Welcome to the November 2014 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture quotes taken from the American Standard Version
A WORD FOR TODAY, November 2014
“Preserve me, O God; for in thee do I take refuge. O my soul, thou hast said unto Jehovah, Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee. As for the saints that are in the earth, They are the excellent in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied that give gifts for another god: Their drink-offerings of blood will I not offer, Nor take their names upon my lips. Jehovah is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: Thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; Yea, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless Jehovah, who hath given me counsel; Yea, my heart instructeth me in the night seasons. I have set Jehovah always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth; My flesh also shall dwell in safety. For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16, ASV
I saw a meme on Facebook today that said, “Beware of destination addiction—a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job and with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.”
I have had a problem the past few days. My cat, Delilah, loves my office chair. I’m not sure what it is about the chair that she likes so much. Perhaps it is in the shape of the seat, which is a little rounded and in which she curls up perfectly. Perhaps she just likes to be where I’ve been. Cats are like that sometimes. They are comforted by the smells that remind them of our presence. Of course, there is always the possibility that she settles on my chair to be difficult. She has a tendency of being exactly where she should not be at exactly the moment when she shouldn’t be there. Just last week she decided to jump into the laundry basket and settle in for a nap just as I was collecting the laundry to wash. She never sleeps there! I’m convinced she did it to get in my way; sometimes I think that’s exactly why she jumps on my chair.
She has always enjoyed sitting on my chair, but it seems lately she is jumping on it more often. The other day I got up, walked four feet to unlock a door and in the time I returned to my chair, she was already lying down as if she were napping for hours. If I go to get a drink, she is there when I return. If I go into the studio for a minute, she jumps at the chance to take over. If I need to go to the bathroom, I’m sure to find her happily snuggled on my chair when I return. She’s perfectly content in other places. As a matter of fact, when I return to my chair after dealing with the door, getting a drink or doing other things, she jumps off and goes to a pillow or another chair. Yet, the minute I get up, she runs back to the chair.
People are not so content. Like the Facebook meme says, we tend to chase after the things that we think will make us happy, and we aren’t content if we can’t have exactly what we want. If Delilah were a person, I’m sure she wouldn’t jump off the chair so easily when I ask her to. I’m sure she’d stand her ground, tell me “first come, first served!” or insist that it isn’t fair that she can’t stay. If she were a person removed from the chair, she’d sit nearby, stare me down and cry until I gave in to her demand. If you don’t think this is true, try sitting in someone’s long-held seat at church!
It can be frustrating to have to move Delilah so often during the day so I can sit at my desk and work, but there is definitely a lesson in her patience with me. She finds her happiness wherever she ends up; right now she is happily napping on a pillow in the window, just feet from where I sit. I wonder how many times we go chasing after something, thinking that it must be better than what we have, only to discover that it is not the right place or the right time. How often do we jump into things only to be moved by God somewhere else? How often do we try to get what we think we want only to be stopped because God knows what we need?
Delilah is probably just playing a game with me, and though it can be frustrating at times, I have to admit that I enjoy it. Unfortunately, when it comes to this game we play with God, trying to get Him to allow us to go where we think we need to go and do what we think we need to do, we find that our persistence will lead us down the wrong path. God loves us so much that He stops us, directs us, guides us, even pushes us in the right direction. We don’t need to chase after happiness, because in God’s grace we dwell in His joy.
“Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48, ASV
Today is Election Day in the United States. Important races will conclude all over the country, with men and women winning seats in the House of Representatives, the Senate and State houses all over the land. Local races are equally important; the ballot for my area had at least two dozen judges from every level as well as several city officials. This is not a presidential election year, so sadly only about forty percent of those who are eligible to vote will do so. Unfortunately, we are expecting extreme weather tomorrow, so there’s a chance that the local response will be even lower.
The reason for ignoring the vote is varied. Some don’t bother because they don’t believe they can make a difference. For others it is an inconvenience. There are those who don’t vote because they are afraid they will make the wrong decisions; they don’t have the time to study the issues or get to know the candidates, so they let Election Day pass without a trip to the ballot box. Many simply don’t care; they go about their day thinking that what happens in Washington or even in City Hall doesn’t make a difference to their life. Oh, all those non-voters are sure to complain when they are frustrated by a pothole or by the cost of a registration fee, but they don’t care enough to pay attention to those who fund the work or make the laws.
It doesn’t help that the political process in the United States is confusing and overwhelming. We have been watching television commercials from every side telling us the good that the candidate has done and the bad of their opponent. The commercials often use information that is not quite a lie but not quite the truth. The candidates always want to put the best light on themselves while putting a bad light on their opponent. The voter has to dig through all these facts and figure out what is really true. It is no wonder that many people prefer to sit out the election.
Our state has early voting, so the polls were open for two weeks, ending last Friday. I went on the first day, having done all my research before I walked in the door. I took a picture of the lawn in front of the library where I went to vote, and it was full of hundreds of political signs. Some of the candidates put a dozen signs all lined up along the road. Others use oversized signs. It would be easy to vote for those whose names stand out as we drive to park; that’s certainly the hope of those who spend so much money on advertising. Of course, we’ve been inundated with political ads on the television for the past few weeks, months… the reality is that we are always inundated by political ads. Once this campaign is over, the next will begin immediately as the politicians look toward the next Election Day.
Yes, it is frustrating, confusing and overwhelming, but it is important. If you have not taken advantage of early voting in your place, go and vote. Find a sample ballot, do a little research. Get to know the politicians, not only those who will affect national policy, but also the local men and women who affect your daily lives in your cities, counties and states. Many Christians might think that it isn’t important to be involved in the worldly selection of earthbound leaders, but we are called as Christians to be involved in this world in which we live. We can make a difference.
Imagine what we who have been blessed with the hard won freedom to vote for our leaders but ignore it must look to those who are struggling under the oppression of tyrants, dictators and bullies.
What is most interesting is that we never know exactly what God is doing in the world. We can be passionate about our point of view and truly believe that God is on our side, but then when the other side wins we wonder what happened. We have to remember that God knows far beyond today and that He is working toward a future we can’t see. God can use a too-close-to-call election as well as He can use an awesome victory or devastating defeat to do His work in this world.
Jesus says in today’s passage, “The rain falls on the just and unjust alike.” God has a way of making good things happen in even the midst of confusion, frustration and the overwhelming circumstances we face, even when it seems to us that God has abandoned us. The best we can do is vote according to our conscience, be the people God has called us to be by doing what we believe is right and trust that God will make even our mistakes work for His glory. Most of all, we must love even our enemies. Even if things don’t come out the way we hope, even if those politicians don’t manage to accomplish the things that we elect them to do, we are as Christians to love them, pray for them and entrust their work into God’s hands.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 9, 2014, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
“Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.” Matthew 25:1, ASV
During the summer and early autumn our lectionary texts for Pentecost have focused on what it means to be Church in this world. We’ve heard Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew teach us the parables of the Kingdom and be an example of how to do God’s work in the world. He has stood up against the leaders who wanted to keep the status quo instead of turning back to the God who they claimed to believe. The epistle texts from Paul’s letters to the Romans, the Philippians and the Thessalonians have helped us see how to fix our own failure to live according to God’s Word. The tone of our texts change for the next few weeks as the year of the Church winds down. Our focus now is on the end times, the second coming of Christ and the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises.
During the next few weeks we need to ask ourselves these questions: “What does it mean to be prepared for the coming of the Lord?” and “What are your expectations for the end times?”
There are certainly as many ideas about the end times as there are people discussing them. Whole systems of theology have evolved around the study of eschatology, much of it with confusing language and troubling imagery. There have been charismatic leaders who have taken their understanding of the end times to such an extreme that whole communities have died in their leadership trying to force God’s hand. We can name some of the more famous false messiahs who have lead their people to the grave following orders down a path of destruction and death.
It is amazing to see these communities as they look forward to the end times with a celebration of giddiness and expectation. They believe that they are so right about what the end times will look like that they flaunt their salvation and blessedness in the faces of their enemies, often interpreted to mean everyone else. They believe that the messiah will save them, that they are a lonely remnant in the world that will be destroyed for lack of belief. They stand up against anyone that disagrees, often to the point of violence. The charismatic leaders have such control over their people that they are willing to even die for their sake. When the leader says, “Drink this” they drink, believing that it will take them to heaven even if the real motive of the leader is to protect him.
Some of the end times proponents don’t live in separated communities; they are our neighbors and friends. They follow a popular theology like that we see in many of the theological fiction books and movies that have been produced. I was in a bookstore one day and overheard a conversation between two women. One told the other that she has to read that popular series on the end times, “You have to believe, you want to be prepared. These books will tell you what is going to happen so that you will have faith in Jesus.” They believe that those books are based on biblical truths and use them as evangelistic tools, convincing people to become Christian because they don’t want to experience the horror that has been forewarned.
Again, they are almost giddy with excitement that Jesus is coming soon; they want the end times to happen now so that they do what they think will make it happen. They try to force God’s hand; “See God, we made everything ready for you. Come!” They invite God to run on their schedule, to ensure that they are the generation who will see the fulfillment of the promises. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind to see Jesus coming on those clouds. I’m ready to dwell in God’s presence for eternity. However, I don’t think any human being knows the mind of God so well as to direct God’s hand. We are called to trust in Him, not to test Him or demand that He satisfy our expectations.
Amos says, “Woe unto you that desire the day of Jehovah!” We have been reminded in the past few weeks that while we are saints with faith in God, we are still sinners in need of salvation. Eternity for us is both a present reality and a future hope. We have no reason to believe that the judgment that awaits us at the end of all days will be pleasant for us. We don’t deserve to be protected from times of trouble, for we are as guilty as those that we believe deserve to be left behind.
The people in Amos’s day were not living thankful. They were going to temple, singing hymns and following the rituals, but they weren’t worshipping God with their lives. They were perhaps both comfortable and afraid, looking forward to the great and terrible day of the Lord. They were doing what they believe is right—going to the temple and the synagogue on the Sabbath, singing all the right songs and presenting all the right sacrifices. But they had lost touch with the God they claimed to worship. They were not pursuing justice or giving mercy.
People are merciful when they are thankful for the mercy they have received. We are generous when we are thankful for the things that we have. We are not so generous when we are afraid and when we are comfortable. When we are afraid, it is hard to see anything for which we can be thankful. When we are threatened by forces outside ourselves, we hold on to the little we have, trying to ensure ‘enough’ for tomorrow. We can’t take care of the needs of others because we are too worried about our own needs. This is true of mercy as well as money. It is hard to be merciful if we are afraid that we will not receive mercy.
I think sometimes we are even less generous when we are comfortable. We forget the times when we were afraid or when we were hungry. We celebrate our blessings without being thankful. We ignore the needs of others because we either blame them for their troubles or we ignore their suffering. How could anyone be hungry when there is such an abundance? We forget that God has blessed us to be a blessing; we forget that He has provided for us so that we can provide for others. We do not pursue justice or give mercy because our bellies are full and we are content. Why risk what we have worked so hard to produce? We don’t even realize that the question shows that we have forgotten the One who has blessed us. Our lack of thankfulness makes us blind to our neighbors and apathetic about their problems.
How many of us go to church out of fear or in our comfort and forget to be thankful for all that God has done? When we face the dangers that cause our fear, do we thank God for those times when we were lifted out of danger? When we are surrounded by the good things in life, do we remember the source of all our blessings? Oh, I’m sure that many of us have been generous and merciful in times of great need, but do we live our thankfulness daily? We show mercy and compassion, generously giving our time, ourselves and our money. But, as time passes and the needs lesson, we stop thinking about our neighbors and return to our life of comfort and peace. We go back to our Sunday morning worship and become blind in our comfort again.
The message Amos took to his people is one we need to hear also. We have forgotten to live thankful. We are comfortable in our worship, attending services on Sunday but forgetting about God the rest of the week. We ignore the needs of our neighbors—both out of fear for our future and in our comfort. But God calls us to always walk in thanksgiving, not to offer sacrifices according to our duty or when we are seeking God’s blessing. He desires mercy, not sacrifice.
