king should have a copy of this book and to read from it daily so that he will stay constantly connected to the One who is his King and be obedient to His Word.
Sound familiar? We have far more than just the book of Deuteronomy to read and learn about our God. We have more than the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. We have more than the history and prophets, poetry and promises. We have more than the Gospels and letters and apocryphal texts. We have the Word of God set in words on a page that is given to us so that we will know Him and dwell in His mercy daily.
Do you read the bible daily? An American Bible Society survey a few years ago found the following: “More than half of Americans think the Bible has too little influence on a culture they see in moral decline, yet only one in five Americans read the Bible on a regular basis, according to a new survey. The survey showed the Bible is still firmly rooted in American soil: 88 percent of respondents said they own a Bible, 80 percent think the Bible is sacred, 61 percent wish they read the Bible more, and the average household has 4.4 Bibles. If they do read it, the majority (57 percent) only read their Bibles four times a year or less. Only 26 percent of Americans said they read their Bible on a regular basis (four or more times a week).” We want the Bible to influence the world around us, but we aren’t very committed to making the Bible influence our own lives.
While today’s text was given for the kings, it is meant for us, too. We should not just have a copy or more of the Bible in our homes; they should be copies that are opened daily so that we can hear what God has to say to us. We are so blessed by modern technology because we can have bible verses sent to our phones every morning. We have access to hundreds or thousands of devotions like this one.
We don’t even have to have a hard copy to carry a Bible with us everywhere we go. And yet, how many of us open those Bible apps every day? We might use them at our studies with other Christians, but do we just read the Bible for the pure joy of listening to God speak to us? How many of us have sat down and read an entire book in one sitting? Have you read the Bible from beginning to end? There are plenty of plans for reading the whole book in a year.
Every word we read is good. Every devotional that helps inspire us is a blessing. We will grow and mature in our faith with every Bible study in which we participate. But have you ever just sat down to read the Bible or a part of the Bible? Reading the Bible daily keeps us constantly connected to the One who is our King and helps us to be obedient to Him. You don’t have to find some deep insight in every reading, just read for the pleasure of being in God’s Word.
Find time to just open the volume, choose a book or a chapter and read it. Have you ever ready the entire book of Acts or read the letters of Paul as if they had been delivered to your mailbox? Have you read any of the Gospels from beginning to end like that novel you keep on your nightstand? It is good for everyone to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation at least once in your life, but daily reading is not about accomplishing something. Your Father wants to spend time with you every day, and He wants you to spend time with Him. We can do that in prayer, of course, but if we want Him to influence the world, then we must let Him influence us first through His Word. That won’t happen if we open our books only four times a year; daily reading keeps us connected to the One who is our King.
“When he got into a boat, his disciples followed him. Behold, a violent storm came up on the sea, so much that the boat was covered with the waves, but he was asleep. They came to him, and woke him up, saying, ‘Save us, Lord! We are dying!’ He said to them, ‘Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?’ Then he got up, rebuked the wind and the sea, and there was a great calm.” Matthew 8:23-26, WEB
It is Friday the 13th. Are you planning to do anything differently today? Do you suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia, an abnormal fear of Friday the 13th? According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Ashville, North Carolina, millions of people suffer from this phobia to the point of changing their daily routine on the day to avoid bad luck. Some people refuse to go to work or even get out of bed. Interestingly, the Dutch Center for Insurance Statistics report that fewer accidents, fires or thefts are reported to have happened when Friday is the 13th compared to all other Fridays. So is it really unlucky? Or, are people so frightened by the possibility of accident that they are extra careful?
We have to wonder how this superstition came into being. Some fears, though often extreme, have reasonable reasons. Fear of snakes can come from painful and dangerous experiences with snakes. A fear of heights can come from a real experience of falling or knowing someone who fell. The news is filled with images of fiery plane crashes, so it is understandable when someone refuses to board a plane. But have those millions of people really experienced something horrible on Friday the 13th to give the fear substance? Probably not.
We are so ingrained in believing that something bad will happen on Friday the 13th that we might think it is a superstition that goes far back into history. However, there is little evidence that the superstition was popular before the 20th century. There are a few writings that make reference to the date, a few horrific events that happened on Friday the 13th, but researchers can only theorize that the tradition began because of those events. A website lists a dozen possible reasons why people might have this unreasonable fear, but every theory is questionable. So, can this day be truly unlucky when there is no real reason to think so?
I probably would not have even realized that today is Friday the 13th if I hadn’t heard someone mention it on the news. I think sometimes we talk ourselves into our fears because we believe what others have said. Would those who have accidents today have had them only because it is the 13th, or would they have had an accident anyway? Would that bad news have come no matter the date on the calendar? We certainly can’t make things better by living in fear.
Imagine what sort of day the disciples were having when they faced the storm in today’s text. There’s no way for us to know whether it was a Friday the 13th, but it wasn’t exactly a banner day. In the show “Jesus Christ Superstar” this day was visualized as one of confusion with the crowds hemming in on Jesus. They all wanted healing; the crowds wanted to feel His touch. In an incredibly unsettling moment in the story, Jesus cries “Heal yourself!” to the crowds. We don’t see that in the scriptures, but in the section just before our passage for today, Jesus tries to escape the crowds by crossing over the lake. They were coming to Him because He’d healed Peter’s mother-in-law. His escape was interrupted by those wanting to know what it takes to be a disciple. Jesus tells them that the cost is great.
So in today’s passage, the disciples are in a boat, crossing to the other side. They are amazed at what they saw, but also emotionally spent because they dealt with the illness of a loved one (Peter’s mother-in-law.) They saw the suffering of many and learned that they would have to give up everything to continue to follow Jesus. Then, just as it seemed like they might find some peace in this hectic and stressful day, a storm swept over the boat. Is it any wonder that the disciples might be afraid? Jesus answers their fear with a simple question, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”
Some people might be afraid to go out into the world on this Friday the 13th, but we can face incredibly difficult, emotional and frustrating times any day. We can face the ill health of loved ones, people demanding more than we can give and the fear that can come when we realize the path we have to walk is not going to be easy. We will face storms in our lives and will have plenty of very real reasons to be afraid. And yet, we are asked today: “Why are you afraid?” and we are reminded that He is with us. He can calm our storm. He’s there to help us with our troubles. We do not need to be afraid.
“But I tell you who hear: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also. Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask him who takes away your goods to give them back again. As you would like people to do to you, do exactly so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive back as much. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil.” Luke 6:27-35, WEB
We all know someone. We all know a person that is just not likeable, at least by us. We know a person who grates on our nerves, who makes our day darker, who always has something to say that ruins our day. I’m sure we all probably have a co-worker or a fellow church member who makes us miserable in one way or another. Even if we don’t have that one person in real life, we all know someone on our Facebook page that makes us cringe every time we see a post from them. This has been especially true for the past few months, especially between people who differed in opinion about the political election. Even now, just days before the inauguration, there are still arguments and hurt feelings from posts in support of or against everyone involved. In a world where we are supposed to “love one another” there’s an awful lot of hate going on.
