Welcome to the May 2013 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, May 2013
Scriptures for Sunday, May 5, 2013, Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27; John 16:23-33
“And the city hath no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine upon it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the lamp thereof is the Lamb.” Revelation 21:23
Sheldon Cooper, a character on the television show “The Big Bang Theory” has a list of ‘mortal enemies.’ We hear of the list several times, but in particular in reference to a character named Wil Wheaton. Wil plays a fictionalized representation of himself on the show, an actor who has starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation as a character named Wesley Crusher. When he was young, Sheldon went out of his way to attend a Star Trek convention just to get Wil Wheaton’s autograph, but Wil did not show up. We eventually learn that the mortal enemies list includes sixty one names, but it changes as people are removed or added. Sheldon even uses the threat of inclusion to get his way on occasion.
On a later episode, Wil Wheaton invites the guys to a party at his house. Sheldon, of course, refuses to go and is angry with his friends when they decide to attend. That is until Sheldon learns that another favorite actor is going to be at the party. When they arrive, Wil Wheaton makes a conciliatory gesture and gives Sheldon his last original mint-in-package Wesley Crusher action figure signed, “To Sheldon, sorry this took so long. Your friend, Wil Wheaton.” At that moment Wil Wheaton was taken off the list.
But a few moments later the other actor, Brent Spiner, takes the action figure, rips it open and starts to play with it. “I haven’t seen one of these in years.” Sheldon, of course, is mortified, and Brent Spiner is added to his list. Wil says, “Don’t worry. It doesn’t take up a whole lot of your time.”
Sheldon’s mortal enemies list is liquid, changing with his mood and the circumstances of the relationship. That’s typically human. We make our lists, we change our minds. We forgive and forget and remember again. We like people when they are nice to us and we do not like them when they have done something against us. Sheldon might be extreme with his list of ‘mortal enemies’ but don’t we all have a few people that we’d rather avoid? Don’t we all have former co-workers or family members or neighbors that we try to ignore because they’ve done something to hurt us? Even when they find a way to make it up to us, the relationship tends to be on shaky ground because we are afraid that they’ll hurt us again. We might forgive and try to love, but even the smallest thing can get them put back on our ‘list.’
Thankfully God is not like that. He knows that we are imperfect and that we will fail. He knows that despite the wonderful things He has done and will do for us, we will still fall into old habits and hurt him by hurting others. If we had to rely on a liquid relationship with God for entrance into heaven, we would be in trouble because we are constantly failing to live up to the expectations of our God. What would happen if we died when we were on God’s mortal enemies list? We would always be afraid that we’d die at the wrong moment, or that we’d not make it to heaven because of that one last sin we didn’t have time to correct.
So, when God puts our name in His book, it stays there. And His book is not negative, it is positive. It is a Book of Life, and in it is written the names of those whose relationship with the Father has been restored by the Son. It is not a literal book, like we see in the cartoons with St. Peter at the gates of heaven. Our names are written in God’s book when the cross is made on our forehead at our baptism. He knows us by that sign and we are welcome because of it. It can’t be washed away because we fail to live up to His expectations.
Don’t be fooled. God is not happy when we sin. Our failure hurts others and He is not glorified by our bad behavior. He writes our name in His book not only so that we’ll be welcomed through the gates of heaven, but so that we’ll live as if heaven is right where we dwell on this earth. We are called to faithful living so that the world will see Him and believe. We are sent to be like Christ in this world, to do God’s work while we can and to make His kingdom visible to the world.
Heaven on earth surely does not appear as it does in John’s vision. When we lived in England we saw many different kinds of castles. Our first visit was to a castle called Castle Rising. It is located in Norfolk, near the Wash, a water feature off the North Sea. I didn’t know what to expect when we visited this castle; my vision of castles comes from Disney and other movies. I was expecting turrets and whitewashed walls with lots of beautiful windows. What I saw as I walked over the earth works protecting the castle was a large stone box. The walls were thick, the windows tiny. There were no soaring cone-shaped towers or delicate flags flying overhead.
As we listen to the description of the heavenly city of New Jerusalem, I remember that moment when I saw Castle Rising. In the verses we do not read in this passage we learn that Jerusalem is 12,000 furlongs long, wide and high with walls 144 cubits thick. 12,000 furlongs is about 1400 miles and 144 cubits is about 250 feet. A city that size would cover a large portion of the United States and would reach well into the heavens, beyond even the International Space Station and many of our communication satellites. It is a great big box, although the stone is not the kind of rock used to build castles.
Beyond the scope of its size, the description of the city’s beauty is beyond our comprehension, too. What is gold that is transparent? Is the gate really a pearl? Are the foundations really made of precious gems? We have to understand that John was using human language to describe the indescribable, and while it might be fun to visualize what He saw, we are reminded that our idea of what this might look like is probably far from the reality. It is heaven, and though we try to make heaven into something that we understand and can imagine, it will be far more.
I think what’s important in this text is that God is the center of it all. It has no need of the sun or the moon, for He is the light and the Lamb is the lamp. It has no need of a Temple because He is the Temple. Everything that was used from the beginning of time to represent God has been done away with because He will be present with His creation once again. Even the heavenly lights are useless because the True Light will brighten our eternity. sun and moon and stars are just created objects anyway, as we see in the Creation story. Light existed in the beginning, but the stars, moon and sun were created on the fourth day. That Light is the Light that has always existed and will light the city forever.
We need not concern ourselves with the details of this holy city of the New Jerusalem because it is not written to be a literal understanding of Heaven. It was written to people who were being persecuted to remind them of God’s Kingdom. The numbers, the jewels, the gold streets are symbolic of the Kingdom which God has created on earth and which God will perfect in that Day. They saw their history, the promises of God and the practice of their faith in those words.
The twelves represent the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles. The jewels are reminders of the priestly garments worn by those who ministered to God. The pearls remind us of the suffering of Christ, as a pearl is only formed as an oyster tries to relieve itself of the pain of a grain of sand caught in its shell. This New Jerusalem will be a place where all people of faith, no matter the nation, will live in the presence of God for eternity. Our hope doesn’t rest in the value of the streets or foundations, but in the promise that we will be welcomed inside.
I have to admit that there are times when I read about the stories of the apostles and I’m a bit jealous. How did they know so easily that it was God calling them to do what they did? In today’s first lesson from Acts, Paul sees a vision in a dream of a man begging for him to go to Macedonia. Paul is certain this is a message from God, so he leaves Asia where he was doing the work of preaching and teaching the new Christians with a few companions. The journey takes him to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth and eventually back to Ephesus. Did he ever really meet the man in his vision? We don’t know, although some have suggested that Luke might have been the man, since he joined Paul during that journey since Luke seems to join Paul around Acts 16:10.
In this week’s story from the journey Paul spends time in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman city, a retirement spot for Roman legionnaires, with few Jews and Jewish believers. It was usually easy for the apostles to find the believers when they traveled to a new city because they went to the synagogue. But, the Jewish community at Philippi was not large enough; they did not even have the ten men which were required. On the Sabbath, Paul went searching by the river expecting to find believers. The Jews that lived in communities like Philippi often met by the river to pray and worship.
Was Paul constantly watching for verification that he was doing what God wanted him to do? Was he searching for the man in his vision? Was he trying to discern each step of the journey? He seemed so confident that they were going where God was leading. How could he be so sure? I often doubt the voices I hear and I do constantly watch for proof. “Is this really you, God?” I ask over and over again, so unsure that I’m doing what God wants me to do.
If Paul was unsure, it doesn't show. He didn’t meet the man during this stop; instead Paul met a group of women who were praying. We don’t know much about these women. Were they of Jewish heritage or were they proselyte? Where were the men of their community? When he arrived at the place of prayer Paul met Lydia, a woman of wealth because she sold purple cloth as her business. Luke tells us that she was a worshipper of God, which likely means she had faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
She listened to what Paul had to say and she believed. She was baptized and so was her whole household. We don’t know what happened with the other women. Did they believe? Were they baptized? We only hear the story of Lydia. I think this is interesting, especially since we spend so much time trying to build our numbers. We boast when we have a large number of people join our congregations. We triumph over a large number of baptisms. We are excited when we can claim double digit growth in our communities. But are we willing to risk the dangers that Paul faced when he followed that vision to a strange land for just one believer?
Maybe that’s why we don’t hear God’s voice as clearly as they did in those early days. We are afraid to take the risk, especially if the payout isn’t going to be worthwhile. And they did take risks. Paul was in Philippi when he was arrested for healing a servant girl of a demon. Would we be willing to spend time in prison if it meant the salvation of just one soul?
We do sin all the time, but our worst sin is that we don’t take the risk. We don’t follow the voice. We don’t go out into the world sharing the Gospel message with those who need to be forgiven and healed. We live as well as we can, obey the best we can and hope that it is enough. We trust that God is faithful, and know by faith that our names are written in the Book of Life and that He won’t erase it. But is that enough? Is it enough to live quietly, hidden from the dangers of faithful living? Perhaps the Book of Revelation doesn’t make sense to our generation because we aren’t willing to take a risk, so we do not see the message of hope that is in the vision and imagery.
Hope for tomorrow is certainly enough to give us the peace that Jesus promised, but we still live in this world. We do not live in paradise, or in the New Jerusalem. We live in a world filled with evil, shame, deceit—sin. Jesus never promised that faithful living in this world will be easy. We will suffer persecution, we will face illness. We will be separated from those we love through death of our physical bodies and our relationships. Bitterness, anger, hatred, fear, pain, confusion, uncertainty, doubt and apathy can destroy our lives. But in Christ we can be healed of all the dis-ease we suffer, whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual. The hope of faith is past, present and future.
The Psalm for this week is a song of praise for the world as God means it to be. “Oh let the nations be glad and sing for joy; For thou wilt judge the peoples with equity, And govern the nations upon earth.” This is the heaven for which we hope, knowing that our own names are written in the Book of Life. It is not by our works or by our righteousness that we will be remembered, but by our faith in Jesus Christ.
The Psalm includes a word that is used more than seventy times in the psalms and a few times in a poetic portion of the book of Habakkuk. That word is “Selah.” It is not easy to identify the meaning of this word, though many would suggest it is simply a liturgical word in the midst of the psalm to direct the music—as in a rest or a stop in modern musical composition.
However, there are those who think this word actually suggests something much deeper than just a pause in the music, that it is also instructional to the singer and listeners. The word “Selah” is thought to mean something like “stop and listen” indicating that the words deserve some extra attention. Others take this meaning even further, suggesting that it is related to the Hebrew word that means “to measure.” With this understanding the listener and singer are given the command to do more than just listen, but to also consider or “measure” the words. In this way, the verse to which it refers should be heard and understood and applied to our lives. Listening is more than hearing; it is stopping to really listen to understand what is happening.
In this passage, the word “Selah” is used twice. The first is following a benediction. “God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us.” Stop and listen; measure these words and those that which comes after, “That thy way may be known upon earth, Thy salvation among nations.” God blesses us to be a blessing and the purpose of that blessing is so that the world knows His salvation. His blessings to us are not for our own good, but for the good of the world.
The second time comes with a directive to the people, that they—meaning all nations—be glad and sing for joy, for God’s mercy and judgment is given without favoritism. The blessings are not meant for one people, but for all people. God’s grace extends far beyond our borders, beyond our walls, beyond our opinions and biases. Selah. Stop and listen. Understand that God has created and redeemed the whole world and one day the whole world will sing His praise.
This is the will and purpose of God: He calls us to take the risk, to go out into the world and find those opportunities that He has prepared for us to share His Gospel. We don't need proof, just faith. God knows when and how it will happen. Thanks to the mark of Christ we have nothing to fear; our names are written in indelible ink in God’s Book of Life. We aren’t called to worry and doubt, but to believe. We don’t need proof, we just need faith. We are called to take one step at a time, sharing with one person at a time.
We don’t need to wait for the Heavenly Jerusalem to come because God’s Light already shines on us. We dwell in His glory now and will dwell with Him forever. We can believe in the indescribable as it has been written by John in Revelation because we know the end of the story. We already have a place in this incredible city. That hope is our foundation and it is even more beautiful than the jewels John uses to describe it. So let us dwell in this world as if the New Jerusalem has already come to us and share the Gospel so that others might see their names written in God’s wonderful Book of Life.
“Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are. For this cause the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is. And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. Every one that doeth sin doeth also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. And ye know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither knoweth him. My little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous: he that doeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:1-8, ASV
I read an article that suggests that the seven deadly sins, in moderation, are not really all that deadly, and that they can be good. Take, for example, the sin of wrath. The article suggests that it is healthy for a person to take out their anger in some way, particularly on inanimate objects, so that the person does not blow up and hurt another human being. Wrath, however, is more than just anger. It is rage. Rage manifests in more than just a scream, yelling or banging on a wall. Rage is uncontrollable. Wrath, or rage, takes matters into one’s own hands, like revenge or self-destructiveness. It is a sin because it puts judgment into human hands rather than God’s. Yes, dealing with our anger can be healthy. Jesus got angry. But wrath is a deadly sin because it causes us to turn away from God’s grace.