That’s the best way for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord: to live thankful.
A few years ago a cult leader thought he had the numbers all worked out. He thought knew exactly when Jesus was going to come again and he had a huge following who believed him. The people did everything they could to promote his ideas. They told their friends to be ready. They sold all their worldly possessions and used the money to buy billboards warning the world of the coming destruction. They quit their jobs to work full time in their evangelistic quest. Here’s the problem: the date came and went without an apocalypse. The preacher tried to convince us that he was off by just a few months, and a few of his followers continued to believe, however the second date came and went. He was wrong and many people suffered because they had false expectations of God.
The people thought they were serving God. They worshiped. They presented their offerings. They did everything they were expected to do, according to the laws of their faith. Yet, something was missing. They were getting it terribly wrong. They looked to a day when God would come to save them, but God was prepared to come in righteousness, to serve justice, to give mercy to those that had been forgotten by their piety. It isn’t enough to do the right ritual or offer the right sacrifices. God calls us to trust in Him, good times and bad, and to look beyond ourselves to His purpose in the world. The Day of the Lord will not be light and happiness. God’s people will not be prepared for the darkness and the gloom to come because they have lost sight with the reality of God.
Unfortunately, when we set our sight on God according to our expectations we are often disappointed. I wonder how many of those who have had faith in false prophets lost faith in God when things did not happen as predicted.
Jesus tells us what it will be like in today’s parable. Ten virgins will be waiting for the bridegroom. Five are prepared for a long wait, but the others expected him to come quickly, according to their schedule, but he was delayed. The wise virgins had extra oil, enough oil. They were patient, waiting in faith that the bridegroom is faithful. The other bridesmaids were unprepared. They did not expect a delay and were disappointed when the bridegroom did not come. And when he did not come, they ran out of oil. Their hope was lost. Hope can die; our light can dim, if we do not keep hold of the promise. The five wise virgins believed the bridegroom even when it seemed like he was never going to arrive. The five foolish virgins ran out of oil; they became confused and disappointed because the bridegroom did not fulfill their expectations. They believed in the bridegroom but their faith rested in their own understanding which failed them in the end.
The people in Amos’s day had faith in the things they were doing. They thought their worship and their offerings were enough to guarantee God’s blessings even in the Day of the LORD. Amos told them a different story. They had lost sight of wisdom. They were not humble or obedient. They did what they thought was right according to the way they understood God. But their understanding was not simple or wise; it was based on the complicated interpretations and rules established by the religious leaders. In the end, they would find that the Day of the LORD would not be what they hoped for; it would be darkness and gloom, a judgment of their failure to be just and righteous. They were like the unwise virgins who weren’t properly prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. Like those virgins, they would be very surprised when He came.
Today’s Psalm has been ascribed to David, and it is generally agreed that it was written when David was in the later days of his life. David was a mighty king, but even mighty kings face great difficulties. This is especially true when they are nearing the end of their lives. They are seen by enemies, both close and far away, as weakened and unable to hold on to their kingdoms. David chose his son Solomon to be heir, but David’s other sons wanted the kingdom, too. Though Israel was threatened on all sides by foreign armies, the most difficult battles happened within the walls of his own palace. David’s sons fought against one another and against their father. Amnon raped Absalom’s sister, so Absalom killed Amnon. Absalom rebelled against David and was killed on the battlefield. Adonijah, as the then oldest son, expected to be heir but was rejected for Solomon. He tried twice to gain control, but was eventually killed by Solomon.
It sounds like the script from a soap opera, but it isn’t unusual to hear stories about intrigue in royal families. Murder, adultery, greed, dishonesty and war are found in the histories and in the palaces of all civilizations. To many the end justifies the means and the end is always power. But in David we see a man who has learned what it means to be humble, to turn to God in times of trouble and to praise Him even if the circumstances seem impossible to overcome. David is faithful and faith-filled.
For God, faithfulness and faith-filled lives are manifested in kindness and mercy and grace. That is the life that will be rewarded with fulfillment of God’s promises. Unfortunately, throughout the history of God’s people, we have repeatedly lost sight of the reality, getting caught up in our own expectations.
The people in Paul’s day, perhaps even Paul, were getting nervous. They expected Jesus to return within their lifetime. They saw the second coming as an immediate response to what was happening, and every day that passed brought doubt and concern. They people who knew Jesus personally were dying. The first believers were passing away. Would Jesus come before they were all gone? Paul assured them that it did not matter. Those who were dead were not gone forever. Jesus would return, and all those who died in faith would be with Him at that trumpet sound. Paul shares his image of that day. It might not match our image, or even match the reality when it happens, but he has found comfort in wondering what it will look like. Many others have done the same.
The wise virgins had lasting hope, a faith that believed that the bridegroom would come, even when it seemed impossible. They were prepared for the late coming of the loved one. Paul wrote words of wisdom to a people whose hopes were fading. Their loved ones were dying despite the promise that Christ would come again. Why was He delayed? Paul reminded them that the promise is for those who believe in Christ, whether dead or alive and that Christ would bring all those of faith together in His day. We need only be patient and prepared.
The Day of the Lord will not look like we expect. It won’t look like the images found in those books or movies. It won’t be like the false messiah’s and prophets convince their followers. According to Amos it will be darkness and gloom with no righteousness in it.
There is still reason to hope. It is easy to fall apart when our expectations are smashed and we are disappointed by what we see happening in the world around us. It is easy to fall into the temptations around us, to conform to the world and to give in to our flesh. But we need not be afraid of tomorrow, God is looking at things much differently than our human hearts and minds. He does not accept the worship that is not founded in real sacrifice. He does not care about the blood of animals or the sweet sounding songs if there is no justice. Righteousness is not something that can be worn like a mask, but is a right relationship with the One who has delivered and promised to save His people.
So, how do you answer the questions at the beginning of this devotion? “What does it mean to be prepared for the coming of the Lord?” and “What are your expectations for the end times?” First we must turn to God and seek His guidance and deliverance, rather than rely on our own strength, knowledge and expectations. What do you think you will see on that day? Your expectations are really not important; the important thing is to remember that the promise is in Jesus Christ. Our hope is not that that Jesus will come at a certain time or do a certain thing; we hope in the promise that we will be with the Lord forever, whenever He comes.
As we look forward to His second coming, considering the apocalypse to come, we are called to encourage one another through the good times and the bad. Let us continually seek God, trusting in Him, rejoicing with thankfulness and gladness. The one who is prepared for that Day is the one who lives as if they have been blessed to be a blessing, praising God for all that He has done and dwelling in the hope that the bridegroom is coming!
“For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that ye may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God.” Ephesians 3:14-19, ASV
We finally had some decent precipitation this week, nearly thirty-six hours of steady rain with some moments of less than a drizzle and others with heavy downpours. The early hours were difficult because it caused some street flooding, but it has definitely made a difference for us. I know that things are much worse in other places, but it was a relief to finally have some water that will help ease our drought.
I think the thing that I liked best about yesterday was the sound of the rain. The rain around here tends to be heavy storms with thunder and lightning. While I do like a good thunderstorm, it isn’t peaceful or relaxing. Yesterday I went outside just to listen to the pitter patter of raindrops on the leaves of the trees. It isn’t the sound of silence, but it is comforting and peaceful. The sound holds within it the promise of green grass and healthy trees. It is almost like a song, each drop a note in a beautiful melody.
One of life’s unanswerable questions is “How many sounds do we hear in a day?” It is unanswerable because it is beyond our ability to count. Even as I sit here typing, I hear the tapping of my fingers on the keys, which actually makes numerous different sounds, the churning of the computer in the background, the hum of the ceiling fan over head. The birds are singing outside my window and a dog is barking in the distance. My family is making noise in other parts of the house and I can hear the cats nearby. My chair has a little squeak and I can even hear the leaves rustling outside my door. Even though I am sitting in a quiet room, there is no silence. These noises are mostly comforting, like the pitter patter of raindrops, because they are familiar, happy, filled with promise.
The Guinness Book of World Records has determined that the quietest room in the world is the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis. The room is built with with 3.3-foot-thick fiberglass acoustic wedges with walls made of insulated steel and a foot of concrete and is said to be 99.9 percent sound absorbing. The experience is so disorienting that the longest anyone has ever been able to stay inside the room is 45 minutes. Even the founder and president of the lab could only last 30 minutes. About the experience he says, “When it’s quiet, ears will adapt. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly. In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound. And this is a very disorientating experience. How you orient yourself is through sounds you hear when you walk. In the anechoic chamber, you don’t have any cues. You take away the perceptual cues that allow you to balance and maneuver. If you’re in there for half an hour, you have to be in a chair.”
Our world is not nearly that quiet. It is usually not as quiet as my room here today. We are surrounded by blaring televisions and cell phones. Traffic makes all sorts of noises; honking, the vroom of the engines and the screeching of tires. Cities have a noise that is unidentifiable, the echo of life on the move. You can’t avoid noise in the grocery store, as many end caps are now fitted with screens that advertise the latest, greatest product we just have to have because it will make our kids eat, our faces glow or our life easier. It is not unusual to pass people in the aisles having conversations with themselves, although you quickly realize that they are arguing with their spouse or setting up a business meeting using their cell phones. There is always a kid screaming somewhere in the store, hoping to convince Mom or Dad that they just have to have that candy bar or new toy.
Even in the midst of all that noise, we can find the peace I felt as I listened to the raindrops on the leaves yesterday. We can find that peace in the voice of God. It is sometimes hard to hear Him with all the noise that goes on around us in the world, but we don’t need an absolutely silent room to hear the sweet, quiet voice of our Father. Jesus Christ has opened the doors of our hearts and He dwells within. He fills our hearts with His Word, with His promises. Even when it seems as though we can’t hear His voice, He is constantly speaking to us. It is my prayer that you will hear Him, take time to listen, for in His words you will find the greatest comfort and peace.
“My son, forget not my law; But let thy heart keep my commandments: For length of days, and years of life, And peace, will they add to thee. Let not kindness and truth forsake thee: Bind them about thy neck; Write them upon the tablet of thy heart: So shalt thou find favor and good understanding In the sight of God and man. Trust in Jehovah with all thy heart, And lean not upon thine own understanding: In all thy ways acknowledge him, And he will direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes; Fear Jehovah, and depart from evil: It will be health to thy navel, And marrow to thy bones.” Proverbs 3:1-8, ASV
I cleaned the bookshelves in my office the other day. It was a job that desperately needed to be done. I was overrun by books and the dust was about an inch deep. I had one shelf that was full of photocopied resources that I’ve been saving from workshops that I either attended or led. Every time I need something from those resources, I went through the pile piece by piece until I found the right page. Then I just stuffed it back on the shelf. I had books that I have kept for years “just in case” even though they are by authors I’m unlikely to ever reference or are so old that even in theological terms are out of date.
Still, it was a tough job. I managed to find space in another part of the house for a number of books and I collected a pile of books to either sell or give away. The bookshelves in my office look great now, and there’s room so that I can buy more books! While I still have some organizing to do with those loose copies, they are neatly stored in a file box and more easily accessible. That’s a job I will do during the next rainy day.
Why do we find it so hard to let go of things? I’m definitely not a hoarder; we’ve had to learn how to purge since we moved often with the military. I keep a box in a room where I automatically put things I don’t need any more. When the box is full, I take it to Good Will or put it on the curb for whoever is collecting donations. I’ve even purged my books at times, and yet I continued to keep books I knew I’d never use. Books have value, certainly, but are they useful gathering dust on a bookshelf?
I think, sometimes, the intangible things are the hardest to let go. We hold on to old anger and hurt. We grip unnecessary worry and fear. We refuse to let go opinions and ideology that are wrong or simply do not work. We hold on to our biases, our prejudices, our faults, our failures, and our sins; we hold on to these things out of ignorance or inflexibility. We can’t let go.
