Welcome to the July 2017 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 2017
July 3, 2017
“‘Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many homes. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also. Where I go, you know, and you know the way.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’” John 14:1-6, WEB
I read an article about a couple who got lost in Big Bend National Park, which is a large wilderness area in West Texas. Big Bend is a beautiful place in so many ways. It is the only national park that has every type of environment from river to desert to mountain and covers nearly 1300 square miles. There are trails for every capability from short and simple to long and challenging.
The man and woman were experienced hikers and had decided to take a rarely used trail. It wouldn’t extremely difficult, but was long enough to take them most of the day to complete. They discovered rather quickly that it wasn’t very well marked, and they never made it to the places they expected to see. The markings were there, but they were hidden under bushes or had fallen over. They had planned for a long day and never expected to use all their supplies, but they ran out of water before they knew how lost they had become. They were also out of food by the end of the day. They had to spend the night in the wilderness. They struggled for several days, but they survived. The day long hike turned out to be a several day near death experience.
The couple had left the established path by mistake and had not told anyone where they were hiking, so no one would have known where to look. Path markers are important, especially in such a huge wilderness area. They didn’t even realize they were missing the markers until they did not find what they were seeking. Then it was too late. They did try to backtrack, but even then they could not find the way to go.
I wonder what it was like to travel with Jesus. As we read the Gospel stories we see that Jesus traveled many miles during His ministry. He went from one side of the lake to the other. He went to Galilee and Samaria. He went to Jerusalem. They disciples didn’t really know where He would go next. Yet, they willingly followed Him. As they went along, though, Jesus talked about things that didn’t make sense. By the time the disciples found themselves celebrating the Passover Feast with Jesus, He had warned them that He would die. In today’s passage, Jesus promises that He will prepare a place for them.
Thomas is confused. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going.” Jesus has put out path markers for three years but they still did not truly understand. It would have been very easy for them to go the wrong way. Jesus answers, “I am the way.” The point Jesus is making here is not that they should follow Him to a specific place, but that they should live life as He had taught them to live. He was going to a place where we will see Him again eventually, but we can’t follow a trail to get there.
Unfortunately we often get lost, missing the mark. I’m not sure there is really a wrong place to be when it comes to living in the kingdom of God, though we will suffer the consequences when we are living outside His will. Sin is missing the mark. We are in the right place when we trust that He is leading us in the right direction. Following Jesus means simply looking in trust to God’s mercy and grace, knowing that He is preparing a place for us. Jesus will come again to take us out of this world into the place He has prepared for us, our true home with Him forever.
“The disciples came, and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered them, To you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not given to them. For whoever has, to him will be given, and he will have abundance, but whoever doesn’t have, from him will be taken away even that which he has. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they don’t see, and hearing, they don’t hear, neither do they understand. In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says, “By hearing you will hear, and will in no way understand; Seeing you will see, and will in no way perceive: for this people’s heart has grown callous, their ears are dull of hearing, they have closed their eyes; or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and would turn again; and I would heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For most certainly I tell you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which you see, and didn’t see them; and to hear the things which you hear, and didn’t hear them.’” Matthew 13:10-17, WEB
There is a riddle that asks, “Does every nation have a Fourth of July?” The answer is “Yes,” of course, because everyone follows the same calendar. The United States is different because it is the only nation that celebrates the Fourth of July as the founding of our nation. Of course, many other nations have similar celebrations on different days, but the Fourth of July is a unique American holiday.
The riddle might seem easy, although it is amazing how often people get these things wrong. We used this and many other riddles to fool our friends in the days of our youth. Today you can probably find a quiz or two on Facebook that tries to the same thing. They are simple and subtle, but so obvious when the answer is given. “I have teeth but do not chew. What am I?” “I’m tall when I’m young and I’m short when I’m old. What am I?” “What occurs once in a minute, twice in a moment and never in one thousand years?” “A house has 4 walls. All of the walls are facing south, and a bear is circling the house. What color is the bear?”
Riddles are fun, but they can also be frustrating. We can see the answer clearly, although as we think about the question it isn’t so clear. We are confused by our biases. Of course everyone has a Fourth of July, but we know that not everyone celebrates the day so we answer “No.” The disciples did not understand why Jesus spoke in riddles (parables). Why not just speak clearly so that the people can easily understand?
Jesus knew there were those who would only hear His stories from their own point of view and never understand them. Those people are the ones who feel that they are righteous on their own account, they don’t need mercy and grace but live in haughty pride in their ability to be obedient to God’s law. For these men, the parables are nothing but nonsense because they have no faith. But parables, when heard in faith, are filled with wisdom and grace, giving to the hearer a better understanding of God’s love. It is for these that Jesus speaks so that they will grow in faith and mature into active disciples sharing the kingdom of God with others.
Riddle answers: comb; candle; the letter M; the house is on the North Pole so the bear is white.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 9, 2017, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:1-14; Romans 7:14-25a; Matthew 11:25-30
“They will speak of the glory of your kingdom, and talk about your power; to make known to the sons of men his mighty acts, the glory of the majesty of his kingdom.” Psalm 145:11-12, WEB
I have a love/hate relationship with yard sales. I love picking through other people’s junk, looking for that perfect thing. I usually go when I’m in search for something in particular, especially those things I can’t find in a store. It is so exciting to find that thing desired. It is especially satisfying to find it for a good price. I don’t like when I waste my time searching but failing; that happens more often than I like. I like the quest and sometimes I manage find something because another person’s junk is my treasure.
Unfortunately they often still think their junk is a treasure and price it a king’s ransom. Those items are not worth that much to me. One day I found a set of starter golf clubs at a yard sale. I often buy golf clubs I find at yard sales to donate them to the First Tee. They wanted $50 for the set; you can get a similar set in the sports store for about the same price. This particular set was well worn with few clubs. They weren’t willing to lower their price, so I told the sellers about the First Tee, and suggested that if the clubs did not sell that they could donate them. It is too bad that they weren’t flexible because it is doubtful that they would ever get that much for the clubs.
I understand. My love/hate relationship with yard sales is true in my own driveway. I like my junk, too, and want to get as much out of it that I can. I usually find myself stuck with items because no one wants to pay the price I set. Experts tell you that you should price items at about eight percent of original cost, and sometimes even that is too high. I know it is true, but I see so much more value in it. That dress I wore once is still in perfect condition. Shouldn’t it be worth more? Those craft items are still in the packages, unopened, with price tags! Can’t I sell those for more? People don’t go to a yard sale to buy items they can get new in a store. They want a bargain. They want something for nothing just as I do. I want to get every penny I can manage. It would probably be better to just give my things to a charity shop instead of going through all the work to receive a few dollars for my junk.
But alas, I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I know I should do.
Does that sound familiar? Paul said the same thing in today’s epistle text. I think what I like most about Paul is his honesty. He is often harsh in his letters, saying what most of us think but would never say out loud. He is willing to call a sin a sin and to admit that he is the worst of sinners. In his letter to the Romans, he talks about his inability to be all he wants to be, the perfect Christian, a righteous person. He admits his frailty and his lack of control. He wants to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but he recognizes and confesses his failure. And in doing so, he encourages us to recognize and confess our own failures.
We don’t want to admit our failure. We are independent, intelligent adults. We don’t want to trust in someone greater than ourselves. We might prefer to think about our faith and the things of God in an intellectual manner, but we have to remember that our answers, our opinions, are often self-centered and selfish. They are based on our own very limited point of view. We can fail. We can make mistakes. We can say and do the wrong things. And, as Paul suggests, it is most likely that we’ll do things wrong, especially if we rely on our own power.
We don’t want to admit our failure. This is true for institutions and organizations as well as individuals. The Bible tells us that where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, God will be with them. Unfortunately, there are those who believe that whatever words come out of such a gathering must be absolutely true, as if the words of religious people must be from the mouth of God. Those that stand in leadership positions of those churches are thought to have a closer relationship with God and therefore by His hand must be right. We see this most clearly in those cults with charismatic leaders. None of the followers dare disagree because they do not have the same connection to God. Those leaders forget their imperfection. They forget that they are no different than Paul, unable to control their own flesh.
Paul certainly had much to say about the Gospel message and the Church. We look to him today for guidance about how we live and serve God in this world. We might even think that Paul was perfect, yet Paul did not even think so. Paul knew that he could make mistakes and even that he was likely to do what is wrong. If Paul, who met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, could have no control over his own flesh, how do we expect to be any better? This is why we must always remember that while God does call and ordain His Church to do His work in this world, the Church is made of many members all of which are fallible. We don’t have control: we do what we want to do which is not always what God would have us do.
Matthew is a brilliant storyteller. He was an accountant (tax collector) so his Gospel is written from a logical, almost mathematical, point of view. He has organized his thoughts in a way that first reports what Jesus has to say and then shows Jesus living in very real and tangible ways the truths He has spoken. Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, chapters five through seven. Matthew has taken the wise words of Jesus, probably spoken throughout His ministry, and put them into a coherent and powerful message about the Kingdom of God and how believers are called to live in it. Any life in God’s kingdom begins with healing, so in chapters eight and nine, Matthew shows Jesus touching the lives of those He is calling to faith in very real ways. There are ten acts of deliverance in those chapters, related to the wisdom spoken in the sermon. We can see this pattern of discourse and then living throughout the book of Matthew, ultimately ending with His revelation that He would die and then His death on the cross. Jesus didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk. Then He calls us to do the same.
Our text from Matthew for this Sunday shows us that Jesus does not send us out in the world alone. It is a moment of comfort in the midst of the frightening reality: He has chosen us, and because He has chosen us, He will ensure that we have everything we need. The work He is calling us to do might seem hard. After all, we live in a world that demands exactly the opposite of what Jesus expects. We live in a world that is self-centered; people are encouraged to follow their own hearts and do what feels right to them. We live in a world that has rejected God, His Word and even the reality of our human sinfulness. The people in this world do not believe we need a Savior; they have nothing for which to be forgiven or even healed. We will be rejected because the message we bring calls for repentance, humility and self-denial.
Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in a film called “Kindergarten Cop.” His character was a policeman named John Kimball who was trying to arrest a dangerous professional criminal. The only witness that could put him away was his ex-wife who was in hiding in Oregon. In an attempt to find her, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character had to go into a Kindergarten classroom to teach. The son of the woman was one of those students. If he found him, he would find her and would be able to finish his quest to put the criminal in prison. He is not the obvious choice to be a kindergarten teacher; after all he is extremely big and scary, even for the bravest people. Unfortunately his partner, who was supposed to go undercover as the teacher, got very ill and she could not do the job. The school principal was very unhappy about the change. She did not trust that John could properly supervise the children in the classroom. She was also afraid that his presence might put her students in danger.
