Welcome to the November 2011 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 quotes taken from the American Standard Version
A WORD FOR TODAY, November 2011
“Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are. For this cause the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is. And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” 1 John 3:1-3, ASV
Yesterday I talked about zombies and how popular they have been this year. I’ve heard stories this morning about zombie parades and zombie tag. These games feature people dressed up as the living dead, awkwardly moving as if they were already in rigor mortis. Zombie tag has apparently become a phenomenon on college campuses, and there are online instructions available for how to play. There is even a book you can purchase with rules. Strange, isn’t it, since zombies don’t seem like the type of folks to play by any rules?
Halloween is over now, and we have reached All Saints Day. As I was thinking about it this morning, there is not much difference between the zombies of All Hallows Eve and the saints of All Saints Day. Yes, the saints who have passed from life into life eternal are not roaming the streets with blood covered faces and ripped clothing. They are now living in the presence of our God. They are the living dead, not because some magic has given their flesh new life but because God has given them a new spirit.
Yet, living dead do walk the streets on this All Saints Day: you and I. Those who have been baptized into the faith of Jesus Christ have been buried with Him and raised to new life with Him. We are dead and yet we live. We don’t look like zombies; we are normal people leading average lives. We are so ordinary that we have a hard time thinking of ourselves as saints, particularly when we think about the saints that have passed before us. I’m no St. Francis or St. Mary. I will never be like St. Paul or St. Peter. I can’t imagine living life as the saintly nuns who spent their years serving God from behind the walls of an abbey. I’m nothing like St. Helena, who spent her life and her resources honoring the Lord with her quest to mark every place that was identified with His life.
I’m not even like the modern saints who give their whole lives in service to God. I fail. I sin. I forget to forgive and I have a hard time loving my enemies. I am imperfect, how could I ever be called a saint? But that’s the point of All Saints Day: to remember that we aren’t saints by our own actions, but by the grace and love of God. The words written by John are amazing: God calls us His own child and one day we will be like Jesus. It might seem like an impossible dream, to be like Jesus in any way, but by His power it will be so. This is the hope that we cling to each day as we live in this world as the living dead: not zombies, but saints, called to be children of God today, tomorrow and forever.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 6, 2011, Lectionary 32A or All Saints Sunday: Amos 5:18-24 or Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 70 or Wisdom 6:17-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 or Revelation 9:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“Woe unto you that desire the day of Jehovah! Wherefore would ye have the day of Jehovah? It is darkness, and not light.” Amos 5:18, ASV
October 21, 2011 came and went without the world ending events predicted by Harold Camping, the president of American Christian Radio. He’s made numerous predictions over the years. When September 6, 1994 passed without the expected judgment, Harold Camping claimed that he made an error in the numbers. He bases his predictions on numerology, using the Hebrew calendar and Jewish festivals, the lunar month and the Gregorian calendar. He reworked the numbers and discovered that May 21, 2011 would be the Day of Judgment.
May 21st passed and everyone made fun of Harold Camping. A few days later, he came out with a revision of the prediction, saying that the judgment was spiritual rather than physical. He claimed that no one could be saved from that moment and that the end of the world would occur in five months, on October 21st. That was always his expectation, but he thought that the five months would be filled with horror, a tribulation for those who did not have faith in Christ. I’m not sure what the point of a five month tribulation would be if not to help people turn to Christ before the end of time, but according to Camping it wouldn’t matter: no one could turn after May 21st.
October 21st arrived, and the day went by without incident. As a matter of fact, news of the coming apocalypse was non-existent. The number of billboards used to warn people was significantly smaller than in May. People didn’t walk the streets with brochures. Only a few people even referenced it on their Facebook pages and I don’t think I heard any stories on the news about the prophecy. At the end of the day a few people joked about how relieved they were, and others joked about how disappointed. No one felt sorry for Harold Camping, though, who failed again.
The big problem with this story is the number of people that lost everything due to Harold Camping’s predictions. In May, his followers sold everything, sent their money to American Christian Radio to use for publicizing the prediction or they spent the money themselves on signs and billboards. I suppose that’s why there weren’t as many this time: no one had any money left. His followers didn’t mind spending all their money; they didn’t need it for where they were going. Except now they are penniless and homeless, without even hope.
How does Harold Camping respond to his failure? He recently announced that he is deeply embarrassed and that he would retire as president of American Christian Radio. That’s all well and good, but what about those who are suffering because his prophecies failed? What is he doing for the followers who lost everything trusting in his supposedly wise discernment of God’s word? He is a ninety year old man who no longer has a job, but has more than enough to take care of his needs while he continues to live in this world. Where is the justice? Where is the mercy? Where is the grace?
The so called wisdom of Harold Camping is not wisdom at all, at least not the wisdom that comes from God. Harold Camping based his prophecies off a complicated series of numeric calculations. It was so complicated that he got it wrong the first time. In the passage from the apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon, we see that wisdom is not complicated. She is easy to discern by those who seek her. The one who studies the scriptures easily finds wisdom, clearly revealed in the text. We might spend times seeking spiritual understandings of the scriptures, or seek to understand it based on intellectual and historical knowledge, but the bottom line when it comes to understanding God is that the simple answer is always best.
In the case of end time prophecy, the simple answer is that no one can know the time. The one good and right thing Harold Camping has said since the failure of his prophecy is that we should always be prepared. That is simple and true. I love to dig deeply into the scriptures, to see the multiple meanings that God has buried within His Word, but true wisdom comes to those who are humble and obedient. She seeks out those who are worthy and meets them in their thoughts.
Now, I have to admit that I wouldn’t have minded seeing Jesus on October 21st. I don’t have a death wish. I don’t plan on taking the matter into my own hands. I am not willing to set aside my life and work to sit around waiting for Him to come. But I would happily follow Him to heaven if He came to take me into eternity today. The life that is waiting on the other side is radically better than the best life in this world. I understand, especially in troubled times, how someone could grasp onto the hope of a prophecy like Harold Camping’s, looking forward to the Promised Land where believers will live forever. I’m not so sure I understand the point of view that looks forward to the Day of the LORD, however.
Amos asks the question of the people, “Wherefore would ye have the day of Jehovah?” The people thought they were serving God. They worshipped. They presented their offerings. They did everything they were expected to do, according to the laws of their faith. Yet, something was missing. They were getting it terribly wrong. They looked to a day when God would come to save them, but God was prepared to come in righteousness, to serve justice, to give mercy to those that had been forgotten by their piety. It isn’t enough to do the right ritual or offer the right sacrifices. God calls us to trust in Him, good times and bad, and to look beyond ourselves to His purpose in the world. The Day of the Lord would not be light and happiness. God’s people would not be prepared for the darkness and the gloom to come because they had lost sight with the reality of God in their world.
We live in a divided world. We don’t agree with our neighbors on anything. We disagree about faith and politics. We fight on the football field. We even reject our neighbors for their choice of Coke or Pepsi. We argue with long-winded explanations that have no substance and make the argument personal. We get so caught up in the argument that we lose sight of the people. We lose sight of wisdom. We lose sight of God.
In our texts today we face one of the most argued of Paul. What does it mean when he says that those who are alive will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord? There are those who understand this to be a physical rapture. Others claim there is something spiritual about this. Yet others put a metaphorical sense on the text.
The people in Paul’s day, perhaps even Paul, were getting nervous. They expected Jesus to return within their lifetime. They saw the second coming as an immediate response to what was happening, and every day that passed brought doubt and concern. The people who knew Jesus personally were dying. The first believers were passing away. Would Jesus come before they were all gone? Paul assured them that it did not matter. Those who were dead were not gone forever. Jesus would return, and all those who died in faith would be with Him at that trumpet sound. Paul shares his image of that day. It might not be the same as we see it or match the reality when it happens, but he has found comfort in wondering what it will look like. Many others have done the same. The image of Christ returning is a favorite of authors, artists and film makers. It is something I think about.
Paul tells us to encourage one another with these words. What does he mean? Should we be like Harold Camping, looking forward to the Day of the Lord, the Judgment day, expecting to be raptured away from the struggles of our world? Or should we, as Paul says, encourage one another with the hope that comes from believing that Jesus Christ died and rose again to give us eternal life? See, the point of this passage is not that we’ll be taken into the clouds, but that we will be with the Lord forever. Our hope is not in some bodily rapture, but in the reality of eternal life with Christ. Will there be a rapture? Perhaps. Does it matter whether this passage is physical, spiritual or metaphorical? No. What matters is the faith we have in Christ that gives us hope in the midst of our sorrow. It is that faith and that hope that lights our darkness.
In the Gospel lesson for this week, Matthew recounts a story Jesus told about ten virgins who went out to wait for the bridegroom on the day of the wedding. They expected him to come quickly, but were disappointed. He was delayed. Some were prepared for the long wait, but others were not. Paul wrote about the expectation that Christ was coming immediately. They were all waiting anxiously; they were sure that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. But some of the Christians were becoming doubtful and frustrated. Their loved ones were dying and Christ had not yet come. What would happen if they died, too? They thought they would see the fulfillment of the promise in their lifetimes. It is terribly disappointing to know that we will not see the promised hope realized when we want it to be. It is very easy to lose hope when our understanding is smashed. Yet, the Church has longingly waited for Christ to return for two thousand years; every generation has had people certain that they are the ones that will see the Day of the Lord.
I wish I knew some of the people who are suffering the disappointment of Harold Camping’s failure. They need us now more than ever. They need to hear the reality of the Gospel message, which does not guarantee an immediate coming of Christ. But we are assured by the Gospel of Christ that Jesus has done all that is necessary for believers to be invited into the banquet. What happens, though, if we lose hope? What if our faith is shattered? Where will we be if the Bridegroom comes when we are no longer looking for Him?
In the story we see the wise virgins prepared for a long wait. They had extra oil, enough oil. They were patient, waiting in faith that the bridegroom is faithful. The other bridesmaids were unprepared for the wait. They did not expect a delay and were disappointed when the bridegroom did not come. And when he did not come, they ran out of oil. Their hope was lost. Hope can die, our light can dim, if we do not keep hold of the promise. The five wise virgins believed the bridegroom even when it seemed like he was never going to arrive. The five foolish virgins ran out of oil; they became confused and disappointed because the bridegroom did not fit their expectations. They did have faith in the bridegroom. Their faith rested in their own understanding, which failed them in the end.
