Welcome to the November 2016 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 2016
“I will extol you, Yahweh, for you have raised me up, and have not made my foes to rejoice over me. Yahweh my God, I cried to you, and you have healed me. Yahweh, you have brought up my soul from Sheol. You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit. Sing praise to Yahweh, you saints of his. Give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment. His favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ You, Yahweh, when you favored me, made my mountain stand strong; but when you hid your face, I was troubled. I cried to you, Yahweh. To Yahweh I made supplication: ‘What profit is there in my destruction, if I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth? Hear, Yahweh, and have mercy on me. Yahweh, be my helper.’ You have turned my mourning into dancing for me. You have removed my sackcloth, and clothed me with gladness, to the end that my heart may sing praise to you, and not be silent. Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” Psalm 30, WEB
Yesterday was Halloween and our neighborhood was full of children going door to door. We had a traffic jam at our corner as cars brought flocks of trick-or-treaters and parking was impossible in our usually very quiet neighborhood. By 9:00 we had little more than noisy gangs of teenagers who had come to visit the haunted forest down the street and then everything became quiet and peaceful again. It was a fun night for those who participated. I saw photos of children on Facebook with piles of delicious candies and heard the excitement of parents who are going to share in the hoard.
Did you know, however, that All Hallow’s Eve is just the beginning of a triduum, a three day remembrance and celebration of the dead, the martyrs, the saints and all the faithful departed Christians called Allhallowtide. The tree days began on All Hallow’s Eve with a vigil during which worshippers prepared themselves for the upcoming feast with prayers and fasting. The second day, today, is All Saints Day. This day was established to honor the blessed who have not been canonized and who have no special feast day. If you look at the Church calendar, you’ll find that Saints are commemorated every day of the year, sometimes there are dozens of people remembered. Yet, there are others who have been specially chosen that don’t have a specific day. They are remembered on All Saints Day. The third day, All Soul’s Day, is a commemoration for all the faithful departed. This is when families remembered loved ones. Día de los Muertos is a popular holiday in Mexico, when mourners gathered at the cemetery to have a picnic with those who had died. They build altars and have parades to honor the dead. While the Church once celebrated all these things over the three day period, we’ve pretty much just bundled All Saints and All Souls together and Halloween is no longer even a religious day for most.
Yesterday, on Reformation Day, we talked about Martin Luther who is still remembered for the work he did nearly five hundred years ago. There were many others who worked for reform in the church in those days. Despite the price on his head, Martin Luther managed to stay alive for many years following the nailing of the 95 Thesis. He was protected and hidden, but managed to continue to do great things for the Church. He certainly wasn’t perfect. He struggled with dis-ease during the last years of his life which made him short-tempered and rather harsh in his writings. His wife Katie even told him he was being rude. He answered her, “They are teaching me to be rude.” It was not gracious, but we all understand how hard it is to be sick and how it can affect the way we deal with people. He died on February 18, 1546 at the age of 62.
Other Lutherans were not so lucky. Two men who adhered to the Reformation doctrine were burned on the stake on July 1, 1523. They were part of an Augustinian monastery that had publically professed the Lutheran doctrine. All the monks were arrested and interrogated. Most of them recanted out of fear of death and were released, although their monastery was destroyed and they had nowhere to go. Three refused to recant: Johann Esch, Heinrich Voes, and Lampertus Thorn. Thorn asked for a few days to think about it, and though he never recanted, he remained imprisoned until his death five years later. Esch and Voes refused and were taken to the stake immediately. The executioner did not even read the charges against the two men who were being martyred for their faith, probably because the powers did not want Lutheran doctrine to be heard or to spread among the people witnessing the execution.
Martin Luther wrote his first hymn when he heard about their deaths. “Ein neues Lied wir heben an” (“A new song we raise”) was not so much a hymn to be used in worship, but rather a ballad to honor those two monks. It is known in English as the hymn “Flung to the Heedless Winds.”
The words of the first verse call us to praise God for the life He has promised to those who are faithful. “A new song here shall be begun - The Lord God help our singing! Of what our God himself hath done, Praise, honour to him bringing. At Brussels in the Netherlands by two boys, martyrs youthful He showed the wonders of his hands whom he with favour truthful so richly hath adorned.” The next ten verses tell the story of Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes, a story that reminds us to stand firm in God’s Word. Then Luther finished with a reminder that God is with us through it all, until the end, and that winter will lead to summer, just as harsh times will lead to times of blessing and death leads to new life. “Let them lie on for evermore - No refuge so is reared; for us, we thank our God therefore, His word has reappeared. Even at the door is summer nigh, the winter now is ended, the tender flowers come out and spy; His hand when once extended withdraws not till he’s finished.”
Martyrdom may seem like the worst possible end to a faithful life, but we can face the difficult times knowing that God will be with us through it all. We remember on this All Saints Day all those who have passed from this life into eternal life, who have gone from the winter into the endless summer, whether they have been martyred for their faith or burdened with disease, whether they have suffered a tragic end or wandered off into a peaceful sleep. We remember during this Allhallowtide that death is not the end but only the beginning, and for that we are called to fill the world with praise thanksgiving for the One who has saved us.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 6, 2016, All Saints Sunday: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“All the angels were standing around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before his throne, and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’” Revelation 7:11-12, WEB
The book of Revelation has been widely interpreted, and misinterpreted, since John wrote it nearly two thousand years ago. Read a dozen commentaries and you’ll find a dozen different explanations for the symbolism of the images and the numbers. Today’s passage includes one of the most puzzling accounts of all. The number 144,000 has been described by some as a literal number, yet if we take that as true, even those who believe it can’t account for the many others who have been sealed by God’s grace.
In the verse following the list of tribes, John writes that there was a great multitude that no one could number. Some say that this refers back to the 144,000; others say that they are two different groups. I’ve always interpreted the 144,000 as twelve times twelve tribes times a thousand which was the largest number understood by man at the time, thus representing a great multitude and possibly the same group. However, the first group is made of Jews and the second of the nations, so we can interpret this to mean all people – Jew and Gentile.
Does it really matter? What is the point of John’s witness of this scene? What is happening there that we should try to understand?
The multitude cries out, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This is a moment of worship, of thanksgiving, of witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ. He is being praised for saving God’s people, bringing them through the tribulation and making them right so that they can stand before the throne. The angels see this praise and join in with the faithful, singing a doxology of praise. Whatever the numbers, every one of the faithful, both angelic and human, are part of the eternal worship that will glorify Christ forever. This is our eternal hope; this is the life the saints will live according to God’s promises. This is the hope that God has fulfilled through Jesus Christ, washing our righteousness with His blood so that we can stand before Him in praise and thanksgiving; it is the hope that we will never suffer again.
The apocalyptic text gives us a picture of what life will be when everything has been fulfilled. That multitude represents all those who have believed in Jesus throughout time and space. We stand somewhere in that multitude. We are part of those who have washed our robes in Christ’s blood and who will spend eternity worshipping God. We are the children of God. We are the saints. Thanks to God’s grace we are blessed with this future, but that doesn’t mean that our present will be without pain. We will suffer. We will get sick. And yes, we will die.
When we think of blessedness, pain never enters our mind. To the human mind, blessed are those who are healthy, wealthy and popular. We equate blessedness with being comfortable, contentment with satisfaction. We would never consider the poor, hungry or sick to be blessed, for they are suffering in a world that God made good. However, the danger comes when we are too comfortable. We do not see that we need help; we do not look to God for His grace.
Jesus had a way of turning our world upside down, and He certainly did so in today’s Gospel message. The Beatitudes go against everything we expect. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because it is in suffering that we turn to grace. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the one who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.
The saints are those who trust in God no matter their circumstances. When you read the stories of the Saints, you see horrific tales of beatings, torture, and murder. Many were burned to death or beheaded. They were thrown in prison and forgotten. They were ripped from the people they loved and forced to serve as slaves. Through it all they never wavered in their faith. They accepted the pain and suffering, and even sang God’s praises while their world fell apart. They were witnesses, even unto death, of the Gospel and God’s grace. They have learned to live as children of God from those experiences, and they have passed those lessons on to us.
In the scene from Revelation we are assured that God is faithful. He is worthy of our praise and we are called join with all the heavenly host in worship even today while we still wait to join the multitude.
“Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This sevenfold blessing is a doxology, praising God in every way. It begins with the word “Amen,” which we usually use to end a prayer, but here it calls us to listen. John uses the word “amen” often throughout his writings, particularly in his Gospel to indicate that Jesus is about to say something very important. “Amen, amen lego humin” is Greek for “Truly, truly, I say to you.” When John writes that Jesus said “Amen, amen” we should listen. So, too, both the “amens” in this passage call us to hear the words of the angels that define God’s character and establish the reason for our praise. We praise God because His is the blessing, His is the glory, His is the wisdom, and He deserves the thanksgiving because His is the honor, His is the power and His is the might.
Sunday is All Saints Day, a day when we remember those who have been lost. And though we mourn, we are also called to rejoice. There is pain in the death of those we love because they will no longer be with us. But there is also joy because we know that they are now among the multitude praising God forever. Let us sing for joy, just as the psalmist, knowing that we too will join them one day. “Praise Yahweh! Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.”
The Christian message is viewed as foolishness in today’s world. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him. He shed the blood of His own Son so we could wear gleaming white robes of righteousness.
The world reads today’s Gospel lesson and laughs at the foolishness. The beatitudes are eight beautiful attitudes that are lived by those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is organized to establish Jesus as the foundation, as the One who accomplished the will and purpose of God in this world. His life was parallel to the people of Israel, but where Israel failed to keep the faith, Jesus did so and in doing so, Jesus made it possible for the rest of us to do so, too.
