Welcome to the March 2017 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 2017
Scriptures for Sunday, March 5, 2017, First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
“Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Psalm 32:1-2, WEB
“The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write. A child is black, a child is white, the whole world looks upon the sight. A beautiful sight.” This song was made popular in 1972 by the group Three Dog Night and was a statement about the Brown vs. Education decision of the United States Supreme court which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Sammy Davis, Jr. made the original version of this folk song using a verse that was not used in later versions. “Their robes were black, their heads were white, the schoolhouse doors were closed so tight, nine judges all set down their names, to end the years and years of shame.” The issue of segregation demands that people be seen as opposites, just like the colors black and white. However, we can’t separate people so easily. Though skin color makes us different, there are too many things that we share to think people can be separated by just one trait.
It is so much easier to look at the world as dualistic. White verses black, tall or short, fat or thin. These are ways we can define people and things, but are there really only two choices? Go to a paint store and ask for white paint thinking they guy will just hand you a can of paint. There are numerous types of white. Can we really tell the difference between then? Yes. Try comparing ecru to ivory and you’ll see a difference. Most people would not know if you’ve painted ecru or ivory on your wall, but if you put them side by side you can see the difference. Are there really just black and white people? The world is filled with many skin tones some of which can be confused with another race. How do we discern one from another?
When we consider good and evil, we think again in dualistic terms. There is good and there is evil and neither the twain shall meet, right? The reality is that we live in a world where it is difficult to separate good and evil. In some places, theft is considered evil. In other places, theft that serves a virtuous purpose is good. Is it possible for us to do only good things? Even though we try to do only good, all too often the things we do turn out to be less than good. If it is less than good, is it still good or is it evil? Where do we draw the line? Sadly, there are times when we have to choose the best of two evils. Which is better: to shoot a dying horse or allow him to die naturally? Both options are evil, but a choice has to be made. It is the consequence of living in a fallen world.
It all began in the Garden of Eden. God created Adam and Eve called them “good.” They lived in harmony with God and with the rest of creation. The only command He gave them was, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” The serpent found the woman and asked, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” The serpent twisted God’s word to create doubt in Adam and Eve; they were allowed to eat of any tree but one.
Eve proclaimed God’s word to the serpent, but she did so with a twist, adding her own interpretation to what she’s heard. “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but not the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it. You shall not touch it, lest you die.’” She repeated God’s word but added her own twist. The serpent knew he’d caught a live one because he heard her twist God’s word. So he went a little deeper. “You won’t surely die,” he said. He was right, in a sense. Adam and Eve did not immediately die physically when they ate the fruit. But it was only a half truth. He convinced them to believe his word about God’s by giving them the final reason to eat: they would become like God.
“You can be like God.” There are two lies in this statement. The first lie is, of course, that we can be like God. We aren’t omnipotent, omnipresent, divine. We aren’t eternal, the beginning and the end, all powerful. We aren’t God. But, the second lie makes us think there is something to attain. We don’t have to attain to be like God because we were created in His image. In trying to attain god-like status, we turn our focus on ourselves instead of keeping our eyes on the One from whom all good things come.
Adam and Eve tried to attain something that they already had, but they still wanted more. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? But that’s what temptation is all about. The devil twists our circumstances, and the words, to make it seem like there is something good beyond what is already good. In the Garden, the serpent made Eve feel deprived of something, even though it was something she did not need. She reasoned that the fruit on the tree looked good and therefore must be good, so why should God keep it away? They had plenty of fruit to eat, and I’m sure the fruit on all the other trees must have been good, too. But temptation, the serpent, made her want the one thing she couldn’t have, and since she had the will and ability to do so, she picked the fruit.
Adam and Eve ate the fruit and they died. Their bodies didn’t die immediately but they were separated from their life with God. They were sent outside the Garden, into the dangerous world where they would no longer live under the protection of God or in His fellowship.
This may have seemed cruel; how could a loving God do such a thing to those He created? The reason is that the knowledge of good and evil made them afraid. They feared God, experienced shame and hid from Him. They could not live forever in fear of their Father and Creator, so they were sent into the world of death.
We join Adam in the reality of our failure. We continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning. It is hard to be human. We have to make decisions every day because we are faced with a world that is not black and white. We have to choose between the gray. We may not face a decision about whether or not to shoot a horse or let it suffer until it dies, but we have to decide often between the better of two evils. Unfortunately, sometimes Satan still twists God’s word enough to make us think that we are choosing good over evil.
Isn’t it interesting that the temptations Jesus faced were not about those things we normally consider sinful? Jesus wasn’t tempted by the things of the flesh like a beautiful woman or a gluttonous feast, He was tempted by the things He would face during His ministry.
Satan first offered Jesus food for His belly. Bread is good to eat and Jesus was hungry. He’d been fasting for days. But the devil was offering something even greater than a loaf of bread. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” The temptation demands putting the needs of the flesh first. Jesus was in the desert to prepare for His ministry. It was an act of obedience to the will of God, to strengthen Him against the things He would face in the days to come. The temptation was not only to feed His own hunger, Satan said, “Command these stones.” Jesus would not have needed more than a loaf, but with many loaves of bread He could have fed all the hungry in Jerusalem. Jesus did not come to open a food bank. Jesus responded, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”
The second temptation was about fame. Imagine what an impact Jesus would have had on His world if He had actually gone to the top of the temple to take a flying leap? The appearance of angels and the miraculous landing would have made Him the talk of the town. People would have come flocking to hear Him speak, and perhaps catch a glimpse of Him doing something else amazing. How many ministries focus on the impact they have in their cities and neighborhoods without caring about the message they are giving to the people? Jesus responded, “Again, it is written, ‘You shall not test the Lord, your God.’”
Finally, Satan tempted Jesus with power. If only Jesus would bow down to Satan, He could rule over all the nations of the world. Of course, this is a promise Satan can’t keep, even if Jesus would worship him. Jesus’ purpose was not control or power. It was not to be a worldly king. His purpose was to reveal the Kingdom of God in word and deed and then face the cross for our sake.
Jesus would eventually face all those temptations in His years of ministry. The people would demand to be fed, would seek Him for the miracles He could do and demand that He fight for the crown of Israel. He would refuse each time, keeping the focus of His ministry on what matters: God.
Jesus faced those same temptations when He was sent into the wilderness after His baptism, but He did not fall because saw through the lie. He did not seek to attain more and He stayed the course which God had given for Him. He answered the temptations with God’s Word. He walked to the cross because it was what God intended for Him to do. He didn’t reach beyond what He had because He knew He had everything. His obedience has secured the gift of life for all who believe. We have been healed by Jesus and washed clean so that we can dwell once more in the camp and in the fellowship of our Father and Creator.
Someone once said, “The difference between Christianity and every other faith in the world is that all other religions are about man trying to reach up to God. Christianity is about God reaching down to man.” God came in the form of Jesus Christ to overcome sin and death so that we can be reconciled with God. Though we are sinners, we are called to live in faith according to God’s good and perfect Word. We will be tempted, but even when our natural impulse wants to lead us another direction we can keep our eyes on the Creator who made us in His image. He has made it possible again to live as we were created to live.
Ever since that day in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word for that of the serpent and their own desires, we have suffered from the consequences of sin. We see it in our everyday lives. A small lie leads to bigger ones, bad habits lead to health problems, anger leads to violence, greed leads to thievery and lust leads to improper conduct. Some would like to believe that there are victimless sins, but all sin affects all people. We live in community in a fallen world. Everything we do will affect others.
Adam and Eve started a process. They may have been the first to turn away from God by listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but we continue to sin. The freedom we have to reason and make decisions also gives us the freedom to reject God and go our own way. In doing so, we find ourselves outside the camp, away from His fellowship. We are imperfect. We are frail. We are sinners. We need, more than anything else, a Savior.
Jesus Christ is that Savior. At the cross, He started a new process of mercy and forgiveness for those who believe. Unfortunately, the old process still exists in our flesh - we continue to be sinners even while we have been transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ. He keeps His grace freely flowing into our lives, granting forgiveness when we fail and showing us the better way. The process will not be complete until the day when He comes. Then, in that wonderful day, we will begin again and the things that make us imperfect will be gone forever.
In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who died because fell to the words of the tempter and Jesus who faced death without failing. Through Adam we have inherited the reality of sin and death; through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to another word and believed it more than God’s. Jesus never believed the lies of the tempter and stood firm in God’s Word. Paul draws these two stories together, comparing the trespass and the gift in todays epistle lesson. “So then as through one trespass, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness, all men were justified to life. For as through the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one, many will be made righteous.”
God has given us His Word and by His Word we can stand firm in His promises. When Satan tempts us, we need only turn to that which He has spoken through Israel and then finally through Jesus. Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness by proclaiming God’s Word. We can do the same.
We do a lot of things wrong. We sin against man and nature daily with our use and abuse of God’s creation. As we begin this Lenten season, many people are making choices about things they want to give up as a spiritual discipline. This is good; many people have discovered through Lenten fasting that the did not need those things that constantly tempted them in the past. Fasting can be a good and powerful discipline during Lent, but it is useless unless we also discover the real sin in our lives. The greatest sin, the original sin, is our desire to be god. We can’t overcome that sin with fasting or spiritual disciplines. Unless we face the truth that we are just like Adam and Eve, we’ll continue to trust the twisted words of the devil over the Word of our God.
In the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus to make His ministry and purpose on earth about doing good things for people, meeting their physical needs. He offered Jesus the chance to establish a powerful ministry to feed the hungry, draw people to Himself and rule over all the nations. To do so, however, Jesus had to ignore God’s Word, test God and turn from His true purpose. To achieve this great ministry, Jesus had to accept Satan’s word above God’s and turn from God to go His own way. This Jesus would not do. He answered the words of Satan with God’s Word. He got His strength from the scriptures.
Did God really say there is such a thing as sin? Sure, God’s grace is big enough to overcome sin; Jesus ensured forgiveness by His willingness to climb upon the cross and die. He reconciled us to our Father and God. Now, He calls us to repentance, encourages us to live holy lives of faith. There are things in this world that still tempt us. We are sinners, even while we are saints. We are men and women just like Adam and Eve who have heard God’s Word and twisted it to make it sound good to our ears.
Do not strive to control the material, spiritual or civil realms in your life, but trust in God to control them. He will give you the strength and courage and His Word to help you send the tempter away. Pursue a fast if that is what you are led to do, but consider the attitude with which you approach it. Are you sacrificing something to be more perfect, or are you becoming more like God created you to be? Those who live according to their own ways will see the consequences of self-centeredness; those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit.” This passage shows us the process of forgiveness. This first stage is perhaps the easiest; we say the words “I forgive you” often. But forgiveness requires much more. The psalmist says, “...whose sin is covered,” This is the second stage. This means that we stop focusing on the mistake but instead cover it with grace. The third step is probably the hardest: we forget the sin.
The psalmist says, “Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity.” He doesn’t hold on to the sin. We often say the words and cover the sin, but we eventually remember and use it against those who have sinned against us. When we get into a battle with someone, we bring up those old sins and remind our “enemy” of the things that they have done to hurt us in the past. God does not do that. When He grants forgiveness, He covers it with Christ’s righteousness and then forgets. It is by God’s grace that we are set free from the burdens of our sin and in this we rejoice.
As we begin our Lenten journey toward the cross with Jesus Christ, let’s remember the outcome of His journey. His death and ultimately His resurrection gave us forgiveness and eternal life. We are tempted constantly by the things of this world that want us to turn away from our God, and thankfully our God does not hold on to those sins. Now that we have been reconciled to Him, saved from sin and death, we are called to be like Him. The fasts and spiritual disciplines will be a great way to draw nearer to God. Spend time in the scriptures, writing God’s Word on your heart so that you can chase away the devil when he comes to tempt you.
We may be just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, making all the wrong choices, but thanks to Jesus Christ we are welcomed back into the presence of our Father. We no longer need to be afraid because He has given us everything we need to dwell with Him forever. In faith we can approach the throne of grace to worship Him, knowing that we don’t have to attain that which we have been given. God created us and He called us “good.” We may not be perfect, but remember that the journey we are on with our Lord Jesus Christ leads to forgiveness.
Unfortunately, our busy lives often make it impossible for us to perfectly keep the fasting and disciplines we choose, but do not let that discourage you. Whatever you decide to do throughout this season of Lent, remember that God’s grace is greater than our failure. If you break your fast, ask forgiveness and begin again. Do not let failure become an excuse to stop trying. We are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s the whole point of Lent, to realize that we need Jesus and His cross to be in relationship with our God. Begin each day as if it is a new day. Try and try again. Training is a process of growing. Let the discipline develop over the next few weeks so that it will continue long after Easter Sunday.
“As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ship, and they didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and one will be left; two women grinding at the mill, one will be taken and one will be left. Watch therefore, for you don’t know in what hour your Lord comes. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore also be ready, for in an hour that you don’t expect, the Son of Man will come.” Matthew 24:37-44, WEB
Christmas is easy to remember because it always happens on December 25th. Easter is much harder because it is a floating holy day. It can be as early as March 22nd and as late as April 25th. The timing of Easter has to do with the timing of Passover, although the Jewish month/moon cycles were not always in sync, so the Jews occasionally celebrated around a liturgical full moon rather than the actual full moon. To avoid confusion, the Church eventually established the pattern using the first full moon following March 21st, the Spring Equinox. This year Easter Sunday lands on April 16th.
We count backwards to find the other dates related to Easter. Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter. Count back six weeks from Easter to the First Sunday in Lent and then back to the Wednesday before for Ash Wednesday. This covers the forty days of Lent, minus the Sundays which count as mini Easters. Ash Wednesday occurs as early as February 4th and as late as March 10th.
