Welcome to the March 2020 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 2020
“Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God; because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:20-25, WEB
We lived in Arkansas for a few years when the children were younger. He attended a school in Little Rock that became involved with a program with Heifer International, he was even part of the video and print advertisements for the program. It was a reading challenge; the children were encouraged to seek donations for every book they read. The money in each class was combined to purchase animals to aid in the mission of Heifer International. Children continue to take on the Read to Feed Challenge, and families around the world are receiving animals that help their villages survive. The children benefit from the reading, the world benefits from the generosity of their sponsors.
The children were involved in other reading challenges in school. In England, the school had a big incentive program that ended with the principal’s head being shaved because the children read more than their goal. Other programs offered new books to the children who read. These reading programs are very positive because they encourage the children to read. Reading is good. That might seem too obvious to say, but many children do not have enough access to books, and they do not progress very well in school because they do not learn to properly read. I have enough books to fill a library, but some children do not own a single book. I remember the look of some children when they earned their prizes; they asked, “Is this really mine?” It became for them a great treasure.
Today is National Read Across America Day. I read every day. I have my daily devotions, my study texts, and my scripture readings, but I also read a lot of books for pleasure. I’m in the middle of a trilogy that I can’t read fast enough, and I’ve learned the author has several books I have not yet read. I would rather be curled up on a couch finishing the second book today so I can begin the third. I’ll find time; no one needs to encourage me to read. I do encourage you to find time to read whether it is an article in a magazine or a book you found at the grocery store. Read to your children or grandchildren. Take a book to the coffee shop and spend a few minutes immersed in a story. Settle down with a glass of wine and read a favorite book, even if it is from your own childhood. Reading is good.
The reason that today is National Read Across America Day is because it is the anniversary of the birth of one of the best writers in history: Dr. Seuss. I wrote about Dr. Seuss in this devotion many years ago, and it is still one of my favorite devotions. I reposted it several times over the past two decades. There is great wisdom in Dr. Seuss books, and though they were written for children, it would do us well to remember the lessons within.
Dr. Seuss’s real name was Theodore Seuss Geisel. He was born on March 2, 1904. Today we are celebrating the utter foolishness written by this man such as these: “Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?” “I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham.” This literature that seems to have no reason has made an incredible contribution to the education of our children. They love to read Dr. Seuss books because they have fun pictures, interesting characters and exciting stories. The catchy rhythms draw them into the stories. The repetition helps them to learn to read the simple words and patterns used. The stories, though they seem silly, are filled with life lessons that help the children learn and grow. In Green Eggs and Ham, Sam-I-am convinces his friend to try something new. After fifty pages of certain disgust at the thought of eating green eggs and ham, the gentleman discovers that he likes them.
That which seems like foolishness is filled with wisdom.
In today’s world, so much of the Christian message is viewed as foolishness. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him. Maybe today would be a good day to take a Dr. Seuss book off the shelf and read it again, to enjoy the silliness for a moment in this world that needs to see the wisdom in that which it deems foolish, remembering that God’s foolishness is always greater than human wisdom.
“Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will heal him who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your offenses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective.” James 5:13-16, ASV
You may have seen a post on Facebook, in an email, or on a website called “The Charles Schultz Philosophy.” It begins with a list of questions. You aren’t expected to answer them, but as you read through the story you’ll understand. The questions are like, “Name the wealthiest people in the world.” “Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.” “Name the last five winners of the Miss America Pageant.” “Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer prize.” “Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.” “Name the last decade’s worth of World Series winners.”
You may or may not have been able to answer one or more of those questions; some people may be able to answer a few of them, or at least part of a few of them. It is unlikely anyone can come up with all the answers without doing some research, but it is so easy these days with search engines. The philosophy suggests that these accomplishments really do not matter. “The point is, none of us remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.”
Then there is a second list of questions. “List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.” “Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.” “Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.” “Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.” “Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.”
The lesson in Schultz’s philosophy is that the people who make a difference in our lives are not the rich, powerful, or famous, but those who have touched our lives personally and in a very real way. We may try to emulate the actions of our favorite basketball player or seek the job of a rich man, but personal relationships are the ones that will truly impact us. And the impact we have is most likely to be on those who are in our little corner of the world.
So, let us keep those who are close to us in prayer and be ready with a helping hand when necessary, for you are the one they will remember when pondering their life. Look to that neighbor, teacher, pastor, friend, mother, sibling, husband, child and thank them for the impact they’ve had on your life. Appreciate their words, their prayers, and their love. We will be stronger if we focus our attention on those we can see and hear and touch, rather than depending on the rich, powerful and famous. They have been put into our lives for a purpose, to be with us through our good times and bad, to teach us grace. They are the ones who care, and they are the ones who will help us be the people we are created and redeemed to be.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 8, 2020, Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-8, 13-17; John 3:1-17
“Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.” Psalm 121:8, WEB
I went camping with my Girl Scout troop when I was a teenager. We went to a camp in a state park a few hours from our home. It was a nice park with amazing waterfalls and exhausting hikes. Our camp was at the top of the mountain, near the beginning of the string of waterfalls. We had some rain that weekend, rain that nearly washed our tents down the mountain. But the rain passed and we were able to do our hike the next day. That night we were exhausted from the climb back up the hill and the lack of sleep the night before. However, we could not help but stop and stare at the sky. We were amazed; it was so full of stars that it was difficult to distinguish between the stars and it was impossible to count them. As city girls, we were not used to seeing so many stars.
We returned home and the sky never looked the same. Like the girl in the movie, I wondered if the stars were still there. They were; they were the same stars that Abraham saw that night so long ago when God promised him more offspring than he could count in Genesis 15. I understood this promise much better after my night on the mountain. There would have been so many stars that it would have been impossible for him to count.
It was an amazing promise, especially since Abraham and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years. Abraham believed the LORD, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That righteousness was not an indication of good works or right living; the Law of Moses had not yet been written. He was righteous because he was living in a right relationship with God, dwelling in His presence. His faith was not in the promise but in the LORD who made the promise. The promise itself was ridiculous, but God is faithful. So, Abraham had faith in God; he had faith in the presence of God. Abraham did not see the fulfillment of the promise, though he did see the seed in the birth of his son. In that son he saw the promise of more, but his faith was always in God.
Today’s Old Testament lesson shows Abraham’s faith long before the promise in Chapter 15. He was still called Abram, still lived under the faith of his forefathers. The LORD God Almighty was unknown to him and his family.
Abram lived with his extended family in Mesopotamia; he had great wealth with servants, flocks, and many material possessions. He worshipped the local gods with the rest of his family and friends. Life was pretty good for Abram. One day the LORD spoke to Abram, which must have been a very strange experience for him. The gods they worshipped had no voice, no form except that which were created by human hands. This strange voice told Abram to leave his home and go to an unknown land. The voice promised Abram many blessings: he would become a great nation and be blessed, his name would be great and he would be a blessing, all those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him would be cursed. The greatest promise reached far beyond Abram himself: the entire world would be blessed through him.
We also see Abraham’s faith when God sent him to the altar of sacrifice with his son Isaac. Isaac was the seed of the fulfillment of the promise, the first of a long line of offspring that would be beyond number. Yet, Abraham obediently took Isaac, knowing that God would provide the sacrifice. God had provided the son, He would provide whatever was needed to fulfill the promise.
These amazing stories show us a man who believed and trusted God, but Abraham’s faith began and His 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?
Abram was seventy-five years old, childless except for his brother’s son for whom Abram took responsibility when his brother died. He was married, but his wife was assumed barren since she had not borne him any children. He had a life in the land where he lived and though the scriptures do not tell us, he was probably not unhappy with his circumstances. Yet, he listened to the voice and obeyed the call.
This was certainly not an easy trip. Abram, Sarai and Lot traveled many miles with a large contingent of people, animals, and things. He did not pack a small bag and set out alone into this adventure, but took all that he had with him, praising God every step of the way. He knew nothing of the voice that spoke to him and he would not see the fulfillment of all the promises. That is faith. His faith is credited to him as righteousness.
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 hear about Nicodemus three times in the book of John. Today’s Gospel lesson is the first. In the second story, which is found in John 7, the chief priests and the Pharisees were concerned about the way Jesus was speaking in the Temple. They sent officers to arrest Him. Some believed His words and others rejected them. Even the officers were divided. They went back to the chief priests and Pharisees without Him and when questioned 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.”
Nicodemus did not confess faith in Jesus. He didn’t even claim to believe Him. He did, 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 made 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 was made a saint. There 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. There were times, particularly in English history, when the dominant Church switched between Catholic and Protestant for many years. Unfortunately, those who followed “the other religion” (whichever it might be) 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 a lack of public confession and act of duplicity; he originally used the word referred to hidden Protestants in a Catholic environment, but it 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 quietly serve Jesus in the background while never really being seen as an active, faithful disciple? I think 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?
There are certainly those who are more than willing to make a public confession. Anyone who has ever seen a football game on television has seen signs saying “John 3:16” raised above the crowds beseeching people to believe in God; this timeless verse is recognized the world over. Even if they can’t quote the verse word-for-word, non-Christians know what the sign means. 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.” This is a favorite verse of many Christians.
This is a favorite passage because it shows both God’s gospel and man’s response. God loves and if we believe, we will not die. Yet, John 3:16 should not be taken without verse 17. “For God 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.
In Numbers 21, Moses was leading the Israelites through the wilderness, but the people grew impatient. They were wandering in circles. They were far from the life they had known in Egypt and did not seem to be getting anywhere. They began to complain. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, there is no water, and our soul loathes this disgusting food!” God answered their complaints by sending venomous snakes among them. Many died from their bites. I suppose it is stories like this that make some people dislike the Old Testament. What sort of loving God would do such a thing?
The people had turned away from God, no longer trusting the work He was doing in their life. They doubted His faithfulness; they spoke against Him in their complaints. They despised God’s grace. The attack of the snakes helped them to see the error of their ways. Snakes bit and they repented. They went to Moses and confessed their sin. Could it really have been that easy? They were wandering through the desert, a desert undoubtedly filled with poisonous creatures. The people probably saw them constantly, but the creatures did not attack. When they complained, God lifted His hand of protection from their presence. The snakes that were held at bay by God’s grace were free to do what they do naturally. The people needed to look to God again, to seek His grace.
God commanded Moses to create a bronze snake to lift high in the camp. All who looked upon that snake were saved. God so loved the Israelites that He sent that snake to be lifted among them, so that all who believed and looked toward it would be saved. Sound familiar? God could have simply sent the snakes away. He could have killed the snakes. He could have made them unable to bit or the venom to be non-poisonous. He gave them a sign of His grace so that they would look toward it and be saved.
God forgives. God forgives because He loves, but love is not the foundation of our faith. We are saved by God’s mercy, by His forgiveness. Nicodemus went to Jesus in darkness, seeking answers to the questions of his heart. There was something about Jesus, but Nicodemus was afraid. What did it all mean? What was He saying? Nicodemus was a teacher. He was responsible for the spiritual lives of the people, yet he could not understand what Jesus was saying. Nicodemus understood the Law. He understood the things he could grasp and the things that he could do. It is easier to respond to God’s word than it is to accept His grace. How can we be certain?
