Welcome to the October 2012 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
A WORD FOR TODAY, October 2012
October 1, 2012
“The earth is Jehovah’s, and the fulness thereof; The world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, And established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the hill of Jehovah? And who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; Who hath not lifted up his soul unto falsehood, And hath not sworn deceitfully. He shall receive a blessing from Jehovah, And righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of them that seek after him, That seek thy face, even Jacob. Selah Lift up your heads, O ye gates; And be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors: And the King of glory will come in. Who is the King of glory? Jehovah strong and mighty, Jehovah mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; Yea, lift them up, ye everlasting doors: And the King of glory will come in. Who is this King of glory? Jehovah of hosts, He is the King of glory. Selah” Psalm 24, ASV
Maltbie D. Babcock was a pastor in Lockport, New York. His favorite activity was hiking on an area called “The escarpment” near Lockport. The rock upthrust ledge gave Maltbie a view of farms, orchards and Lake Ontario. As he left home for his walk, he would say, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world.” This, of course, was said to be the inspiration for the song, “This is my Father’s World.”
First Presbyterian Church in Lockport was Maltbie’s first pastorate, but his career took him to greater places. He ended up at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, after a time in Baltimore. While at Brown Memorial in Baltimore, Maltbie served the students of Johns Hopkins University as preacher and counselor. He was also invited to preach across the nation, sharing his talent for speaking God’s truth that had an impact on those who heard. He didn’t publish anything while he was alive, but his poem was published along with others after his death in 1901. Franklin Sheppard set the poem to music in 1915.
Isn’t it amazing to think that a favorite beloved hymn was never even heard sung by the man who wrote the inspired words? It just goes to show us that we may never even see the impact we have on the world while we are alive and that the words we speak can live for generations after us.
We sang, “This is my Father’s World” yesterday during worship and I found myself blessed by the words, particularly of those in the third verse. The song officially has six verses, most of which stress the beauty of God’s creation. Maltbie talked about how the nature around him sings praise to God and about the wonder of God’s presence in the world.
The third verse speaks specifically to those of us who are suffering in some way. It is so easy for us to get caught up in the negative, to see the evil and live in fear of what might happen, that we sometimes forget that God is present with us even in the bad times. I wonder what issues they had in the late 1800’s in Lockport, New York, to inspire such words of comfort from the pastor. Their issues might be different than ours, but the words still ring true.
“This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. This is my Father’s world: why should my heart be sad? The Lord is King; let the heavens ring! God reigns; let the earth be glad!”
Perhaps we’d all do well to talk a walk each day and gaze upon God’s beautiful creation. We may not have a spectacular view like Maltbie Babcock, but we can see the hand of God in the world in which we live. Even those who live in a city, with little ‘nature’ in their environment. can see God in the eyes of strangers and in the weeds that pop up in the cracks of the sidewalk. The thing to remember, though, is that no matter where we seek the Lord, or where we go to see our Father’s world, He is there with us. He walks with us and there is no reason for us to be sad. He rules the entire world, even when we feel like evil has control.
“Or what man is there of you, who, if his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone; or if he shall ask for a fish, will give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:9-12, ASV
About their current ad campaign, Liberty Insurance says, “When things are at their worst, humans are at their best. That’s the belief behind our new campaign. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes even the most responsible people stumble. We understand. Accidents happen. And when they do, we make things right again.” Now, perhaps we have a right to be cynical about these words since they are just the motto of an insurance company, but I think there is truth to the first sentence. When things are at their worst, humans are at their best.
How often have we seen disaster bring together whole neighborhoods? I have seen communities come together around a family that has lost everything in a fire, finding donations of furniture, clothing and everything else so that they can begin again. I’ve seen the nation flock to New Orleans to help with the clean-up after a hurricane. Seven years after Katrina, people are still visiting the city, helping rebuild homes and restore hope to the people there. I’ve seen the world respond with aid when nations have been devastated by earthquake and tsunami. Millions of dollars were raised to send fresh water and help to places like Haiti, Indonesia and Japan. I believe that when things are at their worst, humans do respond with grace and generosity.
There is no better example of this than the response to an event that happened on this date six years ago. In Nickel Mines Pennsylvania, a lone gunman entered the one room schoolhouse of an Amish community and took hostages. In the end, Charles Carl Roberts IV killed five children and injured five others before killing himself. Witnesses say that there wasn’t a clean surface in the room, with every desk, wall and floor covered in glass, broken wood and blood. It was a horrific event, something that left families and the community devastated.
Yet, even before the dust had settled on the event, members of the Amish community were calling for peace and forgiveness. The grandfather of one girl said, “We must not think evil of this man.” A member of the Brethren community nearby named Jack Meyer said, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”
Many did not understand this response. How could they be so forgiving? How could they ignore the reality of what happened to their community? How could they accept this situation with such grace? Perhaps the quote from one father says it best, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.” They knew that God is in control, and that they could not change what happened, but they could respond with the heart of God. God will deal with the gunman in His way, and righteousness will rule.
Of course, the acts of a gunman are not the same as an accident or an act of nature, but on this anniversary of a tragic event we can see that we can respond to the worst things in the world with our best. Not only can we text a ten dollar donation to the Red Cross when people are in need, or help a local family through a tragedy, we can respond to the world in a way that overcomes everything negative with God’s grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 7, 2012, Pentecost Nineteen: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-26
“And Jehovah God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.” Genesis 2:18, ASV
I am reading the first book of Ken Follett’s latest trilogy, “Fall of Giants.” Ken Follett writes thrillers and historical novels. I’m a fan of his historical novels. The particular trilogy is about the last century, the 1900’s, most particularly World War I, World War II and the Cold War. “Fall of Giants” takes place between 1911 and 1924. It looks at the lives of people from Russia, Germany, England and America and how they are impacted by the war and by the changing attitudes in society, particularly about labor and voting. The characters include people from every strata of society, from the ruling classes and the common men. They often interact, sometimes in positive ways and sometimes negatively. It has been an fascinating look at an interesting time in human history.
Early in the story, a young girl who happens to be working as a housekeeper in an earl’s house becomes pregnant by the earl. She knows she has to leave the earl’s employ, but also knows that her family will be disappointed and unwilling to care for her since she’s pregnant and unmarried. Her father was the most upset by her sinfulness and refused to forgive her. He kicked her out of the house and told her never to return. The family was active members of a local Christian church and her father had a firm attitude about what it meant to be a good Christian. Pregnant and unmarried was not acceptable.
The young girl’s brother was upset by his father’s unwavering harshness. The family attended a Christian chapel that believed that each service was guided by the Holy Spirit, so they sat and waited for someone to feel moved to speak or sing or pray. Most often the worship was begun by the church elders, with occasional movement from others. Even the children were welcome to speak, although they rarely spoke first. On the Sunday after the young girl was sent away, her brother stood, read a scripture about forgiveness and then left the church. He shocked and amazed the congregation with his bold words. It didn’t change his father’s heart, but the boy’s reading set him on a new path. The words may have even had an impact on others, who saw forgiveness in a whole new way. If God can forgive sin, why can’t we?
We have had several references to children over the past few weeks. Two weeks ago we talked about welcoming the children, because when we do, we welcome Jesus. Last week Jesus warned the disciples not to cause the children to sin; the consequences of those actions were horrific. Despite these lessons, the disciples still did not see the worth of the children. People were bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus but the disciples wanted to send them away. Jesus answered, “Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God.”
The psalmist sings, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength, Because of thine adversaries, That thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.” As I read this passage I thought about that boy in the book and how God spoke a hard but gracious word through him. Now, the boy in the book is a character, but haven’t we all experienced the incredible grace that can come out of the mouths of babes? They are innocent and faithful in a way that we seem to lose as adults. Our hearts become hardened; our agendas become rooted. We forget that we are children of God and we think like the disciples: the children are not worthy of Jesus’ time.
But Jesus wants us to know that we are all children of the Father. He has created us, and He has created us for a purpose. That purpose is to receive the Kingdom of God and to trust in the God that created the heavens and the earth. When we trust God, He does magnificent things through us. He speaks forgiveness through our lives and changes the world.
The psalmist writes, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” The New Revised Standard Version translates this passage in the plural. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?” This is a good question. What are we that God would care so much about us? After all, we are not much different than the father in the story. We also have hard hearts, trying to justify our frailty and failings. We would turn away the outcast, the oppressed, the ignored and the rejected. We break relationships as easily as we create them, turning away from the communities that are built between two, three or more. We do not keep God in the center of these things; we refuse to forgive. What are we that God is mindful of us?
The story of the children in the Gospel passage seems almost out of place in the midst of the lesson. Why would another reference to children be separated by the question of divorce and then followed by the call of God to leave everything behind that we’ll hear next week? Mark’s Gospel compares the world as it is with the world as God means it to be. God intends for people to be whole, to be in relationship and to work together.
In the story from Genesis, God says that it isn’t good for Adam to be alone and He creates a helpmate. The story is not meant to be a historic or scientific rendering of the creation of man, but to show that there is a purpose to the relationship between man and woman. Many other animals make good helpers. We know that sheep and oxen and all the beasts of the field as referenced in the psalm help man. Some animals, like goats, are called “seven M” animals by Heifer International. They provide meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials and motivation. We could not live without them, and we have been given dominion over them. But that wasn’t enough for Adam; he needed something more. He needed more than a helper, he needed a helpmate. He needed someone to make him whole.
As the story goes, Eve was taken from Adam’s side, bone from his bones and flesh of his flesh. Together they become one and together they multiply. The children born do not take anything away from the union between man and wife; they become part of the family. God’s intention was for people to join together and work together. No man, or woman, can stand on their own. We need to be part of the larger community. This plan for God’s people begins with the family. But God did not intend for it to stop there. Families are part of the larger world and we join our families to work together for a common purpose, whether it is religious congregations or secular groups. We like to gather with others and with others we can accomplish God’s work in the world.
Unfortunately we often fail to keep these relationships strong. The Pharisees went to Jesus with a question. “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” Now, in those days the man was able to divorce his wife for any reason. If she displeased him in any way, even if she burned the potatoes, he could serve her with a letter for divorce. She would be left destitute. She could not marry again, and she would probably be rejected by her own family. So what would happen to her? She would probably die because she had no means of support. Where would she live? How would she eat? What value would she have to society?
Jesus told them, “It is because of your hard hearts that Moses allows you to divorce your wives.” They were selfish and following their own agendas. While it might have been allowed according to the law of the land and the Law of Moses, Jesus reminded them that God put man and woman together for a purpose. To break that bond is to reject God’s intent for man to be part of a something bigger. If a man divorces his wife and then goes on to marry another, he has committed adultery because he’s set aside a bond that God created to follow his own heart.
Now, it is interesting that Jesus says the same thing about a woman who divorces her husband. It is unlikely that it would happen in his day because women simply did not have the power to do so. However, in stating it in this way, Jesus changes the way we look at the world and the role of women. They are equal: equal even in the ability to fail and sin. Women can break relationships. They can cause others to sin. They can have hard hearts. We all fail, male or female.
Mark then interrupts the story with the visit of children. With this odd side note, Mark reminds us that when a marriage breaks, it affects more than just the man and the woman. The children have value. Divorce is not a private affair because the broken marriage means a broken family. A broken family means a broken society. A broken society means a broken world. The children, who are wholly dependent on others for everything, understand that it is important to be part of that something bigger. They trust others. They trust God. When we pursue a radical solution to our problems, we reject what God intends for His people: forgiveness.