What does it meant to be blessed? According to the world, blessedness is visible to others; it is seen in our happiness, our wealth and our health. Even Christians talk about their good lives by saying, “I have been so blessed.” But we do not see the blessings when we are suffering from a terminal disease or we are unemployed and can’t pay our bills? Blessedness is often thought synonymous with happiness, but the sort of happiness that comes with faith is not necessarily giddy pleasure, but rather a deeper inner joy from God. Jesus knew that joy and lived it.
The word “bless” means “may God speak well of you.” God spoke well of Jesus because in the midst of His very human life, He remained faithful to His Father. Thanks to the work of Christ, we can remain faithful to God in the midst of our own very human life. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather are those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God comforts them. Those who are humiliated are raised and those who are hungry and thirsty are fed.
Jesus does not call us to overcome our troubles or wallow in them, but rather He encourages us to live in an attitude of trust and confidence that God is faithful to His promises. The beatitudes are the attitudes of God’s people living in faith. The students for today’s lesson were not the great crowds of people; Jesus was speaking to the disciples. This lesson is not give for those who are trying to earn their way to heaven, but is given to those who believe in the work of God. The lesson is given for us, the Christians who have been saved by the cross of Christ, saints who are anxious for the day when we will join the hosts in heaven singing God’s praise. We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.
In our life of humble service we are given the greatest blessing which is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. It is hard for us to see the blessing in the Beatitudes. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to understand mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are they…” They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.
The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God’s presence. In verse three, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is not a promise for just the future. The kingdom of heaven IS theirs.
John writes, “See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him.” We are the saints, the children of God. It is the love of God that gives us this grand and glorious title; by His mercy we are adopted into His family and we will inherit His kingdom one day, just as those faithful ones we have loved and lost have already received their inheritance. We live in the hope of faith that one day we will join them to dwell forever in the presence of God. For now we have to deal with the reality that we are blessed though we are ravaged by the world. Sometimes the blessing is in the suffering, as with those martyrs of old whose roes were washed with their own real blood; they were blessed because though they passed through death into the bosom of God for eternity by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Death does not only come to us when the physical body fails. We go through all sorts of deaths in our lives. We suffer the grief of unfulfilled dreams, the pain of loss when friends move, the sting of sin that touches all our lives. We live in a transient world, especially those who have jobs with mobility. It is not only true of military families, but many people find themselves moving regularly. This is true also of clergy. How many churches have suffered the loss of a favorite leader because it was time for him or her to move on? Congregations go through a mourning process, especially difficult when the move was related to conflict or hurt feelings. Even within the walls of the church we face the difficulties of this life.
People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on others to get ahead. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life; they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. I've known the presence of God and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will still feel hunger and thirst. I will cry again before I pass into life eternal.
The closest we will come to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this life is at the at the communion table when we share the Lord’s Supper. In some forms of the liturgy we hear words like these: “Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all.” Our worship is timeless and the fellowship numbers in the multitudes. On All Saints Sunday, we are reminded that the veil between life in this world and the next is very thin. While there aren’t ghosts kneeling with us as we receive the body and blood of Christ, they are there amongst us, sharing in the same feast and worshipping the same Lord.
On Sunday we will remember those who have passed from this life to the next. We can’t help but mourn, because their lives meant something to us. Our parents, our family, our friends and our neighbors had an impact on the life we lived. They taught us, touched us, comforted us, fed us, showed us mercy and shined the light of Christ. They will be missed and it is good for us to take a moment to join together to remember them.
We stop on this All Saints Day to thank God for their witness. We were brought into the fellowship of believers by those we love who shared the Gospel with us. We are called to live as they lived, as witnesses so that those who are yet to come will have the opportunity to hear God’s Word and believe. We are saints and that means something. It means we are God’s children called to a life of worship and praise, of service and justice, of love and peace and joy. Though the life that awaits us after death is greater than anything we can experience in this world, we have work to do.
We have been saved from the greatest enemy: death. We have the promise of eternal life, of an inheritance beyond anything we can imagine. How much more should we praise God for His grace and mercy? We are called to live a daily life of thanksgiving and praise to God for everything. Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to dwell now in the Kingdom of Heaven even as we wait longingly to join those who are already singing the eternal doxology of praise at the foot of God’s throne in robes made whiter than we can even imagine.
“It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Yahweh is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him.” Lamentations 3:22-24, WEB
I don’t know if people are avoiding Facebook or if they are just too distracted, but usually by now in November a bunch of people are posting messages of thanksgiving. They spend November counting their blessings, one by one. The posts usually include thanks to God for family and friends, jobs and shelter, favorite activities and opportunities to do good works. The posts are a highlight of the month because it is a witness to people’s faith and gratitude for the big and little blessings of life.
I don’t usually do this exercise because I find it difficult beyond the first few days to come up with new things about which to be thankful. Oh, it isn’t that I’m not thankful for the millions of little things, but that those million little blessings seem too insignificant to post. It is much easier to tell the world that we are thankful for a spouse than for the air freshener that helps remove kitty litter smells. Oh, I’m very thankful for the Febreeze, but is that something which needs a public acclamation? That’s another reason why I find it hard it hard to do the yearly exercise: those who love me and whom I love don’t need the public acclamation of my thanks because I tell them they are appreciated every day. Or at least I try. Hopefully I do so often enough that they don’t need the embarrassing posts on Facebook every November. Now, of course, thankfulness is ultimately not to people or air freshener companies, but to the God who has provided us with all these things that make our lives wonderful.
Here’s the most important thing to remember: our thankfulness should not be limited to one month a year. It is funny because the November thankful posts began because someone thought that the one day a year wasn’t enough. It is true! We should be thankful every day. The author of the Book of Lamentations, possibly the prophet Jeremiah, says that God’s kindnesses are new every morning. I enjoy seeing the posts of thankfulness during November, and perhaps I should try to do it this year, particularly since so much of the Internet is filled with things we’d rather not see right now. Whether we post or not, we should wake up thankful every morning, praising God for all He has done for us, whether it is the important things in our lives like our spouses or the insignificant things like air freshener that make our lives better. Of all the good things in the world, we have something even better: God. He is everything we need and we should be thankful both to Him and for Him.
“Sing, daughter of Zion! Shout, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem. Yahweh has taken away your judgments. He has thrown out your enemy. The King of Israel, Yahweh, is among you. You will not be afraid of evil any more. In that day, it will be said to Jerusalem, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zion. Don’t let your hands be weak.’ Yahweh, your God, is among you, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with joy. He will calm you in his love. He will rejoice over you with singing.” Zephaniah 3:14-17, WEB
Today is my daughter’s birthday. She’d hate that I am using her as an anecdote for today’s message, but that’s ok. I do it because I love her. She was a great kid and I’m very proud of the adult she has become. She is in the process of moving nearly a thousand miles for a new job, taking care of the business of such a big transition on her own. The people she is leaving behind will miss her for so many reasons; she’s good at her job and she has a heart of gold. The people in her new place are looking forward to having her as part of their mission. She is faithful and gifted and has served God well. I love her very much and I rejoice that she has grown into a beautiful woman in every way. I want to help her as she makes this transition, to be there for her in every way.
She doesn’t like so much attention. The past few weeks have been difficult for her as the people around her have made it clear that they wish she wasn’t leaving. There have been many tears and laughs and hugs. She’s been gracious about it, but it has been hard. She has never enjoyed being fawned over. She deserves the acclamation and knows that those who have given her this attention need it. They need to express thanks and to find closure. They’ll grieve, all of them including my daughter, but moving on is a part of life. The hardest part will be saying good-bye to the family who have been so grateful that she has been close by for a few years, especially the little ones who have enjoyed her attention when she has visited. I understand her feelings; I don’t like the attention, either.
We talk about thankfulness in terms of our being thankful to God and to others, but we are reminded that others are thankful for us, too. Even God is thankful for us; He rejoices over us! This is amazing, isn’t it? Then again, is it that amazing? After all, as mothers and fathers, we are so thankful for our children. We are thankful that they are faithful and gifted. We are thankful that they are hard workers and are successful. We are thankful that they grow up into mature, responsible adults. We are willing to do whatever they need to support them in all they do. We rejoice over them every day! Why wouldn’t God do the same thing for each of us? He is our Father, our King, and He is with us so that we need not be afraid. I hope that my daughter knows that I am with her wherever she goes. I can’t be there for her as God can be, but I’m glad she knows that He binds us together through faith.
Today’s text begins with Zephaniah calling us to sing praise to God, but in the end we are reminded that it is God who sings joyfully over us! He has done great things for us, and He has given us reason to sing His praises, not the least of which is that He loves us more than a mother loves her daughter.
“May Yahweh answer you in the day of trouble. May the name of the God of Jacob set you up on high, send you help from the sanctuary, grant you support from Zion, remember all your offerings, and accept your burnt sacrifice. Selah. May He grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your counsel. We will triumph in your salvation. In the name of our God, we will set up our banners. May Yahweh grant all your requests. Now I know that Yahweh saves his anointed. He will answer him from his holy heaven, with the saving strength of his right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust the name of Yahweh our God. They are bowed down and fallen, but we rise up, and stand upright. Save, Yahweh! Let the King answer us when we call!” Psalm 20, WEB
I know it is early, but I have to admit that I’m already asking family for their Christmas lists. It is too early, of course, and they refuse to answer. They don’t realize that it takes time to find the right gifts and time is usually extremely busy, so I like to get as much done as early as possible. I don’t like to just buy stuff; I want to give my family whatever their hearts desire, and that’s not always an easy quest. I don’t get answers because, quite frankly, most of us really don’t have that kind of wishes. Our hearts don’t yearn for stuff, not really. No matter how much we want something, stuff doesn’t satisfy those deep and hidden desires.
