Welcome to the October 2016 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
A WORD FOR TODAY, October 2016
“But you did follow my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, steadfastness, persecutions, and sufferings: those things that happened to me at Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. I endured those persecutions. The Lord delivered me out of them all. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you remain in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them. From infancy, you have known the holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus. Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:10-17, WEB
I have been writing this devotional for more than seventeen years. In that time, I’ve covered a huge portion of the Bible. I’ve written about the lectionary for nearly fourteen years, so I’ve covered all three years multiple times. I have touched on the scriptures assigned for the feast and festival days, so if you have been reading my posts for any length of time, you’ve probably have a pretty good idea of what’s in the Bible. I’ve repeated myself over the years, either posting edited versions of previous posts or simply using some of my favorite verses over and over again. Those favorites formational and life-changing, and they are worth hearing more than once.
I have not quoted the entire Bible. I’m not sure it is possible to do so in a devotional setting. After all, devotions are meant to inspire and encourage. They are meant to refresh us and set us on a path that will glorify God. They are meant to be a way for God to call each of us to the life we are meant to live. Some of the scriptures simply do not help that happen. Take, for instance, the genealogies found throughout the scriptures. They are important since they establish a timeline and the history of God’s people. The genealogies that describe Jesus’ forefathers remind us of how God uses fallible human beings to accomplish His great work. They are important, but they are tedious. So are the laws. Again, there is value there, but it is hard to be inspiring and encouraging when writing about the ceremonial laws of Israel.
Another difficulty is that some of the stories repeat themselves over and over again. The people of Israel were as human as you and I. They trusted God for a time, but eventually fell away. God saw their wickedness and did something to bring them to their knees. They cried out to God, He had mercy and they were delivered. This happened over and over again, and it was recounted by everyone who gave a lecture in the Bible. Reading the history books of the Bible (from Joshua through Esther) is like watching the Hallmark Movie Channel. You know what’s going to happen from the beginning of each story.
While these stories might not be valuable to quote in the devotions I write, it is important that we know and understand what happened with Israel. It is part of the story of our God and it establishes the need for God’s intervention. Their story is our story. Some of it is quite bizarre, however. They don’t exactly fit our understanding of God. Abraham taking the beloved son Isaac to the altar of sacrifice doesn’t make sense to us. In the end, we see God’s grace, but couldn’t God have done it another way? The Valley of Dry Bones is creepier than most Halloween decorations. Balaam’s talking donkey seems like a real stretch. Elisha cursed a bunch of bully kids and they were devoured by two bears. Jesus cursed a fig tree. Are these really stories that we want to be part of our history?
I googled “obscure Bible passages” and found websites containing lists of the most obscure people and bizarre events found in the Bible. I found one site that included some women who are rarely discussed, like the text of the barren woman I used last week. The site lifted these women as examples to encourage other women to see their worth despite their anonymity and frailty. Most of the other sites, however, came from a totally different perspective. They were using these obscure and bizarre people and stories as reason to reject God. They used the passages to ridicule faith.
We don’t hear many of these stories. They certainly don’t teach them in Sunday School, and many are not found in the lectionary. Those who don’t read the scriptures on their own might not even know they exist. Unfortunately, these stories can cause doubt and confusion in the minds of Christians who do not know how to find God’s grace in the midst of them. They don’t know how to learn the lessons. They don’t know how to stand against the ridicule. They don’t know how to get past their questions. Most will ignore the stories completely. Others will simply lose faith.
Sometimes, however, we need to face these obscure stories and characters to understand God’s story completely. The Valley of Dry Bones tells us that God can bring life even when there is nothing left. Elisha’s curse was not made out of self-preservation; he trusted God to deal rightly with those who stood against Him. The barren woman reminds us that God can bless us in ways we might never expect.
Paul tells us, “Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” We hear the scriptures, study the texts, and listen to sermons that expound on the meanings. We read the texts for ourselves and follow devotions to be inspired and encouraged. In all these things we tend to avoid these obscure and bizarre stories, but sometimes they are just what we need to hear. All the scriptures, including the ones we’d rather avoid, come from God and have a good purpose. Those who do not believe might ridicule us for following a God whose stories don’t make sense, but we can trust that God does everything for a purpose, even if we do not understand.
“Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love. I have spoken these things to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his lord does. But I have called you friends, for everything that I heard from my Father, I have made known to you. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you. I command these things to you, that you may love one another.” John 15:9-17, WEB
We look to the Bible stories for examples both of faithfulness and frailty. Those stories help us to see that God can use our gifts despite our failures. They give us hope when we want to despair and keeps us grounded when we want to glorify ourselves. History (His story) did not end with the writing of the scriptures. God continued to work through people, good and bad, to accomplish His purpose in the world. We remember many of those lives in the church calendar. There are feasts and commemorations every day of the year for those people whose faith stories are worth remembering, from the first apostles to modern reformers and servants of God.
We often think that saints must be perfect, but the reality is that they are just like us. There are some that seem to have lead extraordinary lives, but most of the Saints were simply ordinary people who had an extraordinary moment of faithfulness. We don’t celebrate all their lives, but if you look at a calendar of the Saints you’ll find the names of people who are just like you and me. Of course, we also believe that all those with faith in Christ are saints, so we are just like them.
Today is the feast day for one of those extraordinary Saints: St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis began the Franciscan order of monks and he is known as the patron saint of animals. He is known for his love of creation. St. Francis understood that we are part of one creation, a family with all God’s creatures. He believed that the incarnation affected much more than human lives. When we disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, our failure shook the entire creation. He insisted that the animals share in God’s grace; as the crown of God of God’s creation, we are given the responsibility to care for it. Paul tells us, “For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now.” The salvation of human beings, won through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, is the salvation of the whole of creation.
We are very familiar with St. Francis; 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. St. Francis is remembered for his simple life of poverty, a choice he made after growing up the son of a wealthy merchant and a woman of 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 scene. 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. The story of St. Francis certainly reflects the life of Christ. He loved the world in which he lived, the creation God created and the people sent his way. 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 God and man that shines God’s grace throughout the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 9, 2016, Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: Ruth 1:1-19a; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:1-13; Luke 17:11-19
“Then he said to him, ‘Get up, and go your way. Your faith has healed you.’” Luke 17:19, WEB
Orpah is another one of those obscure figures from scriptures. We are very familiar with her story, but because she gets lost in the telling of Ruth’s story. We talk about Naomi, her troubles and her bitterness. We talk about Ruth, her generosity and courage. We barely mention Orpah, the one who went home. I suppose we see her as the opposite of Ruth, perhaps a little greedy because despite her love for her mother-in-law.
And yet, what Orpah did was not wrong. As a matter of fact, she was obedient to her mother-in-law’s wishes. Naomi was a widow with no sons. She had no means of support. She wanted to return to her homeland where she might find generous relatives who would take her into their home. It wouldn’t be right for her to demand they also take in her daughters-in-law. Besides, the women were Moabites, and though her sons married them while in Moab, the girls would have difficulty finding husbands in Judah where marriage to foreign women was more firmly denounced. Naomi was being kind and generous by telling them to go home to find a new life. Orpah wept in grief about leaving, but she did so out of respect for the woman she’d grown to love.
We have a similar situation in the story from the Gospel. We again have what seems to be opposities: nine lepers leave Jesus to go to the Temple while one stays with Him. The nine did what was right according to Jesus’ word and the Law. We are quick to dismiss the nine because they didn’t go back and say “Thank you” to Jesus, but they did what they thought they were supposed to do.
Jesus commanded them to go to the priests and they all went in faith. I wonder what they were thinking as they left Jesus. It was proper to show yourself to the priest when you were cured of a disease, but they had not yet been cured. While they were leaving they were cured of their disease. Nine of the lepers continued to the priests, doing exactly as expected according to their religion and society. We do not hear any more about those nine men. Did they go straight to the temple and offer their sacrifices? Did they stop at home to hug their wives and kiss their children before taking their thanksgiving and praise to God? They were thankful, I am sure. This cure saved their lives. They could return home, work and live as a normal person again. It probably saved the lives of their families who suffered along with their loved one who’d been outcast. Their world was returned to them and their thankfulness was displayed in a return to the normal course of life. This is not a bad thing.
But is it enough? The psalmist writes, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom. All those who do his work have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” That’s the difference we see in Ruth and the tenth leper.
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 fear of the Lord is not like those irrational, debilitating fears. Easton’s Bible Dictionary says that it is “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.
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. Orpah may have had a wonderful life, but Ruth’s life was greatly blessed.
Jesus told the lepers to go to the priests. Like the nine, the tenth leper, a Samaritan, headed that way, in hopeful expectation for healing. Along the way they all were healed. The nine continued in joy, 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.
Do we respond to God’s grace with a word of thanksgiving before going on to our normal lives or are we changed forever by what God has done? That was the difference between Ruth and Orpah, the nine lepers and the Samaritan. Those who trusted in God were changed; they were made new. When they turned to God, they began a life of faith which is the true gift.
What is faith? I often define faith as trust in God, and yet is that definition deep enough? What does it mean to trust God? Ruth trusted Naomi’s God. The ten trusted Jesus’ words. They were all blessed by that trust; their lives were changed by faith.
Faith is not blind as so many would infer. The psalmist confesses his faith in the presence of an assembly, and he does so by recounting the wonderful things God has done. He praises God by referencing the works of His hands. “Yahweh’s works are great, pondered by all those who delight in them. His work is honor and majesty. His righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered. Yahweh is gracious and merciful.” Unfortunately, God’s people often forgot the great and marvelous things He has done and when He came to them in the final and most incredible act of mercy, they did not recognize Him.
The tenth leper saw the truth. The other nine were caught up in their own understanding of God; they did what they knew to be right according to their religion. They did not recognize the presence of God and ran off to do what was expected. They put their faith in their actions rather than in the One who could really make them whole.
Paul writes to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ.” It is not enough to confess faith in God. Our entire faith rests on Christ and His work on the cross. We cannot be saved in any other way but through Him. “For if we died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we deny him, he also will deny us. If we are faithless, he remains faithful. He can’t deny himself.”
We are healed for more than just a return to the old way of life. We are saved to be a blessing to others. Ruth followed Naomi and a God she did not know and she became the ancestor of kings and the King. We don’t know what happened to the Samaritan leper after he left Jesus, but as soon as he knew he was healed, he worshipped. I’m certain that he returned home praising God and telling others about Jesus.
Paul told Timothy to pass on the knowledge that he had been given. It isn’t enough to hear the Gospel and go on to live our lives as if nothing has changed. God’s grace gives us new life, life that is meant to be shared. The examples Paul gives are interesting because again, it is not bad to live life or do your job as expected. A good soldier is obedient to the commands of his leader. A good athlete focuses on his training. A good farmer reaps a harvest that will take care of his family. This is not bad. A person of faith, however, takes it to the next step. A person of faith glorifies God in their daily work. We are made new, transformed by God’s grace. We are no longer soldiering, running or reaping for ourselves. We are called to do all this for God. We are saved and healed through Jesus Christ who died for our sake.
