Welcome to the March 2012 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 2012
March 1, 2012
“Put on therefore, as God’s elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness.” Colossians 3:12-14, ASV
I’ve been taking things off the walls so that the rooms of our house appear bigger. This is one of the recommendations made to us by our realtor. Of course, when you take the nails that held up the pictures, you leave behind a tiny hole. The wall where I displayed my cross collection has dozens of tiny holes. They are easy enough to repair and cover with a coat of paint.
I’m not sure the repair at another place in our home will be quite so easy. I took down my son’s dart board the other day, and though I knew that there were a few holes in the wall, I was surprised at how bad it is. Someone was obviously not very good at darts, because they missed the mark hundreds of times.
I read a story the other day about a professor who placed a huge target on the wall of his classroom. As the students entered the room for the day, he invited each one to draw a picture of someone who has hurt them. They were given the opportunity to pin those pictures on the target and throw darts at them. Some of the students had a great time putting holes in the faces of people who were in some way their enemy. After a time, the professor took down the pictures and the target, revealing a picture of Jesus that was underneath. The darts not only destroyed the pictures of the enemies, but also tore apart the picture of Jesus.
I’ve heard it said that the word used for sin in the Bible means “missing the mark.” Certainly we can see by the wall where my son’s dart board was hanging that missing the mark definitely had an impact. Some sin leaves a mark that is noticeable. But as we see in the story of the professor, sometimes our sin has an impact we never realize, particularly the lack of forgiveness. We often think of sin as the things we do wrong, but sometimes sin is the thing we don’t do at all. And when we refuse to forgive, we sin against God and man.
Christ died so that those little holes in the wall of our life will be covered by His righteousness, but our faith in Christ calls us to live as new creations. Perhaps we are better at hitting the mark, less likely to sin because of the lessons Jesus taught us, but are we willing to be Christ-like even when dealing with our deepest hurts? Are we willing to forgive as Christ forgave us? Are we going to take advantage of those opportunities to fill our ‘enemies’ with holes, or will we treat them with the same grace we have received?
“And again he went out from the borders of Tyre, and came through Sidon unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the borders of Decapolis. And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to lay his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude privately, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And his ears were opened, and the bond of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it. And they were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well; he maketh even the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.” Mark 7:31-37, ASV
It is interesting to watch the patterns of posts on Facebook. When someone posts a funny picture or a link to an interesting story, many of our mutual friends will share that post with their friends. When I’m friends with so many friends of friends, I often see the same post over and over again. They are like minded and so share the same posts. I have other friends that would have no interest in the pictures or stories, it just depends on their point of view.
I’m not sure if that’s ever been so noticeable as it has been in the past few days. A few days ago when Davy Jones died, it seemed like every person in my age range had something to say. They remember listening to the Monkeys on the radio and watching the television show. On the other hand, most of my younger Facebook friends, my kids and their friends did not even know Davy Jones. As a matter of fact, though they are familiar with some of the music, they are more likely to know modern covers of the songs rather than the version by the Monkeys. I said repeatedly that Davy Jones was my Justin Bieber which got a laugh from my old friends and an understanding nod from the younger ones.
The pattern today has been particularly interesting. March 2nd is an important day for two reasons. It is Theodor Seuss Geisel’s birthday and it is Texas Independence Day. My friends who are creative—the artists, writers, teachers, moms—have been posting happy birthday wishes to Dr. Seuss, quoting from his silly but powerful books. My political friends have focused more on Texas. Their world view defines their interests.
The same is true about how we hear and understand the scriptures. We can all look at a story and see it from our own point of view, finding the meaning and encouragement or correction that is given for us in the words. But our understanding is not always the way others see it. They focus on a different character, or find grace in a different way. For some, grace is in the hearing of the Law which helps them see their own failure and sets them free to receive the Gospel. For others, grace is found in the hearing of the Gospel, which sets them free from the burdens that overwhelm them.
I could, and probably have, written devotions about today’s scripture from my point of view, sharing with you how I see it. But one really powerful way of reading the scripture is to put yourself into the action. As you read this story, who are you? Where do you stand? Are you the deaf man, or the friends who take him to Jesus? Are you one with the crowd who saw this happen, so astonished by His power that you can’t stay silent? Are, perhaps, like Jesus, in a position to help someone hear the Gospel and speak it to others? Are you further removed from the story, feeling as though you are one who has just heard the story and you aren’t sure what to believe?
As you continue on you Lenten journey, think about how you see Christ and His grace based on your world view. How do you understand the stories? How is it different than the way your neighbors understand Jesus? What in your world view would make you see it that way? Is there anything about your worldview you can change to see Christ more clearly? How might Jesus open your ears to hear Him in a new way?
“Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight. And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. Ye therefore, beloved, knowing these things beforehand, beware lest, being carried away with the error of the wicked, ye fall from your own stedfastness. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen.” 2 Peter 3:14-18, ASV
They are touted as the “Worst cooks in America,” and after watching the show for a few weeks, I think they might just live up to the promise. This television show on the Food Network finds people who are really bad in the kitchen. The contestants are nominated by someone they love, someone who is concerned about the health and safety of not only the chef but also of those who have to eat their food. The contestants are truly pathetic in the kitchen. They not only burn water, but they can’t seem to cook the food to the proper temperature and they tend to mix flavors that simply don’t work.
The worst part of these cooks is not that they can’t seem to create edible food, they can’t even follow directions. The teaching chefs, both famous food network stars, have been teaching the contestants the basics of food preparation. They’ve learned how to use the knife and how to cut fruit and vegetables. They’ve learned how to season and to taste their food as it is prepared to make sure that it is coming out as they hoped. Each week the teaching chefs walk the contestants through the process of cooking something delicious and then have them construct the same item. The teachers are very good at giving the contestants simple step by step instructions so that they can repeat it. They take notes and then follow the recipes in their own kitchen. Unfortunately, most of them can’t even follow the notes they’ve taken and they forgot the advice of the chefs even before they get their ingredients.
Now, I don’t like to follow recipes; I like to experiment with flavors and techniques. However, before you can try to cook that way, it is important to learn how to use a recipe. I know from my early experiences how long it takes to cook certain food, and so I can take that knowledge and adapt it to the concoction I want to try. I’ve made a few mistakes over the years, but I’ve learned from those mistakes. I’m not a perfect chef, but my food is generally edible and it is sometimes delicious.
It is fun to think about food in new and creative ways, but it is important to have a solid foundation on which to build those experiments. On Friday I suggested looking at the scriptures from the reality that you will see and understand it from your world view. It is a good exercise to think on the stories from a new perspective, to see it from someone else’s point of view. However, it is important to have a solid foundation on which to base that exercise or you might be led down a dangerous path.
For example, I noticed in France how the women tended to pray at the feet of Mary. Since the women come from a heavily patriarchal society where they have few freedoms, they have a hard time seeing any man in a comfortable and safe way. They seek comfort and grace from Mary, a woman. At first I thought they were worshipping her, but I realized they simply saw her as an intercessor, a more friendly way of speaking to God. We must be careful not to elevate her to goddess or worship her in any way, but it is understandable women who feel oppressed might turn to her instead of Christ.
However some have taken this point of view to an extreme, not only seeking grace from Mary, but changing Jesus into something he’s not: a woman. There is a “bible” which has changed all the male pronouns for God into female forms, and has also changed Jesus into Judith. There may be a reason why some women cannot relate to a man, but a solid understanding of scripture will help avoid making an extreme and dangerous error. Could Jesus have been a woman? God can do whatever He pleases and will do it according to His good and perfect will. But Jesus was a historical person; we can’t change that that fact just to make the story of God more palatable to our point of view.
So while it is fun to experiment with the stories about God, to see it in new ways and understand it in ways that are helpful to our neighbors, let us keep our thoughts founded in God. Understand God as you are able, but do not allow your point of view or the point of view of your neighbor to distort what God intends. It is easy to get lost, to go down a dangerous path, so let us grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus and glorify Him in everything we think and do.
“For when God made promise to Abraham, since he could swear by none greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And thus, having patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men swear by the greater: and in every dispute of theirs the oath is final for confirmation. Wherein God, being minded to show more abundantly unto the heirs of the promise the immutability of his counsel, interposed with an oath; that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have a strong encouragement, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us: which we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and stedfast and entering into that which is within the veil; whither as a forerunner Jesus entered for us, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:13-20, ASV
One hundred years ago today the National Biscuit Company introduced one of America’s iconic treats: Oreo Cookies. According to an article I read, the company had sold 491 billion Oreo cookies by 2007. The number has surely risen drastically in the past five years, especially since Oreos have become the best selling cookie in China since they were introduced in 2006. That’s a lot of cookies.
The design of the Oreo cookie has been the same since 1952, so every time you take a cookie out of the package you’ll see the Oreo name in the middle of a circle which is topped with a two bar cross surrounded by a wreath of twelve geometric cloverleaves. No one is certain who created the design, although a man in North Carolina claims to have the original blueprints for the embossing which belonged to his father who had been an employee at Nabisco. It is interesting to note that some claim that the design has ties to Freemasonry, with the Cross of Lorraine (the circle with the two bar cross) and the cross pattee (the cloverleaves) were symbols used by the Knights Templar. The conspiracy theorists must be having a field day with that bit of information, proving that the Oreo cookie is an evil entity intent on world domination.
Even though you can always find the longstanding Oreo cookie design on grocery store shelves, in recent years the company has taken advantage of seasonal opportunities to make their product new and exciting. At Halloween, the creamy center goes orange and it goes yellow in the springtime. I’ve seen mint flavored icing, and Oreos that are backwards (the cookie is vanilla and the creamy center is chocolate.) Oreos have been covered with white chocolate to make them look like snowballs. During autumn you might find football shaped cookies. In celebration of the 100th Birthday of the Oreo, the creamy center tastes like birthday cake.
Sometimes they use a different design on the delicious chocolate cookie, but when they do, they only use it on one of the two cookies. The iconic design is always there. Whatever changes exist, you can be sure that you’ll see that stamped out pattern on at least half the cookie. After all, that’s what makes it an Oreo.
We’ve talked over the past few posts that we see God through our own eyes and experiences. He is, at times, like a friend, like a Father, like a spouse. He is a disciplinarian, encourager, healer and savior. He changes with our age, our geography, our social status and academic experience. He has yellow filling during the spring and birthday cake taste when we celebrate. Though He changes in our perception, God is unchanging. Like the iconic design of the Oreo cookie, God is the same today, tomorrow and always. The promises He made to Abraham stand for us today and we can live in that hope with peace.