Today’s passage is a prayer by the people for the success of the king, probably used as he was going out to war against his enemies. It is a prayer of trust that God will be with their king and his army, take care of them and give them support so that they will return victorious.
The people pray, “May He grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your counsel.” What does that mean? For some kings, the hearts’ desires might be conquest. They want to expand their horizons. They want to make their kingdom bigger. I read a lot of historical fiction from the middle ages when the nations of Europe were constantly at war. France wanted land that belonged to England. England wanted more land than they already had. Spain wanted everything. Scotland wanted enough land to protect themselves from those battling on the border for more. History shows us that people in every time and place battled against others so that they would have more.
But we also know from history that more doesn’t satisfy. They might gain some land with one battle, but they end up fighting more battles to hold on to that land. Or they fight to gain more because it is never enough. They need more land for more money to pay for more soldiers to hold on to what they have, not to mention the money needed to fulfill the expectations of the growing court around a victorious king.
Did David go out to war to get more? Was that his heart’s desire? David was certainly not perfect, but there have been kings over time who did what they did, including go to war, for the sake of their people, not to fulfill a desire for more. David had to battle enemies who wanted more, and perhaps he did want more, too. But the heart’s desire of King David was much different. David had a heart for God. He wanted to be obedient. He wanted to glorify the true King. He knew that any victory, that every moment of salvation, came to him and his people by God’s hand. He desired more of God.
Matthew writes, “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, WEB)
The psalmist prays for God to grant the heart’s desire, but the question we have to ask is “What is our heart’s desire?” Do we desire more stuff, like the kings who fought battles to extend their kingdoms? Do we desire treasures that we think will satisfy us and make us happy? A thankful life is one that is content with what they have, thankful that God has provided everything they need. A thankful life is one that is constantly seeking after God, desiring that He will fill their hearts with everything that will satisfy and bring us joy. God will answer us, and will give us our hearts desire, but not the stuff that we think we want, but rather Himself who is truly satisfying.
“The king rejoices in your strength, Yahweh! How greatly he rejoices in your salvation! You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah. For you meet him with the blessings of goodness. You set a crown of fine gold on his head. He asked life of you, you gave it to him, even length of days forever and ever. His glory is great in your salvation. You lay honor and majesty on him. For you make him most blessed forever. You make him glad with joy in your presence. For the king trusts in Yahweh. Through the loving kindness of the Most High, he shall not be moved. Your hand will find out all of your enemies. Your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them as a fiery furnace in the time of your anger. Yahweh will swallow them up in his wrath. The fire shall devour them. You will destroy their descendants from the earth, their posterity from among the children of men. For they intended evil against you. They plotted evil against you which cannot succeed. For you will make them turn their back, when you aim drawn bows at their face. Be exalted, Yahweh, in your strength, so we will sing and praise your power.” Psalm 21, WEB
Today is Election Day in the United States. I’d like to say “Thank God it is over,” but it is never over these days. The winners will gloat, the losers will accuse, and the politicians will keep doing what it is they’ve been doing for decades: working to keep their job. I hate to sound cynical, but many politicians do and say what they believe we want to see and hear just so we’ll vote for them and they never really get anything accomplished. This is true of politicians from every political party, and though we tend to lift up our guy, we have to be honest and say that none of them are worthy of our unconditional support. They are all human, they will all fail, they will all have to make decisions we won’t like.
They are all human; that is the most important thing for us to remember on this Election Day. They may have power for a season, but they won’t have power forever. They may be able to affect our nation for a time, but other humans will eventually be elected and more change will come. Every king in Medieval Europe made his own plan and did what his heart desired, leaving the country and its people confused. The English monarchs made it particularly difficult for the commoners (and even the nobility) to know what they were supposed to do when it came to matters of faith. One was Catholic, the next was Protestant, and those who followed the other way were persecuted. Too many people were executed for doing what they thought was right, but discovered too late that the king or queen had changed the game.
The thing for us to remember is that God’s Church survived. It was difficult, people suffered, some people even died, but God continued to give comfort, peace, hope and joy to His faithful.
Psalm 21is a song of thanksgiving that God heard the king’s prayer and answered. The king was victorious! Today the candidates are praying yesterday’s Psalm, hoping that God will fulfill their heart’s desire, which is victory over their enemy. Tonight (or tomorrow, or whenever it is finalized) one candidate will pray today’s Psalm in thanksgiving while the other is left behind. Meanwhile, the people will be left confused, especially when the very human politicians fail to live up to their promises.
People are afraid. Everyone is certain that if the other person wins, whether it is a local, state or national race, then everything is going to go wrong. It is amazing to listen to one side talk about how the opposition will fail while the opposition is claiming exactly the same thing! Everybody is certain that if their candidate doesn’t win that the world will end under the leadership of the other.
David won a battle, but his thankfulness in today’s psalm was not about the victory over his enemies or the expansion of his kingdom. David was thankful for God’s salvation, for God’s splendor and majesty shining over him. He is thankful for the blessings and joy of being in God’s presence. He trusts in God, and his trust is proven true as God is faithful. I’m not so sure of the faith of any of the candidates that will be elected today. I’m sure some trust in God. Unfortunately, I’m also sure that many will be thankful that they have defeated their enemy with their own strength and power, not out of trust for the God who is ultimately in control.
Whether or not any of the victors thank God for their position, the faithful Christians who will dwell under their leadership must trust that God is still in control. The way we respond tomorrow does not depend on whether they, like David, are thankful for God’s salvation, for God’s splendor and majesty shining over them, or thankful for the blessings and joy of being in God’s presence. We are called to respond with trust and hope in thanksgiving for God’s grace and promises. We might think the world will end, but if it does we have a greater promise waiting for us! Meanwhile, the world has not ended through similar, and worse, times than these. So, let us exalt God today, knowing that He is greater than the best and the worst politicians and that He will ultimately make everything work to His glory.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 13, 2016, Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Malachi 4:1-6; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:(1-5)6-13; Luke 21:5-28(29-36)
“As for these things which you see, the days will come, in which there will not be left here one stone on another that will not be thrown down.” Lukw 21:6
I love architecture. I love to watch how the skyline of a city changes as you drive around it. I love to look up at a skyscraper from the street and see the lines and shapes it creates. I love to photograph the details of a building, the brick patterns, the fine stone work, the shadows and reflections created by the sun. I love buildings that are more than just boxes to shelter people and provide workspaces; I love buildings that are works of art.
I love to drive around neighborhoods where the houses are all unique. We have houses in our neighborhood that have turrets, huge bay windows, lovely porches, yards that are filled with oak trees and flowers. There are brick houses and houses made with stone. There are one story and two story houses; some are large and others not so large. Some of the houses have wrought iron fences while others have cedar planks. The houses do not look alike, but they fit together beautifully, just as the neighbors live together in peace despite our differences.
When we were looking for this house a few years ago, I told my realtor that I did not want a box. Many of the neighborhoods these days are filled with cookie cutter houses that have minute differences but are nearly identical. They are boxes, with no distinguishing characteristics. Yes, those neighborhoods have one story and two story homes and they use several different types of brick. Yet, after looking at dozens of these types of houses, they all start to look the same. There is nothing about them, really, that makes you say, “I love this house.” Those boxes have no personality.
Our last home was a box and we lived in it for nine years. We loved it because it was home. Home isn’t about what’s on the outside; it is about the heart found on the inside. It doesn’t matter whether we have turrets or brick or stone. What matters is that we have love and faith and each other. I still love unique architecture, from the smallest cottages to the largest castles, to interestingly shaped restaurants and the amazing skyscrapers -- each is beautiful in its own way. They tell a story about the neighborhood, the designer and architect and the people who live inside.
The Temple in Jerusalem certainly told a story. We know from the scriptures that the Temple was built as an image of Christ. Each part of the Temple points to an aspect of the character and work of Jesus. John in particular shows us through the “I am” statements of Jesus that He is the fulfillment of God’s promises. “I am the Bread of life” points to the Bread of the Presence. “I am the Light of the world” refers to the candlesticks. “I am the Gate” points to the altar of incense. “I am the Good Shepherd” is the priest. “I am the Resurrection” points to the mercy seat, which is the cover of the Ark of the Covenant found in the Holy of Holies. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” takes us into the Ark of the Covenant, where God’s people protected the objects of their faith.
The final “I am” statement is about the gravevine. “I am the true vine,” says Jesus. What does this mean? Where are the grapes or vines in the Temple? It seemed as though John was taking us into the depths of the Temple, to the very most inner sanctum of God’s dwelling place on earth, and then he writes that Jesus said, “I am the vine.” This fits the imagery of the Old Testament that described Israel as a vine or a vineyard.
Herod, in an attempt to ingratiate himself to the Jewish people under his rule, put a lot of money into the restoration of the Temple. It is said that he used the finest materials and went to great expense to make the Temple a showplace. One stone at the southwest corner was thirty six feet long. Josephus writes in “The Jewish War,” “Whatever was not overlaid with gold was purest white.” Herod gave a golden vine for one of its decorations and others were welcome to make similar donations. The grape clusters were as tall as a man. It represented the Nation of Israel. Any visitor would think that Herod truly loved God and obeyed His Word; he used his wealth to convince the people believe that he was on their side.