We should go on to live our lives, to care for our families, to do our work. We should go to the Temple and show ourselves to the priests so that they can declare to our communities that God has done good things for us. We should go home and love our families. We should rejoice in the new life we have been given. However, faith takes it further. Faith heals. Faith trusts that it was God who did it for us; faith praises God for what He did. We are blessed to be a blessing for others. Orpah and the nine walked away from God with the promise of a good life. Ruth and the one received far more. They received the promise of eternity, the promise of a relationship with the faithful One who makes us whole.
“Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are: that no flesh should boast before God. Because of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, ‘He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord.’” 1 Corinthians 1:20-31, WEB
We like heroes. Comic book heroes are very popular these days, with movies and television shows dedicated to their stories. We find heroes in the sports arenas, not only in the Olympics this past summer, but on the football fields and basketball courts. Some people find heroes in politics and in business. Every national holiday is accompanied by cries to remember, honor, and protect our military heroes. Children write stories about their heroes in school; these stories are often about their fathers or other favorite relative.
We look for heroes in the scriptures, too. At least a couple Vacation Bible School and summer camp programs in the past few years revolved around superhero themes, telling their stories in a way that the kids will love. One curriculum developer quoted Axel Alonzo, Editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, about when kids get interested in their superheroes: “They are not rooting for the powers or the costume -- they’re rooting for the person inside the tights. With Spider-Man, they’re rooting for the kid from Queens who, when he’s not saving the world, has to scrape to make rent; with Captain America, they’re rooting for the 98-pound weakling who, through the miracle of science, was granted muscles that finally match the size of his heart.” Superheroes are “models for life; people who rise above their personal baggage and insecurities to face great challenges and do great things.”
Moses was a hero. Joshua was a hero. Samson was a hero. They did great things for God and for God’s people. The third chapter of Judges tells the stories of three judges who were heroes. The first was named Othneil. The second was named Ehud. The third was named Shamgar. These are three more obscure characters that are probably not very familiar to most of those reading this post. I have read every page of my Bible and I have to admit that until I started searching for these obscure Bible stories and characters, I did not know remember names.
Othneil was the first judge of Israel. The text tells us that Israel did evil in the sight of God, followed the gods of their neighbors; they married foreigners and became part of the world in which they lived. They forgot Him and all He did for them. God became angry. He gave them into the hands of their enemies, they cried out and God sent a savior. This is a story that happened repeatedly throughout the history of Israel. At first the saviors were judges, and then they were kings. Still the people turned from God until they suffered the consequences of their sin. Othneil obtained victory over the enemy and the land had rest for forty years. He was a hero.
The third judge was called Shamgar. Shamgar is about as obscure as you can get. His story is given just one verse. Shamgar killed six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. Sounds pretty heroic to me, but I doubt we’ll find him in the Sunday school materials.
These two judges bookend one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible. The second judge surely will not be studied because his story is, to put it delicately, disgusting. The actions of this judge don’t seem very heroic to us, though they saved Israel from the Moabites. Beginning at verse 12, we see that Israel did what was evil in the sight of God, again, and God raised up Eglon, King of Moab to teach His people a lesson. The people served the king of Moab for eighteen years. The people cried out to God and He raised up a judge named Ehud. Ehud went with a delegation to present a tribute to the king. After the presentation was over, Ehud sent the others ahead and told the king he had a message. The king was left alone with Ehud, who pulled out a hidden sword, stabbed the king and then escaped off the balcony.
Ehud’s story is filled with details, unlike the stories of Othneil and Shamgar. We learn that the king of Moab was extremely fat, so fat that the sword of Ehud disappeared into his belly. It ripped open his intestines and caused him to defecate. This is a particularly gruesome detail that doesn’t seem very important. However, it was this very detail that kept the king’s people at bay while Ehud escaped. You see, the king’s servants did not want to disturb the king while he was relieving himself, so they left him alone until he opened the door. By the time they were concerned enough to open the door their king was dead and Ehud was long gone. Ehud called the Israelites to battle. They defeated their enemy, killing 10,000 Moabites. Israel had peace for eighty years.
Ehud’s story doesn’t seem very heroic, does it? Yes, he won the victory for God’s people, but he did so in such an underhanded way. His story even seems cowardly. Why give so much attention to Ehud and not Othneil and Shamgar? Why focus on the anti-hero rather than the heroes? The answer is that the stories remind us that it is not about the human heroes, but about God.
See, we want the hero. We want to celebrate those who have done great things for us. Othneil and Shamgar are the types of heroes we can celebrate. However, we are given the details to Ehud so that we can see how God was there in the midst of it all. God moved the characters. God set the scene. God held the servants so that Ehud could escape. God gave the Moabites into Israel’s hands. We don’t like Ehud very much, but through His story we see that God can do great things through the anti-hero as well as the hero. We are reminded by these obscure characters that while we might do heroic things for the Kingdom of God, we are not heroes, for it is God who works through our weaknesses to show the world His great strength.
“But the word of God grew and multiplied.” Acts 12:24, WEB
Acts 12 is the story of Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great. He is described in Jewish sources as having been a good man, milder than former Herodian kings. He was raised with a strong Jewish identity, so the Christian movement would have been against his faith and religious understanding. The Christians identified Jesus as divine; any movement that would make a claim like that was blasphemous to the Jews. It is no wonder that he would fight against the Christians.
He might have had more mercy than his grandfather, but he was also self-centered. He desired exaltation; he looks for the approval of the people and desired the power that came with their recognition of his greatness. He also wanted to stop, or at least slow, the Christian movement. The message of Jesus did not benefit one who sought the praise of men, since Jesus called for leaders to be humble servants of the people. He might have been kind, but he wasn’t willing to be less than king. He didn’t see that his own rule would be greater if he trusted God and believed in Jesus.
He arrested James, the brother of John. James was one of the “sons of thunder,” and was probably a very outspoken advocate for Jesus. We don’t really know why Herod arrested and killed Jesus, but the outcome was exactly what Herod wanted: the praise of men. The Jews were pleased that Herod would take control of the city by destroying the Way. Praise makes one desire even more, so Herod arrested Peter. He was going to deal with him after the Passover was over, but that’s when the story turns in favor for the Christians.
Peter was chained and well guarded, with soldiers even lying on other side of him as he slept. There was no way to escape. Suddenly an angel appeared and set him free. “Wake up, get up, get dressed and follow me.” Peter followed, but he wasn’t even sure it was real. It was not until he was free of the prison, on the streets of Jerusalem, that he came to his senses and realized that the Lord had rescued him. Herod’s great plan to get more praise from men was foiled by God’s angel. Herod searched for Peter and when he was not found, Herod had the guards put to death. Then he ran off to another part of his kingdom to find his praise there.
Herod’s kingdom was the breadbasket of the region. Many people relied on the food that grew in the fertile valleys. The king was not happy with the people in Tyre and Sidon, and they knew they needed his approval so that they could buy the food they needed to survive. They sent a envoy to ask for peace. Herod, seeing the power of his position, dressed like a great king and sat on a royal throne. He gave a speech that impressed the people and they cried, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Herod finally got everything he wanted. He heard not only praise, but he was lifted to the very height of greatness.
Immediately an angel of the Lord stuck Herod and he died. His body was eaten by worms. Here is yet another one of those stories that does not quite fit our understanding of God. We see here, though, that this happened because Herod did not give God the glory. Herod may have been fighting against a movement that claimed Jesus was divine out of some religious understanding, but in the end it was his own desire to be called a god that ended his life and rule. What Herod tried to stop actually increased the faith of many. The word of God grew and multiplied.
“When Peter had come to himself, he said, ‘Now I truly know that the Lord has sent out his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from everything the Jewish people were expecting.’ Thinking about that, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. When Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she didn’t open the gate for joy, but ran in, and reported that Peter was standing in front of the gate. They said to her, ‘You are crazy!’ But she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel.’ But Peter continued knocking. When they had opened, they saw him, and were amazed. But he, beckoning to them with his hand to be silent, declared to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, ‘Tell these things to James, and to the brothers.’ Then he departed, and went to another place.” Acts 12:11-17, WEB
I found the story of Herod as I was reading the story of another obscure Bible character. She’s not quite as obscure as those we’ve seen in the past few postings, as we are far more familiar with New Testament stories than we are those in the Old Testament. I’m sure most have heard the story of Peter being rescued from Herod by Herod.
But have you ever noticed Rhoda? Luke tells us in Acts 12 that when Peter realized that he had really been released, he went to Mary, the mother of John Mark’s house. This is the Cenacle, otherwise known as the Upper Room, a place where the disciples gathered before, during and after Jesus’ passion. Mary, the mother of John Mark, supported Jesus and the disciples and gave them space where they could pray, talk, grieve, and plan. It is where Jesus held the Passover feast before He went to the cross. It is where the disciples and Thomas saw Jesus. It is the site of the Pentecost coming of the Holy Spirit. That’s how Peter knew where to go when he was rescued.
He arrived at the door and knocked. I’m sure those inside were afraid. Jesus was dead and gone, Stephen and James the brother of John were dead, and Peter was under arrest. Every knock on the door probably made them jump. Who would be next? What was going to happen to them? How could they do what Jesus sent them to do if everyone ended up dead?
Isn’t it funny that they were praying when the knocks came? What were they praying to happen? They were surely praying for Peter’s safety, perhaps even his release. I shared the story of boy who took an umbrella to a prayer meeting. He believed that if they prayed for rain, then God would make it rain. Did they believe that their prayer would help Peter? Were they waiting for word with faith?
Peter knocked and Rhoda went to the door. She heard his voice and became so excited with joy that she forgot to open the door! Imagine how she must have felt to hear Peter on the other side. She was a servant, and while she probably had heard Peter and waited on him, she would have seen him as we might see a celebrity. She was giddy with joy, not thinking straight. Some descriptions of Rhoda call her a ditzy teenager.
I know how she felt. I recall a time when I was traveling with my mother and a friend. We were returning late at night from a meeting several hours from home and we stopped at a rest area to use the restrooms and to buy some snacks. There was bus in the parking lot which looked like it must belong to a celebrity. We discovered that it belonged to Rick Springfield. My friend and I loved Rick Springfield; he was the heart throb of the day, not only as a musician but also as an actor. We had to try to meet him, so we stood in the path that he would have to walk between the bus and shop. He was so gracious; he stopped to talk to us and signed some autographs.
It was late and we were tired, but I still wanted to say something to make our meeting memorable. I was a little nervous; after all, I was meeting Rick Springfield! I was thinking about his work as Dr. Noah Drake on “General Hospital,” but for some reason a recent appearance on “The Love Boat” came to mind. Instead of asking how he liked working on the soap opera, I said, “How’s it going on “Love Boat”? I felt so silly when it was over, like a ditzy teenager. He was even more gracious and laughed with me. Who knows, it might just have been the encounter that still makes him laugh.
Rhoda may have been a ditzy teenager, but she’s important to this story. She must be important; after all, she’s a servant girl who is named, an insignificant figure who is given significance by being identified. So, what can we learn from this brief encounter? Rhoda went to the others and said that Peter was at the door. We think she is silly for not opening the door, but it was a dangerous time. What would have happened if she’d opened the door to a stranger? The others did not believe her; they didn’t believe that it could be Peter and even called her crazy. Rhoda, despite her silliness, was like the boy with the umbrella: she believed. We are reminded by this story that God can and does use the most insignificant people to do the most significant acts of faith. He can use a servant girl named Rhoda to deliver the most incredible message: have faith, God has heard your prayers and answered. There might be many reasons to doubt the word of a ditzy teenager, but let us be gracious and give God a chance to show us in His way that He can do the unbelievable.
