Welcome to the March 2016 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, March 2016
March 1, 2016
"Therefore is justice far from us, neither doth righteousness overtake us: we look for light, but, behold, darkness; for brightness, but we walk in obscurity. We grope for the wall like the blind; yea, we grope as they that have no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the twilight; among them that are lusty we are as dead men. We roar all like bears, and moan sore like doves: we look for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far off from us." Isaiah 59:9-11, ASV
We have been talking about Psalm 23 in our Sunday school class; Sunday's focus was on verse 4, "Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…" This verse brought to mind those moments of suffering we have all experienced, although some have walked through that valley in much more real and heartbreaking ways. Walking with a loved one who is dying is very difficult, but we can remember that the LORD, our Shepherd, is walking with us. He leads us, guides us and escorts us on this journey that leads us toward death from the very first day of our life.
The 'valley' in this passage is not the pleasant wide green valley we want it to be, it is a gorge. Gorges are dark because the sun doesn't shine, it follows a rough river or creek, it is filled with dangers like falling rocks and pests, but we can trust that our Shepherd will be with us and will care for us along the way. The shepherd takes his sheep on this path because it leads them to a better place, into the high plains where the summer grass is fresh and green. On the mountaintop the sheep receive what they need to survive winter back down at the lower elevations. The best, perhaps only, way to get there is through the valley of the shadow of death. It may seem foolish, but the shepherd knows what we need and He takes us there.
The Lord is always with us. This is something we often forget, especially when we are going through a tough time. Even Isaiah, who was a faithful servant prophet of God, felt God's salvation was far off, that they were wandering in the darkness on their own. And yet, we are reminded that if there are shadows, then there must be light.
We are very good at focusing on the darkness. But think about this: what happens when the light is behind you? Your shadow reaches out in front of you. Should you focus on that shadow, or look (turn around, repent) at the Light who is our Lord? When we are looking to Him, we don't have to worry or fear the shadow, or even pay attention to it, because in His presence we are constantly reminded of His the promise that when we get through the valley of the shadow of death, when we die, we will reach the Promised Land. The Promised Land is the hope of our faith, the wide green meadow in which we will dwell with God forever and ever.
I understand how Isaiah was feeling; I often feel as though God is too far away to help me. I see the shadows in the world, around my life, and I wonder what happened to the Light. I see the injustices and mis-justices and wonder what happened to truth and honor and kindness in our world. If God were with us, wouldn't everything be better? However, we are reminded that God is in control even when it seems like He is far away. He shines the Light to reveal the darkness so that we will seek Him in the midst of our trouble. He is never far. He might be right behind you. Just turn around, repent, and even though the shadows will still exist, you can dwell in hope and peace knowing that God is with you through them.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 6, 2016, Fourth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 12:1-6; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
"But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found." Luke 15:32, ASV
I once knew a woman who talked about being a Christian. She wasn't active in a church although she encouraged her daughter to attend the youth events at a church down the street. She often came to me with questions and I took the opportunity to talk to her about faith and mercy and grace. As much as I'd hoped that our conversations would lead her to a living faith, I found they often ended up with her making excuses for why she could not, at this time, be part of a church.
We talked about tithing on one occasion. She was concerned because they were financially strapped; she was certain they could not find ten percent to give to the church. While I advocate tithing, I also understand that under the New Covenant, our responsibility is not to give ten percent of our money, but rather a hundred percent of our lives. We should constantly be working toward that financial tithe, but God does not reject us because we only have two cents to put in the offering plate. Faith brings us to the place where we understand that God comes first and that when we put Him first everything else falls into place. Sometimes it takes time for us to have the faith to see.
I told my friend that our church does not require or demand ten percent of our money. It is taught and encouraged but not an obligation. God loves a cheerful giver and gives us the freedom to give to Him as we respond to His love and grace. She answered, "I couldn't attend a church that doesn't require a tithe." This was the moment I realized that she did not want to find a church home, that she was looking for excuses not to turn to God.
The most heartbreaking part of this story is how she viewed the Church. She told me repeatedly that there were things in her life she had to deal with before she could even think about entering a church. She had sins she had to fix. She had past experiences that she needed to overcome. No matter how much I told her that the Church is a place where she could find peace and help through her troubles, she refused to go to church until she was fully prepared. She thought she had to be good enough before she walked in the door. She could not see that she will never be good enough without the help of God. She was willing to turn around, repent, but only when she thought she could present herself as righteous.
I don't know what happened to her; we moved before she found peace. Sadly, she would never find peace without repentance.
God is not waiting for us to turn around so that He can judge our sinfulness or punish our disobedience. He is not anxiously awaiting the day He can say, "I told you so." God is waiting to embrace and restore our whole being. Our sin makes Him sad because it means we are not living up to our potential, but we can never be good enough. He knew we could never be good enough, that's why He sent Jesus. We are tainted and the only way we will ever be made clean is through the grace of God. He offers forgiveness, justification, transformation, sanctification and ultimately eternal life through our Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him we are nothing. And we meet Him in the company of other tainted human beings who have discovered His saving grace. We dwell together, lifting each other up off the ground, encouraging one another, and helping one another through our struggles.
The text from Isaiah begins with a song of thanksgiving because God has repented. That might sound odd, since we generally think of repentance as the act of the contrite heart that turns to God. In this case, God turned His wrath from the sinner. God's heavy hand was removed and His saving grace was applied so that we can sing for joy and experience life in His grace. Without God we are helpless; with God we are happy, blessed and thankful.
I had another friend, this one I only knew on the Internet. He had been a committed servant of God, powerful in ministry and dedicated to the work of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then one day he began asking questions he could not answer and the lack of answers made him doubt everything he once believed. He walked away from his work, from the Church and began to argue at the foolishness of faith. He was a frightful opponent in debates because he knew the scriptures better than anyone who was willing to argue with him. Most decided that there was no hope; if he could turn his back on God with so much knowledge and so many gifts, what chance was there for him to be saved again?
So many believed that you could not slip and be restored. He was a fallen Christian, though he had once experienced the grace of God, he rejected it. To them, talking to him was a waste of time because he had thrown away the gift. He denied Christ and therefore Christ would deny him.
That's not the message we get in today's story from Luke, is it? The young brother had it all; he was a son. He was more than just a member of the human race, a child of God in terms of his birth. St. John Chrysostom says, "The son who went away represents those who fall after baptism. This is clear from the fact that he is called a son, since no one is called a son unless he is baptized. Also, he lived in his father's house and took a share of his father's goods. Before baptism no one receives the Father's goods or enters upon the inheritance." The younger brother turned his back on his father and the life he had in his father's kingdom.
The son had everything. He had a home, food, water. He had the love of family and a future of prosperity in the estate of his father. He wanted something different. Perhaps he thought the family business was boring or too much work. He may have just wanted to see the world, live in a city, or experience something new. Home and family was not enough. He may have felt oppressed or trapped, by the expectations. He may have wanted to go to a place where he was honored and respected. After all, he was the younger son. He would never control his father's estate. He would always be number two. He wanted to be number one.
He asked his father for his share of the inheritance. He was taking a risk because he had no idea what would happen in the future. The value of his inheritance was likely to grow over the years, but he accepted what his father offered and left home to see the world. That portion was probably enough to begin a wonderful life. He could have done great things with his wealth, but instead he squandered it all away. It is very easy to spend vast fortunes if you are not a good steward of your resources.
He didn’t foresee his future. He not only lost everything, but the land in which he lived suffered a severe family. There was no water, so food became scarce and expensive. People went hungry, including the son. He took on a job as the hired hand that fed the pigs and there he suffered the ultimate humiliation and frustration of watching the pigs eat better than he. He knew his only hope was in his father's house. There he could find everything he needed for life. He decided to repent, to turn around and confess his sin against his father. He was willing to be a servant, to work for his food and shelter. It would be better to be a servant feeding the pigs in a place where he would have bread to eat rather than to wither away into death.
The focus for Lent, and it seems to be an overwhelming focus this year, is repentance. We live in a time when Christians need to be humbled because we have, in so many ways, taken upon ourselves the role of God in our own lives. We follow our hearts. We walk our own paths. We do what we think is best. We even interpret the scriptures to mean what we want them to mean. We squeeze God into a box and take Him out only when it is convenient or comfortable for us. We spend these days of Lent remembering that we are sinners in need of a Savior, and responding to the invitation to turn around to our Father so that we'll fully realize and experience the reconciliation that comes through the cross and the empty tomb.
The psalmist writes, "I acknowledged my sin unto thee, And mine iniquity did I not hide: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto Jehovah; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin." We may be tired of hearing about repentance, especially since most of us are more like the older brother. We think we have no reason to repent. We are not like my friends who find excuses to stay away or who run away when the answers do not satisfy, but we are reminded by these texts that even though we don't stay away or run away, we still reject God and His Word.
Perhaps the worst of our sins is how we, like the older brother, condemn those who find excuses or run away. We give up. We say there is no hope. We stop trying because we think it is a waste of time. Or we complain when they repent are embraced by the Father.
This story is used as an example of the extravagant generosity of God. In the image of the father running down the road and the excessive party we see how God is so willing to receive those who have turned from Him. If we see ourselves as the prodigal son this is a message that will keep us from despair. We want to identify with the prodigal son because it seems like that's where God's grace is found in this story.
The older son worked hard to keep everything going, and what did he get out of it? He didn't even get to eat the fatted calf with his friends. Yet, as we see in the beginning of the story, the father did not just give the inheritance to the younger son, he gave the rest to the one who stayed home. The father gave away everything.
We have a hard time seeing ourselves as someone like that young son. We have no sympathy for him because he took the wealth of his father and wasted it. He threw it away. We can understand the point of view of the older brother. At least he stayed and continued the work of the father to build up the farm and estate. And, that's why he's so offended by the outcome: after wasting his share the younger brother is given more. He who stayed behind never received such a great gift.
And yet, he did. The older brother dwelt in the presence of the father; everything that belonged to the father was his. He never lost his inheritance. It was his hard work that was keeping the estate. When the younger brother asked for his share he took away valuable resources from the farm. Any farmer knows that every dollar matters. Some years it takes the last dime to purchase seed for the next year. No matter how much of a share the younger brother took, it was too much to take away from a working business, necessary capital for tomorrow's crops. It does not seem very sensible for the father to give in to such a demand. The younger son's self-centeredness left the family not only with one less body, but also without the resources that might be necessary in hard times.
The younger son humbled himself and turned toward home. He was ready to submit to whatever punishment the father decreed. He was ready to be a servant in his father's house. But the story doesn't end that way. The father, who had mourned the loss of his son, saw the boy returning, recognizing him from a long way off. It was improper for a father to run, and to run after that son was unbelievable. Everyone associated with the father's estate most certainly knew what had happened. The son would have been expected to be humiliated. A little knee bowing and humble pie should have been the order for the day, right?
But the father saw things differently. His son was dead, but now he lived! The reaction of the father was incredible joy. His son was alive, but he knew that there would be much to overcome. The father knew that the relationships needed to be rebuilt. The elder son had become, in essence, an only child. When the younger son returned, the elder son would have to learn how to allow the other into the dynamics of the family relationship.
The father sought to restore the relationships. He ran to the young son, but he also went out to the one who was sulking. He invited his beloved son to join in the joyous celebration. What happened? We do not know. We do not see the end of the story, but I hope that he realized that the return of his brother was a reason to rejoice. I don't know what ever happened to my friends, but I can only hope that somehow, some way, God managed to get through to them so that they would also realize the only place to find peace is in the Father's embrace.
We are reminded by these Lenten texts that our Father loves each of us. Our sin, and we are all sinners, does not keep Him from giving us what we need. It does not make us lose the inheritance He has promised us through the Gospel and our baptism into His family. Reconciliation comes from God through Jesus Christ. As we get closer to the cross and realize our own sinfulness, we humbly return home with the hope that our Father will receive us. If we don't see our sin but instead rest on our own works like the older brother, then we become bitter and jealous of God's grace toward others.
Instead, we are called by Christ to be ambassadors, to be like that father, showering God's grace on the lost who are found, on the dead who are made alive again by God’s grace. If we think someone is beyond redemption, we'll never bother to share the Redeemer. We might even make up excuses for doing so: they won’t listen, we don't want to force our religion, or we can't change the spots on a leopard.
The prodigal story is about restoring that which had been broken and making it whole. During Lent we discover that our bond with God is broken by our own sinfulness. We are all selfish, whether we are like the young son who took the blessings of the father's love and ran away to be free or like the older son who wanted to celebrate his own goodness. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We are all separated from God and need to be restored to Him.
We are changed by God's mercy. Instead of seeing the world through human eyes, we see our neighbors through the eyes of Jesus Christ. We no longer see what they did in the past, but what can be in the future. Paul writes, "Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new." We are changed by our relationship with God, no longer looking at the world in quite the same way. We see things through grace. We act on mercy and love. There is always hope, for God reconciled the world to himself through Christ and freely gave forgiveness to those who turned toward Him.
