Welcome to the November 2018 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 2018
“Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:7-12, WEB
There is a movement to make Halloween safer for children with food allergies called the Teal Pumpkin Project. The participants put a teal pumpkin as part of their decorations and provide a non-food treat for the children. Health issues are more common than you realize and it is not just peanut allergies that are the problem. Some children are allergic to dairy and flour. Diabetic children can’t have sugars. Halloween is not fun for children with these issues and their bag full of treats often ends up in the hands of their parents or siblings. Having non-food treats available gives them something they can enjoy.
I didn’t register with the site or hang one of their signs, but I did have a teal pumpkin in my decorations and a bowl full of treat bags with a coloring book and crayons. The first dozen children did not say anything, so they got a few pieces of candy and a glow bracelet. I wondered if they just didn’t know to ask, so I began asking “Candy or Toy.” I had a large group of children come through who wanted the toy and I realized that I would quickly run out of the toys if I gave every child a choice. We made a sign, but no one asked. I ended up giving the last few dozen children one of each item.
The favorite item was definitely the glow bracelet. Nearly every child was excited about it and many stopped their forward progress to break the stick and put it on. The children who received the goody bag with the toy were also excited. I heard one child tell her mom, “Mom, look! I got a goody bag!” While the whole point of Halloween Trick or Treating is to overindulge in candy, I think many of the kids were happy to have something else, something different, perhaps even something that would last. I think next year I’ll skip the candy and put my entire Trick or Treat money into something every child, young and old, will really enjoy. I might even put it into a treat bag so they have the joy of discovering what’s inside when they get home.
It is hard to decide what to have and how much to have on hand. We get a lot of children in our neighborhood. The weather was terrible an hour before Trick or Treating started, so we didn’t really know how many families would risk being outside. Thankfully the storms moved on and the evening was perfect. I gave treats to more than two hundred children and our neighbor went over three hundred last night. I didn’t want leftovers, but I wanted enough. I struggled with what I should do, and I changed my plan multiple times as I watched my supply dwindle. I just wanted it to be a fun Halloween for every child who came to my door.
God never has a problem with knowing what to do for His children. He is able to give us just what we need. Unfortunately for us, His gifts are not always what we would want. We ask for one thing, but God knows that one thing could be harmful for us, like the child with a peanut allergy wants a Snicker’s bar. Yet, even when God says “No” to our prayers, He has something better to give to us like a glow stick or a coloring book. We want our children to be happy, and so does God, but even more He wants us to be blessed. Sometimes that means receiving His good and perfect gifts knowing that they are exactly what we need.
“Remember this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly. He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Let each man give according as he has determined in his heart; not grudgingly, or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that you, always having all sufficiency in everything, may abound to every good work. As it is written, ‘He has scattered abroad, he has given to the poor. His righteousness remains forever.’ 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 9:6-15, WEB
Sea World San Antonio has an exhibit for penguins; it was one of our favorite destinations when we visited the park. The exhibit has rocky cliffs along the walls and a pool in the front. In the middle is a flat area, which is covered with snow to protect the feet of the penguins. The atmosphere in the habitat is consistent with the weather in those regions where the penguins would live if they were in the wild. The lights in the exhibit act as the sun; even during mid-summer in Texas it appears to be mid-winter in the exhibit. The temperature is kept at a temperature for the penguins that usually live in cold weather places.
Penguins are amazing creatures. On land they are somewhat clumsy, wobbling from one place to another. They do not move very much. Every time we watched, most of the penguins just stood still on the rocks or snow. Some of them settled on the ledges of the cliffs, facing the wall as if they had been sent to the corner for time-out. They were probably just resting, but it made us laugh. Though they are awkward on land, they are quite graceful in the water. They are able to swim and float with an elegance that seems impossible when you see them wobbling around on land. They can speed through the water to catch fish and play with each other. It is like a whole different world because they are unencumbered by the weight and the disproportionate design of their bodies.
The water for penguins is like the grace of God in our lives. On the land, penguins are awkward, slow and clumsy. They face greater danger from predators because they can’t get away as quickly. It is hard for them to find food. They get bubble feet from walking on the rough stones. Yet, in the water they are swift, and adept at doing what is necessary to survive. In the world, we are clumsy and unable to accomplish anything of any real value. We are unrighteous sinners when we try to go it on our own. But when we live in the grace of God, He holds us up, provides all we need to live and love.
“But if the wicked turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him: in his righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? says the Lord Yahweh; and not rather that he should return from his way, and live?” Ezekiel 18:21-23, WEB
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. We see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot! Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent to blow up king and parliament. Three score barrels were laid below to prove old England's overthrow. By god’s mercy he was catch’d with a darkened lantern and burning match. So, holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring. Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king. And what shall we do with him? Burn him!”
This litty ditty, a nursery rhyme(!), recalls a time in England that was filled with turmoil and strife. James I was king, it was an age of Civil war. It was a time when the people were fighting for their doctrinal beliefs. James was a Protestant and Parliament was his puppet. A group of Roman Catholic men were willing to do anything to keep England under the rule of the Pope. They hatched the Gunpowder Plot. The intention was to blow up Parliament on the day when James was there to open the proceedings for the year. Everyone would be present, and all would die. A new Roman Catholic king would be selected and England would be Catholic forever.
The conspirators filled the basement of Parliament with gunpowder, but Guy did something foolish. He had a relative who was a Member of Parliament. He did not want to kill someone from his own family, so he sent a note warning this man to stay away. The plot was exposed, Guy Fawkes was arrested and tortured. He eventually gave the names of the other conspirators, and was then executed for his crime. Today is Guy Fawkes Day. They celebrate the end of the Gunpowder plot by blowing things up; they celebrate fireworks and bonfires.
Guy will always be remembered for his crime against the king. That’s the way human justice works. We remember the failings of those around us. God’s justice is much different than our justice. We are unable to be righteous before God, and yet He sent His Son to be righteous for us. When we clothe ourselves in His righteousness, God no longer sees the offenses we committed, but He sees Christ in us. God does not remember our sins, He rejoices in our repentance. Turn to Him today, wear His righteousness, and live.
“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
Today is Election Day in the United States. It has certainly been a difficult time for the American public as we have listened to the incessant discussion over what would be best for America. The candidates and the commentators have gone on endlessly for weeks, months, even years, discussing the issues that affect us on a daily basis. The more they talk, the more divided we seem to be. We simply cannot find a common ground in ideas.
I recently read an article that talked about the physiology of people’s brains and the way they see the world. The author suggested that we think differently because our brains work differently. I didn’t agree completely with the thesis because if it were true then I should have different political opinions, but I agree that there is probably something in our brains that is hardwired toward certain world views.
Paul wrote to the Romans, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” (Romans 12:17b) When it comes to election issues, this is impossible to do. How do you vote for one candidate and do what is right in the eyes of the people voting for the other? There are those who are so passionately sure of their candidate that any vote against him is considered to be evil, un-Christian or stupid. They can’t see the good in the other man, whatever it might be and they are unwilling to accept that there are logical and godly reasons for making their choice.
So in such a hotly contested election, how do we do what Paul asks? How do we do what is right in the eyes of all men? The most difficult part of this decision making process for Christians is the fact that we are also divided among ourselves. We should be united in everything, but we are divided by thought and ideology. Some Christians lean toward one candidate and others lean toward the other. The same disagreements that are happening in the political arena are also happening in the Christian church. We are divided by our understanding of who we are and whose we are. We can’t talk and seem honorable in the eyes of our brothers and sisters in Christ. How do we please all of the people all of the time when our ideas are so divided?
We must remember that our unity rests not in our own thoughts but in God.
It is not this easy. This world is divided by ideas and many people cannot overcome their differences. Paul continues in verse 18, “If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men.” Christians are called to make peace in this world. Sometimes this means to let go of our ideas - not to give them up, but rather to keep them to ourselves - so that we can find a common ground on which to walk. There are difficult issues facing the church as well as in our world. How do we deal with our differences when we cannot even talk with one another?
The one thing we have to remember as Americans is that the one place we can agree completely is that we have a right to make the choice. Every American eligible to vote should make it to the polls today no matter what they face to get there. One reminder is making its way across the Internet: “After the Election: If you win, don’t gloat. If you lose, don’t despair. This has been hard on all of us. Treat others the way you want to be treated. We all need it.” The winner might not be our choice, but at least we will be united in the process. This is the first step to finding other common ground.
We disagree about many things in the church. These differences go back to the earliest days, when the first Christians were disagreeing about certain aspects of the faith. Some of the questions are new, but many of the questions have been discussed among theologians and believers for two thousand years. And yet, one thing still unites us: the Holy Spirit. We are not called into faith to agree with everything we hear, but rather to join in the worship of God with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we are praising Him with joy and thanksgiving with one voice, the other issues do not seem to matter quite so much.
*I should note that this is an edited repeat from 2004. As a friend said on Facebook this morning, “Amazingly, every two years the most important election of my lifetime takes place.” Elections matter. The work the government does matters. Our daily existence in this world matters. But no matter what happens today, let us always remember it has happened before and it will happen again. The most important thing that matters is our God. Keep your eyes on Him and all will be well, even if they aren’t as you want them to be.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 11, 2018, Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
“Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God.” Psalm 146:5, WEB
I posted this joke on my Facebook page yesterday: “If I don’t post a selfie or mark “Voted” on Facebook, does that mean my vote won’t count?” A Christian satire site called The Babylon Bee posted an article that confirmed my suspicion. Of course, their article was also a joke. My vote counted whether or not I made a grand show of doing my patriotic duty. I did notice that my timeline was filled with people who were posting selfies and marking themselves as having voted. I have done it in the past, but have to admit that I was so burnt out by this election that I didn’t really care to put yet another post about it online. One friend set off a lengthy discussion about whether it was good or bad to post on social media. He took the position that the posting was little more than a self-congratulatory act. Others disagreed and felt that posting encouraged others to go to the polls.
There are those who truly think it is a bad thing, that it is what has recently been termed “virtue signaling.” Virtue signaling is defined by the Urban Dictionary, “to take a conspicuous but essentially useless action ostensibly to support a good cause but actually to show off how much more moral you are than everybody else.” I tend to look at people’s actions with more grace than this, believing that people are posting for all the right reasons, not to make themselves look better than their neighbors.
I thought about this idea of virtue signaling when I read the first half of this week’s Gospel lesson. Jesus warned the people to beware of the scribes because they acted in ways to make themselves look good to the world. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk in long robes, and to get greetings in the marketplaces, and the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts: those who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.”
At this point in the book of Mark, Jesus was on his way toward the cross. He had entered Jerusalem triumphantly, but He was doing things that upset the powers of the world. Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the leaders, how they walked around looking for compliments, acting high and mighty, using their power to harm the weak. They took advantage of widows by seeking payment for prayers. Jesus then noticed the crowds throwing their offerings in the coffers. I can imagine those teachers of the Law clapping people on the back, pulling them aside for private conversations, making deals in the corners as they looked for patrons to support their work.
I’m a people watcher. I like to go places and watch the people around me. It is fun to think about their lives, even though I know nothing about them. Why are they buying that watch? Are they in love? What will that child grow up to be when they are an adult? People do the craziest things, and if we are attentive to the world around us, we often have a front row seat to the joke, or the joy, or even the pain. And by being attentive, we can be a part of their lives, perhaps share a smile, or a tear. We don’t even have to speak to them to have a connection; sometimes it just takes a little eye contact to make a difference.
There were people watching people in the courtyard of the Temple that day. The leaders were definitely paying attention to the pilgrims. Who did they approach? Who interested them? Did they give any attention to the average pilgrim, or did they just focus on those who were well dressed and who threw great sums into the coffers? Did they even notice the widow who offered two pennies? She was probably invisible, unless they eyed her suspiciously.
There was another group of watchers in the courtyard: Jesus and His disciples. Jesus was watching the people as they gave their offerings. He knew their hearts. Jesus knew the ones who were virtue signaling, but He also saw the multitudes that were doing their duty with reverence and faith. He said nothing negative about the rich because they were generous; Mark tells us that “many who were rich cast in much.” They were generous, giving to God out of their wealth.
