Welcome to the July 2012 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, July 2012
July 2, 2012
“And Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by my hand, as thou hast spoken, behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor; if there be dew on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the ground, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by my hand, as thou hast spoken. And it was so; for he rose up early on the morrow, and pressed the fleece together, and wrung the dew out of the fleece, a bowlful of water. And Gideon said unto God, Let not thine anger be kindled against me, and I will speak but this once: let me make trial, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew. And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.” Judges 6:36-40, ASV
In days past, it was necessary to give people detailed instructions about how to get somewhere. When we sent invitations, we always included a map. The maps gave road names and landmarks, all that would help our visitors find the way. In those days, people didn’t have GPS technology in their cars. Mapquest didn’t exist. They didn’t carry cell phones with them all the time. Our instructions were important, or they would never find the house.
Now, we usually just give the address and assume that people will be able to find us. It is easier to look on the internet for instructions and if something goes wrong they can always call. I’m not sure which is better. I like being able to see my way on an official map like I might find online, but it isn’t always the best. Victoria still gets to our new house by going a back way I’ve never traveled because her GPS led her that way the first time. Some people were terribly confused by the Mapquest directions to our old house because for some reason the system didn’t really send them to my house. Some of those maps show that house being in the middle of the block rather than at the end. In that case, landmarks were often helpful.
Landmarks are not always helpful, though, especially when the direction giver is very specific with minor details. You probably know someone who gives directions that sound something like this: “At the first left there is a house with a red barn door at the side. You don’t want to turn on that road. Go five hundred feet to the next left, by the fire hydrant. When you turn, watch out for water run-off, it comes from the hydraulic plant up the street. We’ve been complaining about it for years. Go a mile and a half and turn right at the old oak tree, the one that was hit by the lightning. If you come to a farm with a John Deere tractor in front, you’ve gone too far…” Those instructions go on forever and are not terribly helpful. What if there is no water running across the road? It makes me wonder if I turned at the wrong place. Will I be able to identify the old oak tree? Is that lightning burns on that branch or just age? There is probably a dozen John Deere tractors along a country road. Which one tells me I’ve gone too far? It doesn’t help that a country mile seems much longer than a highway mile.
We have very detailed instructions, but we still doubt. Am I really going to find the place that I’m trying to find? Or will I make a wrong turn and get terribly lost?
Isn’t it that way with the instructions we get from God? Oh, sometimes we don’t have a clue what He’s trying to tell us. We think we might know, and we get help from other Christians, but it is still difficult to discern His will for our lives. Am I really supposed to go into ministry? Is this the person I should marry? Should I move to that new house? Is this the right church for me? We might see signs and hear God’s voice in our situations, but with so much noise and so many possibilities, it is very hard for us to know what is true and what is false. We have doubts, no matter how clear God might be in His instructions for us.
Gideon saw God’s face. In the story, Israel had once again been unfaithful to God and was under attack from the Midianites. They cried out to God and He heard them. He called Gideon to be their champion, to lead a small army to defeat the enemy. When God called, Gideon experienced God’s presence, so much so that he knew that he’d seen God’s face. He was frightened, but God assured him that all was well. Gideon willingly followed God’s instructions to destroy the idols of the false gods and he was threatened for it. His people were threatened, too. It could have been a very frightening time, since God’s people thought He had abandoned them. Gideon himself was afraid to face the enemy. So, he asked God for proof. He asked not once, but twice. One sign was not even enough to give him the courage to follow God’s instructions.
We might be afraid to go forth in faith because the voice we hear is telling us to do something that seems ridiculous or impossible. We might think it is God’s voice, we might even know it is God’s voice, but we still have doubts. While we know that we should walk in faith, trusting that God is with us, it is natural for us to want proof. We are no different than Gideon. We hope that God will do something to make it clear to us that it is His voice we hear. We want a miracle that will prove to us that He is in control. He is blessed by our faith and our trust, but He understands our doubt. And He’s bigger than our doubt. He can overcome the voices that confuse us and show us that He is in control. He might even give us that miracle we need to go forth in absolute certainty that He is leading the way.
“Sing aloud unto God our strength: Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. Raise a song, and bring hither the timbrel, The pleasant harp with the psaltery. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, At the full moon, on our feast-day. For it is a statute for Israel, An ordinance of the God of Jacob. He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony, When he went out over the land of Egypt, Where I heard a language that I knew not. I removed his shoulder from the burden: His hands were freed from the basket. Thou calledst in trouble, and I delivered thee; I answered thee in the secret place of thunder; I proved thee at the waters of Meribah. Selah Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wouldest hearken unto me! There shall no strange god be in thee; Neither shalt thou worship any foreign god. I am Jehovah thy God, Who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt: Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it. But my people hearkened not to my voice; And Israel would none of me. So I let them go after the stubbornness of their heart, That they might walk in their own counsels. Oh that my people would hearken unto me, That Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies, And turn my hand against their adversaries. The haters of Jehovah should submit themselves unto him: But their time should endure for ever. He would feed them also with the finest of the wheat; And with honey out of the rock would I satisfy thee.” Psalm 81, ASV
Yes, I watch those stupid reality television shows. Not all of them, but I do watch the ones that I think has something to offer beyond the conflict of personalities and scripted chaos, particularly the cooking shows. I’ve learned about ingredients, techniques and trends. I’ve learned what not to do when in the kitchen. I’ve learned that there is no way that I have the knowledge or ability to stand up to the scrutiny of the judges and fellow contestants. I’m a decent cook, but I’m sure those judges would find fault with everything I make.
I know the producers put together the episodes with the expectation that the conflict and chaos will draw viewers, but I can usually ignore the negatives. As I was watching one of those shows last night, however, I decided that I will probably not watch it for another season. I don’t know if the producers have simply gone overboard with creating the conflict and chaos, of if they chose contestants that are completely incompatible. They don’t just argue; they can’t work together. More than halfway through the season, neither team has managed to do anything well. People are still being kicked out of the kitchen. It is disturbing to watch because everything, and everyone, is so negative.
I’m ready to tune out. Why watch something so negative? It makes me upset and angry. I don’t need the emotional stress from my ‘entertainment.’
Now, let’s look at something even more important than entertainment: our faith. I know that the television show is edited to be exactly what the producers want it to be. And they do what they do because they think it will bring viewers and thus advertisers. They make money when people are getting what they want. Sometimes it seems as though the church thinks the same way. Instead of giving people the Gospel message we design the church around the expectations of those they hope will come. Programs trump Christ. We plan worship to be times of entertainment and we use modern trends for our study. Instead of discussing the Bible in our studies, we have book clubs. Instead of singing praise to God, we focus on our works. We’ve lost touch with what it means to be the body of Christ gathered in the presence of God and have become a social club or community organization.
Like the producers that think the audience wants to the negativity, we often think that we are giving the people what they want. We ignore what God wants and what the people truly need. I suspect that the numbers this season of that reality show have gone down instead of up because there is nothing redeeming about the show these days. I know that the numbers for worship communities that have this false gospel focus are down. People are not being drawn into this image of church. Instead, they are fleeing.
The problem with focusing on ourselves instead of God is that we are imperfect and our works are fallible. We are not faithful. We are undependable. We fail. We follow our own hearts and do what we think is best, even if it isn’t really the best thing for one another or even ourselves. We end up being negative, getting others upset and angry and stressed. We cause people to flee rather than flock. Our focus becomes our god and we lose touch with the God who has saved us.
The conflict and chaos may have been entertaining for awhile, the show has lost its true character over the seasons. I think the same came be said about the Church. The entertainment factor is fun for a time, but eventually that focus becomes greater than the presence of God and the Church has lost its character. The psalmist calls us back to a state of worship, a remembrance of what God has done and a focus on Him so that He might do all He intends to do with our lives in the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 8, 2012, Pentecost Six: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
“And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them.” Ezekiel 2:5, ASV
The Corinthians were plagued by false prophets who boasted about so many things. The false prophets made claims about God which were in direct opposition to the things that Paul had taught the believers in that city. As we saw last week, it was apparent that the Corinthians were turning back to the Way as Paul had taught, rejecting the false prophets and believing the Gospel as Paul had made it known. Yet, Paul wanted to build a strong foundation for those Christians. False prophets would come and go. They would always be a problem, even until this day.
So, Paul described why he was the authority they should believe. It is no doubt that the false prophets made statements like “Thus says the Lord” and that their message sounded good. It is even possible that they were giving a message that made the people feel good. Warm fuzzies are so much easier to embrace than harsh criticism. We don’t like to hear that we are sinners. We’d much rather hear that we are loved. We are more likely to respond to that message of love, and be more generous to the one who speaks it. We’d rather turn away from that preacher or prophet that tells us we need to repent, who finds blessing in suffering. Paul is still rejected today by so many. There are those who claim that Paul was never meant to be an apostle and that his idea of the church is not what God intended.
Those who claim such things will even say it with some semblance of authority. “Thus says the Lord,” they claim and they lead people down this rosy path where everything is love and there is no need for repentance. Now, I agree that love is the foundation of the Christian faith. Without the love of God we would be nowhere. Without Christian love, the world would be a much darker and sadder place. But we must beware of what type of love we are promoting with our teaching. Is this a love that accepts everything, that allows everything? Does God tolerate everything? Does God accept everything we do? There is room for grace, thank God, because we all fail daily. But does grace allow us to be whatever we want to be?
Paul had something to say to the Church in that day and in our day. We cannot ignore the lessons Paul gives us in the scriptures. In many cases Paul was responding to very specific situations, but we know that those situations can be relevant to our day as much as they were relevant to those first churches. Perhaps we don’t have those specific false prophets, but we certainly have many false prophets today saying “Thus says the Lord.” They are leading Christians away from the true Gospel message to some twisted version that ignores the reality of the world in which we live. We are saved by grace. But we still need Jesus to save us. The Gospel being proclaimed in many places has ignored our need for Jesus and focused on our works. The Gospel is no longer something we receive that changes us; it is something we do to change the world.
So Paul, who had the message the Corinthians needed to hear, felt the need to prove himself. In chapter eleven, he boasted about his suffering, suggesting that God was glorified in his life because his weaknesses showed God’s strength. Any other man would have died at the hands of so much torture. He was beaten, whipped, shipwrecked and robbed. He faced dangers from every angle, from Jews and Gentiles alike. He worked hard, never taking a dime for his ministry. He knew pain, hunger, thirst and the stress of caring for so many people. He had empathy for the Christians, suffering alongside all who suffered.
