Welcome to the January 2018 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 2018
“Praise Yah! I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart, in the council of the upright, and in the congregation. Yahweh’s works are great, pondered by all those who delight in them. His work is honor and majesty. His righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered. Yahweh is gracious and merciful. He has given food to those who fear him. He always remembers his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are truth and justice. All his precepts are sure. They are established forever and ever. They are done in truth and uprightness. He has sent redemption to his people. He has ordained his covenant forever. His name is holy and awesome! 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, WEB
Last night was New Year’s Eve and many people partied well into the morning. For some, it was a night to overindulge in drink, food and merriment. Too many woke up this morning a little later than usual with a headache and the other symptoms that accompany too much of a good thing.
As we rolled out of bed this morning, many people made promises to change. Resolutions are as much a part of entering a new year as watching the ball drop in Times Square. January 1st is a good time to set goals for the coming year. What do we want to accomplish? What do we want to change about ourselves? Are we planning to diet, get a new job, or renew our relationships? It is good to want to break old habits, especially those that are potentially dangerous. Yet, many of those promises have come on the heels of holiday overindulgences; unfortunately, spur of the moment resolutions have little chance of making any real difference.
By mid January, many resolutions have long been forgotten. Sin is a part of our lives and old habits die hard. We are excited about the changes that could occur as we break the bad habits and transform our lives into something much better than it has been. Yet, we all know that we will fail in the days and weeks to come.
I suppose that’s why it would be best for us to begin this New Year not with a list of ways we want to change, but with words of thanksgiving on our lips. God has done great and wonderful things in our world, and in our lives. David passed on the message of God’s mercy and grace to the next generation by singing praise to God. He remembers His promises and is faithful. He provides justice and displays His power for the sake of those He loves. He is the beginning of everything good. We should start at God’s wisdom as we make those resolutions to change, and we find that wisdom in the awe we have for all God has done. As we praise God into the New Year, we will make the best decisions for our lives.
“At that time, Jesus answered, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight. All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him. Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” Matthew 11:25-30, WEB
January 1st saw the beginning of new laws around the country, some which make some things legal that have thus far been considered illegal. Most laws are designed to stop people from doing things, but these laws are meant to do the opposite. These laws are being celebrated because they give people the freedom to do what they want to do.
That’s how we view freedom, isn’t it? Freedom means being able to do what we want. We are freed from the oppression of laws or ideas that tamp down our desires and open us to the opportunity to live as we want to live. Freedom is about being able to make our own decisions, to choose whether we’ll do things that may be harmful to our selves but that won’t hurt others. Besides, those things aren’t really that bad!
So, today’s passage seems to be just another way that religion oppresses people. It is a call to take up a yoke! Why should we carry a burden like an ox when we can run free and do as we please? Unfortunately, the kind of freedom that allows unrestricted access to the desires of our hearts is not really that good for us, is it? Think about this: what happens when a dog is allowed to run freely without boundaries? They get into trouble, don’t they? They get lost. They get into fights with other dogs. They get hit by cars. They may not have access to food, water or a warm home. They are far from the love of an owner. They might be free, but the life is not one of rest.
The freedom we have in God’s kingdom may seem limited, but God’s boundaries to protect us. We are burdened by our own hearts and desires. The freedom we think we want will burden us in ways we don’t expect. The new laws may make it possible to do what many people think they want to do, but the results of unrestricted access to those things which were once illegal is still uncertain. The freedom may lead to even greater burdens of health or legal issues.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” Freedom in faith is not burdensome, even if we are called to take up His yoke and follow Him. In obedience we find peace and joy. In submission we discover that life under God’s care, under the yoke of our Savior, in the boundaries of God’s Word, gives us the freedom to rest. We don’t have to struggle with the responsibility of being on our own. We have a Lord who will give us what we need as we live under His care. We are free, not to go our way, but to rest in God’s grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 7, 2018, Baptism of our Lord/Epiphany 1: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Mark 1:4-11
“Yahweh’s voice is powerful. Yahweh’s voice is full of majesty.” Psalm 29:4, WEB
“Holy God, mighty Lord, gracious Father: We give you thanks, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and you created heaven and earth. By the gift of water you nourish and sustain us and all living things. By the waters of the flood you condemned the wicked and saved those whom you had chosen, Noah and his family. You led Israel by the pillar of cloud and fire through the sea, out of slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land. In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit. By the baptism of his own death and resurrection your beloved Son has set us free from the bondage to sin and death, and has opened the way to the joy and freedom of everlasting life. He made water a sign of the kingdom and of cleansing and rebirth. In obedience to his command, we make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Pour out your Holy Spirit, so that those who are here baptized may be given new life. Wash away the sin of all those who are cleansed by this water and bring them forth as inheritors of your glorious kingdom. To you be given praise and honor and worship through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.” (Prayer at Baptism from the Lutheran Book of Worship.)
The baptism liturgy differs from church to church, but these are the words we hear when someone is baptized in mine. I love the way the pastor proclaims God’s use of water in this prayer so that we see the connection of our baptism to the creation, to our sinfulness, to God’s grace. “He made water a sign of the kingdom and of cleansing and rebirth.” We are called to be instruments of His grace by using water and His Word to make disciples of all nations. This is an act of worship; it is an act of trust and obedience. We believe that God’s voice can put order to the chaos of our world; it can free us from the bondage of sin and death and grants us new life.
We have this new life because God had a plan. In the beginning, the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. We often think of the world before creation as being nothing, and yet the formless void which the scriptures talk about was not empty but filled with dark, deep waters. The wind, or Spirit, of God blew over the face of those waters. This was chaos, a world without light or order. The world was not empty, but it was overwhelmed by darkness, out of control and hopeless.
The image of that chaos is as frightening as a churning, dark and stormy sea might be, because there is no order and no light. But God had a vision for the formless void that was earth. The text from Genesis says, “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” It took only a word and everything changed. The chaotic formless void now had light. Even with nothing else, there is a peace in knowing that something, or someone, has dominion over the chaos.
I am creative. I have piles of canvas around my studio just waiting for paint. I have piles of craft supplies for other projects. I have paper, pencil and computer for writing. I have lots of ideas in my head, but those ideas are invisible to the world until I reveal them; the only way the world will experience my creativity is to make them tangible. I speak with paint and canvas or with other supplies. I speak with words on the computer. When I speak in words, arts and crafts, my ideas are made concrete and are shared with others. The same is true with God. He had a plan, but He had to put voice to the plan for everything to come into being.
God had a vision for that formless void. The text from Genesis says, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” It took only a word and everything changed. The chaotic formless void now had light. Even with nothing else, there is a peace in knowing that something, or someone, has dominion over the chaos. That was only the beginning. As He spoke light into the darkness, He was already planning to save us by sending the Light into our darkness. That Word, “Light” was the first revelation of God’s plan. It was the first revelation of Jesus Christ.
What does it mean that there was light and there was darkness? What does it mean that there was Day and Night? This story makes us consider the darkness, particularly in our confused and difficult world. Why is there darkness? Even more difficult is the question, “Why is there evil?” This is a question everyone ponders, some wrangle with it so long that they are left with nothing but doubt. They can’t believe in a God that would create darkness. Yet, the story does not say that God created darkness. “God divided the light from the darkness.” The darkness is a lack of light.
