Welcome to the November 2012 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 2012
“And one out of the multitude said unto him, Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me. But he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you? And he said unto them, Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he reasoned within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have not where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry. But God said unto him, Thou foolish one, this night is thy soul required of thee; and the things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Luke 12:13-21, ASV
Last night was Halloween, and the kids in our neighborhood came trick-or-treating. I had no idea what to expect. We are in a new neighborhood and most of our neighbors have been here for twenty or more years. They have children who are grown, and while some do have grandchildren, most of them live elsewhere. We don’t see many children walking to school, although there is an elementary school and junior high just down the street. So, we knew there were children around, but we didn’t know if they were close enough to visit our house for Halloween.
I asked a neighbor a few days ago and she said, “Oh, we don’t get very many around here.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by “very many,” so I prepared bags for sixty children. A house down the street was holding a charity fundraiser for the local animal shelter, and had a haunted forest in their backyard. I figured that it would draw at least a few extra children to our street, and possibly to our house. So besides the sixty bags, I had two very large bags of candy and some other items to hand out to the visitors.
Early yesterday afternoon, another neighbor came to the house and told me that we would be surprised by how many children we would see. I thought her answer was closer to the truth than the other neighbor, but still felt that I had more than enough treats to give away. The first trick-or-treaters came by my house around 6:30. By about 7:00 we had a pretty constant stream of children. The sixty treat bags were gone quickly, so we filled the bowl with candy. We decided to give two pieces and a glow stick to each child. I had at least 100 glow sticks. We ran out of glow sticks by 8:30. With just a handful of pieces of candy left in the bowl, we turned off the lights and went inside at 8:45. Despite the dark house, people continued to knock on our door and ring our bell until just after 9:00. We figure we gave something to at least 200 children last night.
We loved it. We loved watching the children come, guessing their costumes. We loved seeing the new trick-or-treaters figure out what they are supposed to do, with proud parents coaching them from the sidewalk. We loved hearing “Thank you” and “Happy Halloween.” We loved the faces of the children when they got a glow stick. It was a fun evening. I was glad we had plenty of treats for all the children, and though I’ll probably do it differently in the future, I think it was a good event.
There is, unfortunately, always someone to make it less than perfect. I was saddened by how few children actually said “Thank you.” There were a few, of course, and there were some parents that made a big deal about it with their kids. Even then, some of the kids never bothered. I appreciated those parents who tried, and hopefully by the end of the night, or perhaps next Halloween, those children will be more polite and thankful for the treats.
I think what shocks me most of all during trick-or-treating, is how greedy a few of the children can be. I’ve heard stories from friends over the past few days who have said that they just leave a bowl full of candy on the porch and trust that each child we be considerate of the rest. At least a few of those friends have said that someone early in the evening stole the whole thing, including the bowls or baskets! We didn’t have any problem early in the evening, because when you give bags, each child gets one and they know it. We did notice, however, that once we put out a bowl, even with us standing there, some children reached into the bowl several times. We finally decided to give the candy rather than let them pick for themselves. If we hadn’t, we would have run out of candy really early in the night.
Worst of all, however, had to be the dad who was greedy. He was holding a very small child and the child’s bag. He came to our house with a large group of trick-or-treaters, perhaps 20 children plus adults. While the other children lined up to get treats, the man stood with his bag open next to the bowl, pushing it toward the hands giving out candy. He ended up with at least three portions and wanted more. We finally said, “You’ve gotten yours,” and he gave us a dirty look. I don’t recall hearing him even say thank you.
I’d hate to let one man ruin Halloween for my family or the other children that might come to our door, but I have to admit that he’s the reason I hate Halloween. I don’t know what we’ll do next year. I am more than happy to be generous to the children that come to our door, but that man took candy out of the bags of other children who were willing to accept my generosity on my terms by demanding me to be generous according to his. We might have made it to 9:00 and been available for those final trick-or-treaters if a few children did not take more than their share.
The story in today’s parable tells of a rich man who hoards his grain. He even tears down a barn to build a bigger one. The lesson of the parable is that we never know when we will die, and that we should be generous with our things so that others will be able to enjoy them. In the case of that man, hoarding it just meant that others would enjoy it after he was dead. We do not benefit from greed. I was reminded last night that greed does not just manifest in the lives of the rich, however. We can be greedy in little things, too. The man didn’t take anything that I wasn’t willing to give, but he did take it away from the children who came later in the evening.
The question for us today is this: Where does greed manifest in our life? It doesn’t always involve the big things; we sometimes hoard things that seem meaningless and unimportant. We sometimes are greedy about our time, and our love, and our faith. Everything in the world belongs to God, so let us remember this while we give and we receive, keeping in mind that God would have us be generous in every way.
“In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights. In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark; they, and every beast after its kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, every bird of every sort. And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh wherein is the breath of life. And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God commanded him: and Jehovah shut him in.” Genesis 7:11-16, ASV
According to the Jewish calendar, the event in today’s passage happened 4117 years ago, on 17 Cheshvan, 1656. (The current date is 17 Cheshvan, 5773.) It was on that day that the rain began to fall.
I was searching for a topic for today’s message and I went to several history sites which give events, births and deaths that happened on November 2 throughout the ages. It was the link to the Jewish calendar that interested me the most because I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about the beginning of the Great Flood as a specific date in history. Not that I doubt the reality of what is in the Bible, but I look at those early events as having happened one day in history, not that day in history. I’m not sure it matters whether it was exactly 4117 years ago or at some point in the past, but it made me think about the way we remember the past.
How many times have you been asked, “Where were you when?” Older generations can answer where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot or during the first human spacewalk. Some remember where they were when the Challenger exploded. Younger generations have answers to the question about where they were on September 11, 2001. The people in the northeast will long remember where they were the day Hurricane Sandy hit. What moments or events stand out in your life? What do you remember?
Isn’t it interesting that when we talk about the Noah story, we usually stick to the most important details and then focus on the end. We know that Noah took his family and two of each creature aboard, but do we really think about that day when it all began? Do we think about how chaotic it must have been loading so many animals into that monstrous vessel? Do you think about the feelings of those eight people as it began to rain? Do we think about the neighbors who thought Noah was ridiculous?
When we talk about those events that stick out in our memory and remember “Where we were then,” a big part of our memory is how we were feeling. How did you feel when you heard the news? For some reason, the explosion of the Shuttle Challenger sticks in my memory. I was at work at Woolworths. There was a TV near the lunch counter. We saw the pictures and we were shocked. Sad. We were watching the shuttle take off because one of the crew members was a civilian, a teacher. The shuttle Program was still relatively new; the idea of man rocketing to outer space was still amazing. And on that vessel was a person just like you and I. It is no wonder we were glued to the television.
Many of us have those memories because we were able to watch the events play out on television. They didn’t have television in Noah’s day, and yet I am sure that the emotions they experienced are the same as when we face extraordinary moments in our world. What questions did they ask? How much is a lot of rain? Will the boat actually float? Will we really need it? What will happen to those outside the boat? Who is going to feed the lion?
Ok, so the questions may not be exactly the same, but we can relate to the people on board that boat that day. Their life was about to change. They would remember that moment for a long time. That moment is remembered even today by those who believe. We think about these things, not to hold on to the past but to see how we can make a difference. We remember so that we will not make the same mistakes. In the case of Noah and the flood, we remember in light of the life and work of Christ, and we look to the promises of God. It happened once, but it won’t happen again, and we can trust that God will be faithful.
“Therefore I say unto you, be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value then they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? And why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” 2 Corinthians 7:25-34, ASV
I saw a video this morning of an elephant and her baby in a zoo habitat. The video showed an unwelcome visitor that upset the mother so much that she ran into her building, driving her baby in front of her. What could set an elephant to run off in fear? Believe it or not, the unwelcome visitor was nothing more than a squirrel. The elephant was funny as she danced around, kicking dirt as she tried to chase it away. The squirrel wasn’t afraid of the elephant, running dangerously under her feet. She could easily have stepped on and squashed the squirrel, but instead tried desperately to get away from it.
How could something so small make something so large act as if it were frightened? The Mythbusters did an experiment once to disprove the myth of elephant fear of mice. During the experiment, the elephant seemed to move out of the way of the mouse, which surprised the researchers. They made several attempts to disprove their own outcome, and in the end it seemed to them that the elephant was actually afraid of the mouse. Others have said that the science was questionable, and that elephants have often interacted in a friendly way with mice.
To me the response of the elephants was very different in both videos. In the Mythbusters experiment, the elephant seemed to move out of the way of the mouse, but not out of fear. Instead, I wonder if the elephant was concerned that the mouse might run under its feet and get squashed. The response seems more concerned for the tiny living being rather than afraid of it. In the one with the squirrel, the elephant dances around as if trying to get away from the squirrel. The response might be based on surprise, or a similar concern for the life of the squirrel. Yet, it truly seems like the elephant is desperate to get away.
People respond to circumstances differently, just like these two elephants. Of course, the conditions were different, and we don’t have all the information. But from the videos, I see one that seems to be concerned and the other worried. There’s a difference. Those who are concerned will do whatever they can to make the situation right for everyone. Those who are worried tend to focus on their own needs and how the situation can be made right for them. A concerned mother takes a child outside to play and stays nearby to make sure the child doesn’t get hurt. A worried mother never leaves the house with the child.