Sunday, March 11, 2012, Third Sunday of Lent: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
“The law of Jehovah is perfect, restoring the soul: The testimony of Jehovah is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Jehovah are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of Jehovah is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Jehovah is clean, enduring for ever: The ordinances of Jehovah are true, and righteous altogether.” Psalm 19:7-9, ASV
The first half of today’s Psalm is a hymn of creation praising God. The psalmist describes how the heavens and earth glorify God, especially in the way that even the sun shines forth words that can’t be heard about God’s majesty and graciousness. God gives the sun a place to run with joy and everything under its rays is touched by its light. Isn’t it interesting that some ancient (and even modern) religions make the sun a god, and yet in our faith the sun is a creation which exists to praise the one true God? Those of us who live in south Texas understand the line “And there is nothing hid from the heat thereof,” especially in the middle of the summer. But even when the sun is hidden behind the clouds or is down for the night, the sun continues to touch the earth.
It is jarring after this poetic description of the sun’s praise to God to hear the words I’ve chosen as today’s focus. The psalmist uses six different ways of describing the Law. In many ways, we’d prefer to go on with the song of the heavens, to listen to the silent voice that speaks knowledge of God in a way that is perceived rather an understood. We don’t like to talk about the Law because we see it as a burden, especially as it had come to be understood in the days of Jesus. When the Law is abused and misused, it is easy to take advantage of those who just want to be faithful.
In Jesus’ day the religious leaders wanted to be seen as faithful, but they used their power and position for their own benefit, not to glorify God. They made it difficult for the average person to live up the expectations, expectations that were man-made, not God-given. That’s why Jesus responded so radically to what He found in the Temple courts. The moneychangers were taking advantage of the pilgrims, and the leaders were getting their cut. They didn’t care about the spiritual welfare of their flock.
Unfortunately, neither do those who focus solely on pretty words and songs of praise. God’s love and grace are the foundation of everything we have and everything we are. The Law does not make us children of God. It does not save us. Obedience to a set of rules will not make the world a better place, especially when the rules are burdensome and we are imperfect. We will fail. We might do well with a rule here or a rule there, but we will eventually fail. We might be able to keep from murder, but we’ll probably hate someone. We might not steal, but it is likely that we will covet something of our neighbor. Jesus tells us that it isn’t just active disobedience of the Law that is sin; we sin even when we think about it.
Knowing that it is only by God’s grace that we can overcome our sinful nature, we avoid talking about sin and focus on grace. God saved me, that is for sure. However, how do we know we need to be saved? That’s the problem with much of today’s preaching: we avoid talking about sin and focus only on thanking God for all the good things He’s done. We focus on the creation, on worshipping God in the trees and the sun and the mountains. We focus on the people and what we can do for them. We focus on meeting the physical needs and we ignore the reality: we need to be saved and reconciled to God because we are sinners. We need a Savior. We need Jesus, not as a friend or teacher, but as the Lamb who was slain. And we won’t know we need Jesus without the Law.
The Ten Commandments, as listed in today’s Old Testament lesson from Exodus, gives us a good foundation on which to build the Law. The Jews had a list of six hundred and thirteen laws governing everything from hygiene to discipline for bad behavior. They had rules about what kind of clothes to wear and when they could do certain tasks. They had a long list of requirements for offerings to God. This isn’t necessarily what the psalmist is talking about in today’s psalm. Yes, the laws give us a foundation for living as God demands, and if we obey those laws we will find ourselves blessed. The reason for this is not because God rewards good behavior, but because the laws protect us from harming ourselves and others. The Law acts as a cover that guards us, and if we step out beyond it, we will suffer the consequences.
The psalmist turns to the Law in the second half of the passage because even though we can know God through the creation, the Law is a gift given so that we can know what God has to say. The law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear and ordinances teach us God’s will. We can see God in nature as many have throughout the ages; but we can know God fully in His Law. Without Law, Gospel is meaningless. Without Gospel, Law is a burden. The Law leads us to the Gospel. The Gospel keeps us from dying under the weight of the Law.
Now, it is interesting to note that within the Old Testament text along with the Commandments is a piece of good news. This is a covenant, a promise. The hard part for us to understand is why God would ever include the word “if,” but this is a bilateral covenant. Some of God’s covenants are one sided: we can’t do anything in the keeping of those covenants; it is all up to God. But we are reminded that we bear some responsibility in our relationship with God. Obedience will bring reward. But notice the promise within: God will show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments. Jesus Christ was obedient even unto death, and we are made heirs through Him. God loves us because of His obedience, not because of our own. He loves us because of Jesus.
The Ten Commandments do not begin with “do not” rules. They begin with relationship building rules. It is about putting the One who saved them out of Egypt first in their life, and then those whom God has appointed as elders. The last few commands are the “do not” rules, but they are meant to be relationship keeping rules. The things we do against other people are the things that cause the brokenness of our world. When we murder, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet our neighbor’s things we build walls between one another. These rules are not given to make our life harder. They are given to keep us right with our neighbors and therefore right with God. In the end, if we keep the first commandment, keeping God first, we will by His nature not disobey the others because we will want to please the One who is our Savior and Deliverer.
It is no wonder, then, that Jesus was upset with the activities going on in the Temple courts. The sales people and money changers were not honoring God by selling the sacrificial animals, no matter how they justified it. They were making worship harder for the people who came to the Temple.
The Gospel story from John happened during the Passover feast, when as many Israelites that could come did come to Jerusalem to offer their gifts and celebrate. Though not originally found in the design of the Temple, the marketplace had become an important part of the worship experience. Pilgrims could not bring perfect animals with them on their long journeys. A sheep or a goat or even a dove would be too difficult to carry for long distances. The sacrifices were required so that the pilgrims could be restored to a right relationship with God before they entered into the sanctuary. The moneychangers provided an important service, exchanging the money that had graven images to a type of coin that did not, which was the only type of coin that could be received in the offering. To give to God, they had to change their own money for that which was acceptable. These merchants and moneychangers were there at the request of the priests, to make things easier for the pilgrims attending to do their duty and obey the law.
If the marketplace had been outside the gates of the Temple, we may not have seen this story in our Gospel texts. Though Jesus did fight against heartless worship, He was not arguing against the pilgrim offerings at the Passover feast. It was not just a time of pilgrimage for Jews, but for those who sought to know and understand the Hebrew God. The nations were welcome in the outer courts of the Temple to pray and learn and perhaps even choose to become a Jew. Pilgrims of other faiths were only allowed in the outer courts.
Jesus was disturbed that the priests had so little respect for God’s grace to the nations. The sales were going on in the outer court, making it impossible to pray and learn and choose the God of Israel. The place of prayer for the gentiles and sanctuary for those who could not enter into God’s presence became a den of thieves. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes Isaiah who wrote, “…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” By filling the outer court with merchants and money changers, the gentiles had no place to experience the presence of God and to hear His word. Jesus was standing up for the people of every nation which God loved, too.
Jesus’ actions in the outer court sparked the disciples’ interest and they saw Jesus in light of the scriptures. They remembered the words of the psalmist describing the Messiah as one having zealous passion for the house of God. The Jews wanted a sign proving that Jesus had the authority to drive the marketplace from the Temple. This was an offense to their power and their authority, an offense worthy of punishment. It is evident in the other Gospel versions that this was the beginning of the end for Jesus. His actions in the Temple would force their hand. He had to be stopped, even if it meant killing him.
When asked what sign He would give to prove His authority, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” This is the first time Jesus talks about His death and resurrection, but they see it as a boastful claim that He will rebuild a temple of stone in three days. How could He rebuild a building that took forty-six years to build? He was not referring to a copy of God’s image built in stone. He was referring to the real thing: Himself. It was not until much later that the disciples realized what He meant that day; after the resurrection the disciples remembered and believed. The Law helped people see their need to visit the Temple to be reconciled with God, and it does the same for us. But we are blessed to be one of the generations receiving the promise in the Law. The Temple is Jesus. He died and was raised so that we can present living sacrifices to God: our hearts, our hope and our lives.
But that’s just foolishness. Why would a God of love demand such a high price for our failures? God seems to take the most incredible situations and make them work for His glory. Grace is found in the Law, as God promises to bless us for generations for the obedience of our forefathers, but the greatest moment of grace came when Christ died on the cross. But Paul saw the doubt of men. Why would Christ have to die? Why did God require blood sacrifice? What possible benefit could the world get from the cross? How could one life make up for all our failures? It is easier to think that we can do it on our own, being obedient to the letter of the Law or to think we can ignore the Law completely and see God in the trees and the sun and the mountains. It is easier to see God in our good works that meet the needs of our neighbors. It isn’t so easy to see that we need a Savior and that Jesus is the One.
It was said that you could find a wise man on every corner in Corinth who had the solution to the world’s problems. Paul quoted this passage from Isaiah because they were not pointing at the true solution, the cross of Christ. There are still plenty of wise men trying to provide answers to life’s deepest questions, but their answers depend on human wisdom. They point away from Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to look for the wisdom of God, to not only perceive Him in the world but to know and understand Him through His Word. That word came for us first in the Law, then in the Temple and finally in Jesus Christ.
Yes, the law of Jehovah is perfect, restoring the soul: The testimony of Jehovah is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Jehovah are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of Jehovah is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Jehovah is clean, enduring for ever: The ordinances of Jehovah are true, and righteous altogether. But we know that the Law points us to Jesus, and this is the Word we are called to preach, no matter how foolish it might seem.
Are we speaking this foolishness that Jesus is the answer we seek? Do we call people to recognize their sin and point them to Jesus the Savior who saves us from our failure to live up to God’s expectations? Or are we like the wise ones in Paul’s day seeking signs and earthly wisdom rather than the cross of Christ? Have we allowed our own sanctuaries to become marketplaces that sell programs and agendas rather than proclaim the cross of Christ? Are we willing to join with the psalmist in praising God with the silent voices of creation while also living in the gift of God’s Law? The Law He gave is not meant to be a burden, but is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean and true. As we live in that Law, our souls will be restored, we’ll be made wise, our hearts will rejoice, our eyes will be opened and we will endure forever. Most of all, as we live in the Law as it came to us in and through Jesus we’ll be made righteous, blessed for generations and into eternity.
