Welcome to the May 2014 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, May 2014
“Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; how know we the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye would have known my Father also: from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, 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? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I say unto you I speak not from myself: but the Father abiding in me doeth his works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake. Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto the Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, that will I do.” John 14:5-14, ASV
There are three objects inside the Ark of the Covenant. They were placed there according to God’s command. First of all, there were the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is likely that these were two copies of the same thing, one copy belonging to Israel and the other to God. They were called the Tablets of the Testimony and they were, in essence, a contract. This was the Law of God, the way that the Israelites were called to live. The book of the Law was the set of rules that God gave to govern the nation of Israel. This book was not as important as the tablets; it was placed outside the Ark. The tablets showed the Israelites the way to live.
The next item inside the Ark is a gold jar filled with manna. Manna was given to the Hebrews as they wandered the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. They were hungry and God fed them the bread from heaven. God directed a gold jar of manna to be put in the Ark to remind the Israelites of the truth of God’s provision. When Jesus faced Satan in His wilderness experience, He said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” His Word is the true bread from heaven and so the manna represents not only food for our stomachs, but food for our spirits.
The third item is the staff of Aaron. In Numbers 17, the Israelites are seen wandering in the wilderness. Some of the Levites grumbled and opposed Moses and Aaron. To prove to the people that Aaron was chosen to be priest, God ordered that twelve staffs be put in the Tent of the Testimony, one for each tribe of Israel. The staff that sprouted would be the chosen man. When Moses entered the tent the next morning, he found that Aaron's staff had not only sprouted, but had also budded, blossomed and produced almonds. God chose the one He appointed to serve as a priest and brought new life to his staff. This item shows us that God is the source of life.
The Ark of the Covenant was the innermost part of the tabernacle. It was the heart of God. The way is the Law, as found in the Ark. This is not the book of rules that lay outside the Ark, but the very words of God written with His own finger. Jesus is that Word in flesh and we are called to live in Him. The truth is more than just the manna, but it is every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus is that truth. Our life, like that staff of Aaron, is brought to new life because God has chosen us to be His priests. When we look at Jesus, we see the very heart of God - His way, His truth, and His life.
As the new Christians began to become established by gathering together in worship and study, they became known as The Way. They did not reject or set aside the things of God from their past, but they saw how Jesus fulfilled it all. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life. As we continue to live in the footsteps of those first disciples, we are called to a life that follows the same way, seeking God in all we do and trusting that He will provide all we need. When we are following God in the way He has put forth, we do not ask for the things that we want, but we seek the things that He desires for us. We go His way, rather than our own.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-14, ASV
In the beginning God spoke. When God spoke, His thoughts were made real and they came alive. This is the Word, and the Word is Christ. By Him the entire creation came into being out of nothing. God spoke of light and light appeared. He called forth the waters and they came. He molded the dirt and made man. He gave us the very breath of life. He did not set the world in motion and then step away to let everything happen as it may. He is a God who dwells among His people with whom we can have an intimate and personal relationship. He became one of us, one with His creation to restore and redeem us to Himself. There was a plan even from the very beginning. We would need to be saved, and so He promised His people that He would make things right. The incarnation was not just about salvation, but it was about the revealing of God’s fullness to the world.
When the time was right, the Word became flesh and dwelt among men. God arrived in the world in a small, crowded town mostly unnoticed; He was born of a woman named Mary and named Jesus. He walked, talked, ate, slept. He laughed and cried. He got tired and dirty and angry. He loved and served and hoped and dreamed. He was tempted, though He lived without sin. Unfortunately, the people who were blessed to live in that day missed the Word when He was in their presence. They rejected Him because they did not recognize Him. They killed Him on the cross. Many still miss the Word today.
Except by the grace of God we would be among those who miss Him. We, too, have a nature that rejects the Word of God. But we were called by that Word and included into the inheritance of God’s Kingdom. By the Word we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and the promise. We might face pain and suffering, but we can go through our difficulties with the knowledge that God is not distant or uninterested. He is in still in our midst, present with us by His Word. He is a gracious God, giving us faith, hope and life. This gracious God has been revealed in the life of the Christ who is the revealed Word of God.
So, how does this Word continue transform us today? How will we experience God in the midst of the muck of this world? Will we think He is far away, uninterested in our petty problems? Will we treat Him like a pop machine, putting in our prayers and expecting specific answers? Will we hide Him into some box, and let Him out only when we think the time is right? Will we push Him out into some distance corner of space and praise Him only for what He did in the beginning of time? Do we see Him as the God who has come for us and not for our neighbors? Will we keep Him to ourselves, or share Him with the world? Are we willing to see Him in the good times as well as the bad, in the hearts of our friends and in the faces of our enemies? Are we ready to be changed by the Word that reveals the fullness of God to this world?
“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30, ASV
I like to go on adventures. I’m not physically capable of running a marathon or climbing to the top of a mountain, but I can handle an enjoyable hike through a park or a forest. Oh, I’ll admit that I prefer a level path, and I tend to avoid the hikes that are miles long. I also prefer to take a hike alone. Part of the reason is that I like to take my time. I like to see everything. I like to stop to take photos, and I sometimes will wait for minutes until a butterfly alights just perfectly onto the right flower or the wind blows the leaves so that just the right amount of light will shine through. I hate to make others wait for me or having to rush to keep up with them.
What my family sometimes forgets when we are on these adventures is that my legs are shorter so it takes me a lot more steps to get the same distance. The other thing is that I’m always carrying a bunch of heavy equipment. I always take at least one camera, but usually have two, and I generally carry an extra lens for my good camera. I have extra batteries and sometimes I have other camera equipment necessary for taking certain types of pictures. My bag is a heavy burden; it is worth carrying but it certainly makes the journey a little more difficult and exhausting. This is why I like to do these adventures on my own; I can take my time and enjoy the adventure in a way that doesn’t affect others. I can stop when I want to stop. I can watch the butterflies for as long as I want. I can set my burden down when I’m tired without keeping others from their enjoyment.
Jesus seems contradictory in today’s lesson, doesn’t He? First He says that He will give us rest, and then He tells us to take His yoke. How can we rest if we are carrying a burden? How can life be easier if we are yoked to someone? The point Jesus is making is that we will carry a burden, whether it is one of our making or His. Which is easier? Which is the best for us? Jesus says, “I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Following a humble king will show us a way of living that will be peaceful, joyous, faithful.
See, we often think of yokes, or burdens, as being carried by one individual. I certainly carry all my camera equipment by myself whether I’m hiking alone or with a group. However, the yoke which Jesus talks about is not something we wear alone. Yokes are most often used to tie to animals together to make the work easier for both. Two oxen can pull a larger plow faster and for longer distances. Together they can prepare a larger field in less time. If we are yoked to Jesus, we’ll find everything is a little easier.
The yoked oxen seem equal because they are both pulling the same weight, however there is always a lead ox in the pair. The lead ox is usually a little larger, a little stronger and a little more obedient to the master. The master will use that to benefit the whole team, directing the lead ox in the direction they are to go while the other ox follows. The lead ox sets the stride so that the other ox can keep up without becoming exhausted too easily.
For us, Jesus is the lead ox. We don’t carry the burden on our own; we carry it with Him. He leads us. He sets the pace so that we will stay strong and able to do His work. He leads us in the right direction. With Him we can do so much more than we could ever do alone. The rest we have in Christ does not mean that we can spend our lives doing nothing. Instead, we are called to walk with Him, to join Him in His work, to share His love with our neighbors. We will find rest in the knowledge that we have done this work in His presence, with Him at our side. His yoke is easy because He is carrying it with us.
“And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years: and let them be for lights in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made the two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.” Genesis 1:14-19, ASV
I found a video this morning; it was four hours, twenty-three minutes and ten seconds long. I didn’t watch the whole thing. The video was from the Slooh Space Camera of the Eta Aquarids, a meteor shower that comes from the debris field from Halley’s Comet. The video was little more than the blackness of the sky with a few pinpoints of starlight. I’m sure that if I did watch the entire four hours, twenty-three minutes and ten seconds, I would have seen at least one or two shooting starts. The video was recorded, but the feed was available to watch live last night as the shower was happening.
The video was accompanied by a repeating audio explanation about meteors. The speaker explains that the shower is somewhere between a minor and moderate shower, which means that there are only 10 to 40 meteors an hour. Since the camera is focused on only one small area of the sky, it is likely that there were only a few actual meteors visible during the entire video. He explained that most of the meteors would not produce fantastic fireballs, but instead would leave a trail for a few seconds. The debris from a comet is mostly ice, and these meteors were hitting the earth’s atmosphere extremely fast, forty-two miles per second.
The speaker talked about another meteor shower that is expected in a few weeks. They are calling this one a storm because it is likely to produce a spectacular display of hundreds of meteors an hour. That might be worth watching on video, although I’m sure it would be even better to go out and watch it live on my back deck. I joked about the four hour, twenty-two minute, ten second video, but there are surely people who were watching last night, and who will watch it in the future. Youtube is showing that the video has had more than 55,000 views! There’s no way of know of knowing how much of the video they watched, but there’s certainly interest in seeing what’s happening in the sky.
A meteor shower is exciting because we see something different happening in the night sky. Most of the movement is from airplanes flying far overhead. The moon moves, of course, but it is constant in its pattern across the sky. The stars change a little each night as the earth moves through its orbit. The sun seems to move during the day, but we know that its movement is because the earth is turning. These heavenly bodies have helped human beings keep time from the beginning. The sun marks day and night, the moon marks the months and the stars mark the year. Time would pass without them, but because of them we can see the change of seasons, plan for planting and the harvest. We have a calendar because the sun, moon and stars have established a regular pattern in the heavens that guide and direct us in our patterns on the earth.
I think the heavenly bodies is perhaps one of the greatest gifts and curses of God’s creation. It is a gift because the sun, moon and stars make it possible for us to count our days. It is a curse for the same reason. Have you ever felt that you would like to live without being burdened by a clock or a calendar? Are there times when you wish that the sun would just not rise quite as early so that you have more time to sleep? How about those times when the night stops our fun? How many students wish summer vacation could last forever? Who among us likes to add another year onto our age? We may not always like the passage of time, but do we really want to be trapped in the same year forever?
It is fun to watch for the unusual signs in the night sky like the meteor showers, but we find comfort in the constancy of God’s great universe. We may not want a special day to end, but the next sunrise will shine on a brand new day. We might want the earth to be perpetually in summertime, but autumn, winter and spring have too many joys for us to miss. We may not like to put another candle on our birthday cake, but each new year brings new blessings and opportunities. Let us always be thankful for all the wondrous gifts of God’s creation that help us to count our days, our months and our years.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 11, 2014, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
“I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and go out, and shall find pasture.” John 10:9
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday. Over the three year lectionary we hear passages from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, a portion each year. This year our focus is on the first ten verses, where Jesus talks about being the gate and the gatekeeper, the only way to salvation. We will hear about His willingness to lay down His life for His sheep (John 10:11-18) next year. And finally in year three, Jesus provides proof of His authority to be the Good Shepherd. His sheep are those who believe, they’ve been given to Him by His Father (John 10:22-30.)
The psalm for this day is always Psalm 23; it is a song of the sheep who is praising the goodness of the Shepherd who is the LORD. The LORD provides. The LORD directs. The LORD leads. The LORD restores. The LORD guides. The LORD protects. The LORD comforts. The LORD feeds. The LORD anoints. Life under the LORD’s care is good. Life in the presence of the Shepherd is blessed.
In the Old Testament, the word shepherd often refers to the leadership of the people, both religious and secular. David was a shepherd boy who became the shepherd king. The priests were seen a shepherds, caring for the people. In Jesus’ day, the shepherds were the Pharisees and other leaders both in the community and the temple. Ultimately, however, the LORD is our Shepherd, a reality so eloquently stated by David in today’s Psalm.
The Old Testament talks about good shepherds and bad shepherds, referring to the kings. Some of the kings, like David, though not perfect, had a heart for God. They took care of the people. They led them in the right path. They trusted in God and followed God’s will for the nation. The LORD was their Shepherd and they were blessed.
Other kings were not good. They approved of false gods and built temples in their honor. They stole from the people to create palaces and treasuries for their pleasure. They ignored the word of God and went their own way. The rejected the judges and prophets sent to call them to repentance and they suffered the consequences of their disobedience. Those kings were not good shepherds who looked to God, but trusted in the false voices that led them and the nation astray.
Israel was no longer a sovereign nation when Jesus walked on the earth. They had a king who was a puppet of the Roman Empire. The priests were more concerned with their power and position to recognize God’s presence in the world. They had established a burdensome way of life that was impossible for the people but which made themselves look wholly and holy righteous. The reality is that they were self-righteous and they had lost touch with God like those kings of the past that failed to be good and godly shepherds.