But, Jesus is the true vine and we are reminded in today’s Gospel passage not to fall for the glitz and glitter of the false messiahs. Herod was acting as king, but he was nothing more than a puppet. The disciples were amazed at the incredible beauty of the Temple, but Jesus said, “As for these things which you see, the days will come, in which there will not be left here one stone on another that will not be thrown down.” That must have been both shocking and saddening for the disciples.
There was a running storyline on the television show “How I Met Your Mother” in which Ted, who was an architect, was planning a building that was scheduled to be placed on a spot where an old building already stood. The old building was to be demolished so that the new one could be built. Ted found himself against an opponent who wanted to save the old building because it was an historic landmark. She didn’t want it to be destroyed, and she did everything to keep it intact. Unfortunately, though the building had some incredible stone work, the building itself was not only a dump, but it was dangerously close to falling down on its own. The building was eventually demolished and replaced by Teds design.
We know, of course, that when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple, He was really referring to His own body. The beautiful building they were admiring was nothing more than an image of the real. It was no longer necessary because He was the true Temple. He was everything that guided their faith inside, but He was living, real, and eternal. He was the Bread, the Light, and the Gate. He was the Vine. The old had to make way for the new. The Old Covenant was about to be replaced by a new one.
The disciples had come to believe everything that Jesus said. They didn’t reject the idea that the Temple would be destroyed. They may have wondered if the destruction would be Rome’s way of putting down a rebellion, or perhaps they thought that the destruction of the Temple was part of Jesus’ plan to save Israel. They didn’t ask why; instead they asked, “When?” They wanted to know, perhaps even control, the future of the nation.
Jesus didn’t answer the question, but instead gave them a warning, “Do not be fooled.” The scriptures for today are not pleasant. Malachi talks about the day of the Lord, when the arrogant and evildoers will be burned. Paul warns those who are idly waiting for Christ’s return, because they will starve. Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple and the danger to the believers. Even the psalmist talks about vindication and judgment. When the world around us is confused and without hope, it is easy to be fooled. We listen to every voice that speaks good words and ignore the words that can make us afraid. Jesus knew that there would be those who would claim to be from God, offering promises they could not fulfill. He warned them not to believe every charismatic speaker who promised prosperity and wealth or every leader who said that they would take care of the people. Desperate people fall easily for the lies of people who seem to have the heart and the ability to do what they promise.
We are drawn to people who promise the easy solution to our problems, but life is not always easy. As a matter of fact, Jesus told the disciples about the life they would have as His follower. It isn’t a life any of us would pursue. He spoke of war, natural disasters, and unnatural signs in nature. The disciples would face judges and prisons and violence for speaking the name of Jesus. Jesus says, “You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake.” We don’t want to be hated. We want everything we do to last. We want the world to be a garden full of roses. And while we will be blessed by our faith in Christ, it won’t be a garden of roses. Our temples might fall.
But we live in a world that insists a pretty façade will prove everything is ok. It is a world that thinks that a little money thrown at a problem will make it go away. It is a world in which some white stones and gold covered grapes define a ruler. Not much different than what they had back in Jesus’ day. The reality is that every generation has to deal with charismatic leaders that put on a show and claim to be the one to save the world. Every generation deals with wars and rumors of war. Christians from every century have been persecuted for their faith.
But, Jesus promised the disciples that despite this hatred, not a hair on their head will perish. This is where the text becomes very difficult for us, because we know that many Christians have been killed over the Gospel. Of the Twelve, only one died of old age. The lives of the Saints are filled with stories of beheadings, burnings and other violence. In some places, cutting the hair is an insult. Our hair falls out due to the natural process of health and aging. What about the cancer patient that loses their hair? Is he or she any less faithful because their hair has perished?
We tend to look at the promises of God from a tangible, worldly point of view. We want the monuments we build to last forever. We want our bodies to live forever. And we’ll follow whoever makes the best promise to protect the things we love. Jesus said, “Beware of those who claim to be the source of your salvation.”
There is a commercial for a local lawyer that features a woman who had become sick and could no longer work. Unfortunately, the government would not approve her disability payments. She was scared. She didn’t know how she’d pay her bills. But the lawyer understood her problem and worked to get her the justice she deserved. She said, “He was my savior.”
We usually think of the antichrist and false messiahs in spiritual terms, but the television commercial broke my heart. It is understandable that the woman might turn to someone who could help her with her problems, but the fact that she would use that kind of language just speaks to the reality of our world today. We are looking for the easy answer; we are looking for a savior in all the wrong places. We rely on fallible, perishable humans and the promises they make, accepting their claims that they are “the one.” But in the end they are no more able to save us than we are able to save ourselves.
The Gospel lesson is about the end of the age, and it seems as if more and more people are thinking of the end times. There are wars and rumors of wars. There are false prophets touting their goods in the public squares. There are reasons to be afraid. We can even read this warning as one for our own time and place. Will our walls tumble down? It is no wonder that we worry and that we look to those who seem to have the answers. Jesus reminds us that worrying about the end times will not make anything happen and it will not make anything better. We have a purpose in this world: to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be His witnesses in this world.
Paul writes to the Thessalonians that each member of the community should do their part. The fellowship of believers is like a family: brothers and sisters in Christ. He encourages the able bodied to do their share so that the resources can be available for those who are truly in need. When everyone does their part, everything works well. Paul’s instruction goes beyond the work of the church. He encourages all Christians to be active participants in the world around them, working to provide for their own needs and for the needs of the community.
There are always those who need our help, and perhaps that is never clearer than during this time of the year. Food banks are desperate for enough to give to people so that they will have happy holidays. The local children’s charities are collecting presents for those who can’t afford Christmas. Those same charities need people willing to help distribute those gifts. Our mailboxes are crammed with requests from charities for extra funding during the holidays. Each year we wonder who might need a place to go for Thanksgiving or Christmas, sharing our blessings with others. We do these things because God has called us to share His grace in Word and deed.
We feed and clothe them, but they too have a role to play in the community. Part of our responsibility is to help them see that they do not have to be idle, but that there is work they can do, too. Many of the widows were unable to provide support, having no financial means. However, they could help to teach and guide the young women of the community, offering their time, their wisdom and their experience to help with the growth of the people and the community. Sadly, some of the widows in Paul’s time were nothing but busybodies, gossiping rather than helping. As they say, “Idle hands are the devils playground.” The women who had no real purpose in the community spent their time doing things that would never benefit the believers.
We do want to be remembered so we put our time and our resources into things that we think we will last. As much as I enjoy looking at architecture, I know that the buildings I love will not stand forever. They will, like so many of the castles in Europe, one day be no more than ruins. They will topple, just as that grand Temple built by Herod fell stone by stone to the ground. As part of the community of believers, we are building a different kind of Temple. The foundation, of course, is Jesus Christ, who is the true Temple. He was right when He said that the beloved Temple would one day fall, but in this text He was referring to the real thing: Himself. The Temple that was His flesh was destroyed on the cross, but He was raised and rebuilt into something even better. We are now part of His body, pieces of the Temple that will last forever.
As Christians we continue to build that Temple by sharing the Good News of forgiveness with the world. We do this through word and deed. Our work will never gain us salvation. Our work is our response to the saving Grace that God has freely given. As part of the family of Christ, we are meant to do our part no matter what our circumstances. Some may be able to build grand buildings with white stone and golden grapevines, while others teach and guide the young into a living faith. Some will be able to give food and shelter to those without, and those without can give gifts that do not require money. It is up to us to help one another discover what we have to give and to find ways to use them in the building of Christ’s body, the Church, His Temple on earth.
As I was reading the texts for today, I found it odd that the Psalm is one of such rejoicing. The other texts speak of such horrors: the destruction of the world and of the Temple. How can we rejoice when we are worried about a future that looks bleak?
The psalmist recognizes that our God is worthy of our worship and praise because He has done great things. “Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song; For he hath done marvelous things: His right hand, and his holy arm, hath wrought salvation for him.” His right hand is manifested in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. His holy arm is the Holy Spirit that reaches out into our lives to give us faith and hope so that we might live in peace doing that which He calls us to do in this life.
More than two thousand years after Jesus spoke these words, we are still seeing the signs of the end: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and false messiahs claiming to be able to save the people. Jesus’ words hold a measure of warning for us today as much as it did for His first disciples. We still have temples that will fall. Our temples are not just places of worship; other temples might include our jobs, our homes and our relationships. Sometimes God shakes the foundation of all that we hold dear so that we will look to Him and toward the vision of that which is imperishable.
Jesus is coming to judge the earth; He has come and will come again. Until that day, we will suffer during troubled times, experience persecution and we might even die. We don’t know when the day will come even though we can see that there are signs pointing to the end. It isn’t up to us to worry about the day, to even try to figure out when that day will happen. “When” is not the right question to ask when God reveals the coming of Judgment Day. What we should be asking is, “What should we do?” We are called to walk in faith, to wait patiently through the fire, and to do whatever needs to be done in the meantime. We are the branches of His vine, bearing fruit as His witnesses, sharing the love of God and building His Temple in the world through the work that is our response to all that He has done.