His time in the classroom started out very bad. He lost control very quickly and he couldn’t get those five and six year olds to calm down. He tried using his bulk and his voice, but they just wouldn’t hear him. He eventually screamed so loud that they all stopped cold and looked at him with frightened faces. Then they began to cry. He realized that he needed something to get their attention, something that will interest them. He just happened to have a pet ferret in his car. When he came in the classroom with the animal, the children quickly and quietly gathered around to see it. By showing a gentle side, John managed to calm the children and get control.
Yelling does little good when things are chaotic and out of control. I learned in my preschool classroom that yelling only makes the children get louder and more out of control. It is necessary to find something to get their attention, to give them something that will bring calm and order to the room. We normally think that bulk and brawn will give us order, but that is not always true. In the case of Mr. Kimball’s classroom, it was not his large frightening appearance that gained control of the children, but it was his gentle encouragement. In the end, Mr. Kimball became one of the best Kindergarten teachers that the principal had ever seen. He even left his job as a policeman to continue teaching at that school in Oregon.
Zechariah writes that Israel should rejoice because her king will come riding in on a donkey. This does not seem to be an image to bring much hope or peace. After all, how can there be peace with a king who humbly rides a donkey rather than coming in with power and authority on a magnificent horse? This picture of a Messiah is not at all what the people expected. In Jesus’ day they were still looking for someone to fight, to overcome the oppressors with power. Yet, God sent Jesus who rode a donkey as He entered victoriously into Jerusalem just days before His death. Jesus got the people’s attention not with a loud voice and awesome military power, but with words of hope and miraculous deeds that changed the lives of those who met.
Our work, as Christians, is not to rule the world with power and might. The world will see God’s lovingkindness through the compassion given by those who have experienced it. Lovingkindness is proactive. God’s lovingkindness is proactive, coming to us long before we even knew we needed it. The Lord God Almighty, through Jesus Christ our Lord, has shown the most incredible compassion to all. Christ died for sinners even before we knew we were sinners. He died for us even before we were born. Even now there are many in our world who do not know they need the mercy and grace of God. They do not accept the forgiveness that comes from faith because they do not believe they have anything to be forgiven. But God’s Kingdom has come for them, too. By God’s grace, we have become the manifestation of His lovingkindness, as we take His Word into the world. Christians who have heard the Word and have seen the light are God’s instruments of His grace and compassion. Through us, the world will see and hear of God’s mighty acts, the splendor of His kingdom.
What is it about children that make them so receptive to the Gospel? For one thing, children are innocent. I don’t mean that in the legal sense as in they are innocent of crime or even sin. After all, we know that all flesh, even babies, have inherited a nature that is separated from God. We all, from the smallest to the oldest, need God’s forgiveness made available by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Children are innocent in the sense that they have not yet experienced the world in a way that would lead them to doubt or to cynicism. This isn’t a lack of understanding between goodness and badness; as a matter of fact, children tend to be much more discerning than most adults. Children still see the good in people. They see the cup as half full. They find joy in places where adults can’t seem to see it. They trust those who are given charge over them. They believe in things that are beyond belief to most intellectual, thinking adults.
It is their innocence, their trust, which allows them to see that which is hidden. We intellectuals tend to think about things to the point of confusing ourselves with details that simply don’t matter. We want answers. We want to know the meaning of life. We want to know our purpose so that we can go out there and do it. We want to understand the mysteries of faith. We debate and argue over the meaning of the eucharist and baptism and the parables, but in doing so we often lose sight of the love of God. I’ve often joked about how I can’t wait to get to heaven so that Jesus and I can sit together over a glass of sweet tea and discuss all the questions I have. I want Him to answer everything that I haven’t been able to answer with my mind.
Here’s the thing: we don’t always need those answers. Children don’t. Children simply believe. Who doesn’t love the child in worship who blurts out “Amen” with passion and enthusiasm in the middle of worship? Who hasn’t chuckled with joy when that little voice begins singing “Jesus loves me” in the back pew during the prayers? What youth minister doesn’t know that the correct answer to every question in the children’s sermon is “Jesus?” Children don’t need to know that Jonah’s whale was probably a big fish or that the fruit in the Garden of Eden was probably not an apple. They know that Jesus loves them, and that’s what matters.
If only wed live our life with such simple faith.
We burden ourselves with this intellectual quest for understanding, when God is always willing to reveal everything to the one who will trust in Him. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. As we trust in Him we discover that we do not have to carry it alone; as a matter of fact, Jesus carries it for us. In His yoke, we find rest.
We are saved by the grace of Christ. While our salvation is a future promise of eternal life, we are saved in this life to be transformed for the sake of the Gospel and for the glory of God. We are saved and are sanctified so that the world will see Christ in our life and in our deeds. Unfortunately, we are still living in the flesh, the flesh which is weak. We fail. We say things we know we shouldn’t but the words come out of our mouths even before we realize we are thinking about them. We do what is wrong even before we realize we are doing it. We don’t do what is right and do not even realize it until the moment has passed. We fail because our flesh still holds the sin which Christ has overcome.
There is a phrase attributed to Martin Luther, simul justus et peccator” which means “simultaneously saint and sinner.” We are saved and are assured of the hope of eternal life. We are being transformed into the saints which God has created and redeemed us to be. But it is a process that takes a lifetime. While we still live in these bodies of flesh we will fail.
The psalm for today is an acrostic, a poem in which each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet. It is interesting to think about the importance of this literary technique. The psalmist found a way to praise God from literally “A to Z.” Do you think you could write a poem about God’s grace using every letter of our alphabet? The psalmist praised the lovingkindness of God so that others might hear of the acts of Him from whom we receive the unmerited favor of His blessings. We, His saints, are called to sing His praise, to speak of the glory of His kingdom. We speak these words not only to praise God, but so that others might hear and believe.
We are frail. We will fail. But we can live in praise and thanksgiving to God because He is merciful. We do not need power, might or a loud voice. We need only to recognize our imperfection and let God continue His work in our lives. Today we are saints and sinners simultaneously. One day we’ll know the fullness of God’s promise of perfection.
His yoke is easy and His burden is light. So, let us be as little children with simple faith, casting off the burdens that we have tried to carry on our own and taking the yoke of Jesus. He does not burden us with anything He has not first accomplished for us. As we walk with Him, He will teach us all we need to know about the Kingdom of God. There in His presence, we will find rest.
“Jesus summoned them, and said to them, ‘You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” Mark 10:42-45, WEB
I have been reading about Martin Luther this year. October 31st will mark the five hundredth anniversary of the nailing of his Ninety-five Theses on the Castle Church door. That sparked a reformation that still affects Christianity and the world today. There are those who consider the transformation good and others bad, but whatever your opinion, the reality is that he made a difference in the world. His impact was so great that many forget that he was not the first to demand change.
Today we remember John Hus who was martyred on July 6, 1415. It is a secular holiday in the Czech Republic because even though his work was on the religious front (his followers became the Moravian Church), he has become a national hero. Most Czechs are either non-religious or Roman Catholic. Yet, the courage of Jan Hus, who willingly faced death for the sake the believers, is still remembered today. He once wrote, “One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.” Things don’t change much, do they? We continue to follow our flesh instead of hearing the voice of God in our lives.
Things were very confused in church during the 14th and 15th centuries. There was a question about who should be Pope. At one point, the seat of the Pope was moved out of Rome into Avignon, France. After 790 years it was moved back to Rome, but the cardinals were almost all from France. The Italian people were afraid that the cardinals would elect a French pope, and that he would move the seat from Rome again. The cardinals elected an Italian, fled the country and then elected a French man into the office. Who is the authority? There were people on both sides, which was right? All claimed to be from God, which one was true?
During this controversy over authority, one of the popes actually sold indulgences to raise the money he needed to wage war against the other pope. Could God really wish His people to fight one another over a position whose official title is “Servant of the Servants of God?” This was the question asked by John Hus. We often think of Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation, but there were others before him who laid the foundation for reform. John Hus was one of those men who were preaching about the abuses of the church a hundred years before Martin Luther.
John Hus was burned at the stake having been found guilty of heresy. The question before the council was about this issue of papal authority. John Hus believed that the pope was not a divinely created position, but one created by the Church to keep order. Since the leaders had only recently managed to bring the Church under the authority of one Pope, they did not want anything that might disrupt the shaky unity. They found him guilty and he was killed. Those who had been called to live as Christ were actually living according to their flesh, battling over power. Instead of being servants to God’s servants, they did what they felt was necessary to keep control. They did not even realize they were not living according to God’s intentions for their lives.
Things aren’t much different today. We also tend toward living according to the flesh than to follow Jesus. John Hus, as well as the other reformers in the centuries that followed him, simply wanted to restore the Church and the leadership to what was intended: followers of the Servant King. Now, those of us who are in Christ Jesus, by the forgiveness that comes from His blood, walk in His light and do His work with joy. Whatever our point of view about those reformers, we should never allow ourselves the attitude that we are more important than another. We are called to be servants, knowing that Christ did it first for us.
“As you would like people to do to you, do exactly so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive back as much. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, even as your Father is also merciful. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Set free, and you will be set free. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you.” Luke 6:31-38, WEB
I read an article today with stories from people who had been the recipient of kindnesses. Some of the stories were very small, like the young man who got a five dollar bill from a man who overheard his conversations on the phone begging for help in a time of need. Others were much larger, like the young man who was abandoned at a boarding school, but whose entire tuition was paid by people who saw his potential. There was the story of a boy whose neighbor drove over his hand-me-down bike on purpose so she could buy him a new bike. The most surprising kindnesses were the number of landlords who had mercy on tenants that were having difficult times. I’ve watched enough of the television court shows to know that landlords are rarely merciful.
A great and ferocious lion who ruled over all the animals of the forest lay down after a long day of unfruitful hunting. Though he was still hungry, he fell asleep. A short time later he was disturbed from his sleep by a tiny mouse that scampered across the massive form, thinking it was a rock. The lion waited patiently and at the right moment, he caught the mouse. Just as he was about to pop the mouse into his mouth, the tiny creature begged for mercy. “Please forgive me! I did not mean to disturb you. If you let me go, I promise that I will return the favor one day.” The lion laughed at the silliness of such a small creature ever being of use to him, but agreed. The mouse ran away to safety. Sometime later some hunters captured the lion and tied him to a tree. The tiny mouse appeared before the lion and began gnawing through the rope. Eventually, the mouse managed to loosen the rope enough for the lion to escape. The lion showed mercy and it was returned to him.
