Welcome to the March 2010 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, March 2010
March 1, 2010
“They that fashion a graven image are all of them vanity; and the things that they delight in shall not profit; and their own witnesses see not, nor know: that they may be put to shame. Who hath fashioned a god, or molten an image that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his fellows shall be put to shame; and the workmen, they are of men: let them all be gathered together, let them stand up; they shall fear, they shall be put to shame together. The smith maketh an axe, and worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with his strong arm: yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth; he drinketh no water, and is faint. The carpenter stretcheth out a line; he marketh it out with a pencil; he shapeth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compasses, and shapeth it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the holm-tree and the oak, and strengtheneth for himself one among the trees of the forest: he planteth a fir-tree, and the rain doth nourish it. Then shall it be for a man to burn; and he taketh thereof, and warmeth himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread: yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied; yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire. And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image; he falleth down unto it and worshippeth, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me; for thou art my god. They know not, neither do they consider: for he hath shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand. And none calleth to mind, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree? He feedeth on ashes; a deceived heart hath turned him aside; and he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?” Isaiah 44:9-20, ASV
When I was in college, I had an art class in which I created a series of pictures using cut paper. The subject was giraffes, and the colors used were complementary. Complementary colors are those that are opposite each other on a color wheel. Red and green are complements. Yellow and purple are also complements. My pictures happened to use orange and blue. Using complementary colors creates a sort of tension, a contrast that attracts the eye. This is why complementary colors are often used in advertisement. In the case of my art pieces, the colors used were vibrant, and the pictures seemed to move and vibrate.
I made four pieces using two sheets of paper. The giraffe heads were carefully cut out from each piece of paper so that I could use both the positive and the negative shapes. In other words, the form of the head with the spots and facial features cut out created one picture and the cut-outs created another. The paper was glued to a mat board of the complementary color and then matted with the original. In the end I had a blue giraffe on orange and an orange giraffe on blue, then two pictures that had the facial features and spots. The viewer’s eyes were drawn into the pieces by the colors and then moved around and between the pieces by the mind’s desire to understand what it is seeing.
I really enjoyed this project, but I never thought the outcome was anything extraordinary. These pictures were, however, the only things I have (to this day) sold to a gallery. I happened to be at a friend’s house one day when I got into a conversation with a friend of hers, a gallery owner, about art. My portfolio was in the car at the time, and he asked if I would show it to him. I didn’t know at the time that he owned a gallery; I was simply talking to a friend of a friend. When we were through, he offered me several hundred dollars for the giraffe pictures. I thought he was crazy, but took him up on the offer, and then found out he owns a gallery. I don’t know whatever happened to those pictures. I don’t know if he kept them for himself or if he sold them to someone else. I don’t know whether he kindly overpaid me for the pieces or if he took advantage of my ignorance. But I can hold in that memory the reality that I sold several pieces of art to a gallery.
I give away most of my art as gifts to my friends and family, but I’ve managed to sell a piece or two over the years. I like to take my things to craft fairs, although they can be frustrating and disappointing. The success of any craft fair is not necessarily dependent on the quality or quantity of your products, but on the desires of the fickle public. Most people who attend craft fairs are looking for today’s hot item rather than the unique items created by an artist or crafter doing his or her own thing. If you are lucky, you’ll get a customer or two who are looking for something unusual, but those are few and far between. In other words, I can’t attend a craft fair and expect to become rich. I’m not likely to find that gallery owner wandering through the booths looking for the next great artist. I try not to be disappointed in the outcome of a craft fair, knowing it was never a sure thing.
I would love to make money with my art, what artist wouldn’t? Perhaps someday I will create something that others will find worthy. I’ve been trying to find my style and I have recently come up with some pieces that I think are terrific. Would they catch the eye of a gallery owner, like those early pieces? I don’t know, but I’m not going to rest my future on anything I make.
I think that’s what today’s passage is all about. We can talk about false gods: we certainly have enough in this world. And perhaps there are those who might trust in their own creations for safety, security and hope. But God through reminds us that graven images are not able to do anything for us. Should we reject creativity and ignore artistic gifts? I don’t think so. I don’t think the problem here is that the carpenter created something beautiful. They problem is that the carpenter thought that the beautiful idol would save him. How can something that can be destroyed so easily accomplish the things that God can accomplish for us? After all, that wood is only different from firewood because of an artist’s touch. Can a created thing be greater than the creator?
“Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, from within him shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believed on him were to receive: for the Spirit was not yet given; because Jesus was not yet glorified.” John 7:37-39, ASV
Reports are saying that this year will be a spectacular year for the wildflowers here in Texas. After two years of drought, we have finally been getting substantial rainfall. Fortunately, it has not rained enough to cause dangerous floods, just the typical flash flooding that occurs during storms. The dry creek beds have filled, but the water has quickly disappeared as it has soaked into the parched earth. The rain means that the trees will have a good growth year, as well as other plants. Unfortunately, it has also meant the weeds are in their full splendor and the allergens are attacking almost everyone.
It is possible for us to get enough rain in just a day or two, if conditions are perfect, to overcome years of drought. This is not a good thing, because so much rain means overflowing riverbeds and dangerous driving conditions. What has been ideal this year, however, is that the rain is not coming all at once. Every few days we get just enough rain to fill the dry creeks and water the grass. Meanwhile, the water is slowing making its way into the aquifers from which we get our life-giving water.
During the storms, the dry creek beds seem to be raging rivers. Soon after the rain stops, the water flows more slowly, until the running water is not visible. There is often still water in the holes and gullies of those creeks, especially when the ground is saturated. I’ve noticed a green scum has been growing on some of those puddles. When the water stops moving, it is easy for it to become stagnant. I doubt that anyone would go into those creek beds to get their water for the day, but it is definitely a bad idea once plant life begins to grow on the surface. If those puddles stay too long, insects like mosquitoes will begin to breed. But it is amazing how quickly the green disappears when it begins raining again. Flowing water stays cleaner and fresher than water that is stuck in one place.
Seeing that green scum on the puddles made me think about our relationship with the Living Water which is Jesus. All too many of us are like those puddles left behind after a good soaking rain. We are filled with good things when we are drenched in the word and the sacraments. In those times, we are passionate about our faith, excited about the opportunities of God and ready to do His will in the world. But we don’t always keep it up. We slip out of bible study, forget to say our prayers, miss a worship service or two, and then we become stagnant. It is easy in those lean times for the scum to begin to grow, becoming clean again only with a fresh flood of God.
The Holy Spirit fills our lives with good things: faith, gifts, hope, and peace. Yet, we can become like those stagnant pools of water left behind after a storm if we do not keep ourselves immersed in God. We do this through prayer, Bible Study, worship with fellow Christians and doing good works in His name. If we keep moving, seeking, striving in God’s grace, the scum has no place to settle and it is washed away. Now, our moving, seeking and striving will not earn us anything of value, for God has given us everything according to His will and purpose, through grace. But once we have these gifts, we are called to keep it fresh and new so that God’s living water might benefit our neighbors and the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 7, 2010, Third Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 1-9.
“My soul followeth hard after thee: Thy right hand upholdeth me.” Psalm 63:8
I enjoy watching the magicians Penn and Teller do what they do. I especially like their show because they reveal their secrets. Now, there are those who don’t like the way they do magic because they believe that Penn and Teller take the mystery out of it. And yet, even with explanations there are still questions about how they managed their tricks.
Take, for instance, the first trick I ever saw them do. They were on Saturday Night Live doing what seemed like a ridiculously simple trick. They were making tissue ‘ghosts’ fly. Eventually the ‘ghosts’ were flying up so fast that it seemed like it must be impossible. Through the entire five minute act, the camera was showing Penn and Teller in close-up, but at the end it pulled back so that we could see the entire scene. It was then we realized that Penn and Teller were hanging upside down. The picture had been turned so that it appeared they were right side up. The ‘flying ghosts’ were just hanging from their fingers by invisible threats. When the ghosts shot up in the air, they were actually falling down to the stage.
Now, this might not seem like it is very magical. After all, the magic was just an illusion and camera trick. This might be disappointing until you realize that these men managed to hang upside down for five minutes without appearing to hang upside down. I don’t know about you, but you can usually tell when I am upside down. My hair hangs down, the blood rushes to my face. My breathing is changed. I suspect if we looked closely, we’d find other signs that I’m not upright, like sagging skin The length of time a person can hang upside down is dependent on a lot of things, including their health, but even the healthiest people show signs after a few minutes. Taking into account the fact that they had to be in place long before the cameras rolled, means they were there even longer than the five minutes we witnessed the act.
So, despite the fact that the ‘tricks’ were really just tricks, there is still a sense of mystery to their act. They might show the audience how they accomplish all their tricks, but even then the viewer is left with questions. We know how they did it, but we still ask ourselves, “How did they do that?”
The same thing happens sometimes when we read the scriptures. We understand what is being said, we know that God is doing what God does, we know that God is able to do the impossible, and yet we still ask, “How did He do that?”
In today’s Old Testament lesson, God, speaking through Isaiah says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” It is pretty incredible that we are invited into the presence of God to feast on all the good things He has to offer. But we still ask ourselves, “How do we buy these good things without money?” We live in a market driven society where everything is bought and sold with cash or credit. We don’t even have much bartering going on these days. Paper or plastic refers to more than the bags we use to take home our purchases. It refers to the way we pay for everything.
So, when someone suggests that we buy something without money, we wonder how that can be. How can we buy something without a transfer of money? Even if we were talking about a bartered exchange something would pass both ways. How can something bought be free? Isn’t that a gift? And don’t we learn that the good things of God are gifts? Why would He use the language of the marketplace for a promise? Perhaps he is using a different sort of language in this passage. “To buy” can also mean “to accept or believe” in slang. It seems just as odd for God to be using slang as it is that He might use market language. We want God to be formal, to be holy, to be wise. “Don’t buy it” seems so informal, so ordinary.
But then, the choices we have to make in this passage seem very informal and ordinary. In the Message version of this text, Eugene Peterson translated verse two this way, “Why do you spend your money on junk food, your hard-earned cash on cotton candy? Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best, fill yourself with only the finest.” He is speaking to us as we might speak to teenagers getting their first shot at independence. “Be careful what you choose. There’s a lot of exciting things out there, but remember that you can get a healthy, tasty meal at home. Why spend your money on McDonald’s when you can have steak for free?”
But it is hard for teenagers to see beyond their reality. It is more fun to go to McDonald’s with their friends than to stay home with Mom and Dad and siblings. It is more exciting to chow down on junk food in the company of peers than to hang around with family. We aren’t much different as we mature; the source of our desires just changes. We think that it is better to go out and buy all the things we want rather than settle for the gifts that are given. So, God approaches us with this language we understand. “Come buy what I have to offer,” He says, inviting us into His presence. It is an invitation to enjoy the good things of life rather than purchase the things that are not so good for us.
We understand this, but it is still hard for us to understand. We see the world, and God’s grace, through very limited lenses. We want God to fit into our own little box, to act as we expect Him to act. We want His promises to meet our desires and satisfy our ways of accomplishing things. But we are reminded that God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. We might think we know the best way to accomplish good things in this world, but God knows far more. We might think we understand God, but there is also mystery to all that He does.
So, He makes it pretty easy even though we don’t fully understand. “Believe me,” He says. “Buy what I have to give. Accept the grace that has been given to you. Seek me, while I can be found.”
This last one is especially hard to hear because we think we have all the time in the world. Teenagers have this idea that they are invincible. I suppose that’s why they think they can eat McDonald’s three times a day while adults know that the fat and calories are not good for the body. Adults have seen the reality of our numbered days. Yet, when it comes to things of the Spirit, we aren’t much different than those teenagers. We still think we have tomorrow. We still think we can wait. So, we don’t like to hear that there might come a time when we might not find God. We put off repentance because we know He’s just waiting patiently behind us. So, we continue to buy all those things that perish, thinking that God will always be right there. We forget that we don’t know what tomorrow holds. He will be there, but will we?
Jesus talks about two separate incidents where the people were taken suddenly from this life. In the first, some of the crowd brought up a well-known story of the day of pilgrims to Jerusalem that had probably been killed by Pilate in the Temple, their blood mixing with the blood of their sacrifices. The people thought that those who died must be guilty and so they suffered for their sin. Jesus answers, “Think ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish.”
