Welcome to the January 2020 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 World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, January 2020
Happy New Year!
“When the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’” Luke 2:22-24, WEB
The Old Testament is filled with images of God that we do not like to see; they leave us with questions and doubts. We prefer a God who is loving and kind; any stories of death and destruction are difficult for us to juxtapose with our understanding of a gracious God. We don’t really understand why our God would require the death of any animals as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
As we look at the Old Testament story of the Exodus, we can’t really understand why the God who sent us the baby in the manger could possibly allow the death of all the first born innocent children of Egypt. That’s what happened at the Passover, when the angel of death passed over the homes covered in the blood of the lamb and took the sons of Egypt as the final plague to convince Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free. There must have been a better way.
The Exodus was the first of many great works and a foreshadowing of the greatest work that God performed in and through Jesus Christ. The deliverance was not easy; Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against the Hebrews and he refused to let them leave despite his promises. So God made the ultimate demand, the demand that the other gods had no right to make. The Lord Almighty gives life to all, so only He has the right to take that life away. As a last resort, God took the first born of Egypt, man and beast. But as proof that He is God, He saved the firstborn of the Hebrews. He saved His sons.
After Pharaoh ordered the Hebrews to leave, God gave the people instructions about the journey. He told them to remember the Passover regularly, to remember how God delivered them out of Egypt. Then He called His people to consecrate all their first born males, human and animal. This consecration is to happen not only in this night, but in all time after they enter into the Promised Land. The animals were sacrificed; but God never demanded death for the first born human sons. They were consecrated to life. God commanded His people to dedicate their first fruits to God’s service. The first born belonged to God.
The redemption price of five shekels could be paid to a priest when the first born son of a mother was thirty days old (Numbers 18:16). This redemption price would have “bought” or “redeemed” or “paid the ransom” for the child so that they could be restored to their family. If a father could not pay the redemption price, the child had to do so when he became a man. We don’t hear about Joseph paying the redemption price, but from the beginning Jesus belonged to God. He was sent to pay the price Himself, not with shekels but with His own blood.
In other words, the very command to consecrate the first born was truly fulfilled in the life, ministry and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus to God’s service, and Jesus served in a way that only He could serve. Ultimately we know that Jesus was the final sacrifice and it is His blood that is now painted on our doors.
There is a meme I’ve seen that says, “God did not check inside to see who was worthy. He checked for the blood on the doorpost. None are worthy. The blood of Christ covers us.” In Christ we are among those who have been redeemed. We do not have to pay the price anymore. We were never really able to pay the price. Through Christ, God has saved His sons and His daughters. The angel of death will still take our flesh one day, but when He does we will be welcomed into the eternal kingdom of our God, to dwell with Him forever.
You are God’s holy and beloved, dedicated by faith to service in His Kingdom. The life you are called to live is not necessarily like those we have heard about over the past few weeks. We won’t be like Mary or Joseph, John or Herod, the shepherds or angels, Simeon or Anna. We won’t be like those who died for the sake of the Gospel from the Holy Innocents to Stephen, to all the martyrs throughout history. The sacrifice God seeks from each of us is thankfulness with our whole hearts.
Even though Christmas is past, will you continue to seek Him, to watch for Him, to wait for His coming with your whole being, serving Him with your entire life? It might sound like too much, especially as we return to the hustle and bustle of our normal lives, but when we consider what God has done for us we know that it will never be enough. Thankfully, Jesus accomplished more than enough. That babe that was laid in the manger became the required redemption because He died for our sake. By His grace we live in word and deed in His name, sharing the peace of God with one another and the world.
“The child was growing, and was becoming strong in spirit, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast, and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Joseph and his mother didn’t know it, but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey, and they looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they didn’t find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the middle of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ They didn’t understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth. He was subject to them, and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Luke 2:40-52, WEB
The lesson tells us that the boy Jesus grew in stature and favor. His family traveled to Jerusalem for the annual festival each year, but the year He was twelve was different. The pilgrims always traveled in large groups, for safety on the road and because they stayed close to family. Uncles, cousins, grandparents were all together, enjoying the adventure of the journey. Their families we close because they lived close. Everyone cared for everyone. One child could easily be lost in the crowd. Jesus, at twelve, was old enough to be independent. It is no wonder that Jesus was not with Mary and Joseph during the trip. They thought He was in the crowd with other adults they trusted.
Eventually they went looking for their son and could not find Him. Can you imagine the panic? Most parents have a moment like that with their kids. For me, Victoria was playing in the clothing racks at a department store and then was suddenly gone. I called and searched; others joined in the search. I was in tears out of fear. It didn’t help that there had been a nationally reported kidnapping of another child just weeks before this incident. I couldn’t help but think about the worst possibilities. We eventually found her, crying hysterically in a dressing room at the other end of the store. All was well in the end, but for a brief period of time I was inconsolable. I know how Mary felt at that moment when she realized He was gone.
I also know how she felt when she found Jesus. I was so happy to know Vicki was safe and sound, but angry that she had wandered off. “How could you do this to me?” I asked. So did Mary. We often place Mary on a pedestal, forgetting that she was a normal woman and mother. And though Jesus was the Son of God, He was also her son and a twelve year old boy. This holy family was not extraordinary; they were as ordinary as you and I.
However, Jesus was not quite ordinary. He wandered off, not because He was playing in the racks of clothes at a department store. He was in the Temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions. His questions were not like a normal child’s questions, but were thoughtful and intelligent. He amazed the teachers with His understanding. He amazed even His parents. Even so, Mary asked, “How could you do this to us?” He didn’t understand their concern. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Jesus was an extraordinary young man. He was where he belonged, even if His mother didn’t quite understand. We have to let our children go to follow their path. Unfortunately, Mary had to let her boy go at an incredibly early age, but He was equipped for the work He had to do. God was with Him. Perhaps we would be more patient with our children if we could be sure that God is with them, too.
Luke wrote that Mary and Joseph did not understand. I do not think that their doubt was about His identity as the Son of God. They knew. The angels told them. The shepherds confirmed it, so did the wise men. I think they were surprised that Jesus knew. He was just a boy, not yet ready for the responsibilities that would be hoisted upon Him. He was still a child, innocent and impressionable. They weren’t ready to give up their responsibility for Him. They had more to teach Him, more to do for Him.
However, He knew. The day they had been dreading was closer than they thought. It could not have been easy living with the knowledge that Jesus was destined for something great but that greatness would come at a price. Mary treasured every moment she had with Jesus, even when those moments were filled with anxiety. She had an inner peace that is beyond human understanding even while the world around her seemed chaotic and out of control. She had that peace because she trusted in God, and did all she did for His glory.
Jesus was an extraordinary, after all He was God incarnate, but He was also fully human. We should not think of Him as the perfect child, never crying or getting dirty. He needed his diapers changed like every other baby. He fell when He was learning to walk, skinned His knees when He played. I’m sure He dragged mud into the house after jumping in puddles, just like the other kids. He went through the terrible twos and every other stage of life, learning and growing every step along the way.
Jesus was different, though. He was the Word in flesh, the physical manifestation of the Lord God Almighty. Through Him all things were made and He is the Redeemer of all who believe. When Jesus’ mother taught Him the scriptures, as was practiced in Jewish homes, the words had a deeper, fuller meaning for Him. He understood what they said. His mother and father loved the Lord and they knew His word, but He needed more than Mary could give Him. Jesus sought the learned men of the Temple to test His knowledge. He sought the teachers who studied scriptures to learn from them and to share His own understanding.
Jesus overstepped the bounds of His parents’ trust by staying in Jerusalem without their knowledge. He was a twelve year old who still needed their guidance and direction. When they questioned Him, He explained that He needed to be in His Father’s house. Despite all that had happened to Jesus from conception to that moment, they still did not fully understand. Though Jesus was in many ways an ordinary child, He was also extraordinary. He was the child of Mary and Joseph, but He was the Son of God. The stories of His life are filled with unusual circumstances: visits from shepherds and magi, a journey to a foreign land and then home again, prophets who sing for joy at His presence, and a lesson in the temple. Mary, His mother, watched Him grow through the normal phases of life, but she also witnessed all these things. She treasured and pondered them in her heart, and encouraged her son as He grew into His mission and ministry.
We aren’t Jesus. However, as children of the Father, we can be like Jesus. We can seek His wisdom and He will give it to us. We can ask questions that will be transformative to the very depths of our souls. Then as we live according to God’s Word, we will see the changes that will not only make us healthier and more responsible, but even more so, more faithful to God’s intent for our lives. It will take a lifetime and we will fail time and again, but God will continue to work in and through, transforming us into the people He created and redeemed us to be. Until that day, let us be humble and faithful, recognizing our need for God's grace and constantly seeking the word and will of God for our lives.
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he asked them where the Christ would be born. They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is written through the prophet, “You Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way least among the princes of Judah; for out of you shall come a governor who shall shepherd my people, Israel.”’ Then Herod secretly called the wise men, and learned from them exactly what time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the young child. When you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him.’ They, having heard the king, went their way; and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them until it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. They came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country another way.” Matthew 2:1-12, WEB
God repeatedly promised the Jews that He would send a Messiah, a king who would deliver them from their bondage. The Old Testament is filled with words from the prophets and kings that speak of that promise and God’s faithfulness. The Jews longed for the day when that promise would be fulfilled. This was especially true at the time when Herod the Great reigned. The people wanted to be a free nation with a proper king, a king from the House of David. They thought the promise was just for Israel and that the promise would be fulfilled by an earthly king.
They longed for the Glory of Zion, for a nation of prosperity as it was in the days of David, but it would not be wealth, fame and honor they would receive. The promised Glory would be the Light of the World. From the beginning, the Jews were chosen and blessed so that they would be a blessing. The Savior of the world was to come through them and the world would see the greatness of God through their lives. Isaiah writes, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (60:3)
Jesus Christ was the morning star; His birth was the dawn of a new age. He was light and brought light into this dark world. A star shown in the sky at the moment of His birth, it was a light to the Gentiles. Far away magi who were studying the skies looking for signs saw this new star appear. They were learned men who may have heard the prophecies of the Jews. They left their homes and traveled to Jerusalem seeking this newborn king of the Jews.
They went to Herod believing the new king would have been born in the royal household, but there was no child there. Herod called to the priests and asked about the prophecies found in the scriptures. They told him about the words of Micah that foretold of a king to be born in Bethlehem, a shepherd from the House of David. Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and asked that they return and tell him the location of the child so he too could go worship him.
Isn’t it amazing that the nation of the Promise did not see the signs of the coming fulfillment? They did not see the light appear; yet foreigners knew something incredible was happening and traveled far to be a part of it. Even when the magi informed all of Jerusalem of their quest, no one followed. Not one person went with them to find the newborn king. During Jesus’ life and ministry, many of the Jews still did not recognize Him, though He often showed Himself to be the fulfillment of the promises. From the beginning of Jesus’ life, from the moment He was laid in manger, His light shined to the entire world, not just the Jews.
Isaiah says, “All from Sheba will come. They will bring gold and frankincense, and will proclaim the praises of Yahweh.” (60:6b) The magi fulfilled this prophecy by coming to honor the newborn king and by bringing Him gifts. The gold and incense were symbols of royalty and priesthood. They knew that Jesus would be like the kings of old who not only ruled the people but also ministered to the Lord. But the magi brought another gift, myrrh. Myrrh was a spice used for the burial of the dead. These strangers from a foreign land somehow knew that Jesus was to be more than an earthly king. The gift foretold of Jesus’ suffering and death.
The word Epiphany means, “A revelatory manifestation of a divine being.” On this day the Church recognizes that through the magi God revealed His divine nature of Christ to the world. The promise of a King was not just for the Jews or for this life. Jesus is the Light, revealed by God in the light of the star that drew strangers into His promise. The light shines for the entire world to see but Herod and the people of Jerusalem missed it. Do you see the Light and will you follow like the magi of old? Thanks be to God for His revealed light, that by His power we may see and know Him even today.
“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do. Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body, and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” Colossians 3:12-17, WEB
With the passing of Epiphany, Christmas is officially over and the New Year has truly begun. It is time for us to return our lives to some sort of normality. Now that we have returned to school and work, we are feeling let down. Our families have returned to their homes. The house is not as bright as we take down the decorations. We are beginning to see how much we overspent as the credit cards come due. We still feel stuffed and know that we’ve gained that ten pounds we were determined to avoid. We know that we have to get back to the normal of our everyday lives. We’ve been praising God for a month or so as we prepared for the coming of our King in Bethlehem. We are tired, not of praising God, but just tired and we are ready to focus on our lives again.
Our little troubles are really insignificant when we consider the difficulties of those who truly suffer around the world. It seems the news is always filled with stories of suffering and death and we know we don’t hear about every act that harms others. We can only bear so much at a time, and so the reporters pick and choose which stories to tell. It is enough to bring us to despair, but we are called to live a life of daily praise to the God who sent Jesus into the world. Jesus’ birth obviously didn’t stop bad things from happening, but in faith we are called to live in the hope that God will finish His work and we’ll dwell with Him in eternity.