Evil exists; we know this to be true. Besides our experience with evil, the Bible tells us that evil is in the world. We have suffered from the sins of others and we have suffered the consequences of our own sin. We die because of sin, even though that was not God’s intent. So, we are left once again with that question. “Why?” Why is there sin? Why is there evil? And the worst question of all is, “Why would God create evil?”
As with darkness, the reality is that evil is not part of God’s creation, but rather exists because some of God’s creation rejected the light. Evil exists outside the Light; it is the lack of God. Some of God’s creation rejected God, and thus we are left with evil. It did not take very long for the evil to draw others away from the light. Even in the Garden of Eden, Paradise, Adam and Eve were swayed to turn from God and to leave the Light. Since that moment, sin has been a part of our world. We can’t fix it. We can’t defeat it. We can’t overcome sin by our own power because it has overpowered us. In the beginning, God spoke and our salvation was revealed.
With a word, God made the chaos orderly, the darkness light. With just a Word, He changed a formless void into the beginning of His vision for the world. Though it seems like darkness and evil still rule and that the world is still chaotic and void, today’s scriptures remind us in a very real, tangible way that God did not stop speaking. God had a plan to bring order to this world that was filled with sin. The voice of God ripped through the fabric of creation and God incarnate was born.
The Word He spoke on Christmas Day was His Son, Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel lesson, we meet that Son as He enters fully into the lives of His people through the ministry of John the Baptist. John is the voice crying out in the wilderness, calling God’s people to repentance, making the way for the Lord. The people flock to John no matter who they are: young and old, rich and poor. Those who believed John’s message were baptized in the river Jordan, but even as he did this baptism he told them that another would come. The one to come would be greater than John, so great that John would not even be worthy to be His slave.
Then Jesus came to the River Jordan and was baptized by John. At that moment, God spoke again; with His voice He divided light and dark. He spoke hope into the world. Mark writes, “Immediately coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. A voice came out of the sky, ‘You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” The plan came to fruition when God named Jesus His beloved Son.
The voice of God is powerful; when He speaks things happen. In today’s Psalm, God’s voice breaks the great cedars and shakes the desert. The voice of God is also majestic, an oasis in times of suffering and pain. He comforts us with hope and peace. We like to be in control of things, but the voice of God can do things that we could never do. God is the One whose voice can bring order out of chaos. When He speaks, the Light and Darkness are separated; the Day and Night are set apart. The psalmist calls us to attribute to God glory and strength, to worship the One whose voice can bring peace to His people.
The voice of God continues to be heard today and when He speaks, things still happen. The Holy Spirit still hovers over that which is formless and void and brings life, light and peace. We hear God’s voice and believe through the beloved Son who came into the world to be just like you and me. Though He is different, though He is the incarnate Word of God, He came to be one of us, to live as we live, and to die as we die, so that we might become like Him. His voice gives us light and peace. His voice gives us life.
In the beginning there was a formless void and darkness covering the deep. Sometimes we feel like that chaos still rules our world. We all have aspects of our life that need light and order. God is working on us, daily speaking His grace into our life. Like my pile of papers and the Christmas decorations, we need to be organized, changed, and picked through. Some things need to be thrown out while other things added. As God continues to speak in our lives and the world, the darkness will still exist. Through the Word who is Jesus Christ, we will be set apart in the light and will live in this chaotic world with peace and hope.
We face temptation every moment that we walk in this world. He 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 to 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.
We join in His death and resurrection through our baptism. Cleansed by the waters and the Word, we are made new creatures, no longer under the hold of sin and death, but embraced by the God who knew what we needed long before we needed it. We still dwell in a world filled with chaos and darkness, and we still need God’s grace because we continue to fall. Paul tells us that faith changes things. We walk in newness of life, and though forgiveness continues to be ours, we are reminded not to live as if we have never been baptized. We are no longer lost in the chaos and darkness; we dwell in the Light. We are dead to sin, called to trust and obey His Word as inheritors of His glorious Kingdom.
Though we are not Jesus the Beloved, we are beloved children of God. The Light shines in, with and through our lives when God speaks our name. On this Sunday as we remember the baptism of Jesus, we are called to remember our own baptisms. And yet, we should not simply recall the experience of getting wet in church one day.
Martin Luther said, “Remember your baptism.” He was not calling us to remember the event or the day. He was reminding us to remember God’s Word that came to us at that day. In the words “You are my beloved child,” we have the assurance of God’s grace we need to get through each day. We will struggle because we live in a fallen world. We will face difficult times. The Gospel is no more acceptable now than it was to Jesus’ contemporaries. Yet we know, as we remember our baptism that we can live the words of the psalmist who said, “Yahweh will give strength to his people. Yahweh will bless his people with peace.” In that peace we can go out and make disciples of all nations, sharing His grace so that others will see the Light that overcomes the chaos and darkness of this world.
When Martin Luther said the simple statement, “Remember your baptism,” he was telling us to daily remember God’s voice and the Word that came to us at the font. At your baptism God said, “You are my beloved child.” He named you His own and sealed our life with His Holy Spirit. He spoke and your world was changed forever.
“As he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are crazy! Your great learning is driving you insane!’ But he said, ‘I am not crazy, most excellent Festus, but boldly declare words of truth and reasonableness. For the king knows of these things, to whom also I speak freely. For I am persuaded that none of these things is hidden from him, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ Agrippa said to Paul, ‘With a little persuasion are you trying to make me a Christian?’ Paul said, ‘I pray to God, that whether with little or with much, not only you, but also all that hear me today, might become such as I am, except for these bonds.’ The king rose up with the governor, and Bernice, and those who sat with them. When they had withdrawn, they spoke to one another, saying, ‘This man does nothing worthy of death or of bonds.’ Agrippa said to Festus, ‘This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.’” Acts 26:24-32, WEB
I don’t know about you, but the story of my Christian life isn’t very exciting. Oh, I’ve had moments, but overall I have lived a life of faith since my childhood days. I went to Sunday school and church, had bibles which I opened regularly, and did good works in the name of Jesus even when I was young. I can’t say that there was any particular dramatic moment when I began to believe in Jesus. He was a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I think the same is true of many Christians; I know this is true for my children, too. We all learned about Jesus from our parents and were part of a Christian community that encouraged our faith.
I have to admit that the idea of witnessing is a struggle for me. What story do I have to tell? Oh, I can talk about the love and grace of Jesus, but those who do not know Jesus can’t see that He’s really made a difference in my life. I wasn’t dramatically transformed from a sinner into a saint. It doesn’t seem as though there is any reason for salvation, and so they can’t believe that Jesus can really help them. They think I was a saint all along and that my Christianity can’t possibly make a difference for them. “I’m too far gone,” they think. “Jesus can’t possibly forgive me.” I know that I needed Jesus; I know that the problem is not a life of disobedience but rather a nature of brokenness and separation from God. I know they need Jesus as much as I do, but my story does not resonate with them.