The people in Amos’s day had faith in the things they were doing. They thought their worship and their offerings were enough to guarantee God’s blessings even in the Day of the LORD. Amos told them a different story. They had lost sight of wisdom. They were not humble or obedient. They did what they thought was right according to the way they understood God. But their understanding was not simple or wise; it was based on the complicated interpretations and rules established by the religious leaders. In the end, they would find that the Day of the LORD would not be what they hoped for; it would be darkness and gloom, a judgment of their failure to be just and righteous.
We have to hold on to the hope that God’s promises are true. It is easy to fall apart when our expectations are smashed and we are disappointed by what we see happening in the world around us. It is easy to fall into the temptations around us, to conform to the world and to give in to our flesh. We need not be afraid of tomorrow, but we are reminded that God is looking at things much differently than our human hearts and minds. He does not accept the worship that is not founded in a life of real sacrifice. He does not care about the blood of animals or the sweet sounding songs if there is no real justice. Righteousness is not something that can be worn like a mask, but is a right relationship with the One who has delivered and promised to save His people. It takes the wisdom of God to establish and develop that kind of relationship. It comes from Him.
As we wait for the Day of the LORD, we may find ourselves in the midst of troubles and suffering, attacked by the self-righteous who do not seek Wisdom as she appears to the faithful. We are called to be like David, humble before God, seeking His face and being obedient to His Word. David is faithful and faith-filled. The one who knows Wisdom is also faithful and faith-filled. As we seek to know God, we will find Wisdom who will teach us and guide us in His ways. She will be vigilant and present in our lives. She is not hard to find, but as the writer of the lesson from the Wisdom of Solomon says, “she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”
How will you prepare for the Day of the LORD? Are you looking forward to a physical rapture or something spiritual? How will you prepare for the coming of the Bridegroom? Do you have an expectation that will disappoint if it does not come to pass or are you prepared to wait patiently in faith for God to be faithful in His time and way? God blesses the humble and lifts up those who need Him. Instead of worshipping God with our rituals and offerings, let’s keep our eyes on God and rejoice in His promises, for He will come one day to set us free to live in His light forever. As we wait with our eyes fixed on God, Wisdom will find us worthy and will lead us to live a life of justice and righteousness that will shine His light into the world today.
“The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction; To discern the words of understanding; To receive instruction in wise dealing, In righteousness and justice and equity; To give prudence to the simple, To the young man knowledge and discretion: That the wise man may hear, and increase in learning; And that the man of understanding may attain unto sound counsels: To understand a proverb, and a figure, The words of the wise, and their dark sayings. The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge; But the foolish despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:1-7, ASV
I read an article today about a conference held in Chicago that focused on the recently ended season of “Jersey Shore.” The question put forward in the conference was whether or not reality television should be studied. Should there be academic classes on the subject of reality television? What could be learned? I’ve never watched “Jersey Shore” myself, but I have watched other reality based television. I know that it is interesting to watch the relationships develop, to see alliances form and battle lines drawn.
The problem with studying these shows from a sociological or critical perspective is that they are television. They though call themselves ‘reality’ there is little reality involved. They are not as unscripted as they might lead the viewer to believe. They are severely edited, showing only the moments that suit the intention of the producers and directors. Even if an actor is the sweetest person on the set, but has one bad moment, the editors will use that one moment to create in our minds the character that they want us to see. The confessions made in those secret rooms are guided conversations with speakers behind camera asking leading questions. Even those moments, seemingly personal and honest, are edited to tell us only what they want us to hear.
Jon Caramanica wrote an article on the conference and said, “Had this series of events unfolded in, say, a Victorian novel or a Godard film, it would have already been analyzed by generations of scholars. But this gathering, taking place a few days after the conclusion of the fourth season of “Jersey Shore,” may represent the quickest turnaround between the debut of a cultural event (December 2009) and a full conference devoted to it.”
There is good reason to study the cultural contributions of our day, because life is often imitated by art. Many of the student comments suggested that it would be better to wait awhile, to study the shows after a generation has passed, to see it them in light of the generation that grew up watching them. That might be true, but does studying the soap operas of the past really help us understand our parents’ generations? Or, does “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or the “Brady Bunch” really tell us what life was like in the 60’s and 70’s?
At least with those shows, we know that they are fictional. We know that writers pulled ideas, props, clothes and current events into their writing, but the stories and the people were fictional. They might have used cultural references and expectations, like the twin beds of the “Dick Van Dyke” show because society was too prudish to accept even a man and wife in the same bed, but was that the reality of that time? I don’t personally recall my parents ever having twin beds, but we accept the images of the show as the cultural norm of the time. And we know it was fiction.
How will academics view our world based on the study of reality shows? What will they see as the cultural norm for our days? Will they know that those shows were not really reality, that they were scripted and edited like any fictional show? Is that the image of our world that we want dissected by future generations? And I’m not just referring to shows like silly shows like “Jersey Shore” which obviously do not reflect the majority of our world today. What about those reality competitions? Will we be seen as a generation willing to do anything—including lie, cheat and steal—to win a few dollars and a prize? What will the academics and students say when they are studying “Reality Television 101” in college forums twenty years from now?
I don’t know if there is value in studying these shows today or twenty years from now. I don’t know if there is even value to watching them. What I do know is that everything we do, we must do it with our eyes on Wisdom. When studying or watching, we should ask ourselves, “Where is God in this?” He might not be a part of what we watch, but we can learn the lessons of forgiveness, redemption and restoration. We might not be able to do anything about the characters of the show, but we can see how we should not live and how we might transform our own relationships. We can seek wisdom by rejecting foolishness. As we look at these shows with the eyes of God, we might just see the fruitlessness behind the reality.
“Put them in mind to be in subjection to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready unto every good work, to speak evil of no man, not to be contentious, to be gentle, showing all meekness toward all men.” Titus 3:1-2, ASV
When we visited Zachary a few weeks ago at his college, we bought a banner to hang outside our house on game day. Our neighborhood is filled with them from all over the country on Saturdays; proud alumni put them out to cheer on their team. We put ours out one week and unfortunately our team lost. The next week we forgot to put it out and our team lost. On the third Saturday, we put it out and the team could not seem to do anything right. I said to Bruce, “Maybe we shouldn’t put the flag out, they seem to lose when we do.” Bruce went out and took down the flag, but it didn’t help. They lost anyway. It was a silly thought. The team lost a game even before we bought the banner. But game day traditions are strong among college sports fans.
Staff at Notre Dame repaint and shine the team football helmets every week with gold paint that has real gold flakes. Tennessee fans tailgate in boats on the river. At Penn State, students wear all white, creating a “white out” in the stadium. Florida Gators do the Gator chomp to the theme from jaws. You’ve heard of the wave? At the University of Wisconsin, the fans do the “Jump Around.” When the fans get going, the stadium rocks, so much so that the upper sections of the bowl actually sway. Miami players enter the field through a cloud of smoke. Arkansas fans scream “Woo Pig Sooie!” at every chance, not only at football games. A&M fans stand throughout the game, a tradition that began in 1922 when the coach asked a former player to be ready in case he was needed during a game because they were shorthanded. The fans act as Twelfth Man even today, in case the team needs them. Clemson has a rock that stands in the end zone to ensure good luck for the team. All teams have their songs, their colors, their mascots. They all have things that they do to guarantee a win. Of course, we know they don’t always work, but they are all sure they would definitely lose if they didn’t do those things.
Basketball season has just started, and the basketball teams have their own traditions. Take, for instance, John Brown University. For at least thirty years, though no one really knows the origin, the fans at the first game of the season throw toilet paper onto the court when the team’s first basket is made. Video of the event on November 1st shows a blizzard of toilet paper flying to the floor. The fans, as well as the team and especially the coach, are well aware that their tradition will cost the team a technical foul. It does every year. But the coach knows how important it is for the fans to continue this tradition, which has seen success every year but one. They won this year with a score of 101-58.
What’s truly wonderful about this video is that as soon as the toilet paper stopped falling, the floor was filled with students cleaning up the mess. It seemed as though even opposing the basketball players helped. The toilet paper was expected and while not necessarily encouraged it was accepted. The students, team and coach took responsibility for what they did, accepting the consequences of what they did wrong. Like those students, we don’t always follow the rules; sometimes our disobedience is willful and deliberate. Are we willing to take responsibility for it? Are we willing to clean up for ourselves and take the consequences? Some of the college traditions are fun, silly and inspirational. But when we do act in disobedience, let us remember the impact it has on others and do what we can to make things right.
“Wherefore girding up the loins of your mind, be sober and set your hope perfectly on the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as children of obedience, not fashioning yourselves according to your former lusts in the time of your ignorance: but like as he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living; because it is written, Ye shall be holy; for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:13-16, ASV
The headline asked if you ever left for a trip without something essential. Now, there are things that can easily be replaced. If you forget shampoo, the hotel probably has some waiting for you. I’ve found that the front desk often has things you might need like phone chargers. You are never very far from a drug store or supermarket to buy a replacement toothbrush. But some things are irreplaceable, at least on short notice, like a passport. What do you do if you are at the check-in desk at the airport and realize you have forgotten that vital document?
The writer goes on to suggest keeping a box where the frequent traveler can keep all those travel necessities. When my father was sick six years ago, I traveled to Houston on a regular basis. I was constantly packing and unpacking since I spent a few days there and then a few days at home. I often left for Houston on short notice and I didn’t have time to go through the process of finding everything I needed. That’s when I began keeping a travel bag filled and ready just in case. I have a toothbrush that I only use when I travel along with travel sizes of shampoo, toothpaste and mouthwash. Now I am ready if I get a call and need to leave quickly.
The writer suggested that this box should hold other things as well. Can you ever find a luggage tag when you need one? Do you know where the travel adapter is for that trip abroad? For those who travel often, the box is a great place to store traveler’s checks and foreign currency. It is good to have copies of your passport, insurance documents and a list of medications in case of an emergency. The writer recommends placing all these papers in the box as soon as you return from a trip, then they will be ready the next time you travel.
I suppose most of us do not travel that often or even travel to places we might need foreign currency or travel adapters, but there is no harm in keeping these things in one place. Then we will be prepared if we have the opportunity or need to travel whether it is short notice or not. Every little thing we can do to be prepared makes our life a little easier and less stressful.
