Welcome to the March 2014 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 2014
March 3, 2014
“And they said one to another, Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:3-4, ASV
They were afraid that they’d be scattered; they wanted to live in community. There’s nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, so much of the Bible describes the values and expectations of living in community. The entire Law is focused on helping us live together and how to be reconciled when we do something that breaks the bonds of those relationships. There is safety in numbers. We can help one another. We can share in the burdens. Living in community is a good thing. The problem in this passage is not that they wanted to build a city.
Hard work is good, too. There’s nothing wrong with taking the clay of the earth and create bricks for buildings where people in community will live and work and play. I love architecture and I find there is incredible beauty in the skyscrapers in our modern cities. The skylines can be breathtaking, and it is exciting to think about all the people that dwell and work and play in those cities. I live in the suburbs of a large city, and while I’m not sure I would want to live in an apartment on the 98th floor of the tallest building and I hate the traffic, I love living near the culture and other opportunities that can be found in a city.
Those buildings are created by creative and gifted people. We may not use hand shaped and sun-dried bricks, but our cities require hardworking people whose sweat and blood made the city a place where we can live and work and play. Some climb to heights that most of us can never imagine. Others create the steel, rivet the bolds, paint the miles of sheet-rocked walls. Other workers build the roads and bridges, deliver the goods for the stores and clean the streets. We could go on for hours talking about the people who have worked hard to build everything we need to live in community. The problem in this passage is not that they wanted to work hard to build a city.
The problem in this passage isn’t even the building of the tower. In those ancient days, the ziggurat was a place for worship. Yes, they built it so that it would reach to heaven, but isn’t that what we do with sacred places? We don’t even need to build buildings to try: we climb to the tops of mountains, use mind altering drugs, and seek God in spiritual ways like prayer and bible study. We even try to work toward God’s blessings by living a moral life, obeying the law and doing good things for our neighbors.
See, that’s the problem with this passage: the people were trying to do it themselves. They wanted to climb to heaven by their own power. They weren’t simply building a tower where they could worship God; they were building a stairway into His world. They wanted control. They wanted to be their own gods. This is the very problem with human nature, from that first day in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve ate of the tree in the middle of the Garden because they wanted to be ‘like God.’
This idea of being like God always goes the next step, because it isn’t enough for human nature to be a reflection of that which we see in the divine. We don’t want to be like Him, we want to be Him. We want the control. We want the power. We kill God (in a sense) in the process because we can’t be God if He exists. So, we make it all about ourselves. We make it about what we can do. Tomorrow we’ll see how to respond to this temptation in the wilderness wandering of Jesus. He fought the devil with God’s Word.
We can gather in cities and build tall skyscrapers. We can climb to the tops of high mountains. We shouldn’t use mind-altering drugs, but we certainly can (and are encouraged to) pray and study the scriptures. No matter what we do, or what towers we try to build, we have to remember that we can’t ever reach heaven on our own. God has to come to us, even if we can get to the very edge of the universe. And He does come to us, in Spirit, in scripture, in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, even when we are in the deepest pits, the darkest places, or the loneliest space.
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he afterward hungered. And the tempter came and said unto him, If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him into the holy city; and he set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and, On their hands they shall bear thee up, Lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, Again it is written, Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him unto an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him; and behold, angels came and ministered unto him.” Matthew 4:1-11, ASV
I really like chocolate and sweets. I usually keep a stash of something in a drawer in my office. I have an extra large mug on my desk that I like to fill with M&Ms or some other seasonal sweet. There’s usually a cake on the counter and cookies in the cookie jar. Now, I’ve been trying to be better. I try to avoid the candy aisle at the store and I don’t bake as often as I would like. I know it is not good to eat so much of it, and so I am trying to limit the amount I have. It is hard. The temptations are everywhere. The Easter candy is on the shelves, and most stores make sure you see all those wonderful treats no matter how hard you want to avoid them. So far I’ve managed to fight the temptation, but I don’t know if I will be able to last much longer. There’s just some treats that are only available at this time of year!
We all have something that we know we should avoid, but the draw is much too strong. How many people can get through their morning without a cup of coffee? Some will go out of their way to stand in line and spend a fortune to buy a certain brand of coffee. I watched a video the other day posted by a friend of mine who happened to pass one of those stores in a mall. The video showed a line of customers that went on forever. They wanted that coffee so much that they were willing to wait an hour to get it. I’m sure some of them would tell you that they need that coffee.
Do we really need the things that tempt us? Probably not. We definitely need air, food, water, protection from the cold. I think we also need someone to love and a purpose for our life. But even these things can become temptations when we seek to fulfill our needs with more than necessary. We need to eat, but we do not need to eat chocolate. We need water, but we don’t really need to spend our money on the expensive bottled spring waters. We need a roof over our heads, but do we really need that five thousand square foot mansion with six bathrooms and a movie theater? We need love, but do we need to be surrounded by people to fulfill that need? We need a purpose, but it can be tempting to pursue a purpose for all the wrong reasons.
Even Jesus was tempted. The difference between Jesus and the rest of us, however, is that He was tempted without falling. Oh, perhaps we all have successful moments, like that trip to the grocery store without buying any chocolate, but it is likely that I’ll find something to buy on my next trip. Jesus faced the shrewdness of the devil in the wilderness, who even used the scriptures to convince Jesus that his way was the right way.
Jesus could have done all those things that tempted Him in the wilderness. He could have easily turned the stones into bread, not only for Himself, but to feed the whole world. He could have easily led the world to God by being a charismatic leader who performed miraculous feats and shined God’s light on the whole world. Jesus could have easily become the worldly king everyone expected the Messiah to become. But if He did any of these things, it would have distracted Him from His true purpose.
The reason Jesus came in flesh was to save human beings from sin and death. The end result would be their destruction on the cross. Satan knew Jesus’ victory would mean his defeat and came to tempt Him away from His main purpose. Satan offered Jesus food for His belly, but also food for many. He tempted Jesus to make His ministry one about social justice: feeding the hungry and meeting the physical needs of the poor. Satan offered Jesus a ministry of miracles, tempting Him to focus on healing the physical ailments of those who were sick and dying. Satan offered Jesus the position of ruling the entire world, a kingship over all nations tempting Jesus with a ministry that did not include suffering and death.
Satan had no power to give the things he offered to Jesus. They were only lies and Jesus easily overcame the temptations with God’s Word. It is interesting because Jesus did manage to do all those things during His three years of ministry. Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick in miraculous ways and established Himself as King. The temptation offered by Satan was to make His ministry about those things, when the truth is that His purpose was always to die for our sake.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and we will enter into the period of the Church year called Lent. It is a time to look at Jesus’ ministry and to follow Him to the cross. For many it will be a time of fasting, giving up something that has become more important than God. It is a time for prayer, repentance, discernment and self-denial as we prepare for Holy Week. We will be tempted, just like Jesus. Satan is determined to set our feet on his path rather than God’s. How will we overcome those temptations? We cannot do it by our own effort; we will fail miserably if we try. But God is with us, and with His Word on our lips we can chase the tempter away. By God’s grace we can overcome, and when we fail we can rest in the knowledge that Jesus did not let the tempter lead Him astray. He went to the cross as was His true purpose and won for us the victory over sin and death forever.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 9, 2014, First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
“And the tempter came and said unto him…” Matthew 4:3a, ASV
I read a lot of books from the historical period in England between the 5th and 15th centuries. I am fascinated by the intrigue, the lives of the kings and their courts, and the way they lived. I don’t think I would have wanted to live in that time or in that culture. The books I generally read are fiction, so many of the thoughts and actions of the characters are made up by the writer. However, most historical fiction writers are good about doing their research. There might be people who did not exist, but the ones who did are generally written based on facts as we know them.
We live in such a wide-open and huge world today. I will send this email out and it will instantly reach people on the other side of the world, on other continents, in totally different circumstances, with completely different world views. We can have a conversation with one another via email, or even on the telephone. We can fly around the world in a matter of hours, go pretty much wherever we like, see an incredibly diverse world from deserts to rain forests to the ocean floor with a little bit of planning. We can drive to the next city, shop at multiple grocery stores or buy food at restaurants representing every nationality, choose from dozens of movies at multiple movie theaters within a short drive. In other words, most of my readers have the freedom to experience life as they wish it to be, do the things they want to do, eat whatever they want to eat and be entertained in many different ways.
It wasn’t so easy to do so in the Middle Ages. Most people lived under the shadow of a fortress of some sort, because if war came, they were protected in the walls of their lord’s castle. The townspeople abandoned their homes and went to sleep on the floor of the keep, which was an impenetrable stone box. These were rarely defeated by strength; it took a siege to defeat those hidden inside. Unfortunately, this meant that the people had to survive on whatever was stored inside the walls. They had to have enough water and food to feed everyone for however long the enemy waited outside. They had no freedom. They had nowhere to go. They could not run to the Seven/Eleven for a Slurpee when they had a craving for one. They ate whatever was rationed. In the beginning there may have been some fruit or vegetables and some meat. By the end of a siege, they were usually down to cakes made of grain.
Even when there wasn’t an enemy on their doorstep, the people rarely went anywhere by a few feet from their own houses. They worked the fields, perhaps had a pint at the local pub, bartered with their neighbors for everything they needed. They didn’t go to the city for entertainment because it was simply too far. They stayed close to home.
In the country, not only in England, but also here in America and probably in many other countries around the world, you’ll find that the towns or villages are about the same distance from one another. That distance is probably based on the time it took for a man to get somewhere in a day. In England, there are towns every few miles, probably a day’s walk. In Texas, especially the Hill Country and the West, the towns are approximately thirty miles apart. There is nothing but ranch land in between. Thirty miles was probably the limit for most travelers with horses and carts. It didn’t matter to most people, they never left their towns. But the towns were established to provide the brave ones a place to rest and resupply along their way.
The people stayed home. They lived with whatever was available to them in that place. They relied on the brave ones to bring the things to their town that they could not produce on their own. They were free to go anywhere, but why leave the comfort and security of your village? This was probably true in the days of Jesus, too. While most Jews managed to take the pilgrimage to Jerusalem at some time, some all the time, most people did not get away from their hometowns very often. They stayed in the comfort and security of home. It was dangerous out there in the world, but it was safe surrounded by neighbors and everyone could survive with everyone’s helps.
God established this type of community from the very beginning of His people Israel. Even when they wandered in the Exodus wilderness, they were organized in small ‘towns,’ people from the same tribe who stayed together. At night they built their tents in groups. The groups surrounded the Tent of Meeting, the place where God dwelled among His people. You were safe if you were in the camp near God.
Sometimes, however, it was necessary to put people outside the camp, or then eventually the village. They were sent away for the safety of others. The lepers, for example, were sent away because they were afraid the disease would spread to others. If they were healed, then they were cleansed by the priest and allowed back into the camp or village. Sadly, many did not return. It was dangerous outside the camp or village. They had no food to eat and often no source of water. They had no shelter or help to protect them from the wild animals. While the disease might have been curable, they died before they could recover.
The person who was outside the camp was in the realm of death. This was especially true for the people who believed that God dwelled in their midst. Outside the camp was also apart from their God.
That’s what happened to Adam and Eve. In the Old Testament passage from Genesis, the serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit of the Tree in the center of the Garden, she would be like God, knowing good and evil. This phrase was not meant to define the world as dualistic, but instead to show that God knows everything. It is like saying that Adam and Eve would be like God, knowing everything from A to Z, from good to evil and everything in between. There are times when we have to choose the better of two evils. Which is better—to shoot a dying horse or allow him to die naturally? Both options are evil, but a choice has to be made. It is the consequence of living in a fallen world.
Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.” He did not mean that we should go out in the world purposefully sinning against God and man. He meant that if, as you are living in this sinful and fallen world, you have to sin, do so boldly knowing the grace of God. The whole statement is “Sin boldly but believe more bolder still.” In other words, if we have to make a decision to do something that is less than good, do so with the knowledge that forgiveness is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Adam and Eve were created and God called them “good” as He did for all of His creation. They lived in harmony with God and with the rest of creation. Then the serpent made them aware that there is more than ‘good’ in the world. They sought to know more. They thought that being like God would make them better, to give them insight into more ‘good’, but the reality is that only God is good. Everything that isn’t God is less than good.
We aren’t God. We are created by God and beloved of Him, but we aren’t God. And we aren’t good. We are imperfect, frail, fallen beings. We are created and fallible. We are perishable. We are sinners. We are just like Adam and Eve. The sin in the Garden of Eden was eating the apple fruit that God told them not to eat, and yet the sin goes even deeper.
The serpent found the woman and said, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” Here the serpent twists God’s word to put doubt in the minds and hearts of God’s people. They were allowed to eat of any tree but one. Even proclaims God’s word to the serpent, with a twist, adding her own interpretation to what she’s heard. “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.” She added the part about touching the fruit.
How could this be a bad thing? After all, if the fruit of the tree was not to eat, then it would be best if she did allow herself to be tempted by touching it. Even already knew that the fruit looked good, she saw it with her own eyes. The serpent knew he’d caught a live one because he heard her twist God’s word. So he went a little deeper. “Ye shall not surely die.” He was right, in a sense. Adam and Eve did not immediately die physically when they ate the fruit. But it was only a half truth. He convinced them to believe his word about God’s by giving them the final reason to eat—they would become like God.
They did die, though. They were sent outside the camp, into the dangerous world where they would no longer live under the protection of God or in His fellowship. They were sent into the realm of death so that they would not have to live forever in fear of their Father and Creator.
We join Adam in the reality of our failure and continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning. Jesus faced those same temptations when He was sent into the wilderness after His baptism, but He did not fall because saw through the lie. He did not seek to attain more and He stayed the course which God had given for Him. He walked to the cross because it was what God intended for Him to do. He didn’t reach beyond what He had because He knew He had everything. His obedience has secured the gift of life for all who believe. We have been healed by Jesus and washed clean so that we can dwell once more in the camp and in the fellowship of our Father and Creator.
Though we are sinners, we are called to live in faith according to God’s good and perfect Word. We will be tempted, but we have been made in the image of God and we can make the conscious decision to follow God and be like Him even when our natural impulse wants to lead us another direction.
There was a tremendous accident on one of the major roadways in our city today. Though the accident happened very early in the morning, the road had to be closed and was still blocked during rush hour. The eye in the sky helicopter of our local morning news station showed a long line of red lights five cars across that went for miles. All those people were stuck on the highway, unable to move more than an inch or so as the authorities diverted the traffic. I’m sure that the roads surrounding that highway were full of frustrated commuters who were trying to find a new route to work. One crashed truck affected the lives of thousands. Even a minor accident can lead to trouble for the victims, bystanders and service people dealing with the clean up. One thing always leads to another.
Ever since that day in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word for that of the serpent and their own desires, we have suffered from the consequences of sin. We see it in our everyday lives. A small lie leads to bigger ones, bad habits lead to health problems, anger leads to violence, greed leads to thievery and lust leads to improper conduct. Some would like to believe that there are sins that affect no one but the person committing it, but all sin affects all people. We live in community and we live in a fallen world, so everything we do will affect others.
We do a lot of things wrong. We sin against man and nature daily with our use and abuse of God’s created world. While it is good to check ourselves and discover the things that we do wrong daily, it is not those individual sins that are the focus of our Lenten journey. Fasting can be a good and powerful discipline during Lent, but it is useless unless we also discover the real sin in our lives. The sin that we can’t overcome with fasting or discipline, repentance or prayer is our own desire to be something we are not. The greatest sin, the original sin, is our desire to be god.
This is not to say that we should not be like God. After all, He created us to be like Him. Jesus tells us to be God-like. Just a few weeks ago we heard that we should be holy as our heavenly Father is holy. The trouble is that we take it a step too far. Instead of living the life we have been created to live, we follow after the twisted words of the tempter and follow our own path. In doing so, we set ourselves outside the fellowship of our Father and Creator, thus putting ourselves into the realm of death.
In the beginning, God created us good and gave us the freedom to do His Work as one with Him in the garden. When Adam was disobedient to the Word of God, we were removed from the Garden and every human since has been born into a sinful existence. We try to be like God, choosing our own way of doing things rather than His way. Salvation comes from only One: Jesus Christ.
Adam and Eve started a process. They may have been the first to turn away from God by listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but we continue to sin. The freedom we have to reason and make decisions also gives us the freedom to reject God and go our own way. In doing so, we find ourselves outside the camp, away from His fellowship. We are imperfect. We are frail. We are sinners. We need, more than anything else, a Savior.
Jesus Christ is that Savior. At the cross, He started a new process. This is like what we did on Memorial Day. He took all the crud, scrubbed us down and filled us with fresh clean water. Unfortunately, the old process still exists in our flesh—we continue to be sinners even while we have been transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ. He keeps His grace freely flowing into our lives, granting forgiveness when we fail and showing us the better way. The process will not be complete until the day when He comes. Then, in that wonderful day, we will begin again and the things that make us imperfect will be gone forever.
For now, we live remembering that we are sinners in need of a Savior. And we live knowing that our Savior has come and He is Jesus Christ. We are saints and sinners, going through this life experiencing the free gift of grace and the frailty of our human condition. Joy and pain, blessedness and suffering: that’s what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who fell to the words of the tempter and faced death and Jesus who faced death without failing. Through Adam we have inherited the reality of sin and death; through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to another word and believed it more than God’s Word. Jesus never believed the lies of the tempter and stood firm in God’s Word. Paul draws these two stories together, comparing the trespass and the gift in today’s epistle lesson. “So then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous.”
God has given us His Word and by His Word we can stand firm in His promises. When Satan tempts us, we need only turn to that which He has spoken through Israel and then finally through Jesus. Last week we were given the command to listen to Jesus, the week before He called us to follow. By His grace we can live free from the burden of sin and walk according to His Word. Grace overcomes and grace transforms, making us to be the people He created us to be.
The psalmist writes, “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.” There are three steps to forgiveness in this passage. This first stage is perhaps the easiest part of forgiveness, saying “I forgive you.” But forgiveness requires much more. The second stage of forgiveness is “whose sin is covered.” This means that we stop focusing on the mistake but instead cover it with grace. The third step is probably the hardest. This is the part when we forget the sin. The psalmist says, “Jehovah imputeth not iniquity.” He doesn’t hold on to the sin. When He grants forgiveness, He covers it with Christ’s righteousness and then forgets.
Those who live according to their own ways will suffer the consequences of their self-centeredness. Those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death. It is like walking out of the camp and away from God’s fellowship by our own will. In the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we are reminded that Satan does not only tempts us with the things that are obviously wrong, but he tempts us with things that seem good. It isn’t bad to eat or to call on God for help or even be a leader of people. But Jesus knew that His purpose and refused to be set on the wrong path. That’s why we join Him during our Lent journey. We can watch as He walks on God’s path and learn how to chase the tempter away, so that we can live according to God’s good and perfect purpose in our lives.
“Now therefore, my sons, hearken unto me, And depart not from the words of my mouth. Remove thy way far from her, And come not nigh the door of her house; Lest thou give thine honor unto others, And thy years unto the cruel; Lest strangers be filled with thy strength, And thy labors be in the house of an alien, And thou mourn at thy latter end, When thy flesh and thy body are consumed, And say, How have I hated instruction, And my heart despised reproof; Neither have I obeyed the voice of my teachers, Nor inclined mine ear to them that instructed me! I was well-nigh in all evil In the midst of the assembly and congregation.” Proverbs 5:7-14, ASV
There’s an internet meme that shows a list of ages with the attitude a child has for their mother. As children, we love our moms. “At ten years: ‘Whatever!’” As teenagers we think our moms are so annoying. We can’t wait to get out of the house when we are young adults. As we get our feet wet in the world, we realize how much our moms have done for us and we admit that they were right. By our middle ages (after we have our own children) we are sorry for the way we treated our moms when we were teenagers. We begin to feel the loss as they get older and we worry about the day they will leave us. And then, when we reach that age in our own lives, we recall all the great memories, missing them all the more as we long to join them in heaven.
We definitely do not appreciate the advice and lessons that our moms have for us when we are at that age of discovering our own independence. We are certain that our moms do not understand. They can’t possibly know what we know or see the world through our point of view, so how can they tell us what we should do? We do not realize that our moms, even though they lived in a different time, experienced the same wants, the same doubts, the same questions. Our moms know what it was like to try to stand on their own two feet, to search for purpose, to agonize over the temptations of the world. They’ve lived through it, survived it, and learned a few lessons. Our moms just want to help us avoid the consequences that they experienced when they made the wrong choices.
I use Mom as an example here, but we all go through periods of our lives when we do not think that anyone can give us any advice or teach us anything about anything. A photographer friend whose photos could us a little tweak here and there won’t even listen to suggestions that would make the photos incredible, or would give a little guidance for future photos. In today’s proverb, the teacher is giving the young man a bit of wisdom about adultery. The temptation of a woman can be overwhelming, especially when a man is young, and her seductive speech is “smoother than oil.” How can a man ignore her? Why would a young man ignore her?
While we might not be dealing with this particular temptation, throughout our lives people have warned us about many things. We should listen. Those who have come before us know and understand the consequences of falling for the temptations of the world. Our teachers give us the truth, even if we are not willing to listen. They only want what is best for us, like our moms, and we should listen. We think we know more than our teachers, but in the end we discover that they were right because we end up dealing with the consequences. In the end, when we are left in ruins from our poor choices, we will cry out with the wish that we had listened and followed their advice. So, let us listen to our teachers, whether they are our mothers or someone we’ve met along life’s journey, and realize that they are speaking with God’s voice, God’s wisdom, to help us be the best we can be.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, he taketh it away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he cleanseth it, that it may bear more fruit. Already ye are clean because of the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; and so shall ye be my disciples.” John 15:1-8, ASV
My mother was not the best housekeeper. I have inherited her disinterest and disdain for the work, although I do try to keep the clutter to a minimum. There’s some dust on the furniture, and the carpets could always use a vacuuming, there are dishes in the dishwasher and laundry waiting to be washed. I have piles of papers on my desk, and my art studio is disheveled because there’s always a project or two or five in the works. But I try to keep things under control, partly because I would hate for my kids to have to deal with the mess when I die.
That’s what happened after my mom died. It is the bittersweet task of those left behind to go through the things of our loved ones when they die. It is sad they are gone, but sweet as we share our memories through the things they owned and loved. Sometimes we discover secrets, both good and bad; we cry and laugh and wonder. “Why did she keep this?” Why did he keep this here?” “What are we going to do with it all?”