Sadly, there are many today who are called to shepherd God’s sheep who do not follow Him. They are false; they have rejected the truth that is Christ. They claim there are many paths to the kingdom of heaven and that all ways honor God. However, Jesus said, “I am the gate.” He is the way to eternal life. The others are thieves and robbers. This refers to the false prophets who have distorted God’s word and burdened the people with a false gospel. “The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy.” Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly, like the sheep cared for by the Good Shepherd. The others may claim to worship the same God, but if they reject Jesus they are following a false god.
Here’s a joke for Good Shepherd Sunday: Saint Peter was walking the streets of heaven which seemed overly crowded to him. He went to the gate to look in the book they keep when people check into heaven. He found no comfort in what he saw; he knew that there were too many people on the streets based on the information in the book. He told Saint Paul of his concern. “Paul this doesn’t look good! Are there really that many extra people in the streets? Who are these people and how did they get here? Go and see if you can find out what is happening.” So, Saint Paul ran off to investigate while Saint Peter stood at the gate personally. After a while Saint Paul returned with a report. “You are right, Peter, there are extra people here.” Saint Peter replied, “I knew it. Where are they coming from?” Saint Paul answered, “Oh, its Jesus. He’s helping people climb in over the back fence again.” Jesus doesn’t have to bring people in over the back fence because He is the gate. It is through Jesus Christ that we enter into the blessedness of eternal life.
We live in a world that is full of noise. It is full of voices calling us to follow this path or that path. They want us to believe in their idea, to do things their way, to follow the path they think we should follow. That path is very often not the narrow path of the Gospel that relies solely and only on Jesus Christ, but is a wide path filled with options. People today prefer choices. They want the best of every religion. They want to believe what feels good. They want their faith to express their desires. I once met a woman on the Internet who called herself an eclectic Christian. She didn’t like the narrow focus on Jesus, but thought He was a good person to emulate. She liked aspects of other religions and saw nothing wrong with picking and choosing what felt best to her. She said, “We all worship the same god, don’t we?” The answer to that question is, “No.” If you reject the parts of Jesus that you don’t like, then you are rejecting the revealed Word of God. He is the gate. He is the Good Shepherd.
The false gods will not take care of you the way the Good Shepherd has promised, and like the bad kings in Israel’s history they will demand that you carry heavy burdens and perhaps even demand your blood.
Peter reminds us that dwelling with God does not mean we will never walk through the valley of the shadow of death. As a matter of fact, even our Lord Jesus suffered at the hands of men, though He’d done nothing wrong. He was hung on the cross, innocent of sin. Though men found it right to put Him to death, Jesus did not turn away from their wrath; instead He stood firmly in the will of God, doing that which He had been sent to do. It was for our sins that Jesus died, and for our sake that He now lives. “For ye were going astray like sheep; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” No other gods, or ideas of God, can do that for us.
Those who hear His voice will follow without fear, knowing that the Great Shepherd will provide all we need. The life we live in this world will never be perfect. The shadow of death looms over all that we do, because sin still rules in this world. However, we walk in faith knowing that God has already established our home forever. Until that day when we will know the fulfillment of that promise, we have the gift of the community of faith to support us; the Church is like that green pasture and still waters in David’s song of praise. It is in the fellowship of believers who gather at worship that we can find rest and refreshment of the Word and the Sacraments.
We live in a world that is increasingly becoming “people-free.” The grocery store provides “self check-out” lanes so that the consumer can do all the work for themselves. You can take care of almost all your business on the internet, with voice mail, with text messaging. We use email instead of the phone. Gas pumps have pay points, so we do not need to pay a cashier. We don’t even have to go to the post office anymore: we can print our stamps on our own computer and put the envelope in a mailbox. We can order pizza on the Internet and rent videos that automatically arrive in our mailbox.
And of course we have smart phones and tablets that let us converse with our neighbors without ever seeing them face to face. We text even when we are in the same building. We have more friends on Facebook than we have in real life. We need to interact with other people every day, to share our joys and pain. We need hugs and smiles. People need people. Sadly, too many of us, myself included, get most of our human contact without ever being in the same room as another human being.
In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” so He created woman and at the same time a community. He drew His people together and gave them laws to help them live together. He ordained a pattern for worship that was practiced in community and a social system that made all people important to the whole.
The “people-free” society is even making its way into the church. Besides televangelists, people can attend worship at mega-churches where they are assured a sense of anonymity. Individuals get lost in the crowd, which is just as well for many of the people who attend. On the other extreme, many Christians are choosing to have a solitary life of faith, no longer attending services at the church down the street. They sit in front of their television or go worship in a field. They read and study the scriptures and have a life of prayer, but they miss the life of community that comes from fellowship with other Christians. Those smart phones and tablets have wormed their way into the corporate worship, as pastors even encourage the congregation to use their phones to look up scripture and send twitter posts about the sermons they hear.
In the beginning, the Church was more than a group of people who got together for an hour or so a week to hear the Word and receive the Eucharist. They prayed together. They studied the scriptures together. They ate meals together. They gathered in their homes as well as at the synagogue. They shared with one another. If someone needed something, someone else supplied it. This wasn’t like the cults that require everyone to put all their worldly possessions into a treasury; those leaders are no different than the bad kings of old. This was a community that knew each other so well that they knew what everyone needed and offered it without thought.
I was watching one of those cooking competition shows last night. The women competing were all mothers; it was a special event in honor of Mother’s Day. At one point during the competition, one mom needed something, a common staple like butter, and she asked the neighboring mom to use some that was on her station. The second mom said, “Sure.” There was no question of sharing, even though they were competing for a lot of money. That’s not always the case; some contestants on the show can be unmerciful.
There was no question of sharing for the Christians in that community. It wasn’t something that was even acknowledged. They didn’t give plaques to the Sunday school teachers or list the names of every flower contributor in the bulletin. They also didn’t need to have nominating committees to harass people into taking a place on the council or a committee. These things happened naturally. It was part of their daily life. If a person needed prayer, they prayed. The children heard the Bible stories on a daily basis as members of the community naturally shared with them. When someone needed to be done, someone did it; they didn’t need to join a committee to decide who would do what when.
Unfortunately, the Church does not look much like it did in those early days. There are few who gather so regularly for prayer and study. We do not sell our possessions to support another’s needs. We don’t eat together with one heart or constantly praise God for His mercy and grace. We are also not adding to our numbers daily those that are saved. We are, at times, like a flock of sheep gone astray. We have become so separated from our brothers and sisters in Christ that we do not see their needs. We no longer know each other so well that we can tell when they are sad or lonely or upset.
Even the best of us have difficulty always knowing God’s voice in our noisy lives. We don’t live in a community of faith like those early Christians who were constantly immersed in God’s Word and the Christian life. Many of us work in places where most of the people do not know Jesus or they have rejected Him. Many of us work in places where the truth of Jesus has been lost to modern interpretations and worldly misunderstandings. We even find this is true in our churches. While I am sure most of my readers do spend more time with God than that one hour a week on Sunday, how many of us are truly aware of the constant presence of God? How many of us are so aware of God’s voice that we know without being asked when a neighbor needs help and we don’t think twice about sharing? How many of us spend time daily immersed in God’s Word and in fellowship with others in the Christian community?
The grace of God overpowers us when we are deeply immersed in our life with Him. We can be good Christians living a solitary life, but it is so much easier to hear God’s voice when we are doing so in a community. The sheep are safer together; the wandering sheep often gets lost and then attacked by wolves. The wandering sheep doesn’t find a soft place to rest or clear water without the help of the shepherd. The wandering sheep ends up on a dangerous path. We keep one another from wandering when we live in community and it is easier to follow the shepherd’s voice because we do so together.
Jesus doesn’t need to help people over the back fence into Heaven because He is the gate. In all things, Jesus is our focus. He is easier to hear when we listen together, pray together, worship together, study together, and live together in His grace. Let us constantly dwell in the presence of our Good Shepherd, immersed in the life of hope and peace and love that He provides. He is the only One who could save us and the only One who can guide us in the way that we should go.
“Howbeit at that time, not knowing God, ye were in bondage to them that by nature are no gods: but now that ye have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how turn ye back again to the weak and beggarly rudiments, whereunto ye desire to be in bondage over again? Ye observe days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid of you, lest by any means I have bestowed labor upon you in vain. I beseech you, brethren, become as I am, for I also am become as ye are. Ye did me no wrong: but ye know that because of an infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you the first time: and that which was a temptation to you in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but ye received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where then is that gratulation of yourselves? for I bear you witness, that, if possible, ye would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me. So then am I become your enemy, by telling you the truth? They zealously seek you in no good way; nay, they desire to shut you out, that ye may seek them. But it is good to be zealously sought in a good matter at all times, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, of whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you—but I could wish to be present with you now, and to change my tone; for I am perplexed about you.” Galatians 4:8-20, ASV
Have you ever gone to a county fair with a carnival? It is an exciting time for the people in the county and for many people who travel long distances to be a part of it. 4-H organizations give young men and women the opportunity to compete with their animals for prizes. Farmers bring their animals for sale. Farmer’s wives bake cakes and pies, can fruit and vegetables. Artists enter paintings, needleworkers show pillows and photographers enter their pictures in the hopes that they’ll win a ribbon. There is something for everyone, even those not so interested in the animals - such as concerts, art exhibits, and of course the carnival rides.
Lined up along the fairway are rides and attractions designed to entice even the stodgiest person into giving up their hard-earned money. The rides are a thrill a minute, with whirling contraptions and haunted houses. There is always some sort of Ferris wheel and a looping roller coaster. In between the rides are food booths offering everything from roasted corn to homemade lemonade. The latest race among foodies at fairs is finding the latest greatest, most disgusting thing to cover in batter and deep fry. The standard is corn dogs, but people now deep fry Twinkies, peanut butter banana cheeseburgers, candy bars, even butter and bacon.
The fairway is also lined with booths with games of skill and chance. There are dart games, basketball and squirt the water until the balloon fills. My favorite is the “ping pong ball in the fishbowl” game. The winner of this game always spent far more than the couple dollars necessary to win the fish: it was necessary to make a stop at the pet store to buy a bowl, stones and food to have a place for the fish to live. After all that money, the fish usually died within days.
The carny people didn’t really care. They worked hard to get you to spend your hard earned dollars in their booth. They had a gift of finding the right way to manipulate the visitors and they were overly zealous in the way they advertised their game. “You look like a strong man, come show your pretty lady how macho you are!” “You can win this giant stuffed polar bear if you just sink one putt!” They make it sound so easy, and so much better than all the other games. The purpose is to get you to spend all your money at their booth, to win their prize. They will do whatever they need to do to hook you.
We go to the carnival to have fun, but we have to be careful. The foods that tempt us are definitely not good for us. The games are often rigged to make it impossible to win the giant stuffed polar bear. And the rides never quite look safe. The tracks squeak as the cars drive by and the funhouse looks like it is going to fall over when a bunch of kids are trying to get through the revolving cylinder.
Have you ever felt like your life is like a carnival, with people constantly yelling for you to buy their product or choose their point of view? We even see this in the church. Church signs advertise special sermon series that help people with their marriages or learn how to succeed in business. They have basketball programs to attract kids and rock concerts to draw teenagers. They are zealous about filling their seats and will do whatever is necessary to hook you.
This isn’t a new problem. The church in Galatia was dealing with people who were trying to get the Christians to follow new, or old, ways. They set aside the Gospel and turned people to special ceremonies and other practices related to the old gods. They were returning to the lives they lived before they knew Jesus Christ. Paul reminded the Galatians to remember what he taught them and to not fall for the zealousness of those who want them to chase the false gospel and zealously seek the things of God.
“For I would not, brethren, have you ignorant of this mystery, lest ye be wise in your own conceits, that a hardening in part hath befallen Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in; and so all Israel shall be saved: even as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer; He shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: And this is my covenant unto them, When I shall take away their sins. As touching the gospel, they are enemies for your sake: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers' sake. For the gifts and the calling of God are not repented of. For as ye in time past were disobedient to God, but now have obtained mercy by their disobedience, even so have these also now been disobedient, that by the mercy shown to you they also may now obtain mercy. For God hath shut up all unto disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.” Romans 11:25-36 (ASV)
I do not know what it is about human nature that makes us laugh or gawk at the misfortune of others. We love to watch shows like “America’s Funniest Videos.” We rubberneck at accidents, go out of our way to see the damage a tornado leaves in its wake and thrive on the stories we hear on the news. It is not that we enjoy seeing their pain. We are compassionate to those who suffer and quickly offer a helping hand or a pray as needed. However, there are some things that draw our attention and make us laugh, some things we can’t help but watch. I remember when I was a kid, a garbage truck caught on fire on a road near my house. A discarded cigarette butt flew in the bed filled with papers. No one was in any danger. The truck pulled over, the firemen put out the fire and the driver continued on his way. The entire neighborhood came out to watch it burn.
