Welcome to the July 2018 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, July 2018
July 2, 2018
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit. Let’s not become conceited, provoking one another, and envying one another.” Galatians 5:22-26, WEB
I recently watched a video that began with a guy grumbling about everything. A kid rode by on his skateboard as the guy was trying to leave his driveway. He struggled to cross a busy intersection. A woman took the parking space where he was about to park. The line at the coffee shop was really long. A guy jumped in front of him for a cookie. His coffee took a few minutes because the shop was so busy. He sat down to wait and he was approached by an ominous looking man who handed him a pair of glasses. He put them on and they revealed the secrets of everyone he saw. One woman was lonely. The barista was battling addiction. The kid on the skateboard just needed someone to care.
At first he was overwhelmed. He made excuses. He did not think it was possible to help any of the people who crossed his path. What could he do to make life better for everyone else? He wore the glasses all the way home, seeing the troubles and needs of his neighbors in their cars, but when he parked he wanted to remove them from his face. As he opened the glass case he saw the words “Get it?” He looked up and saw the boy. In the beginning of the video, he wanted to tell the kid’s parents that he was being annoying, but now he realized that the people about whom he had been grumbling had their own troubles. He realized, perhaps, his reasons for grumbling weren’t that important after all. Instead of complaining to the parents, he gave the boy a few minutes of his time. Instead of being an annoyance, the boy gave him a purpose.
The glasses helped the man to see the world through God’s eyes. We don’t always know why people do the things we do. We grumble and we blame, and we assume they do so because they are selfish or greedy. We don’t realize that the person who cut us off at the gas station or who stopped in our way at the grocery store was worried about a dying parent. Yes, those little things annoy us and we grumble, but perhaps we ought to respond with a word of encouragement or a smile. We might not be able to change the lives of everyone who crosses our path, but we can share God’s grace. We may never know what is troubling them; we may never see the impact our word or smile might have on that person, but kindness will make a difference.
The joy of living a life in our Lord Jesus Christ is that He transforms us. He takes those desires of our sinful nature, makes us aware of them and gives us the strength and courage to set them aside. It is a process called sanctification. The more we walk in His light and life, treating our neighbors with kindness, the more we are cleansed from the things we should not be doing. Paul knew he was not perfect. He knew he was being perfected. We also know that in the midst of our transformation, the Spirit of God still shines through our lives.
God is patient and long-suffering, helping us to see the world through His eyes so that we will treat our neighbors with kindness. We live in the Spirit of God, a gift from our Lord Jesus Christ. Kindness keeps us in step with His Spirit, setting aside the grumbling about our troubles as we acknowledge that our neighbors might be dealing with difficulties we cannot see. Then, as we treat them with kindness, the world will see the good ripe fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
“At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted up my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honored him who lives forever; for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and he does according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can stay his hand, or ask him, What are you doing? At the same time my understanding returned to me; and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and brightness returned to me; and my counselors and my lords sought to me; and I was established in my kingdom, and excellent greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven; for all his works are truth, and his ways justice; and those who walk in pride he is able to abase.” Daniel 4:34-37, WEB
I was listening to the radio one day and the song “The Greatest Love of All” came on as a dedication to the children who struggle in school. It certainly seems appropriate when you hear the first words of the song: “I believe the children are our future teach them well and let them lead the way...” One line, “I found the greatest love of all inside of me,” always made me think of my faith and Jesus. After all, His love is truly the greatest love of all.
The singer, Whitney Houston, was known as a Gospel singer. Even to the very end of her life, Whitney’s friends said she never stopped believing. Articles and interviews that came out at the time of her death repeatedly centered on her love of Jesus and her continued commitment to Him. She was troubled for many years; she abused drugs and she sought help for her addictions. In 2002 during an interview she said, “Pray for me as a person. Pray for my soul, that I’m stronger. I know I’m a child of God and I know He loves me. Jesus loves me, this I know.” The last song she sang in public before her tragic death was “Jesus loves me.”
I heard it very differently as I listened to the song recently. It was not, as supposed by the beginning line, a love of children. It was not about Jesus, as I supposed by that line about the love being inside. It is ultimately about loving oneself. “The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.” This was important to me in the 80’s when this song was so popular. I did not have a lot of friends. I was picked on by my peers. I was a little lonely and sometimes sad. A song reminding me that I was beautiful and that I should love myself was not a bad thing. It helped me see my self-worth, and I’m sure it did for many others.
I used to think that it was a song about healthy self-esteem, but I realized the other day that it is about pride. It is certainly not about faith in the God who can do the great things. “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadows. If I fail, if I succeed at least I’ll live as I believe. No matter what they take from me they can’t take away my dignity.” I could not help to think about the very end of her life as I heard her singing these words. Where was her dignity, then? According to the proverb, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
We certainly can’t know a person’s heart is, especially at the moment of death, but this song was on my mind as I read through the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel. The first few chapters of the book are about Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were young Hebrew nobles who were taken into captivity by the Babylonians and trained to be leaders in the administration of the empire. King Nebuchadnezzar learned about the power of their God in several ways. They were healthier, wiser and more gifted than the wisest men of his kingdom. They were able to interpret dreams. And they were devoted to their God. When they refused to be obedient to the rules of Babylon, they didn’t protest but courageously and boldly stood on their faith; the king watched as their God saved them from his punishment. He even praised God after he had thrown Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace.
Yet, sometime later, Nebuchadnezzar fell into the sin of pride. God gave him a dream, which Daniel interpreted. The dream of a tree showed the king’s greatness, but then the tree was cut down. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that the dream was about him. Despite his power and greatness at the moment, he had forgotten that there was One greater, the God of the Hebrews. “You shall be driven from men, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field, and you shall be made to eat grass as oxen, and shall be wet with the dew of the sky, and seven times shall pass over you; until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever he will.” Daniel warned Nebuchadnezzar to repent, to profess the greatness of God and to do God’s will in his kingdom.
A year later, because God is patient, Nebuchadnezzar was standing on the roof of his palace, looking over the greatness of his kingdom and said, “I built this.” At that very moment, the prophecy of the dream came true. The king went mad and for seven years lived in the wilderness with the wild animals. At the end of the time, Nebuchadnezzar publically confessed the greatness of God and was restored to his kingdom as we see in today’s passage.
We are taught in our world today that the greatest love is for self. “Follow your heart.” “Do what makes you feel good.” “Take care of yourself.” “Me” is the most important person in our life. There might be some validity to these admonitions, because we can’t serve others if we aren’t healthy in body, mind or spirit. However, we must always remember that we are not God. As a matter of fact, we are sinners in need of a Savior. The greatest love of all is the love He had for us, the love that sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ to save us from ourselves. We’ll still face difficulty even when we stand on our faith. We might end up in the fiery furnace. But we can confess God’s greatness even in the midst of our troubles and trust that He will be with us through it all.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 8, 2018, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Mark 6:1-13
“The children are impudent and stiff-hearted: I am sending you to them; and you shall tell them, Thus says the Lord Yahweh.” Ezekiel 2:4, WEB
I am working on a study for my Sunday School class about the Book of Revelation. My days have been filled with plenty of reading. I’ve researched online, googling certain themes and reading through the pages that come up in response. I’ve also read a couple of commentaries. All this I have added to my years of personal study on the subject matter. In the process I realized that I should be more familiar with the Book of Daniel, and I’m so glad that I have pursued that tangent because it has been very helpful. The parallels between Daniel and Revelation do not stand with just the visions they both saw, but with the message to the churches they tell. “You will experience difficult times, but I, the LORD, am with you. Go and speak the Gospel without fear. Some will hear and believe. Others will not. Don’t worry about them; be obedient to my Word and trust that I will deal with them in my time and in my way.” This is a message we all need to hear, especially when it seems like our world is falling apart around us.
One of the difficulties of online research is that you come across a lot of information that is not trustworthy. I’m very careful when I read through a study to make sure I know the background of the writer. I can usually tell in an instant if I should even bother. I have avoided the sites that put too much emphasis on the terrifying images in Revelation or that try to make the Book of Revelation a timeline of the end times. Now, I’m not avoiding the reality of what the end times will be, but I know that there is a more important message to the Church about what will happen. We don’t really need to know when it will happen if we are properly prepared to meet our Lord.
The problem with most of those sites is that they are certain that they have been given some special knowledge of what will happen. They have identified the players and they know that it will play out in a specific way at a specific time. They are absolutely sure that it will be soon, that they will be proven right. They hear the words of God to Ezekiel, “They, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house), yet shall know that there has been a prophet among them,” and believe it was meant for them.
“Thus says the Lord Yahweh,” they loudly proclaim. I saw a lot of self-proclaimed prophets during the time I was ministering in the online chat rooms. This statement is supposed to make the hearers tremble in their shoes as if in the “prophet” will be made credible just in the speaking of the words. All too often, those who focus on the end times see themselves as vessels of warning. “Believe what I say or you will die!” However, the message they give is not one which the Lord would actually send. They think that just by claiming God as the source of their words that they make it true. Unfortunately, it is very easy for a false prophet to proclaim to be God’s mouthpiece, but that doesn’t mean that we should believe everything we hear. You’ve heard it said, “It is on the Internet, so it must be true.” Well, believe me; it isn’t all true.
There are some who think that success will prove a prophet is real. What is success? Do they have a bestselling book that has been read by millions? A popular TV ministry? Does gold dust fall on their meetings? Success, worldly success, does not guarantee what they speak is true. As a matter of fact, many of the popular “prophets” actually preach a message that is less than real.
The Corinthians were plagued by false prophets who boasted about so many things. The false prophets made claims about God which were in direct opposition to the things that Paul had taught the believers in that city. As we saw last week, it was apparent that the Corinthians were turning back to the Way as Paul had taught, rejecting the false prophets and believing the true Gospel. Paul wanted to build a strong foundation for those Christians.
False prophets would come and go. They would always be a problem, even until this day. Perhaps it is even worse today because they can reach such a huge audience either online or on television. Millions of people can find their information and if they are not truly grounded in God’s Word, they will not recognize the twist that the false prophets use to conceal their deception. “Thus says the Lord Yahweh,” does not mean that we should take that prophet’s word as His.
We should be prepared to listen, however, because God can use even the most unexpected vessels to proclaim His Word. He can even use you and me.
The problem is that many struggle with an image problem. We change, but those who know us best don’t understand the changes. I have made connections with many of people with whom I went to school. Some of those people were not really my friends way back when; some were even bullies who picked on me. I remember, but a lot of water has run under the bridge in the past few decades. Many are now people of faith, somewhat surprising to those of us who remember their youthful antics. I still wonder whenever I see them talking of ministry or mission trips. Who are these people? Where did they find that kind of commitment to Jesus?
I watched a show the other day about a family in trouble. The son married a woman that his parents and siblings did not like. Over and over again they said, “We want our son/brother back.” He was a grown man with a wife and child. He had gone to college and was a corporate executive. He was never going to be the boy that they knew when he was young. Yet, they blamed the wife; they said she changed him, calling her manipulative and oppressive. They gave him no credit for making a success of his life, they wanted him to be the person they thought he should be.
They say you can’t go home again. We can go home again for a visit, so the statement is not true in the most literal sense. Yet, have you ever run into an old friend with whom you have been out of touch? Are they surprised to discover what has become of your life? If I asked your family to describe you today, what might they say? I think my brother still sees me as an eleven year old with pigtails, despite the fact that my children are grown. Even though our family and friends have grown up and matured, they remember us as we were when we last spent time together. We are no different, expecting everything to be exactly the same in our home, neighborhood and family. We are often amazed at the changes.
We doubt that we can speak for God, or that we could be God’s mouthpiece, especially among those who know us best. It happened to Jesus. He went home, but the people knew Jesus as He was as a boy and a young man. They knew He was a carpenter’s son, not someone who had been trained as a teacher or priest. What could a carpenter or a carpenter’s son teach them about the scriptures? What could He know about God? How was this ordinary man who was “one of us” do the things He was claiming to do? How could the son of Mary and Joseph heal? I am sure they heard the stories of the miracles He was doing, but probably thought they were exaggerations or fairy tales. He could not, or would not, heal in that town because they had no faith. In the end it was Jesus’ own people who put Him on a cross.
