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.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” James 3:13-18, WEB
I have been working to put together a women’s retreat for my church. The theme of the retreat is “Psalm 23: Resting in the Promises of the Good Shepherd.” We are using the Phillip Keller book “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” as our basis, as well as a lot of online research. I have learned a tremendous amount of information about sheep. I’ve learned that they are the most difficult livestock if they are left to manage themselves, but under good and proper management they are the most beneficial. They will destroy their fields unless the shepherd leads them in the right paths.
Sheep have a tendency to desire whatever is on the other side of the fence. Somehow the field looks better, so they often harm themselves trying to get there. Don’t we all suffer from ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ envy? We know people with nicer houses, bigger cars, better jobs and we wish we had all those things. We think to ourselves, “If only...” and even work hard to achieve those goals. Our motives aren’t always to keep up with the Jones’. Sometimes we are simply unsatisfied with what we have and we desire something different.
Yet, things aren’t always better on the other side of the fence. Suppose our neighbor has a greener lawn, but what we don’t see is that they also have a water leak in one of their pipes. So, the lawn is well watered, but their water bill is extraordinary and the excess water is causing damage to the foundation of their home. The lawn looks lovely but they don’t even know they have a problem until one day it surfaces. Then it is difficult to deal with it. Though this is a hypothetical situation, there are often underlying causes that we do not see. We envy our neighbors with all their lovely things, but what we do not know is that the marriage is failing because it takes too much work to maintain the lifestyle. We may want the great job without realizing the stress can cause disease and substance abuse. We envy without really knowing and we run great risks pursuing things that are not intended for us. God knows what we need and gives abundantly.
The shepherd knows what is best for the sheep, but they think that if only they could get on the other side of the fence they could get that delicious plant to eat. Meanwhile, they harm themselves trying. We think we are pretty smart when we figure out ways to get everything we want, when in reality we are quite foolish pursuing those things. God asks us to be content with our life as He has given, to seek His wisdom and live by it. James writes of the wisdom that it is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Imagine if everyone followed that kind of wisdom, there would be no need to envy one another. That wisdom comes from God and is given to us in Christ Jesus.
“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good. In love of the brothers be tenderly affectionate to one another; in honor preferring one another; not lagging in diligence; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; enduring in troubles; continuing steadfastly in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Don’t set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Don’t be wise in your own conceits. Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.’ Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:9-21, WEB
I ordered some resin sheep to use as part of the decor in the prayer room at our retreat. It was a set of twelve sheep, all in different poses. The set was very affordable and seemed to be perfect for the purpose. I ordered a few other things and anxiously awaited my package. I opened the box when it arrived and was happy with everything at first. It wasn’t until later that I remember I had ordered the sheep. I wondered if I should be expecting a second box because I didn’t remember there being enough room for what I was expecting. I went back to the box and dug a little deeper and found a tiny cardboard box. Inside were the smallest resin sheep I’ve ever seen.
I didn’t read the description very well, but even then I don’t think these sheep are really one inch. They are barely the size of a piece of popcorn, which I would have known if I had read the reviews. I thought they were adorable, and the price was right, so I clicked “buy.” Now I have miniature sheep that won’t be used in the way I planned. I figured out another way to use them and I’ve found other resin sheep that I can use for the original purpose, so all is well.
I think most of us can probably share a similar story about an online order. It is impossible to really know what you are getting, especially if the description is confusing. I can only blame myself. I didn’t do enough research before clicking the “buy” button. When I checked the website, I realized I had made a terrible mistake.
That is not always true, however. Sometimes sellers are less than honest about what they have to sell. Too many cases on the court shows are stories of people who have purchased a vehicle that does not live up to their expectations. In most cases, the descriptions are not outright lies, but they don’t always tell the entire truth. The judges most often find for the seller. Used car sales are “as is” which means that unless the ad is fraudulent then the buyer must beware. The judges always ask, “Did you get a mechanic to look at the car before you bought it?” They buyers never do. “I went later.” Sometimes they go weeks or even months later. At that point there is no way to know if the car was bad when it was purchased or if something has just gone wrong. “Cheap now, expensive later,” they say. It doesn’t pay to save the money on a mechanic if the car has a hidden problem that will eventually appear.
It would have been easy to get angry about the miniature sheep. The buyers of those “as is” cars often get angry. They first get angry with the seller who they deem dishonest and then they get angry with the judge for not getting vengeance for their foolishness. Our response to the world is meant to be different as we live in our Christian faith. We may have experiences that seem unfair in this world, but we can respond with grace. We need to remember that in this unfair world we sometimes cause our own problems. We seek vengeance because we think someone has cheated us, but it is not always the fault of another. By responding with grace, we might just discover a new way of looking at the situation or learn a valuable lesson. We will also see God’s grace in action as He will in His way always make things right.
“Enter in by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter in by it. How narrow is the gate, and restricted is the way that leads to life! Few are those who find it.” Matthew 7:13-14
We lived in England for four years and visited much of the country while we were there. We visited castles and country homes, parks and other historic sites. We went to museums and the theater. We spent time in big cities and small towns. We regularly attended worship at local parish churches, but we also worshipped in churches and cathedrals wherever we went on vacation. Some of my favorite memories came from those visits. I learned so much about history, architecture and faith.
We visited the town of Ely regularly. It was near our home and had a wonderful market. Many of our visits to the city included time inside Ely Cathedral. The military bases where Bruce was stationed and where we lived always held an American Thanksgiving service in Ely Cathedral. During one of those services, a commander talked about how the building lined up perfectly with the runway at one of the bases. “We use it to line up our landing.” Even while he was saying those words, a fighter jet flew over the cathedral, causing us all to laugh at the coincidence.
Ely Cathedral is a magnificent building. It was begun in 1086, on land that has been the site of Christian worship for many years. The city sits on a hill, built on a rise in the middle of “the fens” which is a marshy area. It is referred to as “The ship on the fens.” High on the hill, it was and is a beacon. I loved driving to Ely and seeing the cathedral rising above the rest flatlands. There is a side chapel called “The Lady Chapel” that is so acoustically perfect that a Cambridge University choir of a dozen singers sound like a hundred voices.
Like many of the ancient cathedrals, the West End of the cathedral has a splendid facade to welcome those arriving for worship. The doorway is a double set of doors which are approximately twenty feet high and 10 feet wide. These doors were used mostly for ceremony; the large opening made it possible for riders on horses with tall banners to fit through. They also invite visitors to look up toward heaven, to see the glory of God in the beauty of the high ceilings. They still open and close, although they are rarely used. Such large doors are impractical and unnecessary. They are extremely heavy, a burden to open and close. The opening is so large that it allows too much wind and cold air into the cathedral.