The seven deadly sins according to the Catholic Church are these: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. In all seven we can think of ways that these things aren’t so bad, unless we realize that the sin concerns what drives the actions. The article justifies the seven by showing ways which those actions can be seen as good. Andrew Carnegie pursued wealth like a demon, but he used so much of his wealth for altruism that it is seen as something positive. The harm he did to others in pursuit of that wealth is forgotten because he did such good work with it.
I think we must beware of the language we use when talking about sin. Yes, getting our anger out is healthy and pursuing wealth for the sake of others is good, but are they truly wrath and greed? To call someone greedy because they have succeeded in this world is to suggest that work is evil. We know according to the scriptures that work is not evil and all people are expected to earn their keep. It becomes a sin when the pursuit of material possessions is put ahead of our relationship with God. Wealth itself is not the sin, the love of wealth is. As the scriptures tell us, you can’t love God and mammon.
We should not try to justify our actions by lessening the reality of their sinfulness. Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride hurt our relationships with other people and thus hurt our relationship with God. These sins are self-focused. They are deadly because they destroy our spirit.
While it is important to avoid these sins, I think it is good for us to look at the opposing actions and try to live accordingly. The Catholic Church has a list of virtues that correspond to the seven deadly sins. These are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. Instead of avoiding the things that will destroy our relationship with others and with God, we can live in a way that will build those relationships and glorify God. These virtues manifest self control, concern for others and love. There is no need to justify sin if we live a virtuous life with God in our focus and love for others manifest in all we do.
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth unto his own flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth unto the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:7-10, ASV
Perhaps you’ve seen the picture. It shows an extra large t-shirt with the words “Our get along shirt.” Inside the shirt are two very unhappy children who have been ordered to share the shirt to learn to get along with one another. We don’t know what happened to require such a harsh punishment, but some mother decided the best way to help her kids learn to live with one another was to force them into close quarters. I don’t know if it works, but it is certainly makes a funny picture.
It might be funny, but it is a question that every parent has to deal with at some point. How do we teach siblings to get along? No matter how much they love each other, living in close quarters always leads to some conflict. Kids are human; they have human needs and desires. They see the world through their own biases and experiences. If they feel like a sibling is getting the better deal (and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence) it is likely that they will rebel. They respond to their jealousy by attacking the one who seems to be getting the greener grass.
It is nearly impossible to like everyone. No matter how well we get along with people, there’s always someone who rubs us the wrong way. It is better to stay away from those who make us act crazy, but sometimes it is impossible. How do you avoid your biological siblings, especially when you are young? But our siblings can drive us crazy even when we love them. My kids love each other very much, but even they had moments.
Our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ is no different. We love them, as we should, but there are times when they drive us crazy. There are some relationships that are very difficult because we simply do not get along. Our ideas and understanding of faith is too different. In two thousand years this has manifest in thousands of different denominations each claiming to have the best understanding of God. There may be good reason for our division, but we must be careful that we do not sin in our disagreement. We are brothers and sisters, children of the Living God, even if we see Him differently. It is up to us to find a way to live together in His love, treating one another with grace and mercy.
“But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore of sound mind, and be sober unto prayer: above all things being fervent in your love among yourselves; for love covereth a multitude of sins: using hospitality one to another without murmuring: according as each hath received a gift, ministering it among yourselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God; if any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God; is any man ministereth, ministering as of the strength which God supplieth: that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, whose is the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 4:7-11, ASV
I get a lot of mail from charities looking for my money to help them with their cause. I don’t know how I’ve managed to get on so many mailing lists, especially lists from organizations that have a much different philosophy or ideology than me. I know that many companies sell their mailing lists to groups that are willing to pay, and then those lists are sold to others, and yet most of these organizations are wasting their money on me because I would never send them anything. As a matter of fact, I tend to avoid those groups that send me ‘gifts’ out of the blue in an attempt to get me to pay for them so that I’ll ‘help’ whoever they claim to be helping.
It is our responsibility to use our resources to help those in need, and if the mail in my mailbox is a indication, there are plenty of people in need. Unfortunately, we have to be very careful about how we use our resources or else the people who really do need our money will never see a dime while people who have less than charitable intentions will line their pockets. Yes, there are ‘charities’ that are not charities at all.
I heard a story today about a charity that has raised millions of dollars for breast cancer research and awareness, but used only fifteen percent of that money for actual funding. The rest was kept by the administrators. The only thing they managed to accomplish in seven years is to provide forty mammograms to women. Other cancer charities are upset by this news because that money that was given by people who truly want to make a difference could have done so much more if it had been given to a real charity.
It is up to us to be good stewards of our gifts. We have so much to give, and so much we can do, but we should be smart about it. No charity can work without using a portion of the donations for administration, but how much is proper? Should we give our money to a charity that spends 85cents of every dollar on administration? Or should we give it to the organization that can use that much in the work of the charity? Which glorifies God: the money that goes into the pockets of scammers or the money that helps someone be well?
So, while we want to follow our hearts when it comes to charity, let us use our brains as well. Don’t respond to every commercial or piece of mail that you hear or receive. Take time to do some research. Don’t feel obligated to give to a charity just because they sent you a ‘gift,’ but find those charities that will best use your resources. Don’t fall for every sob story or respond to every cry for help, but find ways to give that will truly make a difference in the world. Be a good steward, and God will be glorified.
“And now saith Jehovah that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, and that Israel be gathered unto him (for I am honorable in the eyes of Jehovah, and my God is become my strength); yea, he saith, It is too light a thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth. Thus saith Jehovah, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers: Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall worship; because of Jehovah that is faithful, even the Holy One of Israel, who hath chosen thee.” Isaiah 49:5-7, ASV
Yesterday was a day of small jobs. I had a million (an exaggeration, of course) little things to accomplish. I have to admit that it is my fault. Ever since my trip I’ve been less than motivated to do my chores. I have put things in a room, but not away where it belongs. Take, for instance, the bulk package of toilet paper that I purchased last week. I left it by the front door for a few days and finally moved it into the guest room. Yesterday I put the toilet paper into the cabinet where it belongs.
This day of small tasks had me moving from one room to another, making the circuit of the house multiple times. I would do something in one room, find something that needed to be taken to another room and then do a task in that place which led me somewhere else. Round and round I went for more than an hour.
Tigger was bothered by my constant movement. He is so curious that he wants to know what’s going on. He is able to relax and sleep when I’m sitting at my computer or painting in my studio, but he wants to be with me when I’m busy around the house. The only time he will leave me alone is when I am using the vacuum monster. He couldn’t rest yesterday because he followed me everywhere. Round and round he went for more than an hour.
Most parents have experienced something similar with their young children. They are curious and follow us around as we are doing our chores. The good part of this is that they learn by watching us. They see us vacuuming and learn how to use the vacuum. They see us cooking and learn about food and cleaning the kitchen. They see us putting our things away and begin to imitate the behavior we are modeling. Unfortunately, they also get under foot. They stand too close and we trip over them when we hurriedly turn to do something else. We have to be fully aware of their presence and do things properly or they will not benefit from the experience.
Have you ever noticed that people watch you as you live out your faith in the world? We might run around doing this task and that task and another task, not realizing that the world is paying attention. Are we running around and around in a way that doesn’t make any sense or in a way that is harmful? Are we thinking through our actions so that we’ll glorify God? Are we doing work that makes a difference in the world and to the lives of those who happen to see our faith lived out in our actions? God has chosen us for a purpose, and that is to live in a way that as the world follows and watches us they will see God’s grace and learn of His love so that they too might live as His chosen people.
Sunday, May 12, 2013, Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:12-26; Psalm 133; Revelation 22:1-6 (7-11) 12-20; John 17:20-26
“And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.” John 17:22-23, ASV
In the calendar of the Church year the seventh Sunday of Easter falls in between the Ascension and Pentecost. The disciples, if they were following our calendar, would be gathered in the Upper Room waiting for the promised Spirit. In the lesson from Acts, we see that they were praying, studying, talking, and sharing, just trying to make sense of it all. The Ascension must have been spectacular and confusing, after all none of them had ever seen a man taken bodily into heaven. There were stories in their scriptures of similar events, but who would have expected to see it?
And, this happened after forty days with the risen Jesus. Were they afraid of the future because He had left them again? I think, however, that He was more purposeful with His teaching during this time, giving them more detailed answers to their questions. He was no longer concerned with the cross, but was preparing the disciples for their new mission. I’m sure He repeated a lot of what He’d taught them in the three years previous, but I wish we had a better record of those forty days. Did He continue to teach in parables? Did He make Himself clearer? Did the disciples really begin to see the connections between the Old Testament prophecy and the reality of Jesus? Was Jesus able to help them overcome their fears and doubts?
They certainly reacted differently to the Ascension than the Resurrection. Despite the multiple times Jesus told them that He had to die and be raised, they ran away when Jesus was crucified. They hid in their homes, separated from one another in confusion and fear. Two disciples were headed to Emmaus. Even after Jesus appeared to the disciples, Peter went fishing. They didn’t know what to do with themselves. At the Ascension, Jesus left them again, but this time they didn’t disperse. They went to Jerusalem to wait for the promise. Jesus managed to get something into their heads during those forty days. The difference between their actions after the Crucifixion and after the Ascension is clear: they become of one mind and were focused on the one thing that mattered: Jesus.
They did not sit around doing nothing during those ten days of waiting. They prayed. They worshipped. They even took care of business. The place of Judas was left empty by his death. The eleven disciples felt incomplete without that mystical number of twelve. Was it necessary to choose another? Perhaps not, but it was important to them to find someone to fill the place. They were fulfilling scripture. They had plenty of choices, as the group in the upper room numbered more than a hundred.
They were sad about the death of Judas, even if he was imperfect. Weren’t they all? Didn’t they all fail Jesus at His most desperate hour? It was disappointing that Judas took his life into his own hands. Would his fate have been as terrible if he’d waited to see Jesus to beg forgiveness? I think perhaps, but that’s for another debate. In today’s less we see that the disciples knew that Judas’ death fulfilled more prophecies that had been laid down long before their time. Peter quotes the Psalms (69:25 and 109:8) to justify choosing another from among the disciples.
Isn’t it interesting that we see in this passage that there have been other disciples all along. We often imagine the group as being Jesus and the Twelve for those three years, but we are reminded along the way that there were seventy or more doing ministry. The two chosen had been with them from the beginning. They had heard Jesus and experienced His ministry for those three years. They had learned the same lessons and been given the same power. Which to choose?
Did the disciples agree about everything? No, they certainly did not. We can see that in the story of the choosing of Matthias. If they agreed on which disciple should become the twelfth apostle, they would not have had to cast lots to choose. They did, and Matthias was chosen instead of Barsabbas.
A good portion of the book of Acts has to do with resolving issues between apostles who have traveled to the four corners of the world. We comment about the divisions between churches in today’s world, but those divisions go back to the very beginning. Peter was questioned about his actions in Cornelius’ house. Apollos was teaching an incomplete Gospel. Teachers were trying to convince the members in Paul’s church plants that he was not authoritative. It was happening then, just as it is happening now. We are human, we disagree. Paul and Peter disagreed.
In some cases, the disagreements were important to note and clarify because it mattered to the future of the Church. Who is welcome? What is required? Who is Jesus? There were other questions, too, like should women cover their heads? Who can teach? What are the sacraments? The answers to the important questions were established in the creeds of the Church. Other answers can be found in the scriptures, although some are adiaphorous, which means they are not important to salvation. I’ve learned that the things that truly matter are given to us at least three times in the scriptures, once in the Old Testament, once by Jesus and once in the New Testament letters.
Take, for instance, the command to love your neighbor. This command is given in Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39 and Romans 13:9, among other places. This was an important thing for God’s people to know, and it is the love of neighbor on which our ministry is built. This is something about which we should agree. Interestingly, if we truly love our neighbor, we will live in unity. We don’t have to agree on the color of the carpet or the type of Jello to be served at the pot luck for us to love our neighbors and honor God. We do have to agree that Jesus is the Son of God and that His death and resurrection was for the forgiveness of our sins.
The Gospel lesson is from the farewell prayer given by Jesus before His arrest. He was praying for the unity of all who will believe, not just those disciples but all Christians in all time. There would be many believers over time and space; the number of saints throughout the history of the Christian Church is beyond our ability to count. The Book of Life is so big that it would fill many libraries. Jesus’ greatest desire for His Church was that they would be one, but is this even possible when we think about the many Christians that have existed in time and space?