The Israelites got tired, scared, and hungry and then they began to doubt. During our own wilderness journeys we also get tired, scared and hungry. We complain. We doubt. We look away from God and try to make our own way. But God has given us His Son, lifted on a pole, so that we can see our sin and remember His grace. There, on the cross that seems to defy love, we see God’s forgiveness and our salvation.
It is an odd time of year to think about it, but this psalm reminded me of a children’s Christmas song. You know the one, “You better watch out. You better not cry, better not pout I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.” We have this image of an old guy in a bright red furry costume watching our every move. His purpose is to find out if we are being bad or good. Only the good little children will get presents under the tree on Christmas morning, so he has to know at every moment if those children are good or bad.
I suppose some people have a similar image of God. There are many non-Christians, and even a few Christians, who see Christianity as a religion of rules and the Lord as a god whose purpose is to punish wrongdoers. Some types of Christianity throughout history have made Him seem that way. Our God is not about love in the pink hearts and syrupy emotions of Valentine’s Day, but He is about love. The kind of love He gives is found in mercy and forgiveness. There is room for the rules, but there is even more room for grace.
When I read through today’s psalm, I was reminded of that creepy image of Santa Claus watching every movement of all the children. But the psalm is really the song of a pilgrim. Pilgrimages were difficult. I’ve taken enough road trips to know how much trouble you can expect along the road. I’ve had to deal with blown tires, construction, traffic jams, being lost, horrible hotels, dirty restrooms. I could go on. Sometimes it is necessary to drive long distances in one day to get to the destination. No matter how exhausted and frustrated we might become, our journeys are always much easier than it was for the pilgrims in times past.
The pilgrims in David’s day would have had to travel on foot. There were few hotel rooms available along the path. The roads were dangerous. Thieves and murderers waited around every bend for the perfect victim. The heat of the day and the cold of the night made for difficult travel. No gas stations with mini-marts were set up along the way to offer a cool drink or a restroom. The wilderness is filled with wildlife; stinging insects and hungry predators provided yet another danger to the traveler. It is no wonder that the pilgrims sought some comfort in their faith in God. He was not far; He was watching them along the way. He cared, not like Santa who looks for obedience to laws, but because He always wants the best for His people of faith.
Paul tells us that we don’t receive the gracious gifts of God because we deserve them. We can’t trust enough, believe enough, work enough to deserve God’s blessing. We don’t deserve heaven. We don’t deserve the gifts that God gives. If we deserved these things, if we have done something to earn them, then they aren’t gifts. But we receive heaven and God’s blessings because He has offered them to us and we believe Him. That’s righteousness; we aren’t righteous because we’ve done something or because we are somebody who deserves what God has given. We are righteous because we trust in God and believe what He has said.
Jesus never said we’d be blessed for our works. We are blessed because of faith. Abraham was given an incredible promise, one that is beyond anything we might expect. He was promised that his name would be great and that his offspring would become a great nation. To see the fulfillment of this promise, Abram had to leave everything he knew and loved behind and trust in God’s Word. He did not deserve what would come. As a matter of fact, he did not even see the fulfillment himself. But his offspring did. They received the promise because God is faithful. And we receive the same promise because God is faithful.
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 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 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.
It 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 done the right things. We pray for our neighbors to be blessed because they are good people who have done rightly. 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 have 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.
God invited Abram on a journey to a place he did know. He would never see the fulfillment of the promises, but he trusted God and went on that journey in faith. God may not be calling us to go to a new nation or leave behind everything we know and love, but He is inviting us on a journey of faith, too. We don’t know where the road will lead. We don’t know who we will meet. We don’t even know what we’ll be expected to do. But we can travel with Him, trusting that He knows and that we’ll end up in the Promised Land, just as He has promised. In faith we join in a journey with Abraham and share in his righteousness.
We have been blessed to be a blessing and called to look at the world in a new way. We need not worry that this journey is dangerous, for God is with us in it. Our God does not watch us like Santa Claus watching to see what we will do wrong. He watches because He loves us. He will keep our going out and coming in from this time on forevermore.
“I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not grown old on you, and your sandals have not grown old on your feet.” Deuteronomy 29:5, WEB
A local charity is looking for new or gently used shoes to help the people they serve. In response, I decided to clean my closet yesterday afternoon. My shoe pile was endless; I don’t even know how I had so many. As I pulled each one out, I considered whether I would ever wear it again. Some were covered in dust because I had not worn them for so long. I filled a large garbage bag with shoes I knew I’d never wear again. I won’t give all the shoes to the charity, though. Some were not gently used. I should have thrown them away long ago. I still have too many shoes, but I am grateful that I can share at least a few with people who need them.
I wear sneakers most of the time these days. I haven’t had reason to wear anything else for a long time, and my feet do not like anything with heels anymore. I have a few favorite styles, and I managed to buy that style in many different colors. Unfortunately, that style is no longer being made, and now my favorite shoes are become worn and uncomfortable. I am searching for something new, especially since I will need comfortable shoes for our trip to Germany. I’m sure they will be sneakers, but I need some that will feel good on my feet for long days of walking. I sure wish I could buy my favorite style again.
Decay is part of life in this world. Our clothes and shoes wear out. Food rots. Electronics stop working. Furniture falls apart. Walls crumble. The human body gets sick and eventually dies. The world around us changes as new inventions replace old technology. Designers make a better sneaker, and the old disappears. We don’t always like the change, but we find ways around it. We buy new things to replace the old and life goes on.
Imagine what it was like for the Hebrews following Moses through the wilderness. They had spent forty years wandering, waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. They had sinned against God, and the generation that left Egypt could not enter the Promised Land. They complained and argued, but the book of Deuteronomy tells us about the end of their journey. Moses taught them what it meant to be God’s people, how they were to live. He taught them God’s Word and His expectations. He reminded them that the time they spent wandering was meant to teach them to trust the God who saved them so that they would be obedient and blessed.
Imagine what it was like to realize that they clothes and shoes did not wear out for forty years. They may not have wasted as much as we do these days, but clothing should have ripped and shoes fallen apart. Yet in forty years they did not have to replace their tunics or sandals. The only food that rotted was the manna they hoarded. The wheels of their carts did not break. Their tents did not fall apart; the tent poles did not break. God might have sent them into the wilderness to wander for forty years, but He took care of them every step of the way. He knew they would have no access to new, so He did not allow the old to come to ruin.
Our clothes will rip and our shoes will fall apart. Our food will rot. The roof over our heads will fall in if we do not take care of it. God will not stop the decay around us. However, we can learn from the experience of the Hebrews who wandered in the wilderness. He will be with us, even if we have to wander a bit because we have sinned against Him. The journey is meant to teach us who He is and what He expects from us so that we will be obedient and blessed. God will take care of us in our journey. He will provide us with everything we need.
“For we know that if the earthly house of our tent is dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens. For most certainly in this we groan, longing to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed being clothed, we will not be found naked. For indeed we who are in this tent do groan, being burdened, not that we desire to be unclothed, but that we desire to be clothed, that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now he who made us for this very thing is God, who also gave to us the down payment of the Spirit. Therefore we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord; for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are courageous, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore also we make it our aim, whether at home or absent, to be well pleasing to him. For we must all be revealed before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may receive the things in the body according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, WEB
I recently visited a local art museum. As usual, I made sure to go by one of my favorite paintings, “Water Lilies” by Claude Monet. This particular painting is actually one of a series created by Monet. Many of his paintings were created from the garden at his home in Giverny, France. He built a glass walled studio that faced a pond that he filled with water lilies, and his easel was on wheels. He moved around in his studio and painted at different times of the day, catching those water lilies in different light and angles. Each painting in the series is unique even though the subject matter is the same.
Monet was part of a movement in the nineteenth century called “Impressionism.” It is one of my favorite styles of painting. What makes Impressionism different is that while the objects are recognizable, the painting simply gives an impression of the subject rather than a realistic vision of it. To get this effect, the painter often uses more color, brighter hues and leaves behind broad brushstrokes.
I have tried to paint like the Impressionists, but my style is different. I certainly can’t paint like those who can make a painting look like a photograph. I once started a painting of a butterfly, trying to copy a photographic image onto canvas. By the time I was finished, the butterfly was in a different setting, it was a different color and it had been transformed from one type of butterfly to another. The painting is lovely, but it is obviously not a snapshot of real life.
Some people are able to create works of art that seem real. Rembrandt was one of those artists; his paintings seem to be alive. He has painted a wide range of biblical images that are almost photographic in quality. He also did many portraits, all of which give such incredible detail of the model that it seems that if you touch the painting you would feel the person. Amazingly, many people try to give their photographs the character of Rembrandts paintings, to soften the edges and make them seem painted.
Rembrandt was called a genius for the way he was able to transfer a moment in time onto canvas. It takes something special to make this happen. Recently a team of researchers discovered a physical attribute of the man that may have provided a different view of the world which made it possible for him to paint as he did. He had extropia, otherwise known as a lazy eye. This is an imperfection of the eye in which one eye looks outwardly while the other looks straight. While this is a mild disability that causes some visual problems, for Rembrandt it was a blessing.
Extropia causes the person to see the world as if it were flat, like a canvas. Rembrandt did not have to translate the three dimensional world into a flat image because it was that way for him already. Depth, perspective and shadowing were not a concern because in his mind’s eye these already appeared two dimensional. Most artists have to close one eye to get this affect; they have to work to see the world in a way that can be recreated in paint.
God sees the world much differently than the human eye. He sees it through love, through mercy, and through grace. In His vision, God can see goodness in the midst of darkness, He can see potential where there seems to be none. He sees differently because He sees beyond the surface and into the heart of man. He sees beyond the moment, apart from time. He sees His creation without the cloak of sin and death. In Christ we are given a vision of what God sees: in us and in others. We are called to see the world through eyes of faith, to see it with love, mercy and grace and to act accordingly. In Christ we are to live as if we are the tabernacle of God, a dwelling place for Christ in this world so that His love, mercy and grace might be seen by others.
Rembrandt had a disability, but for him it was not a handicap. As a matter of fact, his disability became a blessing because it made it possible for him to see the world in a way that could be transferred onto canvas like no others could do. As Christians, the world sees us as having a disability; faith to the non-believer is nothing more than a crutch, a foolishness that keeps us from our human potential. However, seeing the world through faith is a gift, an incredible blessing because we can see a bit of eternity through the eyes of God in the midst of this world that is covered in sin and darkness.
“Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul. You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates; that your days and your children’s days may be multiplied in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.” Deuteronomy 11:18-21 (ASV)
My friends and I played a lot of board games when I was a child. We especially liked the game Monopoly. Of course, when we were kids we didn’t play the game according to the rules, exactly. We made it interesting. One of our rules was to put all the money into “free parking” even if it should have been placed in the bank. This built up a rather large fortune, and anyone landing on the Free Parking space got rich. It made for lengthy, very interesting games. We had games that lasted days rather than hours.
There were a few other things we did differently than is printed on the box. When I played with my children many years later, they were sure to tell me how our made up rules were all wrong. My son had read all the rules and wanted to follow them exactly, a good idea, because a game where people are following different sets of rules can be quite chaotic. But we had such fun playing our way. It is rather amazing after all these years that I remember, but we played long and often. Whenever we began a game we simply established that everyone agreed to the same rules. We never wrote them down, but we discussed the rules together and when everyone was happy we had fun.