The builders of the ancient cathedrals offered a practical solution to the need for the ceremonial door and the need for an easy opening for ordinary times. They cut a much smaller door out of one of the larger doors. The smaller entrance way is about six feet tall or three feet wide, barely large enough for an average adult to fit through.
I was reminded of today’s scripture passage the first time I entered Ely Cathedral. The large door is like the wide road. It is certainly easier to enter with the large doors open, especially if there is a crowd. Many people can walk in at the same time. We can even bring our beasts of burden with us! For many, the wide road and the big door is an invitation to enter the sacred space of God as they please, perhaps even following their own way instead of God’s way.
The smaller door reminds us that the way is narrow into God’s sacred space. We enter into the Kingdom of God through Jesus; there is no other way to be saved. All those who believe in Jesus have become part of the flock, saints by the grace of God. Within the sheepfold, we are blessed beyond measure, given all we need to live.
Jesus was concerned for those who were taking the wrong path, the path that does not lead to life. He is the way, He is the gate. We should not follow the way we think we should go, but rather follow the way Jesus has paved for us. The wide path and the bigger door may have dangers lying just out of sight, but the way God has planned is safe because God is with us. He knows what is best, He knows what lies ahead, He knows how to guide us through each difficulty. We tend toward our own way, thinking that it surely must be right. We listen to those whom seem to be speaking well. But man’s way is never the right way, it always leads to death. May we all seek guidance from the One who knows, and follow His ways in all that we do.
“All the people perceived the thunderings, the lightnings, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled, and stayed at a distance. They said to Moses, ‘Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Don’t be afraid, for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before you, that you won’t sin.’ The people stayed at a distance, and Moses came near to the thick darkness where God was.’ Exodus 20:18-21, WEB
Israel did not have it easy. With God’s help they escaped Egypt, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and He pursued them. The Egyptians tried to overtake them and force them back into his service. God used this as an opportunity to prove His power and glory, both to Israel and to the world.
Pharaoh readied his chariot and took his army into the wilderness. When the Israelites saw them coming, them were afraid and cried out to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you treated us this way, to bring us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.”
Moses assured them that God would deliver them from this trial. The LORD told Moses to stretch out his staff over the sea. When he did, the water divided and the Israelites were able to cross on dry ground. Though the Egyptians were faster than the Hebrews, they could not catch up because the angel of God held them back. By the time the Egyptians could get around the pillar of cloud that held them, the people were safely on the other side. The army pursued them, but Moses raised his staff over the sea and the walls of water crashed down upon the Egyptians. They praised God and feared Him, for He is a great and awesome God.
It took two months for the people to make it to Mount Sinai. When the people were hungry, God gave them manna and quail. When they were thirsty, God provided water from a rock. The Amalekites attacked them, but God was with them and He gave them the victory. They camped in the desert beneath the mountain and consecrated themselves so that they could meet the LORD. They did all God asked and on the third day the LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called to Moses. He told Moses to warn the people not to come on the mountain, but the people were too afraid to approach. The mountain was an awesome sight, with thunder and lightning, trumpets blasting and thick, dark smoke.
The people were so afraid that they preferred to have Moses be an intermediary. They did not want to have to face God themselves. So, Moses spoke for God to the people and they listened to him for guidance. It was there on Mt. Sinai that the LORD gave the people His Law. The Ten Commandments are designed to keep us in right relationships with God and each other. It began with God’s reminder of all He did for them, rescuing them from Egypt. The Law was not given to separate the people from God, but rather to keep them in relationship with Him. They were never able to keep the Law perfectly.
A relationship with God begins with fear, but not the kind of fear that keeps us from facing Him. We know we are not perfect. There is not one of us who has kept the Commandments. We may not have done murder, but we’ve all coveted something of our neighbors. It might not seem as bad, but if we disobey even the smallest letter of the Law, then we have disobeyed it all. Coveting is in many ways the worst of all because it comes from our heart. Coveting can lead to the other sins because we find ways to justify fulfilling our desire. Coveting shows that we don’t trust God to provide us everything we need.
We don’t need an intermediary like Moses to hear and speak to our God. We are not perfect, but we are forgiven, thanks to the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is different for us today, although we still experience fear of the Lord, this fear does not keep us from Him. It might be frightening to face this God, especially since we fail to live up to the expectations of the Law. But we have been invited to kneel at His throne of grace, to receive His forgiveness and to be raised into new life. We wonder at this God who can save an entire nation out of slavery, but see in that story His power and glory, giving us reason to trust that He can save us, too.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 28, 2018, Epiphany 4: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
“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
What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? Over the past few weeks we’ve seen the stories of some of God’s prophets: Samuel, Jonah and John the Baptist. The words they spoke and the work they did was not always easy. They were not perfect; as a matter of fact, they were often afraid, uncertain, and unwilling to do what God was asking from them. In the end, however, they did as God asked, spoke the word that He sent them to speak and in doing so they called people to God and changed their lives. They did great things and are still remembered today for their gifts and their impact.
The prophetic word of God is a message sent through a chosen vessel for God’s people. The message is not always the lesson we want to hear. Samuel’s message to Eli was frightening because it meant death and an end to God’s promise. Jonah didn’t want to take that word to Nineveh because it meant mercy for his enemies. John’s message disturbed the status quo; the call to repentance required an acknowledgement of sin. Some prophetic words are messages of grace and hope; as a matter of fact, every warning comes with a word of promise. John did not just call the people to repentance, he promised that they would see their salvation.
It is hard, though, to know for certain that the words we hear are from God. The prophets do not always fit our expectations. Samuel was young. Jonah was an enemy of the Ninevites. John was downright bizarre. Why would anyone listen to them? Yet, people listened and were changed by the Word. It wasn't Samuel or Jonah or John who made the difference, it was God and His word. We know this because the word was fulfilled.
We are surrounded by many people claiming to speak for God. I used to belong to an email list that purported to send prophetic words to the world, especially to Christians. Many of these words were (are) uplifting. They encourage Christians to go forth in faith, to do whatever it is that God is calling us to do. I became disengaged with the group when I realized more than half of their messages were sales pitches for the speaker’s latest book or for a workshop on how to be a prophet in today’s world. I have no doubt that some of their words are real, that they speak with God’s grace and love for God’s people.
