Welcome to the November 2015 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 2015
"The reward of humility and the fear of Jehovah Is riches, and honor, and life. Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse: He that keepeth his soul shall be far from them. Train up a child in the way he should go, And even when he is old he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:4-6, ASV
I have to admit that we were party poopers on Saturday. We did not open our door for Trick-or-Treaters. I am not one of those people who argues against the celebration of Halloween. We always took the kids out when they were small. I have decorations that I can use if I want, including a PVC skeleton, lights and a whispy ghost dress. We just decided not to do it this year. We have so many children that are driven to this neighborhood that we once ran out of candy. A neighbor does a haunted house for charity just a few doors down, so many of our Trick-or-Treaters are teenagers who barely bother to dress in costume.
Now, there are opportunities to do good things on Halloween. One person posted a praise on their facebook page that they were dressed in a preacher's robe. The man said one little girl asked what he was supposed to be and he answered, "A preacher." She asked him to pray for her. After the prayer, her parents told the man that they had been disillusioned by the church and not been to worship for years, but there was something about his kindness and his faith that made them want to try again. They promised to be in church the next morning.
I suppose we could do what some other people do; we could leave some candy on the porch and use the honor system. I saw one picture of such a set-up where the person wrote, "Take just one piece: Santa's watching!" Other use signs that say, "Be considerate." One person did this and placed a webcam to see what might happen. He was pleasantly surprised at how considerate the kids were. Some took more than one piece, but never more than one of a particular kind. Most of them took only one. There was one boy who joked about taking an armful, but only took a couple. The kids did great.
Then the video shows a mother and child approach the table. The boy seems to take just one and then walked away, but then the mother took a bunch and put them in her bucket. Then she emptied every box of candy on the table. Her son went back to the table with his mom and helped her empty the boxes. They didn't leave a single bar of candy for the other children. The video shows another child disappointed that there was no candy left. They took enough candy for another few dozen children.
The boy would have been considerate, but he followed his mother's lead. If she thinks it is alright to take it all, then it must be alright. Our children learn from our actions. They learn about generosity by watching us be generous. They learn about consideration by watching us be considerate. They will learn to be greedy and selfish by watching our own greed and selfishness. It is up to us to show our children, not just tell our children, how to live rightly in this world. They will follow our examples, both good and bad. May we always do what is good for them, teach them the right way so that they will live a good and considerate life.
"I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all. But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, And gave gifts unto men. (Now this, He ascended, what is it but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a fullgrown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error; but speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, even Christ; from whom all the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love." Ephesians 4:1-6, ASV
I don't really follow sports, but I have to admit that as a citizen of San Antonio, Texas, I am a fan of our local basketball team the Spurs. I'm a fan not only because I live in this city or because they are pretty good, but because they are good guys. I'm sure that there are wonderful players in all the cities, men who do great things for the community. Our guys are constantly seen at camps for kids, attending fundraisers, hanging out doing face-time with fans. One of the art museums has been playing up a recent visit by one player to their latest exhibit. Last week one player was trapped by flood waters; the photo of him meant as a joke to get him out of practice has gone viral as a public service announcement to remind people to "turn around, don't drown."
They are every day guys. Someone who lives near one of the players has said that they have seen him take his garbage to the curb. He pops into the UPS store where my son works to have papers notarized and if it weren't for his highly recognized physique, you'd think he was just one of the guys. A former Spur discovered that my husband's co-workers were celebrating a birthday and came over to wish her a happy day and take a picture. They don't see themselves as entitled. They aren't in the headlines with their latest escapades. Coach Pop won't stand for the ridiculous behavior you see from the stars of other teams.
I think the best part of the Spurs is that they are a team. While you might be able to call one player greater than the others, they don't act like they are particularly special. They work together. They uplift the gifts of each player, using their talents to the benefit of all. There might be some games when one player stands out, but the next game highlights another. A new player is quoted as saying, "It has been great. They all have encouraged me to be myself and be as good as I can be. That feels good in its own way. It makes for a really dynamic team for sure." They are so much a team that it is beautiful to watch, almost like a ballet on the court.
Paul encourages us to work together for the sake of the Gospel. I wonder if we don't try too often to do it all on our own. We try to save the world, forgetting that God gave us specific gifts to be part of a larger body all working together to do God's work in the world. We are a team, and the best teams accomplish the greatest things by uplifting everyone rather than focusing on a star. God has given us each gifts to use for His glory. Let's do so together and we'll find that His grace will transform the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 8, 2015, Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
"This poor widow cast in more than all they that are casting into the treasury: for they all did cast in of their superfluity; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living." Mark 12:43b-44, ASV
A few years ago I wrote the devotions for a quarterly devotional published by a church publishing house. My assignment that year was for the scriptures from the next few weeks. It was a pretty depressing assignment because the text all pointed to the end days. They were passages filled with woe and dread and it seemed like there was not much about which to hope. The focus at the end of the church year, and the beginning of Lent, is a reminder of the day when everything will finally be complete. We are always looking forward to the second coming of Christ, but the Day of the Lord is not necessarily going to be a happy time. Those who dwell in faith have hope because we know that any apocalypse we will not keep us from inheriting the Kingdom of God for eternity.
It is tough to preach the apocalyptic passages in the lectionary for the next few weeks. Even as we are looking forward to the coming of the King both at Christmas and in the future Day, the fear of what is foretold does not fit the expectation of those prefer the image of God as loving Father and gracious Savior. Those who prefer to focus on Christianity as a source of social justice aren't very concerned with the end times. While we should not stand with our heads in the clouds waiting for the coming of Christ, we should not disregard the reality that the day will come. We need to hear the warnings as well as the promises to give the work we do in this world meaning. God hasn't sent us into the world just to feed the poor with bread, but to feed the world with the Bread of Life so that all will have faith when the Day comes.
This week is the calm before the storm. In the book of Mark, Jesus is moving toward the cross. He has entered Jerusalem triumphantly, but He is doing things that will upset the powers of the world. In today's Gospel lesson, He points out the hypocrisy of the teachers of the Law. They walk around, looking for compliments, acting high and mighty, but they use their power to do harm the weak. They take advantage of widows by seeking payment for prayers. It sounds a like the church in Luther's day, who also took advantage of the poor by selling indulgences and Masses for the dead. This has happened in every generation; human nature has a way doing that which seems good but is actually self-satisfying and harmful to others.
Jesus sees the teachers of the Law in the Temple, and notices the crowds proudly throwing their offerings in the coffers. I can imagine those teachers of the Law clapping people on the back, pulling them aside for private conversations, deals being made in the corners as the teachers find patrons to support their work. See, they weren't paid to do what they did, they needed to find ways of earning the money necessary to keep their lifestyles. The widows helped as long as they had money, but they needed ongoing sources of funding. The woman in today's story would not have caught their eye. She may have been one of those widows they devoured, leaving her nearly penniless. Despite her hardship, the woman had faith and was willing to give everything to God. Instead of seeking the good things of this world, the woman gave herself to her God, knowing that He is her salvation.
Jesus saw the invisible one, the widow who was lost in the crowd. We don't know what she looked like or what she was wearing. We don't know if she was a foreign pilgrim or a local. We don't know if she was alone in that courtyard or if she'd traveled with a crowd of family and friends. We only know that she gave two pennies as an offering to God and that it was all she had. And we know that Jesus saw her. In this courtyard full of people, she caught His eye and He lifted her up as a woman with extraordinary faith. The lesson we learn is that we can be like her, giving everything to Him, even when it seems insignificant, trusting that He'll take care of us. Even as the events of the Day of the Lord come to pass, we can trust that God will take care of us.
Jesus saw her. Through all those crowds, He picked out the one person whom everyone else probably ignored. He saw the invisible one. He saw the person who seemingly had no earthly worth. That's what God does. He sees through the exterior and past the mundane; He points out value where the world might see none. She didn't have much, but she had far more than the rest because she had great faith. That's worth noting. Faith is the one thing that will get us through the last days; faith will take us to the other side.
God used another widow in today's lectionary readings. The widow of Zarephath had nothing in a land that had nothing. There was drought and famine; the people were dying around her; she wasn't the only one suffering, but God saw her in the crowd. She had perhaps two pennies worth of flower and oil, just enough to make one more cake for her son and herself. All the money in the world is useless in the midst of a drought because there was nothing left to buy. If there was no wheat to harvest in the fields, there would be no grains to grind into flour. The whole land was suffering.
There are those in today's world who are called preppers. They are building supplies of food so that if the world comes to an end they will be ready. They are often identified as radicals and separatists, but it is good to be prepared for rough times. What happens whenever there is a threat of bad weather? The store shelves go empty as people try to stock up in case their city is shut down from a blizzard or hurricane. Experts warn that you should fill your car in case you have to evacuate and that you should have cash on hand since ATMs won't work if the electricity goes out. These are short term solutions, but what happens when the problem is long term? What happens when the drought is so bad that there is no wheat to sell? The world is a little different today because we can import food from great distances, so no one has to go hungry when there is a local drought. But the current California drought will affect everyone in some way as everything they usually grow will be more expensive until it begins raining again.
It is unlikely we will experience the kind of drought that left the widow of Zarephath in such a desperate situation, but you never know when disaster will strike. Last weekend our area was struck by a number of tornadoes and more flooding. Some of the flooding happened in a region that was destroyed just a few months ago. One witness said that he had just finished fixing his house from the last time it flooded and now it needs to be fixed again. A restaurant owner didn't know what he was going to do when the building he has used for decades was destroyed in minutes by a tornado. Even worse is the fact that there are those who swarm these areas to take advantage of those who need help. Looters steal what's left behind and false contractors take money and never do the work. Those who suffer most in these situations are not those who have been harmed by the natural disaster but by those who take advantage of them afterwards. Just like the teachers of the Law devouring the widows homes after they've lost their husbands.
God is not necessarily going to protect us from the floods or tornadoes, looters or crooks, but He has made us a promise. He will come again and when He does, everything will be made right. We'll have to deal with our suffering in this world, but we can do so with the hope that one day He will provide us with the justice we deserve. Of course, we are reminded that we really don't deserve His grace as we think we do because we have taken advantage of others in our own lives, too. We are sinners just as they are; we fail to protect those who need us most.