Mercy is about being compassionate, forgiving and kind. In the story of the lion and the mouse, the lion set the mouse free even though he was hungry. If the lion had eaten the mouse, the mouse would not have been alive to chew the ropes from the lion. We deal with great evils in our world and mercy is difficult to understand and to express especially when our enemies have the power to destroy our lives. There are no easy answers to how to deal with the things that divide us, but our Lord Jesus has promised that the mercy we give will be returned to us.
Being a Christian is not an easy thing. We are called into a relationship with Jesus Christ not to separate ourselves from the world, but to engage it with kindnesses. In Christ we are given the strength to overcome our natural tendencies toward self so that we can do what is best for our neighbors even when it goes against our best interests. When our flesh wants to hate, we are commanded to love. When our mouths want to curse, we are commanded to bless. When we want to go our own way, Jesus leads us in His way of kindness and mercy. This is a difficult thing. Jesus taught us to do well by our neighbors, even our enemies, to love them and serve them as Christ did for us. We too were enemies, but even worse, we were enemies of God until Jesus died on the cross for our sake.
“As for man, his days are like grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone. Its place remembers it no more. But Yahweh’s loving kindness is from everlasting to everlasting with those who fear him, his righteousness to children’s children; to those who keep his covenant, to those who remember to obey his precepts. Yahweh has established his throne in the heavens. His kingdom rules over all.” Psalm 103:15-19, WEB
I do not have a green thumb. I do alright with the kinds of plants that don’t need too much attention, but most flowers I’ve ever tried to cultivate end up dying. My worst example this year was a pot with some petunias that did not last very long. There were still a few branches with flowers, but a huge hole in the middle. So, I decided to fill the pot with other flowers that I thought would last longer. Unfortunately, the plan was not a good one because I did not find a good way to plant the new plants around the old. I would have been better off removing the petunias completely and beginning anew with the new flowers. In the end, everything is dead and the pot is empty.
I lost the flowers because I didn’t do a very good job with planting, but the flowers would not have lasted forever. Flowers come and go with the wind. The blooms of our crepe myrtles are blowing all over the sidewalks right now. I passed the wildflower seed farm a few weeks ago and the fields were all empty. Colorful gardens have turned green and the vibrant roadsides of wildflowers have turned to golden brown with grasses. Life comes and goes, every kind of life.
Life comes and goes, but life also goes on. I’m going to replace the failed flower pot with something green. I once had a snake plant that I couldn’t kill. We have a fern that is outgrowing its space and two hanging baskets with a lovely dark purple leaved plant that has grown nearly to the ground. No matter how lovely those plants are today, they will eventually die because nothing living lasts forever.
We will die. This is a fact of the life we have been given ever since the beginning when Adam and Eve sinned against God. When they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they broke their relationship with the One who created and loved them. God didn’t punish them by sending them out of the Garden of Eden; God had mercy on them. See, if they stayed in the garden and continued to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, they would live forever in fear of their God. Death is gracious under those circumstances.
Yet, God had a plan even from the beginning. When the time was right, God sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to overcome death and the grave so that we might be restored in our relationship with our Father. Jesus defeated the sin that divided us from our Creator and made it possible to enter into the Garden again where we could eat from the Tree of Life and live in His presence again. For those who have faith, death is still a reality, but it is not permanent. For we who believe in Jesus, death is just a passing from one life to another. This life will end, but we will live forever.
“Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which when translated, means Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and acts of mercy which she did. In those days, she became sick, and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. As Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, imploring him not to delay in coming to them. Peter got up and went with them. When he had come, they brought him into the upper room. All the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter sent them all out, and knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, ‘Tabitha, get up!’ She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand, and raised her up. Calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. He stayed many days in Joppa with a tanner named Simon.” Acts 9:36-43, WEB
I read a post on Facebook today that put forth the idea that the Church needs artists to reach the world. Many people found encouragement in this statement; as artists, we appreciate knowing that our talents have a purpose in God’s Kingdom. There were others, however, that insisted in knowing where the Bible says art is a necessary part of the Church. They argued that the statement limits God’s ability to reach the world without human intervention. They were troubled by the statement, perhaps rightly, but only because it was excessive. God’s doesn’t need human intervention. Faith comes from hearing the Word, not from human will or action.
Yet, art shall always be an important part of the Kingdom. One responder said, “‘The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world.’ Man, if only Jesus and the Apostles had known that.” This flippant answer if you think of art only in terms of paintings to hang on a wall or sculptures in a prayer garden. However, art is much more. Hymns are a form of art. The Bible is filled with poetry. Even the creeds we confess together in worship came about as artists joined together to study the scriptures to create a statement that would define and defend what it means to be a Christian. To say that Jesus and the apostles did not make art is to miss that their storytelling was a creative way to share the Gospel with the world.
The Bible may not say specifically that the Church needs artists, but God gifted many people with abilities that glorified Him in the world. Gifted artists created work that made the Temple a beautiful place. The psalmists were hymn makers. Paul was a tentmaker. In today’s story we hear about a woman named Tabitha who died. She was important to the Christian community because she was a gracious and generous woman. They were devastated by her death and begged Paul to come. When he arrived, the women showed him all the wonderful things she made, coats and garments which may have been given to the poor. She glorified God with her art as is obvious from the way the women showed Paul her work.
God may not need artists to reach the world, but there is no doubt that God has given us gifts so that we can glorify Him and share the Gospel. You may not think so, but you are an artist. Your art may not be tangible like a painting or a coat. You may not be able to make music or make something practical like a tent. You may never use your gifts to decorate a church or temple. But God has given you gifts to use creatively in the world in ways that will draw people into His Kingdom. Glorify God with all you do and you will find true life in His name.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 16, 2017, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13; Romans 8:12-17; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“For as the rain comes down and the snow from the sky, and doesn’t return there, but waters the earth, and makes it grow and bud, and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so is my word that goes out of my mouth: it will not return to me void, but it will accomplish that which I please, and it will prosper in the thing I sent it to do.” Isaiah 55:10-11, WEB
I purposely live in a place where it rarely snows. I don’t like snow. I would rather deal with heat in the summer than cold in the winter. There are several reasons why I have this opinion; I have decided that a horrid winter of constant snow in Washington State and a childhood of winter weather chest issues means I have enjoyed my share of the snow and I have left it for others. Of course, the warm, dry weather of Texas has its own problems, but I’m happy to leave the snow to the northerners.
I always said I’d be ok with snow if only it would fall on certain places. I love the beauty of the fresh snowfall on the winter branches of the trees. I like the snow that gathers on the lawns when it is crisp and white. I enjoy seeing snowmen standing guard in front of houses. I hate having to shovel snow from sidewalks and seeing the dirty slush on the sides of the roads. I don’t like the dangerous roads that are slippery from ice. I could happily live in a place where the snow avoids the places we walk and drive.
That place doesn’t exist. The snow falls where it will fall, so does the rain. Those of us dealing once again with an impending drought wish the rain would fall on us. A friend posted a picture yesterday of the wet from a passing shower that suddenly popped up. She lives just a few miles from me, but we didn’t see any rain at all. The weatherman suggested that those who had a shower should go buy lottery tickets because they were the winners of the day. The rest of us wished we were so lucky. Perhaps today will be our day.
Unfortunately, these passing showers won’t do much to help with the impending drought, but we rejoice anyway knowing that every drop helps. Even if it doesn’t do much for our lawns today, those drops are part of the cycle which will eventually lead to the rainfall that will make a difference. Relief might not come for weeks or months, but that drop will do what God has sent it to do today.
The text from Isaiah is familiar to us. The chapter begins with the call for those who are thirsty to seek God: what He has He offers freely and abundantly. In today’s passage, we are reminded that everything that comes from God is fruitful. It is productive. God is actively involved in His creation, and He is faithful to His promises. His will shall be done, and He will make certain it is. Isaiah tells us in this passage of promise that instead of thorns, the earth will bear cypress and instead of briers the earth will bear myrtles. In other words, instead of plants that are useless and damaging, God will make the world productive and useful again.
I sure wish that our discourse were more productive, but these days we find ourselves in debates that go nowhere. How many times have you read the comments on an article online only to discover that some of the commentators have not even read the article? They respond with a quick answer to what they assume the headline means and often miss the entire point. I’ve seen conversations on televisions, particularly on the reality type shows, where people are ready with an answer to every comment. Chefs have an excuse for their failings, litigants interrupt the judge to justify their point of view on the matter, politicians jump to answers before even hearing the questions.
People spend more time thinking about how to respond than listening to what others have to say. We do a lot of talking and very little listening these days because we assume we know what they believe. We have to learn to listen to one another because maybe we will discover we have more in common than we ever thought possible.
It is probably just my imagination, but it seems even worse today than ever. Sometimes it seems like people are more like children with a booboo than thinking adults. Any parent knows the frustration of dealing with a child who has hurt themselves. They react with intense emotions when they are hurt, and it is impossible to understand what is wrong. This is true of physical problems as well as emotional hurts. I’ve had to deal with children hysterical about something, thinking surely they must be hurt but unable to find anything wrong on their body. They scream so loud and so long that they can’t say anything and they can’t even hear. It does not help when the caregiver becomes impatient with the child, angrily insisting the child stop the tears and talk so that he or she can know what is wrong. The more we insist a child talk, the more agitated they become.
In today’s passage, Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” A hurt child has ears, but they don’t have ears that hear. The words we are saying to help them settle so we can understand the problem reach their ears, but they don’t really hear. They only know that they are hurt and nothing we say will make them feel better.
The people to whom Jesus was speaking may not have been screaming, but they were often as deaf as a hurting child. Jesus’ words reached their ears, but they did not really hear what He was saying. Jesus was sometimes very obvious in the message He was trying to share, giving the people very pointed and blunt information about His mission and ministry in the world. They heard those words from their own understanding and experience. When Jesus talked of the Kingdom of God, they thought He was talking about the restoration of a Jewish independence, but He was talking about a different kind of Kingdom.