We might be able to live with messy bookshelves filled with too many books, but we can’t live the life Christ calls us to live holding on to the parts of us that Jesus came to save. We can’t hold on to those negative traits that keep us from being all that He has created and redeemed us to be. We can’t serve our neighbor if we are obstinately prejudiced or if we continue to do the things that go against God’s Word. We must be cleansed, and we must let go. This baggage we carry is a burden that is not necessary and it makes our life so much more difficult.
“There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.” John 1:6-14, ASV
We had a power outage at the house yesterday. We don’t know what happened, but it was something that affected a part of our neighborhood. We weren’t sure, at first, because it is difficult to see whether the neighbors have lights during the day. Bruce rang a few doorbells, but no one answered; we don’t know if they weren’t home or whether the doorbell didn’t work without the electricity. We finally called the electric company with a cell, who informed us (via a computerized system) that there was a power outage in our area.
The system gave us the option to get a phone call when everything was returned to normal, which we accepted. Of course, we knew the moment the electricity was back on because all our appliances began to work again. Clocks beeped, the TV turned on and the cable box started to reboot. Moments later the phone rang, which would not have worked without the electricity, with an automated call telling us that everything was fixed. No kidding.
A little later I turned on the computer to check my email. There, timed a few minutes after the power outage, was an email from the electric company informing me that there was an outage. That’s helpful, considering I could not even access my email without the electricity. I could use my tablet, but that was almost useless because the wifi in my house did not work without the electricity. Now, I realize that many people keep up with their mail and their social media on their phones, but most use wifi to do so and would not have received the message without it.
I’m probably signed up on some sort of program with the cable company, something I don’t even realize, that automatically sends these emails in the event of a problem; I received another email telling me everything was working again. I understand the value of these programs, they want to avoid having an onslaught of phone calls reporting the problem. However, if we are all in the dark, we will end up calling to find out why.
We’ve come to rely on this thing called the Internet and email, but it isn’t always a good thing. I had an email conversation with the ladies who attend Bible study with me last week. Between appointments, health issues and upcoming holidays, we decided to take a break from gathering. One lady did not check her email all week and did not know we weren’t meeting. She found the email later that afternoon, and responded with a joke about meeting with “me, myself and I.” I apologized because I felt bad that she drove to church that day and she said that she missed several important events this week because she didn’t check her email. “I have to remember to check it daily,” she said.
When the electricity went back on in my house yesterday and I could get on the computer, I posted on Facebook: “Thank goodness the electricity is back on. I mean, no TV or Internet... we actually had to talk to each other for a few minutes.” It was a joke, of course. I don’t mind spending time with my family; as a matter of fact, we still try to eat together at the dinner table as often as possible. It is hard some days, but worthwhile when we can.
I’m as much to blame as the next person, after all I relied on email to make decisions about our bible study, but we have impersonalized so much in our world. The grocery stores have self-checkouts, most stores have online shopping. The interaction with the electric company the other day was completely digital, we didn’t speak to a human being in any of the phone calls. We are so caught up in our own world that we don’t even recognize the presence of others in our world. We even text or message those are sitting in the same room! We like the impersonal human interaction because we don’t really like most people. We can hide behind the electronics, wearing a mask so that others will not see our faults while ignoring the aspects of our neighbor’s lives we’d rather overlook.
It is no wonder that we have such a hard time understanding that our God is a personal and present God. We are so disconnected with flesh and blood human beings that it is hard for us to accept that the Creator of the universe would want to be connected to His creation. Yet, John tells us that our God loved us so much that He took on the flesh of human life to dwell among us, He sent Jesus to be one of us and to die so that we could be reconnected to Him. He now dwells with us, in us as the Light that shines in and through our lives for the sake of the world and for the joy of those who believe in Him.
“This is my commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you. No longer do I call you servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I heard from my Father, I have made known unto you. Ye did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye may love one another.” John 15:12-17, ASV
I’m not usually a fan of extreme outdoor art installations. Even as an artist, I don’t always appreciate the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude or understand the value of wrapping 1.5 miles of Australian coastline with a million square feet of fabric. What purpose did Nele Alzevedo’s “Ice Sculpture of Melting Men” serve, since the hundreds of sitting ice figures melted within hours of being placed in display. Where is the beauty in Doris Salcedo’s “Chair Building”? Oh, the artists have a point to make, their installations are often poignant and amazing and despite the temporary nature of their creations, they are artists. I appreciate their creativity; I’m not really a fan of their work. That’s ok, they would probably think that my art is commonplace or perhaps even boring.
There is an art installation that has impressed me recently: Paul Cummins’ “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.” This piece, made up of 888,246 red ceramic poppies, honors the lives of all those from Great Britain who died during World War I. It has been growing over the past few months at the Tower of London, filling the moat with a sea of red. The poppies have been individually made and placed in the ground by a team of artists and volunteers. It includes a cascade of poppies flowing out of a window and a spray washing over a bridge.
The impact is extraordinary when you consider that each and every one of those nearly 900,000 poppies represents a life that was lost from one nation in one war. Think about these numbers: the population of Great Britain and Ireland was about forty six million people in 1914. Of those, ten percent were mobilized for the war. Of that number, more than twenty percent died. The ground of Europe was literally red with the blood of the dead. It is no wonder that we cry out for an end to all war. It seems pointless; too often it seems like the purpose is little more than big boys fighting over worthless toys. The toys are usually land, power, or money, but you get the idea.
Why would we want to remember so much blood that was shed so long ago? It is important for us to remember what has happened in the past so that we do not let it happen again. It might seem to some that the soldiers died in vain, but they believed in the cause for which they fought. As tragic and horrific the reality of war, sometimes it is necessary to stop the wrongs that are being done and the injustices that are being perpetrated. We remember so that we will not face another man like Hitler whose rise in power came in the years following World War I.
Sadly, we do forget. There are even those who deny what happened in Europe in those years, rewriting history to the point of even removing Hitler’s name from the record as if he had no role in the horror. Books have been written rejecting the claims that Nazi gas chambers killed millions and others uplifting the positive impact he had on Germany. This is the first step toward allowing another to gain control and do unspeakable things. The next Hitler may even be in a classroom today, preparing for his or her chance to take power. We remember the dead of the past so that we will be on guard, watching for the signs that should have warned us about the coming trouble.
There will always be those who are willing to do anything to be in control. The Tower of London, the site of the poppy installation, is the site of many innocent deaths, particularly in the medieval period. There were 112 executions, including Henry VIII’s wives Anne and Lady Jane Grey as well as others who were beheaded because he was afraid that they were plotting against him. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, brother of Edward IV, imprisoned his nephews Edward and Richard in the Tower and stole the throne. The boys disappeared; though it is likely they were killed in the Tower, their disappearance remains a mystery even today. Twelve men were executed for espionage during the First and Second World Wars. The blood literally poured on that grass.
But the poppies stand for something more than blood and death. The aftermath of war leaves behind a land destroyed by bombs, leveled by powerful machines, turned to mud and blackened by fire. It might be said the only color is the red of the blood of the dead, yet even that quickly dries into the reddish-brown shade of carmine. It isn’t pretty. However, in the midst of the carnage and destruction, the delicate but resilient Flanders poppies grew in the thousands. In the midst of death there is always hope.
Lt Col John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, was inspired by the sight of poppies to write a now famous poem called “In Flanders Fields.” “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place: and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders’ fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe; to you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high, if ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders’ Fields.”
It is sad to know how many we left behind, but John McCrae reminds us that it is up to us to continue the work, to continue the fight, for their sake. The poppies remind us that there are those who are willing to die if the cause is right. They have become a symbol of remembrance, not only for those lost, but also for those who took the risk to stand for what is right, the veterans who have fought the battles that keep the rest of us safe. They have taken up the torch that the previous generation threw, faithfully working toward the world for which they died. They remember the sacrifices of those long gone by continuing to fight for what is right.
On this Veteran’s Day we are thankful for those who have willingly risked everything for the sake of others. Most of all, however, we are thankful to the One who has set us free from even death. By faith in Him, our Lord Jesus Christ, we have eternal life. He has called us to go forth into the world, fighting the battles that do not spill blood on the land against an enemy that we can’t always see. He has saved us from death so that we can take His life to the world, overcoming the darkness and pain wrought by those who seek control by any means possible.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 16, 2014, Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Zephaniah 1:7-16; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
“Now after a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and maketh a reckoning with them.” Matthew 25:19, ASV
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” When we hear this bit of scripture, we automatically think of the atheist or agnostic who rejects or doubts the reality of God. They call us the fools for believing in a myth or a fairytale, calling faith a crutch to those who are not wise enough to understand the world without superstitious ideas.
As I was reading today’s Old Testament lesson from Zephaniah, I noticed another type of person who could be called a fool. God says, “And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps; and I will punish the men that are settled on their lees, that say in their heart, Jehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil.” The older language of the American Standard Version is harder for us to understand; “…are settled on their lees…” is better translated for us “are complacent.” This was spoken about God’s people, but for some reason they had become self-satisfied and conceited. They didn’t believe that God would do anything, good or bad. If they sinned, they wouldn’t be punished; any good works they did had nothing to do with God. It is almost better to reject or doubt God than to believe and reduce Him to nothing more than a far off creator-king who is no longer involved in his creation.
I’m not sure things are much different today. While many people believe that there is a God, their understanding of Him is minimalistic and their faith is little more than a footnote on their life. It is a label that doesn’t mean much, it doesn’t affect the way they live and they don’t expect anything to come of it. God is there, safely tucked away in the corner of their mind; they do what they think is necessary like attend church once in awhile and give canned goods to the food bank, but faith is kept separate from the rest of their lives. In too many cases, faith is the least priority. They might not say “Jehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil,” but they live as though nothing they do matters to their King.
When we were college shopping, my daughter and I visited two similar but very different colleges. They were similar in that they were founded and supported by a Christian denomination. Though faith was the foundation, they saw the relationship between the church and school very differently. During one tour we were repeatedly told that those the school is faith based, the relationship was little more than a footnote on their constitutions. The school was free to run things their way without church interference. The chapel was not even a stop on the tour, and the tour guide repeatedly told us about all the non-Christian activities that would thrill and entertain the students while they attended the college.
The second college was not only founded on Christian faith, but that faith still remains the center of student life. We began our tour in the chapel, where we were told that no classes are scheduled during certain times during the week so that all students, should they choose, can attend chapel services. Though the school certainly welcomed students from other denominations and even religions, the relationship between God, their sponsoring denomination and the school was obvious. Thankfully my daughter chose the school that would encourage, support and help her faith mature as they were preparing her for life in the world.
Many churches tend to ignore passages like today’s Old Testament lesson. It is filled with doom and gloom. Where is the promise? Where is the Gospel? There is only a word of warning describing that the Day of the Lord will be horrifying. God will be searching for sinners, setting forth to punish those who are indifferent. God’s people thought that God would let them be because they were His people, but in this passage we see that God will not hold back from dealing with the sins of His people. This isn’t a pretty passage. It is not an image of God we want to see.
But as we draw to the end of the Church year, we are reminded that we are still looking forward toward the Day of the Lord. We find comfort in the images of Christ returning, as a matter of fact I cry out for His return on a daily basis. We look forward to the final fulfillment of all God’s promises. We are certain that we will be the ones who will be welcomed through the pearly gates of heaven’s eternity. We are the chosen ones! All too often, however, the joke “frozen chosen” is much, much too true.
We cannot forget that the people of Israel were God’s chosen ones that had turned from the God who had blessed them above all other nations. They were set aside for a purpose and they had failed. They were unfaithful to God, they believed but they did not expect Him to accomplish anything. They didn’t expect Him to punish the sins of His people. They looked forward to the Day of the Lord because they were sure their enemies would be punished while they were set free. Unfortunately, they had turned their back on Him; they needed to repent.
So, it does us well to listen to the warnings of the Old Testament promise. It is true we live under a new covenant, but we are the same as those who throughout the ages have believed in God. We, too, can become complacent. We can forget God when our focus is on other things. We can turn our hope toward earthly things and lose sight of the One who is our true hope. Zephaniah talks about the people building houses and making wine, building up wealth that they would never use. Aren’t we doing the same? And when our lives are threatened by forces beyond our control, we mumble like the people in Zephaniah’s day that God won’t do anything, good or bad. We think we can “settle on our lees.” But God is offended by our indifference.