This world has always been counter to that which God intends. This world will always battle against Christian faith, even to the point of putting us on a cross beside our Lord Jesus. He told us that we would be hated as He was hated. He told us not to be afraid, for He has overcome the world. Even when we are overwhelmed by what is happening in our world, whether words on a piece of paper or the blade of a sword, we must always have hope. God is in control; He won the war even though we are still fighting the battles. What we need to do is learn how to fight that battle with grace and mercy. We have been called to take God’s Word to our family, friends, neighbors, enemies and the strangers in our midst. We can’t believe that we have anything to say, but God says He will put His Word in our mouths.
Sadly, even when we do speak for God, many will not hear. The people didn’t hear Ezekiel. They didn’t believe the message because it wasn’t the message they wanted to hear. They wanted acceptance, peace and love, not a call to repentance. They wanted to do things their own way. Other prophets promised them good things; Ezekiel warned them what would happen if they continued to reject God. Which message would you rather hear? The false prophets give the people what they want, that’s how they can be successful in the world. Yet, we learn over and over again in the scriptures, the true prophets of God may face difficulty, but God proves them true when His Word comes to fulfillment. Those who interpret the Book of Revelation may be correct, but we will not really know until the Day of the LORD.
Real prophets aren’t given any guarantees. In today’s passage, Ezekiel is told that the people who hear the message will probably not even listen. When it comes to God’s prophets, however, it doesn’t matter whether they hear or refuse to hear: God will cause His word to be known. It won’t take a powerful person, or someone highly respected. The prophet won’t enjoy popularity or receive the respect of the hearers. As a matter of fact, the prophet will probably be spit upon, beaten and threatened. But God’s Word gets through, is heard, even if the listeners do not realize it at the moment. In the end, God will prove His prophets to the world.
This world has always been counter to that which God intends. This world will always battle against Christian faith, even to the point of putting us on a cross beside our Lord Jesus. He told us that we would be hated as He was hated. He told us not to be afraid, for He has overcome the world. Even when we are overwhelmed by what is happening in our world, we must always have hope. God is in control; He won the war even though we are still fighting the battles. What we need to do is learn how to fight that battle with grace and mercy. That’s what we truly learn from the apocalyptic scriptures.
At first the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, but then they began to doubt. He didn’t waste His time in His hometown. Instead, He went to other towns to share the message of God’s kingdom. Along the way He sent the disciples out to do the same thing, but He warned them that the same thing would happen to them. They would also be rejected. The people to whom they were sent, at least some of them, would wonder how these fishermen and other ordinary men could be speaking about God’s kingdom. They haven’t been trained. They have no authority. And because the people did not believe, they had no power in those towns. “Shake off the dust that is under your feet for a testimony against them,” Jesus said. It wasn’t worth wasting their time. In the end, they would know that a prophet had spoken.
Why would things be any different for us? If Jesus, Paul and Ezekiel were sent into a world where they would face persecution, rejection, failure and doubt, why do we think we will have any more success? If they suffered because they spoke God’s Word, why do we think we’ll be embraced with open arms? Why have we decided that it is better to give the people what they want so that we can fill the pews than to give them what they really need and let God deal with their lack of faith?
The psalmist must have known what it was like to face difficult times. He seeks mercy from God, for the people endured much ridicule from the proud and contempt from the arrogant. Yet, he sings a song of praise, looking toward God for mercy from the response of those who refuse to hear. We are not promised an easy life when we live in faith. We are called to speak God’s Word into the world and it is likely we will face rejection and ridicule.
This week we heard call stories about people who were promised that the people to whom they were sent would not listen. Ezekiel faced people who were like impudent and stiff-hearted children. The Corinthians were interested in those who were successful, thinking they must be right because they were powerful and charismatic. Paul reminded them that God’s grace is more powerful than human power, especially in the weakness of His chosen. Even Jesus faced rejection from His own people. Why should we expect to do any better? Yet we can live in the words of the psalmist, looking to God for our strength because while the world holds us in contempt, God has mercy on us. He sends us out, like the disciples, so that we can speak His Good News to the world, and even when they refuse to believe, we can trust that they will know that God's Word has been spoken in their midst and that God will accomplish His will in their lives.
“So then, let us follow after things which make for peace, and things by which we may build one another up. Don’t overthrow God’s work for food’s sake. All things indeed are clean, however it is evil for that man who creates a stumbling block by eating. It is good to not eat meat, drink wine, nor do anything by which your brother stumbles, is offended, or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who doesn’t judge himself in that which he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because it isn’t of faith; and whatever is not of faith is sin.” Romans 14:19-23, WEB
On a very early episode of the show “Friends,” Rachel was in the Laundromat for the first time washing her clothes. She came from a prosperous family and had been spoiled. She had just walked away from her wedding to a successful man. She was trying to make it on her own, but she had no idea of what it meant to be independent because she had always had someone to do everything for her. She made several mistakes in the Laundromat. Her worst mistake was not separating her clothes. A red item in the load of whites makes for great comedy when the whole load becomes pink. We can all laugh at this problem because I’m sure most have us have managed to make such a mistake.
It is amazing how just a little bleeding from a new red t-shirt can change the color of another item so easily. Certain things don’t really matter, but it can be rather disturbing to a boy when his underwear becomes pink. We risk shrinkage and rips when we aren’t careful about what clothes we put together. The clothing can be damaged if it is washed at the wrong temperature of if delicate items are added to loads with heavy zippers or pointy buttons. We end up with junk when we are not careful. Who among us has not forgotten to remove an ink pen from a pocket that leaked onto the entire load?
I really don’t worry about the laundry too much. I buy clothes that are pretty hearty and at this point most have been washed so often that there isn’t a concern for bleeding. I am certainly more careful when adding a new item to the laundry. Unfortunately, we all have our careless moments and we end up with a mismatched pair of socks when a white one becomes pink in the load of reds.
We don’t always realize the affect our lifestyle will have on those around us. To someone with heart disease, extra salt in the food we prepare can be deadly. If we travel on the interstate at slightly above the speed limit, we can cause people less able to drive such speeds to go faster than they should. Our children copy our language. To someone who is weak or uncertain about their faith, reading the horoscopes can distract their attention from the truth of God’s word.
We shouldn’t put a new red t-shirt into our light colored laundry or everything will end up pink. We also shouldn’t do things that might cause harm to another. If we have invited someone with health issues into our homes, we should be careful about the food we serve. Though we know we can handle our car, we should drive within the speed limit for the sake of all the other drivers. It is good to keep our tongues from using inappropriate language so that we do not give our children something bad to imitate.
As for our Christian walk, our faith in Christ’s forgiveness gives us freedom to live as our conscience allows. In Paul’s day, Christians were eating the meat that had been sacrificed to idols – not because they worshiped the idol but because it was good food. In Christ’s grace, we have such freedom. However, if we do so to the detriment of our brethren in Christ, we are not showing them the love that comes from faith. If our actions will prove harmful to another’s faith, then we also have the freedom to willingly give up those things for their sake. It is by God’s grace that we can live in a manner that will lead to peace and edify our brethren.
“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of Yahweh, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers. Under his wings you will take refuge. His faithfulness is your shield and rampart. You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day; nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes, and see the recompense of the wicked. Because you have made Yahweh your refuge, and the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. For he will put his angels in charge of you, to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up in their hands, so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and cobra. You will trample the young lion and the serpent underfoot. ‘Because he has set his love on me, therefore I will deliver him. I will set him on high, because he has known my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble. I will deliver him, and honor him. I will satisfy him with long life, and show him my salvation.’” Psalm 91, WEB
We had a storm this morning. The weather men predicted that we might have storms for the next few days, but I didn’t know about timing. I was planning to run errands today and wanted to know the best time to go. I also had to plan for time to write, since I don’t like to keep my computer on when there is lightning and thunder. So, I turned on the news as soon as I woke up. The weatherman was on the screen pointing to a large storm on the radar quickly approaching my house. It was moving from east to west and the traffic pictures showed it would be a heavy rain. That’s when I heard the thunder. The rain arrived a few minutes later and the thunder became louder and louder.
Samson, one of our cats, does not like thunderstorms. I know that there are many other pets that are bothered by the noise, although Tigger and Delilah are not nearly as frightened. It wasn’t much of a problem until we had a severe hail storm a few years ago. The hail was huge, about the size of large lemons or baseballs, and they sounded like bombs exploding when they hit our roof. Now Sammy hides whenever he hears thunder, perhaps afraid that we’ll have the same experience as we did during that previous storm.
Samson has his favorite hiding places. He runs to our closet when people ring the doorbell. He hides under beds. The other day he hid in the laundry room when it was terribly windy. This morning was strange, though. He didn’t seem to know where to hide. He ran to the closet, but when he heard thunder, he ran through my bedroom into the entry way. Then it thundered again, so he ran back into our bedroom. Another rumble and he went the other direction. I wasn’t sure where he finally settled down, but we found him under the guest bed hours later. He came out long after the storm was gone.
I have often heard Christians wonder what they would do if they didn’t have faith in God. During times of difficulty, we seek God’s grace to help us through. We turn to scriptures like Psalm 23 for comfort. We ask other Christians to pray. We rejoice in God’s promises, even if things don’t seem very promising. And yet, even Christians have moments when they struggle. “Why?” we ask. “Where is God in this?” There’s a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations that laments the fall of Jerusalem. Many of the Psalms are filled with laments.
Yet, we can sing praise to God, to seek Him as a refuge in our storm. He has promised to be with us. He is our Shepherd. He is our Savior. He is our hope and our peace. When we struggle, we walk around like Sammy, not sure where to hide. But we can turn to the scriptures like today’s Psalm and recall that God is our refuge. We might still suffer; the storm a few years ago caused billions of dollars of damage in our city; our own damage was in the thousands. We don’t have to let that day worry us for the rest of our lives, though, as Sammy still does. We can take each day at a time, knowing that even in the hard times God is in control and that He will bring us through the other side as we dwell with Him.
“Praise Yah! Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise him in his heavens for his acts of power! Praise him for his mighty acts! Praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet! Praise him with harp and lyre! Praise him with tambourine and dancing! Praise him with stringed instruments and flute! Praise him with loud cymbals! Praise him with resounding cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise Yah! Praise Yah!” Psalm 150, WEB
I saw a meme online that showed a page out of an inspirational calendar. The quote was from Luke 4:7, “If you therefore will worship before me, it will all be yours.” This sounds very inspirational. The meme reminds us, however, that we need to be careful where we find our inspiration. It said, “Inspirational Bible Quote... Less inspirational if you know who said it.” See, that quote comes from the story of Jesus’ temptation. The person making the statement is not, as we might assume, God. It is said by Satan, claiming to give Jesus authority over all the earth if only Jesus would worship him. Jesus answered, “Get behind me Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only.’”
The person who put together that inspirational calendar obviously had no idea the context of that verse. On its own, the statement is right, as long as we know that it is God we are to worship. Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize the voices calling us to action. Is it God who is calling us, or is someone else trying to get us to do their will.
In the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, we read that after Jesus was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit He went into the desert for forty days for prayer and fasting, to prepare for His ministry. He faced three temptations, all of which we have faced at one time or another. The devil tempted Him to change stones to bread, to take control over the world, to test God. The devil even quoted scripture to make his offer seem sincere. Satan took God’s Word and twisted it, claiming for himself the authority that he did not have.
Jesus answered all the temptations with the true Word of God. He dwelled in the shadow of the Most High and the Almighty dwelt within Him. He was secure in His identity as the Son of God. He certainly did have the power to change stones to bread, to command over the nations of the world and to call the angels to His aid.
The world takes God’s Word and twists it to tempt us away from our God. They seek His power, tempting us with wealth and fame and power. They don’t want God glorified, so they try to distract us with works that will keep us too busy to worship God. Jesus knew the temptations we would face today; He faced them Himself in that wilderness experience. Satan did not just offer Jesus a loaf of bread, a kingdom or angelic protection. He was offering Him an incredible ministry of miracles, authority and power. Satan was trying to prove Jesus was nothing more than any other man, easily tempted away from God’s will to a self-centered ministry.
Jesus proved He was the Son of God, not by doing all the good works that tempted Him in the wilderness, but by dwelling in the presence of God. Jesus did not come to feed the hungry, to rule over the nations or to be a famous preacher. He came to die, to bring forgiveness and healing to a world that was sick and dying from sin. Let us always listen to His voice, not to the twisted words of those who would misdirect our lives. There are so many good works we can do in the world, but our first calling is to worship the True God.
