Welcome to the October 2013 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 2013
October 1, 2013
“And further, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he pondered, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words, and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads; and as nails well fastened are the words of the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard: fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, ASV
I read a lot of books. I read for entertainment, for learning, for inspiration. My favorite fictional books are about history, especially English history. Philippa Gregory, Edward Rutherford, and Bernard Cornwall are among my favorites authors. I have several children’s books that will always be in my collection, and I have a few books on religion that I reference regularly. I learn a lot from the books, although you have to be careful not to take every book as completely factual. Fiction means “not real” even if it is based on some historical facts.
We have to carefully discern what we learn from the books we read. I once recommended a book to a friend which impressed her greatly. When we met again, she was so excited about what she’d read. “I think this book is as important as the scriptures.” It was a story that described the last days of Jesus from the point of view of the writer. That writer claimed to have had a vision from God and it seemed so real to my friend. I was shocked, but told her that she must not put so much faith into the words of one human. And then I gave her another book, of the same subject matter, from a completely different perspective.
I asked her, “Which is true?” She didn’t know, and so we came back to the Gospel stories about Jesus. I reminded her that writers can share their stories, but we have to discern what knowledge is useful to us by comparing it to the Word given to us by God. Any writer can claim that God inspired and directed their writing, and perhaps He has. But we have to remember that witnesses see things through their own lenses, and their understanding is skewed by their own experience and bias. There may be something to learn from both stories, but we can’t count either as the Gospel.
The pursuit of knowledge is a good thing, as long as we carefully discern the words of the authors. There are many books offered today in the bookstores that provide little to guide a Christian’s life, yet they are being sold as the way to understand God. Books on the end times, on prayer, on self-improvement, on health, wisdom and prosperity are touted as coming from God Himself, yet are filled with distortions of the Truth. People are being led astray under the guise of Christian literature, because they do not know nor understand God’s Word, as they should. It is enough to be afraid to even read any books besides the Bible.
In today’s passage the teacher writes, “This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard: fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.” No matter what we read, no matter whose books we use to entertain, educate and inspire us, there is only one end to our quest: fear God and obey Him. We don’t much like the word fear, but the fear of God is much different than the fear we have in the world. We fear the world because we know that the devil wants to lead us astray and we need to stay on our toes so that we always follow God’s Word. The fear we have for God is so much different.
The fear of God is reverence and worship. We need not be afraid of the world if we keep God and His good and perfect Word as the focus of our lives. There are wise people writing about the Gospel today. God inspires them to share the message of salvation with the world. These final words from Ecclesiastes sum up the pursuit of knowledge: the words gathered should lead one to live in a right relationship with God, or else it is just a tiring waste of time. The one thing that matters to Him is that we live as we were created to live, in reverent and humble service to the One who is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 6, 2013, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 62; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:1-10
“And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” Luke 17:4. ASV
I type a lot. Between the writing I do for this devotional and the work I’ve been doing for my publisher, as well as emails and Facebook posts, I type thousands of words a day. I learned touch typing in High School; it was a recommended class for college prep students so that they would be able to type papers in college. I have developed my typing abilities over the years and I can type fairly fast and accurately. I prefer to write at the computer because I can type as fast as I think, so it is easier to keep up with my thoughts in type rather than in pen and ink.
I have a difficult time with typing on the phone, however. Though the keyboards are built the same, it is impossible to touch type on a phone because it is so small. I usually use my thumbs to type, and unfortunately they are so big that I often hit the wrong key. It drives me crazy to have typos or to use the typical abbreviations, and I can’t type nearly as fast as I think, so texting can be quite frustrating to me.
Now, though I am fast and fairly accurate, I have to admit that there are certain words that I consistently type wrong. I often switch letters or hit the space key a letter too early. I usually find my mistakes so you don’t have to see them, but I’m sure you have all noticed my typographical errors over the years. It can be so frustrating to have the same mistakes over and over again, but those mistakes seem to have become a natural part of my typing. They are learned, and I’m finding it hard to overcome them.
Typos do not cause anyone suffering, at least I hope they don’t. I know that sometimes my typographical errors make the sentences more difficult to read, and sometimes they even change the meaning. I have to laugh at some of those errors and the message that they convey. But what happens when we make a consistent error that does impact those around us? What happens when we sin repeatedly in a way that hurts those we love?
I suppose one of the most blatant examples of recurring sin has to do with the language we use. Oh, I don’t know if bad words are really harmful to others, but there are definitely words that are bothersome. Curse words are just words, but let’s look at the reality of one of the tamer of those words. What does it say when we consistently cry “God damn you.” What does that do to the listener? Surely we know that God will not damn someone based on our out of control tongue, but does the listener know that? Does the listener brush it off as being a meaningless comment? Does our bad habit of damning everything that upsets us glorify God?
It is shocking the first time we use one of those bad words, but after we use them a couple times they become an important part of our vocabulary. Most of us have heard a comedian or two who can’t tell a story without using the “f” word repeatedly. It has become their shtick; it is part of their character. However, it does nothing for the stories or jokes, and it causes me to change the channel. Those who enjoy that type of humor see the word as acceptable, and even cool, and it becomes a part of their vocabulary. You can hear it spoken on street corners in conversations that make no sense because the ‘verbal pause’ of that word has no purpose. It is not edifying and it causes many who need to hear a good word to turn us off.
Of course, we all have habitual language that we use, words or sounds that automatically enter our conversation, and they aren’t really harmful. The point is that it is easy for us to get into habits that are hard to break, and some of those habits are truly harmful to others. What driving habits are dangerous? What lies have become a daily part of our lives? What foods or drinks or other substances have become habitual that cause us to act in a way that affects our family and neighbors? It is easy to get caught up in habits that seem insignificant that become overwhelmingly difficult to overcome.
Thank goodness Jesus commands us to forgive repeatedly, or we would destroy every relationship with our bad habits. I cringe when I hear bad language and I leave the room. I’d rather not be with the person who uses it. Families can fall apart due to someone’s excessiveness in work or play. Even the little white lies that become a natural part of our conversations can create distrust between people. Yet, I think in most cases it is easy to forgive one another of these little things, probably because we know we are guilty, too.
It is the bigger things that become difficult to forgive. How often can we forgive someone who hurts us? How many times can we forgive the person who leads us down a dangerous path? How often should we forgive the neighbor who takes what is not theirs or does what makes life more difficult for us? Do we really have to forgive the co-worker who has lied to get another promotion over us? Do we really have to forgive the drunk driver who killed another innocent person? Do we really have to forgive that politician who says one thing but does another?
Let us remember, though, that Jesus doesn’t say that we must forgive an unrepentant person. He says, “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” It is up to us to help our brothers and sisters overcome those sins that have become habitual. How will a person who curses never realize how their language is making us feel if we never say anything? How will a co-worker realize that the way to get a promotion is by hard work if we do not call them on their lies? How will the drunk driver ever stop hurting others if we do not help them to see that their addictions are dangerous?
Yes, God calls us to forgive, but it is not a blind forgiveness that ignores the reality of sin. His Word brings light to reveal our mistakes, our errors, our sins. His Law is a mirror that reflects that we are sinners in need of a Savior, we make mistakes that need to be rectified, and we have habits that need to be overcome. God calls us to help one another become the people He calls us to be, and we do so by revealing to one another our failures, calling one another to repentance and forgiving one another when we do. Remember, we are not only called to forgive our neighbors, they are called to forgive us. Together we will overcome those habits that do not glorify God.
But I don’t blame the apostles for asking Jesus to help them do it. “Increase our faith,” they asked. I don’t like to call out my neighbors on those things that disturb me, because so much of it seems so unimportant; it doesn’t cause me any lasting physical, mental, emotional or spiritual harm, right? We just brush it off, but as the behavior continues, over and over again, we lose control of our emotions and find the little things become big. That’s when relationships die and when we do the things that are more obviously against God’s will.
And how do you go on forgiving and forgiving the same things? How do you forgive anything seventy times seven times? Really? At what point are repentant words no longer repentance? At what point do we stop trying to help one another overcome those habits that do not glorify God? Perhaps the better question to ask, however, is how many times do we want our neighbors to forgive the habits that we are having trouble overcoming? When will you stop reading these devotions because of my poor typing and grammatical errors? Or will you continue to forgive me my mistakes, even if I continue to make them over and over again?
Jesus tells the apostles that this is not a matter of faith or a gift from God, but an expectation of those who have been forgiven. After all, God has forgiven us all our sins. Jesus died to make things right between our Father and His children. He has forgiven, and forgiven, and forgiven even though we continue to sin against Him. He forgives us our trespasses even as we forgive those who trespass against us. This we do not do to earn our forgiveness; this we do because we are forgiven. This is our duty.
Ah, there is yet another word that bothers us: duty. We think of duty as it is defined in today’s language, “An act or a course of action that is required of one by position, social custom, law, or religion.” Those of us who understand our inability to live up to the Law cringe at the idea that God requires anything of us. But what it means in the Greek is more subtle. We are bound by God’s forgiveness to forgive. We are obliged by God’s grace to be gracious. That’s our duty, and in the end we do not deserve a seat at the table in heaven for doing what we owe to God for His mercy.
What God knows and we often forget is that people are simply not trustworthy: we will, until the day we die, fail to live up to anyone’s expectations. We can try. We can work through our failings and overcome our habits, but we will fall again. And again. And again. That doesn’t mean that we should not trust. Talk about moving mountains! What matters is that God is trustworthy, and He has forgiven us seventy times seven times and more for failing to live up to His expectations.
The problem we have with forgiving is that we connect it to trust. We want to have faith in that person, to believe that they will never do it again. This is easy the first time. The second time, well we think perhaps they might have learned their lesson. It gets a little harder after the third time, but by the fourth we know there is no way they are changing, repenting or overcoming whatever it is that they are doing wrong. We can no longer trust them. We don’t have faith.
Forgiveness is not dependent on whether or not we trust that our brother will not hurt us again. Thank goodness, because how could God forgive us if it was? So, Jesus calls us to forgive despite the unworthiness of our neighbor. Jesus says, “If he comes to you and repents seven times, forgive him every time.” We can’t put our faith in people, they will always fail. Only God is worthy of our faith, we can trust that He will make everything right no matter how wrong it seems.
And sometimes it seems very wrong. Take, for example, the story of Judah. They had turned away from God. Judah was filled with wickedness, strife and oppression, and Habakkuk seemed upset that God would not deal with His people. The book of Habakkuk is a conversation between the prophet and God, which is written down for the people of Israel who struggle to comprehend the ways of God. It helps to read the words and see that even the most faithful of God’s people doubt and wonder at why God does what He does. “Why do you tarry?” Habakkuk asked. So do we. We struggle to comprehend why God is not dealing with the wickedness, strife and oppression that are found among His people.
Then Habakkuk discovers that God is doing something: He is sending the Babylonians. How could this be any better? How can destruction and exile make things right? How can war bring about peace and an enemy make someone faithful? God tells Habakkuk that He is using the Babylonians to help Judah remember who they are and whose they are. The enemy will help them turn back to Him. And in the end, the Babylonians will be punished. “Have faith in me. I know what I’m doing.” The book ends with Habakkuk’s confession of faith, trust and his joy.
When Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven times, it is because He wants us to trust in God. Our natural inclination is to seek revenge, to hate, to conquer and to reject. God wants us to work always toward reconciliation. He wants us to help each other be faithful, trusting and joyous. He wants us to help one another let go of the things that keep us from being the people He has created, redeemed and gifted us to be.
Timothy was a very young pastor; his age is a point of contention with the other leaders in the church. He was looked down upon, and because of this he lacked the confidence to carry out his ministry or to speak the Gospel boldly. Paul wrote to encourage him, to remind him that his work is not his own but comes from God. “For God gave us not a spirit of fearfulness; but of power and love and discipline.”
We put so much trust in ourselves, have so much faith in our own abilities, that when we fail we are afraid to go forward. What we forget is that we are not to have faith in ourselves any more than we are to have faith in our neighbors. We are to have faith in God. He calls, He gifts, He sends. The work that we do in this world, including the work of forgiveness, is not done by our own strength, but by His. We don’t forgive, we share God’s forgiveness. If we think our neighbor or enemy has harmed us, imagine what he’s done to God the Creator and Father.
We don’t come by faith alone; it is given to us by God through the words and actions of others. Timothy was taught about faith by his mother and his grandmother. Paul taught him, too. All these people helped to mold Timothy into a minister who would teach the faith to others. They helped him work on his own bad habits. They planted the seeds that would grow into a life of servanthood. They put the spark into his heart that would grow into the gifts that God would use in his life to share the Gospel message.
We are called to holy service, sharing the love and forgiveness of Christ with the world. Most people don't want to hear that they should forgive others. They simply want to know that their enemies will suffer for their sin. They forget that they are sinners, too, in need of the love and mercy of God. But we are given God’s grace through Jesus Christ so that we will boldly proclaim that God will make everything right, even when it seems impossible.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “…stir up the gift of God.” It says in the NIV, “…fan into flame the gift of God.” God’s grace is not given to sit idle in our hearts. We are called to live in faith, trusting in God’s mercy and sharing His grace. We are called to boldly proclaim the good news of God’s forgiveness, which means also reminding one another of our sinfulness. It is up to us to forgive those who have harmed us, knowing that God has already forgiven us.