When it comes to living our life for Christ, we are traveling a different sort of journey. We don’t need any paperwork or even a travel bag full of toothpaste. We don’t need a passport or luggage tags. But we do need to be prepared for every opportunity to share Jesus Christ. Our box will not hold travel adapters or foreign currency. It will hold the intangible things of God, like hope, grace and wisdom. Preparing our minds for the journey through God’s kingdom means trusting in God and hearing His Word, obeying what we know to be true and living as we are called to live.
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? or what shall a man give in exchange for his life? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he render unto every man according to his deeds.” Matthew 16:24-27, ASV
The character Joey once said, “Look, there’s no unselfish good deeds, sorry,” on the television show “Friends.” He said that in response to his her disdain for his latest job, working at the PBS telethon. She’d had a bad experience with PBS. He thought it was a good deed, but she said he just wanted to do it to get on television, so it was selfish. Phoebe, who was so generous that she acted as surrogate for her brother and his wife’s triplets, didn’t believe him. He answered her by asking if having the babies made her feel good. When she said yes, he told her it was selfish. Even though she was making a huge sacrifice and that it was really nice of her to do, it was a selfish act.
Phoebe took up the challenge to find a selfless good deed. She tried to secretly rake the lawn of an old guy, but he found out and gave her cookies and cider. She said, “Then I felt wonderful. That old jackass!” Then she told Joey that she went to the park and let a bee sting her. “What?! What good is that gonna do anybody?” She said that it made the bee look good in front of his bee friends. Then he informed her that the bee probably died after he stung her, so it was not really a good deed. Meanwhile, he was at the telethon, but had not actually gotten a seat in the phone bank that was on camera.
Phoebe finally figured out what to do. She decided to call PBS and give a donation, despite her anger and hatred from her childhood experience. It didn’t make her feel good because she did not want to help them and she didn’t have any extra money to give. But she knew it was a good deed, so she made the call. She got Joey and told him that she wanted to donate $200. He asked if she was sure. She said, “Oh, I’m still mad at them but I also know that they bring happiness to lots of kids whose moms didn’t kill themselves, so by supporting them, I’m doing a good thing, but I’m not happy about it. So there, a selfless good deed.”
As it turned out, Phoebe made the donation that took PBS over the total from last year, so Gary Collins walked up to Joey and showed the studio audience who took the pledge. That meant Joey got his face on television. The friends were watching, including Phoebe, who got very excited about seeing Joey. “Oh, look-look, Joey’s on TV! Isn’t that great? My pledge got Joey on TV! Oh that makes me feel—Oh no!”
Joey might be right that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed, because we are certainly blessed by the work we do. The key is to understand our motivation for doing good work. Are we purposely and willfully making sacrifices because we think we will be blessed by the action? Or, like Phoebe, are we simply doing things that seem sacrificial because we know we will suffer but will serve others in some way. This may seem like a negative purpose, but there are those who will do it just because they think the blessing is in the suffering.
In today’s passage, Jesus says that those who follow Jesus must deny themselves. They must lose their lives. Many people take this to mean that they must suffer in some way to do what is right. But if we read this text in context, we’ll see that we aren’t meant to just lose our lives, but we are to lose our lives for Christ’s sake. How will the Kingdom of God or our Lord Jesus Christ benefit from our giving money to a cause we believe is wrong? How will God be glorified by letting a bee sting? How will the Gospel be served if we purposely and willfully put ourselves in a state of constant suffering? Our good works are never meant to be for our sake in any way; the opportunities we have to serve our neighbor are given so that God will be glorified.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 13, 2011, Lectionary 33A: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
“For a thousand years in thy sight Are but as yesterday when it is past, And as a watch in the night.” Psalm 90:4, ASV
I was in a store the other day and it is obvious that the retailers are anxious to get the Christmas season started. Even as there were baskets full of Halloween inventory at discounted prices for quick sale, an extra large decorated Christmas tree loomed in the doorway. The shelves are packed with Christmas gift packages such as collections of smelly lotions or spiced coffees. Halloween candy was replaced with Christmas delights. Right next to the door was an electronic sign with the countdown to Christmas. We have just 40+ days until the big day.
Those of us with children know how hard it is to wait for Christmas. It is made even harder when the children see the signs so early. They don’t understand what forty days means. To them, a Christmas tree means it is Christmastime. Even though Santa is more than a month from his visit, the children are anxiously ready to open their presents. “Is it tomorrow, Mom?” they ask every day. They are driving parents crazy by the time the day is actually at hand and parents are sick of the whole thing. It is bad enough spending two hours in a car with a child saying “Are we there yet?” It is so much worse to live with a child asking the same question for more than a month as they wait anxiously for Christmas. How much worse must it have been for those early Christians who were waiting for the coming of Christ? They didn’t even have an end date to mark on a calendar. They had to be patient and walk into the unknown.
The psalmist writes, “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, And as a watch in the night.” We live in a world with instant gratification. We send a text and have a response in seconds. We type a few words into an Internet search engine and we have a million resources to help our research. We order a burger and fries, and it is delivered to our car window in seconds. We buy a book from a bookseller and it is downloaded to our e-reader instantly. We do not have to wait for anything anymore, and so we have lost the ability to wait.
Not that people were ever very good at being patient. Sarah wouldn’t wait for God, so she sent Abraham into the arms of a maidservant to create a child. The disciples wanted Jesus to go into Jerusalem long before His time. And the early Christians wanted Jesus to return in their day. We still have that same longing, and it manifests occasionally when some charismatic cult leader decides to proclaim that the time is now. Harold Camping might be done for now, but I have no doubt that there is another would-be prophet ready to tell the world that the bizarre weather of 2011 is a sign that Jesus is coming. There will be people who believe that leader, who quit their jobs and take up their signs that say, “The End of the World is Near!” And when it doesn’t happen, they will be left without a job, home or food. They will be disappointed and perhaps even lose heart.
Even worse, however, is when people are complacent. In Thessalonica, people were self-satisfied, believing everything was fine. When we are complacent, we also become apathetic. There is no need for hope beyond today and no need to reach beyond oneself. Yet, our passages for today speak of a day when everything will fall apart, when the Master will bring an end to our complacency.
Many people think that God set the world in motion and then just let it go. Some believe in predestination and that there is nothing that can change what has been ordained since the beginning. Some do not believe that God interacts with His people, or that He changes His mind. These attitudes leave no reason for prayer or repentance; there is no reason for faith. They do not seek security from God, but rather from their homes, wealth and relationships. They have no need for God and do not fear Him. They also have no hope. We we suffer from the sin of trusting in the things of this world rather than God.
So did the people in Zephaniah’s day. They had become complacent and had turned away from God in search of other gods. They thought God was distant and uninvolved with His people. Through Zephaniah, God promised to search out all those that did not believe. The promise for those was not a happy promise. They would suffer destruction from the wrath of God. Their wealth would be taken away, their houses uninhabited and their businesses laid to waste. To Zephaniah, the Day of the Lord was to be a day of wrath, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of death.
This prophecy was sent to people who did not care. They said in their hearts, “Jehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil.” They had no hope and no fear. They were satisfied with life as they knew it and with the gods to whom they had become accustomed. The day of wrath would be a day of darkness, but they didn’t care because they thought nothing would happen. They were blind to the truth and wallowing in their own comfort and self righteousness. But on that day nothing would save them, not their gods or their possessions. Zephaniah says, “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of Jehovah's wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy: for he will make an end, yea, a terrible end, of all them that dwell in the land.”
The consequences of our decisions can be life altering, not just for ourselves, but for the world in which we live. Sarah’s impatience has led to a history of distrust between people all around the world. The impatience of the disciples and early Christians has led to confusion about God’s purpose for Jesus even into today. We know that Christ is coming again, but we do not know when. The problem in Paul’s day is that the people were getting frantic because they were dying and Jesus had not yet returned. They were afraid and doubted the promise. They didn’t know what to do. Some were falling for false preaching. Others were oppressive with their own preaching, forcing others to believe in the hopes that they would create the necessary conditions for Jesus’ return. Yet others gave up. They stopped waiting and turned to the world for comfort and peace.
The Gospel lesson hints at an end time scenario, but it is even more important to think about what we should be doing while we wait. We aren’t supposed to sit around, expecting the coming of the Lord. We are to use what God has given us to share the Gospel with the world. We are called to be like the two servants who used their talents for the glory of God. He has gone away but has left us each with sufficient talents to do His work here and now. There is so much to be accomplished. Why are we waiting for something that won’t be so wonderful, anyway? Burying our talents does nothing to help us prepare, it leaves us stagnant. We might be satisfied with what we have, but God is not satisfied with an offering of nothing but what He gave us. He wants our gifts to flourish, to multiply, to grow. When there are so many people who still need to experience God’s kingdom there is no time to sit around waiting for something that might happen in a minute or a thousand years. We are called to get to work doing God’s business today. We won’t miss anything. As a matter of fact, if we are doing what He’s called us to do, He’ll find us actively living in faith and hope and love, ready to receive what He has promised us for eternity.
God operates on a different timeline. A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day. He’s not confined to the clock or to the movement of the heavenly bodies. Because we are trapped in time, we have a hard time imagining what God’s time is like. We want to count down the days. We want to have a mark on a calendar. We want to understand the concept of eternity even though it is impossible for us to relate to something that has no beginning or ending.
How can there be no beginning or end? We have so nicely laid out our days, divided them up into simple units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. We have even taken the story of God and divided it up into seasons: that’s what we do with the lectionary and in this devotional. Time is easier for us to grasp when we can identify it. We remember yesterday and look forward to tomorrow. We keep histories of our lives so that we won’t forget and we fit God into our story.
Yet, our scriptures for today make us think, “What is our life compared to eternity?” What is one body compared to the universe?” Our life is barely a fraction of a second and we are nothing more than a spot on a speck. To cope with this, we define God by our terms, limiting His time and His scope to be much closer to us. We put Him into a box. He does not need our buildings in which to dwell, but offers Himself as a dwelling place for us. He is not limited by time. The clocking is ticking in our world. Christmas is really just around the corner. The sign will continue to countdown for the next month and a half, and then the great day will be here.