The unity for which Jesus prays is not one dependent on our agreement about our ideas or our practices. We are bound together by the love of God. “And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.” Our unity is not dependent on 100% agreement, but on our love of God.
We are a diverse people; we come from different times and places. The Church has existed for two thousand years and has touched every corner of the world. Unity does not necessarily mean that we will all be the same. It is impossible. Not even the twelve disciples were the same. There were fishermen, a tax collector, revolutionaries and others. At least one was married. Some were brothers. They were from different villages. In the scriptures we can see they had different personalities. They did not always get along. The disciples often bickered and the early Church faced difficulties.
But we are still called to be of one mind. We think that means that we have to get everyone to be of our mind, but the mind about which Jesus talks is not a human mind; it is the mind of Christ. We are unified by the Spirit and our testimony of the Gospel, through which Christ is glorified. We share in the glory of God by witnessing together forgiveness of sins that is given to all who believe through the blood Jesus shed on the cross. This is our command, our mission. This is what we are called to do.
When Jesus says that He is coming to reward all according to each one’s work, what does He mean? Will He feed those who have fed the hungry? Will He clothe those who have clothed the poor? While these are good works through which we might share the love of God, it is not our mission in this world. Jesus will bless those who have taken forgiveness to those who are dying in their sin. He will share His glory with those who invite the thirsty to partake of the water of life: Jesus.
In the book of Revelation we see an image of heaven, continuing from last week. Here, the river of life is flowing from the throne of God. There is no night and no evil to be found inside the city. The gates are left open because there is no need to lock out the dark things of this world. There is nothing impure, nothing shameful, nothing deceitful. There is no more sin because Jesus Christ has overcome all that is against God and reconciled the world to Himself.
As we look at this vision, we can see that it is much like it was at the beginning of time. When there was nothing, God spoke and there was light. That light is the light of God’s glory, manifested in time and space in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Garden of Eden, before the serpent, there was no shame, no deceit. There was no sin and no reason to lock the gates of the Garden. When Adam and Eve listened to the lie of Satan, it was necessary for God to cast them out into the world and lock the gates behind them. They could not stay in the Garden to eat the Tree of Life and live forever in a broken relationship with God.
In Revelation, we are returned to the Garden, but now it is a city with a river running through it. The Tree of Life is available so that all can eat of the fruit that gives life. The people who live in this city, whose names are found in the Lamb’s book of life, share in the glory of God for eternity and live in His presence. It is as God intended His creation to be, in fellowship with Him and each other for all time, worshipping God with praise and thanksgiving. The focus, again, is on God.
The focus, too, is on Jesus who is the Alpha and the Omega. He is waiting for us, and promises that those who keep their hearts and their lives centered in Him will eat from that tree. The sinners who do not turn to Him will not be able to enter the city, but we will eat and drink forever.
Jesus says, “Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to render to each man according as his work is.” It is no wonder that the people thought that Jesus’ return was imminent. The language of Jesus and the prophets insisted that the time is short. Jesus is coming! It is no wonder that they went about the business of the church with passion and immediacy.
John encourages his readers to act now. “Don’t wait until tomorrow, for tomorrow may be too late.” We are given the power and authority of God to call those lost in the ways of darkness and evil to faith. We are sent to call the world to repentance, so that they can join us with washed robes in the promise of eternal life. It is our task to invite people into the fellowship of believers so that they, too, will share in the fruit of the tree of life. The words are no less true today, but we’ve lost that sense of urgency.
It has been two thousand years, yet that message, “Today is the day,” is as true for us as it was for them, perhaps even more. Two thousand years is a long time to wait and we have lost patience and our zealousness. We have allowed the doubts and fears to creep into our faith and we justify the time by saying that God didn’t mean it the way we think. We explain away the language and claim that it doesn’t really mean what it says. We have allowed the worries and the cares of the world to temper our enthusiasm and we have followed with a skewed sense of purpose. We forget that for God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. For God the beginning of the church was just two days ago. The promise is as imminent today as it was for Peter and Paul and John.
The message of Christ is immediate; it is for this moment, for this time. Though we’ve been waiting for two thousand years for the coming of Christ, this is not the time to procrastinate. There are so many who need to hear the Gospel. We may not think the time or the place is right, but God knows and He is directing the movement of His people in a way that will bring salvation to the world. The time is now to act: don’t wait! Christ is coming. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Jesus prayed for unity, and the psalmist sings in hope of it. “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” There are those who would suggest that it is necessary for us to give up everything that we hold dear to ensure that all feel welcome. We are constantly told that we have to change the way we are doing things so that everyone will fit in.
But God is not calling us to give up our heritage or worship style; He is calling us to find the common bond and share in the Spirit of God. That common bond is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and we are of one mind when we focus on Him.
The divisions that exist today are not merely disagreements of doctrine, but are causing a dividing of the Holy Spirit because we do not honor the faith of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have built fences that divide Christ, and block the Spirit of the Living God from displaying His power to the world. He doesn’t need us, but He wants us to be part of the blessing that comes from unity of spirit. Christ is coming. What will He find when He returns? Will He find a people of one mind sharing the Gospel message, or will He find us bickering about things that do not matter.
Now is the time to tell the world that Jesus shed His blood so that everyone can live in the Garden and dwell with God forever. Now is the time to invite those who are lost in darkness to see the light in the New Jerusalem. Now is the time to invite everyone to the great and promised feast of fruit from the tree and water from the river of life. Now is the time to do all these things; one day we’ll say, “Amen,” because He has finally come and then it will be too late. Let us join together, bound by His Spirit, and take Christ out into the world for all to see, honoring and respecting one another in our differences while focusing on the one thing that matters: Jesus.
“The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, concerning all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was received up, after that he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit unto the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom he also showed himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing unto them by the space of forty days, and speaking the things concerning the kingdom of God: and, being assembled together with them, he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, said he, ye heard from me: For John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence. They therefore, when they were come together, asked him, saying, Lord, dost thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father hath set within His own authority. But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were looking stedfastly into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; who also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven? this Jesus, who was received up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven.” Acts 1:1-11 (ASV)
Many students will graduate from college and high school in the next few weeks. These students have spent years learning and maturing with the ultimate goal of going out into the world work and become successful at their chosen career. Some of the students will go on to more school; others will search for the perfect job. For many, the search will be difficult, as jobs are not easy to find. There are students that know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives; others are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.
It is a time of great change. Life out in the real world is much different than academia; even college with its freedom and competition is a closed and protected world. The graduates won’t have anyone to blame when they fail and there are fewer people willing to bail them out when they run into trouble. It is time to stand on their own two feet. Even their social lives will change as their friends move on in different directions.
The disciples faced a similar change in life. Jesus spent three years with the disciples before He was killed on the cross. Then He spent forty days with them after the Resurrection, giving them final instructions and proving that He was truly alive by many wonderful acts. He promised them that they would receive power to continue His work when they were baptized by the Holy Spirit. Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. Everything Jesus had taught them for three years and forty days was finally making sense.
After all they went through with Jesus, the day had to come when He would no longer be with them in flesh, when they would do the work of the Kingdom on their own. It was a daunting task that Jesus called them to do. How do you share the Gospel with the world that is unwilling to hear? How do you proclaim forgiveness to people who do not think they are sinners in need of a Savior? How do you take the Kingdom to a world whose whole understanding of God is upside down? Jesus told them repeatedly that He would have to leave, but I don’t think they expected it to happen so soon.
But now, just forty days after He was raised and returned to them, He was taken into heaven, bodily raised from the earth into the clouds right before their eyes. They had seen Jesus do many miraculous things, this was just one more. However, there was something very important about that moment.
When Jesus was raised to the right hand of God, it left little room to question the very nature of this man they had known for three years. This was God in flesh, worthy of their worship and praise. This was also the moment that He left them alone, seemingly abandoning them with nothing but a promise of a helper to come. He sent them into the world to share the Kingdom of God, but would no longer be there to pick them up after they fell. It was up to them to do the work they were called to do. It was no wonder that they stopped to stare into the heavens. It would have been easy to stay right there at that spot and continue looking toward heaven for Jesus’ return.
Ascension Day might seem like the end of something (Jesus’ time on earth,) but it was really a new beginning. Jesus did not intend for them to stand around and wallow in the past. There are times in our own lives, such as when we graduate from school, that we can understand why the disciples would stare after Jesus. It is easy to gape at the clouds and hope for His return, but they were called to live in that day, to worship Him by doing the work He prepared them to do. On this Ascension Day we are also encouraged to move forward, to go out in faith and do all that He has called us to do.
“And there came to him his mother and brethren, and they could not come at him for the crowd. And it was told him, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee. But he answered and said unto them, My mother and my brethren are these that hear the word of God, and do it.” Luke 8:19-21, ASV
Sunday is Mother’s Day. Some have suggested that the American Mother’s Day was first started in the late 1800’s by Julia Ward Howe, the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She intended the day to be one to promote peace. Mothers were encouraged to gather at an organized meeting in Boston Massachusetts each year. In 1872 she asked for June 2nd to be identified as “Mother’s Day for Peace,” but her campaign was unsuccessful. By 1893 she considered transforming July 4th into “Mother’s Day.” In 1908, Anne Jarvis held a memorial service for her own mother and then campaigned to make Mother’s Day a nationally recognized holiday. By 1911, it was being celebrated all over the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday in 1914. Anne Jarvis was disappointed that only a few years later the day was already becoming over-commercialized; she intended for the day to be faith-based and include attendance at a special worship.
While there may be some modern parallels between Mother’s Day and the holiday celebrated in other nations, the earliest known celebrations were not focused directly on everyone’s mothers. Mothering Sunday was (and still is, although it too has become secular) celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent in Europe, and was a day when Christians visited their home church or “Mother Church.” In Europe, churches are often connected to one another through a main church or cathedral. The parishioners gathered together at a special service at that centralized place. Domestic servants were given the day off so that they could go to church with their own families. It was not necessarily a day to honor each person’s mother, but rather to celebrate the body of Christ and our “mother” the church.
Mother’s Day has become a secular event, with children sending gifts and cards. The flower industry makes 25% of yearly sales for Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is the most popular day for making telephone calls worldwide. Churches will likely be more full than usual, as families that have gathered to celebrate attend worship together, but the focus of the day will more likely be brunch and presents. Worship is not the purpose of the gathering, but a convenient coincidence.
We might hear today’s passage and think that Jesus was being disrespectful of His mother, and yet we know that He took special care to ensure her well-being on the cross and His brothers eventually believed and continued His work. At this moment they were concerned that He was exhausting Himself and they wanted to take Him away to help Him rest. Jesus knew His time was short, something they were unwilling to understand. He pointed to those who were listening as His mother and brothers: they were the Church and His work was to make them part of God’s Kingdom, His family.
Mother’s Day is a chance to give our mothers the love and appreciation they deserve for all they have done and continue to do for us. But it is also good for us to think about the our “Mother church” the sisters and brothers in Christ that have been joined together by the Holy Spirit and by the love of Jesus to help us grow in faith and work for God’s Kingdom. Don’t go to church on Sunday with your mom just because it is a convenient coincidence, but go with the knowledge that all those believers are as important to your eternal life as your mother is to your physical life.
“How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Jehovah of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of Jehovah; My heart and my flesh cry out unto the living God. Yea, the sparrow hath found her a house, And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, Even thine altars, O Jehovah of hosts, My King, and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: They will be still praising thee. Selah Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; In whose heart are the highways to Zion. Passing through the valley of Weeping they make it a place of springs; Yea, the early rain covereth it with blessings. They go from strength to strength; Every one of them appeareth before God in Zion. O Jehovah God of hosts, hear my prayer; Give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah Behold, O God our shield, And look upon the face of thine anointed. For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, Than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. For Jehovah God is a sun and a shield: Jehovah will give grace and glory; No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. O Jehovah of hosts, Blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.” Psalm 84, ASV
I’m in a hotel room again; this time I’m in Lubbock picking up my son from college. The semester has ended and the students are going suffering through finals. Zack and I began taking some of his things to a storage unit in town so we don’t have to drag everything home, and today we’ll finish clearing and cleaning his room. When we went to the storage unit, the staff member who gave us our unit asked Zack if he thought the semester went quickly. He said he thought so, too. They looked to me, and I didn’t really think so. I guess the difference is how the time is spent. The past few months have been so full of change that my perception of time is skewed.