“Preserve me, God, for in you do I take refuge. My soul, you have said to Yahweh, ‘You are my Lord. Apart from you I have no good thing.’ As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied who give gifts to another god. Their drink offerings of blood I will not offer, nor take their names on my lips. Yahweh assigned my portion and my cup. You made my lot secure. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Yes, I have a good inheritance. I will bless Yahweh, who has given me counsel. Yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons. I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” Psalm 16:6-11, WEB
Have you ever watched a video of baby goats? They are adorable as they bounce and pounce and prance all over their yard, climbing obstacles with ease. They seem to have a joy that is beyond our understanding. There never seems to be a reason for their happiness; they aren’t being fed and there never seems to be any human interaction. Though the videos often show large groups of goats playing, even a single goat will bounce and pounce and prance with the same joyful abandon. We can’t help but laugh; we aren’t laughing at them, but we join in their happiness.
Perhaps you have also seen videos of goats when they are startled. The goats become paralyzed and they fall down. Their legs seem to be frozen, sticking straight out. They can overcome this very quickly, but they almost look as though they are dead with rigor mortis already setting in. We laugh at these videos, too, but for very different reasons. There is no joy; we laugh because the whole thing us absurd, especially since there is no reason for their fear. While the bouncing, pouncing and prancing goats seem to have a peace that can’t be explained, the falling down in fear goats lack that peace completely.
What is peace? Jesus knew peace. He didn’t live without threats of violence. One day the crowd tried to stone Him. The temple leaders accused Him of blaspheme and insurrection. He was crucified on the cross – a most horrific death. Yet, He faced large crowds of hungry people with only a few fish and some bread without worry. He touched the sick, spoke to the outcasts and ate with the sinners with love. He faced His trial without fear; He spoke only the words necessary despite threats from His accusers. He had peace, the peace that comes from knowing God is close.
We live in a world where there are very real reasons to be afraid. We can’t help but hear about violence all over the news, whether it is across the ocean or in our own backyards. Even on the internet people respond in anger and hatred; we may laugh at their absurdity, but that laughter has no joy or happiness because we do not know how to find peace with so much conflict around us.
Jesus said “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, give I to you. Don’t let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful.” The world thinks of peace as a lack of violence. We often hear the cry for peace, but what peace are we praying for? Peace is not just the lack of violence - violence is brought on by a lack of peace. The unending cycle of attack and retaliation will only be stopped when the hearts of the warriors find true peace. We have Christ’s peace which is the assurance that God is with us. He works in our hearts so that we can live the kind of joy we see in those baby goats, content even in the midst of a world that can bring fear and violence. Perhaps we won’t be bouncing and pouncing and prancing, but we will be singing praise and thanksgiving to the God who gives us true joy and peace.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 15, 2018, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:(1-7) 8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
“I will hear what God, Yahweh, will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, his saints; but let them not turn again to folly.” Psalm 85:8, WEB
I have a friend who is interested in attending a Bible study. She’s looked into the options, but she has a problem. She doesn’t think that a lay person can properly teach the Bible. Unfortunately, our pastors do not always have the time to teach. We have a number of highly gifted teachers in our congregation, several diverse classes so that she could find something that would be interesting and beneficial. She is concerned, however, because none of those teachers are ordained. “How can they teach the Bible when they haven’t been trained?” she asks.
I agree that we need to be very careful about who we accept as our mentors and teachers of the faith. We need to make sure the words that the teacher is speaking lines up with the Word of God. The problem is that we need to be familiar enough with the scriptures so that we can discern between truth and the twist. The twist is what got us into the trouble in the first place. The serpent questioned Adam and Eve’s understanding of God’s words. “Did God really say...?” he asked. Eve then answered with her own thoughts on the matter, not with God’s true word. She was fooled into believing what the serpent wanted her to believe. False teachers can do the same. Satan even tested Jesus with that kind of twist during His wilderness wandering. “If you are the Son of God...” he said and then twisted the scriptures to meet the temptation. Jesus answered with the truth.
My friend is right to be concerned; she is not familiar enough with the Bible to be certain that she’ll avoid falling for the twists. However, she is foolish for thinking that only the ordained can be her teacher, because even among ministers there are those willing to twist God’s Word to make it fit their own agenda or ideology.
Take the story of Amos, for instance. The king was surrounded by teachers and prophets that were well educated and highly respected in their positions, particularly by the king. Amos, however, was a nobody. Amos had words for the king that the king and the people did not want to hear. Their time was short. They’d disobeyed the Lord and He was about to take matters into His own hands. They were not in line with His Word. The Lord promised to send a plumb line to measure His people, to see how well they stood. The Lord could have chosen a powerful man, an educated man, a gifted man. Instead, He chose Amos, who tells us that he takes care of sheep and sycamore trees. What did he know about politics? What did he know about religion? What did he know about the future?
How did Amos have the authority to say these things? He was just a simple shepherd. But that’s exactly why he was chosen to take this message, a message he really didn’t want to take. As a matter of fact, Amos argued with God about this calling, convincing God to relent from two previous visions. Finally, the Lord showed Amos a plumb line; it symbolized how Israel was out of whack. A leaning wall must be destroyed and rebuilt. Amos was that plumb line, the one being sent to the people to warn them of what is to come.
A plumb line is a very simple tool, used for millennia, to find the vertical line. It is especially helpful for building walls because it helps to keep the walls straight. A plumb line is simply a weight tied to the end of a string. The string is held at the top of the vertical and the weight is allowed to swing free until it stops. At that point, the line points directly to the center of the earth. All lines established from the plumb line will be parallel and the wall will be straight. If a builder tries to line up a stack of bricks using only his own eyes, it is likely that some of the levels will be slightly askew, making the whole wall lean. It only takes a minute fraction of an inch on each level of brick for the wall to eventually topple. Every wall is dependent on every other wall. Everything inside is dependent on the walls being straight. The windows and doors will not fit properly if the walls lean. A leaning wall will not stand very long. Isn’t it amazing that a cheap, simple tool can be so important?
One of my favorite villages in England was a place called Lavenham. Lavenham is a delightful little town, with picturesque buildings and an interesting history. It is known as the crookedest town in England, and it lives up to its reputation. It was at the height of its importance during Tudor England as a place that produced wool. The buildings were built quickly to house the workers necessary to produce the cloth. They were built in the typical half-timber style that was popular during that time. The walls were made of large timber beams that stood vertically with small horizontal crosspieces that were covered in a plaster made with horsehair. It is funny to look at modern American examples of “Tudor” houses, because they are built with solid walls and then pretty boards are nailed to the outside as a decorative enhancement - nothing like a real Tudor building.
Lavenham was built so quickly and with so little care taken for foundations that over the years the homes have settled into something almost too silly to be real. They are crooked and misshapen, though somehow still standing. While wandering through this quaint village, I wondered how the residents could even live in some of those buildings. There was one whose main floor beam was at a very steep incline. Though I could not see the inside, I wondered if the furniture constantly slid to the lower side of the room.
After reading today’s Old Testament lesson, I can almost imagine God as a building inspector standing in the middle of Lavenham with his plumb line, shaking His head at how topsy-turvy the buildings have become. That is what had happened with Israel. They were no longer the nation He had built, they had settled into lives in and of the world; they were worshipping the gods of their neighbors and bowing down to the wrong ruler. Bethel was a high holy place, the place of the royal cults. Elijah and Elisha had both tried to turn God’s people toward the LORD, but had failed. Amos was also given the word of the LORD to take to the people of Israel.
Amos lived in the age of Jeroboam. His ideas were firmly ensconced in Israel. The high places were the altars to other gods and were a part of the daily life of the people in Beth-el. The king supported the other gods and the priest served them. Amaziah was not a prophet after God’s own heart but after his own power and position. He claimed that Amos was raising a conspiracy, but when the king did not do anything, he accused Amos of being a charlatan. Amos’s words were not easy to hear. His words threatened the end of their cozy regime.
Amos answered the exaggeration, the accusation and the condemnation with the truth. He did not go for the money or for the power as the other prophets would do. He went to Beth-el, the king’s sanctuary, to tell God’s people the truth. The message seems graceless; it was a message of destruction. Yet, the skewed wall had to go, it was separating God from His people. The plumb line would bring destruction, but the thing that would be destroyed would be the wall that was in His way, the hard hearts of the people. God was about to destroy the chasm between He and His people.
The response to Amos’s prophecy is typical. “Don’t rock our boat, don’t say such horrible things about the king’s haven.” Amaziah told the king about the things Amos was saying and warned him that it wouldn’t be helpful for the people to hear their king is going to die and that they will be sent into exile. Then he told Amos to go prophesy somewhere else. You can almost hear Amos laughing at the words of Amaziah. He answered, “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a farmer of sycamore figs; and Yahweh took me from following the flock, and Yahweh said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” Amos didn’t have a choice about his audience or his message; God sent him to say these things to these people. He couldn’t run off or say whatever sounded good. Unfortunately, many of the false prophets gave the king warm fuzzies so that he’d feel good and the people would feel secure. Amos had to tell them all that they were wrong. Amos was the plumb line showing God’s people that they were not lining up to God’s Word.
It is so easy to get confused when there are so many conflicting ideas. Who should the king listen to - Amaziah or Amos? Amaziah made the king feel good and Amos threatened his life. We would rather hear the warm fuzzies any day, but we all need to hear the truth.
Herod was also confused. It wasn’t that Herod refused to listen, he was torn. He liked to listen to John and he was certain that John was someone special. Herod was even a little afraid of John; he protected John because he knew John was a righteous and holy man. Perhaps John’s words were having an impact on him, causing him to think twice about his relationship with Herodias. The marriage arrangement between Herod and Herodius was wrong because she was married to Herod’s brother who was still alive. This went against God’s Law and John told them so. Herod’s wife didn’t like what John had to say and forced Herod to have him arrested and put in prison. He continued to listen, however. Herodias knew that she had to deal with the problem.
At Herod’s birthday party with his high officials and military commanders, Herodias’ daughter Salome danced for him and his friends. Herod was a man who enjoyed celebrity wanted to make a huge impression on the powerful people in his presence. He made an outlandish offer to give Salome anything she wanted, “Up to half my kingdom!” This was a boast to amaze his guests. Can you imagine what a girl like Salome would want? She was of marriageable age; she could have asked for enough land or money to assure herself an excellent life. She could have been dripping with jewels and silks, hosted a lavish event for her friends. She probably had a million ideas running through her head, but she went to her mother to ask for advice.
Herodias took advantage of the situation, telling her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herodias must have had a pretty tight hold on her daughter, too, because what young woman would ask for such a thing? They left Herod without a choice; he had to give them John’s head on a platter because of the vows he made at his party. He could not go back on his word in front of those who rely on him for leadership, even if the request was horrific.
That’s the way the world thinks, they think that their own reputation is more important than life. Herod could have told Salome that it is ridiculous to think that he would kill a righteous and holy man because she danced. But doing so would risk his reputation. How could he turn so easily from a vow, even a vow made without thought or purpose? We know we need to stand up against those who would twist the situation to their own benefit, using us for their own selfish desires. However, we would rather not rock the boat.
Jesus began his ministry after John was put in prison. As His name became renowned, Herod wondered who He might be. He really couldn’t deal with another nutso prophet like John the Baptist. Some claimed he was a resurrected John the Baptist. Others thought He Elijah. Still others thought He was a prophet. Herod was a silly superstitious man and was worried that it was John raised from the dead. He hadn’t really meant to kill John, but the women in his life and his own selfishness caused him to do so. Now there was another prophet out there causing trouble and he was frightened by the prospect that it might be John back from the dead.
John’s story is ugly. He was not what we would describe as a superstar. He was rough, wild and probably not beautiful. He preached wrath. He talked about sin. In his story, the truth is ugly. The truth is also ugly in Amos’s story. Amos had no desire to be a prophet. He was a shepherd and just wanted to shepherd his flock. But God spoke and Amos responded. The message he took to that king was not beautiful, either. It was ugly. He warned the people that their sacred places would be destroyed and that the king would die by the sword. He also warned that the people would be sent into exile.
I don’t think I would want to be either Amos or John.
Despite the ugliness of those words from John and Amos, however, there is peace in them. How much better is our life when we live within the grace of God? John and Amos called God’s people back into a relationship. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time God’s people remembered and returned to Him. John’s words might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for God’s grace to truly change the world. There is peace on the other side of repentance, because there we stand once again in the presence of God.
Despite the ugliness of those words from John and Amos, however, there is peace in them. How much better is our life when we live within the grace of God? John and Amos called God’s people back into a relationship. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time God’s people remembered and returned to Him. John’s baptism might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for God’s grace to truly change the world. There is peace on the other side of repentance, because there we stand once again in the presence of God.