He then reminds them of another story of some people killed when a tower collapsed. Jesus asks, “Did they die because they were worse than anyone else?” Of course not; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But their story is important for us to hear. We could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We could fall prey to a power wielding ruler who knows no bounds. We could be standing under a tower about to collapse. We could be in a car accident. We could get sick. We could lose everything because the world around us is falling apart. We don’t know what tomorrow might hold.
But Jesus calls us to repentance. “Buy what I have to offer, this free gift, so that you will not die the way they did.” Oh, you might still die, but at least you’ll have the life He has promised. He is calling the people to turn now, to not wait until it is too late. Tomorrow might be too late. God is patient and longsuffering. God is willing to give second and third and fourth chances. But as we hear in the second story in today’s Gospel lesson, a day will come when God won’t wait any longer.
In the parable, Jesus talked about a fig tree that was not producing. This tree is not bearing fruit and the landowner is ready to let it go. We might think that he is unmerciful because the tree is only three years old; however it was probably more like six years. He would not have even looked for fruit until after the third year. That is when it should have started to bear fruit. At six years the fig tree has been a waste of time, land and resources. This unfruitful tree is stealing the nutrients from the trees that can produce. The gardener begged the landowner for one more year with a promise to work with the tree to try to get it to produce.
Jesus is that gardener. He keeps asking God for a little bit more time. He keeps working to make us better, to nourish us and to help us to bear fruit. But the day will come when it is too late. So, He calls for us to repent today. “Repent now, so that you will not perish.”
Paul addresses the same problem with the Corinthians. He reminds them of the Israelites, who wandered for forty years in the wilderness until God was ready to allow them into the Promised Land. In that forty years, a whole generation of people perished, so that only those who had not rejected Him at Sinai were allowed to receive the promise. They were not patient when Moses went up the mountain to receive God’s Word, and they quickly turned back to the only thing they knew: the gods of Egypt. Even as they wandered in the wilderness, they considered whether or not it would be worth returning to slavery to avoid the suffering they were experiencing. Paul tells us that those things happened to be an example to us today, they were written down to teach us.
Paul reminds them that they have reached the ends of the ages, and yet we know that the world has not yet come to an end. Yet, it is still written for us, for we have also reached this time, which is still the ends of the ages. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. We may think we can interpret the scriptures and set a date, but we don’t know. Even if the end of everything is a hundred or five hundred years away, we still don’t know when our last day will come. Now is the time to stand firm in what we have learned and what we know to be true. Now is the time to “buy” God’s grace. Now is the time to believe and accept what He has done and what He continues to do in our lives.
Even if we discover we are in a time of suffering, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we can still stand firm in God’s promises. God is faithful. That is probably the most beautiful statement in the scriptures. Oh, I like “God is love,” too. But, “God is faithful” has so much more power and assurance. What is love? How is love demonstrated? These can be open to interpretation. But “God is faithful” means one thing: He is true to His promises. He is with us now and always, and He is the way out of our troubles. Now is the time to turn to Him.
We aren’t any different than the Israelites in the desert, the pilgrims caught up in a political battle in the Temple, the people who happened to be in the wrong place underneath that tower as it collapsed. We aren’t any different than those teenagers who think they can eat all the junk food that they want. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We have all been tested in the same ways, and we all fall short. But God is faithful, but the time is short. This is a mystery we can not fully understand, because God’s ways are higher than our ways. So, we stand in between the now and not yet, and even while we will fail we are called to live as He would have us live: eating that which is good and denying ourselves that which is junk.
The hard scriptures we read during Lent help us to face our own difficulties—our temptations, our fear, our doubt, our greed and our grief. We are forced to see our sinfulness, but we are also given a glimpse of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We know that even while we are journeying with Jesus in the wilderness that He is on the way to the cross to pay our debt.
And as Jesus calls us to repentance, we can live in the reality that our God is faithful. The psalmist sings, “O God, thou art my God; earnestly will I seek thee: My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee, In a dry and weary land, where no water is.” In the Old Testament lesson, God offers us all the wine and milk we can drink, without cost. We, like the psalmist, are thirsty for the good things of life. So, we are invited to respond with the same joy and praise. And as we live the life we are called to live through faith in Jesus Christ, we will see that the free gifts of God are far better than anything we can buy. His rich feasts are more filling than any junk food. The shadow of His wings is safer than any human dwelling place. And so, we cling to our God, through thick and thin, through good and bad. We cling to the One who can and will get us through anything we may face. This we know and understand, even while it is a mystery to us.
“And they were bringing unto him little children, that he should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein. And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.” Mark 10:13-16, ASV
I rode a carousel today. And I played in water. And I rode a train. And I played in sand. It was a fun morning. I was attending a volunteer training at a new park that is opening in San Antonio, and we were given the chance to enjoy some of the activities while we learned about the job we would do when we volunteered at the park. Morgan’s Wonderland is not an ordinary park. It is a park specially designed to meet the needs of disabled children and adults.
One success story from Morgan’s Wonderland is about a young man who had never been able to play on a swing. It is a simple task for most of us: you sit and swing your legs. But it is impossible for those bound to a wheel chair to balance and hang on. Some parks do provide special swings with seats that meet the needs of some children. But as a wheelchair bound child gets older, and larger, it is very difficult for a caregiver to transfer them from the chair to the swing. The young man in this story had just one wish: to ride a swing. Morgan’s wonderland has swings for wheelchair bound people. The wheelchair is wheeled onto a metal platform that is held up by heavy chains. The chair is then strapped sturdy and the ramps are folded up to help secure the chair onto the swing. The platform hangs a few inches above the ground, far enough so that the whole apparatus can swing. That young man’s wish was fulfilled. And he was happy.
We who can enjoy the rides at a theme park complain because we have to stand in line for an hour to have the chance, but we never realize that there are those who will never be able to ride those same rides. I love to ride a carousel, but I have to admit that at times it is a little frightening to climb up onto one of those horses (or animals, I had a leopard) and hang on as the carousel circles round and round and the animal bobs up and down. How much worse must it be for those who have fears we can never understand?
I have, at times, chosen to ride on the bench rather than try to get up onto one of the horses. While it is still fun to go round and round, it is not quite the same experience. This carousel was unusual, however. Instead of a bench that was attached to the roundtable, the bench was attached to posts that move up and down. The carousel was unusual in another way. Have you ever seen a carousel with enough room for a wheelchair? This carousel has two sections that look like the benches on a regular carousel, but it is large enough to fit a wheelchair. One of the sides swings out, so that the chair can be pushed in and out. There is a bench in the back so that a caregiver can fit inside. This section rises and falls like the horses, so that the people inside can have the full experience.
Our job as volunteers is to have fun. We are meant to be a welcoming presence for the visitors, to offer a friendly smile and a helping hand. But most of all, we are to play. If we are stationed near the water area, we are to get wet. If we are near the sandbox, we are to dig holes. If we are near the music garden, we are to play music. It doesn’t seem like a very grown-up job, but it isn’t meant to be. Sometimes we need to see the world through innocent, child-like eyes.
Victoria has a college class during which they have regular times of free-play. She has told us about how much fun she had playing with play-dough and an etch-a-sketch. I joke about how I’m paying high tuition costs for that playtime, but I understand the purpose. It is about creativity. It is about letting go of the constrained adult attitudes. It is about letting the imagination take over for a little while.
Jesus not only welcomed the little children; He also invited us to be like them. Now, the scripture for today is a statement about receiving the gift of faith with the innocence and willingness of a child. Children are not jaded by the realities of life in this world. They are not caught up in personal opinions or confined to long held ideologies. They believe. It is that simple. But I realized today, as I watched some of the visitors playing in a place created just for them: child-like faith is also about having fun. It is about swinging on the swing and getting wet in the water park. It is about delighting in a carousel. It is about not being so serious, if only for a brief time. It is ok to play and swing and laugh once in awhile. It is in that state of joy we have when we are at play that we really know what it is like to live as children in the Kingdom of our Father.
“And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, and said, Ye men of Athens, in all things, I perceive that ye are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you. The God that made the world and all things therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is he served by men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and he made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain even of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man. The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent: inasmuch as he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” Acts 17:22-31, ASV
Zack plays golf for his high school. Now, the high school does not have its own golf course, so they have to go off campus to practice. They leave the building during the last period of the day and practice until about 5:00, sometimes later if they actually play on the course. I have been running kids to the golf course all year. They have been going to the same course for a few months, which is located in a large community near the school. We have to drive through the neighborhoods to get to the course, which is cozily tucked away in the middle of the development.
We’ve take then same road for months, but for some reason Zack noticed something odd about it yesterday. There is a yellow dividing line for some of the road, but then it suddenly disappears. He is getting ready to begin driver’s education, so he has been very observant lately when it comes to driving and the automobile laws. He pays attention to everything I do, asks questions and points out when he notices something about other drivers, both good and bad. He wants to understand the road signs, the traffic patterns and other aspects of driving. So, it was curious to him why the yellow line would suddenly disappear.
As it turns out, the yellow line disappears at the boundary of two cities. The dividing line runs straight through the middle of this community. Each city has its own practices and policies. One city feels that a yellow line is necessary on that particular road, and the other doesn’t, despite the fact that the road conditions are identical from one block to the next. I’m sure this happens anywhere two boundaries come together, and we’ve all experienced the difference in highways from one state to another. As a matter of fact, we constantly joke about how dramatic the change is going into Pennsylvania, I don’t think it even matters which highway you are on. Pennsylvania roads are terrible!
But as we were driving from one city to another, basically just crossing a street, I commented to Zack about how strange it is that next door neighbors would be from different cities. The differences can be astounding. The cost of utilities, taxes and insurance can be higher or lower from one city to another. Can you imagine paying 10% more just for living twenty feet to the east? And what if city services are better in one city than the other? Obviously one city is willing to paint lines on the road and the other isn’t. What else is being ignored? Or, if the lines are really unnecessary, how else is that city wasting the citizens’ tax dollars?
What is most fascinating is that this boundary between cities not only runs through the middle of a housing development. It also cuts a shopping mall in two. As a matter of fact, the line runs straight through the middle of a Starbucks. This probably would not matter very much except the city boundary divides the store into two separate tax payers. The cash register in the drive-thru lane is in one city and the cash register in the store is in the other. I can’t imagine how complicated the paperwork must be for the managers. All this trouble is because an invisible line that just happens to be twenty feet too far in one direction.
Boundaries have a place in our world. As a matter of fact, the passage from Acts shows us that God established the borders for His people. We build fences and walls not necessarily to keep people out, but to define our space and establish our authority. How can a city know which roads to pave or person know their address if there are not established boundaries? How can people understand which authority to follow if there are no borders to define the nations? And yet, we are reminded that the boundaries we establish can not define the Kingdom of God. We may think we can confine Him to the places or things we have delineated, but it is God who lays the foundations of our world. As God’s children, we live by faith in the world God created, knowing that even if the boundaries of men are confusing and complicated, we are free to dwell in God’s presence wherever we are.
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” James 1:16-17, ASV
We have a joke in our house. When someone decides that they want to change clothes, to get into something more comfortable after church, or something clean after a sweaty or messy activity, they say, “I’m going up to change.” We answer, “Don’t change too much. We like you the way you are.” Of course, we don’t necessarily like the clothes they are wearing, especially if they are dirty and smelly, but we do love them just the way they are.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for all of us to change. We all have aspects of our lives that are less than perfect. We have habits that could be broken, attitudes that could be transformed. We should be constantly growing and maturing and becoming more striving for the perfection that God intends for His people. Will we make it in this life? No, I’m certain none of us will ever be perfect in this world. We will be sinners in need of a Savior until the day Christ fulfills everything. Until then, we are saints journeying toward the Promised Land.
Change is a good thing, but it is not the supreme aim. Change for the sake of change is not worthwhile. It doesn’t work. We’ve all heard that when something is ‘broken’ we have to ‘do something about it.’ The first impulse is to change. Change might just be what is necessary, but it isn’t helpful to just make random changes without considering the consequences of those changes. It also isn’t helpful to say, “But we have never done it that way.” So, what do we do? We consider the problem, not only from our point of view, but from the point of view of those who think differently. After all, there are always those who have the opposing opinion, for good reasons.
Gabriel the angel took good news to two people in the birth story of Jesus. He told Zechariah that he would be a father, and he told Mary that she would be a mother. Both answered with the same question, “How?” They were facing the same ridiculous news and they both questioned the words of the angel. But Zechariah asked from an attitude of doubt, and Mary asked out of curiosity. They received the news from different points of view: one wanted proof and the other wanted understanding. Some may look at change as good news, but it isn’t always good news for everyone.