At the beginning of this Gospel lesson, Jesus was gathered with the tax collectors and sinners, sharing the message of forgiveness with them. The Pharisees and scribes were offended. They grumbled about it. They were like that older brother that stayed home while the prodigal wasted the kingdom's resources. How could anyone receive them with such mercy and joy? But Jesus answered their grumbling, "They were dead and now they live."
This is a reason to rejoice. We are called to rejoice not only for ourselves, but also for those who were lost but have been found. We are called to be repentant, not just for seven weeks out of the year, but daily, so that others will see the transformation that comes as God embraces those who seek Him. We are called to keep speaking the wondrous message of hope and peace to our neighbors so that they will repent and humbly return to the Father. We are called to rejoice with the heavens for every sinner that is saved. We are called to invite them to the supper that is a foretaste of the feast that will last for all eternity.
"For thou didst form my inward parts: Thou didst cover me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. My frame was not hidden from thee, When I was made in secret, And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. "Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance; And in thy book they were all written, Even the days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was none of them." Psalm 139:13-16, ASV
I made scrambled eggs for breakfast this morning. I make eggs often for breakfast, so I go through the motions without much thought. What is there to think about? I could probably make eggs with my eyes closed. I am often surprised by things that happen around me, but I don't expect to be surprised by eggs.
Eggs are rather consistent in the carton. They are all shaped like eggs. The sizes remain consistent within a certain range, so all the eggs in a small carton are the same, as are all the eggs in an extra-large carton. There are no surprises. Except for today. One egg appeared wonky in the carton, but I assumed that it was just not sitting properly. I picked it up and was taken aback because I've never felt an egg like this. I even made my son hold it and compare it to another egg. "It is flat" he said. It was also elongated, as if someone had sat on the egg and squashed it without breaking it.
I have to admit that I wondered about using it. What if something were wrong on the inside that caused it to be wonky on the outside? It could ruin the other eggs if I cracked it in the bowl. I decided to do it anyway and everything was fine. The shape of the egg didn't affect the yummy insides. I'm sure the reality is that many eggs are misshapen, but the farmers work toward consistency within the cartons. We, the consumer, have an expectation that all eggs will be egg-shaped, so they do what they have to do to keep us happy. There are many good uses for the other eggs. They can be sold to factories that create baked goods or used in products with pre-cracked eggs.
We are all uniquely made, although I think sometimes we fall into the trap of conforming to others just so we don't stand out like a misshapen eggs. God made us all different because we have different purposes in this world. He gave us the gifts we need to do them. Oh, we all need to be transformed because we all have been tainted by sin, but we should not let the world force us to conform when God made us to be unique. He knows what we need and He provides it, even the guidance to become everything He created us to be. He knows where He wants us to go and He will lead us on that path whether it fits the world's expectations or not. Listen to Him because He loves you and knows you better than you know yourself.
"Be strong and of good courage; for thou shalt cause this people to inherit the land which I sware unto their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest. This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate thereon day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success. Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage; be not affrighted, neither be thou dismayed: for Jehovah thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest." Joshua 1:6-9, ASV
I have been painting the Stations of the Cross during Lent. It is a real challenge for me because I do not have very much experience with painting people or events, both of which are necessary for this project. I began with the thought that I would try to do the paintings in more symbolic language, using the iconography often associated with these moments. There are moments that make that easy; the crown of thorns is simple to draw and powerful as a symbol of Jesus' suffering. There are other moments that would be more difficult; how do you represent something like Jesus falling or Simon helping Him without using people?
I confess that my original thought process included my own fear of painting people. I've seen so many different, absolutely beautiful, representations of the Stations of the Cross. Why bother doing this challenge if I can't make a series worthy of the subject? How could I paint the face of Jesus in a way that would honor Him?
I am using a non-traditional list of the stations. Instead of beginning with Jesus' condemnation and following just His footsteps from that moment, my list begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. The list includes the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter. It also includes the condemnation of the Sanhedrin. When I began the first painting of Jesus praying, I knew I could not completely avoid the presence of Jesus. I placed his body in a way that you can see that He is kneeling in prayer, but His head is cut off the edge of the canvas. The next picture, Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss, is done in silhouette.
At first I thought I was copping out, but I've enjoyed where this series is going. I'm learning so much in the process, not only about painting but also about the symbolism in faith based art. I've found a way to make these paintings lessons in our own need for Jesus Christ, which is exactly what a journey through the stations is supposed to do, isn't it? While they aren't in the style of the old Masters, with incredible representations of the people and events, they are meaningful and more representative than I thought was possible for me.
The thing to remember is that we are all different. Our gifts are different as are our points of view. If you search the Internet for examples of art for the stations, you'll find many different types of work. I don't have to take the challenge literally, painting the stations as Rembrandt might have done. What began as fear or cop-out has become a genuine depiction of my vision of this journey, both artistically and devotionally. It doesn't have to be like anyone else's paintings, I know that, but it is very hard to follow in the footsteps of others who have done such great work.
Imagine what it must have been like for Joshua. Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt and guided them for forty years as they wandered in the desert. Moses had spoken to God, face to face. He had received the Ten Commandments. He was deliverer, judge and lawgiver. He brought miracles of water, food and protection from the natural elements they faced. No one could fill his shoes. But Joshua was not being called to become a new Moses; he was called to do God’s will.
Imagine how difficult it must have been for Joshua to become the leader who would take the Israelites into the Promised Land. They looked to Moses, not only in that generation but also for generations to come. It would be impossible to be like him. Yet, God called Joshua to do something different and promised He would be with him always. When He gives a command, He provides all we need to obey. When He sends us into the world to preach the Gospel, He provides the voice and the ears to hear. It does not matter who walks in front of us, who we follow through life. God is with each of us in the here and now, giving us His grace that we might serve according to our own gifts and abilities.
"And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. For the life is more than the food, and the body than the raiment. Consider the ravens, that they sow not, neither reap; which have no store-chamber nor barn; and God feedeth them: of how much more value are ye than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit unto the measure of his life? If then ye are not able to do even that which is least, why are ye anxious concerning the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin; yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass in the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven; how much more shall he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not ye what ye shall eat, and what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: but your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. Yet seek ye his kingdom, and these things shall be added unto you. Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Luke 12:22-32, ASV
On March 7, 1901, the Texas Legislature adopted the Bluebonnet, flower of the annual legume Lupinus subcarnosus, as the state flower. We certainly do love our bluebonnets in Texas. I was driving down the road with my son the other and got strangely (to him) excited when I saw my first bluebonnets of the season. I'm anxiously awaiting the time when I can get out on the road to go hunting for wildflowers. I will plan at least one trip in the next few weeks.
I have to admit that I feel a little guilty when I go on my adventures because I know that there are so many people who work so hard every day and they don't have the freedom to just jump in the car and go look at the beauty in our fields. My husband works too hard so that we can pay our bills while I get to play. My adventures don't accomplish anything of any real value. My adventures don't feed people or put roofs over their heads or clothe them. The trips don't change anything in my little corner of the world. They don't solve any problems or make things right where they are wrong. I feel very selfish because my trips fill me with joy, they give me rest and an opportunity to create something of beauty in my photographs.
And, quite frankly, we need beauty in our lives. My adventures might seem like a waste of time, particularly to those who work too many hours in the day just to make ends meet. It might seem like a waste of time to those who work hard to produce the things that are necessary for life. A farmer doesn't have time to enjoy the pink phlox that lines their fields because they are too busy planting the wheat seeds for our flour. The factory worker barely notices the flowers growing by the side of the road because he's too exhausted from building the cars or refrigerators we need to buy.
We are supposed to stop and smell the roses, but how many of us really have time to do so? My adventures might seem like a waste of time, and perhaps they are, but I come home from them inspired. Too many people think art has no value, but the value of art comes in the way it makes us think and see the world. It makes us feel, and while we can't spend our lives chasing after feelings, emotion is a necessary part of living. We have to laugh and cry. We need something to make us stop chasing things and pursue the intangible.
Do we really need to work so hard to pursue the things we think will make us happy? It is good to work, to produce something, to contribute to the world. Yes, we need to buy food and pay our rent, but do we really need that fancy car when a less expensive one will do? Do we need the house with the mortgage payment that forces us to work sixty-hour weeks? Do we really need the things that we pursue so much that we can ignore the beauty of God's creation that gives us such joy and peace?
I come home from my adventures with stories to write and images to put onto canvas. I come home with photographs that make us stop and enjoy the creation God has given to us. I hope that everything I share from my adventures helps others to stop and take time to enjoy the world God has created. Jesus tells us to seek the Kingdom of God and when we trust in Him, we'll see how He makes everything else fall into place. We need to stop worrying about whether or not there is value to our work and look to the flowers in the field to be reminded that God, our Father, knows just what we need.
"There are six things which Jehovah hateth; Yea, seven which are an abomination unto him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood; A heart that deviseth wicked purposes, Feet that are swift in running to mischief, A false witness that uttereth lies, And he that soweth discord among brethren." Proverbs 6:16-19, ASV
Murder has existed since almost the beginning. Cain killed Abel in the fourth chapter of Genesis. This was not a matter of self-defense but of human pride. There is no way to count the number of people who have been murdered since then; it is hard enough to count the number who are murdered yearly around the world. Oh, we might try to keep a count, but we don't always know how people have died. When someone disappears and their body is found years later, we can't always tell if they were murdered or simply died of an accident. I love to watch those shows that use forensics to discover the truth about a death, but there is often no reason to go to so much trouble to solve a death.
Rather morbid talk, I know, but it is a reality in the world in which we live. While most people die of accidents or natural causes, some people are murdered. The murderer responds to a situation or a person in the most final and violent manner, just as Cain responded to Abel's faith with a blow to the head. Murders are not a matter of self-defense, but of pride or anger or hate. Now, a majority of us have heard of murders in our cities or around the world, but we don't really have much personal experience with it. We are not likely to murder someone. We are not likely to be murdered. While every murder is one too many, the percentage of people who die at the hands of another is miniscule.
Unfortunately there are too many people who have little regard for human life, and though we may not take that lack of regard to its inevitable end, we often use words that threaten. How many of us yelled, "I'll kill you!" to our siblings when they did something that made us angry? We didn't mean it, of course, but words mean things. We learn as children that sticks and stones may break bones but names never hurt us, but the more we say something the more likely it is to be real to us. If our response to every supposed affront is "I'll kill you!" It won't be long before we are responding in a real, physical way.
It is one thing for siblings to cry out in a moment of anger, but yet another for the kind of threats we see happening today. It seems like I hear a story on a daily basis of some person who has received death threats from complete strangers. There is some risk at being a dominant personality with a following, as there will always be someone who disagrees with your point of view. Some of the personalities, politicians, celebrities, or businessmen in our world today speak and do things that anger others. They are equally loved and hated. Most of them carry some sort of protection or even have a security detail to guard their lives. Yet, the hate and death threats go beyond there. I read a story in which a person attending a political rally has received death threats just for being there. Even children are threatening one another in school yards and on the Internet. One bully led a young man in my city to commit suicide because he was so afraid.
We know right from wrong. Our parents and the other adults in our lives have taught these things to us, however there is an inborn understanding of what is good and what is evil. As Christians, we have the scriptures to show us what God sees as right and wrong, but other religions seem to follow a similar formula. I wonder if we haven't done ourselves an injustice by teaching that "Sticks and stones…" because even the words can really do harm not only to those who hear them, but to those who speak them.
This passage from Proverbs provides the basic foundation for the laws that many religions follow. The Ten Commandments teach us to respect authority and to not murder, steal or lie. As Christians, we know we need to follow the Word of God. But people in general know the difference between right and wrong. God gives us a conscience, the knowledge between what is good and evil. We know it is not right to threaten to kill our siblings, and as we grow we learn to respond more civilly when we are upset. Sadly, it seems too many people in today's environment have not learned how to deal well with any offense against them.
We still err; we still respond to harshly when we are hurt. When we do fail, we have an intercessor in Jesus Christ. He died on the cross so that we will be forgiven for what we have done against God's Word. However, as forgiven people, we should strive to avoid the things that God despises -- pride, lies, murder, scheming, evil, false witness and dissension. These are all sins that begin with the words out of our mouths and the language we use in responding to the world around us. Words matter, and as Christians we are encouraged to watch what we say, even if we don't mean it, because we know that words can lead to a physical response that can't be fixed.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 13, 2016, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; Luke 20:9-20
"But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned one with another, saying, This is the heir; let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours." Luke 20:14, ASV
Politicians have to put out their best face when they are running for office. After all, the election process is, in essence, a job interview. They want their resume to read well, to focus on the things that they believe will help them do a good job for the people who will be electing them. They tell crowds about their accomplishments, their background, and their experience. They also lay out their plan and hope that the voters will see that the voters will see that they have what it takes to get it done.
It seems that at least a few of the candidates have made a point of including their Christian faith on their resume. Now, I would certainly prefer a Christian to hold office because I believe the Christian world view is best not only for our nation but also for the world. A humble, faithful Christian will act with mercy and grace, be obedient to God's law and follow God's word. Unfortunately, "I am a Christian" has become a box to tick on the resume, but we do not see their faith in the way they live their lives. I'd rather have an honest atheist than a pretend Christian. I don't understand those who vote for someone who claims to be a Christian just because they claim to be a Christian even though their life does not appear to be Christ-like at all.