But when does the Great Day come? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Whether Jesus comes today or in a thousand years is up to God. Until that day, we are called to be actively participating in the creative and redeeming work that He began. We might hear the world crying our “Are we there yet?” or telling us that the time is now, but our mission is to use the gifts that God has given in ways that glorify Him. Now or later, near or far, the day is God’s and by faith we can trust Him. Eternity will be more than we can imagine. Until then, this life can be more than we can imagine if we dwell in the Lord and use His gifts until they are multiplied beyond our wildest dreams.
“Now we that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbor for that which is good, unto edifying. For Christ also pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell upon me. For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope. Now the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of the same mind one with another according to Christ Jesus: that with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, even as Christ also received you, to the glory of God.” Romans 15:1-7, ASV
I ran errands today. I wanted to go to a bookstore to look for Advent materials, and I have been waiting until I was sure that they had their inventory in stock. While I was out, I decided to go to a few other stores. I have to admit that I did a little Christmas present shopping. I went to some stores that were on the other side of town, places I don’t go to very often. I figured that if I took care of those gifts today, I could avoid those stores later, when they get more crowded with holiday shoppers.
My errands included a stop at the grocery store. I needed a few things for dinner, especially hamburger. After hours of shopping, I wasn’t in the mood to wander all the aisles. I wanted to get what I needed and get out of there as fast as possible. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a list with me, and I forgot to go through my ingredients in my head before I checked out. I forgot the most important ingredient, the hamburger. I didn’t realize it until I was home. Now I have to go back to the grocery store or find something else for dinner.
Maybe if I hadn’t been in such a rush, I might have remembered everything. I didn’t really think I was rushing. As a matter of fact, when I was walking to the car, an elderly lady was getting out of the car right next to mine. I could not get to my door, but I told her to take her time. She apologized for being so slow, but I said something about too many of us needing moments that cause us to slow down a bit. She gave me a hug, told me that she was 84 and learned patience through a lifetime of struggles and encouraged me with the assurance that I’ll learn, too. She told me to have a wonderful and safe weekend. It was a precious moment of grace in the midst of a hectic day.
I need to go out again, and I’m not very happy about it. I’ll probably rush because I don’t have much time before I need to make dinner. Unfortunately, I’ll have to drive through school zones, and I will run into the ‘on the way home’ crowd at the grocery store. The lines will be long, the cashiers will be frazzled. The parking lot will be a mess and the streets will be full of rush hour traffic. Now that I think about it, perhaps this is one of those moments the lady at the grocery store told me about: it is a moment for learning patience, for practicing that slower pace, for experiencing the opportunities for grace that might manifest for me.
Patience is not easy to learn. We certainly do not like to practice patience. In this world where everything is instantaneous, waiting means we can’t have what we want immediately. Yet, as we run from one place to another, we forget to take time to meet people, to give hugs, to hear what those who are much wiser than us have to say. We might even find a moment of grace.
“And he answered and said, Have ye not read, that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh? So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Matthew 19:4-6, ASV
I didn’t miss the clock. I looked up right at 11:11. It’s cool, but I don’t understand why everyone is making such a big deal about it. Some say that something was supposed to happen at that moment. They anxiously waited for that moment, watching the clock so that they knew exactly when it would happen. At 10:11 our time, a radio talk show host jokingly played a zapping sound and then complete silence, acting as if the world had come to an end. It was funny, but how realistic could it have been?
The same jokes were made at the turn of the millennium, but then like now, the end would have come long before the clock turned 11:11 in the United States. Would it hit each time zone as the clock turned? Would it happen in the first time zone for everyone? Or at Greenwich Mean Time? Or at the moment some official and supposedly most accurate clock hits that time? When the radio host said it was 11:11, the clock I was looking at actually said it was 10:12. We weren’t synchronized, so how could this something wonderful or something horrible happen at 11:11 for all of us?
Now, the most interesting problem I’ve heard about today is the disappointed brides who could not get married today. Many think that getting married today would be good luck. As a matter of fact, eleven brides have planned weddings for today at Walt Disney World. Other brides have planned weddings to be held tonight. But there are some couples who did not plan their weddings, they were simply planning to go to the courthouse and do it there. Unfortunately, today is a Federal holiday, Veterans Day, and the courthouse is closed.
For those couples to get married today, they had to plan a wedding. I know many decide to do it at the courthouse because they don’t want the cost or fuss of a wedding. I had a simple affair, with just a few friends, planned in less than a week. I needed a few days, and thankfully found someone willing to perform the ceremony. I am sure if those 11-11-11 couples wanted to wed today in a simple, inexpensive ceremony, they could have made arrangements with a justice of the peace or clergy person who would have put it on their schedule. They only missed the opportunity because they didn’t plan ahead.
Maybe it is better that they were disappointed today. What is a couple thinking when they jump into a wedding because they think that the day is lucky? Sadly, many weddings planned because a date is ‘special’ don’t last very long. Take, for instance, Eva Longoria and Tony Parker. They made a big deal about getting married on 7-7-07, and their marriage lasted only a few years. The marriage is far more important than the day or the ceremony or the party.
I hope those couples who wanted to get married today still make that important step, but if they choose to stay single just because they missed a lucky day, then I think that they need to consider their relationships. Should they really get married? Is the ceremony about the union of two people who are devoted to living life together or a superstitious response to a coincidental moment on a calendar or clock?
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:7b, ASV
I saw an ad this morning for a craft store. Apparently today is National Clean out your fridge day. The ad suggested that the task could be yucky and that you should do something better: clean the outside of your fridge.
The store currently has frames on sale which you could use to frame corkboard for putting all those clippings and coupons that are hanging with magnets all over the doors refrigerator. I’m sure this would be a good idea. I know that in the past many of the coupons that hung on my refrigerator were for pizza delivery, and were always out of date. I have a write on board which has the score of a football game from years ago and magnets to businesses I will never use.
The advertiser was right, the inside of my refrigerator is yucky, and so is the outside. The problem with their solution is that removing the out of date coupons on the surface might make the refrigerator look nicer, but leaving the moldy and outdated food inside can be dangerous. This is a task that should be done on a regular basis; it is something I try to do every week the day before our garbage pick-up, so the out of date food is removed before someone accidentally eats it. I have to admit that the inside surfaces could use a wipe and there are a few containers that I’m sure would be better off in the trash, but I can’t imagine why anyone would see the value in creating a special day once a year to clean it out.
I suppose there are some who will take up the advertiser on the idea: they’ll clean the outside, but ignore the inside. Others might realize that it is a good day to get rid of those old leftovers but ignore the outdated coupons on the door. The thing is, it is important to clean both the inside and the outside.
The same is true of our lives. How many of us try to make the outside, the part that other people see, look good and right, but leave things inside that are growing dangerous? We smile at work, but think to ourselves how much we despise our coworkers. We wear pretty clothes but are green with envy over the good things our neighbors possess. We go to church on Sunday to worship God, but during the rest of the week we worship ourselves, our desires and the things of this world. It isn’t enough to be pretty on the outside. Our hearts need to be cleaned, too.
Paul writes, “Grace to you and peace,” as a salutation in most of the letters he wrote to the churches. Many pastors use this phrase at the beginning of their sermons, to call to mind the gifts of God as we listen to His Word. Grace and peace are certainly good faith words, words that turn us to the work of God that cleanses us inside and out. Grace is that unmerited favor that comes from God, changing our sinful, ugly selves into righteous children in snow white robes. Peace is the hand of God inside, making our entire beings whole and right before Him. So, Paul’s words reflect my wish for you today: that God will clean you inside and out, making you clean and whole today and always.
“And now, O Jehovah, thou art God, and hast promised this good thing unto thy servant: and now it hath pleased thee to bless the house of thy servant, that it may continue for ever before thee: for thou, O Jehovah, hast blessed, and it is blessed for ever.” 1 Chronicles 17:26-27, ASV
I was concerned about putting the garbage can out last night for pick-up today because we were expecting a storm in the early morning hours. I put it out because I ended up cleaning my refrigerator and my freezer yesterday, so the can is extremely heavy with outdated food. I made sure to put the recycle bin, which is very light even though it has quite a bit of paper and glass. Our neighbor put theirs right next to ours.
The rain arrived as the sun came up, accompanied by lightning, thunder and in some places hail. It poured heavily for a brief period, with the water running down the streets. Since it was rush hour, the rain caused all sorts of problems on the roadways. The news reporters recommended that people should try to wait for the storm to pass, but it is hard when the children need to be at school and workers need to be at their jobs. I watched the news, made breakfast and waited. When the storm passed, I looked out my window and the sight was humorous; the neighborhood trash cans were all over the road. The rushing water pushed the cans away from the curb and down the street. There is a loose garbage bag across the street that must be so light that it floated away from where it had been placed last night. I was concerned about our garbage cans, so I went outside to check. They hadn’t moved at all. My heavy trash can held the other cans in place.
We often talk about the way our lives can affect the lives of others, particularly when our sin harms our neighbors. We rarely think about the positive affect we can have. Can a change in the way I think make a difference in someone else’s life? Yes, it can. When we recognize the grace of God that has guaranteed us forgiveness and eternal life, we will naturally become more forgiving, living for the sake of others. When we live lives of praise and thanksgiving for the blessings God has given, we’ll be more generous to our neighbors. When we love Christ, we will love our neighbor. Then they will see Christ and love Him too, believing what He has done for them.
So, when God has cleaned out our refrigerators, filled our garbage cans and put them on the curb, we just might be strong enough to hold our neighbors through the storms. We have been blessed to be a blessing. We have been forgiven to be forgiving. We have been given the gifts of God for the sake of the world, to help others come to the point of seeking God in all things and to praise Him forever.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 20, 2011, Christ the King Sunday: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
“But when the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all the nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” Matthew 25:31-33, ASV
David himself would not be the promised shepherd in today’s Old Testament lesson. Ezekiel lived long after David died. David was a great king over Israel, but he was far from perfect. He did not treat all his people with the kind of mercy and grace that is suggested in this promise. In the case of Uriah the Hittite, David did exactly what the prophet warned against: trampling the weak and pushing around the humble. But the text does not refer to David; it refers to the seed of David. God promised that the house of David would rule over Israel forever. A son of David would be the promised shepherd. The Son of David would be the final judge.
That Son of David would be more than just a son. God, speaking through Ezekiel says, “Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” God promises that He will not give the responsibility to another: He will be the one to save His people. This promise is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the son of David and the King.