Is that what was happening in today’s Gospel story? Matthew tells us that the third servant, who did nothing with his talents, was afraid that the master would punish him if he lost even a penny of the resources he was given. He decided that it would be better to return the exact amount to the master because he didn’t expect the master to reward his efforts or punish his lack of effort. We are shocked to see that the master not only took away the servant’s talent but also sent that servant out into the darkness.
I know some people are very bothered by this passage because it is hard to accept a description of God as “a hard man, reaping where thou didst not sow, and gathering where thou didst not scatter.” What we see here is the story of a man trusting his servants with hands on experience in working in his kingdom. He gave resources and opportunity to each of his servants according to their ability. In that time they learned how to deal with the business. I think it is interesting that we don’t see someone who lost their talents, although I suspect that the master would have been merciful. A good master will give freedom to his servants to learn and succeed, even allow them to make mistakes. Some of the greatest lessons are learned in failure. The problem with the third servant was that he did not even try; he was cast into the darkness because he did nothing.
This master is described as a hard man but let’s think about what he did in this story. He gave three servants, better translated slaves, huge sums of money and the responsibility to take care of the business of his kingdom. A talent was worth a lifetime of wages, in today’s money it would be worth nearly a million dollars. At that, even the third servant was given a great wealth. The first two servants used their talents well and were able to double their money. When the Master came home, they presented Him with their work and He was well pleased. He not only commended the servants, but He gave them even greater work to accomplish.
Instead of working with his talent, the third servant buried it in the sand for safekeeping. He reasons that the Master is a man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter. What does this mean? Does the Master steal from the work of others? This is certainly an argument made about many large corporations where the CEOs get rich off the blood, sweat and tears of the employees. Isn’t it interesting, then, that we see the master not only allowing the first two servants to keep their talents, but he then gives the one talent to the servant who had the most. This is not the story of a hard and cruel taskmaster, but of a smart and generous businessman. I think as we see God in this character and realize that He is the Master who owns it all. Everything which is sown and everything which is reaped belongs to Him. He gives generously to His people to use what He has for His Kingdom.
We often focus specifically on the spiritual gifts when talking about this passage, particularly since most translations call the coin a “talent.” We think about our own talents and consider whether or not we are using them in a way that will grow the Kingdom of God. Are we serving Him with our music or art? Are we using our leadership skills to lead the body of Christ forward? Are we preaching God’s Word to those who need to hear, both as a pastor to the saved and an evangelist to the unsaved? It is vital that we take these gifts that God has given to us and use them in a way that will glorify Him.
This story isn’t necessary just about those spiritual gifts and talents; it is about our whole lives. After all, everything is God’s, isn’t it? We can probably list all the many ways we’ve served the Lord through our churches, the Sunday school classes we’ve taught or the songs we’ve sung in the choir. But do we take our faith out into the world in which we live, glorifying God with everything we do? Do we bury our gifts in the church and go about our daily lives without thought of God’s Kingdom?
We are just as afraid of that third servant, afraid to use what God has given us where it is risky. It is risky to share our faith with our neighbors. It is risky to serve people. It is risky to give everything we have for an outcome we can’t guarantee. It is much safer to keep our faith among friends, to share our gifts with those we know, to do the things that we are sure will make a difference in the world. It isn’t enough to dedicate a few hours in one place each week to the glory of God. God calls us to use everything He has given us (life, breath, love, time, hope, peace, faith, along with our tangible possessions and our spiritual gifts) every day for the sake of His Kingdom and people.
But we get complacent. We become self-satisfied and conceited. Though we don’t necessarily say it, we begin to act as if God will not do anything, good or bad. We let the world convince us that if God exists, He isn’t much more than a far away creator-king who is no longer involved with His creation. We hide our faith because we are accused of believing in those myths and fairytales; it is simply easier to have a private faith without the risk of being rejected or persecuted by the world. Unfortunately, that’s no better than the third servant who buried his talent in the ground, returning to the master only what he had given.
It takes time to get complacent. God’s people did not start out the way they were in Zephaniah’s time. They had passion and living, active faith. But time and the world mellowed their passion. They didn’t teach their children to have the same passion or faith. They conformed to the world. They allowed their leaders, their kings, to be allied with enemies and to concede to foreign friends. They made their faith fit their circumstances. Don’t we do the same?
We have talked about how the lectionary at this time of year focuses on the second coming of Christ, but how many of us are truly waiting for the Day of the Lord? How many of us really think we’ll see Him return in our lifetimes? Oh, there are those who think so, and who are counting down the days, studying the texts to learn the time and the place. There are even those who are working at ensuring that all the pieces are in place to make Him come sooner. But most of us, most Christians, go about our daily lives worried about how we’ll pay the mortgage and what we will have for dinner rather than whether or not we are ready for when Jesus comes. After all, it has been two thousand years; perhaps we misunderstood. Some have suggested that He has already come or that the second coming is spiritual. That kind of thinking makes us stop preparing and waiting because there is no reason for it.
Despite two thousand years of waiting, we are called to stay awake. We are called to dwell daily in the promise of God. Jesus can still come and if we lose sight of His kingdom, He will come like a thief in the night.
Throughout the scriptures we are told that we will not know the hour or the day of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are warned to be ready, despite two thousand years of waiting, we are called to stay awake. Paul might have thought that Jesus would return during his lifetime, but his words continue to be appropriate for us today. We need to be careful that we do not become complacent or settle into the world without concern for the heavenly things.
Paul writes in this letter to the Thessalonians that God’s plan is beyond our knowing. We have no excuse to bury our resources; Jesus expects us to be using everything God has given us for the sake of His Kingdom. Too many today are hiding behind the trivial, meaningless interpretations and predictions of the end times or are hiding behind the safety of the church. God calls us out into the world He created with the gifts He has given to share our faith even when it is risky to do so. He is not a hard taskmaster; He is a generous King who gives us both the resources and the opportunity to do His work while we wait for His return.
We might fail, but God isn’t looking for us to make Him rich, or even to expand His Kingdom. Everything is His already. He is looking for us to try. What we will find, however, is that we can’t really fail with God on our side. He is faithful to all His promises, and He is able to do whatever He intends. He has invited us to be a part of it and He has given us all we need to do so. All He asks is that we try.
We like to put God in a box. It is much easier for us to deal with the concept of God if He fits within our human understanding. We build magnificent churches in which we invite Him to dwell in them, as if He needs a place made by human hands to dwell. We visit Him regularly, but when we walk out the doors into the world, we forget that He goes with us. It is easier for us if we let Him stay hidden away in our box because then we do not have to try to explain the things we do not understand about Him. We don’t know how to juxtapose our image of God when faced with an image like that which we see from Zephaniah.
We find it especially difficult to deal with the idea of eternity. How can there be no beginning or end to time? We have so nicely laid out our days, divided them up into simple units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. We have even taken the story of God and divided it up into seasons—that’s what we do with the lectionary. Time is easier for us to grasp when we can identify it. We remember yesterday and look forward to tomorrow. We keep histories of our lives so that we won’t forget and we fit God into our story. It is too frightening to think of ourselves in God’s story. What is our life compared to eternity? What is our little corner of the world compared to the universe? Our life is barely a fraction of a second and we are nothing more than a spot on a speck. To cope with this, we define God by our terms, limiting His time and His scope to be much closer to us. We can hold on to a God that we keep in a building.
God calls us to look at the world from a different perspective. He does not need our buildings in which to dwell, but offers Himself as a dwelling place for us. He is not limited by time. For Him a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. The psalmist writes, “a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” We might think time passes quickly, especially when we watch our children grow up. But we can’t even imagine a thousand years being like just one day.
And so, as we draw closer to the Day of the Lord, we are reminded that God cannot be kept in a box, but we do have our limits. Time passes for us. We get older. Things change. The world becomes different. Our magnificent buildings get old and crumble, the things we deem important become obsolete. Even our words pass away; they are forgotten or they become irrelevant. But God and His Word are from everlasting to everlasting. He does not dwell in the world we have created for Him, we dwell in Him. He does not exist within time as we have ordered it; He has ordered the world in which we dwell. We need not put God in a box to understand Him because He has given us all we need. Whether our time is short or long, our home large or small, we dwell in the midst of the One who is outside time and space even while we are limited by our flesh in this world. And while we find comfort in our understanding of God, let us never forget that He is more than we can imagine.
In this day, we should be watchful and alert, doing as God has called us to do, living as God has created and redeemed us to live. We are in Christ, saved by His blood and Spirit, called out of darkness into the light. In that light, we are to love God with our whole being, doing His work every day. God is faithful and His Word is true. The Day will come, whether it is today or in a thousand years and God has provided us with everything we need as we wait. We need not be afraid to risk what He has given us for He will provide the growth.
Let us pray that we will, one day, hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” In that Day, we will be invited to share in His joy, to bask in His glory, to dwell in His Kingdom forever.
“And when they found him on the other side of the sea, they said unto him, Rabbi, when camest thou hither? Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves, and were filled. Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him the Father, even God, hath sealed. They said therefore unto him, What must we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. They said therefore unto him, What then doest thou for a sign, that we may see, and believe thee? what workest thou? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread out of heaven to eat. Jesus therefore said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, It was not Moses that gave you the bread out of heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down out of heaven, and giveth life unto the world. They said therefore unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.” John 6:24-35, ASV
I have a file box filled with papers that I collected when I was dealing with my father’s estate. I had to take it out today to look for some information, and I found myself picking through a pile of useless paperwork until I found what I needed. I just need to get rid of most of the pages, but even though there is little more than old phone bills and tax reports, I’m having trouble letting it go. See, that box is pretty much all I have left from my dad’s life. Oh, I have photos, but Daddy was not a collector, so I don’t have any things that I can point to in my house and say, “That belonged to my dad.” I have a few things, like some dishes and knick knacks from my mom, but the only tangible things I have for my dad are in that box. If I got rid of the phone bills and tax receipts, his life would be reduced to little more than a folder with his birth and death certificates, along with a few other things.
I know. Our lives are not reduced to a few pieces of paper. We accomplish things that can’t be put into a file box. We impact the lives of those around us, sometimes without even knowing it. But, I have to admit that I like having those tangible reminders of the people I love, both living and dead. Those things give us insight into the people to whom they once belonged. In the box I found my father’s Selective Service registration card. He carried it in his wallet along with his honorable discharge card until the day he died. The Selective Service card is so tattered and torn that you can’t even read the last number in the date. He probably signed up in 1945 when he turned 18, although he didn’t enter the army until 1950. These are things I wouldn’t know without those cards.
The rest of the stuff is useless, and I know that on the next rainy day I need to just carefully go through the box and remove all the junk. I really don’t need the sales agreement to a car we sold several years ago or the old pay stubs from my dad’s last job. I don’t even need those old tax returns anymore. After shredding the things unnecessary, I need to put those important papers in a proper place where they will be protected for future generations. If they have value, then they belong somewhere special.
As I look around my house, I see all the beautiful things I’ve collected, the thousands of books on my bookshelves, the clothes hanging in my closet. In a generation or two, all that will be left will be a few knick knacks and a pile of papers. The things we have in this world are temporary. They will not last forever. Even the memories of our lives are likely to wane. My mother’s parents died before I was born, so I never knew them. I know a few things, but not much. My children know even less. One day even the photos will show nothing more than people who lived a long time ago. We want to be immortal. We want the memories of our lives to last forever. We want to leave behind something that will stand as a testament to our accomplishments. Some people are able to guarantee that they will be remembered longer by putting their names on buildings or writing autobiographies, but most of us are only remembered as long as the memories of our loved ones can add stories to the things we leave behind.
