Welcome to the July 2015 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 2015
July 1, 2015
Scriptures for Sunday, July 5, 2015, Sixth Sunday of Pentecost: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Mark 6:1-13
"And he hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Wherefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, ASV
I can't completely ignore the elephant in the room, as much as I would prefer to do so. This week has been difficult for many Christians, for many Americans, as decisions made seem to them to be leading us on a dangerous path. Sadly, for many, the recent decisions of the Supreme Court have left many Christians without hope, with fear and with sadness. I try not to deal with the mundane issues that we as American Christians face because this writing reaches well beyond our shores to the Church around the world, and quite frankly our problems are not theirs. While they would probably disagree with the ruling, it seems self-indulgent to think the world is coming to an end because of a human ruling when the children in foreign lands are being kidnapped and used as sex slaves or their neighbors are being beheaded for their faith. If they have hope, we should, too.
It is impossible to ignore the elephant in the room, but I'm addressing it only because we must hold on to the hope we have in Jesus Christ. A friend recently asked why I don't speak out about this issues in "my ministry." I used quotes because this friend has repeatedly demeaned what I do online, particularly because I do not preach about this one issue. That is not the purpose of this devotional; this writing is given to help Christians dwell in this world. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We can't pick and choose one sin and suppose that the establishment or celebration of that sin is the one that will end the world.
It is up to us to speak God's truth. My friend might be right; perhaps I shouldn't avoid the topic. I suppose one day God could choose me and my writing to boldly proclaim the truth of His good and perfect Law. Today is not that day. I have read countless articles and statements, from both sides, which gave clear and compassionate words about how to go forward from this point. Many people have said what needs to be said better than I ever could. They understand the legal jargon, are more educated in the theology and scriptures. They come at it from a place of experience. I've seen a lot of words from Christians and non-Christians on both sides of the issue that are angry, hard-hearted and cruel, too.
Many people are hurting, afraid, confused and uncertain. They are lashing out because our natural human tendency is self-preservation. The texts for today make us question that direction; all the characters in today's stories faced a call from God that would lead to rejection and pain. The world didn't end for them; they learned how to trust in God through their experiences. I suppose that's where this writing needs to go.
One article said it well for me. Though the writer made several excellent points, this section stood out: "Given the reality of our created nature, Christians should not lose heart. Our culture has been on this trajectory for many decades. They are not just warring against God, but against their own nature (see Romans 1). What did we really expect would happen? Even so, remember the truth of God's Word stands firm. This is His world. He rules it. He knows what is best for us. We will continue to proclaim his life-giving prescription for human happiness and freedom. That is part of our calling: to let the world know that true human fulfillment and joy comes in keeping his commandments. They are not burdensome, but life-giving! Living in rebellion against God's law does not bring happiness, freedom, or human flourishing. Quite the opposite." From "After Obergfell - A Pastoral Letter" by Jeff Meyers
We speak because we love. We speak because we want our neighbors to experience the best life that God has for them. Following our 'hearts' leads us astray, down dangerous paths away from God. I don't talk about any one sin because all sin separates us from our Father and Creator. We have ignored the reality of sin for too long, even in the Church. We focus on love and think the Gospel is enough, but we forget that we are also called to preach the Law which calls us to repentance. As Pastor Meyers said, the Law is God's life-giving prescription for human happiness and freedom. Sin might seem good and right in the present, but it always leads us to death.
There is something more important to accomplish with the texts this week. We need to remember that when it seems like our world is falling apart, God will always hold it together. He knows what He is doing, even though it seems like His people are suffering. These are the very moments when we must turn to Him in prayer, in trust and in hope. And if, or when, He calls us to speak, He will give us the words, as He did for Elijah.
Sadly, even when we do speak for God, many will not hear. The people didn't hear Ezekiel. They didn't believe the message because it wasn't the message they wanted to hear. They wanted acceptance, peace and love, not a call to repentance. They wanted to do things their own way. Other prophets promised them good things; Ezekiel warned them what would happen if they continued to reject God. 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 need to turn to God?
This world has always been counter to that which God intends. This world will always battle against Christian faith, even to the point of putting us on a cross beside our Lord Jesus. He told us that we would be hated as He was hated. He told us not to be afraid, for He has overcome the world. Even when we are overwhelmed by what is happening in our world, whether words on a piece of paper or the blade of a sword, we must always have hope. God is in control; He won the war even though we are still fighting the battles. What we need to do is learn how to fight that battle with grace and mercy.
Pastor Meyers also wrote, "Christians have always understood that we have a prophetic vocation that compels us to speak the truth to our neighbor and fellow citizen. We do that because we love them. When a Christian culture is established and the law reflects the Law of God, then everyone benefits from the peace, prosperity, and freedom that results. Christian governments have always enacted legislation against homosexual behavior, not because we hate homosexuals or hate freedom, any more than we hate thieves or hate sex when we call for laws banning fornication and pornography. No, we believe that God's law brings happiness and freedom and prosperity, etc. We love our neighbor as ourselves, so we want to guard and protect him from himself and from others. Of course, we must exercise this prophetic calling lovingly, winsomely, and with humility. So if I admonish you to be courageous, that does not mean I want you to get on Facebook or Twitter and start screaming about this. Watch your language. Be careful how you phrase things. Our position alone is enough to enrage people. There's no need to add to that offense the offense of being snarky, obnoxious, and caustic in our communication of the truth."
I'm walking on eggshells as I write this, knowing that some will find offense despite my love for every person who reads it, whether they are a brother or sister in Christ or someone who has yet to embrace the Gospel. I expect to even lose a few readers. I certainly don't count myself equal to those we hear in today's passages: Ezekiel, the psalmist Paul, the disciples, or Jesus. However, I know I can't expect the world to embrace my words any more than it has embraced theirs. The word I speak today is one we should all hear: trust God, no matter where you stand. He will be faithful. If you are wrong, He will forgive your failure and guide you into truth. If you are right, He will keep you from arrogance and haughtiness so that you will be a help to those who need His grace.
The psalmist must have known what it was like to face difficult times. He seeks mercy from God, for the people endured much ridicule from the proud and contempt from the arrogant. Yet, he sings a song of praise, looking toward God for mercy from the response of those who refuse to hear. We are not promised an easy life when we live in faith. We are called to speak God's Word into the world and it is likely we will face rejection and ridicule.
Imagine what it must have been like to be Paul. He was pretty incredible, a specially chosen man called to do an extraordinary task. He would have been right to hold his leadership and authority over the members of the congregations he established. He could have demanded payment for the work he did. He could have insisted that the Christians do as he said. He had the authority based on his experience. It was obvious that he was chosen by God. He was gifted and God's grace was manifest in his life and work. He even had some remarkable things happen to him that serve as proof of God's hand in his life.
The conversion on the road to Damascus was more than enough to establish Paul as God's helper, but in today's passage Paul tells another story. This was probably an important moment in Paul's ministry because in it he was given a vision of Paradise and given a message from God that he could not share. Now, for many modern day prophets, this type of experience is the center of their ministry. They demand respect, attention and obedience because they can make a claim of God's blessing.
However, Paul was humble. He refused to be the center of the story, claiming it was about someone else. Then Paul reminded the congregation about his imperfection. He talked about his thorn, whatever that might be. Paul was gifted and blessed, called by God through the most incredible spiritual experiences, but he insisted that his authority was not founded on those mountain top experiences. He didn't take credit for his gifts. He knew his authority was based only on God's grace. And so it is with us. There might be visions or revelations we've received that could prove to the world that we are chosen and called by God. We may truly believe that what we say is from God Himself. "Thus says the Lord…" sounds really good coming out of our own mouths. However, we are reminded by Paul that we too should be humbled by our own failures and remember that we are nothing without God's grace.
Jesus faced roadblocks, too. Those who knew Him best, especially those who knew Him best, could not believe that He had the power or authority to speak God's Word and do God's Work. "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house," Jesus said. The greatest rejections often come from those who are closest to us. Jesus could barely even heal in His hometown because they did not believe. Not only that, but they took offense at Him, wondering how someone so ordinary with relatives right down their own street could even think of speaking for God.
After this experience, Jesus sent the disciples into the world, two by two with nothing but the cloaks on their backs and the sandals on their feet. "Take nothing for the journey, save a staff only; no bread, no wallet, no money in your purse." They were sent into the world with nothing so that they would learn to trust God. They would learn another lesson, too. Some of those they meet will reject them. They went in faith and preached repentance. They healed the sick and cast out demons. They did what God called them to do, and they did so by His power. The experience must have been overwhelming, to see God doing such incredible work through their ministry. Yet, even as they were sharing the Kingdom of God, John the Baptist was beheaded. Mark includes that story in the middle of the story about the sending of the disciples, perhaps as a reminder that though they had success on the road, there is always a risk to speaking the truth. We face the same risks when we speak God's Word in the world.
The stories in today's texts of Ezekiel, the psalmist, Paul, the disciples and even Jesus show us that following God is not easy. Speaking His Word is even harder. Sometimes we have to face the elephant in the room and eat the words that God gives us so that they will be available when they are needed. Even so, many will not hear what we say. They will refuse to believe the words we speak. They will reject the call to repentance and love from which it comes. They will embrace that which makes them feel good and follow their hearts, never knowing that the human heart is filled with sin and will lead us down a dangerous path away from the God of hope, peace, true freedom and love.
As for us, we are called to keep our eyes on the Lord our God who provides us with all we need. It may be overwhelming and seem like the tasks are impossible to accomplish, but we can live in hope knowing that God is here, that He has already overcome the world and He is faithful. He has won the war, even as we continue to fight the battles. Today is the day to trust in God, to live in His promises, for He is in control. He has a purpose for your life, to pray and live as He has called you to live, no matter what difficulties you face, for it is in our weakness, pain, need, persecution and distress for Christ's sake that God can do His best work. As Paul writes, "For when I am week, then am I strong." His grace is indeed sufficient for us, His power is made perfect in our weakness.
"I will give thee thanks with my whole heart: Before the gods will I sing praises unto thee. I will worship toward thy holy temple, And give thanks unto thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name. In the day that I called thou answeredst me, Thou didst encourage me with strength in my soul. All the kings of the earth shall give thee thanks, O Jehovah, For they have heard the words of thy mouth. Yea, they shall sing of the ways of Jehovah; For great is the glory of Jehovah. For though Jehovah is high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly; But the haughty he knoweth from afar. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me; Thou wilt stretch forth thy hand against the wrath of mine enemies, And thy right hand will save me. Jehovah will perfect that which concerneth me: Thy lovingkindness, O Jehovah, endureth for ever; Forsake not the works of thine own hands." Psalm 138, ASV
Can you believe that half of 2015 is over already? It seems like just yesterday we were celebrating the New Year. We are so close to the end of another year that people are already talking about fall events and that holiday in December. It might seem like it is far away, but the first six months flew by, why won't the next? I've been agonizing over my Christmas ornaments this year; every idea does not work as I hope. A friend said that I'd figure it out and that I have plenty of time to finish them.
That might be true, but until I find my project, I won't know how long it will take to complete them all. Some projects need extra time for drying, and special packing for shipping. While it might seem like I can begin to think about that holiday in December in a few months, those of us who make our gifts have to start early. I know that there have already been some complaints that the craft stores have Christmas on the shelves. I have to admit that I was disappointed at one store because they did not have any of their Christmas supplies on their shelves yet. How can I get ideas if they aren't ready to help?
So, yes, I am sure that I'll figure something out and that I will have plenty of time. I'm not really worried about it, but it made me think about all the times we put things off until they are too late. "I will read that book tomorrow," we say, but when tomorrow comes we realize that it would have made a difference in our life yesterday. We put off things at work or school or home and then discover that previous work is worthless because it no longer applies. Too many relationships are broken because of unsaid words of love and forgiveness. We put off that trip home because we are too busy and then we have to make it for a funeral.
Sadly, we put off some of the most important things in life because they can be put off until tomorrow, especially our relationship with our Father. We pray when we need something, but forget to pray at the other times. We pray when we know someone is sick but we forget to pray for them when they are well. We pray when things are going bad, seeking God's blessing, but we forget to thank God for the blessings that we take for granted every day.