Such boasting doesn’t make much sense to us because we think that pain and suffering must mean that the prophet is doing something wrong. After all, don’t we respect those pastors and preachers who have massive churches? We think that overflowing pews and bank accounts must mean that God is blessing that congregation. And yet, some of the most successful churches preach a message that tickles the fancy of those who are in search of the good life. Prosperity theology will always be popular because we want a Gospel that makes us feel good and guarantees a happy life. But Paul found that it was in his suffering that he most experienced God’s grace.
In our passage for today, Paul went on to boast some more. Now, in this case the boasting is something more positive. He says he knew a man who had a vision. As you read on, you discover that the man who had the vision was Paul himself, but he did not want to boast of such a thing. He wanted the people to see that God is in the midst of the suffering as well as the visions. He would rather they accept him based on the physical evidence of God’s grace rather than on the spiritual blessing he experienced.
After all, anyone can claim to have had a vision.
There are dozens, hundreds, probably thousands of books describing someone’s experience of God. Some of them give an incredible story of God and His grace. They are very believable. Perhaps they are even true. But do those stories give the visionary the authority to change what God started through Paul?
A few years ago a book of such a vision called “The Dolorous Passion” was very popular. The book told of visions that were given to an Augustinian nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich; those visions were the basis for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” I had a discussion with a friend when the movie was in the theaters and she was surprised to find that it was based on someone’s visions. She read it and later came back with excitement and belief. She was ready to accept that this version of Christ’s passion had the same authority as the Gospels.
While there might be truth to the visions and what those visions have to say to us, I shared another book with a friend that gave a completely different vision of Christ’s suffering. Those who believed that story accepted it as authoritative, too. But which one is real? Which message is from God? Which vision is from God’s own voice? Contradictory visions and messages can’t both come from God; one must be true or both false. Just because someone says, “Thus says the Lord” does not mean that they are really speaking for Him.
Life wasn’t any easier for Ezekiel. The people didn’t believe him, either. God even told him, “I am sending you out there to speak to people who aren't going to hear a word you say, people who will reject me and everything I want to give them and persecute you for trying.” I'd like to answer such a calling with, “But God, why should I bother? If they aren’t going to listen, what good will it do?” God always gives hope. “They’ll know that a prophet has been with them.”
This wasn’t a promise that the people would recognize that Ezekiel was a prophet, it was an assurance that in the end they would know that what Ezekiel spoke is true. Now, we’d do well to believe the prophets in the beginning because we could probably save ourselves a whole mess of trouble. After all, wouldn’t it have been better to turn to God before the Babylonians attacked? Wouldn’t it have been better to trust in God when Jerusalem was still standing?
But the people didn’t hear Ezekiel. They didn’t believe the message because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They wanted the warm fuzzies, not a call to repentance. They wanted to do things their own way. Other prophets promised them peace; Ezekiel spoke of war. Which message would you rather hear? In the end, they did know that a prophet had spoken because his warnings came true. We might like to think that we are better at hearing God’s voice than those Israelites, but are we? Do we hear His voice or are we following the voices of the false prophets? Are we chasing after peace and love when we might need to be turning around to God?
Jesus didn’t have it any easier than Paul and Ezekiel! He went home, but discovered the people knew Jesus. They knew Him as a boy and a young man. They knew He was a carpenter’s son, not someone who had been trained as a teacher or priest. What could a carpenter or a carpenter’s son know about the scriptures? What could He know about God? How is this ordinary man, “one of us,” do the things He was claiming to do? I’m sure they even doubted that He could heal. They may have thought the stories were exaggerations or fairy tales. He could not, or would not, heal in that town because they had no faith.
They say you can’t go home again. We can go home again for a visit, so the statement is not true in the most literal sense. Yet, have you ever run into an old friend with whom you have been out of touch? Are they surprised to discover what has become of your life? If I asked your family to describe you today, what might they say? I think my brother still sees me as an eleven year old with pigtails, despite the fact that my youngest child is in college. Even though our family and friends have grown up and matured, they remember us as we were when we last spent time together. We are no different, expecting everything to be exactly the same in our home, neighborhood and family. We are often amazed at the changes.
It is especially difficult when our family and friends undergo a spiritual transformation. When people are born again, they become different. They go home to the people who had been part of their life before they were saved and those people simply do not understand the changes. How many pastors run into old high school friends who respond to their career choice with hysterical laughter. “You? A pastor? You’ve got to be kidding! Aren’t you the guy who did… in senior year?” It is hard to imagine our rowdy, misbehaving friends to be any different than they were in those days.
At first the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, but then they began to doubt. He didn’t waste His time in His hometown. Instead, He went to other towns to share the message of God’s kingdom. Along the way He sent the disciples out to do the same thing, but He warned them that the same thing would happen to them. They would also be rejected. The people to whom they were sent, at least some of them, would wonder how these fishermen and other ordinary men could be speaking about God’s kingdom. They haven’t been trained. They have no authority. And because the people did not believe, they had no power in those towns. “Shake even the dust from your feet,” Jesus said. It wasn’t worth wasting their time. In the end, they would know that a prophet had spoken.
Why would things be any different for us? If Jesus, Paul and Ezekiel were sent into a world where they would face persecution, rejection, failure and doubt, why do we think we will have any more success? If they suffered because they spoke God’s Word, why do we think we’ll be embraced with open arms? Why have we decided that it is better to give the people what they want so that we can fill the pews than to give them what they really need and let God deal with their lack of faith?
The singer of today’s psalm must have known what it was like to be rejected. It is likely that the Psalm was used as pilgrims climbed into the Temple during a pilgrimage. They had just traveled great distances through dangerous wilderness. They may have fought robbers. They may have been ridiculed by Romans. They may have even faced the haughty attitude of the religious leaders who saw the imperfections of their lives. The scorners were proud and arrogant, perhaps even wanting the pilgrims to fail. However, the singer knew that their derision did not matter. Those pilgrims looked to the God who sits in the heavens, humbled only by the graciousness of God.
God’s word does not go out without being fruitful. Ezekiel could proclaim God’s word with the expectation that it would transform the world in which he lived. Paul assured the Corinthians that God’s grace is greater than our failure. Jesus encouraged the disciples to go forth in faith, knowing that they would be rejected by even the most familiar and important people in their lives but that God can and will do His work anyway. The God in heaven has called us to do this thing without guaranteeing our success. It isn’t about us anyway. It is all about Him. And He is faithful.
Our power to preach the Gospel comes from God, not from our own abilities, experiences or even our own desire to do so. God’s word is best shared by those who are humble before God and trusting in His grace. As we rejoice in our weaknesses God’s strength shines. People will reject, despise, persecute, insult and threaten us. They will believe the message that sounds better. They’ll chase after the warm fuzzies and ignore the calls to repentance. We can only hope that they will see God's presence and trust that one day they will know they have seen a prophet speaking God’s Word. Until then, we’ll climb the steps of the Temple with our eyes on God, praising Him even in the midst of our suffering, for we know God’s strength will shine in our weakness and His Gospel will truly change the world.
“And as they went out from Jericho, a great multitude followed him. And behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, Lord, have mercy on us, thou son of David. And the multitude rebuked them, that they should hold their peace: but they cried out the more, saying, Lord, have mercy on us, thou son of David. And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, What will ye that I should do unto you? They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened. And Jesus, being moved with compassion, touched their eyes; and straightway they received their sight, and followed him.” Matthew 20:29-34, ASV
Jesus did many miraculous things. He healed people. He brought the dead back to life. He cast out demons. He made the lame walk, the deaf hear and the blind see. The Gospels are filled with stories of the way Jesus changed people’s lives. Today’s story is just one of many that help us see that Jesus was indeed the One, to see that Jesus really did have authority over life and death and all of creation.
I think what struck me in today’s story is the response of the crowd to the cries of the two blind men. Why would they rebuke the men for asking Jesus for help? Why would they stop Jesus from performing yet another miraculous healing? After all, it seemed as though the people following Jesus wanted a show. They believed in Jesus because He was doing these great things.
That was the problem. They believed in the works, but not in Jesus. Now, in Matthew, Jesus often describes Himself as “the Son of Man” but others describe Him in other terms. In this story, the blind men call Him “the Son of David.” This was a Messianic term; they accepted that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. They cried out to Jesus as King. But the people were not willing to accept that Jesus was the Messiah. They wanted someone they could control. They wanted Jesus to do their bidding. A messiah would wreak havoc on their world. A king would bring the hand of the Romans down on them.
They wanted a king, they wanted to be free of Rome, they wanted to be a sovereign nation again. But they were afraid. They didn’t want their world be to be thrown into chaos. But all along, the people never really understood what it meant for Jesus to be King or the Son of David. Jesus wasn’t going to be an earthly king, His purpose was greater. In the passage before this story, Jesus says, “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” He came to redeem us, to be a sacrifice for our sin.
So, while the people were rebuking the blind men for speaking the words they were afraid to hear, Jesus showed them what it meant to be the Son of David. He was not to sit on an earthly throne and defeat the Romans in Israel. He came to serve us. Jesus listened to the blind men. Despite the rebuke of the crowd, Jesus heard their plea and responded with compassion. He healed them to show the people what it meant to be the Messiah, a humble servant doing God’s work in the world.
“Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” Ecclesiastes 7:8, ASV
In the book “Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations and Quotes,” the author quoted a clipping he saved from Rev. Milton Hobbard on pride. I think it is worth quoting in its entirety.
We take pride in birth and rank, but it’s said of Jesus, He was a carpenter’s son.
What do we take pride in and how would Jesus respond to those things in His life?
“And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:19-21, ASV
I saw a report a few days ago about a photography exhibit of portraits from people from early in the last century taken by photographer Harry Warneke. He worked for the Daily News, and though the newspapers and most other media used strictly black and white shots, Harry was decades ahead of his time. He developed a camera that could divide the colors and create vivid, colorful portraits of the newsmakers of the day. The photos have been forgotten, and the images we remember of those people are in black and white. It is shocking to see the reality of Lucille Ball’s hair, which matches the color on her lips, or to see the mismatched plaids of W.C. Fields.
When I first saw the report about this exhibition, I thought this was an example of digital remastering with color. I recall when Turner Classic movies first began colorizing those old black and white films. Many people were upset by the process, claiming that the colorization took away the artistic license of the creators. Now, if the film had purposely been made in black and white, like several modern films, I might agree. Many of those original movie producers did not have a choice. They may have wished for the option, but did not have the creativity or far-sightedness of Harry Warneke. They did not know how to change the technology.
As I read the articles about the exhibit, I realized that these were not remastered photographs. These were photos that were originally taken in color. We are still shocking by the images because we are used to seeing the people in black and white, but in these photos we see the reality of what was intended by both the photographer and the subject. They chose the clothes, props, and backgrounds to make a statement about that person’s personality or purpose. Harry did not want to lose the reality of those choices, and so created a way of catching them on film. Now we can benefit from his photos as they are being displayed at the National Portrait Gallery.