But we don’t need to seek immortality in this world; as Christians we are promised eternity. We don’t need to be kept alive in this world after we have died because faith guarantees us a new life forever in the presence of God. We don’t need to be remembered forever in this world because we will dwell forever in the Kingdom of Heaven. The things we leave behind, those papers that defined our existence, the knick knacks that we loved, the people who touched our lives and whose lives we touched, they will all disappear, too. All that stuff is good to have, it is helpful to have tangible reminders of those we’ve loved and lost, but we have a hope that goes beyond the stuff of this world. God has promised that even when everything of this world is gone, we will still be.
The tangible things are nice, but let’s always remember what truly matters: our faith in Jesus Christ. The life we live today has value; it has purpose. Our life will leave an impact that will last beyond our years. But the real treasure is that which we have received through faith in Christ: eternity in the presence of God. For a little while we will have to settle for the tangible memories we have, but one day we will be with those we loved in a new and better way: perfectly and eternally.
“But this I say, He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Let each man do according as he hath purposed in his heart: not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound unto you; that ye, having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work: as it is written, He hath scattered abroad, he hath given to the poor; His righteousness abideth for ever. And he that supplieth seed to the sower and bread for food, shall supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness: ye being enriched in everything unto all liberality, which worketh through us thanksgiving to God.” 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, ASV
I know. You don’t want to hear it. I know you’ve been complaining because the signs of the season are everywhere. A DJ from a local radio station has decided to not listen to his own station because they’ve already started playing the music 24/7. You can hear it in the background at the stores. Television is filling up with ads. I know they are already on the shelves in the grocery store, but if I have to listen to that adorable Hershey’s Kiss “Jingle Bells” add for six weeks, even I will get sick of it.
I have to admit that I’ve already been shopping. I can’t decide what I’m going to do for the ‘big’ gifts for my family, but a box is filling with stocking stuffers. I’m excited about the holiday this year because my baby girl will be home. So, yes, I’m already thinking about things. But it is way too early to be decorating, baking or wrapping. It is still too early for the music to be playing.
People complain because they want to get through one holiday before they start to think about the next. I love the Internet meme that shows a cartoon of a turkey with Santa Claus. They turkey says, “December, Fat Boy! This month is for MY holiday! Now hop in that sleigh and wait your turn!” We aren’t stupid, though; we know why they do it. See, if they play that Christmas music in the background, you subconsciously start thinking about the shopping you have to do. You pick up things, but then you keep shopping. In the end, because you’ve been shopping for six weeks instead of four, you end up paying more money. You end up with more things under the Christmas tree and they end up having a better than ever year. At least that’s the plan.
So, I get it. I know why everyone is complaining. It just isn’t time yet. It is even worse for the extreme Advent adherent because we don’t even want to hear Christmas songs until Christmas. We want Advent to be a watchful time of longing and preparation. We want to build up to the joy of Christmas Day without skipping the time of hopeful expectation as the Light grows in a world of darkness that is in desperate need of a Savior.
There is something I want to encourage, though. While there is plenty of time to prepare for Christmas in December, it is vital to think about how to help those outside our families now. Yes, it seems early to buy Candyland for a child, but now is exactly the right time to buy it if we are going to donate it to charity that provides toys for those who might not have a Christmas. Operation Christmas Child by Samaritan’s Purse will be collecting their shoeboxes next week so that they can be shipped in time to the places where they are needed. A local charity is seeking donations and volunteers so that they can provide a ‘store’ for parents to find gifts for their children. Several organizations are setting up angel trees around the city with the names of people in need of help so that they will have a happy Christmas, including an organization for seniors. After all, they need to know they are loved, too.
A local favorite, Elf Louise, will begin to fundraise in earnest this weekend with a golf tournament. They have been busy compiling lists of children in San Antonio who will need to be served this year and organizing volunteers for all the events. As with all these types of organizations, it takes months to prepare. They need to keep a careful record so that in the end every child will receive something special. They can’t wait until the last day to realize that they need a hundred more toys because then it is too late.
So, now is the time to think about these things. You can certainly be generous with a check the week before Christmas, but that money will not be helpful this year. Now is the time to pick an angel off a tree, buy a toy to put in the collection bin, pick up a box to send to Operation Christmas Child. Now is the time to find a way to brighten the Christmas of someone whose circumstances make it impossible for them to have a Merry Christmas. Now is the time to think about others in the spirit which we would otherwise put off until December.
“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward. For the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For in hope were we saved: but hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopeth for that which he seeth? But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. And in like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:18-27, ASV
We had an issue with our heater, which was a problem last week as the temperatures outside dropped much too low for this time of year. We weren’t ready for it; the same can be said for many people around the United States. I have my thermostat set with a minimum and maximum temperature, so it starts the air when it gets too warm in the house and it starts the heater when it gets too cold. The first couple days when the heater turned on, everything seemed fine, but the temperature never really dropped far below the minimum. On the third day, when we reached near freezing temperatures, the heater ran and ran but the temperature kept going down. I knew something was wrong.
We had the system checked last spring, to make sure the air conditioning was ready for summer, and the tech noticed that our pilot light was out. He fixed it, but a few days later on a chilly morning, we noticed it wasn’t working. A tech came back and changed a part. It seemed to be working, but then the outside temperatures warmed up and we didn’t need the heater. We noticed that the problem had returned when it got cold last week. Luckily we were scheduled for our fall check-up, and this tech discovered the reason for the latest problem.
At some point the gas pressure changed, causing the pilot light to be much taller than it should be, making it extremely sensitive to a breeze. Of course, you have to allow air movement in the system so that exhaust can escape; you can’t block the small breezes. The tech told me he lowered the pressure, making the flame shorter, which will keep it from blowing out with every gust of wind. So far everything has worked as it should.
Many people ask why God allows suffering. It doesn’t make sense to our minds or our hearts. We know God is gracious and merciful. We know He loves His creation. Human caregivers do whatever they can to make sure their charges are safe and have enough of the necessities to be well. A mother doesn’t let her child run across the street; a father provides food for the table. If human caregivers can provide these things, how much more can the God of the universe provide for His people?
Yet, we know that sometimes even the most faithful, faith-filled people can suffer in ways that just don’t make sense. They get sick and die. They are beaten and killed by their enemies. They lack the daily necessities for life. How could God allow this to happen? Couldn’t He put a hedge around our lives to keep all the bad things out? As a matter of fact, this is exactly what some Christians pray to happen. Some preachers tell their congregations that God will ensure only good things for their lives, that God will make sure that they are always happy. Unfortunately, at the first sign of difficulty, these Christians lose their faith.
But here’s the thing: like that heater that can’t be blocked from the breeze so that the exhaust can escape, God doesn’t block the breezes from blowing in our world. Sometimes those breezes cause things to happen that we don’t want, but without that freedom for the wind to blow, we wouldn’t be changed and transformed into the people God has created and redeemed us to be. Sometimes it is the bad thing that causes the greatest blessings because it is in that suffering that we really see the work of God.
It is important, then, that we ensure that everything is in good shape. In the heater, the gas needs to flow at the right rate. In our lives of faith, we need to be sure that we trust in God, spend time in prayer, bible study and fellowship with other Christians. That will keep the flame from being blown out when the breezes do blow. We might experience suffering, but when we do, God will bless us in ways we can never imagine, transformed more and more into His image and strengthened for the work He will call us to do.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 23, 2014, Christ the King Sunday: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
“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.” Matthew 25:44, ASV
Christ. The. King. We have finally reached the last Sunday of the year when we celebrate and look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises in and through Jesus Christ. Over the past year we have seen Him as a baby, as a boy, as a rabbi, teacher, friend. We’ve seen Him tell stories and change people’s lives with healing and forgiveness. We have seen Him live, die and rise again. The promise of His kingship has been woven in the parables and in the promises, but on this day we focus on this.
I’m not sure Christ the King is an image we appreciate; after all, history has shown us the failures of kings throughout time. I read a lot of historical fiction, and my favorite time period is during the reigns of the Tudors. Quite frankly, if our image of a king is Henry VIII, I’m not sure any of us would want Jesus to be a king. He was selfish and self-centered; he surrounded himself with the wrong advisors who were able to manipulate him to their own benefit by convincing him that their ideas were in his best interest. Of course, that often meant that others would suffer, and many did suffer. The selfishness of Henry and his advisor led to the imprisonment, torture and death of many innocent people. Even those who weren’t quite so innocent did not deserve to be beheaded.
And while Henry VIII is a rather extreme example, I’m sure that we can find fault with every earthly monarch. Even King David had his faults. Good monarchs have existed, but none of them were, or are, perfect. When the Hebrews saw that the other nations had kings, they went to Samuel and told him they wanted one. It wasn’t enough for them to have a God who spoke to them through a judge, they wanted a king like everyone else. God warned them that a king would take advantage of them, he would do what served self rather than nation and people; they didn’t care. Samuel took it personally, but God reminded him that they were rejecting Him. “Give them what they want.” They got it, and the kings throughout time have been disappointments beginning with Saul.
What does it mean that Christ is King? Will He sit on a throne? Will He take advantage of His subjects? Will He rule with an iron fist? Will He, as Samuel warns, take our sons to fight and our daughters as slaves? Will He take everything we own and use it for His own purposes? Will He demand taxes or command our labor? Will Christ the King be like the king that God warned the people of Israel and like all kings (even the good ones) have been?
No, Christ will not be a king like Henry VIII. On Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the return of how it was meant to be. See, Israel had a King: God was her King. But the people wanted an earthly, human representative they could see, hear, understand and perhaps even touch. God was good, and did so many good things for them, but He was so distant and frightening. They were content to let others be a intermediary, but then wondered whether or not they could be trusted. After all, even Samuel’s sons were not trustworthy. Isn’t it better to take command from an imperfect human decision maker than to trust someone claiming to speak for an unseen and unknowable God?
We know now, thanks to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, that while God is greater than we can ever imagine, He is not unknowable. We can know Him; we’ve seen Him. Jesus has bridged the gap between human beings and our Creator. Though God is still everything we see in the Old Testament, for God never changes, through faith we have been restored to that intimate relationship that once was lost. He is still a God to be feared, but not in the sense that we are afraid. We are in awe of that which God was, is and will be and what He has done, is doing and will do. He isn’t self-centered like the human kings, He doesn’t rely on advisors; He loves us to the point of sacrificing even His own Son to reconcile with us and that very Son will be the true King forever.
In the beginning, they had God as their King and He provided prophets and judges to lead them. There were also priests, whose job was to minister to the Lord and administer the sacrifices. God warned them that an earthly king would demand much from the people: many would be cruel and lay heavy burdens on their lives. But He granted their request for a king. Over the years, some of the kings were cruel and the people were led from the path of righteousness. Israel lost their independence, the line of kings ended and they were left desolate. Puppet kings ruled by the time that Jesus came; they were controlled by the Romans. Even the priests and temple leaders were more interested in their own welfare and position than that of the people they were called to lead.
The LORD knew what was going to happen to His people, so He promised that He would come for them and be their Shepherd King just as He was in the beginning. He promised that though the priests would abandon them for their own selfish reasons, He would never let them go. He promised that He would bring them home, give them all they need and tend them as a shepherd tends his sheep. He will not allow any to be lost and all those who suffer will be healed.
He did this by sending Jesus, our Shepherd King the Savior. Jesus came to fulfill the promises, to remove those who were not doing God’s work so that the One, true King would rule over the hearts of men once again. It was not an easy task, for only through the cross of humiliation could God’s people be reconciled to Him. But Jesus did it; He died for you and for me. Today, we still face human leaders that will do us harm and place heavy burdens on our backs. There are even such leaders within the church, those who care only for their own welfare and position and who care nothing for the sheep they are called to lead. But God will not abandon His sheep. His promises through Ezekiel are as true today as they were when they were first uttered. God will take us home, protect us, tend to our needs and give us rest: the Lord God Almighty is the Good Shepherd and He is faithful.
God promised in the passage from Ezekiel that He would be their shepherd. He promised that He would take them home, protect them, tend to their needs and give them rest. Yet, Ezekiel was not finished. He then spoke to the sheep themselves, and warned them that it is not just the responsibility of the shepherd to care for the sheep, but also that the sheep should care for one another.