I had an appointment following worship yesterday morning when I received my ashes. A lady arrived and saw my forehead and exclaimed, “Is today Ash Wednesday?” It seems the day has crept up on us, although that seems unbelievable because it was so late. Perhaps that’s exactly the reason it crept up on us. We have been so content celebrating the Epiphany that the thought of Lent has been in the back of our minds. Now, suddenly, it is here and we aren’t ready. I certainly wasn’t ready. It is already the second day of Lent and I have to admit that I’m still figuring out what I am doing as my spiritual disciplines during this time. I ordered several devotional books with the intent of using one, but one of them isn’t even going to arrive until tomorrow. I have started a painting, but I don’t even know what I plan to paint. I am struggling with choosing something to fast for the next six weeks. I definitely wasn’t ready for Ash Wednesday.
It is good to follow the Lenten disciplines, to join in the repentance and spiritual growth that can come from fasting, prayer and study during these six weeks. However, they aren’t to be understood as duty or as a requirement for God’s grace. They are choices we make to become better Christians, not actions that will win us special benefit from God. We might not have been ready for Ash Wednesday and Lent, but God will forgive our imperfect keeping of these spiritual fasts, practices and disciplines.
The text for today reminds us that there is something for which we should be ready. Jesus warned His disciples that no one will know the time when the Son of Man will come. He gave them this warning so that they will be prepared in heart and mind for the time. Unexpected circumstances will test us as we wait for the coming of our Lord. As the day grows closer, Satan will become more desperate to deceive the children of God. His tactics will become harder to detect and false doctrine will pass between Christians more easily.
Jesus told his disciples to keep watch for the time of His coming. They would be prepared if they lived as He commanded them to live, in love of God and one another. As we enter into Lent there are many things we can do to prepare for Holy Week, but the best we can do is fix our eyes and our hearts on Jesus. Then we will be ready not only for the coming days of this Lenten season, but for the promised coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his lord has set over his household, to give them their food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his lord finds doing so when he comes. Most certainly I tell you that he will set him over all that he has. But if that evil servant should say in his heart, ‘My lord is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eat and drink with the drunkards, the lord of that servant will come in a day when he doesn’t expect it, and in an hour when he doesn’t know it, and will cut him in pieces, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. There is where the weeping and grinding of teeth will be.” Matthew 24:45-51, WEB
We’ve all seen too many videos captured by nanny cams or other video surveillance that makes us ill. One friend posted a video of a woman kicking a small child who then fell down a couple steps. Other videos show convalescent workers abusing patients or men doing terrible harm to women and children. There is, of course, the multitude of videos showing cock or dog fighting and other animal abuse. All these videos make us cry out for justice for the victims. Sadly, too many of those moments lead to death.
The cameras are often hidden, so the perpetrator has no idea that they are being videotaped. They become angry and abusive when they believe they won’t be caught, especially when they don’t expect someone to come home early. Experts suggest that parents occasionally arrive earlier than normal to make sure everything is going well in a home setting or even at a day care. It is best to surprise someone when you suspect that they aren’t doing the job you’ve hired them to do. Unfortunately, in some circumstances, people do know the abuse is happening, but they are afraid to intercede or they are willing to be accomplices. This leaves the victim without hope.
It is hard because accusations can be false. There are often no videos to show what has happened and no proof except for their testimony. The perpetrators hide it well. They are usually the height of propriety when there are witnesses. Yet it is when they are behind closed doors that the bad things happened.
Imagine being the servant in today’s lesson. What would you do if the Master was late in coming? Would you continue to treat the other servants well, or would you take advantage of the circumstances? Would you become angry and frustrated because the Master was tardy? Dwight Moody once said, “Character is what you are in the dark.” Unfortunately, even among Christians, it is easy for us to fall into sin while we wait. After all, it has been more than two thousand years! Is Jesus ever really going to return?
Sadly, throughout the history of the Church there have been times when those whom Christ has appointed have not served Him well. There are dark times when Christians took advantage of the circumstances, abusing people whom they were called to serve. Too many of those horrors were carried out in the name of Jesus, even though they were not things Jesus would have wanted His people to do. Even today there are some who claim faith while acting against God’s Word, leading others down the wrong path. Jesus will come again. What will He find? Will He find us living as He has called us to live, or will He catch us abusing those in our care?
The Gospels are filled with forgiveness; after all, that’s why Jesus came. But we are reminded that there are consequences for the way we treat others while we live and serve Him in this world. Even those called to care for God’s people have been known to take advantage of His tardiness. It isn’t just abuse. How many leaders give false hope? Teach false doctrine? Force followers to do the unthinkable? We don’t know what will happen to them in the day of Jesus’ return, but let us remember that the Light will always reveal our character even in the dark. What do we want Jesus to see when He comes? That’s how we should live even when it seems like He won’t come again soon.
“You are my witnesses,” says Yahweh, “With my servant whom I have chosen; that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he. Before me there was no God formed, neither will there be after me. I myself am Yahweh; and besides me there is no savior. I have declared, I have saved, and I have shown; and there was no strange god among you. Therefore you are my witnesses”, says Yahweh, “and I am God. Yes, since the day was I am he; and there is no one who can deliver out of my hand. I will work, and who can hinder it?” Isaiah 43:10-13
Phillips Brooks was the nineteenth century Episcopal preacher who penned the song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He was highly influential in the church in his day and many of his sermons have been published. In Lectures on Preaching” he said, “There is a power which lies at the centre of all success in preaching, and whose influence reaches out to the circumference, and is essential everywhere. Without its presence we cannot imagine the most brilliant talents making a preacher of the Gospel in the fullest sense. Where it is largely present it is wonderful how many deficiencies count for nothing. It has the characteristics which belong to all the most essential powers. It is able to influence the whole life as one general and pervading motive; and it can also press on each particular action with peculiar force. Under its compulsion a man first becomes a preacher, and every sermon that he preaches is more or less consciously shaped by its pressure; as the whole round world and each round atom are shaped and held in shape by the same laws. Without this power preaching is almost sure to become either a struggle of ambition or a burden of routine. With it preaching is an ever fresh delight. The power is the value of the human soul, felt by the preacher, and inspiring all his work.”
The Lord God Almighty, who was, is and will be, has placed great value on the human soul. Not only did He come in the flesh to live and die so that we will have eternal life in Him, but He also has chosen each of us to be a witness to His greatness. God, our Lord and King, has called you to share your story. You may not think you have anything to say, however your story testifies to the love of Christ.
We have been saved by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ. He is the one and only Savior, without Him we would still be under the curse of sin and death. We have been given a glorious gift, the promise of life with Him that can never be taken from us. As children of the Most High God, we are given a great responsibility. We are His witnesses, called to share the message of Jesus Christ with the world. Every human soul has value and as heirs to the Kingdom, a royal priesthood, we should desire that all would know His lifesaving grace and mercy.
Trust in God as you journey into Today; remember His presence is with and in you. There is nothing in this world, either physical or spiritual, that can take Him away from you. As you walk in His light, shine for all to see. Tell your story, be a witness and remember that the human souls to whom you speak are valuable to God. Treat every person with the same love and mercy that God has given to you.
“Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:30-31, WEB
I love to visit museums. I have memberships at a couple of the art museums, and I often find myself visiting local sites when I travel. Some of them are very unusual and quite interesting. Who would have ever thought you could find a museum dedicated to toilet seats? It is true, and it is here in San Antonio. Barney Smith is a master plumber who enjoys art. Following his father’s example of hanging plaques and trophies on the wall, Barney decided to use discarded toilet seats decorations. He covers the seats in paint and trinkets, each one is unique.
Texas has its fair share of unusual museums. There is a Cockroach Museum in Plano, a National Museum of Funerary History in Houston, and a Barbed Wire Museum in McLean. I’m sure we could find similar museums all over the country. These are the fun places that you stop on a road trip that make you wonder about the people who choose to collect and display such unusual things.
I read a quip in Reader’s Digest this morning under the heading, “A Reason to be Optimistic,” which listed this fact: There are more museums in the United States than there are McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. That seems impossible! I don’t know about your town, but there’s a McDonald’s or Starbucks on nearly every street corner. Yet, when you think about it, there are also many museums in my town, far more than just the strange and unusual.
I recently attended an exhibit of aboriginal art. It was a private collection that had been donated to the museum. It was the first, and probably the only time, that the collection would be seen as a whole. After the exhibit is over, the pieces will be put into storage. They will try to find a place to put a few on display and will switch the pieces over time, but sadly most of this art will be hidden away in a warehouse along with thousands of other pieces. There just isn’t enough room for all the pieces to be on display always. Most museums have similar warehouses and they choose the best pieces or a good variety of pieces to tell the best story.
Israel is filled with places to see how Jesus impacted this world. Can you imagine what a museum put together by Jesus’ disciples might look like? They might include baskets of bread and fish, mud and water from the Pool of Siloam, jugs of ceremonial water turned to wine. What might you include? There are so many ideas that come out of the Gospels that it would be difficult for any museum to house it all. I suppose that’s why today’s passage is one of my favorites. The Gospels give us as much information as they could, but there is so much more that is hidden away “in storage.” Every museum has a purpose, just as the Gospels have a purpose. The Evangelists tell us a story, His story, the best they can, but there is so much more that we could know.
The most important thing for us to remember is that they tell the stories of Jesus so that we will believe that Jesus is the Son of God and through Him we have life. Whatever we would put in our Jesus museum, each item should point to the grace and mercy of God has revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ. Ultimately, we will choose the things that meant the most to us, the things that have impacted our lives personally, the things that Jesus did and said with which we can most identify. His story becomes our story, and our story acts as a witness to those who are still searching for Light and Truth.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 12, 2017, Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-8, 13-17; John 3:1-17
“So Abram went, as Yahweh had told him.” Genesis 12:4a, WEB
It was a voice out of the blue. Abram grew up under the religious practices of Ur. He worshipped the gods and goddesses of Ancient Mesopotamia. He followed his father to Harran, whose people worshipped the same gods by different names. They worshipped the gods of the sun, moon and other created things. Out of that faith, Abram heard a voice and though it was different from anything he knew, he believed. He was an old man at the time, seventy-five. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Abram believed and he did as God told him. His faith is credited to him as righteousness.
We often think that Paul was referring to Abraham’s faith when he took his son Isaac to the altar of sacrifice. That was certainly the most painful act of obedience a father can do. Yet, Abraham’s whole life was changed when he believed that strange voice that came to him out of the blue. Would you decide to leave everything you know behind to follow God into the unknown?
We like to believe that we would do so, especially those of us who have been actively living our faith for a long time. Yet, I suspect most of us would be a bit more like Nicodemus. We would want to believe, but our uncertainty would keep us from doing so in a public way. There was something about Jesus that intrigued Nicodemus; something he heard impacted him. He wanted to know more, but he wasn’t willing to take a risk. So, he went to Jesus at night, in the dark.
We hear about Nicodemus three times in the book of John. Today’s Gospel lesson is the first time. In the second story from John 7, the chief priests and the Pharisees were concerned about the way Jesus was speaking in the Temple and they sent officers to arrest Him. His words were believed by some and rejected by others. Even the officers were divided. They went back to the chief priests and Pharisees without Him and when question said, “No man ever spoke like this man!” The leaders wondered if the officers had even been led astray. Nicodemus stepped up and said, “Does our law judge a man, unless it first hears from him personally and knows what he does?” They called Nicodemus foolish. “Are you also from Galilee? Search, and see that no prophet has arisen out of Galilee.”
In that story, Nicodemus does not confess faith in Jesus. He doesn’t even claim that he believes Him. He does, however, act as an advocate. It isn’t fair to condemn a man on the word of witnesses alone. He simply wanted the leaders to hear Jesus and judge for themselves.
Finally, Nicodemus makes one last appearance. In John 19, after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathaea sought permission to take down the body and have it entombed. Nicodemus also went and took a large amount of myrrh and aloes for preparing the body.
Each time Nicodemus is mentioned, John notes that this was the man who first went to Jesus at night. Had Nicodemus found the light? Did he believe? Did he ever truly confess his faith in Jesus? He never does so in words, but he seems to do so in action. We are left wondering about his faith. In time, Nicodemus is made a saint. This is an apocryphal gospel attributed to him. It is likely that he believed, but we can’t know for sure without a public confession.
There was a time when this distinction became very important. Things were difficult for Christians in the middle ages. English history shows the church is dominated between Catholic and Protestant for many years. The same is true in other places around Europe. Unfortunately, those who followed the other religion often risked severe punishment. Many martyrs were made in those days. At the time, a disparaging term came into use, thought to have been introduced by John Calvin. It was the term “Nicodemite” which referred to someone who is suspected of misrepresenting their actual religious beliefs by exhibiting false appearances and concealing true beliefs. Calvin considered his lack of public confession and act of duplicity and originally referred to hidden Protestants in a Catholic environment, but was later used in opposite cases.
So, are you a Nicodemite? Are you one who believes but you would rather not take the risk by making too public a confession of your faith? Do you seek Jesus in the dark, or perhaps on Sunday morning, but keep Him hidden from the rest of your life? Do you suggest that your neighbors think twice before condemning faith, while never really admitting to it? Do you quietly serve Jesus in the background while never really being seen as an active, faithful disciple? I think a great many of us can say “Yes” to these questions. Perhaps you are as troubled by them as I am. Do I really have to wear my faith on my sleeve to be a faithful Christian?
I think the question here is not so much about being blatant with our faith, but rather whether or not we are willing to take the risk of revealing ourselves as believers. It is easy to stand for Christ in church or in our families, but do we do so in our jobs? Do we risk rejection by our neighbors by being a witness to the Gospel in our conversations? Do we believe with our mouths as much as we believe in our hearts?