What does a Christian life look like? Well, first of all we aren't looking for a perfect person who is without sin, since all men are sinners in need of a Savior. The Christian is humble, recognizes their sin and seeks God's forgiveness. The Christian will fail on a daily basis, but knows they've failed and tries to be changed by God's Word. The Christian seeks God through prayer and His Word. It isn't enough to have a writer include a scripture quote in a speech if their lives do not reflect that scripture in the way they speak and walk and work in this world.
Paul knows that it isn't enough to have the good resume, after all, he had a good one. He had every qualification to be a leader for the Jews. He had confidence in his Jewish heritage, privilege and attainments. He was circumcised, came from a good family, he lived according to the ways of his people. He was a Pharisee, had the authority to persecute the Christians, and -- he claims -- he was faultlessly righteous according to the law.
Then he met Jesus. He met Jesus on the road to Damascus and learned that it didn't matter how good his resume looked if he did not believe in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Paul had every reason to believe that he deserved to inherit the Kingdom, but he knew that it was all worthless. The only thing that matters is to know Jesus. The only thing that matters is to receive the Son.
If it were based on his flesh, Paul could have been confident of his salvation. Yet, he sets all that aside for the sake of Christ. He does not believe that he has already obtained it all; as a matter of fact Paul knew he was a sinner greater than all other sinners. Yet, he was striving for that which has already been promised and is assured by God's faithfulness. He encouraged the Philippians, and us today, to set aside all that has gone by and continue moving forward toward the promise. God has done something new. While the acts of God that have been done already are great, we can rest in the promise that the best is yet to come. We need not forget the past, but always look toward the future. We need not ignore the flesh, but always keep God in the proper place: as the center of our life.
This is what we want from a leader who claims to be Christian. We don't need a person who checks a box, quotes the scripture and does whatever he or she wants to do anyway. I want to vote for a person who walks the walk, not talks the talk. Sadly, there are always those who want to be part of the Kingdom but who aren't really willing to live humbly under the rule of God.
Now, before we act holier than thou, let us consider our own human nature. We can easily point to those politicians claiming one thing and living another, but are we that much different? Can we honestly say that we've never tried to take what we think is ours? Can we honestly claim to be righteous before God? Haven't we all rationalized some sin? Do we ever think that the end justifies the means? Have we told a lie for the right reasons? Have we taken something that wasn't mine to help someone, even though it is wrong to steal?
Did I kill the Son of God?
The Pharisees recognized themselves in Jesus' parable. Do we?
The story begins with a landowner preparing a vineyard. He bought the land, planted the vines, and built the wine press. He put everything into the vineyard and then called for people to lease the vineyard and work it for him. All he asked was for them to pay the rent. When it came time to collect, the landowner sent a servant to collect his share, but the tenants beat that servant. He sent a second and a third, but they did the same thing. Finally, the landowner sent his own son, who had the authority of the father, but the tenants did not respect him as the landowner thought they would. Instead, they decided to kill the heir so that they would inherit the vineyard. They rejected the son and thus rejected the father and somehow thought the father would give them everything they wanted.
This is a story about God's Kingdom. The scribes and the chief priests understood what Jesus was saying, and it upset them. They knew that He was talking about destroying those who had assumed they deserved the Kingdom of God, but who were not honoring the Master. They perceived that Jesus was speaking against them, saying that they were not serving God as God intended.
They were right. The servants sent by the landowner were the prophets who had been sent by God over and over again to call the people to faithful living in the covenant. They claimed to follow the letter of the law, but they did not live in a relationship with God. They pursued a righteousness based on their own good works and they rejected the Son who would make them right with God. And they did exactly what Jesus said they would do: they planned to kill the Son.
God set the foundation and planted the seeds for His Kingdom. The Israelites were given the responsibility to take care of the Kingdom, but Kingdom belongs to God. He didn't ask much in return, just faithful stewardship and respect. He asked that they believe in His Son. They refused to give God the respect He is due; they beat the prophets and they would kill the Son. God promised to give the Kingdom to others. Those others are the ones who recognize their sinfulness and turn to God for forgiveness, even if they are the ones whom the self-righteous think are undeserving. They are the ones who don't follow God because it looks good on a resume, but because they know they need Him and trust in His faithfulness.
Oh, we can point our fingers, but we are reminded during our Lenten journey that we can fall away so easily. As a matter of fact, it is important that we remember daily how easy it is to stand on our own righteousness. God's chosen people did it throughout their history. God provided them with a vineyard to tend, but they constantly turned away from Him to worship other gods. They believed that the Kingdom was theirs because they were the ones that God brought out of Egypt. They were inheritors of the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their forefathers were the ones that experienced the exodus. They deserved the Kingdom; they earned it. They were relying on the past, but God had something greater planned. They were relying on their heritage, but God was about to do something new. Paul was among those who did the same, until he met Jesus.
In the passage from Isaiah, God told the people to forget the things that have gone before. "See, I am doing a new thing." The God of Isaiah, the God of the Israelites, can do amazing things. He made a path through the Red Sea so that they could escape slavery and oppression. We were not slaves to Egyptians, but we are slaves to our flesh. We are oppressed by the expectations of this world and by the burdens of the Law. We rely on our past and our own good works. We are controlled by our own need for power, by our own self-interest.
But God has done a new thing; He sent His Son to make us free. Jesus Christ is the living water that He promises, water in the wilderness that we are given to drink. After the long wander in the wilderness of Lent, we are waiting anxiously for this new life that He has promised. We wait in hopeful expectation of what will happen, even as we look back to what has already taken place. Sometimes it is hard for us to see that the promise is real and that God is faithful. We look to our past and wonder, is the future really going to be better than what we already have?
Thankfully, the old is past and something new is coming. Jesus died on the cross because we are sinners in need of a Savior, but the story did not end there. The son of the vineyard owner might have died forever, but the Son of God did not. The vineyard owner might have destroyed the tenants who killed his son, but God raised His Son so that we can have new life in His Kingdom.
There is no Christian who has more right to boast than the Apostle Paul. Paul deserved to inherit the Kingdom. And yet even Paul knew that He did not deserve anything. We would all do well to live in the same humility, to remember that we would be nothing without the Landowner who gave us His vineyard to work. He deserves our respect, our obedience, our faith. He is worthy of our worship.
We are no different than those tenants, trying to take control of the Kingdom which belongs to God. The death of His Son is on our shoulders, as it was upon theirs. But God's mercy is never ending, and even such a great offense is not held against those who are humble enough to repent and trust in God. We who now believe are welcome into the Kingdom and we are forgiven, even when we fail. Whose vineyard is it? The vineyard does not belong to us, it belongs to God. He has made us stewards, and calls us to serve him with humility and joy.
The greatest trouble with those who claim to be Christian but for whom it is nothing but a checked box on a resume is that they worship a god of their own choosing. They make Him to be what they want, accept only those parts of the faith that suits them. They chase after a righteousness that fits their desires and ignore the demands of the one true God.
The psalmist writes, "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him." We rejoice with the harvest, just as they must have done, but there's more to this verse than praise and worship for God's provision.
This verse is thought to reflect the myth of Baal. One practice in their worship included mourning as they scattered the seed, as if they were scattering the Baal's body after death, but the sadness of that moment was overcome with the joy that came with the growth of new life and the harvest of the fruit. Though this was not the way God intended for His people to worship, it was embraced by His people, especially the common folk, because it was a practical way of understanding the mystery of nature.
They didn't stop worshipping the God who delivered them out of Egypt, but they added to their worship the god that suited them. Over and over again the people continued to fall into the patterns of the world around them, rejecting God for their own ideal. The prophets warned the people over and over again to reject the local gods, but when they did not, God turned His back. Over and over again they repented and turned back to God. He always heard their cry and saved them from the consequences of their unfaithfulness. They learned their lesson until the next generation who fell into the patterns of the world. It is still happening; we continue to fall into the patterns of the world around us, rejecting the God who has called us to work the vineyard, killing the Son to steal that which is not ours without God's grace.
Thankfully God does not allow us to wallow in the consequences of our unfaithfulness. We stand with the Pharisees, knowing that the story of the tenants is about us and that we, too, killed the Son. However, God did not end the story with His death; the death of Jesus brings forgiveness and resurrection for all those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
Like Paul, we have set aside what is behind and we too strive toward the promise, which is assured in Christ Jesus. We don't put forth our best face for those who are watching, but we put forth the face of Christ in all we do. We are new creations changed by His grace and transformed into people who don't just check a box on a resume, but who live a life of humble faith that shines the light of Jesus Christ to the world.
"Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, worshipping him, and asking a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wouldest thou? She saith unto him, Command that these my two sons may sit, one on thy right hand, and one on thy left hand, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink? They say unto him, We are able. He saith unto them, My cup indeed ye shall drink: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left hand, is not mine to give; but it is for them for whom it hath been prepared of my Father." Matthew 20:20-23, ASV
I have been painting the Stations of the Cross during Lent this year. I won't finish the project before Easter, but I'm determined to finish it as soon as I can. I completed the seventh station last night, which according to the non-traditional list I'm using is the one where Jesus carries His cross. I struck very deeply in my heart as I worked on this painting, particularly when I was painting the bloody stripes on His back from the scourging He took from the Roman soldiers. It breaks my heart and though I was not the one to whip my Lord Jesus, I grieve the fact that I had a role in the whole passion story. Jesus died because I am a sinner in need of saving.
The paintings are not going to get any easier. I have been planning each composition as I go, but the story goes from bad to worse. How do I hammer the nail into His hands? How do I portray His dying face? How do I lift Him off the cross and lay Him in the tomb?
As an artist, I have been proud of the work I have been doing. I have gone way outside my comfort zone with the project. I don't paint people, and yet I'm actually becoming fairly good at painting hands and getting the subtle variations in skin tone. The paintings are certainly not like those that have been created by the old masters, but I have been astonished by the quality of these paintings.
And yet, it is very hard to do this work because I know I can't really make paintings worthy of Jesus or His story. I can't paint His face with emotion I don't fully understand. I don't even know how to paint the features of a man whose face has not been seen for nearly two thousand years. Does it really matter? Perhaps not, artists have painted their vision of Jesus for more than a thousand years. It just isn't easy to honor Him in this way.
If it is hard for me to paint Jesus, to be the one who draws the stripes of scourging on His back, imagine how much harder it must have been to be there in that day to see Jesus actually bleeding and dying. We can't really identify with the pain that the Jesus' followers felt as they watched His ministry fall apart. They were certainly afraid as Jesus was arrested and led away. The disciples were so afraid that they hid from the authorities as the women stood with Jesus as He breathed His last breath.
Yet, in those days leading up to the final week, Jesus' disciples were expecting a much different story. They were expecting Jesus to lead the people into a battle against their oppressors. They thought He would be an earthly King sitting upon a throne, restoring the nation of Israel as she was in the days of David and Solomon, a golden nation of people blessed and free. Jesus never came to be that kind of king, but even as He was walking the final miles to Jerusalem to die, His disciples demanded their place in His Kingdom.
He could not seat James and John at His right hand and left hand because His throne would not be one of gold in a palace. His throne was the cross. Those 'seated' to His right and to His left were thieves, one repentant and the other not. James and John would not suffer alongside their Lord when He was crowned as King. Jesus promised, however, that they would follow Him in a way that they did not expect and would not truly want. They would drink the cup of suffering, each in his own way.
We read the Passion story, watch the movies, experience the worship around Holy Week and it breaks our heart. Most of us will not identify with the suffering and persecution experienced by Jesus' disciples. My own experiences of painting does not even come close. But we are reminded during our Lenten journey that this was not a peaceful, beautiful or glorious coronation of a king. It was the horrific, bloody, painful murder of our Savior. And we stood with the murderers.
"These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye may have peace. In the world ye have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." John 16:33, ASV"
Thank goodness, peace can be found in our world today.
Here's the story. About a month ago, a food critic and writer claimed Austin is the home of the "breakfast taco." People in San Antonio were taken aback by the claim because, well, we believe we are the home of the breakfast taco and thus the great breakfast taco war began.
The mayor of San Antonio, Ivy Taylor, demanded that Austin exile the writer. Austin's mayor, Steve Adler, made this announcement, "I come to you this morning with some grave news. The city of Austin is currently at war with San Antonio over a subject that I know we all hold dear in our hearts. That, of course, is breakfast tacos."
The mayors of Austin and San Antonio came together yesterday in a "taco summit" where they each presented their own favorites and talked about the tension between the two cities. In the end, both mayors agreed that the other's breakfast tacos were good and they signed a peace treaty, the "I-35 Accord," to put the matter to rest.
The mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, proclaimed March 10th Breakfast Taco Day in Austin. He presented this proclamation: "Whereas, You can never say you've really been to Texas unless you've eaten a breakfast taco: and, Whereas, Austin originated the term 'breakfast taco' but could not possibly claim ownership over this gift from Texas to all humanity: and, Whereas, The Great Breakfast Taco War of 2016 has distracted us from the real conflict between those who prefer corn tortillas over those who prefer flour: and, Whereas, In Austin, Taco Tuesday can fall on a Thursday: Now, Therefore, I Steve Adler, Mayor of the City of Austin, Texas, do hereby proclaim March 10, 2016 as Breakfast Taco Day in Austin." Who knows, by next year March 10th might just be National Breakfast Taco Day in honor of this great victory!
I know: this is all silliness. I can just hear people saying that the whole taco summit was a waste of time, and wondering if we are really paying our mayors to have breakfast meetings about breakfast tacos. Aren't there more important things with which to concern ourselves?
Yes, of course there are more important things happening in the world, but I have to admit that the whole story put a smile on my face. I even said, "It is so good to see that peace is possible." In a time when there is so much anger, hurt and fear, it is a relief to hear that politicians can accomplish something, even if it is a peace accord for a breakfast taco war.
I think the lesson in this story is that we take ourselves much too seriously. It is likely that Mayors Adler and Taylor had other meetings that day to discuss more important topics concerning the relationship between Austin and San Antonio, like transportation issues. The two cities are only an hour apart and have many reasons to work together. The breakfast taco summit was a way to break the ice, to give us some relief from the bickering and division we see everywhere else. It was a moment when we could breathe and be thankful that we live in a place where political discussion can end in a peaceful solution. Now if we could only find a way to make it happen with the real issues of the day.
I know that the I-35 Accord won't really change the political tension that we are feeling in our country today. It won't stop the candidates from arguing or their followers from lashing out against the followers of the others. It won't stop politicians from doing their own thing. It won't stop the difficulties that seem to keep coming our way. We are reminded however, that none of this truly matters when all is said and done because this world, and all its troubles, is temporary. We stand in between the temporal tribulations, selfishness, greed, anger, hatred, etc. and the eternal hope that is ours by faith in Jesus Christ. We worry about what will happen for our children and grandchildren and that's why we deal with the politics of today, but we need not worry ultimately because Jesus Christ has overcome the world.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Until then, I think I'll have a breakfast taco.
"Trust in Jehovah, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on his faithfulness. Delight thyself also in Jehovah; And he will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit thy way unto Jehovah; Trust also in him, and he will bring it to pass. And he will make thy righteousness to go forth as the light, And thy justice as the noon-day. Rest in Jehovah, and wait patiently for him: Fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, Because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass." Psalm 37:3-7 (ASV)
We saw a goose walking across Main Street when we were on our way to church yesterday morning. He was having a time of it because every time he stepped forward a car would come and he had to step back for a moment. It was like someone was playing Frogger with the goose. We don't know why he was crossing the road at that particular place, he must have been a bit lost. The river was not very far away and it seems like he should have just been hanging with his buddies there.
I'm not sure if those particular geese stay by the river year round or if they are just passing through Texas on their way to their summer homes, but it is fun to see them swimming and waddling around when they are there. I suspect they must be local geese because there's no reason a migrating one should find himself playing Frogger on Main Street.
Have you ever thought about how amazing it is that the birds and butterflies know exactly where to go when it is time to migrate? They know the path to follow south out of the harsh winter weather and the path to follow north for the summer. They know where to stop to lay their eggs and do other things necessary for their future. The birds and butterflies (and other animals that migrate) seem to have an innate sense of what they need to do each year. God has planted the knowledge within them that tells them everything they need to know from when, to where, to how.
We happen to live in the ideal place for Monarch butterflies to lay their eggs because the weather and the landscape is perfect for the Milkweed they need. Unfortunately, Milkweed is considered a weed and many people have removed it from their yards. The more houses that are built, the less Milkweed is available for the Monarchs which has seen a decline in recent years. Our city, in cooperation with our zoo, is trying to do something about it. The zoo hosted a Monarch festival the past few weekends, giving out Milkweed plants to visitors so that they can plant them in their yards. As we restore the Milkweed, the Monarchs will lay their eggs and we'll see more and more butterflies in the years to come.
Sometimes I wish God would make our journeys as easy to know as He does for the migrating animals, but we have a will to reason and an ability to make choices that don't always keep us walking in the Way He has ordained for our lives. George Mueller, the German evangelist and philanthropist, laid out six principles for following God's will. Any decision we make in this world, no matter how insignificant or important it is, needs God's guidance. We need Him to step forward, trusting that He will lead us in the right path.
Mr. Mueller's six principles begin with opening our heart to God's guidance. He says, "I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter." He goes on to say that nine tenths of our trouble with decision making is that we are usually decided before we even seek God's will. When we let go, God can rule. Next, he says not to leave the result to feeling or simple impression. Our hearts are easily swayed, we are easily deceived. If we follow whims or feelings, we are liable to great delusions. Next Mr. Mueller tells us to go to God's Word. He says, "I see the will of the Spirit of God through, or in connection with, the Word of God. The Spirit and the Word must be combined." We spend many hours studying God's Word, hopefully so much so that it is written on our hearts. However, we can never let it go, especially when we are making decisions. We can recall God's Word wrongly when led by our own selfish desires and by our emotions. If we try to justify a decision by seeking our answer in God's Word, we will be deluded. We must do so in connection to God. Next Mr. Mueller says he takes into account providential circumstances. God uses the everyday to accomplish His will. What may seem like coincidences to us might just be God speaking through His creation. Next we are to turn to God in prayer. Prayer is a part of the whole process, but once we have looked at the situation from every perspective, then we stop and listen. Finally, we can come to the decision.
God wants to guide us; though He did not implant a course in our brains, He has given us everything we need to go the way He would have us go. We have the will and reason to seek the path God has ordained for our lives. Let us therefore trust in Him, listen to Him, believe that He can and will guide us. We will make mistakes, which is why our God is so gracious and merciful. We don't have to play Frogger with our own lives, trying to cross the road in a place where we really don't belong. We can walk the way He calls us to walk and He reveals it to us if only we would listen.
"Finally, be ye all likeminded, compassionate, loving as brethren, tenderhearted, humbleminded: not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but contrariwise blessing; for hereunto were ye called, that ye should inherit a blessing. For, He that would love life, And see good days, Let him refrain his tongue from evil, And his lips that they speak no guile: And let him turn away from evil, and do good; Let him seek peace, and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, And his ears unto their supplication: But the face of the Lord is upon them that do evil." 1 Peter 3:8-12, ASV
"Beware of the Ides of March," a seer once told Julius Caesar. However Caesar was a man without fear. He expanded the Roman world by conquering many lands. His success led to his destruction, since his rule became oppressive. As he conquered more and more peoples, he took upon himself a title that was not deserved, but seized. He became a dictator, taking away the authority of other men. "I came, I saw, I conquered," words spoken by Caesar which speak not only to his military victory but also to every aspect of his life.
When the seer warned Caesar of the impending doom, he was indifferent. Men he deemed loyal surrounded him. Take Marcus Brutus, his friend and a man he pardoned from punishment. On March 15, 44 BC, Brutus led a group of upper statesmen in the murder of Julius Caesar. They were unhappy with the manner in which Caesar had usurped their authority. He named himself dictator of the empire, making the Senate worthless. Caesar expected men like Brutus to remain loyal because they reached their positions of authority by his grace. They did what they felt was necessary for the empire.
Caesar was not God; he was not even a god. He was a man who stepped over the line of his given authority and stole an empire. Caesar was not the first nor the last man to conquer his world. As a matter of fact, we can name several from the twentieth century and even today there are those who are feared around the world. Men agonized over what to do about Adolph Hitler in the 1940's, coming to a similar decision as Brutus and the statesmen of Rome. The conspirators in Germany did not succeed, and they suffered the consequences of their schemes. The decision was likely horrifying for Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, as a minister, knew that the very thought of murder went against God's commandments. Yet, he chose to become involved in the plot because he knew it could end the murder of many.
I've heard the comparisons in our modern day politics of what happened in early 20th century Germany. There are definitely parallels, but there is not just one person with the arrogant, indifferent attitude against those who might be considered enemies. There are those in our political process who have no fear, who believe that they will get their way no matter what. They are determined to conquer their world and are willing to do anything to get their way. There are also those who have decided to take matters into their own hands to put a stop to those whom they think will destroy our world. While the end might seem to justify the means, God's Word still condemns murder and it should not be an option for us today.
We do face oppression in this life from authorities that try to take more power than is given to them. They use the ways of deceit and violence to gain a higher place in this life. Though this is wrong, we should not repay the deceit and violence with the same. When you feel you have been wronged do not seek revenge, but rather turn your eyes to God and let Him deal with the evil.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 20, 2016, Palm Sunday and Sunday of the Passion: John 12:12-19; Deuteronomy 32:36-39; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:1-23:56
"For Jehovah will judge his people, And repent himself for his servants; When he seeth that their power is gone, And there is none remaining, shut up or left at large." Deuteronomy 32:36, ASV
I don't know how it is possible, but Lent is almost over. This Sunday, Palm Sunday, begins Holy Week. We have spent the last six weeks considering our own place in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Why did He have to do this? What have I done? We've tried to repent, to turn back to God. We've fasted and prayed. We have done our spiritual disciplines, read our devotionals and gone to church a little more than normal. We've walked with Jesus toward the cross.
What do we do now that He has made it to Jerusalem? Do we cheer Him with palms? Do we listen as He gives His final words of teaching and comfort and warning? Do we eat with Him at His table on Passover? Do we follow Him as He is tried and convicted of a crime that He didn't commit? Do we follow Him as He carries the cross to the hill? Do we stand with Him as He dies? It is easy to say "Yes!" because we have faith that everything that will happen during Holy Week was according to the plan of God.
And yet, during the week Jesus will be abandoned by just about everyone. First He loses the Jewish leadership, most of whom have been battling against Him anyway. Then He loses the crowd. Then He loses some disciples. He loses Judas, and Peter. He loses the rest of the twelve as they run to hide. The only ones standing with Him at the final moments of His life are His mother, the beloved disciple John and a few women, none of whom have any power or authority. In the end, it seems, even God abandons Him.
We might act as if we would never leave His side, but the reality is that we are more likely to be like Peter than John. At the Last Supper, Peter insisted that he would stand with Jesus even unto death, but it was Peter who denied Jesus three times. Peter eventually received forgiveness from Jesus, but he went into hiding during this terrible time just like the rest of them. We like to think that we wouldn't be like that, but how often do we deny Jesus in our everyday lives? How often do we continue to willfully sin when we know what we are doing is wrong? How often do we ignore the call of God's Spirit to go our own way and do our own thing? How often do we stay silent when we should be speaking the Gospel? We might think that we would have followed Him to the very end of this journey, but I don't think we can.
That's why Jesus had to do it in the first place.
See, we are sinful, imperfect, frail human beings. It is beyond our ability to be righteous, to be the people God has created us to be. We are fallen from the first man, and no matter how hard we try we will betray and deny our God in our thoughts, words and deeds. Oh, we can claim that we haven't been too bad; we can claim our neighbors are worse sinners than we. However, even the tiniest sin against our neighbors and God's amazing creation is a sin against God. No matter how we try, no matter how good we are, we are still sinners in need of a Savior.
That's why Jesus walked this journey that ends in a cross.
Deuteronomy 32 (beginning at 31:40) is called "The Song of Moses." It tells the story of the relationship between God and His people: God made a covenant with them, they failed to live according to that covenant, God reminds them of what it means to live within the covenant, they disobey, they are reminded of the consequences of their disobedience especially the ineffectiveness of the false gods to which they turn, and finally the LORD's judgment against His enemies.
We are His enemies. I know that sounds harsh, but our sinfulness is what makes us an enemy of God. We deserve the consequences of our failure to live according to God's covenant, our disobedience, our turning from Him to false gods. We deserve His judgment.
But here's why Jesus went to the cross: because God promised to have compassion on His people. The American Standard Version says, "...and repent himself for his servants…" God will not cast judgment on us; instead, He will cast judgment on Jesus. We are the ones who should have been abandoned, who should have carried that cross, who should have died on it. Instead, Jesus stood in our place.
He knows that we are unable to be completely righteous, so He sent His Son to be our righteousness. Even when God judges us, He has mercy. Even when He knows we have turned to false gods, He keeps His promises because He knows that those false gods cannot do for us what we think they can. He has compassion on us "when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none remaining, shut up or left at large." We will abandon Jesus at some point in our lives, probably many times. Every time we sin, knowingly and unknowingly, we are doing so. The disciples disappeared because they knew they had no power over what was happening to Jesus. They just didn't realize that Jesus had all the power.
God is in control. Always. Even when we think we have everything in our own hands. "See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand."
Thanks be to God that Jesus stood in our place.
We begin this week with the story of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. For three years, our Lord traveled the country, teaching about Kingdom of God and calling the people into a relationship with their Father. He has cast out demons, offered forgiveness, healed sickness. He mentored a group of men and women who would follow His leadership and ministry. He even raised people from the dead. The crowds rejoiced when they saw Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey because they thought He had finally accepted the inevitable: He would be their King.