There was a time when sin could only be forgiven by an offering at the temple. But God provided the perfect offering: Jesus Christ. When Jesus died, He overcame sin and death forever. We who believe in His name need never worry about offering a sacrifice to receive forgiveness. He has already accomplished the work of atonement and reconciliation. He did this for you and for me. He saw us, even before we were knitted in the wombs of our mothers and He died for us even before we sinned. No matter how insignificant we are, or how insignificant our offering, Jesus sees us and is our salvation.
Now, we wait for the day when Christ will return. He will not come to provide another sacrifice; He will complete the work that He began on the cross. It is finished; eternal life is ours in Christ. Our salvation is assured because the promise of God is true and He is faithful. Yet, the world still goes around the sun and the people still see what they want to see and ignore what they do not want to see. Rulers still wander in the courtyards of power in long robes, seeking greetings from those who will be a benefit. People of faith will still go unnoticed as they follow Godís Word and give everything they have for the sake of others.
The calling and command to us may seem ridiculous. "Really? You want me to give my two last pennies to the Temple?" "Really? You want me to take the last morsel of food out of my baby's mouth and feed it to a stranger?" "Really? You want me to give everything?" It is easy to justify our lack of faithfulness. After all, the Temple is led by self-righteous people who walk around in long robes and seek only the good graces of those they think will give us the best benefit. After all, our children are our only hope sometimes. After all, I have bills to pay and things to do. "Really? You want me to do what? How will I know that this command is really from you?"
We may never face a circumstance like those of the widows in our stories. We will probably never face such an extreme drought that there isn't even any food to be purchased. We will probably never be down to just two pennies in our purse. We will probably never know what it is like to have nothing. Yet, we are called to give everything to God and trust that He will keep the flour jar and the oil jug full.
The psalmist writes, "Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Jehovah his God." This is not a giddy kind of happiness, but rather the blessedness of knowing that everything we are and everything we have comes from God. The widows had faith that God would be faithful. They did not put their trust in men; they submitted willingly to the Word of God and were greatly blessed. Can we be so trusting? Can we really give it all to God? Can we live as people who know that Christ is coming again to fulfill the promise of eternal salvation for which we are waiting?
"Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out." Proverbs 10:9, ASV
I had a friend who was a mystery shopper. It was an extra, part time job during which she went to an assigned business and performed certain tasks to test whether the business was doing things as they should. She went to a restaurant and ordered food, judging the service, food and pricing. She bought items from a department store and then returned to review their return policies. Her assignments varied from week to week and she got paid according to the work required for the job. She did not get paid a lot of money, but the job helped supplement her income.
You have to be careful about these programs because sometimes shady people advertise for mystery shoppers. They make the position sound fantastic, promising incredible income opportunities, but the frauds ask for some sort of payment to process a certification they claim will make the shopper more valuable but are in reality worthless. There are good companies out there which can provide some extra income to stay-at-home moms and retired people, but it will never be a job with a living wage. Those looking for a get-rich-quick scheme need not apply.
Mystery shopping companies do good work, though. They are often hired by the stores to see if employees are following proper procedures. There is a show on television with a company that does mystery shopping for restaurants and bars. They do far more than send an ordinary person in to do a few tasks. They put up video cameras, insert employees into the staff and send professionals into the bar or restaurant with an earbud so that the leader can make task suggestions based on what he sees going on in the business. If they think there's a problem in the kitchen, he will suggest ordering something specific. If they see something going on that doesn't look right, he'll tell the shopper to ask about it. The shopper will not see all the details because they don't have access to all the cameras, but the leader and the owner can see it all from their control room filled with video screens.
They go into the assignment with some ideas about the problems. The owners see a fall in food sales or unusual activities going on around their business. In one case, a private detective followed the manager to a liquor store where he bought cases of vodka, which he used for his own bottle service in the business. This took away the opportunity for the employee to make her sales and earn her tips, so she sold sausages from an outside cart vendor to make up for her loss. Both were fired because they were stealing money from the owner by selling their own products rather than that which will benefit the business.
Another episode was filmed at an historic building that has been around since the time of the Civil War. The owner loves the history of the building, but has preferred to not exploit the heritage for money. He has purposely not done historic tours or reenactments, instead using the beautiful setting for a lovely dining experience for his customers. He called the mystery shoppers because he was getting calls trying to reserve a seat at their special historic dinner. He didn't know that an employee had been hosting these dinners along with costumed reenactors and 'period' food and wine. The event promised a real Civil War experience. The mystery shoppers watched as this employee brought in his own prepackaged food, stole wine to which he added vinegar to make it seem old and prepped the venue for a couple dozen guests. A 'historian' gave a history lesson which was filled with lies and after dinner the diners were taken to a basement where they heard more lies about people and events that never had anything to do with the building.
The owner was naturally upset. He did not want his business identified as teaching false history and serving bad food. Besides, the employee who ran this program at $125 a person never shared any of the profits with the owner. So he was responsible for the overhead costs and risks, but received no benefit. The employee claimed he was doing it for the sake of the owner but that his costs for food and actors were too high. The program wasn't helping to promote the business because the food, wine and information was so bad those guests did not return. The people who are discovered by the mystery shoppers always have an excuse; they always claim to have the best interests of the business in mind, but they are always serving self in some way.
Our God doesn't need to send mystery shoppers to keep an eye on us, but I wonder what they would see if He did. Does He see how often we do something, justifying it as being for God's Kingdom but actually serving our own needs and desires? Of course He sees when we take advantage of our situation, thinking that He isn't paying attention to our actions or fooling ourselves into justifying our actions even though they do not glorify God.
"Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thy hand to do it." Proverbs 3:27, ASV
I was standing in an aisle at the store, reading package information, trying to decide which item to by when a woman came up to me. She seemed as though she was about to ask me a question about the store and I quickly said, "I don't work here." I don't know why, but despite my complete lack of uniform or nametag, I'm often mistaken for store employees. She said she knew, but then began to tell me a long story about losing her wallet and all her identification, pointing to a gift card and receipt. She told me that she just returned an item for a certain amount of money, again pointing to the gift card and receipt. She then told me that she didn't need anything else in the store, but she would be willing to sell me the gift card for less than half its value. I answered immediately, "No thank you."
I don't like to mistrust people, but it all seemed so farfetched to me. After all, she didn't need to use the gift card that very day. It would be good for a long time. If she'd shopped in the store before to have something to return, wouldn't she need to shop in the store another day? There seemed to be too many unnecessary details in her story and yet she told the story in a way that made it seem as though she really didn't want me to pay attention to the details. She was far from the Customer Service station; she went far into the store and found me in a quiet aisle, far from the eyes of store employees and management. It is possible that she had good reason to make an immediate deal to sell the gift card for cash less than its value, but something did not seem right. I said "No," and she moved on.
Sometimes the responsibility we have in caring for our neighbors is difficult. We are told in the scriptures to be good stewards of our resources, but we are also told not to worry about the wrong that the world tries to do to us. On the one hand we should not waste our resources by giving our money to a scammer, but on the other hand there might be good reason to give the money to her anyway.
I was once approached in the parking lot of another store by a woman with a different story. Her car had broken down at the library down the street and her brother was going to take care of it for her. Meanwhile, she needed a few dollars to take the bus to her home. I questioned much of her story, also, but I had a box of change in my car to give as needed, so I gave it to her. Perhaps there may have been someone somewhere who needed it more and I did have a moment of uncertainty after it was over, but I trusted it to God to deal with it. It is one thing to give a gift and another to have someone take advantage of you. Giving generously is good, wasting our resources is not.
We will have plenty of opportunities to help others in the next few months. We'll have to make daily decisions about giving our resources for the sake of others. There will be charitable collections for food and toys. There will be organizations begging us to support their mission and ministry. Many of these are valuable efforts that will make a difference in the lives of people who might not have a happy holiday season without their help. Some, unfortunately, will be scammers who just want to take your money.
We do have to trust that God will ensure our resources will do the best work in the end, but we have a responsibility to be good stewards. Listen careful. Listen not only to what they have to say to you, but listen with your heart. Listen to what God is telling you. He will answer, "Go ahead, I'll make it work" or "Save it, I have something better for you to do." When we reject one opportunity, though, let's make sure we watch for that better thing so that we will truly give to God everything according to His good and perfect will. Whatever happens, whether we do what is right or make a mistake, we can trust that God will make it right in the end.
"Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." Galatians 5:19-21, ASV
We have all done it. We have jumped on the computer for just a minute to check our email or Facebook, and we've ended up spending an hour behind the screen, leaving other things unfinished. It all begins innocent enough. We get an email that we have to answer, and then it reminds us of something else we should do. We find a link to an article that ends up taking us a little longer than expected, and then on the side bar we see another link to click. We think, "Well, it won't hurt to play one round of my favorite game," and then we end up playing a dozen rounds. After what seems like a few minutes pass, we look at the clock and realize we've lost an hour. Now dinner is late and the floor didn't get vacuumed, all because we just wanted to spend a minute checking our email.
It begins small enough. We eat one chip and soon the bag is empty. We nibble on a piece of leftover Halloween candy and before we know it all the chocolate is gone. We tell a little white lie and then we need to tell others to cover the first. We justify doing something we know at first is wrong because we don't think we have a choice, and then we don't bother even wondering if we are making the right decision. One day a sin is a sin, the next day it is probably not the best thing to do, and eventually it becomes the norm. Selfishness, greed, idolatry, lust, gossip, dishonesty, etc. never begin as actions harmful against others. An affair doesn't begin out of the blue, it begins with a lustful glance and some seemingly harmless flirting. It might be true that it doesn't hurt to look, but it is much easier for a look to become a sin than we realize. Murder is never the first step; it comes after anger, hatred, mild violence, and then eventually death. It is harmless to have a favorite star, but it can lead to an obsession that becomes idolatry. Have you seen what happens to collectors? One item becomes barns full of junk that they can't give up.
In the Screwtape Letter's, C.S. Lewis writes, "It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into Nothing. Indeed the safest road to Hell is a gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts." A little sin here and there might seem innocent enough, but each sin makes us more comfortable with doing the things that lead us away from Christ.
Jesus forgives. There is no doubt of that. He has mercy on us when we trespass against our neighbors and our God. This does not give us permission to sin, however. The grace of God calls us to a life that is transformed and transforming. Faith means that we believe and trust in God with such a passion that we will consider whether our actions will glorify Him. When we do fail, we are called to repentance, to confess our sins and seek God's forgiveness. As soon as we think that our failures are minor infractions, we begin on that gentle slope that will eventually lead us to Hell.