But Jesus paid attention to the invisible one, the widow who was lost in the crowd. We don’t know what she looked like or what she was wearing. We don’t know if she was a foreign pilgrim or a local. We don’t know if she was alone in that courtyard or if she’d traveled with a crowd of family and friends. We only know that she gave two pennies as an offering to God and that it was all she had. And we know that Jesus saw her. In this courtyard full of people, she caught His eye. He lifted her up as a woman with extraordinary faith. The lesson we learn is that we can be like her, giving everything to Him, even when it seems insignificant, trusting that He’ll take care of us. Despite the small amount, the widow’s gift was greater than all the others because she gave God her entire wealth.
Jesus saw her. Through all those crowds, He picked out the one person whom everyone else probably ignored. He saw the one who had no earthly worth. That’s what God does. He sees through the exterior and past the mundane; He points out value where the world might see none. She didn’t have much, but she had far more than the rest because she had great faith. That’s worth noting. Money won’t do us any good in the end. Faith is the only thing that will get us through the last days; faith will take us to the other side.
God saw the worth of another widow, as we see in the Old Testament lesson. There was extreme drought in the land where Zarephath was located. The widow was suffering. She had nothing left. She had perhaps two pennies worth of flour and oil, just enough to make one more cake for her son and herself. She had hope for a future despite being a widow because she had a son if she could keep him alive. Unfortunately, all the money in the world is useless in the midst of a drought when there is nothing to buy. No wheat in the fields meant no grain to grind. She was not the only one suffering; the whole land was suffering.
God promised Elijah, “Behold, I have commanded a widow there to sustain you.” She knew Elijah was coming, but her immediate response was fear. “I don’t have anything extra. I have just enough to eat and die.” She was not an Israelite. She did not worship the God of Elijah. I wonder what she thought when she first heard the command from God. Who are you? Why me? How will I know? Even those of us who know the Lord ask these questions. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for someone who did not believe? She should have been invisible to this God of Elijah, and yet He knew her and invited her into His plan. “Feed my prophet and you will be blessed.”
She wasn’t a woman of faith; she questioned the command. Even when she met Elijah at the gate of the city, she argued that she didn’t have enough to share. Yet, all it took was a few words of assurance from Elijah that his God would not fail her. She needed to know that this unknown God was really in the middle of this. “Go ahead. Do as you’ve been told. All is well and it will be well for you and your son.” Perhaps the widow at the Temple got the strength to give everything from similar encouraging words.
Do you ever feel invisible? Even as people of faith we can find it difficult to believe that God sees us or hears our prayers. I am nobody. I am just one person out of the billions who are currently living on earth, and just one out of the more than hundred billion people who have ever lived. Who am I that God would notice me? Who am I that God would point me out to His disciples and teach them a lesson using my life as an example? I’m probably even more invisible than those widows because I am one of the multitudes who give to God out of my wealth like the crowds in the Temple.
When things are fine, even when things are tight, most people of faith are good about giving to God first. We know it is important to give faithfully for the work of the Church in the world. There comes a time, however, when there just isn’t enough to do what needs to do be done. There are many people who are hungry, what good is one can of tuna fish? It is very easy to question charitable giving when there is not enough to money to keep the lights on. Have you ever been in a position when someone needed your generosity but you had nothing left to give? Have you ever had to trust God with such sacrificial faith that circumstances demanded everything?
I doubt that many of us are like the scribes or the widows. We are more like the crowds giving out of our wealth. The test comes when we are facing difficulty like the widow of Zarephath. When there is drought, when there is no hope, how do we respond? Is our charitable giving the first thing we drop out of our budget? Is our offering to God the last thing we pay when the money is tight? In the scribes we are reminded not to show off how much better we are than others. In the widows we see the image of faith: astonishing trust in the grace and mercy of God.
Our gifts, no matter how big they might be, are not worthy of praise. We are giving out of our wealth and God does not need anything we have to give. It is all His and He gave it to us to be good stewards for the sake of others. God deserves our first fruits, not our leftovers. Like the widow of Zarephath and the widow in the temple, faith means trusting that God will provide according to His grace. Even if those first fruits mean that we are giving “unto death” we need not fear, for God will bring great blessings out of our faith.
The psalmist reminds us that all good things come from God. “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God: who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps truth forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. Yahweh frees the prisoners. Yahweh opens the eyes of the blind. Yahweh raises up those who are bowed down. Yahweh loves the righteous. Yahweh preserves the foreigners. He upholds the fatherless and widow, but the way of the wicked he turns upside down.”
God raises those that are bowed down. This is not just about God taking care of those who are victimized, who are oppressed and outcast. God raises up those who are humble before Him, who trust that God will provide. He raises up those who give with the heart of faith, whatever our circumstances. Jesus fed the crowds whether they were poor or wealthy. He healed the sick no matter their circumstances. He raised the ruler’s daughter. He raised Lazarus. He was raised on the cross so that all who believe might be raised to the greatest gift of all, eternal life.
The stories of the widows foreshadow the work of Christ Jesus. The widows gave even their lives for the sake of others in obedience to the Word of God. The widow of Zarephath was blessed with life through the drought as the flour and oil seemed in endless supply. We do not know what happened to the widow in the temple, but when Jesus was only days away from being the final, permanent sacrifice, He showed us what it is like to sacrifice everything through her self-less giving.
For generations the priests in the temple had provided ministry to the Lord by offering sacrifices for the people. Over and over again they approached the altar with blood to atone for the sins of the people. They were paid for their services through the offerings of grain and meat; they enjoyed the fruit of the people’s labor. They benefited from the wealth of the rich. They oppressed the poor by demanding much more than necessary, claiming it was given to God. Yet, they walked with handsome robes and had fine homes. They thought themselves greater than others because they served God, yet they still needed to provide sacrifice for their own sins before they could provide for the people. The Temple was not heaven, it was merely a copy of the heavenly. The priests could never bring salvation; they were gifted and chosen to point toward the One who would truly save.
The offerings of the rich did little good; money never lasts. The priests would demand more temple tax to support their ministry to God. They would demand more animals for sacrifice, more grain and oil to present to the Lord. Sin never stopped and the blood of animals was never enough for atonement, so the sacrifices had to be repeated over and over again. Only Christ could offer the perfect sacrifice. He is the only one who could enter into God’s presence and bring salvation from sin and death. He died once and we are forgiven of all. The priests who had to offer lambs every year, but He did not have to die again and again. Jesus Christ finished the work of atonement on the cross. He gave all for the sake of others, making the ultimate sacrifice so that we might have eternal life. Now, in Christ, forgiveness is like the bottomless flour jar and oil jug. The Word of God is true and He is faithful. When we live trusting in His promises we see incredible things.
“Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God.” This is not a giddy kind of happiness, but rather the blessedness of knowing that everything we are and everything we have comes from God. The widows knew that God takes care of those who look to Him for help. They knew that He would lift those who are bowed, sustain the fatherless and widows and frustrate the way of the wicked as promised in today’s psalm. They did not put their trust in men; they submitted willingly to the Word of God and were greatly blessed. Jesus sacrificed Himself for the sake of the world, and in Christ we can join in the chorus of praise. “Praise Yah! Praise Yahweh, my soul.”
“He spoke to them many things in parables, saying, ‘Behold, a farmer went out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell by the roadside, and the birds came and devoured them. Others fell on rocky ground, where they didn’t have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of earth. When the sun had risen, they were scorched. Because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and choked them. Others fell on good soil, and yielded fruit: some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Matthew 13:3-9, WEB
Jesus came to share the Kingdom of God with His people. He wanted them to understand that there was something beyond their human experience, something so incredible that it cannot be understood simply by sight, sound and touch. The message was simple: God, our heavenly Father loves you so much that He came to dwell among you and make you an heir to His Kingdom. Jesus, God in flesh, showed His children the truth of His love. He spoke so that they would understand, in stories that touched on their earthly experiences of life. He often talked of farming or fishing, normal activities for the people who were listening to His teaching. By using parables, earthly stories with a heavenly meaning, He conveyed the spiritual ideas to the people in a way they could understand.
Of all God’s creation, perhaps grain is the one thing that most directly touches our lives. Grains are small, hard, dry seeds that are used for human and animal consumption. There are different types of grains: cereals and legumes. Dried grains are more durable than other plant products; they are easy to harvest mechanically. Grains can be easily transported and are extremely versatile when milled or pressed. Grain feeds the animals we eat. It can be used for non-food purposes, too. Many aspects of our daily living depend on the use of grain in some way. The most common use of grain is for bread; every culture relies on grain in some way for survival.
Grain is easier to farm because of the way it is seeded and harvested. A wheat or corn field can be planted by scattering seed, the seed need not be buried and the farmer can almost ignored until harvest time. The farmer should check the field regularly for water, insects and other problems, but grain plants do not need to be pruned or weeded. At harvest time, the plants are cut down, gathered and separated unlike other plants that have fruit that needs to be carefully removed from the stalk or vine.
Planting grain has become very simple. Specially designed equipment can quickly scatter the seed over a large field. Farmers can cut a field and collect the grain in a matter of hours instead of days. There is even a special machine that can drive through a field of cut wheat and turn over the stalks so that the straw will dry more quickly. In ancient times, all these tasks had to be done by hand with only the help of a strong animal pulling the plow. Even grain has its risks: poor weather or a plague of insects can destroy a field. However, most communities can produce at least enough on which to live.
Since grain is an important part of daily living, not only today but throughout the history of man, Jesus used stories about grain and farming to illustrate the Kingdom of God. Though we have modern conveniences, we can listen to these very same stories and understand the concepts Jesus was trying to convey. We still have the same needs for grain and the fields still grow the same as they did two thousand years ago.
In today’s parable, we learn that scattering the seed means that there might be some loss. Some grain seeds are devoured, some wither and some are choked by weeds. Yet, even though some are lost, the field still produces far more than what was invested. We learn from the stories of Jesus and through God’s creation how to live by faith in this world. We are reminded that we are called to pray to God in supplication and thanksgiving for everything we need. We see that as we give our faith to the world some of the seeds we hope to be planted will be lost. We see that God provides abundantly without much help from us.
“Now from the fig tree learn this parable. When its branch has now become tender, and produces its leaves, you know that the summer is near. Even so you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Most certainly I tell you, this generation will not pass away, until all these things are accomplished. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But no one knows of that day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only. As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ship, and they didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Matthew 24:32-39, WEB
Every time there is a change of weather, no matter where it happens, someone makes a post on Facebook that says, “Don’t like the weather? Wait a minute!” Or “Only in ‘wherever’ can we have all four seasons in a day.” Of course this is true in Texas. I recall a time I was at a gathering and we were sitting outside near the grill where our dinner was being cooked. The temperature was lovely. The sun was shining. There was no wind. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a wind hit us and the temperature dropped at least ten degrees in a minute. I began to shiver and had to go inside. A cold front moved through at that very moment and it caused the weather to change instantly.
A similar cold front is headed our way. Well, two are on their way. Today was lovely, warm temperatures though cloudy. The first one is due tonight and is expected to bring rain, possibly even storms. The second is expected next week and by the time it comes, our temperatures will be near freezing. This sudden and extreme change in the weather will catch many off guard. They will wake up tomorrow morning, put on the kind of clothes they wore today and realize that they should have worn long sleeves or a sweater. Those who pay attention to the news will know how to prepare; those who aren’t paying attention will be caught unaware.
This sort of change in the weather is often to blame for the increased incidence of colds and flu, partially because people are unprepared to face the damp, cold weather. Poor health is also caused by the fact that germs pass more easily from person to person when we are gathered together in close, confined quarters to keep from the bitter winds and rain.
In today’s scripture, Jesus warned his disciples that no one will know the time when the Son of Man will come. He gave them this warning so that they would be prepared in heart and mind for the time and not be confused by every wind of doctrine that blew. As the day grows closer, Satan will become more desperate to deceive the children of God. His tactics will become harder to detect, easier to pass from one another. Jesus told His disciples to keep watch for the time of His coming and to do everything He has commanded: love God and one another. In this way they would be prepared. The same is true for us. The winds may blow and the storm may come, but we can stand firm on the truth of God’s salvation that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray that He will give us the strength and wisdom to wait with patience and expectancy, guarded from the winds of change in this world.