The tide turned very quickly for Jesus. He didn't present Himself as the conquering hero they expected. He didn't call the troops to arms or confront the Roman leaders who were oppressing them. Instead He confronted the priests and religious practices, attacking the piece of their world they thought was right. They willingly supported Barabbas, a Jewish insurrectionist who was in Roman custody. Instead of choosing Jesus as their Messiah, they chose the man they thought would lead them to a victory against their oppressor. They didn’t understand that they were oppressed by something greater.
The Passion and Easter story is the most difficult thing about Christianity to believe and to accept. Why did Jesus have to die and how does that line up to the ideal of a loving and caring God? How does that help Jesus’ social ministry and seemingly political aspirations? It doesn’t make sense. It might seem like Jesus had no control, but the reality is that Jesus was in control of every moment. They could see after the fact how every step fulfilled the prophecies of the past. Every moment that followed the triumphant entry was planned and foreseen as God's plan for His Messiah for the salvation of His people. From the last supper to the prayer in the garden, the trial and journey to Golgotha, and then the nailing of His flesh to the cross, was purposeful. Jesus knew what He was doing and He did so for our sake. At the very moment of death Jesus commended Himself to the hands of God. The Father never abandoned His Son, but was there all along, watching as Jesus was obedient as we have never been able to be.
Paul writes, “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.”
We may experience persecution in our lives; we may even die for our faith. Peter, who was among those who abandoned Jesus during the trial by denying Him and running away, really did follow Jesus to the cross, having been crucified also by the Romans. His death did not accomplish what Jesus' death did, but his story gives us the courage to live our faith in this world despite the possibility of persecution. Death is inevitable for everyone, but we have hope beyond death because God has promised that He has already dealt with our offenses.
Paul is not calling us to follow Jesus to the cross; we are to follow Jesus wherever He leads us. We can't do what Jesus did; He already finished that work. But we have been saved for a purpose, to continue the work that Jesus began. Now that sin and death have been defeated, it is up to us to take God's promise of forgiveness, healing and restoration to the world. We can't do that if we are busy chasing after our self-created gods. We can't do that if we are focused on ourselves.
It won’t be easy. We will suffer persecution at the hands of those who would rather worship their own gods. Should we let it stop us? Jesus did not and Paul encourages us to have the same mind as Christ. After all, He left the glory of heaven to come to earth in flesh to reconcile us to God our Father. His nature is to love and save. He willingly suffered humiliation in life and death. We are called to do the same, not necessarily on a cross but in our everyday experiences.
The day will come when all will bow to our Lord Jesus Christ, but will they bow in thanksgiving or fear? We are sent into the world with an attitude like Jesus, trusting in God and following Him where He leads. We are sent to introduce the lost to the Lord Jesus so that they will be found, those in darkness so that they will see the light, the sick so that they will be healed, and those who are still dead in sin so that they will have eternal life.
We all deserve God's wrath, but Jesus took it for us. Shouldn't we try, as best we can, to make sure our neighbors know that Jesus died for them too? Until they recognize Jesus as Lord, they will remain enemies of God, chasing after their own gods and following their own way thinking they have all the power. We are not yet perfect, but we have something the world needs: the promise of salvation. We know that God recognizes that our power is gone and that the gods we rely upon can't help us and He has mercy. He repents for the sake of His people, no matter how much we fail. We deserve the consequences of our failure to live according to God's covenant, our disobedience, our turning from Him to false gods. We deserve His judgment, but Jesus Christ has made us children rather than enemies, and by His blood we are saved.
We were God's enemies, but thanks to Jesus Christ we have been saved from sin and death. God has opened the gates of heaven for us and we are invited into His Kingdom forever. The upcoming week will be filled with difficult stories. We don't like to see Jesus go from Triumphant Entry to the cross and grave. As a matter of fact, many people will skip over those middle parts. They'll attend Palm Sunday and Easter without experiencing the abandonment and brutality in between.
But it is good for us to see, to hear, the Passion again and again and again because it is there that we can truly see ourselves as we are. We are the leaders who battle against Jesus from the beginning. We are the crowd that slowly slips away because we can't quite handle everything He says. We are the disciples who decide that following Jesus is just too hard. We are Judas and Peter and the rest of the Twelve who make mistakes in their relationship with Jesus. We are even like Mary, John and the women who were invisible during the whole affair because they had no power or authority. Our own sinfulness puts us alongside all those who abandoned Jesus on that day. We deserved to be judged amongst His enemies.
But God did not abandon Jesus, and in the end we see His plan fulfilled. God took Jesus, whom we all rejected in our own way, and made Him the cornerstone of our life. We see how He had promised all along to make these things happen for our sakes. We see how we mistakenly expected God to do what we want rather than what He knows is best. With our hindsight, we know it was all for good. And that knowledge fills our hearts with joy and peace, and we can join in singing with the psalmist, "I will give thanks unto thee; for thou hast answered me, and art become my salvation." This is indeed God's work and it is marvelous. This is the day which God has made, not only the joyful day of Resurrection, but every day including the day Jesus died on the cross. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
*** I highly recommend that we all spend time this week reading and pondering the Passion story, especially if you are unable to attend any of the midweek worship that will be available. Many churches will read at least part of Luke chapters 22-23 during Sunday's worship, but it would be good to read it again. And again. And again. Listen to the story that saved your life and know how much God loves you so that you can rejoice and be glad.
“For behold your calling, brethren, that not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea and the things that are not, that he might bring to nought the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (ASV)
My mother's ancestors came from Cornwall and Wales about the turn of the twentieth century. Since she was English and Welsh, she never really got into celebrating the Irish on St. Patrick's Day. As a matter of fact, she used to tell me to wear orange in honor of the Welsh patron saint St. David (although his feast day is on March 1st.) It was a national thing, not religious, and my mom was not Irish so she refused to pretend even one day a year.
I'm not sure St. Patrick's Day is really about religion anymore anyway. Oh, in the church we celebrate the work Patrick did in Ireland, but green beer and parade participants with oversized green hats has little to do with faith. I remember the year I taught preschool we had a green buffet, filled with green food. Many of the children wore green clothes. We did our work with green crayons and we did crafts with green paper. We also talked about St. Patrick and his contribution to Christianity.
St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. He was born late in the fourth century as a Roman citizen in Britain. Irish raiders carried him away when he was a teenager to live in Ireland as a slave. He eventually escaped and went to Gaul which is now France and studied under St. Germanus for fifteen years. He had a vision of becoming a missionary to Ireland, to take Christ to those who had been his captors. St. Germanus consecrated him and sent him on his mission. He had a remarkable effect on the druidic people and many came to know Jesus Christ because of Patrick’s witness. He established a bishopric in Armaugh and began a strong foundation for the Christian church in Ireland.
Perhaps the most common teaching tool we use with St. Patrick is the shamrock. There is a myth that Patrick used a shamrock to help the druids of Ireland understand the Trinity. It is imperfect, as all analogies are imperfect, and borders on the edge of heresy. It is unlikely that Patrick actually used the analogy because it is not found in recorded history until at least twelve hundred years after he died. Trinity is a mystery beyond our ability to fully comprehend, but in our human arrogance we try very hard to fit God's mysteries into our knowledge.
In response to the question of two daughters of the king about Patrick's God, He is recorded as saying, "Our God is the God of all, the God of heaven and earth, the God of the seas and rivers, the God of the sun and moon, and all the other planets; the God of the high hills and low valleys; God over heaven, in heaven, and under heaven; and He has a mansion, that is, heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them. He inspireth all things. He quickeneth all things. He enkindleth all things. He giveth light to the sun, and to the moon. He created fountains in the dry land, and placed dry islands in the sea, and stars to minister to the greater lights. He hath a Son, coeternal and coequal with Himself; and the Son is not younger than the Father, nor is the Father older than the Son. And the Holy Ghost breatheth in them. And the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are not divided. I desire, moreover, to unite you to the Son of the heavenly king, for ye are daughters of an earthly king."
St. Patrick's Day is certainly a holiday that a many people commemorate with parades and shamrocks everywhere. Rivers are died green for the day, as are other rivers around the world. Many of the celebrants may not even know St. Patrick's; his festival is a good excuse to get drunk on green beer and chase after leprechauns in hopes of finding their pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. The only reminders of St. Patrick’s story are all the shamrocks that decorate the festivities. I doubt that St. Patrick would want that type of attention. He was a humble man who overcame a difficult life to minister for Christ in this world. He willingly went to the territory of his enemy to take the love of Christ to those who showed him no love. He lived to glorify God in response to God's love for him.
"If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others." Philippians 2:1-4, ASV
I once knew a woman who counted every windfall as a blessing from God. This might seem very faithful on its surface, but it didn't matter how she came upon the windfall. She felt blessed and thanked God even if her windfall affected someone else negatively. She told me about a time when discovered that there was an extra bill amidst the change given to her at the grocery store was an extra bill. As it turned out, it was exactly what she needed to fulfill a need. She praised God without considering how that extra bill might affect the cashier who mistakenly gave her that money. Her justification was that she needed the money more than the company, completely forgetting that the missing bill might just the thing that causes the cashier to lose her job.
Now, I have to admit that I don't know the faith of the woman in the next story, but I thought about my friend when I heard it. I was watching one of the judge shows and the case was about a woman who did not pay her whole bill. She took her car to be repaired. When it was finished, the bill was $800. She said she didn't have the whole amount, but she'd pay $744 in cash that day and the rest later. The mechanic wrote the paperwork, showing the amount owed as $56. The woman did not show up as promised, and the next day paid the invoice of $56 to the secretary who did not know about the $744 in cash with a debit card. She took the car and left without ever paying the larger amount.
The mechanic realized the problem very quickly and they tried to call the woman over and over again to get her to pay the rest. She ignored their calls and refused to pay the rest of her bill. She claimed as her defense that she didn't pay because she had to take the car to another mechanic, although her evidence showed that the second mechanic did not do anything that had to do with the work of the original mechanic. The judge told her that even if the first mechanic had done something wrong, she should have given him an opportunity to fix his mistake. She never even told them she was withholding the amount because she was supposedly unhappy with the work. She thought she found a way to get out of paying the money owed.
Sadly, I can imagine my friend condemning that woman for her greed and the sin against the mechanic and the secretary. We see in these stories, however, that it doesn't matter how we justify our sin, sin is still sin. And perhaps my friend, in her crediting God with harm against another person, is actually the greater sinner in this matter, even though the amount of money was significantly less.
Martin Luther writes about the Seventh Commandment: "You shall not steal. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor's money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him improve and protect his possessions and income."
I suppose some would say that my friend and the woman did not, technically, steal anything. Their windfall was caused by the mistakes of the other. However, Martin Luther reminds us that it is our responsibility to not only not steal, but to also make sure that everything we do will help our neighbor do well in this world.
Again, I can't be sure that the woman on the judge show was a woman of faith. She didn't indicate at any point that she thought it was a blessing of God. The show simply reminded me of my friend and the unbelievable selfishness of some people who are willing to accept a mistake by one person as a windfall for themselves, no matter what that means for the person who made a mistake. My friend should have returned that extra bill not matter how much she needed it. The woman should have paid the bill she promised to pay even if the secretary did not know what was happening. Silence that doesn't correct a mistake by a neighbor is a lie; it is dishonest and it is against God's Law. God calls us to take care of one another, to look toward the best interests of our neighbors.
"But when Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man were a Galilaean. And when he knew that he was of Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him unto Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem in these days. Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was of a long time desirous to see him, because he had heard concerning him; and he hoped to see some miracle done by him. And he questioned him in many words; but he answered him nothing. And the chief priests and the scribes stood, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers set him at nought, and mocked him, and arraying him in gorgeous apparel sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day: for before they were at enmity between themselves." Luke 23:6-12, ASV
It doesn't matter how often you hear the story of Jesus' Passion: there is always something new to hear. That's what happened to me as we heard the reading of Luke 23, as many churches did yesterday. Today's section, in particular, struck me.
Listen to what is happening here: Pilate doesn't want his hands dirty with this problem, so he sends Jesus over to Herod. Herod doesn't want his hands dirty with this problem, so he sends Jesus back to Pilate with the excuse that he doesn't have the authority. In the end, both of them give over the responsibility to the crowd, Jesus dies and the two become besties.
We want to place the blame on someone. We are quick to blame the Jewish authorities because it was their scheming that put Jesus in the hands of the Romans. Some have suggested that the Gospel writers white-washed the Roman responsibility for Jesus' death because they were still afraid of what could happen to them. The story continues back in Pilate's palace and according to Luke Pilate tries desperately to limit the punishment of Jesus. Three times he tells the crowds that he'll have Jesus flogged and then set Him free. The crowds vehemently reject that idea. "Crucify Him!" they cry. Finally Luke says that Pilate gives in to mob rule and allows Jesus to be crucified. Matthew tells us that Pilate washed his hands of the matter and that the crowd yelled, "His blood will be on our heads!"
We understand the truth of this: we are all to blame. But he's what I realized as I listened to this text yesterday: it was important for both the Jews and the Gentiles to have a role in Jesus' trial. Jesus was sent back and forth between Herod and Pilate so that we will see the guilt of the whole world. In this story we see how the whole world allied against Jesus. The whole world includes you and I. Whether we are Jew or Gentile, we are at fault. We can't claim we have to authority. We can't wash our hands of the truth. We can't place the blame on anyone in particular because everyone is to blame.