It might seem like the promise of salvation is taking forever to be fulfilled, but God is in control and He is faithful. David was faced with men who wanted to remove his crown. He knew that only God’s grace could help him keep his kingship, his trust was in the One who could save Him. We try so hard to be in control, that’s why we have such a difficult time forgiving seventy times seven times. We don’t want to live in a relationship that is constantly disappointing. We want to trust our neighbors; we want them to be perfect so that they won’t hurt us. But they will. They will fail, just as we will fail. They will sin, just as we will sin. But we can help one another sin less by encouraging right behavior and godly actions.
There is hope in our crazy mixed up world. Though the headlines are filled with bad news, we have good news that will always prevail. Stir up the gift, fan the flames, and you'll do the impossible. Trust in God, and that mulberry tree will be moved.
The Psalm ends, “Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.” This sounds like great news until we begin to think about what we have done. Have we earned our place at the Master’s table? Have we done more than the work He has called us to do? Have we shared His Gospel message of forgiveness with the world? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is “No.” We don’t deserve that place at the table. The Good News is this: we don’t have to earn it, Jesus has. He has not only made us a guest in His house, but He has made us brothers and sisters. We are no longer strangers or foreigners, but children of God.
Is there any better reason to live a life of forgiveness? We will be like Habakkuk, wondering if God will make a difference in the lives of our neighbors. We see what’s happening all around the world, in our nation, in our cities, in our churches, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, and we are afraid. Why does God allow even His people to act this way? We can trust, however, that God is not standing idly by. We may not always like the way He makes His people turn to Him, but He is always at work. Perhaps He is working through you, calling you to be the catalyst for change in the life of a neighbor. He has given you a gift, or many gifts, to help build up your brothers and sisters in Christ. Do not be afraid. Trust that God is doing a good thing, calling His people home.
It might take awhile because old habits are hard to break. But even as we will remain imperfect in this life, and we’ll need to forgive one another seventy times seven times, we can rest in the knowledge that the blood of Jesus guarantees that God’s forgiveness is ours forever. In the end we will do no more than our duty, we who are bound by God’s forgiveness to forgive will not. We who are obliged by God’s grace to be gracious will not be. And though we do not deserve a seat at the table in heaven, we will be welcome to eat with our Master someday, because He has promised and He is faithful.
“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
My birthday is next week and I’m reaching one of those numbers that really freaks people out. When we are babies our mothers announce our age in terms of days and months, as children we talk about years. As we grow older, our age is counted in decades, and this particular birthday can be described as half a century.
A local movie theater has been playing old classic movies each afternoon for a great price. I’ve attended the showing of “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “American Graffiti.” This last movie is the first of the series that was released after my birth; it was the first of the series that I probably saw in the movie theater or at a drive-in. Even so, it is a classic: forty years old. How can anything I can associate with my lifetime be that old? I laughed when I saw the stars of the movie; most were in their late teens or early twenties. We have all grown older in the past forty years.
The attitude of many as they reach this age is to become depressed, thinking that the best years are behind. The joke, of course, is the mid-life crisis, as people do things to prove their youthfulness and longevity. Old guys buy sports cars and women get facelifts. It is no wonder, actually, that we go through these feelings. In the past year a number of classmates and fellow graduates from high school have died from cancer and other diseases. How do we look forward to life when death seems to be on our doorstep? I am reminded daily in the mail and email of my impending old age by invitations from organizations for older people and encouragement to buy insurance. I’m reminded when my joints creek and my muscles ache. I am reminded when I can’t enjoy some of the things that I really enjoyed when I was young.
There are reasons to celebrate, however. Along with those invitations, I’ve received gifts of coupons from businesses I frequent. I realize daily that though much of my life has passed, those were really great years. I’ve seen the world and experienced too many wonderful things to list. I’ve enjoyed twenty-five years of marriage with the most wonderful guy. I had the blessing of raising two incredible children who are now making the world a better place with their gifts. And now that they are grown and independent, I have the freedom to pursue my own opportunities to change the world. I have the freedom to write and to paint. I have the time to go to the movies, to visit the zoo, to experiment in the kitchen. I have the time to devote to prayer. It is not so bad turning half a century old.
So, I’ve decided to approach this momentous moment with joy and with excitement. I’m celebrating in some way every day. I will wake up every morning with a smile on my face. I will remember that God has done great things for me and He knows the plans He has for my life. Whether today is the day He calls me home or it is not for another half century, it doesn’t matter. I may be old, but I’m blessed, and that’s reason to praise God. He loves me and all His creation; it can be seen in all the good works He has done in the world. It can be seen in His promises. Whether we live another day or decades, we can rest in the faithfulness of God.
“Even as the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you: abide ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is my commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you. No longer do I call you servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I heard from my Father, I have made known unto you. Ye did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye may love one another.” John 15:9-17, ASV
Today is the Feast day for St. Francis of Assisi. Most people are familiar with this saint; statues bearing his likeness grace the gardens of many animal lovers. St. Francis was known for being a very gentle being, his charm able to sooth even the most savage beast. Many churches will hold special services on this day, offering a chance for the people to present their animals for blessing.
St. Francis is remembered for his simple life of poverty. Yet he did not begin life poor. As a matter of fact, he was the son of a very wealthy merchant and it is thought that his mother was even born into nobility. As a child he was spoiled with everything his heart desired. As a young man, he lived a life of pleasure, wearing fine clothes and fully immersing himself in the social activities of the nobles. He was a soldier who sought victory and honor. He enjoyed the wealth of his father and the opportunities his position provided.
However, he began to dream and have visions, hearing a voice that guided his life. Eventually he devoted his life to service to God, giving up everything for the sake of his new love. St. Francis’ life seems much like that of Adam in the garden before the creation of Eve: unmarried, and lonely except for the animals. His was described as having “wedded Lady Poverty.” He devoted his life to serving the poor and sick, founding an order of monks devoted to the same rule of obedience, poverty and chastity. Yet, he was not really alone: he enjoyed the most important and intimate relationship of life, with his God. With God as the husband and St. Francis as His helper, he is the embodiment of what God intends for the Church: a loving entity that is concerned about the care of God’s creation and God’s kingdom. He was a friend of God, and a friend of God’s creation.
The story of St. Francis certainly reflects the life of Christ. His radical poverty, itinerant nature and selfless servant-hood show that he was a friend of Jesus and the world. In that life of obedience, poverty and chastity, St. Francis was able to experience the deep and loving relationship between Father and son, between husband and helpmate, between God and man that shines God’s grace throughout the world.
“And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did unto him. And they sent a message unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the transgression of thy brethren, and their sin, for that they did unto thee evil. And now, we pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him. And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we are thy servants. And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them.” Genesis 50:15-21, ASV
Joseph had an extraordinary life. He was a favorite son, the son of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. He worked so hard for the blessing of her hand in marriage, and afterwards they thought she was barren, but in the end Joseph was born and received Jacob’s extreme love and attention. Jacob even gave his beloved Joseph a beautiful ornamented robe, an act that angered the brothers and caused them to envy him.
Joseph had an unusual gift: he dreamed dreams that became reality. In one dream, Joseph saw himself ruling over the members of the family and he shared the dream with his brothers. They were already upset by their father’s favoritism, and they refused to believe that the young, arrogant, pampered son could ever rule over them. They plotted to kill him, but when the time came to do the deed, Joseph was sold into slavery to wandering Ishmaelites, and then they reported his death to their father. Jacob mourned.
Joseph ended up in Egypt and became a servant in the house of Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh. He prospered there until he rejected the wife of Potiphar, who seduced him. She accused him of rape and he was imprisoned. Joseph could also interpret dreams, and while in prison he helped two other prisoners with their dreams. One received the good news of prosperity and the other the bad news of death. The dreams came true, the first was released and the second was hanged. The one who was set free promised to help Joseph, but soon forgot his promise.
One day the Pharaoh had a dream that none of his people could interpret and the man who had been a prisoner with Joseph remembered him. Joseph was called to Pharaoh and told about the dream. Joseph recognized the strange signs as speaking to periods of prosperity and wealth in Egypt and then a time of drought. Joseph recommended that the Pharaoh carefully store food during the times of prosperity so that they would have plenty available in the time of drought. Pharaoh honored Joseph with the highest position in his realm: Joseph was in charge of ensuring that Egypt would survive the drought.
The dreams proved to be true and Egypt was so well prepared for the drought that people from all over the world went to Egypt to buy food so that they would not die. This included the sons of Jacob. They did not recognize him when they sought his help, but he knew that they were his brothers. He supplied their needs and more. They all moved to Egypt, including Jacob, who was overjoyed to be restored to his beloved son. The people of Israel were welcomed into Egypt and they prospered there. In the end, Joseph’s original dream had come true: he was ruling over them as Pharaoh’s right hand man.
Jacob died in Egypt, and when he was buried Joseph’s brothers feared that Joseph would seek vengeance on them. It grieved Joseph that they would feel that way. He knew all along that his suffering was used by God in great ways, leading to not only his prosperity but also that of Egypt and Israel. Many would have died without Joseph’s gifts, but even when he was raised to a position nearly as high as Pharaoh himself, Joseph understood that it was God’s work, not his. Joseph also knew that despite the fact that he was proven right, he had no right to hold a grudge against his brother; he had to forgive them because everything that happened to him was used by God for the good of others. He knew the things that are meant to hurt us are used by God to accomplish great things. From Joseph we learn these two very important practices for a Christian: trust God and forgive.
“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray and make request for you, that ye may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, unto all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks unto the Father, who made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love; in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins: who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens.” Colossians 1:9-20, ASV
I worked for a church a few years ago and helped create an advertising campaign for our Holy Week and Easter programs. At the same time, my family received a similar post card in the mail from another church. The picture on the front showed a bunch of Easter eggs on the grass. Each egg had words like “Great Prizes,” “Boy’s Bike Girl’s Bike,” “Snacks and Drinks” advertising their big event for the weekend: an Easter Egg Hunt. Oh, they included an egg with the words “He is Risen,” with the “I” shaped like a cross, but other than that there was no evidence of the event being Christ-centered. They reached out to the people who would be drawn in for the fun of the Easter Egg Hunt in the hope that they might also join in the worship. They wanted their neighbors to celebrate Easter weekend with them, but Jesus, His life, death and resurrection was lost in the midst of it all.
We knew that we had to make the focus of our own post card Christ-centered and we tried several different ideas. Some had pictures of spring flowers and butterflies, focusing on the idea of new life. We also tried a picture of the Risen Lord in heaven surrounded by the religious symbols of Christianity. While we did want to make it clear that we were celebrating with joy that we are Easter people, the postcard was also meant to advertise the other events from Holy Week, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil. We also advertised the fellowship events of the weekend, which included an egg hunt and barbecue.
We are Easter people; we are people who live and love and serve because Jesus rose from the dead. However, we can’t get to Easter without going through the cross. All too many people would prefer to celebrate the triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and then head right to the empty tomb on Easter. They would rather ignore the trial, the passion and the death of Jesus. We would never have had Easter if Jesus did not die, and we would never know God's incredible grace and forgiveness without His sacrifice. That other church might have more people attend their event because of their mailing, but we did not want to reduce the message of Easter to “Great Prizes” and “Snacks.” Jesus and His cross is more than an afterthought; He is the firstborn of those who receive true life by God’s grace. He died so that we might live, and He lives so that we will be with Him in Heaven for eternity.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 13, 2013, Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: Ruth 1:1-19a; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:1-13; Luke 17:11-19
“The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all they that do his commandments: His praise endureth for ever.” Psalm 111:10, ASV
Children often have irrational fears, particularly at night. Every parent has stories about dealing with monsters in closets or under beds. Some children demand a light be left on or a closet door tightly closed before they can even think about going to sleep. Others need a parent nearby to feel safe. Fear can be a good thing; it makes us aware of our surroundings and it can keep us safe. However, some fears take over our lives and make living very difficult.
One evening when Zack was a little boy, I was busy on the computer after putting the kids to bed. I heard the pitter patter of little feet, and looked up to see him peaking in my door. “What are you doing out of bed, Zack?” I asked. “I’m afraid, Mommy,” he answered. I took him back to his room and sat by him on his bed. We talked about his fears and I assured him that he was safe. “Zack, Mommy is right here. I won’t let anything happen to you.” This was enough to calm him and he fell asleep quickly.
People have all sorts of fears, even adults. Some people are afraid of spiders, others snakes. Other people are afraid of what will happen if they lose their job. Some are afraid to fly, others to walk in the woods. Fear causes some people to be burdened by behaviors that they think will protect them. Some people have so much fear that they are unable to leave their homes, meet new people, try new things or see the world in a different way. Sometimes these fears can be helpful, keeping people away from danger and protecting them from doing the wrong thing. However, most of these fears are ridiculous and can be debilitating.
The psalmist writes, “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear of the Lord is not like those irrational, debilitating fears. It is defined in Easton’s Bible Dictionary as, “used in the Old Testament as a designation of true piety. It is a fear conjoined with love and hope, and is therefore not a slavish dread, but rather filial reverence.” This respect, which is the knowledge that God has the power to protect His children, will manifest itself in obedience. Like a mother who is always near a sleeping child so that he need not be afraid, our Father is close and we need not be afraid.
Ruth was from Moab. At that that time Moab was a place of refuge for people from other lands that were suffering from a drought. Those refugees included a man from Bethlehem named Elimelech along with his wife Naomi and two sons Mahlon and Chilion. They remained there for so long that the boys took wives from the land, Orpah and Ruth. They stayed in Moab for about ten years, but during that time Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving all three women widows.
As Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth were expected to care for her, but Naomi could not stay in Moab any longer. The land held too many memories, sad memories about how she lost those she loved. She wanted to go home, to go back to her people, to live among those who knew her God and lived according to His ways. But she had no means to care for her daughters-in-law, so she set them free from their responsibility. “Go, return each of you to her mother's house: Jehovah deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me.” She sent them home to begin a new life; she wished them well and blessed them as they had blessed her and her family.
Both girls refused to abandon Naomi. They wept for love of her and were willing to follow her wherever she might go. She pushed them away. “Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me?” She had nothing to offer them. There was no chance that she could provide them with husbands. She had no idea what she would find when she returned to her homeland. She was depressed and bitter; she was going home to die. Orpah finally gave in and returned to her home, but Ruth still refused.
Naomi said to Ruth again, “Behold, thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto her god: return thou after thy sister-in-law.” Ruth could have gone home to her family. She could have found another husband, had children, and led a normal life in her homeland. Something pushed her to go with Naomi. Perhaps there was something about Naomi’s faith and the faith of her family that was planted in Ruth’s spirit. However it happen, Ruth feared the Lord whom Naomi worshipped. She was willing to follow Naomi to her people, and to worship her God. Ruth was so committed to her mother-in-law and this God of Judah that she was willing to turn away from her home to face the unknown. Any fear she might have had about her future had less of an impact than her fear, or reverence, for the Lord.
This fear, or reverence, for the Lord is where our life begins. Ruth followed Naomi, who was probably not very good company. Her bitterness made caring for her difficult, but Ruth willingly went into the fields to glean so that they would survive. Ruth’s love and generosity made a difference to Naomi, and in the end Ruth also found love and a future. Her future included children and grandchildren, including her great grandson David and ultimately Jesus Christ. It might have been frightening to go with Naomi, but God had plans for her life, and her obedience was blessed.
It is never easy to be away from home. Our family was military and we moved a lot. We were always stationed far from our family, but in each place we managed to find new friends who became like family. Sadly, with every move we had to leave behind the things we knew and had come to love. It was scary; we didn’t know what we would face, but each time we found our place in the community and friends.
In some ways the worst move was to England. We were in another country, and though we lived in military housing, we still had to experience a different culture: different food, different television, different ways of doing things. We even had to drive on the opposite side of the road. It was frightening, but in the end it was one of our best stations. We traveled, met so many great people, and experienced life in a whole new way. And God gave us plenty of opportunities to minister to our neighbors and friends. We worshipped Him in some of the most spectacular buildings and took part in some incredible ministries. We might have been frightened by the unknown, but we were blessed for following the plans God had for our lives.
We do not fear the Lord because we are frightened by what He can do, but because we revere Him for what He has done. The psalmist writes, “His work is honor and majesty; And his righteousness endureth for ever.” God is faithful. He is just. He remembers His covenant. We are afraid of the unknown because the world is not faithful or just. The world does not keep promises. We revere the Lord because He is and does. Ruth was not afraid to follow Naomi into the unknown because she knew that Naomi’s God was faithful. Though she was a foreigner who did not know the God of Israel, she trusted Him in her heart and she followed Him where He led.
We’d rather take the easy way out. When I attended to college I was afraid of pursing art as a major. I was afraid of the hard work it would take to complete that course of study. I was afraid that it would be difficult to find a job that I enjoyed, and I was afraid to become a high school or junior high school teacher. I took the route I thought would be easier: elementary education, after all, it had to be easier to teach little kids how to read than to deal with prepubescent and pubescent youth, right. In the end it was not the easy path. I did not do well in the field and I ended up doing something completely different when I graduated. Now I’m pursuing that art that I should have tried thirty years ago and I’m blessed by the opportunities I have for sharing my work.
Following a mother-in-law to a foreign land to worship an unknown God is definitely not the easy path. Neither is being a young pastor. Timothy was a believer for as long as anyone can remember, having been raised by Eunice his mother and Lois his grandmother. They taught him, planted the seeds of his faith and prepared him to follow the vocation to which God had called him. Paul continued to teach him everything he would need to know, mentoring him into a pastor that would serve God and the people of Ephesus.
The people of Ephesus were deceived by the Gnostic heresy, and they had no respect for Timothy. There were those in the congregation who even held Paul in contempt. Since Timothy was so young, they thought it would be easy to turn him into the kind of preacher they wanted him to be, teaching the heresy that tickled their ears. Paul wrote to encourage him to stand firm in the Gospel, to teach the Word as he’d heard it from Paul, even if it was hard to make the stand. He had a very specific job to do: God called him to teach the truth, not to conform to the desires of the world.
Last week we heard Paul encourage Timothy to believe the word he spoke and to continue to follow it. Paul had to justify himself over and over again, first as a converted Pharisee, then as a man who was constantly persecuted for his work for the Gospel of Christ. He was in prison when he wrote this letter, and it would have been natural for his adversaries to use his suffering as proof that he was not a reliable apostle of Christ. Paul continues his encouragement by reminding Timothy that suffering does not mean God’s Word is untrue. Though Paul suffers, God’s salvation is real. So, Paul charges Timothy to take that message to the people, the message that Christ is faithful even when we are faithless.
Paul writes to Timothy, “Faithful is the saying: For if we died with him, we shall also live with him: if we endure, we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us: if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot deny himself.” The life God calls us to live is not necessarily the life we want for ourselves. We might have to suffer. We might even be put in prison like Paul. But we are called to live the best life we can live, unashamed of the troubles that come from speaking the truth of Christ to the world. When we do, when live in awestruck faith in the God who has done great works, we will endure and receive the salvation of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal glory with Him.
The Gnostic heresy was that the material world was evil and that it was the quest of man to rise to a spiritual realm which could be reached with the right knowledge. The Gnostics considered the flesh of no import and so it could be used and abused without spiritual consequences. Salvation did not come by faith but by escaping the body, a relationship with God was dependent entirely on this special knowledge. The Gnostic heresy is dangerous, of course, because it rejects the reality of Christ’s dual nature, it ignores the calling of God on mankind to be Christ-like in this world. It also led the Gnostics to live freely in ways that went against God’s Word, rejecting the Law, ignoring their sinfulness and ultimately denying the work of Christ on the cross for our salvation. To them, salvation was something they could achieve, not a gift of God’s grace.
But Christ lived and died and rose again for our salvation. We can’t earn it or possess it by our own actions. We can’t gain enough knowledge or do enough service or read enough books or feed enough people or save enough strangers. We are saved by the whole work of Christ, by His blood and for His glory. We are not meant to rise to some spiritual height, but to die to ourselves so that we can live in Him.
The focus for today’s Gospel lesson is often about thankfulness, and it is a text that is used for days of Thanksgiving around the world. However, I think we can look at it in the context of today’s lectionary. Ruth took the hard road and she was blessed. Timothy took the hard road and he was blessed. Who do we think took the hard road in today’s Gospel lesson? Was it the nine who went to the Temple to show themselves to the priests, even before they were healed, or was it the one who turned around and fell at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving?
We might think that the one took the easy road; after all he didn’t have to walk all that way to the temple or face those people who would question the healing. He didn’t have to provide thank offerings for his healing. We often consider those nine men unthankful because they didn’t praise God like the one, and yet they did exactly what Jesus told them to do. When He said “Go” they went even before they were healed. They trusted that Jesus’ word was true and that they would be healed. They did what was required of them according to their law. We should be heralding their faithfulness.
We don’t, however, because we know that they did not need to seek forgiveness or absolution from the temple priests because they had already received everything they needed from Christ. The one who turned back took the hard path, because it was the path that went against the expectations of the world in which he lived. He died to self and turned to God. And in doing so, he was blessed beyond measure. The other nine were healed, but he was made well.
Here’s the rest of the story: like Ruth, the one leper who turned to Jesus was a foreigner. Jesus was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. Border areas always have more diversity since human movement doesn’t always recognize political and religious boundaries. The Galileans were from Judah; the Samaritans were from the Northern tribes that had been Israel. The differences between the people were largely political; there were some religious differences, but in many ways the ordinary people related to one another on a human level. Yet, among those who were strictly observant of the Law, the Samaritans were unclean because they had a history of syncretism (accepting and trying to meld together opposing and conflicting belief systems), allowing the worship of other gods in their communities. These differences did not matter much to the lepers. They were all outcast, all unclean. They all stood at a distance from Jesus, respecting his position not wanting to make him unclean. They all sought mercy.
We don’t know what they expected. They probably heard about Jesus and His power to heal. However, as outcasts they needed many things for their day to day existence like food, clothing and shelter. Whether Jesus was the Messiah or just a compassionate guy on the road didn’t really matter; they needed someone to be merciful and meet their needs. The lepers also needed comfort, healing and peace.
I’m sure they were all surprised when Jesus told them to go to the priests, especially the Samaritan. But like the others, he headed that way, in hopeful expectation that they might provide healing. Along the way, however, they all were healed. The nine continued on their way, but the Samaritan returned to the One who made him clean. The ten lepers were all healed physically, but only one sought out the true healing. When He praised God, Jesus gave him far more. He was made whole: physically and spiritually. Jesus is concerned for our both our physical and our spiritual well being. Jesus changes people from the inside out, granting them forgiveness and filling them with the love of God, bringing them back into a relationship with their Creator. It is that relationship that makes them whole.
The easiest relationship in our lives should be that relationship with God, but it is the hardest, because to have that relationship we have to turn away from everything we know to follow Him into the unknown. Ruth did it. Timothy did, too. The leper from Samaria saw the work of God in Jesus’ words and he humbled himself before the One who does great things. He revered the One who can heal, who does change lives. He found life and forgiveness and wisdom at the feet of Jesus.
“The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all they that do his commandments: His praise endureth for ever.” I think most people are thankful to God, even for the little things. Ask any Christian and they will be thankful for their daily bread and for life today. We are all eternally thankful for our salvation. We voice our thanksgiving in worship and when we are sharing our blessings with others. I don’t know any Christian (or even people from other religions) who would not feel joy and peace in singing the words of today’s Psalm.
Even the Gnostics of Timothy’s day must have had a sense of thankfulness for their life of faith. Yet, in their quest for knowledge, they missed blessing of that life: the wisdom that comes to those who live according to God’s true word. This is not a word that leads to some spiritual glory or keeps one from suffering, but it is a word that promises that we who die with Christ will live with Him forever. We are called to live the best life we can live, unashamed of the troubles that come from speaking the truth of Christ to the world. When we do, when we live in awestruck faith in the God who has done great works, we will endure and receive the salvation of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal glory with Him.
“But let each man take heed how he buildeth thereon. For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if any man buildeth on the foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, stubble; each man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself shall prove each man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work shall abide which he built thereon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire.” 1 Corinthians 3:10b-15, ASV
The Corinthians had a problem. They were being distracted from the Gospel by the world in which they lived. Corinth was a large town; it was the chief city of Greece both politically and financially. It was near multiple harbors and lay at an international crossroad; goods traversed the region from and to the four corners of the world. It was natural that Corinth would have a very diverse population, in culture and religion. Though it was not a university town, the Greek quest for knowledge was evident and the people worshipped multiple gods. As a matter of fact, Corinth had at least twelve temples and a Jewish synagogue. One temple, the one dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite is said to have had a thousand sacred prostitutes.
We tend to meld our culture with our faith, which is why it is not surprising that the Corinthians were confused about many things. The first letter from Paul to the congregation there was written in response to some concerns by Paul’s partners in ministry. They saw the people holding on to their old faith while embracing the new. It doesn’t take much to twist Christian thought to fit alongside the parts of the old religions that we prefer. Thus, Corinth was a congregation that suffered from moral laxness, most particularly in their acceptance of sexual immorality. What harm is there in continuing to use the sacred prostitutes if we worship Jesus?
This problem of moral laxness was multiplied by the immaturity of their faith. Though the Corinthians were obviously gifted by God to do great things, the church was divided. The people sided with the leaders not based on the Gospel or the work of Christ, but according to their personal desires and opinions. Their faith was based on emotions; they followed what felt good. They followed the people they liked and listened to the leaders who told them what they wanted to hear. Paul’s message, quite frankly, is not always easy. We want the Gospel to be about love and acceptance, tolerance and freedom to be whatever we want to be, but it is about a much different kind of love and acceptance and freedom. There is no room in Christian faith for the kind of love, acceptance and freedom the immature Corinthians were practicing with the temple prostitutes.
Paul was clear in his letters that this sort of thing was unacceptable, and so many of the Corinthians Christians looked to other leaders for guidance, leaders who willingly the Gospel as taught by Paul. We might think that this letter was in response to that rejection, a human reaction based on the hurt that Paul felt, but he was not concerned about his own ministry. He was concerned about the Christians in Corinth. As their pastor, he wanted to ensure that their faith was sure and that their lives reflected the grace and mercy of God. They were Christians, but they were not developing holy character. They believed but they were not becoming disciples.
We are affected by the world in which we live. Our faith does meld with the world we know and understand. The problem is that we often base our Christian understanding on foundations that are less sure than the one laid by Christ. There is definitely room for differences in the way we practice our faith. It is ok that some churches follow a lectionary and others read the scriptures from front to back. It is ok that some churches sing hymns to organ music while others use praise bands. It is ok that some churches meet in cathedrals and others in people’s living rooms. What matters is the foundation. Is the church built on Christ? Is it built on the Gospel? Is it being built day by day with the Word of God, or is it following the feelings and opinions of men?
God’s grace and promises are true, and we can rest in His faithfulness. But in that day when all things are tested, what will remain? That which is built on the foundation of Christ will stand strong and true, no matter what difficulties we face.