We have a lot to pray about, and I'm sure that most of you spend some time in prayer. Today we are reminded by the psalmist to remember to give thanks to God every day, in times of trouble and in times of blessing. God is with us through everything. He sent His Son to overcome the world and we have no fear for tomorrow, even if our little corner of the world is falling apart. The relationship between us and God is the most important relationship in our lives. God will never abandon us, that's true, but when we put off talking to Him, we forget that He is near. We need to talk to Him today, before it is too late, before we lose touch with our Father. Let's praise Him today for the blessings past and the blessings to come, even in the midst of our times of trouble.
"Finally, be ye all likeminded, compassionate, loving as brethren, tenderhearted, humbleminded: not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but contrariwise blessing; for hereunto were ye called, that ye should inherit a blessing. For, He that would love life, And see good days, Let him refrain his tongue from evil, And his lips that they speak no guile: And let him turn away from evil, and do good; Let him seek peace, and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, And his ears unto their supplication: But the face of the Lord is upon them that do evil. And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous of that which is good? But even if ye should suffer for righteousness' sake, blessed are ye: and fear not their fear, neither be troubled; but sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear: having a good conscience; that, wherein ye are spoken against, they may be put to shame who revile your good manner of life in Christ. For it is better, if the will of God should so will, that ye suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing." 1 Peter 3:8-17, ASV
"There was once a young shepherd boy who tended his sheep at the foot of a mountain near a dark forest. It was rather lonely for him all day, so he thought upon a plan by which he could get a little company and some excitement. He rushed down towards the village calling out 'Wolf, Wolf,' and the villagers came out to meet him, and some of them stopped with him for a considerable time. This pleased the boy so much that a few days afterwards he tried the same trick, and again the villagers came to his help. But shortly after this a wolf actually did come out from the forest, and began to worry the sheep, and the boy of course cried out 'Wolf, Wolf,' still louder than before. But this time the villagers, who had been fooled twice before, thought the boy was again deceiving them, and nobody stirred to come to his help. So the Wolf made a good meal off the boy’s flock, and when the boy complained, the wise man of the village said: 'A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth.'"
The moral of this ancient fable is found in the advice from the wise man, "A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth." A little lie, though it might seem to have a good purpose, destroys the credibility of the speaker, leaving doubt in all his words and causing the hearers to ignore even the truth.
Hate exists. Racism exists. Christian persecution exists. People are beaten and killed because they are something that someone does not approve. Yes, gay people are harmed by fools. Yes, black people face discrimination. Yes, stereotypes trap people in boxes that make it impossible for them to accomplish their true purpose in this world. Yes, labels create division between people. Yes, there are people in every culture, nation, community and heritage that hate others they deem are outsiders, sinners, evil. Blacks are hated. Whites are hated. People of every faith are hated, even by people of faith. We are all guilty at times for speaking ill of our neighbors for one reason or another. There is no group in the world that can claim that they are guiltless from some sort of hate. So, too, we can all claim to be victims of hate because there is someone, somewhere that has something against us.
It is easy for us to grasp onto some story and make it proof that we are hated. The most recent example is that of the church burnings. The story claims that there is an upsurge of hate crimes against predominately black churches in the south due to the recent shooting in South Carolina. There are a number of problems with the reporting of this story, however. First of all, not all the churches listed in the story are actually predominantly black and they are not all in the south. While a number of them have been ruled arson, several were caused by electric problems and one was likely caused by a lightning strike. The cases that have been determined to be arson can't be proven to be racist hate crimes.
The cry is that black churches are burning and it must be racist, but has anyone asked whether or not the hate is against Christians, instead? The investigative findings are being rejected despite the facts because someone, somewhere wants to use these incidents to prove their point. One person even commented, "Well, isn't that convenient? Let's blame nature to cover up for white hate." There was another recent story was about a church that received a racist warning, but it turns out that it was written by a black man. Some people want to fuel the hate, to create division, to call people to arms against supposed enemies.
The timing of this story seems to prove the point that it is racist. Here's a fact that some of the stories are ignoring: there is an average of two intentionally set church fires every three days. In the years 2007 to 2011, an average of 1780 buildings on religious property (churches, temples, mosques, religious education facilities, funeral parlors and related properties) caught on fire. Only sixteen percent of those fires were intentionally set. Of those deemed arson, only a third were at predominantly black places of worship. Some of the fires were motivated by racial bias, but other motives included vandalism, mental health issues, burglary cover-up, retribution against religious authorities, other disputes and financial profit.
Yes, hate exists. Yes, black churches have burned because of racism. White churches have burned because of sin, too, as well as other buildings of faith. Many have burned because churches steeples draw lightning and too many churches are poorly maintained. Buildings of faith are easy targets but they suffer at the hands of many different types of sinners. We all have reason to cry out, but let's be careful to tell the truth in these matters. It does not help us to break the walls of division by placing the blame on the wrong people to prove a point. As a matter of fact, it harms our cause because, as the ancient folktale reminds us, "A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth."
Have you ever cried "Wolf, wolf" and then found it impossible to get support when the threat is real? We blame a lot of others for our troubles, forgetting that we live in an imperfect world. Sometimes a fire is just a fire. Sin will always affect our lives while we live in this world; we are all imperfect beings. We are called to respond to all our problems with trust and faith and forgiveness. We need to work together to find a way to live together, which is the only way we will ever overcome the true hate and evil that exists. We must be careful to face the threats of the world with grace and truth. We will suffer, that is a guarantee for following the Gospel, but we have the promise of God to keep us through it all. May we all beware of how we face perceived hatred and persecution so that we will not blame the wrong people for every insult, offense or discomfort, dividing us even more than sin has already done.
"Rejoice in Jehovah, O ye righteous: Praise is comely for the upright. Give thanks unto Jehovah with the harp: Sing praises unto him with the psaltery of ten strings. Sing unto him a new song; Play skilfully with a loud noise. For the word of Jehovah is right; And all his work is done in faithfulness. He loveth righteousness and justice: The earth is full of the lovingkindness of Jehovah. By the word of Jehovah were the heavens made, And all the host of them by the breath of his mouth. He gathereth the waters of the sea together as a heap: He layeth up the deeps in store-houses. Let all the earth fear Jehovah: Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. Jehovah bringeth the counsel of the nations to nought; He maketh the thoughts of the peoples to be of no effect. The counsel of Jehovah standeth fast for ever, The thoughts of his heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is Jehovah, The people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance. Jehovah looketh from heaven; He beholdeth all the sons of men; From the place of his habitation he looketh forth Upon all the inhabitants of the earth, He that fashioneth the hearts of them all, That considereth all their works. There is no king saved by the multitude of a host: A mighty man is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a vain thing for safety; Neither doth he deliver any by his great power. Behold, the eye of Jehovah is upon them that fear him, Upon them that hope in his lovingkindness; To deliver their soul from death, And to keep them alive in famine. Our soul hath waited for Jehovah: He is our help and our shield. For our heart shall rejoice in him, Because we have trusted in his holy name. Let thy loving kindness, O Jehovah, be upon us, According as we have hoped in thee." Psalm 33, ASV
"God bless you." Why do we say this after someone sneezes? As it turns out, this is a practice that goes a long way back, even to the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. In those days, a sneeze was seen as a sign of wellness, and those nearby responded with statements of good wishes like "live long" or "May Jupiter bless you." Other ancients thought that a sneeze allowed the soul to escape the body through the nose and the greeting "bless you" would stop the devil from claiming that freed soul. Yet other ancients thought that the heart stopped momentarily, so the greeting "bless you" was a way of welcoming the person back to life.
This type of response has been given across history and cultures. While we say "God bless you," others say "praise be to God." Many cultures use phrases that talk about health such as "live well," "be healthy," and "may you live 100 years." Some people say "grow tall" when children sneeze. During the bubonic plague in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great suggested the use of "God bless you" as a prayer for those who sneezed. They knew a sneeze was the first sign of impending illness, and the prayer was a cry to God to protect the victims from the plague's inevitable conclusion, death.
Sadly, the phrase "God bless you" has become a platitude to many people, a phrase that has little meaning and is spoken without much thought. We hear a sneeze and we say the words, not really considering the impact of our statement. For some, the statement has even become aggressive and without real prayerfulness. They feel the need to insert God into the message without really considering it a cry for God's blessing.
The word 'bless' has come to mean having something good or desirable, something material that seems to make things better for us. When we say "God bless you," however, we usually don't really mean that we are asking God to give something tangible. The blessing more commonly means that we are making something holy by a special prayer or asking for God's protection or care. Biblically, the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated 'bless' mean 'speaking words of divine favor,' 'favor,' 'kindness,' 'speak of excellence,' 'display a favorable disposition,' 'give praise,' 'extol,' 'speak well of,' or 'touch kindly and impart benefits.' When we say "God bless you," we are asking God to speak His Word with kindness and grace over the one we wish to be blessed. When God speaks, people are blessed.
Saturday was Independence Day in the United States, and there was a desperate need for many to cry out the name of God in their celebration. While it is always good to look to God for grace, the cry was often aggressive, with this need to insert God in the conversation because it seems like He has been rejected and ignored. There was little prayerfulness; instead they seemed to demand a recognition of God's presence in our world. While many people were pleased to see God's name as part of our celebration, others took offense to the words "God bless America." They asked, "Why do you have to impart your religion into everything?" Others said, "God doesn't bless nations." Sadly, as with "God bless you," the words seemed to have become little more than a platitude to many.
I understand why some were responding so negatively, but I have to admit that I enjoyed hearing the words (or seeing them on Facebook.) As a matter of fact, I created my own picture to share on my timeline. Those who took offense seemed to think of the word 'bless' in the materialistic sense, as if we were asking God to give us material things or to make us better than others. In my case, and I hope in many of the others, the words were truly a prayer for God to speak well of us, to favor us with His kindness. See, God does bless nations; He blessings those nations of people who love, trust and fear Him. He blesses those who prayerfully cry out for His Word. He blesses them to be a blessing. So let us say, "God bless us," along with the psalmist, understanding these words to mean, "Let thy loving kindness, O Jehovah, be upon us, According as we have hoped in thee."
"But there was a certain man, Simon by name, who beforetime in the city used sorcery, and amazed the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is that power of God which is called Great. And they gave heed to him, because that of long time he had amazed them with his sorceries. But when they believed Philip preaching good tidings concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. And Simon also himself believed: and being baptized, he continued with Philip; and beholding signs and great miracles wrought, he was amazed. Now when the apostles that were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit: for as yet it was fallen upon none of them: only they had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay my hands, he may receive the Holy Spirit. But Peter said unto him, Thy silver perish with thee, because thou hast thought to obtain the gift of God with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray the Lord, if perhaps the thought of thy heart shall be forgiven thee. For I see that thou art in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. And Simon answered and said, Pray ye for me to the Lord, that none of the things which ye have spoken come upon me. They therefore, when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, returned to Jerusalem, and preached the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans." Acts 8:9-25, ASV
I used to receive an email from a group of people who self-identified as prophets. Now, perhaps there is truth to this, at least for some of them, because I am far from perfect in understanding God's ways. He certainly could be making powerful prophetic statements through any or all of the people writing for the list. However, I noticed that as time went on, many of the 'words' sent out by those prophets were actually words for profit. They advertised conferences for the average person to become prophets or to release their spirits to accomplish God's holy work in this world. Other posts included words of encouragement or comfort, but were actually sent to advertise the prophets' latest book.
I stopped paying attention to the list when a prophecy was sent that turned out to be false and then when it was proven false they resent the prophecy with a new interpretation. Most of those 'words' that made claims about the future were given after the events that made it appear they were right, even though they often claimed that they received the words from God before the events. They still have many followers, but I could no longer believe that they were speaking for God. The worst part of it all for me was the claim that they could teach anyone to be a prophet, if only we gave them enough money for their books or workshops.
Paul wrote that those who speak God's Word deserve to be paid for their work, although he never accepted money for his preaching. His statement was meant to help those leaders God chose so that they would not have to worry about how to eat or where to live. Today's pastors work incredibly hard serving the people of their congregations, not just an hour on Sunday, but they are on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. This isn't a statement against earning a living as a servant of God.
The problem with Simon the sorcerer is that he thought he could buy God's power with money. He heard Philip and believed; he was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. However, he never quite understood the power of the Holy Spirit and wanted to use it as he had been using the powers that made him "great" in the eyes of the Samaritans. Philip told him that he could not be part of the work of the Church because he was trying to use God to his own benefit. He heard the Gospel, but his heart was not yet right before God. He still needed to repent and seek God's forgiveness.