That’s why Jesus used so many parables to teach the people about how to live as the people of God. Parables help us listen more deeply. We have to look at the story from a different perspective. We might know and understand the earth-bound concepts of the story, like in this one about planting seed, but we have to think more deeply about what it means in our daily lives. What is the seed? What is growing? What are the path, the rocks and the thorns? Certainly Jesus was not giving the people farming advice. He wasn’t a farmer and most of His listeners weren’t farmers. He was giving them a parable to help them see God’s Kingdom in terms that they would understand. But to understand, they really had to listen to what He was saying, not just the words He said.
It amazes me to think of all the people who heard Him speak, who saw Him face to face and looked into His eyes, and yet never believed. How would we do if we were met with the Lord in flesh and heard Him speak? Would we understand? Would we respond to His grace? A few did, many did not. Would our ears hear His word? Sometimes Jesus talked in parables, and His words were difficult for many to understand, even the disciples wondered why He would do this.
Communication is so important and yet is often the most difficult part of any relationship. Too often there are things that block the message from getting through. Jesus did not speak in parables to purposely cause them not to understand. Instead, it was the hardness of heart and unwillingness that made it difficult for them to hear. They weren’t looking toward God with hearts and minds open to His word. Rather, their own biases, pressures and traditions blocked their hearing. Even today, we spend too much time making excuses or thinking of a response rather than listening to what God has to say.
Matthew lets us in on the secret. After speaking the parable to the crowds, the disciples asked Jesus why He taught in that method. The disciples did not understand; why not teach clearly so that everyone would understand? Jesus knew that there are always those who refuse to pay attention. They are the ones who feel that they are righteous on their own account; they don’t think they need mercy and grace and live in haughty pride. For these people, the parables are nothing but nonsense because they have no faith. God’s Word speaks for itself, but many who heard Jesus speak did not understand how it applied to their lives in God’s Kingdom.
The disciples were given a spiritual understanding of God’s message because they had faith and were willing to listen. Those who did not understand had hardened their hearts against God and could not see or hear His Word. God uses very human, natural examples to help His children understand what the Holy Spirit is teaching them. He uses His creation to explain that which should be obvious. Everything we know about God comes from God Himself. At times, He gives us that understanding through very real, earthbound stories so that we will hear and see with our ears and eyes as well as our spirit. There will always be those who reject because they have not been willing to listen, but God’s Word is always productive.
God sends His rain to the earth to water the earth. It might seem, especially to those living in a drought, that God has forgotten us. But it will rain. At times I wonder if there isn’t a drought of another kind: a drought of God’s Word. But I know He will send His Word into the world and that those who have listening ears will hear. His Word will produce fruit much greater than the seed planted, bringing life to many.
Jesus tells us in the parable that there are some paths to deal with, some stones to move and some thorns to eliminate, but God will make it happen. His Word is productive and it accomplishes exactly what He means it to do. He is, in every way, worthy of praise. And He is generous.
Unfortunately, we are very careful with our witness. We are too afraid that we might insult or offend someone. We are too afraid that we’ll be rejected. We are too afraid that the people will not receive the words we say or that we aren’t the right people to give it to them. We are imperfect, so we wonder how God could possibly use us to share His Word with the world. We don’t think we have enough knowledge of the Bible or of the message. We are afraid to waste a good word because we think it might fall on the path, the rocks or in the thorns to be devoured, whither or choked. We are too shy to scatter the seed, so we keep it to ourselves. We try planting one seed at a time, carefully placing the Good News only in the ‘hearts’ of those we know will take it.
We hear today’s Gospel passage and think that we should be more careful about spreading the seed. We think we can guess where the seeds we scatter will grow, and we choose not to scatter seeds that we think will be rejected or that will be gobbled up, withered under the heat of the sun or chocked by the cares of the world. We don’t know. We never know what God has planned. God’s Word does not return to Him void, and so He invites us to share it with excessive generosity. We aren’t limited the way a farmer is limited. We don’t have to worry about whether our seeds will produce enough crops. We only have to scatter the seed and let God make it grow.
The psalmist reminds us that God created all things. His hand still moves the waters of the rivers and brings life to the fields. He saves us from ourselves, forgives our sins and shows us the ways of righteousness and truth. How can we go through any day, looking at the amazing things that God has done and not praise Him for His mercy and grace? I’ve seen some incredible things in my life, but God has His hand in it all. He is there in the times of war and the times of peace. He is visible in the beauty and in the pain. God deserves our thanks and praise for all He has done. Let us rejoice and sing today.
And since He is such a great and awesome God, the real question we should be asking is why we aren’t bolder with our witness in the world. Paul reminds us, “For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” We are not alone in this world. God has given us His Spirit. We need not be afraid. We will be rejected; of this we can be sure. Jesus warned us that it would happen. There are those who will not have ears to hear. But that is no reason to stop speaking His Word into the world. We might speak to a thousand people and never see a single spark of faith. That’s ok, because God’s word doesn’t come back to Him void. Seeds will be planted. He will send the sun and the rain; He will send someone to tend the heart and others to bring in the harvest. It is never up to us to decide who should hear the Good News because God can and will make it accomplish exactly what He sent it to do.
“For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on him. For, ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in him whom they have not heard? How will they hear without a preacher? And how will they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Good News of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’ But they didn’t all listen to the glad news. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:10-17, WEB
How often do you go to the grocery store and buy what you intend to buy? Unfortunately, I find myself wandering the aisles, finding all sorts of things I really don’t need. It is especially true when I go to one of those supercenters that have more than just food. Unfortunately, I always seem to have to go to one end of the store for one thing and to the other end of the store for something else. What should be a quick trip ends up taking me over an hour.
I once read an article about the tricks supermarkets use to get you to buy more. The writer gave five methods used to get you to spend more money. First of all, they put unnecessary items like sweets, toys and junk food in convenient places near the items you need to purchase. Have you ever noticed that the shelves of candy are right across from the cereal? Cereal is one of the most frequently purchased food items, so mothers have to go down that aisle. The children that are tagging along see the candy and beg mom to buy. Supermarkets also put kid friendly products at eye level for children. This is especially true of sweet cereals, animal shaped pasta, kid’s drinks and snacks. When children see these items, they beg mom to buy.
Another thing they do is they put items on an end cap so that it appears as though the item is on special. All too often the item is not really a cheaper price. Supermarkets change their shelf arrangements often to keep you confused. The intent is to keep you in the store, walking around as much as possible so that they can tempt you with other items. They have installed coffee bars because with a cup of coffee in hand, there’s no need to rush. They play is slow music which sets a slower place so you take your time and look at far more on the shelves than you had intended. Finally, they tempt you with good smells like fresh bread, cakes and cookies, roasted chicken and other food items. The minute you walk in the smells whet your appetite and you spend more money. This manipulation works with me. It is very rare that I can get out of a grocery store with only the items on my list.
I learned about the tricks of the trade when I was a manager of a retail store. It was a toy store that also sold other products relating to children. Our diapers were priced well below value which was the catch to get our customers in the door. Then we put them way in the back so that our customers had to pass miles of toys. It was our hope that they would find something else along the way. Grocery stores do the same with the most basic necessities.
What do we do as churches to get people through our doors? Do we have some sort of manipulative techniques to make them want to stay? Unfortunately, many churches do so. They share a message that people want to hear and that fills the brains and hearts with warm fuzzies. Yet, in the end they end up with something like junk food, something unnecessary. It does not fill the soul or make the spirit whole. Unfortunately, there are those that will use manipulation to get people to buy their ideas and practices, even in matters of faith.
The Word of God does not need our manipulation. Faith comes with hearing God’s message of love and grace. God has given us all we need to do His work in the world, and He calls us take His Word to the world so that they will be drawn to Him. We don’t need to give warm fuzzies for others to experience the transforming power of God’s forgiveness. We need only preach the Good News of peace, and God will implant the faith that will change hearts and minds in those who hear His Word.
“‘As for me, this is my covenant with them,’ says Yahweh. ‘My Spirit who is on you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your offspring, nor out of the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,’ says Yahweh, ‘from henceforth and forever.’” Isaiah 59:21 (WEB)
Bishop Wilbur Konkel was Director of Pillar of Fire Missions International from 1960 through 1992. He was the author of several books, including two telling the stories of beloved hymns. He was born and died in Colorado, but spent some time in England. After receiving degrees from Alma White College and Seminary, he was ordained and sent to serve his church in a suburb of London. While there, he worked on an education degree at Oxford and was a student of C.S. Lewis. He often used Lewis’ story to share the mystery and story of God. Music was obviously an important part of his life since he wrote books telling the stories of those great hymns. Online hymn resources list his books in their bibliography.
A story is told about the time when Wilbur first heard the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” It was in 1954 at a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena in London. Memories flooded into his mind as he listened to the song. He was in London when the city was bombed to oblivion. Konkel remembered, “Each night as the enemy planes came over we cast our care upon Him. I quoted (this scripture) to myself. I used it in my prayers. Those were dark days. At times they seemed hopeless. It was in those darkest hours that God proved His faithfulness to me. We were so near death. Yet it is the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning.”
The hymn was written by Thomas Chisholm. His life was not easy. He was born in a log cabin, had health issues which caused periods of unemployment. He jumped from job to job. He became a Christian as a young adult and did evangelistic work. Through all the good and bad, Thomas saw God’s graciousness and blessings daily. His favorite text was Lamentations 3. He wrote “Great is They Faithfulness” after serving the Lord for thirty years.
God is faithful. What struggles have you faced in life? Have you done so with faith, knowing that God is with you? Perhaps you haven’t feared the bombs of an enemy or suffered from dis-ease and unemployment on a regular basis, but we all find ourselves in difficult times. Can you trust that the words in Isaiah are true? We might feel as though God has abandoned us at those times when blessings seem beyond our reach, but God has promised us that He will never be far away. He has sealed that promise for those of us who believe in Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit at our baptisms. He has made us His children forever. His faithfulness truly is great and we can cast our cares upon Him and trust that He will bring us through to His promise of eternity in His Kingdom.
“Where do wars and fightings among you come from? Don’t they come from your pleasures that war in your members? You lust, and don’t have. You murder and covet, and can’t obtain. You fight and make war. You don’t have, because you don’t ask. You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures. You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Be subject therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament, mourn, and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4:1-10, WEB
I receive a monthly religious focused newsletter that has opinion pieces from people from a variety of points of view. Many of the issues have articles with a common theme as well as reporting of news from various church organizations. The newsletter begins with a quote related to the articles within. These quotes are from writers from throughout the history of the church, from decades ago to the early ages. Many of these quotes begin with some form of “in our day,” and talk about why things are happening in the world at their time. The funny thing is that I often read these quotes, shaking my head as I recognize the truth of what has been written. I see how these things are happening in my little corner of the world today.