My mom had two rings, and it was important for us to find them that day when we were going through her things. My mom always wanted a big diamond ring for her finger. She worked very hard for a very long time, saving her money until she could afford it. In the meantime, she purchased a cubic zirconia to have the appearance of a diamond. She finally was able to purchase the rock of her dreams, and she wore it with pride because it represented her perseverance, thriftiness and labor. Sadly, in the end she could not wear the rings. They didn’t fit very well, and she was concerned that they would be lost when she moved into the nursing home, so they were left at the house.
We looked for her rings when we went through her things. One was very easy to find; it was securely placed in her jewelry box with her other jewelry. We had no idea if that ring was the true diamond or the cubic zirconia. We looked for a long time, but eventually found it tucked into the corner of a window sill. Again, we did not know which ring it was. We might assume the true diamond was safely kept with the other jewelry, but we had no way of knowing for sure. We aren’t gem experts and could not see a difference. There was a possibility that this ring found on the sill was the true diamond. I could even picture my mom sitting on the chair nearby, taking off her precious ring when it began to bother her, and placing it in a place she would remember. She never put it on again. We took the rings to a jeweler, who told us indeed that the ring we found on the window sill was the true diamond.
The most common definition for the word “true” is “agreeing with the facts: not false.” We usually think of it in terms of words or statements. The book of John is filled with uses of this word in this form, as John defines Jesus’ words, witness and God’s promises as true. But the word can also mean “real or genuine.” John also uses the word numerous times in reference to the character of Jesus. He is the “true light,” the “true bread,” and the “true vine.” See, in the history of God’s people, they had light, bread, vines and an understanding of God. But those things were incomplete; they were given as a foreshadowing of the true One who would come. The lights in the temple served a purpose, but the true Light was Christ. The manna served a purpose, feeding God’s people from heaven, but Jesus is the true bread. Israel was often referred to as the vine, tended by the Master. We are grafted into the vine that is God’s people, but we are grafted into the true vine: Jesus Christ.
We can have many Christian friends, be a part of a church, work through a Christian non-profit and do many good and wonderful things, but if we are not part of the true vine, we can do nothing. Are all Christians part of the vine? It is not my place to judge, however, it is important that we remember that there are both cubic zirconias and true diamonds in the body of Christ; they both look so real it is difficult to tell the difference. We can’t guess based on where they are found: sometimes the true is left cast off in a corner while the false is securely placed where it belongs. But we can live our life attached to the true vine, trusting that God will help us to bear good fruit, sharing His grace with all people so that all will become a very real part of His kingdom.
“And I, brethren, when I came unto you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, ASV
Beetle Bailey is a newspaper cartoon character who has spent many years as a private in the army. His supervisor, Sarge, often finds Beetle sleeping or avoiding his work in some creative manner. Sarge wallops Beetle whenever he finds him in a compromising position, leaving him in shattered pieces on the floor. In one episode, Sarge was forcefully pushing Beetle toward some scrubbing job and Beetle asked, “Why do you always make me do things YOUR way?” Sarge replied, “I don’t. I just forcefully encourage you to follow the course of action that will cause you the least bodily harm.”
Beetle Bailey often makes me laugh, including this long-winded speech of Sarge’s. I think what makes it most funny is that the language is not typical of an army sergeant. Now, this is not to say that army sergeants are less intelligent or that they can’t be eloquent, it is just that they do not tend to speak that way.
I have noticed this use type of language used on the daytime judge shows. People who generally speak the language of the street tend to try to appear to be something different when they stand as a litigant in front of the court. They use words that they have heard but do not use to sound more intelligent. They format sentences to appear more eloquent than they do in daily life. Unfortunately, it rarely works out for them. They use words they do not understand in ways that are not appropriate. They mispronounce words, which make them sound foolish rather than wise.
Paul was an educated man and he was probably an eloquent speaker. He was comfortable standing before the council and court at the Areopagus of Athens (otherwise known to the Romans as Mars Hill) and speaking about the Unknown God for whom they had an altar. He could preach for hours and have intelligent conversations with the elite of his day. He had been a leader among the Jews, a Pharisee from a line of Pharisees. Yet even Paul, who most likely did not sound like a food when he spoke his long winded speeches, understood that God did not need our eloquent language or fifty sent vocabulary to share the faith.
There is some difficult language in Christian circles, words about theology and doctrine. Even the words theology and doctrine can be terrifying for someone who needs the Lord. When we are sharing the Gospel message with the world, we often describe doctrine that makes little sense to those who do not know our Lord Jesus Christ. All too often these long-winded speeches turn people from the Gospel of Christ, leaving them even more lost then before. Too often, we simply do not have the knowledge to use the language, and so we sound foolish rather than wise when we try.
Sadly, too many of us avoid getting into the discussions of faith and Christianity because we are afraid that we won’t have the words to use for a testimony. The average Christian does not understand the theological and doctrinal arguments, and so can’t answer questions when they are asked. So they go through life quietly, ignoring the opportunities to share Jesus with their neighbor. But we are called to be Jesus’ witnesses in this world, to tell His story and to share God’s grace with others. We don’t need eloquent speech; we aren’t trying to impress a judge or the television audience. We are sharing God’s testimony, and we can do so with the faith that He will put His Word in our mouths and help us to speak to our neighbors in a way that they will hear and believe.
“For it is as when a man, going into another country, called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one; to each according to his several ability; and he went on his journey. Straightway he that received the five talents went and traded with them, and made other five talents. In like manner he also that received the two gained other two. But he that received the one went away and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money. Now after a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and maketh a reckoning with them. And he that received the five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: lo, I have gained other five talents. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord. And he also that received the two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: lo, I have gained other two talents. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord. And he also that had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou didst not sow, and gathering where thou didst not scatter; and I was afraid, and went away and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, thou hast thine own. But his lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I did not scatter; thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the bankers, and at my coming I should have received back mine own with interest. Take ye away therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him that hath the ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away. And cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:14-30, ASV
I read a book by Ken Follett called, “World Without End.” It is about a small town in Medieval England, its priory and its people. The writer has introduced us to every class of people from the prior to an itinerant priest, prioress to novice, earl to serf, alderman to craftsman to apprentice. In the book we learn the responsibilities and limitations of each position in life. We hunger with the poor and we cringe at the manipulation of the nobility. We mourn with them, celebrate their successes and cry out at the injustice. It is a good story, especially if you are interested in historical fiction.
There is a character named Merthin. Merthin was the son of a knight who had lost everything except his title. Sir Gerald had another son named Ralph who was larger and stronger than Merthin. Though Ralph was the younger brother, he was sent to be a squire in the earl’s house. He eventually became a knight after fighting for the king in the war against France and restored the family name and position. Merthin, on the other hand, was forced to be apprenticed to a craftsman builder. His apprenticeship was to last six months, during which he learned how to build under the master craftsman. His was given only food and a place to sleep. At the end of the six months, he would be given his tools as payment for the work. Then he would be allowed to work for any craftsman, although most apprentices just continued to work for their master craftsman.
As it turned out, Merthin was a natural at building; he somehow understood the engineering necessary to make buildings and bridges large, strong and beautiful. This did not please his master because it was obvious that Merthin was the better builder long before the apprenticeship was complete. The master schemed, manipulating circumstances to put a bad light on Merthin. He was forced to leave his apprenticeship just short of the end. He did not receive his tools, so had to get started on his own, fighting against the guild rules and the rumors that had ruined him. He was good at building, so he was able to overcome the barriers. This was certainly a work of fiction; the reality is that an apprentice who did not complete his time would probably live the rest of his life as a low-wage laborer.
We don’t use apprenticeship much in the skilled workforce these days, although many jobs give young people the chance at internships so that they can learn under an experienced member of the profession. Business people, clergy, lawyers and doctors serve internships. Like the apprentice, the intern shadows the professional for low or no pay so that they might gain firsthand experience. Most young people are encouraged to attend college, but there is nothing like learning while practicing the profession.
Today’s passage is the story of a master giving his servants hands-on experience. He gave each of these servants according to their ability and left them to learn how to deal with business while he was gone. I think it is interesting that we don’t see someone who lost their talents, although I suspect that the master would have been merciful. The problem with the third servant was not that he gave back the same amount, but that he did not even try to do anything with the money. This is like an apprentice who has been given permission to work, but does not try to fix a leak while the master has gone because he’s afraid he’ll screw up. A good master will give some freedom to the apprentice to succeed and to make mistakes. Some of the greatest lessons are learned in failure. The servant is unprofitable in this story not because he did not make a profit, but because he was worthless. He did nothing.
The word used in this passage is “talent” which was a coin used in the Roman world in Jesus’ day. We understand the word “talent” to be something we can do. Merthin had a talent; he could understand the engineering concepts necessary to build big, beautiful buildings. He used his talent and was successful, and he glorified God as he put his skills into building a magnificent tower for the cathedral.
We are called to be like the two servants who used their talents for the glory of God. He has gone away but has left us each with sufficient talents to make a difference in the world while we wait. It does us no good to sit around waiting for the Day of the Lord because there is so much to be accomplished. It does us no good to bury our talents when there are so many people who still need to experience God’s kingdom in this world. We are called to get to work, doing God’s business today. Then we have no need to worry or fear or doubt, because we’ll be doing exactly what God is expecting from us when Christ comes again. He’d find us actively living in faith and hope and love using our talents, and ready to see what He has planned for us in eternity.
Scriptures for March 16, 2014, Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-8, 13-17; John 3:1-17
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.” Romans 4:5, ASV
Have you ever heard it said, “S/he deserves this gift”? We’ve probably all said it once or twice. We go to the trouble of finding the perfect gift for someone who has done something great, like the father who buys his daughter a car for her graduation. “She deserves this gift because she had worked so hard to get that diploma.” This is an oxymoron. If it is deserved, then it is not a gift, it is payment for the work. If it is a gift, then there need not be a reason for giving it.
Paul tells us that we don’t receive the gracious gifts of God because we deserve them. We can’t trust enough, believe enough, work enough to deserve God’s blessing. We don’t deserve heaven. We don’t deserve the gifts that God gives. If we deserved these things, if we have done something to earn them, then they aren’t gifts. But we receive heaven and God’s blessings because He has offered them to us and we believe Him. That’s righteousness; we aren’t righteous because we’ve done something or because we are somebody who deserves what God has given. We are made righteous by the faith given to us to believe what God says.
God never said we’d be blessed for our works. We are blessed because of faith. Abraham was given an incredible promise, one that is beyond anything we might expect. He was promised that his name would be great and that his offspring would become a great nation. To see the fulfillment of this promise, Abram would have to leave everything he knew and loved behind and trust in God’s Word. He did not deserve what would come. As a matter of fact, he did not even see the fulfillment himself. But his offspring did. They received the promise because God was faithful. And we receive the same promise because God is faithful.
The promise was given to Abraham later in the book of Genesis than our scripture for today. But today’s passage shows us the beginning of the journey. In Chapter 15, God tells Abraham to look at all the stars in the sky and promises that his offspring will equal that number. It was a hard promise to believe because Abraham was old and his wife had not given him any children. Yet, we know that Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness.
But let’s look at the beginning of his story. Abram didn’t know anything about God. He followed a different religion which worshipped a multitude of gods. They had a god for everything, and prayed to those gods to meet their daily needs. One day, however, Abram heard a voice that told him to pack up his entire life, leave everything he knew and loved behind, and travel to some place he did not know. This voice promised Abram that his name would be so great, that he would be so blessed, and that he would deal with everyone, good and bad, according to their relationship with Abram.