There are lots of lists of things we should not do. The seven deadly sins are forms of idolatry-of-self that keep us from praising our God. We might think that we would never go too far, that the list in today's passage from Paul's letter to the Galatians is filled with actions we would never commit. However, I doubt that any of us can honestly say havenít done something on that list more than once. We probably laughed about most of them. We probably never confessed those sins or sought God's forgiveness because the actions weren't 'that bad.' Let us pray that God will help us to see that those minor infractions are simply the first step on a very dangerous path so that we will repent and be turned back to the Way He would have us go.
"Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time; casting all your anxiety upon him, because he careth for you. Be sober, be watchful: your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour, whom withstand stedfast in your faith, knowing that the same sufferings are accomplished in your brethren who are in the world. And the God of all grace, who called you unto his eternal glory in Christ, after that ye have suffered a little while, shall himself perfect, establish, strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen." 1 Peter 5:6-11, ASV
Parents understand this piece of wisdom: pick your battles. Our children go through phases. They test boundaries as they grow. It is a necessary part of maturing. Infants are going to flip over, toddlers are going to learn to walk, teenagers are going to test our patience and adult children will move away.
Through the years parents have to decide how do deal with the testings. Do we give in to today's temper tantrum for a candy bar at the grocery store while we hold back the toy until a special occasion? Do we let our daughter go out with that boy even though she is younger than we expected. Do we say "Yes" to one thing but "No" to another? How do we balance keeping our children from getting into trouble with allowing them to make the mistakes that will help them become responsible adults?
Co-workers can experience the same questions at the job. Some battles are worth fighting. I saw a movie this morning starring a woman who was a professional theater director. She was out of work in the big city, but was hired by a small town to direct their holiday pageant. The pageant had not been doing so well, and they wanted a fresh voice that might bring it back to its glory days. Unfortunately, there were some people involved that did not want to change anything and they argued with every new idea. The woman was ready to go back to the big city but a young girl suggested that she pick her battles. The woman found ways to make those argumentative ones feel like the new ideas would benefit them as well as the pageant. One by one she convinced them all and the pageant was a success.
We do it in our faith life, too. There are times we have to compromise with the world in which we live. This does not mean that we should ever compromise the Gospel or reject Christ, but some things we want to fight about just don't matter that much. My international readers will probably not understand why there is a controversy, but one of the biggest news stories these days is about the cup which a coffeehouse has chosen to serve through the holiday season. It is a solid red cup with the green logo. I don't know who was first offended, but someone decided that this decision was an affront to Christianity. Now, the decorations in years past had nothing to do with faith but rather with the secular focuses on the holidays doesn't matter to them. No snowflakes apparently means they've waged war on tradition.
I get it, in a way. After all, as we saw in yesterday's devotion, it takes one small step at a time to move us away from Christ. Perhaps the person bothered by this choice is afraid this is just another step the world is taking away from God into the darkness. There are a dozen other reasons why we should question supporting that particular coffeehouse, but this offense at a red cup makes Christians look ridiculous. I don't think it is really as big a story as it has been made to be; I don't know many Christians who even care about the cup. This is good because this is simply not a battle worth fighting.
We are fighting a much greater battle, the battle that has been waged since the beginning of time. It is much easier to complain against a corporation, but by doing so we turn our focus from the work we should be doing. The serpent that turned Adam and Eve away from their Father still roams this earth and is still whispering the question, "Did God really sayÖ?" in the ears of people. That serpent the devil is whispering that we should fight about red cups that never represented Christ while Christ is really getting lost in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Christmas trees, presents, lights, cookies, snowflakes, Santa Clause... these all are fun and wonderful aspects of our celebration. However, traditions change over time and they have nothing to do with our salvation.
That's what really matters. Instead of arguing about the decorations on a cup, we are called to live a life of faith that will make a difference in the world. Want Christ to be the forefront of this Christmas? Be kind and love your neighbor. Take food to the food bank or donate toys to a toy drive. Tell someone about Jesus. Invite someone to church. Donate a coat to the homeless shelter. Visit a shut-in. Take someone for hot chocolate at a locally owned shop or linger over a long lunch with someone who is hurting. Send letters of thanksgiving to people who have made a difference in your life. Pray.
Most of all, trust God. He knows what is happening and He is working through His people. The Kingdom of God has already won the war, but He calls us to continue to fight so that all will hear the Word that changes darkness into Light. Fight the real battle that has been waged against Christianity by being the Christian God has called and gifted you to be. Glorify God by your actions and share the saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ with love and grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 15, 2015,Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-13
"And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved." Mark 13:13, ASV
We lived in England for four years and took advantage of our time there. We visited historic sites as often as possible, almost every weekend. Some of the places were still in use after a thousand years: castles and cathedrals that still are home to people and faith. We worshipped at some of the most famous places in the world; we received communion at Westminster Abbey, took in evensong at York Minster, prayed in the chapels of Salisbury Cathedral. We visited the palaces of the monarchy, saw the ancestral home of George Washington and even visited the towns where my own ancestors lived before immigrating to America.
We also visited a lot of ruins. We saw ancient Roman sites that have been uncovered, often accidentally, by modern construction. We went to old abbeys that were destroyed during the Reformation and castles that have fallen apart due to a lack of maintenance. Some of my favorite pictures are of the family wandering through the rooms of roofless buildings with only a few walls still standing. One picture shows Bruce, Victoria and Zachary playing follow the leader along a wall that was only about a foot high that was like a balance beam. Other photos show grand windows of churches standing without walls as the stones surrounding them were taken to build other buildings in the villages.
A book I once read described the building of these incredible buildings. The walls were feet thick, but it was a waste of money to use good stone for the hidden parts. They laid good stone bricks on either side of the wall and then filled the middle with mortar and chunks of unusable rocks, the junk removed by the stone masons when they formed the bricks. This was obvious when we visited a site where the walls were gone except for the foundations, lines of rocky junk outlining what once was a grand building.
These were grand buildings. They were built to last forever, to honor God or house the nobles. They often took centuries to build. I noticed during so many of our visits that there was always scaffolding along some wall or around the domes and steeples. The builders of all these buildings, both the ones that are still in use and the ones that are nothing but ruins, thought they were building something that would last. But nothing built by human hands will last forever. They might be able to make it stand for a thousand years, and may be around as ruins for longer than that, but in the end they will disappear like everything else made by man.
It isn't just time that will bring down the manmade walls. Hurricanes, earthquakes and war can destroy something in a matter of minutes. The movement of people from one place to another leaves whole cities unoccupied and left to rot. It doesn't take very long before the earth takes back the land in these places, where weeds grow in the cracks in the road and ivy climbs the walls. Windows break and roofs cave, graffiti artists mark their territories. Fires weaken what is left until the walls can no longer stand. Once bustling cities have become piles of brick in a matter of years rather than centuries.
Imagine you are among the disciples who have been following Jesus in the magnificent temple that had recently been rebuilt by Herod the Great. It was a massive structure, nearly as large as ten football fields. Jewish historian Josephus writes, "All the cloisters were double, and the pillars to them belonging were twenty-five cubits in height, and supported -the cloisters. These pillars were of one entire stone each of them, and that stone was white marble; and the roofs were adorned with cedar, curiously graven. The natural magnificence, and excellent polish, and the harmony of the joints in these cloisters, afforded a prospect that was very remarkable; nor was it on the outside adorned with any work of the painter or engraver. The cloisters - (of the outmost court) were in breadth thirty cubits, while the entire compass of it was by measure six furlongs, including the tower of Antonia; those entire courts that were exposed to the air were laid with stones of all sorts"
It was magnificent and beautiful. It stood at the top of the hill and was built with the best of everything. Josephus described it this way, "To the stranger who suddenly came over the mountain, the Temple was like a snow-clad mountain for all that was not gold was gleaming white." It is no wonder that one of the disciples said, "Teacher, behold, what manner of stones and what manner of buildings!" I have experienced the same awe when I have visited the grand cathedrals and palaces of Europe.
Today's Gospel lesson comes to us after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The disciples have seen Jesus do incredible things. They've seen His fame and have come to believe that He really is the Oen for whom they have been waiting. They have seen the world in a whole new way. Yet, they still have expectations of grandeur. There was a celebratory mood with the pilgrims in the courts of the Temple, there to make their offerings and remember the Passover. It was an extraordinary moment for them. Though they had surely made the pilgrimage before, they probably never sat so close to the action or experienced it with this understanding of God's kingdom that Jesus had been teaching.
They were part of something different, and they were surely the talk of the town. They were part of the 'Kingís court', and I'm sure the crowds were curiously watching them. What would they do? How would they act? What would they say? There might have been a bit of theatrics in the comment about the Temple. It was certainly the perfect backdrop for Jesus' victory!
The day had been filled with questions from the Temple leaders. They were testing His authority from the point of view of the Temple, the secular world and the religious traditions of His people. He established a greater authority and turned the world upside down. The last shall be first. The poor widow gives more. Give to God everything that is Godís.
It was an incredible moment: the culmination of three years of following this man. The buildings, the priests and leaders, and the devotion of the pilgrims were exciting to see. It is no wonder they were in awe. Jesus answered their awe by saying, "There shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down."
We might want to approach the texts for this week as prophetic - pointing toward a specific moment in time and a specific event that will be accomplished. After all, every generation has found some need to look into the future, to determine the ways of things long before they happen, to predict how things will come to be. Yet, these texts are more accurately seen as apocalyptic. This form of literature is not meant to foretell of a specific historical event. Rather, the words are spoken to give courage, strength and hope to a suffering people. There were already false messiahs in Jesus' day. There were already wars and rumors of wars. There were already earthquakes and famines. It would have been very easy for the disciples - left alone after Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension - to follow another voice. It would have been very easy for the community of faith established by Jesus to wander down a wrong path.
We know that this prophetic word was fulfilled with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. but we should continue to pay attention to the warning from Jesus. Manmade buildings will not last forever. After all, this was even the second Temple; it was not the one built by Solomon. It was new and it would one day be old, just like our great buildings. Jesus warned them, and us, not to be so awed by the kingdom of the world that they miss the real kingdom, that of God.
When the disciples asked to know the hour, Jesus told them to beware and be aware. "Do not be alarmed but believe." He warned them that some will claim to be "I AM" but they should not follow the false prophets but trust God. The things they see will just be the beginning. As for them, Jesus warns that there will be persecution. The hope of this apocalyptic text is that the one who endures to the end, who believes, will be saved. Jesus warns us that it will be bad but the Son of Man will come again. We'll know the time is right when the signs are right.