It is ok to be concerned, because concern causes us to act for the sake of others. We should beware of worry, however. Worry makes us act out of fear and that usually means that our response is not really helpful. It is interesting to note that in the videos of the elephants, the mouse was far safer than the squirrel. Though the elephant was trying desperately to get away from the squirrel, her movement confused the squirrel who came dangerously close to being underfoot at the exactly the wrong time. The elephant didn’t watch the squirrel; she danced in fear. The other elephant moved careful backwards and then took a wide path around the mouse, always aware of the presence of the mouse in a way that kept everyone safe.
It is ok to be concerned, but beware of worry. Worry can cause you to dance around a problem in a way that may cause harm to our neighbor while concern will help us to do what is right for them. Worry never makes tomorrow better, it just makes today more difficult.
“For this cause I also, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which is among you, and the love which ye show toward all the saints, cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to that working of the strength of his might which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” Ephesians 1:15-23, ASV
It is hard to get through today without mentioning that it is Election Day in the United States. Even my international readers are probably aware of the importance of this day, and I hope all Americans recognize the responsibility they have to make their voice heard not only in the national election, but also state and local races, too. Early reports have noted that turnout is high, but sadly by the end of the day we’ll probably learn that fifty percent of the people didn’t bother. I hope I’m wrong, but the reality is that approximately thirty percent of those eligible are not even registered. Of the seventy percent who are, only about sixty percent will actually go to the polls.
One friend posted on her Facebook status, “Kinda wishing we all had blue thumbs today.” The status, I assume, is related to the practice in some countries, especially those newly democratic, to dye a finger blue after a person has voted. News reports from some countries tell of excited voters waving their blue fingers to photographers, showing their pride that they have not only done their duty, but that they were finally able to voice their opinion. We don’t dye the fingers, but I agree that it would be awesome to see millions of people with blue thumbs today.
This is important; there is no denying that our lives, and the lives of many around the world, will continue to be affected by the policies of the governments in our nation. We are connected in ways that we might not have ever imagined even a decade or two ago. Many people from each side are worried about the outcome of today’s election, afraid of what might come, angry at those whose opinions differ. The election is important because it will have an impact on the world in which we live.
But at this juncture, it is important to note that today is just a day and whoever is elected is just a man in a fallen world doing what he can to make a difference. We will disagree about whether or not that man is doing something that is good or bad, but it is temporary when you consider the promise of God. I like the ‘poster’ several people have posted on their Facebook walls that says, “No matter who is president, Jesus is King.” This is a truth that can give all of us peace no matter what happens at the end of this election. Our life in this world might be hard, but it is temporary. The Kingdom of God is permanent and everlasting.
Jesus is King, and in our passage today we see that He is above all other authority. We have the responsibility to vote and in doing so we give our leaders the authority to deal with the circumstances we face in the ordinary world. It is up to us to pray for them because the work they do can have a far reaching impact in time and space. But in the end, they cannot overcome the will and purpose of God. In the end, God has already won and we will dwell with Him in peace and security forever.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 11, 2012, Pentecost Twenty-four: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
“The jar of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of Jehovah, which he spake by Elijah.” 1 Kings 17:16, ASV
Can you picture the scene? Pilgrims from all over the world are gathered in the courtyard, placing their offerings in large bell shaped vessels. They were there in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Unleavened bread, part of Passover. There were thirteen receptacles where they would drop their coins. Everyone was there: rich, poor, foreign believers and locals. The crowds were probably loud with excitement as they met new people and ran into family and friends. The chatter might have included gossip from home and words of sympathy over recent losses and illness. They were all there to do their duty, some with a heart of faith and others because it was an obligation.
We can’t possibly know which is which when we look at that crowd. Oh, perhaps one or two people will stand out to us because we can see by their demeanor that they are not there to worship God, but most people give their offerings out of both a sense of faith and law. We do it because we are supposed to do it, but we also know that God will use our gifts to His glory. A majority of people in that courtyard were probably very much like us. They gave, and they gave generously out of their wealth, because they had to and because they wanted to. They were doing their duty with reverence.
I’m a people watcher. I like to go places and watch the people around me. It is fun to think about their lives, even though I know nothing about them. Why are they buying that watch? Are they in love? What will that child grow up to be when they are an adult? People do the craziest things, and if we are attentive to the world around us, we often have a front row seat to the joke, or the joy, or even the pain. And by being attentive, we can be a part of their life, perhaps share a smile, or a tear. We don’t even have to speak to them to have a connection; sometimes it just takes a little eye contact to make a difference to a person.
There were people watching people in the courtyard of the Temple that day. Some of the people were the leaders who, we are told, were walking around in long robes, seeking greetings from the pilgrims. Who did they approach? Who interested them? Did they give any attention to the average pilgrim, or did they focus on those who were well dressed and who threw great sums into the trumpets? Did they even notice the widow who offered two pennies? She was probably invisible, unless they eyed her suspiciously.
There was another group of people watchers in the courtyard: Jesus and His disciples. Now Jesus did not call attention to the scribes in their robes, but obviously someone noticed because we hear about them from Mark. Jesus was watching the people as they gave their donations. He knew their hearts. He could see the ones who were giving out of duty and the ones who were giving out of faith. He saw the multitudes that were doing their duty with reverence. He says nothing negative about those people; He saw that those who were rich cast in much.
But Jesus saw the invisible one, the widow who was lost in the crowd. We don’t know what she looked like or what she was wearing. We don’t know if she was a foreign pilgrim or a local. We don’t know if she was alone in that courtyard or if she’d traveled with a crowd of family and friends. We only know that she gave two pennies as an offering to God and that it was all she had. And we know that Jesus saw her. In this courtyard full of people, she caught His eye. He lifted her up as a woman with extraordinary faith. The lesson we learn is that we can be like her, giving everything to Him, even when it seems insignificant, trusting that He’ll take care of us.
What I find so interesting, though, is that Jesus saw her. Through all those crowds, He picked out the one person whom everyone else probably ignored. He saw the invisible one. He saw the person who seemingly had no earthly worth. That’s what God does. He sees through the exterior and past the mundane; He points out value where the world might see none. She didn’t have much, but she had great faith. That’s worth noting.
He saw the worth of another widow, as we see in the Old Testament lesson. The land in which Zarephath was located was in an extreme drought. The widow was suffering. She had nothing left. She had perhaps two pennies worth of flower and oil, just enough to make one more cake for her son and herself. But she wasn’t the only one suffering. We don’t really know her situation beyond the affects of the drought. While she was a widow, she did have a son so she had a future if she could keep him alive. But in the midst of a drought, all the money in the world is useless if there was nothing left to buy. If there was no wheat to harvest in the fields, there would be no grains to grind into flour. She was not the only one suffering; the whole land was suffering.
When God sent Elijah to the woman, He said, “I have commanded a widow there to sustain thee.” She knew Elijah was coming, but her immediate response to Elijah was fear. “I don’t have anything extra. I have just enough to eat and die.” She was not an Israelite. She did not worship the God of Elijah. I wonder what she thought when she first heard the command from God. Who are you? Why me? How will I know? Even those of us who know the Lord ask these questions. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for someone who did not believe? She should have been invisible to this God of Elijah, and yet He knew her and invited her into His plan. “Feed my prophet and you will be blessed.”
We are taken aback by her doubt; after all, God commanded her to feed the prophet. When she met him at the gates of the city, shouldn’t she have been immediately willing to feed him? Instead she answered, “I have none and what little I have will be the last that we will ever eat.” That doesn’t sound like a woman of faith. And yet, all it takes is some assurance from Elijah that his God will not fail her. She needs to know that this God she does not know is really in the middle of this. “Go ahead. Do as you’ve been told. All is well and it will be well for you and your son.” Perhaps the widow at the Temple heard similar encouragement which gave her the strength to offer everything she had to God, just as the widow at Zarephath gave all her bread in response to the call of God.
Do you ever feel invisible? Even as people of faith we can find it difficult to believe that God even sees us or hears our prayers. I am nobody. I am just one person out of the billions who are currently living on earth, and just one out of the more than hundred trillion people who have ever lived? Who am I that God would notice me? Who am I that God would point me out to His disciples and teach them a lesson using my life as an example? I’m probably even more invisible than those widows because I am one of the multitudes who give to God out of my wealth.
And yet, I know that He sees me. I know that He has prepared a place for me in His Kingdom. Both stories of the widows are foreshadowing the work of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He would make for His people. The widows gave everything in obedience to the Word of God and so did Jesus.
For generations the priests in the temple had provided ministry to the Lord by offering sacrifices for the people. Over and over again they approached the altar with blood to atone for the sins of the people. They were paid well for their services, eating of the offerings of grain and meat, enjoying the fruit of the people's labor. They benefited from the wealth of the rich and oppressed the poor. They demanded much more than necessary, claiming it to be given to God. Yet, they walked with handsome robes and had fine homes. They thought themselves greater than others because they served God, yet they still needed to provide sacrifice for their own sins before they could provide for the people. The temple was not heaven; it was merely a copy of the heavenly. The priests could never bring salvation; they were gifted and chosen to point toward the One who would truly save. The priests in the temple perished just like the rest of us. Only the Eternal One would ever make things right for us.
There was a time when sin could only be forgiven by an offering at the temple. But God provided the perfect offering: Jesus Christ. When Christ died, He overcame sin and death forever. We who believe in His name need never worry about offering a sacrifice to receive forgiveness. He has already accomplished the work of atonement and reconciliation. He did this for you and for me. He saw us, even before we were knitted in the wombs of our mothers and He died for us. No matter how insignificant we are, or how insignificant our offering, Jesus saves us.