I make is sound so easy, don’t I? It isn’t easy. Broken relationships will happen. There will be divorce. There will be fathers that send their children away because they’ve done something wrong. There will be groups of people who simply can’t get along because there are too many differences in thought and attitude. The text here does not say that it will not happen in a Christian world. Jesus reminds us that these broken relationships are not what God intends. We are sinners; this we cannot deny. We will fail. We’ll make mistakes that are unforgivable. We’ll separate from those whom God has put together because we are human. But we are reminded in these texts that God has a purpose and that we should never allow ourselves to become so hardhearted that we accept this brokenness as part of life. God wants us to be whole.
The first human relationship is one between husband and wife. This is a vital relationship, the foundation of community. This is why God has used it as a parallel to His relationship with the Church. He marries us, binds us with Him in a way that can’t be separated and that is eternal. We are His bride and will be forever. Sadly, we try to define our relationship with God in other ways. We call Him friend, teacher, Father. And while we can use these words to define our relationship with Him, they are relationships that in life are temporary. Friends can be separated. Teachers go away and students often surpass the teacher’s knowledge. Even the Father/child relationship is temporary. Eventually every child must leave home to follow their own calling. But the relationship as husband and wife has been defined from the beginning as one that will never end.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that God spoke first through the prophets and then through the Son. The Son was not simply a man, but He was the One through whom everything was created. “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Man is the image of God, but Jesus was more. He is the Word of God. This passage does not just define Jesus’ divinity; it also defines His humanity. Jesus was fully divine and He was fully human. He was not only one with God, but He came to be in relationship with man as the Son of Man. He came to form a bond that cannot be broken.
The girl returns home some years later in the hope that her father will find the grace to forgive in the book by Ken Follett. She is not quite so young and the mother of an adorable child. She has followed in her father’s footsteps as an activist, a champion for justice. While she was gone, her brother signed up to serve in the local regiment of the army and many young men from the town were involved in a horrific battle. She happened to be home the day hundreds of telegrams hit their small town informing family after family of their losses. Though no telegram arrived at their home, the father realized that the battle was still raging and he could lose his son at any moment. He reconciled with his daughter and loved his grandson. His heart melted and he experienced forgiveness.
That’s what God wants for us. He has created us to be in relationship with others, with our spouse, our families and the groups to which we belong that provide opportunities for service. His purpose for us is that we help one another, live as families as part of the larger world joining together to do God’s work in the world.
It will be hard because we are imperfect. We will make mistakes. We will fail to be the people God has created us to be. We will fail to maintain the relationships that God has given to us. Some things are impossible to forgive and reconciliation seems unattainable. When we break those connections we sin against the creation and other humans, but we also sin against God. Though we can’t fix the brokenness of the world, we can trust God to forgive us, to melt our hardened hearts and make us whole. He will never put us away. Let us pray that we will hold firmly to the relationship that matters most: the one we have with our God.
“For the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:19-21, ASV
Ok, I can’t help it. I have to buy my kitties some new toys every time I go to the pet store. I even do it when I go to the pet department of other stores. It’s funny because the cats are much like children: the toys keep their attention for about five minutes and then they are left on the floor while the kitties go crazy chasing nothing in the air. Children often prefer the box to the toy; the same is true for kitties. But the kitties are like children in this, too. If you put those toys away for a few days and bring them out again, the toys are like new.
It doesn’t matter; I like buying the kitties new toys. I like to have that interaction as they are investigating the something new in the house. They will sneak up on it as if it were a living thing. They’ll pounce and attack and chase it until they get bored. All the kitties manage to sniff the new toy at some point (but I usually buy three so none are left without something to do during the play time.) I join in the fun finding ways to get the kitties excited about the toys. It is one of my favorite times with the kitties. I especially like the anticipation as they know I’m getting a new toy out for them. I’m not sure how they know; perhaps it is the smell of new catnip. They sit at my feet and watch, tails wagging and eyes focused. They are adorable.
We love our pets, don’t we? We’ll give them whatever they need and then some. We enjoy watching their antics, and even when they seem annoying, we will stop whatever we are doing to play or pet them. But our love of animals does not end with the pets that live in our homes. We love to see the birds in our trees and we enjoy visits to the zoo. Animal shows are very popular and you any video of some animal doing something cute on YouTube will go viral. Some people spend their lives working to protect animals both domestic and wild.
Today is the Feast day for St. Francis of Assisi and he is known for his love of creation. St. Francis understood that we are part of one creation, a family with all God’s creatures. He believed that the incarnation affected much more than human lives when we disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden; our failure shook the entire creation. He insisted that the animals share in God’s grace and that the incarnation of Jesus affects them. He asked that grain be scattered along the roads and food spread on the walls for the birds and other animals on Christmas Day so that they have enough to eat. He also said the domesticated animals should be given an abundant feast on that day. He believed that all creatures had a right to participate in the celebration of Christmas because the whole world was changed by Jesus’ coming.
He lived the Gospel literally, as Jesus commanded, even preaching the Gospel to all creation. It is said that one day Francis was traveling with some friends and they came upon a place where the trees were filled with birds. He said to his friends, “Wait for me while I preach to my friends, the birds.” It is said that the birds surrounded him, and not one left while he spoke. This story may be myth or legend, but it is a story we can take to heart. Francis did not want to neglect anyone who will be blessed by the Gospel message, including all of creation.
“And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the midst of the street thereof. And on this side of the river and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve manner of fruits, yielding its fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no curse any more: and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be therein: and his servants shall serve him; and they shall see his face; and his name shall be on their foreheads. And there shall be night no more; and they need no light of lamp, neither light of sun; for the Lord God shall give them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.” Revelation 22:1-6, ASV
I have an issue with my cell phone: I keep losing it. Well, I don’t really lose it; I just never know where it is. I took it into my bedroom last night, which I never do, so I spent fifteen minutes searching the house to find it. Thankfully I got a text message and it beeped when I was nearby, or I might still be searching for it. My kids like to make fun of my inability to keep hold of my phone. They laugh every time I say, “I have to find my phone,” and that means they laugh on a daily basis.
Now, I have to admit that it isn’t terribly important to me. I like having a cell phone, and I like the convenience of having it when I am away from family. I like texting them because it is often easier to deal with things via text than getting into a conversation on the phone. I like having it when I’m at the grocery store and I don’t know if we need milk, so I can call home and ask. I like having it when I travel, just in case there’s an emergency. I’m glad my kids have their phones so that they can keep in touch when they are away. But, I don’t like feeling like I’m attached to the thing. They are valuable tools, but we’ve gotten to the point that there is no escape from technology. We are always connected.
Technology has become so affordable that stores can hang lightweight monitors on the edges of shelves to play advertisements for whatever item they have displayed there. Another store has replaced all their paper price signs with small screens that can be changed with the push of a button. Technology has made some things so easy, but it also means that we are constantly bombarded by information. Besides listening to people’s private conversations in the grocery store or restaurants, there is always a monitor nearby flashing advertisements, news, sports or other programming. There are very few restaurants that do not have big screen TVs in every corner.
I think the sad part about technology is that we are so connected to the world via the screens that we are less connected to people. I have to admit that I grew up in a house where the television was always on. Even now, the “On Button” is one of the first things I do whenever I go into a room. We usually watch the news while we eat dinner, or some syndicated sitcom, so I’m not sure I can complain that the TV is on at a restaurant. However, I wonder… don’t we go out to spend time with those we love? Can we really pay attention to them if our eyes are on the baseball game on the TV in the corner?
There’s a new show this fall called “Revolution.” The story is that the power went off one day and the entire world was left to a time before we had anything that runs on electricity. Even batteries died instantaneously. There are no computers, no cars, no lights, and no telephones. There’s no way to produce the things that we have come to take for granted. I don’t think I’d like to live in that world, but after watching a commercial for shampoo while I was walking through the aisles at the grocery store, I wondered if it wouldn’t be pleasant for a little while.
Unfortunately, the world in Revolution is filled with danger and violence. The people in charge are dictatorial and the people are rebelling. There are those who have the secret to bring back the power, but they are hiding it until they can gain control of the government. I don’t think I’d like to live in that sort of world. And yet, I can’t help but wonder what it might be like to live in a place where there is not so much technology. Could we return to the Garden of Eden and be happy? Would it be like the world in “Revolution,” frightening and sad because we’ve lost all we once had, or would it be like the text from Revelation, a joyful place because we’ll dwell in the presence of God?
“Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48, ASV
I drove through the country yesterday after church and it was lovely. Our recent rainfall has made the shrubs and grasses green. The normally olive, brown and gold landscape is covered in color, with even a few wildflowers gracing the sides of the roads. Now, Texas is known for its wildflowers in the spring, when the fields and roadsides are covered in a full array of color, from white to red, yellow and orange, to purples and even blue. I’ve taken photos of fields that look like rainbows. But I can’t say I recall many wildflowers in the fall.
Across the nation, people are excited about the coming autumn changing of the colors. The trees in places like New England and Pennsylvania will shine with reds and yellows and golds. It is absolutely beautiful. I know a place in Pennsylvania that is breathtaking, a valley that comes into view just as you drive over a hill. This is a miracle that does not occur in many places in Texas. We just don’t have that kind of tree. I realized during my drive, however, that we do have fall color. The roadsides were filled with yellow and purple and green; it was beautiful. The rain brought new life to the world in a way I never expected.
Unfortunately, the rain made the grass in our yard spring to amazing new heights. As a matter of fact, some of the grass was more than a foot high within a couple of days. The yard looked terrible until I could get it cut. While the rain was a welcome relief from the drought and was good for the plants and trees in our yard and the wildflowers on the sides of the road, it also made the weeds and grasses grow out of control. The rain does not distinguish between the good and the bad; it rains on the whole earth.
We are excited about sharing our faith with our neighbors, particularly those we love. We are less than enthusiastic about sharing God’s grace with those who have done us harm. It is easy to forgive a small offense by our family, but very difficult to forgive the co-worker who has ruined our career. It is easy to forgive our children when they say something that hurts, but very difficult to forgive the drunk driver who killed our best friend. It is easy to forgive the small things, but impossible to forgive the life changing transgressions we experience.
But Jesus tells us that we gain nothing by loving and forgiving those who love us. True grace is manifest when we share God’s mercy with those who have done us real wrong. Just as the rain does not distinguish between what is good and what is bad, so too the Gospel plays no favorites. God’s love is meant for all people and we’ll find new life and great blessing in letting it fall on our enemies as well as our loved ones.
“Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.” Hebrews 10:19-25, ASV
I have been writing this devotion for a long time, and over the years I’ve made the connection between God and our lives in many ways. Some of them seem almost ridiculous. After all, who really thinks about God when they are cleaning the toilet or shopping for car parts? I’m not sure if I actually made the case for either of them, but I have seen God in the most unusual places. The hope I’ve always had in the writing is that you would see God in the most unusual places, too.
And so we ask, where have you seen God today? It is easy to answer this question on a Sunday morning when you’ve been to church, or after a good Bible study. It is easy to see Him in the rainbows and on the mountain top. But did you see Him while you waited in that traffic jam or cleaned up the spilt milk from the kitchen floor? What sort of lessons do you discover when you see God in each moment of your day?
During a Bible study this morning, we talked about Matthew 18:10-11, “See that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” I thought it was very comforting to know that an angel, my angel, always sees the face of our Father in heaven. That reminded me that God was always close. We tend to think of God as one who is far away, on a gold throne floating in the clouds. Or, we think He is some spirit being beyond our reach. Or He’s an authoritarian figure that rules over us, but has no concern over our every day experiences. And yet, He is more than our imaginings, and He is closer than we can expect.