We don't know when it will happen, but Jesus calls us to a life of faith and watchfulness. We are to live according to God's Word in faith and live according to the commandments of love of God and our neighbors. "Beware and be aware," Jesus tells us. He warns us to be careful who we believe and who we follow. Not all who claim to be speaking in the name of Jesus Christ are true. Some will be led astray. Some will willingly follow the false prophet because of the promises. But we can trust that God will set things right in the end.
The passage from Daniel tells of a time when God's people will suffer. The passage does not leave us in fear, however. It leaves us with a promise that God will deliver His people. Daniel tells us the wise will teach people the ways of the Lord by word and by example. Living in faith and acting on the hope of true peace: this is what we are called to do.
If today were the last day, what would matter? Is there something that we need to do? False prophets and false messiahs will call people to action. "Follow me and you'll be saved." "Go to this place." "Do this thing." Works righteousness requires action for salvation, but Christian faith is different. In the days of Jesus, the priests worked day and night providing for the forgiveness of God's people. Offerings of every kind were accepted, to cover the sins of the people. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the priests offered day after day the same sacrifices that did no good. It was Jesus who offered once and for all the blood of the sacrifice that would bring salvation to the world.
From a Christian point of view, sacrifice is no longer necessary. When the priests of old took blood to the altar day after day and year after year it was worthless, ď...but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever...Ē The forgiveness from Christ is lasting. It is eternal. There need be no more sacrifice for sins today or ever. No Christian need look for the restoration of that ancient practice. If they are, they being led astray by those who preach a gospel of vengeance and victory. We need not win the victory again, and neither must Christ.
We find peace through Christ. By His blood, God's people are invited to dwell in the presence of God. Jesus was no ordinary priest. He was no ordinary messiah. He is the Son of God, sent to save the world. His promise was not that the world would be different. There will still be wars and rumors of wars. We still need to be comforted as we are persecuted for our faith. We still suffer at the hands of those who do not know the forgiveness of God. But we can live in hope for what is to come, dwell in God's grace and look forward to the day when we will dwell with God eternally.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to live a different life. We are called to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering because God is faithful. Jesus warned the disciples not to make them afraid, but to remind them that God can, has and will overcome it all. God is near. He is not lost when the walls tumble down. Rather, He is set free from those human constraints to be the God who is Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.
The wise do not put their hope in buildings or live in expectation of the end. Instead, the wise are those who trust in the Lord. Persecution will come; it has been a part of Christian faith since the beginning. Men and women have suffered martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, killed by those who put their hope in all the wrong things. Jesus comforts the disciples in the midst of this talk of the end. "And when they lead you to judgment, and deliver you up, be not anxious beforehand what ye shall speak: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye; for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Spirit." They are to trust in God when they see these things, for He will be with them through it all.
The words from the writer of Hebrews are filled with such hope and promise, how could we live in fear? "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh."
The Psalmist understood the lesson Jesus was teaching His disciples. He knew that apart from God he had no good thing, that God alone was his refuge. He knew the joy and peace that comes from trusting in God rather than the things of this world. "Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy; in thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore." This is a lesson that will keep us through the hard times, faith that God is faithful to all His promises will help us endure to the end.
"Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." John 3:3, ASV
We had workmen here installing a new HVAC unit yesterday. It was a job that took all day, and it left our house a mess. The poor cats were troubled by the intrusion, which kept them from being where they wanted to be. See, they like to spend the day in the office and studio where I spend so much of my time, but the men were going in and out all day as they went to their trucks for parts and tools. The cats prefer to hide in the other part of the house. It had the added issue of keeping them away from their litter box. Thankfully we didn't find any accidents elsewhere in the house. It was an exhausting and upsetting day for them.
The hard work began for me after they left. They did a fairly good job cleaning up after themselves. They made sure that they covered our carpet so that they would not ruin it. They swept the dirt from the floor. They removed all their garbage from the house and the yard. It was helpful, but I had to finish the job. There was still dust on the floor and their work left behind smudges that needed to be mopped. The drop cloth helped, but the floor still needed to be vacuumed to be really clean. The access to our HVAC unit is in the laundry room, so the laundry I began in the morning had to be finished in the evening.
We decided to bake pizza for supper because it was an easy, convenient way of dealing with the meal after a long day and hectic schedules. Bruce had to leave to go to choir at church long before Zack would be home for work. We each baked our pizza when we were ready to eat. The trouble with using the oven is that the workers tested the heater. It turned out to be an extraordinarily warm day outside, and the last thing you want with 85 degree temperatures is the heater and the oven heating it up even more. I was tired and sweaty by the time it was over.
We were happy they came. Our unit still worked, but it was very old and not very energy efficient. We discovered a major Freon leak during our last inspection, a leak that has been costing us a lot of money over the past few years. The inefficiency has also cost us money, so while the installation is going to put a huge dent into my bank account, it will be worthwhile in the long run. It is much better to install a new system at your convenience rather than deal with an emergency when the system breaks down completely.
Good things often come with inconvenience, trouble and hard work. Salvation is the easiest thing in the world for us to receive, but it is the hardest, too. It is easy because it takes no work on our part. We can't do anything to save ourselves. We can't earn God's grace. It is so easy that everyone can be saved.
Why is it, then, that not everyone believes in Jesus? It is inconvenient to believe in Jesus because He calls us to a new life. Many people do not want to let go of the control of their lives. They don't want to be transformed. They don't want to give up the things that make them happy, even if they would be better off without them. They don't want to be obedient to the expectations of the God who requires nothing but demands everything. Christianity can be troublesome; faith in Christ brings hatred, rejection, persecution, ridicule and even violence. Who wants to deal with that?
And while there is no work that will guarantee us salvation, the one who is saved is called to a life of hard work. It is hard work to understand what we believe, to share Jesus with our neighbors in word and deed. It is hard work to give up the things we loved about our old lives, to be transformed into the kind of person who glorifies God. It is hard work to serve the neighbor, to be God's hands and voice in the world. It is hard work not rejecting God and His saving grace because it means giving up the life that is convenient, comfortable, and easy. It is hard work to let go so that we can be born anew by the God who even gives us the faith to believe and see the Kingdom of God.
"Even so ye also, when ye see these things coming to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh. Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass away, till all things be accomplished. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away. But take heed to yourselves, lest haply your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day come on you suddenly as a snare: for so shall it come upon all them that dwell on the face of all the earth. But watch ye at every season, making supplication, that ye may prevail to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man." Luke 21:31-36, ASV
There is a car commercial that makes me laugh every time I see it. There is a guy talking about a long road trip he made so that he could be at the exact right location to see a comet. He drops his phone just as he is telling someone about his trip and the comet passes overhead as he bends to pick it up. He missed the very reason he took the long road trip because he was so busy talking about the long road trip.
There is an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" during which Leonard, Howard and Raj went out into the desert to see a meteor shower. They didn't rough it while they were out there, with satellite television and coolers full of good food. Others set up camp around the area, including some older middle school teachers which creepy Howard found attractive. They are hippy types and give Howard a bag of cookies. It doesn't take us long to realize that the cookies have been spiked with marijuana. They aren't used to the drugs and become very silly. In the meantime, they completely miss the meteor shower, even wondering at one point if they were missing something important.
I have this habit of turning on the news, which I watch mostly for the weather report. However, I often become distracted at that very moment. I walk out of the room or I turn on the faucet at the kitchen sink. It is frustrating; yesterday I missed the weather report in every broadcast. It is easier these days because we can check the weather on our computers or even our phones, but it is funny because I seem to always miss the very thing for which I am waiting.
We live our life of faith on a balance beam of sorts. We are meant to keep watch, to wait patiently and expectantly for the Lord. Yet, we are also meant to be busy while we are doing so. I don't know about you, but I tend to miss the important things when I am busy with the tasks of life. I miss the weather, surely, but Iím sure I miss many other things, also. Have you ever discovered, much too late, that you missed the opportunity to help someone in need? Have you been so busy doing things that you missed the chance to share the Gospel with a neighbor? Are you so busy talking about what you will do when Christ comes that you miss His face in the homeless man on the corner?
There will come a day when Christ will come in His glory. We don't know when that day will be. I could be today or in a thousand years. Many in this generation, as in every generation before us, believe that we will be the ones who will see that great Day. Some have even tried to predict when it will happen. Over the years prophets have set the date, only to set it back when it does not happen. They are so busy studying the scriptures to interpret the signs that they don't realize that Jesus Christ has called them to live in this day as His witnesses and workers. We should be watching, but not as people with our heads in the clouds or our eyes in our books, afraid of what might happen. We also must beware that we aren't spending so much time at our daily life that we miss the very thing for which we are waiting, our Lord Jesus Christ. He will come one day, but He comes to us every day in the lives of those who need us in this world.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 15, 2015, Christ the King Sunday: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
"Jehovah reigneth; he is clothed with majesty; Jehovah is clothed with strength; he hath girded himself therewith: The world also is established, that it cannot be moved." Psalm 93:1, ASV
I read a lot of historical fiction about the Tudor age in England. While historical fiction is not a history book, it is often well researched and factual even while including people and conversations that are invented.
The most famous, or infamous, of the Tudors, of course, is Henry VIII. Henry was king from 1509 to 1547. Henry enjoyed pleasure and power and was a very fickle king. He could love the people on one side of an argument today and hate them tomorrow while embracing those on the other side. Everyone had to tread very carefully around him, as if walking on eggshells, because they could lose their favor in a heartbeat.
Most of his wives discovered how fickle he really was. He married six women. Two of the marriages were annulled and two of the wives were executed. The third wife died during childbirth and she became like a goddess to him because she gave him his only legitimate son2. The last wife outlived him, but she nearly lost her head, too. It was only her willingness to humiliate herself and his fickleness that saved her life.
He was particularly grievous as he aged. He was ill so much of the time, and he took his pain out on those closest to him. He was embarrassed by his incapacity, and so often hid in his rooms, allowing only those who pleased him in some way. It was a hard time to be a member of the court because he was not often pleased and he was displeased easily.