The psalmist sings, “Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, That glory may dwell in our land.” The people to whom the prophets were sent feared so many things of this world. They feared the wrong things. If they feared the Lord, held Him in the proper awe, they would see that they would have no need to fear those other things. Israel had no fear of God. Jeroboam had more concern about his false gods and his special city. Amaziah had more fear of Jeroboam and the people who had no interest in hearing things weren't going to go very well for them. Herod had more fear of his wife, her daughter, the opinion of his guests and his superstitions. They did not truly listen to what the prophets had to say. They heard only what they wanted to hear. But the psalmist knows that peace will come to those who hear and believe the words of God, even if His word seems harsh and ugly at first.
Despite the ugly words of the prophets, the text this week includes beautiful words, too. The psalmist writes, “Mercy and truth meet together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springs out of the earth. Righteousness has looked down from heaven.” Truth is beautiful, even if the words do not seem so, because truth leads us to a right relationship with God. It is in that relationship that we truly find peace.
These verses from the psalm describe our Lord Jesus. The fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth - mercy, truth, righteousness and peace - come together in Him. Some translations use the phrase “love and faithfulness meet together.” Paul references this when he tells us that everything God planned, every beautiful thing, is summed up in Christ, “the things in the heavens, and the things on the earth.” Jesus is where heaven and earth meet; He is where it all comes together for the sake of those who listen to what He has to say. Jesus is God’s glory come to earth, to minister to the people, to save them from themselves and give them peace.
We deserve to hear the words of Amos and John because we are no different than the people in their days. If God held a plumb line to our lives, He would find us crooked. Unfortunately, the bricks of our life our not always placed along the plumb line of God’s Word. We make decisions based on our own agenda or opinion. We follow our hearts rather than the reality of God’s Word. We ignore the ugly truth and seek after the warm fuzzies that make us feel good. Sometimes we simply do what we think we have to do for our own selfish reasons. There are times when we do whatever we can to get our way, even if we have to sacrifice something or someone along the way. We throw tantrums, tell little white lies, manipulate the circumstances, and flaunt emotion. We make people feel guilty or try to convince them that our way is the only way and that if they disagree then there must be something wrong. We even hang salvation on our own human desires.
But God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. He is able to use even us. We might be crooked, but in His kingdom it doesn’t matter. Christian faith is not about us. It isn’t about our desires. It isn’t even about our needs. It is about God’s faithfulness. He has made promises that He will keep. The stories of Amos and John remind us that life in God’s kingdom is hard. Yet, there is peace in that harshness, in the ugliness we experience. Despite the ugliness, we live in hope, knowing that God is faithful. We live in peace knowing that God can and will accomplish amazing things even when it does not seem possible to us.
If we are honest with ourselves we know that there are things we are willing to do to get what we want from the world. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we should not sacrifice others for our own sake. Instead of acting like Herod, giving in to a promise that he knew was not right to save face in front of his guests, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the King, given everything we need to do His work in the world. It won’t be easy; the plumb line demands perfection that none of us can meet. But we can trust in Him, doing all things for His glory as best we can because we know that God is faithful. And when we fail, we can trust His promises of forgiveness. So, let us always live in line with God’s Word, plumbed by the truth, repenting when we fail and standing with God even when it seems we must stand against the rest of the world.
“Brothers, even if a man is caught in some fault, you who are spiritual must restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to yourself so that you also aren’t tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each man test his own work, and then he will take pride in himself and not in his neighbor. For each man will bear his own burden. But let him who is taught in the word share all good things with him who teaches. Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let’s do what is good toward all men, and especially toward those who are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:1-10, WEB
I’m sure everyone will say the same about their hometown, but San Antonio is awful for traffic. There are several roads around town that are infamous for being gridlocked, especially at certain times of day. There are times, however, that they are even worse. I recently encountered a traffic jam that had been going on for hours. It took me about an hour to go less than ten miles. I had the opportunity to get off on an exit fairly early in my wait, but chose not to do so because the frontage road seemed as bad as the highway. It was a mistake; the apparent frontage backup was because they were using a policeman to direct the cars to make it possible for the cars on the cross roads to pass. It took me more than twenty minutes to go the mile to the next exit and I got off even though it seemed like traffic was easing. I had already been in the car for several hours; I couldn’t make it home without getting out even if the traffic was perfect. I stopped in a grocery store and shopped for dinner. Then I ran into another traffic jam on the next highway on the last leg of my trip.
People who commute suffer this kind of traffic every day. I usually have the time and the freedom to choose when and where I will drive, and many regular commuters have found back roads to avoid the worst of it. Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t work. My husband had a long drive every day to his job on the other side of town. He learned how to get around the worst of the traffic. One day there was a major accident on the road he was avoiding, and everyone was detoured on his road. Instead of taking 30-40 minutes to get to work, it took him 2 hours that day. That was the day we decided to move to our current house so that he would not have to make that drive forever.
It takes patience to live in a town with such terrible traffic. You are constantly sitting in a car, surrounded by others who are stuck there too. Some people handle it well. They listen to the radio, think about their day. Some even pray. Others do not handle it so well. They get frustrated and angry. They curse every time they have to brake. They even make rude hand gestures to the others suffering from the same traffic. They weave in and out of traffic because they think that their purpose for being on that road is more important than everyone else but they never realize that impact their impatience has on the rest of traffic. Every time they cut off another car, they force everyone behind to hit their brakes. It is no wonder that road rage is a real problem in our world today. I’ve certainly felt the frustration and anger of sitting in traffic.
Now, our neighboring drivers rarely ever truly see our own impatience in these traffic jams. Most of us keep our frustration and anger to ourselves. Our yells are not heard and we are not so rude that we make hand gestures for others to see. That doesn’t mean we don’t yell or make hand gestures, but we do it in the privacy of our vehicles. Have you ever thought, however, that though that those weaving drivers never know what you are thinking of them, God sees it all? He knows when we yell an obscenity and when we make a hand gesture. He even knows when we curse our neighbors in our minds. I think patience in traffic is perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to overcome, particularly because we can react and act in privacy, but when we remember that God is riding with us, we will think twice about how we deal with it.
The world around us will still react and act as if there are no consequences, but we are called to be different. Our faith makes us live with the knowledge that God has expectations. Our destination is important on that road that makes us wait; the traffic will make us late. However, kindness will make the trip better for all. Do not get angry at the weaver, give him or her room and pray. Do not breath obscenities under your breath, but smile at the person stuck next to you. Sing with whatever song is on the radio and you’ll find the frustration and anger seeping away. You’ll still be stuck in traffic, but you’ll find a peace that will bless your life and the life of others along your path.
“I saw, in the right hand of him who sat on the throne, a book written inside and outside, sealed shut with seven seals. I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the book, and to break its seals?’ No one in heaven above, or on the earth, or under the earth, was able to open the book, or to look in it. And I wept much, because no one was found worthy to open the book, or to look in it. One of the elders said to me, ‘Don’t weep. Behold, the Lion who is of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome; he who opens the book and its seven seals.’ I saw in the middle of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the middle of the elders, a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth.” Revelation 5:1-6, WEB
The legend of King Arthur is simply that: a legend. Legends often have some basis in fact, but the stories attributed to the great king are so varied that we can’t know for certain the entire truth of it all. There are some who believe that Arthur was a genuine historical figure, perhaps Roman, although many of the stories are fictional. Some claim that Arthur was a compilation of many different local rulers, or kings, whose characteristics were gathered together into one great king. Arthur is reputed to be buried in several places around England, each town or castle wishing to have the legend connected to their locality. The castle at Tintagel has a cave that was believed to be where Merlin dwelt. Glastonbury has been linked to Arthur. There are stories from Wales, too. Modern historians have discounted many of the theories for lack of evidence. We may never really know if he was real or not.
The legend of Arthur as we know it seems to have begun in the twelfth century with the writings of Geoffrey of Monmount’s “History of the British Kings.” Some of the stories come from an earlier date, perhaps having been handed down by bards. Geoffrey collected these and put them together in one story. The legend expanded over the years, as others added their own take on the great king of Camelot. Authors added other characters like Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table. They added quests in search of great treasure like the Holy Grail. There may have been some truth to some of the adventures, but it has grown to such that it is now considered legend rather than history.
One of the stories tells of Arthur’s birth and his subsequent removal by Merlin to be raised by an ally of the king. No one knew the true identity of the boy, including the ruler of that castle, Sir Ector. He was considered nothing but a bastard, under his guardianship. Sir Ector’s son Kay made fun of Arthur, and Arthur was given tasks, much like Cinderella, to earn his keep around the castle.
Arthur’s father suddenly died soon after, leaving the country in chaos. Who would be king? The nobles of the land sought Merlin’s advice about how to bring peace again. Merlin set up a stone with an anvil in London. A sword of great power was firmly embedded into that anvil. One it was written these words, “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone, is right wise King born of all England.” Only the one worthy would succeed. Many tried, almost all failed; the strongest could not do it, so the sword was forgotten for a time and the nation grew even more chaotic. Merlin befriended the boy Arthur and taught him everything he knew. He grew in wisdom and honor, having learned that justice and compassion was greater than brute strength. One day Merlin took Arthur, the true son of the king, to the sword in the stone. The crowd gathered and Sir Ector’s son Kay tried to remove the stone. Arthur, though a small, scrawny lad scarcely capable of lifting a sword from its sheath, proved to be the worthy one by pulling the sword from the stone. He was crowned king.
We see a similar story in today’s passage from Revelation. Almighty God is on His throne in heaven holding a sealed scroll. John is a witness to this scene in spirit. He knows that the scroll reveals the works of God, and that nothing can move forward until those seals are opened. “Who can open the scroll?” an angel asks, but no one is worthy. John weeps. One of the elders worshipping God comforts him, “Don’t worry, the Lion of Judah is worthy.” We expect, like those people in England so long ago, that the Lion of Judah will be a great and powerful ruler. A lion! But what we seen before us is not a symbol of power and strength, but a slaughtered Lamb. Though the lamb seems to be little more than a scrawny lad, scarcely able to accomplish anything, He is the Christ, the willing sacrificial Lamb of God who overcame sin, death and the grave. He is worthy to open those scrolls.
These stories, the legends of yesterday and the revelation of God, remind us that God does not accomplish things as the world expects. We want strong powerful men to be our rulers, but God shows us that it is the willing servant, the man of justice and compassion, that will truly rule His Kingdom. Jesus Christ is the victor, not as a Lion, but as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
“A glad heart makes a cheerful face; but an aching heart breaks the spirit.” Proverbs 15:13, WEB
There is a commercial, and I honestly don’t even know what it is selling, that begins, “Teach your kids to smile...” I don’t hear the rest of the commercial because this statement makes me wonder. Can you teach someone to smile? I looked it up on the Internet and there are plenty of web pages that claim to be able to teach people to smile. They show you how to make your children smile for photos. They show you how to smile for business. They give you tips on how to have the perfect smile. A few pages warn about not teaching daughters to smile because it supposedly perpetuates the societal expectation that girls need to be beautiful (and hence smile) to get along in the world. One article talked about the unfair demand of women to smile in the workplace. The author said, “Ugh! I don’t have to smile; I’m at work. I have a lot of stuff to do!”
As I read the article, I thought about all the times I have suggested to you, my readers, to smile at a neighbor. “It is amazing what a difference a smile can make.” Yet, we also know it is sometimes very difficult to make those muscles in our mouths work in the upturned direction. We are too busy. We are too focused. We are too frustrated or hurt or angry to smile. Even if we aren’t frustrated or hurt or angry with the person crossing our path at that moment, our hearts and minds are focused on anything but that person at that moment. Smiles are not always natural; they take work. But the aches of pain in our hearts make it even harder to do that simple small thing for our neighbor.
There is an old saying that it takes more muscles to frown than to smile. The truth of this statement is not really determined; the real answer depends on the person smiling. An article states, “Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce. just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.” I suppose that answers my question: you can teach someone to smile. It takes practice.
I’m not sure that the article is right about humans tending to smile a lot; walk down a busy street and you are likely to see a whole lot more frowns than smiles. Perhaps they are not frowns, but those strangers on the street are definitely not smiling. It is almost as if our natural state is indifference. A smile makes a connection, and quite frankly few of us have the time or inclination to make that kind of connection on the busy street. We save our smiles for those who deserve them. If the scientists are right, we should be consciously smiling all the time so that those muscles will develop and a smile will become the tendency rather than a frown.