There’s a song by the musical group Chicago about time. “As I was walking down the street one day; A man came up to me and asked me what; The time was that was on my watch, yeah...And I said; Does anybody really know what time it is; Does anybody really care; If so I can't imagine why; We've all got time enough to cry; And I was walking down the street one day; A pretty lady looked at me; And said her diamond watch had stopped cold dead...And I said; Does anybody really know what time it is; Does anybody really care; If so I can't imagine why; We've all got time enough to cry; And I was walking down the street one day; Being pushed and shoved by people trying to; Beat the clock, oh, no I just don't know; I don't know, and I said, yes I said; People runnin' everywhere; Don't know where to go; Don't know where I am; Can't see past the next step; Don't have time to think past the last mile; Have no time to look around; Just run around, run around and think why; Does anybody really know what time it is; Does anybody really care; If so I can't imagine why; We've all got time enough to die; Everybody's working; I don't care; About time I don't care.”
Why do we worry about time? For most of us, we have to be in contact with a clock because others are expecting us at specific times. We have appointments. We have to shop while the stores are open. We have to pay attention to calendars. But the question in the song asks, “Does anyone really know what time it is?” Do we? There are scientific clocks that tell the precise time according to the sun and moon and the earth. There is, in human terms, a way to measure time. Time is a human construct based on the creation of God, but I have to wonder, does God measure time? We know that for God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. Does God care about the hands of a clock?
I rarely care about time, unless I have something I need to do. Today I was able to sleep in but I did have to get to breakfast before 9:00 am. I didn’t set the alarm; I just relied on the bedside clock. I grumpily rolled out of bed when I saw it was 730. I turned on the news and was surprised when the local news program was signing off. Why didn’t they go to the national news program at 7:00? As it turned out, the hotel clock was thirty minutes off. Now, I’ve noticed that the clocks in hotel rooms are often set wrong. I think previous tenants set it back so that they would be fooled to get out of bed in time. I often change the clock back to the right time. I didn’t even look at it last night. Just goes to show you that we often really do not know what time it is.
I like what it says in today’s passage. The psalmist writes, “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, Than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.” What matters is not time, but what we do with our time. Are we accomplishing something wonderful for the glory of God, or are we wasting our hours away doing something that meets only our own lusts and needs. We may not really know what time it is, but if we spend our minutes, hours and days focused on the Lord, we’ll find that it doesn’t matter. We may have to follow a clock or a calendar for the sake of others, but let’s not worry about the minutes of our time because we’ll enjoy the eternity we will spend with our Lord.
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16, ASV
At a time it seems to be harder than ever to be a Christian, many companies continue to make policies that take into consideration the faith of their employees. Some companies have decided to stay closed on Sunday so that the workers can go to church, spend time with their families or simply rest. Other companies choose to play faith-based music, provide prayer groups, devotional email or bible studies. Some larger corporations even have chaplains on staff to help with the emotional and spiritual needs of the employees. One company has included the logos of Christian companies on their website.
It might seem strange in this day and age for any business to have policies that affect their bottom line. After all, Sunday closure must cost a retail establishment or restaurant a great deal of money. Chaplains on staff need to be paid; prayer time, devotions and bible study take time away from business. Yet, there are positive affects—employees are rested and content. They work harder and accomplish more. Some customers are loyal because of the policies, and those who do not care one way or another have plenty of other businesses they can support.
What makes a company owner decide to institute faith-based policies? They know that their faith is not just a Sunday morning visit to a church, but something that is to be lived every day. God does not call every Christian to a life of ‘church work,’ but He blesses every one of His children with gifts to use for His glory in the world. We can share our faith as a pastor or as a maid. We can work for the Lord as a Sunday school teacher or as a corporate executive. The reason these companies are turning to faith-based policies is that the leaders realize that they have been given faith for more than an hour on a Sunday morning. It is about shining the light of Christ into the world.
I am glad that there are companies willing to proudly proclaim their faith. It is not overwhelming, insulting or forceful. The employees are not required to take advantage of the benefits, but the companies make it available. When we live out our faith in the real world, others see what it is like to live in God’s Kingdom, with Christ at the center. That is why God makes us a light no matter where we go—so that those who do not enter into the doors of any church will see that God is good and worthy of worship.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 19, 2013, Pentecost: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 143; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17
“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive; for it beholdeth him not, neither knoweth him: ye know him; for he abideth with you, and shall be in you.” John 14:16-17, ASV
I was traveling with my mom when I was young and we were staying in a hotel with a pool. I went for a swim and met some other young girls there. I don’t know whether they were sisters or friends, but they were traveling together. They came to me and spoke an odd language, but we found a way to communicate. They were giggling a lot during our ‘conversation.’ It didn’t take me long to realize that they weren’t foreigners, but they were girls who were playing a trick on me. They were pretending to speak another language, and made fun of me because I believed them.
I was excited to meet people from another country because at that point I hadn’t really had that experience. I don’t find it surprising or unusual to hear other languages spoken now. People from all over the world visit San Antonio. It is not unusual to see many families from Mexico shopping at the outlet center. The Riverwalk and local theme parks are filled with people from many nations. Most find a way of communicating during their visit, but when they are talking to one another they revert to their own language. We are far more comfortable speaking in words that we know, using language that is familiar.
But we also know that we have to find a way to communicate. Many businesses have staff members on hand that are bilingual to meet the needs of their customers. Signs are written in multiple languages. Even the products on our grocery shelves have information in two, three or even more languages. It is interesting, though, that sometimes we even speak the same language and find it difficult to understand one another. People from different regions use different words for the same thing. Though most languages have a common root, geographical differences have caused the words to change to match individual cultures and accents.
I suppose we could say that all languages have a common root, although that ancient language has long been forgotten. Language is not always a barrier. You can go to an opera that is sung entirely in Italian and understand what is happening. Missionaries often visit other countries with very little knowledge of language and no knowledge of the regional dialects, and are able to communicate with the people and serve their needs. I have heard that a Lutheran can attend church in Germany and know what is happening throughout the service because the liturgy rises above language. Music is a language that crosses borders.
The common root of it all is found in the story of the Tower of Babel. The word ‘babel’ has come to mean to ‘confuse’ or ‘mix’ based on the biblical story. However, the word actually means ‘Gate of God.’ The people of Babel were the first people to gather in one place to live and work. When humans were hunter gatherers, they spent all their time and energy on the business of survival. But when they learned how to plant seeds, they didn’t need to travel so far to support a community.
The people of Babel were the first agrarians. They had learned how to harvest water, to tame the land, to work together to have food enough for a large group. They were no longer nomadic. They settled down and stayed in one place. They had time to do things other than survive. They built permanent homes and other buildings. They were beginning to form business methods, writing, art, government and religion. They established temples for their gods. This freedom gave them time to ponder life, the universe and everything. They believed in the gods, but they also began to see themselves in a new way. They were not only stronger than the animals, they were intelligent. They could build things. They could create things. They could transform things. They began to think like gods.
And so one day they got together and decided that they, too, could be like their gods. They worked together to build a tower to heaven. The tower was more than just a ladder. The people wanted to make a name; they wanted a reputation. Archeologists have found ziggurats throughout the Middle East, including one that they believe is actually the original Tower of Babel. These towers were designed to reach toward the heavens to impress the gods so that they would bless the people with prosperity, health and wealth. Yet in the story of the Tower of Babel, we get the impression that they were building it for another reason. They were afraid that they would lose it all and that they would be scattered. They didn’t want to go back to the old nomadic ways.
I will admit that I’m very glad that we stopped being hunter-gatherer nomads. I like living in a house, in a city, in a country. I like being able to get my food from the grocery store. I like having the extras in life. I am so happy that I don’t have to spend most of my day providing for only the most basic needs of my family. I love art and I enjoy the leisurely activities that our modern life has afforded to us. But I get that they were afraid. You would think that the nomads would have more fears because they never really knew if they’d find food. But they didn’t have time to be afraid. They only had time to do what was necessary to stay alive. Once you begin to collect things and you have time, then you begin to worry about what will happen if you lose it. We enjoy the freedom from want, but then worry how we will live without those things we collect.
The Tower of Babel must have been an extraordinary accomplishment because God saw what they did and He knew that it was not good for the people to reach too high. He is pleased when we use our gifts and develop our talents. He created man to be co-creators with Him in this world. He wants us to reach to the sky. But we can’t become gods and we shouldn’t try. Fear manifests as ambition. If only we could become great, then we won’t have to worry about losing it. If only we could become immortal, then we would own the world. But we can’t become immortal by our own human deeds.
God was not impressed. “And Jehovah said, Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So Jehovah scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off building the city.”
This scattering would not be permanent. We know that even in the days when Jesus walked the earth, many different nations found ways to communicate and trade. The variety of nations and languages represented in Jerusalem during the Pentecost season was diverse. Luke tells us in Acts that there were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” We know, at the very least, people spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew and/or Aramaic. The visitors to Pentecost likely spoke other foreign languages.
Somehow they found a way to trade and dwell, even temporarily, in the city. Pilgrims from the four corners of the known world visited Jerusalem, both believers and non-believers. During a festival like Pentecost, the city was full of strangers. They had to buy food at the market, haggle for rooms, and make offerings at the Temple. Though there were diverse languages, they found a way to communicate. Look at any modern city and you’ll see that we’ve even learned how to build structures that reach toward heaven.
But the confusion that God created at Babel was about more than working together. At Babel, God limited their ability to seek immortality by human efforts. It was something that they couldn’t do anyway. Our mortality was based in the reality that we rebelled against God. Human beings are imperfect, broken creatures. We fail. We sin. We can never be good enough to accomplish the impossible. Immortality is impossible for man. But God didn’t intend for mankind to live separate from Him forever. He didn’t intend for us to be divided by our language or religion. He wanted us to be one, as He is One. And so He promised that there would be another way.
In today’s second lesson from Acts, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour forth of my Spirit upon all flesh: And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, And your young men shall see visions, And your old men shall dream dreams: Yea and on my servants and on my handmaidens in those days Will I pour forth of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above, And signs on the earth beneath; Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the day of the Lord come, That great and notable day. And it shall be, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The promise of Pentecost is not that we will be able to understand one another even if we speak different languages. It is about becoming one people again: His people. The power of God’s Spirit came at Pentecost to make it possible for disciples of all ages to share the Gospel message with the world. We are unified—made children of God and heirs to His eternal kingdom—not because we have done anything right or have earned the honor. God comes to His people and by His Spirit grants them faith and gifts to make His name known throughout the world. We are called to be Christ’s body, to share the Gospel and to bring others into the unity of the Church.
The language that we now speak is not English or Spanish or French. It is faith. And that language unifies those who believe in God. By His power we continue the work that Jesus began when He dwelt among the disciples. He couldn’t do it alone. Jesus was human, too, even though He was also divine. He was limited by time and space. He was limited by His human strength. He did amazing and incredible things, things that no human has the ability to accomplish, but He did so for a very limited number of people. He couldn’t heal everyone in the world by Himself. That’s why He left.
The festival of Pentecost for the Jews had several purposes. First of all it was the feast of weeks—a celebration of the first fruits. The people went to the temple to offer the first grain from their harvest. The timing of the festival mattered because it was also connected to the Law given at Sinai. They believed that it took Moses and the Hebrews fifty days to get to Mount Sinai, so the festival occurred fifty days following the Passover. Pentecost was an agricultural festival, but it was also a festival about God’s Word.
After the Ascension, the disciples went to the Upper Room and they waited. That must have been the hardest thing to do. They had a message to tell and a city full of people to whom they could tell it. I suspect that they were anxious to get out there into the city and begin this work. The pilgrims were all there seeking forgiveness by the blood of animals when they should be seeking forgiveness through the grace of God. They were there offering the first fruits of their fields to the Temple when they should be sharing their blessings with their neighbors. They were there celebrating the Law when they could have been celebrating the Creator and Lawgiver.
Yet, Jesus told them to wait. They could not have accomplished anything without the Spirit. The Word would have been spoken to deaf ears. They message would have been lost to those unwilling hearts. On that day, when the wind blew and the fire came, everything was changed. Jesus was no longer gone from them. The Kingdom was no longer far away. They were part of it. They were one with God and He was one with them. They were one with each other. At that moment, God reversed what He did at Babel. Though He once confused the language and sent people to the four corners of the earth, at Pentecost He gave the world a language that everyone could understand.
The girls in that hotel pool were just playing a silly game. They weren’t my enemies although it might have seemed that way to me back then. We do, however, face people in this world who do not understand and who reject the grace God has given through Jesus Christ our Lord. They make fun of us, just as the disciples experienced the jeers of the crowds on that first Pentecost. They didn’t believe that it was real, but how could the disciples have spoken in foreign languages if it was by their own drunken power? Even their own language would have been garbled. But God gave them the gift of speech to make His power and mercy known to the four corners of the earth. And the disciples willingly proclaimed the saving grace of God to those who would hear.