He was so disagreeable that he often said yes to an action and then arrested those who carried it out. His last wife, Catherine Parr, was a theologian, unusual for women in that day. She authored several books that were published, including a book of prayers that were commissioned by Henry himself. Yet, it was her interest in theological things, her writing and translations that brought Henry's wrath upon her. She had to become like a church mouse after she was saved from death until she was truly saved by his death because he refused to honor the very things about her that attracted him in the first place.
The state of the church in Henry's days is confusing and to reiterate the history here would take too long. We know, of course, that he chose to reject the Pope and the Catholic Church for the sake of divorce and that he was egocentric enough to believe that he was more than capable to be the supreme leader of the church in England. There may have been some very positive effects of the reformation in England, but the trouble with the state of the church at that time was Henry. He was so easily swayed by those closest to him that he changed his mind constantly. One day he wanted the people to have a bible translated into their own language, the next day he had them all removed from the churches. One day he hated the rituals of the old church, the next day he was calling for them to be done again. No one ever really knew what was legal and what was illegal because they had not yet heard Henry's opinion for the day. Many died at his hand because they were doing what they thought he wanted, but they were following yesterday's laws.
Henry is not completely to blame, of course. He was surrounded by many people who wanted to control the course of events and they took advantage of his fickleness. They knew that if they could be the one whispering in his ears, then they could sway the direction of the laws. They also knew that it didn't take much to lose favor with the king, so they played dangerous games in and around the court to ensure their place forever. It didn't work, of course, because Henry did what Henry wanted to do and if he discovered their games, he changed sides and executed them.
He was king for thirty-eight years, during which time he managed to defeat those who were determined to undermine his rule, of which there were many. Some have suggested that the number that he executed is more than seventy thousand; although exaggerated, Henry certainly did use the chopping block as a way to control his kingdom, especially when he felt insecure. Unfortunately, the only times that the nation really prospered during his rule was when others were at the command of the government, while Henry was busy satisfying his need for pleasure. He spent money as if it grew on trees, covering his women -both wives and lovers - with furs and jewels. He built and decorated palaces to extreme. He went on long progresses (summer vacations) from castle to castle, filling the halls with courtiers and eating until he could no longer stand on his own. He held tournaments and masques, dinners that lasted hours with tray after tray of the most expensive dishes and wines. He fought wars that the nation could not afford and raised taxes to the point of destroying the economy of his people.
Opinion on Henry is diverse. Whether you love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Henry VIII will long be remembered. He is the perfect example of why God warned His people that they should not put their trust in an earthly king. In 1 Samuel, God's people were afraid because Samuel was old and his sons were not trustworthy. They went to Samuel and said, "Give us a king to judge us." God did so, but told them, " This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots; and he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and he will set some to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks: and ye shall be his servants." (1 Samuel 8, ASV)
They had a king, but they wanted a man who would rule over them in a way that was visible not just to themselves but to the world. They thought they needed to have a king who could lead them, provide for them, and protect them from enemies. They rejected God to take upon themselves an earthly king no matter what he might do to them. They accepted the consequences of their choice, and the ultimate consequence is that God gave them a king to lead them, provide for them and protect them. It didn't take very long for the people to realize that an earthly king is imperfect and even dangerous.
They faced difficult times, particularly when the earthly kings turned away from God. But God never completely abandoned His people. A good king would come along every few generations and God would bless His people with safety and prosperity. The suffered at times, too; defeat from enemies and exile were the consequences when they turned from God, led by the kings who did not have faith. Henry VIII may have called himself the head of the Church, but his actions certainly did not glorify God and he often led his people away from the God he claimed to serve.
Thankfully these kings are temporary. While we might want a good ruler to last forever, even the best fail to be perfect. England's current Queen Elizabeth has done many great things both for her country and for the world. She hasn't been perfect, however, and there are those who have pointed out her failures. She's human, after all, and we are all sinners in need of a Savior. While earthly kings can do good in this world, we all need to look to the one King who has done that which is necessary for life.
It is hard to believe we have reached the end of another Church year. We begin the year at Advent, a time of expectation as we wait the coming of Christ. It is a time of darkness leading to the Light. The birth of Christ ushers in a new age. During Epiphany God shares His grace and his Son with the entire world. In Lent we look within ourselves to realize that we are sinners in need of a Savior. During Holy Week we journey with Jesus to the cross. At Easter we are resurrected with Him, experiencing the joy of Godís gracious mercy and love. During the Easter season we are reminded of why God sent His Son as He completes the teaching He began during His life. The Church is born at Pentecost, ten days after Jesus returns to the right hand of the Father. During the season of Pentecost we learn what it means to be the Church. In the last weeks of the Church year we look forward to the second coming of Christ, to His glorification and rule. We look forward to the time when the promise is made complete, when Jesus is Christ is truly Lord of all forever. On Christ the King we look forward to the Day of Judgment when all things will be under His rule. On this day we get a glimpse of the everlasting. We always close the year with a look to the future and remember the promise of our Lord that He will come again in glory. He will come as King, not a temporary king over the perishable earth, but as the eternal King who will reign forever and ever.
But how do you describe the eternal? Human beings from every time and every place have tried to find words to express their expectations of what it will be when God truly reigns above all. Daniel shares a vision of heaven in todayís Old Testament lesson, a vision of an Ancient One that could bring terror to the witnesses. Imagine the scene, a room of thrones for a court of judgment with the throne of the Ancient of Days standing out from the rest. He was beyond compare: whiter than white, purer than pure. His throne was like a fiery chariot, and flames flowed out from His presence. He was surrounded by thousands and tens of thousands of servants. This is not a judge we would want to meet.
While this image is terrifying, there is also a message of hope, because one like a human being came with the clouds of heaven. We understand this Son of Man to be our Lord Jesus Christ, presented to the Ancient of Days as a mediator between the heavens and earth. Jesus will be the steward who will rule Godís Kingdom, given the dominion and the power and the glory above all else. All earthly kings fall short, even if they are humble and wise. Only Jesus can rule the kingdom that will never end.
John writes in Revelation "Grace to you and peace, from him who is and who was and who is to come." God is not sitting around waiting for the Day of Judgment to turn His wrath upon the world. He longs for all to know His mercy and grace, to find peace in His love. We do not fear that day because God has saved us from the deserved wrath by the blood of Christ. Jesus bought our salvation from His righteous judgment; even though by our own ability we cannot stand in His shadow Jesus has covered us with His own righteousness so that we can join the multitudes that will minister to Him forever.
The faithful throughout time - the saints of Christ - are those who minister to the Ancient of Days. One day we will be among them because of the cross of Christ.
Christ the King is the day when we look beyond the rest of the story from Christmas to Easter to Pentecost so that we will see what it will be like in that day when Christ fulfills His promises. John describes the scene like this, "Behold, he cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they that pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn over him. Even so, Amen." In that day, our divided hearts will see the truth of the One true and living God, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." He will reign forever and ever.
In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus stands before Pilate. Pilate asked, "Art thou the King of the Jews?" Pilate saw that Jesus was not a threat to anyone; He had no earthly power that should cause such a commotion. Jesus asked him, "Sayest thou this of thyself, or did others tell it thee concerning me?" Jesus was testing Pilate's faith. Was he seeing Jesus as the King, or was he just repeating what he'd heard others say. Pilate thought it was a ridiculous question. He was not a Jew. The politics of Israel made no difference to him as long as they did not do something against Rome. He threw it back in Jesus' face, "It is your own people that are trying to put you to death." Jesus then told him that His Kingdom is not of this world. Pilate was shocked that he would admit such a thing. "Art thou a king then?" Pilate asked. Jesus answered, "Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice."
We who have heard His voice will see Him again. We don't know when it will be. The Day of Judgment might be tomorrow or it might be in a thousand years. It does not matter. Our impatience is God's patience. It will happen in His time, just when He promised. It cannot happen until the full measure of God's people have heard and believed. We will never know what that means; what is a full measure? It is every person whom God has chosen. The final one might just be that person with whom you have shared the Gospel message today.
What a difference we see between the King that stood before Pilate and the One who will reign forever and ever: a submissive servant simply does not become the powerful ruler, unless God does the impossible. Of course, we know that God does do the impossible. As a matter of fact, His Son came in flesh, died on the cross and is seated at the right hand of God until the glorious day when He will come again in glory. We long for the day when we will see the King on that throne of fire, but until that day we are sealed with the promise with a guarantee, the Holy Spirit. The King dwells in our hearts. The Lord Jesus Christ, the one like the Son of Man, who stands before God gives us the grace to walk in faith daily until we will dwell in His Kingdom forever.
Yes, this Sunday is the last day of the Church year and as we enter Advent we are faced with the darkness of the world in which we live. But for this day, let us join with the multitudes in heaven praising the God who has promised us eternity. He is worthy to be praised. As the psalmist writes, "Jehovah reigneth; He is clothed with majesty; Jehovah is clothed with strength; he hath girded himself therewith: The world also is established, that it cannot be moved. Thy throne is established of old: Thou art from everlasting." He is from everlasting and will be forever and ever. He will never be like Henry VIII or like any of the human kings that have ruled on this earth. This King has saved us from the darkness and has promised that we will join Him in His Kingdom for eternity.
"For this cause I also, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which is among you, and the love which ye show toward all the saints, cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to that working of the strength of his might which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all." Ephesians 1:15-23, ASV
I was involved in an organization when I was a youth that was not a religious organization, but it reflected religious thought. We quoted scripture and learned lessons about faith, morality and charity. We regularly held events that served our neighbors. Each youth leader chose a theme for her term of office, with symbols and quotes that gave us a focus for that period of time. I had smiley faces and pansies, and my theme was "Follow your Dreams."
I liked to use scripture quotes during my speeches, and I often found myself searching the pages of my bible for the right thing to say. It was much harder than I ever expected. Though I was familiar with the bible, I was certainly not as knowledgeable as I am today. I was barely a teenager and my experience was Sunday School and Vacation Bible School where we heard the stories, but often rewritten in language appropriate for our age. I found that as I opened the concordance in search of a text with a certain theme, that it took me to verses that sounded good at first, but were never right when read in context. See, it is easy to make the bible say what we want to say if we take a verse here or there, but those verses often mean exactly the opposite when we read them within the larger text.
Sadly, many people will take a verse and use it how they want it to be interpreted, to fit their agenda or prove their point. Unfortunately, these proof texts twist the word of God and use it to their own benefit rather than to the glory of God.