Our God has done amazing things. He created the entire world and everything in it. He redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service, and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might struggle as we see the bad things happen in the world and suffer for a moment, but no matter what we face we have a God who has given us the faith to believe. By our rebirth through our baptism we are dedicated to a life of service for our God, a sacrifice of living, not death. Such a life begins with a daily sacrifice of praise to God, singing songs of adoration and admiration. As we live this life of thanksgiving, we will realize how inconsequential our troubles really are because we will be looking for the fulfillment of God’s promises and His faithfulness.
Our God is great and He does great things. The most incredible part is that He does so much of it through us. He calls us to live that holy life, to live faithfully in thanksgiving, doing everything in His name. Whether it is with quiet voice or loud proclamation, His name will change the world. The peace we have in Christ does not guarantee a world without suffering. We’ll see horrific moments. We’ll panic in the face of danger. We’ll cry when we are afraid. We will have to let go, let others take their place in the work of God, give up the things we hold most dear.
When Paul says, “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” he is not telling us how to live our calling in the world. We might be led by the Spirit to be at the right place at the right moment to see or hear or do something that seems rather insignificant in the scheme of things. But our quiet life of faithful living will impact others in some way. Or, we might be called to loudly proclaim the truth we know so that others will hear and believe in the good works of our God. But whatever you do in word or deed, do it in Jesus’ name with thanks to God, and He will be glorified.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 12, 2019, Baptism of Our Lord: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 3:13-17
“Behold, the former things have happened and I declare new things. I tell you about them before they come up.” Isaiah 42:9, WEB
The weather reports for the coming days are threatening bad weather in some parts of the nation. These threats aren’t winter storms as you might expect in January, but tornados. We live at the very southern tip of Tornado Alley, and though we have experienced the worry of watches and warnings, though none have ever materialized in our neighborhood. We have had to deal with the damage from hail and wind, however. While we desperately need the rain that could come with the weather this weekend, we really do hope that it is not severe.
There are people out there who chase after these storms. Several television shows have shown what life is like on the road, what it is like to be in the middle of one of these storms, what the world looks like after they’ve hit. It is devastating to the communities where a tornado has leveled house after house and destroyed businesses and other buildings. One show used to star two sisters who took tours into tornado watch zones to give guests an adventure and possibly a glimpse at the storm in action. I think these storm chasers are out of their minds. They pull right up to the storm, park their cars and get out to watch as a tornado forms right in front of them. At times they park so near to the storm center that they put themselves in danger. Of course, the television programs edit the footage to give us the most exciting parts of the chase. I imagine that most of the video is dropped to the cutting room floor because it is so boring. So, we only see the parts that thrill the people and the viewers.
I think what is most amazing is that the guests on that tornado tour choose to do this for their vacation. They choose to put themselves into danger as a way of relaxing and enjoying themselves. The hardest part is when the tornado does real damage. It is heartbreaking to them to see a house, or a town, that has been destroyed. They help if they can and cry along with the victims when they can’t. Some of the storm chasers are scientists who are studying the storms in the hope of understanding what happens. They keep in contact with the National Weather Service: it is often their calls that prompt warnings and watches that help keep us safe.
I suppose I wouldn’t mind seeing a tornado as long as I knew it would never be close enough to hurt me. The fear of the watches and warnings have been more than enough for me. In Little Rock, a tornado warning came about the time that Victoria and Zack were dropped off by their school bus. The bus driver had to pull over and asked if the children who were still on the bus could stay in our house until the threat passed. A very small tornado briefly touched down about a mile from our house. Late one night in Texas I woke to the sound of fierce winds. When I looked out the window, I saw a child’s plastic pool fly by our house. There were tornado warnings that night but nothing materialized near our home. It is frightening to be in the midst of the storm.
A little fear can be healthy and life-saving. For those who storm chase, it is the fear of the tornado actually catching up with them that keeps them at a safe distance. It is the fear that makes them get in the car and drive away when there is a chance that the tornado will turn. It is fear that makes a bus driver take his kids off the bus and into a safe place during the threat. It is fear that puts us in our safe room during a warning so that if a tornado comes, we will get through it. Fear is a healthy and life-saving thing at times, but through our storms we can look to the One who will be with us. God is in control. He is more powerful than the most dangerous tornado. He is stronger than the trees, deeper than the oceans. He can shake the deserts. Through it all, He gives us strength and gives us peace. He deserves our praise.
God is far more than we can even imagine. By His Word, the world exists. By His Word, we have life. His Word gives us all we need to live and serve Him in this world to His glory. Yet, with our words we still try to make God fit into a box that suits our needs and desires. The Psalmist knew that God is bigger than human reason and understanding; the psalm praises God by singing of the awesome power of His Word. We should do the same, using God’s Word to lift them out of their tiny box into a greater understanding of His Love.
In the Psalm David writes, “And In his temple everything says, “Glory!” In the sanctuary of God’s presence, the people need not tremble with fear despite the apparent turmoil on earth. Jesus, the living and breathing temple in which the fullness of God dwelt on earth, is the sanctuary in which we can take refuge. This is the kind of life Jesus lived, the life we see modeled in the scriptures.
Jesus was who He was. He was the incarnation of the living God: Christ, Messiah, Son, Emmanuel. He did not need a baptism of any sort, yet He went to John to be baptized, a baptism for repentance. He had no sin to be forgiven or separation from the Creator which needed reconciliation. He was the living Word of God in flesh. Yet, Jesus was also man. His baptism was far more than just an act of example for the rest of us. His baptism defined His identity, as God reached out of the heavens to claim Jesus as His own Son. By going to John, Jesus demonstrated His humble obedience to the will and purpose of God. It was right for Jesus to be baptized, even if John thought it was wrong.
John was not willing to do as Jesus asked. “But John would have hindered him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’” We don’t see the nuances of this conversation in the English: John did not just say “No,” he argued with Jesus. Finally Jesus answered, “Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is how God willed it to be, so John gave in to Jesus’ request.
John, who recognized that Jesus was the Christ, the Savior of the world, knew he was not worthy even to touch Jesus’ sandals. How could he possibly baptize the One whom he knows has no need of baptism? Jesus did not need to repent, so what purpose did it hold for Jesus to be buried in the Jordan? John had to submit to God’s will and accept that God sometimes calls us to do things we do not want to do and that we do not think we are worthy of doing. It is through weak, broken vessels that God fulfills all righteousness.
God made covenants with His people throughout history. He made a covenant with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses and with David. Those covenants were accompanied by signs, such as the rainbow for Noah and circumcision for Abraham. Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign for all the promises. He is the sign that God will remember His promises, that we are made children of God, that the Law has been fulfilled and that we will have a King forever. He came to fulfill all God’s promises, to be the covenant that will last.
The new covenant was different than the old because it was given for everyone. It was given for the whole world, even those beyond the edge of the world. It was given for unknown people in unknown places, and at unknown times. It is a lasting covenant. He is a lasting covenant, given for us as He was given for them. It is Jesus who stands between the holiness of God and the godlessness of this world. We are not worthy of God’s grace, but Jesus is the sign that God will favor us with mercy and forgiveness. He makes us righteous. He gives us life. We are His and as His, we are also children of God.
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to be born. He had to complete the work that God sent Him to earth to do. That included opening the eyes of the blind, making the lame walk and the deaf to hear. He was sent to minister to the crowds and tell them the Good News. He was sent to teach and heal and forgive. He was sent to die. But before He could do all these things, He had to identify with the people He came to save. By identifying with them, He could serve them from a place of empathy and kindness.
When Jesus was baptized, the water poured over Him. When He came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit poured over Him. It was at that moment when Jesus became His ministry. We know so little about his life before that time – a few stories about his birth and childhood. His life between thirteen and thirty is a mystery. Some have made claims, including some who say that Jesus spent those years in England, learning from the Celtic druids. There are also claims that He went east to the Orient to learn. We simply do not know. There is no authoritative record of that time. All we know is that at about age thirty, He appeared before John the Baptist to be publically anointed for ministry.
The anointing did not come from human hands, it came from God Himself. The Spirit poured out of Him in word and deed as He spoke about the Kingdom of God and healed the sick. The Spirit continued to be poured on the apostles who told their stories and passed on their faith to others. Generation after generation, the Spirit poured out on to people all over the world, on people like Augustine, Adrian and those who shared it with us. Their love, knowledge and faith poured out upon us so that we too might be taken to the waters of baptism and made a son or daughter of God. Jesus was just the first and it is through Him that we join in the fellowship of God, reconciled and forgiven by His grace. In Jesus, God started something new, a new covenant through Jesus Christ. It all started at that river and continues to today.
Jesus presented His message with gentleness and love. He did not bring further hurt to those who were wounded, but rather spoke healing into their lives. He did not snuff out the passion that burned in the people, but fanned it with the truth so that it would burn brightly and rightly. He did not force His message on any; He simply spoke the truth and moved on. Those who did not listen to His words suffered the consequences of their rejection. Our passage from Isaiah describes the one whom God has chosen to lead His people. Jesus was not expected to be a man with a sword, but with an even more powerful weapon: love. Jesus brought justice with gentleness. May He give us the ability to do the same.
We are called to live in our baptisms. We are called to live a life in which we are daily reminded that God is with us, walks with us and helps us to serve Him in this world. We are called to live the life that Jesus Christ modeled for us in the scriptures. His baptism was far more than just an example for the rest of us. He went under the waters of the Jordan because it fulfilled the purpose and plan of God. In that baptism, Jesus identified fully with humankind. He took on our brokenness. He became like you and I. There, in the Jordan, Jesus made a public confession of faith and God made a public acceptance of Jesus as His Son.
Jesus did a great many things in private. He prayed in private. Some of His most incredible miracles were done behind closed doors with few witnesses to tell the story. He often told the recipients of His grace to be silent, to not tell anyone about their healing. Though there were a few visitors, His birth was relatively unknown. There weren’t great crowds at his circumcision. He slipped away into hiding as a child and then we have no reliable record about His life between twelve and thirty.
It is no wonder that people wondered whether or not Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting. He came out of nowhere one day to be baptized by John. John recognized Him, but what is it that he saw in Jesus? Later, in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, John asks Jesus “Are you the one?” John, a relative of Jesus, must have known about His life before that moment. Perhaps John saw Jesus as a righteous man, right with God and right with man. He knew that Jesus was not like the others who came to be washed of their sin.
At His baptism, Jesus became a public figure. He began His ministry. He made known the will and purpose of God. The things He said and the things He did were not always what the people expected. There was room for doubt because He did not follow their expectations. They thought they knew what they were waiting for; they thought they saw it in Jesus. They heard the voice of God. But it is easy to doubt. It is easy to forget. It is easy to assume we are wrong. That’s why we are called to live in our baptism daily, so that we won’t forget. God claimed Jesus and He claimed us, too, when He called out our names at our baptisms.
“Behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” After Jesus was baptized, a voice called from heaven claiming Jesus as His own Son. What did this sound like to the crowds? What kind of voice did they hear coming from the heavens. It was an audible voice because God’s words address the people. He announced and identified the man Jesus as His beloved, His chosen One. Yet, as we look at the description of the voice of God in the Psalm for today, I can’t help but wonder how it sounded to those listening. David writes that the voice of God is like thunder. It breaks the mighty cedars, brings forth fire and shakes the wilderness. The voice of the LORD is like a tornado, tearing apart the forests. Such a voice would make me tremble. What must it been like to be at the Jordan when Jesus was baptized? The heavens opened up and they heard a voice from heaven. Did it bring the people to their knees in fear and awe?
Perhaps the voice of God that day was like thunder, but Jesus was there to bring peace and joy to the world.
His voice may make us tremble with fear, but His love calls us to sing His praise. Through faith in Christ we enter into the Temple of God and join with the heavenly beings singing “GLORY!” The Almighty God has done everything necessary to reconcile Himself to His people. He sent Jesus to finish the work of salvation that was begun even at the first sound of His voice. He sent Jesus to be the fulfillment to every promise. Through Jesus, He claims us as children, anoints us with the Holy Spirit and then sends us into the world to share His grace with those who do not yet know Him.
It seems to us that we are not worthy of such a calling. We are tempted by so many things, and it can be very difficult to overcome when we constantly face that temptation. Our Father knows how difficult it is for us to walk away from those things that are harmful to our spiritual life. Jesus Christ came in flesh and was tempted so that He could truly identify with the failures of our flesh. However, Jesus did not fall into the temptation; He remained perfect and true to the Word of God no matter what Satan offered Him. His understanding of the grace and mercy of God was so perfect, that He was able to keep from sin. By His death and resurrection, we are forgiven our failures and given the freedom to live in His grace and mercy.
Paul asks in his letter to the Romans, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”
We can go out and overindulge in the temptations of this world, knowing that the blood of Jesus Christ forgives us. Yet, Paul answers, “May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?” By our baptism we are dead to sin, no longer bound to death and the grave. We have been given the greatest gift: through Jesus Christ every promise of God has been fulfilled. How can we continue to live according to the world when we have been adopted into the Kingdom of Heaven? Will you take advantage of the opportunity to overindulge? Or will you be trustworthy and walk in the light and life of God, glorifying Him every step?