If you heard a voice like this, what would you do? In today’s modern age, everyone around you would say you were crazy. They might even lock you up. We don’t know how Abram’s family and friends reacted; perhaps they threatened to do the same thing. It didn’t matter to Abram. He packed up his life and he went into the wilderness following a voice that he trusted. It took faith to leave the past behind and go into the world chasing after a promise. Even at this moment, Abram believed God, and though we do not hear it credited to him until later in the story, Abram was righteous from the very beginning. He had a right relationship with God from the moment he heard his voice.
God’s promises were misunderstood by Jesus’ time. Instead of trusting in God, the people trusted in their own righteousness. But Abram’s righteousness came not after he did something; he was made righteous by the invitation from God to which he responded. The same is true for us.
We often talk about inviting Jesus into our hearts. There is even a painting that has long been misinterpreted to mean exactly this. The painting shows Jesus on the outside of a closed door with no handle. He’s knocking, and wants us to let him in. Many people have interpreted that to mean that we should open the door, invite Jesus inside, and make Him a part of our life. However, the scripture on which is based, Revelation 3, is written to the people who are already Christians. It is a message to the Church at Laodicea, whose people have forgotten their first love.
We can only invite Jesus into our hearts because He is already there. He snuck in by the back door, and when we heard the knocking (or the voice) He whispered, “Trust. Answer. Everything’s good.” That’s what happened with Abram. God was already there, so when he heard the voice, he trusted, answered. And in the end, everything was good.
Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didn’t understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didn’t have the heart connection. His faith was still in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed that he knew Jesus was who He said He, but Jesus knew that his thinking was upside down and backwards. Jesus answered his confession, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus thinking as they all did in those days, “according to the flesh.”
Paul uses this term often in his letters, but it isn’t meant to separate our flesh from our spirit. In the verses that are left out of today’s reading, Paul talks about circumcision. Those who lived in that day, according to that faith, believed that they were made righteous by circumcision. They believed they were sons of Abraham very literally by the cutting of their flesh. Abraham was quite old when he was circumcised. The act would have been extremely painful and perhaps even life threatening. But it was not the circumcision that made him righteous. He trusted God and it was credited to him as righteousness.
In today’s passage, the phrase means that they lived according to human standards. They believed they were righteous because they were obedient to doing what they were supposed to do. They were circumcised, so they must be godly. They did what they were supposed to do, so they must be children of Abraham. They want righteousness credited to them because they have earned it.
The word credited is a legal term. Some translations use the word “counted.” We like to make check-lists and to-do lists, mostly because it is so uplifting to see things get checked off. I feel like I’ve accomplished something when I get to the end of a day and all my errands have been run. I feel good when my household chore list is complete. When we do reach the end of a list, we often reward ourselves. We do the same thing with our faith. We make check-lists, as if we can do enough things to earn the reward. I went to church: check. I tithed: check. I did a good deed for my neighbor: check. I didn’t break any the commandments today: check. That’s how they felt in the days of Jesus. Nicodemous was probably a good man according to his checklist. He probably deserved to go to heaven.
But Jesus told him that it isn’t enough to live according to human expectations. Nicodemus was a smart guy. He knew the scriptures. He was a leader of the Jews. But he didn’t get it. Jesus confirms Nicodemus’ confession of faith. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus has seen the kingdom of God, even though at this point he does not fully understand what it means. Even in the later stories of Nicodemus, we do not see someone who is passionate about his faith, but Nicodemus is quietly faithful in the trial against his Lord and as he helped put Jesus into the tomb.
The conversation continues as Jesus tries to explain the deeper things of God. He tells Nicodemus about new birth and about the anointing of the Spirit of God, but he can’t seem to see these things through his eyes that have been conditioned by his religious understanding and the culture in which he lives. To him, birth happens once and righteousness comes from the law. He knows Jesus has come from God but he can’t understand the deeper purposes of His life and His future death. Jesus points to the cross in this passage, telling this Pharisee that He would be lifted up in death to bring life for those who believe. It is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused; this was a very radical revelation for the Jews.
God promised to bless Abram and his descendents and to curse their enemies. This is a promise we can embrace. Wouldn’t we all love to see our friends blessed and our enemies punished? We see a similar message in today’s Psalm: God will protect you from all harm. Yet, this promise is not the end, it is just the beginning. God says, “…and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. Israel was blessed to be a blessing. We are blessed to be a blessing.
This is radically different than the worldly view by which we live. We look at our life, with all the good things we have and we think, “I worked hard for all this.” We do work hard at our jobs and perhaps we deserve to have the nice house and the car parked in our driveway. Yet, the voice of God calls us to look at these things with a new vision, through eyes of faith. How different would our life be if we woke up every morning and said, “God, everything I have is yours, lead me to use it for your glory.” Instead we wake up grumbling that we have to go to work to earn the money to maintain the lifestyle we have created for ourselves and we do not see the opportunities that God presents to us daily to live in faith. We are no different than Nicodemus, even though our religious view might be. We still live according to the flesh. We still strive to check off everything on our lists, expecting the reward for our faith. Sadly, faith doesn’t always mean faithfulness.
Abram had faith, but he was also faithful. He responded to the invitation despite the dangers and unknown. He had confident trust in God’s voice and followed Him. God’s voice invites us into the unknown. I confess that there have been times when I failed or refused to follow.
Jesus calls us to look at the world through the eyes of faith. We have been blessed to be a blessing and so we go forth in faith to share God’s kingdom with the world. We may see our neighbors as Nicodemus, doubtful and confused, but Jesus sees them differently. He knows there is a seed to be watered or a spark to be fanned and He sends us out to make that faith grow. We may never see the fulfillment of the promise; Abraham certainly didn’t. His children did not inherit the Promised Land until four hundred years after Abraham died, yet he continued to walk in faith.
The scriptures are not clear about what happened to Nicodemus, we don’t know the end of his story. The same is true about many of the people that cross our path. With our worldly eyes we see unbelievers who don’t care about God. They may even challenge our faith with their questions and their doubts. It is easy to assume that God will do with them what we will, bless and curse them according to their flesh. And yet, Paul reminds us that God justifies the ungodly whose faith is counted as righteousness. See, we can never deserve the gift, otherwise it would be a reward. We are blessed not because we do everything right but because God loved us so much that He sent Jesus to pay our debt.
So often we focus on that one verse in the scriptures. John 3:16 is beloved and well known. John 3:16 is recognized the world over. Anyone who has ever seen a football game on television has seen signs raised above the crowds beseeching people to believe in God. Even if they can’t quote the verse word-for-word, even non-Christians know what it says. It is the foundation of our faith. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This is a favorite passage because it shows both God’s gospel and man’s response. God loves and if we believe, we will not die. Yet, John 3:16 should not be taken without verse 17. “For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.” We like to think of God in terms of love, and love He is. However, it is not love that saves us. Love is the reason why we are saved, but it is not our salvation. Forgiveness saves us.
God forgives. God forgives because He loves, but love is not the foundation of our faith. We are saved by God’s mercy, by His forgiveness. Nicodemus went to Jesus in darkness, seeking answers to the questions of his heart. There was something about Jesus, but Nicodemus was afraid. What did it all mean? What was He saying? Nicodemus was a teacher. He was responsible for the spiritual lives of the people, yet he could not understand what Jesus was saying. Nicodemus understood the Law. He understood the things he could grasp and the things that he could do. He lived according to the flesh.
It is easier to respond to God’s word than it is to accept His grace. It is easier to think that all we have to do is open the door in our own way, or that we just need to check a few more things off our list and we’ll be saved. But we will never deserve the salvation that is given as a gift from God. He invites us into a relationship, not expecting us to be righteous in it; the invitation makes us right with Him. He’s already inside, speaking those words that will gently guide us on the path He has ordained. We were once among the ungodly, those who were outside the covenant promise of God, but He called to us and invited us into the relationship He established through Abraham, who has become our father, too, not according to the flesh, but by trust in God.
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, Nor standeth in the way of sinners, Nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers: But his delight is in the law of Jehovah; And on his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, That bringeth forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also doth not wither; And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. The wicked are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For Jehovah knoweth the way of the righteous; But the way of the wicked shall perish.” Psalm 1, ASV
It would be nice to live in a place where the leaves of the trees do not wither, wouldn’t it? We have some trees here in Texas that are losing their leaves. They do not drop in the fall like most deciduous trees, but instead drop in the spring. The tree is never completely bare because they are already pushing new leaves as the old ones are falling. It wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have trees that do drop in the fall, but as it is, we end up raking leaves twice a year, and sometimes for months. Yesterday was a particularly bad day because it was extremely windy. It was raining leaves. Of course, the falling leaves are a natural process in the course of our seasons. The old are dropped so the new can grow.
I turned fifty years old last year, and I have to admit that there are many times when I wish that we people wouldn’t wither. I’ve noticed a few wrinkles in my face and parts of me are sagging. I groan a bit when I get up in the morning as my muscles get used to having to move again after a night of sleep. Foods I used to love affect my body in negative ways. I don’t like to drive at night; I’d rather not lift heavy grocery bags. I am slower and nothing works like it did when I was young. As we get older we discover the reality of our lives: our bodies will eventually fail us. It doesn’t matter how much water we get, we will wither like the grass in winter.
While it is true that we have bodies that will eventually fail, we have a promise that won’t. We know that even when we die, we will live forever. John writes in Revelation that we will dwell in an eternal city that has a river that waters the Tree of Life which bears fruit year round. It will never wither or die, but will feed God’s people forever. We have this promise to get us through this life. The problem is, we are still human, and though we can trust in the faithfulness of God, even our spirits wither occasionally. We have faith, but at the same time we doubt and we fear and question and we fall to the temptations of this world. It is part of our nature.
God has given us His Word to sustain us. In those days when we feel like we are withering from the weight of the world’s burdens, we can open the scriptures and find God’s grace in the pages. We can listen as God speaks to us in prayer. We can gather with other Christians to worship the Lord, to experience the sacraments, to receive the Eucharist. So, let’s be like that tree planted by the stream, constantly drinking in the water of life. We might wither in body, and even in spirit, but we will have always have life as He is the Living Water that sustains us now and forever.
“Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me; For my soul taketh refuge in thee: Yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I take refuge, Until these calamities be overpast. I will cry unto God Most High, Unto God that performeth all things for me. He will send from heaven, and save me, When he that would swallow me up reproacheth; Selah God will send forth his lovingkindness and his truth. My soul is among lions; I lie among them that are set on fire, Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, And their tongue a sharp sword. Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; Let thy glory be above all the earth. They have prepared a net for my steps; My soul is bowed down: They have digged a pit before me; They are fallen into the midst thereof themselves. Selah My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing, yea, I will sing praises. Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp: I myself will awake right early. I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, among the peoples: I will sing praises unto thee among the nations. For thy lovingkindness is great unto the heavens, And thy truth unto the skies. Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; Let thy glory be above all the earth.” Psalm 57, ASV
David was the anointed king of Israel, but Saul still held the power. David respected Saul’s position and refused to kill him, even though Saul constantly sought to destroy David. David understood that Saul was in God’s power, and that it was up to him to simply trust in God. There are those who might think that David was afraid, and perhaps he was, wouldn’t you be if you had a powerful king chasing after you? But David was also waiting; he was waiting for his moment according to God’s time.