The true King has given us the most incredible gifts: life, love and salvation. He has provided for our every need, given us food for our tables and roofs over our heads. He has given us friends, family, hope and peace. He has promised to be with us through the rough times when money is scarce and our health is failing. No matter what happens in this world, we know that through faith in Christ we will spend eternity in the presence of God. Unfortunately, we don’t always live in thankfulness for the lives God has given. We step on our brothers and sisters; we take what we have been given and use it selfishly, forgetting to share with those who are in need.
The King in today’s Gospel lesson judges His people. The focus during these past few weeks has reminded us that the Day of the Lord will not be a day of laughter and roses. The King will judge the work of His people. We saw the wise bridesmaids prepared for a long wait while the foolish ones let their oil go out. We saw the two servants put to the master’s resources to good use while the third just buried it. Today we see that the sheep took care of the needs of their neighbors while the goats ignored the opportunities to serve. In the end, each of these stories ended poorly for those who did not do as expected, they end with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Goats aren’t bad creatures. As a matter of fact, goats were used in Temple worship in the days of ancient Israel. They were used as sacrifices; even the curtain inside the Temple was made with goat hair. In terms of value, goats were the least valuable of the domesticated animals, but that doesn’t make them worthless. According to Heifer International, goats are one of the “Seven M” animals. The most efficient use of livestock resources is found in those animals that offer meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials and motivation. Goats reproduce quickly, often birthing kids several times a year. The milk can be used for drinking, cooking, butter and cheese. Farms with more than one goat can provide their excess for sale. Goat manure makes excellent fertilizer. They are small and need less space for proper care. They eat anything, including weeds that are dangerous for other animals and people, so they are better for managing land. They can be trained to carry packs or they are strong enough to pull wagons. They can be housebroken and make rather good pets. Goat hair is used to make wool, including mohair and cashmere. These animals are certainly of some value, particularly among those families for whom one animal could mean the difference between life and death.
So, why would Jesus compare the sheep to the goats? In many ways, sheep and goats are the same but they are very different in terms of behavior. In Jesus’ day, the sheep and the goats were separated at night, the goats put into a barn to keep warm but the sheep preferred to stay in the field. Goats are willing to eat anything, preferring leaves, twigs, vines and shrubs. They are even able to eat some plants that are deadly to other animals. Sheep prefer the short tender grasses and clover in the field. Sheep eat to the ground, while goats prefer to eat off the top of the plant. There are also differences in their social behavior. Goats are more curious, wandering to seek out new food sources. They are independent; they do not wander with a flock but move wherever they want. Sheep, however, flock together and become discontent when alone.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus separated the sheep from the goats. The goats go their own way; the sheep stay together. I’m not sure it can be said that sheep help one another, but they are safer and warmer in a group than the goats that go off on their own. The people who are like sheep are those who live in community, sharing what they have with others. People who are like goats live for themselves. That’s certainly the difference between the sheep and the goats in today’s Gospel lesson. The sheep didn’t know they were caring for their Lord, but they cared for one another. The goats were ignorant of other’s needs and thus ignorant of the Lord’s presence.
This doesn’t mean that the sheep are perfect at doing good works or that the goats never share. It simply means that the sheep are those whose hearts and spirits respond to the needs of others. As we enter into the holiday season, many people will be generous. They will give quarters to the Salvation Army Santas; they will put toys in the collection barrel. They will take food to the food bank and send checks to their favorite charities. There is no doubt that most people will do something charitable in the next six weeks.
Here’s the thing: we are very aware of those charitable moments when we do something nice or give a donation. As we can see in this story, however, the sheep and the goats had no idea they were doing a good work. “When did we see you, Lord?” We don't always see Christ in the midst of our ordinary lives, but He is with us daily. Sometimes we realize later that we've had a divine appointment, when the revelation of God's mercy and grace is made apparent to us. However, most often our experiences in sharing God's love happen without our noticing, like when we speak a word of compassion to someone waiting in the grocery line or when we share a meal with a sick friend. These things do not seem extraordinary, but it is those very things that Jesus commends. He is reminding us in this story that we should always be ready to respond with grace and mercy to everyone who crosses our path.
Christ longs to say to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, join in my happiness.” Oh, sure, it is impossible to see the face of God in His fallen creation, but if we do not concern ourselves with all those whom we meet that need Christ, we might just miss the Christ whom we so greatly long to see. If that’s the way we live, we are just like the shepherds in Ezekiel’s day that stepped on the sheep to get fat, and like the goats in the parable that ignored the needs of their neighbors, missing the presence of Christ.
This is not a call to seek God’s face in every person we meet; we need only live in faith, trusting in our Great Shepherd’s grace as we respond to His love by meeting the needs of this world. In this way we live in praise and thanksgiving, joining our Master in His happiness. As Christians, with the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, the response to the worlds needs is natural. We don’t do good works because it is that time of year, or because it makes us feel good, or even because we know we should give back. We do what we do because that is who we are. We have been transformed by faith to be Christ-like, to be His hands in the world. Your holiday charity is a blessing to someone, for sure, but our life is meant to be one of service always, no matter the time or our circumstances.
The three things Paul desires for the Ephesians is “hope,” “riches of his glorious inheritance,” and “immeasurable greatness of his power.” Not only those three things, but that the people might “know what” they were. What is hope? What is the riches about which Paul writes? What is God’s power? Unfortunately, all three of these are often misunderstood and mischaracterized. So, as we consider the coming of the King of Kings, we are asked to consider what it means to hope. What riches are we to expect? What power is there from God?
All too often, we want to put our hope in something less than Christ. We want the riches of His inheritance to be something tangible. And power. That is perhaps the hardest one for us to control. We want power. And so we pray those prayers asking for ‘enlightenment’ for those who do not see God’s grace with eyes like ours because we know if they change their mind, we will have the power. The greatest lesson we can learn from the apocalyptic texts of the Bible is that it is not up to us to have the power. It is up to us to trust in God; the King will make everything right.
As we recall those lessons that we’ve heard from Matthew 25 over the past few weeks, we see that they point toward these three promises. The oil in the lamps is the hope the bridesmaids had for the coming of the Lord. The ones who were prepared knew that it could take longer than they expected and they were prepared, trusting that the bridegroom would come because He promised, not that He would come when they expected Him. The two servants took the resources of their master and made them grow, and then they were invited to enter into their master’s joy, sharing in the riches of his glorious inheritance. The sheep didn’t try to control the power for their own benefit, but were led by their shepherd to take care of one another.
So, we ask for a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we wait for the coming of the Lord. We live in a world where many people think they know what it will be like. There are hundreds, thousands, of books on the subject. We read these books and think that we know what God has up His sleeve, and we think ourselves as better in some way because we ‘get it.’ Yet, Paul reminds us that we do not have the power; that is for Christ alone. God will set him above all else, with the world as his footstool. And even more comforting is that Jesus will be the head of the church. We don’t need to be in control. We don’t need to have the power. God does, and He has given it to Jesus Christ to be the source of our hope and the immeasurable riches of our inheritance. We are called to trust in Him and live as if He is always with us, responding to the needs of this world with grace and mercy. In the end, we will see the fulfillment of His promises. Christ the King will welcome us into His Kingdom and we will dwell in His presence for eternity.
He is a King that is worthy to be praised. The psalmist writes, “For Jehovah is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, and he made it; and his hands formed the dry land.” This is the One who deserves our praise and thanksgiving; He is greater than anything in this world because He created it all. How can we possibly see the Creator in His fallen creation? How can we see God in the ordinary? I’m not sure we’ll ever recognize His face when we see it; neither the sheep nor the goats knew they were seeing God. The sheep responded anyway. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do.
“And he said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to nations that are rebellious, which have rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me even unto this very day. And the children are impudent and stiffhearted: I do sent thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah. And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them. And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they are a rebellious house. And thou shalt speak my words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear; for they are most rebellious. But thou, son of man, hear what I say unto thee; be not thou rebellious like that rebellious house: open thy mouth, and eat that which I give thee.” Ezekiel 2:3-8, ASV
I have a bookshelf filled with bibles and religious reference books. There are concordances for several versions of the bible, theological dictionaries, commentaries, historical texts, a bible thesaurus, books of quotations and reference books with maps and charts. I have several parallel bibles, some that are New Testament only, some are red letter editions, some are devotional bibles and others are study bibles with notes. I have multiple copies of some versions, each with a different focus. I have one that has archeological notes, another which focuses on Lutheran theology, and one with study questions. I even have some Greek text resources. Just on that bookshelf I have about twenty-five different bibles, about fifteen different versions. There are several more around the house.
Now, I know some would be concerned with my variety of Bible versions; there are those who prefer certain English versions and even claim that they are the only ones that are acceptable. It can be confusing to use multiple versions because words are sometimes different from one to another. It is worse when the words seem to be much different in meaning. We’ve often had discussions in Sunday School about the meaning of texts because one bible says one thing and another says another. While the words might mean similar things they can be interpreted much differently. It is no wonder that there is so much disagreement between churches.
Take, for instance, the text of the prayer that we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Do we forgive sins, debts or trespasses? Though all three words have the same basic meaning, they can be understood in different ways. Sin has a religious connotation, debt financial and trespass legal. Is our forgiveness in spirit, resources or flesh? And what does that mean? It is much easier if we use exactly the same words, then there can be no confusion.
Yet, one thing that makes Christianity unique is the fact that it is a religion of the vernacular. Some other religions do not allow their sacred texts to be translated; the adherent must be able to read it in the original language. But the New Testament was not even written in the Hebrew or Aramaic language of Jesus Christ, it was written in Greek, the most common language of the time. The language of the Bible, from the very beginning, reached out beyond the world of the Jews to the people of all nations. As of November 2014 the full Bible has been translated into 531 languages, and 2,883 languages have at least some portion of the Bible, including, apparently, Klingon.
It was important to the Apostles to speak the Gospel message in a way that could be heard. They never once diminished the message by adapting it to the people to whom they spoke. It all began with Jesus. He knew exactly what each person needed. Some needed to be pushed into faith, others needed to be led there. One believed in Jesus because He had authority, another because he spoke truth. Some needed a physical sign of God’s presence to believe, others believed by His word. Of course, there were many who never believed, no matter what was said they did not have faith in Jesus.
We know what worked for us, and we tend to stick with the words that made us see the Truth. Yet, we have to remember that like those words of the Lord’s Prayer, there might be better words for us to use with our neighbors. If our fears are spiritual, the promise of forgiveness from sin means more to us than those of financial or legal. However, there are those who need to hear the promise that there is hope for their debts or trespasses. The rich man needs to know that there is forgiveness for his business practices that are not necessarily immoral are not quite righteous, so that he can be set free to be gracious. The same can be said about those who trespass. Whether we are sinners, debtors or trespassers, we all need to hear the words of forgiveness in a way that we will experience God’s grace and be transformed by His power into people who are free to live fully in spirit, resource and flesh to God’s glory. Some will still not hear, but it is up to us to constantly try to speak the Word of forgiveness to the world in a way that they might hear and believe.
"And they were bringing unto him little children, that he should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God.Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein. And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them." Mark 10:13-16, ASV
I think I am going to buy some fresh flowers when I go to the grocery store today. It isn't quite so cold today, but it is foggy and the cloudy sky promises a few days of wet weather. We are even expecting severe weather tomorrow, including hail, tornadoes and strong wind. Heavy rain means the possibility of flooding. I'm not so bothered by the dreary weather; we live in a place where it is sunny most of the time, so a few days of cloudy are a nice change. However, even a few days of gloomy skies can affect the attitude, especially as we worry about those who will be affected by the extreme weather. I'm thinking a few fresh flowers will be a note of brightness is the dark.
I used to buy fresh flowers regularly when we lived in England; that's one of the things I miss most about our time there. Flowers were inexpensive at the market and it was possible to fill multiple vases for just a few dollars. It is a little thing, but it is a joy to have the fragrant scent and the bright colors gracing our world.