I read an article today about ways to read and study the scriptures. The list included ideas such as praying, memorizing, journaling, singing, copying, and public reading among others. There was also a list of ways to avoid when it comes to reading and studying the scriptures. While it is important to put our noses inside our bibles on a regular basis, we should beware that we do so with the right heart. We shouldn't approach the text of our some sense of guilt because we know that we should be doing so. We should not seek to make the scriptures give us exactly what we want them to give. We should not read the scriptures as a book filled with information. We should not read the scriptures selfishly, assuming all the good words are meant for us while all the bad ones are for our enemy. Finally, the scriptures are not simply a book of rules, a list of things we must do to please God.
So, why do we read and study the Bible? The Bible is a library that is given to us for many purposes, but most of all it is given so that we can come to know our God and His Son Jesus Christ. The book, both Old and New Testaments, are given to draw us into a relationship with God, to see our failure and hear His promises. While there texts that give us that warm feeling and that inform us about the Kingdom of God, we can't make the passages say what we want them to say. The goal of our time with the Bible is not to gain knowledge or fulfill a duty. It is not to prove what we think or find excuses for our failures. The goal is not even to become an expert on the Bible, able to quote something for every situation.
No, our goal in our scripture reading and study is to get to know the One who gave us the book. It is to become familiar with our Father, to be transformed by His Word and to become the people He has created and redeemed us to be. Our time with the scriptures is just one of the many ways that God continues to sanctify us as we continue to dwell in this world until the day when He will come again. For today, He comes to us in His Word through the words written on the pages of our bibles. We do this with the help of our God, the Holy Spirit joins us in our reading and study to help us know Him in our hearts, heads and spirits.
It is my prayer, just as Paul prayed for the Christians in his care, that you seek to know the Lord your God with all your heart, with time in the scriptures and prayer. Don't rely only on the words of these writings, as I am as fallible as the worst of sinners. I try to find appropriate scriptures, but it is no easier today than it was forty years ago; I still find it difficult to find texts that say what I want it to say, sometimes forgetting that we have to let the text say what God wants it to say. Read the text, go into your own bible and read it in the language you prefer. Pray over it. What is God saying to you with this text? What do you need to hear today? How is God transforming you with His Word? How has your relationship with God grown through your time with His Word?
"Oh come, let us sing unto Jehovah; Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; Let us make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. For Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods." Psalm 95:1-3, ASV
We often talk about how the people of God fail to remain true and faithful to His Word and covenants. This is why Christ came in the first place, because God's people were unable to be faithful in their own power and ability. Christ came to restore God's people forever and to give the Holy Spirit to aid in our life of faith. Without Him, we could do nothing. This is obvious when we read the Old Testament stories of the people after they were saved from Egypt and led to the Promised Land. It was only weeks after they escaped that they already turned back to the gods of Egypt. They could not even be true after they arrived in the Promised Land. There were good kings that led the people in righteousness, but it only took a generation or so to turn back to the gods of the world. With each turning, God let them experience the consequences of their faithlessness, but He never abandoned them. He always saved them. He turned hearts. He provided a king with a heart for God, and favored the nation with prosperity and peace.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of when God saved His people from the Babylonian exile. They had turned from Him, honoring false gods and living apart from His covenants. He allowed Babylon to take His people; He did not do so to punish them, but to cause them to turn to Him. See, suffering does not come to us to penalize us, but to discipline. There's a difference. Discipline brings us to a place we should be, training us on the right path. The time in Babylon brought God's people to their knees, to a place where they remembered their God and called for His help.
God brought Israel back from exile. There was nothing that His people could do to save themselves. He softened the hearts of their enemies, who not only gave permission for them to return, but aided in the restoration of Jerusalem. He sent prophets to encourage and guide them. He protected them along the path home and delivered them from those who opposed His plans. He blessed Ezra and Nehemiah so that they could and would follow His call to ministry in Israel. He blessed the rebuilding of the temple and city. God used their very enemies to restore His people. They were humbled by God's grace, although they would continue to fail to be faithful. It would take the New Covenant to bring God's people into a relationship that would be eternal.
The work of reestablishing God's people in Jerusalem was done between Ezra and Nehemiah. They faced opposition, but in the end the temple and city were rebuilt. They saw to the rededication of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah 12. Great crowds were brought together for this event, including the Levites from all over Israel and singers from around the region. They came to celebrate with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. Two choirs were gathered: one followed Ezra counterclockwise around the walls while the other followed Nehemiah clockwise. The met in the middle and entered the temple together. It was a grand event thanking God for His blessing on His people.
With Thanksgiving next week in the United States, many people are thinking about the things for which we are thankful. We are thankful for family and friends, for the roof over our heads and for the food that we eat. We are thankful for our jobs and for our health. While most of us know that our thankfulness is directed at God, we focus our words of thankfulness on what we have rather than on the One who is to be praised.
Ezra, Nehemiah and the people had good reason to be thankful. They were home. Their city and their temple was rebuilt. I suspect, however, that the songs the choir sang were not filled with words like "I am thankful to be home," or "I am thankful that there is a city where I can live and a temple where I can worship." I am certain they sang hymns like that of the psalmist. They made a joyful noise to their God, praising Him for His greatness and His grace. Their songs of thanksgiving were songs of praise to the One who saved them from themselves, first through the exile to Babylon and then the return home.
As we prepare our hearts for Thanksgiving, let's remember not only to thank God for the things that we have, but to focus our praise on the One who has given us all we have. We should list our blessings to remind ourselves that we really and truly are blessed. But let us all take time to speak more than thanks; let us all give a thank offering, a sacrifice of praise, to the One who is a great God. Let us make a joyful noise unto the King of all kings.
"Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Wherefore take up the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; withal taking up the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: with all prayer and supplication praying at all seasons in the Spirit, and watching thereunto in all perseverance and supplication for all the saints, And on my behalf, that utterance may be given unto me in opening my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak." Ephesians 6:10-20, ASV
There is fear in the world. We know we should not be afraid, but it is a natural response to the things we see happening. Fear is a negative emotion because it often leads us to respond in ways and attitudes that are not helpful. It causes us to seclude ourselves or to act out violently. Fear can be positive when it causes us to be watchful and careful, but we take that to the extreme and reject the very opportunities that God gives us to minister in this world.
I don't know how to solve the debate that is on everyone's mind. I struggle with the reality of our need for protection and the call to serve. Some want us to invite everyone to the party and others want to shut the door to everyone. The truth is that the real answer is somewhere in between, but I will let more informed and positioned people deal with it. See, it is easy to be armchair quarterbacks, but even if your experience and research gives you a solid foundation for your opinions, there are people who have information that gives them a better understanding of the situation. We can certainly have our opinions, but we have to understand that we only see a small part of the whole picture, especially since the information we are given is often only a half truth. This is why extreme thoughts are not helpful: the extremist bases opinion on their own very narrow view.
So what do we do? It is hard to trust when our fear drives our thoughts and opinions. It is hard to trust when we see decisions that seem foolish or dangerous. It is hard to trust when those we have to trust do not seem trustworthy. Here's the thing: this is not just a war against flesh and blood. Our lives may be in danger from very real enemies, but there is something even more powerful happening right under our noses. It is not a war we can see, but it wages all around us every day. It is a war between God and those who roam the earth fighting against Him. It is a spiritual war, a war that we will never win with weapons of steel or words of anger. It is a greater reason to fear, and yet we have no reason to fear this war because we have the most trustworthy One who is leading the charge.
While it might be helpful for us to prepare for the possibilities of what might happen in the world, it is even more important that we prepare our hearts for the work we are called to do as Christians. Pray. Know God's Word. Seek the Truth (not necessarily factual information about what is happening in the world, but the Truth of God.) Live as if you have been saved and be transformed by God's Spirit, acting in faith and obedience to Him. Be filled with grace and faith, for it is there you will find the peace that passes all human understanding. When the real dangers of the world make it to your doorstep, you need not fear, because you will be prepared in spirit to fight the real war. It is that war, between God, His people and the devil, that we can really lose what matters. So be prepared in flesh, but be even more prepared in Spirit because then you will have no reason to fear.
"Ye worship that which ye know not: we worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth. The woman saith unto him, I know that Messiah cometh (he that is called Christ): when he is come, he will declare unto us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he." John 4:22-26, ASV
Everyone has their favorites for Thanksgiving. The typical protein is turkey, but many families in the south do beef of some sort such as brisket. The table is filled with delicious side dishes made with potatoes or sweet potatoes, green beans or corn. There's usually a dish of cranberry something somewhere in the buffet as well as pies made with harvest fruits like apples and pumpkins.
The annual argument about food revolves around another traditional side dish: stuffing. Or dressing. Which is it in your family? What type do you make? Does it have bread or cornbread? Does it have potatoes? Are there pecans, mushrooms or oysters? Do you add sausage or not? Do you stuff it in the bird or bake it separate in the oven? I talked to one friend recently who told me that they have to make multiple birds just so that they can make different kinds of stuffing for different family tastes. However it is done, one of the things I look forward to most on Thanksgiving is the stuffing.
I make turkey throughout the year (not a whole bird, but breasts or parts) but I don't make homemade stuffing very often. I use packaged stuffing at other times during the year, but there's nothing like the homemade stuff. That's why I find a current commercial pretty funny. The commercial shows a man dressed up as a pilgrim upset about the food he found on the Thanksgiving table: they didn't have a name brand boxed stuffing on the table. "I wait all year for that stuffing," he says. He waits all year for the imitation; he waits for the everyday substitute.
We are getting ready to enter into a time of year when people spend more time thinking about their spirituality. We are reminded of Christmas everywhere, and even non-Christians wonder what it means for them. It is a time when our hearts are drawn to doing good things for others. Charitable donations go up. We buy gifts for others. We choose angels off the angel trees to help the helpless. We give to food banks or donate our time for special events to aid the homeless. Those who believe but don't get to church regularly often attend worship with family. We tell the Christmas story, not just the secular stories of Santa, but the stories of kindness and even that of Jesus. We see nativities, gawk at the lights and fill our homes with the smell of pine trees. Whether we do so because of tradition or because we believe, the acts touch our hearts in a way we don't even realize.
But here's the thing: when we focus on these things and ignore the real reason for the season (sorry for the cliche) we settle for the imitation rather than feasting on the real. I was shopping yesterday and it was crazy. Of course, part of it had to do with the fact that our kids are out of school this week, so shoppers included impatient children. It was also crazy with the stress of the holidays. I said out loud but almost to myself, "We shop early so that it won't be stressful..." but it seemed that people are already freaking out even though Christmas is still more than a month away.