The Bible gives us another point of view on this subject. The proverb says, “A glad heart makes a cheerful face.” Humans, at least Christian humans, should smile a lot. Our heart is filled with the greatest promise. We have been forgiven. We have been adopted by God our Father. We have been made inheritors of an eternal kingdom. We have reason to have a glad heart. Our neighbors may think we have gone crazy if we smile constantly, but despite the reality of evil and suffering in this world, our hearts are so filled with God’s grace that our faces should be cheerful. We, too often, forget because we are so busy or focused. We forget because we are frustrated, hurt and angry at someone or something. Our aching hearts break our spirits and our face shows it.
It will take practice, but instead of trying to force a smile when we don’t feel like it, let’s work on remembering the promises of God. Let’s build on the hope that God has given. Let’s constantly remember the faith that makes our lives new. It won’t stop the things that make our hearts ache, but we’ll have something greater upon which to cling: God. We will be busy and focused. We will be frustrated, hurt and angry at things of this world. But with God’s grace in our hearts our faces will naturally become cheerful. We’ll smile without even thinking about it and we’ll make a difference in the world.
“Now I would not have you ignorant, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. However with most of them, God was not well pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Don’t be idolaters, as some of them were. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.’ Let us not commit sexual immorality, as some of them committed, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell. Let us not test Christ, as some of them tested, and perished by the serpents. Don’t grumble, as some of them also grumbled, and perished by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall. No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, WEB
I hated history when I was young. It seemed useless to me to have to learn all those people, places and dates. What good purpose was there in knowing what someone did a thousand years ago? After all, their culture and circumstances are much different than ours today. It even seemed silly to study history from just a few years ago. After all, what is past is past and we should dwell on things that cannot be changed but look forward to the future.
I had the same opinion of the Old Testament books of the Bible. What good did it do to read those stories of Israel? Their culture and circumstances were even more different than ours today. After all, things are different for those who live in Christ. Jesus restored our relationship to God, offering through His blood the grace and forgiveness that gives us true life. The old stories are fun to read, but they aren’t good for much else, are they?
They say that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. We study the things of the past, what worked and what didn’t work, to help guide our decisions for the future. The Bible tells us there is nothing new under the sun, and this is most certainly true in every aspect of human nature. American culture is not much different than other prosperous civilizations in ages past. Our political system was established based on ancient examples. It is unique in some ways, but it is equally able to follow the same foibles of those ancient civilizations that failed. Military, education and welfare policies were founded on principles used many times before. If we refuse to recall the lessons learned throughout history, we will continue repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Just as ancient history is important for us to know and understand to keep from falling into the same traps, so too is the Old Testament witness important for Christians. The Israelites had Christ before them, reflections of the promise to come. They were given the manna as a promise of Jesus, who is the Bread of life. Water flowed from the rock, foreseeing the Living water that is Christ. Yet they did not remain faithful to the One who fulfilled their needs. As we look back on those stories we are reminded that Christ is the solid rock on whom we stand and get our strength. When we are tested, as the Israelites were tested in the desert, we are warned from their example to turn to God. Let’s not let history repeat itself in our live; let’s learn from the past and stand firm for the future. Thanks be to God, who is faithful to His promises. He has provided a way out: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 22, 2018, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44
“For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility thereby.” Ephesians 2:14-16, WEB
Reese Witherspoon played a very blonde sorority girl named Elle Woods who was madly in love with an aspiring lawyer and politician in the movie “Legally Blonde.” When it was time to graduate and move on to post-graduate work, Warner dumped Elle to find a more appropriate woman to be his partner in life. He went on to Harvard Law School, renewed a relationship with Vivian, and old girlfriend who fit the mold perfectly of the politician’s serious wife. Meanwhile, Elle was not willing to give up so easily, so despite her supposed lack of intelligence, she was accepted at Harvard and she began Law School to pursue Warner in his new life.
Needless to say, Vivian did not like Elle at all. Elle was the former girlfriend, the competition for Warner’s heart and life. They were completely different women. Elle was happy and enthusiastic, interested in fashion, parties and celebrity. Vivian was more serious, the daughter of a powerful northeastern family who understood propriety and power. The conflict between the two women was funny as east met west in stereotypical ways.
The two women eventually found a common denominator, which happened to be the very thing that had originally kept them apart. As Elle discovered that Law was really a place she could not only succeed but also thrive, Vivian saw her more as a peer rather than a competitor. In one scene, the two women were sharing some thoughts about a case they were working on together and they began to talk about Warner. Vivian found Elle to be a compassionate listener, offering some insight into Warner’s past and personality. They laughed about his failures together. By the end of the movie, Warner saw Elle as the serious and powerful woman that he really wanted, but she refused him. Meanwhile, Vivian realized that Warner was not the man for her. He lost both and the two women became the best of friends.
Have you ever had a relationship like that of Elle and Vivian? Was there ever anyone who was so different from you that you thought you would never get along? You may not have experienced conflict, but there were no common interests on which to build a friendship. If we are truly honest, we will all admit that there are sometimes people that we simply can’t stand to be around. We often find that we do have something in common and those people can become our best friends. The key is finding the common denominator.
The Jews and the pagan Christians had nothing in common. They came from very different backgrounds and had very different ideas about life and the world. The Jews even had rules to avoid relationships with the pagans in the land where they lived. However, Jesus Christ offered something new: a common denominator between very different people. In Christ both the Jews and the pagan Christians were part of the same family. They became citizens of the same kingdom. Despite their differences, they had something greater that could bond them together: the blood of Christ.
Some of my most difficult relationships, however, have been in the Church. We have all had experiences in the church that have been disappointing and hurtful. We all know a council president who was focused more on his power and position than on God's will or what was right for the church. We all know the committee chair who has lots of ideas but who does not want to do any of the hard work. We all know a pastor who is so busy with the business of church that he has forgotten to be a shepherd to his sheep. We also know that none of us are perfect. It is important for us to remember that we are all sinners in need of a Savior, and that the Savior came to break down the barriers that we create between one another.
We live in a world where individuals will always have differences of opinion. We experience God’s grace according to our circumstances. An orphan will understand the idea of our Father in a much different way than someone who grew up in a strong family or someone who experienced abuse. That doesn’t change God at all. God is God. He is I AM. We see Him through the eyes of our own experiences and our own little corner of the world. Our common denominator, Jesus Christ, gives us new eyes and a new attitude. Though we might not like everyone, we love them because it is His will for us to do so. We can't see God through their eyes and we can't expect that they will see Him through ours. We can only dwell together as children of the God who is big enough to reach us all.
The passage from Ephesians specifically talks about the differences between Gentile and Jew, but we have our own borders and walls that can be broken down by the love of Christ. We recently celebrated the life and ministry of a pastor who had served our congregation for over twenty years. The pastor retired three years ago, and the church underwent tremendous strain and upheaval for those years. As is proper, that pastor removed himself from our community to give the congregation room to make the decisions necessary to move ahead. We called a wonderful pastor, made some other staff changes and for the past couple years have been growing in faith and discipleship. It didn’t happen without struggle, of course. People left because they were angry about one decision or another. After three years, we seem to have made good decisions. Some of those who left are slowly returning. The retired pastor has been honored with the title Pastor Emeritus, and is now going to fellowship with us again. It was time; he gave the community time to overcome those challenges, to establish relationships with new staff and to figure out the vision for our future. He allowed us to move on without him as we made those tough decisions and now he can be with us as we move forward.
He is a humble man, willing to step aside to give another room to establish the ministry he can do in our congregation. This is the example of a good shepherd. Former pastors all too often refuse to let go. They don’t like to see changes to the work they began. After twenty years, our former pastor had much about which to be proud. Some of that has changed dramatically. Yet, he is happy to see the good, if different, work that is being done today. Those former pastors who can’t let go fight to keep the status quo, making it impossible for the new pastor to do what he or she is called to do. I know pastors who have experienced this; they didn’t last long in those congregations. The former pastors aren’t doing the work of shepherding; they are serving their own needs and egos.
Christians are human. We make mistakes. We feel emotions. We get angry, hurt, frustrated. We are opinionated. We think we know best. Christian leaders are as human as the rest of us.
What is leadership? We can’t turn on the news without hearing people question the leaders of our day. It doesn’t matter what segment of our society: political, religious, education, corporate. We see it happening in churches and families. What is the right way to lead a group of people? What is the best thing to do for the sake of the group and for those outside the group? How many leaders are really concerned about their people? How many are concerned about their own power and position?
Jeremiah passed on a word of warning to the leaders in Israel: they failed to care for God’s people and God was ready to take over. God will take care of everyone, including the leaders. Unfortunately for them, He will take care of them by calling them to account. They will experience the same measure of care they gave to those who were given to them. What if the leaders had to live according to the same expectations as they placed as burdens on their people? It seems that many leaders live by the adage, “Do as I say, not as I do.” What if they had to live according to their own words? Would things be any different?
Many leaders forget that they are not the top of the food chain or that they will not remain on top forever. Then what happens? What happens when the abusive father becomes old and unable to care for himself? Does he receive the same mercy he gave to his children? Does the corporate CEO stay in power by stepping on the little people who make the company work? The good leader is the one who realizes that the burden is on his or her shoulder. When they take care of those who are in their care, then they will do everything they can to make their leader successful.
Our old pastor knew his time as finished and he stepped away. George Washington was offered the title of king, but he refused, knowing that his time as president was only temporary. Both were more concerned about the welfare of those to whom they were charged to lead, and because they had this attitude, the people who surrounded them loved them and worked for the best interest of all.
Jesus never worried about His power and position. As a matter of fact, He rejected the call to become an earthly king. His concern was for the people; He wanted to ensure that they received the kind of care that God desired for them. He was in a right relationship with both those who were under His care and His Father in Heaven. That’s what makes good leadership, an understanding that although one is the Master, He is also the Servant. Perhaps we could use more leaders like that in our world today, in corporate leadership and politics and the church and in our homes.
Jesus took care of the physical, mental and spiritual needs of His disciples even while caring for the physical, mental and spiritual needs of others. In just a few short lines in today’s Gospel story, Jesus did it all.
There must be a hundred sermons found in this week's lectionary texts and I am certain that if you went to a hundred different churches you would hear them all. These topics or themes touch our lives very deeply; they reach us right where we are in this day. Are we confused? There is hope. Are we mourning? There is hope. Do we need to be challenged to reach beyond ourselves? There is hope. Are we afraid that there is no hope? By God’s grace, there is always hope. There is hope even when we seem to be so fiercely divided because we have a common bond: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the promised Shepherd who would lead God’s people according to His good and perfect will.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we see that particularly in the Gospel passage for today. In this story, Jesus greets the returning apostles who have been out in the world sharing the grace of God. They saw amazing things. They did amazing things. They were exhilarated, but also exhausted. Jesus knew they needed to rest. He led them to the boat and took them to a quiet place, but the people saw them.
Now, if you were Jesus, what would you do? He was faced with a difficult decision. The apostles needed to rest, but the people chasing them needed a shepherd. It might seem like Jesus is shirking His duties as their shepherd by turning to help the crowds. In this text, however, we see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah. He was the shepherd who would care for the flock that the leaders ignored. He stepped in where He was needed and did what He needed to do. He took care of the sheep who were desperate to find a shepherd. Wherever Jesus went the people needed Him, not just to do the miracles but to be the fulfillment of the promise. They needed a shepherd, they needed a Messiah.
Of course, we know that not everyone believed that He was the Messiah. Not everyone followed Him. Some ran to Him on these occasions just to get what they could out of Him, but Jesus served for the sake of the Father. Whether they understood or not, Jesus had to do what He’d been sent to do, and that was give the Kingdom to the people. Since many of the Jews rejected Jesus, the message was given to others. Many Gentiles heard and believed. Because Jesus became the shepherd of Psalm 23, we have the forgiveness and grace that we need to be part of that Kingdom.
Our leaders will fail. We will still get thirsty, hungry, tired, lost, hurt and lonely, but we can rest in the knowledge that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He is the fulfillment of the promise. He is the Messiah. He has given us the forgiveness and made us part of the Kingdom so we can walk in faith and do the work He has called us to do. As we trust Him, and walk by faith, we will see that He can do extraordinary things in the world and He will do them through us.
We won’t like everyone with whom we are called to work for God’s kingdom. Sometimes our disagreements will be impossible to overcome. We fight about the silliest things like what color we should paint the office or which type of wine we should serve at communion. But there are much deeper issues that need to be dealt with for us to work together. Yet, our hope is not found in the earthly decisions we have to make together, but in the reality that we are gathered together to worship God. I suppose one day the lessons will be learned and the people will be united by more than just the blood of Christ. But even when there is no agreement, there is unity because God is with us in the midst of it all.