When I first though the pictures had been colored, I wondered how the enhancers knew what colors to use. Now, some things might be easy. Though Lucille Ball from “I Love Lucy” is the image we remember, we do know she had red hair because she did do television in the era of color. But I wondered how they knew that the sleeves of Dale Evans’ shirt were yellow? I ask the same question with the colorization of those old movies. Were Shirley Temple’s dresses really those colors? Did Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale really use that shade of lipstick in the movie “Holiday Inn”?
With these photos, we don’t have to guess. We know what color Lucille Ball was wearing because Harry Warneke went out of his way to record the truth. Those who recolor those old films may have to do some interpretation. Perhaps they have records that describe the dress color. Some costumes were preserved. Some colors may have been drawn from posters or advertisement. The technicians doing the coloring might be able to make some guesses at colors based on the shades of gray. But in the end, I suspect that some of the colors are artistic choices made by the technician.
Of course, the color of Shirley Temple’s dress or Marjorie Reynolds’ lipstick doesn’t really matter, but how often do we interpret things in this world by making choices that fit our own understanding? Unfortunately, I think much of the bible is ‘colored’ by people’s interpretations, the teachings based on an agenda or bias. Now, I’m sure we all try to use clues from the scriptures, the creation and the traditions of the Church to keep our interpretations true to the reality of God. But it is so easy for us to make assumptions, to put our own spin on the text. So, let us always keep true to God by listening to the Holy Spirit. God will be faithful and He will speak to us if we will listen and we will discover what He means from His own voice.
Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Matthew 28:19-20, ASV
I read a comment on a website by a high school student. She talked about the fact that it is summer vacation but that she has not been able to relax. Her sophomore year, which doesn’t even start for a few months, is promising to be very difficult. She’s scheduled for several advanced classes and she’s already worried. The stress is making this an unpleasant vacation. She’s already looking forward to those days when she gets behind in her work, loses sleep and then fails miserably. Of course, she’s not looking forward with excitement, but anxiety. She is sure she’s going to do so poorly that she can’t even rest so that she’ll be prepared to face the new school year in a month or so.
She noted that she usually destresses with music, but says that even that is causing her anxiety. She’s scheduled for several music classes in the next year, and even those are providing her with anxiety. She can’t find peace in her future because everything is making her worry. The more she worries, the more likely she will fail. She may even worry herself into poor health. If she can’t sleep today, how will she manage when the work piles up later?
The post was in response to an article about school stress. In the article, the author writes, “Stressed-out students are often not engaged in learning. They do not find the work to be meaningful or valuable, and tend to memorize and “spit back” rather than retain the information that is taught. They focus more on getting the grades — by any means possible — instead of learning the material.” It is likely that this young woman who is preparing for a difficult year will fail if she continues to be stressed. She needs to find the joy of learning or she will not learn. She may get the grades she wants, but she will not be educated. She’ll forget everything she’s “spit back” and her future years will be even more difficult. The stress of junior and senior year will be overwhelming.
I think it is harder for students today than it was for me a few decades ago. The upper level classes I took are now being taught to younger and younger students. While a few students received college credits when I was in school, it seems like it is now expected for students to do that type of work. “If you don’t do this, you won’t be prepared for college.” My kids both had summer homework throughout high school. It is no wonder that the students are stressed. It is no wonder that many students do not enjoy school and that so many hate school. They hate their teachers for the work and the worry. Some even hate their classmates.
The article suggested that one of the ways to create a less stressful environment for the students is to develop more interaction in the school environment. Good relationships between students and with teachers help provide encouragement and incentive for learning. If the teachers are more involved with the students on a daily basis, not just as an authority figure over the group, but as mentor to each individual, the students will learn more than just the facts to spit out. They’ll learn how to learn.
I wonder if the same can be said about Christian faith? Are we doing enough to establish relationships with those who reject Jesus? I don’t doubt that many who refuse to believe do so because they see religion as stressful. It is worrying if the lessons learned are about duty and punishment. They see no joy in hell and damnation. They see no joy in the hypocrisy of those who say one thing but do another. They can’t have faith in Jesus because they have no relationships with people who love Him.
How often do we introduce people to Jesus only to let them flounder without guidance? We get people to say that sinner’s prayer, but then ignore them. We invite them into fellowship, but expect them to fit in without helping them to find their place. We expect them to know what it means to be a Christian, but we do not give them the tools for living in faith. It is not enough for us to teach them the facts. We have to build a relationship so that they experience the joy of living in God’s kingdom. The Great Commission is about more than just making Christians. It is about encouraging one another to have living faith. Jesus didn’t save us and then let us go: He is with us always.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 15, 2012, Pentecost Seven: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
“Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, That glory may dwell in our land.” Psalm 85:9, ASV
You are John the Baptist, teaching the king things he really does not want to hear. The king respects you because you are righteous and holy and he is protecting you. However, the king’s wife hates you because the things you are teaching make her out to be sinful. The king may even doubt his relationship with the queen. Do you feel peace?
Now, John the Baptist did what God sent him to do. He preached to the people and called them to repentance. He told them they are sinners. He baptized the people for forgiveness of their sin. He lived a most unusual life, not concerned about the normal cares of the world. He ate odd food, wore strange clothing, and lived in the desert. I can imagine that John was like the odd transient who wanders the streets of the city mumbling to himself, but engaging people who catch his eye with frightening images of doom. I don’t think he was the charismatic type, drawing people to himself because of the words he spoke or the impression he made. As I read the descriptions of John’s appearance and ministry I see a frightening image that would make me very uncomfortable.
People flocked to him, though. And they listened. And they were baptized. We know, however, that many were not being baptized because they believed what they heard. When John called the gathering crowds a brood of vipers, he knew that they were just following today’s trend. They were doing it because it was the in thing to do. After all, if the king is listening to John, he must have something to say. And if a little water will make everything alright, why not get wet?
Herodias, the villainess in this story, knows that John is far more dangerous than he appears. She knows that the word he is speaking is true, and she simply does not want them to be heard. She knows that Herod is listening, but the reality has not really had an impact. His heart hasn’t changed, but when it does it will mean her life will change. Changes in his heart could mean changes for all of Israel; after all, he was the king. Would John’s preaching bring the wrath of Rome on their heads? Would she be set aside because their marriage came from sin? It is no wonder that she hated John. She knew the truth of what he was saying.
John’s story is ugly. He was not what we would describe as a superstar. He was rough, wild and probably not beautiful. He preached wrath. He talked about sin. In his story, the truth is ugly. The truth is also ugly in Amos’s story. Amos had no desire to be a prophet. He was a shepherd and just wanted to shepherd his flock. But God spoke and Amos responded. The message he took to that king was not beautiful, either. It was ugly. He warned the people that their sacred places would be destroyed and that the king would die by the sword. He also warned that the people would be sent into exile.
I don’t think I would want to be either Amos or John. The messages they took to the people for God were harsh and ugly.
It seems so out of place, then, to hear the Psalm for today. The psalmist says, “…for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints…” The words of John and Amos didn’t sound like words of peace. Warnings and calls to repentance bring us to our knees in fear and panic. Herodias must have felt panic. Amaziah, too. They had the kings’ ears and knew the words had truth. They also knew that the truth would change their world, and not in a way that would be better for them. They had to stop the words from impacting the king. “Go away” they said. But God’s word does not go away.
Despite the ugliness of those words from John and Amos, however, there is peace in them. How much better is our life when we live within the grace of God? John and Amos called God’s people back into a relationship. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time God’s people remembered and returned to Him. John’s baptism might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for God’s grace to truly change the world. There is peace on the other side of repentance, because there we stand once again in the presence of God.
The psalmist sings, “Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, That glory may dwell in our land.” The people to whom the prophets were sent feared so many things of this world. They feared the wrong things. If they feared the Lord, held Him in the proper awe, they would see that they would have no need to fear those other things. Israel had no fear of God. Jeroboam had more concern about his false gods and his special city. Amaziah had more fear of Jeroboam and the people who had no interest in hearing things weren't going to go very well for them. Herod had more fear of his wife, her daughter, the opinion of his guests and his superstitions. They did not truly listen to what the prophets had to say. They heard only what they wanted to hear. But the psalmist knows that peace will come to those who hear and believe the words of God, even if His word seems harsh and ugly at first.
Despite the ugly words of the prophets, the text this week includes beautiful words, too. The psalmist writes, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springeth out of the earth; and righteousness hath looked down from heaven.” Truth is beautiful, even if the words do not seem so, because truth leads us to a right relationship with God. It is in that relationship that we truly find peace.
These verses from the psalm describe our Lord Jesus. The fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth–mercy, truth, righteousness and peace—come together in Him. Some translations use the phrase "love and faithfulness meet together.” Paul references this when he tells us that everything God planned, every beautiful thing, is summed up in Christ, “the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth.” Jesus is where heaven and earth meet; He is where it all comes together for the sake of those who listen to what He has to say. Jesus is God’s glory come to earth, to minister to the people, to save them from themselves and give them peace.
We deserve to hear the words of Amos and John because we are no different than the people in their days. If God held a plum line to our lives, He would find us crooked. A plum line is a string with a weight at the bottom. When held above the ground, the plumb line will show you if something is straight. It is often used when building a brick wall; the bricks are lined up along the line so that the wall will go up straight. Unfortunately, the bricks of our life our not always placed along the plum line of God’s Word. We make decisions based on our own agenda or opinion. We follow our hearts rather than the reality of God’s Word. We ignore the ugly truth and seek after the things that make us feel good.
But God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. We might be crooked, but in His kingdom it doesn’t matter. Christian faith is not about us. It isn’t about our desires. It isn’t even about our needs. It is about God’s faithfulness. He has made promises that He will keep. The stories of Amos and John remind us that life in God’s kingdom is hard. Yet, there is peace in that harshness, in the ugliness we experience. Despite the ugliness, we live in hope, knowing that God is faithful. We live in peace knowing that God can and will accomplish amazing things even when it does not seem possible to us.
We are part of something greater than ourselves. We have been chosen. As Paul writes, “…in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will…” We have received the mark of Christ which is a seal of promise to guarantee the salvation He has given for us. The plumb line will make our failure obvious. Our weakness will come to light. Yet, we will receive all we need to accomplish God’s purposes in this world. He will give us the words to speak, the truth. Whether those words are ugly or beautiful is not up to us.
We may not want to be like John the Baptist or Amos. We may not want to speak those words of repentance and prophecy death and destruction. We would rather sing with the psalmist about peace. But grace is found in the truth of God’s word, and whatever words He puts in our mouth will be filled with grace and hope and peace. In those words will be a promise of salvation to all who hear and respond in faith. And then God’s glory will shine throughout the land.