It is easy to say we love our neighbors, although it is admittedly much harder to do so. It has been tempting, and I have to admit that I’ve fallen for the temptation, to hide the posts from the people who tend to make me angry or upset on Facebook. It has been for my own sake, but I have also done it so that I would avoid the negative emotions the posts make me feel. I can love a person so much better if I don’t have to deal with them personally. I confess this sin on a daily basis.
Being a Christian is not an easy thing. We are called into a relationship with Christ not to separate ourselves from the people we do not like in this world. Rather, in Christ we are given the strength to overcome our natural tendencies so that we can live more Christ-like. When our flesh wants to hate, we are commanded to love. When our mouths want to curse, we are commanded to bless. This is a difficult thing. Just like trying to be civil on Facebook, saying nice things about our enemies is simply not something we are trained to do.
The Bible would have us speak well about our enemies. Jesus took it a step further, telling us to do well by our enemies, to love them and serve them. Instead of ignoring and complaining about the difficult neighbor, the Christ-centered response is to love and encourage them, so that they will learn to act more appropriately. Yet, it is not enough to speak positively; we also need to be kind behind closed doors and in the depths of our heart. Our worst sins against our enemies happen in the places no one sees - but God sees and He knows when we curse those we hate.
Today’s passage calls us to a much different life than the one we want to live. We’d rather avoid those who make us miserable, but Jesus tells us to spend time with them. We want to argue with that Facebook friend who constantly takes a stand on an issue with which we disagree, but Jesus tells us that we should listen to them. While we may not end up agreeing with one another, our biggest problem is that we don’t know how to love them in a way that gives them the respect to listen to what they have to say.
It is because we are Christian that we have to stand above the crowd. This is true especially when it comes to dealing with our neighbors in everything, even if they are unwilling to give us the same considerations. It may not seem fair, but our Father expects more from us. He calls us to walk the extra mile and by giving more than expected. The world will see in our actions that our love is more than lip-service: it is sacrificial. We are to love in such a way that the world will ask, “What is it that makes these Christians so willing to love their neighbors?” We are called to be different, not to live and post as they do. Faith sets us apart; the love of God changes our hearts and our minds, so that the life we live is different than the world.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.” John 15:1-7, WEB
Have you ever gotten an ear worm caught in your head of a song but you just can't remember all the words? It is frustrating to sing a song over and over again but get to that part that just won’t come. The song gets stuck on a loop and I can’t get rid of it. It would be much better if I could just sing the whole thing and get it over with, but when I get stuck on a word or phrase I keep singing, hoping that I’ll find the right words. It can be very annoying. It is easier to solve today because a quick trip to the Internet will find the lyrics or a video.
We don’t always understand the workings of our brain. Why do we remember some things and not others? Why does our brain get stuck on one thing but not something else? Why can we remember the entire script from a movie we saw when we were children but we can’t remember what we had for lunch yesterday? The older I get, the more frustrated I get by those little things I can't remember.
It happens to me much too often when it comes to scripture. After all these years of reading, writing and studying scripture the Word is definitely in my heart and in my head. I can relate experiences to a scripture pretty quickly, having it come to mind at the moment. Yet, I’m not always very good at remembering the place in scripture where it is found. I’m pretty good at using a concordance, but it isn’t always easy. If you can’t remember the right key word, the concordance doesn’t help. It can be very frustrating. At times I worry that I will not be able to remember the right verse or passage when I need it most, like when I’m away from a Bible and I meet a friend in need or when I am asked to defend my faith.
Jesus said, “Settle it therefore in your hearts not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to withstand or to contradict.” (Luke 21:14-15) We need not worry about what we will say in those circumstances for God has written His Word on our hearts and it is in our heads. We may have moments when we think we can’t remember, but He will give us what we need when we need it. This does not diminish our need to continually read and study the Bible; it is there that we meet God, hear Him and write His Word in our heads so that we will be ready with an answer. But we need not worry, for God is with us and He is faithful to give us His Word in our times of need. He is far more reliable than our brains.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 22, 2017, Third Sunday of Epiphany: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-9 (10-14); 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25
“They immediately left their nets and followed him.” Matthew 4:20, WEB
Have you ever noticed how a light shines more brightly in darkness than in light? I have a lamp in my bedroom that I often turn on during daylight hours since my room is not brightly lit. There are two windows, but I generally keep the shades down during the day. A little light gets through, but it isn’t enough light so I turn on the lamp. It helps, but the room is still a little dark. That same lamp, however, makes the room seem so much brighter when the sun has set and it is dark outside. Of course, the lamp does not really shine more brightly, but it seems as though it does because it is overcoming darkness rather than light.
A few weeks back we saw that the wise men assumed that the new king would be born in Jerusalem. It made sense; where else would one look for the King of the Jews? They discovered from Herod and his priests that the king would come out of Bethlehem, so they went there to see and worship. Now that Jesus is grown, baptized and beginning His ministry, we might expect that He’d end up in Jerusalem. He was born both King and Priest, so He should have gone to the Temple to minister and preach, to work with the priests and serve God in His house. He would be in the center of the Jewish faith as well as the politics in Jerusalem.
Instead, Jesus went to Galilee and lived in Capernaum. Galilee couldn’t be much farther from Jerusalem, not only in geography but also faith and politics. Zebulun and Naphtali were sons of Jacob, two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Zebulun settled to the east of the Sea of Galilee and Naphtali north of Zebulun and east of the Sea. These two tribes were conquered by the Assyrians, exiled and lost forever. Though there are some who still claim to be from the lost tribes, those left behind lived with gentiles, mixed in marriage and intermingled their lives. It was a place of darkness because it was a place where Gentiles and Jews lived side by side. Galilee was set apart from the rest of Israel, and they lived their faith as they were able, different than those in Jerusalem.
It was there that Jesus went when He began His ministry. Isaiah writes, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” During this season of Epiphany, we think about Christ as the light in so many ways, and we identify with Christ as He reached out to the entire world. Our texts for this week show us how God remembers and fulfills His promises in extraordinary ways.
Why did Jesus go to Galilee when there were so many opportunities in Jerusalem to teach and transform God’s people? Was He afraid after hearing about John’s arrest? Or was He simply fulfilling the promise, beginning His ministry of light in a place of darkness? See, we would expect the Messiah to focus His attention on the place of power, calling out to the people in authority. How much more can someone get done by going to Washington than they can get done meeting with people on the street corners of a small town? Shouldn’t Jesus have gone directly to Jerusalem and convinced the priests and other Jewish leaders that He was exactly the answer to their prayers?
Yet, Jesus chose to go to Galilee. Capernaum was called “the region and shadow of death” due partly to the number of foreigners. It was there where God did not shine so brightly. Jerusalem had the bright marble walls of the Temple and the glittering jewels of the priests. The Light who is Christ could be best seen in the darkness. He took His message of hope so that they might know God’s grace. Though the tribes were lost, Jesus fulfilled the promise found in Isaiah that people who walked in darkness would see a great light. He was the Light.