This week’s texts are filled with so many wonderful images. There is the Old Testament promise that though the shepherds abandon their flock, God will provide a Good Shepherd. We are comforted by Psalm 23, especially when we are dealing with difficult things in our lives. We see the community of believers through the eyes of Paul who notes that all believers were once far from God, but God draws us together. Who needs to be included in our fellowship today? The Gospel lesson show us the compassion of Christ as found in His love for the disciples and the crowds.
The Gospel lesson begins with the disciples returning from their journey into the country to share the Gospel that we heard a few weeks ago. They were excited about all that they saw and did, but they were exhausted. They needed a break, although it seemed like the stream of people wanting to see them was endless. Jesus took them aside so that they could have something to eat and rest. Mark tells us that the people saw them and followed. The crowds weren’t just following Jesus now; they knew that the disciples could also heal and cast out demons, too. They saw Him in their words and actions The Word of God was drawing people to the community of believers that Jesus created. He is the center, but He was building the disciples into one body, and He continues to build us into that Temple, His Temple. In Christ we are bound together as one.
It is not always easy living in that temple. Unfortunately, the differences that separate us often lead us into places we would rather not go. There are dark valleys even in the heart of the church, as the differences between people are magnified by the passions of those called to serve. We are reminded of something in today’s texts, though. God is with us through it all. He has never promised to make it easy, but He has promised to be there.
Our neighbor on the church pew or in the congregation down the street is no less or no more a Christian than us even if they see God and our mission differently. We were all once far away and now we are one, dwelling in the temple of God. Jesus did not come to accomplish the things that we have on our checklist or in our agenda. He didn’t come just for the body or the mind or the spirit. He came to bring wholeness to each of us and to the world. He feeds us physically, mentally and spiritually. He heals our body, our mind and our spirit. He makes us whole as individuals and as the body of Christ.
We can’t do it all by ourselves. That is why God calls us into community; we are one body made up of people from all sorts of different backgrounds with different gifts and passions. We can’t do what we are called to do it if we hold each other and our idea of mission against one another. We have a common bond: Jesus Christ. It is by His blood that we are reconciled to God and drawn together as one body to do the amazing things He has called and sent us into the world to do.
“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind; for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin; that you no longer should live the rest of your time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough of our past time doing the desire of the Gentiles, and having walked in lewdness, lusts, drunken binges, orgies, carousings, and abominable idolatries. They think it is strange that you don’t run with them into the same excess of riot, blaspheming: who will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For to this end the Good News was preached even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed as men in the flesh, but live as to God in the spirit. But the end of all things is near. Therefore be of sound mind, self-controlled, and sober in prayer. And above all things be earnest in your love among yourselves, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, employ it in serving one another, as good managers of the grace of God in its various forms. If anyone speaks, let it be as it were the very words of God. If anyone serves, let it be as of the strength which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 4:1-11, WEB
I watched a talk show the other day that had a girl and her mother on as guests. The mother was a passionate and committed Christian; the girl was wild and out of control. You might think by that description that the mother should have won this family argument. It is true that the girl was doing things that she should not have been doing. She rebelled against the expectations of her mother’s faith, so much so that she was a danger to herself. As it turned out, the mother’s expectations was the least of her problems. She had been abused by her brother when she was young and had never been healed of the hurt and pain. That abuse led her to rebel in ways that don’t always make sense. Why would an abused girl seek comfort from men who were taking advantage of her?
It did not help that her mother was forcing religious expectations, so her rebellion became extreme. If it wasn’t ok to wear dresses that are too short, then she would wear miniskirts. If she was expected at church on Sunday, she’d lie and say she was going to another church with her friends. If sex was not allowed, then she would sleep with men for money. The mother had nothing good to say about her daughter; she pointed out every shortcoming, constantly demeaning the girl. The girl was wrong, certainly; she was living a life that would never bring her happiness. Her rejection of her mother’s God was just a response to her feelings of rejection and hurt brought on by a family who saw her as having no redeeming qualities.
We should never encourage the type of behavior exhibited by the girl, but her mother’s passion and commitment to God revealed itself in a way that did not help, but rather hurt her daughter. The girl’s heart was hardened and she could not see the redemption and forgiveness that is found in a life of faith. She rejected God because she rejected her mother’s demanding expectations. Her mother even kicked her out of the house for voting for the wrong candidate in an election. She was left alone in the world, feeling unloved and unworthy. She needed help and she was looking for that help in all the wrong places.
It is so easy for us to fall away. The life outside the Kingdom of God is so much more interesting. We all know it is more fun to party than to do Bible study. Worldly people are so much more exciting than the people at church. They make us feel good. They make us laugh. They make us feel worthy and loved. The people at church like that girl’s mother, too often, make us feel judged and condemned. Who wouldn’t rather dance all night Saturday and sleep in Sunday? Well, Christians know that true happiness is found in faith, so we do like to go be with others who believe in God. We need to be with others who believe in God because it is in fellowship that we keep our eyes and our hearts on Christ.
This is why it is so important that even if we need to correct our brothers and sisters in Christ, we do so in a way that lifts them up rather than puts them down. We are to encourage one another. We are all sinners and we are all tempted by the ways of the world. We are even tempted to reject God because sometimes it seems as though the Kingdom of God has nothing of value to offer us. It is so much easier to chase after the desires of our flesh. When we find ourselves in times of doubt, we need other Christians to encourage us. We need to be there for those who are struggling. We need to gather together regularly to worship God, even when we don’t feel like it, so that we will have the body of Christ to keep us from falling too far from our Father. We all have gifts to give to one another, given by God because He knows our frailty. Let us remember that we are all at risk of falling and love one another, In doing so we will keep one another close and keep each other strong so that God will be glorified in our lives and in this world by our faith.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit. Let’s not become conceited, provoking one another, and envying one another.” Galatians 5:22-25, WEB
It is hot in Texas. Oh, it has been hot before and it will be hot again. We are breaking some records, but not all of them. We certainly aren’t the hottest place on the planet. I’m really not complaining, though I know many of us are. I have tried to do what I can to beat the heat. I’ve gone out earlier in the day. I’ve kept my curtains shut against the beating sun. I have kept a fan nearby, even though I have the air conditioner set to a comfortable temperature.
I’m blessed because I can afford the luxury of staying cool in the heat. But I know there are many who can’t. Elderly with fixed incomes will often stay in sweltering homes because they can’t afford the cost of cooling them. The poor can’t escape to the mall or go have coffee at a coffee house during the worst of the heat. Men and women who make their living working outside can’t take days or weeks off just because it is too hot, so they shingle those roofs or cut that grass despite the toll it takes on their bodies. This is why I won’t complain; I know that there are many who have it far worse.
The biggest problem is that the heat will be sustained over several days, so it never really gets cool outside. The heat is causing an overload on the electric system around town. We hit a record peak yesterday and we are expected to go even higher today. They are asking people to conserve as they are able from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. to ease the load. That is much easier for those who do not stay at home during the day. Yesterday was a “reduce my use” day, also. I set the air up a few degrees so that it wouldn’t run constantly. I made sure that everything I was not using was turned off. I didn’t begin cooking dinner until after 6:00. Bruce stayed late at work and I stayed in one small room and worked on my computer. It was hot, but I survived.
The warnings are very real. There is a possibility that if the system can’t keep up with our electric usage, then we might go black for a while. This means no fans. It means that I can’t get any work done on my computer. It means sitting in a hot house with no television. First world problems. The thing is, we can avoid the problems if we just take time to consider the whole. If everyone really reduced their use for those few hours, each of us setting the temp a little higher so that our units won’t work constantly, then perhaps the system will be able to handle it. If we just took care to turn off appliances we aren’t using, then there will be plenty of electricity for everyone. If we thought about how our actions will affect others, then perhaps the world will be a cooler, and calmer, place.
This isn’t just about electricity, though. How often have you done something on the road that affected other drivers? How often do you make decisions that can hurt your neighbor? How often do you take into consideration how your actions will make a difference to others? We are, too often, too focused on self to notice that we are impacting others. Walk around a grocery store for fifteen minutes and you’ll see how true that is.
It is inconvenient and uncomfortable to ensure the comfort of others, especially in these times when nature is making it difficult for everyone. The good things in today’s scripture - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control - are at times quite uncomfortable and inconvenient, and yet are the ways which God is glorified in this world. This is the fruit of faith, the life we are called to live. Love means ensuring everyone is safe from the heat. Patience means putting up with less than cozy space for a few hours. Self-control means doing what is right without complaining. And perhaps it is at times like this when we realize how blessed we truly are and think about those for whom the luxuries of life are not a possibility and do good for their sake, not only by reducing our use, but by taking care of them in these difficult times.
“Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:7-11, WEB
I received a newsletter from a ministry I have supported with a wonderful story. “Recently, two men walked into Network, one seemingly twenty-five years older than the other. One of the men seemed sober and full of life and compassion. The other appeared to be living on another planet due to addiction. Later, we would learn that the older man was the younger’s father. The son had moved to Denver from San Diego and became another statistic in our nation’s opioid crisis, which led to him becoming shackled to the streets. Frank, somehow tracked his son down, traveled to Denver, and spent a week with him sleeping on the streets, going to the places he went, and even painfully sitting beside him as he fed his destructive habits. ‘The only thing I could think of was just go there, and be with him and love him, show how much his family loves him,’ said Frank. Frank’s son who is currently in a rehab facility not too far from here somehow lost sight of an identity deeply immersed in the reality of love.”
Isn’t it interesting that in this passage our Lord Jesus calls us evil. Evil, in biblical terms, is that which stands against God. Though there are many in our world today who would like to have us believe that human beings are innately good, after all God created us and everything He created is good. So, they disagree with the Christian attitude that all humans are sinful beings in need of salvation. Yet, the scriptures tell us that since that day in the garden all humans are separated from God, standing against our Creator. The only way it is possible for us to be in His presence is to turn to Jesus.
Not everyone is this world has a father like Frank. Some dads are downright evil, there are those who might give stones or snakes rather than bread or fish. For many, the father image brings nothing but pain. However, God is the Father who gives good things to His children; He gives us faith, hope, peace, joy, mercy and most especially love. He is the kind of Father that will be there with you in your most difficult moments. He is generous with His gifts, providing more than His children need. If Frank can love his son in such a sacrificial way, how much more does God love us? He is a presence of hope when there seems to be no reason for hope.
Today, give your cares and worries to your Father in heaven. He is with you. He won’t necessarily take away your trouble because it is often through those very moments that we truly see our need for grace, but He will give you a way out. He will hold your hand. He will give you reason to repent and begin to walk again on the right path. Time spent in prayer will give you the peace that comes from knowing that God your Father is near, that He loves you and that He wants so much for you.
“Yahweh, your God, is among you, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with joy. He will calm you in his love. He will rejoice over you with singing.” Zephaniah 3:17, WEB
There is a program in Missouri called the “Shelter Buddies Reading Program.” This program trains children from the local school how to read stories to the dogs in the shelter. The program helps the children learn how to read the attitudes of the dogs; they are trained to look for stress or anxiety. Those dogs who are particularly anxious are the first to get readers. The readers help calm the dogs, to make them feel more comfortable. They train the dogs to be happy when people come to their cage. This program has helped many dogs be adopted, even those that seemed unadoptable. The children benefit, too, because they enhance their reading skills and they see the positive changes in the dogs they are helping.
Dogs are often used in the same way. I read an article about a program in the United Kingdom that takes dogs into the schools to be reading buddies with the children. In that program, the dogs offer calm to the children and give them the encouragement to become better readers. The dogs, apparently, love to have someone read to them. And the children learn to love to read. In both programs, the presence of the other helps deal with fear and provides calm. There is something particularly healing about the relationship of animals with children.
God’s people struggled constantly. Their struggles were often because they turned to the wrong helpers for salvation. They sought the help of neighboring nations. They turned to the gods of those neighbors. They turned from God because they saw the success of those nations and thought that they could find the same benefits by doing things according to the ways of the world. Judah watched the destruction and exile of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), and yet continued to do the very things that brought that destruction and exile to the nation. They refused to repent, and Zechariah warned them of what will come. They had reason to be afraid. Every time God gives words of warning, however, He also gives a word of hope. He is among them. Even when they were sent into exile, God went with them. He gave them encouragement. Those who remembered God knew His peace.