When I made me comment during our study, one of the pastors said, “I like of it in this way: when the angels look at our faces they see the face of God.” This is a wonderful thought, although it can be a little uncomfortable. Do we really look like God? Of course, we’ve been made in His image, but I would not want to worship a God that ‘looks like me.’ I’m imperfect, not only in flesh but in spirit. I’m a sinner. I fail to live up to the expectations the world has for my life, but even worse I fail to live up to the expectations of God. How could anyone see God in my face?
But there’s the lesson: we are to see God in the face of others. I think we treat people differently when we do. When we see them through Jesus colored glasses, we see them as someone that deserves our best. We see them as someone we want to please. We see them as someone that we can serve. So while there are a million lessons to be learned seeing God in every aspect of our life, I think the most important place to see God is in one another. How different would the world be if we saw God in the face of our neighbor as the angels see God in our faces?
Whether God is so close that our angels can see us and Him at the same time, or that He is so close that we can see Him in the face of our neighbors, we are reminded that God is close. He’s not some far away entity that does not care for His people. He is right here with us at every moment, good, bad and ugly. He’s in the traffic jam and on the grocery shelves. He’s in the kitchen and the bathroom as we go about our everyday tasks. He is so close that He can count every hair on our head and worry with us about every one that turns gray.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 14, 2012, Pentecost Twenty: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90: 12-17; Hebrews 4:12-18; Mark 10:17-31
“Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish justice in the gate: it may be that Jehovah, the God of hosts, will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.” Amos 5:15, ASV
Isn’t it interesting that in our Gospel lessong Jesus asks, “Why callest thou me good? none is good save one, even God.” He knows we are going to fail and He identifies Himself with us. He takes on even our very nature as His own, despite the reality that He is truly good.
Jesus said these words to a young man that came to Jesus to ask a question. The man honored Jesus with the title “Good Teacher” and bowed down to Him. He wanted to know what was necessary for eternal life. Now, this particular man was wealthy. He had everything he could possibly need and more. It appears he came upon his wealth in a righteous way, for when Jesus asked if he followed the commandments, the man was happy to reply, “Yes.” We might call him a good man, if we hadn’t just hear Jesus say no one was good. The young man probably wanted Jesus to tell him he was good and that he’d done everything right. “You are going to heaven, my son. You did everything right.” Isn’t that what we all want Him to say to us? Yet, we know it isn’t true. We all fail. We all sin. We aren’t ‘good.’
This passage talks about wealth but is not so much about wealth as it is about what we do with our resources.
Jesus answered the man’s righteousness with a hard saying, “One thing thou lackest: go, sell whatsoever thou has, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” The man was devastated; Jesus words were the last thing he wanted to hear. He grew up in a world where righteousness meant following the Law and if you did that well, you would go to heaven. Jesus told him that he had to give up his whole life. Which of us would respond any differently? Following Jesus means giving up everything; can you pay so high a price?
Now, we might say, “I don’t have great wealth.” But the words are the same for you. Could you give up everything? Could you give up your selfish agenda and hard heart? Could you leave everything behind and follow Jesus? Do we believe in God like a child, completely dependent on Him and willing to trust without reserve?
Yet, Jesus’ words are not nearly as harsh as we make them out to be. There will be those who will preach this text in a way that insists it is about the rich giving up everything to the poor. There are those who point to every reference of wealth and poverty with the idea that God hates those who have more than others. But verse 21 says something that might surprise us. “Jesus looking upon him loved him.” Jesus loved him. Despite his failure, despite his self-centeredness, Jesus loved him. And Jesus loves us, too, despite our failure and self-centeredness. He loves us.
Jesus then said to the disciples, “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” The same thing could be said about any of the things that separate us from God. How hard is it for them that trust in their own ideology? How hard is it for them that trust in their own works? How hard is it for those who trust in politicians or governments or the wealthy? How hard is it for them that trust in anything but God? It is impossible.
But that’s why God forgives.
We are shocked when Jesus says, “Don’t call me good,” because if Jesus isn’t good, then how do we have any chance? But we are reminded by the writer of Hebrews that Jesus shared in our frailties. “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus knew how hard it was to be a human being; He was tested just like every other man. When we go to Him with our pain and frailties, He can sympathize. Yet, He was without sin and because of His own obedience to the will and word of God; we can trust what He says. There is one thing we all lack—God—because we have something that we hold in higher regard than Him. For the Israelites in Amos’s day, it was their twisted justice that trampled the poor and oppressed the righteous. For the rich young ruler, it was his wealth. For Peter, it was his pride. What is it that Jesus is asking us to give up to follow Him? In what do we trust more than God?
The text from Amos shows us how life is made more difficult by those who do not do what is good and right with their resources. It tells us what happens when we put our own agendas or hearts ahead of God. We are to seek God first, to seek goodness so that we’ll experience life, not death. God does not call all wealthy people to become paupers; He calls us to do what is good and right with our wealth. Unfortunately, those to whom Amos was talking were not seeking God or goodness. They turned justice to wormwood and cast righteousness to the earth. They trampled the poor in their work and in their pursuit for self-interest and pleasure. They took bribes rather than judged rightly and ignored the needs of their neighbors.
God calls us to a life in which we “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish justice in the gate: it may be that Jehovah, the God of hosts, will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.” We may not be good, but we can do good in God’s name. We can serve Him by using our resources for the sake of others. Jesus made the task impossible for the rich young man, but if he had only listened and followed, he would have discovered the incredible blessing that comes from putting God first in the world.
Jesus said, “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Again, Jesus uses extreme language to make His point. He makes it impossible for us to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And yet, He makes it the easiest thing in the world to do. “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” Trust in God. Seek Him. “Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need.”
The explanation I’ve heard about the camel through a needle’s eye statement is that the Needle’s Eye was a gate into Jerusalem. It was a very small gate, through which a fully loaded camel would not fit. The camels guide had to remove everything from its back, carefully lead it through and then restack the burden to continue on the journey. It was hard work, but the only way they could get through that gate was to go to all that trouble.
This fits the context of this Gospel story. For the man to get to heaven, he had to unburden himself of everything. While we might focus on the part of the story that says “give it to the poor,” Jesus is actually concerned about the man. He looked at him and loved him. “Let go of everything and follow me.” This is the easiest thing in the world to do, but the hardest, because we don’t want to go to the trouble of unburdening ourselves.
As I understand the story of the Needle’s Eye, the gate was in a very convenient spot for travelers, but was too hard to get through, so many would travel much longer to get inside the city through a wider gate. It might seem like the easy route, but is it? Is it easier to hold on to everything and go another way? Or is it easiest to let go of everything and follow Jesus?
God didn’t set the world in motion and then walk away. He is still working amongst His people and through all of creation. The writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Ok, perhaps this isn’t easy. God cuts into our hearts and pierces our souls. He is able to judge the thoughts and intentions in our hidden depths. It is not enough to say that we are sorry for what we have done. God knows when our apologies are insincere. He’s looking for transformation, real change in our attitudes and actions.
So He asks us to give up everything. In the story of the young man, Jesus asked him to give up all his wealth, but He was really asking for more. “You think you are good, and you called me good so that I’ll see the goodness in you. You want me to tell you that you’ve done everything right and that you deserve to go to heaven. But I’m going to make it impossible for you to earn your place in God’s kingdom.”
He will make it impossible for you to earn your place in God’s kingdom.
The key to this lesson is in two words, “you, earn.” You can’t earn it. You don’t deserve God’s grace no matter how well you follow His rules. You are not good, even though the world and the devil want you to think you are. You are a sinner. You can’t be saved by your own ability or works. It is no wonder the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” We ask the same thing. Who can be saved?
But with every question of law there’s always a promise of grace. “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” And so we are encouraged to seek God, to seek goodness, to do what is right with our resources, not to earn our way into heaven but in response to the grace God has given us so freely.
And Jesus finishes the lesson with an incredible promise, “There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or lands, for my sake, and for the gospel's sake, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.” Like the camel that has been unburdened, once through the gate the guide can restore everything to continue the journey.
Now, if we were millionaires and gave everything away, would God ensure that we’d be millionaires again? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the person who obeys God will be blessed beyond measure. Though it seems like Jesus talks a lot about wealth, it is never really about the stuff, it is always about the relationship with God. What comes first? Do we hold on to our world or do we let go and follow God?
And so, we are encouraged by the writer of Hebrews, “Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need.” We can’t draw near if we are carrying any baggage, so let’s drop it all at the gate and enter into God’s presence. He has already forgiven our failure. He’s already made it possible for us to be saved.
The psalmist writes, “And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; And establish thou the work of our hands upon us; Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” In answer to the prayer of the psalmist, God will give us everything we need to continue on our journey. By His hand we will be able to hate evil, love goodness and establish justice. It is by His hand we will glorify God in our actions in this world and then live in eternal peace in the next.
“This is now, beloved, the second epistle that I write unto you; and in both of them I stir up your sincere mind by putting you in remembrance; that ye should remember the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and the commandments of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles: knowing this first, that in the last days mockers shall come with mockery, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for, from the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. For this they willfully forget, that there were heavens from of old, and an earth compacted out of water and amidst water, by the word of God; by which means the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens that now are, and the earth, by the same word have been stored up for fire, being reserved against the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But forget not this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:1-9, ASV
In 1981, Bill Gates said, “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” We laugh at this statement because now even our tiny cell phones have chips that hold gigabytes of information. A kilobyte is approximately a thousand bites, while a gigabyte is approximately a billion. While most computer users do not need billions of bytes, 640K is no longer enough for even the most basic user.
In 1876, a representative at Western Union had this to say in a memo, “The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Today, the telephone is a vital part of international communication. With cellular technology, even the most remote places in the world can be connected, receiving news in seconds rather than months.
Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society said, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” in 1895. According to the 2003 U.S. Census figures, 612 million passengers fly every year in American air space alone with an average of over a thousand miles each flight. The number of airplanes that take off and land daily is staggering, so it is needless to say that airplane flight is not impossible.
The commissioner in the U.S. Office of Patents, in 1899 made this statement: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” The technological advancements that occurred in the twentieth century were not even imagined by those who lived in the nineteenth century. Even science fiction books did not anticipate things like television and microwaves. In 2010, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued an extraordinary 220,000 new patents. They’ve granted more than seven million patents since 1899.
These are some of the more notable predictions people have made over the years. It is very easy for us to look at something and say with certainty that we know what tomorrow will hold. Yet, as we can see from these four examples, tomorrow is beyond our knowledge. Sometimes the predictions come true, sometimes we simply get lucky.
Unfortunately, too many people think they are prophets. They speak a word about something that happens, although those coincidences are often interpreted after the fact and rewritten to fit the reality. When this happens they think they are gifted with special sight. I used to receive e-mail from a group of so-called prophets. They occasionally sent a confirmation email, telling us how the previous ‘word’ was fulfilled in this way or that way. They had no idea then how it would play out, but hindsight is twenty-twenty vision. This group has a huge following, though their prophetic ‘words’ have been replaced by emails filled with advertisements for schools, books and videos. Unfortunately, people believe what they say.
There is certainly a prophetic air in the world today. People are constantly talking about the end of the world and how it will happen. With December 21st looming for us, many people believe that the Mayan calendar speaks the reality of our future. Documentaries show how this date has been prophesied by others, showing parallels between the scriptures and the writings of the ‘prophets’. Since the beginning of the Church, people have predicted the end of the world. There’s been some prophet in every era that has interpreted the scriptures and pointed to the signs of the coming of Christ. A few have even predicted a date. They’ve all been disappointed.