Now, we wait for the day when Christ will return. He will not come to provide another sacrifice; He will complete the work that He began on the cross. It is finished; eternal life is ours in Christ. Our salvation is assured because the promise of God is true and He is faithful. Yet, the world still goes around the sun and the people still see what they want to see and ignore what they do not want to see. Rulers still wander in the courtyards of power in long robes, seeking greetings from the pilgrims. People of faith will still go unnoticed as they follow God’s Word and give everything they have for the sake of others.
The world may ignore you, but you are not invisible. God knows you.
The offerings of the rich did little good because money never lasts. The religious rulers demanded more temple tax and sacrificial offerings every year. They always needed more grain and oil to present to the Lord. Only Christ could offer the perfect sacrifice. He is the only one who could enter into God’s presence and provide the people with the forgiveness they need to be saved from death forever. He died once and we are forgiven of all. His forgiveness is like the bottomless flour jar and oil jug: it will never run out.
We don’t know how the widow of Zarephath received the word from God that she was to take care of Elijah the prophet. We don’t know if the widow in the Temple heard a voice that gave her the strength to give everything to the Temple. We don’t always know how God will speak to us in these days. We do know, however, that He does. It might not be an audible voice that we know without a doubt that it comes from God. It might be a dream. It might be a vision. It might be a thought that comes to us out of the blue. It might be a nudge from a friend or a word of advice from a neighbor. But when God talks to us, He makes us certain that it is from Him.
We just have to trust that He will always be faithful. The calling and command may seem ridiculous. “Really? You want me to give my two last pennies to the Temple?” “Really? You want me to take the last morsel of food out of my baby’s mouth and feed it to a stranger?” “Really? You want me to give everything?” It is easy to justify our lack of faithfulness. After all, the Temple is led by self-righteous people who walk around in long robes and seek only the good graces of those they think will give us the best benefit. After all, our children are our only hope, sometimes. After all, I have bills to pay and things to do. “Really? You want me to do what? How will I know that this command is really from you?”
We may never face a circumstance like those of the widows in our story. We will probably never face such an extreme drought that there isn’t even any food to be purchased. We will probably never be down to just two pennies in our wallet. We will probably never know what it is like to have nothing. Yet, we are called to give everything to God and trust that He will keep the flour jar and the oil jug full.
The psalmist writes, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Jehovah his God.” This is not a giddy kind of happiness, but rather the blessedness of knowing that everything we are and everything we have comes from God. The widows had faith that God would be faithful. They did not put their trust in men; they submitted willingly to the Word of God and were greatly blessed. Can we be so trusting? Can we really give it all to God? Can we live as people who know that Christ is coming again to fulfill the promise of eternal salvation for which we are waiting?
It might take awhile. In some ways it is as if we are in a drought as we long for the coming of our King and Savior. But God calls us to use our own meager gifts and resources to do His work while we wait, and He promises to keep the jars filled.
“When thou reapest thy harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that Jehovah thy God may bless thee in all the work of thy hands. When thou beatest thine olive-tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it after thee: it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless, and for the widow. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing.” Deuteronomy 24:19-22, ASV
Victoria and I were given tickets to a play a couple weeks ago because the season ticket holder who had the tickets was unable to attend. We decided to go downtown early and have dinner before the show. We chose a Mexican restaurant that serves huge quantities of food to every diner. Instead of getting two entrées we knew we could never eat, we decided to get a variety of appetizers. The dishes would give us a taste of everything we wanted without causing so much waste. We knew we could not take leftovers with us because it would be hours before we could put the food into a refrigerator. Even with the choices we made we had too much food left on our plates; I hated to leave it behind.
After dinner we made our way to the theater, but we were very early. We found a comfortable bench and watched the traffic and tourists go by until the doors opened. At some point while we waited we noticed a homeless woman settling into a doorway between the parking garage and the theater. I’m sure she can probably be found nearby on show nights, hoping for a handout from one of the patrons. It made me sick to think about all that food we left behind at the restaurant, enough to give the woman a full belly.
I will be honest and tell you that I do not like to give cash to people on the street. When we lived in Washington State, we often found people with signs on the street corners begging for money. I saw a report on the news that those ‘beggars’ were actually employed by people who took in thousands of dollars a day, scamming good-hearted folk like me out of our cash. I started to carry a bag lunch in my car after that report, with a drink, non-perishable food and a five dollar bill in the bottom of the bag. The reporter showed video of those ‘beggars’ throwing food away. My thought was this: if they were hungry they would look in the bag and they would find the five dollar bill. If they threw the bag away, then someone who was truly hungry would find it and discover a treasure.
We didn’t see many of those street corner beggars in our old neighborhood, but it seems like there is someone on many of the corners near our new house. I still am not comfortable handing them money. Besides the possibility of a scammer, too many use the cash to buy things they should not have. I know: it might just be Jesus standing on that street corner or huddling in that doorway. So how do we juxtapose the call of Jesus to help our neighbor and the reality of using our resources wisely?
We all struggle with these questions. We are entering the season of giving, with thanksgiving just around the corner and Christmas just a few weeks away. I’ve noticed that my mailbox is full of more and more requests for donations. How do I choose? I can’t possibly give to every charity. Many people have even harder problems. They wonder how they can give a donation to the food bank when they can barely afford groceries for their own family. We wonder which charity will best use the money I want to give. Will that rescue organization really use my resources to help those who have suffered from the latest natural disaster? I am sure the farmers in Moses’ day often wondered how they could both be obedient and also survive. They must have asked in lean years, “How can I leave grain on the fields when the harvest is barely enough to get my family through the year?” They must have struggled with it, too.
We often talk about giving God the first fruits of our labors, but in this story we see that we are called to give the last fruits to our neighbors. Perhaps the lesson we need to hear is not that we should give to every person on every street corner, but to make sure that we have something left after our own harvest to share with others. There are good, smart ways to help our neighbors, and God will help us to see the right way to use our resources. There are valuable ministries and organizations in every town that have been created to help the man on the street and the woman in the doorway who is in need. God might send us to meet their very specific need, but let us always be wise and discerning, listening for God’s voice and responding with obedience and joy. Though God will forgive our failure, there is no excuse to keep everything for ourselves. He has invited us to join Him in meeting the needs of the world. May we all find a way to do that, not only at this time of year but always.
“So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17, ASV
One of the things I miss about Pennsylvania is the lovely fall colors. There was this one valley I remember, when driving north out of Allentown that had the most extraordinary view. At peak, the valley was ablaze with color. It is certainly not the only place to see such beauty, but it is one of my favorite places. We don’t get that type of color here in Texas. As a matter of fact, many of the trees here will not even lose their leaves until spring when they get their new ones.
There is a state park, however, that is known for having the kind of trees that turn to red, orange and yellow during autumn. Lost Maples State Natural Area has naturally occurring maple trees, and that’s where we northerners go to get a glimpse at the fall color. It is certainly beautiful, with a river running through it. It is because of the rich sediment left behind by the river and the right geologic conditions that the maples can grow there. We timed our visit just right, since the colors were expected to be at their peak this weekend. A few windy days mean that many of the leaves are already falling to the ground, but it was lovely yesterday.
As with all natural parks, the place was teaming with wildlife. I saw a bird that must have been an eagle or hawk, I couldn’t tell which. Tiny fish were swimming in the river along with water bugs flitting on the surface. I saw a bumble bee at one of the few flowers still blooming. I thought I saw a gecko slither by, although I saw it out of the corner of my eye and could not find it when I looked in that direction.
At one point I heard something rummaging through the leaves on a hill near the pathway I was hiking. I stopped and looked, thinking it must be people walking off the path, but I didn’t see anyone. I thought about following the noise, just to see what I might see, but there was a sign specifically telling visitors that they should not climb the hill. The spot was near a cliff wall that seemed to have holes big enough for animal lairs. I imagined all sorts of creatures stalking me along the path. I knew I could not climb the hill, I stood for awhile searching the place for a sign of life, but despite hearing the animal in the leaves I never found its hiding space. I thought it might be behind the boulders on the hill, but it might just have buried itself before I heard the noise. Victoria, who walked ahead of me, told me later that she’d seen a large armadillo rummaging in the leaves in that area. It was probably the same animal I heard.
Our trip to Lost Maples was certainly a visual experience. The leaves of the trees and the play of the sunlight was a sight to see. I enjoyed looking at the way the river had carved out ledges in the rock wall along its path. I saw butterflies and leaves falling to the ground. I saw the way the wind blew the trees and the grasses in the fields. I saw extraordinary rock formations, including one that looks like a huge sock monkey. I think we often pay so much attention to what we see with our eyes that we forget that we have other senses to help us experience the world.
I was sad that I didn’t see the armadillo, but I knew he was there because of the sounds he made in the leaves. I heard the wind rustling the leaves on the trees, but I could not see it. I heard the trickle of water on the rocks and the sounds of other hikers on the trail. Thankfully, I didn’t hear cell phones interrupting our peace because there was no service in the valley. Silence is a sound, too, and it is good.
Sight is a wonderful sense, and for most of us I think it would be the hardest one to lose. As an artist and a photographer, I know that I would have difficulty doing the things I love if I couldn’t see color or shape or line. But hearing plays a very important role in our awareness of the world, and one we should note with special appreciation, especially in terms of our faith.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he says, “We live by faith, not by sight.” In this Paul is telling us to believe in that which we cannot see. We believe in God, and though we can see His hand throughout all creation, we cannot see Him. A rainbow is a rainbow, and though we remember His promises when we see the rainbow, the rainbow is not God. We can’t see Jesus: we didn’t live when He lived or walk with Him as the disciples did. We didn’t see His resurrected body or eat with Him on the beach. We didn’t touch His wounds, and yet we believe. We live by faith, not sight. In today’s passage we are reminded that we come to faith by hearing the Gospel.