We watch shows like “America’s Funniest Videos” and we wonder how someone could be so stupid. “What were they thinking?” we ask. It is incredible that anyone would find themselves in those positions. After all, the natural laws of the world inform us of the consequences of our actions. We know, for example, that an ice covered roof is very slippery. Gravity and the lack of traction mean that someone walking across that roof is likely to fall to the ground. Yet, there are dozens of videos every year showing people falling off their snow and ice covered roofs. They end up laying face down in the snow and we laugh at their foolishness. It is alright to laugh because the people involved are never seriously injured and we think we think that it will never happen to us.
However, there are many times we laugh at someone only to find ourselves in exactly the same situation sometime later. I remember when we were living in California there was a commercial on television for a bank. It showed a man and a woman buying a Christmas tree with the words, “We buy Christmas trees too big for our house.” We laughed and said that only an idiot would buy a tree that wouldn’t fit in their house. Well, we were idiots because a few weeks later we had to cut our tree more than a foot to make it fit into our living room. We may walk around with a self-righteous arrogance, but we all get caught being idiots once in awhile, even if we don’t get caught on camera.
In today’s lesson Paul is writing to the Romans who had a certain arrogance about their salvation. They were confused about God’s redemptive plan and the relationship between God and all those who believe. There were Jewish Christians who continued to live under the dietary laws and sacred days, and they looked down on the Gentile Christians who did not have those traditions. The Gentile Christians did not understand how there could be any Jewish people who did not believe the Gospel or accept Jesus Christ as Lord. Paul reminds us that everyone, Jew and Gentile alike are sinners in need of a Savior. That Savior is Jesus Christ.
Paul answers the question of the Jewish unbelievers with a reminder that the Savior comes out of Zion, or Jerusalem; the Savior comes out of God’s chosen people. It is a mystery that they do not believe, but Paul reminds all the Christians that God has not forgotten the promises to His people. The reason they didn’t believe is because He has hardened their heart for a moment, until the right time. They do not believe so that the full measure of Gentiles might. In Paul’s day the Church consisted of a remnant of God’s chosen people, but in God’s time all Israel will be saved. By faith Zion will no longer be just a place on a map or a city on a hill, it will be the hearts of all God’s people who believe in the One who is their Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence, as when fire kindleth the brushwood, and the fire causeth the waters to boil; to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence! When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains quaked at thy presence. For from of old men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen a God besides thee, who worketh for him that waiteth for him. Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways: behold, thou wast wroth, and we sinned: in them have we been of long time; and shall we be saved? For we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment: and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us by means of our iniquities. But now, O Jehovah, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Be not wroth very sore, O Jehovah, neither remember iniquity for ever: behold, look, we beseech thee, we are all thy people.” Isaiah 64:1-9, ASV
George Carlin did a monologue about the difference between football and baseball. He included such clever insights as the fact that baseball takes place on a diamond in a park while football is played out on the gridiron in a stadium. He said that in football you wear a helmet, in baseball a cap. Baseball has a seventh inning stretch and football has the two minute warning. “Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, blocking, piling on, late hitting, unnecessary roughness and personal fouls. Baseball has the sacrifice,” he said.
He finishes the monologue with this insight: “And finally the objectives of the two games are totally different. In Football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general. To be on target with his aerial assault riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemies’ defensive line. In Baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home, safe at home.”
I quote the American Standard Version because it is public domain and I’m limited by copyright laws on most modern versions, but I have often suggested that you readers take the time to look the passages I quote in your own favorite bible versions. Sometimes the older language is hard to understand. In today’s passage I want you to take particular notice of the change in attitude of Isaiah, which might be easier to understand in a modern language version.
In the beginning, Isaiah is crying out for God to do something; he wants God to come down and make His presence known in a powerful and impactful way. “Hit our enemies, clip them, spear them, block them, pile on them, be rough so that they will know that You are the God who has done incredible things for us and that You will continue to be protective of those who are righteous in Your sight.” Isaiah realizes pretty quickly, though, that even God’s chosen people have sinned against Him. “For we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment.” We don’t deserve anything better than we want for our enemies. Isaiah understands that even thought it seems like God has abandoned His people, they deserved to be oppressed by their enemies because they turned from Him.
In the end, though, Isaiah knows there is always hope. God does not abandon His people. He does save them from their own foolishness. He asks God to have mercy, to remember His promises, to lay His hands on His people so that they will be conformed to His will. We may come to our God with the ‘football’ attitude wanting God to avenge us so that we can win on the field, but the reality is that what we really needed was sacrifice. Our goal as Christians is not to dominate, but to make it home safe. As we understand our own sinfulness and our own need for God’s mercy and grace, we see that He has never really abandoned us and that His love is big enough for everyone, even our enemy.
“But forget not this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing that these things are thus all to be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, by reason of which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight. And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation.” 2 Peter 3:8-15a, ASV
We had an entertainment unit in our last house that Bruce built specifically for our space and our equipment. It was made of MDF which is a medium density fiber board. It is very heavy and strong enough to support large televisions and all the other things that we use to entertain ourselves. The board is light colored wood which needs to be painted, but it took us a long time to get around to doing so. One day, however, as we were cleaning the carpets and rearranging the room, we decided it was time to give the set a more finished look.
I don’t understand how those do-it-yourself shows manage to get things done so quickly, and my confusion was even greater after our adventure. They redecorate an entire room in less than a day or two, painting walls, building new furniture, creating artwork. It takes a day or two for most paint to dry. Even then, it takes a few more days for the paint to cure so that it is no longer tacky. They rush the completion of their work because they do not need to worry about the consequences. They are concerned only about the surface look and not about the long term use of the pieces they make.
We rushed the completion of our project. We wanted the room to be ready for guests we were expecting. So, we put the pieces in the room as soon as it seemed like it was dry. Unfortunately, the paint was still a bit tacky and it became like glue. We didn’t realize how difficult it would be to move the pieces once they were stacked. When it came time to sell the house, the new buyers weren’t interested and it would never fit into our new house. We found a neighbor who was interested in having the piece; moving it was nearly impossible. We got most of the pieces apart, but a few broke in the process. We learned that despite the fast work on those do-it-yourself television shows, it is important not to rush any job.
The people in Peter’s day were hopeful for Christ’s return. They were expecting Him at any moment. They were even beginning to doubt the words of Jesus because it seemed to be taking so long. They wondered where He might be and why He was late. There were, I’m sure, even some who were trying to find a way to hasten His coming. In the past two thousand years there have been many people who have tried to foretell the time and day when the Lord would come, and some even acted in ways they thought would force God’s hand. Cults exist because people often believe that they know God better than He knows Himself and they are determined to fulfill God’s promises in their own way.
We are no different. The end times is a topic that finds its way into many conversations. It is found in the media. Though not explicitly religious, many television shows interpret the idea of the end of the world in new and frightening ways. There are plenty of books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deals with the issues and the interpretation of the signs. Of course, every time there is a natural disaster someone will cry, “This is it!”
It is interesting to think about the scriptures and what they mean for us as Christians today. We have to be ready because it is true that Christ could come at any moment. However, the focus on the end times often leads us to stop living to watch and wait. Jesus calls us to live for today; we look forward to that Day of the Lord but we should not make it the entire focus of our faith. Just as we discover the consequences of rushing our painting projects, we discover that rushing the coming of the Lord will leave us frustrated. When we are too busy waiting, we miss the opportunities to bring Jesus to the world in life changing ways.
We learn from Peter that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day for God. What has taken forever for us has only been a moment for God. The time has not yet come because everything is not yet ready. The paint isn’t dry. God is patient because not everyone for whom the promise has been given has yet heard it. There is great hope in this message: God does not want any to perish. He is patient and longsuffering. Christ will not come until all is ready.
In this passage, written for the believers, Peter says that God is, “longsuffering to you-ward.” There is work for us to do, and God is giving us the time. Those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ are out there in the world, walking in darkness. We are the light, sent to give hope and peace to all whom God has chosen. God is patient, not for those who haven’t heard, but for us. He is waiting until we do what we have been called to do. God’s patience is our salvation. He is waiting until we have accomplished all He has commanded us to do. It might happen in this generation, but it might not happen for another thousand years. After all, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day to God. He will fulfill His promises in His time according to His word.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 18, 2014, Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 7:51-60; Psalm 146; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
“Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God.” Psalm 146:5, ASV
I belong to a very new mission congregation in my city. We have a regular attendance of about twenty people. On Easter Sunday, our biggest service ever, we had nearly three dozen. Our building, a suite in a strip office building, might hold about fifty. I had a dream the other night that we had an overwhelming attendance one Sunday, not just a few dozen but thousands! The building somehow miraculously grew and people were worshipping in several rooms, including a very large warehouse which doesn’t really exist in our current space.
It is exciting to think that our little congregation might grow to be that large, but the dream wasn’t all rosy. The large crowd was overwhelming for us. We didn’t know how to deal with the logistics of so many people at one time. The leaders disagreed about how to deal with everything, getting angry because everyone thought they had the best answers. To add to the issue, we were having some sort of meal that day, and there was no good way to organize the people so that everyone would get a plate or a drink or a place to sit to eat. The dream ended before there was a solution, and I was left with this feeling of anxiety when I awoke. What would we do if we had such sudden growth that we outgrew our ability to minister in a day?
Think about this: the first followers of Jesus probably numbered a few hundred. At the beginning of Acts we have the eleven and then Matthias. Matthias was chosen out of a group of about seventy other men. There were also women who were committed and faithful followers. The number who gathered in the Upper Room during the wait between Ascension and Pentecost may have been about a hundred and twenty. They were joined together constantly in prayer.
Compared to the megachurches of today, a couple hundred people is a small number of believers, and yet it is a good size. Small churches allow that no one gets lost in the crowd. Food is shared and no one is left out. Problems are not hidden in the anonymity of a large group. It is obvious when someone is missing on a Sunday, and we are sure to call to find out if everything is alright. We can easily rearrange the space to accommodate disabilities and we can assure everyone that their voice will be heard.
It was easy, too, because the congregation was made up entirely of people from the same community. They were all Jews. They all had the same religious practices. They all followed the same dietary and cleanliness laws. They all spoke the same language. The situation changed dramatically on the day of Pentecost when three thousand people suddenly believed. Those who believed were from many different places. While at this point the Christians were still mostly Jews, they spoke many different languages. The Hellenists, for example, were Jews that lived in the Greek culture. The addition of three thousand must have been overwhelming, but we heard in last week’s passage from Acts that people were being saved daily.
At the beginning of today’s first lesson, Luke tells us that the number of disciples was growing so much that people were getting lost in the crowd. The Greek widows were not receiving the help they needed. It is really not that surprising, and definitely not a purposeful slight against the widows. But imagine how hard it must have been for those first leaders. They had to make sense of everything Jesus taught them. They had to figure out how to share His words with people from many different places. They had God and the Holy Spirit to help, but there were a million things to do. They could not possibly know every person who had come to faith in Christ. They had to find a way to meet the needs of the new Church while ensuring that the people’s individual needs are met.
Ask any pastor, of a small or large congregation, how hard it is to accomplish everything they need to accomplish! Some congregations depend on their pastors for everything, from preaching to scrubbing the toilet bowl. I recently had a conversation with a pastor who was dealing with a difficult situation at his church. The people expected him to put in a forty-hour day doing the things they thought needed to be done. So, they asked him to put on paper his schedule and to document his work. He included time for prayer. His members were taken aback: “You pray on the clock? Shouldn’t you do that on your own time?”
Notice how the twelve respond to this problem. They know that the work they are called to do is important. They tell the disciples to choose seven men to administer the daily business of the church. “But we will continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word.” What comes first? Prayer.
See, they were doing something new and they knew that they could not do it on their own. It required God’s help. They knew that they could not push forward and make decisions without first listening to God’s guidance. Sadly, we make a lot of decisions in the church these days without seeking God’s help with the matter. We think it is more important for our pastors to clean toilets than to pray. We want them to fill their calendars with busy work that we could accomplish, when they should be spending most of their time in prayer and ministry of the Word.
Do you think that they just get up to the pulpit and speak without preparation? Even those pastors who seem to ‘wing it’ on a Sunday morning do so after spending hours studying the text. They do research. They compare texts. They check the Greek and Hebrew. They read commentaries. They do this with constant interruptions from parishioners who want them to account for every minute of their work day. I put in several hours of research and prayer for this devotion on Wednesdays, and I barely touch the surface of what the pastors are doing in preparation for their sermons. On those occasions when I do preach, I more than double the time I spend organizing my thoughts on the texts.