“Now Herod was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. They came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus, the king’s personal aide, their friend, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day, Herod dressed himself in royal clothing, sat on the throne, and gave a speech to them. The people shouted, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he didn’t give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God grew and multiplied.” Acts 12:20-24, WEB
The New Testament stories of Herod can become confusing because there were several. The Herod that killed the innocents of Bethlehem (Herod the Great) was not the same as the Herod that killed John the Baptist (Herod Antipas) who was not the same as the Herod that killed James and imprisoned Peter. The Herod in today’s passage is Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great. This can become confusing and it is difficult from the scriptures to truly understand the character and reigns of these kings.
Agrippa spent most of his life in Rome. He was sent there for his education and his safety because his grandfather was a cruel and suspicious king who killed his son Aristobulus, Agrippa’s father. Agrippa was friends with the son of Tiberius, but after his mother died, Agrippa spent the family wealth and went into debt. He left Rome, settled in Palestine and took a position in his Uncle Herod Antipas’s kingdom. He left that position to go to Egypt where he took a loan which allowed him to return to Rome. He wasn’t welcome in the court because of the debt, but when it was paid, Agrippa became a tutor for Tiberius’s grandson. He became a friend of Caligula. He ended up in prison because he said something negative about Tiberius, but on the emperor’s death Agrippa was set free and raised by his friend Caligula. He was made king of the region that had been ruled by Philip the Tetrarch. Antipas was upset by this, but Agrippa had the ear of Caligula so Antipas was exiled and Agrippa ended up with a vast territory to rule.
Agrippa was a Jew, despite having spent most of his life as a Roman. He became zealous about his Jewish faith when he became king, earning the friendship of his Jewish subjects. He vigorously rejected the Christian faith which had arisen while he was in Rome. He is remembered well by the Jews because he was able to create a mutual relationship between Judah and Rome. It was a time of peace, and the Christian faith threatened conflict. A story is told about a moment when Agrippa was to read the Torah for the people. Though most kings sat for the reading, Agrippa stood like the rest of the assembly. It is said that when he read Deuteronomy 17:15, Agrippa wept because he considered himself a foreigner. The people responded, “Don’t fear Agrippa, you are our brother.” Agrippa had a reputation of being kind and humble man, even carrying his own offering to the Temple like the common folk.
The New Testament portrays him differently, of course, because he was determined to end the cult that was following Jesus of Nazareth. The stories that come before today’s passage include the death of James (the brother of John) and the imprisonment of Peter. Peter was set to be executed also, but God intervened and sent an angel to rescue him. He appeared before the Christians in Jerusalem, surprising them. Some even thought it must be Peter’s ghost because they thought he was dead. He sent word to James (the brother of Jesus) and then escaped to Caesarea. Agrippa tried to find Peter, but when he could not do so, he ordered the death of those soldiers who were charged with his imprisonment.
Today’s passage comes immediately following. We are not told why Agrippa was upset with Tyre and Sidon. There is no reason to suggest that it is because the king blamed them for Peter’s disappearance. It is more likely that Tyre and Sidon, which were major ports, did something that harmed Agrippa’s economy. He nearly declared war, but the cities sent emissaries to make peace. He gave a speech and the people cheered him and called him a god. Despite his claim to faith in the God of Israel, Agrippa accepted the accolades. He met his end in a sudden and painful manner. Agrippa is known as the last king of the Jews because the Romans decided not to give the territory to his son.
James was dead and Peter had been imprisoned. The Christian faith would continue to suffer at the hands of their enemies, both Roman and Jewish. Most of the Apostles would be martyred, along with many others. Those who remained faithful to Jesus would suffer in other ways, such as exile from their families and economic difficulties. Despite the risks, Luke tells us that the word of God grew and multiplied. It didn’t matter to the faithful that they might die because they knew by God’s grace they would live forever. The story of Agrippa is interesting, perhaps a little frightful when we think about the people around the world who think they hold our lives in their hands. We know, however, that God is in control and that no matter what happens, He will make good come out of it.
“Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? The everlasting God, Yahweh, the Creator of the ends of the earth, doesn’t faint. He isn’t weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak. He increases the strength of him who has no might. Even the youths faint and get weary, and the young men utterly fall; But those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run, and not be weary. They will walk, and not faint.” Isaiah 40:28-31, WEB
I am not a very good housekeeper. There’s always dust on the furniture and crumbs on the floor. There are always dishes in the sink. My carpets desperately need to be cleaned. It is a never-ending occupation; there is always something to be wiped down or put away. Changing the sheets on the bed is an exhausting and time consuming project. Housework seems like it is a never-ending occupation. I do what needs to be done, but I have to admit that it takes the promise of visitors for me to get around to doing more.
There is one household task that is more frustrating than others: the laundry. No matter how hard we try, there is always some dirty piece of clothing. Even as we empty the dryer and fold the final pair of pants or T-shirt, we still have a set of clothes on our back that will need washing. It can be discouraging to get to the bottom of the pile, only to have it reappear within minutes as kids toss this hour’s outfit on the pile. Perhaps you have certain jobs that are equally frustrating to you. Do you struggle with stacks of paperwork that never get smaller? Even as we are paying one bill, there are three more waiting for us. We can find solutions to the problems in our relationships, but it seems that just as we come to an agreement about something, there is another problem waiting.
It can be quite discouraging. We wonder, “Will I ever have a moment of rest?” Even in our relationship with God, we can weary of the tasks set before us, such as prayer. It seems that just as we see the answers to a prayer for a sick friend, two more ask for intercession. Just as we see someone we love come to a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ, there are two more that need to hear the Word. It is glorious to be able to do these tasks for the Lord, and yet there are moments when we cannot see the victory because it is buried under piles of things we need to do that we get discouraged.
In those moments when you are tired and weak, remember that the Lord God Almighty is your strength. He will give you all you need to complete the tasks set before you. Though you cannot see the end of the journey you are on, remember that the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus have already won the victory. Rest in Him, and know His peace.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 18, 2018, Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-13
“You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” Psalm 16:11, WEB
When I wrote about the text from Daniel twelve years ago, I commented on how it had been an interesting week in American politics. I don’t even recall what was so historical, transformational and upsetting or elating about that particular election, but I laughed as I reread that devotion because we have been there so many times in the past twelve years and we are there again. We are still wondering at the outcome of some elections from last week; the contests are still too close to call. There have been many on all sides who have talked with great confidence about victories, but it is impossible to know the final outcome until the last vote is counted.
Every generation has found some need to look into the future, to determine the ways of things long before they happen, to predict how things will come to be. All too often, this type of prediction has a sense of self-fulfilling prophecy. The hope is that if it is spoken in a way that means just what the speaker wants it to mean, then it will happen as that speaker says. It happens in politics all the time. I suppose for some it is the power of positive thinking: if I say it, it will be. Yet, this is not always true. There are some things that are simply beyond our control, some things we can’t make happen with our own hands.
This passage from Daniel is a difficult one, though not because it has something difficult to say. It is difficult because generations of Christians have read these words and interpreted them according to their desires, defining the times and the places to their own benefit. There are others who would like to take the mystery out of the passage, to relieve us of the prophetic nature of these words.
According to the experts, the book of Daniel has the language and flavor of a text that might have been written in the 6th century B.C., long before some of the events found within the book happened. It is written like a prophetic, apocalyptic text, with visual images both frightening and strange. Yet, some claim that it should be dated much later, in the 2nd century B.C. after most of these things happened. Yet, the dating of the text is not necessarily what matters to us today. Just as there are politicians and politicos who spend months discussing the possibilities of every election, there are theologians who spend all their time discussing and interpreting the possibilities of the apocalyptic texts in the Bible. Perhaps our task is not to look into the future to guess what is going to happen, but rather to embrace the grace of God that is found in the words today. So, let’s ponder what these words mean. Should we be interpreting them to fit into our time and place?
The book of Daniel is a fascinating study into the character of a man who lived faithfully despite the struggles of living exiled in a foreign land. He was gifted, but his rise in the Babylonian government and his appeal to the kings made others jealous and determined to destroy him. Even worse, perhaps, was that Daniel’s gifts were hard to handle; the visions even made him ill. Despite all this, Daniel believed in God and was faithful. He wrote to God’s people who suffering from the persecution and oppression of exile, but he gave them a foretaste of what is to come at the end of time, at the revelation of God and the coming of His kingdom. These three verses from the last chapter was a message of comfort, reminding them that God is faithful and that they will be raised up out of the dust and into everlasting life. This is the promise we receive in Christ, the promise that came at the end of the ages and the promise that was fulfilled, is fulfilled and will be fulfilled in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A few years ago I wrote the devotions for a quarterly published by a church publishing house. My assignment was for the last few weeks of the church year. It was a pretty depressing assignment because the scriptures all pointed to the last days. They were passages filled with woe and dread and it seemed like there was not much about which to hope. The focus at the end of the church year and the beginning of Advent is a reminder of the day when everything will finally be complete. We are always looking forward to the second coming of Christ, but the Day of the Lord is not necessarily going to be a happy time. Those who dwell in faith have hope because we know that any apocalypse we face will not keep us from inheriting the Kingdom of God for eternity.
It is tough to preach the apocalyptic passages in the lectionary. Even as we are looking forward to the coming of the King both at Christmas and in the future Day, the fear of what is foretold does not fit our expectation of a loving and merciful God. While we should not stand with our heads in the clouds waiting for the coming of Christ, we should not disregard the reality that the day will come. We need to hear the warnings as well as the promises to give the work we do in this world meaning. God hasn’t sent us into the world just to feed the poor with bread, but to feed the world with the Bread of Life so that all will have faith when the Day comes. As we see in those verses from Daniel, there is hope in the last days because God is faithful to His promises.
While we should not assume that every apocalyptic text speaks to our generation, we should also remember that every word in the Bible does speak to us. The key is to find the right interpretation. We read the words Jesus spoke to the disciples in the Gospel lesson from Mark and think that they are taken right out of the headlines from our newspapers: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and false messiahs are as real to us today as they were to those who dwelled in first century Judah. The same can be said for every generation that has lived since the words were written.
We lived in England for four years and took advantage of our time there. We visited historic sites as often as possible, almost every weekend. Some of the places were still in use after a thousand years: castles and cathedrals that still are home to people and faith. We worshipped at some of the most famous places in the world; we received communion at Westminster Abbey, took in evensong at York Minster, prayed in the chapels of Salisbury Cathedral. We visited the palaces of the monarchy, saw the ancestral home of George Washington and even visited the towns where my own ancestors lived before immigrating to America.
We also visited a lot of ruins. We saw ancient Roman sites that have been uncovered, often accidentally, by modern construction. We went to old abbeys that were destroyed during the Reformation and castles that have fallen apart due to a lack of maintenance. Some of my favorite photos from that time are of my family wandering through the rooms of roofless buildings. One photo shows Bruce, Victoria and Zachary playing follow the leader along the ruins of a wall. Other photos show grand window casings of churches left standing without walls as the stones surrounding them were taken by the village residents to build homes and fences.
These were grand buildings. They were built to last forever, to honor God or house the nobles. They often took centuries to build. I noticed during so many of our visits that there was always scaffolding along some wall or around the domes and steeples of these ancient places. The builders, whether their work is still standing or are nothing but ruins, thought they were building something permanent. But nothing built by human hands will last forever. They might be able to make it stand for a thousand years, and may be around as ruins for longer than that, but in the end they will disappear like everything else made by man.
It isn’t just time that will bring down the manmade walls. Hurricanes, earthquakes and war can destroy something in a matter of minutes. Cities are left unoccupied and rotting as people move to better places. It doesn’t take very long before the earth takes back the land in these places; weeds grow in the cracks and ivy climbs the walls. Windows break and roofs cave, graffiti artists mark their territories. Fires weaken what is left until the walls can no longer stand. Scavengers steal the building materials to make something new. Bustling cities can become piles of brick in a matter of years when left to the ravages of time.