We should not assume that when someone says, “We’ve never done it this way” that they are rejecting the idea. Some, like Zechariah, will doubt. But others will ask with the curiosity of Mary, “How will this be?” Instead of immediately brushing off those who question change, let us consider that they may simply wish to understand how the change will happen and how it will make a difference. Why are we doing this? Are we changing for the sake of change, do we understand the consequences and have we considered all the possibilities first?
Deanna Christensen is a co-director for Cross Trails Ministry, a Lutheran church outdoor ministry here in Texas. She spoke recently about questions. She said that during camp she hears one question more than others, and that question is “Why.” The kids want to know the “why” about everything from why they have to get up in the morning to why God loves them. Deanna also said that the most common answer to questions is “Jesus.” It doesn’t matter what question is asked, someone will say the answer is “Jesus.” So, when we ask “Why,” the answer might just be “Jesus.”
We might be tempted to approach every question of the doubters and the curious with the answer, “Jesus.” But He’s not always directly the answer. Take, for example, the question of whether we should change the church carpeting from red to blue. When someone says, “We’ve never done it that way before,” they might just mean “why.” Can we really answer, “Jesus”? Surely Jesus does not care what color our carpeting is. But, we can ask, will this change glorify God? Does this change build the church or does it destroy Christ’s body? Does this encourage Christians or does it make some stumble?
As we face the possibility of change, let us remember to approach it from the reality that God doesn’t change and all we have is from Him. We may like things the way they are, or we may feel that things need to change, but let us remember that change is not the supreme aim of everything we do. Glorifying God is our purpose. Change can be good and change can be bad. So, let us not change things for the sake of change, but discover what changes glorify God and help us to grow in faith, working together to do what is right and true.
“Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him: because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” 1 John 3:16-20, ASV
We can’t earn the love of God. We can’t do anything that will make Him bless us. We have no control in the realm of faith. It is all about God and what God has done. We are helpless. This reality does not stop us from trying, however. We spend a lot of time and energy doing good deeds that we think might make a difference. We hope those deeds will get our names written into the book of life. But the reason God encourages us to do good deeds has nothing to do with our salvation. He doesn’t require it. Once we are saved, once we believe in the promise of grace, there is nothing that can change what God has done.
But that doesn’t mean we can sit around doing nothing. The incredible gift of God’s grace gives us the courage, strength and desire to change the world. When we live according to the faith that God has given to us, we can’t see our brother in need and not make a difference. Once our name is written in that book, we see the world from God’s eyes, naturally responding with His grace with the good deeds that will glorify God. In other words, we don’t have to do good deeds, but God fills us with the grace that helps us see the opportunities to share God’s love with others.
John asks, “How do we know we belong to God’s truth?” We are assured of our salvation when God’s love flows from our life. God’s love flows from our life in response to the needs of our neighbors. So, good deeds don’t save us, our faith causes us to do good deeds. But we also continue to sin. We fail. We make mistakes. We miss the opportunities God sends our way. We forget who we are, and we forget whose we are. And then we remember and our hearts burn with sadness at our failure. That’s faith responding, too. God no longer condemns us, but when grace flows through our veins, we can’t help but hurt when our failure hurts others. Yet, we need not dwell in that hurt. God is greater than our failure. He’s more powerful than our self-condemnation.
Today, remember you are God’s beloved and that He has given you all that you need to live the life of faith in this world. Watch, respond, share. Don’t do this to ensure your place in God’s kingdom, but know that you’ll have the assurance that even when you fail, God’s grace is sure. He knows. He knows our good and our bad, our ups and our downs. And He loves us. He loved us so much that He sent Jesus to be the ultimate sacrifice. We will never have to die on the cross for our neighbors, but there’s a million ways we can make the world a better place for them.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 14, 2010, Fourth Sunday in Lent: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” Joshua 5:9b, ASV
When God made the covenant with Abram, which we read several weeks ago, He said, “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.” While Abram was given the promise of the Promised Land, slavery and four hundred years of waiting was what Abram and his offspring received that day because the Amorites had not yet become sinful enough. God was patient with the people of Canaan, but in the meantime His chosen people suffered. This was a disgrace.
Abraham believed the promise. Abraham continued to believe the promise even when it took more than thirteen years for Isaac to be born (Ishmael was thirteen years older then Isaac.) Abraham continued to believe the promise even when it was not fulfilled when Sarah died thirty-seven years after Isaac’s birth. He believed until his dying day, at one hundred and seventy-five years. That is a long time to wait: more than a normal human lifetime in our day. We can barely wait a few days for the weekend or a few weeks for a special occasion. Can you imagine waiting a dozen years, a half century or four hundred years for a promise to be fulfilled?
Now, God’s people continued to live according to His word in Egypt. They continued to be circumcised and they cried out to God in the midst of their suffering. They listened to Moses and followed him out of Egypt and to Mt. Sinai. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the patience of Abraham. Moses was only on the mountain for forty days and they turned from the God who delivered them out of bondage. They created a golden calf and turned back to the rituals and worship they knew in Egypt. Despite the promise of God and the miraculous escape, they weren’t patient enough to wait a few more days to receive what they’d waited four hundred years to be fulfilled.
And so, they would wait another forty years. God’s response to their lack of faith was to send them wandering in the wilderness. The generation that turned from Him would not see the fulfillment of the promises. They would not enter the Promised Land. And so they set out together, although they did not do so with complete trust. They complained, they argued, they thought about turning around and returning to the place of comfort, Egypt, despite the suffering they’d experienced there. It is easier to live in slavery than to go forth into uncertainty in faith. This, too, was a disgrace.
They weren’t prepared for those forty years of wandering, and so God provided. He gave them manna to eat. He provided water for them to drink. He took care of them, despite their grumbling. And when the final person from that wicked generation passed from life into death, He took them into the Promised Land. During those years they did not uphold the covenant. They did not circumcise. They did not remember the Passover. Israel was following Moses who was leading by God’s hand, but the relationship between God and His people was broken. But in today’s Old Testament passage, we see Israel restored to her God.
The manna in the wilderness was God’s means of grace: to keep them alive while they were apart from Him. In Joshua we see the Israelites finally being restored to the covenant relationship with their God. The Israelites were circumcised, the required sign of the covenant between God and Abraham’s offspring. They could not continue further into the Promised Land without being reconciled with Him. He would accompany them, and they would be His hands in dealing with the sins of the people of Canaan.
God said to Joshua, “This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” The NRSV uses the word “disgrace” instead of reproach. This statement can be understood two ways. First, we can see the four hundred years of slavery and waiting as a disgrace, but the day the people entered into the Promised Land those days of suffering were left behind. The promise was fulfilled, and the pain was in the past. Their brokenness was no more: they were reconciled to the God of their forefathers. Grace overcame disgrace.
This puts God at fault for their suffering, and while this might be a difficult thing for us to understand, it is important for us to consider. Not that we blame God for our suffering, but that we remember that God is merciful to all nations, not just His chosen people. The four hundred years of waiting was not a lesson for Israel, or so that they would be tested in the wilderness. They were left in Egypt because the sin of the Amorites had not yet been fully realized. He is the God of second chances for His people, and for others.
The passage can be understood in terms of the human failure, too. God’s people turned from Him at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They wandered the desert for forty years as one by one the wicked generation passed. This was disgraceful. Imagine how the nations must have looked upon these people who escaped life in Egypt for this life of uncertainty. The Egyptians surely knew that the Hebrews had not found a place to settle. And the people of Canaan had no reason to worry. They must have considered the wandering Israelites a joke, a people fallen from grace.
But that all changed the day they crossed the Jordan, because God once again showed the world His power over everything. The Jordan was halted so that His people could cross. The people of Canaan realized they had something to fear. There was no disgrace for the people of Israel. It was rolled away on that day, forgotten with the mercy of God’s grace and His forgiveness.
The Israelites, restored to their God through circumcision, were ready to take on those who stood in their way. They had celebrated this reconciliation with a Passover meal, a remembrance of their escape from Egypt. They had only held the celebration once: at the foot of Mt. Sinai one year after they escaped. Now they are called together again to remember the great things God has done for them. Everything is new. Everything is made right. Everything was ready for God’s people to begin their journey into the Promised Land. On that day they stopped receiving manna because they were no longer wandering in uncertainty. They were home, and though there was still work to do, they had received God’s promise.
“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” These could have been the words of those Israelites on that day. The psalmist knew the kind of suffering that came from being separated from God. He or she knew the kind of physical, emotional and spiritual trauma came when transgressions led one away from God’s grace. But he or she also knew that the person of God who cries out to Him is heard and God is faithful to respond. In our times of distress, we are encouraged to call out to God. He is there, even if we have had to wander in our own wilderness, because He is there to lead us into the Promised Land. Happy are they who know God’s forgiveness, and happy are they who trust in the Lord.
That’s what we see played out in today’s Gospel message. We are very familiar with this story, the story of the Prodigal Son. I just realized that I understood that title incorrectly many years. I had never looked up the word “prodigal” and I always assumed it referred to the fact that the son came home. We hear it used in that context, as a response to someone who has gone away and returned. The word “prodigal” actually means, “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure.” The prodigal son was not the one who returned, he was the one who wasted all the good things he’d been given.
In this story, the younger of two son decided he wanted to go out into the world and make it on his own. Of course, he didn’t want to do it alone: he wanted his share of his father’s estate. This was most unusual, but apparently the father was well off enough to give the son his share of the estate without concern for the work of the estate. Even though the second son would only have received one third of the wealth, it sounds like it was a great deal of money. He used his inheritance lavishly, fulfilling every decadent desire. It didn’t take very long for the entire fortune to disappear.
The timing couldn’t have been worse: just as he spent his last coins a famine took place in the country where he was living. He had nothing and he had no way of getting anything. He was left hungry and frantic. He managed to find work doing menial labor, but it was not enough to meet his needs. He was so desperate that he was willing to eat the pig’s food to keep from starving, but that was not an option. There was no one to help him. He was alone.
One day he realized that the workers at his father’s house were given more than enough to eat. He did not know why he continued to suffer in a foreign land suffering of famine when he could return to work for his father. He expected nothing more than a job so that he could feed himself and stay alive. He received far more. The son did not demand anything from the father. He faced reality repentant and humble, bowing before his father with confession and apology. But his father would have none of it.
Instead, the father received his son as if he had died and come back to life. He heaped upon the son the best robes and gold rings. He slaughtered the best lamb and opened the finest wine. He threw a party when the son only wanted a job. Not everyone was happy, however. The son left behind realized that his father was heaping his inheritance onto his prodigal brother. To him, the prodigal was the father, too. He was offended by the waste of money and excitement. Why should his future be risked for the sake of the son that ran away to play while he was stuck at home doing all the work?
Isn’t it interesting that the younger son was willing to be a slave but was received as a son, but the older son thought of himself as a slave even though he’d been loved? The young son sought out the father, asking for mercy and got far more. The elder son expected everything and missed out on the joy of being in his father’s house. In the father’s eyes, however, both are loved. I suppose it is easy for the one left behind to thing that the actions of the father seem as if the young son was the favorite. After all, the father gave in to his demands for his inheritance before it was due and then received him with mercy and grace when he came home penniless.
But the father has no favorite, or if He does, it is the son that stays. He answered his son’s anger, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” This is a story of reconciliation, of restoring that which had been broken and making it whole. We see in this passage a similar response from God as is found in the story of the wandering Israelites: what matters is not the days that were lost by their foolishness, but the hope of the future, living in His grace. The disgrace is gone, the sin forgiven, the opportunity bright.
It was a disgrace that the young son was living as a servant in another country. He might have deserved it, after all, he did waste all he had. The forty years of wandering in the wilderness was also a disgrace and it was the fault of the Israelites. But God looks beyond our faults and frailties toward the reality of His promises. He has mercy even when it is not deserved. He keeps His covenants even when we fail to do so. He rolls away our disgrace and takes away our sin. Happy are we who are forgiven.
Happy and blessed, indeed, are we who are forgiven, because we are made new. Like Israel, when the people had crossed over the Jordan, renewed their relationship with God and began the journey to the fulfillment of God’s promises, we are beginning something new. Paul tells us that everything old has passed away. It is for us that our desert wandering and our prodigal adventures are forgotten when we are reconciled to our God. We were broken and restored. We are broken and we continue to be restored. The world is broken and we are called to bring reconciliation to others.