The next thing Jesus did in today’s text was to call a few fishermen to be His disciples. This doesn’t make any more sense that living in Galilee. He saw two brothers working their fish nets on the Sea of Galilee. He called to them and they left their nets without a second thought. His words, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” This call evoked an incredible and immediate response. Can you imagine dropping your work and following someone without thought and planning? In our day we would think it is irresponsible to do such a thing. Jesus then found James and John and called them to join Him. They walked away from their boat and their life into the unknown.
Would the priests have answered Jesus’ call with such trust? I doubt it. Why leave cushy positions in the Temple where everything they needed was readily available for a life that was unknown with a guy they didn’t understand? Why follow this rising star that didn’t shine the way they thought He should shine? See, it is hard to see the light in a place where the people think the light is shining. The people of Jerusalem looked to the priests and the leaders to teach them about God, to lead them in faithful lives, but the leaders had their own agendas. They were shining a light, but was it the Light God promised? Would we leave our cushy (or our not so cushy but secure) lives to follow someone into the unknown?
I’m not sure that it makes sense to choose fishermen to begin a ministry, though. They weren’t unintelligent, I’m sure, but they weren’t educated, particularly in matters of faith. There were Jews in the region around the Sea of Galilee, the disciples had Jewish heritage. Were they strictly observant Jews? Did they travel to Jerusalem according to the Law? Did they attend meetings at the temple and synagogues regularly? They were fishermen, and while the Jews took the Sabbath seriously, did those fishermen really put down their nets for the Sabbath? What made those men the right choice for Jesus?
Jesus doesn’t look at education or position. He doesn’t pay attention to the outward appearance or the worldly traits. God sees the heart and Jesus knew that those fishermen, though imperfect, would follow Him to the best of their ability.
We look at these men and we are taken aback by their dedication to Jesus’ ministry. Would we do such a thing? Would we drop our work and walk away from everything to follow Jesus? Does Jesus call us all to drop our nets and leave our boats to follow Him into the unknown?
Jesus had many followers. Some of them actually traveled with Him from place to place and town to town. However, what of the people who stayed at home? What of the mothers who took their babies to be blessed and then returned to their housework? What of the businessmen in all those towns who returned to their shops when Jesus left? Did they have less faith than the disciples who dropped everything? As we study the story of Jesus we see that many of the followers had shallow faith and abandoned Him at the first sign of trouble, but there were many who returned to their normal lives to share God’s grace in their own little corner of the world. As a matter of fact, more than once Jesus told those to whom He ministered to “Go in peace.”
Jesus does call some to extraordinary ministry, but for most of us, He calls us to live our faith in the everyday experiences of our lives.
The disciples were called out of their ordinary lives to extraordinary ministry. Being a fisherman isn’t all that cushy, but Peter, Andrew, James and John had good lives. It was hard work, but they weren’t hungry and they had families that loved them. What was Jesus promising them? They might have had some expectations, especially if they believed that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that would free Israel from Rome and establish a renewed Golden Kingdom like David’s. We don’t see that in today’s text, however. We don’t even see Jesus making them any promises, except that they will fish in a whole new way. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” What does that even mean?
There are those who would love to drop everything to go fishing. As a matter of fact, that’s the dream of many businessmen. They look forward to the day when they can walk away and sit for hours on a lake in a boat. Most of them don’t really even care if they ever catch a fish. They just want to get away from it all. However, fishing for men will certainly not be that relaxing. They knew so little about Jesus. They hadn’t seen Him do any miracles. They might have heard Him speak or heard rumors about Him, but they really didn’t know Him. They left their nets and their boat so they knew they were following Jesus to do a different kind of fishing, but they had no idea what the future held for them.
What would happen today if we walked away from our homes, jobs and families to go out on the road preaching the kingdom of God? People would call us foolish, they would call us freaks. If we do it well, we might gain a following. If we are eloquent in speech or have some sort of shtick, we might succeed and live well enough. But Jesus did not call the disciples to go out on a bus tour to earn fame or wealth. Though the scriptures tell us that Judas carried a money bag, I am sure there was only enough to meet their needs. Jesus surely didn’t pass around the collection plate like a traveling evangelists.
Peter, Andrew, James and John were not called away from a life of security for a life of fame and wealth. They were called away for a life of sacrifice, sharing a message of hope that would be rejected by most. The message was even more mysterious and difficult to understand after Jesus died, because it was foolishness to those who were perishing in this world. It is a spiritual message that does not look at all spiritual. A man dying on a cross is far from spiritual. It is horrible, a gross injustice and seems lacking in love. Death on a cross seems more like darkness in the midst of light rather than light in the midst of darkness. Yet, Peter, Andrew, James and John did not turn back. They left their fishing nets and boats immediately, without a second thought, and went into a life of uncertainty to follow Jesus.
We make all sorts of excuses. We can’t speak with charisma. We don’t know the scriptures well enough. We are imperfect. We are just ordinary people. But who were the disciples? Were they charismatic? Were they well versed in God’s Word? Were they perfect? No, they were none of those things. Most of they, they were just ordinary men. They were fishermen. They were probably dirty and calloused from hard work when they left to follow Jesus, with a smell that wouldn’t draw a crowd. I’m sure they were not genteel, with language that would shock your grandmother. They may have had faith, but were they obedient and observant Jews?
Yet, just as light shines brighter in darkness, doesn’t grace shine brighter in the lives of those who need it? Jesus might have found some well educated and faithful priests if He’d gone to Jerusalem. They weren’t all callous, self-centered and self-righteous. There were even a few who risked everything during the Passion to help Jesus. Jesus chose those ordinary men because they could be taught and led down the path God intended.
Jesus didn’t call the ones who thought they were divinely called to shine the light to the people; He called those who were living in the shadow of death. He calls us out of darkness into His light, too.
As we ponder why Jesus went to Galilee and why He chose ordinary fishermen, we are reminded that it is never about us, our geography, accomplishments or abilities. The focus is always about God; He is the One who does the work. He is the One who shines. He is the One who forgives. He calls us to join Him in the work, using our gifts and our resources for His purpose. Unfortunately, we don’t always remember that it is about Jesus. We think highly of ourselves, a lot more like those priests and Jewish leaders than the humble fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
We run into trouble when we make ourselves the focus, we end up dividing the church. The Church in Corinth was a mess; some of the followers were focusing on the evangelist from whom they had heard the Gospel, rather than the message. They were loyal to Paul or Apollos or Peter; Jesus was getting lost.
Paul brought the focus of the Corinthians back to the work of Christ. Paul, Apollos and Cephas (Peter) were most likely great preachers. From the stories in Acts, we can see that they all were quite convincing in their arguments and adept at sharing the Gospel message. We can also see that they all had a slightly different vision of the future of the Church. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, Peter to the Jews. They reached these different people in different ways. Peter used the Old Testament witness and the experience of historic faith; Paul reached out to a wider, more diverse audience.