However, some of their words have been false. I recall a message that came through the list a few years ago about an incoming weather situation. The word was for the city that was about to experience a catastrophic storm. The word told the people that the storm was a sign of God’s wrath and that they would suffer the consequences of their sin. The storm veered off its path and had little impact on any cities. Not long after they released another word about another storm. This time they waited until after the storm hit, claiming that they knew what it meant when it was received, but that it was necessary to withhold the word until the time was right. Quite frankly, when the word was released, I could barely see how they made the connection, but they claimed it was the fulfillment of God’s word.
We have to be careful about who we believe. The promise in today’s Old Testament lesson doesn’t help us much, either. God tells us that we can believe those prophets whose words come to pass but that those who try to speak for God that have not been called will die. What do we do in the meantime? What do we do when we are between hearing the message and seeing its fulfillment or lack thereof?
I was hanging out in an online chat room one day when a young woman was impressed with something I said. I don’t remember what it was, I doubt it was anything of any real consequence, but she thought it was brilliant. She even called me a prophet. She told me that she was learning to be a prophet and she wanted to know if I would help her by reviewing a sermon that she wrote. She sent it to me.
I tried to be kind, but from the beginning I knew that the sermon was problematic. The language, grammar and spelling required serious editing, but so does my writing (I’m sure there’s at least one mistake every day!) I emailed her with some suggestions and we began a conversation about the sermon. Her ideas were of a passionate novice. They were new and they were unbiblical. We went through the text together, but she quickly realized that the scriptures were showing her the error of her ideas and she didn’t like it. She refused to believe she was wrong and she continued to twist the scripture to fit her interpretation. She then turned the tables and tried showing me the error in mine. I listened, but she never argued from the Bible. She thought she was a prophet. After all, so she claimed, the sermon was from the Holy Spirit. She refused to accept that her arguments were not from God even though they did not line up with the scriptures. She thought I was the Holy Spirit because I didn’t believe her. Her argument had no authority, however, because it was not founded on God’s Word.
Jesus had a way of stopping people in their tracks. In today’s Gospel lesson the crowds were in the synagogue ready to hear what they already knew about God. It was not unusual for visiting teachers to be invited to read text and explain it to the congregation. I can just imagine the surprise of those people: Jesus knew what He was talking about!
In the Old Testament lesson, God promised to give us prophets who will speak His word into our lives. Moses was the first among many. The Israelites were afraid to hear God’s voice and to see the fire of God’s presence, so they turned over the hearing and seeing to another. They told Moses to get God’s Word from Him and deliver it to them. They didn’t seek to know God themselves; they only wished to know what Moses would tell them. There is nothing wrong with learning from others, from listening to what they can teach us about God and His Creation. However, when we let go of all responsibility for knowing God personally, we run the risk of depending on people who do not really know God or speak for Him. Moses had that intimate relationship with God and could be trusted, but he was followed by prophets, priests and kings who were not trustworthy. They spoke words for other gods or claimed to speak for God when they did not know Him. The people followed these false prophets, over and over again. They lost sight of God.
The people in Jesus’ day were not much different. They, too, believed what the leaders of the temple and in their synagogues told them. Were they afraid of God’s voice or fire? I don’t know. Perhaps they were too lazy to seek God on their own. Perhaps they were too confused to understand God’s Word without the teachers. Perhaps they had been manipulated into believing in an idea of God that is not true.
So, when Jesus came and preached they heard something different. They called it “new,” but in reality Jesus was preaching the pure, unadulterated Word of God. There was something in the teaching, not the presentation, that struck the people as true. He wasn’t just a good spokesperson; He knew what He was talking about. He knew God, and when He spoke, He spoke with one who has authority. The difference between Him and the scribes must have been shocking; after all, they had been listening to the scribes for so long that they didn’t recognize the falsehood. When they heard Jesus, they knew that He had something the scribes didn’t have; they knew He had the truth.
Jesus was not the first prophet to come out of Israel in that day. As a matter of fact, prophets were a dime a dozen, many of which were willing to die for their cause. They were fighters, people against the Roman occupation and the puppet leadership of the Jews. The people were looking for a Messiah, someone to lead them into freedom and independence again. They wanted a son of David as God had promised. Some of the prophets claimed to be that Messiah. It is not surprising that they might miss Jesus in a field filled with more credible and experienced “saviors.” After all, Jesus was from Nazareth. He didn’t fit into their expectations.
Jesus entered into the synagogue that day as a lowly son of a carpenter. He may have preached before that day, after all they offered the invitation, but He was not an experienced preacher. He didn’t have the training and had not been studying interpretation for years like the scribes and teachers of the Law. They got their authority from the Torah, but they taught with their interpretive biases. Interpretation tends to obscure the message given by God, and that is what had happened to the people in Jesus’ day. They’d lost touch with the God who’d set them free, and had been burdened by the Law as it was understood by their leaders. Unfortunately, we often see this happen with seminary trained pastors today.
“What do you want with us?” the demon asked. The leaders were probably wondering the same thing. The demon recognized Jesus; it put a name to the man. First the spirit used the name Jesus of Nazareth. This reminded the people that Jesus came from nowhere. He was nobody. He didn’t fit the template of the one they were expecting. But then the demon did something surprising. It said, “I know you who you are: the Holy One of God!” The irony here is that in the very naming of Jesus as the Holy One of God, the demon was begging for Jesus’ mercy and grace. The demon was cast out of the man, but it was not destroyed. Jesus offers grace even for those who are unclean and unacceptable. We learn throughout the story of Jesus that it is often the outcast and the foreigners who see Jesus as He really is. They don’t miss the truth.
Jesus stopped the people in their tracks. I can just imagine the surprise of those people: Jesus knew what He was talking about. I’m sure we’ve all heard, at some point in our lives, both types of preaching: the kind that makes a difference and the kind that leaves us cold. We’ve heard good preachers and bad preachers. The difference is not only between good speaking and bad speaking. The good preacher speaks according to God’s Word and will, and not according to their own idea of God’s will. I’ve known good speakers who made horrible preachers because it was not God’s Word coming from their lips.