Their failure has led non-believers to scoff at their foolishness. “Where is He?” they ask. The Bible does give us a description of what it will be like in that day and the world in which we live often fits that description. Add to that the human need to be in control; we like to know what is going to happen next. We make predictions because we want to know. We want to be ready. We want to put all our ducks in a row, but without a date we don’t worry about it because we think we have more time. When someone gives us a date, then we can put it on our calendar and do what we need to do.
We won’t know. Jesus will return when it is time. It could be today, or tomorrow, or in a thousand years. God’s time is different than our time, but His promises are true. We can rest in the knowledge that He will come. He’s waiting for the full measure of His children to come to faith. God is never late; His patience is our joy because it just might mean the salvation of someone we love.
“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing that these things are thus all to be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, by reason of which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight. And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” 2 Peter 3:10-16, ASV
It is probably pretty early for students to be thinking about finals. High school seniors have to wait until May and they will go through a lot of learning, projects and other tests before then. Even college students whose schedule follow a semester calendar are months away from finals. Most of them will be taking mid-terms in the next few weeks. Most of them probably aren’t even thinking about those end-of-the-semester tests.
And yet, for those students who are in academically challenging programs, like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, those tests are the difference between getting credit for their hard work and not getting credit. Both my kids were worried about those tests long before it was time to take them. I imagine that there are more than a few college students who are already thinking about the end of this semester, too.
I’m sure if you would ask, they’d all tell you how anxious they are for it to be over. Victoria had countdown calendars in both High School and college. She could tell you the days until graduation during most of her senior years. Her excitement for that day was usually filled with lists of things that had to be accomplished and a certain amount of trepidation, but she was excited just the same. She knew that if she could get through those tests and projects, she would graduate.
When I was reading the text for today, which continues the letter from Peter we heard yesterday, I was taken aback by the verse that says, “Seeing that these things are thus all to be dissolved…looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God.” Wait, we know that God will come and create havoc on the comfortable world we’ve come to love, but we should look forward to the day He will destroy it? How can that be?
Like the college student who knows that the horror of finals will lead to the joy of graduation, we know that the day of the Lord will bring us to the new heavens and earth that God has promised. We don’t want to experience the earth burned up, but the old has to pass away before the new can take hold. Our joy will not be in the experience, but in the outcome.
Now, those students may not want to think about the finals they have to take, particularly at such an early moment, but if they do consider the tests now they will do what needs to be done to be prepared for that moment. If they are ready to answer the questions and prove their knowledge, then the frightening moment will not be so frightening. The same is true for us. We have no idea the day or the hour that the Lord will come, but we can be ready, constantly striving to be the people God has called us to be so that in that hour we’ll have nothing to fear. Instead of worrying about the havoc of the last day, we can look forward in peace for the first day of eternity and know that God will be faithful to all His promises.
“Rejoice in Jehovah, O ye righteous: Praise is comely for the upright. Give thanks unto Jehovah with the harp: Sing praises unto him with the psaltery of ten strings. Sing unto him a new song; Play skilfully with a loud noise. For the word of Jehovah is right; And all his work is done in faithfulness. He loveth righteousness and justice: The earth is full of the lovingkindness of Jehovah. By the word of Jehovah were the heavens made, And all the host of them by the breath of his mouth. He gathereth the waters of the sea together as a heap: He layeth up the deeps in store-houses. Let all the earth fear Jehovah: Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. Jehovah bringeth the counsel of the nations to nought; He maketh the thoughts of the peoples to be of no effect. The counsel of Jehovah standeth fast for ever, The thoughts of his heart to all generations.” Psalm 33:1-11, ASV
Do you ever have one of those days when it just doesn’t seem like this will fall into place? You try to get organized, but somehow you can’t find your keys or your cell phone, the kids don’t want to get out of bed, you burn the waffles again. The trouble goes on. By the time you make it to work, you are pulling your hair out of your head because you got stuck in another traffic jam. At work you find that the deadline for your project was moved up a week and you don’t have time to get everything done. On days like that, don’t you just want to give up?
I think, sometimes, it is worse when you don’t see this hectic pace happening to others. It seems like they always get out of the house on time, hit all the green lights and have no stress in their lives, even their work. I may not have had this exact experience, but I certainly know what it is like to face chaotic days when nothing seems to go right, and I know people who seem to be able to get everything done perfectly. Do they ever have a bad day?
Yes, they do. I know it may seem like that co-worker has hair that always looks perfect, whose clothing is perfectly ironed. It may seem like they have an idyllic life at home and a miraculous ability to avoid the traffic. But they have bad days. They suffer from moments when the stress becomes unbearable. You’ve probably even seen them struggling, but you don’t realize it because they either hide it well or you just don’t notice. When we get caught up in the frustrations of our own lives, it is easy to think that no one in the world could possibly know the pain and frustration we know.
There are no easy answers. Yes, we can plan more carefully. We can find a place to keep our keys and cell phones so that we don’t lose them every day. We leave home early and take a safer route so that we won’t hit the bad traffic. We can have an easy care hairdo and easy care clothing that will look nice without a lot of work. We can work with our children so that they will rest better and be excited about school. We can ask for help on the project at work. We can do all these things and make our lives less stressful.
But we’ll still have bad days. The only thing we can do about those bad days is face them with the right attitude. We’re not in this alone. God, who created the heavens and the earth, who can speak something out of nothing, has promised to be there for us. It might seem like we are a little crazy, but those days when everything seems to be going wrong are probably the best days to sing to the Lord a new song. It is not that He needs to be reminded to be present in our trouble, but we need to be reminded that He is already there, and He is more than able to deal with our stress. Our world might continue to be chaotic, but it will be easier to face if we know that our God is right by our side.
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them: and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food: and to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the heavens, and to everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for food: and it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” Genesis 1:26-31, ASV
The pastor who was leading our Bible study this morning made an interesting comment. He said that when a planter does a grafting, he takes a stem that will produce good fruit and attaches it to a root that is strong and hearty. I thought about this statement in light of the idea that we are grafted into Christ. The root is Christ who is a strong foundation and we produce the fruit of faith.
We have a difficult time using the word “good” with this concept, however. In the scripture for last week’s lectionary, we hear Jesus say that even He is not good. And yet, we also learn in Matthew’s Gospel that we can’t bear good fruit if we are not good. “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but the corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.” (Matthew 7:17)
We are sinners in need of a Savior, this much is true. And we should never forget that we have failed to live up to the expectations of God, from Adam to today. However, we should also remember the lesson we hear in today’s scripture. “And God saw everything that he made, and, behold, it was very good.” That includes human beings. That includes you. Your failings are exactly why you are not left to stand alone to do the work of God in this world. God takes you, the good that He created you to be, and grafts you into the root that is Christ. Because of that strong foundation you can produce the fruit that God intends.
As I did a little research on grafting today, I read that sometimes the root plant and grafted plant combine to make a hybrid. The hybrid exhibits qualities from both. A grafted tree can have leaves, flowers and fruit from both the branch and the root. That’s how it should be with us, isn’t it? We should exhibit qualities from both Jesus and from our own created being. God made us good, very good, and therefore there must be something good to come out of us. With Jesus as the roots, then we’re sure to bear good fruit.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 21, 2012, Pentecost Twenty-One: Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5, ASV
I was watching one of those judge shows yesterday and the plaintiff was suing a man whose four year old daughter rain into her leg while driving a motorized scooter. The woman was injured severely with permanent scars on her ankle from the event. She was in her own driveway when it happened, and the little girl was using it to turn around, lost control and rain into the woman. The woman was suing only for the amount of her bill that was still due, having paid many of the doctor bills on her own. Unfortunately, the collection agencies were threatening to take out liens on her home because of the outstanding bills. The woman just wanted justice and her bill to be paid. She wasn’t even asking pain and suffering, which she might have expected since she had permanent damage.
The father refused to take responsibility for his child and said that he didn’t owe a penny to help the woman. She should have gotten out of the way of the child. When the judge asked if the child had been supervised he told her that his six year old son was out there with her. He had no answer for his own whereabouts and was shocked that anyone would blame him even though he was not there. Why should he have to pay? Why should it be his responsibility? The woman was there, she should have done something to avoid the accident.
The judge laughed when the man began using language that made him seem to be a victim. How could he possibly think that he was the victim in this situation? He was upset because the woman kept calling the police about his children, who continued to ride their bikes dangerously in the woman’s driveway, unsupervised. Now, we all know that kids will be kids, and we have to give them a little freedom to run and play. Perhaps it was a step too far to call the police. However, where is the line between neighborly permissiveness and practical handling of a dangerous situation? The father was never willing to restrain his children, and refused to deal with their inconsiderate actions. The woman had to do something for her own safety.
Needless to say, the man lost the lawsuit. As he left the courtroom, the man complained that he didn’t get justice, that it wasn’t his fault and that the judge refused to listen to him. He was not bothered by the damage done to the woman’s leg or her concern for both her own safety and that of the children. He wasn’t going to do anything differently. He believed his children were able to take care of themselves and they didn’t need him to watch them every minute of the day. He also had no problem with allowing such a young child to drive a motorized scooter. “She’s been driving it since she was three,” as if that would make it any better. It didn’t matter what anyone said, he was the victim and everyone else was to blame.
This is, unfortunately, the attitude of many in our world. I have a friend who is very good at blaming others for all his troubles, and we all probably know someone who does the same thing. It can get very frustrating because we can see that the lines of blame are not so neatly drawn. There are victims in this world, and we must be careful that we give them the help and comfort they need. But most people who play the blame game do so without considering their own fault in the situation. It is only when we realize our own fault and sinfulness that we can really create an opportunity for reconciliation and peace.
Isaiah sees the truth in this. We might want to blame others. We even blame God. But it is for our sins that He was wounded. In the NIV, the wording is, “we considered him stricken by God.” It is easy to do so, especially if we take the words of the psalmist to heart. How do we juxtapose the idea of a protective God who is our refuge with the reality that we will experience suffering in the world? The psalmist says that no evil will come or plague will infect us. He says that the angels will catch us if we fall. He says that we can walk on snakes and face a hungry lion and we’ll be safe.
Yes, we are meant to trust that God will protect us as we dwell in His house. But can we really expect to be saved if we jump into a lion’s den? When Satan quoted this scripture to Jesus, Jesus replied, “I will not test God.” There are those in the world throughout the ages who have taken this verse very literally and played with poisonous snakes to prove how faithful they are, but is that the kind of faith God wants from us? Does He want us to trust that He’ll protect us from our own stupidity?
The better question for this week is this: If we do something stupid in the name of faith, is God to blame when we get bitten by the snake or eaten by the lion?
But the best question is: Is God to blame for Jesus’ suffering on the cross?
We know the answer to that question: No. We are to blame. It is our sinfulness that put Jesus on the cross. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
I have to laugh whenever I read the Gospel lesson for this week. James and John seek special privileges from Jesus, but that’s not the funny part. The funny part is the response from the other disciples. “And when the ten heard it, they began to be moved with indignation concerning James and John.” They were indignant that James and John would have the gall to ask Jesus to put them in places of honor, and yet it was not that long ago we heard them all arguing who is the greatest. Not much time had passed between these two incidents, perhaps a few days. Did they forget their own self-focus?