The baptism of John was one of repentance, but Jesus made it something new. Today all those who come to the font of baptism in a Christian church are cleansed and forgiven, but we also experience baptism like Jesus. We are claimed as children of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit and then sent into the world to share the grace of God with those who do not yet know Him. At the Jordan Jesus did not need to be forgiven, He was sinless. He did not need to be claimed, He was the Son of God. He did not need to be anointed; He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. He did not need to be sent, for His purpose was always to do the will of God.
Though Jesus was God’s Son, the living Word in flesh, I imagine He needed some assurance of His identity. That day at the Jordan, when Jesus went forth in faith to begin His ministry in the world, Jesus received what He needed. He was given a word from God: “You are my beloved.” He was washed with the waters of change and anointed by the Spirit. He then went forth to do everything that God promised that He would do. If He ever had a moment of doubt He could remember His baptism and the promise that came when the heavens opened and God claimed, anointed and sent His Son into the world.
We may have very real reasons to fear in this world, but through faith in Christ we have the same assurance as Jesus. In His New Covenant, we need not fear because God is faithful. As we read through the scriptures, we see the story of a man who was living in His baptism. Jesus woke and slept in the promise of God and lived every moment in between doing what God was calling Him to do. We can live as Christ lived even when we think we are unworthy or unable. When we are tempted or feel unworthy, we need only say “I am baptized” and we’ll know that God is with us, helping us to do His work in this world. This is living in our baptism, dwelling in the covenant that is our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we will truly find peace and joy.
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1, WEB
In 1938, Roy Plunkett was trying to create a new kind of refrigerant, but he had difficulty with his equipment. He discovered that there was a chemical reaction within a storage container that created an entirely new substance. The fluorocarbon resin or Tetrafluoroethylene is a chain of carbon atoms surrounded by fluorine atoms. The bond they make is extremely strong, slippery and inert to almost every chemical. This substance has been developed into Polytetrafluoroethylene which is better known to us as Teflon © which is used by the DuPont company for many products we use today. Teflon © pans make cooking easier, but Teflon © is also used in apparel, automotive, household, personal care and industrial products. Teflon © can keep clothes from staining, windshields clean, carpets fresh and nails brightly painted.
The discovery was first used for machine parts during World War II, but it continued to be developed. Frenchman Marc Gregoire was using the product on his fishing tackle when his wife begged him to try it on her frying pan which went to become Tefal products. In the United States, Marion A. Trozzolo marketed the first frying pan called “The Happy Pan” after using the substance on scientific utensils in 1961. The product is used extensively by the Space program, and can be found on many products throughout our homes.
Teflon © pans are made using a three layer process. There is a base layer which adheres the substance to the metal, a middle layer which gives it strength and a top layer which makes for ease in cooking and clean up. The process includes baking, layering and spraying. This makes the pan strong, but not indestructible. Manufacturer recommendations for care include using mild detergent, non-abrasive sponges and no sharp instruments. If you are too harsh on the surface of the pan, it will scratch and wear down until it no longer provides the non-stick surface. Excessive overheating of the pan can also damage it. Once the pan’s non-stick surface is damaged, it no longer serves the purpose for which it was designed. It is important to be gentle with the pans or else they will be ruined.
The same is true with people. The proverb reminds us to be gentle. The word gentle is defined as “considerate or kindly; not harsh, severe or violent.” Too often in our dealings with people, we react with words and actions that are abrasive. In our attempt to bring correction, we do so with harshness that leads to anger. Charles Spurgeon once said, “John Knox did much, but he might perhaps have done more if he had had a little love. [Martin] Luther was a conqueror - peace to his ashes, and honor to his name! - still, we who look upon him at a distance, think that if he had sometimes mixed a little mildness with it... he might have done more good than he did.” The epistles of Paul mention repeatedly that we should approach each other in gentleness and love. In this way we will be Christ-like, sharing the truth in a manner by which others may hear and be transformed by the saving grace of our Lord Jesus. When Jesus dealt with sin, He did so with love and compassion, not force or violence.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he won’t give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he asks for an egg, he won’t give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Luke 11:11-13, WEB
People often ask the question, “What is your favorite Bible verse?” Personally, I find this a difficult question to answer because there are so many that have had some impact on my life. I reach for certain verses when I’m sad, lonely, confused or in pain. Each one brings comfort or joy in a moment of need, as if written by God so many years ago just for me.
When people share their testimonies, we often hear references to one verse or another that touched their heart and mind and drew them to Christ. Some evangelistic people take signs to ball games with the words “John 3:16” in the hope of sharing God’s love with someone who never heard the message of the Gospel. One story tells of a man who found one page of the Bible that changed his life. Another story tells of a person who learned of Jesus from a Christmas card. One verse can make a difference.
Oswald Chambers once wrote, “I was getting desperate. I knew no one had what I wanted; in fact I did not know what I did want. But I knew that if what I had was all the Christianity there was, the thing was a fraud. Then Luke 11:13 got hold of me. At a little meeting in Dunoon, a well known lady was asked to take the after meeting. She did not speak, but set us to prayer, and then sang, “Touch me again, Lord.” I felt nothing, but I knew emphatically my time had come. I rose to me feet. Then and there I claimed the gift of the Holy Spirit in my dogged committal on Luke 11:13. I had no vision of heaven or of angels; I had nothing. I was dry and empty as ever, no power or realization of God, no witness of the Holy Spirit. Then I was asked to speak at a meeting and forty souls came out to the front! I came to realize that God intended me, having asked, to simply take it by faith, and that power would be there. I might see it only by the backward look, but I was to reckon on the fact that God would be with me.”
Oswald Chambers found peace in one verse. The peace we have in Christ is not one that will give us warm fuzzy feelings, great power or keep us from harm. But we have peace in knowing that God dwells in our hearts and works to bring life to the world through us. Chambers discovered that he simply needed to be a willing vessel for God to work wonders by His Word.
What is your favorite verse? Perhaps God will bless you with a special touch, one simple verse that will change your life. We are reminded by the scripture that touched Oswald Chambers, that God will give us whatever we need to do what He is calling us to do. We may not be able to quote the scriptures or point to something specific that changed our life, but He will give us the words to share His grace with those who cross our path. We need only trust that He is with us, to believe that He can do the impossible, and live in the peace that He has given us so we can be the vessel who answers the call with faith. Whatever you do, live in thankfulness that God’s Word dwells in you, bringing life to the world through your words and deeds done in His name.
“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 11:27-30, WEB
I once bought a large potted fern for sale at a home improvement store. The plant was inexpensive and incredibly beautiful. We hung it outside our home and it looked beautiful. Unfortunately, the plant was too heavy. The pot fell and broke. I transplanted it and tried hanging it a different way, but that time it pulled the metal hook right out of the wall. I placed the plant on a small table in our yard, and the solid foundation kept it safe and it still looked beautiful.
Our walk with Christ is often filled with worries and cares that we would just as soon not carry. When we see hungry children and lonely widows, our hearts break at their pain and suffering. Yet we often feel it is impossible for us to do anything to help so many. As pictures come from third world countries and we see dozens of children dying in the streets, we long to provide everything they need but feel so overwhelmed with the burden of responsibility. The need is so great, we don’t even know where to start and in our frustration we tend to do nothing at all.
An even greater burden we bear is that for the lost in this world, particularly our friends and family members who do not know Jesus Christ or have rejected His mercy and love. We grieve at the thought that we will not see them in heaven. When they die, we find no comfort in the usual words and promises, because they did not have the hope of eternal life in Christ. The burden we carry is guilt, for not doing more to take care of our loved ones and convince them to know the Lord.
Yet, this is a burden our Lord did not want us to carry. The yoke of Christ is light and it is in that very place where we will find rest. The gift of faith is from Christ Himself and we cannot see the heart of any man, to know the work of the Lord in His life. We can live in the hope that God is faithful to all His promises, and trust that our Lord Jesus Christ loved all of creation. Once someone has died, there is nothing we can do to change their fate, it will not do any good to live a life burdened by guilt. It may even hinder our ability to share the Gospel with others.
I tried to make that heavy plant hang outside our house, but it was too heavy. The fern needed to sit on a solid foundation. Too often during our Christian journey we take on burdens far too heavy to bear, and in the process we do more damage than good. We are determined to be the ones to give salvation to our loved ones. If we do not see proof when they die, we feel we have failed and carry a burden of guilt.
Jesus Christ has given us the Great Commission to go out and make disciples of all nations, but it is not a burden that we carry alone. He has promised to be with us and it is by His power that the nations will be saved. He is the foundation on which our faith rests. We rest in the promise of hope that comes from Jesus Christ, and trust that He will be faithful. We don’t know who we will find in heaven, so let us stay on the solid foundation that is Christ. He will carry all our worries and cares, so that we can find rest.
“God said, ‘Let’s make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them. God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree, which bears fruit yielding seed. It will be your food. To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food;’ and it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. There was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.” Genesis 1:26-31, WEB
Our city is really good about providing for the disposal of our waste. We have several different bins that we use throughout the week. One is for garbage, one is for recycling, and one is for yard waste. They also have special times throughout the year when they send trucks to pick up bulk garbage. Sometimes they are collecting large things like broken furniture and other garbage that won’t fit in our bins. They recycle whatever they can.
Other times they pick up large piles of yard waste. These bulk yard waste trucks always come during the best times for tree trimming. Our neighborhood has been inundated with tree trimmers as families rush to get the waste onto the curb for the trucks. As you drive down our streets you will see huge piles of brush and branches. Many of these stacks also have a Christmas tree on top. The trucks have huge claws that grab the branches and drop them into the bed. The trucks take all the waste to a place where it is either processed as mulch or composted. As paying customers of the waste management of the city, we can pick up free mulch and compost if we want to use it in our yard. The city provides these services so that we can be good stewards of our earth.
I am not a great conservationist, but we try to do what we can for the sake of the earth. Even when we did not live in a place that had such great programs for recycling, we took our cans, bottles and newspapers for recycling. We try not to waste water; we take our toxic materials for proper disposal. We pick up garbage on the street if we see it as we are walking by and we try to use our resources wisely. It is not always easy, but it is worthwhile to do every little bit we can for the sake of the earth on which we live.
I was not always willing to do even these little things. I used to throw garbage out of the car window and do other things that were not healthy for the earth. I suppose part of the change has to do with awareness. My kids were sure to teach me what they learned in school about littering and waste. Recycling has become so convenient: it is just as easy to throw the cans in the recycle bin as they are to throw in the garbage. I have also become more aware of my environment; I stopped littering when I realized how disgusting it looks to have all that garbage on the side of the road. This is God’s world and we have been given the responsibility to take care of it. Even now I’m not always as good as I should be, but I have become more aware of the ways I can take care of the resources God has given us.
There are some environmentalists that have extreme expectations and demands as to how we should take care of the earth. I have to admit that I can’t agree with all those demands. However, it is not that difficult to be a responsible caretaker of the creation over which we have been given rule by the Lord God Almighty. Our city is not the only one that makes it so easy. When we look at the world in which we live from the perspective that it is God’s world, not our own, we will do what needs to be done to take care of it. The Lord God Almighty has given us this wonderful earth on which to live, and all of creation as our kingdom. Let us do whatever we can to help keep this world the beautiful, healthy and blessed place that glorifies God. We will offer praise to God by living as He has commanded, ruling over all of creation as God’s creative helpers in this world.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 19, 2020, The Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42a
“I have not hidden your righteousness within my heart. I have declared your faithfulness and your salvation. I have not concealed your loving kindness and your truth from the great assembly.” Psalm 40:10, WEB
My favorite part of working in retail was setting up shelving. Those who have worked in a store know that some person in a corporate office makes the decision about what a unit will look like. They have all the items and they figure out what pieces will go where. They take a photo of their work, and then send the plan-o-gram to the stores, who are then required to make the shelves look exactly the same way. This meant consistency for the customers; if an item was in one place in one store, they should be able to find it in the same place in another. Despite the lack of creativity involved in these projects, I loved following the map and putting up the new merchandise. I loved it so much I even worked on a team that set up brand new stores.
It was not always easy. It was often like trying to place the pieces of a puzzle together, that’s probably why I liked it so much. Though the stores used shelving units that were supposed to be identical, they weren’t always the same. The developers in corporate had a perfect shelf unit or pegboard to work with. We often had shelving units that were falling apart, or pieced together from leftovers. In one store, we still had the ancient display tables that were completely different than usual shelving units. We had to lay half the merchandise on tables even though it was meant to be hung from hooks. If the pegboard was cut even a fraction of an inch differently than the one in the plan-o-gram, the entire display went off kilter.