“David said to the young man who told him, ‘How do you know that Saul and Jonathan his son are dead?’ The young man who told him said, ‘As I happened by chance on Mount Gilboa, behold, Saul was leaning on his spear; and behold, the chariots and the horsemen followed close behind him. When he looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. I answered, “Here I am.” He said to me, “Who are you?” I answered him, “I am an Amalekite.” He said to me, “Please stand beside me, and kill me; for anguish has taken hold of me, because my life lingers in me.” So I stood beside him and killed him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he had fallen. I took the crown that was on his head and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them here to my lord.’” 2 Samuel 1:5-10, WEB
Saul was the anointed king of Israel. He was the first king, the one they wanted so that they could be just like all the other nations. God warned them that a king would take their sons and daughters and make them his servants. He would tax them and take the best of their produce. He would make the men fight and the women work hard, taking the best servants and cattle for his own house and herds. The people agreed and Saul lived up to the warning. Saul was the anointed king of Israel, but he was not obedient to God’s word and was rejected. God sent Samuel to anoint another. David was the other.
Now, when God took His spirit from Saul, He gave it to David. It seems like it should have been an easy transition, but despite God’s rejection of Saul, the two men fought bitterly over the throne. David, though he had God behind him, refused to kill Saul, and he would not take the throne until Saul was dead. Saul spent most of his energy and the resources of his army chasing after David. David had the opportunity on several occasions to kill Saul, but refused. He believed that God would deal with Saul in His own time and way and that it was against God’s Law to kill him. David was patient; he knew God was in control.
Saul was wounded in battle, but he did not die. His wounds would have likely killed him eventually, but he didn’t want to suffer at the hands of the enemy so he asked his armor bearer to finish the job. The man was terrified and refused; he knew that he could not kill the king. In the end, Saul impaled himself and died. (1 Samuel 31)
A young man, an Amalekite who was serving in Saul’s army, left and went to David’s camp. He wanted to be on the right side of history and since he was probably a paid mercenary, he had nothing to lose by switching sides. He went to David with Saul’s crown and bracelet, reporting the king’s death. David asked, “How do you know?” The young man, wanting to curry favor himself with David, told him that he was the one who killed Saul. This story did not turn out as the young Amalekite expected.
David grieved the death of the king; despite their enmity, David loved Saul. Despite Saul’s failings as a king, David respected his anointing. Despite God’s anointing on David, he was willing to wait for God’s time. The young Amalekite did not understand and took credit for the death hoping that he would be greatly rewarded. Instead, David ordered him killed for slaying God’s anointed.
We learn a very important lesson from this obscure Bible character: don’t say what you think people want to hear to ingratiate yourself with them. This is a lesson a great many people need to learn these days, I think. Unfortunately, we have too many politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths, saying one thing to one group and the exact opposite to another. It happens in the business world, too. Employees will tell their boss what they think he or she wants to hear. Sadly, it even happens in churches, where preachers fill the ears of the people with warm fuzzies and ignore the reality of sin and death. Though I doubt we’ll hear about God striking down any of the political, business or church leaders who do this, I am sure that one day God will deal with them in His own way.
Do you ever do this? Do you ever tell the story you think the listener wants to hear? Do you stretch the truth or twist the outcome? We all do this in one way or another, but we are reminded that it is not good to embellish a story to make ourselves look good because in the end we might be admitting to something that can destroy us.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 16, 2016, Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 32:22-30; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
“But you remain in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them.” 2 Timothy 3:14, WEB
Bruce and I went on a wonderful vacation last summer: a visit to several national and state parks in Arizona and Utah. We did not hike miles of wilderness, but we did take a lot of smaller hikes to scenic views along the routes in the parks. Most of the hikes were a mile or so in length, often with an easy grade and well paved. They all led to amazing vistas. They were, of course, the more crowded paths because they were accessible to everyone. I’m not in great shape, so the more difficult hikes were beyond my ability. I was proud of myself, though. In ten days (four of which were spent in the car) I hiked at least fifteen miles. Bruce did a few more than me because he went further than I was willing to go.
We came to one scenic place that had two separate paths. One led to the top of a very tall peak and the other led to the next stop. The sight from that spot was amazing, but I’m sure it was even more so on the top of that peak. I looked up and knew there was no way I would make it. We were at the end of a long day and the path was very steep. My back and knees were starting to complain. Bruce wanted to try, so I sat on a bench with a book and read while he went to the top. When he came back he looked at the other path that led to the next scenic area. It was a fairly easy path, but taking it meant a long round trip hike. It was late in the day and we had a long drive ahead of us to our hotel. So, Bruce hiked that path while I moved the car to the next parking lot. There were another one or two places Bruce went without me, but I kept up with him better than I expected, and I did so carrying tons of camera equipment.
I have to admit that I did a few of those paths with a little trepidation. I can understand the plea of the psalmist: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from?” This song of encouragement was sung by those who were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was built on a hill that was surely difficult climb after long journeys from their homes. “Who will help me climb these final steps?” they might have asked, struggling with exhaustion at the end of a long journey. I wonder if any stood at the foot of that hill and felt as I did, “You go, I’ll wait here.”
Bruce encouraged me as we hiked those many paths, but we are reminded that the greatest encouragement comes with the realization that our help comes from the Lord. The pilgrims were climbing that hill to Jerusalem to worship the God who does great things for His people. He is our keeper; He guards our lives and protects us from harm. He is our strength. The psalmist writes, “Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.”
Having God along for the ride does not make the journey easy. You still have to climb those hills to get to the destination, but the comfort comes at knowing that there will be peace and grace at the end.
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. We even struggle against one another in our churches over the issues of the day. As we struggle against men, we also struggle against God. 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. We limp away in faith, trusting that God will answer our cry.
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 his brother Esau over the blessing of Isaac and the inheritance. He had struggled with Laban over the woman he loved. He had struggled with his women 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.
Jacob struggled and prevailed. He became the father of an entire nation. He was the first to strive against God. Israel constantly struggled against God and man. Jacob was not always faithful or righteous. In this story, Jacob was obeying God’s word by returning to meet with Esau, but even then he did not completely trust God. Jacob heard that Esau was approaching with four hundred men. He divided his possessions, and sent some ahead, sending the rest into the safety of hiding. Then he cried out to God, “You sent me back here to meet Esau and now he is preparing to attack me. I do not deserve your kindness but you have promised to make me prosper. Save me from the hand of my brother.” Did he trust God? Did he believe that God would remain with him? He wrestled with his faith and his uncertainty.
God was with Jacob, and this story shows the struggle Jacob faced when being confronted by his God: a man wrestled with Jacob until the early hour of the morning. “The man said, Let me go, for the day breaks.” But Jacob would not let him go until he received a blessing. The man asked, “What is your name?” Jacob answered and the man said, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Jacob limped away from the encounter in faith, trusting that God would be with him. Despite his failure, he received the blessing of God.
God is with us in our daily lives. This is an important message for us all to remember. We would rather leave God in the Temple or in our church building. We would rather control our own lives, direct our own paths. When we do so, however, we find that the path is much more difficult.
Jacob is an interesting, though not very likable, biblical character. The promises for Jacob were clear from the beginning, but he did not trust God. The voices that guided him did not trust that God is faithful. He lied and cheated and inflicted revenge on those who lied to and cheated him. He manipulated things to his benefit and ran away when the going got tough. He played favorites and served himself.
Jacob is not totally to blame. Though he took the birthright from Esau, Esau gave it away for a bowl of soup. Rebecca helped him take control of the blessing from his father. It seemed to her that it was necessary to do so that God’s promises could be fulfilled. He worked seven long years for the right to marry Rachel and Laban tricked him into taking Leah. Laban tried to take advantage of Jacob, cheating him out his rightful pay. He took matters into his own hands. Rachel helped him escape from Laban. In every situation, the actions are justified by the idea that they helped bring about God’s purpose for Jacob. However, every time we take matters into our own hands, we show our lack of trust in God. We think that God needs our help to be faithful.
During the years that he was gone, Jacob had built a dynasty for himself. He had wives, servants, children and great wealth. He heard the voice of God who told him to go home. He was afraid, but he obeyed. He sent a message to Esau announcing his return and Esau answered by coming to meet him with an army of hundreds. Still afraid and doubting God’s promises, Jacob divided his people and possessions into two groups, hoping that if Esau destroys one group the other group will survive.
Then he prayed. He prayed a prayer in which he recognized his unworthiness, confessed his doubt and reminded God of His promises. On the night before he faced his brother, he had to wrestle with his own doubts. To be reconciled to his brother, Jacob first needed to overcome all that had kept him from living as God had intended. He was a sinful man who had to face his greatest sin: his lack of trust in God. Everything he did against men, he did against God, because it was his way of ensuring that God’s promises would be fulfilled. Before he faced his past and began his future, he had to face his God.
We climb mountains. We go on pilgrimages. The greatest journey we travel, however, is our live of faith. It is hard. We don’t always know where we are going or what is waiting for us. We don’t know what troubles we’ll faith. We have to remember that this journey is not necessarily something unusual or spectacular like a national park vacation or a long awaited reunion. Our daily work and our everyday activities are part of our journey of faith. Through it all we can go in peace knowing that God is with us wherever we go. He does not sleep. He helps us through our struggles and keeps us in our coming and going. We don’t need to choose to take this journey in a manner that proves our worthiness to be in His presence. He loves His people and has chosen to be a part of our lives. This is why we sing songs of praise; He deserves our worship.
Timothy was struggling. Paul’s letter was written to encourage the young pastor to be bold with his faith and the preaching of God’s Word. He had all he needed to do God’s work in the world. “But you remain in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them. From infancy, you have known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus.”
Paul was among those who taught Timothy about faith in Jesus Christ, along with his mother and grandmother. I can imagine time around the fire as the family sang psalms and repeated the stories of God’s work for the nation of Israel. I can imagine the prayers they said together as they prepared to sleep at night. I can imagine them going to the synagogue to worship God together with the community of believers. Timothy was brought up in the faith. His journey wasn’t a very hard one at first. But as a young pastor in the early days of the Church, Timothy would face all sorts of obstacles. The elders would question his age. The Jews would question his faith. The world would question his life. Paul knew Timothy would need encouragement as he looked up into the hills. Who would be his help?
Paul told him to look to the scriptures. “Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Paul urged Timothy to preach boldly despite the struggles he would face in this world; he could trust that God was with him as he went to do the work he was called to do. We are encouraged to have the same kind of trust as we go on our own journeys of faith.
Paul writes, not only for Timothy but for all of us, “But you be sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill your 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 God.
Jacob was not very likable; he lied and cheated and inflicted revenge on those who lied to and cheated him. He manipulated his world to his benefit and ran away when the going got tough. He played favorites and served himself. His story may be unique, but are we all that different? Aren’t we sinners who have to face our greatest sin: our own lack of trust in God? We don’t want to face Him any more than the widow wanted to face the judge in this week’s Gospel story. We know that like Jacob, we’ll end up limping away from the encounter a little worse for wear. But we face Him in faith because we trust that He will do what is right.