Imagine you were one of the disciples who had been following Jesus in that magnificent Temple that had recently been rebuilt by Herod the Great. It was a massive structure, nearly as large as ten football fields. Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “All the cloisters were double, and the pillars to them belonging were twenty-five cubits in height, and supported -the cloisters. These pillars were of one entire stone each of them, and that stone was white marble; and the roofs were adorned with cedar, curiously graven. The natural magnificence, and excellent polish, and the harmony of the joints in these cloisters, afforded a prospect that was very remarkable; nor was it on the outside adorned with any work of the painter or engraver. The cloisters - (of the outmost court) were in breadth thirty cubits, while the entire compass of it was by measure six furlongs, including the tower of Antonia; those entire courts that were exposed to the air were laid with stones of all sorts.”
It was magnificent and beautiful. It stood at the top of the hill and was built with the best of everything. Josephus described it this way, “To the stranger who suddenly came over the mountain, the Temple was like a snow-clad mountain for all that was not gold was gleaming white.” It is no wonder that one of the disciples said, “Teacher, see what kind of stones and what kind of buildings!” I experienced the same awe when I have visited the grand cathedrals and palaces of Europe.
Last week Jesus called our attention to one small woman giving one very small offering to the temple treasury. This treasury was used for the care and upkeep of the temple, to make it even more beautiful. The widow’s coins were worth so little that they were nearly useless to those who kept the treasury. How much could a penny buy in today’s dollars? It is so worthless that most of us will not even bother to bend down to pick one up off the ground.
After the story of the widow, Mark reported that the disciples were very impressed by what they saw at the Temple. “Teacher, see what kind of stones and what kind of buildings!” The widow’s tiny coins seem even smaller when compared to the huge stones and magnificent buildings of the Temple complex. Jesus told them that what they saw would be useless. “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”
There is a prophetic voice in this text; the temple was destroyed just a few years after Jesus spoke those words. It must have been disheartening for the disciples to hear such a prophecy. Though Jesus had been teaching them about the difference between the kingdom on earth and the kingdom of heaven, the Temple was the dwelling place of God. Where would He go if there were no temple? Would He leave them? If the Temple were destroyed, where would they go? In the past, destruction of the Temple came with invasion by enemies and the exile of God’s people. What would happen if this came to be? Jesus’ disciples asked Him for more details when they were together in private. They were curious: when? how? What will be the signs? Jesus changed the conversation. Instead of answering their questions, He warned them to beware.
This text is an apocalyptic form of literature. It is not meant to foretell of a specific historical event; the words are spoken to reveal the truth of God, and to give courage, strength and hope to a suffering people. There were already false messiahs. There were already wars and rumors of wars. There were already earthquakes and famines. It would have been very easy for the disciples to follow another voice when they were left alone after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. It would have been very easy for the community of faith established by Jesus to wander down a wrong path. It happened to the Thessalonians, many of whom thought that the return of Jesus was so imminent that they could stop living. The letters to the churches in the book of Revelation remind us how easy it is to turn from God. It has happened to many Christians in today’s world.
Those who heard the words from Jesus were living in a time of difficulty, but Jesus was not the only one who was crying out in the wilderness. False messiahs were rampant, some of whom were killed at the hands of the Romans and the Jewish authorities. There were Zealots determined to fight until Israel was freed from Roman oppression. Jesus warned the disciples not to follow the wrong path. Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines will always be a part of our life. We will suffer because of these things and we will be persecuted because of the way we respond. We are called to be faithful, to keep our eyes focused on Christ and doing that which He has called us to do.
This is the last ordinary Sunday of this church calendar. Next week is Christ the King Sunday when we celebrate that victorious return of our Lord and Savior. This passage is the final warning we hear before Christ comes as King, and we are called to an immediate response. Mark’s language is always urgent and immediate response is imperative. So, we are called to heed the warnings to beware, to be ready and to be active in the work of Christ in the world today. Dwelling in God’s presence will bring with it persecution, hardship and sometimes even death. The apocalyptic nature of our texts this week call us to keep our eyes not on the future hardships that will be, but rather on the God who will be with us through it all.
When the disciples asked to know the hour, Jesus told them to beware and be aware. “Do not be alarmed but believe.” He warned them that some will claim to be “I AM” but they should not follow the false prophets but trust God. The things they see will just be the beginning. Jesus warns that there will be persecution. The hope of this apocalyptic text is that the one who endures to the end, who believes, will be saved. Jesus warns us that it will be bad but the Son of Man will come again. We’ll know the time is right when the signs are right.
We don’t know when it will happen, but Jesus calls us to a life of faith and watchfulness today. We are to live according to God’s Word in faith and live according to the commandments of love of God and our neighbors. “Beware and be aware,” Jesus tells us. He warns us to be careful who we believe and who we follow. Not all who claim to speak in the name of Jesus Christ are true. Some will be led astray. Some will willingly follow the false prophets because the promises seem so real. But we can trust that God will set things right in the end.
If today were the last day, what would matter? Is there something that we need to do? False prophets and false messiahs will call people to action. “Follow me and you’ll be saved.” “Go to this place.” “Do this thing.” Works righteousness requires action for salvation, but Christian faith is different. In the days of Jesus, the priests worked day and night providing for the forgiveness of God’s people. Offerings of every kind were accepted to cover the sins of the people. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the priests offered day after day the same sacrifices that did no good. It was Jesus who offered once and for all the blood of the sacrifice that would bring salvation to the world.
From a Christian point of view, sacrifice is no longer necessary. When the priests of old took blood to the altar day after day and year after year it was worthless, “...but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever...” The forgiveness from Christ is lasting. It is eternal. There need be no more sacrifice for sins today or ever. No Christian need look for the restoration of that ancient practice. If they are, they being led astray by those who preach a gospel of vengeance and victory. We need not win the victory again, and neither must Christ because He has already won.
We find peace through Christ. By His blood, God’s people are invited to dwell in the presence of God. Jesus was no ordinary priest. He was no ordinary messiah. He is the Son of God, sent to save the world. His promise was not that the world would be different. There will still be wars and rumors of wars. We still need to be comforted as we are persecuted for our faith. We still suffer at the hands of those who do not know God. But we can live in hope for what is to come, dwell in God’s grace and look forward to the day when we will dwell with God eternally.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to live a different life. We are called to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering because God is faithful. Jesus warned the disciples not to make them afraid, but to remind them that God can, has and will overcome it all. God is near. He is not lost when the walls tumble down. Rather, He is set free from those human constraints to be the God who is Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.
The Psalmist understood the lesson Jesus was teaching His disciples. He knew that apart from God he had no good thing, that God alone was his refuge. He knew the joy and peace that comes from trusting in God rather than the things of this world. “You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” This is the lesson that will keep us through the hard times. Faith that God is faithful to all His promises will help us endure to the end.
“Lord Almighty, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their righteous children, you made heaven and earth with all their beauty. You set limits for the sea by speaking your command. You closed the bottomless pit and sealed it by your powerful and glorious name. All things fear you and tremble in your presence, because no one can endure the brightness of your glory. No one can resist the fury of your threat against sinners. But your promised mercies are beyond measure and imagination, because you are the highest, Lord, kind, patient, and merciful and you feel sorry over human troubles. You, Lord, according to your gentle grace, promised forgiveness to those who are sorry for their sins. In your great mercy, you allowed sinners to turn from their sins and find salvation. Therefore, Lord, God of those who do what is right, you didn’t offer Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who didn’t sin against you, a chance to change their hearts and lives. But you offer me, the sinner, the chance to change my heart and life, because my sins outnumbered the grains of sand by the sea. My sins are many, Lord; they are many. I am not worthy to look up, to gaze into heaven because of my many sins. Now, Lord, I suffer justly. I deserve the troubles I encounter. Already I’m caught in a trap. I’m held down by iron chains so that I can’t lift up my head because of my sins. There’s no relief for me, because I made you angry, doing wrong in front of your face, setting up false gods and committing offenses. Now I bow down before you from deep within my heart, begging for your kindness. I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned, and I know the laws I’ve broken. I’m praying, begging you: Forgive me, Lord, forgive me. Don’t destroy me along with my sins. Don’t keep my bad deeds in your memory forever. Don’t sentence me to the earth’s depths, for you, Lord, are the God of those who turn from their sins. In me you’ll show how kind you are. Although I’m not worthy, you’ll save me according to your great mercy. I will praise you continuously all the days of my life, because all of heaven’s forces praise you, and the glory is yours forever and always. Amen.” Prayer of Manasseh, CEV
Manasseh was one of the many kings of Judah, the son of Hezekiah. Hezekiah was a good king, but his son did not follow in his footsteps. The writer of Kings describes Manasseh as the worst king of all, reporting that Judah’s fall would be on the shoulders of Manasseh. He was only twelve years old when he became king and was the longest reigning king in the history of Judah. He reigned for fifty-five years. He did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord, rebuilding the high places, erecting altars to the Baals and made Asherah poles. He even built altars to the false gods in the house of the Lord. It is no wonder that God sent foreigners to bring Manasseh and Judah to their knees.
The writer of the Chronicles tells more of Manasseh’s story. God warned Manasseh and He sent foreigners into Judah. Manasseh was humbled and he turned to the Lord his God in prayer and God was moved by his entreaty. Though Manasseh had been led away in chains of bronze to Babylon, the Lord God restored him to his kingdom. “Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was the true God.” (CEV) God’s plan worked, at least for a season.
Manasseh truly repented. He rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and placed commanders in all the cities. He took down the worship spaces for the false gods and restored the altar of the Lord. He commanded Judah to serve the LORD, the God of Israel. His reforms centered around Jerusalem, so it had little impact on the people of Judah who continued to worship at the high places. Though Manasseh removed the idols, it seems that he didn’t destroy them. Unfortunately, his son Amon would put those idols back to use, continuing the rebellion of God’s people.
You will have noticed that today’s passage is not in typical Bible, but it is accepted as one of the deuterocanonical books by many Christians around the world. It is found in some copies of the Septuagint, and is used as a canticle in some churches. Even the writer of Chronicles references this prayer, “Manasseh’s prayer and its answer, all his sin and unfaithfulness, and the locations of the shrines, sacred poles, and idols he set up before he submitted are written in the records of Hozai.”
Manasseh’s prayer is worth our reading because it shows us that even the worst people in the world can see the Light of God’s grace and turn to Him. We can, even when we have done the worst possible things, repent and God will listen. He will respond with mercy and grace, restore us to the lives He intends for us. The stories of the kings show us how God’s people repeatedly turn from Him, but Manasseh is a reminder that if we listen to His Word and pray for His forgiveness, He will make all things right.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls, and doesn’t have another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one keep warm alone? If a man prevails against one who is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, WEB
I was a retail manager in my younger years. I believe in hands on management; there was not a task in the store that I had not done. If there was something to do and no one else available to do it, I made sure it was complete. I did everything from scrubbing the bathrooms to counting the registers, ordering the merchandise and dealing with employment issues. However my job, as the manager, was to ensure that there were employees to do the work so that I could focus my attention on making sure that the entire store was running as it should. I could not do my job I was busy unloading trucks or stocking shelves. I could not accomplish my job without the help of good, trustworthy employees.
A good leader does not know everything and does not do everything themselves. A good leader is one who surrounds himself with competent, trustworthy people who can be consulted so that the best decision is made for the sake of the store. In retail, a store manager relies on others to know the details of their sections. In business, a CEO relies on department heads to know their aspect of the business. One Christmas movie about a cookie factory showed that each employee knew only their part of the cookie recipe and this dependence on every employee saved the factory.
Strong Biblical leaders never stood on their own, they consulted advisors. In 1 Chronicles 13, David consulted with the captains. Exodus 17 tells the story of how Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms during a battle. These great men of God needed people to stand with them to help them accomplish their tasks as leader. Jesus mentored the disciples so that they would continue His work. Paul relied on Luke to be his scribe.