But we often feel like that elder brother. We’ve been here all along, why should we receive someone who has wandered away? Why should we accept them again? We look at others and think that they are beyond redemption. The things they have done are too wrong, they are too divisive, they are too outrageous. They’ve wasted too much of God’s grace to be reconciled and restored.
If we think someone is beyond redemption, we’ll never bother to share the Redeemer. We might even make up excuses for doing so—they won’t listen, we don’t want to force our religion, we can’t change the spots on a leopard. But we are called to be like the father in the story of the prodigal son. We are called by Christ to reconcile people to God. As Paul writes, “We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
We are changed by God’s mercy. Instead of seeing the world through human eyes, we see our neighbors through the eyes of Jesus Christ. We no longer see what they did in the past, but what can be in the future. Paul writes, “Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new.” We are changed by our relationship with God, no longer looking at the world in quite the same way. We see things through grace. We act on mercy and love. God reconciled the world to himself through Christ and freely gave forgiveness to those who sought His face. We are sent by Christ with His authority to restore those who were lost and reconcile those who are broken.
Jesus was gathered with the tax collectors and sinners, sharing the message of forgiveness with them. The Pharisees and scribes were offended by Him. They grumbled about it. They were like that older brother that stayed home while the prodigal wasted the kingdom’s resources. How could anyone receive them with such mercy and joy? But Jesus answers their grumbling, “They were dead and now they live.” We are now His ambassadors, given the power and authority to continue sharing that forgiveness with those who are dead so that they might have new life in Christ.
“And it came to pass at even, that the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the camp. And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness a small round thing, small as the hoar-frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, What is it? For they knew not what it was. And Moses said unto them, It is the bread which Jehovah hath given you to eat. This is the thing which Jehovah hath commanded, Gather ye of it every man according to his eating; an omer a head, according to the number of your persons, shall ye take it, every man for them that are in his tent. And the children of Israel did so, and gathered some more, some less. And when they measured it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; they gathered every man according to his eating. And Moses said unto them, Let no man leave of it till the morning. Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and became foul: and Moses was wroth with them.” Exodus 16:13-20, ASV
I belong to one of those bulk buy clubs, where you can get cans of tuna fish that would last a week feeding an army. There are quite a few things I don’t buy when I go, like those cans of tuna fish. Those are meant for restaurant owners or people catering a large event, not for a family of four, especially when half that family doesn’t like tuna fish. They do have a package of many normal cans of tuna fish, a much better buy for a family like ours. I like to purchase that product because then we have plenty of tuna for our own use, but also because I like to give tuna to the food bank.
I get a coupon book from this store about once a month. The coupons are for a few dozen items in the store, from food, to paper products, to hygiene to electronics. You never know what is going to be on sale from one book to the next. There are usually a few items that we use, but my timing is never very good. All too often I purchase an item I need the week before the coupon comes. If I’d waited, I would have saved a few dollars on that item.
But it is hard to know whether or not to buy or wait. Take, for instance, toilet paper. Now, toilet paper can’t go bad, so it doesn’t hurt to have more than you need. And you certainly do not want to run out of toilet paper. But who among us has room in their home to store a hundred rolls of toilet paper? I have, unfortunately, purchased toilet paper because we were close to desperate, and then found a coupon in the book days later. I didn’t have room for another large package, so that coupon went to waste.
I like shopping at the bulk store, but I know that there is a fine line between stocking up and hoarding. Do we really need a huge can of Ravioli? I remember on one episode of “Seinfeld” Kramer went to the bulk store and bought a ridiculous supply of products. He bought huge cans of food he didn’t even like to eat, just because they seemed so cheap. But he had no idea what to do with them, so in one scene he used the Ravioli as food for some horses. Of course, Ravioli does not pass through a horse without consequences, and the scene ended up people suffering the stench of horse flatulence. I guess that’s the price we pay for trying to stock up on goods that we don’t need.
When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God provided the food they would need for each day. They were far from any source of food or water, so it was up to God to ensure their life and health. God did provide, but not by building a bulk buy club in their neighborhood. He sent manna from heaven. The manna came with very precise instructions: only gather what you need. When the people gathered more than enough, trying to set some aside for another day, the saved manna went bad by the next morning. God was not only testing the Israelites, to see if they trusted Him, but He was also teaching them how to trust.
It isn’t easy to trust God, especially when you think about tomorrow. What will happen? What will be available? We have enough for today, but will we have enough later? And, why not buy today when it is cheaper, then wait until tomorrow when there might not be enough to buy? As we live in faith today, it might be worthwhile to purchase a package of normal cans of tuna fish so that we have some for our own use and some to share, but is it worthwhile for any family to buy a huge can of Ravioli?
So, we are reminded by this story of the Israelites in the wilderness that God provides our daily needs. It is not an easy thing to trust Him; it is natural for us to look ahead to tomorrow and to squirrel nuts for the winter. I don’t think God necessarily wants us to live day to day, but it would do us well to find the balance between what is good and right to do with our resources. If we try to hoard God’s good gifts, we might just find that they are useless when we think we need them. But when we trust in God, we’ll have all we need today, tomorrow and always.
“Jesus answered and said unto her, Every one that drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life.” John 4:13-14, ASV
The weather has been terrific in Texas this week. The temperatures are warm but not hot, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. It has been perfect for enjoying everything Texas has to offer. And with spring right around the corner, the wildflowers are beginning to appear. So, I decided to take a trip to a local state park to take pictures. I have a new, fancy camera, and I’ve been itching to get out to use it to take pictures of something other than my cats.
McKinney Falls State Park is a place for camping, hiking and biking. The creek that runs through the park, Onion Creek, has cut through the limestone in amazing and beautiful ways. The falls, there are two waterfalls, run over limestone overhangs, like a shelf jutting out of the earth. Water has worn away the stone below the shelf, leaving a hole like a cave. Along one of the paths in the park there is another overhang which was once used as a shelter by Native Americans.
The park is a fascinating place, a great place to try to understand the concept of erosion. Near the lower falls is a large expanse of limestone. As you walk on this stone, it is obvious that when it rains, the water runs from higher elevations, down over the stone and into the creek. The running water has over the years eroded the stone in places, carving potholes that fill with water. These vernal pools are an important part of the landscape because it is in those pools that life on the rock gets started. At first the holes are not very deep, but they grow until there is enough water to last a few days. Small stones are left behind from the running water, which are used by the next flash flood to scrape away more of the stone. Eventually the hole is deep enough for small creatures. Insects and tiny amphibians use the pools for reproduction and to sustain their short lives. The creatures die and decompose in the holes, creating soil. Eventually the silt and soil is deep enough for plant life to grow. Small grasses pop up and live as long as there is water. Over the years the holes get bigger, the soil gets deeper and heartier plants begin to grow. I saw a few holes with trees that have found just enough earth to grow and live. In a million years, the limestone will be gone, covered with a forest that was laid by flash floods today.
An early settler realized that this was a terrific place and established his homestead north of the creek. A pathway takes visitors to the old homestead ruins as well as the ruins of a flower mill. Hikers must cross the waterfall to get to the historic buildings. As I drove into the park, the ranger at the gate let me know that I’d have to get my feet wet to get to that hiking trail. I didn’t pay much attention because I wasn’t planning to hike much, but when I got to the place where I would have to cross I thought about going over just to take a few pictures. I wandered up and down the creek bank, looking for a place to cross, but the water was too deep and the creek too wide. The only place that seemed possible was at the waterfall. The limestone overhang is flat and the path is easy.
Easy, except for the waterfall. With all the lovely rain we’ve had recently, Onion Creek is running high and the waterfalls are exceptional. It would have been necessary to walk through the running water to get to the other side. I’m sure it was possible during the dry season, but I did not think it would be safe to do it yesterday. The stone over which the water was flowing was covered in moss. With six inches of running water, even the most agile hikers would have trouble keeping their footing on the rock. I’m not the most graceful person and I was carrying an expensive camera, so I decided that it would be in my best interest to wait for those photos. We can go back when the water is not so high and hike that trail.
It wasn’t until later in the day, when chatting with some other visitors, that I realized what the ranger said when I drove into the park. “You can’t get to the other side without getting wet.” I’m not sure I would have enjoyed my day very much if I’d managed to get my shoes and socks wet when trying to cross the creek. And who knows, I may not have made it across without getting the rest of me wet. A little slip and I could have been wet from head to toe.
As Christians, we begin our journey of faith at the baptismal font, washed by the water and Holy Spirit. Yet, we don’t stop getting wet once we’ve been baptized. I remember a few years ago there was a book or a program or something called “Living Wet” and it was to help Christians live in their baptism daily. Martin Luther often talked about this idea, and even recommended that all Christians remember their baptism every morning. Being baptized is a once and done event, but it is an event that lasts a lifetime. Living in God’s kingdom means getting wet, and staying wet, and living wet. It may not be very comfortable to walk around a park with wet shoes and socks, but we can rejoice in being wet in faith because it means that we are constantly renewing our life in Christ Jesus, who is the Living water.
“Now on the morrow, as they were on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour: and he became hungry, and desired to eat: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance; and he beholdeth the heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending, as it were a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts and creeping things of the earth and birds of the heaven. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common and unclean. And a voice came unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, make not thou common. And this was done thrice: and straightway the vessel was received up into heaven.” Acts 10:9-16
We went to the zoo yesterday. It was a lovely day and the zoo is an affordable way to spend a day. We enjoy walking by the exhibits, watching the monkeys play, and listening to the birds sing. My favorites are the big cats, especially the black panther. Aside from the size of the animals, the big cats act so much like our own kitties that it is funny to see them. They sleep like our cats, play like our cats, even clean like our cats. The jaguar was watching the birds outside his habitat, much in the same way that Tigger, Samson and Delilah watch the birds outside our house.
One of the least pleasant aspects of visiting the zoo is that the animals do not use the restroom like the human animals do. So, there are often piles of poop all over the habitats. The caretakers clean up the mess on a regular basis, but animals aren’t concerned about following a time schedule: when nature calls, they answer. Some animals are more concerned about where they poop, but some just let go when and where they are standing. You don’t notice the poop in some of the habitats, and in others it is hard to miss.
It is especially hard when the animals are intensely interested in their own poop. The rhino spent a good deal of time with his nose in his pile. Rhinos have an excellent sense of smell and hearing but horrible eyesight. They use their feces to mark territory and mate. Perhaps this is natural behavior that we would see in the wild. It is not very pleasant for us to watch, but that has to do with our understanding that poop is waste and good only for disposal. But poop is a natural part of our life and it can be used for good. It is used as fertilizer and has had medicinal uses.
We walked by an exhibit in the zoo where they had a flightless bird called a cassowary. They look a lot like a cross between a turkey and an ostrich. These birds live in the tropical forests and are omnivorous, although they live mostly on fruit. They are very fast and mean and have even killed men with their sharp claws. One of the most interesting facts about the cassowary was found on an information sign near the exhibit. “How many trees have YOU planted? Less than the cassowary, I’m sure! The cassowary is ‘frugiverous’ – that means they eat mainly fruit. While eating their favorite giant plums, cassowaries swallow the seeds too. The seeds pass through the birds unharmed. When the cassowaries poop, they leave seeds behind with a special pile of fertilizer! Cassowaries are a real friend to the forest!”
Now, this might not be the most pleasant subject for a devotion, but it is a reminder that God has not created anything that is not good. There is purpose for our poop, and we see that clearly in the life of the cassowary. We flush our waste down the toilet, but ancient generations understood the value of that which came out of our bodies. We have learned the dangers, too, but we are reminded that the things we see as ugly and unclean might actually have a good purpose in God’s creation. We are reminded to be careful that we don’t reject something outright just because it seems nasty or disgusting. God can even use poop as the source of new life.
“Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.” John 17:20-23, ASV
The house next door is for sale. Our neighbors moved out of state a few months ago—another change of station for a military family. It is always sad to see neighbors move, but it is also exciting both for the family as they begin a new adventure and for us as we wait for new neighbors. It is also a little disconcerting, especially when it takes awhile for the house to sell. Luckily our friends have been able to move into military housing, but it is still a financial concern each day the house is on the market.
We’ve seen quite a few people pull up in front of the house, take an advertisement and even visit with a realtor. I happened to be getting out of my care the other day when a family had stopped by, so I enjoyed a brief chat with them. They introduced themselves, asked a few questions and took a look at the yard. I don’t know if they were truly interested, but they just moved here (another military family) and they need a place to live. Perhaps we’ll see the moving truck in the driveway soon.