So, we are reminded by this text that our pastors need to focus on prayer and the ministry of the word without being tasked with jobs we can do. The twelve looked to the disciples for help. It is likely that men like Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus had been around for awhile. They may have been in the groups of disciples sent out to preach and heal while Jesus was still alive. They were probably in the Upper Room on that first Easter night and on Pentecost. They were not part of the twelve, but it is likely that they had heard and seen Jesus with their own ears and eyes.
The thing to note with these seven administrators is that they did not just wait tables. They were gifted with the power of the Holy Spirit which manifested in both word and deed. Stephen did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. His opponents could not debate against his wisdom. It is not surprising that the disciples would find opposition, after all, Jesus did and He told His disciples that things would be no different for them. There are always people, even in the fellowship of believers, who do not quite understand the truth or accept the power of God.
Stephen’s opponents manipulated the situation by getting others to make untrue statements about Stephen. The leaders took Stephen to the pit, the place where they tried and stoned those who were guilty of blasphemy. This was not a chaotic moment in time; it was a trial, carried out with order and purpose. There were dishonest witnesses, but Stephen did not try to overcome them. He simply told them the story, their story, and reminded them of God’s promises. He accused them of being just like their ancestors who ignored God’s judges and prophets. His speech infuriated the crowd, although they could see that his face looked like the face of an angel. God’s Spirit was upon him, and Stephen had no fear. The stoning in the pit was so much like Jesus’ own crucifixion. Stephen looked to heaven and saw Jesus at the right hand of God. He had no fear; he had only peace. Then he asked Jesus to receive his spirit and to forgive them. He died in faith, willingly standing firm in God’s Word even unto death.
I know that many of my readers do live in a time and place where physical persecution is a very real possibility. My Christian brothers and sisters in Nigeria and China are being beaten and their churches destroyed. There are many other places where Christians are beaten and killed because of their faith. Even in American, some Christians have been rejected and harassed because they are willing to stand up for their principles. Sometimes it seems like it is getting worse.
God often calls us to do things that we would rather not do. He calls us to share the Gospel with our neighbor, but we are afraid we’ll sound like a Jesus freak. He calls us to feed the poor, but we don’t want to give money to someone who will use the money for drugs or alcohol. He calls us to rebuke or correct a brother, but we think, “Who am I to do this? I’m not perfect or intelligent enough to do what God wants me to do.” We ask God for confirmation, for a clear sign that it is Him that we are hearing. We put off the task because we fear recrimination or we have doubts of the calling.
Jesus told the disciples, “Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.” Whatever we are called to do, we are called to do it with faith. God is with us. We don’t have to speak our own words because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put His Word in our mouths. We will face opposition; but we do not need to be afraid. He is always with us.
The words of Jesus are some of the most comforting of scripture. He is preparing a place for us; one day we will be with Him. This is the promise of eternal life. In this world, leaders choose helpers based on their very human qualities. We try to hire employees who are qualified, who fit a certain expectation, who have the right education and experience. But when God chose the disciples He picked a motley crew of misfits. He did this for a reason: to show us that He doesn’t choose those who are perfect, but that He perfects those who are chosen. Stephen didn’t accomplish what he accomplished because he was particularly good or wise. He was good and wise because God gave him the power and the words.
He gives us the power and the words, too. As a matter of fact, the promise in today’s Gospel passage is as much for us as it was for those first Christians. Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto the Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, that will I do.”
As I read these words, I often wonder why the Church is not doing the same miraculous things Jesus did. I think there are many reasons. First of all, we have forgotten that God gives such miraculous powers. Perhaps we are afraid to ask for these things, out of fear that we will look foolish or that we will be disappointed. God has given doctors and nurses the ability to heal scientifically, so we do not look toward the supernatural for healing. When a Christian dies, why bother bringing them back into this world of sin and evil when they have gone home, where we all long to be?
Jesus said we would do miracles and even greater things. What are the greater things? He did not only heal the sick and bring life to those who had perished in flesh. He brought hope to the lost, love to the lonely and forgiveness to those who sin. By His death on the cross and resurrection into new life, He gave us all eternal life in Him. Though we should be open to the great and wonderful things Jesus can do through us for the glory of God our Father, we are still doing those greater things. By sharing the Gospel message with the lost and lonely, we bring them true life and spiritual healing.
God sees perfection from a much different perspective than human beings. In God’s mind, perfection is not judged by outward image. God recognized Jesus’ perfection by His perfect obedience. Jesus willingly became the cornerstone, suffered death and was buried, He allowed His blood to flow for the sake of everyone who would eventually believe. All things are measured and aligned by the life and ministry of Christ. One by one we who are His bricks, the saints from past, present and future, are laid on the foundation that is Christ.
Christians are called to something greater than the world expects. We are called to a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. According to John’s Gospel, the greatest sign, or miracle, of Jesus was His death on the cross, because there He defeated death and sin to reconcile us to God through His forgiveness. People are not saved by good works. They are saved by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We are called to take Jesus Christ into the world, to share His grace and His mercy. There is a chasm between God and man much greater than we ourselves can cross. We try to do so with good works, even following the example of Jesus’ kindness and compassion. We do the work of the church, like Stephen, feeding the widows and offering comfort to those who hurt. We are merciful to our neighbor. But there is no hope in works righteousness because we can’t do enough to earn the grace of God. We have no assurance that we have done enough. Anything of any value is done by God through us.
Stephen fed the hungry and met the needs of the poor, all the while sharing the Gospel of grace. Even at the point of death, Stephen cried out to the Lord to forgive those who were about to kill him. Jesus said we will do greater things, and that is what Stephen did. He is remembered as the first martyr, and so he was the first to follow Jesus into death. Yet, his martyrdom did not earn him a place in heaven or a reward of eternal life. That was won at the cross of Christ. Our mission is not just about living the example of Christ in the world; it is about sharing the forgiveness He brought to the world through His death on the cross. There God is truly glorified.
We need not be afraid. We have the same Spirit that gave Stephen the courage to stand trial against liars. We have the same Spirit that gave him the grace to heal and preach. We have the same Spirit that will allow us to see our Lord Jesus Christ as He is, standing at the right hand of God our Father in heaven.
Martin Luther said, “All heaviness of mind and melancholy come of the devil; especially these thoughts, that God is not gracious unto him: that God will have no mercy upon him, etc. Whosoever thou art, possessed with such heavy thoughts, know for certain, that they are a work of the devil. God sent his Son into the world, not to affright, but to comfort. Therefore be of good courage, and think, that henceforward thou art not the child of a human creature, but of God, through faith in Christ, in whose name thou art baptized; therefore the spear of death cannot enter into thee; he has no right unto thee, much less he hurt or prejudice thee, for he is everlastingly swallowed up through Christ.” (From Table Talk)
We stand as a testament to the work of God in this world. He is glorified in our life together. We are built on that cornerstone that is Christ. Jesus was rejected; they did not see what God knew to be true. He was faithful. He was obedient. He was truly perfect in every way and God made Him the foundation of the kingdom He would build. He continues to build, lining us up, carefully placing each one of His children as part of the Church on earth. We can see the buildings we build, but it is much harder to see that Church which God is building. It is in our life, our service, our hope and our faith that the world can see God glorified. One day, perhaps, the world might even see God through the faith which allows us to stand against our opposition who seeks to destroy and possibly even kill us.
God is the Lord God Almighty, and our hope is found in Him, through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to live in hope no matter what circumstances we face. In faith we can join with Stephen in crying out to God our refuge; we can dwell in His presence today, tomorrow and always. And in faith we are sent out to share the hope of the promise of forgiveness with all those who cross our path, even those who oppose us. It is in the words of forgiveness that all people will be reconciled to God and welcomed into His presence forever. When we speak the words, we will truly see greater things happen because Jesus stands with the Father in heaven so that we can have His Spirit to do His work in this world.
“And he spake to them many things in parables, saying, Behold, the sower went forth to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them: and others fell upon the rocky places, where they had not much earth: and straightway they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And others fell upon the thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked them: and others fell upon the good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He that hath ears, let him hear.” Matthew 13:3-9, ASV
This is an extremely familiar parable to most of us. It is so familiar that we probably don’t even really listen to it anymore. “Oh, that’s the one about good soil,” and in our minds we start singing the song. “Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your word. Lord, let my heart be good soil, where love can grow and peace is understood. When my heart is hard, break the stone away. When my heart is cold, warm it with the day. When my heart is lost, lead me on your way. Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart be good soil.”
We not only stop listening because we are distracted. We also stop listening because we think we know it all. We’ve already heard it; there is nothing new for us here. We understand it because we’ve heard the explanation a dozen times from a dozen different teachers and preachers. Besides, Jesus Himself explains the meaning of this text for us later in the chapter (tomorrow’s lesson.) There’s nothing left to ponder, is there?
I was once leading the closing program of a day of Vacation Bible School with a room full of excited children. The lesson was about following directions. I had a recipe book with a cake recipe, but instead of following the directions, I used whatever ingredients I had on hand. See, I didn’t have any flour, so I used rice. Rather than sugar, I used salt. Vinegar took the place of vanilla and cat food was used instead of chocolate chips. Needless to say, the cake would have been horrible, but there was a point I was making. Unfortunately, one of the children yelled, “Taste it!” Then they all began to chant it over and over again. They were so loud that they did not even hear the lesson: that it is important to follow the directions.
There are many reasons we don’t hear. As in the case of the kids at VBS, they could not hear because they were busy with their own things. We get distracted, too. We don’t hear what others are saying because we are so busy with the earworms in our head or are so focused on our own understanding. Apathy and arrogance both affect the hearing. Physical discomfort like illness, poverty, hunger or thirst can make it difficult to hear. It is so easy to get caught up in ourselves that we forget that God might be speaking to us in a new way, telling us something we need to hear.
It can be very frustrating to try to speak to a room full of screaming, wiggly kids. After the day was over I wondered if they even heard the lesson. Yet, somehow the next day some of the children managed to amaze and delight me with their answers to questions. We can’t give up just because we think that we aren’t making an impact. We must continue to speak, knowing that it isn’t our words that bring hope and life and salvation to the world, but it is God and His Spirit that makes the difference. We speak even when we know that there are those who refuse to listen or cannot listen because they are so caught up in themselves, knowing that God is able to break through the hardest of hearts.
Of course, there are always times when we don’t listen, and perhaps the lesson for us is to be more aware when someone is trying to speak God’s Word into our lives. Jesus said, “He that hath ears, let him hear.” He is calling us to a life of active listening. Jesus is calling us to be willing to hear His stories, even repeatedly, so that they will continue to impact our lives in new and powerful ways. See, the same old story can take on a new meaning in our lives. One day we might be experiencing a time when our life is like the wayside or the rocky path. Sometimes our life is covered with thorns.
But as we listen to God’s Word spoken with love and grace from those whom God sends our way, and we ponder what it means for us now, our hearts will be transformed into good soil, to receive Him fully and completely even when things aren’t going the way we might hope. If we have ears to hear, we might just hear God speaking in a way we would never expect and perhaps in a way we don’t really want to hear. But it is those very lessons that transform us into the people whom God created, redeemed and called us to be.
“Hear then ye the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the evil one, and snatcheth away that which hath been sown in his heart. This is he that was sown by the way side. And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth. And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. And he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Matthew 13:18-23, ASV
After yesterday’s story, Jesus’ disciples asked Him why He used parables. He answered that parables help those who have hardened their hearts to hear God’s Word and turn back to Him. Jesus used very real, daily experiences so that those who were listening might see God working in the world. They could identify with the farmer who scatters the seed. They knew that what Jesus was telling them was true. Seed that falls on the path gets eaten. Seed that falls on the rocks grows but doesn’t survive. Seeds that fall in the thorns will get chocked. The seed that falls on good soil will sprout and grow.
It is important to find the right way to plant the seed. Seeds need the proper environment to grow. Some seeds need to be planted deep in the earth. Others need only a light covering of soil. Some need to be placed very carefully along rows, which others can be scattered. Grains and grasses are the type that can be scattered, and the farmer must learn the right way to do it so that he does not waste seed. Bruce once seeded our lawn. At first he used his hand to scatter the seed, but he had little control and the seed fell in clumps in some places while falling sparsely in others. He purchased a handheld spreader designed to throw the seed evenly across the ground. It was a wonderful tool, although no matter how carefully he directed it, some seed still fell on the sidewalk. We knew that the seed scattered on the sidewalk was useless except to the birds who would steal it. Some of the seed simply dried out and produced no new growth.