We also struggle. We turn to our neighbors for help. We may not worship the same gods as were prevalent in the days of Zechariah and Judah, but we turn to gods none the less. We think that government will solve our issues. We think that we can make things right if we have enough money or friends or time. Unfortunately, we spend so much time chasing after the things we think will make our lives better that we lose sight of the God who has promised to be with us through our good times and bad. He is the one who will save.
Those dogs who are stressed and anxious eventually realize that the children are there to be with them. They eventually move closer and pay attention. They eventually stop being afraid and they are ready to meet someone who will take them to a forever home. The children in the school realize that the dogs are compassionate listeners. The dogs will never give then criticism that they fear, so they become calm and willing to read. We would do well to live in this world as people who recognize the presence of our God, to look to Him for comfort, strength and encouragement. He may allow us to suffer the consequences of our sin, but He loves us, rejoices over us with singing, and promises that He will save us. There is no greater calm we can experience than the hope of God’s grace making everything right with Him.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 29, 2018, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 136:1-9; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 6:45-56
“He got into the boat with them; and the wind ceased, and they were very amazed among themselves, and marveled; for they hadn’t understood about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Mark 6:51-52, WEB
I have been reading a pile of commentaries on the book of Revelation as I have been preparing for our Sunday school class in the fall. I wondered, as I began reading the fourth book last night, whether I was doing unnecessary work. After all, most of the authors have given similar facts about John and life in John’s world two thousand years ago. There have been a few differences in the interpretation book, but overall they have had more in common and ultimately came to the same conclusions. I am glad I am reading so many commentaries; the repetition has helped build my knowledge and understanding of this strange and mysterious work.
Repetition helps us to learn. Children learn math through flash cards. They learn how to spell by practicing the words over and over again. They learn the dates and places of history by repeating them over and over again. Bible memorization programs use repetition to remember the verses. They recommend writing the text on a note card to carry in your pocket to take out and read while you are waiting in line. They suggest putting a sticky note on your bathroom mirror and on the front of the refrigerator. You learn that text because you read and reread it each time you look in the mirror or open the refrigerator. Eventually that text is written on your heart, not by osmosis, but by repeating it in your mind and mouth.
It appears that God wants us to learn something very important in today’s Psalm. The psalmist repeats over and over again “for his loving kindness endures forever.” God’s lovingkindness endures forever. This is a message we need to know. It needs to be written on our hearts. So as we read this psalm, we hear it over and over again. It makes sense in today’s passage that talks about God’s goodness, His good works, the goodness of the world He has created. He did all this because His loving kindness endures forever. He is God of gods and Lord of lords because His loving kindness endures forever.
Yet, it makes less sense when you look at the rest of the Psalm. The psalmist goes on to talk about smiting the first born of the Egyptians, and then smiting and slewing kings. He is telling the story of how God moved Israel’s enemies and oppressors out of the way so that He could lead His people to the Promised Land, but smiting and slewing doesn’t sound very loving and kind. It made me wonder what the word translated “lovingkindness” really means. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes our English translations do not do justice what the Hebrew text meant to those who first heard it.
After all, many English translations are based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts, the Septuagint. The word here in Hebrew was “hesed” and the Greeks understood this to mean loving kindness. The word can also mean: love, kindness, unfailing love, great love, mercy, loving, kindnesses, unfailing kindness, acts of devotion, devotion, favor, approval, devout, faithful, faithfully, glory, good favor, grace, kind, kindly, loving-kindness, loyal, merciful, well. These all give us a sense of the word, but it leaves out something important. It is actually a loving loyalty based on a covenantal relationship. God’s ‘hesed’ (lovingkindness) comes to us because He has established a bond between Himself and His people. When we share that ‘hesed’ (lovingkindness) with others, we do so because we are in a relationship with them, but even more so because we are in a relationship with Him.
Another word that needs understanding is the one translated “endures.” There is no word in the Hebrew for this; the word is added so that we will understand that this is about the ongoingness of God’s lovingkindness. It is not something that will fail, it will continue no matter what else happens. A bible scholar has retranslated the passage, “Because forever is His loyalty.” God will do what He has said He will do because He has established us as His people in a covenantal relationship. This is about God’s faithfulness to His promises. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords. He has done good things for His people. He created the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. He kept His promise to Abraham by saving His people from Egypt. He delivered them into the Promised Land, just as He promised. He remembers His people, saves us from our adversaries, and provides for us. He is good and He deserves our thanks and praise. This is a matter of trust; we can trust God because forever is His loyalty. God’s lovingkindness endures forever.
It is important that we see the main purpose of God’s Word. The Psalm tells the story of God and His people, but ultimately it is about God’s faithfulness. My studies of the book of Revelation have led me to some decisions about how we will study it. I’m sure that many will want to talk about the usual things: the millennium, the mark of the beast, the frightening images of death and destruction. When we look at the book as a whole, however, we find that there are other images that are even more powerful than those that are the usual focus of the book: blessedness, worship, victory, rest, love, family, hope and peace.
It is good that we spend time studying the scriptures, because the more we know it, the more it is written on our hearts, the more it helps us through times of difficulty. As we keep God’s Word close, we keep God close and we walk more firmly in His ways. It isn’t always easy. Some of the stories of God are hard to believe. They are outside our human experience. They are impossible scientifically. One many can’t make a few loaves of bread and a few fish feed thousands of people.
One of the most surprising lines of scripture is found in today’s Gospel passage. Mark tells us “their hearts were hardened.” How could they have lived and worked and walked with Jesus for so long, about two years at this point, and not believe Jesus could do miraculous things? The passage ties their hard hearts with their misunderstanding about the feeding of the five thousand. What did they believe happened on that hillside that day? Did they, like so many in today’s world, simply downplay the miracle because they could not explain it?
There are some, even in the Church, who have suggested that Jesus did not really feed more than five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish. They insist that others had food available on that hillside that day, like a modern pot luck meal that miraculously feeds everyone. In this way all were fed; they claim there is no reason to make this story supernatural in character. Perhaps the disciples had a similar mindset. It doesn’t explain how they ended up with twelve full baskets of leftovers, though.
This miracle is so outside our natural experience that it isn’t surprising that we moderns want to diminish the miraculous aspects of the Jesus story because we have a more thorough understanding of science and the world. Intellectually we know that five loaves and two fish cannot feed more than five thousand people. We also know that a church potluck dinner can be miraculous in the way a crowd is left stuffed and satisfied because everyone contributes to the meal, so why not believe this could be the explanation?
The trouble with this, as Mark tells us in today’s passage, is that their misunderstanding (whatever it was) of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand left them unable to believe that Jesus could do other miraculous things. They were frightened by Him when He came to them on the water. They were amazed when the winds died down after He got into the boat. They had a hard time believing the things they were experiencing with Jesus; their hearts were hardened.
We often think of hard hearts in terms of rejection, not just unbelief. Take, for example, the story of Pharaoh. His heart was hardened against the God of Moses, but not just that he didn't believe, but that his hard heart caused him to do harm to God's people. We have a hard time thinking that the disciples had hard hearts because they continued to follow Him. They didn't reject Him, they simply did not know what to believe. We have similarly hard hearts when it comes to God’s miraculous work in our lives, often finding some physical, earthly explanation for the miraculous rather than believing that God could and would do such a thing for us. In this way we are no different than those who opposed Jesus in those days, who argued against Jesus’ work because it did not fit their understanding of the world.
We see God’s lovingkindness in the relationship Jesus had with His disciples. They had hard hearts, just like the Pharisees, but that didn’t stop Jesus from showing them who He is. He didn’t abandon them because they didn’t quite understand. He continued to pull them in His wake, knowing that they would one day have the Holy Spirit to make all this clear. He continued to let them witness His power as He heals the sick.
I find it interesting that in this story the people recognized Him, and then ran throughout the region to call those who were sick into His presence. People were drawn to Him wherever He went, laying their sick in His path so that they would be healed. Many even believed that all they needed was to touch the edge of His cloak and they begged Him to let them do so. “And as many as touched him were made well.” They seemed to believe better than Jesus’ own disciples.
God does not cast us away. Jesus continued to walk with the disciples at His side, loving them even though they did not really know Him. That lovingkindness, that “hesed,” is not conditional. There is nothing we can do to earn it or expect it from God. It is given freely because God made a covenant with us. He loves us and we are bound to Him because of that covenant, not because we have done anything to deserve it. He offers Himself for us to know, to love, to trust and we are called as His people to respond to His “hesed” with joy and praise.
We spend many hours on Bible study, learning about God through the scriptures. We often make it so complicated, even arguing over the meaning of one passage or the application of another. There are libraries filled with books that interpret and explain the scriptures. My own library is made up of hundreds of volumes, some of which I do not quite understand because they are written at an intellectual level far greater than my brain can comprehend.
All of this intellectual discussion of the scriptures is good; it is important and vital to our growth and maturity in faith. However, it does no good if our search for truth takes us away from the simple message found in the texts. God’s lovingkindness endures forever.
We need the encouragement of this text. We are no different than human beings have been from the beginning of time. We need to hear repeatedly that God loves us. He has loved us from the Garden of Eden until the end of the world. Unfortunately, it did not take very long for us to mess things up in this beautiful world that God created. Adam and Eve failed to trust in the Word of the Lord and they were cast out of the garden. There they lived long lives, tilling the soil and working hard. They were obedient to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. The sons they bore lived at odds with one another, until Cain murdered Abel. He became a restless wanderer, sent away from the presence of God for the evil he did to his brother.
Adam and Eve had more children, but as time passed the generations of men became more and more wicked in the sight of God. Things became so nasty that God regretted creating mankind and He decided to destroy the world. However, there was one who found favor in the eyes of God. Noah was a righteous man, a man who lived in a right relationship with God the Creator. God told Noah to build a large boat, an ark, and to fill the ark with every kind of animal. God was planning on sending a great flood to cover the entire earth, to destroy that which had become so evil and destructive. The grace in this story is found in the fact that God spared Noah, his family and the animals so that they could repopulate the earth when the floodwaters dried.
Noah obeyed God’s command, despite the absurdity of the request. After all, how can one man possibly build an ark large enough to hold so many for so long? It did not help matters that the wicked men ridiculed Noah for such a silly project. God gave Noah the strength to persevere and when the ark was finished, God helped Noah to fill it with the good things of His creation. When the time was right, God closed the doors of the ark so that Noah and his family would stay dry and safe.
Imagine what it would have been like at that time, for both the eight people on the ark as well as those who were drowning outside. After all, those screaming men and women were neighbors, friends and even family. Even though they were wicked, it must have been quite difficult to let them die without trying to help in some way. But God knew that the only way to save mankind was to begin anew. It rained for forty days and forty nights until even the highest mountains were covered with water. The waters stayed for one hundred and fifty days.
God remembered Noah and his family. He stopped the rainwater and blew across the waters. Noah sent a raven and a dove to see if the waters had receded. The raven flew back and forth until the water dried, but the dove returned. A second time Noah sent the dove it returned with an olive leaf. The third time the dove did not return. The ark came to rest on dry ground and God ordered Noah and his family to leave the ark and reestablish the earth. The animals were freed and Noah built an altar of thanksgiving to God for His mercy. He promised to never destroy the earth again. Then God established a new covenant with His people.
And though God’s people repeatedly returned to their wicked ways, generation after generation, God remained faithful to this promise He made between Himself and Noah. Future generations would remember the story of Noah, and I cannot look at a rainbow without thinking of the love and mercy of God. The rainbow reminds us of God’s lovingkindness. We deserve nothing but His wrath, yet as we wait patiently for the final fulfillment of all God’s promises at the end of days, we know that God is loyal to us now and forever.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a prayer for God’s people, that they who bear His name will experience the love of God fully and completely as He transforms our lives and makes us whole. In this passage, the word for love is the Greek word “agape.” While there are similarities between these words, the love of God found in and through Jesus Christ is an even deeper, more permanent word. It is a word that calls us to more than trust. It calls us to a self-sacrificing love of God and neighbor. It calls us to an active life of trusting God.
We are comforted by the story of the disciples because we see that forever is God’s loyalty even when we our hearts are hardened by our inability to believe. We see the crowds flocking to Jesus, seeking His grace, but we are reminded that they did not all continue to walk with Him to the cross. It was those disciples who struggled with knowing Jesus as He is that trusted Him until the end. The disciples, that rag-tag bunch of misunderstanding misfits, may have had hard hearts in this story, but they stayed the course and followed Jesus anyway. They trusted Him long enough to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might know Jesus and experience His lovingkindness in a very real way. May we stay on that same course, trusting that He will always be lovingly loyal because we are part of His covenant people, experiencing His grace in ways that will continue to make us well.