Perhaps that thought will give us a whole new appreciation of our sense of hearing, and cause us to stop and listen. You never know what you might hear. You might even hear the voice of God.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 18, 2012, Pentecost Twenty-five: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 1; Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
“And they that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12:3, ASV
I often talk about how we do not know or experience the type of persecution that earliest Christians knew. Many were killed for their faith; many suffered horrific injustices and pain. This does not typically happen in modern America; few instances of violence against Christians are identified as specifically against them because of their Christian faith. We have heard a few stories, like that of Cassie Bernall who was shot during the Columbine tragedy. But most American Christians do not know what it is live in fear because of their faith.
The same is not true for many who read this devotion from other places around the world. I pray that they will forgive my very narrow world view and my focus on American Christianity. They say you should write about what you know, and that’s what I do. My experience of Christianity is unencumbered by the reality of persecution.
But I want you to know that I do know there is suffering all over the world. I do know that Christians are dying in China and that churches are burning in Africa. I know that the violence in Sudan is not just about power, but about exterminating the Christian population. I know that Christians face discrimination, beatings and arrests, just for being Christian. It isn’t a minor problem; it is a grave concern.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently claimed that Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion. Many have criticized her for the remark, stating persecution of other religious peoples around the world. She did not claim that it is the only persecuted religion; I don’t think any of us would deny that people of all types of faith are persecuted. But a brief perusal of the International Christian Concern website (www.persecution.org) makes it clear that too many Christians face the reality of persecution today.
Because we do not face the violence that others know, most American Christians really do not understand. We can go to church on a Sunday morning without worrying about whether we will be able to come home at the end. We can wear crosses around our necks without the fear of being beaten. We can talk about our faith with our neighbor without the threat of prison or even death. It isn’t always easy to do these things, since there are those who ridicule Christian faith. But words do not hurt nearly as much as a firing squad.
Unfortunately, many American Christians have decided to hide their faith. They do not want to be seen as foolish or intolerant. They don’t want to witness because it seems like they are trying to force others to believe what they believe. They have accepted the lie that faith is personal. They might do good works in response to the faith God has given, but often do so as if wearing a veil, keeping their motives in their hearts rather than in shining brightly for the world.
Yet the Christians in persecuted countries willingly and wholeheartedly wear their faith on their sleeve. We risk ridicule, they risk death, yet they are far more willing to step out in faith and shine the light of Christ for the world. We are not willing to fight against the cultural intrusion that has changed the face of our church, but they are willing to gather despite the threats. We won’t argue with the kids’ soccer coach to stop Sunday practices, and so miss worship. They will cross police barricades to gather together in Christ’s name.
To those of you who live in these places and have found some grace in the words I write, I want to thank you and tell you that you are not alone. I may not have personal experience with your struggle, but I know that you are there and I’m praying. I know that you exist and that you are faithful. I know that God loves you and will take care of you. I hope you will help me live more faithfully by your example. I hope you will teach me to be that bright shining light in the world where God has placed me.
The Old Testament text for today comes from the book of Daniel, an apocryphal book that many interpret to be speaking of the end of the world. Many believe it is speaking to today. I think it is funny that three years ago when I wrote about these texts, I made reference to the impending doomsday predictions of the Mayan calendar. Now we are weeks away from that December 21st date, and there are those who are preparing for it.
How do you prepare for the end of the world? I’ve been joking about how I am looking forward to that date. It would certainly solve all our problems! But I don’t stop with December 21st; I add, “And Jesus is coming December 20th.” That’s what we have to look forward to: the second coming of Christ. When I am in a particularly depressing moment, I say the only thing that helps, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus.” I’ve been saying it a lot lately.
According to some experts, the predictions about December 21st are validated by other prophesies, especially those from Nostradamus, who has been interpreted to have foretold similar events in the year 2012. Some have even drawn parallels with biblical prophecy. There seems to be signs all around us that the times prophesied have come. Many think we have reached the last days: that now is the time to be watchful and ready. There are moments when I hope, or wish, that it was true. If I feel this way with my problems that are so temporary and so few, how must those who face martyrdom feel?
I don’t think the disciples knew at that point in our gospel story that most of them would face martyrdom. They were following a guy they still thought would lead their people into a revolution that would restore their nation to its former glory. They still hoped Jesus was in Jerusalem to become king. His language was becoming more and more dire, but they didn’t want to understand what He was really saying. He told them several times that He had to die; they did not want to hear that. They wanted to believe that their nation, in its time of trial, would be delivered.
The passage from Daniel tells of a time when God’s people will suffer. The passage does not leave us in fear, however. It leaves us with a promise that God will deliver His people. Daniel tells us the wise will teach people the ways of the Lord by word and by example. Living in faith and acting on the hope of true peace: this is what we are called to do.
We have all heard stories of saints who sang hymns while the fires of martyrdom raged around them. Cassie Bernall was shot at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. It is said that the gunmen approached her, asked if she believed in God, and knowing full well her answer would end in death, Cassie said “Yes.” Her story led many others to ask themselves the question, “Would you say Yes?” Could you face persecution with compassion and joy? Could you sing hymns even as you are beaten or killed?
Now, imagine you are among the disciples who have been following Jesus. You’ve seen Him do amazing things. You’ve come to understand your own faith much better. You have seen the world in a new way. You are at the Temple, just days after the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. The city is in a celebratory mood with pilgrims from around the world there to make their offerings and remember the Passover. It was an extraordinary moment for them. Though they had surely made the pilgrimage before, they probably never sat so close to the action or been in the middle of theological discussions.
But now, with Jesus, they were right there in the middle of it all, perhaps with a bit of celebrity. They were part of the King’s court, and I can see the crowds curiously watching them. What would they do? How would they act? What would they say? There might have been a bit of theatrics in the comment that begins today’s Gospel lesson. “Teacher, behold, what manner of stones and what manner of buildings!” The Temple was the perfect backdrop for Jesus’ victory!
The day had been filled with questions from the Temple leaders. They were testing His authority from the point of view of the Temple, the secular world and the religious traditions of His people. He established a greater authority and turned the world upside down. The last shall be first. The poor widow gives more. Give to God everything that is God’s.
It was an impressive sight: the buildings, the priests and leaders, and the devotion of the pilgrims. It is no wonder they were in awe of it all. Jesus answered their awe by saying, “There shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down.”
Jesus had been teaching them about the difference between the kingdom on earth and the kingdom of heaven, but the Temple was the dwelling place of God to them. Where would God go if there were no temple? Would He leave them? If the temple were destroyed, where would they go to worship and offer their sacrifices? In the past, destruction of the temple came with invasion by enemies and the exile of God’s people. What would happen this time? Could they survive the suffering they would face? They wanted to know when it would happen. They wanted to be prepared.
The only advice Jesus gave them is this: Do not believe the false prophets or follow those who claim to be me. The life Christ was calling the disciples to live would not be one of power or authority; it would be one of service and distress. They would know about the wars and rumors of wars, would face the earthquakes and famines. Yet, many would claim to be the Christ, the savior, the deliverer from suffering and pain. They would claim to come in the name of Christ, providing a Gospel of prosperity and a promise of comfort.
Instead of offering the disciples the details about the end times, Jesus simply gives them a warning. “Beware and be aware.” Be careful who you believe and who you follow. Not all who claim to be speaking in the name of Jesus Christ are true. Some will be led astray. Some will willingly follow the false prophet because of the promises.
During hard times we are tempted to give up the very things that will give us the strength and courage to go on. We hide faith to avoid persecution. We follow the crowds, throwing our money and support at all the wrong things. We rely on false gods and believe false messiahs, just to avoid suffering and pain. We wander down a path that leads to destruction rather than facing the destruction that will ultimately bring us blessing.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to live a different life. We are called to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering because God is faithful. Jesus warned the disciples not to make them afraid, but to remind them that God can and will overcome it all. God is near. He is not lost when the walls come tumbling down. Rather, He is set free from those human constraints to be the God who is Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.
Jesus talks about wars and rumors of war but tells the disciples, and us, not to be troubled. The bottom line is that no matter how much we do not like what we see, it is only temporary. God has promised something greater and He is faithful. Whatever type of persecution and suffering we face, He will get us through to the other side. We have hope in something that is very real and it is enough. We will be ridiculed, and we may even face the dangers of persecution that too many have experienced, but God does not want us to be afraid. He calls us to be light in the darkness, to be the very image of Christ in this world.
If we are in the days to which Daniel is referencing, now is not a time to hide our faith; it is the time when our faith is most needed. Now is the time to shine. No matter what dangers our Christianity presents, now is the time to be the visible Church in the world. Now is the time to reject the ways and disregard the expectations of the world. Now is the time to live faithfully, obedient and expectant. Now is the time to beware and be aware. Let us beware of the false prophets and be aware of those who need our help, for it is living the life of Christ that we will have the strength to stand firm when our enemy asks, “Do you believe.”
The psalmist writes, “Preserve me, O God; for in thee do I take refuge.” God does not promise that our Christian life will be a rose garden or that we’ll never experience suffering and pain. What He does promise is that He will get us through. Our task is to go forth in this life knowing that God is with us through it all. The Psalmist understood the lesson Jesus was teaching His disciples. He knew that apart from God he had no good thing, that God alone was his refuge. He knew the joy and peace that comes from trusting in God rather than the things of this world.
The Temple may have been a big, beautiful building. It may have been built to last a million years, but Jesus reminds His disciples that nothing in this world is lasting. Even the sacrifices in the Temple are temporary solutions to the eternal rift between God and man. But Jesus is permanent. He is the answer to our cries for God’s help. He is the One who makes all things new; He has made each one of us new. Jesus made the sacrifices in the Temple obsolete.