We ran into another problem. The plan-o-grams were designed with a specific item in mind for each hook and shelf. However, manufacturers are constantly changing and redeveloping their products. The stationary aisle was especially difficult. We would set the hook up to hold a hanging card with one pen, but the manufacturer sent an item that was “buy one, get one free.” Instead of a two inch by six inch package, the package arrived as three inch by six inch. That one inch difference made it impossible to fit that item where it belonged in the display. The manufacturer never realized the impact of their decisions. The changes were probably good ones; it was better for the customers, retailers and the manufacturers. However, it made our job much harder. It took hours of work to rearrange the items.
We don’t know what impact something we do will have on the lives of others. There is a theory called the “butterfly effect” which says that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas. This seems absolutely impossible, but theory suggests that the flap of a wing changes the world around it which causes ripples that grow and grow and grow until the conditions are perfect for a tornado to form.
While I’m not sure a butterfly has ever caused a tornado, small things can have a huge impact on the world. We never know when a kind word will change the course of a day for one person that might cause them to do something that will affect thousands of people. I’ve seen a video of a young boy who helped an elderly woman climb a set of stairs. The boy didn’t even realize he was being videotaped, but at this point millions of people have watched his good deed. At least a few of those people saw his example and did something nice for someone they met that day. For some, the impact was even greater as their perspective on the world changed in a great way.
We don’t know whether planting a flower might make a neighborhood more beautiful. We don’t know how one small act of kindness might change the life of a person who is suffering. We don’t know how our witness might bring the Gospel to a new generation of preachers. All we know is that God has done great things for us. He has even put words of praise in our hearts and in our mouths. That song we sing might just change the world.
More than two thousand years after he lived, we know that John the Baptist had a huge impact on the world. We can see that his preaching made a difference in the lives of a few and we know that those few went on to make a difference in the lives of others. Andrew heard him talk about Jesus and he invited his brother Peter to “Come and see.” We certainly know what an impact Peter had on the Church and the world, but Andrew is not so well known. He is remembered in the scriptures as the one who had faith enough to give Jesus five loaves and two fish to feed thousands. Even though Andrew is not one of the better known apostles, his invitation had far reaching impact.
John had a pretty good thing going. He was followed by many, sought out by men for baptism and to hear his teaching. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees seemed to be interested in what he had to say. Herod was fascinated by his teaching. He had disciples, men who had committed to his cause, who were with him as he ministered. He could have been a powerful force in and around Jerusalem, perhaps even as a military leader. Certainly there were others who were fighting the Romans, and a powerful leader was what the people sought to save them from Rome.
Did John think twice before pointing out Jesus to his disciples? He must have known he would lose followers. John had to do what God intended. He was not meant to be a powerful leader, but instead was born to point the way to Jesus. He even told his disciples when they argued against Jesus that he must be diminished so Jesus could flourish.
So, when John saw Jesus, he proclaimed the Good News. Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In the verses preceding our text, John answered the question of the Jewish leaders that he was not the Christ. He admitted that he’s really a nobody compared to the One who was to come; he was just the messenger proclaiming the coming of the One for whom they were waiting. They wondered why he was baptizing if he’s a nobody, but he said, “I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you don’t know. He is the one who comes after me, who is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen.”
Last week we heard about John baptizing Jesus even though he thought himself unworthy to do so. With that act of obedience, Jesus appeared on the scene, and John witnessed the very thing that God told him he would see: the Holy Spirit rested on the One whom He has sent. John saw the fulfillment of the promises; the One whom God planned all along was finally breaking into the world to accomplish His work of salvation. In today’s passage, John pointed to Jesus and told the crowds that Jesus was the One he was talking about. “See, that’s Him.” That confession of faith had eternal consequences because it pointed some of the first disciples to Jesus.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is one of four servant songs from Isaiah the prophet. These servant songs describe the Messiah, whom we identify as Jesus Christ our Lord. Today’s song is from the servant’s perspective and in it we see that the servant was not only sent to restore Israel, but to draw the whole world into God’s heart. Everyone is invited to experience God’s salvation. His grace reaches to the very ends of the earth. God knew from the beginning that He would send Jesus to save us. The promises begin in Genesis and continue through the books of Moses, the history of Israel and the words of the prophets.
The Epiphany season is when we get to know Jesus before we begin the penitent period of Lent. In the next few weeks we’ll study the Sermon on the Mount, focusing heavily on Matthew chapter 5, but before we get there we are reminded that Jesus is the fulfillment to God’s promises. He is the One we seek; He is the One God named even before He was born. He is the One who was chosen even before the beginning of time.
He is the One to whom we must listen.
The disciples had expectations based on their understanding of those Old Testament promises. They were looking for a king that would save them from Roman occupation. They wanted to return to the glory days of David. It didn’t turn out as they expected. As a matter of fact, it ended horribly. Israel never got a new king. They weren’t saved from Rome. Jesus did not fulfill their expectations. Instead, He was slaughtered like a lamb on the altar of sacrifice, just as God intended. See, God was not sending Jesus to save them from earthly troubles, but to save them from sin and death. Jesus was the Lamb who was slain, He was the final sacrifice that made all things right again. Faith in the Lamb brings forgiveness and life just as God promised and John proclaimed.
The disciples were ready to follow a king. They left John and went to follow Jesus. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asked. They didn’t know how to answer. Have you ever felt that way? Have to ever wondered what you want when you drive to church on a Sunday morning? “What are you looking for?” is a question that is often asked when a church is in a time of transition. We put out surveys; we ask members what they want from a new pastor. Should we build a new education building or a larger sanctuary? Should we put our money into ministry or hire new staff? What are you looking for? I don’t know about you, but I have a tough time answering the questions on those surveys. I don’t always know what I’m looking for.
Perhaps their answer to the question is not unreasonable; after all if they are going to follow Jesus they need to know where to find Him. Yet, Jesus’ question begs a much different answer, particularly in light of the message of John’s Gospel. John writes to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Messiah for whom they were waiting. He writes to prove that even though Jesus did not fit the expectations of the people, He was exactly what God promised.
The question “What are you looking for?” begs us to consider why we are following Jesus. What do we seek when we go to church on a Sunday morning? Are we looking for entertainment? Are we seeking a place where we feel like someone cares? Do we expect that God will hear our prayers and give us what we need to survive another week in the world? What are we looking for when we open our bibles to read at home or study with others? Are we looking for the answers we want or are we open to the answers God has for us? We might just discover that God has something completely different planned than what we expect. Jesus was never meant to be an earthly king; will God nail our expectations to the cross, too, and give us the Savior we really need?
I can just imagine Jesus giving Andrew and his companion a sweet smile, knowing that they would be His followers and that they would eventually learn the right questions to ask. The question He asked was, “What are you looking for?” He wanted to know what they thought they might find with Him. Were they looking for the Messiah? Were they looking for the easy path? Were they looking for the latest, greatest prophet in the land? He wanted to know why they would leave John to follow Him. “What are you looking for?” is the same question He asks us.
Isaiah wrote, “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength in vain for nothing; yet surely the justice due to me is with Yahweh, and my reward with my God.” I get it. I’ve felt the same way. Like John, I know I’m a nobody compared to the One who came to fulfill all God’s promises. Jesus did not see kings rise up or princes bow down once He began His ministry. He saw the rulers of His world reject Him and deny His words. Yet, He did not concern Himself with those failures; He went forth knowing that He was anointed to accomplish God’s will in this world. His ministry was never about Himself; He did what His Father sent Him to do. He was the promised servant through whom God would draw His people, both Jew and Gentile, unto Himself.
The words of Isaiah remind us that when we are disappointed and discouraged, we need only look to the promises and remember that God is with us to help us do everything He has called and gifted us to do. While we do not see evidence of success in our work in this world, we can trust that God is doing something we can’t see and He is faithful. Our little acts, whatever they might be, can have a huge impact on our world.
That impact can be positive, but it can also be negative.
When I was a preschool teacher, we had some sandboxes on the playground. One day our sandboxes were filled with water from recent rains. We decided to allow the children to play in the sandboxes anyway, and we covered them in smocks hoping that they would not make too much of a mess. It was fine at first, only the occasional slip of the shovel that brought droplets of muddy water onto the arms and smocks of the other children. As the sandboxes got more crowded, some of the children began to play without smocks. By then the splashing mud was no longer an accident, they were throwing mud at one another. Several children were covered from head to toe. When I tried to intervene, they got mud on my clothes.
We aren’t much different than four year olds even though we are grown. Our toys are different and the mud we sling is not necessarily made with dirt and water. We are selfish and vengeful. We will do anything to get our way no matter who gets hurt in the process. Unfortunately, many of these battles are not so easy to clean up. Mud comes out of hair and clothing, but spiritual mud can be difficult to remove. We are wallowing in the mud of sin and death and the consequences are sometimes eternal.
I tried to be a peacemaker from a distance, to tell the children how they should act with kind but firm words. It did not help. I had to get right in the middle of the situation, take some of the mud myself, before I could make a difference. We closed down the sandboxes and took the messy children inside. The bathrooms became muddy messes. We put clean clothes on the children that were extremely dirty. We will have to adjust our rules for the sandbox to ensure that this problem did not happen again.
All this happened because some children were selfish and vengeful. Are we any different? We don’t see the effects of our own self-centeredness but there are others who follow in our wake that suffer from the effects. There are no victimless sins, they all spread some degree of darkness and destruction into the lives of others. This is true for all of us, for we are all sinners in need of a Savior.
The words of the psalmist are the words of a child of God who has realized his own sinfulness and has cried out for the saving grace of his God. God is the peacemaker who went into the middle of the battle and shed His blood for the sake of others. He is the teacher that tried for many generations to speak the truth into their lives, but they did not hear. They did not see the truth even as the Jesus Incarnate Word stood and spoke in their presence. So, He went to the cross and took the wrath that was released by our self-centeredness. He brought us out of the mud, made things new and gave us a new life to live in Him.
The “butterfly effect” might be negative, but it might also be positive. While it is possible that the flap of one butterfly wing might cause a tornado in Texas, it is also possible that the same flap might change the world for the better. John bore witness to the fact that Jesus was the One promised by the prophets. He pointed toward Jesus who pointed to God. John came to baptize people, to call for repentance and prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. He was not the savior, he did not save anyone. He simply pointed toward the One who was God’s salvation. Andrew heard John’s words and invited his brother to come and see. They were nobodies compared to the One who came to save the world, but their little acts shared Jesus with the world.
Peter found Jesus because Andrew pointed to Him. Andrew found Jesus because John pointed to Him. John found Jesus because God Himself pointed to Jesus and revealed Him to be the One for whom they were waiting. We are called to do the same. We aren’t called to be saviors. Rather, we are called to be witnesses to what we have seen; pointing to Jesus so that He might draw them into a relationship. It isn’t about us, it never has been. Like the butterfly, we flap our wings and God brings change to the world we may never really see. Like John, we are nothing more than voices crying out in the wilderness with a song in our hearts and praise on our lips, pointing the way so that the world might see that which has been revealed in Christ Jesus. Like Andrew, we are called to invite others to “Come and see,” so that they will experience the amazing grace of the God who is faithful, who fulfills all His promises.
“Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why has the expression of your face fallen? If you do well, won’t it be lifted up? If you don’t do well, sin crouches at the door. Its desire is for you, but you are to rule over it.’” Genesis 4:6-7, WEB
You stand at a crossroad. It is one of those rare days when you were able to leave work a little early. At the crossroad you have a choice. You can go one direction and end up at home. There you can spend some extra time with your family. The other direction leads to your favorite bar. It was a stressful day and you could use a few minutes to unwind before facing the chaos at home. Things aren’t perfect there: a recent fight with your spouse still has you simmering and the kids are driving you crazy. What harm could it be to spend a few minutes over a beer and some good conversation with friends?
God warned Cain. Cain was jealous of his brother. Abel gave to God from his heart and God honored his offering above Cain’s. Cain gave half-heartedly, some of the fruit of his labor verses the first fruits that Abel gave. Right from the beginning, we can see that Cain’s relationship with God was broken and it manifested in his other relationships. Death is the ultimate separation. Cain murdered his brother, forever breaking the bond that God had given them. It is a much too easy leap to go from jealousy to anger to murder, which is why we are cautioned to keep things right from the beginning. Sin is waiting just around the corner, and once it gets a foothold it is hard to overcome.
We are also warned to beware of the choices we make; sin is waiting just around the corner for us. As we stand at the crossroad, we think that there are no long term consequences for our decision. There might not be any. We might just go have that beer and conversation and still get home on time. That beer and conversation might just calm us enough to go home and deal well with our stresses at home. But is it the right choice? Are we sure that everything will be fine?
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “But you, man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.” When we stand at those crossroads, we are encouraged and emboldened to make the right choice, the choice of godliness, love, perseverance and gentleness. We might discover that the early work day was God’s way of giving us the opportunity to reconcile and to build those troubled relationships. A beer and conversation might seem harmless, but it also opens the door for sin to enter into our lives. God has forgiven us, even those sins that we will do in the future, yet He calls us to live a life worthy of our salvation. That means avoiding the things that cause brokenness in our lives. At the crossroad, make the choice that will glorify God, the choice that will lead to reconciliation and peace. Make the choice that will lead you toward home, both earthly and eternal.
“Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall. No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:11-13, WEB
I have been paying attention to the food I eat. I’m not on a diet and I haven’t taken on a specific eating program, but I have been thinking about what I put in my mouth. This often means reading the labels. Yesterday I was in the grocery store with a hankering for something chocolaty sweet. I lingered by the pastry case, thinking there must be something that would satisfy that would not be too sinful. I picked up one delicacy that looked lovely, and check the numbers. I was shocked at how high they were. I sighed and put it back on the shelf. I checked a few others and then went to the grocery store without buying anything to satisfy my want.
Notice I didn’t say that it would satisfy our needs because we chase after and desire a lot of things we do not need. When our bodies are in the midst of a craving, whether it is for chocolaty sweetness or anything else, we need to consider if we truly need them or if we just think we need them. In the verses before today’s passage, Paul talks about the time when the Israelites were in the wilderness. They left Egypt for the Promised Land, but they desired many of the things they left behind. They forgot that the little they had in Egypt was received with an incredibly heavy burden of slavery. They might have flour for bread, but they had to pound the straw into the mud for the bricks. God was promising something incredible: a nation of their own, a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet, they grumbled against God all the way. They turned from God at the foot of Mt. Sinai by creating a golden calf. They argued with Moses, telling him that they would have been better off staying in Egypt.
They wanted what they did not need; they desired things that were bad for them. Don’t we often do the same. A chocolaty sweet might make me feel good for a moment, but I know that it won’t be good for me in the long run.
We are tempted to do many things. We are tempted to fulfill the lusts and desires of our hearts and body. In Christ we have the strength to overcome these lusts and we usually do well. We know they are wrong and unnecessary, so we can avoid falling into sin. There are other temptations that are far more difficult. These are the things that we generally know are not right, but in certain circumstances they seem justified. We all face these temptations, even the disciples did, especially when they were dealing with the death of Jesus. They did not know what to do. They did not have their Lord and teacher to guide their thoughts and their minds. It would have been justifiable to many for them to seek revenge for Jesus’ life or to walk away from the entire ministry.
Yet, we see in Jesus’ life and in His death that there is no room for giving in to any temptations. In the garden, He prayed for God to take away the cup. He had the authority to call down legions of angels to protect Him. Even His disciples were willing to fight to keep Him safe. Yet, He said no to these temptations and walked forth toward the cross trusting God’s will to be good, right and true. In His death He left the disciples alone to fend for themselves for a few hours but He also gave them prayer to help them through. In the prayer He taught us to say, we include the petition “and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” God does not tempt us, but He gives us all we need to overcome those moments of desperation when we might fall into sin doing what seems to be right even though we know it to be wrong. He helps us endure, to make the right choices, and to walk in the way that glorifies Him.
“Yahweh’s word came to me again, saying, ‘What do you mean, that you use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live,’ says the Lord Yahweh, ‘you shall not use this proverb any more in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine. The soul who sins, he shall die.’” Ezekiel 18:1-4, WEB
The political season is well underway in the United States. Our televisions are filled with political ads, the news is filled with reports about the candidates and our neighborhoods are filled with political signs. The politicians, those who are running for small town mayors to those running for president, are working hard to put their words into our heads so that when we approach the voting booth we will remember their name and pull the lever for them. They repeat key words and phrases to convince us that they are the right person for the job. After awhile those key words and phrases become so embedded in our minds that they seem to be common wisdom. They are repeated in everyday conversations until they are accepted truths.
Advertisers use jingles and catchphrases to capture our attention. The hope is that we will remember the song or the statement when we go shopping or other things in the world. We have recently begun seeing political ads for the upcoming election season, and the candidates are defining their campaigns with short memorable statements to catch our attention. These words begin as little more than a slogan or motto, but often take on the life of something greater. They become adages, maxims, aphorisms, epigrams, proverbs and when overused they become clichés. These words have nearly identical definitions and can be generally used interchangeably, and yet there is some difference between them. Maxims are adages that become general rules. Aphorisms are adages that have not been around a long time but are recognized as particularly deep or well-written. Epigrams are known for their wittiness and irony. Proverbs summarize the basic truths of folk wisdom, made acceptable by long use and universal experiences of common folk.
The problem with political slogans and with proverbs is that there is often an equal and opposite slogan or proverb. That’s what makes voting so difficult. Which do you believe? They all make sense. They all seem true. They all point to a measure of wisdom that we need as we go into the future. That’s why it is so important to base decisions on more than sound bites. It is important to have more information, to check out both sides of any issues, to find the truth which is often somewhere in between.
There are, among the common proverbs of our time, a number of ‘dueling maxims’ which are contrary proverbs. Take, for instance, “The bigger the better” and “Good things come in small packages.” Which present is better, the big one or the small one? The answer to that question often depends on who is receiving the gift. Another pair is “Actions speak louder than words,” and “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Is one greater than another? Is it better to write letters to the editor about a problem or face your enemy? I love this pair: “You're never too old to learn,” and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, how is he supposed to learn? We often live our lives according to this proverb: “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” but we also know that “If nothing is ventured, then nothing is gained.” So, should we live safe or should be go forward with courage? And finally, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but “Out of sight, out of mind.” So, will we grow in love for those who are far, or will we forget them because they are out of sight?
Perhaps proverbs change as the world in which we live changes, although I think we can all think of times when both sides of those dueling maxims were true. I’ve received big presents that were great as well as small boxes filled with jewelry. The pen is mighty, but there are times when action will do more to relieve the problems. Long held habits are hard to break, but you do learn something new every day. We have to be courageous and careful. Separation can build a relationship, but temptation is also greater.
The proverb in today’s passage may have seemed true to the people of Israel in the day of Ezekiel. “Fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” God’s relationship with His people, the blessings and the consequences, seemed absolutely determined by the actions and words of their forefathers. They were built on national identity and the stories of the past. Yet, God also wanted a personal relationship with each person. God cares about each of us and we will experience His mercy and justice as individuals because He loves each of us as individuals. There may be some truth to the proverbs of our day, and in the proverb in today’s passage, but when it comes to the things of God, human wisdom will never stand.
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not equal.’ Hear now, house of Israel: Is my way not equal? Aren’t your ways unequal? When the righteous man turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and dies therein; in his iniquity that he has done he shall die. Again, when the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and does that which is lawful and right, he will save his soul alive. Because he considers, and turns away from all his transgressions that he has committed, he shall surely live. He shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ House of Israel, aren’t my ways fair? Aren’t your ways unfair?” Ezekiel 18:25-29, WEB
One of my favorite activities during the year is to go wildflower hunting. I have certain roads that I like to visit because I know that there will be excellent fields to photograph. I follow several sites online that give suggestions, places where other wildflower hunters post suggestions and photos they have taken on their adventures. I take maps (or use my gps) to keep myself on the right path, but I have to admit that some of the most fun adventures have been when I have wandered off the usual paths. I love to wander, to take a different turn, to change direction to seek someplace new. Some of my best photos have come from fields I found when I was lost.
However, in life it is not good to wander because we are more vulnerable to temptation when we go off the path that God has prepared.
In yesterday’s passage, God told His people that He is looking for a personal relationship with each person. They thought that they would suffer for their father’s sins, but the reality is that we will suffer the consequences of our own wandering off the path. Ezekiel chapter 18 lists a bunch of sinful behavior such as worshipping false gods and disobeying the commandments. Sometimes a righteous father will bring up an unrighteous son, and an unrighteous father can bring up a righteous one. This happened with the kings of Israel, over and over again.
Should the righteous son pay for the sins of his father? God says no. He says, “The soul who sins, he shall die.” But the people say, “The way of the Lord is not equal.” This word is also translated “just.” The proverb is taken as law, and so any grace on God’s part is seen as injustice. This is ironic coming from people who were not practicing justice. They thought that the generational curse was just, and thus the children should suffer for the sins of their fathers.
God put a halt to the blame game. Each one receives justice for their own sin; each person pays the price for their own unwillingness to obey God’s Word. Though we can talk in terms of each sinful action and the consequences we suffer from our wrong living, the sin of greater concern is that which separates us from God. Our natural inclination is to be our own god, to take control of our own life, and to seek justice and fairness according to our own ideology. This is the sin that sets us against God and His will. While some of our burdens can be blamed on the sins of our forefathers, we should be more concerned about our relationship with God.
We trust that God is active in the world today. He knows each of us. He loves us all. He wants us to be saved. He calls us, guides us, and helps us so that we might also be active in the world. The first work is to believe, but in faith we continue to constantly work out our salvation. It is not by our own power or authority that we can do this, but it is God who works in us as we humble ourselves before Him. In trust we can pray as the psalmist, seeking His help to do all He has called us to do. God is active for our sake so that we’ll be active for the sake of others, not in judgment but in grace.
We live in a fallen and sinful world. Human beings are imperfect and fail to do the things God expects us to do. We are unrighteous and unjust. Each and every one of us. We all deserve God’s wrath; we all deserve to experience His justice. Instead of pointing our fingers to our fathers or to the forefathers of our neighbors, it is up to us to face the reality of our own sinfulness. We want to wander on our own path, but God calls us to follow Him. Grace may not always seem fair, but God’s path is the way to life. When we turn to Him, we will experience the salvation that God has promised. Let us turn to God, seek Him, and dwell on His path that will lead us home.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 26, 2020, The Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-9 (10-14); 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light has shined on those who lived in the land of the shadow of death.” Isaiah 9:2, WEB
I went out to my mailbox yesterday wearing a very springy blouse. A neighbor walked by and commented on it. “You must be ready for spring!” We haven’t had a terrible winter thus far, though colder weather is still a possibility. It was a little chilly yesterday for the clothing I chose, but I didn’t spend much time outside, so I was ok. She told me she loved the weather we were having. I answered with my usual, “I live in Texas for a reason.” I do not like cold and snow. When others talk about loving sweater weather, I think they should move to where there is sweater weather, and let us enjoy the mild winters.
I have to admit that snow is pretty. I’ve often said I would appreciate it more if God could make it snow only on the lawns and trees. The glistening white of the snow on a clear day after a storm is beautiful. I just hate to have to be in the snow. I hate having to drive on the slippery roads. I hate having to shovel the sidewalks. I hate when my clothes get so wet that they are difficult to get off. No matter how much I hate snow, I can’t deny that it is beautiful, almost miraculous.
I played in the snow as a kid, but it wasn’t my favorite activity. I always ended up with a tickle in my throat and a cough. One of my claims to “fame” is that it has snowed at least once everywhere I go. I visited Tampa, it snowed. I moved to central California, it snowed. I lived in England, it snowed. I moved to Arkansas, it snowed. It even snowed the day we moved into our house in Texas. If you aren’t familiar with these places, they don’t get much snow. The worst snow experience, however, was in Spokane, Washington (where it does snow.) We had a snowstorm that lasted about three weeks, with several inches of snow every day. By the time it was over, the tunnel path I had to shovel to take my daughter to the bus stop was taller than my son, more than three feet deep. The plowed snow along the streets was stacked nearly ten feet high. From that point, I told Bruce we could go anywhere as long as it didn’t snow.
Thank goodness for Texas where snow is not very common. And I have to admit that I do get a little excited on those rare occasions when it does.
As I said, snow can be beautiful. It didn’t snow much in England, but I remember one time when it did. I had a long black wool coat I used to wear all the time. It kept me very warm when it was cold. One day it was snowing while I was waiting for the kids to get out of school. As I waited by the door to pick them up, I noticed the snowflakes falling on my coat. I had never really noticed a snowflake in such detail as I had that day. The flakes landed and stuck perfectly, making it possible to see even the smallest details of each one. It was almost as if someone were dropping confetti on me from heaven. They were, of course, six pointed stars. They sparkled on my coat and I was awed by such simple beauty in God’s creation.
God is so good to put such beauty and perfection in something as tiny and insignificant as a snowflake. If there is so much goodness in such a small part of God's creation, imagine how wonderful it will be to stand face to face with Him. The glory of those snowflakes offered just a glimmer of the magnificence of His Glory! What is particularly wonderful about this is that there is beauty even in those things about this creation that we do not always like or appreciate. Even the snow, that is cold and often inconvenient, has a purpose and a beauty to it. I sing for joy at God's marvelous hand in the world.
If there can be such glory in a snowflake, we can only imagine what we will see when we come face to face with our Creator.
No wonder the psalmist asked to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. There we won’t face the cold damp of winter or the danger of slippery ice. We’ll be in the presence of God Himself for all eternity. The psalmist writes, “One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple.” This is what it means to die: to humble ourselves before God. The disciples walked away from a life of security to face the unknown with Jesus. God calls us too, inviting us to die to our old life and walk with Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, so that His light might shine through our lives and His grace be experienced by those who still dwell in darkness.