Jesus was the only truly innocent man ever to live and we sent Him to the cross. But that was the point, wasn't it? In the end, we are all to blame, but Jesus took the power out of our hands and died for our sake. The events of Good Friday might have seemed to have been led by the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities, but in reality Jesus had all the control. He took the blame not only for all our sin, but also for our unfaithfulness to God by standing in our place on that cross. No one had clean hands except Jesus, no matter how much they excused themselves or washed them, but He allowed His hands to become dirty for our sake by His very willingness to have those nails hammered into His hands.
"The Jews then responded to him, 'What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?' Jesus answered them, 'Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.'" John 2:18-19, ASV
I went on a wildflower adventure yesterday. It was a last minute decision to go yesterday, but I had planned ahead and had an idea of how I wanted to go. I checked a map at home and familiarized myself with the region. The wildflowers are farther along to the south and east of San Antonio, so I wanted to get out there before they are too far along for pretty pictures. It was a lovely day; cool but sunny and without much wind. I got out of the house a little later than I wanted, but I had plenty of time.
I started driving east and the trip to my first stop went better than expected. I thought the town was farther away. I was going to a place I'd visited during a previous year's adventure; I wanted to go back to the cemetery where the wildflowers bloom everywhere. I wasn't sure where it was in the town, but it was a very small town and figured it wouldn't be hard to find it. I vaguely remembered the street, but I couldn't remember which direction from which I had approached it. I made my first mistake of the day as I entered the town.
I noticed a memorial stone company and noted it in my head, but I didn't pay any attention because I thought I had to go further into town. I drove down each of the major roads leading into the town, searching for the right one. The search wasn't a waste of time because I found some delightful fields of wildflowers where I stopped to take pictures. Eventually I decided to pull into a truck stop, use the restroom, buy some lunch and ask. The girl at the register had no idea, but a stranger gave me directions. I laughed at myself when I pulled up and saw that memorial stone company which I remembered seeing right in front of the cemetery during my last trip.
I headed south toward another town, although I didn't really want to be in towns. The best fields are found in the countryside. So instead of following my plan, I took a right hand turn onto a county road that seemed to be going in the right direction. I spent the next hour or so having absolutely no idea where I was. Even the directional in my car seemed to be confused because it was telling me I was going southeast when I was sure I must be going west. I was probably wrong; those roads go in circles, winding their way through the country. I ended up on a road that wasn't much of a road. I ended up on a road that was under construction. I found some places to take pictures, but I have to admit that I was getting a little concerned. I knew I had to eventually end up on a road that took me to where I wanted to go, but the longer I drove, the more it seemed I was stuck in some weird vortex or something. Eventually I found a road with an identifying sign, found it on my map and set myself on the right path.
When I figured out where I was, I wasn't anywhere near where I thought I should be. I even crossed one highway I planned to take and have no idea when I did it. I found one absolutely spectacular field with bluebonnet and bitterweed, but I have no idea where it was. I've even checked a more detailed map and I really don't know how I got to where I wanted to be. I needed the sign to tell me where I was so I could get on the right path again.
The Jews wanted a sign so that they would know that Jesus had the authority to do what He was doing. They were lost and didn't really even know it. They were lost because they didn't recognize that Jesus was the Messiah for which they were waiting. Jesus answered that they would see a sign: the Temple would be destroyed and raised again. In hindsight we understand that He meant they would kill Him, the true Temple of God, and that He would be raised. Interestingly, John focuses His entire Gospel account on the many signs of Jesus which proved not only that He was the Messiah, but that He was the Divine Son, the one who is God in the flesh of a man. The signs didn't change their minds. They didn't believe or turn onto the right path.
We do get lost once in a while, sometimes so lost that we don't even know where we are or how we got there. God walks with us, even in those times, nudging us in the right direction. We lose time when we try to go our own way, but when we trust in God He will show us His path. When we believe, we will see that Jesus has the authority to do whatever is good and right and true according to God's Word. As we walk with Jesus again during this Holy Week, we will see the sign that proves that He is exactly who He always claimed to be and we'll follow Him wherever He leads.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 27, 2016, Resurrection of our Lord:Easter Sunrise -- Job 19:23-27; Psalm 118:15-19; 1 Corinthians 15:51-57; John 20:1-18 or Easter Day -- Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 16; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12
"But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives." Job 19:25a, WEB
They didn't know, did they? Those first disciples on that first Easter morning did not know what had happened to Jesus. No matter how much He prepared them for what was happening, they were not really prepared. They were still thinking in their own terms. Jesus was the king they wanted and when He died they didn't know what to do. They ran to hide, certain that they would be next. Some of the disciples even headed home, like the two on the road to Emmaus. We have no idea where Thomas was hiding. He doesn't show up until a week later. The women went to the tomb expecting to finish the work of burial that was so hurriedly accomplished on the Sabbath. They were grieving as if Jesus was dead. They had no idea that they would soon discover that their Redeemer lives.
It is easy for us to look back at those first disciples and think that they were foolish for missing it. Didn't Jesus tell them this is how it had to be? How could they not realize that a little patience would prove Jesus' words to be true? It is easy for us for two reasons: we know the rest of the story and we have the Holy Spirit to help us see. We would not have been any different if we had been there. We will experience the grief of Good Friday with the knowledge that it happened because of our own sin and for our sake, but we will do so with the knowledge that we'll sing Hallelujah on Sunday.
Hindsight is twenty/twenty vision.
We also see now how all the Old Testament scriptures fit into God's plan. They knew the words and hoped for their promise, but it isn't until after the Resurrection that they know it is true, not only about God but about Jesus Christ. Job says, "But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives. In the end, he will stand upon the earth." The psalmist says, "For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption." Isaiah says, "For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered, nor come into mind." These are all promises that point to the work of Jesus on the cross. He is our Redeemer. He is our Salvation. He gives us life. His new covenant will bring new things to the world. It was planned, and the promises were fulfilled on the cross and then the empty tomb.
We will see in the texts for the next few weeks, during the forty days of Easter, that Jesus had to reteach everything He had taught them in the three years leading up to the cross. Even then, they needed Pentecost to bring it all together.
Think about the life we are promised and which is ours by faith. Isaiah talks about that promised world. Jerusalem will rejoice and God's people will sing. God will rejoice because His city and people are happy. There will be no more grief. Children will not die, and people will live long and accomplish everything for which they had been created. They will benefit from their own hard work, and not pass their blessings to others without enjoying them. "'The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. Dust will be the serpent’s food. They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,' says Yahweh." The world as we know it will be turned upside down. Or should I say, it will be restored to that which God created it to be.
Isn't it interesting that we wander for forty days during Lent, learning everything we need to know. We are doing so in a world full of chaos and confusion. Then we spend forty days after Easter learning everything we need to know, but there's something different. We see that chaotic and confused world through a new perspective. During Lent we see the promise as they did in Jesus' day, that the Messiah came to set us free from the world. During the Easter season we finally see that Jesus wasn't an earthbound king we must follow, but that He is the Living God who redeems us and sets us free from the greater enemies: sin and death. The Old Testament promises have new meaning and we have a much different purpose. We are not called to simply follow Jesus, but we are sent out to be His people, to take the Gospel to the world so that they too will benefit from the promises that are not just for the here and now, but are for eternity.
Easter is a turning point, not just for the disciples two thousand years ago, but for us today. See, we might know that our Redeemer because we know the rest of the story, but we still need that Redeemer to turn us around. We need His forgiveness for our daily failures to live according to His Word. We need Him to continue transforming us into the people He is calling us to be. No matter how well we know and understand the promises of God, we have not reached the point when our perishable flesh is imperishable, our mortal flesh immortal. As long as we live, we must wait for the trumpet sound.
It is finished; the work is complete. However, we live in the already but not yet of God's promises. We have eternal life even as we wait for it.
In Easter, we see the fulfilling of the promise made through Isaiah the prophet: that God will create new heavens and a new earth, and that the lion will lie down with the lamb. As we catch a glimpse of that promise being fulfilled, we feel a longing for the time when we will not experience hurt or destruction. This is especially true in those times when we are facing difficulty in our world. As people are still suffering from disappointment and defeat, they need to know that God is doing something about it.
Even as we know God is faithful, we still see suffering and pain all around us. People are still hungry. Enemies still wage war. Leaders still let us down. We still sin. In our hearts we believe that God is doing this new thing, creating this new world, bringing reconciliation and peace to His creation. But in our minds and through our experiences we know that the promise has yet to be fulfilled. Even though we are filled with joy on Easter, we wake up Monday morning to the reality of our lives. We look forward to heaven, but we live in this world now. And in this world, the lion eats the lamb.
The promise in Isaiah is not just for some far off place, but for a renewing of our world here today. God is not concerned only for where we will be for eternity, but how we live in the here and now. Heaven is something to look forward to, but it is also something to be experienced now. It won’t be perfect. We’ll still fail. Paul tells us that Christ must rule until He puts all His enemies under His feet. He rules now; we see this to be true on Easter Sunday, as we gather together to celebrate His resurrection. He was the first. We look forward to the day when He will come again. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the hope for our Christian faith. One by one the enemies of Christ are being defeated, even as each person’s heart is melted by God’s grace. It seems like it will never end, because just as one ruler is changed, another rises to fight against God. As one person comes to a lifesaving faith in Christ, it seems others are born to reject Him. But God is working. He is creating new heavens and a new earth. He is changing the world, one heart at a time.
But even as Isaiah tells us that the earth is being transformed as we dwell in it, Paul reminds us that our hope is for something beyond this world. If not, then our faith is pointless. If Jesus had not been raised and if we do not share in that new life, then we are to be pitied. But Jesus has been raised and we who believe will follow Him into the eternal life that God has promised. Heaven is our reality even as the earth is our reality. We live on the cusp of both worlds. On Easter we see the reality of His promises. His mercy is eternal. The old things are forgotten. He is making a new creation. We will live and are called to continue to tell the story.
We think of Easter as the end of a journey. Many of us will stop whatever Lenten discipline we began forty-some days ago. We'll eat the chocolate and drown ourselves in the coffee we've fasted from for too long. We'll set aside our devotional books, thankful that they helped us through our wilderness wandering but glad that we will have that time for ourselves again. We don't have extra worship commitments. As crowded as our congregations will be on Sunday, next week will seem empty. Easter is over; time to get back to normal.
Easter is a reminder that all our work stands on the promise of the empty tomb and there is much work to be done. God makes so many promises -- to the poor, to the lame, to the deaf, to the possessed, to the imprisoned, to the lonely, to the outcast, to the ill and more -- but the promise of Easter is the foundation of it all. The empty tomb means that our tombs will also be empty, that we will be raised with Christ and that we will rejoice in His presence for eternity. Founded on the hope of eternity, God's people can go out and face the reality of the world in which we live. Sometimes that means we'll face suffering and pain.
This doesn't make sense to the people of this world. They see our celebration on Easter and think it is foolishness. What good is an empty tomb when people are suffering? What good is eternity when there is physical or emotional pain in this world? They tell us that if our God is real, then there should be no suffering. They tell us that if our God really loves us, then we should be filled with good things and satisfied in our flesh. They think that real promise and blessing is in the fulfillment of every desire. Quite frankly, there are many Christians who think that faith is a guarantee for good feelings, self-satisfaction and happiness. But Jesus never promised that our life in His Kingdom would be easy. The joy of Easter is often followed by persecution by those who do not believe.
Just as there were those who did not believe in Jesus in His day, before and after the resurrection, there are still those who reject Him. These are those whom He defeats, one by one, heart by heart. His Word breaks the hardness in their hearts until they too see the reality of God's grace. How can we not give thanks and praise Him as we recount the good things He has done for their sake? How can we be silent? How can we not share this Good News with others?
There comes a time when our faith necessarily leads us to confront the world, but we do so with the promise of Easter. The Christians in Paul's day were persecuted because they did not conform to the world in which they lived. They refused to accept what was acceptable in their culture and society. They were pitied because they the promise of faith seemed so distant and unattainable. Why reject the pleasure of this life for something that seems so unreal? Why suffer when you can be satisfied? Paul reminds us that whatever happens in this world is nothing compared to what we will receive. Paul writes, "If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable." The pity goes to those who prefer to dwell in the world that is upside down rather than the world that Jesus turned to right, the one God intends.
Christian faith does not guarantee a charmed life. The empty tomb of Easter does not mean that everything will go well. It was the empty tomb that set the apostles on a road to persecution; most of them were martyred. The empty tomb does guarantee that we will join our Lord Jesus in eternity. He was the first of many, raised to new life to live forever in a world that will be transformed. It is the world we see promised in those Old Testament texts, where the wolf and the lamb will lie together and God's people will dwell in the new heaven and earth.
Through it all, I know my Redeemer lives and it is faith in Him that gets us through today and tomorrow until our flesh is finally and completely transformed into the imperishable and immortal bodies that will dwell with Him forever and ever.