Until that day, however, I’ve been praying for the family that will move in to the house. I don’t know who they are or what prayer concerns they might have, but everyone needs prayer. Of course, I pray also that God will bring us pleasant neighbors, people who will fit well into our neighborhood and who will become friends. Finally, I’ve been praying that they come quickly so that our old friends do not need to worry now that they are so far away.
Perhaps it seems strange to be praying for people we do not even know, but God knows. He knows who will move into the house and He knows what they need. The answer to my prayers might not be what I’m hoping will happen: it might take a long time or we might not like our neighbors. But God has a plan. The future is His.
When Jesus neared the day when He would fulfill the prophecies, when He would die for the sake of the world, He looked forward to the days ahead for His church. He prayed for all those who would hear the message as it was taken by the first disciples and passed from generation to generation. He prayed for you and me. In that moment God knew we would believe. He knew we would be one of His. He knew what we would need. And now, as we live our life of faith we join Him in this prayer for those who will hear the message that we have been called and gifted to take to the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 21, 2010, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
As we near Holy Week, it is good to remember that the events leading up to the crucifixion were incredibly important to the Jews. The people in Jerusalem that week were there to celebrate the Passover. They were looking back to the incredible things that God did for them, when He delivered them out of Egypt. He parted the waters of the Red Sea. He destroyed the army of Pharaoh. He stopped the waters of the Jordan. He brought down the walls of Jericho. He defeated all the people that stood in the way of the Israelites taking the Promised Land for their own. These miraculous acts are certainly reason for the people to praise God and to continue to praise Him from holy day to holy day.
There is purpose to our celebration of God’s great deeds. First of all, these holy days offer us the opportunity to be willingly and willfully thankful for what God has done. Though the Exodus from Egypt was an event for a generation that lived long ago, the deliverance of Israel benefitted all those who would follow. There would be no story, no bible, no Son to follow. Our life and history began in those days. But there is a more important reason to rejoice: for it is in our joy that the world sees God’s goodness. God blesses His people so that they will be a blessing, and that begins in the act of telling the world the good things He has done.
Sadly, the people remember those good things that God did, but they often lose touch with the God who did it. The history of God’s people is like a roller coaster. They begin by being faithful, believing in God and obeying Him, but eventually they forget Him and turn to other gods. Over and over again the stories in Israel’s history end, “Again, the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The book of Judges ends on an even sadder note, “In those days Israel had no king: everyone did as he saw fit.” But even when they had a king, they failed to live faithfully.
It didn’t take long after the miraculous events of the Exodus for the people to turn from the God who delivered them out of Egypt. Their greatest failure is that they conformed to the world into which they had been delivered, taking upon themselves the practices, including religious, of the people who were there before them. It was easy to do so. The baals gave them an image of deity that was commonplace with which they could identify. Their greatest sin was syncretism. They melded the local gods into their faith in God.
See, the people of God had never before had a land of their own. In Abraham’s day there were nomadic, moving from place to place, taking their flocks to new pasture land. After Joseph, they lived in one place for hundreds of years, but they were not home, they were slaves. When they finally settled the land which God had promised, they were able to establish roots, to build homes made of wood and clay rather than tents made of fabric. Since the previous occupiers of the Promised Land had been agrarian, they probably began planting more of their own food. You can do that when you aren’t wandering.
Since they were beginning to rely on the constancy of the weather, rain in the rainy season, dry when it was meant to be dry, they saw the advantages of the local gods who controlled those ordinary aspects of life. The ba’als, whichever one they chose to worship, made sense to them, especially after they had wandered in the wilderness for forty years. They were in the desert and could not rely on the relief that comes from cool, refreshing waters. So, when faced with a people who believed they knew the deity that controlled the rain, they easily conformed to that religion.
It isn’t that they gave up worshipping God. They remembered Him for the miraculous things He did and worshipped Him as had been commanded, but He was the God to which they turned in a crisis. They didn’t concern Him with mundane matters. Baal was available for the ordinary, everyday needs of the people.
We don’t know much about Baal. Much of our knowledge comes from the Bible; and few other writings exist about the god known as Baal. The word itself means “lord” or “owner” and so each baal was in control of just one thing. The name of the baal included a place or an aspect of life. When the word Baal named a unique god, it was generally understood to be the universal god of fertility. Baal was the storm god; Baal controlled the rain. When the harvest was good, Baal was pleased with the people and blessed them with the right rain. When it was dry, Baal was angry and withheld the rain.
What amazed me most as I studied the information about Baal, was how similar the images were with the God of Israel. It is no wonder that they embraced these local gods. Baal was known as ‘rider of the clouds’, god of lightning and thunder, ‘the Prince, the lord of the earth’, ‘the mightiest of warriors’, ‘lord of the sky and the earth.’ You can find these same attributions to the God of Israel in the scriptures. There are even parallels in the story of God. In one story, Baal battles Mot, the god of the underworld and death. Mot kills Baal and throws him into the underworld. When Baal dies, the plants in the world also die. But then Baal returns to life and so does the world.
You can see the parallels in the song of the psalmist. “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” This verse is thought to reflect the myth of Baal. One practice in their worship included mourning as they scattered the seed, as if they were scattering the Baal’s body after death, but the sadness of that moment was overcome with the joy that came with the growth of new life and the harvest of the fruit. Though this was not the way God intended for His people to worship, it was embraced by His people, especially the common folk, because it was a practical way of understanding the mystery of nature.
They didn’t stop worshipping the God who delivered them out of Egypt, but they added to their worship the god they thought helped them live and eat and reproduce. Since Baal was a god of fertility, there were additional sins, including temple prostitution, which also counted against them. But the worst sin was worshipping a false god, when the God of their forefathers was all that was needed. Despite the stories we read in the scriptures of God defeating Baal, the people continued to fall into the patterns of the people with whom they dwelt.
This is why they ended up in exile. Since they no longer looked to God as creator and provider, He turned from them. They fell to the invading armies and were destroyed. The prophets warned the people to reject the local gods, but when they did not, God turned His back and they were taken by people who were more powerful. They turned back to God and He heard their cry. He saved them from their exile and returned them home. They apparently learned the lesson that Baal could not keep them from harm because Baal worship seems to have declined following the exile.
So, in the passage from Isaiah, we see God promising to do a new thing. He is the God who saved them from Egypt, but the prophet spoke a word of hope that they would see God do something even greater. If God could lead them out of slavery, through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, then He could certainly restore them to the home they had lost. “Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” He would be greater than the baals they’d once worshipped because He would provide drink for His people in His time and way, not according to the seasons.
Now, the purpose of God’s grace is so that His people will praise Him before the nations. Unfortunately, God’s people often miss the greatest blessings which He has given. God asks, “Shall ye not know it?” They recognize the miraculous and look to God for help in their crisis, but do they see Him in the ordinary? Do they see a river in the wilderness and realize that it was put there by God for their purpose? Or do they credit the ordinary waters of the earth to the ordinary gods like Baal? But we see that the wild animals honor God for the water in the wilderness. They recognize God’s grace in the rivers of the desert, given to quench the thirst of God’s people. Though they miss it, others benefit from the blessings and they honor God for it.
What we learn from these lessons is that we have been formed to give God the glory so that the world will see Him and know that the blessings come from Him. Unfortunately, like the Israelites, we often miss seeing God’s hand in the ordinary. We give credit to others; we seek the help of others. We turn to God only in our times of crisis and forget that He is also Lord over our ordinary needs. We praise Him for the miraculous, but ignore His hand in the everyday. God has done great things, but we worship Him not just for the miraculous. We worship Him because He is God.
Our Gospel lesson takes place shortly before the Passover celebration. In this story we see the beautiful sacrifice of Mary, as she took a pound of pure nard to anoint Jesus. The purpose of the gathering was a celebration of life. Mary and Martha were delighted because their brother Lazarus had been dead but now he is alive. They gave a dinner for Jesus and his friends in grateful appreciation for the miraculous thing He did for them. For the believers, and those who did not want to believe, the raising of Lazarus was a turning point. Jesus was no longer just a street preacher; He was the Messiah and a threat to the establishment. The event for which Mary and Martha were so grateful was the very thing that caused the authorities to begin to plot Jesus’ death. They knew He had to be stopped. But Mary saw Him from a different point of view.
Nard was a very expensive perfume, made from a plant that in that day was only grown in what is now Nepal, above 13,000 feet in the Himalayas. It was used for several purposes: to anoint a bride for her wedding night, to anoint the feet of the dead and to anoint the head of a king. The crowds that were gathering in Jerusalem saw Jesus as the answer to their prayers. They were ready to anoint Him as king as we will see very clearly next week during the procession of the palms. When He entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the people roared with joy and expectation, honoring Him as they would honor their king. Perhaps Mary was using the nard with that in mind.
Jesus tells the disciples to leave her alone because she purchased the nard for the day of His burial. But nard has a very short shelf life, only three to six months; nard goes bad very quickly. It is impossible to pre-purchase nard for burial because we never know when people will die. Did she have the nard leftover from when they buried Lazarus a few days earlier? Or did she know? Did she believe Jesus when He talked about His death? The disciples wanted to silence Him when He talked about what would happen in Jerusalem. They wanted Him to avoid going into the city. But did she know this was what God intended? She anointed His feet, not His head. Though she may have thought of Him as king, she anointed Him as one who was dead.
The disciples were offended, particularly Judas. “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred shillings, and given to the poor?” Though his reason was not unselfish, for he was stealing from the purse, he heard what Jesus had been teaching them all along. The mission was providing justice for the poor, to give food to those who are hungry and clothes to the naked. And though Jesus is not saying we can ignore those needs, He shows us that Mary has the right focus. She honored Jesus, and thus praised God, in her simple act of generosity.
I love the image we see in this passage. “…the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.” Imagine what it must have been like to be in that room, to have the overwhelming odor of perfume permeate the space, drawing everyone’s attention to Jesus. Though they were celebrating the miraculous raising of Lazarus, they were like a family gathered to share a meal and the joy of life together. For a brief moment in this ordinary experience, all eyes were on the One who would do a new thing for their sake.
Jesus certainly did not suggest that we should ignore the needs of the poor, but our attention is meant to be kept on Him. There will always be poverty and need in the world, but Mary knows that Jesus deserves the praise and worship. We begin there, giving the honor and glory to the God who meets our needs in times of crisis and in the ordinary, everyday of our lives. It is as easy for us to get caught up in the reality of life, the distress of suffering and human needs, that we forget that God is in control of everything. And though we may not be stealing from the purse, our motives are not much better than those of Judas. We still fall for the foolishness of Baal, giving heed to the things of this earth while ignoring the reality of God.
Paul had it going on. He was born right and he was given every benefit of a member of God’s chosen people. He was circumcised as was proper, and was educated in the scriptures. He did what he believed was right by living according to the Law and persecuting the Christians. But when he met Jesus, he gave up everything to become a servant of Christ. He had power, authority, prosperity. He ended up beaten, persecuted and martyred. He put his past behind him and moved toward the future, toward the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.
If it were based on his flesh, Paul could be confident of his salvation based on his background. Yet, he sets all that aside for the sake of Christ. He does not believe that he has already obtained it all; as a matter of fact Paul calls himself a sinner greater than all other sinners. Yet, he was striving for that which has already been promised and is assured by God’s faithfulness. He encourages the Philippians, and us today, to set aside all that has gone by and continue moving forward toward the promise. God has done something new. While the acts of God that have been done already are great, we can rest in the promise that the best is yet to come. We need not forget the past, but always look toward the future. We need not ignore the flesh, but always keep God in the proper place: as the center of our life.
Like the Israelites, we have entered into the Promised Land, but we still face the temptation to conform to the ways of the world. We may not have to worry about Baal worship, but we have our own false gods to face. Do we cry out to Him only in times of crisis? Or do we look to Him to supply our ordinary, everyday needs? Do we hold on to the memories of the extraordinary things He has done and ignore the daily bread He provides? Do we want to make Him our earthly king rather than experience the cross with Him? Are we willing to publically praise Him, honoring Him with our own sacrifices so that the world will see His grace?
Let us pray that He will always be the center of our faith, so that all might benefit from the grace He has promised. We may go out weeping as we sow the seeds, but God will produce a harvest that will bring such great joy that the whole world will rejoice. He has promised those He has chosen, but His blessings rain on all. Don’t let the wild animals sing His praises louder, for God has created you to declare His praise for all the world to hear.