That’s why it is so easy for us to play the blame game: we don’t see the failure in ourselves. We are quick to notice when others fail, but we are blind to our own. Sadly, we are best able to see very clearly in others that which is wrong in our own hearts. If I see someone who is judgmental, then I’m probably judgmental myself. If I see a spec in another person’s eye, I probably have a log in my own. When we look at others it is like we are looking in a mirror, and though we do not realize it, we are seeing ourselves in them. We are so focused on everyone else’s faults that we do not see our own. We play the blame game and forget that we are one of the players.
Jesus tells them to stop seeking the power and be what they have been called to be: servants. James and John had no idea what they were asking from Jesus. Those who sit at the right and left hand of the Messiah would suffer the same fate. Jesus had already been telling them that He would suffer and die, but they were so sure that Jesus would be guarded by God. The hymn of faith that is Psalm 91 was probably often on their lips. They were learning to trust God for everything. Surely God would not allow anything to happen to Jesus!
They were repeating the same temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness from Satan. They thought Jesus was invincible and since they were part of His kingdom, they were invincible, too. But Jesus told Satan He would not test God, and He warned the disciples not to do so either. “The ways of the world might call for you to be great, but the way of God is different. Don’t try to be like them, be like Him.” And we see the ultimate manifestation of the servant on the cross, where Jesus willingly took our sinfulness on His own shoulders and paid our debt with His life.
We can’t be Jesus. We know that. Jesus was perfect, and what He did for us was beyond the ability of any human being. We can’t die for the sake of the world. We might be able to save a life or two and we might be able to help a few people see the grace and mercy of God, but we can’t be Jesus. Neither could the priests who were given the task to offer the sacrifices for God’s people in the Temple. The atonement that Israel received at the hands of human priests was limited and temporary, but what Jesus did for you and I was permanent. The writer of the lesson from Hebrews says, “…though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation…”
The promises found in the Psalm are promises that seem too good to be true, and perhaps they are. We might die if we are bitten by a snake or a lion, and I don’t think that God intends for us to jump in the cage and risk our lives to prove our faithfulness. Yet, God is truly our refuge. He will watch out for us. He will guard us. He will answer our prayers. But we must be careful that we are faithful according to God’s will, not our own. He wants us to follow Him, but unless you are Daniel, He won’t lead you into the lion’s den.
Both the Old Testament and Epistle lessons give us a very clear picture of the will and purpose of God for Jesus. He was not to be a king who would sit on a throne in Jerusalem. He was both a suffering servant and a great high priest. He was called to serve others, many others. His service would not be to rule but to die. This is the task to which He was called and sent. He would be beaten and cut down not because of anything He did wrong, but for the sake of the world. He took upon Himself our sins. As priest He presented His own body as the sacrifice for the atonement of His people. His rule would not be for a brief moment on a throne, but for all eternity.
This story is so upside down and inside out. We have a difficult time understanding why God would allow Jesus to die. We can’t grasp the purpose of His suffering. We can’t see that it was the only way, especially since we don’t really want to see that we are the ones who brought this on. We want to blame someone else, whether it is our neighbor in his or her faithlessness or whether it is God Himself. It can’t be my fault.
The scripture for today from Isaiah says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions,” and there is certainly a place to understand that Isaiah was talking to a nation. But he is speaking to you and me, too. It is up to us to put ourselves into that statement, “He was wounded for MY transgressions.” When we do this, we’ll see that the blame game does nothing to make a difference in the world. While there might be reason to call ourselves victims, we need to remember that we have caused pain in the world, too. We need Jesus as much as our neighbor.
If we see that, we realize that our job is not to pass the blame to others, but to seek God’s help in sharing the Good News so that they too can receive the healing that came at the cross. If we stop blaming our neighbors, even when they are at fault, we’ll find the grace to forgive and be reconciled with God and one another in a way that will bring real and lasting peace to our world.
I think the woman in the court show would have been forgiving and gracious if the man had simply accepted responsibility, apologized to her and promised to supervise his children better. Could she have been more aware of the children as they played in her driveway? Perhaps. Should she have called the police every time she saw them riding their bikes near her home? Probably not. Even though she was the one who was injured and suffering the impending loss of her home, she did not act like a victim. She was ready to make amends between neighbors. Unfortunately it might never happen because the man thought that he and his children were victims. He refused to accept his own failure.
We can live as victims or as faithful followers of Jesus, knowing that by His own blood He has provided all we need to forgive and to be forgiven. We need to do both. The blame game will never change the world, but God’s grace will.
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. Now this he spake, signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; who also leaned back on his breast at the supper, and said, Lord, who is he that betrayeth thee? Peter therefore seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me.” John 21:18-21, ASV
Jesus says “Follow me,” dozens of times in scriptures. He calls His disciples with those words. He speaks them to the rich young man and others who come seeking His help. He speaks them to us as He invites us to join in His ministry in the world. As I think about these words, I have always pictured us walking behind Jesus, going wherever He goes. But the other day I had a new image of following Jesus.
Have you ever played follow the leader with a child? Follow the leader is a fun game where a bunch of children line up behind the leader and do whatever he or she does. Now, the game is no fun if the leader just walks around the room. It is a lot of fun when the leader tries to get the players to do silly things, walking in strange ways and in unusual places. They might walk up a set of stairs and then slide down the stairs on their bum, or skip around a tree while touching their head. The sillier the better!
Have you ever played the game with someone who doesn’t like to be silly? They might follow along in the game, but they don’t join in the fun. They’ll walk down the stairs. They won’t skip. They are too cool to do what the leader does. They might be in the midst of the fun, but they are missing something about the game because they refuse to follow the leader.
How many of us think that following Jesus just means believing in Him and doing the typical Christian things. Following Jesus means an hour of worship each Sunday and Bible study. Following Jesus means doing good works, donating to charity and being kind to our neighbors. It means praying for our enemies. We are all probably pretty good at doing all these things consistently, if not often. But is that what Jesus means when He tells us to follow Him?
I don’t think any of us are Peter, but look at where Jesus leads him! “But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth they hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” The old language might be difficult to understand, but the reality is history: Peter died on a cross. Does Jesus call us all to die in such a horrific manner? No, of course not. When Peter asked about John, Jesus said, “What’s it to you?” We are each called to follow Jesus in our own way. Some of us will suffer unbelievable persecution; others will have to give up something they love. Some will have to walk a path that is not comfortable and some will follow Jesus to the far ends of the earth. How another plays this game of follow the leader is none of our business. Our question for today is this: are we willing to go and do wherever Jesus, our leader, leads us?
“Oh clap your hands, all ye peoples; Shout unto God with the voice of triumph. For Jehovah Most High is terrible; He is a great King over all the earth. He subdueth peoples under us, And nations under our feet. He chooseth our inheritance for us, The glory of Jacob whom he loved. Selah God is gone up with a shout, Jehovah with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praise to God, sing praises: Sing praises unto our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth: Sing ye praises with understanding. God reigneth over the nations: God sitteth upon his holy throne. The princes of the peoples are gathered together To be the people of the God of Abraham: For the shields of the earth belong unto God; He is greatly exalted.” Psalm 47, ASV
My mom, a friend of mine and I were traveling from a meeting late one night. The meeting was pretty far at home and we decided to stop at a rest area on the turnpike to get a drink, use the restroom and stretch our legs. While we were in the parking lot, we noticed a nice tour bus parked nearby. It was late at night and the place was nearly deserted, but it only took a few questions to discover that the bus belonged to Rick Springfield. He was on tour at the time, and his bus was taking him from one venue to another. They, too, had stopped for a break.
Well, my mom had two giddy teenagers in her car and knew that we weren’t going anywhere without meeting Rick Springfield. We were both fans. Then encounter happened on April 24, 1982 (I remember because it was exactly one year after the death of his father). Rick Springfield was very popular in music and on television. He was probably promoting his “Don’t Talk to Strangers” album, the second in a year, and had recently won a Grammy for his hit “Jesse’s Girl.” He played Dr. Noah Drake on the daytime soap opera “General Hospital.” It was a thrill that my friend and I did not want to miss.
So we grabbed a notepad from the car to get his signature and stood between the bus and the building at the rest area. He couldn’t get from one to the other without passing us. We waited a bit, but eventually his crew came out and he was in the crowd. The death of his father had taken its toll and he suffered from depression for some time. The day we met him was not a good day and you could tell. Even so, he was gracious; he came to us and signed a couple pages of the notepad so we’d both have a copy and listened to our giggling with a tired but courteous smile.
I was in the presence of a star and I wanted to make an impression. I was thinking that he’d be willing to talk about his character on the soap opera. It was in my mind to ask him how it was going on “General Hospital” but my mouth didn’t cause my mouth to produce the right words. I was a bit tongue tied, but I finally got out the words, “How’s it going on the Love Boat?” As soon as I heard the words I knew I was confused. I can’t find a record of it, but I think he’d also recently made a guest appearance on the show, definitely a possibility for someone who was so popular at the time, but that doesn’t matter. A guest appearance on that show is probably the least impressive aspect of his career at that time. I was so embarrassed and spurted, “I meant General Hospital.” It made him laugh.
That was my one encounter with a celebrity. I know he is a man like any other man, but that doesn’t really matter to a giggling teenage fan. I don’t know who might cause me to stand in tongue-tied awe today, although I suspect it would not necessarily be a cute music or television star. I don’t know what I would say if I met the president or the queen. I’d have difficulty being cool if I met some of my favorite writers or some of the icons of American society. Many of the people I admire are no longer with us, so I’d probably be a little tongue-tied if I ran into one of them!
But think about this: if a mere human being, no matter how wonderful, can stop us in our track and make us tongue-tied, what will it be like to stand in the presence of God? We often talk about how we will react when we meet God face to face, but I don’t know if we can really know how we’ll respond. We talk about the questions we want to ask Him. We wonder what we will do when we see ‘the video’ of our life, reliving the good moments and the bad. Will the experience be like an encounter with a cute music and television star, a person we admire or some other person of renown? Or will it be something entirely different?
I suspect that when we meet God we won’t have any more questions. I don’t think we’ll care about watching that video. I don’t think we’ll have the words or be able to look away at some monitor. We’ll be in the presence of God: I think all else will fade away and nothing will matter but Him. It is impossible for us to live our lives in total and complete awe of God; we have to cook dinner, change diapers and drive in rush hour traffic.
But what if we lived our daily lives with a psalm of praise like today’s passage on our lips, constantly remembering that we are in the presence of God now and always?
“Hear this, all ye peoples; Give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world, Both low and high, Rich and poor together. My mouth shall speak wisdom; And the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding. I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp. Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, When iniquity at my heels compasseth me about? They that trust in their wealth, And boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, Nor give to God a ransom for him; (For the redemption of their life is costly, And it faileth for ever;) That he should still live alway, That he should not see corruption. For he shall see it. Wise men die; The fool and the brutish alike perish, And leave their wealth to others. Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, And their dwelling-places to all generations; They call their lands after their own names. But man being in honor abideth not: He is like the beasts that perish. This their way is their folly: Yet after them men approve their sayings. Selah They are appointed as a flock for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; And the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; And their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume, That there be no habitation for it. But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; For he will receive me. Selah Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, When the glory of his house is increased. For when he dieth he shall carry nothing away; His glory shall not descend after him. Though while he lived he blessed his soul (And men praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself,) He shall go to the generation of his fathers; They shall never see the light. Man that is in honor, and understandeth not, Is like the beasts that perish.
The final verse of today’s Psalm translated in the New International Version says, “A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish.” The psalmist recognizes the reality of wealth, that it is useless after we die. We can’t buy our way into heaven, we can’t make our afterlife better with our money. We can’t bribe God for the forgiveness we seek or get His good grace with stuff. We can’t avoid death and once we die everything about our worldly life will be meaningless.
