Welcome to the June 2016 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, June 2016
June 1, 2016
Scriptures for Sunday, June 5, 2016, Third Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
"To the end that my heart may sing praise to you, and not be silent. Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever!" Psalm 30:12, WEB
Why did Paul go to Arabia? This is a question that does not have an easy answer. We aren't even sure what Paul means by "Arabia." The trip is not mentioned by Luke in the book of acts and is only briefly mentioned in today's Epistle lesson. It doesn't make sense to us that Paul would take off on his own to an unknown place after experiencing the revelation on the road to Damascus. Wouldn't it make more sense for him to go to those who would understand his experience and be able to tell him about Jesus and the Gospel? Wouldn't it make sense for him to get verification from others who had lived and worked with Jesus?
After all, we know that it is better to have others help us discern God's call rather than do it on our own. We seek help from the church and those we love as we make decisions about our future and our calling. There is a process to follow to ensure that we are not following our own desires or are being tempted into something that is not the right road.
Arabia, according to most experts, was not far from Damascus, and Paul may have simply been referring to the wilderness south of the city. It would not have been unusual for Paul to follow the example of other prophets, including Jesus Christ, to spend some time alone to pray and learn what he needed to know to begin this new work God is calling him to do. He was a zealous Jew and the revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus was a life changing experience. It is no wonder that he wanted to go somewhere to be alone.
N.T. Wright takes this idea a step further, identifying Paul with Elijah. Elijah was a prophet of God who lived during a time when Israel had turned far from Him. Israel, and her kings, had a habit of moving away from God. They began with a good king, someone who had faith in God and was righteous in God's eyes, but their sons and grandsons turned toward the gods of the nations, become more evil with every generation. This happened over and over again. In this particular moment of history, the chain ended with Ahab, about whom it is said, "Ahab the son of Omri did that which was evil in Yahweh’s sight above all that were before him." Ahab married Jezebel, worshipped Baal and built Asherah poles. While the people of Israel continued to worship the Lord God Almighty, they also worshipped the false gods and so had hearts divided.
Elijah upset Ahab by speaking God's Word to him. "As Yahweh, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." There would be a famine in the land and the fault would be on the back of the king who led his people away from the Lord. This made Ahab angry. God sent Elijah away to hide and Ahab searched the world for him, destroying nations in the process.
Elijah ended up at the house of a widow with a son who had nothing to eat. She was not poor; everyone was hungry, but gold does not do you any good if there is no flour or oil to buy. Elijah asked her for a loaf and promised that her small jars of flour and oil would never empty while they helped Elijah. There was food every day for the three because the woman believed what Elijah promised in the name of God. We take up that story in today's Old Testament passage. The writer of 1 Kings tells us, "After these things, the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him." The woman was angry. What was the point of saving their lives if her son was going to die anyway? She thought it would have been better for both of them to die when the flour and oil ran out rather than being left alone. Elijah took the boy, prayed and cried out to God. The Lord heard his cry and gave the boy back his life. The woman, when seeing her son alive again said, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that Yahweh’s word in your mouth is truth." It wasn't enough for their bellies to be filled for them to have faith; they needed to see the life-giving Word at work.
After this time in Zarephath, God sent Elijah back into the world where Ahab was trying to kill him. Elijah challenged Ahab and the prophets of the false gods to a contest. Which would they choose, the Lord God Almighty or the gods of Baal and Asherah? God not only won the contest, He destroyed all the prophets of the false gods. This made Jezebel furious and Elijah had to flee her wrath. He went into the desert to hide and to tell God that he just could not do the work God was calling him to do. "I have had enough, Lord."
Haven't we all felt the same way? Haven't we all felt at some time that it is ridiculous that God is calling us? Haven't we ever felt like we've had enough? So, Elijah went into the wilderness and had a life-changing experience with God. It was there he got the strength to face the dangers of the world and to follow God wherever He led.
N.T. Wright relates this experience to the statement by Paul. Paul, like Elijah, had a zeal for God. As a matter of fact, Paul was so zealous that he was willing to do whatever was necessary to stop those who were not living according to Jewish law. We see this in the story of Stephen, who was stoned at the word of Saul/Paul. The life of Paul changed dramatically when he met Jesus. He was chasing, and even calling for the death of, the people who were following The Way. How could he then go on to support this new faith or even share this new faith with the Gentiles? He needed time. In the Epistle to Galatia, Paul told the church about how he came to be the Apostle to the nations.
Wright paraphrases Paul's letter: "On the surface, Paul is saying: 'I did not learn my gospel from other human beings, but from the one true God, through the revelation of his son. You Galatian ex-pagans need not suppose that you must go over my head to a message from Jerusalem, a message about Jewish ethnic identity, zeal for Torah, and the victory of the true God against paganism. I know all about that battle, and it was that that I renounced because of the gospel revelation.'
"Underneath this, the Elijah motif is saying: 'I stood in the tradition of "zeal" going back to Phinehas and Elijah, the tradition that the Maccabean martyrs so nobly exemplified. Indeed, my persecution of the church was inspired by exactly this tradition. But the God of Israel called me, like Elijah, to step back from this zeal and to listen to him afresh. When I listened, I heard a voice telling me that the messianic victory over evil had already been won, and that I and my fellow Jewish Christians were the true remnant, saved by grace and marked out by faith, apart from ethnic identity and works of Torah. I therefore had to renounce my former zeal, and announce the true Messiah to the world.'"
In that wilderness, Paul experienced the same whisper of God, confirming and strengthening him for the ministry ahead. Then he went back to Damascus and eventually to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, who then could act as a witness on his behalf. When other Christians they were amazed that this man who was once zealous against them was now one of them. That time in Arabia, wherever that might be, was a time of death and resurrection for Paul. He died to his old self and was raised to new life in Christ, filled with the courage and the gifts necessary to do the work that was so different than his former life as a Pharisee.
The Old Testament and Gospel lessons are stories of people being raised from the dead. This type of resurrection can be seen with the eyes. There were witnesses who saw and rejoiced when the widow of Nain's son arose at Jesus' word, especially his mother. The widow of Zarephath saw her own son come back to life by the prayers of the prophet Elijah. Spiritual resurrection, like that which was experienced by Paul, is not so clearly seen with our eyes. We only know that people have been changed when we see those changes in word and deed. Peter and the others saw Paul was a different man and they believed that it was the work of God.
I don't know about you, but I have never actually witnessed someone being raised from the dead. I have prayed for it, but was a prayer that God did not answer as I had hoped. Yet, I am comforted by the reality that the one for whom I prayed had experienced the real resurrection, the one that comes by faith. The question I've had to ask myself is, "Why raise someone to a life in which they will once again die, when they already have the life which will last forever?" There are stories of people who have claimed to have died and been made alive again. There are stories out of Africa where there is a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit. We want to hear these stories because we want to see God's power over death in a very real way, but our calling is something far greater.
We are called to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, to share Him with those, to see that God does give new life in an extraordinary way. We are no different than Elijah and those widows. We wonder where God is when we are experiencing a difficult time. We ask, "Why?" because we do not understand how God could allow good people to experience hardship. And yet, we know that God is the only one who can bring us through our troubles. We are often like Paul, confused by the experiences that turn our lives upside down, and yet we can hear His still, small voice guiding our way.
Even Elijah didn't understand what was happening. He cried out to God, "Yahweh my God, have you also brought evil on the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" The psalmist asked, "What profit is there in my destruction, if I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth?" We ask similar questions in our day. But God hears our prayers and answers with Jesus Christ who has raised us from death into new life in Him. And we have been raised for a purpose: to call others out of death into life. We’ve been changed by God's grace. Are we ready to live in the purpose to which God has called us out of death and into life?
There are many things that we can and should do as Christians. We are commanded to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned and stand up for the oppressed. We are commanded to love our neighbors with our very lives. We are commanded to pray for our enemies and forgive those who have harmed us. We are commanded to live according to God's Word and to teach others the better way. Most importantly, we are commanded to make disciples of all nations.
We may never experience God's grace in such a miraculous way as raising the dead, but we know people who are spiritually dead. We want to help, but it is often difficult to know what to do. We can't offer them a miracle or even promise a life-changing experience. But we can touch them and give them a word of grace. That's what we are called to do: be Christ for our neighbors as He is revealed through our lives, offering resurrection and restoration to those whose lives are broken. In resurrection and restoration they will see God and say, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that Yahweh’s word in your mouth is truth." They will see His work and proclaim, "To the end that my heart may sing praise to you, and not be silent. Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever!"
"And whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ." Colossians 3:23-24, WEB
I'm not really a very good housekeeper. There are so many more things I'd rather be doing: reading a book, painting a picture, studying the scriptures, shopping, or running off on an adventure. Of course, those activities have varying degrees of usefulness and they don't, for many people, seem very much like work. I guess it depends on your perspective. A trip to the art store is fun but a trip to the grocery store is not. I need to go to the art store for supplies for my paintings, which in some ways can be considered my work (if I ever sell some paintings!), but I need to go to grocery store so that my family will be fed. I also need to do laundry, clean the dishes and occasionally vacuum the house. My work isn't very fun, especially when those other, more interesting, activities are waiting for me.
I have found ways to justify the things I prefer doing like donating paintings to charities and teaching Sunday school so that I can ignore the things I really don't like to do. But here's the thing: God calls us to enjoy all our work, even the stuff we don't like doing. Have you ever noticed that when you approach undesirable task with the same joy as the tasks you enjoy, they go faster? I feel like I'm drowning when I grumble about cleaning the dishes, but they are much easier when I have an attitude of delight.
How can I delight over doing the dishes? I do so when I think about how I have fed my family; I smile when I remember their happy devouring of the meal. I delight when I think about the blessing of having dishes and a sink to clean them in. One dish that we use regularly came from our time in England and I often think back to the fun things we did when we lived there. I pray at the sink, and when I do I find that I'm not standing there alone. I delight in the work when I approach the sink with the attitude that I am accomplishing God's work.
Yes, God cares about the dishes. He cares about the mundane and undesirable tasks that we have to do every day. He cares about the occupations that seem far from godly because in them we are serving others in ways that they need. Sadly, too many of us have jobs that we do not like but we go day after day to pay our bills. We end up grumbling all the way as we go to work and we feel like we are drowning in it. We can't wait until it is time to go home again and we are so exhausted from the day that we aren't even happy there.
We will all have to do work that we don't like to do, whether it is housework or flipping burgers or sitting in a cubicle surrounded by paperwork. We can find joy in that work if only we do so with the attitude that we are doing the work for the Lord. Martin Luther said, "All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government-to what does it all amount before God except child's play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things." We will find joy in all our work when we do everything for the Lord, knowing that He has called us to serve each other in these ways, even in the most mundane tasks.
"Now on the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him will flow rivers of living water.' But he said this about the Spirit, which those believing in him were to receive. For the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus wasn’t yet glorified." John 7:37-39, WEB
It is very easy to focus all my posts on the weather since it is the most important news story for us these days. Texas is wet, and while here are places in Texas that are far wetter than my house, we have received more than our share of rain this springtime. We will wish for some of this water in a few months when it hasn't rained all summer, but for now we are struggling through threats of severe storms and flash floods.
I went on an adventure the other day when things had settled down a little, and I noticed something interesting. Even though we had not had rain for nearly a day, there were still little streams of water flowing along the roadways along the hills. We even have these little streams along the roads in our neighborhood as the water runs from the top of the hill all the way to the bottom. The streams are stronger when it is actually raining, and most of the time they disappear quickly after the storm, but right now there is just so much water.
See, the earth is so saturated that the water is slowly dripping its way downhill. Have you ever filled a sponge with water and then held it up; much of the water runs out immediately, but the rest slowly drips until the sponge is dry. We'll have these little streams along the curbs until the ground finally has a chance to dry.
Have you ever felt like you were in a spiritual drought? I suppose we all have had those times when God and the things of religion don't mean much to us. We have periods when we are cold or angry, when we doubt and even reject spiritual things. Perhaps we are tired or burnt out from the work that we have been doing, frustrated by the things that go wrong in our lives and the times that seem so fruitless. Jesus lived in a time of spiritual drought. The Jews were lifeless, because they lived according to their interpretation of God's law rather than His intent. They were dead in their sin and did not know God's grace. They did not know where to look for the spiritual water; even when Jesus stood in their presence, many missed what He had to offer.
That happens to us, too, even as we live in faith. We sometimes forget that the Living Water flows in and through us, even when it seems like the whole world is parched and panting for something life-giving to drink. Without Christ, the world is like a desert. There is no joy, no peace, even when it seems as if they are happy and content. We wander through the deserts in search of something and think we find it in our jobs, families and possessions. Yet, there is a thirst for something more that can’t be had by any human effort; it is only satisfied by faith in Jesus Christ. When we hit those moments of drought, we need only remember that the Living Water of Jesus flows even then.