“Boaz answered her, ‘I have been fully told about all that you have done to your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother, and the land of your birth, and have come to a people that you didn’t know before. May Yahweh repay your work, and a full reward be given to you from Yahweh, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’” Ruth 2:11-12, WEB
I don’t believe in karma. I’ll tell you why: if karma were real, I’d have more people offering to take my shopping cart in the parking lot at the grocery store. See, I’m one of those people who offer to take the cart from other shoppers, to help them so they don’t have to push it to a cart corral or leave it between cars. There is an advantage to this for me, I admit, because then I don’t have to carry my purse and shopping bags. There is an advantage to all the other shoppers because those carts aren’t in the way and the person leaving gets out of there faster. It is an advantage to the store because it is one less cart that needs to be picked up by a stock person who could be doing other work. It is an insignificant, but beneficial kindness to everyone involved.
I suppose I have a pretty simplistic understanding of a concept from a different religious tradition, but if the idea that we will be paid in like manner for our good works were real, then there would always be someone willing to take my cart for me. Karma ultimately has more to do with reincarnation, but most of us use it in a much more material way. We think that if we do good then good will be done to us. We also think that if someone does bad to us, then they will get their just reward. “An eye for an eye” and all that. Some people find hope in this idea that one day those who make them suffer will suffer, too.
I don’t believe in karma, but I do believe that kindnesses beget kindness. What happens when you smile at that grumpy old man at the grocery store? Most of the time, they smile back. What happens when you hold the door for that struggling mother? The breath she can take will calm her so that she can better deal with her children. What happens when let the car on the ramp merge into heavy traffic on the highway? Everything moves more smoothly and there’s less chance for an accident. We may never see how our little acts of kindness benefit others, but sometimes we benefit just in the feeling we get when we have done something nice for another. I get joy from taking that cart from the other shopper, especially if they are elderly or have small children, because I know that I have made a difference, no matter how seemingly insignificant, in their day.
Boaz heard about the good Ruth did for Naomi. Ruth’s sacrifices are much greater than helping with a shopping cart, so if we take Boaz’s words in light of the concept of karma, then Ruth should be rewarded greatly. However, this is not the way God works. He doesn’t pay an eye for an eye; He doesn’t cause someone to suffer because they’ve caused us to suffer. He doesn’t reward us for what we have done. We like the concept of karma because it is fair. We want to be rewarded for our good works. We want our enemies to suffer for the suffering they’ve done for us. God was not going to reward Ruth for her sacrifices.
But kindness begets kindness, and ultimately Ruth did find joy and love in the home she adopted by loving Naomi sacrificially. Boaz took Ruth as a wife, not to pay her for her kindness but because her kindness proved she was a woman worth redeeming and protecting. Ruth’s kindness was repaid beyond measure when she became the foremother of Jesus Christ. Ruth did not follow Naomi because she thought she’d be rewarded. As a matter of fact, she gave up everything knowing that they would struggle to even find bread to eat.
We don’t smile at the grumpy old man at the grocery store because we expect a smile in return. We don’t take the shopping cart because we expect others will take ours. We don’t do any acts of goodness because we expect to be repaid. We do these things to be kind, to make life a little better for our neighbors. And yes, we do these things because they bring us joy and peace. We do these things because we are thankful that through the offspring of a woman named Ruth, Jesus Christ did the greatest kindness by sacrificing everything for us.
“Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, “This is how you shall bless the children of Israel. You shall tell them, ‘Yahweh bless you, and keep you. Yahweh make his face to shine on you, and be gracious to you. Yahweh lift up his face toward you, and give you peace.’ So they shall put my name on the children of Israel; and I will bless them.”’” Numbers 6:22-27, WEB
Several television networks are now dedicated to playing reruns of the old shows, and while there have always been syndicated offerings, these stations are playing some of the really old favorites. A few weeks ago I watched a couple episodes of the show “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the old black and whites from the earliest days of the show which began before I was born. The show was about a hillbilly family who lived in the Ozarks until they accidentally discovered oil on their land. The big city banker convinced this family that they needed to live among the rich and famous so they moved to Beverly Hills. These country folk never quite fit in because they continued to do things as they would have done at their home in the mountains, causing mayhem for the wealthy into whose lives they were thrust. Their antics have blessed us with laughter for more than half a century.
Jed Clampett and his family did not know the incredible riches that were hidden under their home, reflecting the life of a real man named Yates. He purchased a ranch in west Texas and tried to raise sheep on the rolling hills. He could not support himself, lived on government subsidies and wondered how he would pay his bills. One day a crew came and told him they thought they were find oil. He agreed to let them drill and they discovered one of the greatest oil reserves in the United States. Thirty years after discovery, the well was still able to pump more than a hundred of thousand gallons a day.
He lived in abject poverty for years, worrying about what would happen tomorrow and yet he had incredible wealth that was hidden below his feet. It is unfortunate, but most Christians are in the same boat. They have an incredible wealth of spiritual blessings but never seek to find all that God has promised to give. Too often we receive Christ in faith but live only on the surface of all that He has to offer. Jed Clampett accidentally found the wealth that was hidden under the surface of his land. Mr. Yates found it because someone came and said that they thought the oil might be there.
The Lord God Almighty has always meant for our relationship with Him to be more than just something superficial. His love has reached far beyond that of the other gods the world worshipped. As we read the stories in the Old Testament, we discover that God provided for His people everything they need: life, provision, hope and faith. His blessing went far beyond meeting the physical needs of His children. He made them prosperous so that the other nations would know they were blessed. He was with them and they lived in the peace that comes from the presence of God.
In today’s passage, God directed the priests to speak a blessing upon the people so that the world would know that they were His. This three-fold blessing directed by God was more than just words to the people; it was a promise that God would be with them. In today’s churches we often use the same words as we end a service. We are asking God to continue to take care of our needs, to grant us everything necessary to do His work and to be near us so that we will know His peace. That peace can come only from God Himself and it is more than a lack of violence in the world. The peace that comes from God turning toward us is a state of total well-being.
There is so much that God has to bless our lives it is beyond our comprehension. Yet, we are given by grace the heart, mind and resources to seek His blessings. God has given us one another, the scriptures and the sacraments so that we can gather together to hear and receive a most wonderful glimmer of what spiritual blessings He has hidden beneath the surface. I pray the blessing of today’s passage upon you, that as God shines His face into your life a well of blessings will flow so that you might know how truly wealthy you are in Christ Jesus.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 20, 2016, Christ the King: Malachi 3:13-18; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:13-20; Luke 23:27-43
“‘They shall be mine,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘my own possession in the day that I make, and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him.’” Malachi 3:17, WEB
I will admit that I struggle with the concept of war. I suppose we should all struggle with it because war is never a good thing. It is, unfortunately, a part of our fallen world and ultimately war can accomplish peace. We all hope that it could be done a different way, but we recognize that our human imperfection will lead to conflict. I struggle with war as it is waged today because it is no longer necessary to look our enemies in their faces. We can battle from afar, send smart weapons and bomb them from ten thousand feet above the earth. We can even wage war over the internet. We no longer have to face the reality of what we are doing to our neighbors.
I struggle with the concept of war and have even wondered, along with others, whether a Christian can fight. Martin Luther once said, “War is the greatest plague that can afflict humanity, it destroys religion, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge is preferable to it.” Yet, he also believed that a soldier can be a Christian. “It is just the same way with the occupation or work of the soldier; in itself it is right and godly, but we must see to it that the persons who are in the occupation and who do the work are the right kind of persons, godly and upright.” This gets into the doctrine of the two kingdoms, where we both live in the world and yet are of another world. We live in the eternal kingdom of God, but also live in this fallen world, and we are called as Christians to find a way of being true to our true home while dealing with the imperfection of this one.
I struggle with the concept, despite the fact that I was married to a military man. I can tell you that despite thirty years of service, some of which included being part of the horrors of war, my husband is godly and upright. He did many things during his years of service that glorified God. I’m not a pacifist in any sense of the word, although I’m not sure I could ever serve as a soldier. I haven’t seen the movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” but I imagine I would probably struggle in many of the same ways as the lead character who was a pacifist war hero: he found a way to serve without touching a gun.
As Christians we struggle with the concept of war because we know we are called to love our neighbors, whoever our neighbor might be. We are commanded to love our enemies. How can we wage war on someone we love? It is good that we ask ourselves this question. I’m not sure we’ll ever come to a good answer, but as we struggle we seek God’s will and His grace. We seek God’s will, knowing that sometimes even He used war to make people turn to Him. And we seek God’s grace to be forgiven when our warfare is less than godly.
Still, we don’t like to think see God as war-like. Both the Old Testament lesson and the Psalm call God “Yahweh of the Armies” or “LORD of hosts.” The book of Malachi uses that phrase more than twenty times, and it is used extensively in the works of the prophets. They lived at a time when they had to face war, especially war that was brought on by their own unfaithfulness, as God used their enemies to subdue them. When a people, who have no army, are faced with the coming of a great army, to whom can they turn? God calls them to turn to Him.
We live in a frightening world. Every age has its own fears and troubles. We need people like soldiers and policemen and justices to serve to keep the peace. It seems contradictory, but a strong military is necessary for a lasting peace. The best armies are those that never have to raise a gun but whose very presence helps people dwell together in peace. It is true that some of the worst wars have been waged by bad armies that may have been strong but not wise, but as Luther suggested, the best armies are filled with men who are godly and upright.
So, what do we, like Israel, do if we are on the verge of war but do not have an army to guard and protect our people? What do we do if we are faced with destruction and we do not have the power or strength to stand up for ourselves? We turn to God. He is our refuge. He is our strength. He is the LORD of hosts, Yahweh of the Armies and He has our back. Some of the stories of those battles in the Old Testament are amazing. God won those battles, destroying thousands with only hundreds of soldiers.