Jesus tells us about a widow who pesters a judge for justice. For whatever reason -- perhaps he would have to rule over a powerful or wealthy person or simply because he has no regard for women -- the judge refuses to hear her case. When he does give in, his action has nothing to do with mercy or justice, but it is for his own purpose. He’d rather not be worn out by her constant pestering, “Though I neither fear God, nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will defend her, or else she will wear me out by her continual coming,” he said. The judge’s acquiescence has more to do with his reputation than with the widow’s stubbornness. He was a man of power and authority and he recognized that the weak widow could do damage to his reputation and his future if someone noticed the lack of justice in his court.
Jesus then compares God to the judge. “Listen to what the unrighteous judge says. Won’t God avenge his chosen ones, who are crying out to him day and night, and yet he exercises patience with them? I tell you that he will avenge them quickly.” Is Jesus really saying that God is like that unjust judge? No. The judge is the worst of human decency; God’s mercy and grace is something far above. God is in control and is handling the world in which we live. He is the God who does great things for His people. He is our keeper. He guards our lives and protects us from harm. He is our strength. If that sinful judge can do what is right, how much better is the justice we’ll get through God’s grace? We need only live in trust, knowing He is the one to which we can look for our help.
We haven’t all had a faith journey like Timothy. Some of us have been part of the Church since our earliest days. Others come to faith late in life. We all have something in common, however. We have the same source of encouragement: we have the scriptures that tell us God’s story and promises. The Holy Spirit assures of that He is trustworthy even when we are not faithful. Like Timothy, we have learned about Jesus from those who came before us: from Jacob to Paul to our mothers and grandmothers who taught us the stories of Jesus. Remain in those things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing that it comes from God and He is faithful.
“The sons of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘See now, the place where we live and meet with you is too small for us. Please let us go to the Jordan, and each man take a beam from there, and let us make us a place there, where we may live.’ He answered, ‘Go!’ One said, “Please be pleased to go with your servants.’ He answered, ‘I will go.’ So he went with them. When they came to the Jordan, they cut down wood. But as one was cutting down a tree, the ax head fell into the water. Then he cried, and said, ‘Alas, my master! For it was borrowed.’ The man of God asked, ‘Where did it fall?’ He showed him the place. He cut down a stick, threw it in there, and made the iron float. He said, ‘Take it.’ So he put out his hand and took it.” 2 Kings 6:1-7, WEB
Many of the miracles in the Bible are stories of healing or restoration of life, but there are many other types of miracles that we see happening in both the Old and New Testament. Moses parted the Red Sea. Baalam heard the word of the Lord from his donkey. Elijah fed the widow of Zarephath and her son. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were saved from the fiery furnace. Jonah lived in the belly of a whale for three days. Daniel was saved from the Lions. In the New Testament, Jesus did many things. He calmed the storm. He fed thousands. He walked on water. Peter and Paul were both miraculously delivered out of prison.
These stories have many purposes, not the least of which is showing God’s power. Volumes have been written about the meaning of the miracles, how the Old Testament prophets foreshadow Jesus and His work. Some writers find deep spiritual meaning to the miracles, others find lessons for daily living. Some will find connections and patterns. If you study the scriptures and the many commentaries that have been written, you will find many different interpretations.
The book of 2 Kings tells of sixteen miracles performed by the prophet Elisha. These miracles range from healings and raising the dead to control over creation like the dividing of the Jordan and multiplication of oil. Some of the stories are echoes of Moses and foreshadows of Jesus. There is a series of miracles in 2 Kings 4:1-6:7 that are works of wonder that show the compassion and generosity of God’s prophet Elisha and therefore of God. He helped a widow find enough to pay her debts, helped a barren woman bear a son and then raised that son from the dead, removed poison from a pot of stew, fed a hundred men with a few loaves of bread, healed a leper, smote his servant for disobedience and retrieved an axe head from the Jordan. This section has a concentric structure and the stories are linked by similar language; a study of the passage might have a fascinating outcome. We are moved by Elisha’s concern for the widow and the mother, for his school of prophets and for the Syrian commander. We are shocked by the punishment of Gehazi.
Then we get to the story of the axe head. This is one of those obscure stories that we don’t hear much about, although I discovered dozens of commentaries that tried to explain it. The differences in interpretation were incredible, with some even referencing the foolishness of other interpretations! There might be truth to all those ideas, but after reading several different web pages, I came across a note that made sense to me: this is a story of God’s gracious concern over even the most insignificant things in our lives.
The fame that came from so many miraculous works was drawing many students to Elisha. They wanted to listen to him, to learn from him. The place they were staying was too small; they needed a bigger school. Elisha agreed and even said he’d join them in the new place. The prophets worked together, all doing the manual labor necessary for a place where they could gather and learn. This labor was not typical work for the students, so they had to borrow the tools. One young man had an accident and lost the axe head in the Jordan. He was distraught because it was expensive; he could not afford to replace such an expensive tool and his friend could not afford to take the loss. God made the axe head appear through a symbolic action of Elisha.
The comfort we can take through this story is that God does care about the things that matter to us, including the financial stresses we experience. He does care when we lose something important to us, even if it seems trivial to others. He does care when we suddenly discover we have a loss that seems impossible to overcome. He does care about the debts we have to pay. We simply need to turn to Him in prayer, take our concerns and trust in His compassion. We might not have axe heads floating in the Jordan, but we’ll find a way through our troubles.
“Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered strange fire before Yahweh, which he had not commanded them. Fire came out from before Yahweh, and devoured them, and they died before Yahweh. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what Yahweh spoke of, saying, “I will show myself holy to those who come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”’” Leviticus 10:1-4, WEB
Some things matter. I know many Christians follow worship practices different than I do; I prefer a service that includes Word and Sacrament, and love the liturgy. The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” and it is our praise and thanksgiving to God set to song. Most of the liturgy comes directly from the scriptures and it sets our hearts and our minds in the right attitude for hearing the Word and receiving God’s gifts of grace. I love the liturgy, although I don’t mind some modern forms of worship like praise songs and prayers. The best worship is able to meld it all together in a way that causes us to confess our sin, experience God’s mercy and prepare for the work we are called to do in the world. This doesn’t mean other types of worship are less worshipful; it just means that I prefer to follow the long established rituals that are experienced by Christians all over the world.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that is measured by the clock. We schedule every moment and leave no time for God to work. While I love the way my church does worship, I know we are not perfect. Too many expect that worship to fit into a specific time period. They get fidgety if it lasts more than an hour. After all, they have to get to the restaurant for lunch or they are meeting friends at the golf course. Worship committees often struggle over this problem, wondering what can be cut so that the congregation won’t complain. “Maybe we can get rid of the Psalm this week.” “How about singing just the first verse of the hymn?” “The pastor should not preach more than twelve minutes.” It is especially challenging when the lectionary readings are lengthy.
The focus of these discussions is all wrong, of course. We shouldn’t be planning our worship based on the clock. These decisions lead us down a path of picking and choosing what is important. Now, granted, our worship is not defined in the scriptures as was the rituals of the Temple in the Old Testament. The Gospels and Epistles give us some idea of what they did, and the early church developed the creeds, prayers and songs. We follow a pattern that has been in place for millennia, some of which goes back to worship in the Temple. Is it commanded? Perhaps not. Does it matter? Yes.
We tried something new at church last week, and though some people may have found joy and peace in the music and the prayers, most of us were left feeling empty. There were some technical difficulties, which made it worse, but it wasn’t just the screeching of the equipment. There was something missing. We listened to a band, heard a few prayers, listened to scriptures read and expounded upon, and received communion. Thank goodness our pastor gave an excellent sermon and it is hard to ruin the Eucharist, or I would have felt like that hour (more than an hour) was a waste of time. Others may have felt differently, but I know I wasn’t alone. The congregation had a difficult time even following the music to sing along.
Nadab and Abihu did not do as God commanded. Their sin was more than just doing something new or different. They were Aaron’s sons, recently consecrated to serve as priests in the Temple. However, they were not the High Priest. It was not their job to offer the incense to God. They used censers that were not blessed and filled them with common fire. They had seen God’s glory as the fire came out to consume Aaron’s offering; they knew God’s power and authority. The same fire came against the sons because they thought they could usurp the authority of Aaron, but even worse, God.
Some things matter. God is not going to cast fire out to consume those who try something new in worship, as He did to the two obscure characters in today’s text. He is doing something new in the Church; we have a freedom that they did not have. He is glorified by all our forms of worship, whether it is high church liturgy or contemporary praise. He is glorified by those who gather together in prayer and to hear God’s Word. Worship comes in many forms, but we are reminded by the story of Nadab and Abihu that we must be careful not to usurp God’s authority as we make decisions about how we worship. The purpose is for God’s people to glorify Him, to worship Him and to thank Him for His grace; anything less will do more harm than good.
“Praise Yah! Praise, you servants of Yahweh, praise Yahweh’s name. Blessed be Yahweh’s name, from this time forward and forever more. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, Yahweh’s name is to be praised. Yahweh is high above all nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like Yahweh, our God, who has his seat on high, Who stoops down to see in heaven and in the earth? He raises up the poor out of the dust. Lifts up the needy from the ash heap; that he may set him with princes, even with the princes of his people. He settles the barren woman in her home, as a joyful mother of children. Praise Yah!” Psalm 113, WEB
How familiar are you with the biblical book of Esther? You might find references to Esther in Sunday school and VBS materials because we love Esther’s courage and the victory of good over evil. Chapter 7 is part of the lectionary once in three years, but most of us aren’t really familiar with the entire story. The book has been questioned over the years by theologians and church leaders, particularly during the Reformation. Martin Luther did not exclude it from his canon, but was ambivalent about it.
If you read the book in the biblical translations based on the Hebrew, you’ll find that there is no reference to God, miracles, or prayer. The early church favored the Greek version, the Septuagint, which had additional passages. You can find those texts in some modern translations, including the New Jerusalem Bible. Which is truer: the Hebrew or the Greek? I’m not sure we can know for sure. Those who reject the longer version suggest that the additional texts were added to make it more religious; others point out that they were referenced extensively by the early church and should be accepted.
The additional passages do not change the story, they just enhance it. The opening passages establish the story with a little more detail and records the text of the letters sent both to destroy the Jews and to allow them to fight for their lives. There are also lengthy prayers, although even these do not necessarily make this book more religious. The Book of Esther is a secular story, a nationalistic story, but despite the lack of God-talk, it is a story that has lessons for our Christian lives which we’ll be looking at this week, no matter which translation you use.
The story begins with a party. The Persian King Ahasuerus ruled over a kingdom that was at peace. It was a huge kingdom that reached from India to Ethiopia with 127 provinces. He held a celebration. For six months he displayed the riches and glory of his kingdom, and held lavish dinners to honor his nobles, governors and military leaders. At the end of the six months, he held a massive feast for everyone, from the lowest citizens to the greatest leaders. The feast lasted seven days. King Ahasureus was extremely generous, sharing his blessings with all his people. The usual protocols were thrown out and the people in Susa partied like the king.
Right here, at the beginning of this story, we see a foreshadow of God’s grace; for this alone it is worth reading the book of Esther. King Hahasuerus cannot, in any manner, be compared to our God, but if this Persian king could be so generous to his people, how much more will the Great Banquet of God be for His people? Even the promise of our future in God’s Kingdom is enough for us to sing His praise. Can you imagine how happy the people in Susa were during this time of celebration? That’s just a shadow of the joy we will experience when we are gathered together in the gardens of our Father’s house. Praise God!