We are the oasis in this world that desperately needs to see Jesus. Through our lives, Jesus reaches out to those who are thirsty. They are dead in their sin, trapped by their unbelief and lost in the darkness, but through our faith they see the life and spirit of Christ into the world. They see us and know that there is an answer to their search. Jesus Christ is indeed the Living Water that gives us life and hope. It would be ideal if there were always little streams visible to the eyes of the world, constant revival and passion for God. But even when the earth seems dry, the Living Water continues to flow as Jesus reaches out through us to give life to the most desolate hearts.
"There is no creature that is hidden from his sight, but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account. Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold tightly to our confession. For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace for help in time of need." Hebrews 4:13-16, WEB
One of my favorite memories from our time in England is the day we visited Westminster Abbey. Most of you are probably familiar with the Abbey, as it is one of the most famous places in London. It is the site of royal coronations. Princess Diana's funeral took place at the Abbey Church as well as Will and Kate's wedding. The site is filled with incredible art and architecture. It is a thousand years old and tells the history of England. It is filled with the graves and monuments of kings and queens, heads of state and other national figures. There is even a corner of the church dedicated to literary figures like Chaucer, Browning and Tennyson. Scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried there. As is William Wilberforce, who fought for the end of slavery in England. It is a building filled with dead people, and that's why so many people visit. The tombs are magnificent and the history fascinating, so it is worth the trip.
We visited around lunchtime on a weekday and while we were wandering through the chapels with the rest of the tourists, we overheard an announcement inviting visitors to a brief communion service they have during the lunch hour each day. We were excited about the opportunity, after all, how often do you get to worship in such a grand and historic place! We asked for help from the vicars who were scattered around the church to help visitors and they helped us to get to the worship area. The congregation was about twenty-five people, and I was taken aback that so many were more interested in the dead people's tombs than the Living God who was about to offer Himself through worship. It was a brief but lovely service, we received communion along with the others. I was struck by the reality of what happens at the communion rail during that service: I was kneeling where kings and queens, world leaders and famous people had knelt to receive the body and blood of Christ, and in that spot, God saw us all equally. He sees everyone who comes humbly to His table through Jesus-colored glasses.
Now, I would never expect that same equality in the world outside worship. Oh, God loves me as much as He loves Queen Elizabeth, but I don't think I should take that as an invitation to go hang out with the royal family. I like to tell everyone my "claim to fame" is that I've eaten at every one of the queen's homes. I had tea at her country estate Sandringham (in the shop.) I had a ham sandwich in the gardens of Buckingham palace (it was the lunch I carried with me.) I had tea and an apple at Balmoral (purchased at the Scottish country estate.
Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh was a little more difficult because the queen was in residence when we visited, but I managed to eat a chocolate bar. I asked the guard if I could slip my food through the wrought iron fence, so I was "standing" on the property. He laughed and allowed it. Finally, I had shortbread cookies outside Windsor Castle, and the queen was there. I often joke about how she should have come to the door to let me in, but I know that I was just one of many tourists.
I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to visit with anyone like Queen Elizabeth. I would not even try to approach her throne without an invitation, and even then I would be incredibly nervous. She is, in so many ways, no different than me, and yet she is someone that deserves respect and the humble willingness to honor the protocols of a meeting.
That's what makes today's scripture all the more amazing. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we have been invited to approach the throne of grace, the throne of our God. The invitation comes by the word and the blood of the Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our God, the Lord God Almighty, is greater than the greatest monarch, He has done great things beyond anything any human is able to do, and yet He welcomes us without pomp or circumstance to approach Him to ask for anything we need. The only mediator is Christ Himself who is the Great High Priest who has opened the door to the Most Holy Place for us to stand in the presence our God and Father.
"This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their hearts; who having become callous gave themselves up to lust, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you did not learn Christ that way; if indeed you heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus: that you put away, as concerning your former way of life, the old man, that grows corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth." Ephesians 4:17-24, WEB
Situation comedies follow formulas. The formulas work; they make us laugh. They make us laugh because we can identify with the humor of the situations they portray. They make fun of the very things that fill our lives: the hectic schedules, the crazy catastrophes, the unbelievable coincidences that make us crazy. They are much funnier when we see them happening to other people, but we laugh at ourselves, too.
One typical conflict often happens between a husband and wife. The wife, on a quest to organize and simplify their lives, or to do something good, works on cleaning out a closet, filling boxes and bags with items no longer needed. Unfortunately in the process, she pulls out that one shirt, sweatshirt or pair of sneakers that the husband can't live without. Of course, the shirt is usually threadbare with lots of rips, holes and stains. "But honey," he says, "I finally got that one broken in! It is my favorite." The rest of the show revolves around the argument about the shirt and the quest to find it again. We laugh because we all have some of those shirts in our wardrobe, shirts that we should never wear in public but we just can't give up because they are so comfortable.
I went shopping yesterday in the hope that I would find some shirts that I like as much as my own favorites. I have several shirts that were once very pretty, but have been worn out with wear. One has tiny holes where the material has become threadbare. Others are spotted with paint. Sadly, at least a few have greasy stains I can't seem to get out. I don't even wear them anymore, but I just can't seem to get them out of my closet. After a successful quest at the outlet center, I knew I had to empty at least a few hangers so I would have room in the closet for my new shirts. I not only removed those old favorites, but took out a few shirts that I hate wearing. Those were easy, but what's the point of keeping something that is now little more than rags even though they were once lovely?
We have new life in Christ. That is the promise of the Gospel. Ultimately that means we'll have eternal life in God's presence, but the promise is for us today, too. We have eternal life; it is a present reality as well as a future promise. However, many of us like to hold on to the hold life because it is comfy and cozy. "I have just gotten it broken in!" Despite the rips and holes and stains, we don't want to give up the life we have now. However, the blood of Christ has bought our lives and we are transformed daily to be more like Him. Oh, we'll struggle with the change. We'll sin. We'll doubt when we suffer and forget when we are either too comfortable or too frustrated to embrace the promise. But God is like the wife cleaning the closet, throwing away the old so that He can fill our lives with Himself. We shouldn't waste our time arguing with Him, or searching for that ratty old life because the one He has promised is really much better.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 12, 2016, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-14; Psalm 32:1-7; Galatians 2:15-21, 3:10-14; Luke 7:36-8:3
"Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much." Luke 7:47, WEB
Sometimes it is the most seemingly insignificant words that help us understand the meaning of a text. Unfortunately, those seemingly insignificant words can often be understood in a way that makes the text say something it does not. We can find that in today's Gospel lesson. Jesus says of the woman, "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much." What does Jesus mean when He says, "…for she loved much."
Some interpret that to mean that Jesus was showing that her forgiveness came in response to her loving attitude. They interpret the word "for" to mean "because" as it might. We can't come to that understanding if we hear the words of Jesus in context, but for those who want to have some control over their own salvation, this is a comforting text. There are those who want to be able to say, "I am forgiven because..." That understanding is upside down. We know that we love because God first loved us. Even the Pharisee in today's story understands that the love came as a response to the forgiveness.
This is one of the times when a less literal translation is better because it helps us to see the intent of the statement, wording it in the context of the whole text. Most translations have chosen to stick with "for she loved much," but there are a few that record the statement more clearly. NIV says, "Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown." Common English Bible says, "This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love." While the Message is not usually a good choice for Biblical studies, I like the way Peterson has translated this particular sentence, "She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful."
This is not a story about a woman who has loved herself into salvation, but about a woman who heard Jesus' Word and experienced God's love, a love so great that she responded with a great love. She humbled herself, anointed His feet with expensive ointment and her tears of repentance and joy.
We usually focus on repentance during Advent and Lent. During these seasons we are focused on the coming of the Lord Jesus and the fulfillment of His work for our sake. The calls to repentance are meant to prepare us for what is to come so that we will be ready to receive the One who was born and who died for the forgiveness of sin. The focus during the "green days" or the ordinary days throughout the Church year tends to be the work we are called to do in response to God's grace. The "green days" teach us what it is meant to be the Church, to be Christians, to share the love and mercy of God in this world.
We are reminded, however, that repentance is an ongoing process. We are saints, made clean by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are also still sinners, looking inwardly when we should look to God. We still pursue the food that will satisfy our bellies and the opportunities that will fulfill our desires. We still sin against our neighbors, disobeying God in our thoughts, words and deeds by what we do and what we do not do. That's why we continue to make confession together during worship each time we gather. Sometimes we are plagued by new ways of sinning, but most of the time we continue to do the things we for which we know we have already been forgiven. Transformation happens, but it is sometimes a very, very slow process.
We have to wonder what happened to the woman in today's story after she left Simon's house. Jesus said, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." Did she go in peace to live a new and different life? Or did she end up returning to the kind of woman who experienced the disdain of the Pharisee? We don't really hear what sin she had committed, although it is generally understood to mean that she was a prostitute. "This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what kind of woman this is who touches him, that she is a sinner." Some assume that this is Mary of Magdalene, but this is probably a different woman. This is also not Mary of Bethany, who also anointed Jesus.
We assume she was a prostitute, but she could have been simply an abandoned woman. Men were able to divorce their wives without just cause, leaving them unable to support themselves. She may, like the woman at the well, have taken a new husband out of desperation deeming her a sinner according to the Law. She may, like the bleeding woman, have had a physical ailment deeming her a sinner according to the Law. She may have been assumed to be a sinner simply because she had run of terrible luck, after all, God would never allow bad things to happen to those who were virtuous, right?
The word translated "sinner" in the Greek means, "one who deviates from the path of virtue, a sinner." What does that mean? We all must admit that we have our own favorite sins, things that we deem harmless to others even though we know they deviate from the path of virtue. We look at others and consider them terrible sinners because they deviate from the path of virtue in a way that we call immoral, yet we forget our own sinfulness.
Sometimes we have to look in the mirror so that we can see ourselves as we really are. You’ve heard it said that if you point a finger at someone, you have three fingers pointing back at you. We are quick to make judgments about the actions and behaviors of others, but all too often we are doing exactly the same thing. We might think that we are justified, or that we are doing it differently, but the reality is that we are all sinners. We just have to see it. We just have to look in the mirror when we are casting judgment on another and realize that we too are imperfect sinners in need of a Savior.
That’s what we see going on in both our Old Testament and Gospel lesson. In the passage from 2 Samuel, David is faced with the reality of his own sinfulness. In the lesson from Luke, Simon is the one who is invited to look into the mirror. Unfortunately, one of the two never really see themselves as a sinner.
Today's Old Testament lesson begins at the beginning of 2 Samuel 11. David saw Bathsheba and wanted her. Her husband Uriah was on the battlefield, fighting for David's kingdom and so he invited Bathsheba into his bed. Bathsheba was called by the king and she willingly went to him. Unfortunately, the dalliance ended with a pregnancy. David tried to manipulate Uriah so that he would have intercourse with his wife so that the child would appear to be his. When that did not work, David had Uriah placed in the front lines. He was killed. Bathsheba went to the palace and became one of David's many wives.
In our story today, Nathan the prophet approached David with a story about a rich man who stole the only sheep of a poor man. David was infuriated. "That man deserves to die!" That's when Nathan held up the mirror. "You are that man." David saw the reality of this judgment; David confessed his sin against God and accepted God's punishment. Nathan answered, "Jehovah also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die." Isn't it interesting that God forgave David even before David confessed his sinfulness? It is not our confession that brings mercy but God's love.
The woman in the Gospel lesson had a reputation, and it is likely that it had to do with a lack of chastity, but she is not the important character in today's story. I suppose despite her reputation, we wouldn't mind being identified with her because we see how Jesus responds to her humility and faith. However, aren't we more like Simon? Don't we tend to hold ourselves higher than others, ignoring our own sin while we point out the sins of our neighbors? The woman may have been wanton, but she had faith in Jesus. Simon did not even give his Lord the simple hospitable respect of water for His feet. Simon was so busy looking for a reason not to believe that he didn't even act as a decent host.
Here's where we start stacking sins in order of magnitude. Surely it must be worse to be unchaste than to be bad host, right? That's not the point of this story. The difference between the woman and Simon has nothing to do with what they have done or not done; the difference here is between faith and unbelief. The woman believed in Jesus and her faith saved her.
It is faith that saves and in faith our lives are no longer our own. We belong to Jesus Christ. He lives within us and everything we do we do in faith. Even when we fail -- David most certainly sinned again and I am sure the woman did, too -- God's grace holds firm and forgiveness remains. We can't earn God's love or keep it ours by our works. God's grace is ours through faith, not works. He says to us, "I have put away your sin; you shall not die."
Forgiveness comes first, even before we know we are sinners. David was forgiven before he confessed his sinfulness. The same is true of the woman in the Gospel story. Nathan told David a story that helped him see in the mirror. Jesus told a similar story to Simon in the hope that he might see more clearly, too. He talked about one debtor owing much and another owing little. "Which of them therefore will love him most?" Simon answered, "He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most." Jesus pointed to the woman who honoring Him in a most beautiful way and says, "Do you see this woman? I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. You didn't anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little."