David knew where to turn when he was afraid; he cried out to God. He didn’t just ask God for help, however. He sought God’s mercy and confessed his faith. “Under the shadow of thy wings will I take refuge.” He trusted that God would send help. He trusted that God’s love would be fulfilled in his salvation. He trusted that God’s word was true and that his enemies would not have victory over him. He knew that he was in danger, and he was afraid. But in the midst of his fear, he saw the promise fulfilled.
Even when he was in hiding, running from Saul, David sang God’s praises. We might think this is a hard thing to do, after all David wouldn’t be in this trouble if God hadn’t anointed him to be king. Saul was jealous and afraid. He didn’t want to lose his power; he was willing to do whatever was necessary to destroy David. David could have happily been keeping his father’s sheep in the field, no worries about war or death or the burden of a nation on his shoulders. But David trusted God, accepted God’s choice and followed God’s plan. He thanked the Lord and sang His praises among the nations, even when he was on the verge of disaster. He exalted God, even when death was close.
Do we have such faith? Do we thank God and sing His praise when we are in the midst of trouble? We might not have powerful kings chasing us through the desert, but we do have to deal with pain and suffering. We have enemies that are chasing us through life, perhaps not powerful kings or even people, but the devil is constantly trying to turn us onto a different path. The devil would rather we die than thank and praise God. But we know God is always faithful, even when we are afraid. His Word is true and His plan is right. So, let us thank God and praise Him, even when things don’t seem to be working out in our favor, because He will make things right in His way and in His time.
“As the hart panteth after the water brooks, So panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, While they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? These things I remember, and pour out my soul within me, How I went with the throng, and led them to the house of God, With the voice of joy and praise, a multitude keeping holyday. Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him For the help of his countenance. O my God, my soul is cast down within me: Therefore do I remember thee from the land of the Jordan, And the Hermons, from the hill Mizar. Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterfalls: All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me. Yet Jehovah will command his lovingkindness in the day-time; And in the night his song shall be with me, Even a prayer unto the God of my life. I will say unto God my rock, Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? As with a sword in my bones, mine adversaries reproach me, While they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him, Who is the help of my countenance, and my God.” Psalm 42 (ASV)
The psalmist sings, “My tears have been my food day and night.” He has come into some difficulty, perhaps taken captive by an enemy. He is unable to attend to his work at the Temple, unable to stand in the presence of his God. The distance he is experiencing has caused him an intense thirst for God and desire to return home where he is safe. He cries out in his pain, “Why, God?” as his enemies ridicule him because he has seems to have been abandoned into their hands.
Despite his fear and longing, the psalmist remembers what it was like to enter into God’s presence with shouts of thanksgiving and praise with all the other pilgrims. And then he asks himself, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” He knows, despite what it appears to the world, God is with him and that God will help him. His hope is now, as it always was, in God. Jehovah will save him; he has no reason to mourn. His enemies might doubt God’s lovingkindness, but he has reason to help.
We think that faith means we should never cry out in fear and doubt, or shed tears of pain. “I have to be strong,” we say, holding back our tears. We try to be strong, but that’s what’s wrong: we try to do it on our own. We withhold the tears in the attempt to stay in control, and in doing so we miss the opportunity to seek God’s help. He hasn’t abandoned us, no matter what the world has to say. He is with us always, and when the world makes our life difficult, He uses it to help us to grow in faith and hope.
There are many people in our world today who are seeking relief to their pain by running after every spiritual wind, desperately trying to fill a hole in their heart with false gods and crosses of glory. Without the foundation of faith, we believe the lies of the world. We believe that we can have the strength on our own to stay in control, and that we should hold back our tears. No matter how hard we try, though, the tears will flow in our life and we will cry out to God, “Why?” We all have a desperate need to know that God exists and that He is near.
Some people never really find what they are looking for because they are looking in all the wrong places. They think the current religious trend will help them to know God, but it only leads them further from the source of the living water which is Jesus Christ. They seek the divine connection by chasing after rainbows or crystals or some other new age spiritualism. When things go wrong, they cry out in pain and wonder where God is in it all.
Christians cry out to God in our thirst for Him, but we do so with praise and thanksgiving, remembering the joy we had when we were in His presence. He is never far even when we feel like He is, and we have no reason to be downcast because we have a hope that reaches far beyond our most difficult problems. Though the tears will flow, we need not fear because God is with us in the midst of it. In good times and bad, let us simply live in the hope of His promises and praise God in all our circumstances. The world might think He has abandoned us, but He has assured us that He is ever near.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, ASV
It is easy to agree with many of the things on this list as having a purpose in this world. These are positive moments in life: being born, planting, healing, building up, laughing, dancing, gathering, embracing, seeking, keeping, sewing, speaking, loving, and peace. And yet, the truth is there is a time to die, a time to pluck, a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to cast away, a time to refrain, a time to lose, a time to rend, a time for silence, a time for hate and a time for war. I will be honest and say that I hope that I am never have to experience the times to kill or of hate and war, but I know that if we have to experience those times God will use it according to His purpose.
I don’t want to die, but the reality is that I will. So will you. The only things that are guaranteed for human beings is that we are born, we live and we die. As much as we try to avoid the inevitable, there is a time for us to die. It seems like such a waste, doesn’t it? Too many people die long before they have been able to accomplish all their goals, long before they could have the impact that is possible with their gifts. This is especially true when we face the death of a child. All we can do is ask why, but we might never really know the reason. It doesn’t make sense, and it probably shouldn’t. All we can do is trust that it was the right time according to God’s good and perfect will.
What good can come from death? Despite the tragedy of death that comes at what seems to be the wrong time, the scriptures do show us how death is necessary for life. Jesus tells us in John 12 that the kernel of wheat has to die to produce the sprout, the crop and the harvest. In this passage, Jesus is talking about Himself. He had to come to earth, ‘be planted’ as a seed for a great harvest. He also had to die. In His death, the one that makes the least sense to all of us, Jesus sprouted and grew into a great harvest. Just as one kernel of wheat produces a pile of new kernels, Jesus’ death created the fruit of new seeds to replenish the earth.
We talk about death in another way, too. We have to die to live. Faith calls us to die to self so that we can live with Christ. It is not death as we experience in flesh, but we die when we admit that we are sinners in need of a Savior and we turn away from our own path to follow His. We die when we join Jesus in our baptism and in our confession that we cannot save ourselves.
Surely our life is meant to be merciful, compassionate and filled with love; the negative things do not make sense. How about a time to break down or weep? Should we not be rejoicing and building up? We fight over the wrong causes, we love the wrong things, we keep that which is corrupt and reject that which is eternal. We break down relationships and weep over that which has no value. We embrace that which will harm us and cast away that which will make us better. And yet, we look at these purposes and we know that there are even inappropriate times for laughter and love. The key to life is trusting that God does know the right time and follow His way in this world. And when we have to experience those things we do not want to experience, we know that God is with us and that He will make everything good and right according to His purpose.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 23, 2014, Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-26 [27-30, 39-42]
“Jesus answered and said unto her, Every one that drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life.” John 4:13-14, ASV
Have you ever really thought about how quickly Jesus went in and out of people’s lives? Their experience was often a very brief encounter but the effects were long lasting. He healed their dis-ease and cast out their demons. He taught them about the Kingdom of God and forgave their sins. Their lives were changed but just a few minutes of conversation and interaction.
The text from John is one of the longer readings we find in our lectionary, and it is an extremely long story about one particular woman, and yet as we read it we realize that the conversation between Jesus and the woman must have lasted just a few minutes. Her life was completely changed by the encounter, as she saw the realization of God’s promise’s Messiah in the man Jesus. Her faith, built on just a few questions and answers, was shared with many in her village and then spread among the people of Samaria. When the disciples dispersed into the world to continue Jesus’ ministry, they found that Samaria already believed because faith in Jesus was established during this brief encounter.
Jesus had that kind of impact on people because He spoke words that were powerful and true. Jesus told the woman at the well that He could give her living water. This was significant to the woman, whose noontime trip to the well would produce stale and muddy water. See, she was outcast from the rest of the village, perhaps because of her living arrangement. We learn during her conversation that she’s been the wife of five husbands and she’s currently living with a man who is not her husband. Whatever the reason, she waits until the heat of the day to go to the well. The best time to draw water is in the early morning; during the night the silt which is stirred by the buckets has had time to settle, and the water is a little cooler after the night.
The trip to the well was more than a chore for the women, though. It was a time to socialize, to gather gossip, perhaps trade recipes. It was a time for the women to bond, to complain about their husbands, to share their hopes. Not only did the woman at the well have to deal with dirty water, she missed the companionship of the other women. Did she go later in the day because she was unwelcome? Or was she embarrassed by her circumstances and chose to avoid the women. Either way, I doubt she was interested in meeting a man at the well, especially a man like Jesus.
On this day, though, she was given a gift. She met Jesus and He changed her life. The living water of Jesus would not quench her thirst, but it would quench her need for relationship, first with Him and then with others in her community. She could not have been completely discarded by her neighbors because they believed her story that she had met a man who might be the Messiah for whom they were waiting. They believed enough to go out to the well and meet Him, too.
Her faith did not come easily. She was hesitant at the beginning. He reached her by asking her for the one thing she could give, water from the well. She was probably not given many opportunities to help her neighbors. There is such joy and fulfillment in doing something for others, and because of her history or her present, she has been left out. In this encounter, though, she seemed uncertain about whether or not she wanted a relationship. She responded with a question. “Who are you that you would speak to me?” She was defensive, perhaps embarrassed because her life was in shambles and afraid that He might treat her poorly.
Jesus drew her into the relationship by offering her something greater than He was asking from her. Slowly, but surely, He developed a connection with her that was based on far more than her ability to serve Him. She was everything that He should have hated—a Samaritan, a woman and a sinner—but He saw beyond the surface and met her deepest needs.
The Israelites were on a difficult journey. A million or more people were being led by a God they had forgotten through a harsh and thorny land. Today’s Old Testament lesson was early in the journey. They had not yet even made it to Mount Sinai. They were still being tested; they were still learning to trust in God. According to some estimation, they were probably only traveling about forty days when they arrived at Rephidim. Though they had cried out for the salvation of the LORD in Egypt, they already looked back on the life they led in slavery as better than the uncertainty of where they would get their next drink.
Water is one of the most basic needs of the human body. It is no wonder that they were thirsty. There was no water in the desert, and they had been traveling long enough that their resources were quickly diminishing. If our kids can’t stand a two hour car ride to Grandma’s house, how can we think that the Israelites would be patient during a forty day journey on foot?
But at this point they’ve seen some pretty miraculous things. They saw the miracles in Egypt. They saw the column of fire at night and cloud during the day which led them on their way. They saw the Red Sea part so they could safely pass and then eat Pharaoh’s army. They saw the bitter water of Marah and Elim miraculously become sweet. They saw the manna and quails fall from heaven, to feed them with satisfying food. I never realized how many of these miracles happened in such a short period of time. How could they become so discontented so quickly? I thought that was a modern problem! Even after God had provided safety, escape, clean water, bread and meat, they were still afraid that they would die.
They began to grumble. I understand. I get pretty testy when I’m uncomfortable. I know what it is like to wish I was back at a painful place because at least it is familiar. The unknown is scary. It is uncomfortable. It is worse than the worst places that we know. They went to Moses and asked, “Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” When we are uncomfortable, the worst that can happen is what we believe will happen. The Israelites were so thirsty that they were sure they must die.
God tells Moses to go ahead of the people with his staff. “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.” This was not stale, murky water; it was clean fresh flowing water, good to drink. It was also a foreshadowing of the Living Water that Christ would give to the woman at the well. In that place, which Moses called Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested God, God stood on a rock, but in later days, Jesus would be the Rock from which the water flowed.