Despite their differences, Paul, Apollos and Cephas were united in the same mind and the same purpose, to share the message of the cross. But the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is spiritual, but seems so far from spiritual. The message of the cross is that all men are sinners unworthy of God’s grace, but the Son of God, the Word made flesh, came to die so that we might be forgiven. To accept a message such as this, we must accept that we are sinners in need of a Savior. To believe it is to die. This is why the message was foolishness. The Jews believed they were made right with God by their acts of worship, by their sacrifices and their offerings. The Gentiles had no need to be made right with God for they were good by nature. How many today still think righteousness is either earned or innate? Too many people believe this, even in the church.
Paul was calling the people in Corinth to a life following Jesus Christ, not man.
The psalmist writes, “One thing have I asked of Jehovah, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of Jehovah all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of Jehovah, and to inquire in his temple.” This is what it means to die: to humble ourselves before God. Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from a life of security to face the unknown with Jesus. God calls us too, inviting us to die to our old life and walk with Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, so that His light might shine through our lives and His grace be experienced by those who still dwell in darkness.
“I love Yahweh, because he listens to my voice, and my cries for mercy. Because he has turned his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. The cords of death surrounded me, the pains of Sheol got a hold of me. I found trouble and sorrow. Then I called on Yahweh’s name: ‘Yahweh, I beg you, deliver my soul.’ Yahweh is Gracious and righteous. Yes, our God is merciful. Yahweh preserves the simple. I was brought low, and he saved me. Return to your rest, my soul, for Yahweh has dealt bountifully with you. For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before Yahweh in the land of the living.” Psalm 116:1-9, WEB
I stayed up way too late last night. I’m working on a Bible study for a retreat next weekend, and though I should have stayed off the computer, I decided to get some more work done. That wasn’t really the bad part, though. I turned on my tablet after I turned off my computer and I ended up playing a few games. “One more round” I kept telling myself, but that turned into another round and then another. It was well past my bedtime when I finally ran out of lives and turned off my tablet. I got ready for bed and then turned on my Kindle to read a little.
I didn’t read very long because my eyelids became heavy, but it was still much too late. I slept fairly well, but I woke up miserable because I really had not given myself enough time to rest. I’ll struggle through today and I won’t have the opportunity to take a nap. I have to commit to an earlier bedtime today so I can get the rest I need.
It is so easy to get caught up in these things; I’m sure we all can confess to moments when online surfing or game play kept us from the things we should do. But it isn’t just the technology of today that keeps us busy. How many of us are too busy running errands to take the time for prayer and Bible study? How many of us miss Christian fellowship and worship because we are taking kids to sports practice or attending a party that was scheduled on Sunday morning? I know some churches even cancel worship so that they can go out and do service projects. None of these things are bad, but they become problematic when they take our eyes off the One who gives us rest.
We are so busy doing things that we miss the opportunity to rest in God.
I need to be better about turning off the electronics earlier in the night so that I can rest my body. I also need to remember that true rest comes in spending time with my Father. It is so tempting to fill every moment of every day with activity, whether it is on technology or just the everyday tasks of living in this world. God intends something much better for our lives. He has created and redeemed us to dwell in His grace, to spend time with Him in prayer and rest in His Word. He is worthy of our time and our praise because He has given us life and the freedom to dwell in His Kingdom even while we live in this one. We can’t stop living; we should not stop doing the things that need to be done for our loved ones and neighbors. Our physical bodies need rest from our labors and our spirits need rest from the things that keep us from focusing on our Father, so let us never forget to turn off the world once in awhile and rest in the presence of God.
“I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving. It will please Yahweh better than an ox, or a bull that has horns and hoofs. The humble have seen it, and are glad. You who seek after God, let your heart live. For Yahweh hears the needy, and doesn’t despise his captive people. Let heaven and earth praise him; the seas, and everything that moves therein! For God will save Zion, and build the cities of Judah. They shall settle there, and own it. The children also of his servants shall inherit it. Those who love his name shall dwell therein.” Psalm 69:30-36, WEB
Hans Seyle, a prominent researcher in the field of stress claims that two attitudes more than any other affect human lives: revenge and thankfulness. These two emotions influence our state of mind, our health and our feelings of security and success. Revenge is an unhelpful, negative emotion that causes frustration and unhappiness. It is dangerous and unhealthy. On the other hand, a grateful heart knows peace and joy. Hans writes, “Among all the emotions, there is one which more than any other, accounts for the absence or presence of stress in human relations: that is the feeling of gratitude.”
We all know someone who seems to constantly be frustrated and unhappy. They see life as being unfair, as luck being unkind. Everything that happens to them is a personal affront; everybody is out to get them. "Woe is me," they say because everything goes wrong for them. Now, I have to agree that sometimes it seems like things don't go well for them, although their troubles are rarely any worse than their neighbors. We all deal with health issues, financial problems, and broken relationships. We all have co-workers who drive us crazy. We all have arguments with our loved ones. We all have experienced the pain of thinking that life is unfair, thinking we have been abandoned. The difference is how we respond to our troubles.
A story is told about a man named Mike. His wife was in the intensive care until of the hospital. When asked about her condition, he answered that though things were not great, she did recognize him and they prayed together. He added that they sought comfort in the scriptures, particularly the passage from James encouraging believers to find joy even in the trials of life. God is able to make good things happen out of the most horrible circumstances. It does little good to worry and fret when we can look toward God in thanksgiving and praise, knowing that He is able to do the most extraordinary things in our lives. Mike finished by saying, “It is impossible to be anxious and thankful at the same time.”
It may not always seem possible to find joy in the midst of our suffering or thanksgiving in the midst of our pain. Yet, when we focus on the negative, when we worry and fret or even go so far as seeking some sort of revenge for our misery, we will suffer in our physical, emotional and spiritual health. Stress can cause so many problems in our bodies, hearts and minds, but we can live in a way that will reduce the level of stress. With thanksgiving and praise, we see God even in the hard times and trust that He will do good things.
It is easy to be thankful during those times when we feel blessed or when things are going well for us. Yet, we are called to lives of thankfulness. It is good to be thankful for specific blessings, but as Christians it is important to live a life of gratefulness. We are saved by grace and transformed into new creatures, creatures that dwell in thankfulness as a way of life not an occasional attitude; a way of life that brings joy and peace to the lives of all who live it. It helps us see the goodness of God even in the midst of suffering.
The psalmist says, “They shall settle there, and own it.” For us, today, Zion is the presence of God. We can dwell in His presence in every moment of every day, although we can’t do so if we are busy being miserable. As Mike said, “It is impossible to be anxious and thankful at the same time.” It is much better for us and for the world for us to be thankful, for it is there God is glorified and we’ll experience His joy and peace.
“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” 1 Samuel 16:7, WEB
There was a terrible storm back in May that caused damage to thousands of houses in our city, including ours. It took us several months to have the insurance company look at it, but we joined every one of our neighbors in needing a new roof. I researched roofing companies extensively, first on the internet and then in personal interviews. It was important to me to choose a local company that had been around for a long time. I took some advice from others who had to have the work done, too. I rejected any company that solicited the job either on the phone or at the door. I had a list of a dozen possibilities, heard from and interviewed six and finally chose one. Unfortunately, in the end, I chose the wrong company; I had my reasons, but the owner was not entirely truthful and the work was not done in a timely or satisfactory fashion.