I am often shocked when I realize the author of the quote was talking about a much different time and place. How could someone a hundred or a thousand years ago know the struggles we are facing in 2017? I’m not sure that those who died twenty years ago would understand our questions we ask today. Yet, as I read these quotes I realize that things aren’t much different than they have been for thousands of years. The language might be different. The issues might be very different, but the root of our trouble is the same as they have been from the beginning of time.
We are sinners. From the days of Adam to today, we are broken and imperfect. We see the world from our selfish, self-centered points of view. We might be right; we might be able to justify our perspective. We might do what we do with the best interests of others in mind. However, we are still flawed individuals, just like every other human being since Adam and Eve believed the devil and disobeyed the word of God. We will argue that we have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but the reality is that only God can truly claim to have the absolute truth.
We argue with our neighbors. Sometimes it is good for us to stand up for a principle or a point of view. Some things truly do matter. The thing we must remember as we are dealing with the issues of our day is that our neighbors are standing for a principle or point of view, too. We see their perspective as fallen, forgetting that we are fallen people, too. We act self-righteously, pointing our fingers are others, and breaking relationships by the way we treat those who disagree.
We want things to be different, to be better, but we are reminded that things are as they have always been because we live in a world filled with people who are fallen and broken. We can, by God’s grace, deal with our neighbor and our issues in a more gracious way, but we must always remember that we are sinners as much as those who stand against us. We will focus on what is happening in our day, thinking that we are living in a time like no other, but nothing has changed since the days of Adam and Eve. We all need God’s grace. God’s mercy will heal our brokenness and lift us from our fallen state to dwell together in the eternity He has promised to those who believe. The best we can do to overcome the troubles of our world today is to be humble and trust in God. He has, and will, make everything right.
“How lovely are your dwellings, Yahweh of Armies! My soul longs, and even faints for the courts of Yahweh. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Yes, the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young, near your altars, Yahweh of Armies, my King, and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house. They are always praising you. Selah.” Psalm 84:1-4, WEB
I love to read. I don’t read quite as fast as I used to when I was young and my tastes have changed, but I still manage to spend at least a few minutes a day reading something besides my Bible and devotionals. I particularly like historical fiction and several authors that write in genres hard to define. I have a number of favorites who I watch anxiously for new books. I know how hard it is to write, I do it every day, but I have to admit that I seem to read my favorite authors faster than they can write new books.
I am reading one author whose style is a cross between history, mystery, fantasy and science fiction. Her books are funny and exciting, easy to read. I’ve been through every book in her series and I want more. She has released short stories in between giving the back story of her characters or some of their adventures. These short novels are often pieces taken out of her longer books. I wasn’t buying them until they recently published an anthology. I bought it, and was glad that I did. Unfortunately, the minute I finished reading I wanted more.
This has happened to me before with other authors. I have a number of books on preorder that will arrive in my e-reader the minute they are released. I might not start immediately, but each one will be the next book on my reading list. Several authors are not quite so yielding to my desire for their work. They take much too much time in between releases, often because they are busy working on other projects. One author got me so hooked on his story I read two books of a trilogy only to find out later from his publisher that he decided not to write the third. He left all his readers hanging.
This same desire for more happens to everyone in one way or another. Does the new season of your favorite television show seem to take forever to begin? How long have you waited for the next movie in your favorite series? Is there are particular restaurant whose food makes you want more even as you finish cleaning your plate?
Do you feel that way about God? Now, this is not about being left hanging as that author did to his readers. It is about hearing His Word and wanting more and more. Do you hunger for worship even as you leave the sanctuary on Sunday not because it wasn’t satisfactory but because you just can’t get enough? Do you ever get so caught up in reading the scriptures that you just can’t seem to put the book down? Have you ever been to a Bible study that won’t end because everyone has something insightful to say? Do you get so excited about encountering God that you can’t wait to fellowship with other Christians? Does your love for God so overflow into your life that you can’t help but praise Him?
I am going to continue to watch for new books by my favorite authors, but even more so I will continuously praise God and seek Him daily. I love the adventures I experience when reading, but true joy and peace will only and always be found in our relationship with God. We don’t have to wait for His grace; His dwelling is our inheritance. We long for the day we will be with Him for eternity, but for today, let us sing His praise.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 23, 2017, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 119:57-64; Romans 8:18-27; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
“Don’t fear, neither be afraid. Haven’t I declared it to you long ago, and shown it? You are my witnesses. Is there a God besides me? Indeed, there is not. I don’t know any other Rock.” Isaiah 44:8, WEB
I lived near a highway in my youth. The road was raised and ran over a bridge about a block from my house, but at the end of our dead end street was at the top of a hill that was perfect for playing. Well, it wasn’t perfect because the road was filled with cars moving at high speeds only a few feet from where we were playing. We didn’t mind; we flew down in our saucers in the winter and used it for “king of the hill” in the summer.
“King of the hill” is a fun game, usually played under much safer circumstances. One kid climbs to the top of a hill and the object of the game is for the other kids to get them to fall off. The one who gets to the top of the hill and knocks the “king” to the bottom gets to be “king” until someone else makes it to the top. It is a fun game because kids end up rolling down the hill, sometimes more from laughter than from knocking each other around.
We don’t stop playing “king of the hill” when we grow up. Our adult games don’t take place on hillsides, however. They take place in boardrooms and offices. Sometimes we see those who are on the hilltops above us and do whatever it takes to knock them down so we can move up. This is not the best way to get ahead in our careers, but unfortunately it has worked since the beginning of time. All too often throughout history people really became king by getting rid of the ruler through warfare. In today’s world, the “king” is knocked down through less violent, though no less dangerous means. It doesn’t take much to destroy a person’s status, position, finances or reputation. For some the object of life is to get to the top of the hill and stay there by any means just like the childhood game.
They want to become their own gods.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, God sounds almost like the big kid who has made it to the top of the hill and is calling out for everyone else to try to knock Him off. This is a bothersome image of God, because it seems like He is a childhood bully or a corporate tyrant that can destroy a person’s life with their ambition. However, God is not some bully playing a game. He is God. Who is there that can knock Him off the top of the hill? Did the gods create the world or establish God’s people? Can we do any of those things? No. Yet we spend so much of our time chasing after things that cannot do for us what God has done.
It is said that what you value becomes your god, and unfortunately we let a many things knock God off the top of our hill. We put so many things first: our jobs, our families, our romances, our education, our hobbies, our interests. We set God aside to take care of the business of living. Though He is the One and only, we make gods of so many things. He asks, “Who is like me?” Can money stand up against God? Can our wishes and dreams? Can our opinions really be greater than God? What about our truth? Are our gods reliable? Can they declare their greatness ahead of God? No, nothing stands greater. There is nothing that can knock God off the top of the hill, but we get confused and look to so many things as if they are our gods. We believe them and rely on them above God.
It is easy to get confused. The world plants seeds in our minds and our hearts; Satan twists God’s word and leads us down a wrong path. There are even those in the Church who set false gods before us. A.W. Tozer once wrote, “One compromise here, another there and soon enough the so-called Christian and the man in the world soon look the same.” We don’t want to think that heresy is possible in today’s world; after all, we have so much access to the Bible, good theological references and the apostolic church. Yet, heresy has abounded in the Church from the beginning. The same old lies are repeated over and over again. They come in different wrappings, but they all suggest that God can be knocked off the top of the mountain.
We have to be careful, however, when we deal with those who would lead us astray. We can’t tell the difference between those who are true of faith and those whose faith is false. We can’t read their hearts. We are fallen, sinful people, too. We make mistakes. We have an imperfect understanding of God’s grace. We might think heresy is easy to see, but it is harder when those who speak it are loved and respected. Good people are vulnerable to the world, Satan and false gods. We all fail and it is not our place to destroy those who seem like weeds in the field.
In this week’s lesson, Jesus tells us about a farmer who planted a field. During the night an enemy planted weeds in that farmer’s field. It was not until later that the farmer’s workers realized that there were weeds in the midst of the plants. They wondered if they should remove the weeds. We are the same, automatically wanting to get rid of the weeds, and for good reason. Weeds take important nutrients and steal the water necessary for good growth. Weeds also tend to grow larger than the crops, taking away valuable sunshine. But, it is easy to confuse a weed and a good plant in the early days of growth, they look so much alike. It is not until the crops grow tall that even the most knowledgeable farmer can tell the difference. By then the roots of the weeds are intertwined with the wheat. It is impossible to pull the weed without damaging the crops.
The farm hands might think they know the best way to deal with the fields, but the farmer knows what is right and good, just as we think we know what is good for our lives, but God really knows best. Sometimes the weeds are beneficial to the fields in which they are found growing. Wildflowers serve to give character to fruit like grapes. Vineyards produce grapes that take on the identity of the plants that are grown around them. If you taste wine carefully, you may be able to identify flavors such as mushroom and lavender in the wine. Some plants become stronger because they send their roots deeper into the soil seeking water and nourishment. A landowner knows the plants, the risks and the benefits and is careful to do what is best for his fields. While it might be good to pull the weeds, we don’t always know which weeds to pull.
We can’t tell the difference between those who are true of faith and those whose faith is false. We can’t read their hearts. Like the weeds in a wheat field, the truth will eventually come to light. We might be tempted to uproot those we see has coming from the evil one, but in doing so we do not always know the damage we might do to someone who is weak in faith. We may think we are protecting them, but we are not God. God knows what He needs to do. He can protect His people much better than we can. We are simply called to live as God has called us to live, trusting that our God is just and that He will take care of the wheat and deal with the tares. We may just find that what we thought was a tare is actually someone to whom God has yet to finish His work. In the end all will be right, because God rules and He is faithful.
Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us.” The world looks no different today than it did before Jesus birth. It is still filled with sinners, suffering and pain. Yet, there is a difference because we now live in a hope that does not disappoint; a hope in the promises of God. Jesus Christ gives us a hope that is real, a hope that is assured. We look forward to the day when we will have true peace not only in our hearts but in the whole world. Even the creation will live to the glory of God. This hope is not something that we can make ourselves; we can’t push God off the top of the mountain and expect to experience peace. We can only patiently wait for it to come in God’s time and way. We can look toward that hope in the midst of our sufferings and know that one day we will inherit the promised Kingdom.