“This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk, in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart; who being past feeling gave themselves up to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But ye did not so learn Christ; if so be that ye heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus: that ye put away, as concerning your former manner of life, the old man, that waxeth corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, that after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth. Wherefore, putting away falsehood, speak ye truth each one with his neighbor: for we are members one of another. Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have whereof to give to him that hath need. Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear. And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, in whom ye were sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and railing, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:17-32, ASV
In response to the psalm in yesterday’s readings I wrote, “But even when the sun is hidden behind the clouds or is down for the night, the sun continues to touch the earth.” We know that the sun provides warmth and nutrients, and that everything needs sun to grow. Even the moles that live underground all the time eat food that cannot grow without the sun. The sun helps regulate the seasons and causes the water to evaporate so the rain can fall. The sun even affects the tides, although to a lesser extent than the moon. The sun holds the earth in a perfect orbit, at the perfect distance, at a perfect speed so that we can live. It is pretty amazing, if you think about it.
Scientists have been studying the effects of the sun for millennium. In ancient times, people watched the movement of the sun and gauged their life around it. They knew when to plant crops, when to chase the herds to stock up for winter weather. They knew when to migrate or hunker down based on the signs they saw in the heavens. They didn’t understand everything; normal events like solar eclipses were often interpreted as portents of pending doom. Yet, even the ancients knew that the sun and other heavenly bodies can affect the earth.
I recently learned that the sun also affects the more modern aspects of our life. We have a compass in our car, and the other day the compass told me I was going North or Northwest no matter what direction I was traveling. I drove around a block and though I physically drove South and East, the compass never showed it. I thought something was wrong with my car. I learned later that solar flares caused by storms on the sun can affect wireless communication, including GPS systems. Everything worked fine the next day.
A solar flare that erupted on Tuesday will hit the earth, probably today, and will likely affect many electronic gadgets. Cell phones may not work, satellites may be affected which will cause problems with television and radio transmissions. Even electric grids might be disrupted. Pilots are expected to avoid flying over the North and South Poles because the impact will be worse there. We often take the sun for granted because it is always there doing what it does. But for the next few days we’ll be more aware of the sun than usual, and not necessarily in a positive way.
How will your life affect the people around you? Will you be like the sun when it is providing everything necessary for growth? Will you be life-giving with words of hope and grace, love and encouragement? Or will you be more like the sun we are experiencing this week, wreaking havoc on the lives around you because of the storms that rage in your own spirit? And how will you respond to those around you? Will you take them for granted when they are sharing God’s grace, noticing them only when they impact you in a negative way? We are called to live in a way that reflects the grace of God, so let us speak words that edify and encourage right living in the lives of everyone we touch.
“I manifested thy name unto the men whom thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them to me; and they have kept thy word. Now they know that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are from thee: for the words which thou gavest me I have given unto them; and they received them, and knew of a truth that I came forth from thee, and they believed that thou didst send me. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me; for they are thine: and all things that are mine are thine, and thine are mine: and I am glorified in them. And I am no more in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are. While I was with them, I kept them in thy name which thou hast given me: and I guarded them, and not one of them perished, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy made full in themselves. I have given them thy word; and the world hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them from the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, even so sent I them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.” John 17:6-19, ASV
I began writing A WORD FOR TODAY on August 1, 1999. In the past twelve and a half years I’ve chattered on and on about thousands of trivial things, sometimes stretching the connection to faith and our relationship with God. In those years, you have come to know me. You know my husband, my kids and my cats. You know which television shows I watch and some of my favorite foods. Though I try to be non-committal about my opinions on certain issues and about politics, you can probably tell by some of my posts where I might stand on those things. You know when it is hot at my house, when it is raining and when I’m headed on vacation. You know my life because of the words I have written.
You know me, but I hope in the process my words have helped you see God. I sometimes shake my head at how incredible it is that God can be found in a secular movie script or in a bottle of Liquid Plumber. I’m amazed when a new food product shines a light on some characteristic of God. I’m often shocked at the themes that make me see God’s grace, especially when those themes are less than gracious. After twelve and a half years I am still surprised that my simple, earthbound life has been used by God to give a glimpse of heaven to so many people.
Why are we ever amazed? The scriptures are filled with ordinary people doing ordinary things that glorify God. Yes, some of the stories are extraordinary. I can’t imagine any of us experiencing life like the prophets or the kings. Will any of us know what it is like to be faced with the kind of persecution perpetrated first by Paul and then on him? Will any of us be chased by an evil queen or be beheaded because we’ve spoken the truth? Will any of us get swallowed by a whale and then spit out to tell our enemies that God loves them?
No, I don’t think any of us will experience those things. But, we can all share God’s grace in our every day, ordinary experiences. God sent Jesus to be human so that we would see Him in the world. Now, Jesus was far from ordinary, but He lived life just like you and I. He ate, He slept, He laughed and He cried. He walked and preached and shared God in every encounter. He was able to show God in the flowers and in the pigpens and in the lakes. He revealed God to the people in the words that they understood, through their own experiences.
We might live ordinary lives, but we are no longer ordinary. Everything we do and everything we are belongs to God, and He is able to use even the most mundane aspects of our life in ways that will surprise us. The key, for us, is to recognize that God does not reveal Himself just through extraordinary means, but also through the ordinary ones. He takes you and me and all our gifts and uses them in ways that we might never expect. We love to read the stories of the extraordinary experiences of those Bible characters, but the most amazing thing is that God uses our simple, earthbound lives to His glory.
“Praise ye Jehovah. Praise, O ye servants of Jehovah, Praise the name of Jehovah. Blessed be the name of Jehovah From this time forth and for evermore. From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same Jehovah's name is to be praised. Jehovah is high above all nations, And his glory above the heavens. Who is like unto Jehovah our God, That hath his seat on high, That humbleth himself to behold The things that are in heaven and in the earth? He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, And lifteth up the needy from the dunghill; That he may set him with princes, Even with the princes of his people. He maketh the barren woman to keep house, And to be a joyful mother of children. Praise ye Jehovah.” Psalm 113, ASV
Can you imagine the implications of this characterization of God, “He humbles himself…” God humbles Himself to see what is happening in heaven and earth. He humbles Himself to dwell in our midst. He humbles Himself to be like us, to identify with us, to take upon Himself the very worst of who we are. God humbles Himself. If anyone has reason to not be humble, it is God. He is not only a king, He is the King. He is Creator, Redeemer, Father. There is none greater. There is no one who can even comprehend the depth and width and height of God. He is worthy to be praised forever and always.
The CEO of Oriental Trading was the one to go undercover on an episode of “Undercover Boss” this week. The situation was unique for this show in that Oriental Trading does not have stores or business properties besides the one in Nebraska. It was possible that employees might recognize him, so they had to change his looks significantly. The purpose of the show is for CEOs to go into the bowels of a business and learn what is working and what is not working. Sam Taylor though they were in good shape with employee morale; he was visiting different areas to see how company policies are working.
What he discovered as he tried to accomplish the tasks is that some of their policies simply made the work harder for the employees. One woman said that she appreciated the family picnics held by the company but that she’d rather that money be spent to make working conditions better so that she might have more quality time with her family at home. She was so tired after working so fast and hard in the heat of the warehouse all day that she couldn’t give her family the kind of attention they deserved. At least one of the employees that encountered the undercover boss grumbled about how the management had no idea what it was like for the employees, and that their ideas are based on theories not real life experience.
At the end of the show, the CEO always reveals himself to the employees he encountered, and he offers them gifts to make their lives better. He also reveals changes to policies based on their suggestions. He promised to put fans to cool the work area and to provide sports drinks to help keep them healthy. He even went out into the warehouse with a cart full of drinks to give to the employees as they worked. Perhaps the best promise he made was that all the management would spend at least a few days a year on the floor of the warehouse, working with employees to see firsthand how things work.
Now, I can imagine that at least a few of those managers will grumble every time they are forced to spend their day on the floor. They see themselves as better or more important than the grunts who work on the lines. They are too smart to spend their days stuffing boxes or searching racks of inventory for customer orders. At least a few will probably try to find ways to avoid the work. But morale is already better with the employees because they’ve seen the willingness of the CEO to experience what they experience and to make decisions based on the knowledge he obtained during his time on the floor. He is worthy of their respect because he knows what it is like to be them.
Can we remember that we are called to be servants, to be the people that do the work of God in this world? We are not better than God and we are not better than those who God has given us to serve. We are called to humble ourselves as God humbled Himself, to see the heavens and earth from the low perspective rather than from on high. We look forward to the day we will join our God in eternity, but now we are blessed to dwell among those who need to hear God praised and to see His glory. If God can humble Himself, we certainly can. And we can live blessed with the knowledge that in God’s eyes none are great or lowly no matter their circumstances, but all are equally loved.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye cleanse the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full from extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the platter, that the outside thereof may become clean also.” Matthew 23:25-26, ASV
My kids are home for spring break and it is so good to have them in the house again, if only for a few days. Victoria has to head back early to work on senior projects, and Zack will be on the bus early Sunday morning. It is good to have them at the dinner table, to hang out in front of the television. It isn’t long enough, but I’ll take every minute I can get. The time will soon be here when these family times will be limited to an occasional Christmas or summer vacation.
Unfortunately, I’m also happy that they are home so they can help with some of the spring cleaning. I’ve been busy the past few weeks with a steam cleaner on the carpets and other long put off jobs. Since we want to see our house and move to another one on the other side of the city, Bruce and I are doing small tasks to make the house photo ready. I’ve taken pictures off the wall, cleaned the doorway and window trim, removed unexpected items from rooms. The garage is already stacked with boxes packed with unnecessary items. We’ve been working on the lawn, planting flowers, adding sod, pulling weeds. Day by day for the past couple of months, we have managed to get many of these tasks completed.
I didn’t want the kids to miss out on all the fun, so I started making lists of tasks for them to do when they were home for spring break. The lists were short; the tasks would not take either one more than a couple hours. I figure that they can put that much time into getting this house (which they’ve lived in for the past eight years, too) ready for sale.
I have to admit, though, as they were graciously doing the work I asked them to do, that I felt a bit like the wicked stepmother from Cinderella. Victoria was up to her elbows in cleaning solution as she scrubbed the greasiness off the kitchen cabinets. She also cleaned her room from top to bottom, including the carpets. Zack has a few extra days, but yesterday he did work on his room and pull nails out of the wall where I could not reach. Tomorrow he’ll be mowing the lawn and changing light bulbs.
I think it is appropriate to do spring cleaning during Lent, since it is a time of digging deep into the soul to do a little cleaning. As we journey toward the cross, we recognize the filth in our own lives, and it isn’t enough to just clean the surface. We need to check the nooks and crannies, dust from top to bottom. We might even have to attend to some cleaning that we just don’t want to do. I would have preferred to give the kids a break from all responsibility, since they both are working hard to do well at college. But we are called to encourage one another in all things, to help each other be the best we can be.