We may struggle with the image of God as the commander of a great army, but as we dwell in this imperfect world, isn’t it good to know that He has our back? Isn’t it good to know that He can defeat those who would destroy us? Isn’t it good to know that when we are powerless, there is a Power who can save?
We see many images of God throughout the Church year. You can find many different lists of “The Names of God”; there are too many to list here, but they include Abba, Creator, Redeemer, Friend, Master, Shepherd and Teacher. We see Him love and encourage and discipline. We see Him scold and rebuke. We see Him guide and teach. We see Him save and call us to live out our salvation.
We end the Church year with this image of Yahweh of Armies. Christ will come again. He won’t come on a donkey, as He did when He entered Jerusalem before His crucifixion. He will come on the clouds with thunder and lightning, with a double-edged sword. He will come to fight the final battle, to finally and completely destroy the last enemy. He will come as King! Christ the King is coming and He is coming to finish the work He began at the cross.
What is a king? I like to read historical novels, particularly those that are set in the late Middle Ages to Renaissance England, the 14th through 17th century mostly. I am fascinated by the relationships between the different nations and the ways those in power used one another. It was rarely pretty: too much war and scheming. Of course, the reality of the day for anyone outside the court was usually poverty, dis-ease and the constant fear that the king, or whoever wanted to be king, would use them as pawns in a very expensive game.
Most of the time the average villager didn’t even care who was king, they quickly bowed to whichever man told them he was in charge. They didn’t have a choice; their local nobleman made their choices for them. They fought when they were told to fight. The king or wannabe took whatever he wanted. It was dark and violent and sad. Oh, there were bright spots. Not every king was insane, greedy or manipulative. Some did great things for the country and the world. The Renaissance was a time of beauty, when the arts thrived. Some of the greatest love stories came out of this period.
I think this is where, at least in America, we get our answer to the question: what is a king? We think about Henry VIII and his six wives, only one of which outlived him. We have pinned his character on most, if not all, monarchs, deserved or undeserved. The king will do whatever he wants to achieve whatever he wants whether it has to do with power, authority, wealth and even love. He has no higher power, and thus is his own judge. At least that is what many of them think. Henry even took the power of the church and God, into his own hands, and so had the right according to his own understanding to do anything. That kind of power leads to abuse, so it is no wonder that the early Americans chose to be ruled by a different sort of system. They fought to get it.
Once we gained our freedom, the leaders of the day wanted to crown George Washington. He refused. He thought the offer was inappropriate and dishonorable. He fought the war for the sake of the American Republic, not for his personal self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, a king by any other title can abuse his position and take advantage of the people they have been charged with protecting, but I think we have a negative opinion of any king based on our understanding of the past.
We were warned. During the time of the judges in Israel’s history, the people saw that the world had kings who could lead them. Kings protected their people. They provided for their welfare. It seemed to the Israelites that the nations with kings controlled the world. They had powerful armies. Shouldn’t they have the same advantages? Samuel was upset by their request for a king because he saw it as a rejection of his leadership, but God told him that it was Him that they were rejecting. Their request showed their lack of faith. They didn’t need a human king because they had the King of kings, but He agreed to give them what they wanted.
But He did so with a warning. “This will be the way of the king who shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them as his servants, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they will run before his chariots. He will appoint them to him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and he will assign some to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, to be cooks, and to be bakers. He will take your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, even their best, and give them to his servants. He will take one tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give it to his officers, and to his servants. He will take your male servants, your female servants, your best young men, and your donkeys, and assign them to his own work. He will take one tenth of your flocks; and you will be his servants. (1 Samuel 8:11-17, ASV) The king of Israel would be just like any other king: he would abuse his power and take advantage of his people. This warning certainly came true for Israel.
We tend to turn to human strength to get us through our times of trouble and to praise human strength when we succeed. Unfortunately, humans will follow the same pattern, turning away from God and choosing human leaders. Assigned by man, shepherds will always fail because man chooses based on human traits. Assigned by God, shepherds will faithfully serve the people, because God looks at the heart and chooses those who are right with Him. We see this most clearly in the story of David. Saul was being exactly the kind of king that God expected. He was abusing his people and his power. God sent Samuel to anoint the next king, a better king. God chose David out of all his brothers, even though he was least of them all. Samuel expected the oldest, strongest brother to be the one, and thought the same thing for each other brother as God rejected them. In the end, David turned out to be a good king, although even David made mistakes.
Christ the King Sunday celebrates the return to our life under the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As Christians we are called to respect and obey whatever earthly leader God has assigned for our time, but He is our true King. We dwell in two kingdoms for the moment, and while we are meant to be godly and upright in this kingdom, our hope and our peace will always be found in the eternal one.
Our focus at the end of the Church year is the end of time, looking forward to the Day of Judgment. The Day of Judgment is that day when Christ the King will come and judge the heavens and the earth. Last week we heard from Luke the Olivet discourse, otherwise known as the Little Apocalypse. This passage of scripture shows Jesus describing the end of days. Of course, the apocalyptic texts are understood differently by different Christians, but what we do know is that Jesus promised that the day would come when the Son of Man will redeem the whole world. We see this as a future promise, but we also know it is a promise that has already been fulfilled. We dwell in two kingdoms: the earthly one and the eternal one that God has promised.
Does it seem strange that the Gospel lesson for Christ the King Sunday is the text from the Passion of Jesus? Why would we show our King of kings in such humiliating and horrific circumstances? We can’t possibly think that the dying man on the cross is a king of any sort. How can He rule from the grave? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on texts like the triumphant entry into Jerusalem or the Resurrection story? Those stories show Christ as the Victor! If we are going to have a king, let him at least be a winning one, right?
Instead, we see Jesus on a cross, not a throne. We see Jesus in suffering, not glory. He is not honored by the people; He is condemned, ridiculed and rejected. What sort of king is that? In Luke’s story, we see someone who recognized that the cross was Jesus’ crowning achievement. One of the criminals joined in the derision, but the other rebuked him. “Don’t you even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then, He asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. He may not have totally understood what was happening, but he knew that Jesus was truly the king and for that faith he received the promise. “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus Christ was crowned on that cross; it was His throne and because of His obedience to His Father on that first Good Friday, we can now wait expectantly for His coming as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
We struggle because we live in a fallen and imperfect world. Yet, we can live without fear and worry because Yahweh of Armies is by our side. We might have to fight. We might have to do some things that we do not want to do. We might have to do things that do not seem Christian or Christ-like. A fallen and imperfect world makes for some very gray areas: there is no black and white.
This is how Martin Luther dealt with this problem: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter, are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.”
Sin boldly. This is not a call to do whatever you want because you think you can get away with it, or that you know God will forgive you anyway. This is an encouragement that when you do have to do something that falls into those gray areas of life in this world that Christ is ready to forgive. But, we are ever reminded to do so as godly and upright people of faith.
Jesus is the One who can truly save us. As the psalmist sings, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We may struggle to do the things that we are called to do by our earthly kings, but we can trust in God’s promises. He has established a King that will not fail us. He has appointed His Son to rule over our lives. Our circumstances may seem out of control. We may find ourselves in exile or beaten by our enemies, but we can rest in the knowledge that God is the driving force behind our lives. When our leaders fail, and when we are led astray, God has not forgotten His promises. He is faithful even when we cannot be. Be still and know. He is God and He is with us. And He has appointed the King who will not fail, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul asks the question, “Where do we look for our salvation?” Do we look to human kings or priests or shepherds? Do we seek help from foreign gods or allies? Why do we look for mortal answers to our questions when we have a God who can overcome even death and the grave? We do it because it is our natural state of being. We are fallen, imperfect people. We are no different than the criminal who couldn’t see the reality of God’s glory and throne on that cross. We can’t do it on our own. Jesus died so that we might live. It might seem odd that we would end the church year with Jesus on the cross, but His death is the culmination of our entire year. He was born to die so we can live. That is how God dealt with the failed shepherds and how He will take care of His people forever.
We can look to man for our salvation, but man will always fail us in some way. We can look to earthly kings to lead us and take care of us, but they’ll fail us, too. We can appoint those who appear to be strong and intelligent and powerful, but their authority is limited and they will always tend to lead God’s people away from Him. That’s why Paul makes the point that Jesus is something other than man. He certainly was human, was born, lived and died. We see His life and His ministry as we journey through the church year. But Jesus was something else. He is God. In Him is the fullness of God, and through Him all things exist. He is the force that holds the world together and He is the one who saved us from ourselves.
The scriptures for Christ the King show us images of God that are hard for us to understand. He is Yahweh of the Armies and the King of the cross. We can trust that He is by our side and that He is ready to save us from all that wants to destroy us; He will even save us from our own fallen and imperfect nature and forgive us our sin. Just like that criminal on the cross, we can cry out in faith to Jesus, “Remember me!”
When we are faced with difficulties, God is with us. He is our refuge and our strength. War will happen and we might have to fight, but even as we struggle with this reality, we can trust that God is our salvation. His hand moves mountains and His love melts hearts. He is our help in trouble. We can’t know for certain when the day will come. It is not for us to know. The very reason God has not told us the day or the hours is because he knows that we will try to save ourselves. We’ll try to hide from the inevitable. We’ll try to stand on our own strength. We will turn to leaders who promise things that they cannot fulfill. God is our only hope. We are called to dwell in His presence knowing that Christ the King may appear at any moment, even while we are actively involved in the ordinary work of the earthbound kingdom in which we live. We belong to Him and He will save us.