This Sunday is the final day of the Church year, and on this day we look forward to the coming of Christ the King. For the past few weeks we’ve looked at that day with terror. It won’t be a pretty day; it will be a day of judgment. We see that in today’s texts, too. The coming King will separate the sheep from the goats; He will provide justice. Those who have been lost will be brought home. Those who have been forgotten will be remembered. Those who have been bullied will be saved. He will care for His flock. This is a promise we can embrace. But we are reminded once again what will happen to those who have been unjust, who have scattered the sheep, who have trampled on the lowly, who have bullied the weak: they will be destroyed.
The terror we have for the Day of the Lord is cause by our knowledge of our failure. We have been unjust. We have trampled the lowly, we have bullied the weak. We deserve to be destroyed. The idea of a great judge coming to set things right is frightening because it means something will have to change, something will be destroyed. If we got what we deserved, we would be the ones who would be sent into eternal punishment.
And so, on this day we ask ourselves, “What will Christ find when He returns?” Will He see us pushing with flank and shoulder, butting the weak with our horns? Will He see us wandering the fields ignoring the needs of others? The parables we’ve heard over the past few weeks have been difficult because we do not like to think about what happens to those who do not hear God’s word of hope and respond with mercy. In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus says to the goats, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.” The goats saw the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and imprisoned, but did not see the face of God in their faces and did nothing to help. The sheep also did not see the face of God, but they did something to ease the pain and suffering in this world. Notice that they did not do anything spectacular. T here is no message of healing, no word of setting people free. They fed the hungry and gave water to the thirsty. They ministered to the needs of their neighbors by sharing the blessings they’d been freely given.
I wonder how many times we have ignored the needs of our neighbor because the needs were just too ordinary. Sheldon, a super-intelligent scientist character on the television show “The Big Bang Theory” has no real social skills. He says what he thinks and he thinks in purely scientific terms. Over the years, however, Sheldon has been learning and he occasionally recognizes those moments when it is necessary to do something nice. For instance, when someone is upset, Sheldon automatically goes to make a cup of tea. “What’s that,” the other person asks. Sheldon answers, “Tea. When people are upset, the cultural convention is to bring them hot beverages.” It is also appropriate when someone comes to visit. Even in this kindness, however, Sheldon sees the world through very literal eyes. If the person says no thanks, he answers, “It’s not an option.”
There was a day when it was customary to offer something to drink to anyone who came into your house, even workmen. If someone came to fix an appliance of shampoo our carpets, a glass of water gave them a chance to rest and rehydrate. I have to admit that I don’t make the offer very often anymore. Most workers carry their own water and take breaks when they need it. Most of the time they are not even in the house long enough to get thirsty. When they are gone, however, I wonder if I should have offered them a beverage. It seems too insignificant to matter. I am certain I have done far worse things in my life on which I’ll be judged.
And yet, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Now, those blessed ones did not even remember doing those kindnesses. Or at least they didn’t remember doing it for the Lord. What they did not understand is that doing it for others was doing it for God. The hungry and thirsty, poor and lonely, sick and oppressed wore the face of God. When they did that kindness, often so insignificant that it was quickly forgotten, they had done something that God would remember forever.
God does not diminish the great things we do for others. He sees the impact a multimillion dollar hospital has on the sick. He embraces the work of organizations that collect a million pounds of food for a food bank. He welcomes the ministries that meet the needs of thousands of homeless people throughout the year. But, He also sees those small, seemingly insignificant things that we do for our neighbors. When we do those things we are doing them for Christ. He will remember.
While God does embrace those larger deeds, the small ones matter because they are the things that manifest the love and Spirit of God. God wants the hungry to have food, and in the next few months we will see large numbers of people being extremely generous. People who do not normally give will buy that extra can of chicken broth to throw in the box by the check-out. People who do not give anything to charity will drop a quarter in the Salvation Army bucket. They do so at this time of year because the charities are in their face. They do it either out of guilt or duty; they give now because it is convenient. Do they even notice the homeless or hungry the rest of the year?
The sheep in this story are those who do not think about their good works. The act of generosity comes naturally, because it comes from the heart and the spirit. I don’t always give a glass of water to those workmen who come to my home, but when I see that the workmen are tired and sweaty, I naturally offer them a drink. Sheldon gives a cup of tea out of duty, because it is social convention, even when the tea is not wanted. The true act of kindness that comes from the heart is one that meets the needs of a person in that moment. Someone might need tea, while someone else needs a hug or a listening ear. Someone might need a grocery bag full of food stuff, while someone else needs an invitation to dinner. Both will fill a belly, but one person might need to feed a family, while the other also needs the companionship that comes with sharing a meal.
So, while God does honor the giving spirit that pervades our upcoming holiday season, He is looking for those moments when our spirits respond naturally to the world around us, meeting the ordinary needs of our neighbors. That’s how He can tell the difference between the sheep and the goats. Goats can do good things, too. Food banks will be filled in the next six weeks. Children will get toys from secret Santas. But it doesn’t take a Christian to do those things.
Jesus spoke the same words to two groups of people, “You saw me hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison.” He commended the first group—the sheep—who had taken care of His needs. The second group—the goats—had ignored His needs and had not fared as well. Both groups were surprised to hear that they had seen Jesus. Why pick on the goats? Why does Jesus use goats to represent those sent into eternal punishment? Why does Jesus make them sound as if they are unclean or unacceptable? The scriptures show us that goats were not only clean, but they were acceptable at the Temple for sacrifice.
As a matter of fact, the hair of the goat was used for the curtains in the tabernacle. This would not have been true if God had deemed goats unworthy. Leviticus 16 describes the ritual involved in the Day of Atonement, at which goats play a very prominent role. The Lord told Moses that Aaron should first offer a bull for his own sins, and then he is to present two goats to the Lord before the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. One goat was chosen for sacrifice, the other was sent into the desert to be a scapegoat. The scapegoat is not immediately killed; the people lay their sins on its head and it is then sent into the wilderness. Now, both goats are sacrificed, but one is given directly to the Lord and the other is left for God to take in His time and way. The fact that goats are used in the ritual for the Day of Atonement shows us that goats are acceptable before the Lord.
The goats are not only acceptable as the sin offering, but also as fellowship offerings. Anything that is given to God in sacrifice is expected to be worthy. A goat isn’t a bad thing. As a matter of fact, according to Heifer International, goats are one of the “Seven M” animals. The most efficient use of livestock resources is found in those animals that offer meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials and motivation. Goats reproduce quickly, often birthing kids several times a year. The milk can be used for drinking, cooking, butter and cheese. Farms with more than one goat can provide milk, butter and cheese for sale. Goat manure makes excellent fertilizer. They are small and need less space for proper care. They eat anything, including weeds that are dangerous for other animals and people, so they are better for managing land. They can be trained to carry packs or they are strong enough to pull wagons. They can be housebroken and make rather good pets. Goat hair is used to make wool, including mohair and cashmere. These animals are certainly of some value, particularly among those families for whom one animal could mean the difference between life and death.
So, why would Christ the King separate the sheep from the goats, commending one and condemning the other? In many ways, sheep and goats are the same. In Jesus’ day, the sheep and the goats were separated at night, the goats put into a barn to keep warm but the sheep preferred to stay in the fresh air and field. Sheep were more costly and more highly valued than goats. There were always more sheep than goats on a farm. Perhaps that’s one reason why Jesus separated them in the parable.
I also find it interesting how different the sheep and the goats are when it comes to behavior. Goats are willing to eat anything, preferring leaves, twigs, vines and shrubs. They are even able to eat some plants that are deadly to other animals. Sheep prefer the short tender grasses and clover in the field. Sheep eat to the ground, while goats prefer to eat off the top of the plant. There are also differences in their social behavior. Goats are more curious, wandering to seek out new food sources. They are independent; they do not wander with a flock but move wherever they want. Sheep, however, flock together and become discontent when alone.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus separated the sheep from the goats. The goats are those who live according to their own wants and needs; the sheep stay together. I’m not sure it can be said that sheep help one another, but they are safer and warmer in a group than the goats that go off on their own. The people who are like sheep are those who live in community, sharing what they have with others. People who are like goats live for themselves. That’s certainly the difference between the sheep and the goats in today’s Gospel lesson. The sheep didn’t know they were caring for their Lord, but they cared for one another. The goats were ignorant of other’s needs and thus ignorant of the Lord’s presence. This doesn’t mean that the sheep are perfect at doing good works or that the goats never share. It simply means that the sheep are those whose hearts and spirits respond to the needs of others.
In today’s epistle lesson, Paul writes about life in community with Christ and His people. Christ is the head and we are all part of His body. We are called to live in hope of the inheritance that waits for each of us in heaven. We are among those that will be called to that throne of glory one day to face our Lord. We do not fear the weeping and gnashing of teeth that we’ve heard about for the past few weeks, worried that we have not lived up to some standard. We live in hope and walk in faith as Christ's body, freely sharing that which Christ has given to all we meet daily.
Christ longs to say to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, join in my happiness.” This is not something we can make happen on our own. It won’t be our good works that get us into the flock of sheep the day Christ comes as King. It is our faith that Jesus will see and that faith is manifest through hearts that respond with grace and mercy in the world. The needs we meet might be great or small, but when done in the Spirit of God they will be eternal. We need not spend our time trying to see God’s face in the people we meet. We need only live in faith, trusting in our Great Shepherd’s grace as we respond to His love by sharing His love. In this way we live in praise and thanksgiving, joining our Master in His happiness.
“When thou dost lend thy neighbor any manner of loan, thou shalt not go into his house to fetch his pledge. Thou shalt stand without, and the man to whom thou dost lend shall bring forth the pledge without unto thee. And if he be a poor man, thou shalt not sleep with his pledge; thou shalt surely restore to him the pledge when the sun goeth down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless thee: and it shall be righteousness unto thee before Jehovah thy God.” Deuteronomy 24:10-13, ASV
I saw a commercial the other day about a credit company. The commercial asked the viewers if they needed a little extra money to have a merry Christmas. They could have everything they want and all they have to do is let the loan company hold the title of their car. The borrower can continue to use the car as long they pay off the debt. When the debt is paid, the title is returned to the owner.