Jesus commanded the demon to be silent and to get out of the man he was possessing. The spirit did indeed obey Jesus, but it did not do so quietly. “The unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” The call for silence was so that the demon would not disrupt the holiness of the moment. They were in a synagogue. The people had come to worship God. This incident might have happened with little fanfare if only the spirit had been silent. The spirit knew Jesus, better than most people would ever really know Him. It knew Jesus was the Holy One of God. It was not time for that information to be revealed. And it came from the wrong source. Who would believe a demoniac? Jesus silenced it, but it did not go down without a fight.
Ironically, this incident is a foreshadowing of another battle Jesus would have to fight. The scribes and teachers of the law were, in essence, possessed by an understanding of God and the scriptures that was burdensome for themselves and the people. Jesus came preaching something new, but it was not unfounded. The people recognized the authority by which He spoke. They saw the truth. They knew He was right. But the leaders did not want to lose their authority. They, like the unclean spirit, wondered what Jesus wanted with them. “What are you doing here?” they asked. Jesus came to set them free. But it would take God’s Word, God’s power, God’s grace to make that happen. All too often our words continue to hold us hostage, so we would do well to recognize the difference between when we should remain silent and those times when the good news is too good to be kept to ourselves.
The most breathtaking, and inspiring, moments of my life have been in extraordinary places. There’s nothing like standing on top of a mountain, seeing the snow-covered range go on and on seemingly forever. At night, the sky above those mountains is filled with so many stars that they would be impossible to count. A beach at sunrise, with nothing obstructing the view of the rising sun, is amazing. Standing at the foot of a giant redwood is beyond imagination. A field full of bluebonnets, a rainbow sweeping over a plain, and a perfectly still mountain lake can raise in us a sense of wonder and praise like little else.
We are also awed by the power that God has given to the creation. The roar of a lion, the thunder and lightning of a storm, the constancy of the waves crashing against the shore reminds us that we are just a small part of God’s great big world. It is not always pleasant. It is fearful to be in the path of a tornado or a hurricane. The tiniest mosquito can spread life-taking disease. Yet, even those parts of creation have a purpose and are given by God to do His will. A raging wildfire that is out of control is frightening, yet a necessary part of the natural process of forest growth and renewal. We don’t always understand these things, especially when they cause us harm, but God is always worthy of our praise.
In today’s Psalm, the writer praises God for something much different than the tangible blessings of creation. It is difficult to see God’s work as it relates to God’s people. Yes, we have the stories of the Exodus, but we were not there to cross the Red Sea with Moses and the rest of Israel. We can read about the miracles of Jesus and believe in His healing power, but we have not experienced His physical touch. The psalmist knew God’s mighty works among His people, and yet those works were little more than a memory, handed down by generation after generation. These stories are still worth our songs of praise. God did these things, and in them we see His power, faithfulness and grace.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” is a hard saying for most of us. Fear in our world is a bad thing. We fear terrorism. We fear disease. We fear losing everything we own. We fear those things that can bring us harm. We don’t want to fear God; He has been so good to us. His faithfulness and mercy is beyond comparison. Yet, He is fearsome. This is not to mean that we should be afraid of Him. Instead, we are to be in awe of Him. Holy and awesome is His name. If His name is awesome, how much more so is He?
And so, we are called to praise Him, not only for the beauty of His creation or for the goodness of His dealings with His people. We are called to praise Him because we fear Him. We know of His power. We also know of His mercy and grace. He is faithful. Wisdom is seen in the lives of those who live according to His good and perfect Word; not in the things we can see but in the things that are.
There is only one God. We know this is true and Paul makes it clear in today’s passage that the other gods in this world are nothing. But Paul also reminds us that there are things – idols - that people count as gods. They are really nothing, but they hold the place of God in the lives of those who believe. All those things or people in which we put our trust and faith are gods to us, even though they are not God and are really nothing when compared to God. They are impersonators. So are those who speak a word that is not really from God.
Many of the so-called prophets talk about knowing God, knowing how to be a prophet, knowing what to say. Life in Christ is not about knowledge. As Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up.” No, living in Christ we have something even better than knowledge. We find wisdom in His Word. The self-proclaimed prophet demonstrates that they don’t know God by usurping His authority. They are not humble, they do not fear God. They speak their own words while claiming to speak for God; they might have knowledge, but they have no wisdom. In the end, they will be proven to be a false prophet.
A common characteristic of false prophets is their haughty attitude; they act holier than thou. They are like the Corinthians who took advantage of their Christian freedom by eating meat from the temples of the gods while ignoring the needs of the weaker believers who did not understand. They ate the meat without explaining what it means to have Christian freedom. Those watching knew only that the meat has a purpose in that temple and they followed the example without knowing the truth. They put their trust in the idol without understanding that by trusting in that idol they are rejecting the true God.
There is no real consequence to the eating of the meat, since the idols are nothing, but it was still a stumbling block to the faith of some. Paul reminds us that it is better to abstain from those things that might cause another to fall or be destroyed. Paul writes, “And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble.”
We are called to live a life that glorifies God, the life that reveals Him to our neighbors in a way that is life-changing. We are called to speak God’s Word so that they will know Him. We have to remember that as they learn they will watch us and learn from us, so it is up to us to be witnesses who will speak and live the truth. We have the freedom to do as we please, but if our freedom puts another at risk it is up to us to stop for their sake.
There was power in the words of Jesus, but His power did not end there. Neither did His authority. The people were amazed by both Jesus’ words and His actions. He spoke about the Kingdom of God in a way that was obvious to everyone: this guy knew what He was talking about. His authority set the people free from the things that had bound up their faith with words that were self-authenticating. He didn’t need anything outside of Himself to make His message true. He was speaking from the heart, not only His heart, but from the very heart of God.
We may not be authorities in much, or be great speakers, but we are given the authority of Christ to be God’s voice in the world. We must beware that the words we speak are true and from God’s own mouth. Our authority comes from God, and He has given us a way to know what is true and right. We are blessed because we have something the people of the past did not have. We have the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean we should rely solely on our human hearts, minds and spirits. We can be wrong. We have to test the words we hear against that which God has given us in scripture. We have to ask, “Is that word true?” Human beings don’t change. We are as likely to be led astray as the people in Moses’ and Jesus’ days.
We must approach God with fear and trembling, knowing without a doubt that false prophets who teach false gods will come to an end. But we need not fear God’s voice or His fire; by seeking Him we will see clearly. We will know Jesus, His life and the work He has called us to do. We can’t rely only on the words of others; we must know God for ourselves. We must spend time in prayer, in studying the scriptures. We must join with other Christians in worship, to praise Him and to seek God in the company of His faithful. We must abide in Jesus, to dwell in His authority and experience His power in our lives.