In Romans 16, Paul mentions a number of people who were actively involved in the ministry of the Church. A number of verses send greetings to members of the Roman community and in those greetings Paul describes some aspects of their lives of faith. We know about Priscilla and Aquila from the book of Acts, but most of the people are unknown to us apart from this text. It is nice to hear Paul recognizing these Christians for their sacrifices and their hard work, to see the connections between families. Some scholars have identified the people based on some historical evidence. A few are slaves. Several are brothers and sisters. There is probably a set of twins. One is possibly the grandson of Herod. Some are even related to Paul in some way.
Later in the chapter, Paul relates greetings from his coworkers, including Timothy, a person we know well from the scriptures. The greetings also come from Lucius, Jason, Sosipater, Tertius (who wrote the letter), Gaius, Erastus and Quartus. Some of these names appear in stories from the scriptures, but many are unidentified. They are average people living their faith and doing God’s work in the world.
Now, some historical documents do reference some of these unknown Christians, giving us brief glimpses into their lives. Many are found on the lists of Saints of the Church, often with legends about their lives. Those stories are not always verifiable, and some are dubious, but we see in those stories the living faith of Christians who were willing to follow God in very real and active ways. Some of their stories are horrifying; we’d hate to follow in their footsteps. Their martyrdom gives credence to the message, but I would rather not die in such a way.
The stories don’t always end in death, though. Take Jason, for instance; today is his feast day in the Roman Catholic Church. Jason is mentioned in Acts 17, while Paul was in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas were probably staying at his home while they were in the city. When some Jews became jealous of the impact they were having, they went to Jason’s house to arrest Paul, but when they were not found, Jason and some others were arrested and thrown in jail. Luke writes, “They made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.”
It is said of Jason that he traveled with Sosipater to an island and built a church to honor Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Many pagans were converted in that place, which upset the king. He had them arrested and thrown in prison, but while there they converted the other prisoners. Those prisoners were put to death for their faith. The death of those prisoners impacted the king’s daughter, who converted to Christianity and gave her jewels away to the poor. The king was so upset by her conversion; he threw her in jail, too. When she would not recant, he had the prison burnt down, but she stayed safe. This miracle made even more pagans convert to the faith. He eventually had her killed with arrows while she was tied to a tree.
All these events led many of the new believers to flee to another island. The angry king followed them, but his ship sank in the waters and he died. The new king became a Christian and was baptized. Jason and Sosipater then preached and ministered, building up the church on that island until they died of old age.
I have to laugh because their story is not very exciting. They didn’t really do anything spectacular. They shared the Gospel which impacted the island, but it was probably the evil king who brought more people to faith. It was his cruelty to the Christians that made so many new believers. He put Jason in prison. Jason simply shared his faith. It was the murder of those seven prisoners that caused the daughter to believe. It was her miracle and death that caused so many others to believe. We may think that we have little effect on the world as we share our faith, and our words might not even seem to accomplish anything. But, we don’t have to do something spectacular to have an impact, because God uses our simply, ordinary experiences to create extraordinary circumstances. We may never find our names on the list of Saints, but we are saints in God’s kingdom, and He will use our lives to make a difference in this world.
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, doth not first sit down and count the cost, whether he have wherewith to complete it? Lest haply, when he hath laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all that behold begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.” Luke 14:28-30, ASV
There was an online article today about what not to do if you are trying to rent or sell a house. The article showed three examples of home with pictures that would make any home buyer run in the other direction. The first house had holes in the walls, odd brown stains, and blankets used as curtains. The second house used mood lighting to make the house look nicer, but it only made me wonder what they were hiding. The third house seemed to be a storage unit, with boxes everywhere, clothes hanging from the furniture, multiple televisions and other electronic equipment. All three used nice sounding terms in their ads that are also red flags. Do you really want a “great opportunity” or something that needs a little TLC?
Now, I’ve been there. I know what it is like to have to deal with imperfections in a house when getting it ready for the market. I love my things, but I knew that it could be overwhelming to a prospective buyer, so I packed some of them away. I didn’t want to put too much money into my house, but I did make sure that the obvious imperfections were fixed. The houses in the article might have been more work than the people could either afford or accomplish, but why would you anyone think pictures like those would sell their house?
At least we know that they are being honest with their photos. When we were house hunting, we saw examples of how realtors can use photography to the best advantage. You don’t see the details when you are looking at pictures. You don’t see the grout that is coming out from between the tiles or the dirt in the corners. The realtor doesn’t photograph that corner with the crack or the side of the house that has a dying tree. They angle the photos to hide the ugly furniture and use lighting in creative ways. I’m not sure I would call it dishonest, but it can be deceptive. I learned how deceptive as I visited the houses that looked fantastic in pictures.
We visited one house that was a dream. It was very affordable (a red flag, I suppose) but had some fantastic features. We called to arrange a viewing but was told the house was not locked (another red flag) and we could visit it anytime. We could tell from the photos that the house would need a little work, but it seemed as though the shell was good. I still laugh about that visit. We drove up to the end of the driveway, which ended with a one foot drop in the asphalt. The garage was 20 feet away. The roof over the back porch had trellis as the ceiling and there were birds’ nests inside. The front door was lovely, though a little dirty, but the covering over the circular drive in front of the house was a bit wobbly. It was so wobbly that a major storm a few weeks later with high winds knocked it over.
The house originally had a spiral staircase that went to the master bedroom upstairs. That stairway was gone, so there was no way to go up to see what it was like on the upper level. We could see that the door to the balcony (the cover over the drive) wide open. We’ll never know, but there was probably water damage, and possibly critters living up there. On the main floor, it appeared as though someone was trying to flip the house but was stopped mid-flip. The work was poorly done. Tile was not evenly spaced. The paint colors were outrageous. The kitchen would have to have been completely redone because the cabinets were halfway removed. No attention was paid to acoustics, to lighting, to traffic flow. The roof would probably have had to be replaced. It was not a “great opportunity” or a house that needed just a little “TLC.”
I have to admit that I was disappointed. I fell in love with the potential of the house I saw in the photos and when I saw the reality I knew that it was impossible. Perhaps it would not have been impossible, but the cost would have been great. We could not live in the house while it was being repaired. The work was beyond our scope, so we would have to have hired a contractor. We would have to sell our other house before we could begin to afford the new one. Where would we live? How would we deal with the kids and the cats? We had to count the cost before we could buy the house.
I suppose it is possible that there is someone who would be willing to take on one of those houses in the article. The advantage is that they would know the truth before they got themselves into anything because the pictures showed the reality. I wonder how often we see the world as if we are seeing it through the photos of a realtor. We avoid seeing the truth. We hide the dark spots. We hide the cracks and the dying branches. We avoid seeing the details and see only what we want to see. Unfortunately, when we do not see things as they are, we risk buying into something that will only disappoint us or that we might not be able to finish.
“And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was threescore furlongs from Jerusalem. And they communed with each other of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, while they communed and questioned together, that Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.” Luke 24: 13-16, ASV
Ok, so you are at a hotel and need to move your luggage to your room. The hotel has a number of carts available by the front door to make it easy so you grab one. Now, the question is this: do you push or pull? I don’t know, maybe no one else has to ask this question, but I always finding myself wondering which way would be easier. If I pull the cart, I have more control of where it will go, but it is hard to keep an eye on the items, which are likely to fall off when I turn that corner. Also, it takes more strength to pull the cart because you are relying on one arm. If you push the cart, you can put your whole body into it, so it takes less work, but you have far less control of the direction. It is more difficult to turn those carts from the back.
As I was listening to the scriptures readings yesterday in church, I began thinking about the way God leads us into His service. The Old Testament story was about Amos, and how the prophet of Bethel Amaziah was pushing him away to another place. “Go back to Judah and leave us alone. We don’t want to hear you prophecies.” Amos had spoken out against King Jeroboam, warning that he would die by the sword. Who wants to hear news that like? But Amos told Amaziah that he didn’t want to be a prophet. He was sent there by God to speak those words. He wanted to just go home and do his work.
In this call story it seems as if God is pushing Amos in the right direction, but there’s certainly room for Amos to go his own way. I wouldn’t want to tell the king that he would die by the sword; it is a little safer to go to another prophet and let him pass on the message. Amos did what he was sent to do, but it seems like God was guiding this one from the back, pushing him toward those who needed to hear that word.
But I don’t think God pushes all the time. Sometimes He pulls us to the place we need to be. Take, for instance, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. In that story, Philip was sent on the desert road by an angel, but soon he saw the caravan of the Ethiopian and he ran toward it. He wasn’t pushed, he was drawn toward that man, pulled into the situation. God set in sight the destination and Philip went right to it. In the end, the Ethiopian believed in Jesus, was baptized and went on is way singing.
Now, we always manage to get our luggage to the room whether we have to pull or push the cart, but the best way is to have two people working it side by side. Two people can better control the direction. Two people have more strength than one. The best way God guides us into ministry is when He is with us, side by side.
We are all familiar with the story from Luke where Jesus joined the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He walked with them, talked with them, listened to their stories and then told them about the scriptures. They didn’t know until He ate with them, broke the bread, that it was Jesus. But He guided them into knowledge about what had happened, knowledge they knew but didn’t understand without His guidance. Once they knew and understood, they ran back to Jerusalem and told the others, verifying the reports they had been getting from those who had seen Jesus.
I would much prefer if God always just walked beside me and made everything clear. It would be so much easier. However, sometimes it seems like He is pushing me into something or pulling me toward something. When He is pushing, I don’t quite know where I am supposed to go, but I know that with His help I will accomplish the thing He is sending me to do. When He is pulling, the destination seems clear, even if I can’t always control the circumstances of the work. However it happens, God is with us, guiding us into those moments when His grace will make a difference in the world.
“Wherefore we henceforth know no man after the flesh: even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, ASV
The ancient Romans had a practice called “adrogation,” which was the adoption of a child into a new family. In this type of adoption, the child, usually male, was old enough to make a commitment to his new family. It often happened in wealthy or powerful families that did not have a male heir to carry on the family name. The adoption always meant a rise in stature for the adoptee, who was often a slave. The adoption was achieved with a ceremony that included the passing of money. The old family was paid in coin; if the adoptee was a slave, the money was given to debtors. At the end of the ceremony, the child was made new. His old family had no rights to his life and he had no rights to his old family. In exchange, he had every right in his new family. He was a son forever. Everything about his old life was gone and he was made new.
I can’t imagine giving up my old family. I suppose if my life were not pleasant, particularly if I were a slave, it would be much easier. But even if the adoption gave me rights and privilege above my former family, it would be hard to forget them or break all ties.