Did Simon see himself in the story? Did he recognize his own sinfulness? Jesus did not directly judge Simon for any specific action, and it even seems as though Jesus is agreeing that Simon is not as great a sinner as the woman; it is probably true if we stack the sins in order of magnitude. But again, that's not the point. We are all sinners in need of the Savior; none of us by our work or words can we ever experience the forgiveness of God. God has mercy on us even before we know we need His mercy; and by the faith He we have by His Word, we are saved.
I don’t think Simon gets it. I don't think he sees himself in the mirror. We see no act of humility or confession. Though there are other stories about men named Simon, this seems to be this Pharisee's only appearance in the biblical record. If his purpose for the dinner was to entrap Jesus, it didn't work. Instead, the woman experienced the incredible grace of God, was forgiven and is held up as a paragon of faith. He is remembered as the one who did not honor Jesus in even the most customary ways.
The Pharisee thought his worthiness was dependent on his good works. The woman knew her good works were worthless without the grace of God. That is the difference between the messages of Peter and Paul at the time of the writing of the letter to the Galatians. Though Peter knew and accepted that salvation was dependent on God's grace, he was convinced that real fellowship between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles was dependent on traditional practices and regulations. Paul, the newcomer, saw God's grace as not only the foundation, but the substance of the Christian life. Salvation was not just dependent on God's grace; God's grace made living the Christian life possible. He knew that if this was true, then nothing could, or should, stand in the way of Christian fellowship. He also knew that if there were requirements for membership, then none were worthy and Christ’s death was in vain.
David writes, "When I kept silence, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long." Silence about our sin means torment. But acknowledgement of our sin before God brings joy, because it brings forgiveness and freedom. Though we are sinners, we are given the grace to stand before our God to confess our sin. It is there we find joy and peace because God has promised to forgive our sin. The woman did not care what the people at the dinner thought of her. She only wanted to be near Jesus, to give Him herself in a very real and loving way.
What do you see when you are looking in the mirror? Do you see a person who is better than your neighbor because your sins, if they exist, are less than theirs or that they are justifiable? Or do you see your own need daily for God's grace? Are you like Simon who based his righteousness on good deeds and obedience to the Law, or are you like the woman who humbly approached the Throne of Grace with tears of repentance and joy?
Your sins, which are many, are forgiven. God forgives and forgets; it might seem impossible to believe, but there exists such an incredible and life-changing love. Whatever your sin, whatever your failure, whatever your indiscretion, it is finished. Faith in this great promise is what has saved you.
Now, how do you respond? Will you be like David upon hearing the accusation "You are that man," willingly confessing that you have sinned against God? Will you be like the woman and believe, humbly worshiping the One who saved you? There is nothing we can do to earn God's forgiveness, but God's love changes us into people who humbly and willingly love God much and live our faith in this world.
Look in that mirror and see the Christ who dwells in you. See how His love has changed you. Will you go now in peace to love and serve the Lord? Will you see your neighbor as one who does not need your pointing finger but rather your outstretched hands? How will you love as God first loved you, forgive as you were forgiven? How will you show that you are very, very grateful for God's amazing grace?
"If anyone teaches a different doctrine, and doesn’t consent to sound words, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is conceited, knowing nothing, but obsessed with arguments, disputes, and word battles, from which come envy, strife, insulting, evil suspicions, constant friction of people of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. Withdraw yourself from such. But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we certainly can’t carry anything out. But having food and clothing, we will be content with that. But those who are determined to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows." 1 Timothy 6:3-10, WEB
I have to admit: I have a lot of stuff. I have a library's worth of books. I have more televisions than people living in the house. I have closet space dedicated to wrapping supplies. I have a curio cabinet filled with dustcatchers and a hutch filled with old dishes. I have a dozen water bottles we never use and so many tee-shirts I will never wear. You don't even want to try to inventory the supplies in my studio: so many paintbrushes I don't think I'll ever wear them all out and a dozen empty frames I may never fill with paintings.
I went shopping the other day at the outlet center an hour away from home. I really didn't have much of a plan when I left home. I needed new shirts and the boys needed a few things. I probably could have found those items anywhere, but there are a few stores I like to shop occasionally just to see what they have. I found some shirts and the things the boys needed and I picked up a few gadgets at the kitchen store.
My best buy, however, came in a book store, as if I needed any more books! Bookstores come and go at the outlet center, although I suppose that is a sign of the times. Since so many people use digital readers these days, bookstores struggle to stay open. The store I visited had been open the last time I drove to the outlets, but there was something very different the other day. The only way to enter was through another store. The cash registers were gone. The bins were still filled with books, but they were a mess. Many of the bookshelves were empty. There was a huge sign that said, "Everything 25 cents." It is hard to believe that every item in the store was only a quarter. Even on the best days the books were several dollars each. The instructions were to pay at the register in the other store. I suspect that the owners of the bookstore abandoned the product or were evicted for lack of payments, and the other store were just cutting their losses and getting rid of inventory with the ridiculously low prices.
I tried to look through all the bins, but it was a frustrating quest, especially since I knew I did not need to buy any books. Yet, it is so hard to pass up such a great deal. I put several books into my shopping cart, but looked at them repeatedly. I kept thinking that I should buy books to donate, especially children's books. I thought about upcoming birthdays and holidays. I wanted to buy books, a lot of them, but the more I looked, the more I realized that I did not need to buy those books, especially since I was really not finding titles that I thought would be appropriate or worthwhile.
I did end up spending money in the store, however, because I came across a cluster of bins filled with books on CD. We like to have books when we travel because it is difficult to find radio stations in the middle of nowhere, and there's a lot of miles of "nowhere" when crossing the Southwest. We listened to several really good books I might not have ever read during our road trip last year, and I'm looking forward to the chance to hear more. One of the problems, however, is that books on tape tend to be a little expensive. I have shopped the half price store, but then it is hard to find good titles. Even then, they are still a little expensive.
That's why I was so excited to find these bins of books on CD. I picked through every one, searching every title in the hope that I would find something good. At the end of the quest, I had a dozen books on CD in my cart. There were a few I knew I would enjoy, and a few that I thought I might enjoy. There were a couple that were questionable, but I decided that even if they turn out to be terrible, they only cost me a quarter. Now I have enough books for many road trips.
With my new stack of CDs, I have even more stuff. I have to admit that I often look around my house and feel sorry for my kids who will have to deal with it all when I go. Thankfully, that should not be for a long, long time and maybe I'll get rid of some of it by then. There are some things that will be a blessing to them some day: my mother's china, a coin collection, a library's worth of theological books. I'm sure much will end up in the garbage or donated to a thrift shop. That's ok.
I like my stuff, and I hope that it has some meaning to my kids someday. I remember my mom when I look at items that had been hers. I remember my grandmother every time I use a certain plate. There are items from my childhood and objects that remind me of happy times. These items hold memories and though some of them have value, they are just objects that I know will be left behind one day.
I recall thinking to myself when we moved from England that I wouldn't mind very much if the boat with all our stuff just sank in the ocean. The reality is that I would have been upset because such an accident would have taken many things from me that I love. However, I like to believe that I be content without it. It is just stuff, and while it helps to have tangible reminders of the people I love and the happy times the key is to remember not to put our whole lives in the quest or maintenance of this stuff. Happiness is not found in the gathering of stuff, but in the thankfulness of our blessings. Too often we love the stuff so much that we forget that ultimately it is of no lasting value. However, the joy we have when we are thankful to God for our blessings is eternal.
"Hurry to answer me, Yahweh. My spirit fails. Don't hide your face from me, so that I don’t become like those who go down into the pit. Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning, for I trust in you. Cause me to know the way in which I should walk, for I lift up my soul to you. Deliver me, Yahweh, from my enemies. I flee to you to hide me. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Your Spirit is good. Lead me in the land of uprightness." Psalm 143:7-10, WEB
It is impossible to believe, but I graduated High School thirty-five years ago today. There are times when I can't believe I'm even old enough to have graduated that long ago, but I did. It has been long enough that I can't remember half the things I learned. I probably only remember a fraction of the things I learned. Here's the perfect example: I did fairly well at math way back then, but I struggled to help Victoria with even the simplest Algebra a few years ago
It is funny to think about the things I do remember. We had a substitute Geography teacher in seventh grade because our regular teacher broke his leg during a Christmas vacation skiing trip. Substitutes have to find some way to catch the attention of their students, especially the long term ones, so that we won't get so far behind that we can't catch up. One day we were talking about something about some country (I don't even remember the details!) and he said, "Raisons are dried grapes and prunes are dried plums." For some reason, this became our mantra for the rest of his time with us and now I'll remember it always.
There is no great life-changing information in this piece of knowledge. It won't make the world a better place; it won't set me on the path to a successful career. I am sure I taught it to my children, but I doubt that they even remember it. Except for the fact that it helps us understand where we get raisons and prunes, I don't think it would ever make a difference to them. I'm sure that both our regular teacher and that substitute taught us much more important facts during that year of Geography class, but I don't remember.
We remember that raisons are dried grapes and prunes are dried plums because the mantra was repeated over and over again. In this case it was a joke, but repetition is the best way to learn. Ask actors how they learn their lines and they will tell you that they say them over and over again. Flash cards used to help us remember the multiplication tables and sight words. Children learn the alphabet and colors by singing songs and reading those Little Golden Books over and over again. We know the Lord's Prayer, the creeds and those old beloved hymns because we have said and sung them together in worship for as long as we have attended church. "Jesus loves me" is written on our hearts because we sang the old favorite since we were children.
We might think it is enough to tell someone once about Jesus. While God's word works that easily, and someone might be saved the first time they hear the Gospel, the Christian life best lived is the one that knows God's grace so well that it flows naturally in our daily walk. It is a faith that is built so strongly on God's love that everywhere we look we see Him. It is the willingness to constantly learn, to seek God's wisdom, to stand on His truth and to be the person He has created and redeemed us to be. "Jesus loves me" might seem as important as some of the deep theological ideas that we learn as we mature into our faith, but like the grapes and plums from which we get raisons and prunes, the love of God and our Lord Jesus Christ is the place where it all begins. God will continue to teach us much; let us always look to learn so that no matter our circumstances, we will find the right path.
"This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." 1 John 1:5-10, WEB
I have struggled with how to write today's message.
I, along with millions of other people around the world, are heartbroken by the tragic event at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida this weekend. Those who know me know that I have strong opinions about issues involving the homosexual community, so much so that I belong to a church that, in part, was established over the biblical understanding of those issues.
I have struggled with today's message because I don't usually reveal too much about my opinions the issues in these posts. I know that my readers come from an extremely diverse cross section of the world. There are Christians from every part of the spectrum, from extremely conservative to extremely liberal. I suspect that at least a few readers are not even Christian, but find my posts out of curiosity or for some other reason. The Christians come from many different denominations; even the Lutherans who read are extremely diverse in opinions about these things.
There are at least some who would suggest that because I belong to a church established, in part, over the issues of the homosexual community, then I must hate. I've even heard it said that I am no different than the man who took a gun into a nightclub to kill and wound more than a hundred people.
I am not going to tell you that I do not hate. I would be lying if I said it; we all would be lying if we said we do not hate. However, I do not hate the way the finger-pointers claim I hate. See, hate is a human emotion that plagues all of us. Oh, a majority of people do not hate to the extreme of the shooter in this weekend's tragedy. We don't take our hate and act upon it in violent or extreme ways. But can any one of you honestly tell me that there is absolutely nothing in this world, or nobody, that you do not love?
"Well," I hear many of you saying, "I really hate Brussels sprouts, but that's different." You are right, there is a difference between hating a vegetable and hating a neighbor or an enemy. However, the fact that you hate the vegetable should make you pause a moment to consider that you are capable of hate. Now, take it a step further. Brussels sprouts may not be an enemy, but you avoid them, don't you? Now, think about this: is there anyone in your life that you have chosen to avoid? Is there anyone who has done something to you that makes you say, "I don't need that in my life?" Oh, I'm sure you can say, "I love that person, but..." but that "but" is the very point of this post.
See, hate is defined not just as "intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury," which is how it is understood in today's world. Hate is simply, "a very strong feeling of dislike." Be honest, isn't there something or someone for whom you have a very strong feeling of dislike? I don't hate the gay community, but I will honestly say that I hate people are being forced to do things that go against their conscience. I also hate that one man who felt it was his duty to kill so many to save them from the life they had chosen to live.
The Old Testament understanding of "hate" is this: "'hate' can be active, as an enemy or adversary; or passive, as someone unloved or shunned." We see this in the story of Isaac and Esau. Paul writes in Romans, "Even as it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'" God did not hate Esau; it would be better rendered, "Jacob I chose; Esau I rejected." Now tell me that you have never rejected anyone. Does that mean you would respond as that shooter in Florida? Of course not; most of us know how to deal with lovingkindness those whom we have chosen to exclude from our lives.