What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? It means glorifying God in a way that sets people on the right path, turns them to the only God who can be trusted and who will save them from themselves. We might be called to speak a word as did the prophets throughout the ages. It might not be easy because the messages of the prophets are often words of warning. However, every word that comes from God comes with a promise. Even when we are called to bring people to repentance, we know that God has something wonderful waiting for them on the other side. The word that is true is the one that rests in authority of God and is delivered by His power. That word is the word that will succeed because it will lead God’s people to praise Him.
The retreat I have been organizing begins tomorrow and I have been overwhelmed by last minute details. Since the theme of our retreat is “Psalm 23: Resting in the Promises of our Good Shepherd,” I thought I would repost a devotion on Psalm 23 from March 2003. I will not be posting tomorrow. Thank you, as always, for your continued support and prayers.
Sequoyah was a Cherokee Indian who was born in Tennessee. When he was young, he lived with his mother in the Smokey Mountains, but he always dreamed about what it might be like outside his small village. He was a talented artisan and learned about healing herbs and roots from the medicine man. He remembered well and was a very intelligent man. When his mother died, he moved from village to village until he settled in Alabama. Many of the Cherokee were living in the ways of the white man, which made him sad because he saw their identity being lost. But one thing fascinated him most about the settlers: their talking leaves. This was his name for the pages of writing that helped the white men communicate.
Many of the Cherokee believed that there was magic on the pages and refused to have anything to do with them. But Sequoyah knew that if he could find the key - the magic - then the Cherokee could have a form of writing like the white man and it could help them hold on to their heritage in such a difficult time. There was a great geographical divide between communities and they were growing farther apart because of the distance.
It took many years for Sequoyah to develop his alphabet. He was ridiculed for his work, his wife left him and much of his work was destroyed by fire. He began his quest for a written language with a type of picture writing, one picture for every word. After awhile he realized that there were too many symbols, it would be too difficult to learn. His daughter helped him with his work, and one day she found a book. As he studied the symbols on the page, he realized there were twenty-six characters repeated over and over again. He realized the key to a written language is in the sound made. So, rather than an alphabet with letters, he created a syllabary with a symbol for every sound. These eighty-five symbols were put together to make the words.
When he took the syllabary to the tribal council, they laughed and did not believe that he could read like the white man. He had taken his daughter with him, and to prove that this was not some sort of trick, he sent her out of the room. He wrote every word they said and then called her back into the room. She read every word perfectly, and the leaders were amazed. They accepted the syllabary and began teaching everyone how to read and write. Within two years the entire nation of the Cherokee was able to use the alphabet. They created their own newspapers, books and were able to communicate with one another, holding the nation together. Despite such great strides for the people, they suffered terrible hardships, particularly when they were pushed off their land in the east and forced to move west to live. For many months the Cherokees followed the ‘Trail of Tears’ to their new home in Oklahoma. Many died along the way.
Thanks to the talking leaves that were created by Sequoyah, the Cherokee stories and ways did not die. Christian missionaries who came to share the message of Christ also used the written language to translate the Holy Bible into Cherokee for those who came to know the Lord. Though Sequoyah died alone in Mexico, searching for members of his tribe who were believed to have migrated there, he will always be remembered for his great contribution to his people. Rather than a usual Bible verse, I am going to include the Cherokee version of Psalm 23. Those who have read the book “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” by Phillip Keller will understand how deeply personal those words are to one who is a shepherd. They understand the depth of meaning in the psalm, because they have lived the experience of leading and caring for sheep: a most difficult task. The Cherokee version of the psalm is very close in many ways, but speaks more deeply to the Cherokee life. I pray it will be a blessing to you today.
“The Great Father above a shepherd Chief is. I am His and with Him I want not. He throws me a rope and the name of the rope is love and He draws me to where the grass is green and the water is not dangerous, and I eat and lie down and am satisfied. Sometimes my heart is very weak and falls down but He lifts me up again and draws me into a good road. His name is WONDERFUL. Sometime, it may be very soon, it may be a long, long time, He will draw me into a valley. It is dark there, but I’ll be afraid not, for it is in between those mountains that the Shepherd Chief will meet me and the hunger that I have in my heart all through this life will be satisfied. Sometimes He makes the love rope into a whip, but afterwards he gives me a staff to lean upon. He spreads a table before me with all kinds of foods. He puts His hand upon my head and all the tired is gone. My cup He fills till it runs over. What I tell is true. I lie not. These roads that are ‘away ahead’ will stay with me through this life and after; and afterwards I will go to live in the Big Tepee and sit down with the SHEPHERD CHIEF forever.”
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11, WEB
The book of Psalms is likened to a hymnal or a book of poetry, each psalm a separate piece. Psalm 23 is read as a standalone passage. Yet, Psalms 22, 23, 24 are called “The Shepherd Psalm Trilogy,” and our understanding is so much fuller if they are taken together. They focus on Christ the King. We see Him as the Suffering Servant, the Loving Shepherd and the Reigning King. It is a trilogy of the past, present and future of our Eternal King.
Psalm 22 is very familiar. We read it on Good Friday as we strip the altar. We do this because Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The imagery of the Passion is found in this psalm. He is forsaken. He is scorned and mocked. He thirsts. He is surrounded by ruthless people. His hands and feet are pierced. His garments are divided and lots are cast for his clothing. As we read Psalm 22, we see the suffering of Jesus. The psalm also shows us, however, that the afflicted one is not forsaken. God has not hidden his face from him; God has heard his cry. Affliction is not the end of the story. The suffering one will eat and be satisfied.
Affliction leads to deliverance. Jesus knew, despite the cry of abandonment on the cross, that God can be trusted. God is faithful. One day the whole world will join in worship of Him. Psalm 22 gives us a vivid portrait of affliction, alludes to the resurrection and then closes with a future-facing kingdom reign. Jesus fulfills in the Gospels everything we see in the psalm.
Psalm 24 is less familiar, but the theme of kingship continues. This comes at a high point when the King takes his place on the throne. It is a coronation song. The righteous king ascends to the Lord’s hill. He has triumphed, and he proceeds to the seat from which he will rule the nations, until every last one of his enemies become his footstool.