Only that seed which is given the the right environment can grow into a plant with fruit. That’s what Jesus is saying in yesterday’s passage. The seed is the Gospel, and we are the sowers sent to scatter it to the world. In today’s passage, He tells us that the good soil is hearts prepared to receive God’s word. Some of the seed will fall on the path or the rocks or the thorns, and that will be stolen, or whither quickly or be choked by the thorns. We should never be afraid to scatter the seed because that which falls on the good soil will produce hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. We can rejoice with those who do hear and believe because God has prepared their hearts for His Word.
We who have received this word and do believe need to remember, though, that sometimes our own hearts are not prepared to hear the word that God is sending our way. We have faith, and that’s truly amazing, but our God calls us to constant and continual growth in our faith. We aren’t to be just those who believe but are easily led astray by the devil. We aren’t to rejoice but quickly wither when things get a little confusing. We aren’t to allow the weeds and thorns of the world to choke us when we are faced with opposition to the work God is calling us to do.
See, Christian faith is difficult. It is not all peaches and cream. We will be rejected and harassed for our faith. Some of us may even face very real persecution. We may be fired from our jobs. We may be beaten and killed. Those hard times make it difficult to remain faithful, especially since the world and the devil are constantly trying to get us to deny Christ. There are those who will claim that our difficulties are proof that our God does not exist. After all, how could a loving God allow so many beautiful girls be kidnapped in Nigeria? They think that persecution will destroy the Christian faith.
Here’s the thing: persecution has never destroyed the Church. As a matter of fact, the times of substantial growth in God’s Church were those times when persecution was greatest. Martyrdom does not stop the spread of the Gospel, it fires up the sparks in believers who were uncertain. Nigeria is an excellent example. The terrorist groups have been killing Christians and destroying church buildings for more than a dozen years, but in that time the number of Christians in the nation have grown from twenty-five to more than fifty percent. God does not want this for His Church, but when it is the world we face, He gives us the strength and the courage to face it. He makes our hearts be good soil so that His Word will grow a hundredfold, sixty or thirty.
“When Jehovah brought back those that returned to Zion, We were like unto them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, And our tongue with singing: Then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them. Jehovah hath done great things for us, Whereof we are glad. Turn again our captivity, O Jehovah, As the streams in the South. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalm 126, ASV
I went to a conference with a group of girls and adults when I was a teenager. We were there for several days. I roomed in the hotel with my mom and my best friend. The conference was exhausting; the days were filled with many activities and by the time we got back to our hotel room we were always ready to rest. We knew that we’d sleep well. One of us said something silly one evening and we began to giggle. The giggling turned into laughter until it was out of control. It didn’t take us long before we could not even remember what made us laugh so hard. We were out of control, everything made us laugh even harder. We couldn’t even look at one another without breaking out in more hilarity. In the end, our bellies hurt, our eyes were watering and we could barely breathe. It was a most silly time, but it was a moment I will never forget.
A few years ago I was part of a program that used paintings and pictures of Jesus from around the world. The pictures showed Jesus from completely different perspectives. A picture from Latin American shows Jesus on a wanted poster. A Korean painting shows Jesus with Korean features carrying the cross. A painting from Cameroon of the Last Supper shows Jesus and the disciples as black men around native furniture with a golden bowl. A painting from the Philippines shows the Crucifixion in the style of the cubists. Some of the paintings portray the very raw emotion of a violent and horrific death on the cross. Others show Jesus in relationship with the people around him, portrayed according to the culture of the artist. They show Jesus peaceful, sad, angry, suffering and rejoicing.
One picture from Latin America that has been reproduced in many and various ways is called “The Laughing Christ.” It shows Jesus with a huge smile on his face, as if He had just heard the best joke or was in that hotel room with my mom, my friend and I. He was happy, and He wasn’t afraid to show it. One of the things we often forget is that God has a sense of humor. Jesus often joked when he preached about God’s Kingdom, though sometimes the humor is lost on us because we take everything He says with such seriousness. But in the scriptures Jesus and the disciples are often found around a table sharing a meal. These were social events; I’m sure they often laughed and enjoyed each other’s company.
The scriptures often suggest that we should not laugh, but rather mourn, because we dwell in sin. In Ecclessiastes 7:3 Solomon writes, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” Laughter is seen in a negative light, so many go about taking life too seriously. However, throughout the scriptures, we hear about the joy of God’s deliverance. Miriam danced when the Israelites made it across the Red Sea. David danced when the Ark of the Covenant arrived in Jerusalem. You can’t dance in celebration and joy without laughing!
It is said that laughter is the best medicine. I think that may be true, but even more so, joyful laughter shows the world the condition of your heart. Joy comes from God, and when we know He loves us, we feel the joy of His salvation. When we know the joy of the Lord, it is impossible not to laugh. When we do, the world sees that God has done a great thing for us. We have good reason to laugh: our Lord God Almighty has saved us from death and the grave. We have everlasting life by His grace; we will dwell with Him forever because Jesus played the most incredible joke on the devil. Satan thought he’d have control once Jesus died, but in three days Jesus was raised to new life and we now look forward to the life we will share with Him forever. The devil can’t take that from us, so let’s rejoice today and always so that the world will see how God has done the greatest thing for us!
“Now to him that is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which hath been kept in silence through times eternal, but now is manifested, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, is made known unto all the nations unto obedience of faith: to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen.” Romans 16:25-27, ASV
The word “doxology” means “a glory saying,” and is a hymn of praise. We are familiar with many different doxologies, including the end of the Lord’s Prayer, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.” Though these words are not found in the most accepted manuscripts of the text in which Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, we use it to complete the thought and return our focus to the One who hears our prayers and answers. Another common doxology is one we often sing as a meal prayer, “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” One final doxology that we use often, especially in the liturgy, is called the Gloria Patri, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.”
These glory sayings or hymns of praise can be very simple or more complicated like today’s passage from Paul. We see the simple in the first and last words, “Now to him, the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever. Amen.” But Paul also gives us the reason why God deserves the glory forever.
He is able. So much of the story of Christ and His Church seems impossible. The story of Mary, a pregnant virgin, is beyond our understanding. It is so unbelievable that many have taken great pains to explain away Mary’s virginity but even Mary wondered at this impossibily, “How can this be since I have not been with a man?” Yet, God is able to do this thing. The story of John is no less miraculous, born to elderly parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, were very old. Yet, God was able to do this thing, too. Think about the incredible acts of God in the Old Testament: the flood and the saving of Noah’s family. The Red Sea and all that occurred during the Exodus. The prophets healed the sick, raised the dead and did other miraculous things with water and flour and oil. In the New Testament, Jesus did all that and more. He made water into wine, fed thousands on barely one man’s meal, and cast out demons. He did things that had never been done before, like healing a man born blind.
The Jews were expecting a Messiah. They were waiting for the good news that God’s promises were fulfilled in a mighty king who would lead them into another golden age. They knew the promises and expected them for themselves. Paul, however, saw that there was a mystery in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He saw that God was working miracles in people who were not even Jewish. He saw Gentiles being moved by the Holy Spirit into faith, active faith. It wasn’t just a confession of the mouth, but it was a movement of spirit and flesh that was changing the world. The scriptures tell us that hundreds, even thousands, came to believe from the word of just one or two witnesses. This seems impossible to us, especially when we think about the differences in culture between the apostles and the gentiles. Yet, God is able to do this thing.
And God is still able. This is why He is worthy of praise. He is able to bring the obedience of faith through the words offered by those He has called to share the Gospel. He is able to give strength to His people to face extraordinary odds, to do the impossible, to tell stories that are ridiculous and yet true. God is able to make His hand move in the lives of those who were never expected to hear or understand the Gospel message. God calls and gifts us to take the message into the world. We do so by living an active life of praising God with glory sayings that shines the light of His Gospel on those who see our worship. They experience God’s grace and see that He is truly able to do this thing, and they hear the promises He has fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ. Then they, too, join us in song, glorifying God in words and in active obedience to God’s call and gifts in their lives.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 25, 2014, Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 17:16-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
“If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments. 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 14:15-17
Last week I wrote, “Jesus told the disciples, ‘Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.’ Whatever we are called to do, we are called to do it with faith. God is with us. We don’t have to speak our own words because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put His Word in our mouths. We will face opposition; but we do not need to be afraid. He is always with us.” Our passage ended with Jesus saying, “If ye shall ask anything in my name, that will I do.”
The passage for this week continues the text from this comforting talk from Jesus. He promises that He will not abandon His people. “I will not let you become orphans,” He says. He is going to leave them. This is the last Sunday before Ascension Day, which is Thursday. We are in the final days of the forty He stayed with the disciples, training them for the future. This is it. Jesus is getting them ready for the inevitable: He has to leave.
But He won’t leave them alone. He will send a helper: the Holy Spirit. I can imagine how they felt. The sadness they felt at the crucifixion will be even greater now. Death seemed so permanent, but Jesus returned. Who knows what they would have done if He had never been raised. I doubt they would have continued His work. They were ready to get back to their old lives. Two disciples went home to Emmaus. Thomas disappeared, we don’t know where. Peter even went back to fishing. Then Jesus returned and He’s spent the past few weeks nurturing them beyond discipleship into apostles. He’s breathed the Spirit and true life into them and taught them everything they need to know. They could finally understand. They have become people who will be sent into the world to continue His work.
But to do that, He has to leave. Jesus was a man. He was God, but He was a man. He was limited by time and space. He was limited by flesh. If He stayed, He would only ever be able to be in one place at one time. He could travel; as a matter of fact there are myths and legends all over the world that Jesus did travel. An English hymn by Sir Hubert Parry based on the poem by William Blake asks, “And did those feet in ancient timewalk upon England's mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen?” Similar stories exist in India and even in America. While Jesus might have reached the four corners of the earth, He could not be in all places at once. He could not dwell intimately in the presence of millions of Christians over the span of thousands of years. As much as we talk about Jesus living in our hearts, He could not do that unless He went to sit at the right hand of God. He needed to leave so that He could send a helper.
The Amplified Bible shows us what the Holy Spirit will do for us in John 14:16-17, “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter (Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, and Standby), that He may remain with you forever—The Spirit of Truth, Whom the world cannot receive (welcome, take to its heart), because it does not see Him or know and recognize Him. But you know and recognize Him, for He lives with you [constantly] and will be in you.” Jesus left because He can’t give us each a piece of His flesh, but He can give us all a measure of His Spirit. Without that Spirit, we could do nothing.
We all have those moments that I call Godincidents. They are opportunities that God presents to us so that we can speak the Gospel into the lives of others. Sadly, most of us miss the opportunities or we are too afraid to do what we know we should do. Persecution, whether it is physical beating and threat of death, or rejection in merely intellectual or emotional ways, is a strong force in our world. The culture has made it clear that Christian faith is pointless and useless, not only in today’s world, but since the beginning of the Church. We don’t want to wear our faith on our sleeve; we don’t want to force our religion on our neighbors. Sometimes we even justify ignoring God’s call out of love of our neighbor. That’s the devil doing what the devil does: stops faith from spreading.
I’ve probably told this story before, but there is one occasion when the opportunity could not have been more abundantly clear. We were living in England, and I had gotten into the habit of spending an hour or two at the chapel in prayer every week. One day was particularly fruitful, and I had a supernatural spring to my step. I went to the post office to pick up our mail with a song on my heart and a smile on my face. The man behind the counter noticed and commented. “What has you so happy today?” he asked with a smile. I could have told him how much I love Jesus, how wonderful it is to have a deep, personal, abiding relationship with my God, how forgiveness is a very real and powerful thing. I could have shared the Gospel with him. I didn’t. I just told him I was having a good day. Ten feet outside the door I realized that I’d missed my chance.
Paul did not miss his chance. Today’s first lesson comes from Paul’s second missionary journey, and his ministry was extraordinarily fruitful. People came to believe the Gospel in every town where he taught. There were, however, always people who rejected the Gospel and wreaked havoc on the work. He went from town to town, sometimes pushed out by the threat of riots, but that didn’t stop the Gospel. The people of Berea received the Word of grace with great gusto, but the Jews of Thessalonica would have nothing of it. They came to Berea and incited the masses in the hope that the Romans would put a stop to Paul’s work. The Church sent Paul to the next place, Athens, which his companions (Silas and Timothy) remained. He sent for them after he arrived.
Paul was never one to sit around and do nothing. He wandered the streets of Athens and paid attention to the daily practices of her people. They were a religious bunch, with temples and altars to every possible god or goddess you can imagine. I have been reading “The City of God” by St. Augustine, and it is amazing how many gods or demigods or god-like beings they worshiped. They had a god for everything. They had gods that counteracted the work of other gods. One act, like growing wheat, took the help of a dozen different gods—one for the dirt, one for the seed, one for the water, one for the sun, one to make the seed die, one to make the seed sprout, one to make the leaves appear, one to make the stem grow, one to make the blossom appear, one to make the fruit, one for the seed inside the fruit… the list can go on. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but in the reading of Augustine’s explanation, I was shocked at how many gods were necessary for every day events.