“Now may he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness; you being enriched in everything to all liberality, which produces through us thanksgiving to God. For this service of giving that you perform not only makes up for lack among the saints, but abounds also through many givings of thanks to God; seeing that through the proof given by this service, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the Good News of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all; while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, yearn for you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Now thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:10-15
It does no good for a farmer to keep his seed in the barn. He must take it out into the fields and bury each one in the dirt. There the seeds will grow into plants that will provide families with food and the farmer with more seed to grow another field next year. The more a farmer sows in his fields, the greater yield he will have in the end. One single seed can produce hundreds of new seeds. Oh, there is always risk. The weather may cause trouble. If it is too cold, too hot, too wet or too dry the plants will not grow well. Swarms of insects can affect a harvest. Even on a bad year, however, most farmers can at least manage to return their original investment of seed. It will cost them greatly, but they can probably get back the original amount of seed. What if the farmer decided every spring that it would be a bad year, and so never planted his seeds? The seed would rot in the bags and he would never see a harvest. He might as well not even be a farmer.
Paul said the same thing to the Corinthians. “Remember this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly. He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” The seed that Paul is referring to are the seeds of hope, manifest through the life of one who believes in Jesus Christ; it is the Gospel in word and deed. By sharing our blessings with those who would be blest, we plant seeds of hope and peace in their lives. They see Christ and turn to the One who will increase the harvest. By sharing, we do not reduce our own blessings for God will make them grow.
It is easy to be thankful for all the blessings we have been given by the Lord. Living in thankfulness is much more difficult. It means reaching out beyond us in word and deed with those blessings, giving them up for the sake of another. It means using our time and talents to benefit other people, not just for our own fulfillment and profit. It means planting the seeds of hope by sharing the Gospel with those who need to hear God’s promises, but also by feeding the bodies of those who hunger in the flesh. For every seed that is planted in thanksgiving to God, He will return it exceedingly. It may not be returned in the same form, but we will be blessed beyond measure in the Kingdom of God.
That’s what thanksgiving is all about. It is not enough to be thankful; we are called to be thankful in a way that the world will see how God loves and blesses His people. Sowing the seeds of faith into other lives does not reduce the amount of faith in your own; God is able to make faith it grow in our own lives and in the lives of those we bless. Then others will live in faith and hope, glorifying God in thankfulness, planting seeds in the lives of even more. One seed can return a hundred fold when planted in thanksgiving and praise.
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, that your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God is my witness, whom I serve in my spirit in the Good News of his Son, how unceasingly I make mention of you always in my prayers, requesting, if by any means now at last I may be prospered by the will of God to come to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, to the end that you may be established; that is, that I with you may be encouraged in you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Romans 1:8-12, WEB
I once had a conversation with a woman on the Internet who claimed to be a prophet. I knew others when I was doing online ministry that made the same claim. The first woman was in training, although I never really understood how one can be trained to be a prophet. There are still websites and newsletters that make claims that the authors speak with a prophetic voice, although most of the “prophecies” are questionable at best. These people, many of them anyway, try to prove their gift by interpreting events to fit their predictions. We need to remember that the biblical understanding of prophet is not so much one who predicts the future like a fortuneteller or seer, but rather as “one who speaks by divine inspiration or as the interpreter through whom the will of a god is expressed.”
It was interesting because she was certain that I was a prophet, too. We began corresponding because she saw the words I was posting in a Christian chat room. She was so impressed that she asked my advice. She sent me some of her writings, hoping that I would be impressed with her work. I sent her encouraging responses, but also made some corrections based on the biblical text. She became offended because I didn’t praise her prophetic voice. She was not speaking as a prophet but as a fortuneteller or seer.
The Old Testament prophets point to the coming of the Messiah. Zechariah said, “‘Sing and rejoice, daughter of Zion; for, behold, I come, and I will dwell within you,’ says Yahweh.” Malachi said, “‘Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes!’ says Yahweh of Armies.” Isaiah said, “For to us a child is born. To us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders. His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
These prophets all point to the future event of the coming of Jesus. For the last two thousand years there have been people who have pointed to the future event of Jesus’ return, some even predicting the moment He would arrive on the clouds. The predictions were taken seriously enough by some. There were even a few who quit their jobs so that they would be in the right place at the right time to be received by Him. However, those days have passed, and we still wait.
John the Baptist was also prophet but he spoke differently than the prophets of the Old Testament. His words were not pointing toward the coming of the Messiah, but rather he pointed at Him. John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets because He lived to proclaim that the Messiah was Jesus. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
God still appoints prophets, but like John the Baptist, the Word God gives points to Jesus Christ. I might have a prophetic voice, but I’ve noticed that any predictions I make come into fulfillment as often as a weatherman’s forecast is accurate. We are waiting for the second coming of Christ, but we do not need to interpret events to fit our predictions. Our task as prophets, or witnesses, of God is to point to the Savior. We are called to preach the Gospel message, to share the life of the Living God with the world. We are to encourage one another, to build up the Church and to glorify God in all we do. We are to proclaim our faith in the One who has come and is coming, the One who dwells among us today so that the world will hear and believe.
“Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know that Yahweh, he is God. It is he who has made us, and we are his. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 100, WEB
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States, and the mad rush for ingredients made the grocery stores crazy this week. It was nearly impossible to get through the aisles with so many people and extra merchandise available. Rather than risk the stock running out of the top items, they stock extras in stacks all over the stores. It was like an obstacle course trying to get around the green beans, canned yams, marshmallows, stuffing mix and pumpkin pie ingredients. Shoppers blocked the other groceries as they tried to decide if they wanted whole or jelly cranberry sauce and which sort of rolls they should use. Shelves have emptied. We could not find a pumpkin pie yesterday. Turkeys are defrosting and other dishes are being prepared.
Most families will begin their dinner tomorrow with some sort of prayer, sharing their thanks for all the blessings of their lives. And yet, as I watched people trying to prepare for the festive meal, I saw little sign of thanksgiving. People were pushing to get through the aisles, grumbling at those who were slower or less decisive. I have heard comments about the cost and the work and some even doubted that anyone would appreciate all the hard work they were going through for the dinner.
Thanksgiving is not a uniquely American holiday; most countries have some day set aside to offer thanks for their blessings. Yet, American thanksgivings are different. There are few people who would stuff and gorge themselves so full of food that they can’t even move when they are finished eating. Americans then settle down for the day to stare at the television, watching parades or football. Women are offered daylong marathons of chick flicks or home improvement shows. Families get together, but after a few minutes there is nothing left to say, so we fall asleep on the couch or easy chairs, moaning at how much we overate. When we wake up, we go right back to the food and snack on leftover turkey.
Unfortunately, we do not spend very much time talking about the One who has given us this abundance. Prayers of thanksgiving are said, often showing gratitude to the cooks and hosts, sometimes mentioning the Creator. The kids are thankful for the day off of school or for their favorite toys, but never see that God is the giver of the greatest gifts. Sadly, an advertisement campaign this year has even tried to change the name to “Friendsgiving.”
We can’t avoid the usual celebration -- the family gatherings, the fabulous dinner and the lazy times in front of the television -- it is part of our traditions. I don’t think I would want to avoid all the festivities of Thanksgiving Day. Yet, this year as we are buried in turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, let us remember that there is a purpose to the day that has gotten lost for many. It is a day of thanksgiving and praise to the One who has provided for all our needs. Those Pilgrims and Native Americans on the first thanksgiving may have been celebrating their friendship and the good things they had done for one another, but they were also praising God for His provision.
Rather than giving God just five minutes of half-hearted prayers, let us sing praises to God throughout the preparation of the feast. Instead of grumbling at the crowds, thank God for your neighbors. Rather than complain about the cost of the ingredients, thank God that you have food and buy an extra can to give to the food bank. Take a walk and enjoy the crisp, autumn air, praising God for all of creation. Enjoy the people who cross your path, the slow shopper at the grocery store as well as the family and friends with whom you share the meal. This Thanksgiving will be more joyful if we spent more time praising God rather than giving Him five minutes at the dinner table. For He is the One for whom we are thankful, the One who deserves our praise.
“Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” Colossians 3:14-17, WEB
I have finally returned from my trip. I spent the last week helping my daughter move into her new home in a new city. She moved because she was called to a new job. She will be doing much the same ministry work with youth and camping; she is very excited about the possibilities.
Moving is never easy, especially when you are moving about seven hundred miles. She had to find a moving company that was affordable and reliable. Overall they did a good job, although several things were missing and we are hoping that they will be found on the truck as they deliver other shipments across the United States. The movers did not come on Monday as we had hoped, but did arrive early on Thanksgiving morning so we had everything we needed to have a lovely turkey dinner together. We were prepared with a card table and just enough supplies; we were determined to celebrate and give our thanks to God even if everything wasn’t perfect.
By the time I left, most of her boxes were unpacked, although there was still much to organize. She had books that needed to find their right place and pictures for the walls. We bought some furniture, although she could use a few more pieces to fill the space. There was only so much we could do in a week. She has reached her new home running and has already begun her work. There is simply too much to do at this time of year! She did manage to put up her Christmas tree and buy a wreath for her door, so her new house is already looking like a home.
She did something in her old apartment that I hope she’ll do again in her new home. She had sticky notes with bible verses all over the place. They were notes of encouragement from God. I don’t recall the verses specifically, but the one by the door was about God going with her. There was one in the bathroom and the bedroom and kitchen. Each one was appropriate to the work or rest that happened in the room. Those were favorite verses and they helped her remember that God was with her at every moment in her day.