I think we identify with Nicodemus in another way. He was a learned man of God, likely quite wealthy and well positioned. He was part of the Sanhedrin, a respected member of the ruling class. Jesus intrigued him, so he went to listen to more of what He had to say. But His words didn’t make any sense. They were so different than what he knew. Jesus was talking about something that didn’t exist in his religious convictions. We listen to Jesus’ words and we wonder how Nicodemus could have such doubts. He was standing in the presence of the Savior! How could he not believe? Should he have been like Abram?
The lectionary often gives us this type of comparisons. Last week it was between Adam and Jesus. This week it is between Abraham and Nicodemus. We want to believe we are more like Jesus, but in reality we are just like Adam. We think we are good, but we will never be sinless like Jesus. We want to be faithful like Abraham, but most of us are more like Nicodemus. We believe, but we aren’t quite ready to walk away from everything we know into the unknown.
The confidence with which Abram entered into his journey required seeing the world through the eyes of faith. Abraham saw things differently and he left his old life to follow God into something new. Paul writes, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.” He was not blessed because he was doing the right things or because he was obeying the right laws. Abram was blessed because he believed God and followed His voice. Abraham was made the father of many nations by the one in whom He believed. The God of Abraham, the God in whom we also believe, brought a nation out of one man who walked in faith.
As we turn back to the Gospel narrative about Nicodemus, we can see that there must have been a similar seed of faith or flicker of the Spirit in the heart of this Pharisee. It is easy for us to get caught up in seeing the negative aspects of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus. He came at night, he questioned Jesus’ words. Yet, Nicodemus did not come asking questions or testing Jesus, he came because he had seen something that he wanted to understand.
Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” This is a confession of faith, however shallow it might be. There was something there in Nicodemus’ heart and he went on a journey. It was a frightful pilgrimage because he was going into the unknown. This is a journey that leads to life, a journey we all travel.
God’s promises were misunderstood by Jesus’ time. Instead of trusting in God, the people trusted in their own righteousness. They believed that they deserved the blessings they received from God. They boasted of their relationship with God based on who they were and what they did. They believed that they were right with God because they could point to a blood relationship with Abraham, but they lost touch with the reality of God’s word and grace.
Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didn’t understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didn’t have the heart connection. His faith was still in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed faith in Jesus, but Jesus knew that it was not complete, that it was upside down and backwards thinking.
Jesus answered his confession, “Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see God’s Kingdom.” Jesus was talking about faith. He was telling Nicodemus that his earthly birth and that faith had nothing to do with the ties that bind us to the earth. You have to be born again, in heart and in spirit.
The conversation continued as Jesus tried to explain the deeper things of God. He told Nicodemus about new birth and about the anointing of the Spirit of God, but he couldn’t see these things beyond the thinking that had been conditioned by his religious and cultural point of view. To him, birth happens once and righteousness comes from the law. He knew Jesus came from God but he couldn’t understand the deeper purposes of His life and His future death. Jesus pointed to the cross in this passage, telling this Pharisee that He would be lifted up in death to bring life for those who believe. It is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused; this was a very radical revelation for the Jews.
Yet, that very story of Moses lifting the serpent should have helped Nicodemus understand. He would have been very familiar of the story of Israel in the desert. They had sinned against God by not trusting Him, and He sent the snakes into the camp. Many died. When the people cried out to Moses, God told him to make a bronze serpent and place it where everyone in the camp could see. They were to look at it when they were bitten and they would be healed. God did not remove the snakes from the camp, but gave them a way to be saved. He did not take away the sin of this world, but gave us Jesus so we would be saved. When we fail, we need only look up at Jesus and we’ll be healed. We are not blessed with salvation, heaven or eternal life because of what we do or who we are. We are blessed because we have been born from above, thanks to Jesus.
This is still a radical revelation for many people. We still believe that we’ll get the blessing of God based on our works, our attitude and our qualifications. When we say, “She (or he) deserves to be blessed,” we are thinking from the same frame of reference as those Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. We speak of our loved ones deserving heaven because we know they lived good lives and did the right things. We pray for our neighbors to be blessed because they are good people. We thank God for graciously rewarding our good works but do not understand that we are seeing God’s grace from the wrong point of view. God doesn’t bless us because we have been a blessing. We are blessed so that we’ll be a blessing to others.
God didn’t send Jesus because we deserve to be saved; the reality is quite the contrary. God gave us Jesus because He loves us. Because we’ve been blessed by the saving grace of Christ’s blood, we are also been given to the world so that others will know Him and be saved. It is tempting to think that we deserve heaven, especially if we have done something extraordinary. But Jesus is calling us to look at it differently. We have been promised eternity in heaven not because we deserve it but so that we’ll live lives of thanksgiving and praise to God, blessing others with acts that come from faith. We get to go to heaven because we trust in God’s word and His promises, faithfully living in the reality of His faithfulness.
We don’t know the whole story of Nicodemus. It is possible that he became a bold witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ although it is more likely that he remained a Nicodemite since his story is silent after taking the myrrh and aloe to the tomb. There are not even any myths or legends surrounding his life and death.
It is enough to believe in your heart. God is faithful even when we are not bold or passionate about Jesus. Yet, as we walk our Lenten journey, we have to ask ourselves if we are willing to take the risk of openly following Jesus. Are we willing to allow Jesus to turn our upside down and backwards thinking right? Will we stay in the dark or let our light shine? We have been blessed to be a blessing, and the best way to be a blessing is to be a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Jesus we follow during our Lenten journey this year presents us with some incredible things to believe. Last week we were encouraged to trust God’s word above everything. This week we are faced with the question of the depth of our faith and our willingness to take risk. In the next few weeks we’ll hear the stories of the women at the well, the man born blind and Lazarus. Jesus will show us that He knows our hearts, that He can heal us and that He can raise us from the dead. In all these stories, Jesus was not just providing healing for the outside, but a new life in their hearts.
Our text for today includes John 3:16, one of the most beloved words of God and it is easy for us to focus on it. Anyone who has ever seen a football game on television has seen signs raised above the crowds beseeching people to believe in God. Though they may not be able to quote the verse word-for-word, even non-Christians know what it says. It is the foundation of our faith. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” I’ve known pastors who have inserted this verse into many of their sermons even when it is not part of the passages for the day because it means so much to them.
This is a favorite passage because it shows both God’s gospel and man’s response. God loves and if we believe, we will not die. Yet, John 3:16 should not be taken without the next verse. “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him...” We like to think of God in terms of love, and love He is. However, it is not love that saves us. Love is the reason why we are saved, but it is not our salvation. Forgiveness saves us.
There is a painting that shows Jesus on the outside of a closed door with no handle. He’s knocking, and wants us to let him in. Many people have interpreted that to mean that we should open the door, invite Jesus inside, and make Him a part of our life. However, the scripture on which is based, Revelation 3, is written to the people who are already Christians. It is a message to the Church at Laodicea, whose people have forgotten their first love. We can only invite Jesus into our hearts because He is already there. He snuck in by the back door, and when we heard the knocking (or the voice) He whispered, “Trust. Answer. Everything’s good.” That’s what happened with Abram. God was already there, so when he heard the voice, he trusted, answered. And in the end, everything was good.
Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didn’t understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didn’t have the heart connection. He still believed in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed that he knew Jesus was who He said He was, but Jesus knew that his thinking was upside down and backwards. I think that in some way we are all a little like Nicodemus. We know that Jesus is from God, but we have a hard time truly understanding. We still think we can open the door and that we deserve God’s blessing because of our works. Jesus calls us to a life turned upside down where we trust Him enough to believe what He has said and to risk everything to go into the unknown.
The psalmist understood the fears of the journey and the assurance found in God’s grace. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.” The question is answered with the assurance that God will keep his going out and coming in from this time on forevermore. Such a promise would give anyone the confidence to go forth into the unknown. Somehow Abram must have had such assurance, a seed of faith or a flicker of the Spirit. He could journey forward with confidence if he knew that the God who was leading him into the unknown could guard and protect him through every difficulty.
The psalmist writes, “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” Abraham left behind a world where the people thought the gods of the sun and moon could destroy a human being just because they felt like it. What a great promise! Trust in God gives us the assurance that the gods of this world have no power over our lives. “Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.” Our God will walk with us on our journey.
Abram didn’t know anything about God. He followed a different religion which worshipped a multitude of gods they thought would meet their daily needs. He heard a voice that told him to pack up his entire life, leave everything he knew and loved behind to travel to a place he did not know. The voice promised Abram that his name would be so great, that he would be so blessed, and that everyone would be dealt with, good and bad, according to their relationship with Abram.
If you heard a voice like this, what would you do? In today’s modern age, everyone around you would say you were crazy. They might even lock you up. We don’t know how Abram’s family and friends reacted; perhaps they threatened to do the same thing. It didn’t matter to Abram. He packed up his life and he went into the wilderness following a voice that he trusted. It took faith to leave the past behind and go into the world chasing after a promise. Abram was righteous from the very beginning. He had a right relationship with God from the moment he heard his voice. Abram’s righteousness did not come from his work; he was righteous because he believed. Through it all, God was faithful to His promises.
From where does our help come? Jesus calls us to look at the world through the eyes of faith, to trust that God has done exactly what He promised to do. It comes from the God who loves us and who has given His own Son to save us from our own failures. It comes not because we deserve it but because God has promised and is faithful. So, during this Lenten journey, let us be transformed by the journey, trusting in God and His amazing grace. We may feel more like Nicodemus than Abram, but we need not hide in the dark. God calls us out of the world we know away from the gods that have no power. Hear God’s voice and follow Him wherever He may lead, for it is there that you will be the blessing His has blessed you to be.
“The multitude rose up together against them, and the magistrates tore their clothes off of them, and commanded them to be beaten with rods. When they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely, who, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and secured their feet in the stocks. But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were loosened. The jailer, being roused out of sleep and seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here!’ He called for lights, sprang in, fell down trembling before Paul and Silas, brought them out, and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household. They spoke the word of the Lord to him, and to all who were in his house. He took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes, and was immediately baptized, he and all his household. He brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his household, having believed in God.” Acts 16:22-34, WEB
I was once talking to a non-believer who wanted to know why he should believe in Jesus. He told me stories of his experiences with Christians, stories of hypocrites who did not act as if they were changed. “They are just like everyone else.” He told of a time when he was driving on a highway. There was a speeding car, weaving in and out of the traffic, which nearly caused several accidents. He told me he was shocked to see an “I love Jesus” bumper sticker on the car. “Is that Christian love, to be in such a rush that the driver risked the lives of others?” He didn’t want anything to do with it.
It is hard to overcome such an attitude, particularly with statements like “We aren’t perfect, we are forgiven.” To a non-believer, that’s a cop-out. We are supposed to be known by our love, our testimony, and our faith. When our lives show the same traits as non-believers - hurried, frazzled, uncaring, angry, bitter, foolish - they won’t even want to hear the Gospel of salvation by the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. It is when they see Christ in us that they ask about our faith. Though we know we are forgiven of our hypocrisy, we should strive to be the best witnesses we can be so that those who do not know Jesus will want to know Him.
Paul was that type of Christian. The book of Acts gives an accounting of Paul’s journeys as a missionary. Whatever he did pointed at Christ and caused those around him to want to know more. When he healed, he did not allow the witnesses to believe he was anything other than a man. He gave all the credit to God. When he was being beaten, he rejoiced in the love of God. When he was persecuted, he stood firm in the Gospel of Christ Jesus. He did not live a life of hypocrisy, and many came to believe because they saw a man willing to actively live in the faith he was given, no matter the circumstances. He had been transformed, and that new Paul made an awesome witness to the love and mercy of God. They were willing to listen, because he responded to the Gospel with his whole life.
Paul and Silas were unjustly imprisoned, but spend their time praising God. When the violent earthquake set all the prisoners free, they could have easily taken off into the night and freedom. Paul and Silas could have even claimed it to be an act of God setting them free from the bondage of injustice. Yet, they stayed. They saved the life of the one who imprisoned them. The witness they gave at that moment was far greater than the power of God that set them free. They showed the jailer they were concerned for his life. He was amazed that they did not run away. He wanted what they had. So, they shared the Gospel and he was saved along with his entire household. He cared for them, cleaned their wounds and fed them.
It is difficult to answer when non-Christians ask me questions like the young man who was disturbed by the actions of a Christian driver during rush hour. There is no excuse for that type of behavior no matter who is behind the wheel of the car. Yet, it is my prayer that whenever I am faced with such questions that my life will be a witness to the love and mercy of Christ, so that those who do not know Him will be willing to ask about my faith. Then I can give a testimony they will hear and come to believe in the one who saves us from our sin.
“Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Don’t be idolaters, as some of them were. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.’ Let us not commit sexual immorality, as some of them committed, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell. Let us not test Christ, as some of them tested, and perished by the serpents. Don’t grumble, as some of them also grumbled, and perished by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall. No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:6-13, WEB
I needed to find an old photograph for my Lent photo challenge. I have a story I want to tell, and I’m sure I took pictures of the place when we lived in England. I still have all my old photographs, so it is possible I could find the perfect one to use. Unfortunately, though my photos are well stored, they aren’t very organized. I have thousands of photos, all stacked neatly in plastic boxes, but in no particular order. It doesn’t help that I have duplicates of most of them and too many of the photos aren’t even very good.
I should try to put the photos into a better order, remove the extras and discard the bad ones. In the past, the process of looking through these photos took hours. It is an overwhelming activity, and though I managed to look through every box, I never even tried to organize them. I knew it would be just as overwhelming today, and I didn’t have the time to go through every box. I spent an hour and barely even started. I found a couple postcards, but I knew I couldn’t waste much time. Still, I became very distracted by the photos and postcards, remembering the trips, smiling at the life moments and even holding a few to scan to make them easier to find later.