Augustine writes, “Why is the bed-chamber filled with a crowd of deities, when even the groomsmen have departed? And, moreover, it is so filled, not that in consideration of their presence more regard may be paid to chastity, but that by their help the woman, naturally of the weaker sex, and trembling with the novelty of her situation, may the more readily yield her virginity. For there are the goddess Virginiensis, and the god-father Subigus, and the goddess-mother Prema, and the goddess Pertunda, and Venus, and Priapus. What is this? If it was absolutely necessary that a man, laboring at this work, should be helped by the gods, might not someone god or goddess have been sufficient? Was Venus not sufficient alone, who is even said to be named from this, that without her power a woman does not cease to be a virgin?”
St. Augustine’s point is exactly the same as Paul. The Greeks (and Romans) had a god or goddess for everything, but in the end they never really knew if they were covering all the angles. Paul found an altar in Athens that covered them, just in case. It was an altar to the Unknown God. This is like the tombs dedicated to unknown soldiers who have died; it covers all those for whom the people had no names—foreign gods, new gods, hidden and mysterious gods.
Paul knew that the people were reasonable and religious, so he took advantage of his time in Athens. He went the synagogue and preached. He talked to people on street corners and in the marketplace. I can just imagine him pulling up a chair at the street café and striking up a conversation with the others at the table, “Have you heard of Jesus?” I don’t have the courage to be that kind of bold evangelist, but Paul did.
Word spread that he was teaching and preaching about a new God, so they invited him into the hall of theologians to talk about his teaching. Athens was a place of learning, of thinking, of debates. Everyone apparently engaged in the discussions, including foreigners. So Paul, full of the Holy Spirit, took the message of the Gospel to the people of Athens. He introduced them to the only God they need, the God of everything. The Unknown God is not unknowable; He is ultimately the only God worth knowing.
As usual, some came to believe, but others rejected what Paul had to say. Some thought he was ridiculous because he talked about resurrection, something that did not make sense from their point of view. He rejected their idols and told them that it was time for them to give up their silly man-made gods and turn to the true God. Some scoffed, but others believed and went with Paul to hear more.
Sometimes, I think, we are afraid to speak the Gospel because we don’t want to be rejected. We forget that even though some will scoff, but there might just be someone who will hear the Word and want to know more. We stay silent out of fear of those who do not want to be saved, ignoring the needs of those who would be saved if only we would be gracious to share God’s Word with them. Paul certainly knew what it was like to get run out of town because of his ministry, but that didn’t stop him. Are we willing to be so bold?
Paul risked status, position and respect by boldly proclaiming the Gospel message of grace and in doing so, some came to believe. We live in a similar society, where we are encouraged to coexist with every different type of religion; every god has its purpose and place. There are religious houses on every corner, something for everyone. While diversity can be a good thing, are we willing to be like Paul, boldly proclaiming the message of the Gospel to those who would prefer to settle for the ecumenical open-mindedness that says that all gods are equal? We’ll be called intolerant; we’ll be forced out of the conversation.
Peter reminds us that the persecution we face for doing God’s work in the world cannot truly harm us. Our Lord Jesus gave His life for us. We in turn are called to give our lives for His glory. The questions we face are opportunities from God to testify about the work of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit manifests in very real and powerful ways during those Godincidents, so we should be ready to give the testimony. That person might just be the next one God intends to save.
Peter was writing to a community that was being persecuted. The human response to persecution is often bitterness and violence. They were doing good things, but the good things were causing suffering to the faithful. They were afraid to do what they knew they should do. Peter wrote that they should have courage. The good works they were doing might be the very thing that brings on the persecution of society, but it was also their good works that would help the world see the Lord God. Instead of responding with anger, they were to respond with grace. Instead of fighting back, they were to be meek and humble knowing that they are doing what is right and good. In the end, the enemies of God’s people will be put to shame. This suffering may be the catalyst that will bring another person to believe in Jesus, and in this God will be glorified.
Are you prepared to share Christ, no matter what? Are you able to be gentle and respectful when those who question you about your faith are rude and malicious? Do you fear the repercussions of being witnesses for Christ, or are you ready with the answers that will plant the seeds of hope in another’s life? No matter what you face today, in your hearts set apart Christ Jesus as Lord. God is with us, of this we are certain because He has promised and is faithful. You are blessed to be a blessing, and in being a blessing you will be blessed.
Christianity is defined as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but it not only an individual faith. Our relationship with Christ is dependent on others. Someone shared the Word of God with us and we continue to share it with others. We need one another to stand strong, to accomplish the work. We worship in community, eat together at the Lord’s Table and in fellowship. We correct each other’s errors and encourage each other’s strengths. We help one another discern God’s will for our lives. We learn in Bible studies with other Christians, sharing our own ideas, doubts and questions so that we can help others and they can help us. Though our salvation is individualistic, we grow up together in the faith. When John wrote, “for he abideth with you” he said so in the plural. Christ abides with us in community. He draws us together. He binds us to one another. The Holy Spirit is not divided between all the Christians, but moves in and through us all who live as one body along with the Father and the Son.
It isn’t easy. The Christian life is hard because the world has rejected Jesus; how can we expect to be any more accepted? We need to face the difficult times with prayer. Unfortunately, we tend to save prayer for those moments of difficulty rather than approach every moment in prayerful expectation. Though we remember to offer praise and thanksgiving, we are more likely to cry out to God in our times of need. Caught up in the frenzy of the moment, we promise God anything if only He will save us. Vows escape our lips as we make deals with God, negotiating our safety and well-being in trade for some sacrifice on our part. We forget that the very thing we are praying for God to remove from our lives might just be the Godincidence He is giving us to share His grace.
Martin Luther was traveling down a road one day when a storm suddenly struck. Frightened by the lightning and thunder, he fell to his knees and cried out to God through Saint Anne. “Help me, St. Anne, and I'll become a monk!" He escaped unharmed. Luther’s father was a miner who worked very hard to put him through law school. The storm happened when he was traveling home from the university. He kept his word to God, entered the monastery, and in the process disappointed his father who had worked so hard to give him a better life. Luther’s relationship with his family was forever changed, but through him the Church and the world was also changed.
The psalmist for this week says, “Oh bless our God, ye peoples, And make the voice of his praise to be heard.” He sings a song encouraging all God’s people to praise Him for His blessings. However, the blessings found in this psalm are not wealth, health or power. They praise God that He has preserved their lives through trials. They praise God that He has refined their lives through the suffering they faced. The psalmist says, “You sent us to prison,” and “You laid burdens on our back.” He says, “You let men ride over our heads” and “we went through fire and water.” In the end, however, God brought His people to a place of abundance.
These statements refer to the time of suffering in Egypt before the Exodus with Moses. It is easy for us to look at that time of slavery and blame the Egyptians; after all it was Egypt that eventually rejected the relationship that was established in the days of Joseph. However, the psalmist recognizes that Egypt was never in control, that God knew full well the work He was doing in and for His people. This train of thought might be offensive to many people today, especially since we tend to think about faith as a very personal and private thing. We are also offended by a God that allows suffering in the world. There is no justification for a people enslaved and mistreated, especially if there is an all powerful and omnipotent God in control.
God hears our prayers and answers according to His good and perfect will. He doesn’t bless us because we’ve made a deal with Him at the height of our fear and excitement. He knows we will fail. He knows that we can’t live up to the vows we make in desperation. We can’t keep the Law perfectly because we are imperfect. He answers our prayers because He loves us and because He is faithful to His promises. Yet, He calls us to try. And He calls us to live in thankfulness and praise for answered prayer.
Peter gives us two tools to help us through the persecution we’ll face: do not fear and be faithful. We are invited into the work of God’s kingdom on earth, to continue what Christ started. We need not fear what will come, just have faith that God is with us. Jesus promised that He will not leave us as orphans. Jesus had to ascend to heaven, but He did not leave us alone. We might be afraid, but we have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is there to be our Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, and Standby. He will give us the Spirit of Truth, will be the words in our mouths when we have the opportunity to speak, and He will bring salvation to those for whom it is intended.
Jesus says, “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments.” The word here is often confused with the laws of the Old Testament. Should we live according to God’s Law? Yes, because God’s Law is best for people. It is best to honor our parents, to not steal, cheat or kill. It is good for us to be content; it is wrong to lie or bear false witness. And it is right to live with God as our Lord.
Jesus is talking about something different. We heard the context of this lesson in our text last Sunday. Jesus is talking about believing in Him. His command is to believe in Him. He is the way, the truth and the life. If we love Him, we will believe in Him. We will believe He is the way, the truth and the life. If we love Him, we will stand so firmly in everything He has said that we will not be afraid to tell those who do not yet know Him about the reality of their unknown God. If we love Jesus, we will keep our eyes on Him and trust that He will be faithful to His promises. Even if we have to suffer for this faith, He is always ready to receive us with open arms. We spend our lives seeking God, much like those Greek and Romans who wanted to assure themselves that they had all their bases covered. But we seek a God that is right under our nose. He has not left us, or abandoned us. He has given us an advocate, the Comforter, to dwell in our hearts forever.
“Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song: Sing unto Jehovah, all the earth. Sing unto Jehovah, bless his name; Show forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, His marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised: He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him: Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe unto Jehovah, ye kindreds of the peoples, Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength. Ascribe unto Jehovah the glory due unto his name: Bring an offering, and come into his courts. Oh worship Jehovah in holy array: Tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, Jehovah reigneth: The world also is established that it cannot be moved: He will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; Let the field exult, and all that is therein; Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before Jehovah; for he cometh, For he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with his truth.” Psalm 96 (ASV)
Word of mouth advertising is the best way to make a product successful. People do not always believe the claims offered on an advertisement, even if the claims are supported by evidence obtained through testing and research. Consumers want to hear a testimonial, especially from people they know and trust. They are more likely to buy a product when they hear someone say, “I tried it and I liked it,” than if the product was proven to be the best product ever produced. I know I’m more likely to buy a product that a friend tells me works well than I am to respond to a television commercial.
Of course, many advertisers take advantage of this point of view by using people in their commercials. They often use people who are so average looking that they could be our neighbor. They use people who look familiar, especially if they look like someone in the public spotlight. Advertisers often use men and women that have similar characteristics as people we know from the news. They don’t need the public figure necessarily, but look for people who have the same build, hair style, and demeanor.
The best commercials are those with the real thing. Famous people often get paid very well for thirty seconds of face time, but it is worth it to the advertisers because celebrity sells. Celebrity endorsers are often asked if they really use the products they are advertising. Some people refuse to tout something they don't believe in, but others are more than willing to sell their name for anything. Of course, the advertisers would much prefer having spokespeople who believe in the product because they are more able to make the sale. They can speak honestly and with integrity; they have passion for it which is obvious in the way they present themselves. It doesn’t matter if they are a good actor or not, the spokespeople who have never used a product aren’t very convincing. 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. The sin and guilt is often so entrenched that the sinner who needs to hear Christ’s message of love and forgiveness can’t hear it from someone they don’t think is a sinner. They think it was easy for Christ to save the goody-two-shoes, but impossible to save them. So, rather than evangelizing by telling unbelievers what Christ can do for them, we need to sing our own praises of the things He has done for us. We need to proclaim that we are also sinners in need of the Savior and praise Him for His grace. Then they might listen and believe that He could transform them too.
It certainly helps if we live our faith in a very real and obvious manner. The non-Christian is much more willing to hear about faith if they see that the person of faith is immersed in their faith on a daily basis. They see our faith in the way we walk with praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace, content in our life and joyful in the promises of God. Oh, some people will think we are nuts and others will persecute us for our foolishness. However, many people—those whose hearts are ready and open to the Gospel message—will see our joy. They will want to know where we got it and they will seek a piece of that joy for themselves. The testimonial that comes from our own life and experience is the one that will help others realize their own need for Jesus, and they will turn to the one who has met all our needs: Jesus Christ our Lord.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth. John beareth witness of him, and crieth, saying, This was he of whom I said, He that cometh after me is become before me: for he was before me. For of his fulness we all received, and grace for grace.” John 1:1-16 (ASV)
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. He created the seas and skies, the sun, moon and stars, the plants and all types of animals. On the last day, God created the crown of His creation: man. God created him in His image; in other words, man is most like God. Theologians and believers have spent generations trying to understand and describe what this means. Artists have long given God the image of man; He is imagined as a wise and bearded old man on a throne. Yet, the scriptures describe God in many different ways, including a shepherd, a woman, a hen, a lion and a spirit.