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity; There is none that doeth good. God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there were any that did understand, That did seek after God. Every one of them is gone back; they are together become filthy; There is none that doeth good, no, not one. Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, Who eat up my people as they eat bread, And call not upon God? There were they in great fear, where no fear was; For God hath scattered the bones of him that encampeth against thee: Thou hast put them to shame, because of God hath rejected them. Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When God bringeth back the captivity of his people, Then shall Jacob rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.” Psalm 53, ASV
Elaine, a character on the television show “Seinfeld,” was a study in contradictions. She was a strong, independent woman, but at the same time she was a flighty, uncertain person. She stood strong for her principles, but fell easily to temptation. She knew what she believed, but she was constantly looking for a better understanding. I guess she’s a lot like the rest of us.
During one episode, she decided to make a stand against the constant monetary collections around her office to buy gifts and cakes for everyone’s special day. Day after day they found some excuse for a party: a birthday, a last day of work, a return from a sick day. It didn’t matter. They wanted cake. Elaine was tired of all the celebrations, and she told them so. “I don’t want another piece of cake in my office!” And so, when the parties went on, she was left out. She quickly realized how much she enjoyed that mid-afternoon sugar fix. She couldn’t apologize for her outburst, so she went looking for another source of sugar.
It just so happened that her boss had recently purchased a piece of wedding cake, apparently from King Edward VIII’s wedding, 60 years old and worth nearly $30,000. In her search for sugar, Elaine came across this astounding purchase in the refrigerator in her boss’s office. She decided that no one would notice if just a tiny slice was missing, so she carefully shaved a bit off the edge. That was not enough, so she sliced a tiny piece off the other side. Slice after slice she whittled away at the cake until she stopped fighting the temptation. She eventually ate the whole thing and replaced it with an Entenmanns’s. She didn’t even realize what she was doing.
When her boss discovered the scam, he found videotape of Elaine enjoying the cake as if she were dancing around at the very wedding from which it came. She was concerned that her foolishness would get her fired, but her boss just asked a question. “Do you know what happens to a butter-based frosting after six decades in a poorly ventilated English basement?” She answered no. Her boss said, “Well, I have a feeling that what you are about to go through is punishment enough. Dismissed.”
The psalmist asks, “Will the evildoers never learn?” No, they probably won’t. Like Elaine whittling away at that sixty year old cake, the evil doers “eat up God’s people as they eat bread.” They do so without considering the consequences. They do so without knowing their failure. They are fools who do not believe there is a God. This is no excuse: we find throughout the scriptures that God is made manifest through His creation and His people, there is no excuse to believe He doesn’t exist. Like Elaine, they will experience the consequences of their foolishness.
We who do believe may have to suffer through their foolishness, too. It can be frightening to think that there is corruption all around us. Yet, we are called to live in faith, knowing that God will deal with the foolish in His way. We have nothing to fear; His salvation is near us. For those hearing this psalm in David’s day, the salvation is a promise to come. For us today, the salvation is Jesus Christ, the One who has come out of Zion for our sake. He has freed us, restored us, made us glad.
“And it came to pass, that after three days he called together those that were the chief of the Jews: and when they were come together, he said unto them, I, brethren, though I had done nothing against the people, or the customs of our fathers, yet was delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans: who, when they had examined me, desired to set me at liberty, because there was no cause of death in me. But when the Jews spake against it, I was constrained to appeal unto Caesar; not that I had aught whereof to accuse my nation. For this cause therefore did I entreat you to see and to speak with me: for because of the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain. And they said unto him, We neither received letters from Judaea concerning thee, nor did any of the brethren come hither and report or speak any harm of thee. But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect, it is known to us that everywhere it is spoken against. And when they had appointed him a day, they came to him into his lodging in great number; to whom he expounded the matter, testifying the kingdom of God, and persuading them concerning Jesus, both from the law of Moses and from the prophets, from morning till evening. And some believed the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved. And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Spirit through Isaiah the prophet unto your fathers, saying, Go thou unto this people, and say, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people's heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest, haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you, that this salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles: they will also hear. And when he had said these words, the Jews departed, having much disputing among themselves. And he abode two whole years in his own hired dwelling, and received all that went in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him.” Acts 28:17-31, ASV
Though this is the end of the book of Acts, it is not the end of Paul’s story. According to the timeline of Paul’s life, he was released from prison in 64 A.D. but was not executed until 67 A.D. Several of his letters were written after the imprisonment described in today’s lesson, including both letters to Timothy, the letter to Titus and possibly the letter to the Hebrews (we aren’t certain this was written by Paul.)
Luke didn’t bother to wait until the story was over to write what had occurred in the early days of the Church. Why would he? The early Christians believed that the story would not finish, they were recording the beginning of something they hoped would last forever. So, as we read this final scene from the book of Acts, we are left with the feeling that something is missing. What comes next? Where do they, and we, go from here?
Isn’t it interesting that even now, though people far and near were hearing the Gospel and believing, and despite the miraculous things God was doing through His people, there were still those who would not believe. The Jews in Rome were willing to listen to Paul. He had a story to tell. He was falsely imprisoned, and the Jews were not willing to convict him without all the facts. So, they scheduled an appointment to meet with him and many came to listen. In the end, some believed and some disbelieved. Isn’t that the way it still happens? We speak the Gospel and some believe and some disbelieve.
Perhaps that’s why we don’t try very hard to share God’s word with the people. We don’t like to be rejected. We don’t like to be disbelieved. Those first Christians risked life and death to share the good news of Christ with others, knowing that only a small number of people will become believers. Why do we, who have so little to fear, remain silent? Yet, long before Jesus came, God told His people that it would be this way. Some will hear, some will not hear. Some will see and some will not see. Some will understand, and some will never understand.
In Paul, however, we see that we are called to speak the words anyway. How can they hear if the Word is never spoken? How can they believe if God’s grace is never shared? And, we learn that if some do not believe, that is no excuse to stop speaking the Word to the world; there are others who will believe. Paul realized that the Jews’ hearts were hardened, but that the Gentiles were willing to receive the Gospel. He didn’t run in fear from the risks. He responded to the opportunities. Though he was under house arrest, he welcomed into the home all who wanted to hear, and he told them the story of God with boldness, risking all so that others might know Jesus Christ, too.
As I read this text, I wonder to myself: have we continued to do the work that Paul and the other apostles began so long ago? What has changed? What are we doing right? Are we doing anything wrong? Are we missing the opportunities to share the Gospel? Do we really believe or are our hearts hardened to the reality of Christ in our world? Who are our “Gentiles,” the outsiders whose hearts are longing for the Good News? I know many churches are asking questions because it seems like something is missing.
It has been this way generation after generation since the beginning of the Church. Something always seems to get in the way of the Gospel message. There is always something to fear. But God gives the strength and boldness, as well as the opportunity to overcome our fears. So, how does this generation get past our own imprisonment, deal with our own injustices and preach the Kingdom of God to those who have ears to hear?
“Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:17
Hear the name Jonathan Edwards and you are likely to remember his greatest sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This particular sermon was typical of the types of theology preached in his day, which in the eighteenth century Great Awakening. It is not a sermon you are likely to hear preached in many of our churches today because it focuses on hell. Jonathan Edwards was concerned for the salvation of the people, and he addressed his concerns in the way he believed would bring them to their knees: fear. We see the world through an entirely different lens, but in Edwards’ day, the sermon had a powerful impact.
We remember Jonathan Edwards today, March 22, not because he gave a sermon that is still studied in seminaries, but because he was a missionary. He took God’s Word to the Housatonic Indians of Massachusetts, serving a small congregation for seven years, during which he continued to study and write.
It is interesting what you learn about people, however, when you look beyond the surface reasons for why they are remembered. Among the accomplishments listed in his obituary is the presidency of Princeton University, although at the time it was called the College of New Jersey (unrelated to today’s College of New Jersey.) What you don’t see listed under his biography is that he was among the founders of that college. I discovered this fact when I clicked through to the biography of Aaron Burr, Sr.
Now, Aaron Burr, Sr. was the son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards and father to Aaron Burr, Jr., the U.S. Vice President and man who killed Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr, Sr., Jonathan Edwards and Jonathan Dickson (all of whom were graduates of Yale) disagreed with Thomas Clap the president of Yale in 1740. Clap opposed with the Great Awakening, and refused to approve the degrees of two master’s candidates who supported the movement. He made it illegal to for a student to claim any of the college leadership were carnal or hypocrites, and expelled student David Brainerd for doing just that. Edwards, Burr and Dickson fought for Brainerd’s reinstatement. When they failed, they left Yale and started the new College of New Jersey, one of the places where many students flocked after Clap closed Yale briefly in 1742. Since Edwards, Burr and Dickson supported the Great Awakening, those students found it to be a more compatible institution for their academic career.
In Jonathan Edwards we see an example of grace overcoming immaturity. He was very bright as a child and was sent to Yale at an extremely young age. He was only thirteen when he began, and he graduated as Valedictorian four years later. During those years, Edwards found it impossible to believe in the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. This is the idea that God has supreme authority over all things. But Edwards, and others, have a problem juxtaposing this doctrine with the doctrine of free will. How can God have authority over all things if man has the freedom to do as he pleases? He was convicted of his foolishness as he read 1 Timothy 1:17 and said, “As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before… I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven; and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever!”
Jonathan Edwards was a man of faith and science. He worried that some of his contemporaries were a little too concerned with the tangible things of life, and the faith in reason above faith in God, he saw creation and the laws that direct it as God’s way of demonstrating love. He was not concerned with scientific discoveries because he saw no conflict between the material and spiritual worlds. This was perhaps the most unfortunate position, however. Not that it is a bad point of view; after all, science has a great deal to teach us about God. He was a strong supporter of the small pox vaccine and as such chose to be inoculated against the disease. He did this to be an example for others in the community, so that they would also receive the vaccine that could save their lives. It was this vaccine, still new and untested, that killed him.
Jonathan Edwards might be remembered for a sermon that seems irrelevant for us today, but the lessons of his life are worth hearing. He lived in that early conviction that God is an excellent Being, a place we can dwell when facing the questions and battles of our life. With Him as our companion, we can stand strong in our faith, do the things we believe are right and rest in the knowledge that whatever happens, God is faithful to His promises. He might be remembered for a sermon that seemed to say that he thought the best way to get people to believe was through fear, but he lived in faith and much of his life manifested that faith in ways we should remember.
“But now hath Christ been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that are asleep. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ's, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be abolished is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, ASV
I made Texas toast to go with our pasta yesterday, a delicious combination of garlic butter and mozzarella cheese. I cheated; I used a package of frozen Texas toast that I only had to throw in a hot oven for a few minutes. The meal was delicious, including the bread. I am sure we’ll purchase that brand again.
The only problem was the box design. Now, the box itself was not a problem; I easily got it opened and put the bread on the baking sheet. Then I tried to find the instructions. I checked the back, because the back makes the most sense to me. When I didn’t find the instructions there, I checked both sides. I should have checked the sides first, because that is usually where you find the instructions because they use the back to advertise other products or make recommendations for serving. I glanced at the front of the box, knowing the instructions would probably not be there, and I was right. Then I looked at the closed end of the box. I looked briefly at all five sides one more time before turning to the side which I had opened to get the product out of the box. There they were, on the last side of the box.
I’m sure we’ve all had this experience: the thing we are looking for is always in the last place we look. Now, this is a silly maxim because we wouldn’t continue to look if we had found it, so of course the object is always in the last place we look. However, there are times when we get to the point that the last place we look is the last place we could look. In the case of my box, there was only one side left. When searching for the perfect birthday present, there is often only one more store to shop. When looking for a good book to read, it might just be found on the last rack in the library.
But we all would prefer that we find these things on the first shot. How much easier would it be if our car keys were sitting right where they should be? Or if our cell phone was found connected to its charger? How much more enjoyable would our errands be if we could find that present or that book waiting for us at the checkout? How much better our world would be if everything fell into place at first, rather than last.
And yet, sometimes the joy is in the search. I enjoy shopping, so going from store to store can be fun. You never know what great book you might find if you carefully peruse the shelves at the library; you might just find a new author or genre to enjoy. On more than one occasion, the lost item kept me from leaving the house on time, but if I’d gone I would have missed an important phone call. Sometimes there is good reason for us to find what we are looking for last, rather than first.
Jesus Christ has accomplished the work that has saved the world. And yet, in today’s passage we are reminded that the last enemy to be conquered will be death. Though we live, we will still die in the flesh. How much nicer would it be if we were already immortal, living for the eternity that God has promised. However, there is good reason for death to be conquered last. After all, there are still many who do not believe. If everything was finished, what would happen to them? We still have work to do. There’s still a call to receive.