The priests of old took blood to the altar day after day and year after year but it was all worthless, the forgiveness was not lasting. But the writer of Hebrews reminds us that “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” The forgiveness from Christ is lasting. It is eternal. We need not be worried about what might happen today, whether it is ridicule or martyrdom, because God has made it possible for us to enter into His presence through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our troubles are nothing compared to the life we have in Him.
So, “…let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.” Let us live as faithful Christians in this world, trusting that God will get us to that eternal place through anything, whatever it might be.
Who knows? The world might end on December 21st, but I’m certain that if it does, we’ll meet Jesus face to face before then. We need not be troubled, because we will not see the end; for us who believe, it will only be the beginning of eternity. So for today, let us be wise and shine bright as the firmament so that the whole world will see Christ and believe, no matter what the consequences might be.
“Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song; For he hath done marvellous things: His right hand, and his holy arm, hath wrought salvation for him. Jehovah hath made known his salvation: His righteousness hath he openly showed in the sight of the nations. He hath remembered his lovingkindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel: All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise unto Jehovah, all the earth: Break forth and sing for joy, yea, sing praises. Sing praises unto Jehovah with the harp; With the harp and the voice of melody. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the King, Jehovah. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein; Let the floods clap their hands; Let the hills sing for joy together before Jehovah; for he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98, ASV
I attended a retreat on Monday and Tuesday. It was a twenty-four hour period full or worship and prayer. We followed the daily offices and met in discussion. We even adhered to periods of communal silence. The retreat was not all serious, there were times of fellowship filled with stories and laughter, and we enjoyed delicious meals together. The retreat was meant to be a time of renewal for those who attended, and it certainly was for me. The retreat center offered plenty of opportunities for contemplation, with quiet places for prayer and communion with God’s creation. They even have a labyrinth, which was where I spent much of my quiet time.
For those who are unfamiliar, a labyrinth looks like a maze, although it shouldn’t be confused with one. A labyrinth is not a puzzle; the person who walks the labyrinth path does not need to make decisions at every turn. A labyrinth is meant to act as a path for a pilgrim journey. Labyrinths existed long before those used in Christian devotion, but many were created in medieval times so that people who could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land could have a pilgrimage experience. It is said that pilgrims often followed the path on their knees, in humble prayer. The most famous of these labyrinths is found in Chartres, France, but can be found in many cities around the world.
There are different patterns for labyrinths, but the one at the retreat center was similar to the one in Chartres. It is a circle that is divided into quarters; the path seems to zigzag willy nilly, but it does follow a pattern. The purpose for the odd path is because it is meant to represent our life which never follows a straight line. We travel back and forth, up and down, in and out. The path always leads close to the center and then forces the pilgrim back to the edge because our life of faith is often like that; just when it seems like we have found peace with God we experience some sort of suffering that causes us to fear and doubt and sin.
When experiencing a labyrinth with others, though it is a solitary walk we are reminded of others who are also on a journey of faith. Some people walk faster than others. Some are slow or stop mid-journey. Some are walking in the opposite direction, having finished the journey to the middle and on their way back to ‘the real world.’ Some people are walking with joy in their step; others are in a state of sober reflection. That’s the way it is for us in our daily life, isn’t it? We are constantly moving, but no one is going on the journey in exactly the same manner, even if our path is similar.
One thing I liked about the labyrinth at the retreat center is that it was built around the landscape; they did not remove any trees in the building of the labyrinth. They held as close to the design as was possible, with only a few of the outline stones out of place. It made for interesting passage occasionally because the trees were often right in the middle of the path. The most difficult tree was rooted on the edge, but was leaning across the path. I had to hold onto the tree and swing around to pass it if I wanted to stay on the path. The trees added an interesting dimension to my journey, and acted as a reminder that sometimes we have to go around obstacles in our life of faith, but they don’t have to stop us or cause us to go a different way. Trusting in God we can get around any difficulty.
The trees added another dimension: noise. Since it is fall, the pathway was full of fallen leaves. It was impossible to walk without making a sound, though I tried. I didn’t want to disturb the wonderful peace and quiet with my footsteps, but no matter where I walked, the crunch of dry leaves filled the air. I was bothered at first, but then I realized that our lives should nr noisy. If we tip toe through life without having any impact on the world, then what’s the point of our journey?
In today’s scripture, the psalmist talks about how the earth makes noise in praise and thanksgiving to God. This includes the singing and praise of His people. But the noise we make is not always so beautiful. The work of faithful living is sometimes more like the crunch of leaves in the fall. Each time we do something for someone, we make a noise that impacts the world, or at least the life of the one we help. Every time we share the Gospel, we make a noise that impacts the world. Although we think it is a beautiful sound, those who hear it do not always receive it that way. So, let us make lots of noise on our pilgrimage so that the world will know we are here and see God’s grace in our lives.
“We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labor of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father.” 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, ASV
I ran into another obstacle during my walk through the labyrinth at the retreat. I was concentrating on my prayer along the path when suddenly something landed in the leaves just inches from my foot. I was startled out of my prayer and could not even immediately identify what had made such a loud noise. I looked around expecting to see another human being approaching the labyrinth. I have to admit that though we were in a time of communal silence, I welcomed the company. But there was no one around. I was alone as far as my eyes could see.
So I looked down at the ground in front of me. It took awhile, but I finally noticed a cricket hidden among the fallen leaves. It was nearly the same color, and took on a shape that made it disappear. I found a small stick nearby and I coaxed the cricket aboard. I broke my silence a whispered a friendly hello. Then I began to walk again, returning to my prayers. The cricket stayed on that stick as I made several passes along the path.
I have to admit that I worried a bit that the cricket would jump in my face because of the way I was carrying him, but there was no better position. So, after a few minutes I put the stick back on the ground and I said good-bye to my little friend. He stayed there for a time; I was able to see him as I made a few more passes in that quadrant. Then I was led by the path to another part of the labyrinth. I finished the circuit and prayed in the center for awhile, then began the journey back out. I didn’t know what I would find when I got back to the spot where I left the cricket, but I looked forward to returning. I hoped it would still be there.
I easily found the stick, but the cricket was no longer there. I looked all around, hoping maybe it would have been close, and indeed it was. I found it hiding in the leaves just a couple feet away. I picked up my stick and moved toward the cricket, but this time it did not want to be my companion. It hopped away. I didn’t feel sad about it; I was just thankful for the brief encounter and went on my way. I suppose I was more surprised that the cricket would stay with me as long as it did.
Walking the labyrinth really does reflect our own journeys in life. The obstacles I faced, the noise I made, the turning and joys and disappointments I experienced along the way are all things we see happening throughout our lives. I was alone in the labyrinth at this retreat, but I’ve done the walk before with others, and I’ve seen the way we they represent the relationships in our lives. What was particularly unique about my encounter with the cricket is that it stayed with me for awhile, and though I met it again in the same place on the path, the relationship was different.
Have you ever had that happen? Have you ever had a best friend in school, lose touch and then find them again? How was the relationship different? Were you able to reconnect, or were you both changed in a way that made it difficult to continue as friends? Did it make you sad that you were unable to return to the way things had been? It is such a blessing when we can renew old friendships, but sometimes people are given to us for a brief moment in time, to teach us a lesson or get us through a trial. They might cross our path again, but the connection is broken because there is no longer a reason. It might be sad, but there is no reason for regret. That is the moment to be thankful that they have been a part of our life and praise God for all the blessings of that relationship.
“Beware lest thou forget Jehovah thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his ordinances, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: lest, when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget Jehovah thy God, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; who led thee through the great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirsty ground where was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint; who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not; that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end: and lest thou say in thy heart, My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember Jehovah thy God, for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth; that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as at this day. And it shall be, if thou shalt forget Jehovah thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish. As the nations that Jehovah maketh to perish before you, so shall ye perish; because ye would not hearken unto the voice of Jehovah your God.” Deuteronomy 8:11-20, ASV
There is a poster making its way on Facebook walls that says, “Black Friday: Because only in America do we stand in line and trample others for sale items one day after we thank God for what we already have.” Unfortunately, this Black Friday will begin long before Friday in many stores. The major retailers are racing to see who can open first, and who can get the first of our holiday dollars. One is opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, which means many of the employees cannot even enjoy the full holiday with their family.
Yes, I’m going to reminisce. I miss the old days, when Black Friday was truly the beginning of the holiday season. The malls showed no sign of Santa until Friday morning, when he arrived with a huge fanfare in the hour before the mall opened for sales (normal time.) The transformation of the mall was miraculous; if you had been there Wednesday, you saw little or no evidence of the coming holiday, but on Friday morning the whole mall was a wonderland. I know that the transformation was crazy and required hard work in a short period of time, but it was done in a way that still allowed employees a break for Thanksgiving and set aside the season of Christmas as something special.
I’ve heard that Santa Clause is already in the malls and that he just showed up one day. The mall where my mom worked when I was a kid had a huge event for Santa’s arrival, including a parade with a band, reindeer costumed dancers and fun for the kids. I was barely a child myself at the last event I recall, but I still remember the look of awe on the faces of the small children when Santa waved and yelled “Ho, ho, ho” at them. He always had a pocket full of candy canes and a huge smile for those shy but excited children.
Victoria and I have gone Black Friday shopping for as long as I can remember. It was our day. We’d be at the door of our favorite store at opening (but opening was not ridiculously early in those first years.) We would shop for a few hours and then find a place to have breakfast. Then we would shop some more. We did chase a few of the sales, but never with the greedy need to have it all. We were happy when we got lucky and the things we wanted were still available, and didn’t get angry when the sales were gone.