I suppose this is a bad example to set for the kids. One of the world’s greatest problems is that everyone follows their own rules. Oh, most everyone agrees that we should not kill, but there are a million different opinions about what is meant by killing. Some consider war an unfortunate necessity while others thing there should be no war whatsoever. Some consider abortion murder, while others do not. Some believe that euthanasia is ok and others do not believe it should be allowed. As we look at our world today, we can see these disagreements about what it means have caused chaos and discord.
The LORD gave us a set of Laws, the Ten Commandments, which established the most basic rules for our relationships with one another. More laws were developed for the nation of Israel to help them deal with offenses against that Law and the broken relationships that ensued. The text from Deuteronomy talks about binding God’s Word to your hands and between your eyes. They took this literally and used phylacteries, which were boxes that held scrolls with verses from the Torah. This was a constant reminder of God’s Law.
Despite keeping God’s Word so close to them, it was impossible for God’s people to remain faithful to the covenant He had made with them. He asked His people to remember His words, to live by them every moment and if they did so they would be blessed. Yet, even then the people had difficulty agreeing about the rules. By the time Jesus came in flesh, God’s good and perfect Law had become a burden that none were able to carry.
Christ died to forgive the sins of His people. Those who could not keep the Law had only one place to go: to the cross of Christ to be released from the burden of sin and death that wreaks havoc on this world. He rose from death into new life and established a new covenant with His people, a covenant where grace is greater than the law and where we have the blessed life because of the love of Christ. He still asks us to fix His words upon our hearts, but He now does so by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now, instead of wearing God’s words in boxes or teaching our children a list of rules, we are called to live by grace and faith. In this we will be blessed.
“But the end of all things is near. Therefore be of sound mind, self-controlled, and sober in prayer. And above all things be earnest in your love among yourselves, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, employ it in serving one another, as good managers of the grace of God in its various forms. If anyone speaks, let it be as it were the very words of God. If anyone serves, let it be as of the strength which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 4:7-11, WEB
Today we remember two women who were black slaves that gained their freedom and then protested against slavery.
Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 and was named Isabella Baumfree by her parents. Sojourner was an obedient slave; even when her master was cruel, she did everything she could to please him. She believed that he could read her mind. She did more work than the other slaves and did not agree with those who talked about slavery as an injustice. Her freedom came in 1826; her master had promised to set her free on July 4th, but he reneged because he claimed she did not fulfill the work required of her. New York began the process of emancipation in 1799, which was completed in 1827. Though he did not let her go when he promised, she finished her work and one day walked away. She didn’t run, she walked, believing that it was right. She was able to take her infant daughter, but left her other children because they had not yet been legally freed. She found a home with a family who paid her master a sum to buy her services until emancipation took effect. She later sued for her son who had been sold illegally and won, making her the first black woman to win against a white man in court.
Sojourner worked within the system, believing it to be the best way to make real change happen. She worked for an evangelist and befriended others who had similar ideas about poverty and abolition. She had a life changing religious experience and became a devout Christian. She changed her name on Pentecost in 1843, believing that God had called her to preach the truth. She did not work against slavery until she became free, and even then she was patient. She knew that it would take time to change the way of the world, and she believed that it could be overcome peacefully. She became an antislavery and woman’s suffrage speaker, appearing at rallies and convincing her listeners of the truth. Her most famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman” was spontaneous and she had a very real impact with her words.
Harriet Tubman was born in 1826 and was named Araminta Ross by her parents. She also changed her name when she gained her freedom. She was respected by many because of her courage and wisdom. Harriet was also known as “Moses” because she delivered hundreds of slaves into freedom. Born a slave, her master hired her out to other people. She met a freeman, fell in love and got married. In time her master’s family was forced to sell her. Since she had been seriously injured and had failing health, no buyer could be found and her future was uncertain. She escaped to the North and freedom. Eventually she earned enough money to rent a room, furnish it, and buy clothes for her husband. She went back to convince him to join her in Philadelphia, but he refused because he had remarried.
Harriet was much different than Sojourner. She was a disobedient slave, fighting back when she was beaten by her master. One slave owner whipped her every morning, so she wore extra clothing and pretended she was hurting from the whipping. She was not patient and she worked to set other slaves free. She risked her life repeatedly to help others escape. During the days of the Underground Railroad, Harriet made at least 19 trips into the south; she helped 300 slaves escape. On one occasion, she hopped aboard a southbound train to fool her pursuers. On another, she was close enough to a former master that he would have recognized her, but she dropped the chickens she had just purchased and chased them around to hide her identity. There was a $40,000 reward posted for her capture, though she managed to remain free. She used wisdom to accomplish a great work, never turning away from God’s laws. She always prayed to God, “make me strong and able to fight.”
Both women had an incredible impact on their world, though they approached their work much differently. Their style of dress reveals their differences. Sojourner wore a white bonnet on her head, light weight dress, and a shawl over her shoulders. Harriet wore a bandana on her head and heavy coarse cotton dresses. Sojourner was demure and a powerful speaker, using her story to move the audience to tears. Harriet fought outside the system, carried a weapon, and encouraged disobedience. It is said that Harriet once “pointed the revolver at the head of the tired runaway slave who wanted to turn back, and she said, ‘Dead niggers tell no tales; you go or die!’”
Was one way better than the other? I often teach about being obedient, even if the face of suffering and injustice. Sometimes the best way to make change happen is to be patient and work subtly toward the goal. Sometimes, however, it is best to fight for what is right. One of the most interesting differences between the two women is their opinion of President Lincoln. Sojourner told him that he was doing a good job, Harriet thought he was dragging his feet and refused to meet him. They were very different, they worked differently, and yet the both led the way to change.
There are still people working for change who have very different methods. Some are like Sojourner, others are like Harriet. Is one better than the other? They were both obedient to the God they loved. I have to admit that sometimes I think my way is the better way, but we all have different gifts and personalities. We each have a purpose. God gave faith to two very different women and sent them out into the world to do their own unique ministry for Him. The person who is approaching an issue in a much different manner might just be called and gifted by God to do it that way, just as you are called and gifted according to His will. It took both types to end slavery, and it might take both types to end whatever struggles we are facing today. Trust God, pray for all those who are fighting, and walk as God has called you to live. Together we can make a difference.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 15, 2020, Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:1-9; Romans 5:1-8; John 4:5-26 (27-30, 39-42)
“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.’” John 4:42, WEB
Flight attendants have the responsibility of keeping passengers safe and comfortable during the flight. Everyone knows that this means their most important task is to serve drinks. Almost as soon as the plane is safely in the air, the flight attendants pull out the beverage cart and slowly make their way through the cabin to serve the passengers something to drink. Hydration is important during a flight because the cabin air is extremely dry, especially at high altitudes. It takes time to get a plane loaded and ready for take-off, so passengers often end up sitting for long periods of time. Thirst comes easily in those situations.
The drinks have other purpose. Those who do not like to fly look for comfort in a drink. Others need something to settle an upset stomach. Tomato juice is supposed to ward off thrombosis, a dangerous condition in which blood clots develop in the legs which can then be carried to other parts of the body and cause illness or even death. Some people prefer to order alcohol, which has a calming effect. I look forward to getting my drink, but it always seems to take forever for the attendant to get to my seat. The thirst builds as I see water and other beverages poured out for the passengers around me. Often, just as I think it will be my turn, the flight attendant turns to another passenger or takes a trip to the kitchen to restock. Thirst becomes overwhelming when there does not seem to be any relief.
The Israelites were on a difficult journey. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years, never certain where they were going or even why they were there. Though they had cried out for the salvation of the LORD in Egypt, they began to think that the life they led in slavery was better than the uncertainty of where they would get their next drink. If we think it is dry and uncomfortable aboard an airplane for a few hours, imagine what it must have been like having a million people camping in the desert with no source for water?
They began to grumble. I understand. I get pretty testy when I’m uncomfortable. I know what it is like to wish I was back at a painful place because at least it is familiar. The unknown is scary. 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?” When we are uncomfortable, we believe the worst will happen; we are thirsty so we are sure we will die.
God heard their cries, just as He heard their cries in Egypt.
Sometimes it seems like God is nowhere near to us, but He is always near. Even though it seems like the flight attendant will never get around to giving me a drink, he or she always manages to get to me in time. As thirsty as I get, I do not get thirsty enough to die. God seemed to be far away, but He knew the needs of His people. 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 the nation transform into the people God was calling them to be. He was teaching them about faith, about hope, and about relying on He who would provide for their every need. They quarreled and tested God, but He 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.
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.
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. In later days, Jesus would be the Rock from which the water flowed.
Jesus was thirsty, and He was willing to seek the help of a strange Samaritan woman.
Have you ever really thought about how quickly Jesus moved in and out of people’s lives? Their experience was often a very brief encounter but the effects were long lasting. He healed their dis-ease and cast out their demons. He taught them about the Kingdom of God and forgave their sins. Their lives were changed by just a few minutes of conversation and interaction.
The text from John is a long reading, but it is a conversation that lasted just a few minutes. Her life was completely changed by the encounter, as she realized God’s promised Messiah was the man Jesus. Her faith, built on just a few questions and answers, was shared with many in her village and then spread among the people of Samaria. When the disciples dispersed into the world to continue Jesus’ ministry, they found that Samaria already believed because faith in Jesus was established during this brief encounter.
Jesus had that kind of impact on people because He spoke words that were powerful and true. Jesus told the woman at the well that He could give her living water. This was significant to the woman, whose noontime trip to the well would produce stale and muddy water. See, she was outcast from the rest of the village, perhaps because of her living arrangement. We learn during the conversation that she had been the wife of five husbands and that she was currently living with a man who was not her husband. Whatever the reason, she waited until the heat of the day to go to the well. The best time to draw water is in the early morning; during the night the silt which is stirred by the buckets settles and the water is a little cooler after the night.
The trip to the well was more than a chore for the women, though. It was a time to socialize, to gather gossip, perhaps trade recipes. It was a time for the women to bond, to complain about their husbands, to share their hopes. Not only did the woman at the well have to deal with dirty water, she missed the companionship of the other women. Did she go later in the day because she was unwelcome? Or was she embarrassed by her circumstances and chose to avoid the women? Either way, I doubt she was interested in meeting a man at the well, especially a man like Jesus.
On this day, though, she was given a gift. She met Jesus and He changed her life. The living water of Jesus would not quench her thirst, but it would quench her need for relationship, first with Him and then with others in her community. Despite being an outsider, the people believed that she may have met the Messiah for whom they were waiting. They believed her story enough to go out to the well to meet Him, too.
Her faith did not come easily. She was hesitant at the beginning. He reached her by asking her for the one thing she could give, water from the well. There is such joy and fulfillment in doing something for others, but she was probably not given many opportunities to help her neighbors. She seemed uncertain about whether or not she wanted a relationship. She was defensive, perhaps embarrassed because her life was in shambles and afraid that He might treat her poorly.
I wonder how she felt when she neared the well and saw Jesus sitting there. I wonder if she thought about turning around. Yet, the well was a long way and she would have wasted so much time. Did she try to avoid his eyes? Did her body language speak to the walls that divided the two people who shared a common need? After all, the Jews and the Samaritans did not share anything. She was also a woman – it would have been improper for them to speak. He should not have asked anything of her or taken anything she might have offered.