We see affliction and a glimmer of hope in Psalm 22. We celebrate a victorious monarchy in Psalm 24. Psalm 23 comes right in the middle. Psalm 23 is the bridge between affliction and triumph, both for Jesus and for us. The pain of the afflicted one in Psalm 22 is translated into contentment and trust in Psalm 23. There is still pain. Real pain. Darkness surrounds the suffering one, but God is the rescuer. God is the Shepherd. He leads and restores. Even though the afflicted one walks through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there to guide and rescue and comfort.
The afflicted one is forsaken, but not utterly forsaken. And therefore, the afflicted one doesn’t fear. In fact, he’s satisfied. He shall not want. God prepares a table for him in the presence of his enemies. He is victorious, and God anoints him. The afflicted one says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Even through affliction. Even through the valley. Even through the grave. God’s goodness and steadfast love and faithfulness will pursue those who trust in Him. Psalm 23 ends with the psalmist dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.
In Psalm 23 we see how His Father sustained Jesus through His suffering to the victory of His resurrection. Jesus will come as King to reign forever and we will join Him in His Eternal Kingdom. Until then, we walk in Psalm 23, trusting that God will take care of us until the day when Jesus is crowned forever. We’ll walk through valleys. We will experience real pain. We will experience sorrow, but with rejoicing because of the hope we have in Him. We may be in the valley, in the “in-between” with Jesus, but we need not fear evil because our Good Shepherd is with us. There is hope for the future because the Suffering Servant laid down His life for us.
“In this mountain, Yahweh of Armies will make all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of choice wines, of fat things full of marrow, of well refined choice wines. He will destroy in this mountain the surface of the covering that covers all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He has swallowed up death forever! The Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all faces. He will take the reproach of his people away from off all the earth, for Yahweh has spoken it. It shall be said in that day, ‘Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him, and he will save us! This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation!’” Isaiah 25:6-9, WEB
When I was a young adult I toured with a group that was introducing our organization to possible sponsors around the state of Pennsylvania. Each stop included a banquet; our hosts provided us with a hot meal to make us feel welcome and at home while we were on the road. It was greatly appreciated, but I have to admit that it became redundant: almost every host served us ham. Almost every host served us au gratin potatoes and green beans with that ham. I like all those things. The food was hot and delicious. But there’s only so much ham that a person can take. Six times in seven days was a little much and it wasn't very satisfying.
I am sure that we have all been to a banquet or two. We gather at banquets to celebrate something and we go because we want to support that purpose. I have been to military banquets, awards banquets, and wedding banquets. I have been to banquets honoring special people. I have been to banquets celebrating milestones. I have fond memories of some of them; others, not so much.
No matter how well planned, banquet rooms are usually crowded with barely enough space between tables. Everyone has something to say and the conversations create such noise that it is difficult to hear anyone, including the speakers at the microphones. The food is often bland or improperly cooked. It is never hot and fresh. Unless the banquet includes a buffet, you have little or no choice and the servings are often too small. We go to banquets to celebrate the purpose, and we appreciate our hosts. However, I have rarely been truly satisfied.
Earthly banquets are just a shadow of something much greater. Isaiah writes, “In this mountain, Yahweh of Armies will make all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of choice wines, of fat things full of marrow, of well refined choice wines.” The Great Banquet for which we long is going to be amazing. It is a feast is fit for a king. It is a feast He has promised we will enjoy for eternity.
Today’s passage continues with God’s promise that sin and death would be defeated. He promised that we would rejoice in His salvation. Jesus fulfilled that promise. Jesus laid down His life for you and me. Thanks to Jesus, we are not only welcome in God’s Kingdom; we are invited to His banquet. Thanks to Jesus who defeated our enemies - sin and death - we are invited to sit with our King. Jesus has made it possible for us to have a personal and intimate relationship with our God. It is not by our power or will that we join in the Great Banquet. We have no reason to believe we deserve to sit with the King. We are foolish sinners. We are not worthy; all we can do is humble ourselves, trusting that God is faithful. Then, as Isaiah promised, we can rejoice in His salvation.
This promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ who laid down His life so that we will spend eternity in the presence of our Father. Right now we live in the in-between. Eternity is ours now, but not yet. We are assured that one day we will see the fulfillment of His promise. We celebrate this each time we gather at the table and receive His body and blood. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Our cup overflows with grace as we rejoice in our salvation and share in the Great Banquet of our King.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 4, 2018, Epiphany 5: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:16-27; Mark 1:29-39
“Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard, yet? Haven’t you been told from the beginning? Haven’t you understood from the foundations of the earth?” Isaiah 40:21, WEB
I watched an episode of Dr. Phil this morning that included the story of three children who had not seen their mother for thirty years. The children did not understand why their mother disappeared. They had heard stories, but they had no explanation. Their father was horrific. He abused them in every way imaginable. The children, now adults, did not know whether to fear for the safety of their long lost mother or to be angry that she left them to suffer. A private detective found her and they were reunited on the show.
She explained what happened to her children; their father kidnapped them while she tried to get help. He had beaten her, too, and she knew she had to escape the relationship. She tried to get them back, worked with a lawyer and the courts, but his threats were too real for her and she feared for their lives. Whether right or wrong, she thought it was better to let them go than to risk the violence she knew he was capable of doing. It will take a long time for that family to heal, but they are going to try.
Sometimes our fears get the better of us. I think we have all probably been in situations when we have made irrational decisions because we let fear control our thought processes. There usually is no real reason for us to be afraid, but that does not diminish the reality of how we feel at that time: alone and in a position of vulnerability.
Martin Luther spoke during one of his table talks about the difference in how God and Satan use fear. He said that the Lord first allows us to be afraid so that He might relieve our fears and comfort us. The devil first makes us feel secure in our pride and sins, that we might later be overwhelmed with our fear and despair. The devil uses our security to his benefit by threatening to destroy the things we love. So, we become afraid and do everything we can to protect our lives, our homes, our families, our jobs and our things. We even willfully disobey the Word of God, living in anger, hatred, violence and war, justifying our actions as a way to overcome the things of this world that threaten our lives.
The fear of the Lord is much different. The Law provides insight into our own sinful nature. Through it we can see our inability to be obedient. We know of God’s power and justice, so we fear the wrath that we deserve. Yet, God comes to us through the Gospel, not with threats, but with love and mercy and grace. Jesus Christ relieves our fears and the Holy Spirit comforts us. We hear the promises of God that He will not destroy us, but rather He will give us eternal life in His Kingdom. Rather than reason for alarm, we are given reason for hope and peace.