Now, there is good reason to have wealth in this world. We have to pay for a roof over our head and the food on our table. We need clothes and a vehicle to get from one place to another. Our children need things for school and we need the resources to do our jobs. Wealth, in of itself, is not a bad thing. The trouble comes when we put too much value on that wealth, when we work too many hours striving for more wealth or seek the homes, cars and clothes that are beyond practical. We won’t get into heaven because we have a Gucci purse; neither will we be kept out of heaven for that reason. But what good is that Gucci purse in this life or the next? Does it really make a difference to the world?
See, the psalmist recognizes that we have to understand the reality of that wealth, which is that God has blessed us to be a blessing. We can’t buy salvation for ourselves or for anyone else, but we can use our resources to make life a little better for our neighbor. We are all going to die, and when we do our wealth will be left behind. We cannot buy immortality with our money, but the man who blesses the world with his blessings will long be remembered.
It would do us well to be understanding about our wealth. It is not given to us to be wasted or hoarded. It is given to us to glorify God. The man or woman who understands that wealth has no value after death will use their wealth in a way that will give it value now. The man or woman who does not understand this very important message will be as one who is dead even while they still live because it is in the sharing of our blessings that we see and manifest the light that shines in this world and into the next.
“But now hath Christ been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that are asleep. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ's, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be abolished is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, ASV
Our cat Samson likes cotton swabs. We don’t know why, but he likes to play with them. I suppose they are easy to push around on the floor and he’s able to pick the stick up in his mouth and carry it. It doesn’t matter if they are new or used, as long as he can get his paws on them. We have discovered the trash can in the bathroom tipped over with garbage everywhere on too many occasions. Victoria had a box on the counter in her bathroom which ended up on the floor several times. We think that he stashes some in hiding places when he finds them because we’ll discover one on the floor when there’s no evidence of his stealing them from the usual places.
We’ve had to change the way we deal with cotton swabs for his sake. Now, there may be no reason to worry about his playing with them, even when they are dirty, but it seems like the cotton on the ends of the stick could be dangerous to a cat’s system if he would accidentally ingest it. It is pretty gross to think that used cotton swabs are littering the floor of our bathroom or ending up in other parts of the house. So, we do what we can to keep them from the cat. Several years ago I bought new trash cans that I thought would keep him out, but he learned to knock those over, too. The box on the counter was sealed, but he learned to push it on the floor where it would pop open. We tell him know and even try to make it impossible to get at them, but he’s of one mind when it comes to cotton swabs.
Now, a cat is a cat. While I do think that he’s got some sense that he’s doing something that he’s not supposed to do, I don’t think that cats really know right from wrong. Children are much the same way when they are young. While they eventually learn the difference between the things they can do and the things they shouldn’t do, it takes awhile. You can tell a child that he or she should not touch something, and inevitably they will touch that very thing.
That’s why it becomes necessary for parents of young children to make changes in their lifestyle for the sake of the baby. We want them to learn what happens when they disobey, but we don’t want them to get hurt in the process. So, we might leave an ugly resin figurine on the table but put the crystal vase in a cupboard until they learn not to touch. We put locks on the cabinet with the chemicals but leave the pots and Tupperware available for the inquisitive youngster. We give them the freedom to explore but make it hard for them to get in dangerous places.
Adam and Eve were not children, although they were innocent and trusting. God placed them in the Garden of Eden and like a good Father. He gave them the freedom to explore while teaching them what they could and should not touch. “You can have all you want to eat from this tree over here, but do not touch that tree over there.” Many people are bothered by the notion that God would put the tree of knowledge within their reach. If He didn’t want them to have it, why did He put it right there? He did so because He was giving them the freedom to be obedient.
They weren’t obedient. They listened to the voice of the serpent above the voice of God. They broke the relationship by doing the one thing God asked them not to do. Sadly, the serpent turned the world upside down with his temptation. After all, Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. They were already like Him. But the serpent suggested that they had to eat the fruit to be like God, but when they did they were able to see how different they were.
We often think that God cast the first people out of the garden as a punishment for their disobedience. God said that if they touched the fruit they would die, and by living apart from the tree they did. That might seem like punishment, but God sent them away from the tree of life so that they would not have to spend eternity in a broken relationship with their Father. Even at that moment, when it seemed like God was unforgiving and unloving, He was preparing a way for all men to be restored to Him. And when God said, “This is what we must do,” Jesus answered, “I’ll do it.”
Scriptures for Sunday, October 28, 2012, Pentecost Twenty-two: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52
“He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalm 126:6, ASV
There’s a scene in the movie “Sweet Home Alabama” where Reese Witherspoon’s character Melanie Smooter is in the kitchen with her mother making something with plums. As Pearl is peeling one to put in the pot, she comments to Melanie about how most people would reject those plums because they were too ripe, but that they are the best for making jam. They get sweeter with age.
I know that I’m very particular when I purchase fruits and vegetables. I don’t want them to be too ripe because then they’ll be no good when I want to eat them, especially bananas. Doesn’t it seem like bananas go brown the minute you get them home? But if you buy them a little under ripe, they are perfect for breakfast the next day. Yet, you can’t make a loaf of banana bread with bananas that aren’t ripe enough, so sometimes those brown bananas on the shelf are perfect.
I’m currently hunting for the perfect pumpkins to decorate my house for Halloween. Unfortunately, the picking is slim these days: the stores had pumpkins out weeks ago and they are not replacing the depleted stock at this point. The best pumpkins are gone. But then we have to ask ourselves, “What does the best pumpkin look like?” Is a pumpkin with a flat side or wobbly bottom really that bad? Is the perfect pumpkin one that is big and fat and round or tall and skinny? Can a tiny pumpkin do the job or do we really need the one that weighs a hundred pounds?
I live in Texas where “bigger is better,” but is it? I know that we tend as human beings to find value in big things. Rulers tend to be taller than average. The women who are said to be the most beautiful have legs that go on forever and ample bosoms. The people we consider the most intelligent are those that are extremely good speakers, even if the words they say do not make any sense at all. The best philosophers are those who say something that sounds good to our ears. We want the best, and we have defined what it means to be the best by certain characteristics that don’t necessarily make them the best. Like the overripe plums that most people would reject, sometimes the ones we reject are actually the ones we should choose.
A terribly sad and horrifying example of how man has chosen the strong over the weak is the story of Adolf Hitler. Now, we know that Hitler sought to extinguish the nation of Israel one person at a time, and he did so in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. But did you know that he also killed others in his quest to build a perfect race of humans? He emptied hospitals of invalids and told their families that they’d died of natural causes. He killed those who had imperfections: the lame, the blind, the homosexual, the orphan. If he deemed their lives of no use to the world, then he killed them.
But listen to the words of Jeremiah: “Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall they return hither.” God was not going to bring together the best of the best. He wasn’t going to gather the strong or handsome. He wasn’t seeking the smartest, richest or most powerful. He gathered together the weak. He restored the weak and the lame, the women at their most vulnerable. They were the ones that He promised to take home and He promised to protect them along the way.
Jeremiah tells us that they would come with weeping. See, those who are weak recognize their need and weep because they see that there is someone who cares. The strong have no need of a savior; they can save themselves. But the weak need someone who is willing to do the unexpected. The weak need someone who is willing to turn the world upside down, to find value in imperfection and to lift up those who the world would rather throw away. God is the One who does this. They may have returned with weeping, but it was tears of humble thankfulness and joy.
We see this in the Psalm for today, which is a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s saving grace. Their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with singing. Can one weep and laugh at the same time? I know I have. “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” There is a time for sorrow and a time for joy. Those who suffer are more readily available to receive God’s help. They look to Him. They trust in Him. They accept their own weakness and count on His strength. The tears of penitence and humility will be sowed into sheaves of bountiful blessings.
Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. Today the blind can find many opportunities to be productive members of society, but in Jesus’ day that had no chance. It was difficult for them to earn a living, not only because there was little they could do without sight, but also because people would be hesitant to support their work. If they were blind, then they were rejected by God for some reason. They must have sinned to have to suffer in this way. In the case of Bartimaeus and others who are seen begging in the scriptures, unscrupulous people may have dumped them in a place where they could beg instead of taking care of them or helping them find something productive to do.
Bartimaeus was on the side of the road begging when he heard a commotion. Was he there by choice or was he dumped by someone who didn’t want the responsibility? We don’t know. We do know that Bartimaeus knew about Jesus. He had probably heard stories of other healing, perhaps even stories about men who had been blind. He couldn’t run up to Jesus the way others who sought healing could do; it was dangerous for him to even try. Would he trip over a rock or a child? Would he run into someone who might hurt him? Would he make a fool of himself trying to find Jesus in the crowd? He couldn’t move out of fear.
However, faith is stronger than fear and Bartimaeus called to Jesus. “Son of David!” he said. This is the only place in Mark’s Gospel where this title is used. It is interesting to note that it is unusual for the man to be named. We don’t hear the names of many of those who interact with Jesus. Even the rich young man is nameless. Yet in this particular story, we are given the blind man’s name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.
Now, I was curious… could there be some importance to the name Timaeus? As I did a search on the Internet, I discovered that one of Plato’s final dialogues was titled, “Timaeus.” Though I have to admit that I only had a brief time to study this possibility and the language was confusing at best, it seems that the dialogue is between several philosophers including one named Timaeus who is the source of a lengthy monologue about the nature of the world, both physical and eternal. Timaeus seems to lay out Plato’s understanding of physics and the role of man in the world.
In such a short time I wasn’t able to fully comprehend Plato’s understanding of God or creation. Was he on the right track? The Greek philosophers, including Plato, have impacted Christian thought from the beginning. Is it good or bad? I can honestly say that I haven’t studied it enough to know for sure. We do not have time to debate the ancient Greek philosophers, but I wonder if the importance of Bartimaeus’ name has something to do with his understanding of the world. Was he someone who followed platonic philosophy? Did he see the world the way Timaeus does in the dialogue? And if so, does this brief encounter tell us more than just how Jesus healed him of his physical sight, but also how Jesus helped him see the world in a new way—through God’s eyes?
Bartimaeus addressed Jesus as “Son of David.” He saw Jesus as a savior, as the Messiah. This is not just about Jesus changing his life by giving him sight; it is about Jesus giving him the sight to see the reality of God. In verse 50, Mark tells us that when Jesus called Bartimaeus to Himself, Bartimaeus got up and ‘casting away his garment’ went to Jesus. What was that garment? Might it have been a piece of clothing that identified him as one who followed Greek philosophy? Might it have simply been his ideology and philosophy? In answering the call of Jesus, Bartimaeus not only went to Jesus in hope of being healed, but in humble recognition that he needed Jesus to clear up his views about God. Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answered, “Rabbi,” identifying Jesus as a teacher, “I want to see.”
We can read this story as it plainly is: a healing story. The blind man Bartimaeus received his sight because he believed. His faith made him whole. He could see and he could become a productive member of society again because his blindness no longer forced him to beg. But the story might reveal far more than just the physical healing of the man. This is a story of one man recognizing the reality of Jesus, the first in Mark’s Gospel to publically identify Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior, the Eternal One manifest in human flesh. Whatever the Greek world thought about God, creation and the created order, Bartimaeus saw the truth.
And that truth is that there was something eternal about the work Jesus was doing. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “But he, because he abideth for ever, hath his priesthood unchangeable.” Jesus the Messiah was the end of the line, the last priest, because He was the only one who could save anyone completely. The other priests could offer sacrifices, but they could not intervene forever because they were imperfect and perishable. But Jesus who is, “holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” is able to provide eternal intervention. His sacrifice was sufficient to restore us to God forever.