God heard their cries, and despite the demanding and untrusting tone, God responded. He didn’t offer them water to prove Himself, but to remind His people that He was there with them. They saw only their suffering and did not trust that God would do something about it. They did not ask God’s help, they demanded evidence of God’s control. In those times when it seems like God is far away, He is actually very near and He knows the needs of His people.
They needed water, but they also needed to learn how to trust Him. They were being led from one life to a very different life. The wilderness journey was not only meant to get them from one place to another, but to help them transform into the people God was calling them to be. He was teaching them about faith, about hope and about relying on the One who would provide for their every need. They quarreled and tested, but God still provided. This is good for us to know—that even when we quarrel and test the LORD, He is still close by to meet our needs.
The woman at the well quarreled and tested Jesus, but in the end she received a gift; she received faith in the Messiah, the One who would give her Living Water that would quench her thirst for lasting relationship with God. That Living Water didn’t stay pent up in the deep of her soul, though; she ran to the village to share the Good News. “Come, see a man, who told me all things that ever I did: can this be the Christ?” She learned in the encounter that God did not reject her because of her past or her present, and that He would still provide for her needs despite her quarreling and testing.
The people tested God, but in reality it was the people who were being tested. Would they be faithful? Would they trust God? Would they learn how to live as His people in the place where they were being led? We think that suffering is a sign of God’s abandonment; they certainly did in the days of the desert wandering. Health, wealth, success are the signs of a perfect life, at least we tend to think so. The reality is so different. Faith and faithfulness does not guarantee a lack of suffering. Faith and faithfulness helps us to get through everything we have to face in this life.
Paul writes, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom also we have had our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand; and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” The Hebrews did not have peace with God because they were not living by faith. They tested God and quarreled with Moses rather than living in the hope of God’s promises. The Samaritan woman did not understand the hope she could have in Jesus, but when she heard His message she found peace in trusting His words. She was not justified by her works, but by her faith in Jesus.
Paul also writes about peace. We often think that peace will only come when life is perfect. We believe that when we are safe, healthy and comfortable, then we will have peace. We see the blessed life as one filled with good things, just as they did in Paul’s day. All too many pastors preach that if you appear successful, then God’s hand must surely be on you. They see suffering as a sign that something is wrong between man and God. However, Paul gives us a different perspective. He says, “but we also rejoice in our tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh stedfastness; and stedfastness, approvedness; and approvedness, hope: and hope putteth not to shame; because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us.”
Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope. (NIV) We don’t end with peace, or gain peace when everything is perfect. We begin with peace, knowing that God has justified us through grace which we have through Jesus Christ. Having that peace does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. As a matter of fact, the suffering we face in Christ will actually strengthen us. As we persevere through our suffering, the world sees our character and our character gives them hope. People are amazed by those who still believe in the midst of great suffering. They see hope in the life of the faithful and they see God in that hope. Though some might question the integrity of a Christian in suffering, it is the very peace they experience in the midst of hard times that stands as a sign of their faith to the world.
The psalmist tells us what happened to those who did not trust in the Lord. “Forty years long was I grieved with that generation, And said, It is a people that do err in their heart, And they have not known my ways: Wherefore I sware in my wrath, That they should not enter into my rest.” Those who did not trust in God did not know the peace He had to give. Yet, when we look to God as the rock of our salvation, we can join with others and reconciled to one another and to God by the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. We can live in the hope He gives through faith. We can partake of the living water which is so much better than the water that is left to stagnate and poison our souls. We can share that flowing water with others because Jesus has broken down the walls that have divided us for so long. “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; Let us make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.”
“My son, forget not my law; But let thy heart keep my commandments: For length of days, and years of life, And peace, will they add to thee. Let not kindness and truth forsake thee: Bind them about thy neck; Write them upon the tablet of thy heart: So shalt thou find favor and good understanding In the sight of God and man. Trust in Jehovah with all thy heart, And lean not upon thine own understanding: In all thy ways acknowledge him, And he will direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes; Fear Jehovah, and depart from evil: It will be health to thy navel, And marrow to thy bones.” Proverbs 3:1-8, ASV
I have a necklace that I’ve been wearing for years. I’ve had to replace the chain several times, but the pendant, which is a cross, has been around my neck almost every day since I purchased it fifteen or so years ago. I have another necklace I wear occasionally, but I have purposely put the pendant on a chain that matches my cross, with a different length, so that I can wear them together. It might not seem very fashionable to wear the same necklace every day, but it is important to me. When I’m having a moment, good and bad, I reach for my cross. I hold it in my hand and think of Jesus. I touch it when I pray. I see it in the mirror when I’m brushing my teeth. Sometimes the chain gets all caught up in my hair at night when I am sleeping. I bought the cross when we lived in England, and it reminds me of our time there. But most of all I’m reminded of Jesus Christ, my need for a Savior, and His love that has won for me forgiveness and eternal life.
The cross around my neck sometimes acts as a silent witness of my faith. I hope that when people see me wearing it, they recognize that I am a Christian. I suppose sometimes our actions speak much louder than the symbols we wear, and it can act as a proof my hypocrisy. There are those who love to discover Christians in the act of sinning to use it as a reason to reject God. It is a risk I take every day, and it breaks my heart when I do make a mistake that turns a person away from the Lord.
Though wearing it might act as a witness, positively and negatively, I wear it more as a reminder to myself. The writer of this Proverb says “bind them about thy neck” about kindness and truth. He is calling us to be reminded constantly of the good things of life and faith. We are to keep these things ever in our sight so that when we are faced with difficult moments of failure and temptation, we will remember the life God calls us to live. That life is one of obedience to His Word and of trust in Him.
It is easy to forget that God is always near. It is easy to ignore Him when there is so much going on in the world, especially in our day. We experience incredible amounts of noise: televisions blaring, horns honking, sirens wailing, phones ringing, computers buzzing, airplanes whining. But it isn’t just the noise; we are never alone. We are constantly being bombarded with information. Someone is always trying to ‘sell’ us something, whether it is a product, or an idea, or an ideology. How can we hear God if we are so busy listening to so many other things and people?
We can certainly “bind” symbols of our faith around our neck to help us remember that God is always near. What’s most important, however, is that we trust in Him. The cross around my neck could never save me; it is just a reminder of the One who did. The cross around my neck will never save another person, but it can help them to see the One who can. Most of all, the cross around my neck helps keep my eyes on the One who will help me to live in His grace and direct me on the right path. It is all a matter of trust. Who do we trust? Do we trust the world and all it wants to see us? Do we trust in our own understanding? Or do we trust in the God who has given us His peace?
“And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and offerings, he said, As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” Luke 21:5-6, ASV
Construction of the Crystal Cathedral began in 1977. It took three years and 18.5 million dollars, and is probably one of the most recognized religious structures in the world. The Prayer Tower was complete in 1990. It is the largest glass building in the world, composed of 10,000 rectangular panes of glass which are glued to the structure with silicon glue, a method that would allow the structure to withstand an 8.0 earthquake. Unfortunately, the structure didn’t withstand the earthquake of human failure. The congregation experienced a loss of attendance and financial giving, so was in extreme debt and had to file for bankruptcy in 2010.
Sale of the Crystal Cathedral was complete in February 2012. It was sold the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange; they were planning to build a new cathedral for Orange County California, and the Crystal Cathedral was a good option. Some have questioned the wisdom of this purchase, wondering why the Roman Catholic Church would want to invest in a place that seems very un-Catholic. They are planning to renovate the inside of the structure to make it more suitable for Roman Catholic liturgy, but they intend to keep the outside relatively unchanged. The cathedral will not reopen until 2016, but some of the Diocese offices have already moved on campus.
Robert Schuller was the pastor who began Crystal Cathedral Ministries, and his ministry continues today as Shepherd’s Grove Church under the leadership of his grandson Bobby Schuller. The Hour of Power ministry continues on television, also led by Reverend Schuller. The series focuses on Christian music with a guest speaker who talks about how faith has changed their lives.
We put a lot of time, resources and energy into the buildings where we gather to worship the Lord, perhaps too much time, resources and energy. We are reminded in today’s lesson that the greatest buildings, even those dedicated to God’s service, are temporary. They will cause us heartache and difficulty; they may even collapse until every stone, or pane of glass, is gone. They will put us into debt, sometimes to the point of risking the ministry. Sometimes our ministry becomes about the building, and we ignore the people who are the heart of it. Even worse, we forget Christ, who is the foundation of everything we do.
I’m glad the Diocese of Orange bought the Crystal Cathedral. I’m glad someone is going to protect the beautiful building and rededicate it to God. I’m glad that it is now going to be called Christ Cathedral, placing the church, its building and its ministry, under the care of Jesus Christ. I pray that they will always remember that everything we build is temporary. It will one day fall down; the panes of glass will crack and the glory will fade. We can put our time, resources and energy into keeping it maintained, but we must always remember that the Church is far more than a building. The Church is the body of Christ, and God is with those who gather in faith around the Word and the Sacraments, wherever that may be.
“Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But he that looketh into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and so continueth, being not a hearer that forgetteth but a doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing. If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James 1:19-27, ASV
I have a confession to make: I’m not very good at controlling my tongue. Well, I’m not the worst at it, but I manage to fail on a regular basis. I’ve screamed out in anger, cast words of judgment, passed on rumors and gossip. I’ve said things I didn’t mean and meant things I never said. I’ve used words that should never be used and said things that have hurt people I love. I have managed to speak without thinking way too many times. Haven’t we all?
I love today’s passage, but it makes me very uncomfortable. I read a word like “undefiled,” and I wonder how I could ever live up to such high expectations. I’m broken, corrupt, blemished. And my out of control tongue is not the worst of my failure. How can anyone ever expect me to be undefiled?
Yet, as we today’s passage, we see that James isn’t talking about our human flesh being undefiled, and while as Christians it is up to us to keep working toward the expectation. We are to watch our language, to practice using good words rather than nasty ones, to reject rumor and gossip and to encourage people to do what is right rather than condemn them with our judgment.
In this passage, James is talking about our religion. Too often we take the Word of God and use it for our own purposes. We take scriptures out of context to put people down or lift ourselves up. We pick the texts we like best and use them to justify our actions. We thump people on the head with the scriptures to make them do what we want them to do, what we think they should be doing, but it is often far from the reason and purpose of God. We use God’s words for our own agenda, speaking with our tongues words and meanings that are not of God.
God’s Word is like a mirror. When we look at it in light of our own lives, we realize that we are very spotted and blemished. We are not undefiled, but corrupt to our very core. It shows us our sin. When we think we are perfect or even perfected, then we forget the remedy of our spots. We forget that we need Jesus as our Savior. When we use God’s Word to put others down and lift ourselves, we forget how much we have failed to be the people God has created us to be and we do not seek His mercy and forgiveness. Vain religion is when we think we are good enough, that our way is the right way, that we have done enough to overcome our imperfections on our own.
Matthew Henry writes, “In a worthless religion there is much show. When men are more concerned to seem religious than really to be so, it is a sign that their religion is worthless. In a worthless religion there is much censuring of others. When we hear people ready to speak the faults of others, that they themselves may seem the wiser and better, this is a sign that they have put a worthless religion. The man who has a detracting tongue cannot have a truly humble and gracious heart. There is no strength nor power in that religion which will not enable a man to bridle his tongue. In a worthless religion a man deceives his own heart. When once religion comes to a worthless thing, how great is the worthlessness!”