The statements of Jesus to the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees often sound harsh and without compassion. After all, they were living according to the laws that they knew. Jesus can see beyond the surface, so we see them through His eyes. And yet, we understand them. We live like them. We follow our own patterns and practices that are all too often little more than surface cleaning. But Jesus doesn’t just tell them that they are doing it wrong; He tells them how to do it right. He wants the teachers and the Pharisees to be the best they can be, too. He wants them to clean up their act so that they can receive the blessedness found in following God as He is, rather than as we want Him to be.
“… wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience…” Ephesians 2:2, ASV
There is a commercial for a microwavable snack food that starts with a picture of some boys staring into a refrigerator. One calls his mom. “We are dying.” She answers, “No you aren’t; you are just hungry.” But the boys can’t find anything to eat. The mom directs their attention to the box of snacks and they get very excited. They were staring at the food that would satisfy their hunger all along, but they couldn’t see it without the help of the mother.
How many times have you opened the refrigerator door and looked inside at an overabundance of food overflowing from the shelf, and yet still say, “I’m hungry and there is nothing to eat.” I can tell you that I do it regularly, sometimes daily. It isn’t that we have no food in the house, but I just can’t find something that will satisfy my appetite. Do you ever regret what you’ve ordered at a restaurant after you’ve seen delicious food delivered to other diners? They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and that certainly seems to be true when it comes to food.
The Hebrews certainly felt that way. Granted, they didn’t have the selection we have in our refrigerators today, but they were not starving. They had food and water and yet they had nothing they wanted to eat. They were used to the food they had in Egypt, and even if they had to pay a high price for that food. They were free, but they had to eat the same thing so long that it had become detestable to them. They weren’t starving; they just didn’t like the food they had to eat.
It seems so petty, but we are just as good at grumbling. We hate the weather, no matter what it is doing outside. Even when we have the most perfect day, we are thinking about how it will be too hot or too cold or too wet tomorrow. Our car is never good enough. Our house is never nice enough. Our teachers are never smart enough. Our bosses are never compassionate enough. We always have something that makes us grumble.
It is really hard for us to hear this story because we just don’t see God being so unmerciful, so we’d rather ignore it. We don’t understand or accept the concept that God would send poisonous snakes. Yet, is it something we should ignore? The poisonous snakes were a way of getting the people's attention before they did more harm to themselves. Their grumbling could lead to a desire to return to Egypt. They would forget the reality of slavery in the memory of that former life. Would Pharaoh welcome the slaves back with open arms and a huge barbeque? No, they would go back to their own deaths, and it would be alone. If they turned back to Egypt, they would turn their back on God.
God was disappointed by their lack of faith and trust. The Hebrews wanted control. They, perhaps rightfully, felt helpless. Moses had led them into the wilderness away from their homes and everything they knew. They could not see how this journey in the wilderness could possibly lead them to a better life. Their life in Egypt was not comfortable; they were oppressed and worked to death as slaves to the Pharaoh. They hated being slaves; when Moses led them out of Egypt they were excited to be alive and free. But the Promised Land was not right around the corner and Moses had become a disappointment. They had a hard time believing in this God that would make them suffer so much. They were expecting a land of milk and honey.
Their wandering in the wilderness became such a burden that they began to look back on their sojourn in Egypt with fond memories. It had to be better in slavery than starving and thirsting, lost in the desert. Even though God was providing them with all that they needed, they hungered and thirsted for Egypt.
Which would have been worse; death in Egypt apart from God or death in the wilderness with a promise from God that He will make all things new? God stopped them in their tracks with those snakes. They had to be reminded that they were being guided by a gracious and merciful God, and that His grace and mercy might not always be what we expect. Returning to Egypt would have been worse than poisonous snakes as it would have led to the annihilation of God’s people.
We’ve been talking about covenants during the past few weeks of Lent, but this passage does not seem to hold to the pattern. Where is the promise in this story? Yes, they’ll be healed, but God never takes away the snakes. They will still be bitten and will still die. The only thing that only way they will be saved is to trust in God. Though there is not a spoken covenant here, there is an incredible promise: you’ll experience His saving grace when you trust in Him.
Nicodemus didn’t get it. We don’t hear the story that comes before our text for today, but it is good to put it in context. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but something about Jesus drew in to have a conversation. He had respect for Jesus, and yet we have to wonder why he came at night. Was he afraid of what others might think of him? Did he want time alone with Jesus? Is the idea that Nicodemus came at night more a statement from John that Nicodemus was stuck in darkness? It is interesting that Nicodemus speaks in the plural, “We know you are from God.” Who is ‘we’? Is Nicodemus speaking for a group?
Whoever Nicodemus meant when he said ‘we,’ the conversation is very personal and intimate between the two men. Jesus tells him that something has to change. He can’t rely on his human gifts and experiences to know God. It is only by God’s grace that he can truly have life. Jesus reminded him of the story of the people in the desert: it was only by the grace of God that those people were saved from their snake bites, and it will only be by the grace of God that anyone will be saved from their sinful natures. The new bronze snake would be Jesus Himself, raised on a cross and killed for the sake of the world.
Nicodemus was a teacher, a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council. If anyone knew God’s word it would be a man like Nicodemus. Yet, he understood God only from the perspective of law and tradition, not from grace. He knew only the things of flesh, not spirit. So, Jesus pointed back to a story Nicodemus would have known very well to show how God would give a sign to His people. Moses’ snake was just a type. The Savior would be lifted, too. Jesus was referring to Himself; He would be lifted on the cross and those who look to Him will have eternal life.
Is the image of the cross any more comforting than that of the snake on a pole? I don’t think so. We wonder why it was even necessary for Jesus to die. Couldn’t God have simply forgiven our sins and let us continue on our journey? No, it would not have been enough. We would have been like those Hebrews eventually. Along our journey we would wonder about whether things were better before we were forgiven. Isn’t it more fun to live according to the ways of the world? Isn’t it more exciting to follow our own desires, to seek the good things in life? Isn’t it better to be in the comfort of Egypt rather than wandering helpless in the wilderness?
God had to do something more than get our attention; He had to finish the work. He had to pay the price. He had to provide His Son who would guarantee eternal life to those who believe. The issue in the desert was not hunger or starvation; it was trust. The issue for us is not living by the law; it is about trusting that God provides true life. Nicodemus didn’t understand how anyone could be born again. He probably didn’t even understand why; he thought everything he needed could be found in good works and right living. He thought he could trust in himself. But just as the Hebrews had to trust in God to be healed from the snake bite, we have to trust in God to be reconciled to Him, even if His method seems out of character.
We are bothered by the image of Jesus on the cross. As a matter of fact, we are so bothered that we often prefer to have the cross empty. We are willing to remember the crucifixion, but we prefer to see it after the resurrection. The crucifix is an image that goes against our idea of a loving God. I’ve heard too many people say that they can’t believe in the Christian God because the god they know is a god of love and a god of love would not require such a great sacrifice.
Jesus tells us that they stand condemned. They aren’t condemned because God has seen fit to punish them for some sin, but because they have turned their back on the God of Creation. We love the message found in John 3:16, but the promise is found in the next verse. John 3:17 tells us that God sent the Son to save the world. John 3:16 means nothing without the truth that Jesus saves us from ourselves. John continues, “He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.” We who believe are no longer under the judgment we faced before we trusted in God.
Thankfully, God gives us something to look at, to remind us of His grace. He could have taken the snakes away, but how long would the Hebrews have continued to trust in Him if He had? He gave them the bronze snake so that they would keep looking to Him. Would we trust in God if He took away sin and made us perfect? Adam and Eve certainly didn’t. How long would we last? How long would we remember God and look to Him? Instead of letting us wander in our own wilderness, in our own selfishness, God gave us something to remind us of His grace: the cross. When we look to Jesus, we know that all God’s promises and covenants are real.
Paul begins today’s epistle lesson with a rather strong statement: “You were dead.” They weren't physically dead; this isn’t the opening scene from some zombie movie. As a matter of fact, the Ephesians probably led decent lives. They had good food, entertainment, comfort and peace. They weren’t dead because their hearts stopped beating or their brains stopped working. They were dead in their sin; they did not believe in God. They followed the ways of the world, enjoyed the life they wanted to live.
Could God have removed the serpents from the camp of the Hebrews? Of course, but He didn't. Instead He gave them a way to be healed. Could God forgive us without the cross and cause us to live as He desired? Yes, but He didn’t. Why didn’t He find another way to save us from our troubles? I don't have the answer to that question because I do not know the mind of God. I do know however, that when I’m in the midst of trouble I see God’s love in that old beloved cross. I see my sin and my sinful nature and I see His mercy and His grace. Any freedom I have, or peace, or joy, or hope, or even faith has nothing to do with me. It is a gift from God, given not because I’ve done anything right, but because He loves me. I was dead, but He died so that I might live. I was in darkness, but He died so that I might live in the light.
The Hebrews wandering in that wilderness were chosen by God. The people to whom Paul was speaking were not Jews; they were Gentiles who were discovering through the Gospel the God who saves His people. They were very different: one lived according to the Law and the others lived the life they knew apart from that Law. Yet, Paul tells us there is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile. Paul writes, “…we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest…” Jew and Gentile are the same: condemned by our will, our nature which will naturally reject God for our own sake. We are selfish. We want what we want, and we want to be in control. We want to trust in ourselves.
When we turn away from God and try to do it on our own, we suffer the consequences. Paul tells the Ephesians how God lifted Christ up for our sake. We are no different than those in the desert, or even those in this world who make the news or have misplaced loyalty. The only difference between believers and nonbelievers is those who believe know where to look for salvation. We are made alive—healed and rescued from the grave—through Christ Jesus. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.”
God did not take away sin. He did not take away the things that will bite us in this world. He did not make us perfect, or make the world perfect for us today. However, He gave us something to look toward. He gave us something in which to hope. He made a promise and He is faithful. We will have eternal life. We do have eternal life today.
We live in a messed up world, one that has been messed up since the beginning when Adam and Eve tried to go it on their own. We still try to do things our way, to rely on ourselves and put our trust in the things of this world. But there is no need to despair. We have the one sign we need, the cross of Christ, toward which we can look for healing and peace. When the world seems to be falling apart around us, when we seem to be wandering in a wilderness without end, we can trust in God’s grace because He has and will continue to save us from the gates of death.
“For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries. A man that hath set at nought Moses law dieth without compassion on the word of two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, think ye, shall he be judged worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:26-31, ASV
I don’t always know where I’m going when I sit down to write the devotion. I come up with ideas a million different ways. I often come to the keyboard with an idea from a television show I’ve watched or an article I’ve read. Sometimes I’ve had an experience that has an impact on my faith. After twelve and a half years, I have to admit that the ideas are hard to find some days. How many times can I talk about my favorite moments from “The Big Bang Theory?” Even harder is finding a theme that goes with a scripture, or finding a scripture that goes with a theme.