She did not turn around; she went to the well to get her water. Even if she tried to avoid His eyes, Jesus spoke to her. “Give me a drink.” We don’t know the tone of her voice when she said, ““How is it that you, being a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” Was she shocked or frightened? Were the words challenging or was her tone of voice submissive? There may have been a sense of compassion; after all they were two people who shared a common need: water. Jesus’ request opened the door for conversation. He was waiting by the well because they had a divine appointment. He was there to share the kingdom of God with her but she needed to be invited into the conversation.
Jesus answered, “f you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Now, Jacob’s well was an ancient well, perhaps two thousand years old. It obviously still had water or else she would not have been there. Although well water is cool and relatively clean, there is nothing better than flowing water. When Jesus talked of living water, she probably thought he was referring to a spring. She wanted to know where He found such water. It had to be close, He had no bucket and he could not get into the well. She said, “Are you greater than our father, Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his children and his livestock?”
Jesus and the Samaritan woman shared a common ancestor and the question may have changed the atmosphere at the well. Samaritans were half-breeds; they were Jews that had mixed with other nationalities. They were put down by the Jews, cast out of the religious fellowship that was their birthright. They had established a religious home of their own, founded upon the life of Jacob. Jesus was offering something better: living water. She must have been taken aback that He, who was out of His element, was insinuating that He was better than Jacob.
Then she heard about the water. “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” This is definitely better water, because it means that she will never have to return to the well or carry heavy buckets of water to her home. She said, “Sir, give me this water.”
The conversation began with Jesus stating His need for water from the woman who had the ability to give it to him, and then it was turned around to the woman stating her need for the water which Jesus had to give. She still thought it was water that would satisfy her physical needs. Jesus had something different in mind.
To receive this living water, she had to be honest about herself. Jesus said, “Bring your husband.” She didn’t lie by saying that she had none, but she did not fully reveal herself to Jesus. He answers, “You said well, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands; and he whom you now have is not your husband. This you have said truly.” Her perception of this man at the well was changed by Jesus’ comment. She no longer saw Him as a stranger or an enemy, but rather now she saw that He was a prophet.
They have a common ancestor, but they do not worship the same. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” She wanted to know what made them so different. Why were there two places to worship God and two ways to do so? Why are they outcast; why were they set aside and rejected from fellowship with other children of Abraham? Why would the conversation Jesus was having with her make a Jew unclean? Why did the Jews think they were better than others?
Jesus told her that worship is not about where or who you are, but rather it is about knowing the One whom you worship. The Samaritans had lost touch with the God of their Fathers. They only held to the Books of Moses. They only knew the Law; they did not know the prophets. They did not know about the salvation that was to come from God. He answered her questions with the promise that the day was coming when the walls that divide the people of God would be torn down because God would bring reconciliation to His people. “But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshipers.”
According to this story, the woman had some knowledge of the Messiah but she did not fully understood what the Messiah would mean to the world. However, they too - the Samaritans - were waiting for someone to teach them and help them to make sense of the things of God. Jesus answered, “I am he, the one who speaks to you.”
This is an incredible revelation and she was the first to hear it proclaimed. She was startled by the return of the disciples who quickly challenge her presence. “What is she doing here?” She left so quickly she forgot her water jar, and she went into the city unconcerned about what others might think. “Come, see a man who told me everything that I did. Can this be the Christ?” Many in that town believed and they 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.”
The disciple were confused by the interaction between Jesus and the woman. Why was He talking with the woman? Why wasn’t He hungry? Surely He had not eaten some food she might have given Him. Jesus continued to break down the walls between people, separating flesh from spirit. Worship and obedience to God, had nothing to do with the rules they had established for themselves. Rather it was about rejoicing and praising God together that the work of God was being accomplished in the lives of His people. There was something more important than meeting the physical needs of people happening in Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus drew her into the relationship by offering her something greater than He was asking from her. Slowly, but surely, He developed a connection with her that was based on far more than her ability to serve Him. She was everything that He should have hated: a Samaritan, a woman and a sinner. Jesus saw beyond the surface and met her deepest needs. She took His grace and shared it with the people of her village, people who had made her an outcast. They believed her and then believed in Jesus.
There are places where you can go to hunt for treasure. Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas is one of those places. For a few dollars, everyone can go dig through a field that has been known to produce some of the most beautiful diamonds in the world. You get to keep whatever you find. It isn’t easy. We spent hours digging in the dirt one time and found just a few pretty rocks. However, we did not try very hard. To do a thorough search, you have to dig up buckets of dirt and take them to a sluice to wash because they are often covered with dirt. It takes patience and water to find the gemstones. We might have even had a diamond in our hands without knowing what it was. Nothing we saw looked like the diamonds we find in the jewelry store, the ones that are cleaned, cut, and polished. A diamond in the rough might get tossed away because it does not look like we might expect.
We are diamonds in the rough. We are like buried and worthless treasures that are dug up by our Lord Jesus Christ, who finds us and cleans us and then takes us through the process of making us a beautiful jewel. It is hard sometimes. We are tested. We fail. We won’t be perfect in this world. But Jesus doesn’t throw us away. He keeps with it, polishing, cutting, forming, always moving forward. The process might be like the wilderness journey of the Israelites, with testing and suffering and doubt. It might be like the conversation with the woman at the well, with questions and a change in understanding. However our faith journey appears to the world, it is a faith journey because God travels with us.
Paul wrote about peace in today’s epistle lesson. For some many of us, peace comes when everything is perfect. 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. Too many preachers suggest that if you appear successful, then God’s hand must surely be on you. They see suffering as a sign that something is wrong between man and God. However, Paul gives us a different perspective. He says, “Not only this, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope: and hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope. We don’t end with peace, or gain peace when everything is perfect. We begin with peace (verse 1), knowing that God has justified us through grace which we have through Jesus Christ. Having that peace does not mean we will never experience anything that is bad. 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 suffering that stands as a sign of their faith to the world.
What is most amazing about this is that we are really very small and inconsequential. While most of us are able to recognize that we are a just a tiny spot on the face of the earth, we also forget our insignificance. There are times when we think that the entire creation revolves around us. This is especially true when we are in the midst of some sort of suffering. The Israelites in the wilderness knew nothing but their thirst. They did not remember their suffering in slavery or God’s deliverance from Egypt. They knew only that they needed water. At Meribah and Massah they were reminded of God’s presence and His grace. In the midst of their suffering, God was there ready to meet their needs.
I have been awed by the endlessness of water, land and sky. There are times and places where they seem to go on forever. To experience the vast wilderness of earth is enough to make a person feel very, very small. I am even more awed by the fact that everything was made by God. And though God made the heavens and the earth, though He created the vast oceans, the land and all that lives, though He controls it all with His hands, He also knows my name. He gave me that name, child of God, daughter of the Most High. As I sit here feeling rather insignificant, I realize that through Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior, the God of all creation has given me a share of His eternal kingdom which is even more awesome than anything I can see on earth. We are reminded that even though we are little more than a speck on the face of this earth, no matter what our circumstances that God is near and that He is ready to meet our needs.
As we live in God’s promises, even when we fail to be faithful, we can rest in the knowledge that He will never fail. He is faithful even when we are not. There we find peace. It begins in the waters of baptism and continues as Jesus floods us with the living water that sanctifies us during our journey through life in this world.
Those who do not trust in God do not know the peace He has given through Jesus. When we look to God as the rock of our salvation, we can be reconciled to one another and to God by the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. Moses tapped the rock and water flowed, but Jesus is the rock from which the Living Water flows. We can live in the hope He gives through faith. We can partake of the living water which is so much better than the water that is left to stagnate and poison our souls. We can share that flowing water with others because Jesus has broken down the walls that have divided us for so long. “Let’s come before his presence with thanksgiving. Let’s extol him with songs!”
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 our needs. He has even given His Son for our sake. “For Yahweh is a great God, a great King above all gods.”
Jesus went to the well for a divine appointment that changed a life and a city. He called out to the woman 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 grumbling, 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 wrote, 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.”
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.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you. In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples.” John 15:1-8, WEB
The Bible often uses the example of the vine and vineyard, usually representing God’s people or the relationship between God and those who are His. Most of us do not have any experience with grapevines or vineyards, besides enjoying a glass of wine or visiting a tasting room. I doubt there are many vineyard owners who are readers of this devotion.
It was a common subject in the scriptures because the ancient peoples were more familiar with vines. They did not have a local grocery store where they could buy a bottle of wine whenever they wanted one. They also had more limited choices for things to drink. They did not drink water because it was unhealthy; fermented drink was best because the impurities were killed in the fermentation process. The wine they drank would most likely have been locally produced, on a vineyard that the people would have passed on a regular basis. When Jesus, or any of the prophets, spoke about vines, they were familiar enough to understand.
As I was reading some websites about vineyards, I realized that creating wine is a very difficult process. The grapevines take a great deal of tender loving care and patience. It usually takes three years to produce fruit, with some vines barren up to six years. The vines should be carefully pruned and trained to grow along a trellis or wires. Wine grows best in the dirt that other plants dislike, like rocky hillsides with low yielding soils. It costs a lot of money to start a vineyard and it takes many years before a vintner even sees a return on his investment. It takes many vines to make one good bottle of wine. It seems strange that such difficult agriculture would be the example that Jesus would use when talking about the relationship between God and His people.
Though we are not familiar with grapevines or with vineyards, these are the perfect type of fields to use as an example of God's relationship with His kingdom. After all, aren’t we all difficult to tend? Aren’t we like that low yielding soil, like a steep hillside full of rocks? We take careful pruning and it takes a long time for us to produce good fruit. God, the faithful vineyard owner, cares for us lovingly and with patience, working the soil, pruning us perfectly. And like the vineyard, it takes far more than one person to produce the good works God has called us to do in this world.
Jesus says that He is the vine and we are His branches. In a vineyard it is hard to discern which branches come from which trunk, as they weave together over the years. So too do we grow together as we share our life of faith in the vineyard. However, we will not live or produce fruit if we are cut away from the vine. We are called into fellowship with Christ and with one another, working together to share God's kingdom with the world. As we look at the vine, we are reminded that we do not live in faith alone, but rather we are woven together with Christ and with other Christians to glorify God with the fruit we produce.
“Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I tell you, I speak not from myself; but the Father who lives in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me; or else believe me for the very works’ sake. Most certainly I tell you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and he will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father. Whatever you will ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.” John 14:10-14, WEB
St. John writes at the end of his accounting of the life of Jesus, “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written.” The four gospels are full of the miraculous things that Jesus did. Besides healing their ills, He fed thousands, raised people from the dead, stopped storms, walked on water and cast out demons. He healed lepers and made the blind see. Early in His ministry people were coming great distances to bring their sick and lame to Him to be healed. They went to great lengths. One group of men made a hole in the roof of a house to lower their friend into Jesus’ presence. He did many miraculous things.
As I read the words in today’s passage, I often wonder why the Church is not doing the same miraculous things Jesus did. I think there are many reasons. First of all, we have forgotten that God gives such miraculous powers. Perhaps we are afraid to ask for these things, out of fear that we will look foolish or that we will be disappointed. God has given doctors and nurses the ability to heal scientifically, so we do not look toward the supernatural for healing. When a Christian dies, why bother bringing them back into this world of sin and evil when they have gone home, where we all long to be?