We are going to be disappointed about not having our mother/daughter day, but we’ve decided not to go to Black Friday sales. We might end up going later in the day, but we’ll probably miss all the specials. It isn’t fun anymore. People have gotten too greedy, too desperate, too aggressive, all over a few ‘incredible deals.’ Is Christmas really about that 50” television? Are we not thankful for the 42” television that we had to have last Christmas?
In today’s passage, Moses reminds the people that they should not forget God when they are full and satisfied. In the language of The Message, verse 14 says, “Make sure you don’t become so full of yourself and your things that you forget GOD, your God.” The passage then goes on to remember what God did for the people of Israel.
We will speak words of thanks on Thanksgiving, but are we really thankful? Are we living thankful lives? Are we so thankful for what we have that we are satisfied with it, or will we race out into the stores before the turkey settles to chase after more stuff? Will we rush through the day we set aside for God to return to our quest for self-fulfillment?
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ: even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love: having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved: in whom we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, making known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him unto a dispensation of the fulness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth; in him, I say, in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will; to the end that we should be unto the praise of his glory, we who had before hoped in Christ: in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation,-- in whom, having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance, unto the redemption of God's own possession, unto the praise of his glory.” Ephesians 1:3-14, ASV
Children are very curious and they manifest that curiosity with questions. Some of the questions are simple like “What are you doing?” or “Are we there yet?” But the person who answers those questions quickly learn that their simple answers are not enough. They are often followed with the inevitable, “Why?” They want to know why we are doing something, or why it takes so long, or why something is the way it is. One question often leads to dozens more increasingly difficult questions. This becomes even more difficult when the questions are not so easy to answer. When faced with something like the death of a pet, the child doesn’t simply want to know what happened to them, they want to know why. These are tough questions to answer, especially when we are having our own difficulty facing the death of that loved one.
But questions are vital to the growth of a child. This is the way they learn. It is the way they share their feelings. This is the way they socialize. In the earliest years, children only know what they need, and they quickly find ways to indicate their needs to those who care for them. But they see others communicating so much more, so they begin to seek information about the world around them. The color of the sky might not seem very important to an adult, and the true scientific answer might not even be necessary. The question itself reveals that the child is observant of the world and that he or she is learning. They have to know that the sky is blue before they can ask why!
While questions might be vital in those early years, we should not stop asking questions as we get older. Perhaps we think we should know it all, or we think we do know it all, but we never stop learning. Questions help us to grow, they help us to see the world through other people’s points of view, they help us to experience the world in a whole new way. A question like “Why is she making a left turn?” might help us to learn a new way to an old place.
It is good for us to ask questions of faith. What’s the point of Bible study if we don’t question the things we read and the thoughts of others? We learn more about God by asking one another about the way they see and understand Him. Our point of view, or that of our friends, might need to be better developed. Sometimes our thoughts are completely upside down, but through sharing our questions and our answers, we come to a better understanding of both each other and the God that we love.
The problem is when we let the questions we ask create a sense of doubt and uncertainty about God. When we disagree about certain aspects of the Bible, we begin to wonder, “If I’m wrong, then what will happen to me?” When we start asking questions like, “Have I done enough?” or “Can I be forgiven for this sin?” then we not only doubt ourselves but we doubt God.
The questions we ask are good, but there is only one that truly matters, and it is this: “Do I believe that Jesus Christ is my Savior?” If we can answer “Yes” to that question, then nothing else truly matters. The rest just helps us grow in faith and knowledge and relationships in this world. God has promised that the breach between us has been repaired though the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. We will have questions for our entire lives, but as we trust in God’s faithfulness, we will see that those questions are never a matter of salvation. Then we can ask without fear.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 25, 2012, Christ the King Sunday: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
“And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” Daniel 7:14, ASV
I like Everlasting Gobstoppers. The candy, made by Nestle’s Willie Wonka Candy Company is based on the confection from Roald Dahl’s book “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” In the story, Willie Wonka created a confection that was meant for children with “very little pocket money”; it was a candy that would last forever. The Gobstopper in the story looked different than today’s confection and the real thing can’t really last forever, but I imagine the candy you can buy is probably easier to eat than the multi-colored bumpy, spikey confection created in Roald Dahl’s mind. It was said that the Everlasting Gobstopper was not even destructible.
Now, gobstoppers, or jawbreakers, are not really everlasting, but they do last a very long time. Layer upon layer of sugary goodness is slowly added, with a one inch ball taking nearly two weeks to create. It has over a hundred layers. These candies don’t only take long to create; they take a long time to eat. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten one in a single sitting. I usually tire of it and so I put it aside for another time. This is especially true of the larger jawbreakers.
I can’t imagine how long it takes to make a three inch gobstopper. Even worse, I wonder how long it actually takes to finish one. Who eats those? They are so big that I don’t know how they fit it into a mouth! I think it would hurt my jaw and make it difficult to breathe. I know it wouldn’t last forever, but I imagine it must last a long time, and it surely would not be eaten in one sitting
In the story, everlasting meant lasting forever, but we know that nothing created can actually last forever. Though Nestle’s Willie Wonka Candy Company has created a treat that lasts a long time, even Willie Wonka can’t do the impossible, except in books. One of the characters in the story was concerned that his business would suffer if someone were able to sell an everlasting candy. After all, if it never went away, you’d never have to buy another piece of candy.
I thought of this candy when I was reading our text for this week because there are several references that God is everlasting. In Daniel, the promise for Jesus is that He will be given everlasting dominion over a kingdom that will never be destroyed. The psalmist talks of Jehovah as the everlasting God over everything, including the storms on the sea. John writes in the Revelation that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end and God is He who is, who was and who is to come. Finally, Jesus tells Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world, implying that no act of Pilate will ever destroy it.
We hear these texts because Sunday is Christ the King, the last day of the Christian Church calendar. We begin the year at Advent, a time of expectation as we wait the coming of Christ. The birth of Christ ushers in a new age. During Epiphany God shares His grace and his Son with the entire world. In Lent we look within ourselves to realize that we are sinners in need of a Savior. During Holy Week we journey with Jesus to the cross. At Easter we are resurrected with Him, experiencing the joy of God’s gracious mercy and love. During the Easter season we are reminded of why God sent His Son as He completes the teaching He began during His life. The Church is born at Pentecost, ten days after Jesus returns to the right hand of the Father. During the season of Pentecost we learn what it means to be the Church. In the last weeks of the Church year we look forward to the second coming of Christ, to His glorification and rule. We look forward to the time when the promise is made complete, when Jesus is Christ is truly Lord of all forever. On Christ the King we look forward to the Day of Judgment when all things will be under His rule. On this day we get a glimpse of the everlasting.
Daniel shows us a river of fire flowing forth from the throne of God. This is not an image that brings us comfort. Fire is so destructive and frightening, especially for those who have lived through a wildfire. While it is true that fire is destructive, it is also very helpful. Fire provides light and heat. We use it for cooking and for producing many products like bricks and pottery. The same fire that seems to destroy a forest, can also provide a very healthy cleansing, removing the brush that can steal nutrients and water from the trees. Fire is used for tempering metals like steel and gold.
Fire is good for the believers, but bad for those who do not believe. In the verses we do not read for the day, Daniel tells about the beast that was slain in his vision, its body burned by the fire. But we who believe are being tempered with the fire of the Holy Spirit, as God transforms us from sinner into one who can stand among the host who minister to Him. This image of everlasting might seem frightening at first, but this passage gives us a glimpse of the heavenly realm where we will worship and praise God forever.
While the image in Daniel is terrifying, there is also a message of hope about one like a human being who will come with the clouds of heaven. We know the Son of Man is Jesus Christ, presented to the Ancient of Days as a mediator between the heavens and earth. Jesus will be the steward who will rule God’s Kingdom, given the dominion and the power and the glory above all else. All earthly kings fall short, even if they are humble and wise. Only Jesus can rule the kingdom that will never end.
The image in the psalm is not very comforting, either. The psalmist writes of storms that make the sea wild and chaotic. Storms can be terrifying, especially for one who is on the water. Even the biggest ships can be tossed to and fro on the waves. But this image takes us back to the creation of the world, where the Spirit of God hovered over the chaos of the waters and with a word God made it calm and good. We are comforted by the reality that our God is King over even the waters that rage out of control.
John writes in Revelation “Grace to you and peace, from him who is and who was and who is to come.” Our God is not one who is limited by time and space. He is eternity. He is the beginning and the end. He is the Alpha and the Omega. He is, He was and He is to come. That’s what this Sunday is all about: recognizing that our God is timeless and that Jesus Christ is the King who is, was and will be.
In the passage from Revelation, John gives us another glimpse of the everlasting. In this image we see the coming of the Christ in glory. We also see that we are His kingdom, not earthbound subjects, but subjects in that everlasting Kingdom where we will praise Him forever. John gives us something to look forward to, to the coming of our King. “Behold, he cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they that pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn over him. Even so, Amen.”
Our God longs for all to know His mercy and grace; His intention is for all to find peace in the knowledge of His love. He wants all men to recognize that He is King. The images might be frightening, but we who believe need not fear the Day of Judgment because God has made us right by the blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus stands as a witness to the world, and He transforms us by blood and water and fire into priests in an everlasting kingdom. We cannot stand before God by our own power or ability, but Jesus makes it possible. We are made saints and called into His Kingdom that is not of this world. We are given a place in the heavenly host that ministers to the Ancient of Days forever.