When I sat down at the computer today, I did one of the more dangerous practices to find my writing for today. I opened the bible to the index and just started reading some of the words. I came across the word “apostasy” and then went to the scripture passage listed. I found the one above. It is interesting to note that in those twelve and a half years that I’ve been writing, I don’t think I’ve ever used this passage. It is a hard one, interpreted many different ways by many different experts. Who is the writer of Hebrews addressing? Who are the apostates? What is this judgment? Can we, who have had faith, become an enemy of God again?
I had an online friend. I have not spoken with this friend in a very long time, so I do not know what has happened over the past few years. This friend had been a passionate, active Christian. He was devote and zealous. Over the years, however, he discovered discrepancies between what he believed and what he was finding in his study and experience of Christianity. He noticed contradictions that bothered him. “How could it be this way and that way?” he asked, and solid, intelligent answers did not suffice. He lost his faith and rejected Christ. He rejected Christianity and all religion. Some days he thought he might be agnostic, willing to admit that there could be something but he just didn’t know what it was. Some days, which came more and more frequently at the end of our discussions, he rejected everything to do with faith, even the people who cared for him.
I don’t know what happened, or will happen, to my friend. Today’s passage may not offer much hope. But if it says anything, it does say that it is up to God, and I have to believe that He is always faithful. We can reject what Christ has done. We can reject Christ. But God can do the impossible, and though there is a reality of hell for those who reject God, there is also hope that God can overcome even our unfaithfulness. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but there is always hope.
So why would I be faced with such a difficult text during this Lenten period? Perhaps it is calling us to think about those who were once among the faithful but have fallen way. Perhaps there is a glimmer of faith, but the doubts and questions are too much to bear. Perhaps they are lost in the cares or temptations of the world. We may think they are apostate because they do not live the same sort of faith as us, but it is not for us to judge. Even if they have, like my friend, rejected Christ so completely that they are unwilling to even have Christians in their lives, it is up to God to change their life and faith. It is not up to us to call them apostate, but it is our calling to pray and seek God’s hand in their life. Condemned or not, it is our responsibility to love them. God will do what God will do. Our job is to believe and trust, living in hope for what can be through God’s mercy and grace.
“And as Jesus passed by from thence, he saw a man, called Matthew, sitting at the place of toll: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Teacher with the publicans and sinners? But when he heard it, he said, They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:9-13, ASV
I have often talked about how we see the scriptures through our own experience and knowledge. A woman will read a text differently than a man. A person from Africa will understand a story differently than a person from the United States. A long time Christian will gain something different from a text than a brand new Christian. The same text can offer law to one person and gospel to another. Some will be comforted and others will be challenged. This is why we consider the Bible a living book: it speaks to our own personal needs while still being enduring truth.
We have to remember, though, that our hearts and our minds are imperfect. We can see a Bible text according to our own biases, and not in a good way. Slavery was acceptable for much too long because the slavery texts were written from a point of view that seemed to sanction it in the eyes of the slave holders. The question of women pastors is still argued over in many churches. Voices that have claimed to be prophetic have led people astray for millennia, chasing after the end times based on an abuse and misuse of scripture. We can easily justify our own opinions by pointing at one verse or another, but they usually have to be taken out of context to really work. So, we pick and choose the scriptures we want so that they’ll say what we want them to say.
Our misunderstanding is not always deliberate or willful. Sometimes our humanness gets in the way of our seeing the reality of what God is trying to tell us. We learn a lesson, but we often learn an unintended lesson which affects the way we live in the world. We may not even realize that we are doing it. I recently read an article by a money expert about debt and our childhood fairy tales. The writer looked at the different stories we learned growing up and saw that there was an unintended lesson that we learned, giving us permission to get into, and stay in, debt.
Take, for instance, the story of Snow White. The intended message of the story is that love conquers all and good triumphs over evils. But the author of the story saw another message: someone will come and save us if we get into trouble. So, instead of watching our pennies, we expect a windfall will get us out of our financial debt. We buy in expectation of that inheritance or lottery win that will never come. In the story of Aladdin we learn not to judge a book by its cover. We also learn, however, that the only way to get along in the world is to pretend to be something we aren’t. So, we spend money we don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. We buy things like the larger house, better car, fancy wardrobe just to keep up appearances and then get ourselves into financial trouble in the end.
The people in Jesus’ day had taken the Law into their own hands, making it say what they wanted it to say and do what they wanted it to do. They made the Law a burden that was impossible to carry. The Pharisees ignored the needs of the people and honored only their righteousness. Jesus understood that everyone needs to experience God’s grace, especially those who are living outside God’s expectations. Jesus told the Pharisees to learn what it means to have mercy.
We can find scriptures that point us to a life of living in the Law, and there is no doubt that God expects us to live according to His Word. But, He also calls us to be merciful, to see the needs of our neighbors and teach them trust in God. Slavery might have had a place in the world, but it was not the way God intends for His people to live. The question of women in ministry might be answered by mercy. Prophetic voices would do well to think about the words they speak through God’s mercy and grace. We must be careful as we interpret and understand that scriptures from our own point of view, and ensure that we are doing what is right and good for our neighbor. Is the law by which we live putting others outside the realm of God? Is the sacrifice we demand making it impossible for someone to believe? Is our point of view making us live in a way that is not right and good?
“Therefore I say unto you, be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value then they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? And why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Matthew 6:25-34, ASV
I found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, again, something that happens more often as I get older. I can’t say that I was particularly worried about something, but my mind was wondering about all sorts of topics. I had a song stuck in my head. I was running through the things I need to accomplish this week. I was thinking about houses. I have no real stress in my life, but for some reason my mind decided to stay awake thinking about nothing important at all.
Imagine what it would be like if I really did have reason to worry. Think about Joseph. Joseph was betrothed to Mary, ready to take on the responsibility of a wife and possibly children. Unfortunately, the righteous Joseph discovered his betrothed was already with child before they were married. He was a kind and good man, so he didn’t want to do anything that would hurt Mary, but her pregnancy was problematic. How could he take her as a wife if she’s been with another man? He had reason to worry; he was worried not only about himself, but also about Mary and that child. The big question might have even kept him up at night: “What should I do?”
Just as Joseph thought he had his answer, God spoke to him. He was going to let Mary go quietly, but God said “No.” God had a plan, and there was no reason for Joseph to worry. It would not be easy; they would face the same persecution because of Mary’s pregnancy. But God’s intervention gave Joseph the courage to stay with Mary. He knew that this was not a normal situation because God was at work in their lives. Can we be like Joseph, trusting that God is at work in our lives? It should be easier for us than for him, since Christ has completed the work and we have the Holy Spirit as our constant companion.
But then, we do not have to worry about such extreme circumstances. We aren’t taking on the responsibility of God’s own Son in flesh. We aren’t facing the persecution that comes with such a radical, life-changing decision. We aren’t living in a time like that of Joseph. Why should God be concerned about my little worries? Why should I lay my simple problems at the feet of my God when He has so much more immense problems to deal with in the world? But trusting in God means believing that since He cares about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, then He also cares about the simple problems we face. His solution might not be what we want, or expect, but He will be with us through it. He is always at work in our lives as we will discover if we are constantly looking for His grace.
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which Jehovah God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.” Genesis 3:1-6, ASV
You’ve heard the phrase, “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” We’ve heard it a lot today here in Texas because spring came in like a lion last night. We had severe storms with extreme lightning, heavy rain and strong winds. There was even hail and several tornadoes. The damage and injuries appear to be minor, although not to the families that were directly affected by the storms. Spring certainly did come in like a lion last night.
The problem with this use of the phrase is that it is used for the month of March. It came into use because the month of March is the most changeable. Winter can linger into the early days and by the end of the month the wildflowers can be in full bloom. In northern climates, the temperatures can be mild early and still return to cold and snow. The change of temperatures can be extreme and always unexpected. We can see snow and rain, cloudy skies and sun, cold and warm, wet and dry. So, they say that if March comes in like a lion, then the end of the month will be mild and delightful like a lamb. But if March 1st is mild, watch out!
Now, it doesn’t really matter that they are not using this phrase as it was intended. I’m sure others over the years have used it in many different ways. It just goes to show you how language is changed and how easily it can be made to mean something else. This is particularly true when it comes to religious and political language, which is why we have such a difficult time talking to one another. If I understand a word to mean one thing while someone else understand it to mean the exact opposite, we might think we are talking about the same thing but we aren’t. No wonder we are so confused.
We are no different than human beings have been throughout time. Even in the beginning, Adam and Eve were confused by the misuse of God’s Word by the serpent. He twisted God’s gracious intention for Adam and Eve by making it seem like God is trying to keep the good things from them when He was keeping Adam and Eve from the very things that would destroy life in the garden. See, we think that knowledge is good, and in many ways it is. But in the story of Adam and Eve, the knowledge they gained separated them from God. They were thrown out of the garden not because they did something wrong and were being punished. The knowledge they gained made them afraid of God. Can you imagine living eternally in the presence of someone in whom you are afraid?
God knew that the tree of knowledge would make Adam and Eve afraid, and He told them not to eat so that they would remain in a healthy and happy relationship with Him. The serpent told them that eating the fruit would make them like God. That’s the problem! We can’t possibly be God, so when we see Him fully and wholly, we see that it is impossible for us to be Him and that makes us afraid. The words the serpent used seemed harmless, and actually seemed good and right and true. And yet, in the end, it was a deadly mistake to believe it.
What words are being twisted today that seem good, right and true, but are in reality, dangerous to our life, our faith and our relationship with God?
Sunday, March 25, 2012, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.” Psalm 51:4, ASV
We do a lot of things wrong. We lie, we cheat, and we steal. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are doing it. We are jealous of our neighbors and covet what they have. We may seem to be living a good, righteous life; our neighbors may think we are kind and generous, moral and upstanding citizens. And perhaps we are. Yet we still do a lot of things wrong. We don’t always love. We sometimes hate. We don’t share everything we have. We are, at times, selfish. We get angry for all the wrong reasons. We do not forgive. We forget to do what is right. We sin in thought, word and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. That’s our human nature: we are sinners and we do a lot of things wrong.
We know that we do things wrong because of the covenant God made with His people, as we saw in the scriptures a few weeks ago. The Ten Commandments gave us a foundation on which to build the lives God wants us to live. Our actions are meant to follow those rules. We are meant to honor our father and mother and all authority. We are commanded not to kill, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. Most of us can do a pretty good job at checking off these commands and perhaps according to the letter of the law they are doing what is right. I don’t know anyone who has killed someone, although I do know people who have wished others dead. I do know a person or two who has committed adultery, but I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t lusted over some sexy body. Jesus once told the crowds that it isn’t enough to avoid doing the things that God has commanded against: He said that we shouldn’t even think about it.