Jesus Christ has finished the work that God sent Him to do, but the work is still being completed. One day we will see the absolute fulfillment of all God’s promises. Until that day, we trust in God, doing the work of preaching the Gospel to all those who have not yet heard. One by one the hardened hearts will be made new with God’s grace, and then we’ll see the last enemy defeated.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 28, 2010, Palm/Passion Sunday: Luke 19:28-40/Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49
“Make thy face to shine upon thy servant: Save me in thy lovingkindness.” Psalm 31:16, ASV
It is springtime in Texas. It is spring everywhere, but it is looking a lot like spring here in Texas. The temperatures have been warm and lovely. The sun is shining and the world is beginning to look green again. But most of all, the wildflowers are beginning to bloom. Now, blooming spring flowers are not unique to Texas. After all, I can remember the delightful smells of the lilac bushes and the brilliant white of the dogwoods in Pennsylvania. I’ve seen fields filled with daffodils and poppies. I know that Washington is incredible in sight and smell when the cherry trees are in bloom.
But those of us who live in Texas are pretty proud of our wildflowers. People go out for Sunday drives to see the fields of color like they do in the Northeast to see the changing leaves. The Texas Department of Transportation even has information available about the best places to see the wildflowers in bloom. Other websites give recommendations, wildflower identification listings and up to the day reports of sightings around the state. Reports even make it to the evening news.
We have lived in Texas for six years and we’ve never managed to go for one of those drives. We’ve seen wildflowers blooming along the roads, and these fields can quite lovely. There’s a house up the road that usually has a spectacular display of bluebonnets, a favorite of wildflower hunters, in their front yard. I’ve stopped to look at small patches of wildflowers and to take pictures of them, but I have never gone out with the sole purpose of seeing the wildflowers in bloom. I’ve never done, until yesterday.
Each year we talk about taking a drive, but then life gets busy (especially since the wildflowers bloom around Easter) and we never manage to get out. When we finally have a free day, the wildflowers are well past their peak. It hasn’t helped that the wildflowers have not been very good in the past few years. The wildflowers, though wild, require certain environmental conditions to burst forth in spectacular color. We’ve been in drought conditions for a couple years, so the seeds have been unable to break through and take root. In the past few months, however, conditions have changed from bad to perfect, giving us the possibility of the most incredible wildflower season in years.
I decided I could not let the season pass without a chance to photograph the splendor. We are still hoping to take a Sunday afternoon drive, but I went out on my own to scout for fields. I took a suggestion from a friend and started driving. I saw patches of color along the way, but they were often in places I couldn’t stop. They weren’t much more than I’d seen before, so except for the possibility of close-up shots with my camera, it wasn’t worthwhile. Then I got to the area which was recommended by my friend and I was amazed. Large fields were washed in color, bright reds, blues and yellows.
The fields were often in the backyards of people’s homes, so I didn’t stop and intrude on their world. I did eventually find a place I could stop to take pictures; a cemetery. The cemetery had lots of room for growth, green fields surrounding the graves, although they were covered in red, purple, yellow, blue and white flowers. The wildflowers had even worked their way into the gravesites, honoring the dead with natural offerings of flowers. It was absolutely beautiful.
I found myself wandering through the cemetery, reading gravestones and thinking about the lives of those who had been buried there. Since it is a small town cemetery, who plots of land were devoted to families, with graves from generations for the past hundred years. I thought about people I knew with the same last names, wondering if they were somehow related, and I thought about those old friends. I found myself praying, not for the dead, but in thankfulness for their lives and for the living whom I remembered along the way.
I found one gravestone from 1880, for a baby that died the day he was born. All death is sad, but it is especially sad when you discover a life that hasn’t had the chance to be lived. The gravestone was particularly well maintained, though the plot was covered in wildflowers. It was obvious that no one had visited the site for a long time. I was heartbroken for the life lost, but I was also reminded that this is what Easter is all about.
As we look at the world through our human eyes, ideas and expectations, we see people as the crowds saw Jesus on Palm Sunday. They saw a leader, someone who would save them. But the salvation they sought was in this world. They wanted a king. They wanted a messiah that would defeat their enemies and make their world a better place. They wanted an earthly end to their suffering and they thought Jesus would be the one to give it to them. He did do good things for people. He did heal the sick and cast out demons. He did feed the crowds and offer forgiveness for the sinner. But that was never His purpose. He came to die.
We begin this Sunday’s worship with the triumphant march of Jesus into Jerusalem. The people are happy and excited about this king whom they expect will restore them to their place in the world. They are gathered in excitement, honoring Him as one who will defeat their enemies and rule in their world.
We’ll hear the story of the passion from Luke this year, following His footsteps through the week as it is read or portrayed dramatically. Most pastors won’t present a sermon on the texts, and though we are all familiar with them, the Old Testament, Epistle and Psalm for the day won’t get much attention. We focus on Palm/Passion Sunday on the story of Jesus’ final week. If we followed Him day by day, we would see Him in prayer, teaching, casting the moneychangers out of the Temple and sharing those final moments with the people He loved.
It didn’t take long for the crowds of Palm Sunday to turn into the mob of Good Friday. Jesus didn’t present Himself as the conquering hero they expected from Him. He didn’t call the troops to arms or confront the Roman leaders who were oppressing them. Instead He confronted the priests and religious practices, attacking the piece of their world they thought was right. They willingly supported Barabbas, a Jewish insurrectionist who was in Roman custody. Instead of choosing Jesus as their Messiah, they chose the man they through would fill their expectations.
Those who believed in Jesus did not follow the crowd, but they did nothing to help Jesus, either. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied Jesus. The rest of the disciples went into hiding. The excitement of Palm Sunday quickly disappeared as their world began falling apart. Jesus was not what the crowds expected, so they turned to another. Jesus did not fight the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, so they were disappointed and confused. When He died, they didn’t know what to do. Where would they go? Who would they turn to? Jesus was everything. They forgot everything Jesus taught them about the Messiah, like the words we hear in the passage from Isaiah and the Psalm. They didn’t believe what Jesus said about His passion and death. They wanted to stay in the Triumph of Palm Sunday, but instead their world was falling apart.
God does not allow us to wallow in the triumph of our expectations, because our expectations are all too often not His will for us in this world. Haven’t we all felt defeated at some point in our lives? Just when we thought everything was going our way, something happened to make it fall apart? Have we known anyone who has died in the prime of their life, leaving behind disappointed and confused loved ones? The stories for this week leave us scared and confused, just like the disciples. Why did this have to be? Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God find another way? Why do children die before they even live?
Just when we think our world has fallen apart, God bursts through with new life. But that’s a story for another day.
***Since the scriptures for Palm/Passion Sunday are the same each year except for the Gospel lesson, I have not done a text study as I normally do for Midweek Oasis. If you are interested in my thoughts for this day, feel free to visit the past writings which are linked below.
“And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again as much. But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:32-36, ASV
I was a little hesitant to go wildflower hunting in the cemetery the other day, not because I am frightened by death but because a cemetery is a sacred place. Those buried there were loved by people and are mourned by people. Though they are not aware of my footsteps on the ground above their caskets, I want to give them the respect and honor due. I was little more than a tourist, a gawker there to enjoy the beauty, search the gravestones and take photographs for my own enjoyment. I didn’t want to be in the way if a family happened to come by to visit.
There was a man in the cemetery with a weed eater, cleaning tall grasses from around some of the gravestones. I walked over to let him know why I was there. I know that cemeteries sometimes attract vandals bent on destruction, and though it was the middle of the day, I wanted to ensure the man I meant no harm. I commented about the beauty of the place and asked a few questions about the graves. Then I thanked him. I thanked him for taking such good care of the graves and for keeping the cemetery looking so beautiful.
I live far away from the place where my parents are buried, so I am unable to visit the graves on a regular basis. I can’t be there in the spring to ensure that the weeds are pulled and fresh flowers are planted. I can’t take care of any damage that might have occurred over the winter months. Now, I don’t need to visit a gravesite to remember my mother and father or give them the honor due. I remember then daily, share stories about their lives with my children, keep pictures close at hand. The bodies in the grave are empty shells. Yet, I was so sad when I saw some of the gravesites at the cemetery because it is obvious that there is no one to visit and take care of the site. I worry that they have been forgotten, that the last people to know them are long gone and their memory is dust in the wind. I hope that isn’t happening to my parents’ graves.
So, I thanked the caretaker on behalf of all those people who live too far away to visit regularly, and for those who are no longer remembered by the living in this world. Weed eating the overgrown grasses in a place that rarely shows signs of life must be a lonely job. It might seem to be a job with little value. After all, he serves those who have already passed from life into death, but he also serves those who are still living. I think he appreciated the words. He seemed a little happier and lighter of step when we finished our conversation.
I didn’t intend on thanking the man for his service when I went to talk with him, but it seemed like a natural thing to do. He made me think about all the people we meet on a daily basis who serve us in some way that we do not even realize. Have you ever thanked the station attendant at the self-serve gas station? Or the kid putting products on the shelf at the grocery store? Or the painters who are repainting the walls in your office space? We have no reason to talk with these people, and yet we would not have so many things without these silent servants in our lives.
So today, thank someone who is doing a job that seems thankless, because they are making a difference in the world. They might not be serving you directly, but they would like to hear that they are important. Even if you don’t buy that product or work in that newly painted office, a word of thanksgiving on behalf of those who will benefit from their work will brighten their day. They might be a little happier and lighter of step when you have finished, and the world might just be a more peaceful place.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Philippians 4:8, ASV
Taking photos in the midst of a bluebonnet field is one of the “must do” activities in Texas. Just about every parent has a photo of their little ones posed in a field, surrounded by the brilliant blue of this unique Texas wonder. I can understand: the photos are lovely, especially when the children are dressed in their Sunday best. They look like angels. Young couples and wedding parties also like to have their pictures taken in the bluebonnets.
The day I went on my wildflower adventure, a Facebook friend posted a request for the location of bluebonnet fields for pictures. We have plenty of bluebonnets popping up on the roadsides all over the region, but these patches of blue are rarely good for posed photographs. Several people offered recommendations based on the early reports, and I promised to let her now what I found during my trip that day. When I got home, I posted photos from my trip and reported the places where I found the beautiful flowers.
I love the bluebonnets, but I think the fields that boast a variety of flowers are even more beautiful. I took one photo of a field filled with coreopsis, blue mealy sage, phlox, bluebonnets, indian paintbrushes and possibly buttercups. There were other types of flowers in the field that I didn’t catch in that particular photo. The picture is bright with color—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple—every color in the rainbow. To me, this would make an even better photo for those posed shots everyone likes to take.
It seems the same was true for my friend on Facebook. As soon as she saw the photo filled with color she exclaimed, “Where is this? I want to take pictures here!” She was so set in the usual way of thinking that she’d never considered that there might be something better. Locally, our fields have a lot of yellow, but those flowers are little more than weeds that are allowed to take over uncultivated farmland for a season. Yet, those flowers are beautiful, too. We even took pictures of Victoria in one of those fields in her prom dress, and she looked wonderful. The bluebonnets are so special to those of us in Texas; we look at the fields filled with other color as ordinary. Sometimes we need to see something from another point of view to realize its value. All the wildflowers are far from ordinary: they are extraordinary gifts from God and signs of new life. Whether it is the unique Texas bluebonnet or the very common black-eyed susan, they are all beautiful. Sometimes we just need to see it through another point of view to realize its worth.
“And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Beroea: who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few.” Acts 17:10-12, ASV
When I got home from my wildflower adventure last week, I began sifting through the photos. Though I went to get pretty pictures, I decided to identify the flowers so that I could share the name when I shared the photos. Some of the flowers are so unique and well known that they are easy to identify. But others were much harder. While I managed to get those flowers in the pictures, I didn’t get enough detail to know for certain what type of flower they are.
I searched the online wildflower pages, hoping that I might find the names. Some of the sites are not helpful at all because they list the flowers by scientific name. If I don’t know what type of flower I am seeing, how can I find it if I can’t see a picture? Some sites list the flowers by common name, but even those are hard because I would have to click through every picture to see if it shows a flower like the one I’m trying to identify. A site or two divide the names by color, and this is quite helpful, although some wildflowers come in a variety of colors and can be missed if you look only at certain pages. One site separates the flowers by color and has a photo index. I had the most luck at that site, but even then I could not identify a few flowers.