We all have had this experience. We get distracted by something we are doing which keeps us from doing what we really need to do. How many of us have started to surf the Internet only to discover an hour has passed and we havent gotten a thing done around the house? Have you run into the store to get just one thing, but get distracted by shelves full of many other things? Have you watched a child clean their room, spending time playing with every toy they try to put away?
We are easily distracted, tempted away from the things we should do by other things. They aren’t necessarily bad. I have to admit that my hour in the photo boxes was a joy as I walked down memory lane. I have found excellent articles as I’ve surfed the Internet and new products to try as I have wandered in the grocery store. Every child manages to find an old toy that becomes a renewed favorite that had been lost in the bottom of the toy box.
Yet, those distractions can keep us from something even better. This is especially true when it comes to the things that distract us from our God. We get so caught up in the things of this world that we don’t stop to pay attention to what God is saying to us. The distractions are not always bad things. The temptations Jesus faced in the desert were not bad. Shouldn’t a hungry man feed Himself? Shouldn’t Jesus seek the widest audience for His preaching? He is King, shouldn’t He rule over the whole world? The trouble is that the devil was tempting Him with good things to keep Him from God’s plan. We can get similarly distracted, but we are reminded that when we do, God is faithful. So, let’s keep our eyes on Jesus and follow Him in all that we do. He’ll keep our focus right where it needs to be, on our God.
“For I know that Yahweh is great, that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever Yahweh pleased, that he has done, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps; who causes the clouds to rise from the ends of the earth; who makes lightnings with the rain; who brings the wind out of his treasuries.” Psalm 135:5-7, WEB
One of my favorite childhood memories is of hanging outside on warm summer evenings. We didn't have fences, so we were able to play flashlight tag using the whole block as our field. We swam in the pool after dark. We sat on the porch until late telling stories and laughing at jokes. Best of all, however, was watching the lightning. We don't see very many these days, though there are a few in Texas. We experience the same joy when we go home to visit family and friends in Pennsylvania.
I still recall the first time we took the children back to Pennsylvania during the summer. We sat on the front porch enjoying the warm summer evening, watching the world go by. As the sun began to set, we began to see those flashes of yellow light here and there in the field. The lightning bugs were waking for the evening. The kids had never seen them, so they were fascinated by the light show. We ran out into the field to try to catch some, to see what they looked like up close and to feel them tickle as they climb on our hands.
As I lay in bed that night, I watched the lightning bugs outside our window. The show was beautiful, flashing yellow spots all over the night sky. I wondered about the purpose of these fascinating little creatures. Worms make good dirt, butterflies and bees pollinate the plants. Even termites perform a service in the forest by helping fallen trees decay. Yet, lightning bugs seem to have no practical purpose. They also do not destroy anything. Larvae and caterpillars often kill the trees on which they feed, and a termite can bring a house down. Lightning bugs don’t do anything but light up the night sky, as if they were created simply for our pleasure.
I have learned that lightning bugs are beneficial. The lightning bug contains luciferin and luciferase, two rare chemicals used in research on cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease. This purpose is hidden from us as they light up the fields in the dark, but they may have been created so that the medical researchers can accomplish something extraordinary. Whether the scientists have success or not, lightning bugs are definitely not useless. They bring joy to our hearts; perhaps God created them just to put a smile on our faces.
Have you ever wondered about the value of your own life in this world? We wander from job to job or work in some career for years. We marry and have children, enjoy the simple pleasures of life. And yet we often wonder, “Why did God put me here? Why now? What is the purpose of my life?” For many the answers do not come and they wander through this world unsatisfied with their life. They think they are useless. Yet, our purpose is sometimes hidden from us, too. We may not realize that God has created us to bring healing or joy to someone we will never know.
As followers of Jesus Christ, it may seem as though we do not have a purpose, but we know that the LORD is great and He does what pleases Him. Though it may seem to the world that our existence is pointless, He makes wonderful things happen in and through our lives. He created the world, and especially mankind, to glorify Him. He gives us the gifts and the opportunities to do things that will bring Him joy. It may be as simple giving a glass of cold water with a thirsty child or sharing the Gospel with someone longing for a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. We are like lightning bugs to Him, flashing in the darkness to bring joy to those who see.
“He sat down, and called the twelve; and he said to them, ‘If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.’ He took a little child, and set him in the middle of them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me.’” Mark 9:35-37, WEB
There is an organization in town that helps children who have been abused. Each year they have a day of awareness, to help spread the word that we can help those children in many ways. The organization provides counseling and referral services. They help the families deal with issues that lead to abuse. They encourage caregivers to do what must be done for the sake of the children. They help in some very tangible ways, such as giving backpacks when it is time to go back to school and gifts at Christmastime. They always have books and stuffed animals available to give to the children. Those small gifts help the children experience the love that they may not feel even at home.
They have a program called “Cardboard Kids.” They provide cardboard cutouts in the shape of children, which are then decorated by the recipient. Over the past two weeks, they have given out over 15,000 cutouts to individuals, businesses and organizations. I worked for two hours last weekend and gave cutouts to a lady for a nursing home, some for an elementary school and yet others for a law enforcement group. In a few weeks those thousands of cardboard kids will appear around the city, on street corners and grocery stores. They will grace the windows of businesses in strip malls and the halls of schools. The kids have information stickers that explain about child abuse for all those who see them. We are also supposed to share our kids on social media to reach an even wider audience.
I picked up four cardboard kids. I’m hoping that my boys will be able to place them at work. I have thought about putting them in the garden of my house. I might find somewhere to have lunch and leave it in the booth. I spent time at the craft store today buying materials to decorate my kids. I use scrapbook paper for clothes and yarn for hair. Their faces will have googly eyes and great big smiles.
There was a mother and a child in the paper aisle as I considered the hundreds of choices before me. The daughter, about five, was very impatient. She wanted to pick paper, but the mother had a specific purpose for which she was shopping. I asked if the little girl could help me. I asked her what kind of dress she might like to wear. “Pick your favorite and I’ll decorate my cardboard kid with it.” I even asked her mother if she minded if I named my kid after her daughter. The little girl had fun moving from one rack to another, searching for the perfect “material” for a dress. She came back with three pieces. It was an interesting choice, but I told her that it would become a very pretty dress and I thanked her. Meanwhile her mother finished her shopping and they moved on.
Jesus loves the little children. Most kids in this world do not need the kind of help needed for those facing some sort of abuse. But every child needs us to love them, even if it is in the simplest of ways. That mother certainly did not need my help, and I wouldn’t have done it without her permission. Yet, I think the little girl left happy and encouraged. We don’t have to do anything grand to help the children in the world. We just have to love them as Jesus loves us.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 19, 2017, Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:1-9; Romans 5:1-8; John 4:5-26 (27-30, 39-42)
“Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; 2 through whom we also have our access by faith into this grace in which we stand. We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1,WEB
Why did Jesus wait alone at the well? John tells us that He was tired from the journey, but I can’t imagine that He was any more tired than the rest of the disciples. Couldn’t they have sent one or two disciples to get food while they others waited outside the city? Even if they needed more hands, why did they leave Jesus alone? At the beginning of the chapter, John tells us that Jesus knew the Pharisees were beginning to question His ministry. They’d heard that His disciples were more popular than John the Baptist, so Jesus left Jerusalem for a time.
Jesus and the disciples were going from Jerusalem to Galilee. The typical route for traveling Jews was the long way around so as to avoid encounters with the Samaritans. Most travelers would cross the Jordan and walk on the east bank so as to not be made unclean by those who were half-breeds: partly Jewish and partly Gentile. They took the short cut, which led right through Sychar, the site of Jacob’s Well. John gives us these details for a purpose. Jesus’ tiredness and thirst reminds us of His humanity. The Well reminds us of His heritage. The encounter is just the first of many that will identify Jesus as divine.
We see in this story a divine appointment. Jesus was there at the well and alone so that He could have this encounter with the woman. Jesus had no reason to be there. She was alone. With no witnesses, he could do anything to her. She could be raped or killed. She could disappear, and no one would know the difference or worse: no one would even care. Her presence at the well at such an odd hour meant she was fodder for persecution. She was bold enough to approach the well when there was just one man, but a gathering of twelve or more would have been frightening.
She didn’t know this was a divine appointment. She was chosen, out of all the women, to be the one to take the Good News of God’s Kingdom to her people. Odd choice, considering she was an outcast. We learn during her conversation that she’s been the wife of five husbands and she’s currently living with a man who is not her husband. Whatever the reason, she waits until the heat of the day to go to the well. By the sixth hour, or noontime, the well’s water would be stale and muddy. The other women attend to that daily chore early in the morning when the silk has settled overnight and the water is cool.
The trip to the well was more than a chore for the women, though. It was a time to socialize, to gather gossip, perhaps trade recipes. It was a time for the women to bond, to complain about their husbands, to share their hopes. Not only did the woman at the well have to deal with dirty water, she missed the companionship of the other women. Did she go later in the day because she was unwelcome? Or was she embarrassed by her circumstances and chose to avoid the women. Either way, I doubt she was interested in meeting a man at the well, especially a man like Jesus.
Jesus was there waiting for her and the encounter changed her life. This is a long story, nearly a whole chapter of John’s Gospel, but as we read it we discover this is a conversation that lasts only a few moments. Yet, in that time Jesus not only transformed her, He planted the seeds for many others to believe. Her faith, built on just a few questions and answers, was shared with many in her village and then spread among the people of Samaria. When the disciples dispersed into the world to continue Jesus’ ministry, they found that Samaria already believed because faith in Jesus was established during this brief encounter.
Her faith did not come easily. She was hesitant at the beginning. He reached her by asking her for the one thing she could give, water from the well. She was probably not given many opportunities to help her neighbors. There is such joy and fulfillment in doing something for others, and because of her history or her present, she has been left out. In this encounter, though, she seemed uncertain about whether or not she wanted a relationship. She responded with a question. “Who are you that you would speak to me?”
Listen to the tone of the woman’s answers to Jesus. She is very distant, uninterested, and perhaps even afraid. She is surprised that He would have anything to do with her. When He offers her a drink, she is offended and becomes defensive, wondering how He could offer her anything better than her forefather, Jacob. She becomes interested when she hears that the water will make her life better. She won’t suffer thirst and is willing to believe that He can provide it. She humbly admits her failing when He asks her to bring her husband, and she is amazed when He can provide details that she does not give. Her fear of a strange man turns into respect for a prophet in just a few sentences. Then He spoke the promise of God into her life and revealed Himself as the One for whom they had been waiting. In this encounter, Jesus moved her from fear to hope to faith. Whatever her failings, she experienced the presence of God.
The Israelites were on a difficult journey. They had cried out for the salvation of the LORD in Egypt, hoping that He would deliver them from the life of slavery. Once they were on that journey, however, they began to think that the life they had in Egypt was better than the uncertainty of where they would get their next drink. They were thirsty, and their thirst was all they could think about. Imagine what it must have been like having a million people camping in the desert with no source for water.
We might think that this story happened sometime during the forty years of wandering, but this was before they even arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai, only weeks after they left Egypt. They were still being tested; they were still learning to trust in God. But at this point they have seen some pretty miraculous things. They saw the miracles in Egypt. They saw the column of fire at night and cloud during the day which led them on their way. They saw the Red Sea part so they could safely pass and then eat Pharaoh’s army. They saw the bitter water of Marah and Elim miraculously become sweet. They saw the manna and quails fall from heaven, to feed them with satisfying food. I never realized how many of these miracles happened in such a short period of time. How could they become so discontented so quickly? I thought that was a modern problem! Even after God had provided safety, escape, clean water, bread and meat, they were still afraid that they would die.
Water is one of the most basic needs of the human body. It is no wonder that they were thirsty. There was no water in the desert, and they had been traveling long enough that their resources were quickly diminishing. If our kids can’t stand a two hour car ride to Grandma’s house, how can we think that the Israelites would be patient during a forty day journey on foot? They grumbled. I understand. I get pretty testy under difficult circumstances. The unknown is scary. It is uncomfortable. It is worse than the worst places that we know. The people went to Moses and asked, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” We believe in the worst possible outcome when we are uncomfortable. They were so thirsty, they were certain they must die.
God answered their cries by commanding Moses go ahead of the people with his staff. tells Moses to go ahead of the people with his staff. “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb. You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” This was not stale, murky water; it was clean fresh flowing water, good to drink. It was also a foreshadowing of the Living Water that Christ would give to the woman at the well. In that place, which Moses called Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested God, God stood on a rock, but in later days, Jesus would be the Rock from which the water flowed.
In this story we are reminded that God is always near even when it seem as though He is far away. He knew what the people needed. They needed water, but they also needed to learn how to trust in Him. They were being led from one life to a very different life. The wilderness journey was not only meant to get them from one place to another, but to also help them transform into the people God was calling them to be. He was teaching them about faith, about hope and about relying on the One who would provide for their every need. They quarreled and tested, but God still provided. This is good for us to know: even when we quarrel and test the LORD, He is still close by to meet our needs.
The psalmist recalls the experience of the Israelites in the first lesson, reminding us not to harden our hearts. Instead, we are invited to sing to God and praise His name. He is able to make springs of water flow out of rocks, to give living water without a bucket. He is with us, ready to offer us the entire Kingdom and all of creation to meet all our needs. He has even given His Son for our sake. “For Yahweh is a great God, a great King above all gods.”