There are some, however, who have a much more exciting story to tell. Take Paul, for instance. Paul was a zealous Jew. He was even in the gathering who stoned Stephen. He was in charge of protecting the Jewish community from the spreading Christian faith. He was on his way to Damascus with letters that gave him the authority to punish Christians when he met Jesus. It was a most dramatic moment. He went from punishing Christians to being the loudest voice for the Christian faith. He met Jesus face to face, realized his foolishness and was transformed from sinner to saint in a matter of moments. He retold his story over and over again and people listened to what he had to say.
But his story was crazy. Really. Bright lights, blindness, appearances of long dead men? He told his story to show his listeners that God can do amazing things. “If He can change me, imagine what He can do for you? His Gospel is that powerful!” In today’s story, a man named Festus interrupted Paul. “Paul, you are crazy! Your great learning is driving you insane!” Our stories might just seem that way to those who are listening. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I struggle with witnessing. Even without a dramatic event of conversion, the whole idea of God’s salvation is crazy to those who don’t think they need to be saved. “You read the bible too much,” they say. “Your Bible study is driving you insane.”
Yet, Christian faith calls us to share our stories. They don’t have to be exciting. There does not have to be dramatic moments. God saves and He speaks through our lives, whether we have known Jesus from childhood or were transformed in an instant. Paul’s story didn’t make a difference for Agrippa or Festus, but Paul didn’t really worry about that. “I pray to God, that whether with little or with much, not only you, but also all that hear me today, might become such as I am, except for these bonds.” Paul wanted every person who heard his voice to be saved. We might be uncertain that our stories will make a difference, but let us speak them anyway and pray that everyone who hears might become Christians, too. This is how God has always grown His Church, and we might just be the voice that brings the transforming Gospel to another child of God.
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, living in luxury every day. A certain beggar, named Lazarus, was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Yes, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The beggar died, and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried. In Hades, he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far off, and Lazarus at his bosom. He cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue! For I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things, and Lazarus, in the same way, bad things. But now here he is comforted and you are in anguish. Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that no one may cross over from there to us.’ He said, ‘I ask you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house; for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, so they won’t also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’He said to him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.’” Luke 16:19-31, WEB
Christmas has pretty much disappeared. The clearance aisles are nearly empty of Christmas merchandise and Valentine’s Day merchandise is filling the shelves. Almost everyone has taken down their Christmas decorations. Very few houses are still lit up at night. Trees are waiting on the curb for the garbage men to come. The radio stations are playing regular music again and the Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are packed away until next year. Many people think the twelve days of Christmas end on Christmas day, but that is just the start. For the Church, Christmas is not over until tomorrow, Epiphany or Three Kings Day.
Tonight is Twelfth Night, historically a special celebration though not very popular today. It was a day of parties, with special pastries and ceremonies. In one tradition, a person was chosen to be the Lord of Misrule, and for a brief period of time the world is turned upside down. The rich become like the poor, the poor become like the rich. The world was restored to normal at midnight.
Another tradition included the taking down of all Christmas decorations. In those days, the trees and wreaths and houses were often decorated with fresh fruit and other foods. The food taken from the decorations was then eaten at the feast given on Twelfth Night. Since fruit and pastries were very expensive, it was appropriate to use them to decorate the tree and then even more appropriate to enjoy a special taste at the party. Twelfth Night, then, was really a very special time.
Most of us will barely notice that today is even special. Here in Texas I’m sure Three Kings Cakes will be available in the stores because of the Mexican traditions that are so popular here. We won’t have special fruit or pastry treats because we don’t put anything like that on our trees. If we use apples, they are glass or plastic, and will be packed away in boxes until next year.
I doubt that anyone will celebrate Twelfth Night with a change in circumstances. I don’t see many rich folk becoming poor for a day while allowing the poor to become rich for a moment. Things are getting back to normal after the hustle and bustle of the holidays. On this Twelfth Night, let us remember these old traditions and think about what they mean to us in our Christian faith. After all, Jesus came to turn the world upside down.
Being rich will not send anyone to hell, but ignoring the fact that there are those in the world who are suffering will. The rich man in today’s story rejected Lazarus and refused to give him aid. In the old days traditions, the rich learned what it was like to be poor by living it for a day. Hopefully they learned to have empathy and in compassion acted upon the needs of their poorer neighbors. I’m sure some were more merciful during the rest of the year because of that brief moment on Twelfth Night. Perhaps we could use the same experience to help us see that there are many around us who need our help, our attention, and our resources. We are generous at Christmas, but by the fifth of January we are back to normal. Let us constantly remember, not just today but every day, that Jesus Christ turns the world upside down and that we’ll be remembered not for what we have accomplished on our own but for how we shared our life with others.
“For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I’m not the hand, I’m not part of the body,’ it is not therefore not part of the body. If the ear would say, ‘Because I’m not the eye, I’m not part of the body,’ it’s not therefore not part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body, just as he desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now they are many members, but one body. The eye can’t tell the hand, ‘I have no need for you,’ or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need for you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. Those parts of the body which we think to be less honorable, on those we bestow more abundant honor; and our unpresentable parts have more abundant propriety; whereas our presentable parts have no such need. But God composed the body together, giving more abundant honor to the inferior part, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, WEB
I go to the movies regularly. We have a theater nearby that has very inexpensive ticket prices. The movies are old, often already on DVD, but I don’t mind waiting if I can go for just a couple dollars. I go during the day when has the advantage of small crowds; there is plenty of elbow room when only ten people are in a theater that fits hundreds. I went last week to see the movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” The story is timeless, so I didn’t mind seeing so long after Christmas.
I go so regularly that I’m a familiar face at the theater. There is a man who works there who remembers me every time I go. He remembers when I haven’t been there for awhile. The Christmas season didn’t leave me much time for movies, so last week was the first time in over a month. The man greeted me at the door and said, “I haven’t seen you lately!” He asked about my holidays. He directed me to my theater and hoped I enjoyed my movie. My encounters with the man always make me smile.
Every time we meet, he tells me that he has been working at that theater for twenty-one years. This time he told me that it will soon be twenty-two. See, the man is differently-abled. He is in a wheel-chair and has some other issues. Yet, he is a capable employee, takes the tickets and greets the guests with a joy that is contagious. He obviously has been doing the job well to be such a long-term employee. Some people may look at that man and question his value in the world. Unfortunately, there have been times in history when he would have been targeted for extinction because of his disabilities. However, he is the perfect example of why all people have value.
Today’s scripture is directed at the Christian community. Our witness for Jesus Christ takes so many different kinds of people. Unfortunately, there are some who think that there are useless Christians. There are some Christians who think they are useless. They see others who are more capable and think there is nothing they can do to share the Gospel and encourage faith. There are some who are disabled by emotional, spiritual and even physical limitations. Yet, there is work for them to do. Every believer is given gifts and opportunity as individuals who work together as part of the team to testify to the grace and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. Each worker is an equal partner in the work God has given for us to do in this world, no matter their abilities or supposed worth. Paul reminds us that all are important to the whole and we can rest in the knowledge that God is in the midst of it all, making His Gospel heard in many different ways.
“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’ Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7, WEB
Every relationship is different. A mother and son will have a much different way of communicating than twin sisters. Old friends meet each other on certain terms, new friends deal with one another on a different level. Relationships grow and change with time and circumstances. The relationship between a mother and her infant child will not look like their relationship later in life. The roles and needs of the people in those relationships change over time.