This might seem like a good idea, after all it is so easy. Why not take out a loan so that you can provide your family with a wonderful Christmas? Christmas is so hard on children from families with little money because they can’t get the cool presents that their friends will get. With all that extra money, the kids will be happy because they are keeping up with their peers. The money can help buy the food for an incredible meal and can be used to purchase decorations to brighten the home. A few extra dollars can certainly make the holidays a wonderful time for everyone.
The loans are simple, but are they smart? Depending on the state where the loan is taken, the interest can be as high as one hundred percent. That means if you borrow a hundred dollars, you will automatically owe two hundred dollars. The borrower must pay at least the interest by the due date, but can usually roll over the loan until they can pay. If you don’t pay at least the interest, the lender can take the car. If you have to borrow a hundred dollars to have a nice Christmas, how will you find a hundred dollars to pay the interest on the loan? And how will you ever find another hundred to clear the debt? The family might have a nice Christmas and have all the best technology products, but next year they will lose their car.
A hundred dollars does not seem like too much, but who will limit the loan to such a small amount? The lender will give as much as half the Blue Book value of the car, which means the loan might be thousands of dollars. Where will they get twice that much money tomorrow if they don’t have it today? And then what will they do without a car? It is a vicious circle. They took out the loan to have a wonderful Christmas, but then lose the vehicle that got them to work. The loan leaves them in an even worse situation than they had been before Christmas. Sadly, if the money is used for food or entertainment, the family doesn’t even have anything to show for it.
The scriptures for today look at the idea of debt from the creditor’s point of view. They Hebrews lived in a different world. The rich were expected to treat the poor with mercy, to help their neighbor without taking advantage of them. The law in today’s passage ensures that the poor will not lose the things that are necessary for their livelihood. We might think that they did not have credit so long ago. It is true that they didn’t have credit cards or title loans, but it was necessary then, as it often is now, for the poor to rely on borrowed money. A carpenter might need to borrow the money he needs to purchase the materials for a project. When the project is finished, the carpenter then paid the lender the original debt. The problem with today’s credit is the interest; there are no such laws that protect the borrower. The lender can take the collateral, even if it is necessary to the borrower’s livelihood.
It is possible that some of the readers today will be in a position to lend someone money to help them through a rough time. If you are that person, remember to have mercy. Do not lend with the purpose of building wealth, but with the grace to help someone in need. It need not be a gift, but never leave the borrower in a position that is worse than they began.
I think it is more likely that most of the readers are considering the offers they see in the commercials. A little extra money would make for a nicer, happier Christmas. Remember, however, that we do not live in a world that expects lenders to live by the laws in today’s passage. If you sign the contract, you must pay the terms of the contract, whatever they are. There is no jubilee. There is no guarantee that you’ll get to keep your collateral. There is no promise for mercy. So, God’s word for us today is to remember that the joy of Christmas is not found in high tech gadgets or fancy meals. It is found in the love of God and the gift of Jesus Christ. There are many ways to create a wonderful Christmas that do not require taking out an impossible loan.
“And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting: he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another; in honor preferring one another; in diligence not slothful; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing stedfastly in prayer; communicating to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality.” Romans 12:6-13, ASV
My husband has been out of town this week. He travels fairly often, but usually for only a day or two, which is barely enough time to even miss him. This trip lasted six days. Now, compared to the temporary duty assignments when he was in the military, this was nothing. Six days with the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do is like a vacation. I made plans to stay up late and sleep late, to go out to eat and maybe go to a movie. I wanted to do some shopping, finish a painting, work on my Christmas ornaments, finish reading my current book and do some writing. Now, that may sound like too much to do in a week, but I didn’t have to take care of anyone else. I was alone and free to do everything.
Ok, I wasn’t completely alone. I still have three cats in the house that needed my attention. They did not allow me to sleep late because they get hungry and expect breakfast. Early mornings make late nights impossible. As the only human in the house, all their needs became my responsibility. The work is not time consuming: a few minutes to clean the litter box, a few minutes to feed them. But they also need love and attention. They want to play. Someone needs to pick up after them when they’ve gotten wild. Several times a day I have to go looking for the kitties because I’ve heard a strange noise. I usually find something out of place and kitties with guilty looks in their eyes.
When I got a message this morning from Bruce telling me that he was getting on the plane, I realized that I had not accomplished half the things I’d hoped. I can’t blame the cats. I managed to do a few things that weren’t on my plan, but I also wasted a lot of time. I spent too much time on the computer playing games. I spent too much time staring mindlessly at the television. I spent too much time doing absolutely nothing. It didn’t feel like I was doing nothing, but on more than one occasion I looked at the clock and was shocked at how much time had passed. As I headed upstairs each night I shook my head and muttered something about doing better tomorrow.
We might like to spend time alone, but what I realized today is how important it is to live in community. In community we help one another like Bruce helps care for the kitties. But it is not only what the other person can do for us that makes them important, they are important because they give us a reason to get out of bed. When Bruce is home, I plan dinner for a specific time. When I’m alone I don’t always get around to dinner. I’m more likely to accomplish tasks in a timely manner so that I’m free to be with Bruce when he’s around. He keeps me accountable even if he does not realize it. It might seem like I have more time to accomplish everything I want because I don’t have the usual responsibilities. However, I’m more likely to procrastinate when I’m alone and then suddenly I’m out of time.
I selfishly looked forward to my time alone this week, but I’ve discovered how much better it is when I have someone to give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I accomplish so much more when I’m working for the sake of others; I can even find the time to do the things I want to do for myself. Now that my ‘vacation’ is over, I am looking forward to having Bruce back in the house, to work together to accomplish everything we have to do.
“But ye are a elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10, ASV
Someone once said, “A candle loses nothing of its light by lighting another candle.” This quote is easy to understand in a very literal way. Anyone who has ever lit a candle using another candle knows that the second candle does not take half the light away, but the light is doubled with another burning wick. With two candles, the darkness is twice as bright.
But I think the original speaker was thinking in more metaphorical terms: the meaning of the quote depends on the point of view of the hearer. I did a quick search of this quote and though I could not find a name of a person to whom this is attributed, I did find dozens of websites that used it to inspire, challenge and encourage visitors. The devotions range from understanding the light as love, knowledge, hope and peace. Generosity can’t be compared in the same manner, because if you give something away, you have less of that thing, but the quote still holds true with it because you find yourself blessed in other ways when you are generous.
I like to think about this quote from a spiritual perspective. If Jesus is the light, giving a bit of Jesus to our neighbor will not take away any of our own relationship with Jesus. Sharing the Gospel won’t diminish the Gospel in our life, and we will be blessed by even greater light because it has been shared. When two people know Jesus, the world is a little brighter.
We are less than a week from the beginning of Advent, that season of the church year when we watch in darkness for the coming of the light. The season will be busy with the usual preparations for the holiday; it has already started for so many. The stores are already having sales and the aisles are full of Christmas things. A few of my neighbors have already put out their Christmas lights. We’ll see in the Advent texts how Christ came to bring light into the darkness, how the light grows as we get closer to that day, just as the light grows around the world with the secular trappings of Christmas. Now is the time for us to share that Gospel message, to share that light with others so that in spirit as well as in the world, the darkness will be overcome by the joyous light of Christ. We lose nothing by telling our neighbor about Jesus, by sharing His word, His life and His salvation with them. As a matter of fact, we will find the world is a little brighter with hope and peace of God.
“Then opened he their mind, that they might understand the scriptures; and he said unto them, Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Ye are witnesses of these things.” Luke 24:45-48, ASV
The quote yesterday came from a little book of daily inspirational quotes that I have on my desk. Most of the quotes are not attributed to a specific person, probably because the words are brief and the thoughts so common that they could be attributed to many people. Even famous quotes are often difficult to credit to a specific person. I have often found that multiple sites give different sources for the same words. Other sites will show the difference between two authors, saying the same thing in a slightly different way. In the process, one person, perhaps the more famous, gets the credit for the idea no matter the words, ignoring the true speaker even if he or she was the first to put forth the idea.
It gets particularly confusing when people take credit for a work that is not theirs. When I first began my website, I included the text from several bible studies or workshops I had presented. One of those studies had to do with prayer. As part of the workshop, I used a skit I had heard several years earlier. The skit showed a conversation between God and someone praying. The person praying was in a rush, wanting to say the words and rush off to other things, but God had another idea. As the person prayed the Lord’s Prayer, God broke in and asked questions, teaching the meaning of the words. When I saw the skit originally, I asked the performers for a copy. I included the script on my website with the study and gave credit to the authors who were listed on the original email.
Several years ago I got an email from a gentleman who claimed to be the author of the skit. The first email was polite, and he asked that I change the credit on my website. He told me that he wrote the skit in 2006, during a difficult time of his life. It helped him through the tough times. I responded with surprise that he could have written the story then, since I saw it, and used it in 1999. The email conversation went on for awhile, and eventually included emails from the man’s daughter who threatened to sue me for using his work without permission. He insisted that my memory was faulty, that I could not possibly have used it seven years before he wrote it. I checked the Internet and found dozens of websites that had posted the story. I sent links to the websites that gave credit to the same authors as me, and other websites that had the text available without attribution, but dated well before 2006. I asked if he was going to sue all those groups for copyright infringement.
The conversation got nasty and a little bizarre at the end. I tried to be patient, but the man was so insistent that he wrote the skit that he believed any proof I sent was either faked or mistaken. I have to admit that I was upset because the daughter repeatedly called me a liar. They insisted on physical proof for my dates, asking for the original script from the authors. I didn’t have any script; I didn’t even have the email any longer, since it had been so long since I had the original piece: about ten years, three houses, several email addresses and a couple computers. I solved the problem by removing the text from my website.
Some time later I got another email from the man. I don’t know what happened, or how it happened, but he realized his mistake and he apologized. He said he didn’t understand how he could have been so mistaken about writing the skit, but he knew that he was wrong. I wrote back, accepted his apology and offered some words of forgiveness and encouragement. I told him that I was not so much angry with him, but that I was very disappointed that his daughter was so nasty and unchristian in the way she acted toward me. He apologized for her, but she never said a word. The worst part of this experience was that the woman made a big deal about her Christianity, boasted of her power and high position in a Christian publishing company and her intent to destroy my ministry. How does a Christian get to the point of treating a brother or sister in Christ with such contempt?