Hate separates and divides. I wish I could love everyone with a complete and real love, as Jesus loves me. I try, but I fail. I am human and I am a sinner. I separate myself from the things and people who have harmed me in some way, as much for their sake as for my own. I don't want to be unloving, but when I can't love, the most loving thing I can do is step out of the way.
A national talk show host, admittedly one that is greatly hated (I listen, but even I find it hard not to hate some of what he says) made an interesting point today. He talked about how the rainbow has been a prevalent part of our discourse in the past fifty years. The rainbow stands for diversity. His point, however, is that the rainbow is light divided. It is separation. It is the many parts. He suggested, perhaps, we should start looking not at the parts, but at the whole. At the light. It is the light that will bring hope and peace and joy, not the colors of the rainbow. The first rainbow was a promise and is meant to remind us that God is faithful. And God is not a rainbow, He is light.
Someone commented on a post today, "But how do we get people to stop hating?" It is the question resounding around the world today, but I'm not sure it is the right question. We can't legislate people to stop hating. We can't force them to stop hating. The reality is, we can't even convince them to stop hating. Human beings, in our sinful, perishable flesh, will hate whether it is an active or passive hate. The key here is to remember that we are sinful human beings, that we should confess our sin and to step aside so that God's light will shine.
See, we might think we have to force a love that is not real, but in doing so we stand in darkness and keep others in darkness. But by confessing the truth and stepping aside, we give room for God's Light to shine, not only for the others, but also for ourselves. When we confess our sin and trust that God will be faithful to His promises, we see the light and remember to walk in it. In His light, we can even love our enemies and do what is good and right. We might all hate in one way or another, but as we walk in the light we are much different than the shooter this weekend because with God's help and through His grace we can respond with the lovingkindness that flows from His love for us.
"But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will tell those on his right hand, 'Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?' The King will answer them, 'Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'" Matthew 25:31-40, WEB
I've heard or seen, several times in the past few days, a quote by Fred Rogers that makes the rounds whenever something horrific happens around the nation or around the world. He said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" In the days following one of these heartbreaking events we start hearing the stories about those helping.
I heard the story of one man who was so frightened by the shooting that he escaped into the parking lot and hid under a car. Just as he was beginning to feel like he might be safe, he heard the cries of someone who had been hit. They thought his wounds were just on his legs, but the man quickly realized that the victim had been hit in the back. He put pressure on the wound and helped the victim to the emergency personnel, staying with this person until they arrived at the hospital. He left before they could tell him if the victim lived or died. Later, after he posted his concern on his facebook page, the victim's friends assured him that he was ok and thanked him for taking care of their friend.
Hidden in this type of event are always the emergency personnel that triage the victim and direct people to keep order in the chaos. It is their job, and while we are always very thankful for the work they do, we often forget what they really do in the minutes, hours and days that follow the first moment. We don't really think about the surgeons who have amazingly kept the fifty-three injured alive, not to mention the nurses and other emergency room staff who were inundated with so many bleeding and hurting people. We may never know their names, but it is in their work we find the helpers.
Blood was an issue with so many wounded, so the local blood bank called for donations. People lined up around the block to give, to help. We'll never know their names, either, but the blood they gave might have been the difference between life and death. We've also heard the story of the fast food chain that chose to open their kitchen to cater food for those waiting to give blood. Those owners and employees didn't think twice before giving their time and resources to help.
"Look for the helpers." They are always there in the midst of any sort of disaster. A car stopped and the occupants got out to make sure we were alright after our car accident the other day. Not only were their words welcome, their car kept others from crashing into us, making things worse. They were replaced by emergency personnel. The floods that have hit Texas in the past few weeks have provided so many opportunities for people to be helpers, whether it is to help keep people safe, to help save them, or to help clean up after the waters recede. What happens when someone we love dies? We find casseroles in our freezer and shoulders on which to cry.
There is a commercial for an insurance company that says, "What would happen if nothing bad ever happened again?" This is certainly the type of world we want to experience. Utopia may be unrealistic, but it is a dream that we all wish would be real. The commercial goes on to tell us that the insurance company would still be there helping in other ways. I suppose that might be true of the helpers, but I'm not so sure. Do we even need helpers in good times?
I suppose one of the difficulties we have in this world is that we all define that utopia differently, and thus we'll never find it in this life. Our political and religious arguments revolve around what we believe is the best society. Despite our desire for utopia, and our disagreements, it is in the challenges of this world that we find ourselves speaking with one voice, reaching out with our gifts and abilities to do what needs to be done. Oh, we quickly find ourselves arguing again, as we are already arguing about the fault of the tragedy and the solutions to make it stop, but for a moment we don't think about our differences. We only care about one another.
"Look for the helpers." We will hear more stories about acts of compassion and bravery from Orlando and everywhere else there has been any sort of disaster. But perhaps we shouldn't wait for the crisis to look for those who can help or for ways we can help. It might seem like nothing, but today might be the day when you can do some act of lovingkindness. A word of hope, a smile, something to drink will make a difference in someone's day. It is in the helping that there is hope and where there is hope, God is glorified. Look for the helpers, but even more so, listen for God's voice so you can be the helper. It might not be the difference between life and death, but then again, it just might be.
And always remember, we do this not to be remembered or to earn any rewards but out of thanksgiving to our God who has promised us that one day we will dwell in the true utopia, life in God's eternal kingdom where there will never again be weeping or pain.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 19, 2016, Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 3; Galatians 3:23-4:7; Luke 8:26-39
"Salvation belongs to Yahweh. Your blessing be on your people." Psalm 3:8, WEB
It is a very popular notion among modern Christians to reject religion and the institution we call the Church for a more private, personal relationship with God. This often leads to the idea that faith can be lived out separate from a fellowship of believers. They believe that they can worship God anywhere, in a field or by a stream, and that they do not need to go to church. After all, the church is made of people, not bricks, and the institution as we know it today is nothing like what Christ intended. This is the excuse I’ve heard many times from people who do not attend services with other Christians. Besides, the Christians in those churches aren't really very Christian, are they?
We are told that every bad thing that happens is our fault because we are holier-than-thou, that our religious condemnation makes people reject God and do evil. We are told that a God who demands repentance and justice is not the kind of god they want to worship. We are told that the world hates us because we are hateful, intolerant, delusional hypocrites. Isn't it funny, however: Jesus told us that the world would hate us because it hates Him.
While it is true that every Christian should have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we are also part of a body that is greater than ourselves. We are part of the body of Christ which is the Church. This body is made up of many parts, parts that are imperfect but forgiven and blessed with gifts that make the body whole and perfect. We know that we are sinners in need of the Savior. You will never find a church that is filled entirely with saints. Each of us are saints and sinners in the same flesh and somehow God manages to use us in this world to share the Gospel with those who are lost and lonely.
As we read the stories in the Old Testament, we will find that there are a few characters that had personal experiences with God. Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden of Eden. Abraham spoke with God. Jacob wrestled with God. Moses delivered the entire nation of Israel out of bondage into the Promised Land by the Word of God.
Yet, most of the stories speak of God's relationship with the entire nation of Israel. The promise to Abraham were not only for himself, but were for all his seed. The Law was not for Moses alone, but for the entire nation. Judgment fell upon the whole nation even though we could find in the story specific people who are to blame. When God became angry with His chosen people for worshipping other gods, He sent them all into exile.
In today's lesson from Isaiah, God calls out His judgment against His people. They were a people who had stopped crying out to God, who had turned to other worship practices. They were burning offerings to Baal in the high places and stopped listening for God’s voice in their lives. He called out to them, but they did not hear. He showed Himself to people who did not look for Him. And they missed Him.
The book of Isaiah was written to the Hebrew nation at a time when there were great changes occurring in the world and in the nation. It is a story of God's judgment and salvation. Isaiah is considered a prophet, and much of his writing points toward the future. It isn't a prediction of what will happen, but a revelation of God, His purpose and His plan. As we read the book of Isaiah, we are reminded that God knows better than we do and that His plan is right and true. It is a call to trust in Him.
Our verses from Isaiah are the beginning of the end of the book. After sixty-four chapters of warnings, calls to repentance, and promises for salvation, God speaks to the people. They are a people who have found something they think is better than God, things they think will save them better than God. Whether it is neighbor, ally, friend or self, they think they do not need God. They want to go their own way, make their own path, and be independent without the helper that is waiting.
Sadly, there are Christians today that are not much different from those to whom Isaiah was writing. There are churches that have chosen to conform to the world and to follow their own ways. There is a leader of a major denomination that has openly admitted that he does not even believe in God. He is an atheist charged with caring for God's people. It doesn’t really matter much, since so many churches have stopped looking to God and have followed their own ideologies.
God has little good to say about His people in this passage. They do not call on His name. They are rebellious. They walk in a way that is not good. They follow their own devices. They provoke God, make improper sacrifices and offerings. They follow rituals, eat food and do things that are abominable to God. These things are cultic, practices done by the religions that were popular in the day of Isaiah: they were worshipping false gods. God says, "Who say, 'Stay by yourself, don't come near to me, for I am holier than you.'" God's people had declared themselves holier than Him!
The same is sadly true of many Christians today. They reject the parts of the Bible that make them uncomfortable. They rewrite the scriptures to fit their own agendas. They do what they think is right, but in doing so they trust in their own devices. This is not a condemnation of any particular type of church. I'm sure we can find something that grieves God in every church.
God refused to be silent. Despite their sin, He was still there for them. He was still ready to be their God and to lead them in the ways of righteousness and truth. Despite their hatred, He offered them a promise: someday they would see Him again and they would turn to Him. Someday they would be saved and they will inherit all that He had to give them. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
We can live with the same hope today. We are still sinners. We still walk in ways that are not according to God's Word or will. We follow our own devices. God is angry at us, too, because we have stopped trusting in Him. But despite our own rebellion, God has offered us the same promise. We will see Him. Someday, the whole world will see Him and bow down in worship before Him. The question for us is this: do we know Him today? Are we following Him in our lives now? Are we walking His path, or will we find ourselves missing Him, especially when He does something that doesn't fit our expectation?
Jesus was in the region of the Gerasenes. This was near the Decapolis, the Ten Cities, and was a predominantly Gentile area, though we can't tell from the story whether the man who was set free from the demons was a Jew or a Gentile. We only know that he had been possessed with many demons, legion was its name, and these demons caused the man to do horrific things. He was violent and was forced to live a solitary life among the dead.
In those days bodies were laid in tombs hewn from rock. These caves were often used by people who were outcast by society as a place to shelter. This man was living there when Jesus came into the region. The demons within the man cried out to Jesus, "What do I have to do with you, Jesus, you Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torment me!" The demons knew Jesus could send them to the abyss with a word. They pleaded with Jesus to have mercy and to send them into a herd of pigs. Jesus agreed, so when the demons left the man they entered the pigs which then ran off the cliff into the water.
Who else but God could do such a miraculous thing as command demons to leave a man? This should have been one of those events though which would cause many people to believe in Jesus. But they did not see this through the eyes of faith, but through their fear. A man, one of their own, was healed of the most horrific ailment but they did not care. When they heard what Jesus had done, they asked Him to leave. "I have revealed myself to a people that did not call my name. These Gentiles weren't looking for God, but Jesus showed Himself to them.
The man was the only one to believe. For him, the faith was personal and individual because there were no others with whom he could share this amazing experience. He asked Jesus if he could be a disciple, but Jesus sent him into the Decapolis to tell everyone what God had done for him. He was sent as an evangelist and all the people were amazed. People began to believe because of his witness and he was no longer alone in the world.
Despite the fact that Israel missed God, His salvation would still come to them. The words of Isaiah in today's Old Testament lesson speak of judgment, but they also speak of salvation. Despite their sin, God still saw the value in His people. They would suffer the consequences of their sin against Him, but He would not hold it against them forever. "As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one says, 'Don't destroy it, for a blessing is in it:' so will I do for my servants' sake, that I may not destroy them all. I will bring offspring out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains. My chosen will inherit it, and my servants will dwell there."
Out of Israel, God sent Jesus and Jesus brought mercy. He saved people, removed their demons and revealed the love of God to the world. He casts out our demons by His word and gives us faith to believe, then sends us out into the world to tell everyone what He has done. Through faith in Christ Jesus we are made one with Him and we become heirs to the Kingdom of God. Our response to this love is thanksgiving and praise together and through our witness the nations will believe. We can't do it alone. We need, most of all, God's help. And we need one another.
The people on that lakeshore were not ready to be saved. They still wanted to control their own world. They wanted to chase after their own gods. Yet, God reached out to them, offered them the same promise. He sent a messenger to prepare their hearts. He wouldn't be silent for them, too. The seed of Jacob was sent for the whole world. Faith is not a gift that is limited by borders: everyone is invited to trust in God.
The world hates Jesus and the world hates us because of Him. They'll tell you that they hate us because we are hateful, intolerant, delusional hypocrites and that they could believe in God as long as He fit into their box and followed their path. But we are called by God to continue to go out there and tell our story, to tell His story, to share His grace, so that they might see Him and believe.