“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
Matthew chapters five through seven is a discourse by Jesus that has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters make up the longest continuous teaching of Jesus in the scripture and it is made up of multiple beloved texts, such as the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. The sections speak on topics such as how to live, the law, murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, enemies, generosity, prayer, true treasure, worry, judgment and spirituality. It is generally agreed that the sermon emphasizes Jesus’ moral teaching and that the last verse in today’s passage is the focus of the text: Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
During those three chapters, Jesus mentions His Father in fifteen verses. 5:16, glorify your Father. 5:45, be sons of your Father. 5:48, be perfect as your Father. 6:1, live for your Father. 6:4, don’t live to be seen by men, but live to be seen by your Father. 6:6, pray to your Father. 6:8, trust your Father to know. 6:9, address God as your Father. 6:14, your Father will forgive as you forgive. 6:15, your Father will not forgive if you do not forgive. 6:18, keep your fasting secret and only seen by your Father. 6:26, your Father provides. 6:32, your Father knows what you need. 7:11, your Father is gracious. 7:21, your Father receives those who live according to His will.
Imagine what our world would look like if everyone lived according to these fifteen dictum. Granted, we are human and we will never be perfect as God is perfect. Yet, that should never stop us from being as perfect as we can be, and it is surprising how easily we fall into a life that glorifies God if only we live as if we are living for our Father in heaven, trusting in His Word and letting Him rule the way we deal with others. Think about it: if you are living for your Father in heaven, aren’t you more likely to share your bread with your neighbor, or treat your co-worker with compassion? Aren’t you more likely to do what is right?
The Sermon on the Mount has some difficult things to say, after all I don’t think many of us would ever murder someone, but don’t we all get angry once in awhile? Who among us does not know someone who has lusted after a handsome body or a pretty face? We make so many oaths that it is almost expected that we won’t keep them. Revenge is sweet. Of all these commands, the hardest might be the one in today’s passage. How can I possibly love my enemy? The definition of enemy is “One who feels hatred toward, intends injury to, or opposes the interests of another; a foe.” How can I love someone who hates me?
That’s the point. We were once enemies of God, but He did not hold that against us. He sent His Son to die for us. He loved us so much that even though we were enemies He saved us with the blood of His own Son. Yet, Jesus spent three chapters telling us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, to trust in Him and to be obedient to His Word. If we are living for God, His Word ruling in our hearts, how can we even hate? And we might just discover that instead of an enemy, we have a friend. After all, our enemy is also invited by Jesus to call God his Father. It might just take some encouragement from a brother or sister to help them live according to these words, and how will they know if no one will tell them?
“And behold, one came to him and said, Teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why askest thou me concerning that which is good? One there is who is good: but if thou wouldest enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? And Jesus said, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and mother; and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The young man saith unto him, All these things have I observed: what lack I yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. But when the young man heard the saying, he went away sorrowful; for he was one that had great possessions. And Jesus said unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, 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. And when the disciples heard it, they were astonished exceedingly, saying, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them said to them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:16-26 (ASV)
Princess Diana seemed to be living a fairy tale. She met and married the prince, lived in a palace and had everything she could possibly desire. She gave birth to two handsome boys, traveled extensively and enjoyed the love and attention of the world. She touched hearts everywhere, especially when she gave so freely of herself to charity. Though it seemed like her life was a dream come true, there was always a sadness behind the smile on her face. Her death was horrific and impacted so many people; even though we did not know her personally, we grieved the loss of this beautiful lady.
Sometime after her death, the author of her biography released the secretly made tapes of their conversations. Diana revealed her deepest thoughts in these tapes, her pain and the suffering she endured. She talked about suicide attempts, her fears and her anger. She even thought her fairy tale wedding was nothing more than a joke because she knew her life would be impossible. The reality of her life was probably something between the life we saw on television and the life she shared with the reporter. She spoke with pain and bitterness; she was not being untruthful, but her joys were colored by the pain she suffered. She claimed that she knew before the wedding that she would never become queen. The tapes showed us the heart of a woman hurt, who saw no way out except through death. I doubt she felt that way in the beginning. She loved Charles, but her life never became what she’d hoped and dreamed.
Diana talked about the difference between her life in the public spotlight and all that was going on inside herself. She said everyone expected this fairy tale princess who could make everything good again in their lives with just her touch. What they did not know was that inside she was in turmoil because she never felt good enough. The root cause of so many of her problems was this inner need to be perfect; her quest to live up to the expectations of her family and the public was literally killing her.
She wasn't the only one to deal with such turmoil. Many people suffer from physical, mental and spiritual dis-ease because they are trying too hard to live up to an impossible expectation. They want to be good, beautiful, wealthy: perfect in every way. Yet, perfection is not going to happen in this world. We are faced with so many obstacles. No one in the flesh is good enough and we never will be.
We need a Savior. We need Jesus. But we will never look to Him unless we accept that we are not good enough. The young man thought that his obedience to the Law of Moses was enough, but Jesus told him that it would take more. Diana thought she could do enough, but she struggled to live up to the expectations of those around her and herself. We have to put God above all else because something that is impossible for us is possible for God. He doesn't call us to live a life bearing unbearable burdens, but to trust in Him. We can't save ourselves, and we certainly can't save others, but God can save us all. Christ frees us from the burden of our quest for perfection, heals us of our dis-ease and saves us from sin and death so we can spend eternity with our Father in heaven. We sacrifice so much of ourselves trying to prove that we are good enough, but it can literally kill us. When we realize that we are not good, and that we will never be good enough, we can turn our lives over to the One who is and discover the mercy and grace of the God who has already done it all for us.
“My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother: for they shall be a chaplet of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck. My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. If they say, come with us, let us lay wait for blood; let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause; let us swallow them up alive as Sheol, and whole, as those that go down into the pit; we shall find all precious substance; we shall fill our houses with spoil; thou shalt cast thy lot among us; we will all have one purse: my son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path: for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood. For in vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird: and these lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives. So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; it taketh away the life of the owners thereof.” Proverbs 1:8-19, ASV
There was a glitch in a computer system that affected the people in seventeen states that receive food benefits. The corporation which runs the computer program was doing a system test when the system failed. There were connectivity issues for hours, making it impossible for users to buy food. Stores around the country announced the problem, and shoppers abandoned their carts in the aisles because they could not afford to buy the food they needed without those benefits. Even when the system was back, some users found it difficult to buy the things they needed. It was understandably frightening for those parents who could not afford milk for their kids and who did not know when the system would work again.
Later that day another glitch caused a much different problem. The EBT (electronic benefits transfer) food stamp debit cards in two stores in Louisiana were showing that the money available on all the cards was unlimited. People started buying hundreds of dollars of food over and above their approved amount, emptying the store shelves and filling their cars to overflowing. There were reports that shoppers were calling their friends, telling them about the opportunity, and the store was filled with people who normally would not be shopping during those hours. Some even called friends and family to help them get as much as possible. One woman who was at the register when the system was restored had just $0.49 left on her card and she had a shopping cart filled with $700 worth of food.
The problem was fixed after about two hours and the stores announced that the system was no longer accepting unlimited purchases. The hundreds of people looting the stores abandoned their carts, leaving behind an incredible mess which the employees of the stores had to clean. The frenzy will cost the taxpayers who support the program, but it will also cost the store in ways that has not been reported. How many of those abandoned carts were filled with frozen or perishable foods that will have to be thrown out because they have become too warm to sell? How many hours of overtime will have to be paid to those employees who will have to restock the shelves with battered packages? How many mothers who really need to use those debit cards that would never consider taking advantage of a glitch will now be seen with critical eyes by those who follow them in the check-out line?
There are those who are justifying the frenzy as typical of human nature and an acceptable response to the fear of hunger. If that were true, why was the banana rack full but the chip aisle empty? Why were those carts filled with cases of soda and unhealthy frozen snack food? This was not an example of desperation but greed.
We often talk about greed in relation to the rich. We say the rich are greedy because they have more than their neighbor. “If they weren’t so greedy, they would share what they have.” They are blamed for all the poverty of the world, even though there are many rich people who are generous to a fault. It is often said that the family who owns the store chain affected by the glitch on Saturday are greedy, and yet when asked what the stores should do about the situation, they told the stores to continue allowing purchases with the EBT cards. They knew it could turn into a frenzy, but they did not want to cause the shoppers who really need the food any discomfort. It may have been a foolish business decision, but it was the compassionate choice. Is that greed?
Merriam-Webster defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed.” It is often used in terms of money, but can also refer to other aspects of life. We can be greedy for fame, for attention, and for power. We can even be greedy for food. Sitcoms often use the greed for food as fodder for a humorous scene. They show a character standing before a buffet filled with delicious food. They take a plate and fill it to overflowing with so much food that can’t possibly eat it all. When the plate can’t hold any more, they start filling their pockets or purse. It’s all there for the taking, after all, shouldn’t they take advantage of the opportunity? In one show, the character took only the shrimp, laughing at the other guests at their foolishness; they were filling up their plates with the cheap stuff like salad and bread.
The greedy are those who, as the proverb describes, “…lay wait for blood.” They take more than they need without consideration for those who will be hurt by their selfishness. Even if we ignore the affects the frenzy had on the big greedy company and the taxpayers who pay for the program, we can’t ignore the reality that some poor mother arrived in the store after the frenzy to buy milk for her children but could not because the shelves were empty and the milk was rotting in shopping carts that were blocking the aisles.
Yes, greed is a sin that is most often attributed to the rich because some do take advantage of their situation at the expense of others to get even richer. But it is a sin about which we should all beware, because it doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor, we affect our neighbors by our sinful desire to have more than we need. As a matter of fact, it is likely that we have all taken advantage of circumstances in ways that have harmed others. So, the next time we are faced with the opportunity to take more than we need, let’s consider how our actions will affect another and refuse to “fill our houses with spoil.” Let us not go along with the crowd, but do what is right. It is in choosing to refrain from the frenzy that we’ll find true life.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 20, 2013, Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 32:22-30; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
“And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Genesis 32:26b, ASV
We read this text and we wonder how Jacob could be so haughty as to demand a blessing from God. Jacob is heir to the promise but does not live like it. Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau, promised that the younger of her twins (Jacob) would lead the elder (Esau.) Rebekah and Jacob did not trust God to keep this promise and they connived to ensure it would happen. Jacob stole his brother’s birthright for a bowl of stew. He fooled Issac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. He used trickery against his father-in-law to become rich. He loved one wife and despised the other. He did not trust his brother and so plotted to protect himself and his family. And he wrestled with God, demanding the promise. He is the perfect example of a sinner: the old Adam who does not have faith in God but strives to be in control of his own destiny.
As I read this Old Testament story, I ask myself, “Really? God could not overcome Jacob without cheating?” But who is it that Jacob is wrestling? It is God, but it is the pre-incarnate Christ in the form of a man/angel. Though the physical being wrestling with Jacob did not overpower him, He had the power to disable Jacob with just a touch. He was always in control, even when it seemed like Jacob could win. They wrestled not so that there would be a winner, but so that Jacob would begin to trust God. He had to be broken so he would cling to the Father of the promise.
We see Jacob’s words to God as overconfident, but in reality Jacob has been humbled and he’s clinging to the only One who can save him. He plotted and schemed his whole life, but instead of making him strong, it has made him afraid. That’s what happens when try to make God’s promises happen in our time and in our way. But our plotting and scheming does not make things happen, it only frustrates us and makes us afraid. It causes us to strike back at God. “Why haven’t you fulfilled your promise!” we cry. “Why am I suffering? Why am I still waiting?”
God does not make us wait to frustrate us or to make us do it on our own. Many people will justify their actions by saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” There is some truth to that proverb; He doesn’t hand us a loaf of bread when we are hungry. But, He does not need us to fulfill His promises. We know what happened with Abraham and Sarah when they tried to fulfill the promise of a son. But even in their unfaithfulness, God was faithful. God was faithful with Jacob, too. And after they wrestled, God changed Jacob’s name which meant “heel-catcher, supplanter, leg-puller, or he who follows upon the heels of one” to Israel, which means, “persevere with God.” Though Jacob was once a man who tried to do things on his own, he learned on that night by the stream that God is in control.
It is a tough lesson to learn. We don’t like to allow other people to have control of our lives. We are uncomfortable with the idea that the God of creation is with us, watching us, guiding us, helping us all the time. While we enjoy the help, we know that if He is with us when we are good, He is also with us when we are bad, and we’d rather He did not see us at our worst. We don’t want a holy God to see our unholiness. We don’t want the Creator and Redeemer to see how much we destroy and enslave. We don’t want God to know that we are sinners. So we limit our time with God to an hour a week on a Sunday morning and maybe an hour of bible study on Wednesday. We pray when we need something, but ignore God’s presence most of the time.
Having God along for the ride does not make the journey easy. Jacob was in the wilderness preparing to meet his brother after a long estrangement. He knew what it was like to struggle. He had struggled with Esau over the blessing of Isaac and the inheritance. He had struggled with Laban over the woman he loved. He had struggled with those woman and their children. Jacob was struggling with the future: what would happen when he met his brother again? He sent his wives, children and all they owned to the other side of the stream and he went back to spend the night alone. God was with Jacob, and in this lesson we see him finally struggling with the only one who can fulfill the promise: his God.
God directly confronted Jacob’s uncertainty and showed him that no matter how successful he appeared in flesh, God has the ultimate control. The Lord sent Jacob back to his people, and the Lord would ensure Jacob’s success and safety. After wrestling with God, Jacob was left with a new name and a limp to remind him that the Lord God Almighty is in control of his life. He went to meet Esau with his family leading the way, trusting that God would take care of his needs. Do we go forth without fear, knowing that God is with us? Or do we wrestle between faith and uncertainty?