I wasn’t perfect. I responded with anger and frustration. I tried to be gracious, but failed miserably. But the goal of every Christian relationship is to work toward reconciliation. We will fail one another. We will respond in unchristian ways. What matters in the end, however is the love of God manifest in the confession and absolution, in the mercy and forgiveness shared between the people of God. That’s the unique witness we have to give the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 27, 2011, First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
“Turn us again, O God of hosts; And cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved.” Psalm 80:7, ASV
Ok, so perhaps I watch too many of those reality competition shows. It is amazing how many real life lessons I’ve learned from the not so real experiences of the competitors. As much as we want to believe that they are truly competing for some grand prize and honor, the reality is that much of it is scripted and manipulated to create an experience the producers and directors want. Though the winner does actually win, I suspect that they have pre-chosen the finalists and controlled the outcome. I suspect they set people up for failure and for success.
Despite understanding the reality of reality television, I can’t help but get caught up in the personalities and possibilities the shows present. I hate the person they want me to hate and love the one they want me to love. There is always someone that makes me angry. They have an attitude; we might call it arrogance though they will often call it confidence. We hate them because we hear their confessions which are usually full of insults about the other contestants or self-righteous indignation because they are so hated. Those interviews are staged, and while the contestants might actually say the words, they are edited in a way to create an image the directors want to portray.
So, we hate a person based not on the reality, but only on what we see. After all, we see forty minutes out of hundreds film hours. A good editor can make Mother Theresa look horrible. We are all imperfect. We all say things we shouldn’t say and act ways we shouldn’t act. We all make mistakes; we say stupid things we don’t really mean. If my life were edited down to the time span of a television show, I’m sure I would be unrecognizable to my family and friends.
So, the image we see might not be true, but that doesn’t stop us from loving or hating those characters that have been created. Week after week we beg the judges to get rid of the contestant that is crazy or incompetent or arrogant. Week after week we scream at the television when our favorites are cut for one small infraction while others are passed through that do not deserve to win. They stay because they are interesting characters. The one we grow to hate almost always is the last to go before the finals. We get so frustrated by this obvious failure on the part of the judges, who do not see what we do. “They don’t deserve to be there,” we say week after week.
It gets to the point that we just want to see something terrible happen. I don’t mean that we want them to be hurt, but we do want something so unforgivable to happen so that the judges have no choice but to let them go. We want the bad guy to blow up the stove or burn the expensive mushrooms that have to be fed to a special guest. We want them to create something that is beyond redemption. We want them to fail and cheer over every mistake. Isn’t it odd that we would cheer for failure? We do because we think that we will enjoy the show more if they get rid of that character. We see their attitude, their words and their actions as darkness and we want to be rid of it so that those who really deserve to win have a chance without the unnecessary conflict.
We have talked about the Day of the Lord for the past few weeks, a time of judgment that is to be feared. Several weeks ago we asked, “Why would anyone want to rush that day?” Yet, there comes a time when we just can’t stand what is going on around us so we hope that something will happen to change everything. Like our hope for the contestant’s failure, we hope that something will be a catalyst that will make all things new.
Isaiah writes, “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!” Why would anyone want to call down such a cataclysmic event? Isaiah calls for God’s powerful hand to do something extraordinary to change the world in which he lived.
The people were in darkness. They were following false gods. They were unmerciful and unjust. They were acting shamefully and had forgotten everything the LORD had done for His people. They were lost; they forgot their God. They needed something to happen that would turn them back to Him. In today’s Old Testament text, Isaiah called for God to do something shocking so that everyone would see Him and repent. Sometimes it takes something drastic to change hearts and minds. We turn to God in times of distress. Isaiah was asking God to make that happen.
The psalmist sings from the point of view of one who is in distress; the psalm may have been created when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. It is a cry to God by people who are experiencing darkness. They need God to show His face to them once again. They knew that they were troubled because God had turned away. The only salvation would come from God, so they sought His face, His countenance, upon them. If God shined in their world and on their lives, everything would be right.
We begin Advent in a time of darkness. It is dark because we have failed God. We have forgetten Him in our comfort. We have ignored the needs of our neighbors. We have followed our lusts. We have succumbed to temptation. We are sinners who live in darkness. Like Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson and the psalmist, we cry out to God to reveal Himself so that we might see Him again. We cry out for His presence in our world, even though we are frightened by His power and judgment. We know the only way we will be saved is if God comes to save. So we cry out for Him to come, to make His name known again to the world.
The psalmist knows that despite the suffering we might experience, God has made promises and He is faithful. The judgment may be harsh, but the deliverance is sure. We don’t do it alone. We need someone to help us turn to our God. The psalmist writes, “Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself.” His hand will be on those with whom He has chosen for Himself, but first His hand will be on the One He is sending to bring light into our darkness.
We are about to enter into the Christmas season. We’ll be busy with the preparation for our holiday festivities. We’ll be shopping, baking, wrapping and decorating. We will attend parties and gather with family. TV and radio will be filled with Christmas themed shows and music. Unfortunately, we have all seen the signs of Christmas already, but it will begin in earnest after Thanksgiving. What we, as Christians, must remember as we are going about the business of the holidays is that Christmas does not really begin until Christ is born. Until that day we are journeying through the season of Advent. This is a time for waiting. It is a time for watching. We can’t avoid Christmas in the world, but let us remember that during this time we are meant to be preparing our hearts for the coming of our King.
The Gospel text reminds us that we are waiting for the second coming, even while we are preparing to celebrate the first. Though Christ has already come, died, and been raised, we still live in darkness. The work of salvation is complete, but it still needs to be completed. We are already there and we still wait to be there. We live in the already and the not yet. Light is in the world, but darkness still plagues us. Our text today makes that clear. In Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” we see how to respond to the darkness and chaos of our world. We are called to wait for the One who will come, to watch for the Light which will bring life and hope. We wait, not only for the baby, but also for the King. Here in darkness we begin our journey to the manger. But while this is a time to wait and watch, it is also a time for us to live and shine the light of God. It isn’t a time to hide behind our safe walls, but to get out into the world to share the message that Jesus the King has come to save.
The world needs to know Him, and we are the ones to share Him. The world is in chaos. People are worried and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Many are crying out to God to shine His face so that they might be saved. We are His face. We have the message they need. We have the gifts that will bring peace and hope to those who are lost. Each year there seems to be more reason to cry out to God. We can see suffering all around us. People are jobless, homeless and hungry. Our prisons and hospitals are filled to the brink. Last week Jesus called us to meet the simple and ordinary needs of our neighbors. This Christmas will not be wonderful for everyone. But we can make the world a little brighter by sharing Christ in word and in deed with those who are in need.
In today’s epistle lesson, Paul was speaking the Corinthians, a different people in a different time and place than us. They were people dealing with their own troubles. It doesn’t matter that we are different and face different types of crisis. Every generation faces some sort of suffering. Every generation has worries and doubts and fears about the future. Every generation has lived in darkness. Every person from the beginning of time has had a need to cry out to God.
We need not cry out to a God that has turned His face from us. We are often blind, not seeing that God is in our midst. We ignore the grace that is ours. We look forward to the coming of Christ as if He has not been with us all along. Our faith tells us that everything is different, but do we live in trust that God has already made everything new? God is faithful. We are not always faithful, and it is our faithlessness that is more visible to the world. God sees the reality even though the image the world sees is more like those characters on the reality television shows. In this case, however, the reality is not that we are perfect, but that we are His. He has claimed us to be His children. He gives us everything we need to live faithfully through Advent, Christmas and time eternal.
We will continue to experience darkness until the day Christ comes again. But we can live in the knowledge that the Light has come and is coming. We can be a source of that light for others. We might not always understand His plan, but as we dwell in Him daily we will be blessed by God’s presence even when it seems like He has turned His face from us. We are the evidence of God’s grace; we are God’s people living our faith in a chaotic world. We are called to be His people in the midst of uncertainty and disappointment. Even as we wait and watch for the coming of the Light, we are called to be light in the darkness.
“Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him: because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” 1 John 3:16-20, ASV
What sort of witness are you? We have so many opportunities to share the love of Christ in word and deed. We can serve our neighbor, share the Gospel, and be respectful to strangers. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard the expectations of Jesus, that we will be just and merciful, righteous and faithful. We have now entered into the Advent season, the time of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ, so now is a good time to think about how we live out those expectations in our daily life.
Last Friday was Black Friday, the day when the crazy people go out shopping for Christmas bargains. Yes, I was among those crazy people, although my daughter and I did not even try to beat the crowds to the best deals. We went later in the morning, though still before sunrise, and we found the stores pleasantly calm. We were not able to get those spectacular deals, but we weren’t shopping for them anyway. We found plenty of deals and checked off most of the gifts on our loved ones’ wish lists.
We have heard stories, however. One story from Los Angeles was about a woman who used pepper spray on the crowd at a Walmart waiting for a video game. She claims she felt threatened, which is possible, because videos from many other places show the crowds rushing when the doors open and pushing to be the first in line. Some people camped out in front of stores for days. People were beaten, tasered and even shot. Now, I understand that not everyone who goes Christmas shopping is even a Christian, they are chasing after the secular celebration, but that just means that we who are Christian should act with extreme grace and be witnesses of the true character of Christmas.
I read a story recently about a trend among some Christians. The photo accompanying the article showed an empty dinner plate with a ten dollar bill peeking out from beneath. It told of the excitement a waitress has when she discovers such a good tip, but then showed the truth: the bill was fake and it gave an even better ‘tip.’ The paper reads, “Some things are even better than money” and then, “like your eternal salvation that was paid for by Jesus going to the cross.” The paper quotes John 3:16 and then gives the reader a prayer to say to accept Jesus as their Savior. The waiter who posted pictures of this ‘tip’ on a blog and said, “P.S. I have never been more atheist.”
Now, I have shared my faith with waiters and waitresses. I have even left my card with my website address for the server. I’ve left cute gifts like an origami butterfly or Christmas ornaments. Around Christmas I like to leave a piece of candy or a candy cane. But I have never left any of those things in the place of a tip; they have always been in addition to a tip. Waiters do not make a living wage; they depend on tips to live. Should this be changed? Perhaps, but if we choose to use a system, then we should abide by the system. If we go out to eat, then we should give the waiters and waitresses the tips that will make their work worthwhile.