When people share their testimonies, we often hear references to one verse or another that touched their heart and mind and drew them to Christ. Some evangelistic people take signs to ball games with the words “John 3:16” in the hope of sharing God’s love with someone who never heard the message of the Gospel. One story tells of a man who found one page of the Bible that changed his life. Another story tells of a person who learned of Jesus from a Christmas card. Oswald Chambers tells the story of how Luke 11:13 changed his life. One verse can make a difference.
People often ask the question, “What is your favorite Bible verse?” Personally, I find this a difficult question to answer because there are so many that have had some impact on my life. Like my daughter, I reach for certain verses to remind me of God’s presence in all my moments. Each one brings comfort or joy in a moment of need, as if written by God so many years ago just for me. What is your favorite verse? Perhaps God will bless you with a special touch, one simple verse that will change your life.Whatever you do, live in thankfulness that God’s Word dwells in you, bringing life to the world through your words and deeds done in His name.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 4, 2016, Second Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
“His delight will be in the fear of Yahweh. He will not judge by the sight of his eyes, neither decide by the hearing of his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the poor, and decide with equity for the humble of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.” Isaiah 11:3-4, WEB
We make judgments all the time, often without even realizing it. I think the worst time for me is when I’m driving. I was on a highway a couple weeks ago when a semi, disobeying all the rules, wove in and out of traffic. He used the left lane, which was prohibited for that type of vehicle. He cut off multiple cars, including mine. He didn’t get much farther than me because the traffic was dangerously slowed by something ahead. His antics were frightening, so much so I slowed significantly to let him get far ahead. I didn’t want to be in the accident he was certainly going to cause.
I made a judgment. Of course, it was probably a good judgment. It may have been a lifesaving one. Sometimes we have to make judgments to remain safe. Sometimes, however, we make judgments because we are annoyed or inconvenienced. I do this often. I grumble whenever another driver does something brainless and usually say something nasty. I make judgments about public figures who don’t live up to the standards I think should be kept. I make judgments about the people I hear on the news or see on the streets. I even make judgments about fictional characters in movies or books. “I can’t believe they would do it that way,” I think to myself.
We all make judgments, both good and bad. We make judgments that are helpful and others that are not so helpful. The judgment of a court can help transform someone who has done something wrong; other judgments can cause people to rebel or retreat. Our judgments can help or they can hurt. That’s why we are warned to be careful about how we judge our neighbors.
We make our judgments based on our biases and our experiences. I judged that truck driver because I knew that dangerous driving can hurt others. However, some judgments just aren’t right. When we judge someone just because they are different than us, because of something beyond their control, we can harm them in ways we might not expect. Too often, and all of us do it in some way or another, we judge because of what we see and hear. We judge because someone looks different or acts different or sounds different.
In our first lesson, Isaiah describes the perfect leader, the shoot that would come. This leader has wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear. Perhaps this sounds redundant, after all, isn’t wisdom, understanding and knowledge the same thing? No: a good leader has all three. Wisdom is the ability to discern between right and wrong, good and bad. Understanding comes from the heart, being able to identify with the circumstances. Knowledge is having the facts. A good judge has all three. A good judge also accepts counsel, heeding the advice of those who might have a better grasp of the situation. Might, or strength, means authority and power, and when used appropriately can provide justice. Fear is not meant to be understood in terms of a bad horror movie, but as a state of awe for the One who truly rules. A good leader will be all these things.
Isaiah says, “He will not judge by the sight of his eyes, neither decide by the hearing of his ears.” Human judges have limitations. We do judge by the sight of our eyes and decide by the hearing of our ears. We also make mistakes. We are not always as wise, understanding, or knowledgeable as we should be. We fail to listen to good advice; we take advantage of our power in inappropriate ways. We don’t always fear God as we should.
A good leader will be righteous. This means he (or she) will have a right relationship with God. This means not fear but a heart to do what God would do. And a good leader is faithful. He keeps his promises. Can you imagine what the world would look like if we had leaders that were wise, understanding and knowledgeable, who accepts right counsel and proper authority, and who fears God? Can you imagine if we had leaders that were righteous and faithful in all things? We might have leaders that display one or more of these characteristics, but it seems like none truly fit this bill. Only One, Jesus Christ, is the perfect leader.
During Advent we await the coming of that perfect leader. As Christians we know He arrived more than two thousand years ago, but even as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we are called to live in the hope of His second coming. During Advent we await the shoot of Jesse that was promised by God through the prophet Isaiah.
This message from the prophet reminds us of the promise made to David long before Jesus was born. Imperfect, but loved as a son, David, Jesse’s son, was the first in a line of kings that would last forever. “He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2 Samuel 7:13) Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of that promise, and during this Advent season we await His coming again.
Isaiah tells us what the world would look like when we have this promised leader. The lamb will lie with the lion, the bull and the bear will eat together. The world will be at peace; there will be no more enemies, no more hunter and prey. This is a world we long to experience, but it is a world that will not come by means of flesh and blood. Only Jesus can fulfill this promise. As we wait the coming of the Christ child, we are reminded by this text that we also await a second coming, for only in that advent will everything come into fruition.
Paul writes of the harmony that exists in a kingdom where God rules. Like the promise in Isaiah, the people join together as one voice, glorifying God. We can’t do it without God’s help. Jesus came at Christmas as a down payment on the promise, to give us a glimpse of what it will be in the day when He rules over all. Until that day we dwell in the tension of Advent. We know Christ has come. We know the Kingdom of God is near, but we still long for Christ to come again. We are still waiting for the king who will bring peace to the earth so that the lion will lie with the lamb and the powerful will lie with the powerless. We live in this hope even while we see the disharmony of the world that surrounds us each day, the disharmony of which we are a part. That disharmony comes because we do not judge righteously. This is why we need to be continually reminded to repent, because we still fail to live according to God’s Word.
Paul reminds us of the promise from Isaiah so that we can live in hope and joy. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” This joy and peace won’t come from our work or our righteousness. It is a gift of God. When we live in this hope, we can find harmony where there is disharmony.
There will come a day when the entire world is in harmony again. The wolves and the leopards will lie with the sheep and the goats. There will be no need for animals to kill, for they will be satisfied by God’s provision. In that day even human beings will live in harmony with one another. No longer will men and women harm others for the sake of some unnatural desire. There will be no need for war or hatred. We will be restored to our God and will live in His presence for eternity; we won’t have need of anything because God will provide. Our work will be praising God and our joy will be lasting. It is no wonder that we sigh with anticipation, especially since our human leaders so often fail us.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the leaders of God’s people in John’s time. In the Gospel lesson from Matthew we hear his voice, the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” John the Baptist knew that the leaders were not taking care of God’s people. Israel’s history was filled with leaders who sought their own righteousness, their own power, their own glory. They were called to rule with justice and peace, but they failed. Nothing was different in John’s day. John spoke to those that had followed him into the wilderness and asked, “Who told you to come here?” The Pharisees and the Sadducees had their history, the same history we read in the Old Testament prophecies, but they did not understand.
John promised the coming of the One who has wisdom, understanding, knowledge, authority, righteousness and faithfulness, as well as that humble relationship with His Father. He will come and He will make all things right. He will baptize with more than water and feed us with more than bread and wine. He will give us His Spirit and remove from our lives the imperfections that bring us down. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in the next few weeks. It’ll take a lifetime or more; it will happen in God’s time.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees went to the river because they were curious about his ministry. They wanted to know if he was claiming to be the Messiah. They wanted to squelch his ministry before it got out of control. They wanted to destroy his ministry. John was talking to them when he said “You offspring of vipers,” but his word cuts to our hearts too. We have our facades, our masks, our sins from which we must repent. We are arrogant and haughty. We do not bear the fruit worthy of repentance. We judge according to what we see and hear rather than according to God’s Word. This is why we remember John’s call for repentance each year, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord. Though Christ has already come, we are still longing for the fulfillment of the promise of a world restored to God. We remain sinners even while we are saints. We have been baptized with the Spirit, but we still need daily repentance.
We dwell in a time between the already and the not yet. We know that the Christ child has come, but we wait for Him to come again as King. We know that Christ has died, but we wait until that day when the forgiveness that came with His blood is fully realized. We wait for that which already is, but is yet to be.
The psalmist prays that God will give the king justice, that he will dwell in God’s righteousness. Every good and perfect thing that can come to a nation and a people begins with the goodness of the king. Today’s psalm was sung by David for his son Solomon, and during Solomon's reign the nation of Israel did prosper. His heart for God, his desire for wisdom, his pursuit of justice brought a golden age to the land. The world sought Solomon’s wisdom and the kingdom benefitted. The kingdom benefitted because Solomon stood as a leader and the people followed. They did what was right. They listened to his wisdom, experienced his understanding, sought out his knowledge. They respected authority and had a healthy awe of the Lord. Together they lived in God's blessing.
But even Solomon was not perfect, and his kingdom didn’t last forever. The offspring of Jesse -- David and Solomon -- failed to be all that God intended for His kingdom. Only Jesus could fulfill the promise. Only when Jesus rules the entire would will peace abound and righteousness flourish. Until that day, however, we can try to be wise, understanding, knowledgeable, seeking counsel and might, fearing the Lord. Perhaps, just maybe, we’ll experience a little bit of that promised peace.
The world as God created it to be will not be restored until His second coming. Until that day, the lion will not lie with the lamb. However, in Christ we can live in harmony with one another, the powerful with the powerless. We can work for justice, caring for the poor and the weak. We can be heralds of God’s grace, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom so that others might prepare their hearts to receive Him now. Through our witness, God will be glorified in this world.