The Commandments, and the rest of the Law, help us see what we are doing wrong so that we might try to live a better life. The covenant God made with His people at Sinai demands that they live accordingly or He will turn His back on the nation. Each of us has learned in our own way how hard it is to live by those laws and how we suffer when we don’t. We’ve experienced broken relationships, punishment, sickness and even death because of our failure.
In today’s scriptures, however, we learn that there is a new covenant. Jeremiah writes God’s word, “…not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them…” The first covenant had to do with flesh and blood and land. God promised to make them a great nation, to guard them and to prosper them. He took them by the hand and led them out of slavery into a new homeland and promised that if they continued to live in the commandments, He would be with them.
But through Jeremiah, God promises a new, better covenant. This is a more personal covenant. It is not given to the whole people; it is given to every person. It is a covenant that has no ifs, no conditions. It is a covenant that does not require good works or right living. It is a covenant that can’t be broken because it is fulfilled and finished by God Himself.
Jeremiah writes, “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.” This covenant promises that God will be with each of His people, dwelling in their heart, writing His Word on the very depths of their soul. This new covenant is not about obedience, it is about God changing His people so that they will live naturally according to His will.
Let us not presume, however, that we do not need one another to know and experience God. It might be easy under this covenant to separate ourselves from the community of faith, knowing that we no longer need someone else to teach us the words that have been handed down for generations. We need one another so that we stay on the right path. The Law is still helpful to guide our lives. The words still matter. But under this new covenant, something is very different. Instead of gaining our forgiveness, justification and sanctification in the old way, as a nation through sacrifice, we are each forgiven by God Himself, and our failures are forgotten.
While the old covenant focused much on the way we live, the new covenant is entirely about our relationship with God. The psalmist writes, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.” We sin against our neighbors every day, but the reality is that all our sins are against God. When we do what we shouldn’t do or fail to do what we should do, we sin against God. We turn from Him, we go our own way, we do our own thing.
The new covenant is not national, it is personal. The sins we do affect the community in which we live, but the root of all our problems is that we are separated from God by our sinful nature. The new covenant is given to restore that relationship and make us into the people He has always intended us to be. According to this new covenant, God loves us and dwells within our hearts so that we can love Him and love our neighbors as He does.
That new covenant comes to us through Jesus, and it is not just for some people: it is for all people. In the beginning of this week’s Gospel lesson, some Greeks (read Gentiles) came to the disciples and asked to see Jesus. These were most likely men who believed in the monotheistic God and the moral attitude of the Jews. Yet, Judaism was as much a nationalistic religion as it was a way to honor the One True God. Being a Jew meant being part of a whole people, not just part of a way of thinking. Many Gentiles, like these Greeks, loved and feared God even though they were unwilling to take on a new citizenship.
Jesus recognized that the appearance of the Greeks was a signal of the ushering in of the new covenant. This was the hour. Everything they knew was about to die so that something new could come. Jesus, the old covenants, even the nation of Israel’s special relationship with God would pass away as something new and better came into force. The sacrifice that was about to be made was not for one sin, or one nation’s sin, but for the foundation of all sin: the broken relationship between God and His people. In this one act, this final sacrifice, the debt would finally be paid, iniquity forgiven and sin forgotten forever.
We are finally seeing God’s plan come together, the plan that has slowly revealed throughout Lent. Noah was promised that there would be no more floods, yet the flood prefigured a different kind of washing. Abram was promised that He would become the father of many nations, and now we see that the plan of God is meant to reach beyond one people. Moses was promised God’s protection as long as the people honored Him in accordance with the Law. Now we understand that the Law is meant to be seen in the simplest of terms, “love God and love your neighbor,” these two laws fulfill all of the law and the prophets.
As we get closer to the cross, we still wonder why it had to be this way. Jesus Christ lived fully the law of God, and He lived it perfectly. Of all men with flesh and blood, Jesus Christ was the only one who did not deserve death. Why the cross? When did Jesus have to be lifted on that pole?
It is no wonder, then that we hear Jesus praying, troubled by the torment to come. He wonders if He should even ask to be relieved of this work. “What shall I say? Father, save me from this hour. But for this cause came I unto this hour.” Jesus knew that obedience was the only way. It was necessary for one last sacrifice to finish the work that was started in the Old Testament covenants. The New Covenant would come when the Son was glorified, and His obedience made everything right. We think that the cross is a horrible moment, but it was the moment of glory. Jesus’ obedience glorified God’s name.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was not self-appointed. He was called by God, called the Son of God with God’s own voice. He was not following His own will but the will of the Father. Because of His obedience, God made Him Priest and King over this new covenant. He did not choose these roles, God fulfilled His promises in Jesus. These were not earthbound titles given for a brief period of time; He would be Priest and King forever.
The journey we’ve traveled during this Lenten period has helped us see, and accept, that we have truly sinned against God. We have done what we should not do and failed to do what we do in thought, word and deed, and while our sins have been against our neighbors, the root of our problem is the sin that keeps us separated from God. Our failures make us unable to pay the debts we owe one another and our God. But God promised to take care of it all and He fulfilled that promise on the cross. Now we do not need a priest or a king to intervene on our behalf because we have Jesus. God forgives our iniquity and forgets our sin because He was obedient.
We are still going to sin. It’s a fact of life that our flesh is weak and susceptible to temptation. Every day we will fail to do what is right. These sins are rarely anything major; we seem to be good and upright to the world. But sin is sin, and the effect of sin reaches far beyond our own lives. Though the work is complete, we still have reason to join in the song of David, seeking God’s mercy and grace. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin.” We pray these words because we know that we sin against God; we need Him to change us.
We do a lot of things wrong. We sin in thought, word and deed by what we do and what we leave undone. That’s our human nature: we are sinners and we do a lot of things wrong. When we do, we can trust in God’s faithfulness to keep the New Covenant, and turn to our Lord Jesus for His forgiveness. In His great mercy and love, He has provided for our reconciliation with God, which then makes it possible for us to reconcile with our neighbors and all creation. He forgives us, forgets our sin and dwells in us, guiding our resurrection journey along the path He has ordained for each of us.
“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom Jehovah imputeth not iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no guile. When I kept silence, my bones wasted away Through my groaning all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: My moisture was changed as with the drought of summer. Selah I acknowledged my sin unto thee, And mine iniquity did I not hide: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto Jehovah; And thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah For this let every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found: Surely when the great waters overflow they shall not reach unto him. Thou art my hiding-place; thou wilt preserve me from trouble; Thou wilt compass me about with songs of deliverance. Selah I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will counsel thee with mine eye upon thee. Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding; Whose trappings must be bit and bridle to hold them in, Else they will not come near unto thee. Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; But he that trusteth in Jehovah, lovingkindness shall compass him about. Be glad in Jehovah, and rejoice, ye righteous; And shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.” Psalm 32, ASV
I want to go wildflower hunting today. I have been waiting until I was sure that the wildflowers were in full bloom and looking spectacular. There is a website I reference where people can post reports of sightings. Some of the reporters are very detailed, describing the roads and distances from landmarks, making it fairly easy to find the patches of flowers. Some are even good to warn hunters about difficulties like road construction. Others are not so detailed, giving only a vague mention of a field near a town or landmark that is unfamiliar to strangers.
The direction I want to go today is not the most convenient to travel. The major roads go in every direction but the one I want to travel, so it will be necessary to take the small, dirt roads. Of course, the display of flowers will be better off the beaten path, but my maps are not always as detailed as I might need. I can’t get so lost that I won’t make it home, but I can waste time and gasoline wandering on roads that have no wildflowers to photograph. I’ve tried to make a plan for the day, and I hope that I have more fun than frustration along the way.
I think our Lenten journey is a lot like wildflower hunting. During this season of Lent we’ve discovered our own sinfulness and God’s grace. We’ve learned that we don’t have control, God does. Though we may try to read and experience the Lenten journey as one who does not know, the reality is that we know the end of the story. Even as we discover our sinfulness, we already know that Christ has overcome death for us. We know that Easter is coming and that eternal life is ours already. We know the destination and we travel with confidence even while we seem like we are lost.
Before Christ, righteousness came by upholding the burden of the Law. But even before Christ this was an impossible task. They knew the demands of the Law, but they could not do what was necessary; they didn’t know any other way to live the righteous life. Their only way out was to offer sacrifices, seeking atonement through blood. Unfortunately, the atonement that came through the blood of bulls or lambs or goats or doves did not last. It had to be offered over and over again. Jesus was the final sacrifice; He made the final payment on our debt.
Now, though we know the final destination, the road can still be rough. Those rules that became a burden are still available for us, to help us journey to eternity in the best way. It is still good to honor our parents, to keep from killing, stealing, cheating, lying and coveting. It is still right to live healthy lives and to do what is best for our neighbor. It is still good to love God and our neighbor. So, instead of wandering around the roads of life hoping we’ll find what we are looking for, we seek help from our God. We ask Him to teach us the way, to lead us on the right roads, to keep us on the right path. We are forgiven, and as forgiven people of God, let us trust that God knows the right way and follow it for the rest of our earthbound journey.
“He that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. And the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things; and they scoffed at him. And he said unto them, Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” Luke 16:10-15, ASV
I love to read to school children. I think that was my favorite part of teaching preschool was storytime. I have a number of books that are my favorites, perhaps because I have read them so many times that the cadence has become natural and I know when to pause for group interaction. One of my favorite books is called “The Hungry Thing.” I love it because it is written in a way that the students can get involved, they identify with the frustrations of the main character, a little boy who is much smarter than all the adults in the town.
The hungry thing wants something to eat, but uses rhymes of the names of real food instead of the real word. The adults act like they know what he is talking about, claiming that the foods he’s naming are exotic or unusual. The little boy steps in and says, “That sounds like…” and tells them exactly what the hungry thing wants. The kids love to anticipate the time when they get to say the real word at the right moment of the story. It is fun.
A friend of mine recently shared an experience of reading to a group of school students and a number of us responded with our favorite books for the next time she does it. I told her about “The Hungry Thing.” She is a new mother and is starting to build a library for her kids, plus she will probably read to school children again, so she wanted to buy a copy. When she looked online, she found that the cheapest ‘new’ copies are pretty expensive. As it turns out, my favorite book is no longer in print, so those that have copies are taking advantage of the situation.