In the beginning of life, a child can not do anything for himself, so the mother must put the most energy into the relationship. The mother receives great joy from caring for her child, but the child can’t do anything in return. The relationship changes as the child grows. As he or she gains some independence, two way communication becomes part of the relationship. The child can not only express his needs, but he can also give praise and thanksgiving to the caregiver. While the parent willingly does everything necessary to care for the child, it is such a joy when that child has an active role in the relationship. Eventually, the child grows mature enough to make the relationship mutual. Parents want to be involved in their children’s lives, the good and the bad, the ordinary and the extraordinary.
We’ve all had friends that are like the infant child. These friends are always in need when they make contact. They need a friend to listen, they need advice, or they need some sort of help. When their needs are met, they disappear again until the next time they need something. The friendship is a one way street: one party giving constantly and the other taking. There is no real communication, no mutual enjoyment.
How often are we like that with God? We go to Him when we have a need, seeking His mercy and His grace, but we don’t bother when things are going well. Our Father does not mind when we go to Him for help, He finds great joy in giving good gifts to His children. However, He wants to hear from us constantly: in the good times and in the bad. God hopes that our relationship with Him will grow and mature, so that we will communicate our joys as well as our fears. He wants to share in the good times, to be present in our ordinary daily existence. It takes conversation to make relationships strong. With God, that communication comes through prayer.
A child loves a parent, but in the early years they do not know how to exhibit their love or speak of it. As they grow and mature, they realize how much their parents do to keep them healthy and happy. Eventually, the relationship becomes mutual, the child giving as much back to the parent as the parent gives to the child. In many cases, old age makes it difficult for parents to do things for themselves, the child often takes the burden. There are times that the relationship is one way – one party is unable to anything but seek help. And God does not mind meeting our needs, He loves us and will give us every good and perfect gift.
It is very easy for us to get into the pattern of seeking Him only when we are in need. We are no different than those friends who only come to us when they need help; we don't realize we are ignoring God. Paul encourages us to pray faithfully, not just when we want something from God, but at all times. We know God is with us always, but He wants more than just to be in our presence. He wants to be our friend, our companion. That takes conversation. It takes a life of steadfast prayer daily, in the good times and the bad.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 14, 2018, Epiphany 2: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]; Psalm 139:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are expedient. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be brought under the power of anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:12, WEB
Samuel’s world was probably very quiet. Oh, there was the noise of animals, of nature, of neighbors, but nothing like we have today. You can’t go anywhere these days without hearing the sound of televisions or people on cell phones. It would have been especially quiet in the Temple. Samuel’s job was to serve Eli, so his senses would have been heightened to hear and respond to Eli’s voice. He didn’t even know he could hear the voice of God. Do we know we can hear it? Do we know that He might talk to us? If He does, will we be able to recognize it over the noise of the world?
Samuel was a most unusual young man. His mother Hannah was barren, but loved deeply by her husband Elkanah. He treated Hannah with love and grace to the point of making his other wife jealous. Whenever he went to Shiloh to worship the Lord God Almighty, Penninah treated Hannah so poorly that she wept and refused to eat. Elkanah asked, "Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?" She ate and then went into the temple to pray. Her ache was so deep and her tears so bitter that her prayers came from the very depths of her heart even while her lips moved soundlessly. Eli the priest saw her and thought she was drunk. He rebuked her, but she told him that she was pouring out her soul to the Lord. He said, "Go in peace; and the God of Israel grant thy petition that thou hast asked of him."
During her prayers, Hannah made a vow, "O Jehovah of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thy handmaid, but wilt give unto thy handmaid a man-child, then I will give him unto Jehovah all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head." She became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. As soon as he was weaned, Hannah took Samuel to the temple and gave him to Eli to serve the Lord for his whole life. Her faithfulness was rewarded as she was blessed with more children.
When God called Samuel, he went to Eli. They lived in a time when God was very quiet. The scriptures tell us that the word of the LORD was rare in those days. People were not having visions. Despite being high priest, Eli didn’t have the connection to God that we might expect. The priests were not necessarily called, but were appointed through inheritance, as we see with Eli’s sons. But Samuel was a gift from Hannah, given in response to God’s gift of answered prayer. Samuel was different. And Samuel was chosen for something great.
Eli was father to two sons who were wicked in the eyes of the Lord. They took advantage of their position, abused their power and lived sinful lives. Eli knew his sons were evil, and tried to stop them, but he did not succeed. They continued to be wicked and the Lord decided to put them to death and end the house of Eli. They lived under a promise made to Eli's father that they would minister before the Lord forever, but since Eli chose to honor his sons more than God, God chose to end that promise.
One night, Samuel heard the voice of God calling, but he didn’t know it was God. He lived in a time when God’s voice was rare; it is not surprising that he thought the voice speaking to him in then night was Eli. It even took Eli three times to realize what was happening. A boy simply would not know. So, imagine what it was like to be Samuel. He heard the voice a fourth time and responded to God. The message he received was not good news. Eli was like a father to Samuel. How would he tell Eli that God said that Eli’s house would be punished forever? It was the first of many bad messages Samuel had to take to the people who sought the word of the Lord.
I believe God still speaks to His people.
The writer of Hebrews tells us, “God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)
The Old Testament stories show us that God spoke to His people through the patriarchs and the prophets. He came to them in a very real way; sometimes He sent angels, sometimes He spoke in dreams. He even appeared preincarnate in human form. Last week we talked about the powerful voice of God. When He spoke, things happened. God spoke and the world was transformed. Now, we are told in Hebrews, that we hear God’s voice in the words of Jesus.
Yet, I believe God still speaks to His people in a very real way. There are still some who have encounters with angels and others who hear God in dreams. I even believe that God can speak in an audible voice to those who will hear.
I was experiencing a moment of questioning. My faith was strong, but I was bombarded with voices of other Christians who were trying to convince me that I had to do something. It didn’t seem right to me, but I listened and I prayed. I asked God if I should do this thing. “Is this necessary?” I asked, since the voices were insisting it is. “What could it hurt?” they said. To do this thing would be to doubt God’s Word in my life. Nothing would have been changed if I did it or didn’t do it, but I knew in my heart that I needed to trust that God had provided all I needed. At the crest of my prayer I heard the words, “My grace is sufficient for you.” God answered and I did not do this thing that others insisted I should do.
God has spoken in other ways, of course, often through other Christians. He uses their voices to reprove, rebuke and exhort us in our journey of faith. We are encouraged by the fellowship of other Christians. Our pastors and parents help guide our paths. Our Sunday school teachers teach us to love God’s Word. Our brothers and sisters help us stay accountable. We lift one another up in prayer and share God’s grace in real and tangible ways. We must remember that human beings are fallible and that we must listen through the lens of God’s Word because sometimes we can be wrong. Yet, God is still able to us our voices to speak His Word into the world.
We have heard people say in the past, “God told me,” and I have to admit that I cringe when I hear this. The “word” given in these proclamations are often something new and different. Take, for instance, the mother who murders her children and then claims that “God told me to do it.” God would not tell any mother to murder her children. Others make claims that God told them to steal or cheat to benefit His work in the world. God would never tell His people to be disobedient to the Law as a means to an end.