Jesus said we would do miracles and even greater things. What are the greater things? He did not only heal the sick and bring life to the dead. He brought hope to the lost, love to the lonely and forgiveness to those who sin. By His death on the cross and resurrection into new life, He gave us all eternal life in Him. Though we should be open to the great and wonderful things Jesus can do through us for the glory of God our Father, we are still doing those greater things. By sharing the Gospel message with the lost and lonely, we bring them true life and spiritual healing.
Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name...” We believe and trust these words, but then we pray for things that we do not receive. Why didn’t God keep that storm from destroying my roof? Why did my little one die from a heart problem? Why did I lose my job? We don’t understand, especially when we have prayed in faith for God to make things right according to our hopes.
The answer to the question is found in yesterday’s passage. Jesus taught that He is the vine and we are the branches; anyone that is part of the vine will experience God’s grace. But here’s the thing: if we are part of the vine, then we will bear what the vine puts forth. In other words, we can’t pray, and expect to be blessed, for anything against God’s will. If we are connected to Jesus by faith, then we will ask what He will provide. “Thy will be done,” we pray. So, it does us no good to pray for God to give us a million dollars if it is not His will to do so. If God tells us to move a mountain, and we pray that He will help us do so, then that mountain will certainly be moved. Our problem is that we often pray our will and then we are disappointed when it is not answered.
Jesus will do what we ask; we can trust in His faithfulness. Let us remember, however, to remain connected to the source of all goodness, to abide in Him and to seek His will. Our prayers will be heard and answered, and we will be blessed to see His faithfulness when we pray God’s will in Jesus’ name.
“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do. Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body, and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord.” Colossians 3:12-17, WEB
David Milton was a merchant seaman during World War II. His ship was carrying Sherman tanks to Europe when it hit a storm. The tanks broke loose from their holdings. As the ship rocked to and fro, the tanks slid back and forth banging against the walls, tearing the ship apart. The sailors managed to resecure the tanks by lashing them down with cables, and the ship continued on its way. The greatest stress on the ship came not from the war to which it was going or the storm that blew outside, but from within the heart of the ship.
As we think about our modern world, peace is something that is very hard to come by. In international relations, there is always some country or regime that is threatening violence against another nation or their own people. War is a constant factor in the lives of many people. Even in America, we are constantly faced with the possibility that our men and women on active duty will be deployed.
We also see a lack of peace in our daily relations with people in our own neighborhoods and families. Violence and crime are an ever-growing danger in our cities and our towns. People are quick to sue a friend or a neighbor to get what they want. Divorce is rampant. Our children are facing the most difficult issues that have ever been put before young people: drugs, sexual disease, bullying, and single parent families. These things are not only found in the inner city, but also in rural areas. “Reality TV” producers provide the most popular television programs, shows that pit neighbor against neighbor in battles for power, money or fame. How can one person possibly find peace in our society today?
And of course, let’s not forget the struggles we are dealing with right now. There is no peace found even in the grocery store. We are afraid. People are hoarding. We are angry and upset. We are frustrated. We do not know what tomorrow will hold. Some of it is foolish, but there is reason to be concerned and careful. There is reason to be prepared. How do you find peace when you can’t find answers to the most pressing questions of the day?
Charles Spurgeon once asked, “Do you know what it is, when you are tossed on the waves, to go down into the depths of Godhead, there rejoicing that not a wave of trouble ruffles your spirit, but that you are serenely at home with God your own Almighty Father?” This is peace. We live in a chaotic world, yet we have a peace within our souls that is beyond understanding. We may never be able to bring peace to our world, cities, neighborhoods or even our families, but we can share the peace of Christ.
It is said, “Peace begins with me.” As the ship that was tossed to and fro on the ocean needed its cargo battened down inside, so too must we have an inner calm to face the storms of life. True peace is not something we can create on the outside, but rather something that comes from the inside. We share the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that all might have the inner peace needed to face the chaos. In Christ, we are clothed with those traits that will promote peace rather than desire the things that will make us happy in our flesh. As Christians, we are sons and daughters of God called to join Him in the work of reconciliation, bringing others into a relationship with Christ in whom they too will become His children of peace. The world seeks peace between nations, but true peace comes from within, through the love, mercy and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“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 is made full.” 2 Corinthians 10:1-7, WEB
I once received an email offering the “true” story about Patrick driving the snakes from the shores of Ireland. This mailing came from a person who was a pagan. The myth claims that Patrick beat a drum and caused all the snakes to dive into the sea. Another legend claims that there was one ornery serpent that refused to go. Patrick made a box and told the serpent to get inside. The serpent claimed it was too small. Patrick was certain he would fit, so the serpent said he would prove it by getting inside. When the serpent was in the box, Patrick slammed the lid shut and threw the box into the sea.
Ireland never had snakes, so this story has no truth in it, or does it? According to the email I received, Christians used the snake as a symbol of paganism. Apparently the “snakes” driven from the shores were people, not animals, and that Patrick committed genocide to rid the island of the non-believers. The writing claims that many people died at the hands of Patrick.
Though I have not found any record of such genocide in the history of Ireland, in a spiritual sense this story may be very true. As Patrick neared death, he shared his testimony in a statement called “The Confession of St. Patrick.” In this writing, he tells of his life in bondage of slavery, his escape, his training in missionary work and his return to the land of his captors. After he’d been in Ireland for a number of years, he 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 28 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.” Patrick writes that by the help of God, 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. 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, the pagan writer was right, Patrick killed the pagans: spiritually. It wasn't genocide; it was the Gospel Jesus Christ. While the letter writer is mourning the death of his spiritual ancestors, we can rejoice with the angels at those who have found true life in Christ because of St. Patrick. 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
There will be some offended by the message in today’s writing, to see death so boldly proclaimed. Yet, we are fighting a spiritual battle. God’s Word has the power to kill and to bring to life. Patrick has been honored over the centuries as a man who brought life to the island of Ireland. Today there is someone who wants to place blame on this man for the death of many. Let us take that thought and make it captive and obedient to Christ! Patrick brought death to the Irish. Even more so, however, he brought true life, that which was bought by the blood of our Lord Jesus.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 22, 2020, Fourth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 42:14-21; Psalm 142; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
“He therefore answered, ‘I don’t know if he is a sinner. One thing I do know: that though I was blind, now I see.’” John 9:25, WEB
The disciples asked a question that I suppose we might ask, too. Why was the man blind? Was his blindness a punishment for sin? Who was the sinner, his parents or himself? Sadly, there are actually people in our world today who are blaming the current virus on sinful people. The details don’t matter; it is the same thing anytime something horrific happens. Someone, somewhere, asks “Whose fault is this?” as if God is punishing us all for someone’s sinfulness.
It was common thought in Jesus’ day that those who were sick, we being punished by God, so it is not surprising that the disciples would ask the question. Jesus answered, “This man didn’t sin, nor did his parents; but, that the works of God might be revealed in him.” God is able to use any circumstances to do extraordinary things in this world. In this case, God was going to use the eyes of a man born blind to open the eyes of those who thought they could see. This story is not about the man or his parents. It is not even about the healing. It is about God being revealed to the world.
Jesus said that He is the light of the world. As light, He reveals things that are not seen in darkness. In this story, the blindness of the man did not reveal sin in his life, but actually shined light on the sin in those who thought themselves to be sinless. Their sin was that they did not see Jesus as He is or believe that He the one for whom they were waiting.
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 as 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.
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 they had it all wrong; their self-righteousness led them far from God.
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. God isn’t punishing us, but if we do not repent, we’ll experience the consequences of our disobedience. Too many people respond like those in our Gospel story, rejecting Jesus. They continue to walk in the darkness.
This lengthy passage does not focus on the actual healing, which only covers a few verses, but on the trial that came after. First the man was questioned by his neighbors who did not believe he was the same man. Those neighbors took the man to the Pharisees who continued to question him about the healing. The Pharisees went to the man’s parents to question them. They had no answers and were afraid so they told the Pharisees to ask him since he’s old enough to speak for himself. Through it all, they insisted that Jesus was a sinner and that the man should reject him and give glory to God.
The man said, “I don’t know if he is a sinner. One thing I do know: that though I was blind, now I see.” The man focused on the miraculous gift he had received through Jesus while the Pharisees continued to look at this through their misunderstanding of the Law.
This was a troubling miracle for the religious leaders. There was an expectation that the Messiah would be able to accomplish things that were impossible for others. Though they had the responsibility for the spiritual and physical well-being of God’s people, they could not accomplish four things.
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 priests. 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 demons if they knew its name, and so when dealing with a possessed person they asked the demon to identify itself; then they could proceed by call it by name and cast it out. However, a mute person with a demon cannot speak its name. 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 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 always 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 the Messiah 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. They were desperate 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 disappeared for most of the trial, as the Pharisees interrogated 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.
No one in this story wanted to believe that Jesus was the Messiah because His preaching was turning their world upside down. He was teaching a new understanding of God, of sin, of the Law, and of faith. He was healing people without the usual requirements of the Law. He was bypassing their authority. He was claiming to be God.
When the Pharisees hurled insults at the man, “You are one of his disciples. We are disciples of Moses,” the man answered, “How amazing! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God, and does his will, he listens to him. Since the world began it has never been heard of that anyone opened the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Jesus opened the man’s eyes and his heart. He believed in the truth about God, about God’s plan for the world, and about Jesus Christ. The Pharisees claimed to see; yet they were truly blind to the truth.
Unfortunately, the Pharisees refused to see their sinfulness. We understand; it is uncomfortable having our sin revealed. We have a problem understanding it as an act of grace and mercy. 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.
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 and using the lessons learned to help others deal with theirs. As the light shines, it will reveal that which is hidden in the darkness, calling others to wake and rise from the dead.
The line of questioning might have been designed to make the man and the onlookers doubt that God was involved in this healing, but it did the exact opposite for the man. In the beginning, he did not even know who healed him. He knew it was Jesus, but he couldn’t pick him out in the crowd. Jesus disappeared before he could see. In the beginning of the questioning, the man didn’t know anything except that he could see. By the end, he was confessing faith in Jesus. He glorified God by identifying Jesus as the Messiah. “I was blind and now I see.” Whatever the cause of the man’s blindness, he fulfilled the very purpose of his life: to glorify God.
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.
What is truly amazing about this story from the Gospel lesson is that Jesus did more than heal a man blind from birth. He healed a man who was suffering something even greater: he believed that he was worthless and hated by God. Jesus did not need to send the man to the Pool of Siloam. He could have grabbed water from someone nearby and splashed his face. He could have made the healing happen in some other way. It was not the water that healed the man; the Word of God did the work.
This man needed far more than physical healing. He needed spiritual cleansing. He’d been blind from birth, convinced by the world that he was a sinner unworthy of anything spiritual. He would have been healed, but uncomfortable with entering into the lives of the faithful because nothing was changed. He was no longer blind, but how could that overcome a lifetime of rejection?
The Pool of Siloam was located very close to the Temple; it was even connected to the grounds by a road that ran between the two. It was a place for ritual cleansing, used for making the priests clean for their duty serving God. The waters were so pure that it was said that even a leper would be healed by them, yet can you imagine the priests allowing a leper into the water? Social distancing was a part of life even then. The way they looked at illness and disease, they may have thought that someone like the blind man would make their water unclean.
He needed more than just physical healing. He needed cleansing that would purify him before God and make him right with his Creator. Jesus sent him to the Pool so that he could be spiritually cleansed to be ready to live life fully among God’s people. In that washing, a type of baptism, the man entered into the life of the community of faith. Jesus made him whole again, giving him the assurance he never had: that he was right with God.