A few weeks back we saw that the wise men assumed that the new king would be born in Jerusalem. It made sense; where else would one look for the King of the Jews? They discovered from Herod and his priests that the king would come out of Bethlehem, so they went there to see and worship. Now that Jesus is grown, baptized and beginning His ministry, we might expect that He’d end up in Jerusalem. He was born both King and Priest, so He should have gone to the Temple to minister and preach, to work with the priests and serve God in His house. He would be in the center of the Jewish faith as well as the politics in Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus went to Galilee and lived in Capernaum. Galilee couldn’t be much farther from Jerusalem, not only in geography but also faith and politics. It was set apart from the rest of Israel, and the people lived their faith as they were able, different than those in Jerusalem. It was there that Jesus went when He began His ministry.
Zebulun was the tenth son of Jacob, the sixth son of his wife Leah. He became one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe that eventually settled to the east of the Sea of Galilee. The name Zebulun has two possible meanings. It could mean “gift.” Leah saw Zebulun as a gift, particularly in her sadness over Jacob’s rejection of her. It could also mean “honor,” and it stems from the idea that Leah hoped that her sixth child would finally bring her the honor due to her from her husband. The people from the tribe of Zebulun were known to be scribes and they are remembered for their sacrificial willingness to fight for Israel.
Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob, the second son of Rachel’s servant Bilhah. The tribe of Naphtali settled north of Zebulun, also just to the east of the Sea of Galilee. His name came out of Rachel’s grief over her own barrenness, “with great wrestlings have I wrestled my sister.” When blessing his sons, Jacob said of Naphtali, “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.” Naphtali had an independent spirit, they were set apart by geography and topography from the rest of Israel. The people from the tribe of Naphtali were fighters, and like Zebulun they gave their lives sacrificially for the sake of the whole nation.
Both these tribes were conquered by the Assyrians, exiled and lost forever. There are still some people who claim to be from the lost tribes, but between the exile and the intermingling of foreigners with those left behind, there is some question to the credibility of that claim. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were located in the same region that came to be known as Galilee, where Jesus roamed and did much of His work. It was home to the Gentiles, foreigners. They were not Jews, and yet Jesus spent time with them. He took His message of hope so that they too might know God’s grace. Though the tribes were lost, Jesus fulfilled the promise found in Isaiah that people who walked in darkness would see a great light. He was the light.
Though Zebulun and Naphtali were burdened by the Assyrians, burdened to the point of being lost forever, Jesus went to break the rod. The captivity of the Northern Kingdom would end. Would the tribes return to their homelands and once again build a nation? No, but the people would be freed from an even greater oppression. That which was lost would be found. That which was forgotten would be restored. What was once divided would be made whole again. The wholeness would be greater than just the restoration of Jacob’s sons, it would include peoples from every nation.
John the Baptist was quite a figure in his day. He was well known, even if he was not very well liked. He was odd; he wore strange clothing and kept a strange diet, but there was something charismatic about his presence. Crowds flocked to the Jordan to hear him preach and to receive his baptism. John was visited by all sorts of people, including men of means and power. They did not want to be his disciples; they wanted to keep an eye on his ministry. He was a radical and it was necessary to control the radicals for the sake of the nation. He was eventually arrested and beheaded.
When John was arrested, Jesus withdrew to Galilee. John’s arrest was probably a serious event in Jerusalem: front page headlines and breaking news. The leaders were looking for more unrest and the attention John gave to Jesus would have made Jesus the next one the needed to watch. We might have expected Jesus to work out of Jerusalem, after all that was the center of religious life in Israel. But Jesus went to Galilee of the Gentiles.
Was Jesus running away? It might seem so when we consider the atmosphere in Jerusalem at the time. Yet, this was all part of the plan all along. The prophecy from Isaiah promised that the Messiah would come out of the area known as Zebulun and Naphtali. Matthew recognized the connection when he quoted Isaiah in this passage. During Epiphany, we are reminded that Jesus came to bring the message of hope to all the nations. He came to be a light in the darkness. He came to bring peace between peoples. Zebulun and Naphtali were once tribes of Israel, but they were lost when the Assyrians took them into exile.
Certainly there were Jews in the region around the Sea of Galilee, the disciples had Jewish heritage. We don’t know much about their lives before Jesus called them to follow Him. Were they strictly observant Jews? Did they travel to Jerusalem according to the Law? Did they attend meetings at the temple and synagogues regularly? The disciples in today’s Gospel lesson (Peter, Andrew, James and John) were fishermen, and while the Jews took the Sabbath seriously, did those fishermen really put down their nets for the Sabbath?
Jesus ran into those fishermen one day when He was walking near the Sea of Galilee. According to our Gospel lesson from John last week, Andrew and Peter had already met Jesus, but then they apparently went back to fishing. Jesus found them and called them to join Him. It always amazes me when I see their response to this call. “They immediately left their nets and followed him.” Can you imagine dropping your work and following a man with no notice? In our day we would think it is irresponsible to do such a thing. Jesus found two other fishermen, James and John, and called them to join Him. They left their boat behind, an irresponsible thing to do, yet they did so seemingly without thought or concern.
Would the priests have answered Jesus’ call with such trust? I doubt it. Why leave cushy positions in the Temple where everything they needed was readily available for a life that was unknown with a guy they didn’t understand? Why follow this rising star that didn’t shine the way they thought He should shine? See, it is hard to see the light in a place where the people think the light is shining. The people of Jerusalem looked to the priests and the leaders to teach them about God, to lead them in faithful lives, but the leaders had their own agendas. They were shining a light, but was it the Light God promised? Would we leave our cushy (or our not so cushy but secure) lives to follow someone into the unknown?
We look at these disciples and we are taken aback by their dedication to Jesus’ ministry. Would we do such a thing? Would we drop our work and walk away from everything to follow Jesus? This is a point that is often preached in our churches in relation to this text. But we have to ask, is that what Jesus calls us all to do? Jesus had many followers. Some of them actually traveled with Him from place to place and town to town. However, what of the people who stayed at home? What of the mothers who believed and took their babies to be blessed but then returned to their housework? What of the businessmen in all those towns who returned to their shops when Jesus left? Did they have less faith than the disciples who dropped everything? Certainly not.
Jesus does call some to extraordinary ministry, but for most of us, He calls us to live our life of faith in the everyday experiences of our lives. Jesus doesn’t look at education or position. He doesn’t pay attention to the outward appearance or the worldly traits. God sees the heart and Jesus knew that those fishermen, though imperfect, would follow Him to the best of their ability. What does He see when He looks at your heart?
The disciples were called out of their ordinary lives to extraordinary ministry. Being a fisherman isn’t all that cushy, but Peter, Andrew, James and John had good lives. It was hard work, but they weren’t hungry and they had families that loved them. What was Jesus promising them? They might have had some expectations, especially if they believed that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that would free Israel from Rome and establish a renewed Golden Kingdom like David’s. We don’t see that in today’s text, however. We don’t even see Jesus making them any promises, except that they will fish in a whole new way. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” What does that even mean?
What would happen today if we walked away from our homes, jobs and families to go out on the road preaching the kingdom of God? People would call us foolish, they would call us freaks. If we do it well, we might gain a following. If we are eloquent in speech or have some sort of shtick, we might succeed and live well enough. But Jesus did not call the disciples to go out on a bus tour to earn fame or wealth. Though the scriptures tell us that Judas carried a money bag, I am sure there was only enough to meet their needs. Jesus surely didn’t pass around the collection plate like a traveling evangelist.
Peter, Andrew, James and John were not called away from a life of security for a life of fame and wealth. They were called away for a life of sacrifice, sharing a message of hope that would be rejected by most. The message was even more mysterious and difficult to understand after Jesus died, because it was foolishness to those who were perishing in this world. It is a spiritual message that does not look at all spiritual. A man dying on a cross is far from holy. It is horrible, a gross injustice and seems lacking in love. Death on a cross seems more like darkness in the midst of light rather than light in the midst of darkness. Yet, Peter, Andrew, James and John did not turn back. They left their fishing nets and boats immediately, without a second thought, and went into a life of uncertainty to follow Jesus.
We make all sorts of excuses. We can’t speak with charisma. We don’t know the scriptures well enough. We are imperfect. We are just ordinary people. But who were the disciples? Were they charismatic? Were they well versed in God’s Word? Were they perfect? No, they were none of those things. They were just ordinary men. These four were fishermen. They were probably dirty and calloused from hard work when they left to follow Jesus, with a scent that wouldn’t draw a crowd. I’m sure they were not genteel, with language that would shock your grandmother.
Yet, just as light shines brighter in darkness, doesn’t grace shine brighter in the lives of those who need it? Jesus could have found some well educated and faithful priests if He’d gone to Jerusalem. They weren’t all callous, self-centered and self-righteous. There were even a few who risked everything during the Passion to help Jesus. Jesus chose those ordinary men because they could be taught and led down the path God intended. Jesus didn’t call the ones who thought they were divinely called to shine the light to the people; He called those who were living in the shadow of death. He calls us out of darkness into His light, too.
As we ponder why Jesus went to Galilee and why He chose ordinary fishermen, we are reminded that it is never about us, our geography, accomplishments or abilities. The focus is always about God; He is the One who does the work. He is the One who shines. He is the One who forgives. He calls us to join Him in the work, using our gifts and our resources for His purpose. Unfortunately, we don’t always remember that it is about Jesus. We think highly of ourselves, a lot more like those priests and Jewish leaders than the humble fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
We run into trouble when we make ourselves the focus; our selfishness and self-centeredness can lead to division in the Church. The Church in Corinth was a mess; some of the followers were focusing on the evangelist from whom they had heard the Gospel, rather than the message. They were loyal to Paul or Apollos or Peter; Jesus was getting lost.
Paul brought the focus of the Corinthians back to the work of Christ. Paul, Apollos and Cephas (Peter) were all great preachers. From the stories in Acts, we can see that they all were quite convincing in their arguments and adept at sharing the Gospel message. We can also see that they all had a slightly different vision of the future of the Church. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, Peter to the Jews. They reached these different people in different ways. Peter used the Old Testament witness and the experience of historic faith; Paul reached out to a wider, more diverse audience.
Despite their differences, Paul, Apollos and Cephas were united in the same mind and the same purpose, to share the message of the cross. But the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is spiritual, but seems so far from spiritual. The message of the cross is that all men are sinners unworthy of God’s grace, but the Son of God, the Word made flesh, came to die so that we might be forgiven. To accept a message such as this, we must accept that we are sinners in need of a Savior. To believe it is to die. This is why the message was foolishness. The Jews believed they were made right with God by their acts of worship, by their sacrifices and offerings. The Gentiles had no need to be made right with God for they were good by nature. How many today still think righteousness is either earned or innate? Too many people believe this, even in the church.
Paul was calling the people in Corinth to a life following Jesus Christ, not man.
The words of the psalmist teach us what it means to die; we are to humble ourselves before God. Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from a life of security to face the unknown with Jesus. We are all called to live unique lives to His glory. However God calls us to live, let us die to our old life and walk with Christ, sharing the light, the message of the cross, with the world.
“I will tell of the loving kindnesses of Yahweh and the praises of Yahweh, according to all that Yahweh has given to us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which he has given to them according to his mercies, and according to the multitude of his loving kindnesses. For he said, ‘Surely, they are my people, children who will not deal falsely;’ so he became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and in his pity he redeemed them. He bore them, and carried them all the days of old.” Isaiah 63:7-9, WEB
Pongo said, “C’m on, Lucky boy. We can’t give up now.” But Lucky answered, “I’m tired and I’m hungry and my tail’s froze and my nose is froze and my ears are froze. And my toes are froze.”
This is one of my favorite quotes from “One Hundred and One Dalmatians. My daughter and I often quoted it when the temperatures dropped wherever we lived. Though Texas is a temperate environment, cold fronts can come through and send the temperatures plummeting. One day the high was 66 degrees at midnight and by the end of the day was well below freezing. It was the kind of day that would have made me happy to just stay home, bundled in a blanket with a cup of hot cocoa. Unfortunately, life doesn’t stop when our noses are froze.
Lucky was ready to give up, but Pongo picked him up and started to carry him. Soon after, a voice called Pongo’s name in the snowstorm. Another dog ran up to Pongo and said, “We’d just about lost hope. We have shelter for you at the dairy barn across the road.” The cold and tired puppies, along with Pongo and Perdita, found their way into the barn where they were able to rest and some food to eat. The puppies enjoyed warm milk straight from the cows. Help arrived just as they thought there was no hope.
For Lucky, the help first came as his father picked him up and carried him through the deep, wet snow. Then help came for the whole group. Salvation was first for one, then for all. I imagine that Pongo felt bad that he couldn’t carry every one of the puppies. They were all suffering. They were all cold and tired. They were all ready to give up. But Lucky was the smallest; he was the puppy that nearly died. He was called Lucky because he was saved right from the start. He needed a little extra care along the way, too. But there is hope for everyone.