True religion teaches us to do everything as if God is always in our presence, so that we walk humbly and serve charitably those who need to experience God’s grace. If we are busy condemning people with our judgment or gossiping about their problems, we can’t possibly be helping them along the path which God has prepared for them. It isn’t easy. Our spots and blemishes are like huge neon signs in the world and we are tempted to cover them with false religion or ignore them with none, but the humble servant seeks God’s grace and obeys the call to a holy life and charitable life.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all. But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” Ephesians 4:1-7, ASV
They say that if you ask twelve Christians a question about doctrine you will get thirteen different answers. We have this way of looking at things differently. Unfortunately, our differences often lead to fights, and those fights lead to division. Some of the debates matter. The early Church fathers had to fight heresies that threatened the body of Christ. There are dozens of –isms and hundreds of volumes written by the early generations of leaders refuting those heretical ideas. Those ideas have not disappeared; they are still threatening the body of Christ today.
Most often of the differences are miniscule, based on the person’s experience and learning. Culture plays a major role, as does gender, age and intelligence. We see things differently, but our faith is not based on our perception, it is founded on Christ. Pastor Jack Hayford was once quoted as saying, “Yes, we are all a part of the whole body of Christ, but as Israel camped around the Tabernacle in tribes, so we need to, every once in a while, be with our tribe and accept the ministry given to our tribes.” The tribes of Israel began with the sons of Jacob. In Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his sons, a speech that defined the unique character and fate of each tribe. As the story of Israel unfolds in the Bible, we find that these blessings are true. The descendents of Jacob fulfill the blessings, most notably is the rule of Judah from whom “the scepter will not depart.” Each tribe had a purpose and was given the gifts and personality to fulfill God’s will for them. Together, Israel was complete but they suffered when they were divided.
Of course, the differences between Christians are often played out in humor, like in one episode of Cheers the TV show. Woody and Kelly had been recently married when they went into the bar quite upset. Everyone asked what was wrong. They said, “We have to get a divorce, our religious differences are too great.” Someone, probably Carla, said, “Aren’t you both Lutheran?” They told the crew that one was Missouri Synod and the other Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As a Lutheran, I found this very funny, but I’m sure we aren’t the only denomination that could have been picked on in the show.
And it isn’t getting any easier. We continue to divide ourselves into smaller, more exclusive tribes. Sometimes the division is based on personalities: a pastor disagrees with the direction of a church council, so he takes a bunch of members and starts a new church down the street. Sometimes the differences are cultural or geographical; sometimes they are based on gender, race, education and economic status.
Some of the differences are based on our vision of what it means to be a Christian. Some want a ministry that reaches out to the poor; others want to focus on prayer and bible study. Some put a lot of attention and resources into worship while others in building outreach centers. It is all important, and it is important that we have a balanced vision of the work God is calling us to do.
Most of all, it is important that we remember that God blessed each of us with unique and valuable gifts. Each person has been blessed to be a blessing, and even though we see the world from different points of view, we are unified by something even greater than our vision and mission. We are unified by Christ. Paul writes to the people of Ephesus that we should love one another with humility and grace. We are different, and we do separate into ‘tribes’ with unique missions and visions of how to share the Gospel in the world. But we are bound together by the Holy Spirit, all part of the body of Christ, called together by the same hope.
So, let’s honor one another, even when our differences seem overwhelming. There may be reasons why we have to separate, because heresy still exists in our world today. But most of our differences are insignificant. Remember, we do not have unity because we are the same, but because we have the same Spirit. Through us, through our ‘tribes’, through our different ministries and visions, God will accomplish His work in the world. We are all blessed to be a blessing, so let’s pray for one another, support each other despite our differences, and be thankful for all God’s people who are sharing His grace with their own gifts, wherever they are sent by the One God who is over us all.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 30, 2014, Fourth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 42:14-21; Psalm 142; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
“It pleased Jehovah, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify the law, and make it honorable.” Isaiah 42:14-21, ASV
The disciples were walking with Jesus when they saw a man blind from birth. The disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind?” The assumption by the disciples was a common misunderstanding of that time. They assumed that any physical disability or illness must have been caused by some specific act of sin. This is, unfortunately, a point of view still widely held today. Many churches even teach that blessedness is a reward for goodness and curses come upon those who lack faith. Jesus answered the disciples, “Neither did this man sin, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” This is not about the man or his parents. It is not even about the healing. It is about God being revealed to the world.
Jesus goes on to say that He is the light of the world, and as light, He reveals things that are not seen in darkness. Interestingly, the blindness of the man did not reveal sin in his life, but actually shined light on the sin in those who thought themselves to be sinless. Their sin was that they did not see as He is or believe that He would act in the world as they had seen in the healing of the man born blind.
This lengthy passage focuses not on the actual healing, which only covers a few verses, but on the trial that came afterwards. First the man was questioned by his neighbors who did not believe he was the same man. Those neighbors took the man to the Pharisees who continued to question him about the healing. The Pharisees went to the man’s parents to question them about the healing. They had no answers and were afraid so they told the Pharisees to ask him since he’s old enough to speak for himself. So, they insisted that Jesus was a sinner and that the man should reject him and give glory to God.
The man said, “Whether he is a sinner, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” The man focused on the miraculous gift he had received through Jesus while the Pharisees continued to look at this through their misunderstanding of the Law.
This was a particularly troubling act of healing for the Pharisees. The rabbis taught that there were four particular miracles that would identify the Messiah. Now, these were healings that they themselves could never accomplish, so they taught the people that these could only be done by the one whom God selected, to cover themselves from the disappointment of the people. They were always concerned about keeping their power and control, so they justified their failure by claiming it had to be done by the Messiah.
The first of the four miracles was healing a leper. Leprosy was punishment for some sin, which is why the lepers were cast out of the villages and separated from their people. Since only God could forgive sin, it was taught that only God could heal a leper and in doing so also provided forgiveness for the sin that caused the leprosy. This is why the healed lepers were sent to the temple to show themselves to the priest; they would make the final determination whether those healed could return home.
The second miracle required of the Messiah was the casting out of a mute demon. The priests were only able to exorcise the demons if they knew its name, and so when dealing with a possessed person they asked the demon to identify itself. They could proceed when they knew its name. However, a mute demon cannot speak its name, so they can’t provide healing. When Jesus cast the demon out of mute and blind man, the people began to see that He might possibly be the Messiah. After all, the rabbis taught that only the Messiah could do what Jesus did, so the questioned whether He was the Son of David for whom they waited.
The fourth miracle is found later in the story: the raising of a man dead for four days. The reason why this was extraordinary is that the rabbis taught that the spirit left the body at three days. The spirit gave life, and if it was gone, there was nothing left to be resurrected. Jesus purposely waited two days to go to his friend Lazarus; he was dead four days when He brought him back to life. Mary and Martha were so upset because they thought there was no hope. The raising of Lazarus showed the people that there was hope.
The third type of miracle is the one in today’s Gospel lesson. By now the religious leaders were more than curious about Jesus. He was doing what they said He would do, but they were beginning to see how this might put a damper on their power and control over God’s people. When Jesus healed the man born blind, He showed them that He really could do what they claimed no one could do, and that He was from God. But they had to find a way to make the people believe that He was a fake. They questioned the man and his family to catch them in some sort of lie. They twisted the miracle into something demonic. They ridiculed the man for being a follower of Jesus and not of Moses.
They didn’t want to believe that Jesus was the Messiah because His preaching was turning the world upside down. He was giving the people a new understanding of God, of sin, of the Law and of faith. He was healing people without the usual requirements of the Law. He was bypassing their authority. He was claiming to be God.
When the Pharisees hurled insults at him, “You are one of his disciples. We are disciples of Moses,” the man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Jesus opened the man’s eyes and his heart. He believed in the truth about God, about God’s plan for the world, and about Jesus Christ. The Pharisees claimed to see; yet they were truly blind to the truth. Jesus warned them that if they claim to see, they would be judged accordingly.
Jesus the Light shined in the darkness and revealed that the people who claimed to know and understand God the best did not know or understand Him at all. They used the Law to bind people, to suppress them, to control them. They didn’t understand that the Law was given to make people free.
Since they used the Law in this way, they would be held up to the same standard. Since they claimed to “see” they would remain guilty.
We are, by nature, imperfect, despite having been created in our Creator’s image. We are darkness, with secrets hidden from view. But Paul writes, “For ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord.” Jesus comes into our life, shining His light and revealing what’s hidden in our darkness. This isn’t the most pleasant experience. We don’t like to hear how we are failures. We don’t like to hear that we are sinners. We don’t like to have our skeletons brought out into the open. But unless they are revealed, we can’t deal with them. But that’s how we are… we’d rather not deal with them.
There is an unfortunate reality when it comes to our sin. Sin causes suffering. Now, I’m not saying that suffering is the punishment for our sin, but sin hurts others. Sin brings dis-ease. Sin ruins lives. Sin causes men and women to lose their jobs. Sin, darkness, shatters our world.
We can’t live in that darkness and serve God. We can’t bear the fruit that comes from holding on to our skeletons and expect to glorify God. Paul warns us that what is hidden will be revealed, that God’s light breaks through the darkness to expose the secrets in our hearts. In Christ we are called to live in that light, not in the darkness of our sin. That means dealing with our sinfulness and using the lessons learned to help others deal with theirs. As the light shines, it will reveal that which is hidden in the darkness, calling others to wake and rise from the dead.
The line of questioning might have been designed to make the man and the onlookers doubt that God was involved in this healing, but it did the exact opposite for the man. In the beginning, he did not even know who healed him. He knew it was Jesus, but he couldn’t pick him out in the crowd. Jesus disappeared before he could see. In the beginning of the questioning, the man didn’t know anything except that he could see. By the end, he was confessing faith in Jesus. He glorified God by identifying Jesus as the Messiah. “I was blind and now I see.” Whatever the cause of the man’s blindness, he fulfilled the very purpose of his life: to glorify God.
In his circumstances, the man glorified God and we are called to glorify God no matter what circumstances might be. Our very purpose in life is to glorify God. Whether we are sick or in health, rich or poor, successful or an abject failure, we live in the light and that light is meant to shine so that God will be glorified. Our circumstances are not given for the purpose of glorifying God, but we can glorify God in all our circumstances.
Sadly, God’s people have always been blind and deaf. They refused to see or hear that they were not in a right relationship with God. Though they thought they were righteous, they turned the world and God’s Law upside down to appear righteous. They could not see that the Law was given so that they would turn to God; it acts as a mirror to show us our sin which causes us to seek God’s mercy and grace. Instead of being justified by God, they justified themselves according to their understanding.
It is uncomfortable having our sin revealed. How is it an act of grace and mercy? Unfortunately, the Pharisees who were listening to Jesus in our story did not see their sin. They asked Him, “Are we blind?” Jesus answered, “If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, We see: your sin remaineth.”
They claim to see God, to see His kingdom in this world. Yet, they were unable to see that Christ is the one for whom they were waiting. In rejecting Jesus, they stayed in the darkness that leads to death, thus remaining in their sin and rejecting the forgiveness He so freely gives to those who believe.
Once God reveals the reality of our sin and the darkness in which we live, we have to deal with it. We have to deal with our sin. We have to admit our failures and experience His mercy. We see our sin and we repent, turning to God, seeking His forgiveness as He transforms us into the people He has created us to be. It isn’t comfortable. We might even suffer. We can respond like the people in our Gospel story that rejected Jesus and continued to walk in the darkness. Or we can live like the man, using all our circumstances to glorify God.