See, righteousness is not as the religious leaders claimed. Righteous was about being in a right relationship with God. The man did not need to be healed of his blindness to see God properly, but he’d been convinced that he was blind because he was a worthless sinner. In this story we see that he was never worthless, that he always had a purpose. His purpose was to glorify God. His purpose was to help those who thought they were not blind see that they were blind to the truth.
We were once blind, but now we see. We are children of light. Throughout the questioning after his healing, the man discovered what it meant to believe in Jesus. We grow in our faith, too, as we live our life in this world. As we grow in our faith in Christ, we see how we must change to be all that God intends for our life. We see, by His Word, that the things of darkness are not fruitful and so we turn to the things in the light. That is why we practice disciplines like we do during Lent: to grow in our faith and mature into the people God has created and saved us to be. As we pray, study, fast and worship, His light reveals the world as He sees it, so that we might repent and walk according to His ways. The darkness is revealed by the light. When we see the truth, we are set free to live according to God’s Law as He meant us to live: in the glorious light of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“For I say through the grace that was given me, to every man who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think reasonably, as God has apportioned to each person a measure of faith. For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members don’t have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another, having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us: if prophecy, let’s prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or service, let’s give ourselves to service; or he who teaches, to his teaching; or he who exhorts, to his exhorting; he who gives, let him do it with generosity; he who rules, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:3-8, WEB
“Gilligan’s Island” was a television show that ran from 1964 to 1967. It was about seven people who were stranded on an uncharted desert island after a terrible storm struck their three hour boat tour. The guests and crew were unusual group: a skipper, the first mate, a professor, a pretty country girl, a movie star, a millionaire and his wife. Each episode consisted of some crazy attempt to get off the island which always failed. Gilligan always received the blame for the screw-up but then in the end he managed to redeem himself with some solution to the problem created by the mistake.
If you were to choose a leader on Gilligan's Island from amongst the guests and crew, Gilligan would be your last choice. The Skipper, as the captain of the boat, generally was looked upon as the leader based on his position and knowledge of the sea. The Professor was the brains behind the man, always offering some intellectual answer to the question they faced. Mr. Howell, the millionaire, was like the CEO of the island; he never lifted a finger to help but had plenty of suggestions on how to make things better for himself. The girls - Ginger the movie star, Mary Ann the country girl and Mrs. Howell - each had their own leadership skills and talents to offer the castaways. Gilligan was second to everyone, always the Indian to all the chiefs.
The irony of it all is that if Gilligan were given the chance to lead the group they probably would have escaped the island during the first episode. Though he appeared to be the bumbling idiot, he was actually the one person who had practical solutions to their problems. Though he was blamed for the failure of their crazy plans, it is Gilligan that would have provided the sensible plan that would have worked. However, since he was the weakest of all the castaways – at least in their eyes – he was never given the chance.
If you were to choose a leader on Gilligan’s Island, who would it be? Would you choose according to the person’s position, intelligence, wealth, beauty, talents or mothering instinct? You most likely would not choose Gilligan because he appeared to be second to everyone else in those virtues. He was the weakest castaway, at least in the eyes of his peers and those watching the television show. Yet, I can imagine that Gilligan is the very person that God would have chosen and anointed to lead the people. God looks beyond the surface. He does not choose according to appearances; He looks deeper.
While Gilligan was not the one with the greatest position, intelligence, wealth, beauty, talent, or instinct, he had a measure of all those virtues. It wasn't noticeable compared to the others because they were indeed greater than him in their own virtue. They all thought they were better than Gilligan. However, they all had only one virtue, but Gilligan had them all. While the Skipper was the leader on the sea, he had no skills on land. The Professor’s intelligence was inadequate without common sense. Mr. Howell’s wealth was useless. Ginger’s beauty had no value on the island. Mary Ann’s talents were limited in their circumstances. The only one willing to accept Mrs. Howell’s mothering was Gilligan. Gilligan had so much to offer the entire group, something worthwhile, and in the end it was always Gilligan who saved the day.
Every person in God’s Kingdom has a purpose. We all have gifts that God has given us to use to continue His work in the world. Throughout the scriptures we see how God calls the least among their peers, men and women who would never appear to be worthy to do His work in the world. Their failures may seem too bad to overcome, but somehow God managed to use them in extraordinary ways. He can do the same for you and I. He can take our bumbling failures and make great things happen. It just takes faith, trusting that God knows what He is doing and being obedient to Him.
“Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know that Yahweh, he is God. It is he who has made us, and we are his. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 100, WEB
When it comes to the fine arts, I confess that I’m more interested in art than music. I like to see the beauty, the color, the creativity with my eyes. I like music, but I suppose my complete lack of musical talent is why I turn to tangible paint and canvas rather than works with notes and sound. It is impossible to live without music, though. There is always something playing in the background when you go to the grocery store. Though I sometimes listen to talk radio, I often switch to a music station when the topic isn’t very interesting. I have found myself turning on the radio more and more because there is nothing interesting on television.
Despite my preference for art over music, I do enjoy the liturgy at church. I think that is going to be one of the difficult parts of our current situation. Many churches are planning to do worship online, but many are going to focus more on the scriptures, the sermon, and the prayers. It is hard to do music with limited people in the church creating the video. Few people have the hymns memorized, and even fewer people have hymnals at home. Our church has been live streaming Sunday worship for several years, but even so the circumstances may require changes in the way they provide worship. We’ll see what happens on Sunday.
Martin Luther firmly believed in the power of music. He wrote, “If any man despises music, as all fanatics do, for him I have no liking; for music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men. Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful. Then one forgets all wrath, impurity and other devices.” He also wrote, “I wish to compose sacred hymns so that the Word of God may dwell among the people also by means of songs.” His hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” was inspired by Psalm 46, scripture that celebrates the security of living in the refuge of God. Millions have sought comfort in the words of that song, for the eternal truth of God’s presence has been written on our hearts through the power of the music.
We don’t have to wait for worship on Sunday to sing the liturgy or the hymns and songs that praise God. The book of Psalms is filled with the hymns that Jesus would have sung, hymns that speak of all that concerns our lives. It might seem hard to sing a song of joy when we are frightened and frustrated, but this is exactly the moment to sing a song of praise. Today’s psalm especially speaks of the joy we have in the Lord who has done great things for us. We can trust in Him. We can praise Him, even when the world around us seems out of control. God is greater than our chaos.
Praise the Lord today. Sing of His glory and His love. Hum the tunes of your favorite hymns and break out in the words of “Jesus loves me.” God has written His Word on our hearts, and we can easily reach for those words in the songs that we hold dear. In our singing, we keep God close to us, remembering His truth and sharing them with the world. Shout for joy and sing joyful songs, give Him thanks and praise His name!
“That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we saw, and our hands touched, concerning the Word of life (and the life was revealed, and we have seen, and testify, and declare to you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was revealed to us); that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us. Yes, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ. And we write these things to you, that our joy may be fulfilled.” 1 John 1:1-4, WEB
I have to confess that I like to watch the ghost hunters shows on television. I prefer some over the others; I like when they use science and reason to work out what they are actually seeing. There are often some unexplainable things that happen to them, but many of the claims they are investigating can be rationally explained. They find car lights cast odd shadows, or the wind causes doors to move without anyone realizing it. Sometimes the music or voices come from a distant part of the building, but the sound carries in unexpected ways. We don’t completely understand the paranormal, but many of the things we think are other worldly are usually nothing to fear.
You might recall the television show “Scooby Doo.” The storyline involved some kids at who worked at a group called Mystery Inc.; they were ghost hunters hired by people and businesses to solve a mystery that was affecting their lives. The kids found themselves in the most unbelievable situations, with some sort of “spirit” creating havoc for their employers; they had to stop the ghost to save the business. Daphne was always kidnapped by the ghost and somehow Scooby and Shaggy always stumbled into the truth. In the end, the ghost was never really something from another world, but a guy in a mask trying to take over or destroy the business. It was the job of the gang at Mystery Inc. to discern the spirits and solve the problem.
God has an enemy, and that enemy has helpers who are determined to keep people from having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Satan has been roaming for many generations, deceiving people with lies about God, twists of the truth that lead people astray. False prophets give a false Gospel to people who do not know the truth and who willingly follow this destructive path. Fortunately, God gives us the ability to discern between spirits, to know who come from God and who are from the enemy. God makes it possible for us to remove the mask from those who are trying to destroy God’s work in the world.
This takes more than a fancy gadget like the ghost hunters use and it won’t come to us accidentally one day. It takes prayer and Christian fellowship, worship and time in God’s Word. We are not like those who walked with Jesus. We don’t have Him in the flesh at our dinner table. We have to rely on those who have come before, to read their words and to experience God’s grace through their witness. They gave the faith to the next generation, and then it was passed from mothers to sons and from fathers to daughters. Generation after generation have received God’s Word to share with the next, so that we will follow Jesus and reject the spirits who would do us harm.
As Christians, we are called to live in fellowship with those who have also heard God’s message of grace through the witness of the saints that have come before us. Through the Word of God given us by them - from the apostles to our parents and every Christian in between - we receive the blessings of life in Christ, becoming one in fellowship with Him even while we live in this world. Our faith, the manifestation of God’s Word in our life, identifies us with the Father, the Son and the Spirit, so that we will be one with God and with all those who have walked in faith. As we share our identity in Christ with others, through our own celebration of our fellowship with God, we draw others into our body and make them one with Him and us for eternity. We will all find joy in Christian fellowship as we share what we have learned with others.
“This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:5-10, WEB
I imagine that everyone is finding creative ways to keep busy during this time we are shut in. The Internet has provided ample opportunities for visits to museums, zoos, and concert halls. Educators are providing plenty of lessons for children of every age. My Feed has been filled with inspirational messages, articles, and photos. Pastors are offering Bible studies and videos to help keep us focused on God. Of course, not everything needs to be on the Internet. We are doing a lot of reading these days, besides our Lenten and daily devotions. I just finished a book about Martin Luther and I’m getting ready to take on some resources as I start writing and planning future classes and retreats. We are watching some TV, but not really as much as we expected.
I do have to admit that I spend too much time playing games on my tablet. I have been good, and I have not opened the apps I gave up for Lent, but I’m still playing a few. Two of the apps are word games, so I justify playing them to keep my brain strong. I occasionally open up another game called Sudoku, which I’m sure you’ve heard of. It is very addicting, but is also good for brain health.
The game consists of a graph containing nine boxes of nine boxes and there are numbers in some of the boxes. The object of the game is to fill each of the nine boxes with the numbers one through nine. The numbers one through nine also must appear in every row and column. Therefore, there will be no repeated number in any box, row or column.
The first time I tried Sudoku, I thought there was some mathematical solution to the situation. I tried adding numbers together to find the solution, but it did not make any sense. I gave up and decided to leave Sudoku to others; I quickly learned that it is not a mathematical problem, but rather a logical one. As you look at the numbers that are already placed in the puzzle board, you can logically figure out where to place the other numbers. The more numbers preplaced, the easier it is to solve the puzzle.