Do we believe this? Are we willing to follow God with tears of sorrow, humbling ourselves before the only One who is able to make us truly see? Will we see ourselves as we truly are: imperfect and weak, requiring the grace of God to make us whole? We might want to pick only the perfect plums or bananas mates or rulers, but God doesn’t choose perfection. He saves those who need to be saved. He chose us, not because we are good or perfect, the biggest or the best, but because we need Him.
He came that we might see, not only with our eyes but with our souls. It is easy to get caught up in the philosophies of our world, to see the world through the eyes of those who have power and strength, knowledge and charisma. But Jesus came to save the world, and us, from ourselves. He came to restore us to the Father. We all have our weakness, our reason for sorrow and tears, but God calls us to Himself and He will turn our tears into joy with His bounteous blessings.
“Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify unto thee: I am God, even thy God. I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices; And thy burnt-offerings are continually before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, Nor he-goats out of thy folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, And the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains; And the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee; For the world is mine, and the fulness thereof. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of goats? Offer unto God the sacrifice of thanksgiving; And pay thy vows unto the Most High: And call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.” Psalm 50:7-15, ASV
I heard a story recently about a church where the pastor has decided to allow cell phone use during the worship. He claims that it is a biblical idea, quoting Mark 16:5, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” He encourages the congregation to share the Gospel message through social media in the moment, so if a scripture or song brings someone to mind, the congregation is invited to let that person know immediately. Some of the posts include questions on Facebook to make people think, pictures on Instagram of members who need to a good word, texts to loved ones to tell them how much they are loved. I’m sure many tweet about God’s love and forgiveness.
In an earlier article about a similar program, the pastor said that the lets the congregation use their smart phones to find more information about the text. One respondent in that article said that by looking it up, she was better able to understand what the pastor was saying. The congregation can also send prayer requests or ideas for music via their cell phones.
Of course, there are many who consider these practices disrespectful. I can see the value in the immediacy of the message, after all, we do tend to forget to look things by the time we get to a place or time we can do so. But I do not agree with the criticism of those who are bothered by the text, saying they are unwilling to move with the times or adapt to modern culture.
The question I have to ask, however, is what is worship? What are we doing in that place at that time? Is that when we are meant to be ‘out in the world?’ Or are we gathered together in that place to experience the presence of God? Texting and tweeting and posting on social media takes our attention from the One we are there to honor. If we are busy ‘taking the Gospel to the world’ or searching the Internet for the meaning of texts, are we worshipping God with our whole hearts?
A story is told about a man who had a dream where he saw our worship from heaven. An angel took him into a church during a service and everything seemed normal; the people were singing with the musicians and listening to the minister speaking God’s word. The problem? There was no sound. When the man asked what this meant, the angel answered that it was how worship was heard in heaven, for though the lips of the people were making the motions; their hearts and minds were elsewhere.
Think about how you feel when a companion is constantly on their phone during a lunch date. Do you feel like they are with you, or that they want to be somewhere else? Now, imagine that the one you are meeting for lunch is God. Should you give Him your full attention, or a half-hearted visit where you are busy focusing on others?
The people in our psalm for today were giving burnt offerings and sacrifices to God, but they were not giving Him their heart. We give a different type of offering today, but we do so with a similar heart. God does not need our money any more than He needed the bulls and lambs in ancient times. He does not need us to text the world at that moment: He wants our attention, our thanksgiving and praise. He wants us to fill ourselves with His love and mercy and grace so that we can then go out into the world to share the Gospel message with others. Is it too much to ask us to set aside a few hours a week to focus on Him and Him alone?
“And as they spake these things, he himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they beheld a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and wherefore do questionings arise in your heart? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye behold me having. And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here anything to eat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish. And he took it, and ate before them.” Luke 36-43, ASV
I was working on a project the other day using Mod Podge. Mod Podge is a like a watered down white glue that you use for decoupage, a technique of putting paper collage onto another surface. In this case, I was covering a picture frame. The glue isn’t just used to attach the paper to the surface, but also covers it with a shiny seal coat. It doesn’t matter how messy you get. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter how hard you try to stay neat when doing decoupage… you are going to be a mess when it is over.
It is very important to get right into the muck with your hands. Air tends to get trapped beneath the paper, and then it doesn’t adhere very well and you are left with bubbles where you don’t want them. So, though you could just use a brush to put the glue onto the surface and paper, it is much better to use your fingers to press the air out. I even put plenty of Mod Podge on top so that I have smoother control on the piece. I usually have to wash my hands several times during one project, just so that I can feel the trouble spots.
We need our eyes to see, but sometimes our sense of touch is more reliable. In the decoupage, I can sometimes see the air pockets with my eyes, but I can always feel them with my fingers. I’ve noticed that I do a better job when I’m washing my dishes if I feel the plate with my hands rather than just trust my eyes and the sponge. Typists know that they can work so much faster if they use the finger touch methods rather than searching with their eyes for the right keys. A good chef knows when a steak is finished by touch rather than sight.
We are at such a disadvantage. We can’t walk and talk with Jesus as the first disciples did. We can’t eat with Him or see Him face to face. We can’t even depend on our eyes, let alone our hands to know His presence. We have to rely on faith. But we do have this: even the disciples who did touch His resurrected body still ‘disbelieved,’ they needed more. They needed what we have been given: the Spirit.
Though they did not yet have the Spirit, Jesus understood that the disciples needed to experience Him with all their senses. They needed to see Him, hear Him and even touch Him, so He invited them to put their fingers in His wounds. Perhaps we can’t touch Him in the same way, but He invites us to experience Him in very real and tangible ways. Perhaps that’s why the best worship employs all our senses, with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and even touch. We might not be able to put our fingers in the wounds on His hands and side, but we can touch our neighbor, dry their tears, pray over their hurts and hug the loneliness away. We can’t touch God, but we can be like God’s hands in this world and feel Him as we touch the world with His grace.
“But if any hath caused sorrow, he hath caused sorrow, not to me, but in part (that I press not too heavily) to you all. Sufficient to such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the many; so that contrariwise ye should rather forgive him and comfort him, lest by any means such a one should be swallowed up with his overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you to confirm your love toward him. For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye are obedient in all things. But to whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also: for what I also have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, for your sakes have I forgiven it in the presence of Christ; that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan: for we are not ignorant of his devices.” 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, ASV
My opinion of Halloween festivities vacillates from one year to another. I loved Halloween when I was a kid. I went trick or treating with my best friend and we often had a sleepover so that our fun could continue well into the night. I love to carve pumpkins and I have put a lot of time into creating a decorative façade at our house. We went to pumpkin patches when the kids were young, and inevitably I found the biggest pumpkin in the field. Some of those pumpkins were so big that Bruce had to find help lifting it into a wheelbarrow and the car.
Halloween is a time when we can get creative. I don’t buy many premade decorations or costumes, choosing instead to make my own out of things we have in the house or can buy at a second-hand store. I have several old gowns that I use to make ‘ghosts’ that hang from trees. I use white yarn to create extra large spider webs. I even found the instructions for making a skeleton out of PVC pipe and fittings. My decorations are usually more fun than scary. I don’t want to frighten the children, but I want them to know that our house is a good one to visit. I’m looking forward to Halloween this year and have already put some fun decorations in our yard.
My problem with the holiday is not necessarily because there are pagan roots to the celebration. I do question our focus on death and evil. Witches and zombies are not cute even if you make them cartoons and put a smile on their faces. Death is never something to celebrate. Sex also sells well at Halloween. In years past, sexy costumes were available for adults, who bought them to wear to parties at bars and the homes of friends. Lately, though, those sexy costumes are now available for our children. Should a child of six be wearing a ‘sexy pumpkin’ costume which is a shoulder-less dress and miniskirt? It might be cute, but is it appropriate for a child?
Despite these negatives, I do like the fun of Halloween. I have nothing against good, clean fun. Halloween has become the second most popular holiday and this is evident as you visit the retail stores and drive through the neighborhoods where plenty of houses are decorated with lights and other things. It is hard to not get caught up in the festivities. I have decorated our house with lights, spider webs, pumpkins and my PVC skeleton. I’m looking forward to visits from children dressed in costume. It is a time when we get to meet our neighbors, even if just for a minute. We are in a new neighborhood, so we don’t know how many children we will see, but we are hopeful that it will be a fun night for everyone.
How will I feel about it afterwards? I don’t know. I think that will depend on how the children act. Will we have polite characters that are thankful for the treats they will receive? Or will they be greedy and rude, as we’ve seen in years past? Will I have lines of children coming in from outside the neighborhood, trying to fill another bag with candy? Will I decorate next year of find something else to do on Halloween night? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. For now, I am excited for Halloween.
Have you ever wondered why non-Christians think negatively about our faith? I wonder how often it has to do with the people they meet who claim to be Christian. We don’t always make a very good impression, especially when we say one thing and do another. Do we live as if we are thankful, praising God for the wonderful gifts He has given so that the world will see Him glorified in our lives? Or are we greedy and rude, ignoring our neighbor’s needs while pursing our own desires? Satan is certainly willing to take advantage of every opportunity to turn people away from Christ, and we often fall into the trap of being used by him.
There may be aspects of Halloween that we should avoid. It is not good to focus on death and evil. It is not good to dress our children as sex objects. It is not good for people to be self-centered and to chase after the pleasures of this world in ways that might harm a neighbor. But we are called to be witnesses to Christ in all things, perhaps even more so during those times when the world is focused on all the wrong things. I’m going to open my doors to the Trick-or-Treaters, inviting them into my life if only for a minute. God has blessed us with life in this world for a purpose: to be His witnesses. There is no better time to do so than on a day when Satan thinks he’s getting all the attention. Give glory to God; share the name of Jesus today.
“God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth do change, And though the mountains be shaken into the heart of the seas; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, Though the mountains tremble with the swelling thereof. Selah There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, The holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God will help her, and that right early. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved: He uttered his voice, the earth melted. Jehovah of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah Come, behold the works of Jehovah, What desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; He burneth the chariots in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Jehovah of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah” Psalm 46, ASV
On Sunday morning I saw a picture on Facebook made by the demotivatorsite.com people. These are posters that have pictures and funny statements meant to make you laugh. This particular picture was of Martin Luther, and the caption read, “Reformation Day: Because theology geeks need a holiday, too!” It made me laugh, and of course I reposted the picture to make my other Lutheran friends and fellow theology geeks laugh.
Sunday was Reformation Sunday, and tomorrow is Reformation Day, so it is an appropriate time to think about the impact Martin Luther had on the Church and the world nearly five centuries ago. Martin Luther was a monk, a priest, and a teacher. He lived during a time of darkness; the people were extremely superstitious and afraid. The leaders of the church used that fear by offering the people a way to guarantee their salvation. Indulgences, papers that granted forgiveness, were given for those who could pay. They were like a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card. If you had enough money, you could even buy salvation for your loved ones. The money, of course, was used to build a big, beautiful new cathedral. The superstitious people fell for it and bought the indulgences thinking they could buy their way out of hell.
Martin Luther was a passionate preacher and theologian, constantly searching for the truth in God’s Word. He was so afraid of his own sinfulness that he was certain there was no way he could ever be saved. Then, as he studied the book of Romans, he realized that it is Christ who saves us, and even though we are sinners, He makes us saints. He was freed from the dread of failure to live in the joy of faith. His assurance would never come with a million indulgences, but only with the Word of Christ.