Imagine what it must be like for those who go into the witness protection program. They not only have to leave their old life and take on a new name, but they have to give up everything about their old life. If they are a doctor, they can’t be a doctor. If they are a writer, they can’t claim credit for anything they’ve written. They get a new life, a new home, a new job. They can’t visit the family or friends from their old life. They can’t even keep pictures of their family on display in their new home. They can’t go home again, literally. They must put it all behind them and become someone new. They are truly a new creation.
We are made new in Christ. Now, perhaps we do not have to give up everything from our past. We certainly do not have to find a new home or a new job. We don’t even have to take on a new name. Yet, God does want us to put aside our old life. He wants us to live as His adopted child, made new by His grace and His Spirit. The things that we are meant to give up are those things that keep us from living as God has called us to live. We are meant to give up those habits that are harmful to ourselves and to others. We are meant to give up the activities that do not glorify Him. We are even meant to give up the people who tempt us away from God. We are made new, a new creation, and we are given a new life. Let us set aside the old and take on the new so that we will glorify God with our lives.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 22, 2012, Pentecost Eight: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
“And he came forth and saw a great multitude, and he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.” Mark 6:34, ASV
In the days of the early church, the apostles found themselves caught up in the business of the organization. They were organizing the food bank, and doing other work that was taking them away from the work of preaching and teaching the scriptures. They knew this was a problem, and in Acts 6 they chose men to do that work so that they could focus on prayer and ministry of the word. I’m sure they didn’t mind doing the work, serving their neighbors, but that work was keeping them from doing what they were called and gifted to do. There was no reason for this, since there were capable and gifted people who could do it.
There is sometimes good reason to be distracted from the work we should be doing. My job as a retail manager was to run the store. I had a very specific job description that included jobs that were beyond the scope of the employees. They were not responsible for the financial aspects of the store or for hiring new employees. They did not have the authority to fire other employees or assign them work. While the job descriptions of those in our retail store were somewhat flexible (a cashier might be asked to stock shelves), they generally had their own work and stuck to it.
There were times, however, when it was necessary for me to jump in and help. I might jump onto a cash register if we had a sudden influx of customers. I might unload a truck if our warehouse guy was on vacation. I might stock a shelf if we ran out of a popular item. Though it was not part of my job, I would do it in an emergency. It was important that I didn’t let it disrupt my own work. I could not be on the register if I had to receive an order of change from the armored truck driver. I could not be hiding in the warehouse during a busy time in the store; I had to be available to handle problems. I could not let the employees tasks keep me from doing my own job.
That seems to be what was happening to the early church. Though the apostles did not think those tasks were beneath them, ‘waiting on tables’ had gotten in the way of ministering the word. They needed to give those responsibilities to others so that they could do what they were called to do.
Now, I’m sure there are many pastors out there who wish their congregations would understand this passage a little better. After all, how many pastors are viewed as the fall to guy for all the work of the church? How many pastors change the toilet paper or produce the bulletins? How many attend every meeting and get involved in every project? How many members expect those pastors to be available every minute of every day, and yet think that pastor only works an hour a week? Do they even know how much time it takes to do ministry of the word? “Oh, he’s just reading.” “Oh he’s just surfing the internet.” “Oh, he’s just writing some notes.” “Oh, he’s just praying.”
Yes, sometimes lay people put a very low priority on prayer and yet it is a vital part of ministry. Unfortunately, I think too many pastors are left with too little time to pray because they are jumping in to do the work that needs to be done, work that belongs to the lay people in the church.
Now, our scriptures for today do not really focus on this particular problem when it comes to pastoral care. Unfortunately, there are some pastors who have lost touch with the reality of what it is to be a minister of the word. They focus on other things. They choose to be on every committee so that they can have control of every event. They jump in and do the work not because there is no one to do it but because they want it done their way. Instead of being a shepherd who cares for the sheep, he becomes a shepherd who destroys and scatters the sheep.
There are those who see their position not as a shepherd but as a ruler. They forget that their job it so lead the sheep into doing what God has called them to do, and thus forces them to do what he thinks they should do. There are those who are more interested in power than in service. They are more interested in changing the world than in caring for the sheep. Those pastors who jump in and do everything are not necessarily harmful, but they are taking away opportunities for their flock to serve God. The pastors who see themselves as rulers, however, are very dangerous. They turn Christians to a false Gospel. They lead them down a path that no longer glorifies God, but rather glorifies men. They cause people to turn their focus from God’s work to their own.
The shepherds in Jeremiah’s day were not leading God’s people. In this case, the prophet is talking about the kings, who were often referred to as shepherds. The kings were not meant to lord over the people, but to care for them. The king was calld to ensure the well being of the people, to protect them from enemies and guide them in the right path. For God’s chosen kings, that right path was faith in God. However, Judah (and Israel) often followed other gods. They turned to allies rather than relying on God. They were drawn into the ways of the world rather than living according to God’s commands.
In today’s Old Testament passage, God warned Judah’s rulers that they had failed and that they would no longer have His blessing. They had failed to care for God’s people and God was ready to take over. He promises to take care of everyone, including the leaders. Unfortunately for them, He would take care of them by calling them to account; they would experience the same measure of care they gave to those they were called to lead. In other words, they will suffer the same lack of compassion as the sheep they were given.
God never speaks threatening words without offering a promise. The promise is not meant to ease the burden on the guilty, but rather so that the godly will not despair in the midst of the suffering they will experience. “And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” Times will be tough, but there hope beyond this day and this problem. The fulfillment of the promise would be long in coming. The passage ultimately points to the coming of the great Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. The promise of a Messiah gave hope to many generations in the darkest of days: one day the evil and unfaithful kings would be set aside for a perfect and righteous rule.
The king to come would be a true shepherd, like the shepherd we hear about in today’s Psalm. The words of the psalmist is a song of trust in God, but we see them through Jesus colored glasses, recognizing in Him the fulfillment of all God’s promises. Jesus is the promised Messiah. He is the Shepherd King. He is the One who will take care of us. Psalm 23 offers us a glimpse of God’s concern for our whole beings. The Lord makes us rest in green pastures where there is plenty of food and clean water. He keeps us from evil and protects us from our enemies. He meets our physical and emotional needs. He gives us a home, a family and everything we need to survive. He gives us our identity.
Did God hand me the keys to my house or go grocery shopping for me? No, of course not. Just as it is not the responsibility for the store manager to stock the shelves or the pastor to print the bulletins, God is not in the business of doing our work for us. But we trust that He will supply what we need to live in this world. We trust that He will walk with us. That He will lead us down the right path. We trust that He will rain goodness and mercy on our lives, even when we find ourselves in bad times.
See, God doesn’t promise us a life of roses and butterflies. We live in a world where people make mistakes. We have leaders that do not do what is right. We fail to be what God has called us to be. Because we live in an imperfect world, our life will be imperfect. We will have to walk through dark valleys. But God has promised to be with us. He has fulfilled His promise in Christ Jesus. Through Him we are forgiven for our failures and we are gifted with the ability to forgive those who hurt us.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we see that particularly in the Gospel passage for today. In this story, Jesus greets the returning apostles who have been out in the world sharing the grace of God. They saw amazing things. They did amazing things. They were exhilarated, but also exhausted. Jesus knew they needed to rest. He led them to the boat and took them to a quiet place, but the people saw them.
Now, if you were Jesus, what would you do? He was faced with a difficult decision. The apostles needed to rest, but the people chasing them needed a shepherd. It might seem like Jesus is shirking His duties as their shepherd by turning to help the crowds. In this text, however, we see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah. He was the shepherd who would care for the flock that the leaders ignored. He stepped in where He was needed and did what He needed to do. He took care of the sheep who were desperate to find a shepherd. Wherever Jesus went the people needed Him, not just to do the miracles but to be the fulfillment of the promise. They needed a shepherd, they needed a Messiah.
Of course, we know that not everyone believed that He was the Messiah. Not everyone followed Him. Some ran to Him on these occasions just to get what they could out of Him, but Jesus served for the sake of the Father. Whether they understood or not, Jesus had to do what He’d been sent to do, and that was give the Kingdom to the people. Since many of the Jews rejected Jesus, the message was given to others. Many Gentiles heard and believed. Because Jesus became the shepherd of Psalm 23, we have the forgiveness and grace that we need to be part of that Kingdom.
Paul writes, “But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and break down the middle wall of partition.” Jesus broke down walls and crossed borders. He reconciled people to God and to one another. He drew them together into one flock. On the cross Jesus destroyed the hostility that exists between people. Paul was specifically addressing the enmity between Gentile and Jew, but we have other hostilities to face in our world. Jesus broke those walls on the cross also.
Paul writes, “So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.” In Christ we are being built into one temple, the temple in which God dwells.
He is the head of that temple. He is the one in charge. He is the one who guides the way. Unfortunately, human nature tends toward wanting control. From the very beginning we wanted to be God. Peter and the other apostles understood that they couldn’t do it all, so they found others to do the work that was keeping them from ministry of the Word. A good pastor will allow the congregation to do the work they are gifted to do. A good pastor will step in when necessary, but will not rule over others. He will trust in God, follow God’s will and do God’s work in the world.
Our leaders will fail. We will still get thirsty, hungry, tired, lost, hurt and lonely, but we can rest in the knowledge that He is our Good Shepherd. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise. He is the Messiah. He has given us the forgiveness and made us part of the Kingdom so we can walk in faith and do the work He has called us to do. As we trust Him, and walk by faith, we will see that He can do extraordinary things in the world and He will do them through us.
“Jehovah reigneth; let the earth rejoice; Let the multitude of isles be glad. Clouds and darkness are round about him: Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. A fire goeth before him, and burneth up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lightened the world: The earth saw, and trembled. The mountains melted like wax at the presence of Jehovah, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. The heavens declare his righteousness, and all the peoples have seen his glory.” Psalm 97:1-6, ASV
We’ve had a decent weather pattern that has dropped at least some rain on our parched earth. Of course, it has not been enough to make a major impact on our water situation, but in the past couple of weeks everyone seems to have gotten at least an inch or two of rain. The rain has not been widespread, but the isolated showers have definitely made a difference for most of us. It has been a little frustrating because we’ve only gotten brief showers despite the heavy storms that were just a few miles away.
These storms were the first since we moved into our new house. I was amazed at how quiet it has been. I began to wonder if our house was soundproof. On a few occasions, the only way I knew it was raining was from the pitter patter on the chimney cap. But if I was not in that room, I did not hear it. We heard thunder, but not loud enough for us to be certain that it was thunder. I walked outside on several occasions just to make sure it was actually storming.