Most importantly, though, is that the greatest leaders relied on God and sought His help with their work. We can compare Saul and David and see how differently they led the people. Saul spent his time pursuing his enemy, constantly trying to be rid of the threat of David rather than serving the Lord. David, however, spent his time seeking the will of God. David had opportunities to kill Saul which would make him king. However David waited for God’s plan to play out, always keeping close to the Lord in prayer and worship. He surrounded himself with good military leaders and listened to the counsel of Nathan the prophet. He did not stand alone, but rather trusted people to help him do the job. In the end, Saul’s misfocus was his undoing and David was blessed for trusting in God.
A good leader is not someone who does it all; they are not the most powerful, the most intelligent or the most traveled. A good leader is one who has the discernment to surround himself with capable counselors to help him make the right decisions. Sometimes the powerful, intelligent and highly visible men tend to be the ones people remember, but real prosperity, unity and peace are brought on by good leadership. And the best leaders have God on their team.
“Samuel said to Saul, ‘Yahweh sent me to anoint you to be king over his people, over Israel. Now therefore listen to the voice of Yahweh’s words. Yahweh of Armies says, “I remember what Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and don’t spare them; but kill both man and woman, infant and nursing baby, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”’” 1 Samuel 15:1-3, WEB
The Megamillions lottery prize a few weeks ago was exciting and many people who do not usually buy tickets stood in line for their chance. After all, who couldn’t use $1.5 billion? I have to admit that I was among them. I don’t play the lottery often, but I do play it when the prize is extraordinary. I have all sorts of plans of what I want to do with that money. I promise God to give way more than a tithe; I want to build buildings for a camp I support. I want to do good for the people in my town. I want to help those I love get through tough times. I made all sorts of deals with God in prayer, hoping that He would see my intentions for the prize were good and that I would glorify Him with the work I would do.
And I would have been faithful to those promises, but I have to admit that I would also spend a large portion of that money on myself. I imagined renovating my current home. I thought about all the places I would travel. I considered opening an art gallery where I could sell my work and offer space to other struggling artists. My plan, if I won, would definitely include God, but I was also thinking about myself in my prayers.
The daily devotional I was reading is focused on the Proverbs; that week the subject matter was unearned income. I was cut to the heart by the passages I read each day. I realized that I was chasing after something God did not intend for my life and that I needed to be satisfied with the ways I am able to glorify Him with my life as it is. Sometimes we make deals with God, insisting that we will glorify Him if only He did this or that, and then we act without listening or obeying His word.
That was the problem with Saul, the first king of Israel. Saul was chosen and anointed by God to be king, and though God had been rejected as King by His people, He had great plans for the man Saul and for His nation. He would have blessed them all if they had been obedient to His Word. Saul did well for a time, but when things did not go as he expected, he took matters into his own hands. Instead of waiting for Samuel, Saul offered a sacrifice. Instead of obeying God’s command in today’s passage, Saul allowed the Israelites to plunder the Amalekites. He blamed the people, but he was with them. He let the king of Amalek live and he spared the best of everything from the sword.
God’s command doesn’t make sense to us. First of all, would it not be good for His people to take the plunder of the battle to raise the wealth of the nation? Why kill perfectly good cattle when it could be used to feed God’s people? Saul claimed to have kept the best of the animals to offer as sacrifice to God. He vowed to glorify God with the plunder. Samuel answered, “Has Yahweh as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying Yahweh’s voice? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because you have rejected Yahweh’s word, he has also rejected you from being king.” God prefers obedience to sacrifice.
God’s command to Saul was a test of trust in His Word. Would Saul obey? Would Saul trust that God had a purpose? Saul claimed to want to glorify God, but the greater glory would have come with Saul’s willingness to do exactly what God said. The true sacrifice would have been to leave the best behind as an offering to the God who gave them the victory. It was already God’s, but Saul would benefit from taking that plunder home. The eyes of the nation would be on him as he made that sacrifice. Some of that plunder would be used by the king and his people. By allowing the king of Amalek to live, Saul risked a future conflict with his enemy.
God knows my heart and He knows I would be true to my word, but that doesn’t mean I should continue to desire this unearned wealth just to glorify Him. God wants obedience rather than sacrifice. As a matter of fact obedience is the greater sacrifice. Saul was meant to leave the plunder behind, but he thought he knew better than God. How often do we do the same? How often do we think we are doing what is best for God, even though He has lead us in a different direction? How often do we disobey His Word but promise to make it up to Him by offering sacrifices from the plunder? The true test of faith and trust in God is not whether we will glorify Him with our plunder, but whether we will listen to His Word and obey.
“Like a father has compassion on his children, so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows how we are made. He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone. Its place remembers it no more. But Yahweh’s loving kindness is from everlasting to everlasting with those who fear him, his righteousness to children’s children; to those who keep his covenant, to those who remember to obey his precepts.” Psalm 103:13-18, WEB
Vincent Van Gogh was the model of the starving artist, affected by mental illness, loneliness and unrequited love. He cut off his ear and committed suicide. His art was not appreciated while he was alive. There is a measure of truth to this story, but there is so much more about his life. He lived from March 30, 1853 to July 29, 1890, the son of a Protestant minister in the Netherlands, one of six children. He described his childhood, “My youth was gloomy cold and barren.” He went to a boarding school and received some training in the arts, but Van Gogh was unimpressed with institutional education. He became an art dealer at his uncle’s firm when he was just sixteen, but quickly learned to dislike the way the art was treated as a commodity and let his disdain show to his customers.
Van Gogh went through a period of religious fanaticism. He spent some time as a teacher in England and then as an assistant to a Methodist minister, “wanting to preach the gospel everywhere.” He tried to go to school for theology, but failed the exam and then tried missionary school but failed. He did preach, but took his Christianity to such an extreme, living and sharing the hardships of the poor, that he was unable to serve his parish well. The church authorities claimed that he “undermined the dignity of the priesthood.” Though it turned out poorly, his religious work gave him insight into the everyday world which would eventually affect his art. There are those who believe that his mental illness made his art brilliant, but he was a far better artist during his times of lucidity.
Van Gogh created nearly two thousand pieces of art – approximately 900 paintings and 1100 drawings. You would think that to have created so much, Van Gogh must have started art early in life, especially since he was only 37 years old when he died. However, he was a prolific artist and he worked to excess. He did not take care of his body; he ate poorly and rarely slept. He studied art (despite his dislike for formal education) and learned about anatomy, modeling and perspective which he said, “you have to know just to be able to draw the least thing.”
Though he suffered from unrequited love, he did find someone to love. Unfortunately, both families opposed the marriage. He was accused in one village of impregnating the young peasant girls he used as models, and suffered from sexually transmitted diseases. Some doctors believe that was the cause of his mental illness. His art was very dark and colorless in the beginning, perhaps mirroring the dark and colorless depths of his soul. As he grew as an artist, he became friends with other artists. These friends encouraged him to use more color. He liked the Impressionist use of light and color, though he did not like how the impressionists seemed separated from the world. Van Gogh was always engaged in the world around him and painted scenes that were full of life. He liked to use complimentary colors like blue and orange together because the contrasts between these colors bring out the intensity of both.
It is true that Van Gogh cut off his ear, but it was just the lobe and it was not due to unrequited love. He was friends with another artist, Paul Gauguin. It was a difficult relationship, they fought constantly about art and Van Gogh was afraid that Gauguin would leave him. He chased Gauguin with a razor, but ended up cutting off his own earlobe, wrapping it in newspaper and giving it to a prostitute to keep. Of course, that severed the relationship forever. In 1890, Van Gogh’s difficult life and harsh living caught up to him. He walked into a field and shot himself in the chest with a pistol. The shot did not kill him, so he walked back to his room and died in bed two days later. His last words were “La tristesse durera toujours,” which means, “The sadness will last forever.”
Don McLean’s Hit “Starry Starry Night” was actually called “Vincent” and it was about Van Gogh. In the refrain McLean sings, “Now I understand what you tried to say to me, and how you suffered for your sanity, and how you tried to set them free, they would not listen, they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now.” I’ve heard it said that Jesus must have been out of his mind to live as He lived and to die as He died. Jesus certainly did not live the same kind of life as Vincent Van Gogh, but in some ways their story is the same. They were unappreciated and unloved, but had a beautiful gift to give. For Van Gogh, it was his art. For Jesus it was life. Our lives do not last forever. Our bodies grow old and they die. Our minds and our hearts are frail. But in Christ we know the mercy of God that grants forgiveness to those who believe. In Him we have true life; life that will never end.
Come, Lord Jesus.
This is my battle cry, especially when I see something in the world that reminds me how upside down and topsy-turvy it has become. I want Jesus to return when I hear politicians that don’t know history or pastors that don’t know the Bible. I look forward to the Day when I see one of those videos of college students who are more familiar with the latest superstar but can’t name their Senators or Representatives. Up is down and down is up and good is bad and bad is good.
Come, Lord Jesus.
I make this cry and I want Jesus to come, but is the world really so bad? Is it worse now than it has ever been? I read an article that reports that scientists have come to the conclusion that the worst year in the history of mankind was 536 A.D. They came to that conclusion based on the conditions that were pervasive in the northern hemisphere that year. At the very least, 536 A.D. was the beginning of a very bad time in human history. It all began with a huge volcanic eruption in Iceland which covered a landmass from Europe to Asia with a cloud of ash that made it dark for eighteen months. Bubonic plague and an incredible cold snap made life even worse. The lack of sun and cold led to devastating crop failure resulting in starvation. The economic downturn caused by this devastation lasted a century. In the end, it was the lead in the ash that spurred a transformation, thus saving the people who survived when the cloud and disease disappeared. Lead was vital to the production of silver; more lead meant more silver which meant more commerce and better conditions for all.
We might think that things are terrible today, but are we struggling with eighteen months of darkness due to a volcanic eruption? Are we dying from the plague? Are we struggling to find food for our tables?
Yes, the world has gone mad, but we aren’t the first generation to have political and religious problems. Consider Henry VIII. The most famous, or infamous, king of England reigned from 1509 to 1547. Henry enjoyed pleasure and power and was a very fickle king. He changed his mind on a whim, and no one knew if they were on the right side or the wrong side of an issue at any given moment. Everyone had to tread very carefully around him, as if walking on eggshells, because they could lose their favor in a heartbeat. They could even lose their heads. It was a hard time to be a member of the court because he was not often pleased and he was displeased so easily.
The state of the church in Henry’s day was a mass of confusion. We know, of course, that he chose to reject the Pope and the Catholic Church for the sake of divorce and that he was egocentric enough to believe that he was more than capable to be the supreme leader of the church in England. There may have been some very positive effects of the reformation in England, but the trouble with the state of the church at that time was Henry. He was so easily swayed by those closest to him that he changed his mind constantly. One day he wanted the people to have a bible translated into their own language, the next day he had them all removed from the churches. One day he hated the rituals of the old church, the next day he was calling for them to be done again. No one ever really knew what was legal and what was illegal because they had not yet heard Henry’s opinion for the day. Many died at his hand because they were doing what they thought he wanted, but they were following yesterday’s laws.
Henry is not completely to blame, of course. He was surrounded by many people who wanted to control the course of events and they took advantage of his fickleness. They knew that if they could be the one whispering in his ears, then they could sway the direction of the laws. They also knew that it didn’t take much to lose favor with the king, so they played dangerous games in and around the court to ensure their place forever. It didn’t work, of course, because Henry did what Henry wanted to do and if he discovered their games, he changed sides and executed them.
He managed to survive their games for thirty-eight years, but did so by defeating his enemies (or perceived enemies.) Some have suggested that he executed more than seventy-thousand people; although exaggerated, Henry certainly did use the chopping block as a way to control his kingdom, especially when he felt insecure. Unfortunately, the only times that the nation really prospered during his rule was when others were at the command of the government, while Henry was busy satisfying his need for pleasure. He spent money as if it grew on trees, covering his women -both wives and lovers - with furs and jewels. He built and decorated palaces to extreme. He went on long progresses (summer vacations) from castle to castle, filling the halls with courtiers and eating until he could no longer stand on his own. He held tournaments and masques, dinners that lasted hours with tray after tray of the most expensive dishes and wines. He fought wars that the nation could not afford and raised taxes to the point of destroying the economy of his people.