Some of the puzzles are extremely easy. They’ve given you just enough numbers to make filling in the holes a breeze. Some of the puzzles are much more difficult. As you look in the puzzle books or find the puzzle online, you'll find they often use adjectives like “impossible” or “insane” to describe some of them. Even the moderate ones are challenging, giving just barely enough numbers to get a start. I ran into one that gave me no numbers at all in one box. There was no clue how to place the numbers in that box, so I had to play with the numbers, often putting them in the wrong box until I could find the right combination. I have to admit that I took a little help from the answer key. I don’t think I would ever have finished that puzzle otherwise.
The hardest part of these puzzles is that when you get on a roll it is very easy to misplace a number. Then you base all your other choices on that mismarked square, so several numbers end up being wrong. Since there is only one solution to every puzzle, one mistake will cause real headaches. I usually find my mistakes fairly early and can fix them, but there are times when I have to start all over because it has become so confused.
We certainly cannot compare a puzzle to the sin we daily commit, but the Sudoku puzzle reminds us of something very important. Just as a misplaced number affects the rest of the puzzle, our sin also affects the world around us. We may think that since our wrongdoing seems to affect no one but ourselves, then it is not sin. However, even when it seems to be a victimless crime, sin always touches others in one way or another. Our sinfulness has made the world a less beautiful place and it has caused brokenness in our relationships.
We are going to sin; it has been part of our nature since the beginning of time. We make promises to do better, but we fail. We try to be more Christ-like, but we will fall. What we need to remember is that Christ died that we might be forgiven so that we can go on to another day of trying to be better. Whatever we do wrong, we can start each new day with a clean slate when we offer our confession and receive His grace. Our troubles lie in the fact that we too often refuse to believe that we have done anything wrong. Confessing our faith also means confessing our sin. Repentance means we acknowledge that Jesus Christ came to die for our sake to reconcile us to the Father, to win for us the forgiveness we need to give us a clean slate to start again on the right path.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 29, 2020, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45 (46-53)
“So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” Ezekiel 37:10, WEB
Someone has joked 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. Unfortunately, these texts are so long, and so familiar, that we tend to get lost in our thoughts rather than hearing the lessons. We have heard the stories time and time again. We believe we know every word, so we stop listening. Have you read the texts for today? Did you read all the verses from John, or did you think, “I know what this passage says,” then focus on my words?
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?
Though we take them for granted, these texts have incredible depth and are still invaluable to our Christian growth and maturity. They also have something new and unique to tell us today. We hear and respond to the texts according to our current circumstances, but if we do not listen we may not hear what God has to say. The story of Lazarus talks about death. Who of us is not dealing with death from one point of view or another most of our lives? This is particularly true now as we deal with the pandemic that is taking lives all over the world.
As we hear this story, we might identify with any of the characters. Has someone you love recently died? Perhaps you can hear some words of comfort in the response of his sisters. Do you have a friend who lost someone recently? We can learn from the mourners how to help our friend, and how not to help. In the disciples we see fear about facing the circumstances. In Jesus we see strength in sorrow and concern for others. We can even identify with Lazarus. There are times in our lives when we are as good as dead, wrapped up in those grave clothes and buried in a tomb. It might be loneliness or depression. The burden might be an addiction or obsession. Whatever it is, this text may help us to hear Jesus calling out to us by name, commanding us to come out of the tomb. Through this text, we might even see that Jesus is calling us to be like Him, calling people out of their tombs to a new life of faith.
Whatever it is we face today, we can find some comfort or strength through the words of our scriptures lessons. Yet, we too often take these beloved and well-known stories for granted. We stop listening because we think we’ve heard it all before. Today I highly encourage you to spend time reading these stories. Try using a different version than your usual. Listen carefully for sometime new. Meditate on the words. Hear God’s voice, the voice that is speaking directly to you. This time it might not be just a story, it might hold for you the answer to your prayers.
Lazarus, Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. I imagine they spent many hours hosting Jesus in between His journeys. They offered a place to rest and recuperate, and the comforts of family and friendships. Jesus was away from these friends at the beginning of this story, traveling near where John had baptized in the Jordan. Lazarus became sick; the sisters sent a messenger to give Jesus the news. I’m sure they hoped He would quickly return to heal their brother, but Jesus did not go back immediately. He told the messenger that the illness would not end in death.
A few days later, Jesus told the disciples that they must go to Lazarus’ house. They didn’t get it when He said, “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” After all, He’d said just a few days before that Lazarus would not die and they were concerned for His safety. Those in Jerusalem were already plotting His death. He told them, “Lazarus is dead.” For their sake, He was glad that they did not go to Lazarus immediately.
This is the part of the story that does not make sense to us. Why would Jesus want Lazarus to die? Why would He allow His good friends to suffer the pain of grief for even a few days? By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, well beyond the possibility of physical resurrection. The Jews believed that the soul departed the body on the third day. There was no Lazarus left to resurrect. The sisters said to Jesus, “If only you had been here!” They still had hope in the spiritual, but they wanted their brother in flesh and blood.
In this story we see two sides of Jesus. We see the caring friend who comes to mourn with those who have lost a loved one. We wonder why Jesus might have waited. Wouldn’t He have at least wanted to be with His friend during the illness? Most of us have had to rush off to the hospital to be with someone we love who is suffering. It is hard for us to understand why Jesus would wait. Yet, in this story we also see the Divine. Jesus knew there was more to the illness. He knew the illness would not END in death. Lazarus did indeed die, but so that they - and we - might believe, it ended in resurrection, not just spiritual, but physical.
We are reminded that Jesus is indeed our friend, there for us in our times of need. However, He is also the Divine, the Son of God, and He knows the end of the story. We might think we need Him to be here at this moment, to heal at this time, to finish His work right now, but He sees beyond our immediacy. He knows the right time to come and He will be there. We will probably react like the sisters, complaining that if only He were there when we thought we needed Him, things would be different. We learn in this story, however, that God might have something even greater planned for us on the other side of our suffering. Trust Him. He is faithful.
There is a movie starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore called “50 First Dates.” Adam Sandler plays Henry who is a jerk. He can’t make a commitment to any one woman, so he takes advantage of every pretty one he meets. He lives on one of the Hawaiian Islands, so it is easy for him to meet tourist babes and have as many one night stands as he pleases. The women are often looking for a wild time without commitment anyway, so it was a win-win situation for both parties. One day, however, he met Lucy, played by Drew Barrymore. She is a beautiful local girl. There is no chance for her to fly off into the sunset in a day or so. It was love at first sight and Henry went back to get to know her better.
Unfortunately, Lucy suffered from a rare brain problem. After a tragic accident, the part of her brain that controls her short term memory was damaged. She forgets everything she experiences every night in her sleep. Every morning she wakes up as if it were October 13, the day she had the accident. Her family felt it was best to let her live in that day, and so they created a world in which she just kept living the same day over and over again. Henry likes Lucy so much that he encourages her family to tell her the truth so that she will be willing to spend time with him. Each day he convinces her to fall in love with him.
At first, Lucy’s family and friends thought Henry was just out for a repeating easy one night stand, after all, if Lucy couldn’t remember the next day, she’d never get attached. But Henry was willing to do whatever was necessary to make her remember, giving himself fully to the relationship even though he knew that she would never remember.
It made me think about how we treat God sometimes. He is willing to do whatever it takes to make us love Him, but we easily forget all that He has done. There are many reasons why this might happen. We get caught up in the cares of this world and forget that God will give us rest. When we are comfortable, we think we do not need God, so we forget that our success and prosperity comes from Him. We are easily distracted by the schemes of the devil or just with our daily living that we do not realize how near He is and how much He truly loves us. Once in awhile we wake up to the love and it is on those days we find ourselves truly rejoicing.
In the movie, Lucy’s family realized that Henry was good for her when they discovered that she sang every afternoon on the days she met him. Later she broke off the relationship, not wanting to hold Henry back from a normal life. Why should he give up his career and his goals for the sake of someone who would never remember him the next day? Henry did not want to go, but he did for her sake. In the end they could not live without one another. Though she forgot him every day, he lived in her dreams and in her heart and so they managed to have a joy filled life together.
Lucy survived the accident and was alive, but she had no life. She was reliving the same things over and over and over again. Her father and brother went to a great deal of trouble to restore the world to what she knew every morning so that she would not be shocked and upset by her brain damage. Henry was alive, but he no life either. He was doing the same thing time after time, one night stands with women whom he would never remember a week or even a day after they were gone from his life.
For both Lucy and Henry, life began when they met because they dwelled in each other’s hearts. That’s what happens to us when we have a relationship with God. He lives in us and we live in Him. His kingdom flows out through our lives by His Spirit. Sometimes we are like Lucy and we forget our God. We forget what He has done and how much He loves us. Yet, God never forgets and He will continue to come to us in mercy and grace to make us fall in love with Him again. He dwells in our hearts and we can rest in the promise that we will be with Him for eternity because of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is bluebonnet season in Texas. Well, it is wildflower season, but the favorite for most wildflower hunters is the bluebonnet. It is the official Texas State flower, and it is delightful to see. The bluebonnet is a lupine in a stunning shade of blue, which is amazingly rare in flowers. Most flowers are red, pink, yellow, white or purple. Every year there are families who search to find the perfect field of bluebonnets to take pictures of their kids; it is a delightful tradition that makes wonderful memories.
Bluebonnets are rather fickle. The conditions must be perfect for there to be large numbers of the flowers. Interestingly, the best seasons occur after particularly cold and wet winters; as someone wrote, “The more miserable the winter, the more beautiful the spring.” The wildflowers are annuals, which mean they go from seed to flower to seed in a year. It is vital that the plants we see in those beautiful blue fields are allowed to mature until the pods have opened and dropped the seed for future growth. Unfortunately, many people get impatient with the fields once the beautiful blue of the flower has disappeared. They mow the dying wildflowers too early, destroying the chance for future flowers.
Bluebonnet seeds can go dormant for a number of years and spring to life much later. The seeds dropped this year may not become bluebonnets until the next miserable winter prepares the seeds for a most beautiful spring. Isn’t it amazing how such beautiful life can come out of death? After all, that’s what happens, isn’t it? The plant dies, drops the seeds which lie lifeless in the ground until they crack open and then the new growth sprouts out of the ground. Death leads to new life.
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. God asked, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered, “Lord Yahweh, you know.” Then God told Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to tell them, “You dry bones, hear Yahweh’s word.” As Ezekiel spoke, the bones came to life. The bones were covered with sinews and skin, and then God breathed life into them. God did the work, but Ezekiel became part of the process by speaking God’s word to the dead bones.
You couldn’t get any more dead than Lazarus. 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?
Have you ever felt like you are in a hopeless situation? Perhaps you feel that way every day right now. 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! It must be especially difficult for those parents who are trying to keep their families safe and healthy during this crisis. I have heard some children complain that they are having difficulty with their elderly parents. Some people just don’t want to follow the recommendations.
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, many Christians think 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 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. Some of the bones were probably carried off by wild animals. How could one man’s word change anything about that field?
Ezekiel knew that only God had the answer, so when He 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.
Has there ever been a time when it was more important than today to share the Gospel?
Our Gospel lesson for today was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final sign of Jesus that caused the leaders to decide 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.
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. It is that way with us every day. We second guess God’s work. 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 life from God 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 by taking His mercy and grace to the entire 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?