"He received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, “Take this, and share it among yourselves, for I tell you, I will not drink at all again from the fruit of the vine, until God’s Kingdom comes.” He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in memory of me.” Likewise, he took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." Luke 22:17-20, ASV
Indiana Jones passed all the tests. Using the clues gathered by his father, Jones knew he had to kneel to avoid the cutting knives, to step on the letters spelling the name of God and to take a leap of faith. He arrived in the room and was met by a man that must have been a thousand years old. The knight was the last of three brothers who established the room to guard and protect the Holy Grail. The knight knew someone worthy would come to take his place. After a thousand years, the knight was ready to join his brothers in the real eternal life promised by Jesus Christ.
People have searched for this grail (and still do) for thousands of years. Legends place the Grail in many different places; some claim it is in Scotland. Others say they have it in Spain or Italy. There's an island in Nova Scotia rumored to be the resting place. There's even a place in Maryland that claims to be the final resting place of the cup. Many of the legends involved England, where it is said Joseph of Arimathea hid it in a cave or a well or was buried with it. It is believed that Joseph took the cup from the Last Supper and used it to catch some of the true blood of Jesus Christ while He was on the cross. The legend claims that Jesus Himself appeared before Joseph to reveal the power of the cup and Joseph took it to England to protect it. We'll never really know, will we?
Indiana Jones had a choice. The shelf was filled with many different cups. Some were made of gold and studded with jewels. There were cups of every size. There were also bowls. Any one of the items on the altar before which the knight knelt in prayer could have been the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. The knight encourages Indiana Jones to "Choose wisely." Meanwhile, the bad guys followed Jones to the cave and rushed in front of him to the altar. They didn't choose wisely and when one guy tried to drink from the well, his body went from life to dust in seconds. They chose the biggest, brightest, most expensive cup, but Jones knew that he should choose the cup of a carpenter. He picked the smallest, least attractive cup of all. He was right and was able to save his father's life with the healing power in the water from the Holy Grail.
The assumption that the Holy Grail must be a common wooden or pottery cup is logical but not necessarily true. It was not Jesus' own cup that was used at that last Passover meal, but belonged the owner of the building where the disciples met for the meal. The Cenacle is a place in Jerusalem believed to be the original meeting place. It was the upper room of a house; most people did not have a second story in their homes; these were found mostly in public places or the homes of the wealthy.
Like the Grail, it is really impossible to know if the room that is claimed to be the Upper Room found in the scriptures, the Cenacle has been the traditional site for the Last Supper, the gathering of the disciples after Jesus' death and resurrection, appearances of Jesus, the choosing of Matthias and ultimately Pentecost. It is believed to be the site of the first Christian church as it is where those first disciples, the Apostles, met together to pray and worship together as they came to fully understand what Jesus meant for them to do as they continued to take the Gospel into the world.
In Acts we learn that after Peter was released from prison, he found the gathering at Mark's mother's house. Mark's mother was among the women who supported the work of Jesus Christ, and it is likely that the disciples used the upper room when they were in Jerusalem throughout Jesus' ministry. It was a familiar place. When Jesus told the disciples to prepare for the Passover meal, He told them to tell the owner of the house, "The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room where I may eat with my disciples?" When the disciples arrived, they found everything just as Jesus said. The use of the title "The Teacher" indicates that the owner of the house was familiar with Jesus and His work. Whether Jesus knew the owner or not; whether this particular room belonged to Mark's mother or if they used it on other occasions, we know the room was ready for Jesus.
That means the cup did not belong to a carpenter, but to the owner of a large house. It is still unlikely that the cup would have been jewel-covered and ornate gold. Such extravagance was limited to the temple or to the king. However, the cup that Jesus used could have been made from anything. Even glass. I visited an art museum in town that has a collection of ancient glass and I discovered that they had glass drink ware from the Roman Empire. It was simple, but extremely beautiful. At least one was from the Holy Land during the first century. I couldn't help but wonder whether or not perhaps one of those cups might have been the very cup Jesus used.
It doesn't really matter, does it? It might be fun to go on a quest like Indiana Jones to find the Holy Grail. I certainly enjoyed following the legends when we lived in England. However, the cup that gives us eternal life is not one vessel two thousand years old made of gold or wood or pottery or even glass, but every cup that holds the wine of the Eucharist throughout time and space. Jesus said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." It isn't the cup that offers the eternal life we seek, but the words and Word of Christ. You don't have to search far to find the Holy Grail, you'll find it at the altar of your own church as you celebrate the life giving feast of Holy Communion that Jesus instituted it at the Last Supper.
Many churches will remember that meal with worship on this day which is called Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. Plan to go if you haven't already done so. Experience that night together with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Remember the lessons Jesus taught about loving one another even unto death and about serving each other. Receive the life giving blood of Christ that forgives and renews and promises a greater feast to come. Share the promise that is to come: that even though there will be suffering and death, those who believe will enter the Kingdom of God with Jesus Christ. This is a hope that does not disappoint because God is faithful.
"He, in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and petitions with strong crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear, though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered. Having been made perfect, he became to all of those who obey him the author of eternal salvation, named by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek." Hebrews 5:7-10, WEB
There is a post that makes its way to the Internet every Holy Week. It is from the B.C. comic strip. Johnny Hart was a well-known Christian and the strips often included themes of faith. On April 9, 2004, the theme was Good Friday. The first window shows two men. One says, "I hate the term 'Good Friday.'" The other asks, "Why?" The second window shows the two men again. The first says, "My Lord was hanged on a tree that day." The second asks, "If you were going to be hanged that day and He volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?" In the third window the first says, "Good." The second turns to walk away and says, "Have a nice day."
There is nothing good about Good Friday except the reason for it. All that is bad is really good, even more so because Jesus willingly and willfully experienced that bad out of love and faithfulness both to His Father and to you and I. Good Friday is good because all that bad was accomplished to overcome sin and death forever. What we see as a tragedy was carefully planned and intentional; it turned the world on its head because sin had twisted it upside down.
I have been painting a series based on the Stations of the Cross. I am not using a traditional set of stations, but chose instead to use a newer set of fourteen. It has been interesting doing this project, especially since it has required me to paint people, something I don't do well. Since I don't do it well, I don't like to do it, yet it is impossible to paint the stations without showing the people involved in this story. I've used symbols for some of the stations, but how do you do that for moments such as when the Jesus met the women of Jerusalem?
The hardest stations have been those that dealt directly with the physical pain of Jesus. I've used a rather bright red paint for the blood that flowed, purposely to make it more obvious. He bled in the garden as He prayed so intensely that it came out of His pores like sweat. He bled when they placed the crown of thorns on His head. He bled when He was scourged and those wounds continued to bleed as He was forced to carry His own cross to the hill. He bled when they hammered a nail into His wrist. It is gruesome to think about and to paint, but a necessary part of remembering this day. Jesus bled for you and me and by that blood we are saved.
We can't avoid that truth if we are to appreciate fully what Jesus Christ has done. I have to admit that I'm not so sure I completely agree with the B.C. comic strip. Knowing Jesus died on the cross for me does not make me feel good. It humbles me and makes me sad. But today is Good Friday because what Jesus did was good in the most powerful sense possible. It was good because He was obedient to God's Word. It was good because He chose to suffer out of love and faithfulness. It was good because He accomplished what God intended: the restoration of His people to Himself. It is not Good Friday because I feel good, and quite frankly I don't think our response to the darkness of this tragic day should be to "Have a nice day." I think it is important for us to see the blood and recognize just how great a price our Lord Jesus Christ paid to save us.
The readings are long, but I encourage you to try to read at least one of the Passion accounts sometime during this day. These begin with the Garden of Gethsemane and end with His burial: Matthew 26:36-27:66, Mark 14:32-15:47, Luke 22:39-23:56, John 18:1-19:42.
"On that day Sadducees (those who say that there is no resurrection) came to him. They asked him, saying, 'Teacher, Moses said, "If a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up offspring for his brother." Now there were with us seven brothers. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. In the same way, the second also, and the third, to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection therefore, whose wife will she be of the seven? For they all had her.' But Jesus answered them, 'You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like God’s angels in heaven. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, haven't you read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?" God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.' When the multitudes heard it, they were astonished at his teaching." Matthew 22:23-33, ASV
There were those who believed in the resurrection of the body before Jesus died. Martha certainly had that faith when her brother Lazarus died. Jesus encouraged her faith, but added to it by telling her that He is the resurrection and the life. She was looking forward to a resurrection that would happen at the end of time.
The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection; it didn't help that they had an earthly understanding of it. They thought that everything that happens here on earth just continues there in this new life. I suppose most of us have the same belief. Don't we often talk of seeing our loved ones again? Don't we talk about how wonderful it is when the husband or wife from a long-term marriage will finally be together for eternity? This brings us comfort when we grieve, but it caused a problem for the Sadducees. How could life go on as it goes on here, especially when that new life would prove to be counter to God's Law? The woman could not be married to all seven of the men; they would all be guilty of adultery. So, whose wife will she be? It is unlikely that extreme situation would ever happen, but... They were trying to prove something was absurd by using an absurdity.
Jesus answered that they were not being just absurd, but ignorant. "You don't know what you are talking about; the new life is different than the old life. However, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that the scriptures themselves prove that resurrection is real. 'Haven't you read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?"'" The key here is the tense: God is not the God of those who once lived. He IS the God of those who came before us. He is the God of our loved ones who have passed from life through death into new life by faith. They can't believe if they aren't alive. Jesus silenced them with the truth that resurrection is real.
And then He proved resurrection was very real: He was raised from the dead! The resurrection of Jesus Christ proved many things. It proved that Jesus was who He said He was. It proved His divinity. It proved His authority to forgive sin. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ defeated death forever. We can believe in the resurrection of the dead because Jesus Christ was raised. The testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a very real hope that will not disappoint. God can do this; God has done this. He is the God of the living and He will be our God forever.
"Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are revealed to God; and I hope that we are revealed also in your consciences. For we are not commending ourselves to you again, but speak as giving you occasion of boasting on our behalf, that you may have something to answer those who boast in appearance, and not in heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God. Or if we are of sober mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ constrains us; because we judge thus, that one died for all, therefore all died. He died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but to him who for their sakes died and rose again. Therefore we know no one after the flesh from now on. Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Corinthians 5:21 (WEB)
I was driving to the grocery store yesterday when I saw a church sign flashing 2 Corinthians 5:21. That was it. The message was meaningless to those passing by unless they had memorized that verse or have an eidetic memory and had read the bible. I'm very familiar with the scriptures but I could not have told you without looking it up what that particular verse said. I might have guessed that it had to do with Easter and the work of Jesus on the cross, but beyond that, I did not know. I promised myself that I would look it up when I got home, but I forgot until this morning. That's when I opened Bible Gateway and discovered it was the Verse of the Day.
When someone holds up a sign behind the goal post at a football game with "John 3:16" on it, most people have an idea what it means. John 3:16 has become synonymous with the Gospel, that God loved the world so much that He gave His Son so that we will believe and have life. The same is not true with the verse I saw posted on the church sign, although it too is a summation of the Gospel. It is, perhaps, an even better summation, because in it we are reminded that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that Jesus took our sin and gave us His righteousness in exchange. It is wonderful to know that God loves us so much that Jesus died so we can have life. In the verse from 2 Corinthians we learn how we are truly changed by that love.
Most people who pass that sign will never know what it means. They won't bother. The signs at the end of the football field have reduced the Gospel to a motto: God loves you. That's all well and good. God loves the whole world. He loves every bit of His creation, particularly the human ones. He loves us all from the most sainted person who has given their lives to service for Him to the dirty smelly man on the street to the corporate president who chases after wealth to the most evil murderer. Yes, He loves us all. God loved us so much that He sent Jesus to save us. It isn't enough to know God's love to be saved; we need to know Jesus and what He did to make us new.
God so loved the world that He sent Jesus to take our sinfulness upon His own shoulders, exchanging our lives for His own so that we who believe will wear His righteousness forever. Because we have received that which He gave us so easily, we are now reconciled to the God who loves us. We aren't just loved, we are beloved. We don't have just life, we have eternal life. We don't just live in the world, we live in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that will last for all eternity even when the world falls apart. We are changed as Jesus Christ exchanges our darkness for His Light, our sinfulness for His righteousness, our filthy flesh for His Spirit.
I pray that many will hear the Word that is being spoken to them by that church sign down the street. I hope they discover the Gospel message it represents. For it is in the hearing that Word and the believing that life is made new and the promises are made real in the lives of those who need more than a reminder of God's love, but who need to hear how that love has changed those who believe.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 3, 2016, Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5:12-20 (21-32); Psalm 148; Revelation 1:4-18; John 20:19-31
"We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him." Acts 5:32, (WEB)
There's always that one sports team that is hated by the fans of every other sports team. Oh, diehard fans will hate anyone that threatens their team or the championship they are certain that they deserve, but there just seems to be that one team that is despised. Whether it is a little league baseball club, a High School basketball team or a professional football team, people are adamant about destroying them in words if not on the field or court. There are usually accusations of cheating or help from the referees. "They aren't that good," they say when they have a winning season. What happens to the fans of the ridiculed team? They pull together. They stand up for their players. Sometimes they try to prove the value of their team, sometimes they just get angry. Whatever response they give to the hassling, they are unified in one thing: their team is the best no matter what others say.