The most shocking image of all is God incarnate in Jesus Christ. God came into our midst; He sent His Son to take on human flesh, to live and die for the sake of the world. It is shocking enough that He came in flesh, but God came into the world in less than ideal circumstances. He did not arrive as the son of a king or in a priestly household; He came as the son of Mary and Joseph who were people of no import. Mary was very young, a virgin and her pregnancy was a source of gossip and abuse. We know little about Joseph except that he was a simple carpenter; it is unlikely that Joseph was wealthy or powerful. Jesus was born into a world of political and religious upheaval, into a country that was oppressed by a superior power.
The story is brief: He was born far away from Mary and Joseph’s home since they had to go to Bethlehem to register for a census. The town was crowded with strangers; there was not even a place for them to stay. A kind innkeeper gave them space with the animals. There was no family nearby, so He was visited by shepherds and strangers. The birth passed with little earthly fanfare. The king felt vulnerable because there was a promise that a new king would be born and so he killed innocent children in his quest to rid the world of the child that he threatened his future. Mary and Joseph ran off to Egypt with the child to protect Him from that king. He was raised according to the practices of His heritage. There was nothing extraordinary about this child’s life other than the angels that proclaimed his birth and a few people who recognized Him even while He was a child. We hear little about His life until He turns thirty and begins His ministry.
This is the shocking image of God breaking into the world, not as a white haired king to rule, but as an innocent and helpless child who lived and loved and learned about the world just like you and I. Yet that infant was far different. He was not another human, born into a cruel and chaotic world. He was, and is, the Word in flesh. All of God’s creation was given for a purpose and as we look at the world in which we live we can see God being glorified by everything that was made. Yet, through it all God chose to redeem the world by taking on the very shape of the creature that has done the most damage—the one that was created in His image but turned away. God came in human flesh to save the world.
So, while we adore the Christmas image of the baby in His mother’s arms, we are reminded that the baby came for a purpose and glorified God in the most shocking and horrifying manner. He lived and loved and served, but He came to die. We were created in the image of God, and by grace through faith we are recreated to be like Jesus. We are called to live, love and serve just as He did. We will never be able to die for the sake of the world as Jesus did, but too many Christians will die a martyr’s death. Here's the promise, though: death for Christians is no longer shocking or horrifying. It is just a new beginning as we are welcomed by Jesus through faith by grace into the eternal relationship for which we were created.
“For we know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens. For verily in this we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our habitation which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For indeed we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be unclothed, but that we would be clothed upon, that what is mortal may be swallowed up of life. Now he that wrought us for this very thing is God, who gave unto us the earnest of the Spirit. Being therefore always of good courage, and knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord (for we walk by faith, not by sight); we are of good courage, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord. Wherefore also we make it our aim, whether at home or absent, to be well-pleasing unto him. For we must all be made manifest before the judgment-seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, ASV
We attended a picnic at our favorite Christian camp this past weekend. They are so thankful for the volunteers and donors that they always do a picnic on Memorial Day weekend to show the wonderful changes that have happened in preparation for the upcoming summer season. Some of the camp leadership staff members were already on campus and the others were headed to camp the next day to spend the next couple of weeks in training. In two weeks they will begin a summer of incredible opportunities for ministry to thousands of children. We always enjoy seeing the changes to camp and how our work and donations are making a difference to the way they can serve the families of our area.
The biggest change this year was one of the worship spaces. They have always had a chapel that overlooks a creek and bluff. The chapel was built decades ago and expanded throughout the years. Unfortunately, the stone and wood and concrete had deteriorated to the point that it was dangerous to use. Some of the steps were small, others were too large. Some of the rocks were loose and some of the concrete was crumbling. The roots of the now dead tree that had grown up through the middle of the chapel seating had created its own set of problems. The pathways leading down the sides were eroded away by rainstorms. While the children always found a way to get up and down, it often offered some difficulty to the older people who often accompany them as sponsors or who are on campus for adult retreats throughout the year.
Thankfully, someone was able to provide the funds necessary to get started on the major project of replacing the old chapel. The money came from a family that has had generations of children who benefited from this ministry. Sometimes it is hard to remove the old because there are so many memories in the rocks and concrete. It is heartbreaking to destroy the hard work, love and dedication of the previous generations. However, the family, whose hands have been involved with that very chapel from the beginning, understood that it was necessary to tear down the past to look forward to the future. Removing the old chapel did not reject their work, love and dedication, but honored it by continuing the spirit and the ministry that has been done in that place. It is never about the rocks and concrete or tree, but about God’s Word reaching the people who gathered there for worship.
The same is true about homes. I read a story this weekend about a home in Philadelphia. It is the last standing house in a neighborhood that has been dying for decades. House after house have fallen or been torn down, their bricks and mortar carried away. The final house was built around 1900 and was occupied until 2009 when the last resident died. A developer has been purchasing the properties over the years, and this house was the last one he needed to be able to continue his plans for the land.
Now, we might assume that this developer has been buying up this land because he is greedy. The land has been very cheap, and he’s bought a lot of these lots. The question has probably been asked, “What does he plan to do with it?” The assumption is that he is going to develop yet another strip mall or megacomplex theater. The developer, however, is planning to build affordable housing on the property. The old houses that have disappeared because the neighborhood has died will be resurrected into a neighborhood where new generations of people will live together. The old has to go so that the new can be created.
The developer is allowing the people to have a special service, a funeral service, for this old building. They will begin the service with hymns and eulogies, and then the house will be knocked down with the debris carried away in a hearse-like dumpster, trailed by a parade of bands and local residents. They will then gather for a meal. They felt it was appropriate and necessary to give the neighbors a chance to celebrate the history of the neighborhood as they prepare for the hope of the future.
We see what happens to us in these two stories. The old Adam, the old self, the being which is separated from God by sin, has to die. We have to be buried so that we can be resurrected into the new creation that God has promised through Jesus Christ. It is sad to see the past disappear; the old chapel and that old house held so many wonderful memories. The reality is that it is hard for us to give up that old self because even nonbelievers can, and have, accomplish great and wonderful things. But it is in the new creation that we really can see the hope for the future and the possibilities of God’s grace in the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 1, 2014, Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:12-26; Psalm 68:1-10; 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time; casting all your anxiety upon him, because he careth for you.” 1 Peter 5:6-7, ASV
I have been seeing many pictures on Facebook of graduation ceremonies around the country. So far most of the pictures have been of college events. Several friends have received doctorates. Colleges have posted pictures of their graduates with hearty congratulations. Many people who were chosen to give commencement speeches have posted them on the board. Those in high school are posting pictures from proms and are excited about finishing their final projects as they prepare for their own graduations in the next few weeks. One local coliseum will host thirteen schools in ten days.
The students look forward to graduation, but they are also a little anxious. They don’t know what life will be like out in the world. Will they find a job? What will it be like if they move onto higher education? Will they succeed? Will they be happy? They will look back at their accomplishments with pride and look forward in awe at the possibilities they face. They will have to be more responsible. There won’t be someone to bail them out whenever they make a mistake. They will have to be more independent and the work will be much harder. They will have to stand on their own two feet.
Tomorrow is the day in the church year when we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of God the Father. The text we are studying today, which is for this coming Sunday, takes place in those days of waiting for the promise Jesus made to them for a helper. They watched Jesus ascend and worshiped Him, then returned to the Upper Room to wait and pray.
Jesus spent three years with the disciples before He was crucified. After He was raised, He spent forty days with them, teaching them all they needed to know and giving them final instructions. He affirmed His promise of power from the Holy Spirit. Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. His teachings were finally beginning to make sense. It was time for Jesus to go to God and sit on His right hand. 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.
Jesus’ ascension left little room to question the nature of this man they had known for three years. He was God in flesh, worthy of their worship and praise. Now 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. However, Jesus did not intend for them to wallow in the past. I can imagine some tears in their eyes and their nostalgia as they remembered all Jesus did and all that He was to them.
But like the graduates, those disciples were about to be sent into the world to do whatever it is that God was calling them to do. The lessons are over; the time has come to work. And like the graduates, they had no idea what the future held. They had to stand on their own two feet. They had to be responsible. They had to be more independent and the work was going to be so much harder without Jesus. Would they be able to do the job God was calling them to do? Would people believe them? Would people believe in Jesus because of their work? Would they be happy? This was the beginning of the end of their time as disciples, but it was also the beginning of a new phase of their life and ministry. They were about to become apostles, sent into the world to do the work that Christ was doing. Instead of just one man, there was eleven and soon there would be more.
They didn’t wait until Pentecost to make the first change amongst their group. Jesus originally selected twelve men to accompany Him. Sadly, Judas exactly what Jesus expected him to do, he did not know how to deal with his grief and his guilt. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Judas had just waited long enough to see Jesus face to face after the resurrection. Would he have found forgiveness? The prophecies said he was doomed to destruction, but was that destruction destined to be the horrific ending we see in today’s story? After all, though Peter did not betray Jesus, he did deny Him. Yet, on the beach after the resurrection, Jesus had mercy on Peter, forgave him and called him to lead the Church into the future. Might Judas have found a similar grace at the feet of his Lord?
The destruction came because he was unwilling or unable to face Jesus. He sought forgiveness from the priests in the Temple who had no mercy. He saw no other way out besides suicide. How could the disciples forgive him? He never saw the whole story from the other side of the cross. He only knew that Jesus was dead and it was his fault. He thought there was no hope. Suicide is never a good option, though many people think that it is better to die than to face the pain their situation. Death seems so easy when there is no hope.
But it is never easy for those left behind. We don’t really know if the disciples grieved their loss, after all Judas is often described as being self-centered and greedy. It wasn’t much of a loss, was it? And yet, Judas was their brother in Christ. He lived with them. He was one of the disciples who healed the sick, cast out demons and shared the Kingdom. I imagine that among the lessons they learned from Jesus during those forty days was that even Judas deserved to be loved and remembered for the good he did, not rejected for the betrayal. After all, Judas did what had to be done; it was part of the plan.
We all know people like Judas among our Christian circles. They don’t quite get it; their focus is off. Judas was concerned with the wrong things like the money bag and he missed the bigger picture: forgiveness. How might his story have been different if the disciples had sought him out? What if they had made sure he was not alone? Even if they were angry, they may have been able to keep him alive just long enough to know that there is always hope. How often do we abandon people, even in our Christian fellowship, when we think they have the focus or are doing things the wrong way? All too often, I fear.
Unfortunately, when we argue with our Christian brothers and sisters, or ignore their needs, they disappear from us, too. Most don’t commit suicide, but how many run to another church or simply stop being a Christian? I’m sure we all know someone who was once passionate about their faith but who have fallen way; the reason usually has to do with how they are treated in the body of Christ. They feel rejected, betrayed, abandoned. They think there is no hope. They ‘kill’ themselves spiritually by rejecting Christ, when it is the human relationships which have failed.
I once knew a woman who received extremely bad news about her health. She was quite passionate about her faith and had very strong opinions about the way we should believe in Christ. Her bad news made her desperate to convert as many people to her point of view. She wasn’t just trying to share the Gospel or even ‘save people.’ She was arguing over ideology, doctrine and dogma. She spent her last few months of life desperately trying to make the world think the way she did. She was so afraid that she would not have enough time to accomplish her goal of making everyone ‘right’ that she responded to debate and discussion with frustration, anger and condemnation. In the midst of her pain and confusion over her illness and impending death, she lost touch with the purpose of our faith and the grace of God.
We will die. Most of us won’t know the time or the place. Many of us will die suddenly, without warning. Others will become sick or old and will pass through a time of suffering. Few of us will be given the bad news that we have only so much time left. Few of us will be able to go about our business day by day knowing that tomorrow will not exist for us. However, all of us live with the knowledge—even if we refuse to accept it—that tomorrow might never come. We could pass away today.
My acquaintance was an intelligent, studied adult. She had powerful arguments about her point of view and convinced many to think seriously about her perspective. However, when things went out of her control, she lost the joy of her faith and no longer remembered that God called her to share her faith, not control minds. Her mission became convincing the world that she was right rather than shining Christ to the world.
Peter writes that we are to rejoice in the midst of our sufferings. He is specifically writing to a people who were being persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ. They faced trouble with the secular world in which they lived and with the religious world from which they came. They had seen a new light which had given them a new faith and the world did not approve. The persecution came as expulsion, rejection and even death. They did not know if they would even be alive the next day to share the joy of God’s grace with anyone else. However, they approached every minute with the assurance that God was with them, going forth through it all with joy and peace.
We’ve been doing this for two thousand years now. The big questions they faced in those early days have been decided. While we do still argue over too many things, we can turn to the scriptures and know what God thinks. Beware of those who think they’ve discovered something new because it is likely that they have interpreted God’s Word to suit themselves. Sadly, we spend too much time trying to make the scriptures say what we want them to say.