So, we know God does talk to His people, through the scriptures and through His Son. We also know that God still talks to us through others. Yet, there are many contradictory voices out there. Which church is right? Who has the best understanding of God’s Word? Is God calling us to do this thing or not? It can be very confusing, especially when we see so much politics in our religious communities. When two Christians disagree vehemently about an issue, who is right? What is truth? Who is speaking God’s Word? It is no wonder that we doubt what we hear because the world is chaotic.
And sometimes we will make the wrong choice. We will believe the wrong word. We’ll speak the wrong word because it makes the most sense to us in our understanding of God’s love and grace and Word. We’ll say and believe “God told me,” when the voice we heard was not His. We will fail because do not always listen to the voices around us through the lens of God’s Word. I was so glad that when God did speak to me, He did so in words that I knew were His. “My grace is sufficient for you,” was more true than all the other words being spoken to me by the voices who truly believed that they were speaking for God.
Thankfully, God’s grace is always bigger than our failures. He has overcome our sin and has defeated death despite our inability to stand firm in His promises. When we are confused by the voices we hear, when we listen and believe what they say, we can trust that God will keep calling us until we hear what He is really saying. We may be led down a wrong path, but God will find a way to turn us around.
God still speaks and He calls us into a relationship. It is difficult in this world because even Christians wonder if we are really hearing the voice of God. We want to be accepted, to be respected, to be happy. We want to fit in. The only reason I would have done that thing others were telling me to do was to satisfy them, and that was not the right reason to do anything meant to glorify God. His grace was truly sufficient for me. To believe otherwise would be to doubt God.
On this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are reminded that God has invited us into a new life, a life following Him. It doesn’t matter if others think we are crazy because we believe God has spoken to us. What matters is that we live the life that glorifies Him, trusting that He has done something we might never fully understand. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we are meant to do. He knows what purpose our life holds. And He has promised that we will see extraordinary things happen. When we hear His voice, and we will, we need only say, “Speak; for your servant hears.” Unfortunately, sometimes the Word God wants us to speak will be uncomfortable and unpopular.
This story about Samuel might seem like a hard way to begin a career serving the Lord, but this harsh word acted to verify to Eli that Samuel was a chosen prophet. He was not telling Eli something new; Eli had already heard this word. Now Eli knew without a doubt that it was true because it was given to him again. But Eli also knew that God was not leaving the people desolate. Imagine if you were Eli, trying to reign in out of control sons, knowing that you have failed to be not only the father, but also the priest, that God called him to be. It was up to him to ensure the spiritual welfare of his people, but how could that happen if there was no one to carry on the ministry? Samuel was a ray of hope in a hopeless situation. Samuel grew and ministered to the Lord; the people heard God's Word through him. God was no longer silent.
Philip heard God’s voice. Philip had an advantage over Samuel because he heard a very real voice, that of Jesus. Jesus called Philip into a relationship. The encounter was no less miraculous because Philip dropped everything to follow Jesus. He went to his friend Nathanael and told him that he’d met the Messiah. That message was not nearly as difficult to share as the one Samuel had to give Eli, but even still Nathanael questioned the details. He couldn’t believe that God would do things the way Philip said. “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Though God was speaking through Philip, Nathanael didn’t believe the voice because it was outside his expectation. That’s the parallel between us and this story. We can’t believe when someone says, “God told me…” especially when we hear several people say that God told them conflicting ideas. It is hard to believe when several politicians say that God called them to run for office. It is even hard to believe when someone says that God called them to ministry when their ideas are different than ours.
Philip had no doubt that what he was saying was true. When Nathanael questioned the invitation to meet Jesus, he answered, “Come and see.” He didn’t try to prove his words or his worth. He didn’t try to prove that he heard God’s voice. He simply invited Nathanael to see for himself the man who could be the One they were waiting to see. We need not fight the doubt or worry about the ridicule when we say we’ve heard the voice of God, whether it is a voice like Samuel heard or a real voice through whom God is speaking. We can just say, “Come and see.” With these words we invite people into our fellowship with Christ, into His Word, into His heart. We can’t change people but we can invite them into His presence. God is able to prove Himself in His own way.
When Nathanael met Jesus, Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Jesus knew Nathanael, intimately and personally, as He knows all His children. The Psalm speaks of God’s handiwork, how He knitted us together in the womb. David sings of God’s knowledge, how He knows our inner being and the lives He has ordained for us to live. He knows our calling, even before we are born. He knows our thoughts and our ways. In the lessons for today, we learn that God doesn’t let our doubt get in the way of the intention of His calling. He keeps calling so that we will hear. We might not always understand why or how God comes to us, but He does until we get it.
When Nathanael wondered how Jesus knew him, the proof was not very exciting. “I saw you under the tree.” Why would that be the word that convinced Nathanael to believe in Jesus? It doesn’t make much sense. And yet, when does it make sense to say we believe in something so extraordinary? The proofs that people give that God called them often sound coincidental or seem like the perception of crazy mind. “That funny feeling in your belly was nothing more than gas.” Jesus assured Nathanael that this was the beginning of something extraordinary. His faith may be based on so little, but it would grow as God continued to speak. Nathanael would see the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but even when it seemed like there was no physical body to the voice, the voice would still speak.
God is full of grace and mercy, and it is so wonderful to know that even when we fail, He will be there with us. He helps us to overcome and He helps us to grow in faith and hope and peace. Yet, it is very easy to cross the fine line between the freedom we have in grace and the willful disobedience to God’s calling on our lives.
We live in a world that has become all about Me. Me demands the best of everything. Me expects everything that would satisfy Me. Me is not at fault for anything, Me has every right to blame everyone else for all Me's difficulties. Me is the center of the universe. Me is a god. This is, of course, an exaggeration. Most people are not so self-centered that they would consider themselves a god. However, we are living in a very self-concerned society where everyone is at some level egocentric. We want to be happy, healthy and satisfied despite the cost. That is, perhaps, why free money is so dangerous. We don’t think about the consequences of our actions when we have an unexpected windfall. We’ll do whatever it takes, especially when we think we are beyond disaster.
Most people are concerned with neighbor, willingly giving oneself over for the sake of others. We love our family and will do whatever is necessary for them to also know happiness. Yet, we all have some need that demands satisfaction. Whether it has to do with our jobs, our relationships, our leisure time, we all have some aspect of our personality that is self-centered. It is part of our human, sinful nature. It is as true for Christians as it is for those who have not yet come to know our Lord Jesus Christ.
We aren't any different than even the earliest Christians. As a matter of fact, the congregation in Corinth was dealing with just this very problem. There were members of that church who decided that Christian freedom gave them the license to do whatever they wanted to do, to satisfy all of their needs. Living in the forgiveness of Christ, they felt that they could partake of the wonders of the world without concern because Jesus' blood covered everything. So, they enjoyed the offerings at the temples of other gods—the food, the fornication—knowing that Christ had taken care of it all.
Paul talks about the use, and abuse, of the body in today’s lesson. He is addressing the issue of the Corinthian attitude about the Law. They thought that nothing they did in the flesh had any bearing on their spiritual life. Paul agrees that all things are lawful, that the rules of the past are no longer binding to the person who has been saved by God’s grace. But, he goes on to say that all things are not beneficial. It was fine for a Christian to eat meat that has been given as an offering to a foreign god because it had no meaning to the spirit of the believer. However, is everything beneficial? No. Some things are harmful to the body, to the soul and to the fellowship of believers.