We must test the spirits to see if they are truly speaking for God or for themselves. We might not know for sure, because God can even use a sorcerer to teach us a lesson about trust, repentance and the forgiveness of God. We live in a world, however, that has always included people willing to use God for their own benefit, seeking power, fame and even money for speaking God's Word. It is up to us to listen carefully and then seek God's confirmation before we follow those who claim to speak for Him.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 12, 2015, Seventh Sunday of Pentecost: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:(1-7) 8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
Thus he showed me: and, behold, the Lord stood beside a wall made by a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand." Amos 7:7, ASV
Some people will do anything to get their way. Take Herodias, for example. She hated John the Baptist. John pointed out that Herod and Herodias should not be together because Herodias was his brother Philip's wife. Philip was not dead; Herod convinced Herodias to leave Philip for a life with him. This was against Mosaic Law. John spoke truth and Herodias did not like it.
Herod was torn. He liked to listen to John and he was certain that John was someone special. Herod was even a little afraid of John; he protected John because he knew John was a righteous and holy man. Perhaps John's words were having an impact on him, causing him to think twice about his relationship with Herodias. She had a pretty tight hold on him; he put John in prison for her sake. He continued to listen, however. Herodias knew that she had to deal with the problem.
At Herod's birthday party with his high officials and military commanders, Herodias' daughter Salome danced for him and his friends. Herod who was probably pretty happy and wanted to make a huge impression on those powerful people in his presence, so he made an outlandish offer to give Salome anything she wanted, "Up to half my kingdom." This was a boast to amaze his guests. Can you imagine what an girl like Salome would want? She was of marriageable age; she could have asked for enough land or money to assure herself an excellent life. She could have been dripping with jewels and silks, hosted a lavish event for her friends. She probably had a million ideas running through her head. She went to her mother to ask for advice.
Herodias took advantage of the situation, telling her daughter to ask for John the Baptist's head on a platter. Herodias must have had a pretty tight hold on her daughter, too, because what young woman would ask for such a thing? They left Herod without a choice; he had to give them John's head on a platter because of the vows he made at his party. He could not go back on his word in front of those who rely on him for leadership, even if the request was horrific.
That's the way the world thinks, they think that their own reputation is more important than life. See, Herod could have told Salome that it is ridiculous to think that he would kill a righteous and holy man because she danced. This is not how we should think, however. Sometimes we have to stand up against those who would use us for their own selfish desires, even if it has a negative impact on us.
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.
Despite the harsh messages of John and Amos 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 with Him. 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. Herod's actions led him to fear not joy. When he heard about Jesus, he thought that John had come back from the dead, so Jesus' message would never make its way into Herod's heart.
Of course, we know that God can make good happen, and John's death was necessary for the rise of Jesus.
We find this story bookmarked by the sending of the disciples we heard last week and their return to Jesus with news of their ministry (Mark 6:30.) We are reminded by this juxtaposition that the work we are called to do will not always have the outcome we want or expect. There are those, who like Herodias, will do whatever they can to stand in the way of our ministry. And there are those, like Herod and Salome, who will do whatever they ask for their own selfish or foolish reasons.
Quite frankly, 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. I am not sure any of us could say without doubt that we would have saved John the Baptist if we had been in Herod's place.
Sometimes we simply do what we think we have to do for our own selfish reasons. There are times when we do whatever we can to get our way, even if we have to sacrifice something or someone along the way. We throw tantrums, tell little white lies, manipulate the circumstances, and flaunt emotion. We make people feel guilty or try to convince them that our way is the only way and that if they disagree then there must be something wrong. We even hang salvation on our own human desires.
But God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. He is able to use even us. 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.
As we read these stories, we really have to wonder, "Where is God's grace?" Amos's message has no promise of forgiveness or salvation. They don't listen to him and try to send him away. John is imprisoned and beheaded for speaking God's Word. It really is not a pleasant thing to be a prophet for God. The only mention of Jesus in today's Gospel lesson is an assumption by Herod that He was someone else.
The Psalmist has an answer to the question. "Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, that glory may dwell in our land." 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. And then he feared Jesus was a ghost. They did not care what the prophets had to say.
John came to point toward Jesus, and once John was in prison Jesus began to preach the kingdom of God to all who would hear. The Psalm offers hope in the midst of these disturbing stories. God's grace is there for those who will listen, "For he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: But let them not turn again to folly."
"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." I love the image we get from these two verses and how they 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". This is what Paul means in Ephesians 1:10 when he says, "to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth." Jesus is where heaven and earth meet, come together for the sake of those who listen to what He has to say about God. Jesus is God's glory come to earth, to minister to the people - to save them from themselves and give them peace.
Paul tells us that through Jesus we are adopted as sons in the kingdom that He preached, so that we are seen as holy and blameless in the eyes of God. We are given with every spiritual blessing through Jesus so that our lives will glorify God. We are saved, forgiven by the blood of Christ when we hear the words of those who speak the Word of God into our lives. Paul writes, "in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation, - in whom, having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise..."
If we are honest with ourselves we know that there are things we are willing to do to get what we want from the world. If we are even honest with ourselves, however, we know that we should not sacrifice others for our own sake. Instead of acting like Herod, giving in to a promise that he knew was not right to save face in front of his guests, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the King, given everything we need to do His work in the world. It won't be easy; we might end up suffering for His sake. But we can do all things for His glory because we know that God has promised forgiveness and eternal life. And we know He is faithful. So, let us always live in the truth, repent when we fail and stand with God even when it seems we must stand against the rest of the world to do so.
If God held his plumb line against each of us this day He could easily find fault. The fate of the Israelites that refused to listen seemed hopeless; God offered no forgiveness through Amos. The fate of Herod seemed hopeless; he could not imagine forgiveness from John after beheading him. God still has a plumb line - His name is Jesus. God does not see our crooked walls when we dwell in Christ, but rather works at conforming the lives of those who fear Him, hear His Word and trust in Him. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit and guaranteed the inheritance He has promised. In Christ we know God's mercy and truth, for it has been revealed in the One who brought heaven and earth together, redeemed us by His blood and made us sons and heirs to the Kingdom of God.
"Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to the which also ye were called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God." Colossians 3:12-16, ASV
A picture is circulating on Facebook that says, "You know what is beautiful? Read the first word again." It is a statement to remind each reader that they are beautiful in their own way. This is true. I know that I spent a lot of time talking about our sinfulness and our need for repentance. There are certainly parts of our lives that are not quite beautiful. However, we are reminded in the book of Genesis that God created each of us, and when He created man He said, "This is very good." You were created in God's image, and you are beautiful.
We shouldn't forget the reality of our human nature, which fell after those words from God in Genesis, but we are still created in His image. That's why He sent His Son to die for us. He wants us to be as He intended, reflections of His love and grace and mercy in a world that is no longer the perfect because of the sin that entered through the shrewdness of Satan and the failing of Adam and Eve. Christ died to restore us to the relationship that was lost in the garden, and He rose again so that we can be raised to new life in Christ.
Despite our sinful nature, we are reminded that we were created good and that Christ paid the price to restore us. We are called to be that which God intended for us from the beginning. We are called to be beautiful, to know that we are in Christ and that in Christ we are new creations who by His power can be all those things that seem impossible for sinful human beings. We can have a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering. We can forbear with one another, forgive one another. We can be perfect because we now wear the righteousness of Christ. You are beautiful and Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to be beautiful in this world.
So, let us live as if we are beautiful, loving our neighbors -- both friends and enemies -- with God's grace and mercy, dwelling in His Word, sharing it with others. Let us work together to make the world a more beautiful place as we realize that it begins with us. As the peace of Christ rules in our hearts, we can live as God created and redeemed us to live. This means a life of mercy and grace, humility, gentleness and patience. This means a life of forgiveness, of charity and of love. We can do it because we are holy and beloved by the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.
"But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore of sound mind, and be sober unto prayer: above all things being fervent in your love among yourselves; for love covereth a multitude of sins: using hospitality one to another without murmuring: according as each hath received a gift, ministering it among yourselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God; if any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God; is any man ministereth, ministering as of the strength which God supplieth: that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, whose is the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen." 1 Peter 4:7-11, ASV
The year long devotional I have been using in 2015 is a book of quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor who lived in a time when the church was being usurped by the political entities and used to manipulate and coerce the people into following a decidedly unchristian path. Adolf Hitler and his leadership claimed to be Christian and yet used their interpretation of Christianity to do unspeakable evil in the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others remained faithful even unto death. I have found this devotional to be full of powerful words that have both comforted and convicted me. I am usually not so dedicated to reading my devotion books, but I have kept up with this one. I could probably quote from it every day, although there is no point in that because you could just get the book yourself.
Bonhoeffer fought against the evil of his day, but his ministry and writing focused on something even closer to his heart: the hearts of Christians. He wrote to encourage true Christians to live faithfully despite the persecution that surrounded them. He focused much of his writing on prayer, living in community, worship and study of scriptures. He talked a lot about forgiveness and serving one another. He preached about true grace and hope. He never wallowed in his suffering and he remained faithful to God even unto death. His story gives us courage to do the same.
Yesterday's quote came out of a short book by Bonhoeffer called "Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community." The book gives an outline of the type of community that Bonhoeffer was trying to build as he developed a seminary to prepare pastors for the Confessing Church of Germany. There the students lived, worshipped, studies, worked, prayed, served and played together. They learned how to be faithful to one another and to the Lord Jesus Christ. The quote talked about ministry between Christians, sharing God's Word with one another. Sadly, many Christians think that only ordained ministers can preach God's Word, and perhaps that is true from the pulpit in some churches, but Bonhoeffer reminds us that God's Word must be shared with one another, too.
"What we are concerned with here is the free communication of the Word from person to person, not by the ordained ministry which is bound to a particular office, time and place. We are thinking of that unique situation in which one person bears witness in human words to another person, bespeaking the whole consolation of God, the admonition, the kindness, and the severity of God. The speaking of that Word is beset with infinite perils. If is not accompanied by worthy listening, how can it really be the right word for the other person? If it is contradicted by one's own lack of active helpfulness, how can it be a convincing and sincere word? If it issues, not from a spirit of bearing and forbearing, but from impatience and the desire to force its acceptance, how can it be liberating and healing word?"
Bonhoeffer goes on to say that the ordered speech in the pulpit is much easier than the free speech that is given between the responsibility to be silent and the responsibility to speak. While most preachers will tell you that preaching from the pulpit is far from easy, there is a freedom there that they can work through the texts, choose the right words and proclaim generalities that reach a wider audience. We are faced with a much different situation when called to speak a word to our neighbor. We may not have the time to find the right words, or we might be forced to give the word that our neighbor does not want to hear. We are afraid that we will say the wrong thing or that we'll say the right thing in the wrong way. We are afraid we'll be rejected and yet also afraid of what might happen if we do not speak.
Life in Christian community means sharing God's Word with one another. Bonhoeffer's point is that we must listen and serve one another graciously, bearing and forbearing with one another so that the words we speak will be the right, convincing and sincere words that liberate and heal. Peter reminds us that everything we do for one another in the community of faith, we do through Jesus Christ for the glory of God.
"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
They say that once you know how to ride a bike, you never forget. There is some truth to this, as many people discover in their later years that skills learned in childhood are remembered. Yet, I’m sure that most of us as we grow older find that there are many things that we do forget. Our memories fade. I saw a post of Facebook that said, "Why is it I can remember every word from any 80's song, but I can't remember why I walked into this room?" I don't think that I am smarter than a fifth grader anymore; well, I am probably smarter, but I can't remember the answers to too many of those seemingly simple questions.
The difference is the type of memory. Declarative memory remembers information, and though it is not really lost, it is sometimes hard for us to find. However, bike riding is remembered with procedural memory, the type of memory that is often referred to as muscle memory. Our bodies remember how to do things better than our brain.
While this is true, I think it is also important to remember that anything we do takes practice. We might remember how to ride a bike, and we might get that bike moving pretty well, but it is likely that we'll make a mistake or two. We'll probably fall or we will suffer the pain that comes from using muscles we aren't used to using. It won't take long for us to be speeding along like we were when we were kids, but lack of practice will make it a little harder, at least for a while. It would certainly be obvious to those watching that we had not ridden a bike for a while as we find our balance and relearn the skills.