The worst part is that we spend so much of our time trying to convince others that our new thoughts are the right thoughts and that they must believe us. When they will not, we get angry and frustrated and condemning; in our raw emotion we miss the opportunity to love them. The disciples were probably angry with Judas and didn’t go after him. Perhaps it was too late, but they abandoned him in his grief and guilt, missing the opportunity to love him.
For three years and forty days, Jesus dwelled and ministered among His people and taught them about the kingdom of God. He called them to repentance. He called them to new life. He called them to go out into the world with the message of Good News so that others might believe and become new. Faith comes through the spoken Word. We can see good works and recognize a righteous life, but the world will never experience the promise of salvation through good works or right living. We must hear the Gospel to be saved. It is God’s Word that transforms, not our hopes or our actions. Not even our faith saves. By God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive the saving faith that God has promised to those who hear and believe all that God has said and done. This is what the disciples were waiting for in those days between the Ascension and Pentecost.
But there was business to be done. The Church would not remain a group of eleven men. It would not be just a few women who supported and encouraged those apostles. It would not include just a few dozen followers. It was about to explode. They gathered in prayer, and Peter suggested that they should replace Judas. They chose two men out of the disciples and voted by lots for which should be the new apostle. Matthias was chosen and he joined them in their work. They would have to add other leaders over the years, people would join each of them in their ministry and then they would be assigned to lead the new churches. Day by day the community of faith grew; in those early days they added to their numbers daily, sometimes by the thousands!
They could do this only with God’s help. Even though it might have seemed like they were abandoned, the disciples would succeed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We see the promise of God’s presence in their work and lives in today’s Gospel lesson. John records two distinct prayers in this passage. In the first section, Jesus prays for Himself. This is not a prayer to be removed from the cross but instead to be glorified. The prayer is a remembrance of the things that Jesus has done, sharing the life and light of God with the disciples. It is, in essence, a eulogy, proclaiming the message and purpose of his life for us to hear. It is unlikely that these are the words that Jesus spoke, but have been written by John so that we might know Christ. The second half of the prayer describes the life that reflects the glory of Christ in the lives of the disciples. As we read this passage we see first the life of Jesus and then the life of those directly touched by His ministry and message while He lived in this world.
This is a prayer that was meant to be heard, a message that we are called to repeat for each generation. We relate the good news of what Jesus has done and proclaim that He has been glorified with God the Father. Those good words become part of our own lives and we become like those first disciples even though we have not lived with Jesus in the flesh. We are among those to whom Christ has been given and He prays also for us today as we shine His light to the world.
The prayer reaches well beyond those disciples. They shared the Gospel with the first Christians, and Christians have continued to share the Good News with every generation since. They were His because they heard the Word and believed all that God has said and done. So, too, we are His by that same Word, the Living Word that once dwelled among a small group of men but now dwells among all those who believe. We give thanksgiving and praise for those who shared that Good Word with us, so that we too might know Christ and live according to His Word.
Glory is found in suffering. It is found through our pain, heartache and uncertainty. Christ was glorified not in heaven or on earth but on the cross. It wasn’t Jesus’ words or His miracles that brought God’s blessing on Him, but His willingness to face death for the sake of others. He hung on the cross and God raised Him up, as was God’s purpose all along.
Doesn’t sound very glorious, does it? The world cannot see the glory of the cross, after all it was a weapon of torture. But God sees the world in a different way. The glory was not in the instrument, but in the one playing it. Christ was glorified, not because He died, but because He did what God sent Him to do. Even Judas glorified God because he did just what he was meant to do. We will glorify God by doing just what He has sent us to do. It might not be pretty. We might find ourselves in the midst of suffering; it won’t seem very glorious. But as we live in complete obedience to God’s intention for our lives, He will be glorified. God tells us to go forward, to do His work and not to worry. Whatever the circumstances, He’ll be with us and will help us overcome.
Psalm 68 describes the journey of God and His people from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion. It was used in liturgical processions into the Temple. The people call God to arise while His enemies are moved by His power. The wicked will be afraid, but the righteous will rejoice in the presence of God’s glory. In the midst of this story, God’s people pray that He will continue to rule over the world and empower His people. The song ends in the sanctuary where God is glorified with the praise of the people.
The people sing the song and remember the journey because in the story of God we see His faithfulness and His power. Through the past we hold on to the hope of what will continue to be. We sing in thankfulness because God has chased the enemy away, defended the lowly, set prisoners free, and provided life-giving water to the thirsty. The hope for more of God’s power was brought forth through Jesus Christ, as He defeated death, healed the sick, set free those imprisoned by demons and spoke the life-giving Word to people who were thirsty for God. We recall that journey as we move through Easter toward Pentecost when God continues His story through us.
We will fail. We’ll follow the wrong voice; we’ll do the wrong things. We will be fooled by the tempter. We will deny Jesus, run and hide. We may even betray Him, just like Judas. When we do fail, it is important to remember that we fall it is because we haven’t trusted God or done what He has called us to do. But we can live in the promise that God is awesome in His sanctuary and He will give us the strength to withstand and overcome. When we do fail, as the disciples did and as we do, God forgives.
Many denominations are having difficulty finding people to become leaders, especially ordained leaders. There are probably as many reasons for this problem as there are people who are being called by God to serve in the Church. The high cost of school and the low pay for pastors makes it financially impossible for many. The expectations of a pastor, who is often seen not only as the spiritual leader of a church but also as a slave for the congregation members, called at all hours of the night with rarely a word of thanks. Whenever something is wrong the pastor is blamed. Some churches treat the pastor as little more than a hired hand, someone to be pushed around and expected to do whatever they say. Pastors, and other church leaders, get burned out. It is no wonder that others do not wish to follow in their footsteps. What would Matthias think if he were being chosen as the twelfth disciple today?
On this Sunday we stand between the Ascension and Pentecost. The disciples had been sent but were not yet gifted with the Holy Spirit. They went back to the upper room, the place where so much had happened over the past few months. There they waited, they prayed, they wondered, they grieved. They had hope, though, because they knew God was faithful. They had seen it in the resurrection of Jesus and they were beginning to truly understand it after the past forty days. We do not have to wait any longer for the Holy Spirit is ours through faith and baptism. And so we are called, like those disciples, to glorify God in all we do, to share His Word with the world so that they, too, will believe. We might face suffering and pain, but in doing so we share with Christ the very glory of God. He loves us and has called us to this great and wonderful work. It takes humility to accept this life and to live it.
Perhaps that’s what Judas and the disciples were missing the most; they lost touch with the reality that God is able to do the extraordinary and is willing to forgive even the most horrific sins of His people. May we always find a way to reach our brothers and sisters, even when we think they have done the unforgivable, because God can do the impossible.
“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.” Acts 1:1-9 (ASV)
Bob Hope would have been one hundred and eleven years old today, but he died just a few months after turning one hundred. One hundred is an incredible feat even with our modern technology and medicine. I don’t think there are many who never heard of this man. He was known the world over for his humor, talent and kind heart. Many generations have laughed at his jokes, seen his movies and television shows or seen him perform live. For many, the greatest experiences were his appearances with the U.S.O. in shows given for the military troops stationed all over the world. He gave so much of himself for the joy of others and he will long be remembered. I wonder what it was like to know him personally. Of course, it would have been impossible for Bob Hope to know everyone who loved him. He was one person trapped by time and space.
Have you ever wondered what it was like to be one of those first followers of Jesus, to hear Jesus preach and teach? Have you ever wished that you had been able to dine with Him, walk with Him, see the world and God’s people through His eyes? Have you ever wished that you too could have experienced the Living God in the flesh? What would it have been like follow Him as He journeyed through the Holy Land? It was surely a much different way of living—too much travel, too much uncertainty, too much danger—but I imagine it must have been a joy just to be with Jesus.
I’ve often wondered why He didn’t stay. After His resurrection, Jesus stayed with the disciples about forty days, long enough to share a few final thoughts with the disciples so that they truly understood the work He was calling them to do. He opened the scriptures and showed them how He was the fulfillment of all God’s promises. They might not have been perfect by the end of the forty days, but they were ready to go out into the world to tell others that Jesus was real and that He was alive. When that work was complete, Jesus took the disciples to the Mount of Olives and told them to wait for the promised Helper in Jerusalem. Then He ascended into heaven, never to be seen again.
Don’t you think more people would have believed if Jesus had stayed in the world? If Jesus had lived as generation after generation of people died the world would have truly seen the power of God. Yet, Jesus in the flesh was just as limited as Bob Hope making it impossible for Him to meet every person face to face. Perhaps the world would have heard of Him, but they wouldn’t know Him. We can only know Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It has been forty days since we joyously celebrated the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. During those days when He walked with His disciples in His resurrection body, Jesus revealed the love of God and everything they needed to know to prepare them for the work they would do. How wonderful it must have been to be part of those first few days. Yet, it would have been impossible for the church to grow as it has over the past two thousand years if Jesus had not ascended to heaven. He could never touch people’s hearts as a man in flesh, even as the resurrected Christ in flesh. Eventually many would have heard of Him, but they would not know Him.
Jesus had to ascend into heave so that He could send the promised One, the Holy Spirit, who now dwells within the hearts of all who believe. Though Jesus is not here in flesh, He is here in a much better way, a way in which we all can know Him. The Ascension may have been a sad moment for the disciples, for they were losing the flesh and blood presence of their friend and teacher, but it is a most joyous moment for us because it assured that we too would be able to have a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus. Bob Hope died, but Jesus Christ lives. He lives in the hearts of His people so that we can continue His work in this world and share His grace.
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith Jehovah, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you hope in your latter end.” Jeremiah 29:11, ASV
Summer vacation is beginning for so many people. The big question on everyone’s mind is this: what are you planning to do this summer? We wonder if they are going to take a big trip to somewhere fun like the beach or a theme park. Some will take long car rides to grandma’s house. School age kids are excited about camping programs. Churches are planning vacation bible school. Families with young children are looking for ways to keep them active and interested through the carefree summer months. Many teachers are getting ready to do research or writing, some are planning to take some classes to further their knowledge.
Summer is often a time of decision making. I have a friend who is getting ready to retire from the military after a lifetime of service. He is on what they call terminal leave. Throughout the years he has managed to build a cushion of vacation days so that he’ll have time between his last day of work and the day he no longer gets a full paycheck. Bruce did the same thing. They use that time to rest, recuperate, but most importantly, to find a job. They have the freedom to job hunt without the fear of no paycheck to pay the bills.
Of course, young people are also making decisions. We often ask them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Young children often have high aspirations; very few want to be accountants or dishwashers or tollbooth operators. They want to be astronauts or ballerinas. Some younger children will aspire to the jobs they see every day like grocery store cashier and teacher, but most will choose something exciting like firefighters or models. A 2009 article from Forbes Magazine reported that kindergarten children who were interviewed in New York City overwhelmingly wanted to be superheroes. One wanted to grow up to be Spongebob Squarepants.
As children grow older they come to a better understanding of their interests and their abilities. In Junior High and High School, they are encouraged to look forward to their future and to think about what they really want to be. They are guided into the proper educational channels: college prep for those who want to go off to college, vocational for those who want to learn a skill. Here’s the problem with this: most of us have no idea what we want to do when we grow up, even once we are grown up! Many students end up in college who would have done so much better in a technical school. Others spend years in college trying to find just the right subject for their major. Many students drop out before graduation not because they are failing, but because they just don’t want to do what they thought they wanted to do when they began college.
Here’s the thing: we often seek to find the right job, sometimes running after a salary that we think will keep us in the lifestyle we deserve. Or we want to be famous. Or we try to follow in the footsteps of someone we admire. Or we chase after a career because it is expected of us. The reality is that we too often look for a job or career with the wrong motivations. We seek selfishly and self-centeredly without considering what God has in store. We ask, “What should I do?” when we should be asking, “What is my purpose? Why has God created me? Why has God given me the gifts and talents? Why has God put me in this place, with these people, at this time?”
God has plans for each one of us. Our purpose might never be anything spectacular. We have not been created to be famous or rich, although God may use us in spectacular ways in jobs that will make us well known and with incredible resources. However, it isn’t up to us to chase after a dream, but to listen to what God is calling for us to do. Vocation is not just meant for those who are called into professional church ministry; we are called to minister in our every day work.
So what are the plans that God has for you? Summer is an excellent time to consider the possibilities. It is a time when we tend to relax, get away from the hustle and bustle of the world. Perhaps we are better able to hear Him as we wander on the beach or sit until the canopy of trees in the mountains. We can hear His voice in the echoing of a canyon and the tinkling of a waterfall. We do know this: He knows what He plans for you and He promises to give you hope and a future.
Our prayers are with all those who are in transition, who are seeking and discerning God’s purpose for their lives. Look to God for the answers and be ready for some awesome surprises. His purpose for you is great; as you purpose your calling and live out your purpose, God will be glorified.