The psalmist reminds us that no man is righteous and that the persecution we experience might just be deserved. We have reason to be downtrodden, for our hearts to be desolate. But when we are overwhelmed, we need only remember what God has done and what God has overcome. We can seek His grace to cry out to Him. The Gospel is a message of forgiveness. Whatever it is that we have done wrong, whatever failures we have experienced, whatever sins we have committed are forgiven and forgotten in the name of Jesus. He is the manifestation of God’s lovingkindness. It is passed to us not in the flesh of Jesus, but in the power of the Spirit. By His hand we are saved and gifted, we are welcomed into an everlasting relationship with our Creator. We don’t have to build a Tower to heaven because God has come down to earth to dwell among us. This is the promise of the Resurrection and the promise was fulfilled at Pentecost.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, Jesus made a promise to His disciples, a promise He made in many ways during their time together. “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.” In the Gospel lesson for today, this promise is repeated and Jesus tells the disciples about the connection between He and the Father, a connection that will reach out to us and make us a part of His family.
Phillip asked Jesus if He would show them the Father. “Have I been so long time with you, and dost thou not know me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; how sayest thou, Show us the Father?” Everything that Jesus did was the Father, because the Father abided in Jesus and Jesus abided in the Father. He went on to tell the disciples that when He abides in them and they abide in Him, they will do all that He had done.
This is an amazing promise. Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons. He told people about the love of God and forgave them their sins. He crossed over societal boundaries and broke down walls between people. He even overcame language barriers. And then He promised the disciples that they would do the same. He restored families, changed lives, and provided hope to a confused and separated world. I suppose we can think of examples of ways we have done these things. I’m sure most of us can say we have fed the poor and hungry, but Jesus did the miraculous. Have you healed a leper? Or made a paralytic walk? Or cast out any demons? Have you raised anyone from the dead? How can we do anything greater than Jesus?
These acts of grace were incredible. They were signs of God’s power in Jesus. They were mercy incarnate. But the most important thing that we have been called to do is to pronounce the Gospel of forgiveness to the world. Our task is to bring reconciliation and peace to the world. Just as we have been restored to a relationship with God through the blood of Christ, we can invite others to join us in the Garden. The gift we have been given transcends all bounds. The gifts are given to all types. The message is heard by all the nations. What was once a world divided is now made whole and one again with God’s grace.
We often talk about Pentecost being the birthday of the Church. Perhaps it is. But Pentecost is more than that; it is the day when God restored His people and gave us one language: the language of faith. We don’t have to strive after the things of the world. We don’t have to be frightened to lose everything we’ve collected. We don’t have to worry whether we’ll live to see another day because even in death we will live forever. God didn’t make it impossible for us to dwell together in this world by confusing our language, but He helped us to see that we should not strive to be gods. Instead, He gave us the most amazing gift that makes us one with Him and each other, the Spirit, who helps us to live in whatever world we have created with grace and peace.
“Make a joyful noise unto Jehovah, all ye lands. Serve Jehovah with gladness: Come before his presence with singing. Know ye that Jehovah, he is God: It is he that hath 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 unto him, and bless his name. For Jehovah is good; his lovingkindness endureth for ever, And his faithfulness unto all generations.” Psalm 100, ASV
As we were driving home from Lubbock the other day, Zachary was using his Kindle to play a word game. The game gave him several clues and a chart of puzzle pieces with letters for the words to answer the clues. The pieces had two or three letters in the order that they would fit. He just had to find the pieces that would make the world. Each puzzle had a theme like sea animals or tennis. I had fun trying to help him, although I didn’t have the advantage of seeing the puzzle pieces. I usually just called out words I knew were related to the topic, although only a few were actual answers to the clues.
At one point during the day the answer was boa constrictor. Hearing that word brought to mind an old, silly song that was made by the group Peter, Paul and Mary. It is a very short song, only lasts a minute or so. Mary sings, “I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor. I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor. I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor.” These words are sung very seriously. Then she quietly sings, “And I don’t like it very much.” The rest of song speeds up until she sounds desperate. “Oh no, oh no he swallowed my toe, he swallowed my toe. Oh gee, oh gee, he’s up to my knee, he’s up to my knee. Oh fiddle, oh fiddle, he’s reached my middle, he’s reached my middle. Oh heck, oh heck, he’s up to my neck, he’s up to my neck. Oh dread, oh dread, he’s swallowed my…” The song ends abruptly with a great big, “Schlerp!”
I began singing this song after Zack said boa constrictor. He looked at me like I was mad. At the end of the song he asked if that was a real song (I’ve been known to make up stuff while I’m driving, like a song about an armadillo in the middle of the road.) I told him that it was, indeed, a real song and that I have it on an album in my collection. This morning I even found a video of Mary singing it on YouTube.
It is especially funny because she sang it at the Sydney Opera House and began the song with the encouragement to listen carefully because it is a very serious song. She sings the first few lines with so much passion, as if she were sharing the most important story in the world. It becomes obvious that the song is silly in the last few seconds and the crowd laughs hysterically when she ends with “Schlerp!”
The song has a terrible outcome; who wants to be swallowed by a boa constrictor? But it is funny. It is meant to make people laugh. It is meant to make us happy. How can a sad story make us happy? In the song we laugh because we know it is just a song, but how do we deal with the sad stories of life? We deal with this reality every time a Christian dies. How can there be joy in death? For a Christian, the joy is that we will enter the gates of heaven with thanksgiving and praise. Even those left behind have no reason to fear because we know that by faith the sad end is really a happy beginning.
“They said therefore unto him, What then doest thou for a sign, that we may see, and believe thee? what workest thou? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread out of heaven to eat. Jesus therefore said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, It was not Moses that gave you the bread out of heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down out of heaven, and giveth life unto the world. They said therefore unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. Jesus said unto them. I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” John 6:30-35, ASV
I read an article this morning about how it is much cheaper to make dinner at home than to take a family of four to a fast food place. The article was true, of course, but it is an old story. We all know that a home-cooked meal is not only cheaper, but also healthier for our family. The part of this story that the writer ignored is the reality of why we eat so much fast food: convenience. Most families do not leave the house to go out for fast food for dinner; they grab dinner at a fast food place in between activities. It is so much easier to go through the drive thru and eat in the car than to go home, fix dinner and then head back out to whatever activity awaits in the evening.
The irony of this reality is that most of the activities are meant to encourage healthful living. The kids play sports for exercise and self-esteem. Youth groups encourage spiritual health. Tutoring and academic clubs help with learning. Yet, we repeatedly hear the same thing: the best thing you can do for your kids is to gather around the table to eat together as a family.
Families that eat together are happier and stronger. Studies have shown that the family meal is a stress reliever and a unifying endeavor. The children feel more loved because parents are actually paying attention to them, rather than just driving them here, there and everywhere. The family dinner table is a place where good manners and behavior can be modeled and learned. Also, parents who cook with their children can teach good habits, independence and decision making.
The food we cook at home is naturally more nutritious than anything we can buy at a fast food place, even the salads, which have more calories and fat that you might expect. Home cooked meals include more fruits and vegetables, more daily and less salt. Fried foods and soda, staples of the fast food industry, are not as prevalent at home. It is much easier to control the portions when dinner is eaten at home. The family dinner table is also the perfect place to help children try new foods. It takes 8-10 exposures to a new food for a palette to enjoy it, so repeated servings can help children learn to love foods from other places.
The most amazing studies have shown that the family dinner helps a child grow into maturity with less destructive behavior and better grades. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, teens who have fewer than three family dinners a week are 3.5 times more likely to have abused prescription drugs and to have used illegal drugs other than marijuana, three times more likely to have used marijuana, more than 2.5 times more likely to have smoked cigarettes, and 1.5 times more likely to have tried alcohol. Children that eat at home with their families fewer than three times a week are more likely to have poor report cards.
We think we are doing wonderful things for our children when we provide them with so many opportunities and activities, but the reality is that we are often taking away the most important things like the experience of eating at the family dinner table. Sports, youth group and academic clubs are very positive activities for our children, but not if this is lost in the process.
Some of Jesus’ most important lessons took place around the dinner table. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He went to Zacchaeus’ house. He fed thousands. He revealed Himself to the two disciples in Emmaus with the breaking of bread and forgave Peter on the beach around a meal of fish. He instituted the New Covenant around a family meal with His friends. He did these things because He is the Bread of Life. He invites us to eat a meal better than anything we can buy. He is the food that will keep us well in this life and take us into the next.
We tend to fill our lives with fast food, both food and spiritual food. It is easy and convenient. Fast food might seem cheap and easy, but we know that it is really more costly than we can realize. So, too, is the fast food we feed ourselves spiritually seemingly less costly than the real thing, but we will find that in the long run it is better to live the life God has called us to live and eat the real food that He has given.
“I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; that in everything ye were enriched in him, in all utterance and all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye be unreproveable in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom ye were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:4-9, ASV
Clinton Shepherd spent the weekend in the most unusual way. He rode the Ferris wheel at Chicago’s Navy Pier for 48 hours, 8 minutes and 25 seconds. This ride broke the world record; the record was broken 120 years after the first wheel was built by George Ferris for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Shepherd, who is park operations manager, wanted the honor of the record to return to where it first began. It might be said that that the idea of an amusement park was sparked on that first Ferris wheel. George C. Tilyou was inspired by the lights on the midway when riding that Ferris wheel; he went back to New York and created Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, America’s first major amusement park.
With summer vacation just around the corner, many families are planning trips to amusement parks. Some will go to local parks. Here in San Antonio we have a Six Flags and a Sea World Park. We also have Morgan’s Wonderland, the park created to make the amusement park experience better for special needs people. There’s also a kiddie park downtown with rides that will delight the children. Other families will go further afield, with trips to one of the Disney Parks or one of the many theme parks around the country.
The amusement parks are filled with so much that it is difficult to do everything in one day. Most major theme parks have every sort of ride, from calm rides like a sky ride to the rip-roaring trains of a roller coaster. Many of the parks have shows that entertain, games to test your luck and food to meet every taste. Some theme parks have water attractions that will cool the hottest visitor. It is a fun way to spend the day, but for most visitors, a day is never enough. When my family visited Disney a few years ago, we stayed for almost a week and we still left without seeing it all.
I don’t do well on rides that go around and around, especially if they go fast. I’m ok on a carousel or a Ferris Wheel because they move slowly, but I’m not ok on the tea cups that spin around while twirling around while going around. That’s too much around and around and around for me. I like water rides like the flume, especially on a hot day. I also like roller coasters. I remember riding the old yellow wooden roller coaster at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania more than a dozen times during a visit with a friend. It is hard to ride that often in most theme parks these days because the rides are too long, but there’s something exciting and fun about those three minutes of wind blowing through your hair. The ups and downs can be tough on the tummy, but it is so short lived that you can recover quickly to do it all over again.
When I read the story about the man on the Ferris wheel in Chicago, I thought about the rides at an amusement park. Which best represents your life right now? Are you on a Ferris wheel, riding around in circles, up and down, up and down, slowly but surely. Some people have a life that is on an even keel, with peaks and valleys, but nothing extreme. Others just go around in circles like a carousel. There are those, too, who are living a life as if they were constantly on the tea cups, around and around and around in so many different directions that they simply can’t keep up with it all. What about the people whose lives are like a flume ride? It seems like you are floating along quietly and comfortably until suddenly you drop off a cliff and get soaked? Then there are those whose lives are like a roller coaster, with three minutes of rip-roaring excitement with ups and downs, ins and outs, and maybe even a loop-de-loop and then a moment to recover before trying it again.
I don’t think I’d enjoy spending 48 hours, 8 minutes and 25 seconds on a Ferris wheel, and I don’t think I could ride the old yellow wooden roller coaster a dozen times in a day anymore. As for my life, I hope it isn’t like riding one specific ride, but rather like a day at an amusement park, fun filled with many different types of experiences. Most of all, I hope that my life is focused on the one thing that truly matters: my Lord and my God. Even if I am faced with a life of ups and downs or around and around, I know that God is with me and that He’ll get me through. Whether I’m in a time of rip-roaring turbulence or mind-numbing constancy, God can be glorified in the way I deal with it. He can use our lives, whatever they look like, to make the world a better place when we keep Him in our view.
“Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law: and a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward: and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only, in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you he shall in no wise lose his reward.” Matthew 10:34-42, ASV
A guy walks into a bar wearing a Red Skins t-shirt and tells the bartender to give a round of drinks to everyone. He noticed a guy wearing a Yankees t-shirt, pointed and said, “Except for that guy.” The guy waved and said, “Thanks.” The Red Skins guy couldn’t believe it, so he offered to buy another round for the whole bar except the Yankees guy. The Yankees guy said, “Thanks,” again. The Red Skins guy did this several times during the evening and each time the Yankees guy said, “Thanks.” The Red Skins guy got angry and asked the bartender, “What’s wrong with that guy? Why is he so happy that I am not buying him a drink? Is he nuts?” The bartender answered, “No, he’s not nuts. He owns the bar.”