There must be people who buy those extra large gobstoppers in the candy store, but I’m not willing to even try. Maybe that’s the way some people feel about the God we experience on Christ the King Sunday. These images are not comfortable. The fire and chaotic seas are frightening to those who do not recognize that our God is King. There will be a Day of Judgment, a day when God will make all things right and new. The day will not be pleasant for those who want to hold on by their own strength and ability, but for those of us who trust in God’s promises, it will be the day when we will begin an everlasting life. Unlike the Everlasting Gobstopper from Nestle’s Willie Wonka Candy Company, the Kingdom in which we will dwell is indestructible. It will last forever. This is the everlasting in which we can hope and have peace.
“But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, that now at length ye have revived your thought for me; wherein ye did indeed take thought, but ye lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.” Philippians 4:10-13, ASV
We had a very quiet Thanksgiving celebration at home with just our immediate family, but it was a good chance for us to spend time together. Zack is home from college for the first time since we took him up in August. We didn’t miss out on any of the turkey and trimmings; we did it up big, which means we have leftovers that will last for days. That’s ok; the leftovers are the best part. There is no doubt that we are greatly blessed; it was obvious on our dinner table.
Thanksgiving is a day for giving thanks to God for all that we have. For the past few weeks, many people have been using Facebook as a place to publically witness their thanks for specific things in their lives. They’ve talked about family, friends, jobs and homes. It is so good to see so many people recognizing that our blessings come from somewhere outside ourselves. While we might work hard for the money to buy what we have, the credit ultimately goes to the One from whom all things come. The culmination of the thankfulness came yesterday as most of my Facebook friends posted very special messages of thanks and good wishes for friends.
We read the text for today as part of our thanksgiving worship on Sunday. Paul knew from whence he received everything good in his life. One of the things I noticed in this passage is that Paul also offers thanksgiving to those who help him in his ministry. The people of Philippi sent aid to Paul, an offering so that Paul can continue his work and his travels sharing the Gospel message with the world. As we heard this passage, I thought about all the people who have done things for me throughout my life, many of whom never really received any word of thanks. They were there when I needed them, and though it was their hands that were giving me aid, they were there by God’s grace.
We spent some time yesterday writing notes to some of these people who have touched our lives. We chose people who have had an impact that we didn’t realize at the time, people who did things that we didn’t really recognize as God’s work through their hands. We mailed those letters today, and we hope that the recipients will appreciate knowing that they have had an impact on our life.
Thanksgiving Day is definitely about thanking God for His many blessings, but this is something we should do every day. The same is true of thanking those who have an impact on our life, even if we thank them long after the fact. Is there someone from your past who did something that made a difference in your life and in your faith? Did you tell them? Perhaps this season of thanksgiving and preparation for the coming of Christ would be a good time to write letters, like Paul, to those who have helped us with our work of sharing the Gospel in the world.
It is always a little hard to get moving on Monday after a holiday weekend; perhaps even more so on the Monday after Thanksgiving because it is an extra long weekend. Many people had at least four days off, some five days, and some even had a whole week. Many families traveled to spend the holiday with family. Many kept busy with Christmas shopping or decorating. We all enjoy the time away from work and the freedom to accomplish so many other wonderful things.
But then Monday morning comes and we have to get back to normal. We have to get back into our cars at ridiculously early hours in the morning to brave the traffic jams and hide away in our cubicles in front of computer screens, doing whatever it is we usually do. On days like this I always think about what it means to be normal. Is the hustle bustle of daily work really the norm? It certainly seems to, since we spend so much of our time doing it.
But what is normal, really? At dictionary.com, normal is defined as “conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural.” It goes on to list specific definitions for scientific or mathematical disciplines. Thesaurus.com lists a long list of similar words, which I found very interesting: “accustomed, acknowledged, average, commonplace, conventional, customary, general, habitual, mean, median, methodical, natural, orderly, ordinary, popular, prevalent, regular, routine, run-of-the-mill, standard, traditional, typic, typical, unexceptional.” When you think of normal, do you think of tradition?
It is tradition for us to have turkey on Thanksgiving, but turkey is not a poultry we normally have for dinner. It is too much food for everyday; it is too much work for a weeknight. But it is normal for Thanksgiving Day. What about Black Friday? It has been tradition for my daughter and I to brave the crowds, but it is certainly not a normal shopping spree. A normal trip to the grocery store or the mall rarely begins with a stampede.
So, what is normal? And have we really returned to it today? We are now officially in the “Christmas season” though it seems to have begun a bit early (since Thanksgiving was early.) We’ll do things differently from now until January. We will still have to go to work, but we’ll put decorations on our desks and play special music in the background. We’ll still have to do our normal work, but we’ll dust around the Nativity and Christmas tree. We will still eat macaroni and cheese on those busy nights, but our busy nights will be filled with parties and cookie exchanges and Christmas shopping. But even though those days might not seem ‘normal,’ perhaps they are more so because they will be filled with beloved Christmas traditions.
There is some comfort to ‘normal,’ but it is exciting to think of all the wonderful things we will do in the next month or so. Advent does not official begin until next Sunday, but even today we can begin to countdown the days to Christmas with an attitude of joy and peace amidst the chaos of ‘not normal.’ And perhaps we’ll discover that ‘not normal’ is more normal than our daily hustle bustle.
“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
It was not until yesterday’s post was sent into cyberspace that I realized I never picked a scripture lesson to go with my story. I have made the mistake occasionally in the past, although I often discover it in time to fix it, for at least a couple of the places where the message is posted. It was too late yesterday, and I decided to use my mistake as a lesson for us all.
I have been writing A WORD FOR TODAY for over thirteen years. In that time, I’ve shared my experiences of seeing God in the ordinary, mundane things in this world. We all love to hear a story, and for more days I can count, I’ve been telling you stories. Stories are an excellent way to learn. We tell our children stories so that they will learn moral lessons. We tell them stories so they will know their history. We tell them stories to help them rest and laugh and grow.
Jesus told stories. His parables helped His listeners see the Kingdom of God in a way they would understand, as a plant, a farm, a housewife. He used language with which they could identify and understand. I do the same. Sometimes I have to wonder about the connections I manage to make, after all, can I really tell the story of God using examples from “The Big Bang Theory”? I suppose the better question is this: Would you know you were hearing lessons about God if I only told you what I saw on “The Big Bang Theory”? Would you see God in the television show if I never found a way of laying a moment against scripture?
That’s why I always include a scripture quote in the post. Jesus did tell stories to help people understand and stories are a wonderful way of teaching. But we should not rest our hope on stories or understand God purely through the experience and interpretation of one person. I see God all around me, but I still see through a glass darkly. I am imperfect, and the words that I speak are imperfect. However, God’s word is always true. It is always right. It is always real. It always points us to God and tells us about Christ. So while our stories help others see God in the ordinary and mundane, let us never skip the Word that God gave to teach us about Himself, for it is in those words we will always find hope.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 2, 2012, First Sunday in Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16: Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
“The meek will he guide in justice; And the meek will he teach his way.” Psalm 25:9, ASV
What is righteousness? Most of the definitions I came across in my research juxtapose righteousness with morality: being righteous means being a good person who does what is right. And so, we then ask, what is morality? What does it mean to be moral? The definitions indicate that morality is about following the rules. A moral person is one who exhibits good behavior; an immoral person is one who exhibits bad behavior.
This idea of righteousness has led many people to believe that heaven is filled with good and moral people. How many of us have heard (and said) at a funeral, “She was such a good person, surely she must be in heaven?” I would not suggest that someone who left an upright life is burning in hell, but is goodness and respectable behavior what gets us into heaven? Will I have the keys to the pearly gates because I fed the poor and took care of my neighbor?
But is that really what gets us into heaven?
A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates. St. Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.” “Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.” “That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “that's worth three points!” “Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.” “Terrific!” says St. Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.” “One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.” “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says. “TWO POINTS!!” the man cries, “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!” “Come on in!”
If righteousness, at least in the biblical sense, has to do with morality, then there’s no point the season we are about to enter: Advent. There’s no point for Christmas or Easter. There’s no point for Jesus to be born or to die. If we are saved by our good works, then there’s no point to the Church or faith or witnessing to the grace and mercy of God. If you are good enough to get those hundred points, then God is not necessary, and neither is Jesus. But we know that we aren’t good enough to get a hundred points. We don’t have keys that will unlock the pearly gates.
As a matter of fact, the images in today’s Gospel passage should have us cringing in fear. After all, isn’t it said whenever the earth suffers one of those catastrophic events that it is a sign from heaven? After every hurricane or blizzard, flood or earthquake, someone claims that they’ve had a vision from God that the people need to repent and change. God has been known to send plagues of locusts and floods to discipline His people, but can we really judge whether or not a tornado was an act of God meant to send a message to someone? Is the family that lost their house more sinful than their neighbor whose house was spared? These are the inevitable questions when we claim morality is equal to righteousness and lay that understanding beside the scriptural texts.
Who will we be on that glorious day when Christ comes again? Will we be among those fainting in fear or will we look to the heavens toward our redemption? If we base our salvation on our works, we should be fainting in fear, because nothing we do is good enough to overcome our sinfulness. But if we look to Christ, then we understand what the man in the story did not: it is God who will save us. And that’s what Advent is all about. God is about to enter the world and do something amazing. He’s about to send His Son to be our righteousness.
God is not looking for the good and upright. He’s looking for the humble. He’s not looking for those who think themselves righteous—the self-righteous—based on their own works rather than on God’s grace. God is looking for the people who are teachable, who will learn and grow and be changed by His Word. He is looking for those who by faith are willing to wait and watch and hope for the fulfillment of His promises.