We might think that God favors some of His children above others. They seem to go through life being carried through every storm. They seem to be lifted up when all of us are suffering. They seem to receive salvation before the rest of us. Perhaps it is because God knows, as Pongo knew, that they can’t handle the difficulty was well as us. They aren’t as strong. They aren’t as capable. They lose hope more easily. They give up first. God is unwilling to allow someone to perish who is weak in faith and so he helps them through the tough times with a little extra push. But we need not fear, because God carries us all along. He provides salvation for each of us. He gives us that place to rest and the warm milk to drink so that we’ll be sustained and refreshed to go back out into the snow.
And so, let us praise God at all times, in the bitter cold of winter and the cozy warmth of the barn, because He is our strength and Savior. He cries when we cry, He shivers when we shiver. He joins us in the storm and leads us to safety.
“I command you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at his appearing and his Kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with all patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not listen to the sound doctrine, but having itching ears, will heap up for themselves teachers after their own lusts, and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn away to fables. But you be sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill your ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:1-4, WEB
I follow a page on Facebook that is known for its satire. The posts (headlines) are so good that many people mistake the articles for real news. The site has even been reviewed by sites that call out fake news; they write articles about how the “facts” in the posts are not true, even though the “facts” are meant to be satire, and thus by definition “humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” The problem is that they are so good at it, that their headlines are so close to the truth, that they can easily be mistaken as real rather than satire.
The site is very good at making fun of everyone in the political and religious world; unfortunately some people can’t take the joke when it is against their point of view. The best part of each post is the comments, especially from those who do not understand the point. If we have a good sense of humor, we can see the foibles of our own point of view and laugh about them. They also make us think, and perhaps even change.
One recent post offered a helpful tool for pastors, a “Sermon Generator.” It creates a sermon title and then gives three points to work around. The sermons are ridiculous and the points are anything but scriptural, but it is fun to click through the ideas to laugh at the ludicrous ideas might be preached. Unfortunately, they are a little too close to home for some churches. The point of the satire is to poke fun at those churches that have a “me” centered focus rather than biblical and God-centered. My favorite was this: “Your sermon title is... Overcoming The Limits In Your Oikos. Sermon point 1 is... It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship. Sermon point 2 is... So you can love yourself. Sermon point 3 is... Because you’re just too important.”
The sermon point 3 always focuses on self. Here are a few other examples: “Because God wants you to be ridiculously rich.” “Because you need a little ‘me’ time.” “Because the G-man just wants to chill with y’all.” “Because it’s all about your self-esteem.” These are words that perhaps we want to hear, especially in this world that is so focused on feelings and satisfying our desires. We are constantly told, especially in commercials, to do what makes us feel good. They say we should follow our hearts, but they mean we should follow the desires of our flesh. This is a twist of God’s intention for His people, a warm fuzzy that gives us permission to do what we think is best for ourselves and not what God has commanded and encouraged us to do.
We might laugh at how ridiculous those sermons might sound, but many people listen to teachers that teach and preach sermons that are meant to sound as if they come from God, but they what we want to hear. Then we think we have found peace in those lessons. However, when reality happens to shatter that peace, we struggle with our faith.
Jesus Christ never promised that the world would revolve around us and that everything will be peaches and cream. He never promised that we would live without suffering. He promised that He would be with us always. By His strength and power, we can accomplish all things that He has ordained for our lives. Though we know that the sermon generator is not real and that pastors will never go to it for outlines for their sermons, we have to wonder about the focus on some preachers in this world. It is up to us to discern whether they are preaching God’s Word or if they are tickling our ears with the warm fuzzies we want to hear.
Are you looking for someone to preach feel good sermons or you willing to hear God’s Word, the hard parts that call us to repentance as well as the Gospel that promises us true peace?
“For you, brothers, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh, but through love be servants to one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, be careful that you don’t consume one another.” Galatians 5:13-15, WEB
Lydia was a businesswoman. She was a seller of purple, an expensive cloth. It was highly prized because it was a mark of great wealth. The purple cloth was made from a dye extracted from snails. Most dyes in that day were made from plants, so the colors were often muted and faded quickly. Purple was different. The color was intense and permanent. It would have been noticeable if there was even just a small stripe of purple on a robe compared to the other colors. By the fourth century A.D. purple was reserved for the Caesar and his closest advisors. During the excavations at Qumran, a purple ball of wool was found still as bright as the day it was dyed. One day Lydia met a man named Paul who introduced her to the story and grace of Jesus. She received that word with joy and became an active Christian disciple. God had work for her to do.
Dorcas was a seamstress who was known for making clothes for the poor widows in her community. We do not know much about her, but it seems she was a woman of some means because her charitable works were numerous. She was a Christian who lived with a community of Christians in Joppa. Her name has become synonymous with charity and numerous charitable organizations bear her name. The only other thing we know about Dorcas is that she died. Her death brought great grieving to her community and they sought the aid of Peter. Peter came, prayed over her and she was raised. God still had work for her to do.
Phoebe was a Christian woman who was from the church in Cenchrea. We know even less about Phoebe than we do about Lydia and Dorcas. She is commended by Paul to the church in Rome in his letter to that congregation. It is believed that she was the bearer of that letter to Rome. She is described as a deaconess, so she was a leader among the Christians. Paul was able to trust her with a very important task: the delivery of a letter that helped a new and growing church - and the church today - understand the life of faith that Christ calls us to live. God had work for her to do, too.
These three women are remembered today as co-workers of the Apostles. They were servants, willingly helping others. They supported the Apostles with their resources and their communities with their lives. They were called by God’s grace to serve and they responded with joy, hope and peace. They touched the lives of so many that it is odd we do not know more about them. But then, God does not always make us famous to have a large impact on our world. We are called by God to serve our neighbors, to share the light of Christ, and to help them through their sufferings. We do not do this for reward. We do not do it so that we will benefit in any way. We do it because we know that God is faithful to His promises and that He will fulfill all He has proclaimed through Jesus Christ. We live in hope - not wishes and dreams, but expectation of what will be - and in that hope we continue revealing that light that is Christ to the world.
“He spoke a parable to them, saying, ‘The ground of a certain rich man produced abundantly. He reasoned within himself, saying, “What will I do, because I don’t have room to store my crops?” He said, “This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. I will tell my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’” But God said to him, “You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared - whose will they be?” So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’” Luke 12:16-21, WEB
I just finished a book about living life with the reality of death. “Living Life Backward” by David Gibson is about the book of Ecclesiastes and how we truly begin to live when we realize we are going to die. By living life backwards, we live for the day rather than worry about the tomorrow. Though it is still necessary to prepare for tomorrow, we need not strive so hard to collect stuff or seek the world’s understanding of success. The Bible does encourage hard work, but the Teacher in Ecclesiastes reminds us that it is all meaningless if we are so caught up in the expectations of the world that we miss the real joy of living.
I attended a women’s retreat on Saturday that had a focus on living a life worthy of our faith. The speaker talked about why and how to grow in our faith and to live a life that truly glorifies God. It is a life of obedience and trust. During our table conversation, we talked about the gut feelings we get once in a while that lead us to do the unexpected. We told stories about answering a call that seemed strange but turned into a divine appointment. God can do great things through our lives if we live them in faith that God really does know what He is doing and that He has invited us to be a part of His work in the world. Recalling what I read in that book, I realized that living life backward is living as if I will not be here tomorrow. It leads us to ask the question, “What should I be doing today?”
I’m also teaching a study on the Sermon on the Mount. As I have been preparing for the lessons on chapter six, I’ve noticed a similar theme, especially when Jesus reminds us that we should not lay up treasures on earth, but instead seek His Kingdom and look forward to the treasures we will have in heaven. This brings us back to the lessons from the Teacher in Ecclesiastes again. If we are living life backward, we know that we may not have tomorrow, so why do we bother gathering all our resources into bigger barns? Coming full circle, this should lead us to a life in which we share our resources, giving and serving as God calls us to do, following those gut feelings in trust and obedience so as to fulfill God’s will and purpose for our days, growing in our faith by acting out of faith.
Obviously this them has been on my mind recently, and then I heard the news yesterday of the sudden and tragic death of Kobe Bryant. I don’t know much, though I’ve heard good things in the past few days, but the state of his heart is not the reason for bringing up this horrible news. After days (weeks) of thinking on this topic, the helicopter crash that killed nine people, including Kobe Bryant, is a stark reminder of these lessons. We may not have tomorrow.
So how are we living today?
Does today’s passage and all the other things I’ve read mean we shouldn’t save for a rainy day? Certainly not, the Bible clearly encourages us to be to be prepared so that we won’t be a burden on others. But living life backward means we will learn to be content with enough so that we don’t hoard our resources, but rather live open to the possibilities that God will present to us every day. The grain in the barn will be eaten by rats or become moldy, but the grain that is placed in the hand of someone who is hungry will bring joy to both the receiver and the giver. Trusting God means that we will not worry about tomorrow, but instead embrace the opportunities to live today knowing that this very night our soul might be required of us.
Scriptures for Sunday, February 2, 2020, The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
“How shall I come before Yahweh, and bow myself before the exalted God?” Micah 6:6, WEB
Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down; He makes us look at the world in a whole new way. We think of blessedness as being successful, being a winner. But in today’s Gospel reading Jesus defines blessedness in ways we would never expect. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit do not appear blessed because they seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God will give them comfort. Those who are humiliated will be raised and those who are hungry and thirsty will be fed. They are blessed because God has promised to save those who trust in Him. Blessedness is an attitude that looks to God for its fulfillment.
John Stott wrote of the Beatitudes, “These characteristics do not describe eight separate and distinct groups of disciples. There are not some who are meek, while others are merciful, yet others called upon to endure persecution. These are eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted. They are the characteristics of the common, everyday Christians.”
The Beatitudes emphasize who we are rather than what we do. The Kingdom is not of this world. The beautiful attitudes and the blessings of the Kingdom are not economic but spiritual. Some may be called to lives of poverty, but the beatitudes refer to spiritual states. The eight blessings are given to every Christian. God favors the humble, those who trust in Him rather than their own strength. These humble people are those who yearn for God above all else. They become wholly dependent on God. Martin Luther wrote, “These eight beatitudes are nothing else than a teaching about the fruits and good works of a Christian, which must be preceeded by faith, as the tree and main body or sum of his righteousness and blessedness, without any work or merit, out of which these beatitudes must all grow and follow.”
None of the eight Beatitudes are highly regarded by the world as being particularly blessed. Poverty, pain, humility, hunger and thirst are not signs of a blessed life; they are more likely to be considered woes or curses. The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted are more likely to be viewed as foolish rather than as blessed.
The word “bless” means “may God speak well of you.” What is it that God seeks from those He loves? What about our life might He speak well of? It would be easy for us to use the psalm for today to establish the criteria for blessedness. The psalmist writes, “Yahweh, who shall dwell in your sanctuary? Who shall live on your holy hill?” He answers that those who are blameless, righteous and honest, that those who do good works and who fear the Lord are the ones who will be blessed. Yet, the expectation in this psalm is too hard for any human to uphold. Who is blameless? Who is righteous? There is none who would ever be so blessed.
When we are poor in spirit, in mourning, humiliated and hungry, it is difficult to be participants in the overcoming work in God’s world. Sadly, in today’s world it is often used as an excuse to be angry and to fight. We think we are justified in demanding that others make things right. We seek worldly solutions to our pain and suffering and expect our neighbors to save us. Yet the real salvation will only come when we fall into the arms of God’s grace. Blessed are those who look to God in their poverty, mourning, humiliation and hunger because they will be satisfied.
Jesus does not call us to overcome our troubles or wallow in them, but rather He encourages us to live in an attitude of trust and confidence that God is faithful to His promises. The beatitudes are the attitudes of God’s people living in faith. The students for today’s lesson were not the great crowds of people; Jesus was speaking to the disciples. This lesson is not given for those who are trying to earn their way to heaven, but is given to those who believe in the work of God. The lesson is given for us, the Christians who have been saved by the cross of Christ.
It doesn’t seem like a wise lesson, does it? After all, it makes more sense to be strong in spirit, to celebrate life, to be assertive, and to satisfy our own needs. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden; He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because we turn to grace in our suffering. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the One who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.
On the face of it, Christianity is foolishness. Paul is right when he says so in today’s epistle lesson. After all, what good is it to believe in a God who can die on a cross? Why have faith in a system that allows an innocent man to take the consequences of the whole world’s sin upon His own shoulders? Is God so weak that He can’t protect His people from suffering? Is He so incompetent that He can’t save us in some other, more civilized way? The Jews wanted to answer these questions with wisdom that came from the tradition of their faith, and the Greeks wanted answers that could be studied philosophically.
Are you a right-brain or left-brain thinker? This question comes from a theory in psychology that each side of the brain controls certain types of thinking. The right-brained thinker is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective. The left-brained thinker is said to be more logical, analytical and objective. Right-brained people tend to be more creative and emotional while left-brained people tend to be more methodical. It has been proven that this theory is a myth; people do not have a dominant side of their brain which controls their personality. Sadly, many people use this theory as an excuse for not using more of their brain capacity. “I can’t do anything creative because I’m left-brained.” Or, “I am not good with following directions because I am right-brained.”