Paul writes, “For ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord: walk as children of light.” We were once blind, but now we see. We don’t see by the power of our strength or courage; we see because God has revealed Himself to us in and through Jesus Christ. The light reveals the things that are hidden in our darkness—our sin, our doubts and our lack of trust in God. Paul warns us that what is hidden will be revealed, that God’s light breaks through the darkness to expose the secrets in our hearts. This is a good thing, because when our sin is revealed, so is God’s grace. If we keep it hidden, our guilt will remain.
What is truly amazing about this story from the Gospel lesson is that Jesus did more than heal a man blind from birth. He healed a man who was suffering something even greater: he believed that he was worthless and hated by God. Jesus did not need to send the man to the Pool of Siloam. He could have grabbed water from someone nearby and splashed his face. He could have made the healing happen in some other way. It was not the water that healed the man; the Word of God did the work.
This man needed far more than physical healing. He needed spiritual cleansing. He’d been blind from birth, convinced by the world that he was a sinner unworthy of anything spiritual. He would have been healed, but uncomfortable with entering into the lives of the faithful because nothing was changed. He was no longer blind, but how could that overcome a lifetime of rejection?
The Pool of Siloam was located very close to the Temple; it was even connected to the grounds by a road that ran between the two. It was a place for ritual cleansing, used for making the priests clean for their duty serving God. The waters were so pure that it was said that even a leper would be healed by them, yet can you imagine the priests allowing a leper into the water? The way they looked at illness and disease, they may have thought that someone like the blind man might make their water unclean.
He needed more than just physical healing. He needed cleansing that would purify him before God and make him right with his Creator. Jesus sent him to the Pool so that he could be spiritually cleansed to be ready to live life fully among God’s people. In that washing, a type of baptism, the man entered into the life of the community of faith. Jesus made him whole again, giving him the assurance he never had: that he was right with God.
See, righteousness is not as the religious leaders claimed. Righteous was about being in a right relationship with God. The man did not need to be healed of his blindness to see God properly, but he’d been convinced that he was blind because he was a worthless sinner. In this story we see that he was never worthless, that he always had a purpose. His purpose was to glorify God. His purpose was to help those who thought they were not blind see that they were blind to the truth.
We were once blind, but now we see. We are children of light. Throughout the questioning after his healing, the man discovered what it meant to believe in Jesus. We grow in our faith, too, as we live our life in this world. As we grow in our faith in Christ, we see how we must change to be all that God intends for our life. We see, by His Word, that the things of darkness are not fruitful and so we turn to the things in the light. That is why we practice disciplines like we do during Lent—to grow in our faith and mature into the people God has created and saved us to be. As we pray, study, fast and worship, His light reveals the world as He sees it, so that we might repent and walk according to His ways. The darkness is revealed by the light. When we see the truth, we are set free to live according to God’s Law as He meant us to live: in the glorious light of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Even so reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey the lusts thereof: neither present your members unto sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves unto God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace.” Romans 6:11-14, ASV
When my mom was a young adult, she had a job as a soda jerk in an ice cream shop. The employees were responsible for making different types of ice cream treats, such as floats and sundaes. It is a fun job but one filled with temptations at every turn. Every time a customer orders your favorite ice cream or asks for some strange concoction, it is tempting to try it for yourself. Now, the owner of the shop allowed the employees to eat as much ice cream as they wanted because he knew that it wouldn’t take very long until they were tired of it. In the beginning, employees tend to overindulge, but then they realize that they really do not want so much of the sweets. We are tempted by the things we cannot have; permission to indulge the desire makes it not so tempting.
Our Father realizes that we face temptation every moment that we walk in this world. He knows how difficult it is for us to walk away from those things that are harmful to our spiritual life. Jesus Christ came in flesh and was tempted so that He could truly identify with the failures of our flesh. However, Jesus did not fall; He remained perfect and true to the Word of God no matter what Satan offered Him. His understanding of the grace and mercy of God was so perfect, that He was able to keep from sin. By His death and resurrection, we are forgiven our failures and given the freedom to live in His grace and mercy.
When an ice cream shop owner allows indulgence, he does so with the hope that the employees will be responsible and eat with care. It doesn’t take long for a responsible person to realize that overindulgence is harmful to one’s health and to the business. Oh, there are some employees that never really learn the lesson, but through testing the owner discovers those employees who are trustworthy. It is about relationship, really. The employee who takes advantage of a situation does not really care about the employer. When employer and employee have a right relationship, then the employer will do what is right for the employee and the employee with do what is right for the employer.
Our text today is about our relationship with God. We have a right relationship when we are responsible with the freedom that God gives us. We are tempted, and God forgives us when we fall to those temptations. We will experience the consequences of our sin, and hopefully learn the lessons that will set us straight on the path of righteousness. Our sinfulness is not just wrong-doing; it is a broken relationship with our God. If we continue to sin, falling to the temptations of the world, we damage our own spiritual health and we hurt our Lord who has given everything for our sake. We can certainly go out and overindulge in the temptations of this world, knowing that the blood of Jesus Christ forgives us, but is that the way we really want to live? Do we want to be instruments of unrighteousness, destroying the relationship that God has worked so hard to restore? He has saved us for a better life, a life in which we are no longer slaves to sin, but are free to live in the grace and mercy of God.
“And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great multitude about them, and scribes questioning with them. And straightway all the multitude, when they saw him, were greatly amazed, and running to him saluted him. And he asked them, What question ye with them? And one of the multitude answered him, Teacher, I brought unto thee my son, who hath a dumb spirit; and wheresoever it taketh him, it dasheth him down: and he foameth, and grindeth his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast it out; and they were not able. And he answereth them and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you? bring him unto me. And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him grievously; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming. And he asked his father, How long time is it since this hath come unto him? And he said, From a child. And oft-times it hath cast him both into the fire and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us. And Jesus said unto him, If thou canst! All things are possible to him that believeth. Straightway the father of the child cried out, and said, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. And when Jesus saw that a multitude came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I command thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And having cried out, and torn him much, he came out: and the boy became as one dead; insomuch that the more part said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and raised him up; and he arose. And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, How is it that we could not cast it out? And he said unto them, This kind can come out by nothing, save by prayer.” Mark 9:14-29, ASV
Managers look for take-charge people who are self-motivating and able to accomplish the work without much supervision. Managers love the employees who do not need to be constantly watched; they love it when they do not have to look over someone’s shoulder constantly. This gives the supervisor the time and freedom to do his job, making the entire staff more productive.
There are some things, however, that should not be taken on by just anyone. For instance, it would be quite disturbing to the manager to discover his stock boy decided to clear the register drawers because there was too much cash inside. What if a janitor bought an office full of new equipment from a door-to-door salesperson? It is not the job of a teacher’s aide to hire and fire teachers in a school. There are aspects of every business that needs special attention from the person in charge. The stock boy does not know the proper method for dealing with so much cash. The janitor does not have the authority to approve the funding for such a purchase. A teacher’s aide does not have the power to decide which teacher stays and goes. The success of a business depends on these things being handled properly and a self-motivated worker does not always have the knowledge to handle every situation. A good manager would appreciate an employee’s concern and suggestions, but would need to be informed of the situation to make the decisions for the sake of his business.
Jesus was in the business of healing people. He carefully selected disciples to be trained to follow in His footsteps. He taught them all they needed to do the work of sharing the Kingdom of heaven with the world. Jesus sent His disciples on missions into the villages to share the message of God’s mercy. They healed the sick and cast demons out of people. Many came to believe in Jesus because of all they did. They returned excited, sharing their experiences with Jesus. When Jesus was on the mountain with Peter, James and John, a man approached the other disciples with his son who was in desperate need of healing. No matter what they tried, they were unable to make the demon leave the boy.
The disciples were so confident of their ability to do the work from their previous successes that they forgot the most important thing—that Jesus was the source of their power. They did not take the time to pray, to ask God to intervene and to call on Him for healing. They tried to do it themselves. There are many things we as Christians can do every day for the sake of the Gospel, to bring the Kingdom of God to the people who are dying in this world. We can love, serve and speak the Word into their lives. We should be self-motivated to do the work of the Kingdom in this world.
Sadly, there are times when we just aren’t sure, especially when we’ve had a moment of failure. The man in today’s story was disappointed that the disciples could not do for his son what they had done for others, but he turned to Jesus in hope. As we journey through this life, we will face times of disappointment when we can’t help but say, “if you can do this Lord.” We, too, step out in faith despite our uncertainty, knowing that God is with us. “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” Jesus can do it, and though we go through life believing with doubt, Jesus fulfills His promises.
We should never forget the source of all we have and look to Him in prayer. God does not want to be the kind of taskmaster that must stand over His people to see every little thing we are doing for His Kingdom in this world. Yet, we should never forget that we can do nothing without Him. We are reminded in this story that we are imperfect, having both belief and unbelief, so we need to remember to rely on Him to accomplish the work through us, not try to do the work by our own power which will always fail.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth hath eternal life.” John 6:47, ASV
We don’t use the word “verily” anymore, do we? If you look it up in the online dictionary, they call it ‘archaic.” That is certainly one of the disadvantages of using such an old version of the scriptures for this devotional. Here are some other ways the beginning of this passage is translated in different versions, “I assure you, most solemnly I tell you”; “Yes, indeed!”; “I tell you for certain”; “I can assure you”; “Truly, truly”; “I tell you the truth”; “I can guarantee this truth”; “Very truly”; “Amen, amen.”
These are just a few of the possibilities, but they all show you one thing: Jesus is about to make a very important point. The final translation in the last paragraph is actually a literal translation; the word transliterated word in Greek is amen. John is unique in his use of the word in that every time he uses it, he doubles it. He uses it a lot; twenty-five times. Verily, verily, I say to you, John wants us to hear what Jesus has to say.
Each and every statement is important, but I picked this one out of the many on purpose. In this statement, Jesus tells those following Him that if they believe, they have eternal life. This is present tense, not past tense or future tense. We who believe have eternal life. It is ours; it isn’t something for which we have to wait. Verily, verily, I say to you: you who believe are saved.
We spend our lives doubting so many things. We don’t trust our neighbors. We don’t trust ourselves. We are certain that we’ll fail, even to the point that we don’t expect to do what is right. We are cynical. We are confused. We are afraid. We are frustrated. There are times when we do not have hope. We think we are not loved. We worry about the future. And there are times, probably too many to admit, that we even wonder whether our faith is real. We like to have confidence in what we believe, but sometimes we worry that we aren’t really good enough. We wonder why God would save a wretched soul like ours. We think that heaven must be for the guy next door because we certainly won’t get there.
It doesn’t help that there’s always someone trying to convince us that the story of Jesus is simply a myth and that there is no heaven. They try to assure us that the devil is not real and that sin is just some way for ‘the man’ to control us. They say that church is a waste of time and religion is for the weak and stupid. Watch the stories in the next few weeks and you’ll see it clearly. Television shows will try to explain away the events of Jesus’ passion, the reason for the cross, the reality of our life before salvation and after. They’ll give earthly evidence to prove away the foundation of our faith.
But when we are most in doubt, we can rest on the words of Jesus: “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life.” (The Message) It is real; it is eternal; it is ours now and forevermore. Verily this is true. Thanks be to God.