Jeremiah says, “In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell safely; and this is the name whereby she shall be called: Jehovah our righteousness.” This righteousness is not a moral rightness, but rather a right relationship with God. Christ came to fulfill this promise and restore our relationship with God. What did we need to be saved from? We need to be saved from ourselves, our self-centered desire to be in control and do things our own way. It is this very desire that set us apart from our Creator. Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God. This willful disobedience against God’s Word is sin; it is what separated them from God. Everyone since Adam and Eve participate in this rebellion. We are sinners in need of a Savior.
During Advent the humble wait for Him. We seek His guidance. We ask His forgiveness. We listen to His truth and walk in His paths. We look to heaven to save us. Though the images in the Gospel lesson are frightening, we are reminded that it is when we see those signs that God is near.
It seems like now is the time, but then hasn't it been that way for generations? Have we not seen signs in the heavens and on the earth? Even in this day, as we wait once again for the coming of our Lord as a child in a manger, we see those signs throughout the world. We are closer now than we ever has been; yet we will not know the day until it arrives. We simply wait and wonder in hopeful expectation.
Though we are surely sinners in need of a Savior, unable to earn our way into heaven, there is no reason for us to go about life with no concern for righteousness. While our salvation is not dependent on our good works or behavior, God has called us out of the darkness of the world to live in His light. During Advent we wait for the Christ child, but we know He has already come. We live now in the New Covenant, the one promised by God. Yet, even still, Jesus reminds us to take heed of ourselves. Will we be able to look to Christ at that moment if we are living carelessly, drunken and anxious? Will be so trapped in our sinful ways that we’ll reject Him when He comes?
In the end we have only one thing on which we can rest. The psalmist writes, “O my God, in you I trust.” Our good works are wonderful works. Whatever our motives, feeding the hungry and clothing to poor is an honorable thing to do, whether it is now at the holidays or throughout the year. However, full bellies and warm bodies are not eternal. The body will hunger again and the clothes will fade. The Word of God lasts forever. It is true and it is real. The pagans and heathens can feed a hungry belly, but they will never feed a starving soul. Only Christ can fulfill our deepest needs.
How will you humble yourself during Advent, to prepare for His coming both on Christmas and on that Day which will come? Will you spend time in prayer, in the scriptures? Will you do good works for others? Will you share your blessings and witness to the power of God? The days are coming, and are indeed here, when the Kingdom of God is near. The signs are out there, are you watchful and ready?
Jesus will be looking for two things that day: faith and love. Faith is the manifestation of our trust in God’s promises: we believe that God saves. Love is the outpouring of our faith into the world. The great gift of Christmas is the forgiveness He came to give, and we can be assured that God will be faithful. After all, heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s words will not. There is nothing we can do to change what God has done for us, good or bad. We have heard the Word and the promise is ours.
However, there are many who have not yet heard this word of promise. They see our Christmas celebrations and displays and think they understand, but if they do not recognize their own sinfulness they will never see the reason for it all. They will never experience the forgiveness we have by God’s mercy or become right with God by His grace. They might live good and upright lives, appear to be headed for heaven, but if they cannot say, “only by the grace of God,” then they’ll never enter through those pearly gates.
We wait for four weeks for Christ to come as a baby, but what if He came in power and glory today? Would you be ready? But even more importantly, is your neighbor ready? Now is the time to witness to the reason for the story we share during this season. We aren’t just waiting a baby in a manger; we are waiting for the coming Christ who lived, died and rose again for our sake. We are waiting for ‘those days to come’ when Christ will finally return to fulfill all God’s promises. The signs are there. The figs are on the fig trees. The Kingdom of God is near.
Jesus told His disciples that “this generation will not pass away, till all things be accomplished.” Was Jesus wrong when He said that? After all, the people who followed Jesus when He spoke those words are long dead. So was Jesus speaking to our generation, or a future generation? We have been waiting nearly two thousand years for Christ to return. And I have to admit that sometimes I’m tired of waiting. But just as Baby Jesus came at the right time, we are called to trust that He will come in power and glory at the right time, God’s time. Whether it is today or a thousand years doesn’t matter, for God’s patience means salvation for those who have yet to hear His Word.
So, for today let us live according to His word, clothed in His righteousness, following the path He has laid out for us in this time and place. It is so much easy to accept that someone is good, that they’ve lived a righteous life. It is certainly more comforting to think that those who have passed will be in heaven because they’ve done good works. But in this first week of Advent we are reminded that it isn’t our righteousness that marks us for entry through the pearly gates, it is Christ’s. How many points would St. Peter give you for your good works? What about your neighbor?
Thankfully, we don’t need to list our good works to get into heaven because Christ has done it for us. Will you share this Good News with your neighbor? While we wait, God will guide us to do what is right and teach us His way so that the whole world will experience His grace and be saved.
“The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give. There are three things that are never satisfied, Yea, four that say not, Enough: Sheol; and the barren womb; The earth that is not satisfied with water; And the fire that saith not, Enough.” Proverbs 30:15-16, ASV
There are four things that are not satisfied, “the grave, the barren womb, the desert and fire.” Just those four? The writer of this proverb certainly could not see into twenty-first century America. It seems like most of us are not satisfied. We never have enough. We are always looking for more, and we use the fact that others have things as the reason why we should have it too. I heard a city administrator who is pushing for a particular program say that the city should do this because “all the other cities have it.” Isn’t that exactly what our problem is today? Isn’t the quest for having everything that everyone else has the reason why we are in so much debt?
There’s a commercial on television reaching out to those who don’t have enough money for Christmas. The commercial is for a title loan company. In other words, they are encouraging people who don’t have enough money to buy things they don’t need to put up their vehicles for loans to buy those things. What happens when they don’t have the money to pay off the loan? They may lose their vehicle, which will make it difficult to get to work, which may lead to the loss of a job. Then they won’t have any money at all. But they’ll have a television, cell phone or tablet like everyone else!
Our quest for more is never more visible than when the prize for one of the lottery games gets extremely high. The news was filled with stories about people who wanted to win the latest jackpot, with hints for making your odds better. The big question everyone asked was, “What would you do?” Now, most respondents had unselfish ideas alongside their selfish ones. They wanted to pay down debts, but they also wanted to give money and things to family and friends. Many noted that they would give generously to charity.
But we can see the reality of our greed in the outcome of the game. When the jackpot rolled over on Saturday, the Wednesday jackpot was expected to be 425 million dollars. By the time the balls were chosen last night, the jackpot had reached an unbelievable 580 million. Do you know how many people had to purchase tickets for it to go that high?
Now, I admit I was among those buying tickets. Who couldn’t use a half billion dollars? I had some grand plans for my winnings. I was going to build a performing arts center at a college and a worship center at my favorite camp. I was going to buy a ranch and an island in the middle of nowhere. I was going to give my kids enough money to pay college debts and get a decent start on life (although not so much that they’d be spoiled for living.) Oh, I planned to pay off debts and give gifts to family, too. I was disappointed along with millions of other people, but I’m still happy today. It would have been nice, but I have enough.
That’s the key to this Christmas season, isn’t it? We might want to chase after the great deals and the things we really don’t need, crying “More, more!” like the things that never have enough. But the joy and peace of Christmas comes from knowing that God has provided us with all we need. We don’t need to take out loans to buy that new television, cell phone or tablet just because our neighbors have one. We will see the grace of God more clearly when we are satisfied with what we have, when we realize that we have enough.
“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. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, 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. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me. And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46, ASV
Experts suggest that one way to have a stress-free holiday season is to stay organized with lists. It is helpful to keep lists of things to buy, things to do and events to attend. It makes you feel good as you cross each item off the list, and helps keep from overbuying or poor scheduling.
I’m not very good at keeping lists. I write lists for the grocery store, but usually forget or lose it. I keep a list in my head, but I always forget something. My Christmas present lists are not very organized, and I usually end up overbuying on something because I didn’t remember what I had already purchased. It is not unusual for me to start one job and then another before finishing the first. Sometimes this gets me into trouble because I run out of time to complete all the tasks. I spend too much time doing the things I have to do because I don’t organize my time or my thoughts and actions.
The stress usually comes when I’m rushing to get something finished and then something new comes up, like when I have a million things to do, but a friend wants to get together for lunch. I know I shouldn’t take the time, but I know that I must. See, it isn’t in the dozens of cookies or the piles of presents where Christmas really happens; it happens in those unexpected moments of grace.
I saw a story about a police officer whose picture has gone viral on the Internet. He was caught by some tourists doing something unexpected, but not what you usually see in pictures. He bought a homeless man a pair of boots. The picture shoes the policeman on his knees, putting a brand new pair of socks and shoes on the man’s bare feet. Larry DePrimo said, “I had two pairs of wool winter socks and combat boots, and I was cold.” The man was thankful. “He smiled from ear to ear. It was like you gave him a million dollars,” said DePrimo.
The policeman responded to a need he saw during his everyday work. He didn’t expect the recognition that he’s gotten. He probably didn’t even know the tourists were taking his picture. He was surprised when a buddy called and told him the photo had gone viral. “I didn't think anything of it,” he said about his act of kindness. It wasn’t something on a list. It wasn’t part of his plan. He responded to the opportunity to do something when it came, rather than scheduling his generosity on lists and calendars.
I wonder if we get so caught up in our lists and budgets that we miss those opportunities that God presents to us. As we go about our everyday tasks, and those added by the holidays, let us be ever watchful for those opportunities to be generous to those who are not on our lists. After all, Jesus says that when we serve those in need, we serve Him.