Jesus came to the well for a divine appointment that changed a life and a city. He called out to her and relieved her fears, answered her questions and offered her something better than she had. God has done the same for us. The difference between God and man was too great for human beings to overcome on our own. We have sinned against Him in our own testing and demands. We have not trusted in His Word or waited for His promises. We never deserved the grace He came to give; we deserve only death. Yet, as Paul writes, we are reconciled to God through Christ Jesus. “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”
Though God made the heavens and the earth, though He created the vast oceans, the land and all that lives here, though He controls it all with His hands - He also knows my name. At my baptism He gave me that name, child of God, daughter of the Most High. The God of all creation has given me a share of His eternal kingdom through Jesus Christ. We are reminded that even though we are little more than a speck on the face of this earth, no matter what our circumstances, God is near and that He is ready to meet our needs. He is faithful even when we are not; there we find peace. He has made a divine appointment for each and every one of us so that we might hear His Word and believe, even though we do not deserve His grace.
The woman at the well quarreled and tested Jesus, but in the end she received a gift; she had faith in the Messiah, the One who would give her Living Water that would quench her thirst for lasting relationship with God. That Living Water didn’t stay pent up in the deep of her soul, though; she ran to the village to share the Good News. She learned in the very brief encounter that God did not reject her because of her past or her present, and that He would still provide for her needs despite her quarreling and testing. She went forth in joy to share the Gospel with others.
The people of Israel tested God, but in reality it was the people who were being tested. Would they be faithful? Would they trust God? Would they learn how to live as His people in the place where they were being led? We think that suffering is a sign of God’s abandonment; they certainly did in the days of the desert wandering. Health, wealth, success are the signs of a perfect life, at least we tend to think so. The reality is so different. Faith and faithfulness does not guarantee a lack of suffering. Faith and faithfulness helps us to get through everything we have to face in this life.
Paul writes, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom we also have our access by faith into this grace in which we stand. We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” The Hebrews did not have peace with God because they were not living by faith. They tested God and quarreled with Moses rather than living in the hope of God’s promises. The Samaritan woman did not understand the hope she could have in Jesus, but when she heard His message she found peace in trusting His words. She was not justified by her works, but by her faith in Jesus.
We often think that peace will only come when life is perfect. We believe that when we are safe, healthy and comfortable, then we will have peace. We see the blessed life as one filled with good things, just as they did in Paul’s day. All too many pastors preach that if you appear successful, then God’s hand must surely be on you. They see suffering as a sign that something is wrong between man and God.
Peace does not come when everything is perfect. We begin with peace, knowing that God has justified us through grace which we have through Jesus Christ. Peace does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. As a matter of fact, the suffering we face in Christ will actually strengthen us. As we persevere through our suffering, the world sees our character and our character gives them hope. People are amazed by those who still believe in the midst of great suffering. They see hope in the life of the faithful and they see God in that hope. Though some might question the integrity of a Christian in suffering, it is the very peace they experience in the midst of hard times that stands as a sign of their faith to the world. Perhaps that’s why the people believed the woman in our Gospel lesson. She was not trustworthy, and yet her faith made them follow. They went to see what caused her to have hope.
There seemed to be some knowledge of the Messiah in their community, although the woman did not fully understand what the Messiah would mean to the world. They were all waiting for someone to teach them and help them make sense of the things of God. Jesus did that for the woman by saying, “I am he, the one who speaks to you.” He was giving her hope, and hope does not disappoint.
The woman was the first to hear this incredible revelation proclaimed. She left so quickly she forgot her water jar, and she went into the city unconcerned about what others might think. “I met a man who knew everything about me. Could He be the one we are waiting for?” Many in that town believed her story and went out to meet Jesus. He stayed with them for two days and taught them about the Kingdom of God. In the end they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
We have joined the Israelites in their desert wanderings during our forty days of Lent. We thirst, but good, sweet water is not always at hand. We can respond in two ways. First, we can harden our hearts; we can let the experience of suffering and pain make us angry, bitter and resentful. We can blame others, like the Israelites did. We can even blame God. We can complain and provoke Him, demand justice and expect that He will do our will.
Or we can respond as the woman at the well. She began confused, angry or afraid, but with a willing heart she experienced God’s grace and found peace. Suffering can have a positive effect on our lives, because it helps us turn to God and seek His help. God promised that He would be near. He didn’t say our life would be perfect, but He promised He would be near. He is always much closer than we expect. He is listening, waiting, preparing to meet our troubles with His grace. Our hearts can be hardened by a lack of trust, but if we trust in God’s faithfulness, we’ll experience peace even in those times of trouble. We can go forth in joy to share the Gospel with others so that God’s grace will transform them into the people God is calling them to be.
“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but deceit in it crushes the spirit.” Proverbs 15:4, WEB
I read a story about a preacher who happened to be visiting a town in New York to preach. He was resting on a bench when a young, inquisitive boy began to ask him questions. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Where is that?” “What are you doing here?” The man told the boy that he was in town to preach at a church about Jesus. The boy looked shocked, put his hand over his mouth, and said, “Mister, don’t you know? Jesus is a curse word.” The only experience that boy had of Jesus Christ was out of the profanity laced mouths of the people in his home and neighborhood.
I knew a little boy who went to kindergarten with my son. He was incredibly shy, frightened of everything and everyone. The kindergarteners gathered outside a certain door at the beginning of the day to wait for their teacher to take them to the classroom. There was staff supervision, but a few parents always stayed and waited with the children, including me. We had a morning ritual of high fives down the line, which was just one of the ways we kept those five and six year olds from bouncing off the walls. They had a great time trying to find new ways to give me a high five.
The little boy never wanted to do high fives with me. That was ok with me; I never forced the children to be a part of the ritual. However, I did make sure that I gave him a smile or said a kind word. It took time, but eventually the boy opened up to me. By the end of the school year, he was jumping for his turn to give high fives. It was a very small victory, but one that impacted the boy. His teacher told me that by the end of the year he was doing better in school. He had stopped being afraid, not only in the line outside the school, but also inside. His mother also became more comfortable as the year went on and she arrived at school with a smile on her face, knowing that he was excited to be there.
The preacher probably did not have a life-changing impact on the inquisitive boy in the town he was visiting, but the boy left the encounter knowing that there was more to Jesus than just profanity. That may have been a tiny seed, but God is able to grow the tiniest seeds of faith into great men of faith. I don’t know what happened to my little friend, they moved on to another base by the next year, but I hope that a little sprinkling of love and high fives made him bold and confident to do great things in the world.
We can’t control what happens to a child within the closed spaces of their world, but we can plant seeds when we encounter them in the world. It doesn’t take much to help them see that Jesus is more than a curse word and that a little bit of love can be life-changing. We all know that children are very observant. They pick up what is happening around them more than we expect. The boy in the story knew that people using the word Jesus were cursing, and the boy in my story knew that a high five meant love. Which would you rather the children who cross your path to experience? A gentle tongue or a crushed spirit?
“Now I Paul, myself, entreat you by the humility and gentleness of Christ; I who in your presence am lowly among you, but being absent am bold toward you. Yes, I beg you that I may not, when present, show courage with the confidence with which I intend to be bold against some, who consider us to be walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we don’t wage war according to the flesh; for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the throwing down of strongholds, throwing down imaginations and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ; and being in readiness to avenge all disobedience, when your obedience will be made full.” 2 Corinthians 10:1-6, WEB
I once received an email from an acquaintance who considered himself a pagan. There is a myth surrounding the story of St. Patrick that he drove the snakes from the shores of Ireland. Ireland never had snakes, so this story has no truth in it. The email describes the supposedly true story, that the “snakes” driven from the shores were people, not animals. Apparently Christians used the snake as a symbol of paganism and Patrick committed genocide to rid the island of non-believers. The writer of the email claimed many people died at the hands of St. Patrick.
There is no record of such genocide in the history of Ireland, although in a spiritual sense this story may be very true. St. Patrick 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. The members of his family were Christians but he was not an active believer. His time in Ireland was one of spiritual growth and through prayer he built a renewed relationship with God. He truly became a Christian during that time.
He spent six years as a slave, but then escaped and sought passage back to his home in England. The ship refused to take him, so he returned to his hut and prayed. The captain changed his mind. The ship was filled with pagan sailors. It is likely that they were slave traders, a typical occupation in that day and age. Patrick was with them on the ship for three days. Then they spent twenty-eight days roaming through deserted country. They grew hungry and weak. The pagans came to Patrick and asked why he would not pray to his God for them. Patrick said, “Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere.” A herd of pigs came and satisfied their hunger. The pagans that Patrick met on that ship did suffer death: death to their own selves in Christ.
Patrick went back to Ireland after being trained in missionary work. He was not the first missionary to be sent to that land, but he was by far the most successful, bringing thousands of people to faith in Christ Jesus. 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. The nation was transformed, no longer trading slaves or sacrificing humans. The people died to the old way of life, but lived in Christ.
So, perhaps the pagan writer was right, Patrick killed the pagans: spiritually. As Paul tells us that’s the real battle we fight. But while the pagan might be mourning the death of his spiritual ancestors, we can rejoice with the angels at those who found true life in Christ because of St. Patrick. As Patrick neared death, he shared his testimony in a statement called “The Confession of St. Patrick.” In this writing, he told of his life in bondage of slavery, his escape, his training in missionary work and his return to the land of his captors. In his confession, Patrick showed himself in true humility and obedience to God. He thought himself to be the least among his brethren, a sinner and unlearned. Yet he spoke boldly about His Lord Jesus Christ, and changed the world in which he lived.
“Now who is he who will harm you, if you become imitators of that which is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. ‘Don’t fear what they fear, neither be troubled.’ But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts; and always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, with humility and fear: having a good conscience; that, while you are spoken against as evildoers, they may be disappointed who curse your good way of life in Christ. For it is better, if it is God’s will, that you suffer for doing well than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:13-17, WEB
I have actively volunteered for many different groups, but most particularly for churches and the schools my children attended. I have worked as room mom, mentored a child, started a story time, did computer work, helped plan dinners, worked information tables and led workshops. One of my favorite tasks was serving as host to visiting authors and running a reading program. As a youth I spent many hours candy striping at an old folks home. I usually felt blessed to be able to give my time and talents to help others.
There have been times in my life when the volunteer work I did was a burden. Chaperoning thirty eight-year olds is never my idea of a good time. I generally came home with a headache from time spent in close quarters on the school bus. However, being with the children, knowing that they are gaining some knowledge from the experience, and knowing that my child has benefited from my presence brought me joy. At times, however, our desire to do good is seen by others as foolishness or our motives are misrepresented.
They say there is no such thing as a selfless act of charity. The one doing the good deed always benefits in some way. There was an episode of “Friends” where Phoebe tried to find a way to do something good where she did not benefit at all. At the end, she called into a telethon and gave every last penny she had in the bank to the cause. The person on the other end of the phone was Joey. She told him that she wasn’t gaining anything out of the act, because giving so much money away was going to mean she would have to go hungry. Her kindness meant that Joey appeared on TV, which was why he was giving his time at the telethon. She said, “Oh, Joey, that makes me so happy.” Even in suffering, she found joy in the giving.
We, as Christians, are called to do good in this world. Our Lord Jesus gave His life for us. We in turn are to give our lives for His glory. When someone questions our purpose we are to testify about the work of Jesus Christ, patiently and in love. Our good works are the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Be ready to give that testimony, to share the reason you are able to give so generously. Though we may benefit from the experience, always remember that it is for the glory of God, in Jesus’ name, by the power of His Holy Spirit that we do anything good.
“But let all those who take refuge in you rejoice, Let them always shout for joy, because you defend them. Let them also who love your name be joyful in you. For you will bless the righteous. Yahweh, you will surround him with favor as with a shield.” Psalm 5:11-12, WEB
I was bored last night. I should not have been; I certainly have plenty that could have kept me busy. I could have worked in my studio as there are several projects that need to be finished. I have a book I need to finish. There was probably housework that needed to be done. The boys were busy doing their own thing. Instead of doing something constructive, I sat on the couch watching a favorite television show, staring at my tablet, repeatedly scrolling through a bunch of uninteresting posts on my Facebook wall. Even the things I could have been doing are not very exciting.
Our life is not terribly interesting. We have plenty of evenings we simply stay at home and watch TV. When the kids were young we often found little things to do, like crafts or video games, homework or Bible study. Bruce puttered around the garage and I around the kitchen. Gerta Weissman remembered such nights with her family with her father smoking his pipe, her mother working at some needlepoint, her brother and her doing homework. She remembered those nights with joy.
Gerta Weissman was among those who were prisoners in a Nazi death camp. After the war she was interviewed on a radio program about her experiences. One thing she remembered was a flower that had grown in the crack of concrete. The women in the camp went to great lengths to avoid destroying that flower; it was the only beauty they had in a very dark, bleak world. Gerta explained to the interviewer that people often asked her what helped her survive such a horrifying experience. She said she realized that she had a picture in her mind of those boring nights at home with her family and that was what helped her get through it all. She had experienced hundreds of nights like that, but in the end it was those very times that were the driving force of her survival. The women who endured the horror lived in thankfulness for the simple things like that flower and those boring nights at home.
I can just imagine the flower those women looked toward for hope. It was probably a weed of some sort, half withered with lack of water. I’m sure it was not beautiful, certainly not like a vase full of long stem red roses or a field of wildflowers. We quickly remove those weeds from the cracks in our concrete; they are ugly menaces and inconveniences in our beautiful landscaped yards. Yet, it was a source of beauty and hope in the midst of a horrifying situation. I wonder if we appreciate those boring evenings with our families as much as we should, or if we reject the simple moments like a weed growing out of a crack.