Opinion on Henry is diverse. Whether you love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Henry VIII will long be remembered. He is the perfect example of why God warned His people that they should not put their trust in an earthly king. Israel had a king, but they wanted a man who would rule over them so they could be just like everyone else. They thought they needed to have a man who could lead them, provide for them, and protect them from enemies. They rejected God, but He gave them what they wanted and they learned very quickly that earthly kings are imperfect and can be dangerous.
Thankfully earthly kings are temporary. While we might want a good ruler to last forever, even the best fail to be perfect. England’s current Queen Elizabeth has done many great things both for her country and for the world. She hasn’t been perfect, however, and there are those who like to point out her failures. She’s human, after all, and we are all sinners in need of a Savior. While earthly kings can do good things in this world, we all need to look to the one King who has done that which is necessary for life.
Sunday we celebrate Christ the King. Next week we begin the journey of Advent, watching the coming of the light in the darkness of our world as we approach Christmas and the birth of the King.
The two days - Christ the King and Christmas - are very similar in many ways. They both herald the coming of a king. It is a time of rejoicing in the power of God to overcome the darkness. They both demonstrate the authority of God over Creation, as He accomplishes the impossible. At Christmas, the God of the Universe is born in the flesh of a man. At Christ the King, the Messiah is given authority, glory and sovereign power so that all nations will worship Him.
As I look around this topsy-turvy world today, I see so many who do not believe. Human beings have rejected God as He is revealed in the scriptures, choosing instead to believe in false gods and self-centered ideology. There seems to be nothing that can convince them that salvation is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ, for He is the God they seek to worship. Instead, they look for other ways to fulfill their needs and desires, the stuff their bellies with good things and their hearts with warm fuzzies. They do not want to commit to the life that is expected of those who believe in the One true and living God. They want what they think is best, to have control over their own destiny, to grasp on to their own faith.
They have fallen for the lies of the enemy. They think that they will be able to stand on the works of their own hands on the Day of Judgment. They do not know their own sinfulness and inability to stand before the Creator's wrath. They do not know they need Jesus to stand for them on that day, to be the advocate before the righteous judge. In that day, “one like a Son of man” will approach the Holy One on our behalf, and His righteousness will cover our unrighteousness. That One is our Lord Jesus Christ. Only through Him will we see the glory of God. He is worthy to be worshipped.
The Church year calendar follows the same pattern every year. We begin at Advent, a time of rising light in the darkness. The birth of Christ ushers in a new age. During Epiphany the light reaches out to the entire world. In Lent we look within ourselves to realize that we are sinners in need of a Savior. During Holy Week we journey with Jesus to the cross on which He died for our sake. At Easter we are resurrected with Him, experiencing the joy of God’s gracious mercy and love. During the Easter season we are reminded of why God sent His Son as He completes the teaching He began during His life. The Church is born at Pentecost, ten days after Jesus returned to the right hand of the Father. During the season of Pentecost we learn what it means to be the Church. In the last weeks of the Church year we look forward to the second coming of Christ, to His glorification and rule. On Christ the King we look forward to the Day of Judgment, when Christ will rule over all things and when all things will be under His rule.
In this world, we worship a whole lot of other junk. We demand other kings to rule over us, rejecting the God who is King of kings. We have faith in the gods of this world, and though we do not worship the Baals or the other gods of history, we do put so much ahead of our God. Our jobs, families, relationships, material possessions and our selves are more important than our relationship with our Creator. While we do not get down on bended knee to worship these things, we do worship them when we put them ahead of God.
The Church year is ending and we expect Advent to begin again next week. We follow a calendar, but God does not; when the Day of Judgment comes, there will be no tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come, Advent may never begin again. Are we ready to face the King? This question is not meant to bring fear into our hearts, but to cause us look today at the One who is our advocate. We can’t wait until tomorrow to get to know the Lord Jesus. We should not wait until He comes in glory because now is the day of salvation. Now is the time to praise the God who saves through faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus lived in a time when the Israelites were oppressed by a nation that was stronger and much more powerful than they. They had once been a great nation, but when Jesus walked they were nothing but a doormat on which the Romans could hang their hat. The kings that ruled were puppets of the Roman Empire, more interested in what they would personally get out of the deal than what the people needed. They were more interested in the status quo than in ensuring the well-being of Israel.
The people looked forward to a day of deliverance, as they had experienced throughout their history. They looked forward to the day the Messiah would come and set them free. They looked forward to the day when they could live freely without fear and without tears. They looked for that Savior that would defeat the Romans and avenge so many years of oppression.
Some thought they found that in Jesus. The people who had heard Him talk were sure He could be king. They thought He could defeat the oppressors and set them free. Jesus talked about justice, about mercy and about the kingdom of God. He talked about God’s care for the poor and suffering. He healed people and set them free from the bonds of their physical ailments. He fed people in large groups. He turned water into wine. He brought hope and peace to the hearts of those who believed. They saw all these things as signs that Jesus should be crowned King. Jesus even had to go into hiding to avoid their mob expectations.
Jesus allowed the accolades on Palm Sunday. He allowed the people to throw palm branches under the feet of His donkey as He triumphantly entered into Jerusalem. They did not know that in just days Jesus would be undergoing a time of passion and death. They did not know He would be arrested and taken before the Roman leaders as a threat to Roman peace. They did not know that He was in control every minute, from the donkey to the cross. Jesus was walking a path that no one would understand. They wanted Him crowned King of Israel. He would be given the mocking title of King of the Jews and killed on the cross to which that title was nailed.
The cross was His coronation throne. There was no pomp and circumstance, at least none that did honor to Jesus. There was a crown, but it was roughly made of thorns ripped from a bush. Royal robes were given to Jesus not to do him honor, but to make fun of Him in front of the crowds. He was covered in blood from the scourging He faced at the hands of the Roman soldiers. There were no willing attendants to carry His things; He was forced to carry His own cross up the long hill until He could not carry it no more. There were no royal or political visitors to witness the coronation except those who came to jeer at Him. There were no parties or fancy balls. Yet that coronation changed the world.
Jesus did not rule to set the Jewish people free from the oppression of the Romans, but rather the oppression of the sin that has kept humankind bound and separated from God since the beginning of time. Sin and death, oppression and injustice have been around for a long, long time. But God is, was and will be. He is greater than our sin and He had a plan from the very beginning of time.
In Roald Dahl’s story “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Willie Wonka created a confection that was meant for children with “very little pocket money”; it was a candy that would last forever. The Everlasting Gobstopper was not even destructible. Real gobstoppers take a long time to create. Layer upon layer of sugary goodness is slowly added for two weeks until the ball is an inch in diameter. It has over a hundred layers. These candies don’t only take long to create; they take a long time to eat. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten one in a single sitting. I usually tire of it and so I put it aside for another time.
In the story, everlasting meant that the candy would never be finished, but we know that nothing created can actually last forever. Though Nestle’s Willie Wonka Candy Company has created a treat that lasts a long time, even Willie Wonka can’t do the impossible, except in books. I thought of this candy when I was reading our text for this week because there are several references that God is everlasting. In Daniel, the promise for Jesus is that He will be given everlasting dominion over a kingdom that will never be destroyed. The psalmist talks of Jehovah as the everlasting God over everything, including the storms on the sea. John writes in the Revelation that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end and God is He who is, who was and who is to come. Finally, Jesus told Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world, implying that no act of Pilate will ever destroy it. Jesus’ kingdom is something that we cannot even imagine.
There are moments in my life when I have been truly awestruck.
I remember camping with Girl Scouts in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Our campsite was on the top of a mountain, far away from the lights of the city. It was rough in the beginning; we had rain that ran like rivers on the ground under platform on which our tent was set. But when the storm passed and the clouds cleared, I saw the night sky as I had never seen it before, with millions of stars twinkling above.
I remember the first time I saw the giant redwood trees in northern California. No matter how many pictures you see or how many television shows you watch, there is no way to know the magnificence of those giants unless you stand at the base of one. I might have been embarrassed by my stance; I nearly fell over as I leaned back to look up to the very tops of the trees. My mouth was wide open in amazement. I might have been embarrassed by this stance if there weren’t a dozen other people standing exactly the same way.
I remember attending the Evensong service at York Minster in York, England. It had been a cold and dreary day, drizzle falling during most of our trip. Though we’d enjoyed our sightseeing, we were cold and tired by the time we reached the church. We planned our day around the service as we often did when we spent a day as tourists in a new town. We were pretty tired by the time we sat down in the pew, but that soon passed. Though it was cold and dark outside, inside the cathedral there was an unearthly light that cast a warmth over us all. When the choir began to sing, I could almost imagine the voices of heavenly angels singing praise to God, an image that was enhanced by the carvings of angels above our heads that seemed almost alive. That worship service was, to me, as close to heaven as I will ever get in this world. We were drawn into the presence of God and we caught a glimpse of His glory that day.
I can remember other moments when I was awestruck: watching the sun rise over a deserted beach, in the midst of a storm when pounding rain and thunder that rattled the walls, the first time I held my babies, experiencing those ‘God-incidences’ when the events made it very clear that something miraculous had happened that could not have happened without the hand of God Himself.
Yet, no matter how awesome those experiences might have been, no matter how awestruck I was at seeing those stars or trees, or worshipping in that beautiful place, no matter how often I see God’s hand in my everyday living in this world, nothing will compare to that which I will see in that day when I come before the throne of God. The most beautiful things in the world will pale in comparison. The most furious storms will seem calm. The largest trees or stars or mountaintops will seem small compared to the majesty of our God. In that day we will be truly awestruck, beyond anything we can even imagine.
We wait for the day when the King will return. In that day we will see the heavens and the earth as we’ve never seen them before. Even though I have been awed by the redwoods of California and the majesty of the heavens, I have not witnessed what Daniel or John saw in their visions. They have given us a glimpse, as well as human words can describe. However, it is like the awe I knew at the redwoods and seeing the stars: there are no human words to truly make us see what it will be like. All we know is that the biggest, the best, the most beautiful, the most inspiring things will pale in comparison. In that day we will be awestruck, beyond anything we can imagine.
Come, Lord Jesus.
We might have a million reasons why we want Jesus to come today, but we are reminded that He will come not to save us from our earthly woes. He came to save us from sin and death. That work is complete. Now we wait until the Day of Judgment when He will finish what He started on the cross.
It is frightening to think of what will happen in that day, especially when we consider the images found in the apocalyptic texts like Daniel and Revelation, but God is not waiting to turn His wrath upon the world. He longs for all to know His mercy and grace, to find peace in the knowledge of His love. We do not fear that day because God has made it possible for us to live through His righteous judgment by the blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus now stands as a witness to the world, and He transforms us into a kingdom of priests. Though by our own ability we are unable to stand before God, Jesus makes us able by His power and grace. The faithful throughout time are among those who minister to the Ancient of Days. One day we will be with them because of the cross of Christ.
We do not know if we will ever have a tomorrow. John wrote in Revelation, “To him who loves us, and washed us from our sins by his blood; and he made us to be a Kingdom, priests to his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever.” Christ is King. This is a future promise, but it is also a present reality. We are called live in His reign now as we wait for that Day when He will reign forever. We are part of the kingdom, priests in His temple, made and freed to give Him glory from now until the end of days.
Come, Lord Jesus and be our King forever and ever. Amen.
“I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving. It will please Yahweh better than an ox, or a bull that has horns and hoofs. The humble have seen it, and are glad. You who seek after God, let your heart live. For Yahweh hears the needy, and doesn’t despise his captive people. Let heaven and earth praise him; the seas, and everything that moves therein! For God will save Zion, and build the cities of Judah. They shall settle there, and own it. The children also of his servants shall inherit it. Those who love his name shall dwell therein.” Psalm 69:30-36, WEB
Hans Seyle, a prominent researcher in the field of stress claims that two attitudes more than any other affect human lives: revenge and thankfulness. These two emotions influence our state of mind, our health and our feelings of security and success. Revenge is an unhelpful, negative emotion that causes frustration and unhappiness. It is dangerous and unhealthy. On the other hand, a grateful heart knows peace and joy. Hans writes, “among all the emotions, there is one which more than any other, accounts for the absence or presence of stress in human relations: that is the feeling of gratitude.”