Ignace Jan Paderewski, a polish pianist, once said, "When I miss a day of practice, I can always tell it. If I miss two days, the critics will pick it up. If I miss three days, the audience will notice it." I think we can say this about so many things we do, even our devotional lives. There are times that we pray regularly, are disciplined in our study. At those times we manage to find the time even if we are overwhelmed by the business of life because of the good habits we have developed. But as soon as we miss a day or two, we become less faithful; caught up in the daily grind we think we don't have even five minutes to give specifically to devotions. We pray on the run, eat the scriptures like we eat fast food. When we practice the daily routine of our devotional time, it is a natural extension of our being and we find our days go well. When we stop, for even a few days, it gets harder to keep up the practice and things in our life get out of control. Our devotional time, or lack of it, becomes visible to the world around us.
Though our devotional time is private, our time spent with God is obvious to the world around us. We go forth in faith, with joy and love, to do all that God would have us do. When we stop spending that time with the Lord, we lose touch with the source of our strength and faith. It does not take long before it becomes difficult for us to even find a few moments alone with God. We claim a lack of time and we try to go at it on our own. We find, all too quickly, that it is only with God's help that our world is really under control. It is not enough to cry out to God occasionally in passing. It takes practice to develop a good pattern of devotional time, but it is well worth the trouble. For our daily time with God will help us to live more closely in His heart and kingdom.
Take time today to worship God, to speak with Him through prayer and to listen to Him in His Word. You'll find that you will see the world in a whole new way as these practices become daily habits. The world will see it, too, as they recognize in you’re a peace that comes only from God's daily presence in your life. Your actions will reflect God's grace and shine His light more and more as you practice your daily worship of God.
"Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:14-16, ASV
Malala Yousafzai is an incredible young woman. She turned just eighteen years old on Sunday, but in her young life she has accomplished incredible things. Her father was an outspoken advocate for education in their home nation of Pakistan, and Malala followed suit. At twelve she began writing a blog about what it was like living in the growing tensions of a Taliban takeover of her home. As they took control, they took away many of the things that we take for granted: music and television. They even banned women from going shopping. Worst of all for Malala, they limited the education of girls.
As she became more international known, the threats against her and her father grew so that they fear for their very lives. In 2011, she received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize and she was nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize. Malala was threatened for her stand for education and criticism of the Taliban. The leaders of the Taliban met and voted to kill her. In October 2012, an assassin climbed on Malala's school bus, asked for here by name and shot her through her head, neck and shoulder. He also wounded two of her friends. She should have died, but she survived and moved to the United Kingdom to heal. The Taliban claimed credit for the assassination attempt, calling Malala a symbol of infidels and obscenity. However, many in Pakistan denounced the act; religious leaders issued a legal opinion that there was no justification for their attack on a school girl. They were condemned worldwide and the act led to the passage of Pakistan's first right to education bill.
She is the voice of millions of children who are denied an education. Her organization Malala's Fund raises awareness of the social and economic impact of education and encourages girls to lift up their voices, do what they can to work for change in the world. Her campaign "Books not bullets" encourages leaders across the world to put their money into the real weapon for change, education. The campaign has suggested that if all governments stopped military spending for just eight days, they would have enough to provide twelve years of free, quality education for every child on the planet.
I am inspired by Malala's story and I am impressed with the work she is doing. I gladly support her in her effort. I do, however, wonder if there is some naivety in her solution. The assumption is that we can stop military spending for eight days without affecting anything, but military spending is used for far more than bullets. As a matter of fact, that's a very small part of the budget. Eight days of no spending will affect real people, especially the lower ranking military members that already struggle to pay their bills. Do we take the food out of one child's mouth to put a book in another?
I do not want to reject the work Malala is doing or suggest that she should stop; I don't want her to fail. To make the biggest impact we have to think big. She has a very personal reason to hate bullets; without a miracle she would be dead by one. However, the military does far more than just shoot people. In thirty years of military service, my husband was likely to be helping to drop relief to needy people rather than bombs. And sometimes -- as much as we would rather not admit it -- sometimes we need to use bullets to accomplish the work that needs to be done. Malala may never accomplish the ultimate goal of her books not bullets campaign, but she is making a very real impact.
Here's the thing: Malala is making the world aware of a very real problem. All our children should be educated; the world will be a better place when all children are able to learn to read and write and think. It is awareness like that which comes from people like Malala thinking big that spurs others to do the work as individuals for individuals in seemingly smaller ways. A friend's daughter Ashleigh recently left for a mission trip at a school in Malawi. She did a fundraiser to help cover the cost of her trip and then promised to donate $1000 to the school. Her fundraising efforts were so successful that she ended up with $2000. That doesn't sound like very much compared to the millions Malala wants to use to solve the problem in one fell swoop, but Ashleigh will make a very real difference in the lives of many children at that school.
We need both types of servants. We need the big thinkers willing to stand in the firing line to make the world aware of the problem. We need them to strive for the impossible. We also need the individual to go out and do any little thing that they can, to make a difference in one life at a time. The big thinker spurs us to try something and the individual gives us the encouragement to see that even the little things can really help.
Do you think the problems of the world are too overwhelming for you to make a difference? We can't all be like Malala, but God does call us all to do what we can to glorify Him in this world. What have you noticed needs to be done in your neighborhood, town, nation or the world? Is there a hungry family? Can you raise awareness about an injustice in your town or nation? How can you make God's name known in this world? What is God calling YOU to do today? You don't need to be overwhelmed because if God is calling you to something, He will equip you to do it.
Remember this, however: God is calling you to that work. He has His own plan and calling for the others. Do your work to glorify God whether it is the big, impossible idea or the individual act of helpfulness, for in doing so you will spur others and encourage them in their calling. Let your light shine according to God's good and perfect will.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 19, 2015, Eighth Sunday of Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44
"But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ." Ephesians 2:13, ASV
I have a confession to make, but you have to keep it between us: in all the years I have been active in churches, I have never served on the leadership council. Oh, I've had plenty of leadership roles, often relating to the women or children of the church. I've worked on committees and taken on projects. It isn't that I was never asked to serve on council, but I never felt it was the place where God was calling me to serve. I'm actually better at serving behind the scenes, accomplishing the work that needs to be done rather than making decisions.
It wasn't always easy. We have all had experiences in the church that have been disappointing and hurtful. We all know a council president who was focused more on his power and position than on God's will or what was right for the church. We all know the committee chair who has lots of ideas but who does not want to do any of the hard work. We all know a pastor who is so busy with the business of church that he has forgotten to be a shepherd to his sheep. We also know that none of us are perfect. It is important for us to remember that we are all sinners in need of a Savior, and that the Savior came to break down the barriers that we create between one another.
See, we live in a world where individuals will always have differences of opinion. We experience God's grace according to our circumstances. An orphan will understand the idea of our Father in a much different way than someone who grew up in a strong family and someone who experienced an abusive situation. That doesn't change God at all. God is God. He is the "I AM."
What it does change is the way we relate to one another. We think that everyone should see God as we do, but they can't. Those of us who grew up in a strong family environment simply can't understand why an abused child can't relate to God as a Father or why the orphan does not know how to live in a relationship with a Father figure. We can't see God through their eyes and we can't expect that they will see Him through ours. We can only dwell together as children of the God who is big enough to reach us all.
He reaches us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus is the One who can break down all the barriers between us, who has revealed to us the one thing we have in common. We don't have to be the same to belong to God and to do His work in the world. We need those who see God from unique eyes to share their experiences so that we know that God is truly greater than we can ever imagine. Do we really want to worship a God who fits into our tiny little boxes?
The Jews and the pagan Christians had nothing in common. They came from very different backgrounds and had very different ideas about life and the world. However, Jesus Christ offered something new: a common denominator between very different people. In Christ both the Jews and the pagan Christians were part of the same family. They became citizens of the same kingdom under God the King. Despite their differences, they had something greater that could bond them together: the blood of Christ. This is very good news for those of us who were once strangers to the mercy of God. We are given by grace the joy and peace and hope found in Christ, joined together with everyone who has also heard and believed in Jesus Christ as one body despite our differences.
The passage from Ephesians specifically talks about the difference between Gentile and Jew, but we have our own borders and walls that can be broken down by the love of Christ. We separate ourselves for a multitude of reasons – age, gender, race or creed. We also separate ourselves based on petty or trivial reasons. How many congregations live in tension between the group that wants red carpet and the group that wants blue? How many congregations are made up of different groups that can't seem to work together? Some folk think the mission of the church is to feed the poor and that we should focus on social justice and political issues. Others think that our mission is solely to take God's Word into the world. Yet others think church is to feed and care for the believers. To embrace one and ignore the others is to reject the full measure of God's calling for our lives. Jesus took care of the physical, mental and spiritual needs of His disciples even while caring for the physical, mental and spiritual needs of others. In just a few short lines in today's Gospel story, Jesus did it all.
The disciples finally returned from their journey that they began in our texts a few weeks ago. They were excited about all that they saw and did, but they were exhausted. They needed a break, although it seemed like the stream of people wanting to see them was endless. Jesus took them aside so that they could have something to eat and rest. Mark tells us that the people saw them and followed. The crowds weren't just following Jesus now; they knew that the disciples could also heal and cast out demons. They saw Him in their words and actions The Word of God was drawing people to the community of believers that Jesus created. He is the center, but He is building us all into one body, the Temple, His Temple. In Christ we are being built into one temple, the temple in which God dwells.
It is not always easy living in that temple. Unfortunately, the differences that separate us often lead us into places we would rather not go. There are dark valleys even in the heart of the church, as the differences between people are magnified by the passions of those called to serve. We are reminded of something in today's texts, though. God is with us through it all. He has never promised to make it easy, but He has promised to be there.
Our neighbor on the church pew or in the congregation down the street is no less or no more a Christian than us even if they see God and our mission differently. We were all once far away and now we are one, dwelling in the temple of God. Jesus did not come to accomplish the things that we have on our checklist or in our agenda. He didn't come just for the body or the mind or the spirit. He came to bring wholeness to our individual selves and to the world. He feeds us physically, mentally and spiritually. He heals our body, our mind and our spirit. He makes us whole as individuals and as the body of Christ. He has crossed the borders and broken down the walls that are meant to divide and separate.
There must be a hundred sermons found in this week's lectionary texts and I am certain that if you went to a hundred different churches you would hear them all. These topics or themes touch our lives very deeply; they reach us right where we are in this day. Are we confused? There is hope. Are we mourning? There is hope. Do we need to be challenged to reach beyond ourselves? There is hope. Are we afraid that there is no hope? By God's grace, there is always hope. There is hope even when we seem to be so fiercely divided because we have a common bond: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the promised Shepherd who would lead God's people according to His good and perfect will.
While there are those who might not be able to relate to the idea of God as Father, we can see in today's psalm that God is everything a Father is meant to be. He is the One who provides everything we need - food, water, shelter, guidance, protection and love. Did God hand us the keys to our home or go grocery shopping? Of course not. However we can trust that through good times and bad, God will be by our side. The ultimate fear is death, but we all walk through different types of valleys as we live in this world. We walk through the valleys of illness, broken relationships, and financial insecurity. We walk through the valleys of doubt, confusion, and pain. We walk through the valleys of anger, hatred and fear. We experience difficult times, things that affect our understanding of our neighbors, of the world and of our God.
Rabbi Harold Kushner was once interviewed by Bob Abernathy about his book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." He said, "The twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question 'How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?' People who have been hurt by life get stuck in 'the valley of the shadow,' and they don't know how to find their way out. And that's the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again." The sheep know they are safe when the shepherd is nearby. The crowds knew they had hope when they saw Jesus. This is the key to life: living in faith, trusting in the God who is never far away, whether He is like a Father or a Shepherd or a King. He is all of those and so much more.
And like the disciples, He calls and sends us out in the world to heal, cast out demons and share His Kingdom with others. Like the disciples, the world will begin to look to us, too. We must remember that we are not the Savior. It is exciting to see success as we do God's work but it is never our success. They might seem to be coming for us, but we must always remember that it is the Word of God that draws the world to the church.
We can't do it all, at least not by ourselves. But that is why God calls us into community -- one body made up of people from all sorts of different backgrounds with different gifts and passions. There is no reason why a church can't be both a social advocate and a teaching congregation even while meeting the spiritual needs of the believers. As a matter of fact, we should be all these things and more. However, we can't do it if we hold each other and these missions against one another. We have a common bond: Jesus Christ. It is by His blood that we are reconciled to God and drawn together as one body to do the amazing things He has called and sent us into the world to do.