The woman in today’s Gospel lesson was struggling. We don’t know her situation, but she was the victim of some injustice. Perhaps someone had taken advantage of her widowhood and stolen things that rightfully belonged to her. Or perhaps her husband was the victim of a murder, and the judge refused to provide justice. He was a man willing to be bribed, and a widow has no power against someone with enough to buy a judge. She was persistent, however, and eventually the judge gave in just to make her go away. She received justice by persevering.
Now, we live in a world where ‘victims’ are justified for taking matters into their own hands. We hear it on the news all the time: reporters and experts explain away criminal actions because the perpetrator was hungry or abused or experiencing an injustice. Revenge is acceptable; after all doesn’t the bible tell us an eye for an eye? It might not have been easier for the widow to take matters into her own hands, but it might have been tempting, especially if her case was not being heard. Which is worse: living with an injustice or paying the price for taking matters into your own hands?
Before we think that this is an easy question to answer, let’s look at a benign example. I watch “The People’s Court” on a regular basis. I love the wisdom and humor of Judge Marilyn Milian. Too many cases that come before her are situations that would have been best given to an arbitrator much earlier. The people make matters worse by trying to make their own justice. Nieces refuse to pay back loans because they aren’t invited to a birthday party. Best friends scratch each other’s cars because of a misunderstanding about money. Wives destroy flat screen TVs because they feel they weren’t treated well enough for their birthday. These may seem ridiculous, but things like this happen all the time. People take matters into their own hands, they seek their own kind of justice, and in the end they end up paying for it.
There was one plaintiff that was suing for less than $3.00. Judge Milian was taken aback. “We are here over pennies?” The plaintiff answered, “I am suing out of principle.” I don’t remember the details of the case, but the plaintiff was willing to pay filing fees, to risk losing the case and to waste the court’s time over the small sum to make a point. “The defendant shouldn’t get away with what he did.” This case broke a longtime friendship, as do many of the petty cases seen on the show. We take these matters into our own hands and come out of it hurt, confused, frustrated, and afraid. Sometimes we end up alone.
We identify with the widow because we’ve seen it happen. The person with the power or the money or the position is the one who wins, whether it is in government, business or even in our personal lives. At least that’s how it seems. It is no wonder we are afraid to go forward in trust and faith. Like Jacob, we don’t want to face any circumstances without knowing who is in control. So, we hide that which we value and hope that God will save the rest. If He doesn’t, we’re still safe. But in doing this, we wrestle with God, only half-heartedly believing the promises. Half-hearted faith is no faith at all.
The widow trusted that the judge would do the right thing. Even when it seemed all hope was lost, she continued to persist in seeking justice. While we do identify with the widow, are we as persistent? Are we as willing as she to pester God endlessly? Are we willing to humble ourselves to the point of ridiculous in the faith that God will grant our plea? Are we willing to take even the smallest problems to God, without trying to solve it on our own?
We struggle. We struggle with the people in our lives. We struggle with the financial difficulties we face. We struggle with illness and we struggle with death. We struggle with the government and the legal systems of our nations. Even in our churches we struggle against one another over the issues of the day. As we struggle against men, we also struggle against God, because it is tough to believe that He is coming when He seems to be taking too long to fulfill His promises. But God reminds us, sometimes in ways that are not so pleasant, that He is right there in the midst of it all, in control. He breaks us so we will cling to Him. Then we limp away in faith, trusting that God will answer our cry.
Paul writes, “But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry.” Despite the struggles we will face, the people and issues we will wrestle, let us always remember the source of our strength and the foundation of our faith is our God. He has made promises that He will keep, but we can’t take hold of those promises with our own strength or wisdom or power. We can’t save ourselves; we don’t have to, He has already saved us.
And now we go forth in faith, knowing that God is with us. He is beside us, helping us, guiding us, encouraging us. It is not always easy, because when we go off His path He calls us to repentance. The work we do is sometimes uncomfortable. Our words are sometimes rejected. We might even be persecuted. But, there is good reason to walk in faith. The Bible was given to us so that we might read His-story and see how others were taught to trust in Him. It is so comforting to know that those whom we lift up as heroes of faith are people who have failed, too. Jacob was a sinner. He was also blessed. In the story for today he finally realized where he had failed the most, in trusting God. In the Gospel we see a woman who trusted that she would receive justice. She was persistent, going back to the judge over and over again knowing that eventually he would do what was right.
Many Christians are not prepared to take the Gospel to the world. They believe, but they do not think they understand enough about their faith to share it with others. They are afraid of doing something wrong, of saying something wrong. This is definitely the danger of having ordinary people doing the work of an evangelist. However, the Gospel was not meant to be proclaimed only by trained ministers. It is a simple message – God loves you so much that Jesus died to ensure your forgiveness and peace. It becomes more difficult when we start trying to define sin, forgiveness and peace. However, God has given us all we need to know in the scriptures. He has given us a library of books to help us deal with the harder questions that will come from those who wish to know more. Most of all, He has promised to walk with us, to hear our prayers and give us all we need to live in this world.
It might be easier to leave God in the church building and limit our time with Him to just that hour or two a week, but God can’t be contained by our foolish reliance on our own strength. He walks with us, even when we ignore Him, and He’s ready for us when we are willing to face the truth: we need Him. We might wrestle with Him, desperate to hold on to the control, but when the time is right God shows us that everything is better in His hands. He calls us to live in that faith, to trust in Him, and to believe in His promises. He is faithful.
The psalm for today was used at the end of worship during those feasts and festivals that brought pilgrims into the Temple. The community of faith sought the blessing of God as they were beginning their trip home. “Who will save us? Jehovah will save us.” The song finishes with a benediction, an invocation of God’s blessings over the community of faith as they went their separate ways. “Jehovah will keep thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth and for evermore.” God does not sleep. He takes care of His people.
The Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. They went to the temple to make sacrifices, to worship and honor God at the special feasts and festivals during the year. It was a difficult journey. The roads were harsh and dangerous. No one knew if they would make it home alive, particularly through the hills that surrounded the city. Robbers and murderers hid in the rocky crevices of those hills waiting for travelers. The conditions of the hills and deserts were unwelcoming to the pilgrims. They took these journeys with the assurance of God’s presence. They were not making a pilgrimage to a sacred place to meet God, they knew that the only way they could arrive at that sacred place was if God walked with them.
We are on a journey. Our journey ultimately is going to take us Home, but the way will not be easy. We will suffer and struggle. We will face adversaries and disappointments. We will be discouraged, afraid, and uncertain. We will fail. We’ll turn away from God and we will forget His promises. We’ll try to take matters into our own hands. But God will never leave us. Even when we are unfaithful, He is faithful. Our help comes from the Lord. There may be times when He has to break us so that we will learn to trust in Him again, but He will never leave us. And even if He has to touch our hip to get our attention, we are invited to cling to Him and boldly ask for His blessing.
When we cry out “I will lift mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?” we can confess with certainty, “My help cometh from Jehovah, who made heaven and earth.” We can trust in God, for He is always faithful. We know this because He has given us the Bible as a faithful witness of His-story. And the story does not end with the last page of the book, it goes on with us. We go into the world with God at our side, taking His grace to others so that they, too, might cling to Him and boldly ask for his blessing.
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that when ye were Gentiles ye were led away unto those dumb idols, howsoever ye might led. Wherefore I make known unto you, that no man speaking in the Spirit of God saith, Jesus is anathema; and no man can say, Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit. Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal. For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit: to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, in the one Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as he will.” 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, ASV
I was once involved in helping the members of a congregation discover their spiritual gifts. There are assessments available on the Internet, which guides a Christian into understanding what God has gifted them to do. It is a long and sometimes frustrating process. It is hard to get people to sit down for even fifteen minutes to take the assessment because our busy schedules simply do not give us the time. Even worse is that many people would rather not know what it is that God has gifted them to do. It can be a shocking experience to discover that you have a gift that you would rather not use. Many people reject assessments that suggest that they have the pastoral, evangelistic or prophetic gifts. They’d rather serve God with their hands rather than words.
Most of the people who took the test were already actively involved in the work of the congregation, and it was interesting to see how their gifts lined up to the work they were already doing. We are drawn toward the tasks that fit the way God has created us to be. If we have the gift of teaching, we tend to volunteer to teach. If we have the gift of administration we tend to find ways to serve in the office. This makes a lot of sense.
It is important to understand that our spiritual gifts can be used in many ways. A person who has the pastoral gift is not necessarily called to be ordained as a pastor; they are gifted to help with the spiritual welfare of the members of a congregation. A person with the pastoral gift might serve as a mentor for teens, present the children’s sermon or write devotions for the newsletter.
One of the most common gifts is the gift of hospitality, both as an actual gift and as a perceived gift. I once presented a workshop on spiritual gifts for a group of women; we did the same assessment mentioned earlier. I was disappointed by the reaction of the women: so many discovered they had other gifts like the pastoral gift, but insisted that they were gifted with hospitality. They were comfortable making coffee and serving cookies, but refused to believe that they were given the gifts to mentor a youth or write devotions.
The problem is the understanding that the gift of hospitality is limited to making coffee and serving cookies. Those with the gift are able to make people feel at home. They are attentive to the needs of their guests and make them feel comfortable. Ushers often have the gift because it is their job to make members and guests feel at home. Many Sunday school teachers have the gift because we want the children to be welcome so that they will return.
During our congregational assessment, one gentleman discovered that his highest score was for the gift of hospitality. As it turns out, he is presently on the church council in charge of the resources and property team. After he took the assessment, he said, “I guess this tells me that I should quit my job as resources and property team leader and become an usher!” He was joking, of course, but the stress of the position had made him look for excuses to not do the job. The thing we discovered, however, is that it is the perfect gift for someone leading the resources and property team. The man did not need to be able to swing a hammer if he could make the one who could swing the hammer feel welcome on the team and in the work of the church.
So, as we seek to know what it is God has called us to do, let us always remember that we have been gifted with everything we need to do the tasks He has set before us. Sometimes it may seem as though we do not have the right gifts, but God is able to do the miraculous. He only asks that we walk in faith, always remembering that He is faithful. So, as we approach the work of the church, joining the team where we can glorify God, let us do so in joy and peace knowing that God will work in and through us and our gifts to complete the work He began.
“But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:21-26, ASV
James Boswell wrote, “We cannot tell the precise moment when a friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses, there is at last one which makes the heart run over.” Such relationships are important to the human soul, keeping us grounded, encouraging us through rough times. They love us when we are wrong and correct us when we have gone astray. A good friend will listen when we need to get things off our chest and will keep their mouths shut when the last thing we need is advice.
F.W. Boreham said, “The man who has learned how to keep his friendships in perfect repair is a very wise workman indeed.” How I wish I could be like that wise workman. It always seems like there is something upsetting in a relationship—a misspoken word, a forgotten special day, a disagreement about something important. Though we are usually able to work things out, there are some relationships in my life that are broken, something is not quite right.
Our human condition from birth is a broken relationship with God our Creator. This brokenness manifests in all our relationships: between other people, the entire creation and even with ourselves. We try, and even succeed, in creating friendships with other people, kindness after kindness building into something special. Yet, even in our strongest relationships we have moments of disappointment and misunderstanding. We fight with our spouses, bicker with our girlfriends, find it impossible to ‘agree to disagree’ about some things.
Righteousness is having a right relationship with God. When we have that right relationship with Him, it manifests in our other relationships: with other people, the creation and within ourselves. Righteousness is not something we can come to by our own will and work. Human beings have always had a tendency for reconciling relationships with sacrifice, especially with the gods. But we do it with our friendships, too. We give up something to hold on to those relationships. We sacrifice something for the sake of the other. But blood offerings, whether they are animal sacrifices or things we do, are never lasting. The Jews (and those in other religions) spilled blood regularly to appease the gods; they had to follow the rituals each year of the blessing was not lasting. There is no grace in this, no gift; sacrifice demands a reward, but that reward is not everlasting. Jesus provided another way. Through Him it is possible for us to continue in a right relationship forever. God’s grace is not something we can chase after; it not something we can do for ourselves. We need Jesus to fix the brokenness of our relationship with Him.
We could spend hours reading the poetry, quotes and prose about friendship. They all seem to agree that relationships take work. We need to forgive one another for our disagreements, encourage one another through our difficulties, and repent when we have hurt those we love. Yet, the most important relationship will never be made right without God’s grace. We can’t be friends with God by our own power, will or action. We can only be friends through the once and done sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Then, when we are in a right relationship with God, we have the grace to deal with our other relationships. The righteousness we receive freely from God overflows into the relationships we have with others, the creation and ourselves. All this is possible through the unmerited favor of our God; all this is possible by His grace.
“O Israel, trust thou in Jehovah: He is their help and their shield. O house of Aaron, trust ye in Jehovah: He is their help and their shield. Ye that fear Jehovah, trust in Jehovah: He is their help and their shield. Jehovah hath been mindful of us; he will bless us: He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aaron. He will bless them that fear Jehovah, Both small and great.” Psalm 115:9-13, ASV
I often check the Internet for definitions of words and to see how these words are used by others. I check the online dictionaries, but I also scan through the search lists because it is sometimes interesting to see what sort of websites a specific search my take me. In most cases the dictionaries are listed first, with other sites farther down. The search engines ‘intelligently’ order the finds according to the expectations the algorithms have about your needs and desires. The searches use information such as your location, previous searches and the overall trends on the Internet to focus the finds to your needs. Of course, there are always some that are listed on the top because they have paid for the spot.