A man named Mike’s wife was in the intensive care until of the hospital. When asked about her condition, he answered that though things were not great, she did recognize him and they prayed together. He added that they sought comfort in the scriptures, particularly the passage from James encouraging believers to find joy even in the trials of life. God is able to make good things happen out of the most horrible circumstances. It does little good to worry and fret when we can look toward God in thanksgiving and praise, knowing that He is able to do the most extraordinary things in our lives. Mike finished by saying, “It is impossible to be anxious and thankful at the same time.”
It may not always seem possible to find joy in the midst of our suffering or thanksgiving in the midst of our pain. Yet, when we focus on the negative, when we worry and fret or even go so far as seeking some sort of revenge for our misery, we will suffer in our physical, emotional and spiritual health. Stress can cause so many problems in our bodies, hearts and minds, but we can live in a way that will reduce the level of stress in our lives. With thanksgiving and praise, we see God in even the hard times and trust that He will do good things.
Here in America, today is the day we all join together to be thankful for our many blessings. Yet, one day is never enough to really live a life of gratefulness. For good health it should be a daily attitude, an emotion that accompanies every aspect of our lives. Thanksgiving is not just one day a year when we go overboard with the love and food, but it is a way of life that brings joy and peace to the lives of all who live it. It helps us see the goodness of God even in the midst of suffering. He does not desire that we sacrifice anything, except to offer Him sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. There we will know His salvation and His presence.
“Also don’t take heed to all words that are spoken, lest you hear your servant curse you; for often your own heart knows that you yourself have likewise cursed others.” Ecclesiastes 7:21-22, WEB
I have a confession to make. I have been watching Christmas romance movies for weeks. I have turned on one of the several channels that are playing marathons, even to the point of not watching the shows I normally watch. I have seen most of the new ones, and I’m sure I’ll see them all by Christmas. I know that it is hard for some to understand the joy of these movies because they are all the same. And yet, they are also different. Yes, boy meets girl, they struggle with the relationship until they finally realize that there’s something there, then something happens to cause conflict. In the end they find forgiveness and they kiss. It is all lovely and sweet.
I thought about these movies when I read today’s scripture passage yesterday. It is a question of eavesdropping. The New Living Translation puts it this way, “Don’t eavesdrop on others - you may hear your servant curse you.” That is the way the conflict often happens in those Christmas romances. In one movie, the man was talking to his mother about a woman he was not interested in dating. The conversation was overheard by the one whom he loved, but she thought he was talking about her. She heard that part but walked away before he confessed his love. She tried to leave the adorable village where she had been stranded, the place where she met the man. She was embarrassed because she thought he liked her. Conveniently, circumstances made it impossible for her to escape. He saved her and they discovered the problem her eavesdropping had caused. They kissed and will live happily ever after.
The writer of Ecclesiastes warned that eavesdropping can cause you to hear something you don’t like. What would happen if a master overheard a servant saying something bad about him? Or a CEO overhearing an employee? Or a father overhearing a son? People of authority have power over those upon whom they are eavesdropping, and it can mean the end of the relationship in one way or another.
This proverb is not just for those of authority, though. The writer reminds us that we have been known to gossip about others. We might be mad when we overhear the words of someone in our lives, but we have also said things we would not want some people to hear. We’ve grumbled about our bosses and our spouses. We’ve complained about our neighbors. We have said things we regret about our family and friends.
If we learn anything from this proverb, it is that we should learn the lesson from the Christmas romances. Things are said, but we don’t always understand why they have been said. That’s why we should work toward forgiveness and reconciliation. It is hard because the things we hear when we are eavesdropping can be harsh and true. Our servants or employees or sons or bosses or spouses or neighbors deserve the chance to make things right, especially since we’ve all done the same.
“For I desire to have you know how greatly I struggle for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; that their hearts may be comforted, they being knit together in love, and gaining all riches of the full assurance of understanding, that they may know the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden. Now this I say that no one may delude you with persuasiveness of speech. For though I am absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, rejoicing and seeing your order, and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:1-5
Rhys Thomas is a juggler. We once saw him perform at an educational science event. He is a former schoolteacher, and he taught about scientific principles as he performed amazing tricks of juggling and balance. We spent the evening laughing at his jokes, amazed at his talent and we all learned a thing or two about gravity, force and motion.
He began juggling when he was just sixteen years old, and over the years he has realized how important these scientific principles are to his act. If he is trying to juggle while standing on a board that is on a cylinder, he needs to know precisely the point in his body that is the center of gravity. He also has to understand the different affects of air, shape and distance on the props he’s juggling.
He said, “Juggling is a sport where the juggler competes against gravity.” This is quite difficult for many reasons. Most of all, the concept of gravity is not completely understood by even the most studied and intelligent scientists. They know gravity exists, but are not sure exactly what it is or how it works. They do know that everybody has gravity. Mass is drawn to other mass. The larger the mass, the greater the gravitational pull. This is why when you drop a ball it falls to the ground rather than being drawn to you. The largest mass close to us is the earth, so its gravitational pull is far greater than any other body.
Rhys is able to perform juggling so well because he understands the scientific concepts involved in his craft. It took study along with practice. The more he understands the more difficult and amazing the tricks that he can perform. The foundation of his ability, however, is the acceptance of gravity as a fact even though it is not completely understood or visible to the eye.
There is so much about God that is beyond our understanding. He created the earth, everything in it and even gravity. There are so many scientific principles that we can’t explain we just know they are. God’s thought is so much higher than our simple human brains can know. Yet, even though we can’t see or completely understand things of science we can study and learn to use the concepts for entertainment or to fulfill some purpose. The same can be said about the things of spirit such as faith, miracles and power. We can and should spend time in prayer and study of the scriptures, learning by the Holy Spirit about these concepts so that we can use them to enlarge the kingdom of God and build up the Church and her members.
Rhys performs his skill to teach children and adults, so that they will have a better understanding of scientific principles. Paul wrote his letters to the churches that they might have a greater understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so that they will walk the life they are called to live using their gifts to praise and worship Him. Today, read the words in the scriptures so that you know the treasures He reveals in His life so that you will walk in truth.
“Now therefore fear Yahweh, and serve him in sincerity and in truth. Put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, in Egypt; and serve Yahweh. If it seems evil to you to serve Yahweh, choose today whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh.” Joshua 24:14-15, WEB
A magazine once had an interesting juxtaposition of topics on the front and back cover. The front cover showed a picture of a starving third world woman, suffering under the oppression of a dictatorship. The article connected to the picture was informing the readers about the need to reach out globally and how to help others. On the back cover was an advertisement for a company of financial representatives that advise clients about how to handle their resources. The ad had a list of things that people might want like a new house or boat and then encouraged the reader to make the right choices.
Though the magazine did not intend the dilemma of the picture on the front and the ad on the back, several readers were disturbed by the vast discrepancy between their world and ours. One pastor found a poignant sermon illustration; another reader was confused by the differing messages. A third asked how we might respond after having read the article and the advertisement. Will we give our money in global outreach or will we put it away for tomorrow? This is certainly a most difficult question we have to ask daily in our world. My family has accounts through a financial advisor similar to the one advertising in the magazine. It is difficult to decide how to be good stewards of our resources while trusting God above everything. We have needed those funds set aside for a rainy day, yet at what point does our savings become more important than our mission and ministry to the world?
The book of Joshua tells the story of the establishment of Israel in the Promised Land. They had been saved from Egypt by God through Moses, carried through the desert wilderness for forty years. When they crossed the Jordan into their new home, Joshua led them against their enemies so that they could finally gain the inheritance that God once promised their father Abraham. As Joshua’s last official act as God’s servant, he renewed the covenant that was established between God and Abraham. Joshua reminded the people of all God had done for them and called them to commit themselves to His service.
The juxtaposition of the starving woman and the financial ad shows the challenges we face living as saints and sinners in this world. Our choices will indicate where we put our faith. This does not mean we have to reject financial planning or stop saving for a rainy day. God calls us to be good stewards of the many resources He has given us for use in this life. However, we must be careful to keep our priorities straight.
The thing that disturbs me most is that the financial representatives often begin a client consultation with the admonition that we should pay ourselves first. This is clearly not the biblical way of stewardship. This makes our own desires above that of God and our own needs more important than faith. Our choices indicate our priorities and our priorities are our gods. If we are more concerned about buying that new house or boat than we are about sharing our resources with those we need, then we have chosen to follow another God. The choices we make every day may seem to be unimportant, however each choice points to the ultimate choice we have to make between God and the world. Who will you choose?
Scriptures for Sunday, December 2, 2018, First Sunday of Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way to you; and the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you, to the end he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13, WEB
It has begun: the race for Christmas is in full swing. Of course, there have been Christmas decorations in the stores for months and some stores began Black Friday sales weeks ago, but now that Thanksgiving is over it is time to focus on the next holiday. We spent the weekend decorating much of the outside of our house and organizing the inside. I have a pile of boxes that need to be emptied and displays to be set. In the next week I will be preparing food for a party we are hosting next weekend. It is a hectic time, a time for running around and doing stuff.
I suppose that’s why Advent has become a time of preparation. Advent devotionals focus on preparing our hearts for the coming of the King. There have been times in history when Advent was a mini Lent, a time for repentance and preparation to enter the Church at Christmas. We are encouraged to clear our minds, repent and meditate, do good works for others. I chose an Advent devotional each year, light my Advent candles and find more time for prayer. These are good things, but this focus on preparation makes Advent a time of focus on ourselves, on our human works.
This quote is from an article I recently read, “The result? Instead of a joyous proclamation in preaching, teaching, and song of the coming of God to us, listeners are urged to focus on themselves, prepare, wait, and plead for God to come (as if that were somehow in question). Two related moves enhance this change in focus. One is to make eschatology the major focus; the other seeks to return to the medieval practice of making Advent a parallel to Lent, a penitential season in which the emphasis is on our works, repentance chief among them. Between the admonitions to prepare or wait for Christ’s coming at Christmas, the tones of a penitential season, and the contemplations of the last judgment, Advent has become dreary and misses the joyousness of Christ coming to us now.”
In the past, the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent focused on the joy of the coming of Christ in Triumph on Palm Sunday. Now we look to the end times, continuing the mood of the past few weeks. So, we think about Christ as He is born and Christ when He will come again, but we lose touch with Christ as He is with us today. The article went on to explain how the sixteenth century reformers like Martin Luther chose to focus on the three distinct advents (comings) of Christ and what God is doing in each of them. There is a place for preparation and repentance for the individual in this sacred time of the Church year, but perhaps we should consider what our faith would look like if we focused more on the proclamation that the coming of Christ has nothing to do with human works. Jesus is coming; there is nothing we can do to stop Him in the past, in the present or in the future. So instead of the foreboding mood that comes from the fear of what will happen in the future or the somber preparation and repentance to receive the King in the manger, Advent is a time for joy and hope because Christ comes to us now in His Word, shaping us to be the people He has created and redeemed us to be.
In other words, we are often too busy preparing ourselves for the coming of the King that we forget that He is already in our midst. Jesus Christ comes to us like a thief in the night, when we aren’t ready, surprising us with His grace and mercy and love. Instead of a time of fear and worry, we are relieved and consoled by the reality that there is nothing we can accomplish to make Him come.
In the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden with God. They walked together and talked. They had a personal, intimate relationship with one another and with their Creator. They were naked and it did not matter. When the serpent deceived them and they ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, things changed dramatically. The Bible tells us that their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked so they covered themselves with fig leaves and hid in the garden. They were afraid to be seen by God.
They were indeed physically naked since God had not given them clothing to wear and their response showed that they were ashamed of their physical nakedness. Yet, that was just a symptom of the greater problem that they faced. When their eyes were opened, they could see that their disobedient actions were disrespectful to their Creator and that they were not worthy to be in His presence. Their shame was not only about their naked bodies, but also about their fear to be in the presence of God. What would He do in response to their disobedience? He had warned them that eating the tree would mean death and they did not believe His words. No wonder they were afraid and hid from His presence.