I saw a meme on Facebook yesterday showing Captain Obvious saying, "The next liturgical season is Advent, not the Christmas season. The Christmas season doesn't even begin until Christmas." Now, I know when it comes to preparation for the Christmas holiday it is necessary to think on these things, but let's remember the cliche and focus on the reason for the season. Instead of settling for the imitation or chasing after the everyday substitute, let's give more thought over the next month to our Lord and our God, the story of His grace and the real food that comes from God, the Bread of Life. Let Jesus Christ stuff or dress your life and fill you with truly good things, not just this season but the whole year through.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 29, 2015, First Sunday of Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
"Guide me in thy truth, and teach me; For thou art the God of my salvation; For thee do I wait all the day." Psalm 25:5, ASV
Have you ever noticed that a lamp appears brighter at night than it does during the day? It isn't that the lamp is brighter, but that the light from that lamp is diminished by the light that surrounds it. The lamp overcomes darkness much better than other light.
I suppose that's why faith and the Gospel stand out so much more clearly when the world is in chaos than it does when everything is peaceful. See, we don't really think about God so much when things are going well around us. We might pray and worship and offer thanks, but we don't fall on our knees in hopeful expectation of God's grace because we are comfortable. We don't need God and so He is set aside as we live our happy life. When we face a crisis, however, we see our need for Him ever more strongly and turn to Him in desperate prayer and expectation. It is not that Christ is a softer light in those good times of our life, but His light does not seem quite as bright for us as it does in those times when we need Him.
Last week we celebrated Christ the King Sunday, and we looked forward to the time when there will be no need for the sun or for the moon or for the stars because Jesus Christ will be the eternal lamp that will provide all the light we need. There will also be no darkness because the victory over death and darkness will be complete. This week we begin a new church year and we return to the reality: our world is filled with darkness.
The darkness has certainly existed through the history of the world; the world is constantly in flux and goes from bright moments of hope and peace to times filled with hatred and war. There is even a period of time specifically called the Dark Ages. That was an age when the great civilizations were in the decline and were replaced by cultures that were less refined. In England the Roman culture was replaced by the Saxons. Stone houses and advanced technology were replaced by grass huts and barbaric practices. It is called the dark ages also because the history is dark. The great civilizations had forms of writing, education, art which depicted life in that day. You can still visit the Roman baths and see the great mosaics they laid, but the Saxon huts are little more than an outline in the dust and a theory of a historian.
It was also a time of darkness in faith. The Romans had begun the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, but much was lost during those dark ages. The powerful worshipped other gods, believed in magic and superstition. And yet it was through the darkness of those days that the Light of Christ began to burn more brightly. Some of the greatest saints, like Boniface in the Frankish empire shaped Christianity which grew into greatness for a time. It peaks and it wanes because we become apathetic at the peaks and are humbled into desperate need when it wanes. That's when the Light shines brightest.
So, as we begin Advent in darkness of a reminder of our life without Christ. We have a tradition in my church and in my family of an Advent wreath. This is a wreath made with five candles, one for each Sunday of Advent and then for Christmas. We light a candle each Sunday and as we move through the season of preparation the light becomes brighter and brighter. That's how it is in our texts, too. We begin with a promise, watch as God prepares the world for the coming of our Lord and then end with the fulfillment of the promise: Jesus Christ is born. The true Light comes into the world.
Jeremiah tells about the promise, "In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell safely; and this is the name whereby she shall be called: Jehovah our righteousness." What is righteousness? It is a right relationship with God. Christ came to fulfill this promise and to restore our relationship with God. What did we need to be saved from? Ourselves, our self-centered desire to be in control, to do things our way. It is this very desire that set us apart from our Creator. It is this very attitude that leads us into the darkness. Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God. This willful disobedience against God's Word is sin; it is what separated them from God. It is what forced them out of the Garden into the world where darkness would reign. Every generation of humans since the days of Adam and Eve have continued to live in this rebellion and have known the experience of darkness without God.
Yet, God knew how to take care of this problem and planned for our salvation long before we were born. In the beginning He was already voicing the promise that one day He would restore our relationship with Him. The patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets all pointed toward the day when that would be fulfilled. When God's people lost sight of Him because they were too comfortable and apathetic, He reminded them, "I will send a Messiah." He shined the light to prepare them for the Light that would save them forever.
This passage from Jeremiah is repeated from earlier in Jeremiah. In chapter 23, Jeremiah talks specifically of the One who will come. He will be the King; He will be called "Jehovah our righteousness." In this passage, however, Jeremiah refers to the people of God. Israel will be called "Jehovah our righteousness." His people will be identified with the One who will be their Savior, they will become part of His Kingdom, and they will reign with Him. As the relationship between God and His people is restored, they will become one with Him in heart, soul and spirit.
I once saw a bumper sticker that said, "Jesus is coming. Look busy." I don't know about you, but my calendar for the next four weeks is filled with things to do. I am certainly busy enough; I don't have to worry about Jesus finding me idle. Yet, is my busy-ness really what Jesus wants to see? We begin Advent in darkness, with our eyes turned toward the coming Day of Judgment, reminding us that Christ's coming will be accompanied by frightening things. We will not be able to stand if we are resting on our works, or on our efforts, or on our ideas. We will not be able to stand if we are standing with our own power and strength.
There are two things that Jesus will be looking for in that day: faith and love. Faith is the manifestation of our trust in God's promises. We believe that God saves. Love is the outflowing of our faith into the world. We have been given the greatest gift -- forgiveness -- by the grace of God. We have the assurance of this gift because God has completed the work of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. There is nothing we can do to change what God has done for us. We have heard the Word and the promise is ours.
But our tendency is always toward darkness, I suppose that's why the Light shines so brightly there. See, Jesus is waiting for us in our times of struggle to remind us of His Grace. We have Jesus always, but His light does not seem to shine so brightly in our lives when everything is good. We don't need Him when the world is bright around us and we lose sight of Him. Our comfort and our apathy make us turn away until we are brought to our knees in humble obedience again.
Righteousness, at least in the biblical sense, has little to do with morality; if it did then there world be no point to the Advent season we are about to enter. There would be no point for Christmas or Easter, either. There would not even be a point for Jesus to be born or to die. If we are saved by our good works, then there is no point to the Church or faith or witnessing to the grace and mercy of God. If you are good enough, then God is not necessary, and neither is Jesus. But we know that we aren't good enough to get a hundred points. We donít have keys that will unlock the pearly gates. It is during those times when we dwell in comfort that we begin to think that we are good enough. That's why we lose sight of our God.
God is not looking for the good and upright. He's looking for the humble. He's not looking for those who think themselves righteous based on their own works. God is looking for the people who are teachable, who will learn and grow and be changed by His Word. He is looking for those who by faith are willing to wait and watch and hope for the fulfillment of His promises.
It might seem strange that our Gospel for this first week of Advent has nothing to do with Christmas. We hear Jesus speaking of what is to come, warning about the Day of Judgment. We aren't thinking about judgment as we prepare for Christmas. We see the stores filled with merchandise to buy as the perfect gift and houses in our neighborhoods decorated with lights. We are humming ďJingle BellsĒ and looking forward to the parties to which we have been invited. We also look forward to the birth of Christ, to the Nativity and the retelling of this beloved story. It is a wonderful time with a joyous spirit of love and mercy and grace.
However, Christmas looks back at something that has already happened: the birth of Christ is history and though we look forward to it on our monthly calendars, there is no hope in the birth for us. Our hope rests in the second coming, that day when Christ will come to rule over heaven and earth forever. We look forward to that great event even as we long to remember the child in the manger.
As we hear Jesus talking about the end time, we realize that the Day can come at any moment. We know in our hearts and in our heads that what is to come will be frightful, but that we have nothing to fear because we are firmly and completely beneficiaries of God's promise. We heard the promise that a righteous branch would come out of Israel for the sake of the world in the Old Testament lesson, and that He will come to execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days we will live in safety, not by our own power or strength, but by the power and strength of our God.
"In those days..." That preface is often followed by descriptions of horrific things like plagues, destruction, famine and death. Jesus says, "Men will faint from fear..." We know in our hearts and minds that we will have nothing to fear, and yet the promise of God does not mean we will never suffer in this world. God's promise does not mean that we will never see darkness. I have also been so comfortable in my bright world that I've lost sight of the Light.
During Advent the humble wait for Him. We seek His guidance. We ask His forgiveness. We listen to His truth and walk in His paths. We look to heaven to save us. Though the images in the Gospel lesson are frightening, we are reminded that God is near when we see the chaos in the world around us. It seems like now is the time, but hasn't it been that way in every generation since Christ? Have we not all seen signs in the heavens and on the earth? Even in this day, as we wait once again for the coming of our Lord as a child in a manger, we see those signs throughout the world. We are closer now than we have ever been; yet we will not know the day until it arrives. We simply wait and wonder in hopeful expectation.
The people of Thessalonica had been visited by a man named Paul. He was in that town for only a matter of weeks when some of his detractors showed up and began to cause trouble. He had the time to begin a church, to build up a congregation and teach them a little about living in the new faith they had received. They were new Christians, but passionate about what they had heard. They had the Holy Spirit in their hearts and just enough to stand firm. Paul was chased away to another town, but he never stopped worrying about his fledgling Christian church in Thessalonica.
He sent Timothy to visit, to find out how they were doing. Paul's detractors were trying to halt the spread of the Gospel, so they sent eloquent speakers and intelligent teachers who preached against the doctrine being established by Paul's ministry. It would have been quite understandable if the church at Thessalonica had fallen apart against such harassment. However, Timothy found that the Christians were standing firm. They still had faith and they still loved one another. It was a work in progress. Paul hoped to return to help continue the growth and bring the church in that city to maturity. But Paul found something about which to rejoice: they still believed. They had not lost touch with the God they loved or the Gospel that saves.
It was the chaos of those detractors that made the light even brighter for those early Christians; they looked to the One who was their salvation and their righteousness. They shined the Light of Christ through their faith and their love for one another. They kept their eyes on Christ Jesus even though the world was fighting against their faith.
Many Christians are crying "Woe to me" because it seems as if the world has become dark and chaotic, fighting against our Lord Jesus Christ. Our detractors today are different than Paul's, but we are reminded that we aren't the first Christians to face opposition. Despite the chaos, they held firmly to their faith and loved one another. They shined the light. This is what we are called to do.