Paul writes, "But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, confined for the faith which should afterwards be revealed." There was a before and an after. The Old Covenant was given to point us toward the New. The Law was given to guide God's people until the day when Christ would establish the New Covenant. In Christ we no longer live under the Law. We live under grace. Before Christ we were prisoners to the Law, but Jesus sets us free to live in faith. This freedom is given to all who believe, even those who were not born under the Law.
Paul writes, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." It didn’t matter who they were or where they came from. It didn't matter if they had a pedigree or a genealogy that went back to Father Abraham. Those that believe are adopted as sons, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We are not slaves to sin or death or the Law no matter who we are because we have been redeemed by God’s Son, Jesus Christ. By faith we are sons of Abraham and heirs to God's promises.
Sadly, one of the reasons why some people reject the church is because we spend so much of our time rejecting the faith of other Christians. We argue about Bible translations and worship music. We look at our neighbor's church and question the way they practice their faith. Don't get me wrong: some things truly matter. A Christian leader should never be an atheist. The question we must ask of our neighbors is this: do they trust God and believe in Jesus Christ. There may be differences in the way we practice our faith, even incompatible differences, but we should encourage one another even when we disagree to do the things God is calling us to do.
We are called to be disciples of Christ through faith, to go out and share our witness with the world. Our stories might be met with fear and doubt, but that's not our concern. We will be rejected and hated. We will be called names and we will be persecuted because we believe in Jesus Christ. If He was hated, how can we ever think we won't be? It isn't up to us to whitewash God's story to make it palatable to our neighbors, conforming to the world so that they won't hate us.
The Church may be an imperfect institution filled with imperfect people, but we are called into one body with a common purpose: to praise God and tell His story so that the whole world will repent and believe. We are imperfect; we will make mistakes. We will need to hear the warnings and the judgment from God. We will suffer the consequences of our sin against Him, but He will not hold it against us forever. Jesus saves us from our own demons, then He sends us out into the world to tell everyone about all He has done for us in His mercy. We are called to sing His praises so that the whole world will see. They will hate us and may reject God at first, but He will come to reveal Himself to them over and over again. May we always trust in Him, for He is the only One through whom salvation comes and it is through Him we are blessed.
"Yahweh executes righteous acts, and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the children of Israel. Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness. He will not always accuse; neither will he stay angry forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor repaid us for our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his loving kindness toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Like a father has compassion on his children, so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows how we are made. He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone. Its place remembers it no more. But Yahweh’s loving kindness is from everlasting to everlasting with those who fear him, his righteousness to children’s children; to those who keep his covenant, to those who remember to obey his precepts. Yahweh has established his throne in the heavens. His kingdom rules over all." Psalm 103:6-19, WEB
We worship a righteous and just God; He rules over everything. These words frame today's passage from the psalm, a song of praise of the love and mercy of God. It is sometimes hard to see justice in the way things happen in the world. It doesn't seem fair when a good person finds themselves overcome by troubles. It doesn't seem fair when there is pain and suffering. How can God allow these things to happen, particularly to those who serve Him with faith? This, however, assumes that troubled times are a punishment for unrighteousness.
Sadly, I've heard at least a few, from different religious points of view, suggest that the terrorist attack in Florida was a good thing and was a just punishment to people who lived wickedly. While I certainly stand with the traditional understanding of marriage and I support those who refuse to do work that goes against their conscience, I do not believe it is our place to condemn anyone. And God will never arm an evil person and send him into a nightclub to kill and injure more than a hundred people. God is righteous and He is just; we trust that in the end, whenever that will be, He will make things right. It isn't up to any human to decide when and where that should happen. It isn't up to us to see the troubled times of any person and assume God is proving our judgments against them.
We worship a righteous and just God; He rules over everything. The reality is that we are sinners. We all sin against God. We sin against our neighbors in every thought, word and deed by what we do and by what we do not do. We need God's mercy. And thankfully, God is merciful.
Listen to all the wonderful things that God has done. He has revealed Himself to His people. He is slow to anger and abundant in mercy. He does not accuse or stay angry forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins. He is more loving than we can even imagine, well beyond the limits of time and space. He forgives our sins and has compassion on us. He remembers our frailty, our imperfection, our mortality. But even though we are like grass, God gives us life that will last forever. His promises are eternal and will reach well beyond our lives to the generations that follow. He does this for those who love and fear Him, who trust and believe in Him. He does this for His people. He rules over our lives by His grace.
We are God's people and we live in a world that doesn't seem fair. Bad things will happen, both to those who believe and those who don't. However, we must remember that the bad things are never punishment from God, whether they happen to us or to others. Suffering is a part of living in this fallen and imperfect world. The difference between Christians and others is not that we are treated better by this God, but that we trust that our just and righteous God will make things right according to His Word. In the end we know that He rules over all and He will be faithful to His promises.
"I tell you, keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep seeking, and you will find. Keep knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he won’t give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he asks for an egg, he won’t give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" Luke 11:9-13, WEB
Father's day is a difficult time for many people. There are those, like me, who miss our fathers who died. Others miss their dads because they live far away and can't be with them to celebrate the special day. There are others who have or have had fathers that were not very fatherly. Some fathers are cruel, violent with words or actions or are simply never around. It is no wonder when you hear the stories of some children that they reject the idea of fatherhood. It makes it hard for them to see God in a loving light. They might answer that their father would give them a stone, a snake or scorpion, and sadly, there are some fathers that might.
Those stories are overpowering, but there are not nearly as many bad fathers at it seems. Oh, there are plenty of fathers who have failed at being fathers. As a matter of fact, they all have made mistakes. They work too hard and spend too little time with their children. They get angry. They deal with discipline with a much too harsh voice or hard hand. The bread is sometimes stale and the plate filled with food that makes us crinkle our noses. There isn't a child in the world who hasn't once said, "I hate you," to their father because he did something that made them angry.
That doesn't mean that we should hate our Father. Our fathers are imperfect because they are sinful human beings. They make mistakes because they are not perfect. For many people the worst day of their lives is the day they realize that their fathers are no superman, but that's the reality. That's the day we grow up. Sadly, those who experience the father that gives a stone, snake or scorpion grow up with hate in their hearts. That hate is transferred to less frightening figures, such as their own children or the God who put them in the position where they could be so hurt by someone they must trust.
Many people will celebrate their fathers this weekend, but we are reminded that there are some who will not be able to for one reason or another. The words in today's passage may be difficult for them to understand or believe, but we are called to be witnesses to the righteousness and faithfulness of God. They need Him; they need to know that God is a Father who can be trusted. They need to learn that the imperfections of man will always be overcome by the love and mercy of the God who is good. They need to see a Father who can give His Holy Spirit to those who seek hope and joy in this world. Let us share God the Father with all those who mourn, who are angry, who have rejected Him, because it is in His house they will truly find peace.
"Beloved, don't believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit who doesn’t confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God, and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, of whom you have heard that it comes. Now it is in the world already. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God listens to us. He who is not of God doesn’t listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error." 1 John 4:1-6, WEB
There's a meme that regularly makes the rounds that suggests a strange calendar occurrence of five Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in one month that only happens once every 823 years. The posts usually promise some sort of windfall of money. These memes are ridiculous; check an actual calendar and you'll discover that the very combination happens every time the first day of a thirty-one day month is a Friday. It can actually happen several times in a year! People see these posts and they are so amazed that they quickly repost only to appear foolish because not only is it not true, but they will never see the financial windfall promised. For your information, July 2016 will be one of those months, so don't fall for it when the postings begin to make their way onto your Facebook wall in a few weeks.
Now, there are times when calendar occurrences are really interesting. Today is one of those days. According to my weatherman, today is both the Summer Solstice and the Strawberry Moon. Strawberry Moon is the name given to the full moon during June. Nothing particularly amazing about it, but it is not as usual as you might expect for the full moon to happen on the day of the solstice. As a matter of fact, according to the report, those who are born today will not see the occurrence again until they are 46 years old. It is unlikely that any of us reading this today will see it again.
Beware: someone will realize this and decide that they should create a meme that will promise something spectacular because it is a particularly lucky day. There are even those who will slip in the idea that there will be a special blessing from God if only you share the post for your friends. Will I have a financial windfall because the seasonal and lunar calendars match? Will my love life get unexpectedly get better? Will my boss give me a promotion or my kids do something extraordinary. Will God do something special for me just because of the calendar or the heavenly bodies? No, and reposting someone's photo is not going to make it any more likely.
In the car on the way home from church yesterday, Bruce commented about the blinking turn signals of the cars lined up at a light and I answered with a similar observation. It occurred during a video from Vacation Bible School that showed children swinging on a swing set. There was, for a brief moment, a pattern to their swings but that quickly went away as the children were swinging a different rates. I said that if they let the video run long enough, the pattern would eventually reappear. Then I wondered if this was an example of entropy or ectropy.
The two words are not quite opposites, as entropy is the measure of disorder in a system and ectropy is the increase of order. I really don't know much about physics, so character Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory" would probably tell me that I have it all wrong. Yet, we often think in terms of whether or not things are getting more ordered or less. Astrophysicists ask whether the galaxy is spinning in or out. Philosophers ponder whether the world is becoming more ordered or less. Theologians my wonder if we are moving closer to God or father away. It all gets muddled when we try to rely on things that simply don't really make a difference.
It is fun to think about these things, but I don't think it is a good idea to share these memes for others to get caught up in promises that will not be fulfilled. I'm always a little surprised when I see one of these reposts by a Christian who says, "It can't hurt to try!" in the hope of getting that windfall. But we should never look to the calendar or the heavens for our blessings. Only God can truly bless us and He doesn't do so based on the seasons or the days. These posts may not be evil, but they can turn us away from God. How much better would it be to simply post words of God's grace, to help our neighbors look to Him for hope, peace and joy, the true blessings of this world.
"Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think reasonably, as God has apportioned to each person a measure of faith." Romans 2:1-3, WEB
Charles Dickens once said, "Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts."
Never is a very long time. We often talk about the eternal character of God's promises, and we can't imagine what eternity will be like. As a matter of fact, we who like to be entertained can't imagine a forever that is filled with constant and unrelenting worship of God. We can barely make it through an hour long worship service, how will we ever do it forever?
We are also taken aback by the idea of never. "Never say never" we say because we know there are circumstances that may require us to do the very thing we say we never want to do. We usually speak of never in terms of things we do not want to do. One of my best examples has to do with a store I used to shop. I had a bad experience there, and since the store has been disappointing several times in the past I said, "I will never shop there." I have shopped there since that great proclamation because there are just times when that store is the best place to find something I need. There's another store that adds charges onto their credit card bill without notifying the customers, and though I rarely go to that store these days, I do manage to stop in once in a while. Never say never.
Charles Dickens' statement here is hard. Sad to say, but if you hurt me too many times, my heart will harden toward you. I am not a person with a bad temper, but I screamed at the cat yesterday for doing something that cats do. The third is perhaps the hardest because sometimes even a healing touch hurts.
The thing to remember is that we are human, fallible, imperfect people. We are sinners in need of a Savior. The point is that while we will, for one reason or another, not be able to live up to the "nevers" of our lives, but we can try. We can be humble, seek forgiveness and experience the transforming grace of God. We all go through times when we want to change. We make resolutions that we never keep. We try to break bad habits. "Never again!" we wildly proclaim, but we often fail.
We may find it difficult to have a heart that never hardens, but we can constantly work toward it by remembering God's forgiveness and by living according to His word by forgiving those who have hurt us. Forgiveness softens the hardest of hearts. We may find it difficult to hold our tempers, but remembering God's mercy will help us to be merciful. We will definitely find it difficult to touch without ever hurting because human flesh is very tender. Even the lightest touch can leave a mark. But that should not stop us from reaching out to others, to touch their hearts and their spirits with God's grace.
Perhaps we should never say never, but as Christians we are called to a life of presenting ourselves to God as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. He has given us a measure of faith through which He transforms us and renews us according to His Word. By His grace we can work through these difficult expectations, growing toward being the people God has created and renewed us to be. We will fail while we live in flesh, but with each failure comes the forgiveness and mercy that helps us to become people who please God and be all He wants us to be.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 26, 2016, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Kings 19:9b-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
"I, even I only, am left..." 1 Kings 19:14
Have you ever felt like you were alone in the world? Have you watched your Facebook timeline and wondered if you were the only person left with any common sense? Have you seen the hot new reality show, heard the buzz around the water cooler and wondered if you were the only one who thought it was the most ridiculous thing you'd ever seen? Have you read the hot new book put out by that prolific Christian author and wondered if you were the only one who still understands what the bible really means?
Have you faced an enemy and thought you were alone in the battle? Have you been lonely and thought you had no friends? Have you been challenged by a crisis and thought that there was no one to walk with you through it?
Have you ever said, "I, even I only, am left..."?