Sadly, I was hoping to build a relationship with that company because there was other work I need done around the house. We even talked about the possibilities at our first meetings. I told the owner otherwise when we reached three months into a project that was supposed to be done in a few weeks. I had vetted the company; there were a questionable review, but every business can run into a client that is impossible to satisfy. As it turned out, I should have listened to their experience. I trusted the word of the owner and in the end I was disappointed.
The owner may have been right to respond that the client was impossible and rude. There may have been unavoidable circumstances. If I wrote a similar review today, the owner would have a million reasons why I was impossible and rude. There were, unfortunately, some unavoidable circumstances during the project. However, many promises went unfulfilled and I’m unhappy.
While I was wrong to choose that particular company, I still think I was right to doubt the words of one anonymous reviewer on a website. Too often in our world today we base our knowledge on the things we hear others say. People buy books because the online reviews are terrific, and then they start reading the book and realize it is terrible. People vote for or reject politicians because they believe what is said about them in the media. People follow the crowd because the crowd seems to know what’s happening, but in the end we discover that they were going down the wrong road.
We were talking about John chapter 8 and the relationship between Jesus and Abraham. In the midst of that text, the Jews, frustrated by Jesus’ conviction that they were not children of Abraham said, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father, God.” I had never noticed this in all my study. The Jews were saying, in essence, “Who are you to talk about God our Father, you bastard!” They knew the story of Jesus’ nativity, that Mary was pregnant before she was married to Joseph. I imagine they vetted Jesus as He began to rise in popularity and they discovered this story of His birth. To them, Jesus was a sinner born in sin. I wonder how long they waited to pull out that slur against Jesus. Ironically, the point of the conversation was that they were the ones stuck in sin because they were rejecting God by rejecting Jesus.
They believed the rumors; they trusted the word on the street. They were not willing to give Jesus the chance because they had a label for Jesus that met their agenda. How often do we do the same thing for people that do not fit into our own plans? How often do we reject someone because of the label someone else has put on them. Are we willing to look beyond the label, which might be true in a sense, to see that there is more to story? Jesus was, in the legal, earthly sense of the word, a bastard because He was the illegitimate son of Joseph. But we know that He was far more. He was the Son of God, incarnated in and through His mother Mary. Could it be that the person we’ve labeled and rejected really be something far more than we are willing to see? Could it be that they, too, are a son of our Father God, a brother or sister worthy of our love and respect?
Thank goodness that God looks beyond the surface and at the heart; let us try to see our neighbors - those we like and those we don’t like so much - through the eyes of God. We might just find that there is value that has been lost under the labels we have assigned based on the rumors we have heard. We might just find that God has seen something under the rough and imperfect exterior that He can use to do amazing things. We might never fully understand His plan, but we can trust that He is more able to use a humble, honest bastard than He is to use someone unwilling to see his or her own sinfulness.
“He said to them, ‘Is the lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Isn’t it put on a stand? For there is nothing hidden, except that it should be made known; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.’” Mark 4:21-23, WEB
We had new tile floors installed. The guys did a good job, the floor is beautiful, although they didn’t do a great job cleaning the grout off the tiles after they filled the cracks. It was hardly noticeable, unless you are obsessive like me. We’ve been working on cleaning the floor to get rid of the film and thicker spots. It is a process, but we are getting there. I thought we were done on Saturday after we had worked for hours together scrubbing, scraping, and wiping. Later that day, after the water dried, I looked at the floor from a different point of view and realized that we were not yet done. The light shined perfectly to show the smudges that still spoiled the surface of the tile. I will have to get down on my hands and knees and work those spots until the floor is absolutely clean.
There was an episode of “Seinfeld” in which a woman Jerry was dating was “two-faced.” In other words, she looked different depending on the light. There were times she was beautiful, but other times ugly. Kramer met her at one of the ugly times, but then saw her again when she was in good light. He told her that she was more beautiful that Jerry’s other girlfriend, causing her to think Jerry was cheating. Jerry got to the point that he would only meet her at a specific place, a place where the lighting hid her flaws.
Light shines and imperfections show. This is true not only of grout on floors and wrinkles on faces, but also of sin. We are imperfect people. As Christians we are saved and transformed people, but even as God works in us, we continue to have smudges that spoil what is seen in our lives. Oh, most of those imperfections are hardly noticeable, but when the light shines we are reminded that there is still work to be done in our lives. We will need to continue being cleansed until the day we die. We will need to continue being transformed until we reach eternity in the presence of our Father.
We might prefer keeping those things hidden, because they we don’t have to worry about them. Yet, God shines in our lives so that we will be constantly reminded of our need for Him. The worst thing in the world for us is to think we are already perfect, because in doing so we no longer need the grace of God. I pray I will always recognize my need for Him. It might be frightening to see the truth of our imperfections. It is definitely frightening to see our sin revealed to the world. But God’s light does even more: it reveals God’s mercy and forgiveness. We should not shy from the light that shows the grout on the floor or the wrinkles on faces because in that light we will experience the reality of life. Even more so, in that light we will see the very things that we need to change and work with God in becoming the people He has created and redeemed us to be.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 29, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Epiphany: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9, WEB
St. Chromatius of Aquileia preached, “If you can see how great the merit of the peacemakers is, when they are no longer called servants but children of God. This reward is fully justified, since the love of peace loves Christ, the author of peace, to whom Paul the Apostle even gives ‘peace’ as a name: ‘He is our peace,’ he says. Someone who does not love peace goes in pursuit of discord, for he loves its author the devil. In the beginning the devil caused discord between God and the human race by leading the first man to violate God’s precept. The reason why the Son of God came down from heaven was to condemn the devil, the author of discord, and to make peace between God and the human race by reconciling its members to God and making God propitious to them. We must therefore become peacemakers so that we may deserve to be called children of God. Without peace, we lose the name not only of children, but even of servants, since the apostle says to us: ‘Love peace, for without it none of us can be pleasing to God.’”
“We must become peacemakers.” I know this seems like an impossible demand. There are a million reasons why we should fight, many of the worthwhile. The world is unfair, we should fight for fairness. We must fight for justice. We have the right to fight for what is ours. We should fight for the truth and for what is right. We believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We believe that if we don’t fight back, then we’ll be nothing but a doormat and the world will take advantage of us.
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
We fight because we do not want to suffer. We don’t deserve to suffer. We are afraid to suffer. It is not right for us to suffer. Yet Jesus tells us that we are blessed when we suffer for doing what He asks us to do. We must become peacemakers. There’s something very absurd about a person screaming love from a podium with a clenched fist. It is amazing how much more is accomplished with a quiet voice and a soft touch.