I wondered if we were soundproof until yesterday. It seems that the other storms must have been just far enough away to be easily muffled. The storms yesterday finally made it to our house, and our house is not soundproof. The thunder shook the walls and the rain beat against our windows, and I knew it was raining. As soon as I heard the thunder, I turned off the computer and settled down for an afternoon in front of the television.
After awhile things seemed to calm down a bit, and though I didn’t want to turn the desktop back on, I thought it would be safe to turn on the laptop and do a little surfing. I opened the curtains and sat on a chair right by the window to watch the rain. Suddenly I saw a streak of lightning that must have reached all the way to the ground, not very far from our house. I’ve seen enough of those weather preparedness shows to know that it is dangerous to sit by a window during a lightning storm. I jumped up, decided that I didn’t need the laptop, and moved to the couch on the other side of the room. That lightning was just too close for comfort.
I was excited for the thunderstorm because I knew it would bring us much needed rain. I don’t mind the lightning and thunder, as long as I’m somewhere safe. It can be incredibly beautiful to watch. Our last house had a wonderful view that made it possible to see storms that were miles away. We could sit on our patio and see the incredible patterns formed by the lightning in the distance. Our new house is in a hilly neighborhood with lots of old trees. We can’t see much of the sky. Any storms we see are much too close to the house to safely watch from the deck.
We often talk about God walking with us, dwelling with us, being nearby, and yet as we read scriptures like this one from the Psalm we are reminded that God is awesome. He makes the earth tremble with His presence. He lightens the world with lightning. He can melt mountains. He reigns over everything. The Old Testament scriptures tell us of people who were frightened by the presence of God, experiencing His glory with awe and trembling. While it is true that God’s presence is awesome, we know that in Christ we can approach the very throne of God. Yes, we will still tremble, but we need not fear, for God will embrace us as our Father and welcome us into His presence.
“Give ear to my words, O Jehovah, Consider my meditation. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God; for unto thee do I pray. O Jehovah, in the morning shalt thou hear my voice; in the morning will I order my prayer unto thee, and will keep watch. For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: evil shall not sojourn with thee. The arrogant shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity. Thou wilt destroy them that speak lies: Jehovah abhorreth the blood-thirsty and deceitful man. But as for me, in the abundance of thy lovingkindness will I come into thy house: in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple. Lead me, O Jehovah, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before my face. For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue. Hold them guilty, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; thrust them out in the multitude of their transgressions; for they have rebelled against thee. But let all those that take refuge in thee rejoice, let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee. For thou wilt bless the righteous; O Jehovah, thou wilt compass him with favor as with a shield.” Psalm 5 (ASV)
I was picked on as a kid. I don’t know why, exactly, although I was the fat kid and I was pretty smart. I think, perhaps, the teachers gave me responsibilities based on my maturity and talents that they didn’t give others. Now, I don’t recall being aware of any inequality. Other kids got the teacher’s attention in good ways, but it didn’t matter. I guess I was the easy target. One boy used to hit me on the head from his chair which was right behind me. Another girl used to do whatever she could to humiliate me, especially during gym class. Many kids used words that really did hurt.
It changed one warm spring day in sixth grade. We were outside playing some game for field day. My nemesis was up to her usually antics, trying to humiliate me in some way and I finally got tired of it. I stood up to her, told her how wrong she was for treating me that way and that I would not put up with it anymore. She stopped immediately and though we were never best friends, she never picked on me again. I haven’t seen her for years but I suspect that we could be friends.
I was a kid, so I can’t say for sure how I dealt with the situation, but I am sure that I did some praying. My prayer life was nothing like it is today. In those days I prayed like a child. My prayers were very self-centered. Oh, I prayed for my mother and father, my siblings, my family and friends, but I didn’t pray for anything specific. I didn’t set aside time everyday to pray. I didn’t follow a pattern. I prayed when I felt the need, usually just a quick plea to God for help. I surely didn’t use words like we find in today’s Psalm when I prayed. I just wanted to be left alone to go to school and do my work without being hurt every day.
The Psalmist prays a pretty harsh prayer against his enemies. He accuses the enemy of unfaithfulness, wickedness and seeks God’s wrath on their life. I suppose in my prayers as a child I asked God for His wrath. I don’t like the word hate, but I probably hated those who made my days a living nightmare. I probably even wanted God to let them suffer the consequences of their actions. Did I see them suffer? No, unfortunately the teachers often ignored my pleas for help. The teacher in the room where the boy was hitting me on the head never believed me because he was a perfect angel whenever he was facing the class. Yet, I still prayed, hoping one day that everything would be made right.
I realize now that everything is right in God’s kingdom, and though I never saw God’s wrath on the lives of those who picked on me, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that God has blessed me in so many ways, well beyond what I deserve. I am no different than those who picked on me. I sin. I fail. The words of my mouth can’t be trusted. I am guilty. But what makes everything right is that God has invited even the sinners to take refuge in Him. Through the blood of Jesus, He has offered us forgiveness and reconciled us to Himself. We might have to face people who hurt us, but those who dwell in Him will know His grace. In the midst of our suffering we can rejoice because God is surrounding us with His blessing.
“Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus; that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed.” Luke 1:1-4, ASV
Whenever something big, or exciting, or devastating happens in the world, some journalist is always the first to jump in with information, even if they don’t have all the facts. They want to be first. They want to be the one to be remembered for reporting the information. They want the scoop. Over the years there have been famous scoops that went all wrong. Reporters have posted election results, proclaiming one candidate as the winner when the votes are barely tabulated. Other reporters want to be the one to reveal something spectacular about a criminal. It isn’t unusual. It happens all the time. And yet, jumping the gun has ruined people’s lives.
It is so easy to get information these days, but that information is not always correct. With the Internet, a reporter can easily google a name and come up with stories that might be true about someone, but not necessarily about the person you mean to google. Take, for instance, if you googled the name Joe Smith because he just committed a terrible crime. On just the top page of results, I find that there is a basketball player, an actor, a baseball player, and a musician. Perhaps we would not confuse these famous folks with the Joe Smith that was arrested, but I also found a link for an accountant. What if I said that Joe Smith the accountant was the murderer? Unfortunately, because they want the scoop, because they want to be the first, they often report the wrong information, hoping they are right. If they are wrong, they withdraw the statement, but by then it is too late.
The Joe Smith who is wrongly linked to the crime finds himself inundated by calls. People pull their business even though he’s not in jail for murder. His phone is compromised by crank callers or people who want to harass a murderer. Joe Smith the accountant must change his phone number and then work very hard to prove that he is not the criminal. His life can be ruined, and it won’t be fixed by a quick apology after the report has reached the world via the Internet. It is impossible to make that misinformation disappear. Joe Smith may never recover.
It is emotion that makes us jump the gun. We want to be in the middle of the excitement, to experience the rush of being the first. Even those of us who are not journalists want to join in the frenzy. We gather around the water cooler and relay the reports we have heard. “I heard that…” and we supply the same information we’ve heard. Unfortunately, it is usually hours before we discover that the information we are adding to the mix is wrong. I often wish that reporters would wait an hour before they even tell us something has happened, because the first information is always wrong. They death count is usually too high. The details are confused. They spend hours collecting all the information and eventually we get the story straight. Until then, we have nothing but emotional outburst and confusion.
Christianity is often seen as a religion of emotion. We believe, which is not something that comes from the head, but the heart. And yet, as we see from this text from Luke, our faith is not just emotion. We are called to be like Luke, carefully collecting the information so that we can talk about matters of faith with our heads as well as our hearts. Christianity is a religion of reason. We can talk about our differences, discuss what things mean. We can study the words and the experiences and seek understanding. Luke didn’t want to write a book filled with misinformation. He wanted to give Theophilus the story as it is, not as he assumes it will be.
How many times do we jump the gun when it comes to matters of faith? We react with our hearts, with our emotions, without really studying what the scriptures have to say about a matter. Unfortunately, when we begin to put out messages about faith that do not line up with the Word of God, it is very hard to retract them. Heresy has existed from the very beginning, and it wasn’t just people wishing to lead God’s people astray who promoted those thoughts. It was well-meaning Christians who responded to situations with their hearts, without truly using their minds to understand what God intends. And so, as we face so many difficult issues inside and outside the church, let us reason together and seek to know the truth of God.
“Now I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not found vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Whether then it be I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, ASV
So, you think you are not worthy to preach the Gospel? Well, you stand in good company. Paul accepted that he was not like the men who followed Jesus from the beginning. Isn’t it interesting, though, as you think about those men and Paul. Paul was what we would call an educated man. He was in the leadership of the Jews, high enough to have power and authority to discipline those who followed the Way in the early days of the Church. He had Roman citizenship and so had the respect of the Gentiles where he lived. He was a skilled craftsman. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “…circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.”
Yet, with those qualifications, Paul did not think that he was not worthy to be an apostle of Christ. Ironic, isn’t it? He had the type of qualifications we would want to see on the resume of a preacher. He respected the disciples who were a rag-tag group of men that had no qualifications for preaching. They were fishermen, sinners, foolish, uneducated. They were likely taught faith and scriptures by their mothers, but they didn’t have Bibles available to study on their own and they likely did not attend school beyond a certain age. Most of them were not charismatic or eloquent. Their down-home accent might have made it difficult for foreigners to understand. Their knowledge of foreign languages would have been limited to words for business.
It didn’t matter whether he thought he was worthy; he was called and he followed. He trusted that God would give him everything he would need to share the Gospel, including the credibility he would need among both the Jews and the Gentiles. He preached the Word alongside the apostles who lived and learned with Jesus. He knew he was the least, but he also know that even the least is given the tools to do the work of God in this world.
You think are you are not worthy to preach the Gospel? Perhaps you have not been trained, but when your neighbor needs to hear about the grace of Jesus Christ, you are exactly the one whom God has chosen to speak His Word into their life. You may never get into a pulpit and preach a sermon, but your life will be a message of hope and joy to those who still live in the darkness of sin and death. Just like Paul, we have the testimony of those who came before us, and with their stories juxtaposed to ours, God will be glorified. Whether it be they or us, so we preach and so the world comes to believe.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 29, 2012, Pentecost Nine: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-18; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
“Whence are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” John 6:5c, ASV
Even though there is still much to be accomplished in our house, we have decided that it is time to show our friends and have a service of blessing, so we are planning an open house in a few weeks. I love to entertain, and I particularly love the kind of party where people are free to come and go as they please. Rather than have a select menu served to a few around a dining table, I like to put out buffets full of food that people can serve themselves when they are hungry.
For this particular party, since it is an open house to see the house, I plan on having a lot of finger food that will be placed throughout the house. You might find a table of meats and cheeses in the living room, cupcakes in the dining room, gazpacho in the family room and chicken bites on the deck. As the guests wander around the house, they’ll find treats to fill their bellies along the way.