It is easy to think that we are alone in the world, especially when everyone else seems to have their paths paved so differently. After Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal, he ran away into the mountains out of fear for his life. He really thought he was all alone, that there were none who still believed God. He even felt abandoned by God. "I was so zealous for you!" he cries, "So why am I in such danger? Can't they see that I was right about you?"
I doubt that any of us have defeated a multitude of pagan prophets lately, but I'm certain that we've stood up for something we believe and experienced the rejected of those who don't believe. Post something controversial on Facebook and you are likely to get at least a few detractors. Even if there is only one, the disagreement will be the response that will stands out. You can get twenty "amens" and one "you've got to be kidding me" and you'll feel like you are all alone because we have this tendency to focus on the bad making us blind to the reality that we aren't really alone.
It is easy to become exhausted when you feel the weight of the world is on your shoulders. It is also easy to run away when you think that what you are doing is not worth your time or energy. We think that we are the only ones who care. We think that we are the only ones willing to do anything. We think we are all alone. And that’s when we burn out. That is when we give up. That's what happened to Elijah.
Elijah wasn't alone, was he? He ran into the mountains after one of the most extraordinary experiences of any of God's people. He had proven that his God was God above all other gods. How many of us can do anything like it? There are some days I can barely convince myself that God is with me. We pray for the healing of a friend or family member and they die anyway. I pray for the hurricane to dissipate and it hits our town. We pray for the right job or spouse, for joy and peace, for a world without suffering and we don't get the answers we want. We feel hopeless and helpless and alone.
Elijah was just having a pity party, that his attitude was selfish and self-centered, but don't we all have our own moments of melancholy and hopelessness. We wonder what we are doing wrong. We get frustrated because we know we can't do it alone. When we don't get the answers we expect, we wonder if we are hearing God's voice correctly. "Is this really what God intends in His word and my calling?" We see no way of making things better. We might as well just hide in a cave and let the world come to an end without us. It is easy to give up and give in. Why should we fight if it seems as though God isn't fighting with us? If God were fighting, wouldn't He be winning?
The problem is, we can't see as clearly as God. God was winning. As a matter of fact, God won the battle that was waged against the false gods in Elijah's time. God had a plan, and He sent Elijah off with a promise. "You aren't alone."
"Yet I reserved seven thousand in Israel, all the knees of which have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth which has not kissed him." We think that there are no others who think as we think or see as we see. We think we are alone, but is that really true? When your Facebook timeline is filled with memes or articles that don't make sense, do you assume that everyone is against you? And do you think, "I have been so zealous for you, Lord, but you don't seem to be winning this war!"
There's a story about a man who felt God was calling him to push against a huge boulder in his yard. Day after day he pushed and shoved but the boulder never moved. People made fun of him. He eventually felt defeated. One day he turned to God and asked, "Why have you called me to this pointless task that I can't accomplish? I have failed." God answered, "Look how you have changed in all this time. You are stronger, wiser, and ready for whatever will come next. I didn't call you to move the rock, but to push against it. You were faithful and obedient. Now that you have done this, I will move the rock."
We become discouraged because we don't see the outcome we expect, but we don't know what outcome God intends. We feel alone because we doubt that God is working through us when we don't seem to accomplish the task. Elijah proved God was greater than the false gods, but still people didn't believe. It is no wonder he ran off to the mountains and begged to be finished! We understand Elijah's point of view. We might not be upset because enemies are trying to kill us, but our own little corner of the world can fall apart in so many ways: relationships, work, and health. We do not understand how God can abandon us when we are so passionate about doing His work.
The problem is that we usually want to accomplish something we deem valuable. Like the man with the boulder, we expect there to be an outcome that changes the world. Like Elijah, we expect everyone to believe because of what we have done. God reminds us in this week's lessons that He is the one who accomplishes these things. He will move the rock. He will set things right. He will save those who are lost.
We think we are alone, and so when we fail we think the work will never get done. But God reminds us that He is with us and that there are others who still believe.
James and John wanted to prove God's power, just as Elijah did. James and John, otherwise known as the "Sons of Thunder" for their quick tempers, asked Jesus if He wanted them to call fire down on the village. They were certainly zealous about the work they were doing with and for the Lord.
The Samaritans were enemies of the Jews, half-breeds because they had intermingled with Gentiles through marriage. They did not worship in Jerusalem as did the Jews. Yet, despite the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus had mercy on them. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus used the Samaritan as the example of the good neighbor. Jesus treated the woman at the well with compassion and revealed Himself to her there. Yet, the Samaritans did not receive Jesus or His disciples because they were Jews. The disciples went to the village, but they were sent away and they wanted to respond with power. There is power that comes from being a follower of Christ, yet Jesus does not give us that power to bring harm to people. Instead, we are called to be merciful and filled with grace.
Today's lesson continues with three different call stories. In the first encounter, a man tells Jesus that he will follow Jesus wherever He goes. Jesus answers, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." We don't know how the man received that piece of news, but in context it is probable that it disappointed him. What about the call of Christ makes us question whether or not we should follow Jesus?
Jesus said to the second man, "Follow me." He answered that he wanted to bury his father first. Now, this seems like a plausible reason to postpone following Jesus, but it is likely that the man's father was not yet dead. In other words, the man was telling Jesus, "I'll be glad to join you when my life circumstances change." Unfortunately, we often put off following Jesus until a better time. Jesus answered, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead, but you go and announce God's Kingdom." How often do we push aside the work of God's kingdom to do what we think we should do first?
A third man tells Jesus, "I want to follow you, Lord, but first..." In this case, the man just wants to say good-bye to his family. Jesus says, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for God's Kingdom." Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel?
The cost of following Jesus is heavy. It means giving up everything including the family ties and the work we have think we have to do. It is easy to find excuses to put off the work of the kingdom, but Jesus is not willing to accept excuses. He was on His way to the cross. Time was short and there was too much left to do. Those who were not truly committed, faithful and obedient would never survive the next test. They would be the ones to fall under the pressure of the crucifixion. They would not have the strength or courage to wait until the resurrection.
Faithfulness and obedience do not mean that we will accomplish what we think we are supposed to accomplish. Faithfulness and obedience is doing what God calls us to do, even if it seems pointless. Faithless and obedience means trusting God even when it seems like we have failed. The men in today's Gospel lesson may have wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus knew that the cost was too high for half-hearted commitment. Following Jesus requires the whole self. No one whose mind or heart is divided, or whose flesh will quickly fall to selfish desires, will be able to stand up against the pressure and persecution that comes against us because we serve God.
Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Are we willing to give up our pity parties and go where God is leading us, no matter what we will face on that path?
Paul writes, "Now the deeds of the flesh are obvious, which are: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these; of which I forewarn you, even as I also forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit God's Kingdom." We are called to help our neighbors live so that they will inherit eternal life.
Imagine how Jesus’ followers must have felt at this point in His story. He was doing good work among them. For them, it was more than enough. After all, they were eating well, being healed, and hearing good stories. They knew that a trip to Jerusalem was dangerous for Jesus. They certainly heard the threats against Jesus' life and ministry. Why go to where they want to kill you? Jesus, unlike Elijah, knew that His purpose lie in the city. He would not turn left or right, but would head straight into the hands of his enemies. The plan was right. His death was vital. He couldn't stay hidden among friends when God was sending Him to be slaughtered.
Yet the disciples, like Elijah and all the rest of us, wanted to take matters into their own hands.
The works of the flesh as listed by Paul are part of the old life that we must leave behind. At times these are quite easy to recognize and yet sometimes we do not even realize we are sinning against God with our works. It is easy to see idolatry when the god we are worshipping is a stone figurine. It is not so easy when our idols are our philosophical points of view. We are just like those men on the road to Jerusalem with an easy excuse like "now is not the time," or "let me take care of something first."
The life God expects from us looks so much different. Paul writes, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law." The works of the flesh destroy. The works of the Spirit shine God's light. It is hard work, and we might be called to do some things that we simply do not want to do. We might be called to do something that just doesn't make sense or seem to accomplish anything. We might be called to face an enemy. But God calls us to be filled with faith, trusting that He knows what He is doing.
Paul reminds us to stand firm in the Gospel so that we will not be burdened by our sinful flesh. That includes the self-centered and selfish pity parties we like to have when we feel like God is sending us into a mean and hurtful world. We seek the freedom to pursue our desires and yet it is our desires that keep us in bondage. James and John had the power to call down fire on the Samaritan village, and yet their desire to do so was keeping them in bondage to their anger and hatred. Standing firm in the Gospel means that we won't give excuses when God calls us to His service.
In Christ we are freed from this world to serve others in love and mercy. The cost of discipleship is great. It means letting go of the past and putting God first. It means moving on even when we think we have failed and trusting that God will accomplish His work in His way and in His time. It means living in freedom from our flesh for the sake of others, loving as God loves us.
David wrote in today's psalm, "Their sorrows shall be multiplied who give gifts to another god." While our gods might not require our blood, they do tempt us to set God aside while we pursue the desires of our flesh. David continued, "I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved." We may think we are all alone in this world, persecuted by those who hate us and rejected by those we have been called to serve. However, we are not alone for God is with us and He has promised that there are others called to do His work, too.
God sees what we will never see, knows what we can never know, and He is faithful. That's enough to give us the strength to go on and continue doing what He has called us to do. In the end, God will not fail; His purpose will be accomplished.
"So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure." Philippians 2:12-13, WEB
I have to laugh at myself sometime. I have several online games that I enjoy playing and I have to admit that I'm a bit competitive. I like to have the high score on the leaderboard and I have been known to play it in excess just to be there. One game has weekly high scores and an all-time high score. I did well at having the all-time high score for a long time, even joking with one friend about how I will always stay ahead of her. Then I friended another person who plays the game who is, apparently, even more competitive than me. The other week I managed to beat her all-time high score and within hours she had beat mine.
There's another game with hundreds of levels. I've been playing that game longer than any of my friends and so I am well beyond them in the game. I'm so far ahead that when I run out of levels, I go back and replay the ones my other friends have played to better my score. I went way back to the first levels and I was surprised to see how low I was on the leaderboard. Everyone who came after me managed to get better scores on those levels. I have to admit that I've replayed some of those levels.
It made me think about records and those who come after the greats. The say records are made to be broken and it happens all the time. Basketball players that are still considered the best in their sport have lost their records to younger players. Peggy Fleming was one of the best ice skaters of all time, but she would never have even considered doing some of the flips, jumps and spins of today's competitors. Runners are faster than their predecessors. The previous records give new competitors a goal and they work to beat it. Everyone wants to be the best.
When it comes down to it, we even want to better our God. Oh, we know we are not better than God; we act humble and meek before God's throne. Yet, we often do the very things that show our hearts on the matter. We try to be good. We believe the good works we do are enough to make us right before God. We credit ourselves with our humility, confident at His feet that He will find us good enough because we are kneeling before Him. It seems as if that humility is a sign of our righteousness to us. Yet the very fact that we humbly approach the throne of grace without trembling is a sign of our own conceit. We will never be good enough; even the best of us cannot approach God without fear.
John Calvin writes, "This is the truth. Awakened consciences, when the have to do with God's judgment, recognize [God's mercy] as the only safe haven in which they can securely breathe. For if the stars, which seem so very bright at night, lose their brilliance in the sight of the sun, what do we think will happen even to the rarest innocence of man when it is compared to God's purity?"
There will always be someone who follows us who will get the better score or set the better record. The thing for us to remember is that we will never be better than God. No matter how good we are, no matter how faithful we are to God's Word, no matter how gracious we are to our neighbors, no matter how innocent we appear before the throne of grace, we will never be good enough. When we do face God's judgment, let us not do so with self-righteous humility but with fear and trembling because it is only in God's mercy that we'll find peace.
"I love Yahweh, because he listens to my voice, and my cries for mercy. Because he has turned his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. The cords of death surrounded me, the pains of Sheol got a hold of me. I found trouble and sorrow. Then I called on Yahweh’s name: "Yahweh, I beg you, deliver my soul." Yahweh is Gracious and righteous. Yes, our God is merciful. Yahweh preserves the simple. I was brought low, and he saved me. Return to your rest, my soul, for Yahweh has dealt bountifully with you. For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before Yahweh in the land of the living. I believed, therefore I said, "I was greatly afflicted." I said in my haste, "All men are liars." What will I give to Yahweh for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call on Yahweh's name. I will pay my vows to Yahweh, yes, in the presence of all his people. Precious in Yahweh's sight is the death of his saints. Yahweh, truly I am your servant. I am your servant, the son of your servant. You have freed me from my chains. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call on Yahweh's name. I will pay my vows to Yahweh, yes, in the presence of all his people, in the courts of Yahweh's house, in the middle of you, Jerusalem. Praise Yah!" Psalm 116, WEB
What is a saint? On the one hand, we think of the saints as those who have been given the distinction throughout the history of the church for being particularly faithful or holy. As a matter of fact, the definition of saint is, "a person acknowledged as holy or virtuous and typically regarded as being in heaven after death." On the other hand, we understand that we are saints by faith, cleansed by the blood of Christ and dressed in His righteousness.