Now, the words I usually check are words that might have dual meanings or deeper spiritual understanding. I like to see what other ministries have to say about the things that I’m pondering in prayer. Of course, the searches often bring up sites that are not Christian or even religious, but those help me in understanding how the words are being used in the world, too.
Today’s word was “help.” I know: “help” is such an easy word that we automatically understand, but I looked it up because that automatic understanding actually makes it more difficult to assign a definition. If someone gave you a test that would require you to define “help,” what would you write? What synonyms would you use? What examples would you give? Of course, the most common definition is “to give assistance or support to.” But there were a number of other choices: “to make more pleasant or bearable to be of use to,” “to further the advancement of,” “to change for the better to refrain from,” “to keep from occurring,” to restrain (oneself) from doing something,” “to serve with food or drink especially at a meal,” or “to appropriate something for (oneself).” Isn’t it interesting that the word can mean both “promote” and “prevent.” It can mean “benefit” and “avoid.” This word has seemingly contradictory meanings depending on how it is used. This simple word is not quite so simple, is it?
I also thought it was interesting that the links for the online dictionary was not listed very high on the search. The search engine assumed that I wasn’t looking for the definition of such a simple word, and it gave me a dozen other ideas ahead of it. Those links sent me to sites about the Beatles’ song, “Help!” and the movie “The Help.” They sent me to medical information and self-help sites. The top link sent me to the Wikipedia page about help with media files on websites and how to ensure that your computer is properly set to play those files. The next pages of links sent me to dozens of different help sites for media, and that computer. Isn’t it funny that people who can’t make their computer work look to the computer for help?
We understand the word “help” because we are taught to help our neighbors and encouraged to get help when we need it. We look to our family and friends to help us and we are blessed by the opportunities we have to help those who are in trouble. The holiday season is coming soon and we will be inundated by calls from local ministries who need food donations or piles of presents for kids who won’t have Christmas without our help. We will look to one another for help, just like we look to the computer with help for our computer issues.
Unfortunately, those help websites are not always very helpful. The discussions are confusing, the advice inappropriate. The same will be true of the help we offer one another. We don’t always get it right. We seek help from people who will fail and disappoint us. We will fail and disappoint people that we try to help. But we learn in today’s psalm that there is one who will always be faithful. He will be our help. He will be our shield. He will be mindful of us. He will bless us. I like that the promises are repeated in this passage, each stanza sung for the people, for the priests and for the nations that come to believe in God’s help because of His grace. He is the help we need, the help to whom we should first look. While we will continue to have the opportunity to be God’s helpers in this work, let us always remember that He will be the faithful one and to trust in Him above all others.
“Wherefore girding up the loins of your mind, be sober and set your hope perfectly on the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as children of obedience, not fashioning yourselves according to your former lusts in the time of your ignorance: but like as he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living; because it is written, Ye shall be holy; for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:13-16, ASV
My kids were often active with the same sorts of activities when they were in school, especially when they were young. They were both interested in theater opportunities. They both became active with a service organization. They both loved being part of church and serving the congregation. They had a few different interests, too, but they made it fairly easy for me to keep up with their activities because in many cases they did things together. Zack followed in Victoria’s footsteps when he entered high school and was happy to join the same organizations.
He was happy until he started discovering some of his own interests. He joined the golf team and started playing chess. His time spent in these activities made it very difficult for him to be active in the other things. They met at the same time, so he had to choose one over the other. Despite the disappointment from the other students and the teachers, Zack had to make his choices. He had to do what was right for him. This may seem unimportant and perhaps even selfish, especially since he seemed really talented on the stage and he was so helpful at events for the organization. But he started having a negative attitude. He had joined those organizations because he was following in his sister’s footsteps. He liked the people and enjoyed the activities, but they weren’t his.
He was transformed when he began to live his own life. He wasn’t any less helpful or compassionate; he was just giving himself in different ways. His activities were building him toward his future, helping mold him to pursue a career that would use his gifts in the world. Even the golf, which might seem unimportant, provided more than just physical activity. He learned about character, responsibility and developed other key attributes. He found ways to serve through sport and scouts. He learned leadership and developed his brain power in chess club. These activities prepared him for pursuing an engineering degree better than being a character on the stage or handing candy at a festival. He grew into his own place in this world and made a bigger impact than he ever would have if he’d continued to follow someone else’s interests.
I think today’s passage might be one of the hardest for us to hear, after all, how can any of us possibly be holy like God is holy? I know that I will never live up to that expectation; I can never be perfect or worthy of praise and devotion. While these might be the accepted meanings of the word ‘holy’ it isn’t that God is expecting us to become gods. We already try too hard to be something that we aren’t and then we fall away from God’s intentions for our life. In the Biblical sense, being holy means to be set apart from the things that make us unclean or impure. It means living as we were created to live, not as the world wants us to live.
None of us will ever be perfect or worthy of praise and devotion, but we can be holy like God. We can live as He created us to live. We can be kind and helpful, compassionate and faithful. We can be forgiving and courageous. We can speak His Word into the world to draw others into a relationship with God. We can be God’s hands in the work of creation and redemption in the world. We can reject the desires of the flesh that make us fit into the world but separate us from God because God has called us to be separate and holy. It is easier than we think it is, when we live as God created us to live. We can be holy if we believe that God has called and gifted us to be different from the world, transformed by His grace to be like Him.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 27, 2013, Reformation Sunday: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
“Fear God, and give him glory; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made the heaven and the earth and sea and fountains of waters.” Revelation 14:7, ASV
This devotional reaches across national borders and across denominational lines, touching the lives of Christians around the world. It is unlikely that we would ever be found worshipping in the same church building, not just because of geography, but also because we see the world from much different perspectives. We like different types of worship styles. We have different ways of focusing our faith. We have doctrinal differences. It doesn’t help to ignore the reality, but we are reminded that despite all our differences, there is something that holds us together. Though there are divisions among us, the Holy Spirit makes us one. We who are saved by faith in Christ Jesus are one body, no matter where we live, how we worship or how we serve God in the world.
I try, in this writing, to speak with a voice that reaches across the national borders and denominational lines. I try to speak to the heart of the body of Christ, to the place where we all live, in His grace. I am human, of course, and I have my own style, focus and doctrines which I believe and follow, and it is impossible for me to keep those separate from the messages I share. I pray every day that God will use my limited vision to touch the readers with a message that will touch them where they live.
That said, I can’t help but focus this week’s Midweek Oasis on a moment in time that helped mold my life and faith: October 31, 1517. That is the day when Martin Luther posted the Ninety-five thesis on the door of Wittenberg Church and kicked off the Reformation. The theses were written to open debate between scholars about the abuses in the Church at that time, particularly the sale of indulgences. This began a conversation that lead to a movement that sought to restore the Christian faith to a simpler time, to a time when the work of God, His grace, was the center of the faith. The text for today is that which is used in many churches celebrating Reformation Sunday.
Germany is in the midst of a ten year celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s bold act of faith. They are planning Jubilee celebrations for 2017, but there are already activities for those who are visiting Germany. The places where Martin Luther preached, lived and taught are regular sites for Lutheran pilgrims and have been renewed and restored for the tourists. Since music played a huge role in Luther’s life and ministry, there are musical events. They are having workshops and lectures. There are offerings in theater and the fine arts.
The decade of Luther has included annual topics which focus on some aspect of our faith: confession, education, freedom, music, tolerance, politics, image and bible. The focus for this year is tolerance. From the Luther 2017 website: “According to the opinion of the Reformers, faith and conscience are fundamentally free. However, Luther’s demand for non-violent arguments was not always fulfilled. And his own tolerance also had its limitations, which were far more narrow than those later established by the human rights and the constitution. The modern concepts of freedom of conscience and tolerance are nevertheless essentially attributable to the Reformation. The Luther Decade’s theme year of 2013 is therefore dedicated to the history, the present, and the future of Reformation and Tolerance. Very consciously, the perspective will not be limited to history. Like many other religions and philosophies, the Christian faith is fundamentally neither tolerant nor intolerant, but is in the process of being lived and shaped. In a pluralistic society, the Reformation’s story of learning continues until today – and will go on to develop into the future.”
I read an article about the upcoming celebration that was written a year ago. The article began, “It's rare to be invited to an event five years off and even rarer to bicker about its details, but Germany’s Catholic Church finds itself in that delicate situation thanks to an overture from its Protestant neighbors.” The article describes an invitation from Germany’s Protestant community to its Roman Catholic Christians to join in the celebration. After all, they live together, work side by side and the Reformation impacted their world in more ways than just religion. The churches are equal in size and they are equally active in public life. Intermarriage is common. It is not surprising that the Protestants might want to involve their neighbors, even if they are Roman Catholic.
As much as we want to celebrate the Reformation, the impact was not entirely positive; it was, in essence, a divorce. How do you celebrate a tragedy with merriment? While Luther’s translation of the Bible made it available for the average person and his work shaped the German language, the Reformation caused wars in which a third of the German population was killed. In the past five hundred years, hundreds, if not thousands, of new denominations have formed, further dividing Christ’s church. It is no wonder that the Roman Catholics of Germany are hesitant to join in the jubilee.
But the Christian faith is about reconciliation and forgiveness, and in these years advancing toward that five hundredth anniversary, Lutherans and Roman Catholics are trying to find some common agreement. On Monday, a group representing the Lutheran World Federation met with Pope Francis and the members of a group called the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission on Unity. They discussed the historical reality of the Reformation, an event for which we all need forgiveness. We see it differently, of course, but the reality is somewhere in the middle, and we have to find a way to agree on the history before we can ever really forgive one another.
Some might wonder, “Why bother?” after all, it isn’t just the Lutherans who have found Christian faith apart from the Roman Catholic Church, and those who are Roman Catholic might wonder why we should find any agreement. Martin Luther never wanted division; he wanted reformation and restoration. Our ultimate goal, even today, is for unity in Christ’s Church. It may be difficult, it might even be impossible, but the Christian faith is founded upon forgiveness and reconciliation. If we can’t forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ, how will we ever preach forgiveness to the world?
Most of you who are neither Lutheran nor Roman Catholic might wonder what this has to do with you. Some of you come from Christian churches that were not even formed out of the Reformation. Reformation day is meaningless to you. This may be true, but the lessons we learn from the texts chosen for this Sunday are applicable to all of us, the entire body of Christ, no matter our differences. The texts, which focus on God’s saving grace, are the foundation of our faith.
Martin Luther was an educated man who studied the scriptures and had a good sense of God’s love, but he was so riddled with guilt that he spent hours confessing his sins and seeking forgiveness. He was a priest and he was afraid that if he was not justified before God, then his entire congregation would be condemned forever. He included every minor and trivial thought, word or deed that was not perfect. He suffered great pains spiritually. He tried to be perfect, but when he was not perfect he obsessed over receiving forgiveness for himself for the sake of his congregation.
One day, however, Martin Luther realized that he could never confess himself into salvation. He rediscovered the foundation of the Gospel message in Romans 3: it is not by our works that we are saved, but by the amazing grace of God.
It is so much easier for us to do good works than to accept the humbling reality that we can never make ourselves good enough to enter into the presence of God. We don’t want God to see our imperfections and we fear what will happen when He does. It is much, much harder for us to cry out to God in our imperfections because we are truly afraid of what He might say. Yet, the true path, the better path, is to cry out in faith knowing that God is gracious and merciful, full of forgiveness. There is nothing we can do to earn His grace, but in faith we can boldly approach Him with our needs. He will stop and listen. He will heal. In Him, and in Him alone, we have hope.
In the texts for today we see a strong and powerful image of God. He is “our refuge and our strength.” We need not fear, like Martin Luther feared for himself and for his congregation, because God is a very present help in trouble. It was Psalm 46 that Martin Luther used as the basis for one of his most important works: the hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” God is always there. He is a fortress in times of difficulty and a refuge in times of need. When things are looking bad in the world in which we live, as they must have looked to Luther in 1517, we can rest assured that God is present, active and faithful.
Martin Luther was terribly bothered by the sale of indulgences. This was the practice of selling a piece of paper that ensured the buyer that someone they loved would no longer have to wait in purgatory. The money was used to build bigger and more ornate churches. He knew that if you couldn’t pray and confess your way into heaven, then you certainly couldn’t buy it, and he knew that the leadership was binding the people to a false faith. Though it seemed like the indulgence made someone free, the reality is that the Church was enslaving the people to a work that could not save. It was no different than the ancient reliance on obedience to the Old Covenant Laws.
The Old Covenant included list of laws that were required for righteousness. Leaders demanded obedience, and they made threats or bribes to keep the people in line. The leaders laid heavy burdens on the people, and the people failed. That’s why God made the New Covenant that gives the believer the faith to live according to God’s Word.
Jesus told those listening that the truth would set them free, but the Jewish leaders didn’t understand what he was talking about. “We are Abraham’s seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, ye shall be made free?” They relied on their heritage; they relied on Abraham and Moses for their salvation. But since they could not keep the Law perfectly, they would always fail to live up to the expectations of that Law. Jesus said that whenever you sin, no matter how small or insignificant, you are a slave to sin. This is what Martin Luther discovered when he was trying to confess himself into salvation.
The New Covenant gives us a new attitude; it changes how we look at God’s Law and God’s Word. In faith we respond to the call of God. The Old Covenant, which comes from outside, is replaced with a covenant that comes from inside. The Law still has a purpose, in that it helps us to see that we are in need of a Savior. When we hear the Gospel, God’s Word is placed in the heart; faith is given so that the believer can act out of love rather than fear or greed. We are no longer burdened by that Law, but we are set free by faith to live out God’s Word in the world.