When we say that God blesses the righteous, there are those who think that the blessings will be something miraculous like that vase full of roses or an exciting life. Yet, most of God’s blessings are far more like that evening at home, the simple pleasures of life are given to us by God and it is for those things we should also be grateful. We tend to live in thankfulness for the miraculous and forget how important the daily blessings of life can be. Let us live today and thank God for those weeds in the cracks and those boring nights at home that we may see His blessing and rejoice.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 26, 2017, Fourth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 42:14-21; Psalm 142; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
“Who is blind, but my servant? Or who is as deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is as blind as he who is at peace, and as blind as Yahweh’s servant? You see many things, but don’t observe. His ears are open, but he doesn’t listen.” Isaiah 42:19-20, ESV
I love to travel. Many of our road trips take us from one place to another with little time spent along the way, but it is worthwhile to stop for a day or two to take in the sites. I took a trip a few springs ago to help my daughter move into an apartment on the East Coast. I didn’t rush home; I stopped in Chattanooga for a few days and did the tourist thing. Bruce and I have taken several mini-vacations to cities only a few hours from home. Even on those overnight stops along a journey, I like to find something interesting to do.
I do a lot of research, checking the Internet for information about the best places to eat and the best attractions to visit, but I always hope that someone at the information desk will have ideas that are off the beaten track. They are locals, so surely they should have some ideas, right? Unfortunately, too many have no ideas. We went to a small town north of us for Independence Day last year, and the desk staff didn’t even know where we might find fireworks displays to watch. I’m surprised how many times I ask about something I’ve seen on the Internet and they have no idea what I’m talking about.
Granted, I usually stay at one of those national hotel chains, one that does not have a person on staff to act as a concierge. The front desk staff are employees who aren’t paid a great deal of money to do their job. However, they serve the tourist industry; it is always my hope that they will be able to answer my touristy questions. I expect a resident to have some knowledge of the history, attractions and the local flavors. At the very least, there should be a reference guide at the desk that gives information beyond pointing to the rack of brochures in the lobby.
I like to watch those fix it shows where the expert goes in to help a business owner overcome the challenges that are destroying the business. Most often the biggest challenge is a lack of knowledge. The expert is always amazed that someone would buy a restaurant or a bar and not have any idea of the work involved in making it successful. Have you have had a similar experience? Have you sought help from a person who should have knowledge about the subject but who have no idea what you are asking?
The Pharisees were educated and knowledgeable, a class of men who were very familiar with the Law and the scriptures. Their strict observance to the traditions gave them an air of superiority. Their knowledge should have given them insight into what was happening in and around Jesus Christ. There are none so blind as those who will not see. They rejected Jesus because Jesus did not fit into their expectation of the Messiah. They rejected Jesus because He was turning their world upside down; He was casting doubt on everything they knew and believed. Sometimes the people who should know the most are those who have the least knowledge.
Jesus was giving the people a new understanding of God, of sin, of the Law and of faith. He was healing people without the usual requirements of the Law. He was bypassing their authority. He was claiming to be God.
Sadly, God’s people have always been blind and deaf. They refused to see or hear that they were not in a right relationship with God. Though they thought they were righteous, they turned the world and God’s Law upside down to appear righteous. They could not see that the Law was given so that they would turn to God; it acts as a mirror to show us our sin which causes us to seek God’s mercy and grace. Instead of being justified by God, they justified themselves by their strict observance of rules, traditions and ceremonies. Jesus was showing them
Once God reveals the reality of our sin and the darkness in which we live, we have to deal with it. We have to deal with our sin. We have to admit our failures and experience His mercy. We see our sin and we repent, turning to God, seeking His forgiveness as He transforms us into the people He has created us to be. It isn’t comfortable. We might even suffer. We can respond like the people in our Gospel story that rejected Jesus and continued to walk in the darkness.
It all began with a man the disciples happened to see along their way. He was blind from birth. They asked a question based on their understanding of the world. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They thought that any sort of dis-ease was the punishment for sinfulness, so someone had to be at fault for the man’s blindness. This is, unfortunately, a point of view still widely held today. Many churches even teach that blessedness is a reward for goodness and curses come upon those who lack faith. Jesus answers that this divine encounter is not about the man or his parents. It is not even about the healing. It is about God being glorified.
Once again we have Jesus being in a place where He can make a life-changing impact on a single person that will touch many to follow. Last week, He broke down borders and revealed Himself as the Messiah to the Samaritans. In this week’s Gospel text, He healed a man born blind.
This was a particularly troubling act of healing for the Pharisees. The rabbis taught that there were four particular miracles that would identify the Messiah. Now, these were healings that they themselves could never accomplish, so they taught the people that these could only be done by the one whom God selected, to cover themselves from the disappointment of the people. They were always concerned about keeping their power and control, so they justified their failure by claiming it had to be done by the Messiah.
The first of the four miracles was healing a leper. Leprosy was punishment for sin, which is why the lepers were cast out of the villages and separated from their people. Since only God could forgive sin, it was taught that only God could heal a leper and in doing so also provided forgiveness for the sin that caused the leprosy. This is why the healed lepers were sent to the temple to show themselves to the priest; they would make the final determination whether those healed could return home.
The second miracle was the casting out of a demon from a mute person. The priests were only able to exorcise the demons if they knew its name, and so when dealing with a possessed person they asked the demon to identify itself. They could proceed when they knew its name. However, a mute demon cannot speak its name, so they can’t provide healing. When Jesus cast the demon out of mute and blind man, the people began to see that He might possibly be the Messiah. After all, the rabbis taught that only the Messiah could do what Jesus did, so they questioned whether He was the Son of David for whom they waited.
The fourth miracle is found later in the story: the raising of a man dead for four days. The reason why this was extraordinary is that the rabbis taught that the spirit left the body at three days. The spirit gave life, and if it was gone, there was nothing left to be resurrected. Jesus purposely waited two days to go to his friend Lazarus; he was dead four days when He brought him back to life. Mary and Martha were so upset because they thought there was no hope. The raising of Lazarus showed the people that there was hope.
The third type of miracle is the one in today’s Gospel lesson. By now the religious leaders were more than curious about Jesus. He was doing what they said He would do, but they were beginning to see how this might put a damper on their power and control over God’s people. When Jesus healed the man born blind, He showed them that He really could do what they claimed no one could do, and that He was from God. But they had to find a way to make the people believe that He was a fake. They questioned the man and his family to catch them in some sort of lie. They twisted the miracle into something demonic. They ridiculed the man for being a follower of Jesus and not of Moses.
Last week Jesus took the woman at the well from fear to hope to faith. A similar transformation took place in the man born blind, but it was brought about by the questions of the Pharisees. As a matter of fact, Jesus disappears for most of it, as the Pharisees interrogate the man about his healing. The more they tried to shake the man’s excitement, the more he came to believe that the miraculous experience he had came from God.
The blind man never saw Jesus, so he could not pick Him out of a crowd, but he knows that it was Jesus that gave him his sight. Over and over again, the man told the people that it was Jesus who healed him and how He did it, to the point of frustration. The leaders did not believe him because mixing mud was against the Sabbath law. It would be impossible for a man of God to act unlawfully. Others argued that a sinner could not have healed the man. They turned back to the man who was healed. “What do you think?” they asked.
He believed in Jesus, but they could accept the man’s story. They questioned him more, insulted that a blind man might act as if he knew more than they did about God’s business. After all, if he was blind, he must be a sinner! They even turned to the man’s parents to see if they could give them some answers, but they refused. They were afraid to be witnesses because faith in Jesus meant rejection. They would have been kicked out of the community. It was better to lose a son than lose access to everything they needed for life.
As the interrogation continued, the Pharisees commanded the man to give glory to God and not to Jesus. They said that Jesus could not do such things because He is a sinner. The man didn’t care. “I don’t know if he is a sinner. One thing I do know: that though I was blind, now I see.” The man was giving God the glory by witnessing for Jesus. Whatever the cause of the man’s blindness, he fulfilled the very purpose of his life: to glorify God.
The passages for this day help us to see the reality of God’s kingdom in this world. God is not glorified by fulfilling our expectations; He is glorified when He is revealed through Jesus Christ. He shines His light through the witness of those who believe. He reveals what is hidden and we are called to bring His light to this world so that what is secret might be exposed. In seeing our own sin, we can turn to Christ for forgiveness.
Unfortunately, the Pharisees who were listening to Jesus did not see their sin. It is uncomfortable having our sin revealed. How is it an act of grace and mercy? Unfortunately, the Pharisees who overheard Jesus talking to the man did not recognize their own sinfulness. They asked Him, “Are we blind?” Jesus answered, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.” They claimed to see God, to see His kingdom in this world. They believed they knew God better than the others. Yet, they were unable to see that Jesus Christ was the one for whom they were waiting. In rejecting Jesus, they stayed in the darkness that leads to death, thus remaining in their sin and rejecting the forgiveness He so freely gives to those who believe. They used the Law to bind people to their expectations; Jesus held them to the same standard. Since they claimed to “see” they would remain guilty.
We are, by nature, imperfect, despite having been created in our Creator’s image. We are darkness, with secrets hidden from view. But Paul writes, “For you were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord.” Jesus comes into our life, shining His light and revealing what’s hidden in our darkness. This isn’t the most pleasant experience. We don’t like to hear about our failures. We don’t like to hear that we are sinners. We don’t like to have our skeletons brought out into the open. But unless they are revealed, we can’t deal with them. But that’s how we are... we’d rather not deal with them.
There is an unfortunate reality when it comes to our sin. Sin causes suffering. Now, I’m not saying that suffering is the punishment for our sin, but sin hurts others. Sin brings dis-ease. Sin ruins lives. Sin causes men and women to lose their jobs. Sin, darkness, shatters our world.
Sadly, those who should be able to see most clearly are the ones that are most blind. Those who should know more are often the most ignorant. I like to think that I have a solid understanding of the scriptures. I’m not theologically educated, but I’ve spent years reading and studying and savoring God’s Word. I hope I would not reject Jesus if I encountered Him like the Pharisees, but I am a sinner. The truth is that God’s word in Isaiah is as true for me as it was for the Pharisees. “You see many things, but don’t observe. His ears are open, but he doesn’t listen.”
Spiritual blindness means seeing God’s grace upside down. Instead of seeing the blessing of the man’s healing, they insisted that they were more blessed because they had never been blind. They still did not see the reality of their sin. They were blind to what God could do for them, but claimed they could see. If they were still in darkness, then Jesus would be patient with them, but they claimed to have the light. They refused to see what Jesus was revealing in His light, however. Until they saw the truth, they would continue to dwell in their sin.
We can’t live in that darkness and serve God. We can’t bear the fruit that comes from holding on to our skeletons and expect to glorify God. Paul warns us that what is hidden will be revealed, that God’s light breaks through the darkness to expose the secrets in our hearts. In Christ we are called to live in that light, not in the darkness of our sin. That means dealing with our sinfulness, experiencing God’s forgiveness and being transformed by His grace.
What is truly amazing about this story is that Jesus did more than heal a man blind from birth. He healed a man who was suffering something even greater: he believed that he was worthless and hated by God. This man needed far more than physical healing. He needed spiritual cleansing. He’d been blind from birth, convinced by the world that he was a sinner unworthy of anything spiritual. He would have been healed, but uncomfortable with entering into the lives of the faithful because nothing was changed. He was no longer blind, but how could that overcome a lifetime of rejection?
Though the Pharisees were trying to get the man to reject Jesus, the interrogation led the man to the understanding of what it meant to believe in Jesus. We grow in our faith, too, as we live our life in this world. We were once blind, but now we see. We are children of light, spiritually cleansed by the grace of God. As we grow in our faith in Christ, we see how we must change. We see, by His Word, that the things of darkness are not fruitful and so we turn to the things in the light.
That is why we practice disciplines like we do during Lent: to grow in our faith and mature into the people God has created and saved us to be. As we pray, study, fast and worship, His light reveals the world as He sees it, so that we might repent and walk according to His ways. The darkness is revealed by the light. When we see the truth, we are set free to live according to God’s Law as He meant us to live: in the glorious light of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Yes, I have a good inheritance. I will bless Yahweh, who has given me counsel. Yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons. I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” Psalm 16:6-11, WEB
I was driving down the road last week on my wildflower adventure when I suddenly saw a field of bluebonnets on the side of the road. I hadn’t seen very many until that point; the patches are small in the city, but they become large plots of blue in the country. My first sight of a large patch took my breath away. I couldn’t stop at that moment, but I was so happy when I found a patch with a good parking. I spent a long time wandering through the field. It wasn’t the best field I’ve ever seen; it was well past peak with most of the blooms going to seed. Yet, there is something that makes you stop and savor the beauty with a sense of awe.
We all have had those moments in life when we are faced with something incredible. We see a rainbow after a storm or catch a vision of crepuscular rays shining out from behind the sun. We’ve walked to the top of a mountain or hiked beside a magnificent waterfall. It isn’t only nature that can give us that feeling of awe: I have, at times, looked at my husband and wondered how I could be so blessed. Or I have felt the pride of seeing my children accomplish something wonderful. These aren’t just moments of happiness; there is something deeper about the joy we feel at those times.
Our Sunday school class talks about God. That might seem like a mighty broad subject, but that’s why it is taking us years to get through the materials I have created along the way. Each week we look at some aspect of God, reading passages from the Bible that show how those characteristics are revealed by God in the Old Testament and then ultimately in Jesus in the New Testament. We end up on marvelous tangents that take us deep into God’s Word and His grace. It is fascinating to see the connections between promise and fulfillment. Some days we just stop talking and experience the awe of knowing that our God has done this for us.