Now, it is much easier to plan the right amount of food for a dinner party. If you have planned for six couples, you know you need to make meals for twelve people. And though I would still probably cook too much, I’m less likely to go overboard for that type of entertaining. I always go overboard for an open house. I always have a ton of leftovers. See, I don’t want to run out. I want to make sure that my very last guest is able to taste every morsel he or she wants. I don’t want to run out of banana cupcakes early in the night even though they might still be able to choose another dessert. I don’t want to discover that I have empty platters even though there is still plenty of other food. I want my guests to be filled and satisfied. To do that, I always make sure I have more than enough.
In the end I always find myself with not only more than enough, but too much. We end up eating the leftovers for a long time. I freeze what I can, send home what others are willing to take and unfortunately throw away some of it eventually. Even now, as I look at my planning list, I know I am planning too much. I have already crossed one thing off my list, although not because I thought it would be too much. I was more concerned about that food sitting out all afternoon in the Texas heat. For the rest of the items, I have to make sure that I limit the amount I make. Despite possibly needing brownies for fifty, perhaps I should consider making just half that much, knowing that my guests will be happy with or without a brownie.
I love the way the assigned texts often fit into my current circumstances. I couldn’t have planned the stories for today any better if I’d done it myself. Here we have examples of dinner parties that were not planned the way I do. Is there a lesson in this for me?
Elisha was new to the prophet business. He’d followed Elijah and when Elijah was taken into heaven, the mantle of leadership fell on Elisha’s shoulders. There were plenty of other prophets. The companies of prophets, also known as ‘sons’ had also followed Elijah. Elisha received the mantle in the presence of many, though not all respected him. The king and the prophets who gathered around the king were apostate; they had abandoned the true faith. The prophets said what the king and the people wanted to hear. Elisha, like Elijah, spoke God’s word. A few faithful prophets gathered around Elisha, and it is this group of men we see in today’s story.
We see in this story that some still believed in God and trusted Elisha to be a true prophet. A man took his offering to Elisha instead of taking it to Bethel. The prophets in Bethel were getting drunk and happy from the offerings that were taken as sacrifices, but Elisha and those who were true to God were going hungry because there was a famine. The man gave what he was able, but it was not nearly enough to for so many. How can you make twenty loaves and a few grains feed a hundred? Elisha was not concerned. God would bless them.
And He did. The bread not only satisfied the group, but there were leftovers. God provided for His people.
This story prefigured what Jesus would also do. In the Gospel text for today, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of five thousand men. There were also many women and children in the crowd. Jesus saw this as an opportunity to teach the disciples a lesson in faith and trust. Could God take care of His people?
The question Jesus asked Philip is, “Whence are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” As I was reading this passage this morning, I realized that the question is very specific. Jesus doesn’t want to know how they will feed the crowd, but where they can get food. He wasn’t even worried about how to get it, He just wanted to know where. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus doesn’t ask a question, He simply tells the disciples to feed the people. But in John, Jesus is testing them.
Philip approaches the question from a very practical point of view. He isn’t worried about the where, but knows that the how would be impossible. “Two hundred shillings' worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one may take a little.” It’s probably an answer I would give. “We can’t possibly buy food for so many people with what little money we have, there just wouldn’t be enough.” It doesn’t matter where they might get food since they don’t have the cash to buy it. It would be an impossible task even if they had a wealthy donor. Imagine how much bread it would take to feed so many. They were in the wilderness. If there was a bakery down the street, it wouldn’t have that much bread available for purchase. A city full of bakeries couldn’t feed so many at once.
Can you imagine the sniggers from the other disciples when Andrew offered up the small lunch of the boy with five loaves and two fish? “Andrew, really. That’s barely enough for the boy. It wouldn’t feed us, and it certainly won’t feed thousands.” Yet, Andrew was the one who offered an answer to the real question. Now, when Jesus asked the question, he used a form of the Greek verb “agorazo”, which means “to buy.” The word can also mean “to redeem” and does in Revelation 5:9-10, “And they sing a new song, saying, Worthy art thou to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou was slain, and didst purchase unto God with thy blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation, and madest them to be unto our God a kingdom and priests; and they reign upon earth.”
Did God buy us with money? Did Jesus redeem us by going to the bakery? No. He purchased us with His own blood, sacrificing Himself for our sake. Jesus didn’t want to know if there was a bakery nearby, or if they had enough money to buy bread for the crowd. He wanted to know if the disciples would trust that God can provide them with everything. Jesus would be their bread. He would be their life. He would be the food that would feed the world. Were they ready? Did they believe? Would they trust God?
Andrew’s answer might seem ridiculous, but I wonder if he was thinking about the very story we heard in the Old Testament lesson. It surely would be familiar. When you think about those Bible stories that you learned in Sunday School, isn’t one of the most common this story about Jesus feeding the five thousand? How many years is it found in the VBS curriculum? How often is it used in children’s sermons? It is familiar and it is beloved. I like to use five small loaves and two sardines (which are very smelly, the kids love it.) I ask the children if the food I had would be enough, and they usually turn their nose up at the sardines but think maybe the bread might be enough, especially if there are only five children. “What if I tried to share it with the whole congregation?” They get a little nervous at that point because they know that even one loaf of bread wouldn’t make a very satisfying lunch.
I can imagine Andrew and Philip as children at the synagogue or sitting at their mother’s feet hearing the story of Elisha the same way that we did the story of Jesus. Philip, perhaps, forgot those old lessons, but Andrew seems to remember. “Look, Jesus, this boy has five loaves and two small fish.” You can almost hear him saying, “If Elisha could do it, perhaps you could, too?”
We often joke about church potlucks that we need not worry, there will be enough food. Some people want to plan them down to the last side-dish. They want an accurate count of the guests, unwilling to leave it up to chance. There are times I fall into that same mindset, like when I’m planning a party at my house. Of course, I’m not counting on others to provide the food, so it is all on my shoulder, but still. Do I really need two large bags of meatballs when I only have a dozen confirmed guests? Despite my negative response to questions about “what to bring,” it is likely someone will bring something when they come to the party. Though I can’t count on it, I could count on God.
Now, I don’t want to take away the miraculous nature of our Gospel story, but think about this. The text tells us that it was almost time for the Jewish Passover Feast. How many of those in the crowd were pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the feast? How many of them carried with them their sacrifices for the Temple? In Exodus (23:15) the people are commanded not to appear before the Lord empty-handed. How many were like the little boy with a few loaves and fish? How many had more? We do believe that God made this miracle happen, that Jesus was the one to ensure all had enough to eat. I have no doubt that the food doubled and tripled by His power and faith.
But like the man in the Old Testament lesson, how many of those pilgrims decided that Jesus was the true priest, that He was the one to honor God with their sacrifices? How many gave their offering on that hill rather than at the Temple as they had been commanded? How many realized that this was the One to whom they should not come empty-handed?
Jesus created a miracle, just as He does each time we gather at a potluck, because He draws us together to share our good things with others. The miracle here may not be just that Jesus fed five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, but also on that hill Jesus caused more than five thousand people to turn away from the false religion they were chasing to share everything they had with hungry strangers. While those loaves were meant for the Temple, they would have been used by the faithless priests to stay fat and happy while they dishonored God with their self-righteousness. Just as the man who went to Elisha took the bread to the faithful, so too the crowds willingly gave their bread to the One who was always faithful.
We don’t look at this story from this point of view because it is not the work of the people who made that miracle happen. It is easy to say, “Look what we did” and so the scriptures are clear that it was Jesus who fed the five thousand. We praise God at the potluck when everyone has been satisfied, even though we all shared in the gathering of the food. It is God who works the miracle, but He calls us to join Him in the fulfillment.
Paul writes, “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations forever and ever. Amen.” God’s power works in us. It works through us. It works with us. And Jesus draws us all together to create a miracle.
Trusting God doesn’t mean letting Him do all the work. It means letting go of all our resources so that God can do miraculous things with them. We might not have much, but what we have is enough when it is multiplied by God’s grace. We might not have much time, but every minute we give to someone who is sad or lonely can make a difference in their life. We might not have much food, but every bite given will help sustain a hungry person for another day. We might not have much money, but every penny can be used to do good things for others. With God’s help, our minutes, bites and pennies joined together with others become long glorious feasts.
Paul writes that because of all the great things God has done, he bows his knees to the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” He remembers God’s grace and praises God for everything. He calls the believers at Ephesus to do the same. Paul is responding to the incredible acts of God in his life, in the lives of God’s people and in the Church. God has provided salvation to individuals, reconciliation between people and unification of those who believe by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this passage, Paul is praying for Christ to continue the work begun in and through the Ephesian believers and in this prayer Paul is also reminding the people of Ephesus and every Christian since that God’s grace is bigger than anything we can even imagine. Five loaves and two fishes can indeed feed five thousand or more and we can be a part of that miracle by adding our portion.
Paul reminds us that we approach God and the work He has called us to do with praise on our lips. God has given us enough; we need only share it to discover that there is an abundance beyond our comprehension. Out of the riches of His kingdom we have enough and more than enough to share with others whether they are brothers and sisters in Christ or strangers on a hillside. God will bless the gift of the one who trusts in Him.
Will we be like Philip, answering the opportunities of God with practical answers? Or will we be like Andrew, seemingly child-like in our trust of God’s grace? Will we be like the psalmist, praising the God who provides everything we need and telling the world about all that He has done? Will we take our sacrificial offerings and give them to the true King and Priest to use to feed all those who are hungry not only for food but for the salvation that comes by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?
“And Samuel grew, and Jehovah was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan even to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of Jehovah. And Jehovah appeared again in Shiloh; for Jehovah revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of Jehovah.” 1 Samuel 3:19-20-21, ASV
Do you ever feel like God is not present or active in the world? It is particularly hard when we are surrounded by disaster and tragedy. Drought is wreaking havoc on the food supply, which will have long term affects on the prices of milk, meat as well as grain products. People are choosing death instead of life, shooting strangers in movie theaters and other crowded places. Too many people are angry, combative, desperate, hopeless. The popular televisions shows show people who are willing to cheat, steal and lie to win a prize. Sitcoms are filled with raunchy humor and the news programs focus on the negative stories of the day. Churches are divided, people are confused about faith.
Now, there are those who claim that God is speaking in our world, but they point to rather extreme methods of communication. Is God really telling us that He’s angry when a hurricane rushes ashore at an extremely populated city? Or when terrorists bring buildings crashing to the ground? Is it God who has stopped the rain or flooded fields? Is it God’s fault that we can’t talk to one another anymore? Is it because God has abandoned us? There are self-proclaimed prophets in these days that would say “Yes” to these questions.