I recently heard someone say, "Nobody wants to be ordinary; everyone wants to be great." I can understand why the commentator might have said it, but I'm not sure it is true. While it is good for us to always strive to be our best, our best does not necessarily mean that we must accomplish something great. We don't have to be rich or famous; we don't have to leave behind a legacy that will be remembered forever. The most extraordinary things we can do might seem like little things, but in them is found the grace that changes the world.
William Martin said, "Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness. Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life. Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears. Show them how to cry when pets and people die. Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand. And make the ordinary come alive for them. The extraordinary will take care of itself."
The flowers I buy today will not last forever; as a matter of fact, they will probably be withered and brown within a week. Yet, for that brief moment those flowers will fill our world with a touch of beauty. It won't change anything. The storm will still come. We will still watch the radar and pray for the safety of those who have to be out in the weather. We will still face the risk of damage from hail, tornado and wind.
There have been a bunch of posts on Facebook recently of adorable animals or children hugging one another. The meme usually includes something about sending a hug to friends to brighten their day. It might seem like a little thing and absolutely ordinary, but we all know that sometimes even a hug can be extraordinary. Even the touch of a hand can change an attitude; as Martin said, there is infinite pleasure in it.
We usually focus on that children are important in the Kingdom and to Jesus when we read today's scripture passage, but I want to note something deeper. "And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them." We usually ignore or pass over this verse because it doesn't seem nearly as radical and important as Jesus' willingness to give the insignificant people in the world, including children, a place of honor. However, the children really didn't care about the political or religious statement Jesus was making; they were changed by that remarkable moment when He touched them. It is a little thing, but it is a joy to share God's grace in the ordinary. We won't chase away the storms with a vase full of flowers or a touch of the hand, but the little things can be a source of light in the darkness that is so needed in this world.
"He said therefore, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I liken it? It is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his own garden; and it grew, and became a tree; and the birds of the heaven lodged in the branches thereof." Luke 13:18-19, ASV
A dollar isn't worth much anymore, is it? I can't think of very many things I could buy with a dollar. You might be able to buy a cup of coffee in a fast food place or a can of soda from a machine. Some candy bars are less than a dollar, but even those are getting more expensive. You certainly can't buy the food for a decent meal; a box of macaroni and cheese, some tuna fish and a can of corn costs nearly three dollars these days. I could not even try to buy a meal with fresh meat and vegetables with just a dollar.
There are several different retail chains that sell everything for a dollar, but even then you usually have to pay tax, so the one dollar item actually costs a few cents over a dollar, depending on where you live. And, those items are usually not very good quality. Jay Leno had a bit he used to do on the Tonight Show of items purchased at one of those stores. The packaging was funny, poorly worded and often completely different than the item inside. Every so often I see an article about the things you should never purchase at one of those stores. The cleaning products might be similar to the name brands, but they are so watered down that they are useless. The food is often just short of expiration date, already stale and sometimes even moldy. The electronics are previously owned or from bad production runs. It might seem like good stewardship to save money at that store, but sometimes that dollar actually gets you much less than it would if you put it with a second and bought something of better quality.
A recent article in Reader's Digest asked a number of creative thinkers, "What is the best way to invest a dollar?" This seems like an impossible question because it would take lifetimes for a dollar investment to show anyworth. There's nothing you can do with a dollar! Yet the answers given were creative, thoughtful and amazing; some of them were realistic, some idealistic.
One respondent talked about going to a small town, most of which are struggling to keep Main Street from dying. He said he'd offer to buy the closed movie theater for a dollar, do some fundraising and reopen it. He said it had already happened in one small town, perhaps it could happen in another. Another respondent suggested that the best investment would be to buy seeds for a tree, plant the seeds and then watch it grow. That investment would take years to bear fruit, but it would last for decades. An old proverb says, "The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today." Martin Luther once said, "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today."
Several people responded with charities or people they'd support, investing in a credit union, sharing with a street musician, giving to a nonprofit or tech company developing resources for third world countries. One dollar might not seem like much, but if a thousand people all gave a dollar, then there would be a thousand dollars, which can do something. One respondent talked about the framed dollars that hang on the walls of small businesses, and how that one dollar was just the start of something fantastic. By shopping in small businesses, or supporting an artist, you are investing in the human spirit.
One suggested changing that dollar to four quarters and finding an old school video game to have an hour's worth of fun. Another suggested buying a newspaper to read about current events to stay informed and be ready to strike up an interesting conversation with a neighbor. Another thought it would be fun to bury the dollar in a beautiful place and then create a hidden treasure map so that someone might have a fun adventure in search of it years later. Finally, one respondent said that they would buy (a cheap) cup of coffee for someone they admired and talk to them for a while. It is amazing what you can learn over a cup of coffee.
So, what would you do with a dollar (or your monetary equivalent)? Would you invest that dollar in a person or a business you want to support? Would you use it to buy a small gift or to share a moment over a cup of tea with a friend? Would you combine it with other dollars to make a difference in the world? Would you combine it with your time and talents to create something new and beautiful? Would you use it to plant some wildflowers on the side of the road or some vegetables in your garden? A dollar might not be much, but every dollar can make an impact.
Most of us can't say that we have a lot of resources; as a matter of fact, most of us have just enough to pay our bills and do what we have to do. But even one dollar used well can glorify God and do His work. We just have to be wise stewards of all that we are given. The text for today refers to the faith we have been given by God, but our faith is manifest in the way we use the tangible resources that we've been given. Every dollar comes from God and by faith with God's help we can use every dollar to grow His kingdom in this world.
"I thank my God upon all my remembrance of you, always in every supplication of mine on behalf of you all making my supplication with joy, for your fellowship in furtherance of the gospel from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ: even as it is right for me to be thus minded on behalf of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as, both in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how I long after you all in the tender mercies of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God." Philippians 1:3-7, ASV
We will be celebrating Thanksgiving in the United States in a few days. Thanksgiving is a day when we step back and remember that all our blessings come from the Lord God Almighty. We are thankful to Him for His grace, His provision, His care and His love.
Oh, I know that for many people the day is about a turkey and stuffing, football and parades, and that late afternoon tryptophan coma brought on by too much holiday food. Most of us will gather with family, hopefully in joy and celebration. There may be a few debates around the table as people from different points of view are forced into conversation. There will be some tears as we see the empty seats of those who have passed since the last thanksgiving. But even with all those worldly distractions, those who believe in the God of creation will take at least a moment to thank Him for our blessings.
This focus of thanksgiving at this time of year always makes me think about the people in my past who have had an impact on my life. While the center of our thankfulness is our God, the people who have made a difference deserve our thanks, too. They should know what they did; you would be amazed at the impact it can make in their life.
See, most people have no idea how they have affected us. They don't know that we still remember the time they held our hand and listened as we ranted about that coworker who stabbed us in the back. They don't know that we still remember that hot dish they dropped off after we lost a parent. They don't know that the piece of advice they gave actually led us down the right path. It doesn't matter to them; as a matter of fact, like the sheep in last week's passage from Matthew 25, they don't even realize that they did anything important. They responded to a need.
Here's the thing, when we remember to thank them, they are encouraged to continue to respond to those opportunities to serve others. It is very easy for us to become discouraged when we don't think that anything we do makes a difference. We are human and we like to see proof that our lives are not worthless. It is especially hard when our lives seem so ordinary. I mean, what impact can a touch, a casserole, or a piece of advice really have? We think that only the big action can really do anything of value.
I have written to friends that have been out of touch for a long time. The surprise has made such a difference; they had no idea that they did anything worthy of remembering. They were thankful. I've been thinking this week about the people I'd like to write this year and my list includes a man who greatly disappointed me, but in the end I've discovered he was right. I was angry because he refused me something I thought I wanted, but in the end I've seen that that wish was not good for me. I'm so thankful that he slammed the door on a dream that by now would have been a nightmare. There's another friend who deserves my thanks and I can't even identify anything specific that she did for me. She was simply a friend. I have recently been thinking about a man who owned an art gallery that barely crossed my path. I don't even remember his name and I'm sure there's no way that I can even get a letter to him. He encouraged me in my art and my recent return to painting has made me thankful that he saw enough talent in my work to purchase a piece I made in college. I have hope today that I may succeed as an artist because he purchased a piece thirty years ago.
Who deserves your thanks this year? Who has done something that has made a difference in your life? Can you write them a letter? Can you tell them how much they've impacted your life? Can you show them that the simple act of kindness set you on your life path? Even if you can't send the letter, write it. Put the words of thanksgiving on paper, because in doing so you will realize how your simple acts of kindness can make a difference, too. If you can send the letter, do so. You'll be amazed at how it will rekindle a friendship or brighten a day. Take time today to not only thank God for making those people cross your path, but also to thank them for responding to the opportunity to share God's grace. God will be glorified by all your thanksgiving.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 30, 2014, First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
"For we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment: and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." Isaiah 64:6, ASV
My mother worked at a shopping mall when I was a kid; she was manager of a fabric store. I remember going with her to work on the days when I did not have school; I would run around the mall, eat at the Woolworth lunch counter or watch a movie at the theater. When I was tired or bored, I would hide in my mom's office with books or homework. Sometimes I helped her around the store, but I mostly went on adventures.
Not to get too nostalgic, but things were different back then. Black Friday was a very specific event; it was, literally, the official start to the Christmas season. The mall did not decorate until the night and then morning before thanksgiving, so there was a dramatic change in the mall when it opened Black Friday morning. Santa Claus arrived to great fanfare with a parade that began in the parking lot and ended at his workshop in the mall. The children received gifts of candy canes as they trailed after him with joy. The stores had sales, certainly, but there weren't doorbusters to make shoppers all arrive at the same time, too early in the morning. There was excitement about the day; it was filled with wonder and expectation.
Black Friday is still considered the official start to the Christmas season, but many stores began their Black Friday sales weeks ago. Santa Claus is already in the mall, having arrived quietly and without fanfare one day. The decorations were up after Halloween and the Christmas music has been playing. The Black Friday events--those doorbuster sales meant to draw the crowds--begin earlier and earlier every year. Some stores are even opening up on Thanksgiving evening with unbelievable savings on electronics and other must-have items, all in limited supply, of course. Instead of invitations to the grand opening of Santa's Workshop in the mall, the news reporters are warning shoppers to beware of angry crowds and possible violence. The chaos of Black Friday is tempting for criminals who will break into cars filled with shopping bags or steal credit card numbers with stealthy technology.
I've heard all the complaints; Facebook has been filled with posts denouncing the early start to the commercial aspects of the holiday season and vowing not to fall for the temptations. Yet, there are some who so desperately want to save a few pennies on that new TV they don't need that they have been camping outside stores just so they can be the first in line. Two women began their vigil on November 7th; they didn't even know what was going to be on sale, yet. Some have suggested this is just a publicity stunt by the corporation, but in the past few days many others have lined up outside stores around the country.
We can rant and rave about the commercialization of Christmas, about the greed of corporate America and about the foolish actions of people (who are also greedy,) but this is not what bothers me most about what's happening to Christmas. To be honest, I'm pretty much finished with my Christmas shopping, I'm anxious to begin decorating and I've watched a few of the Hallmark channel Christmas movies already. I am bothered because Advent will slip by unnoticed, and more so than in days gone by.
It isn't that many people really pay attention to Advent, except for maybe a chocolate calendar for the kids and the Advent wreath at church. Some people have probably purchased an Advent devotional to read or will take part in Advent photo challenges as I've done in the past. But there's the thing, if the Christmas season is well underway with decorations hung and music playing, how do we experience Advent as a season of light growing out of darkness if someone has already turned on the light?
Advent begins in darkness. It is dark because we have failed God. We have forgotten Him in our comfort. We have ignored the needs of our neighbors. We have followed our lusts. We have succumbed to temptation. We are sinners who live in darkness. Like Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson and the psalmist, we cry out to God to reveal Himself so that we might see Him again. We cry out for His presence in our world, even though we are frightened by His power and judgment. We know the only way we will be saved is if God comes to save. So we cry out for Him to come, to make His name known again to the world.
But how do we realize our sinfulness and our need for God if we have already surrounded ourselves with the good things of this world? How will we ever know that we are living in darkness if our world is lit by twinkle lights?