The psalmist says, “In your presence is fullness of joy.” We all know what it is like to be happy. As Christians we even know what it is like to live in a joy that is beyond our understanding, content in the grace of God. Yet, there is something deeper about the joy and awe we will feel when we truly stand in the presence of our God. We get glimpses as we journey through this life, whether it is something in nature that takes our breath away or something revelation of God that silences us. He has done amazing things for us. He has blessed us in good times and bad, with gifts that have value beyond dollars. He has given His very Son for our sake.
We may not be able to stand at the foot of the cross today, but we can stand in awe of that moment, remembering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His blood saves us so that one day we will be able to dwell in God’s presence forever. In His presence is fullness of joy, this is the promise for which we long to be fulfilled. But even in the waiting, we can experience God’s presence, see His majesty, and rejoice.
“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroea. When they arrived, they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed; also of the prominent Greek women, and not a few men. But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Beroea also, they came there likewise, agitating the multitudes. Then the brothers immediately sent out Paul to go as far as to the sea, and Silas and Timothy still stayed there. But those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens. Receiving a commandment to Silas and Timothy that they should come to him very quickly, they departed.” Acts 17:10-15, WEB
I make prayer beads. I learned about the use of these prayer tools at a workshop about thirteen years ago. The workshop leader explained the history of prayer beads, rosaries and most specifically the Anglican type that we made that day. There are symbolic aspects to the configuration of the beads, the number used and the type of cross. The purpose of these rosaries, as with all types of prayer beads, is to help the faithful focus their prayer lives, to give some discipline in time and direction in the words that are used in praise, thanksgiving, petition and supplication to God. The Anglican rosaries are designed to give the user freedom to choose the types of prayers they say, but plenty of possibilities are offered in books and on the internet to help guide proper use of the beads.
I often find myself talking to people who reject the use of prayer beads. They insist that it is a shallow form of prayer, or too institutionalized. Some even reject it because rosaries are simply a "Catholic" tradition. I didn't jump into the task of making the beads without doing some research. I read many websites and learned more about the history of tools used in prayer, which goes far back into history. Men of God who went into the wilderness to fast and pray often used stones to count their prayers. Jewish prayer shawls have fringe that are fingered during prayer. Buddhists, Muslims as well as many Christians have found value in the use of different aids to help establish a powerful prayer life. I even discovered a type of bead during my research that I like even more than the type I made at the workshop.
We tend to hear about things like this and quickly react either for or against and set our minds on our opinion without really considering the possibilities. Usually our decision is based on a gut reaction and we never look beyond that for a deeper understanding. One friend explained that she would never use such a thing because she had seen people callously handling the beads without even paying attention to the prayers. They were looking around and by their body language she thought they obviously thinking of other things. While it might be true that some people misuse and abuse prayer beads, it is also true that they can be quite helpful. So, we must carefully study the issue through the scriptures and prayer to know if it is good for us to do.
We should do this with every issue that we face, including our salvation. It is very easy to listen to a preacher and believe what he says, or read a book that is life changing and consider it true. Yet, millions of people have been affected by self-help books that will fade the minute something new comes on the market. Today’s weight loss miracle will be forgotten when tomorrow’s is discovered. Today's most popular book or movie might be moving, but it might be filled with untruths that can lead a believer down a wrong path. So, we are called as Christians to search the scriptures to see what God has to say about it.
Paul was sent to Beroea because the Jews of Thessalonica rejected the Gospel. They had a gut reaction based on their own faith perspective. They refused to even check out the scriptures to see if the message Paul was sharing was one worth considering. They were so against the good news of Jesus Christ that they threatened Paul. There were other examples of people refusing to believe, but also of people who had a shallow belief that quickly fell apart. Many of the people who followed Jesus fell away when He began to teach the deeper things. Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) had a shallow faith that wanted to benefit without responsibility. They did not search the deeper things of God for the understanding and living faith that truly changes the heart.
The Beroeans were much different. They heard the Gospel but they went further. They searched the scriptures to see that what Paul said was true, and God’s word cut deep into their hearts. Many people in Berea were converted to Christianity and God made a real difference in their lives. We are called as people of God to be like the Beroeans. We should never accept something someone has said at face value, whether we think it is good or bad, but we should instead search God’s word to know what He has to say about it. Whether it is about something as unimportant as prayer beads, or as important as our salvation, God provides the foundation of our faith and the answers to our questions.
“Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbor for that which is good, to be building him up. For even Christ didn’t please himself. But, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through patience and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now the God of patience and of encouragement grant you to be of the same mind one with another according to Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore accept one another, even as Christ also accepted you, to the glory of God.” Romans 15:1-7, WEB
A friend asked me to pray for her daughter and granddaughter this morning. As happens much too often, the granddaughter has reached the rebellion years. A boyfriend is causing trouble. Worst of all, the granddaughter is making many of the mistakes her mother made when she was young, and the mother desperately wants to stop her from doing so.
We want our kids to learn from our mistakes, and yet it is almost impossible to force them to go down the right path. Sadly, many parents simply give up, not even trying to teach their children a better way. We remember our own rebellion and know that the harder our parents tried to teach us, the farther away we ran, so we decide that it would be better to let our own rebels make their own mistakes. Yet, the reality is that it is our responsibility to guide those who have been put into our care.
That’s easier said than done. Even God could not lead His troubled children in the right way. There’s an allegory in Ezekiel 23 about two women. The women represent Samaria and Jerusalem; both rebelled against God by acting unfaithful to God. Samaria first lusted after Assyria, and she was delivered into their hands. Jerusalem should have learned the lesson from her sister Samaria, but she became even more corrupt and was delivered into the hands of the Babylonians.
I certainly did not have an advice for my friend, but I can pray for her daughter and granddaughter. I can also pray for her so that she might have the wisdom to speak a word that will bring peace and reconciliation into the situation. We all make mistakes, and sometimes mistakes are the only way we can really learn the lessons we need to walk on the right path. The most important lesson for us to learn, however, is that sometimes it is worth listening to the voice of experience which will guide us down the right path.
See, we might read the story of Oholah the elder, and Oholibah her sister and think that there is nothing there for us to learn. We are reminded by Paul that God has given us their witness so that we will be faithful. Are we being unfaithful to our God? Are we lusting after something in this world, turning our back on our God? Are we hearing what happened to the sisters when they did not listen to God?
The thing we need to remember is that we are all rebels, especially when it comes to our relationship with God. We can learn to live as God has called us to live, but we are unfaithful. We have an advantage over the sisters in the allegory in Ezekiel: we have Jesus. We are all sinners in the eyes of God, but thanks to the cross, He sees us as His children.
There is no easy answer to the struggles of my friend and her family, but my prayer is that my friend will stand in faith that God is in the midst of it all. As we live in faith that Jesus Christ is Savior, we are filled with His love and light. That love and light shines on others, softening their hearts to the Gospel. They receive the faith that He gives and they are filled with that same love and light. It shines on others, and more come to live in Christ. We might just find that God will help them see the value of our experience and our faith will bring about hope, forgiveness and reconciliation.
“As therefore you received Christ Jesus, the Lord, walk in him, rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith, even as you were taught, abounding in it in thanksgiving. Be careful that you don’t let anyone rob you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the elements of the world, and not after Christ. For in him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, and in him you are made full, who is the head of all principality and power; in whom you were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Colossians 2:6-12, WEB
I went on a wildflower adventure yesterday to a small town south west of where I live. The town was established by immigrants from Alsace, France who were invited to populate the land grant of Henry Castro. They moved to Texas in 1844. It took a few years and some troubled times for them to be established, but eventually the town became a stop for those traveling between San Antonio and West Texas. They tried to keep their identity as Alsatians, preserving their language even as it was disappearing in Europe. The town is now a national historic district, to preserve the unique architecture of the original people. The visiting center is built from the four hundred year old timbers of a home that was dismantled and given to the people of the town. Though most of the building materials are modern, they recreated the house as close as possible to the original and have historic furnishings on display.
It is hard to move thousands of miles into the unknown. It was even more difficult for those who were moving in the middle of the nineteenth century. We can do research; we can even visit the place before we make the decision. We know that if it doesn’t work, it will be an expensive mistake, but we can just as easily move on to a new home. The people of Alsace had to trust that Henry Castro was taking them to a place where they could live and thrive. No matter how wonderful Texas turned out to be, however, they would be homesick.
So, they brought what they could to their new home, including the seeds of their beloved and beautiful red poppies. Now, we have plenty of wildflowers in Texas; spring is incredibly beautiful as they color the roadsides and fields with pink, yellow, red, purple and blue. Texas is known for the bluebonnet, a blue colored lupine which grows here like nowhere else in the world. Castroville, however, is known for the red poppies that have been reseeding themselves for more than a hundred and fifty years.
I went to a house in Castroville where the owners have cultured and nurtured their yard into a field of poppies. They invite strangers to come and wander the property, which includes a cabin and other remnants of those early days. They have thirty six varieties of poppies, and while most of them are red, they have some white, pink and purple, too. It is beautiful.
As I wandered around the field taking pictures, I noticed a bug. I thought it was a moth at first and I tried to capture it in pictures. It was fast, flitting from flower to flower, moving faster than I could. I set the camera to shoot continuously, hoping that I would catch it at just the right moment. Thank goodness for digital cameras because it took nearly eighty to get just two fairly decent shots. As I was photographing this bug, I realized that it wasn’t a moth at all, but was, instead, a hummingbird like I had never seen. No wonder I had a hard time catching it!
I came to discover later, however, that my first impression was actually the right one. It was a hummingbird moth, a moth that has all the appearances of a hummingbird. It flies like one. It is shaped like one. It even has a snout that looks like that of a hummingbird, and uses it to take in the nectar of the same types of flowers. It certainly had me fooled. The man who owns the place told me that it was truly a moth and suggested that I look it up. I did, and he was right. But on top of that, when I could look closely at the photos, I could see the truth of it.
The lesson learned is a reminder that there are many people in our world who will try to fool us, even in the things of faith. Paul had established a congregation in the town of Colossae, but false teachers came in and tried to confuse them with almost the truth. There was enough to make their teaching sound good, but enough that was wrong to make it dangerous to the spiritual health of God’s people. Paul wrote to encourage them to stand on their faith in Jesus Christ. “Don’t fall for those who are trying to fool you with a false gospel. Remember Jesus and follow Him.” We are reminded to do the same in a world where many people say what sounds good, but would have us follow a false Gospel. Remember Jesus. He’s the real thing.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 2, 2017, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45 (46-53)
“Jesus said to her, ‘Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see God’s glory?’” John 11:40, WEB
Have you ever been in a situation that seemed hopeless? You know there is something you should do, but you also know that it won’t do any good. For instance, parents know that it is impossible to reason with a toddler who is having a tantrum or a teenager who has decided to rebel. I’m still trying to figure out how we managed to survive those years!
Unfortunately, many people have decided that it is hopeless these days to have discussions with people on the opposite side of an issue. We know that we aren’t going to convince anyone and that we aren’t going to be convinced, especially since those discussions inevitably end up becoming personal with judgment and name calling the result. Many friendships have been broken over the past few years because they can’t find a way to even talk about anything other than whatever issue is between them. It has not only become pointless to have the discussion, but also to speak to one another at all.
Sadly, most Christians have come to the belief that it is pointless to share the Gospel. I suppose some of it is the fear of being rejected, but also the worry of what others will think of them. We are expected to accept others just as they are; if we share the Gospel then we are deemed judgmental and intolerant. We’d rather just live our faith quietly; after all we have been repeatedly told that faith is a private matter anyway. There are those who do not even think it is their place to raise up their children as Christians. “They can decide when they are grown.”
How will they know if we don’t tell them?
God commanded Ezekiel to do something absolutely pointless. What good would it do to prophesy over a field full of dried bones? The people that were once those bones had been long dead. There was no chance that they would ever come back to life. There was no skin, muscle or organs. It is likely that wild animals had carted off at least a few of the bones. If the flesh was gone, so was the soul. How could one man’s word change anything about that field?
Ezekiel knew that only God knew what could happen. “Lord Yahweh, you know.” So, when God commanded Ezekiel to speak to the bones, Ezekiel did so. Immediately the bones were brought back to life, with skin, muscle and organs. When the flesh was restored, God commanded Ezekiel to speak again and to command the wind to breathe upon those He had resurrected. Ezekiel spoke and they were filled with life. God was able to restore flesh and soul into dry bones.
This story is a miraculous witness to the work God can do in this world. He gave the prophet Ezekiel the words to speak so that the dead were raised to new life. This is what God does every day with His Word. Those who do not look to God or to Jesus as Savior are walking like dead men in this world; they are dead in their sin because they have not heard the saving words of forgiveness that comes from the blood of Christ. God’s Word will bring them to life again. By His Word, God puts His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in His promises.
How will they be restored if we don’t speak God’s Word to them?
You can’t get any more dead than those old dry bones that Ezekiel saw in that valley. They were old and dry. The story of Ezekiel’s vision is odd, but amazing at the same time. The imagery is something out of a horror film, and yet miraculous in the way God can take something that is so far beyond restoration and give it life. Those bones were dry; they were probably lying in the wilderness for a very long time. There was no hope for life. Only God knew if the bones could live; only God could give them life. God did the work, but Ezekiel became part of the process by speaking God’s word to the dead bones.