We think of saints as a New Testament thing, but the word saint is found repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms. You see in today's passage that the death of God's saints is precious in His sight. In the Hebrew, the word often translated "saint" is one referring to God's people, those who are, or should be, faithful to Him. Saints are God's people, and He watches over them, even unto death.
Yesterday we talked about how none of us, even the most faithful and gracious and innocent will never be good enough to stand before God's throne with confidence. Even our humility can't stand up to the purity and majesty of God because we talk of it with a tone of self-righteousness. We need God; His judgment will destroy us, but His mercy gives us life. It is Jesus Christ who stands before the judgment seat in our stead and He takes for us the wrath we deserve and grants us the grace we don't.
We are saints and God watches over us even unto death. We are God's people, made so by the blood of Jesus Christ, by the faith He has given and by God's mercy. The psalmist praises God and sings of His gracious blessings on those who are faithful to Him. While we can't, by our own ability, stand before Him, we can, by His power, walk in His ways. But we cry out to Him with fear and trembling and He hears us. He saves us and then transforms us so that our life reflects that which God has done for us. As such, we are called to a life of faithfulness, offering sacrifices of thanksgiving and trusting in Him for all we need. Our songs of thanksgiving glorify Him before the saints and all the world.
"Moses said to the children of Israel, "Behold, Yahweh has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of workmanship; and to make skillful works, to work in gold, in silver, in brass, in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all kinds of skillful workmanship. He has put in his heart that he may teach, both he, and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with wisdom of heart, to work all kinds of workmanship, of the engraver, of the skillful workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of those who do any workmanship, and of those who make skillful works." Exodus 35:30-35, WEB
I went to the art museum with a friend on Friday to view an exhibition on loan from Roberta and Richard Huber, New York collectors who focused on colonial South American art, particularly those of a religious nature. The exhibit includes more than a hundred pieces including paintings and sculpture, as well as silver and furniture. The exhibit is divided into several areas including art of the archangels, the saints and Mary. Most of the work was created in Spain or Portugal, by both famous and not so well-known artists, and sent to the colonies in South America to help promote and teach the Christian faith.
Katherine Luber, The Kelso Director of San Antonio Museum of Art had this to say about the exhibit: "A central component of our mission is to examine and communicate the historic and cultural contexts of artworks, along with the objects themselves. Highest Heaven is an exciting opportunity to not only investigate the aesthetic beauty of this art, but also the significant role that it played in the cultural, religious, and social lives of these peoples." The pieces of art were once made to share the faith and teach the lessons and they continue to do so today as they are displayed during this tour.
It is interesting to look at religious art because so much of it is set within the time period of the artist. It is peculiar to see Jesus healing someone with a gothic cathedral looming over a village in the background. It is strange to see Him standing among people wearing eighteenth century clothing. One painting showed Jesus healing the blind man with a crowd surrounding Him. They were all well dressed in the clothes of the elite of the artist's day, but Jesus and His disciples were in the robes typical of ancient Israel, although more brightly colored than we might expect. It was almost as if Jesus and His disciples had time traveled to that period.
There's one painting that shows a sweet familiar scene with Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus stopping to rest on their journey to Egypt. The scene is set in what appears to be the lush vegetation and herons of South America alongside a river. The picture shows Mary, sporting a delightful Bolivian hat and huge beaded earrings, busily doing some laundry in a wooden bowl while Joseph cuddles with Baby Jesus. There is a village in the background made of buildings more likely found in eighteenth century Bolivia than first century Middle East.
One of my favorite paintings in the collection is an eighteenth century painting called "Christ Crucified by Adoring Saints" which was painting to be used by the Jesuits to teach the stories of the saints. My friend and I spent a long time trying to identify at least a few of the fifty or so saints at the foot of the cross. Some were obvious, like Peter who is holding keys. Others are less so, especially since neither of us are familiar with the iconography of the saints. I've done some research and had some help, but I'm still unsure about the identity of at least half the saints on the painting. I'm sure it was much easier for the students who actually used this teaching tool, but I wish that someone had given me a legend so I could learn, too.
The thing about it is this: the painting set me on a course of discovery about people of faith. Even though I can't answer all the questions, I have learned a few things. I've learned about some of the iconography which will come in handy when I see other art. Knowing the symbols of the saints helps us to know their stories. Their stories help us to see examples of ways we can serve God and live according to His Word in this world.
One of the information cards read: The Catholic Church [both in Europe and the colonies] was the main patron of the arts, supporting works that promoted orthodoxy and told stories of human creation, clashes between good and evil, heaven and hell, the life of Jesus and the saints who lived to spread the Gospel and often died as exemplars of Christ." When I read that I thought about art and the church today. I don't think that the church supports the arts as it once did and that today's Christian art does not do what it once did.
Oh, we see the talents of artists in the church through the architecture, worship implements and decorations. There are Christian artists who create beautiful works used in our bulletins. Art is definitely still a part of our Christian experience, but do we create work that tells the stories of Jesus and the saints in a way contemporary people can learn and understand? Most modern art seems to be supported outside the church and is often anti-Christian. Should we not be patrons of those who can and will tell the story of Christ in paint and sculpture? Sadly, most professional Christian artists must create secular work just to survive.
Today's lesson from Exodus shows us that God supported the arts from the very beginning. He called and gifted certain people to do the work of making the Tabernacle and later the Temple a beautiful place to worship. His design for these places central to the religious life of His people had a story to tell. It pointed to the coming of the true Temple, our Lord Jesus Christ. It taught the people what they will see when He came. It taught the people about His grace and mercy. Are we willing to create a place within our churches that will continue to support those whom God has called and gifted to do the same for us today? Are we willing to give them what they need so that they can produce the works that will continue to promote orthodoxy and tell the stories of God so that the world can see and learn and believe?
"Jesus came therefore again to Cana of Galilee, where he made the water into wine. There was a certain nobleman whose son was sick at Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, he went to him, and begged him that he would come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Jesus therefore said to him, 'Unless you see signs and wonders, you will in no way believe.' The nobleman said to him, 'Sir, come down before my child dies.' Jesus said to him, 'Go your way. Your son lives.' The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way. As he was now going down, his servants met him and reported, saying 'Your child lives!' So he inquired of them the hour when he began to get better. They said therefore to him, 'Yesterday at the seventh hour, the fever left him.' So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, 'Your son lives.' He believed, as did his whole house." John 4:26-53, WEB
The Gospels tell us dozens of stories about the healing work of Jesus Christ. The stories are sometimes repeated, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, but Jesus' healing was not limited to those stories. The stories serve a purpose, to tell us about Jesus so that we'll see God's hand in His. They teach us lessons of faith and God's mercy. While there are a number of specific stories, each of the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus healed many. There are times when the people crowd around Jesus seeking His healing touch. John writes, "There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn't have room for the books that would be written."
Faith is always a part of the healing process. As a matter of fact, Mark tells us that Jesus could do nothing in Nazareth. "He could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people, and healed them. He marveled because of their unbelief." They didn't believe because they knew Jesus when He was a boy and they just couldn't accept that He was anything other than they expected of Him. The bottom line is that faith matters. We must believe to be healed.
What does that mean, however? What does it mean to believe? I believe, but there are times that I experience doubt and uncertainty. I've prayed for healing believing that God can do it, but the prayers were not answered as I hoped. Did I really believe? It is easy for us to ask these questions. We should also ask whether or not we are praying the right prayers. We talked about healing in our Sunday school class yesterday and while we all truly want to be healed in our flesh, we must remember that the ultimate healing will actually come after death. The ultimate healing for those who believe will be resurrection and eternal life.
Yet, we live in this world as long as God has ordained and during the days of our live we want to be well and strong. God invites us to pray our prayers in faith, to seek Him for His grace and mercy. He welcomes us to the foot of His throne, the Mercy Seat, where He will answer our prayers. Sometimes our prayers will be answered as we hope. Sometimes they will be answered with a command to wait. Sometimes God will say "No," but when He does there is always something even better waiting for us. Even when the answer is not as we hope, we are called to have faith.
The nobleman believed. At first he simply believed Jesus' word. Jesus told him his son was well and he said, "Ok, thanks," and went home which was a long distance from where he met Jesus. He came across some of his people along the way. "You son is well!" they said. He asked when the boy's sickness turned around, and it happened at the moment that Jesus told him that he would be. He and his whole household believed. The faith that came after he saw Jesus' words fulfilled was different. It was more. He didn't just believe Jesus' words, he believed in Jesus.
That's the kind of faith we are called to have. Yes, we believe Jesus' words when He said He can heal, but the life of faith we are called to live is one of faith in Jesus. It is powerful to have faith that God can and will heal, especially the ultimate healing of resurrection and eternal life. Yet, it is even more powerful to have Jesus as the object of our faith, because believing in Jesus gives us a peace that we won't find even in the answers to our prayers.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 3, 2016, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18; Luke 10:1-20
"But into whatever city you enter, and they don't receive you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust from your city that clings to us, we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that God's Kingdom has come near to you.'" Luke 10:10-11
The disciples were out there doing something new, not only within their own experiences but also to the community. They were preaching a message that was built upon that which they knew, but it was different. There was talk of forgiveness and grace. It was a message for the whole world. At this point, however, it was given to the Jews.
Now, the Jews had been hearing this message for thousands of years, although the forgiveness and grace was getting lost in the law. We often see the Old Testament as something very different than the New, and that grace came with Jesus Christ. While we know that the Old Testament stories point to the promise of the Messiah which was fulfilled in Jesus, too many reject God as He is revealed in the Old Testament because He seems too harsh and demanding. They say that the God they worship is a God of love not wrath. They don't want a God that is not what they want Him to be. What they don't realize is that if He is not the God who demands justice and righteousness, then we'd have no need for Jesus. See, the wrath that is demanded by a just and righteous God was poured out upon Jesus so that we can have the forgiveness and grace that He promised throughout the Old Testament.
God hasn't changed. What has changed is that Jesus paid the price and we receive the benefit. We are saved by His blood. This was the promise that was given to God's people for thousands of years and was fulfilled in Jesus. The Old Testament people -- the patriarchs, the judges, the kings and the prophets -- all pointed to the coming of the Messiah. They planted the seeds of faith into God's people. They spoke about the promise to come. Those seeds had been growing in the hearts of God's people even as the weeds of misunderstanding were developing. It was time to harvest those first fruits when Jesus came.
The seeds of faith were taking root; we see it in the crowds who followed Jesus. There were many who believed, although some of Jesus' lessons were hard. In the end they were not ready for the cross. They were not ready to see the answer to their prayers hung from the tree and they abandoned Him in that moment, and yet those seeds eventually grew and the people truly began to believe. The stories of the early church show us that people were coming to faith as entire families and villages. Three thousand were added to their numbers at Pentecost! And more believed daily from then until today.
At the point of today's Gospel lesson, however, the crowd following Jesus was much smaller. He was having an impact. The twelve believed and left everything to follow. Seventy were sent out to share the Gospel message in today's lesson. The field was ripe! Jesus was just one man and could not possibly speak to every single person in whom the seeds of faith had been planted. He needed help, so he sent the disciples into the town and gave them the power to do what He had been doing. "There is so much to do and so few of you to do it." They were sent to reap the harvest that had been planted for all those thousands of years.
We are just part of the process. Seeds are planted. Faith grows. People are saved. The Word transforms. We might be the one to plant the seeds, to help nourish and water the faith, to help other believers grow into the people God has called them to be. We are blessed to rejoice with them as they are adopted by our Father and become our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are part of this process, partners with God in the Gospel; even so, the workers are still few because the work is very, very hard.
Jesus said, "But into whatever city you enter, and they don't receive you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust from your city that clings to us, we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that God’s Kingdom has come near to you." The message of God's nearness is meant for everyone. Unfortunately, too many of us are too timid when it comes to sharing that message. We are afraid. We don't want to offend; we don't want to be rejected. We would rather live out our Christian faith quietly and privately, doing good deeds and letting God deal with hearts. It is His job to change those hearts, but He has chosen us to help. He has sent us to reap the harvest, to bring His people to His throne to worship with the rest of the Church. We can't do that if we are too timid.
It is so much easier to just do those good deeds. It is easier to work at a soup kitchen or pray for those who are ill. It is easier to set up a homeless shelter or collect clothes for the poor. It is easier to do things for others in the hope that our good works will bring them to faith. "They'll see our love and they will believe." We forget that they can't believe if they do not hear the Word. It is not enough to deal with the physical needs of those to whom we are sent; we have to speak the Gospel. And the Gospel is more than just "God loves you."
We might think that if we just do a few acts of kindness then they will listen to what we have to say, but Jesus knew that it is not true. Look at His ministry! How often did Jesus do incredible things only to be rejected and persecuted? People even credited Satan when He cast demons out of a man. The works do not make people believe. They followed because of the works, but when He spoke they rejected Him. They did not want to hear the truth of what He was saying.