I know, I'm being too literal here, since even in the 'old days' Santa was in the mall and we put up our Christmas lights the day before the first Sunday in Advent. But there is no longer a definitive break between the seasons. We are coasting into December having already experienced so much of what set it apart. There probably won't be much difference between today and next week. We should be shocked by the reality of our need for God's forgiveness but all we will seek is the best recipe for Christmas cookies.
The scriptures for this week help to remind us that we are entering into a time to prepare for judgment. We have talked about the Day of the Lord for the past few weeks, a time of judgment that is to be feared. Several weeks ago we asked, "Why would anyone want to rush that day?" Yet, there comes a time when we just can't stand what is going on around us so we hope that something will happen to change everything. I can honestly tell you that I cry out daily for the Lord's return. Come, Lord Jesus.
I can understand why Isaiah would write the words in today's Old Testament lesson. The people were in darkness. They were following false gods. They were unmerciful and unjust. They were acting shamefully and had forgotten everything the LORD had done for His people. They were lost; they forgot their God. They needed something to happen that would turn them back to Him. In today's Old Testament text, Isaiah called for God to do something shocking so that everyone would see Him and repent. Sometimes it takes something drastic to change hearts and minds. We turn to God in times of distress. Isaiah was asking God to make that happen.
Isaiah and the people of Israel were feeling abandoned by God. Where was He in the midst of their troubles? Why is Jerusalem in ruins? This prayer begs Yahweh to make Himself known to them and to their enemy so that His authority is without question. We ask the same from our God. Can't He make things right? Can't He stop the violence both at home and around the world? Can't He send His holy angels to take care of our enemies and stop the world from hurting us?
But Isaiah realizes that his cries are out of place. The God he blames for abandoning them has not abandoned them; He has done great things for His people and He continues to do great things. Isaiah asks for forgiveness and reconciliation because he knows that they are paying the price for their own sinfulness. Though Isaiah at first asks God to tear open the heavens to destroy his enemy, he finally realizes that he needs to seek something much different. God will tear open the heavens to bring us something much better than vengeance and destruction; humble acknowledgement of our own sinfulness will bring a God who transforms His people with peace, rather than war. When we realize we are in darkness, God will bring the Light.
Today's psalm is a song of lament, and it appears to be from the time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. It is a cry to God by people in distress. Like those in Isaiah's story, they want God to show His face to them once again. They knew that their troubles were because God had turned away. Now they sought His face, His countenance, upon them. If God shined in their world and on their lives, everything would be fine.
We can respond to trouble in one of two ways. We can look into ourselves and find only despair or we can cry out to the only one who can make a difference. Israel cried out to God. They sought His help in their needs rather than falling into hopelessness. They knew hope was found in their God; Israel sought the comfort of God's presence.
We are about to enter into the Christmas season; many of us have been there too long already. We will get very busy with the preparation for the festivities. There will be shopping, baking, wrapping and decorating. There will be parties and gatherings with family. TV and radio will be filled with Christmas themed shows and music. Unfortunately, we have all seen the signs of Christmas already, but it will begin in earnest after Thanksgiving. What we, as Christians, must remember as we are going about the business of the holidays is that Christmas does not really begin until Christ is born. Until that day we are journeying through the season of Advent. This is a time for waiting. It is a time for watching. We can't avoid Christmas in the world, but let us remember that during this time we are meant to be preparing our hearts for the coming of our King.
The Gospel text reminds us that we are waiting for the second coming, even while we are preparing to celebrate the first. Though Christ has already come, died, and been raised, we still live in darkness. The work of salvation is complete, but it still needs to be completed. We are already there and we still wait to be there. We live in the already and the not yet. Light is in the world, but darkness still plagues us. Our text today makes that clear.
We might be tempted by this text from Mark to look for the signs that are described. Many people have done so throughout time, pointing to stars, blood red moons, comets and other signs in the heavens. They point to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes as signs that the time is near. They use the newspaper headlines to suggest that every event points to the time when Christ will come again. Throughout history there have been times when it seemed like the warnings were about to be fulfilled.
Here's the thing: Jesus is quoting the Old Testament scriptures throughout this text. The people listening would have been very familiar with these words, particularly from Isaiah. They knew what God was promising in the warnings and they knew how to respond. This isn't a time for us to stop and watch for signs; it is a time to turn our focus on the One who has promised to come. "Stay awake," Jesus says, not to be constantly interpreting the signs, but to be actively living the life God has called us to live.
The world is in chaos. People are worried and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Many are crying out to God to shine His face so that they might be saved. We are His face. We have the message they need. We have the gifts that will bring peace and hope to those who are lost. Each year there seems to be more reason to cry out to God. We can see suffering all around us. People are jobless, homeless and hungry. Our prisons and hospitals are filled to the brink. Last week Jesus called us to meet the simple and ordinary needs of our neighbors. This Christmas will not be wonderful for everyone. But we can make the world a little brighter by sharing Christ in word and in deed with those who are in need.
In Mark's "Little Apocalypse" we see how to respond to the darkness and chaos of our world. We are called to wait for the One who will come, to watch for the Light which will bring life and hope. We wait, not only for the baby, but also for the King. Here in darkness we begin our journey to the manger. But while this is a time to wait and watch, it is also a time for us to live and shine the light of God. It isn't a time to hide behind our safe walls, but to get out into the world to tell the truth: we are all sinners in need of a Savior. The baby we await and the King who will come is the One who will truly save us from ourselves.
See, we don't realize we have fallen asleep. Oh, there are many people out there complaining that Christmas has started too early. There are many who are fighting to hear the words "Merry Christmas" and to keep "Christ in Christmas." There are many who are committing themselves to a more humble celebration, with fewer presents and more charity. It is good to stand for Christ and to be the people He has called us to be.
But we have "fallen asleep" in the worst way possible, because we refuse to tell people the true reason Jesus Christ was born. We forget that Christmas was just the first step toward the cross and that it was our sin that required the birth and death of Jesus. We've stopped talking about our sinfulness. We have pointed our fingers at everyone else who has done wrong in the world, but we don't speak the truth that we are all sinners.
That's why we begin Advent in darkness and why it is important that there be a stark line drawn as we enter into this time of year. Jesus is certainly the reason for the season, and I'm happy when I see beautiful nativities decorating the yards of my neighbors and the public spaces in my town. However, I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't include a crucifix in our decorations to remind us why Jesus came in the first place. We all die, but He was born to die.
We will see the Light growing in the darkness over the next four weeks as we await the coming of Jesus, and we will live in the hope that He brings. That hope is not just for peace on earth and goodwill toward men, but it is for forgiveness and mercy. We have, sadly, dropped the ball when it comes to telling our neighbors why they need Jesus.
Have we stayed awake? Or have we been coasting along with the world, accepting as the truth is whitewashed to make it more palatable? Have we accepted the god the world created to appease faith while rejecting truth? Have we been fighting battles that seem important when the truth is that we've forgotten what really needs to be said? Are we really awake, or are we sleepwalking in a slumber that looks for signs but misses the truth?
In today's epistle lesson, Paul was speaking to the Corinthians, a different people in a different time and place. They were people dealing with their own troubles. It doesn't matter that we our crises are not like theirs; every generation faces some sort of suffering. Every generation has worries and doubts and fears about the future. Every generation has lived in darkness. Every person from the beginning of time has had a need to cry out to God. Every generation is tempted to blame our enemies, to point fingers, to seek God's vengeance on those who do us harm.
But as Advent begins we are reminded by the words of Isaiah that we are sinners in need of a Savior. "For we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment: and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." We have forgotten God's promises; we have stopped humbling ourselves before the One who will be our Judge.
God has not turned His face from us, we have fallen asleep. We have forgotten that we are blind; we ignore the grace that is ours because we refuse to acknowledge our sin. We look forward to the coming of Christ, but seek the baby in the manger without realizing that He is the man on the cross who paid our debt to God. We are excited about Christmas, but do we really know why and are we willing to tell our neighbors what it really means?
We will continue to experience darkness until the day Christ comes again. But we can live in the knowledge that the Light has come and is coming. We can be a source of Truth for others. We might not always understand His plan, but as we dwell in Him daily we will be blessed by God's presence even when it seems like He has turned His face from us. Our lives of faith are the evidence of God's grace; we are God's people living in a chaotic world, called to point to the God who can and will make their lives new if only they acknowledge the reality of their sin.
"Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live: and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David. Behold, I have given him for a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander to the peoples. Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not; and a nation that knew not thee shall run unto thee, because of Jehovah thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel; for he hath glorified thee. Seek ye Jehovah while he may be found; call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto Jehovah, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, and giveth seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing; and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree; and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle-tree: and it shall be to Jehovah for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off." Isaiah 55, ASV
Air ferns are these plants that grow in our trees. They require no dirt, but attach themselves to the tree branches. They take nothing from the tree, and live on air and the rain that happens to fall. They are not destructive to the trees, although they can make a yard look a little ratty when there are too many of them. We paid a yard guy a lot of money to remove them from our trees when we first moved into this house, and just two years later there are as many, if not more, in the branches again.
I see advertisements for air ferns or air plants on the Internet all the time. They come in a small terrarium, sometimes for setting on a desk or bookshelf, sometimes for hanging in a window. These items cost anywhere from $20 to $40 dollars a piece, plus shipping. Air ferns are easy to care for, they need just a little water occasionally and sunshine, so they make a great gift, especially for the friend or family member who does not have a green thumb; they are very hard to kill.
The ads drive me crazy, of course, because I know I could make one for pennies. The glassware is inexpensive at my favorite craft store and I have a never-ending supply of the plants. So, as joke, I bought a clear glass Christmas ornament and stuffed one of the plants inside (I didn't even have to pick it off the tree, it was one that fell down to the ground), and then added a little glitter. It should be worth $20 or so, don't you think? I would not sell them, of course, because you can't properly care for the plant if it is stuffed inside a glass ornament; they still need air and water to survive. My point is that it cost me less than a dollar to make. Anything for a buck, right?
Yes, I know, that's greed speaking. Sadly, we see a lot of greed at this time of year. We see retailers luring customers to their stores with unbeatable deals, all the while raising prices on other items so that they come out even and those customers rushing to grab, sometimes literally out of the hands of other consumers. We see children climbing on Santa's lap with lists a mile long of all the toys and videogames they have to have for Christmas. We see television commercials advertising that must have new car to give to your loved one or the latest big screen TV that belongs under (or beside) your tree on Christmas morning. We have the right, at least in America, to pursue this materialistic quest for more and bigger and better at any cost, both as a seller and a buyer. As long as there is a demand, someone will willingly fill it.
I read an article by Matt Walsh, a blogger with a point of view many of my friends might not like, but sometimes his words really hit the mark. He said, "Look, I'm a capitalist. It's not my religion, I won't bow before its altar, I won't kiss its ring, but I believe in capitalism. It's an invention of man and it involves money, so it's not perfect, but I've never heard anyone suggest a better system. So I'm a capitalist. I am not, however, a consumerist. I like the freedom and innovation of capitalism; I loath the materialism and gluttony of consumerism. There's a popular misconception that capitalism and consumerism are inextricably linked - that one naturally involves and requires the other. But this is a fallacy. Certainly the "stimulus" programs a few years ago ought to have dispelled this notion entirely. The government perverted the free market and elected to hand free money to millions of people, hoping that they'd go out and buy a bunch of stuff with it. This was consumerism at the expense of capitalism, and it revealed our priorities: forget freedom, forget principle, just buy stuff."
I agree. I'm thankful that I live in a place where someone can choose to sell air plants for $40 and someone can choose to buy that plant. I'm even thankful to live in a place where customers can pursue their quest for the biggest, bestest Christmas ever and that the retailers can provide them with everything they desire. As Christians, however, we are reminded that there are some things that have far more value to pursue than that which is offered by the consumerist culture we'll see over the next few weeks. We can still seek a great deal on the perfect gift, but let's remember in the midst of the chaos of the Christmas season to pursue the God who has promised us even greater things.