It may seem impossible sometimes, especially when we are out there in the world facing the weeds that have been placed in the field by the evil one. We want salvation to be complete today and the evil to be gone for eternity. However, it is not yet time for the field to be harvested. There is still work to be done. There is still growth to be made among the people of God and people to be saved by His Word. It is hard sometimes. We face difficulties; we suffer at the hands of evil men. However, those sufferings make us stronger. By God’s grace, our roots grow deeper and our stalks grow thicker. The fruit that is produced becomes more and more abundant. We may suffer, but in doing so we identify with the One who has brought us into the Kingdom, our Lord Jesus Christ.
We aren’t God. We don’t know what God knows. We will face difficulties. We will struggle. We will suffer at the hands of others. People don’t want to worship a God that calls His people into a life of suffering, because for most people suffering equals pain. Yet, it is in our suffering that we find strength, courage and God’s grace. God is not a bully who pushes His people off the top of the mountain or a tyrant who will do whatever is necessary to remain at the top. He shared in our suffering and by the blood of Christ we are brought through that suffering to something greater. He will make things right in the end, and in the meantime, our struggles will make us stronger and more faithful if we keep our God where He belongs: as the King of not only the hill, but of everything.
The psalmist knew how to persevere despite opposition. Although I can’t possibly say better than the writer and two thousand years of translators, I like to paraphrase the text of Psalm 119 to see more clearly the Law and Gospel found within. “You have given me all I need, so I promise to obey everything you have spoken. I have sought your face with my whole heart; have mercy as you have promised. I have seen my failing and repented according to the evidence of my sin. I will quickly obey all God’s Law. I was trapped by the wicked but I held on to your teaching. I will be thankful for your right verdict. I am friends with all who follow your authoritative rule. The earth is full of God’s lovingkindness; teach me your boundries.”
These words show us that God is a kind and just ruler. The life He calls us to live is never easy, but it is the life that will give Him glory. It is also the life where we will find peace. Chasing after the top of the mountain might get us somewhere, but there’s always someone behind us that will threaten our place at the top. Chasing after false gods might make us happy and satisfy our desires, but those gods will never be able to give to us what we truly need. There is no hope in heresy. No matter how hard it is to wait or how fraught with danger that time might be, it is worth holding on to the promise of God because He will be true.
What good is a hope that is already received? It is no longer hope but a promise fulfilled. There is then nothing to look forward to. Our hope rests in the fulfillment of the promises and we can be assured that those promises will be fulfilled because God is faithful. Hope in the promise of God is worth waiting for, waiting patiently because God is faithful. The day will come when the weeds will be destroyed. Until that day, we can rely on God to help us live side by side with the world because we have been given the His Spirit. He will bring us through as no other god can do.
“Abraham was one hundred years old when his son, Isaac, was born to him. Sarah said, ‘God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ She said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.’” Genesis 21:5-7, WEB
Have you ever read the reviews on internet sites? I tend to read the comments about books I’m thinking of purchasing; most are helpful in making my decision. You have to be careful because people have different points of view and their negatives might just be a positive for you. You also never know if someone has a grudge to bear, and the anonymity makes it possible for people to post multiple opinions, good or bad, skewing the results. However, I can usually get an idea whether it is something I might enjoy. The same can be said about restaurant reviews.
There are items available that are fodder for the creative review writers. One item in particular is a banana slicer. One reviewer writes, “What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone... this is one of the greatest inventions of all time. My husband and I would argue constantly over who had to cut the day’s banana slices. It's one of those chores NO ONE wants to do! You know, the old ‘I spent the entire day rearing OUR children, maybe YOU can pitch in a little and cut these bananas?’ and of course, ‘You think I have the energy to slave over your damn bananas? I worked a 12 hour shift just to come home to THIS?!’ These are the things that can destroy an entire relationship. It got to the point where our children could sense the tension. The minute I heard our 6-year-old girl in her bedroom, re-enacting our daily banana fight with her Barbie dolls, I knew we had to make a change. That’s when I found the 571B Banana Slicer. Our marriage has never been healthier, AND we've even incorporated it into our lovemaking. THANKS 571B BANANA SLICER!” Other reviewers complained that the item is only for right curved bananas or how it doesn’t peel the banana. Some people have too much time on their hands, but it is fun to read their creative writing.
Who would have ever thought we’d find something to discuss on an online advertisement for real estate? I recently found a listing for a house that has given me hours of entertainment. The house, a 7000 square foot estate that is listed for $1.2 million, might seem uninteresting, especially for those of us who will never be able to afford it. I couldn’t afford the taxes. The house is beautiful and the grounds exquisite; on the surface it didn’t make sense that this listing was finding its way onto the walls of so many Facebook pages.
The photos of the inside of the house told a very different story. The house, apparently owned by an artist, is filled to the brim with a hodge podge of strange and unusual decor. There are at least a dozen mannequins, including two hanging from the ceiling and a nearly naked male mannequin standing in the bathroom. Every horizontal surface is covered with dolls, tchotchkes and items that are probably materials for the artist’s work. The walls are covered in art and the beds hold more pillows than I can count. There is even a mannequin on a riding mower in the yard. I find something new each time I scroll through the pictures.
I’m an artist, so I get it. I couldn’t live that way, but I can understand the mindset of someone who might. Several commenters thought this was an extreme case of hoarding. Perhaps, but the house is obviously clean and though it appears chaotic, there is order in the madness. I don’t know how they will ever move all that stuff if they manage to sell the house. It is hard to see the beauty that is beneath all that stuff. Our realtor insisted that I remove as much as possible, including family photos. “You want perspective buyers to be able to imagine their own things in the house.” I can usually see beyond the “stuff” but not so in this house. Perhaps those who can afford it will appreciate the artistic touches and will see the possibilities after all the art is removed.
Ok, so reading humorous reviews and scrolling through pictures of a house that I will never buy might seem like a waste of time, but laughter is good for us. Laughter reduces stress and release endorphins which promote healthy well-being. A banana slicer and a house full of mannequins may seem ridiculous, but the story of Abraham and Sarah is even more so! Who could ever expect a ninety year old barren woman to give birth? It made Sarah laugh and everyone who hears will laugh with her. She found joy in the unbelievable plan of God and lived a long, healthy life to enjoy it.
God’s plan for our lives at time seems ridiculous, but we can find joy in it, too. Find some reason to laugh today. It will do your heart and your spirit good.
“For you formed my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. My soul knows that very well. My frame wasn’t hidden from you, when I was made in secret, woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my body. In your book they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Psalm 139:13-16, WEB
I am a developing artist, still finding my style. I have tried to be more confident and brave for the last few years, testing techniques and choosing to paint subject matter that used to scare me. I have, in the past, been more of an abstract painter. I have one hanging on my wall called “Red.” It was painted in response to a challenge by an art group for a February show. It is made with mostly red paint on a large canvas with lace, silk flower and wood appliques. A friend once looked at it and asked, “What does it mean?” For many, art must have a purpose, a meaning. I said, “It is beautiful.” I’ve heard others looking at some of my work say, “I don’t get it.” They don’t see the beauty because they are so busy looking for meaning.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or so they say, and I suppose that is true. The people who own the house overloaded with strange decor in yesterday’s writing must see something beautiful about what they have created. Most of those who have come across the real estate listing think it is bizarre. Many people see the barren wilderness of the Southwest and wonder how anyone could love it. It is barren and earthy, with miles of flat interrupted occasionally by yet another mound of rocks. It seems to be lifeless, boring, and worthless. Others find the landscape breathtakingly beautiful.
Lorado Taft, an American sculptor, writer and educator once said, “We are living in a world of beauty, but how few of us open our eyes to see it!” Though he lived more than a hundred years ago,
Taft’s words are still true, perhaps even more true. We don’t see beauty because so much of our world is filled with ugliness, hatred and violence. We spend too much of our time arguing which quickly turns to a negative view of our opponents. Watch any online discussion and see how quickly the argument turns to name calling. Like those who don’t get my art, we don’t see the beauty in those who see the world differently than we do.
Thankfully God is not like our enemies. We are ugly, we do hate. We are sinners. God, whose holiness makes Him the only one able to point out our imperfections without hypocrisy, is also the only one who sees the beauty in us. He sees what others cannot, just as some see the beauty in chaos and barrenness, and He calls us to see our neighbors through His eyes. He saw something in each of us of value, worthy to be saved by the blood of His very own Son. So, too, our neighbors have that same beauty and value, but we have to see them as He sees them. They might seem like they are nothing more than a painted canvas without meaning, but they are beautiful. Open your eyes today to see the beauty in others, especially those you have only seen as ugly. You might just discover beauty under the ugly you see and that your enemy is a beloved child of God.
“Cry aloud, don’t spare. Lift up your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their disobedience, and to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways. As a nation that did righteousness, and didn’t forsake the ordinance of their God, they ask of me righteous judgments. They delight to draw near to God. ‘Why have we fasted,’ say they, ‘and you don’t see? Why have we afflicted our soul, and you don’t notice?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and oppress all your laborers. Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You don’t fast today so as to make your voice to be heard on high. Is this the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to humble his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under himself? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Yahweh? Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out as the morning, and your healing will appear quickly; then your righteousness shall go before you; and Yahweh’s glory will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and Yahweh will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away from among you the yoke, finger pointing, and speaking wickedly; and if you pour out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul: then your light will rise in darkness, and your obscurity will be as the noonday; and Yahweh will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in dry places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters don’t fail. Those who shall be of you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called Repairer of the Breach, Restorer of Paths with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:1-12, WEB
I suppose all of us at some point have chosen to fast during Lent, but have you ever done a fast at another time of year? Have you chosen to fast for a day or a few days for another purpose? I remember hearing about a group that fasted and prayed in the months before the last election. Others fast as they prepare for a major life change. Some people who have chosen to lead a focused religious life practice fasting on a regular basis. There are some who fast from certain foods on a certain day of the week throughout the year. Fasting is a valuable practice when combined with prayer because it can be life changing as we focus more on God than on our flesh.
Unfortunately for some, the discipline of fasting loses its power because it becomes more about the flesh than God. It becomes something we “have to do.” It can also become something we do to make ourselves look pious to others. In Matthew 6:16 Jesus points out that the hypocrites make a big deal about their fasting. They frown and tell everyone about what they are doing for the Lord by fasting, yet they continue in their lives of sin and oppression. God wants us to humble ourselves before Him, but He expects it to be done in the joy of His Salvation.