I suspect that the Church leaders five hundred years ago did not understand that the indulgences they were offering were just another type of slavery. By demanding that the people pay for grace, they were burdening their people with a law that could not be kept. How would the poor buy bread for the day if they were buying indulgences for those they loved? But we are not much different today. We burden people with demands that they can’t keep, making them slaves to our own ideas or practices. How many Lutherans and Roman Catholics fear for their neighbors because they are afraid that they have not adhered to the right faith? This is true also of the other Christians that disagree with both the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. We all need to be freed by the Gospel of Christ that binds us together despite our differences.
I once listened as a church leader give a message about stewardship; he was talking about loyalty. He demanded that every member be loyal to that church, to that building and to that ministry. He missed the mark in that speech, and in doing so laid a heavy burden on the congregation. Our loyalty is not to a building or a pastor or even a denomination. Our loyalty is to God. It is good that we find a place to practice our faith with others who have similar ideas, enjoy similar worship and are able to focus our faith on the same things. It is good to join our offerings, our good works, and our gifts with others of like mind so we can work together in common purpose. In the meantime, people in other places with other ideas and styles and focus will do things together, too, all for the glory of God. But we have to remember that we are not serving the church or even the people; we are serving God and doing these things for Him. When we focus our loyalty on the world, we lose touch with God and we are once again a slave to sin.
The foundation of all our faith is forgiveness and reconciliation, first from God and then with one another. Yes, the differences are great and it is unlikely we will ever be one visible Church in this world, but we are one Body, Christ’s body by faith. When we rely on our own righteousness, we will fail; we will never really be free. Freedom comes from God, faith is the gift that is planted in our hearts and that changes our attitude. Faith distinguishes the slaves from the children of God. By faith you are a son or daughter of the Most High. This is the truth that both sets us free and makes us one with other Christians.
The turning point for Luther’s faith was the reminder of God’s grace. He realized that there was nothing he could do to make himself right with God. He was a sinner in need of a Savior, and only Jesus Christ could bring justification and sanctification to his life. This knowledge made Luther free. It makes us free, too, to live and love and work according to God’s righteousness, following the passions of our heart which by faith will be in line with God’s will. He calls us from the inside, through the gift of faith we receive as we believe in Jesus. The new attitude we have in the New Covenant will make us long to be actively involved in God’s creative and redemptive work. We are not forced to be righteous according to some man-made expectation. God has made us righteous and in that righteousness we’ll do what is right. He has set us free.
Unity may well be impossible in this world, but we can live in the faith that there will be unity in eternity and work toward understanding one another today. On Monday Pope Francis said, “We know well – as Benedict XVI often reminded us – that unity is not primarily the fruit of our labors, but the working of the Holy Spirit, to whom we must open our hearts in faith, so that he will lead us along the paths of reconciliation and communion.”
Martin Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-five Thesis began something that he never intended: division in the body of Christ. But on this Reformation Day, just 496 years later, we can talk about forgiveness and reconciliation with our brothers in sisters in Christ across the national and denominational boundaries. We are bound together by something that cannot divide us, the grace of God. We can, as John writes, “Fear God, and give him glory; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made the heaven and the earth and sea and fountains of waters,” together in our own places, in our own ways, despite our differences. The God who formed the earth has saved us and given us the faith to live in the here and now until that day when we will be reconciled for eternity.
“Howbeit the firm foundation of God standeth, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his: and, Let every one that nameth the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness. Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some unto honor, and some unto dishonor. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, meet for the master’s use, prepared unto every good work. After righteousness, faith, love, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But foolish and ignorant questionings refuse, knowing that they gender strifes. And the Lord’s servant must not strive, but be gentle towards all, apt to teach, forbearing, in meekness correcting them that oppose themselves; if peradventure God may give them repentance unto the knowledge of the truth, and they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him unto his will.” 2 Timothy 2:19-26, ASV
A recent episode of “NCIS” illustrated the plight of Afghan women, who are persecuted, beaten and killed for not being completely obedient to the cultural, religious and familiar expectations. The story revolved around a murdered woman that was at first identified as a Marine sergeant. They eventually discovered that the woman existed on a stolen identity, given to her by a group that was saving endangered women from Afghanistan. The group smuggled women who were threatened by family and the community, often for ridiculous reasons. They can be killed for simply talking to a boy. Honor killings are not limited to Afghan or even Muslim communities; it happens all over the world.
Nirupama Pathak was a 22-year-old journalist from India who was found dead in April 2010. She was three months pregnant by the love of her life, but they were unable to marry because he was from a different caste. In India, the woman is the vessel by which a family’s social status and reputation is sustained. The family immediately claimed that Nirupama killed herself; they even provided a suicide note during the investigation. The autopsy, however, proved that she was smothered to death by a pillow. Her mother was arrested. It was a rare case; families are not often found guilty of honor killings because the crimes go unreported. The families, including the mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and cousins, support the killing for the sake of their family reputation.
Gul Meena, a Pakistani girl, was given in marriage to a man five times her age. She was twelve and he was sixty. He beat her daily, but her family refused to do anything about it. “My family would hit me when I complained. They told me you belong in your husband's house -- that is your life.” After five years of abuse, Gul escaped and a young Afghan man helped her across the border to freedom. Unfortunately, Gul’s brother found her, axed the young man to death and then did the same to Gul. She knew that she was breaking the law, but she had tried repeatedly to kill herself to be free from the abuse. Her only hope was in the young man who offered to help. Gul’s brother did not kill her; he thought she was dead and left her, but neighbors had heard the commotion and found her within an inch of her life. They took her to the hospital where she was saved. Unfortunately, no one was willing to take her life into their hands. Her family counted her as dead. The government didn’t want to deal with it. The doctors paid her costs as long as they could, but she needed to be moved out of the hospital into a safe place where she could heal. She might have died there in the hospital if not for the American-Afghan organization Women for Afghan Women, who took responsibility for Gul. As of April, she was living in a shelter, healing in body, mind and spirit. She was one of the lucky ones who still live, but while they might be alive, the women living in these shelters live constantly in fear that they will be the next victim of an honor killing.
There is no honor in this practice. Unfortunately, honor is an abstract concept, something that can be defined according to a cultural expectation. Death, even murder, has long had place in ensuring one’s honor, as people from every generation have insisted on duals for honor’s sake. Even the story of Cain and Abel may be seen as a story of honor. There is a natural moral code, but cultures have often created their own codes of honor. This can be seen particularly in the gang culture, another place where death, even murder, is not only accepted but expected. Unfortunately, we live in a time when life is not valued, but can be thrown away because that person is inconvenient or problematic. Sadly, too many of these killings are in the name and for the sake of religious faith.
God does not require the murder of girls for the sake of His integrity. It does not honor or glorify Him to kill a girl who does not live up to some cultural expectation. In today’s scripture, Paul tells Timothy that the vessels of honor are those who are kind and meek, teaching with patience and guiding toward an understanding of God’s way. A girl may need to be gently encouraged to repentance, for her own sake as well as her family’s. However, there is no honor in killing a girl who is desperately in need of faith, love and peace.
“Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom also we have had our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand; and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we also rejoice in our tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh stedfastness; and stedfastness, approvedness; and approvedness, hope: and hope putteth not to shame; because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us.” Romans 5:1-5, ASV
There was once a small town in Maine that was by a river. It was the perfect place to build a hydro-electric plant, and so the plans were made. They people of the town were told that a dam would be built, which would cause their entire town to be buried under water. They had plenty of time to prepare, to gather their things and make their plans. It must have been heartbreaking, particularly to those families that had lived in that town for a long time.
The town had no future and it began to show. Since the town was just going to be destroyed by the water, they took no pains to keep them looking nice. No one painted. No one repaired the roads. No one bothered to keep the sidewalks safe. The town began to look shabby, even though the people still lived there; it looked abandoned long before it was. One citizen explained, “Where these I no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.” They were hopeless because they had no future.
It breaks my heart to read and tell stories like those in yesterday’s devotional about Nirupama and Gul. Many in these situations feel hopeless because they do not believe that they have a future. They are afraid, and they believe that they will be found, beaten and even killed. People who have no hope stop living. They give up. They have no support, no family who cares, no love. They have no purpose. Without these things, what hope do they have?
Thankfully there are organizations like the American-Afghan organization Women for Afghan Women who have shelters for these women. They give them a place to hide. They give them love. They give them hope. Eventually many of these women are moved to other places like the United States where they can begin new lives. They can find people to love, a purpose for their lives. Many of these women discover the grace and peace that is found in Jesus Christ.
It is hard to imagine anything good coming out of Nirupama and Gul’s stories, and yet by telling their stories we become aware that there are people who need our help. We discover ways to share God’s grace and love with people who have no reason to hope. We also see examples of people who are able to overcome hopeless situations, who fight for life and for peace. I don’t know what is happening in her life, but Gul is telling her story which will help other women who are suffering in similar situations. It might seem impossible to rejoice in tribulations, especially when they are so horrific, but Gul has a future and when there is a future, there is room for hope.
Of course, hope can disappoint. No matter how well she is protected, she will always be in danger. We all are, though not in the same way. Life is fleeting. Few of us face death in the manner of Nirupama. We are not threatened by those who promise to love and care for us. But we do die. We experience sickness. We face the dangers of this world. We suffer. Through it all, there is only one on whom we can rely: Jesus Christ. Faith in Him gives us a hope that does not disappoint because the promised future is secure by the blood of Jesus Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of that promise of eternity.
“Bless Jehovah, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless Jehovah, O my soul, And forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; Who healeth all thy diseases; Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; Who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies; Who satisfieth thy desire with good things, So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle.” Psalm 103:1-5, ASV
Flu season is nearly here for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. It runs between November and March, through the winter months. We all probably have memories of our mothers reminding us to dress warm, put a hat on our head, and stay out of slushy puddles. “Wear a coat, you don’t want to get sick!” she would always say. Those things might help; after all we should do what we can to keep our immune system healthy to ward off those viruses that cause the flu.
However, there are other reasons why we are at risk for flu during the winter months. First of all, we tend to stay inside when it is cold. This keeps us in much closer contact with people, making the spread of viruses much easier. It is no wonder that children tend to get sick more often than adults; they spend hours each day in a fairly small room with thirty other children. You can’t avoid the germs in that environment. And then those sick kids take the viruses home to their families and it is spread quickly in the home that is tightly sealed against the cold.
Wintertime also provides the perfect conditions for the spread of the virus. Viruses survive better in cooler temperatures, and become unstable in heat. Also, the more humid the environment, the easier it is for the virus to spread. Even the duration of contagiousness is longer in colder temperatures; a person can be contagious as much as two days longer during the colder months, giving the virus more time to spread to other people.
The flu is more than the common cold, which affects people throughout the year and is generally mild. The cold virus does not spread through the air, so we can ward off the disease by cleaning our hands and surfaces regularly. The cold has a slight fever and sometimes has no symptoms at all. The flu, however, is often accompanied by a high fever, painful symptoms and can lead to more serious conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia.
Those of us who have suffered from the flu know that there are a few days when we are simply unable to function. We sleep, moan, and starve. We are burning hot one moment and freezing the next. The symptoms last for those few days, but we are eventually able to get out of bed and get back to normal. It takes time, though. How many of us have gone to work or school with a persistent cough and stuffy nose? Even when the fever passes and our bodies begin to feel better, the reminder of our illness lingers for days or weeks. Healing is a process that takes time.
God heals us. I’m not only talking about the healing that comes to our bodies when we are sick, but the healing that He does through faith in Jesus. He forgives our sins and He makes us whole. We are not healed completely at once, but it is a process that takes time. Like our flu that sticks around for weeks after we’ve been sick, our sinfulness lingers. We do not overcome our sinful behavior with just one confession of faith. It takes a lifetime for us to be transformed completely, and we will be fully healed in that day when we welcomed into the presence of God for eternity.
“An honest witness tells the truth, but a false witness tells lies.” Proverbs 12:17, NIV
In the American Standard Version of the Bible, Jesus says, “Verily I say unto you,” sixty six times. He begins His most important lessons with this statement, indicating that this is something you should hear, believe and understand. These are truths that will help us live the Christian life and serve God according to His Word.
This phrase is translated many different ways. Jesus says, “ Believe me,” “Truly,” “I tell you the truth,” “I assure you,” “Truly and solemnly I say,” “I promise you,” “Listen, the truth is,” “Assuredly, I say to you,” “For sure, I tell you,” “What I am about to tell you is true,” “Amen, I say to you,” “I guarantee this truth,” “I solemnly declare.” When Jesus says these words, you can believe them and know them to be true. In the book of John, these texts begin, “Verily, verily…” These statements are worth our time to read, understand, and believe.
What is interesting is that the Greek word that is translated “verily,” or “truly,” and is used to emphasize the importance of this statement is the word, “Amen.” The Greek word “Amen” is a form of the root word for “to be.” These words are not simply important; these words are. That might not make grammatical sense, but the point here is that what Jesus says is real, it is true, it is. When it comes to God, it is enough to say that He is. He even calls Himself the Great I AM, “I AM THAT I AM.” Jesus said, “I AM” in response to the questions about His identity. And when Jesus speaks, He said, “It is.” We usually use the verb “to be” along with some clarifier. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a writer. The Word of God is good. The Word of God is important. But Jesus says, “The Word of God is; now listen and believe.”