The book is a paperback, the kind we all bought from a Scholastic Book Fair or from the monthly order forms. As a matter of fact, I have a copy that I bought when I was in Elementary school. Since the book was first released in 1967, it is possible that my copy is a first edition. It is unfortunately a bit worse for wear, having been much loved over the past forty years. The book was most recently released in 2001, and it seems that most of the books for sale on the internet are from that release. Even if the book is in pristine condition, it only cost $6.00. How could it possibly be worth $40 now? I just couldn’t believe that a cheap copy was not available, so I searched the Internet. I found used copies for just a few dollars, but I also found used copies for $500! How can anyone think that a small paperback book with some use is worth that much money?
The sellers certainly have a right to do what they want with their merchandise, but it seems to me that their price is foolish. How will they ever sell the book if it is priced well beyond its worth? Will someone purchase it for $500, or even $40, if they think there is something special about it, only to find in the end that it is a worn children’s paperback? This pricing makes me wonder about the judgment of those sellers. Are they pricing their books according to their value, or are they being greedy?
Today’s scripture follows the story of the unforgiving servant, the one who was relieved of a tremendous debt and then demanded a small debt be repaid by a fellow servant. The unforgiving servant was trusted with much, and when he failed to repay, he was forgiven. But when trusted with little things, he was greedy and unforgiving. In the end, it was not the failure to do right with the big things that caused the master to punish the servant, but his unwillingness to value the things that really matter. He put money above grace, even though he’d been granted the greater mercy.
What do we value? Are we faithful in the little things? Do we use our gifts, resources and opportunities in a way that will glorify God and serve our neighbor? Do we accept the good deals and keep the best for ourselves, never considering what might be good for our neighbor?
“The Spirit of the Lord Jehovah is upon me; because Jehovah hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the year of Jehovah's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of Jehovah, that he may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:1-3, ASV
We keep bird feeders filled with food around our yard. I love to watch the birds and so do the cats. The squirrels enjoy the feast, too. I don’t know what sorts of seeds are in the feeders we use, but it is definitely a variety of flower seeds, including sunflowers. Three may also be grass seeds. We like to buy food that includes fruit and nuts which the birds and squirrels just love.
The one problem with the bird feeders is that the birds and squirrels tend to drop seeds on the ground. Seeds are seeds, whether they are in a package for planting or in a block for feeding the birds. When the seeds drop to the ground, they are likely to root and grow, especially if the conditions are perfect. I refilled some of our feeders yesterday and discovered dozens of seedlings underneath. I don’t know what type of plants would grow, but there were several different varieties started. Unfortunately, the seeds were falling into a flower bed where I was growing a specific type of flower, and I did not want random plants ruining the look, so I pulled most of the seedlings out.
Now, this isn’t the only way plants end up where they don’t really belong. It is wildflower season in Texas, and perhaps elsewhere. The wildflowers are beautiful, but if you ask someone who is trying to establish a pristine lawn of grass, they’ll tell you that those flowers are nothing but weeds. A weed is a plant that isn’t where it belongs. Or, it is a plant where someone thinks it doesn’t belong. Those seedlings might grow into lovely sunflowers, but the sunflowers would not do well in the spot where they are growing and they won’t look very nice. So, despite being lovely flowers, to me they were weeds.
Now, on our way into church this morning, I noticed a container full of begonias. What struck me was not the begonias that have been there for as long as I can remember, but the Gerbera Daisy that was growing in the middle of them. I’m sure that the seed was not planted there. I don’t know how that seed got there. It is possible that somebody was using a bird food mix that included those seeds, or someone nearby had planted some seeds which the birds found. Many wildflowers or weeds find their new home by way of the birds. Birds eat the seeds and some pass through their systems unchanged; if their waste lands on good soil, it can take root and grow.
Have you ever wondered why you were ‘planted’ where you are in this world? Do you ever feel like you got to this moment in time in an unpleasant way? We don’t always understand the ways of God, but there is a reason you are where you are. There is a reason that you are planted in a place where it seems like you don’t belong. You might be different than the world around you, but God has put you there, and He’ll take care of you according to His good and perfect will. Trust in God, for He will be glorified by your life lived in faith wherever you are found, even if a bird dropped you in a pot of begonias.
“But thou didst follow my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, patience, persecutions, sufferings. What things befell me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yea, and all that would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But abide thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them. And that from a babe thou hast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:10-17, ASV
My sister and I went wildflower hunting yesterday, driving the back roads of Texas to find the beautiful patches of color that pepper the landscape in spring. It was a lovely drive, with many areas filled with huge fields filled with yellow, purple, pink, white and even blue. The patches of bluebonnets along some of the roads are so dense that it seems like someone purposely lined the roads with the flowers. Several fields of white prickly poppies were so thick it seemed like it had snowed. We had a wonderful time chatting in the car, having lunch at a small town café and wandering through fields taking pictures.
During our trip we talked about how much better it is to take a trip like this with a digital camera. I don’t know how many pictures my sister too, but I took hundreds. It was bright with a little wind, so I often took a dozen pictures of the same flower, hoping that one out of the dozen would be perfect. I have to admit that I didn’t pay enough attention to the settings on my camera and I didn’t check the files as we went along. I was driving, so as soon as we were done in an area, I dropped my camera in the back seat and moved on.
I have one of those big fancy cameras with settings I don’t even know how to use. I can go beyond the basics; I understand how to choose the right exposure, balance and shutter speed. Unfortunately, I often forget to check these things. The advantage of digital photos is the ability to look at the pictures you’ve taken and change the settings to fit the situation. Unfortunately, at some point in the day, I accidentally turned the knob that chooses the type of photography I was doing. I couldn’t see the viewing screen in the field because the sun was too bright, and I didn’t take the time at the car to see what type of photos I was taking. It is hard to tell anyway because the screen is too small. Some photos look good in 2” x 2” but look terrible when blown up on the computer.
When I put the pictures on my computer, I realized that most of them were overexposed. This means that the pictures have too much light. I had to delete hundreds of photos that were simply unusable. The overexposure made a few interesting pictures, pictures that looked much like the Impressionistic paintings of Monet or Van Gogh. They are terrible photographs, but interesting art. I’ve managed to make the best of the situation, but I learned a lesson (one I’ve learned in the past, but keep forgetting) to make sure that everything on my camera is set properly for the situation.
We might like to think of ourselves and our Christian life as if it were an easy shoot camera: all the settings automatic with nothing in our power to control. It is true that God does work through us. Our faith and gifts come from God. God will see us through hard times and keep us on the right path. God can accomplish great things with us even if we are nothing more than an easy shoot camera. But is that really the Christian life we want to lead? Don’t we want to take the gifts we’ve been given and become actively involved in the work of God? We don’t have to take control; we can’t take control. But we are called to be co-creators with our God, living God’s Word in real, dynamic ways. So, let’s abide in the things we have learned and know the God in whom we have faith in a way that will create something beautiful in the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 1, 2012, Palm/Passion Sunday: Palm Processional: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16: Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]
“My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me.” Psalm 31:15, ASV
There is no denying that Jesus knew long before He arrived in Jerusalem that it would be His last visit to the beloved city. He warned the disciples and the crowds that the Son of Man had to be lifted up, persecuted, killed. He told them that He had to go where they could not go. Last week Jesus said, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.” While they may not have understood at that moment that Jesus was talking about His death, they knew later that He was. Jesus knew the time was coming when the world would turn away from Him.
I wonder how it felt, then, to arrive at Jerusalem to a screaming crowd. We often talk about Palm Sunday as being a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but did it feel like a triumph to Jesus? Did He enjoy the cries of the crowd? Did He embrace their shallow adoration? He knew that in just days that same crowd would be shouting for His crucifixion. Did it make Him happy to hear the shouts that day or sad knowing that they did not even understand what they were doing? Jesus is the divine Son of God, but He was human. He prayed very human prayers and experience very human emotions.
Jesus knew that this triumphant entry was part of the plan and He send disciples ahead to make plans. The leaders were already concerned about the way the people were responding to Jesus; the parade could not have made them feel any better. Though there were many reasons to get rid of Jesus, the triumphal entry must have frightened those leaders into much quicker action than they intended. Jesus could not be allowed to gain a foothold in Jerusalem. The people wanted a king, but a king would disrupt their world. They were happy with the status quo because it meant that they had the power.
Even though Jesus knew that this parade was part of the plan, it could not have been a happy moment. Jesus loved His people; He had compassion on them. He wanted the best for them, and even with His knowledge, it must have been hard to believe that the best thing for them was His death. There was more He could do. There were more sick people to be healed. There were more poor people who needed encouragement. There were more people who needed to hear the message of God’s Kingdom. Though He loved the disciples, they were still clueless. They still did not understand. That donkey ride was necessary, but must have seemed premature. How could He leave them now? They weren’t ready to go on their own.
His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is a very human prayer. He was distressed on the night He was betrayed. He was overwhelmed. I can imagine that He might have spoken the prayer in today’s Psalm, seeking God’s grace at this most horrific moment. “Take this cup” He said. And yet, after the plea for mercy, Jesus gives in to the reality: this is God’s plan. Despite His sorrow and the worries He had for His disciples and the people, Jesus obeyed. He trusted God and faced what He knew was inevitable: persecution and death. He faced the cross and allowed the world to lift Him on that pole. They thought they were ending His power, but He knew that they were doing exactly what God intended.
The psalmist says, “My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me.” This is what we expect from God. We expect that He’ll take us away, move us out of the way, send the bad guys running. And sometimes He does. But, as in the story of the snakes a few weeks ago, He doesn’t always take the danger away, He uses it for His glory. If Jesus prayed this prayer, He got an answer even though it isn’t what we might expect. Was He delivered from the hand of His enemies? Perhaps it would not seem so, since He died on the cross. How could death be the answer to that prayer?
The whole story of the crucifixion doesn’t make sense to us. We want the happy ending. We want to coronation. We want the King to rule our world without changing anything; we like the status quo. Perhaps we want to think that we would have been with Jesus until the end, standing by Him even as He hung on the cross, ready to receive Him on Easter. We can say that today because we are Easter people; we know the rest of the story. But the reality is that we would have been in those crowds crying “Hallelujah” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify Him” on Good Friday. We would have fallen as fast as Peter, denying Jesus when He needed us most and run right alongside the rest of the disciples. We don’t understand why God would do things this way. Why would He choose to answer a plea for mercy with crucifixion?
We don’t always know, or like, the way God will answer our prayers, but like Jesus, we can trust that God will be glorified by our obedience. God sent Jesus not to be a priest-king over Israel, but to be the Priest-King that would save the world. To follow any other path would have been to reject what matters. Are we so willing to follow God’s call and do what He intends? Or are we more likely to follow the cries of the crowd, singing “Hallelujah” when it seems like things are going our way but then shouting “Crucify Him” when He doesn’t do what we expect?