Abstaining from food or something else will not necessarily guarantee that God will hear and answer our prayers. He is not looking for someone who is willing to starve himself; He is looking for righteous folk who pray in faith and live according to His promises. What then is the proper kind of fasting? The Hebrew word in this passage that is translated “fast” has a root that means “to cover.” As we think of the normal usage of the word fast, it makes sense to think of the mouth as being covered and fasting to be an abstention from food. However as we look at this passage from Isaiah, we see that the fasting which God is requiring of us is more than the giving up of something.
The fasting which God desires from us is not the giving up of our favorite things for a day or on a regular basis, but the giving up of ourselves. We are to take upon the righteousness of our Lord Jesus by submitting to God completely. When we do this, His life is manifested in our actions, and the oppressed are freed, the hungry are fed and the naked are clothed. His light shines through you and God is glorified.
We often cry out to God with a wrong motive or action. He hears answers when we do according to His will by faith, focusing on Him instead of our flesh. When we live the life He has called us to live, one of His righteousness rather than our own, then the blessings flow from His hand through our lives into the world. We may not always know where we are going in our walk with God, but when we act according to His commands He will guide, satisfy, strengthen, rebuild, repair and restore. What a beautiful statement of God’s love for us!
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you. You have held my right hand. You will guide me with your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom do I have in heaven? There is no one on earth whom I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart fails, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from you shall perish. You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to you. But it is good for me to come close to God. I have made the Lord Yahweh[c] my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” Psalm 73:23-28, WEB
We lived in England when the children were young; we had the opportunity to experience many unique things during that time. We visited thousand year old castles, saw a joust, wandered through a medieval carnival, stood on the shore of Loch Ness, wandered the cobblestone streets of York, and stood in the shadow of Stonehenge. We visited London many times, regularly shopped the market days of a dozen different villages, played in Sherwood Forest and hiked the cliffs of Tintagel (possibly the site of Camelot.) We worshipped in our local parish church, climbed the 528 steps to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral and received the Eucharist in Westminster Abbey. We had the opportunity to travel across the channel to places around mainland Europe.
The children went to an American school on the Air Force Base, but they received an education that they would never have received in the U.S. because we took advantage of our time there and traveled as much as we could. The schools also took the kids on fun field trips and showed them the world through a different lens. They even experienced the theatre. Victoria had the chance to backstage at a show in London with Girl Scouts and Zack’s first grade class attended a pantomime at Christmastime.
The show was called “The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck” and was ninety minutes of theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, that involved music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy. The children were mesmerized as the seven actors told the beloved stories of Beatrix Potter in song and dance. I was a chaperone and naturally concerned that I’d need to discipline the six and seven year olds who were likely to misbehave during the show, but there was no need. The quality of the performance showed in the response of the children who watched intently the whole time. I had a wonderful time.
I remember a much different experience when I attended a movie with the kids one summer a few years later. It was a very affordable movie theater, so it was often used by day care centers as an inexpensive outing. There were large groups of children with little adult supervision. Even though the movie was meant for children, it did not keep their attention and many of the children were out of control. It made it impossible to watch the movie. I was so distracted by the misbehaving children that I could not enjoy the show. I wish all my experiences attending events with small children were as wonderful as that day at the pantomime, but that is an ideal that rarely happened.
What are you watching? Are you paying attention to the show or are you paying attention to the distractions of the world? I have to admit that there are often times when I set to pray when my mind wanders from the intimate conversation between God and myself to the earthly troubles that often plague my life. I find myself focused on the wrong things, so easily distracted from the task at hand.
There is no greater love than the love of our Father, and no greater story than the one which tells of His grace. There are times when I write about a life of faith that seems impossible in our world today. Perhaps it is. Who among us has never been distracted by the world during our times of prayer? However, even when we cannot seem to reach the ideal, when we are watching the wrong show distracted by the cares and worries of this world God is still our guide and our strength.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 30, 2017, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Deuteronomy 7:6-9; Psalm 125; Psalm 8:28-39; Matthew 13:44-52
“What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31, WEB
Parables are similes, figures of speech that directly compare two different things, using the connecting words “like,” or “as.” Jesus often used these figures of speech to describe the kingdom of heaven for the people. It helped for Jesus to take something very mundane and knowable to describe the spiritual, divine world of God. The scripture writers, particularly the prophets, tried to put to words what it was like in heaven. They used images that are extraordinary, frightening, and magnificent. We can try to imagine what heaven will be like; we even try to give it descriptions based on our human knowledge. Artists, poets, writers and filmmakers have all tried to find a way to make us see what is unseen. But everything they create is just a shadow of the real. We won’t know what heaven really is until we experience it for ourselves. But we can hear what Jesus has to say and know what it is like.
The Gospel lesson for this week includes a number of parables, all about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses these parables to bring a deeper spiritual truth into common language for the people listening. At the same time, parables can be confusing because we want to fit our own understanding into the stories, often making the meaning too complicated or not really listening to what Jesus has to say. Now, parables can be understood in different ways, depending on one’s perspective, but we must be careful. It is so easy to make the stories fit our own opinions and interpretations while missing out on the deeper truths that God would have us know. Sometimes we even say we understand when we really aren’t paying attention to what God is saying.
Our passage for today is preceded by a few other parables which were told to the crowds. We’ve heard the parables about seeds and weeds. Jesus also talked about the mustard seed and leaven, two very small things that can become huge. Then Jesus left and went into the house. His disciples followed. Jesus revealed the meaning of the parable of the weeds and then told several more parables, with a slightly different focus, teaching how a small and hidden thing can become something of great value.
Jesus told the disciples that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure found in a field. The man who found the treasure hid it again and then went to purchase the field. Now, some are bothered by the idea that the man hid the treasure again, suggesting that there are legal and ethical problems with the way this story is told. Yet, the man who found the treasure could have easily just taken it without bothering to purchase the place where it was found. We learn in this parable that great treasures come with some sacrifice and cost. How many people think that they can have the benefits of God’s grace without giving up one’s self? The man who found the treasure wanted it enough to go to great trouble to possess it. He will love and appreciate what he has received far more than the one who would simply take it from its hiding place.
Again, Jesus tells a parable about a pearl of great price. In this parable we learn that the kingdom of heaven is something of such value that we should be willing to give up everything we have to gain possession of it. It is tempting to see these two parables as a statement about the work we must do to receive the kingdom of heaven for ourselves, but we are reminded that the value is not in our work but in the treasure. These are stories about letting go of ourselves and our stuff for the sake of something that is worth so much more than we could possibly give. We are made part of the kingdom through God’s grace, and by His grace we are called to go into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him. It is not enough to know about God’s kingdom, or even to be part of it. We are called to possess it, to grasp it and hold on to it, to make it a part of our whole being.
We are called to a living faith.
After Jesus spoke to the crowd and the disciples in parables, He asked the disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” The disciples answered, “Yes” but we know that the disciples did not always understand what Jesus was trying to teach them. Even after the resurrection, Jesus had to repeat lessons they had been learning for so long. Though the Holy Spirit gave them knowledge and understanding after Pentecost, and has given the same to us today, there are still questions we ask. There are still things we do not understand.
Parables are often hard and confusing. We don’t always understand the earthly aspects of Jesus’ examples, and the spiritual aspects can be even more difficult. How many of us really know about seeds? Do we know how we would react if we found hidden treasure or a fantastic pearl? We can look at those parables and understand that Jesus is talking about sacrifice and commitment. We can see that the kingdom of heaven is of great value and worthy of our dedication and submission. We can interpret those parables to our own lives and learn lessons that will help us grow into a deeper and more intimate relationship with God.
I think the final parable might be a little harder. Jesus said, “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet, that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind, which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach. They sat down, and gathered the good into containers, but the bad they threw away. So will it be in the end of the world. The angels will come and separate the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”
We look at a parable like this with a sense of victory. We believe that “others,” our enemies, are the wicked in the story and we are glad to know that God will take care of our enemies in the end. We are so certain about this that we think of our enemies as they will be, in that furnace of fire weeping and gnashing their teeth. Sadly, this brings us a sense of joy, although it doesn’t give us comfort.
When Jesus asks whether they understand, I imagine the disciples are thinking in these very terms. Shortly before this lesson of parables, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man. The people were astonished, but the Pharisees claimed that the power Jesus used in the healing was from Beelzebub. Beelzebub was the prince of demons. In this interaction, the disciples could see that the relationship between Jesus and the authorities was not going to be congenial. The Pharisees and teachers of the law approached Jesus demanding proof of His authority; they wanted a miraculous sign. Jesus refused, establishing in the minds of the disciples that this was not going to be an easy ministry. Even Jesus’ mother and brothers were against His ministry. They were going to have enemies. The only comfort in doing work against so many enemies is to know that in the end you will be proven righteous. The proof is in the failure of the enemies to win. The proof will come when God weeds out the weeds and severs the wicked from the righteous.
When Jesus asks, “Have you understood all these things?” we want to say “Yes.” We want to see this parable through the eyes of our vindication. We will be the good fish, saved from the furnace. We will be the ones who receive the kingdom of heaven. There is something deeper and more important in this parable, and the other parables, however. We are constantly reminded that we are not the king. We do not rule the kingdom of heaven. We are not judge, jury or executioner. God is in charge. He will weed out the weeds and sever the wicked from the righteous. We can’t see the hearts. Those we see as wicked may been seen much differently through the eyes of God. It is God who will make the judgment and He looks at things much differently than we do.
We should not rejoice over the destruction of anyone, even our enemies.
We have to see the world through wider eyes. Our understanding is so narrowly focused, based on our biases. We see things through our culture, our gender, our experience, our geography, our race, our religion, our hopes and our dreams. We see things a certain way because of our personalities, our financial condition, our relationships. Jesus tells the disciples, however, that they have to see things through new eyes. Now that they have the understanding of the kingdom of heaven, they have to see things through the old and the new. We have to do the same thing, seeing the world and the kingdom of heaven through the eyes of those who have been given the understanding of God. He is King and we have been called to teach the world this wonderful truth.
I’m reading an historical fiction book set in ninth century England. This was a time when the island was still divided into smaller kingdoms, and it was a time of almost constant warfare as men tried to become the sole ruler. It was a time when foreigners tried to usurp the authority of those who had long dwelled in the land. In one scene, a large Viking army landed on the coast. The king approached the enemy as soon as possible, before he had time to gather his army. He approached the enemy with just enough strength to prove his authority and yet with humility and grace. The enemy was suited for war fare, but the king was dressed as if he were attending a great feast. The king presented his enemy with gifts and demanded nothing the Viking was not willing to give. Every step was shocking to the Vikings because it didn’t make sense to them that the king would risk so much, and yet in the end the king was victor of this battle.