This is especially true if we make a point of being a witness of Jesus Christ. How much better would it have been for that diner if he or she had given the waiter a ten dollar bill along with the encouraging message of salvation? The atheist might not believe in Jesus based on one piece of paper, but they will see that Christian is generous and compassionate, rather than as greedy and inconsiderate.
So, during this advent season, what sort of witness will we be? Will we insist that we be greeted with a “Merry Christmas” but push other shoppers out of the way to get that blue light special? Will we regift the things we didn’t like from a previous Christmas but demand that we get the hottest new products under the tree? Will we go to church on Sunday but act like Scrooge the rest of the week? Imagine if you were the only Christian in the world and it was up to you to be a witness for Jesus. Would others even know that you are different by the way you act and the words you say?
“But there shall be no gloom to her that was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but in the latter time hath he made it glorious, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, thou hast increased their joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, thou hast broken as in the day of Midian. For all the armor of the armed man in the tumult, and the garments rolled in blood, shall be for burning, for fuel of fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of Jehovah of hosts will perform this.” Isaiah 9:1-8, ASV
Early reports have suggested that Black Friday and Cyber Monday shoppers spent record amounts of money. Despite the continued fears and financial instability, many people have decided that they are going to have a merry Christmas whatever it takes. For many, these early reports offer hopeful news; perhaps this means that things are going to get better. Some of the experts are warning caution, however. They claim that the current shopping trends will be good news only if they are sustained. One excellent weekend does not guarantee an excellent season, they say. The retailers have to convince shoppers to keep coming back.
So, we can expect that the sales will continue. Television commercials will try to convince us that we need to buy the hottest gadgets or the newest trends so that our loved ones will be happy. They will encourage us with the promise of happiness and approval if we give the perfect gifts. This promise will cause many to shop for more than they need, afraid that if they don’t give those gifts then their loved ones will be disappointed.
I was doing a little online shopping myself today, and I found discussions about the service offered at one site. A shopper was upset because she couldn’t buy two of a certain item that was on special. The woman could not afford the item at regular price because it was a very expensive gift. She still felt the need to buy one for each of her daughters. The specials were limited to one per household, but that didn’t stop her: she got a friend to buy one for her. She complained that the website didn’t allow her to buy what she wanted, ignoring the rules of the sale. I don’t think the rules would have mattered to her anyway. Both her kids wanted the item and she was determined to fulfill their wishes, whatever it took.
To this woman, the promise of Christmas is giving her children what they want even if it is beyond her means. But is that really the promise of Christmas? Is the promise about the presents under the tree and do we fulfill the promise by chasing after sales in the stores? Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas shopping and giving presents. The presents are piled high under our tree; some of those presents are the latest gadgets. But as we shop this Advent, let us think about promises. Jesus didn’t come so that we will have a happy and fulfilling Christmas. He came to grant us eternal life. That’s the true promise of Christmas, the promise of abundance beyond anything that can be purchased in a store.
Sunday, December 4, 2011, Second Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
“Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah 40:3, ASV
When we think of the concept of peace, especially in our world today, we think of peace between nations. Wikipedia says, “Peace is a state of harmony characterized by the lack of violent conflict. Commonly understood as the absence of hostility, peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal or international relationships, prosperity in matters of social or economic welfare, the establishment of equality, and a working political order that serves the true interests of all. In international relations, peacetime is not only the absence of war or conflict, but also the presence of cultural and economic understanding and unity. There is also a sense of tolerance in international relations for the realization of true peace.”
The Latin word from which we get the word peace means “freedom from civil disorder,” so there is some justification for our thinking of peace in these terms. Christmas has become a time to cry out for peace on earth; now more than ever people want to live without fear, with hope and joy. It is hard to be happy when your world is literally exploding around you.
I want to focus on one particular part of the Wikipedia definition, however. “Peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal relationships.” That is more appropriate to the text for this Sunday and for the preparation of Advent. Christ came to restore us to our Father and to one another, to overcome the darkness and sin that has created conflict between people. This can be pursued on a large scale as is done through international treaties, but the cry for peace for most people is a desire for something more personal. We are looking for peace in our own lives, in our hearts. Of course we want peace on earth, but true peace begins inwardly.
The image in today’s Gospel lesson is harsh and almost frightening. John is a bizarre character. He lives in the wilderness, wears camel hair and eats locusts. This is not a man that we would necessarily follow. He is not the kind of charismatic figure that we seek out for peace. His message is rough; he told people they were sinners. He called them to repentance. He baptized the people, but admitted that his baptism was nothing compared to the baptism that would come from God. This is not comforting. It is not pleasant. It is frightening and disconcerting.
Yet people flocked to this madman in the wilderness, longing to see the one who fulfilled the promise we hear in today’s Old Testament lesson. In that text, the message is not so frightening. It is not so unpleasant. God speaks comfort to His people and promises that they will be restored. Isaiah says, “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem; and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she hath received of Jehovah's hand double for all her sins.” The ‘warfare’ in this text is referring to the exile, the consequences of their sin against God. They served their sentence and were about to be set free to return home. This promise of restoration was especially significant to a people who were living under the oppressive hand of the Romans. There was peace in terms of the absence of violence, and they were in many ways free to be the people of God. But they were looking forward to the day when the throne of David would be restored, when they could live again as a sovereign nation.
John provided them a glimpse of the fulfillment; they could hope, once again, that God was about to do something spectacular. Now, John spoke these words in the days before the adult man Jesus began His ministry. But we hear these words during Advent to remind us that the King for whom we are waiting is not the child in a manger. He came as a baby, to be human as we are human, but we cannot hold onto the image of the baby. It was not His birth that brought us salvation. It was not even His ministry that brought us salvation. It is the power that comes by fire and Spirit.
Isaiah writes, “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the breath of Jehovah bloweth upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever.” Peace, true peace, will come when our flesh is destroyed by the breath of God, consumed by His fire and Spirit, and we are made new. This might seem frightening, but it is the hope of Christmas: that we will be transformed and restored to God. When God comes, when He rules, He will take care of us as a shepherd takes care of His flock. John’s message might seem rough and disconcerting, but it reflects the promise of Isaiah. God is coming, prepare the way. He is coming to do something spectacular, make your hearts ready.
This was a promise for the people in Isaiah’s time, fulfilled when God restored Jerusalem and the people went home. It was understood as a promise to the people in John’s day, which was fulfilled by the coming of Jesus. Jesus has come, He’s finished the work, we are saved: so how is this still a promise for us? Is a promise fulfilled still a promise?
It is still a promise because though Jesus was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, lived and died on the cross and was then raised, we still wait for His coming again. The promise is fulfilled, is being fulfilled and will be fulfilled: this is the way of God. He was, is and is to come. He exists outside time and space, so we who are bound by our human flesh must look forward to the day when we are no longer bound. Perhaps we are tired of hearing about the end times. After all, we’ve had so many texts dealing with eschatological issues over the past month or so and it is not a subject we like to dwell upon. We live for today, we look forward to that day but we do not want to make it the entire focus of our faith. We live in hope of the promise not just to get to the end, but to live well along the way. The joy will be incredible when we are fully transformed and restored to our God, but the journey is a gift, too. What are we going to do along the way?
Isaiah says “Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God.” They were forgiven, but not yet home. They still had to wander in the wilderness before they will know the full measure of God's shepherding care. We are the same, stuck between the already and the not yet.
In ancient days, when a king desired a royal adventure, a frenzy of preparation would ensue. They would not only send ahead a warning party, the king would send forth an army to prepare the way. They would take everything the king could possibly need; they might even build a castle so that there would be a suitable place for his visit. He often stayed a year or more, so everything had to be perfect. The army would also prepare the way; they would build a smooth and straight road on which the king could ride comfortably. Isaiah writes, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain.” Only then would the king leave for his journey.
We are like that army that went ahead of the King, but we aren’t building roads on which He can ride. We are lifting the lowly and bringing down the mighty, not with weapons or warfare but with the grace of God. With His Word all are made equal, not in the flesh but in the Spirit as children of God. We prepare the way by speaking forgiveness and calling others out of the wilderness into the river of repentance. We are just like John, but the message we bring is even better because it has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The people went to John at the Jordan to be baptized, confessing their sin and receiving God’s grace. He was right out there raising up valleys and bringing down mountains. We are called to do the same today.
Peter lived in the day when the people were hopeful for Christ’s imminent return. They were expecting Him at any moment. They were 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 hasten His coming. During every generation some believer has preached the imminent return of Christ. Ours is no different. After all, it has been two thousand years. Isn’t it time? Prophets have tried to discern the actual moment Christ would come, and cults have built up around ideas and practices meant to spur God on to fulfilling His promises. We have waited a long time for His coming; it is easy to think that we can hasten the coming of the Lord.
But 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. We might think that God is taking too long to fulfill the promises, but He knows when the time will be right. Everything is not yet ready. God is patient because He is waiting for all those for whom the promise was intended to hear the Gospel message. There is great hope in this message: God does not want any to perish. He is patient and longsuffering. Christ will not come until the way is made right, when the road is level.
In this epistle, written for the believers, Peter says that God is, “longsuffering to you-ward.” Thank goodness He is patient, because there is still work for us to do, and God is giving us the time. He is waiting until we have accomplished all that He has commanded us to do. Those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ; they are walking in darkness. But we are the light sent to share the hope of His promise of transformation and restoration. The message we take might seem harsh and disconcerting to some, after all it is not comfortable to tell someone they are a sinner, but in doing so they will experience they come with confession and repentance. They will be transformed into children of God and truly experience what it means to be at peace.
God is patient, not just for those who haven’t heard, but also for us. He is waiting until we do the work we have been called to do. God’s patience is our salvation. The King for whom we wait might come today or in a thousand years, but His is coming. When He comes, what will He find? Will He find people who are at peace, transformed and restored by His grace? Will He find His army at work making the road straight? Will He find us faithfully living the life He has called us to live, crying out in the wilderness to those have yet to hear the Good News?
We wait, we watch, we hope, but it is not for us to stand still. We have a job to do. There are people who need to see the light. We are called to share the Good News, like John, but our message is even greater than his. God’s grace has won, first in the manger and then on the cross. Now, let us wait in this time with hope and expectation, shining the light that is Christ to the world so that they too might be saved. And who knows, the one for whom God is waiting might just be someone you know and love.