Jesus is the honest witness. What He speaks is true. When we hear the Word of God, we answer with the “Amen.” We agree with Him that He is speaking the truth and that His Word is. We are changed by that Word: saved, transformed, sanctified. The words we speak cannot do that, but His Word can. He does not call us to tell the world what we think or how we feel or to tell our story as if it were His story. He calls us to be honest witnesses like Jesus, to speak God’s Word so it can save, transform and sanctify those who hear, understand and believe. Verily, verily I say to you, God’s word is true. Amen.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 3, 2013, All Saints Sunday: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“Praise ye Jehovah. Sing unto Jehovah a new song, And his praise in the assembly of the saints.” Psalm 149:1, ASV
What is a saint?
From the Concise Encyclopedia: “[A saint is a] Holy person. In the New Testament, St. Paul used the term to mean a member of the Christian community, but the term more commonly refers to those noted for their holiness and venerated during their lifetimes or after death. In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, saints are publicly recognized by the church and are considered intercessors with God for the living. They are honored on special feast days, and their remains and personal effects are venerated as relics. Often Christian saints perform miracles in their lifetime, or miracles occur in their names after their death. In Islam, wali (“friend of God”) is often translated as saint; in Buddhism, arhats and bodhisattvas are roughly equivalent to saints. Hindu sadhus are somewhat similar.”
Ask a person on the street, and their definition of a saint is likely to include death. As in the entry above, sainthood is considered after a person has died. Our worship on Sunday will include remembrances of those who have died during the past year. While the definition does include the idea that the saints are those who were extraordinarily faithful or pious during their lives, most Christians understand that this did not make them perfect. We know that a saint is not really someone who has an exceptional degree of holiness or virtue, but even amongst Christians sainthood is generally recognized after a person has died and gone to heaven.
Now, I don’t mean to diminish the celebration of their lives. All Saints Sunday is a time for us to remember the great cloud of witnesses that have come and gone before us. Without them, we might not even be Christian. It is good to join in the remembrance of those who have had an impact on our lives, who have shared God’s word with us in so many ways. It is good to look at the stories of the Saints, whose lives serve as an example of how to boldly live the Christian life in this world. Many of those who have been canonized by the Church died for their faith, they were martyred for being a Christian, and they deserve to be remembered. The people who died during the year made their own sacrifices, and they should be remembered for the impact they had on the world.
But I am troubled by the focus on death. All Saints Day comes after the dreaded Halloween, a night when darkness rules. Yes, it is all in good fun. Trick-or-Treating is harmless. The children are adorable in their costumes, pretending to be something which they are not. I love the princesses, the superheroes, the animals. Some families still create homemade costumes that show creativity, ingenuity and wit. Some families choose to give treats that focus on life and joy and light, with colorful decorations and brightly lit, happy jack-o-lanterns.
However, while Halloween can be fun, it has become a night of darkness, as can be seen around our neighborhood this week. One yard is littered with handmade tombstones. Some of the tombstones have jokes, but they still focus on death. Hanging above the tombstones in the trees are large, black, evil looking ghosts. One house I passed recently has a decoration with an evil face and a long, flowing, black robe that is nearly two stories high. What I’ve noticed is that even the decorations are dark. We used to hang a white sheet in the tree, and now the ghosts are made with black fabric and sinister heads.
Death has always been a part of the Halloween celebration, but it has become pervasive. Last year we had hundreds of children come to our house for treats, and some of the costumes were absolutely adorable. It was fun, but I was disturbed by the fact that more than half of them wore masks of death, particularly the older Trick-or-Treaters. Zombies and vampires run rampant on Halloween because they’ve become such a visible part of our culture throughout the year. Yes, the television, movies and books are entertainment, but it shows us how death and darkness and evil have become part of our every day existence. It is a joke, and even something to celebrate.
Now, I will tell you that I enjoy watching the ghost hunting shows, and I’ve thought about joining a ghost hunt at one of the local haunted sites. There are plenty of reports of haunting around San Antonio. I watch the shows because I’m interested in the science and the spiritual aspects of life after death. What are the physics behind the energy that appears to be spirit? What makes a memory reenact in a physical way? Can evil manifest itself in a way that it affects the humans in its path? Is there something that I, as a Christian, can do to help those spirits find peace?
The truth is: there is a spiritual world we do not completely understand, and that spiritual world includes evil as well as good. As Christians, it is important for us to recognize the reality of demons, to understand that there is a spiritual war that goes on around us all the time. We may never be directly or physically affected, but God is constantly waging war against evil. Why do we choose to make it an acceptable part of our culture?
Even when the celebration is about eternal life, we seem to focus on death. Many churches will have a moment when they will remember those who have died. It is a beautiful moment, with the lighting of candles and the tolling of a bell as the names are read aloud. It is wonderful to remember those we love, to thank God for their lives and to commend them to our Father, but the lessons for this day focus on salvation and life, not death.
The book of Revelation is often confusing and frightening to the reader. The text for today includes one of the most misused prophecies: the 144,000. There are those who believe that this is a literal number that have been saved. Yet, in the next breath, John writes, “After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.” John sees a multitude that is praising God and worshipping Him. The number 144,000 might sound like a lot, but in the course of human history, and even in the time of Christian history, that number is a fraction of what is the multitude.
These are not two different and separate groups of people. The number 144,000 represents the full measure of those whom God has saved and who stand ready for eternity to praise God. Instead of limiting eternal life to a few, God receives all who believe. He makes children out of all those who wash their robes in the blood of Christ.
Now, there’s an awkward image as we battle the cultural focus on death and darkness. How many young people will come to our doors wearing a ripped and dirty shirt covered in fake blood? It isn’t a pleasant sight. Anyone who has had to wash a garment that has been stained by blood knows that it is impossible to make it clean. How can blood make a robe white as snow? And yet, in faith our robes are made white by Christ’s blood. “These are they that come of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
These are the saints, but the text does not just refer to those who have died and gone to heaven. The apocalyptic text gives us a picture of what life will be when everything has been fulfilled. That multitude represents all those who have believed in Jesus throughout time and space. We stand somewhere in that multitude. We are part of those who have washed our robes in Christ’s blood and who will spend eternity worshipping God. We are the children of God. We are the saints.
Thanks to God’s grace we are blessed with this future, but that doesn’t mean that our present will be without pain. We will suffer. We will get sick. And yes, we will die. Pain and death have a purpose, but it isn’t meant to be for entertainment, as it has come to be in our culture today.
A few years ago I saw a story about a girl who had a rare disease. CIPA, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis is a condition in which the person feels no pain. We might consider this a blessing because we don’t want our children to feel pain. However, pain helps us to know when something is wrong. We feel pain in our body when we are sick. We feel pain when we have hurt ourselves. We feel pain when harm is coming to our flesh.
When the little girl was only a few years old, she put her hands on a scalding hot surface and her hands were burned terribly. Most children realize the danger quickly and pull back their hands. They might end up with first degree burns which would require some care, but Ashley had no idea that she was suffering. Another person with CIPA had a case of appendicitis and did not realize it until it was too late. This victim did not even know she was sick.
The little girl’s parents discovered the ailment when she was just six months old. Her eye was red and the doctor discovered that she had a massive corneal abrasion. She should have been screaming in pain, but sat happy and carefree on her mother’s lap. When asked what they wanted for their daughter, her parents answered, “a normal life.” They even want her to feel pain because they know that she would be much safer if a cut or a bruise would cause tears.
When we think of blessedness, pain never enters our mind. To the human mind, blessed are those who are healthy, wealthy and popular. We equate blessedness with being comfortable, contentment with satisfaction. We would never consider the poor, hungry or sick to be blessed, for they are suffering in a world that God made good. However, the danger comes when we are too comfortable. We do not see that we need help; we do not look toward God for His grace.
Jesus had a way of turning our world upside down, and He certainly did so in today’s Gospel message. The Beatitudes go against everything we expect. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because it is in suffering that we turn to grace. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the one who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.
The saints are those who trust in God no matter their circumstances. When you read the stories of the Saints, you see horrific tales of beatings, torture, and murder. Many were burned to death or beheaded. They were thrown in prison and forgotten. They were ripped from the people they loved and forced to serve as slaves. Through it all they never wavered in their faith. They accepted the pain and suffering, and even sang God’s praises while their world fell apart. They were witnesses, even unto death, of the Gospel and God’s grace. Those whom we remember this Sunday as having passed from life into death have dealt with their own suffering and sacrifices. They have learned to live as children of God from those experiences, and they have passed those lessons on to us.
We study the scriptures for the next week during our Sunday School hour at church. Last week, on Reformation Sunday, we were looking at the text for All Saints Day. We use red paraments for Reformation Day. I’ve always wondered about this, after all the red represents the blood of the martyrs and Martin Luther died naturally after a long life. I brought this up in class: Why do we use red in remembrance of what he did?
The word martyr means “witness.” Though we use the term in reference to those who have been killed for their faith, the reality is that anyone who sacrifices something of themselves for the sake of the Gospel of Christ is a witness to His grace. They are martyrs, even if their blood is not spilled. This was most certainly true of Martin Luther. We joked about how Martin Luther should be canonized, but recognized that it will probably never happen. It doesn’t matter: Martin Luther does not need to be called a Saint because he is a saint according to God’s grace. He is among those whose robes are washed with the blood of Christ, and he spent his life helping others learn what it means to live that life.
Jesus saw the multitude that was following Him. He climbed the mountain and began to speak words that were difficult to hear. We don’t want to find blessedness in poverty or mourning or persecution. But the multitudes in Revelation were not there because they had an easy, careful life. They had washed their robes in the blood of Christ. He did it for us, and calls us to follow Him. That life of following Jesus is not a carefree journey. He doesn’t make it so that we’ll never suffer. Pain has a purpose. “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you.” Even death has a purpose, because without death we’ll never enter into eternity with our Father.
The saints include all those in Christ in every time and every place, including us. The saints are those who have been blessed by God’s grace and who lived, do live or will live in the faith that is a gift from God. That blessedness is not accompanied by some sort of giddy happiness or a life of prosperity. Instead, Jesus calls those whose lives are ravaged by the world as “blessed.”
A story is told of a young boy and a trip to a cathedral with his grandmother. As they wandered the aisles of the church looking at the windows, the woman asked her young grandson, “Do you know who the saints are?” She was referring to the figures in the windows and their stories. The young boy answered, “They are the people who the light shines through.” He knew that there was more to their life than just their story. They were saints because God shines His light in their lives.
It is interesting to think about the light through stained glass. I love to walk through a church on a sunny day. It is wonderful for those who are on the inside because the light shines through and we can see the glass in all its beauty and study its message. But what happens when it is dark outside? The windows look lifeless and dark from inside. And yet, as the light shines on the inside, that is the very moment when people on the outside can see the story.
The light comes from inside us and it shines for the world to see. We can complain about the darkness, death and evil all around us, but it is when the light shines out to the world through our lives that we actually have an impact. When we focus on life rather than death and light rather than darkness, the world will see God and know He is real.
Isn’t it amazing how we laugh at the darkness and death of Halloween, but we mourn at the celebration of the saints? This All Saints Day, even as we remember those who have been lost, let’s do so with rejoicing. There is pain in the death of those we love because they will no longer be with us. But there is also joy because we know that they are now among the multitude who are praising God forever. Let us sing for joy, just as the psalmist, knowing that we too will join them one day. “Praise ye Jehovah. Sing unto Jehovah a new song, And his praise in the assembly of the saints.”
“Again, they are diminished and bowed down Through oppression, trouble, and sorrow. He poureth contempt upon princes, And causeth them to wander in the waste, where there is no way. Yet setteth he the needy on high from affliction, And maketh him families like a flock. The upright shall see it, and be glad; And all iniquity shall stop her mouth. Whoso is wise will give heed to these things; And they will consider the lovingkindnesses of Jehovah.” Psalm 107:39-43, ASV
Psalm 107 tells us about several groups of people. First: “They wandered in the wilderness in a desert way; they found no city of habitation.” Next: “Such as sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron, because they rebelled against the words of God, and contemned the counsel of the Most High.” Third: “Fools because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted.” And finally: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of Jehovah, and his wonders in the deep.” In these passages, we see those who are lost, those who are in darkness, those who are foolish, and those who face mighty danger.
Each group has turned away from God; they have tried to go on their own, and they have found themselves in peril because of it. It seems as though God has abandoned them to their waywardness, their rebellion, their foolishness and their haughtiness. They meet hunger and thirst, bitter labor, dis-ease and storms. But in the midst of their troubles, each group remembers the Lord and they cry out for His help. He hears, and He saves. He leads them on a straight path, He delivers them out of darkness, He heals them and rescues them from the grave, and He calms the storm. “Then are they glad because they are quiet; So he bringeth them unto their desired haven.”
In each section, the people who have been saved praise God and thank Him for His unfailing love. They learn in the midst of their trouble that God does not abandon anyone; He is always ready to save His people who turn to Him.
We all go through times when we are lost, in darkness, foolish and in dangerous situations because we turn from our God. We try to go it on our own, and we end up on the wrong path, in the shadows, afflicted by dis-ease and in danger from the storms. But we, too, can cry out to God and He will save us. He will set our feet on the right path, deliver us from darkness, heal our dis-ease and calm our storms. He will lead us to our desired haven.
God turns the world upside down, and it often seems to us that He is the one making it bad. What we don’t realize is that the world is upside down from our own selfishness and our turning away from Him. He fixes things, He makes it right, He turns it as it should be, and then we see how truly lost, rebellious, foolish and in danger we really were without Him. So, when you are in the midst of trouble, remember the Lord and His unfailing love. He will save you and lead you to a haven where you will be safe.