We know the story of the Gospel lesson very well. Jesus is tried, beaten and crucified. He died and is buried. I often wonder if the story still has an impact on the lives of those listening. Has it become too familiar that we listen with only half a mind? It doesn't help that we know the rest of the story. We know that Jesus lives! We know that Jesus is raised. This is just a brief moment of Jesus’ life and it doesn’t end. It is to the point that we have to read it on Palm Sunday because most Christians aren’t even willing to attend worship on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to hear the story.
We might be Easter people, given life because He was raised, but the Passion is too important to ignore. If we truly listen to the story, we see the incredible suffering and degradation that Jesus underwent for our sake. This will cut us to the heart, bring us to our knees and cause us to cry out for mercy and forgiveness. After all, we are as guilty as those who rejected Him two thousand years ago. We were there, not in flesh, but in the same nature of those who actually witnessed the events. We need to experience it, too, to truly understand our sinfulness and receive the grace of God’s answers to our prayers. He will deliver us from the hand of our enemies. He just might not do it the way we want Him to.
As we look back on the events of that horrific day, we might think that the suffering was at its greatest when the physical pain was the worst. But for Jesus the greatest suffering came at that moment when the weight of the world’s sin was on His shoulders; our sin made it impossible for God to look upon His beloved Son. Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” At that great moment of suffering we see His humanness again. He may have suffered the pain of all His wounds for hours, but it was that one moment when He was truly alone, if ever so briefly. That is when He suffered the most.
Yet, even then Jesus continued in the will of the Father, even though it seemed uncharacteristic, unmerciful, unloving. He did not save Himself even though the crowd shouted that He should. Instead, He gave a loud cry and died. He suffered the ultimate abandonment in the moment when He needed God the most, and He did it willingly. He was not willing to follow the cries of the crowd; they were fickle, following every wind. They did not know what they were doing. He had to die for God’s promises to be complete. His amazing grace was realized through the most incredible act of sacrifice: the beloved Son, the Priest-King, offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the forgiveness of all sin for all men in all time.
The Psalmist understood this tug of war between desire and submission. “Have mercy upon me, O Jehovah, for I am in distress: Mine eye wasteth away with grief, yea, my soul and my body.” Though he complained of his anguish and loneliness, he trusted in God. “But I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God. My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me. Make thy face to shine upon thy servant: Save me in thy lovingkindness.” Everything Jesus went through was nothing compared to the promise of God’s unfailing love for His people. Jesus humbly accepted the Will of God and obediently suffered for our sake.
Paul tells us, “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” We are to have the same humility in our own lives, taking on the nature of a servant. We cannot follow Jesus to the cross, but we can humble ourselves and become obedient to God’s Will for each of us. The answers to our prayers might include humiliation, persecution and suffering. It might even include death, but we willingly accept all these circumstances because Jesus did it first for our sake. Now we can see Him exalted, as was promised in Isaiah, the Psalms and Paul's letter to the Philippians. “Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
As we enter into Holy Week, realizing the final moments of our Lenten journey, let’s remember that Jesus was both divine and human. He was the Son of God, but He was also the Son of Man. He knew what was coming, but He knew what He had to leave behind. He knew what He had to do for the sake of His people, but He loved His people so much that He didn’t want to abandon them just as they needed Him most. It is easy for us to think of Jesus as perfect, but we’d rather ignore the reality of the Passion: that He was humiliated by the people He loved, even His closest friends. He faced the same temptations; He prayed the same prayers. He asked God to take the cup, a prayer we can all admit to praying. We like seeing Jesus as the Priest-King, but we are uncomfortable with the image of the sacrificial Lamb. Yet it is that Lamb that has fulfilled all God’s promises.
“But I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God. My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me.” No matter what we face in our lives of faith, let us do so in faith with the words of the psalmist on our lips. The answer might not be as we hope, but we can remember these words with the mind of Christ. Despite our fear and doubt and the temptations we face, may we always trust in God and know His deliverance is assured.
Jesus remained faithful. He did not fail when the world cried out for Him to take the throne or save Himself. He faced the suffering of the cross with boldness; He even faced the abandonment of His Father. He calls us to be faithful, humbly accepting the answers He gives to our prayers even when they don’t fit our expectations.
The story we hear on Palm/Passion Sunday might seem ridiculous to those who do not believe because it does not make sense to worship a God who would put His own Son through such a horrific experience. How can someone so good end up on the wrong side of the law in such an unjust manner? How can a man like Jesus Christ who spent His life serving others end up dying? It doesn’t make sense. And what happens to us if we find ourselves in a similar position? It is unlikely that we’ll end up on a cross, but we will face difficult times. We will experience times of suffering both from our own actions and from the actions of others. It doesn’t seem fair. But when we are overwhelmed by the world, let us remember the story of our Savior and all that He suffered for our sakes. No matter who or what is after us, whether we are paranoid or the threat is very real, we do not need to fear. As we live each day in faith and obedience, we will learn something new to help us along the way.
One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Until then, we are called to have the same mind as Christ, putting God’s Will ahead of everything else. We are called to live as Christ, willingly giving ourselves for the sake of others. When we feel most abandoned—we might; we are only human, after all—we can go forth in faith knowing that we are not alone. Our Father will never leave us because of Jesus.
“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should lay his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for to such belongeth the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.” Matthew 19:13-15, ASV
I stumbled upon an article today written by the mother of a young child who was having difficulty dealing with her squirming, noisy child in church. The headline teaser talked about her as one who spends most of her church time in the cry room. Then the link said, “See what surprising decision she made.” I clicked into the link expecting to see another mother choose to miss church for a few years until her child is old enough to sit still. I was pleasantly surprised to see that that the decision was to keep trying.
As I read through the article, I got the feeling that the woman did not believe the gracious acceptance of her children in former churches. She talked about how the priest took advantage of the interruptions by children, reminding the parishioners that the noise of children harkens to the future of the church. She wasn’t convinced that worshippers’ smiles were sincere when her children became loud and squirmy. People at her latest church sent her to the cry room when her children became a disruption, which confirmed her attitude about the previous church. No one could possibly worship with her loud, troublesome children in the sanctuary. She couldn’t, so why should her neighbors?
I’m so glad she decided to keep trying. She isn’t getting much out of church, I’m sure. She talked about all the things that she accomplished while hiding in the cry room. She balanced her checkbook and worked out a menu for dinner. She made shopping lists and planned her schedule for the week. She said that it was easier to do those things than concentrate on God’s Word. “Attending church with my children, I sometimes forget to seek God at all.”
Most people respond to this dilemma by skipping church for those few years. What’s the point of getting up early Sunday morning if you aren’t going to hear the sermon or sing the hymns anyway? What’s the point of stressing over every peep out of their mouth if I’m not going to be able to worship God? It is easier to choose a life of private worship at home for that brief period of time; after all, God isn’t limited to within the walls of a church. Many parents who make this choice return when the children are old enough for Sunday School. Then everyone is happy: Mom is stress-free, the other parishioners are not disturbed, the pastor can preach without interruption.
But are we really happy? Is the easy way really the best way? I was so glad to read that the mom in the article decided to keep trying. Yes, she’s going to miss a few sermons while playing with her child in the cry room. However, the real worship that pleases God is that which happens when we are doing what God has called us to do. As a mom, her vocation is to be a mom, and that means taking her children to church. It may take a long time for the child to learn how to sit quietly in the pew, but the child is also learning how wonderful it is to be in the fellowship of other Christians on Sunday morning. The family may spend that hour in the cry room, but they will also experience the peace and joy of being in community while at church. Those children from that early age will develop relationships with others who will help them grow into people of faith.
It might be inconvenient and stressful to go to church on a Sunday morning; it might seem like a waste of time. But Jesus has invited the children to be with Him, to sit on His lap and to hear His Word. We might think they aren’t listening when they are climbing over the pews and singing songs during the sermon, but they see and hear more than we know. The Word breaks through and faith grows even when it seems impossible. Eventually those children will sit still and will listen; eventually those children will be saying the words of the prayers, creeds and liturgy. One day those children will be a disciples, living the faith that they received while eating Oreo cookies in the cry room at church.
“My son, despise not the chastening of Jehovah; Neither be weary of his reproof: For whom Jehovah loveth he reproveth; Even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.” Proverbs 3:11-12, ASV
Our Lenten journey is almost over; Holy Week begins on Sunday with the procession of the palms. How did you do? Did you manage to keep up with some devotional reading or prayer? Have you managed to give up anything for the past few weeks? If you tried, but failed, did you try again? Have you found your Lenten discipline to be something you can continue after Easter? Have you developed any new habits? Have you been changed by the experience?
The word discipline has taken on a very negative connotation; when we talk about discipline we think of punishment for wrong doing. Even the dictionaries have listed punishment in the first definition, in that punishment is used to train someone to obey rules. I’ve had people tell me that I shouldn’t use the word when talking about God, because God is about love and mercy and grace, not punishment. However, discipline in the Biblical sense is more like the discipline of an athlete. It is action or practice that improves a skill. In today’s Proverb, the father encourages the son to receive the Lord’s discipline because it is training directed by love.
A coach’s discipline might seem like punishment, after all, what good is it to keep doing the same thing over and over again. Will a golfer really get better by hitting a hundred balls? Will a runner really get faster by running miles a week? Will a basketball player make more baskets by throwing more balls at the basket? Yes! We know this to be true. We know our coach has our best interest at heart, even when it seems like he’s being difficult. So, why do we think of God’s discipline in such a negative context?
Hopefully we all began our Lenten disciplines with a positive attitude, believing that a few weeks of keeping up or giving up something will build good habits in our lives. Unfortunately, good intentions often end up becoming a burden, and we feel like our disciplines are punishment. We can’t wait until Easter day so that we can eat the chocolate or drink the coffee which has been denied us for weeks. We are ready to get back to a normal schedule, to stop that daily prayer or finish reading that devotional. If it has become a burden, then give it up today. However, have you benefited in some way from the discipline?
I have often heard that it is not good to get into habits or rituals of faith because eventually they become rote and we do them without heart. The concern is that someday the action will be meaningless, no longer edifying to the participant. Though I agree this is a danger, I believe that habits are very powerful tools the Lord uses to keep us on our journey though this life of faith. I know my day goes much better when I wake to a moment of prayer and time in the scriptures. God has helped me develop habits of faith that encourage and edify my life so that I can share my faith with others. Will your Lenten disciplines give you the courage, strength, patience and joy to share your faith, too?