“Likewise, you younger ones, be subject to the elder. Yes, all of you clothe yourselves with humility, to subject yourselves to one another; for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time; casting all your worries on him, because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:5-7, WEB
While King Ahasuerus hosted a lavish feast for the greatest men of his kingdom, his wife, Queen Vashti had a feast for the women of the palace. As the end of the feast neared, and the long celebration of King Ahasuerus’ glory was almost finished, the king wanted to share the crown jewel of his life with those gathered. So, he sent the eunuchs who served in the royal harem to bring Queen Vashti dressed in her finest with the royal jewels. Many have suggested that she was being treated like a piece of meat, and that perhaps the king demanded she dance skimpily clad or even naked before this hall full of drunks.
Queen Vashti refused, and because we assume that it was all about sex, we cheer Queen Vashti for being a modern, independent woman standing up for herself. And we are offended when the king listens to his equally chauvinistic advisers to punish the queen and set all the women across the kingdom in their place. But is that what is really happening in this story?
We make assumptions about life in these ancient kingdoms. We think they were not as progressive as we are today, so we see these stories through jaded eyes. However, the Persians were a far more egalitarian society. The women held positions of power. Queen Vashti was not merely a possession or arm candy; she was a co-ruler in the kingdom. She was second only to the king and was commanded only by him. Obedience to the king was absolute: if the king called, you answered even if you are the queen. Her refusal was not just a matter of wifely submission, but a matter of public protocol. Queen Vashti dishonored the king before the most important people of his kingdom.
She could have been put to death, but King Ahasuerus does not respond rashly. He was angry, but took time to consult others on what should be done. In the end, Vashti was simply removed from her position and replaced. This opens the door to the work God is doing in Persia at that time.
We moderns are still troubled by the proclamation sent by the king reminding the women of his kingdom that they are subject to the men in their homes. Here’s the thing: biblically, isn’t that how it is supposed to be? This isn’t about man lording over women, but about men and women dwelling together in humble submission to one another. A man, as the head of the house, has a responsibility to care for his family. A woman, in a rightly ordered household will have equal rule while still being second only to the man’s authority.
Ultimately, this is a picture of something even more important: God’s kingdom. God loves His bride, the Church, even as King Ahasuerus loved Queen Vashti. Are we not, as God’s queen, called to be present whenever or wherever He commands? Are we not called to submit ourselves to His rule, humbly obeying Him in all that we do? What happens when we disobey? The Bible is filled with times when He struck down those who did not do as He commanded. Thankfully, He has mercy on those He loves, but there may come a time when He has no choice but to replace us with someone who will be faithful. It is a call to each of us to be humble, to be willing and to trust that God really does love us.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 23, 2016, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 4:1-15; Psalm 5; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-17
“Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why has the expression of your face fallen? If you do well, won’t it be lifted up? If you don’t do well, sin crouches at the door. Its desire is for you, but you are to rule over it.’” Genesis 4:6-7, WEB
Many parents struggled at the beginning of this school year with the requirements for classroom supplies. I read several articles and the comment sections about teachers who required certain items that would become the property of the classroom. The boxes of crayons would not have a child’s name, all the boxes of crayons would be put in a bin and pulled out when necessary; the children would get a box, not their box. Some parents were very upset about this. They thought it wasn’t fair if they bought their children expensive name brand crayons while the other parents bought the cheap generic kind. Several parents commented, “I’ll just buy the cheap ones, too.”
We can be incredibly generous, but most of us have to admit that we are sometimes cheaply generous. I have a favorite charity that collects stuffed animals to give to children in abusive relationships. I like to take a big bag full of stuffed animals each year, and I usually do my shopping in the days following Christmas when everything is on sale. I do this with a purpose: I can buy far more when it is on clearance than I can when it is first price. Isn’t it better to buy three for $10 rather than just one? This is good stewardship.
But sometimes, I have to admit, that I choose the cheap thing not to buy more but to save money. How many of us decide to buy a case of canned corn rather than a jar of peanut butter? We think it makes us look better because we are giving twelve cans rather than one. Did you know that the jar of peanut butter is actually the better choice, even if you are only giving one jar? See, most food banks get pallets of government subsidized food products like corn. It is good that the recipients get vegetables, but they really need food with more substance. Most food banks will recommend peanut butter, or other nut butters, rolled oats, canned fruit in juice not in light or heavy syrup, canned vegetables with no or low-sodium, low-sodium soups, canned tuna in water, canned beans, and dry beans. It is better to buy one can of the more expensive item than a whole case of the cheap stuff.
Did you know that many disaster relief donations actually end up in a warehouse, completely unusable because people have sent their second hand junk rather than items that can actually be used? One report showed that someone sent a pair of ice skates to Haiti. Pictures often show piles of used, stained, ripped clothing. We think that something is better than nothing, but is it? Most of those disaster relief organizations will tell you that a ten check or dollar gift card is significantly better than a bag full of rags.
We are generous, but are we generous with our best? Are will willing to buy the name brand crayons or a jar of peanut butter? Are we willing to give the first fruits of our work for the sake of others?
The Old Testament text from this week’s lectionary has often been misunderstood, putting the cattleman above the farmer. However, the difference between Cain and Abel has nothing to do with what they presented to God, but the attitude with which they presented it. Cain took an offering to God from the fruit of the ground. Abel took some of the firstborn of his flock and of its fat. Cain gave, but he gave out of his harvest; Abel gave God the best of his. God wants our first and our best, which is why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s rejected.
God is not fooled; He sees our hearts. He called out to Cain, “You can do better.” If he learned to be humble and thankful, he would experience the same regard, whatever the offering might be. “If you don’t do well, sin crouches at the door. Its desire is for you, but you are to rule over it.”
An old Native American Proverb reads, “There is a battle of two wolves inside us. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope humility, kindness, empathy and truth. The wolf that wins is the one you feed.” God was warning Cain that there was a battle within his heart and that if he didn’t change his attitude, he would sin. He could change and please God and be blessed.
Cain did not humble himself. Instead, he called Abel into the field and killed him. He rejected God’s warning and sin won in his heart. God knew what happened, but He asked Cain, “Where is Abel?” A humble heart would have recognized God’s test and would have confessed, but Cain continued in his arrogance and pride. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain suffered the consequences of his sin: he was left without a means of support or a home. He could no longer farm the land and he was sent into the world as a fugitive and a wanderer. He was afraid. His pride led to anger which led to fear. He never trusted God and the evil wolf inside him won.
Martin Luther writes about this text, “The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has looked at this passage with pure and clear eyes when he says (Heb. 11:4): ‘By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God bearing witness concerning his gifts.’ Cain also brings an offering, and indeed first; but when he brings his offering, he is puffed up by the glory which was his by birth, and he hopes that the sacrifice will please God because it is brought by the first-born. Thus he comes without faith, without any confession of sin, without any supplication for grace, without trust in God’s mercy, without any prayer for the forgiveness of his sins. He comes in the hope that he will please God by nothing else than that he is the first-born. All the work-righteous do the same thing even now. They are concerned only with their own work, and so they hope that they will please God because of it; they do not trust in God’s mercy, and they do not hope that God will pardon their sins because of Christ. Cain, too, was such a person, for he could not have displeased God if he had had faith. Abel, on the other hand, acknowledges that he is an unworthy and poor sinner. Therefore he takes refuge in God’s mercy and believes that God is gracious and willing to show compassion. And so God, who looks at the heart, judges between the two brothers who are bringing their offerings at the same time. He rejects Cain, not because his sacrifice was inferior (for if he had brought the shell of a nut in faith as a sacrifice, it would have been pleasing to God), but because his person was evil, without faith, and full of pride and conceit. By contrast, He has regard for Abel’s sacrifice because He is pleased with the person. Accordingly, the text distinctly adds that first He had regard for Abel and then for his sacrifice. For when a person pleases, the things he does also please, while, on the contrary, all things are displeasing if you dislike the person who does them.”
Isn’t that what we see happening in today’s Gospel lesson? We see a man puffed up by his position. He was a Pharisee, blessed by birth and by the community, honored for his work in the world. He believed in himself. He didn’t need God; he wasn’t praying. He used his time in the Temple to point out to God how great he was; he was there to show God how much better he was than the others.
Our Gospel lesson is preceded by the question, “Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” Today's Gospel lesson is the story of two men: one, a Pharisee, and the other, a tax collector. Each man approached the altar of God, desirous of being in the presence of the Most High. They approached with very different attitudes. The Pharisee thought he belonged there; he thought he deserved the grace of God. The tax collector approached God with a humble, repentant heart. He knew that he did not deserve God’s forgiveness, but he asked in faith knowing that God is merciful.
The tax collector was a man who was reviled not only for his vocation but also for his religious impurity. He was a sinner and as a sinner he had no right to stand in the presence of God. He was not even good enough to be in the presence of the righteous Pharisee. Jesus tells them, “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” It was the sinner that humbled himself before God that was found to have faith. It was he that was granted forgiveness and was justified before God. God is not fooled. He knows the heart. He knew the hearts of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Cain and Abel.
The Pharisee thought he was righteous and tried to justify himself; the tax collector knew he was a sinner and he left justified by God’s grace. The humble will be raised and the proud will be set low.
What does it mean to be humble? It means to have a child-like trust and faith in God. Jesus asked if the Son of Man would find faith on earth and then after the story He showed the disciples the kind of faith He would be seeking. The disciples wanted to send the children away, as if Jesus did not have time for them. Jesus rebuked them and said, “Allow the little children to come to me, and don’t hinder them, for God’s Kingdom belongs to such as these. Most certainly, I tell you, whoever doesn’t receive God’s Kingdom like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.” Children simply believe. They are not proud or arrogant. They love without question. They see the world through their innocence, trusting without fear or expectation. They don’t do things for show, but give with their whole hearts.
We’d like to think we are more like Abel and the tax collector, humble and pure or heart. I think, sadly, most of us have had moments when look more like Cain or the tax collector. We put on a show, but think we deserve God’s grace. We think we are righteous and try to justify ourselves. But God says, “If you do well, won’t it be lifted up? If you don’t do well, sin crouches at the door. Its desire is for you, but you are to rule over it.” We are reminded to change our attitude, to turn to God and trust in Him. We are reminded that our self-righteousness will lead us down the wrong path. We are reminded to feed the good wolf so that we will not be consumed by sin. God won’t love us any more or less, but we’ll find that in our humility we’ll experience God’s grace and forgiveness.
Today’s Epistle lesson skips a few verses. They aren’t important to the point that Paul is making; it is a list of tasks Paul wants Timothy to accomplish. However, it is interesting that in this list we see Paul addressing a difficult situation. Paul asked Timothy to hurry back to Rome to be his helper. Paul writes, “Be diligent to come to me soon, for Demas left me, having loved this present world, and went to Thessalonica.” The evil wolf won in Demas.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.” Taken out of context, Paul looks almost like that Pharisee in the Temple and those to whom Jesus addressed today’s parable: “certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others.” Yet, his writing was not a self-righteous attack on those who had left, for Paul confessed that it was the Lord who was his strength through the persecution. “And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me for his heavenly Kingdom; to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul continued to fight the good fight. He was at the end of his life when he wrote this letter; he knew it was time to pass the baton to the next racer. He felt abandoned in the end, by all his friends and co-workers. Despite all his hard work for the Gospel and his generosity to his Christian friends, they left him to face the end alone.