Sometimes it is true, sometimes it isn't. I remember when I was in school a long time ago, the local pro football team played against the most hated one in the big game and won. A friend of mine was a huge fan of the one that was hated, and despite the loss, he continued to insist that his team was the best. He remained loyal no matter what. There are, of course, some football fans that are not quite so loyal. Either they haven't found 'their team' or they simply prefer to back the winner, they will root for whichever team is likely to win. They'll even like the hated team when they are having a good year. But as soon as they start losing, they jump to another team. But most people wouldn't like that team no matter what. Their hatred just makes the fanatics stronger.
Apologies to the sports fans who read this writing, but it doesn't really matter very much does it? The sun will come up tomorrow even if your team loses tonight. Sports are a fun distraction and a healthy way to get exercise, but the animosity between fans is pointless. The example above, however, shows us something important: adversity makes us stronger. We find similar things happening everywhere. It happens in politics, certainly. Negative campaign reports make followers more committed, arguing that it is bashing even if the reports are true. It happens in school and workplaces as friendships are made between people who find strength against a common 'enemy'.
It wasn't easy to be a Christian in the beginning. Faith in Jesus went against everything in both their secular and religious worlds. The Romans doubted the truth of the resurrection and the Jews rejected the claims that Jesus was the Messiah. The leaders in Jerusalem looked for ways to put a halt to the cult growing around this Jesus character. No matter what they said, it seemed as though more and more people were hearing the words of the evangelists and were coming to the faith. It didn't help that the miraculous signs and wonders of Jesus continued with the apostles.
They were a curiosity to some, but there were questions and doubts. Today's lesson from Acts follows the incredible story of Ananais and Sapphira who were struck dead by their unfaithfulness to God. On the one hand, the disciples of Jesus were doing such good things by healing the sick and casting our demons. It was said that even the shadow of Peter could make a man well. On the other hand, there was something frightening about this power they seemed to have. It wasn't that the disicples killed Ananais or Sapphira, but the story surely made the rounds and it made people think twice about getting involved. Only those with true faith dared become part of the group because pretenders and those with half-hearted belief risked the same fate. The Gospel was certainly doing its work in the hearts of many because more and more men and women believed in the Lord.
That faith was risky. Besides the Romans who were carefully watching this growing cult, the Jewish leaders were concerned. Solomon's Colonnade was a public market place. The gathering place was where people went to talk to the teachers of the day, to learn about God's Law and to ask questions. It was a large area and it was a place where Jesus often taught. Now the disciples used this space to preach and teach about the man who had changed their lives and it was changing the lives of many others. How could they reject preachers and teachers when they allowed buyers and the sellers within the walls of the Temple?
The leaders were jealous. The disciples were doing things they could never do. They were impacting lives in physical as well as spiritual ways. They were intruding on the ministry of the priests, threatening their power and positions. The priests had the disciples arrested and put them in jail until they could be tried the next day. During the night, an angel of the Lord set them free and they were back in the Temple before the leaders even knew they were gone. The guards went to get the disciples, but took them carefully for fear of the crowds.
Peter stood before his accusers and told them that he could not be silent. "We must obey God."
We have a difficult time with this defense because, quite frankly, we've seen people throughout history use it to do things that are clearly not God's Will. We've seen women claim that God told them to kill their children. We've seen leaders claim that they are following God's will when they start wars to take over their governments. Religious fanatics claim that they are doing what is right because God speaks to them personally. Yet, the disciples had something that those people did not have: proof in the signs and wonders. God was truly working through them, healing the sick and casting our demons. God was doing amazing things in the world through the early church. And people believed in great numbers. More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their numbers.
It all began with a small group of followers. At the height of Jesus' ministry, there were certainly thousands interested in what He had to say. He fed more than five thousand one on occasion and four thousand on another. Yet, at the end, most had abandoned Him. Last Sunday we saw the first glimmers of hope after tragedy as the disciples began to see Jesus' words come to life. They found the empty tomb. Mary saw Jesus in the Garden. They were probably confused by anxious. What if it were true?
Today's Gospel begins the night of that first Easter. Some were gathered in the Upper Room, probably praying and discussing the events of the day. Luke tells us about two disciples headed toward Emmaus that experience an appearance of the risen Lord Jesus. They run back to Jerusalem and just as they were excitedly telling the others about their experience, Jesus appeared through locked doors to stand among them.
His first words were "Peace be with you." In Luke's telling of the story, Jesus was responding to the fear of what they were seeing. They thought He was a ghost. They hadn't believed the women and still doubted the men who saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus. But in John, He was responding to their fear of what was to come. They didn't know what had become of Jesus and they didn't know what would become of them.
The disciples didn't react until Jesus shows them His hands and His sides. In John's Gospel they are given the proof of His reality even before they ask. Mary recognized Jesus' voice in the garden, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Him in the breaking of bread and the disciples in the Upper Room recognized Jesus from the wounds on His body. When they saw Him, when they recognized Him, they rejoiced. They received their proof without asking and believed because Jesus gave them what they needed.
Unfortunately, Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared and he refused to believe the reports of the others. He needed the same experience of discovery, to hear Jesus' voice, to experience Jesus' generosity and to see His wounds. Now, we often look at Thomas as the doubter since he responds with their reports with unbelief. "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." Yet, how many live in today's world demanding the same thing from God? Oh, I doubt many people are expecting to see the resurrected Jesus on the street these days, but they demand proof from God that it is all real. They want answers to their prayers that match their expectations. They want Christians to be perfect. They want the Church to meet their every need. They continue to doubt when God does not satisfy their demands. We call them "Doubting Thomas" because they refuse to believe our witness. We forget that all the disciples needed proof. They all needed to see the Lord.
Jesus breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." With the Holy Spirit anointing them, they had the authority to go into the world to continue the work Jesus began: to share God's forgiveness. How could they be credible witnesses if they were merely spreading second hand stories? His appearance to the disciples was vital to the credibility of the growing Church. We think that Thomas should have believed the other disciples, but Jesus came to show him the wounds because it was necessary for Thomas to experience Jesus in the same way as the other disciples. Without receiving the Spirit, Thomas could not be an apostle.
Jesus tells these disciples, however, that there will be many blessed to believe without this experience. Faith will come to them when they hear the Word preached. Jesus will remain with the disciples for forty days, and then they'll receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples received a promise that night in the Upper Room, at Pentecost the Spirit came upon all those who believe.
Jesus said to Thomas, "Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." That's what was happening to all those who heard the apostles in the Temple. They heard and believed because the Word worked in their hearts and the Spirits came upon them in that Word. We are blessed; we believe because God has given us the Spirit of faith, the Holy Spirit, and by His Spirit we believe. Thomas did not have that advantage. But when Jesus returned to the Upper Room a week later, He did what was necessary: gave Thomas the Spirit and the commission to be a witness to God's forgiveness in the world.
The leaders of both the Romans and the Jews may have thought they could stop the Christian cult from growing, but it was not by human power any of it was happening. Peter and the others didn't escape the prison, they were let out. It wasn't human power that healed anyone or cast out demons: it was the power of God in the Holy Spirit. The world can try to stop God from doing what He will, but they won't succeed. God has the power to overcome even death and sin, how much more will He do with life?
I like the story of Thomas, not only because in it we see that God does answer our prayers, sometimes miraculously, but also because Thomas is not only a doubter; he is a believer. When Jesus appeared to him on the eighth day, Jesus offered His hands and side for Thomas to touch. Thomas did not need to physically feel the wounds. When He saw them, He worshipped Jesus, "My Lord and my God." When the disciples saw the wounds, they rejoiced. Thomas responded with a confession of faith that went beyond the joy of the other disciples. He worshipped Jesus with a confession of His faith that Jesus is truly who He said He was.
We, too, are called to confess our faith that He is truly our Lord and our God. He is the answer to our prayers. He is the fulfillment of God's promises. Jesus is the Messiah, the Alpha and Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
At the beginning of the book of Revelation, John writes an introduction of why the book has been written: to reveal that Jesus Christ is the Almighty and He wishes us to live in His grace and His peace. In this introduction, John tells us that Jesus is many things: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, ruler of the kings of the earth. He also tells us what Jesus does: loves us, frees us and makes us a kingdom. Times might be tough today, but John foretells the time when Jesus will be the focus of the entire world, not just our hearts. The imagery in the Revelation is frightening, but Jesus says, "Do not be afraid. I AM who I AM and I WILL BE who I WILL BE." He is God's promises come to life and His life gives us ours.
It isn't any easier to be a Christian today than it was for those first Christians. I've often written about the persecution of Christians around the world, and while we don't face beheadings in the United States, the danger is becoming more real for all of us. In the passage from Acts, Peter and the apostles were taken before the religious council because they had refused the orders to cease talking about Jesus. Could you imagine going before the most powerful authorities in our day and saying, "We must obey God rather than any human authority"? If we were to do that today, we'd be counted as insane, or at least ridiculous.
How often have we heard the distain, even from other Christians, when people talk as if they are doing God's Will? “"She talks to God? And God talks back?" We might just find ourselves in the position when we have to say that we cannot obey human authority over that of God. Will we have the courage to be obedient, even when it seems dangerous? Jesus promised them peace in the Gospel story, but they were in the midst of the most difficult turmoil they had ever known. So, when Jesus appeared to them, He reminded them of His promise. Peace would not be found in giving up, in running, or even in hiding. Peace is found in Jesus. That's where we will find peace, too.
It is a tough job to be a witness. We will face those who hate us because of our faith in Jesus Christ. There are many like Thomas who need more than words to make a confession of faith. There are those like the Sanhedrin who will try to halt the work of God. There are those who think that any name will do, any path is right. There are many, too many, who believe that they do not need a Savior at all. But we are called to take forgiveness anyway, because God has assured us that He will bless the work we do in His name. He has given us His Spirit to teach and guide us on our way.
And so, let us go forth singing with the psalmist the praise and thanksgiving in our hearts. Let us not be afraid to share the Gospel message with the world. Let us all be witnesses to the amazing things God has done through Christ Jesus our Lord. The world needs His grace and love and peace. The world needs us to be obedient to God so that they, too, will experience the risen Christ and believe.
"'Don't let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father's house are many homes. If it weren't so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also. Where I go, you know, and you know the way.' Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we don't know where you are going. How can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on, you know him, and have seen him.'" John 14:1-7, WEB
Anyone who lives in a city knows what it is like to live in road construction. We seem to have it everywhere as the city, county and state are trying to help deal with the traffic. Unfortunately, for a time, traffic is worse during the construction. The hope is that the work will make everything better. We aren't the only ones, of course. I used to joke about living in Pennsylvania that there were two seasons: winter and road construction. Sadly, the winter causes the road problems and it seems like they can never really catch up.
I saw a post on Facebook today that rejoiced over the fact that a major road project in Fort Worth is nearly finished. That road construction made me get lost when I was driving in the area last summer (not so bad, I got home safely.) I wasn't sure where I was supposed to go anyway, and then the signage didn't help. I ended up taking a different route home that day. The picture shows the "finished" project, but it is painted to look like a knotted ball of roads.
We have a few of those knotted balls of roads here in San Antonio. I call them octopi. I am still amazed when I drive through one highway interchange that has layer upon layer of roads going every different direction. I have wondered if there is anyone who can stand below that interchange and tell me where each road goes. I suppose it isn't that difficult if you can stand there and follow the roads like a maze, but it is impossible when driving through it. I have probably, at some point, driven on every one of those roads, but I couldn't tell you from experience which way they go.
I imagine that it is confusing to people who are strangers to our city, just as the octopus in Fort Worth confused me. We see those roads differently because even if we don't know exactly which road is which, I do know where most of them go. We drive down these roads that are part of our daily lives; we don't pay much attention to the signs because we know which exit we need. We ignore the tourist directives and the expensive gas stations along the highways. Travelers need those signposts and rest stops to know where they are going.
The Bible is often thought to be a roadmap for our lives. Have you ever thought about how different the Bible is for different people? The lifelong Christian is more familiar with the stories and the lessons. A new Christian has to look more closely to learn what they need to know. The things we take for granted and new and exciting for the first time reader. That's why the scriptures are a living document. We can't change what God has to say to us, but God does come to us where we are, talking to us in a way we can understand wherever we are in our journey of faith.
The important thing to remember is to watch the signposts along the way and to follow God's Word in His Way. Perhaps it is as important for those of us have been around a long time to watch for the signs, too, so that we stay on the right path. Sometimes we take for granted our own ability to go the right way, but even when I'm familiar with where I am going I have been known to get lost. We lose sight of our way, get stuck in the wrong lane and miss our exit. Sometimes we end up climbing to the highest road in the octopus and then end up going in the wrong direction.
Thankfully, God continues with us on our path and helps us turn the right way. We know which way to go when we follow Jesus because He is the way. We might end up on the wrong road in a highway octopus and get lost in a city, but as long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we'll always go the right way and never really get lost.