Have you ever thought about how your response to perceived slights might actually affect the people around you? The Red Skins guy thought that he was insulting the Yankees fan because he was refusing to buy him a drink, and yet in the process he was benefitting him financially. We think we can hurt others with our petty actions, but we might just find that the affect is exactly the opposite of what we want.
Now, let’s imagine ourselves to be that Yankees guy in the bar. Do you ever feel like the world is trying to harm you in some way? Do you feel like you’ve been left out because of your Christian faith? Do you want to respond forcefully, by defending yourself or demanding a piece of their action? Do you feel like it would be better if you just went along with the crowd?
The Yankees fan knew that he was being insulted by the slight, but he also knew that he was receiving something even better. Isn’t that what is happening with our lives in Christ? We might be slighted because the world wants to reject us and in the process reject Jesus. But are we losing anything because they’ve refused to treat us with kindness? Will we benefit if we follow their ideas and do the things that will make us part of their crowd? We won’t benefit, because in accepting the ways of the world we too reject the Way, and in rejecting the Way, we lose touch with the true life of Christ.
So, the next time someone buys a round a drinks but ignores you because of Jesus, say “Thanks.” You might not have a drink, but you’ll have the life that will last forever.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 26, 2013, Holy Trinity: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Acts 2:14a, 22-36; John 8:48-59
“Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was born, I am.” John 8:58, ASV
From C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” “Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say `the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion'. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means 'the science of God,' and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?
“In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, `I've no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt Him out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!'
“Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.”
Lewis goes on to talk about how theology is like a map. You can be like that officer and ignore the petty dogma and formulas, but how far will you get? Will you ever get beyond those walks on the beach or those moments in the desert if you do not consider God beyond your own point of view? We need that ‘map’ based on hundreds and thousands of people who have sought to know and understand God, to discover Him fully and to stay on the right course. Theology is not some distant intellectual exercise, but the real, practical search for the living God.
We are faced with millions of understandings of God. We are expected to accept and embrace every manifestation of God that exists. The trouble is that many people have created a god of their own, a god that fulfills their own desires. Ever since the beginning of time people have explained the unexplainable in terms that we can grasp, and even if the unexplainable is defined as supernatural or divine, it is still given human characteristics.
Zeus may have had powers beyond human ability, but he is less than the eternal God of Christianity. He is known as the “Father of gods and men,” but even he was born. He is known as the king of the gods, but the tales reveal that Zeus was very human in his conduct, especially in his conquests of female beings. He shared the earth with his brothers. He had to fight to gain control of his world. He was selfish in his dealing with men and gods, controlling the fate of all for his own pleasure.
For the Greeks, Zeus and the other gods explained the aspects of their lives that were beyond their knowledge. They used the gods to explain the good things, like the harvest and a house full of children. They used the gods to explain the bad things like illness, natural disaster and war. The gods controlled the world and their lives. Of course, there are those who would claim that we aren’t any different when we talk about the Lord God Almighty, who is nothing more than a myth to many.
And it is true, we do point to our God to explain the unexplainable. When something seems impossible, we call it a miracle brought by the hand of God. We credit God with our blessings. We seek God’s help with our problems. We reach out to God for His protection and His provision. We seek God’s salvation. Even if we can’t exactly say why or how we believe God has done these things, we honor Him with the faith that He has done it.
Even though it might seem delusional to those who do not believe, faith is easy when we keep to this simple understanding of God. It is easier when we thank Him for our blessings and seek His help with our problems. The ‘soda machine’ or ‘Santa Claus” understanding of God is practical and it is simple. It becomes more complicated when we seek to understand Him in a deeper and more mature way. It becomes more complex when we start to think about God. Who is He? What has He done? Why has He done it? What does it mean for my life? What is the purpose for which I have been created, redeemed and gifted? Who is this God?
This is theology, and it might seem unimportant but we need to have more than a “God loves me” understanding of Him. What does “God loves me” really mean? Especially to your neighbor who is suffering from disease or can’t find a job? What good is this God of love in the midst of natural disaster or human tragedy? What good is the simple understanding of God if we can’t explain how God’s grace can make a difference in those situations? It is not enough to say, “God loves you” when someone is in pain. We need to know what God has done for us so that we can take that love and kindness and light out into the world to those who need it. It is not enough to say, “Just believe,” if we can’t explain what it is they are meant to believe. If we do, then we have a world full of a million different understandings of a god, but not of the One True God.
I was once acquainted with a woman in an internet chat room who had what she called “an eclectic faith.” She liked certain aspects of the Christian religion, but she also like aspects of many others. So she decided to believe in the things she liked and ignore the things she didn’t like. She loved Jesus, but she didn’t like the story of the crucifixion. She saw no purpose in it. It was enough to her that Jesus was a model teacher and that He did good things in the world. She had no need for Jesus to be divine, except in the way that all of creation is divine. She rejected the characterization of God from the Old Testament and the parts of the New Testament that she didn’t want to obey. She embraced the more spiritual aspects of other religions and rejected the physical realities of Christian faith.
Unfortunately, this eclectic type of faith is creeping into the practice of many Christians, who’d rather pick and choose what they like about Christianity and ignore that which makes them (or outsiders) uncomfortable. They claim they do so for the sake of the outsiders. “They won’t want to join us if they think we are intolerant.” But what are they joining if we are unwilling to stand up for the whole character of God?
I will admit it: the revelation of Jesus and God in today’s scriptures makes me a little uncomfortable. Jesus is supposed to be tolerant, accepting, loving, but in today’s Gospel lesson He tells the religious leadership that they don’t know the God they claim to worship. “Jesus answered, If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing: it is my Father that glorifieth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God; and ye have not known him: but I know him; and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be like unto you, a liar: but I know him, and keep his word.” In the passage from Acts, Peter continues his sermon from last week with a bold proclamation that Jesus is Lord. In that proclamation, Peter also tells the crowds that if they must believe that Jesus is Lord.
It isn’t enough to believe that Jesus is our friend or our teacher. It isn’t enough to accept that Jesus is an example of kind-hearted servanthood. Jesus is Lord. He is, in His own words, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was born, I am.” It is no wonder that the crowds wanted to stone Him to death, after all, in those words Jesus claimed to be God. Unless Jesus is God, the words are blasphemy.
We know that Jesus is God, but not in the way that Zeus and his children are gods. He is fully human and fully divine, part of the Godhead, part of the Trinity. This is the part of theology that we all would rather avoid. How do you explain and understand something as complicated as the Trinity? On Sunday, pastors all over the world will try to explain it from the pulpit using many different analogies of human and tangible examples of trinitarian concepts. Many of these analogies will help people come to a better grasp of the three-in-one/one-in-three Trinity, but all fall short of the reality, and many border on the heretical.
But we human beings want our God to stay within our control. We want God to be like Zeus, who has a beginning and who suffers from the same failings. We want our gods to be limited and imperfect because then we can strive to be like them. We are still trying to build that tower of Babel, but instead of reaching up, we try to drag God down. But God has made it clear through His creation that He is God and that He is Sovereign. He is greater than the highest mountain, deeper than the deepest sea, larger than the universe and farther from the furthest sun. He created it all, and so He is greater than it all. He has no beginning. God was not in Heaven when He spoke the first words that brought light to nothing and life to chaos. He was. He is. He will be. He is I AM. We’d rather keep Him in a temple or a church building. We’d rather keep Him on a throne like Zeus on Mount Olympus. It is easier to grasp the concept of an old man on a throne of clouds than to understand the Trinity.
Do we have to understand the Trinity to know God? Do we have to use water/ice/steam or father/son/brother examples to make it clear? Perhaps this writing sounds inconsistent and confused because I just talked about the fact that we need to search for a deeper understanding of God. But is it necessary to have a tangible explanation for every aspect of God?
Holy Trinity Sunday is probably one of the most difficult for pastors. They want to preach a message that makes sense and that encourages the congregation to grow in their understanding of God. Yet, how do you do that and avoid the problem of limiting God with analogies and twisting Him with heresies? I think, perhaps, that Holy Trinity Sunday is a good day to remind each other that God is beyond human reasoning. He is greater than creation. He is greater than us. And it is ok that there are mysteries that we can’t understand.
Holy Trinity Sunday is a good day to embrace the mystery of God and the fact that we can’t know it all. Instead of trying to fit Him into our boxes or limit Him with our words, it is a good time to dwell on the reality that God IS. He is a million things and we spend a great deal of time talking about those characteristics that make Him our God. But even more importantly, He IS. He IS, not because He lives in Heaven or even because He created us. He IS, not because we believe that He exists, but because He said, “I AM.” He IS. On this Sunday, that is enough.
We should be theologians, every one of us, so that we can understand Him enough to share His grace with others. But in the midst of our search for understanding, we need to remember that we will never know it all. He IS is enough, even though we will never really be able to explain what that means. He IS, He WAS and He WILL BE. He is I AM. And that I AM is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the three-in-one/one-in-three Trinity. I can understand why that officer didn’t want to deal with theology. It is impossible.
But while it is a mystery best left to our faith, God has given us enough to believe that it is true. Take, for instance, Proverbs 8. In this passage, Wisdom is both personified but also possessed by God. Wisdom is separate, but also a part of God and equal to Him. The Proverb talks about the divinity and eternity of Wisdom. Nothing is equal to God, or divine like God, or eternal like God. Therefore, Wisdom being possessed by God is an aspect of God and is God. Early Christians recognized that Wisdom, particularly in this Proverb, is the Word, the Logos, Jesus Christ. He, the Son, is also by God, brought up with God, ever present and before all time, equal with God. God’s attributes are a part of Himself. Jesus the Son is a unique part of the Godhead, separate but not separate, unified with God the Father. We have certainly heard that recently in the Gospel readings from John, “The Father is in me and I am in the Father,” and in today’s passage, “Before Abraham was born, I am.”
The scriptures make it clear that Jesus who is separate and unique is also one with and equal to the Father. The Christian Creeds have long tried to spell that out in words that Christians can speak with confidence and faith. The Apostles Creed lists each aspect of the Trinitarian Godhead, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, defining their individuality while insisting upon their unity. The Nicene Creed does the same with more details. These creeds are enough, and are the standard by which all Christian faith is founded. Yet, they focus more on the individual persons of the Trinity rather than on the unity.
There is another creed; it is rarely used by Christian churches often because it is so long, but is also an accepted confession of our faith. What makes it ideal for this Sunday is that it focuses more on the unity of the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed is credited to Athanasius of Alexandria. He embraced the Nicene understanding of God and the creed was designed to clarify the Trinity and exclude multiple heresies that were rampant in that day, including Arianism.
Just as many Christians would rather ignore the aspects of God that makes them uncomfortable, the Athanasian Creed is hard to bear in our modern world of tolerance and acceptance. It begins with the words, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith.” In this case, the word “catholic” means “universal, Christian.” To be saved, you must believe this. It is not enough to believe there is a god or to believe in a god of our making. It is necessary to believe in the Trinitarian God.
The creed goes on to say, “Now this is the catholic faith: We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being.” The creed goes on to lay out the characteristics of this Trinity. The Father, Son and Spirit are each one person, but the diety of the three is one, equal in glory and coeternal in majesty. What God is, they all are: uncreated, infinite, eternal. They are all these things, but they are one. There are not three beings. They are all Almighty, but not three almighty beings. All are God, but there are not three gods, but one God. All are Lord, but there are not three Lords, but one Lord.
The creed goes on to describe the distinctions between the three. “The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten; the Son was neither made nor created, but alone was begotten of the Father; the Spirit was neither made nor created but is proceeding from the Father and the Son. There is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.”
This section of the creed finishes, “And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal; and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three persons. Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.” The rest of the creed parallels the explanations found in the other creeds about the work of Jesus and the Spirit and the Church. Finally it ends, “This is the catholic faith. One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.”
C. S. Lewis writes later in “Mere Christianity,” “There is no good complaining that these statements are difficult. Christianity claims to be telling us about another world, about something behind the world we can touch and hear and see. You may think the claim false; but if it were true, what it tells us would be bound to be difficult—at least as difficult as modern Physics, and for the same reason.”
He continues in chapter 24, “Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle (he previously spoke of dimensions). The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings - just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it. And when we do, we are then, for the first time in our lives, getting some positive idea, however faint, of something super-personal - something more than a person. It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits in so well with all the things we know already.
“You may ask, ‘if we cannot imagine a three-personal Being, what is the good of talking about Him?’ Well, there isn’t any good talking about Him. The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life, and that may begin any time - tonight, if you like.
“What I mean is this. An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God - that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on - the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life - what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.”