Yet, even then Paul knew he had not been totally abandoned. God was with him. God gave him the strength to go from grace to grace, to preach the Word even when it was dangerous. Paul was like the pilgrim going from spring to spring as he traveled through dangerous territory to get to the Temple, anxiously awaiting the chance to see it again and to worship God in His house. He gave the glory to God, never taking credit for the good that he did. He knew that faith meant trusting in God, not man, so even when he felt abandoned, he was never alone.
So, how do we feed the good wolf? We spend time with our Father. Devotional time is vital to feeding the faith that dwells in our hearts. I think we all can identify times in our lives when we were faithful to our devotional lives. During these times we pray regularly, are disciplined in our study practices. We manage to find the time even if we are overwhelmed by our schedule because it is a good habit we have developed. We can also identify times when we were not so faithful. We get caught up in the daily grind, think we don’t have even five minutes to give specifically to devotions. We pray on the run, eat the scriptures like we eat fast food. When we practice the daily routine of our devotional time, it is a natural extension of our being and we find our days go better. When we stop, for even a few days, it gets harder to keep up the practice and things in our life get out of control. Our devotional time, or lack of it, becomes visible to the world around us.
Ignace Jan Paderewski, a polish pianist, once said, “When I miss a day of practice, I can always tell it. If I miss two days, the critics will pick it up. If I miss three days, the audience will notice it.” The same is true about everything we do. Though our devotional time is private, our time spent with God is obvious to the world around us. We go forth in faith, with joy and love, to do all that God would have us do. When we stop spending that time with the Lord, we lose touch with the source of our strength and faith. It does not take long before it becomes difficult for us to even find a few moments alone with God. We claim a lack of time and we try to go at it on our own. We find, all too quickly, that it is only with God’s help that our world is really under control. It is not enough to cry out to God occasionally in passing. It takes practice to develop a good pattern of devotional time, but it is well worth the trouble. For our daily time with God will help us to live more closely in His heart and kingdom.
It is interesting that the psalm for today sounds much like the prayer of the Pharisee, a prayer that seeks God’s help against the wicked ones. Yet, the prayers were very different. The Pharisee cried out from his self-righteousness, the psalmist for God’s righteousness. The Pharisee lifted himself above others, the psalmist lifted God above all. The Pharisee thought he deserved God’s grace, the psalmist knew that it was only by God’s grace that he could even enter His house to pray and worship. The Pharisee took refuge in his own works, the psalmist knew that the only place where we can find true refuge is in God and that those who trust in Him will be blessed.
Sin crouches at the door, but we can rule over it. God calls us out of our pride and arrogance to trust in Him, to change our ways, to humble our hearts. God will bless those who have humble faith, who trust in Him as a child trusts in a father. He is our strength; He will deliver us from evil. Everyone who humbles themselves will be raised up and God will be glorified in all that they do.
“Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard, yet? Haven’t you been told from the beginning? Haven’t you understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing; who makes the judges of the earth like meaningless. They are planted scarcely. They are sown scarcely. Their stock has scarcely taken root in the ground. He merely blows on them, and they wither, and the whirlwind takes them away as stubble. ‘To whom then will you liken me? Who is my equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these, who brings out their army by number. He calls them all by name. By the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power, not one is lacking. Why do you say, Jacob, and speak, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from Yahweh, and the justice due me is disregarded by my God?’ Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? The everlasting God, Yahweh, The Creator of the ends of the earth, doesn’t faint. He isn’t weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak. He increases the strength of him who has no might. Even the youths faint and get weary, and the young men utterly fall; but those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run, and not be weary. They will walk, and not faint.” Isaiah 40:21-31, WEB
Are you willing to stand up for what you believe in, no matter the consequences?
There was a man named Mordecai, a Jew who was among the captives that had been taken from Jerusalem during the exile. He was Esther’s cousin and had raised her as his own daughter after she was orphaned. He was a man of some importance; he sat at the gate where the king’s justice was dispensed, and described as a chief minister of King Aharuesus’ court. He happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right skills; he overheard a plot against the king between men speaking a language they thought was unknown to everyone around them. He reported it to Esther who informed the king; the perpetrators were found and hanged. Mordecai’s name was written in the book of the chronicles to be remembered forever.
Five years later a man named Haman was raised to the highest position in the court. King Ahasuerus ruled that everyone should show him homage by bowing their heads or falling prostrate to the ground. It was not an act of worship, but of honor as occurs in many countries even today. We don’t know what he did to deserve such a high position or the respect of all people, but Haman enjoyed this tribute to himself and expected everyone to submit.
Mordecai did not bow down. We are not given a reason for his refusal, although we automatically assume that he does not do so because of his faith. He tells those who ask, “I am a Jew,” but does not mention that it is a matter of faith. He might have refused on nationalistic grounds rather than religious. Rabbinical literature says that Mordecai quotes Isaiah 48:22, “There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.” It is said that Mordecai’s heritage goes back to Jacob and Haman’s to Esau, so this story shows the continued animosity that began in Genesis and continues today. Whatever Mordecai’s reason, the rebuff had serious consequences. Haman didn’t want to punish just Mordecai, but decided to punish all the Jews. He convinced the king that the Jews were bad for Persia and that they must be destroyed. He bribed the king to allow this to happen and so Haman wrote it as if it were coming from King Ahasuerus himself. A decree by the king could not be revoked.
Haman conspired to have Mordecai hanged; he even had the gallows made. The king, however, was unable to sleep one night and so he had the chronicles read to him. He heard the story of Mordecai and remembered what he had done to save the king. He realized that no honor had been given to him and decided to do something about it. He asked Haman, “What shall be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” Haman assumed he was the one to be honored and suggested that the man should be dressed in royal clothes and led through the square on a royal horse. Haman had to do for his enemy what he thought was meant for himself. In the end, the tables would turn completely and Haman would hang from the gallows meant for Mordecai.
The story is not over. What will happen to the Jewish people? The king’s decree cannot be withdrawn, even if it was written by a wicked man who used bribes and deception to get his way? Was Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman worth the destruction of God’s people? Was his nationalistic pride or his faith in God worth the lives of so many?
So now, we again, ask the question, “Are you willing to stand up for what you believe in, no matter the consequences?” Mordecai risked his own life to disobey a king’s decree, but he also risked the lives of his people. It is hard enough for us to take a personal risk to stand up for our beliefs, but would we be able stand as firmly if we thought we might hurt others? Should we stand as firmly if our choices affect others? Though the book of Esther is not an overtly religious text, we know that God was at work in this story. He governs the whole world and rules for the good of His people. We might just find that God will turn the risks we take into incredible blessings.
“Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent now, then relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows if you haven’t come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
After a time, King Ahasuerus remembered Vashti and grieved her loss, but the law of the king could not be overturned. Some of the king’s servants suggested that the king should find a new wife. Word was sent into all the provinces to find all the most beautiful girls of the kingdom who were taken into the king’s palace and into the custody of the King’s eunuch. Mordecai’s cousin Esther, the young orphan that he raised as a daughter, was among them. We don’t know if Esther had a choice, but she became the king’s favorite and eventually his queen. She was not only beautiful, but everyone loved her. Mordecai warned Esther to keep her heritage a secret, and he visited the court of the harem daily to ensure Esther’s well being.
When Mordecai discovered the plot against the Jews, he grieved; he tore his clothes, wore sackcloth, fasted and wept. It was unlawful for anyone to present themselves at the gate in sackcloth, so he risked being arrested. Esther was concerned and sent someone to stop him. Mordecai told Esther’s servant what happened and asked for her help. Esther was afraid. It was unlawful for anyone to approach the king, even his wife, unless they were called. Esther had not been called for some time. “What can I do?” Mordecai reminded her that she too was a Jew and that the edict risked her life. “Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent now, then relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows if you haven’t come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Esther agreed to fast for three days and asked Mordecai to gather the Jews in Susa to do the same. After three days, Esther dressed in her royal robes and stood in the king’s court. The king saw her and extended the golden scepter, a sign of mercy. She accepted the act of grace and invited the king to a banquet. Haman was also invited. “What is your petition?” he asked. “It shall be granted you. What is your request? Even to the half of the kingdom it shall be performed.” At that banquet, Esther invited them both to another banquet, and there Esther promised to present her request to the king.
Haman was delighted and went happily to share his good news with his family. On his way he had the encounter with Mordecai that set his fate. Despite the favor of the queen, Haman could not stand to be disrespected, so he began building the gallows that would end Mordecai’s life. We heard yesterday that Mordecai was not hanged, but was raised to a place of honor because he saved the king’s life years earlier. Haman was so distraught over having to honor Mordecai he almost missed the Queen Esther’s banquet. After two days of feasting, the king asked Esther, “What is your wish?”
Queen Esther begged for the king’s mercy. “Save my life and the lives of my people.” She risked everything to reveal herself as a Jew for the sake of her people. The king became angry. The edict was given in his name, but was done behind his back by Haman who used his power and position to accomplish his own agenda. “Who did this?” the king asked; Esther pointed to Haman. The king, who we know from the story of Vashti is not a rash man, took time to restrain his anger. Haman begged Esther’s mercy, falling on her in supplication. The king saw this and thought Haman was attacking Esther and ordered his death on the very gallows Haman built for Mordecai. Mordecai was given Haman’s power, position and even his house.
None of this matters, really, because the king’s law still stands. The Jews were still in danger of being destroyed. We might argue that it wasn’t the king’s law, especially since he didn’t know what it said, but it was done with his authority and his name by his appointed one. Esther spoke to the king, threw herself at his mercy and received his grace. The king answered her plea with a new law which gave the Jews the right to defend themselves. The Jews defeated the enemy and were saved. The day of their salvation is now celebrated as a feast named Purim.
“Who knows if you haven’t come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther realized that she was in the right place at the right time to do something for her people. She risked her life, but she would have to hide her identity forever if she let Haman’s plot succeed. She most certainly would have lost the man who was like a father to her. She might still dwell in the court of the king, but what good would that do if she lost everything else? Approaching the king might have been dangerous, but not doing so was even more so.
God has chosen us as His own, just as King Ahasuerus chose Esther to be his queen. He has promised to give us the Kingdom. It is frightening to approach Him with our requests but as His we are invited to approach His throne of Grace in prayer to intercede for others. We live in a topsy-turvy world: good is evil and evil is good. Faith is foolish and self-reliance is what the world expects. They don’t want us interceding for them because then their plots might not succeed. Yet, we can’t help but wonder if we are here for such a time as this. Have we been chosen for a purpose? Have we been chosen to be the ones through whom God saves His people?
The book of Esther may not be an overtly religious text, but in it we see that the hand of God directs our paths, even in the worldliest situations. Listen, for He is talking to you; hear and obey, for this is why God has brought you to this moment.