“My little children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin. If anyone sins, we have a Counselor with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous. And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world. This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commandments. One who says, ‘I know him,’ and doesn’t keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth isn’t in him. But God’s love has most certainly been perfected in whoever keeps his word. This is how we know that we are in him: he who says he remains in him ought himself also to walk just like he walked.” 1 John 2:1-6, WEB
I typed the phrase “What must I do during the pandemic” in my Google machine, and it wanted to change the word “must” to “should”. The word “must” is defined as “to be required or obliged by law, morality, or custom” or “to be compelled, as by a physical necessity or requirement.” The language most people are using is “should,” which gives actions that are not requirements, though firmly recommended. We should do these things, though most of the leaders recognize that it is not helpful or even lawful to require absolute obedience. Our city recently made a stay-at-home order for residents, but when you look at the list of exceptions, you wonder if anyone must stay at home. There is good reason to obey the order, for the health and safety not only of yourself, but of your family and the strangers you meet when you are out, but you won’t be arrested for being outside your home.
There are things we must do each day: eat, drink and rest. There are other things that are expected in modern society, like obedience to the laws. These “musts” are necessary for the welfare of ourselves and our neighbors. Even the “shoulds” that are part of our lives these days are more necessary than some people would like to admit. I ran into a woman in the grocery store who had absolutely no concern for anyone else around her. She thought it was ridiculous and overblown. She kept moving toward me to talk to me, paying no regards to the recommended social distancing. Quite frankly, I would not have been comfortable with her closeness under the best of conditions. It caused me to step back so that we could keep a safe distance. While I agree that in some ways the response is ridiculous and overblown, our responsibility as citizens in this world is to be aware of the needs of others, to protect them, and to do what is right for their health and safety. That means being inconvenienced sometimes for the sake of others.
Jesus is asked the question in the three synoptic Gospels, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” There was a long list of Old Testament laws that were requirements for a righteous life. Many leaders saw themselves as righteous because they checked everyone one on the list. Jesus turned the world upside by teaching that obedience to God was not about the requirements of the law, but rather the compelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was obedient to God not because it was a requirement or obligation, but because He was compelled to do according to His Father’s command.
In the Gospel of John, the crowd asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “Believe in me.” That is the work of God, to simply believe. We know we are telling the truth by doing as Jesus commands. His command is simple: Love the Lord your God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, “Walk like me.”
What must we do? We must deny self. We must be servants. We must obey authority. We must be ready. We must be born again. We must worship in spirit and truth. We must follow. We must love one another. We must remain in Jesus. We must testify. These things must be done, not out of obligation to some law, but by the compelling force of God’s Holy Spirit. God will make great things happen and He will be glorified by our obedience to the “musts” of God’s Kingdom which we can do only because God gives us the faith and the power to walk as Jesus walked.
“Brothers, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. Again, I write a new commandment to you, which is true in him and in you; because the darkness is passing away and the true light already shines. He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness even until now. He who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no occasion for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” 1 John 2:7-11, WEB
You may have noticed that I have been working my way through the text of John’s first letter. I have to confess that it is difficult coming up with new stories these days since we are sheltering in place and our house is really boring. We haven’t even been watching that much television, so I can’t gain inspiration from there. I also confess that I have reached into my archives more and more, editing devotions that I wrote years or even decades ago. So this week I decided to try working my way through books of the Bible. I’m still cheating (using some thoughts from previous devotions) but I’m also finding something new in what we’ve heard so many times before.
I love the writings of John. He is my favorite Evangelist. His Gospel is my favorite (it was Martin Luther’s favorite, too!) The first letter repeats so many of the thoughts and ideas you find in the Gospel, so it acts as a verifying witness to the Word that God was speaking through John.
I pondered today’s passage as I took a walk around my neighborhood. This sheltering in place has been good for me because I have been going to walks nearly every day. I kept returning to the first sentence of this passage, “I write no new commandment...”
What is the mantra for our day? “Wash your hands!” This is nothing new. We learned this lesson when we were in grade school. Hopefully we learned it long before that time from our parents when we were little ones. It seems odd that we would have to be taught this important healthy practice. Florence Nightingale learned firsthand how important it is. Despite her family’s discouragement, Florence became a nurse and worked in a position of overseeing the first female nurses in military hospitals in Turkey.
In that position, she had a positive impact on the military hospitals. After the Crimean War, she continued to work toward creating better health care standards in the British Army. The British people were grateful to her for all her work and established a fund that would enable her to continue. With that money, she built a training school for nurses, which raised the level of professionalism in that career field. Florence believed that poor health had something to do with cleanliness and she advocated the modern practice of regularly washing hands.
If only we could remember our childhood lessons!
John seems to contradict himself in today’s passage. He first says that he’s not writing a new commandment. After all, God’s people learned from the beginning that they are to love God and to love others. Matthew repeats this lesson by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 (Matthew 22:37-40.) We know by these texts the lessons of sacrificial love for others. We shouldn’t need to teach it again and again. There’s nothing new here.
Yet, I was just watching a repeat episode of a court show and the judge became extremely upset with the two women who were standing before her. Both claimed to be Christian women, one even claimed to be a pastor and prophet. They were going to work together on a non-profit organization that was started to help at risk youth. Something happened during their meeting and the “prophet” became very upset. She made a nasty post on the other woman’s Facebook page. The other woman became upset and interrupted a church service the first woman was attending. She wanted her congregation to know what kind of leaders they had, so she was screaming and handing out copies of the terrible post. Neither woman acted according to the lesson we learn in today’s passage.
The contradiction comes when John says, “I write a new commandment.” This new commandment is nothing new, but it is new because it is new under a new and different covenant established by Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Light and when we are like Him, we walk in that light. But, when we hate our brothers and sisters in Christ, as those women on the court show, we are not walking in His light. We are in darkness. We have to be taught this lesson over and over and over again. Like washing our hands, we have to be reminded to stay in the Light, to love each other so that we do not stumble or walk an unknown path because we are blinded by darkness.
“I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, little children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.” 1 John 2:12-14, WEB
A made for TV movie about a woman named Liz Murray called “Homeless to Harvard” was shown in 2003. It was about the real life story about an amazing young girl who overcame the most incredible obstacles in life. She was the daughter of drug abusers who separated and lost their home. Her mother died of AIDS when she was just fifteen and her father also contracted the disease. Much of her knowledge came from an old set of encyclopedias, which she read from cover to cover. She did not go to school because she was dirty, her clothes did not fit and she did not fit in with the other kids. She passed every test she ever took and was promoted through the grades. Eventually social workers took her to a group home, but she didn’t last there either. She ended up living on the streets to avoid the abusive relationships that were all around her.
When her mother died, Liz decided she needed to do something with her life. She managed to get into a special school that had been newly founded in the city by convincing the director that she was going to overcome the troubles in her life. While homeless, sleeping on trains at night, studying in the park and working a low paying job, she completed an entire high school curriculum in just two years. Not only did she complete it, but also she was the best student in her class. The school took a group of the kids to Boston to see Harvard University, to show them the possibilities. Liz did not think it was she would ever be able to go, after all, she could not possibly afford to go to college, let alone Harvard. Her teacher said, “It will be difficult, but not impossible.”
Liz decided to go for it. She searched through the scholarship applications and was disheartened by the fact that the scholarships were only for a few hundred dollars. She would need to apply to dozens of that type of scholarship every year to have enough to go to any school. Then she found out about a scholarship from the New York Times that would cover her entire education. All she needed to do was to write about how she overcame an obstacle in her life. She wrote a moving essay about her homelessness, but waited until the very last moment to send it in. It was her eighteenth birthday and she was legally an adult. No one could force her to live in a group home any longer and so she could admit in public the life she was living. The judges were very impressed with her academic abilities and with her touching story. She won the scholarship and went to Harvard. She is now a teacher and a motivation speaker.
The movie ended with a monologue by the actress playing the role of Liz Murray. She said that she could not carry the burden of her life alone. She shared her story with the viewers so she could let it go and move on to this new life.
We all know suffering, but I doubt many people reading this had to overcome such difficult circumstances. Even now as we are facing an unprecedented crisis, none of us are facing such impossible odds. It is amazing to hear a story such as Liz’s and to know how blessed our lives have been, even with the troubles we have had. Though we cannot compare our lives to that of Liz Murray, we can claim a victory: the one that comes from Jesus Christ. By His mercy and blood, we have overcome death and the grave and we will live eternally with God our heavenly Father.
I looked forward to seeing that movie for several weeks after seeing it advertised, because it seemed like it would be one of hope. It was very sad to see her difficult life, but there was a message of hope and encouragement. She had strength and she persisted, and I rejoice that she was willing and able to tell her story so that others would hear and learn the perseverance to do whatever is necessary to overcome the difficulties of life.
John wrote to people of every age to encourage them in their faith. By God’s grace we have overcome even sin, death, and the evil one. Are we willing to share our own stories with the world? I often wonder why so many Christians remain silent about the forgiveness we have received from our Lord Jesus Christ. Why don’t we speak up more about our faith? After all, by sharing our stories to those who are lost in darkness, they might see the light and know that they too can have the peace and joy that comes from faith. Satan no longer has a hold of those who believe in Jesus. Christ overcame death and the grave for our sake, and we now can live in forgiveness on account of His name. We have such a glorious story to tell! Why should we remain silent? Christ died that you might live: this is a story that is meant to be shared.
“Don’t love the world or the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love isn’t in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, isn’t the Father’s, but is the world’s. The world is passing away with its lusts, but he who does God’s will remains forever.” 1 John 2:15-17, WEB
I pondered the first line in today’s passage as I took my walk yesterday. “Don’t love the world or the things that are in the world.” This is a difficult verse because, quite frankly, I love a lot of things in the world. I love the wildflowers that bloom. I love the squirrels and scurry around. I love my family. I love the animals at the zoo. I love art supplies and chocolate. I am sure I could name dozens of other things that I love.
Yet, as we read further into this passage, we see that it isn’t about that type of love. John is warning us to beware of loving things so much that they take our eyes off God. We can love the wildflowers, but we do so with praise for God for creating them and sustaining them from year to year. We can love our family, but we do so knowing that God is our greatest love. Where is our desire? We need to be reminded constantly that the things of this world can lead us astray. Paul wrote that the love of money is the root of all evil. Money is not the problem; our need for money is not a problem. The problem is that money can become a god of our own making. We put too much emphasis on it, too much importance. We desire it, and so we forget the true source of all our blessings.
John warns us not to love the world or the things of the world because they can get in the way of our relationship with our Father. When we love them more than God, we put our hope in them rather than Him.
Why would we put so much hope into the things of this world? Grass dies, toys get broken, and people get sick. Everything is perishable even the things that were made by the Creator’s own hand. Ever since that day in the Garden when sin entered into our lives, death and destruction have been a part of it. It seems almost magnified in our fast paced world where everybody wants things new, fresh and clean. Those who can afford it buy new cars every year because they like that new car smell or they simply want the newest gadgets. The old will pass on to other owners, but eventually it will stop working and be cast into a junkyard. The things of this world simply do not last.
Even though the things of this world can bring us joy for a time, eventually everything will be cast aside like a rusted old car, and we will desire something new and better. The real joy comes not from the things of this world, but rather from the love of God our Father. Even the religious trends of the day will not bring happiness and will pass away like the toys of children. The only way to have eternal life is through Jesus Christ our Lord, for in Him we have been raised to new life and we will live forever.