We don’t have to defeat our enemies. Living faith means trusting that God is with us and that He will ensure that everything will be made right.
It doesn’t always make sense. I know that every time I struggle with the parables of Jesus, I come up with different ideas. We recognize the reality that we can’t do it without God. That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s epistle. We are weak, but God is able to search even our very hearts and speak the words we are unable to speak. He knows all the things we do not know and He ensures that all things work together for the good of those who love Him. God is truly greater than we might expect, able to make incredible things happen; He is more valuable than the riches treasures of earth. Just like those examples in the parables, God is able and He will do exactly what He has promised.
Paul writes, “He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would he not also with him freely give us all things?” The work of God through Jesus Christ made us free to live according to His Word. We need not worry about the seeds that won’t grow or the weeds that do. We need not concern ourselves about the size of our mustard plant or which fish we should catch. These things cannot keep us from the love of Christ. As Paul writes, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
How does a king stand firm against a hoard of dangerous Vikings? In the case of this king, he did so with faith in God. He was a Christian, and though he knew that he might never leave the camp alive, he could trust that God would be faithful to His promise of eternal life for all those who believe. It seems, at times, that we stand alone in a world that is against us and our Christian faith, too, but we can trust in God. Old Testament text assures us that God loves us and that He is faithful. We don’t need to be part of an army; He didn’t choose us because we are many. God has chosen us because He loves us.
The psalmist writes, “Those who trust in Yahweh are as Mount Zion, which can’t be moved, but remains forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so Yahweh surrounds his people from this time forward and forever more.” How we live in a world of sin is dependent on our perspective. When we trust in God, we know that we will be unmoved even when tragedy strikes.
This is the message we are called to share is that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God’s love for the world. Jesus was sent to set us free to live faithfully in that love. We will face enemies; Christians have faced enemies during every generation since Jesus. Yet, we need not concern ourselves about these things, for the difficulties we face in sharing God’s grace will not stop the work of God in this world.
We take this one day at a time. Even if the seeds we plant seem miniscule, or seem to fall in the wrong places, God can make them grow. Even when the yeast disappears in the flour, it is there, making it rise. The treasure we have found is worth the price of our lives, for our lives were worth the sacrifice of God’s Son. In the end, some of the catch will be thrown back, the weeds will be burned. Yet, we need not concern ourselves with that since God is the judge who will choose. Even when we face the difficulties of life, we can live in the confidence that God works in all things for the good of those who love Him and who have been called according to His purpose.
He calls us to living faith in the kingdom of God, even if we do not fully know or understand everything He has taught us. Every parable has a glimmer of God’s grace and each story draws us to move ever more deeply into His heart. Living in His love we are called to take His kingdom to the world, sharing God’s wisdom with all so that they too might know the freedom to live in His love.
“When he got into a boat, his disciples followed him. Behold, a violent storm came up on the sea, so much that the boat was covered with the waves, but he was asleep. They came to him, and woke him up, saying, ‘Save us, Lord! We are dying!’ He said to them, ‘Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?’ Then he got up, rebuked the wind and the sea, and there was a great calm. The men marveled, saying, ‘What kind of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” Matthew 8:23-27, WEB
We are in a weather pattern of very, very hot weather. The conditions are such that lines of scattered storms have formed in the late afternoon, dropping heavy rain in some places while it remained absolutely dry in others. I have watched the radar each day, hoping that each line might make it to our house. One storm came very close the other day. We even watched the lightning and heard the thunder, but did not get any of the rain.
I love to watch the thunderstorms. We could see for miles from the porch at our last house, and it was fascinating to watch the lightning dance across the sky. Our current house is surrounded by trees, but we can still glimpse the flashes of light, especially if the storm is in just the right place. I even enjoy those that end up over our house, though it is more frightening, because I know at least we are getting some of the rain. Some storms are not so fun, especially those we had last year with lemon sized hail that did major damage to our house. Though I like thunderstorms, the cracks of thunder rattled the walls and the sound of ice balls falling on the roof sounded like we were being bombed. I have to admit that I was afraid.
There are storms that are truly frightening, like hurricanes and tornadoes. These storms cause damage and steal life. The best thing we can do is to stay out of the storm, like evacuating before a hurricane hits. However, that is not always possible. I don’t like to go out in the rain. I’ve been in several major accidents due to bad weather conditions, so I prefer to stay home safe and dry in the shelter of my home. Yet, that is not always possible. Also, there are many who do not have that choice: the homeless, emergency service staff and others who have no choice but to be out in the rain. Sometimes we just have to find a safe place to endure the storm and trust in the God who is in our midst.
We face storms every day. They are not always natural storms with wind and rain, but sometimes we face the storms of life in this chaotic world. We get sick, hurt, or experience circumstances that might be destructive to our happy life. Jesus’ disciples were frightened; they were sure they would drown. They cried out to Jesus and He calmed the storm. For those who are forced to go out into the night, drenched by the wind and rain, there seems to be no way out. Those who are dealing with troubling times think there is no solution. But when you face a storm, remember God is with you. Cry out to Him in prayer in the midst of your troubles and even as the wind and rain rages around you, the Son will shine.
“So let a man think of us as Christ’s servants, and stewards of God’s mysteries. Here, moreover, it is required of stewards, that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you, or by man’s judgment. Yes, I don’t judge my own self. For I know nothing against myself. Yet I am not justified by this, but he who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each man will get his praise from God.” 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, WEB
On a beautiful spring day, the animals gathered together to enjoy some fellowship. Skylark was singing, Squirrel was nibbling on some seeds, and the fawns were romping together. Tortoise slowly arrived and greeted the group with a cheery, “Hello.” It was a peaceful time until another friend arrived. Bursting out of the bushes flew Hare who was filled with energy and enthusiasm. He hopped circles around Tortoise, bouncing here and there and everywhere. The rest of the animals were tired just watching him.
Hare wanted to do something fun, but the other animals had no ideas that would make Hare happy. He suggested a race, but the other animals did not like that idea since Hare was so fast. No one else gets to win. Hare continued to harangue the other animals until finally Tortoise agreed to race. Everyone got very quiet until Hare burst out in laughter. “You? You want to race me?” Tortoise said yes and added that it was all in good fun.
Hare thought it would be an easy race to win; he was impatient as Tortoise slowly approached the starting line. Wise Old Owl set the pathway and got the race started. The animals took off. Hare was far down the path as Tortoise barely got off the starting mark. Hare ran back and taunted Tortoise. Tortoise continued on his way. Hare stopped and nibbled on some clover while Tortoise continued on his way. Hare stopped at the pond for a cool drink of water while Tortoise continued on his way. Hare even got behind Tortoise and pushed him further along the path to give him a bit of help. Then Hare decided to take a nap. Hare did not realize that while he was running back and forth, eating and drinking, that Tortoise continued to get closer to the finish line. Hare woke to the sound of cheers and applause. He shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and looked in the direction of the noise. There, Tortoise was just walking over the finish line. Hare didn’t think it was fair and accused Tortoise of cheating. “Tortoise could never beat me!” he said.
Wise Old Owl said to Hare, “Slow and steady wins the race. Tortoise did not let anything distract him from the task at hand. He proved himself faithful. Not even your taunts about failure would stop him. You could have easily completed the race and then did everything wanted to do. Instead, you let your arrogance get the better of you.”
As Christians, we run a race against the world. Satan taunts us with accusations of imperfection, pushes us along the way, and attacks when he does not get his way. Yet, we must prove faithful through it all, continuing along the path until we reach the finish line. We should be like the tortoise, with constancy, integrity and hope. In the end, we will know and understand all that we faced, and we will enjoy God’s glory.
“But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33, WEB
I confess that I have prayed some very selfish prayers. One day, a long time ago, the diamond fell out of my engagement ring. I didn’t know exactly where it fell out, but I desperately searched the area where I discovered it missing and did not find it. I was on the way to an event with the children and in the car I asked them to pray that we would find it. I told them that it is just mundane stuff, but that it was symbolically important. I knew that it was just a diamond and that God had far more important prayer to attend to, but still I prayed.
We’ve all prayed similar prayers. We’ve prayed that God will help us get a good grade on a test. That He’ll help us find a parking space at the mall. That the weather will be perfect for our trip to the shore. We have prayed that we would get the job or the promotion, even prayed that others would be passed up so that we can be blessed. We have to admit that, along with David in the Psalms, that God would destroy our enemies or teach them a lesson. God invites us to approach Him with the most mundane, even silly, wants and needs. He doesn’t promise that we’ll receive everything, but He will listen and will give us the best He has to offer.
Solomon became king after his father David died. He offered sacrifices to God in thanksgiving for His blessings on His people. That night, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and invited him to pray for anything. “Ask what I shall give you,” He said. How would you answer that invitation? What would you ask God to give you? Would you ask for your dream job or house, or enough money to keep you comfortable for the rest of your life? Would you ask for good health for you and those you love? Would you ask God to deal with your enemies? Solomon could have asked for anything and God would have given his heart’s deepest desire.
Solomon first thanked God for His blessing upon David and for the fulfillment of His promises. He then confessed his inability to lead such a great people. “Now give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people; for who can judge this your people, that is so great?” This was a good answer. God rejoiced and answered, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked riches, wealth, or honor, nor the life of those who hate you, neither yet have asked long life; but have asked wisdom and knowledge for yourself, that you may judge my people, over whom I have made you king: wisdom and knowledge is granted to you. I will give you riches, wealth, and honor, such as none of the kings have had who have been before you; neither shall any after you have the like.”
Jesus said, “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” He was addressing the daily worries of the disciples such as food and clothing. Though all of us have had big dreams, and prayed for big things, most of our prayers are for the simple things. We pray that God will give us our daily bread and that we will have enough. God doesn’t tell us not to pray for these things. But Jesus says, “Seek first God’s kingdom.” That’s what Solomon did. He prayed for wisdom, God’s wisdom, so that he could God was calling him to do. God promised that he would be greatly blessed because he sought first His kingdom.
So, too, will it be for us. We will have nothing to fear, or nothing left to desire, because we will be satisfied dwelling in the care of our Father in Heaven, who will bless us abundantly for our faith and trust in Him. As it turned out, I found my diamond. It had fallen into the trunk of my car and it was revealed when we took out everything we needed for the event. I was so thankful for God’s grace in that moment. I’m constantly reminded, however, that the greatest grace isn’t in the things we have, but in the love of our God who cares even about the mundane concerns of our lives.