“Therefore prepare your minds for action, be sober, and set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ-- as children of obedience, not conforming yourselves according to your former lusts as in your ignorance, but just as he who called you is holy, you yourselves also be holy in all of your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy; for I am holy.’ If you call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work, pass the time of your living as foreigners here in reverent fear: knowing that you were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from the useless way of life handed down from your fathers, but with precious blood, as of a faultless and pure lamb, the blood of Christ; who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of times for your sake, who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead, and gave him glory; so that your faith and hope might be in God.” 1 Peter 1:13-21, WEB
It took forty-seven days for the Israelites to escape from Egypt and gather at the foot of Mount Sinai. For three days they prepared themselves, consecrating the priests and cleansing the people so that they could meet the LORD. They were warned to follow the instructions carefully because anyone who touched the mountain would die. Thunder rumble, lightning flashed, and a trumpet sounded on the fiftieth day as the Lord came down on Mt. Sinai. The mountain was wrapped in smoke and people trembled out of fear. It was there that God spoke to His people in a way that all could hear. He would later write them on tablets, but on that fiftieth day, God’s people received the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20) Later God established a festival called Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks so that the people would always remember the giving of the Law. Shavuot is also an agricultural festival, the celebration of the first fruits of the wheat harvest. It is also known today in the Christian church as Pentecost.
After this time, Moses went up on the mountain to receive the whole Law and he stayed there for forty days. The people became worried and though Moses was dead, so they turned to Aaron the priest to make a golden calf so they could worship. The people gave him all their gold and he fashioned an idol. They made sacrifices to the idol and then celebrated with food and drink. They made merry and corrupted themselves. They had heard the Commandment! They were to have no other gods; they broke it by turning to the golden calf. Moses came down from the mountain, threw down the sacred tablets, and destroyed the calf. Then Moses called for those who stood with the LORD; the sons of Levi stood by Moses. “All the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. He said to them, ‘Yahweh says, the God of Israel, “Every man put his sword on his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and every man kill his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.”’ The sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.” (Exodus 32:26b-28, WEB)
This is the kind of story that does not make sense to us; we don’t like to think of God striking down three thousand brothers, companions and neighbors. It is bothersome. Yet, we know that God has given us the Old Testament to establish His story, to set the stage, and to make the promise that would be fulfilled in the New Testament. The Old Testament shows us the Law and our inability to keep it. The New Testament shows us that even though we can’t keep the Law, God has provided the ultimate redemption for His people. The things He did in the past point to that which He was planning to do from the very beginning. We don’t understand these stories unless we put them in the context of the whole.
I was blown away when I saw this story from the foot of Mt. Sinai in the context of Pentecost. Remember, Pentecost celebrated the giving of the Law. It was a required feast for all able bodied male Jews, so Jerusalem was filled with many people fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. He had been seen around town in the weeks since the last time they were there for Passover. There most certainly must have been the rumble of rumor among those in the city for the festival.
The disciples were gathered together in prayer, waiting for the promised helper to come. Jesus promised power, the baptism of the Holy Spirit that would give them the gifts to do the work He was calling them to do. That promise was fulfilled on Pentecost, fifty days following the resurrection of Jesus. As they celebrated the giving of the Law, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and they began speaking the Gospel to those who were gathered, no matter what language they spoke. Luke tells us on that day, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized. There were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Three thousand died because they could not keep God’s Law, but God overcame death with new life as three thousand were saved by the Gospel on Pentecost. We can’t just look at those Old Testament stories and think, “God is mean.” We have to look at those stories as the point to and relate to the promise of Jesus. God knew that, even from before the foundation of the world, we would need to be redeemed for our sinfulness. He established the Passover lamb as a promise of the Lamb who would be slain for our sake. He provided for the redemption of those who could not live according to His Law with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We may not always understand the stories we see in the Old Testament, but we can trust that they are given not only as a record of the relationship between God and His people, but that they point to how God knew from the beginning how to make all things right.
“Now to him who is able to keep them from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory in great joy, to God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.” Jude 1:24-25, WEB
Today’s text is called a doxology. Doxologies are short hymns of praise to God used in various forms in Christian worship. They are often added at the end of canticles, psalms and hymns and focus our attention on the One whom we are worshipping with our words and music. The word “doxology” comes from the Greek words “doxa” which means “glory,” and “logia” which means “saying.”
Most of us are familiar with “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and will be forever. Amen.” This doxology, like many others, includes three parts: the person for whom the praise is sung, an acknowledgment of glory, and an expression of timelessness. In the Gloria Patri (above), you see that the hymn is sung to honor the Trinity, glorifying the Godhead from the beginning to forever.
The Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-13, is concluded in our gatherings with another doxology. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.” Though it is not part of the original text, the doxology finishes the prayer and focuses our hearts on the one to whom we have prayed. We begin and end those prayers, which include supplication, confession and submission, with praise and adoration to the One who hears and answers.
You are probably familiar with the next doxology; some traditions simply call it “The Doxology.” “Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” This doxology is used in worship, particularly on Thanksgiving, and often as a table prayer. This is another song of praise to the Trinity, calling all of creation to praise God for His blessings.
It is interesting that this piece, which is perhaps the most frequently used piece of music, was not written specifically as a doxology, but as the final verse to two hymns. Thomas Ken, a seventeenth century bishop, poet and hymn writer, used these words at the end of a morning hymn and an evening hymn. “Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun,” calls God’s people to begin the day on the right foot, shaking off sloth and setting attitudes in the right direction, thanking God for another day. “All Praise to Thee, My God, this Night,” thanks God for another day, asks His guardianship over the night and asks, “O when shall I, in endless day, forever chase dark sleep away, and hymns divine with angels sing, all praise to thee, eternal King?” Both hymns end with the doxology, praising God the Trinity for His blessings to heaven and earth.
Today’s passage is one among many doxologies in the scriptures, both Old Testament and New Testament. The book of Jude was likely written by the brother of Jesus or one of the apostles to a Christian community that had godless men in their fellowship. Jude wrote to remind them of the destruction that came to those in the past who did not believe. He warned about those who followed the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. “These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their advantage.”
Imagine what it must have been like for those who received this letter and heard it read in their assembly? We all are guilty of these things at times, and those of pure heart would have been reminded of their own sin. Jude doesn’t leave it go at that, however. He writes a call to perseverance, reminding them of the Gospel and encouraging them to build their faith and keep from following the foolish ways of the godless. He then ends the letter with a doxology.
Jude gave them a reminder that it is God who will keep them from following the foolish ways of the flesh. If he had written only of the godlessness, the people would have left feeling unworthy to do the Lord’s work, however he reminded them of the true focus of faith.
When we share the Law, we must follow with the Gospel. When we show people their sin, we must remind them of the source of their forgiveness and strength to overcome. When we preach, we should follow with a doxology of praise, so that we can go out with hearts that are living in worship of the fullness of God. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 30, 2016, Reformation Sunday: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
“I saw an angel flying in mid heaven, having an eternal Good News to proclaim to those who dwell on the earth, and to every nation, tribe, language, and people.” Revelation 14:6-7, WEB
I went to a haunted house with a group of friends when I was a teenager. It was one of those houses at the Jersey shore filled with professional actors and rooms depicting frightening events. I entered the house a little cocky, “These things don’t scare me!” which made me a target. The minute I was in the first room of the house, a ghoul came out of a hiding place, frightened me and I quickly found myself cowering in a corner. My friends and I took off and practically ran through the house. One friend even lost a flip flop along the way; we had to go buy her a new set at one of the shops because none of us were willing to go back and find it and she couldn’t walk around the boardwalk with a shoe on only one foot.
I used to love that kind of stuff. I went to all the horror movies and decorated my house with all sorts of spooky things. When asked, I used to talk about how a little fear is healthy; it gets the adrenaline flowing and the heart pumping. A scream or two never hurt. Besides, it wasn’t real. As I got older, particularly after I had children, I stopped going out of my way to be scared. I suppose I realized that there were real reasons to be afraid in the world, and the idea of going out of my way to be afraid to get my adrenaline flowing and heart pumping just wasn’t fun anymore.
There are very real reasons to be afraid in our world. I’m not so sure that there are more reasons today, although it seems like it sometimes, doesn’t it? We are afraid of the things that will affect the world and our nation. We are afraid of the crime in our neighborhoods. We are afraid of natural disasters that can destroy our homes. We are afraid of more personal things like disease and financial ruin. The political conversation surrounding this year’s U.S. election is filled with fear. Sometimes we don’t even really know what we fear.
It seems odd, then, that the passage from Revelation would command us to “Fear the Lord.” We know that there are benefits to the fears we have about the things of this world. Fear makes us more aware of the dangers. Fear helps us to work so that we won’t lose our health or our money. Fear protects us in many ways. However, we can be so focused on fear that we don’t experience joy or hope or peace. Why would we have to fear the One who has promised to be our source for joy and hope and peace? Fear of the Lord is not the same kind of fear. It isn’t the fear we experience in the haunted house or the movie theater. It isn’t the fear we experience when we are threatened. Fear of the Lord is a reverence for the Holy One, trusting that He where we’ll find our joy and hope and peace.
Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago on October 31st Martin Luther posted Ninety-five thesis on the door of Wittenberg Church to open debate between scholars about the abuses in the Church at that time. This began a reform 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.
Martin Luther was an interesting character who lived in an interesting age. Superstition was rampant. The Church and secular authorities used the fears of the people to control and to establish even greater power for themselves. They sold indulgences to raise funds to build a massive new church building in Rome and they did this by feeding the fears of hell that were held by the people. The Church was selling entrance into heaven; the only way to end up in heaven was to pay for it. The sellers of indulgences convinced the people that they could also pay for those already dead, so the poor became poorer by paying to set loved ones free from the bondage of purgatory.
People were ignorant of God’s Word, they received only what was given to them by the priests. The priests were often uneducated and heretical in their understanding of God, partly because they were ill-informed and partly because so many pagan thoughts had entered into the Christian understanding of God. It was a time of fear. Those who were faithful were so afraid of the wrath of God that they could not find peace or hope in their life. Guilt was a tool used by the Church to convince the congregation to purchase indulgences.
Martin Luther was an educated man who studied the scriptures and had a good sense of God’s love, but he so riddled with guilt that he spent hours confessing his sins and seeking forgiveness. He was afraid of so many things. He was a priest and he was afraid that if 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 was trying to be perfect, but when he was not perfect he obsessed over receiving forgiveness for himself for the sake of his congregation. He was afraid of the devil.
One day, however, Martin Luther realized that his works would never save him, that an eternity in heaven is dependent entirely on the grace of God. He realized that his earthly fears were keeping him bound when the Gospel was given to make us free. He realized that nothing he feared had power over him because God was his refuge and strength.
When Martin Luther read the passage from Romans 3, he rediscovered the foundation of the Gospel message: 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 joy and hope and peace.
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.
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 offspring, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will 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.
This life of grace is what Martin Luther discovered as he searched the scriptures for relief from his burdens. He longed to be freed from the fear, guilt and pain he experienced when he recognized himself as the sinner that he was. He knew there was no way he could be good or enough for the gifts of God. His fears threatened to affect his ministry, because he thought his lifetime of sin would invalidate the work he was called to do in the church.