We are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Though we might enjoy the things that tempt us, let us always remember that our life is a gift from God and our body is His temple. It would do us well to ask, “Is it beneficial?” We are called to make a commitment to the body of Christ, and if our actions are not beneficial, then we should answer like Paul. “It might be lawful, but I will not be brought under its power.” This is for the sake not only of the one person’s flesh, but the entire body of Christ. So, it does us well to keep away from those things that might bring harm to ourselves or others.
We have been given a great gift. Nothing is expected in return. However, God has called us into a life that is extraordinary. It is a life in which we will see great things happening. And we have been invited to be a part of those great things. God has a purpose for our new life: to continue taking the message into the world. Like Philip, we have seen the One they call the Messiah, and it is now our turn to tell others. It isn’t easy. We might be tempted to take part in things that are not beneficial to the kingdom of God. This free gift of forgiveness is easy to waste. But God is with us. He speaks to us in many and various ways, but especially through His Son.
We called into a relationship with Christ. It is difficult in this world to live as part of a community that asks us to set aside our own desires and needs for the sake of the entire body. We want to be happy, healthy and satisfied, no matter the cost. However, we are reminded this day that though all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial. Satisfying our needs might just cause harm to another and it will certainly dishonor the Lord. But just like Nathanael, we can see that God knows us to the very depths of our hearts. He knows what is best for us and for the body of Christ.
In Christ it is no longer about Me. We were bought with a price: the blood of Christ. So as we go through our day, let us trust in the God who loves us so much that He speaks to us in voices that call us to lives of grace. The world is chaotic with noise, but God is patient and will keep calling until we hear and respond according to His Word. Sometimes we’ll be confused by the many voices we hear, but as we grow closer to God and more mature in our faith, we’ll learn to recognize His voice above all the others. Then we’ll know what is beneficial to ourselves and to others. Then we’ll do what will glorify Him.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love doesn’t harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law. Do this, knowing the time, that it is already time for you to awaken out of sleep, for salvation is now nearer to us than when we first believed. The night is far gone, and the day is near. Let’s therefore throw off the deeds of darkness, and let’s put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day; not in reveling and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and lustful acts, and not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, for its lusts.” Romans 13:8-14, WEB
I once heard a story from a friend about a problem with a neighbor. She told me that they had always gotten along well, cordial and somewhat social. The lady had a problem with water washing across her yard, so she built a retaining wall to ensure that the water would not erode her landscaping. Unfortunately, the water was redirected into the yard of my friend, causing a great deal of damage to her own landscaping. The retaining wall was rather expensive and was meant to be a permanent addition to her yard, so removal would have been difficult. It is situations like this that makes us wonder what it means to love our neighbor.
Certainly the woman with the retaining wall should not expect her neighbor to have to spend money to overcome the problem. Yet, she didn’t have the money to deal with the additional expenses. Neither neighbor had set out to purposely harm her neighbor, but human actions are often self-centered and affect the lives of others in ways we do not expect. This is why many new housing developments make use of housing associations to avoid problems between neighbors. Security lights can shine into bedroom windows, storage building roofs can block views and landscaping can change the flow of water. It might seem strange to seek permission from another party for week we want to do on our own land and houses, but the home owners’ associations can help keep us from doing something that will harm our neighbor.
When Paul speaks about love, he is not referring to a romantic sort of love. He is referring to a sacrificial kind of love. It is the kind of love that considers one’s neighbor before considering one’s self. While we might want to make our home extra safe by putting bright spot lights on every side, we have to consider how those lights will shine into the windows of our neighbor’s homes and keep them awake all night. Loving neighbor means finding a less disturbing way of keeping ourselves safe.
Paul specifically notes the commandments having to do with our relationships with one another, yet I do not imagine there are many of us who are guilty of murder, adultery or theft. He makes a list of sins and we look at these with a holier than thou attitude, thinking that we are never guilty of reveling and drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, lustful acts, strife or jealousy. Yet, even our seemingly minor and unwitting sins against our neighbors do harm to them and show our lack of love. We are called to ensure that as we are clothed in Christ, our every thought, word and deed are given into His care so that we will live according to His sacrificial love. In Christ, we no longer need to consider our own wants and needs, but rather we are to make provision for our neighbors before serving ourselves. This is the way of light to which our Lord Jesus calls us to live in faith.
“As Jesus passed by from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collection office. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ He got up and followed him. As he sat in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? When Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. But you go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Then John’s disciples came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.’” Matthew 9:9-15, WEB
Jesus often quoted scripture. In today’s passage, He was quoting the prophet Hosea wrote God’s word for His unrepentant people. “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. They were called a treacherous bow (Hosea 7:16) which means that they were undependable and dangerous. A bow required constant care to keep it flexible. If it was allowed to become dry, it would be brittle and could snap, causing an injury to the one using it.
That’s what had happened to God’s people in the days of Hosea and Jesus. They had not taken proper care of their spiritual life and they had grown far from the God they claimed to worship. The Pharisees were more concerned about being obedient to the letter of the Law, but they were missing the opportunities to take care of God’s people. Even John’s disciples wondered why Jesus and His disciples were not religiously compliant. “Why don’t you fast like the rest of us?”
Jesus answered the Pharisees that they were self-righteous and holier-than-thou, that they were being sacrificial without being merciful. They had not taken proper care of their hearts, and thus became dangerous to their own relationship with God and to the people for whom they were called to nurture in the faith. They might have seemed to be obedient to the letter of the Law, but they were missing the intent of God’s Word. Along with John’s disciples (in different ways) they were so busy doing what they thought was right that they missed the presence of God in their midst. “Celebrate in the presence of God,” Jesus said. Rejoice, because God is near.
How often do we get so caught up in doing what we think is right that we miss the opportunities to share God’s mercy with those who are in need? Sadly, we don’t always take proper care of our own spiritual lives, and so we become like treacherous bows. We dry out, become brittle and perhaps even snap, harming ourselves and others. It takes work to remain faithful to God. Even Jesus, who was God in flesh, constantly sought time with His Father in prayer. He kept the scriptures on His tongue. He spent time loving His neighbors and serving their needs. He celebrated life and truth and grace.
We don’t have Jesus in the flesh, but we can always live a life of joy because God is near. Unfortunately, we sometimes miss His presence. We wonder why He’s hanging out in the company of people we deem unworthy. We wonder why He’s not doing the things we think He should be doing. We are so busy being self-righteous that we miss the opportunities to care for the needs of others. In caring for others, we also take care of ourselves, because it is in serving them we serve God and dwell in the blessings of His presence.