"Jehovah is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? Jehovah is the strength of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid? When evil-doers came upon me to eat up my flesh, Even mine adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell. Though a host should encamp against me, My heart shall not fear: Though war should rise against me, Even then will I be confident. One thing have I asked of Jehovah, that will I seek after; That I may dwell in the house of Jehovah all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of Jehovah, And to inquire in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me secretly in his pavilion: In the covert of his tabernacle will he hide me; He will lift me up upon a rock. And now shall my head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me. And I will offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto Jehovah. Hear, O Jehovah, when I cry with my voice: Have mercy also upon me, and answer me. When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; My heart said unto thee, Thy face, Jehovah, will I seek. Hide not thy face from me; Put not thy servant away in anger: Thou hast been my help; Cast me not off, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation. When my father and my mother forsake me, Then Jehovah will take me up. Teach me thy way, O Jehovah; And lead me in a plain path, Because of mine enemies. Deliver me not over unto the will of mine adversaries: For false witnesses are risen up against me, And such as breathe out cruelty. I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of Jehovah In the land of the living. Wait for Jehovah: Be strong, and let thy heart take courage; Yea, wait thou for Jehovah." Psalm 27, ASV
I usually do my laundry on Wednesday unless something changes in my schedule or I have something that has to be cleaned immediately. The three or four loads that Bruce and I create in a week are easily finished in a few hours and I am able to save resources by filling the machines instead of many small loads throughout the week.
As I finished my laundry yesterday, I realized that I had worn clothes in the same color palette all week. Now, I have to admit that my laundry is often filled with similar colors, after all we all have our favorites, don't we? Well, usually I wear a lot of reds, including pinks or purples. Yesterday, however, nearly every shirt had shades of blue or turquoise. I know that the color of my clothes does not seem like a very important topic for a devotional about our relationship with God and how we live in this world. As an artist and a writer, I constantly look at the world for inspiration. Even the color I choose to wear in the morning has something to say about my relationship to the world around me and ultimately my God.
Perhaps color doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but we all do make color choices for specific reasons. Many of my paintings are simply layers of paint that end up as rainbows of color. I do these paintings as backgrounds for crosses or other symbols, and though there might be dozens of colors on the canvas, ultimately they tend toward a specific color like blue or green or red, depending on the symbol I plan to use.
Have you ever really thought about how many colors there are in the world? We often think of Roy G. Biv, the colors of the rainbow -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet -- but even within those color groupings there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of different hues and shades. Look at a tree outside your window. We say that a tree is green, but have you ever noticed how many different colors of green are there? You can't paint a realistic looking tree with just one tube of paint. You have to mix in some white and black to get highlights and shadows, but also some yellows, browns, blues and even reds. We can say a tree is green, but ultimately the tree is more than green. This is one of the reasons why there is such a difference between the pictures of a child using an eight count box of crayons and the paintings of a master artist using a palette full of paint.
Let's think about this now in terms of how we see God. There is nothing so simple and beautiful than the love of a child for Jesus. The song "Jesus loves me" is probably all we really need to get through life in this world. And yet, if that was all we truly needed, then we would never have to open the scriptures for ourselves. We would not need to bother going to church on Sunday to listen to the preaching of our pastors or to hear the great hymns of the church. We would not really even have to pray because we would not need God to reveal Himself to us in any greater way. But is that how we want to live our faith in this world? Do we really want to limit ourselves to green trees when there is so much more depth in the details and many colors?
It probably doesn't matter what color I choose to wear in the morning; what does matter is that we look for God in the world around us. As we look at the green trees we can see the hand of our Creator. As we choose our clothing for the day we can praise Him for the many blessings we have in this world, like the choice between a red or blue shirt. We can also prayerfully seek God's will for us this day. Where will He have us go? What will He have us do? Who will He place in our path so that we can share His grace? Even the most simple and mundane things in the world can make us think about our God and in doing so, we give God the chance to fill our lives with more color and the opportunity to paint the world with His grace.
"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors. And his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren; and they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren: and they hated him yet the more." Genesis 37:3-5, ASV
We all know that we are not supposed to have a favorite child. Each of our children should be loved equally. The problem is, what does that mean? Does that mean that parents must ensure that every child has exactly the same amount of stuff under the Christmas tree or that they all have the same number of birthday parties? Does that mean that parents must make sure that she spends the same number of minutes helping a child with their homework or attend the same number of special events? What if one child is interested in sports and another in art? How do you make sure that you are not treating them in a way that seems to favor one over the other, particularly if the parent is more interested in one over the other.
I have two children. I don't have a favorite, but it might not always seem that way. When the kids were in High School, I attended more of my daughter's theater events than I did my son's golf tournaments. That doesn't mean I loved my son less than my daughter. He received more of my attention in other ways that seemed unfair to my daughter. My daughter and I always joked that she was my favorite, and in some ways there might be some truth to it. We had more in common. She needed me in different ways. But my son never suffered from want of my attentions. I loved them equally, but differently. Other parents can probably identify with this truth.
Jacob favored Joseph. There is no getting around it. Joseph was the beloved son, the favorite. It is understandable; Joseph was the son of the favorite wife. He worked fourteen years to marry Rachel and for much of their lives it appeared she would never bear a child. Israel had plenty of offspring, sons and a daughter from Leah and their two servants. Rachel's children, Joseph and Benjamin, were the last of the thirteen, and Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. Both were born when Jacob was quite old. It is no wonder that they were beloved and it is apparent from Jacob's actions that Joseph was the favorite of all.
We know from the rest of Joseph's story that he was a favored one of God. He was given the gift of dreams and interpretation, a vision of the future and an understanding of how to prepare for difficult times. He ended up in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. He was chosen to be God's hand in the salvation of many.
Jacob honored his son by giving him a special cloak, a cloak of many colors. Most cloaks were simple and practical, especially those of shepherds like Jacob's sons. A cloak of many colors was a sign of royal status, a garment meant for those in authority. In light of Joseph's dreams and his story, it is a foretelling of Joseph's future. He would eventually be in the position of one who could wear such a coat, but that day was a long way off.
That very coat, that great gift, actually turned out to be the catalyst for his problems. The tangible proof of Jacob's love for Joseph made the brothers angry and resentful. I don't think that Joseph knew what he was saying when he told his brothers about the dreams, but we see in hindsight that he was prophesying their future. The brothers, already upset by the cloak, thought Joseph was trying to usurp the authority that should have never been his. They threatened to kill him and then sold him into slavery. He suffered other difficulty as a prisoner for rejecting Pharaoh's wife. He was used, abused and forgotten. Then one day everything fell into place according to God's good and perfect will. Joseph knew that his suffering was for good and even told his brothers after they had been saved from famine, "Fear not: for am I in the place of God? And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive."
We have been given an incredible gift. We have been clothed by the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ. This robe is a sign of God's favor, of our adoption as sons and daughters of the greatest King. This robe will cause others to be jealous, angry and resentful, even as we try to share the Gospel of love and mercy with them. The world will reject us, perhaps even threaten to kill us or sell us into slavery. We may suffer at their hands. They will see us like Joseph, thinking that we consider ourselves better because of the gift we have been given. There might have been some arrogance in the young boy with a colorful cloak. It is likely that we have had our own moments of superiority, after all we are all sinners. The encouragement for us in the story of Joseph is that God is in control. Even if we suffer at the hands of others or because of our own sin, we can know that in the end God's good and perfect will shall be done and that we, too, have been chosen to be God's hands in the salvation of many.
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think as to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to each man a measure of faith. For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members have not the same office: so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another. And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting: he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness." Romans 12:1-8, ASV
We have been finding our place in a new church ever since our mission congregation closed early this year. It is always difficult to find a way to fit into an environment that already has people doing the work which you are gifted to do. They want to help you become involved, but how do you schedule another bible class when there are already classes in every room? So, they try to find other things for you to do. One person at another church insisted that I'd be perfect for the finance committee. I am not sure what made him think so, but I think he was more concerned with filling a hole than in finding a place where my spiritual gifts would glorify God and build His Church.
It is fairly easy for Bruce to fit into a congregation, especially if they have a choir. He has a marvelous voice and has shared his talents with many choirs over the years, including the one at our new church. He has also been added to the list for canting the liturgy. I'm sure there are more ways he can be active in the community, but at least he's got a start.
I met one of his new choir friends in church yesterday and she was very excited to meet me. Now, choir is not a choice for me because I've inherited a complete lack of musical ability from my family. We are all terrible singers. I don't mind; I have plenty of other talents and gifts that I can use to share my faith both in church and the world. I always joke that I didn't get that one talent because I have so many other gifts. It wouldn't be fair if I got every good thing, right? Oh, I sing. Actually, I make a joyful noise to the Lord, but the choir is meant to be a group of people who are gifted and talented with leading the congregation in those joyful noises. I don't fit that description.
I laughed and answered, "No." She went on and on about how fun it would be to have me there and how I could add another voice. She even determined from the few words I spoke that I have a lovely alto voice and that the choir could us me. Once again I was faced with the opportunity to serve God's people in the wrong way. Yes, I meant to say "the wrong way." How could serving God in any way be wrong? Well, if it isn't the way God has gifted and called us to serve, then it isn't the right way.
The woman was unwilling to take "no" as an answer. "It doesn't matter if you can't sing! We will take anyone!" she said, more concerned with adding another voice than with finding the right voices. I understand her persistence, after all we can't accomplish anything if we give up at the first rejection. Where would the Church be if we did? We know that when it comes to listening for God, it is important that we listen to other voices because God might just be calling us to something we aren't expecting. However, it is just as important for us to listen to God's voice when we are inviting people to serve Him in our community. Sometimes we need to accept that the answer is "no."
See, when we push people to do what we want them to do, we cause them to wonder if they are really hearing God's voice. Yes, we must be persistent in helping one another discover the work that God has for us to do in this world and in His Church. However, we must make the commitment to actually find what that is, not to try to convince one another to do what we want them to do. God has created a perfect body and all believers have the right place. When someone says "no" to our requests, let's remember to seek God's word on the matter, so that we are truly following God's will as a community of faith.
"I will give thee thanks with my whole heart: Before the gods will I sing praises unto thee. I will worship toward thy holy temple, And give thanks unto thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name. In the day that I called thou answeredst me, Thou didst encourage me with strength in my soul. All the kings of the earth shall give thee thanks, O Jehovah, For they have heard the words of thy mouth. Yea, they shall sing of the ways of Jehovah; For great is the glory of Jehovah. For though Jehovah is high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly; But the haughty he knoweth from afar. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me; Thou wilt stretch forth thy hand against the wrath of mine enemies, And thy right hand will save me. Jehovah will perfect that which concerneth me: Thy lovingkindness, O Jehovah, endureth for ever; Forsake not the works of thine own hands." Psalm 138, ASV
We live in a world with a million distractions which makes it difficult to focus on one thing for even a few minutes. It is never easy to find a few quiet moments to worship God in our homes. We are distracted by our children, our computes, our phones. The washer and dryer buzzers go off or the doorbell is rung by another salesman in the middle of our prayers, demanding our attention. Somehow we manage to get through, giving God the best we can even though we know it isn't our best. We hope that somehow we can give Him better on Sunday morning in church.
Unfortunately, there are often distractions in church, too. Those children don't get any quieter in the sacred space of the sanctuary, and while most of us are happy to see children in the pews, we also know it can be quite distracting. The sanctuary is not immune to the phone, either, as cell phones now travel with us wherever we go. Most of us try to remember to turn down the volume, but we have all been embarrassed by the telltale sound of an incoming text or phone call because we forgot this one time. If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that we are also distracted by other things. We overhear the conversations of our neighbors in the pews. We are distracted by that parishioner that insists on wearing a bottle of perfume. We are caught off guard by a mistake in the bulletin or a bad choice in hymns.
We are imperfect and we live in an imperfect world. We will never experience worship as we will in heaven until that blessed day when we are called to dwell in God's presence forever. But we try. We try to create the best atmosphere both at home and at church. The worship committee tries to present well-planned services, with a strong choir, trained volunteers and a pastor prepared with God's Word for the Church. While we want our worship to be unencumbered and free to let the Spirit move among God's people, we also know that Spirit-filled worship can be well organized. A sermon need not be off-the-cuff to be a powerful display of the Spirit's guidance in a preacher's words. The musicians should be well practiced so that they can lead the congregation in worship. A liturgy and bulletin helps us to remember to worship God in all ways properly in word and sacrament and prayer.