In some cultures, of course, there are those who take a certain pleasure in fear. The man in the family on Dr. Phil was a man who enjoyed making his wife and children tremble because it gave him a sense of power and control. In those situations, they use your fear manipulate you to do whatever they want you to do. You’ll give them information, possessions or your service just to remain safe. It seems odd, then, that the psalmist would write, “Yahweh takes pleasure in those who fear him...” God does not pleasure in our fear the way an abuser might. In the case of God, we fear, not because we are afraid, but because we know God is awesome. He can do things that no one else can do.
The psalmist completes the thought, “...in those who hope in his loving kindness.” Fear of God is not a fear that will make us cower and tremble. It is a sense of awe in what God has done and what God can do. He takes pleasure in those who put their hope in His lovingkindness. This is a much different type of delight. It is a delight that will do what is best for those who fear, to guard and protect, provide and bless. For this, He deserves our praise.
According to Isaiah, God is the “Holy One of Israel.” This is an important title to Isaiah and appears twenty-six times in his book. This might have been hard to believe for some of the people to whom Isaiah ministered because they were facing such a difficult time in their history. They were defeated and exiled in a foreign land. It seemed that the nation of Israel would no longer exist. They had every reason to be afraid. Their troubles were caused by their own rejection of God’s Word through the prophets. They did not see God as He is: the Holy One. However, despite our failure God always provides hope.
When we are comfortable, we lose sight of God and forget the unmerited blessings of His grace. Throughout the history of God’s people, there were times when God’s people looked elsewhere for hope and peace and strength. They allied with neighbors for protection, sought encouragement from foreigners, all the while forgetting the God and King who provided them all they would ever need. They turned from Him, and in doing so lost touch with the One who could and would protect them.
Just as the people thought there was no hope, Isaiah called them to remember their God. They needed their eyes opened, to see that the things and people to whom they had turned would never be able to provide them with all that they need. Only God can measure the water or the heavens with His hand. Only God can weigh the mountains and hills. There is no one who has, or can, tell God how to be God. He did not ask for human advice in the creation of the world or learn from human teachers. There is no one like God.
We are reminded in this same passage that we are trivial. We are like grasshoppers compared to God Almighty, who created everything and whose hand drives it all. God can bring down princes and rulers and scatter them like a storm scatters stubble. He placed every star in the sky and He knows them all by name. “‘To whom then will you liken me? Who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.” There is none like God.
And yet, we often try to be Him. We try to control the world in which we live, calling for God to serve us instead of bowing in worship to serve Him. Twice in today’s Old Testament lesson Isaiah asks, “Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard, yet? Haven’t you been told from the beginning? Haven’t you understood from the foundations of the earth?” Twice Isaiah asked why they were not hearing God’s Word.
They have heard and they are called to remember. God is greater than their problems. He is above all creation. He can raise up kings and bring them down again. God is their strength. He is their hope. He is their refuge. He is the everlasting God, creator of all things. In Him they will find their comfort and salvation.
Our problems may differ, but we are the same as Israel. Have we chosen to believe that we have the answers, that we know how to solve the problems? Have we become too comfortable in our action and forgotten that it is His Word that truly makes a difference? Have we lifted up the false god of our own goodness and made it our priority, ignoring the real purpose of God’s grace? Isaiah calls out to us today, just as he called out to the Israelites so long ago to remind us that our God is the Holy One. “Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? The everlasting God, Yahweh, the Creator of the ends of the earth, doesn’t faint. He isn’t weary. His understanding is unsearchable.” He is faithful and we will find our hope in Him.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus left the synagogue after healing the man with the demons and He went straight to Peter’s house. Peter’s mother-in-law was ill with fever and lying in bed. Like the man with the demons, Peter’s mother-in-law could not live her life according to the vocation to which she’d been called. Though her dis-ease was not supernatural in nature, she was still not able to be who she was created to be. Instead, she was forced to lie in bed, unable to serve her family or enjoy their fellowship.
Jesus went to Peter’s mother-in-law, reached out and took her hand, then lifted her up. She was cured immediately and was restored to her whole self. I suppose we might read this passage with a modern edge and be disturbed that the poor woman who had just recovered from what seemed to be a pretty horrible illness had to get up and serve the men. Yet, that was her role in the household. She was not only healed, but she was restored to her vocation, the care of her family.
As we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson, word spread about Jesus throughout the countryside. After the Sabbath ended, people began arriving at Peter’s door with the sick and the possessed. It seemed as if the entire city was gathered around the house. Jesus cured many of the diseases and cast out many demons. He took care of their needs and restored them to their roles in their society. This was very important in Jesus’ day. There were no laws which gave handicapped people help in overcoming the difficulties of their disease. There was no mobility between stations in life or the roles to which you were born. If you were sick, you were considered unclean. If you were a Jew or a Greek, you lived, worked and ate with only your people. There were not only stumbling blocks, there were walls keeping people inside and outside.
Jesus broke down walls. He brought healing, He cast out demons. He changed lives and restored people. But that’s not all He came to do. He also came to preach. Unfortunately, the people were so amazed by the miraculous things He was doing that they did not hear what He had to say. They were closing in on Him and expecting from Him only what they wanted. They were not giving Him the room to be who He came to be. So, after dark Jesus went out to a lonely place to pray. When the disciples found Him they told Him that everyone was looking for Him. He said to them, “Let’s go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because I came out for this reason.” He was not going to allow the people to dictate the work He was going to accomplish. The healing and casting out of demons was important; it proved Jesus’ authority and power, but it was not the reason He came. It was time to move on, to share the message with others who might hear. Sadly, we learn in Luke 10 that Capernaum never came to believe. Strange, isn't it? They came to Jesus for healing, but never found wholeness because they didn’t listen to Him.
Jesus longed to be heard, for the true healing from God is in His Word. Jesus continued to heal and cast out demons because the miracles were a sign of God’s power in Christ’s Word, but He moved quickly from one place to another so that the people would not focus solely on the miracles. He went to do what He was sent to do, preach the Good News.
So many things about today’s lessons seem out of whack to our modern way of thinking. But in these stories we remember that the Gospel is shocking, it is life changing. It is powerful. Most of all, it is for everyone. This week we saw Jesus heal a mother in a home with a fever. Last week it was a man in the synagogue with a demon. Then Jesus healed crowds of people and finally we see Him going throughout the countryside preaching, healing and casting out demons. The power of the Gospel is for men and women, for those in worship and at home, for those in our small circles of friends and for our neighbors far away. That’s why Paul says that he has become all things to all people. He’s not wavering on the one thing that matters: the message.