“They forgot to take bread; and they didn’t have more than one loaf in the boat with them. He warned them, saying, ‘Take heed: beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ They reasoned with one another, saying, ‘It’s because we have no bread.’ Jesus, perceiving it, said to them, ‘Why do you reason that it’s because you have no bread? Don’t you perceive yet, neither understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, don’t you see? Having ears, don’t you hear? Don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves among the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ They told him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘When the seven loaves fed the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ They told him, ‘Seven.’ He asked them, ‘Don’t you understand, yet?’” Mark 8:14-21, WEB
I tend to take ‘the back way’ anytime I can, to avoid the traffic lights and the traffic. There is a road I used to take regularly, a country road that is located within the city limits but away from the city. There are a few houses, a ranch or two and a trailer park along this road, as well as a soccer complex for local soccer leagues. The road is very straight but barely wide enough for two cars with plenty of dips, bumps and potholes. The speed limit is only 30 miles per hour. There is the possibility of loose animals, heavy traffic, pedestrians without a sidewalk and even wild deer. It is understandable that the city has set such a low speed limit.
I had to turn left from a busy parkway with a slight uphill grade to get to this road. The road itself begins with a small hill, so if I have to stop and wait for oncoming traffic to pass before turning, I have to press more heavily on the accelerator to get over the hill. The end of the road is nearly visible from the top of the hill; it is a straight shot for about a mile. It is very easy to forget that you are pressing the accelerator and to reach speeds of 40+ miles per hour very quickly. If you don’t let off the gas as soon as you hit the top of the hill, it is likely that you will be speeding down that road.
Unfortunately, the city police know that this road is the perfect place to find speeders. They sit, barely seen, just beyond the hill, waiting for drivers who are not paying attention. I know this from experience; I was stopped one day. The policeman was very nice and since I have an excellent driving record, I was let go with a warning. I promised not to speed on that road again, but, I’m human and I forget. I continued to push the accelerator after the top of the hill until I was up at 40 miles per hour. Thankfully, I didn’t had to learn the lesson twice!
Whenever I read today’s story, I think to myself, “Are the disciples really that dim-witted? Can’t they see that Jesus has given them incredible signs to prove that He is worthy to be trusted? Can’t they understand the lessons that He is teaching them? After all, He fed five thousand and then four thousand, both times leaving basketsful of bread. By His power and His grace, He has more than enough for everyone, and then some to share.
But no matter how many times Jesus amazes them, they continue to see the world through human eyes. They need to learn the lesson over and over and over again, and even then they don't understand. We see these lessons through Jesus colored glasses, with the power of the Holy Spirit to give us understanding, and so we assume they must be dense. But how often do we ever learn the lesson the first time? Do children always learn what we teach them? Do they only make mistakes once without failing again? Even with the Holy Spirit, we are often unable to understand what Jesus is trying to tell us.
It is easy for us to lose track of our speed and to stop paying attention to the things Jesus is trying to teach us. We may have to learn the lesson over and over again: we are no different than those disciples. We can see the miracles around us, experience the grace of God, and still ask God where to find the grace.
“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of Yahweh, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers. Under his wings you will take refuge. His faithfulness is your shield and rampart. You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day; nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes, and see the recompense of the wicked. Because you have made Yahweh your refuge, and the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. For he will put his angels in charge of you, to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up in their hands, so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and cobra. You will trample the young lion and the serpent underfoot. ‘Because he has set his love on me, therefore I will deliver him. I will set him on high, because he has known my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble. I will deliver him, and honor him. I will satisfy him with long life, and show him my salvation.’” Psalm 91, WEB
Texas is closed. That’s the joke running on the Internet today, but there is a grain of truth to it. Long before the winter storm hit, when temperatures were still in the mid-60’s, San Antonio announced almost everything will be closed. The schools, government agencies, and many businesses chose to protect life and limb for the day. People rampaged the grocery stores, clearing the shelves of everything so that they will survive. It seems almost foolish, especially to those in the north who will go out in a blizzard for ice cream.
As it turns out, it wasn’t such a foolish decision. The rain started, a cold front blew through, the temperatures dropped to below freezing and the streets are now a sheet of ice. Bridges are impassible and closed. There were dozens of accidents this morning with the few cars that were on the road. Can you imagine the tragedy that could occur if a school bus skidded with children aboard? Restaurants and shops that have closed protect the lives of not only their employees, but also people who really do not need to go out in this weather. It is even worse in other parts of the state.
It might not make sense for some to shut down for a little winter weather, but the reality is that this isn’t an inch of snow. It is ice. Ice allows no friction or grip, making it impossible to stop. Even the best drivers can lose control. It doesn’t help that ice is often difficult to see. It usually looks like the road is wet, but then a sudden stop will prove differently. You know how frightening it can be if you have ever lost control on the ice. It is better to be safe at home and leave the roads to those who must be out like the first responders and road crews. Yet some will go out in the weather thinking that they are more skilled than the rest. Dozens of accidents prove otherwise.
Today’s scripture sometimes troubles me. It is comforting to know that God is there to protect us and that He has assigned His holy angels charge over us. We can trust that God will be with us through good and bad and that He is a faithful refuge from the world. Yet, some take this psalm very literally, putting themselves into dangerous situations because they think God will see them through it without injury. Like the arrogant driver on icy roads, they test God’s faithfulness in foolish ways. We do not need to face down the lion or the serpent to know God is with us. We don’t need to play with evil to prove God can protect us. Sometimes it is better to trust God from the safety of the homes He has given us than to rush out onto the icy streets.
Dwelling in God’s fortress means that we should not be afraid, but it also means we should not make foolish decisions. God has not promised that we won’t die, but that death will not hold us forever. We have eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ, but that doesn’t make us immortal. Foolish decisions will lead us into dangerous situations. God will be with us, but we might just crash along the way. Our hope is not in a life without pain and tragedy, but in God’s deliverance from sin and death. As we walk in His wisdom, we’ll experience long life and grace because we aren’t testing His faithfulness. Then when we die we will see eternity at the foot of His throne of grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 21, 2018, Epiphany 3: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (32-35); Mark 1:14-20
“Immediately they left their nets, and followed him.” Mark 1:18, WEB
Mark often uses the word “immediately.” He uses it again just two verses later. There is a sense of urgency to the mission throughout the Gospel of Mark. The kingdom of God was at hand and Jesus knew He would not have very long to teach the disciples. Jesus never forced faith on anyone. He was received and believed through the grace of God. “Now” was the time to act; there was no time to wait or think or consider the cost.
Simon and Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Most scholars will tell you that they were not educated beyond the schooling they received as children. They were surely familiar with the scriptures, learned at the feet of their mothers. They may have had enough knowledge in the common languages of the day so that they could conduct their business. It is likely, however, that they were strong, dirty and rough, mouths filled with foul language. Though they could have recited the psalms, they were probably more likely to tell an off-color joke. They were surely not prepared to follow Jesus. They were men of the sea, hardworking, patient and willing to endure hardship, but the life of wandering the wilderness or hanging with crowds in the villages was beyond their experience. Worst of all, they were not preachers or teachers. How could God possibly call these guys to this life?
I think most of us, at some time or another, ask the same question of our own lives. “How could God possibly call me to this life?” I don’t mind following Jesus, although I’d much rather if He led me in the direction I want to go.
However, Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John left their fishing boats “immediately” and followed Jesus. This has always struck me as amazing. Even with the Holy Spirit urging them to faith and obedience, I find it difficult to identify with someone who would leave everything without thought or consideration for the cost. I’d want a few answers, first. Where are we going? What will we do? How will we survive without nets, or jobs, or our families? Can we go home and get a change of clothes and hiking boots?