And the truth is that if you believe in Him, Jesus Christ, you will be saved. This is the promise we need to speak.
This is a hard message in our world that treats diversity as a gospel. The Universalist message has crept too deeply into the thinking of too many churches and Christians. We have come to accept the idea that there are many paths to salvation, that we all believe in the same god and that Jesus is just one of many paths. Too many believe that as long as we do good things, treat our neighbors with love and take care of their physical needs, then we will be saved. We teach this idea that the God of the New Testament is just about love and mercy and hide the Old Testament God of wrath who demands justice and righteousness. Yet, in doing so, we make Jesus insignificant.
We rejoice when we see the good works accomplishing something in the world. "Look what we did! We started this ministry. We served a huge number of people. We changed the world." But how many of those that we reached really believe. When we begin speaking the truth of Jesus Christ, how many of them really receive Him? When we begin speaking the hard words, that Jesus is the only Way, Truth and Life, do they respond with repentance or do they walk away?
There might be a cross on the wall and a bible on the bookshelf, but if the people we serve walk out with full bellies and no more knowledge of the saving grace of God's forgiveness then we have not really done God's Work. We don't want to tell people they are sinners; some would say we can't tell people they are sinners. There is no reason to talk about forgiveness if the Gospel is about changing the world by our good works. But Jesus reminds us, "Rejoice that your names are written in heaven." Our mission, then, is to help others find their names written in that book. That will only happen if they believe in Jesus.
Jesus said, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you." Good works were done in those places. As a matter of fact, in Luke 9 Jesus fed five thousand. That alone should have caused the whole town to follow Jesus, but did it? No, because the message that followed was too hard for them to bear. We have to leave behind the comforts of life, our homes and our families. We have to reject the world to follow Him.
It is no wonder that the laborers are few.
We may not be sent into the world in the same way Jesus sent those disciples, but we are called to take the message that the Kingdom of God is near into the world in which we live. God is doing the work and we are encouraged to trust in Him. We must remember that it isn't our message we are taking, but God's message. If He is prepared to be rejected because of it, why do we think that we can convince people with our works to make them believe?
If they do listen to us, they are listening to God. If they reject us, they are not really rejecting us, they are rejecting Him. We should not take their rejection personally. We get so excited when we have success in our ministry, just like the disciples. But when they returned, excited about the work they had been doing, Jesus turned around their thinking: rejoice in the work God is doing in their lives. God has indeed given us the gifts to bring transformation and reconciliation to the world, but we do not have the right to boast in our accomplishments, but only in the cross of Christ.
Instead of voicing our joy over our good works or exhibiting pride in our accomplishments, it would do us well to sing with the psalmist our praise for God. "Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing to the glory of his name! Offer glory and praise! Tell God, 'How awesome are your deeds! Through the greatness of your power, your enemies submit themselves to you. All the earth will worship you, and will sing to you; they will sing to your name.' Selah. Come, and see God's deeds -- awesome work on behalf of the children of men. He turned the sea into dry land. They went through the river on foot. There, we rejoiced in him. He rules by his might forever. His eyes watch the nations. Don't let the rebellious rise up against him. Selah."
The Jews were constantly reminded of God's grace as they remembered the works of the past. They looked back to the Exodus over and over again in their worship and in their calendar. Their feasts and festivals pointed back to what God did in those days, proving to the world that He is indeed God. As they also looked forward to the promises to come, they knew that God could do everything and that He was faithful because of what He had done in the past. As we can see in the Psalm today, the Exodus is acknowledged as the center of the Jewish faith and the foundation of their life as a people. In remembrance of the Exodus, despite the current circumstances, they can rejoice because God's word is true.
We don't look to the Exodus for our faith, but we have the Gospel stories to give us confidence to live in God's promises. His good work on the cross, which began with the incarnation of Jesus and ended with His resurrection from the dead is the center of our faith and the foundation of the Church. Jesus willingly accepted the wrath of God so we can benefit from the mercy of God. By His grace we have become part of a kingdom, not like the nation of Israel, but a family of people living in hope and peace together. Living as one, we are called to work together to harvest that which has grown where God's seeds have been planted.
There is plenty of work for us to do, and He is sending us out into the world to proclaim that He is near. With pen in hand, He's ready to write more names in that book. Are we ready to call our neighbors to repentance and to share the message of forgiveness found in the blood of Jesus Christ? It won't be easy. As a matter of fact, it will be hard. We will face times of suffering and pain, rejection and persecution. Jesus did, why wouldn't we?
In today's Old Testament lesson, Isaiah reminds the people to rejoice in Jerusalem whether they see success or suffering. Whatever the circumstances, they are encouraged to rejoice. This is a call to trust in God's promises, knowing that whatever happens God will be faithful. We may think that we are failing every time we have to kick the dust off our shoes, but God has everything under control. We may experience rejection and persecution, but God will make all things right according to His promise.
One of the problems with celebrating our success is that we are then tempted to compare ourselves to others. When we turn our attention on ourselves, we take it off God. We also tend to focus in on the faults of our neighbors and use their difficulties to bring praise to ourselves. In today's epistle, Paul warned about this very problem. "For if a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself."
Paul tells us that we should help our fellow Christians through their difficult times. When a brother or sister in Christ sins, we are called to teach them the truth in love and gentleness. He warns us to be careful, because it is so easy for us to fall to the temptation to use and abuse our brethren who are fallen, to condemn them because they aren't living up to our expectations. We are to preach the Gospel and leave judgment to God, for He is the perfect judge of all. After all, we deserve His judgment, too.
Paul goes on to say that we will reap what we sow; when we condemn others, we will be examined even more closely. Can our works stand up to the scrutiny of God? Are we spotless? Do we focus our attention on ourselves; is the spotlight on our works? Or are we rejoicing in what God has done? Paul writes, "But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." The successes of our Christian lives and ministries do not give us reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice because our names are written in the book of life. No matter what happens in this life, good or bad, there is hope because God is faithful.
The Israelites were disappointed because their hope rested in a strong, safe home and all they found was destruction. Isaiah called them to look forward to the day when God's promises would be fulfilled. The disciples thought the hope was found in their ability to overcome the devil, yet that was very shortsighted. They would never overcome the devil; life in this world would be filled with persecution and ultimately death. It might seem as though the devil always wins in the end. Yet we know that Jesus Christ beat the devil and by His grace we are saved.
Today's psalm was sung by someone who knew God's saving grace. The protection He offers is not always for our flesh. Sometimes we will suffer hunger and thirst, and even death, for the sake of His kingdom, but we can rest assured that He will guard our souls. "Praise our God, you peoples! Make the sound of his praise heard, who preserves our life among the living, and doesn’t allow our feet to be moved."
Sadly, I think we are all guilty of taking pride in what we do, pride in who we are, pride in what we think makes us different, perhaps even better, than our neighbor. That's why it is so important that we stay in fellowship with other Christians. Paul encourages us to help one another keep our focus where it belongs. "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." We are not to compare ourselves to others, thus establishing our own greatness, but we are to help each other grow in faith.
Good works may sow greatness, while the message that God's kingdom is near may only bring persecution. We'd rather work toward greatness than experience the rejection of the world. We justify our choices by insisting that the world will love us and God if we take care of them, but even with full bellies and healed bodies, the world will still reject the forgiveness and salvation that He offers.
This is not to say that we should not be helpful. After all, God does call us to love and serve others, including our enemies. The warning is that we remember our priorities. What is our mission? What is the goal? Who are we called to serve? We are called to serve God, to tell the world that His Kingdom is near. Sometimes that means that we'll share a loaf of bread and sometimes it means that we'll wipe the dust off our feet as we leave them with the promise that the Kingdom of God is near.
The key is keeping God in focus. What is He doing in this place? As we keep our priorities in line with His will, His work will be done. We should never weary of doing good, as Paul tells us, but as we do so let us always remember that the harvest we are reaping is for our Father. We are called to share the Good News, whether they receive or reject us, that the Kingdom of God has been near. Who knows, those very words might plant that seed that will grow for a future laborer to harvest. It is all in God's hands.
The successes of our Christian lives do not give us reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice that our names are written in His book. Our mission as we are sent out into the world as laborers in God's field is to help others find their names there, too. Whether we succeed or fail, we can trust that God will accomplish His work in and through us according to His good and perfect will.
"This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that you may approve the things that are excellent; that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God." Philippians 1:9-11, WEB
I'm reading a science fiction/fantasy series right now. I would almost call it historical fantasy. The history, geography and people are completely made up, but there are definite parallels to real times, places and people. I would put George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" into this category. It is interesting because these stories all seem to take place in a European type setting, with the same sorts of wars, intrigues and influences. You can almost say, "That's what happened in fifteenth-century England."
And yet, there is enough about these stories to make them fiction. This particular series by Jeff Wheeler revolves around a sort of religion that includes magic; certain people are blessed with special gifts from "the Fountain" which they can use for good or for bad. They can manipulate people, read their weaknesses, see into the future and even heal dis-ease. These gifts are used, and abused, to gain power and control events. Those who use them for good do so for the sake of the people; those who use them for bad do so for the sake of their own power and position. There are all sorts of twists and turns in this type of story as we discover the truth about people's loyalties and purposes.
Isn't it amazing how so much of that lines up to the reality of our Christian lives? We, too, are blessed with certain gifts, each of us according to God's will and purpose for our lives. We are given these gifts to benefit God's people and the world, and yet we are just as tempted to use them for our own sakes. We like power and position. We like to be in control, especially of our own lives. We easily justify our use by claiming that we do so to glorify God and accomplish His work, but it is all too easy to wander from that path as we find ourselves believing that the means are ok as long as the ends are right, but we lose sight of what is right when we justify using any means.
In a scene during which one of the 'fountain blessed' discovers her gifts, her teacher tells her that she will find her strength in her passions. "Find what you love to do, a task that is not a chore but a joy. You will build your power by doing those things. One of the 'fountain blessed' gets his power from touching a knife at his side and striking fear in the hearts of children. Another gets his power by playing a game like chess and reading books. These activities fill them with something that makes them more able to use their gifts. As you can see, not all the 'fountain blessed' are righteous.
The religion in this fantasy book is not real, but I think there's something we can take from this story for our own Christian lives. Where do we get our strength? Where do we get our power to use our gifts? We get them from spending time with our Father through prayer, bible study and worship. We are best able to use our gifts when we do so through our passions. Do we love to paint? Then we should paint to glorify God. Do we love to cook? Then let us use our cooking skills to feed those who are hungry. Do we love to add numbers? Then let us use that passion for the sake of others. Yes, an accountant can serve God as an accountant.
Sadly, we too often lose sight of our passion as we get caught up in the ordinariness of our daily work. Even worse is when we are blocked from doing what we are called to do by people and circumstances that want us to walk a different path. While we should listen to those around us who are helping us to use our gifts to the glory of God, there are always some who want to use our gifts for their benefit. They don't see the bigger picture; they don't understand God's plan. So, they push us toward their goal.
I think the hardest thing for us to do as a Christian is to discern God's will for our lives. It is bad enough trying to work our way through the challenges of finding a career that will support all our needs, including happiness, but when we add to that the challenge of fulfilling God's will for our lives, it is near impossible. How do we know what God wants from us? We can have gut feelings or follow our passions, but what happens when we follow our faith and then it goes all wonky on us? What happens when we think we are doing exactly what God wants but then we don't? What happens when the ministry is accomplishing good in the world and then suddenly it isn't?
I know a person who has been doing great things in her job, a perfect job for her and the answer to all her prayers, but she has suddenly been faced with an office full of people who want her to go in an entirely different direction, abandoning the work that has been, and still is, her passion. She's even afraid that they will soon tell her that it is over, that they are canceling her program. She has trusted that this was God's will, but she is now filled with doubts because all earthly support has disappeared. She's exhausted, frustrated and afraid and she doubts everything including the discernment process. I've counseled her to find joy in where she is now and to trust in God, but those words can sound a bit cliche when it seems like your world is falling apart.
The best we can do is to feed our passion which is not our gifts or a particular job, but is God Himself. Through prayer, bible study and worship we will constantly fill ourselves with Him so that we will trust and follow wherever He leads. Nothing lasts forever, including the perfect job that uses our gifts in great ways. There comes a time when we have done all we can do and we have to move on. This doesn't mean that our original discernment was wrong, but discernment is an ongoing process. Once we accomplish our purpose in a time or place, God has something new waiting for us. The hard part is that we don't always see what God has done and so we often feel like we've failed.
We just have to trust and live in the joy of knowing God is faithful. Wherever we are, whether it is exactly where God wants us to be or in transition to a new place, let us always do everything to His glory. As long as we continue to listen for God's voice, even if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, He will be with us. As long as we continue to seek our passion, our God, we will be led according to His good and perfect will, accomplishing His work even when it seems like we are failing.