We don’t see it, though, do we? The news is filled with the moments of conflict and anger, but ignore the quiet moments when two people find a way to listen and respect one another. I read an article recently that we have become a people that are constantly angry. We are angry because we spend so much of our time “connected” and we can’t avoid the things that make us want to fight. The author of the article talked about a discussion led by Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs. They didn’t come to any conclusions, but Dr. Gibbs was inclined to say “that righteous anger is only a pious myth, a self-justification. Christians find themselves angry all the time and need a theological framework for justifying it lest they have to repent and deal with it. Yes, God can be angry in the Bible, that doesn’t mean we can properly be angry. We, after all, aren’t righteous. Christians are called to repent of anger and certainly not let the sun set on it.”
We disagree with at least half of what we see and hear as we scroll through our Facebook timelines and listen to the media. We disagree because we see the world in a different way and we expect the others to see it as we do. We demand our way without even listening to the other. We expect the world to bend to our opinion or our point of view and we become angry when it doesn’t. Yet, we haven’t even taken the time to listen to the other point of view. I’m guilty of this, but we all have to admit that it is often difficult to listen when everything is confrontational. We’d rather fight than be a peacemaker.
Peacemakers don’t win. As a matter of fact, Jesus promised that the peacemakers will be persecuted.
One of the great themes of the Christmas season is “Peace on Earth.” I got at least a few Christmas cards with that sentiment, but what does that mean? Peace is very hard to come by. There is always some country or regime in international relations that is threatening violence against another nation or their own people. War is a constant factor in the lives of many people around the world. Even in America, we are faced with the possibility of our men and women on active duty will be deployed to one place or another for some reason.
We also see a lack of peace in our daily relations with people in our own neighborhoods and families. Violence and crime are an ever-growing danger in our cities and our towns. People are quick to sue a friend or a neighbor to get what they want. Divorce is rampant. Our children are facing the most difficult issues that have ever been put before young people: drugs, sexual disease, bullying, and single parent families. These things are not only found in the inner city, but also in rural areas. Reality TV producers provide the most popular television programs, shows that pit neighbor against neighbor in battles for power, money or fame. How can one person possibly make peace in our society today?
Charles Spurgeon once asked, “Do you know what it is, when you are tossed on the waves, to go down into the depths of Godhead, there rejoicing that not a wave of trouble ruffles your spirit, but that you are serenely at home with God your own Almighty Father?” This is peace. We live in a world of violence, hatred and war, yet we have a peace within our souls that is beyond understanding. We may never be able to bring peace to our world, cities, neighborhoods or even our families, but we can share the peace of Christ.
We make peace, not necessarily by stopping the conflict, but in showing people that true peace comes in living the life which Christ calls us to live. We won’t do that by screaming love from a podium with a clenched fist but with a quiet word of hope and a hand of help.
Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down; He made us look at the world in a whole new way. We think of blessedness as being successful, being a winner. But in today’s Gospel reading Jesus defines blessedness in ways we would never expect. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit do not appear blessed because they seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God will give them comfort. Those who are humiliated will be raised and those who are hungry and thirsty will be fed. They are blessed because God has promised to save those who trust in Him. Blessedness is an attitude that looks to God for its fulfillment.
As we look at the Beatitudes, we can see that there are eight listed together which are book ended with the phrase “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Yet, we see blessedness from two different perspectives in these eight verses. In the first four, blessedness is found in suffering because God will overcome our difficulties. In the second four, blessedness is found in participating in God’s work to overcome.
None of the eight are highly regarded by the world as being particularly blessed. Poverty, pain, humility, hunger and thirst are not signs of a blessed life; they are more likely to be considered woes or curses. The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted are more likely to be viewed as foolish rather than as blessed.
The word “bless” means “may God speak well of you.” What is it that God seeks from those He loves? What about our life might He speak well of? It would be easy for us to use the psalm for today to establish the criteria for blessedness. The psalmist writes, “Yahweh, who shall dwell in your sanctuary? Who shall live on your holy hill?” He answers that those who are blameless, righteous and honest, that those who do good works and who fear the Lord are the ones who will be blessed. Yet, the expectation in this psalm is too hard for any human to uphold. Who is blameless? Who is righteous? There is none who would ever be so blessed.
Should be become poor in spirit that we might be blessed? Should we reject joy that we might mourn? Should we become a doormat so that God can lift us above our enemy? Should we starve ourselves as we wait for the righteousness of God to come to us? No, because if we seek suffering we will miss out on the blessedness that comes from sharing in the work of God.
When we are poor in spirit, in mourning, humiliated and hungry, it is difficult to be participants in the overcoming work in God’s world. Sadly, in today’s world it is often used as an excuse to be angry and to fight. We think we are justified in demanding that others make things right. We seek worldly solutions to our pain and suffering and expect our neighbors to save us. Yet the real salvation will only come when we fall into the arms of God’s grace. Blessed are those who look to God in their poverty, mourning, humiliation and hunger because they will be satisfied.
Sometimes God satisfies the pain and suffering by calling us to their aid. We can be merciful to those who are poor in spirit, shine God’s love to the mourning when we are pure in heart, and act as peacemakers to lift the meek. When we are persecuted, we can stand strong on faith in God and show those with a hunger and thirst a right and true relationship with God.
Ironically, our activity in God’s work of overcoming might just lead us to be one who faces the same difficulty. Persecution can easily lead to poverty in spirit, mourning, meekness and hunger. Thus is the circle of faith: we move from helpless to helper to helpless again as we journey in this life. We aren’t always strong, we aren’t always weak. Through it all, God remains steadfast. He calls us to be peacemakers through all our ups and downs, to share Christ in the midst of our suffering and satisfaction, so that the world will see true peace and blessedness.
Jesus does not call us to overcome our troubles or wallow in them, but rather He encourages us to live in an attitude of trust and confidence that God is faithful to His promises. The beatitudes are the attitudes of God’s people living in faith. The students for today’s lesson were not the great crowds of people; Jesus was speaking to the disciples. This lesson is not given for those who are trying to earn their way to heaven, but is given to those who believe in the work of God. The lesson is given for us, the Christians who have been saved by the cross of Christ.
It doesn’t seem like a wise lesson, does it? After all, it makes more sense to be strong in spirit, to celebrate life, to be assertive, and to satisfy our own needs. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden; He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because we turn to grace in our suffering. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the One who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.
On the face of it, Christianity is foolishness. Paul is right when he says so in today’s epistle lesson. After all, what good is it to believe in a God who can die on a cross? Why have faith in a system that allows an innocent man to take the consequences of the whole world’s sin upon His own shoulders? Is God so weak that He can’t protect His people from suffering? Is He so incompetent that He can’t save us in some other, more civilized way? The Jews want to answer these questions with wisdom that comes from the tradition of their faith, and the Greeks want answers that can be studied philosophically.
Paul wrote, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.”
The Christian message is viewed as foolishness in today’s world. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him.
In the opening lines of the Old Testament passage from Micah, God asked Israel to plead her case before Him. She turned away from her God, walked away from the covenant and was unfaithful. God gave her a chance to defend herself. He called the mountains and the foundations of the earth to be witnesses in this judgment, because they were there when the covenant was made. Then God turned it on Himself and asked His beloved what He had done wrong, defending His own actions by recounting his redemption of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.