It is easy to want to fight those who try to hurt us, but the light shines more brightly in darkness. Now is the perfect time to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the dangers of this world threaten our lives, we are called to a life of humble submission to God. He is in control and He knows what He is doing. We don't need to fight the darkness, we simply need to shine the Light. We do so by being faithful and faith-filled, loving one another and our neighbors, walking in hope and peace. We are waiting for the coming of our Lord, not only at Christmas, but for eternity. Let us be busy this season preparing our hearts for His coming, humbly serving Him with joy. As you shine the Light into the world others will see and will turn from the darkness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
It is hard to imagine that God's promises are being fulfilled even now in places where children are recruited to wear bombs on their chests that blow up marketplaces and kill innocent people. As we wait for the coming of our Savior and celebrate the fulfillment of God's promises, we see that the world hasn't changed at all, even after two thousand years. Jeremiah spoke of those days when everything will be made right, and we connect that promise to the birth of Christ. Yet, we know that even as He has fulfilled the promise, the work isn't complete. The work isnít complete, so we try to fulfill the promises in our own ways, by our own strength and for our own purpose. We seek fulfillment of God's promises through human strength, but we know that the strength of men is not trustworthy. This is why God has always called His people to trust in Him. The psalmist answers our human tendency away from God with words we should take to heart: "O my God, in thee have I trusted."
The psalmist says "wait for" several times in today's psalm. New International Version translates that phrase "hope." Hope is waiting for the promises to be fulfilled. But waiting is difficult. How long do you have to wait? There are those who live anxiously for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. They see the signs and they believe that the time has come. Throughout history there have always been those who have given up the world in the expectation that the time is urgent. They have cried out to the world, "The time is NOW!" certain that they have understood the signs. Yet the times pass, and nothing happens. They either grow impatient or they lose interest.
But our message for today is to remember that God has fulfilled His promises and He will fulfill them. While we wait, while we hope, we are called to live in trust, knowing that God has done and continues to do His Work in this world. He is the Light and it is only the Light that can overcome the darkness. We should rejoice if it seems particularly dark these days because it is now that we are being called to shine so that others will see and hear and believe. God is about to enter the world and do something amazing. He's about to send His Son to overcome the darkness. For now we have to settle for the Light we celebrate at Christmastime, born and laid in a manger. But on this First Sunday of Advent, let's take some time to look to our future and the Eternal Light that will shine, overcoming all darkness forever.
"And it came to pass, as they were on their way to Jerusalem, that he was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, who stood afar off: and they lifted up their voices, saying, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go and show yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, with a loud voice glorifying God; and he fell upon his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan." Luke 17:11-16, ASV
Ten lepers were healed, but only one -- a Samaritan -- went back to Jesus to say "Thank you." Were the other nine lepers unthankful for the gift? No. They did exactly what the Law, and Jesus, told them to do. They did their duty. They went to the priests and showed that they'd been healed. They presented their offerings. They sang the psalms of praise. They received the same gift as the Samaritan leper, but they responded in a different way. It was not wrong. It just wasn't enough.
Jesus was passing along the borders of Galilee and Samaria. There were political and religious differences between the Galileans and the Samaritans, but they lived side by side despite those differences. The differences did not matter much to the lepers. They were all outcast, all unclean. They all stood at a distance from Jesus, and cried out for His mercy. As outcasts, the lepers needed anything Jesus might be able to provide; they needed food, clothing, shelter, and comfort. Most especially they needed to be healed so that they could return to their communities. Jesus gave them exactly what they needed most.
The nine did exactly what Jesus told them to do: they went to the priests and showed themselves. The one, the Samaritan, turned to give thanks and praise to God at the foot of Jesus. The nine obeyed the Law, and the one recognized the Lawgiver. The nine took their praise to the temple, to the place they knew, but they missed seeing the Temple that stood before them, the Savior that had been sent by God for their sake. The one leper who returned to Jesus received far more than just healing; he was made whole. His faith was life-changing.
Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? Do we go to the Temple to thank God that we have been healed and restored to our lives in the world? Or do we worship the One who has healed us and made us whole? We gather together each year to show our thankfulness to God for all that He has done for us, but let us remember that the Lord who provides us all we need to live in this world has given us something even greater in Jesus Christ: the live-changing faith that makes us whole and restores us to a relationship with our Father.
"And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God." Romans 12:2, ASV
I was shopping the other day when I noticed a family in the store. The mother was at the checkout and at least three girls were scattered around the entrance. The oldest of the three, probably about fourteen, found a seat on the scooter that the store has available for those who have difficulty walking. She had her nose buried in a phone. The next oldest was about twelve and was standing nearby with her nose in a phone, too. The third child, perhaps about nine years old was closer to mom and was staring at a gadget in her hands with her fingers tapping away. At first I assumed it was a phone, but the shape was wrong, so I thought it was a video game. As I walked by I noticed that it was a calculator. She was typing numbers with hectic speed to no real purpose.
It made me laugh at first. It was good to see what seemed to be a mother who felt that nine was too young for a cell phone, but it was also sad. This child, it seems, is so desperate to conform to the world she sees that she's willing to carry a calculator until she gets her own phone. After all, isn't that the way we are all supposed to fill our free moments? Instead of learning to wait patiently beside their mother in the store, those girls had to fill the time with something on their phones. The youngest had to find a way to do the same thing.
It isn't just her family; you can see this stance everywhere these days. I saw it when I went to the lecture a few weeks ago. I found my seat on the balcony and looked over the railing at the crowd below, hoping I might see someone I knew. The sight was interesting, to say the least. The crowd, which was not a college crowd even though it was at a college, was filled with people more my age. The light from their phones shining up at me was almost blinding (an exaggeration, of course.) They got there early to get good seats, and then spent the time checking email and Facebook. It isn't surprising; as soon as one person pulls out their cell phone, others follow. We conform to what we see happening in the world around us. We don't want to interrupt them with conversation when they are busy, so we follow their example.
I'm guilty, too, of course, although I don't have one of those phones that does email and Facebook. I carry my e-reader and do a little reading if I'm waiting for something, especially if I am alone. I am rather shy, so it is difficult for me to make conversations with strangers. The e-reader is a good escape from an uncomfortable possibility. Perhaps that's why so many people have become attached to their phones.
Paul wasn't foreseeing the world we live in today, but he was warning us to be careful about letting the world determine what we do and how we think. It is easy, very easy, to conform. It is scary to be different. It is a lot easy to agree with someone about an issue than to have a conversation about our differences of opinion.
We didn't have any company for Thanksgiving last night and the three of us have very similar opinions about the issues of the world. While I enjoy a large crowd, especially on a special day like thanksgiving, I was thankful we didn't have to worry about an argument. I joked, "Let's talk about politics. Or religion." We laughed because we knew it wouldn't be an impassioned debate. After all, that's one of the dangers of gathering as a large group, there is always someone with a strong opinion who is passionate about the subject and makes the conversation uncomfortable for those who just want to get through the meal and go home.
The world wants us to conform. It becomes very difficult for those people of faith that do not agree with what the world says about what it means to be faithful, especially since the scriptures can be twisted just enough to make what the world encourages seem to be good and right and true. And the world takes advantage of those who have opinions at every extreme. Some want us to conform to their graceless attitude and violent tendencies. Others want us to conform to a world of relativism and tolerance. Neither extreme is biblical. We are to conform to the Word of God, to follow Him and live according to His will. That might just mean that we need to get our noses out of our phones, our calculators and our e-readers to have a conversation with our neighbor about His grace.
"And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward: and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only, in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you he shall in no wise lose his reward." Matthew 10:38-42, ASV
The early days of Advent call us to look forward to the day Christ will come again. The lectionary scriptures for the first Sunday are always apocalyptic texts with Jesus telling us what it will be like in the last days. It is good for us to look forward to that day, not out of fear for what will happen, but in hope for the fulfillment of God's saving work. We long for the day when we will dwell in the presence of God forever. And we become particularly desperate when we see what's happening in the world around us. Surely now is the time for Christ to come and save us from the evils of this day?
Well, every generation of men have dealt with the dangers and evil of the world. Ask someone who survived a concentration camp if it is more difficult to live today than in 1944. We can't ask those who lived through the plagues of Europe about that time, but I imagine they would tell us that they, too, were crying out for God's mercy. War might be different today, and in some ways harder, we can't say it is worse for us than for all the other generations. As a matter of fact, thanks to modern medicine and technology, many people who would have died in plagues or war even just a hundred years ago survive to live and serve God today.
Do we really think that today is more dangerous than it was for the first disciples? They, too believed that Jesus was coming soon. Even worse for them was the reality that they believed that Jesus would come before those who knew Him in the flesh died. Yet, as they began to die, those left behind must have suffered great uncertainty. "Where is Jesus?" they might have cried. Two thousand years later we are asking the same question. Why doesn't He just come today and finish this so that we can enjoy our eternal inheritance? Why? The answer is that the full measure of those whom God intends to be saved have not yet heard the Word and been saved. The very last person may not be saved for a thousand years. Are we so selfish and self-centered that we would let even one person die before they, too, received the promise?
Meanwhile, we live in this world. We live in between the first Advent, when Christ was born in Bethlehem and the Final Advent when Christ comes again as Judge and Savior. However, our Lord Jesus Christ has not abandoned us as we wait; He is here and comes to us in "little advents" all the time. These little advents, or small comings, are moments when He reveals Himself to us in words of forgiveness and acts of grace. They come to us when we need to be reminded of His promises, but also when there is someone in our path who needs to see the grace of God in their own life. We are reminded by the scriptures to see Jesus in the faces of those we serve, for when we do so for the least of Jesus' brethren, we do so for Him.
We wait and watch for the coming of Christ, however it will be at the end of days, but let's not spend our days looking to the sky. Christ comes to us every day in some way and we will see Him in our neighbor when we pay attention to the opportunities that cross our path. It doesn't have to be a grand accomplishment; we don't have to build a church or save a village. We don't have to do something that makes a worldwide impact. Perhaps that is our calling; if it is, then let us do as God commands. However, Jesus tells us in today's scripture passage that it merely takes a simple glass of water to serve Christ in this world. As we go through this Advent season, let's look for the little advents of Jesus Christ, those opportunities to serve Him and meet the needs of our neighbors.