Zeus, the eclectic god of someone who wants to pick and choose what they believe or even the god that can be found in many churches today can never really be God because they are limited and controlled by human reasoning. The true God must be someone who is outside our ability to define and explain. He must be greater than His creation. And yet, this same Trinitarian God who is beyond our human understanding is so personal that we are made one with Him through faith and we can invite others to join us in His life.
Trinity Sunday is all about discovering this God who is both knowable and mysterious. If someone asked, “Who is God?” what would you say? Would you share the words of one of the foundational creeds? Would you talk about your relationship with God? Would you share your calling and describe the work you have been called to do? Would you try to explain the mysteries that are unexplainable? Whatever we do, let us be careful that we will hold firmly to the faith into which we’ve been baptized, the faith of our forefathers, the faith in the God who is I AM.
“John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from him who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits that are before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by his blood; and he made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” Revelation 1:4-6, ASV
Paul writes, “Grace and peace to you,” as part of the salutation in his letters to the churches. I like this phrase because it seems to encompass the character and purpose of God’s Church. With grace and peace as our foundation, we will accomplish the greatest works that God can call us to do. Peter and John used the phrase, too.
So, what do we mean when we say, “Grace and peace to you”? The word grace has many meanings, not the least of which is the definition we often seen used in Christian memes: God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense. Though the top definition of the word is unmerited divine assistance to humans for their regeneration or sanctification, I’m not sure that definition is one that really helps us to understand. After all, that’s a bunch of religious words that don’t make sense to the average Christian. I think we tend to think of grace in a more modern understanding: the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful. After all, if we are gracious to our neighbor, it usually means that we are doing something to make their life better.
In the greeting from Paul, the word grace is ‘charis.’ This word in Greek is also used for the three goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility; they are known as the Graces or Charities. It is no wonder, then that grace has come to be understood in terms of charity. But is that what Paul was wishing for the people in those congregations? Was he seeking God’s charity for the people? Or is the grace Paul prays for something greater?
The other word is peace. The cry of our human race is for peace on earth. We just want people to get along. We want war to cease. We want everyone to live together without conflict. The definitions of peace include harmony in personal relations and mutual concord between governments. The first definition is “a state of tranquility as a freedom from civil disobedience or a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom.” Is this the peace for which Paul is praying?
It is interesting to note that the phrase “Grace and peace” uses a Christianization of a Greek word, charis, and the Hebrew word, shalom. Now, the word shalom in Hebrew can refer to peace between two entities, but it has a deeper meaning in faith. It refers to a person’s well-being. In this phrase, Paul links together the grace of Greek thought with the peace of Hebrew thought into the true source of both, which is God. We can strive to be charitable and to promote peace between people, but true grace and peace is a gift from God. True grace is the merciful kindness of God exerting His holy influence on our souls, which leaves us with true peace, which is the well-being that reaches to the very depths of our spirits.
So, I say to you today, “Grace and Peace to you” so that you might be the person of grace and peace which God has called you to be. May you experience God’s merciful kindness and His peace so that you can go out into the world being gracious to your neighbors and promoting peace.
“If it had not been Jehovah who was on our side, Let Israel now say, If it had not been Jehovah who was on our side, When men rose up against us; Then they had swallowed us up alive, When their wrath was kindled against us; Then the waters had overwhelmed us, The stream had gone over our soul; Then the proud waters had gone over our soul. Blessed be Jehovah, Who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: The snare is broken, and we are escaped. Our help is in the name of Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 124, ASV
I tend to be a little adventurous when I’m trying to get that perfect photograph. I once climbed a few feet down a cliff on the edge of the ocean to get a photograph that didn’t have trace of modern habitation. On another occasion, I was at a view point that was surrounded by a tall chain link fence. The fence was sturdy, but it was obvious that the cliff was eroding away. I stood right against the fence with my toes dangling over the edge so that I could reach my camera high enough to get a picture of the fantastic view. The only thing that kept me from tumbling into the river was that fence.
Cliffs have long fascinated people. When we stand at the top and look down, we are awed by the thought that one slip of the foot could bring our death as we plummet to the bottom. When we stand at the bottom, we long to climb to the top just to see what is beyond our view. Some of the most incredible scenery is seen near massive cliffs, from the White Cliffs of Dover in England, to the cliffs found in Yosemite National Park or the Grand Canyon. As we gaze upon these sheer, ragged rock walls, they give the appearance of having been ripped apart by some awesome force.
Cliffside adventures can be dangerous. One slip and we might tumble into a ravine; one loose rock could land on our head. Many adventure movies include some dramatic scene where the hero is perilously close to falling over an edge or needs to climb some rock face to catch the villain. We are left on the edge of our seats for a moment until they are saved by a conveniently located shelf or the quick wits of a friend.
A slip off a cliff isn’t always a death sentence, although the miraculous saves are usually found only in television or movies. We’ve seen the scene: a man falls from a cliff but on his way down he manages to grab a branch. He fears for his life and cries for help. Suddenly he hears a voice. “I am here, and I will save you if you believe me.” “I believe, I believe,” he yells. “If you believe me, let go of the branch and then I will save you.” In the movies, this is usually followed by a wide shot of the scene, showing that the man is just feet from a safe ledge or the bottom of the cliff. He can’t see how close his is to safety, and is afraid to let go because he can’t see the reality of his situation.
Do you let go? Do you really believe? We often put ourselves into situations that leave us hanging on the edge. We’ve heard that voice of God calling to us in our troubles. “I am here, and I will save you if you believe me.” Do we trust that He will save us? We cannot see the wide angle shot of the situation. We can’t see that there’s a ledge just a few feet below us. But God can. He would not tell us to let go if He didn’t know that we’d be safe.
In the movies the man hanging on the branch always finds it difficult to let go, even to the point of saying, “Is there anyone else up there?” We want an easier way out of our situation. We want the helper to come get us. We want proof that everything will be ok. We want to know that when we let go there will be someone ready to catch us. It takes faith to let go of the branch and trust that our Lord will save us.
It is easy to believe when we are looking at the situation from the wide angle. It is easy to believe in God’s grace after the situation has concluded. Hindsight is 20/20 vision. The psalm for today is a song of praise that was written after the Lord delivered Israel from her enemies. She hung perilously on some spiritual cliff but God was with her all along. The people of Israel often sang songs of thanksgiving after they were saved, but they rarely remembered God when they were in the midst of trouble. When He said, “Believe and I will save you,” they answered, “Is there anyone else up there?” They turned to the strength, power and might of other nations, afraid to let go of the branch.
We aren’t much different. How many times have we gotten into trouble because we stepped out on the edge? We cry for help and God answers, but do we believe? He wants us to let go of the branch. He will save us. But all too often we cry back, “Is there anyone else?” In hindsight we sing this hymn of praise knowing that our help is in the name of the Lord, but will we be willing to sing it while we are hanging perilously from the branch? God is with us, in good times and in bad. He knows what will save us from our troubles. We just have to believe.
Today's WORD is an edited repeat from May 29, 2000.
"Even as the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you: abide ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is my commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you. No longer do I call you servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I heard from my Father, I have made known unto you. Ye did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye may love one another." John 15:9-17, ASV
In the movie, Forrest Gump, there is a scene of Forrest in Vietnam. Things went very wrong, and his fellow soldiers were dying. Forest ran out of the danger zone, but when he reached safety, he realized that his friend had not followed. So, he went back into the battle to find his friend. He had no concern for his own life as he dragged the wounded out of the fire as he found them. He finally found his friend, who was injured and would rather have died on the battlefield than to live the rest of his life as an invalid. His friend was not grateful for the sacrifice Forest made, and spent years angry and spiteful, hating the life he had to live and Forest for causing him to live it.
On the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, we saw film clips about real American heroes. Those men and women went beyond the call of duty; they risked their own lives for the lives of their friends. There is a story of one pilot who was on his last flight before being sent back to the states. On his way back to the base, he saw that the other pilots in his squadron needed help. He went right back into the battle, saved several planes and died in the process. He had done his share, but went the extra mile to save lives. He sacrificed everything so that others might have life.
How much would you be willing to sacrifice for a friend, a family member, a neighbor, or even an enemy? Would you be willing to lay down your life?
Jesus Christ had a short-lived, but incredible ministry. In those few short years, He taught the people about love and God, He healed the sick and raised the dead. Lives were changed by His presence. He did more than His share to make the world a better place. Yet it was not enough. He went to the front lines of the battlefield with Satan and He suffered death so that we may have life. Are you thankful for the work of Jesus Christ on the cross? Or are you like Forest Gump’s friend, angry that he didn’t just let you die?
Today is Memorial Day in the United States. It is a day set aside to remember those who died in the line of duty. Today, I am thankful to all those who gave their lives for their country. I am even more thankful to Jesus Christ for the sacrifice He made for me. It is my prayer that I will have the courage to do the same for my friends.
“Good and upright is Jehovah: Therefore will he instruct sinners in the way. The meek will he guide in justice; And the meek will he teach his way. All the paths of Jehovah are lovingkindness and truth Unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies. For thy name's sake, O Jehovah, Pardon mine iniquity, for it is great. What man is he that feareth Jehovah? Him shall he instruct in the way that he shall choose. His soul shall dwell at ease; And his seed shall inherit the land. The friendship of Jehovah is with them that fear him; And he will show them his covenant.” Psalm 25:8-14, ASV
I don’t really like watching the national weather forecasters, mostly because they rarely even mention our area, even when we think we are having interesting weather. We are in the midst of a drought, and every drop of rain is exciting for us. We want to know where the storms are moving, in hopeful expectation that we might see some of it. I have to admit that even when it rains, our weather is not really very exciting. Though we get hot, we don’t get the hottest weather or even the most extreme heat. It is more interesting to tell the world that it was 90 in Minnesota than in San Antonio; it is rarely 90 in Minnesota but it is that hot in San Antonio most of the year. If it snows it is so little that most of the country would call it insignificant. We might get a tornado, but never as big as those in the Midwest. It floods, but not like it floods along the Mississippi. No matter what the weather is here in town, it is likely that there will be more interesting weather elsewhere.
From the messages I’ve gotten on Facebook and in my email, it is obvious that our weather this weekend made it to the national news. We did have a lot of rain on Saturday. Some places in town, I’m told, received 10”-17” of rain in less than 12 hours. Our house was on the edge of the storm, which seemed to sit right over the center of the city for hours, and we only got 6” of rain. A few miles from our house didn’t see even an inch. But the concentration of the water made an impact on our city. The creeks that run dry a majority of the year were overflowing their banks. People along those waterways experienced flooding in their yards and even in their homes. Three people lost their lives and many people had to be rescued from their flooded cars. A helicopter pilot noticed a man waving frantically from the roof of a shelter of a golf course that had flooded, and he contacted the authorities who went in with a boat to save him. A city bus was swept away by the fast moving water. Thankfully everyone on the bus was rescued. This rainfall was extreme and historic for us, and was interesting enough to be noted on the national news, but even so it was nothing compared to the weather in some other places in the past week or so.
Extreme or not, the rain did impact our city. The major road that runs near the golf course that was under water was flooded and closed for two days. The way was blocked for two days, inconveniencing many holiday travelers. Luckily, this happened on a holiday weekend, and they were able to clear the roadway and inspect it in time for this morning’s rush hour. Traffic would have been unbearable this morning if they had been unable to open the road.
We didn’t have any difficulty this weekend, but we decided to stay in on Saturday and we didn’t do much on Sunday or Monday. Bruce was planning to go to work for a few hours on Saturday, but decided to take the advice of the authorities and stay inside. He later found out that most ways to his office were flooded, and he wouldn’t have made it anyway. Unfortunately, many of those rescued on Saturday were people who did not listen to the authorities; they went out into the storm anyway, and they were washed away by the floods.
We can make our own choices; that’s a gift from God. He made us rational, thinking beings. Unfortunately, this also means that we can make bad decisions. I suspect a majority of people on Saturday chose, like Bruce, to stay home out of the rain, but a few people thought they could get through. They didn’t believe the warnings of the authorities, or they didn’t even bother to listen, and they got caught in the raging waters. How many times do we not believe the warnings of God, or not even bother to listen, and go out in a path that is dangerous? The psalmist knows, because he sings a plea for forgiveness and begs for God’s guidance. God will instruct us in the way we should go, and if we listen and believe, we’ll experience the blessings of obedience, including the safety of dwelling under God’s covenant.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 2, 2013, Second Sunday After Pentecost: 1 Kings 8:22-24, 27-29, 41-43; Psalm 96:1-9; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
“But will God in very deed dwell on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded!” 1 Kings 8:27, ASV
David was not allowed to build the Temple. His history of violence was too great. It was perhaps a necessary evil, since it was David who served as the commander who established Israel as a strong and independent nation. God send David to the battlefield, ordained him to lead the army to victory over and over again. He shed the blood of thousands. In 1 Samuel, the dancers greeted David with the song, “Saul hath slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands.” This was the moment when Saul lost his mind over David, but David’s accomplishments were not his own. His victories were given to him by God, so why did God keep him from doing such a wonderful thing, which was building a Temple?