However, the best laid plans often go astray. Our worship was well focused on Sunday and God was being glorified in wonderful ways. Our pastor was reading from the Gospel lesson when we all became distracted. Something was going on in a pew across the room from where I was sitting, and people began walking back and forth along the aisle. Our pastor stopped mid-sentence and told us that we'd stop for a moment, that we should pray and then he walked over to the situation. Chairs were moved. A member who is a nurse went over. A wheelchair was brought into the sanctuary. We could see there was activity outside. After a few minutes, someone was wheeled out and our pastor returned to the front of the church.
He announced that a member was having trouble breathing, but that EMS was outside to help her. He led us in prayer and then returned to the pulpit. Instead of picking up where he left off, he began the reading again, then preached the sermon planned for the day. The rhythm of worship returned and though I don't think we have forgotten to pray for the woman who got sick, we quickly resumed our focus on God. I have to say that I was blessed by the way our pastor handled the situation, calling us to prayer as a congregation together. Oh, we craned our necks to see what was happening. We whispered with our neighbors. We worried and wondered but yes, we prayed. Then when our pastor returned to the pulpit, we were ready to worship again.
It is a fact of life that the world gets in our way. The phone will ring and the kids will need us, but I think the biggest problem with the distractions is that we let them make us forget what we were doing; the interruption becomes an excuse to move on to something new. Sometimes it is necessary. We can't say to the woman who is having a medical issue that she should wait an hour until worship is over. We shouldn't push aside our children or ignore the doorbell because the needs of those distractors might be real and great. It might even be God breaking into our worship to call us to service for Him. The key to dealing with those distractions is not to avoid them, but to learn how to quickly to deal with it and then resume our time with God.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 26, 2015, Ninth Sunday of Pentecost: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 136:1-9; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 6:45-56
"Oh give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; For his lovingkindness endureth for ever." Psalm 136:1, ASV
Their hearts were hardened. This statement about the disciples from today's Gospel lesson amazes me. How could they have lived and worked and walked with Jesus for so long, probably about two years, and not believe Jesus could do miraculous things? The passage ties their hard hearts with their misunderstanding about the feeding of the five thousand. What did they believe happened on that hillside that day? Did they, like so many in today's world, simply downplay the miracle because they could not explain it?
See, there are some, even in the Church, who have suggested that Jesus did not really feed more than five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish, but that those who were there added to the meal food that they were carrying with them, sharing what they had among all the people. In this way all were fed; they claim there is no reason to make this story supernatural in character. Perhaps the disciples had a similar mindset. It doesn't explain how they ended up with twelve full baskets of leftovers, though.
This miracle is so outside our natural experience that it isn't surprising that we moderns want to diminish the miraculous aspects of the Jesus story because we have a more thorough understanding of science and the world. Intellectually we know that five loaves and two fish cannot feed more than five thousand people. We also know that a church potluck dinner can be miraculous in the way a crowd is left stuffed and satisfied because everyone contributes to the meal, so why not believe this could be the answer?
The trouble with this, as Mark tells us in today's passage, is that their misunderstanding (whatever it was) of Jesus' miraculous feeding of the five thousand left them unable to believe that Jesus could do other miraculous things. They were frightened by Him when He came to them on the water. They were amazed when the winds died down after He got into the boat. They had a hard time believing the things they were experiencing with Jesus; their hearts were hardened.
We often think of hard hearts in terms of rejection, not just unbelief. Take, for example, the story of Pharaoh. His heart was hardened against the God of Moses, but not just that he didn't believe, but that his hard heart caused him to do harm to God's people. We have a hard time thinking that the disciples had hard hearts because they continued to follow Him. They didn't reject Him, they simply did not know what to believe. We have similarly hard hearts when it comes to God's miraculous work in our lives, often finding some physical, earthly explanation for the miraculous rather than believing that God could and would do such a thing for us. In this way we are no different than those who opposed Jesus in those days, who argued against Jesus' work because it did not fit their understanding of the world.
We won't see the next part of the story for a few weeks (in August we will focus on John's bread texts) but beginning at Mark 7:1, the Pharisees come to argue that Jesus could not be who He says He is because He does not fit into their understanding of what the Messiah should be and do. His disciples don't follow the right rules. Jesus answers their questions with a quote from Isaiah about honoring God with lips but not hearts. They have lost sight of the One they claim to worship because they don't believe in the One He sent.
We eventually see that though the disciples do not fully understand what was happening around them in and through Jesus, their hearts are softened in the only way possible, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have that same indwelling Spirit that was gifted to them at Pentecost, and now we join them in learning how to see God's hand in the miraculous as well as in the everyday. God's lovingkindness endures forever.
God's lovingkindness endures forever. It was this verse (repeated over and over again in today's psalm) that set me off on a websurfing adventure of discovery. I was curious about the word that is translated 'lovingkindness' and quickly discovered that many have been equally as curious. See, it seems to make sense in the nine verses that have been selected for today's Psalm reading, but it gets a little iffy if you more of the passage. The psalmist goes on to talk about smiting the first born of the Egyptians, and then smiting and slewing kings. He is telling the story of how God moved Israel's enemies and oppressors out of the way so that He could lead His people to the Promised Land, but smiting and slewing doesn't sound very loving and kind.
As it turns out, the Hebrew word used in this passage is 'hesed' (there are multiple ways of spelling it) and it is not fully understood by any of the experts because it isn't used outside the limited religious literature of the ancient world. Most of our translations of it are based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts, the Septuagint, and somehow in the process the Greek focused on this idea of lovingkindness. That understanding continued with further translations. This was not just true of those translations done by Christians; many of the Jewish translations also use the idea of lovingkindess for 'hesed.'
The ASV (which is the version I use in this writing because it is public domain) translates it lovingkindness, but 'hesed' can be translated in other ways: love, kindness, unfailing love, great love, mercy, loving, kindnesses, unfailing kindness, acts of devotion, devotion, favor, approval, devout, faithful, faithfully, glory, good favor, grace, kind, kindly, loving-kindness, loyal, merciful, well. These all give us a sense of the word, but it leaves out something important. It is actually a loving loyalty based on a covenantal relationship. God's 'hesed' (lovingkindness) comes to us because He has established a bond between Himself and His people. When we share that 'hesed' (lovingkindness) with others, we do so because we are in a relationship with them, but even more so because we are in a relationship with Him.
The other thing I discovered about this passage is that there is no Hebrew word there to be translated to 'endures.' The word was probably added to give some clarification to the ongoingness of God's lovingkindness. It is not something that will fail, it will continue no matter what else happens.
So, I found a bible scholar who retranslated the passage, "God's lovingkindness endures forever," as "Because forever is His loyalty." God will do what He has said He will do because He has established us as His people in a covenantal relationship. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords. He has done good things for His people. He created the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. He kept His promise to Abraham by saving His people from Egypt. He delivered them into the Promised Land, just as He promised. He remembers His people, saves us from our adversaries, and provides for us. He is good and He deserves our thanks and praise. This is a matter of trust; we can trust God because forever is His loyalty. God's lovingkindness endures forever.
'Hesed' is about the covenantal relationship between God and His people. We, of course, look to Mt. Sinai for this, but God made multiple covenants with His people. The first of them is found in today's Old Testament passage from Genesis. In this passage we tend to focus on the rainbow and the promise that it signifies, but let us always remember that this is an unconditional promise from God never to destroy all earthly life with some natural catastrophic event. In this covenant, God establishes a relationship between Himself and all of His creation. We know that there are still floods in this world, sometimes catastrophic floods, but we can trust that God will keep this promise and we are reminded about His faithfulness each time we see the rainbow in the clouds.
I wanted to note the use of the word lovingkindness in one more passage, even though it was not part of today's lectionary. In Exodus 34:6-7, Moses is receiving the second set of tablets. See, had already climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai and received the first set, but when he went back to the people in the camp he discovered that they had stopped trusting in God. Their hearts were hardened when they thought that Moses was lost forever and they turned to the golden calf for comfort. Moses smashed the first set of tablets in anger; the people did not deserve God's great gift of the Commandments that bound Him with them forever. Many of the Israelites died by sword and by plague at the bottom of that mountain.
The worst part of this story is that God told Moses to leave the foot of the mountain with all the people that remained. He told them that they would be led to the Promised Land by an angel, but that He would not go with them. "…for I will not go up in the midst of thee, for thou art a stiffnecked people, lest I consume thee in the way." The people were frightened and began to mourn this judgment against them and they begged Moses to seek God's mercy. Moses reminded God of His covenant promise with Israel, and He relented. "My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest." Moses went up on the mountain with new tablets and God came down out of the cloud and wrote the words of the commandments on the new tablets for His people.
In doing so, God reestablished the Sinaitic covenant. "And Jehovah passed by before him, and proclaimed, Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, keeping lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation." Even though His people had not remained faithful, even though their hearts were hardened, God remembered His promise to Abraham and was lovingly loyal to them based on that covenant. We are part of that covenant, adopted as His people through faith in Jesus Christ.
We see God's lovingkindness in the relationship Jesus has with His disciples. They have hard hearts in today's Gospel lesson, just like the Pharisees, but that doesn't stop Jesus from showing them who He is. He doesn't abandon them because they don't quite understand. He continues to pull them in His wake, knowing that they will one day have the Holy Spirit to make all this clear. He continues to let them witness His power as He heals the sick.
I find it interesting that in this story the people recognize Him, and then run throughout the region to call those who are sick into His presence. People were drawn to Him wherever He went, laying their sick in His path so that they would be healed. Many even believed that all they needed was to touch the edge of His cloak (as we saw in the old woman a few weeks ago) and they begged Him to let them do so. "And as many as touched Him were made whole." They seem to believe better than Jesus' own disciples.
God does not cast us away. Jesus continued to walk with the disciples at His side, loving them even though they did not really know Him. That lovingkindness, that 'hesed,' is not conditional. There is nothing we can do to earn it or expect it from God. It is given freely because God has made a covenant with us. He loves us and we are bound to Him because of that covenant, not because we have done anything to deserve it. He offers Himself for us to know, to love, to trust and we are called as His people to respond to His 'hesed' with joy and praise.
The passage from Paul's letter to the Ephesians is a prayer for God's people, that they who bear His name will experience the love of God fully and completely as He transforms our lives and makes us whole. In this passage, the word for love is the Greek word 'agape.' While there are similarities between these words, the love of God found in and through Jesus Christ is an even deeper, more permanent word. It is a word that calls us to more than trust. It calls us to a self-sacrificing love of God and neighbor. It calls us to an active life of trusting God.
We are comforted by the story of the disciples because we see God's faithfulness even when we are not faithful. And while we do see the crowds flocking to Jesus, seeking His grace, we know that many of them did not continue to walk with Him to the cross. The disciples, that rag-tag bunch of misunderstanding misfits, may have had hard hearts in this story, but they stayed the course and followed Jesus anyway. They trusted Him long enough to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might know Jesus and experience His lovingkindness in a very real way. May we stay on that same course, trusting that He will always be lovingly loyal because we are part of His covenant people, experiencing His grace in ways that will continue to heal us and make us whole.
“My son, if thou wilt receive my words, And lay up my commandments with thee; So as to incline thine ear unto wisdom, And apply thy heart to understanding; Yea, if thou cry after discernment, And lift up thy voice for understanding; If thou seek her as silver, And search for her as for hid treasures: Then shalt thou understand the fear of Jehovah, And find the knowledge of God. For Jehovah giveth wisdom; Out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding: He layeth up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to them that walk in integrity; That he may guard the paths of justice, And preserve the way of his saints. Then shalt thou understand righteousness and justice, And equity, yea, every good path.” Proverbs 2:1-9 (ASV)
Identical twins are exactly the same, so they make the perfect subjects for medical and biological studies. The outcome of such research is more reliable because there are fewer variables. There was a well-bred man, often described as refined and intelligent, who was fascinated by the study of twins; he even wrote a paper about it in university. He became a doctor and was active in several civic organizations. He was quite popular and successful, but he was also a rabid racist. Dr. Josef Mengele was a German war criminal who participated in Auschwitz; he was known as “the angel of death.” He sent four hundred thousand Jews and Gypsies to their death in the gas chambers and he conducted horrific experiments on the prisoners. He welcomed every delivery of prisoners even when he was not on duty to ensure that all sets of twins were given for his research. It might have seemed as though ‘patients’ were treated better than others because they had a special dorm and enough rations to keep them healthy. However, he never considered those prisoners as human, so he did whatever he wanted to their bodies.