The reality is that neither side of the brain is dominant in anyone; as a matter of fact, the two sides are not so divided. There are parts of the brain that are specifically designed to enhance communication between the two hemispheres, and the person experiences problems if that connection is severed. I’m certainly not a brain surgeon, and most of the sites I read about the subject today, though written in simple language, were difficult for me to understand and relate to you.
It doesn’t really matter, but I started thinking about this right-brain/left-brain theory when I was reading through the passage from Paul’s letter to Corinth. A thought struck me: perhaps the Jews were right-brained and the Greeks were left-brained! Really, it is interesting that Paul divided the two nations in this way. The Jews, whose lives and history were built upon their faith, are more spiritual in the way they dealt with wisdom. The Greeks, however, who are more academic in their focus, they wanted to have intellectual answers to their questions. In this text about the foolishness of the cross, Paul has shown us the mistake we so often make.
The Christian message is viewed as foolishness in today’s world. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him.
In the opening lines of the Old Testament passage from Micah, God asks Israel to plead her case before Him. She turned away from her God, walked away from the covenant and was unfaithful. God gave her a chance to defend herself. He called the mountains and the foundations of the earth to be witnesses in this judgment, because they were there when the covenant was made. Then God turned it to Himself and asks His beloved what He has done wrong, defending His own actions by recounting his redemption of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.
Israel responded by trying to find some way to make up for the sin against God, but looked for some act that would earn God’s mercy. They thought that bowing before God or giving some sort of offering would be enough to cover their sins. They even offered to sacrifice their first born sons, an offering God would never accept.
God answers that He has already shown His people what is right and good to do in this world. A right relationship with God means right relationships with other people. He says, “Do justice, be merciful and walk humbly with God.” Humility does not mean bowing or giving with a hard heart. It means recognizing our own sinfulness and submitting ourselves to that which God has already done. Instead of demanding that the people of Israel give their sons on the altar of sacrifice, God sent His own son to take the wrath they deserve. The One who lived out what is right and good also laid down His own life so that we to might be just, merciful and humble before God.
What does it meant to be blessed? According to the world, blessedness is visible to others; it is seen in our happiness, our wealth and our health. Even Christians talk about their good lives by saying, “I have been so blessed.” But we do not see the blessings when we are suffering from a terminal disease or we are unemployed and can’t pay our bills? Blessedness is often thought synonymous with happiness, but the sort of happiness that comes with faith is not necessarily giddy pleasure, but rather a deeper inner joy from God.
That’s what Paul is talking about: God takes our lives and He shines through them. It is easy for God to get lost in the midst of a bright shining star, but He shines brightly in the valley of the shadow of death. In other words, it is hard to see how God’s work when the world sees our successful and happy lives. Even if we answer their questions with “I am so blessed,” they see it not as a gift from God but as a reward for our hard work and perseverance. However, if we can say we are blessed in the midst of pain and loss, then the world will truly see that it is God’s grace that makes us happy. God uses our weakness to show His strength and raises us out of our pits into His Kingdom. Blessedness is seeing ourselves as we truly are and turning to the One who can give us all we need. Blessed are those who humble themselves at the altar of the Lord and give their lives into His hand so that through their weakness He is glorified.
The psalmist tells us that those who are welcome in the Temple of God are an exclusive group. Who can live there? It is a place where only those who walk rightly and do good works, where those who speak truth and do no evil are welcomed. Those who hate evil and love those who love the Lord are those who are invited into the presence of God. We have to honor our oaths even when they are painful, lending our resources to others without expectation and never accepting anything that might hurt another.
I would like to think that I can be welcome in the house of the Lord, but quite frankly the words of my mouth are not always right and my actions are not always just. I take advantage of my neighbor and I do not always do what I should do for their sake. Those who would be welcome are an incredibly exclusive group. As a matter of fact, only one was truly righteous: Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the only one who will never be shaken, the only one who can dwell in the house of the Lord. We simply can’t get an invite to that party on our own. Those who are blessed are the ones that stand firmly on Him.
The Christian faith is foolishness, because it makes no sense in a world that honors the powerful, promotes the strong, encourages the self and puts the great onto pedestals. However, God has chosen to bless those who humble themselves before Him, beginning first with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As we follow His path, and live as He lived, we might seem to have a life that is far from blessed. But God will shine through our weakness; through our poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, mercy, suffering, humility and rejection He will be glorified.
In the passage from Micah, the Lord speaks of all the wonderful things that He has done for His people. And how do they responsd? “What must we do?” They list a number of sacrificial measures in the hopes that they will prove to God their faithfulness and earn God’s mercy and grace. They ask what sort of offerings would be suitable? Should the offerings be burnt? How old should they be? How much is enough? Thousands of rams? Tens of thousands of rivers of oil?” Micah even lists sacrifice of the first born, a religious practice among the pagan peoples among whom God’s people had dwelt. Does God require those sacrifices?
Our answer to the question “What must I do?” is not likely to include child sacrifice, but we do have our list of requirements. Do I have to go to church every Sunday? Do I need to serve on a committee? Give a certain amount of money? Volunteer in a certain way or place? Do I need to choose a certain community of believers? Perform certain rituals? What must I do to receive God’s grace?
Isn’t it interesting that in this passage from Micah, it is God who speaks first. “Look at everything I have done for you. Consider all my saving acts.” Yet, the people still ask, “What must I do?” God has proven over and over again that He is merciful and that He loves His people, and yet they still want to control their own salvation.
“What must I do?” is a good question as long as we ask God, because in it we admit that we are His creation and we are responsible to do as God requires. Sadly, we often put our own words in God’s mouth and claim that what we are doing is according to His Word. The scriptures certainly tell us about the sacrifices at the temple, the pilgrimages to take, and the work that needs to be done. Unfortunately, those requirements have been built on years of human interpretation of God’s intentions for His people. The answer to “What must I do?” is not what we choose, but that which has been revealed to us: to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
God has expectations and He spells them out so that we can try to live up to them. But our salvation is never dependent on our ability to do so. God’s love and mercy does not demand anything from us. God’s love and mercy elicits a response: He has transformed us for a purpose. We are blessed to be a blessing. So, perhaps we should ask a different question: “What does it mean to be blessed?” We see in the Beatitudes that Jesus’ idea of blessedness is counter to our expectations. What must you do? Trust in God, even when it does not seem like you are blessed. Jesus tells us that blessedness does not look like we might expect. Blessedness means that God has raised you out of a world that requires sacrifice and obedience to rules that are different from God’s Word, trusting in human wisdom and expectations. True blessedness triggers a response of thankfulness and praise. In the beautiful attitudes of meekness and mercy, spiritual poverty and purity of heart, mourning and hunger, peacemaking and acceptance of persecution, we trust in God’s faithfulness and live as He has called us to live, blessing the world with His grace.
“But Christ having come as a high priest of the coming good things, through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation, nor yet through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, entered in once for all into the Holy Place, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify to the cleanness of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without defect to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, since a death has occurred for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, that those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a last will and testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him who made it. For a will is in force where there has been death, for it is never in force while he who made it lives. Therefore even the first covenant has not been dedicated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you.’” Hebrews 9:11-20, WEB
I spent the last two days at a retreat with a theologian who was teaching on the subject of “Christus Victor.” As usual, it will take me some time to process what I learned, but I’m sure that some of the topic will come out in future devotions. The question being discussed was how we understand the atonement and the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and the devil. There are many Christians who reject the atonement because they cannot grasp the idea of a wrathful God that demands reparation for sin. Over the past two thousand years, Christians have tried to understand the reason for Jesus and His cross, and there have been multiple theories created to explain it. Of course, the human mind will always struggle with the reality of God, but we should never stop seeking God with our minds as well as our hearts.
The reality is that Jesus died not just because we do bad things, but because original sin is a power that destroys and corrupts us, a power from which we need saving. There is no human capable of overcoming that power. Only God could make us whole and Jesus Christ, God incarnate, took upon His shoulders all that has separated us from our Creator: sin, death, and the devil. It is vital in understanding the atonement that it was not simply Jesus the man who died that day, but God in Christ died to redeem the world and reconcile us to Himself.
One thought that he gave really struck me. Jesus not only took upon Himself our sinfulness, despite His sinlessness, He also took on every disease He healed. When He made the blind see and the lame walk, those dis-eases became part of Him so that when He died, the power of dis-ease also died, just as the power of sin did. God entered into the creation to overcome the tyrannical powers: sin, death, and the devil. Jesus became everything that has separated us from God, and when He died, so did the power they hold over us.
We know that His work is finished and yet we still suffer today. Christ is victorious, but the battle Jesus waged against sin, death and the devil will continue until the Day when He comes again. It is new for every generation. Why didn’t the world become instantly utopian when Jesus died? The working out of His victory must continue until the end of time. It is a paradox and we prefer to make faith logical. God could have removed all dis-ease and disobedience, but what He did was destroy the power of that which causes sin and suffering in the world, giving us the freedom to once again live in a relationship with the God of the Garden who created us and loves us.
We don’t like the idea of a wrathful God. How can a God of love get angry? Yet, think about your own emotions in the world. What do you feel when you see something that disturbs you? Do you get angry when you learn that children are being abused and trafficked? Do you get angry when you see that Christians are being beheaded daily in places like Nigeria? Do you get angry when you see that someone is lying and cheating and stealing and yet getting ahead, while others work hard and never receive the benefit or the reward they deserve? If we get angry at these things, how can we expect a holy and righteous God to stand by and not demand reparation for those sins? Jesus Christ, God incarnate, overcame the tyrannical powers and reconciled us to our God.
The writer of Hebrews makes it clear: the old ways were not good enough. The blood of goats and sheep could not do the job. Only the blood of Jesus can bring us the assurance of the promises of God. The reality of what will be came with His willingness to be obedient to what God intended for His life. Nothing we can do can change that. Even though we are still sinners living in world in which sin, death, and the devil still exist, we are set free from their power to dwell in His Kingdom. We are made holy by His holiness, and in that holiness we are empowered to live in hope, peace, and joy, serving God and our neighbors as He intended from the beginning.
“For what glory is it if, when you sin, you patiently endure beating? But if, when you do well, you patiently endure suffering, this is commendable with God. For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps, who didn’t sin, ‘neither was deceit found in his mouth.’ When he was cursed, he didn’t curse back. When he suffered, he didn’t threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live to righteousness. You were healed by his wounds. For you were going astray like sheep; but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:20-25, WEB
It is good for us to think about the things of God like the atonement and to try to understand them with our minds. However, they will be meaningless unless we understand them with our hearts. The atonement will do nothing for us until we recognize we are sinners in need of a Savior, looking to Him for salvation.
The teacher at our retreat told a story. “There was a elderly priest sitting on the stoop of his church, considering his life. He wondered if he’d made an impact on even one soul during his many years of ministry. A car pulled up and a man got out. The elderly priest quickly recognized him as a bishop by the ring on his finger. The bishop sat next to the priest and began to tell him a story. ‘There was a group of kids, hoodlums, really, who were hanging outside a church. These kids decided to play a game with the priest who was holding confession inside. They were all going to go inside with made up sins to see who could shock the priest most. Instead, they sent one of the boys inside with a long list and told him that they would give him $20 after he confessed them all. The boy went in and made his confessions and then went out for his $20. They were about to hand him the money when they said that he’d have to do the penance first.
“‘The boy thought it was no big deal, so he went into the church to do as the priest described. He was to kneel before the crucifix and say twenty times, “All this you have done for me and I don’t give a damn.” The boy said it once and it made him think. The boy said it a second time and it hit him in his heart. He began to tear up the third time. A long time passed and the boys waiting outside wondered what had happened to their friend. They went inside and found him on the floor in front of the crucifix crying uncontrollably. “I couldn’t finish my penance.”’
“The bishop finished the story and got up, turned to the priest and said, ‘I was that boy. And you were that priest. Thank you for pointing me to the Savior.’”
The priest worried that he had done nothing to impact the world, but the bishop showed him by the story that he had pointed a young boy on the road to trouble to the One who could save him. He pointed the boy to Jesus, the One who died on the cross to overcome the powers of this world. By God’s grace that bishop had been healed, and then called into a life of service. He was a sheep that was going astray, but the priest showed him the Good Shepherd and he was transformed because the reality of his sin brought him to tears and to faith.
That’s what it means to move understanding of the things of God from our minds to our hearts. The church has spent two thousand years trying to understand ideas such as the atonement and many have come up with different theories. Unfortunately some of those theories cause people to reject the necessity of atonement altogether. They may say the right words about Jesus, but they don’t really give a damn about what Christ has done for them. Like the boy in the story, we are called to cast our eyes on the dying Christ on the cross and admit our sinfulness. If this does not bring us to our knees in tears, then we have not really believed Jesus or believed in Jesus. Jesus was made sin for us. He took the wrath of God for us. He died so that we might live. The atonement means salvation for us; by his payment of our debt we are reconciled to our Father and freed to live in His Kingdom forever. We may even impact others by pointing them to the Savior who did all this for us.