For one thing, David shed innocent blood, particularly the blood of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. But the ordinance against David’s wish to build was not a punishment for his sinfulness. The Temple required a life, and builder, of peace not war. And David may not have built the Temple, but it was his offspring that did so. Solomon was the one to take everything David collected, the materials, the people and the place to build the house. Solomon may have been the one to complete the work, but David was not left out completely.
We join the story in today’s Old Testament lesson at the dedication ceremony of that Temple. They have just taken the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies, and Solomon prays to God in thankfulness and praise. He does so with the humility of a man who recognizes that God can’t be confined to the space of a Temple built by the hands of men. He knows that all the heavens and the earth cannot contain God, but he also knows that this building was built by His grace and to fulfill His desire to dwell among the people He loves.
We hear these words on the first day of the Church season called Pentecost. For the past few months we’ve studied the story of God. From Advent, to Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and finally Easter, we have heard the stories of God’s love for His people, of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, of His ministry among people. We’ve seen how God sent Jesus for our sake and learned why. We recognized our own sinfulness and received God’s mercy. For the next few months, until Reformation, All Saints and then the beginning of Advent, we will see what this means for our life of faith. Who are we? Who is the Church? How are we to live? What are we called to do? In these coming weeks we’ll read through many of the letters sent by the apostles to the churches. We’ll see Jesus and the disciples doing the practical ministry of the Kingdom as recorded by Luke.
I suppose in many respects it is sad that we do this during the summer months when so many people miss church due to vacations and warm weather activities. Families will be busy with soccer and others will decide to use Sunday morning to do the things that they do not get to do during the week, like visit the golf course or sleep in. It is sad because these next few months are so important to our growth as Christians. While I would never want to remove the stories about God in the first half of the Church year, these are stories with which we are so familiar. We know about Christmas. We know about the Wise Men. We know that we need to search ourselves to seek God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We know the cross and we know the empty tomb. But do we know stories like today’s episode with the Centurion? Do we see how it relates to our Christian life in the world?
The Centurion was not a Jew, but he’d heard about Jesus and recognized in Him something of value. He knew that Jesus had authority that others did not have. He was a powerful and wealthy man and could have paid any of the doctors to care for his servant. Instead, he sought Jesus, somehow recognizing in Him something real. Despite his power, the Centurion knew that he was unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. He also knew that Jesus needed to only speak the word and his servant would be healed. That’s faith.
Do we have that kind of faith? Do we have the kind of faith that allows us to accept that Jesus can change our world without standing beside us? Or will we continue to demand in these coming months the constant reminder of Jesus’ story? In other words, can we be like the disciples, continuing to do His work even while He has left earth to sit at the right hand of God?
We certainly know that God is with us. While Solomon pondered why the eternal God would dwell in a measly house on earth, we should have the same humility to wonder why He would choose to dwell with us. We know that Jesus lives in our hearts. We know that the Holy Spirit guides us and gives us all we need to continue Jesus’ ministry in the world. But are we ready to go out in faith to do that work, even if we do not experience that presence of ‘feel’ that Spirit? Do we trust, like Solomon, that God will keep His promises?
In our texts for this week we are reminded that Jesus came for more than the Jews. He came for all nations. He came for us, even those of us who are not from the nation of Israel. He came for the world. In the Old Testament lesson, Solomon prays, “Moreover concerning the foreigner, that is not of thy people Israel, when he shall come out of a far country for thy name's sake; when he shall come and pray toward this house; hear thou in heaven thy dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calleth to thee for.”
We also learn that Israel, and all nations, are blessed with faith for a purpose, “…that all the peoples of the earth may know thy name, to fear thee, as doth thy people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by thy name.” We are blessed to be a blessing. We learned these past few months how God has blessed us, now we will learn how we can be a blessing.
How can we be a blessing? Is it enough to live quietly and attend church on Sunday? Is it enough to be kind and charitable, to be respectful of authority and those over whom we are given responsibility? Is it enough to be a Christian or do we need to live like Christ?
Are you likely to buy a product just because you’ve seen something on television? Advertisers spend a fortune creating incredible “mini-movies” to sell their products, with effects that draw your attention and jingles that stay with you long after the commercial is over. Despite the money spent on advertisements, advertisers rely on word of mouth; people do not believe the claims of a product just because the ads are fantastic. Even if the product is supported by plenty of evidence obtained through testing and research, people want to hear it from someone they trust. Consumers want to the testimonial, especially from someone they. They are more likely to believe someone who says, “I tried it and I liked it” than if the advertisers spend millions of dollars producing a documentary proving its worth.
One of the things celebrity endorsers are often asked is whether or not they really use the product they are advertising. Some people refuse to tout a product they don’t believe in, others are willing to sell their name for anything. However, the people that really believe in the product are the ones who are more likely to make the sale. They have a passion for it; they speak with honesty and integrity. Advertising is much more believable when the speaker tells what the product has done for them rather than what the product can do to others.
Evangelism is the same way, which is why testimonials work so well. A person trapped in the web of guilt and sin is more likely to listen to someone who was in the same position. This is why the former alcoholic can reach the alcoholic much better than someone who never liked to drink. Guilt is often so entrenched that the sinner who needs forgiveness can’t accept Christ’s mercy from someone with whom they can’t identify. They think it was easy for Christ to save the goody-two-shoes, but impossible to save them. It isn’t enough to tell the stories of Jesus over and over again. We have to admit our own frailty to our neighbors and show them how Christ changed our lives. We have to be like the Centurion, humble enough to admit that we aren’t worthy, but faithful enough to know that Jesus can heal us anyway.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if we lived daily singing praise and thanksgiving to God for what He has done for us, admitting our unworthiness and shining His grace? Those open to the Gospel message will see our joy and want to know from whence it came. We are blessed to be a blessing, called to be His witnesses in the world. It is not enough to tell others why they need Jesus, or even to tell them what He has done for them. We are called to live daily in the reality that He has done it for us, so thankful for His grace that we’ll continue His work in this world. Our testimonial will help others to realize their own need and point them to Jesus who can change heal them, even if He seems far off.
Half of the Church year seems to focus on gathering around Christ, hearing His story, experiencing His presence, sharing in His sacraments. Though we continue to gather around Christ for the season of Pentecost, this is now our opportunity to take what we have learned and experienced into the world. We are not blessed to dwell inside the buildings we built, as if God is confined to those spaces. We are blessed to take God out into the world.
Solomon realized that God was too big to dwell in the room he built, but the reality of the New Covenant is that God dwells in an even smaller place: our hearts. He dwells in our lives. He guides our hands. He blesses our work. He provides the opportunities we have to share His grace with the world. He doesn’t live in our church buildings or in our rituals and practices. The church in Galatia had a problem. They had false teachers who were demanding that the new Christians become Jewish first. They were demanding adherence to Jewish law before the believer could then become a Christian.
The problem with this point of view is that it diminishes the work of Christ. If a person has to accomplish anything to receive the gift freely given by God, then the work of Christ is pointless. If a person can inherit God’s kingdom by their own work, then the cross was pointless.
God’s word is firm and right and true, but human understanding is lacking. His promises are true and He is faithful. He has promised that His grace will fall on whomever He chooses, and that His salvation is available to all nations. When we read God’s word, we transpose our own understanding, experience and interpretation on what it says. One verse might mean one thing to one person and mean something completely different to another. A seeker can visit a number of churches with the same question and get a different answer from each one. We might even see something different in passages during different times in our own lives. However, sometimes people make God’s word fit their own desires. They take passages and twist them to mean what they want them to mean. They create a different gospel, just as those teachers were doing in Galatia.
God did dwell in that Temple, the Temple He called Solomon to build in Jerusalem. But God was never confined by that Temple. Now, because of the work of Christ, God dwells in the New Temple, our hearts. He is with us when we gather together in our church buildings, but He also goes out with us into our daily lives. He calls us to believe in the Gospel of forgiveness, to live in faith and to share that grace with the world. Let us begin today being the blessing we’ve been blessed to be so that the world might know that God is worthy of worship and praise.
“O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth, Who hast set thy glory upon the heavens! Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength, Because of thine adversaries, That thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him but little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor. Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, Yea, and the beasts of the field, The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, Whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth!” Psalm 8, ASV
I love fresh cherries. We are in the season for them, but the conditions must not have been suitable because most of the cherries I’ve seen in my local grocery stores have been unappetizing. I’m not willing to spend a fortune on something that I won’t be able to enjoy, or that will go bad before I get to eat it all. I decided to go out of my way to a store that tends to have better produce, and I found some cherries that looked delicious. I took out a loan (I’m kidding) and bought some.
Later that day I was in another neighborhood with a store that has excellent produce. Though I already had a bunch of cherries at home, I decided to buy some. These were a little more expensive, but they have proven to be delicious. The problem is that now I have more cherries than I can possibly eat before they aren’t tasty anymore.
I decided that I’d use the first cherries for a special dessert. I think I’m going to make chocolate cherry chocolate chip ice cream. I searched the Internet and found a number of tasty sounding recipes. I will have to go out later today and buy the ingredients, but we should have delicious ice cream to eat after dinner tonight. Though I should not have bought the second cherries, the first ones will be perfectly suited for ice cream and I can enjoy the really good ones until they are gone.
Our resources are limited and it is important to be a good steward of that which we have. We really shouldn’t waste our money on things we do not need. I have to admit that I am not very good about buying the right amount of fruits and vegetables and I tend to throw more away than I should. I have become more creative in the kitchen, however, and I’m trying to find new ways to use the produce that is not yet harmful, but just past peak. Those items can be used in soups, stews, and casseroles, because in those items are broken down in the cooking process anyway. They don’t need to look pretty, and the flavors are often heightened.
Fruits and vegetables that don’t look perfect look unappetizing, and yet they are often the best of the bunch. How often do we judge a fruit (or a book, or a person) by the looks and we reject it because it doesn’t look perfect? How often do we cast off something because we think it is past its prime? How often do we through something away because we no longer see the value? Our landfills are full of things that should not have been thrown away because it could have been used in a new or different way.
Unfortunately, we do the same thing with people. We cast off old friends because they no longer meet our expectations. We reject co-workers based on perceived slights in the workplace. We jump from church to church or organization to organization because they don’t meet our needs, refusing to see that the value may not be in what it can do for us, but what we can do. God finds value in even the most insignificant aspects of His creation, and He holds humankind above all else. How can we do anything less?
“Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art King of Israel. Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee underneath the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” John 1:47-51, ASV
This story about Nathanael has always seemed a little odd to me, and perhaps even a little creepy. After all, how would you feel if some stranger came to you, even if they were quickly becoming the news of the day, and said something about your character? How could they possibly know? We might not be too upset if they said something good, as in the case of Nathanael, but what if they said something negative? Either way, we would probably react just like him. “How do you know?” We’d get a little paranoid and wonder who has been talking about us.
I’m not sure our reaction would be quite the same as Nathanael after Jesus said that He saw him studying under the fig tree. I don’t think we’d suddenly be calling him the Messiah; instead we’d wonder why this stranger was watching us. Besides, this revelation from Jesus is really something that He couldn’t possibly know just from watching the man from afar. We can’t see a man’s heart. We can’t expect him to be trustworthy just because he was under the fig tree contemplating God. That’s what he was doing under that tree: praying, worshipping, and possibly even studying the scriptures. But we can’t just a heart by one brief distant glimpse.
We know, though, that Jesus knew people my intimately, even if He had not yet them. He was exactly as Nathanael exclaimed the Son of God, the King of Israel. This is a pretty powerful confession, again based on just one brief moment. Would you suggest that someone is the Messiah just because they said something nice about you? We know, however, something else is happening in this story. Jesus is not a creepy stalker; He is the Son of God and can see in men’s hearts. He is not saying nice things curry favor from Nathanael; He knows that Nathanael is a good and faithful Jew.
Jesus knows how to make friends. He shows interest in the things that interest those with whom He wants a relationship. Now Jesus, who is truly the Son of God and King of Israel, should have been able to command great crowds just by His presence and His demeanor. He was charismatic in the true sense of the word, but Jesus did not rely on the charisma to build His Church. He got to know the disciples. He was interested in them. He knew them, to the very heart.
In the book “How to make friends and influence people,” Dale Carnegie wrote, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” I think we could learn something about how to make friends from this story of Jesus and Nathanael. We need to care about people, to search their hearts and know them familiarly. By being interested in them, they will become interested in you, too, and see in you something you may not even see in yourself. Together, we’ll see the Kingdom of God revealed in our lives and through our own ministries in this world.