Israel responded by trying to find some way to make up for their sin against God, but looked for some act that would earn God’s mercy. They thought that bowing before God or giving some sort of offering would be enough to cover their sins. They even offered to sacrifice their first born sons, an offering God would never accept.
God answered that He had already shown His people what is right and good to do in this world. A right relationship with God means right relationships with other people. He says, “Do justice, be merciful and walk humbly with God.” Humility does not mean bowing or giving with a hard heart. It means recognizing our own sinfulness and submitting ourselves to that which God has already done. Instead of demanding that the people of Israel give their sons on the altar of sacrifice, God sent His own son to take the wrath they deserve. The One who lived out what is right and good also laid down His own life so that we to might be just, merciful and humble before God.
Blessed are the peacemakers. We must become peacemakers. We must risk everything to follow Jesus, to share His Word and to touch the hearts of our neighbors. It won’t be easy. As a matter of fact, it will be very, very hard. We are likely to suffer persecution. We won’t get what is fair or just. We might just lose what is ours. We will struggle because we’ll see that the world just isn’t how God intends it to be. We will become doormats for those who want to take advantage of us. But we can rest in the promises of God; He sent His Son to be a doormat for our sakes, to turn the world upside down, and in doing so He made everything right.
The Christian faith is foolishness, because it makes no sense in a world that honors the powerful, promotes the strong, encourages the self and puts the great on to pedestals. However, God has chosen to bless those who humble themselves before Him, beginning first with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As we follow His path, and live as He lived, we might seem to have a life that is far from blessed. But God and His peace will shine through our weakness; through our poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, mercy, suffering, humility and rejection He will be glorified and perhaps one tiny corner of the world will be saved.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having the utility belt of truth buckled around your waist, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having fitted your feet with the preparation of the Good News of peace; above all, taking up the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; with all prayer and requests, praying at all times in the Spirit, and being watchful to this end in all perseverance and requests for all the saints: on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in opening my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the Good News, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” Ephesians 6:10-20, WEB
For the first few hundred years after Christ, the Romans did not approve of the Christian faith. Some of the emperors used Christians for games, putting them into the arena with hungry lions. Some Christians were persecuted to death in other situations, often being forced to recant their faith or die. We have records of many martyrs from those early years, people who willingly died for the sake of the Gospel. Much of the persecution was caused by a misunderstanding of Christian faith. Since some of the rituals of the early church were practiced in secret, heinous rumors were spread about them: rumors of child sacrifice and orgies.
Difficulties eased for a time when Constantine saw the advantages of Christians living in the empire. Christian disciples were compassionate and peace loving. Though Constantine may have come to believe in Christian doctrine, he never gave up his other religious affiliations. He made the empire a place of tolerance and acceptance of different people and even used Christian faith as a way of expanding his territory. We can never be sure if Constantine was ever really saved, but at least for a time there was peace in the Christian community.
Future leaders of the Roman Empire were not so compassionate. Emperor Licinius revoked the policy of toleration in approximately the year 320 A.D. He ordered that every Christian should renounce their faith and turn back to the religion of Rome or die. Governor Agricolaus of Lesser Armenia passed this order on to his military troops, forty of whom were Christian. Those forty men refused to obey the order. The governor took his troops to a frozen lake and ordered them to recant or to lie naked on the ice. Agricolaus had prepared a bath filled with warm water for the men who could not stand the cold and gave up. One man did. He ran to the bath and jumped in. Unfortunately, the warm water shocked his body and he died anyway. The other thirty nine men refused to renounce their faith and they lay on the ice until they perished. One man, impressed by the faith of the thirty-nine, confessed faith in Christ, took off his clothes and lay with the soldiers, taking the place of the man who died. These forty men are remembered for their faith in the midst of persecution.
Did you know that the churches of third world countries are now sending missionaries to the western world? They are being sent to America and to Europe in an effort to deliver the Gospel message of hope and faith to the Christians who have become too comfortable and have turned away from God. No matter how bad things get in our lives in the western world, we do not know what it is like to suffer the kind of persecution faced by those forty soldiers. No one is going to make us lie naked on a frozen lake or make us die for our faith. We are not going to be asked to renounce our faith. Yet, for many Christians this has made us too comfortable. We do not need to stand firm in our faith so we don’t worry about being strong. We don’t put on the armor of God every day. Would you be prepared to stand firm or lie on a frozen lake if suddenly someone forced you to renounce your faith? He gives us the equipment we need to be strong, let us continually be prepared for the day when we will need to use it.
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you. Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t despise prophesies. Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good. Abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, WEB
I can’t help but wonder what Paul was thinking when he wrote this guide of faithful and faith-filled living suggestions. “Rejoice always.” How is that possible? We have good times and we have bad times. Even Jesus wept; it is foolish and unhealthy to ignore those feelings which are opposite of joy. Sorrow is a natural part of life and can offer healing and growth.
“Pray without ceasing.” Paul must not have had a day job. How can we spend every minute of every day in prayer? Most of us have trouble coming up with five minutes a day to set aside to talk with our Father in heaven. Oh, many of us will pray while we are doing other things: I like to pray while I’m driving and doing the dishes. But is it enough to chit chat with God while we are doing other things? Don’t we get distracted by the other drivers on the road or that stubborn greasy stain on our pot?
“In everything give thanks.” Everything? Should I give thanks when the cats spit up a hairball on my newly cleaned carpet? How about when my checking account is near zero and I still have bills to pay? Should I be thankful when the storms flood my house or a drunk hits my car? How can I be thankful when I am afraid of what tomorrow holds?
“Don’t quench the Spirit,” Paul says. But do we really know when it is the Spirit talking? Churches are constantly dealing with the questions we face living in today’s world. Where do we go from here? Are those who want change speaking for the Spirit? Or is the Spirit speaking through those who believe that we should hold to traditional values? Is God speaking through that dirty, smelly stranger on the street corner preaching a message of repentance? Or is He speaking through the protesters who are marching on City Hall? Which message does He want us to hear? Should we allow those other voices continue to cause confusion in an already chaotic world?
“Don’t despise prophesies.” I have to admit that I find this one especially difficult because I have experienced prophets who prophesy messages that fall far from God’s good and perfect word, and they love this text. Anyone who questions the authority of their words is labeled as an unbeliever and destined for hell. Paul says to “prove all things” and yet this is often difficult. How do we prove faith? How do we prove the things of faith when there is so much in the world that seemingly disproves everything we believe?
“Hold firmly that which is good.” This sounds easy, and yet how often have we lost touch with the things that are really good? Are we really paying attention? We are spending so much of our time busy with our daily lives that we forget to spend time in prayer and thanksgiving. We are so worried about whether or not we have checked everything off our to-do list that we miss the opportunities to worship God in word and deed.