This realization rooted itself deeply into everything Martin Luther did and said. Sometime between 1527 and 1529, he penned his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Based on the text in Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress” has been called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” In it, Luther lays all the trials and tribulations that he and the Church were facing at the feet of God, claiming His power and protection. Though fear was an everyday part of life, there was nothing that could overcome the grace of God.
As we sang it this past Sunday, I took special note of the final verse. “That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God's truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.” This is a powerful statement of faith from one who knew what it was like to lose everything.
It is easy to trust God when we are living well in our strong homes with plenty of food to eat because we really have nothing to fear. But the test of faith is believing that God is our refuge even when the storms of life are raging around us. Luther risked his life, his home, his family and even his vocation to stand for the truth that he discovered in the scriptures. He was excommunicated, threatened and forced into hiding. He lived through war and famine, disease and other disasters. He suffered from physical ailments, too. Through it all, he believed.
Martin Luther was in no way perfect. He had about him a certain arrogance. He was brash and bold and loud. He was a sinner in need of a savior. What makes Luther great is that He found the Savior and He did not waver in his faith and in the truth no matter what others did to him. He stood firmly on the Word of God and lived in the grace that God has so freely given to each of us. If only we could all be so faithful.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 4, 2012, Pentecost Twenty-three: Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Psalm 119:1-8; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
“Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah: and thou shalt love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5, ASV
On Monday and Tuesday in A WORD FOR TODAY I took the opportunity to talk about Halloween and Reformation Day, both of which are celebrated today, October 31st since today is the day we’ll look at the text for next Sunday’s lectionary. Despite having talked about it already, I couldn’t help but think about Martin Luther as I read the Old Testament text for today.
Martin Luther was an educator, both in the University and in the Church. His sermons are said to have been filled with lessons about the scriptures, and passion for the Word. He couldn’t speak softly; it was too exciting for him to share what he had discovered about God. Sadly, he didn’t see the same passion from the parishioners. He discovered during his ministry that most people didn’t care much about their faith. They attended church, probably more regularly than many Christians today, but they didn’t know what they believed. They went, they listened and then they forgot the minute they left the sanctuary. Perhaps the fault lay with the pastors and preachers, most of whom had little more knowledge or passion than the average person. The pastors were certainly unskilled and incapable of teaching the people.
Martin Luther decided to do something about it. He wrote a catechism designed for use in the home. It explained the basic tenets of faith in a way that the common man could teach it to his own children. The family was expected to spend time each day in the catechism so that the children would learn and grow in their faith and knowledge of God’s Word. It was not enough to Luther for the believer to know the prayers and creeds by rote. He wanted them to understand them, too. In the catechism, he wrote one sentence explanations answering a simple question, “Was ist das?” which means “What is this?”
Luther was not the first to create a catechism. They had been around for many years, given to new believers to instruct them in the faith. They included the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments, usually in that order. Martin Luther took the opportunity to put even more substance into the catechism by changing the order of those three important documents of faith. He began with the Ten Commandments, then included instruction about the Creed and finally the Lord’s Prayer. His order took the believer from Law to Gospel, so that the believer could see their need for grace, confess their faith in Christ and then learn how to pray for the grace to live that life in this world.
Our Old Testament lesson says, “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” This is what Luther intended with the catechism. It was a way to teach the children, so that the Word of God would be written on their hearts. When the Word dwells within us, we walk in the light and live according to God’s good and perfect Law.
The Law was not given to oppress or burden the people, but to protect them. God’s Law is not a bunch of rules that we have to keep, it is a sign, a gift. The Law was given so that the people would remember God and look to Him always. Whenever they turned away, disobedient to the Law and their God, they suffered the consequences of a broken relationship. When they observed the commandments, they enjoyed the blessed life that God promised. The commandments are instructions about relationships, how to keep them strong – first with God, then with each other. They also affect our relationship with ourselves. When these relationships are broken, we have no peace or joy.
Now, Martin Luther discovered the reality of the Law: no matter how hard we try, we are to live perfectly. We fail. We sin. We break the relationships that God has given to us, with Himself and with our neighbor. That is why our Lord Jesus came, to show the true purpose of the Law—so that by it we will turn our hearts and minds to Him for salvation rather than our own ability to be obedient. That’s why the Ten Commandments are first in Luther’s catechism. As we discover our inability to be righteous, we see our need for Jesus.
In recent years, many parents decided to give their children the freedom to come to faith on their own. They didn’t want to drag a child to church only to have them reject it when they were older. Instead, they let the children choose if they wanted to be Christian or whatever. The problem with this practice is that faith comes from hearing. How will they know if they never hear God’s Word spoken? Is it force to take a child to Sunday school and worship during their childhood? It is not bondage; it is a gift. We are called as parents to give to our children the same opportunity to know Jesus as we were given. If we don’t, they won’t.
That responsibility goes beyond just taking a child to Sunday school and worship on Sunday. When Lutherans (and others) have our children baptized, we make promises to raise them in the true faith. The responsibilities of teaching the child fall also upon the congregational community. At the baptism ceremony, we make promises, too. “After this child has been baptized you are at all times to remember [him/her] in your prayers, put [him/her] in mind of [his/her] Baptism, and, as much as in you lies, give your counsel and aid, especially if [he/she] should lose [his/her] parents, that [he/she] be brought up in the true knowledge and worship of God and be taught the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer; and that, as [he/she] grows in years, you place in [his/her] hands the Holy Scriptures, bring [him/her] to the services of God's house, and provide for [his/her] further instruction in the Christian faith, that [he/she] come to the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood and thus, abiding in [his/her] baptismal grace and in communion with the Church, [he/she] may grow up to lead a godly life to the praise and honor of Jesus Christ.”
We have a responsibility to not only go out into the world and tell people about Jesus, but to help them become disciples of Christ throughout their lives.
The Law will never make someone a Christian, and following the Law will never make someone righteous. We can’t do it on our own. But even as Adam and Eve believed the word of the serpent over the word of God, God had a plan to make everything right. Now, over the years people tried to find ways to make things right with God. Even the scriptures give us temporary solutions to the problem. Priests offered sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people. Even though they tried to live according to the Law, there was always something that was not right. The blood of goats and sheep poured on the altar for the sake of the people. That type of sacrifice would never be right. The sin was too great for mankind to overcome.
The writer of Hebrews makes it clear: the old ways were not good enough. The blood of goats and sheep could not do the job. Only the blood of Jesus would bring us the assurance of the promises of God. The reality of what will be came with His willingness to be obedient to what God intended for His life. Nothing we can do can change that. We are made holy by His holiness, and in that holiness are freed and empowered to live as God intends for us to live: loving Him and our neighbor with our entire being.
A scribe came to Jesus who was in the middle of a debate with the Sadducees. They did not believe in the resurrection, and so were arguing with Jesus about what would happen to a woman who in this life married seven brothers, all of whom died without an heir. “Whose wife will she be?” they asked. Jesus answered that the new life after resurrection is different, that there is no marriage. He also reminded them that God referred to Israel’s patriarchs in the present tense to Moses, despite their being dead for generations, proving that God is the God of the living, not the dead.
The scribe doesn’t come as an aggressive adversary like the others, trying to prove Jesus wrong. He comes with a sincere desire to talk and learn. The teacher of the law liked what he heard, and asked Jesus which commandment was the most important one. Jesus quoted two Old Testament passages, including a verse from our Old Testament passage for the day. “Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah: and thou shalt love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Then He quoted Leviticus 19 which gave a second command. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The man answered, “Of a truth, Teacher, thou hast well said that he is one; and there is none other but he: and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is much more than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” He accepted Jesus’ authority as a teacher and expounded upon the lesson, thus showing himself an authority, also.
No one asked Jesus any more questions. This was a turning point in His ministry. He had already been triumphantly welcomed into Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders tried to catch him in every type of foible: social, religious, political. There were no questions left to ask, but Jesus still has something to say.
It seems that at least a few of the leaders were beginning to understand and believe in Jesus. But the rest knew they had to find a way to stop Him. Jesus did nothing to ease their fears. Jesus did not fear what would come because He knew that it was the way it must be. The time He spent with the disciples and His followers was wonderful, but the cross was the reason He was sent. The cross was the answer to our failure in the Garden of Eden. The forgiveness promised to God’s people would only come after Jesus completed His work in this world. Hope for the future would never be found at the end of a debate over law or in the opinions of men. It would be found only in the blood of the Savior, shed on the cross.
When the scribe agreed that Jesus had spoken well about the two great laws, Jesus answered, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” Those words are given to us, too. We are not far from the kingdom of God. It might seem like we are, particularly when our world is as confused and upset as it is. In many ways we are, perhaps, living in a time just like Martin Luther. People might go to church on a regular basis, but do they know why they believe? Do you understand the tenets of faith? Do they care about God’s Word with a passion that can’t be silenced? People still live by fear. They still try to earn their way into heaven. They still offer sacrifices (though usually not blood) to appease the gods.
I’ve chosen to focus on the text for the Twenty-third Sunday of Pentecost, but most churches will probably be celebrating All Saints Sunday. All Saints is a time for remembering those who have passed from life into eternal life. But there is more to this day than honoring the dead.
It all began in the early days of the Church, when Christians were being martyred for their faith. The day of their death was considered their ‘birthday’ because it was the day they entered into the eternal presence of God. They were remembered on that day with a feast or a festival and honored for their faith. First there were local commemorations but soon the feasts of the martyrs were shared and celebrated in many places. Eventually all the saints were honored, whether they were martyred or had an extraordinary faithfulness. Soon there were so many saints that it became difficult to honor every one on their individual ‘birthdays’ so the Church chose one day to remember the saints. In the eighth or ninth century, that date became November 1st.
It is so easy for us to make this special day about celebrating the ones we’ve lost. We grieve, and rightly so, those who have gone from our lives. We are fascinated by the lives they lived and wonder about what is happening to them now. We look forward to the day when we will join them in the eternal presence of God. But All Saints is not just about those who have come before us. It is about all the saints in God’s kingdom. That includes those who now believe and those who will believe because we have shared the Good News of Christ with them. All Saints celebrates the Church, the family of God throughout all time, from the beginning to the end, from Genesis to Revelation.
We are part of the community of saints from the moment we are baptized into Christ, having heard the saving word of forgiveness and welcomed into the loving embrace of our Father. We are saints, just as they are saints, and this day is also for us. I know it is difficult to believe. After all, we continue to fail to live up to the expectations of the Law. We continue to break the relationships that God has given to us. We try to love God and our neighbor, but we can’t; we sin in thought, word and deed, by what we do and what we don’t do.
And yet we, like the scribe in the Gospel lesson, are not far from the kingdom of God. We are made saints, not by our own faith or ability. We are saints because Jesus became the perfect sacrifice and died for us. His blood was not temporary like the sacrifices we make on the altars where we worship. His blood is so much greater because it was shed by God to restore us to Him. His plan to make things right was finished on the cross.
We live in the hope of what will come, but we live today, too. While we will continue to fail, we are called to be the best we can be. The Law, which once made us see how we needed Jesus, is a gift that keeps on giving, because it helps us to live in faith. “Blessed are they that are perfect in the way, who walk in the law of Jehovah. Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, that seek him with the whole heart.”
Perfect? I doubt I’ll ever be perfect, but I can look to God to help me live as He wants me to live, beginning with loving God. As we love God, will we strive to know Him, to understand His Word and to make it our own. When the Word dwells within us, we walk in the light and live according to God’s good and perfect Law.