At the beginning of 1 Samuel 3, we hear, “And the word of Jehovah was precious in those days; there was no frequent vision.” Are there believers who are seeing visions these days? We sometimes hear about someone who has claimed to have had a word from God, but those in the news usually have had a word that makes no sense. Did God really tell that mother to kill her children? Did God really send that gunman into the mall? Did God really say…? There is a list of so-called prophets that puts out prophecies on a regular basis. There was once a time when I respected what they had to say and wondered if there might be something to their ministry. These days, however, a majority of their mailings are trying to sell something. They promote prophetic conferences and schools (can you really learn how to prophesy?) They promote their books and CDs. They sell everything from music to clothing to coffee. Is God speaking through those prophets? Or is God really silent?
Samuel was a boy who served the high priest. Eli was not the most faithful of priests. He wasn’t a bad guy, but his sons were horrible. Eli did nothing to stop them, to teach them the right way. He let them go and do what they pleased and they followed a path of destruction. In the end, Eli accepted the Word of God, accepted the consequences for his faithlessness, and blessed Samuel in his calling.
Though it seemed like God was silent in those years, He had not abandoned His people. The same is true today. Though it seems like God is silent, He is with us. He is with us in the midst of our disaster and tragedy. He is there to comfort us, to guide us through, to give us hope and offer forgiveness. There may be reason for us to suffer the consequences of our own faithlessness, but our God is merciful. He finds a way to get our attention. You never know, it might just be a young boy who hears God’s voice in the night.
“Praise ye Jehovah. Praise, O ye servants of Jehovah, Praise the name of Jehovah. Blessed be the name of Jehovah From this time forth and for evermore. From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same Jehovah's name is to be praised. Jehovah is high above all nations, And his glory above the heavens. Who is like unto Jehovah our God, that hath his seat on high, that humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven and in the earth he raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the needy from the dunghill; that he may set him with princes, even with the princes of his people. He maketh the barren woman to keep house, And to be a joyful mother of children. Praise ye Jehovah.” Psalm 113, ASV
One of the reasons we wanted to buy our new house is because it was originally the model home in the development. Since it was the model home, the garage was finished into sales offices. Instead of restoring the garage, they built a new detached one and left the three rooms intact. We’ve managed to put those rooms to very good use. One is for storage, one is for an office space and the third is my studio.
Now, a studio requires more than just space. I have piles of materials, stacks of canvases, a million tubes of paint (perhaps an exaggeration.) I need shelves for storage and workspace. I do have an art desk and several plastic shelving units, but my hope is to someday install cabinets with countertops. I also need a sink. Though some of the changes will take awhile, the sink is being installed this week. I’m very excited because I really don’t like using a bathroom sink for cleaning my brushes. The bathroom sink isn’t very deep, so the colored water often splashes on the counters. I always risk getting paint on the carpets or walls when I have to walk through several rooms to get to the bathroom. A sink in the studio will be so much more convenient.
Have you ever been thankful for a sink? It might seem like a silly or mundane thing to be thankful for, but right now as I’m waiting for my sink to be installed, I am truly thankful. I’m thankful that God has given us the resources to be able to afford the work. I’m thankful that God has given my contractor and his workers the talents and resources to install my sink. I’m thankful for my studio, for my supplies and for the opportunities that God has given me to share my gifts. I’m thankful for water.
It is good to be thankful for the big stuff. It is good to be thankful for our families, for our homes, for our jobs. It is good to be thankful for good health or healing, for life and for eternal life. It is good to be thankful that we are blessed with enough to live. It is good to be thankful for all this and more. But how often do we thank God for the little things? Do we ever thank God for a refrigerator? Or light bulbs? Or trash cans? Do we ever thank God for kitty toys or rubber bands or pencils? Look around you right now. Is there something on your desk, or in your room, which makes your life better? Have you thanked God for it?
Let’s also think about less tangible things. Have you ever thanked God that you can see? Oh, I think we’ve all thanked God for the rainbow or the lily, but did we think to thank God for the eyes that allow us to see that beauty? Do we ever thank God for our ears? Yes, I know so many of us have been thankful for music and for the gifts of musicians, but do we think to thank God for the ears to hear it? And what about our tongue? For most of us, the tongue is less a gift than a hindrance. We’ve all said things we regret. But are we thankful for the tongue that can share God’s Word with others?
Martin Luther wrote, “The greater God’s gifts and works, the less they are regarded. The highest and most precious treasure we receive of God is, that we can speak, hear, see, etc; but how few acknowledge these as God’s special gifts, much less give God thanks for them. The world highly esteems riches, honor, power, and other things of less value, which soon vanish away, but a blind man, if in his right wits would willingly exchange all these for sight. The reason why corporal gifts of God are so undervalued is that they are so common, that God bestows them also upon brute beasts.” (Table Talk)
So let us be thankful today for everything. Our God is the God over heaven and earth. He doesn’t just rule the stars; He rules the sinks and our tongues. He rules over everything and He has given it all to our use. He is worthy of all our praise.
“For ye are all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ. There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus. And if ye are Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, heirs according to promise.” Galatians 3:26-29, ASV
Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m not watching the Olympics. I’m proud of our athletes and I hope that everyone does well, but I just don’t like any sports enough to watch it twelve hours a day (or more!) I have recorded the opening ceremonies, and I’ll probably watch some of it when I have a chance, fast forwarding through the commercials and the boring bits. Four and a half hours was just too long to sit in front of the television for any reason. It sounds like I missed some fun moments, so I’ll look forward to watching them later.
Now, I did watch some of the parade of nations. To me, the Olympics are all about those people, the individual athletes who will do their best at their sport. Some will win medals. Some won’t. Unfortunately, some of those athletes won’t even get a chance to compete, as they have gone to London as substitutes. There will be disappointment, and there will be victory. As a matter of fact, only days into the games we’ve already seen both.
I think what struck me most as I watched those athletes proudly entering the stadium is how alike they were. People are people, no matter where they call home. There were certainly some differences. Costumes reflected national expectations and personalities. Some of the athletes seemed overwhelmed by it all, especially those that came from small or new countries. Yet, over and over I saw many commonalities, whether the athletes were from the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia or Oceana. They were proud and happy to be there. They were excited by the events of the evening and the expectation of the games to come.
It seemed like every group had at least one person, and usually many people, who were carrying some sort of electronic equipment. They had cameras pointing at the crowds, video cameras taping every minute. Cell phones were held high, catching the spectacle. Perhaps they were even sending live feed to their friends and families back home. Imagine how amazing that would have been! Also, they all knew how to play to the crowd. They waved, smiled, danced. They showed off their costumes. The flag bearers held those flags high, and so did the athletes who carried signs. I doubt they were instructed in how to walk, except for being told where to go. Yet, it didn’t matter where on earth they called home; they were all athletes and they all shined.
It would be interesting to see a similar parade of Christians from around the world. We would find the same differences. They would reflect their culture and their individual personalities. We might look at each other and see the differences, but deep down inside we are all the same. We all have Christ and are clothed with His righteousness. It doesn’t matter what clothes we wear, or where we call home, we have the same faith and are sons and daughters of God.
Paul writes that we are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter if we are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Just as the athletes are still from their own nations, they are still very much the same. We do not lose our unique identities with faith. We are still Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. But in Christ we are the same: heirs to His promise.
“And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren: and whom he foreordained, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” Romans 8:28-30, ASV
One of the common activities on Facebook is the sharing of photos with bits of wisdom or funny sayings. I enjoy reading many of these photos and I even occasionally repost them. I don’t share them very often, though, because after awhile it seems that everyone has posted exactly the same thing. Of course, we want to share these bits of wisdom or laughs with our friends who might not be friends with the one who posted it first, but our common friends end up seeing the same thing over and over again. Quite frankly, it can get a little boring.
There is a little danger in it, too. Eric Metaxas makes an excellent point in his Breakpoint blog post today (http://www.breakpoint.org/bpcommentaries/entry/13/19933). We have become a world driven by soundbytes. Instead of thinking through our thoughts, we quickly respond with a statement that is supposed to sum up our feelings or point of view. For example, Lady Gaga has teamed up with Office Depot with a line of products with slogans meant to make people “part of this message that will change everything.” The problem, as Mr. Metaxas makes note, is that we don’t bother really understanding what it means to “be brave” or “be kind.” We simply expect it of others.
But what does it mean to be brave or be kind? How do we live that out in the world? As Mr. Metaxas makes note, some of the catch phrases are not only difficult to live out, some are even self-centered and narcissistic. “Be yourself” might sound good, but where do we draw the line on being ourselves when our tendency is to tend to be considering our wants and needs above that of others.
For example, in those years when my husband was an active member of the military, he traveled often. At those times, I didn’t want to sleep at night. I’m really a night person; I would rather stay up until late and then sleep until noon. Even with a good night sleep it takes me a long time for my brain to get working. I’m more inspired at night. I write better and I paint better. But I couldn’t “be myself.” I had children who needed me. I had to take care of them. To “be myself” would be to ignore their needs, to put myself first. Even now, with the children grown and out of the house, I still keep a fairly normal sleep schedule for the sake of my husband. Should I put myself first and “be myself” or continue to do what is good for my relationship with my husband?
It sounds good to say, “Be yourself,” but do we really think about what that means? Yet, as these soundbytes become more and more a part of the dialogue, we stop considering the implications. We tend to think that being ourselves is the truth above the reality that we have to work at being part of the world in which we live and the relationships that have been given to us. “Being myself” isn’t always good for the world; it doesn’t make things better. Unfortunately, the hedonistic point of view that is seen in “being myself” is actually part of the problem with the world. We have become a world of “me.” But what happens when we all think that the world should revolve around us?
Yes, there are times when we should “be ourselves.” We should not be forced to follow a career path that does not fit our gifts or our talents. We should not become a doctor just because our parents think we should be doctors. We should not get a job at a certain company because our family has always had employees there. We should not marry the wrong person just because it is what others want for us. We should “be ourselves” in the sense that we have been called by God to do something in this world, and to do otherwise would be to ignore God. But that soundbyte that says, “Be yourself” does not make us think about these things. It simply gives us permission to do what we want. That is not going to change the world in a positive way.
Paul writes that we are called according to God’s purpose. Now, if we always did as God intended, we might be able to live with the soundbyte “be yourself.” However, we are imperfect. We are sinners and we tend to go our own way. Our hearts lead us astray. Our desires guide us down wrong paths. If we were to “be ourselves” as God intends, all would be right with the world. But, God calls us to be conformed to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. It might seem like we are not really being ourselves when we are transformed into His likeness, but the reality is that it is only when we are like Him that we are truly what we are meant to be. When we live as God intends, the world will be changed in a positive way.