I decided to buy a wildflower guide. I skimmed through a number of different books, hoping to find my unknown flowers. I was going to buy whichever book gave me my answer. One book had beautiful pictures of the most common wildflowers in the different areas of Texas. It was a nice book, but not at all helpful for identifying my flowers. A couple other books were well-organized, with hundreds of flowers, but I still was unable to find the ones I was looking for. Unfortunately, none of the books had exactly the right picture.
So, I decided to buy the Peterson Field Guide. Now, this book does not have color photographs, but like all the Peterson Guides there are some color plates with drawings of hundreds of different types of flowers. What made this the best choice, however, is that it gives descriptions of specific aspects of each plant. Though flowers follow patterns (certain numbers of petals, certain types of stems, etc.) each individual flower can be unique in some way, especially if you are trying to identify it from a photograph. The wind can blow, making it difficult to see the exact shape of the petals or the lighting can give the impression of one type of leave rather than another. The flowers are identified by other details, such as the pistils and stamens, the organization of the leaves on the stems and the location of the ovary.
The lesson I’ve learned since I began this quest is that if I want to identify the flowers, I need to do a better job at taking informational pictures. The pretty pictures are wonderful, but focusing on the bright beautiful flower is never enough to identify the specific type of wildflower. There are dozens of different sunflowers and buttercups. One of my unidentified flowers could be either and it could be neither. I did fairly well getting close-up photos of the major flowers: Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, and Coreopsis because they made beautiful pictures. But these flowers are so distinctive that it isn’t necessary to take pictures of the details. But I wish I’d done a better job with some of the others. As I study the photographs, I’m still discovering different flowers that I didn’t even realize were in the fields.
I have a Bible that has different passages marked out in different colors. One color means that the passage is about salvation. Another color identifies the passage is about love. Others indicate discipleship, faith, sin, Satan, family, witnessing, commandments, history or prophecy. This can be a good reference if you are doing a topical study, because the topics have already been delineated. Yet, I don’t think it is that easy to divide the book in this manner, because some passages can touch many different topics, and some passages have very explicit meaning for us at a specific moment. The way God touches us with His word today might not be how He touches us tomorrow, or how He touches others with the same passage. It is important for us to delve more deeply into the text to truly understand it.
The Bereans didn’t take Paul’s word as the final authority. They searched the scriptures diligently, looking for the details that confirmed what he had taught. If they were studying a flower, they would look beyond the pretty petals to the leaves, stems and other parts to know exactly what they were seeing. They studied the prophecies, the histories, the poetry, and they saw the entire story of God, recognizing the truth of God in the teaching and practices of Paul, and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.” Jeremiah 31:33-34, ASV
We got some official papers in the mail, and I left it on my desk until I had the time to take care of it. At some point, someone must have left a cup of ice water to condensate on the desk, because I later discovered that some of the papers were crinkled from water damage. The papers included an envelope for returning the work to the office. Unfortunately, the glue on the envelope also got wet and ended up sticking to the paperwork I needed to sign.
With a little work, I managed to get the paper and the envelope apart, a little worse for the wear. The paper is crinkled, stained and a little ripped. I couldn’t close the envelope as it would normally be sealed, so I had to use tape. It looks almost as though the papers were thrown in the garbage and dug out after a day amidst the scraps. The paper is for information only, so the messy state should not matter. It looks a little silly, like a six year-old’s homework that blew away into a puddle on a windy day. But I’ll mail the papers later today and hope that they’ll be fine for the purpose.
Important papers sometimes get destroyed. They accidentally get thrown in the garbage or the carrier gets caught in a sudden downpour. Our cats enjoy scratching at papers and more than once I’ve discovered piles pushed off the desk and spread all over the floor. I’ve seen plenty of paperwork covered with coffee rings or ketchup stains because they were worked over the breakfast or lunch meetings. Ripped corners, fold lines and crinkles are common occurrences when papers are exchanged from one place or person to another.
Papers are often destroyed on purpose. Torn contracts are a sign of disapproval. A whole industry has been created to produce machines that cut papers into strips or confetti to keep it from being seen. Movie producers often create dramatic scenes where a character burns a letter or document in a fireplace, watching it slowly disappear in the flames.
In another dramatic scene, Moses is seen throwing down the stone tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments. Moses came down off the mountain to discover the people had returned to their old ways, worshipping a golden calf and practicing the rituals of the Egyptian religion. Moses was angry that they could not wait for the Word of God, so he threw the tablets to the ground, shattering them and bringing wrath on the people. The people turned back to the God of their salvation and He made them new tablets of the Law. Those tablets have long been lost, however, no longer tangible documents that the people can see.
Does it matter that the documents are not longer available for us to see? Not really, because the relationship between God and His people is not dependent on anything tangible. While it is important for us to have legal papers to define the rules and relationships between people, God’s covenant is not a document that can be easily destroyed by a shredder or a spilled cup of coffee. His Word is written on our hearts, placed there by the very finger of God.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 4, 2010, Easter Day: Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12 or John 20:1-18
“Why seek ye the living among the dead?” Luke 24:5b, ASV
Easter Sunday gives us a little taste of what heaven might be: churches overflowing with believers, altars covered with fresh blooming lilies and all of creation singing Alleluia again. The sorrow of Good Friday has passed and the people are overflowing with joy and peace. The congregation is crammed with every type: the long standing member, the C & E Christian (Christmas and Easter) and even a few who are just curious about what we are celebrating. They are looking for answers to their questions: what is Easter? Who is this Christ? More than Christmas, Easter provides us an opportunity to share the Gospel message: that Jesus Christ was raised so that we all might have new life in Him.
In Easter, we see the fulfilling of the promise made through Isaiah the prophet: that God will create new heavens and a new earth, and that the lion will lie down with the lamb. As we catch a glimpse of that promise being fulfilled, we feel a longing for the time when we will not experience hurt or destruction. This is especially true in those times when we are facing difficulty in our world. As people are still suffering from disappointment and defeat in the world, they need to know that God is doing something about it.
Yet, even as we know God is faithful, we still see suffering and pain all around us. People are still hungry. Enemies still wage war. Leaders still let us down. We still sin. In our hearts we believe that God is doing this new thing, creating this new world, bringing reconciliation and peace to His creation. But in our minds and through our experiences we know that the promise has yet to be fulfilled. Even though we are filled with joy on Easter, we wake up Monday morning to the reality of our lives. We look forward to heaven, but we live in this world now. And in this world, the lion eats the lamb.
Yet, the promise in Isaiah is not just for some far off place, but for a renewing of our world here today. God is not concerned only for where we will be for eternity, but how we live in the here and now. Heaven is something to look forward to, but it is also something to be experienced now. While we do still experience hardship and death, has not the world become a better place? Though children still die much too young, have we not been able to save the lives of infants that once never stood a chance? Though men and women do not always make it to old age, are we not living longer? Though some have had economic difficulty, are there not more people who dwell in homes of their own? We can focus on the pain and the things that have gone wrong, or we can realize how much we have been blessed and then join God in recreating the world into the place He means it to be.
It won’t be perfect. We’ll still fail. Paul tells us that Christ must rule until He puts all His enemies under His feet. He rules now; we see this to be true on Easter Sunday, as we gather together to celebrate His resurrection. He was the first. We look forward to the day when He will come again. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the hope for our Christian faith. One by one the enemies of Christ are being defeated, even as each person’s heart is melted by God’s grace. It seems like it will never end, because just as one ruler is changed, another rises to fight against God. As one person comes to a lifesaving faith in Christ, it seems others are born to reject Him. But God is working. He is creating new heavens and a new earth. He is changing the world, one heart at a time.
But even as Isaiah tells us that the earth is being transformed as we dwell in it, Paul reminds us that our hope is for something beyond this world. If not, then our faith is pointless. If Jesus had not been raised and if we do not share in that new life, then we are to be pitied. But Jesus has been raised and we who believe will follow Him into the eternal life that God has promised. Heaven is our reality even as the earth is our reality. We live on the cusp of both worlds.
We are blessed to have moments when the veil between the two worlds seems to disappear for a time. I remember a visit we made to York Minster Abbey in York, England a few years ago. It was a cold and rainy day, and those ancient cathedrals are dark and cold anyway since they are made with stone with few windows. We attended the early evening worship, the evensong service, along with a few dozen other Christians. The boys’ choir was present to sing the psalms and we gathered in the intimacy of the quire. The light was dim, but there was a warm glow from the candles burning. Carvings of angels graced the walls. I got lost in the worship and for a moment I truly felt like I was in the throne room of God.
How must it have seemed for Jesus’ friends on that horrifying and confusing morning so long ago? They had left their master and friend lying in a tomb behind a heavy stone. They were prepared to complete the burial process once the religious day was over, but when they returned to the tomb they discovered that His body was missing.
We have a choice of two different versions of this story, one from Luke the physician and the other from John the Evangelist. The differences between these encounters can be troublesome to some, but we have to understand that John and Luke have different purposes and points of view. John’s Gospel has been written to prove that Jesus is the reality that was first seen in the Temple. He is the light, the bread, the priest and the sacrifice.
John describes the scene as it is witnessed by Mary. “But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.” The Ark of the Covenant—which was the mercy seat of God where the blood of the sacrifice was poured—had two angels, one at each end. It is as if Mary was in the Holy of Holies, in the very presence of God, seeing the mercy seat of God after He accepted the sacrifice. In that scene, we see the reality of God’s forgiveness and the promise that “the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.”
Luke shows us the same scene as a miraculous moment, unexplainable by human experience. When the angels reminded them of Jesus’ words, it made sense, but it was still an incredible event. How could this be? What did it mean? Why has this happened? The angels asked a simple question, but one we can ask every day. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”
Let me share another experience from England. We were visiting Westminster Abbey in London, the place where kings are crowned and princesses get married. The cathedral is filled with tombs and plaques honoring the rich, famous and powerful people of England. The tombs are spectacular, with gold leaf and important marble. Poetry corner is dedicated to those who throughout history have created some of the most beloved works of art and literature. The crowds line up to wander through the chapels, looking at memories of people who have long since died.
We were able halfway through our tour when we heard on the loudspeaker that the church would be holding a mid-day communion service. We found a staff member and asked how to get to the worship. He helped us jump over ropes and sneak through the lines of people who continued to look at the tombs. The service was held at the altar in the middle of the cathedral and we were surrounded by the crowds as we worshipped the living God. Are those visitors seeking the living among the dead? If they were, they missed Him, even though He was right under their noses.
The witnesses in both stories shared what they saw with their friends, but we are left with the question of whether or not they believed. John, ‘the other disciple,’ seems to have believed what he saw, but did he believe that Jesus had been raised? The men didn’t believe the women. Peter ran to the tomb in Luke’s story, but went home scratching his head. We are left wondering about the rest of the story.
Yet, we know they went on to tell the story. They continued to share the Good News of Jesus. Peter even took the story outside his community of faith, to Gentiles. He realizes in the story from Acts that God has no favorites. Christ was first, the Jews were next, and then the Good News was taken into the world. They believed and they shared their faith with others. We do so, too, especially on Easter Sunday. The crowds in this case are coming because they know that there is something spectacular about this story. God has done something new. God’s promises are being fulfilled. They were His witnesses and now we are called to be the same. They were commanded to preach to the people and testify, and now it is our turn.
We have life, new life in Christ, the new life that became a reality on that first Easter Sunday. We share in His resurrection and we will not die. The psalmist signs, “Oh give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; For his lovingkindness endureth for ever.” On Easter we see the reality of this promise. His mercy is eternal. The old things are forgotten. He is making a new creation. We will live and are called to continue to tell the story.
Just as there were those who did not believe in Jesus in His day, before and after the resurrection, there are still those who have rejected Him. These are those whom He defeats, one by one, heart by heart. His Word breaks the hardness in their hearts until they too see the reality of God’s grace. How can we not give thanks and praise Him as we recount the good things He has done. How can we be silent? How can we not share this Good News with others?
I am reminded of the beloved hymn that many churches might sing during worship on this Easter Sunday: I love to tell the story. In the song, the singer talks of telling the story of Jesus, because the more it is told and the more it is heard, the more wonderful it is. The singer is so grateful for what God has done, that he or she can’t help but tell it to others. It doesn’t matter who is listening: it is sweet to tell the story to those who have never heard the message of God’s salvation, but even those who know it need to hear it again and again.
So, let’s gather together this Easter Sunday to worship the risen Lord, telling the story of His mercy for all to hear!