Then he found the grace of God, that unbelievable truth that the work of salvation is not dependent on man but rather on the mercy of God. When we realize that we are sinners, in need of a Savior, our whole world is turned upside down. We are set free from the burdens of the law so that we might live to the glory of God in His grace. This is what happened to Martin Luther when he read Paul’s words to the Romans, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
There may be many things in this world that we should fear. That fear can be a good thing because it helps us beware and do the right things. However, no earthly fear or works will ever free us from sin and death. “Fear the Lord and give him glory.” The hour of judgment is upon us, but the judge has chosen to forgive our sins through the blood of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We need not fear; the angel in Revelation proclaimed the Good news that God has done all that is necessary. We justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. By His grace we are made sons and daughters, freed to live the lives He is calling us to live.
“For in it is revealed God’s righteousness from faith to faith. As it is written, “But the righteous shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse. Because, knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened.” Romans 1:17-21, WEB
It is the tale of two kings: Hezekiah of Judah and Sennacherib of Assyria.
Now, Sennacherib was a powerful king. He defeated the Babylonians and pushed to dominate the entire region. His official chronicles claim that he captured 46 strong walled cities in Israel and he laid siege on Jerusalem and forced Hezekiah to pay a huge tribute. He mocked God. Sennacherib sent a delegation to treat with Hezekiah’s men; they tried to convince not only the delegation but also the people to turn their backs on God. They said that Sennacherib was more powerful than any god, that he had destroyed the gods of their neighbors and if they would just submit to him, they would experience life in a land of grain and wine, bread and vineyards, olive trees and honey. There they would live and not die. Sennacherib claimed that God was angry because Hezekiah had destroyed the high places and even claimed to have been called by God to bring vengeance for that destruction.
They spoke in the language of the Jews, but Hezekiah’s delegation asked them to speak in their own tongue. They didn’t want the people who were overhearing the conversation to be confused by the words of their enemy. Sennacherib was offering both a promise and a warning. “Turn your backs on God and I’ll feed you well and give you a place to live. Stay with this so-called God and you’ll die because he has no power over me.” He had good reason to feel confident; the gods of the neighboring peoples had all been destroyed and the people had been defeated. He didn’t understand that the God of Israel is truly God and that He had chosen Assyria as an instrument of his anger.
So, yes, Sennacherib was having success expanding his kingdom, but it was not by his hand. He did not understand that his power came from God and that God held his life in His hands. When Hezekiah went to the Lord in prayer for help against the siege, God told him, “Do not worry, I will defend Jerusalem and the land will recover in the third year.” The prophecy in 2 Kings 19 ensures God’s people that He is in control and that Sennacherib will suffer the consequences of his rejection of God.
God fulfilled His promise to Hezekiah. Jerusalem was saved when an angel of the LORD struck down 185,000 of Sennacherib’s troops on the battlefield. He departed and went home lived in Nineveh. As he was worshipping in the house of his god, Sennacherib was cut down by swords wielded by two of his own sons. Another son reigned in his place.
Sennacherib was the hand of God, but he rejected the very God who gave him his power. He worshipped a false god that was no more powerful than all the gods he thought he destroyed throughout his reign. The Jews remained silent when Sennacherib’s men tried to convince them to turn their backs on their God. He saved them because they were faithful. The words of the enemy may sound good; the promises may seem true, but no one can stand against your God. Stand firm, no matter what the enemy says, because you will be blessed for your faithfulness.
Tomorrow we'll hear the rest of the story.
“If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14, WEB
It is the tale of two kings: Hezekiah of Judah and Sennacherib of Assyria.
Hezekiah was one of the good guys. Every so often in the line of kings, the Chroniclers say, “He did that which was right in Yahweh’s eyes, according to all that David his father had done.” The kings identified this way were never perfect, but they trusted in God and obeyed His commands. Hezekiah was the son of the wicked King Ahaz and the Northern Kingdom fell early in his reign. He was very young when his father died and faced extremely difficult times when he became the sole regent of Judah. He was a pious man; he trusted God and obeyed his commandments. He was chosen for that time, to be the king who led Judah back to God.
He wasn’t the last king, so Judah eventually turned from God again, but for a season they were faithful. Hezekiah removed all the high places, broke the pillars, cut down the Asherah, and broke the bronze serpent where people burned incense as if it were an idol. He went further in destroying the false gods in Judah than any other king. The Lord was with him, although Sennacherib tried to convince the people that they would suffer because Hezekiah upset God by doing these things. Sennacherib mocked God, but the people did not listen. They obeyed Hezekiah’s command to remain silent and God blessed their faithfulness.
Hezekiah’s faith didn’t mean he wasn’t afraid. When Sennacherib conquered the fortified cities of Judah, Hezekiah sent a message to him, ““I have offended you. Return from me. That which you put on me, I will bear,” and he offered him a tribute to leave Jerusalem alone. The tribute was a fortune in silver; Hezekiah even stripped the gold off the Temple to give it away. This is not exactly a form of faithfulness; bargaining with the enemy is not trusting in God. It didn’t work anyway. Sennacherib did not accept the tribute as enough; he still rolled up the siege weapons and camped his army in the shadow of Jerusalem.
Hezekiah did exactly what we need to do when faced with an impossible situation: he turned to God. As soon as he heard Sennacherib’s threats, he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth. He grieved the fate of His people and went to the House of the Lord. He sent his advisors to speak to Isaiah. “Thus says Hezekiah, ‘Today is a day of trouble, of rebuke, and of rejection; for the children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to deliver them. It may be Yahweh your God will hear all the words of Rabshakeh, whom the king of Assyria his master has sent to defy the living God, and will rebuke the words which Yahweh your God has heard. Therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.’”
Isaiah reassured Hezekiah. “Don’t be afraid of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, and he will hear news, and will return to his own land. I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.” As we saw in his story yesterday, God did what He promised. God destroyed the enemy; Sennacherib went home and was killed by his own sons.
Hezekiah had another difficult time. “In those days Hezekiah was sick and dying.” The commentaries suggest this passage is a flashback to an earlier time, before Sennacherib attacked Jerusalem. Isaiah warned him, “Set your house in order, for you shall die.” Hezekiah turned to God in prayer, “Remember now, Yahweh, I beg you, how I have walked before you in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in your sight.” We might think that Hezekiah is being self-righteous in his prayer, and yet, he was simply standing on God’s Word as we see in today’s passage. He was calling God to remember His promise and God heard his prayer. Hezekiah was healed and lived for another fifteen years. He brought his people back to God.
Hezekiah was definitely human, like you and I, even though he was known for his piety and trust in God. When Isaiah gave him God’s answer about his disease, Hezekiah asked for a sign. “How will I know?” In one of the more bizarre events of the scriptures, Hezekiah asked for the shadow to move backward, thus showing God’s power over nature. God did what he asked, healed Hezekiah and saved Jerusalem for another season. We are reminded by Hezekiah’s story that even if we aren’t perfect, God hears those who pray from their heart, who trust in God. We may make foolish choices, but God knows our hearts and He keeps His promises. God is faithful even when we are not. Yet, we are also reminded to humble ourselves, pray and seek God and turn from our wicked ways. As we pray in faith and obedience, God will hear us, forgive us and heal us just as He promised.
The story of Hezekiah and Sennacherib is found in 2 Kings 18-20.
“I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12, WEB
Fall is here, at least for some places around the country. The trees are beginning to change color and the temperatures are cooler. We turn our clocks back on Saturday night and the already short days will seem to be much shorter, the world will be dark much earlier in the day. There may be some aspects of fall and the coming winter that are lovely, but it also tends to be cloudy and gloomy.
I remember that the fall and winter months were more difficult because the days were so short. At the height of winter we had four hours of daylight. My kids went to school in the dark and came home in the dark. Add fog, and you’ve got the makings of a depressing time. Experts say that living in such darkness for long periods of time can affect the physical and emotional well being of any human being. Yet, there is a darkness that is even worse than the natural darkness of the fall and winter seasons. It is the darkness of sin and death that is rampant in this world.
Today is Halloween. It is a fun day when kids dress up in costumes and go door to door to beg for treats from the neighbors. Halloween has become a holiday almost to the extreme as Christmas. More people are decorating their homes with lights and cobwebs. One local neighborhood even had a decoration contest like many do at Christmastime. People spend a lot of money on candy and costumes and visiting Halloween activities.
There is a house down the street that always sets up a haunted forest in their backyard for fun. They collect canned goods to donate to the local food bank. It tends to bring large crowds to our neighborhood. I have admit that I’m a bit of a humbug when it comes to Halloween these days. I tend to turn off my lights and hide in the back of my house. I loved to decorate and sit out on my porch to give treats to a few dozen kids. I stopped when it became overwhelming; I don’t enjoy the long lines that end up my doorstep because the kids are visiting the haunted house. I’m glad the people down the street do something with this holiday for the good of others. I haven’t visited their haunted forest, so I don’t know how scary it is, but the crowds it draws does good work.
Haunted houses are very popular at this time of year; people find the scary monsters and images of death entertaining. One haunted house in another town is so popular that they have decided to stay open for an extra weekend to handle the crowds. Halloween is especially important for those who celebrate the earth religions because this is the holiest night of the year for them. Pagan worship will be held in many places in the dark of this night. Just as most Halloween revelers just want to have fun and be entertained, most pagan worshippers are not evil, but the holiday and the religions bring honor to darkness rather than light.
A monk named Martin Luther lived in a time when all the people were very superstitious. It was, in many ways, a time of darkness. Even the church was affected by the world. The leaders used fear to gain what they wanted; they sold indulgences to pay for a beautiful new cathedral. Indulgences were papers that granted forgiveness to anyone willing to pay; it was like getting a “Get out of Jail Free” card. Since the people were so superstitious, they fell for the sales technique, thinking that they could buy their freedom from hell.
Martin Luther and other reformers were troubled by what they knew and what they saw. It was during a study of Paul’s Letter to the Romans that Martin Luther realized that was being taught was not found in the scriptures. As a matter of fact, he discovered exactly the opposite. Though he loved church traditions, he saw that our rule of faith had to be the scriptures alone. Martin Luther was a priest who was burdened with the fear that his sins would not only destroy him, but would also destroy his congregation. He suffered from the reality that no matter what he did, he could not be good enough to earn God’s grace.
It was like a light bulb lit up in his head and he saw the Gospel for the first time; Martin Luther realized that there was nothing that we could do to buy Christ’s forgiveness or our salvation. He realized that we are justified by faith through grace, just like it says in Romans. He saw the light in the darkness and found true freedom from sin. Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted a list of ideas called “the Ninety-Five Thesis” which were intended to spark debate with his fellow theologians. Thanks to the printing press and the political unrest of the time, Martin’s ideas spread like wildfire to start the Reformation. Luther was not the only reformer. Men from every nation like John Calvin, John Knox, John Wycliffe, Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, Huldrych Zwingli, Johanne Hus and Philipp Melanchthon worked to reform the church so that the people would live in faith rather than fear, light rather than darkness.
The days are shorter at this time of year and darkness seems to reign. Jesus came in flesh during a time of darkness, when the Lord God Almighty was set aside while other gods were worshipped. Martin Luther lived in a time of darkness, when fear of death was so great that people were willing to buy themselves out of it. We also live in a time of darkness, when death is seen as a joke and evil is laughed about. Yet through it all, one thing remains true. Jesus is the light of the world. He floods the darkness with the light of His glory, which shines through the hearts of those who believe. In that light we know the truth that sets us free: there is no life in darkness, death or sin, but only through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.