That’s what shame does to us. We know that the deep secrets of our souls are exposed and we fear the recompense that will come. So, we hide. We hide behind emotion such as arrogance or pride. We hide behind blame by passing the fault to others. We hide physically by breaking relationships or becoming separated from society. We cover ourselves with clothes like the fig leaves - self-righteousness and excuses - clothes that don’t last or really cover the reason for our shame.
The truth that is hidden in our hearts and our souls is often revealed and we are exposed to the world. It is easy for our enemies to use our imperfection against us. They take our sin and put it on display in order to attack our credibility. I did a web search on the word “shame” and I came up with a number of “Hall of Shame” listings. These are places where people have taken the stupidity, arrogance or sin of others and revealed it for all to see. This is done in the hope that it will cause the recipient of such an award to go away, to stop doing their work, to slink away in shame never to be seen again. But, we in Christ know a better way to deal with our shame. We face it, repent of our sin, ask forgiveness and trust that God will be faithful to His promises.
Life in Christ does not mean that the hidden things of our hearts and souls will never be revealed. As a matter of fact, in Christ is it especially important that they are exposed and dealt with through mercy and grace. Though our sins are exposed, we will not be put to shame because we know that through Jesus Christ our imperfection is forgiven and our infirmity is healed. We do not have to go into hiding as they did in the Garden of Eden, we need only speak the truth of our hearts before God and ask Him to be gracious and pardon our sin.
The psalmist writes, “My God, I have trusted in you. Don’t let me be shamed. Don’t let my enemies triumph over me. Yes, no one who waits for you shall be shamed. They shall be shamed who deal treacherously without cause.” In Christ we already dwell in the eternal presence of God and we have nothing to fear.
During Advent the humble wait for Him. We seek His guidance. We ask His forgiveness. We listen to His truth and walk in His paths. We look to heaven to save us. No matter what we do, however, we are reminded that the promise has already been fulfilled. Though the images in the Gospel lesson are frightening, we are reminded that God is near when we see the chaos in the world around us.
It is hard to imagine that God’s promises are being fulfilled even now in places where bad things are happening. As we wait for the coming of our Savior and celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises, we see that the world hasn’t changed at all, even after two thousand years. Jeremiah spoke of those days when everything will be made right, and we connect that promise to the birth of Christ. Yet, we know that even as He has fulfilled the promise, the work isn’t complete. The work isn’t complete, so we try to fulfill the promises in our own ways, by our own strength and for our own purpose. We seek fulfillment of God’s promises through human strength, but we know that the strength of men is not trustworthy. This is why God has always called His people to trust in Him. The psalmist answers our human tendency away from God with words we should take to heart: “O my God, in thee have I trusted.”
Our message for today is to remember that God has fulfilled His promises and He will fulfill them. While we wait, while we hope, we are called to live in trust, knowing that God has done and continues to do His work in this world. He is the Light and it is only the Light that can overcome the darkness. We should rejoice if it seems particularly dark because it is now that we are being called to shine so that others will see and hear and believe. God is about to enter the world and do something amazing. He’s about to send His Son to overcome the darkness. But even as we wait for the Son to be born and the King to return, we know that the Light already shines.
The images in today’s Gospel passage should have us cringing in fear. After all, isn’t it said whenever the earth suffers one of those catastrophic events that it is a sign from heaven? After every hurricane or blizzard, flood or earthquake, someone claims that they’ve had a vision from God that the people need to repent and change. God has been known to send plagues of locusts and floods to discipline His people, but can we really judge whether or not a tornado was an act of God meant to send a message to someone? Is the family that lost their house more sinful than their neighbor whose house was spared? These are the inevitable questions when we claim morality is equal to righteousness and lay that understanding beside the scriptural texts.
Who will we be on that glorious day when Christ comes again? Will we be among those fainting in fear or will we look to the heavens toward our redemption? If we base our salvation on our works, we should be fainting in fear, because nothing we do is good enough to overcome our sinfulness. But if we look to Christ, then we understand what the man in the story did not: it is God who will save us. And that’s what Advent is all about. God is about to enter the world and do something amazing. He’s about to send His Son to be our righteousness.
God is not looking for the good and upright. He’s looking for the humble. He’s not looking for those who think themselves righteous - the self-righteous - based on their own works rather than on God’s grace. God is looking for the people who are teachable, who will learn and grow and be changed by His Word. He is looking for those who by faith are willing to wait and watch and hope for the fulfillment of His promises.
Luke writes, “But when these things begin to happen, look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near.” We must be aware that we risk being too busy doing human works in preparation for the coming of the King; our focus on us can make us miss Him. This is not about making Christmas simpler as we so often discuss at the beginning of Advent. This isn’t even about keeping Christ in Christmas. This is about recognizing that our redemption is indeed near in the here and now.
Jesus is looking for two things from us: faith and love. Faith is the manifestation of our trust in God’s promises: we believe that God saves. Love is the outpouring of our faith into the world. The great gift of Christmas is the forgiveness He came to give, and we can be assured that God will be faithful. After all, heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s words will not. There is nothing we can do to change what God has done for us, good or bad. We have heard the Word and the promise is ours.
However, there are many who have not yet heard this word of promise. They see our Christmas celebrations and displays and think they understand, but if they do not recognize their own sinfulness they will never see the reason for it all. If all they see is Christians working hard to prepare for the coming of the Christ, they’ll think they have to earn His love and mercy. They will never experience the forgiveness we have by God’s mercy or become right with God by His grace, especially if they think there is no way for them to accomplish what they think they have to do to earn it. They might do good things, but if they don’t learn that the only way to heaven is by the grace of God, then they’ll never enter through those pearly gates.
A man died and went to heaven. St. Peter met him at the pearly gates. St. Peter said, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I will give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.” “Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.” “That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “that’s worth three points!” “Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.” “Terrific!” says St. Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.” “One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.” “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says. “TWO POINTS!!” the man cries, “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!” “Come on in!”
This is Good News. We will be busy preparing for Christmas with decorations, baking, writing cards, shopping, and partying. We’ll add to that some spiritual disciplines of Advent devotionals, service projects, prayer and extra worship. This is all wonderful, but let’s remember that none of this, no matter how much an impact our works have on the world, they will never change what God has already done. In the end we have only one thing on which we can rest. The psalmist writes, “O my God, in you I trust.” Our good works are wonderful works. Whatever our motives, feeding the hungry and clothing the poor is honorable and gracious, whether it is now at the holidays or throughout the year. However, full bellies and warm bodies are not eternal. The body will hunger again and the clothes will fade. The Word of God lasts forever. It is true and it is real. The pagans and heathens can feed a hungry belly, but they will never feed a starving soul. Only Christ can fulfill our deepest needs.
Timothy took a wonderful report to Paul. The Thessalonians were living faithful lives, for which Paul was thankful to God. They had not lost touch with their Lord, though as with all our lives of faith he was concerned for their future well being. He prayed that the Lord would make their love increase and overflow for one another and strengthen them as they waited for Jesus to come.
They were waiting just like we wait during Advent. Paul wrote to encourage them, to thank God for their faith and to ask Him to continue His work in their lives. As we wait for Christmas, and for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, God transforms us daily drawing us deeper and deeper into the relationship with Him. So as we begin this Advent season, let’s do so with joy and hope, knowing that Jesus comes in three distinct ways. He came as the Son in the manger. He will come as the King at the End of Days. And He comes to us daily in His word and in His promise so that we’ll shine the light of the Good News with the world. So, let’s not just wait for Him as He came in the past or will come in the future, but live as He comes to us in the present and celebrate His grace daily.
“I am Yahweh, and there is no one else. Besides me, there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not known me; that they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is no one besides me. I am Yahweh, and there is no one else. I form the light, and create darkness. I make peace, and create calamity. I am Yahweh, who does all these things.” Isaiah 45:5-7, WEB
A well-known English philosopher, Anthony Collins of the seventeenth century, was walking one day when he crossed paths with a commoner. “Where are you going?” asked Collins. The man answered that he was going to church. Collins asked, “What are you going to do there?” The man said he was going to worship God. “Is your God a great or a little God?” asked Collins. The man said that his God was both great and little, which confused Collins. “How can He be both?” The man answered, “He is so great, sir, that the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him; and so little that He can dwell in my heart.” Collins later declared that this simple answer had more effect on his mind than all the volumes he had ever read about God, and all the lectures he had ever heard.
How do you describe God? In today’s society, there are many different ideas about the nature of God. I listened to the a Christmas album put out by the group Twisted Sister. It wasn’t my kind of music, but I was curious. I was surprised at how many Christian songs I heard, though they were not typical of the usual Christmas song. I wondered about the faith of the members of the group. An interview from 2016 with Dee Snider answered my question. He admitted that he grew up in a Christian church but though he adheres to those beliefs, he doesn’t do so completely. He thinks Jesus is more like Ghandi than God. He, like many, want to choose what they believe about God, willingly ignoring what God says about Himself.
So many people are looking to fill the hole in their souls, a hole that can only be filled by the One, True and living God. Yet, if you visit the spiritual section of any secular bookstore, you will find large displays of books that teach different ideas about God, even the belief in many gods. There are religions that make the things of creation - nature, materials or man himself - to be gods. The limited ability of human beings to understand the vast truth about the LORD causes us to look for explanations in the things we can see. But God tells us the Truth in His Word.
There is no other God but our God. There is only one way to know Him, and that is through our Lord Jesus Christ. He brought reconciliation between God and His creation, giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit so we can seek His face and understand His nature. He is both big and small, He is bigger than creation, but small enough to live in our hearts. He is so big that everything must submit to His authority, but He humbled Himself and became flesh so that we could know Him intimately. Unfortunately, in our society many people do not acknowledge Him or believe in who He says He is, embracing their gods of nature, materials and man-made ideas. Yet, He still comes to us, invites us into His life and light by the blood of our Lord Jesus and the power of His Holy Spirit.
“He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh through a wall, a serpent shall bite him. Whoso heweth out stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood is endangered thereby. If the iron be blunt, and one do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct. If the serpent bite before it is charmed, then is there no advantage in the charmer.” Ecclesiastes 10:8-11, ASV
It is that time of year when men get on ladders to put lights on rooftops. Some people even go to the trouble of climbing the roof so outline the upper ridges. I’ve heard multiple stories about the importance of putting a ladder one foot away from a wall for every four feet of height. They are trying to help people stay safe even though many will take chances to have the perfect display. Unfortunately, in 2015, 14,000 people were hospitalized from injuries they incurred because they were not careful. I’m sure the numbers are similar every year. The injuries include broken bones from falling, but there are also risks of electrical shock and wounds from tools that aren’t properly used. I have a bruise from carrying a much too heavy Christmas tree into the house.
We need to be smart about the work we do. The writer of Ecclesiastes gives a number of proverbs on this very topic. Be careful when you dig a pit because you can fall in and break something. Be sure that there is nothing hiding behind a wall because you could be bit by a snake if you aren’t careful. Those who work in quarries can be killed by falling rock. A lumberjack faces a similar danger. The writer also encourages us to make sure that we have prepared our tools properly. A dull ax will take harder work, and with that harder work there is a risk of injury. It is wise to think through our tasks before we begin to ensure that we will be doing it safely.
The final verse in today’s passage says, “If the serpent bite before it is charmed, then is there no advantage in the charmer.” I’m not sure I’m ever going to try snake charming, it doesn’t seem very smart no matter how trained the snake or the charmer. But there’s good wisdom in this statement: we should be properly trained before we begin any work or we will find ourselves making a mistake that could be deadly. I am fairly competent when it comes to simple electrical work, but I would never try to do a big job because I’m not trained. The electricity could “bite” me before I accomplish the task because I haven’t learned how to do it right. There is no advantage to me doing electrical work for which I am not trained when I can hire someone who will not only do it right, but will do it better because they know what they are doing.
We certainly can’t afford to pay someone to do every task, but the proverbs encourage us to think through every task so that we will protect ourselves from harm. The workers in this text can take precautions to avoid the risks. An article on putting up Christmas lights recommends not working alone. Make sure your tools are properly maintained and used. Don’t try to do something that is not necessary and could end in death. This is a special time of year, but can be especially difficult if someone is injured because they aren’t careful. Be smart and do it right and you’ll have a joyous Christmas season.