Josef Mengele was probably not the first to consider using twins for research, but his lack of moral compass made him abuse his God-given gifts, using his knowledge in all the wrong ways, causing incredible suffering to many. Mengele seemed to be incredibly blessed in the days of his power and position, people jumped to do his will, but ultimately his life proved worthless. After the war he escaped to South America where he lived until 1979 when he died of a stroke. His research papers have never been found, but the little that we do know about his findings from his studies is absolutely useless medically and scientifically. He might have been able to accomplish great things in his research had he followed God's wisdom, but now he is only remembered for the horrors he committed and for the lives he destroyed because of his evil immorality and skewed understanding of the world.
Dr. Josef Mengele sought wisdom, knowledge and understanding, but he lacked a moral compass and did not have the fear of the Lord. His skewed understanding of the world made him follow an evil path, selfishly using others to satisfy his own unfettered curiosity. He destroyed lives because he did not fear the Lord’s justice and in the end he paid the price for his wrong path. As we look back on those days we wonder how so many people could have accepted so much evil, we can't understand how someone like Josef Mengele could have been so blessed, popular and gifted.
It might have seemed like those in power in that horrific time ruled the world. Sadly, they ruled too much of it for a season much too long. Those who had no moral compass or fear of the Lord caused unspeakable harm to millions of people. They sought knowledge and understanding, but never really sought wisdom because they did not look to the God who guides us in ways of mercy and truth. If we do not seek that wisdom that leads us to a humble fear of the Lord, we end up dead and our lives are meaningless. God calls us to listen, to hear His words and to obey His commands. When we seek Him and His wisdom, we walk a path of righteousness and justice and our ultimate end is eternal life with Christ.
"The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works; There is none that doeth good. Jehovah looked down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there were any that did understand, That did seek after God. They are all gone aside; they are together become filthy; There is none that doeth good, no, not one. Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge, Who eat up my people as they eat bread, And call not upon Jehovah? There were they in great fear; For God is in the generation of the righteous. Ye put to shame the counsel of the poor, Because Jehovah is his refuge. Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When Jehovah bringeth back the captivity of his people, Then shall Jacob rejoice, and Israel shall be glad." Psalm 14, ASV
So, yes, I sometimes watch the show "Ancient Aliens." I never really believed what they were saying, but I watched because it was humorous to see how they'd explain away any credible explanations for the mysteries of the world. My daughter always thought I was crazy, especially when I shared the latest theory with her. I still watch it occasionally, but I find it extremely difficult to do so because the theories have gone from humorous to foolish.
According to their experts, there is nothing that can't be credited to alien astronauts. I could laugh at the interpretations of art or the explanations about incredible human accomplishments. I could even laugh when they claimed angelic or spiritual appearances were actually aliens. I think my turning point was when they claimed that there was no such thing as a god, but that the gods were our misinterpretation of the ancient aliens that came to create and develop our world. One of the experts even told us that we only have religious beliefs because we are not intellectual enough to accept the truth which is that ancient aliens are the ones who made us what we are. Those of us with faith in God are the stupid, foolish ones.
I read part of a transcript today of an interview with an archeologist who calls all these theories ridiculous. He is known in the world for his work in the field, although his work has always been to challenge those theories. He said his interest began when he was just a teenager, early college, and he had a conversation with a hairstylist who asked what he thought about the theory that aliens built the pyramids. He had not heard this theory and thought she must be mistaken. This happened about the time with Erich von Daniken's book "The Chariots of the Gods" was newly released and very popular. He soon heard the theory again and realized that the hairdresser was referring to the theories in the book. He has spent his life refuting those claims.
He told the interviewers that he often gets asked to be an expert on shows like Ancient Aliens. They don't realize when they ask that he would never suit their purpose. They know he is a name associated with the topic, so they assume he must be a believer. He told them that he'd be happy to be on their show but that he thought he should tell them that he thinks the theories are execrable bull****. He never heard from them again. He did receive a pile of information and an invitation from one of their experts to join him at a meeting of the Ancient Astronaut Society.
It is pretty obvious that the experts that appear on the show believe what they are saying; I'm not sure if they believe it as pseudoscientists or if they believe it because it has lined their pockets. I've often wondered, however, if the guy that does the voiceover narration believes what he is scripted to say, or does he shake his head in disbelief and silently laugh as he says, "Ancient astronaut theorists believe..."
It is pretty obvious to viewers that the experts on the television show have rejected the truth that is God our Creator. It is less obvious, however, how many others have rejected Him, too. Of course there are atheists who deny that there is a God, and there are those who have suggested that if there had even been a God, He was now dead. Less obvious are those who believe in God, but who have replaced Him with their own interpretation or expectation of Him. Sadly, we all have our own gods that we put ahead of the one true and living God of the scriptures. As the psalmist says, "They are all gone aside; they are together become filthy; There is none that doeth good, no, not one." We are all sinners in need of a Savior.
Paul references today's Psalm in his letter to the Romans, chapter three, reminding us all that we have all turned away. But God knows His people. We are saved by His grace; we are made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ. All have sinned and fallen short, but through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus we are justified by His grace. Without God we would all be fools, without God's grace we would all reject Him. But through Jesus Christ, we are invited to believe in the God who is our Creator and Redeemer.
"The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, And night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language; Their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, And their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, And rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.His going forth is from the end of the heavens, And his circuit unto the ends of it; And there is nothing hid from the heat thereof." Psalm 19:1-6, ASV
Last week our pastor preached about the importance of staying in God's Word even when we are on vacation. I had to admit that we did not do so during our trip in June. I had a bible in the car and several versions on my e-reader, but I did not open them. I might have found some inspiration from Facebook posts, but not too many. I didn't do any research or writing. The book I was reading was not at all religious and the books we listened to in the car didn't have anything to do with Christianity. I didn't do any devotions and did not stay in God's Word during those ten days.
My excuse, of course, is that we spent most of those ten days either driving or hiking. We spent hours outside in the beauty of God's creation. We saw mountains and rivers. We saw the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon and hanging gardens of Zion. We saw lava rocks from ancient volcanos and the flora of many different types of ecological zones. We saw petrified wood and ancient petroglyphs. There is a white-tailed squirrel that lives only one place in the world, the Kaibab National Forest (at the Grand Canyon) and we saw one. There were birds, lizards and other critters. And we interacted with so many people, from fellow hikers to park rangers, to the employees at the restaurants and hotels where we ate and slept. There was something really special about experiencing all these things together, and while we did not open our bibles for ten days, God was with us too.
See, we could not visit any of these spectacular places without praising God for creating such beauty. There might be scientific explanations for the hoodoos of Bryce, but it took an incredible Creator to put all the pieces in place to make them happen. We did not gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we saw God's face in the other hikers and the opportunity to treat those who served us with grace and thanksgiving. We thanked God for the blessings that made it possible for us to experience it all. He was there with us and it was our awe for God that made the entire trip even more fulfilling.
Reading the scriptures, listening to preaching, praying with our brothers and sisters in Christ are all important parts of our spiritual journey, and our pastor was right: we should have found time for devotions and reading God's Word. We are reminded, however, that enjoying God's creation is another way to worship Him. Maltbie Babcock understood; whenever he went out to walk his favorite path in Lockport, New York, he said, "I am going out to see my Father's world." This led him to write a poem that became the beloved Christian hymn, "This is My Father's World." God created it all and gave it to us to enjoy it.
I'm not sure the weather is suitable for hiking right now, especially here in Texas, but we all have to go outside at some point this week. Look around you. See the grass and trees. Hear the singing of the birds. Notice that the world in which we live is awesome. Pay attention to the people, even the strangers. Share a smile or a happy word. Use every opportunity to treat them with kindness and to glorify Him as you share His grace. Laugh at the antics of the squirrels and be blessed by the beauty of each flower that grows. This is your Father's world and He has given it to us as a place to live and to love. Let us praise Him for it all, for He is worthy of our thanksgiving and praise.
"But ye, beloved, remember ye the words which have been spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; That they said to you, In the last time there shall be mockers, walking after their own ungodly lusts. These are they who make separations, sensual, having not the Spirit. But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have mercy, who are in doubt; and some save, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh." Jude 21:17-23, ASV
I went shopping at the outlet center yesterday. I've never been quite sure if I save any money when I make that shopping trip. The outlet center is an hour and a half away, so I used a quarter tank of gas. I was disappointed that I did not find some of the items I was there to buy, especially since I discovered several of my favorite stores are no longer there. I did have a pile of excellent coupons, so I knew that if I could find some good deals, I'd get even better deals. By the end of the day, I had done well on my shopping list and my wallet.
Now, I have to laugh a little about one stop during the day. I went into a sock store because Bruce needed some more socks for work. I found a clearance rack that had reduced socks that included a buy one get one special. Each pair of pairs cost me half of what one pair would cost me in a regular store. Then I found a clearance table that socks even cheaper. The regular priced socks were affordable, but the sales were unbelievable. Plus, I had a coupon! Unfortunately, as she rang up the order, we realized I was a few dollars short to benefit from the coupon. So, I got one more pair of pairs, which cost just enough to put me over the top.
Here's the funny thing: I spent six dollars to save five dollars. In the end, that was probably true of much of my day. The trip cost me several dollars in gasoline and lunch while I was out. I bought a pair of pants that were well priced for the brand, but I could have found a similar pair for less in a different one. I bought a few knives that I probably didn't need right now, but that I have a difficult time finding in other stores when I need a replacement. I stopped at one of our favorite places on the way home to get kolaches and cinnamon rolls to eat. We always think we are getting a great deal when we go to the outlet center, but in the end it probably didn't save us any money, and it may have even cost me more to go.
I had a good day. I found some things that were worth buying. I made my family happy with their new socks and pants. And don't tell anyone, but I got started on my Christmas shopping. I might have spent more than necessary, but it was a worthwhile trip. Good stewardship means keeping ourselves from being wasteful with our resources. That probably means I shouldn't drive an hour and a half to buy things I don't need. Perhaps I should have used those funds in a better way. That was the argument that Judas made when Mary anointed Jesus' feet. I don't mean to compare my shopping trip to a selfless, sacrificial act of love and devotion, but sometimes we just need to do things without counting the cost.
Imagine if God had counted the cost of sending His Son to die for us? We are just not worth the life of our Lord Jesus Christ; it was an incredible waste! We were once sinners and we continue to sin even after He has paid this great price to redeem an unworthy world. He went out of His way to save us even though it wasn't very cost effective. He didn't count the cost, and we are the beneficiaries of His generosity. Now we who have been saved are called to live a similarly selfless and sacrificial life, not counting the cost we might pay to share God's grace with others. Yes, it might appear as though we are being bad stewards of our resources, especially when our neighbors seem unworthy. Yet, Jesus Christ died for them, too, and every soul that is saved is worth a fortune to our Father.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 2, 2015, Tenth Sunday of Pentecost: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 145:10-21; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:22-35
"My mouth shall speak the praise of Jehovah; And let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever." Psalm 145:21, ASV
Have you ever gone on a road trip with children? I have a million stories I could tell you about trips from when I was a child to the recent trip with Bruce. Something interesting always happens along the way, sometimes those occurrences are not pleasant. When I was about thirteen, my mom and I took a road trip half-way across the country to visit my aunt. The car died late at night and we were stranded on the side of the highway. A very nice trucker stopped, picked us up and dropped us at the next truck stop. We found a tow truck driver, got the car fixed and went on our way again. The lesson we learned from that experience is never, ever put a sign "Kansas or Bust" in your back window; we broke down just hours after I did so.
We have interesting travels stories that include pets, too. I was driving from New Jersey to California with my mom and my cat. I was moving there to marry Bruce and begin a new life with him. We briefly stopped at a rest area in the middle of nowhere Midwestern states and then hurried back on the road. A few miles after we were back on the road I began to wonder about my cat. We called her. Mom looked as I drove. I pulled over to the side of the road and we searched in all the little hiding places. No cat.
We were certain she must have escaped when we stopped at the rest area. The next exit was miles away, but we turned around, drove to the previous exit, turned around and returned to the rest area, adding at least an hour onto our trip. I knew it was an impossible hope, but we had to try. We stopped the car and began looking around, hoping beyond hope that she was just scared and hiding in a bush. That's when she crawled out from under my car seat. I looked under my seat, of course, but she had crawled up into the seat, curled up and fell asleep. I was too relieved to be upset about the lost time and miles. She had this way of finding exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. She climbed into the box spring at one hotel; the box spring was bolted and unmovable, so I had to jump on the bed to scare her out.