Paul knew that not everyone would hear. He wrote, “For though I was free from all, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more.” He does not expect that all will be saved, but he’s willing to do whatever he can to share the Gospel message with as many as possible. The Gospel brings change. In Christ we live and breathe and move and grow. But then, in Christ we are more alive than we have ever been, and the breath we breathe is from the Spirit of God Himself. The Gospel draws us into a life of praise and thanksgiving. It gives us a voice that can’t help but proclaim His grace to the world. The Gospel gives us the power to bring the Kingdom of God closer to those who will hear, and it gives us the power to continue the work of Christ in this world.
Have you ever felt like you are living the same thing day after day after day? It is like every day is the same. You get out of bed at the same time, put on the same kind of clothes, eat the same breakfast. Then you get into your car and drive through the same traffic jams to the same office to do the same work over and over again. Oh, there might be minor differences during the day: a blue shirt instead of white, a cheeseburger instead of a chicken sandwich. At home after a long day of work is the same thing, too. Dinner, television, a newspaper filled with the same stories. Then to bed for another night of rest before it all begins again.
Phil Connor experienced this to the extreme. In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray plays Phil who is an arrogant self-centered weatherman who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the annual Groundhog celebrations. He does not want to go because he thinks the whole thing is beneath him. The town is boring, the celebration corny. Punxsutawney is the last place in the world he wants to be. He does the report with distain and rushes his director and cameraman out of town. Unfortunately, the winter storm he swore would not hit the area closes the road home and he’s stuck for another night in the small town.
The next morning, Phil wakes to exactly the same day. Everything is the same, literally. The same song is playing on the radio; the same banter comes from the DJs. The same people are walking around outside and in the Bed and Breakfast where he was staying. He has to go back to Gobbler’s Knob and do the report again. Everything else that day is the same and he ends up in the Bed and Breakfast for another night. No one else knows that he’s living it all over again. To them it is a whole new day. But for Phil, the day is new but everything about it has happened already. This happens over and over again.
He first responds with confusion and denial. He doesn’t want to do the report again and tries to convince everyone that he’s reliving the same day. They think he’s nuts. Eventually he realizes that his actions have no consequences, so he takes advantage of the situation. He joy rides with a bunch of drunks, has a one night stand with a pretty woman, and steals a bag full of money left on the ground by some bumbling armor car guards. Then he becomes desperate for the day to be over. He tries to kill himself. He steals the groundhog (also named Phil) and drives them both over a cliff. He jumps in front of a moving truck and jumps off a building. Nothing works. He wakes up the next morning exactly the same.
He finally concedes to the idea that he’ll be living the same day forever, so he takes advantage of the situation. He learns how to play the piano and how to carve ice sculptures. He reads great novels and learns poetry. He becomes knowledgeable in many different fields. He gets to know the people and his co-workers, learning the most intimate details about his pretty producer so as to win her trust and get her into his bed. Over and over, day after day, he fails as she ends each day with a slap on his face. All the while, Phil is watching the town and its people, learning every movement, seeing all their needs.
One morning Phil decides to tell the producer Rita that he thinks he’s a god. He doesn’t think he’s God, but he tells her about his seeming immortality. He proves his incredible knowledge by telling her details about all the people in the town, and then tells her exactly what the cameraman will say when he comes through the door. They hang out together for that day and she tries to keep him awake until midnight, but they fall asleep and he wakes up to the same day, again. On that day he finally uses his power for good.
He spends the day doing good things for the people of Punxsutawney. He presents the most fabulous report about the groundhog celebration. He saves a boy who falls out of a tree. He changes the tire of a group of older women. He gives the Heimlich to a man in a restaurant choking on a piece of steak. He helps a young couple through pre-marriage jitters. He’s the hit of the party and Mr. Congeniality of Punxsutawney, loved by everyone. This time Rita really does fall in love with this terrific guy who is much different than she thought he was. They fall asleep in each other’s arms and when Phil wakes up, it is a new day.
It was when Phil started living for others that he found renewal and hope in a new day. The same can be said for Paul. He didn’t preach the Gospel for his own sake; he preached it for the sake of others, so that they might know the hope and peace of Jesus Christ. For their sake, he also gave up the things that had made him happy, so that they would not suffer in any ways by his hands. In doing so, he found much greater blessing. And the same can be true for us. While our days may seem to be the same thing over and over again, we can live our life for the sake of others. In doing so, we’ll see that it is a whole new day for us, too.
Perhaps there is reason to fear in our world. Perhaps we let our fear get the better of us. Perhaps we really do feel vulnerable and alone. Perhaps there is reason to believe that we are being manipulated by those who would use our fear against us. But we are reminded by Isaiah that there is One whom we should fear.
The fear of the Lord is much different, however. The Law provides insight into our own sinful nature. Through it we can see our inability to be obedient. We know of God’s power and justice, so we fear the wrath that we deserve. Yet, God comes to us through the Gospel, not with threats, but with love and mercy and grace. Jesus Christ relieves our fears and the Holy Spirit comforts us. We hear the promises of God that He will not destroy us, but rather He will give us eternal life in His Kingdom. Rather than reason for alarm, we are given reason for hope and peace.
As we look at the stories in the scriptures, we do see them through our own eyes. We see that poor women getting up to serve when she should be recuperating, but when we do that we miss the joy she has in her salvation. She didn’t have to go cook dinner for Jesus and the disciples; she gave herself and her gifts to those she loves. Jesus healed her and lifted her to new life and she responded with joy and thanksgiving. Paul responded with his whole life to his call to ministry, willingly submitting himself to others for the sake of the Gospel.
Isaiah asks, “Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard, yet? Haven’t you been told from the beginning? Haven’t you understood from the foundations of the earth?” Have we heard? Have we responded to God with fear and hope? It is a new day. Jesus Christ has made us whole with His healing and with His Word. We have no reason to boast, because we are nothing more than grasshoppers. Yet, through faith in Christ by God’s grace, we are lifted up, given eagle’s wings and the strength to use our gifts to do what God has called and sent us to do in our homes, churches, cities and beyond.
God is faithful and we’ll find our hope in Him. He delights in those who trust in Him. He calls us to live for the sake of others, following Jesus to break down walls, heal the sick, cast our demons and speak the Gospel to those who are still chasing the wrong gods. We are called to share the Word that heals hearts and sets people free.