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and count the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? Or perhaps, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, everyone who sees begins to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and wasn’t able to finish.’” Luke 14:28-30, WEB
Tourism in the south most certainly includes trips to visit the antebellum mansions. Antebellum means “before the war” and these grand homes were built in the years leading up to the Civil War (or, as they say in the south: the War Between the States.) The story of these homes are often very much the same: wealthy plantation owners wanted homes in the cities for entertaining, so they purchased property in the middle of the action and designed grand buildings that would impress friends who gathered when they were in town.
The Jemison-Van de Graff Mansion of Tuscaloosa, Alabama was one of these homes. Robert Jemison had splendid plans for his city dwelling, including modern innovations of his day. He had running water, a large copper bathtub, gas lighting, and a kitchen inside the main building. He even installed a deep, dry well in the basement that was used as an early refrigerator. He did not worry about money while building, using the finest materials and the most skillful laborers available. Mr. Jemison had reason to provide a grand place for his friends: he was a businessman with interests in stagecoach lines, ironworks, and coal as well as corn, oats, cotton and livestock on his plantation. He dabbled in politics and worked to make Tuscaloosa a major city in the south.
Though he was a slave-owner, Mr. Jemison was a good and honest master. He provided for the education of his slaves, gave them the opportunities to be trained in skilled labor. As a matter of fact, the fine woodwork in the mansion was done by his slaves, who were actually well paid for their work. He was opposed to secession and some of the most successful black men had Robert Jemison to thank for his support and encouragement.
Unfortunately, no one could foresee the impact that the Civil War would have on the lives of those living in the south, including men like Robert Jemison who were wealthy and successful. Though the family remained in the house well into the twentieth century, they were never the wealthy landowners they had been before the war. The house was never completed or furnished and it was never used for the grand parties expected by Robert Jemison. The house served as a library from 1955 to 1979 and was used as an office building for the publications “Antique Monthly” and “Horizon.” It now serves as a visitor center for Tuscaloosa and a photography studio rents some of the rooms. The public can take tours of the home, which is slowly being restored and refurnished as it might have been in the mid-1800’s.
I have learned that most of the antebellum houses do not have original furnishings. The foundations that care for these grand homes have found period furniture which has been purchased or donated for use in the buildings. In Sturdivant Hall in Selma, Alabama, the only piece original to the building was a large floor to ceiling mirror (very high ceilings) that was impossible to move.
The homes are beautifully restored and available for special events such as weddings and garden parties. It is wonderful that we are able enjoy the fruit of the labors of those who came before us, but it is unfortunate that they were not able to enjoy the fruit of their own labors. The original builders had their lives torn apart when the Civil War ran through their world. The plantations fell apart, the money disappeared, their expectations of the future died when they lost everything. The grand homes sold for far less than they cost to build and the expensive furnishings were lost to time and damage.
Would Mr. Jemison have spent so much money on this grand home if he had known what was going to happen? Would he have started building the mansion if he had known he was going to lose everything? It is impossible for us to know. Yet, we are given this reminder in today’s scriptures that we should count the cost of everything we do before setting out to do it. I think it is interesting that during the tour of the Jemison Van de Graff house, the tour guide focused on how the building was never complete, never talking about the accomplishments of its owner. It wasn’t until I did some research that I discovered he had been a state senator and an accomplished businessman as well as a plantation owner.
We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, so we are encouraged to consider whether we can finish our tasks before we begin. Otherwise, we will be remembered as the one who can’t complete the work rather than being seen for the good works that we’ve been able to do.
“Behold, they brought to him a man who was paralyzed, lying on a bed. Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, ‘Son, cheer up! Your sins are forgiven you.’ Behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man blasphemes.’ Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven;” or to say, “Get up, and walk?” But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...’ (then he said to the paralytic), ‘Get up, and take up your mat, and go up to your house.’ He arose and departed to his house. But when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Matthew 9:2-8, WEB
Jesus lived in a time when troubles of any kind were seen as a punishment from God for sinful behaviors. Even today there are those who will blame a person for their sickness or financial difficulties. Now, there are times when our choices do lead us to suffering. A smoker’s lung cancer is caused by years of smoking. The intoxicated man’s wrecked car was caused by too much alcohol. A job loss may have been due to laziness or mismanagement. All too often, if a person is poor or sick, then he or she must have done something wrong to deserve such a horrible experience. Yet what of the family of the dying smoker who will suffer through that loss? Or the stranger in the other vehicle who was in the way of the drunk driver? Or the person who is fired not for what they’ve done wrong, but because someone else in the company made poor decisions? Our suffering might be our fault, but what of the suffering that is beyond our responsibility?
In one of the Gospel stories, the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned that this man is blind?” Even today, many people say, “What have you done to anger God?” I’ve even heard people remark; “I do not understand why I’m sick or poor. I’ve been a good person...” Yet, we know that God does not work that way. As a matter of fact, there are many people in the world who live evil and godless lives who are prosperous and healthy. And there are many people who are truly good and faithful who have suffered in ways we can’t understand. “Why me?” is a question we can’t help but ask. At times it is selfish because we really do deserve to suffer the consequences of our bad decisions. However, there are times when it just doesn’t make sense.
God doesn’t look at our lives as the world does. He certainly does provide for us, giving us the things we need to sustain us. However, His real concern is not for our physical bodies, but rather our spirits. Throughout the scriptures when Jesus healed, He did not simply fix the physical ailments. Rather, He focused on forgiveness.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus saw the love and courage of the man’s friends. They didn’t want to see him suffer any longer and they had faith that Jesus could make a difference. Notice, though, that Jesus didn’t deal with the man’s physical healing immediately. Jesus wanted him to know that he was forgiven; Jesus was more concerned about his heart. The healing of the man seems to be an afterthought, done not for the sake of the man, but to prove to the doubters that He had the authority to speak God’s forgiveness to mankind.
Are you in the midst of earthbound suffering? Have people questioned your faith because of your troubles? Have you had your own doubts? We are by nature sinners in need of a Savior. We often deserve the suffering we experiences, but Jesus wants you to know that He loves you and that your sins are forgiven. He can bring healing to your whole body, but even more so He wants to you be healed in your spirit. According to His good and perfect promises, He will speak words in your life that will bring peace and wholeness. Perhaps He will even tell you to take up your mat and go home so that the world will know that He truly has the authority to forgive our sinful selves. Despite all our suffering, we have reason to rejoice in the Lord always. We are forgiven! We are saved! Our troubles will end, but we will live in God’s kingdom forever. He will be glorified in our worship and praise, and the world will marvel at this God who will forgive and make sinners whole.
“See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it is not yet revealed what we will be. But we know that, when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure.” 1 John 3:1-3, WEB
I am getting ready to visit a childhood friend, my best friend. Her daughter is getting married and I am looking forward to sharing the joy of the event with her. I’m also looking forward to the storytelling which is apt to occur as we walk down memory lane. There are a few stories that come up every time we talk about our lives as children. We had games of Monopoly that lasted for days. We collected lightning bugs and played flashlight tag on warm summer evenings. We both had pools, and we would spend time in one, and then run across the minefield of dog poop in the yard of the neighbor who lived in between our houses. We used to pretend that we were going to open a restaurant together and we’d spend hours, or even days, preparing menus, planning entertainment and rearranging my room. By the time we had everything planned we were tired of the game and went on to do something else.
We went to Dorney Park together, and she bought me my first season pass when they changed to that type of admission. We always had a sleepover on Trick-or-Treat night, and we woke up at ridiculous hours to count our candy. We went to movies together and always remember the time I got silly and put the popcorn on the top of my head. It spilled, of course, and we spent the rest of the movie giggling about it every time we looked at the popcorn on the floor. I still giggle in remembrance when I spill popcorn at the movies. We roamed the mall together, never really shopping, but always looking (usually at the cute guys who were also roaming the mall.)
Childhood is certainly a simpler time. We are still friends after all these years, though we live two thousand miles apart and have followed much different paths. We’ve both had moments of joy and peace as well as times of suffering and pain. Though I’m not really interested in being that young again, I have to admit that at times I wish I could live as we did when we were children without having to worry about the daily struggles of life as an adult.
We still have bills to pay and dishes to clean and cars to maintain, but we can live as children of faith. Jesus tells us in the Gospels that unless we have faith like a child we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It might seem odd to us that Jesus would tell the disciples that they should be like little children. As adults we pray, study and worship so that we might mature into a deeper and fuller faith, and yet Jesus tells us to do the exact opposite. It is not that He does not want us to grow closer to Him. Instead, He tells us to be open to His word, to receive it like a child with innocence and faith. Living faith is like the simpler times of childhood because it means trusting that God is helping us through all our struggles.
Jesus wants us to be like children because adults are often too set in our ways. It is harder for us to learn, to give up our biases, to change from the ways we are living. We, who are nothing more than specks compared to the wholeness of the universe in time and space, are called children of God. Jesus wants to live as if we are His children so that He can make us new by His grace. As people of faith, He is with us, transforming us into His image, manifesting Himself through our lives. As children of God, we grow in the hope of that which is to come, we are changed to become more and more like Him.
“However, if you fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” James 2:8-10, WEB
On this day, fifty years ago, Charles Schultz introduced a new character to his comic strip. The strip “Peanuts” had been launched in October 1950 and lasted for nearly fifty years. Even until this day, Charlie Brown and his friends are found in television, on stage and in the movies. Books have been published from compilations of the strips to theological commentaries. The characters have appeared in amusement parks, in advertising, and as toys. There were ups and downs over those fifty years, not the least of which was the introduction of this new character.
It was the period of civil unrest. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed on April 4th of that year, a martyrdom that made many begin to think differently about how to deal with race relations. A teacher and mother named Harriet Glickman knew how much children loved the comic pages. She wrote to Charles Schultz and others and asked them to consider including a black character to their work. She hoped that perhaps this small act might help to bring the country together and show people of color that they were not excluded from American society. Some feared it might be too soon, but Charles answered her letter and they corresponded for some time.
It was a risk. The distributer of the comic strip was concerned. There are those who might cancel the strip. Charles was intrigued but also worried that he was not the right platform to make such a huge statement. He didn’t want to make matters worse. Harriet did not give up; she persisted and even had black friends who wrote to Charles to encourage him to make the character. Once he decided to add the character, no one could convince him otherwise. He even threatened to quit drawing the strip if it wasn’t published as he drew it. The character’s name was Franklin, and he met Charlie Brown at the beach. Some people were upset about the addition of the character. Some said they didn’t mind that Franklin existed, but they didn’t want to see him at school with the other children. It took a while, but eventually Franklin became a regular character and was even shown in school with the other characters.
For many children on that day in July 1968, the introduction of Franklin was a moment of joy. Black children all over the nation saw someone who looked like them on the comic strip page. Despite the controversy in the adult world, the comic strip showed children of different races acting like kids. There was nothing extraordinary about the encounter. They were kids enjoying the sun and getting to know one another. Some strips over the years addressed the issues like the time Franklin and Peppermint Patty talked about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. Yet, on the comic pages they were just kids being kids. If only we could learn to live like that with those who are different than us.
Racism is certainly still a problem in our world, but even those who live as the Peanuts characters don’t always know how to deal with the people who do not fit our expectations. We forget that we, too, are sinners in need of a Savior and we treat too many of our neighbors with disregard. In today’s scripture passage, James was referencing a story we find in the Gospels about how Jesus dealt with the leaders of the temple. They claimed to live the Law of Moses perfectly, so they thought they had the right to bring judgment upon the sinners. They rejected of those who did not live up to their interpretation of the Law, casting out those who they deemed sinners from the community of faith. They did not have mercy; they did not recognize their own sin when they put out the ones who did not stand up to their expectations.
James tells us that if we keep the royal law, which is the law that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we will have mercy on our neighbors. We do this because we know that we don’t keep the law perfectly ourselves but that Christ died in our stead by the wrath of God. You may not notice skin color, but what characteristic makes you turn away from your neighbor? If we want mercy, then we need to look at others through the eyes of Christ and grant the same mercy we desire. The religious leaders thought they were doing everything right, but they were judging without mercy. They too would face judgment without mercy. We are reminded that we too will be judged as we judge; we are called to love our neighbors, no matter what separates us from them, because even one small stumble will keep us from a full relationship with our God.
You are loved; God calls you to live in that love. How will you do that today? What will you risk for the sake of others? Who will you love with the love of God that dwells within you?