It seems to us that they heard the call of a stranger and just left everything for him. Yet, as we look at the whole story we realize that the four fishermen were familiar with Jesus and the work he was doing. As a matter of fact, this story does not happen until chapter four in Matthew. In Luke, Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law before He called the fishermen to follow Him. We don’t know how long it was between the wilderness temptation and the calling of these disciples. It could have been months or even a year. We do know from Mark that the time was right; John the Baptist was arrested, decreasing so Jesus could increase. These fishermen didn’t drop everything at the call of a stranger. Andrew was a follower of John and heard John tell the crowds that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. He told Simon that they had found the Messiah.
The fact that these guys had time to think about it doesn’t make it any less amazing. As a matter of fact, thinking about it might have been the worst thing they could do. Who really walks away from a good living without considering the cost? Here’s the most amazing thing: Jesus could have chosen far more capable people to be His disciples. What made him pick this rag-tag group of men? Why would He choose fishermen? Why would He pick men that have no experience with ministry?
He chose them for that very reason: those disciples were clay that could be molded. The religious establishment was too set in their ways, there was too much for Jesus to overcome. He chose people who weren’t afraid, who could learn, whose hearts were open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Even after traveling with Jesus and spending all their time with Him, they did not understand. Even to the cross, the disciples thought that they were picked for a different purpose. James and John thought that Jesus would choose them to be His right and left hand men when He became king. None of them expected Jesus to surrender. They wanted to follow the Messiah. Would any of them have really followed immediately if they thought Jesus would end up on the cross?
I’m not sure I could immediately leave my life and follow Him. Now that my children are grown I have more freedom to follow God’s expectation of my life, but it was much harder when my children were small. I had opportunities to travel, to speak, to teach, but I always had to consider the cost. Could I get away from the children for a few days? Would Bruce be available to be there when they got home from school, to cook them dinner, to tuck them in at night? Bruce was active duty military and I worried that he might get deployed while I was gone; I wondered if I could get home in the case of an emergency. Even now I have to consider my relationship with my husband when I make decisions, just as he does the same for me. We struggle to follow because we’ve made promises to each other.
Paul honored marriage, but in today’s epistle lesson he talks about a reality that we do not often consider. Paul wrote that the time had grown short and that Christians should keep their eyes on Jesus, even living as though one did not have a spouse. It meant turning away from family in their greatest time of need. It meant ignoring the joyous times of life. It meant giving up all their stuff. It meant giving up all dealings with the world. This seems rather extreme to us, after all Jesus was not against marriage.
Paul is not telling us to reject earthly things like marriage. He is more concerned about sparing the Christian from the trials that occur when distracted from their calling from God. A spouse, the responsibilities of work and children, the care of a house and property keeps us from time that might be devoted to Christ. It is not only a matter of time. It is also a matter of the emotions that come with the relationships and responsibilities. Our hearts are torn every time we have to choose between family and the calling of God.
Jonah had to go to Nineveh. Over and over again Jonah tried to find ways to avoid the work God has called him to do, but God kept calling. Jonah struggled with the assignment because he knew it meant his enemy would benefit. He fought God’s grace. God drew him into the mission, not forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do, but convincing him that it was right and good and true. Jonah gave in and went to give the Ninevites the message from God.
God threatened to destroy Nineveh, but He changed His mind and spared them when they repented. We are bothered by the idea that the omniscient God who knows everything from the past into the future could, and would, change His mind. Was He wrong when He threatened destruction? No, He wasn’t wrong. He hoped that they would change. That’s why He sent Jonah. We see in this story that it is OK to change our mind. God calls us to share His grace and expects us to be merciful even if we don’t think they are worthy. If God, who is perfect, can change His mind, we can be like Him and change ours, too.
The scriptures for this week teach us that faith means changing our point of view. It means seeing the world from a whole new perspective. Jesus turned our world upside down, calling us to live in the world even though we are no longer of the world. Faith means that we are called to take God into our neighborhoods, to share a word of hope that comes from the reality of God’s grace. It means trusting in God, leaving our burdens at His feet and letting Him bring about the change that will truly make a difference. It means looking at those parts of our life that matter to us, like our marriages, from a new point of view, remembering that God is not only a part of our individual lives, but that He’s in the midst of our relationships, making them new as well. Faith means doing a whole new thing. “Let go and let God” seems almost cliche, but it is the best word for those who are in the midst of uncertainty and transition. Trust in Him. He is there, taking care of everything. We make it harder for Him to accomplish His good purpose for our lives when we try so desperately to stay in control. Jonah fought God all along, but God knew that Jonah’s heart was right. He kept offering Jonah the chance to change the world, calling him over and over to help the Ninevites to back to Him.
The psalmist writes, “Trust in him at all times.” David was probably the writer of today’s psalm and he was having troubles of his own. He knew that the best way to deal with trouble was to trust in God. David had so many enemies. His enemies wanted him dead or at least off the throne. His life and his honor were at stake. However, he knew that he could not defeat his enemies on his own. He waited on God because God’s plan is always right and good. He writes that God is a rock and a fortress. He the foundation on which our life is built and He is the refuge to which we can flee to be safe. He is our strength and our hiding place. In Him we can find rest and restoration. We need not carry our burdens because He will carry them for us.
Trust in Him, for He will take care of those who rely on Him alone. This is especially important to remember as we face the new things to which God is calling us in this world. We may not always like the assignment. We may have to face our enemies. We can respond to the calling like Jonah and try to find ways to avoid it. Or, we can let God turn our world upside down and realize that He is drawing us into His presence by offering us a chance to share His grace with the world.
Changing course in the middle of a journey is hard, but it is exciting, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set a particular route for a trip, but for some reason find myself turning another way. If I find myself in the middle of a traffic jam, I may decide to go to a different store. If I leave at an unusual hour, I might go a different direction. When it comes to my life, I am certainly going a different way than I ever expected. When I was in college, I expected to be a teacher. I didn’t expect to ever leave Pennsylvania. I never planned to be a writer. I’m not sure what I would have answered if you had asked me thirty years ago where I would be today, but I never would have envisaged the life with which God has blessed me.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be those first disciples. Did they know what they were getting themselves into? Did they know that Jesus would be taking them on a long and dangerous journey? Did they know they’d have to speak God’s Word into the lives of people who would not listen or believe? Did they know they would face demons and persecution? I find it hard to believe that they knew what they were getting themselves into when they left their nets by the sea. And yet, like the Ninevites, they heard the Word and believed. They turned to God.
The texts remind us that God should be first in our lives. His calling is urgent and He expects our obedience to be immediate. Can God accomplish the work without us? Of course He can. Can we accomplish anything without Him? No, absolutely not. When God calls us to join Him it is because He has chosen us to the task. He does not need us, but He wants us to follow. We may want to make excuses, try to follow later, but we should not be encumbered by the cares of the world. Though we might want to focus on other things, He should be first in everything. The things of this world do not offer us anything but vain hope. Through it all, we can trust that when God calls, there is power in His Word. God alone is our salvation; He calls us to see the world through His eyes. Jesus calls us to change direction, to respond to His Word and follow Him wherever He might lead.