In the religious understanding of the Jews in Jesus’ time, you couldn’t get any more dead than Lazarus. See, they believed that the soul left the body after three days, so while there might be resurrection until that moment, there was no hope after. Once the soul was gone, the person was dead forever. The Gospel story is a little different from the story from Ezekiel. Instead of a valley full of bones, the dead body was one man. Instead of being dried bones, Lazarus was rotting in a tomb. Instead of being a vision, it was an historical event. Jesus was there. He spoke the words. Lazarus was raised. Both stories speak about hope and trust. In Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones represented the people of Israel who no longer had hope because they no longer trusted in God. In the story of Lazarus, we see that Mary and Martha had lost hope. They trusted that Jesus would rush to the bedside of their brother. They probably even hoped that after Lazarus died, Jesus would be able to raise him until that third day. When Jesus delayed in coming, they lost hope. How could He wait so long when his beloved friend needed Him?
Jesus waited because God would be glorified by doing that which would seem pointless to the rest of us. The man born blind in last week’s story wasn’t blind because he or his parents sinned. He was blind so that God would be glorified. The same is true with this week’s story. Lazarus died so that God would be glorified. We see in the story of the valley of dry bones that there is hope even when it seems hopeless. Ezekiel didn’t say to God that it was impossible for the bones to live; he said that only God knew. While he might have thought the situation was hopeless, he trusted in God, and it is there we exhibit our hope. We don’t have hope because we think we know what is going to happen or because we think we can make something happen. We have hope when we trust that God will make something happen.
We speak, even when it seems pointless, because God can do the impossible.
Megan Phelps-Roper was a member of Westboro Baptist Church. Her grandfather was a founder, and she attended rallies from a very early age, happily holding signs that condemned people to hell. The church never really grew very large, most of the members were family, but they gained an anti-church protest following. She became extremely vocal on Twitter. Megan often found that conversations with the detractors to be much like we see everywhere today, always leading to judgment and condemnation. This was true on both sides.
She found a few, however, that were willing to really converse. They listened. She learned to listen. Meanwhile, she was beginning to have doubts about some of the things her church was preaching. So, she listened even more; she continued to listen because she found a few souls who had not given up hope for her. They didn’t think it was pointless to share God’s grace. She decided to leave the church and in the end married a man who had the patience and faith to keep talking even when it seemed like there was nothing that could change her mind.
Monica of Hippo was the mother of one of those impossible people, Augustine. He is remembered now as being one of the great early saints, but it took many, many years for him to turn to God. He loved life, and took after his cheating father for a time. He was lazy, had a long term affair which he broke off to marry the very young daughter of a wealthy family. He rebelled against his mother and the rules, having once stolen fruit not because he was hungry, but because it was not permitted. Monica had faith even though he refused to listen to her. She prayed for him, even though it seemed like a pointless habit. Eventually Augustine repented, and he not only believed, but he became a great man of God whose works are still read today. He laid a theological foundation for many other great men of God who followed, particularly those during the Reformation years.
Sometimes God calls us to do pointless things. We discover that when we are obedient, the command was not so pointless. We see that He is faithful. He is glorified by our faith and our willingness to speak to the dry bones.
Someone once jokingly suggested that the Gospel lessons during Lent get progressively longer to train the readers for the crucial but very long readings during Holy Week. The Palm Sunday reading is nearly two chapters of Matthew. On Good Friday we hear two chapters of John. They also help train the people in the congregation for hearing the texts. We easily get lost in our thoughts when we have to sit or stand and listen to such long readings, especially since these stories are so familiar. We believe we know every word, that we’ve heard it all before. So, we stop listening. After the first verse or two, we think, “I know what this passage says,” and turn our minds to other things.
The problem for a writer like me and all the pastors prayerfully planning their sermons for this week is that this text is filled with so many important lessons. This is a crucial moment for Jesus. It is a catalyst for what is to come. For the teaching pastor, there are a dozen details that could be expounded upon to help us better understand the time during which this happened and the people to whom it was happening. John writes well beyond the physical particulars of the story, so we could spend pages or hours discussing the spiritual dimensions of this story. We could look at the people and the relationships in this story, try to identify with their experiences and see God in our own pain and suffering. How do you take fifty-three verses of text and write a few hundred words or speak for a few minutes?
Our Gospel lesson for today was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final sign of Jesus that decided for the leaders that it was necessary for Jesus to die. Ironic that life for one man meant death for another. However, the Jews were concerned that Jesus was going to incite riots and upset the Romans. Though they were watching and waiting for the promised Messiah, the power Jesus demonstrated was beyond their control. They expected the Messiah to be one of them, but Jesus upset the status quo. Though the raising of Lazarus should have convinced them that He was the one for whom they were waiting, they knew that Jesus would not do their bidding. They were willing to ignore and reject Jesus for the sake of their future. They were comfortable in their positions and they would not accept a Messiah unless they could be assured of their own status in his kingdom. Jesus would not convince them otherwise; His actions from now on may have seemed pointless to those watching.
Thankfully, Jesus didn’t think it was pointless.
Jesus came to restore the kingdom and to bring life into those who were dead. Though they were alive, the people of Israel were dead because they had grown far from God. They were more concerned about the rules than the One who gave them the Law. They were more interested in status and power than they were in compassion and mercy. They had interpreted and reinterpreted God’s Word to the point that it no longer meant what God intended and they made it a burden for the people. No one could live up to the expectations of the laws and too many were displaced, outcast and exiled for their lack of righteousness.
It is easy for us to look back at this story and see the failure of the Jewish people, but are we that much different? When we know someone who has been less than righteous, it is hard for us to imagine him or her forgiven, particularly when they have sinned against us personally. We can’t imagine forgiveness for our enemy or new life for those we would rather see dead.
Yet, that is exactly the way the Jews were thinking in the days of Jesus. They considered the poor and the sick sinners who deserved their lot in life. They had no mercy or compassion for those who did not do as they expected. The foreigner was despised, the tax collector rejected. We might not despise the same people or outcast the same sinners, but don’t we also lay judgment upon those who do not live up to our expectations? We condemn those who do not agree with us and we cast aside those who do not do what we would have them do. We won’t listen to those who have a different point of view.
Even now I imagine that many of us are thinking of ways we have been condemned and outcast. In our perspective it is always the other guy who lacks compassion and mercy. “They” won’t listen, so why bother? We do not see ourselves in need of mercy or forgiveness. Yet, our own self-righteousness makes us no different than that valley of dry bones, no different than Lazarus decaying in the tomb, no different than the leaders of the temple willing to kill a man for the sake of their position and power. We are deader than dead because we have no hope for tomorrow.
We all sin. We don’t treat our neighbors with love and respect. We get angry with our children and our spouses, gossip about others, take things that are not ours. We fall to the temptations of this world. We are greedy, lustful, abusive, self-centered. We want it all and we want it now. We look for help in all the wrong places. Sadly, we often do not even realize our sin. We recognize the biggies, especially in the lives of others. But when it comes to our own failure, we are blind. We think we are good enough. We are better than our neighbors, anyway, so we go on our way without turning. This way of life takes us on a path that will lead to more sin.
Even one wrong thought, word or deed against God or man is a sin and we are all guilty of something. None of us could stand before the holiness of God. But God is gracious and merciful. He forgives our iniquity. He not only grants forgiveness, he also forgets our sin. Washed by the blood of Christ, we are cleansed and made new and right before Him. As we live in this hope, we find ourselves walking in the light of Christ, covered by the unfailing love of God and reconciled to Him. When we wait for the Lord and watch for Him, we are less likely to fall into the temptations of this world. Though we may still fail in our daily walk of faith, He is near with His forgiveness for those who will see.
Just like the Israelites in Babylon and the sisters of Lazarus, God comes to us with a vision of what life will be like under His rule. He shows us new life brought by His Word and His Spirit. The dead bones in the valley can dance and sing His praises. By God’s power, Lazarus can walk out of his tomb to live another day. So, too, in faith we can live in hope and glorify God with our lives.
The only thing we have to get us through is our faith. Jesus says if we believe we will see the power of God. That power will bring life out of death. It is a matter of trusting the Lord to be faithful to His promises, to look to Him for salvation. It is this trust to which the psalmist is referring in today’s Psalm. “But there is forgiveness with you, therefore you are feared. I wait for Yahweh. My soul waits. I hope in his word. My soul longs for the Lord more than watchmen long for the morning; more than watchmen for the morning.”
Our hope is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him we are nothing more than dead bones in a valley or dead men in the tomb. Without Him we have no hope. All too often, however, we don’t recognize our own death. We don’t see how we are being like the Pharisees by our attitudes toward others. We do not see that we are relying on our own righteousness. We don’t live as God has called us to live, full of mercy and compassion for those who are suffering, boldly speaking the Gospel message to those He will raise to new life.
Paul reminds us that when we live in this attitude we are dead, but when we live in the Spirit we will know real life and peace. In Christ we are no longer dead. “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his. If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness.”
We are going to mess up. Even after Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, she still doubted what He could. It is that way with us every day. We second guess God’s work in the world. We question His mercy, we doubt His promises. As Martin Luther put it, we are “simul justus et peccator” which means that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. However, in Christ we have been given the gift of His Spirit, which dwells in our hearts. As we are sanctified, daily growing in faith and in knowledge of the work God is doing in our lives as well as in the lives of others. While we may think someone is beyond hope today, we might see the amazing gift of God in their life tomorrow.
And because we have this hope, there is hope for others. It isn’t pointless to speak God’s Word to the world because God can, and does, bring life out of death.Looking to Jesus means looking at hope, trusting in God’s promises to bring us through. He will bring life out of death according to His good and perfect Word. And though our bodies are riddled with sin and death, Christ gives us life to live for His glory, but taking His mercy and grace to all the world.
They may not listen when we proclaim God’s Word, but they can’t hear if we don’t even try. We speak, not expecting our words will bring life, but knowing that God’s Word can raise the dead. We don’t always know exactly what will happen, but God knows. He can restore the flesh on dry bones and raise the dead out of their tombs. So, when it seems hopeless, we are called to trust in God. God can do the impossible and He will be glorified by our obedience. Are we willing to shine hope in a world that seems hopeless? Are we willing to share the Gospel even when it seems pointless?
“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on the earth (for also there is that neither day nor night sees sleep with his eyes), then I saw all the work of God, that man can’t find out the work that is done under the sun, because however much a man labors to seek it out, yet he won’t find it. Yes even though a wise man thinks he can comprehend it, he won’t be able to find it.” Ecclesiastes 8:16-17
God is with us everywhere we go. Ever since I started writing these devotions, I’ve noticed that I can find Him in the most common items or experiences. Over the years I have used examples from my trips to the grocery store, the antics of my kitties and the activities of my family. I’ve been inspired by the words of others, by the incredible things I’ve seen in nature, by stories I’ve read and places I have visited. I’ve seen God in some very extraordinary circumstances and in the ordinary hustle bustle of life. I often find myself asking, “What kind of lesson would God want me to learn from this?” or “What difference could my knowledge of God make in this situation?” Each answer gives me a new understanding of God’s actions in this world.
It is not possible for us to know everything about God. His folly is greater than our wisdom. His weakness is greater than our strength. He is eternal and almighty. But we will come to a closer relationship with God if we take the time to seek Him in every aspect of our lives. He will be our guiding hand, directing our path into righteousness and truth in our worship times, our working times, and our leisure times.
Over the years I have tried to share my observations from my own adventures in this world, both exciting and mundane. Nothing even comes close to describing the vastness of God, but each experience gives a little piece of His grace and His love for His creation. I have to admit that after all these years I struggle some days because it seems like there isn’t anything left to say. Yet, I know that I haven’t even scratched the surface. I will continue to seek God’s face, to share what I see and I hope that together we will be able to apply these observations to our lives and our Christian walk, so that we might come closer to God each moment.
“But we have this treasure in clay vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed; always carrying in the body the putting to death of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal flesh. So then death works in us, but life in you. But having the same spirit of faith, according to that which is written, ‘I believed, and therefore I spoke.’ We also believe, and therefore also we speak; knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the grace, being multiplied through the many, may cause the thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we don’t faint, but though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is for the moment, works for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; while we don’t look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-18, WEB
It is all about the point of view. I have been working on a painting, designing it as I go. It is part of my Lenten devotions. I don’t work on it every day, but I work as often as I can. Hopefully it will be finished by Easter. I didn’t plan this painting; I started with a rough idea and I have been adding and changing the parts as I go. It is a very large painting, and was going to tell the story of God, but instead of representing the Bible stories that got us to Jesus, the painting has become “the rest of the story.” It is a vision of the life we will experience with the Lord our God in eternity.
I was working on it today and I noticed something was not quite right. I can see it on the easel from my computer desk, and I often find myself just looking at it. It looks different from a distance. You can see details when you are up close, but changes are more obvious when you are far away. Sometimes I see things that need to be done after I’ve taken a photo because it flattens an image in a way that makes mistakes stand out. Today I even turned it on its side, obviously not the way it is meant to be displayed, but the new perspective helped me see what work I need to do next. I will eventually turn it upside down and somehow that will help me make decisions about the work that needs to be done.
Sometimes we have to see things from a different point of view to truly understand what is happening. This is true in art, and it is true in faith. Paul tells us to look at the pressures of life from a new perspective, to see how Jesus has made things different for us. We will struggle, but God will see us through. We will die, but just as He raised Jesus from the dead, we will be raised, too. Looking at your life through God’s promises makes it easier to face the tough times.
We are sinners in need of someone greater than ourselves to help us make something our lives, and we have the Lord who has promised to do so. Our faith in Christ, a gift from God, is just the beginning of the work that God does with us. I’m sure it doesn’t make sense that I can see the changes I need to make by looking at my painting from a different point of view, but it helps me to work the canvas to where I intend it to be. God works with us in the same way, turning us upside down and inside out so that He can transform us into the masterpiece He created and redeemed us to be. I’ve made mistakes, not only on my canvas, but also in my life, but this is just part of the process of getting to where God has promised to take me: into eternal life with my Lord Jesus Christ.