Traveling is fun enough with adults and animals, but children add a whole other dimension to the experience. We drove from California to Pennsylvania with a side trip to North Carolina when Zack was just a few months old. It was summer and we were visiting family. Zack had not discovered the joy of standing yet when we left home, but it came to him while we were in Pennsylvania. He never wanted to get into his car seat again, which made for an interesting trip home.
The trouble with children is that they can verbally make their needs and annoyances known. "Mom, I have to go to the bathroom," always came a mile after the rest stop. "Mom, he's touching me!" "Mom, I'm hungry." "Mom, are we there yet?" That last one usually starts just a few miles from home, making the last three thousand miles exciting.
I have to admit that it was not until recently that I understood the timing of the Exodus events. I suppose I just didn't really think about it or I've based my understanding on the movies I've seen, but I never put the story into a timeline. It took them about twenty five days to get to the Red Sea. Pharaoh did not start chasing them until about a week before then. It was immediately after they crossed the sea and were safe that they began to grumble. Moses healed the bitter water a few days later. Four days after that, the people complained about having no meat. The quail fell that night and the manna was on the ground in the morning. They arrived at Mt. Sinai two weeks later, just forty eight days after the Passover. The people turned to golden calf before the 100th day.
It seems to me that it should have taken much longer for them to turn from the God who saved them from slavery, but in today's passage we see that they had already forgotten the bitterness of their oppression. "Would that we had died by the hand of Jehovah in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." It took thirty-three days for them to desire their old lives because at least their stomachs were full.
Our stomachs get a lot of attention, don't they? I spend a large portion of my day in the kitchen, cooking, cleaning up after meals, putting away groceries. I spend as much time planning those meals and shopping for the ingredients. Have you noticed how many recipes you see as you scroll through your Facebook timeline? Most news programs have segments that have to do with healthy eating or with restaurant reviews. I think most of us have experienced that moment when our tummies are grumbling and we can't decide what we want to eat. "There's nothing to eat in this house," is another favorite quote from my children.
In last week's Midweek Oasis, we talked about the feeding of the five thousand. The lectionary I use, which is the LSB version of the Revised Common Lectionary, mostly follows the RCL, with a few differences. Most churches heard John's version of the story last week. We heard Mark's. The stories end up at the same place, with the crowds demanding that Jesus take care of their physical needs. In John, Jesus recognizes the look in their eyes: they want a king that will fill their bellies.
We don't think about much when our bellies are grumbling. We don't think about our soul when we are hungry. We fight for the tangible things, but ignore the things that really matter. That's what Jesus saw in the crowds on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. After feeding a crowd of more than five thousand, the people were seeking Him for all the wrong reasons; they still did not understand. They recognized that He was the Messiah, but they wanted an earthly king. They wanted someone who would lead them out of occupation into a golden age of prosperity as a sovereign nation. They did not know that they had a deeper need, the need for forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. It didn't take long for them to turn away from Jesus because the message was too hard for them to accept. We'll see that in the weeks to come.
Today's passage from John juxtaposes the manna in the desert to the Bread from heaven which is Jesus. These things come from God. They are gifts from the One who cares for our every need, even the grumbling of our tummies. But as with the Israelites in the desert and the people by the Sea of Galilee, we are reminded that there is something much more important to understand here: these lessons are about trusting that God will provide us what we truly need.
Jesus didn't come to feed the hungry or heal the sick. He did those things to prove to the people that He is who He is. He did it, just like God proved Himself in the desert, to prove Himself to us. And all He wants in return is that we believe, and trust that He will do what is good and right and true. He will provide what we need. And while we do need food for our bellies, the true bread is Jesus. In Him is life; in Him is eternal life.
The final words of the Gospel passage are difficult to comprehend and believe. Jesus says, "...he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." I have believed and I have been hungry. What of those third world countries where faith in Christ is growing and moving and doing amazing things, yet also suffer great poverty, hunger and thirst even among those Christians who are living lives worthy of their calling. If you ask them, however, they will tell you that they have far more than we because they have learned to trust in God.
We live in our fancy homes with our cushy jobs and worry the minute there is a threat to our security. We grumble when we are hungry at four o'clock because we missed lunch. We look to false gods for our salvation, for our deliverance. We give credit to the wrong sources for our many blessings. We work hard for the perishable, giving far too little attention to the imperishable. Yet, active faith will naturally work the work that pleases God: to believe in the One whom He sent. That's the advantage those Christians have in this world. They have nothing on which to rely except God.
Paul was in prison when he wrote the letter to the Ephesians. Today's passage is so full of powerful words, words filled with God's grace for our lives. It begins with a difficult request. Paul asks the reader to "walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called." Here, once again, we see encouragement to work. Yet, what is the calling to which we are called? Jesus told us: to believe. This is not a passive faith; it is an active faith that naturally works the work that pleases God. It is the faith that leads to maturity, and that maturity leads to love. In love we live in unity and in peace in the body of Christ.
Paul begs us to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. What is that life? He goes on to say that we should live, "with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
We don't do this very well. We find it much easier to grumble when we feel our needs are not being met; we demand physical satisfaction when we really need Christ. The bonds of peace are too easily broken in our church over disagreements about things that simply do not matter. We are like children, whining for our own way about whether the carpet should be cardinal or brick colored, ignoring the true needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Does it matter to God the color of our carpet? Or is that the bread that perishes?
Paul tells us to grow up. We need to stop falling for every idea that comes our way, trusting as God builds His body the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. He has created the perfect machine, but we spend so much time chasing after that which satisfies our flesh that we forget to do the work that will bring glory and honor to our God. It did not take the Israelites very long to turn to the golden calf; we are as easily swayed by the ways of the world.
We will continue to study the Bread of Life over the next few weeks, and the lessons will get incredibly difficult for us to understand and accept. It will be so shocking to Jesus' audience that many will stop following Him. Jesus began this lesson with the feeding of the five thousand because He knows that we need to have our flesh satisfied before we can truly learn about our spirits. We can't stay there, however. We have to take the next step to truly believe in Jesus. He did not come to be an earthly king; He came to save the world.
That salvation is enough. We might not think so when we are two miles into a thousand mile journey or when we are standing in front of a refrigerator with nothing that we want to eat. But if we begin with thankfulness for God's salvation and praise for God's graciousness, then we will find that He generously helps us deal with the rest. We can join with the psalmist in singing the hymn of praise to the LORD who is the Great King of a kingdom that reaches far beyond this world. He has done great things; He saved His people and fed them as much quail and manna that they needed to be satisfied. He taught them to trust in Him, and while they failed over and over and over again, He continued to love them with His faithfulness to His promises.
We will fail. We focus too much on our stomachs and too little on our spirits. We forget the great things that God has done and turn again to the gods who promise to fill our bellies and satisfy our physical desires. We turn from God by demanding that He serve as our earthly King and ignore the greater Kingdom that He rules from heaven. We turn from Him when He demands more from us than we are willing to give or that we can understand. We forget to praise Him for our daily bread because we can't find anything that will satisfy our desires on the shelves of our pantries.
Why do we continue to put our trust in earthly things, human beings and man-made institutions that cannot do what God can do? The Israelites trusted in Moses, but He was not their savior. They didn't learn the lesson that God taught them in the desert. The Jews trusted that Jesus could be king, but they missed what Jesus was really teaching them when He fed them. There will be grumbling of bellies and mouths, but God hears and He is faithful to all His promises. He has called us to do the work that really matters, to believe in His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. From there He will work in and through us for the sake of the world.
"For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray and make request for you, that ye may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, unto all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks unto the Father, who made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love; in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins." Colossians 1:9-14, ASV
Why do you pray and what do you take to God in prayer? The research is varied, depending on the source of a survey, but they seem to average about fifty percent of Americans pray on a daily basis. We tend to pray for family and friends and about our own problems. Of course, our prayers are not always so honorable. According to one study, thirteen percent of respondents admitted that they pray for their favorite sports teams, seven percent pray for a good parking space or not to get a speeding ticket, five percent actually pray against people, for failure in life, relationships or jobs.
Despite being encouraged by Paul in the bible to pray for those in authority, only about twelve percent of Americans pray for our government officials, less than pray for their favorite sports team. Interestingly, about forty percent said that they prayed for an enemy or someone who has hurt them. We know that we are supposed to pray for them, but it would be interesting to know what kind of prayers they said; perhaps that number of five percent praying negatively is higher than we admit. I have to confess that I am sure that I have at some time, or many times, prayed negatively about someone who has hurt me. Twenty percent of respondents pray for those of other faiths. It would be interesting to know the content of those prayers, too. While Christians are encouraged to pray that everyone in the world will know Jesus Christ with a saving faith, is that our sole focus in those prayers?
The survey showed that more than fifty percent of people pray about good things that have happened recently, and we can hope that those were prayers of thanksgiving. About thirty six percent pray about God's greatness. I suppose that some of the prayers we say for family, friends and others are prayers of thanksgiving and praise for God's grace in their lives, but isn't it sad that of those of us who do pray daily so few focus on God?
We usually encourage one another to pray, but have we ever really thought about the content of our prayers? How often are our prayers selfishly motivated? I think most of us are fairly good at praying when there is a specific need. We pray for those on our church prayer lists. We pray for those on social media who ask because they need a job or are having some other sort of problem. We pray, perhaps not daily but definitely at Thanksgiving, for the food we eat. However, I think we would all be shocked if we really paid attention to how often we pray selfishly. By selfishly I don't mean that we pray for ourselves, because we are invited to do so by our Father. When we pray selfishly, we pray with our own agenda without considering what God would have us pray.
We even do this when we pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ. I think today's prayer from Paul's letter is a good example of how we should pray for one another. Paul prays that the Colossians are filled with knowledge of God's will. He prays that they live a life worthy of the Lord. He prays that they bear fruit in every good work. He prays that they grow in knowledge of God. He prays that they are strengthened according to God's glorious might and that they have great endurance and patience. He prays that they joyfully live in thanks and praise to the One who gave them an inheritance in the Kingdom of Light.
"[The Son] who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens." Colossians 1:15-20, ASV
We have an inheritance that was given to us by our Father in heaven by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He delivered us out of darkness and into the Light. He saved us and through Him we have the assurance that our sins are forgiven now and forever. Who is this One who can do such incredible things? After all, we are unworthy of any grace, selfish, self-centered sinners beyond rescue. Who could accomplish the impossible task of saving our sorry souls?
Jesus Christ is the only one who could ever accomplish such a thing. Today's text continues Paul's letter to the Colossians from yesterday. He talked about his prayers for the Christians and encouraged them to live joyfully and thankfully in the Kingdom that they have received through Jesus Christ. Today Paul goes on to tell us about this Jesus Christ. It is suggested that this passage is a quote of an early Christian hymn declaring the supremacy of Christ. Hymns are a great way to teach lessons, two write the truth on our hearts. Paul would have referenced this hymn for the sake of those hearing the letter because they could identify with it and remember what they had learned about Jesus.
See, there was a problem is Colosse. Colosse was not a large town; it was actually a town in decline. It had no great importance in the days of the Apostles, but it became important in the Old Testament because it was one of the places where Paul and his helpers established a church. The letter to the Colossians was written while Paul was in prison the first time, unable to visit the church and help them understand the truth of Christ and faith. Unfortunately, it was easy for heresy to creep into this small congregation because they did not have strong, faithful leaders to keep the people firmly grounded in the truth. The Colossians were being led into several errors. False teachers were enforcing strict ceremonial rules, severe forms of self-discipline and abstinence, angel worship. They devalued Christ and uplifted human wisdom and tradition. They followed a belief in secret knowledge as was developed by the gnostics.
The hymn counters the devaluing of Jesus Christ. Sadly, there are those today who would do the same, making Him less than He is. The supremacy of Christ in both creation and redemption establishes Him as exactly what He claimed to be: Lord and God. He was before the beginning, the image of the invisible God, the Word He spoke, the love He had for all He created. By Him all things were created and in Him all things are held together. He is the head of the Church and through Him we have been saved. The fullness of God dwelt in Jesus Christ and by His sacrifice and the shedding of His blood the world was reconciled to the Father. We can live as Paul commends us to live through his prayers because the One who has called us into His Kingdom is the One who has done the impossible.