“Abstain from every form of evil.” This makes sense, and we try. But how many of us can honestly say that we can abstain from every form of evil, even for a day? Remembering, as so eloquently worded in Luther’s Small catechism, that every commandment is not only a message of what not to do, but what we should do to keep our neighbor from suffering. In other words, it is not enough to obey the “shall nots.” We are expected to also do the things that will make life better for our neighbor. We shall not murder or endanger or harm our neighbors, but instead help and support our neighbors in all life’s needs. To keep food from the hungry is to do them harm.
This is a great deal to ask of us. Yet, there is comfort in this passage, the greatest comfort we can be given. Paul writes, “He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.” We cannot uphold all these expectations. We can’t rejoice always. We can’t pray without ceasing. We can’t, or don’t, give thanks in all circumstances. It just is beyond the ability of our flesh. We will doubt what we hear, and we should question every word, until we are sure that it comes from God. Our grasp is tenuous, and no matter how hard we try will we let go of what is good and we will fall into that which is evil. But through it all, the God who calls us is faithful and He will be with us and will help us through. He will help us to rejoice, pray, give thanks, listen, accept, grasp and abstain. And He will forgive us when we fail and give us another chance to live faithfully according to His Word.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are God’s people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10, WEB
I spent the weekend at my favorite camp in retreat with a wonderful group of women. We gathered to learn about our identity. We began Friday evening with a project during which the women made a poster with photos and words that described their identity. Many women brought photos and copies of important documents like their birth certificates or the passports. The woman with a passport loves to travel. Others showed pictures of children and grandchildren. There were photos of gardens from those who love flowers and photos of animals for the animal lovers. Some of the revelations were inspiring. We had a lot of tears as widows remembered their husbands and pride about some amazing accomplishments. The women were to leave a space empty so that on Saturday night they could add what they discovered about their identity during the weekend.
I didn’t plan on making a poster. I was one of the team and preparation made finding things to use on my poster impossible. I really enjoyed wandering around the room, listening to the women’s stories, seeing their pictures and finding ideas that I might be able to work into the lesson I was going to teach the next day. However, one of the other team members who didn’t want to do a poster joked about how I should do one. I didn’t have anything, but I cut out the shape of a little girl and decorated the dress with lace and stickers. I added hair but left the face blank. Someone said, “You really think out of the box.” I thought that was a pretty valid comment because I do think out of the box in many ways.
The theme for the weekend was “Created, Called and Gifted.” We wanted to women to leave the retreat knowing that their identity is found in Christ and that they are children of God. Saturday we took a spiritual gifts assessment and then I taught a lesson on spiritual gifts and how we can use them in our life, in the world as well as in the church. I wanted to lay a foundation so that the women would know that whatever gift they discover they have, they will know that they can find ways to use that gift to glorify God and grow His Kingdom. Another team member presented a study using today’s text, showing how we are to live out our identity as God’s children.
As she gave her presentation, the word “royal” stood out to me. Later that day we gathered and the ladies saw their scores. I wanted to take time for them to ask specific questions, to give them encouragement and help them see ways they might use their gifts in their lives. We had many women who are in transition for one reason or another. Some had recently retired. Others were dealing with changes in family. Most of all, I focused on reminding them that they are children of God, that they are called to a unique purpose and that God has given them everything they need to accomplish His work in the world. The conversations continued the rest of the day. At one point during that final lesson time, I remembered that word “royal” from the previous lesson and I said, “Ladies, you are a princess, a daughter of the King.” Our Father, the King, will always love and forgive us and He will provide for us, and as His children, don’t we want to do everything we can to make Him happy?
We gathered Saturday night to finish our projects and share our lives with others. There were tears and laughter, but we learned a lot about those who stood to share. A few ladies who found the project especially difficult were most blessed by standing with faith and confidence to reveal their hopes before the group. My little girl ended up with a happy face and a crown on her head. I used this as a way to bring the lesson all together. I reminded them that they were princesses and they will find joy in doing what God has called them to do.
We are blessed to be a blessing. We are to use our gifts to build God’s Kingdom from the outside and from the inside by sharing the Gospel and encouraging one another. You are a princess or prince, a beloved child of the King who loves you with an everlasting love, forgives you and calls you to a unique purpose. It is in responding to the opportunities to glorify Him that you will find true joy and peace.
“The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom. All those who do his work have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” Psalm 111:10, WEB
My lessons went very well at the retreat this weekend, but they didn’t happen without a lot of work, not only in preparation of materials but in courage. Many people would be shocked to know how hard it is for me to stand in front of a group to speak. I get very nervous, constantly afraid that I’ll say something foolish or wrong. One of the women told me that she is just too shy to do the things that she feels God calling her to do. I laughed and told her that I’m really very shy. I love being a writer and artist because I can hide behind a computer or in my studio and not deal with people. I sign up for jobs that are behind the scenes. I am afraid of being rejected and so I’d rather do work that does not require others to know that I’m the worker.
Yet, I also feel joy when I teach and preach. I guess that’s why others have a difficult time believing that I am an introvert. They don’t see how much energy it takes for me to stand in front of a group, leaving me exhausted when it is over. They don’t see the fear that I have to face as I prepare my notes and my heart for the task. They don’t see how afraid I am that I’ll disappoint and I’m relieved when it is over and someone has found value in my presentation.
Fear is a very real emotion in our lives. Everyone is afraid of something, but some people have extreme fears or phobias. People who are afraid of airplanes never travel. People who are afraid of enclosed places can’t use an elevator; those afraid of heights never see the incredible beauty of the world from the top of a mountain or skyscraper. Most people are not so afraid that they let their fear rule their life, but we all deal with trepidation about something. The key is learning how to get through it.
I remember a time years ago when I had to deal with the fears of my child. The kids were in bed and I was busy at the computer when I heard the pitter-patter of little footsteps and looked up to see Zachary’s head peeping around the corner. “Zack, what are you doing up?” I asked. “I’m afraid, Mommy.” Zack said. We spent some time talking about what he was afraid of and I said, “Zack, Mommy is right here. There is nothing to be afraid of as long as I am close by. Go back to bed and rest well.” Zack did go to bed, and fell asleep immediately. He no longer feared the unknown, but trusted in the one he knew would protect him.
I suppose that’s how I deal with my fears when I’m preparing to teach. I look to the One who will guard and protect me. Oh, I might still mess up. I might say something foolish or I might even have my facts wrong. I may fumble for words or my notes may end up out of order (it happened on Saturday!) Yet, I know that I was called to that moment, that God had made that opportunity for me to share my gifts with the ladies at the retreat.
Fear of the LORD is defined in Easton’s Bible Dictionary as, “used in the Old Testament as a designation of true piety. It is a fear conjoined with love and hope, and is therefore not a slavish dread, but rather filial reverence.” This respect, which is the knowledge that God has the power to protect His children, will manifest itself in obedience. I find joy in doing the things that are hard for me because it is God who calls me to the work. I obey because He loves me and I love Him. I might be afraid of people rejecting me, but I am not afraid that God will. I revere God because He is the One who has the power over my life. Do not be afraid of the things of this world, for God will protect you. Go forth in awe of His power and might, obey His commands, and give Him praise and glory each day, it is there you’ll find true joy.